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: Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

18 05 2016

There’s a time in a person’s life when they feel like they lag behind everyone else their own age. More people seem to progress to that next echelon of adulthood with each passing day. Stagnation meets anxiety, which then causes resistance. And a kind of paralysis sets in.

Well, maybe “time” should be plural. The above scenario describes the world in”Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” that greets both Zac Efron’s Teddy Sanders after college and Seth Rogen’s Mac Radner after his wife (Rose Byrne’s Kelly) announces her pregnancy with their second child. Each has made small steps towards some kind of maturity while still feeling like their phoning it in prohibits them from leveling up in life.

If the first “Neighbors” was about finding humor and truth in the irreconcilable differences between fraternity guys and family men, then the sequel pivots to finding heartfelt connections that can be forged between ludicrous antics over shared feelings of inadequacy and ineptitude. More than the pure humor value of the original’s Abercrombie-set epilogue, Teddy and Mac forge a more durable bond here over a shared interest in shutting down the insurgent Kappa Nu sorority that set up next door.

Granted, their motivations are quite different. For the same reasons as the film’s predecessor, Mac needs to ensure the house stays appealing to prospective buyers. Teddy, on the other hand, helps the cause because he needs to feel needed. Originally, he got that appreciation from the sorority sisters, who relied on his expertise to help establish their organization. (Teddy ironically knows more about real estate than the Radnor family, proof that Greek organizations actually do teach at least some valuable life lessons.)

While not quite a student and not quite an adult, Teddy naturally gets caught back in the gravitational pull of the college life; it can be quite alluring to stay in a place where your expertise and skills count for something. Once they turn on him, he feels no shame switching sides. Efron masterfully portrays that confusing moment in time where identifying with adults seems easier than identifying with kids. As it turns out, he shares quite a bit more in common with the Radnors than previously imagined. Their express aim is to ruin the fun of the youth, though latently, envy for their freedom drives such animosity.

The specifics of post-grad assimilation into the so-called “real world” might look quite different than planting one’s flag firmly in the “adult” and “parent” category. But when teetering on the fence between life stages, the importance of age fades away some. It sounds like the kind of deceptively deep philosophical lesson one might impart from a Richard Linklater film. Instead, it’s sandwiched between jokes about Bill Cosby, men’s rights activists and the Holocaust. (Yes, it even goes there.)

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REVIEW: Steve Jobs

27 12 2015

I have no qualms in saying that, in high school, the discovery of Aaron Sorkin’s writing completely changed the way I thought about how people could talk in fiction. Here were characters that spoke with purpose in every line, both illuminating their inner thought process and highlighting the themes of the work. (If you doubt its influence, just read the play I wrote my senior year that falls somewhere between a love letter to and ripoff of Sorkin.)

The more I rewatch “The Social Network,” however, the more I realize that the heft of the content is the real star of that script. The delivery in “Sorkinese” – as many have come to call it – serves to enhance, not replace, that treasure trove of insights into class, status and social structure in contemporary America. The hyperexpressive dialogue feels justified practically by the bulk of commentary that the characters must convey – and, remarkably, tomes are still left unsaid.

Sorkin’s latest script, “Steve Jobs” (adapted from Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of the same name), narrows its focus from the revolutionizing of society to a man with the vision to spark such revolutions. As the man whose inventions shook up telephones, personal computing, animation, publishing and music, Jobs feels like a natural subject for Sorkin given his obsession with grandiloquent geniuses. Even his work on the script for 2011’s “Moneyball,” which praised the empirically driven philosophy of Oakland Athletics manager Billy Beane, evinces his fascination with people who innovate in spite of steep institutional pressure to maintain an inefficient status quo.

Yet, at the same time, choosing Jobs as someone to speak Sorkinese fluently smells a bit like a man trying to cast God in his own image – and not the other way around. The stylized dialogue flies rapidly in “Steve Jobs,” which is not entirely dissimilar from “The Social Network.” But here, the metaphors and arcane cultural references are delivered in a continual walk-and-talk, not in such visibly formal settings.

Sorkin chooses to stage his drama within the confines of a backstage drama (as opposed to the courtroom drama of Zuckerberg’s saga), a style which generally portrays characters with their guards down and speaking with their guards down. Jobs was undoubtedly smart enough to talk as Fassbender’s portrayal of him does, though it feels somewhat stilted and artificial.

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REVIEW: The Night Before

22 12 2015

If anyone is skeptical that our culture may be reaching a saturation of Christmas narratives, Jonathan Levine’s “The Night Before” ought to dispel that last shred of doubt. The film, co-written with Seth Rogen’s creative partners Evan Goldberg, Ariel Shaffir and Kyle Hunter, is a loving ode to just how much Americans love their holiday movies. The film pays homage to everything from “Home Alone” to “Elf” and even “Die Hard” during a crazy Christmas Eve shared by three old friends.

The Christmas movie appreciation leaks into the very fabric of the script, a half-baked attempt at making a stoner version of Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol.” (And with a bit of “It’s A Wonderful Life” as a cherry on top, to boot.) Only, instead of following one character, “The Night Before” splinters into three separate narratives bundled together.

The film follows Seth Rogen’s soon-to-be new father Isaac, Anthony Mackie’s recently famed pro quarterback Chris and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s hapless musician Ethan on what could be their last Yuletide celebration … and not just because each is lucky to survive the shenanigans. Each guy gets their hilarious moments with a very game supporting cast, especially Isaac’s unnaturally supportive expectant wife Betsy (Jillian Bell), streetwise bandit Rebecca (Ilana Glazer), Ethan’s straight-shooting ex Diana (Lizzy Caplan) as well as Sarah, a character so Mindy Kaling-esque she had to be played by Mindy Kaling.

