JASON BOURNE** The Bourne Disappointment


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TAKE A DEEP breath before Jason Bourne starts, because you won’t breathe again for the next two hours in this fast paced, but ultimately flavorless (money-grubbing?) reboot of the Bourne franchise. Director Paul Greengrass clearly made the (wrong) decision to go for a revisited Bourne that was bigger, louder, more effects laden than past Bourne’s.

The story hinges on the discovery by Nicky Parsons (Julia Styles), still in hiding and now turned Edward Snowden type hacker, about the involvement of Bourne’s father in ‘the programme’. As you’d expect, her every move is being monitored by an omniscient CIA, now deeply integrated with a reluctant tech giant called Deep Dreams – a Facebook-esque company.

So far so good. Perhaps we’re entering a world where themes about the nature of patriotism and the responsibility of spying are about to be aired.

Nope.

When we meet Jason, he’s an itinerant fighter; a lean, mean, muscled fighting machine. Bourne and Parsons agree to meet in Syriza square in Athens… for no real reason but that it allows Greengrass to up the ante on the tense cat and mouse drama at Waterloo station that unleashed the action in The Bourne Ultimatum. The nerve-wracking tension of that meeting is now replaced by spectacle: the frenzy and chaos of rioting crowds battling shield-carrying police. Greengrass’ signature style of his jerky hand held camera really does plunge the viewer into the confusion, danger and panic of the crowds. And compared with the brilliance of the Waterloo encounter, this one is a far more elaborately and densely plotted piece of filmmaking. But it’s symptomatic of what’s lacking in this empty reboot: it lacks either tension or nuance.

For the success of the Bourne franchise lay not only in the incredible and inventive action scenes (who can forget the chase along the rooftops in Tangier?) but in those characters who felt real, from an anguished, guilt-ridden Bourne to a sympathetic Pamela Landy (Joan Allen)… to the layers of narratives (inter-agency conflict; Bourne’s love affair; the grand scale of public deception etc), to Bourne’s cleverness (like blowing up an apartment using a magazine stuffed in a toaster).

And that feeling of “the real” was delicately woven into the structure of the stories through those little, seemingly irrelevant touches, like the dark shadowy Noah Vosen (Jason Strathairn) ordering the “heart healthy omelet” for breakfast with Landy or the touching intimacy between Bourne and Parsons at a diner when she seemed to confess to a past they may have shared.

These were the things that kept us (fans) seeing the movies over and over again.

In Jason Bourne (the name itself signifies the cop-out nature of the movie), gone are those “flavor enhancing” elements. Bourne himself has lost the human beneath the cold eyes. Now that he remembers everything, gone is that engaging existential angst. This new Bourne is simply a blunt instrument, a mere action hero; one who you never feel is ever in danger.

Gone too is the cleverness. At its heart, there was a whodunnit intrigue to the stories, as our embattled innocent hero tried to figure out not just who he was, but who was framing him and why. In Jason Bourne, the plot device of his father’s putative involvement in the program (The one that turned David Webb into Jason Bourne), remains a plot device; there merely as an excuse to unleash lashings of action without any real sleuthing.

Gone also are the clever chases. It’s all just Fast and Furious without a trace of finesse.

Nor are the characters particularly compelling. An even more craggy Tommy Lee Jones as the CIA director is a paint by numbers bureaucrat with an itchy trigger finger. And Alicia Vikander, as Heather Lee, the amoral, careerist analyst, betrays no obvious signs of sentient behaviour… with a portrait of such monotone flatness you wonder if she’s been body snatched by her robotic alter ego from Ex Machina.

Greengrass’ uninspired, leaden script probably doesn’t help either. Gone is Tony Gilroy who wrote and scripted the previous movies (and who also wrote Michael Clayton and the magnificent Proof of Life)

In a recent interview, Matt Damon said that he’d convinced Greengrass of the need to revive the franchise “to give something back to the fans”.

But not this. The/we fans deserve a lot better.

