Monday, December 5, 2016

This week's DVD releases

Don’t Think Twice ***½

Just about every time I had the opportunity to spend some time in Chicago on business I would try to make my way to ImprovOlympic, on the corner of Clark and Addison, to watch teams perform long-form improv (known as The Harold). The house team was called "The Family": six insanely talented men, all of whom studied with guru Del Close, and all of whom who have gone on to some degree of success: Adam McKay, Neil Flynn, Matt Besser, Ali Farahnakian, Ian Roberts and Miles Stroth. People like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler often "sat in," performing with the group. Those shows are still legendary to anyone lucky enough to have been there. In good improv like that, people communicate with lightning-speed via ESP and sixth-sense.

Don't Think Twice, Mike Birbiglia's wonderful film, is so spot-on in its evocation of that whole "scene," onstage and off — its intimacy, competition, struggles and rhythms — that at times it feels like a documentary. The movie has the patience and intelligence to approach extremely esoteric concepts: improv's "group mind," the generosity of good performers, the specific rules of improv and how they impact the group outside the theater. Birbiglia is a stand-up comedian and director (Sleepwalk With Me was his first film), with a background in improv. Not only does he know that world so well, he also knows how to communicate it to an audience. Don't Think Twice is hilarious, yes, but it's also thoughtful and sad and sweet. Birbiglia knows how to communicate those things, too.

Don't Think Twice follows a New York-based improv group called, appropriately, "The Commune" through a year in their lives. The Brooklyn theater where they've been doing improv has been sold, and homelessness approaches. It's a very New York problem, as small black-box theaters disappear one by one, gleaming condos and Starbucks rising in their place, a situation that strands the non-Union theater scene in a desert. The Commune casts around desperately for an affordable space, and along with that are the trials and tribulations of each group member. It sounds like Don't Think Twice is your run-of-the-mill, 20-something ensemble comedy, but it's not. Grounded in a very specific scene, it understands the world in which these characters operate, and what happens when a close group like that faces fracturing change.

Before the story gets going, there is a brief introduction to the history of improv, as well as an explanation of improv's three rules (the most important being saying yes). More commonly known as "Yes, and … ," this means that a performer says "yes" to everything that happens on-stage. One of the cardinal sins of improv is saying "No." Example: One person points a finger at another person and shouts "Bang bang!" The person who was clearly just shot at says, "That's not a gun, that's your finger." The line might get a laugh but it ends the scene. "Yes, and … " makes sure that a scene continues, creating the environment of acceptance that makes all good improv possible. "Yes, and … " is how Birbiglia and his ensemble approach every scene in the film.

Birbiglia plays Miles, a little bit older than everyone else in the group. He taught most of them in improv classes and struggles with bitterness and hurt because, one by one, his students have surpassed him professionally. Jack (Keegan-Michael Key, from Key & Peele, beautiful here in a complex performance) and Samantha (the superb Gillian Jacobs) are in a comfortable relationship that is then challenged when Jack seems like he's advancing. Lindsay (Tami Sagher) is a trust-fund baby who lives at home and doesn't have to shlep around in a day job. She feels guilty about her privilege. (This is another extremely accurate observation about any theater scene: the unfair envy towards those whose family has money.) Bill (Chris Gethard) slaves over his writing submissions to Weekend Live — a clear replica of Saturday Night Live, one that the group watches religiously, poker-faced and jealous — until he is distracted by his father falling ill. And finally, there's Allison (Kate Micucci), who is excellent at improv but has a secret wish to complete her graphic novel. Some stories get more attention than others, although there is a clear through-line for each character.

The major catalyst for change in the group is when one member auditions for Weekend Live and actually gets cast. They're elated, and the group is too: one of their own has made it! Nobody wants to ruin the winner's moment, but the mixed feelings are palpable. It's reminiscent of Oscar Wilde's great thought: "Anyone can sympathize with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature — it requires, in fact, the nature of a true Individualist to sympathize with a friend’s success." The selected one has mixed feelings about leaving their friends behind, and is not presented as soulless and evil for abandoning the group and going after the brass ring. Don't Think Twice is insightful on how success changes relationships. One of the most accurate things about Birbiglia's film is about how it also later admits that success doesn't look just one way. Outward success (fame, fortune) has value to some, but not all.

