Remember when you believed that Matt Damon’s long-awaited return to author Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne character was going to be one of the saving graces of the 2016 summer movie season? Yeah, so do I. Those were the days, my friends. And remember when you heard that Paul Greengrass, director of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, was also coming back to the franchise along with Damon (the pair also made Green Zone together in the meantime), thus virtually assuring that Jason Bourne would rule the big screen for the remainder of the summer? It almost physically pains me that I don’t have that good feeling in my heart any longer.
To be fair, I’m rather critical of people who allow their anticipation levels about an upcoming movie to get so high that there’s no possible way the actual film could live up to what they’ve built up in their minds. That wasn’t really the case for me, since all I was hoping for was something better than the Damon-less previous Bourne film, The Bourne Legacy. I wasn’t exactly shooting for the moon here, folks. In addition, my constant mantra to people is “Trailers lie all the time.” To those who dismiss films without seeing them because their trailers look bad, or, conversely, get pumped to see a movie because the trailers look good, you need to get out of the habit of relying on trailers to make up your mind for you. You’re grown up boys and girls now; please see a film before you start shit-talking it.
Still, it’s nearly impossible to look at a cast like that found in Jason Bourne and not get excited for what you’re about to watch. Fresh off her Oscar win for The Danish Girl, Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) takes a leading role here as CIA information specialist (she’s great with computers) Heather Lee, who has discovered that the agency’s Dark Operations computer files (filed conveniently in a folder marked “Dark Operations”) have been stolen by Bourne’s old friend and former agent/now hacker Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles). She arranges to meet the off-the-grid Bourne in Athens to hand off the files, one of which has very telling details about how Bourne was recruited into the CIA in the first place—a piece of missing information in his still fuzzy memories.
Lee’s boss is director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), a shady creature who had some type of connection to Bourne’s father, a now-dead CIA analyst. She believes that the patriot in Bourne wants to be brought back into the CIA fold, but Dewey has an entirely different agenda and secretly wants Bourne dead, while agreeing to Lee’s plan. In his back pocket, Dewey has a truly nasty assassin known only as the Asset (Vincent Cassel), whom Lee thinks is helping to track Bourne down, when in fact he’s aiming to take him out. Turns out the Asset also had a hand in Bourne’s ever-growing, rather tedious origin story.
With such an unnecessarily dense and twisty plot, Jason Bourne becomes bogged down in callbacks to the previous films and an overly complicated set of flashbacks and rejiggered backstory that you end up throwing your hands in the air and thinking “Wake me when the next car chase begins.” And, as if this weren’t enough plot, there’s a sub-threat involving Dewey’s sketchy dealings with young computer billionaire Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed, from Nightcrawler and currently killing it on HBO’s “The Night Of”). The threat involves the CIA being granted secret access to millions of computers using the company’s operating system in the name of better surveillance. Kalloor is having second thoughts about the arrangement; Dewey is making sure it stays in place. Admittedly, it’s tied into the Bourne story, but it also provides a type of on-the-nose social commentary (Edward Snowden’s name is dropped more than once) that feels ridiculously out of place here.
On the plus side, did I mention the car chases? Jason Bourne is essentially bookended by incredible runs through major world cities. The first is through Athens, with the Asset (in a car) chasing Bourne and Parsons (on a motorcycle together). There also happens to be a riot happening, and Greengrass is one of the best filmmakers of chaos, from his years as a documentary filmmaker. The director uses the clashing protestors and police as part of the chase. Firebombs, tear gas and protestors flipping over burning cars are all part of the framework of the pursuit, and it makes the action all the more gripping and authentic.
The closing chase is even better—right down the Vegas strip. This time the Asset is being chased while driving an armored SWAT vehicle that swats away any car in its path with alarming ease, while Bourne is behind him in a positively normal car just trying not to get hit by the flying debris. It’s just a good, old-fashioned, ultra-destructive car chase using various familiar hotel fronts as part of the overkill (I’m guessing Damon and Cassel, both stars in Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen, have a few hotel-owner friends they can call for such purposes). Scripted by Greengrass and Christopher Rouse, Jason Bourne may be a little stuffed on plot, but it spreads its wings when it comes to the action. The car craziness doesn’t save the film, but it counts for something.
It took me a while to realize that Bourne barely speaks in this movie. He looks pensive, angsty, even pissed off at times, but he broods silently nine times out of ten. Granted, for much of the film, he doesn’t have anyone to talk to, but I’m not sure a mostly silent Matt Damon is as effective as one that, you now, speaks. Faring far better is Vikander, who puts on a cool, intelligent, professional demeanor in her pursuit of bringing Bourne in alive, but she reveals herself to be ruthless and far more cunning than she lets on later in the movie. This isn’t really a spoiler, since it’s almost impossible to believe that an actress of Vikander’s talent would be cast in a film simply to play the agreeable sidekick to Tommy Lee Jones, who’s in full bad-guy mode here, which is only a few small steps away from Jones as good guy.
