Sausage Party exemplifies the phrase “has its moments”

Its best moments (mostly) make up for its valleys, and it sticks the landing particularly well.

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As a teenager, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut scratched a very specific itch, providing the trifecta of cartoon characters swearing, flagrant blasphemy, and something approaching a message that felt revelatory at the time. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, so I can’t say if it holds up or not, but it clearly had a time and a place that have long since passed.  Sausage Party has a very similar feel to that movie, and while I’m sure it will fill a very similar niche to the fifteen-year-olds who download it or sneak into the cinema, to me it feels very much like watching something you loved as a teen and realizing maybe its not such a revelation after all. It’s realizing that crassness is cheap, and movies that spell out their morals are cloying. It’s realizing that using funny accents to sell your parody can come off a bit gaudy. It’s realizing that just because its not meant for kids doesn’t mean that it’s meant for people much older, either.

Sausage Party falls into all these traps and more, but its best moments make up for its valleys, and it sticks the landing particularly well. As advertised, this is a movie where one of the main plot threads is that a sausage (Seth Rogen) named Frank (naturally) really wants to have sex with a bun, Brenda (Kristen Wiig). Just to make it clear that they are aware that this is not a particularly sly dick joke, the opening number outright states that the two are going to fuck. To further clarify that this is not for kids, the first half-hour seems to consist entirely of food items going through the laundry list of curse words. The first bit is amusing, thanks mostly to its song-and-dance elements, but the joke of a hot dog calling someone a cunt gets old astonishingly fast. This is not at all helped by Nick Kroll’s character, a douche who is literally a douche, who proves that Nick Kroll can be absolutely insufferable even when distilled to voice form.

The bun/hot dog boinking is not really where the movie’s heart is though, and its focus lands squarely on how religion shapes our society, how it affects how we view ourselves, and how to deal with its logical lapses.  The metaphor is never played for subtlety, and while some of the jokes are funny enough to trump their obviousness (crackers really are the worst), a lot fall flat under the weight of their incessant winking and nudging (none moreso than its take on Israel-Palestine relations via a talking bagel and lavash). The movie often comes across as posing as much more enlightened than it actually is, where its not dumb but not saying anything particularly insightful either. This is where the teenager factor sets in: this kind of movie would pander exactly to my wheelhouse when I was younger, but comes across as a trite stoner conversation now.

Thankfully, the movie is more than its message, and when it ignores its tendency to try to describe the world via hummus metaphors, it reaches absurd, debauched, delightfully madcap heights. In particular, its final twenty minutes are absolutely hilarious, with two ridiculous setpieces played back-to-back that make up for any failings in the previous hour. The subplot involving Michael Cera’s deformed hot dog Barry, who goes into the world to meet the Gods face-to-face (spoiler: we do bad things to anthropomorphized food), is consistently the best part of the movie, partially because it keeps things simple and is closer to a straight-up parody of Toy Story than the world-politicking of the main action.  Tellingly, it’s when the plot lines meet up again that the movie kicks into high gear.

The animation on display is not particularly fantastic; although is completely passable as professional work, its clearly not aiming for anything remotely passable as art in itself. Everything seems to be made of plastic, and the food-character design isn’t particularly distinguished (outside of the buns, who are a molded to be as off-puttingly shapely as possible). And the voice work contains a slightly uncomfortable amount of vocal whitewashing, despite the tongue being placed firmly in the cheek. But when its funny, its very funny in a very original way. If only all potential teenage obsessions could say that.

C+

Food prepares to learn the truth in Sausage Party

Sausage Party (2016)
Dir. Greg Tiernan & Conrad Vernon
Starring Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Nick Kroll, and Michael Cera
Rotten Tomatoes (82%)

Star Trek Beyond once again favours spectacle over speculation

Star Trek Beyond isn’t quite as bland as Into Darkness, and toys with the odd idea or two, but still clearly presents itself as action movie spectacle; spectacle which is quickly getting old.

