The Bourne Ultimatum

Review of the film The Bourne Ultimatum.

Yesterday morning we went to see The Bourne Ultimatum, the third film in the series based on Robert Ludlum’s novels. All three movies are a lot of fun, although I think they go steadily downhill from the first one, The Bourne Identity.

This one starts near the end of the second film, The Bourne Supremacy, with Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) leaving Moscow and returning to western Europe. On the way he learns about a reporter, Simon Ross (Paddy Considine), who’s been collecting information about him. Ross has also learned about a project called Operation: Blackbriar, which has set the US government on his trail, headed by Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) and Pamela Landy (Joan Allen, back from the second film). Bourne contacts Ross, leading to confusion on all sides, as Vosen thinks Bourne was Ross’ contact, while Bourne isn’t sure what Ross had. The information he gets from Ross leads Bourne to Spain, Morocco, and then New York as he untangles the story of his origins as a government assassin.

The films are all marked by decent acting, a decent plot, excellent action sequences, and not much characterization. The visual look of the films are distinctive, with washed-out color palettes and special effects which don’t look like they rely much on CGI (I have no idea whether they do), which makes the films feel like a throwback to good old action-adventure films that aren’t trying to wow you with their technical prowess.

The thing I liked least about the direction was the tendency to cut rapidly between various angles during the action sequences. I think this technique worked especially poorly in this film, because the longer shots were so effective: Panoramic views of a whole scene, or a lingering shot of someone’s face, or a careful framing of part of a fight sequence. Considering many camera shots were done with “shaky-cams” (the notional opposite of a Steadicam), there’s already plenty of movement for dramatic tension, and the rapid cuts just make the action harder to follow, which doesn’t help anyone.

The most fun element of the films are Bourne staying one step ahead of his adversaries – who inevitably have far more resources than he does – simply by being alert and playing the game better. The scene in Waterloo Station here is just brilliant. Unfortunately the story is marred somewhat by some characters behaving rather stupidly. While the characters are only human, it just feels shoddy when characters seem to be acting like idiots for no good reason, while other characters seem uncannily smart.

Overall a good film, but not as good as the first two.

A few further comments – of a spoilery nature – behind the cut.

Continue reading “The Bourne Ultimatum”

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Review of the film Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

This afternoon we went to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I was not enthusiastic about seeing this entry in the film series because I hated the book. Fortunately, the film is quite a bit better than the book. Unfortunately, the story still isn’t very good, and the movie is, like the book, the weakest of the series.

Director David Yates thrws down the gauntlet at the beginning of the film that he’s a director, dammit with a fade-in to Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) marking time in London and being tormented by Dudley Dursley (Harry Melling) and his cronies: The playground Harry’s in is bleak, Harry’s sitting on a swing, and there are various dramatic camera angles and pans during the opening sequence, when Harry and Dudley are attacked by Dementors. On the one hand it all seems a little too ostentatious, but on the other hand given how easy it would be to do a rote adaptation of Order, I appreciated anything Yates did to liven things up.

And actually Order is the most visually appealing entry in the series after Prisoner of Azkaban: Hogwarts and its environs look beautifully rural, in a dangerous-looking, untamed way. The Order’s safe house is crammed with decor and stuff. The Ministry of Magic is large and imposing and by turns claustrophoic and paranoiac. The thing is really very pretty to look at, and the camerawork fits in pretty nicely.

The film jettisons a lot of the chaff of the book – as it has to, in order to finish in under 12 hours – and at its core are two truths: That the story works best when focusing on Harry’s relationships with his friends and allies, and that the plot feels basically entirely superfluous to the overall arc of the series.

The plot of the story, basically, is this: In Goblet of Fire Harry saw Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes without a nose) come back from the dead. While Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and his allies believe him, Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy) and the Ministry of Magic do not, and they believe the Harry’s pronouncement is both a public nusiance, and that it’s part of a power play Dumbledore is making towards the Ministry. Consequently Fudge installed Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) at Hogwarts to push Dumbledore out and squash Harry’s spirit.

In other words, the larger plot boils down to Harry trying to convince those in charge that what really happened, happened!

