‘Hanna’ Features One of Saoirse Ronan’s Best Performances

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Joe Wright’s “Hanna” on the surface looks a bit like “Kick Ass” as, like that movie, it follows the exploits of a young girl who has been trained to be an elite assassin so she can avenge her mother’s murder. But “Hanna,” however, is more down to earth in how it treats its characters and the events which envelop them. Does this make it better than “Kick Ass?” No, just different.

On top of it being an action thriller with a bit of Luc Besson sleekness in its design, “Hanna” is also a fish out of water story as the title character discovers the real world in a way previously denied to her. Hanna has spent her entire life in the woods, living in a snow-covered cabin where her dad, Erik Heller (Eric Bana), has kept her safe. But now she is heading into a world completely unfamiliar to her. Hanna’s mission of assassination is also a journey of discovery, and this movie ends up coming with more surprises than I ever could have expected.

Playing Hanna is Saoirse Ronan who has gone from her Oscar-nominated turn in “Atonement” to an excellent career which includes unforgettable performances in films like “Brooklyn,” “Lady Bird” and “Mary Queen of Scots.” On paper, Hanna seems like a completely unrealistic character who could in no way exist in real life. But the beauty of Ronan’s performance is how she makes Hanna seem as real as any 16-year old girl even as the character leads a double life the average teenager does not. Seeing her come into contact with a civilization she has been sheltered from provides her with evidence of how not everything involves guns, bullets and violence. Of course, seeing her get her first kiss is frightening because she can flip back to assassin mode in a heartbeat if she gets the wrong impression.

Most of Hanna’s adventures come as a result of her befriending a British family on a road trip whose daughter Sophie (Jessica Barden) introduces her to teenage rebellion and some rather tacky fashion statements. Sophie’s parents, Sebastian (Jason Fleming) and Rachel (“The Ghost Writer’s” Olivia Williams), come to admire Hanna and help her as she moves on to a safer haven from the government forces who look to eliminate her.

Wright comes up with several invigorating action sequences which made me feel like I was watching a Jason Bourne movie. There’s not much in the way of shaky camerawork, but you can feel the bullets flying in the air as well as the punches and kicks which land on her opponents, crushing them as if she were simply swatting flies. This is the kind of action film I like to watch as it makes you feel things instead of letting you just sit back like you’re some passive observer.

In addition, Wright gets some amazing unbroken shots as we watch characters make their way through crowds of people while being followed by their cold-hearted adversaries. It makes me want to say “eat your heart out Brian DePalma” as the choreography involved in filming an unbroken sequence like this is anything but easy.

There are other great performances to be found in “Hanna” as well. One in particular is from Eric Bana who plays Hanna’s father Erik Heller. His character is also a spy on the run whose relationship with Hanna is far more complicated than at first glance. Watching Bana here reminded me of just how much he throws himself physically and emotionally into his characters. It’s exhausting watching him here as we get reminded of his strong work in “Black Hawk Down” as well as his comedic roles like the one he had in “Funny People.”

Then there’s the infinitely brilliant Cate Blanchett who never seems to suck in anything she does. While listening to her southern accent feels a bit odd at first, she is still sharp as ever as corrupt CIA agent Marissa Wiegler. Throughout Marissa is as obsessive in eliminating Hanna and Erik as she is in cleaning her teeth. Heck, watching her brushing even while her gums bleed profusely reminded me of just how long it’s been since I’ve gone to the dentist. Blanchett also has a brilliant moment where she pays a visit to a key witness, but her face suddenly shows a wealth of pain which is mysterious in its origin. I don’t know how she did it, but it’s the one shot in “Hanna” which stays with me the most as her ruthless character succumbs to a moment of inescapable vulnerability.

On top of it all, you get a brilliantly propulsive electronic film score from The Chemical Brothers. I immediately downloaded it off of iTunes as soon as I got back to my apartment. It’s actually the first time they have ever composed for a movie. Learning this made me want to say, “duh, what about ‘Fight Club?’” But wait, it was The Dust Brothers who composed the score for that 1999 classic. I guess techno music is more of a family affair than I realized. Either that or all these brothers look alike.

“Hanna” is not without its faults. The pace of the movie tends to slag in between the action scenes which, while offering us beautiful moments for the title character, drag the proceedings down more than they should. Also, it ends without resolving the fate of several characters, leaving us wondering what happened to them and if they came out of this story alive and in one piece. As a result, the ending feels a bit too abrupt.

Still, “Hanna” is a remarkably involving action thriller which doesn’t lay out everything for you right at the start. The story continues to unfold throughout, revealing each of its secrets along the way. What brings it altogether is the fantastic performance of Saoirse Ronan who at a young age showed a professionalism and sharp focus on character equal to many acting veterans. Seeing her portray someone as innocent as she is very deadly made it one of the most unforgettable performances I had seen in any movie from 2011.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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Renny Harlin and Steven E. de Souza Look Back at ‘Die Hard’ & ‘Die Hard 2’

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Steven E. de Souza and Renny Harlin dropped by the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood back in 2009 to talk about the making of “Die Hard” and “Die Hard 2.” Both films introduced us to modern action hero John McClane, a man more real and human than the muscular superheroes played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. They also inspired a most popular concept in movies; the lone warrior fighting overwhelmingly bad odds. The audience at the Egyptian clearly had seen both these movies hundreds of times, but seeing them on the big screen made them seem more exciting than ever.

In talking about the genesis of “Die Hard,” de Souza said it was based on Roderick Thorp’s novel “Nothing Lasts Forever.” The filmmakers followed the book closely, but there were differences: John McClane was older and visiting his daughter, not his wife. Also, Al Powell (played by Reginald VelJohnson) was originally a cab driver, but the character was turned into a cop as the CB radio craze had long since ended. The writers also dropped the ticking time bomb as well. De Souza also explained in writing the screenplay how he made Hans Gruber the protagonist and John McClane the antagonist. Basically, while Gruber is dragging out time, McClane is busy trying to foil his plans.

In casting “Die Hard,” de Souza admitted Bruce Willis, best known back then for starring on the television series “Moonlighting,” was not the first choice. Frank Sinatra had first dibs as “Nothing Lasts Forever” was a sequel to his movie “The Detective,” but he felt he was too old to play the part. Offers were made to Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Caan and even Richard Gere, all of whom turned the role down as they found McClane to be too passive.

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The conversation moved on to “Die Hard 2” which de Souza said 20th Century Fox decided to move forward with a week after the original opened. Harlin said he had just finished making “A Nightmare On Elm Street 4,” one of that franchise’s biggest hits. This led to him getting many offers as the thinking is studios proclaim you a genius when you have a hit movie. Harlin said he still doesn’t understand the thinking behind this. 20th Century Fox had offered him “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane” and gave Harlin total freedom in filming a movie which featured, as he put it, “girls in bikinis.” The studio bosses liked what they saw and gave him “Die Hard 2” to direct, and Harlin began shooting it two weeks after “Ford Fairlane” wrapped.