 

JASON BOURNE (2016) With Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Vince Cassel, Julia Styles. Writers: Paul Greengrass and Christopher Rouse. Cinematographer: Barry Ackroyd (The Big Short. Captain Phillips). Editor: Christopher Rouse (Captain Phillips. Green Zone. The Bourne Ultimatum etc)

 

THE BFG****A Giant of a Movie


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NOBODY CHANNELS THE inner child as brilliantly as Steven Spielberg, in this slow moving but stunningly well-realized piece of magic. His adaptation of Roald Dahl’s touching tale of Sophie, a little lonely orphan girl who one night is kidnapped/rescued by a gentle giant, is a treat.

The giant (the eponymous BFG or big friendly giant), who can very cleverly ‘disappear’ in plain sight to avoid being seen by humans, has the magical ability to hear all the whispers in the world. Perhaps, her whispers of loneliness were ones he’d heard. It’s his job to bottle up dreams – both the pleasant kinds and the not so pleasant kinds. In a sense therefore, to this lonely little girl, lost in her world of books, the BFG is the man/brother/ father/protector of her dreams.

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He takes her, in a moment of Spielbergian terror, his large hand like a tentacled monster reaching into her room. Then, leaping over highways, mountains and oceans, like a sprite, he gently sets her down in the cave where he lives – nestled in a valley of giants. But unlike the BFG, there’s no F to these giants (with wonderful names such as Gizzardgulper, Childchewer, Bonecruncher and Butcher Boy). They delight in eating little children…or, for fun, bullying the BFG – a tiny runt compared with them.  Clearly he himself is as much in need of protection as she is.

The BFG and Sophie: they’re an odd pair, whose pairing must defeat the ogres and protect the defenceless children.

Game on!

The timing of this movie seems particularly astute: as the world continues to spin out of control, here’s a story told without a shred of irony, cynicism or moral ambiguity. It’s a little oasis of purity and light in a dark, dark world. Spielberg’s movies have never stooped to the kind of defensive self-referential glibness… the longing to be hip, the worldly ennui… that plagues so many movies (like the barely watchable Deadpool). In The BFG, the world he creates (with his long-time cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski) is absorbingly charming…from the cluttered, childish, cave-like dwelling of the giant, aglow with his jars of dreams, to the fantasy, story-book rooms of an imagined Buckingham Palace (where an activist HRH (Penelope Wilson), with her retinue of corgis, commands an army of nineteenth century looking generals to take on the giants).

This is a Spielberg opening up his imagination (via some extraordinary special-effects wizardry) , and ours, to his own magic kingdom.

And if he delivers, with style, his storytelling genius, it’s the brilliance of Mark Rylance as the BFG that’s the icing on the cake. In a recent interview on BBC, Spielberg told the interviewer that he considered Rylance to be by far the greatest actor he’s worked with (first on Bridge of Spies and slated for the next two Spielberg movies). And you can see why: in what could easily have been either an over the top fe-fi-fo-fum giant or pure schmaltz, Rylance’s sly, understated performance, even in the face of occasional slapstick, is as genuine and affectlessly honest as the movie itself. Speaking in an invented Cornish sounding accent (which I guess is how giants speak) Rylance delivers Melissa Mathison’s elaborately inventive Dhal-ian malapropisms with musical beauty. And there’s a real chemistry with his tiny co-star, Ruby Barnhill, whose confident first-time outing delivers a sense of open eyed wonder that mirrors ours.

If there was one disappointment: John Williams’ score did its job, but without the punchy memorableness we’ve come to expect from him.

