Review: ‘An American Pickle,’ starring Seth Rogen

August 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

Seth Rogen and Seth Rogen in “An American Pickle” (Photo by Hopper Stone/HBO Max)

“An American Pickle” 

Directed by Brandon Trost

Culture Representation: Taking place in Brooklyn, New York, and in an unnamed Eastern European country, the comedy film “An American Pickle” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class and the working-class.

Culture Clash:  In 1919, an immigrant worker at a pickle factory in Brooklyn has a freak accident that preserves him alive in a pickle vat for 100 years, and when he’s discovered in 2019, he experiences major culture shock that includes living with his great-grandson who looks just like him.

Culture Audience: “An American Pickle” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Seth Rogen or to people who like comedies about families, time travel or the immigrant experience.

Seth Rogen in “An American Pickle” (Photo by Hopper Stone/HBO Max)

In the comedy film “An American Pickle,” star Seth Rogen takes a break from the usual foul-mouthed raunchiness that he has in his live-action films and makes a sweetly sentimental statement about family love that is not bound by time. Rogen convincingly handles two roles in “An American Pickle”—Herschel Greenbaum and Herschel’s great-grandson Ben Greenbaum, who are two very different people from very different eras. Under the comic-book-styled direction of Brandon Trost, “An American Pickle” (written by Simon Rich) provides satisfactory entertainment for people looking for some lightweight escapist comedy, but it’s not the type of movie that is going to be considered one of the funniest films of the year.

In the beginning of the movie, Herschel is a ditch digger in an unnamed Eastern European country in the early 1900s. Herschel and his good-natured wife Sarah (played by Sarah Snook) are poor but happily married. During their courtship, they confided in each other about their respective hopes and dreams. For Sarah, her dream is to be able to afford her own gravestone. For Herschel, he dreams of one day being able to drink seltzer water.

One day, Herschel and Sarah’s village comes under attach by Russian Cossacks, who invaded and caused destruction in the area, and causing many of the villagers to flee. Herschel and Sarah decide to move to the United States. Their arrival at the U.S. immigration checkpoint is a quick biting commentary on the prejudices that await non-English-speaking, non-Christian immigrants. The movie shows Jewish and Polish people shoved around and treated like cattle at the checkpoint, after getting a “Welcome to America” greeting.

Soon after arriving in America in 1919, Herschel and Sarah set roots in Brooklyn, New York, where Herschel gets a job at a pickle factory. Sarah then finds out that she’s pregnant. Herschel thinks his job at the pickle factory will be a step up from ditch digging, but he’s assigned a job on the factory’s lowest end of the totem pole: He has to kill the rats that frequently run around the factory area.

One day, while chasing some rats at the factory, Herschel has a freak accident and falls into a large vat of pickles. His fall makes a large splash and causes a ruckus, but somehow, no one in this crowded factory notices. Almost immediately, like people moving props in a stage play, some factory workers put a locked lid on the vat, and Herschel is trapped inside. (It goes without saying that his movie requires huge suspensions of disbelief, where viewers have to ignore the idea that Herschel would shout for help or try to escape from the vat.)

At any rate, Herschel ends up being preserved alive in the vat for 100 years. In 2019, two teenage boys find the vat in the long-abandoned factory. Herschel is discovered alive, intact, and perfectly preserved. And he’s about to undergo major culture shock.

Herschel is taken to a hospital for medical tests. While undergoing testing, he finds out that his wife Sarah died in 1939. Herschel is upset about it, but knows there’s nothing he can do to bring her back.

During a press conference announcing Herschel as a medical miracle, skeptical reporters ask how Herschel’s existence could be possible, and they wonder if it’s a hoax. But then, medical experts at the press conference state that it’s medically possible, and the reporters quickly believe them. It’s an obvious send-up of how the media can easily swallow information from “experts” without doing their own investigations.

Herschel briefly stays in a hospital for tests, but he’s eventually let go after it’s discovered that he has a living relative named Ben Greenbaum. Ben happens to live in Brooklyn too (in a rented apartment), and he’s the same age that Herschel was in Herschel fell into the pickle vat. And so, Herschel goes to live with Ben, who is happy and surprised that he has a living relative.

Ben is unmarried and has no children or siblings. Ben’s parents David Greenbaum (played by Geoffrey Cantor) and Susan Greenbaum (played by Carole Leifer) died in car accident in 2014. And as a freelance mobile app developer, Ben works most of the time from home.

