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Everybody Loves Jason: Why Even Contrarians Like The Bourne Trilogy

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By R. Emmet Sweeney

IFC News

[Photo: “The Bourne Ultimatum,” Universal Pictures, 2007]

Matt Damon’s furrowed brow is saving Hollywood. Gracing each of the three insanely popular “Bourne” films, Damon’s agitated wrinkles have implacably faced down an army of psychotic CIA stooges without so much as a sweat, and brought in nearly a billion dollars in box office globally. But the most surprising part of the trilogy’s world domination is its critical reception. “The Bourne Identity,” the first in the franchise, received grudging respect, but the recent “Ultimatum” is being said to “advance[s] the art of action filmmaking and will change it forever” — a quote not from an overheated fanboy after a press screening, but rather from Anne Thompson, the reliably insightful columnist for Variety.

And it’s not only Thompson who’s contracted “Bourne” fever. It’s also the hardcore cinephiles who vote on the Village Voice year-end film poll. “Ultimatum” placed 25th on the list, beating out critical darlings like “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” and “Sweeney Todd.” No other Hollywood blockbuster was even close — “The Bourne Ultimatum” probably outgrossed the rest of the list single-handedly. It’s also achieved a mainstream cult — enough so that the IFC Center is showing the complete trilogy during its January Midnight series. How has “Bourne” become the only gargantuan Hollywood franchise that’s impressed both mainstream and alternative presses (along with contrarian, smug bastards like myself)?

Most of the recent chatter about the series has focused on director Paul Greengrass’s controversial rapid fire editing techniques, but I think much of the film’s success has to do with Doug Liman’s original conception of the series (along with that aforementioned brow of Damon’s). Liman, director of the first “Bourne” and executive producer of all three, had just come off the successes of helming “Swingers” and “Go” and was given free reign on his next project. He chose “Bourne,” wanting to make a different kind of action film, one with a relatively modest budget of $60 million and a different conception of screen combat. In talking to the BBC about the martial arts used in the film, Liman said, “It is ridiculously efficient. You don’t break a sweat or expend any energy, you use your opponents energy against him. And we thought — that’s Jason Bourne, that’s how he’ll do everything in this movie. He’ll figure out the simplest, least energetic, most efficient way to get something done.”

All three “Bournes” have this emphasis on process, on Damon solving a series of puzzles as quickly and effortlessly as possible. It drops heroism in favor of a robotic rationality and a feel for the traumas of real physical violence. Jason Bourne, an amnesiac, cannot express himself through speech, so he does so through action — you can almost read his mind’s calculations through every blunt force gesture. Such attention to physical detail was a breath of fresh air in the action genre, which had veered closer to the self-parodic cartoonishness of the “Mission: Impossible” films. And since most critics came of cinematic age in the ’70s, the throwback grittiness of the series gave them ample space for the William Friedkin comparisons they love so well. Toss in some vague political commentary about civil liberties, which became groaningly obvious in “Ultimatum,” and there was more than enough to fill up a generous word count.

When Greengrass took over the series with the second entry, “The Bourne Supremacy,” he retained the general concept of action as puzzle solving, but elided much more visual information by cutting shots to shreds. While Liman’s “Identity” moved fast, it’s nothing in comparison to the latter two. David Bordwell, the prominent Wisconsin film professor, has measured the seconds per shot of the trilogy, and “Identity”‘s seems downright slow at three, while “Ultimatum” runs at a faster clip of two seconds per shot. But as Bordwell argues on his blog, it’s not the relative quickness of the shots that has bothered people — it’s the shots’ “spasmodic” quality. Greengrass’ editing style cut gestures and camera movements short, keeping viewers constantly on edge, always wondering what lies behind the next cut — but what it sacrifices is a coherent articulation of the geography of Bourne’s world. This isn’t to deny the thrills to be had at “The Bourne Ultimatum” (the parking garage smashup is a technical marvel), but it pushes this editing strategy to an extreme that drains the film of the power of its original conception. Bourne was a character who expressed himself through the economy of his actions. Now, what we see are abstracted shards of movement that are more interested in forward motion than character.

If, as Anne Thompson says, that this is the future of action films, it’ll be an exhausting ride with diminishing returns. But what marks the “Bourne” franchise out is its ability to garner this kind of controversy — one actually about a film’s style, a conversation that is so rare in modern film criticism but so necessary. While I think Liman’s “The Bourne Identity” was the more rewarding, there’s no denying that all three are films worth grappling with — and their influence will be felt for years to come, especially in the next cycle of “Bourne”-ian Bond flicks.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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