Harlin remembered “Die Hard 2” as being so hard to make and that even Joel Silver came to admit he put too much on his plate. As nervous and excited as he was about doing it, Harlin bemoaned his misfortune at shooting during what he called “least snowy winter ever.” He and the production team looked everywhere for snow and couldn’t even find any in Colorado or Montana. In Spokane, Washington, they finally lucked out with lots of snow and were set to start filming, but a sudden heat wave melted it all on the very next day.

Both Harlin and de Souza said they saw “Die Hard 2” as a comedy which makes sense when McClane says, “How can the same thing happen to the same guy twice?” Bruce Willis, however, didn’t see it as a comedy and initially refused to say the “yippee kay yay” line again since he already did in the first film. Harlin said Silver eventually convinced Willis to do a take his way and then another take Harlin’s way. Indeed, it works well as a comedy as McClane’s bad luck is impossible to ignore. Harlin did however credit Willis for the “just the fax ma’am” line.

Thanks to de Souza and Harlin for dropping by. Seeing “Die Hard” and “Die Hard 2” on the silver screen was a great treat. After all these years, they remain exhilarating action movies to watch.

 

Jack Reacher

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I haven’t read “One Shot” or any of the other books written by Lee Child which feature the character Jack Reacher. At this point, however, I almost don’t need to as the casting of Tom Cruise as Reacher has brought to everyone’s attention how the character is 6’ 5” tall and weighs over 200 pounds. This description makes the role seem far more appropriate for Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Dwayne Johnson or any other athlete turned actor who looks like they live at the gym. So, of course, everyone is snickering at Cruise the same way they did when he was cast as Lestat in “Interview with the Vampire,” but we all know how that turned out.

You know what? I don’t care if Cruise resembles the character or not because he proves to be the best thing “Jack Reacher” has to offer. While he is much smaller and nowhere as muscular as Child’s literary character, he still comes across as an intimidating force to everyone he comes in contact with. His charisma onscreen ends up giving you a reason to check out this movie even though it is surprisingly ho-hum and feels like a business as usual action picture.

Directing “Jack Reacher” is Christopher McQuarrie who won an Oscar for writing “The Usual Suspects” and previously worked with Cruise on “Valkyrie.” He gets things off to a suspenseful and tense start as we watch a sniper looking through his scope at random targets. It’s an unsettling way to start this movie off, and McQuarrie keeps us waiting with anxiety for the first bullet to be fired, and you know it will be fired. The sniper takes out five people and is later caught and interrogated by Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo), but instead of him giving the detective a confession he writes the following message down on a legal pad, “GET JACK REACHER”

Mr. Reacher arrives in town soon after, but not to help his sniper friend but instead bury him. Still, as in many action thrillers, things are not quite what they seem. Reacher has to contend with the sniper’s defense attorney Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), her dad who also happens to be District Attorney Alex Rodin (Richard Jenkins), a hired killer and a Russian named Zec Chelovek (Werner Herzog) who everyone refers to as “the Zec.”

Now I know it has been popular to hate Cruise these past few years with his off-camera antics getting more press than his movies, and part of me expected that I wouldn’t take him very seriously in this role. But he really does deliver here and gives a believable performance as a man you really don’t want to mess with. Even in those obligatory scenes where he’s about to beat up a bunch of guys at once, he’s riveting because his eyes tell us and his opponents they don’t stand much of a chance. It’s fun to see Cruise give Reacher an undeniably dangerous vibe, and even at his age he never feels out of place in this role.

It’s a kick to see Werner Herzog show up as “the Zec,” and he makes this villainous character especially depraved as he recounts the unthinkable of what he once had to do in order to survive. Herzog makes the almost unbelievable story he tells sound terrifyingly believable, and his voice continues to serve him well whether he’s narrating one of his documentaries or reading from the book “Go The F—k To Sleep.” It’s a shame he’s not in the movie more than he is.

I also liked seeing Robert Duvall, who starred opposite Cruise in “Days of Thunder,” show up as shooting range owner Martin Cash. These two share a great chemistry together no matter what movie they’re in, and it feels like it’s been forever since I’ve seen Duvall in anything. Like Herzog, I wish he had a bigger part here, but Duvall does make the scenes he’s in count for a lot. This is an actor who can take any throwaway role given to him and make it seem like it’s so much more than what’s on the page.

McQuarrie is a great writer, and not just for creating the screenplay to “The Usual Suspects.” I like how he gives us characters like Reacher and Helen Rodin whose descriptions cannot easily be boiled down into one sentence. And yes, the movie has some great dialogue in it just as it should.

Having said that, “Jack Reacher” comes up a little short for me because there’s not much to distinguish it from other movies of its ilk. Furthermore, it goes on for much longer than it should to where it drags in spots which had me getting a little restless. McQuarrie and Cruise are also unable to escape the clichés of the genre which would easily do in a weaker movie. Maybe it’s because the tone of this film is a little more downbeat than it should be. Both clearly had some fun with this character, but you come out of it wishing they had more fun with the story.

If you can get past the unspectacular aspects of “Jack Reacher,” you might still enjoy the movie for what it is. At the very least we have Cruise’s performance to enjoy as he makes every lethal blow he gives the bad guys hurt like hell. When the movie is finished, you do come out of it wanting to see Cruise take on this role again in the future. But if and when that does happen, let’s hope that potential sequel has a little more edge to it than this one.

* * ½ out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Greg McLean on ‘Wolf Creek 2’

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Australian film director Greg McLean returns to the scene of the crime with “Wolf Creek 2,” a movie which, supposedly anyway, is based on actual events. The original “Wolf Creek” came out in 2005 and introduced us to the relentless serial killer Mick Taylor (played by John Jarratt) who captures a group of backpackers and tortures them without any remorse. Now Mick is back to take on another group of tourists who make the mistake of crossing his path and have the serious misfortune of not being from his home country. If you are not a proud Australian and are not fully aware of the country’s rich history, pray you don’t run into Mick.

McLean also directed the killer crocodile horror film “Rogue,” and he is said to be a member of the unofficial “Splat Pack.” This term, which was created by film historian Alan Jones, refers to the modern wave of directors who make brutally violent horror films, and other members include Alexandre Aja, Neil Marshall, Eli Roth, James Wan and Rob Zombie. I spoke with McLean about “Wolf Creek 2” and he talked about how a sadistic psychopath like Mick Taylor can be strangely appealing, how this sequel differs from the original, and he pointed out the differences between making a film in Australia and the United States.

Ben Kenber: This was a terrific sequel, and it was great to see John Jarratt return as Mick Taylor. Mick is one of the most sadistic psychopaths ever put in a movie, and yet there is something about him which is undeniably appealing. Why is he so memorable and why are we drawn to characters like him?

