Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Bourne Legacy

Written at the time of the film's "a-bourning."

Baby, We Were Bourne To Run
Pursued By Our Inner Damon's

The "Bourne" series laterals the ball to another player in The Bourne Legacy, the fourth film of the series, which, by now, has nothing to do with the Robert Ludlum books on which they are titularly based (which is fine, as I read the first one decades ago and found it one of the worst reads ever).

When last we left Jason Bourne, he'd jumped into the East River to make a desperate escape from his pursuer/handlers, a nice turnaround from when the series started with him being fished out of the water with no clue as to his identity. We start there again, but this time, we're Bourne again in another body of water with Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) on a training mission way out in nowhere, Alaska (all the better to see Russia, apparently), while the events of the previous Bourne trilogy play out in the States, sending a panic through the intelligence community and an order to purge the Treadstone Project (or is it Operation Outcome...or Operation Blackbriar...only Tom Clancy could keep track of this...and then he'd start a book-series (ghost-written) on each one!).  
Whichever project is being scorched to the Earth, the talents from the previous movies (Scott Glenn, Joan Allen, David Straithairn) are dealing with the ramifications of Bourne's re-appearance, another intelligence head* (Stacy Keach-welcome back, sir) puts another middle-management type (Edward Norton) in charge of damage control (an impossible task in any recent spy film).**
As it becomes readily apparent on Renner's training mission, we didn't know diddly about the Bourne project (whatever name it was), as there are other agents like him, who are not only trained, but drugged to enhance their physical endurance, but also mental faculties (take the green and blue pills, but the yellow one you should really take with water or it gets stuck in your throat, evidently). Just as Cross is about to rotate stateside, he and another agent get a drone-launched nasty-gram stating unequivocally that the mission is over.
That's how it starts, and goes all over the world, subsequently, even while it doesn't really go anywhere.  Oh, things happen, and things explode and people run around a lot (Rachel Weisz is a really good runner, by the way), but it's mostly just movement without any story momentum.  Most movies have a beginning a middle and an end, but this one is content to merely have a beginning, a middle and a chase.  
Tony Gilroy (who cracked the code for the first film—taking the germ of the idea and stream-lining it into a bare essentials man-on-the-run movie—directed the brilliant Michael Clayton and the disappointing Duplicity, one of those "I-get-the-drift-but-it-doesn't-work" movies) co-wrote this one and directed, employing the same kind of Paul Greengrass "run and shoot" style, but taming it down a bit, so it can be followed, as opposed to experienced in barely discernible flashes.*** 
It's a risk because the Greengrass adrenaline-fueled style keeps one from asking too many questions about the slowing-down factor of injuries and leaps in story-logic.  All well and good, I suppose, but one still gets the sense that Legacy is half-baked, with the kernel of an idea, some complications to keep things from getting too stale and large holes in the script filled with "a fight breaks out," "a chase happens," and "hero jumps from a fire escape into a window." 
These all happened in the previous films, but I'll be damned if I can remember which specific ones—I suspect the answer is: "All of them." They all blur together as the most memorable things are the action sequences, and there's a remarkable...uh...consistency to them. The stakes are only the agent's own and most of the film's have very little resolution to them. Legacy has none. It just ends.
While one can admire the proficiency with which it is done, there's nothing all that memorable about this one...or the last one.  Even with fresh faces and a new idea of two, it's the same old thing, hardly worth being "Bourne" at all.
* You know, one could make a case for the excesses of "Big Gov'mint" just by noting the cast of good character actors in the "Bourne" series and all the different intelligence branches and mid-levels.

** Who fixes things in these films-and why haven't the unemployment rates dropped as a result?
*** This helped by a change in the style of Dan Bradley, who seems to have taken a film directing class in the interim, because his second unit direction in the chase sequences actually have some shots that feature relationship perspective going so far as to even including both participants in the chase in the same frame.  That's some kind of break-through after his disastrous work on Quantum of Solace.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020


Written at the time of the film's release...

