Jason Bourne

I apologize for being so behind in the reviews. Perhaps no one will care about this one anymore, but I like to fill in the gaps in my reviews from time to time.

I am an unapologetic fan of the first three Bourne films. The Bourne Identity was a revelation. The hero of an action film didn’t have to look like the hero of an action film. And Matt Damon didn’t. But it worked, largely because he didn’t know who he was. He was as surprised as we were every time he did something cool. It took place entirely in Europe. It felt like cinema verite, with the hand held camera work, and the stoic, quiet lead. And that music. All things told, I feel like The Bourne Identity was the most influential film (at least in the buzzy, blockbuster parts of cinema) of that decade.

Then The Bourne Supremacy one-upped everything. The action was better, the story was better, the acting was better. Everything about that film is pretty much perfect. Is there a car chase in any movie better than that one in Moscow at the end of the movie? No. There is not.

I liked The Bourne Ultimatum too. It didn’t have the whiz-bang originality of the first (of course) or the seamlessness of the second, but it has its own charms, not least of which the delightfully clever way they interweave the story of this film with what was really just a throwaway scene at the end of the previous.

I heard Matt Damon, after the third film, asked if he saw there being a fourth movie. His response: “They’d have to call it The Bourne Redundancy.” Well, you shouldn’t have spoken so soon, buddy. Apparently there is enough money to get Paul Greengrass (the director of Supremacy and Ultimatum) and Damon back onto the set for the simply titled Jason Bourne.

Is this film a step down in quality. Yes. Just a bit. Just the tiniest bit. I still enjoyed it thoroughly. The action is solid. The story is interesting. I liked Tommy Lee Jones taking the role of the government goon who’s just indiscriminately evil. (A position filled by David Strathairn, Brian Cox and Chris Cooper in previous installments.) I appreciated the return of Julia Stiles as Nicky, a constant presence in the films. But the MVP of this film (apart from the always engaging Damon) is Alicia Vikander. I watched the movie, and I still don’t know if she was evil, or if she was really on Bourne’s side. If someone tries to greenlight a fifth film, I will be very disappointed if she doesn’t figure prominently.

I guess this could be considered something like nostalgia porn, but I can’t say I wasn’t on board.

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Baby Driver

From Edgar Wright (the guy who directed Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, At World’s End and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) comes a film that’s like the illegitimate child of Pulp Fiction and La La Land. Maybe. I haven’t seen La La Land, but I get impression that it has some of the same sensibilities.

The central character here is Baby (Ansel Elgort), a preternaturally gifted driver who’s in the employ of Doc (Kevin Spacey), a criminal mastermind who delights in a good bank heist. There’s a rotating group of toughs that Doc uses for his jobs, but the ones that figure most prominently in the story are Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza Gonz├ílez) and Bats (Jamie Foxx).

Baby is clearly just working these jobs to clear a debt to Doc, but his desire to be clear of the crime scene is amped up by the appearance in his life of Debora (Lily James), a waitress who seems to get Baby when he doesn’t necessarily get himself. Nearly every feature of his character is designed to remind you that he’s been emotionally stunted by the death of his parents (particularly his mom).

The Pulp Fictionness of the film is the violence, the disregard for law and order, the constant tension between all of the criminal characters. Perhaps the most interesting dynamic is between Bats and Buddy. They have a couple of great scenes. And, of course, everyone is also filtered through Baby. Sometimes these people feel like a kind of dysfunctional family. Sometimes they feel extremely dangerous. These relationships are thrown into relief by the adorable way Baby cares for his ailing foster father Joseph (CJ Jones).

The La La Landness of the film is how it’s driven, beginning to end, by the soundtrack. Borrowing a little from Guardians of the Galaxy, Baby uses a collection of iPods to continuously curate the soundtrack of his life. He uses music to score his walk to get coffee, to romance Debora at the laundromat, and, of course, to drive.

The film never lets us forget that Baby’s gifts are most effective behind the wheel of a car. I don’t know how many cars he drives in this film, but it’s a lot, and he’s adept at controlling every one of them, leading police and others on astonishing chases through the streets of Atlanta.

