I haven’t, and won’t, see High School Musical 2 (five minutes of the first one was enough to turn me off), but the other two franchise pictures coming out on DVD are really good, as is the big indie film of the week.
One of the primary components of American action movies is the hero – or, in the rare case, heroine – always knows who they are, and more importantly, what they are. They may have doubts whether or not they’ll succeed, and may regret things they didn’t do, but that’s almost always momentary – they, and we, are sure of their eventual triumph. This is one of the many ways the Bourne movies have been different from most every other Hollywood action movie. Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) knows he’s a killer, but he doesn’t know who he is – just that he doesn’t want to be a killer anymore. Also, his enemies aren’t the outside threats (except as hired guns), but the people who trained him, and made him, in the first place. And unlike most Hollywood action movies, this franchise has made every bullet and punch count. Hard to believe that films of this caliber could be made from novels (by Robert Ludlum) that were convoluted to the point of annoyance, but there you go. And Damon and writer Tony Gilroy, two of the constants of the series, are joined once again by Paul Greengrass, who directed The Bourne Supremacy, for the third chapter, The Bourne Ultimatum, and it’s the best of the series.
In this installment, Bourne, still haunted by the death of his girlfriend Marie (Franka Potente), is in hiding until Simon Ross (Paddy Considine), a crusading British journalist, gets a tip from an inside source that Bourne was the key to a CIA operation called Blackbriar. Bourne figures this is another key to finding out who he is, so he decides to track down Ross. What he doesn’t count on is CIA Deputy Director Noah Vossen (David Strathairn), who wants to keep a lid on Blackbriar. Vossen and his superior, CIA Director Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn), want to put Bourne into the ground, while Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) thinks that will just make Bourne angry with the CIA.
Once again, Greengrass shoots this film as if it was a documentary, with lots of handheld cameras, which has caused griping as well as praise. I think the hand-held cameras lend the movie an immediacy, putting you right into the action, and making it come off more realistic. Also, it adds to the mission of making every bullet and punch count. And while there are some spectacular action scenes, including a chase scene inside a railway station and a chase across rooftops, Greengrass doesn’t forget the human factor – the most heart-stopping moment of the movie is when Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) reappears (she works for the inside source) out of nowhere (it also does the movie credit there’s no flashback explaining how she knows Bourne). And as I mentioned before, the self-doubt Bourne feels adds a layer of emotional resonance not seen in most action movies. A lot of credit, of course, goes to Damon, who is not only realistic in the action scenes, but shows the turmoil of being Jason Bourne.
The reason why J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books have resonated with so many people is not just the way she tells the stories (although she’s a great storyteller), or the minutiae she packs in (although both the Muggle and Wizard worlds that she’s created are nicely detailed), but the way each character, particularly the main ones, continues to grow as the series progresses. To me, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the best of the books (though the final chapter, Deathly Hollows, runs a very close second) precisely because it does so well the emotional journey Harry and her friends take. While director David Yates and writer Michael Goldenberg (stepping in for Steven Kloves, who wrote the first four movies) have to trim the book (the longest of the series, if memory serves), they keep that emotional journey, and that’s why the movie is, next to Prisoner of Azkaban, the best of the series to date.
In the previous installment, Goblet of Fire, Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) returned to power, but the Ministry of Magic, led by Cornelius Fudge (Robert hardy), refuses to believe it, and won’t hear any talk of Voldemort. So Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), once considered the hero of Hogwarts, is now a pariah, especially since The Daily Prophet is running stories against him. He’s even brought up on charges for using magic outside the school (he was trying to protect himself and his cousin Dudley (Harry Melling) from Dementors). Only a last-minute intervention by Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) prevents Harry from being expelled. To keep Harry and Dumbledore in line, the Ministry appoints Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher, and she appoints herself as watchdog of Hogwarts, coming off as a sadistic Mary Poppins. Among the many changes she brings to the school is banning any teaching of defense methods against the Dark Arts. So Harry, under the prodding of Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), starts his own class, which will prepare the other students against Voldemort. Among the others are Ron’s sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright) and brothers Fred (James Phelps) and George (Oliver Phelps), new student Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), and, of course, Cho Chang (Katie Leung), the girl Harry has a crush on, and the girlfriend of the student Voldemort killed in the previous story. At the same time, Harry is tortured by his own connection with Voldemort; he sees things through Voldemort’s eyes, and even sees harm coming to others through him, including, possibly, his godfather Sirius Black (Gary Oldman).
