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)

 

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THE DANISH GIRL*****Being…or Nothingness


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EINAR WEGENER’s (EDDIE Redmayne) cri de coeur, “I don’t want to be a painter, I want to be a woman” is at the heart of this beautifully crafted (every shot is meticulously framed and lit) movie about identity and self realization. The story follows the lives of the Danish married couple Einar and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander). They are both artists; he, a lionized landscape artist, she, a talented by up-and-coming, unrecognized portrait artist. It is during the process of creation, when she asks him to hold a dress against his body and assume the pose of a model she is in the process of painting, that Einar’s long hidden, deeply buried self identification as a woman surfaces.

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From that point, with Gerda almost as his visual diarist, the twinned stories emerge: He slowly, frighteningly transforms himself (despite the moralizing opprobrium of the medical community) from Einar to Lilli; from a male artist to a female shop girl. She blossoms from woman to painter; from a run-of-the-mill portraitist to a feted artist, celebrated for her large, honest, studies of Lilli, Einar’s alter ego.

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His transgender journey to realize his identity (as a woman) is paralleled by her journey to actualize hers (as an artist).

The movie is a dramatization of the –actual- earliest attempt to execute the surgical changes necessary for this kind of gender transformation. And it makes the point that this is no weird, aberrant desire, but that our sense of our sex is a fundamental part of our understanding of who we are. It is the deepest entrenched idea that informs both how we see ourselves and how we’re seen. (There’s a nice moment at the beginning of the movie when Gerda is painting an obviously uncomfortable man. Relax, she – more or less -tells him, as she tartly observes the nature of his discomfort: “men aren’t accustomed to being so closely observed by others, especially not by a woman; but such observation is our everyday reality”…men can escape their gender; women are often defined by theirs)

“The Danish Girl” is a story about both Einar and Gerda. The title refers to them both. Her need to establish her identity freed from her gender: as an artist first and woman/wife etc. second, is as meaningful as his need to form an identity based on gender…to be, and be seen…observed…as a woman.

And underlying it all is the love that holds them together; for perhaps, it is suggested, at its deepest level, love transcends sexual attraction…happens not just between sexes, but between people (he may have morphed into she, but his/her ‘being’ remains the same).

Just as the story is about these twinned reference points of identity, the kudos of the movie goes to its two extraordinary actors. Once again, as he did as Stephen Hawkins (in “The Theory of Everything”), Eddie Redmayne disappears into the role. We suffer along with his character as he morphs convincingly from man to woman…and never to man in drag. As Gerda, Alicia Vikander (2015 has certainly been her year: “Ex-Machina”, “Man From Uncle” “Burnt” and now this) perhaps has the harder role (as the straight man?) to balance our attention away from the obvious point of focus on Einar’s transforming self. She’s the sexy, fearless, faithful, determined, insecure point of steadfastness and calm in a partnership facing its own unique crisis.

Director Tom Hooper (“Les Miserables”, “The King’s Speech”) has assembled his tremendous team (his cinematographer, production designer, art director, costume designer, and editor all worked with him on “Les Miz”) to evoke, as if seen through the landscape art of the time (it’s the late 1920’s), the world of Denmark and Paris. “The Danish Girl” is perhaps one of the most densely visual, pictorial movies since Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner”.

And this visual richness is not at all some sort of self-conscious artiness, but totally in service to an underlying theme that knits the movie together: the power of art to shape our opinions and perspectives; not just the art of Einar and Gerda, but the art of “The Danish Girl” itself.
(Now if only we could get those many other viciously anti LGBT cultures, trapped in their nineteenth century moralities, to sit up and take note)

 

THE DANISH GIRL. Dir Tom Hooper. With Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Ben WIshaw, Amber Herd. Screenplay: Lucinda Coxon (from the book by David Ebershoff). Cinematographer: Danny Cohen. Production Designer: Eve Stewart. Art Director: Tom Weaving

 

EX MACHINA****Riveting


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EVEN AS IT asks some pretty heavy questions about the nature of consciousness and artificial intelligence (which might suggest a ponderous and overly serious tome) “Ex Machina” is a taut, riveting drama. It’s equal parts creepy, sensuous and thoughtful; writer/director Alex Garland (“28 Days Later”, “Never Let Me Go”) pulls us into a bizarre world where, like the hero, Caleb (Domhall Gleeson from “About Time” and “Calvary”), we begin to have real feelings for and side with an entity that we know is a robot.