Greengrass’s ever-present shaky camera is still very much in play, perhaps toned down a bit, but perhaps not. I clearly remember a sequence that literally involves someone looking at a text message on a phone, and the camera operator practically does a backflip before stabilizing on the phone enough to read the message. And then it happens a couple more times right in a row. Take your Dramamine is all I’m saying.
To simply credit the lack of substance in Jason Bourne to the franchise running out of steam doesn’t quite capture the problem. Almost worse, the creative team has run out of ideas. The idea of seeing the fifth film in this series (the fourth with Damon) in which Bourne is still rediscovering memory fragments feels tired and lacking in creativity. In a strange bit of irony, the way the film ends seems to indicate that if another Bourne movie was made, he might be given an entirely unrelated adventure to embark upon. That’s the movie I’d like to see. Jason Bourne is an acceptable placeholder, but it is not a worthy successor to a host of much better films.
Hey, in case you hadn’t heard, video games that involve running around outside while other (non-playing) people watch you bump into each other like idiots are all the rage right now, which makes the release of the new film Nerve all the more timely. The game in this movie is far more dangerous, and it’s run by hackers who tap into all of your online details (hidden and otherwise) and devise a series of dares for you to complete for money. As the game progresses, the dares get riskier and more terrifying, but the dollar amounts get bigger, until only one person is left with all the money.
It should come as no surprise that Nerve comes courtesy of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the same filmmakers who gave is the documentary (and subsequent TV series) Catfish, which shed light on the phenomenon of starting relationships with others online by pretending to be somebody else. The game Nerve is a bit more sophisticated, and the way it unfolds in the course of the movie feels a bit like a version of the internet (and phone technology) that doesn’t quite exist, but the game’s concept and the creators’ ability to hack into private information to create the scariest dares—involving fear of heights, fear of public speaking/performances, riding a motorcycle down a Manhattan street blindfolded—seems well within the realm of plausibility.
Emma Roberts plays a high school student Vee, a fairly shy girl whose best friend, Sydney (Emily Meade, of Money Monster and Young Adult), is far more outgoing and always pushing her to be bold. When Sydney embarrasses Vee by asking out a guy Vee likes on her behalf and gets rejected, Vee’s resolve to be braver seems to take form. Soon after that incident, a new round of the game Nerve is announced on everyone’s phones and computers, asking people if they want to be players or watchers (you have to pay for the privilege of watching), and before long, both Vee and Sydney are playing and competing for the most viewers. What should come as no surprise is that the way you watch someone play is through the mobile devices of those around the players, all of whom have their cameras at the ready to livestream the dares being carried out.
Early in her run, Vee is dared to kiss a stranger in a restaurant, and it just so happens the handsomest one there is Ian (Dave Franco, looking six-months-in-the-gym pumped). They both decide that their number of viewers will increase faster if they pair up, which they do, much to Sydney’s annoyance. Also attempting to throw a wet blanket on the proceedings is Vee’s best male friend Tommy (Miles Heizer of “Parenthood”), who clearly has a crush on Vee and thinks she doesn’t need to go through with this game to be special. He’s kind of a douchey character who adds nothing to this movie other than an excuse to slow things down.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the game is that some of the dares involve setting up other people playing the game, and it also turns out that some of the anonymous legion of watchers are steering the action at times, which seems even more far-fetched considering the speed at which the action unfolds. Based on a novel by Jeanne Ryan (adapted by Jessica Sharzer), Nerve works best when it feel authentic and within the realm of the possible. By the time we get to the big finale dare involving the film’s villain-like character Ty (Colson Baker, better known as rapper Machine Gun Kelly), the film has gone way off the reality rails and it lost me to a degree.
When the movie focuses on Roberts and Franco, things just seem to flow better, even when the plot gets nonsensical. The two have such enormous, sparkling-white smiles that the big screen almost can’t contain both their mouths. But they have such convincing chemistry that we begin to root for them to succeed as a pair of lost souls who have found something in each other, even if neither wins the game. Subplots about other competitors, Sydney’s jealousy of Vee’s sudden fame, and Ian’s life before the game eat up way too much screen time when all we really want is these two winning personalities to play Nerve. The film is slick, graphics heavy and edited in such a way that you rarely have a moment to breathe. If it’s possible for a film to be enjoyable without being especially good (and I believe there are rare instances where it can happen), then that’s what Nerve is to a tee.
