Jason Bourne ****

jason-bourne

Jason Bourne has surfaced again in 2016. In fact, he’ll always pop up in a world far smaller place nowadays, as technology will have you fear. It was only a matter of time. What’s curious to see is how in shape (though greyer around the temples) Matt Damon is at 45 years old – just compare him as the baby-faced boy assassin he was in returning director Paul Greengrass’s first installment with him, The Bourne Supremacy (2004).

Just titled ‘Jason Bourne’, the latest film tries to address just who is JB? Although this is the sub-crux of the other films, this one has a fond, nostalgic weariness to it, as though a less supple Damon/Bourne has been coax out of retirement to have another stab at finding out what the hell it’s all been about over the past 14 years. Will he/we ever know?

Basically, this time Bourne reappears in Greece – now a bare-knuckle fighter by trade, after getting word from fellow ex-CIA operative Nicky Parsons (the ever po-faced Julia Stiles as the data whizkid) that the Agency is up to its old tricks of starting up yet another black ops. In addition, news comes to light that Bourne’s real father was a heavyweight in the Treadstone op.

Bourne is firmly back on the Agency’s radar, hunted by former adversary, slippery CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and his new protégé, ambitious high-tech guru Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander). Bourne needs to stay alive and get more answers, while avoiding being brought back into the CIA fold or being killed by the Asset (Vincent Cassel), a deadly assassin on his tail, packing a sizable grudge against him.

This is a film that could swing fan opinion either way. Some fans will revel in getting more of the same clean-cut, high-speed, well-directed/acted action – and it certainly does not fail to deliver here. On the flipside, it might appear very samey and almost ‘dated’, as current spy-action thrillers go. Sadly, a lot of films have since copied Bourne’s original style – including latter-day 007s, and there’s only so many car chases, city destruction, busy, dark operation hubs with fancy banks of screens and software downloads we can take before it screams ‘cliché’.

Although this Bourne embraces today’s risks associated with data security – with a interesting sideline plot about a digital-age billionaire, Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) who has allowed the CIA a hack to his social media software to collect what data it needs (and now regrets it), there are so many shots of downloading files that you wish for more scenic city-break shots to break up the tedium. That’s the problem with the latest; trying to balance delivering another spy-action flick while delving more into the psyche of a character – if we get too much Bourne dissection, it ruins the nature of the game, and his enigma is lost.

That said we can’t help but root for a ‘guy lost’. Everyone wants to know their past and it’s been years of searching and increasing the body count for us to be satisfied in stopping there. Damon is a distinguished – rather than embarrassing – mature action hero figure in this latest film, and actually, the ‘tiredness’ sort of mirrors the weariness of his character’s search – as mentioned before. In fact, does much change in the spy game? It’s just newer technology used to uncover/store the same secrets.

Bourne still has the energy it needs to get you – and its star – through to the bitter end. Greengrass gets more practice to perfect his art too, while we enjoy the ride. Like a long-suffering action hero with a past, we actually don’t want Bourne to disappear forever, or find out the punch-line. Hence, Jason Bourne can carry on searching and searching for a long time yet.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Star Trek Beyond ****

star-trek-beyond

In a moment of irony right at the start of the latest Star Trek film, Star Trek Beyond, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) admits things have started to feel a little ‘episodic’ aboard the USS Enterprise, angling for a desk job in Top Brass. This could be said of the film franchise, regardless of a J.J. Abrams reinvigoration of it in 2013.

This Justin Lin (of Fast & Furious directing fame) version keeps the series zinging along in its own nebula of cosmic chaos but grounds it with some compelling character relationships, plus a generous touch of nostalgia and fun.

When a rescued crew member reports that her ship has been destroyed and her crew taken hostage, James T. Kirk and his crew, Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto), Doctor ‘Bones’ McCoy (Karl Urban), Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Montgomery ‘Scotty’ Scott (Simon Pegg) venture back out into space, but become stranded and divided on an alien planet. With no means of communication, they must work together to reunite and find a way to get back home.

The same cast returns three years on, having already convinced us of their credentials back in 2013, and not failing to engage us again with a solid combination of solidarity and fun. They are helped by a script penned by Pegg and co-writer Doug Jung, with the smart quips certainly having that trademark Pegg sarcasm.

The best lines are delivered by Urban as Bones, who comes across as the funniest, unfunny guy of the moment, constantly sticking his space boot in it with pure relish for us. Pegg naturally reserves some humorous lines for Scotty too, though assisted by an unusual comedy sidekick in Sofia Boutella as warrior rebel Jaylah who rebuffs his comments and is perhaps the most striking and exciting character in this episode.

