Tag Archives: joan allen

Rod Lurie’s The Contender

I like examining films about political corruption from decades ago that, if anything, were somewhat ahead of their time and are more potent these days in the age of the internet and social media. Rod Lurie’s The Contender is no exception, and looks at abuse of power by those with a lot of it to wield, and the frequently used and very bratty tactic of bringing up events from people’s past to run smear campaigns on the eve of elections, a dirty trick used heavily by both sides of any power struggle. Joan Allen is fantastic as a US Senator who is a strong candidate for Vice President until a fiery, amoral asshole of a rival played by Gary Oldman digs up dirt from her college days and threatens to derail the whole thing. This is a political drama and as such the script (courtesy of Lurie himself) has a whole truck of bells, whistles and supporting characters to give the film flourish, but at heart it’s a fascinating moral dilemma revolving around Allen and Oldman. The attack on her is vicious, below the belt slander and although not unfounded, it’s unwarranted by someone who is supposed to represent and uphold integrity with their position. The plot thickens when she discovers secrets of her own regarding his character and past, and struggles in herself whether to use this information to bring him down like he did to her, or rise above it and use other less sensationalist strategies to beat him. Her quandary culminates in a decision that many, including myself, would find fairly frustrating given the gauntlet of degradation she’s forced to walk through as a result of Oldman’s actions. That decision may not be what we want to happen emotionally as an audience based on what we’ve seen and felt, but it’s easy to remove ourselves and see why she does this, and view the example she has set for peers by making the hardest of calls. It’s mature, difficult storytelling and I’d forgotten what a thoughtful, prescient film this is. Many people from both sides of America’s divided masses and political parties could learn a thing or two from this story. Allen never overplays the role and uses that quiet observance she’s so good with to bring us closer to her character. Oldman is decked out in a strange curly wig and looks nothing like the sneering shark he becomes when he opens his mouth, it’s an interesting visual character choice. Jeff Bridges plays the President (I’d vote for him IRL) and the cast is stocked with excellent talent including Sam Elliott, Christian Slater, Saul Rubinek, Philip Baker Hall, Mariel Hemingway, Kathryn Morris and William L. Petersen. Great film, and gets more important as each year passes.

-Nate Hill

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“I’m not fallin’ all over myself to talk about much anywhere, Jack.” Manhunter Revisited – by Josh Hains

“He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”
– Friedrich Neitzsche

Will Graham doesn’t want to take the job Jack Crawford is offering, and we can hardly blame him. We are able to infer that whatever happened to him was of such a horrific nature that it caused his retirement from the FBI as a criminal profiler. We later learn in little bits and pieces (and not in an unnecessary prologue; I’m looking at you, Red Dragon) that a confrontation with the cannibalistic serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecktor left him physically scarred from presumably gruesome injuries, and mentally broken. Through his body language and the stern, almost melancholic tone of his voice, we discern his reluctance, his unpreparedness, and we can sense the deep pain broiling beneath his calm surface. His peaceful existence in Marathon, Florida with his wife Molly (Kim Griest) and son Kevin is now on the brink of being shattered, all thanks to Jack’s perseverance. All it takes for him to crawl back into darkness is one look at a photograph of the deceased Leeds family, and the knowledge that he can help track down this one last psychopath, as if catching the killer will somehow put to rest his own inner demons from his years as a profiler. Easier said than done.

I revisited Manhunter on September 4th, over two years since the last time I’d seen it in March of 2016, and have given myself these last twelve days to absorb the film all over again. I had forgotten that for all of the darkness, despair, and violence, Manhunter is a beautifully photographed film, particularly during the opening scenes that establish Will’s moral quandary, and the serene dream sequence that occurs when Will falls asleep on a plane later in the picture. Even if Manhunter was somehow a genuinely awful movie, I believe I’d still remember those jaw droppingly gorgeous images conjured up by director Michael Mann and the director of photography Dante Spinotti. It certainly helps that I was watching it in high definition.

We later see that Will Graham (William Petersen) was indeed unprepared for this final job when he comes face to face with Dr. Lecktor in his cell, and experiences some manner of anxiety attack that sends him rushing out of the colossal building he’s incarcerated in. I recognized as with previous viewings, that unlike other interpretations of Lecter (spelled “Lecktor” only here in Manhunter, and spelled “Lecter” in the books by author Thomas Harris, and the other films and television shows) that reach for grandiose heights with the kind of theatricality one might expect from a Broadway production, Dr. Lecktor as played by the great Brian Cox, is a mild mannered, relaxed, everyman take on the character. He’s undoubtedly a psychopath, but his menace doesn’t come though in how he speaks but rather in what is spoken. This approach makes him all the more chilling than later versions because we know from human history that many of the most vile beings who have ever walked this earth, walked upon it in a manner as calmly, politely, and “normally” as Lecktor presents himself to be. What’s more frightening to you, reader: the Lecter you know is crazy before he’s ever opened his mouth because he practically smells of insanity, or the Lecktor you never suspect is insane until you’ve awoken under his knife?

Of course, no serial killer thriller is complete without the law enforcement affiliated lead, here personified with a palpable depth and a grounded everyman quality by William Petersen, in a performance as subdued and internalized as Cox’s Lecktor. Petersen never once strays into any kind of territory that would evoke feeling of his performance appearing fake or forced. He’s as natural as they come, and were it not for the knowledge that he is in fact, merely behaving for the screen, one might assume from his naturalism in Manhunter, To Live And Die In L.A., and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, that maybe he’s the real deal, a cop turned actor like his co-star in Manhunter, the late Dennis Farina. Farina, who was a police officer in the Chicago Police Department’s burglary division for 18 years before Michael Mann used him as a consultant on his feature film debut, Thief (for which Farina also had a small role as an enforcer), turns in an equally as grounded, and entirely believable and authentic performance as Jack Crawford.

