by Julian Spivey
Gene Wilder might not have been the funniest man to ever live, but you could argue he was key to the funniest movies that have ever been made.
If you were to ask me what the greatest comedy film ever made was on any given day, I’d probably either say “Young Frankenstein” or “Blazing Saddles.” The truly fascinating thing about those two movies is they both came out in the same year, 1974, and both were collaborations between Wilder and writer/director Mel Brooks.
Another unique thing about the two movies is that they wouldn’t have been made without the other. Wilder had this terrific idea to parody the “Frankenstein” movies of the 1930s and wanted to collaborate with Brooks on it. Brooks said he would make Wilder’s film if Wilder helped him out on a little project of his own that was a parody of the Western genre. The deal was made and it left us with what I believe are the two funniest movies ever made.
Wilder and Brooks are separately funny, but together they made the greatest comedy duo in film history. I think this was because Brooks’ wit and general wackiness melded perfectly and got the best out of Wilder’s neurosis. It also helps that Wilder just had a comical look about him with his wildly frizzy hair and those mischievous blue eyes that almost made him magical, which really helped him in his role as Willy Wonka – a film I definitely need another viewing of as I haven’t yet seen it as an adult. Another comedy duo I need to check out is Wilder and Richard Pryor, who many would consider the funniest man to ever live. My Wilder appreciation is largely his terrific trio of films with Brooks that also includes “The Producers,” their first collaboration in 1967.
It’s always hard to find the right words when someone who made you laugh so much dies. A person who supplies you with that much joy feels like someone who should live on forever and thankfully will in their work. So the best way I know how to pay tribute to Gene Wilder is by sharing some of his finest work and in doing so pass the laughs along to others:
by Philip Price
“Hell or High Water” opens with a 360° shot of a small, West Texas town that is more or less deserted. Panning what looks to be one of the main roads through town the audience is meant to note the several for sale signs, the others offering loans, and most prominently a piece of graffiti that states, "3 tours in Iraq, but no bailout for people like us." “Hell or High Water” immediately tells us its stance on the story it will be relaying in that it concludes this opening, single take with two masked men entering the small town's bank and requesting only loose bills, no stacks or, in other words, the bank’s money and not the peoples. In this expertly crafted opening sequence director David Mackenzie displays a knack for visually highlighting exactly what he wants us to focus on. Beyond the visual style Mackenzie adopts for this story that captures the flatlands of West Texas and its expansive plains in gorgeous hues is his adeptness at capturing the necessary atmosphere to complement the specific kind of tone which naturally influences the overall mood of his film. In short, everything falls into place perfectly with the pacing of the picture which is as close to a perfectly paced film as anything I've seen this year. We are thrown into the action of a bank robbery that is quickly undermined by the inherent humor that comes from human interactions while noting specifically the mentality of these Texans in which the movie will very much hang its trust and pride. The setting is established, the framing of this setting's attitude and character is made apparent, and only then we are introduced to the men behind the ski masks-brothers Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine). As with the setting we can see who these two brothers are from very early on. Foster's Tanner is the free-wheeling, living in the moment sort that will take whatever action makes him feel good whereas Pine's Toby lives more by a moral code with his eyes firmly planted on the end goal rather than what feels best in the moment. Toby doesn't like to deviate from the plan, but Tanner couldn't be more primed to be unreliably ecstatic as he's just been released from prison less than a year prior to the events we're seeing. It is in these two characters that “Hell or High Water” finds its most valuable assets; relaying its many ideas through the guise of two desperate men sticking it to the man.
If this and writer Taylor Sheridan's last screenplay for “Sicario” are any indication of what is to come count his directorial debut next year, “Wind River,” among my most anticipated for 2017. Sheridan has crafted a film where the old west meets the new one and the characters at the heart of it have crafted a genuinely brilliant plot in which they must carefully execute to get to where they want. Sheridan, as expected, employs human nature to create obstacles along the way including the appearance of Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Setting his two sets of partners on something of a parallel course for destinations that simultaneously feel pre-defined yet consistently surprising Sheridan gives his genre movie a freshness and singularity that can be difficult to tap into when operating in such a storied style. Sheridan fails to fall into any genre trappings as he pairs his character’s intelligent scheme with some of the best written dialogue in a movie this year. I realize I've said that twice now about two different attributes this movie sports, but “Hell or High Water” absolutely excels in the small talk and humor that only propels that pacing forward despite the plot being a slow burn that only reveals the whole picture as we enter its third act. While Sheridan manages all of these things really well in his screenplay what he is really getting after-the larger sort of analogy if you will-is explaining the repercussions of stock brokers and bankers actions on the last people they might think about when conducting their actions. Sheridan, while writing a new-fangled Western of sorts, is more interested in dissecting the lengths this world generally thought to be run by outlaws must go to in order to keep this already minimal lifestyle intact. For no matter this branded reputation, it was nearly impossible to escape the post-2008 world where financial crisis spread into every caveat of our civilization. By presenting this picture of a modern disaster through the lens of people continuing to lose their land Sheridan and McKenzie together deliver a perfect balance of old and new, of how ignorance must give way to insight, and how bad things must sometimes be done in order for victims to prevail.
