THE BOURNE LEGACY


Does anyone really remember the plots of the three earlier Bourne films?  I mean, really remember them?  I remember Jason Bourne being a product of some special program, but what exactly it was and how it worked and who it involved…I haven’t a clue and I don’t think most other people I know do either (they were like The Big Sleep, but without the double entendres).  No, when it comes down to it, I think one can safely say that when it came to the plots, they were something about something with people doing something about something else.  But it didn’t matter.  That’s not why we enjoyed the films.  Probably because if we did, we probably would have found the basic ideas somewhat ludicrous and hard to take seriously. 

I’m not sure Tony Gilroy, the director and co-writer (with Dan Gilroy) of The Bourne Legacy (as well as the writer of the earlier Bourne films), agrees.  He seems to really take this somewhat over the top, conspiracy theory plot very seriously.  He’s not satisfied for it to be something about something, he wants it to be SOMETHING about SOMETHING.  And I’m not sure that is working to his advantage here.

In the previous two films, there are a few things I remember that made me love them.  The first is Paul Greengrass’ herky jerky approach to the directing, giving it a hand held documentary feel to it.  He kept things moving and the tension revved up to the nth degree.  I also remember that the plot was made up of a series of scenes in which the character of Bourne came up with the wildest Rube Goldberg schemes to achieve his goals, often jaw droppingly brilliant in their execution.  Finally, there was the cast of Matt Damon, Albert Finney, Joan Allen, Julia Stiles, David Strathairn, Paddy Considine, Scott Glenn, among others. 

When it comes to The Bourne Legacy, I feel that the movie falls a bit short in every category mentioned above.  Tony Gilroy’s direction is a bit sluggish at times.  It feels as if he’s often focusing on the least interesting aspect of the story—the dialog and plot.  It’s not that there aren’t some good lines here and there (one about a gun shooting down a drone and Jeremy Renner as the Bourne stand in Aaron Cross upset that Rachel Weisz, as virologist Marta Shearing doesn’t even know his name). 

And it’s not that there aren’t some exciting scenes.  Though I have to say that the person who deserves the kudos here is the locations manager or whoever found that incredible three story house in the middle of nowhere; a huge lab in the Philippines; as well as that neighborhood in Manilla where the final chase scene takes place.  It’s only in these scenes that Gilroy seems to get any sort of rhythm going (the showdown in that house that has as much character development as anyone else in the film is definitely one of the high points of the film).  At other times, like the long drawn out scenes with the government operatives (headed by Ed Norton) talking to each other and explaining everything and a scene of mass murder at a lab that goes on for far, far, far longer than is justified by how much it contributes to the story, the forward momentum tends to stall.

And the story just has problems getting going.  It takes forever for it to start (there are a long series of scenes at the beginning with Renner that are never that clearly explained or justified and don’t seem to go anywhere).  And there is nothing in the individual scenes that come close to the cleverness of the earlier movies.  In fact, the whole thing sort of feels like Mission Impossible the movie as opposed to Mission Impossible the TV series.  It’s just one chase and action scene (which are the most exciting parts of the film) followed by one long, somewhat bland dialog scene, followed by a chase and action scene., followed by…well, you get the idea.  However, I have to give it props for that one thing that Weisz does at the climax which is almost worth the price of admission alone.

When it comes to the acting, no one gives a bad performance and Weisz becomes more and more interesting as the story moves along.  Ed Norton plays a dislikeable character so dislikeably, he’s often difficult to watch (which is a compliment, I think).  However, it’s Stacy Keach, as the head of the CIA, that probably comes across the strongest here; he seems the most relaxed in his role, not straining to get his character across.  But whereas I was heavily impressed by the cast of the earlier films and what they did, for some reason, this time round in watching Norton, Renner and Weisz, all I could think of was, “what are these fine actors doing in this film?”

All in all, if you like exciting action scenes that really get your motor going, you might like this movie more than I did.  I doubt anybody thinks it comes up to the previous entries in the series, but there is that thing that Weisz does at the climax that is almost worth the price of admission alone.