For five years, Ben been working on an app called Boop Bop, which reviews and rates companies based in the companies’ ethics. Ben is hoping to get major investments in the app to be able to sell it to a mass market of consumers, and eventually get rich by selling the app. Of course, all of this new technology is over Herschel’s head.

“An American Pickle” has the expected “fish out water” scenes of Herschel being amazed or having a hard time adjusting to life in 2019. Herschel is ecstatic when he sees that Ben has a seltzer machine that can make seltzer water any time he wants. But Herschel is completely confused by technology that has to do with computers, the Internet or mobile phones.

When Herschel and Ben take a walk outside and see a black man and a white woman holding hands, Herschel looks shocked. However, Ben tells him, “Interracial couples are cool now,” then he pauses and says, “in parts of the country,” in an obvious reference to the ongoing racism problems in America. And when Ben uses a scooter, Herschel scolds him: “You have legs. You don’t need these things.”

One of the best parts of “An American Pickle” is how it pokes fun at the neoliberal “hipster” culture of Brooklyn. While Herschel and Ben are walking down the street, a bearded hipster, who has on clothes that are similar Herschel’s, stops and compliments Herschel on his garb and asks if it’s vintage. A running joke in the movie is how Herschel sometimes misgenders a person, based on the length of their hair and if they’re wearing unisex clothes. (Females with short hair are mistaken as males, while males with long hair are mistaken as females.)

Back at Ben’s apartment, Herschel notices that Ben doesn’t have any pictures of family members on display. And so, Ben gets out his family photo album to tell Herschel about Herschel’s descendants whom Herschel never knew. It’s very important to Herschel that his descendants made something of their lives that would make him proud.

Herschel’s son Mort was a foreman of a brick factory. Mort’s son David (Ben’s father) was an accountant. All of this information makes Herschel very happy, but he notices that Ben finds it difficult to talk about his parents’ death. Ben and Herschel also have very different views on religion: Herschel is devoted to the Jewish faith, while Ben is an atheist. Herschel has a hard time understanding how Ben’s atheism.

A turning point in the story comes when Ben and Herschel visit Sarah’s grave, which is in a small, unkempt lot near a freeway. Herschel is offended that the gravesite is in such a run-down area. Herschel gets even more offended when he sees that a billboard overlooks the gravesite.

And it just so happens that some workers are replacing the old billboard with a new one, for an ad display of Russian vodka. See this ad triggers Herschel into thinking that Russian Cossacks are behind the ad, so he starts a fight with the billboard workers to try to stop them from putting up the billboard. The fight turns into an all-out brawl that lands Herschel and Ben in jail.

After they get out of jail, Herschel tells Ben that he’ll do whatever it takes to get rid of that Russian vodka billboard. Ben explains that it will take about $200,000 to buy a new billboard. And so, Herschel decides to start selling pickles at a street stand to raise money for the billboard.

Herschel’s pickles become an instant hit in Brooklyn, because the hipsters love that the “artisanal” and “organic” nature of the pickles and that it’s “locally grown.” When a gay couple named Christian (played by Eliot Glazer) and Kerin (played by Kalen Allen) pass by Herschel’s pickle stand, they are charmed by Herschel’s eccentric and “no filter” personality. Christian begins posting videos about Herschel on his social media, which become viral videos.

The local TV news takes notice, and Herschel and his pickles become even more popular. But not everything is going smoothly. Through a series of events, Herschel and Ben have a falling out, and they go to war with each other. Their family feud teaches them some lessons along the way about what’s important to them in life.

Despite some major plot holes and simplistic ways of getting around those plot holes, “An American Pickle” is enjoyable to watch overall because of Rogen’s talented ability to play two characters in ways that work well for this screenplay, which Rich adapted from his short story “Sell Out.” The movie’s supporting actors—including The Lonely Island comedy troupe member Jorma Taccone, in a cameo as a potential investor named Liam—are good-enough, but “An American Pickle” is really Rogen’s movie to carry as an actor, since he’s in every scene.

Even though Ben and Herschel are mentally the same age, Rogen does a very good job of portraying how each of these two characters’ life circumstances have affected their emotional development. Herschel became an adult during a time when people were expected to have religious beliefs and get married and have children by a certain age. Ben became an adult during a more open-minded time and place, where society allows more options for people.

Marriage, children and religion in modern-day Brooklyn are not “required” in order for society to think you have a fulfilling adult life. And because people’s life expectancy is longer than it was in 1919, there are more people like Ben who have an “arrested development” lifestyle, where it might take longer for adults to figure out what to do with their lives or achieve their life goals. It’s one of the reasons why Herschel is shocked that Ben has been developing his app for five years but still hasn’t sold the app.