This leads to some character bits that are both good and bad: Harry spends the early part of the film brooding and feeling alone, which is pretty annoying and just rings false for the character. On the other hand, he ends up in the middle of the resistance against both Umbridge and Voldemort, putting him in a position of authority and trust, where he’s an admirable figure. Radcliffe is much better at playing the hero than the petulant young man, so the latter scenes are a lot more fun. (Radcliffe, by the way, is filling out and looks quite buff – rather different from the stringbean that Harry is.)

The film also points out that the Potterverse is getting weighed down with an awful lot of characters, many of whom no longer get much screen time: Ron (Rupert Grint) has hardly anything to do in the film, Snape (Alan Rickman) has only a small role, Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) appears for just two scenes, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) is also only in a few. Evanna Lynch is quite good as Luna Lovegood, but the character feels irrelevant. Staunton is appropriately nauseating and loathesome as Umbridge, but she never really gets her comeuppance on-screen, so all the build-up doesn’t have an appropriate catharsis. Even the film’s best moment – the Weasley twins’ kissing off to Umbridge, to a fantastic bit of music by composer Nicholas Hooper – feels like it was tacked on awkwardly.

All things considered: Order does its best to make order out of Order, it’s pretty to look at and has its moments, but it’s still pretty much a mess, mainly because of the source material. It should delight plenty of Harry fans, but I think Azkaban is going to end up being the apex of the movie series.

My Reviews of Earlier Harry Potter Films:

  1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
  2. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
  3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  4. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

Review of the film Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.

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We went to see the third Pirates of the Caribbean film, At World’s End, last night. As longtime readers may recall, I loved the first one, but was disappointed in the second one. The third one completes the story begun in the second one.

In that film, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) had been betrayed by Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightly) and was killed by the kraken controlled by Davy Jones (a CGI construct viced by Bill Nighy). Jack’s crew, as well as Elizabeth and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) go to a witch friend of Jack’s, Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris), to find out how to get him back, and she hooks them up with Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), apparently back from the dead.

In this film, Barbossa and crew try to persuade the other pirate lords (other than himself and Jack) to band together to defeat Davy Jones, who is now under the control of the British Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander), who is set on wiping out the pirates. Barbossa gains control of a ship, and he and his crew sail over the edge of the world to bring Jack back from the wasteland of Davy Jones’ Locker. On their return, the principals all have different agendas: Jack is under the allure of killing Jones to take his place as an immortal captain; Barbossa simply wants to stop Jones and Beckett, and remain alive. Will wants to rescue his father, Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), who is a servent aboard the Flying Dutchman. And Elizabeth, well, it’s never entirely clear what her motivations are, since she remains torn between Jack and Will, has some other curve balls lobbed her way, and remains something of a muddled character.

Like the second film, At World’s End is rather muddled. I agree with Peter David that it’s not a hard film to follow, but that doesn’t mean it’s altogether clear. Jack ends up talking to hallucinations of himself, but once he’s out of Davy Jones’ Locker, it’s not clear why. Will and Elizabeth are working out the broad strokes of their relationship during the film, and don’t seem to trust each other on a fundamental level, but none of it rings true; it feels contrived for dramatic effect, which just makes it hard to get invested in either of their characters. And far from lending needed gravity to the film, Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa is mostly played for comedic effect, often as a foil for Depp, but since he’s not a true adversary, he ends up seeming like a fifth wheel.

The film is full of sumptuous special effects. The effects of Davy Jones, the Dutchman, and his crew all feel a little old by now, but the climactic battle between the Dutchman and the Black Pearl is pretty impressive. The surrealistic land Jack finds in the Locker is cleverly portrayed, but not at such length that it gets boring. But the CGI does get in the way sometimes, often seeming to cry out, “Look at me! Look at how clever I am!” The final confrontation with Lord Beckett is very much in this vein: It’s a very impressive scene, but its sheer technical audacity takes away from the drama of the scene itself.

The characters and acting are uneven. To be fair, even the best writers would have had a hard time pulling off Captain Jack’s character through three films, making him basically likeable, and yet an almost-completely self-interested rogue. Hell, that they pulled it off for the first film was an accomplishment all by itself. Depp’s gotten a little criticism for mincing his way through the role a little too gleefully, and I think the charges have some warrant. He’s still a lot of fun to watch, though.