To read my exclusive interview with Nerve directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, go to Ain’t It Cool News.
DON’T THINK TWICE
In his previous film, Sleepwalk With Me, writer-director Mike Birbiglia tangentially examined his life as a stand-up comic and the relationships he had with other comics, most of whom were fairly dickish to him, even among his closest peers. (Marc Maron has a particularly fun time dragging Birbiglia over the coals, if memory serves.) But with his latest offering, Don’t Think Twice, Birbiglia throws the spotlight on another part of his life—as a member of a talented and, most importantly, highly supportive improv group that puts on shows at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade venue. Opening the film with Del Close’s rules of improv, it becomes clear that Birbiglia isn’t going to poke fun at the practice but instead embrace it as a place where misfits with sharp minds meet and become one.
The group in Don’t Think Twice—called The Commune—isn’t meant to be as successful as UCB or Second City. They’re very funny, and talent scouts occasionally grace their audience scouting for television shows, including the golden ring “Weekend Live.” (That is essentially “SNL” with a barely changed name. The more we see of the show and its offices, the more that becomes clear, and the funnier the running joke gets.) But most of the six-person group live in a single apartment like college students in off-campus housing.
It’s also rather funny that most of the team are in their mid to late 30s, and although it’s rarely addressed directly, they all seem keenly aware that their lives have not progressed as they’d hoped. The group gets word that the theater landlord has sold the property, and they only have a few weeks to vacate. This leaves their future together in jeopardy and forces members to take stock in where they want to be and whether they still have the stamina to attempt to make their comedy dreams come true.
Birbiglia plays Miles, the leader of the group. He’s taught and elevated a few members who have gone on to bigger and better things over the years, and when two other players—Samantha (Gillian Jacobs) and Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), who happen to be dating—get asked to audition for “Weekend Live,” Miles gets resentful, wondering when his time will come. When Jack gets called up for the show, there’s an uncomfortable assumption that he’ll pull in as many of the troupe as writers as he can, something he’s told repeatedly by the show’s other cast that he shouldn’t do.
No matter how tense things get among the players, they always seem to bring their A-game to their tiny stage, and Birbiglia and cinematographer Joe Anderson work to make the improv performances look different than the rest of the film. The camera weaves among the players, clearly on stage with them, making us feel like the seventh member of the squad. This technique made my heart race, and it forces you to contemplate what you might say or do in that situation by literally putting us in their shoes in front of an audience. Nearly every improv sequence begins with the camera at the back of the stage, giving us a view of the chairs on stage. As the end nears, Jack leaves for television, overall tensions rise, and each time we return to the stage, chairs are removed one by one as people don’t show up or arrive late. Not exactly subtle, but it’s a great metaphor for the status of the Commune.
Birbiglia wisely surrounds himself with a mix of seasoned improv vets, including members of his real-life group, including Chris Gethard as Bill, whose father is dying, darkening the mood even further; and Tami Sagher as Lindsay, the only member of the group who comes from money and knows she could fall back on it but doesn’t. The sixth member of the team is the great songwriter and comic performer Kate Micucci (half of Garfunkel & Oates). She and Jacobs had never done improv before this film, but you wouldn’t know it from watching them thrive in their engaging and hilarious moments on stage.
The film certainly doesn’t miss the opportunity to emphasize the camaraderie that goes hand in hand with the improv experience. It’s quite clear, even when these six are snipping at each other in the company’s toughest days, that there is a family dynamic among them. It’s inspiring, sweet and sends a strong message about the bonding power of the arts. They back each other up both on and off stage, and their closeness is worthy of envy. Each member of the Commune has deep flaws that are accepted and sometimes dealt with by the group, and by the end of the film, each must make a decision about whether to continue with improv or move on to a new set of aspirations.
Don’t Think Twice feels genuine, both as an example of how funny improv can be born night after night and as a wonderful example of how makeshift families are formed at dingy theaters all over the country by people who believe in each other, and even a little in themselves. Birgilia isn’t afraid to say things about the success rate of those doing improv or how talent isn’t always the sole deciding factor as to whether a comic performer moves on to bigger things. It’s a surprisingly tough and emotional film, but it never forgets how to stay funny throughout. Keep an eye out for it this summer. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
Tomorrow and Sunday, July 31, Don’t Think Twice producer Ira Glass (host of NPR’s “This American Life” and producer on Birbiglia’s first film, Sleepwalk With Me) will take part in audience Q&As after four select shows—on Saturday, after the 2pm, 4:30pm, 7pm and 9:30pm screenings; on Sunday, after the 2pm screening. For details and to preorder tickets, go to the Music Box’s website.
