Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Jason Bourne Review (2016)

“Jason Bourne” (the fifth film in the “Bourne” franchise and the fourth with Matt Damon. I’m not going to be talking about the spin off film with Jeremy Renner) is well acted, competently made, yet completely forgettable. It’s the kind of film you walk out of saying: ”that wasn’t terrible, I guess. But it wasn’t very good either. In fact, why did I drive all the way to the theater and pay twelve dollars for that when I could have rented it a few months later?”

And then you never think about it again.

The energy and thrill of the first three movies (“The Bourne Identity,” “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum”) is replaced with fatigue and repetition. “Jason Bourne” is essentially two hours of material we’ve seen before. Even worse, while the film does bring some depth to the series, it’s depth that director Paul Greengrass (and co screenwriter Christopher Rouse) didn’t need to explore. It’s unnecessary.

The film begins with Bourne (Damon, looking tired and pouty) in what I imagine is retirement for all highly intelligent fugitive spies: living off the grid and hustling underground bare knuckle boxing matches in Greece. I guess if you have sweet Martial art skills you may as well not let them go to waste. His muscly torso doesn’t maintain itself after all. Bourne thinks he’s found out everything he needs to know about his true identity and how he came to be in the infamous Treadstone program.

Not so fast, Bourne.

Over in Iceland, former Treadstone technician Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) hacks the CIA database and steals some super special files containing new information about Bourne and his father. But the CIA doesn’t like that. Long story short Bourne goes on the run again and the CIA wants him dead or alive…whichever’s easiest.

“Jason Bourne” is an amalgamation of the second and third films—following roughly the same “uncover-the-truth” narrative arc as “Ultimatum” and one of the first major events that kicks the plot into gear is taken almost directly from “Supremacy.” Within about five minutes the movie switches to autopilot.

The new supporting characters are redundant and one-dimensional. There’s another cold, methodical European assassin (this time played by Vincent Cassel, who only has to look straight ahead in order to be menacing), an older high-ranking CIA official as the primary antagonist (Tommy Lee Jones plays the CIA director) and a conflicted young female analyst (played by rising star Alicia Vikander). The cast is in top form, although that’s more a testament to their skill and screen presence instead of the thin, repetitive script they’re given. All Jones has to do is sit in a chair and speak in his usual southern drawl to get our attention.

It’s not just the broad strokes that are redundant. Scene by scene you feel like you’re watching the same “Bourne” film you’ve seen three times before. We get flash drives and a new shady government program. CIA operatives sit in control rooms monitoring events through GPS and CCTV’s and rapidly type on computers. I lost track of how many times characters said phrases like: “keep eyes on Bourne,” “Where’s Bourne?” “We lost Bourne!”  “Follow him!”

There are a seemingly infinite amount of crowd scenes wherein one of three standard “Bourne” franchise things occur. 1) Bourne leads a group of government foot soldiers through the crowd and temporarily loses them. 2) Bourne leads a group of foot soldiers through the crowd, disappears, then reappears from behind a corner and beats them up. 3) Bourne leads someone else through a crowd away from government foot soldiers. At the climax of the film during a cross cutting sequence, Bourne spends what feels like ten minutes making his way through another crowd, being pursued by more foot soldiers. We also get tons of walking up stairs, sometimes followed by Cassel’s assassin unfolding a sniper rifle to use on a rooftop. (He does this action three times!).  

There’s little innovation here and after a while you can predict what’s going to happen in every scene.

The big action set pieces are dull and unmemorable. In addition to an on foot pursuit set during a chaotic riot in Athens, (that uses all the stuff I talked about in the previous paragraphs repeatedly) there’s an endless car chase through the Las Vegas streets that’s equal parts sleep inducing and desperate in how over the top it is. About a billion other cars are totaled in the process and a police Humvee crashes through a Casino. The movie is so dull that the filmmakers have to literally crash a police Humvee through a Casino.

Though more disappointing than this redundancy is the film’s major revelation--the final piece in the puzzle of Bourne’s identity. One of the best aspects of the original trilogy and the Bourne character is that he has a conscience. Beneath the automatic, superhuman exterior is a person, who feels remorse for his actions in the Treadstone program and the people he killed. At the end of “Ultimatum” it’s revealed that Bourne volunteered for the program because he wanted to serve his country and keep people safe, which adds an additional intriguing layer. Bourne chose this life and now he has to live with the consequences of his decisions.