Elevating the already superb script and filmmaking approach are the performances on display. Not only in Pine and Foster, though their chemistry and camaraderie is as authentic as any between real brothers, but in the more straightforward roles that both Bridges and Birmingham fill. Bridges' Hamilton is the cop on the edge of retirement who has already lost his wife and is therefore loathing the thought of no longer working rather than looking forward to it. He is the epitome of what one would expect of a man of a certain generation to act and speak like in this region of the country and by partnering him with an Indian who is also part Mexican one can expect a certain amount of racial slurs that are all meant in good fun. By giving audiences a back and forth between the competing plights of Hamilton and Parker as they track the "bad guys" to Tanner and Toby trying to stay one step ahead of them the movie keeps its tension on alert, allowing each scene to beg the question of what might these characters do next. It is through the honest performances that we're made to actually care about what happens to them next. “Hell or High Water” is one of those movies that you won't soon forget, but not only because it has a certain emotional resonance to it, but because there are certain scenes that will likely be referred to as classics should this thing catch on once it hits home video and streaming services that allow it to reach a wider audience. Whether it be the "What don't you want?" scene that takes place in a diner and features Hamilton and Parker squaring off against (or rather yielding to) an older no-nonsense waitress (Margaret Bowman), the final bank robbery and only real action sequence of the film that has been built up with such a methodical and tension-riddled burn that it can't help but be explosive when blood comes pouring out, to the denouement that features a conversation in the classic form of cowboy poetry where what is meant and what is said are two entirely different things, but neither party is ignorant to the truth. The citizens of the towns, the tellers at the banks, they all feel authentic, but it is the appeal of Pine's Toby in his upstanding views that force him to do bad things mixed with Foster's Tanner and his desire to test the limits by seeing how many bad things he can get away with that make the film as much a character study as an out and out action drama.
Not to be outdone - Bridges and Birmingham form just as formidable a duo with the major difference being they have the law on their side. Though Birmingham's Parker is the silent and stoic type-entrenched in his routine and well-pressed uniforms-feeling little to no need to give into his partner’s small digs and jokes about his heritage it is these things that both of them know he will miss the most once Hamilton finally does retire. Bridges is more or less doing what he typically does-this time playing The Dude as a modern Texas Ranger rather than a U.S. Marshal in 1873 as he did in 2010's “True Grit,” but it is effective nonetheless. Bridges knows where best to apply his particular characterizations and the script for “Hell or High Water” is no doubt improved by his presence. Katy Mixon is rather fantastic in her limited screen time with the likes of character actors such as Dale Dickey (the first person we see in the film) and Kevin Rankin popping up throughout to provide smaller, but just as effective moments that carry the brisk hour and 40 minutes “Hell or High Water” spends on its narrative through to the end. Still, this is Pine's film and he carries it admirably proving more than ever why he has become a movie star beyond the role of Captain Kirk. There is a presence to his performance that can't be explained in any literal sense, but more he simply exudes a charisma and produces this sense of sympathy that audiences will latch onto and root for. Thus bringing about the moral ambiguity of the piece that Sheridan, Mackenzie, and his two leads in Pine and Bridges explore through their opposing positions in society despite the honor of their intentions being very much the same. Combined with cinematographer Giles Nuttgen’s beautiful photography, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' original score as well as several appropriate soundtrack selections, and the surprising amount of humor the film carries through lines like, "On your last day in the nursing home you'll think of me and giggle," and "Drive like a school teacher with all this stuff in the back," to even landing a "That's what she said," joke “Hell or High Water” literally packs in everything one could hope for in a piece of entertainment. It delivers an emotional payload, it's funny, and it talks about something bigger than itself while perfectly encapsulating those bigger ideas in its small story. Unable to find anything wrong with the film and having no complaints, I have no doubt this will end up near the top of my favorite films of 2016.
by Philip Price
I feel like, by today's standards, there is very little that can truly offend me or anyone else for that matter. Whether it is our culture that has desensitized us to the point of indifference when it comes to matters once kept to the privacy of people's homes or the fact we'd like to think we're more progressive for not being ashamed of the natural things humans do-there is an argument for either side. The point is that whether you are blasé or still blush when it comes to talking about sex in public the consensus, at least at this point in my life which naturally dictates my group of friends and peers being of similar mindsets, is more or less that we need to get over ourselves and stop making such a big deal over what everyone has. We should be more like the Europeans. A penis is a penis and in “Sausage Party” a sausage may as well be a penis. If one falls into the camp of shying away from such conversations and believe that a certain amount of mystery should still exist between people then you'll likely want to shy away from this new Seth Rogen production as well. Taking the premise from any number of children's movies (“The Brave Little Toaster,” “Toy Story,” “Secret Life of Pets”) where when the humans ago away the inanimate objects come out to play Rogen and writing partner Evan Goldberg have ran with that idea, but this time with food, which of course comes to meet a terrifying end-yes, more terrifying even than Sid. It's a premise ripe for parody and a genuinely funny idea if what you're aiming for is a twisted, dark tale that not only tells the story of what it might be like if food were living, breathing beings, but per usual also includes some musings on life and what it all means. It's grocery shopping with shades of existential analysis. Of course, that all seems a little silly when talking about a movie that has a talking douche as the main baddie, but alas-that is where we are today. Some may scoff, some may simply laugh it off, but such minds and twisted ideas have always been present in society-they just likely haven't been able to reach as large a platform as “Sausage Party” has and thus the discussion around every new generation's looser morals and lack of respect for what was once holy only grows louder. “Sausage Party” isn't wholly indicative of society today though, it's simply indicative of one aspect of society and ends up essentially being a discussion about how that society can co-exist peacefully whether one believes in keeping certain aspects and ideologies private or not.
