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

P.S. I Love You


Hilary Swank contemplates Sunday morning alone with the Times.

Hilary Swank contemplates Sunday morning alone with the Times.

(2007) Romance (Warner Brothers) Hilary Swank, Gerard Butler, Harry Connick Jr., James Marsden, Lisa Kudrow, Gina Gershon, Kathy Bates, Nellie McKay, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Dean Winters, Anne Kent, Brian McGrath, Sherie Rene Scott, Susan Blackwell, Michael Countryman, Roger Rathburn, Mike Doyle, Caris Vujcec, Alexandra McGuinness. Directed by Richard LaGravenese

Cinema of the Heart 2015

When the one we love passes away before their time, the loss is devastating. Letting go is nearly impossible, particularly when the person who is gone is the person you were supposed to grow old with. I can’t imagine coping with that kind of pain.

But that’s exactly what Holly (Swank) has to cope with. Her husband Gerry (Butler), a charming Irish rogue if ever there was one, has succumbed to a brain tumor, leaving Holly completely devastated. She has trouble leaving her apartment, where her memories of Gerry are vivid. When she does leave, she carries his urn (containing his ashes) with her like the security blanket of Linus van Pelt. She calls her own phone number endlessly so she can hear her husband’s voice on the answering machine.

Then she starts getting letters, notes and missives from her late husband, the first one accompanying a cake on her 30th birthday which falls not long after the funeral. Before he died, he suspected that Holly would have a hard time adjusting, so in order to ease her back into society he has come up with a plan to help her get over the hump. Each letter comes with instructions of things to do – some of them she is kind of reluctant to undertake but bolstered by her mom (Bates) and two best friends (Gershon, Kudrow) she puts herself out there, intending to honor her late husband’s last instructions.

Along the way she meets a bartender with a huge crush on her (Marsden) and an Irish singer who was once Gerry’s best friend (Morgan) and slowly Holly begins to come to life. But will that life ever be as sweet again?

A lot of critics found the movie misogynistic and creepy but I disagree, particularly on the former. One critic went so far to as to say that the movie denigrates women because one of the things that rescues Holly is her discovery that she has a knack for designing shoes. Really? So throwing yourself into creative work isn’t therapeutic?  Some critics really need to have that stick that is firmly implanted in their anus surgically removed.

I will say that it is a bit creepy to have one’s life directed by their spouse after they’ve died (and to the film’s credit the Kathy Bates character says as much) but there is also a tenderness to it, a revelation of the concern of a husband for his wife even after he’s gone. Puts the “til death do us part” thing to shame in a way because this is beyond death. Sometimes, love is looking out for the one you love even when you’re not there to do it.

This is a very different role than what we’ve come to associate with Swank; she’s normally more in her wheelhouse when she’s portraying strong women. And that’s not to say that Holly isn’t strong; it’s just that she’s been completely brought to her knees by a sudden, unexpected and overwhelming loss. It’s enough to bring anyone to their knees, come to that and I found myself relating to her when I thought about how I’d react if Da Queen were to be suddenly taken from me. I’d be a miserable wreck, a quivering mass of goo on the floor and likely I would hide in my bedroom for a very long time afterwards.

That said, you have to give Butler and Morgan credit for playing charming Irishmen. For Butler it pretty much comes naturally but Morgan had to reach a little bit for that bit of blarney. Morgan’s career has cooled a bit since he made this and I don’t understand why; I always thought he had some leading man potential but that hasn’t panned out as yet for him, although he continues to steal the show of just about every movie he participates in.

This is a bit bittersweet for Valentine’s Day as it concerns the loss of a loved one and rebuilding one’s life afterwards. I can’t say as I think this is perfect for couples just starting out but for those who have put some mileage in their relationship it is one that allows them to consider how they’d deal with the loss of the other, and while that sounds a bit morbid in a way, it also serves to remind you that life is a great big chance and that the rock of your life can be snatched out from under you at any time, more the reason to appreciate every last moment you can with them, particularly watching a romantic movie like P.S. I Love You on the couch on Valentine’s Day.

WHY RENT THIS: Sweetly romantic. The feelings of loss for Swank’s character hits home hard. Morgan and Butler are both scene-stealers here.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The whole concept is a little bit creepy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some very brief nudity as well as a few sexual references scattered about.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jeffrey Dean Morgan had to learn to play guitar for the movie; his teacher was Nancy Wilson of the band Heart.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a faux instructional video (done in faux black and white with faux scratchy film) on the game of Snaps which is briefly mentioned in the movie. There’s also a music video by James Blunt and an interview with author Cecilia Ahern whose novel the movie is based on.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $156.8M on a $30M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (buy/rent), Target Ticket (buy/rent)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Definitely, Maybe
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Cinema of the Heart concludes!

Inugami


Inugami

Yuki Amami shows skills rapidly being lost in a modern world.