Without spoiling, the revelation in “Jason Bourne” significantly changes the character and that final layer for the worst. It comes off strained and desperate, as if Greengrass and Rouse were really struggling to find a way to stretch out this tired narrative.

The revelation doesn’t ruin the franchise but it hammers home how superfluous this latest installment is. The original trilogy ended perfectly—it came full circle while at the same time leaving room for uncertainty as to what Bourne’s future holds.  

Now we know what Bourne’s future holds and it’s more of the same.


Thursday, July 21, 2016

Star Trek Beyond Review (2016)

“Star Trek Beyond” is the third film in the most recent “Star Trek” film series (the first two being “Star Trek” and “Star Trek Into Darkness”) but it feels like its own standalone action feature. You don’t have to be well versed in “Star Trek” lore, or even that familiar with those first two installments to enjoy it. And thankfully it isn’t trying to set up future movies. Good sequels are self-contained, telling a complete and satisfying story. They fit neatly into the franchise while at the same time standing apart. “Star Trek Beyond” stands apart.

The narrative is simple and straightforward. There aren’t any major surprises or events that will significantly affect the characters or the stories in future installments, which eliminates some element of surprise. But as an isolated, old school action film “Star Trek Beyond” is both exhilarating and entertaining.

The movie also flies by.

For a two-hour picture “Star Trek Beyond” feels like 90 minutes, and that’s a good thing. It’s easy for two-hour action films to become bloated and laborious. Star Trek Beyond” is just the opposite; it’s lean, slick and focused. After a brief introductory section (that can’t last more than ten minutes at the most) the inciting incident is quickly and clearly established and the crew of The USS Enterprise is off on their next mission. Incoming director Justin Lin maintains this snappy pace throughout-- the picture is almost always in motion; the characters (and the audience) have to keep moving with it.

“Star Trek Beyond” “starts with the intriguing premise that being the captain of cool spaceship that flies around the galaxy looking for new life forms (to join the United Federation of Planets) can get boring after a while. (Well, I guess if your full time job is in space its bound to get a little stale). That’s just how James T Kirk (Chris Pine, oozing charisma like sweat) feels. He’s burned out—stuck in a repetitive routine. However, in no time, “Beyond” takes a sledgehammer to that “routine” by stranding the entire crew on a foreign planet.

Suddenly the job isn’t so boring now.

On the planet, Kirk, Spock (Zachary Quinto), McCoy (Karl Urban), Scotty (Simon Pegg) and the rest of The Enterprise are hunted by the lumbering reptile-like Krall (Idris Elba) and his army. The crew is thrown into a strikingly unfamiliar and disorienting situation that forces them to survive outside the accustomed and comfortable confines of the ship. I found this scenario to be pleasantly refreshing considering how much of “Star Trek” takes place on the ship in space. I’ll take people running around on a planet over one spaceship shooting at another spaceship any day. Maybe that’s just me.

Unsurprisingly, the cast is phenomenal; the strongest element of the new franchise by far.  This time around everyone is allowed to be quick witted and courageous in equal measure. The screenplay by Pegg and Doug Jung is the funniest of the three films and all the primary crewmembers get to trade witty screwball-esque banter with one another while also kicking butt. I can’t say any of them go through a significant character arc (well, Kirk does, though it’s obvious from the get go) but they’re fun to be around and they instantly win you over with their charm.

There’s a lot of action in this film-- a lot of destruction and explosions and beams of energy. There are a couple of epic, extraordinary action set pieces (Lin and co. take full advantage of the big screen). At the same time, there are scenes that feel redundant and tedious. That tends to happen in action heavy movies. But because the characters are so vibrant this didn’t bother me nearly as much. Strong, likable characters go a long way.

My only major reservation with “Beyond” is that sometimes the silliness dilutes the more serious happens in the film--like death. There’s a surprising amount of death (including one scene towards the end that’s shockingly disturbing for a PG-13 blockbuster) that’s casually shaken off. The movie moves so quickly that sometimes an intense death scene is followed by two characters cracking jokes. I’m not saying the film needs to come to a screeching halt but a few brief moments where the characters stop and seriously acknowledge the death and loss would have been nice.

