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)

eing a big Bob Dylan fan, the title of this film originally made me think of the legendary folk rock troubadour’s 1962 classic “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” but writer/director Mike Birbiglia wants us to relate the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


(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 again 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:


(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 the 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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EAT THAT QUESTION Gives Us The Gift Of Frank Zappa’s Gab


(Dir. Thorsten Schütte, 2016)

Back in the late ‘80s to the mid ‘90s, I was a big Frank Zappa fan. Read his book, had stacks of his albums on CD and vinyl, collected bootleg recordings of his shows on old school tapes, etc.

But somewhere along the line, I lost my taste for his music.

Despite a lot of excellent musicianship, a lot of Zappa’s material I decided then was smarmy, crass, and had no heart. I sold most of his records (I kept Hot Rats), and pledged my allegiance to the Velvet Underground, when it came to weird ‘60s bands.

So it has been a couple of decades since I’ve heard some of the songs that are sampled in the new documentary, EAT THAT QUESTION: FRANK ZAPPA IN HIS OWN WORDS, which opens in my area today at Silverspot Cinema in Chapel Hill.

As the title indicates, the film is largely made up of Zappa interviews, from his first appearance as a mustache-less musician making music using two bicycles on The Steve Allen Show in 1963 to his bearded, frail looking last appearance on The Today Show in late 1993, but there are a lot of excerpts from his songs, instrumentals, concertos, and chamber works linking Frank’s frank chats together.

The opening credits use of the twangy blues rock of “Trouble Every Day” took me back to the many times I listened to Zappa’s 1965 debut “Freak Out” with The Mothers of Invention, and I recognized a lot of the ‘70s and ‘80s concert footage throughout that I had seen, and probably had on VHS, back in the day. So the film acted as a refresher course for me, as it reminded me both why I liked and later rejected Zappa’s work.

I never stopped enjoying hearing Zappa talk though, as he was always a sharp and funny interviewee and that’s what this doc, the first feature film by German director Thorsten Schütte, shows in spades.

Zappa’s early interviews resemble Bob Dylan’s as seen in D.A. Pennebaker’s classic 1967 doc DON’T LOOK BACK and Martin Scorsese’s NO DIRECTION HOME as they were both artists that wanted nothing to do with the so called revolution of the times, and they both sneered at reporters over stupid questions.

Within the film’s loose structure, which is chronological but lacks denotations of what year footage is from, or what show Zappa is appearing on (I mean, I know who TV talk show hosts like Steve Allen and Mike Douglas are, but won’t somebody please think about the children!), the man discusses his background, his distaste for the drug culture (“I have fired people for using drugs”), his freaky image (“I was always a freak, never a hippy”), the making of his insane 1971 movie 200 MOTELS and how his first classical compositions came about (“I heard some of what the stuff sounded like that I’d been writing and it was so ugly, I decided to go backwards and get into the melodic area again, then people started telling me my melodies were ugly”).

I think I laughed the biggest during this doc when a concertgoer says to a reporter that what Zappa does “is anti-music.”

Speaking about criticism for the profanity on many on many of his recordings, Zappa tells an interviewer, “There is no such thing as a dirty word. Here’s my stock line about that: there is no word, nor any sound, that you can make with your mouth that is so powerful that it will condemn you to the lake of fire the time when you hear it.” 

One of the highlights of the doc is one of the highlights of Zappa’s career: his fight with The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) over the proposal to put warning stickers, later known as Parental Advisory labels on albums whose content is deemed to have violent, drug-related or sexual themes. A hilarious segment of Zappa’s 1985 Senate testimony against Tipper Gore and Florida Senator Paula Hawkins is shown, one that the man himself sampled on his The Mothers of Prevention” album released that same year.

Another late period highlight is Zappa’s trip to Czechoslovakia to meet with President Václav Havel, who was a huge Zappa fan and asked the musician to serve as a trade representative.

