Then Came You


Caught in the web of their own making – and a callous fate.

(2018) Dramedy (Shout! Factory) Asa Butterfield, Maisie Williams, Nina Dobrev, Ken Jeong, David Koechner, Tyler Hoechlin, Peyton List, Tituss Burgess, Sonya Walger, Margot Bingham, Colin Moss, Briana Venskus, Ron Simons, Angel Valle Jr., L. Steven Taylor, Francesca Noel, Ann Osmond, Ken Tsukada, Crystal Tweed, Terri Gittens, Ashlyn Alessi. Directed by Peter Hutchings

 

All good things must come to an end, including (and especially) life itself. However, knowing that you’re dying doesn’t mean that you have to stop living.

Calvin (Butterfield) is a college drop-out who is working as a baggage handler at a regional airport along with his Dad (Koechner) and big brother Frank (Hoechlin) whose wife (Walger) is about to have a baby. Although he vehemently denies it, Calvin is a bit of a hypochondriac, taking his own vitals hourly (his watch alarm reminding him to do so) and obsessively writing down his symptoms in a journal. Most of those by the way are pretty much in between his ears.

His frustrated doctor, wanting this healthy young man to get some perspective, sends him to a cancer support group where he meets Skye (Williams), a manic pixie dream girl from a long line of them, who reacts to being told her tumor is not responding to treatment by shrugging at her shattered parents “You win some, you lose some.” She’s the kind of girl who gives a goldfish as a gift to a friend, swimming happily in an IV bag.

She recognizes the depressed and introverted Calvin as a project she can take on and manages to convince him (overwhelming what few defenses he has) to help her achieve all the entries on her “To Die List,” which is essentially a bucket list with a cooler name. In doing so, she begins to coax Calvin out of his thick shell as he begins to learn how to really live, something he gave up on years earlier after a tragedy left his family shattered and his mom essentially catatonic. He even manages to work up the courage to ask out the girl he’s been crushing hard on, a lonely stewardess named Izzy (Dobrev) who, as Skye helpfully points out, is way out of his league. So is Skye for that matter but don’t tell her I told you that.

Izzy gets the mistaken impression that Calvin is the one with terminal cancer and neither Skye nor Calvin are disposed to setting her straight which from the moment she confides to Calvin that she broke up with her last boyfriend because he was untruthful to her tells you all you need to know about where this relationship is going. As for Skye, she’s going somewhere herself but will she able to get all the things on her list done before she sets sail for the shores of the undiscovered country?

Dying teens have been a staple of music and movies since people figured out that teens could die and it was a tragic thing when they did. There have been plenty of dying teen movies – Me and Earl and the Dying Girl for example – and while they usually don’t make for extraordinary box office, they are generally inexpensive to make and can pull a tidy profit when done right. They almost have to since they are not generally fodder for sequels if you catch my drift.

Butterfield is a handsome devil with big soulful eyes in a puppy dog sense. He has been around the block a few times but has never really demonstrated the screen presence to be a big star. Still, his performance here feels a bit more authentic than that of Williams, the Game of Thrones star whose bonhomie seems a bit forced in places. Still, she manages to be more unforgettable than her bland co-star and ends up carrying the movie for the most part even though this is ostensibly Calvin’s story.

Dobrev who has done the manic pixie dream girl role herself a time or two is the most authentic of the three leads even though she isn’t given a ton to work with. It’s hard to figure out what she sees in Calvin other than sympathy for his mistakenly perceived plight although by the movie’s end we see that there might be more to it than meets the eye initially. Koechner and Jeong, two comedy pros, have some surprising moments of pathos during the course of the film and show off their versatility in doing so.

The soundtrack is decent enough and the filmmakers show off their taste in music during several montages which are almost de rigueur for a film like this. The issue is the filmmakers are almost trying too hard to set the mood both light and dark and resort to familiar clichés in order to get their points across. This is going to seem depressingly familiar to those who have seen a few of these kinds of movies up to now.