There isn’t anything outstanding about Trost’s direction for “An American Pickle,” although the visual effects for the film at least look believable. “An American Pickle” isn’t a big slapstick movie, because the movie’s humor is a lot more low-key and satirical. There are many sly commentaries that make people think about the pros and cons of living in 2019, compared to the society that Herschel lived in 100 years prior. These comparisons bring up notions about how much has changed and how much has stayed the same. The “culture shock” and “time travel” aspects of the story are really just ways to point out that family love can transcend space and time.

HBO Max premiered “An American Pickle” on August 6, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival pilot episode review: ‘The Boys’

May 1, 2019

by Carla Hay

Jack Quaid and Karl Urban in "The Boys"
Jack Quaid and Karl Urban in “The Boys” (Photo by Jan Thijs)

“The Boys”

Pilot episode/Season 1, Episode 1

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 29, 2019.

Amazon Prime Video’s “The Boys” series couldn’t have come at a better time, when superhero movies have been dominating the box office, and the lead characters in the movies have legions of devoted fans around the world. “The Boys,” based on the graphic-novel series of the same name, explores what it would be like to live in a world where over-worshipped superheroes abuse their fame and power. Based on the pilot episode of “The Boys” that had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Amazon Prime Video could have its first big superhero-themed hit.

The main protagonists of “The Boys” aren’t even superheroes. They’re mere mortals who want to expose the corrupt superheroes because of personal vendettas they have against them. Hughie Campbell (played by Jack Quaid) is a mild-mannered employee of an independent electronics store in New York City. It’s the type of store that’s rapidly disappearing in a retail economy that’s killed Radio Shack. Hughie seems to have a safe and predictable life. He and his girlfriend Robin (played by Jess Salgueiro) are very much in love, and although Hughie’s job doesn’t pay too well, it’s enough for him to get by comfortably, even if he still has to live with his single father (played by Simon Pegg).

Hughie’s world turns into a nightmare when his girlfriend is killed right in front of him in a freak accident. It’s because a lightning-speed superhero named A-Train (played by Jessie T. Usher) literally runs right through her while chasing a robber, and that leads to Robin’s gruesome death. A-Train runs so fast (just like DC Comics’ The Flash) that he didn’t even notice that he killed someone until he sees the bloody aftermath, and he makes a quick excuse that he has to leave in order to keep chasing after the robber.

A devastated Hughie tries to get justice from Vought International, the mega-corporation that manages and secretly covers up for the world’s top superheroes, including an elite group called The Seven. (The Seven is written as an obvious satire of DC Comics’ supergroup Justice League.) Vought is run by Madelyn Stillwell (played by Elizabeth Shue), a ruthless executive who puts on a façade of doing what’s best for the world, while hiding superheroes’ dirty secrets. Vought offers Hughie a $45,000 settlement to not sue over Robin’s death, but he refuses. A-Train gives a half-hearted public apology, but Hughie is not convinced the apology is sincere. Hughie isn’t so mild-mannered anymore. He’s heartbroken, bitter, and out for revenge. He just doesn’t know what to do about it yet.

Meanwhile, in Des Moines, Iowa, a naïve young woman named Annie January (played by Erin Moriarty) is training to become a superhero, much like a girl would train for an event that’s a combination of an athletic competition and a beauty pageant. She’s hoping she’ll be the chosen one to replace Lamplighter, one of the superheroes who is retiring from The Seven. What happens to this young superhero will set in motion much of the action for the rest of the series. She joins The Seven under the new identity Starlight, a character clearly inspired by Supergirl.

Not long after Starlight joins The Seven, Hughie unexpectedly meets Billy Butcher (played by Karl Urban), a no-nonsense badass who crashes into Hughie’s store. Billy says that he’s part of a secret vigilante group called The Boys, whose goal is to hold law-breaking superheroes accountable for their misdeeds. Hughie wants in on the action, but Billy wants Hughie to prove himself first.

Billy tells Hughie that all of the superheroes are corrupt except Homelander (played by Antony Starr), the leader of The Seven, an alpha-male, patriotic type who has the superhero ability to fly, just like Superman. But is Homelander really a good guy or has Billy been fooled into thinking he is?

