“Jason Bourne” Thrills as It Kills, but Kills Far Too Much

Jason Bourne

Jason Bourne (Paul Greengrass, 2016)

The last time we saw Matt Damon in an existential crisis was just over 10 months ago, as he struggled to survive on the hostile landscape of Mars, in Ridley Scott’s The Martian. In that film, he projected a jovial confidence and competence that belied the very dire straits of his situation. Now, in Jason Bourne, the fourth Bourne movie to star Damon (the last, The Bourne Ultimatum, came out in 2007, after The Bourne Identity, in 2002, and The Bourne Supremacy, in 2004), Damon is even more competent, but maybe not quite so confident and certainly not jovial. This may, in fact, be the grimmest that either he or his character has ever been. Perhaps it’s the stress of doing the same kinds of stunts he performed 14 years ago, when he was but 32, though you would never guess it from his bulked-up physique; more likely, it’s the exigencies of a cinematic universe grown ever more used to the pessimistic worldview of post-Dark Knight superhero films. Whatever the reason, one of the joys of the Bourne series (launched, in book form, by author Robert Ludlum in 1980) is the combination of seemingly real-world political intrigue and visceral action sequences that feel more dangerous and thrilling than anything on offer in the ever-expanding catalogue of either the Marvel or DC franchises. The new movie, directed – as were the last two – by Paul Greengrass (who also gave us Captain Phillips, among others), filled with fast-paced car chases and fight scenes, does not disappoint in this regard, unless one minds an appalling level of collateral damage. If the senseless deaths of innocent bystanders – staged for your entertainment – cause you no pangs of conscience, however, then sit back, relax, grab the popcorn, and enjoy the ride.

When first we meet our hero, he is on his way to an illicit boxing match in an undisclosed location. He strips down, wraps his knuckles in tape, then turns his bulging back to the camera, where we see the many scars and bullet wounds. Despite the local crowd’s clear preference for his rival, he dispatches him with one punch. Clearly, he hasn’t lost his edge. This opening follows an initial series of flashbacks with material from the earlier installations, reminding us of some of the details from Bourne’s last adventures, including the discovery of his true name. If you recall, as the series progressed, Bourne came closer and closer to uncovering the secrets behind Treadstone, the top-secret black-ops program that initially recruited and trained him. As this movie begins, he has no intention of further pursuing his inquiries until former fellow government agent Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles, Blue) tracks him down with new information about an even more dangerous CIA operation just getting off the ground. Her arrival, however, compromises Bourne’s cover, and soon they are both running from a deadly CIA assassin – called, simply, the “asset” – played by the charismatically menacing French actor Vincent Cassel (Eastern Promises). And so the chase is on.

As is par for the course for the genre, we jump easily around the globe, marveling at the efficiency with which the CIA tracks down our hero. If only it were that simple. Then again, the real-life spy agency doesn’t have Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina), who runs the cinematic organization’s cyber division. Hampered only by an odd accent meant to cover her European origins, this otherwise marvelous Swedish actress is a model of glowering intensity and ambition as she makes the case to her Machiavellian boss, played by the increasingly craggy Tommy Lee Jones (The Homesman), that she should be the one to find Bourne. Jones, always ready with a malicious twinkle in his eye, acquiesces, but we know he’s playing a dangerous game where he controls the stakes.

Ultimately, the film comes down to the obligatory mano a mano contest of strength and skills between Cassel and Damon, equally matched in muscle and scowl. Greengrass stages the mayhem with his usual dexterity, but exciting as it all is, there’s something callous in the massive numbers of incidental deaths this time around. Perhaps the world we live in, where terrorist attacks claim real lives in real places, makes the casual insouciance with which the bodies are dispatched feel somehow particularly indecent. All that grimness, which at first seems to drive Bourne towards stopping his government’s madness, finally does nothing more than make him even more single-minded in his own violent vendetta. Still, before the bile may rise from your gut, you’ll have to admit that the adrenaline pulsing through your veins intoxicates in a distinctly cinematic way. Good and evil can coexist, no?

