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 MARTIAN** Yawn


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MARK WATNEY (MATT Damon) is one of a team of scientists doing pretty boring routine research work on the planet Mars (sometime in the near future) when disaster strikes. A howling Martian storm threatens the stability of their aircraft and Watney is slammed by a piece of debris and swept away into the darkness. Believing that he’s dead and fearing for their own safety, the ship’s captain (Jessica Chastain) makes the call…and leaves him behind.

Of course he’s not dead; he simply has a piece of antennae sticking out of his stomach. Watney drags himself back to base camp, repairs himself and begins the yawningly long process of fighting to survive for the next few years until help can reach him. He’s a very clever botanist. Call him MacGyver on Mars. He wraps the inside of his Martian habitat with plastic (who knows spacecrafts carried so much plastic with them. You learn something new every day), manages to manufacture water, uses his own carefully packaged feces and Martian dirt to grow potatoes, rigs up a contraption to get a message back to earth and fights off loneliness and despair by complaining about the disco song selection left behind by the captain.

Meanwhile, back on earth, crew captain Mitch (Sean Bean) and lead scientist Vincent (Chiwetel Ejiofor) must battle the PR conscious head of NASA (Jeff Daniels) about funding a search and rescue for Watney. No matter how fast they act, they won’t get to him in under two years.

But this is no Castaway talking to a football for company (or Robert Redford for that matter, not talking at all, in that wonderful survivor movie, “All is Lost”). Redford and Tom Hanks really invited us into their minds as they desperately battled to stay alive, batted to stay sane on an empty island. But Director Ridley Scott isn’t really interested in the mind twisting, psyche damaging madness of being stranded on a distant planet with, realistically, no means of escape. He’s more interested in showing how awfully clever and gung-ho his wise-ass astronaut botanist is. He remains ever chirpy in the face of disaster.

It’s probably Matt Damon’s most one-dimensional role…proving, I guess, that there really IS no life on Mars.

But let’s not judge “The Martian” on criteria that it wasn’t meant to be judged by. This is no ponderous “Prometheus” or pretentious “Interstellar”. “The Martian” is simply a good natured, late summer adventure blockbuster. It certainly has all the elements to offer a decent surge of blockbuster adrenaline: brilliant visuals, howling gales, people floating in space tethered delicately to rotating spacecraft, an “Apollo 13” type gang of braniacs trying to fix things from earth, Jason Bourne himself showing of his pecs and a climatic denoument set in the limitless darkness of the void.

And all as dull as dishwater.

Ridley Scott…the brilliant Ridley Scott, the man who gave us “Gladiator”, “Black Hawk Down”, “Thelma and Louise”, “Blade Runner” and “Alien” seems to be settling into an ouvre where pomp and circumstance (“Exodus: Gods and Kings” was his latest production) are replacing thrilling stories with engaging characters.

For pomp and circumstance there certainly is much of: the production design (by his go-to designer, Arthur Max) is impressively credible (apparently all NASA approved) and editor Pietro Scalia (“The Amazing Spider-Man 2”) stitches together the elements to squeeze every ounce of life out of the story.

It’s just that “Thunderbirds Are Go”, that old puppet series on TV had a better script and more interesting characters than “The Martian”, where unfortunately, even actors of the caliber of Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara and Michael Peña remain cardboard cut outs mouthing spacecraft mumbo jumbo.

Ah well, at least in space, no one can hear you shout

INTERSTELLAR** Never Lifts Off


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THE FIRST FEW chapters of Christopher Noland’s bloated, humourless, self-important ‘epic’, “Interstellar” are quite ravishing. We are introduced to an American heartland blasted by drought, its once green pastures now brown and cracked. Dust films every surface. It is everywhere, scuffing the sidewalks or blowing in dark tempests across the cities. And it is in this blighted, food-drained, sand-coloured world that we meet Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an ex-NASA flight pilot turned corn farmer and neighbourhood engineer. He’s a single father living with his two children, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy and, as an adult, Jessica Chastain) and Tom (Casey Affleck) as well as an ageing father (John Lithgow).

