Don’t Think Twice


Nothing says kooky more than a wheel of Improv players.

Nothing says kooky more than a wheel of Improv players.

(2016) Dramedy (Film Arcade) Mike Birbiglia, Gillian Jacobs, Keenan-Michael Key, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher, Emily Skeggs, Chris Gethard, Sondra James, Richard Kline, Sunita Mani, Steve Waltien, Kati Rediger, Pete Holmes, Richard Masur, Adam Pally, Lena Dunham, Maggie Kemper, Ben Stiller, Miranda Bailey, Seth Barrish, Erin Drake. Directed by Mike Birbiglia

 

Funny isn’t easy. If it was, everybody’d be a comedian. Of all the comedic disciplines, improvisation is one of the hardest. It requires quick thinking, a quicker wit and gluttony for punishment. Improv artists have a tendency to live hand to mouth and the odds of them making it are long indeed.

The Commune is a long-time improv group in New York City founded by Miles (Birbiglia) and currently consisting of MC Samantha (Jacobs) who is the girlfriend of Jack (Key), the most promising individual comedian in the group. Allison (Micucci) is an aspiring graphic artist and Lindsay (Sagher) smokes a whole lot of pot and is the daughter of wealthy parents who pay for her therapy. Finally, there’s Bill (Gethard), a kind of sad sack kind of guy who has a number of personal problems.

All of them harbor the ambition of getting an audition with Weekend Live (Saturday Night Live if they could have gotten the rights to use the name and footage). However, they’ve been hit with the bombshell that the run-down theater they’ve been using has been sold and is about to be converted to an Urban Outfitter; they have one month to get out.

But all is not lost. While they look for an affordable space, a couple of members of the Weekend Live group caught the group at a performance and have extended audition invitations – but only to Jack and Sam, largely because Jack grandstanded at the performance knowing that the cast members were there.

The group is happy for them, but it is happiness tinged with jealousy, anger and disappointment. Miles, who makes a great deal out of the fact that he had auditioned for the show ten years earlier and had been, as he puts it, “inches away” from the big time, is particularly out of sorts about it. He’s also teaching improv to pay the bills and beds his students whenever possible.

Bill is dealing with a family issue that is taking up much of his attention, although he is grateful for his fellow Commune-ists who surround him and make inappropriate jokes to keep his spirits up. However, as the days wind down, it turns out that Jack gets the gig at Weekend Live and Sam doesn’t, although she doesn’t necessarily see that as a bad thing for reasons that become clear later on in the film but you should be able to figure out without any problem. Now with Jack gone and the clock ticking, the group is beginning to disintegrate as it becomes clear that not everyone is going to have their dreams come true.

Birbiglia is a gifted stand-up comic and as his first time in the director’s chair for Sleepwalk With Me showed, he has some potential in that role as well. As in that film, his character here is not always the most pleasant of people – Miles is arrogant and a bit jealous of Jack’s success which only points out the lack of his own. He sleeps with students which is a major no-no even though the students he’s teaching are adults, and he puts down his friends with barbs that have just enough truth in them to bury themselves in the skin.

Key shows off his formidable talent here better than he has in anything other than his Comedy Central show with partner Jordan Peele. In many ways, Key mirrors his character; of all the actors here (other than Stiller, who makes a cameo as himself) he has the best chance to reach stardom. With more performances like this under his belt, he certainly will get a look from the studios and the networks.

Most of the main actors here have improv experience other than Jacobs and she underwent rigorous training in the art which as mentioned earlier is not as easy as it looks. As a team they work well together and the onstage footage has some pretty fun moments, but the drawback is that improv really is best experienced live; it rarely holds up as well on film. Still, the movie has an air of authenticity about it because of the experience of Birbiglia and his cast (as well as Seth Barrish, the co-writer who also appears as a Lorne Michaels-like figure in the film).

It is a dramedy so the moments of savory and sweet are fairly balanced out, although given the subject matter I would have appreciated a bit more comedy than drama. There is a little bit of tendency towards soap opera in the middle third as the relationships begin to collapse and the Commune begins to implode.

For all that, this is a solid film that has some wonderful moments (a discussion between Jack and Sam that makes it painfully clear that their relationship is over comes immediately to mind) as well as a few misfires. It’s definitely worth seeing, even if you aren’t into improv. The truth is that this is the kind of movie that might actually make you a fan, or at the very least, more respectful of those who practice the art.