A small matter. One word of warning. If you go to this, leave your adult reserve at the door; and better yet, go with a child or two

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The BFG. Dir: Steven Spielberg. With Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilson (Downtown Abbey), Rebecca Hall (Iron Man 3). Screenplay: Melissa Mathison. Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski. Production Designers: Rick Carter (most of Spielberg + Avatar) & Robert Stromberg (Alice in Wonderland). Composer: John Williams

GHOSTBUSTERS (2016)**: Who you gonna call? Not them


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IT’S IMPOSSIBLE NOT to compare this lame reboot of Ghostbusters with the inventive, wildly entertaining original. Despite the bland initial trailer, all signs for the new version pointed in the right direction: writer director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Spy, several episodes of Nurse Jackie) made (slapstick, raunchy) female powered comedy a big-hit reality; the idea of re-imagining the ghostbusters as women was inspired; the cast were proven comedy talents; the decision to throw in beefcake Chris Hemsworth as the male version of the cliched gorgeous dumb blonde had real promise and the potential of updated CGI excitement offered much (the one element that did not disappoint)

But… there must have been a ghost in the writing machine… a demon of drabness in the dialogue… a sepulchral spectre of staleness stealing away with the wit, as any real humour in this groaning Ghostbusters is nothing more than an advertising apparition.

The cast certainly try hard enough. They grind away with exaggerated enthusiasm through all the set-piece scenes as they battle against both an uprising of the dead and the refusal of a terrified government (hammily personified by Andy Garcia as the Mayor) to acknowledge the existence of these whispy, malignant, slime-vomiting ghouls.

SNL’s Leslie Jones, the token Black Person, exuding Black Folksiness seems to be the only one who seems to feel comfortable in the sly irony of her role.

And that’s the problem. Feig’s script sticks to the script (the original Ghostbusters idea) with such fidelity that (apart from a – very few – nice touches) the inventiveness of four women taking on the living and the dead (not to mention all that SNL talent) is never unleashed.

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The exuberant Melissa McCarthy seems strait-jacketed and unsure whether to go for the big gesture or contain herself; Kristen Wiig (SNL) is the mousy scientist with a lust for more than science. By the end of the movie, she’s transformed herself into… a mousy scientist with a lust for more than science. Fellow SNL alumni, Kate McKinnon, tries to channel the eye-popping zaniness of Christopher Lloyd from Back to The Future. Poorly. And Chris Hemsworth may make for a great Thor, but his comedy chops is as leaden as his Viking hammer.

Various cutesy cameos pop up to pay homage to the past (Bill Murray, Ozzy Osbourne, Dan Aykroyd, Al Roker, Ernie Hudson and Sigourney Weaver). They’re cute but don’t bring very much to the show really.

We don’t even get much of that great music. The decision was taken to radically update and modernize it. That’s like turning the soul stirring Bond theme into a rock version and hoping it’d signal with-it modernity.

What a missed opportunity.

I guess for belly laugh humour we’ll just have to stick to those two stalwart comedians, uniting the world in laughter these days: the vulgar reality star running for US president and Boris Johnson.

 

Ghostbusters. Dir: Paul Feig. Screenplay: Paul Feig and Katie Dippold (Parks and Recreation). With Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth. Cinematographer: Robert D Yeoman (Spy, The Grand Budapest Hotel); Production Designer: Jefferson Sage (Spy)

 

THE NEON DEMON**Devilishly Bad


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MY NON-PC synopsis of this very highly rated movie is that it’s a weird – bizarre even – story of our obsession over appearances, over the ideal of perfection and the predatory lusts they engender. My non-PC synopsis is that it’s overhyped rubbish

The highly stylized movie (every scene precisely and numbingly art directed) follows the life of Jesse (Elle Fanning, last seen in Trumbo) newly arrived in LA in search of a job as a model/ (We meet her initially as a corpse, blood gushing from her throat…all in the duty of art or photography). She’s an innocent fresh-faced, sixteen year old (“Tell them you’re nineteen” she’s told) whose flawless beauty, like her body has been untouched… by either zealous lover or perfection sculpting surgeon. She’s pretty immediately the talk of the town and the hit among the powers that be, much to the jealousy and consternation of the reigning beauty queens.

For them the pursuit of the ideal will stop at nothing…even to the point of cannibalism (in LA, innocence is always devoured by experience) or, for that matter, Sapphic necrophilia (don’t ask).