THE AVENGERS


The Avengers is a very entertaining movie and gets the adrenaline going, which isn’t quite the same thing as saying it’s totally successful or rises that far above what it is.  Written by Joss Whedon and Zak Penn and directed by Whedon, it’s an oddly schizoid movie.  On one side are wonderfully witty lines with often hysterically snarky dialog while on the other side are serious, earnest and highly dramatic tete a tetes that fall flat on their face.  On one side are the vibrant actors and Oscar nominees (Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Samuel L. Jackson and Jeremy Renner) and on the other are film personalities with pretty faces (Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston and Chris Evans)–and no matter how equal the writers may try to make the various superheroes when it comes to their powers, Evans will never be able to Eve Harrington Downey when it comes to Stanislavksy.  (For those keeping score, Scarlett Johansson falls somewhere in the middle, which in many ways reflects her role in the movie, a character trying to bridge the gap between all the antagonistic good guys.)  And finally on one side you have large scale action sequences filled with massive set pieces of uninhibited, glorious destruction (Manhattan now seems to be the new Tokyo, destined to be destroyed on a regular basis due to the specter of 9/11 in the way Japan is haunted by the atomic bomb) and on the other side is very little death (see Battle for LA in contrast—for The Avengers the studio apparently wanted to challenge the audience, but in a very non-challenging way).  As was noted, Whedon and Penn have a way with a snarky line (the best written scene is when all the heroes are in one room and due to the influence of Loki, get under each other’s skins saying all the mean things everyone in the audience is thinking).  But when it comes to heavy scenes, the authors can do little but immediately make fun of them once they’re over (Whedon had the same issue in Cabin in the Woods—the unbearable scenes of overage teenagers in distress were only made palatable, if that, by the more comic scenes of Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford).  These more serious sequences might have had a better chance if all the actors were of equal caliber (there’s actually a very nice one between Ruffalo and Downey that suggests this); but this was ultimately a battle, unlike the one against Loki, the superheroes simply could not win (for an example, take the scene between Thor and Loki that Iron Man aptly described as Shakespeare in the Park).  The whole thing culminates with a knock down, drag out for the Big Apple when some aliens resembling the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz make their way through some sort of space time continuum and unleash their blitzkrieg upon an unsuspecting metropolis.  The battle itself is not exactly boring, but it also isn’t that imaginative and all in all, pretty derivative (again, it’s the snarky wit and two hysterically funny bits by the Hulk that really made this work as well as it does).  The special effects are, of course, first rate, though none may quite equal the SFX of Gwyneth Paltrow in Daisy Dukes (though one does shudder at the idea of this fashion style making a comeback since very few people can get away with short shorts—I know, I’ve tried).  The ending is resolved through a deux ex machina provided by Stellan Skarsgard (let’s face it, the plot is a bit clunky—c’mon, be honest with yourselves and give the devil his due) as well as an inconsistency with how much control Bruce Banner has over his green (ho, ho, ho) alter ego (apparently, it corresponds to the needs of the script at any given time).  But in the end, The Avengers is a perfectly fine time waster.  It’s no Iron Man or The Dark Knight, but, hey, it could have been worse.  It’s also no Spiderman III, Superman or Fantastic Four.