The Coffee and Pastries Are Ever So Stale in “Café Society”

Café Society

Café Society (Woody Allen, 2016)

With almost fifty feature films to his name, writer/director Woody Allen is nothing if not extremely prolific. Now 80 years old, he has managed to crank out a movie a year – more or less – since the early 1970s. He is truly a marvel of productivity and endurance. He is also a man with a troubled personal history that can complicate his life’s work, for some (as it should, perhaps). Cinematically speaking, the more troubling issue, for me, is that this once-great cineaste no longer creates art that is anything more than a recycling of his past ideas. He’s come upon a neat trick, however, which is to each time hire a world-class cinematographer to shoot the affair, thereby guaranteeing that the tired clichés on screen will at least look gorgeous. This time around, it’s the legendary Vittorio Storaro (The Last Emperor) who does the honors, and what aesthetic marvels there are in Café Society owe their existence almost entirely to him. That’s not to say that the movie is devoid of any other charm – Allen is too good of a writer to be incapable of not producing some watchable scenes – but the overall affair feels so flat and uninspired that one wonders how long Allen’s former (well-earned) reputation as a master of his craft will continue to afford him opportunities to direct. Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters are two of my favorite films of all time – with many others of his among my runners-up – but even when Allen produces something more original these days, such as Blue Jasmine, it’s still but a pale reflection of the masterpieces of yore.

As with most Allen movies that no longer star Allen, himself, we need a surrogate for the director. Here, that role is fulfilled by the ever-reliable Jesse Eisenberg (The End of the Tour), who plays Bobby, a young and bored New Yorker, son of a jeweler, who comes out West, to Hollywood, for something new. The time – though never explicitly stated – appears to be the late 1930s, and Bobby’s maternal uncle just happens to be a movie mogul, one Phil Stern (Steve Carell, The Big Short). A busy man, Phil puts Bobby off for weeks, but eventually brings him into the studio fold, where Bobby meets Phil’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria), with whom he promptly falls in love. Of course it’s a match doomed to failure – since that is so frequently Allen’s stock in trade – but the milieu and characters allow the director to indulge his penchant for (here) ostensibly witty banter and movie lore. When the plot switches back to New York – Allen’s once-favored stomping grounds before he moved things abroad for a while, starting with Match Point, in 2005 – we get a different setting and a different woman (Blake Lively, The Age of Adaline) with some passable moments and others that recall better scenes in earlier films. Fortunately, there’s Corey Stoll (Ant-Man) around, as Ben, Bobby’s older brother (and a violent gangster) to steal every scene he’s in and provide the movie’s best moments, by far, but there is too little of him to justify the rest.

Eisenberg and Stewart deserve better, though I do not, for one minute, buy her in this period drama, since there’s something in her elocution and body movements – at least as directed by Allen – that screams 21st century. But she’s a fine actress, and otherwise well-paired with her co-star, who brings his trademark intelligence and intensity to the role of a man adrift between cities, coasts and lovers. If only they could leave behind the regurgitated scraps of Allen’s tired situations and find a better cuisine on which to feast, their “café society” environment might resonate with greater meaning. As it is, I recommend looking for a better restaurant.

These “Bad Moms” Revel in the Anarchy of Laughter

Bad Moms

Bad Moms (Jon Lucas/Scott Moore, 2016)

As those who read my reviews will know, I did not much like what, until now, had been this summer’s highest-profile female-centered comedy, Ghostbusters. Fortunately, along comes Bad Moms but a few weeks later, another film that focuses on women, and this time a very funny one, at that. Starring the ever-watchable Mila Kunis (Friends with Benefits), Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars) and, especially, Kathryn Hahn (The Visit), it tells the story of three overworked and underappreciated mothers who decide they’ve had enough of always doing what others consider the right thing. Screw it, they say, and set themselves free to look after number one for a while. The result is a truly wild ride, filled with jokes that land with panache. Often silly and profane, it’s also terrific fun, as long as the filmmakers stick to the comedy. Unfortunately, we are also treated to more sentimental moments where we are reassured that our heroines are, in fact, good people. Blah. That aside, so much of the rest is a delight that we can, perhaps, forgive all involved for those moral lessons and enjoy what works.