INTO THE FOREST
Based on the novel by Jean Hegland and adapted by director Patricia Rozema (who helmed the under-appreciated 1999 Mansfield Park, and wrote the adaptation of HBO’s Grey Gardens), Into the Forest covers a lot of ground with only a few key players. In a way, it’s science fiction or perhaps it’s just another version of the present. A massive power outage occurs, leaving two sisters, Nell (Ellen Page) and Eva (Evan Rachel Wood), and their father (Callum Keith Rennie) stranded in their fairly well supplied and stocked country home in the woods of Northern California.
People in the closest town are scrambling for answers, but it becomes clear that this is a much larger problem then just this community and the “Why?” might be the real question that needs answering. Still in school, Nell is just beginning a relationship with a nice young man, Eli (Max Minghella), while Eva is rehearsing for a big dance audition that will never happen. Although they are isolated, both young women are still technology-dependent, so when it’s clear that the power is going to be out for quite a while—or permanently—they find it difficult to scale back and function without gadgets.
At a certain point, Into the Forest becomes about just the two women, who are close enough in age to have grown up best friends, but far enough apart to still want different things out of this new reality. Stocked with a fairly healthy supply of gasoline, the girls have a massive disconnect when one of them wants to use a sizable portion of it to power generators to do something frivolous, while the other rejects the idea as insane. Fights eventually lead to one of them almost leaving the other one behind, and there’s something comforting about the idea of the two of them being together, rationing food and other supplies, and working together as a family unit that pushes the film forward.
Rozema uses the house as a metaphor for the world outside, from which the girls stay mostly separated, although there is a most unwelcome visitor at one point. As weeks turn into months in this home, the woods finds a way of overtaking the house, causing damage to the framework, roof and just about anywhere else vegetation, water and wildlife might invade. The deterioration of the home seems to mirror both the psyches of the women and, more than likely, whatever is left holding the nation together (although we find out very little about the world outside after a certain point)
Page (also a producer on the film) and Wood are quite extraordinary as these sisters. There’s a genuine closeness that is so strong that it covers up some of the film’s shortcomings. What Nell and Eva haven’t already learned from their resourceful father about surviving without all the modern conveniences, they teach themselves eventually, and it’s an inspiring process that doesn’t involve driving around with shotguns and stealing resources from other people. I’ll admit, I’d expected the living-in-nature part of this story to be more of a plot point/threat, but nature is decidedly gentle with these characters for most of the film; it’s the other human characters that pose the greatest danger.
Telling an end-of-the-civilized world story from the perspective of two young women living (by choice) alone and isolated is not inherently cinematic, and there are times when director Rozema struggles to find the deeper meaning of this tale. But the portions of Into the Forest that are about the fractured state of the modern American family, and the desperate lengths some might go to shore up those bonds, those elements work just great here. Between those messages and the two great lead performances, there’s a great deal to admire about this movie. I’m not sure if the film is actually opening in Chicago this week, but keep an eye out for it; it will likely be on VOD soon, if it’s not already.
MICROBE & GASOLINE
Film and music video innovator writer-director Michel Gondry is known for his visually resplendent and ultra-creative assaults on reality as we know it with such films as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Be Kind Rewind, and Mood Indigo, but with this latest French feature, Microbe & Gasoline, Gondry is approaching what is clearly a very personal story about an awkward young boy named Daniel (nicknamed Microbe because he’s small for his age, and played by Ange Dargent) and his friendship with fellow outcast Theo (nicknamed Gasoline because he often smells like gas from working on his father’s car, and played by Théophile Baquet). Both boys are inventive, handy with machines, and full of great ideas about how to escape a world that bullies and generally misunderstands them at every turn.
Part buddy film, part road-trip movie, Microbe & Gasoline, paints two distinct portraits of the two leads before pushing them together. Microbe is shy and doesn’t have any friends, except maybe a cute girl he has a crush on, Laura (Diane Besnier), who is one of the few students at his school who will talk to him. His mother (Audrey Tautou) is somehow both overbearing and standoffish when it comes to discipline. Gasoline, on the other hand, has parents who think he’s an irresponsible idiot, and if they care for him in any way, they do a great job hiding it from him. The plan the two boys cook up involves building a glorified go-cart that resembles a small house. That way, if a police car approaches them as they embark on running away from home, hey can pull the car over, disguise the wheels, and make it look like a quaint house in the country.
