Don’t Think Twice

Posted on August 4, 2016 at 5:53 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and drug use
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Sad offscreen death
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 5, 2016
Date Released to DVD: December 5, 2016
Amazon.com ASIN: B01IV40HUY

Life is pretty much improv, after all. We are constantly challenged to respond to what we cannot predict. But we do not have the two foundational rules that make performance improvisation so compelling. First is “yes, and.” Whatever anyone on stage says or does, everyone else has to build on it. If someone says, “Wow, it’s cold in here,” no one is allowed to say, “What do you mean? We’re outside and it’s warm.” You have to say something that takes what the first person said to the next level, maybe “Yes, who turned the air conditioning down to 60?” Or even, “Well, there’s really no practical way to heat an igloo.” It is the high-wire without a net act of improv group’s lightning quick, sharply observed, and deftly funny scenes that audiences enjoy.

Copyright 2016 Film Arcade
Copyright 2016 Film Arcade

The other fundamental rule is what improvers say to each other before they go on stage: “I’ve got your back.” Improv is about the group, not the individuals. “Don’t Think Twice” is the story of an improv group called The Commune, suggestive of its familial, interdependent, collegial quality. They are something like a family, if a dysfunctional one. While they have very different backgrounds and goals, the way they come together on stage is, at least for now, enough to make them feel they have a home together.

The closest thing they have to a leader is Miles (writer/director Mike Birbiglia of “Sleepwalk With Me”), who is a little older and taught many of them. He is still teaching improv classes and often has brief affairs with the young women who are his students. Samantha (Gillian Jacobs) and Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) are a couple. Allison (Kate Micucci) is a quiet woman who is working on a graphic novel. Jill (“Inside Amy Schumer” writer Tami Sagher) lives with her parents and is the only one who does not have money problems. And Bill (Chris Gethard) is making ends meet by handing out hummus and chips in the grocery store. “Your 20’s are all about hope. And then your 30’s are all about realizing how dumb it was to hope,” one character says.

The group is presented with some bad news and some good news, two crises that expose the fragility of their connection. They are about to lose their performing space, and there are no alternatives they can afford. And Jack and Samantha achieve the most coveted of opportunities, the chance to audition for a television program that is the equivalent of “Saturday Night Live,” a sketch comedy show that is a major cultural institution. Both put enormous pressure on the group, and the sense of desperation, jealousy, and competition shatters their pretense of unity and endless support for one another. At the same time, Bill’s father becomes critically ill, which gives them a way to continue to connect.

Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk with Me” showed great promise. The transfer from stand-up to screen was awkward, but the atmosphere and the specifics of life on the road as a comedian were exceptionally well handled and he is on screen, as on stage, an engaging character. Here he once again takes us unto a very specific world that we can all relate to, especially when it comes to the way the characters use humor to reach a place of honesty. Birbiglia takes a risk here, making Miles less likeable, but it works as he very effectively creates real and vivid characters who have to figure out who they are when they are offstage. While the first film gave us one perspective, this one expands with a clear-eyed but generous take on each of them. So, the individual stories work and they provide balance and counterpoint. Even family members have to grow up, accept responsibility, and decide when to change course.

Parents should know that this film has very strong language, sexual references and an explicit situation, rude humor, sad death of a parent, drinking and drugs.

Family discussion: Why is it important to say “yes, and?” Is it sometimes hard for you to be happy when your friends succeed?

If you like this, try: “Sleepwalk With Me” and Mike Birbiglia’s short film on YouTube, “Fresh Air 2: 2 Fresh 2 Furious”

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Comedy Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Independent

Interview: Mike Birbiglia and Gillian Jacobs of “Don’t Think Twice”

Posted on August 2, 2016 at 3:51 pm

Copyright 2016 The Film Arcade
Copyright 2016 The Film Arcade

Writer/director/star Mike Birbiglia calls his new film, “Don’t Think Twice,” “The Big Chill” of improv. Like the all-star 80’s classic, it is a bittersweet and often funny story of the stresses old friends face as the hopefulness and sense of endless possibilities of their 20’s hits the reality of their 30’s.  Keegan-Michael Key plays one member of a small improv group called “The Commune.”  When he gets a chance for breakthrough success on a “Saturday Night Live”-type comedy series, it forces the rest of the group to think about what matters to them and whether they will be able to achieve their dreams.

