An American Pickle ***
Seth Rogen (and Seth Rogen) in An American Pickle
The absurdist premise in Simon Rich’s script—a Jewish immigrant in 1919 New York, Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen), is accidentally preserved in a pickle vat before being revived a century later in modern Brooklyn—is dispensed with early on in a hilarious scene where journalists ask “What’s the science behind it?” and Herschel assures us that the explanation we never hear “satisfied everyone.” The film that follows becomes sort of a satirical mash-up of Austin Powers
and Being There
, as Herschel and his great-grandson Ben (also played by Rogen) become first friends, then rivals. The Eastern Europe-set prologue offers so many solid laughs that it’s almost disappointing when the contemporary plot kicks in, and leans into a few obvious culture-shock gags. But An American Pickle
eventually becomes an interesting allegory for modern generational divides, with some solidly pointed jabs at how easy it is for an icon on either end of the political spectrum to fall from grace. Without “both-sides-ing” or oversimplifying, and anchored by Rogen’s nicely modulated dual performance, it becomes a narrative about how maybe it shouldn’t seem quite so obvious to feel more connected to ideology than to family. Available Aug. 6 via HBO Max.
The Burnt Orange Heresy ***
Paranoia, deception and the tension between truth and a well-crafted fiction get tied up into the satisfying psychological drama of Giuseppe Capotondi’s adaptation of a Charles Willeford novel. Art critic James Figueras (Claes Bang) travels with his new girlfriend to the Lake Como villa of wealthy art collector Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger) to be presented with a strange offer: steal a painting by the celebrated but reclusive artist Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), who lives in a house on Cassidy’s property. Every one of the four central characters has secrets, and the performances keep the mystery thick as to whose secrets are more dangerous than the others’; Jagger is particularly terrific conveying how much Cassidy enjoys wielding power by controlling information. Screenwriter Scott B. Smith (A Simple Plan
) applies to the script his understanding of how easy it is for one mistake to thwart a criminal endeavor, while Capotondi maintains an intriguing tone that doesn’t lean into the overtly ominous. While the symbolism gets underlined a bit too often, The Burnt Orange Heresy
would make for a great fictional double-feature with My Kid Could Paint That
, speculating on how much of what makes art desirable is how satisfying a back-story we can create for it. Available Aug. 7 at Megaplex Theatres.
Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine ***
The rebel spirit of the 1969-1989 rock periodical gets a fittingly punky documentary treatment, tracking Creem
from its origins as a DIY tabloid zine put together above publisher Barry Kramer’s downtown Detroit head shop to taste-making, attitude-filled glossy that featured the work of legendary rock writers like Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus. Director Scott Crawford talks to plenty of survivors from the magazine’s raucous heyday, as well as folks like Michael Stipe and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith testifying to its influence on young would-be rockers. And while it easily could have turned into an “authorized biography” that smoothed over the rough edges—it was produced by the late Kramer’s son, JJ—Crawford’s movie proves willing to look at the good and bad of Creem
’s ethos as a kind of anti-Rolling Stone
, from its adolescent (and often misogynistic) sensibility to the way it refused to engage with rock stars as anything but regular human beings. Though it’s necessary to address the connection between Creem’s tumultuous creative process and the eventual tragedies that took the lives of Kramer and Bangs, the documentary is best when its own attitude is expressed in having someone respond to ex-Creem
editor Dave Marsh’s assertion that he coined the term “punk rock” with a simple, “He’s an asshole.” Available Aug. 7 via SLFSatHome.org.
