Tag: Edward Norton

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022)

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022)

Johnson’s playful Agatha Christie tributes continue to delight in this affectionate homage

Director: Rian Johnson

Cast: Daniel Craig (Benoit Blanc), Edward Norton (Miles Bron), Janelle Monáe (Andi Brand), Kathryn Hahn (Claire Debella), Leslie Odom Jnr (Lionel Toussaint), Kate Hudson (Birdie Joy), Dave Bautista (Duke Cody), Jessica Henwick (Peg), Madelyn Cline (Whiskey), Noah Segan (Derol)

Johnson’s Knives Out reminded Hollywood that people love a good whodunnit. Netflix purchased two more films from the franchise after the first’s success: Glass Onion is the first, a wild, enjoyable and deft mystery, crammed with enough jokes, puzzles, side-mysteries and actors having a good-time to become a perfect Christmas treat.

Set in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic – and how unusual again to see everyone wearing a facemask during the first meeting of its characters – it revolves around a weekend get-away at the Greek island mansion of a billionaire, its elaborate design centred around a huge Glass Onion dome. A stack of personalities from wildly divergent backgrounds, thrown together in a secluded location with murder on the cards? You couldn’t get more Agatha Christie unless Hercule Poirot turned up. Instead, we get Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc, as outrageously Southern as ever and seemingly invited by mistake to take part in billionaire Miles Bron’s (Edward Norton) murder-mystery weekend for his close friends.

Those close friends are a smorgasbord who all seem to have as much reason to hate Bron as they do for being in debt to him. All are in hock to Bron’s company Alpha and its quest to create a new hydrogen super-fuel. The guests? Kathryn Hahn’s governor of Connecticut (reliant on Bron for funding), Leslie Odom Jnr’s scientist (reliant on Bron for funding), Kate Hudson’s fashion editor (reliant on Bron for her job), Dave Bautista’s influencer (reliant on Bron for Likes), and Janelle Monáe as Bron’s ex-partner, cheated (perhaps) out of the company they co-founded. Will the murder mystery party turn into murder mystery reality?

Johnson’s playful, loving homage to Agatha Christie successfully carries over its tone and sense of fun from Knives Out, delighting in its conventions even as it subtly inverts some of them, and building a classic murder mystery in a very modern skin. It’s possible that no-one is better at this than Johnson, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing something as fun as this so straight. For all the jokes, it never sneers at its material or looks down on the classic Christie model. Instead, it feels like a lost Christie making its way to the screen with a solution that the author would love.

Glass Onion does make part of its effect work by concealing information from the viewer for as long as possible – some characters here are not as they appear and some know much more than they are letting on. It’s not quite the characters you might expect either, who are playing their cards close to their chest. The film dips into a non-linear structure, progressing us through to a killing before winding back to retell all the events we have just witnessed from another perspective. It’s a brilliant way of keeping us on our toes – and most successfully, never feels like cheating but a deliberate bit of rug-pulling to keep the fun going.

It also reminds us to question everything we are seeing as the film unfolds. Like an intricate onion, there are layers upon layers – and like glass when the light reflects right, it suddenly becomes transparent. Everything in Glass Onion is meant to only really become clear by its conclusion – although Johnson drops plenty of hints of what’s going to be important, not least the swiping sound of the protective glass shield that snaps down over Bron’s displayed Mona Lisa (the real one) that he pretentiously shows off to his friends.

Pretentious and self-satisfied showing-off is meat-and-drink to Bron, played with a hugely enjoyable smug smackability by Edward Norton (having the time of his life channelling every arrogant billionaire you can think of, not least Elon Musk). Irritatingly new-age in his ostentatious wealth, every act of Bron (no matter how generous it seems) is laced with self-serving. He delights in (and feeds) his reputation as an eccentric genius and the film’s elaborate set is a testament to Bron’s classless grandiosity.

