August 30, 2016
from Indy Week
The German historical drama The Lives of Others won the Academy Award for best foreign language film in 2006, and deservedly so — it’s a great film, track it down online if you can. But Little Men, the new indie gem from director Ira Sachs (Love Is Strange), is more deserving of the 2006 film’s title. In its most essential mode, this is what cinema provides: a sustained gaze into the lives of others.
The story of Little Men is simple enough. When his grandfather passes away, thirteen-year-old aspiring artist Jake Jardine (Theo Taplitz) moves into the vacated Brooklyn brownstone with his family. Jake’s dad, Brian (Greg Kinnear), is a struggling actor. His mom, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), is a psychotherapist and the family breadwinner. Money is tight.
The Jardines’ new home includes a downstairs storefront, leased by Chilean dressmaker Leonor (Paulina Garcia) and her middle-school son, Tony (Michael Barbieri). The boys become fast friends as the adults navigate an uncomfortable situation with the lease and a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. In short, the Jardines need to raise the rent, and Leonor can’t afford it.
Little Men is the kind of movie that requires and rewards attention. It’s extremely quiet, carefully observed, and beautifully acted. Kinnear is especially good, with his weary eyes and a fragile smile forever on the edge of collapse. He plays Brian as a kindhearted but impotent man in crisis, coming to accept that sorrow is now a constant companion. As the seemingly victimized tenant, Garcia cuts against the grain with some finely honed emotional cruelty. She bites.
The teenagers’ story, meanwhile, is held in perfect tension against the adult drama. Jake and Tony form that deep, instinctive friendship specific to adolescent boys. They’re old enough to know love but haven’t yet learned that, as American men, they must sublimate their feelings. Their loyalty is fierce. When the adults’ stupid money problems threaten to separate them, the boys fight back as best they can.
The performances, without exception, are piercingly intimate. Watching the scenes with the adults, I felt voyeuristic and even a little guilty, somehow, as if I were spying on my neighbors. That’s a testament to the actors, but also to Sachs. His direction is so natural, so subtle, that it renders virtually invisible those layers of filmmaking artifice we’ve come to accept. You lose yourself in these people and their stories, and only after the credits roll do you remember you’ve been watching performers in carefully composed images.
When a filmmaker can achieve this, it’s something like magic. Roger Ebert once described the movies as a machine that generates empathy, and Little Men is a perfect example. It’s an opportunity to shift your perspective for a couple of hours, into the lives of others.
Editor’s note: The local release of Little Men, which had been scheduled for August 26, was delayed until September 9 as this issue went to press.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Upstairs Downstairs”
August 27, 2016
from Indy Week
One of today’s most distinctive comic voices, Mike Birbiglia has a meandering storytelling style that occupies a very specific coordinate in the Venn diagram of funny business — somewhere among the intersections of stand-up comedy, DIY theater and confessional monologue.
When Birbiglia brought his one-man show My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend to Durham a few years back, I remember thinking it was the leanest, meanest, funniest thing I’d seen on stage in years. His other famous long-form comedy bit, Sleepwalk With Me, went through several incarnations — radio feature, touring show, book — before evolving into Birbiglia’s 2012 feature film debut as director.
Now comes Don’t Think Twice, Birbiglia’s new dramatic comedy (comedic drama?), which branches out into new but adjacent territory. The movie chronicles a group of NYC improv comedy performers whose bonds are tested when one of their number breaks through to big time success.
Birbiglia leads the ensemble cast as Miles, founder and de facto leader of the improv troupe known as The Commune. Miles is getting a bit old in the tooth. At 35, he’s still living in a makeshift dorm loft, teaching improv classes, and bedding his 20-something students whenever he gets the chance.
The Commune features five other regular performers, including Allison (Kate Micucci), an aspiring cartoonist and graphic artist; Bill (Chris Gethard), a brainy hipster with the requisite thick glasses; and Lindsay (Tami Sagher), a talented writer managing a sticky marijuana addiction. Barely.
The real trouble begins when Jack and Samantha — the romantically-involved cast members with the most star power — get invited to audition for the fictional Weekend Live, a thinly-veiled stand-in for Saturday Night Live. In an inspired bit of casting, Jack is played by Keegan-Michael Key, whose natural charisma cannot be suppressed in any medium.
As writer and director, Birbiglia does his best to service the stories of all six characters. Some arcs are more compelling than others. The heart of the film belongs to Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), who correctly assesses the situation when Jack gets his big break. His departure triggers a cascade of buried feelings and resentments, which Samantha manages to dodge with an inspired bit of self-sabotage. Sam doesn’t actually want to make it big. She loves The Commune as it is. She’s in the moment.
