Friday, July 29, 2016

We Don't Need Jason Bourne

This review originally appeared on

Jason Bourne, the fifth film in the franchise, but only the fourth to star Matt Damon as the titular character, is the Bourne movie we don't really need, except perhaps as a way to pretend 2012's The Bourne Legacy (starring Jeremy Renner as NOT Jason Bourne) never happened.

The last Bourne movie to star Matt Damon was 2007's The Bourne Ultimatum, and that movie was pretty satisfying, in a final-film kind of way. But if Jason Bourne is an attempt to relaunch the franchise, they should probably wait another ten years and try again.

Set ten years after Ultimatum, Jason Bourne finds our hero wandering around Europe, fighting in underground boxing matches for money. (Within the first ten minutes of the film, Damon takes off his shirt, so at least there's that.)

Meanwhile, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), has apparently been wandering around Europe looking for the perfect computer to hack into the CIA's Black Ops files. She finds it in Iceland, and turns out it's not too hard to locate the CIA's secret files since they're all in a folder labeled "BLACK OPERATIONS." (Sheesh. The CIA isn't even smart enough to label it TAXES like most people do their porn folders!) [Attending the screening as Rain's guest, this dumbass folder name made me laugh aloud. - ELB]

Digging into those cyber files she learns the CIA is planning to launch a new version of the terrible Treadstone operation that gave birth to Bourne, as well as some secrets about Bourne's original recruitment. She brings this info to him, hoping for his help in exposing the whole thing to the world.

Luckily for the CIA, they have a not-at-all-shady cyber-security agent named Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), who quickly catches on to the plan. She convinces CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), to let her lead the counter operation, with her personal goal being the re-recruitment of Bourne. Dewey's less keen on bringing Bourne back alive, and assigns an asset (Vincent Cassel) to kill Bourne.

The film tries to get with the times, adding an Internet security angle to the whole thing, including a tech giant meant to represent Google, Facebook, and Apple, all in one, whose founder no longer wishes to aid the CIA in any counter-terrorism efforts. Director Dewey is not happy with this, but then again he's played by Tommy Lee Jone, who never looks happy about anything. (Also, I'm pretty sure Jones's eyes are going to just disappear into his eye bags any day now.)

Paul Greengrass, who directed the second and third Bourne films, returns to the helm, and I have to finally just admit I absolutely hate the way he directs action sequences. It's not just the constant shaky camera, (which is tedious); or the ADD editing; or how, because of the use of digital over film, everything ends up blurry. It's all that combined with the fact that, at least in Jason Bourne, half the action sequences take place in dim lighting, so you're basically guaranteed to be confused.

There's a chase scene in Las Vegas that involves a Dodge Charger chasing a SWAT truck through the crowded, neon lit streets of the Vegas Strip. This should be awe-inspiring and tense; instead it's a boring blur of carnage with zero suspense. This is followed by a fist fight between Cassell and Damon that's filmed in a dark sewer. Great.

And perhaps that would be fine if the non-action parts of the movie weren't so dreadfully dull. Vikander's character, should they continue the films, could prove to be interesting, but too often she's just reacting to computer screens while wearing an unfortunate hair clamp. The attempts to fill in Bourne's backstory fall easily into "daddy issues" territory, and had me rolling my eyes more than once. And when an action movie has you dreading the action sequences, and yawning through the rest, it's pretty safe to say it's a born loser.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Pleasantly Cliché-Laden: Star Trek Beyond, Reviewed

This review originally appeared on

Early on in Star Trek Beyond, after a failed and ultimately comedic attempt at interstellar diplomacy, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) wearily confesses in his captain's log that his life has "started to feel...episodic."

It's both a sly nod to Star Trek's television origins, and a meta commentary on the film itself: It's the third entry into latest Trek reboot, but it's also the one that comes closest to feeling like an original Star Trek episode.

Kirk and his crew are sent on a mission to rescue a stranded ship, only to find themselves ambushed by an alien swarm that attacks and ultimately brings down the Enterprise. The non-red shirts of the crew manage to escape alive, but land on different parts of the planet.

Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) are captured by alien warlord Krall (Idris Elba), who is after a missing part of a weapon of mass destruction that's hidden on the Enterprise. Meanwhile, Bones (Karl Urban), tends to an injured Spock (Zachary Quinto), while Kirk, Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Scotty (Simon Pegg) get help from an alien named Jahla (Sofia Boutella) who kind of looks like Gwen Stefani if Stefani had joined KISS.

Star Trek Beyond takes some risks by destroying the beloved Enterprise, (don't worry, that's not much of a spoiler, and it's not the first time it's happened), and separating the crew through the majority of the film. But the rest of the movie is filled with some pleasantly Trekian cliches, like a planet covered in fake rocks, and fist-fights with aliens. (Those aliens seem to number in the millions when in their swarming spaceships, but we only see a handful of them walking around, and they occupy only about an acre of land on the actual planet.)

Simon Pegg co-wrote the movie with Doug Jung (who has a cameo in the film as Sulu's partner, in a scene that is very short and perfectly subtle), so it's filled with the kinds of humor and references you'd expect. Yes, Bones says "Dammit Jim!" and Spock raises an eyebrow more than once. Where the script falters is with the villain, and that mega-weapon that never makes a whole lot of sense.

J.J. Abrams directed the last two films in the franchise, but he's presumably a little occupied with another Star franchise right now, so has handed the directing helm to Fast & Furious franchise director Justin Lin. While the Fast & Furious films are probably best known for their elaborate action sequences (of which there are plenty here), Lin has also proven to have a good handle on ensemble casts, allowing their familiarity and looseness with each other to come across on film.

Star Trek has always centered on the crew's camaraderie and strengths, and the film's best moments come when Bones and Spock are working together while bickering; or Kirk comes up with a "plan;" or Chekov figures out how to get a ship online one more time (Anton Yelchin will be missed). If Star Trek Beyond were an episode of the original show, it probably wouldn't rank up there with the best of them. But it would still have you coming back the next week, wanting more.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Snowball Rules: The Secret Life Of Pets, Reviewed

This review originally appeared on

I think everyone has fantasies about what our animals do when we're not around. Do they sit and stare at the door all day, waiting for our return? Do they watch soap operas? Do they invite friends over for wild parties? That's the central conceit of The Secret Life of Pets, the latest animated comedy from Illumination, the studio behind Minions and the Despicable Me films.

The hero of the story is Max, (Louis C.K.), a Jack Russell-looking mutt owned by Katie (Ellie Kemper). She and Max live in an apartment in Manhattan, and have a close bond--so close that when Katie leaves every day for work, Max spends most of the day staring at the door, wondering when she'll be back.

Occasionally, other pets from the building will stop by, like Mel, (Bobby Moynihan), a pug with a bit of ADHD; Chloe, (Lake Bell), a fat and disinterested cat; and Gidget (Jenny Slate), a fluffy white lap dog with a mad crush on Max.

But one night Katie brings home Duke, (Eric Stonestreet), a huge dog that resembles a cross between Snuffaluffagus and a Newfoundland. As can be expected, the two dogs don't get along. Their rivalry, through a series of conveniently bad events, results in them lost, collarless, and at the mercy of a gang of animal renegades, who live in the sewers, intent on destroying humankind. They're headed by Snowball, an adorable looking but very militant bunny, voiced by Kevin Hart.

Kevin Hart's performance is a definite highlight in a movie that, from the main "what they do when we're not there" premise on through to the central "rivals must team up to get back home" story, is just a basic retread of Toy Story. Hart's very cute but very angry and very fearless bunny brings the majority of the movie's biggest laughs. Jenny Slate, who's already demonstrated she's got the perfect voice for animation with her series of Marcel the Shell shorts, also has a lot of fun with a character that starts out as a cliche, but turns into a fierce hero.

But Louis C.K. and Eric Stonestreet's voices are just a little too similar, and both Max and Duke are a little too dull to center a movie on. For the most part that's fine, since there are so many supporting characters to turn one's attention to, (there's also Albert Brooks as a cranky red-tailed hawk, and Dana Carvey as an old, streetwise basset hound).

The stretches that just feature Max and Duke are a snore, and the film's attempts to wrestle some tears out of the story don't work. The character design is also kind of ugly and flat, as tends to be the case with Illumination's movies, (after all, their biggest hits feature characters that basically look like identical yellow sleeping pills). The Secret Life of Pets is probably fast-paced enough to keep the kids engaged, but I say hold out for the inevitable Snowball-centered spinoff.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Striving For Wonder: The BFG

This review originally appeared on

I never read Roald Dahl's book The BFG as a kid, so pardon me for thinking, for a little while, that the title was short for "the Big Fucking Guy;" turns out it's "the Big Friendly Giant"! (Although, I don't think Dahl would have minded that particular misunderstanding).

Orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), is prone to insomnia, and wanders the halls of her London orphanage at the dead of night. During one of these restless eves, she spots a giant upturning garbage cans in the street below her window. Having been spotted, the giant snatches her, whisking her away to giant country.

After her initial fear, she realizes the giant is, in fact, quite friendly, especially in comparison to his giant comrades, who are much bigger and much meaner than him. The giant bullies want nothing more than to eat "human beans" like Sophie, and sleep. But the BFG is content to subsist on a vegetarian diet of slimey snozzcumbers and to venture out to his nightly job of capturing and releasing dreams.

Mark Rylance plays the BFG, and it's his second collaboration with Spielberg in a year. (They last teamed up for The Bridge of Spies, which resulted in a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Rylance.) The BFG's biggest charm is his speech, which is full of jumbled words and naïve malapropisms, and Rylance has the perfect voice for such a character. It's calm, soothing, and exudes kindness.

Sophie is a smart and spunky heroine, and Barnhill never falls into the overly-cute-child-actor trap. Which shouldn't come as a surprise; Spielberg's always been able to get great performances out of his child actors.

It's just a shame some strong performances are stuck in such an uneven movie. Spielberg strives for wonder in the first half, but achieves it only once, during a beautiful dream-hunting scene that reminded me of another uneven Disney film, Fantasia.

The second half aims for comedy, with Sophie and the BFG enlisting the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton) to help them defeat the mean child-snatching giants. It's a silly and amusing set-up, especially when they all gather round for breakfast before setting off to battle; it's undeniably fun watching a giant eat toast and eggs with a garden rake while sitting on top of a grand piano. But the movie takes a looooong time to get to that point, and film's finale is so anti-climatic, if it were anyone else directing, I'd have thought they ran out of money before they could finish filming.

Mainly For The Fans: Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words

This review originally appeared on

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words is a documentary without a single shot of new footage. Instead, the film is comprised of archival video interviews and performances, spanning thirty years of Zappa's career. A lot of this footage is new to U.S. audiences, since director Thorsten Schütte was able to dig up a lot of clips and interviews from Zappa's European TV appearances.

Growing up, I was always aware of Zappa's music, since my father was a fan. And since I came of age during the days of MTV, I saw a lot of Zappa's activism, fighting against censorship and those warning labels that eventually made their way onto albums, CDs, and tapes. (He might have been amused to know most music fans ended up seeking out those warning labels, since it meant they were gonna get something dirty.)

Eat That Question is the kind of movie that will likely be very enjoyable to his fans, but less compelling to those less familiar. Zappa does a lot of pontificating in these interviews, and when you listen to them back to back, it can sometimes comes off as sanctimonious lecturing. And it's kind of hard to take lecturing from a man whose lyrics could often be interpreted as homophobic and sexist.

This could have been countered with more musical performances, and by hearing his musical satire in better context. Instead, almost as if in deference to Zappa, who in the movie, scolds those fans who only liked his first three records, director Schütte gives more attention to Zappa's later classical and jazz instrumental work. (And, of course, there's also only passing reference to "Valley Girl," his biggest hit.) I wasn't a huge Frank Zappa fan going into the movie, but I'm sad to say, I was a little less of one coming out of it.