His hangers-on share deeply mixed feelings about this generous man who demands (with a wining smile) that they dance to any tune that he plays. Even his murder mystery weekend is designed around a chance for him show off (his balloon being well-and-truly burst by Blanc early in the movie is one of its greatest laugh-out-loud moments). Hahn, Odom Jnr, Hudson and Bautista have huge fun with four characters all larger-than-life in their own ways. But Janelle Monáe is the film’s most striking performer: as Bron’s cast-off former partner she gives a performance brimming with complexity and hidden depths.

In all this colour and old-school mystery razzle-dazzle that Johnson serves up, it’s very easy to forget what an essential role Craig plays in holding it together. Blanc remains a loving Poirot tribute, inverting that character’s bizarre accent, dandyish clothes and exactitude but still capturing Poirot’s essential kindness and humanitarianism. Craig quietly carries a lot of the film here, while ceding much of the most striking material to his “guest stars”. It’s fine work.

Johnson’s film is a superb entertainment, the sort of film you can imagine people saying of it “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore”. It works as extraordinarily well as it does because it manages to be both cool and catchy and hugely old-fashioned. It’s an unabashed entertainment, that wants to puzzle and entertain you. It succeeds at both.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Luscious visuals, hilarious gags mix with an air of sadness and regret in Wes Anderson’s masterpiece

Director: Wes Anderson

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (M. Gustav), Tony Revolori (Zero), F. Murray Abraham (Mr Moustafa), Mathieu Amalric (Serge X), Adrien Brody (Dmitri), Willem Dafoe (Jopling), Jeff Goldblum (Deputy Kovacs), Harvey Keitel (Ludwig), Jude Law (Young Writer), Bill Murray (M. Ivan), Edward Norton (Inspector Henckels), Saoirse Ronan (Agatha), Jason Schwartzman (M. Jean), Léa Seydoux (Clotilde), Tilda Swinton (Madame D), Tom Wilkinson (Author), Owen Wilson (M. Chuck)

I wrote recently I could forgive the flaws I’ve found in Kurosawa’s work, for the majesty of Seven Samurai. I can totally say the same again for Wes Anderson. He is a director I’ve sometimes found quirky, mannered and artificial – but God almighty he deserves a place in the pantheon for directing a film as near to perfection as The Grand Budapest Hotel, a delight from start to finish, as beautiful to look at as it is whipper-snap funny, as heart-warming to bathe in as it is coldly, sadly bittersweet. After three viewings I can say it is, without a doubt, a masterpiece.

Like many Wes Anderson films, its storyline is eccentric, halfway between fantasy and absurdity. In 1932, in an opulent hotel, The Grand Budapest, concierge Monsieur Gustav (Ralph Fiennes) is the pinnacle of his trade: precise, fastidious, perfectionist, he can fix anything anywhere – opera tickets, the perfect table placement and a night of passion at any time for the elderly widows who visit his hotel. When one of them, Madame D (Tilda Swinton) dies leaving him a priceless painting, Boy with Apple he suddenly finds himself framed for her murder. Only his ingenuity, and the dedicated help of his protégé, best friend and surrogate brother/son, lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) will save him.

You can’t escape on the first viewing that The Grand Budapest Hotel is an extraordinarily funny film. Crammed with superb one-liners, it’s a showcase for a breathtakingly, blissfully funny performance from Ralph Fiennes whose comic timing is exquisite and whose mastery of the perfectly structured monologue of flowery language is as spot-on as his ability to deliver a crude punch-line. Anderson fills the film with clever sight-gags, bounce and a supreme sense of fun. You’ll laugh out loud (I frequently do, and I remember most of the gags) and wind back to watch them again.

But what lifts this is the wonderfully evocative, elegiac piece this beautiful film is. For all its comic zip, it unfolds in a romanticised past already a relic in 1932. We can’t escape the rise of Fascism that fills the film. Jack-booted soldiers accost and hunt Gustav and Zero. Adrien Brody’s furious heir to Madame D looks like a Gestapo officer, and his vicious heavy Jopling (Willem Dafoe so weathered, he looks like he’s been beaten by a carpet duster) has a stormtrooper menace. En route to Madame D’s funeral, Zero is nearly dragged off the train to be lynched by fascist thugs for being an immigrant and The Grand Budapest is taken over by this dreadful movement, filled with Mussolini-inspired ZZ insignia and blackshirts.