Qunito’s Spock still has an aura of understated wisdom and awe about him. The actor has made this iconic character his own, reiterated by the defining moment he hears news from home of his mentor (played by the late Leonard Nimoy). In fact, in a moving note, it’s good to see the late Anton Yelchin back as Chekov one last time.

Idris Elba makes an appearance as the token baddie Krall, though is virtually unrecognisable until the very last battle scenes. Still, his character has a nice story arc, like all the others, allowing us to connect with them on a deeper level and care about their personal and collective troubles. Again, another success of the film is its big emphasis on ‘team spirit’, which doesn’t require you to be a Trekkie or to have seen the other films to fully engage. It is a standalone space ride of thrilling entertainment.

With gravity-defying effects – some nauseating, like revisiting Nolan’s Inception, this film’s momentum carries you along in a whirl, while pausing to address a character’s reaction at any single moment. This great marriage of sci-fi fantasy and characters we care about will guarantee the Star Trek movie franchise lives much longer and prospers.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2015: Men and Chicken ****

men-and-chicken

In a sick twist that might have Darwinists uniting with the god-fearing out there, writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen (Adam’s Apples (2005)) places Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal) once more in the midst of a darkly insane comedy, this time about ‘origins of man’. The title of Jensen’s latest penmanship, Men and Chicken, gives a small clue as to humans and animals being involved and throws up some interesting ideas about our gene pool along the way.

When Elias (Mikkelsen) and Gabriel (David Dencik)’s elderly father passes away, he leaves them a video to watch. To their shock, they find out he is not their biological father – their mothers they never knew. They are in fact half-brothers, and their real father lives on the remote island of Ork. Armed with questions, the brothers go in search of him, to discover he is a scientist and his des res is a remote, dilapidated sanatorium (over)run by their insane half-brothers, Franz (Søren Malling), Josef (Nicolas Bro) and Gregor (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) who live with a bunch of animals and favour violence as a way of dealing with family disputes. But where is Dad? An accident extends Elias and Gabriel’s stay, where the dark secrets of their family’s past are found in the basement.

This gloriously eccentric and near gothic farce has a hint of Psycho to it. It sets the whacky scene from the start with the camera panning down to ‘dad’s’ crotch as he’s delivering his video message. Introduced to Elias, a definite Asperger’s sufferer with a sex addiction (Mikkelsen in delightfully ghastly, against-type form), and Gabriel, an academic but socially inept worrier, the penny drops that something isn’t quite right. Just how are these two related – physical similarities aside? It’s time for a short road (and ferry) journey to fictional hillbilly Denmark.

The cast are exceptional, wilfully blending acts of politically incorrect humour and perversion with moments of wistful vulnerability in the most unusual coming-of-age comedy in a long time. Aside from the slapstick beatings – like something from a less than silent movie age, the funniest scene is more vocal. It sees the brothers sat around a dinner table in ‘last supper’ fashion, introduced to a Bible for the first time by Gabriel, acting like some crusader who plans to civilise his siblings. Here, Jensen pokes fun at interpretation of the holy book and use of it as a tool to separate man from beast, giving a devilishly simplistic account that’s sure to be controversial to some, but highly amusing to, say, Dawkins fans.

The quirky sibling activity actually serves as a bizarre bonding session, including the communal sleeping and badminton matches, where each brother has a key feature needed for the other’s development and social conditioning. The latter might be in vain but it’s all in aid of the grand reveal, the clues of which – with hindsight – are subtle characteristics of the personalities. This is highly hilarious and equally shocking to witness while captured by Sebastian Blenkov’s atmospheric and tonally significant cinematography.

Men and Chicken is an extraordinary dark comedy for those wanting pitched blackness and heaps of lunacy. Strip away social conditioning and religion, and ironically, while the insane might run the asylum their actions begin to appear explainable, even normalising, when compared to the outside world’s perspective.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Ghostbusters ***

Ghostbusters

When the dust settled after the controversial announcement that beloved 80s film Ghostbusters would return to screens in 2016 with an all-female lead – directed by feminist film-maker Paul Feig (of Bridesmaids fame), the next thing to make peace with was having his Bridesmaids stars, Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy, in those familiar jumpsuits with proton guns chasing ghosts.