Howard Ashman and Alan Menken in Howard
Veteran Disney producer Don Hahn’s closeness to the material didn’t prevent him from offering a clear-eyed look at the “Disney renaissance” in his 2009 documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty
, so there was reason to hope for similar insight in his profile of Howard Ashman, the gifted writer and lyricist (The Little Mermaid
, Beauty and the Beast
) who died of AIDS-related complications in 1991. But there’s a frustrating predictability to the way Hahn marches dutifully through Ashman’s life and career, hitting the high notes from his New York stage career and his eventual contributions to the Disney animated canon. It’s an interesting filmmaking choice that Hahn chooses never to show his “talking heads” on camera, allowing the words of Ashman’s friends, family and colleagues to tell the story over images of the man himself at work. But while Hahn clearly conveys the unique storytelling sensibility Ashman brought to musical theater, both in stage and animated form, he remains somewhat enigmatic as a person. As powerful as it is to see Ashman throwing himself into still creating over the last few months of his life, Howard feels like a missed opportunity to understand more of the life beyond those creations. Available Aug. 7 via Disney+.
Made in Italy **
It’s easy to understand the appeal of a sun-dappled tale like actor James D’Arcy’s first feature as writer/director, but it would help if it didn’t feel cobbled together entirely from cinematic spare parts. Micheál Richardson plays Jack Foster, a London art gallery manager whose impending divorce is about to lose him his job—unless he obtains the funds to buy out the gallery by renovating and selling the dilapidated Tuscan villa left to Jack and his estranged father, once-promising artist Robert Foster (Liam Neeson), by Jack’s late mother. The father-son dynamic is fairly rote stuff—both men were left damaged by the death of Jack’s mother, and unable to talk about it—accentuated by a rote nascent romance between Jack and a local restaurateur (Valeria Bilello). But it gets even more frustrating as every supporting character and theoretically emotional moment is swaddled in cliché, like the guy we know is an asshole because of the way D’Arcy focuses on his foot stepping out of his fancy car, or the anguished struggle between Jack and Robert that turns into a hug. Every money shot of the lovely Tuscan countryside becomes part of a story that feels like HGTV lifestyle porn filtered through clunky family melodrama. Available Aug. 7 via VOD.
She Dies Tomorrow ***1/2
See feature review
. Available Aug. 7 via VOD.
There’s a version of this story where its protagonist—Gaby Hannon (Chelsea Peretti)—a caterer facing relationship uncertainty when her boyfriend leaves her on her 39th birthday—is either an irrepressible basket of quirks or a pathetic basket case. But director Andrea Dorfman and screenwriter Jennifer Deyell have something more restrained in mind: a portrait of a woman honestly exploring what she needs in order to feel satisfied in her life as she reaches “a certain age.” Yes, Spinster
occasionally indulges in scenes straight from the most obvious incarnation of this narrative, like a quick-hit montage of Gaby reacting to a series of first dates, and perhaps oversimplifies Gaby’s psychology by giving her a troubled relationship with her late alcoholic mother. It’s much stronger as we watch Gaby find pleasure in other relationships besides those with potential romantic partners: with her married best friend, with her young niece, and even with her new dog. When Peretti goes smaller with her performance, she finds a character who might never have all the answers, but learns to be okay with herself while she’s asking the questions. Available Aug. 7 via VOD.
A Thousand Cuts ***1/2
Ramona S. Diaz isn’t telling a story about the relationship between the United States’ would-be authoritarian leader and a critical free press, but she might as well be in exploring how disturbingly easy it is to flex power towards the entity meant to hold you accountable. Throughout the 2019 election cycle in the Philippines, Diaz follows several characters, primarily Maria Ressa, the U.S.-educated executive editor of the investigative news website Rappler, as she refuses to back away from covering the extra-judicial violence of President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs.” Much of the principal narrative focuses on how Ressa and her colleagues attempt to do their job in the face of verbal attacks by Duterte himself, the self-sustaining cycle of social media threats against Rappler by Duterte’s supporters, and even criminal charges filed against Ressa. The story that emerges is fascinating and deeply disturbing at portraying how easy it is for a corrupt government to manipulate its citizens’ sense of what “the truth” actually is—and more disturbingly, how very familiar it is to watch an arrogant leader spew crude comments, threaten journalists and curry a tribe of supporters who might literally say of the president, “Shouldn’t we submit to his authority?” Available Aug. 7 via SLFSatHome.org.