REVIEW: Table 19

6 03 2017

Even as it resorts to some familiar tropes about the forced cohesion created within a band of misfits, Jeffrey Blitz’s “Table 19” still manages to do enough within a familiar framework to create a memorable moviegoing experience. There are some good running gags, like the ubiquity of the wedding photographer’s flash and how one character’s outfit looks suspiciously like the waitstaff’s getup. The script, which shares a story credit with the Duplass Brothers, also throws a major wrench in the expected turn of events at the midway point which proves truly surprising.

It’s a shame that Blitz bites off a little more than he can chew in an 87 minute film. Setting up and resolving six different narrative arcs for a wedding rejects table proves a lot to handle in such a short amount of time, and the sheer volume of events and conversations often overwhelms and clouds out quality. The quantity also overshadows some of the more intriguing storytelling that Blitz attempts in “Table 19.” For example, the pattern of conflict resolution takes on a much less straightforward direction, and the general story propulsion comes from strung-together tension and awkwardness.

The film is at its best at the outset when the characters are defined by how they relate to the room, not by how they relate to each other. In one of the most enjoyable sequences in “Table 19,” Anna Kendrick’s Eloise narrates a self-aware taxonomy of the wedding reception table layout. It’s genuinely perceptive about the unwritten rules of nuptial rituals, so it’s too bad that the characters largely lack the depth of thought given to the roles they play in the ceremony. B

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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





INTERVIEW: Chad Hartigan, writer/director of “Morris from America”

21 08 2016

In case you haven’t noticed from talented actors committing major blunders or fouls in an interview, the press process is long and grueling. I’ve sat at many a roundtable where journalists ask the most basic questions that were probably answered in the press kit (that the same interviewer probably chose not to read). In many ways, I almost cannot even blame talented filmmakers for getting frustrated right off the bat when beginning an interview.

That’s not what happened when I sat down with Chad Hartigan, writer/director of “Morris from America” – in case you thought that’s where my lede was heading. Quite the contrary, actually. He had a level of respect for my questions due in large part to the fact that he himself spent many years doing writing about film himself on the site In Contention. Hartigan was also just three hours removed from the rapturous premiere of his latest film in front of the largest auditorium at the Sundance Film Festival, which didn’t hurt either.

But search “In Contention” here on my site, and you’ll see just how formative that site was for my opinions and writing style in the early days of Marshall and the Movies. Hartigan served as their box office writer, a hat he wore on the side while pursuing filmmaking. We got to talking about both sides of his persona and how they didn’t really collide in “Morris from America,” a sincere and hilarious coming-of-age comedy about a black teenager (Markees Christmas’ Morris) and his widowed father (Craig Robinson’s Curtis) trying to acculturate in a small German town.

Chad Hartigan Sundance Award

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REVIEW: Morris from America

17 08 2016

Morris from AmericaSundance Film Festival

Diversity. Representation. Inclusion.

If you follow the conversation about what movies get made and who gets to make them, these buzzwords probably sound all too familiar. As the expansive world of filmed content continues to strive towards matching the demographic makeup of America, the oft-repeated dictum of “write what you know” takes on a scrambled significance. Who gets to tell whose stories while we wait for more storytellers? Can any meaningful progress be made for the characters on-screen in the meantime?

Chad Hartigan’s “Morris from America” offers a ray of sunshine in this debate. His accomplishment suggests our chicken-or-egg mentality when thinking about these complex issues need not guide all discourse. The writer/director spent a portion of his childhood living abroad in Europe and started writing a coming-of-age tale in that milieu. But to differentiate his film from the herd of similar flicks in the subgenre, Hartigan decided to change the race of the main characters as a way of further exploring their alienation in foreign lands.

How refreshing to see that a filmmaker can produce a work that is at once wholly personal and entirely open to assuming other people’s vantage points. (A most welcome side effect: this process also rids the film of the narcissism and self-indulgence that plagues so many indies.) “Morris from America” does not feel exploitatively race-swapped to push a cheap metaphor or argue a naive colorblindness. It strikes an appropriate balance between familiar and unfamiliar as well as comforting and daring. In other words, it’s a lot like the contradictions that define being an adolescent as a whole.

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REVIEW: Get On Up

4 08 2014

In any musical biopic, the key ingredient is channeling the persona of its subject.  So in that regard, “Get On Up” succeeds behind Chadwick Boseman’s electric performance as the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Boseman captures the firebrand in all his passionate fits of rage and spirited swaggering dance moves, and he does it with such astonishing accuracy that I had to remind myself on multiple occasions that I was in fact watching a fictional portrayal of Brown.