At the other end, Elizabeth went from being overmatched in the first film to rather unlikeable in this one, and Knightly not nearly a good enough actress to pull off this sort of challange. In the middle, Bloom does a decent heroic job with a decently heroic role, while Rush does about as well as one could hope with a poorly-written one. On the other hand, the cast of the Black Pearl’s crew fill their partly-dramatic, partly-comic roles quite well; I particularly enjoy Kevin McNally as Jack’s right-hand-man Gibbs.

The film takes an interesting turn at the end, completely dispensing with one major plot element, while sending one of our main characters in an unexpected direction. It actually works, but it all feels a little too messy, and a little too dragged-out, to be a really satisfying story.

The net result is that the film is much like the second: Enjoyable, but haphazard and too long. I wish it took itself a little more seriously, and a little less flamboyantly. But, sequels often feel the need to top their predecessors, and often try to their detriment. The first one is far better than either of the other two.

Pan’s Labyrinth

Review of the film Pan’s Labyrinth.

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Last night we went to see Pan’s Labyrinth, the (sort of) fantasy film by directory Gullermo del Toro (Hellboy). It’s in Spanish with subtitles, and was originally titled The Faun’s Labyrinth, but the title was changed for the English version for unknown reasons.

The story is fairly simple: Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is a girl about 10 years old in 1944 Fascist Spain. Her mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) married Captain Vidal (Sergi López) and is pregnant with the Captain’s son. Carmen and Ofelia move to the Captain’s country house where he is entrenched in fighting the socialist rebels. Ofelia is befriended by the Captain’s aide, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú).

In the country, Ofelia is contacted by a mantis who turns out to be a faerie, and which takes her into a hole in the middle of a nearby ruined labyrinth, where she meets a faun (Doug Jones) who tells her that she is the reincarnation of the Princess Moanna of an underground kingdom, and that she must perform three tasks before the full moon in order to return to her kingdom. He gives her a book which reveals its pages as she accomplishes each task, but finds that her tasks considerably disrupt her comfort and standing in the Captain’s camp.

I knew going in that this would be a dark film, that it would contrast its fantastic elements with a full-on war, but it greatly exceeded my expectations in its darkness and its graphic brutality: The Captain is a hard, cold, calculating man, who takes pride in the impending birth of his son, but has little use for anyone else who can’t help him in his task of eliminating the rebels. He beats, kills and tortures people and many of these scenes are vividly depicted. The fantasy scenes also contain graphic violence at times, and slimy yuckiness at other times, so there’s really little respite.

I thought this brutality made the film a lot less enjoyable than it might have been, as I periodically winced or turned away when something espcially nasty happened, which put me on my guard and made it difficult to enjoy the rest of the film once I realized that was how it was going to be.

There is some method to this madness, as the film leaves ambiguous whether Ofelia’s adventures with the faun are real, or simply he product of her imagination: She might be so horrified by what’s happening around her that she might be imagining the adventures as a form of escape (for example). So the point might be that this is an extreme which war drives people (children) to. While I can understand this, I still think the brutality could have been handled less graphically, cutting away rather than focusing on it (as happens when one person has his face beaten in with a bottle, for instance – only one example among many in this film).

The real disappointment, I think, is that the film opens with such promise of the wonders of a serious fantasy (as opposed to a light Hollywood fantasy), before it turns violent and gross. There are aspects of the film which are fascinating even though they’re terrifying: The scene with Ofelia stealing from the dining hall of the Pale Man (who is a really cool-looking monster, as you can see from photos here and here) is tense, arresting, and visually fantastic. But there’s frustratingly little of it, the film’s sense of wonder is just too rarely revealed to carry the day.

So while the acting is good and the story interesting, I can’t really recommend Pan’s Labyrinth. I think it was working at cross purposes with the film I really wanted to see, and consequently I was disappointed in it. Oddly, the film it most reminds me of – mainly in its serious tone and dark visuals (not to mention very similar opening scene) – is Memento, but the latter is a much better film (despite a few squidgy moments of its own) because it manages to be horrifying in a more thoughtful way, and ultimately it’s the more rewarding of the two.

Happy Feet

Review of the film Happy Feet.

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I thought it was borderline criminal for Debbi and me to have a week off and not go see at least one film, so today we went to see Happy Feet, the computer-animated film about singing penguins.

