The Bourne Ultimatum

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Paul Greengrass
viewed: 08/29/07 at AMC Van Ness 14, SF, CA

Part three of the Bourne franchise, The Bourne Ultimatum, has been getting a lot of good reviews and good word of mouth.  I liked the first one, director Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity (2002) quite well at the time that I saw it.  And I liked The Bourne Supremacy (2004), director Paul Greengrass’s first pass at the series, when I saw it (which was apparently while I was not updating the Film Diary.  I thought that the second one was pretty solid, but also somewhat forgettable.  Greengrass has been getting a lot of critical attention lately, stemming from these two Bourne films, and his film United 93 (2006) about the crashed airplane of September 11, 2001, which I think, like many people, that this was a likely born disaster of heart-swelling patriotism or something.  Now, I’ll probably feel obligated to see it.  Anyways, Greengrass gets a lot of praise.

The praise is worthwhile.  The Bourne Ultimatum, the last of the series(?), is a solid flick.  Matt Damon’s performance in these films has actually made me begrudgingly appreciate him.  This is a series of films that would actually stand well to watch in a row.  I was always struck by the opening shot of The Bourne Identity, the body floating in the sea, shot from below.  That image is recreated in the ending of this film, a nice echo of the first, and a good way to tie them together and add cohesion to a narrative that actually does develop through the films and stories unlike so many trilogies or series of stories.

Bourne suffers from amnesia, and finds that he is a highly trained killer, created by an arm of the U.S. Government as a super-operative assassin, and his quest for his identity drives him to uncover the dark shadow cabinets that developed a lethal and soulless murderer.  His identity is to reclaim his humanity and to understand why and who he is.  It’s an interesting notion, not overly analyzed by the films, but just inherent to the narrative, the nature of man, the ability to kill without remorse, to act without thinking, to follow orders and be almost an automaton.  It is, in a strong sense, what the military asks of its inductees, part of the function of duty and patriotism.  To follow, obey, and trust the government and not question things.

The film is action-packed and tense throughout, kept on a racing pace by the soundtrack.  I do have to say, though, that I hated the camera-work.  The jostling hand-held camera work that became so popular in the 1990’s adds to the feeling of news camera perspective and keeps the nature of the film constantly moving, even when things slow down.  In some places it’s effective for editing, but others it’s just a mess.  Some of the best action sequences are so harried that they are almost unintelligible.  It actually annoyed me throughout the film.  Quite a bit.

But this is a good flick, a good series, a lean and interesting, intelligent action franchise.  And as good as it is, I hope this is the last film.

Superbad

Superbad (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Greg Mottola
viewed: 08/29/07 at AMC Van Ness 14, SF, CA

Often, I have noted how much of a complete sourpuss I am when it comes to comedies.  I think most are terrible.  Maybe it’s just true, the well-noted adage that “Dying is easy.  Comedy is hard.” (attributed to the actor Sir Donald Wolfitt on his deathbed).  Maybe more people should die before trying to be funny.  Okay, I’m already going too far with this.

My point is that I don’t see most comedies because I think they are awful.  I think their trailers are awful and I just plain don’t cotton to many of them.

That said, I do like comedies that are funny.  And for some reason, when I saw the trailers for Superbad, I found it pretty funny.  When it got good reviews, all the buzz and all, I decided to see it.  This is a rare thing, honestly.  Actually, you can probably prove that out through my viewing history.  I just don’t go for movies like this too often.

Superbad is funny.  I think it’s possibly the funniest film since There’s Something About Mary (1998), which is in many ways an apt comparison point regarding tastelessness and crude humor.  Both of these films rely on crassness for many of their high points of humor, most memorable and big sequences.  The irony is that it’s not the crassness and rough humor that makes it funny.  Both of the movies are funny because they just manage to be funny, the chemistry, timing, jokes, tone, characters, everything is working.  In some ways, the crass stuff is, to my mind, almost a liability.  In the opening twenty minutes or so, I was starting to really wonder if Superbad was going to be funny because the crude rants by the character of Seth (actor Jonah Hill) just made me not like him and not find it funny.  But then it got going and really did get funny.