Under the jokes, the world Gustav represents has already died and been buried. We are never allowed to forget we are marching, inexorably, towards a very real-world war that will rip apart this fictional country and leave millions dead. Gustav’s gentile old-school charm ended with 1920s: and he sort of knows it. Fiennes, under the suaveness, conveys a man who falls back into potty language when he can no longer maintain his assured confidence that a straight-backed, polite assurance will solve any problem or a poetic reflection will allow them to put any unpleasantness behind them. Those days are gone and it makes for a deep, rich vein of sadness just under the surface.

It’s particularly acute because it’s made clear this is a memory piece. Anderson constructs the film like a memory box. It has no less than three framing devices. It opens and closes with a young woman in 2014 visiting a monument to a great writer, the author of the book The Grand Budapest Hotel. From there we flash back to the author (a droll Tom Wilkinson) in 1985 recounting how he met the man who inspired the novel, before heading again to a flashback to the 1960s where the young author (Jude Law) meets the man we discover is an older Zero (F Murray Abraham) who recounts the story we then watch. Each layer of the film descends deeper into Anderson’s artificial, carefully structured visual style, with its heightened sense of reality.

Old Zero – beautifully played by F. Murray Abraham – is introduced as a man of acute loneliness and sadness, who tells us early on the woman his young self loves, Agatha (a radiant Saoirse Ronan) will die and shuffles around the nearly abandoned The Grand Budapest (now a concrete nightmare of Communist architecture) with only his memories for comfort. No matter how jovial and bright the events of the 1930s are, we can’t forget that these are the reflections of a man full of regrets.

When old Zero’s narration turns to remembering Agatha, the lights around him dim: Agatha even enters the narrative almost by the side door: Gustav is arrested and imprisoned before she appears, along with a series of flashbacks-within-flashbacks to Zero and her meeting and her first meeting with Gustav, as if Zero had to steel himself to remember her (as reflected in Abraham’s tear-stained face). Later, when remembering the fates of Gustav (his best friend) and Agatha (the love of his life) he almost draws a veil over it (even their final scenes in flashback play out in monochrome). There is a deep, moving sense of humanity here, a powerful thread of grief that adds immense richness.

But don’t forget this is also a funny film! Anderson is an inventive visual and narrative director at the best of times, and here every single beat of his playful style pays off in spades. The entire 1930s section of the film (the overwhelming bulk of the narrative) plays out in 4:3 ratio, which to many other directors would be restrictive, but seems a perfect fit for a director who often composes his visuals with the skill of an expert cartoonist. The frame is frequently filled in every direction when within the grandeur of the hotel, but then feels marvellously restrictive for Gustav’s prison cell or the train compartments that seem to constantly carry Zero and him to disaster.

Anderson’s wonderfully precise camera movements also reach their zenith here. His camera is deceptively static, often placed in a series of perfectly staged compositions that places the characters at their heart, frequently looking at us. But then the camera will turn – frequently in a fluid single-plain ninety degrees to reveal a new image of character. There are Steadicam tracking shots that are a dream to watch. It’s combined with some truly astounding model shots (parts of the set are not-even-disguised animated models and miniatures, adding to the sense of fantasia) and the detail of every inch of the design (astounding work from Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock) is perfection. The film is an opulent visual delight.

It’s a film of belly laughs and then moments of haunting sadness. But also, a wonderful celebration of friendship. The bond between Gustav and Zero is profound, natural and deeply moving – grounded, fittingly, in adversity from the agents of a hostile, oppressive state – and carries real emotional force. Newcomer Tony Revolori is hugely endearing as naïve but brave Zero, making his way in this new world (fitting the theme, he left his homeland after his family was destroyed by war) and sparks superbly with Fiennes and Ronan.

There is a wonderful beating heart in The Grand Budapest Hotel, amongst the farce, perfectly timed gags and cheekiness, that makes it a rich film you can luxuriate in. Anderson’s direction is faultless, Fiennes is a breathtaking revelation, both hilarious, affronted, decent and fighting the good fight. Gorgeous to look at, thought-provoking and laugh-out loud funny it’s a dream of a film.

