Monthly Archives: August 2020

Rip Van Pickle

Seth Rogen doubles down in surprisingly sentimental satirical comedy

Pickle Day 06

An American Pickle
Starring Seth Rogen
Directed by Brandon Trost

Worlds collide in Seth Rogen’s new movie.

A fanciful tale of past meeting present, it’s a comical, century-spanning social satire in which he doubles down to play two roles—and strides confidently into new movie territory.

First, he’s Hershel Greenbaum, an immigrant worker from Eastern Europe whose American dream is cut short when he falls into a vat at a Brooklyn pickle factory. Nobody knows Hershel is inside when he’s accidentally sealed into the oversized wooden barrel just as the factory is condemned and closed, leaving poor Hershel there to marinate, with cucumbers and salt, for 100 years.

When he’s discovered in the present-day 21st century, well-brined but miraculously alive, preserved and otherwise hale and healthy, he’s is a medical miracle, a time-traveling curiosity suddenly adrift in a strange new world of the future.

That’s the setup for An American Pickle, a contemporary comedic upgrade on Washington Irving’s classic tale of Rip Van Winkle, the early American colonist who dozed off for 20 years, woke up and discovered he’d missed the whole American Revolution. You might think of Hershel as Rip Van Pickle—a whole century of life in America has gone by while he’s been hibernating in brine, and everyone he ever knew is long gone, including all his relatives…except one.

Hershel is overjoyed to learn he has a great-grandson, who happens to live nearby.

Pickle Day 10

Rogen also plays Ben Greenbaum, a single, struggling freelance software developer—who’s about the same age as his great-grandfather, just wearing much trendier threads, and living in an apartment with everything remote-controlled by Alexa.

Ben, whose parents are deceased, never thought he’d reconnect with another offshoot of his Greenbaum family tree—especially one who was born more than 130 years ago.

Though he’s appeared in other films, like the biopic Steve Jobs, Rogen is best-known for playing stoner-schlub-slacker characters in such broad, raunchy comedies as Pineapple Express, This is the End, Neighbors, Long Shot and The Night Before.

An American Pickle is a kinder, gentler comedy than any of those, as Ben offers Hershel something to drink from his fridge—macadamia milk, cashew milk, maybe pea milk. “They’re milking everything these days!” he tells his bewildered great-grand-dad. Or when Ben introduces Hershel to “oldies” music, coaxing him to clomp, horah-style, to the 1960s Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs hit “Stay.”

Ben, we learn, has been working for five long years on an idea for a product launch, an app that lets consumers check out the ethics of products and companies before they make a purchase. Hershel, not surprisingly, doesn’t understand apps—or why it’s taking Ben so long to decide on a logo color, or to submit his idea.

Hershel has what he thinks is a much better idea, about a business that he and Ben can do together—and Ben and Hershel find themselves in a real pickle, a predicament of a disagreement that quickly deepens into rift and resentment. How will these two Greenbaums, from two different cultures, different countries and different centuries, ever get along?

Everything leads to a subversively witty lampoon of business and competition, a wickedly funny satire on the dangerous double edge of fame and a timely parody about how easily someone can rise to the top, then crash and burn in America, the venerated land of opportunity.

Pickle Day 02

Rogen, who’s often been pigeonholed as an actor, does a refreshingly adept job in both roles—characters so vastly, obviously different, and yet also so alike, so irrevocably connected by their very roots. Director Branton Trost, Rogen’s comedic collaborator on several previous films, hones in on the funny, and also the tenderness, as Ben introduces Hershel to present-day New York City, his life and modern wonders—scooters, taxicabs, racial diversity, kosher hot dogs, and why on earth any human, with only two feet, would need more than 25 pairs of socks.

And the special effect, combining both characters into the same frame, is done so cleanly and seamlessly, you’ll forget you’re actually watching one actor in two roles at the same time. That, in itself, is a modern marvel.

An American Pickle is a comedy, sure, but its sentimental silliness is built on a heartwarming foundation that might surprise you—especially if you come to the film expecting the kind of guffaws you usually get from a Seth Rogen movie. This is a more mature, more grown-up comedy—one that happens to be delightfully clever, pointedly sharp and charmingly funny—with an unmistakable underpinning of (get ready now) family and faith, one that it tweaks gently with a few jokes but ultimately takes very seriously, and with much sensitivity. Hershel’s old-world Orthodox Judaism is a major part of the story, as is Ben’s lack of religious affiliation and his apparent abandonment as an adult of his Jewish heritage. (“I had a Jumanji-themed bar mitzvah,” he mumbles sheepishly to Hershel.)

And Ben’s late parents factor significantly into the story in a way you won’t learn about until near the very end.

Clearly, this pickle fable has more than just pickles—or goofball laughs—on its plate.