REASONS TO GO: A glimpse of what goes into making an improv group work.
REASONS TO STAY: Could have used some more laughs.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s plenty of swearing and a good deal of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The cast performed as an improv troupe for two weeks prior to shooting. Some of the footage of their performances is used in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Punchline
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Our Little Sister

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Ghost Team One


Carlos Santos is uncomfortable around pretty women.

Carlos Santos is uncomfortable around pretty women.

(2013) Horror Comedy (The Film Arcade) Carlos Santos, J.R. Villarreal, Fernanda Romero, Tony Cavalero, Meghan Falcone, James Babson, Scott MacArthur, Craig Stott, Damien Amey, Felicia Horn, Sarah Chapman. Directed by Scott Rutherford and Ben Peyser

6 Days of Darkness 2015

Florida Film Festival 2013

Haunted houses aren’t what they used to be. You never can tell what sort of house will be haunted – from the suburbs to the country to big cities, houses and even apartments and duplexes can be haunted by all sorts of ghosts.

Roommates Brad (Santos), Sergio (Villarreal) and Chuck (Cavalero) are hosting a party in their apartment. All three are young Latino-Americans and while Brad is super-sexed and Chuck super-uptight, Sergio is a bit more of the party animal.

When a drunken Sergio staggers from the party to discover some fornicating going on in his apartment, at first he thinks nothing of it. However when he has an encounter of his own with a ghostly partner, it’s discovered that the apartment building used to be a Chinese brothel and the madam who ran it was apparently not a very nice person.

After inadvertently waking up the madam, Sergio and Brad unwillingly enlist the aid of the gorgeous Fernanda (Romero) with whom both boys quickly and quite decisively fall in love with. Sergio is irked because Brad already has a girlfriend – Rebecca (Falcone) – and Sergio really has it bad for Fernanda.

Their attempts to ghost hunt turns into a mighty crapfest of incompetence, sexuality and paranormal activity. Chuck shows an unexpected side and the boys have to figure out a way to keep the world – or at least their corner of it – from coming to a screeching, bloody halt.

This movie comes off as a bit of a satire of the found footage genre which quite frankly has overstayed its welcome by this point. Not that I mind a bit of good satire but this thing seems to just kind of be non-satirical as satire goes. Sure there are some funny bits – a line about sucking the demon out pretty much made me fall to the floor laughing – but the jokes are mainly of the goofy frat house humor sort. Frankly I thought the film would have been better served to eliminate the found footage trope entirely – and just tell the story as a story.

Some critics – alright one critic that I’m aware of – groused about the portrayal of ethnics here, specifically Latin and Asian playing to stereotypes but I think that especially the Latin roles pretty much ran the gamut of not just the Latin experience but the American experience. If white actors had played the same characters as white characters not a peep would have been heard. This is one of those occasions where the ultra-liberal get their politically correct panties in a bunch over what is really nothing. Frankly, I thought the movie portrayed Hispanics as able to take a joke about themselves. After all, if we can’t laugh at ourselves, who can we laugh at?

That said the chemistry between Santos and Villareal is genuine and carries the movie. You believe instantly that these guys are buddies and have each other’s back. Of course, that sort of thing is always open to interpretation but what is not subject to debate is that Fernanda Romero is smokin’ hot and I truly hope we see a heck of a lot more of her in future movies. The woman is sexy personified.

The movie goes off the rails a little bit in the climactic moments but overall this isn’t all that  bad even though critics panned this pretty much universally. I found it to be reasonably entertaining but not breaking any new ground, although I suspect the filmmakers went at this from a different angle than we’re used to. A little too self-referential, possibly a little too self-congratulatory, the film could have used a modicum of humble pie or at least tried a little less hard to take itself too seriously. I liked it more than most of my colleagues did which likely means you will too. Incidentally, the movie played the Florida Film Festival back in 2013. Just sayin’.

WHY RENT THIS: Occasionally really funny in a goofy frat humor way.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Would have been better off with a straight story rather than found footage.
FAMILY VALUES: Strong sexual content and graphic nudity, some drug use, a fair amount of profanity and some brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Romero started her career as a member of the Mexican pop group Fryzzby.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a blooper reel and a video diary.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9,195 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only). Amazon, iTunes, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Haunted House
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness continues!