For the first half of the film, I was liking it. Then, in the second half, when the story started jerking and jiving in directions I didn’t expect, I started loving it. If you don’t mind your crime drama sprinkled with a little bit of “movie magic”, you’ll probably love it, too.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

I’m a member of the generation for whom the original Star Wars films are foundational. They are what science fiction epic blockbusters are supposed to be. I’m also a guy who thinks Star Wars is a lot of fun, but the films aren’t going on any of my top ten lists. I also thought the first and third prequels were bad, and the second was pretty good. Also, The Force Awakens is my favorite Star Wars film, by a pretty dramatic margin.

roaswsRogue One is an odd bird, then. It’s not a “saga” film, and so it’s supposed to feel a little different. No opening crawl. No Williams score. And the Skywalker clan are reduced to cameos. I was okay with that. In fact, I kind of wish it was more different. But I’ll get to that.

First, the good. Good performances, particularly from Felicity Jones as Jyn, Diego Luna as Cassian, Ben Mendelsohn as Krennic and Alan Tudyk as K-2SO. (K-2SO is possibly my favorite droid now. Sorry, BB-8.) Everyone else is also fine, but not quite as amazing. Great effects. It’s the most beautiful Star Wars film, I think. Great story. I won’t delve into spoilers, but it does an admirable job of organically retconning more than one of the oddities of A New Hope. I liked seeing a ton of new planets. I loved seeing the darker side of the Rebellion. I even loved that one actor reprising his role from the prequels.

The problem is, I don’t know exactly. I mean, yeah, I got sick and tired of the references to A New Hope. Two or three would have been fine, but it was kind of overkill. Did we really need two digital recreations of actors? No, not really. (Only one of which was actually good, by the way.) And out of 8 Star Wars films, 6 of them specifically reference the Death Star. I know, the Death Star is critical to this film’s entire story, but that just underlines the sameness of the films.

But the main problem I had is that I just didn’t care very much. About anyone. Will Jyn be reunited with her father (Mads Mikkelsen)? Didn’t care. Will Cassian and Jyn come to terms? Whatever. Will the team manage to get the Death Star plans to the Rebellion? Well, yeah. They will. But how will they do it? However they’ll do it, I guess. I didn’t even much care about any character deaths. (I won’t spoil who dies.)

So, there’s certainly nothing to be embarrassed about in the film. It’s a fine addition to the franchise. But it just doesn’t connect with me on an emotional level.

Ghostbusters (2016)

gI have to admit that I’m the demo who thinks the original Ivan Reitman directed Ghostbusters is a perfect movie. But I also have to admit that I don’t have a reactionary view of remakes in general. Want to remake a film I love? Go ahead. Have fun. Maybe I’ll even like it. I’ll take a well-intentioned remake over a lazy sequel or prequel any day of the week.

The other thing I have to admit is that the fanboy backlash at remaking the film with women in the lead roles was so ugly (not to mention stupid and unnecessary) that I was more predisposed to like the film, just to spite the sexist buffoons.

All in all, the film is pretty good. The cast is (mostly) fantastic. Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones are the new ghostbusting team, with the dim-witted help of Chris Hemsworth. They all knock it out of the park. Neil Casey is a bit of a waste as the bad guy, and the cameos by actors from the original film are fine. (Bill Murray is the weakest, Annie Potts was the best.)

What does set the film apart are the effects. These ghosts are weird and scary and intriguing. There’s no attempt to try to explain why some of them look like people, and others look like dragons, and others look like parade balloons. You just go with it and enjoy the show.

Apart from the effects, every aspect of this film is inferior to the first, but not terrible by any means. I’m kind of sorry it didn’t do well enough for a sequel, because the tease in the after-credit scene definitely made me happy.

