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

Advertisements

Band Aid


There are few things as musically authentic as a garage band..

(2017) Comedy (IFC) Zoe Lister-Jones, Adam Pally, Fred Armisen, Susie Essman, Retta, Hannah Simone, Ravi Patel, Brooklyn Decker, Angelique Cabral, Majandra Delfino, Nelson Franklin, Kailash Banerjee Sukhadia, Vivien Lyre Blair, Colin Hanks, Chris D’Elia, Daryl Wein, Jamie Chung, Erinn Hayes, Jesse Williams, Gillian Zinser. Directed by Zoe Lister-Jones

 

Marriages are complex, fragile things that can sometimes be torn apart by the slightest of difficulties. We take it for granted that married couples will argue, sometimes in toxic ways. Relationship experts tell us that arguments are a healthy thing for couples. Experience tells us that they can also signify the beginning of the end.

All Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (Pally) seem to do is argue. The arguments are generated by life’s little annoyances – like a chronically full sink of dirty dishes and a leaky faucet that never gets fixed –  and often lead to big underlying issues. Both of these 20-somethings are suffering from failed expectations; Anna once had a book deal that fell through and now she’s an Uber driver. Ben, a talented artist, designs corporate logos when he can actually get his butt off the couch. There are moments that it’s clear that the two still love each other but those moments are becoming increasingly infrequent.

One early hint that things are terribly wrong between them is that when they are invited to a child’s birthday party, Anna has to get really high just to make it through the party for reasons that become clear later in the film. While she is blissed out, she and Ben give an impromptu rock concert on children’s instruments. Later that night, Anna hits on the idea of starting a band – and using their arguments as inspiration for songs.

Considering that their relationship counselor is moving to Canada (quite possibly to get away from the two of them), it seems like all the therapy they can afford. They locate their dusty guitar and bass and start searching for a drummer; they find one in Dave (Armisen), a neighbor and recovering sex addict who probably couldn’t be more creepy if the writer’s tried (and they did).

They play a couple of gigs and they aren’t half bad. In fact, they’re pretty good. Best of all, the impromptu therapy seems to be working; Anna and Ben are arguing less and the dishes are getting done. They seem to be more kind towards each other. A potential record deal is in the offing. Life couldn’t be rosier.

Then they have the mother of all arguments and at last some of their underlying issues begin to surface. Anna throws Ben out and he shacks up with Dave for a bit before running home to Mama (Essman). But there were things said that can’t be un-said. Can their relationship survive? Should it?

There’s a lot to like here. Lister-Jones, more familiar to viewers through her television work including her most recent stint on the CBS sitcom Life in Pieces, proves to be a promising director. She’s no Sofia Coppola – yet – but she has the wisdom to keep her touch light and the skill to pull it off. She also has a ton of chemistry with Pally; the two make a cute couple, too cute upon occasion but always believable. Their arguments hit the right notes and sound pretty authentic to these married ears.

The dialogue is hipster 101 in some ways; everyone talks like they’re in a sitcom pulling off snarky one-liners. The trouble is, I know a lot of people who talk exactly like Ben and Anna and it’s even more annoying in real life. Some people are also not going to be able to get past that both Ben but especially Anna use drugs heavily t get through the pain and have both become somewhat caught in a very deep rut. Go-getters might have trouble with the couple, as those who have issues with hipsters might.

Still, the movie is surprisingly insightful – the conversation between Ben and his Mom near the end on the nature of women had a lot to say and makes the whole movie worth it right there. I was also fond of the dirty dishes as a metaphor for the relationship; the dishes just stood there stagnant in a pile with the couple just piling new dishes on until one of them thinks to clear out the dishes from the sink. So it is with relationships (and Ben and Anna’s in particular); all the negative stuff gets piled on in the relationship and the heap just gets larger and larger until one of them decides to let go of the negatives.