Compared to Birbiglia’s other work, Don’t Think Twice is surprisingly conventional in structure and form. To be frank, bitterweet comedies about struggling young creative types struggling are easy to find on the independent film circuit. After all, young screenwriters are constantly instructed to write about what they know. Birbiglia’s film moves to these overly familiar rhythms, and too many scenes creak with weighty contrivance. The film also maintains an excessively holy regard for the truth-telling power of improvisational theater. Will Jack and Samantha resolve their relationship crisis … onstage, in the middle of an improv scene? I’m afraid that they just might.
The movie is much more successful when it spirals out into those tangential trains of thought so familiar from Birbiglia’s storytelling stage style. One darkly funny bit has the comedy company debating the propriety of impersonating a guy who just came out of a coma. There are some additional and excellent riffs on obsessive-compulsive disorders and Liam Neeson movies. Also watch for Ben Stiller in an extended cameo.
Don’t Think Twice has good performances and plenty of laughs, and it should appeal in particular to anyone with an interest in the clockwork mechanics of comedy. But for a movie that extols the virtues of improvisation, it’s surprisingly self-conscious and by-the-book. Birbiglia is at his best when he’s moving sideways to established currents, rather than swimming with them.
August 2, 2016
from Indy Week
Poor Jason Bourne—that guy just can’t catch a break. As an amnesiac super-spy, he’s forever being shot at by people he doesn’t know, for reasons he can’t remember. Relentlessly hunted by every intelligence agency in the world, he must remain radically off-grid in places like Uzbekistan, Nepal, and Cleveland. When old friends get back in touch, they’re invariably followed by entire platoons of elite assassins. It’s hard not to isolate yourself in such circumstances. It’s a drag getting old.
Bourne is back in theaters this week, and once again his misery is our delight. Simply titled Jason Bourne, the movie reunites Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass, who helmed Damon’s last two Bournemovies. Though Bourne does look quite a bit older than he did when the series debuted fifteen years ago, there is no truth to the rumor that the new film was initially titled The Bourne Colonoscopy.
Look, these old man jokes come easy for a reason: The Bourne series is indeed showing its age, repeating itself in that way specific to established franchises. It ultimately plays out like a highlight reel from the other films, with the chase scenes, boss fights, and familiar story beats all landing precisely in their designated positions.
But that’s OK, because nobody does this stuff better than Greengrass. Jason Bourne is a skillfully built Hollywood spy movie, as crafty and efficient at delivering thrills as its hero is at dispatching Eurotrash assassins. And Greengrass’s extra-lean storytelling style is so singular it could be patented.
The setup is sturdy enough: Bourne is lured out of self-imposed exile by Nicky Parsons, his fellow rogue agent, played by Julia Stiles. Nicky has uncovered evidence that the U.S. is ramping up yet another black-ops project involving highly illegal methodologies—domestic surveillance, extrajudicial killings, the usual. Along the way, she picks up some information about a man who may be Bourne’s father. That’s enough to get Bourne back into the game.
The rest of the plot is disposable, really. It’s just the chassis upon which Greengrass and Damon build their high-performance summer-movie vehicle. The opening scenes, set amid violent austerity demonstrations in Greece, serve notice that the series will continue to comment obliquely on contemporary issues. Class rage and populist uprisings give way to subplots concerning digital snooping, monstrous technology companies, and Wikileaks. When Nicky’s data breach is revealed, one agency goon frets aloud: “This could be worse than Snowden.”
I’ve always liked that the Bourne movies are anchored in the real world and explore contemporary anxieties. That’s a calling card for Greengrass—a former journalist—and part of the franchise’s blueprint. But in the new movie, the sense of immediacy comes at a price. The story gets so mired in contemporary intrigues that it neglects the human element. As a character, Bourne has never been this machine-like before. I read somewhere that Damon has exactly twenty-five lines of dialogue, and I believe it. He has no real relationships with anyone—trust issues, I suppose. And Alicia Vikander, the new female lead, has ambiguous allegiances. Several times, I thought of the first movie’s tender moments between Bourne and Marie (Franka Potente), which gave the characters dimensions and the story a kind of breathing room.
