Bourne Again: An Early Review of “The Bourne Legacy”

Upon seeing The Dark Knight Rises, a friend (and That Essence Rare blog reader) and I discussed the best trilogies of all time. Christopher Nolan’s work with The Dark Knight approaches the top of my list, as do Lord of the Rings and The Godfather (yes, the third one is the disliked and underperforming red-headed stepchild of the three, but it’s still better than most children out there, ok? The third was nominated for Best Picture after all). Star Wars is not my thing because George Lucas can’t write his way out of a paper bag filled with Ewoks, but I respect it as a top choice for its groundbreaking approaches to film and its genre. As I started to think more, maybe The Bourne Identity movies should be considered. Well-acted, well-written, sharp, taut, and entertaining (even to those who can’t handle director Paul Greengrass’s handheld camera style that worked brilliantly in United 93), the Jason Bourne movies guaranteed high-level entertainment. While The Bourne Legacy has its highlights and entertaining scenes, it, sadly, does not live up to those admittedly high expectations.

The Bourne Legacy is an occasionally entertaining film and many will find its thrills and chases entertaining summer fun with a bit of added interest for the pharmacists in the audience. The film’s brief focus on other secret agents inflitrating North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan would make a fascinating film on its own, but it is relegated to a sub-plot that is quickly dispensed with.

The film’s main weakness is that the filmmakers refuse to let the new film stand for itself. Jeremy Renner is not tasked to be Jason Bourne but, rather, another highly-trained and over-medicated killing machine engineered by the U.S. government.  Constant references to Jason Bourne and better plot lines from the first three films keep this fourth installment always in the shadow of its better predecessors. If you’re going to take the film in a new direction, stop setting it up as if Matt Damon is about to smash through the closest window and take control of the film. (Sorry, he doesn’t.)

Renner is a talented, Oscar-nominated actor coming off a great ten months (Mission: Impossible 4, The Avengers) and offers a new, scrappier version of a Bourne-like character in the same way Daniel Craig brought a new, scrappier version of James Bond. Both actors in their respective franchise re-boots usually hold their own, but, in action films, no man is an island — unless that island is booby-trapped with transforming alien robots that spit fire and eye-roll-inducing quips. A supporting cast filled with Oscar winners (Edward Norton, Rachel Weisz, Albert Finney) should not be so disengaging, whether they are keeping track of Renner’s character (Norton, Finney) or going along for the occasionally bumpy ride (Weisz). Norton has now replaced his tag “a less-good Hulk, compared to Mark Ruffalo” with “a less-good CIA boss, compared to Joan Allen.” Oh, how the mighty have fallen. It’s also interesting to see Weisz’s scientist character as just a panoply of whining and helpless action female stereotypes, especially after her film last year, The Whistleblower, which was the true story of a Nebraska cop who fights sex trafficking and promotes female empowerment.

But no one goes to an action movie for the acting or moral message. The Bourne Legacy starts slowly and intelligently in the arctic and offers explosive moments throughout, but also gets bogged-down by talking. That would be good if the dialogue and plot lines weren’t so repetitive. Chase scenes across the roofs of buildings bring to mind the raging sport of parkour, but without parkour athletes’ oddly common grey sweatpants. The main thrill of the film is an extended foot/car/motorcycle chase sequence filled with thrills, chills, jeers, and other emotions to keep you from wondering why the movie is two hours but feels longer. It’s a great set of scenes and shows that the filmmakers did not waste the original trilogy’s smart use of constant action. Still, even after the most entertaining and engaging moments, viewers’ minds will likely wander back to the better days of the original Jason Bourne trilogy.

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New Film Review: CABIN IN THE WOODS

“That was the worst movie I’ve ever seen. Don’t release it.” ~ Lady leaving “Cabin in the Woods”

“That was the … BEST … MOVIE … EVER” ~ Man who looked suspiciously like Comic Book Guy on “The Simpsons” leaving “Cabin in the Woods”

Horror films are difficult to review. Some fine gentlemen might think “Signs” contains terrifying imagery, while others believe it’s a corny start to the great plunge of M. Night Shama… who even cares if I spell his last name wrong anymore? Others consider “Paranormal Activity” to be a brilliant ride into the psyche, making you question what horrors unfold while you sleep, while some consider it a boring mix of great anticipation and no payoff.