I have a few other minor issues, namely that things become predictable during the last third when yet another major city is threatened with destruction. Yet, in the moment “Star Trek Beyond” is a lot of fun and a highlight in this otherwise underwhelming summer blockbuster season.

Cafe Society Review (2016)

Woody Allen never met a major city he couldn’t make beautiful and majestic. In his latest feature “Café Society,”—a nostalgic romantic comedy/drama set in the fabulous thirties—we get two for the price of one: New York and L.A.

Lush, sun-drenched shots of affluent L.A. neighborhoods dominate the first half while the sublime New York skyline dominates the second. Beverly Hills mansions with ornate swimming pools, patios and balconies are juxtaposed with exquisite upscale Manhattan penthouses and nightclubs. From a technical standpoint the film is simple yet elegant and neat. Allen seems physically incapable of making a city look less than perfect. Adding to all of this city porn are loving descriptions of said cities—at one point the narrator, Allen himself, says: “a beautiful dusk sky enveloped New York”—upbeat jazz music and a relationship between an older man and a young woman.

We’re in Woody Allen land all right.

Unfortunately, as beautiful as “Café Society” is it can’t help but feel frustratingly surface-level. The cities and the societies within them don’t come alive the way they have in previous Allen films. The two settings feel more like backdrops rather than three-dimensional environments. Additionally, the second half of the movie is a narrative mess, which leaves the viewer with a bitter taste in their mouth.

It’s a shame because the first thirty minutes or so are solid. Naïve neurotic New Yorker Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg, playing a younger version of the kind of nebbish character Allen used to play in his movies) moves to L.A and is taken under the wing of his somewhat brash, headstrong uncle Phil (Steve Carell, amusing with a hint of vulnerability), a Hollywood agent. At swanky cocktail parties Bobby is introduced to the Hollywood elite. However he’s more captivated by the down to earth charm of Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), Phil’s secretary and lover.

Stewart and Eisenberg are the best things about “Café Society.” Stewart continues to show that she’s so far above the “Twilight” franchise, giving a quietly charming and self-assured performance. Vonnie may be soft spoken but she isn’t passive and even though she becomes locked in a love triangle she remains strong and independent minded. Meanwhile, Eisenberg easily slides into the role of fidgety but kindhearted Bobby. It’s the kind of role Eisenberg can play in his sleep.

As a pair they’re effortless, transcendent even. Their flirty, banter-y conversations feel so natural and vivacious. The minute they get together they click and suddenly you want the whole movie to be just them walking around and talking.

But it isn’t.

Aside from the romantic angle, “Café Society” is about the social elite--in Hollywood and later on in Manhattan when Bobby goes back to help run a high-class nightclub-- and how it tries to corrupt these two innocent, genuine kids. Both Bobby and Vonnie are brought into this life and they think it’s what they want. However, in L.A. they feel more at home eating dinner at a shabby “hole-in-the-wall” Mexican restaurant than at a swanky party surrounded by rich folk. In other words, high society may be glamorous but it’s also superficial and unsatisfying. The film’s resolution, while mostly cheerful, has an underlying sense of melancholy and regret. Everything didn’t turn out the way it should have.

This is certainly an intriguing idea but Allen’s touch is often too soft and polite.  Because the film looks so magnificent, because there are so many lavish party sequences and because the tone is generally upbeat and jaunty it feels like Allen is more enamored with this lifestyle then critical of it. At one point Bobby says he wants to go back to New York because he finds L.A. to be “nasty” and “boring” and he can’t take all the “backstabbing” but we don’t see anything in the film that would warrant that kind of negative reaction. We see none of the “nastiness” or “backstabbing.”

If Allen is indeed more enamored with this lifestyle than critical that’s fine but his depiction of it is nevertheless shallow. More often than not it’s like we’re viewing a museum diorama. There’s a lot of name-dropping and listing in a lazy attempt to create atmosphere.  In L.A., famous Hollywood stars like Paul Muni and Ginger Rogers are mentioned in passing and in New York Allen’s narrator lists the various influential people who frequent the nightclub. In short, we don’t feel like we’re there because Allen doesn’t explore these worlds in great enough depth.

