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Oscar Quest 2019: “The Favourite”

The Favourite!

The producers guarantee no one in the audience shall be snoring during the final minutes of this motion picture.

It’s that time again! Longtime MCC readers know this time of year is my annual Oscar Quest, during which I venture out to see all Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, regardless of whether I think I’ll like them or not, whether their politics and beliefs agree with mine or not, whether they’re good or bad for me, and whether or not my friends and family have ever heard of them. I’ve seen every Best Picture nominee from 1997 to the present, and look forward to pushing that statistic even farther back into cinematic history if only some kindly studio or lawyers would rescue Mike Leigh’s 1996 improv drama Secrets & Lies from its peculiar, long-standing Region 1 banishment. To this day it’s not available on a single streaming service, not even Amazon Prime. Seriously, I have been aggravated about this for nearly twenty years. CRITERION, I AM BEGGING YOU, PLEASE HELP IT AND ME IN THAT ORDER. Netflix? Kanopy? TCM? Anyone?

Ahem. Sigh. Anyway.

First in line is Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, a film that checks off two squares on the 21st-century Best Picture Nominee bingo card: “British history” and “sexy-time nudity”, though not as much of the latter as I’d expected and yet more than I ask for in any given film, which is none.

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“The Bourne Legacy”: 2½ Hours of Jeremy Renner Having the Time of His Life

Tonight’s entertainment was a discount showing of The Bourne Legacy, in which Academy Award Nominee Jeremy Renner enjoys the perks of action heroism without looking like a plasticine sellout. That’s all I wanted, and I’m happy that my expectations were cheerfully met. I was willing to let most of the deficiencies slide.

To understand my mindset, head directly the $5 DVD bin at your nearest Wal*Mart and pick up a copy of 2003’s S.W.A.T., which was chiefly a loud mash-up of the incongruous stylings of Samuel L. Jackson and Colin Farrell. When I watched it years ago, I couldn’t help noticing the showy bad-cop with all the best lines, played by a confident young guy who seemed to be enjoying himself a lot more than the marquee names were. Not long after, I caught him during my Angel DVD marathon in a season-one role as a gleefully evil vampire — once again, cockier and smiling a lot more than his opponent. After back-to-back favorable experience,s I made a mental note to keep an eye out for young Renner in the future.

Fast-forward years later: now his resumé includes The Avengers, The Hurt Locker, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol — all grade-A films in my book, all this close to making Renner a household name. Also of interest: last November Entertainment Weekly published a lengthy article about him that detailed his lean years as a struggling actor living a life far from luxury while chasing his dreams. That struck a chord with me, and only served to upgrade my mental note into a full-fledged set of index cards. In the filing cabinet that is my mind, that’s a kind of praise.

Renner finally worked his way up to carrying a big-budget action film on his own (instead of as a sidekick or teammate) with The Bourne Legacy, in which his character is torn between a government that needs him dead and a skeptical audience that’s 95% certain he’s not Matt Damon. I liked the original trilogy, but not nearly enough to consider it sacrosanct. The same screenwriter, Tony Gilroy, is now in the director’s chair adapting his own words for the screen, and he even allows cameos from previous players David Strathairn, Joan Allen, and Scott Glenn. We still have the specter of the evil government programs named Treadstone and Blackbriar, begging to be joined by other new evil programs with ten-letter compound names like “Thumbscrew” or “Riverdance”. It’s in the same timeline as the trilogy, no reboot or disregard for what came before. (Granted, I have no idea how hardcore Robert Ludlum fans feel about what amounts to an apocryphal spinoff…)

I wasn’t really concerned with whether or not it lived up to its predecessors. I harbored no delusion that it would be groundbreaking. I entered in hopes of seeing a guy who used to live on ramen noodles and unpaid light bills enjoy the fruits of a turnaround of fate. As the last survivor of a black-ops Super-Soldier Program made possible by the sinister forces of Big Pharmaceutical, Renner finds plenty of quiet moments for emotion and sincerity in between the running, chasing, punching, kicking, parkour, motorcycle stunts, and smash-cam closeups. His earnestness and lack of Hollywood sheen go a long way toward redeeming a role that, in the shallow end of the ’80s, would have been relegated to any number of direct-to-video martial-arts “stars”.

Also worth noting is Rachel Weisz as the requisite damsel in distress, trying on an American accent for a change, carefully modulating her fearfulness instead of aiming for full-tilt histrionics like others might in her place, and standing her ground as needed with her fully accredited science skills. Edward Norton stands out a tad as the evil overseer with the best-written lines (particularly his discomfiting description of the evil Program as “morally indefensible and absolutely necessary”). I spent the entire movie thinking Stacy Keach was Albert Finney as Evil Overseer #2, so I guess that’s a job well done. And after having coincidentally watched *batteries not included the other night, I was shocked to see that Dennis Boutsikaris, as the constantly upset Evil Overseer #3, has indeed aged a full twenty-five years over the last twenty-five years. Shocking but true.

I had to focus on the performances because the rest of the movie was a mixed bag. The “plot” is Our Heroes enduring one long chase scene while all the best villains hide in a faraway room. All armed henchmen working outside the main control room are one-note, including one Super-Duper-Soldier with no lines and no demonstrable evidence as to why his even-eviler Evil Program was superior to Our Hero’s. The climactic auto-wrecking dance is shot with such a claustrophobic eye that I lost all sense of setting and placement, and thought I was trapped on a merry-go-round. And the movie pauses all that chasing instead of actually ending, as if everyone involved simply stopped and called a truce so they could move on to their next projects.

But for my money’s worth, I achieved my goal of watching Renner hang out with interesting people in exotic locales while stunts are performed and entertainment is adequately concocted for my discounted dollar. Hopefully we won’t have to watch the sad sight of Renner selling out altogether in future years and demanding ten times his salary for an extra-bloated sequel called The Bourne Travesty.

Three final notes, in keeping with past movie entries:

1. The Bourne Legacy has no scene after the end credits. Once again for the true fans, the credits do roll to a reprise of the official Bourne theme, Moby’s “Extreme Ways”.

2. In terms of content, mostly it’s about the smashing and exploding, with very few curse words added so we know it’s still a Hollywood film. For those with the sensibilities of a great-great-grandmother, the end credits include a warning label about the scenes of smoking (*gasp!*) being “an artistic choice” rather than paid product placement. If that makes or breaks the deal for you, consider yourself warned.

3. I counted one veteran of The Wire onscreen: blink and you’ll miss Christopher Mann — a.k.a. one-time mayoral candidate Tony Gray — as a panicky guard desperately failing to smash his way through a locked door. Poor Tony just can’t catch a break.

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