Movie reviews: 'An American Pickle' a satire that works best when it wears its heart on its sleeve
AN AMERICAN PICKLE: 3 ½ STARS
“An American Pickle,” the new Seth Rogen movie now streaming on Crave, begins as a fish-out-of-water—or perhaps it should be a pickle-out-of-brine—comedy, but gradually settles into a heartfelt story about blood being thicker than pickle juice.
The first time we see Rogen he’s playing Herschel Greenbaum, a labourer living in the Eastern European country of Schlupsk. He’s a ditch digger, married to Sarah (Sarah Snook), who dreams of a better life, one that involves one day being able to afford drinking seltzer water. In 1919, he and Sarah immigrate to America where he gets a job killing rats at a pickle factory.
One day on the job, while everyone is distracted by the "condemned" signs being posted on the front door, he stumbles into a vat of pickles, is sealed up, and preserved in brine for 100 years.
He re-emerges, unchanged, in present day Brooklyn. His closest living relative is his great-grandson Benjamin (also played by Rogen), who is exactly the same age (minus the 100 years of brining) as Herschel was and is.
“I can’t wait to show you the future,” Benjamin says.
Benjamin helps his great-grandfather negotiate the new world—“Imagine, a Greenbaum with twenty-five pairs of socks,” Herschel marvels—but when Herschel’s old-world temperament blows a five-years-in-the-making business deal for Benjamin, the relationship becomes as sour as an old deli pickle.
Feeling the burn, Benjamin tries to sabotage his grandfather’s burgeoning pickle business, but instead Herschel becomes an online sensation as a beacon of free speech.
“An American Pickle” is “Encino Man” with a heart. The oddball, one joke premise gets the action started, but it’s just kindling for what comes later. Screenwriter Simon Rich (who wrote the short story “Sell Out” the movie is based on) weaves in comments on the internet age, cancel culture, and assimilation, themes that enrich a story that could have relied on one-liners and time travel gags.
It’s uneven in tone, dragging in the middle section, but between the laughs there is an unexpected sense of poignancy.
“The world has changed,” Herschel says. “Everything I know is gone. Everyone I knew.”
The comedy is broad but the heart of the story, the sense of the importance of family, inner strength and the feeling of displacement immigrants often feel in a new land are all handled sensitively. Rogen, in the dual roles, brings both the laughs and tenderness.
“An American Pickle” works as a satire of modern life but works best when it wears its heart on its sleeve.
I USED TO GO HERE: 4 STARS
"I Used to Go Here," a new film on VOD starring Gillian Jacobs, challenges the wisdom of the famous Thomas Wolfe title, "You Can't Go Home Again."
With her upcoming book promo tour cancelled due to poor sales and still feeling the sting of a recent break up, Kate Conklin (Jacobs) is at a low ebb in her life. Her spirits are lifted when her favorite creative writing professor David (Jemaine Clement) reaches out with an invite to do a reading at her alma mater. She hasn't been to Carbondale, Illinois in fifteen years but she hopes a trip down memory lane might be the tonic she needs.
In town memories come flooding back. The only change at her old frat house, nicknamed the Writer's Retreat, are the faces on the students. It is otherwise frozen in time. Even the glow-in-the-dark stars she glued to her bedroom ceiling are still in place. David, her one-time mentor, is still an encouraging voice and an old friend with the unlikely name of Bradley Cooper (Jorma Taccone) still works at the campus bookstore.
But it's not all déjà vu. Hanging out with some of the new students Kate has a rebirth. Given the time to reflect on the recent downturns in her life she is transported back to her school years, a time when risks were taken and the future seemed ripe with possibilities.
"I Used to Go Here" avoids the clichés of many other college comedies. A professor-student subplot isn't played for its salacious value but as a comment on #MeToo's power structure, and there is a bittersweet quality to much of the humour.
Jacobs is the above-the-title star here. She's very good, providing the movie's heart while painting Kate as someone who has lost her way on the path to recovery, but this is an ensemble piece filled with nice supporting performances.
Clement brings a rumpled charm as a professor who chose the security of academia over the real world of writing for a living. As Kate's student guide Elliot, Rammel Chan is a welcome comedic presence and the group of college kids Kate befriends, played by Forrest Goodluck, Brandon Daley and Khloe Janel, are affable, compassionate and real. Of the younger actors it's Josh Wiggins as Hugo, the empathetic wannabe writer who makes the biggest impression. His observation that, "Just because a connection with a person doesn't last forever doesn't mean it's not real," could have sounded ripped from the pages of a Nicholas Sparks novel but is delivered with a sincerity that transforms it into an insightful comment on the weight that is keeping Kate down.