Hellboy

Those dang Nazis are always causing trouble. They’re digging up the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail in the Middle East. They’re plundering Odin’s gem stone from Norway. They’re infiltrating Hollywood high society to get their hands on a technologically superior rocket pack.

hAnd then what did they do? They opened a portal to Hell in Scotland! No, this isn’t a reference to the Wolfenstein series of video games, but the opening of Hellboy. The portal is stable just long enough for two things to happen. The mastermind of this scheme, Rasputin, (yes, that Rasputin) gets dragged into Hell, and a little impish red creature with a weird stone hand comes into our world. The creature is named Hellboy by his new caretaker, Broom (John Hurt).

The smartest thing they did with this film was tell the present-day part of the story (after Hellboy has grown up to look surprisingly like Ron Perlman in a ton of makeup) through the eyes of a regular guy, John Myers (Rupert Evans), a kid who is recruited to join the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Broom is an old man now, and his team includes not just Hellboy, but Abe Sapiens (a blue fish-man, performed by Doug Jones and voiced by David Hyde-Pierce), and Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), a pyrokinetic that puts Drew Barrymore to shame.

Myers barely has a chance to understand his new colleagues’ existence before he’s dragged into their newest worry: a sort of demon-dog creature that someone released from an artifact in a museum, and which has the ability of resurrection, which makes killing it (them) super difficult.

These dogs are merely a distraction that the also resurrected Rasputin has created to distract the authorities while he plans to recreate his long ago Nazi-financed experiment to open a doorway to another reality, which is not strictly “Hell”, but merely a hellish dimension ruled by monstrous creatures that would love nothing better than to get a foothold in our universe. And, unfortunately, Hellboy is actually the key to it all!

This film has everything you want. It has humorous by-play, it has crazy fantasy action sequences, it has romance, loss, a supremely enjoyable hero and a mummified Nazi swordmaster who runs on clockworks inside his body! I was somewhat disappointed by the sequel, but my fondness for this film more than makes up for it. I still hope they round this out to a trilogy.

Ron Perlman was in Hellboy with John Hurt. John Hurt was in, well, so many awesome things, but I have chosen to focus on…

JFK

jfkI saw Oliver Stone’s film about the various possible conspiracies around the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy in the theater back when it came out, and I was absolutely blown away. I think it’s really easy for people to get sidetracked by political implications. (JFK was no saint! Oliver Stone is a big liberal! He digitally enhanced the Zapruder footage! What about the mob?!) If that leads them to dislike the film, that’s a shame. If it leads them to not see it in the first place, they are really missing out, I tell you.

The film starts with a hallucinatory and expertly edited montage describing the historical context in US geopolitics just prior to that November day. Stone very cleverly uses entirely real archival footage… until he starts to slip in some of his own footage. Slowly, history shifts from documentary to cinematic narrative. It’s hard to call it “fictitious”, since the events in the film are certainly based on, at the very least, the versions of events believed by some historians. But the use of this directed footage is in service of a dramatic interpretation, so it’s, by definition, not completely accurate.

After this overwhelming introduction, JFK is dead, and we cut to New Orleans, and Kevin Costner as the District Attorney, Jim Garrison. Costner is certainly more comfortable with this accent than his wobbly English one in Prince of Thieves, or his near-parody Boston accent in Thirteen Days. He’s a no-nonsense kind of a litigator, with a scrappy bunch of assistants, a long-suffering wife, and about a thousand kids. (Seriously, Jim, it’s called a condom!) It turns out that Lee Harvey Oswald had a pretty important connection to New Orleans, so Garrison and his team get into it.

The rest of the film follows his several year quest to prosecute just one guy who may have been involved in the conspiracy to kill Kennedy. There’s a crazy amount of information thrown at the viewer, really pushing the limits of the medium of film, as far as I’m concerned. The script is remarkably well constructed, because we get these bits and pieces throughout the film, in suspect interviews (like with the exceptional Joe Pesci), in dinner-table talk, in dreamily lit scene were Garrison is just reading in his study. The use of “flashback”, if you assume the scenes that depict the theories expounded by the investigators are real, and not simply mind pictures, is invaluable in helping the viewer keep everything straight.

