What I Saw: Three New Films

The Bourne LegacyFriday, August 10 at AMC Loews 84th Street. Director/Co-Writer: Tony Gilroy. I’m a big fan of the Bourne films, especially the second and third directed by Paul Greengrass. I find them immensely watchable, repeatedly so. The immediate challenge for this fourth installment was doing a Bourne film without Jason Bourne. Despite the fact that Greengrass and actor Matt Damon weren’t involved, I had reasonably high expectations. Tony Gilroy had written (or co-written) the first three Bournes, which was a good sign, plus he’d also written and directed the excellent Michael Clayton (2007), though the physical scale of that film was much smaller, to say the least. Another hook for me, though, was Jeremy Renner in the lead role. He was terrific in The Hurt Locker (2008), and I looked forward to seeing him in this.

So did I like it or not? Mostly yes, but with reservations. I can definitely recommend it to those who have followed the Bourne films, or just like this type of film in general. It’s very well made, though I think it needed a stronger ending. There is at least one really great action sequence, and several more that are very good, though overall not quite up to the level of those in the earlier films. There’s also a workplace shooting that’s pretty disturbing, maybe a little too real, given what we hear about too often in the real world. Renner is perfect for the film, though it will be interesting to see if he can play other kinds of roles, characters who aren’t so professional, tough and confident, and capable of violence. What was lacking for me was the emotional depth and vulnerability that Matt Damon brought to the films. His Jason Bourne starts out by not knowing who or what he is. His goal throughout the first three films, regardless of whatever else is happening, is to unravel that mystery and find out who’s responsible for what’s been done to him. The pain and sense of loss that Bourne feels is heightened by the empathy Matt Damon makes us feel for the character.

In the Damon films, each death is personal. We don’t have that, for the most part, in the new film. Aaron Cross, Renner’s character, doesn’t have Bourne’s identity issues. He knows exactly who and what he is, and understands the training he underwent to get there. That this mainly comes down to drugs (one pill makes him smarter, another makes him stronger) is a little disappointing and somewhat old hat; i.e. The X-Files’ super soldiers, among others. But okay, I can go with it. What he doesn’t understand at the outset is the level of duplicity of those controlling him. Aaron Cross’ main problem here is one of not-so-simple survival. He spends most of the film on the run from government forces (headed by Edward Norton, ruthless and dead-eyed) trying to kill him. Cross is aided in this effort by Rachel Weitz, an excellent actress who brings a lot to the film. The bottom line is I liked The Bourne Legacy, despite my objections, and could see it again.

Hope Springs – Saturday, August 11 at AMC Loews Lincoln Square. Director: David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada – 2006). This film is mainly counter-programming for a somewhat older audience who wants to see something other than superheroes, car chases, and stuff blowing up over and over in slow-motion. And let’s face it, the real draw here is seeing Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones in a movie together (just as it was seeing Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson et al in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, another instance of a really great cast in a so-so film). Meryl and Tommy Lee play a couple, Kay and Arnold, whose marriage, after 31 years, is in a rut, to put it mildly. At least Kay definitely sees it that way, though Arnold doesn’t have a clue. Kay, in desperation, books a trip to Hope Springs, Maine for sessions with a couples therapist, Dr. Feld. Arnold doesn’t want anything to do with this whatsoever, but goes along in the end; otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie.

The issue of how to revive a marriage of many years that has fallen out of intimacy and into deadly routine is an important one, but this is a talky, talky movie. Steve Carell plays Dr. Feld, who doesn’t get out of his office chair once, though he is apparently on his feet in scenes we see during the closing credits. This role is a real change of pace for Carell. I imagine the main attraction for him was the same as for most of us in the audience: Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones. Arnold is also quite a different character for Jones; it’s interesting and fun to see him in a part like this. Streep and Jones are both such pros, and plainly enjoyed working together. The ending is never really in doubt, but they keep it interesting along the way. I just wish it was a better movie.

CosmopolisFriday, August 17 at the Walter Reade Theater. Director/Writer: David Cronenberg. Starting with his science fiction/horror films, David Cronenberg has had my complete attention. These early films include They Come from Within (1975), Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981), and the awesome Videodrome (1983), all very original and disturbing with their icky body-horror concerns. I don’t think anyone else at the time (or since) was doing this kind of thing with the same level of skill and vision. The Dead Zone (1983), is, for my money, the best film version of a Stephen King novel to date, while The Fly (1986) is a remake that totally blows away the original 1958 film. He was also the ideal director to tackle William Burrough’s novel Naked Lunch, long considered unfilmable, which he did in 1991.

Even when he’s veered away from more fantastical storylines, as he has with A History of Violence (2005), Eastern Promises (2007), A Dangerous Method (2011), and now Cosmopolis, Cronenberg’s films give off a sense of strangeness, of unpredictable and different ways of seeing the world. I know of no other director, with the possible exception of David Lynch, who can create a sense of dread from something as ordinary as a slow track-in on a cast-iron tub in an empty loft slowly filling with water from a dripping faucet (Spider, 2002).

Of the new films I’ve seen in the last several weeks, Cosmopolis is definitely the most interesting, the most engaging, the one that’s stayed in my head the most. Though set in something like the present, it feels like science fiction. I haven’t read Don Delilo’s novel, so I can’t speak to how much of the tone comes from that, but the title alone certainly has a sci-fi vibe. The film takes place largely inside the white stretch limo of Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson, excellent in a role that has him in virtually every scene), a young financial wizard. His main goal as the day begins is to cross Manhattan to get a haircut, while trying to deal with the probable loss of millions of dollars due to a risky gamble involving Chinese currency, the mechanics of which I couldn’t begin to understand, and don’t think I was supposed to. The level of financial techno-speak in this film will make your head spin, but in a cool way. During the slow crawl across town, Eric takes multiple meetings in the limo with his financial advisers, has sex a couple of times, is warned of a “credible” threat on his life, and watches as protesters (some dressed as rats) fill the streets, rock and spray paint his limo as he inches by, and on and on.

The limo is a self-contained sarcophagus, claustrophobic yet expansive, with shiny dark surfaces, leather and chrome, numerous computer screens glowing in the cool light. It suggests a submarine, a tomb, a rocket ship. Events take on an increasingly surrealistic feel as the day progresses. Eric projects a flat affect throughout, is tightly wrapped, bored, looking for something new, and seemingly amused by some private joke as he moves closer and closer to something much more than a haircut. – Ted Hicks

Here’s the trailer, followed by very interesting interviews with David Cronenberg and Robert Pattinson:

About Ted Hicks

Iowa farm boy; have lived in NYC for 40 years; worked in motion picture labs, film/video distribution, subtitling, media-awards program; obsessive film-goer all my life.
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1 Response to What I Saw: Three New Films

  1. Pingback: What I Saw Last Year: Best Feature Films 2012 | Films etc.

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