The Illusionist (2006)

Ed Norton, Paul Giamatti and Jessica Biel are wrapped up in the tricks of The Illusionist

Director: Neil Burger

Cast: Edward Norton (Eisenheim), Jessica Biel (Sophie), Paul Giamatti (Inspector Uhl), Rufus Sewell (Crown Prince Leopold), Eddie Marsan (Josef Fischer), Jake Wood (Jurka), Tom Fisher (Willigut), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Young Eisenheim), Eleanor Tomlinson (Young Sophie), Karl Johnson (Doctor)

In 2006, The Illusionist was the other film about nineteenth-century magicians that wasn’t Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. As such it got rather overlooked, which is unfair as this is a handsomely made, intriguing little puzzle which doesn’t reinvent the wheel but does what it does with a fair amount of invention and beauty.

In turn-of-the-century Vienna, the illusionist Eisenheim (Edward Norton) is a revelation – a mystery character whose past is investigated by Police Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) under the orders of Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). The Crown Prince feels Eisenheim’s illusions – which suggest at times dark truths in the Prince’s own personal life – are a serious risk to his position. On top of which, there is a secret past romance between Eisenheim and the Prince’s intended wife Countess Sophie (Jessica Biel), and the Prince is not a man to be crossed. So begins a cat-and-mouse game of trick and illusions between Uhl and Eisenheim.

The greatest thing about Neil Burger’s period piece is the grace and beauty with which it has been filmed. Dick Pope’s mixture of sepia tones and candlelit blacks makes for a series of gorgeous images, contrasted perfectly with Philip Glass’ beautiful score. Both contribute hugely to creating an atmosphere of mystical unknowingness around the Vienna locations, and give the film something in every scene to delight the senses.

What works less well is the slightly routine scripting and filmmaking that pulls the film together. For all the beauty with which it is presented, there isn’t quite enough of the original or – for want of a better word – the magical about what we see on the screen. The story is just ever so slightly too familiar, the points it intends to made – be it about the nature of power, or magic, or love, or hope – never quite coalesce into a coherent and clear message that really feels like you are being told something or shown something you haven’t seen in several movies before. 

Instead we see that behind the eyes of even the most obscure and unreadable conjurer there is deep and abiding love – love that will push them to do wild, even morally questionable, things. For others like the Crown Prince, that love is tied in altogether with possession and power and that there is no place for truth. Illusion is in all things: from Eisenheim’s entire life to the Prince’s front as a man of the modern world and his desire to become a dictator. Maybe that might be as close as the film gets to a deeper meaning – that illusion hides and protects our truths. 

As Eisenheim’s tricks get closer and closer to mesmerism and séance, the film suggests that it is a human need to want to see the truth behind tricks. The crowds who see Eisenheim raise the dead in flickering images want to believe it, that they could talk to their own deceased loved ones. Even in his early magic tricks, the less poetic characters of the film see value in the tricks only when they feel they have worked out the illusion behind it. Both are looking for a form of truth in the illusion, but the truth behind the trick is often deeper and more complex than the mechanical process by which it is done.

It’s a shame the film doesn’t tackle these ideas more, and settles for a more traditional “love across the divide” romance, but perhaps it doesn’t quite engage because Eisenheim and Sophie aren’t really interesting enough characters. Edward Norton plays Eisenheim with grace and intelligence, and draws a lot of depth and emotion from scenes that often require him to wordlessly stare. But juggling a character who deliberately conceals the truth and his intentions at every single turn seems slightly to have straitjacketed Norton, an elliptical actor at the best of times. There is something unknowable about him in this film which, while perfect for the character, makes him one you can’t really invest in. Similarly, Jessica Biel (a last minute replacement for Liv Tyler after filming had started) certainly looks the part, and gives Sophie a warmth, but she never really makes an impression as a character. Rooting for these two star-crossed lovers is difficult because we never get a sense of who they are.

