The Mitchells vs The Machines (2021)

On a recent episode of the podcast, I found myself derailing a discussion of Toy Story 3 to complain about the bland, unimaginative sheen of mainstream computer animation, as pioneered by Pixar.  No matter how much admiration I could muster for the daringly morbid themes Toy Story 3 injected into the mold of a modern children’s film, I couldn’t help but be distracted by its autopilot visual aesthetic.  In the wake of Pixar’s resounding success with the Toy Story franchise (the first entirely computer-animated feature films in wide release), we’ve traded in the tactile charm of stop-motion animation and the expressive zeal of hand-drawn 2D illustrations (outside the few anime blockbusters that sneak into American distribution every year) for the least imaginative form of animation possible.  There are scenes in that Toy Story sequel where two characters are talking in close-up that are literally just a loose collection of vague colorful orbs and googly eyes, arranged in a shot/reverse-shot configuration.  It’s depressing to watch as an animation fan, especially since there are so few alternatives to the 3D computer animation approach Pixar has solidified as an industry standard.

During that tangent of old-man grumblings, I forgot to mention that there was a recent computer animated film that I found encouragingly expressive, turning my stubborn mind around about the general uselessness of the medium:  Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.  The offset screenprint aesthetic & psychedelic strobe light effects of Into the Spider-Verse were outright dazzling in the theater, whereas most modern children’s films just deploy their expressionless 3D orbs as vessels for hack jokes in celebrity voiceover.  I was reminded of my oversight in failing to single out Into the Spider-Verse as a sign of hope in an otherwise dire mainstream animation landscape while watching the newest release from the same animation wing at Sony, The Mitchells vs The Machines.  Also produced by beloved comedy nerds Phil Lord & Chris Miller (with major contributions from some of the folks behind Gravity Falls), The Mitchells vs The Machines repeats a lot of the same visual techniques that made Into the Spider-Verse such an industry standout in 2018.  It’s more heartwarming & cute than it is blindingly psychedelic, but it’s at least a promising sign that Into the Spider-Verse will not be left behind as a one-of-a-kind anomaly.  The current Pixar standard will not reign supreme forever.

It’s worth noting that The Mitchells vs The Machines meets me more than halfway in trying to work past my CG animation biases.  Not only is its teenage protagonist a nerdy cinephile (something I’m obviously guilty of), but her road trip adventure with her parents orbits around a technophobic distrust in modern, automated tech – falling within the confines of my love for Evil Technology movies that dutifully warn that the Internet is trying to kill us all.  On her way to freshmen orientation at film school, a movie-obsessed dork butts heads with her old-fashioned, tech-sceptical father, while her mother & brother struggle to keep the family’s final days as a unit as memorably pleasant as possible.  That central father-daughter rift is exponentially heightened by a sudden Robot Apocalypse, triggered by an over-ambitious Tech Bro (voiced by Eric Andre) whose willingness to give smartphones power over our daily lives gets way out of hand very quickly.  The movie does its best to temper this humans-vs-technology premise with some counterbalance positivity about the joys of the Internet (mostly in how it connects our cinephile hero to other likeminded weirdos across the country), but it mostly just chronicles a Bob’s Burgers style traditional family’s struggles to adjust to a rapidly automated, synthetic world ruled by laptops & smartphones.

While I’m not as breathlessly enthusiastic about The Mitchells vs The Machines as I was for Into the Spider-Verse, I am tickled that I have an example of a modern computer-animated film that both summates & subverts my skepticism over the technology of the artform.  The Luddite father character isn’t exactly a satirical punching bag in his stubbornness to adapt to modernity, but I did feel as if my unease with an increasingly computerized world (as opposed to the “authentic” world it has replaced) was being openly mocked through that surrogate.  I enjoyed being ribbed like that.  I could go on to complain about how the film’s most expressive, most exciting variations on the CG animation format were the traditional 2D illustrations doodled in its margins, if not only because we used to live in a world where we could have movies entirely animated in that style.  My nostalgia for older formats shouldn’t supersede what’s accomplished here as a shake-up in the medium, though.  This is an energetic, visually imaginative kids’ movie that pushes past the usual limitations of what most CG animated movies of its ilk attempt.  Not for nothing, it also gets online meme humor in a way most mainstream movies would fall on their face trying to emulate.  It’s a film firmly rooted in the language and the humor of a technological world it also thumbs its nose at.