The tone is pretty light and I liked that the humor which was pretty skewed in places kept things from getting too depressing, but some of the humor is a bit cruel and snarky; if you don’t like those sorts of jokes this movie might not be for you. Do look for the cameos of Uber passengers in Anna’s car. This isn’t going to be top ten material for the year but it is a breezy and engaging film that has a surprising amount of depth at its core. Definitely check this one out!

REASONS TO GO: There are a surprising amount of insights, particularly later on in the movie. The music is pretty decent and surprisingly varied..
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is almost unbearably hipster-friendly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is more than a little drug use, plenty of profanity, some brief nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Decker, Delfino and Lister-Jones all star in the TV show Friends with Better Lives.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inside Llewyn Davis
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Past Life

Dave Made a Maze


The Tiki God of garbage gazes over his domain.

(2016) Fantasy Comedy (Foton) Nick Thune, Meera Rohit Kumbhani, Stephanie Allynne, Adam Busch, Scott Krinsky, James Urbaniak, John Hennigan, Frank Caeti, Scott Narver, Kirsten Vangsness, Drew Knigga, Kamilla Alnes, Rick Overton, Timothy Nordwind, Etienne Eckert, Brittney Deutsch, Jessica Graves. Directed by Bill Watterson

The imagination can be a powerful thing. It can create entire worlds…entire realities. It can change one’s life in a heartbeat. Of course, it comes in real handy when making movies as well.

Dave (Thune) is one of those guys who just pisses away his life. He has a thousand ideas for things but he never follows them through to the end. As a result, as he hits 30 and wonders where his life is taking him, he feels a failure even though he has a beautiful girlfriend named Anna (Kumbhani) and a bunch of friends who think he’s cool.

One weekend, Anna is out of town on a business trip and Dave is bored out of his skull. He decides to construct a maze out of cardboard in the living room – an elaborate one. Like many projects that become obsessions, it takes on a life of its own.

When Anna arrives home, she discovers the maze in her living room and can find neither hide nor hair of Dave. Eventually she hears his voice calling from inside the cardboard creation. It turns out that he’s gotten lost in the maze. That sounds absolutely unbelievable but Dave insists that it is much bigger on the inside. Anna means to knock it down so he can get out but he begs her not to – he wants to finish something for once in his life.

He doesn’t want her to go in and get her either – a rescue mission is too dangerous as there are booby traps and trip wires. Nonetheless, Anna calls Dave’s best friend Gordon (Busch) and he calls a few other friends (despite being told explicitly not to) and soon there’s a party in Dave’s living room which includes power couple Greg (Nordwind) and Brynn (Allynne), ubernerd Jane (Vangsness), a random homeless guy (Overton), Harry (Urbaniak), a documentary film maker with his boom operator (Caeti) and camera operator (Narver) and a couple of Flemish tourists (Knigga and Alnes) and Leonard (Krinsky) who is just…Leonard.

They all go in after him and find a world they could never imagined; living origami, a Tiki God that spurts out living ribbon, rooms that evolve on their own and yes, a Minotaur (Hennigan) for good measure. Not everyone is going to make it out alive, but then again, not all of them were really living anyway.

I gotta hand it to first-time filmmaker Watterson – he has oodles of imagination. The production design here may be low-budget but it is absolutely captivating. The world of the maze isn’t like anything you’ve ever seen…well, most of it is anyway. The crew used 30,000 square feet of cardboard to construct the maze and…well, every penny is on the screen as some critics like to say.

Watterson also uses perspective as an additional effect to keep the viewer off balance, and he wisely refrains from using it overmuch. One of the things that encourage me about this new director is that he knows how to keep from being repetitive while remaining creative. That’s not as easy as it sounds.

Thune has plenty of charisma and likability in the lead role and I can see him building on this and getting some plum roles in the near future. Certainly performances like this will make him eligible for romantic comedy leads as well as straight comedies. Thune has a pretty rosy future.

There are a few faces here from TV, like Vangsness from Criminal Minds, Allynne from One Mississippi and Krinsky from Chuck but most of the others with the exception of Thune are largely not well known and Thune is known mostly for being a stand-up comic with appearances on stand-up shows and @Midnight.

