Don’t Think Twice (Mike Birbiglia, 2016). This rueful comedy follows a modestly successful improv group that starts buckling when one member (Keegan-Michael Key) get his big break through being cast on a national television show akin to Saturday Night Live. Writer-director Mike Birbiglia (who also plays the downtrodden leader of the improv group, picking at his wounds of professional rejection) brings an appropriately loose and scrappy vibe to the film. That worn-sneaker charm combines with Birbiglia’s obvious extensive knowledge of the mid-level comedy world depicted to give the film a nice tang of authenticity, even when some of the interpersonal shifts feel overly familiar and predictable. In a strong cast, Gillian Jacobs is the standout, bringing depth and emotional integrity to a troupe member coming to terms with her more modest aspirations in the face of others’ insistence that she should be striving for greater heights in showbiz.
Relic (Natalie Erika James, 2020). The debut feature from Natalie Erika James is like the less ambitious cousin of Ari Aster’s Hereditary. In this instance, the family starts their trip down the alleyway of unsettling happenings when elderly Edna (Robyn Nevin) goes missing, bringing her daughter (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter (Bella Heathcoate) out to her rural home in hopes of finding her. Edna turns up, but there are signs that all is not well, and the ver structure of the house starts to reflect those ill tidings. James conveys mood with formidable skill and there’s potency to her overarching metaphor about the creeping obsolescence of aging. The script is thin enough that the actors sometimes struggle to get a foothold, with Mortimer seeming the most like she’s waiting futilely for another course that’s never going to arrive. But James has real skill behind the camera. Relic looks like a flawed but fine start to a directing career.
Archive (Gavin Rothery, 2020). Before taking a stab at directing, Gavin Rothery did design work on several video games and Duncan Jones’s Moon. Understandably, then, Archive is filled with long, loving shots of remote research outpost where an engineer named George (Theo James) is developing robot companions with complex artificial intelligence. George’s sad backstory is shared in bits and pieces, each new detail providing insight as to why he’s working so hard to get past the boxy designs of his first two prototypes to a more comely model. Rothery aspires to heavy-duty sci fi, but Archive feels early-two-thousands, straight-to-DVD chintzy, from its wooden leading man to the paycheck villainy embedded in a character actor cameo (Toby Jones, in this instance) to the supposedly mind-blowing switcheroo ending.