La La Land

 

So the Oscars roll in less than a week from today. La La Land has garnered 14 nominations – the most ever and is tied with Titanic and All About Eve for the most ever.

The most ever wins is 11 for Titanic in 1997, Ben Hur brought home 11 in 1959, and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003 walked away with 11.

I am not one to make Oscar predictions, but being as generous as possible, LLL shouldn’t win for Best Original Screenplay, shouldn’t win for Best Costume Design, and shouldn’t win for Best Male Actor – so I think 11 Oscars is the max for La La Land. Doesn’t mean I think they will win 11. Rather that I think the most they could win is 11.

I did not see the film back in December on Christmas Day when it opened, or even in January. It was only a few days ago on Wednesday (the 15th) that I saw La La Land and I was at the Cinemark 12 in Bluffton, South Carolina to do so.

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, this is a film about Hollywood, and the California lifestyle (maybe work search is a better word) , and it slots nicely and initially into the classic boy meets girl genre.

Mia (Emma Stone) is a late twenties aspiring actress who hasn’t made much of an impact lately. On the side, meaning most of the time, she’s a barista at a local coffee imbibery.

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist who must pound the ivories at various cocktail emporiums. playing songs he hates, and chafing about having to do so (he’d rather own his own jazz club where he could riff his own musical creations for as long as he wanted). The chafing continued right up to the moment when he could no longer do so; that is – until he was fired by the club owner (portrayed by J.K. Simmons).

It is on the night he’s fired, that Mia happened to be in that very same club. Nothing at all happened between them that night other than Sebastian brushing rudely past Mia on his way out. But that wasn’t even the first time they’d seen each other.

That was during a huge traffic tie-up on the Santa Monica Freeway ramp when 100’s of cars were gridlocked into a traffic standstill. But as things usually go in films – they’d be in the same place at the same time again and again – before they noted that those accidentally crossing of paths ‘might mean something’.

Once they met and began conversation, we didn’t expect it would take that long before a romance would start. And that proved to be the case.

Also expected was a change in their careers. Mia wrote and mounted a one-woman show ( at an L.A. version of an off-off-off Broadway venue)

which was sparsely attended but led to something else. Sebastian ran into an old friend

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(played by John Legend) who already had a successful band. But at the time, he needed a keyboard man.

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Riphagen: The Untouchable

 

This film, entitled Riphagen: The Untouchable is the story of one Andries Riphagen. As the film begins we met Dries, as he is called by some, accompanied by another man. They arrive at a home in Amsterdam in The Netherlands. It is some time in 1944.

They ask the homeowners if they are hiding any Jews. When an older woman is discovered behind a false wall, Riphagen (played by Jeroen van Koningsbrugge) tells her can help her. She will have to turn over all her valuables in exchange for a safe passage out of Amsterdam. She says she has no valuables.

But Riphagen finds a packet of diamonds hidden in her hair. He promises to return all of her jewels and diamonds after the war. He will need to take about 10 of the diamonds to satisfy the Germans who think that he is indeed working for them.

He tells this woman and other Jews that he is working with the Dutch Resistance and he can get them safely out of Amsterdam.

So, we are faced with this question: Is Riphagen a hero, or is he a traitor to his fellow Dutch people. Said another way is Riphagen an Oscar Schindler or is he something else?

This film was originally a three-part tv mini-series. Netflix thought that these three parts could be merged and made into a film. So you can see it with a Netflix streaming account.

I watched this film for the premise seemed intriguing. I’ve been to Amsterdam, and loved the place; so seeing it again was an idea I couldn’t resist. Of course Amsterdam in 1944 would not be the same as the Amsterdam where I spent some time in 2015.

Obviously, the Amsterdam in the film is not the one I remember from a year and half ago. In fact I watched for about 45 minutes before seeing even a hint of a canal. Maybe that is because a good portion of the film was shot in the Dutch city Utrecht which has an older and more historical look to it whereas Amsterdam has a much more modern look. Having said that, I can state that the topic of the film is a familiar topic – The Holocaust – albeit this story is told from a different angle and from a different perspective.