Be warned though that in watching this you’re likely to suffer hipster overload. The movie is lousy with them and those who find them insufferable may find themselves heading for the exit. The soundtrack is full of indie rock and the male characters with beards. You may want to dose yourself with anti-hipster medicine before coming to see this.

That and an ending that doesn’t live up to the rest of the movie aside, this is a very strong entry in the ranks of indie films this year and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it get some distribution from one of the big indies. I have a feeling that this is going to be one of those movies that is going to show up in a lot of best of the year lists this year.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the most amazing production design you’ll see in a film this year. Thune is an engaging and earnest lead. Watterson has a good eye for perspective. One of the most imaginative films at this year’s Florida Film Festival.
REASONS TO STAY: Hipster overload. The ending is a tad weak.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The director is not related to the cartoonist of the same name who created Calvin & Hobbes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cool World
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: For Ahkeem

Mistress America


Just two broke girls talkin'.

Just two broke girls talkin’.

(2015) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Michael Chernus, Rebecca Henderson, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Heather Lind, Cindy Cheung, Charlie Gillette, Shelby Rebecca Wong, Joel Marsh Garland, Andrea Chen, Seth Barrish, Shana Dowdeswell, Dean Wareham, Amy Warren, Shoba Narayanan, Morgan Lynch, Adrea Teasdale. Directed by Noah Baumbach

There is New York, and then there is everywhere else. I suppose that those who live there have every right to feel a kind of smug superiority about where they live; after all, they have world class museums, world class concert halls, world class nightclubs, world class restaurants…hell, anyone who is bored in New York isn’t trying very hard.

Tracy (Kirke) is becoming a New Yorker. Well, she’s becoming a college student at Barnard. Keen to be a writer, she’s not the sort that fits in easily. That’s especially true lately, as her mom (Henderson) is getting ready to re-marry. Tracy yearns to become a member of the literary society at Barnard, who celebrate publication of a new author by sneaking into their room at night and throwing a pie in their face while they sleep. Rad, eh? However, she meets rejection even here. Tracy realizes to get in with the literary crowd she’s going to need something special to write about.

As part of her mom’s new marriage, she is going to have a new stepsister, so upon her mom’s insistence she arranges to meet her soon-to-be-sister, Brooke (Gerwig). Tracy takes an immediate liking to Brooke. She’s almost ten years older and established in the city; she’s getting ready to open a fabulous new restaurant and has some really cool ideas. She hangs out with cool people and lives in a loft that’s zoned for commercial use. She’s full of energy and life and talks a mile a minute, sometimes about deep things but sometimes just idle chatter.

When one of the investors in her restaurant – the one who happens to be her boyfriend – pulls out, Brooke is left dangling in the wind. She has no choice but to go to the home of her arch-nemesis Mamie-Claire (Lind) in the Godforsaken wilderness of Greenwich, Connecticut and demand her due. You see, years ago, Mamie-Claire stole an idea of Brooke’s and made a fortune out of it. That wasn’t the only thing she stole though – she took two of Brooke’s cats and her boyfriend at the time Dylan (Chernus) who was himself independently wealthy but is now Mamie-Claire’s somewhat henpecked husband. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

But things go from bad to worse as the discovery is made that Tracy has been writing a story with Brooke as the lead character – and not everything is complimentary. Brooke is feeling betrayed and everybody around her – even Mamie-Claire – think that was a dick move. But was it?

I do think Baumbach and Gerwig, who co-wrote this thing, were out to make a modern screwball comedy. The rhythms of the dialogue are very similar and the patter is snappy, although not in a retro way. I’m thinking that this is a brilliant move on their part because in many ways Gerwig is a modern Carole Lombard.

But as smart an idea it is, the ambitions here are a bit more than the pair can chew. The trouble with screwball comedies is that they are a bitch to pull off right, and there are so many examples of great films in that genre out there that unless you’re damn near perfect from screenplay to final film, your movie is just going to suffer by comparison.

