Film #72: The Bourne Legacy (2012)

the_bourne_legacy_630director: Tony Gilroy
language: English
length: 135 minutes
watched on: 23 December 2012

This was the first movie I watched on the flight back to the UK in December. It’s in the Bourne series, but seeing as it doesn’t contain Jason Bourne, the title is very much a legacy title, no pun intended. The connection remains in a few mentions of characters, and the movie seems to take place concurrently with the most recent Bourne film.

It’s a cathartic action movie, taking us on a world tour with a resourceful main character who’s a top-secret assassin for the CIA, who are desperately trying to cover their tracks by getting rid of all their assassins, basically. They seem to keep control of their agents through drugs – some kind of virus that was never fully explained in the movie but was alluded to many times. When the main character doesn’t get his dose, he starts getting withdrawal symptoms, and he has to go, attractive lab technician under his arm, to the Philippines.

I quite enjoyed watching the movie, but it lasts for too long and because it’s ostensibly part of a series, it doesn’t quite stand alone and many of the plot points aren’t properly expounded upon. One thing that stood out to me as implausible was motorcycling up a set of stairs during a car chase, although that’s nitpicking, really. The ending was also very unsatisfying, but fits the mould of the other Bourne movies. So, I’m not sure whether to recommend it. There are better things to spend your time watching.

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Film #63: Latter Days (2003)

20120903-172946.jpgDirector: C. Jay Cox
Language: English
Length: 107 minutes
Watched on: 9 August 2012

Whenever I’ve seen a guide to gay-interest films online this film has always come up. Despite generally being held in quite high regard (at least compared to other gay movies, which isn’t saying much, frankly) it’s never really appealed to me so much, so I never sought it out – it was only on a friend’s recommendation that I finally got around to watching it last month.

It was OK. Its plot is very simple (gay guy falls in love with closeted guy, drama ensues), and we’ve seen that many times before. It’s perhaps one of the few that tackles mormon homophobia more-or-less head-on, though, and it’s an interesting look at the way gays are treated by mormons. The closeted guy, who’s a mormon missionary, is exceedingly cute, although I wasn’t too keen on the lead character (a Promiscuous Gay) lookswise.

One of the most interesting things was actually seeing a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing a fellow missionary who’s particularly homophobic (in stark contrast to certain other roles he’s played since). It’s perhaps hinted later that he relents his homophobia because he knows what it’s like to be heart-broken.

It’s quite rare to see a film about the way the mormon missionaries live their lives – they’re all packed off to a faraway city to an austere apartment where they theoretically can have no temptations. It’s a far cry from any life I know from my own experience. But it’s depressing later on when you catch a glimpse into the way gays are actually treated by mormons, after it’s found out that that guy was gay.

As for the ending of the film, it was a bit manipulative. I’ll just leave it at that, in case anyone wants to watch it, but you are specifically led to believe that something major was the case when it wasn’t. Maybe the ending wouldn’t have worked without that plot twist, but it felt contrived.

All in all, it was OK. It was above average for gay films, but that’s not very hard to beat. There are plenty of better gay films out there, I’d say. But it’s certainly not bad.

Film #62: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

20120806-171616.jpgdirected by: Christopher Nolan
language: English
length: 164 minutes (almost three hours)
watched on: 1 August 2012

This film has had a lot of hype surrounding it recently, although not nearly as much as the latest Spiderman and The Avengers, both of which I’ve sort of eschewed – although even if I’d wanted to see it, The Avengers isn’t actually out in Japan yet, as I found out to my mild surprise when I saw the poster in the cinema going to see this film. It seems that The Dark Knight Rises (confusingly called ダーク・ナイト・ライジング – ie, “Dark Knight Rising” – in Japan) and The Amazing Spiderman were both released “on time” in Japan – indeed, Spiderman was released here before it was in America and The Dark Knight was released only a week later. Anyway, I’ve kind of made that choice because I saw Spiderman 3 and hated it, although I’m aware that the newest film has a completely different set of actors and storyline, and because I got sick of seeing posts about The Avengers on Facebook and various other places on the internet. Plus, Christopher Nolan is a very vocal supporter of IMAX technology, and I’m not the kind of person to let slip an opportunity to go to an IMAX cinema.

However, IMAX cinemas here are surprisingly thin on the ground. It was either Toshimaen, near a theme park, or Urawa, which is not technically in Tokyo, although it was the one I went to because it was more convenient for my friend. Both are run by United Cinemas. There may be one or two more but they were even less accessible. There is simply no equivalent to the prominently-positioned London IMAX, which also proudly boasts a 20m high screen – in contrast, this was only just noticeably bigger than a normal screen (although to be fair, the adverts at the start took up a very small proportion of the screen). The image quality was pristine, though, and filled the entire screen during the important action sequences (during unimportant scenes, the image quality was lower and the screen was letterboxed).