I must say that Jeroen van Koningsbrugge about whom you might say appears in this film as a version of the 70″s and 80’s actor Telly Savalas in appearance, gives a more than credible performance as the anti-Schindler.

As for the rest of the cast, I knew none of them, but found most them excellent with one exception – the character of Wim Sanders as played by Michel Sluysmans.

The two-hour plus film has a good crisp look to it. There’s not a preponderance of night scenes, or rain-drenched, or foggy scenes either.

The costume designer has done a wonderful job in recreating both the men and women suits and dresses of the time.

Also for the record, the automobiles used gave the definite sense of Europe in the 40’s as we saw both German and French cars.

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Copenhagen Cops – The Department Q Trilogy

So over the long Thanksgiving weekend, I think we had just one day when the Mouth that Roared (DJT) was thankfully silent. Taking advantage of that fact, I concentrated my efforts at watching a scruffy detective out of Copenhagen, Denmark, and his partner, solve three cases.

The series which I watched on the Netflix streaming service, is actually three two-hour films. Collectively the series is called Department Q – Trilogy. But the reality is that these films were produced in 2013, 2014, and the most recent in 2016.

The first is called The Keeper of Lost Causes (in Danish Kvinden i buret). Detective Carl Mørk is just back from an extended leave. He had been recuperating from something. Mørk is a smart, even a brilliant cop, but not one given to either following orders, or being a team player. His vices include being a heavy smoker and a drinker. He’s unkempt, and that’s being generous or kind.

He doesn’t shave (or likely bathe) very often and to say that the complete package of Homicide Detective Carl Mørk is distinctly an unpleasant person seems more than apt.

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Anyway, he and his partner are on a stake out when they determine that their suspect is in the building in front of them. They are ordered to hold their positions and wait for back-up to arrive. But Mørk, played by Nikolaj Lie Kaas, isn’t about to sit there waiting. Against the orders issued and his partner’s reservations, they enter the building.

Shots are fired, and the partner is shot resulting in a serious wound. He lives but he may never walk again.

Mørk’s superiors are not happy. Not only did Mørk disobey direct orders, but now, no one is willing to work with him. So he’s removed from the Homicide Division. They demote him down to Department Q, a previously non-existent department. His task is to go through twenty years of  unsolved cold cases. In short, he’s been sent to the ‘Siberia’ of police posts anywhere in the world. Cold cases barely registers above evidence locker in most police departments. Solving the cases is not what the brass wanted. They wanted Mørk and company to simply clear the cases. The task is to close three cases a week with a written report.  In short make no waves.

Mørk is assigned a partner, a detective named Assad, played by Fares Fares, who you may have seen in Safe House, Zero Dark Thirty, and will soon be seen in the upcoming Star Wars film – Rogue One. While Mørk considers that he has been both demoted and tossed aside, Assad sees it as a promotion because he had been stamping paperwork at the train depot. Assad is a Muslim and has no personal life to speak of. He eats at the same diner every day of the week.

So to finish the set up – The Keeper of Lost Causes is about a politician who disappeared after boarding a ferry. They, the detectives who handled the original investigation have called it a suicide. But Mørk is not convinced. Check out the trailer for The Keeper of Lost Causes:

The second film is called The Absent One (in Danish – Fasandræberne). This one is about some murders in an exclusive and expensive private school. The belief is that a certain student witnessed a pair of murders of some students at this school. There’s another school of thought that this ‘witness’ also took part in these killings. By the way, this female student apparently has been missing since 1994. Seems like another lost cause doesn’t it?

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Allied

Allied is a term you don’t hear very often these days. While there are plenty of allies, or alliances, it is quite likely that when you hear the term ‘allied’ you will most likely think of a moving van company, or your thoughts will stray back to the WWII era.

Which is exactly where director Robert Zemeckis and screenplay author Stephen Knight have taken us in the brand new film Allied. The film has Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard as the leads. Pitt plays a Canadian called Max Vatan who is on loan to the British Royal Air Force, and Cotillard is a Frenchwoman called Marianne Beauséjour, who is in the French Resistance to be accurate.