Kunis plays Amy, a mother of two married to a lazy jerk, who works an ostensibly part-time job where her boss expects her to show up every day. On top of all this, the PTA at her children’s school – run by the bossy Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate, Vacation) – demands ever more of her time. One particularly bad day, she dares say no to Gwendolyn and, liberated, she doesn’t stop there. She is soon joined by Carla (Hahn), a hard-drinking single mother, and Kiki (Bell), a stay-at-home mom increasingly drained by her overwhelming lack of a personal life. They form a powerful trio that presents itself as an alternative to the world – we can be good mothers even if we occasionally fail – as they take on deadbeat men and the PTA, where Gwendolyn rules with the support of her two mainstays, Stacy (Jada Pinkett Smith, Magic Mike XXL) and Vicki (Annie Mumolo, About a Boy). Since the thrust of Amy’s new campaign for sanity involves reclaiming her sense of self, much of her rebellion revolves, at least initially, around partying. Eventually, however, she and her new friends settle down (a bit) and try to make real changes in their lives.

The film is best when it sticks to raunchy debauchery, although the final payoff is nicely managed. It’s wonderful to see these fine actresses get a chance to revel in their comedic chops without playing second fiddle to anyone but their female costars. There are a few men in the mix, but they’re mostly underwritten or written off. Co-writers/co-directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (who wrote The Hangover and its sequels, and wrote/directed 21 and Over) are not going to win any awards for their filmmaking aesthetic – derivative of every other flashy action, comedy, or action-comedy out there these days – but they know a good thing when they see it, and that good thing is their cast (and, let’s be fair, much of their script). So see it for the zaniness that these women bring to the screen so effectively, have a good time, and make sure to stay for the end credits, where each of the lead actresses is paired with her real-life mother for a brief, but moving, conversation that was one of my favorite parts of the film.

Dan Rodricks’ Roughly Speaking on the Films of Summer 2016, So Far …

Rodricks July 22

On today’s edition of Dan Rodricks’ Roughly Speaking podcast for The Baltimore Sun, in addition to coverage of the Republican National Convention and book reviews from Paula Gallagher, we discuss the films of the summer, so far, including Finding DoryGhostbusters, The Infiltrator and Star Trek Beyond, as well as upcoming films like Café Society and Don’t Think Twice.

Here is the link. I come on at the 59-minute mark.

Enjoy!

In Intriguing and Moving (If Also Derivative) “Equals,” Emotions Are the Enemy

Equals

Equals (Drake Doremus, 2015)

We’ve been here – a dystopian future where citizens are micromanaged by governments wary of an unruly populace – many times before, from literary classics like WeA Brave New World and 1984 (among others) to films like Logan’s RunTHX 1138 and 12 Monkeys (and so much more). It’s interesting how we so often choose to envision the future as a world where choice and free will have disappeared, given that the history of our species is one of a gradual move (though not for all) towards greater personal liberty, albeit in fits and starts. Certainly, thanks to certain politicians in this country right now, we may, at present, be closer to dystopia than before, and perhaps the fear of disaster is what keeps us properly on guard against fascism, but our fascination with a grim future – The Terminator being one of the bleakest such visions – is, itself, intriguing. We never seem to tire of it, though the details of our impending disaster may change.

