Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Sunday, Aug 5, 2007


It’s safe to say that, unless they are based on some similarly styled source material (book, play, etc.), the motion picture trilogy is a product of popularity. Though its narrative and cinematic symmetry can be breathtaking to behold, most three part films were not preplanned. Instead, they were forged out of a desire to please the audience mixed with a need to repay the cast/crew. George Lucas can argue all he wants to that his Star Wars saga was always intended as three separate three-part projects (guess the crappy prequels destroyed that dream, right big G?) but Fox barely wanted to release the first film. So what fodder did he have for contemplating such a massive vision? The answer is obvious – he didn’t. Like most eventual franchises, box office gave Luke Skywalker’s real pappy a chance to dream, resulting in the genre’s first example of the law of diminishing returns.


There are a couple of factors inherent in determining the best trilogies of all time. First, the three films included have to be linked in some significant way. They can’t be a pure product of money-oriented moviemaking. Secondly, all three movies must be worth watching. A sloppy second act or atrocious third movement means the overall quality is compromised. A few can survive this kind of scrutiny – most cannot. Finally, there is a subjective element known as “completeness”. Do the films that make up this multi-faceted narrative really deliver on their designs, is there an all encompassing arc, or are we stuck seeing the same old story told over and over again? By answering these important questions, and taking into consideration other objective criteria like continuity and completeness, a final assessment can be reached.


This does mean, however, that there are a few examples that barely miss making the list. For all the splendor and drama they bring to the artform, the Godfather Trilogy is hampered by a third film that just can’t match its Best Picture winning brethren. Similarly, we won’t know if Dario Argento has completed his Three Mothers triptych until sometime later this year. While Suspiria and Inferno are masterworks, early buzz suggests a less than successful conclusion. Speaking of the Italian maestro, one could consider his infamous slasher style/giallo efforts – Profundo Rosso, Tenebrae, and Opera – to be some manner of Gloved Killer trilogy, but without anything linking them besides the murderer’s methodology, that may seem like a reach. Similarly, Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman may have invented the gore film, but their Blood Trilogy is a collection of corpuscle caving in name only.


Others miss out because of the director’s desire to keep tapping into the same cinematic source. George Romero would easily make the list if it weren’t for the wonderful Land of the Dead. The fourth time around for the politically tinged zombie series was excellent, but warrants a new quadrilogy classification. The same goes for the Alien films (though they’re decidedly more tenuous in their polish). Die Hard could have made the final list if it weren’t for the obvious cash grab of the Live Free installment, while Indiana Jones junked his chances with its fourth dip into the audience goodwill well. Indeed, at a certain point, a potential interconnected threesome makes the leap over to full blown franchise status. So if you’re a superhero (Batman, Superman) or a serial killer (Freddy, Jason, Hannibal), chances are your potential inclusion on this list was ruined several sequels ago.


With Jason Bourne bludgeoning the box office in the latest installment of Paul Greengrass’s action narrative tilt-a-whirl, now’s as good a time as any to countdown the all time greats of triangular tale-spinning. Some may surprise you. Others will shock you. But in the context of this discussion, all are worthy of classics consideration.


10. The Flesh Trilogy
The Touch of Her Flesh/The Kiss of Her Flesh/The Curse of Her Flesh


Miscreant Michael Findlay and his wife Roberta made a lot of sleazy exploitation flicks in their time, but these were, perhaps, their most repugnant. Not for what they showed on screen – this was the mid ’60s after all, not the most lenient of censorship eras. No, these three films formed the foundation of the modern slasher shocker, with the mindless torture and killing of nubile young women at the fore. Cringe all you want at their seedy mix of sex and slaughter, but you’ll never look at your favorite knife-wielding maniac the same way after watching madman Michael (who also starred as the killer) put the wicked wanton smack down. 