We find both of them in Casablanca. Morocco, a then French colony under the control of the occupying Germans. It is 1942. Pitt, as Vatan,

parachutes in, landing in the desert, while Cotillard, is already up and running, as a smart and desirable member of the Casablanca high society. Which said another way means that she is hobnobbing with the German High Command in Morocco.

Vatan is picked up on a road that leads back to Casablanca. He’s given a suitcase which is filled with all the requisites – you know – passport, Letters of transit, cash, and of course weapons. His driver gives Vatan the intel just as he’s about to be dropped off at the tres chic nightclub, called The Rivoli,  in Casablanca.  Your wife will be in a purple dress. Look for the hummingbird.

And there she is. You can see the hummingbird’s wing at the bottom of the photo above. This is exactly what Vatan saw. Max is going to be passed off as Marianne’s husband who after many months in Paris is now able to join his wife in Casablanca.

So the tale is now in motion. There’s some concerns about Vatan’s French accent, (in the film he’s Canadian after all, but his ‘wife’ thinks he sounds like he’s from Quebec rather than Paris) and some other hurdles will come their way – but hopefully, they will be able to complete their assignment which is to assassinate the German ambassador.

Now that seems a fine set up for the movie. But the problem is that this part is only the first half of the movie. There’s a second half and almost all of that takes place in London and the some suburbs called Hampstead and Hampstead Heath.

While the first half is about the mission it is also about Pitt and Cotillard’s characters a) getting to know one another, 2) getting to care for each other, and 3) falling in love. It’s near perfection. Every box has been checked and every mark was hit. Exotic location = Yes. Spies and espionage – Yes. Action – Of course. And the love-story part.

Pitt and Cotillard get to wear the most beautiful clothes imaginable. Pitt? You’d never know he is 50 in real years. In the film he doesn’t look a day over 38.  I’ve been a fan of Cotillard for some time, and in this film they certainly didn’t skimp on her costumes. Breathtaking is a word that comes to mind.

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Snowden

Snowden is the latest from classic film director Oliver Stone. Yes, it is kind of a biographical character study of Mr. Snowden. But it is also a thriller of sorts, and a romance, and … a film that poses the questions about whether or not Snowden is a heroic whistle-blower or a traitor.

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Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden and Shaileen Woodley as his g/f Lindsay Mills, the film opens in a room in the Mira Hotel on Nathan Road in Kowloon, Hong Kong.

Present are documentary film maker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), the Scottish journalist Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), and the American Journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), along with Mr. Snowden. He’s about to turn over the files he had in his possession which detailed how the US Government was using sophisticated technology to keep an eye on its own citizens.

In short, this hardware and the programs written for it enabled the US to monitor every cell phone in the world.

But it is at that point that film give us a flashback to a far younger Edward Snowden.

This time he’s a member of a squadron of Special Forces trainees in boot camp. A slightly built man, we learn that the stress of carrying 80 pounds of gear was a bit too much for Snowden’s legs.

The doctor shows him the x-rays and tells him, it appears that you have been going through the drills with stress fractures in both legs for at least a couple of weeks.

The doctor is going to discharge Snowden from the active military. He tells him, you will have to find another way to serve your country.

Which leads Snowden to apply for a job at the CIA. This is where he meets Corbin O’Brian who will become his mentor. O’Brian is played by Rhys Ifans, who comes close to stealing the film away from Gordon-Levitt and Woodley.

I hadn’t seen much of Ifans. I think the only two films I saw him in were Notting Hill in 1999 and The Replacements in 2000. In both of those, Ifans came off as a somewhat, if not downright, goofy character. Here, he’s altogether different. This time out he plays like a younger Max Von Sydow. And he’s very good.

So much for our introduction. Snowden’s career in the intelligence industry has just begun. We are going to follow Snowden as he meets Lindsay Mills, then takes on posts as an intelligence contractor to locations like Geneva, Tokyo, and Oahu in Hawaii.

The film follows Snowden’s career from posting to posting. As a contractor he’s doing very well financially. He has a relationship with a fine woman, and yet – he’s not happy. His job involves long hours as well as travel and he can’t tell Lindsay anything of what he’s done, doing, or working on. It eats away at him.

