Saturday, 26 November 2016

DVD Release - Jason Bourne (12A)

Why would he come back now?
Now there's a question that needed asking sooner. 

Don't get me wrong - I like the character of Jason Bourne. As lethal ex-CIA operatives go, he's a decent bloke. The original trilogy box-set retains its proud place within my DVD collection, each film smart and thrilling to its final frame.
Take The Bourne Identity, which introduced us to the amnesiac hitman. It spliced old-school spy thriller with 21st century tech, as our hero tried to work out who he was and why he was possessed with such deadly skills.Then The Bourne Supremacy had him on the run again from his former bosses, uncovering the types of dubious mission he'd been sent on along with their consequences. Finally The Bourne Ultimatum saw him confront the origins of his violent alias, facing down his tormentors one last time. Well I say last time...

For then this came along, a blatant cash-grab that didn't even bear the same title pattern as the others. Let's call it The Bourne Regurgitation. 
Yes, Matt Damon is indeed back as Bourne. And once again he's being tracked down by a morally bankrupt senior CIA official, this time played by Tommy Lee Jones. Plus there's the lower-ranking agent who may possibly be sympathetic towards him, this time played by Alicia Vikander. Throw in the 'asset' currently employed by the CIA, whose job it is to take him out, this time played by Vincent Cassel. Everyone's in place, including Paul Greengrass, whose edgy direction stole James Bond's thunder in the previous two installments. Only one thing is missing - any damn point!

Yes there's a global surveillance element woven in, to give the plot some additional contemporary bite. And what do you know, they've invented an additional chunk of traumatising backstory for Jason to unearth from his addled memory and fret over - just when you thought he'd finally got his head clear! 

The film is undeniably classy-looking and well-acted. Jones is craggy, Vikander tenacious and Cassel malevolent (while Matt Damon is silent as Bourne; if he got paid by the word, then each one was expensive). 
On one level it's perfectly serviceable entertainment, moving at a good lick and sporting a couple of well-shot action sequences. But in the end everything feels terribly tagged on

Bourne had faced his demons, paid his dues and settled his scores. His character arc was complete. He should either have been killed off or allowed to go fish near a log cabin in the woods for the rest of his days. Instead he was dragged back for this sorry two-hour coda. How could it not be lacklustre?
Look - we all know the studio is primarily concerned with a film's cash return, but that doesn't make every resurrected franchise a bad product. Take last week's Fantastic Beasts. Warner Bros. must have been properly salivating over a new J K Rowling adventure to produce, but the film was packed with invention and new storylines, so let them rub their avaricious hands together, while we sit back and enjoy. Jason Bourne, however, is your classic triumph of commerce over creativity. Whatever the surface gloss, there is no justification for its existence beyond a financial one. 

Seems I'll have to attempt the same trick I pulled off with Rocky V and the second two Matrix titles then. Pretend they don't exist, so I can enjoy the films I love without a bad taste in my mouth. The Bourne 'trilogy'. The Bourne 'trilogy'. Keep saying it. I mean - is 'quadrilogy' even a word?

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Film Review - Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12A)

Yesterday a wizard entered New York with a case. A case full of magical creatures. And unfortunately, some have escaped.
That's the start of it, but only the start. 

J K Rowling's first self-penned screenplay is a refreshing return to her Harry Potter universe. Gone are the Hogwarts students and the contemporary British setting, to be replaced with an adult cast in 'Roaring Twenties' New York. Yet from the wizarding news montage at the start, this film had me back somewhere thrillingly familiar - and this time I didn't know the ending!

Newt Scamander, unassuming hero of the movie, will be familiar to Potter fans. He's the author of Harry's magical creatures textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and a historically famous 'magizoologist'. 
Here we meet the globetrotting Newt as he arrives in Manhattan on creature-related business, his Tardis-like suitcase stuffed with enough beasts to fill a wizarding safari-park. A random encounter with affable muggle Jacob Kowalski (the American word for a non-magical type is 'no-maj') sets in motion events that throw Newt's visit into chaos. Soon he is dealing with the American magical governing body and tied up in events that threaten to engulf all of the city, magic and no-maj alike. 

On numerous levels this new story is a treat. Twenties NYC, reproduced in gorgeous period detail, is a perfect backdrop for the sorcery, the magic meshing with the Art Deco stylings of this era perfectly. Eddie Redmayne brings his masterful physicality to the role of the eccentric Newt; he stoops and falters (and is sometimes a bit too mumbly) when interacting with other humans, but comes into his own when engaging Attenborough-style with his beloved 'beasts'.
Dan Folger is hugely endearing as Kowalski, the muggle swept up in the supernatural proceedings, while Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol up it to a winning quartet as the Goldstein sisters, the boys' chalk-and-cheese guides into New York magic.
This is a film of contrasts - the beasts are as fantastic as you might wish, while the darker elements are truly dark, on a psychological level. Shades of villainy are represented here - from sympathetic to deeply wicked. There's a lot of plot too - introducing Newt and co, establishing the magical environment and setting up the evil that lurks in the shadows - so that you do feel the film's length at times. Nonetheless it's all well-explained, better than in the crammed Potter adaptations, so that casual viewers will actually make sense of it all. As for seasoned Potter fans, they'll be squirming gleefully at one wizarding reference after another.

