Review: The Bourne Ultimatum (dir. Paul Greengrass, 2007)

In this high-tech digital age, the makers of high-profile action movies sometimes like to brag about how they used real cars and real stunts — even when some of the defining images in their films couldn’t possibly exist without pixels on a screen. (Yes, Live Free or Die Hard, I’m pointing at you and that spinning airborne car that just happens to miss our hero by a hair.) But every now and then, along comes a film that really seems to have happened in front of the cameras — and The Bourne Ultimatum is just such a film.

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The Bourne Ultimatum — the review’s up!

My review of The Bourne Ultimatum is now up at CT Movies.

One angle I don’t pursue in this review is the comparison or contrast that some have made between Jason Bourne and James Bond. Matt Damon himself told the Associated Press:

Bond is “an imperialist and he’s a misogynist. He kills people and laughs and sips martinis and wisecracks about it,” Damon, 36, told The Associated Press in an interview. . . .

“Bourne is this paranoid guy. He’s on the run. He’s not the government. The government is after him. He’s a serial monogamist who’s in love with his dead girlfriend and can’t stop thinking about her,” Damon said. “He’s the opposite of James Bond.” . . .

Damon said he bumped into former Bond star Pierce Brosnan in London and they chatted briefly about how the British super-spy’s movie handlers were trying to update the character with last fall’s “Casino Royale,” which introduced Daniel Craig as Bond.

Brosnan told him the aesthetics and style of Bond can be updated “but fundamentally, what the character is is something from the 1960s,” Damon said.

There may be some truth to Damon’s characterization of Bond if he is thinking of the Roger Moore movies — but that Bond was very different from the character Ian Fleming created in the 1950s. The Bond of the books certainly wrestled with the moral implications of his missions, and he wasn’t quite the rampant hedonist that we saw in the films. (Hedonist, sure, but not quite so rampant.)

I have not read all of the James Bond books, but I have seen all of the movies, and the differences between them may be particularly obvious if we look at the two versions of Moonraker (published 1955, filmed 1979). If memory serves, Bond doesn’t bed anyone in that book — though admittedly not for lack of trying. There is a woman with an engagement ring, who Bond assumes is wearing the ring in order to ward off attention from the villain, but at the end of the book it turns out the woman really is engaged, and Bond chides himself for not allowing for the possibility that the engagement ring was genuine. In the film, on the other hand, Bond beds something like half-a-dozen women, just to kill the time.

Also, in the book version of Moonraker, Bond seriously considers a suicide attack, destroying a missile on its launch pad in such a way that Bond himself would die, but the millions of people living in London would be spared. Say what you will about Bond’s personal life, but he is serving his country (and the planet, in some of the wilder movies), and he puts his life on the line to do so.

And what about Bourne? “He’s not the government,” says Damon — but would being the government necessarily be a bad thing? Don’t get me wrong, I love the Bourne character, and I love the Bourne films. But I don’t think Bourne is inherently morally superior to Bond simply because he fights to protect himself, whereas Bond fights to protect his fellow citizens. (In the newest film, by the way, Bourne actually puts an innocent civilian in harm’s way; maybe that civilian will be released by the CIA eventually, but given how lethal and paranoid the CIA are in these films, who knows?)

It seems to me that Bond and Bourne are both escapist adventure heroes, but heroes who address different needs. And just as there is room for both conventional wisdom and subversive wisdom in our philosophies and theologies, so too there is room in our collective imagination for heroes who fight on behalf of earthly powers and heroes who fight against those same powers.

What a time to change a movie’s title.

If you had made a film based on Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, and you had rushed it into production, and you had already released a lame trailer, and you were only two months away from releasing the film itself, what do you think you would do?

If you were Fox-Walden, you would change the title! That’s right, The Dark Is Rising — the title of both the book on which this film is based, and the five-book series of which the book is a part — now goes by the official title The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising.

So if they make sequels, will they all be released as part of a series called The Seeker? (And will fans approve of this name?) Or are they putting the title of the individual story ahead of the title of the entire series, a la The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)?

The Simpsons — bigger than Pixar!

