You Must Remember This

You Must Remember This

Tuesday, 19 February 2013


A Belated Analysis

          I'll admit to having been been dismissive of this addition to the Bourne series when it appeared in cinemas last year. For one thing, Paul Greengrass, director of Bourne's Supremacy and Ultimatum, had handed over control of the franchise, and perhaps more dramatically, Matt Damon, Jason Bourne himself, would not be returning. As such, given the indifferent reviews it received upon release - 56% on Rotten Tomatoes - I could find no particular reason to go and see The Bourne Legacy when it was first released. 
          Long plane rides are good in this regard: they give you the chance to watch films you missed in the cinema and wouldn't otherwise bother to buy on DVD or BluRay. Also, watching a tiny picture in the back of someone else's headrest and listening to it with a cheap pair of headphones goes some way to lowering your expectations as a viewer. In this, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by The Bourne Legacy and what it had to offer.
          In place of the eponymous Bourne, we now have Aaron Cross, played breakout star Jeremy Renner (The Avengers, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters). Ever since The Hurt Locker, Renner has been Hollywood's go-to guy for you intense, traumatized, but otherwise generally likeable protagonist, and the role of Cross plays to his strength in this regard. A member of Operation Outcome, successor to the programme that created Bourne, Cross is a man who has given himself over mind and body to the defense of his country. 

          Much of The Bourne Legacy runs parallel to Ultimatum: we - spoilers - witness the assassination of crusading journalist Simon Ross, played by Paddy Considine, for a second time, shortly before the existence of top-secret agencies Blackbriar and Treadstone hits the press. These events were set in motion by Jason Bourne, who haunts the periphery of the film as a lingering ghost: the agency was just a step behind him in Moscow; his name appears engraved into the wood of a bunk bed Cross sleeps in during his flight.
          Actors from the previous films - Joan Allen, David Straitharn, and Albert Finney - make their appearances as CIA Deputy Director Landy, Blackbriar overseer Vosen, and Treadstone lead scientist Dr. Hirsch respectively, though these amount to little more than cameos. The ever-reliable Edward Norton takes up duties as lead antagonist Eric Byer, a retired US Air Force colonel brought in to manage damage control. This film is all about Bourne and the consequences of his actions, the most intriguing element of the film but ultimately its greatest weakness.              
          When Bourne’s antics lead to the public learning of the existence of the beyond-secret program that created him, Byer begins violently severing ties. Agents in the field, dosed with designer drugs to increase intelligence, are liquidated with casual efficiency. This is the spy, the soldier, as test subject: with Bourne himself being essentially a synthetic super soldier created by Hirsch. While Bourne had to lose his cover identity in order to rediscover his fundamental humanity, Cross is dependent on these drugs for his survival – more than expediency or simple addiction, without them, the film suggests he is simply not good enough.

                  Cross escapes an ambush by predator drone in the Alaskan mountains and heads off to civilization in search of the meds he needs to function – to mangle a metaphor, heading into the lion’s den in search of honey. This is were the film falls flat: whereas the previous films asked questions about duty and self, The Bourne Legacy is content to remain a chase movie. Cross saves a Treadstone scientist, played by Rachel Weisz, from assassination, and it’s clear that she is destined to become his Frankie Potente. However, while Bourne was bound to Franka Potente’s Marie in a journey of brutal self-discovery, Cross lacks the same depth – though he and Weisz have surprising chemistry, theirs is less of a relationship than a codependency. 
From the end of the second act on, The Bourne Legacy has nowhere to go. Cross has spent most of the movie on the run, but, unlike his predecessor, he has no direct connection with those out to kill him. You could argue that’s the job of later films – after all in how many franchises does the first film serve mainly to set up the characters and world in-universe; the same could be said of introducing a new protagonist. 
Even so, with a set of antagonists already in place from Jason Bourne’s prior antics, it’s disappointing that Cross never truly interacts with them. Even the super assassin sent after Cross in the film’s final straight – “Treadstone without the inconsistencies” – proves little more than persistent, and the whole affair just sort of peters out with little by the way of a dramatic climax. The Bourne Legacy picks up where the Damon-Greengrass series left off, but it fails to capitalize on them in any meaningful way. 

The most interesting concept the film addresses – that of negotiable morality – is never explored in any meaningful way. A flashback between Byers and a slow-witted pre-medicated Cross – again, their only interaction in the film – sees Norton tell Renner that, “We are the Sin Eaters. It means that we take the moral excrement that we find in this equation and we bury it down deep inside of us so that the rest of our cause can stay pure. That is the job. We are morally indefensible and absolutely necessary. You understand?"
I think an analysis of the Bourne quadrilogy, as it currently stands could provide some fascinating insights into the American psyche post-9/11, and, indeed, post-post-9/11, as I would argue is now becoming the prevailing paradigm. If we can find a way to live without The Patriot Act, maybe we will move past Jason Bourne, Aaron Cross, and all their kind, though in the foreseeable future that seems a distinctly unlikely proposition.

