Mr. Roosevelt


Noël Wells contemplates life, the universe and her dead cat.

(2017) Comedy (Paladin) Noël Wells, Nick Thune, Britt Lower, Daniella Pineda, Doug Benson, Andre Hyland, Armen Weitzman, Sergio Cilli, Paul Gordon, Jill Bailey, Christin Sawyer Davis, Anna Margaret Hollyman, Alex Dobrenko, Nicholas Saenz, Carley Wolf, Kelli Bland, Nathalie Holmes, Kenli Vacek, Gary Teague, Jill Fischer. Directed by Noël Wells

 

There are occasions which force us to confront our past. It might be something traumatic – say, the death of a loved one or a pet. On those occasions the loss forces us to see other losses and how we ourselves contributed to them and maybe even caused them directly. It forces us to look at ourselves in a harsher light.

Emily Martin (Wells) is a comedian in Los Angeles. Well, at least she’s trying to be. She spends her days going to auditions for comic ensemble programs (and doing maybe the best Holly Hunter impression you are ever likely to see) and working in an editing bay on commercials and Internet programming. By night she goes to improv performances by her friends and hooks up with other desperate comedians. It is in the middle of such a hook-up she gets a phone call from her ex.

Erik (Thune) was the man she left behind in Austin, possibly the most self-consciously hip place on the planet. He had been taking care of her cat Teddy Roosevelt but the cat was very sick – dying in fact. Emily drops everything to fly to Austin despite the fact that she can’t afford it, like, at all. When she gets there, the cat has already passed on. She hopes she can crash at the home she once shared with Erik but there’s already someone else living there – his new girlfriend Celeste (Lower) who is kind, generous and accomplished. Naturally, Emily hates her.

But kind, generous Celeste invites Emily to stay and so she does. Emily’s hostility and over-sensitivity towards Celeste leads to a restaurant meltdown during which she is befriended by waitress Jen Morales (Pineda) whom Emily decides to pal around with to parties in which Jen’s band plays, a topless outing to the river while Emily, who never really resolved her feelings for Erik, finds herself attracted to her ex in a very unhealthy way. Things come to a head during a memorial gathering to honor Mr. Roosevelt and to bury his ashes; Emily considers the late Presidential namesake to be HER cat and even though Celeste had been caring for him for two years resists any attempt to share the feline with anyone. The claws are definitely going to come out.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl indie subgenre that Zooey Deschanel and Greta Gerwig both popularized has a new potential member in the club ; ex-SNL cast member Wells. Her first feature as a writer-director really doesn’t mine any new territory – indie film clichés abound here – but she manages to put her own spin on the film and gives it a distinct personality of its own. As a result I suspect this is going to play well in hipster film buff circles around the country but particularly in New York and El Lay.

Wells is an engaging presence and while her pixie-ish personality wears thin after awhile, Emily is just bitchy enough to keep our interest; her frequent panic attacks cause Jen to literally throw water on her in order to calm her down. However, as fascinating as Wells is, Pineda nearly steals the film. The free-spirited Jen is in many ways more interesting than the occasionally whiny Emily and definitely less prone to doing cutesy things (like her “can’t help myself” dance she does when Erik, an ex-musician who gave up his art for Celeste, goes back onstage).

There is definitely a millennial vibe here; most of the characters are obsessively self-centered and social media-savvy. Erik is going to school and getting a real estate license; Jen is caught up in the gig economy and shares a duplex with a collective of artists and stoners, one of whom becomes a revenge fuck for Emily during one of her many tantrums. Not that older viewers will be unable to relate; younger viewers will recognize and resonate with the characters better though.

The story isn’t always authentic but the characters within it always are, if that makes any sense. While there are plenty of safe choices made by Wells in the writing and execution of the film, there’s still plenty about it that has its own voice, enough to recognize that Wells could very well be the next great indie filmmaker. Here’s your chance to jump on her bandwagon early.

REASONS TO GO: Wells is an engaging lead.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is too overwhelmed by indie clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bunch of profanity, sexuality, drug use and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Immediately after losing her job at SNL, Wells began work writing and directing this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frances Ha
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Destined

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Don’t Think Twice


Nothing says kooky more than a wheel of Improv players.

Nothing says kooky more than a wheel of Improv players.