I feel like a prude saying stuff like that.  But oh well, it’s my genuine opinion.

Superbad comes from a creative team that is very popular right now: producer Judd Apatow and writer/actor Seth Rogan (The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) & Knocked Up (2006)).  The way that the media describes Apatow’s work is that it’s potty-mouthed and crude but with a soft and mushy sentimentality and emotion that connects with the viewer.  And, you know, it’s not all that untrue.  Superbad‘s strengths are more about the relationship of the protagonists, Seth and Evan, the latter played with great timing and delivery by Michael Cera.  I think that the film could have been a lot better playing off their relationship more and worrying less about genitalia and descriptive flourishes about sex.  Seth’s character could have been drawn more deftly and made more sympathetic throughout.

In reality, despite how it may sound from my input thusfar, this movie is really funny and the characters really are the core of what makes it a fun and more interesting film.  Rogan, who co-wrote the script with the real life Evan, Evan Goldberg, adds a very funny performance as one half of the goofy cop partners who want to show that cops can be “cool”.

The movie is most aptly put in the “teen comedy” movie genre and fits alongside of movies like Porky’s (1982), Sixteen Candles (1984) and Can’t Hardly Wait (1998)…there’s millions of them.  The whole point of that is that looking at it from that perspective could be pretty interesting, to look at the changing culture, values, perspectives while staying within this crazy end of school feeling that teens are facing.  Of course, it’s not like these movies are made by teens.  They are made for them.  But still.  People are eating this one up.

And it’s good.  It’s funny.  It just makes me feel like an old prude.

The Last Laugh

The Last Laugh (1924) movie poster

(1924) dir. F. W. Murnau
viewed: 08/28/07

F. W. Murnau, the legendary director of Nosferatu (1922), Faust (1926), and Sunrise (1927), was not only an interesting figure, but one of the true masters of the silent film era.  To be honest, up until this point, Nosferatu was the only film of his that I’d seen.  Noted as one of the peaks of the Expressionist cinema, and unique in its usage of location shooting, natural landscapes, and day-for-night shooting, it’s utterly iconic.  Why it took me this long to get around to seeing another of his film, well, I am regretful.

The Last Laugh is the story of a late middle-aged “hotel porter” who gets demoted, due to his age and assumed inability to keep up his work, to a washroom attendant.  While this doesn’t sound overly dramatic on the surface, it is a killing change for the porter, whose deep pride in his job at the hotel door, his carefully manicured appearance, and his official uniform are part of what makes him a man.  He lives in a working class neighborhood, and his proud demeanor has made him a site of pride for his family and neighbors.  When it’s discovered that he is no longer a porter, but a man who holds towels for rich customers, shines their shoes, and dusts their coats, his shame is made the laughing stock of the Bowery.  And this is where Murnau would have ended it.

In fact, there is an intertitle (the only one in the whole film) that explains that “this is where the story should end, but we gave it a happy ending”, a cynical stab just before the finale.  Because instead of dying, miserable and humiliated, he comes into a fortune by the kind of luck that you only see in movies (a rich man dies in his arms and gives him all of his money).  He is shown partying it up with the people that had been kind to him, laughing jovially, lavishing money on all.  He even takes a trip to the washroom to bond with the washroom attendant.  But, with the intertitle, the whole sequence is played out in its pure falsehood.  The kind of thing that never could really happen.  The happy ending is explicitly trite.

The real stunning things in this film are many.  The cinematography, by the amazing Karl Freund, noted to possibly be the first instances of hand held camera techniques.  The camera moves.  The lens tracks the wonderful Emil Jannings through the houses, hotel rooms, and city streets.  It zooms in on features and faces.  It tracks in on significant shots.  It’s utterly, entirely brilliant.  The standard at the time was a static shot in this period of film.  It’s a revelation!

Beyond the amazing cinematography, star Emil Jannings is also very strong.  He uses his whole figure to speak to the emotional world of the porter, from great gaeity to total depression and humiliation.  And additionally, as I mentioned above, the use of intertitles is almost entirely omitted.  Murnau does use newspaper headlines and a note of termination to explicate certain changes in narrative, but the rest of the film is wordless, told entirely by the action and the movement.  It’s another aspect to the brilliance of this film.