But Jesse is no innocent pushover. One night she opens her motel room to find a snarling mountain lion within. This (there are more symbols in the movie than a Robert Langdon symbology hunt) is her inner life: the inner beast ever guarding her precious virginity…itself a proxy for the uncorrupted soul

Unlike the uber corrupted soul: Hank (Keanu Reeves), the motel manager. He’s a crude predatory rapist, ever preying upon the innocents who drift into his web. His mirror image is Jack (Desmond Harrington), a trendy, feted photographer, whose predatory rape is of a more sophisticated nature. Both assume these young girls – mere bodies really – are there for their own forms of physical/artistic delectation.

The movie’s shot using only available light. So it’s either (when lit by day or moonlight) slightly obscure or (when lit by neon) garishly artificial: obscure or artificial – the binary world the movie suggests we live in.

In the end, after a grisly murder, guilt will out; which results in one of the models (who just can’t stomach it any more) vomiting up the eye of someone she ate. I guess, what you see is what you ate. Or something.

As the symbol of ideal beauty, Ellie Fanning is well chosen. She’s a stunningly beautiful, if lifeless beauty, in a role that demands little of her than to look innocent when she’s not looking scared.

Director/writer Nicholas Winding Ref (Drive) is to be applauded. He clearly speaks a good game…having managed to secure funding for this nonsense, and, all praise to him, plaudits by critics who, really, should know better

 

The Neon Demon. Dir: Nicholas Winding Refn. With: Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks and Keanu Reeves. Cinematographer: Natasha Braier (The Rover). Composer: Cliff Martinez (Only God Forgives). Production Design: Elliott Hostetter (Night Moves)

 

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN***


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ANY REMAKE OF Tarzan, the legendary ape man unleashed into the world in 1912, has to deal with the awkward politics of a superhuman white man saving the lives of (weaker) black men. Edgar Rice Burrough’s assumptions of white (moral, intellectual, physical) superiority is a heavy burden for any modern film-maker and any (non-racist redneck) audience to stomach. The writers of this latest incarnation of the lord of the jungle (Adam Cozad of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and Craig Brewer of Black Snake Moon) are all too aware of this; they dance through hoops to avoid any charge of even unconscious racism or neo-Colonial sympathy.

And they accomplish the feat with grace and style. Turns out Jane (Margot Robbie) was also brought up in Africa (daughter of missionaries) and so has a deep affinity for the people and the land, quite independent of Tarzan. She can’t quite leap from vine to vine, but, if only in her displays of animal passion, is a fitting mate to her jungle lord.

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The story of The Legend of Tarzan centers around the imminent enslavement of the Congolese by the heinous Belgian King Leopold and his local man of business, Leon Rom (Christopher Waltz reprising his villainous Nazi character from Inglorious Basterds). Rom (like Leopold) was an actual person. Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard), now married to Jane and happily living in aristocratic splendor as Lord and Lady Greystoke, is tempted back into the jungles by George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), another real life person, whose mission it is to root out slavery everywhere and for whom Tarzan would be an extraordinary ally.

They return to an Edenic setting: old friends, the undisturbed home where their romance blossomed and the lush, animal-dense beauty of central Africa. The bliss is shattered by Rom and his troupe of ruthless mercenaries who must capture Tarzan in return for a king’s ransom of diamonds guarded by one Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) a vengeful tribal King (The result of ancient bad blood after Tarzan, defending his ape ‘mother’, killed his son).

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And when all hell breaks loose, the movie’s gentle pace swings into high gear. Jane has been captured as bait for Tarzan. And absolutely nothing and no one, not even an entire battle-ready tribe will stop her man getting to her.

It’s pretty exciting seeing Tarzan swinging through the trees, hearing his famous battle cry and following stampeding herds of wildebeest as they demolish the fortressed might of the Belgians. The good guys win (surprise surprise!) and the hissingly nasty Ron gets a jaw chomping cumuppance.