EAT THAT QUESTION was made in collaboration with the Zappa Family Trust, with Zappa’s wife Gail, who the film is dedicated to because of her 2014 death, and his youngest son Ahmet listed as Executive Producers. You may have heard about the family feud over the Zappa estate that has oldest son Dweezil and oldest daughter Moon fighting over their inheritances (however, both are thanked in the end credits). It’s funny to note that Zappa only speaks of his wife Gail once in the film calling her “a mean little sucker; a boss’s wife.”

Whatever one thinks of his music, Frank was a fascinating fellow whose outspoken views and abrasive talent could certainly hold an audience’s attention. Whether today’s audience will be interested is another matter. I would guess that this film is more for people who are fans or have some knowledge of Zappa going in than a newcomer experiencing his work and words for the first time.

But then again, maybe just what the kids today need is a good old fashioned freak out - albeit mostly in spoken word form.

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Friday, August 05, 2016

C’mon People, SUICIDE SQUAD Doesn’t Completely Suck!

Now playing at a multiplex near everyone:

SUICIDE SQUAD (Dir. David Ayer, 2016)

Upon leaving the screening for this film earlier this week, I wrote on my press comment card that it was “the best DC movie yet, but that’s not saying much.”

In the days since I’ve seen many variations on that line, so much so that it appears to be the consensus – go Google “better than BATMAN V SUPERMAN” and see what I mean.

Of course there are folks like this guy whose headline declares “Suicide Squad is worse than Batman v Superman. No, we didn't think it was possible either,” but I definitely enjoyed it a lot more than that monstrosity.

It’s not a great film for sure, but there are sections of it that work – the first 20 or so minutes, the set-up so to speak, hits the mark with slick, and funny intros to the main characters.

We meet the bleached white-skinned
, blue and pink tipped blonde, bright red lipsticked, crazy sexy cool Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the smooth, wise-cracking career hitman Deadshot (Will Smith); the fire-controlling ex-mobster El Diablo (Jay Hernandez); the reptilian cannibal Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who’s the “Groot” of the group; and the Australian badass thief Boomerang (Jai Courtney), all behind bars for various crimes that we see in snazzy flashbacks.

Viola Davis plays Amanda Walker, a U.S. intelligence officer decides to assemble these dangerous supervillains (plus a late addition, Adam Beach as Slipknot) a into a black ops team for a top-secret mission that involves saving Midway City, which is basically Chicago, from the destructive forces of an ancient witch called Enchantress (Cara Delevingne).

The team is under the command of Joel Kinnaman (The Killing, House of Cards, the ROBOCOP reboot) as Col. Rick Flag, a character that dates back to the original “Suicide Squad” comics (I just read this online; I’ve never read the comic).

But I haven’t even gotten to the film’s juiciest element, Jared Leto as the Joker, whose look with his neon green hair and weird braces outraged fans when it first dropped online, but it worked well for me in the context of the movie’s aesthetics. Sadly, Leto’s Joker isn’t in much of the film, but he makes quite an impression – more so than Ben Affleck’s Batman cameo – and has electric chemistry with Robbie, whose Harley Quinn is the Joker’s girlfriend.

The movie gets messier as it goes on with the team trotting through Midway on their mission in a manner that recalls the similar scenarios of THE WARRIORS and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK but with less of their classic gusto.

I feel like I did last summer when I bitched that the Adam Sandler movie PIXELS wasn’t as terrible as critics were saying it was (mind you, I still thought it was bad) when I write that SUICIDE SQUAD doesn’t completely suck, but I’m just being honest when I say I didn’t hate it.

Unsurprisingly, the parts that I liked were the ones that were most like Marvel, especially when it came to having more humor than their previous movies (MAN OF STEEL and BATMAN V SUPERMAN were as humorless as you can get). DC has their work cut out for them if they want to compete with Marvel’s incredibly successful business model but there are moments here that show that it may be possible someday.

David Ayer, who wrote the screenplay, is definitely a better director than Zach Snyder, but SUICIDE SQUAD is such a mismatch of different styles – sometimes it feels like the NATURAL BORN KILLERS of superhero movies – that he seems like he’s in way over his head.