“It’s never too late to do things differently,” a young business prospect tells Ben. Rogen does things a bit differently with An American Pickle, double-decking genuine laughs with well-earned warmth for a wholly satisfying modern folktale about family, faith, pickles—and the power of letting things that can keep us apart instead bring us together.

Available Aug. 6, 2020, on HBO Max  

Forbidden Love

The sweet surprises of a charming little WWII British seaside romance—with a twist

Summerland Feature Film Stills by Michael Wharley

Starring Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Courtenay & Lucas Bond
Written and directed by Jessica Swale

British actress Gemma Arterton got her big break in the movies as ill-fated “Bond girl” Strawberry Fields, an intelligence operative in Quantum of Solace (2008) opposite Daniel Craig.

Compared to that Bond blockbuster, Summerland is a much smaller, much more genteel film, but it certainly provides Arterton a far bigger role—and it’s a project that obviously means more to her personally, as she’s one of its executive producers.

She stars as Alice Lamb, a reclusive writer holed up in her seaside cottage in Sussex, England, comfortably distanced from the ravages of World War II across the Channel. Alice is content—even though the locals think she’s a bit of a reclusive, prickly oddball, and prankish children whisper that she might be a Nazi spy, or even a witch—as she tends her garden and pours herself into her latest literary project, researching the connections between folklore, mythology and science.

And she certainly isn’t all-aboard when a young moppet boy, Frank (Lucas Bond), shows up one day, literally at her doorstep—he’s a refugee from London, about an hour away, which is being bombed in nightly air raids by the Germans. As part of the English war effort, as many children as possible are being evacuated and temporarily resettled with host families in safer havens, like Alice’s coastal hamlet.

Alice protests that Frank will interrupt her routine and her work. “We’ve all got to do our bit,” the local schoolmaster (veteran British actor Tom Courtenay) tells her.

Summerland Feature Film Stills by Michael Wharley

As Alice and Frank gradually warm to each other, Summerland gradually widens and deepens. Conversations about Alice’s writing and research lead to discussions with Frank about afterlife, and how Alice doesn’t believe in heaven. “It was just made up by the Christians,” she says. “People want to have something to believe in—like magic, or God. Hokum, all of it.” Pre-Christian pagans, she says, had a concept of Summerland, a layer of “restless souls” that ancient mariners had stories of seeing as an island floating above the water.

Alice is convinced there’s a basis in science, or fact, or some real-life experience, for the legends of Summerland—or just about anything. “Stories have to come from somewhere,” she says.

And Alice has her own story, one she’s kept hidden from almost everyone—a love story that’s at the very heart of Summerland. We see it in unfolding in flashbacks, and when she finally reveals it to Frank, it’s both glowingly beautiful and wrenchingly sad.

“Would you think it was strange,” she asks him, tentatively, “if a woman loved another woman?”

The other woman is Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, from Apple TV+’s The Morning Show), and the “forbidden” same-sex relationship between her and Alice, back in the 1920s, was made even more forbidden because of the brown color of Vera’s skin. Their breakup—and the reason why—devastated Alice.

Summerland Feature Film Stills by Michael WharleyFrank tells Alice he doesn’t understand why anyone would think it’s strange for two women to fall in love, and Alice sheds a tear for his innocence—and for the harshness of the world he has yet to encounter.

The movie doesn’t dwell on the era’s resistance to the sapphic relationship between Alice and Vera. But the message is clear—especially to women who know what it feels like to live in a world—in any era, under any circumstances—that wants to box them in, box them up, box them out or simply classify them as “a temptress or a virgin,” as Alice says, “bound to get blamed for something.”

In one flashback scene, when Alice gets a door slammed in her face, cutting her off from Vera and her family, the sound will ring like a painful slap to women, anywhere, everywhere, who’ve ever felt the sting of rejection and dismissal, of being made to feel invisible, unwanted or unnecessary.

Penelope Walden (Isabel Crawley on Downton Abbey) plays “present-day” Alice, and young Dixie Egerickx is Edie, Frank’s tomboyish schoolmate, who—like Alice—doesn’t quite “conform to the feminine ideal.”

Summerland is the feature debut for writer-director Jessica Swale, an award-winning playwright now making the transition to film; both Arterton and Mbatha-Raw have starred in her stage productions. Proudly fem-centric—with women as the surging creative force of its substance and the focus of its story—this “little” independent film has a lot of big things on its mind: female independence, imagination and intellect; life, death and the power of love; and the beauty of all loving relationships.

Stories have to come from somewhere, but they have to go somewhere, too—and where Summerville goes will likely surprise you, wrapping up World War II, model airplanes, Viking funerals, floating islands, the clackety-clack of a typewriter and a span of many decades into the warm hug of a cozy conclusion.

It’s certainly not James Bond, but it is a great piece of romantic escapism for anyone who wants a well-mannered British drama with a huge heart, good humor, lovely ocean-side chalk hills scenery and a feel-good message that reverberates across time, as powerful and as potent as ever.

Available Friday, July 31, on digital and cable