DON’T THINK TWICE (Mike Birbiglia, 2016)
Landmark Sunshine Cinema
143 East Houston St. between First & Second Aves.
Opens Thursday, July 21
Massachusetts-born, Brooklyn-based actor, comedian, writer, and director Mike Birbiglia turns to the improv scene in the bittersweet and very funny Don’t Think Twice. The follow-up to his 2012 indie hit Sleepwalk with Me, which was adapted from his one-man show of the same name, Don’t Think Twice focuses on a close-knit group of friends who have been performing together as the Commune for eleven years, always holding on to the dream that they will be discovered and asked to join the cast of Weekend Live, a Saturday Night Live-style network sketch comedy program. Miles (Birbiglia), who still sleeps in a bunk bed like he’s a college student, is the ersatz leader of the troupe, which also includes Sam (Gillian Jacobs) and Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), who are in love; Allison (Kate Micucci), who also wants to be a graphic novelist; Bill (Chris Gethard), who lives in the shadow of his tough-as-nails father (Seth Barrish); and Lindsay (Tami Sagher), the only one for whom money is not a problem, supported by her wealthy family. Just as the Commune finds out that it is losing its lease and will have to find a new home, talent scouts from Weekend Live watch a performance and ask two of the six members to audition for the show, creating friction within the group, which only gets worse when one actually gets the gig. Jealousy, ego, and envy threaten to end long-held friendships while the six comics reevaluate their lives and careers, trying to figure out what they really want and whether there’s a real chance to achieve those goals.
Inspired by real-life events (but not a true story), Don’t Think Twice is an honest and poignant look at the fragility of love and friendship. Birbiglia transfers the playful feeling of the hysterical onstage improv comedy scenes — which were filmed at the Lynn Redgrave Theater, where his latest one-man show, Thank God for Jokes, recently completed a successful run — to the offstage drama as the remaining members of the aptly named Commune consider their future as individuals and as a unit. Jacobs (Community, Love), the only one of the protagonists who did not have previous improv experience (the others were part of either Second City or the Upright Citizens Brigade), takes to the comedic form with an intoxicating glee, fitting in exceptionally well with the veterans and particularly with Key (Key and Peele); they share a tender chemistry that propels the film. Birbiglia, who has toured with Gethard (The Chris Gethard Show), plays the schlumpy Miles with a natural ease that keeps it all real. Cinematographer Joe Anderson (Simon Killer, The Benefactor) weaves in and around the comedians as they perform (the improv scenes were filmed twice, once scripted, once not), putting viewers onstage instead of in the audience, resulting in a more cathartic experience. The film features several cameos, from Richard Masur and Richard Kline to — well, we wouldn’t want to spoil the surprises. Don’t think twice about seeing Don’t Think Twice, which is opening July 21 at the Landmark Sunshine, with Birbiglia and producer Ira Glass — Birbiglia is a regular contributor to Glass’s NPR show, This American Life — participating in Q&As after multiple screenings July 21-24, but they’re selling out quick.
THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE (John Cassavetes, 1976)
7 Ludlow St. between Canal & Hester Sts.
Wednesday, July 20, 1:30 & 9:15, and Sunday, July 24, 3:30
Series runs July 15-24
John Cassavetes’s 1976 gangster picture, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, is no mere neonoir shoot-’em-up but a deep and involving character study of a low-level jiggle-joint owner who fancies himself a classy, big-time player. Cassavetes regular and close friend Ben Gazzara gives one of his best, most nuanced performances as Cosmo Vitelli, a Korean War veteran who runs the Crazy Horse West gentleman’s club on the outskirts of the Sunset Strip. Instead of just having his female employees take their clothes off to music, he writes, directs, and choreographs ridiculous fantasy scenarios with songs, costumes, and dialogue, hosted by the shlumpy Mr. Sophistication (screen and television writer Meade Roberts) and poorly acted by his devoted harem, Sherry (Alice Friedland), Margo (Donna Marie Gordon), Haji (Haji), Carol (Carol Warren), and his lover, Rachel (Azizi Johari). After gambling impresario Mort Weil (Seymour Cassel) enjoys a night at the Crazy Horse, he invites Cosmo to his club, Ship Ahoy. Cosmo turns the outing into a pseudo prom, taking a limo to three of his girls’ houses, giving them corsages, drinking Dom Perignon, and bringing them with him to the secret gambling club, where he proceeds to embarrass himself and lose twenty-three thousand dollars. Because Cosmo is unable to pay the debt, Mort has a proposition for him, one that weighs heavily on the club owner’s conscience, but he’ll do just about anything to keep his beloved club.