Fair warning: As this next paragraph will attempt to give a quick summary of both the plot and story of “Sausage Party” it will inevitably sound insanely ridiculous and probably even a little dumb. There is no way around this, but somehow it works-for the most part. Trust me. We are dropped into the opening hours of what is a grocery store called Shopwell's that is clearly part of a large chain on what seems to be the eve of July 4th. The hot dogs and hot dog buns refer to it as, "red, white, and blue day" and get excited over the celebration because they know their chances of being bought are greater. Why do these food products want to be purchased when that only ensures they're one step closer to their inevitable death, you ask? Well, this is due to the fact that a few nonperishable items who have obviously been around for a while made up a fantasy some time ago to convince the food in the grocery store that the humans who come in and shop are Gods and that to be purchased was to be chosen. Chosen for what? To go to "The Great Beyond" where everything will be peachy (pun intended), but most importantly they (the food) will finally be able to get it on with one another without the Gods disapproving. This is of the utmost importance to Frank (Rogen), a hot dog, who only hopes he is purchased with the same package his bun of a girlfriend Brenda (Kristen Wiig) is so that they may finally, you know, come together. In something of a surprising and refreshing twist Sausage Party doesn't play out as one might expect based on the trailers. The plot covers more ground as an adventure story through the grocery store with Frank meeting different products and coming to gain a greater perspective of the world around him as he meets different food from different places of origin and aisles. I expected little more than for our group of hot dogs, which also includes the somewhat obnoxious Carl (Jonah Hill) and the slightly deformed Barry (Michael Cera), to be purchased as the inciting incident and then fight to find their way back home to their respective buns, but instead directors Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon weave Rogen and Goldberg's three separate narratives into a fast-paced and consistently hilarious piece of social satire and commentary.
So yeah, “Sausage Party” is basically a big excuse for Rogen and his buddies to march out their ideas on religion, race, economic class, sexual preference, relationships and whatever else they may feel they'd like to discuss under the guise of animation, but it mainly feels like we're talking religion here. Rogen himself is Jewish as are the majority of the troupe of actors in Judd Apatow's standard bunch. Rogen has always seemed to have something of an issue with Christianity and those who follow blindly. Like the summary for “Sausage Party,’ trying to describe faith in the core concepts and values of Christianity could easily sound a little crazy and ridiculous, but that's the point they're trying to get at. Fair enough. This isn't anything new though, for as long as there have been Christians there have been those who have criticized organized religion. The thing with “Sausage Party” is that it's not so much criticizing or slamming the exact beliefs of certain groups of people, but rather criticizing how such people can use those beliefs to craft the world around their own needs and wants. Granted, if you believe in something it will undoubtedly feed into and shape the person you are-what else is there? Still, despite the fact “Sausage Party” does its best to offend and criticize any religious group, demographic, race or culture it is sneakily suggesting the larger idea that these outright offensive things being doled out in front of us in the form of food are actually the very things that keep us apart when the main idea of most beliefs is for love and hope to come above everything else. Without love there is nothing else. Fortunately, “Sausage Party” doesn't allow itself to get this sappy, but it eventually becomes aware that its agenda is somewhat overwhelming and its intent insanely obvious to the point it understands it can't expect an audience who it couldn't have not offended in some way to be totally okay with those insults. And so, by rectifying not only its own disregard for anyone else's beliefs it also does its own course correction in eventually halting the insults and instead searching for hope and connections no matter what the stereotypes tell us. That this hope is displayed through one of the most graphically disturbing, relentlessly raunchy, and outright shocking things I've ever seen on a movie screen only makes the film that much more endearing as it's willing to be so daring.
It isn't all in the theological thought and subtext that “Sausage Party” is surprising though, but just as much so in the quality of the animation, the original music, and in the creativity of the piece in general. With Rogen bringing in seasoned animation directors to guide this ship the film looks like and has the scope of something that might be distributed by the likes of DreamWorks or Illumination (sorry boys, still not touching Pixar or Disney). Within that animation are flourishes of great details and ideas that won't get the recognition they deserve, but are exceptional in that they exist to be discovered on repeat viewings (if you're brave enough to venture through this world again). Small throwaway lines such as, "I'm still fresh!" coming from a relieved Brenda after breaking out of her packaging for the first time or the sheer audacity of having Craig Robinson so shamelessly play a box of grits while talking about how much he hates the crackers is, while obvious, executed so well it's laugh out loud funny in that it was too good of a joke NOT to make. There are countless moments such as this capitalizing on ethnic and racial stereotypes in our own world that determine how the different types of foods treat one another as well. David Krumholtz's Lavash and Edward Norton's Sammy the Bagel provide ample opportunity for such comedy. Beyond this, Alan Menken was somehow roped into composing original songs for the film giving way to a Disney-style musical number on which the entire premise hinges and in true “Sausage Party” fashion is darkly spectacular. The biggest concern going into a movie like “Sausage Party” though, is that there will be little more to it than the idea that spawned the original premise. That the writers and creators wouldn't know where to go with the premise once they had all the exposition in place, but “Sausage Party” certainly knows what it wants to be and goes further past its main idea to the point it tests out a thesis of how far a movie can go if coated in a facade that typically connects with children? Would such a disguise make the blow of their contention with faith easier to swallow? Maybe, but more important is this was designed to be a dirty and offensive comedy and in that regard it succeeds time and time again. Whether you agree with what the movie is arguing or not odds are you'll be laughing.
