REVIEW: Person to Person

24 07 2017

Sundance Film Festival

Connection seems like an awfully vague term to declare a main thematic thread for a film festival – it’s a bit like “love,” deployed as a convenient catch-all in cursory analysis. But far more than 2016’s edition of the Sundance Film Festival, where I saw several films about protagonists trying to connect with themselves, many in 2017 showed a greater concern for how we connect to each other and the world around us.

This was most apparent in Dustin Guy Defa’s New York-set feature “Person to Person.” I made a conscious effort to avoid the kinds of films that might pertain primarily to the so-called “coastal elites,” which can present themselves as microcosms for America while only showing a narrow slice of existence. That’s not to say that these movies are meritless or rendered useless in this brave new world. But after the primal electoral howl of November, some perspective on the limited application of what Judd Apatow deemed “west-of-the-405 problem” films (and their East Coast counterparts) does not hurt. That said, I still had to see some. Forgoing them entirely would be akin to a cinematic Atkins diet, taking out an entire component of the pyramid structure for quick change.

“Person to Person” starts off feeling like a Jim Jarmusch-Noah Baumbach hybrid, a series of vignettes that send signals that they will converge in a manner we’ve come to expect from “hyperlink cinema.” Some of them do. The center of gravity is a murder case that involves the victim’s wealthy Brooklynite wife (Michaela Watkins), two clueless investigative reporters at a no-name tabloid (Michael Cera and Abbi Jacobson), and a watchmaker (Philip Baker Hall) with the clue that could hold the key to the entire case. On the periphery, Defa also follows a vinyl collector (Bene Coopersmith) dealing with a dishonest client, a wandering boyfriend (George Sample III) who gets shaken down by the angry brother of his partner, and a verbose young woman (Tavi Gevinson) probing the boundaries of her toleration and sexuality.

Defa has built up high regard, making short films for several years, even earning a retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2015. (Take four minutes to watch “Review” instead of that Jimmy Fallon clip your friends have shared on Facebook.) That background does rear its head in “Person to Person,” which can play more as a compendium than an omnibus. Still, the old pan that something is “less than the sum of its parts” does not quite apply here. There is loose connective tissue for all the stories: violence, unseen but affecting all of the characters in significant ways. Not the cheeriest take on human relations, but it’s hard to deny given that many of 2016’s most fervent moments of collective emotion came in the wake of celebrity deaths. B

NOTE: A portion of this review ran as a part of my coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival for Movie Mezzanine.

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REVIEW: The Lego Batman Movie

7 02 2017

Spoof movies largely do not exist American cinema anymore, or, at the very least, they do not reach a wide audience anymore. We’re about a decade removed from the heyday of the “Scary Movie” franchise and their ilk, which eventually went off the rails because they lost sight of what allows this particular style of humor to work. It’s ok to rib and roast, sure. But when they moved from playful lampooning to pointed lambasting, the jokes started feeling mean-spirited.

The Lego Batman Movie” arrives in the wake of last year’s “Deadpool,” another superhero movie that took potshots at its own genre. The “merc with the mouth,” however, decried too many tropes that movie itself lazily embraced. Meanwhile, the latest burst of creative building block energy affectionately sends up the Nolan Batman movies and gets in a few jabs at lesser-loved outings with the Caped Crusader. The film even satirizes his macho posturing by making him struggle with waiting for food to heat up and bungling which HDMI connection he must select to watch a rom-com. And dare I say, it’s even gently – albeit with a wink – progressive.

Writer Seth Graeme-Smith, along with a plethora of other credited scribes, embrace and lean into the necessity of juvenility for their target audience. Their embrace of simplicity leads to a work that achieves two different goals for two different age groups. Adults will recognize the common skeletal structure of the modern superhero movie from the writers scaling back the narrative’s scope to child-comprehensible (and appropriate) levels. We know the dramatic beats so well that we can predict them. So does “The Lego Batman Movie,” which has an uproarious, subversive twist at every moment when we catch wise.