Don't Think Twice is meticulous in its progression but also free-form in style. Parties and hanging out at the bar are punctuated by group "bits," each person riffing on whatever happens in the moment. Jack and Samantha's relationship is a case in point. Movies don't often show couples who place such a high premium on being funny for one another. Couples like that exist. When do we ever get to see them? There's a lot of improv in the film, and those scenes could have been awful if it felt like these were rehearsed "bits" as opposed to spontaneous events. Whatever was planned and whatever was unplanned is not at all evident, and Joe Anderson's intuitive, flowing camera moves around on the stage, in the thick of the action. You can see why people flock to The Commune's shows week after week, in the same way Chicago audiences still flock to Second City and ImprovOlympic (now known as The iO).

Improv is a great model for society, which explains why people devoted to improv talk about it with an evangelical gleam in their eyes. What would it be like if we all listened to one another like that? What would it be like if we accepted one another's contributions with generosity and openness? What if we approached every interaction not with "No, but … " but with "Yes, and … ". Birbiglia's beautiful, sneakily profound film shows a world where "Yes, and … " is the default.

Jason Bourne **
Jason Bourne may entice renters and streamers with prospects of a creative and adrenalin-pumping reunion between Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass, a duo that went beyond typical blockbuster expectations with The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. Being a fan of both of those movies, I too had high hopes for a return to form for the character who shares a monogram with 007. But it’s mere minutes into Jason Bourne that something is wrong. Is it the stoic, nearly dialogue-less (25 lines in the entire film) take on Bourne? Is it the more-hyperactive-than-ever action cinematography and editing, designed to make every phone call answered and strident walk taken seem important? How about the familiarity of a plot that literally echoes questions these characters have already asked and answered? Jason Bourne is a film I kept trying to like. It just wouldn’t let me.

After learning the truth of his progression from David Webb to superspy Jason Bourne in the previous two Greengrass films and, of course, Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity, JB (Matt Damon) is essentially in hiding. Sure, he pops up for the occasional street fight, but he’s a loner, the kind of guy with no current attachments, deeply off the grid. (It’s worth noting that Greengrass and co-writer Christopher Rouse are just barely interested in setting up where Bourne has been and what he’s up to in 2016.) It’s mere minutes before Nicky (Julia Stiles) drags Bourne back on the radar of the nefarious Powers That Be, this time personified by CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones). Nicky wants to give Bourne even more of the background behind the Treadstone project, particularly the details about what really happened to Bourne’s father, Richard Webb (Gregg Henry).

Of course, Dewey can’t let that happen, and he plans to use CIA agent Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) and an assassin known merely as "Asset" (Vincent Cassel) to keep his undercover dealings undercover. One of the reasons that Dewey is particularly panicked about the return of Bourne is that he’s also deeply involved with a tech pioneer named Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed, currently seen on HBO's The Night Of), the head of a company called Deep Dream that promises intense levels of privacy to its customers but has been working with the CIA in secret. Jason Bourne includes several of today’s greatest hot button concerns — internet privacy, government intrusion — but they feel like window dressing.

Matt Damon said in a news conference in 2007 that he thought his iteration of Jason Bourne was over; he had reached the end point of his character’s journey, his search for his identity. He stated, "… all of that internal propulsive mechanism that drives the character is not there, so if there was to be another one then it would have to be a complete reconfiguration, you know, where do you go from there? For me I kind of feel like the story that we set out to tell is has now been told." He clearly still feels that way. Damon can be a complex, character-driven actor with the right material, but his heart’s not in this. Tommy Lee Jones feels even less invested with the little bit of character he’s been given, and poor Alicia Vikander might as well be named Plot Device in that we know exactly what her arc is going to be from the minute we see her. Perhaps worst of all, Greengrass finds a way to waste Vincent Cassel, one of our most physically vibrant and menacing actors. Cassel does most of his acting scowling through a sniper scope, and isn’t allowed to really break out until the end of the film. Only Riz Ahmed makes any impact on a performance level, doing a lot with very little — watch the way he subtly plays a successful businessman who knows the skeletons are about to fall out of his closet. There's a much better version of Jason Bourne that focuses on him, contrasting his arc as a man caught up in something greater than himself with our hero's.