Verdict: Better than expected. Bourne Legacy shows that the franchise still has the mythos in place to carry on regardless of its losses, though Cross himself is not a particularly intriguing replacement. If they're able to reconnect their protagonist to the world of intrigue that forms the bedrock of the spy thriller - and give him something more worthwhile to do than simply run-, there's no reason The Bourne Legacy won't prove the first stepping stone on the path to a future for the series without the eponymous former amnesiac.

Monday, 18 February 2013


Robert ZemeckisFlight is the most character-driven film of this year's Academy Award contenders, which is impressive given the broad and eclectic range of performances on display. Spielberg's Lincoln is just as much about slavery and the passing of the 13th Amendment as it is the title character, though Daniel Day Lewis brings much-needed subtlety to the role in a film that might otherwise seem overly celebratory given the issues on display; similarly, Hugh Jackman's reformed thief Valjean may be impassioned, but he merely forms part of the broader portrait of revolutionary France in Tom Hooper's Les Miserables. Bradley Cooper and Joaquin Phoenix are both complimented in their roles as a newly deinstitutionalised school teacher and a Oedipally tormented ex sailor in David O' Russell's Silver Linings Playbook and Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master byJennifer Lawrence's promiscuous, borderline unstable widow and Philip Seymour Hoffman's expansive cult leader respectively. In this regard, Denzel Washington's star turn in Flight as pilot Whip Whittaker is more akin to that of Mickey Rourke in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler - that of a profoundly broken individual with one redeeming talent, their involvement in which threatens to derail their life.

Whip is a pilot for the fictional SouthJet airline. He's also a high-functioning addict: when we first meet Whip, he downs the dregs from last-night's beer before answering the phone and hoovers up a line of coke before heading out to work. There's the strong impression that this is just a matter of routine for Whip and he hides their effects well. Unfortunately, this just happens to be the day that Whip's charter, Flight 227 from Orlando to Atlanta, experiences a mechanical failure and goes into a 4,800 foot nosedive. By some miracle, Whip manages to maneuver the plane right-side up before crash-landing in a field in a 10 minute sequence kept almost entirely in the cockpit. The force of will it takes for Whip to pull off this feat is palpable - as will be revealed to him, the NTSB had 10 pilots attempt to pull of the same landing under under simulation: each and every one killed everyone onboard each and every time. Whip, on the other hand, saves 96 out of 102 the only time out. He's expected to be a national hero in the vein of "Sully" Sullenberger of the real-life Miracle on the Hudson, but when Whip's blood test comes back positive for illicit substances, those six deaths become his burden to bear, both morally and legally. In thematic terms, the high-flying Whip is brought down to earth with a bump.

It's been thirteen years since Zemeckis' last live-action picture - 2000 featured both his desert island drama Cast Away and supernatural thriller What Lies Beneath. Since then, Zemeckis has focused on computer animated mo-cap affairs - The Polar Express, Beowulf, 2009's A Christmas Carol - to varying degrees of critical and commercial success. As in Forrest Gump, however, here Zemeckis puts CGI to stunning use in the aforementioned crash-landing - though certainly not as visceral as its equivalent in, say, the pilot of LOST, or as panoramic as Leonardo DiCaprio's The Aviator, it feels tenser and realer than both. When the wing of the fictitious JR-88 clips the steeple of passing church, visible from the corner of the cockpit window and already retreating, that small touch does more to ground you in the moment than any explosive decompression ever could. Like with Lieutenant Dan's legs in the aforementioned Best Picture winner, it's the little things that carry the drama. 

Even so, as I've already suggested, the film lives or dies with Washington's performance. As the heroic drunk, Whip, Washington brings the same charm that he did to the dangerous Alonso Harris in Training Day, but here that charm is merely a cover for his deep personal failings. Washington is 58 years old, though he certainly doesn't look it, and Whip, however old he's supposed to be, is still banging stewardesses and is need of narcotic inducement to get him out of bed in the morning. This is a man living in denial and whom it takes a literal plane crash to force him to take stock of his situation. Whip is a smart man and a fundamentally good one; indeed, the film is brave or foolhardy enough to suggest that it was his chemical dependency that gave Whip the self-control he needed to land the plane. Also, tangentially, I know I'm not the first to note this, but can we declare a moratorium on the use of the Red Hot Chilli Pepper's Under the Bridge and Cowboy Junkie's Sweet Jane, both implicitly about drug use, in films that are explicitly about drug use? The soundtrack also features The Rolling Stones, Bill Withers, and Marvin Gaye, all quality artists, but when a muzak version of The Beatles' With a Little Help From My Friend plays apparently unironically as Whip rides the elevator with his defence team... let's just say that a little subtext goes a long way.