And while the real narrative is a real downer and the happy ending is completely cynical, and you know it, it’s ironically still uplifting to see Jannings relishing his new-found fortune and sharing it with the one man who was kind to him in his degradation.  I guess that speaks to the power of expectation, the connection to character, that one has.  The manipulation of the narrative and the irony of the distancing devices.

Panic in Year Zero!

Panic in Year Zero! (1962) movie poster

(1962) dir. Ray Milland
viewed: 08/26/07

Gotta love a movie with an exclamation point in its title!

Ray Milland directed this nuclear holocaust film, one of a handful of films that he directed.  He’s much more noted as an actor, starring herein as well.  Interestingly enough with Frankie Avalon as his son.  This is a surprisingly good B-movie, intended no doubt as a cautionary tale of the world of survivalism that may face America in a nuclear attack.

The literal nuclear family, Milland, his wife, son, and daughter, climb into the family sedan attached to a camper and drive the climb out of Los Angeles for a camping trip in the Sierras, when with a few flashes of light and a huge mushroom cloud, they realize that civilization as they’ve known it is totally gone.  Well, let’s just say that Milland realizes it, and more quickly than most, becomes a ruthless survivalist, punching out gas station attendants, robbing a decent hardware store owner at gunpoint, when told about the mandatory 1 day waiting period on buying a firearm, and arming his son with shoot-to-kill rights when they are accosted by a gang of adolescents.

That is the meat of the film, in my opinion.  It’s an almost Darwinian take on the nature of society and the lack thereof, while all being deeply embedded in patriarchy.  The women are mostly useless.  They cling to their societal mores about robbing, stealing and killing, while dad and son quickly take up arms and are ready to fight.  In this case, “Father definitely Knows Best”.

There are elements of violence in this film that seem moderately shocking, probably much more so in its day.  A car accident victim is shown, dead with blood all over him, as are another family, wife and husband shot and killed.  The wife is left in a suggestive position, not by any means explicit, but certainly enough to glean what happened to her beyond her killing.  And the daughter is raped, again in a suggestive manner, but it’s pretty clear that this violence has happened.

The fact that the depravity is primarily exemplified by a gang of young thugs is possibly interesting or perhaps less interesting.  The confidence that Milland has that the world will return to normal at some point is a strange aspect of this film’s take on society in crisis, the continuation of shaving, saying prayers at dinner, a code of ethics: “I want you to shoot to kill, but I don’t want you to like it,” advises Milland to Avalon.  The difference between the beast and the survivalist.  The father figure is clear that his most important goal is that his family survives to regain society when the chaos ends.

It’s actually quite an interesting film, in its way.  The filming, on location in the California foothills, adds to its character.  The film is about ideology, it espouses it, and lives it.  And there is an interesting air of echo, now in the days of the fear of terrorist attacks vs. the good old days of the Cold War, when nuclear holocaust was just around the corner.  The funniest thing is that when they see the mushroom cloud, they drive back toward L.A. toward their home rather than realizing the ridiculousness of that.  Who knows?  Maybe that’s realism.

The NeverEnding Story

The NeverEnding Story (1984) movie poster

(1984) dir. Wolfgang Petersen
viewed: 08/24/07

Part two of my 1980’s Fantasy double feature was The NeverEnding Story, which came out when I was 15 and developing cynicism for such things, especially such things with such godforsaken theme song by Limahl (singer of the 1980’s band Kajagoogoo for anyone too young to know or care).  I never saw it, or any of its much later sequels.

Oddly enough, it is a rather charming film, despite its heinous theme song.  There has been of late, particularly recently, a revival of appreciation for non-digital effects in films.  This film features a fairly broad spectrum of fantastical characters, all rendered in animatroics and make-up, rather than by the modern computer effects.  Clearly, the computer effects are not quite so hokey.  But then again, these designs are pretty lovingly created and unusual and effective in their own right.