Ahmed registers because one senses an urgency to his character’s plight, which is not the case with the rest of the film. Rarely has there been so much intensity in the pursuit of a story that feels like it has no stakes. When Jason Bourne is done, ask yourself what everyone was yelling, running and fighting about. Good luck coming up with a satisfying answer. It’s as if Greengrass and company knew that they couldn't orchestrate an intriguing new arc for their beloved character, so they just repeated one. The film is like Jason Bourne fan fiction in how much it completely reworks things we’ve seen before, only with a few more years of cyberterrorism buzzwords to give viewers the illusion of not just depth but a plot.

Even Greengrass’ trademark style feels uninspired. Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker) is an undeniably talented cinematographer, but his style doesn’t have the same kinetic energy as Oliver Wood’s work in the original trilogy, which put us right in the middle of the action. It’s a fine line, but a crucial one; Wood’s camera feels urgent, as if we might get punched too, whereas Ackroyd’s feels cluttered and desperate. Returning editor Christopher Rouse (who’s cut all of Greengrass’ films) is the technical MVP here, giving the film a propulsive energy that could convince some people they’re watching something fun and exciting just by sheer force. However, when it’s over, even viewers more eager to forgive this failed creative reunion will wonder what it is that they just watched, and what purpose it serves other than financial. And why no one figured out a new, engaging way to tell a story that’s already been told.

The Secret Life of Pets **½
Fetching up a new twist on the tried and tested talking-animal genre, The Secret Life of Pets explores what happens when we close the front door and leave our dogs, cats and canaries to their own devices. The answer, as any recent CG animation flick could tell you, is that our pets act a lot like us, with their own petty quibbles, indulgences, love affairs, music tastes and desire to do what they please at all times — although a dog is a dog and will still run after a stick if you toss one in its direction.

That’s at least half the story in this latest comic romp from director Chris Renaud and Illumination Entertainment — the team behind the ultra-successful Despicable Me and Minions movies — and it’s certainly the more enjoyable part of a film that starts off impressively but gradually tires itself out with a loud and loopy caper plot, taking a clever idea to mostly familiar places in the long run.

Funny in stretches but capable of making you feel like you’ve dropped MDMA and locked yourself inside Petco for several hours, this big-ticket Universal release should play like catnip for kids, though it’s unlikely to dig up the massive popularity of this year’s other anthropomorphic blockbuster, Zootopia.

Set in a fever-dream version of modern-day Manhattan that’s part Vincent Minnelli, part Andreas Gursky, the story (by regular Renaud scribes Ken Daurio, Cinco Paul and Brian Lynch) focuses on a whiny little terrier, Max (Louis C.K.), whose pitch-perfect, apartment-bound lifestyle is upended when his owner comes home with a big floppy rescue named Duke (Eric Stonestreet) and forces them to become housemates.

Unable to accept the fact that he’s not the only loved one in town, Max soon finds himself stranded alongside Duke in the Big Apple, where they’re pursued by dogcatchers and cross paths with an underground resistance known as the Flushed Pets, whose goal is to make all animals undomesticated for good. Their leader, Snowball (Kevin Hart), is the most psychotic furry little wabbit to ever chomp on a carrot, and when he finds out Max is not the stray he claims to be, he brings the ruckus down hard.

Renaud dishes out some decent gags during the opening reels, especially when introducing us to the other pets in Max’s building, including a lazy house cat (Lake Bell), an overzealous pug dog (Bobby Moynihan) and a fluffy Pomeranian (Jenny Slate) who has the hots for our hero. Much of the humor comes from the fact that these animals have extremely human characteristics while remaining adorable little critters, even if not all of them aim to please their caretakers in the way that Max always does.