by Philip Price
Being a male I may not be the target audience for a movie about moms cutting loose and attempting to let go of the pressures and stress they are under not to mention the inherent guilt all mothers seem to feel when everyone around them isn't happy and settled, but still ... I try to observe. I can see how a movie with these core ideas might be appealing to its target demographic. The thing with “Bad Moms” though is that right from the get-go the circumstances of this world are exaggerated in such a drastic fashion that it's not so much funny as it is distracting. That it's executed poorly makes it distractingly bad. While I haven't been around many Junior High PTA meetings lately, it's hard to imagine a woman in the vein of Christina Applegate's Stepford-ish Gwendolyn having as much control over the going-ons of a public school as this woman does, much less that someone of her mentality would even care. I mean, wouldn't her kids be in some private school where she is a dime a dozen? Petty complaints aside, “Bad Moms” is simply trying too hard to be what it doesn't need to be in order to be funny. There is ample opportunity for not only exploring the interesting facets of the psyche of mothers and how they're supposed to come off as if they have everything under control at all times, but rather than explore the small truths in the absurdity of that mentality “Bad Moms” resorts to F-bombs as its main source of punchlines as it isn't inspired enough to reach for more. That isn't to say exaggeration is wrong -- comedies can thrive on that particular brand of ridiculousness. But given the circumstances and type of story writer/directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (“21 & Over”) are attempting to convey, such over-the-top shenanigans would have been better saved for scenarios such as the PTA meetings rather than leaning on it consistently when something a little more subtle or observational might have worked in the film’s favor. More examples containing small truths that hit the mark of the "funny because it's so true" flavor rather than the "yelling makes it funnier" train of thought would have provided for more substance to both the story and these characters -- letting the audience know they really do understand the struggle. Mothers all the way from their late 20s to early 60s might love this thing and there's nothing wrong with that necessarily. I just think they might have enjoyed a more adept approach to the same material a little more. I think they deserve it.
From the outside it would seem Amy (Mila Kunis) has the perfect life: married to the well-established Mike (David Walton) whom she has two over-achieving kids with, Jane (Oona Laurence) and Dylan (Emjay Anthony), all living under the roof of a beautiful home on the outskirts of Chicago with a cozy career in coffee sales. Of course, in reality, Mike is little more than a lazy slob who doesn't help out with the kids and their endless calendar of extracurricular activities, but still expects Amy to cook dinner and serve it to him fresh while retreating to the office early to participate in his own extracurricular activities. On the kiddo front, Jane can hardly stand her mother who doesn't seem to understand how critical making the soccer team is to her getting into an Ivy League college despite the fact she's only 12. On the other hand, Amy's constant catering has allowed Dylan to become a lazy student who tries to lean on the crutch of labeling himself a "slow learner" though it's clear this disability is due to the fact his mother does all of his homework and prepares a four-course meal for breakfast every morning. This is all to go along with the fact that, at 32, she's the oldest person “working” at the coffee company as the no-doubt trust fund kid that is her boss (played wonderfully by Clark Duke) knows very little about earning a living. Compiling the fact she is over-worked, over-committed and downright exhausted at the end of the first day we come to meet her it is completely understandable why the bubbly persona she presents finally pops. It is at the perfectly exaggerated aforementioned PTA meeting that Amy breaks, finally having enough of the ridiculous requirements put on parents by the school's Queen Bee (Applegate). Amy quits the school associations, decides to give her boss a taste of his own medicine by showing him how much he needs her and making the kids fend for themselves as she finds solace in trying not to care, partnering with fellow moms Carla (Kathryn Hahn) and Kiki (Kristen Bell) to let it all hang out. Essentially embarking on a quest to liberate themselves from conventional responsibilities -- doing many un-mom-like things and allowing a little self-indulgence in their lives -- they earn the titular title in the most innocent of ways in that they aren't really being bad, but rather simply getting back to discovering who they are beneath all those parental requirements.
Though it is indeed somewhat ironic the two guys who wrote “The Hangover” AKA the biggest "dudes behaving badly" movie of all time have now turned to writing women characters in somewhat of an insightful and respectful light. It's their inability to make this look or feel like anything other than an assembly line comedy that sinks the film more than some of its poor attempts at comedy. To be totally honest I laughed a fair amount because, like I said, there are times when the only style of comedy this movie knows works and although most of those scenarios featured Hahn's Carla character, I was still laughing. What doesn't work as much is the writing paired with the TV quality of the visuals. To be as kind as possible would be to say that the film looks rudimentary while much of the writing outside the three principle characters and especially the stuff concerning the main ideas the movie is trying to tackle feels amateur at best. Speaking to that inherent feeling of guilt all mothers seem to feel, it's as if “Bad Moms” wants to bring this facet of its main characters personalities into the light while highlighting that they can do away with it as easily as they put it on themselves. Once these moms realize they have become enablers who have created not only spoiled and entitled kids, but husbands as well, they are able to admit to themselves that by caring and trying as much as they do they are seemingly only making things worse. That by being so stressed out it all the time only rubs off on everyone around them creating a general atmosphere of dread. Audiences will see their course correction coming from a mile away despite the fact the characters can't see it themselves. Touching on finding the right balance in life, on letting things go while still trying, but allowing fate to let things work out as they inevitably will, “Bad Moms” has a fair amount of solid ideas bouncing around in a movie that's trying as hard as its characters are. Rather than trying to keep everything under control though, the film is trying too hard to be funny-pushing vulgar buttons for the sake of being vulgar and little more. Like these moms feel at the end of the day, I was desperate for a break from the film by the time the narrative drive took hold 50 minutes in.