And then there’s the cause of Will’s return to profiling, the serial killer dubbed “The Tooth Fairy” for the bite marks he leaves on the bodies of his victims post mortem, better known to us as Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan, who also has a small role in Mann’s Heat). His height and implied strength make him an imposing figure, though he’s also a shy little boy tucked away inside this monstrous shell, afraid to show his cleft palate, and obsessed with William Blake’s painting “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun”, later witnessed in a horrific scene with one of Dollarhyde’s victims, the sleazy reporter Freddy Lounds (the great Stephen Lang). That same painting has inspired an alternate personality borne out of his psychopathy he calls “Great Red Dragon”, which comes to life when he seemingly can’t control urges of both violent and sexual natures. Thanks in large part to Noonan’s eerie performance, and the subtle writing of Dollarhyde by Mann himself, the thin line between compassion and love, witnessed in intimate moments between Dollarhyde and blind co-worker Reba McClane (Joan Allen) with whom he starts a relationship with, and uncontrollable murderous rage, is narrower than the edge of a piece of paper, creating a figure all the more real and subtly terrifying.

It wouldn’t be a Michael Mann film without a memorable score or the use of a popular song, and Manhunter is no exception, complete with a thrilling, pulsating score from Michael Rubini, and The Reds, and the incredibly effective, memorable use of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Godda-Da-Vida” during the climactic confrontation between Dollarhyde and law enforcement led by Graham and Crawford. The use of Red 7’s “Heartbeat” over the credits offers up a welcomed upbeat conclusion to an otherwise dark picture.

In my revisitation of Manhunter, I took note of something that I had noticed the very first time I saw Manhunter in my teens (at the very least 11 years ago), and that has stuck with me ever since: the scene when Will visits the Leeds family home to scour the crime scene for clues to their murders, which is also where I came intonthe movie all those years ago when I caught it on television. This interpretation of Will Graham doesn’t just stand in the bedroom of the deceased Mr. and Mrs. Leeds and state into a tape recorder what he thinks occurred, like later versions. He scans the room before he ever says a word, his eyes circling the room from left to right, his mind at work taking in all of this visual information and formulating his idea of what happened simultaneously. When he’s done absorbing the scene, he speaks, low and taking his time, telling us how he thinks they died, and more, in full graphic detail. While we thankfully never bear witness to the events that actually occurred, we move onto the next scene with a clear understanding of what more than likely happened, without the sensation that we just listened to an unnecessarily long exposition dump. It’s a bone chilling scene, given the terrible subject matter, but an effective one we might not soon forget.

I’ve also come to recognize as I’ve grown older, that this same scene also conveys what it is about Will’s brilliant skillset as an FBI criminal profiler that compelled Jack Crawford to ask Will to step out of retirement to help him capture this one last criminal in the first place; to knowingly pull him out of paradise only to thrust him into a personal hell that endangers his family and himself. And why Will Graham said okay.

Michael Mann’s Luck: A short lived masterpiece 


Michael Mann’s Luck was a painfully short lived HBO original series with reach-for-the-stars potential, a mind blowing cast and a terse, eccentric script from David Milch, all fuelling a brilliant ensemble storyline set in a pristine Los Angeles horse racing track. I’ll get the elephant out of the room right away: the series was cancelled due to a few of the horses dying on set, for whatever reasons. Had it been allowed to continue though, I imagine it would have gone on to become one of the network’s, and Mann’s, most hallowed and heralded works. Dustin Hoffman is the centrepiece of the cast as Chester ‘Ace’ Bernstein, a sharp witted Jewish mobster who’s recent stretch in the joint has somewhat dulled his edge. Nevertheless, he slyly takes a stab at playing his hand with horse ownership, joined by his charismatic driver Gus (Dennis Farina, reliably wonderful). There’s all kinds of other hoopla going on, and it’s cool to see the story focus on both the upper crust elite doing their shady deals as well as everyday joes tossing their money into these worshipped games. Kevin Dunn is terrific as a disabled firebrand of a gambler, joined by his two scrappy pals (Ritchie Koster and Jason Gedrick) as they try out their own brand of luck. Jill Hennessy is a determined horse trainer who clashes with a belligerent owner (Yul Vasquez), and there’s two ominous crime kingpins played by Michael Gambon and Ted Levine who hover in the shadows as well. Further still is a heartbreaking turn from Richard ‘Bing Bong’ Kind as a stressed out jockey manager, Nick Nolte as a crusty, broken-down horse trainer, Joan Allen, Alan Rosenberg, Spencer Garrett, Don Harvey, Ian Hart, W. Earl Brown, Shaun Toub, Bruce Davison, Frank Collison, Mercedes Rhuel, Tony Curran and a cameo from Jurgen Pröchnow as the stern owner of the whole track. How’s that for a cast. I must say that the dense, peculiar dialogue from Milch takes some time getting used to, but once you tune in to it’s jive, it’s pure poetry being rattled off by every character, and a gorgeously structured, meticulously layered script at that. The actors are all on a plane of pure excellence as well, many of them turning in career best efforts and bringing their roles vividly to life. The cinematography from various artists is pure spun gold too, every sparkling irrigation sprinkler, glistening horse coat, careful closeup and crop of dirt kicked up by hooves captured succinctly and smoothly. This seriously is as near to a perfect season of television as one can get, and it kills me that it got cut down before it had a chance to really get going, because just think of the places it could have gone. At least we still have this first glorious season to admire, and I recommend every minute of it. 