This laughter at recognizable, perhaps hoary elements of the superhero flick does not discredit or disparage the genre. Rather, it reaffirms their power, and that’s why sharing it with incredulous younger viewers is such fun. For many, a physical Lego Batman might be the only version of the hero they know. Will Arnett’s parodic voice work provides a gentle introduction to the darker stories that surround the vigilante antihero. Combining his pitch-perfect embodiment of Batman’s essence with the boundless imagination of the animators and storytellers makes “The Lego Batman Movie” earnest family fun. Though it sounds contradictory to say a film can function as both a genre primer and a critique, director Chris McKay pulls it off. A-3halfstars





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: Entertainment

20 02 2016

EntertainmentRick Alverson’s “Entertainment” definitely has a lot to say, make no mistake. It’s nice to see a film titled after a concept that engages deeply with that idea.

Alverson sets up an interesting dialectic between two touring performers, a mime played by Tye Sheridan and a comedian played by Gregg Turkington. The former opens each show, deftly calibrating his moves to respond to the crowd and givng them their money’s worth. The latter, however, self-consciously stumbles his way through a stand-up routine that might have killed were it delivered in 1984. When it starts to bomb, the comedian often fires back at the crowd in seeming self-sabotage.

Perhaps this is the very tension between entertainment and art playing itself out in allegorical form. One comforts the audience while the other confronts them. One is harmless fun; the other, a provocative thorn. Alverson’s film definitely takes the form of the comedian, never easily indulging the whims of easy crowd-pleasing in its 100 minutes.

But as “Entertainment” wore on, the film started to feel thin on ideas. Yes, there is value in watching Turkington’s comedian slowly grow more and more agitated with audiences and wrestle with his own performance. Yet Alverson might have incited that same intellectual response from a short film, one that more tersely conveys the same ideas. Heck, it could have even wrestled with a new set of ideas about what people look for in a video of that length. B-2stars





REVIEW: Hits

18 02 2015

HitsHits” begins with a title card that recalls the one preceding 2013’s “American Hustle.”  This one says, “Based on a true story … that hasn’t happened yet.”  In other words, it marks writer/director David Cross’ way of saying that he wants to kvetch endlessly about the present day under the guise of satirization.

Maybe I’m still a little bit defensive about that horrendous TIME Magazine cover calling millennials “The Me Me Me Generation,” as if the generations before us have a spotless record and never posed any worry for their parents.  Nonetheless, I cannot help but get annoyed by vast generalizations about the youth these days as disgusting, device-addicted narcissists.  It is certainly true of many people, and I will not deny it; the world just needs some positive images of us.

That virality is one of the chief virtues of our society is certainly no secret, nor is the triumph of fame over hard-earned success.  Cross, though, seems to act as if he is delivering a message sent from heaven to enlighten us idiots.  “Hits” aims to pick only the lowest hanging fruit and juice it for cheap laughs.  (At least he picks up on an equally ludicrous breed, the self-righteous Gen X social media activist.)

Beyond the handicap of simply recapitulating the obvious, Cross’ first foray into feature filmmaking just cannot sustain its 90 minute runtime.  The characters that populate his ridiculous universe scarcely possess the depth for a comedy sketch; expecting them to remain entertaining and engaging for an entire movie is preposterous.  They might work well for a web series, however, if Cross could add some depth of thought to an only slightly revamped stereotype of the vapid fame-seeker.   C2stars





REVIEW: Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus

24 01 2015

Crystal FairyMichael Cera and the titular plant might serve as the main selling points of the marketing materials for “Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus,” yet the movie hardly belongs to either of them.  The best compliment for Cera is that at least his performance does not recall his stock character too much.

Sebastián Silva lets comedienne Gaby Hoffmann run rampant to cause free-spirited mayhem in the piece.  And boy, does she capitalize on the chance.  She provides basically all the enjoyment the film has to offer.

Hoffmann’s hippy Crystal Fairy joins up with Cera’s Jaime, an American in Chile, to find a magic cactus and harness its hallucinogenic powers.  Their quest is not particularly funny, serious, or insightful.  It just kind of happens, and then the movie ends, leaving no real lasting impression nor making any strong case for its reason to exist.

The film feels rather ragtag and loose to the point of fault; Silva might have been better off saving thousands of dollars by just shooting the film on an iPhone.  Then “Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus” would truly have the verité feeling it longs for in prolonged sequences of awkward “naturalistic” dialogue.

Anyone looking for realness and authenticity will just have to find it in Hoffmann, whose Crystal Fairy fearlessly owns the screen.  She plays an entire elongated scene in the nude, comfortably and confidently carrying out a conversation while flashing her lady parts to a room full of men.  Cera, and everyone else in the film, should have followed her bold lead.  C2stars





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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