Making things worse, the second half is a total mess—unfocused and rushed. A thriller side plot involving Bobby’s gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll) is poorly established and hastily resolved. Blake Lively shows up as a rival romantic partner for Bobby and is given absolutely nothing to do and Carrell is sadly pushed off to the side. Additionally, Allen manages to cram in a quick crisis of faith and philosophical conversations about love, death and religion into the mix, which further confuse things. It’s sloppy writing, pure and simple.

Woody Allen continues to write and direct one film a year; a work ethic I admire. However it also means that instead of taking some additional time to polish and refine his screenplays he churns and burns. As a result, he’s made a lot of decent but forgettable pictures. “Café Society” is sadly one of those and outside of Eisenberg/Stewart and the pretty cinematography/ production design there’s not much reason to see it.


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Lights Out Review (2016)

In the new horror picture “Lights Out”—directed by David F Sandberg and co written by Eric Heisserer and Sandberg—evil comes in the form of Diana, a supernatural being powered by grief and anger, who resides in the shadows. When the lights are on, you’re safe. When the lights go out, all bets are off. It’s as easy as that. Of course that doesn’t mean Diana can’t cause the power to inexplicably go out on occasion.

The simplicity of the film’s antagonist proves to be a double edged sword.

On the bright side, it creates consistency in regards to film continuity and the mythology it establishes.  In other words, there aren’t any major rule violations or narrative curveballs that signal lazy screenwriting. Diana can’t ever do her thing when the lights are on. Additionally, Diana’s sensitivity to light isn’t an empty gimmick-- there’s a legitimate reason that’s clearly established and makes sense within the film’s logic.

At the same time, this simplicity leads to predictability and repetitiveness in the scare department. “Lights Out” is powered by jump scares. Well, mainly one style of jump scare repeated over and over. A character sees Diana standing still in the dark. They turn the light on. She’s gone. They turn the light off again and she’s closer. Then she attacks!

In general, I don’t like jump scares. I think they’re cheap and lazy. One or two well-placed jump scares can sometimes be effective but too often they’re overused. I prefer horror films that create a creepy, unnerving atmosphere. Horror films that cause terror and paranoia to slowly build up in the viewer until they become uncomfortable; terror and paranoia that sticks with them long after the movie has ended. Jump scares go for the immediate jolt-- a feeling that quickly evaporates.

While there are a few well-placed jump scares in “Lights Out,” there are simply too many and after a while you can see them coming from a mile away. The last third of the pictures verges on silly and delirious rather than unsettling and tense. Therefore, I can’t say I was all that scared or uncomfortable during the film. This isn’t going to be one of those horror films that stays with me over a long period of time.

And yet, there are still pleasures to be found--namely that the filmmakers keep the human element in tact. Horror films aren’t exempt from having strong characters. The action revolves around Rebecca (Theresa Palmer), her younger brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) and mother Sophie (Maria Bello). They’re in grave danger because Diana has a special attachment to Sophie. The pictures takes time to make these three into likable and multifaceted characters. Rebecca is an intelligent and strong protagonist that constantly takes charge and goes through a visible transformation at the end. Martin is resilient in his own right and never gets on your nerves like some children in horror movies do. Meanwhile, veteran actor Bello brings dimension and sympathy to the cliché “crazy mother” character. On top of that, the filmmakers take time to establish and develop the non-supernatural dilemmas that plague the family, such as the tension and falling out between Rebecca and her mother. More than anything, Diana is powered by the negative energy radiating off the human characters.

At eighty-one minutes, “Lights Out” is relatively free of narrative fat. The filmmakers keep things tightknit and self-contained. There aren’t any ghost hunters or psychics, or an overabundance of one-note victims. Everything is wisely kept within the intimate sphere of the family. And the film doesn’t overstay its welcome. With horror—the shorter and tighter the movie is the better.

So far 2016 has been a strong year for horror. “The Witch,” “The Wailing,” and “Green Room” are all exemplary pictures. “Lights Out” doesn’t ascend to that level; it’s not as ambitious or thought provoking and it’s certainly not as creepy or uncomfortable. Still, “Lights Out” is a decent little horror flick that’s worth devoting an evening to.


Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Ghostbusters Review (2016)

It’s astonishing that Paul Feig’s “Ghostbusters” reboot (the “all female” “Ghostbusters” reboot) has received so much scorn and criticism over the past few months. Sexist Internet trolls and nerds complaining about how their childhood is going to be ruined (these two categories of unbearable human being often intersect) isn’t new but the fact that people are actively trying to degrade and destroy a female led studio comedy is baffling.

A comedy they haven’t seen.

Let me say that again: a movie they haven’t seen. All they have to go on are trailers and the knowledge that the four leads are female. And yet, there are entire Subreddits devoted to hating the movie, trolls flooding IMDB with negative reviews, trolls accusing critics of being paid to write positive reviews. It’s all so ridiculous…and infuriating…and sad.

Fortunately, having seen the movie now, I can forget about this noise because “Ghostbusters” is a blast. The plot is minimal and straightforward and, while not a carbon copy of the Ivan Reitman original, it hits familiar narrative beats. There aren’t any major surprises and it doesn’t take many risks (unless you consider a female led comedy risky, which isn’t) but it’s damned entertaining, primarily due to the central foursome.

Feig has assembled a spectacular group of comedians, some established some not so established. All four play tough, intelligent and funny characters that are treated with respect. Leading the Ghostbusters are scientists/childhood friends Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy). Then there’s tech guru Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) and New York transportation employee Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones). Wiig and McCarthy are in top form as usual (doing variations on what they’ve done before) but it’s newcomers McKinnon and Jones (both current SNL cast members) that steal the show. They play the more oddball, eccentric members of the group and often times, when the movie hits a lull, a one liner or silly reaction from either of them keeps everything moving. They provide a welcome freshness and vitality, both to this movie and the studio comedy in general.

Another actor worth mentioning is Chris Hemsworth as the Ghostbuster’s handsome but incredibly stupid secretary Kevin. Simply put, Hemsworth is superb—playing Kevin straight-faced, reminiscent of a young Leslie Nielson.

 Feig and co screenwriter Katie Dippold wisely keep the focus on the characters and more importantly, they let these gifted comedians do their thing.  Most scenes unfold at an unhurried pace without any unnecessary razzle-dazzle. The best scenes are usually the simplest-- the foursome in a room together trading witty dialogue with one another. They all get a chance to be the clown or the straight woman and each bring something different to the equation, making for a diverse and cohesive unit. Their group chemistry is effortless (dare I say perfect?) and the driving force of the film. Yes, there are cool gadgets and weapons, CGI ghosts, green slime and plenty of ghost busting but without this strong core intact, “Ghostbusters” would amount to very little.

Aside from the occasional gag that falls flat the picture’s biggest flaw is the fan service. There are a lot of callbacks to the original that tend to feel forced, interrupting the film’s comedic flow and tempo in the process. Additionally, none of the cameos are particularly funny or memorable. Fan service is an unfortunate but unavoidable aspect of commercial remakes or long after the fact sequels. When callbacks help move the story forward or add dimension to characters they’re useful. But here, the fan service holds the film back somewhat.

Tonally, this new “Ghostbusters” is different from the original. The original is as much a thriller (and partially horror) as it is a comedy. The humor usually comes out of the intensity of the situations. The ghosts are scary and it feels like New York is in legitimate danger. On the other hand, the remake is a more straightforward comedy. There are more jokes and they come at a quicker speed. The conversational scenes are freewheeling and clearly improvised. There’s no sense of danger and the ghosts aren’t frightening. As a result, the action heavy finale lacks urgency.

That being said, because the movie is funny and the characters are fun to be around, this tonal difference ends up being more of a strength than a weakness. Despite the callbacks, the remake sets out to form its own identity separate from the original.

At my preview screening, the non-critic crowd let out cheers and applause during the film and at the end. Most of the time this type of reaction means very little (preview screening crowds are usually enthusiastic) but in light of all the unfair contempt “Ghostbusters” has received it felt substantial and welcome. It felt good that this movie was being given a fair chance and being warmly embraced.

And it should be warmly embraced.