-Nate Hill

THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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After two films with Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) on the defensive and on the run, The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) sees our hero going on the offensive and taking the fight to his handlers. Coming full circle not only thematically, but also on a production level – the film was born out of chaos as principal photography began without a completed screenplay – it managed to come out the other side with a coherent final product that endeared itself to both audiences and critics. Ultimatum not only avoids the dreaded third installment of a trilogy jinx (they are notoriously the weakest), but ends up being the strongest one of the series as Bourne gets some definitive answers to who he is and his past.

Ultimatum picks up right where The Bourne Supremacy (2004) left off with Bourne on the run in Moscow after being seriously injured in an exciting car chase with a fellow Treadstone assassin. Meanwhile, Simon Ross (Paddy Considine), an investigative reporter with The Guardian, a British newspaper, is working on a story about Bourne and a top-secret CIA operation known as Blackbriar. Naturally, the agency finds out and puts Ross under surveillance in the hopes that Bourne will contact him, which he does, at a busy London train station.

Bourne’s rendezvous with Ross amidst the hustle and bustle of the train station is a nice homage to the opening of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) as the two men are heavily scrutinized by all kinds of CIA surveillance. There is a lot of fun to be had watching Bourne masterfully evade all their manpower and hi-tech equipment in a wonderfully intense and insanely choreographed sequence that successfully ratchets up the tension as the CIA closes in. However, before Bourne can get Ross to reveal his source, an extremely efficient Blackbriar assassin (Edgar Ramirez) kills the journalist and disappears like a ghost.

Fortunately, Bourne takes Ross’ notes and figures out that the source is located in Madrid. During the course of his investigation, Bourne is reunited with Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), a CIA operative sympathetic to his plight. Within the agency, the man in charge of Blackbriar, CIA Deputy Director Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) wants Bourne dead because he sees him as a dangerous liability while another agent, Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), wants to take him alive because she doesn’t agree with Vosen’s methods. This results in some wonderfully testy bickering between the two actors as they argue over what to do about Bourne. The rest of Ultimatum plays out as a brilliantly staged cat and mouse game with Bourne turning the tables on his handlers.

This time around, David Strathairn is the veteran character actor enlisted to play the CIA honcho tasked to find and eliminate Bourne. Like Chris Cooper (The Bourne Identity) and Brian Cox (The Bourne Supremacy) before him, he has the gravitas to play a take-charge authority figure and part of the enjoyment of this film is watching Bourne constantly thwart Vosen’s plans. In Ultimatum, Landy is a more sympathetic figure as she wants to capture Bourne alive (unlike Vosen). As the film progresses and she learns more about what the United States government did to Bourne and others in Treadstone, she realizes that she can no longer be complicit in the CIA’s illegal activities. Nicky Parsons also undergoes significant development as she ends up helping Bourne and turns out to be a key figure in his past.

Paul Greengrass, who also directed Supremacy, is back behind the camera bringing his trademark, no-nonsense pacing and visceral, hand-held camerawork to Ultimatum. The film’s action sequences are the epitome of edgy intensity as the fight scenes are quick and as brutal as a PG-13 rating will allow. They are realistically depicted – after all, guys as well trained as Bourne don’t waste any time and know exactly how to bring someone down as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

Bourne2Like with the other Bourne films, Ultimatum also has exciting chases, including the police pursuing Bourne over rooftops in Tangiers while he’s chasing an assassin going after Nicky, and a crazy car chase through the busy streets of New York City. Greengrass and his stunt people upped the ante on the chases, most notably the sequence in Tangiers, which starts off with scooters in the busy streets and then after a car bomb goes off, along rooftops on foot. Greengrass’ kinetic camerawork is taken to the next level as we literally follow Bourne leaping through the air from one building to another.

The lo-tech versus hi-tech dichotomy is beautifully realized in all three Bourne films as symbolized in the way he kills the highly trained assassins sent to kill him. In The Bourne Identity (2002), it’s with a pen, in Supremacy it’s with a rolled up magazine and in Ultimatum it’s with a book. The films never make a big deal about it and even show how well Bourne can manipulate technology, but his best chance at survival is to MacGyver it and stay off the grid.

With the phenomenal success of The Bourne Supremacy, Universal Pictures persuaded screenwriter Tony Gilroy to write the first draft of The Bourne Ultimatum for a significant amount of money, but only under the conditions that he could leave after its completion and that he wouldn’t have to speak with director Paul Greengrass, who was also returning, and did not get along with the writer. According to Damon, “It’s really the studio’s fault for putting themselves in that position. I don’t blame Tony for taking a boatload of money and handing in what he handed in. It’s just that it was unreadable. This is a career-ender.”

After Gilroy left the project and a release date looming, Greengrass brought in four other writers including George Nolfi, Scott Z. Burns, and Tom Stoppard, the latter who said of his input: “Some of the themes are still mine—but I don’t think there’s a single word of mine in the film.” Amazingly, before the film’s release date, Gilroy arbitrated and lost to get sole credit. As a result, the filmmakers were writing the script as they were making the film over three continents in 140 shooting days. According to Damon, “There wasn’t a single day where we didn’t have new pages! The main issue was that a question was never answered: Why was Bourne here? … What Paul settled on was that it has to be a story about meeting his maker.”