Running away and staying out of trouble both seem like impossible tasks for the kids, and eventually even they have a falling out, not long after declaring their best friend status. Director Gondry tells this charming and heartfelt story fairly straightforwardly, without his usual frills. Some of his flourishes pop up as the boys design the car (Microbe is also something of an artist) and concoct various sneaky means to disguise the fact that it’s a car, the filmmaker shows a great deal of confidence in his story and storytelling ability to keep the bells and whistles to a minimum.
Microbe & Gasoline can sometimes be as quirky as its lead characters, but it all adds to capture the desperate need the kids have to make a connection and find that one other person who understands a fraction of what they believe and how they want to run their lives. These two young actors (three, if you include the young lady playing Laura) are exceptional and find ways to be subtly different, to a degree that would be off-putting to those who don’t care to look closer. But to anyone paying attention, these unique individuals might be captivating. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
See Alex Udvary’s interview with filmmaker Gondry about Microbe & Gasoline.
If you’re a parent, you might have some issues with the feature film debut from writer-director Sian Heder (a frequent writer for “Orange Is the New Black”). Tallulah tells the story (and is the name) of a free-spirited young woman (Ellen Page) who lives in her barely functioning van with her boyfriend Nico (Evan Jonigkeit), who leaves her when she refuses to even consider stopping with the vagabond lifestyle, getting a job, and getting married. She threatens to ditch him, but he runs away before she has a chance, and she goes back to New York City, where they met, to try to find him.
Since Nico had talked about how much he was missing his mother Margo (Allison Janney), Tallulah starts with her apartment—if Nico isn’t there, maybe she can scam a few bucks off the mom. As part of her plan to get by day to day, Tallulah walks the halls of a nearby fancy hotel, looking for trays of room service food with a few morsels still left. She gets caught by a guest, Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard from The Invitation), who happens to be getting ready for a date with a man who isn’t her husband, and she mistakes Tallulah for a member of the hotel staff and asks if she would take care of her infant child while she runs off to possibly have her first affair.
This is where things get tricky. Although it wasn’t her original intent, Tallulah’s wild behavior (both before and after her date) leads her to believe that this baby is not safe with its mother, and she runs off with the baby, back to Margo’s apartment, where she claims the child is Margo’s grandchild. There’s a lot of wish fulfillment going on in Tallulah. Margo is desperate to reconnect with her son, so she quickly embraces this baby as a member of the family. She’s also facing abandonment issues from all sides—her son leaving two years earlier, as well as her soon-to-be ex-husband (John Benjamin Hickey) coming out of the closet and moving in with his new lover (Zachary Quinto). So anyone who is willing to be dependent on Margo looks pretty good in her book right about now.
But there’s also the question of Tallulah’s history. Director Heder gives us next to nothing, so a great deal of reading between the lines is required. Her instinct to take the baby out of this unsafe and unhealthy environment is almost a knee-jerk reaction that might have been the result of a similar situation growing up. Tallulah also appears to have no impulse control—if she gets an idea in her head, she barely hesitates to carry it out, never considering the consequences. Her survival skills range from seeing an opportunity to snatch some money from a wallet left exposed or to swipe a baby. Uzo Aduba pops up as the pregnant Child Protective Services rep assigned to the case, working on it with a detective (David Zayas), with both looking at Carolyn for answers about why Tallulah might have taken the baby.
There are moments in Tallulah when you almost forget that the baby has been taken and for a few fleeting instances, seeing Margo and Tallulah coming together to make a go at co-parenting is rather heartwarming. But it also points to something inside Tallulah that is severely broken. She has a loose grip on reality (she talks of driving to India with Nico early in the film), and the idea that she “rescued” this child (good intentions notwithstanding) snaps everyone back to reality something fierce as the film goes on. Page is so good here, you can almost forgive the fuzzy morality tale at the core of this movie. She effortlessly brings forth a young woman who is wise beyond her years, and she seems fine with the path that got her here, even if there were some nasty bumps in the road.
Heder doesn’t feel the need to spell out and highlight everybody’s shortcomings and defective parts. They’re clearly there but are rarely discussed, and that is so damn refreshing. Tallulah isn’t going to sit well with some, maybe most, audiences, and that’s fine—not every film has to. Challenging pieces like this are meant to spark discussion, not necessarily about right and wrong, but about what drives a person to behave the way young Tallulah feels she must. Lines are deliberately ill-defined, as are most in the real world. And if you step into this world, prepare to possibly even dislike some of the lead characters. It’s more important that you understand them than like them anyway. Try this one on for size, and see how you like the fit. The film opens today at the Arclight Cinema and is also now playing on Netflix.