Month: September 2016
The Bourne Paternity
Whatever bias had the prophets of decline who wrote bad reviews of this movie, or whatever movie they might have seen instead, they were wrong. When had been a quadrilogy that consistently good? The Bourne Identity reinvented a genre, The Bourne Supremacy relegated James Bond in the English Heritage theme park hé so deservingly belongs to, The Bourne Ultimatum cemented the Bourne action franchise as the best and most earnest ever. Jason Bourne completes the cycle but is a different movie altogether: there is nothing to prove anymore, yet the character unflinchingly, unsmilingly played by Matt Damon is missing a crucial part of his own existence. He got the How, the When and the Who. What he has left to do is to understand the Why. Would this Why only be a filial quest, it would be a run-of-the-mill American story. But this time around, the backdrop of Jason Bourne’s formidable action scenes is societal. Chaotic. And this chaos is impeccably filmed by Paul Greengrass.
Jason Bourne is the genie nobody can force back into the bottle, whatever charm or violence is used against him, not before he understand what’s going on. He’s “pulled out of retirement” by Niki Parsons (Julia Stiles, aging gracefully), that is, if taking part in a fight club on the Armenian/Greek border is your idea of retirement. Bourne needs violence, he is violence, bubbling under Matt Damon’s preppy charm. Anyone behaving like that has a death wish, and this fourth opus is by far the darkest and meanest of the franchise. The action scene in Athens starts during a protest against the IMF and Greece’s creditors on Syntagma Square and after twenty breathless minutes it ends on affliction. Bourne’s death wish once again turns against what he holds dearest: deflecting death is a reflex for him, or rather to the killing machine the CIA has trained him to be.
A brief sequence reunites Bourne and Berlin (one could almost see the “Welcome Back Jason” banners) on the Alexanderplatz, during another protest, before he’s off to London for another gripping action scene. Four parallel courses of action take place simultaneously, and following them is effortless. Spatial logic is respected, instant decisions are made for better or worse and one can relate to each of them. The sequence is a model of suspense and clarity. It includes another chassé-croisé with the new girl on the CIA block (Alicia Vikander, icy), on whom her boss (Tommy Lee Jones, what else to say?) is pulling rank. Tommy Lee Jones is the only one who smiles during the movie, and this smile is of the professional courtesy kind. It’s scary and rather horrid.
By that point in the movie one was struck how much the language of espionnage emulates the dialect of finance. There are assets, insurance policies, accounts to be closed. Jason Bourne is the human factor, the spanner in the works of a monstrous machine churning profitability at the global scope. Jason Bourne is that good old Schumpeter, creatively destroying everything on his way. He gets back to the USA, where the final showdown has to take place. You know what they say, “what happens in Vegas remains in Vegas”? Well, there was no better place to end this franchise. Gambling, mad money, secrecy, with the contemporary seasoning of an IT mogul being treated like a rock star during a business convention turned assassination attempt. Jason Bourne has an idea or two behind its phenomenal action, not far of those treated in Money Monster, as bitter as it is relentless (weirdly, both movies have Icelandic hackers).
The mandatory car chase is mayhem on The Strip, a massive car pile-up ending in the desecration of the Riviera casino. The brutality of the scene exceeds its vicious Moscow companion piece in The Bourne Supremacy. By understanding the Why, Bourne has gotten rid of his death wish, but he’s still a merciless instrument of retribution and death. A last, ill-advised attempt is made to bring the elite killer back into the CIA’s lap. But he’s no longer that, he’s just him by then.
One saw some positive reviews modulating their praise by “Please, no more!”. Of course there won’t be more Bourne. The man has ridden alone in the sunset like the lonesome cowboy he is. But please, pretty please, more of that stuff, for this is the right one.
It’s Raining Teeth, Allelujah!
Well, here we are at last. After many teasers and as many misdirections gleefully generated by the AHS marketing team (It’s a cult! It’s Charles Manson! It’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre! It’s Children of the Corn!), we have the glimpse of a beginning of an idea of what the show will be about this time… maybe. Meaning that we absolutely don’t know what to expect. Isn’t it lovely?