(2016) Dramedy (Film Arcade) Mike Birbiglia, Gillian Jacobs, Keenan-Michael Key, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher, Emily Skeggs, Chris Gethard, Sondra James, Richard Kline, Sunita Mani, Steve Waltien, Kati Rediger, Pete Holmes, Richard Masur, Adam Pally, Lena Dunham, Maggie Kemper, Ben Stiller, Miranda Bailey, Seth Barrish, Erin Drake. Directed by Mike Birbiglia

 

Funny isn’t easy. If it was, everybody’d be a comedian. Of all the comedic disciplines, improvisation is one of the hardest. It requires quick thinking, a quicker wit and gluttony for punishment. Improv artists have a tendency to live hand to mouth and the odds of them making it are long indeed.

The Commune is a long-time improv group in New York City founded by Miles (Birbiglia) and currently consisting of MC Samantha (Jacobs) who is the girlfriend of Jack (Key), the most promising individual comedian in the group. Allison (Micucci) is an aspiring graphic artist and Lindsay (Sagher) smokes a whole lot of pot and is the daughter of wealthy parents who pay for her therapy. Finally, there’s Bill (Gethard), a kind of sad sack kind of guy who has a number of personal problems.

All of them harbor the ambition of getting an audition with Weekend Live (Saturday Night Live if they could have gotten the rights to use the name and footage). However, they’ve been hit with the bombshell that the run-down theater they’ve been using has been sold and is about to be converted to an Urban Outfitter; they have one month to get out.

But all is not lost. While they look for an affordable space, a couple of members of the Weekend Live group caught the group at a performance and have extended audition invitations – but only to Jack and Sam, largely because Jack grandstanded at the performance knowing that the cast members were there.

The group is happy for them, but it is happiness tinged with jealousy, anger and disappointment. Miles, who makes a great deal out of the fact that he had auditioned for the show ten years earlier and had been, as he puts it, “inches away” from the big time, is particularly out of sorts about it. He’s also teaching improv to pay the bills and beds his students whenever possible.

Bill is dealing with a family issue that is taking up much of his attention, although he is grateful for his fellow Commune-ists who surround him and make inappropriate jokes to keep his spirits up. However, as the days wind down, it turns out that Jack gets the gig at Weekend Live and Sam doesn’t, although she doesn’t necessarily see that as a bad thing for reasons that become clear later on in the film but you should be able to figure out without any problem. Now with Jack gone and the clock ticking, the group is beginning to disintegrate as it becomes clear that not everyone is going to have their dreams come true.

Birbiglia is a gifted stand-up comic and as his first time in the director’s chair for Sleepwalk With Me showed, he has some potential in that role as well. As in that film, his character here is not always the most pleasant of people – Miles is arrogant and a bit jealous of Jack’s success which only points out the lack of his own. He sleeps with students which is a major no-no even though the students he’s teaching are adults, and he puts down his friends with barbs that have just enough truth in them to bury themselves in the skin.

Key shows off his formidable talent here better than he has in anything other than his Comedy Central show with partner Jordan Peele. In many ways, Key mirrors his character; of all the actors here (other than Stiller, who makes a cameo as himself) he has the best chance to reach stardom. With more performances like this under his belt, he certainly will get a look from the studios and the networks.

Most of the main actors here have improv experience other than Jacobs and she underwent rigorous training in the art which as mentioned earlier is not as easy as it looks. As a team they work well together and the onstage footage has some pretty fun moments, but the drawback is that improv really is best experienced live; it rarely holds up as well on film. Still, the movie has an air of authenticity about it because of the experience of Birbiglia and his cast (as well as Seth Barrish, the co-writer who also appears as a Lorne Michaels-like figure in the film).

It is a dramedy so the moments of savory and sweet are fairly balanced out, although given the subject matter I would have appreciated a bit more comedy than drama. There is a little bit of tendency towards soap opera in the middle third as the relationships begin to collapse and the Commune begins to implode.

For all that, this is a solid film that has some wonderful moments (a discussion between Jack and Sam that makes it painfully clear that their relationship is over comes immediately to mind) as well as a few misfires. It’s definitely worth seeing, even if you aren’t into improv. The truth is that this is the kind of movie that might actually make you a fan, or at the very least, more respectful of those who practice the art.

REASONS TO GO: A glimpse of what goes into making an improv group work.
REASONS TO STAY: Could have used some more laughs.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s plenty of swearing and a good deal of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The cast performed as an improv troupe for two weeks prior to shooting. Some of the footage of their performances is used in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Punchline
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Our Little Sister

Black Swan


Black Swan

The stuff that nightmares are made of.

(2010) Psychological Horror (Fox Searchlight) Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied, Ksenia Solo, Kristina Anapau, Janet Montgomery, Sebastian Stan, Toby Hemingway, Sergio Torrado, Mark Margolis, Tina Sloan. Directed by Darren Aronofsky

The pursuit of perfection in art is a long-standing tradition. It is a noble ambition but it is not without its pitfalls. Perfection is a very lofty goal and the closer one gets, the sharper the knives that guard the way there.