As for the film itself, it was roughly the same as the previous two films in the series; fun action sequences, Batman, and pretty people. This time in particular they added Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, and JGL as some cop who Believes in Batman. There was also that French woman who was the evil wife in Inception… I think Nolan seems to be getting a high retention rate with his actors these days; all that was missing was DiCaprio to make this a “Who’s Who” of the Inception cast.

The storyline, unfortunately, was a bit unmemorable in places, although the main bit is easy enough to sum up: it’s about seven years after the last “Dark Knight” film, and Batman is in hiding, and there’s a madman called Bane who wears a mask, almost like Darth Vader but it doesn’t cover his face completely and looks like an insect, and he holds the city of New York Gotham to ransom with a nuclear bomb, which was somehow derived by taking the reactive core out of one of Bruce Wayne’s research projects. So Batman has to come out to save the day. Wayne ends up being captured by Bane and thrown in a prison pit somewhere in… India, or Arabia, maybe? And Catwoman, who’s basically a scoundrel and a robber, becomes involved along the way somewhere. Twists and turns abound by the end of the film, and are executed well. It did end up getting too complicated and contrived, though (although not too difficult to understand for someone who’s either not seen the previous films or forgotten them), so I just sat back and enjoyed the moment.

Anyway, the visuals, as I mentioned, were excellent, especially in IMAX, and the film itself was very enjoyable, if a little confusing in the plot department. I guess it could have been cut down a little bit, as almost 3 hours is a very long film, although I was generally satisfied with the length.

The character of Bane presented a few problems to the film, chief among which is that he can be very difficult to understand, and there were at least a few lines where I just didn’t catch what he was saying. This is because of some kind of distortion on his voice from his mask. Actually, I’ll have to mention the other problems later, because they’re kind of spoilers.

So anyway, I’d recommend this film. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s pretty good, and definitely worth paying the extra to see it in IMAX. Go on, go now, because then you can read the next paragraph. It’s got spoilers in it, I’m afraid. I do put a warning at the top of the page on my blog, but just in case you don’t bother to read that, I just want to reiterate it again.

So, you’ve been warned. If I had to pick out one thing that I disliked, it is that later on in the film we start seeing all-but-direct comparisons of Batman to Jesus, with references to Gotham as a city of sinners, and, as you can perhaps guess once you’ve noticed that, a sacrifice/redemption plot point at the end. I guess I don’t buy into this idea that people are sinners and “deserve” punishment – yeah, to be fair, this is the line of the villains, but the idea that then someone else has to bear the brunt of that punishment for them is rampantly christian and to me it’s a boring point of view. It’s kind of left open whether Batman is actually dead or not, in the same way as Inception did with “is the world real or not?”

As for Bane, the other problems with his character included breaking some of the conventions of film. The number one issue was that his mask was never taken off. Even with Darth Vader we got a look in in the third movie. It’s kind of like Chekov’s Gun, the convention that dictates that if you have a gun in a scene in a film, it should go off by the end of the film; here, if someone has a mask on, they should take it off at some point. So I was waiting around for Bane’s mask to come off, and when it didn’t, I left a bit unfulfilled. Bane’s introduction also came a bit too early in the film for my liking, leaving it difficult to build up any mystery or intrigue around him, although in fairness, this can highlight the sheer bluntness and brutality of his character, that he’s able to simply muscle into the film without much fanfare in almost the first scene. And as for his death, it was too anticlimactic. I know Nolan is a “visionary” director who likes to play with the “language of cinema”, but I think some of these conventions become expectations, so they certainly left me disappointed.

Oh, and the other thing that filmmakers need to stop doing is only showing the title of the film right before the ending credits. I WANT AN OPENING TITLE CARD, DAMMIT!

But just to reiterate, good film, and I liked it.

Film #61: The Hangover (2009)

20120802-192030.jpgdirected by: Todd Phillips
language: English
length: 97 minutes
watched on: 25 July

Awful, racist and homophobic.

I guess I’ll never understand the American straight guy tradition of the bachelor party. OK, so we have the tradition in the UK, too, but I’ve never been close enough to someone to get invited on one. This was just some kind of exploitative rubbish that got churned out of someone’s dick the other year.

