Friday, August 26, 2016

DON’T THINK TWICE: An Improv Comedy Troupe May Not Be Alright


Now playing at an indie art house near me:

DON’T THINK TWICE (Dir. Mike Birbiglia, 2016)


B
eing a big Bob Dylan fan, the title of this film originally made me think of the legendary folk rock troubadour’s 1962 classic “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” but writer/director Mike Birbiglia wants us to relate the phrase to the rules of improv comedy.

Birbiglia, in the film’s brief yet informative intro, teaches that the three basic rules of improv are: “Say yes,” “it’s all about the group,” and “don’t think.” Birbiglia quotes improv guru Del Close to explain that there are no mistakes, that a player should “fall, and then figure out what to do on the way down.”

In his second directorial effort (his first was 2012’s charming yet a bit alarmingly autobiographical SLEEPWALK WITH ME), which he also wrote and produced, Birbiglia plays Miles, the 36-year old founder and longtime member of a Brooklyn-based improv troupe named The Commune.

The six member team is made up of the mostly recognizable faces of Kate Micucci (Garfunkel & Oates) as Allison, Tami Sagher as Lindsay, Chris Gethard as Bill, Gillian Jacobs (Community, Love) as Samantha, and Keegan-Michael Key (Key & Peele, KEANU) as Jack.

When Jack and Samantha, who are dating, get an audition for “Weekend Live,” the Saturday Night Live surrogate in the film’s world, it causes a riff between the players, particularly galling Miles, who claims that he had been “within inches” of getting a gig on the show back in 2003.

Jack gets cast, but his girlfriend Samantha freaks out and skips her audition, telling Jack that she was late and they didn’t let her in. The other Commune members hope that Jack can help get them hired as writers, but his new writing partner played by Adam Pally (Happy Endings, The Mindy Project) tells him to never, ever talk to the producer about his funny friends, advising that for his first year on the show “just don’t get fired.”

To add to the troupe’s troubles, their venue, The Improv for America Theater, is due to be closed in five weeks. Funnily enough, The Commune is told that another Trump building is going to go up in its place which leads to a bunch of Trump impressions (mostly variations on his catchphrase “you’re fired”) - notably, Birbiglia stressed on a recent guest appearance on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah that the film was written years before Trump’s hellish campaign that we’re inexplicably still dealing with was mounted.

So as Jack settles somewhat uneasily into his new job, his former Commune cohorts try to deal with change. Miles gets reacquainted with an old high school crush (Maggie Kemper), Bill stresses over his father being hospitalized for a motorcycle accident, Lindsay self-medicates with pot when she’s not in therapy paid for by her rich parents, Allison frets over finishing her long gestating graphic novel, and Samantha gets sadder and sadder over the fact that things are changing as she wanted her days with the troupe to go on forever.

Then things get really dicey when they see Jack reproducing one of their collaborative sketches on “Weekend Live” with that week’s celebrity host (Ben Stiller as himself).

Birbiglia’s film is a well observed look at what it feels like when a member of an established group leaves for greener pastures. It could serve as a theatrical version of the 1992 Morrissey song “We Hate It when Our Friends Become Successful.” It gives us an idea of what it may have been like when Will Ferrell was plucked from the Groundlings (the LA-based sketch comedy troupe and school) for SNL, or any number of examples of comedy stars that left their fellow players behind for bigger things.

When Gethard’s Bill says “I feel like your 20’s are all about hope, and your 30’s are about realizing how dumb it was to hope,” it’s an extremely relatable realization that’s not alone as the movie is packed with such relatable realizations.

It may be a small indie film, but it’s about dreaming big even if it feels like the world is telling you to move on. Birbiglia’s Miles and the rest of the ensemble know they are aging past the point where their dreams can be fulfilled, but they also know that letting go is the hardest part. And it effectively questions whether friendships can survive such transitions.

DON’T THINK TWICE is a comedy drama gem that doesn’t have a wasted moment or miscalculated line in its perfectly tight 92 minute running time. It makes good on the promise of Birbiglia’s debut, SLEEPWALK WITH ME, as it also plays upon the pathos of the difficult world of damaged people trying to make an anonymous audience laugh.