The movie here isn’t perfect. It starts out with a couple of very annoying characters whose dialogue is so unrealistic, whose attitudes are just so smug and self-important that it’s incredibly hard to do anything but despise them. If I ran into Brooke and Tracy at a cocktail party, I’d quickly find other people to chat with – they’re way too pretentious for my taste. When I think of indie films that Baumbach and Gerwig have collaborated on previously, the first half of the movie has the worst characteristics of their worst efforts. I really was ready to write this one off before I was halfway through the movie.

Fortunately it gets better. In fact, it improves a hell of a lot and the scenes set in Greenwich are inspired. Gerwig always seems to do better in large ensembles than in smaller groups; when it’s essentially just her and Tracy with Tracy being a shadowy image of Brooke, the movie is just annoying. When Brooke has a lot of people to bounce off of, the movie is enjoyable. I think that Gerwig is one of those actresses who needs to be diluted a little bit and the more people she has to interact with, the better she is. Da Queen has said that she can only take Gerwig in small doses and I can see why she has that effect on her; there is a bit of a narcissistic quality to the characters Gerwig plays in Baumbach films and those types of characters tend to rub Da Queen the wrong way.

I was very torn with this movie. The first part is excruciating but the second part I really liked. So how does one rate a movie like this? Straight down the middle; a zero for the first half of the film, a ten for the second for a cumulative score of five. Be warned that the first part of the movie is hard to sit through but the second half makes the first half almost worth it.

REASONS TO GO: Gets better as it goes along. Gerwig is always charming.
REASONS TO STAY: Horrible first half. Characters act and speak like they’re in a 21st century screwball comedy.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In Lola Versus Gerwig played a character named Lola. In Gone Girl Kirke played a character named Greta.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/31/15: Rotten Tomatoes 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Frances Ha
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Digging for Fire

Frances Ha


Pretentions, anyone?

Pretentions, anyone?

(2013) Comedy (IFC) Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Michael Esper, Adam Driver, Michael Zegen, Charlotte d’Amboise, Grace Gummer, Daiva Deupree, Justine Lupe, Lindsay Burdge, Patrick Heusinger, Marina Squerciati, Britta Phillips, Juliet Rylance, Josh Hamilton, Dean Wareham, Maya Kazan, Ryann Shane. Directed by Noah Baumbach  

Since the advent of motion pictures, there has been a hidden conspiracy that is rarely spoken of out loud but exists nonetheless – the attempt to portray being in your mid-to-late twenties in New York as the best existence possible. Of late, that has been a banner eagerly taken up by indie filmmakers.

Frances (Gerwig) is an understudy for a modern dance troupe. She has vague ambitions for something more – mainly to make it on to the touring company, despite being much less talented than other dancers in the fold. The company’s director (d’Amboise) tries to break it to her gently that while she likes Frances personally that she simply doesn’t have a prayer of being anything but an understudy for the company, offering her an office job while she looks for options but that really doesn’t fit into Frances’ plans, what there are of them.

Frances’ roommate is her bestie Sophie (Sumner). The two went to college together, hang out together, play fight in the park, hang out and bitch about boys and boyfriends and smoke on their balcony. Sophie works for Random House and appears to be the breadwinner of the family. Her boyfriend Patch (Heusinger) works in the financial industry, is hopelessly preppie and converses with a kind of fake “Yo, bro!” bonhomie that is at once jarring and irritating to hipster sorts which Frances clearly is. Sophie alternates being smitten with Patch who can provide a stable future and abhorring the compromise in her soul that she has to make to keep him happy. Eventually stability wins and Sophie moves out to Manhattan, leaving Sophie in Brooklyn with no income and no apartment.