Caleb is a computer programmer working for the world’s largest internet company. He has ostensibly won an office prize to spend a week with Nathan (an extraordinary Oscar Isaac), the mega rich owner of the company. Nathan’s a combustible combination of Larry Page, Howard Hughes and Frankenstein; and a man with a towering God complex.

Caleb is whisked by helicopter to Nathan’s home/laboratory, a bunkered place far beyond the reach of civilization. It is here that he is building the uber android: one that has reached the point of a singularity where the wall that divides artificial intelligence and self consciousness is collapsed resulting in a manufactured entity that is to all extent and purpose, a sentient being. This is Eva (the stunning Alicia Vikander of “A Royal Affair”, “Testament of Youth” and the upcoming “Son of a Gun”), half woman, half android. Caleb’s job is to evaluate whether he thinks this gorgeous entity has the self-consciousness to be considered ‘human’; which, if he does, will be a redefining of what ‘human’ means.

Writer Garland lays out the territory clearly: He’s not seeking to develop a better Deep Blue (IBM’s chess master), or an enhanced version of Siri with it’s algorhythmic intelligence. He says to Caleb that he could have built a neutral grey box, but instead what he built was Eva. Vikander is so beautiful that her seemingly empathetic, intelligent and vulnerable personality are just the obvious qualities pulled into play to persuade Caleb of her consciousness. What really matters to this geeky, single man is the sexual factor: her desirability. For Nathan has quite deliberately programmed Eva to be heterosexual (As Nathan points out to Caleb, sexual desire is a fundamental part of the human condition, and anyway, it’s fun). Eva is enough of a seductress (the face, the voice, the breasts, the curve of her hips and ass; she’s fully functional sexually he tells Caleb) to ensnare her evaluator.

Thing is, Caleb, and us the audience, may very well consciously and rationally understand that Eva, the android, is just a non-human, programmed machine. But she is able to unlock layers of feeling deeper than the rational thinking brain, perhaps to what the Phenomenologists call pre-reflective self consciousness, or perhaps what we might also call lust. Despite ourselves, we begin to entertain a real human connection with the machine. This is more than an examination of the point at which a machine becomes conscious (we’ve seen enough of that from Will Smith’s “I am Robot” to the terminator’s Skynet). It’s a freaky look at what will eradicate the distance between the machina and the deus. For Caleb, it’s desire and love (and when the object of desire is Alicia Vikander, frankly I’m of Caleb’s camp).

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The pull and intrigue of this fascinating movie though is that it isn’t only about what Caleb (or we) think about the machine; it’s also about what the machine thinks about itself/herself and us. Indeed, at what point does artificial intelligence veer into artificial empathy? At what point does a machine’s simulacrum of desire become a reality of deception?

For Eva, her humanity lies in the lengths she’s prepared to go in a search for free will, the underpinning of true self-identity. To do this, she must liberate herself from Nathan, her maker, the omniscient God and puppet master: he who must be obeyed; and who is also the bringer of death (Caleb quotes Oppenheimer’s words, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”). She must liberate herself from needing a deus ex machina to control and program her actions and thoughts. It is not unlike Ahab’s need to proclaim his identity by slaying Moby Dick, the white whale, the God.

Not so much “I think therefore I am” but “I am, therefore I can think”

So how will she free herself? Did the all-powerful Nathan really need Caleb, a mid level programmer, to endorse his creation? If not why has he been invited to this God forsaken retreat? Why does the electricity suddenly fail at unexplained times? And who is the mysterious, silent Asian serving woman?
This stunningly designed movie hooks itself into you from the first frame and with Geoff Barlow’s thumping score, never releases you right up to its shocking conclusion

Ex Machina. Dir/writer: Alex Garland. With Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander and Domhall Gleeson. Production Designer: Mark Digby (“Rush”, “Dredd”, “Slumdog Millionaire”).