This movie doesn’t breathe, or even blink. In a little more than two hours, it rockets through a dozen exotic locales, from Athens to Iceland to Las Vegas, with de rigueur stops at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. It’s a higher gear for a series that was pretty speedy to begin with, and Greengrass masterfully imparts visual information to keep the story moving fast. Those shaky-cam shots may seem chaotic, but rest assured that he’s led your eye to the precise thing he wants you to see—a specific face in a crowd, a particular word on a digital display.
Other new faces here include Vincent Cassel, in the rival agent role previously played by Clive Owen, Karl Urban, and several others. Tommy Lee Jones is the sinister authority figure previously played by Brian Cox, Albert Finney, and several others. The ingredients are different but the recipe stays the same. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. After all, the Bond movies have been successfully repeating themselves for fifty years. The Bourne franchise has evolved into a similar state: This is less a series now than a genre.
As in previous Bourne movies, the government agencies are motivated primarily by the fear that Bourne will expose their black-ops programs and bring all their dirty dealings to light. This plot device has lost much of its punch in recent years. Consider the Snowden incident—if some rogue agent spilled CIA secrets into the headlines tomorrow, I suspect the bulk of the American public would shrug and go back to their Facebook updates and Pokémon hunts. Strange days, indeed.
from Indy Week
Contrary to all the sexist noise online, remaking Ghostbusters with a female cast was not a bad idea. Of course not—with director Paul Feig behind the camera and Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy in front of it, it was an empirically good idea.
Unfortunately, the result of that good idea is a pretty bad movie.
In fact, the new Ghostbusters is lazy, uninspired, and really close to insulting. Feig and the film’s four leads—Wiig, McCarthy, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon—are all comedy professionals with strong track records. But this is a highly deficient comedy product. The script is so weak it should have never made it into production, and the performances aren’t good enough to save it.
The new Ghostbusters follows the same general story outline as the original. It’s an old-fashioned remake in that way, not a reboot or re-imagining or sequel or prequel. Wiig, McCarthy, and McKinnon play discredited parapsychologists who are kicked out of academia and make a break for the private sector. Jones comes on board later as hired help, like the character Winston in the original movie.
As a tech startup, the Ghostbusters’ timing is just right. Something sinister is brewing in New York City, and eldritch apparitions are popping up all over town. The team’s paranormal exterminator service is a success. They hire a ditzy receptionist—Chris Hemsworth, gender-switching the original role played by Annie Potts.
Many of the old story beats are resurrected: the remodeled hearse. The meeting with the mayor. The interdiction of federal authorities. The genuinely weird obsession with slime. The big showdown with a Godzilla-sized evil manifestation.
What’s missing is any playfulness, spontaneous fun, or consistent attitude toward the material. The movie’s very few comic sparks are generated almost by accident, in riffs that are clearly improvised, or by McKinnon, who brings her peculiar comic energy. I kept hoping that the camera might follow her out of frame, off the set, and into another, better movie.
In a way, the clumsy script reveals how flimsy the original storyline really was, with its proton streams and Sumerian mythology and portable ghost traps. Bill Murray and the gang worked some powerful movie mojo in the original. The comedy clicked in that weird and unknowable way that sometimes happens when parts add up to more than their sum.
Virtually nothing clicks in Feig’s remake. Individual scenes don’t begin or end; they meander in and peter out. The special-effects sequences are fine, but when Feig cuts away to our heroes, we don’t get crafted jokes or clever bits. We get standard-issue action dialogue at best, or stale one-liners that belong on Full House circa 1992. (“Boo-ya! Emphasis on the boo!”) Sometimes we get nothing at all, just McCarthy mugging—and that’s a huge waste, because she’s one of the funniest people on the planet.
Those terrific peripheral characters from the original—Louis Tully, Walter Peck—are replaced by inert stand-ins. The villain is a bore. The much-hyped cameos by Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and a few others fall flat—each and every one—in a rush of self-conscious awkwardness. Eventually, the film devolves into a frantic digital-effects showcase pretending to be a third act.
The initial misogynistic reaction to this remake was a genuine phenomenon, but I have never paid much attention to these knuckleheads who say women can’t be funny. It’s an opinion too dumb to engage, and life’s too short. Of course it’s idiotic to dismiss Ghostbusters because of the female casting—it seems amateurish to even comment on it. But it’s also wrong to give the movie a pass for the same reason. This is a big-budget studio tentpole movie, made by highly paid Hollywood professionals, and it’s a raw deal.