The narrative, adapted from a book of the same title (a German book apparently), is a fairly specific note of self-reflection.  It’s about the fantasy land that exists when people use their imagination and believe.  And all that is lost when imagination is diminished (no one reads or fantasizes).  A film about the beauty of reading.  Moderately ironic.  Still, well…it’s got a lower level of redemption when you dig into the meat of it.  But the reality of the story and direction and design is really not half-bad.  It’s not a whole lot more than half-good, but it certainly has its merits.

Fantasy films are currently being cranked out based on books with some intensity.  From the Harry Potter films, which started this latest foray, to The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) and this year’s Stardust and The Golden Compass, there is such a big emphasis on either trilogies or series, franchises.  The whole endeavor, even when well-cast and well-executed, like the Lord of the Rings films, still have a lack of integrity at some level.  Okay, maybe that is going too far.  I think that Peter Jackson’s films originated from a sincere place.  But the rest of it is all about genre franchise, which in some ways, is as hollow at the McDonalds franchises that market their paraphernalia.

That said, I bet they tried that with this film in its day, too.  The sophistication wasn’t as complete yet.  But I am sure it was there.

The Last Unicorn

The Last Unicorn (1982) movie poster

(1982) dir. Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin, Jr.
viewed: 08/24/07

This was the first of what would be my little early 1980’s Fantasy double feature, inspired by a co-worker, who had recommended both films.  Neither of which had I seen before.  For this film, The Last Unicorn, it was kind of strange, as I was a pretty avid moviegoer by this time in my life and rarely missed animated films.  Co-directed by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr., the directors of the television versions of The Hobbit (1977) and The Return of the King (1980), and carries on the animation style of those two rather decent TV animation features.

Adapted from a well-known novel by Peter S. Beagle, the film’s greatest strength is its story, a quest by the last known unicorn to find out what has happened to all her brethren.  With a voice cast including Angela Lansbury, Christopher Lee, and Mia Farrow, among many other notable others, this film was clearly not total bottom-of-the-barrel fare.  As the unicorn gains friends and adventures, the story unfolds at a reasonable pace and certainly has its charm.

It’s greatest weakness is its soundtrack, performed in large part by the heinous rock band America and occasionally painfully by apparently Farrow herself.  There are a few full-blown America songs as well as a couple of musical numbers as well.  Not only do these break the pacing of the better parts of the story, but they also make one crawl the walls and one’s stomach to painfully churn.

It’s a decent film, with some reasonable sentiment, though somewhat betrayed by the period of its construction and production.  Interestingly, this will have a similar echo in the second of this double feature.

The Invasion

The Invasion (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel, James McTeigue
viewed: 08/23/07 at Century San Francisco Centre, SF, CA

The fourth feature film rendering of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers in some ways, perhaps many ways, begs the question of necessity.  Don Siegel’s 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers seemed pretty much to hit the nail on the head, a Cold War paranoia film with strong aspects of allegory regarding Communism and/or McCarthyism.  Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version was a fairly well-made “gore-ification” update of the film, something that was happening at the time when special effects and mainstream horror films became big gorefests.  Then, in 1993, Abel Ferrara took a low-budget shot at it, that, to be honest, I hardly remember at all.

So now, we have German director Oliver Hirschbiegel whose Das Experiment (2001) I had seen and had considered seeing his 2005 Downfall.  But apparently, significant late reshooting, reediting, rewriting came at the hands of the Warchowski (read: Matrix) Brothers and their sidekick director James McTeigue who brought us V for Vendetta (2005).  All in all, as much as I note directors, etc.  I hardly noted any of this through the film.

Nicole Kidman, who always seems to be good, along with Daniel Craig, who has yet to disappoint, star in this latest take on an alien force that takes over human beings’ bodies and usurps their personae with some bland yet malevolent force and seeks to take over the world.  This time, the force is a virus, not your classic “pod people”…which is pretty hokey in this day and age, while viruses and disease and genetics do have a fear factor.

