REVIEW: Sausage Party

30 08 2016

Sausage Party” may begin with an amusing ’90s Disney-esque opening ditty – with help from “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty & The Beast” composer Alan Menken, to boot – but Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have far more than obvious parody. (Besides, 1999’s adult animated “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” took care of that pretty well.) Using a supermarket as a microcosmic playground for the world, the sly writing/producing team continue their thematic exploration of pressing social and existential issues.

That’s not a joke, and yes, “continue” means that this thread has been present in their past work. 2013’s “This Is The End” was, among many things, a fascinating exploration of how public figures come to deal with their mortality and the afterlife in the face of a seemingly inevitable apocalypse. Playing a lightly fictionalized version of himself, Rogen and his celebrity comrades united to satirize the lack of self-awareness among self-important actors.

Much of that same gang reunites for “Sausage Party” to play the voices of processed or packaged foods ready for consumption. The elaborate ritual laid out in the opening song deludes them into thinking “the gods” have destined them for some kind of heaven once placed in the grocery cart. But once a returned jar of honey mustard offers a chilling vision of what lies beyond the automatic doors, hot dog Frank (Rogen) and his sweetheart bun Brenda (Kristen Wiig) bring it upon themselves to discover the truth. Neither realizes the answer will shake up everything they thought they knew about life after purchase – provided such a thing even exists.

Along the way, they journey with Kareem the lavash (David Krumholtz) and Sammy the bagel (Edward Norton) and start to solve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. They bump into Firewater (Bill Hader), a Native American liquor bottle, and bump up against the complications of colonial displacement of indigenous peoples. Rogen and Goldberg, along with “The Night Before” co-writers Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir, take advantage of how ripe animated films are ripe for social commentary given how much an audience has to project humanity onto the objects.

Oh, and all the food eventually comes together in a raucous orgy. Just as the apocalyptic monster in “This Is The End” had disturbingly large anatomy, the “Sausage Party” participants’ sexual drive serves as an outsized reminder that Rogen and Goldberg come from a place of absurdity, imagination and crass humor above all else. Don’t take any of this too seriously, their flourishes seem to cry out, because the authors themselves don’t. They know their places as comedians and entertainers above all else, although Rogen might soon vault to Mel Brooks status for a new generation. The combination of his boundary-pushing comedy with trenchant, socially attuned subject matter certainly makes him an obvious contender to assume the vanguard. (Without saying too much, try not to think of “Blazing Saddles” during the finale.) B+3stars





REVIEW: Maggie’s Plan

23 05 2016

Maggie's PlanNew York Film Festival

Writer/director Rebecca Miller’s “Maggie’s Plan” makes for the kind of madcap, ensemble-driven romantic comedy that Woody Allen has not churned out since his relationship with Mia Farrow turned sour. And it’s certainly the kind of screwball comedy abandoned by studios altogether. But lest this review devolve into nothing but comparison to other works, it must be said that this is a wonderfully crafted and involving film in its own right.

Miller is the first person not named Noah Baumbach who seems to have a clue what to do with Gerwig’s considerable charm. Beneath her hip, ultra-modern exterior and droll delivery lies reservoirs of deep feeling and humanity still largely unexcavated. Miller might be the figurative Daniel Plainview to figure out the means to pull it out of the ground and siphon it to power other characters.

Gerwig stars as the titular Maggie, who might think she has a plan – but then life happens. Or fate happens. Or, heck, Maggie happens! Some odd mixture of time, self-realization as well as cosmic meddling seems to guide the proceedings of “Maggie’s Plan” as she stumbles and soars through a unique romantic escapade.

While trying to become pregnant to raise a baby alone, she falls in love with Ethan Hawke’s John Harding, a nebbish professor who feels like a wallflower in his marriage to Julianne Moore’s Georgette Norgaard. He struggles to complete a novel long in the works yet faces nothing but stern rebukes at home from his critical theorist wife. Both John and Maggie seek to seize the narrative of their lives … so they begin a relationship together.

Unlike so many stories involving older men who fall for younger women, Maggie never loses her agency in the courtship. In fact, it is far more often she who levels with John than the other way around. So it should come as no surprise that whenever things take a turn for the worse, it is Maggie who takes the initiative to grow out of their relationship.

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REVIEW: Trainwreck

4 08 2015

Trainwreck PosterAt roughly the midpoint of “Trainwreck,” writer Amy Schumer sets up a remarkable parallel between two scenes at the same baby shower.  The character Amy, played by Schumer herself, has to endure a brutal game of “Skeletons in the Closet” where posh young mothers spill dark secrets … that actually reveal themselves as pathetically and predictably tame.