Instead the film is dominated by hard-nosed rationalist Inspector Uhl, a man with a curiosity for conjuring, an appetite for power, a determination to get things done, but finally more than a bit of humanity. Paul Giamatti is excellent in the part, playing a role that emerges as the audience surrogate, trying as hard as we are to work out what is real and what is illusion. He doesn’t put a foot wrong with Uhl’s affable professionalism nor his ability to switch to business-like harshness. He’s also adept at playing a man who is the third smartest character in the film, but believes himself to be the smartest. You could also the same for Rufus Sewell’s (also great and clearly having a ball) Crown Prince, a bully who thinks he is an enlightened man.

It’s Uhl whom the film finally bonds with the most, and it’s his attempts to piece together what’s going on that becomes the most engaging thing in the second half of the film. For all the beauty of its making, and the skill that has gone into creating the optical illusions (some of Norton’s sleight of hand tricks in this movie are extraordinary), it’s a film that doesn’t quite satisfy. When the final reveal occurs in the film’s closing moments, you won’t quite be as satisfied as you would expect, perhaps because you won’t really care about Eisenheim or Sophie. Burger has made a handsomely mounted but strangely cold film.

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Michael Keaton is haunted by his superhero alter-ego in Iñárritu’s well made but heavy handed theatre satire

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Cast: Michael Keaton (Riggan Thomson), Zach Galifianakis (Jake), Edward Norton (Mike Shiner), Andrea Riseborough (Laura Aulburn), Amy Ryan (Sylvia Thomson), Emma Stone (Sam Thomson), Naomi Watts (Lesley Truman), Lindsay Duncan (Tabitha Dickinson), Merritt Wever (Annie)

Oscar voters seem to be invariably drawn towards stories about actors and acting. Put together a decent and ambitious movie about those subjects, ideally with a sprinkling of gentle satire that pokes fun at acting but basically says at the end it is a noble profession, and you got yourself a contender. So it was with Birdman.

Riggan Thomson (a career revitalising role for Michael Keaton) is a faded movie star who hit celebrity 15 years ago with a series of films about a superhero, Birdman. Today he is trying to reclaim his artistic integrity by directing, adapting and starring in a Raymond Carver story on Broadway. At the same time he wants to rebuild a relationship with his daughter (Emma Stone), a recovering drug addict. The film covers the stumbling journey towards the opening night, with Thomson dealing with a demanding and difficult enfant terrible co-star (Ed Norton), a string of disasters and the haunting presence of his Birdman alter-ego, lambasting his choices and urging him to return to blockbusters.

I’m going to lay into this film a bit. It’s harsh, because it is really trying to do something different, for which it deserves credit. So I’ll start with the good stuff. The conceit of making the film look like it was done in one take is extraordinarily well done – the camera work is inventive and extraordinary. Emmanuel Lubezki is a visual genius and the technical accomplishment is astounding, a real tour-de-force. The acting is also very good. Michael Keaton embraces the best script he had in years, giving the part such commitment and emotion you overlook it’s a fairly simple part. Emma Stone is raw and tragic as his daughter. Ed Norton gives one of his finest performances as a dickish method actor (a neat self-parody) who in quieter conversations reveals real depth – and provides more insights into the passion for creativity than virtually anything else in the film.

Okay, that’s the really good stuff. It’s got some good lines as well, and its general style never stops being entertaining. But it’s also nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. It wants to be a profound study of the nature of life and art, but it never really gets to grips with these ideas or drills down into them. For art, its contrasts are simplistic verging on hectoring. It never really gets to the heart of what acting is or means. For life it boils down into a straightforward “father wants to win back love of family” plot. The film presents all this as something deep and meaningful, and uses a lot of style and razamatazz – but the basic points remain simple or under-explored.

Part of my problem with the film is that is wears its pseudo-intelligence rather too heavily, and it ends up turning into smugness. Lubezki’s camera work is extraordinary but it also has a “look-at-me” quality that really begins to distract from the viewing of the film – even second time around the content of the film passes you by a bit. Tellingly, on the DVD Iñárritu talks about being drawn to the project because he wanted to make a film that felt like it was done in one take. Fine, but perhaps it would have been better if he had been a bit more interested in, say, the content of the film itself? Everything about the film-making demands you give it your attention, from the camerawork to the insistent drumming soundtrack. These elements are not bad in themselves – but it’s showing off rather than craft servicing the film.

