Friday, 17 August 2012

The Friday Tramp Review: The Bourne Legacy

Following 2007's definitive The Bourne Ultimatum, director Tony Gilroy brings us The Bourne Legacy,  an enjoyable and well executed but ultimately shallow and unnecessary addition to the Bourne franchise. Released in 2002, Doug Liman's The Bourne Identity was an unexpectedly slick, engaging and taut little spy thriller, with a smartly delivered central premise, likeable lead in Matt Damon and a sense of action and spectacle grounded in reality. Paul Greengrass' sequels, The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum respectively, elevated the series to one of the best action franchises ever devised and gave us the first truly great trilogy of the new millennium.  

The Bourne Ultimatum satisfactorily concluded Jason Bourne's journey, but this didn't stop Universal  ordering another addition to the franchise, this time sans Damon or Greengrass. Instead, proceedings see The Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner arrive as Aaron Cross, a souped-up version of Jason Bourne, enhanced by chemical supplements on which he has become cripplingly dependent. The 'legacy' in the title refers to the fact that the actions of Bourne in Ultimatum (which happens in parallel to Legacy) have spurred the Agency to destroy all evidence of their nefarious assassin programs, which includes terminating Cross and his co-agents.  It's a solid, if rather uninspired, basis for exploring the ripple effect of Bourne's actions, and Gilroy goes to great lengths to remind us that the events in Legacy are a direct result of Ultimatum. He does this mainly by periodically splicing key moments of agency-good-egg Pam Landy's ongoing whistle blowing with the main story, but they never really connect in anything other than the most superficial way, and feel artificially overlayed on to a story that really has very little to do with Jason Bourne.

The best action films tend to offer the simplest plots: a cop is trapped in a building full of terrorists and has to stop them; Nazis are trying to take over the world by stealing a magic box and have to be stopped by a man in a cool hat; a cyborg is coming to kill the mother of mankind's future saviour and can't be stopped. And so it is (or should be) with Bourne. After all of the shady government dealings and double-crossings are stripped away, the original Bourne films offered a similarly simple but effective story: a man who can't remember who he is escapes from people trying to kill him for reasons he doesn't understand. The basic premise of the original Bourne trilogy offers both intriguing mystery and tremendous narrative momentum, and the lack of that kind of singular narrative is one of Legacy's major failings, instead contriving a drug-dependency plot in order to keep the story moving forward. This is most apparent in the final scene, which offers no resolution beyond clearing up Cross's chemical dependency. I'm not even clear whether the baddies are still chasing Cross, and the Pam Landy indictment sub-plot seems no further forward than it was at the beginning. It's shameless sequel-baiting, and the re-using of the Moby theme at the end simply underscores that this is by far the most unsatisfying conclusion in the franchise.

Renner and Norton square off.
That's not to say there aren't plenty of Bourne-esque thrills to be had throughout the 2 hour-plus running time. In physical ability, for example, Renner is more than a worthy replacement for Damon as the film's protagonist, proving himself in several well-staged and visceral action sequences that sit very well against those of the original trilogy. In addition, Rachel Weisz is effective as scientist Marta Shearing, offering  one of the film's few original ideas in the film's exploration of her character's moral culpability and complicity. This is the theme that could have allowed Legacy to transcend its limitations as simply the fourth part of the Bourne Trilogy, but unfortunately it's underwritten, hinted at only in a few scenes with Weisz, and in a flashback scene with Edward Norton's agency honcho Eric Byer. Although oddly disconnected from the rest of the film this scene offers one of the film's best lines: in an early mission, Cross expresses consternation over what he is being asked to do in the name of patriotism. Byer responds with frighteningly convincing concision, 'we are morally indefensible, and absolutely necessary'. It's a shame that Legacy doesn't offer us a deeper exploration of the moral grey areas hinted at in declarations like Byer's, and instead seems more concerned with covering the now well-worn Bourne film hallmarks of gritty action and car chases. 

In Aaron Cross, there's an admirable attempt to distance Renner's character from Jason Bourne: Cross comes to us amnesia free and fully formed as a trained killer, but as a result we lose the central compelling premise of the previous films' search for Bourne's true identity. Instead, we have a functional but bland chase  story around the globe for the chems that will keep Cross in peak fighting condition. Legacy's plot gives plenty of opportunities for stylised rooftop chases, vehicular carnage and bone-snapping violence, but by film number four, these once-fresh staples of the franchise, while still extremely well-executed and visceral, have become predictable and formulaic. More engaging is the relationship between Cross and Weisz's Marta, which develops with an organic warmth that is reminiscent of the Bourne / Marie tryst in Identity, and rarely feeling derivative or contrived.

