Friday, 19 August 2016

Jason Bourne




Let me begin with a few reminders, which regular readers have seen here before:

  1. I like Matt Damon.
  2. I like intelligent spy thrillers.
  3. I like conspiracy thrillers.
  4. I’m a fan of The Bourne Identity and enjoyed the two sequels (though I did NOT appreciate Paul Greengrass’s style and the increasing emphasis on action versus story).
  5. I believe the single greatest threat to ‘public safety’ and to the life of every human being on the planet (not counting climate change), and possibly the greatest evil in the history of humanity (yes, more evil than Stalin or Hitler or ISIS), is the Central Intelligence Agency, so I’m a fan of any film that exposes and condemns the evil and inherent corruption of the CIA (or the NSA, etc.).
  6. I’m a HUGE admirer of whistleblowers of any kind; it’s the CIA and NSA, etc. which are guilty of treason (against the human race, the only nation state I recognize), not the whistleblowers who expose the horrific actions of these secretive agencies.

Okay, now let’s take a look at Jason Bourne, the fourth Matt Damon Bourne film and the third directed by Paul Greengrass (who also co-wrote this film). Like its predecessors, Jason Bourne is a conspiracy spy thriller about exposing and condemning the CIA, though it’s never clear whether the Bourne films are condemning the CIA as such or just certain corrupt individuals who work for (and usually lead) the CIA. 

Jason Bourne begins with Bourne’s friend and former colleague, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), hacking into the CIA’s computer system and copying all of its black-ops files, including one on Treadstone, which recruited and trained assassins (called assets) like Bourne. Parsons wants to put this information online so that everyone will know just how awful the CIA really is, and she solicits Bourne’s help, but Bourne doesn’t agree with Parsons’ goals and is more interested in what the Treadstone file reveals about the complicity of his father, Richard (Gregg Henry), in the Treadstone project. 

Meanwhile, back in Langley, the CIA has detected the hacking, thanks to the work of the brilliant and ambitious Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander). The CIA’s current director, Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), is rightfully in a panic. But he’s got a second panic-inducing situation on his plate: Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), the founder of the new Deep Dream computer platform, is threatening to expose the CIA’s plans to use Deep Dream as part of a project to monitor every person on the planet (doesn’t get more Big Brother than that, and I believe the CIA and NSA are working on exactly such a project). So we’ve got two whistleblowers on the loose and Bourne caught in the middle (with a CIA asset, played by Vincent Cassel, hunting Bourne down in revenge for Bourne’s role in exposing him many years before). 

Because of the CIA-exposure elements of the plot, I was actually more engaged in the action (which still completely, and inexcusably, dominates the film) than in the previous two films, at least until the final twenty minutes or so, when double-revenge nonsense leads to a ridiculous car chase scene that all but ruins the entire film. Not that there weren’t other flaws, like the role played by the completely unnecessary new information about Bourne’s secretive background, involving his father. Of course, without that part of the story there is precious little plot to play with, which is my biggest complaint of the last three Bourne films (give me the complex plots of most British spy thrillers, like those penned by John le Carré, anytime). Then there are the unbelievable and uninformed computer and technology antics that make the CIA look much more competent than it is. And someone forgot to give the writers the memo about how the main reason Vic likes the Bourne films is because they are set almost entirely in Europe (Jason Bourne spends far too much of its time in Las Vegas). 

But there are also positive and discussable things about Jason Bourne. Damon IS Jason Bourne and he displays an ever-greater sense of the inner turmoil constantly experienced by his character, though in some ways Bourne is less sympathetic in this film. Vikander does an excellent job and Jones is always fun to watch. The question is: exactly how good or evil are the characters they play? Is Lee, like Pamela Landy in the previous two films, a woman with more of a conscience than her coldhearted male boss, wanting to help Bourne and to challenge her agency’s evil actions, or is SHE the coldhearted person trying to use Bourne to get rid of her boss and become director herself (as someone in my family suggested, though I prefer the former interpretation)? Is Dewey, meanwhile, a coldhearted killer protecting the CIA at all costs and planning ever greater evils, or is he a man put in an insanely stressful position struggling to do what’s best for his country (and for the world, in his mind)? 

And what about the Bourne series suddenly trying to be topical, with whistleblowers, computer platforms, invasive surveillance in the name of security, riots in Greece, etc. (the previous films were somewhat timeless in their focus on Bourne’s survival as he searches for the truth about his past)? Were the filmmakers simply wanting to make Jason Bourne more appealing to a new generation of filmgoers (the millennials) or were they using the film to express their views on the myriad dangers of surveillance and organizations like the CIA (I prefer the latter response)? 

Many questions and, as usual, many mixed messages. For example, there is a hint early on that Bourne is mortified by the violent actions the CIA has caused him to undertake and there is the suggestion that he just wants to be a man of peace. Except he’s making his living by fighting people and, when encouraged by Lee to “stop it now” instead of continuing on his path of violent revenge, he of course ignores her, and the filmmakers seem to support his decision (if for no other reason than because it gives them the opportunity for a mindless car chase and another fight). 