To some extent their situation is relatable for me, in that I’ve certainly had drunken nights that I can’t remember, and the hyperbole (they find a tiger in their bathroom and a baby in the cupboard) is indeed a standard comedic device which has the potential to work. Overall, the premise could quite easily have made a good movie. However, they didn’t pull it off. It’s just like all the Judd Apatow movies (and that is, to be fair, what I expected of it, so I guess it didn’t underperform on those expectations, but still!), only those weren’t so bad. I mean I remember laughing more than twice in the entire movie at those ones… After a while I kind of sat in dull disbelief at what I was watching.

Apart from the racism and homophobia, which I can’t really be bothered going into in much detail (the main antagonist is a camp Chinese man, along with the incessant “no homo” type gags), it also rehashes some very old and demonstrably false stereotypes about Las Vegas – particularly that you can get married on such short notice while steaming drunk. Also, what is a beautiful woman like Heather Graham doing with a cunt like whoever the fuck it was she married, who was off his face when they met? And the plot is almost exactly the same as that episode of The Simpsons from ten years earlier.

It’s just not worth anyone’s time – don’t bother!! Unfortunately, audience figures were still high for the movie, enough that they made a sequel. No thanks.

Film #60: Clerks (1994)

Directed by: Kevin Smith
Language: English
Length: 92 minutes
Watched on: 17 July

Clerks is one of those films that I’d only ever managed to catch occasional bits of before. But it always seemed kinda funny. It’s famously very low budget, so low that they couldn’t afford colour film, and actually filmed it in their local convenience store (damn you Japanese, I keep wanting to type ‘combini’!) in New Jersey. It’s also famously a ‘cult’ film and it’s a well-regarded comedy, so I decided to watch it.

Kevin Smith’s films, of which I’ve already seen Dogma and maybe a bit of another one, seem to have some kind of strange continuity, especially with the background characters Jay and Silent Bob (Silent Bob is actually Smith, which might go some of the way to explaining that), who crop up in a lot of different movies and have one dedicated to themselves. So it’s kind of amusing for me because I was vaguely familiar with these characters to see them in their first screen appearance. But they’re not really important to the film.

The film follows a day in the life of two slacker store clerks, who work at a convenience store and video rental store that are next door to each other. I’m no good with character names, though; I’ve already forgotten them three days after watching the film. Video guy is around at the convenience store for most of the day, seemingly not bothering to ever do his job, while Convenience Store guy was called up at six in the morning, reluctantly, to cover for his boss. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that his initial reluctance turns to annoyance when his boss doesn’t show up.

I guess the main plot of the film is to do with the guy’s girlfriends, one ex and one current; he’s still in love with the ex, finds out via the paper that she’s getting married, and starts moping all day until she shows up and declares her love. Or something. It wasn’t actually that interesting.

What I actually gleaned from the film was that it’s more like sketch comedy. I guess this reflects the fact that such a colourful variety of characters come into any one convenience store over the course of a day – the film sort of focuses on one skit with a particular customer for a while, before moving onto the next. It starts with a man who comes in on some kind of mission to get people to stop smoking; he turns out to be a chewing gum salesman. The rest are pretty similar to that. Some of them are pretty funny, some are pretty boring. What all of them have in common is people being unexplainably idiotic, which is always good for a bit of absurd comedy.

Overall, I guess I’m still willing to watch more of Smith’s movies, but I think the humour in this film isn’t quite my style. I found bits of it funny, certainly, but I think it was quite bland. Or perhaps I just wasn’t identifying with it. I dunno, really. It was fine, just not the masterpiece that I’ve heard about.

TV: Breaking Bad Seasons 1-4 (2008-2011)

Created by: Vince Gilligan
Language: English, Spanish, and a tiny bit of Chinese
Length: 46 (7, 13, 13, 13 resp.) episodes of 47 mins each
Finished watching on: 23 Apr, 11 May, 28 May, 8 Jul resp.

I first heard about this series a while ago, but I got the chance recently when a friend offered me the series from his hard drive. The first thing anyone should know is that it contains the dad from Malcolm in the Middle in a decidedly more dramatic role. For a few episodes this is amusing, as I could only see Hal, but Bryan Cranston is in fact a really good actor (not that we couldn’t tell this from his performance in Malcolm anyway), and in his role as the protagonist of this series, Walter White, he is quite formidable. Plus, his appearance changes quite dramatically during the first season, so it gives a good visual hint that Walter and Hal are two very different people.

The basic premise is fairly easy to sum up: an overqualified chemistry teacher gets cancer, and then decides that since he’s about to shuffle off the mortal coil, he’d better leave something behind for his family, but since he isn’t making anything in either of his two jobs, he promptly starts cooking the finest batch of crystal meth known to man (he’s a really good chemist). He takes a partner in a former flunk-out student of his named Jesse, who likes saying “Bitch” and “Yo” a lot and presumably knows the business… but is also a meth addict. You win some, you lose some, perhaps.

