Month: December 2016

Autumn in the Vineyard (2016)


I last saw Rachael Leigh Cook as the high school wallflower in 1999’s She’s All That, so I was surprised to learn that she’s continued acting ever since and that she’s ventured onto my Hallmark playlist. Her latest movie, Autumn in the Vineyard, doesn’t soar to the artistic heights of that teenage classic – okay, neither movie soars to any heights, but at least she brings some of that Laney Boggs fire to another numbingly formulaic romance. Cook plays Frankie Baldwin, a woman who’s at a crossroads in life and decides to chart a new course by buying a friend’s vineyard. Though she hails from one of the area’s most prominent grape-producing families, she doesn’t have that much capital nor does she have a lot of experience overseeing such a large production. That’s okay though because she’s spunky and willing to learn. Plus, she has the support of Sorrento Farms’ previous owner, Flo.

The problem is that Flo is newly divorced and her ex-husband, who’s chilling out in Costa Rica and nowhere to be found, has also just sold the farm to Nate Deluca (Brendan Penny), from the town’s other esteemed family. He happens to be Frankie’s former flame but more importantly, he’s very well educated with a Ph.D in microbiology. This weird education war is continually emphasized to distinguish Frankie and her hands on “grape whisperer” ways with Nate and his cold, distant scientific methods. Who will win out in the end? Will it be the old, earthy traditions passed down through the generations or will science and technology have the final say? That point is made, but it’s an odd fight to be having. Nate seems like he’s passing judgment on Frankie, and thus her intelligence, for not having completed university while she has a strange and deep-seated contempt for his smarts. Can we put aside our prejudices, please?

Their rivalry is elevated when a judge suggests they share the property while the divorce court sorts out ownership. They manage to draw up lines of demarcation, but it’s a tricky split, one made worse by the upcoming harvest. With only a few weeks until they must bring in the grapes, they can’t afford to wait for a decision. Nate proposes what’s supposed to be a clever challenge but is really just another eye-rolling contrivance to perk up the story. He suggests that using their own methods, whoever yields the largest haul will win the whole damn thing. A little extreme and sure to collapse under a legal challenge, but whatever gets them scurrying.

The movie moves in fits and starts, which can happen when you’re ticking off the plot points checklist in your generic romance. Cook and Penny are agreeable together, but their characters are quick to blow up at each other or share an intimate and honest moment, depending on what is needed in the act. I was more interested in a few other relationships in the story, like Frankie and her brother or Frankie and a wandering llama.

Hallmark continues to show improvement this year by casting actors of color in speaking roles, and by improvement, I mean that someone occasionally has a couple minutes of screen time. It also tries to shore up its artistic credentials with some nice and varied shots of the vineyards. It’s not A Walk in the Clouds beautiful, my standard for movies set in wine country, but it’s a step up from the usual nameless small town setting.

Released: 2016
Dir: Scott Smith
Writer: Suzette Couture
Cast: Rachael Leigh Cook, Brendan Penny, Jeremy Guilbaut, Tom Butler, Laura Sotis, Marcus Rosner, Julian Christopher, Lucia Walters
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark
Reviewed: 2016

Sausage Party (2016)


Those expecting a raunchy, expletive-laden comedy about fornicating foodstuffs will be pleased to know that Sausage Party delivers. Boy does it deliver. Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Jonah Hill – creators, frequent collaborators, and heroes to teenage boys everywhere – draw from their inexhaustible well of adult humor to bring you a movie about hot dog sex, supported by a cast of virginal buns and libidinous tacos. There’s also a massive food orgy for good measure, just in case you weren’t sure the exact tone they were aiming for. You might be surprised to find out though that the movie tries to leaven its material with thoughtful questioning on religious faith and even touches on certain political conflicts. That’s not to say I love Sausage Party or even recommend it, but you do get a little more than you paid for or expected.

Taking a cue from the many animated films featuring anthropomorphic toys and animals, this one dives into the secret life of food, an idea I imagine was shaped from the billows of weed smoke coming out of the writers’ room. The movie suggests as much in a scene where a guy thinks he sees talking food while he’s stoned. The main character is Frank (Rogen), a packaged wiener who sits suspiciously on a grocery aisle shelf and not the refrigerated section. Red, White, and Blue Day is coming up so he and his sausage mates are perched next to a pack of buns, one of whom is Brenda (Kristen Wiig). The two cannot wait to bust out of their plastic wrap and make sweet hot dog love, but Brenda, being the chaste bun that she is, fears reprisals from the food gods if they so much as touch tips, fingertips.