Star Trek means many things to many people, and what the brand means to you heavily influences how you react to the direction it takes going forward. I can understand why so many were disappointed with JJ Abrams’ 2009 reboot, but as someone with no real connection to the brand (to the probable minor chagrin of my father, who was well versed in both but raised me a Star Wars kid), I found it to be a perfectly enjoyable popcorn movie. On the other hand, I found the second “new” Trek, Into Darkness, to be a ludicrously dumb, bland, and creatively bankrupt endeavour, clearly trying to mine the success of its predecessors but without any spark of its own. Trek, as my more well-versed friends say often, is better known for big ideas rather than action movie spectacle. Star Trek Beyond isn’t quite as bland as Into Darkness, and toys with the odd idea or two, but still clearly presents itself as action movie spectacle; spectacle which is quickly getting old.

The ideas that lie barely under the surface of Beyond are timely, with the Federation being set up as a stand-in for globalization and Idris Elba’s villain Krall representing all the mistrust that prevents such movements from going over smoothly. Notably, the Federation representative rides in a united vessel (the Enterprise), while Krall’s fleet is a swarm of individual ships, working together but clearly sovereign. Krall, naturally, views the Federation as an enemy that must be crushed, and to do so requires a weapon (read: MacGuffin) currently in the posession of the USS Enterprise.  In a bold move, the Enterprise is destroyed in the first act of Beyond as opposed to being more-or-less obliterated in the final battle, marooning the crew on an uncharted planet. The planet is briefly noted to be the home of many shipwrecked crews, which is an incredibly interesting scenario that is immediately forgotten about. One could imagine a movie about these foreign crews working together against the oppressor who brought them there, but outside of a resourceful lone wolf named Jaylah, the idea that others exist is quietly pushed aside.

Jaylah, played by Kingsman: The Secret Service standout Sofia Boutella, isn’t a particularly well drawn character, but nonetheless is the best part of the movie thanks to Boutella’s screen presence. She is mostly paired with Simon Pegg’s Scotty, and while Pegg is normally a refreshing presence in anything he’s in, he goes a bit over-the-top here, and calls Jaylah the dimunitive “lassy” a rather infuriating number of times. Most of the actors chew scenery in showy ways, especially Pegg, Zachary Quinto as Spock, and the normally reliable Karl Urban as Bones. Idris Elba is buried under a mountain of mo-cap, rendering his villain unrelatable and unmemorable. Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, John Cho’s Sulu, and Anton Yelchin’s Chekov are once again given very little to do. Chris Pine is at least a decent leading man, with a lot of soul in those baby blues, but not enough to effectively work as the centre of the movie.

The sci-fi ideas of Beyond are mostly half-baked as well. While I’m generally willing to accept nonsense if enough effort or technobabble is inserted such that it feels legitimate, very little is halfway justified in Beyond. A starship jumpstart is among the dumber moments, clearly designed as an insert-thrill-here type of scene, but without the requisite “a-ha!” moment to make it coherent. Ancient alien technology plays a big role, but is never explained or even pondered (for example, why does Krall look they way he looks, and where does his energy-sapping ability come from?). In one great moment, technobabble flies left and right as the crew comes up with a plan, but its deflating by it being an incredibly cheesy, groan-inducing plan (hint: it involves the power of music saving the day). The Federation city of Yorktown is marvellously designed, evoking the geography of Halo or the Citadel of Mass Effect turned up to eleven, but it definitely feels of a piece with the design of other modern sci-fi movies such as Inception and the upcoming Dr. Strange.

These are mostly all problems that were present in the 2009 Star Trek, but here, even the action doesn’t really work. Instead of tactics winning the day (aside from the power of music), pretty much every turning point of Beyond seems to come down to a fistfight, which quickly grows tiring. The climactic action sequence revolves around what is becoming an increasingly familiar blockbuster trope, where our hero must race above a big city to prevent a villain from getting a MacGuffin into a pipe or something like that, and despite the neat city design, Beyond doesn’t do anything new with the format. Director Justin Lin, known primarily for the Fast and the Furious franchise, films the action scenes jerkily, with nary a static shot in sight, trying for a mile-a-minute thrill ride but reducing the narrative thrust to an indecipherable blur.

