Saturday, February 25, 2012

Cloak, dagger, other

There have been a lot of spies at the movies lately, and the pictures have varied from cartoony (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) to brainy (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) to artsy (Haywire) to crappy (This Means War), but none have scratched the itch that the “Bourne” series did.

Now, finally, the trailer for a new “Bourne” film has arrived. What took so long? The last film, The Bourne Ultimatum, in its final shots, showed the way to the next, particularly given that Matt Damon would choose to leave the series: There was Julia Stiles, waiting in the wings, her character also part of all three films and now as much a liability to their agency as Matt Damon’s, alone and on the run in some grayish Eastern European city. Why not? I’d say Stiles looks as formidable as Kate Beckinsale or Milla Jovovich, and they’ve both anchored money-making action series; in any event, the “Bourne” editing manual could make me or my aunt look like a feasible close-combat killer.

And there’s this: The really important attribute Damon brought to the enterprise was his still-boyish face. It was pretty awful to watch this forty-something thirteen-year-old choke a man to death, and Bourne didn’t enjoy it either. That’s something Stiles could have sold too.

Instead, after a five-year layoff, we get Jeremy Renner in the lead of the new film, and Julia Stiles is not listed in the cast. Renner is an intense actor, and I don’t see any trace of thirteen-year-old when I look at him. It’s hard to picture him spending the bulk of a movie running away from his pursuers, or having some kind of a normal life as his goal -- as Damon did, as Stiles could have. The final scenes of Renner’s best movie thus far saw him walking away from a normal life and toward an unexploded bomb. He sold that easily.


Renner turns up in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol but he has nothing to do, because he’s not Tom Cruise.

Starting some time ago, all Tom Cruise movies address, in story, Tom’s renown as a closeted gay man. This practice, uncanny at first, is now canny, and growing tiresome. Ghost Protocol is more of the same. It begins with Tom locked up in a Russian prison, on an undercover assignment that, we are told, he requested. A female agent arrives, to break him out of his cell, but he refuses to go with her without his new friend, a fellow he met there in the prison. Etcetera, etcetera.

A trailer for his next film, Rock of Ages, arrived in theaters last weekend. Tom is a rock star. A fan, a young blond woman, runs up to him backstage for an autograph, baring her breasts; Tom snaps his fingers for a marker and obliges her…without a single glance in her direction.


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has too much story for its running time. It also has too much dandruff, bad weather, nicotine-stained white hair, bad fashion, bad teeth, and far too few women, but mostly it has too much story.

Enthusiasts say this simply means you have to see it twice.

Let’s get something straight: “You have to see it twice” is terrible advocacy for any film, but particularly terrible for a film based on a thirty-eight-year-old novel that’s never been out of print.

No one seems to feel it in their best interest to admit you’d be better off staying home reading the book…but isn’t it kind of obvious?


I thought last year’s mostly-terrific Contagion meant Steven Soderbergh had gotten over his weird aversion to delivering the goods, and I looked forward to Haywire, but he’s back to his worst habits again.

The movie begins, for reasons only Soderbergh could explain, with the only scene in the film played out of sequence, setting up a framing device which manages the neat trick of being the least consequential and the most ludicrous framing device I can remember. (If anyone knows what the kid with the car is doing in the movie, let me know. Who is he? In life, I mean. A producer’s nephew?)

Soderbergh’s next miscalculation was to assemble the fight scenes with as few edits as possible, and no music. On paper, this is unobjectionable: the star of the movie, Gina Carano, is an undefeated MMA fighter; she doesn’t need an editor to make it look like she knows what she’s doing. In practice, the lack of cutting leaves plenty of time to notice that Ewan McGregor and Channing Tatum are petite little flowers; you wonder why it’s taking Carano so long to finish them off.

Haywire is what you get when there are no craftsmen left, and it falls to the artistes to make thrillers.


It’s hard to guess what a contemporary American might mean by “guilty pleasure.”

I’m reminded of the character in the Charles Portis novel The Dog of the South who “would always say – boast, the way those people do – that he had no head for figures and couldn’t do things with his hands, slyly suggesting the presence of finer qualities.”

Is someone out there setting down The Bostonians for the evening, drawing the blinds, and flipping on “Swamp People”? Setting out from the house on date night, tickets to Chekhov in hand, only to wind up at This Means War?

Stop saying guilty pleasure. Just say you like crap.


As a vertigo-suffering myopic, I feel I owe a special thanks to the makers of The Grey for the sequence in which Dermot Mulroney, playing a guy scared of heights, dangles by his knees and elbows from a worn rope tied across a snowy void…as his eyeglasses slip from his face and tumble into the mist

Honestly, fellas, was there no way to work a vagina dentata into that scene? I’m still drawing breath here.


Chronicle is the most satisfying movie I’ve seen in a long time. Go see it Sunday night, during the Oscar broadcast. You’ll be glad you did.

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