Jason Bourne (2016)

Paul Greengrass is a good filmmaker and has a stylish command of the visual vocabulary of film — he’s done great work on the two previous instalments of this spy series, not least. It’s just that other pesky vocabulary — which is to say, the words the characters speak, their motivations, that sort of thing — which seems to elude him here somewhat. Coming after a previous non-Damon outing with Jeremy Renner, I never found this latest instalment of the Bourne series boring, but it’s very silly, and the very quality that is supposed to differentiate Bourne, of being recognisably grounded in our world, seems to slip away. Granted we get a few mentions of Edward Snowden, but otherwise characters do the same stupid things they do in countless other spy thrillers, like hacking into networks where covert operations are held in a file folder on the CIA mainframe called “BLACK OPS”, calling out to “ENHANCE!” grainy photos, saying “Let’s use SQL to hack into their system!” Computers do all kinds of whizzy things that just don’t ring true at any level, and character motivations seem flimsy at best, though at least some of the other details of setting have a certain feeling of authenticity, not least the opening sequence at an Athens anti-austerity protest. Moving from this, we get the usual Bourne stuff of whizzing about from location to world location, making deals, stabbing and backstabbing, running and shooting, and all that stuff. It’s all done fine on screen — as I said initially, with plenty of visual flair — it’s just a pity it had to be so stupid.

Jason Bourne film posterCREDITS
Director Paul Greengrass; Writers Greengrass and Christopher Rouse; Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd; Starring Matt Damon, Alicia Vikander, Tommy Lee Jones, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 27 July 2016.

Three Recent Films about Dudes: Foxcatcher and Whiplash (both 2014) and Ex Machina (2015)

At a certain level, the title of my post is a provocation, because one of these films is not like the others, for several reasons. But let’s start with what unites them which is, yes, that they are all set almost exclusively in the company of men, whether in the sporting world of wrestling (Foxcatcher), the musical world of jazz drumming (Whiplash) or the not-so-futuristic world of tech geniuses (Ex Machina).

Steve Carell and Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher

In Foxcatcher, Steve Carell’s John du Pont is his own worst enemy, and his mentor status is something that his wealth and privilege allow him to buy. In fact, the wrestler brothers who are nominally the central characters in the film (Channing Tatum’s Mark and Mark Ruffalo’s Dave), take an emotional backseat in the narrative to Steve Carell’s performance, though all three actors do fine work. John “call me Eagle, or Golden Eagle” du Pont has lived a life of wealthy solitude, and it’s this which has bred a desperation to fit in that leads to the film’s tragic denouement and (justly) overshadows everything else. The film’s (and Carell’s) triumph is to imbue a sense of bleak empathy with this most outsider of figures, for all the immeasurable harm he inflicts.

Harm is explicitly what teacher Terence Fletcher (played by J. K. Simmons) wants to inflict on his students in Whiplash, for it’s part of his philosophy of achievement, largely derived from an anecdote about Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker that is mentioned several times in the film. For student Andrew (Miles Teller), it’s a philosophy that appeals to him, being so desperate to distinguish himself from his smarter, richer fellow students at the prestigious academy he attends. The film is largely a psychological battle between these two set over a drum kit and suffused with sweat and blood, much of it filmed in extreme, lascivious close-up (or so it feels). The other students and relationships fall quickly into the background, and you’d be forgiven for imagining there were no more important instruments in any musical ensemble than the drums, but that’s because it’s a story of student and teacher played out as psychological warfare.

J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller in Whiplash

Yet, despite their shared testosterone, these first two films are quite different from the third I want to discuss. They may all dwell on pursuits which are stereotypically masculine, but I’d argue that the first two films are interested more in the nature of obsession. They are both about desperate protagonists who want to succeed at all costs. I don’t know if the sort of monomaniacal focus that these films’ protagonists have is something specifically male (it certainly feels like it can be, sometimes), but if the films don’t pass the Bechdel Test, you imagine it’s because in their deeply-warped worlds, no one is talking about anything else but them.

Ex Machina, though, is very much about men. At first, it feels like it might be a boring male-bonding-in-the-wilderness story, as coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is whisked off to a vast, remote estate to hang out with his company’s founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac), an alpha male bearded heavy-drinking tech genius. But Nathan has something up his sleeve, a project he’s been working on: a robot. Specifically, a female robot, Ava (the currently ubiquitous Alicia Vikander). When I left the film, the first thing I googled was “feminist critique” because it pushes obsessively at something disturbing about gender relations, and being a white male geek (of sorts), I can’t really be sure if it’s enacting a story of emancipation from the male gaze, or the opposite. A little bit of both, I suspect, because unquestionably the female form is literally objectified. Limbs, hair and naked skin are effortlessly transferred and reconfigured, and unselfconsciously put on display. One of the women doesn’t even have the power of speech. The film comes on like a version of the story of Adam and Eve, with Ava the ne plus ultra of feminine duplicity, but she’s as much a constructed figure of patriarchal fear as Rosamund Pike’s Amy in Gone Girl, so I suspect the way you react to Ava will be similar. I’d be offended, except that the men in the film are no paragons either, and they end up as they start, trapped by their own objectifying gaze. Whatever fears of artificial intelligence it may stir up, the film’s triumph is reserved for consciousness.