And this is Oliver Stone’s main point.  His set up is that Snowden did not just blow the whistle for the sake of blowing the whistle. Yes, there came a point when he could no long reconcile to himself, that his specific work had nothing to do with events that happened, not only within the US but across the world as well.

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Hands of Stone

While I’m not a huge fan of boxing, I have seen and liked more than a few boxing movies. Starting with Paul Newman as Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me, to Sylvester Stallone as Rocky, to Will Smith as Ali, and to Robert De Niro‘s great performance as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull – I’ve been there.

The newest film (or bio) about a boxer is called Hands of Stone. The film stars Edgar Ramirez as Roberto Duran and co-stars Robert De Niro as the legendary boxing trainer Ray Arcel. Usher Raymond plays Sugar Ray Leonard. Ruben Blades plays Duran’s manager Carlos Eleta.

Ellen Barkin plays Stephanie Arcel, Jon Turturro plays the mobster Frankie Carbo. And to round out the major players, Ana de Armas plays Duran’s wife Felicidad Iglesias Duran.

Also present are Howard Cosell, Don King played by Reg E. Cathey, and Ray Charles. Not in person but via actors representing them. Other figures from the world of boxing represented included Angelo Dundee, Gil Clancey, Ken Buchanan, Davey Moore, John Condon, and Bob Arum.

That’s quite a lengthy list of roles for this film. And therein lies the problem with Hands Of Stone. I think that by choosing the all-encompassing story of Duran who grew up in the rough and tumble slums of El Chorillo, a neighborhood of Panama City, we have too much to digest, there’s too many characters, and the story suffers for this approach. Not from bloat, mind you, the film runs only 111 minutes, but from its lack of focus.

Simply and additionally, Duran doesn’t come off as heroic, or for that matter even charismatic. When you talk about Ali, you always start with charismatic. And Rocky was the underdog hero, as was Graziano. De Niro who wowed us as the brooding and dramatic Jake LaMotta – was a guy that you could care about, as well as root for.

But we don’t get there with the fierce Edgar Ramirez as Duran. He got to a point where he was able to enjoy the fruits of boxing career. In effect, after defeating Sugar Ray Leonard by a unanimous decision in Montreal on June 20th, 1980 – he was on the top of the boxing world. Going into the fight, Duran’s record was 48-1 with 41 knockouts. The fight would be sold, hyped, and remembered as The Brawl in Montreal.

The film then moves to a quickly arranged, by Carlos Eleta, rematch with Leonard. It would be an 8 million dollar purse for Duran. But Roberto had partied and played too much. To fight Leonard again, Duran would have to lose about 35 pounds in just 3 months.

Arcel said it couldn’t be done, plus if the weight did come off, Duran would be seriously weakened. Arcel urged Eleta to cancel the fight. But Eleta had not only put Duran into a sweat box to make the weight, he had put himself in a different kind of box. Don King would sue for breach of contract if the fight didn’t go off.

So the fight went on, and if you were around at that time you know the outcome. Duran hadn’t the endurance to chase Leonard around the ring, nor had he the punching power to take Leonard off his feet and out. So in mid-fight – Duran quit.

No Mas was what was reported at the time, meaning No more, but the film takes great pains to report that Duran never uttered those words in the ring. Basically that’s the film.

I found other things that I didn’t care for as well, that’s being besides the overfilled story, and the lack of charisma by the actor playing Duran. While Ramirez was fine, Duran was an uneducated street kid from El Chorillo. He couldn’t read, and he was crude in many ways. He really couldn’t be labeled either heroic or charismatic. So to expect more from the actor was more wishful thinking than anything else.

The boxing action in the film was badly edited. We’d see arms in motion and then hear the thuds of the punches, but the camera was always panning out of the ring to pick up Arcel’s reactions and instructions. Or we left the venue to watch people watching the fight on TV screens. Or we would get a glimpse of the boxer’s wives reacting. In short the fight sequences lacked impact.

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Florence Foster Jenkins

Today I received an indirect request to review the new Stephen Frears directed film, Florence Foster Jenkins, a bio-film (sort of) starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, and Simon Helberg (of The Big Bang Theory fame).