The exciting chase through the streets of Tangiers was an homage to Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers (1966). It took 14 days to shoot with Bourne’s rooftop leap done by a stuntman jumping right behind Bourne while carrying a small, lightweight camera. According to second unit director and stunt coordinator Dan Bradley, he often allowed the stunt people to hold the cameras because “they’re not too freaked out about getting hit or sliding under something while holding a camera. Some of the best shots in Supremacy and Ultimatum are because the stunt guys were operating.” Once again, Greengrass applied an independent film aesthetic to a big studio movie budget or, as he put it, “one of the ways you do it is to try your luck and set the action in places where you can’t behave like a big movie … You’re forced to sort of be a bit like a student film and make it up as you go along, live on the land and shoot when people are around.”

Bourne3If Identity was about our hero escaping from his CIA handlers and Supremacy was about him figuring out why they are still after him, then Ultimatum is all about getting revenge on those responsible for messing up his life in the first place and figuring out, once and for all, his identity. What elevates Ultimatum (and the rest of the series) above, say, the Mission: Impossible movies, is that it is more than just an exciting thriller (although, it does work on that level). It is also has a sharp, political component in the form of a scathing critique of the CIA’s dirty little secrets. The series ultimately asks, what happens when a highly-trained and conditioned government operative questions what he does and why? How does he undo the programming that made him what he is and come to grips with what he’s done? This film answers these questions to a satisfying degree while also being very entertaining conclusion to the series.

The Bourne Supremacy: A Review by Nate Hill

  

It’s nearly impossible for me to pick a favourite from the original Bourne trilogy, but I suppose if you held a gun to my head I would have to go for the breathless, breakneck Bourne Supremacy. It’s the first one I ever saw and one of the very first big summer movie experiences of my youth, so I have a burning nostalgia. I wouldn’t base my decision solely on that, though. No, I’ve thought a lot about it, and Supremacy just has every element in pitch perfect place, every second of pacing hurtling by on full throttle and Matt Damon taking names like he never did before. I love the fact that Bourne has something driving him other than a need to know who and what he is this time around. He has revenge for the death of someone he loved, which is never something you want to provoke when you have someone like him gunning for you. Life is quiet for Jason and Marie (Franka Potente 😍) for about five seconds at the beginning of the film, until a highly skilled assassin (a capable, relentless Karl Urban) explodes into their lives, sends their jeep careening off a bridge, resulting in Marie’s death. This pisses Jason off and then some, prompting a global excursion to find out who Urban works for and take them down. Also on his trail is CIA bigwig Pamela Landy (Joan Allen, excellent) and the severely morally misguided Ward Abbott (Brian Cox takes slimy to a whole new level in this outing). There’s also scheming Russian oil magnate Gretkov (a relaxed Karel Roden) with his own reasons for wanting Bourne. As is always the case, Jason is the smartest guy in the room, more so even than those that trained him, and he out thinks, out shoots and outruns them all every step of the way that takes him nearer to his goal. He isn’t simply running scared and confused with no outlet or idea how to use his talents anymore. He’s a lethal asset with emotion and forethought on his side, and he takes no prisoners. Damon is just ridiculously badass, especially in the several furious hand to hand combat scenes he dances through, doling out the smackdown faster than anyone’s reflexes can react. There’s also a humanity to him, burgeoning regret when he learns what Treadstone made him do, and the yearning to set it right, or at least make himself known to the daughter (Oksana Akinshina) of a Russian couple he once murdered. People complain about all the shaky cam, but whatever man, it sure fires up an action sequence and places you right there amid the mayhem of a rattling jeep chase through a Berlin tunnel, a bone splintering man to man with an ex Treadstone operative (Marton Csokas) and more. Julia Stiles is terrifically intense as a girl who used to do the psych evaluations for agents, Chris Cooper briefly returns as Conklin, the devious founder of the program, and watch for Tomas Arana, Corey Johnson, Gabriel Mann and Michelle Monaghan too. Like I said it’s a tricky task to pick a favourite, and on any given day I’d just say I love all three equally. This one just has a bit of an edge on the others in certain spots, and never feels like it bears the curse of the middle chapter. It’s a tightly wound coil of a film that springs into kinetic motion with the force of a piston. I’m curious to see how the new Bourne flick does, but I doubt it’ll come close to the first three, let alone this platinum classic. Cue Moby’s Extreme Ways to play out my review. 

THE BOURNE SUPREMACY – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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After the grueling experience that was making The Bourne Identity (2002), Matt Damon was understandably wary about reprising the role of Jason Bourne. However, the film’s substantial box office success meant that the studio was eager to crank out a sequel and brought their leading man back into the fold with the promise of a new director after Doug Liman managed to alienate almost everyone on the first film. Paul Greengrass, director of the critically-acclaimed Bloody Sunday (2002) came on board, taking up where Liman left off by adopting the same loose, hand-held camerawork and cranking up the intensity, especially with the action sequences, to the detriment of some that felt the herky-jerky movements resulted in motion sickness. Regardless, The Bourne Supremacy (2004) was a hit both critically and commercially, outperforming Identity.