It wraps up nicely on a note of hope too, with Roger Neill, who provided the score, performing a touching instrumental piano version of the famous tune that shares the film’s name to accompany the end credits. So it appears that Birbiglia’s sweetly bitter love letter to improv has something to do with the Dylan song after all.

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Sunday, August 14, 2016

Meryl Streep Is Typically Delightful As FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS


Now playing at a multiplex or an art house near you:

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS

(Dir. Stephen Frears, 2016)


Because of the success of previous vehicles such as JULIA & JULIA, HOPE SPRINGS, and last summer’s RICKI & THE FLASH, it appears that August is a good month to release a Meryl Streep movie. And her latest is quite a doozy – it’s a biopic of Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy socialite who was branded “the world’s worst singer” by critics in the 1940s.

Jenkins was unaware that her singing was being laughed at because her husband, St. Clair Bayfield, played by Hugh Grant with his trademark suave grace, spent over two decades protecting his wife from who he called the “mockers and scoffers” by only allowing private recitals, and bribing reviewers.

Set in 1944, the film follows the legendary heiress as she prepares for a solo concert by hiring Simon Helberg (The Big Bang Theory’s Howard Wolowitz) as pianist Cosmé McMoon to accompany her. The faces that the new hire makes upon first hearing Streep’s Jenkins’ off-key wailing are priceless. Grant’s Bayfield and David Haig as Metropolitan Opera conductor Carlo Edwards are used to keeping a straight face, but Helberg’s McMoon almost losing it repeatedly upon every foul note is the movie’s hilarious highlight.

Bayfield dutifully takes care of Jenkins but their marriage is sexless, so after he puts her to bed, he scoots off to a separate apartment where he lives with his longtime mistress Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson).

Despite his best efforts, which include forbidding gossip columnist Earl Wilson (Christian McKay) from seeing his wife perform, the cat gets out of the bag when Jenkins makes a record of her performance of the “Bell Song,” the aria from the opera Lakmé that is treated like a classic novelty song – the kind people put on to laugh at, not with.

Then the grand lady wants to perform a free public concert for US Army servicemen at Carnegie Hall. This is the expected climax, but it plays with the predictable laughter turns into applause trope appealingly. Nina Arianda has a small but sweetly crucial part as a gold-digging trophy wife of one of Jenkins’ fat, rich patrons who morphs from a mocker into a fan.

Streep, who nails the horrible singing – just stay during the end credits to hear an original recording of Jenkins to hear for yourself – puts in another typically delightful performance. Despite her character’s historic lack of talent, Streep beautifully captures how Jenkins lights up when attempting to make music.

It’s a winning work, but it doubtfully will result in Streep winning another Oscar. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if it got her another nomination as it’s exactly the type of film those old Academy voters go gaga for.

Grant shines in his perfectly cast role, particularly when it comes to the film’s farcical last third that largely involves Bayfield trying to buy up every newspaper so that his wife won’t see Wilson’s New York Post review that panned her Carnegie Hall performance.

Working from a screenplay by first-time screenwriter Nicholas Martin, Stephen Frears’ (HIGH FIDELITY, THE QUEEN, PHILOMENA) serves up a polished period piece which breezes along from scene to scene, even if it feels a bit too tidy and formulaic at times.

That familiar biopic formula frames FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS right down to the concluding pictures of the real people, and text about all the players’ fates, but it doesn’t drag down the experience.

It’s a fluffy human interest story, but it’s a good, witty one with top notch acting, and considering this fairly lousy summer at the movies, I’ll take it.

See you next August, Miss Streep!

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Friday, August 12, 2016

Seth Rogen & Co. Throw An Animated SAUSAGE PARTY That Couldn’t Be Cruder


Now playing at a multiplex near you:

SAUSAGE PARTY

(Dirs. Greg Tiernan & Conrad Vernon, 2016)


If you’ve ever gone to a Disney, Pixar, or DreamWorks animated production and wished that it had lots of profanity, dirty jokes, and graphic sex, then Seth Rogen and a bunch of his comedy colleagues have the movie for you!