The least one can say is that Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy are creative under pressure. After an apparently serious first season about infidelity in a haunted house went haywire under the dual influence of a rubber man and Jessica Lange, Season 2 to 5 were based on classic horror concepts. Following this logic, we could have expected something like American Horror Story: Hospital. But that would have been discarding the idiosyncrasies of each season. Asylum was an insane rampage in horror tropes, Coven a perverted version of girl empowerment through oppression, Freak Show an equally vicious and tender tale of segregation, and Hotel a gothic, over-the-top melodrama on addiction.
No such comfort this time. No spooky prologue. No credit sequence. A mockumentary form going as far (the horror!) as incorporating found footage. For a time it feels almost as after four seasons of amping up campiness and stylishness, the showrunners took the gritty, low budget road. One has doubts, though. Just think of the art installation the intruders deploy in the staircase of the house during the 30 minutes or so Shelby (Sarah Paulson, welcome back) and Lee (Angela Bassett, ditto) spend stuck in the basement. The house itself, both grandiose and spooky as hell. This is no Blair Witch.
So: a gluten-intolerant yoga teacher (aren’t they all? Lili Rabe) and her sales rep husband (Charles Malik Whitfield) are interviewed in front of a green wall (ha!) in the framework of a documentary titled “My Roanoke Nightmare”. The story they tell is reenacted by what we assume are actors, Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr. But isn’t there something weird about the fact that something that happened to them years before is played by actors older than them? There is a hint of a dual timeline, and in one’s opinion we can expect the testimony and the reenactment to diverge at the some point.
There are actually a lot of weird elements in this episode. Why an interracial couple would bargain their life savings on the impulsive purchase of an obvious haunted house, and enraging the local rednecks in the process, no less? Why what is expected to be some form of a backwood cult would choose such elaborate ways to frighten said couple (the husband calls it “terrorism”, if so it’s extremely photogenic). Why is the husband always absent when bad things happen, why live so far of his job, and so on and so forth.
This first episode is incongruous to say the least, and nothing beats a genuine surprise when so many expectations were raised. But this one better be good, because the setting is somehow unappealing. And apparently one’s hope to see Lady Gaga as a cannibal redneck retard will not be fulfilled. Damn.
The Information Demon
Mr Robot looks like it is the best series around, even though one has only seen half the first season so far. Even though, for fear of being overwhelmed by such a rich tapestry of what is going wrong in our golden information age, one feels the need to take stock of what has taken place in the first five episodes. This is the midway point, when most series reach a low before either finding a second wind or going down in flames. No such thing here. In full coherence with the series context, hacking, hero Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek, heroic) muses in his hypnotic, drone-like voice-over, “Am I his malware?”. Mr Robot is far from being only about tech wizards infiltrating inexpugnable systems. It has a chilling, exhausted, early, very early fin de siècle about it. How do we get out of the corner we have painted ourselves into, after usual derivatives fail? Can we even get out of it? Is there even a corner, or is it all in our head, ireversibly polluted by the Information Demon?
Interestingly, Mr Robot is not the hero of the piece. He’s the hacker group’s boss, first glimpsed as a homeless man in the subway and basically a piece of trash among the others he carries with him. in the course of three episodes he becomes a father figure for Elliot, but he’s far from paternal. He’s more like a vengeful God from the underground, detaining knowledge, demanding sacrifices and prone to sudden bouts of rage: the end of the second episode, filmed from far behind, is shocking from its suddenness, its brutality and its apparent lack of purpose. It’s an expulsion from a non-existent Eden, after the simulacrum of a bond is forged. A lesson is taught, violently. Christian Slater (never more rodent-like), is great in the role, both poised and feral, an angel of chaos for chaos is the only way society can be purged of its demons, in the early years of the trickiest century there ever was.
