23 August 2012

The Bourne Legacy Review

It's a rare sight indeed to see any series to maintain quality into a fourth iteration, and whilst there may indeed have been hope for the Bourne series - in the form of the great Mr Jeremy Renner stepping into Matt Damon's ass-kicking boots, and Tony Gilroy not only continuing writing duties, but also stepping into the director's chair - it's derailed by some strange additions to the mythos that don't sit comfortably within the context of the overarching story.

There's a nice sense of foreboding built at the start, with stark Alaskan landscapes, and a rugged, ragged-looking Renner clambering through it rather expertly. This is juxtaposed against Edward Norton and Stacey Keach, prevaricating in suits in Washington as they deal with the fallout of Jason Bourne's escapades. It's here that the film is most interesting, laying a groundwork that is actually rather elegantly interwoven with what we know about Treadstone and Blackbriar, with cameos from various major players that serve as a constant reminder of the climate of intrigue in the world we are being presented.

Performances are good - with Renner in particular going all out as Aaron Cross, notably performing the majority of his own stunts, and brooding both intensely and appropriately as the plot becomes silly around him. Norton brings his appealing brand of fast talk to the antagonist, and the supporting players all make a convincing go of it.

It's nicely directed too, but given the grade of action that Greengrass gave us, this was never going to really measure up. There're a few beautifully dynamic shots - a continuous tracking shot of Cross scrambling up the side of a house, bursting through a window and putting down a government assassin is the most memorable - but for the most part, whilst solid, it can feel a little visually perfunctory.

Then, about twenty minutes in, the story takes its uncomfortable turn - introducing a pair of pills that Cross has been taking that are...well, it's not properly explained at first, nor is it fully explained by the end. It feels a little cheap in terms of story-telling, using facts that the characters have known all along, but have simply foregone divulging to the audience to drip feed us ultimately incomplete information that plays against the hyper-realistic, psychological angle of the first three. Brainwashing, after all, isn't far-fetched at all - and whilst that element is still present, the movie also starts coining phrases like 'virusing out', and peppering the dialogue with pharmaceutical jargon that feels quite forced, and not in keeping with the precedent that has been set.

It also never manages to make a case for the audience creating relationships with the characters, seeming to assume that we'll dislike or like the characters based on who they are aligned with from the previous films.

In fact, were it not for the fact that we know Cross is meant to be the Bourne character of the piece, his character could be construed as the villain - a drug-addicted psychopath who more or less kills indiscriminately in pursuit of what he needs, as the powers that be do whatever they can to stop him. See this without knowing the story, and you'll likely be left scratching your head as to exactly whose side you're meant to be on.

Ultimately, this is something of a disappointment - visuals that have dropped significantly in  intensity, and a muddled plot that is both deeply rooted in, and yet somehow in polar opposition to its prologue, not really working on its own, nor as the Legacy that it purports to be. The performances and the action are entertaining enough to buoy the film just above the surface, and if we want to see Greengrass and Damon back in the saddle, it should be seen, but beyond that, it's the first real let down of the blockbuster season.

22 August 2012

Ted Review

Given that this is a Seth MacFarlane comedy, it's probably safe to assume that you've already made a decision as to whether or not you'll be seeing Ted. In fact, in all likelihood, you've rushed out and seen it already! Which makes reviewing it seem a little fruitless, but what the hey.

For those of you unsold on MacFarlane's unique comedy stylings, this isn't going to sway you onto him - the same scatological whimsy that is on display in his televisions shows pervades here, even so far as to cut to slightly silly asides that don't really hold any meaning beside being quite funny.

It is, however, a terrific setup, playing on the nostalgia of similar 80s/90s movies - you know the ones, modern fantasies that have a hint of magic, riffing on them beautifully with Walter Murohy's deliciously chintzy score, and a slightly serious, yet oft-distracted narration from Patrick Stewart that is the source of the film's first laughs.

Then there's the magic moment itself, and this is rather well built-upon, with Ted quickly becoming a celebrity, and then following the path of more than a few child stars as he grows up, retreating into obscurity

But what's really remarkable is that the film does indeed have a soul - strip away the ostensible gimmick of the animated cuddly toy as protagonist, and it would still work. It has something to say about friendship, love, obsession, parenting, and more, and as it explores these with coarsely poetic dialogue swirled into outlandish slacker melodrama - recalling Kevin Smith at his best - it creates characters that you can actually invest in. Come the denouement, when what the BBFC might refer to as 'mild peril' is introduced, you find yourself concerned for the wellbeing of a stuffed toy that you're not even sure can die, which is something of an achievement.

Whilst MacFarlane's direction is occasionally a little rudimentary, he never mishandles any particular aspect, though his talents are clearly more suited to some motes of live action over others. He does, however, drive it all forward himself with a great central performance as Ted, and his sense of comic timing also makes the overall transition to the big screen intact.

The rest of the cast a good too: Mila Kunis has already established herself as a good leading lady, and Mark Wahlberg makes for a capable foil, ensuring the story stays grounded. It's nice that there's also no traditional 'straight man' within the trio. Each take their turn, and this lends the dialogue an organic feel that serves to make the comedy rather satisfying. The supporting cast - bit part cameos as a majority - are all fun to spot, and each gets a nice few moments in the limelight. Most notable are Bill Smitrovich as Frank, Ted's manager - a bit of an oddball, but a memorable one - and Giovanni Ribisi as Ted's stalker, a character that was drawn from the same part of MacFarlane's mind as Herbert from Family Guy. Funny, but also mildly creepifying.

Ultimately, the film is simply good fun - tight editing eliminates dull moments, and MacFarlane's particular brand of comedy is as it ever was, and if it's your cup of tea, you'll find more than your share to like here. Certainly worth seeing.