Month: December 2016

Autumn in the Vineyard (2016)

autumn-in-the-vineyard

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)

sausage-party

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

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

Death at a Funeral (2010)

death at a funeral 2010

My sophomore English teacher allowed us to endlessly rewrite our essays for a higher grade, and once, after multiple drafts yielded no higher than a B+, he told me I should learn when to stop, because sometimes you can’t make something better no matter how hard you try. The feeling goes for Death at a Funeral, a slavishly faithful remake of the 2007 British farce. An outrageous comedy of errors no matter what side of the Atlantic it’s set, the script always seems to be a few steps ahead of the actual film. The plot, about a patriarch’s funeral gone horribly wrong, certainly provides material ripe for laughs, but the humor never quite lives up to the high stakes.

Still, this American version goes down a little easier, perhaps because I braced myself for disappointment but mostly because of the cast. Featuring a hodgepodge of distinguished performers, well known comedians, and young upstarts, they are more comfortable with the material, attuned to the fine balance between pure wit and physical comedy. There’s also a chemistry that’s missing from its buttoned-up predecessor. Robert Ebert wrote that the actors “work together like a stock company,” and it’s this ease of handing off lines and looks that keeps the show running.

Comedian Chris Rock has straight man duties this time and orchestrates the proceedings as Aaron, the eldest son of the deceased. The funeral is to take place at the family home, and as friends and relatives converge, things get increasingly out of hand. The arrival of his brother, Ryan (Martin Lawrence), a successful author, stirs up feelings of jealousy since Aaron’s still living at home and has only a handful of pieces published in Jet to his name. Cranky Uncle Russell (Danny Glover) just wants to get things over with and eat his potato salad, much to the annoyance of Norman (Tracy Morgan), who’s on chaperone duty. Then there’s the cousins, Elaine (Zoe Saldana) and Jeff (Columbus Short). She and her boyfriend, Oscar (James Marsden), want to announce their engagement to her disapproving father (Ron Glass), but nerves get the better of him. She accidentally gives him a hallucinogenic concocted by her pharmacy student brother, resulting in a string of embarrassing moments, each one more extreme than the last.

This branch of the family was my favorite to watch. The actors carry off an aura of cool restraint even as everything crumbles around them. Marsden is the exception as his role liberates in more ways than one. The characters of Aaron’s wife and mother, on the other hand, are further reduced to bit players. Regina Hall doesn’t have much to do except complain about not having sex with Aaron while Loretta Divine doesn’t do anything except complain about her kids not having sex. Peter Dinklage returns as a mysterious guest with a shocking secret. His character, and the manic fallout that accompanies him, fits more snuggly in with the rest of the chaos. With some of the others pulling their weight in equal measure, he doesn’t seem to be the one joke bombshell that the movie builds up to.

But if this incarnation of Dean Craig’s story works better, it still doesn’t exactly work. It promises far more than it delivers and relies on absurdities that border on juvenile. Someone’s hand gets caught on the wrong end of a delicate bowel movement. There’s a minor kidnapping episode that gives license to homophobic and other offensive jokes. Another character tries to seduce someone who might be an actual juvenile, though here Rock throws in a deadly quip about juice boxes. There’s potential for this to have been a smarter, funnier remake, but with the plot and characters virtually unchanged, it’s just an unnecessary one.

Released: 2010
Prod: Sidney Kimmel, William Hordberg, Chris Rock, Share Stallings, Laurence Malkin
Dir: Neil LaBute
Writer: Dean Craig
Cast: Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Loretta Devine, Peter Dinklage, Danny Glover, Tracy Morgan, Zoë Saldaña, James Marsden, Regina Hall, Columbus Short, Luke Wilson, Keith David, Ron Glass, Kevin Hart
Time: 92 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016

The Angry Birds Movie (2016)

angry-birds-movie

The angry birds in question are flightless avians who just don’t see the point of flying since life is already pretty good on Bird Island. And like its subject, The Angry Birds Movie never takes flight, content to laze about and scoot by on the bare minimum of a plot. It’s forever positioned to prove itself worthy of its feature film status but ultimately fails to reach any new creative heights and escape its smartphone game origins.

There are things to enjoy, namely a cast that features some of today’s best comedic talent. They are the ones who give life to a lifeless story, reverse engineered from a game that to my limited understanding is really just about birds and pigs hurling themselves at each other. The movie tries to elevate this feathery beach ball match by filling in with backstory, starting with Red (Jason Sudekis), a party clown with anger management issues. His problems may stem from his youth as an orphaned bird bullied for his big eyebrows, but that’s something for him to work out during his court-mandated classes to deal with his temper. Those are led by new age guru Matilda (Maya Rudolph) and are a gathering place for an eclectic bunch that includes speedy yellow bird, Chuck (Josh Gad), explosive black bird, Bomb (Danny McBride), and an oversized grunter (Oscar winner Sean Penn, grunting).

It takes awhile to establish these characters, and the process comes off as a desperate attempt to shore up the story with engaging personalities. To their credit, Sudekis and Gad make the time pass more enjoyably and compensate for the lack of visual and artistic flair. There are many sarcastic jokes that will fly over the heads of children, but generally the actors add a welcome if caustic edge to their characters, who are angry birds after all.

This set-up eats into the main part of the story, however, and the actual conflict gets pushed to the second half of the movie. It isn’t until the green pigs, who look like trolls dregged out of a swamp, appear that things really get going. King Mudbeard (Bill Hader) introduces himself as an explorer, eager to establish friendly ties with the birds. Since they have never left the island, they accept his entreaty, fascinated by his stories and marveling at the new wonders he introduces. It’s a world reborn with slingshots and balloons. It’s also an unexpected allegory, albeit not a very exact or deep one, of colonialism. Of course this is all a rouse, and the pigs are really out to placate the birds so that they can steal their eggs. And once that happens, well, there’s only one thing for Red and his friends to do and that is to slingshot bomb themselves over to pigland.

The plot is a tortured explainer to the game, a build up to the point where angry birds start hurtling through the air. Once the battle is on, the movie goes into game mode with one character shooting pink fireballs out of her bum and another one setting off an explosion that takes out a whole tower block of pigs. The Mighty Eagle (a funny Peter Dinklage), available for 99 cents purchase, also swoops in to help save the day. For those who don’t have the app, it’s your chance to see what you’ve been missing out on, and for those who do have it, I wonder if it isn’t more enjoyable to just play the game.

Released: 2016
Prod: John Cohen, Catherine Winder
Dir: Clay Kaytis, Fergal Reilly
Writer: Jon Vitti
Cast: Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, Peter Dinklage, Kate McKinnon, Sean Penn, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key
Time: 97 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016