Like father like son. Elliot’s appearance makes him totally credible as the embodiment of two agents of mutation, drug addiction and viral technology. Skinny and heavy-eyed under his hood, he’s the ghost in the machine, exacting vigilante justice on his free time, using Internet as Dexter was using his scalpel in his laughable story. The first episode starts with him confronting a bad guy in a plain, soft-spoken manner, in total contrast with what is being tabled during the scene, at such a point that you briefly wonder if the actor is even good. Oh, he is, he’s superlatively good. Elliot is a creep, and accordingly he creeps up on you. By the end of the pilot you will either reject him like the poison seed he is or embrace him. By the end of the pilot Elliot is sexy as hell, in his hallucinated, antisocial way.
“Do you know what your monster is?” he asks. By 2016, we know that the answer is either “yourself” or “the one we have created collectively”. The cyber Frankenstein in whose lap we comfortably curl, like you do right now, like yours truly do writing this. This series is the first, to one’s knowledge, to create suspense out of the time conflict between rehab from morphine addiction and the short timeframe of a major hack. This is oh so clever, the demons from the id paving the way for the cyber devil. A perfect system of enslavement, briefly choosing Elliot’s body as its mascot. It’s not only hacking we’re talking about; “viral” is a frightening word.
“I’m gay”, flatly announces his boss during a flight in his private jet, for Elliot works for a cyber security firm depending on his main client, the Evil Corporation, to survive. Yes, it’s called the Evil Corp., and why not? Mr Robot just takes it one step further than declaring finance the enemy, after all. All characters have the potential for a moment like that, when something important for them, and it it sinks into Elliot without a ripple on his absent, almost abstract surface. He’s very good at non-verbal communication, and most of the time what he expresses is that he has nothing to bring to the conversation.
Refusing the commodity of cliffhangers and very good at diffusing relationships, Mr Robot is your ghost, your monster, your virus, your malware. It’s brilliant and pernicious. Its heroes want to bring down society, still it is very scary to recognise, through the black hole of Elliot’s vacuous glance, that it’s not even the best option we have left. It might very well be the only one.
Viewing essential. Second half soon.
Yes, it’s formulaic, an odd couple of underdogs facing a vast conspiracy, the lonely American saving France. Yes its marketing in this country was severely hampered by the mad truck terrorist attack in Nice on July the 14th, which in ricochet delayed screening in some other countries. It should have been a hit in UK, considering the portrait it paints of contemporary Paris, a city only a few inches above Baghdad in terms of safety, riddled as it is by larceny, fundamentalism, riots and corruption. Oh, and naked women in the streets. Bastille Day nevertheless achieves quite a good deal in the packed, dense, urban thriller genre.
The setup goes like follows: a terrorist group intends to plunge Paris into chaos by manipulating traditional and electronic media. Their first strike is to have a mule dropping a bomb at the headquarters of the “French Nationalist Party”, but the girl gets cold feet when the building is not empty as expected. Her bag with the bomb inside is stolen by a pickpocket (Richard Madden), who discards it in a trash can, killing four people and making him the prime suspect in the process. As the pickpocket is a US citizen, the Paris branch of the CIA tasks free electron Sean Briar (Idriss Elba) to find him before the French Police does, in an increasingly tense situation as the terrorists follow up with their plan, triggering a city-wide state of unrest.
Bastille Day‘s screenplay is not bad, including three twists that can hardly considered as novel but serve a logical progression of the intrigue. The third twist actually resonates in our time and age; it is the third time in a row that street protest is connected to mad finance, as was the case in Money Monster and Jason Bourne, even though in this case the latter is not the cause of the former. The three main characters (including José Garcia as the Head of French Intelligence) are competently written and well acted. But what Bastille Day has that places him a notch above other thrillers in the same vein is the force of nature also known at Idriss Elba.