Other characters from The Seven that are introduced in this pilot episode include The Deep (played by Chace Crawford), an Aquaman-type heartthrob who’s secretly a creep abusing his power through sexual harassment; Black Noir (played by Nathan Mitchell), a mysterious silent type; Translucent (played by Alex Hassell), who can make himself invisible, similar to the DC Comics character Negative Man, and uses this ability to be a perverted Peeping Tom; and Queen Maeve (played by Dominique McElligott), a tough-but-tender alpha female, similar to Wonder Woman, who shows signs that she’s not as committed to The Seven’s corrupt ways as the rest of the group.

Translucent is not in “The Boys” comic books, so his storyline in the TV series is the least-easiest to predict. Advance teaser footage of “The Boys” shows Translucent imprisoned in a cage. The Amazon Prime Video series also has some other differences from “The Boys” comic books (which were created by writer Garth Ennis and illustrator Darick Robertson), but that spoiler information won’t be included here.

Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, James Weaver, Ori Marmur, Ken F. Levin and Jason Netter are among the executive producers of “The Boys.” They previously adapted a popular graphic-novel series to television with AMC’s “Preacher.” Other executive producers of “The Boys” are Eric Kripke (“Supernatural”), Neal H. Moritz (“The Fast and the Furious” franchise) and Pavun Shetty (CBS’s “S.W.A.T.”).

Based on the pilot episode of “The Boys,” this series is going full-throttle with sex, drugs, adult language and violence. Now that Amazon Prime Video has canceled the superhero comedy series “The Tick” (which didn’t really click with audiences, after two seasons), “The Boys” can step in and fill that superhero series void with a rip-roaring abandon that’s a satirical kick in the face to superheroes who are too popular for their own good.

Amazon Prime Video will premiere the first season of “The Boys” on July 26, 2019.

 

2019 CinemaCon: What to expect at this year’s event

April 1, 2019

by Carla Hay

CinemaCon

CinemaCon, the annual convention for the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), will be held April 1 to April 4, 2019, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. About 5,000 people attend the event, which gives movie studios the chance to showcase what they expect to be their biggest hits of the year.

A major change to this year’s event is that Sony Pictures Entertainment and 20th Century Fox will not be giving presentations. Movie studios scheduled to give their presentations at the event are STX Films and Warner Bros. Pictures on April 2; Universal Pictures and Walt Disney Pictures on April 3; and Paramount Pictures and Lionsgate on April 4.

Independent film studio Neon will promote its music-based drama “Wild Rose” with a screening of the movie on April 1 and a “Wild Rose” party on April 2. Other movies that will be screened in their entirety at CinemaCon 2019 will be Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Blinded by the Light” on April 2, Amazon’s “Late Night” on April 3 and Lionsgate’s “Long Shot” on April 4.

CinemaCon culminates with the CinemaCon Big Screen Achievement Awards ceremony, which will take place April 4.

Here are the announced winners of the awards:

CinemaCon Icon Award
Steve Buscemi

Steve Buscemi (Photo by Kristina Bumphrey/Starpix)

One of the most respected actors in the entertainment industry, Emmy-winning “Boardwalk Empire” star Steve Buscemi has played a wide range of characters in movies and television. His most memorable films include 1992’s “Reservoir Dogs,” 1996’s “Fargo” and 2001’s “Ghost World.” He has also voiced several roles in hit animated movies such as 2017’s “The Boss Baby,” and the “Hotel Transylvania” films. Buscemi’s 2019 film is the horror comedy, co-starring Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton.

CinemaCon Vanguard Award
Jamie Lee Curtis

Jamie Lee Curtis (Photo by Andrew Eccles/Universal Pictures)

In a career spanning more than 40 years, Jamie Lee Curtis has made her mark in the film industry, beginning with her starring role in her movie debut: the 1978 horror classic “Halloween.” She has starred in multiple “Halloween” sequels, most notably 2018’s “Halloween,” which made her the first woman over the age of 60 to star in a movie that debuted at No. 1 in the United States. Curtis’ other well-known movies include the 1980 horror flick “Prom Night,” the 1988 comedy “A Fish Called Wanda,” the 1994 action film “True Lies” and the 2003 remake of the comedy “Freaky Friday.” Curtis has two films due out in 2019: the crime drama “Knives Out” and the comedy “Senior Entourage.”

CinemaCon International Star of the Year
Kevin Hart

Kevin Hart (Photo by David Lee)

Kevin Hart is one of the busiest people in showbiz, with starring roles in movies, TV and Web series, in addition to headlining successful arena tours. The year 2019 started out with the dramedy “The Upside” (starring Hart and Bryan Cranston) debuting at No. 1 in the United States. His 2018 comedy film “Night School” was also a hit.

