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

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REVIEW: The Fundamentals of Caring

22 06 2016

The Fundamentals of CaringSundance Film Festival

Caring. It’s what Paul Rudd’s character, Ben, gives in his profession as a caretaker for Craig Roberts’ sardonic, wheelchair-bound teenager Trevor. Ironically, it’s also what he needs personally given that his marriage has fallen apart and his aspirations as a writer have dried up.

That’s about as deep as the insights go in Rob Burnett’s “The Fundamentals of Caring.” Not to damn with faint praise – but let me damn with faint praise – the film will sit nicely on Netflix along with countless other TV-movie style dramedies. Seeing it on the streaming platform probably makes far more sense than watching it at a major film festival.

The primary joys of the film come from the bickering and bantering between Ben and Trevor. Each tries to one up each other with practical jokes that plunge into some truly black territory surrounding death and illness. Rudd dons a more melancholy hat as Ben, playing someone demonstrably more introspective than his usual acid-spitters. Roberts, quite the comedic talent in his own right, can surprisingly stand toe to toe with Rudd for laughs.

Most of the film is just the two of them (save a brief spell where Selena Gomez’s Dot joins the fun), enduring one another as Trevor tries to make Ben’s job as difficult as possible to make himself feel somewhat powerful. Burnett can find the connection in these moments but never quite gets beneath the skin for either. And that does not even change, mind you, when they take a medically risky road trip to visit some questionable American landmarks. C+2stars





REVIEW: Captain America: Civil War

4 05 2016

Presidential election years lend themselves to multiplex seat philosophy, perhaps another subtle confirmation of the fact that even escapism is neither complete nor absolute. Especially in years without an incumbent in the running, the culture of the present tense takes on the status of relic with stunning immediacy. As we see the contours of how future generations will remember the era, it gets easier to place a movie within its particular historical framework.

So what is the status of the superhero movie towards the end of the Age of Obama? Look no further than “Captain America: Civil War,” a film far more intriguing for its wide-ranging implications than anything on screen. (Ok, maybe those Spider-Man scenes got me interested in the character again.) It serves the same big budget movie of the moment role that 2008’s “The Dark Knight” played for the Bush era, both smashing the box office and setting the conversation.

Nearly four years ago, The New York Times’ critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Darghis described Marvel’s 2012 “The Avengers” as a tale about the triumph of community organizing in their piece “Movies in the Age of Obama.” Now, “Captain America: Civil War” feels like the response to four years of gridlock and bitter internal divides. Along with “Batman v Superman,” the big trend among 2016 tentpole features appears to be fighting the enemies within our gates as opposed to outside our borders.

At least this rupture among the Avengers crew was a plot development they adequately presaged in their recent plot build-up. (Yes, that was shade at DC. No, I am not being paid by Marvel to write good things.) After many a global escapade causing mass mayhem and destruction, the superheroes finally face accountability from an international governmental body. Roughly half the group believes submitting to authority is a worthy idea, while the others wish to retain autonomy even it means being called vigilantes by the public as a whole.

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REVIEW: Ant-Man

23 08 2015

Ant-ManAnt-Man,” the final piece in Marvel’s so-called “Phase Two” of their Cinematic Universe, invites us all to do what I have done for the past five years: not to take any of this too seriously.  With the constantly winking and self-effacing charm of Paul Rudd (and co-writer Adam McKay), the best Marvel movie in years is ironically the one that spits in the face of what the studio signifies.

This is the first film from the comic book behemoth since the original “Iron Man” back in 2008 that feels entirely sufficient as a film in its own right, not just a placeholder for the next super-sized sequel.  Granted, some of that might be a response to its iffy economic viability at the green-lighting stage of the process (and some concerns over authorship following the departure of writer/director Edgar Wright and his screenwriting partner Joe Cornish). Nonetheless, “Ant-Man” earns a second installment by virtue of its tongue-in-cheek spirit and fun sense of scale.

Rather than set up some cataclysmic battle of the fates where the powers of good do battle with a terrifying evil that beams a big blue light up into the sky, “Ant-Man” builds up to a fight between two men for one important thing.  This climax engages rather than numbs (as “Avengers” final acts tend to do) because it takes place on the human level where the rest of the film registers.  It also helps that the final clash is essentially the only major one in the movie, going against Marvel’s general tendency to throw in a major action set piece every 30 minutes or so to placate the thrill-seekers in the audience.

