Sunday, December 30, 2007
Black Ops and Dark Arts
Strange that while I may have seen more movies than ever at the theater this year, I'm still catching up with all the summer blockbusters I made a wide right turn in avoiding. Last night's DVD double-feature began with The Bourne Ultimatum, the third in the only American action-movie franchise still worth sticking with. This is largely due to the fact that the series has thus-far been adventurous with its choices of directors -- Doug Liman for the first film and Paul Greengrass for the last two. Greengrass's style is divisive, to say the least, but I'm in the David Denby/Owen Gleiberman camp of admiration. As both have pointed out, Greengrass's camera isn't jittery just for the sake of offering jitters, but to place you inside Bourne's rattled frame of mind, while simultaneously, in the action set-pieces, enabling you to see everything you need to see. It's always fun watching an innovative filmmaker find new ways to stage a cliche, and Greengrass pumps some adrenaline into a pair of golden oldies: the train-station rendezvous and the rooftop chase.
It's also high time I give Matt Damon props. For some reason I'm always inclined to dismiss him as a blank slate, and he turns in good, nuanced work in almost every film, whether the cagey mobster mole in The Departed, or the only cast member still trying to give a damn in the Ocean's smug-celebrity debacles. Damon continues to breathe some humanity into his increasingly preposterous character -- The Terminator with a pulse -- and for a storyline about amnesia the movie makes a point of remembering past characters and events. Damon conveys a palpable sense of loss for Franka Potente's character, killed in the previous film. And Greengrass finds a ingenious way of restaging the coda in Bourne Supremacy, a phone conversation between Damon and Joan Allen, so that it takes on a completely new meaning.
Other elements Greengrass can't quite transcend or doesn't seem to know what to do with. There are only so many ways to stage scenes of underlings staring at computer screens while their superior (David Strathairn, who does a nice slow burn but is capable of better things) barks orders and whips himself into an impotent rage. And for a moment Greengrass threatens to do something interesting with Julia Stiles (it hasn't happened yet), in a scene where she cuts her hair and dyes it black, resembling Potente, but nothing comes of her transformation. The payoff is also a letdown: following a rehash of Supremacy's big car pile-up, with Bourne emerging with only dust and bruises, he returns to the place that made him a killer and discovers....that it's the place that made him a killer. Most of The Bourne Ultimatum is so skillfully made it deserves a more compelling denouement. If you're going to cast Albert Finney, give him something to do besides serving as Exposition Man; he'd have made a better Dumbledore than the boilerplate CIA honcho he plays here.
With that smooth segue, let us turn to my thoughts as the last person to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Because none of the four previous films in the series worked for me (I include in that statement the overrated Prisoner of Azkaban, overauteured by Alfonso Cuaron), I may be damning the fifth with faint praise, but I think it's the best so far. Behind the camera this time is David Yates, a director I'd never heard of before, but the man whose credits include Sex Traffic and The Girl in the Cafe finds more subtle ways of depicting his teen protagonist's hormone-fueled frustrations than Rowling, who took up a hefty chunk of her novel with Harry SCREAMING AT PEOPLE IN BIG BLOCK LETTERS!
FORTUNATELY, THE MO -- er, fortunately, the movie focuses Harry's rage almost exclusively at Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton, yet another Mike Leigh alum to join the cast), the pink-clad, smiley-faced fascist who attempts to take over Hogwarts on behalf of the Ministry. With Voldemort on the sidelines once again, she's an effective adversary (straight out of Rowling, of course, but well before that Roald Dahl). The rest of the cast makes the most of their usual two or three scenes apiece, though I'll add that Helena Bonham Carter -- between the plastic surgery and marriage to Tim Burton -- could not be better cast as Bellatrix Lestrange and try not to think too much of it.
With the familiar touchstones onscreen, Yates brought in a brand new crew to add some juice behind the scenes. Scaling down the Michener-sized text is a tight script by Michael Goldenberg (giving us a break from Mr. Connect-the-Dots Steve Kloves); the crisp editing, making particularly good use of newspaper montages, is by Mark Day; the alternately bright-and-foreboding atmosphere of Hogwarts has never been evoked better than by the new DP, Slawomir Idziak (who shot Black Hawk Down); the understated score comes from Nicholas Hooper (though, admittedly, I do like John Williams' main theme). Yet for all that, with only two more films to go, there's something still missing from the Harry Potter saga. Yates, who is slated to helm The Half-Blood Prince, has style to burn. (God only knows who will direct The Deathly Hallows: Chris Columbus? Paul Greengrass? Mike Leigh?) It's in scenes like the climax of this film, which makes sense of much chaos but still feels unsatisfying, where I'm not sure if he has enough passion for the story. Cuaron is so far the only director to bring the passion; but he also brought the Jamaican talking heads. So, you know, it's a tough trade-off.