As the story’s moral conscience (and through whose startled eyes we see much of the incredible action) Samuel L Jackson delivers his usual compelling, if thankfully subdued, presence. Director David Yates (Lots of the Harry Potter movies) handles this story of George Washington Williams (who I’d never heard of before, and who could easily overshadow Tarzan) with a delicate touch. It’s a story that deserves its own, a less trivial telling.

Yates’ vine knotted Africa with its growl of menacing apes and thunder of war painted warriors is a visual delight. There’s never any real sense that Tarzan could possibly be in danger and his fight scenes feel a bit paint by numbers, but no matter, they’re engaging enough.

Margo Robbie (it was Jane who, truth be told, really drew me to the movie) is a convincingly badass heroine. It was good of Tarzan to rescue her, but, I suspect, given enough time, she’d have rescued herself.

The weak link is Tarzan. He certainly looks great, but Skarsgard, who tries for a brooding, introspective Tarzan never quite manages to convince either as a gentleman repressing the animal within or as an animal barely restrained by his gentlemanliness. He was better as a broodingly nasty vampire in True Blood. And, since the story hangs on his finely sculpted pecs, his weakness is almost the film’s undoing

The writing also is shoddy. The Legend of Tarzan has a neatly worked out story line, but it’s lazy writing: various themes about slavery, colonialism, Leopold’s massacre of elephants, friendship, honor etc are scattered here and there without a unifying idea. Too bad. It allowed a wonderfully researched story to end up as a movie that’s pleasant, eye-candy but just another forgettable entry into the canon of Tarzan

 

The Legend of Tarzan: Dir: David Yates. With: Alexander Skarsgard, Christopher Waltz, Samuel. L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbet. Writers: Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer. Cinematographer: Henry Braham (The Golden Compass). Production Designer: Stuart Craig (Harry Potter’s)

 

DAVID HOCKNEY AT THE RA***** Picture Perfect


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TALK ABOUT GETTING the full measure of the man!

David Hockney’s new exhibition at the Royal Academy features eighty two large acrylic portraits of an eclectic group of his friends. They’re all very stark: all sitters are posed on the same chair with (more or less) the same blue and green floor and wall. Within the self-imposed rigidity of the format (like the constraint and formality of a sonnet) eighty two distinct personalities emerge to stare back at you, as they did the painter: bored, amused, haughty, curious, thankful, self conscious, inquisitive. The sitters exude power, charm, fragility, arrogance and for many, wealth, which is in itself for some, a statement of character.

When you think of “the portrait” (so dominated by Rembrandt) the imagination immediately conjures up images of faces; all else – clothes, poses, background – usually become either of symbolic or secondary importance. Not so for Hockney. His portraits…these evocations of personality … arise initially from the very direct responses of the sitters to the artist (they aren’t staring past him into some imagined space; they’re very aware of his presence), the clothes they’ve chosen to wear (sloppy, elegant, sporting, understatedly posh, formal…some clearly dressed for the occasion, others as though they were on the way to the supermarket) and (the most telling), posture.

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Hockney’s use of the same slightly uncomfortable chair for all the sitters is one of his brilliant character signifiers. Some of his sitters – powerful, confident people, clearly accustomed to being listened to – have colonized the chair. Their bodies and abundant clothes seem to swallow it up, so that barely its spindly brown legs are all that is seen, Others – retiring, hesitant, in awe of the great man, unaccustomed to such a prolonged stare – seem shrunken in the chair; they seem shy, wary of even touching its sides, as though fearing it would reveal too many truths. And yet others drape themselves all over it as if in defiance of its talismanic power, willing its stiff-backed discomfort to yield to their demands; some of the sitters slouch into it, seemingly unfussed by the artist’s probing eyes; and yet others sit stiffly upright…uptight, self conscious and awkward.

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And then there are the hands: restless, prim, nervous, gently resting on casually crossed legs or gripping the arms of the chair tensely. These are portraits of gesture. Despite the stiff flatness of acrylic (he uses just enough colour to give a semblance of depth, but his main tonal variations come from varying the density and opacity of the pigment) you can almost feel the hands move, the fingers twitch, the legs jiggle. It’s as though the artist waited patiently for his subjects to do something – twist, lean forward, scratch…some revealing gesture that he would freeze and turn into an yet another unsuspecting expression of mood and character.