Greg McLean: I think that people are generally fascinated with evil and true crime. A character like Mick Taylor represents a very interesting way of peering into a very, very dark psyche. People are fascinated with the nature of evil, and I think the appeal of a character like Mick Taylor is to really get a chance to examine someone who is completely devoid of any sign of humanity. He’s really incredibly dark and twisted, and he’s very terrifying. I think people who like horror films and thrillers and like being scared enjoy coming face-to-face with really disturbing personalities. There is a long history of really fascinating, evil characters and I think people are intrigued at how their personalities work.

BK: When it came to doing a sequel to “Wolf Creek,” was it something you had planned on doing all along, or did you consider doing it after the original movie was finished?

GM: My plan was always to see if the movie worked and people liked it. If people embraced the character (of Mick Taylor), then there will be a chance for another film. So it was always in my mind to do it, it just took a lot longer to get around to it than I thought it ever would (laughs).

BK: Regarding John Jarratt’s portrayal, did you develop the character with him or was it largely his creation?

GM: Well we obviously did the first film together so we had a background to how to approach the character and a discussion on what the character is about. We had been talking about this particular draft of the screenplay (for “Wolf Creek 2”) for a couple of years, so there were certain things we wanted to explore and certain aspects of the character we wanted to bring up, and we kept evolving it on set. Obviously John makes choices as an actor, and then some of those things are in the script and some are developed in the moment. When we got together, we just kind of jammed and came up with cool things to do.

BK: Since the script was in the development stage for a couple of years, did that make it easier for you to return to the character of Mick Taylor and the original movie’s setting?

GM: It certainly enabled us to mine the thematic ideas that we wouldn’t have had if we didn’t have such a long gestation period. We had a script a couple of years ago and it was good, but it just wasn’t amazing. I realized that there was an element to it that was missing and which was making me not want to pull the trigger on it, and what it didn’t have was a kind of somatic investigation into the character that I thought we needed to have. Then once I locked into that concept, then there was enough new information we revealed about his character that I thought it be worth making the film. We also wanted to make a different genre film. The first film is very much a first-person, true crime, real terror film whereas this one I wanted very much to explore the thriller film, and it’s more of an action film. It has horror elements, but it certainly is a different structure in terms of what kind of film that is.

BK: I agree, it does have a different structure and feels more like a road movie. Speaking of that, how did you manage to pull off the sequence where Mick Taylor launches the big rig truck into Paul Hammersmith’s (played by Ryan Corr) car?

GM: We just found a big hill and dropped the truck off it (laughs). It’s much easier to do stuff like that in Australia than it is in the (United) States. Doing things over there is still a bit of the Wild West. It’s interesting because I’m doing a film right now in Los Angeles and I showed that scene to some people and they were just like going, “Wow! How did you do that?” And there’s a shot after the actual truck hits where the fire is just actually continuing to burn the hillside, and everybody was freaking out about that. I said, “Why is that so weird?” They were just going, “Oh my god, how did you let the hill keep burning?” The restrictions are very intense. Obviously there are rules and regulations here and there are in Australia as well, but they were just fascinated by the idea of just literally destroying a truck and letting it burn a hole in the hill. We had fire brigades in the back, and we were able to just do some really crazy stuff. We also wanted to do it in a very practical way. I love doing CG stuff and we used a lot of CG for the kangaroo sequence, but some things I feel are just better to get onscreen practically because you see the texture of things and the physics of moving in a particular way that’s kind of cool.

BK: Yeah, I think that’s what I liked most about that sequence because it really did look real. In most American films, filmmakers would more likely film a sequence like that with CG.

GM: Yeah, I think that part of that is kind of a budgetary thing as well. When you have a low budget you have to find more practical ways of doing things. Digital effects, if you want them to, can be ultra-photorealistic and necessarily expensive. The other way to do it is to find a location you can do something like that and ask to just do it. For all the driving stuff in that sequence, we just closed down highways and did crazy driving on them for two weeks and got all the shots. It was great fun doing a sequence like that.

BK: Looking at those empty highways reminded me of “The Hitcher” with Rutger Hauer and C. Thomas Howell. You have this great open space, but still there’s something about it which is quite claustrophobic.

GM: Well I think the first movie had a very particular primary feed that it was drawing on, and this film to me was really about the fear of isolation in a desolate place. What most of the fear comes from is the primary idea of that which is quite different from the first film. The first film had a different emphasis which was more about the randomness of violence in the real terror that comes from believing someone is something and then suddenly seeing them transform. This one is really much more about exposing the audience to the real terror which comes from extreme isolation and being pursued by a character that is just relentless.

BK: What elements do you believe a horror movie should have in order for it to be successful?

GM: Two things. One, it needs to be based on a primary universal human fear that touches the psychic pressure point. Number two, the film has to have three, if not more, unique and believably memorable set pieces or things that people will talk about when they leave the cinema for hopefully weeks if not years, and that’s it.

I want to thank Greg McLean for taking the time to talk with me about “Wolf Creek 2.” The movie is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

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Lone Survivor

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In a sense, this movie almost shouldn’t work. The title alone flat out tells you only one person will survive the battle we are about to see, and the opening shows doctors working furiously to save that person’s life. From the start, we know how this movie’s going to end even if we haven’t read the book it is based on, so this should kill any suspense it hopes to have right there. But thanks to the tense direction of Peter Berg and a terrific cast, “Lone Survivor” proves to be one of the most visceral war movies I have seen in quite some time.

Like every other movie coming out today, this one is based on a true story. Wahlberg portrays Marcus Luttrell, a United States Navy SEAL who, along with three other Navy SEALS, were dropped off in the mountainous Afghanistan-Pakistan border to conduct a reconnaissance mission on notorious Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd. This particular Taliban leader was said to have close ties to Osama Bin Laden, and we watch as these soldiers keep a very close eye on him.

But during their mission, they are accosted by a group of civilians whom they quickly restrain. Some of the Navy SEALS consider killing them so that their mission can remain a secret, but Marcus manages to convince his fellow soldiers that letting them go is the best option. To kill them would mean standing trial for murder and spending the rest of their lives in prison, and since this has already happened to other soldiers, they agree it is in their best interest to avoid this particular fate. So they let the civilians go and abort their mission, feeling they will be exposed if they stay any longer.

The time these men have to wonder if they made the right choice or not is cut short when they get ambushed by Taliban forces which end up surrounding them on all sides. From there, it is a race for survival as, despite their training, the SEALS find themselves outnumbered and out of communication range with the rest of their unit. From there, “Lone Survivor” becomes quite the blistering experience as you feel everything these soldiers are forced to experience and endure.

Berg starts the movie off with documentary footage of Navy SEAL training which is still considered the toughest military training anyone could endure. It is said 70% of the soldiers who enlist in this training end up dropping out, and from what we see here this is no surprise. I was immediately reminded of Ridley Scott’s “G.I. Jane” which had Demi Moore going through the torturous ritual of becoming a Navy SEAL, but seeing real people go through it here makes it seem all the more brutal.