In terms of his "friends", John Goodman brings his considerable (dramatic) heft to the part of Whip's conniving drug dealing associate - who brings him cocaine to perk him up for his hearing after Whip passes out blind drunk - while Don Cheadle is solid in the largely thankless role of Whip's attorney. Nadine Velazquez and Kelly Reilly play his respective love interests, whose stories I will not ruin here; suffice it to say, one of them plays strongly in Whip's eventual and inevitable redemption. Melissa Leo also appears, as a hardball NTSB investigator. While real pilots can and have laughed at Whip's ability to pilot under the influence, the film is a layered character study of a man whose addiction and hubris conspire to bring him low in spite of himself. And, like with Rourke in The Wrestler, Washington will inevitably lose out to a portrayal of a progressive politician assassinated at the height of his legislative powers. Still, as it stands, this is a flight well worth the taking.

Thursday, 14 February 2013


Bruce Willis is arguably the only star of the '80s not to have slipped into self-parody or senescence (his appearance in The Expendables 2 notwithstanding). Unlike his contemporaries Schwarzenegger and Stallone, Willis is not above taking supporting roles in smaller offbeat films like Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom and Rian Johnson's Looper. He remains interesting, surprising.

It's a shame then what has become of Die Hard, the franchise that made his career.

A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth in the series, is almost indistinguishable from any other sequel in any other big-budget actioner. Its Russian setting is straight out of Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol and the film's protagonist, John McClane himself, might as well have stepped out of RED. The franchise seems to have forgotten what made it unique: an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances.

The original Die Hard featured a New York cop trapped in an office building in a hostage situation, forced to take control of the situation any way he could. They had machineguns; for most of the film, McClane didn't even shoes. He had to rely on his wits. Here, mowing down bad guys with impunity, he's more James Bond than Riggs or Murtagh, and for all the sense of jeopardy, he might as well be Superman.

Jai Courtney stars as McClane's estranged son, John Jr., whose arrest and trial are what brings McClane to Moscow. John Jr. has daddy issues, which are never satisfactorily explored or explained - McClane Sr. may have spent a lot of Christmases scaling buildings and fighting terrorists, but his son calls him by his first name. Furthermore, their inevitable reconnect over the course of the film is entirely by rote.

The action in A Good Day to Die Hard is solid, competently shot, but more focused on the carnage than McClane's role in all of it. I won't spoil the twist, other than to say there is one - as there has been in all the previous Die Hards - but the villain is imminently forgettable. The film gets better as it gets into its stride, and, despite the reservations expressed earlier, there's some nice father-son banter.

Jai Courtney is presumably being set up as a potential new protagonist for the series, in much the same way that Shia LaBeouf was mooted to replace Harrison Ford's Indy. It'll never happen, of course: Willis' McClane is the only thing that sets the series apart (barely) from a slew of lookalikes. Whether or not it has any reason to continue, or if it did even after Die Hard With A Vengeance, is debatable. 

The studio seems to have forgotten, as they so often do, that bigger doesn't mean better. Like with the more successful of the Alien franchise, the formula is simple: you take your protagonist and stick them in a confined space, unarmed or at least hugely outgunned, and watch them punch, shoot, and most importantly think their way out. It's about finding a new way to do the same old thing, tricky but not impossible.

Bruce Willis has already announced that he's potentially onboard for the next installment,  Die Hard 6 (Die Hard: The Die Hardening? Die Hard or Go Home?). Safe to say, it'll be this that, for me, will make or break the franchise once and for all. So, let's start the grassroots campaign now: bring McClane back to New York, stick him in a skyscraper, maybe even throw a long-lost Gruber into the mix...

Verdict: Yippee-ki-meh. A Good Day to Die Hard goes through the motions, but there's not much to it. Any personality the series once had has been diluted away for the sake of bigger explosions. It's been 25 years since Nakatomi Plaza (whose climax this film apes). Let's try and find away to bring John McClane home.

Note: I'm trying out a new style of formatting borrowed from superhero blog A Place to Hang Your Cape ( for which I also write. We've got a nice series of Valentine's Day related articles up at the moment - if you're enough of a fan to know your Marvel from your DC, I suggest checking them out.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013


"My name is Alfred Hitchcock..."