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And do they capture the likeness? Who knows (most of the sitters aren’t known celebrities…Hockney says “I don’t do celebrities, photography does celebrities”) and who cares.

What they capture in a 4′ X 3′ rectangle of paint is an entire life. How miraculous

THE FLICK**** The Reel Thing


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THREE LOSERS – A slacker projectionist (Louisa Kraus as Rose) and two depressed cinema attendants (Jaygann Ayeh as Avery and Matthew Maher as Sam) – slowly reveal themselves to each other in a series of vignettes set in the empty (and deliciously realized) auditorium of a cinema, The Flick. Their conversations are halting, often stilted, uncertain; and revelations of character, of their pasts and hopes for the future are teased out in this often hilarious, densely layered, absolutely absorbing play (It kept me awake for three hours…that’s saying something)

At its heart, The Flick, Annie Baker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, directed for the stage by Sam Gold, is about the desire for what seems almost unattainable: self-awareness…imagined as a route to connecting better and building relationships.

In the play’s microcosm, its people – all three – circle each other without knowing really how to connect. Because they’re so clumsy with the signals they send…with the way they project themselves, the only projection they can all be sure of is the one on the screen (In a nice touch, Avery’s father is a professor of semiotics – the study of signs and signals)

The immediate answer to the existential question Avery asks Sam near the beginning of the play, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is: projectionist. The flickering light of the projector; the discussion of how film – celluloid or digital – is best projected (which is the more honest projection Avery, a cineaste, wonders) is the symbolic center of the play. The reel is in a sense the real. How self-aware do you need to be to project how you want to be seen? Is life just a series of performances?

Because the characters haven’t worked these things out, they project impressions – flickerings – of themselves that are misread and that keep them isolated, disconnected from each other, from the rest of the world…their hopes and any potential for self fulfillment (In the play, the motif of the movie is treated both as an escape from reality and as a bizarre route to connectivity)
The beginnings of breakthrough start with the two men playing the Six Degrees of Separation game. Avery is a master if it: his knowledge of movies and their actors enables him to answer every increasingly obtuse connection put to him by Sam. He can find the connections in fiction…he just doesn’t know how to find them in life. And perhaps for this reason, he tried to kill himself a year ago.

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Rose, envied for her lofty status – as projectionist – and self protectively dismissed by Sam (who loves her) as a lesbian, is so self absorbed, her sexual fantasies feature only her. She offers up another game: see what horoscopes have to suggest in terms of who should be connecting with whom…and what insights into each other they offer.

They’re silly games, but they break the ice. As the play unfolds, the characters learn about themselves as they learn about each other (way beyond the cliches of a horoscope). They reveal, often unknowingly, in their desultory conversations, elements of themselves that begin to build bridges across the gulf that separates them. There’s a symbiotic relationship between awareness of self and of others.

The play charts the evolution of the interconnectedness of these three; the – false – beginning of trust and the –real- beginning of their own self-knowledge.

It’s a beginning. But only a beginning. When all three are caught out cheating (happily deceiving themselves, that stealing from the till is really only their –deserved- dinner money) character trumps connectivity.  Rose’s self centeredness, and Sam’s blind love for her justify them selling out Avery. Whatever trust had been created disappears.

But no matter, their enhanced self-awareness means that they can all, with greater surety begin to answer the question posed at the beginning, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And perhaps with this, the future for all of them holds some promise; that the potential of self-fulfillment might actually happen.

 

THE FLICK. By Annie Baker. With Jaygaan Ayeh, Sam Heron, Louisa Krause (movies: Martha, Mercy, May and Young Adult), Matthew Maher (movies: Gone Baby Gone. A Most Violent Year). Directed by Sam Gold. Designer: David Zinn. Lighting Designer: Jane Cox. Sound Designer: Bray Poor. On at the National Theatre