An interesting twist: There’s a rumor going around that studio marketing people deliberately fanned the flames of the hater debate to obscure the fact that they have a bad movie on their hands. That doesn’t mitigate the fact that there were flames to be fanned at all, but it’s just diabolical enough to be true. If you keep people talking about gender issues in Hollywood, maybe they’ll neglect to talk about how terrible this movie actually is.
from The News & Observer
It’s weird to think that filmmaker George Romero, with his 1968 film “Night of the Living Dead,” essentially created an entire new genre of pop culture.
Romero’s film was the first zombie movie, as we know the term today, and zombie movies quickly begat zombie comic books, zombie TV shows and, of course, zombie video games.
One of the best zombie games in the last few years, “Dead Island” was originally released for PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in 2011. The setup is pure Romero: A rapid virus outbreak at a tropical resort island unleashes waves of flesh-eating zombies. A small group of survivors move from shelter to shelter, fighting off the undead with improvised weapons and goofy dialogue.
For those who missed it the first time around, “Dead Island” has just been reissued as “Dead Island Definitive Collection” ($19.99 / rated M), souped up for PC and ported over to new consoles PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The package also includes the expansion “Dead Island: Riptide” and the 16-bit sidescroller “Dead Island Retro Revenge.”
An old-school battle
For new players, the “Dead Island” vibe is decidedly old-school. This is a first-person open-world game with some action RPG elements, including limited weapon crafting and XP-based skill levels. The game puts a premium on melee combat, and you’ll do most of your fighting with make-do weapons. For the first few hours, you’ll be fending off zombies with canoe paddles, lead pipes, even frying pans. Firearms and explosives come later.
“Dead Island” is an ostensibly open-world game, but to further the story you’ll need to follow the main quest line. The designers find some interesting variations on the old zombie story tropes. Will you need to track down an experimental vaccine? Of course! There’s always an experimental vaccine.
The setting and characters in “Dead Island” are particularly fun. The island resort is depicted as a sort of debauched Eurotrash destination for shady characters from all nations. Players can choose between four initial survivors, plus a fifth character with his own unique story line and agenda. You might be an Australian ex-cop turned VIP bodyguard, or a Chinese spy, or a washed-up American hip-hop star.
Whatever you choose, don’t expect the hordes of walking dead to discriminate – they just want to eat your brains. “Dead Island” features different varieties of zombies: Shambling “Romero” zombies mix freely with fast-running ghouls in the style of director Danny Boyle’s neo-zombie classic “28 Days Later.” Other delightful sub-types include the Butcher, the Thug, the Floater and the alarming specimen known as the Suicider.
Players who enjoy first-person splatter fights will dig the game’s up-close-and-bloody combat system and over-the-top gore. Those who prefer a more stealthy style of play will need patience. Guns and other sniper weapons aren’t even available for the first portion of the game, and the zombies’ tendency to attack in swarms makes melee fighting a messy but necessary skill.
For returning players, the new collection doesn’t add any additional content beyond the “Retro Revenge” game. But the designers have given everything a high-sheen polish, with upgraded textures, lighting and user interface elements. The visual upgrades are particularly noticeable on the beach, where the water ripples with bright gleams and, alas, the occasional severed head.
“Dead Island” never approaches the sophistication of the genre’s best endeavors – TV shows like “The Walking Dead” or video games like “The Last of Us” – but it’s not really aiming to provide that kind of experience. It’s a B-movie kind of game, good for quick-hit zombie fighting, a few hours at a time, when the mood strikes. Rumor has it that a new “Dead Island” installment is in development, maybe with a Hawaiian setting. The whole island paradise thing is kind of inspired, and provides a nice through line of grim humor: Worst. Vacation. Ever.
“Dead Island Definitive Collection” is available for PC, Playstation 4, Xbox One.
from Indy Week
Disney has been in the spectacle business for more than eighty years now, and its fantasy movies, both live action and animation, tend toward visual extravaganzas, especially in the modern summer blockbuster season. In this regard, Alice Through the Looking Glass does not disappoint. There are maybe half a dozen glorious set pieces designed to pop your eyeballs right out of your skull. That’s all you really need to know before springing for the 3-D version, which is the version to see if you’re going to see it at all.
Mia Wasikowska returns as Alice, reprising her role from director Tim Burton’s 2010 adaptation. The new film, directed by James Bobin (Muppets Most Wanted), includes a few visual nods to Lewis Carroll’s original book, but the script is largely the invention of rock-star Disney screenwriter Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast, Maleficent). Alice returns to Wonderland via mirror to discover that the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is in crisis. It seems that his family needs rescuing, and the only way for Alice to save the day is to travel back in time.