People Places Things


A meaningful look shared.

A meaningful look shared.

(2015) Romantic Comedy (The Film Arcade) Jemaine Clement, Regina Hall, Jessica Williams, Stephanie Allynne, Michael Chernus, Aundrea Gadsby, Gia Gadsby, Derrick Arthur, Celia Au, Paul Castro Jr., Jason DarkChocolate Dyer, Catherine Cain, Charles Cain, Brandon O’Neill, Alexa Magioncalda, Gavin Haag, Jordan Edmondson, Kiowa Smothergill. Directed by Jim Strouse

Sometimes life deals us a bum hand out of left field. We’re just thinking we’ve got things figured out and Blammo!, we discover we haven’t had a clue all along.

Will Henry (Clement) is a successful graphic artist who is deliriously in love with his twin daughters (played by the real life twins Aundrea and Gia Gadsby) who are throwing a party in honor of their fifth birthday. He goes off into the house looking for his wife Charlie (Allynne) for some party business or another. He finds her all right; in their bedroom having sex with sad sack Gary (Chernus). Will is of course upset, but Charlie turns things around and makes herself out to be the aggrieved party. She wants a divorce and custody of the kids.

A year later Will is still suffering from depression over the whole sordid affair. He has begun teaching graphic arts at a New York-area college, having moved to Astoria in Queens which is a long train ride into the City. He sees his girls on weekends and leads a fairly lonely existence. At this point, Charlie announces she is marrying Gary – because she is pregnant with his kid. She also wants to take an improv class, so she needs someone to watch the kids and as Gary is too busy doing his monologues off-off-off-Broadway, Will is the next best choice. Will likes this idea very much; he needs to be around his kids more often than just the occasional weekend.

In the meantime, Kat (Williams), one of the students in his class, takes a romantic interest in him – not for herself but for her 45-year-old mom Diane (Hall), a lit professor at Columbia. Against all odds, they hit it off, despite Diane’s disdain for the graphic novel format in general. The two begin dating.

Then things start to go sideways for Charlie. She’s getting cold feet, and she explains to Will that she doesn’t want to make the same mistake as she did the first time – which leads Will to believe that she regards their marriage as a mistake. But she still has strong feelings for Will and he for her – so where does that leave Diane? Or Will, for that matter?

Strouse has a bit of a checkered resume, with movies that are close but no cigar on it (like Grace is Gone) but here he finally makes the checkered flag. While the story does not exactly break new ground in the busted relationships genre, it is told well and given much life thanks to some strongly written character and some fine performances.

Chief among them is Clement, who is quickly developing into one of the strongest comic actors in the world. His dry, deadpan delivery is hysterical all by itself but where Clement excels as he did in HBO’s Flight of the Conchords. One of his strongest traits is that he can take an everyday guy, put him in an everyday situation and find something funny to mine out of it. He’s not the guy who makes us laugh hysterically; he’s the guy that makes us quietly chuckle to ourselves because we can find so much common ground.

Williams is a comedy star on the rise, and although her role here is fairly brief, she makes it entirely memorable. Williams is as hip a performer as there is and she looks as good on the big screen as she does on the small; only bigger, if you catch my drift. It wouldn’t surprise me if she becomes as big a star as I believe Clement is going to be, which is one of considerable size if you ask me.

]There is kind of a mopey hipster vibe here that I found myself not liking so much at first. It took me awhile to decide that I like the movie, but it is worth the effort to stay with it. Yeah, it’s got that New York indie ‘tude that I sometimes find stupefying but there is heart at the center of the movie and most of it belongs to Clement who continues to impress after the earlier this year What We Do in the Shadows.

Again, not entertainment that is going to rock your world or change your views on life. Quietly though, it gets under your skin and stays there, maybe the perfect indie romantic comedy in that regard. And we all know how vapid indie romantic comedies can be. This one is anything but that; it is surely smart, quietly funny and undeniably well-written. Those sorts of films tend to be few and far between while the mercury is still hitting the high notes during the last dregs of summer.

REASONS TO GO: Clement’s dry delivery is intoxicating. Some nice New York images.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too indie hipster douche in places, particularly early on.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language, some sexual references and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Williams is a regular correspondent on The Daily Show during the Jon Stewart era and continuing into the Trevor Noah era.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Motherhood
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Mateo