This opening succeeds in showing us how these soldiers come to form such a close bond with one another, having succeeded in making it to the level of a Navy SEAL. But as this movie continues on, they will soon come face to face with something they are not used to enduring at all: failure.

Berg has proven himself to be a terrific action director with films like “The Rundown” and “The Kingdom,” and he really outdoes himself here. He makes you feel the bullet wounds, the cuts and dark bruises these men are forced to put up with as their chances for survival continue to erode. By the time “Lone Survivor” comes to its inevitable conclusion, I found myself feeling emotionally and physically exhausted by what I had seen. This is a movie which barely lets you come up for air. Even though we know who the lone survivor of the movie’s title will to be, we are still riveted because we still don’t want these soldiers to die.

Berg treats this story with tremendous respect and doesn’t ever try to exploit what these soldiers went through for the sake of entertainment. We get to know these men well enough to where their eventual demise is harrowing to witness. Berg also has quite the cast to help him make this film a reality. In addition to Wahlberg, “Lone Survivor” also stars Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster as the Navy SEALS, and each actor puts their all into roles which are physically and emotionally draining. Foster is especially a standout as Matthew Axelson who meets his end with sheer defiance.

2013 was a busy year for Wahlberg as he starred in “Broken City,” “Pain & Gain” and “2 Guns” in addition to this. When all is said and done, “Lone Survivor” represents the best work did that year. While watching him, you can tell how deeply he felt about this story just by looking at his eyes. Ever since he blew us away with his performance in “The Basketball Diaries,” Wahlberg has given us one unforgettable performance after another, and he rarely if ever lets us down when he’s onscreen. He has never been the kind of actor who just walks through a role, and I believe him when he talks about the effect playing Marcus Luttrell had on him.

There’s a lot more I would love to tell you about “Lone Survivor,” but I really don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t read the book this film is based on. As much as I want to tell you this was one of the first really good movies of 2014, it was given a limited release before the end of 2013. Oh well, whether you consider it a 2013 or 2014 film, “Lone Survivor” is certainly one of the most visceral movie going experiences we have seen in a while. For those who like their movies filled with intense emotions, this is a must see.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Josh C. Waller about ‘Raze’

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Filmmaker Josh C. Waller has led a very interesting life so far. Born in 1974 to a cattle rancher/businessman and an actress mother, he spent his youth going to theatre rehearsals and watching movies on the weekends where his interest in filmmaking began to peak. After graduating high school, he joined the Marines and eventually worked for a private educational center which dealt with children afflicted with learning disabilities. This job ended up taking through different parts of the United States before he finally settled down in Los Angeles where his career as a filmmaker started to take off.

Waller’s film “Raze” stars Zoë Bell (“Death Proof”) as Sabrina, an abducted woman who wakes up to find herself imprisoned in a bunker where she and other imprisoned women are forced to fight one another to the death. On the surface it looks like another exploitation movie, but it soon becomes clear Waller had a lot more on his mind than that as he takes the characters and their story more seriously than you might expect.

I got to talk with Waller about “Raze” and what it was like to make the movie. Considering it was done on a very low budget, I was curious to see how he managed to pull off all he did with the little he had to work with. We also talked about what fighting styles were used in the movie, how his time in the Marines has influenced his work as a filmmaker, and he told a great story about how he managed to get all the sets for “Raze” built in just one day.

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Ben Kenber: From the poster “Raze” looks like a typical exploitation movie, but it ends up going a lot deeper than that. What inspired you to make this film?

Josh C. Waller: To be honest, I had been working for years on another film completely different that I directed called “McCanick” with David Morse and Cory Montieth. That was something that I had been developing for about nine years with my producing partner who also wrote it, Daniel Noah, and it’s a tough project. It’s a drama with some very heavy subject matter and it was a bit of a bitch to get made, but it finally got green lit. But about the same time my friend Kenny Gage, he wrote a little short film called “Raze” which was like maybe seven or eight pages, I can’t remember exactly. He just asked me if I would take it home and he was just like, “Hey man, take a look at this thing and I’d love to hear your thoughts.” It wasn’t like, hey take this home, I think you should produce it, I think you should direct it. He was just like, hey take a look at this, I’d love to hear what you think, and I did. So I took it home that night and checked it out, and I thought there was something there. It was essentially the first fight between Jamie (Rachel Nichols) and Sabrina (Zoë Bell), then that was the short. It was a tad more exploitative of what the film ended up eventually being. Women were wearing a bit more revealing clothes and I think it mentioned something about it being particularly busty, and I brought it back to Kenny the next day and I was like, “Dude, there’s something here. I don’t know if I’m down with all the exploitative stuff, but there’s something here.” It got my mind going, so Kenny and I just started like bouncing things back and forth immediately, and the way that he and I were working together was so organic. The ideas just kept flowing and flowing and flowing, and I think that I really was interested in being a part of it and directing it because it’s not the kind of film that I would normally gravitate to nor is it the type of film that I would normally direct. I didn’t really watch the women-in-prison exploitations films from the 70’s and 80’s stuff, not at all. In fact, I was never really a fan of any of the exploitation films like “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” It just wasn’t my thing, the Roger Corman films. So I was like okay, if I am going to do a film that kind of fits within that world, I’m going to have to take it as seriously as I would take “McCanick” or any other film, you know? I think that that was in my mind, then and still now, the only way we could possibly deal with something like this. And also it was incredibly exciting for Kenny and I. Kenny, before he got in the industry, was an undefeated professional boxer, and it was important for him and I and Zoë to try to show the most visceral, intense female fights that we had ever seen on the screen. And because every time you see women in a movie in some kind of fight, it seems to be all over the place in the trades and everything like that. That fight scene from “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” (between Paula Patton and Léa Seydoux), people were like, “There’s the biggest catfight of all time in it!” And I saw it and I was like, “They what?! Man, you guys could have gone like so much further on this!” So we were like let’s see how far we can push this, and trust me when I say that we have so much more footage that we could’ve put in the movie.

BK: Regarding the fight scenes, Zoë said there were different fighting styles used in the movie. Were you looking to employ any particular fighting style or were you just open to whatever worked?

JCW: No, in fact we wanted to avoid looking for fighting styles. But what was interesting to me was to try to use the action… It was a little bit of like an experiment to see how much we could use the action to propel the narrative forward as opposed to dialogue or like emotional sequences. That said, the fight sequences themselves are pretty damn emotional, so being able to use those fights to like propel the movie forward emotionally and the narrative, that was something that was super interesting. So it wasn’t so much about looking for specific fighting styles in terms of like, this girl does Muay Thai and then this girl does Brazilian jiu-jitsu. That didn’t really work. We just needed to make sure that their fighting styles, however their fighting styles were, were a physical representation of who they were as women and what they were going through because they’re supposed to be normal women plucked from society. So occasionally you’ll have like one of the characters that knows how to fight. In the case of Sabrina, she has a military background and is well versed in hand to hand combat, so that’s the way that she fights. She fights very efficiently and she fights like a soldier. But if you start putting different martial arts styles on it… We didn’t want it to be like the female edition of “Best of the Best” or something like that like “Bloodsport” or “Mortal Kombat.”