Meanwhile, Amy’s boyfriend, Bill Hader’s Aaron Conners, recounts details of the many athletes he has helped rehabilitate in his sports medicine practice.  He rattles of name after name to the same awe-struck reaction from a crowd of unfamiliar men … until he drops the name Alex Rodriguez.  Among this set of New Yorkers, this blasphemy inspires a sudden outburst of profanity.  But then, Aaron goes back to some more agreeable athletes, and the peanut gallery resumes the standard call-and-response.

These scenes, juxtaposed as they are, communicate a central tenet of “Trainwreck.”  Both genders, when taking cultural stereotypes of gender to the extreme ends of their performance, deserve mockery for their folly.  (This also includes John Cena, who briefly appears as Amy’s bodybuilding boyfriend who talks about the gym like many women talk about the nail salon.)  Schumer’s feminist intervention into the romantic comedy genre aims to level the playing field for men and women, not by putting the latter on any kind of pedestal but through suggesting the common humanity that unites them.

Her on-screen persona in “Trainwreck” arrives at the perfect moment, a time where many female characters are either monotonically strong or practically invisible and silent.  The “approachable” Amy, as her boss (played by a bronzed Tilda Swinton) condescendingly deems her, is a romantic comedy heroine cut from the cloth of contemporary society.  The hard-drinking, truth-telling, free-wheeling character benefits from the assertiveness in romance that women gained through the sexual revolution, yet she also pushes up against the lingering constraints left unconquered by that unfinished movement.  Amy also embodies the spirit of a generation scared to death of commitment, an era when the only thing scarier than the sea of possibilities is the choice to settle on one of them.

She meets her match in Aaron, an equally plain-spoken person who falls for Amy as she profiles him for the men’s magazine S’nuff.  The big difference, though, is that he possesses self-confidence where she shields her insecurities with self-deprecation.  Aaron, notably, never becomes a human incarnation of a “Mr. Wonderful” doll.  While exceedingly nice and admirable, Amy exposes a few of the buttons he might not like people pushing.

“Trainwreck” does not place Amy in the position of damsel in distress, nor does it make her some kind of prize for winning once tamed.  Amy’s impetus to change, although partially spurred by Aaron, seems to derive from an internal desire to stop numbing herself to the world.  And even in her triumphs (including the grand finale), Schumer always makes sure her Amy still shows some amusing, endearing flaws.  She is allowed to have flawed, circular logic, and it does not mean she is crazy; it just means we embrace her all the more.

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REVIEW: Inside Out

20 06 2015

Pixar has long reigned as the champion of both intelligent, creative storytelling and emotionally potent filmmaking.  Something about their computer-rendered world always seems to strike a chord with the one we have experienced, mostly because the purest of hearts beat within the lines of their ingeniously designed characters.

Inside Out” may well be the most vivid realization of the animation powerhouse’s strengths.  Writer/director Pete Docter’s film marks their most innovative vision since 2001’s “Monsters, Inc.” and their most heartstring tugging piece since 2009’s “Up.”  Every second of the film captures the complexity of the human experience, inspiring laughter, smiles, and tears.  Often times, I responded with all three reactions simultaneously.

In what may inspire the next generation of psychologists, Docter (along with fellow Pixar brain trust members Ronaldo Del Carmen and Josh Cooley – as well as Meg LaFauve) takes on the ambitious task of visualizing the mind.  And not like the opening credit sequence to “Fight Club” or anything, either.  They map out the logic, rationale, and functionality of just about every cognitive process in the brain, both conscious and subconscious.

Remarkably, the thought of “Inside Out” as some kind of cinematic adaptation of a neuroscience textbook never occurs for a second.  As it enlightens us, the film also entertains.  The premise starts off extremely straightforward: five personified emotions vie for control in the mind of a young girl, 11-year-old Riley.  These distinct characters take on additional vitality and vibrance through expert voice casting that draws on the established strengths of the performers.

Amy Poehler channels Leslie Knope into Joy.  Lewis Black brings his trademark tirades (minus the profanity) to Anger.  Bill Hader lends his motormouth to the ever-adapting whims of Fear.  Mindy Kaling adapts her defensive, often put out television alter ego into Disgust.  And Phyllis Smith selects the sad sack elements from her good-natured but sometimes mopey Phyllis from “The Office” and transfers them into Sadness.

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REVIEW: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

29 12 2014

Eleanor RigbyThe basic premise of writer/director Ned Benson’s “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” to be clear, is nothing particularly special.  James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain star as Connor Ludlow and Eleanor Rigby, respectively, a married couple in New York City hitting a devastating rough patch after a miscarriage.  Each deals with the tragedy in their own way, and Benson gives each story a feature’s length to develop.

Meant for consumption as one, “Him” follows Connor as he attempts to shake off the funk by throwing himself into his work for external validation while “Her” takes Eleanor’s point of view as she searches for greater meaning through introspection and education.  By isolating rather than integrating Connor and Eleanor’s journey, Benson makes perspective and subjectivity the prime focus of “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.”