Birbiglia and co-star Gillian Jacobs spoke about the film in an interview.

The Commune leads off their show by asking the audience who had the worst day and using the details of their story to provide the premise for improvising a scene. Where does that come from?

MB: I do an improv show in New York called Mike Birbiglia’s Dream at the UCB Theater. I came up with that prompt one day as an idea because I feel like we can prove in real time the old trope that comedy is tragedy plus time. We had one the other night at the Del Close Marathon where a girl, 19 years old, said. ‘I just realized that my dad was cheating on my mom with prostitutes because we share an iCloud account.’ And so we were all empathetic and sympathetic and trying to create scenes that were respectful of that but also were comedic scenes and it was hard. For about 15 minutes there were not a lot of laughs at all and then eventually we found the laughter, and she found the laughter. Tammy who plays Lindsay in the film, was in that show. She called me the next day and she said, “Wow! That show yesterday, that was wild.The woman who made the suggestion thanked you on Twitter so you should respond.” That was really rewarding. We have to fund that hinge point, that pivot point.

GJ: I remember one show we did at UCB during rehearsals. Someone told us about his friend who had died recently and he was a very young man. For the first couple minutes there was nothing funny but then you realize, “Well, we’re not documentarians.” You’re not telling the story of that person’s life. You’re using that situation as an inspiration. Once people give themselves permission to let themselves be free to associate around any detail in the story, some absurd coincidence or detail about it, and build from there, maybe rather than tackling trying to make raw pain funny then you can sort of laugh around the incident as well.

MB: But also like in the film the scene where something happens to Bill’s dad and they are driving home and they are joking about it is an example of how with friends you can joke about things that are really sad and have it be cathartic. And I think that that can happen in theater also, I think it can happen in film also. You can express love by calling out the truth out of the situation as opposed to dancing around it.

Because The Commune is built on teamwork — the last thing they say to each other before going on stage is “I’ve got your back” — the struggle with feelings of jealousy and competition is especially painful.

MB: I wrote this thing on my wall early in the writing process: ‘Art is socialism but life is capitalism.’ It’s not in the film because it would be too on the nose. One of the guiding principles in the film is that in a lot of ways what you do with the group you’re collaborating with is more idealistic than the actuality.

GJ: I don’t come from an improv background but I really relate to the story in other ways. I went to Juilliard and in your third and fourth years of school there, agents and casting directors and managers start to come and it is really kind of what happens in this movie where some people start getting a lot of appointments and other people don’t. You try to sort of keep it quiet but they would put these yellow envelopes on the board and everybody knew that that was a meeting request and it would start to shift the dynamics because up until then it’s all about the group and much like the improv world. But then you realize you are all about to be set forth into the commercial world of this business and not everybody’s going to have the same career and even if somebody is deemed more talented within the confines of the school it doesn’t mean they’re going to have the most successful career. So I’ve just now start to remember how that starts to affect all of your dynamic. After you do a showcase for agency managers and casting directors and you get this folder and some people had a folder that was thick and some people had a folder that was thin. And there’s no fairness to it because it’s not a fair business.

MB: In a lot of ways, that’s what this movie is about. Life is unfair and improv is a great metaphor of that. My wife said that when she saw my improv group one, “It’s funny that everyone’s equal on stage but offstage that person is a movie star, that person is on “Saturday Night Live,” that person lives on an air mattress in Queens in a one bedroom with five dudes. And I thought that really hit me hard, I was like, “Yes, that’s a movie,” that’s a nice tension to explore.

What the difference between what makes somebody good at improv versus what makes them good at a more structured traditional theater performance?

GJ: I think in theater it demands that you say the same words every night and make it feel fresh and new. Improv demands that you be operating at the highest level of your creativity intelligence. So these two skills are both very important but I’ve seen people who are very skilled at one area struggle with the other. Either improvisers feel constrained by having to say the same thing over and over again or people who are really good at doing scripted work feel intimidated and exposed doing improvisation.

