Ultimatums, Badness and Falling Stars: And, yes, in that order

After falling behind for a few weeks I finally finished my summer viewing slate. A double feature of “The Bourne Ultimatum”/“Superbad” and then a trip to the local cineplex to wet my fantasy appetite with “Stardust”.

bourne ultimatumIf only “The Bourne Ultimatum” meant as much as the level of film making suggested it did. We’re given Matt Damon as Jason Bourne again, only this time we lack the emotional core that made the second film that much more exciting. The cheapest trick is that they spend a large portion at the beginning of the film reminding you how great the second movie was. Remember, the girlfriend died? Yeah, that sucked, the first time we saw it. But by and large this film has very little to throttle the action forward other than Greengrass’ amazing direction and action scenes that make everything else that has come out this summer reek of shoddy craftsmanship. Not to say there isn’t a reason per se for Bourne to go hunting, it’s just that reason is little more than some vague exposition given up front that boils down to, “He just wants to remember who he is.” For the love of God give this man some answers, but you have to give us a reason to want to know as well.

Once the action kicks in it’s difficult not to start caring. The film is filled with many beginnings, middles and ends; there’s at least 5 intricately written, shot and performed short films contained within the movie as a whole and each on is alive and pumping with adrenaline and humanity. You can feel every hit and car crash. Every explosion makes you quake in your seat. And Matt Damon’s focused silent performance makes each step towards abstraction seem that much more important. One of the ways the film succeeds in this arena is making the bad guys just as capable as Bourne. Many times they manage to get the trump card. There’s a clever sleight of hand involving a bag of explosives, another assassin, a man in a car and a motor scooter. If it’s good enough to trick Bourne, then, yes, it was good enough to trick me – until you see Bourne’s face. I was really quite surprised.

But I don’t want to give away all the reasons to go see this film, because there are many more incredible sequences, actually the film is pretty much a list of intensely calculated sequences. The story itself is no better than the story for “Rush Hour 3″. Except this time it’s Queen and not a fifth rate garage band at the helm.

In the end I couldn’t help but feel very underwhelmed. This was a film that was supposed to tie up a lot of questions for Bourne and the most the audience is really given is he figures out was his first name. The fact that he meets his maker does little for the audience except to applaud our intelligence for assuming that Jason Bourne was trained to be a killer. Oh my goodness, surprise! That many of the flashbacks early on contradict the final flashback or at least don’t logically tie together from the information proceeding is baffling to consider, and then there’s the second biggest cheat. The Julia Styles character returns when she’s needed, babbles some stuff that makes it seem like she’s a more important character than she is, then disappears. Okay. Say there was something going on between these two characters before Jason Bourne was “created”, it was never hinted at in the first two films, and so is a cheat because it’s there now to add emotional empathy for the characters. And if there was it’s never answered what exactly. But if there wasn’t, then there’s no reason for the character to really be in this thirs movie, and she is merely a goto to slide in some more plot points and to base a movie stopping action sequence around. It was a darn good action sequence full of anticipation and tension and all those other fun words that describe a breathtaking and incredible action sequence.

A lot has been written about concerning the hand held camera work for this film. To me it wasn’t so distracting. And I think that perhaps because of the weaker story it doesn’t feel as necessary to many people. Because the emotional pull for Bourne isn’t as strong, it’s not as necessary for the camera to jostle around while someone is sitting in a diner and drinking coffee. There’s a great technique used in which we only see portions of people’s faces, but at one point it’s used in two catch-up exposition scenes in a row. Which using the same technique twice in a film to me is okay, having two flat out catch-up exposition scenes in a row is what is daunting and shows that the filmmakers aren’t keeping the emotional thrust of the film in real time, but, like Bourne’s memory, relying on things of the past and hoping they still mean as much to the audience as they do to Bourne. (Maybe the trick is to watch two and three back-to-back, which to me shouldn’t have to be the case. My friend and movie going partner mentions that there is a line towards the end of “Ultimatum” that is verbatim to a line at the end of “Supremacy”, as if the two films’ time-lines overlap. I don’t know how correct this is, but it’s a curious thing that if anyone else has a comment on, please feel free to speak up.)