BK: I read that you served in the Marines for a time, and thank you for your service by the way.

JCW: You’re welcome.

BK: Did any of what you learned in the Marines influence the making of this movie for you?

JCW: The guards down below I definitely fashioned after Marines. They’re most obvious trait are their Marine haircuts. All of those haircuts I maintained. I was the one who was like, “No, no, no,” and then I’d run outside with clippers and be like, “Sit down, sit down while I cut your hair!” Their uniforms, making sure their boots were polished, making sure that their haircuts were clean and not like all nappy and plain looking. Bruce Thomas who plays Kurtz, he and I had a lot of talks about his performance and how he could mimic the sound and the essence of a Marine drill instructor, so we would talk about a lot of stuff like that. I would put all the guards through a little closed quarter drill or boot camp over in a parking lot outside the set. In terms of fighting styles, not really; the military thing didn’t inform too much of that stuff. I can definitely say that, in terms of being a filmmaker, I would not be the filmmaker that I am today without it. Whether people think that’s good or bad, I would not be who I am as a man without the Marines. Almost every day, so many aspects of my life are informed because of my choice to join the corp.

BK: Absolutely. I bring that up because I have a family friend who was in the marines, and it has definitely influenced him in how he lives life today, and I think in a very good way.

JCW: It becomes one of those things because the Marine Corps is so daunting, and you end up graduating from boot camp and when you earn that title, you are filled with such an immense sense of price and accomplishment for earning that title. You feel a little bit like, “Well if I can do this, I can do anything.” So when you look at other tasks throughout your life, you’re kind of like, “This is lame. This is easy!”

BK: Zoë said that the total budget on “Raze” was less than a million dollars, but it looks like it cost more than that. The thing I continually find fascinating about low budget filmmaking is how it forces you to be more creative as a result. Would you say that was the case on this film?

JCW: Absolutely. I mean a perfect example of like how you’re forced to be creative is that like… Zoë was right, the budget was below a million, and if we had 19 action sequences, the shooting ratio on action to straight drama is like 10 to 1. It’s so drastically different. So to say that the shoot was an ambitious shoot is like stating something stupidly obvious. I think in terms of getting creative, there was one time where I was trying to figure out how the hell we were going to be able to afford… Because all of our sets were built, we shot everything on a soundstage, everything. We didn’t know how we were going to be able to pull that off with the money that we had, and I went home one night and I was sitting with my younger brother, and the flipside is as a youth I was the product of a divorce. On the father’s side, I was raised by a Marine cowboy father, and on the other side my mom and stepdad were into theater and dance and jazz and all of that stuff. I would go with my mom to movies on the weekend and I would watch movies like “Arthur” and “Zorro the Gay Blade” and stuff like that. I went home and I was hanging out with my little brother, and we were watching “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” and there’s a big musical number in the movie where all the brothers get together and with people in the neighborhood, and like an Amish community they have a big barn raising, dance and a big party, and I was like, “Holy shit man! That’s it! We’ll basically do a barn raising for all of our sets!” So I told the guys, “Look, all we have to do is throw a party, we’ll invite our friends, we’ll make teams of four people each and our production designer will be our foreman. And we’ll give a cash prize to whoever finishes their part of the build the fastest.” We had a DJ, we had food and beer and all that kind of stuff, and we built all of the flats for all of the sets in three hours on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. We all drank beer and barbecued. We never would have been able to do it (the regular way). It would have cost us 2 to 3 weeks of labor costs, so that was one of the creative ways. It was fun.

BK: That’s amazing! IFC Midnight is promoting this movie. How does it feel to have them promoting it, and what can you tell us about IFC Midnight?

JCW: IFC has been amazing. The person that I’ve been particularly involved with at IFC Midnight has been Mike Winton, and I have to say that it’s been an absolute pleasure. IFC Midnight also put up “Maniac” which my producing partner Elijah Wood was in, and they function within the same world that I function and we function in. Working with them is like working with our friends. It’s been a pleasure. I love it and I can’t wait to work with them again.

I thank Josh C. Waller for taking the time to talk with me, and I again want to thank him for his service to our country.

Exclusive Interview with Zoe Bell on ‘Raze’

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New Zealand native Zoë Bell has long since made a name for herself as a stunt performer having doubled for Lucy Lawless on “Xena: Warrior Princess” and Uma Thurman in the “Kill Bill” movies. But once we saw her play herself in Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof,” we saw she was a very entertaining personality to watch onscreen as well. Since then, Bell has been balancing stunt work with acting in films like “Whip It,” “Django Unchained” and “Oblivion.” Now she gets to combine those two talents in the viciously intense “Raze.”

In “Raze,” Bell plays Sabrina who is one of 50 women which have been abducted and imprisoned in a concrete bunker. She soon realizes this bunker is a modern day coliseum of sorts as the women are forced to fight one another to the death. If she doesn’t fight than her daughter will be murdered, so her choices are extremely limited to say the least. From start to finish, Bell is a riveting presence as she is driven to emotional extremes to do things she doesn’t want to do in order to protect the one she loves.

I was lucky enough to talk with Bell when she was doing press for “Raze,” and she proved to be as cool as she was in “Death Proof.” On the surface, “Raze” looks like your typical women-in-prison exploitation flick, but its director Josh C. Waller ends up taking this material much more seriously than you might expect. I talked with Bell about how she got involved in this movie, what kind of fighting styles were used in it and if she was instrumental in choreographing the brutal fight scenes. She also talked about what it’s like to be a stunt performer in show business today as opposed to years before, and she gave us an update on “The ExpendaBelles.”

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Ben Kenber: “Raze” was different from what I expected it to be.

Zoë Bell: Well what were you expecting? I hope you weren’t expecting a romantic comedy.

BK: Oh no, I usually avoid those (Bell laughs). With so many different fighting styles around the world, was there any specific style of fighting you used in this movie?

ZB: There are all these action movies out there with samurais and stuff, but we didn’t want to have those kinds of fights at all. We wanted it to be real characters that were plucked from their lives and put in this really shitty situation. But as far as the characters are concerned, Sabrina comes from a military background, Teresa (Tracie Thoms) comes from a boxing background, Phoebe (Rebecca Marshall) is just street, and Cody (Bailey Anne Borders) is just the young girl who has to fight for her life. So the characters’ individual fight styles were less about the styles they were trained in and more about the life experience that they have, and it was really important for us that that come through. That’s what makes the fights different.

BK: What do you want audiences to get out of “Raze?”