JUST THE PERFECT KINSHIP: Reviews of the Town and The Social Network


There came a time when many British films, especially those that concerned the working classes, were subtitled so that audience might be able to better understand what was being said. Upon seeing the Town, in which many of the characters are natives of a certain neighborhood in Boston, one has to wonder whether we’ll have to start doing the same thing in the states as there were times when the Boston brogue tended to obscure what was being said in this gritty, urban thriller. In talking with my friend Beriau, I stated I preferred The Town’s approach, authenticity, over the somewhat unskilled accent of say, a Mel Gibson in Edge of Darkness; Beriau wasn’t so sure, especially because of that one scene where Jeremy Renner (terrific here as a sociopathic thug) was talking about someone he killed and the reasons for it. It seemed an important scene, but I had no idea what he said. The Town is a story about a group of bank robbers who have great tastes in masks and disguises. The movie is directed by Ben Affleck and written by Affleck, Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard. Aaron Stockard also wrote another Ben Affleck movie, Gone, Baby, Gone, and the two of them seem to have an aptitude for working class grit. Affleck comes off a bit better than Stockard this time round. With The Town, Affleck demonstrates that he is probably a better director than actor, or at least a better director than romantic or heroic lead. The action scenes have a slam bang feel to them (though they often are the sort where no one can ever seem to shoot someone except when it’s convenient for the screenwriter); the neighborhoods have a certain down and dirty bleakness to them; and the romance between Affleck and Rebecca Hall has a certain sweetness to it. The Town is never less than entertaining, especially whenever Renner is on screen, stealing the show as only a good sociopath can; he’s the main reason to see it. The rest of the movie is a bit dicey at times. The bank robberies here are too good, too clever, too artistically brilliant to be realistic. They’re enjoyable and fascinating, but one does come away from them thinking they’re the sort of thing one only sees in movies. They also suggest that Affleck’s character’s main problem is not so much his criminal background as a lack of career counseling; this guy shouldn’t be robbing banks, he should be running them. Though Renner is the top of the food acting chain, Affleck and Hall are also affective. But the others didn’t really thrill me all that much. Chris Cooper, as Affleck’s father, isn’t really given anything to do and he proceeds not to do it. Pete Postlethwaite also seems wasted in the role of the gang’s go to guy for money laundering. Jon Hamm is actually rather bland as the FBI agent hot on everyone’s trail. This blandness is perfect for his role as the man in the grey flannel suit on Mad Men, but it’s uncertain how far this can take him in the movies. The plot itself also has some issues. Part of it is personal. The older I get, the less empathy I automatically have for crooks and thugs and the authors don’t really give me any strong reason for rooting for Affleck here. I also wasn’t convinced that Postlethwaite had enough power to get Affleck to go on that oldest of clichés of heist movies, the last job. And once Renner kills some policemen, I have no sympathy for Affleck at all; he may not have shot them himself, but he’s equally culpable. At the end, in a voice over, Affleck states that everyone has to pay for what he’s done in life. The only problem is that he hasn’t closely begun to pay. He got away with the money; the affection of the girl, with the possibility of them being together again; and he’s living in what looks like, even if it’s not to my taste, a rather nice house with a great view of a river (this almost feels like an ending come up with in committee or via focus groups). It’s too idyllic to come across as any sort of punishment. I mean, I should have it so lucky if I’m responsible for the death of a couple of cops.