(Note: I did not bother to watch the streamlined edit that intercuts their stories, subtitled “Them,” because it seemed to defeat the purpose of the unconventional style.)

Students of narrative will relish this schismatic storytelling, analyzing what can be gleaned from one section that cannot be discerned in another.  Scenes shared by the former couple lend themselves to entirely different interpretations depending on the amount of information at hand on approach.  Integral figures in one person’s life are entirely irrelevant or nonexistent in that of the other.  Benson inquisitively asks how much can anyone know about others when trapped to see the world only through their own eyes, a question with strongly felt reverberations.

By all accounts, “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” serves as a reminder that everyone has their own narrative.  Even the entrance (or exit) of a spouse does not create a shared story.  As important as that person is, they are merely another character in a grander arc.  Benson’s shedding of illusions surrounding coupling allows for a rich, nuanced portrayal of individual identity reclaimed and reasserted.

As such, “Him” and “Her” are both successful features as independent entities, not merely as half of a whole or only as an object for juxtaposition.  McAvoy commands his section by seizing the day and rallying to action to keep himself afloat; he is also bolstered by a strong dramatic turn from Bill Hader as a coworker and companion.  Meanwhile, Jessica Chastain proves irresistibly compelling as she mines the deepest recesses of her psyche for any kind of redemptive discovery.  In their contrast, Benson finds a beautifully dissonant harmony.  B+3stars





REVIEW: The Skeleton Twins

30 09 2014

The Skeleton TwinsCasting Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, two recent products churned out by the “Saturday Night Live” star-making factory, definitely leads to a certain set of expectations about what antics should follow.  So when “The Skeleton Twins” begins with two very serious suicide attempts by its leads, who play long-estranged siblings, all assumptions fly right out the window.

Yet that’s only where the reversals begin since co-writer and director Craig Johnson refuses to let his film devolve into angst-ridden or melodramatic clichés.  He charts a tricky tonal course but manages to navigate it seamlessly.  “The Skeleton Twins” is thus hard to categorize since it so effortlessly defies the normally clean-cut division between comedy and drama.

To label it a dramedy seems to miss the mark, too.  The serious and the sardonic do not merely coexist in “The Skeleton Twins;” they are interwoven to the point of being nearly indistinguishable.  The film’s closest blood relative might be 2007’s “The Savages,” which also concerned two acerbic siblings trading barbs over grave family issues.  Johnson finds humor not merely a relief to the film’s drama but rather a means for exploring its repercussions more thoroughly.

But really, to compare “The Skeleton Twins” to anything at all does it a disservice.  Johnson fashions something wholeheartedly organic with his film.  It is not beholden to any pattern or formula but rather to capturing the truths of existence.  With his detailed and nuanced portraiture of the two leading characters, Milo and Maggie, Johnson allows their specific aches and struggles to illuminate those that hit closer to home.

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REVIEW: They Came Together

5 07 2014

They Came TogetherGenres naturally go through cycles, and right now, the romantic comedy is in a bit of a slump.  When I started writing this blog nearly five years ago, it was riding high with smash hits like “The Proposal” and “The Ugly Truth.”  If you look at the market now, there hasn’t really been a rom-com hit since 2011’s “Crazy Stupid Love,” largely because those kinds of movies just aren’t being made.

Why exactly they have gone out of fashion so dramatically is anyone’s guess.  It’s likely a combination of many factors, but two films point out some of the reasons why no one is rushing to finance “28 Dresses.”  Back in 2009, “(500) Days of Summer” took a revisionist angle on the genre, pointing out many romantic comedy conventions that needed to be reworked in order to be more in touch with the audience.

And now, in 2014, “They Came Together” marks the point where the genre’s hallmarks are so recognizable that they can be mercilessly sent up in an unrelenting satire.  David Wain, the great mind behind “Wet Hot American Summer” and “Role Models,” dismantles the romantic comedy with confidence and pinpoint accuracy.

His script lays bare all the subtext that most of us blindly accept when we encounter a standard genre pic, pointing out everything from the stereotypes of the characters (clumsy girl, non-threateningly masculine guy) to the role of New York City (like another character).  “They Came Together” is at its best when Wain performs his point-by-point deconstruction of all the clichés that normally trap the genre, due largely in part to how wonderfully Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler can cut up while sending up the trademarks.

“They Came Together” winds up coming slightly undone, however, by the sophomoric silliness that fills the moments that aren’t so brutally self-aware.  Wain is usually quite clever with his comedy (the notable exception being “Wanderlust“), and here, he drops to the level of Seth MacFarlane in “Family Guy” or “Ted.”  It’s funny on occasion but wildly inconsistent overall with one joke bombing and the next hitting the sweet spot.  Thankfully, it never quite stoops to the level of the movies it lambasts, but Wain might have had one of the most spectacular spoofs of all time on his hands had he just stuck to the more high-minded humor.  B-2stars