Still, their heart is in the right place and to the credit of the filmmakers the movie gets better as it goes along. In the first twenty minutes, I was thoroughly prepared to despise this movie but it is rescued particularly in the last third by strong performances by Dobrev, Koechner and Jeong (and to a lesser degree, Butterfield) and a memorable take on things by Williams whose Skye may be an amalgam of other MPDGs but Williams has the presence to pull it off pretty well. This isn’t going to replace your favorite tearjerker but it does make a decent substitute to listening to a Morrissey record or whatever angst-ridden pop star has the attention of young people this week.

REASONS TO GO: The quality picks up towards the end.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmakers try a bit too hard.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some sexual content and plenty of adult thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the movie was filmed in upstate New York in the Capital District; the airport scenes were mainly filmed at Albany International Airport.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 55% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fault in Our Stars
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Cold War

The Skeleton Twins


Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader reminisce about their SNL days.

Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader reminisce about their SNL days.

(2014) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Boyd Holbrook, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Joanna Gleason, Paul Castro Jr., Eddie Schweighardt, Sydney Lucas, Ian Hyland, Genevieve Adams, Jennifer Lafleur, Truck Hudson, Cliff Moylan, David Garelik. Directed by Craig Johnson

Nobody is guaranteed an easy life. Between financial troubles, relationship woes, career issues, medical difficulties and scores of other stresses, happiness can be an elusive quality. Some of us have the ability to deal with life’s twists and turns. Others, not so much.

The Skeleton Twins opens with Milo (Hader) attempting suicide. His twin sister Maggie (Wiig) is quite coincidentally, also considering suicide but when she is informed that her brother has been hospitalized she flies out to Los Angeles.

The two haven’t spoken in ten years and it is clear Milo is perfectly happy to extend that streak but Maggie perseveres and gets Milo to move in with her and her happy-go-lucky husband Lance (Wilson). Milo isn’t terribly enthusiastic at first and is a bit stand-offish with his twin but eventually begins to warm up.

He also begins to revert to old habits. He goes and sees Rich (Burrell), his old English teacher with whom he had an affair with when he was just 15, leading to Rich’s dismissal as a teacher when Maggie turned them in. It’s most definitely not a healthy relationship but Milo, as many of us will do, pursues it nevertheless. For Maggie’s part she is stressed by the fact that Lance wants to have kids and although she’s agreed to try is taking birth control behind his back. That, and she’s cheating on him with a parade of adult education instructors she’s been having affairs with, the most recent being her hunky Aussie scuba instructor Billy (Holbrook).

Part of Maggie’s reluctance towards motherhood stems from her own attitude toward her flighty, New Age-y mother (Gleason) who seems to care more about her own self-discovery than in nurturing her kids. While Milo seems to have made at least some peace with her, Maggie still has clearly not forgiven her and her mom’s unexpected appearance sends Maggie on a downward spiral.

Neither twin is coping well with life. Milo, a failed actor whose string of relationships have all ended in disaster, suspects that he peaked in high school, a fate that his father had predicted for the kids that tormented him for his femininity. Maggie has a great husband but still has mommy issues and especially, daddy issues – their father self-checked out when they were both kids – and is afraid of losing what she does have. Both snipe at each other and take out petty vengeance on one another until it appears that they will once again go their own separate ways.

The interesting thing about The Skeleton Twins is that we see glimpses of Milo and Maggie as kids and there isn’t any doubt that the two were very much there for each other and supported each other despite their own differentness. Clearly that bond has been sundered over the years, but it’s still there at the end of the day. Casting SNL veterans Hader and Wiig as the twins was a masterstroke. The two have a long history together and are very comfortable with each other, much in the way of siblings, and it shows. They are totally believable as twins, even though the physical resemblance is marginal at best.

Hader, in particular, shows the kind of layered performance that he just doesn’t get to show in the myriad sketch performances and supporting roles he’s had. Milo’s inner pain is palpable and when he gets drunk, which is often, his self-loathing is even more evident. Still, he keeps putting himself out there which is admirable and even though he is occasionally hateful and snide, he is infinitely relatable. This is if you’ll excuse the pun, his coming-out party as an actor, serving notice that he is more than just a wacky comic actor. He’s got depth.