That being said, “Cabin in the Woods” is an innovative take on the traditional “bunch of college kids go into the woods for sex, beer, and OH MY GOD A ZOMBIE JUST ATE MY FRIEND!” genre. It is occasionally smart, often funny, and generally a good time, but it is very rarely scary. In a packed crowd, there were only two moments when people jumped out of their seats, and one was the very loud noise accompanying the title credit. The other involves “part of a plot twist.”

As stated by Roger Ebert, “You’re not going to see this one coming.” That is an absolutely true statement when you’re in the lobby outside of the movie (or, nowadays, waiting for it to download — you know who you are). However, if you give it a little thought, consider the film’s two settings, and pay attention from the very beginning, you could piece it together quickly.

The film starts off with our college heroes (a likeable five-some, including Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth) preparing for their sexcapade into the woods while two scientists (yes, that’s Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, who never won an Emmy for his excellent work on “The West Wing”) in their lab for what seems to be an industry-defining experiment. Most of the film’s laughs come from the scientific setting, with the exception of a brilliant invention by the film’s genre-required pothead who is surprisingly endearing throughout the film. A funny phone conversation between the scientists and a stereotypical, backwoods hick straight out of every “The Hills Have Eyes” film of the past fifty years makes it clear early on that the two casts of characters are very closely related and that something is going on. I’ll leave it at that, as every early review calls what comes next an exhilarating surprise.

“Cabin in the Woods” is not scary and it is not that surprising, but it’s a refreshing new direction for horror films and should earn the audience’s respect for trying and often succeeding. It is almost gory enough to satiate the bloodlust of the “Saw” crowd, almost funny enough to entertain “Shaun of the Dead”/”Tucker and Dale vs. Evil” fans, and nerdy enough to win over the Joss Whedon fans who would probably see a two-hour film of paint drying if it said “written by Joss Whedon.” It also has a scene that, in a PG-13 manner, blends necrophilia and bestiality if that’s your thing.

However, there is a pervading feeling that it could have done more. This is especially evident when the film briefly focuses on a side plot straight out of a terrifying Japanese horror film. Although it amounts to only two short scenes, the viewer might wish they were watching more of that film.

This is also the rare horror film when they start killing off the kids too quickly, as if the writers want them to all die so they can move on with the story. The speedy slaughter makes sense from the lab setting side of the plot, but much more could have been done with the zombies which serve their murderous purpose and then fall into the background.

When the film does start to wrap up, though, there is a scene that will be talked about for years on horror blogs that cannot be described without ruining the twists. It is a very bloody, very entertaining fanboy-type moment that would make any SyFy movie director step back in awe. And for those entertaining moments and Joss Whedon’s creative take on the horror genre, it doesn’t need to be scary or surprising to be a fun film worthy of your Netflix queue.

J. Edgar: New Film Review

Enjoyment of a film is often based on expectations. If you expect to see a brilliant documentary such as “Man on Wire” and, instead, the projectionist starts up the Marlon Wayans college basketball comedy “The Sixth Man,” you will be disappointed. But if you are in the mood to watch a ghost teach someone how to play basketball (and, frankly, who isn’t in that mood at least once an hour?), you might find “The Sixth Man” to be fun, Wayansian entertainment.

The advertisements for “J. Edgar” included explosions, yelling, criminal chases, and promises of an Oscar-caliber film, but at least half of the film focuses on the unrequited, almost asexual, homosexual relationship between J. Edgar and his male aide and a storyline that is too ambitious at times (it spans seven decades) and too chaotic at others. Many filmgoers expecting to see the historical narrative of the man who led to F.B.I. into one of the most prestigious crime-solving agencies in the world should be aware of his alleged homosexual tendencies (including cross-dressing), but will be surprised that “J. Edgar” is significantly more reminiscent of the better “Brokeback Mountain” than “The Good Shepherd” (which was about the emergence of the C.I.A.) and less engaging than either film. One wonders if this is how people felt when they went to “Brokeback Mountain” expecting a John Wayne western.

Writer Dustin Lance Black has made a career out of promoting gay rights, so his focus should not surprise. He won an Oscar for writing “Milk” (about California’s first openly gay official) and narrated a documentary about the Mormon Church’s opposition to gay marriage in California. What’s surprising is that Clint Eastwood chose to turn the story of J. Edgar Hoover into a salacious tale of a relationship that hasn’t been entirely proven in the public record rather that focus his attention on the script’s difficult non-linear storyline and its surface-level approach to important cultural and social issues such as J. Edgar Hoover’s manipulation of presidents, distrust of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. These issues are covered, but each could fill its own riveting film, as would many other fascinating stories from Hoover’s almost 50 years as head of the FBI. The problem might be that J. Edgar Hoover’s personal life, like his secret files on numerous leaders, is a closed book. It requires some speculation to know how he ever really felt, which demands a strong storyteller. While Black and Eastwood hit some high notes, “J. Edgar” is not the compelling drama it could have been.