"All's Fair in Love and War"

After screenwriter Tony Gilroy's powerful directing debut with Michael Clayton, one looked forward to what the talented triple-threat would come up with next, considering that film's street-smarts, sharp characterizations and deft direction. What we got is Duplicity and it's a wisp of a movie, a comedy without laughs, and a drama without weight; a shell-game; much ado about nothing; more in keeping with Gilroy's in-name-only association with the "Ocean's Eleven" series than his better efforts.

As with
Michael Clayton, the playing field is the backrooms of corporate America, where warring CEO's protect their fiefdoms from interlopers and pitch pre-emptive strikes to keep them at bay. Their knights: a string of white-ops intelligence teams who spy on the competition, using the techniques once used in political battle-fields. That back-drop is nothing new: John le Carré's been using the "corporate espionage is every bit as sordid as political espionage" gambit in his works since the fall of Russia. le Carré even went so far as to suppose spy agencies ginning up threats to justify their budgets and existence, just as they do in the business world. Need a purchase order? Create a threat, and the money rolls right in.

Gilroy sets the tone early by beginning his film with a lo-mo credit crawl where Corporate heads Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti grapple at each other like pawing animals in a zoo. The silliness of these two going at each other in artfully composed tableau should be funnier than it is, but the whole thing feels like such a surreal con that you don't buy it for a second. Hence, the stakes in the story seem minor, even the McGuffin* is tame, as the two adversaries are pharmaceutical companies. In the middle of it are two ex-spies Ray Koval (Clive Owen, nattily rumpled) and Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts), who know each other only too well, she having stolen some Air Force secrets from him during a one-night stand at a Dubai fete years ago.** 
The encounter stings Koval, and now, years later, he's realizing that Stenwick is the Player on the Other Side in their current Corporate Wars. It's an interesting study of two people so locked in strategic thought that they might drown standing in quick-sand, so pre-occupied are they with motivation and nuance and who might try to move first. Interesting, but not always entertaining. At times, the mind-games approach "Get Smart!" absurdities, as both sides play the "I'm thinking they're thinking I'm thinking that they're thinking" game. A little of that goes a long way, especially if the protagonists don't have a smile on their faces when they're saying it. And the humor is only of the clever variety in Duplicity, not particularly the amusing kind.
Still, it's one of those movies that travels well: to Rome, New York, London and the Bahamas, the costumes are fine, but the whole thing has all the zing of champagne left open overnight (composer James Newton Howard tries to add some zip by tossing in some Spanish dance music). It all seems too familiar and a bit too flat.

It's also one of "those" movies that demonstrates that Julia Roberts' most valuable asset may be her ability to smile under duress. 

* After Hitchcock's name for "the secret" that parties try to retrieve in a suspense film, usually it doesn't matter what it is—after the story of the man who inquired to another man what was in his suitcase: "It's a McGuffin, for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands." "But there aren't any lions in the Scottish Highlands!" "Then, that's no McGuffin!"

** This also seems overly familiar with Prizzi's Honor, Undercover Blues, and Mr. & Mrs. Smith as previous warring spy-couple films.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Michael Clayton

Written at the time of the film's release.

"This keeps getting better and better"

Michael Clayton is not himself today. A lawyer for the firm of Kenner, Bach and Ledeen, he finds himself at 45 and the end of his rope without a knot, deep in debt, estranged from family, and very aware that that "whooshing" going by outside his Mercedes window is his life and he doesn't have much to show for it. Then he gets a phone call. "Arthur Edens just stripped down naked in a deposition room in Milwaukee." As its the firm's biggest case at the moment with billions on the line, he has to go fix it.