It’s mostly a drama, I’d say, although there are certainly elements of black comedy in there, and the show doesn’t waste any time starting its body count; I think at least one or two characters are dead by the end of the pilot. This will continue to mount for the rest of the show, essentially.

Generally, I really liked it. It has a good sense of realism about it, which I like. When I directly compare it to the last American drama I watched, which was United States of Tara, I see a rather upper-middle class family who don’t really have any major life problems except for those directly posed to them by the drama itself, while here the family aren’t particularly well-off at all and have all sorts of problems that don’t relate directly to the main narrative. Apart from the dad with cancer, there’s a pregnant mum and a son with a minor-but-noteworthy disability (rarely referred to directly, incidentally; the fact that it doesn’t even come close to defining the boy’s character feels quite refreshing), and a house that is massive by UK or Japanese standards, but probably fairly average in suburban America.

To round off the cast of main characters, there is also the mother’s sister and brother-in-law, who works for the Drug Enforcement Agency, and is constantly on Walter’s tail without ever actually sussing him. There’s also a hilariously corrupt lawyer and various drug barons that the pair work for; first the violent Tuco, and later Gus, who looks a bit like a lifelessly scary Obama and is usually acted in an ominously emotionless way.

I don’t want to give too much away, though. The story is excellent, and it twists and turns all over the place throughout the series’ run. In general I can’t find fault with the characters or the acting. As they develop, the story gets darker, which I sort of expect from many dramas – it feels more like a romp in the first series or two, and starts becoming thicker and more eerie during the third, where people really start mistrusting each other. By this point there is also a main antagonist, too; for the first and second season this was often just Walter’s wife Skyler, who didn’t think too much of him disappearing all the time with flimsy excuses.

I guess the main criticism is that it’s fairly dry. I could never watch more than one episode in a day, because even though the drama and the storyline are generally great, sometimes you have episodes where not much happens, or stuff only happens in one part of the episode, with the other half focussing on something that is perhaps important to the storyline, and may even be funny, but is basically mundane. Again, this stands in contrast to the last American drama I watched, which was more like an addictive pageturner. This means that it took me several months to finish, rather than a couple of weeks, although it took longer because I got distracted by various other series too. I don’t know whether this is a good or a bad thing; I guess it’s probably good, because it’s the perfect amount of drama and tedium that makes you want to watch more, but not immediately, and therefore watching it once a week and keeping up with the TV schedule wouldn’t be too much of a problem for me. Less tedium would still be nice, hoewever. Speaking of which, the new series is starting in America on Sunday. I guess I’ll have to find a way to -ahem- acquire it then.

All in all, comes with a full recommendation…

Film #59: Airplane! (1980)

Directed by: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Language: English, Jive and a tiny bit of Japanese
Length: 88 minutes
Watched on: 18 June 2012

This is the second time I’ve seen this film now, although I’ve yet to see its sequel. It’s one of the first parody films of a genre that would later spawn monstrosities like “Epic Movie”, but here the writing is actually good and the actors are all brilliant. It’s one of those few films that really just has gag after gag after gag, with several recurring themes throughout, especially people who take things too literally. “Don’t call me Shirley!”, anyone?

I don’t really know what it is that the film is spoofing, to be honest. I think it’s some film from the 1960s, although I hadn’t heard of it. Evidently the plot is lifted pretty much directly from it with minimal changes, because both films were owned by the same production company.

There’s just a lot going on in this film, and it’s quite easy to watch because it doesn’t ever quite get boring (although this is partly a function of its length; any longer and it might start to get very repetitive). I kinda wish the modern examples of this genre would be nearly as good. And I wanna see the sequel.

TV: How I Met Your Mother – Season 7 (2011-12)

Created by: Carter Bays & Craig Thomas
Language: English with some Japanese, Russian, French
Length: 24 episodes of 22-23 minutes each.
Finished watching on: 10 June 2012

I just realised at the beginning of last month that the newest season had just finished airing, so I got about to watching it quite promptly. The first six seasons of How I Met Your Mother waste a lot of time with false leads to the “main” mother plot, and extra excuses for a sitcom plot to develop. This season starts and ends with a flashforward to Barney’s wedding (so we already know that his character’s going to change a bit during the season), which will maybe come at the end of the next season, I don’t know. This at least means that it’s getting closer to some kind of hint about the true identity of the mother in the show.