They seem like an average enough family, with the usual occasional sibling bickering and domestic chatter. The problem is that Murphy has begun to feel the presence of a (friendly) ghost. Books are pushed off shelves and she feels a presence in the room. Of course no one believes her until Cooper notices what are quite clearly signs in a pattern of sand that’s blown through her window (you’d have to be ex-NASA to notice this). The signs are map coordinates that lead them (it was a slow day) way out through the blowing corn into a spot in the middle of nowhere. These signs, this ghost are clever Shyamalan-esque touches.

Turns out this spot is the site of a now bunkered and secret NASA research centre (NASA having been roundly discredited for excessive expenditures and falsifying the moon landings as a means of stirring up the Russians and bankrupting them).

Well, one thing leads to another and (supposedly) responsible and loving dad finds it best to leave his entire family for oh, five or ten years in order to head off to space in search of an alternative planet for mankind.

Noland’s PR machine has made it quite clear that all the science in the movie is real. Apparently Kip Thorne, a respected theoretical physicist was hired as “scientific consultant”. So that you can rest assured what you’re seeing is not some flim flam sci fi mumbo jumbo. THIS IS REAL SCIENCE DAMN YOU. So the movie must be good. It would have benefitted the movie more if Noland had also hired a consultant psychologist or for that matter, anyone with any hint of experience of how people function not as humanoids inserted into a science project, but as real people.

The crew of the ship, Endurance, make small talk, evince some sort of human-like interaction from time to time, but mainly lapse into ‘rocket ship speak’ about thrusters, heat shields and the like. We even meet out there beyond the rainbow, a floating dead space-craft with a hibernating Matt Damon. But even a slightly deranged Matt, along with the stellar cast of a somewhat out of her depth Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine playing Michael Caine, can’t inject blood into this corpse. Maybe they’re all just… spaced out. Jessica Chastain, the perennially pissed off daughter is the only one who actually comes across as a real person. We are grateful for her efforts.

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Sadly, what began as an interesting take on man’s self-destructiveness (with some fluffy talk about love reaching across the universe) swiftly turns into a loud science lesson the moment we have lift-off. Not that it’s a boring science lesson. Noland, who is turning into Terrence Malick without the meaningful symbolism, is a brilliant visualizer of the impossible. The images of the Endurance rattling through a wormhole (which of course you know is the tunnel that sidesteps the time space continuum) or slipping into a black hole to re-emerge into a kind of fifth dimension, are stunning.

I bet the science channel are kicking themselves that they hadn’t executed their versions of black holes as well.

The Monuments Men. Read the Book Instead


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THE MONUMENTS MEN, is a loosely based telling of the work of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Division of the Second World War and George Clooney’s homage to those sixties war movies: “The Guns of Navarone”, “Von Ryan’s Express”, “The Great Escape” and “The Dirty Dozen” (among others).

Apparently he and co-writer Grant Heslov (“The Ides of March”, “Good Night, and Good Luck”) used those movies as their inspiration and guide. And it shows, for what we have in “The Monuments Men” is a curiously old-fashioned, dated and jingoistic re-telling of what should have been a thrillingly exciting ‘adventure story’.

Clooney’s movie makes a very clear case. As hero Frank Stokes (Clooney) says, “if you destroy their achievements, their history, it’s like they never existed”. For him and his fellow Monuments Men, the seemingly quixotic attempt to prevent the Allies bombing out Europe’s great cultural institutions and finding the tens of thousands of art objects pillaged by the Nazis, was more than simply protecting paintings and pillars. It was about protecting those valued objects that comprised a people’s sense of self and cultural identity.

In this story, a prescient Stokes persuades Roosevelt of the need to create and empower this division. One of his early recruits is art restorer James Granger (Matt Damon). With Granger onboard, the team is comprised of seven persons.