Thus begins both 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents', the anthology TV series hosted by The Master of Suspense, which ran from 1955 to 1965, and 'Hitchcock', the biopic of his life, directed by Sacha Gervasi ('Anvil! The Story of Anvil'). Making a film about possibly the most famous director of film who ever lived seems like a hard sell - comparisons with his work are unavoidable and inevitably unfavorable. Then the making again 'Psycho', arguably Hitch's best known film, was hardly a fait accomplit, as 'Hitchcock' documents, so it seems artistic merit has little to do with saleability.

Even so, 'Hitchcock' never really achieves a life of its own, perpetually living in the shadow of the great man's work. It's a Catch-22: someone unfamiliar with Hitchcock's work has no real reason to see this film, despite sterling work by both Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren; Hitchcock fans won't be able to help but be disappointed by the grab bag of stylistic flourishes and psychological quirks that make up 'Hitchcock'. 

Hopkins' Hitch is a corpulent epicurean, always downing a glass of sherry or raiding the pantry in the middle of the night, despite the scolding of his acid-tongued wife, Mirren's Alma. When he disappears behind a screen to fix a faulty projector on the set of 'Psycho', there's no mistaking his portly silhouette. Hitchcock, it seems, it a man of immense appetites, but also obsession. It Hopkins never quite captures the plummy tones of the real-life Hitch, if he ever seems to be peeking out from beneath the heavy makeup, that's probably because, as with his performance in Oliver Stone's 'Nixon', Hopkins prefers to inhabit "the role" rather than simply imitate "the man".

It's a shame it's not more of a role: the film opens opens outside the house of Ed Gein, the serial killer upon whose exploits Robert Bloch based his novel 'Psycho'. This is where the film stumbles over its own ambitious: the sequences where Hitchcock meets with an imaginary Gein, who presumably has come to characterize the director's dark side, are supposed to be nightmarish, but they feel superfluous, cheap melodrama even.

Hitchcock's obsession with blondes is will documented, not least in HBO's recent TV movie 'The Girl', which portrays Hitchcock as a megalomaniac headcase determined to utterly dominate his leading lady. Scarlett Johansson appears at Janet Leigh, the actress who played Marion Crane, the ill-fated heroine of 'Psycho' - indeed, ‘Hitchcock’ recreates the terrifying shower scene, albeit with a notable twist. James D’Arcy is spot-on as Anthony Perkins AKA Norman Bates, whom it’s suggested, like Hitchcock, has his own demons to excise through the work. Michael Stuhlbarg plays the role of Hitchcock’s loyal gent, Jessica Biel that of Vera Miles, one of Hitchcock’s former “victims”, with Danny Huston as philandering writer Whitfield Cook.

At the heart of the story, beneath all of Hitchcock’s neuroses, is his relationship with Alma, his muse, whose infidelity he fears, but to whom he is unwilling or unable to fully give himself.  For a supposed warts-and-all telling, ‘Hitchcock’ is strangely silent on it’s subjects childhood, which, especially given the Freudian themes that saturate the piece. Hopkins and Mirren both inhabit their roles, but, despite their effort, there’s not much to play. With HBO's recent TV movie 'The Girl' portraying Hitch as a borderline headcase, the man here, though certainly more balanced, can't help but feel a bit - if you'll pardon the pun - thin.  

We never get to know Hitchcock as well as we might, held permanently at arm’s length, or perhaps a knife’s length. ‘Hitchcock’ gives us precious few opportunities to watch the man at work, choosing to present us with homicidal fantasies in place of real-life struggle. Part of the film’s trouble is that it remains so resolutely, albeit trashily tasteful. When Hitchcock in the penultimate scene of the film seems to conduct the audience’s screams from outside the cinema, we might well wish that Gervasi, not to mention the film’s writer John J. McLaughlin, had been a bit more hands on with us.

The man remains a mystery, albeit a sympathetic one. It’s all artifice – there are subtler ways to establish an undercurrent of darkness in a man than populating his subconscious with posthumous serial killers. With his enormous appetite and undeniable genius, it’s not difficult to imagine what Hitchcock himself might have thought of this meager effort...

Verdict: The old maxim of "style over substance". There's a fascinating story to be told, one of genius and obsession, using the material of Hitchcock's life. This is not it. Its scope is incredibly focused and yet it manages to feel sloppy. Disappointing.