(2001) Horror (Kadokawa/Asmik Ace) Yuki Amami, Atsuro Watabe, Eugene Harada, Shiho Fujimura, Kazuhiro Yamaji, Keiko Awaji, Koichi Sato. Directed by Masato Harada

Japanese horror movies have grown in great leaps and bounds since the days of big lizards made of rubber suits. This new style of horror, nicknamed “J-Horror” by fans, relies on folk traditions, subtlety and atmosphere for horror. They also are known for delivering a knock-out punch in the sex and gore departments, something modern American horror movies have become awfully timid about in this day and age. 

Akira, a young teacher (Watabe) assigned to a middle school in the town of Ikeno, runs out of gas on the way there. He is picked up by young Seiji Doi (Harada) and is brought to the idyllic little village of Omine. There he meets Miki (Amami), a 40-something spinster who is part of the Bonomiya family. She has a little workshop where she hand-makes specialized high grade paper for calligraphy for the Doi family paper company, run by the aging harridan Katsuko (Awaji).

Akira quickly develops feelings for Miki and as school starts, is able to walk back and forth between villages for romantic liasons with Miki. The romance is obviously agreeing with her, as she begins to look younger and happier even as her family is tormented by nightly bad dreams, even matriarch Tomie (Fujimura). 

As the relationship between Miki and Akira begins to grow, she confesses to him a dark secret – when she was younger, she had a romantic fling with “the wrong man” who left her with child. She had the baby with the intention of giving it away, but it was stillborn. She has remained a spinster all that time, burdened with guilt and tending the newborn’s grave every day.

The Bonomiya clan is having problems. Patriarch Takanao (Yamaji) is something of a Luddite, forbidding television or radio in the home and yet, inexplicably, allows computers since he is developing an Internet business that eventually fails. Drowning in debt that is complicated by a gambling addiction, the brutish Takanao agrees to sell off Bonomiya land to a country club, a deal brokered by the Doi family, to retire his debts. This will also force Miki to move elsewhere, something she cannot bear since she loves the mountains so much.

The villagers tend to steer clear of the Bonomiyas and with good reason; as Tomie and Katsuko explain, the Bonomiya women are cursed with the Inugami, imp-like demons who reside in an urn who when loosed, bring the wrath of the dog gods on those who displease the Bonomiyas. A string of misfortune is blamed on the Inugami and the Bonomiyas and the villagers are growing restless and violent. Akira longs to take Miki away from all of this, especially since she doesn’t believe in the curse, but something ancient and sinister ties her with bonds harder than steel to the village.

The movie is brilliantly photographed, lush and beautiful. The village of Omine is an oasis of tranquility near a modern highway and railway line, depending on a river and ancient customs to make a slow-paced lifestyle for those who live there. Watching this, I could long for a village like Omine to decompress in.

There is little of overt gore and horror here, depending more on a sense of unease that something is not quite right. There is a great deal of sex in the movie and as is not unusual with Asian movies, subjects that are normally taboo for American filmmakers are breached almost casually. When the horrific climax begins, the movie changes from color to black and white, returning to color again when the events of the climax are concluded. The change is far more effective than showing blood and gore in living color. 

The plot line is somewhat confusing, so you’ll need a lot of concentration to keep up with all the subtitles, and you’ll occasionally be lost in the beautiful cinematography of Junichi Fujisawa. There are no monsters here, except the ones we ourselves create, and no ghosts except the ones that were already there in the first place. Inugami is a marvelous find, a J-horror movie that received little acclaim (as far as I can tell) when it was released in 2001, but one worth seeking out and certainly well worth the effort..

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous cinematography and dependance on an uneasy feeling for horror before the real shocking acts begin in the final reel.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot can be overly complicated for having to read subtitles throughout.

FAMILY PLANNING: There is a good deal of sexuality in the movie as well as a healthy amount of violence and gore in the final reel.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The inugami are actual figures in Japanese folklore; they have inspired a manga and anime of the same title that has nothing to do with this movie.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Limitless

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice


The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Alfred Molina is disturbed to discover that Nicolas Cage has blue balls.

(Disney) Nicolas Cage, Jay Baruchel, Alfred Molina, Teresa Palmer, Monica Bellucci, Toby Kebbell, Alice Krige, Omar Benson Miller, Jake Cherry, James A. Stephens, Gregory Woo, Peyton Roi List, Nicole Ehringer, Ian McShane (voice). Directed by Jon Turtletaub

 The world is a magical place, even the parts we can see. There exists a whole world, however, that we can’t, one in which the impossible is commonplace, and in that world good battles evil incessantly, barely in the lead although not without cost.

Balthazar Blake (Cage) is one of the three apprentices to Merlin (Stephens) – yes, that one – back in 840 AD, along with Veronica (Bellucci) and Horvath (Molina). All of them are in conflict with Morgana le Fay (Krige), who wants to enslave the world by using a spell called The Rising, which will raise the dead into an army for her. She probably should have put in a call to George A. Romero.