“Bad Moms” isn't all bad. What works best about the film is the odd-couple relationship and genuine camaraderie between the three leads. While Kunis is clearly the captain of this ship her performance feels strangely disconnected. Even when her character is allowed to eventually cut loose it can't help but feel like she is going through the motions -- waiting for this manufactured (and it feels totally manufactured) life she's pretending to live to be over so she can cash a check and go home. What holds this central performance up is her strong support. While Applegate is perfect for this den mother/mean-girl role with Jada Pinkett Smith and Annie Mumolo serving as the requisite cronies in her clique, it is both Hahn and Bell who end up stealing the show with two distinct, but equally great performances: one bringing the outlandish qualities the film excels at to their peaks with the other highlighting the more subtle humor I wished the script would have featured more. Hahn is essentially the reason to watch this thing if you're going to bother with it at all as her Carla is the mom who inherently doesn't care and only encourages Amy and Kiki to join her at the bar on school nights. Hahn has been around and a strong comedic force for some time now (guys will fondly remember her similar role in “Step Brothers” while the ladies will undoubtedly love her from the early “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” role), but me? I'm just happy to see Hahn in such a prominent role in a comedy led by and about women. In what feels like and are likely heavily improvised scenes featuring the three main characters Hahn shines in highlighting how much she enjoys being a single mom and the perks that come along with it while Bell perfectly balances Hahn's brazen performance by looking as if she's seriously contemplating every comment Carla makes and is considering the pros and cons of possibly leaving her own husband. It is the little things such as this that make certain moments in “Bad Moms” shine so much brighter than those when Lucas and Moore result to no less than five montages set to awkwardly placed pop songs and decide to play parts of every one of those montages in slow motion. They are techniques that undermine the insight their actors are providing for them and even though such elements give off a "fun" vibe they only feel stale in context whereas the glimpses of authenticity and accuracy that Hahn and Bell provide are what should be the cues for the bass to drop.
by Philip Price
After nearly a decade in seclusion and having resorted to bare knuckle brawling for petty cash Jason Bourne resurfaces with the simply titled “Jason Bourne,” but was there really a need for him to? Given the pristine state of the original trilogy (I didn't mind “The Bourne Legacy” as much as some, but don't mind forgetting it either) there was hesitance on my part to come to terms with the fact director Paul Greengrass (“Supremacy” and “Ultimatum”) and star Matt Damon could potentially ruin what didn't necessarily need another chapter. Of course, I really enjoy the ‘Bourne’ films and the prospect of another was naturally enticing, so ... double-edged sword. That said, the biggest obstacle this new film had to overcome was that it has been nine years since Bourne was on the big screen and it would have to be something almost cataclysmic happening if Bourne had somehow managed to stay out of the spotlight this long and then suddenly be pulled back in. This was the code Greengrass and co-writer Christopher Rouse (who has served as the editor on all of the Bourne films) were going to need to crack if they were going to have fans of the series buy into the fact Bourne was indeed back and it is here that the cracks instead begin to show in their lack of inspiration rather than the other way around. Essentially giving Julia Stiles' character, Nicky Parsons, the task of delivering exposition before telling Bourne that she has somewhat involuntarily pulled him back into this world he has been working so hard to evade things already smell funky. Without going too far into spoiler territory is to simply say that the biggest hurdle this film had to overcome is basically dismissed with a single line of dialogue and then not really taken into account again due to the fact it seems Greengrass and Rouse know they don't have the best justification for the film’s existence. Still, once we do get past this in the first act of the film, “Jason Bourne” becomes what we know and recognize from the previous’ films and if that is what you're looking for then you'll no doubt come out more pleased than pissed. As a ‘Bourne fan, I had a fine time with the film and enjoyed several of the story elements, but that it did feel so familiar was disappointing. The story of Jason Bourne is one of the rare instances where it became more intriguing with each additional film, going in different directions than expected and adding new layers to the titular characters past, but while Jason Bourne once again discovers more of his past here the film fails to go anywhere new with its narrative.
Part of me would like to make the joke that they may as well have referred to this fourth Matt Damon Bourne film as “The Bourne Redundancy,” but in saying that it would come off as if I disliked the movie. I had a good time with it. I was never bored as Rouse's editing is once again kinetic and fast-paced while Greengrass' camera is as handheld as ever (especially when it comes to the multiple car chase sequences), but it certainly doesn't touch the greatness in the pantheon of the spy genre that its two predecessors did. And maybe that is an unfair qualifier to have for a film -- that it be at the tip-top of the genre in which it exists. But the talent on board for this thing warranted as much expectation and so when the final product is simply the standard when you hoped for the exception one can't help but to be a little let down. In “Jason Bourne” we pick-up with the amnesic super-agent in real time, nine years down the road from when we last saw him fall into the East River. Bourne is now living off the grid with seemingly no friends and no family to speak of, bouncing from one shady outpost to another shady underground fighting ring. Meanwhile, Stiles' Parsons hacks into the CIA database and copies a few files that have to do with not only the Treadstone and Blackbriar programs, but what she believes to be a new program in the vein of those that gave birth to Bourne-Iron Hand. Yes, there is another super-secret government program that will supposedly create super-secret soldiers, but Parsons is hoping to enlist Bourne to stop it before it ever gets off the ground. Though reluctant, Bourne is tempted by the allure of knowing more of his past as Parsons discloses that the reason Bourne AKA David Webb might have enrolled in Treadstone in the first place was because of his father. The catch is, when Parsons hacked the CIA she set off a red flag alerting CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and the new, young director of cyber security, Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), that someone was looking into their programs giving Dewey reason to believe Bourne undoubtedly has something to do with it. There is also a subplot concerning a Google/Facebook-like company founded by Zuckerberg-like Aaron Kalloor (Nightcrawler's Riz Ahmed) who has back door discussions with Dewey about personal rights versus public safety, but this feels more like an attempt to make Bourne contemporary rather than actually having anything to do with the plot.