ZB: I wanted the audience to have an experience of female fights that they maybe haven’t experienced before. I was looking to get more experience. I wanted to do female fights and stuff in a way that I’ve not done before. We wanted to take everything sort of heightened and strip all of that away. It was more just sort of like an experience I wanted to put out there for people. Ironically what’s ended up coming out of it is the joy that women audiences who have watched this movie have. It’s like they’re living vicariously through this womanhood and these actors, but also the characters and for all the right reasons, obviously the crazy ones, it’s satisfying. All the actors were just like, “This is so fucking cool that we are doing this film!” And that means the world to me because I’ve spent my life doing these kinds of films and I’ve gotten benefits from it as long as I can remember. It’s cool to be able to share that around a bit.

BK: How did the role of Sabrina come to you?

ZB: Sabrina came to me through the project really that was sort of… Kenny (Gage), Andy (Pagana, the producer) and Josh (C. Waller, the director) had also worked together on this project before I came aboard. Josh and I have known each other for a long time and when he threw my name in the mix, Kenny and Andy were excited about it and they brought me in. We all kind of vibed and jived and they asked me if I wanted to come on as a producer, and I got really excited and I said yes. At that stage it was still in a short format, and the role of Sabrina was really… I was just going to work on staging the fights basically. I worked with this woman named Christy and I created this whole story and at some level put a lot of preparations on her (Sabrina) for the short. But as it turned into a feature, a lot of the stuff I worked on before carried over to her in the feature script which was really cool. It’s a really fun way to go about it. It’s kind of an ass backwards way of going about it. We had problems doing it the way we did, but it was still pretty exciting.

BK: Did you work closely with director Josh C. Waller on the fight scenes in “Raze?”

ZB: Everything on this movie was pretty collaborative, but the fight scenes in particular because I have experience in that world and therefore I basically have a convenience when it comes to that stuff. We had a fight choreographer called James Young, and so basically we had James Young and we had me who was never going to be quiet about it. My forte is female action and what works well for women. There’s something about a female character in the way that she moves in the kind of choices that she makes in a fight situation, and Josh was very much about bringing emotional truth to those fights and these women. Kenny, having been a boxer for years and a real ring fighter, was one of the biggest cheerleaders for having female fights that were real that haven’t been seen before, so we had a lot of people that the fights were very important to on the creative side. So fortunately we all worked quite collaboratively together and I think we all ended up getting the fights we wanted. They are pretty cool.

BK: Did you do all your own stunts in this movie or were there some done by a stunt double?

ZB: Oh no, no, no, no. No one had a stunt double. There was one stunt that ended up not even making it into the movie which we brought in a stunt double for. We didn’t have time or the money, so the girls are all bringing it.

BK: Having been a stunt person for quite some time, what kind of changes have you experienced for stunt performers in the industry? Have things gotten better or worse?

ZB: I think work conditions for stunt people across the board have technically improved. There are more challenges in regards to safety and, having said that, when you get more technology it also enables you to push the limits. We’re always trying to do something new and bigger. Work conditions are what they were. As for work opportunities, now compared to 22 or 30 years ago, women were not really allowed to be stunt people. Guys would put on wigs and cover their hairy legs and double for women. As far as female action, it almost feels to me like it kind of goes back to where you’ve got “Xena” and “Alias” and all these… There is more female driven stuff now to where I feel like then there was for a long time. I think the type of action that’s acceptable for what females are doing now has probably shifted too. “Charlie Angel’s” was technically action and it was all females, and the action of the “Wonder Woman” to be done now, the type of action you’d see your committing would be far different to what was in the day.

BK: “Death Proof” really opened doors for you as an actress. At this point, does doing acting appeal to you more than stunts, or are you equally passionate about both?

ZB: “Death Proof” was definitely the catapult for me. It feels like it’s probably a good time to naturally progress over. If I’m being given these opportunities and I’ve worked hard enough to make that change, then that’s the next stage of wherever my career is taking me. I’ve had to be very conscious about not being in the industry as a stunt woman as much as an actress because, for myself certainly, I would very easily kind of slide back into the comfort zone of what I know well which is being a stunt girl and shy away from maybe what’s a little more challenging which has been acting. But also the intention of being seen as an actor and taken seriously by the industry, I think it was sort of important to me to sever ties from one so that I could fully commit to the other. It’s a shame but it’s part of the process, you know?

BK: Yes, it is. What was the budget for “Raze?”

ZB: Well I’m not sure that’s something I am allowed to say. We think it was $600,000 or $700,000. It was definitely well below $1 million.

BK: I was just curious because it looks like it cost a lot more than that.

ZB: Yeah, and it’s very important for us, I think, for people to know that the budget was incredibly low but that we are so proud of what we managed to do with well below $1 million. We are just in the process of doing a general audit just to double check the numbers, so I don’t want to put a number out there because I would be making it up, but I can basically say that it was well below $1 million.

BK: That’s interesting because what I’ve learned from most filmmakers is that working with less money forces you to be more creative. It certainly looks like you got a lot of creative stuff out of the budget that you had.

ZB: Yeah definitely, and we also got really lucky with the people that we had on board.

BK: Regarding the other actresses, did they have any fight training when they came onto this movie or did you help them out with that?

ZB: A lot of the girls had taken themselves and… I know Rebecca has been doing some kickboxing on her own time. Rachel Nichols has done a bunch of action films before. The girls are not meant to be… We didn’t need Rachel Nichols to walk in there and look like she had a black belt. We did a lot of work on the fights together before we shot it. James has done a lot with the choreography, Kenny worked on a lot of boxing with bags, and I just worked with them doing everything and anything they could when I had a minute. And most of when I was of use to the other women was just as a girl in how I approach it. So I spoke their language and that’s the gift I had to give. Everyone was just super dedicated and it was really touching to see these women always so dedicated to their roles.

BK: One last question, is there anything you can tell us about “The ExpendaBelles?” (This is an offshoot of “The Expendables,” and it was reported that Bell had been talking to the filmmakers about being in it.)

ZB: No, absolutely nothing. I have met with those guys. I don’t know if it was specific to… Well here’s what I can tell you about “The ExpendaBelles” and why I’m excited for that movie to be in existence whether I’m a part of it or not: I would love to be a part of it. That’s all I can tell you.

BK: Okay no problem. Well thank you very much for your time Zoë. This has been a lot of fun and you were terrific in “Raze.”

ZB: Thank you!

Fury

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When it comes to David Ayer, you know he’s not going to slack off when it comes to researching his movie’s subject matter. His movies like the brilliant “End of Watch” and the underappreciated “Sabotage” had characters dealing with a vicious reality which they are forced to contend with on a regular basis, and Ayer makes us feel how frightening this reality is whether we want to be a part of it or not. That remains the case with “Fury,” a war film which takes us all the way back to the final days of World War II. It features all the usual characters we expect to see in a war film from the hardened Army sergeant to the innocent rookie, but you come out of it knowing what it feels like to be in a tank.