Now comes director Drake Doremus (Breathe In) with another such meditation on the horrors that await us. Here, we are in an unnamed city where humans have all been purged of basic emotions. We’re not sure of time and place, and at first it almost looks like a hip version of our present, as main protagonist Silas (Nicholas Hoult, Mad Max: Fury Road) wakes up in what appears to be a sleek bachelor pad with sweeping views of an urban landscape. Soon, however, as he makes his way to work in the same crisp, white suit worn by everyone else, we sense the crushing weight of imposed conformity. Silas works as an illustrator at ATMOS, a corporation in some way devoted to space travel (though we never really learn the details), where he is surrounded by similarly dispassionate souls. Except for a young woman named Nia (Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria), whose eyes shine with a feeling that awakens a similar response in Silas. Sure enough, he is soon diagnosed with SOS, or “Switched-on Syndrome,” which means he has only a limited amount of time before he is shipped off to “The Den,” where people with “Defective Emotional Neuropathy” go to die.

Beautifully shot and acted – indeed, Stewart, as the apostle of yearning for her generation, her face and body always vibrating with passion, is perfect as Nia – Equals is almost too minimalist in its construction to be much more than an exercise in design, performance and the intersection of the two. It also borrows heavily from the aesthetic and story of George Lucas’s aforementioned THX 1138. But as a movie about the yearning for connection that defines the human race, that no government control can fully eradicate, it is deeply affecting, nonetheless.

“Absolutely Fabulous” Is Mostly Absolutely Dreadful

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (Mandie Fletcher, 2016)

Did the world really need a movie adaptation of Jennifer Saunders’ long-running (though on-again, off-again) BBC series Absolutely Fabulous? Not only was the show sporadic in its broadcast history, but also in its delivery of wit. When Saunders and her partner in crime, Joanna Lumley, were funny, they were deliriously so, but whenever their comedic muse deserted them, their shenanigans could be painful to endure. Sadly, what comes to the screen today is of the latter variety: extremely short on humor, but long on suffering. Which is too bad, as there are a few truly inspired gags, including one involving a tiny car in the south of France that was delightful in the kind of manic way that only Saunders can manage. There’s also an earlier bit involving Jon Hamm (Mad Men) that is near pitch-perfect. If only the rest of the film were as good.

As always, Saunders (who recently did such a fine job as the voice of the Queen in Minions) plays Edina Monsoon, a British PR agent who, in spite of her alcohol and drug abuse and general inability to avoid disaster, is always just one step away from phenomenal success (or failure). Her best friend is fashion-magazine editor Patsy Stone (Lumley, DiCaprio’s aunt by marriage in The Wolf of Wall Street), whose vices make Edina look like a nun. Together, they gleefully court mayhem, much to the horror of Edina’s long-suffering (and very sober) daughter Saffron (way back when, the unruly daughter, Lydia, in the 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice). This time around, Edina concocts a scheme to seduce fashion model Kate Moss away from her current representation, sure that this will put her back on top. Unfortunately, things go wrong (of course), and soon Edina and Patsy find themselves on the run, with Saffron’s teenage daughter along for the fun. Their misadventures take them to Cannes, where they wreak havoc on the French Riviera. And so on and so forth.

We all need silly comedies. And I did laugh in a few (choice) spots. But all too often I marveled at how unfunny it all was. Part of the problem is that veteran TV director Mandie Fletcher (My So Called Life Sentence) seems incapable of staging the scenes in a way that foregrounds the punchlines. All too often, the jokes get lost in the clutter of messy mise-en-scène. It also doesn’t help that the fashion world is already ridiculous enough that it belies parody. And though the movie briefly flirts with the more serious topic of how to handle the challenges of getting older, even those discussions fail to resonate, given that we flit from one frenetic episode to another. Perhaps what Patsy appears to be snorting was the actual drug of choice on set. All of which would be somewhat forgivable if we could laugh more than once every thirty minutes. All things must pass, and this Absolutely Fabulous is mostly just absolutely dreadful.