That's what Michael Clayton does. He has little to do with the law. He's a fixer. Need a fast consult? He does it. Need palms greased? He does that. Tickets to the big game? Scored. A leaning story in the press? Not worth a thought. "I'm not a miracle worker," he says to a rich client who's just run over a jogger in one of his cars. "I'm a janitor." And his territory is the moral sludge that he must wade through on a daily basis
"I'm not the enemy here" he tells his friend Edens, who's off his med's and has broken down to a Howard Beale-ish moral clarity that is legally inconvenient. The madness drops from Edens' eyes. "Then who are you?"
That's the question. And at that point, to say any more would be spoiling one of the best, deepest and engaging drama-thrillers to come down the aisle in a long time. 
Supposedly, when Clooney saw this script by Tony Gilroy he wanted to direct it, but deferred to Gilroy who probably saved this screenplay for himself. One of the better script doctors, it was his work on the "Bourne" series of films that made his name, and his directorial debut crackles with the same precision he brings to one of his unaltered screenplays. Just to allay Warner Bros. fears, the film is top-heavy with directing talent: Clooney stars and produces, Steve Soderbergh and Anthony Minghella are on the production side, as well as Sydney Pollack (the film feels like a Pollack project) who pulls off a career-best performance as the law partner on top of all the chaos.
Michael O'Keefe makes a welcome return to films as the firm's "asshole" (I wonder if its on his business cards), and Tom Wilkinson's Edens—babbling, disheveled, isolated, walking around in a pure light that only he knows is there—is the showiest part, has the best lines and the actor throws off his customary restraint and relishes the opportunity. Tilda Swinton is all contained paroxysm as an outwardly smooth CEO whose veneer of respectability is as thin as that of the chemical company she heads. Then there's "The Clooney", all-furrowed, with a Raymond Burr hood over his eyes, hating himself and everything he's doing. His one moment of respite has all the subtlety of a burning bush.
And then, things get interesting.

It "synopses" like a drag, but it's sharp, cynical, and has a "nailed it" kind of ending that makes it all worth it.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Don't Make a Scene: Ford v Ferrari

The Story: When I saw Ford v Ferrari last year, it intrigued me despite not being "into" auto-racing. It was just good story-telling on the part of the writers and director James Mangold.

And one of the testaments to that is this scene: Carol Shelby being called on the carpet for not delivering a winning race despite the interference that prevented it.

I've seen on-line debates about this and how it might be unfair to Leo Beebe, the executive at Ford who comes across as the chief "problem" for success in the film. His actions were his actions and Beebe's concerns were corporate "Big Picture" matters of protecting the brand rather than having racing "cowboys" save the company's reputation.

But, I loved this scene and how all the parties made it riveting and surprising, despite it being a "corporate boardroom" scene. One wishes that I could find the particular scene on video to illustrate Damon's "Tommy Lee Jones"-like Texas laconic drawl that makes the "Yer welcome" such a big laugh-line, but it has disappeared.

This will have to suffice.

The Set-Up: In an effort to "gear up" the stodgy image of the Ford Motor Company and its product, marketing chief Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) has convinced Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) to promote its "sport" line with a focus on its auto-racing image. To do so, he's hired legendary driver Carol Shelby (Matt Damon) to win the 24 hour race at LeMans. To do so, Shelby and his team have hired legendary engineer and driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to oversee and pilot the Ford entry. But, Miles is eccentric, uncompromising and has run afoul of Ford middle-man Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), who vetoed the idea of Miles being behind the wheel of the first race of Ford against the dominant Ferrari team, the resultant being an embarrassing finish. And somebody is going to be held responsible.


Final Shooting Draft 04.24.19 

Sport Illustrated on his desk: "Murder Italian Style - Ford humiliated by Ferrari". To the side, ever-present Leo Beebe. In front, Iacocca. Ford drops a newspaper. "Ford Destroyed." "Ford Hammered At Le Mans". "Ford. Humiliation at Le Mans." 
IACOCCA We made mistakes. (He stops) Mr Ford. There's a difference between Ford and Ferrari. Between our methods. 
HENRY FORD II Apart from the fact he came in 1, 2, 3 and we failed to cross the finish? Apart from the fact we're the biggest firm in the world and I could lose his tin-pot operation down the back of my couch? 
Shelby sits, listening the Deuce’s voice through the door, as he flicks through a newspaper: "Ford Craps Out. Ferrari In Front." 
He takes out his pills, pops a couple, watching as-- 
A YOUNG EMPLOYEE pushes a mail cart. He hands a manila envelope to the Deuce’s second assistant, who opens it and walks the enclosed red folder to the Deuce’s Secretary. 