Star Trek Beyond has more going on creatively than Into Darkness did, but is unable to capitalize on any of its ideas, instead favouring most unsatisfying action sequences. The cast, full of actors who have previously proven themselves time and time again, are either overly hammy or completely ignored, and the sci-fi world building is treated as completely secondary.  There still might be some juice in this crew, but as long as Trek keeps trying to be a top summer blockbuster, I don’t see it producing anything of value.

C-

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Star Trek Beyond (2016)
Dir. Justin Lin
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, and Sofia Boutella
Rotten Tomatoes (84%)

High-Rise is one screwy movie

Its visuals are often indelible and its interpretation debatable, but on a narrative and character level, its completely incoherent.

Taking place nearly entirely in a large apartment complex, the lower classes confined to the first floor engage in civil war with the upper classes at the top. Given that synopsis, you’d be forgiven for making comparisons of Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise to Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, where the lower classes at the back of a train engage in civil war with the upper classes at the front. However, where Snowpiercer played this metaphor obviously to focus on delivering pulp thrills, High-Rise is considerably more abstract. While its visuals are often indelible and its interpretation debatable, on a narrative and character level, its completely incoherent.

While the class warfare angle is played up, perhaps the more interesting angle is its commentary on isolationism. As some critics have pointed out, High-Rise is based on a British novel from the 1970s; the high-rise maybe isn’t meant to be a model of society, but rather of a particular island nation? When the characters are no longer willing to leave the high-rise to interact with the outside world, supplies vanish, power is shut off, and anarchy ensues. The lower class get it first, but the upper class suffer soon after, using their brief head start on the rest of the building to host lavish parties (aristocratic wigs make an appearance at one point), with an emphasis on orgies because why not I guess. Civil war is played up, but its based on promises not being kept to the lower class; “We pay the same fees” implies a shot directed at communism, but perhaps its meant to be read as “We take the same risks”.

The meaning behind the movie (and the book its based on, I’m sure) is interesting in its specificity, and maybe plays better to a British audience. However, that doesn’t change the fact that the behaviour of the individual characters is incomprehensible. The broadstrokes come across fine, but its difficult to get invested when the people on screen act to strictly serve plot functions rather than of anything resembling their own volition. Tom Hiddleston’s psychiatrist is a nonentity despite taking up the majority of the screen time, while Jeremy Irons’ top-of-the-food-chain architect never feels fully formed. As a leader who starts a chain of events that he cannot stop while sitting in his crumbling tower, he plays it awfully coy. Luke Evans comes across best as working-man Wilder, oozing charisma until the plot decides to chew him up and spit him back out in the final third. The women of the movie, despite being given a somewhat empowering moment at the end, get it the worst; Sienna Miller’s plot function is nebulous, although at least she gets one fantastic highlights-reel moment involving a steak. Elizabeth Moss’ presence as Wilder’s pregnant wide Helen is more confusing. Perhaps her role unlocks this whole movie, but as it stands, she seems incredibly wasted.

High-Rise isn’t without immediate pleasures though. It’s garbage-strewn halls in the latter half are a visual treat, even if the day-to-day of it all is a mystery, a sort of fuck-it-I-guess dystopia. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and there are a few laughs to be had at the absurdity of it all. It has perhaps the most ABBA references of any film this side of Mamma Mia. But it can’t help but feel alienating when it completely ignores the human side of it. Academically, High-Rise is maybe interesting. As an absorbing piece of fiction, it falls quite flat.

C-

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High Rise (2016)
Dir. Ben Wheatley
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, and Jeremy Irons
Rotten Tomatoes (63%)

Midnight Special glosses over brilliance

Midnight Special is a movie that very much requires patience, and while moments within pay that off, its hard to say how much it adds up to.

