Loving (2016)

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threehalfstar

With his two feature film entries in 2016, Jeff Nichols has established a very clear (although probably unintentional) genre pattern in his career. The director seems to be strictly alternating between realistic familial drama & high concept sci-fi in his work (with a little of the former category seeping in to inform the latter). The sequence so far looks like this: Shotgun Stories (drama), Take Shelter (sci-fi), Mud (drama), Midnight Special (sci-fi), and now Loving (drama). Although Shotgun Stories is contrarily my favorite title from the director, I typically find myself more enamored with the sci-fi end of this divide. Loving finds Nichols returning to the muted, sullen drama of Mud, this time with a historical bent. It isn’t my favorite mode for a director who’s proven that he can deliver much more striking, memorable work when he leaves behind the confines of grounded realism, but something Nichols does exceedingly well with these kinds of stories is provide a perfect stage for well-measured, deeply affecting performances. Actors Joel Edgerton & Ruth Negga are incredibly, heartachingly sincere in their portrayals of real-life trail-blazers Richard & Mildred Loving and Nichols is smart to take a backseat to their work here, a dedication to restraint I respect greatly, even if I prefer when it’s applied to a more ambitious kind of narrative.

Loving, which really does have a conveniently apt title thanks to history, is an exercise in directorial patience & discipline. A decades-spanning dramatization of a young Virginian couple as they raise children & defy a federal law banning interracial marriage in a historical Supreme Court decision, this film could have easily been an over-the-top melodrama about hard-fought courtroom battles & explosively violent racism in the South, especially in the hands of an Oscar-minded director like a Ron Howard or a Spielberg. In Nichols’s version of the story, however, the seething anger over the Loving couple’s interracial romance is just as quiet & deeply seated as their love for one another. The score can be a little imposing in its own tenderly sad way, but for the most part Nichols avoids cliché and mostly just makes room to allow his actors to quietly do their thing. Portraying a couple who were more interested in being left alone than (literally) making a federal case out of the “crime” of being married, Edgerton & Negga brilliantly use the negative space of non-reaction to convey the emotional swell of a scene. Negga is especially skilled at this maneuver, making the mute reaction to a phonecall or a shared physical intimacy with Mildred’s sister hit like a ton of bricks without ever calling attention to herself. The distracting presence of actors Nick Kroll & frequent Nichols collaborator Michael Shannon detracts from that disciplined subtlety, but they’re also playing characters who bring publicity & legal attention to the Lovings’ case, so their sore thumb effect might’ve been deliberately intended. Either way, all of the romance, suffering, and compassion in Loving rests in Edgerton’s & Negga’s steady, capable hands and Nichols’s best moments in this traditionalist drama is in the way he harnesses their quiet energy for a subtly devastating effect.

If you wanted to be especially morbid in your reading of the film, you could say that Loving has an alarming amount of significance in a modern context, given many Western countries’ sudden far right return to horrifying ideology like “God’s law” & “racial purity.” This isn’t the metaphorical, history-minded political statement of titles like the Hitler-themed black comedy Look Who’s Back, though. If anything, Loving reminds me of the quietly measured drama of last year’s Brooklyn (sans the pretty dresses for the most part, unfortunately). It doesn’t force attention-grabbing moments of high stakes drama, but instead details a fragile romance in a perilous era that threatens to shatter it under immense social & legal pressure. Loving is less about racism than it is about, well, loving and the movie only really stumbles when outside personalities disrupt the believable romantic ideal Edgerton & Negga establish in their scenes (Nick Kroll’s presence is especially egregious on that note). Nichols finds interesting detail to signify the era: the early stirrings of rock & roll in exciting hot rod races; playful abandon in Mason jars full of moonshine; the horror movie atmosphere of small town law enforcement creeping through the night. His best impulse here, though, is in the way he backs up to allow space for Negga & Edgerton to work their magic. It’d be tempting say that any director could’ve made Loving, because of that absence of stylistic imposition, but I don’t think many directors would’ve displayed the same level of restraint in a drama about such an important Supreme Court case. Nichols puts a relatable, knowable face to history here (with his talented cast’s help, of course). Although this is far from my favorite work he’s put in so far as a director or as a stylist (Midnight Special makes sure it’s not even his most winning success this year), it’s this exact kind of discipline & restraint that sells his higher-concept work so believably & effectively.