9. The ORIGINAL Star Wars Trilogy (Episodes 4 through 6)
Star Wars/ The Empire Strikes Back/ The Return of the Jedi


What? You think we’d leave this off? No way, woo-kie. George Lucas may be a money grubbing, soul stealing, dream dashing basta…businessman, but he did help co-create the entire popcorn movie era of cinema. Unlike anything anyone had seen at the time of its release, the original Wars stands as one of those unique audience epiphanies. After a decade drenched in sodden self examination and social commentary, movies were actually fun again. And with the release of each additional installment, things just got better and better. Sure, over time, Darth’s real demagogue has drained all the joy out of his original vision, but we still have our memories. Luckily, he can’t digitally redesign them.


8. The Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy
Curse of the Black Pearl/ Dead Man’s Chest/ At World’s End


Who would have thought that the man responsible for Mouse Hunt and The Mexican would end up singlehandedly reinvigorating the sword and surf surreality of the swashbuckling pirate film? Gore Verbinski was considered a lot of things, but the maker of larger than life blockbuster entertainment was not one of them. Sure, some will argue that the Disney revamp of its theme park attraction lost a little of its luster along the way, but they’d be missing the bigger picture. Thanks to this director’s attention to detail, and the vast cinematic canvas he works within, there’s nothing here but acknowledged talent and an astonishing array of stylistic strengths.

7. The Matrix Trilogy
The Matrix/ The Matrix Reloaded/ The Matrix Revolutions


Oh stop whining. If Lucas belongs here, so do the Wachowskis. Bellyache over the final two phases in this virtual reality rigormoral, but when the Annotated History of Future Shock is written, the story of Neo, the Machines, and the saving of Zion will have its own hollowed place. Besides, it’s rare when a single film can jumpstart a whole genre, and yet the first installment proved that audiences were hungry for speculation done with flash, finesse and just a small amount of philosophizing. Granted, some of the intelligence got lost along the way, and the final battle with Agent Smith is overkill for excess’s sake, but these are good movies. Go on, admit it.

6. The Back to the Future Trilogy
Back to the Future/ Back to the Future Part 2/ Back to the Future Part 3


Just like the POTC production legend, here is another case where a fantastic first film mandated another two trips to the box office trough. Luckily, director Robert Zemeckis and his buddy Bob Gale were along for all three time travel tales. Some complained that Part 2 was nothing more than an extended set up for the last episode, but there is still a great deal of imagination and invention inherent in the crazed continuum cock-up. Better still was the decision to move the entire narrative back to the Wild Wild West, thereby completing the sense of apocryphal Americana. Like well tuned machines, these movies still work on many endearing levels.

5. The Evil Dead Trilogy
The Evil Dead/ Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn/ Army of Darkness


Sam Raimi was too young to have such success. By 22, his debut horror film was being heralded by none other than Stephen King as the most terrifying scarefest ever. By 28, he was every fright geek’s favorite filmmaker. And by 33, he was ready to jump into the ranks of Tinsel Town titans. Oddly enough, each of these milestones was met by an installment of his sensational (and influential) Evil Dead efforts. By bending genres to fit his needs, investing fear with funny business and heroism with the hackneyed, he formed the basis for an entire generation of reference-happy visionaries. Looking over the 2007 cinematic landscape, his imprint still remains.

4. The Vengeance Trilogy
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance/ OldBoy/ Lady Vengeance


It should come as no surprise that Korean director Chan-wook Park was a student of philosophy at Sogang University in Seoul. His movies are as much about virtue as they are about violence. For many in the West, Oldboy announced this filmmaker’s fanciful way with payback. Yet it was the other parts of his terrific trilogy that argued for his place among the current track of trendsetters. It was there where he merged ethics with evil, the need for personal justice accented by the desperation of human pain. Like all feats of greatness, it takes time for a clear critical consensus to be formed. But it’s coming – if it hasn’t already arrived.

3. The Man with No Name Trilogy
A Fistful of Dollars/ For a Few Dollars More/ The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly


Sergio Leone never set out to redefine the western. Oddly enough, he wasn’t even the first filmmaker to use the spaghetti style to revisit the Hollywood staple. But thanks to his directorial disregard for convention and cliché, his literal view of the old fashioned oater as real horse opera, and the stellar actors he chose to work with, the results speak for themselves. Though many of his fellow Mediterranean moviemakers ventured deep into the bullets and black hats genre, none left the artistic impact of this cinematic maestro. When you add in his masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West, the case is all but closed.