A wrecking ball with a golden heart, Elba bludgeons into the story like the unstoppable force he so convincingly embodies. In a Vertigo-inspired, vertigo-inducing roof top chase as in more intimate scenes in which he conveys credible menace as well as the occasional sparkle of humour, he’s impossible to doubt, impossible to resist. He even manages to fool French policemen into thinking he’s one of them by piping “Oui, je arrive”. So cute. He’s also very affable to ordinary people he come across during his investigation, most of them African French in suburbs or the Barbès area. The fact that Elba is black himself allows him a connection which cleverly bridges the cultural gap his American origin could entail (he tells the fable he’s a refugee from Belize, only to tersely state later on that he was born in Connecticut). But it is his sweetness which gets him through his investigation pitfalls, that and of course and the brute force he’s able to summon at will. “Pinky pumps?” offers the pickpocket when they close a deal, and Elba’s reaction makes that extraordinary desirable, even though you’re quite sure he would tear up your little finger without blinking.
Yes there are some “This is Paris, vin rouge, Louis Vuitton” dialogue, no the prime suspect never shaves his beard even though his picture is on every screen, yes the final confrontation is a bit of a letdown. But for his Anonymous, typically contemporary sacrifice during the National Reserve bravura scene, and some delectable use of the French vernacular (“Abrutis de merde!” being a personal favourite), Bastille Day is quite good. The lingering question, however, remains why make this kind of fiction in the first place if a brush with crude reality makes you chicken out of its release? How long will politically correct circumnavigate violence, when it had so abrasively eroded race, sex, work and ethics? The answer to that question, if there is one, certainly doesn’t lie with Bastille Day, but one is grateful to the movie to ask it, even involuntarily.
After 9/11 there was a lot of finger-pointing to the CIA and the FBI as poor coordination between federal agencies have made them unable to prevent the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Well, they blamed poor coordination. Quantico‘s pilot now sheds the merciless light of truth on the reason of such a failure : FBI recruitment is the worst.
Quantico is the great name of a mythical place shrouded in mystery, the Alexandria library for the criminally insane. This is where tiny pieces of evidence are sent by clueless police forces for DNA testing, behavioral scrutiny and profiling. This is the place from where oracles like “The killer is a white man between 30 and 40, driving a van” are uttered. This is where Clarisse Sterling was introduced jogging in the first scene of the little known The Silence Of The Lambs. So this is where Alex Parrish (Priyanka Chopra, beautiful and not much else) is introduced jogging, too. Well, technically, there is a dramatic opening sequence: Grand Central Station just got destroyed by a terrorist attack and she, for some reason, is the suspect even before her colleagues find Semtex and schematics conveniently planted in her apartment. Call it bad luck.
The usual and annoying go-between two timelines ensues. We follow Alex going rogue to establish her innocence and, more importantly, her time at the FBI training academy in Quantico. This is where the series could have nailed it: who doesn’t want to know more about the elite recruitment techniques of the most famous police service this side of Scotland Yard? Well, considered yourself warned: if you had more than a fleeting interest in Top Chef or, say, Ru Paul’s Drag Race, you won’t learn much, except that compared to those programmes, the FBI is just lousy at screening candidates.
So: an ethnic bimbo who killed her FBI agent of an alcoholic father joins the guy she had sex with 6 hours before, a pedophile Olympic medalist, the WASP daughter of parents dead in one of the 9/11 aircrafts, a gay Jewish mentalist who spent time in the Gaza Strip, a misanthropic Latina bitch, the vain incompetent son of two Special Agents and a bipolar Muslim girl wearing a niqab for the toughest training, lalalalala. They are haphazardly paired and mercilessly pitted against each other in mind games generally defused before any harm can be done, except when it is with extreme prejudice. Their two trainers are some guy looking like a dollar store Patrick Duchovny and a tough black woman, the first to occupy such a position lalalalala, who by virtue of one of the plot twists does the exact opposite of what her barely outlined character would do in such circumstances.
And there’s another plot twist, that can’t be considered a spoiler as it happens it the middle of the first episode of the first season: the Muslim girl is not bipolar, they are twins. Yup, like towers, lol. “This is the first time we authorise such an experiment”, says the boss. And… what kind of an experiment is this? Quantico’s Secret Sisterhood? It was almost tempting to watch more to know what can possibly made with such a preposterous concept, but the twins sealed the deal: life’s too short.