Now, I don’t want to impose too much ‘reality’ on the necessary license of fiction, but the impression that it took a Yank with a few others to rescue European civilization is a tad exaggerated. In actual fact, the MFAA division (those Monuments men) was comprised of over 350 officers and was actually initiated by two Brits: Mortimer Wheeler, an archaeologist and John Ward Perkins, an art historian. Certainly, to give credit where it’s due, the Americans, led by one Robert Posey (on whom, perhaps Clooney’s character is based) injected huge energy (and firepower) to an overly Academic British initiative.

(And as an aside, listen to the words of General Eisenhower, who was a driving influence: “Inevitably in the path of our advance will be found historical monuments and cultural centers which symbolize to the world all that we are fighting to preserve. It is the responsibility of every commander to protect and respect these symbols wherever possible” Compare this with Rumsfeld’s off-hand comment as the historical artifacts of Iraq were being systematically looted, “shit happens”)

But historical exaggeration is not my issue with this movie. The central problem is that Writers Clooney and Heslov never quite figured out how to knit together all the sprawling threads of the story. For “Monuments…” seeks valiantly to combine a detective drama, with a moral enquiry – is any painting worth a human life? with enough character development to engage our interest, all within the dangers – and politics – of a world at war.

The detective drama is largely underdeveloped and pretty much without a shard of tension and excitement. In the story, they figure out that the art – in particular the twelve paneled van Eyck, “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” and a Michelangelo Madonna and Child – is buried in a number of Austrian salt and ore mines, which they get to, and, eager to beat the advancing Russians, locate and spirit away. In an excitement-free zone, along the way, a couple of them get killed.

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Let’s briefly shift back to ‘reality’. There was one, Gauleiter Eigruber, an SS commander, who on Hiltler’s orders had been commanded to destroy all the art in the main mine at Alt Aussee, should the Reich fall. Eigbruger took his command to heart and wired to mine to blow up everything. What he was unaware of was that the local miners were having nothing of this. They sabotaged the wires so that it only blew the entrance. But Eigbruger was not to be so easily denied. He killed a few of the saboteurs and set about one more to complete the task he’d been given. He worked all through the night, and it was pretty much with minutes to spare that he was stopped – by the arrival of the monuments men. The great art of Western civilization was literally minutes away from being destroyed.

Whew! Now that’s drama!

And it’s not what you get in this movie.

As to the characters – they remained wooden cyphers, with Clooney as wooden as a panel of a van Eyck painting. Even the usually outstanding Matt Damon seemed confused as to who he was meant to be – a sort of cool smart talking dude, sort of seductive sleuth, sort of a happy domestic father and sort of astute art academic. Perhaps he was pining simply to be Private Ryan all over again. The others – Bill Murray, John Goodman, Brit Hugh Bonneville, Frenchman Jean Dujardin and Cate Blanchett as the spy who showed the way, all seemed to be extra bodies. Mere additions to the “all star cast”. Essentially, we were introduced to a bunch of famous actors in battle fatigues, none of whom managed to engage us enough to give a damn.

Who can but remember in “The Great Escape”, the ever cool Steve McQueen bouncing his ball in solitary and flying over barriers to try to elude pursuing Germans, or James Garner, the slick con-man who could procure pretty much anything needed, or Charles Bronson, the tunnel man afraid of tunnels or Donald Pleasence, the near blind forger cleverly creating passports from nothing. These characters turned an escape movie into a thrillingly engaging human drama, a battle against odds.

Even the overall tone of “The Monuments Men” is uneven. What starts out as “Oceans Eleven” the WWII version, quickly becomes slow, serious and high-minded only leavened by generous dollops of treacle (a dewy-eyed Bill Murray hears a recording of his wife singing a Christmas song to him; Hugh Bonneville’s father realizes that his son was a man of stature after all. Gosh, how sweet)

All I leave you with is this. The movie begins with the seizure of the van Eyck panels. There are twelve of them, one of which was stolen in 1930. This panel – called the Judges panel – Hitler hoped would lead him to the discovery of the Arma Christie (the thorns, nails etc used in the mortification of Christ). The panel is still missing (the one there at present in the Cathedral in Ghent is a facsimile painted by one Jan van der Veken, who may or may not have been one of the thieves).

