Back Rowe Reviews
Real Time Movie Reviews from the Back Row of a Theater

August 2016

Jason Bourne (PG-13)

Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Matt Damon
July 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Jason Bourne
One punch is all #Bourne needs.
Linked to Jason Bourne. A sure fire way to acquire a target on your back. Guilt by association.
A violent demonstration is the perfect place to have a top secret long as you survive it.
The blonde hair is a dead giveaway. #RookieMove
#Bourne picks up blondie on his motorcycle. So much for splitting up.
Nikki is the latest in the long string of women who haven’t fared well while attempting to assist #Bourne.
“Privacy is freedom.” And freedom is life.
Report claims that #Bourne could be brought back into the program. I wouldn’t count on it.
#Bourne stands in front of a window. #RookieMove
A green light on #Bourne. Won’t work.
#Bourne should’ve kept his cap on to conceal his identity from the casino’s cameras. #RookieMove
A SWAT truck plows into some cop cars. What’s wrong with that picture?
Final analysis: a somewhat rote reboot for the series with dizzying action scenes and a well worn plot.
2 1/2 out of 4. Damon is rock solid, but the story lets him down. Will Damon be Bourne again?

The fifth film in the Bourne franchise, based on the novels by the late Robert Ludlum, is a homecoming event since Matt Damon played the titular hero in the original trilogy: The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). Though the mantle was briefly transferred to Jeremy Renner for 2012s The Bourne Legacy, Damon has returned for Jason Bourne. Unfortunately, Damon’s presence is the only thing that recommends the film since the story is a standard issue chase thriller. All of the thematic conventions from the earlier films are here, in patchwork fashion, and comprise the bulk of the story. So what tropes am I referring to? Something every Bourne film has featured (as well as every James Bond movie ever made) is a globe-trotting storyline: this outing sees Bourne visiting Greece, Berlin and Las Vegas. Admittedly, this is the least offensive of the movie’s clichés since we’re treated to some gorgeous vistas of exotic foreign locales (Vegas might not be foreign, but it’s most certainly exotic) as the story progresses from one action set piece to the next. One hackneyed story element is that every woman who tries assisting Bourne ends up dead—one of the many reasons not to date this international man-on-the-run. Conversely, the wisest thing Bourne has done since he lost the love of his life, Marie (Franka Potente), is to eschew any romantic engagements. Another derivative aspect of the Bourne movies is the inclusion of older white men who ran the various off-the-books operations that Bourne was involved with in the past. The original trilogy presented a formidable array of A-list actors to play such roles, including: Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn and Albert Finney. Carrying on that tradition in this movie is Tommy Lee Jones (incidentally, he’s very effective at playing people tasked with tracking down fugitives) who is actually much more sympathetic to Bourne than many of his predecessors—his line “You’re never going to find any peace. Not till you admit to yourself who you really are.” is a dialog highlight in the film. Bourne embarking on a quest to learn clues about his past is yet another frequently repeated contrivance in the film series. What Bourne is seeking this time is the identity of the person who was in charge of recruiting him into his first black ops program. Told in a series of grainy flashbacks and featuring Gregg Henry and Vincent Cassel, these scenes represent the heart of the film. Though critical in buttressing and expanding the plot, these back story elements are painfully predictable, although they do provide ample motivation for Bourne and serve as the impetus for the film’s final confrontation...which isn’t nearly as spectacular as the explosive climaxes in the earlier films. Indeed, the protracted, mano a mano slugfests that were the highlights of the original trilogy are nowhere to be seen here. Though the action beats are well acted and choreographed, I could’ve done without director Paul Greengrass’ blurry, shaky cam action sequences. Aside from its many story redundancies, the movie’s biggest drawback is its rather lengthy list of plot holes (reference my tweets for #RookieMove for examples of this). The anemic and uninspired writing, by Greengrass and Christopher Rouse, is the movie’s biggest drawback; indeed, it almost seems as if the movie was written as a greatest hits pastiche of the earlier films rather than a unique stand-alone chapter in the mythos. Sad to say, but the formula is so diluted at this point that it no longer has any potency. So what does Bourne have left to fight for now that all the women in his life have pushed daises and that he’s learned everything there is to know about his past and identity? It seems like the only thing Bourne has left to do is dismantle the program that turned him into a ruthless killer. As such, will the sequel be a revenge tour? We’ll see how this film performs first, I suppose. Or to put it a different way, has this film buried the franchise once and for all or will the character be Bourne again?