A critic once described the dialog in the movie All About Eve as some of the best staircase wit in the movies. I couldn’t help but think of that remark in watching The Social Network in which the writer Aaron Sorkin gives his actors one witty line after another; in fact, wholesale paragraphs of witty lines, all delivered with the speed and dead on intensity of a SWAT member taking out a bad guy. But isn’t that one of the things movies can be for: to have people say what they should have said, not necessarily what they did say? If only we could all live in the wisecracking world of His Gal Friday. The Social Network seems like one of those movie marriages of writer and director made in heaven. While Sorkin parcels out his flashes of spoken lightning, director David Fincher plays every scene for what it’s worth. In another reference to All About Eve, he grabs you like the dogs nipping at your rear end and doesn’t let go. With this and Zodiac, Fincher seems to be showing a skill at somehow keeping a movie ship afloat even if it has a somewhat unwieldy structure (I’m not using unwieldy here in a negative term; but in The Social Network and Zodiac, so much information has to be covered and dramatized effectively even if the story doesn’t necessarily conform to traditional Hollywood structural guidelines as taught in film schools or as found in various how to books). For some reason Zodiac didn’t connect to the audience (I loved it); maybe because it’s structure was just a bit too unwieldy for general consumption. Here, Sorkin has used a somewhat familiar approach by providing the story with a linking narrative, the various depositions Mark Zuckerberg, the central character, had to participate in, allowing the rest of the story to be filled in with flashbacks. And this probably did help give the story a bit more focus. Zuckerberg is played with ferociousness by Jesse Eisenberg. Zuckerberg should probably be flattered. From his various appearances on TV and The Simpsons (where he was portrayed as always speaking through his Facebook account), ferociousness is not his strong point when he talks. In fact, he comes across as the almost stereotypical geek who almost seems to have some trace of Asperger’s syndrome. Eisenberg plays him as a lion who lives his life pacing a cage. And to a certain degree that does seem to be what is driving Sorkin’s Zuckerberg, someone who is trapped in a cage of isolation because he doesn’t have the right pedigree to be invited to the best parties or the right fraternities. He’s the person who hates people not because they look down on him, but because he is not one of them looking down on others. How shallow this psychology is is probably a matter of personal opinion, but it does work. Zuckerberg would do anything to humiliate those who refuse to recognize his worth and is quick to take slights where none are intended (the fact that they aren’t intended is even worse; it means they slighted him without even acknowledging his existence). He created Facebook not just to do something brilliant, but to prove that he’s a superior human being to the upper crust snobs, the Winklevoss twins, who can’t let him in their frat house any farther than the bike room and when they offer him a sandwich, they give him a store bought one ensconced in cellophane. Zuckerberg starts distancing himself from his best friend Eduardo Saverin (an excellent Andrew Garfield with a first rate American accent), pelting him with passive/aggressive insults because Eduardo is invited to join a fraternity. Instead, his alpha male hero becomes Justin Timberlake’s Sean Parker (almost as sociopathic as Jeremy Renner’s tour de force in The Town), the founder of Napster, who also stuck it to the man. But when Zuckerberg realizes that Parker is too sociopathic, and has a way with partying and women that Zuckerberg could never hope to achieve, he drops him, too. It’s possible that as good as everyone is here, Timberlake actually gives the best performance; or is it something about sociopath’s that we can’t take our eyes off of them. Oddly enough, both Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg and Ben Affleck’s bank robber have the same ending: isolated, but having basically gotten away with everything. The difference is that I wasn’t really asked to feel that sorry for Zuckerberg. Some, yes, but Sorkin’s attitude seemed to be Zuckerberg dug his own grave. If only those involved in The Town had felt the same way.

AND THEY ROUND ANOTHER CORNER: NSCF and the Oscars


I am behind in my entries on the Awards race. The National Society of Film Critics came out last week and I haven’t commented on it yet. The NSFC awards are my favorite. They are the most eccentric and esoteric and the group usually make the best decisions, or closest to the best, when it comes to the best of the year. But their impact on the Academy Award nominations are usually pretty nil.

They went along with many major award groups and gave The Hurt Locker best of the year along with best actor and director. The Hurt Locker is expected to get a best picture and director nom as it is. However, the win for Jeremy Renner can’t hurt. It will keep reminding people about his performance as they read those Please Consider… ads. The best actress went to Yolando Moreau for Seraphine. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to conceive she will receive a best actress nomination though she, along with Tilda Swinton for Julia who also won’t get a nom, gave the best performances of the year. Best supporting actor and actress went to the usual suspects: Christophe Waltz and Mo’Nique, both of whom are suppose to win the Oscars. The interesting thing here is that Waltz tied with Paul Schneider who gave a great performance in Bright Star. But supporting actor is a tight race and it’s unlikely this will help Schneider make the list.

It does look like I’ll have to remove Nine from my list of possible contenders. It just seems to do nothing but lose buzz. I will now replace it with An Education. Emily Blunt is getting good reviews for Young Victoria, but the buzz isn’t there so I will replace her with Sandra Bullock for the Blind Side. I will add Jeremy Renner to my best actor list. Everything else stays the way it is as of now.