Horvath betrays his fellows and Veronica takes a bullet for Balthazar, winding up imprisoned along with Morgana in a grimhold, a nesting doll that acts like a prison. As the years roll by, Balthazar adds more of Morgana’s followers to the grimhold as additional layers to the doll until he finally captures Horvath himself.

But Balthazar’s work is far from done. The dying Merlin told Balthazar that only one sorcerer can truly destroy Morgana and it is Balthazar’s job to find him. It only takes about 1200 years, but Balthazar finally locates him. Talk about determination!

Young Dave (Cherry) goes on a school field trip and spends most of it trying to get the attention of a comely young blonde named Becky Barnes (List), whom he asks in a note if she’s interested in him as a friend or a girlfriend. Becky checks the appropriate box, but a coincidental wind blows the note all the way to a curio shop named Arcana Cabana which is run by – you guessed it – Balthazar. Using the test of a dragon ring, Balthazar realizes that Dave is the one he’s looking for; the Prime Merlinian. Note to writers: where do you come up with these names? It sounds like something dreamed up by a panel of math geeks at an MIT calculus conference.

Because he’s nine (or ten, depending on who you ask) years old, Dave manages to release Horvath from the nesting doll…err, grimhold, and all Hades breaks loose. Balthazar and Horvath manage to be sucked into a magical urn that will hold them for ten years to the day. Why? Just because.

Ten years later, the adult Dave (Baruchel) is a physics nerd at NYU when he runs into old flame Becky (Palmer) when he runs a physics primer for English majors, which is an idea which no doubt the administrators at NYU are scratching their heads and wondering “wha…?” about. Although apparently without a job and no visible means of support, Dave has placed several eight-foot Tesla coils together in an unauthorized lab in a subway turnaround. Why? Just because.

Of course, now the two wizards are out of their urn and looking for that grimhold, Balthazar so that he can protect the world and potentially destroy Morgana once and for all, and Horvath because he wants to resurrect Morgana and destroy the world. Why? Just because.

Balthazar knows he needs to teach Dave the basics of magic and quickly because (queue serious music) the fate of the world rests in his hands. Why? Just…oh you know what comes next.

The trio of producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Turtletaub and Cage has previously teamed up in the two National Treasure movies, which I found to be a seriously entertaining take on the Indiana Jones movies. This one is less effective although it still remains entertaining. This movie is a bit of a mash-up between genres, an action movie blended with a fantasy movie, sort of like Harry Potter in Die Hard. Expelliarmus mothereffer!

Cage and Molina are effective here, and you get the feeling there is a bit of a nudge and a wink in their work. They spend most of the movie lobbing plasma balls and one-liners at one another. Baruchel is less effective for me. He is the perennial dweeb in movies over the last few years, and I can understand why he was cast – Dave is certainly a science nerd. However, his hunched over posture, perpetual whining coupled with his inability to make intelligent choices, made it very hard for me to root for him. I was kind of hoping that Cage would turn him into a newt and save the day.

There is plenty of eye candy and most of it is pretty decent, although there’s a ton of plasma balls, fire streams and lightning bolts hurtling around. Some real cool sequences include a Chinese dragon (which while it was chasing Dave, made me think inadvertently of the much better movie How to Train a Dragon which featured Baruchel’s voice) and a steel eagle from the Chrysler building. There is also an homage to the sequence in Fantasia that inspired this movie which I enjoyed.

The trouble with movies about magic is that sorcerer’s should be pretty much invincible, particularly ones as powerful as these. For example, there is an extended car chase sequence in the last third of the movie; very well done, but it seemed to be fairly pedestrian. They could have easily done a chase with something more imaginative – invisible horses, beams of light, anything – and you would think that a sorcerer could wave his arms and turn the car into a mule.

Similarly, a crucial plot point involves Becky moving a satellite dish so that a spell can go awry. Wouldn’t the sorcerer casting the spell be able to move the satellite dish back into place? After all, they’ve been moving objects telekinetically throughout the movie.

But I digress. Anyone going to a movie like this and expecting Scorsese is a lunatic. This is Bruckheimer, and he excels at movies that entertain on a visceral level rather than inspire or educate, and that’s fine folks – we all need mindless entertainment once in awhile. However, I would have expected a movie about magic to be more, well, magical. Definitely this is entertaining, but it could have been done so much better with a bit more imagination.

REASONS TO GO: Cage and Molina do some pretty solid work here. The eye candy is effective.

REASONS TO STAY: Baruchel is a bit too whiny and foolish to get behind as a heroic lead. The whole car chase sequence seemed unnecessary and could have been handled more imaginatively.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of fantasy violence and some scenes of brief sexuality, but for the most part should be okay for audiences of all ages, although some of the creatures might be a little scary for the littlest of kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Abigail Williams is based on an actual person who was accused of being a witch in Salem, Massachusetts in the 17th century, ran away and was never heard from again.

HOME OR THEATER: There are enough sequences that have the gee-whiz factor that I give a slight nod towards seeing it in the theater.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: My Life in Ruins