In this regard, the film can be somewhat disappointing as what was always so interesting about the ‘Bourne’ sequels was the fact they allowed themselves to peel back only enough of the bigger picture to allow the possibilities for what that actual bigger picture was/is to be endless. That “Jason Bourne” mostly restructures the story from the second (and most heralded) film in the franchise is a sucker punch that won't quickly be forgotten. In short, Vikander's character more or less becomes the Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) presence as her mentality clearly appeals to Bourne despite the fact they seem destined to be at odds. If Vikander's character is Landy though, then Jones' character is just Ward Abbott (Brian Cox) on a bigger scale. With the levels of deception at play here the film does beg several questions as to where Jones' Dewey might have been lurking all those years prior when Bourne was causing a ruckus, but the idea is that Bourne has finally made his way to the top of the food chain and everything is coming out. They're slyly restructuring the same story for a new decade while simultaneously broadening Bourne's horizons which, while sounding great on paper, again feels repetitive once things get going. The good news is that things do in fact get going and though the film throws Vincent Cassel another underdeveloped antagonist, role he is still playing the baddie which makes for not only some impressive large scale chase sequences, but a menacing presence to exist within them. There is a thrilling, stripped down hand to hand combat scene in the finale that is foreshadowed nicely by those aforementioned early scenes and both Cassel and Damon are in top form here with the choreography being as strict if not as precise as it once was. Speaking of the performances, they are certainly a highlight of an otherwise generic action flick as Damon is once again solid as the stoic spy. It was reported before the film opened that Damon would only have twenty-five or so lines of dialogue in the film, but that never feels like a goal they were striving for, but more it is the fact this man has now been on his own for nearly 10 years and has little communication with the outside world to the point he's likely not sure how to exist in it anymore. Damon emotes what is necessary to understand Bourne's arc through his face in a fashion that probably won't be as appreciated as much as it should, but while Vikander provides some fresh-faced urgency to the aging franchise and Tommy Lee Jones is Tommy Lee Jones (which is totally a compliment) this is still Damon's film and he commands it by not seeming as if he's trying to command it.
“Jason Bourne,” like its predecessors, is heavy on plot in the best way in that it clearly has ambitions. While not all of those ambitions may have been achieved in the way Greengrass originally envisioned the seeds of those ideas are still there and that counts for something. Though the subplot concerning the Kalloor character feels somewhat tacked on it is in the tradition of the series that it addresses the state of the nation at the time of its existence. “The Bourne Identity” came out a year after Sept. 11 and was a movie that questioned the credibility of the powers that be and their true intentions at a time when the nation couldn't have felt more patriotic. Flash forward 14 years and we are now in a state where the cynical world view has resurfaced and the advances in technology have brought about major concerns about privacy as well as accountability. In taking on this implied responsibility Greengrass has incorporated lines of dialogue that reference Edward Snowden and conversations that discuss the difference between freedom and security, but the writer/director fails to utilize these observations within his story. There is fertile ground for good conversation here, but the inclusion of such elements in this ‘Bourne’ film feel more like a hindrance than an intrinsic piece of the story. How have these tracking technologies -- the social media check-in's and the google maps locators -- affected Bourne in his trek to stay off the grid? Such ideas could be applied more naturally to the ‘Bourne’ storyline, but instead the film goes the route of simply commenting rather than illustrating and because of that there is a lack of cohesion in what themes this film is exactly trying to touch on. What “Jason Bourne” does do well with its many plot strands is bring them together in a culmination that makes it all feel more necessary than my trepidation had me thinking it would early on. In having a strong closing to the otherwise consistent, but not overly engaging film that proceeds it, Jason Bourne again becomes a character I wouldn't mind seeing more of as long as they can find somewhere new to take the character next time and a more organic way to incorporate timely ideas into the story. There is plenty to dive into and dissect when it comes to corrupt institutions that control society, but one has to be willing to make the deep dive and “Jason Bourne” is simply treading old ground.
by Philip Price
Don't believe everything you hear. That would be the first thing I would tell people if they were to ask what I thought about the latest entry in the DC Comics extended universe as funded by Warner Brothers. Don't believe everything you hear in that “Suicide Squad” isn't nearly as terrible as those early reviews have made it out to be, but don't believe everything you saw in those trailers that made you think this might be a new super hero masterpiece either. “Suicide Squad” has its flaws. Plenty of them in fact-the biggest perpetrator being the convoluted story that ultimately does so many circles around itself that it becomes a pointless exercise in power for Amanda Waller (as played by the wonderful Viola Davis). “Suicide Squad” also has its fair share of highlights as well-most of them concerning the effort the cast is putting into making this group of misfits feel like a family when the script gives them little to work with. This is all very disappointing mind you as writer/director David Ayer (who wrote “Training Day” and who wrote and directed the likes of “End of Watch” and “Fury”) clearly has a knack for these types of characters and putting such characters in high-stakes situations that bring out qualities and traits viewers will find endearing and affecting despite potentially being revolting. The issue here is that Ayer seemingly felt the need to include so many characters that he let his storytelling techniques get away from him and instead decided to give us an introductory hour where we are presented with each of the ten (count 'em ten) main characters as well as how they all ended up together and walking into the plot device that is both meant to unite them and that could have also been completely avoided if the idea to bring them together was rejected in the first place. There are interesting ideas aplenty here and the film very well could have explored the difference between bad and evil and how many bad things one has to do or ends up doing before they cross that line. Instead, Ayer uses this opportunity to bring together his comic book version of the Dirty Dozen and expose them at face value, for what they are, and how they work together. Just so we're all on the same page-that would have been fine. I don't have an issue, especially at this stage of the game, with a DC film not leaning too hard on the philosophical stuff and instead focusing more on simply having fun, but even in doing this Ayer's story does itself no favors by making everything interconnected to the point the film renders itself irrelevant when all he really needed to do was give these usual foes a formidable one of their own.