Whatever else you might say about Ex Machina — and I think there’s a lot that could, and no doubt will, be said — it does at least allow for many different readings. Putting it alongside the other two films is just to point up their conventional qualities: well-crafted, certainly; flawlessly acted, definitely. But whatever the weaknesses of science fiction, I can think of few other genres as willing to pose difficult questions, and to make audiences think. All three films take you on a ride, but with Ex Machina the ride continues after the film ends.


Foxcatcher film posterFoxcatcher (2014)
Director Bennett Miller; Writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman; Cinematographer Greig Fraser; Starring Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at Odeon West India Quay, London, Sunday 18 January 2015.

 

Whiplash film posterWhiplash (2014)
Director/Writer Damien Chazelle; Cinematographer Sharone Meir; Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Saturday 17 January 2015.

 

 

 

Ex Machina film posterEx Machina (2015)
Director/Writer Alex Garland; Cinematographer Rob Hardy; Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Wednesday 28 January 2015.

Testament of Youth (2014)

Every film production is a labour of love for those who work on it, and this looks to have been a fairly big, sumptuously mounted one. I have no doubt, too, that Vera Brittain’s memoirs make for powerful pacifist literature. It’s just that in translating her words to the big screen, I can’t help but feel some of that power has been lost. I don’t want to go into too much detail, though, about a film I didn’t really like, much though there was a lot to like about it and which others will no doubt embrace more than I. The director is fond of unmoored handheld camera shots framing wispy faces against nature in a sort of impressionistic way, which is of a piece with the nostalgic feeling to it, complemented nicely by the very fetching costume design. Alicia Vikander, an excellent actor who’s been getting a lot of good roles right now (she has three films out), was wonderful as the English-born monarch in En kongelig affære (A Royal Affair) a few years ago, and here extends her range of English heroines with the central role, putting a lot of growly feistiness into it, despite her slightness of frame. Kit Harington as her love interest Roland is suitably dashing. However, it doesn’t always feel as though the scenes of war are sufficiently nasty — though suitably grimy, the men themselves come across rather with a sort of romanticised vacancy — to set up the boldly pacifist turn her thinking takes towards the end. In short, a nice film and a fairly unobjectionable one, but maybe that’s my problem with it.

Testament of Youth film posterCREDITS
Director James Kent; Writer Juliette Towhidi (based on the memoir by Vera Brittain); Cinematographer Rob Hardy; Starring Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Wednesday 21 January 2015.

Anna Karenina (2012)

I’ve only recently become familiar with British director Joe Wright from his 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. On the basis of his short filmography, he seems to like adapting heritage literary sources. That earlier film showed a fair amount of directorial flair, but in this new film he rather surpasses himself, to the extent that the technical aspects of the filmmaking become even more central to the tale being told than any of the acting (though there are some standout performances, on which more below). I’m not entirely convinced this always adds to the story being told, but it certainly makes for some striking cinema.

The opening 15 minutes or so is probably where Wright’s technical virtuosity is most in evidence, as we see a succession of scenes introducing the central characters for the ensuing drama. These are chiefly Anna (Keira Knightley), her ministerial husband Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), her dandy aristocratic brother Prince Stiva Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) and his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), Dolly’s sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander), and Kostya Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a shabbily-dressed lank-haired friend of Stiva’s who is in love with Kitty. These opening scenes are framed — as are several throughout the film — by the front of a stage with its footlights, as seen in many of the posters. It’s a cute way of presenting the story as a self-consciously staged one, only heightened by the colour and detail of the costumes and the elaborate intricacy of the set design.

Scenes, too, blend into one another, as characters seamlessly move from one geographical and spatial setting to another without any ostensible cuts, another distancing technique which recalls similar sequences in classic post-war new wave filmmaking, but which most brings to my mind the playful experimentation of Raúl Ruiz, especially his adaptation of Proust, Le Temps retrouvé (Time Regained, 1999). Yet where Ruiz’s touch was light and perfectly integrated into the sense of nostalgia and memory that Proust’s work dealt with, here the technique seems far more self-aggrandising, and serves to distance us further as viewers from the grand, melodramatic story being shown.

And it is melodramatic, with all kinds of ridiculous touches, showing excess in the costumes and in the sets (trains entirely encrusted with snow, as just one example). Where the film palpably scores is in some of the supporting acting. While I remain unconvinced by the lovers at the film’s centre, Jude Law imparts real pathos to the upright, slightly dull politician, while Alicia Vikander is charming as Kitty — even if the scene between her and Kostya where they reveal their feelings via coloured alphabet bricks is too cute by half.

Still, it hits all the rights kinds of notes for the sumptuously-staged period drama it is, so those who are partial to this sort of thing will find it passably enjoyable, no doubt.

Anna Karenina film posterCREDITS
Director Joe Wright; Writer Tom Stoppard (based on the novel Анна Каренина by Leo Tolstoy Лев Толстой); Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey; Starring Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Alicia Vikander, Jude Law, Domhnall Gleeson; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 3 February 2014.