Star Trek Beyond (PG-13)

Directed by: Justin Lin
Starring: Chris Pine
July 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Star Trek Beyond
Kirk needs to leave the negotiating to Picard. He kinda’ sucks at it.
Nice twist with the perspective of the aliens.
Meaningful captain’s log. Great writing.
Chekov has the good stuff.
“Snow globe in space.” Ha! #YorktownStation
#YorktownStation looks like a mixture of #
Elysium and #Tomorrowland.
“It’s easier than you think to get lost.” #LostInSpace
Thank God for impulse engines.
The Enterprise falls to the planet like a #FlyingSaucer a la #
“What’s your favorite color?” Hilarious!
U.S.S. Franklin. Plot twist.
Acidic boogers. Handy but nasty.
#VulcanTears There’s something you don’t see any day.
“He likes that seat.” LOL
“Find hope in the impossible.”
Radioactive jewelry. Top seller in the 23rd century.
“This is where the frontier pushes back.” #GoodLine
“Let’s hope this doesn’t get messy.” Ha!
“They’re called starships for a reason.” True enough.
Finally, seat belts on a starship.
Nice #
StarTrekV crew shot.
“To absent friends.” Poignant line with Chekov in the shot. #RIPAnton
Final analysis: a bold adventure that’s addled by a slow start and a slack script.
2 1/2 out of 4. The first deep space venture in the series has tons of action but not much meaning.

Aliso Viejo, CA.
Star Trek Beyond starring #ChrisPine. Directed by #JustinLin. The Fast & Furious Frontier.
“I ripped my shirt again.” Happens all time.
“It’s hard to feel grounded when you’re in artificial gravity.” #GoodLine
“Perfect eyesight and a full head of hair.” Here, here.
Now that’s how the #UniversalTranslator should work.
“We are not equipped for this manner of engagement.” Oh frack!
Hang on, Scotty.
Kirk shatters the main viewer with a few phaser blasts. Is it really that easy to break?
“Fear of death is what keeps us alive.”
Giant green space hand. Reference #
WhoMournsForAdonais? #StarTrek #TOS
“Take my house and make it fly.” #USSFranklin
“Beat and shouting.” The universe is saved by #HardRock.
The time lapse construction of the #Enterprise is brilliant.
Liked it a lot more the second time. Beyond beyond.
Lingering question: How did #MontgomeryScotty climb up the cliff? I guess engineers do have strong fingers.