Let's take a few steps back, though. Let's go back to the beginning because for the first hour or so and more specifically the first half hour I was genuinely unsure of where all the bad press was coming from. I hate to write a reactionary review of sorts, but given the unavoidably savage headlines I saw following the drop of the embargo on Tuesday it was nearly impossible to go into the film without some preconceived notion of what we might be getting or how much expectations should be tempered. From the fantastic trailers to the involvement of Ayer (Hey! this one doesn't have Snyder! It may actually stand a chance with critics!) to the outright phenomenal cast there was so much potential, so much talent that it was something of a question of, "how could this even be bad?" and the answer is that it's not really that bad. Granted, it's not great and it certainly could have been. There's a fair share of blame to go around for why such an interesting idea went partially to waste, but by no means is this the train wreck it's been made out to be. I would still much prefer to watch “Suicide Squad” a hundred times over before viewing “Green Lantern” or any one of the three most recent “Fantastic Four” features (and I didn't wholly despise Trank's version, either). Enough with the comparing and defending though-let us discuss what works and what doesn't by outlining the plot Ayer has constructed for his villains to take part in. In doing this we immediately step into one of the biggest downfalls the film has in that its story and its main antagonist is clumsy, borderline incoherent the further it gets along, and worst of all-has little impact on the characters involved much less the audience.
The notable thing with “Suicide Squad” though is that these glaring issues don't become apparent until the second hour of the film when the actual plot takes over and more or less takes an aircraft that was cruising along nicely at an average altitude and nosedives it into the nearest metropolitan area. We are immediately brought up to speed on the fact this very much takes place in the same universe as “Batman V Superman,” where (SPOILER ALERT!) Superman is dead and the government is panicking and unsure what to do about the rise in population of these "meta-humans" and are concerned about the "what ifs" if one were to come along without the moral code Superman shared with them. In response to this the ruthless, high-ranking government official that is Waller uses her political connections, intelligence, and intimidation to achieve her idea of putting together a group of the "worst of the worst" so that they have people with extraordinary abilities whom they can bribe with reduced sentences and the like in order to get things done with the caveat of if they fail they lose nothing but an inmate that was on death row anyway. They control each of the members of the Squad by implanting a bomb in their necks and threatening to blow their heads off if they even consider making a run for it or turning their weapons on leader and soldier, Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman).
This is all well and good and as Waller explains her idea to two other government higher-ups (David Harbour and Ted Whittall) she goes through the roster of her desired team members giving way to flashes of backstory first around Deadshot AKA Floyd Lawton (Will Smith). Deadshot is the most prominent and skilled hitman on the planet and he likes getting paid to kill the worse guys, but he also has a daughter and would do anything for her. This makes him vulnerable to the needs of Waller, ensuring his cooperation under the promises for his daughter's bright future. Next, there is Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the Joker's (Jared Leto) leading lady, and a real force to be reckoned with. The extended flashback sequence that gives us Quinn's origin story and involves a date night with Joker as well as a chase scene through the streets of Gotham featuring Ben Affleck's Batman is a real high point as it felt like I was watching the live-action version of the nineties animated series I grew up on and always longed for. There is even a shot that pays homage to the great Alex Ross art piece that made me grin from ear to ear. We then are delivered a few more backstories via Waller with less and less emphasis on the characters themselves as our history lessons on both Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) are a little undercooked with Captain Boomerang's (Jai Courtney) essentially being non-existent despite the character being one of the more permanent fixtures of the team in the comic series.
The film rips and roars through exposition as it continues to introduce the likes of Jay Hernandez's Diablo, Karen Fukuhara's Katana, and Adam Beach's Slipknot not to mention Scott Eastwood as a Lieutenant under Flagg whose presence is completely unnecessary. The pacing is relentless in a way that makes all of this set-up fun and engaging and it's only propelled that much further by the consistent, pounding soundtrack that has raided the Warner Brothers Records vaults. What this all comes down to is saying that, in the first hour, the film really feels like a highlight reel of a movie. It moves so quickly and so frenetically that it's easy to see how it could be perceived as careless. The film has no qualms with not making us care about the plights of these characters outside the principals of Waller, Deadshot, and Harley Quinn. This wouldn't normally be an issue for a film-focusing on two or three primary leads with the rest of the characters filling in supporting roles, but in “Suicide Squad” both Flagg and Enchantress are enlisted to play key roles in the development of the plot as well as with one another and this aspect of the film is underwhelming and underdeveloped in ways that really make a difference. And while poor Delevingne gets a few cool visual moments as Enchantress early on she more or less gets stuck doing dance moves on a pedestal for the majority of the film undercutting both the severity of the threat against the Squad and the climactic battle that is supposed to be, well...climactic. Elsewhere, the film does feature a lot of strong character work from those it chooses to focus more heavily on and even a few of the characters that are more ideas than fully fleshed out humans get a chance to show their worth thanks to the performances from a game cast (here's looking at you, Jai Courtney) that is clearly having a blast.