Despite being the most obviously otherwordly of writer/director Jeff Nichol’s latest films, Midnight Special is plotted in a much more grounded manner than either Take Shelter or Mud. It feels very much like a product of the 80s, underlined by engrossing synth motifs and a portrait of federal police that feels very much in line with E.T. It also feels very much like a television show, owing to an episodic feel from its road-trip nature and a very Abrams-esque sense of mystery (albeit of a more intriguing variety than Abram’s own Super 8). Like Nichol’s previous films, Midnight Special is one that very much requires patience, and while moments within pay that off, its hard to say how much it adds up to.

Midnight Special is about a young boy named Alton with special gifts, which include giving others a deeply religious experience when they look into his eyes as well as picking up passing radio signals.  An early Superman reference is apt, as abilities are added pretty haphazardly until well past half the movie.  The more apt comparison is religious in nature, and indeed the film opens with Alton on the run from the cult in which he was raised which is now devoted to him.  The cult aspect is a touch familiar, but the twist in perspective is neat; while its nice that it doesn’t let this aspect become too familiar, it leaves a lot of room open to explore.  Alton is also on the run from the FBI, who become aware that the messages spread through the cult contain high sensitive information.  Aiding his escape are his biological father Roy (Michael Shannon) and a mysterious accomplice named Lucas (Joel Edgerton).

There are a lot of intriguing pieces of the board, clearly enough to expand into a miniseries if so desired. Rather than rush through an explanation of the inner workings of each, Midnight Special is content to let your imagination do the work, and comes across a bit cold because of it. This is fine for the cult, which would inevitably be confusing and disappointing to dive into, and the FBI, who are best left a monolith, but makes it difficult to connect deeply with Roy. Michael Shannon gives a stone-faced performance, which works miracles in big moments, but doesn’t always fill in the blanks that it needs to. There’s a great story in here somewhere about being Jesus’ dad which is touched upon, but demanded more exploration. Eventually, we meet Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), who is similarly underserved by the written words. Joel Edgerton’s Lucas benefits the most from the minimalism, as a quasi-audience surrogate who convinces us of how deeply moving the Alton Experience is, but he outgrows his usefulness to the plot early. Meanwhile, Adam Driver hangs around as an NSA tech who sole purpose is provide minor exposition, but feels as if he could be cut out entirely, as his entire purpose in the end is already contained within Lucas’ arc.

While Midnight Special is often sparing in details, its also very willing to spend the time needed to establish a mood. Very few guns go off in the movie, and when they do, they carry the appropriate weight. The scene playing under the opening title card is magnificent in setting a mood, from the sound design to the score to the font chosen for that title card. A later scene involving a road block ratchets up the tension naturally. But the actual ending disappoints a little, not answering any major questions while also not being particularly wonderous. The patience that Nichol’s asks for is fair, but the payoff doesn’t necessarily justify it. The journey is memorable, but there’s something to be said for the destination.

C+

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Midnight Special (2016)
Dir. Jeff Nichols
Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, and Jaeden Lieberher
Rotten Tomatoes (82%)

Ant-Man tries to fit a weird peg in an MCU-shaped hole

Ant-Man is among the more skippable entries in the still-reliably entertaining MCU machine.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is not without its share of oddities. Perhaps most notably, the Guardians of the Galaxy occupy a Star Wars-esque universe and count a talking raccoon amongst their numbers. Thor is a Norse god who shambles onto Earth speaking old English and wearing shining armor. Both of these examples originate in distant (read: non-Earth) lands, which gives their inherent weirdness an immediately foreign anchor and allows us to suspend all notions of “real-world”. Sure, Iron Man and Captain America are the things of fantasy, but they have to obey at least some level of reality to keep us invested (or have Thor come along to justify the big bad). Ant-Man is Earthbound like the latter two examples, but is a concept so absolutely off of its rocker that it should feel more at place with Thor and Guardians. By making it fit the mold of the Avengers, Ant-Man doesn’t get a chance to let its freak flag fly, and instead feels like a clear stop-gap on the way to getting him in the Avengers.

