Category Archives: Film

Spy 100, #16.2: The Bourne Supremacy

If the genre is to believed, there is no retiring from the spy business. As The Bourne Supremacy (2004) begins, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) and his girlfriend Marie (Franka Potente) are living a peaceful, off-the-grid life in India.  But soon enough Bourne is drawn back into his dark past, when a  Russian oil baron uses Bourne’s history as a rogue assassin to set him up as a convenient patsy for the murder of two CIA agents. Enter Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), who takes the bait in thinking that Bourne is responsible and aims to take him down. Service politics thrust her together with Ward Abbott (Brian Cox), a veteran of the Treadstone Project that ran Bourne, and together — sort of — they set out to find and neutralize him. But are they running the mission, or is Bourne?

In some ways, surprisingly, this sequel is more satisfying than The Bourne Identity – although I suppose that depends on your depth of interest in its genre trappings. It has a more intricate and involving plot, for one thing, and Bourne’s resourceful, on-the-fly tradecraft is more clever and interesting. I also enjoyed the twists and turns of the Agency internal politics, with Allen, Cox, Julie Stiles, and others contributing to the story’s complexity. Plus, the franchise continues to provide early roles for notable future stars: keep an eye out for Michelle Monaghan and Karl Urban.

There are other ways, though, where The Bourne Supremacy falls short.  It’s a colder film; there’s not much character or heart, here. Damon is all business, which is good for his spy chops, but bad for his emotional depth and audience connection. I also preferred Doug Liman’s direction in the first film to Paul Greengrass’ in this one.  The action sequences are full of dizzying shaky-cam tactics that render them incoherent at times, and most of them overstay their welcome.

In the end, it’s a mixed bag that justifies its inclusion, perhaps, for how it fleshes out the first film and improves on some of its elements.

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Spy 100, #16.1: The Bourne Identity

I saw The Bourne Identity (2002) in the theater back when it came out, well before my total immersion into the world of spy films began. Today, rewatching it, I get the sense that I probably would have felt like I’d seen it before, even if I hadn’t: it’s that full of classic spy tropes.  The story opens when Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is fished out of the Mediterranean Sea by a fishing crew, with two bullets in his back, a mysterious Swiss bank account number, and a wicked case of amnesia. In order to solve the mystery of his identity, he travels to Zurich to access the account, where he finds a box filled with passports, money, guns, and spy gear. It’s immediately clear he’s a spy, but for whom, and why can’t he remember anything? With the help of a German woman named Marie (Franka Potente), he aims to find out – despite the attempts of his enemies, whoever they are, to have him eliminated.

The Bourne Identity is a spy hero origin story with well choreagraphed action scenes and a nifty, big concept hook. Damon makes an unlikely but accessible action hero, and he and Potente deliver a refreshingly unconventional romance-under-fire. For the most part, it handles its hokey amnesia plot device well, and the cast is seeded with solid supporting performers, including the devious Chris Cooper, and not-quite-famous yet guest stars Clive Owen, Julia Stiles, and Walton Goggins, among others. It’s got a lot going for it.

At the same time, I found it kind of uninvolving: lots of motion and energy, not a lot of character or depth. The plot felt very familiar – in particular, the mission backstory is a twist on the French film The Professional. I wonder if my reaction to it is mitigated by its influence; based on when it was released, I suspect it’s one of those films that changed the landscape, inspiring subsequent spy adventures such as the Bond reboots. So perhaps it simply doesn’t feel as fresh and exciting now as it did at the time.

In my book, it’s a solid but perhaps overrated entry on the list – which also includes its two sequels as part of this entry, which in the spirit of completism I will also review. I’ll be curious to see if including the entire, original trilogy strengthens the case for its ranking, or erodes it.

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Film: Mirage

An intriguing, Twilight-Zoney thriller, Mirage (1965) is definitely a product of its era, but it’s quirky and still quite watchable. Gregory Peck stars as David Stillwell, an accountant who works in a New York City office building. When the building’s power goes out, Stillwell attempts to leave and bumps into a mysterious woman (Diane Baker) as he’s descending a darkened staircase. She claims to remember him, but he’s never seen her before – baffling enough, but it gets worse when she races off into a sub-basement that he later learns doesn’t even exist. This is just the first of several reality-bending mysteries that begin to plague him, as he gradually comes to grips with a bizarre case of amnesia. Meanwhile, he finds himself increasingly entangled with nefarious strangers who seem to know exactly who he is – even as he doesn’t know himself.

Putting an interesting spin on the Cold War/nuclear era psychological thriller, Mirage is modest but clever, with a twisty, disorienting plot. Its sensibility and black-and-white photography reminds me a little of early John Frankenheimer. In the end, I’m not convinced it coheres structurally, and it’s inconsistent tonally. But I kind of didn’t mind; it’s still fun trying to make sense of Stillwell’s nightmarish dilemma, and anyway the thematic resolution is satisfying in spite of the plot’s loose ends. Meanwhile it’s got a fun cast of familiar character actors from the era, including George Kennedy, Kevin McCarthy, Jack Weston, and the great Walter Matthau as a droopy gumshoe Stillwell hires to help him. An entertaining, old-fashioned mystery.