It’s the R-rated crude comic adventure romp SAUSAGE PARTY, which takes place largely in a supermarket (the fictitious grocery store Shopwell’s to be exact), and stars SUPERBAD team of Rogen, Michael Cera, and Jonah Hill as hot dog sausages, who dream of getting picked by customers, who they call gods, and taken to their new home which they call “The Great Beyond.”

The sausages are on a shelf as part of the store’s 4th of July weekend sale next to a bag of hot dog buns (in this world, sausages are male and buns are female). Rogen’s character, named Frank of course, is in love with a bun named Brenda, voiced by Kristen Wiig.

We learn through laughter that in the store full of talking food items the different aisles represent different nationalities and cultures. So there’s a Jewish bagel (voiced by Edward Norton doing his best Woody Allen impression) named Sammy Bagel Jr., who feuds with an Arabic flatbread (David Krumholtz) named Vash; a jar of honey mustard (named Honey Mustard, and voiced by Danny McBride); a lesbian taco named Teresa (Salma Hayek) who lusts after Brenda; an old Native American bottle of liquor named Firewater (Bill Hader, who also voices a guacamole gangster named El Guaco); and the villain of the piece: a feminine hygiene product, that’s right a douche named Douche, voiced by Nick Kroll amping up his best angry New Yorker accent.

The film’s story involves Rogen and his sausage pals getting picked along with the buns by a shopper named Camille (Lauren Miller-Rogen), but things quickly go awry when Honey Mustard, who’s been returned and has seen what really happens to food on the outside, tries to warn everyone in the cart that “The Great Beyond” is bullshit and they are being taken to their deaths. Not being able to convince anyone, Honey Mustard goes to leap off of the cart and Frank gets out of his bag to try to save him. A collision with another cart causes a massive mess of food destruction that is shot like a war scene a la SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.

The chaos leaves Frank and Brenda stranded away from their friends still in the cart and far from their home aisle. They hook up with Sammy Bagel Jr. and Vash and go on a journey to find out if what Honey Mustard (R.I.P.) was saying was true. The foursome find Firewater, who Honey Mustard told Frank to seek out, in the liquor section, and Frank gets the lowdown in a peace pipe of pot smoking session that includes joined by a couple of Non-Perishables: Mr. Grits (a box of slang talking grits voiced by Craig Robinson) and Twink (a twinkie voiced by Scott Underwood).

Meanwhile, the food that didn’t get killed in the crash finds out for themselves their fate when they reach the home kitchen of Camille and she proceeds to prepare dinner, which to them means their violent slaughter. Frank’s best friend Barry (Hill) is able to escape and encounters a human druggie, named Druggie (voiced by James Franco appropriately) with a Shopwell’s bag so he tags along with him in hopes of getting back to the store. Back at Druggie’s messy apartment, which, of course, resembles Franco’s pad in PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, Druggie shoots up bath salts and tweaks so hard that he can hear and understand the food, and agrees to help Barry get back.

The film’s last third involves Frank trying to convince the others that the so-called gods are going to kill them, but he finds resistance until he realizes that he must respect the beliefs of his fellow food items (an actual moral!). A war between the food and the humans ensues, and then the climax everyone’s been waiting for: an epic 8-miunte orgy that you can never unsee.

This is where the animators went all outrageously out. The film's directors, Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon, are veterans of tons of animated children's features (Tiernan has made many Thomas the Tank Engine shorts; Vernon directed SHREK 2, MONSTERS vs. ALIENS, and MADAGASCAR 3), so every raunchy idea they've been holding back all these years got to break free.

Although the novelty of f-bomb dropping cartoon food characters wears thin at times, there are consistent laughs throughout SAUSAGE PARTY. That is, is you’re a fan of Rogen and company’s brand of scatological stoner humor. I don’t know how much longer Rogen, who wrote the movie with his frequent collaborators Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter, and Ariel Shaffir, can put out these crude zany bromances, but I like that they’re placing their man-child themes inside a different genre, or at least, a different-looking genre.

So I commend Rogen and his buddies on making the first ever R-rated CG-animated comedy, which goes a long way in showing that these guys have no plans to grow up anytime soon.

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