Beyond Boseman’s towering turn, however, there is very little else in “Get On Up” that manages to rouse. Most of the film’s issues, sadly, are deeply rooted in Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s script. With the very blueprint of the movie so wonky, it’s tough to judge anyone involved in the film too harshly. They likely just did the best with what little they were given.

The problem has less to do with individual scenes, which were more or less fine when evaluated independently. The Butterworths’ problem is that these units drawn from various times at James Brown’s life simply do not cohere nor do they ever move in any distinct direction. Unlike “Boyhood,” the mere passage of time in “Get On Up” is not cause enough to watch a movie or maintain attention.

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REVIEW: This Is The End

13 06 2013

Now that I know the kind of deep analyses I can write on films, I’ve grown cautious of over-intellectualizing.  It’s like learning to reign in a superpower; just because you can use it doesn’t mean that you always should.  And, often times, I feel like many film reviewers and critics pull meanings out of films that might not even be there.

This Is The End” poses quite a conundrum for me.  I’m weary to read into it too much, but I think the apocalyptic comedy could be subversively smart.  Or it’s just another culturally-savvy product of the Apatow gang (although Judd himself had no part of this film).  Whichever it is, however, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s feature-length directorial debut is an outlandishly good time that packs some killer laughs.

I go back and forth on whether Rogen and pals are brilliant minds … or just stoned out of those same minds.  The fact that stars like Rogen, James Franco, and Jonah Hill are playing themselves certainly seems to indicate a certain level of self-reflexivity.  After all, no one would mistake “This Is The End” for a documentary as everyone seems to be playing an exaggerated version of themselves: Rogen the jovial teddy bear, Franco the off-kilter artiste, and Hill the slightly fruity sass-pot.

But then again, Rogen and Goldberg could easily have just been thinking of a way to make the ultimate end of the world comedy (lest we forget, there has already been the morose “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World“).  When it came time for their silver bullet, perhaps the idea popped into their head that rather than characters, the film should feature real celebrities.  Indeed, there are times that the real comedians feel a little gimmicky.  I’m not going to complain, however, so long as I get to hear Rogen and Franco weigh the relative merits of “Pineapple Express” and “Your Highness.”

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REVIEW: Hot Tub Time Machine

2 09 2010

Walkmans and legwarmers and tracksuits, oh my!

It’s a blast back to the ’80s in “Hot Tub Time Machine,” the raunchy romp that defies the laws of physics.  A sort of irreverent “Back to the Future,” the movie has no science to back up what is happening.  Then again, do you expect much to back up the premise that a hot tub could transport a group of four drunk guys 25 years into the past?

Thanks to the bubbling portal, the four losers in 2010 get a chance to be their younger, cooler selves in 1986 (with the exception of Clark Duke’s gaming Jacob, who has yet to be born).  In their hangover logic, they decided that they need to do exactly as they did when they lived the weekend the first time.  For some of them, it means promiscuous escapades; for others, it means taking punches.

For those of us who didn’t live through the decade, for better or for worse, the movie still manages to be funny.  It’s not some giant ’80s inside joke; there are some nods to “Back to the Future,” both through situations and the perfectly cast Crispin Glover as a creepy bellhop, but they don’t make the movie any less accessible for those who haven’t seen it.  There’s plenty of universal humor that anyone can laugh at – provided they check their maturity at the door.

The bulk of the comedy comes courtesy of Craig Robinson, who plays Nick, the guy whipped by his unfaithful wife to the point that he takes her last name.  Robinson has been gold on “The Office” for several years now and has done many memorable supporting roles, often times being a highlight of those movies.  If “Hot Tub Time Machine” isn’t enough of a testament to his comedic talent to give him a headlining role over Chris Rock (or any other tired comedian, for that matter), there is truly no justice in the world.

Everyone else is good too, just no one on the level of Robinson.  Most of the jokes centered around John Cusack come at the expense of his own fame in the ’80s.  The woebegone Lou, played by Rob Corddry, is the most crass of the bunch, which guarantees a few laughs.  Duke’s Jacob is great for those of who didn’t live in the decade as he gapes in amazement at the social climate.  And then there’s Chevy Chase as the hot tub repairman, who is just plain creepy.

But the movie’s best facet (and the one that will make it stand out among recent comedies) is its willingness to forget teaching a lesson and just have fun.  It doesn’t pretend to have scrupulous morals; really, it doesn’t pretend to have any morals at all.  “Hot Tub Time Machine” is four guys having fun, and for once, Hollywood’s rules don’t spoil it.  B+ /