No blame should be placed on the tremendous cast. Leonardo DiCaprio continues to prove he is talented far beyond his years, here literally as he performs many of the film’s most dramatic scenes under layers of latex that make him almost unrecognizable. When he has an important moment, he grabs it and takes hold. DiCaprio certainly deserves an Oscar nomination and praise. Dame Judi Dench is also splendid as his mother, lending an air of class, though her role is often wrapped up in cliches including the “I’d rather you be dead than gay” scene that is written more for an episode of “Glee” than a potential Oscar winner. Still, she makes the material work even though Hoover’s American/Swiss mother has her trademark British accent. Naomi Watts brings strength to a narrowly written role despite very rarely ever looking like Naomi Watts. Then, there’s Armie Hammer.

As the aide, Hammer is given not only the film’s worst emotional scene, which falls into camp and would be ridiculed if the film weren’t taking itself so seriously, he also has the worst make-up. Hammer’s usual Sam the Eagle recitation of lines (seen as both twins in “The Social Network”) only adds to his Frankenstein monster-like appearance under tight facial prosthetics to make him look older. This is a pity, as Hammer does an admirable job, trying to give the film its heart. He has some witty lines, some funny ones, and truly rises above the material.

But it always comes back to the material. Black is a good writer; Eastwood is an excellent filmmaker, but neither gave the tremendous source material the movie it deserves. If they wanted a relationship drama, they needed to make the audience care more about the characters, even when Hoover didn’t care about the relationship. If they wanted to craft an intelligent crime drama, more attention to the real life crime details would have benefitted the film, as would less editing that flips in and out of the Lindbergh baby sub-plot at a frenetic pace. Instead, “J. Edgar” is a very well-acted, occasionally thrilling film by an A-list cast and crew that, unfortunately, will not exceed many people’s expectations.

50/50 – A Film Review

“50/50” might be the math behind Adam’s chance of surviving a rare form of cancer, but don’t be fooled by ads making it look like “50/50” is equal parts comedy and drama. While there are certainly hilarious moments, “50/50” is a drama, a cancer drama nonetheless, and most viewers without a black hole where their heart should be will be teary-eyed at least once during the film.

A few years ago, some movie bloggers compared Joseph Gordon-Levitt to Shia LeBeouf, stating that they were interchangeable actors, never rising beyond their source material. That might have been true when Gordon-Levitt’s only fame stemmed from a “fine for what it is” role for five years on NBC’s “3rd Rock From the Sun” and LeBeouf’s stardom focused on his four years starring in Disney Channel’s “Even Stevens.” But  now, with an Oscar-worthy turn in “50/50” after recent success in “Inception” and “500 Days of Summer”, there is no longer any equivalency. Gordon-Levitt is a solid actor, one who will be around for awhile, hopefully taking on stronger, character-driven roles like his real-world friend Leonardo DiCaprio. Starring in the next Batman movie won’t hurt either. LeBeouf, on the other hand, will hopefully fade into obscurity a la Megan Fox and the next time we’ll see him will be on a “Where are they now?” TV special.

But what makes Gordon-Levitt’s performance in “50/50” Oscar-worthy? The fact that “50/50” can make you laugh one second, cry another, and never feel like the movie is manipulating you into broad sentimentality. In fact, the film’s best moments are its most dramatic. Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a radio producer whose life is turned upside down when he is diagnosed with cancer at age 27. Based upon the true story of Will Reiser (who was writing for Sasha Baron Cohen’s “Da Ali G Show” when diagnosed), Gordon-Levitt could have made the part pure drama, where you pity Adam’s medical struggles and get the film’s laughs solely from Seth Rogen. Or he could have played the role with a pot-head apathy, just trying to get by in the face of cancer. Instead, he deftly navigates both approaches. Few young actors would give such a nuanced performance that combines anger, hatred, apathy, and love, especially when having to spend much of his screen time next to Seth Rogen, who is hamming it up as if he’s in a different Judd Apatow comedy that shared the Hollywood set with this cancer drama.