Bourne (Damon) and Marie (Franka Potente) have gone off the grid by taking refuge in India and this gives him time to sort through his fragmented memories and feverish nightmares. But, as is always the case with these kinds of films, our hero can’t stay hidden for long and trouble finds him. Meanwhile, a top-secret government deal in Berlin goes bad. Two agents are assassinated by Russian bad guys who steal $3 million and files that pertain to the whereabouts of Bourne. Greengrass ups the stakes right from the get-go as he has Bourne framed for the agents’ deaths and the stolen money and has an assassin (Karl Urban) track him and Marie down. An exciting car chase ensues that leaves Bourne alone and putting on him on the run again. This makes him dangerous as he has nothing holding him back so he can focus entirely on finding out who wants him dead and sift through the remnants of Operation Treadstone from the first film.

One of the first things that becomes obvious while watching this film is how its look harkens back to 1970s American cinema. Director Paul Greengrass utilizes the gritty, realistic look of his previous film, the powerful Bloody Sunday, with a lot of hand-held camerawork and snap zooms to give a you-are-there rush of adrenaline and urgency to the action sequences. In the car chases, Greengrass often places the camera right in the vehicle so that it is almost like we are riding along with Bourne, trying to piece together his fragmented past. In particular, the first chase in India is like The French Connection (1971) by way of Calcutta. Tony Gilroy’s screenplay wastes no time getting into it. We’re not 15 minutes into the film and Bourne is being chased by a mysterious and ruthless Russian assassin. It is this intense, no-nonsense pacing that propels this film so that one barely notices the two-hour running time.

Matt Damon plays Bourne with a quiet determination and intensity. It’s a surprisingly minimalist performance devoid of self-conscious tics and proves that his performance in the first Bourne film was no fluke. Bourne is not some invincible, super-soldier, but a tortured man trying to rebuild his past and his identity. He doesn’t kill unless absolutely forced to. And yet, he is certainly a man of action, capable of going from an inert, passive figure to one full of explosive action in a heartbeat. Supremacy sheds more light on his past as he’s haunted by a job where he killed a Russian politician and his wife. Damon does a nice job of portraying a man coming to terms with the fact that he is a killer. Bourne also comes to terms with the notion that what was just another mission for him forever changed the life of a young woman who was made an orphan because he killed her parents. It is an important part of the humanizing of Bourne as he sheds his past of being a detached assassin to someone trying to redeem himself. He tracks down people like Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), introduced in Identity as a handler to the Treadstone assassins, that can provide him with pieces of his past so that he confronts it and understand what he was in order to change who he is in the present.

The primary bone of contention that critics had with The Bourne Supremacy was how Greengrass films the action sequences. There is an impressively staged fight scene between Bourne and another Operation Treadstone survivor in Munich that is dizzyingly claustrophobic thanks to extensive hand-held camerawork that dives right into the chaos. It is memorable not only for its jarring brutality but also for Bourne’s skill with a rolled-up magazine that he uses to defend himself against a rather large knife. Greengrass’ camera flies around the tight confines of this room, dragging us along for this visceral, almost primal sequence. He treads a fine line between being edgy and incoherent, but knows just how far to push it – something that the countless imitators didn’t always achieve. This approach drew criticism for being too fragmented and disorienting, making it difficult to see what was happening but I think it was Greengrass’ attempt to put the audience right in the middle of the action and to experience the sudden and brutal nature of how quickly these guys fight.

bourne2Joan Allen’s Pamela Landy is an interesting character in that initially it appears as if she will be an antagonist like Conklin in The Bourne Identity, but when she’s assigned to investigate the Berlin job she uncovers the existence of Treadstone and this brings her up against Ward Abbott (Brian Cox), the operation’s caretaker and the man who also mothballed it. She’s no dummy and quickly figures out its nature, what Conklin was up to and Bourne’s role, which, in a nicely executed scene, quickly recaps the events of Identity for those who haven’t seen it. Over the course of Supremacy, she shows indications of sympathy towards Bourne’s plight that are developed further in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). Allen’s scenes with Cox are interesting as they are often fused with tension as Landy uncovers the secrets of Treadstone while Abbott, clearly uncomfortable with his dirty laundry being aired, tries to cover his ass, which makes for some heated exchanges between the two as they butt heads.

The Bourne Supremacy gives more screen-time to the character of Nicky Parsons. Landy brings her along because of what she knows, but Nicky ends up playing a crucial role when Bourne confronts her, asking questions about the operation. Stiles was an up and coming movie star in the late 1990s with films like 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), but had dropped off the mainstream radar by the mid-2000s. It is nice to see her pop up in the Bourne films even if she isn’t give much to do initially.

The Bourne Supremacy was based loosely on the 1986 best-selling novel of the same name by Robert Ludlum. Universal Pictures offered screenwriter Tony Gilroy $3 million to write the screenplay and he agreed, but only if it wasn’t a repeat of The Bourne Identity. Gilroy used a plot point from the novel – Marie is kidnapped and held ransom, forcing Bourne out of hiding – as the impetus for the sequel. The screenwriter came up with the idea of taking Bourne on “what amounts to the samurai’s journey, this journey of atonement,” said producer Frank Marshall. Gilroy didn’t want to make a revenge movie because “Bourne killed people and he doesn’t start the movie with a clean slate. There’s a lot of blood on his hands.” He decided to make Bourne a reluctant murderer and that he should suffer for his crimes. To this end, Gilroy envisioned Supremacy as “The Searchers of action films,” but was upset that Greengrass came in and placed an emphasis on action and not Bourne’s atonement.

