I was late catching up with the “Bourne” series which is highly unusual since they are the type of movie I gravitate towards. I’ve now seen the first three films starring Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, one of several physically and mentally enhanced government black ops projects. Damon steps aside but the series continues with “The Bourne Legacy”. Jeremy Renner is the new leading man playing a new leading character but writer and director Tony Gilroy maintains an import sense of connection and familiarity with the previous films. Gilroy wrote the first three movies and goes to great lengths to make this feel like a Bourne film while also possibly launching the series into a new direction. While Gilroy does occasionally struggle matching up with earlier films, the movie definitely has its moments that nicely falls in line with the series.

While Jason Bourne isn’t in the movie his presence is clearly felt. Gilroy (and his brother Dan who also helped with the screenplay) connect the actions of “The Bourne Ultimatum” to this story. As Jason Bourne continues to threaten the government’s black ops programs, Eric Byer (Edward Norton) is called in to clean the mess up. His solution – to wipe out all of the human projects and those connected to them. One of those projects turned target is Aaron Cross (Renner), an Operation Outcome agent who is considered a step up from those involved in the now exposed Treadstone. But when the attempt on his life fails, Cross is sent scrambling for answers. He’s also ran out of a special medication that keeps him both mentally and physically balanced. Cross tracks down Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a doctor connected to Operation Outcome who he hopes can get him get the pills he needs. But she soon finds that her connection to the project has made her one of Byer’s targets and Cross is her only chance at survival.

For many, the big question revolves around Renner. Does his Aaron Cross match what Damon was able to bring to his Jason Bourne character? Well, yes and no. Renner is most certainly Damon’s equal when it comes to acting. Renner is completely convincing and he’s got the physical abilities to sell each and every action sequence. Cross is different from Bourne in that there is no amnesia.  He knows he’s part of a government project although the amount of knowledge he has is limited. While this isn’t necessarily a flaw with the character, it did take away one of the most intriguing elements of Bourne’s story. But a slightly bigger problem with the character isn’t as much about Renner as it is the writing and direction. Cross is a solid protagonist but I couldn’t help feeling that he lacked the intensity of Jason Bourne. There are a couple of scenes where he “loses it” for a lack of a better phrase, but overall he seldom comes across as intense or as threatening as Bourne.

Nonetheless, Renner’s performance is very good and he’s also surrounded by a strong supporting cast. Weisz is always great and she’s no different here. Her character is the most sympathetic in the film and I loved how Weisz portrays her through the numerous emotionally charged situations she has to deal with. Norton is also good as the evil government clean-up guy. He easily sells the amoral “just doing my job” persona and we genuinely dislike this guy from the moment he first enters the picture. I also really liked Oscar Isaac as a fellow Outcome operative who Cross encounters early in the film. Bourne fans will also enjoy the small but interesting returns of David Strathairn, Joan Allen, and Scott Glenn. Each have cool little tie-in scenes that answer questions left over from the last film.

“The Bourne Legacy” doesn’t hurry out of the gate. Gilroy takes his time laying out the story and defining his characters. There were a couple of times when I did feel things were moving a little too slow, but overall it works well  and the movie’s third act is pretty action packed. Speaking of the action, it captures some of the same qualities of the past Bourne flicks – hard-hitting hand-to-hand fight scenes and of course a vehicle chase scene. I mean you can’t have a Bourne movie without a vehicle chase and this film gives us a great one. Renner thrills as he runs, jumps, punches, and kicks. Unfortunately his fight scenes are almost rendered incoherent due to moments of inconsistent editing. There were a couple of fight scenes where I literally had no idea what was going on other than punching.

I can see where some would consider “The Bourne Legacy” a cash grab. But even with its few flaws it’s still a fun movie that fits right in with the Bourne series. It stumbles in a few areas and I wouldn’t consider it the best of the series. But Gilroy knows the material well and he knows how to bring new characters into this universe. Renner gives a strong performance and Weisz is wonderful to watch. It also features a chase sequence at the end that is nothing short of awesome. But more importantly, it left me anxious and anticipating what’s coming next. So I would call it a success.


Five Great Scenes From “Midnight in Paris”

Ok, I’ve never been what you would call a Woody Allen fan. That being said, I can’t express how much I enjoy “Midnight in Paris. It’s a movie that features some great laughs and the best performance from a usually annoying Owen Wilson. It’s a romance film but not in the traditional sense. The true love of the movie is the city and it’s magic. It’s the city that brings Gil Pender (Wilson) to realize some very important things about himself and his life. It’s the city that Gil’s in love with and it’s the city that helps him get on the right path in life.