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Film: Save the Date

As much as I adore Alison Brie and Lizzy Caplan, I couldn’t find much to love about Save the Date (2013), a middling affair that wastes its talented comedic cast in a blasé relationship tangle. Sarah  (Caplan) is moving in with her long-time boyfriend Kevin (Geoffrey Arend), but even on the way over she’s starting to get cold feet. Meanwhile, Sarah’s sister Beth (Brie) is the opposite – enthusiastically planning her marriage to the drummer in Kevin’s band, Andrew (Martin Starr). With commitment in the air, Kevin pushes Sarah too quickly toward the next level, but Sarah’s a major commitment-phobe; and so she panics, rushing into a rebound relationship with a smitten admirer, Jonathan (Mark Webber).

That’s about it, really. Save the Date is low-budget, low-key, and low-frills, an unmemorable film about sisters taking different romantic paths, and trying to figure out their relationship to each other. But it never catches fire: it’s not quite funny, not quite dramatic, not quite moving, not quite interesting. I think it’s shooting for quirky, indie insight, but it plays out generically, a sequence of bland, thirtyish life experiences. It’s well played by everyone, especially Caplan in the central role, but the cast has precious little to work with. A dud.

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Spy 100, #17: Dr. No

Dr. No (1962) definitely sets the tone for the James Bond series, but compared to what would follow it’s practically restrained. It kicks off when a British intelligence agent named Strangways goes missing in Jamaica. MI6 sends in the debonair James Bond (Sean Connery) to find out what happened. Bond immediately finds himself targeted for assassination, but deftly sidesteps every attempt on his life as his investigation drives him inexorably toward Crab Key, a remote Caribbean island owned by Dr. Julius No (Joseph Wiseman). With the assistance of CIA man Felix Leiter (Jack Lord), a local named Quarrel (John Kitzmuller), and the beautiful Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), Bond makes his way to the island to solve the mystery and save the day.

Dr. No is low (relatively speaking) on smug sexism, smarmy one-liners, and skiffy gadgetry – all to the good – and I found it interesting viewing, not just in the context of Bond history, but spy film history. It’s full of classic, iconic tradecraft, and one can see its influence stamped all over the canon. The location photography is gorgeous, and there’s a confident gloss to the production. It’s also interesting to contemplate other directions the series might have gone, based on this first, toned-down sample.

Despite these assets, though, I found the film kind of a slog. The plot is simplistic, and the pace is positively glacial – not uncommon for films of this era, of course. Typically this wouldn’t bother me, but here it does, probably because I find the franchise so emotionally hollow and hard to invest in. On points it’s probably one of the better Bond films I’ve seen, harmlessly watched, but ultimately I just found it more evidence of my allergy to this series.

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Film: Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion

The Italian crime drama and satire Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is very much a product of its era, but it’s not entirely without contemporary relevance. When a police inspector (Gian Maria Volonté) brutally murders his mistress, Alexandra (Florinda Bolkan), he leaves plenty of clues to hang himself. But as the investigation progresses, the questions arise: will the police ever charge him, and does he even have any intention of getting away with it?

With its vibrant color palette and playfully sinister Ennio Morricone soundtrack, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is an audio-visual feast, probably best watched today as a why-done-it; the fun is in figuring out what the inspector is up to, and what specifically drove him to his crime. I particularly enjoyed the meticulous, silent opening sequence, which is  pure visual story-telling that sets up the mystery well. But past the quirky plot, it’s also a penetrating character study about a disturbed individual, and a political allegory critiquing the psychology of an authoritarian police state.  While the commentary is surely specific to Italy in 1970, it certainly still resonates today in a broader context. It does drag on a bit toward the end, and the gender and sexual politics are, uh, unfortunate by today’s standards. But overall it’s a rewarding film: disturbing, darkly funny, and politically scathing.

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Film: John Dies at the End

This was almost an awesome movie. John Dies at the End (2012) sings along cleverly for much of its run, but ultimately fumbles the ball about twenty yards from the end zone. It’s a rewrite or two away from being a great cult film, darkly comic SF; instead it’s merely an amusing romp, occasionally ingenious but all over the map.

David (Chase Williamson) is your typical quirky slacker hero, with a twist: he seems to have bizarre psychic abilities. He uses these to dazzle skeptical feature reporter Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti), then tells Arnie his story in disorienting, time-jumping flashback. Turns out David’s powers started when he — and his friend John (Rob Mayes) — were dosed by a mysterious alien organism, which acts as a psychotropic drug on humans. The result is to have your perception “unstuck in time,” essentially seeing past, present, and future all at once, an “ocean” rather than a continuum. His story reveals how he gained this power, and how it enabled him to save the world.