Comedy of Manners meets Freudian Psychodrama

The last three years have done some interesting things with the legacy of King George VI. Colin Firth’s sensitive portrayal of the speech-impaired monarch who led Britain through the Second World War rightfully won the Oscar (though the film that showcased it, The King’s Speech, was something of a “worthy” choice for the Best Picture of 2010). ‘Bertie’, as he was known amongst the Windsors, also appears as a supporting character in last year’s W.E., documenting the controversial relationship between George’s brother King Edward VII and American divorcee Wallace Simpson, which led to Edward’s abdication. 

While the previous films covered the events surrounding HRH’s unwilling and unexpected ascension to the throne, Hyde Park on Hudson is focused around a single week in the same period during which both King George and Queen Elizabeth AKA the Queen Mother (Samuel West and Olivia Colman) paid visit to the family home of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray) to discuss the approaching war.

These events are shown from the perspective not only of their royal highnesses, but also of Margaret Suckley (Laura Linney), a distant cousin of FDR who found herself drawn fatefully back into his affairs after many years of estrangement. Though Margaret acts as narrator for most of the film, it’s FDR who provides the heart and soul. The ever-genial Murray gives a reliably knowing, twinkly-eyed performance as the erstwhile Commander in Chief, a man whose physical enfeeblement belies his irascible wit, as well as his more unsavory appetites. However, Hyde Park on Hudson, as directed by Roger Michell, never scales the dramatic heights of Spielberg’s Lincoln

The film itself bears more similarity to Three Days in May, playwright Ben Brown’s examination of Churchill’s cabinet tottering on the knife’s edge of appeasement-war. However, Hyde Park on Hudson settles for portentous grumbling about the state of Europe and the comedy of manners surrounding the royal visit. ‘Will His Majesty deign to eat a hotdog?’ is presented as a key diplomatic issue.

Samuel West makes a personable Bertie, but one lacking the character or resolve we might recognize from The King’s Speech – he stands almost in awe of elder statesman FDR and it’s up to the kindly politician to set him on the track to become the man of history the time’s demand. Olivia Colman brings a sense of incredulity and exasperation as the great British matriarch who finds herself out of her depth amidst the ranks of forthright Yanks (personally I prefer her performance to that of Helena Bonham Carter in the same role, though it’s unlikely to receive the same attention, coming as it does in the weaker film). The steely Eleanor (Olivia Williams) helps keep the house in order, still close to FDR despite their estrangement, and the cast as a whole does solid work. At this point in the proceedings, Hyde Park on Hudson is a two and a half star film: superficially charming and well written, but with not much by the way of depth.

Then comes a bizarre tonal shift that throws everything that has come before and everything that follows it into a far more sinister light. Spoilers are unavoidable here in detailing this (mostly) untelegraphed change of gears. Suckley, in herself a bland and not particularly interesting individual, has become FDR’s mistress – we are privy to posterity’s most genteel handjob, performed in the front seats of FDR’s specially modified town car in the middle of the field of flowers. 

It’s not until Suckley plays a late night visit to FDR’s woodland cottage, his home away from home, that things get really weird. A glimpse of white flesh in the windows behind Suckley as she sits smoking on the porch – a ghostly figure straight out of a horror movie – and we are thrown into a world of sexual intrigue. FDR as it transpires, far from a more looking for intimacy and affection, is a serial adulterer and perennial horndog, using the Secret Service to schedule his dalliances. Suddenly the whole thing about hotdogs is cast in a far more Freudian (and, indeed, far more interesting) light with the consummation of their national interest.

FDR suddenly becomes, in the parlance of the times, a cad – in somewhat franker terms, a manipulative bastard. Suckley’s naiveté, previously somewhat dull, now becomes a point of interest, her having led down the garden path by a man whom she admired and trusted. As a result, Hyde Park on Hudson has a truncated feel to it: a mishmash of two incompatible modes – semi farce and psychological portrait.  Though this is by far the most interesting element of the narrative it never feels like it’s been concretely established, and, indeed, the film quickly tries to brush over the moral implications of it. Suckley’s final line of narration is that FDR was her secret, rather than her being his – an attempt to reclaim their affair as a liberating incident. Considering the context in which this declaration is set, it’s less than convincing. 

It’s sad given the potential: the first reigning British monarch to make an appearance in The States during the time on their reign, chief of the colonialists visiting their former colony in his time of need. As it stands, were someone to ask, “You know that time when George VI and the Queen Mother visited FDR in Hyde Park, New York”, I’d have to respond, “Not in any meaningful way..."

Verdict: Choosing the present the 32nd President of the United States of a soft-spoken, beguiling letch may have certainly be a novel approach to the man who saw America out of the Great Depression, but even visiting royalty and the encroaching threat of World War can’t do much to liven up proceedings. All fuss, no muss – Hyde Park on Hudson can never quite decide what it wants to be and so ends up being nothing much.