2. The Ageism/Dream Trilogy
Time Bandits/ Brazil/ The Adventures of Baron Munchausen


Here’s hoping that Terry Gilliam can get off his self-serving soapbox sometime soon and start making movies again. To listen to him talk, he’s a picked-on pariah who can’t catch a break in the conspiratorial, commercial-minded industry. Yet he’s often his own worse enemy (right, Mr. Could Have Helmed Harry Potter???). In either case, we will always have these examples of celluloid spectacle to fall back on. Of the three, Munchausen remains the most underrated – which is odd, considering it focuses on an angry old man who, Don Quixote style, fights off the imaginary bullies who propose to steal his joy. Now why does that sound so familiar?

1. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
The Fellowship of the Ring/ The Two Towers/ The Return of the King


Peter Jackson rules, while all other trilogies drool. Let’s face facts – the man made a nearly 13 hour epic in 18 months – and the fans are still foaming for more. Unlike most of the other entries on this list, his take on Tolkien’s time honored novels just keeps getting deeper and richer with age. This is partly due to Jackson’s intrinsic belief in the emotional impact of film. All other media may make its importance known, but no other format finds a direct and undying connection with the audience easier than the motion picture. It’s safe to say that, even if every other entry on this countdown lost its legacy luster, this terrific triptych will still be standing, strong and ever so tall.

 


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Saturday, Aug 4, 2007


Underdog is so piecemeal it should come with a roll of duct tape. It’s so desperate to be everything to everyone that it ends up being very little to nobody in particular. Scripted by a committee that obviously didn’t contain a logician, a comedian, or someone adept at characterization, what we wind up with is a one trick dog and pony show without the little horse. As family films go, it’s about par for the pathetic course. This is the kind of movie that doesn’t care if it entertains – it just needs to recoup its minimal monetary outlay and guarantee a decent sell through return come DVD time. It’s hard to figure out what’s more insulting about this post-millennial live action update – the way it talks down to, and then plays perfunctorily, to its intended audience, or the opening credits callback to the original series, complete with material showing the classic cartoon icons we’ve come to know and love.


Forgoing the original animated series sense of serious heroics, this version of the crime-fighting cur begins with our hapless hound flunking some kind of police dog test. Picked up off the street by mad scientist Simon Barsinister and his conceited cohort, Cad, our perfectly ordinary pup becomes infused with mega-manipulated DNA, and before you know it, he’s talking, flying, and doing his damnedest to take a bite out of crime. Somehow, through contrivance or convenience, he ends up with widower ex-cop Dan Unger and his unhappy son Jack. At first, his domestic situation is perilous. Dan likes the mutt, but Jack could care less. Yet once he learns that his pet can converse, kick butt, and canvas the cityscape looking for lawlessness, our adolescent has a change of heart. They team together to rid Capital City of its occasional criminals, while fighting off the advances of Barsinister. Seems the brainiac has gone bonkers, and won’t rest until he has the newly crowned “Underdog”’s genetic material for some misguided course of world domination.


When you’re a genre – the kid’s flick – that has a hard enough time keeping one narrative conceit viable and floating in the air, trying to tackle several is creative suicide. Yet Underdog wants to walk along the course of the superhero film, the casual family drama, the retro-cool cartoon callback, and the basic boy and his dog spiel. Add in the whole anthropomorphized angle, the CGI spectacle, the grade school level humor, and the thriller-lite logistics and you’ve got the equivalent of a regurgitated Milk Bone. Indeed, there’s a real “insert idea” here dynamic at play in the film, a sense that someone came along and, for example, mandated a “father/son sitdown”, leaving the director to figure out how to wedge it in. It’s hard to fault Belgian Frederick Du Chau. He’s not really dealing with Shakespeare, and he does infuse the animal scenes with much of the magic he gave to the surprise sleeper Racing Stripes. Still, he’s not completely off the hook. He does let his action scenes veer wildly out of control, dominating the smaller facets of the film.