Aside from rubber-suited aliens, space babes in tinfoil bikinis, psychedelic planet concepts and future-cool sets, props and costumes—all presented “in living color”—what established Star Trek as a pop culture phenomenon that’s endured for 50 years is the way creator Gene Roddenberry cleverly crafted his sci-fi adventure stories as morality plays; a strategy that not only covertly conveyed serious and controversial subject matter right past censors and studio execs to its intellectually curious audience, but also enabled the show to have a message during the mid to late 60s when lowbrow fare like Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. was ruling the airwaves. Whether in superlative episodes like “The Ultimate Computer” (the rise of the machine threatening our identity and humanity), mediocre fare like “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” (a goofy, yet poignant, anti-racism cautionary tale) and even abysmal efforts like “The Mark of Gideon” (an absurdist homily on the dangers of overpopulation), the original Star Trek was legendary at weaving messages into its storylines. That tradition, to a greater or lesser extent, has been maintained by the many movies and TV spinoffs, all of which have deftly reflected the zeitgeist of their respective decade while consistently challenging the notion and status of the human condition. So what does all of that have to do with the new film, Star Trek Beyond? Plenty, as you’ll see. The current Trek movie series, set in the Abrams-verse (officially known as the Kelvin Timeline), has catered to contemporary audiences by presenting largely action-driven plots with some humorous moments and a handful of meaningful character scenes thrown in for good measure. It’s a recipe that’s been successful up until now, but the dish has become more and more unsavory with each successive sequel. That assertion will only embolden Trek purists, who have looked down their noses at the new films for eschewing the series’ cerebral tradition in favor of cheap thrills and eye candy (both with respect to its attractive cast and cutting-edge FX). Beyond may be the closest of the new films to meeting the lofty requirements of those purists and will hopefully retain a large swath of the audience that came to the series for the first time due to the involvement of director J.J. Abrams and/or the fine cast of up-and-coming actors. Beyond is the first of the new films to venture into deep space, which makes it feel more like a traditional Trek movie than its predecessors. This is also the first original adventure in the series, since Star Trek (2009) was an origin story and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) was based on a “let’s bring back Khan” premise. There are many new characters (including: Idris Elba as foe Krall and Sofia Boutella as friend Jaylah) ships (USS Franklin, Krall’s ships and Yorktown space station) and filming techniques (the Enterprise cruising through warped space and the launch sequence at Yorktown where a camera is positioned in front of the ship’s neck as we see the station streaming past the accelerating ship) in the movie. Other welcome additions are seatbelts on bridge chairs and the most intelligent application of the Universal Translator (we hear the English translation over the alien’s native speech) in any Trek TV show or film. Though I haven’t been a fan of Michael Giacchino’s prior efforts for the series, his score here is very good—the cue when the Enterprise arrives at Yorktown (“Night on the Yorktown”) is equal parts majestic and euphoric. Yorktown’s sprawling landscape of sleek skyscrapers, transportation tubes, man-made lakes, grassy knolls, etc (all created with an effective blend of location filming in Dubai and CGI) is simply jaw-dropping. Indeed, its environs are an Escher-esque labyrinth of leaning buildings which tower over a well plotted and manicured surface of functional and recreational spaces; in essence, Yorktown is the architectural love child of the eponymous cities in Elysium (2013) and Tomorrowland (2015). Whereas the CG exteriors are gloriously gentrified, the interiors (both in Yorktown and on the Enterprise) are spare and dimly lit, especially in the early stages of the film. Yorktown is a true melting pot among the stars and is a grander scale version of what was attempted on Nimbus III, the so-called Planet of Galactic Peace in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), the very film that Ambassador Spock’s (Leonard Nimoy) crew photo is from (seen during the movie’s denouement). This cosmic UN is the locus for a good portion of the proceedings, including the climactic action scene. Despite a slow start, riddled by the amusing but mostly superfluous teaser (think diplomatic mission to the Gremlin home world) and the silly impetus surrounding the distressed ship (which is an obvious trap to everyone but gung-ho Kirk), the plot settles in when the Enterprise departs Yorktown. As the Enterprise approaches the mystery planet, we’re treated to the movie’s first action scene…a frenetic, bone-jarring spectacle which combines the pacing and pyrotechnics of a Star Wars movie with the kind of protracted battle on an epic scale you’d see in The Lord of the Rings. Krall’s throng of ships represents the franchise’s most lethal threat since the dreaded Borg. Enemy vessels are typically larger, faster or more powerful than the Enterprise. Beyond presents a radical paradigm shift with respect to its alien adversaries…the swarm of thousands of two-man crafts, when executing coordinated attacks, can rapidly inflict massive damage to a starship. Even more frightening is the way the tiny pods can burrow into a ship’s hull and deposit its crew, generating an instant invasion force. Insidious. This “death by a thousand cuts” attack strategy presents a challenge unlike anything the Enterprise has ever faced. The realization that the Enterprise can’t defend itself against such an onslaught makes for a nail-biting, nerve-shredding confrontation; the