The Simpsons Movie broke a few records this past weekend. With over $74 million in the till as of Sunday, it had the third-biggest opening weekend of any animated film ever; it lags behind only the two Shrek sequels. That means it had a bigger opening than any film by Pixar (The Incredibles, 2004, $70.5 million), Disney (The Lion King, 1994, $40.9 million), Fox / Blue Sky (Ice Age: The Meltdown, 2006, $68 million), Warner (Happy Feet, 2006, $41.5 million), Paramount (The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, 2004, $32 million) or any other movie studio, save DreamWorks.

Seeing the Simpsons on the big screen brought back some weird memories. In fact, the first time I saw the Simpsons was on the big screen. It was the late 1980s, and the one- or two-minute clips that were originally produced for The Tracy Ullman Show (1987-1990) were included as interstitial segments in at least one of the animation festivals that my friends and I attended at the time. (I vividly recall Homer and Marge expressing their displeasure at the way Bart and Lisa behaved at a funeral.) Come to think of it, I might have encountered the Simpsons at one of the very same festivals where I first saw Pixar’s Tin Toy (1988).

Needless to say, seeing the new movie — a mega-merchandised event attended by millions of devoted fans — does not even begin to compare to the thrill of discovering these characters when they were more obscure. And it certainly doesn’t help that the TV show, and thus the franchise as a whole, has been in decline for at least a decade. The Simpsons Movie still has some good laughs, though. Possibly not enough to warrant buying a ticket … but several gags are of the sort that work best only in a movie theatre. So you might as well see it anyway — especially with a crowd.

Have we lost the “appetite for difficulty”?

A.O. Scott of the New York Times comments on the passing of Bergman and Antonioni, and the era they represented:

There was, among certain filmgoers in the 1960s, an appetite for difficulty, a conviction that symbolic obscurity and psychological alienation were authentic responses to the state of the world. More than that, the idea that a difficult work had special value — that being challenged was a distinct form of pleasure — enjoyed a prestige, at the time, that is almost unimaginable today. We would rather be teased than troubled, and the measure of artistic sophistication is cleverness rather than seriousness.

Given all that, it may be hard for someone who wasn’t there — who never knew a film culture in which “La Notte” didn’t already exist — to quite appreciate the heroic status conferred on Mr. Antonioni and Mr. Bergman 40 years ago. I don’t believe that the art of filmmaking has necessarily declined since then (I’d quit my job if I did), but it seems clear the cultural climate that made it possible to hail filmmakers as supreme artists has vanished for good. All that’s left are the films.

Ingmar Bergman, 1918-2007

Ingmar Bergman died yesterday at the age of 89. I have seen quite a few of his films but none of them often enough or recent enough to comment on them in any detail. (Though I did jot a few notes here on 1973′s Scenes from a Marriage and 2003′s Saraband a couple years ago.) However, Bergman did represent an interesting point in the history of the relationship between film and faith — by encouraging filmmakers to engage in theological and spiritual matters more deeply than they had ever done before, and by encouraging people of faith to engage with film more deeply than they had ever done before — so I need to note his passing here.

Many tributes and obituaries are already out there, and they have all expressed the essential points much better than I ever could. Victor Morton at the Rightwing Film Geek blog is especially eloquent and passionate on the topic. What follows are some excerpts from the other tributes that have caught my eye.

Stephen Holden, The New York Times:

An existential dread runs through the entire Bergman oeuvre. Among the major directors who spearheaded the international art film movement after 1950, he was the one most closely in touch with the intellectual currents of the day. Freud and Sartre were riding high, and Time magazine wondered in a cover story if God were dead. Attendance at Mr. Bergman’s films was a lot like going to church. Though many of those films are steeped in church imagery, God is usually absent from the sanctuary.

As a college student and avid art-film goer in the early 1960s, I was overwhelmed by Mr. Bergman’s films, with their heavy-duty metaphysical speculation and intellectual seriousness. In those days, you would no more argue with Mr. Bergman’s stature than you would question the greatness of the modern Western literary canon; like Mann, Joyce, Kafka, Faulkner, et al., Mr. Bergman was an intellectual god whose work could reward a lifetime of analytical study.

Today the religion of high art that dominated the 1950s and ’60s seems increasingly quaint and provincial. The longstanding belief that humans are born with singular psyches and souls is being superseded by an emerging new ideal: the human as technologically perfectible machine. The culture of the soul — of Freud and Marx and, yes, Bergman — has been overtaken by the culture of the body. Biotechnology leads the shaky way into the future, and pseudo-immortality, through cloning, is in sight. Who needs a soul if the self is technologically mutable? For that matter, who needs art?