I’ll still say it’s worth seeing as a matinee for Robbie, who doesn’t steal the film as much as owns it right off the bat, and Smith, who gets the lion’s share of the film’s laughs. I guess my expectations were low enough that I found some enjoyment out of this very mixed bag. If you go in like that, maybe you will too.

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Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Woody Allen's Lightly Charming CAFÉ SOCIETY

Now playing at an indie art house near me:

CAFÉ SOCIETY (Dir. Woody Allen, 2016)

Jesse Eisenberg makes a great Woody Allen surrogate. Previously he performed the function in smaller doses in Allen’s forgettable 2012 ensemble comedy TO ROME WITH LOVE, but here he gets to carry the movie as Bobby Dorfman, a young Jewish neurotic (of course) from the Bronx.

Allen’s 47th film as writer/director is a period piece set in the late ‘30s that follows Bobby as he gets a job working for his uncle, high powered agent Phil Stern (Steve Carrell) in Hollywood, and falls in love with Phil’s secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Thing is, she’s having an affair with Phil, who’s married to a woman that we never meet (the way they talk about the wife made me think she’d have some actual presence but no dice).

Citing that he can’t leave his wife after 25 years of marriage, Phil breaks the relationship off with Vonnie, and Bobby, who doesn’t know that his uncle was his competition, starts pursuing Vonnie romantically.

Eisenberg and Stewart, who’s first Allen film this is, have palpable chemistry together in their courting scenes, most likely because they’ve worked together previously as love interests in ADVENTURELAND (2009) and last summer’s AMERICAN ULTRA.

Carrell, also an Allen veteran (he had a small part as Will Ferrell’s best friend in MELINDA AND MELINDA), has a juicy role as Uncle Phil, though it’s not as comical as I was expecting. Bobby’s budding romance is cut short when Phil leaves his wife and proposes to Vonnie.

Sad that Vonnie chooses Phil over him, Bobby returns to New York and opens a swanky night club called Café Society with his mobster brother Ben (Corey Stoll in a slick hairpiece). Bobby meets and marries a blonde bombshell named Veronica Hayes, played by Allen newcomer Blake Lively, but when Vonnie and Phil visit the club, emotions are again stirred up.

The love triangle starts out resembling the one in MANHATTAN, but later recalls CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS. So yeah, big surprise – Allen again trots out some of his old trusty themes.

Shot by Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (LAST TANGO IN PARIS, APOCALYPSE NOW, REDS), CAFÉ SOCIETY looks gorgeous from start to finish. The glamour of golden era Los Angeles is lush, and the grittiness of Ben’s gangster world, in which people get wacked and then dumped into graves of wet cement, is splendid visually as well. It’s Storaro’s first film for Allen, and with hope not his last.

It’s an improvement over his last two films, MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT and IRRATIONAL MAN, but nowhere near the quality of BLUE JASMINE, which is one of Allen’s best later day films. Despite Bobby’s talk about all the industry talk, name dropping, and backstabbing of the “dog eats dog world” of showbiz, there’s a notable lack of stinging satire. The ritzy world of the beautiful people jet set isn’t so much commented on either. Allen appears to want to indulge in these old timey aesthetics, not skewer them.

Also Allen’s voice-over narration is really unnecessary as we can see what’s happening without him needing to tell us. Not sure why he felt it should be added.

Parker Posey, who was in Allen’s last film (IRRATIONAL MAN), and Paul Schneider play a married couple of happy socialites who befriend Bobby that I would’ve liked to see more of, as the blonde Posey lights up the screen, and Schneider just needs to be used more in movies in general.

With only intermittent flashes of wit, CAFÉ SOCIETY is only lightly comic, but its light charm made it work for me. Setting it in the post-Prohibition era may be just an excuse for Allen to again fill up a film with a jazz standard playlist – mostly Rodgers & Hart songs performed by Vince Girodano & The Nighthawks make up the movie’s wall-to-wall soundtrack – but it’s an era he obviously yearns for and one that can be fun to see him so lovingly recreate.

Sure, he did it better in THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, RADIO DAYS, and SWEET AND LOWDOWN, but there's still amusement to be had here.

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