The characters who are taken over become sort of lobotomized and relatively pacified, that is, except for any people who are yet uninfected or potentially strain-resistant.  It is creepy.  And the film does a good job of making this somewhat compelling and thrilling.  It’s something altogether intense in and of itself.

Does it achieve greatness?  Significance?  Meaning?  It is interesting when viewed through the lens of the contemporary zombie film.  In a sense, it has an aspect not utterly unlike that.  Less violent, but still the result is a loss of self to a non-death state, some end that isn’t end, some apocalypse with current fears and resonances to give it teeth.  I think that this was a good film, a decent thrill ride, and worthwhile.  I just don’t know what they will do when someone makes it a fifth time.

You know they will.

Zodiac

Zodiac (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. David Fincher
viewed: 08/22/07

I’ve found director David Fincher to be one of the more interesting directors currently working in Hollywood.  When he first came on the scene with Alien³ (1992), I was not impressed.  I haven’t gone back to see if my feelings have changed since then regarding the film, but his subsequent films have been consistently interesting, occasionally brilliant and typically dark, starting with the riveting Se7en (1995), the clever but mixed bag of The Game (1997), his best film Fight Club (1999), and his underrated thriller, Panic Room (2002).  He’s good with keeping his film titles concise.

Zodiac is a fictionalized narrative that plays closely to the facts of the events in the San Francisco Bay Area’s notorious (and never captured) serial killer, the titular Zodiac.  Starting on the 4th of July 1969, the film opens with a very nice digitally altered shot of San Francisco and then tracks through the window of an anonymous car, driving through the suburbs in the darkness as the fireworks pop in the sky.  The film in many ways, I think, assumes foreknowledge of the events it depicts, and this opening view, because the perspective is an unknown driver, leads one to assume it is potentially the view of the killer.  As it turns out, it is the perspective of his first verified victim.

Fincher is a good manipulator in the classic style of Hollywood narrative, but this film is a drama, an unfulfilled, unfinished, still open-ended story, whose tension is sustained, but never released.  Of course, knowing that the Zodiac killer was never caught, one knows that there cannot be the big final shoot-out, court trial, execution, what-have-you that one might see in a more typical narrative.  The film’s drama focuses on the lives of the men who were deeply affected by the case and the crimes, the cop, the cartoonist obsessed with the case, and the self-destructive reporter who rode the wave of the publicity.  The acting is actually quite good and Mark Ruffalo, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Robert Downey, Jr. all respectively perform well.

The film is solid and engrossing, though overly long, perhaps.  Fincher uses music very effectively throughout, especially the Zodiac‘s theme, Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” really evokes a psychedelic nightmare on a metropolitan area, a culture, whose innocence and traditional Americana is giving way to a change.  The film is a period piece, not just in outfits and hairstyles, but Fincher seems very interested in the cultural changes, the world changes, and the way these effect the men at the heart of the story.  They are all played out with a strong nod to their integrity.  The film seems in some ways less critical or ironic than any of Fincher’s other films.  It’s not exploitative, the way that it could easily have been.  The murders are not bloodless, but far from over-the-top and the search for the Zodiac killer, and the film’s position of whom it suspects is not relentless and damning.  Though Fincher indicates quite clearly by the end of the film who the best suspect is, the whole twisting and false leads and theories add to the devolving chaos at the center of the protagonists world, not just in terms of an unresolved, unsolved case, but at their lives that devolve along with it.

The Passenger

The Passenger (1975) movie poster

(1975) dir. Michelangelo Antonioni
viewed: 08/10/07

Until earlier this year, I’d never seen a Michelangelo Antonioni film.  I started with Blow-Up (1966), partially because it was the film of his that I used to see throughout video stores even in the 1980’s, one of the most ubiquitous foreign films, though I had never actually watched it.  There has just been a retrospective of Antonioni, as well, this year at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, and of course, I managed to see none of them.  But I was intrigued by The Passenger for some reason, knowing that the films of his that I was seeing were his later, English language films, not necessarily representative.  And then he goes and dies.