Jeffrey Wells, Hollywood Elsewhere:

I wonder how many under-35s have even seen a Bergman film. The Bergman art- house aesthetic of the ’50s and ’60s is about as far from the Tarantino film-geek attitude as you can get. Film Snob Dictionary authors Martin Kamp and Law- rence Levi wrote a couple of years ago that “watching a Bergman film is so PBS tote-bag, so Mom-and-Dad-on-a-date-in-college, so baguettes-and-Chardonnay.”

John Podhoretz, New York Post:

The darkness of Bergman’s vision of the world and his uncompromisingly bleak expression of that vision resonated with those who viewed art not as a form of the most sublime entertainment – entertainment that transcends the merely pleasurable to offer a transformative experience – but rather as the secular version of a stern sermon.

Art, in this view, wasn’t supposed to be easy to take or pleasurable to take in. It was supposed to punish you, assault you, scrub you clean of impurities. . . .

As for the society of people who needed Ingmar Bergman to stand as the greatest example of what the cinema should do, they too had had their day by 1982. For the basic truth is that the critics who described Bergman as the greatest of film artists were people embarrassed by the movies.

They didn’t admire the medium. They were offended by its unseriousness, by its capacity to entertain without offering anything elevating at the same time. They believed the movies were a low and disreputable art form and that its only salvation lay in offering moral and aesthetic instruction to its audiences about the worthlessness of existence.

Liam Lacey, Globe and Mail:

Bergman, who died yesterday at his home in Sweden at the age of 89, was a litmus test for cinematic seriousness, and, perhaps, in the long run many people, including critics, have preferred not to face the demands of his work. He has been parodied and dismissed as puritanical, misanthropic and, as Joe Queenan said in a 4,000-word for The Guardian last March, “resolutely non-life affirming.”

All this, of course, is reductive and exaggerated. In Fanny and Alexander (1982), Bergman proved he wasn’t above a good fart joke. And even in a world where God is apparently AWOL and hell is other people, Bergman’s films hold their own form of exhilaration. As Aristotle recognized, other people’s tragedies, in fictional form, help to place our own pity and fear into proper balance. . . .

Though it may sound facetious to say the themes of despair and Godlessness can go out of fashion, there is some truth to it. It has been 41 years since Time magazine created a furor by asking, “Is God dead?” on its cover. The vogue for the quest for spiritual authenticity has been displaced by postmodern questioning of authenticity and “the meaning of life” is more a question of linguistics than destiny. That doesn’t make Bergman any less significant than, say, Goethe or Shakespeare, but perhaps a similar kind of historical figure.

Glenn Kenny,

One sometimes heard the complaint that Bergman’s films are peopled with characters who can’t see past the bridge of their own noses, and that they’re reflections of Bergman’s own self-absorption. That we rarely if ever hear anyone bemoaning the lack of “social engagement” in, say, Samuel Beckett’s work is, among other things, indicative of how cinema is still regarded as a stepchild of the fine arts in some respects. . . .

Well, what can one do? The self, and one’s negotiation/war with it, is one of Bergman’s great themes. As in Beckett, some of Bergman’s most powerful scenes are of one person in a room, or two people in a room. And the same thing over and over again. . . .

“Today, we are aswarm with Antonioni imitators, but no one seems to want to be the new Bergman,” Michael Atkinson notes. That’s partly because nobody can be the new Bergman. And not just for the obsious reason.

Unlike a lot of younger filmmakers today, Bergman was a highly, richly cultured individual. He knew the Bible backward and forward, Shakespeare too; fine art, music, and so on. All of his knowledge did more than inform his work—his work is suffused with it, it gains much of its texture and heft from it. Of course, Antonioni is similarly cultured, but his depth in this area doesn’t play so much upon the surface of his work; it motivates the form, rather than thickens it. Today’s young filmmakers aren’t, for the most part, as polyglot. For a lot of them, all the culture they’ve got is film. And Antonioni’s got a signature style that’s accessible to them, and seems imitable: shoot some architecture and negative space, have characters disaffectedly utter banalities, and you think you’ve got it. To emulate Bergman, you’ve got to know what he knew, and knowing that…go on to be yourself.

How ironic, in light of this last excerpt, that Michelangelo Antonioni himself also passed away yesterday, at the age of 94.