REVIEW: Don’t Think Twice

19 08 2016

Don't Think Twice“Comedy shouldn’t be a competition,” says someone from the New York improv group known as The Commune while watching “Weekend Live” (an obvious stand-in for “Saturday Night Live”) in “Don’t Think Twice.” Listen to a long-form interview with a real-life comedian – or better yet, read Kliph Nesteroff’s superlative history of the craft, “The Comedians” – and you’ll know that Lorne Michaels’ comedy institution is truly the end-all, be-all for anyone in the field. There is no getting around the fact that the show represents a kind of Holy Grail for comedians.

The reality stemming from the position of one show as a kind of de facto finish line for comedians does, in fact, make comedy a competition. It’s an objective result created by subjective criteria. There become winners and losers based on seemingly arbitrary, unknowable preferences. Acknowledging this provides cold comfort for aspiring performers and writers who can make tremendous sacrifices to pursue their dreams for years only to get upstreamed by someone fresher, newer … or maybe just more talented.

This existential dilemma forms the bedrock of Mike Birbiglia’s film as Commune member Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) gets the big call up from “Weekend Live.” The timing could not be worse, either, as the group faces an imminent crisis of continuation with the loss of their performing venue. If Jack is the chosen one from their troupe, then what becomes of everyone else who he cannot pull up?

Everyone deals with the reckoning in their own way – continue in comedy? Find a new group? Trudge ahead on the same path? Give up? Everything is on the table, and with their inflection point imminent, it brings out an urgency and honesty in every person. Birbiglia gives each character a story, a purpose and a chance to speak their mind without judgement – a remarkable feat given the Commune’s six comedians. The anxieties are highly specific to their field of choice, yet because of that, their internal tussles feel entirely relevant to anyone in an industry without a clear-cut trajectory of professional advancement.

There may well be someone in the film (mine was Gillian Jacobs’ Samantha, a spot-on representation of what it’s like to fear the next step in your career) who speaks to you directly. But you wouldn’t pluck him or her out of “Don’t Think Twice” and silence the other five members, right? There’s something special about hearing all the voices in an improvisational chorus, not a forced isolation. B+ / 3stars

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REVIEW: Keanu

26 04 2016

SXSW Film Festival

The hype surrounding the film festival environment leads even seasoned veterans like myself into making questionable life decisions. On my second day at SXSW, I hustled to the Austin Convention Center at 8:30 A.M. to get a prime seat for a talk with comedy qweens Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. That very same evening, after a full day of interviews and screenings, I decided it would be a great idea to go see the work-in-progress screening of “Keanu,” starring the comedy team Key & Peele. Who cares that the show was at 12:30 A.M. and, because of the daylight savings time change, would not let out until 3:30 A.M.? Minor details.

Was I in the best state to watch a film? Gosh no. But if “Keanu” could keep me (mostly) awake and (mostly) entertained, then it ought to pack a real wallop for anyone viewing under normal conditions.

The film seems reverse engineered from all the things people love to share on my Facebook news feed: cat memes, irreverent ’90s action film-style violence and the sketch comedy of Key & Peele. “Keanu” could not tee up its stars for more success, plunging their thinking man’s wit into the absurd world of the Los Angeles criminal underground once their pet cat gets kidnapped. Yep, you read that correctly. (To be fair, the cat did escape from a drug lord.)

After pushing buttons and boundaries with their provocative Comedy Central show, Key & Peele’s first foray onto the silver screen resembles 2010’s “Date Night” more than anything else. Remember that movie? With Steve Carell and Tina Fey, who were still involved in their hit NBC sitcoms? You might not because it was sub-par material, but you might have some faint recollection because those two stars brought their A-game and elevated the script to decent effect.

“Keanu” does the same for Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. The script (co-written by Peele with Alex Rubens) has its fair share of great comedic set pieces and hilarious one-liners. It stops short, however, of the depth of satire Key & Peele normally utilize to probe questions of race, gender and class. That slight disappointment mostly comes afterward, though. In the moment, it is mostly just amusing and ridiculous to watch a cat meme come to life as a full-length feature. B2halfstars





REVIEW: Tomorrowland

11 11 2015

TomorrowlandDisney’s expensive attempt at an experiment, “Tomorrowland,” begins with a rather preposterous proposition: the company has some kind of monopoly on optimism and innovation. The takeaway is, essentially, you’re an earth-hating pessimist unless you chant “It’s a Small World After All” in your sleep. (I’ll only make a parenthetical note here that the Futurist art movement inspired Benito Mussolini and the Fascists in Italy.)

The relentless attempts of co-writer/director Brad Bird, as well as his fellow scribes Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen, to associate hope and positivity with the Disney brand makes the experience feel like enduring a two hour infomercial. Or like a feature-length entrance video at a Disney theme park. Fashionable thought it may be to bash the gloominess of the present day, such a simple-minded response to the challenges we face only makes those hurdles appear more imposing.

Even when putting this distressing ideology at bay, “Tomorrowland” still proves a dull, uninspiring experience. The two plus hours revolve around the teenage Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) as a pin leads her on an adventure that takes her to a different dimension with George Clooney’s curmudgeonly inventor Frank Walker. This separate space, known as Tomorrowland, exists as a haven for intellectuals to escape the growing chaos of the world.

Naturally, a discussion of the merits and downfalls of Golden Age Thinking ensues, but it feels entirely unconvincing and disingenuous. This propaganda piece of shameless branding offers a Disney answer, not a real one. C2stars





REVIEW: Pitch Perfect 2

16 06 2015

While I was a repeat listener of the “Pitch Perfect” soundtrack, I most certainly had no desire to return to the film itself.  In my (admittedly harsh) review of the first film, I dubbed it “a comedy that inspires more groans than laughs and thinks it has a whole lot more insightful things to say about growing up than it actually does.”

So color me surprised to count myself a fan of “Pitch Perfect 2,” the rare Hollywood sequel that actually learns the correct lessons from the success of the original.  The music is tighter and catchier than before; the message, more potent and impactful.  The characters, too, are more relatable and hilarious the second time around.

Writer Kay Cannon, returning to script the series’ follow-up, cuts down the “aca-nnoying” pun humor to much more reasonable levels and finds great hilarity in just having the Barden Bellas interact with each other.  At times, she does this to the point of fault, as the many subplots of “Pitch Perfect 2” often overpower the main narrative of the group trying to regain their former glory after an ignominious display at the Kennedy Center.

That preoccupation with the personal hardly does harm to the movie, though, as these scenes are the highlight of the film.  Watching Anna Kendrick’s Beca attempting the tricky balance of professional exploration at a music company with her duties to the Bellas rings so true, and it also gives the actress a chance to showcase her vibrant range of emotions beyond the scowl she was limited to in the first “Pitch Perfect.”  Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy is another undeniable highlight, given a hysterical romantic arc with Adam DeVine’s Bumper; the two play off each other with remarkable comic intuition.

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