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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 Reviews Orange is the New Black Season Four

The fourth season of Orange is the New Black picks up right after the end of season three with the arrival of a large batch of new prisoners to Litchfield.  The new prisoners, along with a new cadre of COs led by the military Piscatella, added a variety of interesting new characters and stories to the series this season, though I was also pleased by the way season four continued to explore and deepen so many of the familiar characters who make up the Litchfield prison inmates and staff.

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I am pleased that I am enjoying Orange is the New Black as much as I am, this deep into the show’s run.  The show has wisely done what many felt it should have done from the beginning — pushed Piper somewhat to the background, shifting her from being the lead character to being just one member of the show’s vast ensemble.  Piper made sense as the audience surrogate character back in season one.  A key element of that first season was the way the show put the viewer into Piper’s shoes, exploring what it would be like for a relatively sheltered middle-class white person to suddenly be sent to prison.  That worked great in season one.  But the great discovery of that first season — and, I think, the main reason the show worked as well as it did — was the extraordinary richness of all the other (mostly non-white) characters in the prison.  As the show moved into seasons two and three, the Piper character began to feel far less interesting than so many of the other characters, and I started to resent a bit the time spent with her.  I like the new balance that season four has struck.  Piper is still an important character on the show, but she doesn’t feel dramatically more important than Red, or Taystee, or Crazy Eyes, or any of the other characters, and the time given to each of their story-lines felt more balanced to me.

The show has an embarrassment of riches, now, in terms of great characters.  There are so many wonderful characters, all of whom need to be serviced by the show, that this means that sometimes great characters have to be pushed into the background for a time — for instance, Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) doesn’t have much to do this season until the final few episodes — which is a shame but understandable.  For the most part, I was very pleased with the way the show gave time and attention this season to so many of its characters.  OK, there wasn’t such a meaty story-line for Crazy Eyes, but on the other hand there was GREAT stuff … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Orange is the New Black: Season 3

The first season of Orange is the New Black was a delight, a show that felt hugely original and stuffed full of wonderful, complex characters.  The main hook of that first season was the journey of Piper, a relatively ordinary upper middle-class white woman who suddenly found herself in prison.  The Piper character was a terrific audience surrogate as the show explored the world of a woman’s minimum security prison and as Piper, and we, got to know the fascinating array of characters — inmates and guards — found there.  In season two, the Piper character took a backseat as the show dove more deeply into all of the exploring characters.  The season had a strong narrative thrust in the story of Vee, whose arrival at the prison shook up almost all of the characters.

Season three of the show was very enjoyable, though it has neither the excitement of discovery of the first season nor the strong central story-line of the second season.  At this point, the show seems to have settled into something of a comfortable, “comfort food” middle-age.  I continue to enjoy spending time with all of these rich, complicated characters, though perhaps the show has lost some of the creative energy it had at the beginning.

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With the return of Laura Prepon, who plays Piper’s on-again-off-again nemesis-slash-love-interest Alex Vause, I’d expected Piper to return to center stage this season.  But instead, I found her pushed more to the background than ever.  I am not sure whether or not this was intentional on the part of creator and show-runner Jenji Cohen.  Is Piper still supposed to be the lead character of this show?  Or have they decided that we no longer need this “audience surrogate” character and that the show is now less interested in Piper and more interested in the deep bench of other characters of so many ethnicities and backgrounds?  I’m not sure if Jenji Cohen has become less interested in Piper, but I certainly have.  Taylor Schilling does the best she can with what she is given, but I was not at all interested in Piper’s flirtation with new sexy inmate Stella (played by Australian Ruby Rose) nor her turn as panties-selling crime-lord.  Piper has always been portrayed as flighty, but both seemed like sharp left-turns that made it difficult for me to sympathize at all with Piper any more.

The biggest pleasant surprise of season three was the new focus on the Litchfield prison guards and administrators.  Who ever would have though that Caputo (Nick Sandow) — such a despicable figure in season one, masturbating at his office computer — would become one of the show’s most endearing characters?  The present-day story-line casts … [continued]