The film’s themes themselves are, I think, also not as interesting or challenging as the film-makers believe them to be. The central idea of actors being shallow with chaotic home lives is so tired as to be a cliché: “Why don’t I have any self-respect?”/”You’re an actress, honey” summarises the sort of jokes you’ve seen before in other films.

I also felt the film’s attempts to analyse the nature of art and performance were formulaic and even rather empty. Lindsay Duncan plays a chilly theatre critic, determined to destroy the play, and Keaton delivers well Riggan’s rant to her on using labels and presenting opinions as facts. There isn’t any counterbalance to this offered, no exploration of, for example, criticism can service art or how opinion guides our reception of what we perceive as good art. A heavy handed fantasy sequence has his Birdman alter ego addressing the camera directly “Look at these people, at their eyes… they’re sparkling. They love this shit.” Yeah Alejandro we get it, we are shallow and deep down prefer action films than all this “ talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit” – hardly an original thought, and hardly framed originally though, is it? Do we really need to be whacked on the head with it? What point is this trying to make that we haven’t heard hundreds of times before?

But then is it any wonder that it wants to try and make points about cinema rather than theatre? For a film set exclusively in a theatre, I don’t really feel that its makers really understand the pressures or nature of theatre. Instead, it merely stands in here as a short hand for “cultural worthiness” – Riggan might as well be making an independent film or writing a novel, theatre is just a counterpoint used for blockbuster films (a genre Iñárritu clearly does understand and has opinions on). Nothing in the film really seems to capture a real sense of backstage in a theatre or what putting on a play is like, for example Peter Yates’ film of The Dresser. There is no sense of the collaborative nature of the medium or its immediacy as a performance art – it’s labelled as lazily as a vehicle for pretension and self loathing as criticism is for bitterness and failure.

The film also plays with the notion of Riggan’s (possibly) unhinged nature. Throughout the film we see him use superpowers – levitation, telekenesis, flight, control of fire. Along with his haunting by the Birdman character (done with a nice parody of the gravelly Christian Bale-Batman voice), it all ties into the possibility that Riggan is losing the ability to keep his real life and his career’s defining moment from merging into one another. The film’s ending builds on this, playfully suggesting some of what we have seen might have been real (though it also could be interpreted as a final dream sequence) – but I’m not sure what is gained by introducing these skills other than for visual flair. Riggan’s inner turmoil is never explored fully by the film and I don’t feel the film has the patience to explore his feelings or depression. As such, I find the open-ended ending doesn’t really add anything – it feels like it has been inserted to create debate, rather than acting as a culmination for your interpretation of the film, a la Inception say.

Phew. Birdman is by no means a bad film. It is a good one, but not a great one. It has much to admire, both on a technical and performance level, but (like Riggan) it is straining for an intellectual depth and thematic richness that simply isn’t there. It’s a showpiece, a brilliantly done one, really impressive to watch and it dazzles while it takes place – but there isn’t much to talk about afterwards. It is what it is. Compared to this year’s film-about-acting, La La Land, it’s both less charming and less profound, and has less to tell us about the compromises and struggles of real life. You can enjoy it, and it needs to be seen, but I can’t see it ageing well.

Primal Fear (1996)

Richard Gere prepares an impossible defence for unbalanced Edward Norton. Twist ahoy!

Director: Gregory Hoblit

Cast: Richard Gere (Martin Vail), Laura Linney (Janet Venable), John Mahoney (John Shaughnessy), Alfre Woodard (Judge Shoat), Frances McDormand (Dr Molly Arrington), Edward Norton (Aaron Stampler), Terry O’Quinn (Bud Yancy), Andre Braugher (Tommy Goodman)

Courtroom dramas are the bread and butter of film drama. You get to deal with good vs evil, right vs wrong – and you even have two advocates on each side there duelling it out on camera for you. Primal Fear came at a time when John Grisham and his like were ruling the bestseller charts, and it’s a fine demonstration of that very late 80s to mid 90s genre: the all-star court case film.