Next, the producers had to find a new director that would have an affinity for the subject matter. Gilroy recommended that Marshall watch Bloody Sunday, directed by Paul Greengrass. It was a gritty recreation of the 1972 peaceful civil rights march in Derry, Northern Ireland that ended in violence. The producers were impressed with the film’s immediacy and sense of realism. Greengrass liked The Bourne Identity and how it “married an independent sort of feel with a mainstream Hollywood sensibility.” He flew to Prague and met with actor Matt Damon and they talked about the character of Bourne. Greengrass said of the character: “I think this film is not so much about a man who’s lost his memory, although that is part of it – but it’s more about what happens when you’ve recovered your memory and realized that you’re actually a bad man.”

Damon spent months doing personal and combat training including special firearm instruction in order to portray a trained assassin. The actor worked with a SWAT expert in Los Angeles so that when Bourne first picks up a gun in the film “it needs to look like an extension of his arm,” Damon said. He and Greengrass got along right away with the actor happy to have a director “who was putting you first and saying, ‘Be as natural and real and honest as you can and it’s our job to capture it rather than yours to adjust for the sake of my shot.’ That’s the thing an actor wants to hear.” The actor had no problem doing most of his own stunts, but was apprehensive doing an underwater scene where Bourne’s car goes crashing into a river. “I didn’t want to do that at all,” Damon said and so he worked with a diving instructor a couple times a week for a month in order learn how to relax underwater without an oxygen mask and eventually be able to do simple tasks like tying a shoe. Still, after one day of shooting under water, he “woke up probably four times gasping for breath, thinking I was drowning. It was terrible.”

Principal photography began on the streets of Moscow then moved to Berlin with the city’s former eastern sector doubling for the streets of the Russian capital and finally ending in Goa, India. Producer Patrick Crowley wanted the transition from locations to mirror Bourne’s arc “from lush, tropical and warm to more progressively cool, steely, blue, then finally to grays.” To depict the visceral car chases, the production utilized a high-speed, low center of gravity, chassis replacement stunt driving camera platform that was piloted by a stunt driver from a moveable cockpit, which allowed all kinds of camera placement around the vehicle.

bourne3The people behind the Bourne franchise are smart and willing to take chances. They cast an atypical action hero with Matt Damon, surrounded him with an eclectic cast that mixed Hollywood and internationally known stars (with the likes of Julia Stiles, Brian Cox and Karl Urban) and hired independent filmmakers like Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass against type to direct, letting them put their own unique stamp on their respective films. Ultimately, The Bourne Supremacy is all about the title character making amends for his past. There is a scene where he confronts the woman, whose parents he killed, that is rich in understated emotion as Bourne takes responsibility for his actions and tells her what really happened. It’s a great way to end the film as Greengrass eschews the cliché of a climactic action sequence (which happens before this scene) in favor of a more poignant one as Bourne atones for one of his many sins while also setting things up for the next installment.

NIXON – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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Oliver Stone’s film, Nixon (1995) portrays the American political process as an unpredictable system that politicians have no hope of ever fully controlling. The best they can do is keep it in check most of the time. This theory can be seen in its embryonic stage in JFK (1991) with President John F. Kennedy being assassinated by shadowy forces within the political system, but it was not until Nixon that Stone was able to fully articulate it. As film critic Gavin Smith observed, “Nixon is a historical drama about the constructing and recording of history, assembled as we watch.” Stone has created a unique version of the historical biopic that combines fact and speculation with a cinematic style that blends various film stocks in a seamlessly layered, complex narrative. This fractured, overtly stylized approach draws attention to the fact that we are watching a film. As Stone has said in an interview, “I don’t pretend that it is reality.” This, in turn, allows him to deliver his message with absolute clarity.

Like Citizen Kane (1941) before it, Nixon traces the dramatic rise and fall of a historical figure who tried so hard to be loved by all but ended up being infamous and misunderstood. While Orson Welles’ film was a thinly-veiled attack on newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst, Stone paints an almost sympathetic portrayal of Richard Nixon (Anthony Hopkins). Stone may not like Nixon personally, but he does try to explore what motivated the man’s actions and really get inside his head. The director even throws in a stylistic nod to Kane as part of the opening credits play over a shot of a dark and stormy night at the White House. The camera moves through the fence in a way that evokes the opening of Welles’ film with Kane’s imposing estate. And like Welles’ film, Nixon employs a flashback device as Nixon listens to the Watergate tapes and reflects on his life, from his tough childhood in Whittier, California, to his beleaguered political career that culminates with his tumultuous stint in the White House.

The first real indication of Stone’s thesis of the political system as a wild, untamable animal comes when Nixon talks to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Bob Hoskins) at a horse race about running for President. There are all kinds of shots of horses snorting wildly – the first hint, visually, of what Stone is trying to get at. Hoover makes it known that he will support Nixon if he, in turn, supports him, and is willing to supply him with dirt on Robert Kennedy to help the cause. Hoover makes an intriguing comment when he tells Nixon, “I look at it from the point of view that the system can only take so much abuse. It adjusts itself eventually … But there are times there are savage outbursts.” He cites Martin Luther King’s promiscuity and continues, “Sometimes the system comes very close to cracking.” The implication in this scene is that Hoover is a significant cog in the United States political machine and one that Nixon must respect and work with.

The second significant example where Stone gives support to his thesis is when Nixon meets with Richard Helms (Sam Waterston), director of the CIA. Like Hoover, Helms is a powerful man within the system because he knows and protects so many of its dirty little secrets. They get to talking about Cuba and Nixon’s involvement to assassinate Fidel Castro, which Helms has evidence of via memos. He refers to it as “not an operation so much as an organic phenomenon. It grew. It changed shape. It developed appetites.” Helms is fiercely protective of his position and of the CIA, resisting Nixon’s request for incriminating documents. Where Hoover is portrayed as gruff and obvious, Helms is elusive and distant, played with icy intensity by Sam Waterston.