MB: You’ve got to remember that improvisers are writers and actors and directors all simultaneously. That’s what’s happening in real time because you’re writing on your feet, and you are acting out the words and you are directing what the staging is. You’re deciding what staging is. When I’m taking the subway to my improv shows I will be writing in my notebook different actions that I see people doing on the train whether it’s eating yogurt or looking at where their stop is, or tripping or holding a baby. It’s not preparing scenes and ideas as much as it is stoking your brain to think observantly. Just to place observations in your head, so that they are available somewhere.

Why is ‘yes and’ such an important part of improv?

GJ: Without agreement you just have people arguing. I think that it is important to establish a world of place for the characters in improv and there is nothing to be gained from disagreeing about that. So you have to establish the principle that if some person establishes one thing we’re all going to go along with it and that we are all building from it. Also it is important to stop being critical and judging ideas as good or bad because I think if somebody doesn’t have a lot of experience you worry their idea is going to be bad, it’s not going to be good enough, if not going to be active enough and so you can start to think critically about people’s suggestions or what they bring to it but once you get out of that and think whatever they come up with is the right thing right now and so I’m just going to build on it just makes everything so much easier and better. But I think we are used to being critical and evaluating ideas.

MB: And our fear leads us to say no all the time.

GJ: Or you came up with an idea and you can’t let it go because you think your idea is the right one and the good one. You thought you were coming in as a duck, you thought it was very clever that you were a duck, and they thought that you are a dog and now you are a dog. And now you are dog and it’s better that you are a dog. I also have learned as an actor, this ties in the principles of improv, sometimes someone gives a piece of instruction and my first reaction is “I don’t want to do that.” I’ve always learned that every time I just say yes and go for it something happens. Whether it’s what the intent of the direction was or not or something new happens. It’s just remaining open to other people’s ideas. And I think Keegan-Michael Key is in such a playful open place as a performer that he makes it fun to come along for the ride.

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Actors Directors Interview Writers

August 2016 — What’s Opening This Month

Posted on August 1, 2016 at 8:00 am

August is usually when the summer movie season slows down, but this month we have some movies that are sure to win at the box office and even a couple that might turn up on some end of the year best lists.

August 5

“Suicide Squad” — think “The Avengers” crossed with “The Dirty Dozen.” This “bad guys have to be the good guys” movie from DC Comics stars Will Smith, Cara Delevingne, Jared Leto (as The Joker), and, as Harley Quinn, “Wolf of Wall Street’s” Margot Robbie, my pick for the break-out performance of the summer.

“Don’t Think Twice” Mike Birbiglia wrote, directed, and stars in one of the best movies of the year, the story of an improv troupe, and what happens to the team when one of them gets offered a job on television.

August 12

“Sausage Party” A very R-rated animated story about food in the grocery store that finds out the release of being purchased is not the happy ending they had thought.

“Peter’s Dragon” Robert Redford and Bryce Dallas Howard star in the remake of the Disney fantasy about a boy and his dragon.

“Florence Foster Jenkins” It takes a great actress to play a terrible singer.  Fortunately, we have Meryl Streep, who plays the real-life wealthy woman who loved to sing opera and Hugh Grant as the husband who protected her from finding out that she was awful at it.

“Hell or High Water” Two brothers, one an ex-con (Ben Foster), one who has never broken the law (Chris Pine), rob some banks in Texas.  Two Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) go after them in this exceptionally smart, thoughtful crime story.

August 19

“Ben Hur” Jack Huston and Morgan Freeman star in this classic story of the Jewish prince who becomes a slave and wins a chariot race in the time of Jesus.

“Kubo and the Two Strings” An enchantingly beautiful stop-motion animation fantasy set in ancient Japan is a story in some ways about stories and how the stories we tell ourselves and those around us can transform our lives.  Voices include Rooney Mara, Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, and Matthew McConaughey.  I’ve seen it.  The ending had me in tears — and then took my breath away.

“War Dogs” Miles Teller and Jonah Hill star in this fact-based black comedy about two guys in their 20’s with no experience who won a $300 million contract to supply weapons to the Pentagon.  It did not go well.

August 26

“Southside With You”  Barack Obama was working at a Chicago law firm the summer after his first year of law school.  Michelle Robinson was his supervisor.  This is the story of their first date.  Even if their names were Smith and Jones it would be one of the most romantic movies of the year; knowing what was ahead of them makes it even more meaningful.

 

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