After the murder of a beloved archbishop in Chicago, bloodied altar-boy Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton) is found near the scene. There seems no doubt that he’s guilty. Top city lawyer Martin Vail (Richard Gere) takes his case for the publicity of a big trial, but finds himself believing the boy to be innocent. As the trial begins though, Vail’s psychiatric investigation reveals Stampler has a split personality – his gentle main persona and a violent defensive personality, “Roy”, who admits to the crime.

This is an advanced, well-written trial thriller which, through a combination of some neat lines and some very good performers, manages to bring a lot of life and originality to what could have been a collection of stock characters. Instead, each character in the film feels real and their actions seem part of a coherent personality. The mechanics of the plot also move very smoothly, with a well-handled twist. And as a bonus it has something to say about human nature, about our need to believe in something and how easy it is to tell lies about ourselves and believe them from others.

The film is shot with a good eye for grimy real-life locations and muddy shade-of-grey morality. Hoblit’s direction is crisp and straightforward and he avoids getting any pyrotechnics in the way of the actors – here the performances are the special effects. It’s also a brilliant twist movie that doesn’t telegraph the fact it contains a twist until it suddenly pulls the rug out from under your feet. Hoblit doesn’t give us any advantages over the characters and has the restraint not to show his hand too early – instead he sucker punches us with a sudden downer ending. It’s a masterpiece of genre craft film-making.

Richard Gere at first glance is playing well within his range – a smirking hotshot focused on the win, willing to defend anyone and anything. However, what Gere does really well here is play his persona as an actual persona of the character. The “real” Martin Vail, it becomes clear, is actually almost naïve in his underlying faith in the justice system. He has a touching faith in people and the twist of the film works because we believe how much Vail unwittingly allows himself too be manipulated and conned. He’s the sort of true believer who can playfully mock his faith because his belief in it is absolute. It’s even more crushing, then, when that faith is so cruelly used and abused. The final shot of him alone on the street all but screams “My God, what have I done?”.

But though this film has some of Gere’s best work, this is Ed Norton’s movie. Incredibly, this was Norton’s first ever film, and he seizes the film absolutely by the scruff of the neck. Re-watching the film now, it’s less of a surprise when Aaron’s “Roy” personality bursts out – Norton is so well known now you are almost waiting for him to really let rip – but he nails the contrasts between the stammering, gentle Aaron and the ferocious Roy. You always know which one he is at any time – and even better than that, Norton drops subtle hints throughout to set up the film’s twist (which I won’t give away). His performance is largely a triumph of masterful control of acting tricks and a brilliant demonstration of range, as well as a swaggering display of confidence, rather than a subtle piece of character work, but it’s still an absolute knock out for all that – and totally believable.

Strong performances also come from Laura Linney, making an awful lot of the role of Gere’s courtroom nemesis and part-time lover. Andre Braugher is particularly good as an investigating officer. Alfre Woodward is stern and authoritative but fair minded and just as the judge. Frances McDormand makes what could have been a wet liberal doctor feel like a genuinely caring and dedicated intelligent professional. There isn’t a weak link in the cast, and every character beat feels well observed and natural. How many genre films have failed to manage that?

It all works extremely well and offers all the courtroom fireworks you could want with maximum efficiency. All the actors are working at the top of their game, and the direction keeps the action taut and intriguing. Here’s the thing: the plot makes little sense if you think about it, and Norton’s plan depends on so many variables he could never have known that it would success. But the film is made with such confidence and assurance that it never really matters. The twist still has a lot of impact today – and the film bravely offers no happy endings, only hammers home the system’s corruptness. A very good example (perhaps one of the best) of the courtroom genre.