-Brandon Ledet

Sausage Party (2016)

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onehalfstar

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When I was an innocent little preteen nü-metal doofus in the late 90s my stepdad used to take me to the theater to see films rated above my age range by the MPAA, but made perfectly for my (im)maturity level. I’m thinking of titles like the South Park musical Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, the post-apocalyptic Pam Anderson vehicle Barb Wire, and the deservedly forgotten Keanu Reeves sci-fi cheapie Johnny Mnemonic. It always felt like a special treat, an excursion to pluck the most low-hanging forbidden fruit imaginable. Were it still 1999 & I still a snot-nosed KoRn fan, I probably would’ve enjoyed our most recent journey together to Chalmette Movies to see the Seth Rogen-helmed shock comedy Sausage Party. Instead of leaving the theater transgressively delighted, however, I felt drained, spiritless, exhausted. I don’t know if that sensation speaks more to the movie’s maturity level or my own, but I will say that its moronic dedication to its own despicable worldview & self-congratulatory navel-gazing not only felt like a product of an entirely different century; it also distracted from the film’s main draw: CG animated raunch.

An obvious labor of love, Sausage Party is a Pixar-spoofing filth fest about anthropomorphic food products that somehow skates by without an NC-17 rating despite its fetishistic use of “foul” language & onscreen depictions of sexual congress. A tale as old as time, the film mostly follows one hotdog (voiced by Seth Rogen) as he embarks on a quest to get all up inside his complimentary bun (Kristen Wiig, whose thankless performance I pity the most in this production). It’s the same bros-trying-to-get-laid plot structure Rogen & his writing partner Evan Goldberg have been endlessly repeating all the way back to 2007’s Superbad, except this time with cartoon food. Buried somewhere in this gleefully stupid passion project, which features an entire grocery store full of talking foodstuff characters & the godlike shoppers who free them from the shelves, is about 20 minutes of pure schlock cinema brilliance. Whenever the film acts like a horror comedy, depicting little sentient potatoes & baby carrots being ruthlessly destroyed by gigantic human monsters they mistook for divine saviors, it can be quite funny. There’s a Cleanup in Aisle Whatever gag that spoofs the Omaha Beach invasion scene in Saving Private Ryan that rings as particularly inspired, especially in the detail of a can of spaghetti trying to re-contain its “intestines.” I’ll also vouch for the climactic hedonism that concludes the film with a nihilistic, anything-goes cocktail of sex & violence that smartly picks apart the basic stupidity of the anthropomorphic [fill in the blank]s of the various CG animated features the film is spoofing. The problem is that these flashes of brilliance are lost under an insurmountable garbage heap of cruelty-for-its-own-sake nastiness & pseudo-philosophical self-importance. Sausage Party knows how to tell an occasional good joke, but its soul is overall corrupted & inherently unlovable, so the punchline is always a short-lived pleasure.

Where Sausage Party derails its own sense of fun in delightful stupidity is in its supposedly necessary quest to construct a narrative more complex than just a nihilistic fascination with sex & violence. Its missteps in that regard are threefold:

  1. The film characterizes its individual food products based on racial & sexual stereotypes. The bagel is a Woody Allen-flavored Jewish caricature. The Twinkie is a twink. The bottle of tequila is a Hispanic scoundrel (among many other “illegal products,” including an oversexed lesbian taco voiced by a surprisingly game Selma Hayek). The hotdog buns are airhead female sex objects patiently awaiting their corresponding wieners. 40oz bottles of malt liquor & sentient boxes of grits are coded as black. The wise bottle of “Fire Water”-brand alcohol is a Native American mystic who smokes weed out of a kazoo. The lavash looks forward to an afterlife stocked with 70 bottles of extra virgin olive oil. The film is a relentless dedication to an “If everyone’s offended, nothing’s offensive” line of humor that’s no funnier the first time than it is the 1,000th and once you realize that its pursuit to racially categorize each of its many foodstuff personifications will eat up its entire runtime in the place of a worthwhile story or all-out debauchery, there’s nothing left to feel but exhaustion & despair.
  2.  Unsatisfied with its surprisingly brilliant depiction of human beings as cruel, uncaring gods who promise these talking food products passage to “The Great Beyond” (where, unknown to them, they will be mutilated & consumed), the film instead mostly follows the much less interesting threat of an anthropomorphic douche. I’ll tip my hat to the spot-on casting of comedian Nick Kroll as said douche, but much like the film’s above-referenced “have your cake & eat it too” satire of racial coding in foodstuffs marketing, his entire role should’ve been reduced to a short-form gag & not a full-length plot device. Let’s think for just a half-second what a villainous douche in a shock comedy would spend most of its time pursuing in order to create conflict. Did you picture roid rage-themed sexual assault? Apparently, Rogen & Goldberg didn’t think of it for much longer than a half second either, since they also pictured rape and thought that was funny enough to run with for the length of an entire film.
  3.  Perhaps the most damning fault of all this is that this shameless raunch fest actually thinks it has something to say. From its aggressively pedantic Richard Dawkins branch of atheism to its musings on the frivolity of the Israelian-Palestinian conflict to its juvenile depictions of a Hitler figure getting his comeuppance (a moment that apparently called for more rape humor, since there’s just never enough), Sausage Party captures exactly what’s so exhausting about being trapped in a confined space with the world’s worst subreddit’s didactic neckbeard internet philosophers or, more simply, watching an especially preachy episode of Family Guy. I swear a hotdog even mouths a “Giggity!” to seal the deal on the film’s overriding aesthetic just before the blood orgy climax. Somewhere along the way Rogen & Goldberg became mistaken that audiences wanted a self-important lecture on the meaning of life in the midst of comedic gags about hotdog ingredients cussing & fucking, particularly one with the stinger that man-boy stoners are the world’s true enlightened philosophers with all of The Answers. I can respect the film’s go-for-broke dedication to its own inane depravity, but I can’t at all get on board with its self-congratulatory stabs at know-it-all philosophy.