Rowling is utterly at home in the world she has created, and so invested in the film franchise that it feels like an extension of her mind. Fantastic Beasts is rich in detail - full of invention, humour, jeopardy and romance. One commentator said recently that J K is 'flogging a dead horse'. She's not. She's riding a thoroughbred hippogriff, and it's got serious wings.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Film Review - Arrival (12A)

There are days that define your story beyond your life. Like the day they arrived.
On the week Donald Trump gained the White House and half the world despaired, comes a movie that pits love against paranoia to memorable effect. What are the odds?

Aliens have landed - or rather they're hovering, like big ultra-cool surround-sound speakers, all over the globe. Amy Adams plays Louise, a linguistics expert who's called in by the US military to attempt communication with the ship suspended above Montana. The question everyone wants answered is an obvious one: what is the reason behind their visit? 
If you know your big-screen science fiction, you'll appreciate that the options are limited - (1) to share knowledge and understanding, (2) to teach us lessons vital to our survival, (3) to incinerate us all starting with our national monuments. Teamed with theoretical physicist Ian (a winsome Jeremy Renner), Louise must don a radiation suit and brave all the terror of the unknown to find out which one they have in mind. Meanwhile the world goes mad - as politicians deliberate, armies manoeuvre and radio shock-jocks rant. Time is running out.
 Arrival revisits familiar storytelling territory, but does it with an intoxicating combination of fear and wonder, like nothing I've seen before. The extra-terrestrial visuals are unique - stark but beautiful, awe-inspiring without being flashy - while the film's soundscape draws you in completely with its otherworldly weirdness. The leads both have their minds convincingly blown as they investigate; my eyes were widening with theirs and I was doing that leaning-in thing you save for when a movie's truly got you in its grip. Adams in particular impresses, much of the drama playing out on her face, as the bizarre experience unfolds. Her neatly sketched back-story contributes to the insight she has into the visitors' motives, adding a whole other emotional layer to the story. 
So - what is it with Amy Adams and films you need to see more than once? First Nocturnal Animals and now this. Arrival tantalizes its audience from the beginning, cranking up mystery and suspense while dropping clues that will only make sense at the astonishing, unforeseeable conclusion. It's a gradual but gripping ride, keeping global implications in view, while remaining intensely personal throughout.
This is science-fiction with a beating heart, where one woman's linguistic and emotional intelligence takes on forces of ignorance and fear. A story for our times, and hopefully prophetic of future ones. Oh, and Sheena Easton gets an unexpected mention. Listen out for that.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Film Review - Nocturnal Animals (15)

When you love someone, you have to be careful with it. You might never get it again.
Nocturnal Animals is both a fiercely original thriller and a deviously twisted love story. Right from its 'what-the-hell-is-this?' opening, this film does nothing you expect, wrong-footing its audience right up to the poignant final frames. By that time you'll have had your emotions wrung and your heart-rate accelerated by not one but two equally compelling tales.

Based on a little-known novel by Austin Wright, it introduces us to Susan, a Los Angeles art gallery owner, who should be basking in the success of her opening night. For all the trappings of wealth and a handsome husband, however, her life seems curiously empty. Then her attention is caught by a manuscript sent by ex-husband Edward - a novel called 'Nocturnal Animals'.

Along with Susan we are drawn into the book, starting with a family encountering trouble on a dark Texas highway. What follows is a story of blood and human passions that plays out on a bleak but beautiful rural landscape. Susan registers every shock along with us, the raw passion of the book a stark contrast to her own sterile existence.
To say how Edward's novel-within-the movie merges with Susan's life would give far too much away. Suffice to say that this is a film of both power and subtlety, which moves seamlessly between the two worlds, delivering flashes of brutality - physical and emotional. Amy Adams is impressive as Susan, her green eyes alive with shock and fascination, as she reads in the midst of her deadening LA sophistication. Jake Gyllenhall also delivers in a dual role as both the writer of the 'Nocturnal Animals' book and its central protagonist, proving once again that he doesn't do fluffy rom-coms. Not ever.
It's a film awash with great performances in fact, including Laura Linnie as Susan's appalling snob of a mother and Michael Shannon as an enigmatic Texan lawman. 
It's also a film that contrasts cruelty with beauty, whether in Susan's cold designer home or under stark Texan sunsets. This tale is gorgeously observed throughout, even in its most unsettling moments. The Texas scenes fizz with the promise of violence, while those in LA are steeped in melancholic blue. 

The camera misses nothing, but you might, in this mesmerising two-for-one story. With so many clues forming such an intricate puzzle, a second viewing might be required. I've already got mine planned. Yes - I'm ready to be moved and harrowed all over again, by this super-smart and stylish piece of storytelling.