Time is personified, by Sacha Baron Cohen, as a kind of extra-temporal clockwork deity who rules from a mansion of mechanical marvels. His realm is the first of several fantastical locales we visit, and it’s a triumph of inventive visual design. It’s so difficult to present genuinely new images on the silver screen these days, but Disney’s design team conjures fever-dream wonders: Constellations of stopwatches hang in a perpetual golden dawn. Colossal steampunk ironworks are tended by skittering mechanical imps.
Digital effects are stitched seamlessly into the Victorian-era costumes and sets, which incorporate location shooting and historical artifacts, including some scenes aboard amazing nineteenth-century seafaring vessels. Alice’s temporal adventures involve navigating the Ocean of Time, where the 3-D effects pay off. Sit back and enjoy.
Wasikowska and Depp anchor the film with lovely performances. Depp is especially compelling this time around, as Hatter spirals into a darker kind of madness and despair. Disney’s team of artisans mixes practical and digital effects with makeup design, and many of the film’s most arresting visual compositions involve extreme close-ups on Depp’s tortured visage, or on Helena Bonham Carter as the villainous Red Queen.
Alas, the story never achieves the mythic resonance of the imagery. The movie often feels choppy and episodic, rushing from one set piece to the next. It’s best enjoyed on a scene-by-scene, beat-by-beat basis. Depp and Baron Cohen find some very funny moments with their characters, and there’s a stealthy through-line of feminist thinking. I also very much liked the film’s central theme of unconditional loyalty. To help her friend, the Hatter, Alice is fierce and courageous and willing to put the entire time-space continuum at risk. She’s pure heroine, as Ms. Yelich-O’Connor might say.
Kids aren’t likely to register the sophisticated thematic and visual artistry on display, but they’ll like the swashbuckling adventure and aforementioned eyeball-popping elements. Anyway, this kind of storytelling is good for kids in a cultural-mythology, eat-your-vegetables kind of way. If you’re escorting wee ones this weekend, don’t let them talk you into that Angry Birds movie. Alice Through the Looking Glass is the healthier option, and besides, who’s paying for the popcorn?
April 21, 2016
Nature has wisely arranged things so that we live through our youth while we’re young. With the energy we expend in our teens and twenties, and the changes we must navigate, we’d never survive otherwise.
Richard Linklater’s new comedy, Everybody Wants Some!!, captures this sentiment nicely. Set in the fall of 1980, it follows a group of young, perpetually horny college baseball players in Texas. Like many of Linklater’s films, all the way back to Slacker, it meanders and drifts, less interested in plot than in characters, situations, and moments. Linklater has billed the movie as a spiritual successor to his seventies paean, Dazed and Confused. In another way, it continues 2014’s Boyhood, which ends where Everybody picks up: in the first days of college.
Incoming freshman Jake (Blake Jenner) is a promising pitcher. He’s been placed in off-campus housing with the baseball team, a dubious administrative decision that leads to the first of many Animal House-style parties. We gradually meet the rest of the team: Upperclassman Finn and McReynolds are dismissive of freshmen in general and pitchers in particular. California transfer student Willoughby brings the dope and surfer wisdom. Niles, from Detroit, is an alpha dog who’s wound several twists too tight.
It’s so nice to be in the hands of a talented filmmaker like Linklater, who refuses to let his characters devolve into stereotypes. Just as in Dazed, the weird specifics of each cast member bounce off one another, generating authentic ensemble comedy. Everything that happens in the house, from playing ping-pong to smoking pot, becomes a competition. Ballplayers—what are you gonna do?
If the movie has an arc, it’s about the boys’ relentless pursuit of sex, an impulse Linklater treats as entirely natural and healthy. Going wherever the girls are, they roam like pack animals to the disco, the country bar, the punk show, and the theater party. In a rare moment of self-reflection, one jock observes, “Whenever we’re around baseball, all we talk about is girls. But whenever we’re around girls, all we talk about is baseball.”
Moments like this suggest the film’s quiet cleverness. On the surface, Everybody looks like a college comedy jammed with eighties nostalgia—Space Invaders, Devo, terrible mustaches. But there’s no toxic irony curdling it into a That ’80s Show-style burlesque. The movie’s primary colors are laughter, enthusiasm, and joy, and the dialogue is funny and revealing.
“I actually don’t think at all,” Finn says. “I just talk a lot.” That’s the trick, isn’t it? These are not thoughtful guys, but they live in the moment, and so does the film, in which Linklater reaffirms his place as our best chronicler of American Zen. Alright, alright, alright.
This article appeared in print with the headline “American Zen”