It’s a cute film: Mumble (voice – and apparently the eyes – of Elijah Wood) can’t sing, but he can dance up a storm. But the elders of his tribe of emperor penguins reject this as aberrant, and Mumble leaves his home in searh of, well, himself, as well as a way to win the heart of Gloria (Brittany Murphy). Along the way he makes friends from another group of penguins who don’t care about singing but appreciate his dancing, and he gathers clues to why his tribe’s fish seem to be disappearing.

The animation is quite good, although it looks like the creators decided to punt on rendering humans, since those that appear look like actual filmed humans (either that or animation has gotten even more sophisticated than I’d thought!).

The film also takes the interesting approach of putting Mumble in a completely untenable situation which he can only get out of by being, well, just as different as everyone thinks he is. This highlights one of the problems with the abundance of Pixar-style settings in which creatures or entities which aren’t intelligent or have human-like societies are portrayed as being basically human: Either they need to stick to their own world and only have limited impact on humans, ones that people can dismiss as accidents or their own bad memories, or they’re eventually going to do something which is going to cause some fundamental change in the world. Neither approach is really wrong, but until Happy Feet I don’t think anyone’s really committed to taking the latter approach.

Happy Feet is basically supposed to be cute and a bit of a tear-jerker, so if you hate films like that, then you should skip this one. But it’s a nice little uplifting movie otherwise, which can be a nice way to get away from it all for a couple of hours.

The singing and dancing bits ain’t bad, neither.

A Poor Review

Trying to become a better reviewer is hard, and I certainly didn’t expect it to happen in just a few months, even with paying some attention to it. As a critic (even an amateur one), it’s useful to look at other peoples’ reviews, as reviews are as worthy of criticism as other products.

So here’s a startlingly poorly-written review of the film Pan’s Labyrinth by film critic Kenneth Turan on NPR’s Morning Edition. A say it’s “startling” because I usually find that Turan is a pretty solid reviewer.

What I don’t like about this review is that it’s all pretty writing (Turan is quite a good writer) and applase for director Guillermo del Toro’s ability to make his fantasy setting seem realistic, even when juxtaposed against the (presumably) uncompromising view of life in 1944 Spain. But it doesn’t really tell us anything about the film’s story, which for a film of any depth really ought to be the first (or at least the second) thing a review addresses. Who is the girl who’s the presumed protagonist? What’s he background? What challenges does she have in her life and what does she encounter in the fantasy world, and how does the movie handle her story? From Turan’s review, I really have no idea.

(In the interest of full disclosure – and to pad this entry with a few more links – Tim Lynch – my old sparring partner from my days on the rec.arts.startrek USENET newsgroup – and I had a brief go-round about film reviews on Peter David’s blog a year and a half ago. He invoked Kenneth Turan’s name there in response to my general satisfaction with reviews in the San Jose Mercury News. I like Turan’s reviews well enough, but I don’t find them markedly better than the Merc’s.)

This won’t dissuade me from going to see Pan’s Labyrinth (I’ve been rather intrigued by it, actually), but if I was on the fence about it, I don’t think Turan’s review would have pushed me over the edge. I actually might have ended up thinking, “Well gee, it sounds like a rather depressing special effects extravaganda.”

Turan’s review in the LA Times (registration required) fills in some of the gaps, but I think he excised the wrong content when he condensed it for his NPR review. (To be fair, I don’t know how the NPR reviews are produced; maybe he reads his whole print review and then someone else edits it for time. But the end result is the same either way.)

For Your Eyes Only

It’s time for SpikeTV‘s Christmas Bondathon, and right now we’re watching the best Roger Moore Bond film, For Your Eyes Only (1981).

My favorite part of this film is maybe the opening sequence, which essentially lays to rest some of the dangling elements from the Sean Connery days: Bond’s marriage, and his old foe Blofeld (who’s filmed the way he was in the early films, without any view of his face). Despite a couple of corny lines, it’s a terrific sequence. I’d also love to get an MP3 of the incidental music from the moment that Bond yanks the cable on the helicopter, which I think is just a neat bit of adventure music.

(The rest of the film is quite good as well. It would have been a fine place to relaunch the franchise, but sadly the series spluttered creatively following this film.)

The early 80s are such a weird time to look at in retrospect: The lingering effects of late-70s fashion and pop music, but the beginnings of the businesslike conservatism of the Reagan years. FYEO navigates this territory in the bizarre manner of James Bond films, seeming both an embodiment of the period and a funhouse mirror of it. I think the fact that it remains a fundamentally serious film, and more a part of the Cold War then any other Bond film are what elevates it above the other Moore films.

