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‘Don’t Think Twice’ Is a Surprisingly Heartfelt Comedy About Improv

don't think twice

A feature film that centers around the life and times of an improv group in New York City definitely sounds like something a screenwriter in LA would pitch to his bosses at least once a year. That’s because you can make a decent film out of just about any idea, but it can be very challenging to craft a relatable film from a singular art, especially one that’s literally built around the idea of people “making things up as they go along.”

We can expect this kind of specific storytelling from a talent like Mike Birbiglia, one of the most understated comedians in the industry, as well as an exciting director and writer. His last film, Sleepwalk With Me, was a dramatic retelling of one of his most famous standup routines, an emotional (and funny) story about how his desperation to avoid marriage and commitment drove him to sleepwalking through a window and out of a building.

Don’t Think Twice is a stronger and more humorous film overall, but it still follows Birbiglia’s pattern of choosing one critical, uncomfortable plot point and driving the rest of the narrative around it. In this case, he’s going after the jealousy that forms from when someone becomes rapidly successful, and how that alters the lives and relationships of his closest friends (even the tagline drives this home with “the spotlight is not for everyone”).

This just happens to involve a popular improv group made up of six friends with immediate comedic talent as improvisation performers. They get on stage each week and play out improvised situations, always leaning off of the audience support of someone who has had a particularly hard day.

don't think twice

Don’t Think Twice kicks off in the middle of some harder times for the group, and it’s pushed further when Jack (played by Keegan-Michael Key) gets an audition for Weekend Live, the movie’s version of Saturday Night Live. Though his friends initially support him, it becomes clear that Jack’s newfound fame isn’t doing anything to improve his current relationships, including his romantic relationship with Sam (played by the true star of the film, Gillian Jacobs).

What follows from there is a deeply involved dramatic comedy that pits each improv member against each other and themselves, always decrying the “need” for selling out, while simultaneously working to make sense out of how Jack’s success says more about them than it does him. Jack’s 36-year-old teacher, Miles (played by Birbiglia), is the biggest culprit, as he can’t seem to understand why he hasn’t been able to reach the heights of his own students, moments after he’s lured another student to his “dorm room” apartment to have some fun.

The rest of the cast has less to do than Key, Jacobs, and Birbiglia, but they’re all as crucial to the film’s emotional punches as they are to the fictional improv performances they take part in. Chris Gethard as Bill gets a few small scenes that feel mostly servant to how his life affects the core members, even though he garners some of the biggest laughs from the film’s staged improv scenes. Tami Sagher gets even fewer attention, and tragically so, as she’s the only one in the group who is financially secure, despite losing her job and relying mostly on rich parents.

don't think twice

Kate Miccuci is certainly short-thrifted here, getting even fewer chances to have much of an impact despite her tremendous talent, but the saving grace is that Don’t Think Twice works best when the group is together on stage, at their favorite bar, and back at the shared apartment. Though not everyone gets their due, that’s sort of how improv tends to work, anyway. And as a result, Gillian Jacobs as Sam gets to shine in one of her best performances to date, culminating in a single scene toward the end of the film that is one of my favorite movie moments of 2016.

If you’ve ever had to deal with how friendships can always feel a little tense and competitive, which should be just about everyone, then Don’t Think Twice has something brutally honest to tell you, but it’s not a hand-wrung comedy. If anything, it excels more at being a vague, even loose passage of events, rather than a cohesive narrative that drives a single purpose that the audience must consume and accept all as one. In other words, it’s one of those few, modest films that actually has something for everyone.

Grade: B+

Extra Credits:

  • I love Sleepwalk With Me, but if you truly want a great intro to Mike Birbiglia’s comedy, check out his standup routine that the movie is based on.
  • Also, here’s a somewhat interesting fact. Mike Birbiglia is the first mainstream comedian I’ve ever seen live.
  • According to Birbiglia, the cast actually received instruction from a professional improv coach because Gillian Jacobs and Kate Miccuci had never actually performed this type of comedy before.  Makes sense, though, when you consider that Jacobs went to Julliard.
  •  Birbiglia has also stated that the premise behind Don’t Think Twice mimics how Judd Apatow reacted when his roommate, Adam Sandler, was cast on Saturday Night Live decades ago, before either were famous. The pair have collaborated on a movie together: the 2009 dramedy, Funny People.

    Thanks for reading this. Seriously. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hello on Twitter: @JonNegroni


 

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Review: ‘Sausage Party’ Should Have Been a Lot More Satisfying

sausage party review

Sausage Party is an adult animated movie that’s been in the works for six years, and it’s a concept that’s been swimming inside the head of Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill since as far back as 2007. And their original conceit for the film has lasted through the majority of the marketing, narrowed down to one interesting question: what if our food had feelings?