As for the cast, there are misguided decisions everywhere. The only clever choice was putting Peter Dinklage in the role of the psycho Simon Barsinister. While he never fully channels the animated evildoer’s maniacal menace, he is very good at stunted insanity. Unfortunately, he is given the attempted scene stealing of Patrick Warburton to work alongside. As Cad, the supposedly stupid sidekick, our pal Puddy is all over the map – cracking wise, playing dumb, attempting his own course of criminal mischief – and absolutely none of it works. He is so outside the whole Underdog ideal that you can literally see the sequences where he’s barely holding on. In the pinnacle role of human transponder, young Alex Neuberger is bad. Not ‘fall on his face, never work in show business again’ bad, but his performance argues a real inability to connect convincingly with the inanimate. This kid obviously had to work very closely with a regular dog (or a cardboard mock up) and his lack of inherent interest shows. It frequently feels like he’s merely repeating lines, not interacting with an intelligent pal.


And then there’s Jason Lee. First, a minor creative caveat – no matter how hard they tried, the creators of this cornball cash grab were never going to be able to match Wally Cox’s wonderful work on the animated series. The perfect pipsqueak, the bespectacled actor did an amazing job of both presenting Shoeshine Boy’s good natured wholesomeness and Underdog’s mutt machismo. Wisely, the movie takes the character in a different direction, and for what it’s worth, Lee is very good as the insecure hound who starts to recognize his own innate powers – its just not Underdog. He’s goofy, funny, personable, and zippy – he’s just not Underdog. In fact, the filmmakers would have been more honest with their audience had they changed the name of this film to Super–Bud (in honor of the long running athletic Golden Retriever franchise) and left it at that. It’s painful watching the story try to find ways to reference the cartoon (as when our hero mangles the English language looking for a way to say his noted catchphrase), and since it really wants to avoid the old school stance, it’s a more than mutual divorce.


In fact, what Disney should have done was step back for a moment and think this whole thing through. Instead of using Underdog for its foundation (obviously tagged for all the tie-in value, including name recognition and possible DVD offerings of the old show), they could have concocted their own talking dog adventure. They could have mined some of the same territory that Babe did, using the element of interspecies communication to anchor an entire animal oriented crime fighting unit. Like 2001’s Cats and Dogs, except with a sense of purpose, they could make their hero hound an undercover champion, playing fetch with his family by day, heading out into the city to stop crime at night. Tie it to the whole notion of what the phrase “man’s best friend” really means, and use the imagination that, at one time, made the House of Mouse famous to jumpstart your own kid-friendly franchise. Why sully a sentimental favorite with blatant product placement (General Mills) and tween tested poop jokes – especially when you have no real desire to replicate the original?


For the answer to these and other questions, there is no need to tune in tomorrow. Underdog is here today, and if the wee ones haven’t already inundated you with requests to hit the Cineplex, they will (or worse, demand a copy of their own come turnaround time). The featured beagle is very cute, endearing in a puppy dog eyes kind of way. Meshed with Lee’s likable personality, he becomes the companion every child would want. You can’t buy this kind of commercial drawing power – it’s instinctual in the prepubescent set. Though its lacks anything remotely novel or fresh, and fails to provide much in the way of adult-oriented laughs (unless you consider watching Jim Belushi’s aged behind bumble up some stairs the height of humor), the demographic will be delighted by Underdog’s zero-to-hero hokum. Who cares if the studio suits dropped the ball on this one: the little people pleasing pooch is right there, ready to fetch it all the way to the bank.


