JASON BOURNE – YOU KNOW THIS FILM

Image result for jason bourneJason Bourne. You know his name. David Webb actually. You know his skills. I’ve never seen a magazine used like that. You know the man. sports matt damon boston red sox world series team america Jason Bourne a new fragrance for men from Paul Greengrass that smells very familiar. A good litmus test for how one will react to Jason Bourne will be in how much they enjoyed The Bourne Ultimatum.

Stop me if you ‘ve heard this one before. Jason Bourne is free, roaming the world having defeated his enemies at the end of the last film. Yet things nag at his conscience, he worries that they’ll come for him and new flashbacks never before experienced suggest other players played by the latest older white guy to appear in this film that point to an even larger conspiracy theory and an older black ops program that predates the one from the previous film. Somebody inexplicably decides to unearth Bourne even though it has never ended well for the CIA. The old white guy turns out to be responsible for everybody’s misery although the may try to be ambivalent about this at first. No matter how many operatives Bourne faces, there will be a particular assassin he duels with for the bulk of the film. There will be at least one spectacular car chase for the ages and one extremely well choreographed fight scene where the music stops and there is only the sound of grunting, impacts of blows and the snapping of bones.

An up and coming actress will have a pivotal role in the CIA and assist Bourne when she uncovers clues about the conspiracy theory. Joan Allen counts as up and coming – I expect big things from her in the future.

It’s no wonder if that all sounds familiar because, if not exactly the plot of the first film The Bourne Identity (a more upbeat film with Bourne actually amnesiac with the delightful Franka Potente as a love interest), it has certainly been the plot of every sequel. The Bourne Supremacy worked as a mirror to the first film with a darker, grittier style that benefitted emotionally from the feelings we had for characters from the first film. It seemed unlikely that the last we’d see of Jason was walking down that street in NYC since our imaginations ran riot with ideas of possibilities for the character. It’s fair to say none would have been as dispiriting as where we find him here. Having been on the run and in hiding for years, he makes a living as an underground fighter living off the grid. Former CIA agent Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), the only other character returning from all previous entries hacks the CIA and retrieves information about Jason’s comic book origins – cough – sorry past. This puts both Parsons and Bourne on the radar of the CIA again who meet in Greece as a taskforce is headed up by new CIA IT guru Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) and over seen by CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones).

Image result for jason bourneImage result for jason bourne tommy lee jones

The hook of The Bourne Ultimatum was Bourne came home to America to finally learn who he really was. This was supposed to make it unique and a continued development from Supremacy. It wasn’t. It was a cold repeat of moments that were better done in Doug Liman’s Identity and Greengrass’s own Supremacy. With star and director having recently rejuvenated their careers with the quality films Captain Phillips and The Martian you can’t be faulted for hoping this sequel might reverse this summer’s trend of undernourishing blockbusters. After all it’s been 9 years and during interviews there was a lot of talk by the creative team of how the world has changed with social media data collection, Snowden, Greece’s debt crisis, civil unrest and terrorist attacks in European metropolitan cities. Indeed there are many references to how the world has changed in this new film but it’s all lip service and nothing deeper is done with them.

If there is something new brought to proceedings it is that Bourne is now aged and dour, the ravages of this life lived are showing and with no character he trusts to play off his dialogue is minimal perhaps due to the fact that screenwriter Tony Gilroy is not on hand to write it. Narratively this makes sense but means Damon has less opportunity to portray a character and not a bas-ass automaton. Jason Bourne matt damon motorcyleThe superhuman Bourne here is a far cry from the highly skilled assassin of the first film who was one of many well trained spies. In this film, people say his name like a punchline or whisper it reflecting his legendary status in the CIA but also our popular culture. For some that will be enough, Matt Damon is back playing Jason Bourne and he remains a likeable if worn down hero. There is something compelling about the character and the way that Damon plays him that places the audience on his side and even here makes one consider even another sequel being made where the character can be further developed.