My only real complaint, then, is that it’s a (mildly) technophobic comedy with a Le Tigre song on the soundtrack that’s somehow not “Get Off The Internet”???  Seems like an oversight.

-Brandon Ledet

Bad Trip (2021)

One of the more surprising narratives this Awards Season has been the glowing accolades for Borat 2 (aka Borat Subsequent Moviefilm), including multiple nominations for Academy Awards in pretty major categories.  Not only is the Borat sequel middling as a comedy loosely stuffed with hit-or-miss gags, but its staged-pranks format has gotten incredibly dusty in the decades since series like The Ali G Show, Jackass, and The Tom Green Show first premiered on television.  This is especially true of the Borat schtick in particular, since the popularization of platforms like Twitter & Fox News have made it so the modern ghoul no longer needs to be tricked into broadcasting their ghoulish beliefs in public.  They just do it openly & proudly now.  I left Borat 2 wondering if the post-Jackass prank movie had anywhere left to go that hadn’t already been seen dozens of times before.  I should have known that the much-delayed Eric Andre vehicle Bad Trip would have an answer for that, as his own modern mutation of the Ali G-era prank show has been pushing that medium to new, weird extremes in recent years.  What I didn’t expect is that Andre’s innovations within that format would be so glaringly Retro.

In Bad Trip, a stunted-adult loser (Eric Andre) travels up the East Coast with his best friend (Lil Rel Howery) in a car stolen from that bestie’s tough-as-nails sister (Tiffany Haddish) in order to profess his love to his childhood crush (Michaela Conlin).  Hijinks ensue along the way.  That absurdly simplistic premise is repeatedly derailed by one-off gags in which the three professional comedians at the film’s center interact with an unexpecting public through candid-camera pranks, crassly blending fact & fiction in an otherwise traditional road trip movie.  The pranks portions of Bad Trip are exactly what you’d expect from a candid-cam comedy starring Eric Andre: shocking absurdist gags, abrasive gross-outs, and a constant tension between chaos & artifice.  You can tell Andre grew up admiring shows like Jackass and revels in the opportunity to create one himself on such a large scale.  There’s nothing especially innovative or surprising there, outside maybe the shocks of individual gags.  The surprising thing about Bad Trip is how much Andre (along with frequent collaborator Kitao Sakurai in the director’s chair) taps into the other kinds of comedies he grew up watching in the film’s scripted portions.

The scripted connective tissue between Bad Trip‘s pranks oddly shares more DNA with mainstream 90s & 00s comedies than it does with Borat or Jackass.  The film is practically a parody of the gross-out humor that flooded Hollywood comedies after the Farrelly Brothers hit it big with There’s Something About Mary; it just happens to invite an unaware public into the grotesque mayhem of those films’ juvenile humor.  It even openly acknowledges its connection to that vintage comedic past by citing the Wayans Brothers comedy White Chicks as a specific touchstone, both in its scripted portions and in its in-the-wild pranks.  The film is effectively an act of post-modern scholarship, connecting the candid-cam pranks era to an even earlier wave of gross-out shock comedies – freshening up both formats through the juxtaposition.  That may seem like highfalutin praise for a film where Andre posits public streaking, puking, and urination as the height of modern comedy, but I really do believe there’s an academic thrust behind that retrograde buffoonery.

