Wednesday, August 8, 2007

BOURNE AGAIN - Bourne Ultimatum and RESCUE DAWN - Reviewed! Plus: Masters of Science Fiction and -- REGGIE MILLER on the Celtics?!?!

Okay, so I was pretty amused that my last entry received a comment from WERNER HERZOG himself ... I mean, I knew my blog had some high-profile readers, but this, this takes things to a whole other level. Mr. Herzog, it was an honor to have your wit and lack of knowledge about professional basketball grace these pages.

- Speaking of which, I've got to give a quick follow-up to yesterday's posting about the CELTICS. Today saw yet another potential blockbuster story coming out of Beantown, and for me personally this could be the kind of thing that dreams are made of. Could it be ...? Could one of my all-time favorite players be coming out of retirement to don the green and white? Could REGGIE MILLER indeed be coming to the Celtics?!?! If this is true, if this happens, I will seriously be completely psyched for the NBA this year. I am already incredibly on board with the Celts this year, but if Reggie Miller were to join the squad, for the first time in a long while I would truly have a player and a team to root for. I've already written extensively about Miller on this blog in year's past, but suffice to say, if Miller Time comes to Boston, then business has REALLY picked up in the NBA.


- I've got some movie reviews for ya', but first I wanted to touch on a little TV Talk. Yes, it's been a long while since I last talked tube, but a show has come along that needs to be talked about. I am referring to ABC's new anthology: MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION. Now, this is one that I am really annoyed about how it's been programmed, scheduled, and marketed. It was banished to the TV purgatory that is Saturday nights, and given little hype. And yet, this show boasts stellar casting, adaptations of many classic authors' works, and judging by the first ep, it's of the utmost quality. Why not give this one a push, or at LEAST a decent weeknight time-slot for its limited run, especially considering it's airing in the doldrums of summer? It just makes no sense to me. Especially after seeing the premiere episode. I mean, wow - this was one of the best things I've seen on television in a long time. The episode featured a mystery that slowly unraveled as the hour progressed, at first leaving you slightly confused but slowly and surely flooring you with each new twist. Basically, we opened with Judy Davis as a government psychologist quizzing a seemingly ordinary man, in hopes of jogging his addled mind, which due to a medical condition was incapable of making new memories (a la Memento). For fourteen years, the subject has been in a state of arrested development, believing himself still in the thralls of his old life as a businessman and family man. Eventually, the sinister truth is revealed - this character, played to perfection by Sam Waterson, is no ordinary man, but the acting President of the United States, whose hubris and poor judgement led to nuclear armageddon that resulted in all but a small pocket of the world's population being wiped off the map. Judy Davis, his former counsel, is obsessed with undoing the President's trauma-induced memory loss so that he can be held accountable for what he's done. The build up here is slow and deliberate, the pacing reminiscient of an old Twilight Zone episode, in that it builds and builds to each twist. Like those classics of old, this ep had melodramatic dialogue, stage-like performances, and a keen commentary on our own political reality under the guise of far-fetched science fiction. Simply put, this brought to mind The Twilight Zone and other classic scifi anthologies in all the right ways. Sure, it's style and pacing may have been a bit jarring for those weened on today's quick-cutting attempts at "edgy" TV. But to me, this WAS edgy - a cunningly smart riff on our own present-day politics featuring superlative acting from Sam Waterson and Judy Davis. When Sam finally does break down in the face of his accumulated memories returning, the moment is classic. I was surprised to read some mixed reviews for this. To me it was great, great TV and I can't wait to see future installments with such favorite actors as Terry O'Quinn and William B Davis, not to mention an episode with a Harlan Ellison-scripted screenplay. As someone who loves The Twilight Zone, and as someone who loves anthology television in general, from Ray Bradbury Theater to Night Gallery to Are You Afraid of the Dark, it was awesome to see such quality from Masters of Science Fiction - this is the kind of stuff that made me a scifi geek in the first place. ABC - give this a decent time slot, and more episodes!

My Grade: A

Now, on to some movie stuff:


Okay, Werner. This one is for you.

This is a film that I had been anticipating due to Christian Bale's involvement, but a movie from which I really didn't know quite what to expect. And after seeing it, it's a movie that is pretty difficult to put in a box. On one hand, it's a traditional war / POW / escape movie. But on the other hand, it's a harrowing tale of survival that carries strong themes of man vs. nature, the willpower of the individual, and the merits of being passive vs proactive when faced with overwhelmingly bleak circumstances. Most of all, Rescue Dawn is an incredible movie, one of the best I've yet seen in 2007. It feature all of the intrigue, action, and excitement of a traditional war or adventure movie, but it takes things to another level through the strength of its performances and the depth of its storytelling.