Not to say that a movie about a super-science (read: magic) suit that lets Paul Rudd get really small isn’t without its touches. It gets nicely ludicrous in the final act (albeit mostly in scenes glimpsed in the trailer), but doesn’t have as much fun with the material as you would expect for the first sections. But it doesn’t go as cartoony as you would hope, although it thankfully doesn’t get overly dark either. The training montage, which should be a plethora of zaniness, is pretty straightforward, with some funny moments but no memorable or original uses of the concept. The secondary ability, where they can control ants through unrelated super science (once again, magic), never feels natural in the world they build, but does lead to at least a few laugh lines. As a minor quiblle, the physics are fairly inconsistent, which only stops being an issue in the last act when the joy of the mayhem finally becomes great enough to overlook it. Things that get shrunk (such as vehicles) seem to not weight their full amount (and are carried around like a toy car), but Ant-Man supposedly is still a regular-weight dude, which gives his little punches power. And the quantum stuff sprinkled throughout is pretty boilerplate “Uncertainty means abstract” stuff.

Maybe the biggest problem is that none of the characters really stand out, given that the Marvel universe is generally great at providing memorable heroes. Paul Rudd is always better either laid back or playing an unrepentant bag of dicks, and doesn’t quite work as a hero/electric engineer. Michael Douglas is introduced with some very impressive de-aging CGI as super-scientist Hank Pym, and is fine as an exposition machine but plays it fairly straight. His relationship with his daughter Hope is pivotal, but he and Evangeline Lilly don’t seem too invested. While Marvel loves its heroes, its non-Loki villains are near-uniformly uninteresting, and Ant-Man’s Yellowjacket is no exception (although far from the bottom of the barrel). The Yellowjacket villain is well-designed, but Corey Stoll doesn’t make the role memorable, even when they let the character do some seriously manic mad-scientist stuff, what with turning people into boogers. The arc of him being rejected by his mentor Pym doesn’t fully land since Pym isn’t the center of the movie; had it taken its own advice and let Hope Pym be the super-spy, maybe the familial tie would bring it all together. As it is, Lang and Pym’s side stories feel very disconnected, despite both ostensibly being about family. However, on the sidekick side, Michael Pena is fantastically bug-eyed and optimistic, and is perfect in every way, and his centrepiece lip-synced exposition montage is the best scene of the movie.

While not batshit enough to leave a visual mark, it is batshit enough that, when it does crossover with familiar Avengers, it feels a bit off. The compromise necessary to fit these two styles together may have prevented Ant-Man from having its own wacko voice, and it will be interesting to see how current outlier Guardians of the Galaxy manages to fit itself in. It also gets to feel a bit like a cheaper cousin, as when it does overlap, only one Avenger shows up (Anthony Mackie’s Falcon) with no backup (even from SHIELD) at what is ostensibly a major base. Ant-Man may end up bringing some nice flavour to Civil War and Avengers 3, and even the next Ant-Man movie may be able to get out from under the Avengers shadow and work its own magic. As an entry, Ant-Man is among the more skippable entries in the still-reliably entertaining MCU machine.

C

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Ant-Man (2015)
Dir. Peyton Reed
Starring Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, and Michael Douglas
Rotten Tomatoes (80%)
On Netflix

Mississippi Grind is a solid character study with nothing new to say

The gambling movie is familiar territory at this point, usually involving flashy suits, lots of yelling, and a big guy with a baseball bat saying something about kneecaps. Mississippi Grind is much more restrained in tone (the baseball-bat equivalent is a stern talking-to from Alfre Woodard), but equally extravagant in unlikelihoods. Nothing in this movie can be said to be completely unlike anything you’ve ever seen, except for perhaps one moment where the title of the movie is used to create a sense of dread simply because we know its the title of the movie.

What saves it is the great character work from the central buddy-gambler duo. Ben Mendelsohn plays a desperate man, and the depth of his addiction is slowly and painfully revealed to us. His worst enemy is himself, in ways we expect but nonetheless are painful to watch. The real mystery to the movie, and the perfect foil for Mendelsohn’s sad sack, is Ryan Reynolds’ mysterious free-wheeling good-luck charm, whose charisma and willingness for anything convince Mendelsohn to go to New Orleans to try his hand at a 25k poker table. At first, I was convinced that Reynolds only existed in Mendelsohn’s mind, as he is essentially a Jesus figure. But as the movie goes on, his own arc comes into focus in ways that counter-balance the depths to which Mendelsohn sinks. It’s effective drama, if not a touch minor, but its an interesting character study with some great shots and two great performances at its centre. It’s only a touch ruined by a lack of originality and a deeply unsatisfying third act.