As a film that tells it’s story through action it succeeds, as a film that’s supposed to tie loose ends together and give answers to Bourne it’s aggravating. Whereas Bourne supposedly remembers it all, we’re left with little to hold onto, which in the end makes the action we’ve just watched a little less relevant. I imagine we’ll find out those answers if they make a fourth film.

michael cera“Superbad” had me giggling from the silly opening credits. This was one really funny movie, and it’s not so much because of the story which follows three horny, lovelorn and ultimately confused senior boys on their adventure to get a bunch of booze for a party and get laid to have “a girlfriend for the summer” before they leave to college, but it’s more about how great the comedic performances are and how well drawn the characters are.

The characters are played by Michael Cera as Evan, who’s dead pan performance has only been perfected since “Arrested Development” to the point of being one of the funniest things I’ve seen on camera and pays off when he has to sing to a bunch of “coked out” older guys (pictured to the right), Jonah Hill as Seth, whose hormonal angst causes him to rage and lash out at everything (and for better reason as the film draws to a conclusion) and finally Christopher Mintz-Plasse playing Fogell, aka “MacLovin”, who has one of the funniest uber-nerd moments at the beginning of the film when confronted with staring at a girl’s rear and a really great story line throughout, involving two really funny twit cops.

A few years back “American Pie” became the new teenage sex romp comedy, but I always found its gross out humor to be there for the sake of gross out, it’s awkward sex moments to be very contrived (an apple pie???) and it’s touching sweet side to be more than a little forced and sentimental. The great thing about “Superbad” is that all of these similar kinds of moments are handled with a level of reality and maturity that it’s not so much about laughing because the situation is “ooo, out there and dangerous”, but because you understand what these kids are going through. There’s no ultimate sex book hidden under a book shelf in the library telling how to superiorly pleasure your girlfriend. There are no easy answers for these two best friends, Evan and Seth, but to keep clawing away blindly until they get it right. Coming of age, sure, finding the confidence it takes to desire to learn about the opposite of sex rather than treating them as meat, definitely. And that’s where the heart of the movie comes in. When Seth finally starts to realize the mistake he’s made, you see that sad look of complete embarrassment and a missed opportunity and your heart rushes to the screen. Or when Evan makes the braver of two choices you really feel like you’ve been rooting for the right people, as crass as they may have been. And the genius is that the film doesn’t linger on these moments, it slithers in and out of them, one tender moment is quickly followed by an outright hilarious moment.

Maybe in the end, the moment when everyone comes together is perhaps reality truncated, but it keeps the heart of the film at it’s center; two best friends who have to start learning to grow up on their own.

stardust pfeiffer

And finally, “Stardust”. There’s not much to say about this film.

I loved Michael Vaughn’s “Layer Cake”. It had a film maker’s maturity about it. It was hard-boiled and clever. I was really looking forward to “X-Men 3″ when I heard he was directing it. He passed on that and did this. “Stardust” certainly has its merits, thanks in a large part to being written by the tremendous talent Neil Gaiman (whom I met while working at Barnes and Noble.) The film, following a young man’s quest to find a falling star, capture the heart of his true love and become a man, is whimsical (perhaps a bit too much) and fun at times, but it never has the guts to really jump full throttle into its own fantasy imaginings as it wants to. It hints at being dark and mature (the scene around the dying King’s bed is handled with a marvelous bit of wit, especially by Peter O’Toole), but then sways back to being silly family friendly when each dead heir to the throne’s ghost appears looking like they did just before dying. And the film does this, back and forth, meaty to whimsy, whimsy to meaty. It never knows how to quite nail down it’s tone. I don’t think I was ever bored but I certainly wasn’t always enthralled, and with a movie like this you expect to be, you want to be. You want to be whisked away into something with a presence and left there long after the movie ends. Instead many times I felt like I was staring at a set, or watching a very staged “bit”. I think this largely has to do with Vaughn not quite being able to handle comedy that isn’t grounded into some sort of reality, or Vaughn feeling the need to leave behind a realistic feeling to let certain comedy “bits” play out.

There are actors having fun here. Robert DeNiro, Michelle Pfeiffer (who’s hotter than ever), a very underused Rupert Everet, again Peter O’Toole, the always brilliant Ricky Gervais and at moments even Claire Danes impressed, but I never got the feeling that they were playing in a real space or acting out in a real story with real goals and motivations that truly meant something to these characters (the whimsy gets in the way of even this.) In the end it didn’t disappoint, it just didn’t enliven. Check it out on DVD or when it hits a movie channel.

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