All this (including the standard “this quest is killing our marriage” subplot that I could have done without) is lead up to the actual court case again Clay Shaw, a fussy CIA agent played entirely against type by Tommy Lee Jones. Without repeating itself, the film ties everything together in an insane collection of sequences that tie to the witnesses and the closing arguments of the case. By the time Costner is finishing his final, exceptional speech, you can hear the hoarseness in his voice. He put himself through the ringer for this role.

Nothing I’ve seen Stone direct comes close to the enormity and effectiveness of this film. Definitely a Top Ten for me.

So, Kevin Bacon was in JFK with Kevin Costner. Kevin Costner was in…

Bond Songs: The 60s

Even though Skyfall has been in theaters and released on home video for quite some time, I thought I’d go ahead and fill up the interweb with some pointless thoughts on one of my favorite parts of the Bond franchise: the theme songs.

There are a lot of ways that this film series provides a continuing time capsule of popular culture. There’s the political aspects. (Russians are the bad guys. No, industrialists are the bad guys. No, terrorists are the bad guys.) There’s the gender role aspects. (Moneypenny adores Bond. Moneypenny puts up with Bond. Moneypenny flirts hopefully with Bond.) And a review of the action sequences shows the steady increase in complexity, cost and inventiveness that the movie industry invests in sheer spectacle.

But the way these films really set themselves in their time is the opening song that underscores what is usually a visually stunning opening sequence. (Two films had no song, Dr. No and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, so I won’t be discussing either of those films, though they’re both still pretty good.) Bond theme songs are never at the real cutting edge of music, but they’re usually only a few years behind the curve, and considering the investment the studio is putting into the pictures as a whole, you can’t really blame them for being just a bit cautious.

Rather than subject anyone to a monster post reviewing 20 songs, I’m splitting the Bondiverse up into decades. So, we start in the 1960’s:

frwl“From Russia with Love” – Matt Munro sings this somewhat sleepy, yet still sweet love song. Right of the bat, we run into one of the strange obstacles the song writers had to deal with on this series: coming up with a reasonable song that has the same title as the film. (Thank goodness they gave up on that when Octopussy came around!) The tune has a fun Russian feel in the instrumentation, but everything else is straightforward strings and simple percussion. The other recurring theme that is introduced here is the sense of love as a tenous thing, something that might easily shatter. This is one of the most unabashedly romantic of the theme songs.

gf“Goldfinger” – Enter Shirley Bassey singing another ridiculously titled song. Musically, this song brings to the fore something we’ll hear a lot in future songs: a brass section blaring out a variation of the Bond theme. Here we have a song that has a portrait of the villain of the film, not to mention some foreshadowing of the death of Jill Masterson, smothered by gold paint. Rather than the simple love story vibe of “From Russia with Love”, this song teases some sex. “Such a cold finger beckons you to enter his web of sin… but don’t go in!” There’ll be more of that to come.

tb“Thunderball” – Tom Jones belts out another insanely titled song. And this time, it really doesn’t work. The song is good enough, but it’s really a stretch when you have lyrics like “and he strikes… like Thunderball!” The strings are back, but the brass section is again working overtime with that Bond theme variation. Lyrically, this is the first song that serves as a portrait (and not a flattering one) of James Bond himself: “He will break any heart without regret… His needs are more, so he gives less.” Crap, this Bond guy’s kind of a douche.

yolt“You Only Live Twice” – Welcome to the Bondiverse, Nancy Sinatra! This song has a more poetic title to work with, and so a reasonable lyric presents itself: “You only live twice, or so it seems: one life for yourself and one for your dreams.” Aw… That’s nice. Much like “From Russia with Love”, this song eschews the blaring horns and settles on a simple string arrangement with the addition of some eccentric Japanese plinking that echoes one of the key settings in the film. The substance of the song is maddeningly vague. “Love is a stranger who’ll beckon you on. Don’t think of the danger, or the stranger is gone.” Huh? Well, love and danger are prominent, so we have ourselves a Bond song!

Well, that’s it for the Swinging Sixties. Next up, the… also Swinging Seventies!