Now I know that one reason I responded so strongly to this movie was because of my current trip to Paris. As I sit here soaking up all this glorious place has to offer, I understand what Allen in conveying in his film. Paris is a city like no other. It’s living and breathing. It’s a place filled with history, style, and beauty, all things that “Midnight in Paris” presents. So my opinion of the movie is most certainly influenced by my expectations of what I’m now experiencing here in Paris, France.

But let’s not get bogged down in just that. “Midnight in Paris” is also laugh out loud hilarious. The characters are fantastic and for my money it features some of Woody Allen’s best writing. Filmed at various locations here in Paris (some we have already visited), Allen places his characters right in the middle of this city both past and present day. The performances are top-notch and the feeling of nostalgia is impossible to deny. It’s a beautiful film that I just love talking about.

So, before we head off to a local cafe and take a stroll in the Latin Quarter, I thought I would share five great scenes from this movie I love. Now, last Sunday I did a Phenomenal 5 on Paris movie scenes and #2 was the gorgeous opening montage of “Midnight in Paris”. Since I’ve already used it I’ll leave it out here. But it is an amazing opening sequence that I have watched over and over. These scenes I have picked are just samples of what makes this movie so good. Great laughs, great characters, great performances, great city!


One of my favorite scenes in “Midnight in Paris” is where Gil meets Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald (played brilliantly by Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston). After getting lost in the streets of Paris, Gil is picked up by an antique car which whisks him away to 1920’s Paris. He arrives at a bar where a party is going on and bumps into the Fitzgeralds. Gil’s confusion mixed with amazing portrayals from Hiddleston and Pill make this a hysterical scene. And even though it’s completely preposterous, the environment, the music, and the performances make this strikingly believable. Hiddleston alone makes this scene with his chipper expressions and hilarious line deliveries. I love it.


We all know people like Paul (Michael Sheen) from “Midnight in Paris”. He’s one of those who thinks he’s a lot smarter than he actually is. He’s an old friend of Gil’s fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and she is enamored by his immense knowledge of Paris and it’s history even though most of his “knowledge” is flat-out wrong. A great example of this is the scene in the gardens at the Rodin Museum. Paul, flexing his pseudo-intellectual muscle, actually argues with the museum tour guide regarding Rodin’s past relationships. Paul is clearly wrong, but you know guys like this, they’ll never be convinced of it. Sheen’s delivery is hilarious and Rodin himself couldn’t have convinced this know-it-all otherwise. *(Yes, I know this photo isn’t from the Rodin Museum scene but it perfectly captures the Paul character).


Corey Stoll’s portrayal of Earnest Hemingway was absolutely phenomenal. We’re introduced to him after Gil leaves the above mentioned party with the Fitzgeralds in search of more lively entertainment. They enter a bar where Hemingway is sitting alone in the corner. We just stand there alongside Gil and watch as a hilarious conversation takes place between Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds. It’s clear that Zelda doesn’t like Earnest and she takes off. F. Scott soon follows leaving Gil to share a conversation about life and  writing with one of his literary idols. Stoll speaks like Hemingway wrote which adds an ever funnier element to their conversation. This is a key moment in the film that begins Gil’s new perspective on life. It’s also extremely funny.


After several trips back in time, Gil finds himself mesmerized by the beautiful Adriana (Marion Cotillard). He finally gets some meaningful time alone with her as they share a romantic walk on a beautiful Paris night. The cool 1920’s feel mixed with the beauty of the city of lights is the perfect setting for the movie’s most romantic scene. Woody Allen also uses Gil to once again speak of the allure of the city. It makes you question who he’s attracted to more, Adriana or the city? This is such a wonderful scene that moves which such grace, all as the equally beautiful “Parlez-moi d’amour” plays in the background. Call me a sap but this is a great scene.


The movie ends with Gil walking alone in the Paris night. He’s broken it off with Inez and has realized his desire for the past was misguided and that every era has their own problems. Unsure of everything, he bumps into Gabrielle (Lea Seydoux) again on the beautiful Pont Alexandre III bridge. The two strike up a conversation and Gil tells her that he will be staying in Paris. There is an obvious attraction between them which is only solidified when a small rain shower pops up. The two walk off together enjoying the rain and the city. While Gil thought he once again had no direction in his life, Paris takes him by the hand and sets his course. What a great way to end the movie.