Indeed, to say this didn’t take a little getting used to at the start of watching the new reboot would be a lie. After all, Wiig and McCarthy come with great expectations and a presumed guarantee to provide big laughs. Their futile banter always raises a few giggles. In fact, it felt like watching the funny girls doing a Ghostbusters spoof, initially. However, the supporting roles from fellow Ghostbusters, the brilliant Kate McKinnon and equally great Leslie Jones are so strong that the new film has its very own personality and fun vibe, even though it had many nods to the original for fans, as well as cameos from the 1984 cast, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Annie Potts and Ernie Hudson.

The plot is much the same as the first: The usual ghostly activity begins brewing below Manhattan streets, leading to paranormal enthusiasts Erin (Wiig), Abby (McCarthy), eccentric nuclear engineer Jillian (McKinnon) and subway worker Patty (Jones) forming a Ghostbuster girl gang to stop the supernatural threat taking over their world.

There is a naturally funny quartet at the centre of this, which is what any attempted reboot needed. The original ‘silliness’ is still there, though it feels a little forced until the film finds its flow. The show-stealer is actually beefcake Chris Hemsworth as the girls’ eye candy and hapless ‘bimbo’ assistant Kevin. To say Hemsworth is funny is an understatement – further enhanced by the end credits, so stay put and watch, as well as to the very end for an exciting teaser for the next planned installment.

Co-writer Feig and his writing partner Katie Dippold of The Heat and Parks and Recreation fame) seemed to have taken the sexist online jibes onboard and worked them into the script, including a YouTube moment the Ghostbusters share over an online comment, “ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts” posted in response to their video. The biggest two-finger salute to the naysayers goes to Hemsworth in the traditional female ‘ditzy’ role, a highly entertaining role reversal that any sex will appreciate. By all means, none of this is ‘in-yer-face’ obvious either. There are loads of nods to other films and their iconic scenarios, helped by the casting of Andy Garcia, Cecily Strong and the like, so it’s an entertaining mix to pick through.

However, the main grievance is the distinct lack of ‘baddie’ here, with virtually no personality that they come and go without marking much of a mark. This is only saved by things like McKinnon’s excellent set-piece of gun-ho slaying of ghouls in an end showdown, a nod to Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, and a Stay Puft cousin on the loose. The effects also try to retain the 1984 production aesthetics, without surrendering to latter-day ones that have come on leaps and bounds.

All in all there is a feeling of something new in the air, but with a comforting dosage of nostalgia. Feig appears to have got most elements just right in the 2016 reboot, enough to provide a solid, spooky night out at the cinema.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Now You See Me 2 ***

UK NYSM2

The Four Horsemen (rogue magicians/illusionists) are back – with Lizzy Caplan as Lula taking Amy Adams’ position – to pull the wool over their latest victims’ eyes (and ours). This second dazzling cinematic spectacle is directed by John M. Chu, full of confidence, charisma and style once more. However, Now You See Me 2 does get caught up in its own hype.

After being coaxed out of hiding, the wanted Four Horsemen are tricked into stealing a computer chip – the size of a playing card – or face their whereabouts being publicly exposed. They decide to turn the tables on their trickster while trying to avoid falling into the hands of the law. Can they clear their name while reveal who has set them up?

Watching the latest film is much like following a complex and stylish illusion at play, with a near consistent barrage of dialogue to sidetrack you and camera angles designed to avert your eyes where the makers need you to look. In this respect, it does take the magic out of portraying magic on screen, and in its place is a whirl of a ride full of stylish moves. Chu does not lose any of the energy of the first 2013 film though, as the plot has its own natural momentum as the tricks unfold.

However, a lot of the tricks outstay their welcome. As in one key scene, as much as watching a playing card being cleverly past between players is fascinating, you just want them to get to the punch line much quicker.

It’s encouraging to see all the original cast returning though, all neatly slotting back into their places in the major con, and with Harrelson playing for double thrills, and Freeman getting to play a camp magician again with his own self-assured panache. Caplan is a nice addition to the team, holding her own among the boys, but gradually becoming annoying as the ‘shouty new girl’ constantly trying to fit in. The real scene stealer is Radcliffe as the crazed baddie. He is intriguing to watch in such a role and should do a lot more to permanently shake off the Potter mantle.

Now You See Me 2 is not a bad gig to attend, and even though there are new tricks to be thrilled by, it just doesn’t have anything new up its sleeve, plot-wise. Short of a few revelations and old rogue faces popping up, the joke is still on us, the punter, as the stage setting – and disappearing act – feels much like watching the 2013 show.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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