The Bourne Legacy (2012)

Even with two guns and Jeremy Renner’s face, Aaron Cross isn’t that interesting

Director: Tony Gilroy

Cast: Jeremy Renner (Aaron Cross), Rachel Weisz (Dr Marta Shearing), Edward Norton (Col. Eric Byer), Stacy Keach (Adm. Mark Turso), Dennis Boutsikaris (Terrence Ward), Oscar Isaac (Outcome #3), Joan Allen (Pamela Landy), Albert Finney (Dr Albert Hirsch), David Strathairn (Noah Vosen), Scott Glenn (Ezra Kramer), Donna Murphy (Dita Mandy), Michael Chernus (Arthur Ingram), Corey Stoll (Zev Vendel), Željko Ivanek (Dr Donald Foite), Elizabeth Marvel (Dr Connie Dowd)

What do you do when the people want more sequels to your film series but you can’t persuade the star and director (no matter how much money you offer) to make another film? Well you can either re-cast or you can put another character front and centre in a sequel. The Bourne Legacy goes for the latter approach and invents a new series of characters and shady CIA programmes so that we can put the old chase-and-fight formula back to work.

Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) has been mentally and physically enhanced as part of a series of CIA black ops, overseen by shady CIA bigwig Ed Norton. After the events of Bourne Ultimatum (which overlap with the first quarter of this film), the CIA cuts its losses and orders the deaths of all the agents (including Cross) and the scientists (including Rachel Weisz’s Dr Shearing). Of course both Cross and Shearing survive and go on the run. Despite the writing tying itself into knots to connect its story to the previous films, that’s the sum of the plot. Hardly gripping.

This strange historical curiosity spends the first half of its running time attempting to justify its existence. Extensive narrative hoops are jumped through and new footage carefully interwoven with clips from the previous two movies to try and suggest “a plot behind the plot”. It’s a mistake. No one needs to know why the film exists: we just want to get on with a cracking story. Instead we spend an inordinate amount of time unravelling this “sidequel” attempt at franchise expansion, meandering around unengaging and complex plotting that totally fails to engage the interest.

So long winded are these plotting gymnastics, it’s a good two-thirds of the way into the film before our villain becomes aware of our hero’s survival. Our hero never becomes aware of the villain (an unclear flashback is put into place so they share the screen) and only guesses at who is chasing him. This means the chase elements of the film never really click into place and lack anything for the viewer to invest in. The “hero” is an assassin whose objective is to keep hold of his enhanced intellect, obtained from drugs on the “programme”. Well good for him, but its hardly a sympathetic reason for us to root for him. He’s still an unrepentant killer.

This isn’t helped by the giggle-worthy flashback scenes of Jeremy Renner in his pre-enhanced state, where Renner seems to be aping Ben Stiller’s performance of Simple Jack in Tropic Thunder. In his enhanced state, Cross is fully aware he is an assassin and a willing volunteer – embracing the very dark secret Bourne was so ashamed of. Neither Cross nor Shearing ever have their actions questioned, or display any sense that they have done anything wrong – it seems clear that they would have continued their dirty deeds quite happily without the plot’s intervention. It’s fine to have morally compromised heroes in a film – but this film doesn’t seem to realise or comment on this at any point.

Whatever your views on the characters, the fact remains that this is a chase movie where the chase is not interesting, takes far too long to get started and never really gets the viewer feeling the tension. As an editor of action, Gilroy is no Paul Greengrass and the fight sequences have the same cold distance to them that the rest of the film has, a by-the-numbers series of clashes where it’s hard to really care what happens.

A brilliant cast of actors is totally wasted. Poor Jeremy Renner does his very best here – he has charm, he’s a charismatic performer, but this is a dull character who we are given no real reason to invest in. Rachel Weisz plays the sort of damsel distress (matched up with the “film scientist” trope) an Oscar winner surely can do without. Edward Norton as with so many other films makes his contempt and boredom with the film totally apparent. Allen, Finney and Straitharn have little more than single scene cameos. A host of great character actors (Isaac, Marvel, Stoll, Ivanek, Keach, Murphy) are totally wasted.

This is a dull, formulaic, unloved sequel that spends more time trying to place itself into the timeline of the previous movies than developing a storyline and characters we actually care about. It moves slowly from location to location, sprinkling in some inadequately filmed fights and chases, never once persuading us that we should care about anything that happens.