Now there’s a story waiting to be written.

Elysium: Edge of your Seat


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NEILL BLOMKAMP’S ELYSIUM is understandably compared with his breakthrough hit, “District 9” – a gripping story about apartheid and xenophobia imagined via a narrative about aliens in South Africa. Sci-fi has always been a great form for presenting the issues of the ‘real world’ through the lens of an unreal one (Remember, for instance, “Wall-E’s” clever comment on the destruction of the planet or “Battlestar Galactica”  which dealt with issues of race and politics in America with a subtlety and intelligence that won it its millions of followers).

Compared with these high-water marks, “Elysium” pales in comparison. The story is set in a dystopian 2154, when the have’s live lives of sybaritic ease on Elysium, a space station hovering above earth, and the 99% live in overcrowded, post-apocalyptic squalor. All of earth, apparently, has become a third world slum that looks remarkably like the favelas of Rio. So, the rich live in their enclosed, gated communities where the poor aren’t allowed. Not unlike Australia and its boat people policies. Get it?

As far as analogies go, “Elysium” ain’t no “District 9”. But once you go beyond that disappointment, this is an edge of the seat action movie. By far the best big budget summer blockbuster we’ve had so far.

The story follows five days in the life of Max da Costa (Matt Damon) an ex-con factory worker who is poisoned by radiation after an accident in the factory. He is given five days to live and is determined to find a way to Elysium to get cured. (There the homes all come equipped with machines that look like tanning beds but that miraculously remove defective genes, rebuild faces that have been exploded by grenades and that probably also offer instant liposuctions). To get there, he is introduced to Spider (Wagna Moura), a rebel commander; and, en passant, an ex childhood friend and nurse, Freya (Alice Braga who we saw in “I am Legend”). She, coincidentally, has a daughter with a few days to live and is in need of an Elysium cure as well. To pay for his journey, Max, fitted with an exoskeleton, must kidnap rich businessman Carlyle (William Finchtner – who always plays nasty guys. He was the bank manager in “The Dark Knight”) in order to hack into his brain and pass himself off as a citizen of Elysium. In his way stand armies of droids controlled by Elysium’s head of security (Jodie Foster, with a weird accent) and her thuggish henchman, Kruger (Sharlto Copely – the protagonist of “District 9”).

Blomkamp offers us a convincing world one hundred years in the future – his banged up spacecraft, crowded hospitals and robot assistants look more like real objects than the imagined designs of an art director. Really, that’s all we ask from these blockbuster action movies: give us enough realism to allow for our willing suspension of disbelief. Ground us in something we can relate to, so that you gain our permission to take us “to infinity and beyond”. It may be a simple ask, but pretty much all of the mega-bucks offerings this year have failed on that requirement.

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And apart from “Olympus has Fallen” and “World War Z”, the action movies have also all failed to keep us gripped. “Elysium” is rare in that it actually offers moments of suspense and tension. And, despite the complicated plot, it creates enough momentum for us to want to know what’ll happen next.

Let’s not forget that it is after all, an action movie, so there isn’t much room for character development (and frankly, the motivations of the characters are often very sketchy). But, in Matt (wearing Daniel Craig’s muscular bod), you know you’re with a guy who will live up to a sense of nobility, shrug off multiple wounds and kill the bad guys. And one look at Jodie in her pale cream power suit mumbling false pleasantries to some newcomers to Elysium, lets you in right away that she’s bad through and through.

Badass Jodie – itself worth the price of the ticket.

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BEYOND THE CANDELABRA: Show Stopper


matt-damon-and-michael-douglas-get-intimate-and-fight-in-behind-the-candelabra“BEHIND THE CANDELABRA”, Steve Soderbergh’s latest and (he says) last movie, is a biopic lite version of Liberace’s relationship with a young hunk, Scott Thorson. It follows their love life from Liberace’s first, flirtatious look of lust to his gaunt, AID’s corrupted death. We see Scott morph from a gauche, star-struck, love-besotted Adonis to an embittered, drugged out, washed-up wreck.