Greengrass and his team have not lost the knack for staging ambitious action sequences involving hundred of extras in global cities across the world, for example the riots in Athens (shot in Tenerife, Canary Islands) puts real scale and scope on the big screen as opposed to very pretty animation. Rather than quick cutting to death to hide a million sins, the people behind the scenes have done these stunts and captured the action on film in a clear but exciting fashion. The chases and fights are so retro they’re fresh, the destruction of 170 motor vehicles in the making of the car chase on the Las Vegas strip is the kind of vehicular mayhem you rarely see these days and is most welcome. Alicia Vikander has a few layers to her character too but ultimately nobody really engages interest with the audience. Bourne here is a bit too broken, at least Nicky is doing something with her life. In the books David Webb becomes an academic with a family, constantly drawn back into his former life but at least one can argue this way Bourne isn’t saddled with a revenge tale audiences know by rote. Because as it is already, this is a film you’ve seen twice already and when it was done better.

-Lloyd Marken

EX MACHINA: A SMALL FILM WITH BIG IDEAS

Ex Machina marks the directorial debut of Alex Garland who wrote amongst others Dredd, 28 Days Later and Sunshine. It is a solid and confident effort that impresses less with big sequences but more with elegantly articulated big ideas and uneasy answers. It is old school science fiction released for a new age.

The premise is Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) a programmer at a tech company has won a competition to go and meet with the CEO of the company at his secluded retreat to hang out for a week. There is suitable build up to this with the retreat being remote and isolated and Gleeson having to make the last part of his journey by foot. The CEO Nathan Bateman as played by Oscar Isaac is introduced working out before grabbing a beer and speaking like a friendly college frat boy while still pulling power dynamics wherever he can. Nathan informs Caleb he has nominated him to interact with an artificial intelligence android that Bateman has built to see whether it has become a fully sentient being. He is to interview the android named Ava portrayed by Alicia Vikander daily while she remains in it’s room at all times over the course of the week and report back to Bateman each night to see what they think. The only other character present is Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) who is Nathan’s housemaid.

How each audience member reacts to each character may say as much about themselves as it does about the characters and certainly one of the pleasures of the film is seeing these very different creatures bounce off each other. The movie enjoys playing with the ideas of who is being tested, is anybody else maybe a robot, who is sympathetic or being dishonest and just where this all may lead? I wouldn’t dare spoil it, it is nice to not be sure of a film’s outcome and yet also at the end be satisfied with it. To create this balancing act you need good performances and Ex Machina has some of the most exciting young actors working today. Domhnall Gleeson as the lead and audience surrogate should conventionally have the least to hide but he gives many layers to his character. Oscar Isaac plays the alpha male here with coiled aggression and relaxed dominance but as the film goes on we see more and more this may be a mask. Alicia Vikander, with this the first of three films for her break out year of 2015 is great, is unnervingly disquieting at times and at others naïve and vulnerable. Sonoya Mizuno given the least to do is mostly a mute performance having to convey character through physicality which she does effortlessly (I’m not surprised to discover she is a Royal Ballet School graduate), one of those performances that can be underappreciated but with which the whole film would’ve suffered if she hadn’t delivered.

Set in and around the retreat for the most part with a small cast the film makes a mark with the minimalist architecture of the location clashing strongly with the imposing natural landscape. The understated and cold nature of the text is echoed in this design and also in the score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. The design of Ava is quite compelling incorporating transparent machine parts replicating human organs, coupled with body parts often sexualised coated in rubber and then topped off with the doe eyes of Vikander. This is a design meant to confront your own ideas about gender, sexuality and what it is to be human or machine. All the effects were created in post-production with scenes being shot twice (once with Vikander and once without) to capture the background as well. For the machine parts Vikander’s body was rotoscopped out but to retain her movement camera tracking systems taken of Vikander were transferred in. Close to half of the effect shots are in service to Ava’s presence, think about that for a second, half of the effect shots for the film are in service to a character.

Apparently Garland worked hard to keep the script low key so that the budget would remain small and he could retain creative control without having to throw in a third act action sequence. That is not to say the third act isn’t exciting, the whole film is a build up to it and it’s gripping as these characters finally reveal what they’re truly capable of while coming to a head. They should make more movies like this.

-Lloyd Marken