The third and most important example occurs when Nixon spontaneously meets with war protesters on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This is where Stone lays it all out and the film features a fascinating exchange between the President and a female protester (Joanna Going):

Protester: You can’t stop it can you? Even if you wanted to. ‘Cause it’s not you, it’s the system. The system won’t let you stop it.
Nixon: There’s more at stake here then what you want or what I want.
Protester: Then what’s the point? What’s the point of being President? You’re powerless!
Nixon: No. No, I’m not powerless. ‘Cause I understand the system. I believe I can control it. Maybe not control it totally but tame it enough to do some good.
Protester: Sounds like you’re talking about a wild animal.
Nixon: Maybe I am.

Of this scene, Stone has said that Nixon realizes that the system is “more powerful than he is. We can’t get into it that much, but we hint at it so many times – the military-industrial complex, the forces of money.” Stone’s film argues that Nixon really did want to institute change and make a difference in the world, but his own shortcomings, coupled with the complex infrastructure that is the United States political system, ultimately led to his downfall. Stone and the screenwriters conceived of the concept of the political system as “the beast,” which one of the film’s screenwriters Christopher Wilkinson described as “a headless monster that lurches through postwar history,” and served as a metaphor for a system of dark forces that resulted in the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, and the Vietnam War, as well as helping Nixon’s rise to power and his fall from it. In an interview, Stone elaborated further. He saw “the beast” as a “system … which grinds the individual down … it’s a system of checks and balances that drives itself off: 1) the power of money and markets; 2) state power, government power; 3) corporate power, which is probably greater than state power; 4) the political process, or election through money, which is therefore in tow to the system; and 5) the media, which mostly protects the status quo and their ownership’s interests.”

Anthony Hopkins’ stunning portrayal of the former President humanizes this historical figure. From the way the film is shot and edited, we are seeing the events of U.S. history through Nixon’s perspective. This approach also helps in creating a sympathetic portrait of the man. Hopkins wisely does not opt for a Rich Little imitation but instead captures the essence and spirit of the man. He shows Nixon’s aggressive side, where he speaks in football metaphors and refers to himself in the third person, and also a vulnerable one in the scenes with his wife, Pat. It’s a wonderfully layered performance that Hopkins hasn’t equaled since because he hasn’t been given material and a director that has challenged him in quite the way that Stone did with Nixon.

Opposite Hopkins is Joan Allen as Pat Nixon. She more than holds her own with the Academy Award-winning thespian, portraying Pat as a long suffering yet incredibly strong-willed wife who has to sit by and watch her husband strive for unattainable goals. There’s a scene where she reacts in private to her husband losing the 1960 Presidential election to John F. Kennedy and she looks visibly upset, wiping away tears while trying to maintain her composure. In the following scene with her husband, Pat tells him about the toll his political career is taking on their family, which comes across as quite touching. Tears well up in Pat’s eyes as she consoles her husband while he looks tired and defeated. It’s a wonderfully intimate moment that humanizes both of them considerably. All of the scenes between Allen and Hopkins crackle with a kind of tangible intensity as we see the toll politics takes on them. This is not one of those token wife roles that is so often seen in these kinds of films. The well-written screenplay and Allen’s performance flesh out Pat Nixon into a three-dimensional character.

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As always, Stone’s knack for casting is impeccable. Much like he did with JFK, Stone surrounds his leads with an impressive roster of big names in the supporting roles: James Woods, Ed Harris, Bob Hoskins, David Hyde Pierce, Paul Sorvino, Powers Boothe, J.T. Walsh, and, in a restored scene, Sam Waterston delivers a deliciously chilling performance as Richard Helms. These recognizable faces help one keep track of the historical figures that pop up throughout the film.

Originally, Stone had been developing two projects – the musical Evita (1996) and a film about Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. When they both failed to get made, he turned his attention to a biopic about Nixon with the president’s death in April 1994 being a key factor in the director’s decision. The project actually originated with Eric Hamburg, a former speechwriter and staff member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, after having dinner with Stone. In 1993, Hamburg mentioned the idea to writer Steve Rivele with the concept being that they would incorporate all of Nixon’s misdeeds, both known and speculative. Hamburg encouraged Rivele to write a screenplay with his partner Christopher Wilkinson. They wrote a treatment in November 1993. In it was the concept of the political system as a beast and this is what convinced Stone to get involved. He immersed himself in research with the help of Hamburg.

Stone commissioned the first draft of the film’s screenplay from Rivele and Wilkinson and it was completed on June 17, 1994, the anniversary of the Watergate break-in. The script was based on research from various sources, including documents, transcripts and hours of footage from the Nixon White House. Early on, Rivele and Wilkinson hated Nixon but the longer they worked on the film, and “the more we knew about him, our contempt was slowly eroded to the point where we more than pitied him, we empathized with him.” Stone structured his film into two acts with the first one about Nixon’s loss of power and the second one about Nixon in power only to lose it again.