All three of these fatal flaws point to a major structural problem at the heart of Sausage Party‘s toxic unlikability. This should have been a short film. I’m thinking fifteen, twenty minutes tops. Any entertainment value Rogen & Goldberg pull out of anthropomorphic foodstuffs’ nihilistic sex & violence in the face of their human god consumers’ cruelty could’ve been efficiently fired off in that window, with the added bonus of allowing less room for the film’s “comedic” obsessions with race, rape, and the dirty word. Sausage Party should’ve kept to a short film format, just like how the equally exhausting Minions & Deadpool movies should’ve been instantly relegated to their current status as lazy Facebook memes instead of being developed into feature films in the first place. I’m glad I saw Sausage Party in the theater with my stepdad, not only for its occasional short film-worthy moments of depraved schlock brilliance, but also because it took me back to a special, nostalgic time in my cinematic past. The year was 1999, I was twelve, and I would’ve loved every minute of this shit stain of a movie. Unfortunately, there are just some places you can never go back to (and some you’d never want to if you knew what was waiting there).

-Brandon Ledet

Adult Beginners (2015)

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three star

Not every film is greater than the sum of its parts. Case in point: the cast for last year’s indie dramedy Adult Beginners is just oozing with talent, but the film itself if a little mushy & muddled in a way that can’t help but underwhelm. A Duplass Bros production starring Nick Kroll, Rose Byrne, Jane Krakowski, Jason Mantzoukas, and Bobby Cannavale sounds like a perfect formula for a lowkey drama with real emotional & comedic staying power, but Adult Beginners struggles to be much more than light entertainment with a promising premise & a failure to launch. The film is serviceably entertaining as decent Sunday afternoon romcom viewing fare, but I expected a little more out of it considering the level of talent involved. It’s an enjoyable film, but not a particularly efficient or memorable one.

Nick Kroll begins Adult Beginners as a cocaine-addicted sexual deviant with an endless appetite for greedy monetary gains, displays of power, and notoriety among his sycophant peers. In other words he’s a run of the mill NYC business man (in movie speak, at least). When his empire inevitably crumbles & he becomes a business world pariah, he has to move back home under the roof of his somewhat estranged sister (Byrne) & her increasingly emotionally distant husband (Cannavale). In order to pull his weight & learn humility, Kroll’s heartless business prick must care for the stressed couple’s hyperactive child Teddy,. He treats Teddy like a monstrous terror, but the truth is the kid is just a perfectly normal toddler. Not much changes once this comedic set up is established. The family learns to adjust & become comfortable with its unexpected shift in household dynamic & Kroll’s broken protagonist learns to become comfortable acting like a decent, empathetic human being. Throw in a third act crisis to shake things up a bit & a rapid resolution to that last minute monkey wrench and you have your basic outline of a typical romcom-style dramedy with an exceedingly charming cast.

Part of the reason why Adult Beginners is so frustrating is that it could’ve been so much more than that kind of charming, but ambitionless middle ground. I smelled trouble as soon as the opening scroll announced a “Story By” credit for three different writers (Kroll among them). At Adult Beginners‘s worst moments it feels like it was compiled from a Frankenscript of several half-cooked stories that didn’t quite come together as a cohesive whole. Byrne’s stressed out mother has troubling alcohol addiction & workplace politics issues that threaten to complicate her livelihood & her pregnancy, but never amount to any clear kind of narrative conflict. Kroll’s business douche protagonist never really shows any personal growth or epiphany within the film other than growing increasingly comfortably with his role as a “manny” (man nanny). Cannavale’s gloomy husband admits his mistake in growing distant, but the couple’s reconciliation is never on public display. Worse yet, the film’s central/titular metaphor about an “adult beginners” swimming class is lazily introduced & referenced only briefly, never materializing into anything too significant or incisive. It’s tempting to think of these half-cooked ideas as intentionally understated narrative & character beats, but the film never really earns enough confidence to warrant that kind of patience & understanding. It’s a messy movie that only remains endearing through the sheer will of its talented cast. It’s not something I’d recommend as a greatly orchestrated, highly impactful small scale drama, but it’ll do as light viewing when you’re in need of this kind of cinematic comfort food. The letdown is that there are germs of two or three much better movies lurking just right under the surface of that mediocrity.

-Brandon Ledet