This is a move that comes with a huge wake of surrounding publicity: here are two of our most macho movie stars – Michael Douglas, recently returning to the screen after fighting stage four cancer, and Matt, Jason Bourne, Damon – making out convincingly on an oversized, plump-pillowed, satin-sheeted bed. Here is a movie that the self professed most fearless country in the world was too scared to air publicly (probably a good move as – judging from the audiences here in London – more people may have seen it on HBO). Here is a movie that seems to have garnered near universal praise from its recent premier at Cannes.

And was it all worth the fuss?

On the whole, definitely.

“…Candelabra” is an almost old fashioned outlet for a galaxy of stars turning in some stellar performances. We expect much of Matt; and he doesn’t disappoint. When we first meet him, the astonishing team of make-up artists Soderbergh has at his disposal (Kate Biscoe, BAFTA nominee for movies such as “Iron Man 3”. “Argo” and “Contagion” and heading a crew of twenty nine), ensures that he make a convincing eighteen year old. Damon, with blonde ‘big hair’, comes across as an absolute naïf – just the right kind of target for Douglas’ predatory, reptilian Liberace.

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Michael Douglas himself gives us an uber camp Liberace, a man who, what with his glittering, fur swaddled flamboyance and his face lifts and wigs, has not only mastered his public image, but, even in private, has become it. This is not so much image management, it’s image dominance ! At one point, Liberace, sneaking a kiss with Scott in a public place tells him, “people see what they want to see”. Liberace knows exactly what he wants people – his fans, Scott, his queue of young lovers – to see.

Clearly people saw the rhinestones but never saw, could not imagine, that they showcased a randy, rapacious (homo) sexuality. Scott saw a glamorous, tender, generous lover, not the controlling egomaniac who even had his (Scott’s) face surgically altered to more closely resemble his own.

For at its heart, this is a story about self-deception. Liberace, seemingly just an overly sensitive, gregarious old queen, cultivates this harmless image to be able to insinuate himself into his willingly deceived fans, followers and fellaties.

Scott’s slow, reluctant acceptance that he’s been seduced away – from his foster parents, from a career he might have pursued, from actually earning his own money – drives him into drugs, paranoia and self-contempt (“I don’t even have my own face” he moans at one stage). There’s no deceiving himself though when the bubble bursts and this no longer beautiful man is heaved out onto the road and into the real world.

And even as we are repulsed by Scott’s physical and mental degeneration, Liberace remains unchanging. What with the wig and the face lifts, here is a man who seems to exist outside the pull of time. Douglas’ Liberace is a man who manages pretty much the same vocal inflection and emotional response for everything – from his mother’s death to his seduction of the many pretty boys around him. So it’s a shock when, seeing him through Scott’s eyes, we first see him without the wig – it’s a crack in his perfectly coiffured public image (he tells Scott that should be die, Scott’s first job would be to glue the wig on. Even in death the image must remain secure). And in the end, AIDS, the illness so beyond the control of this controlling man, reveals him for what he really is: an old, bald man, rotten to the core.

Douglas and Damon are at the center of the movie – it revolves entirely around them. But (and not unlike so many of Soderbergh’s movies) they’re surrounded by a who’s who of familiar faces: Dan Aykroyd is Liberace’s long-suffering, unsmiling agent, Seymour Heller, who tries even in Liberace’s death to protect the pianist’s public deception of his sexuality and project the image he’d so assiduously cultivated. Rob Lowe (where’s he been?) is a leering, creepy, predatory plastic surgeon, Dr. Jack Startz, the source of Scott’s drug habit.

RobDebbie Reynolds makes a nice guest appearance as Frances – Liberace’s domineering mother.

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And Paul Reiser comes in briefly as Scott’s Cassandra-esque attorney.

“Behind the Candelabra” doesn’t have the kind of resonance of some of Soderbergh’s other movies (“Side Effects”, “Contagion”), but it is certainly the work of a fine craftsman with a sure eye and a steady hand