Gazzara, who previously appeared in Cassavetes’s Husbands and would later star with Cassavetes’s wife, Gena Rowlands, in Opening Night, is extraordinary as Cosmo, a schlemiel who thinks he’s a smooth operator ready for the major leagues, although he has glimpses of the truth about himself. “You learn to be happy, you learn to play the fool, you learn to be what everybody wants you to be,” he says at one point. He cares so much about his productions (which evoke a Fellini-esque Cabaret in very strange ways) that even with his life in danger, he finds a pay phone to call in and see how the performances are going at the club. Cassavetes fills out the cast of sleazy mobsters and others with such distinctive-looking character actors as Timothy Carey, Robert Phillips, Val Avery, John Finnegan, and producer Al Ruban. Cassavetes and cinematographers Ruban and Mitch Breit keep the handheld cameras on the move, weaving their way through the lurid club and the dark streets, with natural light and sound adding to the often cinéma vérité, improvisatory feel. (One of the camera operators was Frederick Elmes, who went on to become DP on such films as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Night on Earth, and Olive Kitteridge.) The original 135-minute cut is way too long; in 1978, Cassavetes released a 108-minute version with substantial changes, including deleting a lot of the performances at the club, which was a very good idea. But the main reason to see The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is to watch Gazzara strut his stuff, his shirt unbuttoned to show off his chest hair, his sly smile nearly ever-present, knowing that he is killing it. The longer version of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is screening July 20 and 24 at Metrograph in the series “Cassavetes/Rowlands,” celebrating the king and queen of independent cinema by showing all twelve of Cassavetes’s films. Cassavetes died in 1989 at the age of fifty-nine, leaving behind quite a legacy. The series continues through July 24 with such other works as Love Streams, Shadows, and Faces, with Rowlands participating in several sold-out postscreening Q&As.
Who: Tovah Feldshuh, Adam Kantor, Michelle Slonim, Jackie Hoffman, David Chack
What: Panel discussion
Where: Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd St., 212-534-1672
When: Monday, July 18, $25, 6:30
Why: Yiddish theater is on the rise again, with the successful revival of The Golden Bride by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, which is back at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and the Drama Desk-nominated Death of a Salesman by the New Yiddish Rep. On July 18, Adam Kantor (Motel in the current revival of Fiddler on the Roof), stand-up comedian Michelle Slonim (Date Me!), Tovah Feldshuh (Golda’s Balcony), Jackie Hoffman (Once upon a Mattress), and moderator David Chack (past president of the Association for Jewish Theatre) will gather at the Museum of the City of New York to discuss “Yiddish Theater’s Legacy in American Performance,” being held in conjunction with the exhibition “New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway,” which continues through August 14.
HOOLIGAN SPARROW (Nanfu Wang, 2016)
Made in NY Media Center by IFP
30 John St., Brooklyn
22 East 12th St. between University Pl. & Fifth Ave.
The 2016 Human Rights Watch Film Festival kicked off last month with Nanfu Wang’s alarming debut feature documentary, Hooligan Sparrow, for which she won the annual Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking, and now it’s returning to New York City for a pair of one-week runs, first in Brooklyn, then in Manhattan. The film is a brave, disquieting look at Chinese activist Ye Haiyan, better known as Hooligan Sparrow, an advocate for sex workers’ rights, as she leads protests against a school principal who sexually abused six elementary school girls. “If you film us, we’ll smash your camera,” a man tells Wang at the beginning. Later she’s told she will be beaten if she doesn’t hand over her equipment. But she’s determined to keep telling the story any way she can. Sparrow, who gained notoriety for a project in which she offered free sex to migrant workers, is joined by Shan Lihua, Tang Jitian, Jia Lingmin, Wang Yu, and lawyer Wang Jianfen as she battles law enforcement, the government, and brothel owners, her safety and freedom in constant jeopardy. “If I believe something is right and I’m obliged to do it, they can’t stop me by arresting me or even killing me,” she defiantly says. She and her daughter, Lan Yaxin, keep getting evicted from their homes and banned from numerous provinces, but that doesn’t prevent her from protesting with such signs as “All China’s Women’s Federation Is a Farce. China’s Women’s Rights Are Dead” and “You Can Kill Me, But You Can’t Kill the Truth.” Born and raised in a remote Chinese farming village and currently based in New York City, Wang, who directed, produced, photographed, and edited Hooligan Sparrow, never backs down even as she meets with Chinese officials and is followed everywhere she goes, forced to become suspicious of nearly everyone she encounters. “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you,” Joseph Heller wrote in Catch-22. Wang clearly has reason to be paranoid.