The Bourne Legacy is far from the disaster that it could have been, and, like its titular assassin, executes its duties as an action film competently, concisely and with deadly precision. Making Legacy a spin-off, rather than a direct sequel was a smart move, leaving the original trilogy (mostly) well alone, while transparently setting up the potential for a new franchise. But for a property that effectively reshaped modern action cinema, Gilroy's addition to the series is a significant step down from Greengrass and Liman's entries, both in terms of thematic depth and narrative clarity. That said, as a stand-alone film it works well, and although nowhere near as compelling as Jason Bourne, Aaron Cross gives us enough humanity in his assassin to just about care what happens to him. The Bourne Legacy is ultimately an unnecessary cash-grab for the studio; an action film slapped with the name and stylistic trappings of Bourne, but this does not deter from the fact that it remains largely a morally ambiguous, exciting and smart addition to the Bourne universe. 

Friday, 10 August 2012

The Friday Tramp Review: Ted

After making his name with the animated comedy shows Family Guy, American Dad and The Cleveland Show, writer-director Seth MacFarlane arrives with Ted, his frequently funny, intermittently hilarious, but ultimately unbalanced and shallow big screen debut.

To the uninitiated, MacFarlane is the creative mind behind Family Guy and its spin-off shows American Dad and The Cleveland Show. In Ted, there is no mistaking MacFarlane's particular brand of comedy, both in the irreverent content and well-timed delivery of its humour. Ted opens by telling the story of a small boy, John Bennett, who on Christmas night wishes for his new teddy bear to come to life. Miraculously, his wish comes true, and John and Ted, as he names the bear, become overnight celebrities. However, as Patrick Stewart's narrator informs us in a reference-dropping introduction typical of MacFarlane, 'No matter how big a splash you make in this world, whether you're  Corey Feldman, Frankie Muniz, Justin Bieber or a talking teddy bear, eventually, nobody gives a shit'. The credits roll, and we skip ahead several decades where both boy and bear have (ostensibly) grown up. The premise is thus: perpetual man-boy lacks the motivation to grow up and A) progress his career, B) show his commitment to his long-suffering girlfriend in *apparently the only way women characters can ever understand or expect* by proposing to her, and most crucially, C) ditch his loveable but loser buddy. The novelty of course is that that the main character's buddy is a magic, foul-mouthed, over-sexed teddy bear in an otherwise mundane and realistic world. However, magic bear or no magic bear, it's an incredibly familiar set up, and the plot trundles along at a very predictable rhythm hitting all the story beats you'd expect, with the inevitable second-act conflict practically telegraphed by flashing neon signs. It's a shame, because by confining itself to such formulaic rom-com plotting, the film is never fully allowed to explore the comic potential of having a foul-mouthed celebrity teddy bear running riot. 

Ted  proves a crude but likeable comic creation
In many ways, Ted reminded me of last year's Paul, with its similar pot-smoking, expletive spewing fictional ragamuffin. Paul also stuck pretty closely to formula, but where the road trip / FBI hunt plot of that film sat well with the sci-fi comedy premise, the rom-com foundation of Ted just seems to intrude on the comedy, which at times nears hilarity, but all too often feels held back by its own self-imposed restrictions. That's not to say there aren't plenty of jokes: they come thick and fast and in many varieties; sight gags, expletive-laden banter, the inevitable pop-culture references, and in the film's funniest moment, an inspired, brilliantly edited sequence in which John races to meet his cinematic childhood idol. It's in breathless moments like these where Ted really catches fire, unconcerned by the tedious trials of John and Lori's relationship, allowing itself to get on with the business of being funny. In a film with deeper characters, the central conflict of John's inability to grow up and commit to Lori might work better, but depth of character has never been one of MacFarlane's strong suits. That shortcoming never been more apparent than here, in which the humour does little to distract from the dearth of multi-dimensional characters. Factor in a pointless sub-plot about an obsessive father and son desperate to get their creepy mitts on Ted, inserted in order to provide an undercooked climactic kidnapping / chase scene which leads to the film's muddled finale, and large portions of the film feel contrived and rote. Make no mistake, there is much humour to be had, but most of it centres around the one-note premise of a teddy bear that swears a lot. This no doubt will delight the film's intended teenage audience, but there are also a few too many badly misjudged jokes tending towards the racial and homophobic (a tiresome mainstay of MacFarlane's stable). Having said that, by the time the final credits roll fans of Family Guy are guaranteed to be grinning, but very few of Ted's scenarios really deliver the subversive humour or scenes of outrageous debauchery that the central premise promises us.
John and Ted: Thunderbuddies for life 
On a minor note, the performances from Wahlberg and Kunis are serviceable but fairly pefunctory, while Seth MacFarlane invests Ted with life and humour. Consequently the chemistry between the bear and Wahlberg fizzes much more convincingly than the other relationship in John's life. It seems odd to bring up an issue as technical as this for a comedy, but Ted is one of the most egregious offenders I've yet witnessed of the Curse of the Orange and Teal Colour Scheme . The entire film is soaked in virtually only these two colours, making the visuals very ugly. When photography is so generic that you can apply it with equal, dispassionate excess to both action films and romantic comedies, it's time to reign it in, chaps. 