The Passenger is actually, like Blow-Up, surprising in the way that it unfolds, the sense of what the film is about emanates so much more heavily than the actual narrative itself.  In some ways, both films have a traditional sort of plot in synopsis, but they play out so differently, so clear that it’s not so much the story, but more the ideas and mood that pervade the film that resonate and strike at the viewer.

I have read somewhere that the original title for this film, Professione: reporter, seemed much more apt, and it certainly does.  Jack Nicholson plays a reporter, austensibly of English descent, who is trying to make a film about an uprising in an unnamed African nation.  While he interviews the leaders of the country, he fails to get them to admit the truth, acknowledge that there is an uprising, and also fails to meet with the anti-government group altogether.  When an acquaintence dies of a heart attack back at their hotel, Nicholson takes the opportunity to usurp his name, swapping out their possessions and their passports.  He makes it look as if he has died and takes off with the businessman’s belongings to see what he can acquire.

When it turns out that the businessman is involved in gun-running to the very same opposition group that Nicholson had tried and failed to interview, the escapism that his character has sought somehow reflects his prior lack of commitment and understanding of the things that he tried to report on.  His detachment, while not criticized professionally (he is actually highly thought of in his field), is part of his inability to connect to the world, including his failed marriage and his failure to care or fully understand things.

In one of his interviews with a tribal chief, the man turns the camera on Nicholson, telling him quite clearly that his questions say more about himself than they do of understanding the conflict that they seek to comprehend.  There is a clear critique of the nature of reporting, not simply the character himself.  And as Nicholson wanders Europe, trying to play the role of his assumed persona, he moves into stranger and stranger environs.

Especially interesting are the Antonio Gaudi buildings, their strange alien forms, a landscape that he doesn’t comprehend.  The shots among those buildings are quite striking.

But the most striking is the masterful final shot, or penultimate shot, I can’t recall.  From his hotel room, ushering his lover away, the view through the bars of the window is an amazing movement of forms across the screen.  The woman, crossing the street, the cars racing in, the slow encroachment of the camera through the window itself, crossing the street, then looking back on the hotel as Nicholson is discovered dead, killed silently, off-screen, by the Africans.  It’s an amazing tone poem of movement, of his isolation and his disconnect, finally, fatally, completed.  It does reckon, in a sense, with Blow-Up‘s final shot, the man in the frame who suddenly disappears.  There is a continued theme of disconnect and dissolution.

As to Antonioni, I’ll have to seek out some films from other periods.  Certainly, these films have been interesting.  I think I liked this one more than the other.  I’m still thinking about it.

Renaissance

Renaissance (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Christian Volckman
viewed: 08/19/07

This film was playing in England last year when I was there and then took its time to get to the states.  It’s French, though for the English language release, they got voice talent, including Daniel Craig, to rework the dialogue.  Dubbing is not a preferred thing for me, but doesn’t bother me with animation.  Animation is all dubbed anyways.  Fair enough.

The big thing about this film is its visual style.  The result is vaguely like Richard Linklater what used in Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006), in which is a motion human motion is “drawn onto”.  The style in Linklater’s films is more like painting on top of a filmed image, whereas in Renaissance, it’s motion capture at the core of the animation.  The film’s style is a huge step beyond that, a stark black-and-white, that is literally black and white…hardly a shade of gray.  The high-contrast images, stylized and often striking, take the lead in this film, a semi-sci fi hard-boiled narrative about an evil corporation (are there any other kind?) and genetic research project that could essentially change the world.

When it gets down to it, the story is “okay”, but not thrilling.  The animation style distances one from the characters.  With half or more of their faces in shadow or almost abstracted by the contrasts, one doesn’t connect to what ultimately has an intended emotional core.  The film doesn’t really make any critiques or anything of great depth.  Actually, it ends up being really completely surface.  It’s the visual that does all the work, draws all the attention, keeps the tension and mood (which are pretty straight-forward narrative techniques and musical scoring) from having an impact.

When all is said and done, it’s not bad.  Linklater’s films, which the more I think about it are actually quite different when you boil down the technique of production, seek more significant questions and are more interesting and challenging.  Not that there are any other immediate parallels than these animated films use human motion for the bulk of the movement portrayed in the imagery.