The film lurches awkwardly out of the gates, but it really starts to gel when the origin of the alien drug comes into play: how David and a number of others were infected at a keg party, the after-effects of the infection, and the efforts of a no-nonsense detective (the terrific Glynn Thurman) to unravel what the hell is going on. The script’s dialogue is rife with skiffy gobbledygook that’s often funny and occasionally poetic, and for a while it looks like there might be a brilliant structural endgame in the works. Alas, it all goes off the rails in the final act. The careful construction of the middle stages is wasted in a silly, sloppy, over-the-top finale that involves  an alternate universe, a giant alien, an incongruous subplot involving a world famous mentalist (Clancy Brown) — it’s just a mess.

Which is unfortunate, because until they cross over, I was really grooving on the film: it’s unpredictable, clever, and tonally odd, and it had the potential to be brilliant. Instead it’s just a inventive, messy buddy fantasy, from the Bill & Ted school:  funny, kinetic, but far from great.

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Film: The East

I watched The East (2013) because…well, how could I not watch a film called The East? It’s also a spy movie, of sorts, and a pretty good one.

Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the screenplay, stars as Jane, a promising young recruit for a private intelligence firm. She gets her big break when the firm’s chief (Patricia Clarkson) selects her for a high-profile assignment: infiltrating an eco-terrorist group called “the East,” which has been waging guerilla PR warfare against major corporations. Under the cover name Sarah, she works her way into position to become a recruit, finds her way to the East’s hidden base of operations…and starts to sympathize with their cause.

If I were to revise the Spy 100 list, I would definitely add The East, particularly for the variety it brings: private intelligence contracting, eco-terrorism, and corporate espionage are unique angles that the film deploys well. The first half of the film is the most effective, when the mystery is still hazy and Sarah’s investigation drives the pace. The culture of the eco-terrorist group (“the East”) is a weird sort of hippy-dippy extremism, but it’s entertainingly rendered, and populated by nicely played and sympathetic characters. The players — Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Aldis Hodge, and others — do a nice job selling the group’s mission and community.

Alas, later on I thought the seams started to show. The film’s anti-corporate, environmental message is a bit obvious, for one thing. And while the script tries to paint Sarah as a moderate, caught between wanting to stop the East’s dangerous stunts and seeing the point of them, she does come off as pretty naïve — especially when Clarkson, in a wonderfully callous performance,  reveals how she does business.

So it’s well performed, with a strong premise and a quick pace, and the mystery engages, but unfortunately it lacks subtlety and its virtuous message is a little too preachy. The drawbacks didn’t exactly squelch my enjoyment, but they did mitigate my enthusiasm.

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Film: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

Stieg Larsson’s trilogy concludes with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2009), and while it’s perhaps the least satisfying individual “film” (more on that below), it does cap off this memorable series effectively.

The explosive events of The Girl Who Played with Fire left Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) bruised, battered, and in policy custody, still facing trial for her supposed crimes.  Her actions have also stirred up a secret government organization, who still see her as a threat and are maneuvering to have her silenced. Meanwhile, the team at Millennium – urged on by reporter Mikael Blomqvist (Michael Nyquist) — works tirelessly to prepare an issue devoted to Lisbeth’s story, and supporting her innocence. This adds the magazine to the conspiracy’s hitlist, and entangles Blomqvist with a law enforcement task force working to shut down the group Lisbeth has exposed.

Rapace and Nyquist again anchor an effective cast, in a story that builds organically on the earlier events.  Like the other movies, I found it disorganized as a self-contained film, but the structural decisions make a lot more sense to me now that I know it was originally a six-episode TV series that was recut for theatrical release.  (Thanks, Dad!  Next time I’ll do my homework.) As such, it worked as the conclusion of an ongoing saga, particularly as it pertains to Lisbeth’s tragic history, and to the long-distance romance between its star-crossed-and-separated heroes. If I rewatch this someday, I’ll probably watch the extended cut, which is evidently the official version, in this case. I suspect that will obviate many of the problems I had with the earlier parts of the story.  Oh well, live and learn!

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Film: The Heat

The Heat (2013) shouldn’t be that big of a deal, but I guess it’s a sign of how far Hollywood hasn’t come that a female buddy-cop movie can feel so unusual. Sandra Bullock is an arrogant, hotshot FBI agent named Sara Ashburn. She’s angling for promotion, but poor interpersonal skills prompt her boss to send her to Boston, there to work a case with the local police.  Enter Detective Mullins (Melissa McCarthy), a foul-mouthed badass familiar with the neighborhood — and she doesn’t exactly play nice with others, either. Her slobby, out-of-control behavior is the exact opposite of Ashburn’s buttoned-down, book-read approach, so naturally…well, you get the idea.

Structurally the script is pretty formulaic, but plot isn’t the point here. The movie succeeds on the performances of Bullock and McCarthy, who have terrific chemistry and comic timing together. I tend to prefer their verbal exchanges to the physical humor, but both are well executed, and the movie has an infectious energy to it. (I wasn’t surprised to learn that the film’s writer, Katie Dippold, is a veteran of Parks & Recreation; Ashburn’s awkward competence is very Leslie Knope, and the film has a similar touch for character.) A fast, funny comedy.

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