For a debut feature, Ted is a perfectly serviceable, and on occasion, very funny comedy. In the eponymous bear, MacFarlane has crafted a very likeable and enjoyable comic character, and many scenes replicate his TV-based humour at its best and most irreverent. Fans of MacFarlane's previous work are certain to be satisfied, even delighted with MacFarlane's first feature, but Ted's strengths are tempered by the fact that it repeats many of Family Guy et al's mistakes, with a bland and uninteresting central story populated with  clich├ęd supporting characters, topped by two relatively likeable but ultimately boring paper-thin leads. 

Friday, 3 August 2012

The Tramp Reviews: Vertigo

Every decade since 1952, the film magazine Sight and Sound have published the definitive list of the fifty greatest films ever made. Definitive, supposedly, because almost a thousand critics, academics and industry bods are polled in order to construct the list. Orson Welles' Citizen Kane won the number one position in 1962, and has dominated the top spot ever since. Until yesterday, of course, when the 2012 was published, and Citizen Kane was finally toppled from its perch by Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. Whether Vertigo is the greatest film ever made has been the subject of much debate over the last couple of days, but it is undoubtedly refreshing to finally see a different film at the the top of the list. More to the point, while I question the designation of ‘greatest film ever made’, Hitchcock’s tale of murder, obsession and acrophobia is arguably his fullest and most satisfying work, offering classic Hitchcockian intrigue, mystery and suspense, and is the subject of this week’s Tramp's Review.

Along with Rear Window (1954), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963), 1958's Vertigo is one of Hitchcock's great masterpieces, and in many ways epitomises his greatness as a master director. I would go as far as to say that Vertigo is Hitchcock’s most spectacular film, and one of the richest and most visually compelling films ever made. The plot involves John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson, played by James Stewart, a police detective who is forced into early retirement due to a severe bout of vertigo which results in the grisly death of one of his colleagues. Scottie’s friend, a wealthy businessman named Gavin Elster, hires him as a private detective to investigate his wife’s strange behaviour, whom he claims is the reincarnation of a woman who died in tragic circumstances. Ferguson is understandably sceptical, but agrees to investigate Elster’s wife, played by Kim Novak, anyway.

Spot the subtext: Vertigo plays with our desire to see the unseen.
What follows is a fascinating and disturbing examination of voyeurism, obsession, and an incredibly rich and complex deconstruction of the inherent fetishistic nature of cinema. After Scottie follows her to the foot of the Golden Gate bridge, Madeleine Elster, apparently in a trance, throws herself into the river. After rescuing her, Scottie becomes obsessed with Madeleine, engaging in an ill-advised affair with her, leading to a series of violent and surreal discoveries. Up to this point, Scottie has appeared as most of Stewart’s characters: calm, morally upstanding and heroic, but in the scene directly following Madeleine’s rescue this begins to change. When Madeleine wakes up, she finds herself in Scottie’s bed, nude. Presumably he removed her wet clothes before putting her to bed, but what exactly happened after he removed her clothes, or why he did so at all, remains conspicuously unspoken, and Scottie’s almost uncontrollable sexual attraction to Madeleine becomes extremely apparent. Hitchcock’s casting of Stewart here is inspired: Stewart typically played heroic everymen, and so casting him as a lecherous anti-hero both unbalances that sense of typecasting (a trick that Sergio Leone repeated to great effect by casting perennial good guy Henry Fonda as the villain in Once Upon a Time in the West), and for a time obscures the character’s more ignoble traits by manipulating the expectations of an audience familiar with Stewart’s more conventional heroic roles. Brilliantly, on a second viewing, the way that Scottie follows Madeleine before she jumps in to the river offers a far more sinister, predatory perspective on his behaviour, and the intense colours with which Hitchcock fills the frame emphasise Scottie’s dangerous sexual-visual obsession with Madeleine’s appearance.