The request came in a post called Writer’s Block Ruminations. Marty is the author of the post and his blog is called Snakes in the Grass. He’s not talking about folks you can’t trust, rather his blog title is an all too true reference to the fact that in Florida you literally have to watch where you walk, because, for certain, you are going to run into actual snakes, who as we all know appreciate the hot weather in Florida and they don’t mind slithering along, or crossing the sidewalks that we humans use on their way somewhere.

Anyway – ask ye shall receive. I fired up my car and hit the highway which would be I-95 (Exit 109 – Port Wentworth, GA). I was headed to Hilton Head Island where I would see Streep and friends in an 11:30 AM screening at the Park Plaza Cinema, a small movie house but one that is equipped with the latest in equipment to play the new digital age movies and with deluxe leather reclining chairs.  It was an uneventful 50 minute drive, and there was no line for tickets.

I had seen the trailer for Florence Foster Jenkins and so I knew the bare bones of the story. A well-off society woman  was a New York heiress who dreamed of becoming an opera singer, despite having a terrible singing voice. And that blurb was even kinder than the one we got on the actual movie poster – The Inspiring Story of the World’s Worst Singer.

I’m not sure why, but my expectations were that FFJ would fall somewhere between  the classic anarchism of The Marx Brothers (A Night at the Opera) and  the social relevance of one or more of Preston Sturges‘s snappy and smart films like Meet John Doe or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

But Frears and his screenwriter Nicholas Martin took the high ground and the safe ground. The laughs did not come often because Grant and Streep played their characters realistically rather than in a stylized manner. The laughter would come from just two sources.

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Helberg played Cosmé McMoon, an up and coming pianist who, for the stately sum of $150 dollars a week – almost a princely sum in 1944 – was hired on as Jenkins’ piano accompanist.

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When he first sat down and worked the black and white piano keys, as Florence sang – a look of horror crossed his face which was then overtaken by a look of disbelief. Thinking he had signed on with a professional and accomplished singer, the thought that occurred to him right then was this – am I sabotaging my future as a musician by working with FFJ?  This would persist throughout the film.

The other was FFJ’s voice coach – one Carlo Edwards played by a terrific David Haig. He would be so effusive and positive when commenting on Florence’s vocalizations. That was the best yet, or you’ve never been better were decidedly non-complimentary compliments. But he was lying through his teeth. Which everyone in the room could see, and ditto for those of us seated in theater. Only Florence took his words as being sincere.

As a vocal coach for the Metropolitan Opera, Edwards definitely knew his business. But as he too had been hired by Jenkins’s husband, St. Clair Bayfield played by Hugh Grant, all Edwards could do was to follow Bayfield’s lead.  Bayfield never ever was anything but loving and supportive of his wife’s dreams and desires.

As she said, Music was and is my life. And after her gala one-night-only performance at Carnegie Hall, FFJ would say – People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.

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Café Society

Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer.

That’s a quote spoken by Bobby Dorfman, the central character (played by Jesse Eisenberg) in the new Woody Allen film Café Society. And in my opinion, that was the best line of the whole film. And it could only have been written by Woody.

Café Society is not really about society, be it the Hollywood film industry crowd – where the whole town runs on ego, or the Manhattan high society that is home to the swells decked out in black ties with their trophy wives or the gangster’s molls awash in jewels and furs. Yes, these are the folks that do all the night club trotting, and champagne swilling, that enables them to be called rich.

In reality, Cafe Society  is a three-cornered love story with the ‘society’ continually flitting into the film, or showing up in the margins, in one scene after another.

There’s more of the Hollywood name dropping than you can imagine. Adolph Menjou nearly walked off the set. I’m working on a big deal for Irene Dunne. This is where Joan Crawford lives, and on and on.

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I’m Bobby, says the eager Bobby Dorfman, finally gaining access into his uncle’s grand office. That is after his uncle had avoided him for a number of weeks.

Said another way, this is just Woody being Woody. When the young protagonist, Bobby Dorfman, out of the Bronx, finally gets some footing in the Hollywood Hills – he’s hired by his Uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell).