Writer/director Kris Rey clearly relishes spending time with "I Used to Go Here's" characters and gives each of them a clear-cut role in moving the story, and Kate's life, forward. It makes for an engaging set piece, specific to its setting but universal in its outlook.
THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY: 3 STARS
Ambition and art mix and match in "The Burnt Orange Heresy." A coolly elegant crime thriller, based on Charles Willeford's 1971 novel of the same name, the film peels back the art world's veneer to reveal a dark underbelly.
"The Square's" Claes Bang is James Figueras, a once internationally famous art critic now reduced to lecturing American tourists in Milan. After one of his talks he meets Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki), a willowy art aficionado from Duluth, Minnesota. They hit it off, and have what she assumes is a one-night stand until he invites her to spend the weekend at the Lake Como estate of enigmatic art collector Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger).
James's expectations of being offered the job of cataloguing Cassidy's massive private collection are flipped when the collector asks him to do a task that could bring the disgraced critic back to prominence. Cassidy, sensing that James will do anything to get back in the public eye, asks him to steal a painting from hermetic artist Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland). Debney is a legend and his work so rare, that just one painting could gather world attention. Question is, how far will James go to finish the job?
Like the painting that gives the movie its name, nothing in "The Burnt Orange Heresy" is not quite as it seems. Using noir tropes—the anti-hero, the femme fatale, a villain protagonist, a double cross— director Giuseppe Capotondi keeps things interesting after an unhurried start. What begins as a sun dappled caper takes a very dark turn as the director completes his portrait of ambition and desperation in the film's final third.
As Figueras, Bang oozes a sketchy appeal. He's desperate and dangerous, but his worst qualities are hidden behind a suave exterior. He's the central character but is overshadowed by the chemistry that sparks every time Debicki and Sutherland share the screen. She is charismatic in an underwritten role, but it is her scenes with the eccentric and kindly Debney that shine. That there are questions as to everyone's motives — except for the Machiavellian Cassidy, wonderfully played by Jagger—adds intrigue to the tale.
"The Burnt Orange Heresy" isn't a typical crime drama. The story is fuelled by arrogance, deceit and lies as much as plot, the crime is almost incidental to the interest created by the characters.
THE SECRET GARDEN: 3 ½ STARS
"The Secret Garden," the latest adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic 1911 novel, brings the classic story of friendship and wonder to VOD this week.
The tale begins in India in 1947 on the eve of Partition in India. Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx), born in India to wealthy English parents, finds herself orphaned when mummy and daddy suddenly pass away in a cholera outbreak. Sent to live with Archibald Craven (Colin Firth, who played a version of his son Colin in a 1987 TV movie of "The Secret Grden"), an aloof uncle she's never met on his remote and rambling Yorkshire moors estate, the youngster has trouble adapting to life in the large country house under the strict housekeeper Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters).
While exploring Misselthwaite Manor Mary makes some interesting finds. She meets Colin (Edan Hayhurst), her ailing cousin whose been locked away in one wing of the house. Both are stinging from the loss of a parent—his mother passed—and both feel like outsiders in the family.
When Mary discovers a hidden garden tucked away on the grounds, she and her friend Dickon (Amir Wilson) tend to the forgotten patch of land. Bringing the garden back to life also awakens the place's natural restorative power that helps Mary, Colin and Mr. Craven heal, physically and spiritually.
Fans of the book should know liberties have been taken with the classic text. The shift to 1947 works, adding an additional layer of meaning to Mary's story of distress. It helps base the tale in the reality of the situation but the movie allows magic realism to seep in.
That it is from the producer of the "Harry Potter" and "Paddington" movies means that it has a family-friendly fantasy gloss that the original text and other adaptations have done without. The magical elements may only exist in Mary's imagination and not stem from the wonder of nature as the book suggests, but they are pronounced. There are ghosts and the garden's trees respond to the kids, almost like Treebeard in "Lord of the Rings: Two Towers." It adds a more whimsical tone to a story that had previously relied on the more grounded ideas of exercise and fresh air as a road to physical and mental health.
What it all means, really, is that the story isn't quaint anymore. The new "The Secret Garden" is a handsomely made, big CGI movie that plays like "Masterpiece Theatre" for kids. Closer in tone to "Harry Potter" than author Frances Hodgson Burnett's original ode to the healing power of love, kindness and nature, it isn't as soulful as other versions but should appeal to younger audiences who are used to glossy adaptations of books for kids.
SHE DIES TOMORROW: 3 ½ STARS
"She Dies Tomorrow," a surreal new horror film on VOD, is a timely and unsettling story where the fear of death is passed from person to person like a virus.