The basic plot here is an intriguing one based on the true story of the comically-named Dieter Dangler, a German born American pilot who has big dreams of flying planes and adventure. However, on his very first mission with the airforce, Dieter's plane is shot down over the jungles of Vietnam. Eventually, our hero is captured and placed with a group of American POW's who have been captive for two years. Dieter is at once a source of new hope and a source of tension - he wants to forge a plan of escape from the camp but he butts heads with Gene, an acid-washed POW who is convinced that the war will soon be aborted and the best plan of action is inaction. Eventually, Dieter does make a run for it, and the second part of the movie is the story of Dieter's odyssey through the jungle, forced to survive on instinct and luck as he searches for a way to escape.

Werner Herzog does a spectacular job with this one. Herzog is a director whose works I really need to become more familiar with, because from what i know of his films he is really someone who should be put up there with the greats of modern filmmaking. Rarely has a director been able to convey the great outdoors with so much mystery, foreboding, and sense of awe. In trying to figure out what separates Rescue Dawn from other war movies, the answer became clear - few movies are so IMMERSIVE as this one. Like Paul Greengraass, whose latest Bourne movie I'll talk about soon, Herzog puts you IN this movie and takes you on a ride. By the end, you feel like you've been with Bale and Steve Zahn as they journey through the Laotian jungles in search of a way home. You've been right there as they nearly tumble over a towering waterfall, when they are drenched by torrential rains, when they hide in makeshift camoflauge in the hopes of eluding the VietCong. This is one INTENSE movie, and I give a huge amount of credit to Herzog for putting us right there in the midst of the action, switching seemlessly from lush, sweeping shots of the panoramic landcapes to claustrophobic POV shots of the dense jungle brush. This is truly accomplished, Oscar-worthy direction.

Now, as far as acting goes, this is yet another unbelievable turn from Christian Bale. Bale is an actor who just amazes me - in seemingly every movie he's in his characters go through sweeping changes from the film's start to it's finish. He always brings depth and charisma to his roles, and this one is no exception. But Bale takes things to a whole other level. When we first meet Dieter, he is healthy, cocky, almost naive in his laughing off of danger and child-like shrugging-off of the seriousness of his mission. By movie's end, Bale has undergone a startling physical transformation - he is skinny, starving, pale, dirty, sickly. His eyes dart back and forth and his speech is slurred. He is a man who has stared death in the face, who has had to revert to his basest survival instincts. Few other actors could pull this off. Few others could even come close. There's still a lot of time left in the year, but if Bale isn't nominated for an Oscar for this role, something is seriously wrong. This is about as great of a performance as you're likely to see.

The supporting cast also does a really excellent job here. Of particular note are Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies as two of Bale's fellow POW's. Steve Zahn has mostly been known as a comic actor, reliable and funny, but not as a real heavy hitter. Not anymore. This has got to be Zahn's best performance to date, far and away. He plays his part with a powderkeg of emotions, he is nervous, embarrased about the loss of dignity that comes with being a POW, but also quietly determined. The bond between he and Bale is great stuff, the kind of friendship that classic war and adventure movies are made of. Meanwhile, Davies is practically on another planet as the Charles Manson-looking Gene, a guy whose faculties have clearly faded after years as a POW, who expounds grand philosophies all the while quietly making enemies with his confrontational personality. Davies in this film is like a time warp into the 1960's. His mannerisms, his gestures, his speech patterns, it's amazing. What a great, memorable, complex performance.

And that's part of what is so great about this film - it's timeless. It is of course very much about Vietnam, but in terms of the filmmaking this is a real, honest-to-god MOVIE. No crazy cuts, no post-modern editing. This could have been made in 1975, 1985, 1995, or today. And yet it looks spectacular and features amazing acting. You've got to love a film that can say that, that in ten year's time someone can still watch it and say "wow, great movie" with no sense of context that they are watching a film of and about 2007. I think the one drawback to this type of storytelling is that there just isn't enough background given here. We only get glimpses of Dieter's history, which is fine, except that it's sometimes hard to get a read on the man whose transformation we are watching. There are allusions to a girlfriend waiting for him at home, etc, but to some extent we are left to guess in terms of how and why Dieter is at first so cavalier in the face of trauma, and then just how his ordeal had affected him. Overall though, this is a hell of a movie. Intense, dark, psychological - this is a true journey into the Heart of Darkness, and a must-see film of 2007.

My Grade: A -


Well, last weekend I found myself totally immersed in the world of BOURNE. Up until last week, I had never seen any of the movies, and yet there was a free screening of Ultimatum coming up that compelled me to watch the first two as soon as I could, so I'd be all caught up to see my first big-screen Bourne flick. After two very solid movies, I was primed and ready for Part 3, espeically since it featured a return from Superemecy director Paul Greengrass, who has got to be one of the best directors working today. Greengrass absolutely floored me with his work on United 93, a movie that I think will be regarded as a classic in the years to come. What he excels at is immersiveness. Whether it's a plane crash, a fight scene, or a car chase, Greengrass shoots without borders, giving his films an almost reality-TV like vibe that still maintains a level of real artistry. Because for all of the Bourne movies' modern, edgy trappings, the cool thing about them is that, really, they are distinctly old-school. Bourne is essentially a glossier version of McGyver, a nose-to-the-grindstone hero who uses everyday items as his main arsenal, not high-tech gadgets. The Bourne movies have been hugely influential though, which is a testament to how well they've been recieved. The gritty, back-to-basics approach of Bourne has even rubbed off on the latest Bond installment, which really says something.