The Once and Future Series: “Star Trek Beyond” Delivers the Action Goods in a Mostly Worthy Mix of Past and Present

Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek Beyond (Justin Lin, 2016)

In our age of endless remakes, reboots and sequels, what makes any particular film fit seamlessly into the continuum of a well-established series? What makes Marvel superheroes uniquely Marvel? What makes today’s Bond belong to the pantheon of previous Bonds? What makes James T. Kirk special, whether played by William Shatner or Chris Pine? Why ask the questions, if a movie is a movie is a movie and all that matters is whether it is successful on its own terms? If that were true, however, then perhaps we would see a greater variety of original, non-derivative work, while today’s balance is firmly in favor of pre-awareness. So surely we gravitate towards stories that revisit older stories in a context more appropriate to our time. And yet, if the modern take were not, in some way, tied to the past, then there would be no point to a franchise. We go to see Bond because it’s exciting to the see the latest iteration of a well-worn character. It’s a tricky balance, however. Remain too faithful to the source, and current audiences may be bored; change the material too much, and there’s no connection to speak of. In the theater, there is a long tradition of modern updates of classic plays, but the cinema is a younger art form, and we’re still figuring out how best to manage its eternal recurrence.

All of this is by way of introduction to the latest entry in the new – updated and improved! – Star Trek universe: Star Trek Beyond. This is the third movie (the first came out in 2009 and the second in 2013) featuring the current crop of actors: Chris Pine (Into the Woods) as Kirk, Zachary Quinto (Margin Call) as Spock, Karl Urban (Dredd) as McCoy, Simon Pegg (The World’s End) – who also co-wrote the script – as Scotty, John Cho (Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle) as Sulu, Zoe Saldana (Infinitely Polar Bear) as Uhura and the late Anton Yelchin (Green Room) as Chekov. Even though many of them are now older than were the actors in the original TV series during its first run, the series still feels as if intended as prequel. Then again, since director J.J. Abrams decided, in his reboot, to insert a destructive plot element that completely negated any and all story lines from every single episode and movie that had previously been made, none of that matters. It’s not only a brand new version of the characters, but a complete wiping of the cinematic slate. Which is one way, I suppose, to address the questions I asked, earlier. While I fervently disagree with Abrams’s 2009 script choice, maybe it’s time to move on.

In any case, we have a new director: Justin Lin (Fast & Furious 6). Whatever I thought of the changes wrought by Abrams in Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, I still found the films more than competent as adventure thrillers, and Lin, here, proves a worthy replacement, crafting a high-octane, adrenaline-fueled sci-fi confection that may just be the best action film of the summer, so far (until Jason Bourne comes out next week, anyway). Yes, the entire enterprise of the USS Enterprise – traveling into unknown space where, for some reason, all aliens have evolved to be bipedal humanoids, with the only differences from our own species being those of color and facial shape – seems as silly as ever, but if one can suspend one’s evolutionary disbelief, there is much fun to be had in this particular yarn.

As the film opens, the Enterprise makes its way to a space station after a failed diplomatic mission. There, a distress call from a stricken Starfleet ship sends them off on another mission to uncharted territory, where they come under attack from a superior adversary, named Krall, played by the ever-reliable Idris Elba (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom). Marooned and imprisoned on a hostile planet, our intrepid heroes must do what they always do, which is to overcome adversity through pluck and courage. Fortunately, they have help from a fellow refugee, Jaylah – played by the very game Sofia Boutella, who wowed us as the deadly Gazelle in Kingsmen: The Secret Service – and soon find a way to fight back against Krall. As it so often does, the fate of Starfleet (and, by default, of the known universe) comes down to a personal battle between Kirk and his foe. In this sense, fans of the series – even me! – will not be disappointed. Well-acted and -executed, Star Trek Beyond may still bother me for the same reason as did its predecessors (the destruction of Vulcan remains inexcusable), but it’s a damn fine effort, otherwise, and a great summer movie.