The rest of the season is fairly predictable fare for this show, though. The tricks that they used to insert a sitcomesque B-plot into a story ostensibly told by another person get more and more ridiculous, with many episodes involving someone telling a story, getting sidetracked, and having to be sternly told to get to the point, which they never do. This happens enough times that it gets boring and trite, but serves as a nice nod towards the increasing ridiculousness of the show’s conceit.

It has its fair share of dramatic moments, though, where you’re made to care about the characters’ plight, and I think it’s good that a comedy show inserts moments like these.

Anyway, it’s still a very addictive show, and I think I watched at least two episodes every day. I like the fact that I get all the little jokes that the series has built up over the many seasons.

I don’t like the fact that I’ll have to wait a year for the next season, though (at the moment, it’s only been about 7 months since I watched the first six seasons). I guess I’ll just have to live with that. At least I didn’t have to wait weeks between episodes…

Film #58: The Pink Panther (2006)

Directed by: Shawn Levy
Language: English with some Chinese
Length: 93 minutes
Watched on: 23 May 2012

I’ve always been a bit apprehensive about watching this film, because following on from such a good franchise in the name of an actor like Peter Sellers is always going to be difficult. And Steve Martin doesn’t look like Inspector Clouseau, he looks like Steve Martin with a fake moustache. It’s mainly that white hair that does it.

The comedy in this film just wasn’t that funny, except for some jokes which had been taken directly from the old Sellers movies. It is of course meant to be slapstick, but it is actually possible to do slapstick well, and I don’t think this film quite managed it in many places.

Plus, something about the high production values that we’ve enjoyed in the past decade didn’t seem to mesh very well with the style of humour. When I see slapstick I guess there’s some part of me that kind of expects the production values of the 1960s.

In many senses it was very like Johnny English, which I watched the other month. It goes for very simple humour and has a singer (in this case Beyoncé, weirdly enough) trying to bolster her acting career to little avail, and then actors making fun of the French. It’s got what I’m going to assume will be looked back upon as the zeitgeist of the early 2000s, post-9/11 and pre-economic collapse. And it’s slightly difficult for me to put my finger on exactly what that is, to be honest.

On the subject of 9/11, it did lend itself to an amusing skit in which Clouseau says the wrong thing at an airport, having been to New York (the fish out of water section here was one of the funniest in the movie).

The other thing is it’s kind of embarrassing to see decent actors such as Jean Reno in films like these, clearly below his level.

Anyway, it’s kind of worth a couple of laughs, but if you actually want to see The Pink Panther, you should find the original series. And when you do, the very first film may not be exactly what people are expecting, as it focuses more on the criminal masterminds and less on Clouseau himself, who was originally a minor character who became very popular. So it might even be better to find the second film of the series, “A Shot in the Dark”. After seeing Sellers in the role of Clouseau, this film does just feel like a disappointment.

TV: American Dad Seasons 4-6 (2008-2011)

Created by: Seth Macfarland, Mike Barker, Matt Weitzman
Language: mainly English, some Japanese et al.
Length: 57 (20, 18 and 19 resp.) episodes, 22 minutes each.
Finished watching on: 2, 9, 14 May 2012

I last watched American Dad about two years ago, when I was still in York. At that time, season 6 wasn’t yet out, and I got about halfway through season 5 before I couldn’t find a reliable source for a particular episode and gave up. So watching it this month, spurred on by the gift of season 5 from a friend, was to catch up on the episodes I’d missed. Actually, season 5 turned out to be an incorrectly-labelled season 4, because this (along with Futurama) is one of those shows with inconsistently named seasons. So I ended up watching three seasons.

Frankly, season 6 was nothing special; just more of the same. I can’t really remember anything specific from it, although I really enjoy this show, so I got a few laughs out of it.

As for the show itself, it’s a lot better than Family Guy, despite being made by the same people. Evidently it was supposed to be the political counterpart to Family Guy, but it quickly established itself with a different style of humour, and now that Seth Macfarland uses Family Guy to espouse his political views via Brian, it seems that Family Guy is now American Dad’s political counterpart.

Some of the jokes were getting a bit old with this latest season, I have to say. One recurring theme is that Stan never learns any lessons about the world, and yet he gets a new life lesson thrown at him every week… and still the next week he’s back to his same-old inconsiderate self. And what with the “cartoon time” slowing everything down, Steve is still a 14-year-old virgin even after six years of the show, and that’s also starting to get a bit old.

Hayley, previously neglected somewhat in the recent seasons, has a “B-storyline” in several episodes of season 5 about her romantic relationships, and does get married at the beginning of season 6, so there is at least a bit of character development there.

So yeah, it’s still funny, but I think they will need to come up with new ways to make the jokes fresh sooner or later.