Despite being a nonstop-action film, our discussion (argument?) after viewing Jason Bourne was more animated than for most films we have seen this year, and just look at the length of this review! That’s not a bad thing. So Jason Bourne gets a solid *** (personally, I liked it better than Ultimatum, its critically-acclaimed predecessor, and, prior to that ridiculous chase at the end, was planning to award it ***+). My mug is up, but go in with low expectations.


Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Indignation



Back-to-back indie flicks by first-time directors, both about an eighteen-year-old young man trying to find his place in the world, and yet Indignation bears almost no resemblance to Closet Monster. Where Closet Monster features a quirky and original style, camera work, music and content, Indignation couldn’t be more traditional. Its old-fashioned cinematography, score and style match its period setting of 1951 Ohio. For me, this is not a bad thing. Indeed, while I also liked Closet Monster, I liked Indignation much more.

Written and directed by James Schamus, based on the novel by Philip Roth, Indignation gives us a year or so in the life of Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a deep thinker and a serious and courteous young man. Marcus grew up in Newark, the only child of a butcher and his wife, both devout Jews. But Marcus has given up on religion, calling himself an atheist. So he’s not impressed when the college he chooses to attend (Winesburg College in Ohio) requires regular chapel attendance and provides him with two Jewish roommates.

The roommates, in turn, are not impressed when Marcus goes on a date with the beautiful and mysterious Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), leading to tensions that will eventually result in a very long visit to Dean Caudwell's (Tracy Letts) office, which may be my favourite scene of the year. Indignation has a number of marvellous scenes, each one featuring brilliant acting and dialogue (most of the film is dialogue) and wonderful close-up cinematography. These scenes make the film feel like it’s more about the pieces than the whole, which would be a major flaw in most films, but in this case I found it original and uniquely compelling.

Two of those terrific conversations are between Marcus and his mother (Linda Emond), who comes to visit Marcus in the hospital following an appendectomy. Those conversations will have far-reaching consequences, but I will say no more about the plot. 

Some critics find Indignation too self-serious and too slow, but I felt that the film’s carefully-structured style perfectly mirrored the personality of the protagonist, adding to my engagement with the film. Janelle didn’t like the film as much as I did. Like some critics, she wasn’t sure about the point of the film. I won’t divulge my thoughts on that here, except to say that I can see how Indignation is not a film that will appeal to everyone. But it pushed all the right buttons for me. This quiet, melancholy, funny, intelligent and thought-provoking drama gets an easy **** and will almost certainly make my top ten of 2016. My mug is up!

Monday, 15 August 2016

Closet Monster



This low-budget Canadian indie film is a coming-of age tale about Oscar, a gay teen growing up in Newfoundland. Oscar’s early years (played by Jack Fulton) seem happy enough until he witnesses an horrific attack on a gay boy, an event that will haunt him for many years. If he didn’t understand the importance of keeping his sexuality a secret before then, he does now. Shortly after that, Oscar’s parents get divorced and his relationship with both of them becomes strained. 

As an older teen, Oscar (Connor Jessup) focuses on becoming a make-up artist, using his friend, Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf) as his model. But it’s his hamster, Buffy (Isabella Rossellini), who is his closest friend and confidante. When Oscar develops a crush on a work colleague (Wilder, played Aliocha Schneider), the line between fantasy and reality begins to blur and Oscar’s life gets a little out-of-control.

Written and directed by the very young Stephen Dunn (he’s only 27), Closet Monster is a wonderful and original (and quirky) debut film (it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015), with fine performances by all concerned, great atmospheric cinematography, fascinating music and a screenplay with real heart that keeps you guessing until the end (it’s obviously autobiographical). While its low budget is sometimes evident, Closet Monster gets ***+. My mug is up.

Friday, 12 August 2016

A Perfect Day

Despite its setting in a tense conflict zone in the Balkans, this is clearly not an action film. It is a day-in-the-life film with plot taking a back seat. Mini-plots are well done and keep the viewer engaged and the film manages an unusually successful mixture of comic lightness and grim reality. In fact, I would suggest that combination is its strength, depicting the kind of paradoxical blend of a sense of humour with the restrained optimism, courage and determination that enables aid workers to survive the dangers and absurdities of this kind of conflict. Most of the comic touches are managed without much exaggeration, though Tim Robbins' character (acted very well) does slip a little into caricature.

The acting is great, though  Del Toro and Robbins are probably given a little more room to demonstrate this than the lead  women, which was a missed opportunity. All in all it gives a sympathetic glimpse into the lives of aid workers that make you very appreciative of what they risk and the efforts they make in spite of the bureaucratic obstacles and the frustrating nature of human conflict that conspire to limit the effectiveness of what they can achieve. The closing scene adds just the right note to the mix, even though that may also be less than inspiring to those who work in the field.