Phil is a leading Hollywood mover and shaker, and king of the agent biz across town, and a philanderer. Bobby will be a glorified go-fer (agent to be) and a guest du jour at the various brunches, power lunches, and dinner soirees that Phil will either be hosting, or acting like a king in his court but on foreign turf. You just know that going in, that this sojourn in Bobby’s life can be expected to end badly for him, especially after he says, I’m not used to drinking champagne with my bagels and lox.

When he leaves La-la land, after the romance of his life (with Vonnie played by Kristen Stewart) crashes and burns, it seems that young Dorfman is just the on-screen presence (read that as a stand-in for Woody ) who returns to New York. Woody Allen has never been a big-fan of Hollywood. And Hollywood has never been an ardent admirer of Woody either. If he said as much before, he’s saying it again.

Speaking of which, much of this movie seems like so many of Woody’s recycled plot lines. Nothing new, just more of the same. Then again, Mr. Allen is 80 years of age, and although he has managed to maintain his one film a year output, many are saying that some of it seems a bit tired, or rushed, or incomplete.

Now this is not to say that Cafe Society does not have wonderful moments. Not at all. I think Allen loves the nostalgic look of Hollywood in the thirties’. Or Manhattan. Stuff that he missed while growing up in the Midwood section of Brooklyn.

In fact the costumes, the cars, the clothes and the sets are just wonderful to see. One can only imagine the work that went into getting the details so right. Like Phil Stern’s office. Like the movie theater where Bobby and Vonnie took in a film. Or the homes high up in the Hollywood hills.

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Jason Bourne (2016)

The long-awaited and much-anticipated returns of both Matt Damon and Director Paul Greengrass to the Bourne brand of action films has happened. It’s been nine years since The Bourne Ultimatum’s successful release. So many of us were really primed for this new film

While the box office returns are so far excellent (an estimated 60 million for the opening weekend), there’s both good news and bad news. This new entry is called simply – Jason Bourne. and the one factor that has served the Bourne franchise so well over the years, is that they have a successful formula. That’s the good news as the box office returns have shown us.

Car chases, deadly hand to hand combat, exciting locales, as well corruption and intrigue within the government.

Jason Bourne (this is the 5th Bourne feature and the 4th with Matt Damon) clings almost religiously to that formula. In short, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And that’s also the bad news. Let’s look at some of the particulars.

After Bourne jumped into the East River from the facility on E 71st and then swam away, and after Parsons boarded a bus to somewhere out of Tangiers, Morocco in The Bourne Ultimatum – one would have thought that they’d have trouble reconnecting. But they did. Albeit nine years later.

Nicky who was in charge of logistics and the agents well-being is now capable of hacking. And how she found Bourne is not explained any kind of depth.

As for Bourne himself, these days he supports himself in a Fight Club kind of atmosphere and the his latest match is near the border between Greece and Albania.

Nicky tell Bourne that his own father was somehow involved with creation of Treadstone. And as expected Parson’s intrusion (hack) was detected. So off we go.

From this jumping off point it is another Bourne film which means Greengrass stuck to the formula. The film works quite well as an action/adventure. And by sticking to the formula, there were no surprises. As well as a distinct sense of this all seems so familiar. Including the shaky-cam aspects.

In Supremacy at the location known as Alexanderplatz, with its student protest march in Berlin became Syntagma Square in Athens where Greek citizens protesting,  often violently, the new Greek program of austerity. In each case, Bourne used the crowds as cover to make an escape. Below he has just taken Nicky off the tram at Alexanderplatz.

How about Bourne riding a motorcycle up and down steps in Tangier becoming Bourne riding up and down steps in Athens on a Greek police motorbike..

Or An unbelievable motor chase that we saw on the streets of Paris (Identity) and then in a tunnel Moscow (Supremacy) becoming a parking garage in Las Vegas.

Tommy Lee Jones has replaced David Strathairn who replaced Brian Cox as the sharp end of the stick. Jones was kind of subdued here, yet he retains all his gruffness and craggy visage, that we’ve come to love over the years.

And Alicia Vikander has replaced Joan Allen as the Bourne antagonist/supporter. Alicia Vikander may been cast in this key role just as a marketing ploy to attract some younger female viewers, and although she wasn’t bad, she didn’t look old enough, or seasoned enough to be running a CIA Operational Control Room like Joan Allen’s Pamela Landy.

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