Well, that’s all for now. I have fountains, paintings, a buttered baguette, and a cozy cafe in my immediate future. What did you think of “Midnight in Paris”. Hopefully you liked it as much as I did. Please fell free to share your thoughts on it. And until I hit the states again…au revior.

REVIEW : “No Country for Old Men”

Joel and Ethan Coen have established themselves as some of the best filmmakers in the business. Their wide creative range and unique storytelling style has given us great films from several genres. Yet there are several common threads woven throughout a Coen brothers picture and one of the greatest compliments I can give them is that you know a Coen brothers movie when you see it. “No Country for Old Men” is my personal favorite of all of their films and that’s saying a lot. Winner of four Oscars including Best Picture, “No Country for Old Men” examines several themes that the brothers frequently explore while incorporating their familiar quirkiness, dark humor, and gritty violence. But the film is also unlike any of the Coen’s other work and that uniqueness gives it its own special voice.

Adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, “No Country for Old Men” stays pretty faithful to the book. It could be called a crime thriller or even a modern-day western. It’s rugged look and tone gives this modern tale of violence an almost old west feel. But that plays to one fascinating subtext to the film. It is a movie about the evolution of violence and the moral callousness at its root. It says “things aren’t like the used to be” but from a more broken and defeated point of view. But there is much more to the film than that. It’s also a story of choices and consequences, old versus new, and chance versus fate. I’m being rather vague on all of these but let’s just say the ideas are interwoven throughout the movie.

Set in West Texas during the early 1980’s, the story opens with Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbling across a drug deal gone wrong while hunting one day. Among the blood-soaked bodies and bullet-riddled pickup trucks, he finds a lone but wounded survivor begging for water. Having no water Llewelyn leaves him. Before leaving he finds another body with a satchel full of money. Faced with the first of many key decisions that drive the story, he grabs the satchel and leaves the scene. Several ill-advised decisions later, Llewelyn finds himself on the run from the Mexican cartel and more notably a psychopathic hired hitman named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Tommy Lee Jones plays Ed Tom Bell, a small town Texas sheriff following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He and his deputy find the busted drug deal and Llewelyn’s abandoned truck and start trying to put the pieces together. The rest of the story focuses on the triangle of Llewelyn, Chigurh, and Sheriff Bell. And even though they share practically no screen time together, their lives slowly become intricately connected.

As with every Coen brothers film the casting is impeccable. Almost every performance is pitch-perfect and there is rarely a moment where the characters feel false. Josh Brolin not only looks the part of Llewelyn Moss but his flawless accent, the delivery of his lines, and west Texas mannerisms nail his character. He is perfectly complimented by a subtle and reserved performance by Kelly Macdonald who plays his wife Carla Jean. She’s simple but sweet and you are drawn to her as she’s drawn into Llewelyn’s situation. I also loved Tommy Lee Jones’ work as Ed Tom Bell. He’s the perfect choice for a small town Texas sheriff and I was enthralled with how he flawlessly embodied his character. Even Woody Harrelson has a small but great role as a rival hired gun looking for the missing drug money. But the best performance may be from Javier Bardem (who captured the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role). He may sport the worst haircut in film history but he’s also one of the most chilling and brutal villains on film . Even with his amoral propensity for violence, he’s fascinating to watch and the film’s best moments are when he’s on-screen.

“No Country for Old Men” is also a technical gem. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, a long-time Coen collaborator, uses his camera to create a dark and dirty world but one grounded in a true sense of realism. The sparse, dusty landscapes provide the perfect canvas for the Coens to create their violent world. The action scenes are ferocious but even in their brutality they never seem gratuitous. Instead they feel perfectly in context. I also loved the Coen’s use of sound, or in many instances their lack of it. Many scenes feature no background music instead relying on natural ambience. Several intense scenes feature no music or dialogue yet it’s the silence that really thickens the tension. While the Coen’s can sometimes be a little, for lack of a better word, wild with their filmmaking, every thing here feels a little more tightly structured and controlled.

The Coens have made many good films and they have a style that’s undeniable. You may like or dislike their approach to filmmaking but you have to respect it. Their unique vision is stamped all over this film. The violence is startling, the pacing is perfect, and there is just the right amount of dark comedy. You’ll wince in one scene and laugh out loud in the next one. “No Country for Old Men” is a brilliantly written adaptation and a beautifully crafted film. It’s one of those movies that features several scenes that will always stick with me. It’s also helped by some truly searing performances led by Bardem’s memorable work. I understand that this film may not appeal to everyone but for me this is a masterpiece. It’s a lesson in expert filmmaking and cinematic creativity. It’s also a movie I can watch over and over and never grow tired of it. Yes, it’s one of my favorite movies of all time. There, I said it!