Yates, best known in this country for the made-for-HBO movie The Girl in the Café, doesn’t seem to have the background for the special effects called for in the movie, but he handles them fine, especially the climatic fight Harry and his friends have with Voldemort’s followers, the Death Eaters (including Sirius’ cousin Bellatrix (Helena Bonham Carter)). More importantly, he handles the relationships with aplomb, for the most part. The only relationship that comes off wrong is between Harry and Cho – they have no chemistry together. But Lynch is superb as Luna (she apparently wrote the producers she was born to play the part, and it shows), the slightly off-center girl who nevertheless is a staunch ally, and Staunton is simply terrifying as Umbridge (though I wish she had done more of the thought-clearing interruptions that made her so memorable in the book). Where the movie falters is with the supporting cast from the previous films – for the most part, they barely register here, except for Snape (Alan Rickman), who here tries, and fails, to teach Harry to close his mind against Voldemort, and Sirius, who feels left out. I understand the movie wanted to focus on the main people of the story, but the supporting cast adds detail to the story that seems missing here. Also, while the climax ends in tragedy, the movie still feels the need to tack on a somewhat happy ending, where a lesson is learned. Still, none of that is enough to negate the fact that I really enjoyed this film, and look forward to what Yates will do with the next installment, The Half-Blood Prince.
Before director Theo Van Gogh was murdered in 2004, he had been planning to shoot English-language remakes of this first three feature films. Upon his death, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro and Stanley Tucci have stepped in to direct them. Buscemi’s effort, Interview, which he also co-wrote (with David Schechter, adapting the original screenplay by Theodor Holman) and stars in, is the first out of the gate. It’s the tale of a night-long interview between Katya (Sienna Miller), an actress best known for her tabloid antics than her talent, and Pierre (Buscemi), a political journalist who’s been assigned to this interview for reasons that only become clear later. I can already hear people groaning at this concept, and it’s true this comes off as little more than an acting exercise, with as much insight. However, it’s a very entertaining exercise, because Buscemi and Miller go at each other with ardor and skill. For Buscemi, of course, this is no surprise – he’s been one of our most reliable character actors for almost 20 years now. Miller, however, is a find here. I still haven’t seen Factory Girl, which left most people cold (although she, and the film, have a few defenders) – matter of fact, the only film of hers I’ve seen is Layer Cake, where she had such an inconsequential part that she made no impression on me whatsoever. I don’t know if having her own tabloid nightmares fueled her performance here, but she shows herself as both thick-skinned and vulnerable, with a level of intelligence that’s not apparent right away. Movie critics aren’t supposed to like remakes of foreign films, but on the basis of this, I look forward to Tucci and Turturro’s efforts.
This week’s major Criterion release is Monte Hellman’s cult road movie Two-Lane Blacktop, one of many road movies to come out in the late 60’s and early 70’s. It may be heresy to say this, but I don’t think it holds up very well. Minimalism is one thing, but either Hellman’s characters are completely one-note, the actors are directed poorly (except for Harry Dean Stanton in a small role as a hitchhiker, and Warren Oates as GTO, a race car driver), or they’re actually that wooden. James Taylor (as the Driver) and Dennis Wilson (as the Mechanic) are fine musicians, but they have zero screen presence, and the plot (about a cross-country race between them and GTO) is so burdened with metaphor it barely registers. The car racing scenes are fine, but as far as road movies of the early 70’s go, I still prefer Vanishing Point.