Unfortunately, not all of the ways in which Bad Trip is Ironically Retro are fun to watch.  Some of the films’ post-Farrelly Brothers humor did not sit right with me, especially the pranks on people just trying their best to get through their shifts at work and the extensive gag in which Andre is sexually assaulted by a gorilla.  They’re jokes that you would totally expect to see in a mainstream comedy twenty years ago, though, for whatever that’s worth.  It’s the juxtaposition of that grotesque humor with real-life participants that makes the film feel fresh & dangerous in the first place, a tonal clash exaggerated by its often-wholesome story about two adult men bonding on a haphazard road trip.  Even given some of its mood-killing misfires, Bad Trip is on the whole much funnier and much more excitingly innovative than the softball political jabs of Borat 2 – an Oscar-nominated mediocrity.  At the very least, it’s a film that’s aware that it’s participating in a dead, moldy genre, and it goes out of its way to acknowledge how its staged-pranks format is out of sync with modern comedic sensibilities.

-Brandon Ledet

Rough Night (2017)

There’s a distinct brand of mainstream comedy that somehow gathers together every single comedic performer you’d ever want to see in a movie, but fails to deliver on the promise of their shared presence. Rough Night is an enjoyable, mildly amusing comedy that’s biggest fault is proving to be less than the sum of its parts. There’s no reason a film helmed by the writers of Broad City that features performances from people as bizarrely funny as Jillian Bell, Ilanna Glazer, Kate McKinnon, and Eric Andre should be half as tame or restrained as this movie often feels. This goes doubly so considering the film’s letting-loose plot of a bachelorette party weekend that turns deadly. There are plenty of violent, absurdist, and over-sexed impulses simmering in the background of this hard-R summertime delight, but none are pushed to the extremes you’d hope for based on the level of talent involved. The result is still amusing, but it’s difficult not to be disappointed over what could have been.

Scarlett Johanson stars as a total nerd running for political office in what seems like a mild send-up of the Clinton/Trump campaign trail (with a little Anthony Weiner thrown in for flavor). She breaks away from her election effort for a single weekend to meet up with college friends she hasn’t see all together in years for a bachelorette party in Miami. While her fiancee’s bachelor party is a hilariously lame, muted affair, her own last gasp of freedom feels like the hedonistic free-for-all we never got to see in Bridesmaids because of the incident on the plane. Cocaine, apple bongs, and gallons of top shelf cocktails fuel the small group’s debauchery while anxieties over past romances & friendship dynamics inevitably bubble to the surface like a loud & proud belch. Eventually, the party spirals out of control when the women accidentally kill a stripper & attempt to dump the body to avoid arrest, making the whole feel a little like a gender-flipped remake of Very Bad Things remake that absolutely no one asked for. It’s all fairly amusing, but also a little over-familiar and, ultimately, disposable.

It’s possible that I would’ve been able to better enjoy the minor successes of Rough Night with a more enthusiastic audience. The crowd I watched it with were quiet enough for me to clearly hear the ceiling leak in the auditorium and the Tupac biopic screening on the other side of the wall. Even with that muted reaction, I especially enjoyed its callbacks to mid-00s pop culture, including Borat Halloween costumes and a dance routine set to Kelis’s “My Neck, My Back,” which were amusing reminders that I am gradually becoming an old man. I’d also consider the film a solid victory in the noble cause Operation: Make Jillian Bell A Star. Her militant distribution of dick-themed bachelorette merch & maniacally sincere delivery of lines like, “It would mean so much to me if we could do a little cocaine together,” made Bell out to be a clear scene stealer, no easy feat considering the talent that surrounded her. Still, Rough Night could’ve reached much more memorable heights if it has just cranked the volume on the violent, dangerously horny, occasionally absurdist touches that were already hiding in the shadows. The movie’s biggest fault is that it sets up jokes & payoffs you can see coming from an hour away and waits until the last possible second to pull the trigger. If its payoffs were more immediate there’d be more room for them to also be more plentiful (more weirdness! more sex! more accidental fatalities!) and the only thing it really needed to be special is more of what it was already working with.

-Brandon Ledet