Nicolas Winding Refn doesn’t know fashion, he doesn’t care about fashion, but most importantly, he doesn’t feel fashion. That’s why he’s copycatting Guy Bourdin in the rare occasions it is given screen time. But of course fashion is the least of The Neon Demon‘s concern. The closer but most elusive domain to cinema, fashion is a mighty beast to tame, and the list is long of directors trying to use it, either as satire or backdrop. Count this movie as another ill-advised foray into the carnivorous industry of youth, beauty, and the predatory behaviours it entails. Oh it’s beautiful to look at, and too clever by half. But it’s a ridiculous movie all the same.
There are a lot of questions to be asked about where Refn’s love for genre will take him at the expense of a coherent cinema. “Do you mind if I use you for that?” is a key phrase, said by a photographer to a model towards the end of the movie. This is definitely a question Refn should have asked Dario Argento before committing his feverish dream about the loss of innocence to film. To be honest, no one has ripped off Argento more shamelessly and unsuccessfully than Argento himself, and before the Suspiria remake hits the theaters next year, The Neon Demon might be the next best thing to the original. But as it the case with fashion, one will argue that Refn doesn’t get Argento either. He knows the notes but does not sing the tune; once again, it is not what interests him here. So, what does? Christianism, apparently, as was the case with Only God Forgives. It makes sense: after the Old Testament comes the New.
For some reason everything seems to be happening in bathrooms/toilets, at least the three best scenes. They play like a Christian allegory. The first one, in a dark club, has the Three Mothers (cleverly?) presented in reverse order, and the Mother of Tears, the most dangerous of all, has Jesse (Elle Fanning perfect as a preraphaelite nymph with porcelain skin), lured her out of her comfort zone and orally dissected by her two sisters, the Mother of Darkness, a top model who proudly lists her cosmetic procedures, and the Mother of Sighs, never the It girl to begin with and therefore on passive-agressive auto-pilot. This is as much temptation as it is a Holy Spirit visitation.
The second scene has Jesse meeting an unfortunate candidate for a runway show after she smashed the ladies room mirror. Jesse attempts to comfort her but is scorned for it. She cuts her hand on the broken glass. What follows is as sudden as it is ghoulish, a communion of sorts which emphasizes what is barbaric, vampiric, in the idea of drinking someone’s blood as a religious rite. In the audition scene itself, starting as the Malcolm McLaren video for Madam Butterfly, the way Refn uses sound is very clever: the models walk, and you can hear their shoes creaking on the white floor of the studio. The designer never looks up. When Jesse walks, there is no such noise pollution, so he has to look up, and she’s cast.
The third bathroom scene is the shocking one, with an apocalyptic blue pattern on the walls and the body horror you might have heard about. It is another hint at communion, in a potent mix of glossy styling and gore. It might also be the most ridiculous way a director as gifted as Refn can take this idea across to his viewers. The scene has to be seen, and can’t be unseen; it is both gross and weirdly disincarnate. The Neon Demon is not sadistic, not even voyeuristic. It makes an earnest attempt at figuring out what it is to be the most beautiful girl in the world, and guesses rightfully that she has to be punished for all the love and lust she inspires. It’s too bad the movie wasn’t shot in Japan as initially intended. Los Angeles is the wrong Petri dish to grow these alien life forms, reduced to one designer, one photographer and one make up artist (Jena Malone, poised even in the movie’s most incongruous foray into exploitation).
There is a thin line between using a genre form for such an aloof purpose and having the rubber, once stretched too far, snapping back in your face. The Neon Demon describes our iconisation of beauty as a pagan cannibalistic cult based on the debasement and consumption of virgins all too willing to sacrifice themselves to the titular demon, a vaginal pentacle devouring them whole at the end of a runway. The virgin thinks she gets a chance at becoming a Holy Trinity of herself, but instead of making her whole the demon slices her up, pixellating flesh and soul alike. There is definitely something Christian in that but, like barocco churches, there is so much imagery at work that it’s all to easy to get lost in looking and missing the point.