She finds a couple of rich hipsters, Lev (Driver) who is kind of magic as she puts it, and Benji (Zegen) who fits her personality like a glove, teasing her as “undateable” and leaping on her bed without warning like a five year old on a Sunday morning. After a trip home to Sacramento for the holidays, she returns having left Lev and Benji and staying temporarily with another friend, only to discover that Sophie and Patch are moving to Japan after Patch is transferred there. Frances is desperately lonely and floundering, caught in the rapids of life and not really knowing where they will deposit her. Even an impulsive trip to Paris (paid for with a new credit card, although she can only afford a weekend there and only the because some friends of the friends she’s staying with offer her the use of their apartment there) turns disastrous and fails to cheer her up. She is forced to find work as a summer Resident Advisor at the college she went to only a few years ago. How humiliating is that?

The admirable thing about Frances is that she doesn’t let life keep her down. She can be flaky sure, and her maturity level is roughly the same as an 8th grader in many way but there is a kind of innate optimism in the woman that is endearing. Frances and her friends are pretentious with the sort of pretention that is native to a twenty-something who has left the cocoon of college and has discovered that the reality of life isn’t what it was living with their parents. Like most of that age group, they discover that the dreams of childhood and high school are not handed over on a plate and aren’t received in a matter of months. There’s that suspicious knot in their bellies that their dreams may not be attainable at all and that the only thing that makes it bearable is liberal use of alcohol, intellectual discussions about authors and books that have the proper amount of obscurity to them and indie music as a kind of soundtrack.

Gerwig is an appealing actress who has become something of the 21st century incarnation of Goldie Hawn – she can play flighty but there is some grey matter there even if the character she’s playing has none. Gerwig co-wrote the movie and one suspects that there is more than a little bit of Greta Gerwig in Frances. While the movie is solidly written, like many indie movies over the last 15 years it sadly mistakes quirkiness for personality.

Baumbach (who in real life is involved with Gerwig as of this writer) is a director with amazing potential; movies like The Squid and the Whale as well as Greenberg show how able he is behind the camera. He chose to film this in black and white, leading to obvious comparisons with Woody Allen’s classic Manhattan (as well as a few with Annie Hall in tone if not in palate) and I’ll admit that the Big Apple has always had a particular appeal in the softness of black and white photography, although there is a curious darkness and harshness to the shades of grey here.

The appeal here is going to be to those in that 20-something age group, particularly those in urban areas who hang out in bars and coffee houses, clubs and cafes, art houses and bistros. There is a certain magic that age engenders and there’s nothing wrong with celebrating it. If older audiences such as myself are put off by it, there is partially a wistful jealousy behind it – my 20-somethings are well in my rear view and that decade is never coming back. The wisdom of my age group (that generally eludes those who are younger) is that every decade of life has something sweet to offer and that each can be as rewarding as any other – the 20s don’t have to be the beginning and ending of life. However when we are in the throes of the passions that 20-something creates, it’s hard to see what lies beyond the intersection.

If hipsters were vampires, they’d never be able to book this as a matinee. That is really who the target audience is here. I’ll admit there has been a hipster backlash of late, largely due to movies like this which can be infuriating (Da Queen, frustrated by flighty Frances, often glared at me throughout the movie and mouthed the words “I’ll kill you” for taking her to see this, a movie she knew from the trailer wasn’t going to appeal to her). However, those who are in that target audience are going to fall in love with Frances and her lifestyle. For the rest of us however, there’s a maddening condescending tone that prevents full acceptance and for that the rating is much lower than it needed to be, plus Frances is a bit too neurotic for my taste. That said, if you can overlook the film’s pretentions and faults, you might just find this to be worth seeking out.

REASONS TO GO: Captures 20-something angst nicely. Gerwig is sweetly effervescent.

REASONS TO STAY: Way too hip for its own good. Largely limits its own appeal to the age group that inhabits its frames.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some drug usage and a good deal of frank sexual conversation as well as some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actors playing Frances’ parents are actually actress Greta Gerwig’s parents.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100; critics love this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hannah Takes the Stairs

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Malice in Wonderland