REVIEW: “Act of Valor” (2012)

“Act of Valor” is a tough movie to judge. I’ve always taken into consideration what a movie is trying to be when reviewing it. I look at the intentions of the filmmakers and the target audience to better understand if they accomplished their goal. But there are also certain elements to a film that should be consistent in every good picture. “Act of Valor” is a straightforward and unashamed action picture. It’s one point of uniqueness is that it stars real-life active duty Navy SEALs. In fact, none of they SEAL’s real names were mentioned in the film or featured in the credits. At first I wondered if this was strictly a gimmick to draw action lovers to the film. But the very first action sequence showed me that they really brought something to the movie. Unfortunately there are other areas where the picture falls short and even the fantastic action scenes can’t totally overcome these flaws.

Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh produced and directed “Act of Valor”. They gained permission from the United States Navy to use real SEALs and received access to training areas and equipment to give the film a heightened sense of realism. The Navy’s involvement certainly is effective and the action scenes are brimming with grit and intensity. The SEALs legitimately give the military styled action an adrenaline shot that many of these films don’t have. Their familiarity with the missions and the process is evident and when they start speaking the special forces lingo I was completely involved. There is also a genuine sense of patriotism in these men that you can’t help but be impressed by.

McCoy and Waugh use several camera techniques to give the movie more grit and energy. Some work and some don’t. There are some scenes, especially earlier in the film, where we get shifts of focus that are really distracting. There are also some moments where the herky-jerky shots make deciphering the action almost impossible. But thankfully the erratic handheld technique is used sparingly. We also get several action shots from the first-person perspective that closer resembled a Call of Duty video game than a movie. But I grew to like those instances regardless of its obvious gimmickry.

While the action scenes clearly show the movie’s strengths, the attempts at drama and character development are definitely weaknesses. The biggest problem is with the acting. Look, I completely understand that these aren’t professional actors. But most of their non-action line-reading is cringe-worthy. They really give no life to these characters and the movie suffers for it. The character-driven moments seem false and the guys just don’t have the skills to sell them. The story also suffers from a fairly generic and painfully predictable script. There’s one key moment in the film that you see coming 10 clicks away.

“Act of Valor” is sure to get its share of criticism and it’s hard to argue for its shortcomings. But when the night vision popped on and the bullets began to fly, I found myself enthralled. This is a movie that at times feels like an obvious recruiting tool and at other times a hard-core military action movie. The filmmakers do get several things right. When the SEALs are in their element I was completely drawn in. But when it comes to simple everyday things like…well…carrying on a conversation, the movie goes limp. I think “Act of Valor” does enough of what it’s aiming for to offer some entertainment. I’m actually anxious to see the action scenes again. Too bad I’ll probably have to forward through everything else to get there.


Review: “A Separation”

“A Separation” is the 2012 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film and the first win for a movie from Iran. Written, produced, and directed by Asghar Fahadi, “A Separation” is a carefully structured and nuanced story that is at times painful and tragic but always mesmerizing. Set in modern-day Iran, the film is a devastating look at divorce through the cultural lens of a very complex country. Fahadi uses an almost methodical approach to storytelling yet his film is brimming with intensity and true human emotions. It touches on a reality of life that transcends any political or cultural barrier while also offering some thought-provoking insight into the religious laws and social structure of that part of the world.

“A Separation” opens with a well conceived scene that sets the stage for larger story. The scene shows Nader and Simin petitioning a judge for a divorce after 14 years of marriage. Simin is spearheading the separation because she wants to leave the country due to its current state of affairs. She is concerned with how it will effect the future of their 11-year-old daughter Termeh. Nader has no desire to leave mainly because he takes care of his father who is in the advance stages of Alzheimer’s. The judge rules their complaints to be petty and not warranting a divorce. With no divorce granted Simin still moves out leaving Nader to take care of his father and Termeh.

It’s here where we begin to see the many layers of Fahadi’s story. He examines a variety of social issues while offering a subtle but clear critique of Iranian culture. Yet nothing here feels forced or contrived. He looks at these things through the eyes of his characters in a true and organic way. Plus we learn more about the characters as they’re faced with things such as elderly care, school pressure, and rigid orthodoxy. But the biggest dissection of the characters comes through an intense court battle between Nader and a caretaker he hired to look after his father. It’s here that we see each character struggle with a variety of difficult choices and moral quandaries. It becomes a true character study that reveals a side of people that we can recognize as wrong while also understanding the root cause of their moral compromises. This is where the story could have evolved into a convoluted and self-indulgent mess. But Fahadi’s razor-sharp screenplay never misses a step and the film moves with a fluid yet painful grace.