The film plays to the strengths of its ensemble so well that it becomes hard to spite the movie providing little more than the good time such a cast portends. “The Night Before” does not add up to more than the sum of its parts, mostly because the fragmented narrative never quite coheres by the end. It’s good for a laugh, but those hoping for a new adult holiday classic to play after the kids go to bed should probably just go for a repeat viewing of “Bad Santa.” B2halfstars





REVIEW: The Interview

26 12 2014

Separating the movie “The Interview” from the international event that its release has become feels futile, if not entirely impossible.  Ironically, writers and directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (as well as their screenwriter, Dan Sterling) almost seem to anticipate the ramifications.  “In ten years, Ron Howard is gonna make a movie out of this,” proclaims James Franco’s TV personality Dave Skylark after scoring a sit-down with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

He – or perhaps maybe Ben Affleck – will have quite the material for a high-stakes thriller, yet all of it comes from the story outside “The Interview” rather inside of it.  The film offers pretty much what could be expected of any Seth Rogen comedy, which is namely crude jokes about pop culture, women, and buttholes.  It just happens to reside in the same film as a satire which depicts the assassination of a sitting world leader in good fun.

This is not “Inglourious Basterds” where (SPOILER) Hitler gets riddled with bullets to rapturous cheers from the crowd.  “The Interview” is so goofily implausible and patently ridiculous that anyone who takes its execution at face value might consider taking up residence in North Korea and worshiping their Supreme Leader’s bizarre cult of personality.

Rogen and Goldberg do not hold back on highlighting some bullet points from the country’s despicable human rights record, yet they also take steps to humanize that target.  Brought to life by Randall Park (Chung from “Veep”), Kim Jong Un actually receives more agency and personality than Lizzy Caplan’s CIA agent in charge of the mission to kill him.  He has daddy issues, struggles with his sexuality, and desperately seeks approval from people he admires – such as Skylark.  Then again, he also starves his own people and plays fast and loose with nuclear weapons…

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REVIEW: Neighbors

12 08 2014

If you’re Zac Efron, how do you get people to take you seriously as an actor?  See you as something more than a Disney Channel star without feeling yourself with a foam finger half-naked on television?  Treat you as something more than a Google Images search?

Taking a page from the Channing Tatum/”21 Jump Street” playbook, Efron took on a role in “Neighbors,” a comedy where his entire archetype of the ultra-macho pretty-boy is a consistent butt of jokes.  The arrangement works out well for everyone.  Those who choose to watch the movie will enjoy the self-parody of Efron’s relentless shirtlessness and his over-the-top portrayal of a self-deluded frat lord.  And those fans who just want another look at Efron’s chiseled figure are indulged in the process.

Initially, Efron didn’t seem to be meshing with his character, Delta Psi Beta president Teddy Sanders.  Perhaps I was expecting him to fit a certain model of the fraternity meathead that I knew, but it’s clear that “Neighbors” knows what it’s doing with him.  There’s pretty consistent and purposeful fetishization of Efron throughout the film, by Seth Rogen’s older and squarer Mac as well as within his own fraternity.  The desire for a firm bond with him is laced with some homoerotic undertones and really provides some interesting commentary on the kind of brotherhood fostered within fraternities.

Teddy’s relationship with Dave Franco’s Pete Regazolli, another high-ranking Delta Psi officer out to preserve his legacy, provides ample hilarious opportunities to analyze the implications of the bromance.  One particular exchange of rhyming affirmations of their friendship, which sounds like something potty-mouthed teenaged girls would exchange in gym, sounds so preposterous that it’s clear “Neighbors” does not intend for its portrayal of fraternity life to be taken at face value like “Animal House.”

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REVIEW: Paul

10 08 2013

2011 saw one movie, J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8.” corner public interest on the influence of Steven Spielberg’s filmmaking on modern moviegoing.  I’m a little upset that “Paul” couldn’t bask in a little of that light.  It’s a fun, spirited send-up of science-fiction tropes featuring a hilarious self-aware alien, Paul (the voice of Seth Rogen).

“Paul” also puts science-fiction, comic-book culture under the microscope to be sent up.  And for that task, there’s probably no one better than Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, two men whose humor seems to play particularly well to that crowd.  Pegg and Frost both wrote the film, and they also star in it as Graeme and Clive, two Brits who come across the pond for comic-book Mecca … Comic-Con.

Traveling the United States in an RV, they encounter crude, crass extraterrestrial Paul.  He’s the masterstroke of the movie, perhaps the best manifestation of Pegg and Frost’s comedic brilliance to date.  He’s got ties to all sorts of conspiracy theories and is incredibly connected to the entertainment industry.  The problem is, the rest of the movie just falls short of the character’s shrewd construction.  Though it is a satire of the human-meets-alien movies of the past two decades, “Paul” often allows itself to lazily slip into the trappings of the subgenre.

And, lest I forget to mention it, “Paul” has Kristen Wiig as one-eyed fundamentalist trailer trash taught to sin by Paul.  Sure, her character’s a little juvenile, just like the rest of the movie when it isn’t cleverly harkening back to ’80s sci-fi classics.  But Wiig, and “Paul” as a whole, somehow make the stupidity seem more fun than they probably are.  B-2stars