Wiig also has some terrific moments. I’m less a fan of her work post-SNL but she can be a terrific actress when given the right material and this is certainly the right material. She, like Hader, has to convey a great deal of self-loathing here. Unlike Milo, Maggie is very aware that what she’s doing is destructive and wrong, but ultimately can’t help herself. At some deeper level, Maggie is looking to punish herself and wants Lance to find out about her improprieties. While Wiig isn’t as spectacular a performance as Hader, it is nonetheless solid and commendable.

Water is used as a motif here; most of the really major events have some sort of water element in them, from the opening scene when Milo slashes his wrists in the bathtub to the scuba lessons in a local pool to the goldfish swimming placidly in an aquarium. Water often denotes life in the movies and it does to an extent here but it is also a metaphor for death as goldfish do die (although obviously Milo does not). There is another event involving Maggie late in the film that I don’t want to give specifics about in the interest of not giving away too much but it also takes place in water.

While some of the time it feels like they’re pushing too hard to be funny (i.e. the scene in the dentist’s office where Maggie works) writer/director Johnson strikes a nice balance between humor and pathos throughout the movie, allowing for maximum catharsis. Suicide is definitely not an easy subject to deal with and it hangs over the movie like a Damoclean sword. Johnson leaves a lot of that subject unspoken, preferring to illustrate how the twins are affected by the suicide of their father and their own tendencies towards it visually without resorting to much discussion on the subject. It doesn’t really allow for a great deal of illumination but it does give audiences the opportunity to come to their own conclusions.

In some ways the movie sounds grim but it really isn’t. It’s not all bright and sunny though so if you’re looking for an escape type of movie you’re better off seeking out something a little more brainless. If you don’t mind a little thought along with your laughter, this might be the tonic you’re looking for.

REASONS TO GO: Hader gives a nuanced performance. Good mix of funny and pathos.
REASONS TO STAY: Tries too hard for laughs sometimes.
FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of foul language, some sexuality and a bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anna Farris was originally cast as Maggie but had to drop out due to schedule conflicts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before I Disappear
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Dolphin Tale 2

Ponyo (Gake no ue no Ponyo)


Ponyo

Escaping a tsunami in a small car is never a good idea.

(2008) Animated Fantasy (Disney) Starring the voices of Cate Blanchett, Noah Cyrus, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Frankie Jonas, Lily Tomlin, Betty White, Cloris Leachman. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Perhaps the most honored and beloved director of Japanese anime is Hayao Miyazaki. An Oscar winner for Spirited Away, he’s also directed some of the most enchanting and beloved anime films ever, including Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbor Tortoro, Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service and my personal favorite, Princess Mononoke among others. He remains one of the few feature animation directors working exclusively in the hand-drawn animated style that established Disney (who distributes the output of his Studio Ghibli here in the U.S.) and is as imaginative a director working anywhere in any medium today.

His latest may well be one of the most beautiful animated features in recent memory. It begins with a 5-year-old named Sosuke (Jonas) finding a goldfish trapped in a jar on the seashore which he names Ponyo (Cyrus) – the fish, not the seashore.

But Ponyo is no ordinary fish. She is the daughter of Fujimoto (Neeson), a sea wizard with incredible powers who has renounced his humanity to rule under the sea. When Sosuke takes her from her natural environment, it causes the balance between the sea and the land to be sundered and soon tsunamis are buffeting the small port town where Sosuke lives.

He brings the fish to his mother (Fey) who is having issues with her husband Koichi (Damon), a merchant sailor who is away more than he is at home. When he visits the retirement home his mom works at, a trio of the residents (Tomlin, White and Leachman) there realize immediately that Ponyo is no ordinary fish.

Sosuke has a paper cut and when Ponyo licks the cut and magically heals it, the taste of human blood allows Ponyo to take on the attributes of a human and she magically grows arms and legs. This causes further imbalance which even Fujimoto is powerless to prevent.

When Sosuke and her mom get separated by the tsunamis, Ponyo transforms a toy boat into a large sailing vessel to go searching for her in the now flooded town. However, the cost of all this magic is taking its toll on Ponyo and the continued imbalance between sea and land threatens to completely undo the world – unless Sosuke and Ponyo can intervene.

The tale told is a simple one, and it is meant to be appealing not just to the adults who make up the core of Miyazaki’s audience to date, but also to small children, a market he hasn’t really gone after up to now. Quite frankly, he’s successful at capturing both with this film which is destined to be considered among his very best.

