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.

The Big Short (2015)

Whatever else came from the Wall Street crash of 2008, it’s certainly been the impetus for plenty of films since then, going right back to my first entry on this blog, Arbitrage (2012), not to mention the following year’s The Wolf of Wall Street — though those are less specifically about 2008, as about the broken culture of high finance. The Big Short certainly gets that culture across well, while digging deeper into the specifics of sub-prime mortages, collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) and the other jargon and terminology, framing it in an easily-digestible way for viewers whose understanding of such matters is fairly shaky (i.e. most of them, presumably). What this means in practice is jittery camerawork with lots of racking of focus and quick zooms, along with the interpolation of awkward cameos purporting to explain the more abstruse concepts, hosted by such figures as Selena Gomez at a gambling table and Margot Robbie (harking back to Wolf again) in a bathtub. The problem is that all of these tropes are largely distracting, while the bulk of the narrative prefers to focus on a few quirky characters whose stories are presumably more interesting, though it’s not clear to me that they were really central to the crisis (basically they’re traders who made a buck from everyone else’s misfortune). So there’s Christian Bale’s doctor with Aspberger’s, a Cassandra-like figure largely separate from the rest of the cast; there’s Steve Carell’s fund manager and his staff; there’s Ryan Gosling’s shark-like trader; and there’s the small garage-based midwestern startup led by John Magaro, who enlist the help of former Wall Street highflyer-turned-environmentalist Brad Pitt. Needless to say, the acting talents on screen — not to mention the comedy chops of director/writer Adam McKay — ensure that the film is never boring. I’m just not certain that this film filled with shouty men in suits is ever very much more than just a snappily entertaining, fitfully amusing digression.

The Big Short film posterCREDITS
Director Adam McKay; Writers McKay and Charles Randolph (based on the book by Michael Lewis); Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd; Starring Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, John Magaro, Brad Pitt; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Friday 29 January 2016.

Captain Phillips (2013)

When I saw the trailer for this new movie many months ago, I have to say I was afraid it would be a triumphal story of an entitled white man single-handedly defeating the racial Other, though I perhaps didn’t take into account director Paul Greengrass’s involvement. As such, the end result is a movie that doesn’t follow the usual playbooks for this kind of story, and which engages with all its characters in a fair way. Greengrass after all has previous form with films based on real life events that take a sort of documentary aesthetic to their recreations: he gained early acclaim with made-for-TV docudramas before finding a bigger screen with Northern Ireland-set Bloody Sunday (2002) and most notably the gripping and claustrophobic United 93 (2006) about the 9/11 flight (not to mention that his forays into fiction in two Jason Bourne films have managed to retain this patina of realism). Therefore, it should have been no surprise that Captain Phillips is a tense and exciting thriller.

The film starts out on land with two matched prologues. One is set in Vermont where our eponymous Captain, Richard Phillips (played by Tom Hanks), is getting a lift with his wife to the airport. He is on his way to Oman to head up the crew of the Maersk Alabama container ship which is travelling to Kenya. Phillips and his wife have a brief discussion of the ways in which life is getting tougher and how their (now grown) children will have to work harder to succeed than they did. And then we cross to a village by the coast in Somalia, all but undercutting that low level of American middle-class anxiety to show us lives that are already lived in extremes of poverty and deprivation. The local warlord arrives in his fleet of cars to order the local tribal elder to get together a band of hijackers, as they want another payday. Two skiffs are swiftly organised on the beach, one headed up by Muse (Barkhad Abdi), who chooses three men from those crowding around him, before they head out into the oceans.

This is the set-up and from this point onwards, no more than ten minutes or so in, the film is entirely set out on the high seas, in the cramped confines of the container ship heading down past the Somali coast, and then the even more claustrophic life raft taking the pirates and Phillips towards the film’s denouement. Given the story’s genesis in a book written by Phillips about his experiences, it cannot be any surprise that he makes it to the end of the story, but the film is very careful to focus more attention on the pirates, whose story is rather less well-known. These four are not simply portrayed as dangerous enemies to our heroic captain, as one might expect, but as human beings acting as much out of duty as Phillips does, each (including the Captain) displaying their own blend of vulnerability and unexpected daring.

Indeed, aided by the fine acting of Abdi, Hanks and the minor players, all the characters are shown to be operating under a sense of compulsion that comes from places unseen. Where Phillips feels an obligation to his company that leads him to plot a foolhardy course through an area known to be dangerous, so Muse has a task that he knows he cannot return from empty-handed. Elsewhere, there’s the tribal elder in Muse’s village, the captain of the US warship sent to aid the Alabama and the commander of a Navy SEALs team of trained commandoes tasked to bring the hostage crisis to an end, all of whom are seen just following orders. On all sides, this maritime world is one of very carefully-delineated roles that allow for little exercise of free will, and is a nice change from the kinds of single-handed heroics that dominate action films in similar settings (Tom Hanks here is no Steven Seagal in Under Siege, nor even an Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October).

Given its limited range of settings, the film manages to create a fair amount of tension (even though we know how things will end for the Captain at least), and much of this is down to the claustrophic locations and grainy cinematography that keeps the camera tightly focused in on faces. The film also engenders plenty of empathy for its Somali characters, as much victims as anyone else in the story. Even at the end, there’s no triumph or release, no pat return to normality, and some of Hanks’s best acting — not to mention the most emotionally wrought scenes, functioning as a kind of catharsis for the audience — is reserved for these brief moments when the plot has all been wrapped up. From start to finish, Captain Phillips (the film if not the character) is totally in control, and ranks as probably one of Greengrass’s finest works so far.

CREDITS
Director Paul Greengrass; Writer Billy Ray (based on the book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty); Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd; Starring Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi برخد عبدي; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Tuesday 5 November 2013.