first of many incredible action sequences in the film. But are there too many and are they too frenzied for a Trek film? Many Trek diehards would answer yes; that the Kelvin films have embraced the same kind of raucous, razzle-dazzle that’s become synonymous with the Star Wars movies. The real issue with the surfeit of action scenes in the new Trek movies may have less to do with personal taste or even in whether or not they dishonor Roddenberry’s original vision of a peaceful future than with the financial burden associated with bringing such sequences to life. Scott Mendelson shares some informed insights on the subject in his article for Forbes entitled, “A Cheaper ‘Star Trek’ Franchise Can Live Longer And Be More Prosperous.” Although I take issue with his argument that action scenes are everyone’s (blanket statement) least favorite aspect of a Trek movie, he’s spot-on when highlighting where the franchise’s priorities should be placed. “When people rave about a Star Trek movie, they are usually talking about the winning cast, the emotional payoffs, and/or the would-be social topicality. In short, nobody ever went to a Star Trek movie primarily for the action scenes.” Be that as it may, the Swarm Attack is a heart-stopping, jaw-dropping thrill ride. The battle finally concludes with the crew being deposited on an alien planet. The painstaking world-building on Altamid (word play on ultimate?) is truly exceptional—finally a strange new world (the red forest at the beginning of Into Darkness doesn’t qualify since it was only briefly shown in the teaser and had little bearing on the rest of the film). The location work, shot in the British Columbia, Canada, adds greatly to the immersive experience of being on some far-flung alien world filled with potential dangers lurking around every jagged boulder. Jaylah’s replicating device is a brilliant invention, as are her various security measures—one of which is a type of gas that can rapidly turn into a solid. Another clever visual is when Krall’s ships dock in staggered positions on tall poles, which makes them appear as branches on bizarre mechanical trees. As Krall’s legions deploy on their attack mission, they pass through a nebula that’s the perfect amalgamation of the Mutara Nebula from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and the Briar Patch in Star Trek: Insurrection (1998). The invasion plot itself harkens back to the Borg’s assault on Earth in Star Trek: First Contact (1996) and Shinzon’s plan to attack the same target in Star Trek: Nemesis (2002). Nothing new here. The climactic showdown between Kirk (Chris Pine) and Krall is visually exciting but, sadly, is a standard issue resolution for an action picture. The revelation of Krall’s true identity is one of the movie’s nicer twists (although the lack of an explanation for his initial mutation and subsequent reversion is beyond contrived) and has the added advantage of foregrounding the only real message in the movie. It’s unclear if writers Pegg and Doug Jung, along with director Justin Lin, even planned for the movie to have such real-world relevance, but Krall’s backstory has a symbolic link to the war on terror. The potential of one of our own becoming radicalized and turning against us is a clear and present danger. With ISIS operatives entering (Trojan Horse style) the refugee populations flooding into Europe and America, this plot point has a direct bearing on current events in our terror-ravaged world. It’s unfair to say that the rest of the movie is devoid of meaning, because that simply isn’t the case. Indeed, there are many great character moments, like the spirited interchanges between Scotty (Pegg) and Jaylah and the always enjoyable good-natured ribbing between Spock (Zachary Quinto) and McCoy (Karl Urban)—this movie features the best banter between the pair since Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). The opening captain’s log is rife with keen observations on the rhythms of life in space and accurately depicts the ennui that sets in during a long voyage (and also contains some of the finest dialog in the film). Kirk’s confession to McCoy that he joined Starfleet on a dare is heartfelt as is the conversation between Kirk and Commodore Paris (Shohreh Aghdashloo): Paris asserts that in deep space all a captain has is his ship and his crew. Since he loses both early in the film, Kirk must rely on his ingenuity, a new friend and an old ship in order to save the universe for another day. The private meeting between Spock and two of his kinsmen is also an emotional high point in the film and satisfactorily buttons up the Ambassador Spock storyline. However, aside from these finely written and well acted character scenes, where’s the overarching theme, the salient social commentary or the pulse on our progress as a species? The film does have some substance, but it’s tenuous—existing between, and in service to, the many action sequences. So here we have a head-scratching conundrum: Beyond thoroughly entertains and yet says nothing, means nothing and, in the end, amounts to nothing. Ultimately, the most meaningful moments in the movie are the two dedications during the end credits…to Nimoy and Anton Yelchin, two Trek heroes who passed away before this movie was released. Yelchin’s death has cast a pall over the possibility of a fourth film in the franchise, but should another movie receive a green light from Paramount, here’s hoping it will focus on story first and action second, since, as Mendelson rightly avers, “no one will complain if an otherwise good movie doesn’t have an extra phaser shoot-out or vehicle chase amid the drama.” Whereas Mendelson believes that “going cheaper and smaller” is the answer to ensuring series longevity, I maintain that such constancy will only be achieved by tapping into topics that resonate with the audience; narratives that challenge, inspire and instill hope for a better future. In other words, the kind of story that made Star Trek great from its inception.