CinemaCon Ensemble Award: The Cast of “Terminator: Dark Fate” – Linda Hamilton, Natalia Reyes, Mackenzie Davis and Gabriel Luna

Natalie Reyes, Mackenzie Davis and Linda Hamilton of “Terminator: Dark Fate” (Photo by Kerry Brown)

“Terminator: Dark Fate” is the 2019 entry in the longtime “Terminator” film series. “Terminator: Dark Fate” stands out from the rest of the films in the series because the cast is led by women: Linda Hamilton (who starred in the first two “Terminator” movies), Natalie Reyes and Mackenzie Davis. The movie’s cast also includes Gabriel Luna. Original “Terminator” star Arnold Schwarzenegger is reportedly making a cameo appearance.

CinemaCon Directors of the Year
Anthony Russo and Joe Russo

Joe Russo and Anthony Russo (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

Director brothers Joe Russo and Anthony Russo helmed the superhero movie “Avengers: Endgame,” which is expected to be the biggest box-office blockbuster of 2019. The Russo brothers also directed several other Marvel movie blockbusters, including 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War,” 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War” and 2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

CinemaCon Action Star of the Year
David Harbour

David Harbour (Photo by Marion Curtis/ StarPix for Summit Entertainment)

David Harbour might be best-known as a co-star of Netflix’s horror series “Stranger Things,” but he’s aiming to make a big splash in movies by starring as the title character in the 2019 superhero flick “Hellboy.” Harbour takes over the role that was originated by Ron Perlman.

Cinema Spotlight Award
Octavia Spencer

Octavia Spencer  (Photo by Todd Williamson/Getty Images for Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Octavia Spencer won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her breakthrough role in 2011’s “The Help.” She has also has Oscar nominations for her supporting roles in 2016’s “Hidden Figures” and 2017’s “The Shape of Water.” Spencer has branched out into producing films, including the 2019 horror flick “Ma,” where she has a starring role.

CinemaCon Male Star of Tomorrow
Henry Golding

Henry Golding (Photo by Kelsey McNeal/ABC)

Henry Golding made his feature-film debut with a starring role in the 2018 blockbuster romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians.” He was also in the 2018 crime thriller “A Simple Favor,” co-starring Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. Golding has re-teamed with “A Simple Favor” director Paul Feig for the 2019 romantic comedy “Last Christmas,” co-starring Emilia Clarke, Emma Thompson (who wrote the movie’s screenplay) and “Crazy Rich Asians” co-star Michelle Yeoh.

CinemaCon Female Stars of Tomorrow
Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever

Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever (Photo by Francois Duhamel)

Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever co-star in the 2019 comedy “Booksmart,” about two straight-laced best friends who decide to go wild on the day before their high-school graduation. Feldstein is also known for her supporting roles in the 2018 Oscar-nominated comedy film “Lady Bird” and the 2016 comedy film “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising,” while Dever is a co-star of the comedy series “Last Man Standing.” Dever’s other recent film roles include the 2018 dramas “Beautiful Boy” and “The Front Runner.”

CinemaCon Breakthrough Director of the Year
Olivia Wilde

Olivia Wilde (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images)

Olivia Wilde made her directorial feature-film debut with the 2019 comedy film “Booksmart,” which got rave reviews when it had its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival. Wilde is an accomplished actress who has starred in such films as 2018’s “Life Itself” and 2010’s “Tron: Legacy.” She is also known for her past TV roles in the medical drama “House” and the nighttime soap opera “The O.C.”

CinemaCon Comedy Stars of the Year
Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron

Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron (Photo by Philippe Bossé)

Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron play unlikely love interests in the 2019 political comedy film “Long Shot.” Rogen is best known for his comedic roles in movies (such as 2007’s “Knocked Up,” 2008’s “Pineapple Express” and the “Neighbors” films), while Theron does mostly dramatic and action movies, including 2005’s “Monster” (for which she won an Oscar for Best Actress), 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” and 2017’s “Atomic Blonde.”

Other awards that will be given at the ceremony:

  • CinemaCon International Filmmaker of the Year Award: Graham King, producer of 2018’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”
  • CinemaCon Passpartout Award: Helen Moss, Paramount Pictures senior vice president of international distribution
  • NATO Marquee Award: John D. Loeks, Studio C chairman
  • Career Achievement in Exhibition Award: Jérôme Seydoux, Pathé co-chairman/CEO and Les Cinémas Gaumont Pathé chairman/CEO
  • Lifetime Achievement Award: Anthony Bloom, Cineworld Group chairman