Nina (Portman) is a ballerina who has spent her entire life dancing, looking for that elusive opportunity – to dance the White Swan in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, perhaps the most famous ballet of them all. She has been relegated to the company, much to the display of her mother Erica (Hershey), who is an ex-dancer herself and with whom Nina lives in a small, dingy apartment.

When prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Ryder) is abruptly dismissed from the troupe by artistic director Thomas Leroy (Cassel), suddenly Nina’s goal is very much in reach. However, Leroy wants to “re-imagine” the classic ballet, so he wants the same dancer to dance both the White Swan (symbolizing the pure and virginal) as well as the Black Swan (symbolizing the evil and sexual). It is normally performed with two different dancers for good reason; the two roles require completely different psychologies from those who dance them.

Nina believes she can dance both roles, but Leroy is reluctant; she’s fine as the White Swan, but lacks the sensuality and aggressiveness that the Black Swan demands. Newcomer Lily (Kunis) seems to have the Black Swan down but lacks the precision and discipline required to do the White Swan. After Leroy, who has a long-standing reputation as a manipulator who takes sexual advantage of his dancers (he was also Beth’s lover) attempts to kiss Nina and gets a bitten lip for his trouble, he changes his mind and believes she has some of the Black Swan within her.

At first Nina and Erica are overjoyed, but the walls begin to crumble. The stress of dancing both parts begins to eat away at Nina’s already-fragile psyche (she is into self-mutilation in a big way) and she begins to see some scary visions of black swans and imagines that Lily is out to get her. Nina’s own burgeoning sexuality begins to waken and with it awakens the Black Swan, Nina’s own dark side come to life.

Aronofsky who last directed The Wrestler (which is his most straightforward film to date) is well-known for being unafraid to explore the psyche, and for facing the darkness as well as the light. This may be his best film to date in many ways; certainly I felt that it is one of the most artistically gifted movies of the year.

Part of that belongs to Natalie Portman. She has received an Oscar nomination for her role as Nina, and quite frankly, if it were up to me I’d give it to her now. This is not only the best performance of the year it is one of the best ever. Portman has to go to some raw and sexual places in this movie, exploring places that most people never share with others. She masturbates, has sex with a woman and slowly loses her mind until she finally embraces her dark side. It’s a brilliant and brave performance and is the main reason you should go and see this movie.

However, you should be warned – Aronofsky relies very much on shaky, hand-held camera work in the film. I understand that he was trying to capture the kineticism of dance. However, I personally am prone to vertigo and so I have a particular sensitivity to these kinds of things. I got physically ill during the course of this movie and I would think most people with balance issues are going to do the same. I think the technique was used far too much during the movie and I downgraded it several pegs because of it. Even those not afflicted with my issues reported some queasiness watching the movie.

The supporting cast is very good, particularly Cassel as the arrogant director who is nothing short of a sexual predator. He is arrogant and self-centered, not a villain precisely but certainly someone who mercilessly pushes Nina down the road to madness. Kunis does some career enhancement work as the sexually aggressive dancer who may or may not be manipulating Nina. This is a side of her we’ve never seen and Kunis shows off not only her sexuality but a dark side that is at odds with her image. This should certainly erase all thoughts of “That 70s Show” from your head.  Best of all is Hershey as the high-strung mom. Hershey has aged nicely but you’d never know it here; she is lined and careworn, a shade too skinny and probably in need of a long vacation. She makes you nervous every time she’s onscreen which is exactly right for the character. Her overprotectiveness has warped Nina and you wonder if mommy dearest might not be the sickest one in the movie.

I admire the ambitions of Darren Aronofsky and I especially admire Portman’s brave performance. This is a movie that will be starting some conversations for quite awhile if I don’t miss my guess. It’s a shame that the movie had the physical effect on me that it did; this could easily have gotten a much higher rating than it did.

REASONS TO GO: Natalie Portman gives one of the best performances you’ll ever see. A very realistic backstage look at an art form where discipline is brutal and absolute.

REASONS TO STAY: Handheld cam excess makes it dizziness inducing. Some of the psychological aspects are confusing and disjointed.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some intense scenes of sexuality including some same-sex and masturbation scenes, as well as some disturbing images.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the course of the film, Natalie Portman sustained twisted and dislocated ribs as well as a concussion.

HOME OR THEATER: Given the penchant for shaky-cam, I’d say home is better.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Motherhood