The film is executive produced by Andy Cohen and Alison Klayman, who collaborated on the award-winning documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry; the Chinese artist and activist, who has been under long-term house arrest, took up Hooligan’s cause, and he included her belongings in an installation in his 2014 Brooklyn Museum retrospective, “According to What?” Wang, who has three master’s degrees, cowrote the film with Mark Monroe, who wrote the Oscar-nominated documentary The Cove and numerous Sundance winners. Hooligan Sparrow also features a subtly ominous score by Nathan Halpern and Chris Ruggiero that helps keep you on the edge of your seat as Hooligan and her group continue to fight the power, despite each of them being detained and imprisoned at one point or another — and some still are. Hooligan Sparrow is being shown July 15-21 at IFP’s Made in NY Media Center in the Screen Forward series, with director Wang and consulting editor Jean Tsien participating in a Q&A following the 7:00 show on July 15 and Halpern taking part in a Q&A after the 7:00 show on July 20. The film will then move across the river and into Cinema Village July 22-28.
Museum of Modern Art
Floor 6, Special Exhibitions Gallery North
11 West 53rd St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Daily through Sunday, July 24, $25
The splendidly curated MoMA exhibit “Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty” reveals the French artist’s dazzling, experimental work with monotypes, manipulating their tools and processes as if he were using a predigital, hands-on version of Photoshop. Born in Paris in 1834, Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas discovered the monotype technique in the mid-1870s, allowing him to expand his creativity and do things that no one else had done before. He “is no longer a friend, a man, an artist! He’s a zinc or copper plate blackened with printer’s ink, and plate and man are flattened together by his printing press whose mechanism has swallowed him completely!” etcher Marcellin Desboutin wrote in an 1876 letter, recounted in curator Jodi Hauptman’s introduction in the exhibition catalog. “The man’s crazes are out of this world. He now is in the metallurgic phase of reproducing his drawings with a roller and is running all over Paris, in the heat wave — trying to find the legion of specialists who will realize his obsession. He is a real poem! He talks only of metallurgists, lead casters, lithographers, planishers!” Degas indeed got his hands dirty, smudging ink, scratching plates, and painting over prints in a whirlwind of artistic fervor. Degas covered many of the same topics he had in his oil paintings and drawings, but employing etching, drypoint, and aquatint gave him a virtual freedom that he took full advantage of. In “Actresses in Their Dressing Rooms,” state 1 of 5 is gray and shady, the characters and interior harder to define than in the fifth state. One of two printings of “An Admirer in the Corridor” is like a ghostly version of the other. The monotype-on-paper “Ironing Women” is cleverly paired with the larger oil on canvas “A Woman Ironing,” capturing Degas’s differing takes on a domestic scene. But it’s not only the multiples that highlight Degas’s process. More abstract works such as “The River” and “Factory Smoke” are filled with a lovely mystery. Other subjects that Degas investigates include women in baths and brothels, putting on stockings, and reclining in bed.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is the series of landscapes from the 1890s, stunning monotypes of roads, mountains, and the moonrise that range from figurative to abstract. Of course, it is Degas’s love of performance, particularly of singers and dancers, that stands out. The same trio of dancers is the focus of “Ballet Scene” and “Three Ballet Dancers,” but in the latter Degas has drawn in pastel over the monotype, adding sparkling pinks. The black-and-white “Café Singer” is almost like a negative image of the colorful “Singers on the Stage”; in the pair, one can also see Degas’s passion for light as gas lamps became electric bulbs. Be sure to grab one of the available magnifying glasses to marvel in every little detail. Degas’s obsession with multiple images also found its way into his oil paintings and pastels, as seen in “Frieze of Dancers” and two versions of “Dancer Adjusting Her Slipper.” It’s all a tour de force that delights in this lesser-known aspect of Degas’s oeuvre. “He who is such an anarchist! In art, of course, and without knowing it!” Camille Pissarro wrote in an 1891 letter to his son referenced in Richard Kendall’s catalog essay, “An Anarchist in Art: Degas and the Monotype.” Anarchy may never have looked so good. The exhibition, named after a quote about Degas’s work from poet Stéphane Mallarmé, is supplemented with several of Degas’s sketchbooks in addition to etchings by his friend and fellow artist Ludovic Napoléon Lepic; the show continues through July 24, with the participatory program “Endless Repetition” led by Elisabeth Bardt-Pellerin on July 19 and 21 at 11:30.