But there are many more castmembers to come, including a kvetching hawk (Albert Brooks), a Cockney-accented alley cat (Steve Coogan) and a sly old Basset Hound (Dana Carvey) with the most bodacious bachelor pad in the city — to name some of several additional characters that wind up crowding the screen for the sake of a few short laughs.

Like the professional dogwalker who can’t exactly keep count of Max and his cohorts, it feels like the filmmakers are juggling too many chatty creatures at once, while trying to maintain a plot that tends to grow more outlandish as the story progresses. Occasionally all the fuss results in a memorable set-piece — such as a digression into a sausage factory that nods to both Grease and a Busby Berkley musical — but by the time the third act rolls around, the cacophony grows exhausting and the laughs become rarer, especially when all the action-movie antics take over.

On the technical side, there are some marvels here — especially Renaud’s vision of a vertically exuberant New York City, with skyscrapers stretching beyond the frame and fire escapes leading forever upwards into different apartments and different lives, as if we’re seeing everything from the viewpoint of a dog watching the world of humans from the ground. Likewise, all the details of the furry and feathered cast, including all of the fur itself, are impressively rendered by the Illumination team, who have created a lively and colorful palette that recalls Technicolor films of the 1950s.

The same goes for the score by Alexandre Desplat (The Imitation Game), which takes notes from Breakfast at Tiffany’s and other classic Manhattan-set movies, offering up a playful accompaniment to what ultimately feels like a smart but overindulgent exercise in computer-generated puppy love. Or maybe that’s just a pet peeve.

Other new releases this week
For the Love of Spock *** Provides the nostalgia rush that Star Trek Beyond was only able to offer fleetingly. But there’s more to this movie than offering fans an opportunity to wallow in the past. It gives the most complete portrait we’ve seen thus far of Leonard Nimoy, warts and all, as presented by the man who came the closest to knowing him. (Adam Nimoy might be the first to admit that perhaps no one truly knew his father, including the man himself.)
The Great Gilly Hopkins The movie falls between stylization, which it mostly lacks, and realism, which it can’t quite claim with its non-teenage teenager spouting non-swearing swears. It deserves some credit for maintaining its source’s smallness, but its toughness is in shorter supply, and further muted by an overly reassuring coda.
Heart of a Dog ***½ This movie is about telling and remembering and forgetting, and how we put together the fragments that make up our lives — their flotsam and jetsam, highs and lows, meaningful and slight details, shrieking and weeping headline news.
The Hollars ** Too much happens too quickly in this movie for the story to be credible, but the film has some likable qualities, among them the fun of seeing actors in unexpected roles.
In Order of Disappearance *** At times, the movie is a bit too self-consciously clever. But what saves it, paradoxically — even at times, delightfully — from skidding off course into cliche is the profound appeal of its middle-of-the-road, but never dull, protagonist.
Jack Goes Home * Trimming the film’s manipulations and inessential qualities would only improve it, but judicious editing would leave very little meat on its bones.
Kicks **½ An arresting visual experience with style to spare, and in fact it probably should have spared a little, as this first-time director sometimes crowds his film with more auteurial flourishes than his rather simple story can support. Nonetheless, this is a debut of undeniable promise, both for its director and its largely unknown cast.
The Late Bloomer * Lead actor Johnny Simmons fits his role perfectly, his baby face giving him the suitable appearance of an overgrown adolescent. But the smutty, tired material with which he has to work is surprisingly devoid of laughs.
Ordinary World ** Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day is usually pretty appealing when he dabbles in acting, and he’s appealing again in this film, But after a promising start the script lets him down, and the film turns into a predictable midlife-crisis yarn.
Phantasm: RavagerShould please longtime fans while leaving newcomers unimpressed and confused.
Spa Night *** Though it leaves too many narrative blanks unfilled, the film is a promising debut from a filmmaker with a lot of insight into the different guises that immigrants and their offspring wear as they make their way through the world.
Trash FireThe performances are mostly out to sea without a paddle trying to make sense of hateful characters, but Angela Trimbur as Isabel at least shows some comic spark and strikes a few sympathetic notes.
The Unspoken ½* That the story is never scary is the least of its problems,.

**** Excellent.
*** Good.
** Fair
* Poor
No stars Abysmal

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