Old Power, New Power

We’re watching bits of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy on TNT today (right now it’s Peter Jackson’s Helm’s Deep, as J.D. calls it), and I’m reminded of something that always seems a little odd to me about fantasy stories.

A basic element of fantasy seems to be a tendency to look to the past: In the past, there were great wonders (and great terrors), creatures with fantastic powers, but over time those creatures and powers have gone away or fallen by the wayside, and the remnants of those powers are known only to a select few. Often there’s a tacit understanding that even these, too, shall pass.

The Lord of the Rings (both the novel and the films) is rooted in this notion, the passing of the ages of greatness and the rise of mortal men. Tim Powers’ terrific novel The Anubis Gates also uses this as a fundamental principle of the plot. And a panoply of fantasy stories in between are full of quests for lost powers, or filled with characters who know of forgotten lore. But how often does fantasy depict the creation of great powers in what is presented as “the modern day”? Surely there are some, but they’re the exception, aren’t they?

What I find interesting about this is that this is very much at odds with our observation of how the world works: Technology and power increases over time, not decreases. While the ancients built pyramids and great walls, what’s remarkable about their accomplishments is not that they achieved them, but that they achieved them given the tools they had at hand.

Science fiction embraces the notion of improving technology, of course: Charles Stross’ Accelerando is merely an extreme example of this philosophy, but science fiction assumes that we, humans, are the creators of great wonders, and not that we’re simply trying to rediscover or recapture glories of ages past. Where science fiction does portray great dead powers, it’s more with an air of those powers having simply had a head start on humanity, not that we won’t get there eventually (or that we’re going backwards).

I suppose fantasy is rooted in myth and religion, which were shaped in days when humanity was trying to figure out how things came to be that not only it couldn’t understand, but it has precious few frameworks for trying to understand them. So it seemed like the world was shaped by great old powers which had faded into history. Whereas science fiction developed in the industrial age, when our frameworks for understanding the world had developed to the point that we could shape it and use it.

I think this is a fundamental difference between the two genres. I don’t know if it’s a major slice of why I prefer SF to fantasy, but I do read fantasy stories and think things like, “Why can’t humans figure out how to live as long as elves? Or create magical wonders like those that once existed? Why must magic fade into the past?”

Does this bother other readers of fantasy, I wonder?

Rating the Bond Films

Here’s how I’d rank the James Bond films, from best to worst:

Here’s how I’d rank the James Bond films, from best to worst:

  1. Goldfinger (1964)
  2. From Russia With Love (1963)
  3. For Your Eyes Only (1981)
  4. Dr. No (1962)
  5. GoldenEye (1995)
  6. Live And Let Die (1973)
  7. Casino Royale (2006)
  8. Octopussy (1983)
  9. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
  10. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
  11. You Only Live Twice (1967)
  12. Thunderball (1965) and Never Say Never Again (1983), which are basically the same movie
  13. The World is Not Enough (1999)
  14. Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
  15. Die Another Day (2002)
  16. The Man With The Golden Gun (1974)
  17. The Living Daylights (1987)
  18. Moonraker (1979)
  19. A View to a Kill (1985)

I haven’t seen enough of License to Kill (1989) or Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) to have an opinion of them. (Honestly, I barely remember The Living Daylights, either.)

Specific rankings might change depending on my mood. I would say that Dr. No and above are the great Bond films, The World is Not Enough and above are the good Bond films, and the rest are the bad Bond films.

The high ranking of the Connery films and low ranking of the Brosnan films are more a reflection of the scripts than the actors.

I admit it: I like The Spy Who Loved Me. It’s an incredibly cheesy, campy film, but that’s actually part of its appeal. Somehow it’s so ludicrous that it’s actually entertaining because of, rather than in spite of, its failings.

A lot of people really seem to hate Octopussy. I think it’s a decent run-of-the-mill Bond film. It’s really not much worse than – or much different from – Live and Let Die. But for my money, the best Moore film is For Your Eyes Only, which not only has the best opening sequence of the whole series, but is the one Moore film which is basically played as a straight adventure, rather than a silly piece of camp or with a completely ridiculous plot.