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Catching Up on 2016: Don’t Think Twice

Don’t Think Twice, written and directed by Mike Birbiglia, tells the story of a New York-based improv group, The Commune.  At the beginning of the film, we see that the Commune is made up of a tight-knit group of friends.  They have a terrific camaraderie on-stage and they hang out together off-stage, watching TV together and traveling together.  But when one of their number is hired for Weekend Live, a big-time Saturday Night Live type program, the group fractures into competitiveness and envy.

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I haven’t seen comedian Mike Birbiglia’s first film, Sleepwalk with Me, though it’s been on my to-watch list for years.  Having now seen and enjoyed his second feature, Don’t Think Twice, I know I need to seek out Sleepwalk with Me without delay!  I knew of Mike Birbiglia from his stand-up comedy, and his (terrific) recurring role on Orange is the New Black.  That plus the stupendous cast Mr. Birbiglia assembled for Don’t Think Twice made this a film I was sure to track down in my end-of-2016 rush to see as many 2016 movies as I could before crafting my end-of-the-year “best-of” lists.

There is a lot of comedy in Don’t Think Twice, but this film isn’t really a comedy.  It’s an honest, painful-at-times look at the way that competition and envy can get in the way of art, and of human relationships.  Don’t Think Twice allows you to see the trainwreck-that-is-coming a mile away, which heightens its impact when it eventually arrives.  I spent much of the movie wishing the characters wouldn’t all behave the way they do.  I have great respect for how honest and human a story Mr. Birbiglia (who wrote and directed the film, in addition to starring in it) has created, how attentive he is to the way people talk and behave.

I love comedy and improv, and so I thoroughly enjoyed the behind-the-curtain glimpses Mr. Birbiglia’s film gives us to this world.  It’s thrilling getting to see the group perform on-stage, particularly at the beginning when we see them really on-fire, completely in-sync with one another.  It’s heartwarming to see the bonds of camaraderie formed by the members of this particular secret society, and heartbreaking to see how hard their lives are, having to work terrible low-level day-jobs and struggling to have enough money to live and to have a venue in which they can perform, all the while dreaming of fame and stardom on a show like Weekend Live.  

The cast is extraordinary.  Mr. Birbiglia kills it in the lead role, showing us all the ways in which his character Miles is an excellent improv artist but limited in other ways.  There’s something endearing about the way that Miles … [continued]

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Josh Suffers Through Netflix’s Love

Love is a ten-episode Netflix show created by Judd Apatow, Paul Rust & Lesley Arfin.  The show chronicles the slow steps along the way of two single people, Gus (Paul Rust) and Mickey (Gillian Jacobs), as the find their way into a relationship with one another.

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I was interested in watching Love because of the involvement of Judd Apatow.  I started watching Freaks and Geeks back when the pilot originally aired, and I was immediately hooked on Judd Apatow and Paul Feig’s gloriously unique, funny and heartbreaking creation.  I have been a huge fan ever since of pretty much every person who was in front of and behind the camera on Freaks and Geeks.  I eagerly followed Judd Apatow to his next TV show, the equally great (and, sadly, equally unsuccessful) show Undeclared.  When Mr. Apatow found big-screen success, I was thrilled, and I have enjoyed all of his films.  I adore The 40 Year Old Virgin, and even Mr. Apatow’s lesser big-screen works such as Funny People and This is Forty have given me a lot of enjoyment.  When I read that Mr. Apatow would be returning to TV a few years ago, producing HBO’s Girls, I was excited, though I quickly discovered that I did not really enjoy that particular show.  I stuck with Girls through its first three seasons before giving up.  I respect it as a well-made and unique piece of work, but I ultimately found all the characters to be so unlikable that I found watching the show to be a chore.

When I read that Mr. Apatow would also be producing a new Netflix show, Love, I was again excited.  Unfortunately, I feel about Love very similarly to the way I felt about Girls.  I hugely respect it as a well-made show, and it’s great to see such a specific, idiosyncratic voice brought to life on TV.  It’s clear that with both Girls and Love, Mr. Apatow is allowing his co-creators’ unique voices to shine through.  (With Girls, that would be Lena Dunham and Jennifer Konner, while here in Love it’s the married pair of Paul Rust — who also stars as Gus — and Lesley Arfin.)  It’s great to see these new, unique voices.  Sadly, it’s just that I don’t find myself enjoying either of these shows.

Freaks and Geeks was painful and awkward, but I adored each and every one of the characters, and so I could go along for the ride even when it was painful.  And the show was often able to be hugely, fall on the floor funny.  I can’t say that either of those things are true of Love.  There were a few big laughs, for sure, but … [continued]

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“I definitely did not touch your woo-woo!” — Josh Reviews Choke

Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) is a sex-addict who works at Colonial Dunsboro, an 18th-century re-enactment village.  He’s also a con-man whose routine is to pretend he is choking in a restaurant and then befriend the person who rescues him, ultimately hitting that unsuspecting “hero” up for a handout.  Oh yes, and after reading the diaries of his dying mother, he begins to suspect that he might be a clone of Jesus Christ.  Or, at least, a half-clone.

What a marvelously bizarre movie!!

At this point I’ve become convinced that I will watch Sam Rockwell in anything.  I first noticed him in Galaxy Quest, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind has become one of my favorite movies.  He’s even great is smallish supporting roles, as he was in Frost/Nixon.  The energetic way in which Rockwell embodies Victor gives this film its life.  Adapted from a novel by Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club), the movie could very easily have become a dour, joyless affair.  But Rockwell’s Victor is just so entertaining to watch, even when he is being a total jackass, that he carries the viewer without any complaint through some of the movie’s rougher patches.  

The supporting cast is equally phenomenal.  Brad William Henke (currently wondering what lies in the shadow of the statue on Lost) is hysterical as Victor’s somewhat dim friend Denny.  Anjelica Houston’s performance here reminds me of the similarly mysterious and flawed mother figure that she played in The Darjeeling Limited the year before, but that’s not a criticism.  She’s especially compelling in the flashback scenes, where we see how her particular brand of craziness sent Victor down the road to becoming the screwed-up fellow he is when we meet him.  Gillian Jacobs breathes a lot of heart and soul into her small role as Beth/”Cherry Daquiri.”  She is also, I might add, stunningly beautiful.  Speaking of beautiful, I found myself completely smitten (as is Victor) by Kelly MacDonald (Gosford Park, No Country for Old Men) as Paige Marshall, who Victor meets at the private hospital where his mother is being treated.  I can really believe that she is the individual who can shake Victor out of the terrible rut that his life has become.  

Choke deals quite frankly with sex and a lot of sexual situations.  In some indie movies I find that frankness to be a bit uncomfortable, but here the subject matter is treated with just enough of a touch of humor that I went along quite eagerly for the ride.  There’s a lot of weirdness to be found in Choke, and Victor’s habit of imagining the people he’s interacting with naked is just one small part of this!  … [continued]