Don't miss this relatively ignored gem if you have any interest at all in the lives of aid workers who help conflict zones slowly become livable again. ***+ and a mug up from me.

Star Trek Beyond



Thanks to Simon Pegg, who co-wrote it, the new Star Trek film feels much closer to the original television series than the two films that preceded it, especially with its greater emphasis on relationships and dialogue. Unfortunately, it's still too heavy on the action and the plot tells the same basic story as the other films and misses a perfect opportunity to do something original and imaginative at the end, namely redeem the villain. Star Trek Beyond gets *** verging on ***+. My mug is up.

My full review can be found at Third Way Cafe: http://thirdway.com/star-trek-beyond/

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Café Society



Woody Allen keeps making films and I keep enjoying them, finding them more entertaining than most comedy dramas out there. 

In a voice that doesn’t quite sound like him, Allen narrates the story of Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), a young man from New York City seeking to start a new life working for his uncle Phil (Steve Carrell) in 1930’s Hollywood. Bobby falls in love with his uncle’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), but Vonnie is in love with someone else. Meanwhile, Bobby’s older brother, Ben, has moved up in New York City’s gangster world and has bought a nightclub. Ben offers Bobby the opportunity to help him run the nightclub. With his heart broken, Bobby accepts Ben’s offer and returns to NYC, where both his life and personality will change dramatically. 

I’ve left a lot out to avoid too many spoilers. The description above doesn’t sound very funny, and the romance is actually quite serious and sad, but there are many funny lines in this dialogue-heavy film. Especially funny is the violent dark comedy, though the violence is also a little disturbing. 

Café Society isn’t one of Allen’s better films. It’s rather lightweight, it misses opportunities to help us truly engage with the characters, and a number of scenes fall flat, causing the film to drag at points. But the actors mentioned above do their best with what Allen’s given them (with Stewart standing out) and there are more more scenes that worked for me than those which didn’t work. The highlight for me, however, was the extraordinary cinematography - a work of art. The gorgeous cinematography did its best to contribute to the creation of a 1930’s atmosphere, though the overall success of that atmosphere was limited. 

Without the great cinematography, this would have been a standard, enjoyable three-star Allen film, as many of his more recent films have been, but it was such a joy to just look at Café Society that I’m letting the film fall somewhere between *** and ***+. My mug is up. 

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Captain Fantastic



Walter and I had an unexpected opportunity to watch a film together two days ago and we made good use of it, finding a film we both enjoyed very much.

Captain Fantastic, written and directed by Matt Ross, stars Viggo Mortensen as Ben Cash, a man raising his six children (ranging in age from approximately six to seventeen) in the woods of Washington (up until three months before the film starts, Ben’s wife, Leslie, a former lawyer, helped Ben raise the kids, but she was hospitalized with bipolar disorder). Ben and Leslie have taught their children to hunt, to climb and to survive alone in the woods with only a knife. At the same time, the kids were taught to speak a variety of languages, understand university-level physics, politics, history, math and anatomy, and to read and analyze the best works of literature. The children can also play various musical instruments and sing. This awesome achievement is more than a little farfetched, but it’s a fascinating and original premise and we get sucked into it because we see the world through the eyes of this unorthodox family, providing a commentary on various aspects of life in 21st-century USA. 

It helps that we cringe when we see the lengths Ben takes to prepare his children for life in the wilderness, and it also helps that when circumstances force the family to leave their isolated paradise and head for the ‘real’ world, we see that their superb education has neglected socialization, leaving them ill-prepared to interact with people. There are dangers to idealism and the desire to challenge the system. Even Ben has been living his dream so long that he struggles to behave in acceptable ways in the society he left.

There are many things that make Captain Fantastic a special film, most notably Mortensen’s outstanding performance (and the brilliant writing that produced the unique character he plays). Indeed, the creation and development of all of the film’s characters is extraordinary. Few films, even quirky indie films like this one, manage to find a perfect balance of strengths and weaknesses for each of the characters, making them believable in the midst of their eccentricity, but Captain Fantastic succeeds in doing just that. For example, Ben can be arrogant, defiant and somewhat irrational, but also loving and open to change and seeing sense when his inner struggle permits it. Then there’s Leslie’s father, Jack, played perfectly by Frank Langella. Jack is furious with the way his grandchildren are being raised but that furor remains sympathetic and believable rather than going overboard as many comedy dramas would have done. Each of the children is also beautifully created, with Bodevan (the oldest, played very well by George MacKay) getting the most airtime.

The  writing is strong throughout the film, with an intelligent screenplay that doesn’t talk down to the audience. Meanwhile, the cinematography is gorgeous but restrained and the music is just right.

Which is not to say that Captain Fantastic is flawless. In particular, the lack of credibility which creeps in throughout gets carried away near the end of the film. But given that this is Ross’s first major attempt at filmmaking (he is known as a character actor), his achievement is quite remarkable. This sad, funny and thoughtful film about life in 2016 is one of the best films of the year so far and comes very close to earning ****. Two mugs up!