And every time it seems like “Ant-Man” is turning into a conveyer belt of Marvel tropes, Paul Rudd’s humor kicks in to disrupt the moment and make a joke at the studio’s expense. He plays on admittedly shorter leash than someone like Judd Apatow or David Wain gives him, but his sardonic wit proves a welcome reprieve of Marvel’s faux gravitas that proves suffocating in their more commercial products.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 8, 2015)

8 01 2015

Now that Paul Rudd has officially debuted as Ant-Man, I expect that we’ll soon have to start referring to him as “Marvel’s Paul Rudd.”  Plenty of clueless fanboys will totally think of Rudd as the next Chris Pratt, a comedian that the comic-book magnate picks up from relative obscurity and turns into a bonafide action star.  And I will be sad.

But then, I will wipe away my tears and watch another one of Rudd’s hilarious comedies.  I will think of the time he and I shared a brief word in London, and I will remind myself of how his affable characters appear to accurately reflect his genial real-life personality.  I will remind myself that he is the perfect choice to play me in the movie of my life no matter what career move he makes next (although BuzzFeed recently told me that Benedict Cumberbatch would play me, another choice that suits me fine).

And finally, I will watch one of his comedies that stand head and shoulders above nearly all the other mainstream output.  For the most part, Rudd chooses projects with smarter wit and keener insight than the usual macho lineup of flatulence, misogyny, and homophobia.  Perhaps chief among these is 2009’s “I Love You, Man,” the bromantic comedy that serves as my selection for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  (Yes, I am fully aware this is hardly independent or little-known, although it certainly deserves to be more widely known.)

Rudd, rather than erecting a cool facade, plays his character Peter Klaven as unashamedly dorky and unabashedly earnest.  Though he means well, Peter often stumbles over his own nicety into the verbal equivalent of a pratfall.  The film begins with the happiest moment in his life: proposing to his girlfriend, Zooey (Rashida Jones).  After the initial bliss dissipates, however, things get awkward as Peter seems unable to provide enough groomsmen to match Zooey’s seven bridesmaids.  In fact, he does not even really have a potential best man.

Rather than disappoint his beautiful bride-to-be, and apparently unwilling to suck it up and ask either his father (J.K. Simmons) or brother (Andy Samberg), Peter goes on the hunt for a male best friend.  After a series of hilarious misunderstandings, he comes across Jason Segel’s palatably absurd Sidney Fife, a friendly bachelor that stumbles into one of Peter’s open houses while scouting prospects for a wealthy divorcée.  They hit it off immediately, easily finding conversation topics and mutual interests.

Sidney and Peter’s friendship is purely platonic, yet writer/director John Hamburg replicates the experience of watching a romantic comedy.  We get the beginning stage of figuring out tastes as well as boundaries; we see the way that they bring fulfillment to each other’s lives; we have the classic blow-up fight that turns into a dissolution of an amicable partnership.  As “I Love You, Man” progresses, it exposes the parallels between forging friendships and romantic relationships as well as the absurdities inherent in both.

Peter and Sidney are not just the average dudebro BFFs – they are types to explore and investigate the very nature of human connection.  Although, in the hands of talented actors like Rudd and Segel, they are also fully fledged people that I’d love to slap the bass with any day.





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





REVIEW: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

6 01 2014

Maybe Adam McKay should have let the marketing and promotions team write the movie “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” for he and Will Ferrell.  They certainly had a much better grasp of the power present in Ron Burgundy’s cult iconography gained over the year and used it to leverage interest in a follow-up to a film released nearly a decade prior.  It’s a shame that the abysmal sequel had nothing to deliver.

I certainly don’t dislike 2004’s “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” but I never quite understood why it above other movies had gained such a foothold in the pop culture lexicon.  A plethora of lines from the original film are now such staples of conversation these days that I often forget their origin. While I was entertained by the movie the one time I watched it on HBO, I certainly did not think it deserved a sequel over a film like, say, “Pineapple Express” or “Role Models.”

While the former got a humorous pseudo-sequel in “This Is The End,” I can now say with certainty I never want to see a follow-up to the latter after “Anchorman 2” just destroyed the legacy of its predecessor.  While there are intermittent laughs to be had, the utter stupidity of its jokes and lack of care in maintaining its characters made for what might be the most unpleasant moviegoing experience of 2013.

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