Miyazaki’s imagination seems boundless, and his underwater scenes are filled with strange beauty, the kind heretofore found in nature films but given a touch of wonder that is entirely man-made. Miyazaki is telling on one hand a cautionary tale; the sea bottom is badly polluted with trash and sludge, while above the waves the adults are blissfully (and perhaps criminally) unaware of the damage their society is inflicting on the sea, which doesn’t endear them to the powerful creatures – including Ponyo’s mother, Gran Mamare (Blanchett) who is literally a goddess.

There are other lessons as well, with the familiar “we all must be who we are, not who others want us to be” which is a staple in children’s films, but certainly the ecological issue seems to be the one most pointedly presented.

Miyazaki isn’t all about the fantastic, however; the human characters have a great deal of depth to them. Sosuke’s parents aren’t the perfect couple; they squabble and bicker, and neither one is wrong and neither one is right. Lisa is frustrated with having to raise her child essentially alone, and Koichi certainly isn’t doing what he does by choice; the family needs the income he brings in to survive, and when additional work is available, he has no choice but to take it. It’s a problem that isn’t an unfamiliar one in tough economic times.

Even peripheral characters like the three elderly women from the retirement home have distinct personalities and play crucial roles in the story. The mark of a great storyteller is not that he creates characters that move the story along (how often do we see characters in movies both live action and animated that exist only to perform a singular function in the film) but that he utilizes the characters he has to make the story flow; in other words, the characters belong in the story and they drive what happens in it, rather than exist as a reaction or an action within that story. It’s all a bit complicated, I know, but trust me – I can recognize great writing when I see it.

Japanese culture has a thing about cute; you can see it in everything from Hello Kitty to Sailor Moon. At times, that cuteness goes over the top and makes you feel like you just drank a gallon of Kool-Aid with twice the sugar added; you just want to gag. Miyazaki is not known for embracing that cultural element, but it does appear from time to time in this movie, and while I can understand that it helps to make the movie relatable to small fries, I have to admit as a curmudgeonly middle aged man it was annoying to me.

Be that as it may (and it is an admittedly personal bias) I can still give this movie a very strong recommendation. For those who might be skeptical about Japanese anime, be assured that there are no subtitles here; the story is recorded completely in English with an all-star cast as you can see in the credit list at the top of the review. Disney has made a great effort to make this very special movie work in an American market, hiring Melissa Matheson, screenwriter of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to pen the Japanese translation, and the opening and closing sequences were redone to be more appealing to American audiences (on the Blu-Ray if you choose the Japanese language version you will see the Japanese openings; if you choose the English language you’ll see the American version).

This is a marvelous movie whether an animated feature or not; you will probably not see a movie so beautifully drawn as this for a very long time. Those who are admirers of Miyazaki have probably already seen it, and will no doubt look to purchase the Blu-Ray version which is packed with features enough to keep you occupied for awhile. Those unfamiliar with his work can do worse than to start here. It’s well worth your effort to do so.

WHY RENT THIS: Miyazaki creates an imaginative world that you want to explore. This is one of the most beautiful animated films of the past decade. The characters are strongly written and are more than one-dimensional cardboard cutouts to advance the plot along.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot is a bit simplistic, aimed squarely for younger children. The Japanese penchant for the overly cute rears its head here.

FAMILY VALUES: Although there are some scenes of jeopardy for Sosuke and Ponyo, the movie is certainly meant for small children and can be recommended for all audiences on that basis.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Sosuke is based on Miyazaki’s son Goro when he was five years old.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Not surprisingly, the Blu-Ray version of the movie is chock full of interesting features, including a visit to the Studio Ghibli compound, with one specific feature showing how the establishment of a day-care center led directly to the creation of Ponyo and very nearly became a setting for the movie. We also visit the village on the Seto Inland Sea that became a model for the one in the film, and examine the father-daughter relationship at the center of the film, and how it relates to Japanese culture. There is also a marvelous interactive guide to the World of Ghibli, which depicts the various films released by the studio as locations on an island, several of which you can visit (and is tied in to the video release of three other Ghibli films for the first time in the U.S.).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $201.7M on an unreported production budget; the movie was a major hit.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Montana Amazon