THE INTERVIEW. Dateline: Christmas, Fortuna Theatre. There was a strong media presence. Well, the one guy with his camera and tripod from News Channel 3, me and an off-duty Lost Coast Outpost correspondent. A ruddy-faced guy charged out of the lobby to tell the aforementioned lonely TV news guy that he came all the way from Red Bluff to attend the screening. Another gentleman, crossing in front of the auditorium, addressed us all, exclaiming, "God Bless America, huh?" This was met with some applause.
Whether the supposed terror threats attendant The Interview were real or not, they opened the door to a marketing coup. I sat in a room with maybe the least likely audience for a foul-mouthed Seth Rogen stoner comedy on Christmas Day. And they ate it up. The theater had posters on offer in the lobby — usually they literally can't give these things away — and by show time they were long gone, destined for places of honor on the walls of man caves and dens and wood-paneled living rooms. Perhaps next to W. declaring victory in his flight suit and Nixon meeting Elvis.
You could forget there's a movie to discuss, what with all the to-do.
What Rogen (and his writing/producing/lately-directing partner Evan Goldberg) are putting into the world is generally good. Superbad (2007) balances a heartfelt meditation on contemporary male friendship with a landslide of dick jokes and teen drinking. Pineapple Express (2008) holds up as a loving paean to '80s buddy action comedies, with weed. And This Is The End (2013) is, on second viewing, hilarious and kind of ingenious in its skewering of celebrity and religion. As I've frequently lamented in these pages, comedies that are actually funny are rare at the multiplex these days. Rogen and Goldberg make such comedies, including this one, which happens to be about the assassination of a real-life despot.
Frequent collaborator James Franco plays Dave Skylark, the charismatic host of a worthless, very popular primetime interview show. His producer Aaron Rapaport (Rogen) enjoys their partnership, but longs for work with journalistic integrity. Enter Kim Jong-un (Russell Park), supreme leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. When Skylark learns that his show is one of Kim's favorites, he becomes fixated on interviewing him. Rapaport finds a way to make it happen, and then the CIA comes calling. Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) successfully pitches the TV lunkheads on a half-assed plot to kill Kim with poison, and it's off to Pyongyang.
Things get complicated upon their arrival, though. It would appear that the plight of the North Korean people isn't as desperate as we might think. And Kim, contrary to Western opinion — the opinion of everybody except Dennis Rodman, that is — turns out to be a pretty cool guy. He and Skylark bro down for real, drinking margaritas, shooting hoops, driving a tank and sharing a love for the work of Katy Perry. Their newfound friendship inevitably complicates the boys' assassination plot, much to Rapaport's frustration, believing as he does that Kim is merely manipulating Skylark. Soon enough, things come to a head in a bloody, filthy, bullet-riddled final act.
There is a rich history of comedy taking on dictators, one that's surprisingly well served by The Interview. The laughs are genuine and frequent, the cinematography and production design unexpectedly lush and atmospheric. It's not necessarily a brilliant satire, but it is an original, well-executed action comedy, even if it is the beneficiary of a weirdly politicized release. R 112m.
TOP FIVE. This weekend marked the release of two (!) good comedies. This one, written and directed by Chris Rock, plots a more thoughtful, intimate course than its counterpart, but is no less enjoyable for it.
Andre Allen (Rock), a stand-up comic turned hack movie star, has a lot on his plate. He's promoting a new project — an ill-conceived Haitian slave rebellion drama — preparing for his televised wedding to reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), being profiled by New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) and confronting the notion that he may not be funny when he's sober. Over the course of busy afternoon and evening, Allen surveys his entire career and personal life, thanks in no small part to Chelsea's persistent probing.
Audiences expecting constant belly laughs may be slightly disappointed by Top Five. It offers hilarious moments, but instead of broad comedy, Rock has created a closely observed character study that is as much about what it means to be a grown-up as it is about celebrity. The film's perspective is defined by naturalistic nuance and an air of authenticity. There are also a number of notable cameos, including a scene in which Jerry Seinfeld makes it rain in a gentleman's club.
ANNIE. Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhané Wallis charm and entertain in this harmless update of the musical. PG13. 118m.
BIG EYES. The story of the creepy husband who took credit for Margaret Keane's creepy paintings of anime-eyed girls. Directed by creepy Tim Burton. PG. 105m.
EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS. Holy Moses, this biblical retelling is long on time and short on surprises. With Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton and John Turturro with a spray-tan and heavy eyeliner. PG13. 150m.
THE GAMBLER. Mark Wahlberg plays a professor of literature (really?) who risks his life and tussles with thugs over his gambling debts (aaand we're back). With Jessica Lange as his tough-love mom. R. 111m.
THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES. Oakenshield's beard, that's a lot of swordplay. Peter Jackson wraps up the Tolkien saga(s) with drawn-out battles and less zip than the previous installment. PG13. 144m.
THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY - PART 1. Fancy production and action can't salvage the puffed up script and yawning monologues. One more to go. PG13. 116m.
INTO THE WOODS. The Broadway musical of intertwined fairy tales with Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp in what appears to be his own clothing. PG. 124m.
NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: SECRET OF THE TOMB. Ben Stiller is back on duty as a museum guard with more antiquities, more problems. Try not to tear up when you see Robin Williams. PG. 98m.
PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR. The flightless foursome gets its own animated spin-off. They're spies on the trail of a villainous cephalopod. PG. 97m.
UNBROKEN. Angelina Jolie directs this biopic about Olympiad and World War II POW Louis Zamperini's survival. Should make you feel terrible for complaining about your relatives over the holidays. PG13. 137m.
WILD. As author Cheryl Strayed, Reese Witherspoon narrowly escapes Eat Pray Hike territory to honestly explore self-reliance, love and loss on the Pacific Crest Trail. R. 115m.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill