Le Mans ’66 (2019)

aka Ford v Ferrari

2020 #177
James Mangold | 153 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English & Italian |
12 / PG-13

Le Mans '66

Did you know that Ford tried to buy Ferrari in the ’60s? I didn’t. As per this film, Ford were desperate to appeal to a younger market and an association with motor racing seemed the way to do that. Ferrari were the regular winners of the Le Mans 24-hour race but were struggling financially, so Ford made an offer; but Ferrari played them, merely using Ford’s interest to get a better deal from Fiat. Pissed off, Ford set about making a racing car by themselves to beat Ferrari at their own game. Enter former Le Mans-winning driver turned race-car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a smooth-talking American who’s as adept at charming higher-ups as he is at making fast cars; and his favoured mechanic and driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a quick-tempered Brit who rubs the Ford execs up the wrong way. With Ford’s money behind them, but also management watching over them, can Shelby and Miles engineer a car good enough to beat Ferrari at Le Mans?

That the film goes by one of two different titles depending where you live might seem like an incidental point of trivia — it’s not the first time this has happened (Avengers Assemble is probably the most famous recent example), and it wasn’t an artistic decision, nor even a marketing one, apparently, but instead legal necessity (according to director James Mangold, you can’t use brand names in a title in the UK and/or Europe) — but it’s also a lens through which we can consider the film’s focus. To wit, is it more about the rivalry between Ford and Ferrari (as in the original title) or winning the 1966 Le Mans race (as in the UK title)? The consensus seems to be that the original title sounds more dynamic, but I think the international one is more accurate. The head of Ford has it in for Ferrari, but our two heroes are more interested in winning the race, rivalry or not.

Winner!

To some extent the story has been streamlined in that direction. The original screenplay was an ensemble about the entire team building the Le Mans car — more historically accurate, I’m sure, but I’d wager less dramatic and personal. That’s what’s gained by focusing on Shelby and Miles, the two key figures. To the film’s credit, it still doesn’t pretend they did it alone. The role attributed to other mechanics may not be as large as it was in real life, but nor does the film try to pass it off as the achievement of just two men. What it primarily adds is relatable drama. This isn’t just a movie about building and/or racing a car, but about these two particular men — what motivates them; how their ego gets in the way, especially in Miles’s case.

The film plays to the lead actors’ strengths in this respect, with Damon turning on the easy charm and Bale, who famously stays in character throughout a shoot, embodying someone who is superb at their job but can be belligerent. The standout from a quality supporting cast is Caitriona Balfe. She may just have the typical Wife role, but she’s made to be a bit more badass than that usually allows… before getting relegated it to the sidelines for the finale, naturally.

Said finale is the eponymous Le Mans event, of course. It’s not the only race sequence in the film, but it’s by far the longest. Nonetheless, they’re all suitably thrilling in how they’re shot and edited. One of the film’s genres on IMDb is “Action”, and though it doesn’t really conform to my idea of what an Action movie is — not least in the fact that there are only three or four of these “action sequence” race scenes throughout the two-and-a-half-hour movie — I can see where they’re coming from.

We are golden

That runtime is quite long, but it doesn’t drag… once it gets going, anyway. The slowest part is early on, getting the story up and running, which I feel could have been streamlined. Ford’s attempt to buy Ferrari initially seems like an aside, but obviously it comes to frame the whole rivalry; but Miles’s woes with the IRS barely have anything to do with the rest of the movie, and, other than providing an extended introduction to the man, I don’t think you’d lose much by losing them. The film was clearly trimmed a fair bit, though, because there are loads of little bits you can spot in the making-of that aren’t in the finished film. Said making-of also highlights the choices behind the cinematography. The visuals are very golden — that kind of “wasn’t the past pretty” atmosphere — but the behind-the-scenes footage shows the shooting conditions to be much duller and greyer, revealing how much the orange/gold light comes from the camerawork and grading.

Le Mans ’66 might look like a film for car nuts, and I’m sure they’ll get a lot out of it — alongside the likes of Rush, I guess this kind of thing would be their favourite movie (both those films currently sit in the IMDb Top 250). But the rest of us are by no means left out, thanks to involving characters and exciting race scenes, even if some plot beats border on clichéd. Le Mans ’66 may not reinvent the wheel, but it works hard at refining it.

4 out of 5

Le Mans ’66 is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from midnight tonight.

The Great Wall (2016)

2017 #158
Zhang Yimou | 103 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | USA, China, Hong Kong, Australia & Canada / English, Mandarin & Spanish | 12 / PG-13

The Great Wall

This movie was on a hiding to nothing from the moment people got wind of the fact it was a China-set action movie starring white American Matt Damon. Increased representation is all well and good, but you still need a big-name star in order to get funding for your movie if it’s a $150 million production aimed at a global audience, and the stars who can sell movies that big around the world are almost exclusively white. It’ll be a positive thing when that changes, but it’s the way it is right now. Should we write off entire movies just because they have to think about budget more than political correctness?

There are pros and cons within the film itself. Damon plays a mercenary who stumbles upon China’s national secret: that the Great Wall was built to keep out monstrous beasts, and when they attack it has to be defended. An outsider character works as a good way into this story, though of course there are “white saviour” issues with it being someone who looks like Matt Damon. If you want to object to the movie entirely for those reasons, that’s your prerogative. There were other criticisms of it as a piece of entertainment, but I hold even less stock in those, because I thought it was highly entertaining.

The best bit is the first 25 minutes. This opening salvo is phenomenal: a huge, well-made battle sequence with tonnes of cool moments. It’s so epic, it feels like the climax. That leaves you wondering where the film possibly has left to go for the next hour-and-change — can it possibly have something up its sleeve to top that? Unsurprisingly, it heads away from huge battles and into skirmish territory. Fortunately, inventive ideas keep these sequences from feeling like lesser fodder than the epic opening act. In the end, it never does top the opener, but hey-ho.

Colourful diversity

As for the plot, well, it is what it is. There are some obvious holes and contrivances (most obviously: why do they hold back some weapons and tactics to only use in later battles?), but nothing I found too bothering for the type of entertainment the film seeks to provide. Character work is also about what you’d expect from an action-adventure blockbuster, though Damon and Pedro Pascal have a buddy relationship that’s a lot of fun. Despite the presence in key roles of Damon, Pascal, and Willem Dafoe, most of the cast are actually Asian, with the standout being Jing Tian as a strong female co-lead.

As you might expect from the director of Hero, the film is a visual feast. There’s vibrant design work, emphasised by cinematography from DPs Stuart Dryburgh and Zhao Xiaoding that makes things like the colour-coded soldiers really pop. And the 3D is spectacular. Although it’s a post-conversion, the film definitely seems to have been shot with it in mind. The massive scale of the wall allows for both deep scenery shots and extreme height, especially when we follow the class of warriors who dive off the wall to fight while abseiling down it. Then there are the arrows, throwing axes, leaping monsters, exploding monsters… Of course the rest of the film has visual depth too — facial details in close-ups, the scale of a large banquet hall, and so on — but the action scenes are a riot.

That’s why I enjoyed The Great Wall, despite its daft plot. The action is a lot of fun, and the whole thing looks spectacular in 3D. From an action-adventure blockbuster, that’ll do me nicely.

4 out of 5

Jason Bourne (2016)

2016 #185
Paul Greengrass | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK, USA & China / English & German | 12 / PG-13

Jason BourneMuch like the Bond films to which they’re so often compared, the Bourne movies have their devotees while only fitfully pleasing the critical establishment. This fifth movie — which is notable for marking the return of star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass after the semi-reboot of The Bourne Legacy — certainly met with mixed reviews when it came out at the end of this summer. Mixed erring towards negative, anyhow, though it does have its supporters. I’d love to say I’m among them, but my take was more… well, mixed.

The story picks up a decade-ish since the last Damon movie, Ultimatum (I don’t recall if the time gap is specified on screen, but we’re led to believe it’s been roughly real-time). Bourne is still living off the grid, participating in underground bare-knuckle fights in Greece for money and/or something to do. When his former associate Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) hacks into the CIA to retrieve documents on the black ops missions she and Bourne used to be a part of, she discovers something about Bourne’s past that leads her to meet up with him. In Langley, hotshot young tech-head Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) and her boss Director Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) are on to Nicky and presume Bourne is involved in her plot, dispatching The Asset (Vincent Cassel) to rub them out — but he has his own history with Bourne.

Bourne againAction sequences ensue, shot with all the ShakyCam you’d expect from Greengrass. By now I imagine you have your own view on whether his style works or not. Personally, I think it’s considerably less bamboozling than when it made its debut in Supremacy 12 years ago — it’s been so copied that we’re more used to seeing it. I think Greengrass has a better handle on the purpose of the style than many of his imitators, however. I’d also argue that the cinematography in Jason Bourne is a smidgen more stable, with shots held a few frames longer, so that it’s even less seasickness-inducing than before. In fact, some shots — even in the quick-cut action montages — are downright pretty. The film was shot by Barry Ackroyd, who hasn’t lensed a Bourne before but has done most of Greengrass’ other movies, so maybe that has something to do with it.

It’s in the big set pieces that Jason Bourne functions best. One in London in the middle of the film is just people walking around a lot looking over their shoulders, but Greengrass still invests it with some tension. Better is the climax, a kind of drag race down the Las Vegas strip… in the middle of traffic, of course. It’s largely implausible (I’ve been to Vegas — I remember the strip as being permanently gridlocked), but it’s certainly adrenaline-pumping. However, the highlight is probably the first: a chase through a smoky nighttime riot in Athens, with Bourne and Nicky on foot and then a motorbike as they’re pursued by the local police, an undercover CIA team, and the Asset, the latter two directed by Lee, Dewey, and their Langley lot via satellite imagery, CCTV, and… social media.

Government surveillanceFrankly, Jason Bourne is at pains to mix in hyper-current iconography; the reasoning for Damon and Greengrass’ return now being that the world has changed and how does Bourne fit into that? So as well as social media and Greek riots we’ve got references to and riffs on hacking, Edward Snowden, government surveillance of its own citizens, the prevalence of Facebook/Twitter-esque tech companies, and so on. Sadly, I’m not sure the film’s actually got anything to say about any of these things. Greengrass and his co-writer, editor Christopher Rouse, have appropriated all these zeitgeisty concepts to make the film feel very Now, but that surface sheen is more or less where it ends. I mean, there’s a whole subplot starring Riz Ahmed as the Zuckerberg-like CEO of a social media company that I didn’t even mention in my plot summary because it’s kind of an aside. It’s kind of ironic, really, that it always seemed as if Greengrass’ more natural stomping ground was his documentary-ish real-world-exposé type movies, with his contributions to the Bourne series an unusual sideline; yet when he finally marries the two halves of his filmmaking career, it’s the action rather than current-affairs commentary that takes precedence.

Even leaving that aside, the plot is no great shakes. It’s too slight, serving primarily to string together the three or four big set pieces; and it’s too simplistic — Greengrass’ Bourne movies used to be entertainingly baffling, a web of crosses and double-crosses and historical connections and hidden plans. Jason Bourne re-appropriates many of the series’ familiar beats — all of them, in fact — but it feels like Greengrass and Rouse just analysed the previous movies for repeated elements and copied them, rather than having anything fresh to do with the constituent parts. So while few of these building blocks are poorly handled, there’s little remarkable about them either. Some are at least elevated by quality performances: Vikander tries to inject complexity into her character, with some success thanks to final-act kinda-twists, while Tommy Lee Jones brings natural class.

Bourne bikerThe end result is that Jason Bourne does thrill as an action movie, which seems to have been the primary goal of its makers, at the end of the day. As an action-thriller, however, the rinsed-and-repeated plot is a slightly faded imitation of former successes; a through-the-motions way to provide those impressively staged chases and punch-ups. It’s not the definitive Bourne movie one might’ve expected from the returning star/director combo (why else come back if not to perfect, or at least add to, the formula?), but instead means the film ends on an odd note: even though it wasn’t a wholly satisfying experience, and even though it doesn’t end with questions still blatantly hanging (as every Bourne movie bar Ultimatum has done), I want Damon and Greengrass to come back and do it all again, please. Only do it properly next time, yeah guys?

3 out of 5

Jason Bourne is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today and the US next week.

Team America: World Police (2004)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #89

Freedom Hangs by a Thread

Country: USA & Germany
Language: English, French, Klingon, Korean & Arabic
Runtime: 98 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R (cut)

Original Release: 15th October 2004 (USA)
UK Release: 14th January 2005
First Seen: cinema, 2005

Stars
Trey Parker (BASEketball, Despicable Me 3)
Matt Stone (BASEketball, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut)
Kristen Miller (Cherry Falls, Puff, Puff, Pass)
Masasa (Kingdom Come, Angels & Demons)
Daran Norris (Comic Book: The Movie, Veronica Mars)

Director
Trey Parker (Orgazmo, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut)

Screenwriters
Trey Parker (Cannibal! The Musical, The Book of Mormon)
Matt Stone (South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, The Book of Mormon)
Pam Brady (South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, Hot Rod)

The Story
Global paramilitary protectors Team America: World Police must battle both the machinations of terrorists and the criticism of Hollywood actors.

Our Heroes
Gary Johnston is just a Broadway actor, until he’s recruited into counter-terrorism force Team America: World Police to use his acting skills to save the world. The rest of the team include its boss, Spottswoode; Lisa, a psychologist; Sarah, who thinks she’s psychic; Joe, an all-American jock; and Chris, a martial artist with a hatred of actors — like Gary! There’s also their supercomputer, I.N.T.E.L.L.I.G.E.N.C.E., which stands for… um…

Our Villains
Kim Jong-il, the lonely leader of North Korea, and his threats to global security. His positions is strengthened by those liberal FAGs — that’d be the Film Actors Guild.

Best Supporting Character
Matt Damon!


Memorable Quote
“We’re dicks! We’re reckless, arrogant, stupid dicks. And the Film Actors Guild are pussies. And Kim Jong-il is an asshole. Pussies don’t like dicks, because pussies get fucked by dicks. But dicks also fuck assholes — assholes who just want to shit on everything. Pussies may think they can deal with assholes their way, but the only thing that can fuck an asshole is a dick, with some balls. The problem with dicks is that sometimes they fuck too much, or fuck when it isn’t appropriate — and it takes a pussy to show ’em that. But sometimes pussies get so full of shit that they become assholes themselves, because pussies are only an inch-and-a-half away from assholes. I don’t know much in this crazy, crazy world, but I do know that if you don’t let us fuck this asshole, we are going to have our dicks and our pussies all covered in shit.” — Gary

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Matt Damon.” — Matt Damon

Memorable Scene
Puppets having sex. Sex, by puppets. Sexing puppets. Puppet sex.

Best Song
The titular refrain (“America! Fuck yeah!”) is perhaps the most memorable, though it has strong competition from Kim Jong-il’s I’m So Ronery, but my favourite song has always been the in-jokey, film-fan-y Montage. I certainly laughed far louder than anyone else in the cinema, anyway.

Technical Wizardry
Puppets! Considering the Gerry Anderson shows they’re emulating took multiple iterations and years of work to really perfect, Team America does a remarkable job out of the gate — and isn’t adverse to some puppet-based humour either, naturally.

Making of
Originally the Matt Damon character had a proper speaking part, because he’s a pretty intelligent guy really and Parker and Stone knew that. But then the puppet came out looking a bit, shall we say, ‘special’. With no time to remake it, they decided to have the character live up to how he looked: only capable of saying his own name. So it’s less a grand piece of satire on the self-involvement of Hollywood lefties, more an in-joke.

Awards
1 Empire Award (Comedy)
1 MTV Movie Awards nomination (Action Sequence for “the desert terrorist assault”)

What the Critics Said
“it’s hard not to guffaw with glee at the gross libelling and on-screen dismemberment of an array of ‘aware’ Hollywood stars (albeit in puppet form) and in which George W Bush’s war on terror is rendered in risible sub-‘Supermarionation’ form. The whole thing plays like Thunderbirds Goes to Hell and will doubtless offend all those numskulls who complained about the BBC’s transmission of Jerry Springer: The Opera. For that alone, it gets my vote.” — Mark Kermode, New Statesman

Score: 77%

What the Public Say
“The idea of the puppets in the first place is very clever, because when you make everything a puppet, everything becomes funnier. I think that the puppets themselves work so well because the creators knew their strengths and weaknesses. The puppets they use are pretty detailed and can do a lot of different kinds of movements. The team use these functions of the puppets for simpler actions (moving limbs and heads and so on) and make it look realistic. But how do you make a fistfight between two puppets look realistic? You don’t, just make some very basic and crude movements and the joke basically tells itself.” — Felix, FelixMovieThoughts

Verdict

The guys behind South Park spoof Michael Bay-style action movies — and by extension right-wing America’s view of its place in the world — through the medium of Thunderbirds-style puppets, which just heightens the ridiculousness. It’s a neat mix of clever satire and baser laughs, bolstered by surprisingly listenable musical numbers. It’s not always clever, and it’s never big (they’re puppets!), but it is funny.

#90 will be… following yonder star.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #79

The mission is a man.

Country: USA
Language: English, French, German & Czech
Runtime: 170 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 24th July 1998 (USA)
UK Release: 11th September 1998
First Seen: TV, c.2001

Stars
Tom Hanks (Big, Cast Away)
Edward Burns (She’s the One, 15 Minutes)
Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting, Jason Bourne)
Tom Sizemore (Natural Born Killers, Black Hawk Down)
(The lead cast includes since-famous people like Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, and Giovanni Ribisi, and the supporting cast even more recognisable faces, but, still, Edward Burns is second billed.)

Director
Steven Spielberg (Empire of the Sun, War Horse)

Screenwriter
Robert Rodat (Fly Away Home, The Patriot)

The Story
In the immediate aftermath of D-Day, a group of soldiers are tasked to locate and rescue just one man: Private Ryan, whose three brothers have been killed in action, earning him a free pass home. As the squad trek across France, mindful of the waste of resources, they encounter first-hand the early days of the Allied invasion of Europe.

Our Heroes
Just a regular bunch of soldiers, co-opted into a PR mission that isn’t that easy. They’re commanded by Captain Miller, their respected leader with a secretive past… a past which is actually thoroughly mundane, and just highlights the bizarre, heightened world of the war.

Our Villains
Nazis!

Best Supporting Character
Matt Damon was cast as the eponymous soldier because Spielberg wanted an unknown with an all-American look. Unfortunately for that plan, before Private Ryan came out Damon won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting and became famous overnight. It certainly changes the effect to have the team rescuing Movie Star Matt Damon rather than Some Unknown Actor, but, on the bright side, he’s good.

Memorable Quote
Reiben: “Hey, so, Captain, what about you? I mean, you don’t gripe at all?”
Miller: “I don’t gripe to you, Reiben. I’m a captain. There’s a chain of command. Gripes go up, not down. Always up. You gripe to me, I gripe to my superior officer, so on, so on, and so on. I don’t gripe to you. I don’t gripe in front of you. You should know that as a Ranger.”
Reiben: “I’m sorry, sir, but uh… let’s say you weren’t a captain, or maybe I was a major. What would you say then?”
Miller: “Well, in that case, I’d say, ‘This is an excellent mission, sir, with an extremely valuable objective, sir, worthy of my best efforts, sir. Moreover, I feel heartfelt sorrow for the mother of Private James Ryan and am willing to lay down my life and the lives of my men — especially you, Reiben — to ease her suffering.’”

Memorable Scene
The opening half-hour, which recreates the Normandy landings in shocking, brutal detail, and is supposedly very true to the actual experience. Surely the definitive modern combat sequence from any war movie.

Technical Wizardry
The heavily desaturated cinematography by Janusz Kaminski instantly lends the film a grim veracity, very appropriate to its tone. Such extreme colour palettes are commonplace nowadays, mainly thanks to digital grading, but when Private Ryan came to US TV providers had to deal with numerous complaints from viewers who thought there was a problem with their signal — which the broadcasters fixed by just upping the saturation of the film, of course.

Truly Special Effect
The involvement of ILM was downplayed so that the film didn’t come across as “an effects movie”, but they still had a key role — for instance, providing most of the bullet hits throughout the D-Day sequence. Not remarkable effects work in itself, maybe, but it’s appropriately invisible.

Making of
The D-Day sequence alone cost $11 million. It was filmed over four weeks (almost half the entire shoot), gradually moving up the beach to film the whole thing in chronological order. Spielberg personally operated the camera for many shots, none of which were storyboarded. The shoot involved up to 1,000 extras, 20 to 30 of whom were amputees fitted with prosthetic limbs to simulate them being blown off. Reportedly, many veterans have congratulated Spielberg on the sequence’s accuracy, including actor James Doohan, aka Star Trek’s Scotty, who participated in the Normandy landings.

Next time…
HBO’s Band of Brothers is basically Saving Private Ryan: The Series, taking the film’s visual style to tell the true story of a company of soldiers from their training, through the invasions of France and Germany, and right up to the end of the war. Often topping lists as the greatest TV series ever made, it certainly belongs in consideration.

Awards
5 Oscars (Director, Cinematography, Editing, Sound, Sound Effects Editing)
6 Oscar nominations (Picture, Actor (Tom Hanks), Original Screenplay, Score, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Makeup)
2 BAFTAs (Sound, Special Effects)
8 BAFTA nominations (Film, Actor (Tom Hanks), Director, Music, Cinematography, Editing, Production Design, Make Up/Hair)
1 Saturn Award (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film)
1 Saturn nomination (Special Effects)
3 MTV Movie Awards nominations (including Action Sequence for the Normandy landings. It lost to Armageddon.)

What the Critics Said
“hands-down the best film of 1998. Spielberg has clearly stated in recent interviews that he made the film as a monument to the brave men who fought and died in that terrible war (and on D-Day, in particular), but he’s also done something morally heroic in the process. Private Ryan clearly illustrates, once and for all, that war — the real, appalling thing, not the flag-waving glorification that you usually see at the movies — is hell on earth. Spielberg accomplishes these goals with a technical virtuosity that no other director, arguably in the history of the cinema, can even approach. […] He’s a director whose work has grown right before our eyes from that of a precocious whiz-kid to the complex, humanistic statements of a true artist. Whether or not you always appreciate how he utilizes his skills, the man is an undeniable genius.” — Paul Tatara, CNN

Score: 92%

What the Public Say
“the opening 25 minutes of Saving Private Ryan – where [Spielberg] thrusts us into the 1944 D-Day landings of Omaha Beach – is arguably his most impressive and certainly his most visceral work. It’s absolutely exhausting in its construction and sense of realism and the realisation soon sets in, that this cinematic auteur is not about to pull any punches in portraying a time in history that’s very close to his heart. The opening is so commanding that some have criticised the film for not living up this grand and devastating scale but Spielberg has many more up his sleeve. He’s just not able to deliver them too close together – otherwise, the film would be absolutely shattering and very difficult to get through. To bridge the gap between breathtaking battles scenes the film falls into a rather conventional storyline about men on a mission but its only purpose is to keep the film flowing and allows Spielberg the ability to make the brutality of war more personal.” — Mark Walker, Marked Movies

Verdict

Is Saving Private Ryan the greatest war movie ever made? Maybe. The relatively simple story allows it to explore the mindset of the soldiers making the first forays into Europe after D-Day, both their camaraderie as a group of men and the actions they took to function through the experience. It’s certainly the most influential World War 2 movie of modern times — nearly 20 years later, its desaturated colour palette remains de rigueur for films set in the war. So too its realistic depiction of combat, which is more plausible than some of the Boy’s Own adventures that came before, though not so ridiculously gruelling as some that have come in its wake. Personally, the only superior WW2 ‘film’ I can think of is Band of Brothers, and considering that has ten hours to explore its characters and situations, it’s not really a fair comparison.

#80 will be… a very different Spielberg/WW2 story.

Dogma (1999)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #24

It can be Hell getting into Heaven.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 128 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 12th November 1999 (USA)
UK Release: 26th December 1999
First Seen: DVD, c.2004

Stars
Ben Affleck (Armageddon, Daredevil)
Matt Damon (The Rainmaker, The Bourne Identity)
Linda Fiorentino (The Last Seduction, Men in Black)
Salma Hayek (Desperado, Frida)
Alan Rickman (Die Hard, Galaxy Quest)

Director
Kevin Smith (Clerks, Red State)

Screenwriter
Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy, Zack and Miri Make a Porno)

The Story
When two fallen angels discover a loophole that might allow them back into Heaven, a normal woman is charged with stopping them before they bring about the apocalypse. Hilarity ensues.

Our Heroes
Abortion clinic worker Bethany has greatness heaped upon her when the voice of God gives her a mission (“I don’t want this, it’s too big.” “That’s what Jesus said.”). She ends up collecting a motley crew of followers and helpers, including 13th apostle Rufus, Serendipity herself, and idiot-prophets Jay and Silent Bob.

Our Villains
Banished angels Loki and Bartleby are fed up with living on Earth, but that’s okay because they’ve found a loophole that will get them back into Heaven. It might destroy the world or something, but, y’know, collateral damage ‘n’ all that.

Best Supporting Character
Alan Rickman again (see also: last time), this time as Metatron — not an anime hero or Power Rangers villain, but the dry-witted, genital-less Voice of God.

Memorable Quote
“Any moron with a pack of matches can set a fire. Raining down sulphur is like an endurance trial, man. Mass genocide is the most exhausting activity one can engage in, next to soccer.” — Loki

Memorable Scene
Whiling away time until they can execute their plan, Bartleby and Loki invade a company’s board meeting and expose the members’ secrets. (Any scene that features Bartleby + Loki + dialogue is among the film’s best bits.)

Truly Special Effect
I suppose it’s a relatively simple one really, but I’ve always thought the various characters’ wings look magnificently ‘real’. That’s the beauty of practical effects for you.

Letting the Side Down
This isn’t about the film itself, but they made a behind-the-scenes documentary, called Judge Not: In Defense of Dogma, which wasn’t actually ready for the film’s DVD release. Instead, it was included on the later DVD of Vulgar (not heard of it? Me either.) Eight years later, when Dogma made its way to Blu-ray, the making-of… still wasn’t included. I mean, how hard is it to pay attention when creating a new release and do more than just “copy and paste” the DVD’s contents?!

Making of
Even before the film opened it was picketed by Christian protestors. Unbeknownst to that mob, the film’s writer-director Kevin Smith joined them… and, unrecognised, got interviewed on TV. Sounds kinda implausible, but it happened.

Awards
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Supporting Actress (Salma Hayek, also for Wild Wild West))

What the Critics Said
“those who would call it sacrilegious (and there will be many) should look beyond the foul language and crude humor, to see more deeply into Smith’s intentions to give the dusty doctrines of the ancient faith a fresh new perspective. Foul language aside, the film has some interesting things to say about human nature, and about the nature of those non-humans we have come to know and love, and hate, and pray to, and obsess about, over the last few millennia.” — John R. McEwen, Film Quips

Score: 67%

What the Public Say
“The beginning of the movie has a few disclaimers pleading with a sensitive audience to not hate this movie because of its seemingly antireligious rhetoric. To be honest, I thought the message of ultimate religious tolerance was fairly clear. […] I don’t think Dogma will make you examine your faith any more than before you watched it. Instead it will let you turn a more satirical eye to the absurdities of the modern church bureaucracy and hopefully make you laugh a little bit about how ridiculous some of this shit is. It’s okay to have faith in a higher power, but getting too extreme with your ideals can make you an asshole.” — ThomFiles

Verdict

Not nearly as disrespectful to Christianity as the Bible-bashing protestors would like you to think, Kevin Smith’s religious comedy can be a bit of a mixed bag — the story is occasionally a tad baggy and the toilet humour sometimes goes too far for my taste, but there are plenty of amusing scenes, lines and performances. Irreverent and crude, to be sure, but sometimes surprisingly clever, and consistently funny.

#25 will be… setless.

The Bourne Supremacy (2004)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #16

They should have left him alone.

Country: USA & Germany
Language: English, Russian, German & Italian
Runtime: 108 minutes
BBFC: 12A
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 23rd July 2004 (USA)
UK Release: 13th August 2004
First Seen: cinema, August 2004

Stars
Matt Damon (The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Departed)
Franka Potente (Blow, Romulus, My Father)
Brian Cox (Manhunter, X2)
Joan Allen (The Ice Storm, Death Race)
Karl Urban (The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Dredd)

Director
Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum, Green Zone)

Screenwriter
Tony Gilroy (Proof of Life, The Bourne Legacy)

Based on
The character of Jason Bourne, created by Robert Ludlum. Not so much based on The Bourne Supremacy, the novel by Robert Ludlum.

The Story
Bourne and Marie are living a quiet life in India, until he’s framed for the murder of two CIA agents and the theft of files they were acquiring. After the actual culprit tries to kill Bourne, he believes the CIA have tracked him down, and makes good on his promise to bring the fight to them…

Our Hero
Living a life of seclusion with Marie, but still struggling with resurfacing memories from his time as a CIA operative, Jason Bourne has no intention of going anywhere near his former life… until they come for him, and the gloves are off. Bryan Mills ain’t got nothing on Bourne’s particular set of skills.

Our Villains
A whole host of interests are aligned against Bourne this time. From within the CIA, corrupt director Ward Abbott is still trying to cover his ass. A more physical threat comes in the form of Russian operative Kirill, referred to in early drafts of the screenplay as “Mock-Bourne” because he, a) frames our hero, and b) is his equal — well, almost.

Best Supporting Character
Pamela Landy brings some complication to the CIA side of the story: she’s out to get Bourne, same as the fellas from the first film, but that’s because she’s been conned too. Will she see the light and side with our hero?

Memorable Quote
Nicky: “It’s not a mistake. They don’t make mistakes. They don’t do random. There’s always an objective. Always a target.”
Landy: “The objectives and targets always came from us. Who’s giving them to him now?”
Nicky: “Scary version? He is.”

Memorable Scene
In Munich, Bourne visits the one remaining Treadstone operative. They fight, using household items as weapons (see “making of”, below). Then a team of soldiers arrive. Bourne turns on the gas, shoves a magazine in the toaster, and… well, the result was disproved by MythBusters, but it’s still cool.

Technical Wizardry
The cinematography and editing, according to some.

Letting the Side Down
The cinematography and editing, according to some.

Making of
The film famously features Bourne using a rolled-up magazine as a weapon in a fight with another Treadstone operative. Fight coordinator Jeff Imada looked over the set after it had been dressed to get an idea of what would be lying around that could be used as a weapon, and had the idea of a rolled up magazine. He had to demonstrate to sceptical crew members that it would indeed be a functional weapon, but was helped by actors Matt Damon and Marton Csokas giving each other bruises from practising with it.

Previously on…
The Bourne Identity left enough hanging to help fuel this movie.

Next time…
Although Supremacy was designed to wrap up the mysteries left dangling from Identity, they found plenty to drive a third film, which completes the trilogy by answering those remaining questions. A fourth film was essentially a spin-off. This summer’s fifth film will be about… something…

Awards
2 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Actor (Matt Damon))
2 World Stunt Awards (Best Work with a Vehicle, Best Stunt Coordinator and/or 2nd Unit Director)
1 World Stunt Award nomination (Best Fight)
2 MTV Movie Awards nominations (including Best Action Sequence (the Moscow car chase))

What the Critics Said
“Greengrass keeps you off-balance throughout. When the fight scenes and car chases arrive, there’s no telling, from shot to shot, what we will see next or how we’ll see it. […] Working with cinematographer Oliver Wood, Greengrass shoots the fight scenes and chases so close in that we see some moments almost as a blur. The editors, Richard Pearson and Christopher Rouse, break those sequences up into quick jagged shots that key us up and keep us hyper-alert. The world is being broken into bits of information, and we look hard at the screen to take it in. The approach could have resulted in the usual visual gibberish that defines contemporary action moviemaking [but] you can always tell what’s going on” — Charles Taylor, Salon

Score: 81%

What the Public Say
“I thought the movie was shot well, though at times I felt that the shaky cam effect was overused, as instead of pulling you into the action, it just gives you a headache and a dizzy spell” — Zoë, The Sporadic Chronicles of a Beginner Blogger

Verdict

Debate used to rage about whether Identity or Supremacy was the better film, centred on their very differing directorial styles. Fans of Greengrass’ sequel seem to have settled on Ultimatum as their preferred Bourne instalment now, though, leaving Supremacy to be generally regarded as the least-best of the first three Bournes. That does it something of a disservice: it’s an exciting, twisty, complicated thriller, and its groundbreaking visuals can’t be ignored for their contribution to the action genre — for good or ill.

#17 will… always have Paris.

The Bourne Identity (2002)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #15

Danger is Bourne

Country: USA, Germany & Czech Republic
Language: English, French, German, Dutch & Italian
Runtime: 119 minutes
BBFC: 12A
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 14th June 2002
UK Release: 6th September 2002
First Seen: DVD, 2003

Stars
Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting, The Martian)
Franka Potente (Run Lola Run, Creep)
Chris Cooper (Lone Star, Adaptation.)
Clive Owen (Croupier, Children of Men)
Julia Stiles (10 Things I Hate About You, The Omen)

Director
Doug Liman (Swingers, Mr. & Mrs. Smith)

Screenwriters
Tony Gilroy (The Devil’s Advocate, Michael Clayton)
William Blake Herron (A Texas Funeral, Ripley Under Ground)

Based on
The Bourne Identity, a novel by Robert Ludlum.

The Story
Pulled wounded from the sea, Jason Bourne can’t remember anything about his life, but is a highly-trained combatant. That comes in handy when assassins begin to hunt him down, as he races across Europe with the aid of Marie, a German woman he bumped into, trying to establish the facts about his identity.

Our Hero
A man found floating in the ocean with two gunshot wounds in his back, who can’t remember his own name but can speak several languages and has knowledge of advanced combat skills. A laser projector implanted under his skin leads him to a safety deposit box in Zurich that contains thousands of dollars in cash, a gun, and an array of passports, from which he chooses a name: Jason Bourne.

Our Villains
The CIA’s Operation Treadstone, led by Alexander Conklin, who have an interest in Bourne — an interest that may primarily involve killing him.

Best Supporting Character
Marie, a German woman in the right place at the right time when a chap offers her $20,000 to drive him from Zurich to Paris… and in the wrong place at the wrong time when it turns out a bunch of people want to kill him, and she’s acceptable collateral damage.

Memorable Quote
Bourne: “Who has a safety deposit box full of money and six passports and a gun? Who has a bank account number in their hip? I come in here, and the first thing I’m doing is I’m catching the sightlines and looking for an exit.”
Marie: “I see the exit sign, too. I’m not worried. I mean, you were shot. People do all kinds of weird and amazing stuff when they are scared.”
Bourne: “I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs 215lbs and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab of the grey truck outside, and at this altitude, I can run flat out for a half mile before my hands start shaking. Now why would I know that? How can I know that and not know who I am?”

Memorable Scene
Bourne arrives at the US consulate in Zurich, unaware his presence has been flagged after visiting that safety deposit box. As security guards surround him, Bourne demonstrates just what he’s capable of…

Making of
One of the most fraught productions of recent times, the behind-the-scenes woes of The Bourne Identity are too numerous to recount here, but too interesting (if you’re interested in that kind of thing) to overlook. Check out #4 here for more, like this: “It’s very rare that a movie comes out a year late, has four rounds of reshoots, and it’s good.”

Previously on…
Adapted as a TV miniseries in 1988 starring Richard Chamberlain, which is reportedly much more faithful to the novel.

Next time…
Three sequels to date, with a fourth out this summer. 2008 video game The Bourne Conspiracy takes place in and around the first film, though doesn’t use Matt Damon’s likeness. The film series also revived interest in Ludlum’s books, and consequently nine continuation novels have been penned by Eric Van Lustbader since 2004, with a tenth planned.

Awards
1 Saturn nomination (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film)
1 World Stunt Award (Best Work with a Vehicle)

What the Critics Said
“With a two-year shooting schedule, a script that was redrafted more times than the cast care to remember, and Matt Damon making at least two movies (Ocean’s 11 and Spirit) in the middle of all that mess, this thriller comes to the cinemas as much a marked man as its central character. Some of the joins do show, especially towards the end of the film, when a couple of minor characters disappear completely, but by then it has been too much fun to start picking holes.” — Emma Cochrane, Empire

Score: 83%

What the Public Say
“a point of departure from the action/spy genre, further making The Bourne Identity an anti-genre-genre film, is the cat like reflexes of Jason Bourne. Our first vision of him in action (remember, we’ve never seen Matt Damon like this before) is when he is laying on a park bench in Switzerland, approached by two policemen who are about to accuse him of loitering. Within the conversation, Bourne discovers he can effectively speak Swiss-German, and then as soon as one of the officers reaches to touch him, he responds with breathtaking speed and accuracy and before we know it, there is a little pile of police at his feet. […] nice guy Jason can’t really help it. Posit this against the casual cold blooded and calculated moves of the relaxed and suave Bond” — Lisa Thatcher

Verdict

The name’s Bourne, Jason Bourne… Maybe it was just me, but this Matt Damon action-thriller seemed to arrive under the radar back in the early ’00s (I don’t think I even heard of it until it was on DVD), but quickly established itself as the influential new kid on the block. Perhaps the Paul Greengrass-helmed sequels have been even more influential (they can be credited with bringing the much-derided ShakyCam style of filming action into the mainstream), but for me this first film is still the best of the bunch: an engaging mystery-thriller adrenalised by excellent action sequences.

#16 will be… Bourne again.

The Martian (2015)

2016 #25
Ridley Scott | 142 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Oscar statue2016 Academy Awards
7 nominations

Nominated: Best Picture, Best Actor (Matt Damon), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design.



Ridley Scott’s latest arrives on Blu-ray in the UK today, with a disappointing dearth of special features (disliked Exodus gets a 2½-hour making-of, four hours of additional features, plus a commentary; award-winning The Martian gets 24 minutes plus a few in-universe documentaries — what?!) Never mind that, though: how good is the film deemed the best comedy or musical of 2015? (If you somehow missed that news, you’ll appreciate the addition of a “seriously” here.)

In the relatively near future, mankind is on its third manned mission to Mars. When a colossal storm rolls in, the decision to made to evacuate the Mars base. During the escape, biologist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by debris and apparently killed, and his crew mates are forced to leave him for dead. He isn’t dead, though, but he is injured and alone on a planet 140 million miles from home, with no way to communicate with Earth, and not enough energy, oxygen, or food to see him through the four years until the next Mars mission is scheduled to arrive. Refusing to give in to inevitable death, Watney only has one choice: science the shit out of this.

That sounds like a laugh-a-minute premise, right? And there’s a major subplot about disco music, so it’s practically a musical too!

No, the HFPA are just idiots — The Martian is neither a comedy nor a musical. It is the latest in a growing subgenre of serious-minded near-future sci-fi adventures, though, following in the footsteps of 2013 Oscar winner Gravity and 2014 Oscar washout Interstellar. Where The Martian differs is in the element that tricked Golden Globes voters into thinking they could get away with giving it a comedy nomination (and win): rather than being stuffed to bursting with po-faced peril, it has a lightness of touch and regular doses of humour, making it probably the most feel-good serious sci-fi movie since ever.

Whether that’s appropriate or not is another matter. A well-argued review by the ghost of 82 assesses that the film has none of the darkness or loneliness you should expect of a man stranded alone on an alien world with a slim chance of survival or rescue. I don’t disagree that the film doesn’t contain much of that feeling, nor would I argue that such a tone isn’t a viable way to frame this narrative, but I don’t think that’s what Scott was aiming to convey. This telling of the story (I haven’t read the original novel, so can’t say how it compares tonally) is an adventure; a feel-good tale of hope and survival against the odds. The film doesn’t offer us despair because Watney doesn’t despair — he just gets on with trying to fix it. On the couple of occasions when his fixes go wrong, his chirpiness breaks down, his frustration comes out, and in some respects it’s all the more effective for being limited to those handful of occasions — we’re suddenly reminded that, in spite of his optimism and his success and all the fun we’re having watching it, he’s stranded 140 million miles away and even the slightest mistake can spell total disaster.

Matt Damon is a talented enough actor to lead us through all of this. Best remembered in recent years for serious fare like the Bourne films (“serious” in the sense of “not comedic” as opposed to “realistic”), Damon has done his fair share of comedies before now, and skits for TV shows and the like too. This is perhaps his first film to bring those two sides together as equally necessary parts of the whole — serious when he’s struggling with science problems or facing the reality of his situation, funny when he’s taking it all as light-heartedly as he can. Sometimes, such as in emotional conversations with friends or colleagues stuck millions of miles away, he even has to do both at once.

While Damon is stuck on Mars by himself, a starry supporting cast actually get to interact with each other. This is a quality ensemble and, short of writing an epic essay of a review where I just praise them all one by one, there’s little to do but list their names. That said, Jessica Chastain gets the most brazenly emotional beats as the commander who chose to leave Watney behind and has to face the consequences of her decision; Jeff Daniels treads a line between being an evil bureaucrat and just a regular bureaucrat (apparently consideration was given to turning him into a full-blown villain; thank goodness they swerved that bullet); Chiwetel Ejiofor brings easy gravitas to NASA’s director of Mars missions; Michael Peña provides some additional comic relief, if not as strikingly as he did in Ant-Man then at least as effectively; and Sean Bean doesn’t die. No offence to Sean Bean, but let’s be honest, at this point in his career that is the most notable facet of his appearance here. That and the Lord of the Rings reference.

It would be too damning to describe Ridley Scott’s direction as unremarkable, but at the same time it feels lacking in distinctiveness. Apparently there was some interview where he commented on how easy he found directing The Martian, I think with intended reference to the use of digital photography, but I think you get a sense of that from the film as a whole. That stops it from being over-directed, at least, and it’s certainly not poorly made, but if you didn’t know then you wouldn’t be nodding along going, “oh yes, this is definitely a Ridley Scott movie.” I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Considering his fiddling is what scuppered the promising screenplays that initiated both Robin Hood and Prometheus, and his other works this decade (The Counsellor and Exodus: Gods and Kings) haven’t exactly met with great acclaim, maybe his dropping in almost as a director-for-hire (screenwriter Drew Goddard was attached to direct, but got sidetracked into the now-cancelled Sinister Six Amazing Spider-Man spin-off), and helming the film in a kind of directorial autopilot, is part of what saved it from a similar fate.

I’ve read at least one review that described The Martian as “an instant sci-fi classic”, and at least one other that described it as “no sci-fi classic”. I’m going to sit on the fence of that debate for the time being. What I will say is that it is undoubtedly an accomplished piece of entertainment. For a film that primarily concerns itself with a man applying scientific principles to tasks like “growing potatoes”, that’s surely some kind of achievement. In our current climate (both in society in general and in the “more explosions less talking, please” state of blockbuster cinema), to make space travel — and science in general — seem fun and appealing to the masses is no bad thing whatsoever.

5 out of 5

As mentioned, The Martian is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

It placed 17th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Happy Feet Two (2011)

2015 #193
George Miller | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | U / PG

Mumble and his penguin pals return for another adventure, in a series the Australian film industry are reportedly inordinately proud of.

Not as fun as the first, Happy Feet Two suffers from messy storytelling that can’t seem to settle on a narrative thread. For example: a massive subplot featuring a pair of Pythonesque philosophical krill, voiced by Matt Damon and Brad Pitt, is the film’s most fun element, but never significantly connects to anything else.

At least there are a few good musical sequences, one again re-appropriated from existing pop tunes, not least an Australian-accented elephant seal rendition of Rawhide.

3 out of 5