Does that mean Seth Rogen is bad? Absolutely not. As Kyle, Adam’s best and only friend, Seth Rogen brings necessary comedy to the movie to even out the dark patches, but also gives one of the most cringe-worthy moments as he individually puts an end to Adam’s relationship. He does it for a good reason, but it’s done with such selfishness that one wonders if there’s a real person the character is based upon and whether he enjoys being portrayed as a pot-smoking, sex-addicted selfish buffoon. (Rogen knew the true character, so maybe he’s playing himself?) Rogen brings some laughs (most of which are in the trailer) but doesn’t offer much more than in any other Seth Rogen role. Jonah Hill showed a considerably wider acting range in last year’s “Cyrus.”

On the other hand, Anjelica Huston (yes, she’s still alive) commands the screen in her small part as Adam’s mother. Lately just a cameo actress in Wes Anderson films and horrible comedies, Huston brings humor to “I’m moving in” — a line that could have been very dramatic. Replacing Rogen’s lesser scenes with a bit more family backstory on how Adam’s mother is dealing with a child dying of cancer and a husband lost to Alzheimer’s would have given the film additional depth, but would also have needed its own comedic moments to maintain its balance.

All in all, “50/50” is a thoughtful and funny film that reminds viewers that one can face cancer with fear, with laughter, or with a little of both.

Jason Statham Among the “Killer Elite”

Filled with car chases, explosions, and more fighting than a UFC match, “Killer Elite” (opening this Friday nationwide) provides Jason Statham and action movie fans with everything they would expect. Does it have the best writing? No. Is the “final showdown” as entertaining as it should be? No. Is it a fun way to spend two hours? Absolutely.

“Killer Elite”, based on a so-called nonfiction British book about a secret British society, tells the story of a team of mercenaries led by Hunter (Robert DeNiro, in a role more reminiscent of his powerhouse action performances in the late 1990s (“Heat” and “Ronin”) than his legacy-eroding turns in “Little Fockers,” “Righteous Kill” and “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle”). Hunter mentors Danny (Jason Statham, doing what he does best) and, after “the last job” goes awry (they always do, don’t they?), Hunter is proud that Danny hangs up his arsenal and starts his life as a rural Australian homebuilder who catches the eye of a local girl from his childhood. The romance actually feels real and later scenes involving the girl don’t come across as trite as they do in other equivalent action films. Of course, this isn’t Lifetime, this is a Jason Statham movie, so Hunter gets kidnapped and Danny must work as a mercenary to earn Hunter’s release, as well as $6 million. Put simply: British soldiers murdered a wealthy sheik’s three sons and the sheik wants each of his son’s killers murdered before he dies. If the job is done, Hunter goes free and the sheik’s remaining son can return to their tribe.

“Killer Elite” is certainly as good as the best of Statham’s “The Transporter” or “Crank” series, but also comes with flaws. The first is that two hand-to-hand fighting scenes between Danny and British ex-soldier Spike (Clive Owen) lose their luster quickly due to dark lighting and a frantic editing job that makes some of the most exciting and best-choreographed attacks difficult to see. They are thrilling, but could have been directed significantly better. Also, Clive Owen’s character Spike is a weakness in the film, mainly because of poor writing. His character is not enough of a good guy (as avenging the murders of British soldiers by a rogue group seems quite respectable) or enough of a bad guy (trying to hunt down and kill Danny and his crew won’t earn him many points from viewers) to garner much attention. He seems to just be there, saying his lines when needed, punching when needed, and remembering the days when he was heir to the James Bond franchise before blond-haired, blue-eyed Daniel Craig took the role.

The international locales of Oman, London, and Australia add excitement to the story, even though it has been claimed that Danny moves to Australia in the film only to appease the film’s producers who are based in Australia. The film also contains a few surprises, including one unexpected death, that keep the suspense going when the writing starts to disappoint.

The sheik and his son in Oman appear no more than caricatures of Arabs, and much more could have been done to flesh out their characters, but, again, this is a Jason Statham movie. If viewers want to learn about Arab culture, they should Netflix (Quikster?) the films “Osama” or “Lawrence of Arabia”. If viewers want to watch a man tied to a chair somehow propel himself into the air and then fly backwards onto a person, smashing him, “Killer Elite” is the better bet.

The reviewer watched “Killer Elite” at a special advanced screening on Tuesday, September 20 in Washington, D.C.. The film comes out nationwide on Friday.

Goodnight, M. Night

This figure is worth at least 1,000 words. Send us your comments on how M. Night Shyamalan’s career has fallen apart in the most statistically significant way ever recorded. I have not seen “The Last Airbender” but if it’s worse than either “Lady in the Water” or “The Happening” I can only assume it’s a half step away from “The Room.”

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