The Bourne Ultimatum is yet another really fun movie in the franchise that is certainly entertaining from start to finish. Paul Greengrass once again directs the hell out of it, and even throws in a few very clever editing tricks, weaving the ending of the second film seamlessly into the middle of this one, creating a very interesting, non-traditional timeline in which this movie's first half takes place sometime in the midst of Part 2. I can honestly say I don't think I've ever seen that particular storytelling tactic done in a film trilogy before (at least one not involving time travel ...). In addition, I think that Ultimatum has the best action of any of the Bourne's to date. The fight scenes are, simply, off the chain, with the best, most visceral bare-knuckled brawls this side of Kill Bill. One moment in particular, in which a hardcover book is used as an instrument of pain, is particularly badass. And of course, there are once again car-chases galore, with some of the best high speed encounters since the storied days of Steve McQueen.

The other great thing about these movies is how consistently great the acting is. Matt Damon has evolved into one of the best young actors around, and even though he doesn't necessarily say much as Jason Bourne, he is able to convey that there's something deeper going on with Jason than with your typical action hero. Damon is solid here as always, and he has a cool intensity that always makes Bourne interesting to watch. However, the real story here is once again the background characters, an area where this franchise really seems to shine. In the past, some true greats like Chris Cooper and Brian Cox have lent their talents to relatively small parts, a real bonus to see such accomplished actors steal scenes that could have been far less interesting in lesser hands. This time out, we get David Strathairn in a key role, as a CIA A.D. who is out to reel in Jason Bourne and keep a lid on the whole Treadstone project that created him. Straithairn, who I've recently become a big fan of thanks to Good Night and Good Luck, is awesome here - really the perfect guy to give the movie some real gravitas and in turn an effective foil for Bourne. In addition, Joan Allen is back as a more liberal government official who tends to sympathize with Bourne. Allen is very good once again, particularly in her sparring matches with Straitharn (sorry, unsure how to spell his name), where the two have some cuttingly classic exchanges. Julia Styles is also pretty good here, but a possible romantic past with Jason is hinted at with such ambiguity that it never really becomes much of a factor. I'm fine with some subtlety, but the point is glossed over so that it barely ever comes into play.

And I guess that's the main thing that keeps the Bourne franchise from really being *great* and not just very good. All the movies are slickly made, full of nice action, and populated with overqualified, top-of-the-line actors (also special mention must be made of the kickass soundtrack / score to all 3 movies - mood-setting, catchy, and definitely one of the best of the modern action franchises). But what is especially evident in Ultimatum is that as much polish as Greengrass and his team of actors give to these films, the source material is ultimately somewhat thin. And that's not a knock on the books - I haven't read them and can't speak to how they are adapted here. But my point is - this movie was essentially all about uncovering the secret origin of Jason Bourne, and the entire plot hinged on the big reveal of who he was and how he came to be a CIA experiment plagued by memory loss and dumbfounded at his own superhuman efficiency as a field-agent. But the plot, when you strip away all the cool action, is basically paint by numbers. There's no big twist regarding Jason's real identity, no real mysteries raised about his past, no info given about his life pre-CIA, or any hints about what made him volunteer for this experimental program in the first place. The lack of substance to the mystery behind Bourne really hit me towards the end of Ultimatum, when Jason confronts the Dr. Frankenstein of the Treadstone Project, in what should have been an epic, monster-meets-his-maker moment. And yet, there was no real spark, mainly because we had been given only bare-bones background information about the relationship between the two. It felt like all of the scripts energy was focused on the crackling dialogue between Allen and Straitharn, with little left to devote to the actual backstory of Bourne, which is purportedly what this movie is all about.

So yeah, I would heartily recommend The Bourne Ultimatum - it's a very solid action / espionage flick with some amazing action sequences and riveting performances from Damon, Allen, and Straitharn, rounding out a franchise that has been consistently high-quality. I would hesitate to call this film an "A" however, simply because, while the characters are memorable, there isn't a plot, or, in turn, a reason for the movie to exist, that lives up to the quality apparent in the direction and cast. Still, head and shoulders above the typical summer action movie, and in terms of sheer style - a potent mix of cutting-edge technique and old-school charm, Bourne can't be beat.

My Grade: B+

- Whew, alright, that's all I've got for now. Thanks for reading and check back soon for more.

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