While Fahadi takes his characters through various moral gray areas, he never labels one the hero and one the villain. There are no white or blacks hats in this story. In fact, one of the most compelling things about the film is trying to figure out who to sympathize with between Nader and Simin. I was constantly going back and both between them as things unfolded. But that’s just another reflection of the tremendous screenplay. Fahadi engages the audience and encourages them to make their own conclusions about his characters. And while his story does examine social and cultural issues, “A Separation” is a film about a divorce that’s happening right before our eyes. But as I was watching this husband and wife I realized that the heart of this story was young Termeh. Like a tennis ball she is bounced back and forth in the background of the film until everything reaches it’s breaking point. She’s simply heart-breaking.

Another reason the movie works so well are the performances. Everyone across the board is fantastic and no one buckles under the weighty material. The performances flow perfectly together with such ease. They nicely handle a script that can sometimes pack more intensity in an on-screen conversation than most action films. I remember several scenes that had me on the edge of my seat just by its searing dialogue. But while the story is very well written, there is one problem I had. There’s a pivotal moment close to the end of the film where key information is revealed in what feels like the most convenient way imaginable. It’s the only time in the entire film where something didn’t feel authentic.

“A Separation” is a fantastic movie that does more to prove the broad range of global talent in filmmaking. It’s a fascinating look at the cultural inner-workings of a complex society yet the main thrust of the story goes well beyond that. It examines the horrible effects of divorce by looking at it through a very clear lens. Fahadi doesn’t try to take sides even if it appears so at first. Instead he exposes what drives some people to end their marriage. It’s an honest and often times crushing picture but one that is incredibly well crafted. It does have a minor hiccup or two but these minor flaws do nothing to spoil what a fine accomplishment this is. “A Separation” should cause the serious viewer to think and to ask ourselves questions. For me, that’s just a reflection on how good this movie is.



“Last Night” is more of a relationship drama than a romance movie. First time director Massy Tadjedin also wrote this story of a seemingly happily married couple whose relationship will be tested during a 24 hour period apart. It’s a story that does supply some good moments and asks some good questions. But it also lacks the life and energy needed to sell these characters and it’s never quite as provocative as it tries to be.

Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington play Joanna and Michael Reed. The couple are working on their third year of marriage and seem to have found their place in New York City. But Joanna becomes jealous when she sees Michael spending a suspiciously large amount of time with a beautiful colleague of his (Eva Mendes) at a company party. At home, later that night, we see the couple argue over this but make up in time for Michael to head off on a brief business trip in Philadelphia. While he’s gone Joanna runs into old flame Alex (Guillaume Canet) who she agrees to meet for a drink later. Meanwhile Michael finds himself tempted in Philly by the same colleague that stirred his wife’s jealousy.

The movie evolves into a will-they-or-won’t-they-cheat narrative driven by the lead characters’ insistence on putting themselves into the worst possible situations. Granted, we the audience are meant to suspect that this allegedly happy marriage is really built on a weak foundation which is exposed by their behavior. But I kept shaking my head wondering why anyone would continue to put themselves in such positions to fall unless they just weren’t very nice people. And that’s an issue I had with “Last Night”, none of the main characters are all that likeable and in a story like this it’s nice to have someone to root for.

The film does keep a certain level of intrigue as both Joanna and Michael repel the temptations they face only to put themselves back in the line of fire. I was genuinely interested in whether or not the couple could weather the storm and resist what could potentially destroy their marriage. But my interest wasn’t sparked by any direct connection to the characters. In fact, it’s really hard to connect to these characters. Knightley certainly gives the best performance in the film but even she is let down in spots by the material most notably with this past relationship with Alex. It just doesn’t sell. I actually like Sam Worthington but he seems out of his element here. He sometimes comes across as wooden and emotionless which can hinder a story like this..

“Last Night” has good intentions. Massy Tadjedin does ask good questions about jealousy, devotion, and marriage. It’s seems to make the good point that strong marriages aren’t built on weak foundations and even what looks like a good relationship can crumble if it’s not intended to be. But unfortunately the movie doesn’t give us the characters we need to really emotionally invest in this type of story. We get hints of genuineness and there are some scenes that feel true. But it also sometimes feels lifeless and mundane. “Last Night” is a nice first effort from Tadjedin who gets some things right. But a character-driven film requires characters and we just don’t get consistent ones here.