Lambasting the “secret life” trope that computer animated movies have been breezily reproducing since Toy Story (coincidentally coming full circle with this year’s Secret Life of Pets, the most brazen copy of Pixar’s first film yet), Sausage Party positioned itself as the Deadpool of animated movies. It was a much-needed satire that could let us reflect on the good and bad of modern animated comedy, cleansing our palates for whatever comes next.

Instead, the film is more like God’s Not Dead, but for atheists.

Set in a grocery store to the tune of a musical number straight out of whatever Disney movie you watched last, Sausage Party focuses on the lives of food, jars, containers, bags, and pretty much any inanimate object the plot chooses to put a face on (which is by itself a humorous parody of Toy Story). The food “people” of Shopwell’s are convinced that getting bought by “gods,” i.e. people, sends them to the “Great Beyond,” or Heaven in case you thought that wasn’t overt enough.

sausage party review

After a mishap that separates some of the main characters, we watch a series of disparate subplots unfold. One group of the food learns the truth about how horrific it is to get eaten, while another group wanders around the grocery store engaging with racist stereotypes of other food, segregated into their own “aisles.”

There are three critical flaws in Sausage Party that make the film an overall disappointment. First, the film is a confusing mess when it comes to narrative. The pacing of the trailer (a dramatic unveiling of the food quickly realizing that getting bought is their version of hell) works for comedic effect because it’s a focused story that gets to the good stuff, quick. In the actual film, the humor of watching food get massacred is almost a side note, occurring later into the movie away from most of the characters you care about.

Watching Sausage Party, you’ll notice that there’s a lot of meandering with its plot and characters. Scenes linger a little too long on uninteresting subplots that shift the humor toward food puns, existential hand-holding, and some of the laziest race jokes you’ve seen outside of films like Disaster Movie. In fact, this is probably the closest any of us will ever get inside the mind of Carlos Mencia.

sausage party review

This wouldn’t be as big of a deal if it weren’t for the second critical flaw of this movie, which is the humor. While Sausage Party has its fair share of well-crafted jokes, they’re unfortunately buried under weightless paragraphs of juvenile expletives, inevitably registering as vocal filler by the end of the first act. It’s almost as if the writers inserted f-bombs and s-bombs into a finished script simply to remind the audience that it’s fine for them to be watching what is otherwise a cheeky animated film that looks like it should be for children.

The final fatal flaw of Sausage Party is its message, or plurality of ill-conceived messages. At times, Sausage Party says something genuinely insightful about what it means to believe in something without proof, and whether or not it’s worth living life if you’re convinced there’s no possibility of hope. For many atheists and agnostics, this could have been a meaningful, even thoughtful representation of their frustrations within a world that mostly rejects their naysaying of a literal God or afterlife.

But Sausage Party is far too illogical and inconsistent with its message to be anything but a superficial bullet list of clichéd beliefs, about as substantial as junk food. It’s the animated equivalent of sitting through a conversation with a college stoner who loves to hear himself talk and inspire fear through self-prescribed fatalism, even though none of his metaphors or analogies hold water.

sausage party review

If all this weren’t enough, Sausage Party is also lacking in much entertainment in between the big moments. Sparse dialogue between characters is just barely passable, if not a little off-tone from the rest of the film’s irreverent attitude. And minor visual gags are about as intellectually satirical as a bumper sticker saying “DIXAR” instead of Pixar. Get it?

Ultimately, Sausage Party is a wasted opportunity of a brilliant idea. What would have worked as a dark, thought-provoking short film was stretched into a dumbed down think piece about how awesome and satisfying humanism would be if everyone was on board for one crazy day.

Grade: D

Extra Credits:

  • A few things kept me from marking Sausage Party with a straight “F.” First, it did make me laugh at times, though about as often as this year’s Ghostbusters did. But the main reason is that I felt completely deceived by this purported “satire” of animated films. It hardly is, and we deserve better.
  • Another thing I did like, most of the time, was the film’s willingness to recreate classic film scenes with food. Unfortunately, none of these homages ever amounted to much, save for the Saving Private Ryan scene you can see in the trailer.
  • This is Seth Rogen’s first screenplay for an animated film, and it’s the same team from This is the End (with many actors from that film lending their voices for this film). While that film felt quite original and frequently insightful, Sausage Party is almost its polar opposite in terms of a tight script and unique ideas.

    Thanks for reading this. Seriously. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hello on Twitter: @JonNegroni


Review: ‘The Visit’ Is Laugh Out Loud Horror

the visit review

The Visit was written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan and stars Olivia DeJonge from Good Pretender and Ed Oxenbould from Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Yes, I remembered the whole title without looking it up.

For the first time in years, Shyamalan has come back to do a film more closely related to horror, though not fully. And he’s partnered with the “it” horror studio right now, Blumhouse, who’ve found massive financial (and some critical) success with the Insidious and Paranormal Activity franchises.