C+

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Mississippi Grind (2015)
Dir. Ryan Fleck and Anne Boden
Starring Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds
Rotten Tomatoes (90%)

Deadpool is shabbily amusing and amusingly shabby

Being aware of its shabbiness is great and all, but it doesn’t negate said shabbiness.

Superhero saturation is in full swing, an epidemic only tempered a bit by the strange fact that the majority of the big-budget superhero movies are shockingly good. The studios have been self-aware about this for a while, hiring Joss Whedon to inject some much-needed smarm into the The Avengers. The indie studios have been even more self-aware, putting out varying-quality anti-superhero movies like Kick-Ass, Defendor, and Super (Super’s director, James Gunn, even went on to direct Guardians of the Galaxy). It was only a matter of time before a studio got fully on-board with taking down the genre, and thus: Deadpool. With trailers making it look like every fourteen-year-old boy’s favourite movie, the rapturous commercial response to Deadpool was no huge surprise, but that it was coupled with critical praise was a bit of a shock. The secret sauce might just be that Deadpool is violent and crass without being mean-spirited, enjoyable just by being a good time at the movies. That same feature prevents it from being very distinct against the very movies it parodies, and the seams of its budget show, but it’s still a highly enjoyable lark.

Deadpool opens in-media-res, teasing out its origin story while intercutting a fight scene occurring roughly halfway through the movie. This move makes sense, partially to make one action scene seem like twenty, and partially since the origin story is not particularly exciting or colourful, outside of just being able to spend some time with Ryan Reynolds’ charismatic Wade Wilson and his love interest, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). Reynolds was born for this role, as expected, even if he’s finally starting to look his age, and he makes Deadpool a funny asshole without coming across as annoying, petulant, or unlikable. Baccarin is equally important to carrying these portions, and her barbs are every bit as potent as Reynolds’; it makes it a small shame when she inevitably takes a damsel-in-distress role, but its not as egregious a case as it has been before. When Baccarin is plotwise unavailable, TJ Miller’s bartender Weasel steps in as Deadpool’s foil. Miller has been hyped up for this as if he’s the second coming of Comedy Christ, and he’s alright and all, but is essentially a fairly replaceable white guy sidekick.

What really hurts Deadpool is that it never builds up its world into something interesting, which is never more apparent than in its second act (where Deadpool signs up for military research). It’s all dark and grimy, but the kinds of things we’ve seen before. The villains are nondescript, especially main bad-guy Francis played by a very uncharismatic Ed Skrein. Even outside of this point, it still feels small-scale. This is a great boon in terms of its scope; there are no overstated, bland threats against the whole planet, giving it a personal feel. But it’s artifice is never hidden, and it’s hard to get lost in as a result. At one point, Deadpool knocks on the door of Xavier’s School for Gifted Children. Negasonic Teenage Warhead, one of two X-Men we meet over the movie (along with Colossus), answers the door, and Deadpool notes that the studio must be skimping if they can only afford two X-Men. Being aware of its shabbiness is great and all, but it doesn’t negate said shabbiness. Compare its similarly shabby cousin Kick-Ass, which doesn’t have nearly the quality of jokes but does have a sense of world-building. The mercenary bar gets close in Deadpool, but could have used a bit more fleshing out.

Deadpool doesn’t have the sense of identity I was expecting or hoping for, but its great fun nonetheless. At 1h40m, it’s a quick and breezy distraction with plenty of great gags and memorable visuals. I’m not hoping for a Deadpool Expanded Universe or crossovers necessarily, but I do hope the inevitable sequel has a bit more colour outside of its central performance.

B-

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Deadpool (2016)
Dir. Tim Miller
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, TJ Miller, and Ed Skrein
Rotten Tomatoes (83%)