She looks at Shelby as he pops a couple more pills. 
BEEBE Are you insane? The guy's a snake-oil salesman. A Stetson. Yesterday man. A good driver who's washed up. 
IACOCCA Shelby is a winner. He knows how. 
BEEBE What you're saying, what I'm hearing, is that in light of this debacle, you're prepared to stake your reputation on this guy. 
Neither blinks. Ford watches. 
IACOCCA Yes I am. 
SECRETARY Yes sir. I'll send him right in. Thank you. 
Mr. Ford's secretary puts down the phone and walks toward Shelby. He watches her closely.
SECRETARY Mr. Ford will see you now.
SHELBY Alright.
LEO BEEBE ...this guy.
SECRETARY This way, Mr. Shelby. 
Before she leaves, the secretary puts the red folder on Ford’s desk, but not before Beebe peeks at it. 
Shelby watches her close the door. 
SHELBY Mr. Ford. 
SHELBY Gentlemen. 
HENRY FORD II Give me one reason... 
HENRY FORD II ...why I don't fire everyone associated with this abomination, starting with you. 
Iacocca shifts uncomfortably. Shelby holds Ford's gaze. 
SHELBY Well, Sir. I’ve been thinking of that very question as I sat out in your lovely waiting room. 
SHELBY And while I was sitting there, I watched that little red folder right there...
SHELBY ...go through five pairs of hands... 

SHELBY ...before it got to your mitts. And that’s not including...
SHELBY ...the twenty two Ford employees who must’ve poked at it...
SHELBY ...before it got to the 19th floor. With all due respect, sir, you can’t win a race by committee. 
SHELBY It’s like trying to run with a load in your pants. You need one man in charge. 
Iacocca looks at Shelby in total incredulity. 
SHELBY (cont’d) The good news is, you ask me, even with the extra weight in the trunk
SHELBY ...we still managed to put ol’ Ferrari right where we want him. 
FORD Did we. 
SHELBY Oh yes. 
FORD Expand. 
SHELBY Well... 
SHELBY Sure we haven't worked out how to corner. Or stay cool.
FORD Or stay on the ground. 
SHELBY And a lot of stuff broke. In fact the only thing that didn't break is the brakes. 
SHELBY Right now we don't even... 
SHELBY ...know if the paint lasts 24 hours.
SHELBY But (the fact is) our last lap clocked 218mph down the Mulsanne straight. Now in all his years of racing, Enzo ain't seen nothing move that fast. 
SHELBY And now, he knows without a doubt... 
SHELBY ...we're faster than him. 
SHELBY Even with the wrong driver. 
SHELBY And the... 
SHELBY ...committees. 
SHELBY That's what he's sitting in Modena thinking about, right now.
SHELBY He’s worried this year you might actually be smart enough to give me the control I need to win. 
(looks at them all)
SHELBY So yes. I'd say you got Ferrari exactly where you want him.
SHELBY You’re welcome. 
Iacocca’s jaw drops. Beebe stares, horrified at Shelby’s insolence.
Ford eyeballs Shelby for a good seven seconds. 
He stands. 
FORD C'mere...

Looks out the window. A crease of a smile. 
FORD See that little building... 
FORD ...down there? 
FORD In WW2... 
FORD ...three out of five US bombers rolled off that line. 
FORD You think Roosevelt beat Hitler? 
FORD Think again. This isn't the first time...
FORD ...Ford Motor’s gone to war in Europe. 
FORD We know how to do more than push paper. 
FORD And-- (points to himself) --there is one man running this company.

FORD And you report to him. Understand me?
SHELBY Yes, sir.
FORD (He turns) Go ahead, Carol. 
FORD Go to war. 
SHELBY Thank you, sir.

Ford v Ferrari (aka LeMans '66)

Word by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller

Pictures by Phedon Papamichael and James Mangold

Ford v Ferrari is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Fox Home Video.