In this found-footage movie, DeJonge and Oxenbould play a brother and sister who spend a week with their estranged grandparents — whom they’ve never met — in rural Pennsylvania. But the more time they spend with their grandparents, the more these kids realize that something very disturbing is going on with them.

the visit review

No one loves you like your grandparents.

The film cleverly prolongs the eery situation by passing off the blame to the grandparents’ old age and an affliction known as sundowning. And most people watching this movie will fall under the same spell as they try to make it through this bizarre week alongside the kids.

One thing I have to give the movie praise for is actually two things: the children. DeJonge and Oxenbould are a lot of fun to watch together, and their characters are incredibly entertaining. DeJonge plays a young teen named Becca, who wants to create a documentary about the visit (hence the explanation for why this is a found-footage movie).

Her goal is to reconcile the relationship between her mother and these grandparents, and if you read enough into it, you can actually hear Shyamalan sending a message to his fans in this way. Trust me, it’s not very subtle.

the visit review

Mom, there’s something wrong with nana and papa.

And throughout the film, you can see Shyamalan’s clever nods to filmmaking through Becca’s eyes as she sets up elaborate shots and conducts interviews with her family. It’s a nice touch to her character that pays off and adds some weight to why we should care about her. The brother, too, has a consistent story arc that is grounded in a 13-year-old boy I’m sure I’ve met before.

Even though these kids can get a bit obnoxious and half-minded, they’re never annoying. And that’s saying something considering the amount of scenes that display Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) rapping. It’s just silly enough to maintain the movie’s unique tone, which is an unexpectedly good mix of humor and horror.

That said, I’m not sure the humor/horror hybrid will work for all audiences. Some people just want straight up comedy, and some people want full-on horror or drama. Other movies that walk this line, like the excellent Drag Me To Hell, have a knack for polarizing audiences. And I have a feeling that people going into The Visit expecting another bad M. Night Shyamalan movie won’t know what to make of the film. At least until the third act.

the visit review

Would you mind getting inside the oven to clean it?

While the movie is certainly entertaining, I was more sucked into the atmosphere and characters than the actual story. There weren’t enough thrills or even scares to justify where the script goes, and a lot of the jokes end up falling flat. But these flaws all surround excellent moments and performances that should hold your attention and perhaps surprise you.

Is it worth watching a second time? Well, it’s been a day since I’ve seen this movie, and I already want to watch it again. And I’ll probably see it several more times, in fact. Yes, it will be fun to rewatch the movie to see it from a new perspective and all that. But honestly, I just love these characters and want to revisit their thrilling adventure.

Grade: A-

Of course, it’s great to see Shyamalan returning to the genre that made him a household name. And while this movie is somewhat flawed, I bumped its grade up on the merit of how much I want to see it again. Overall, I consider that the most impressive achievement on the part of the filmmakers.

I’m Jon and thanks for reading this. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hey on Twitter! @JonNegroni

Relationships Are a Lot Like Mobile Apps

When you download a mobile app, there is an initial excitement. You can’t wait to explore everything about it. Not even the bad things seem to bother you, like slow loading times and  an awkward interface.

Friends get bothered by how much time you spend with that mobile app. Every opportunity you get is spent on that app, alienating you from your other responsibilities.

relationships

Over time, however, the enthusiasm you once had for the mobile app you now possess has waned. You’re just not that into it anymore.

Maybe it’s because it wasn’t as great as you thought it would be. “This is fair,” you might think to yourself as you spend less and less time with the app you once couldn’t rip yourself away from.

You don’t want to fully break off the relationship you have with this app. You’ve both been through so much together, and you want it to still maybe be there in the future. You know, when you’re not quite as sick of it anymore. It’s harsh, but that’s how you really feel.

The problem is that what you really need to do is just delete the app from your phone. Any future interactions are going to be awkward anyway, and it’ll never really be the same. But you insist on trying to keep that app on the hook, tucked away in a folder for potential use.

But the mobile app isn’t ready to let you go either. It starts notifying you all of the time, begging for you to spend time with it again. You may even receive emails, reminding you of the features the app you used to offer you, pleading for your return.

The notifications become incessant, and you begin to realize that deleting the app should’ve been your first move. But you’re in deep now, and ripping off that band aid is going to hurt.

And now, you’re staring at the delete button, petrified. “What about all of the data this app has stored about me? Will deleting it at this point even matter?”

It’s true that the app may be still linked to your social media profiles and even email. You almost feel obligated to just get back together with that app out of sheer convenience. But you’re not a monster. You do what needs to be done. You remove the app from your phone once and for all.

You still see the app once in a while, hanging around the app store or being mentioned by a friend on Facebook. It bothers you less and less, however, as time goes by. You’ve moved on. You’re over that mobile app.

And that’s how relationships are like mobile apps. For the record, deleting an app isn’t being compared to killing the person. If your mind went there, please contact your local mental health counselor. I’ll probably be in the appointment right before you.

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