So what makes this a modern take on an old story? Well, even more than in the 1960s, Uhura is very much an independent woman. Sulu is also revealed to be gay (something not entirely pleasing to the man who incarnated the role, George Takei, though he is gay, himself). Perhaps the best update, however, is the final reading of the famous “Space: The Final Frontier” monologue, which is now no longer a monologue, but spoken by the entire main cast. They’re a wonderful multicultural team, representative of the world as it is and should be. Star Trek was always, from the beginning, pushing a utopian idealism, and these particular tweaks to the characters are a welcome addition.

Who You Gonna Call? Sadly, Not These “Ghostbusters”

Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters (Paul Feig, 2016)

I wish I could report that the new Ghostbusters – a reimagining of the beloved 1984 original, this time with an all-female lead cast – was as much of a comic masterpiece as its predecessor, thereby thumbing its cinematic nose at the haters who cried foul at the announcement of its gynocentric production. Why, in the second decade of the 21st century, anyone would object to a new version of the story with women in the main parts, I do not know. May such losers encounter the eternal bad karma that they deserve. Sadly, however, my reasons for not appreciating the film are far more pedestrian: its script is a complete mess, and not that funny. Co-written by Katie Dippold (The Heat) and director Paul Feig (Spy), the screenplay lurches from one under-realized and over-produced situation to another, forgetting such essentials as meaningful character development and the joyful interplay of joke setup vs. payoff. Sure, there are a few genuine laughs, but given who is on screen, that was inevitable. For the most part, it’s just a special-effects-driven bore.

Kristen Wiig (The Skeleton Twins) and Melissa McCarthy (St. Vincent) play childhood friends Erin and Abby – scientists (or so we’re told) – who once co-authored a book on ghosts before growing apart. Now Erin is on the tenure track at Columbia while Abby labors in an unauthorized lab with Jillian – Kate McKinnon (The Angry Birds Movie), one of the two best things in the movie – perfecting their specialized phantom detectors. When a local haunting (in an unlikely mansion in the middle of Manhattan) brings Erin and Abby reluctantly back together, all three quickly discover that the spirit world is indeed real and, in fact, quite active. Soon they are joined by Patty – Leslie Jones (Top Five), the other reason to see the film – an employee of the MTA who contacts the nascent “ghostbusters” when the subway station she supervises receives an unwelcome spectral visitor (ask yourself why, as in the original, the lone African-American is a working-class stiff, rather than a scientist, like the others). For reasons poorly explained in the script, Patty decides to join the other three, and soon they are all running around New York City, brandishing nuclear-powered weapons they barely understand, capturing ghosts.

All of which is fine, I guess, except that every scene feels as if it were directed by a first-timer and sketched by a writer determined to make as much room for improv as possible. But, for my money, the best improvisational riffs usually emerge out of a decent initial structure, and what passes for plot devices here feel so far-fetched that the jokes mostly fall flat. Chris Hemsworth (Rush), as a dim-witted (but very hunky) secretary is a prime example: he’s kind of amusing, but without the support of a well-crafted gag, what comic timing he can muster feels mostly forced. The cameos from the stars of the original movie are also hit or miss. The best ones come later in the film, so stick around if you’re tempted to leave. Unfortunately, on top of all of the other misfires, the main villain of the movie is a caricature of a grown-up bullying victim, pasty and overweight, exacting his revenge on the world for its past sins against him. Really? They couldn’t do better than make fun of the socially awkward?

It’s too bad, as there was a lot of potential, with this cast and the original premise. Inept ghost hunters who somehow stumble into saving the world worked the first time around, and there was no reason to think it wouldn’t here. Personally, I would have preferred to see the story set in the same universe as the 1984 movie, rather than in a world where those events never happened, but certainly the choice to start fresh is not the reason this movie fails. Perhaps, as with many a contemporary comedy (witness the recent Sisters, or quite a few Will Ferrell films), no one bothered with the story, imagining that the assembly of the cast was enough. Certainly, if you are a diehard fan of any of these actresses, you may enjoy the film for her/their own sake. And more power to you. I, however, was hoping for more than the occasional chuckle.