The story begins with Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), once a joyful young woman looking forward to setting up her newly purchased home. But now it's a job that comes with no joy as Amy is gripped with deep, soul-shredding anxiety. For some reason she is convinced she will die the next day. Not by suicide or illness, just death. "There is no tomorrow for me," she says. She's so convinced of her inevitable fate she changes her voicemail message. "There's no need to leave a message."
Seeking a connection, she invites her friend Jane (Jane Adams) over. Jane swings by and after some awkward conversation about death leaves, also consumed by thoughts of her own, impending passing. As Jane moves through the night, visiting a doctor (Josh Lucas), her brother (Chris Messina) and friends (Olivia Taylor Dudley and Michelle Rodriguez) she leaves an existential trail of fear with everyone she meets.
Directed by Amy Seimetz "She Dies Tomorrow" is not a regular horror film. It's an experiment in atmosphere building aided by a premise that feels very timely in the midst of a pandemic.
Questions are asked — What is this virus and how is it transported? — but no answers are provided. The film requires you to accept the situation and feel the anxiety of something that may or may not be real. For Seimetz's characters the dread is palpable, forcing them to examine their choices, in relationships and life, and re-evaluate in whatever time they have left. In this time of real-life uncertainty Seimetz paints a vivid picture of mortality on a countdown that, while speculative, feels rooted in recent headlines.
Fittingly "She Dies Tomorrow" has a hallucinogenic, experimental style. Throbbing, flashing swaths of colour fill the screen as the virus—or whatever it is—attaches itself to a new host. It's trippy, slightly psychedelic and may test the patience of less adventurous viewers but in a time where COVID-19 has spread worldwide, bringing with it angst and unease, a movie that examines human behavior in the face of transmittable trauma is, perhaps, a nightmarish artistic inevitability.
HOWARD: THE HOWARD ASHMAN STORY: 4 STARS
Howard Ashman may not be a household name but the songs he wrote have certainly played in your home. A new documentary on Disney+ about the lyricist behind Disney animated classics like "Aladdin," "Beauty and The Beast," "The Little Mermaid" gives insight into the life of an artist whose life was cut short at 39 years.
Using a combination of archival footage, new interviews with the people who knew him best and lots of music, "Howard: The Howard Ashman Story" tells the story of a young boy who let his imagination run wild, creating dioramas with plastic figures and toys, doing shows in his backyard, complete with costumes and props when most kids were still making mud pies. Of a kid who could imitate any actor from any play he ever saw and who became a storyteller, writing musicals while still a teenager.
After college he struggled in NYC before starting his own theatre with a group of like-minded creatives in 1977 called the WPA. It was at this hole-in-the-wall theatre above a seedy donut shop off-off-off Broadway, that he found his calling. While working on a 1979 musical adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's "God Bless You, Mrs. Rosewater," he discovered his remarkable ability to write lyrics that cut to the heart and soul of whatever story he was telling.
When "God Bless You, Mrs. Rosewater" failed to translate to the Great White Way in a splashy Broadway production he decided to create something with a limited cast but with an attention-grabbing gimmick at the centre. For inspiration he looked to Roger Corman's cheesy z-grade "Little Shop of Horrors."
That adaptation was a giant hit but his next project, "Smile," a flashy Broadway musical about a beauty pageant in Santa Rosa, California, co-written with Marvin Hamlisch, flopped, taking the wind out of his sails.
That's when Disney Studio Head Jeffrey Katzenberg called, offering Ashman found a new home and creative inspiration. "Animation may be the last great place to do Broadway musicals," Ashman says in the film.
There, working with composer Alan Menken, he wrote a trio of scores for three classic films that are still beloved today.
At this point in the doc "Howard: The Howard Ashman Story" is a slickly produced biography, mainly told in Ashman's own words, detailing the creative life of a prolific, perfectionist songwriter.
The film deepens in tone when Ashman's HIV diagnosis is revealed during the production of "The Little Mermaid." The day of the diagnosis he did an on-stage interview at New York City's 92nd Street Y. When asked what his future plans are, he replies that he doesn't have any. It is a shattering insight into the mindset of a man just handed a death sentence.
Knowing his time was limited, Ashman worked on the three Disney films at the same time, creating a trio of films that would become the bedrock of the Disney Renaissance, while keeping his illness a secret from everyone except life partner Bill Lauch. It's a heartbreaking illustration of the shared experience of many people with AIDS who struggled to keep their condition a secret for fear of losing work or relationships.
It's here that director Don Hahn's decision to not feature talking head interviews becomes clear. The interviews are all done off camera, focusing the story on the subject. You can hear the emotion in the voices of Ashman's loved ones as they discuss his last years and their words are made all the more powerful by the images of Howard that dress the screen.
"Howard: The Howard Ashman Story" is more than a nostalgic behind-the-scenes doc. It's a touching portrait of a man, who, like so many gay men of his generation, ran out of time.