Brad Pitt stars as Don “Wardaddy” Collier, the commander of a five-man tank crew which is ordered to make a final push into Nazi Germany during World War II. Don is saddled with a battle ready crew which includes Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Cpl. Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena) and Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal). After losing one of their members, they are suddenly saddled with the most baby-faced rookie imaginable in Army Private Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman). Don doesn’t like Norman’s presence one little bit as he feels it threatens everyone’s safety, but his superiors force him to take him on regardless of his objections. As a result, Don is forced to make Norman grow up a lot sooner than he wants, and it’s all in the name of survival.

For a time, I thought that Norman was going to be like Jeremy Davies’ character from “Saving Private Ryan” in that he would be the wimp who wouldn’t have the nerve to kill the enemy until the very end. Don, however, doesn’t have the patience to wait for Norman to grow a pair and forces him to kill a Nazi prisoner early on. Lerman gives a tremendous performance as Norman, and it’s fascinating to watch him go from being an anxiety ridden soldier to a hardened war veteran who doesn’t hesitate to take out as many Nazis as humanly possible.

There haven’t been many tank movies in the history of cinema. The only ones I can think of are Kevin Reynolds’ “The Beast” which came out in 1988 and the Israeli war film “Lebanon” which depicted warfare as witnessed from inside a tank. It’ll be interesting to see how they compare to Fury which puts you right into these characters’ mindsets as they lay waste to their target without the benefit of ear protection. You come to feel as battered and hardened as the crew does during their patrol through enemy territory where they find themselves outnumbered and outgunned.

It’s hard to watch “Fury” without thinking of Pitt’s performance as Aldo Raine in “Inglorious Basterds,” but he does succeed in making “Wardaddy” distinct from that character whether he is sporting facial hair or not. I always enjoy Pitt’s performances when he’s all dirtied up and free of his movie star looks, and this is one of them. You believe Pitt as a war veteran who has seen countless battles and has long since been worn down by them. But for Don, his main concern is keeping his crew alive, and Pitt is great at making you feel his character’s barely hidden vulnerability which is always on the verge of being exposed for all to see

Pena is an Ayer regular, having worked with him previously on “End of Watch,” and he has yet to disappoint in any role he takes on. As Trini, he gives us a character who was one of the many Latino military officers who fought for America back in the 1940’s. From start to finish, Pena makes Trini a war weary character who is not far from falling apart, and it makes for an intense performance.

I also give applause to Bernthal whose performance as Grady may not get all the recognition it deserves. On one hand Grady is a loathsome character we cannot stand to be around, but on the other he’s just a soldier trying to survive this war anyway he can. It’s rare to see an actor who makes you despise and sympathize with a character simultaneously, and Bernthal succeeds in pulling it off.

Another impressive performance in “Fury” comes from Shia LaBeouf as Boyd. Like Private Daniel Jackson in “Saving Private Ryan,” this guy is a trained killer but also quick to spout off passages from the Bible. Even after taking out a Nazi tank, he will still quote passages from that book with a great passion. LaBeouf got a lot of press for the method work he did on “Fury” which included pulling out a tooth, but seeing this movie is to be assured that all the work paid off for him.

Whether or not you consider “Fury” to be one of the best World War II movies ever made, it is one of the strongest to come out in the past few years. Ayer makes you feel the anxiety and exhaustion these soldiers go through while in battle, and you come out of this movie feeling as battered as they do. I very much liked what it had to offer, and I liked how Ayer didn’t try to sugarcoat reality for anyone in the slightest. That’s what makes his movies so unique and visceral.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2014.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

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What a relief it is that “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” has finally opened in theaters everywhere. Few movies have been dissected and criticized as deeply as this one even before its release, and it got to where it felt like decade had passed since Warner Brothers announced it as happening. After a while we all wanted to yell out, “Just release the damn movie already!” Clearly, Warner Brothers has A LOT riding on this particular superhero movie, and it is aiming to create its own comic book cinematic universe to rival Marvel’s.

Well, the best way to describe “Batman v Superman” is that it is, in a word, dour. Director Zack Snyder certainly gives us some spectacular action set pieces, but the whole movie is undone by a sense of joylessness. In keeping with Christopher Nolan’s superhero aesthetic of grounding these characters in reality, a lot of the fun and joy we have had in watching them do battle with the forces of evil feels absent this time around.

So why does Batman/Bruce Wayne have a such a bone to pick with Superman/Clark Kent anyway? Well it all goes back to the climax of “Man of Steel” where Superman did battle with General Zod over the skies of Metropolis to where a record number of buildings were reduced to rubble. One of them was the Wayne Enterprises building, and despite Bruce’s best efforts, he is unable to rescue all his employees from certain death and blames Superman that. As for Superman, he thinks Batman is too dangerous and seeks to expose Gotham’s vigilante and put an end to his reign.

Meanwhile, LexCorp mogul Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) is ever so eager to get his hands on the kryptonite from Zod’s failed terraforming experiment in the Indian Ocean as well as his body. While we all know Luthor gets super excited about real estate, those interests are shoved to the side as he is intent to reveal the duality of god and man. This all leads to an epic conclusion in which Lex unveils a monster which could very well destroy Batman and Superman in a way nothing else can.

One of the big problems with “Batman v Superman” is it tries to accomplish too much in its bloated running time of 151 minutes. This was the same problem with “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” which also sought to create its own cinematic universe to where it became an unforgivable mess. “Batman v Superman” is a better movie as Snyder is able to keep a lot of the thematic elements in balance, but there’s still too many subplots and characters to deal with and not enough time to become fully engaged on an emotional level with everything going on.

When Marvel created their own cinematic universe, they took their sweet time and were never in a rush to bombard us with too much right away. They started out with “Iron Man” and then brought other iconic superheroes to the screen that we quickly came to root for. When the first “Avengers” movie finally came out, we were ready to see our favorite Marvel characters join forces to battle an alien threat because the groundwork had been laid slowly and carefully.

On the other hand, Sony and Warner Brothers could barely wait to start their own cinematic universes, and as a result we have gotten overstuffed movies which feel more like overlong commercials for others that have yet to be made.

Snyder is not a bad director he has given us some terrific movies like “Dawn of the Dead” (one of the few horror remakes worth watching), the visual epic “300” and “Watchmen.” Clearly he had a lot on his plate with this movie’s sprawling subplots he could only be so successful with. His starting out with young Bruce Wayne watching his parents get murdered is unnecessary as we have seen this traumatic event played out many times before. We all know about Bruce’s dark past and how he became Batman, so this could have easily been skipped over.

Perhaps Snyder’s biggest setback with “Batman v Superman” is his overuse of special effects. There’s never a shortage of explosions, and he does pull off some impressive scenes like when Batman does battle with a dozen terrorists. But after a while the whole endeavor feels like one long video game with moments which brazenly defy logic. You come out of this movie wishing he had worked harder on the story’s emotional component, but when you have a ridiculously large budget of over $200 million, you are obligated to make sure the money’s up there on the screen.