Stone pitched the project to Warner Bros. but, according to the director, they saw it “as a bunch of unattractive older white men sitting around in suits, with a lot of dialogue and not enough action.” They also didn’t agree with Stone’s choice to play Nixon – Anthony Hopkins. Instead, they wanted Tom Hanks or Jack Nicholson – two of Stone’s original choices and both of whom had passed on the role. Stone even met with Warren Beatty but the actor wanted to make too many changes to the script. Stone went with Hopkins based on his performances in Remains of the Day (1993) and Shadowlands (1993). The director remembered, “The isolation of Tony is what struck me. The loneliness. I felt that was the quality that always marked Nixon.” Upon meeting Stone for the first time, Hopkins saw the director as “one of the great bad boys of American pop culture, and I might be a fool to walk away.” He was convinced that to take on such a challenging role that would require him to “impersonate the soul of Nixon” by the scenes in the film when he talks about his mother and father. “That affected me,” he said. To prepare for the role, Hopkins watched a lot of documentary footage on Nixon. At night, he would go to sleep with footage playing so that it would seep into his subconscious.

Joan Allen auditioned for the role of Pat Nixon over a period of several months. During one of these auditions, she read opposite Beatty when he was briefly interested. After this audition, Beatty told Stone that he had found his Pat Nixon. She learned, through her research, that Pat was a strong person who had a difficult life. Allen based her performance on interviews with former Nixon aides, books about the First Lady and a Barbara Walters interview in the early 1970s. Stone, Hamburg, Hopkins, and Woods flew to Washington, D.C. and interviewed the surviving members of Nixon’s inner circle: lawyer Leonard Garment, Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Robert McNamara, a former Secretary of Defense under the Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations. In addition, Stone hired Alexander Butterfield, a former secretary in the cabinet and special assistant to Nixon and who first revealed the existence of Nixon’s secret tapes of his oval office conversations, John Sears, former deputy White House counsel, and John Dean as consultants. To research their roles, Powers Boothe, David Hyde Pierce and Paul Sorvino met with their real-life counterparts, but J.T. Walsh decided not to contact John Ehrlichman because he threatened to sue the production after reading an early version of the script and was not happy with how he was portrayed.

Stone’s producing partner and financier Arnold Milchan had a deal with the director to make any film he wanted up to a budget of $42.5 million but refused to honor their agreement, saying that he would put up no more than $35 million because he felt Nixon was an uncommercial project. Stone refused to make the film with that budget and a week before shooting was to begin he approached Hungarian financier Andrew Vajna who had a co-financing deal with Disney’s Hollywood Pictures. At the time, Vajna was hoping to get some respectability in Hollywood and possibly an Academy Award and agreed to provide the $43 million budget. In order to cut costs, Stone leased the White House sets from The American President (1995).

Reportedly, there was a lot mischievous jokes exchanged between the actors on the set. Early on, Hopkins was intimidated by the amount of dialogue he had to learn, more of which was being added and changed all the time, and then Sorvino told him that “there was room for improvement” and that he would be willing to help him. According to James Woods, Sorvino told Hopkins that he was “doing the whole thing wrong” and that he was an “expert” who could help Hopkins. Sorvino took Hopkins to lunch and then afterwards the British thespian told Stone that he wanted to quit the production. The director managed to convince him to stay on. Hopkins remembered, “There were moments when I wanted to get out, when I wanted to just do a nice Knot’s Landing or something.” Woods also cracked several good natured jokes with Hopkins. He said, “I’d always tell him how great he was in Psycho. I’d call him Lady Perkins all the time instead of Sir Anthony Hopkins.”

What is perhaps most stunning about Nixon is the style of the film. Employing the editing techniques and innovative camerawork he perfected in JFK and Natural Born Killers (1994), Stone created a unique version of the historical biopic that combines actual documentary footage with fictional material and that blends various film stocks in attempt to shed light on a figure most people knew very little about. This fractured, overtly stylized approach suggests that we are seeing historical events through the prism of Nixon’s perspective. The film is not meant to be the definitive word on the man but rather, as Stone said in an interview, the “basis to start reading, to start investigating on your own.”

Stone had his editors in three different rooms with the scenes from the film revolving from one room to another, “depending on how successful they were.” If one editor wasn’t successful with a scene it went to another. Stone said it was “the most intense post- I’ve ever done, even more intense than JFK” because he was screening the film three times a week, making changes in 48 to 72 hours, rescreening the film and then making another 48 hours of changes.

Seven days before Nixon was to be released in theaters, the Nixon family issued a statement calling parts of the film “reprehensible” and that it was designed to “defame and degrade president and Mrs. Nixon’s memories in the mind of the American public.” The statement also criticized Stone’s depiction of Nixon’s private life and that of his childhood and his part in planning the assassination of Castro. This statement was actually issued by the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California on behalf of the Nixon family based on a published copy of the script. Stone responded that his “purpose in making the film Nixon, was neither malicious nor defamatory,” and to attempt “a fuller understanding of the life and career of Richard Nixon – the good and the bad, the triumphs and the tragedies, and the legacy he left his nation and the world.” The attacks didn’t stop there. In a letter to Nixon’s daughters, Walt Disney’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, said that Stone “has committed a grave disservice to your family, to the presidency, and to American history.”

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Nixon is a powerful historical biopic – arguably the last great film Oliver Stone has made to date. It is also, coincidentally (or maybe not), the last film he and regular collaborator Robert Richardson made together. The legendary cinematographer was as much responsible for defining the distinctive style of Stone’s films as the director himself. Stone’s work has never been the same since they parted company. Nixon was also the last time he had enough juice in Hollywood to command such an impressive cast of actors. Admittedly, Hollywood has changed considerably since this film was made and Stone has had to adapt with the times but hopefully he has another great film like Nixon left in him.