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”


Don't Think Twice

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.


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.