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JP on JB

Thanks to a personal connection with the Bourne series (as recapped in my previous post), I will always think fondly of it. But I knew from mixed publicity and a certain lack of interest among my peer group that Jason Bourne would most likely be a toss up, which probably accounts for my relative delay in seeing the film. While I had hoped to catch the film in an iconic and nostalgic Martha’s Vineyard single screen cinema, instead I ended up seeing it back in my Michigan hometown as a re-introduction to that twin cinema and starting my effort to enjoy my town more.

Perhaps inevitably due to the long gap between previous Matt Damon led Bourne adventures, the film seems to force itself to catch up to 2016 with a plot that mixes some “greatest hits” of previous stories in the series alongside some forced contemporary relevance. While the film enjoyed a few tight moments like the old times, overall I felt like it could have gone further in-depth with the story, but was held back by possible script changes, studio interference or pressure to have a certain story element in the film in place of another. The last point was most glaringly obvious in the inclusion of a rather strained “social media” plot angle, along with a wavering focus on Bourne himself, who came to feel more like a side character rather than the protagonist. It probably did not help that the film does not really explore Bourne’s perspective on the events, except for one sharp moment when he reacts to a character’s demise and later when he takes more control of the story and turns the tables on the agents who are pursuing him. But the latter moment was undone by a gratuitous and tacked-on car chase sequence that adds little to the story.

Casting of the newcomers in the film was serviceable if not outstanding. Joan Allen’s presence as the mature and committed agent Pamela Landy was sorely missed, and it’s a shame they couldn’t bring her back in some form after a thankless cameo in the “sidequel” The Bourne Legacy four years ago. Tommy Lee Jones phones it in, with a few brief exceptions, as the unsurprisingly malintentioned CIA director. Recent Academy Award winner Alicia Vikander is believable for the most part as a hotshot CIA agent, but the film made no explanation of her obvious Swedish origins (or if it did, I missed them) – and she did not project the nuances that I so enjoyed in her breakout film Ex Machina.

To its credit, the film makes me want to revisit the original trilogy, so I think I will spend some time doing just that…

Appropriate Behavior and Familiar Faces

For the second year in a row, I had an experience of watching someone I knew “way back when” act in her feature film debut that is attracting significant industry attention and critical praise. This year it is Desiree Akhavan, last year it was Lupita Nyong’o. Both connections stemmed from my undergraduate years at Hampshire College.

Improv ClassAkhavan and I were two of ten students enrolled in a highly memorable (IMO) semester long study of improvisation (pictured at right) at Smith, which maintains its official status as a women’s college but welcomes students from the other four colleges in the region (Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst) to take courses that might augment their studies at their home school.

In this particular class, taught by now professor-emeritus John Hellweg, the setting and the content were equally rewarding and challenging. We met once a week in the college’s boathouse, which doubles as a classroom, and went well beyond the familiar scope of improvising (comedy) into exercises that had considerably more meaning and depth. Elements of mysticism, storytelling, masks and inventive chose your own adventure were all part of the journey. We also expanded the role of the classroom, frequently leaving the boathouse for site-specific exercises such as seen in the photo above, near the college’s campus center. The class inspired me to incorporate elements of improvisation into my directing and character – building work, and I haven’t forgotten about that process today, even though my theatre work tends to be more in the front office than the rehearsal room.

It doesn’t feel easy to put into words what the experience is like to watch someone you knew earlier in their life on a big screen, though I am sure others have had similar feelings. Somewhere between awe, surprise, amusement, pride, acclaim, a little envy, some memory, and ultimately an appreciation. Those feelings all came to my mind as I enjoyed Appropriate Behavior, Akhavan’s feature film debut in a writer/director/lead actor trifecta. The film continues to play at Cinema Detroit this week and I’m pleased that my neighborhood cinema is one of a handful of theatres nationally showing the film.

Akhavan stars as Shirin, a 20-something Brooklyn resident struggling with personal identity issues after breaking up with Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), an at times forceful partner whom she “met cute” at a New Year’s party at some point in the recent past. Shirin aspires for a career in the film business, but after taking on a promising lead from a friend of a friend, she finds herself serving as a teacher to an afterschool program of very young (five year old) aspiring filmmakers. The events, along with her ongoing debate on if and whether to come out to her immediate family, add to a continuing sense of questioning for Shirin. But, with an assertive and bold temperament, she doesn’t sit around and mope, and part of the fun of the narrative becomes going along with Shirin to see what she does next, and how Akhavan’s own fresh writing deftly navigates gender, cultural and social stereotypes and expectations while putting a new spin on them against a contemporary New York City backdrop.

The film’s low-budget backdrop is apparent in some technical aspects of the story, such as lighting and sound, but doesn’t detract from the narrative. I might have appreciated some more clarity in the time shifting aspects of the narrative, but am not sure how that would’ve been best conveyed. As it stood in the finished film, it was sometimes difficult to tell where the action was in the linear timeline, and so it became like a mental jigsaw puzzle to put the different scenes together. Not a problem for me, just could have been smoother. Akhavan showed a committed hand in the direction of the film, eliciting assured and sharp performances from the whole ensemble along with herself. She demonstrates no hesitation in showing herself/the character in a potentially unflattering light, and ultimately, that added to Shirin’s endearing appeal and relatability, and is surely connected to why multiple press outlets have picked up on the film and her current contributions to pop culture.

And so how could I be anything other than impressed to see someone I knew way back when receive acclaim, interest and curiosity for her long-form debut? Here’s hoping that Akhavan has more stories up her sleeves and continues writing and producing in her assured, distinctive voice.