As Deadshot, Smith is on-he is firing on all cylinders making it feel as if we've stepped into some kind of time machine and wound up back in 1997 when the actor was still realizing his full potential in something like “Bad Boys.” As good and as charismatic as Smith is here (all of his jokes land and a running bit about Phil Jackson is pure gold) though, this is Robbie's show and she is selling it for all it's worth. Wholly becoming the character that spawned from that aforementioned animated series Robbie has the voice down pat and the mannerisms even more so. She is somehow able to line what is otherwise a completely psychotic character with a hint of humanity when it comes to the moments that require some authentic emotional weight. Much has been made about Leto's method acting for the role of Joker, but given his limited screen time it is Robbie's Quinn you won't be able to take your eyes off of. Every time she is on screen one can't help but to wonder what she'll do next. There is a great shot of Harley Quinn, Deadshot, and a few of the others being transferred out of prison to report for duty where it becomes all the more clear how immersed Robbie was in the role and it just works-it's totally convincing and you can't help but want more.
All of that said, what is the verdict on this version of Joker then? Truth be told-there isn't really enough to go on to make a final decision. The idea is there, the concept is interesting, and Leto certainly has the chops to pull it off, but until we (hopefully) see both Leto and Robbie return in Affleck's solo ‘Batman’ film we won't know for sure. That being said, what we do get to see here of the Clown Prince himself doesn't necessarily feel earned. There are little quips and motions that make us feel as if Leto is completely embodying the character and his wardrobe and the color scheme he surrounds himself with is pretty magnificent, but when it comes to creating moments with this character-actual living, breathing instances where the character interacts with others and exchanges dialogue-they come off slightly fraudulent in a way-as if Leto knows who his version of Joker is to a certain extent, but hasn't earned that title. Joker doesn't get that "moment" that he so badly needs and deserves. The jury is still out on Leto's Joker until we're able to see the actor flesh him out further, but there is certainly promise as the complete maniac in the personality is still intact combined with the more "gangster" approach of his attitude that makes for an even more unpredictable villain than he's been portrayed as in the past. There is a dangerous edge to the interpretation and I dig it, but I want to see more to know if what I'm getting goes deeper than the tattoos that cover his body. In this case one has to wonder why Ayer wouldn't have positioned Joker as the main baddie as he would have more than enough justification to go after Waller for hijacking his girlfriend and implanting a bomb in her neck, but rather than make this the simple throughline of the story Ayer and his film overall tend to over-complicate things for itself leaving us with a pair of mostly CGI adversaries (despite a clear unyielding vision to make Killer Croc a practical creation on a real actor) that carry little weight in connection to our "heroes" and couldn't be less interesting or more stock than what this version of the movie eventually makes of them.
With the unrelenting drive of the first hour of the film that hardly gives us a moment to come up for air it is in the second half of the film that things really begin to take a turn and the reasons for those unforgiving reviews begin to make themselves clear. There is a particular moment in the movie where one can feel it shift. It begins by undoing all Davis has done to make Waller as duplicitous a character as she should be. This turn gives the character an inconsistency that is never able to be undone no matter how much guile Davis is able to bring to the table. From this moment on it becomes clear there actually isn't more to the story than we thought there was and that, what in fact is happening, and what the “Suicide Squad” have been brought in for is more a product of the powers that be than something that would validate putting together a team of anti-heroes. It is here that the messy narrative and editing issues become all the more evident. There are moments that feel tacked on and/or were originally at different points in the film, but have been re-cut and spliced into a scene where the studio hoped it would still make sense as they didn't want to lose the footage completely, but didn't want to waste a whole scene on it. It's hard not to sense a trend of there being vastly superior extended cuts of these DC movies to come on Blu-Ray as it's beyond obvious in the second half of “Suicide Squad” that some executive clearly went to town on this thing at the eleventh hour. There needed to be a moment, an action beat (which the film has plenty of) that showed these disparate characters coming together in a more cohesive manner that ultimately justifies the sense of "family" they seem to feel in the third act. There is a scene that could be argued does this, but it comes so late in the film it more serves to flesh out Diablo for the needs of his powers in the final climactic battle rather than to unite these supposed bad guys. And then there is a scene where it seems the film realized it needed that bonding scene and so, in the third act, brings everything to a screeching halt in order to carry out a set of exchanges at a bar in an attempt to make us feel sympathy for these murderers, thieves, and psychos. In the end, it's too little too late and while there's a sense the characters are in on the ridiculousness of where this thing goes it all feels unwarranted. Combined with a badly choreographed and rather ugly final fight sequence the second half of the film is a true wash. A true missed opportunity.
That first hour counts for a lot in my books, though. It begins with such a strong sense of itself that one can't help but to want to embrace and enjoy it for all its Ayer-tinged griminess and gallows humor. That Ayer tries to do so much both in terms of plot and characters ultimately takes away from all of the aspects that would have clearly shined more were some of the characters and therefore some of the plot strands stripped away. Allowing for more time to be allotted those who have earned our interest and those we'd like to see more of, but can't because it is for some reason necessary to have Slipknot in this movie. I liked that Ike Barinholtz was cast here. I enjoyed the overall visual aesthetic Ayer went for. I wanted more Captain Boomerang and less of the useless peripheral characters that for some reason are over utilized. I would have liked to see more of Killer Croc doing the heavy lifting rather than the team of soldiers Flagg brings with him who have even less of a connection to the audience than the underserved Croc. I would have liked more consistency in Waller's character as Davis' portrayal is pure fire, and I needed more of a connection to the Flagg/Enchantress dynamic if it was going to function as it does. All of these are things I would have liked to have seen. Changes I would have made. None of this is enough to completely ruin the fun that is to be had with “Suicide Squad” though. And it is a fun movie-there is a lot of good stuff to take away from it and plenty to get audiences excited for where the DC universe may go from here. It's not groundbreaking filmmaking, it's nothing that will break the mold of the genre, but it's decent enough and sometimes that's fine. Maybe we should stop expecting more from movies that are inherently silly and let them be just that.