For what it’s worth, the casting is spot on. Many balked at Ben Affleck being cast as the Caped Crusader, but he does solid work as Batman and Bruce Wayne, a CEO who actually looks after his workers’ needs and safety. While he can’t quite hold a candle to the best cinematic Batman of them all, Michael Keaton (Christian Bale is a very close second), he makes Bruce and his alter ego appropriately brooding and damaged. Affleck also has the requisite shirtless scene which shows how much time he has spent at the gym (his biceps are massive).

Cavill continues to do very good, if not overly impressive, work as Superman/Clark Kent as he makes the Man of Steel a noble and conflicted person on a planet whose inhabitants are not sure what to make of him. Amy Adams remains a wonderful choice to portray Lois Lane, Laurence Fishburne plays things a little broadly as Daily Planet editor Perry White, Holly Hunter is terrific as a US Senator hell bent on stopping Lex Luthor’s evil plans, and Jeremy Irons proves to be an inspired choice to play Alfred.

Then there’s Jesse Eisenberg who portrays Lex Luthor as if he were an infinitely psychotic Mark Zuckerberg. Eisenberg is never boring, but he never comes across as truly menacing. He does, however, share some strong moments with Hunter as they verbally spar with one another. The screenplay by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer gives them some sharp dialogue which really stings, and it would have been great if there was more of it to go around.

But the one who steals the show here is Gal Gadot who plays Diana Prince and her alter ego Wonder Woman. Every time she appears onscreen, the movie comes to life as she battles her foes without an ounce of fear on her beautiful face. Like Affleck, many voiced their opposition to her being cast, and it’s nice to see her get the last laugh on those who doubted her.

“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is by no means a terrible movie, and many DC Comic fans will likely get a kick out of it. It also benefits from a conclusion which is far more emotional than we could have expected. However, there never seems to be any joy or exhilaration to be found here, and it makes this motion picture feel like an exercise in tedium. Plus, we only get one big fight between Batman and Superman which proves to be anti-climactic as the trailers have long since revealed that these two end up joining forces to battle an ever bigger threat. What looked like the comic book movie to end all comic book movies instead proves to be a big disappointment. Still, we do have “Suicide Squad” to look forward to.

* * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

Jason Bourne

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In a summer filled with superhero movies and blockbusters filled with aliens looking to decimate planet Earth, it’s nice to see one with an earthbound action hero who hurts and bleeds like the rest of us. That’s the great thing about watching Matt Damon as Jason Bourne; he makes this formerly amnesiac soldier completely human even as he performs superhuman feats. And now the latest Bourne adventure, simply titled “Jason Bourne,” has Damon reuniting with director Paul Greengrass in another globe-trotting adventure that has Bourne, or David Webb if you want to call him by his real name, once again risking his life more often than not. What results is one of the most solidly entertaining movies to come out in a rather blah summer movie season.

We catch up with Bourne several years after the events of “The Bourne Ultimatum” as he makes a living participating in illegal fighting rings. Bourne has since recovered from his amnesia to where he remembers everything, but he still finds himself haunted by what he has done and plagued by demons he can only expunge by beating up opponents, sometimes with a single punch. But then Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) turns up out of the blue to give Bourne some important information regarding Bourne’s father, Richard Webb (Gregg Henry). Just when you thought Bourne was done with the past, it turns out he doesn’t actually remember everything, or at least not yet.

I still vividly remember watching “The Bourne Ultimatum” at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles when it came out in 2007. Few action movies thrilled me the way “Ultimatum” did as Greengrass grounded it in a reality not all that different from our own. Both he and Damon know what makes these movies ticks, and this proves to be “Jason Bourne’s” greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Some have called this entry in the franchise “The Bourne Familiarity,” and it’s not hard to understand why. It follows many of the same beats of its predecessors to where the freshness we discovered in “The Bourne Identity” is largely lost here. Still, “Jason Bourne” is still a pulse-pounding thrill ride as we are led from one insane action set piece to another to where we can’t catch our breath.

Aside from Damon, Stiles is the only actor from previous installments to appear in “Jason Bourne.” This time around we are introduced to a new set of CIA employees that are either out to terminate Bourne or eager to learn more about him. Among them is CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) who is eager to punish Bourne for his exposure of the Blackbriar program. Dewey is also heading the Iron Hand program, a Treadstone for the new millennium, and it’s no surprise that while he doesn’t intend to make the same mistakes, it’s highly likely he will make a bunch of new ones.

Jones is great fun to watch here as he is so devilish in his portrayal of a man eager to bury the past in order to ensure the security of America’s future. You never catch “The Fugitive” actor playing Dewey as a one-dimensional bad guy, but instead as a man eager to control the uncontrollable. Not once does Jones overact here as he warns others not to tell Bourne all they know, and he is an actor who doesn’t need to speak up much to show just how threatening he can be. It’s great to see him react to the havoc Bourne brings to his carefully laid plans as he does his best to remain cool under pressure.

But I have to tell you, the person almost steals “Jason Bourne” from Damon and Jones is recent Oscar winner Alicia Vikander who portrays the head of the CIA Cyber Ops Division, Heather Lee. Vikander is to “Jason Bourne” as Rebecca Ferguson was to “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation;” a wonderfully enigmatic character whose motives are never entirely clear until the very end. Some will complain that Vikander gives an emotionless performance here, but that’s missing the point. Her character is one who has to hold her cards close to her chest as any reveal could compromise not just her, but the movie as a whole. You can’t take your eyes off of Vikander as she grabs your attention from start to finish.

Greengrass still knows how to direct an action movie to maximum impact. As with “The Bourne Supremacy” and “Ultimatum,” he succeeds in putting you into the action as opposed to making you sit comfortably in your seat. The shaky cam remains a favorite of his which will drive some audience members nuts, but it serves to make all those bullets, car chases and punches feel all the more visceral. As “Jason Bourne” reaches its furious climax, Greengrass keeps our pulses pounding as we wonder how much more damage its hero can take.

Speaking of car chases, Greengrass still comes up with the craziest ones ever. This movie has Bourne chasing down a nameless “Asset” (played by Vincent Cassel) up and down the Las Vegas strip. It’s hard to remember the last time so many parked cars were destroyed in a movie, but “Jason Bourne” may very well have set a new record. While we watch this chase confident Bourne will survive, you still wonder how he will survive when he’s racing at speeds even Sammy Hagar wouldn’t approve of.

“Jason Bourne” doesn’t feel quite as thrilling as “The Bourne Ultimatum” did, and the familiarity it shares with its predecessors does take away from the excitement a bit. But after a seven-year break, Damon and Greengrass still know how to get our adrenaline pumping to where we come out of the theatre thoroughly exhausted. In a summer that feels surprisingly low on thrill rides, we finally have one which delivers.

There’s certainly room for another Bourne adventure in the future, but here’s hoping our hero looks forward instead of back. That should make a future installment stand on its own a bit more.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.