One of the film’s high points happens before the film proper even begins, in a bravura opening-credits sequence designed by Saul Bass. Bass was the creative genius responsible for many of cinema’s most iconic poster and design campaigns, including the opening credits in Psycho and North by Northwest, and the poster designs for Otto Preminger’s 1955 The Man with the Golden Arm. In extreme close-up, the camera fixes on Kim Novak’s face, moving from her cheek, to her lips, and up to her nose, before settling on one eye, as disorienting music plays. The camera methodically dissects the face on screen, coldly examining each of her features. As we are directed to her eye, patterns swirl up and disorient us, mimicking the effect of vertigo that Stewart’s character experiences in the film. Vertigo’s credits aren’t just a stylish opening to the film: they’re integral to the way that Ferguson’s illness is used as a physical manifestation of his detached voyeurism: spectatorship that has become out of control and without perspective. It’s a triumph of the merging of theme and spectacle.

Indeed, visually, the film is a tour de force, and one of Hitchcock’s most beautiful and spectacularly arresting pictures. Where Psycho uses black and white photography, all sharp edges and stabbing lines, to emphasise its violence, Vertigo saturates the screen in lurid, gratuitous colour. When Scottie first sees Madeleine in a restaurant, her striking green and black dress and blonde hair are contrasted against the wallpaper that floods the screen with deep, violent red, and as the camera focusses on Madeleine, the screen visibly glows with luminescence. Similarly, in a brief dream sequence that rivals the Salvador Dali scene in Spellbound, colour flashes through Ferguson’s mind in a swirling, chaotic spectacle. The intense visuals of Vertigo reflect Scottie’s own obsession with the visual, and his equation of sexual desire with physical appearance. He compulsively fixates on Madeleine, frequently mistaking women with similar hairstyles or clothes for her. Later, when he meets and begins a relationship with Judie Barton, a woman with an unusually striking resemblance to Madeleine, he tries to remodel her in the former’s image. The fetishisation of spectacle is one of the defining elements of Hitchcock’s oeuvre, and nowhere is it more apparent, or more fully explored than in Vertigo. Moreover, Vertigo offers a commentary on the inherently voyeuristic nature of cinema, and is surely one of the best examples of Laura Mulvey’s theory of the ‘male gaze’, writ large in Jimmy Stewart’s fetishistic obsession with Kim Novak’s Madeleine.

Kim Novak as Madeleine Elster, in one of Vertigo's many painterly compositions.
Vertigo is Hitchcock at his most mature and assured. Psycho is undoubtedly a masterpiece in its own right, but as the marketing campaign for that film underlines, there is an almost puerile delight at the violence and perversion taking place on screen. By comparison, Vertigo engages in the same voyeurism and fetishising of violence as Pyscho, but goes further by offering an analysis of the nature of that voyeurism, to the point where it becomes the film’s central concern. Ironically, given the highly stylised, cinematic world of Vertigo, this film offers a far more psychologically nuanced, textured narrative than any other of Hitchcock’s pictures, presenting us with arguably the most complete vision of Hitchcock’s cinema. Hitchcock’s examination of the relationship between sexual desire, violence, and death, are present in most of his other works, but are never richer, even in the sexually rampant Psycho, than they are here. Strangers on a Train offers a vision of perversion and entrapment, The Birds, inexplicable, unknowable violence and panic, and Psycho, sexuality and transgression. But Vertigo presents us with everything Hitchcock could offer as a director and storyteller. It would be reductive to claim that Hitchcock distils everything about his narrative, visual and thematic concerns into one film. I do think, however, that Vertigo is his most thematically complex, and complete, film, offering us a definitive thesis on the nature of film, and securing Hitchcock’s position as one of cinema’s greatest directors.