You see, every morning, the grocery store foods sing an anthem to the gods, praying for the day when they will be taken into the Great Beyond, which lies just past the doors. They don’t really know what goes on out there but they are “super sure there’s nothing shitty,” that it is a glorious promised land that can’t yet conceive of. This, by the way, is the tamest line in a relentless opening sequence that is equal parts shocking and hilarious. When a jar of honey mustard (Danny McBride) returns bearing horrific reports of murder and carnage, their whole existence is challenged. Most cannot fathom these stories of death by boiling, stabbing, and mashing. Frank, however, finds his faith shaken enough to seek the truth.

For a movie that features a literal douche (Nick Kroll) as the main villain [insert eye roll emoji], Sausage Party ventures into surprising territory. A commentary on faith is the last thing you’d expect these lusty vittles to inspire, and while it doesn’t delve into theological truths, it does make you think about religious behavior, how we come to a religious faith and how that dictates our morals and actions. The extended metaphor doesn’t exactly work – no one’s returned from the Great Beyond and lived to tell about it, but it does ask us to consider what motivates belief. In a fraught presidential election year, the same questions could be applied to our faith in politicians, or those posing as such. Not content to simply tackle one big issue, the movie also humorously pokes at the Middle East conflict in the form of a bickering lavash (David Krumholtz) and bagel (a perfectly Woody Allen-esque Edward Norton). The relationship isn’t revelatory but it is funny.

So smarter than expected is the conclusion here, but that’s faint praise considering that, in the end of the day, you’re still watching actual food porn. (The movie was a hair away from an NC-17 rating.) I’m amazed though not impressed by Rogen’s crew to continually seek out new and creative ways to act like teenage boys. Naturally it’s a matter of taste, and though I laughed out loud and thought more deeply than I wanted to, I’m quite happy keeping sex and intellect separate from talking wieners and used condoms.

Released: 2016
Prod: Megan Ellison, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Conrad Vernon
Dir: Conrad Vernon, Greg Tiernan
Writer: Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg
Cast: Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, Bill Hader, Michael Cera, James Franco, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Paul Rudd, Nick Kroll, David Krumholtz, Edward Norton, Salma Hayek
Time: 88 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016

The Late Bloomer (2016)


The Late Bloomer is about a man who belatedly experiences puberty, like at twenty-seven, and sounds like a man-child sex comedy the Judd Apatow crew would dream up. But the movie is based in part on the life of Ken Baker, who discovered in his late twenties that a benign tumor on his pituitary gland had arrested his sexual development. The movie takes advantage of what happened after it was removed and all his hormones came rushing in with the fury of a frustrated thirteen year old.

I like that this story broaches questions about the intersection between sexuality, gender, and adulthood, and how sexuality in particular shapes our perceptions of these. Peter (Johnny Simmons) is a sex therapist and author who because of his condition practices blissful abstinence and counsels others to similarly rein in their impulses. Unaware that a tumor is the reason for his suppressed urges, he finds his lifestyle easy to adapt to and isn’t given in to displays of virile dominance required by the testosterone-charged world his friends inhabit. Because of this ability to disconnect, however, he wrestles with his place in society and finds himself questioning his identity as a straight adult male.

Had the movie explored some of these ideas with any depth or seriousness, it might have been the smart comedy we need to start a conversation about sex and sexuality. Instead, the film uses the opportunity for easy and cheap laughs about so-called typical male behavior. After the tumor is removed, Peter suddenly experiences the same physical and mental changes as a teenage boy. There are jokes aplenty about masturbation, mood swings, and male insensitivity. It also turns out a wave of testosterone will make you really good at basketball.

There is humor to be mined from that situation for sure, but the film is preoccupied with finding ways to make a grown man act like a kid. The script reduces the conflict by literally turning Peter into a man-child, a situation made worse by the lack of responsible adults. His parents (J. K. Simmons and a loopy Maria Bello), especially his father, don’t seem to care about anything except his sexual awakening and only fully embrace him after his surgery. His best friends (Beck Bennett and an admittedly very dry, funny Kumail Nanjiani) are also proper dudes in that they make bad sex puns and hire a stripper to help hurry along Peter’s self-discovery.

The only person who balances out these adolescent male impulses and who doesn’t condescend to him is his neighbor, Michelle (Brittany Snow). Their close friendship changes though when Peter does, and he has to find a way to get back in her good graces. There’s a rushed attempt to save this picture and to get in a final word about sex as something positive for relationships, which seems self-evident, but the film doesn’t deserve an emotional or enlightened ending after degenerating into common high school locker room.

Released: 2016
Prod: Heidi Jo Markel, Raphael Kryszek, Jesse Israel
Dir: Kevin Pollak
Writer: Gary Rosen, Joe Nussbaum, Paul A. Kaplan, Mark Torgove, Kyle Cooper, Austyn Jeffs
Cast: Johnny Simmons, Brittany Snow, Kumail Nanjiani, Beck Bennett, Jane Lynch, J. K. Simmons, Maria Bello, Paul Wesley
Time: 90 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016