 


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Saturday, Aug 4, 2007


Jennifer Lopez is the new Barbra Streisand. No, old Butta Babs can still act and sing rings around this entertainment wannabe. No, where J-Lo matches the Oscar winning diva is in the oversized ego department. Rumors of her self-importance have long been legendary, but no reported hubris can match the outright narcissism of El Cantante, the overwrought biopic of New York salsa king Hector Lavoe. Yes, you read that right. Somehow, a movie centering on a charismatic yet troubled Puerto Rican vocalist who helped bring Latin music to the mainstream, has somehow turned into a vanity project for the questionable talents of the ersatz artist formerly known as ‘Bennifer’. Instead of concentrating on what made Lavoe an icon amongst his people, what we end up with is a Hispanic Taming of the Shrew where the title humanizing never occurs. In fact, a better name for this movie would have been Sid and Nancita.


In one of the most awkward narrative devices possible, we meet the former Mrs. Lavoe, a firebrand biz-nitch named Puchi, during a supposed 2002 interview. She is there to tell her side of the story, about how she met a meek little talent named Hector Perez and guided him through the jaded jungles of the music industry to create a crossover superstar. Jumping around in time and from personal perspective to perspective, we learn that Hector lost his mother when he was five, and started singing to give ‘voice to his pain’, or so his father said. Lured to New York like his dead beat, drug dealing brother, the future phenomenon meets the booty dancing hot stuff one night at a club. Before you know it, the two are inseparable, smoking cigarettes and screaming at each other in Spanish. Lavoe hooks up with another popular performer, they take Manhattan by storm, and then decide fame is too much fun. So Lavoe lets his wife ruin his life, he turns to heroin, and eventually dies of AIDs.


That’s a lot of ground to cover, and director Leon Ichaso can’t handle it all. To be fair, it’s a task no filmmaker could manage. To understand the importance of Lavoe and the music he made, you have to focus on his life story, the history of Hispanic music in America, the growing tide of Latino pride in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the ‘deal with the devil’ intricacies of the era’s music industry, and the psychological lure of drugs and self-destructive behavior. And then you have to add that bitter banshee on wheels, Puchi. Given the fact that Ms. Lopez and her third husband, Mr. Anthony, are in the leads, we assume more time will be spent with the couple. But Ichaso doesn’t know how to deal with them, and that’s when a certain female pop poseur takes over. The camera constantly focuses on J-Lo. When Lavoe is hurting, we get HER reactions. When Lavoe is singing, we see HER response. When Lavoe is strung out on drugs, we are awarded HER emotional unease. While it seems surreal, Hector Lavoe is actually a stranger in his own life story.


And that’s really too bad, cause if we learn anything from this lumbering biography it’s that Marc Anthony can sure carry a tune. In fact, if you find clips of Lavoe on the Web, you’ll swear the man playing him has a much better set of pipes. Selling every song with passion and power (even though Ichaso stoops to subtitling the lyrics, as if his actor’s interpretation is not enough), this is one chart topper who can actually deliver the goods. He may be rather lightweight in the dramatic moments, but we merely chalk it up to the character’s offstage persona. Sadly, El Cantante reduces Lavoe to a series of suicidal standards – addicted to dope, unhappy in life, confined in marriage – and yet when Anthony stands up to sing another song, we forgive him his collection of clichés.


Ms. Lopez, on the other hand, has no such safety net. She just goes out there on a ludicrous limb each and every time, delivering her domineering dialogue like someone crowned her queen of the she-devils. There is not a single redeeming aspect to her overdone, manipulative ‘mamacita’. In one scene, where Anthony’s Lavoe simply wants to watch his son dance, Jenny from the Block does everything she can to drive him to distraction. When he picks up the present his kid gave him and throws it to the floor, we forget the implied sentimental value of the item, and hope a shard or two lodged in Puchi’s voice-box. In many ways, she’s the Puerto Rican version of Norbit’s Rasputia – loud, crude, vindictive, and absolutely irredeemable. While the script and direction definitely drag El Cantante down, the portrait of Puchi in this film – true or false – places the final perfectly groomed and polished nails in the movie’s creative coffin.


There are other things that don’t work here, either. Throughout the first half of the film, the shady dealings of the managers and record labels behind Lavoe are hinted at and alluded to. Naturally, nothing comes of this. Similarly, the singer is described as being irresponsible, failing to show up to gigs and giving less than his all come show time. Yet every concert sequence is electrifyingly flawless, the crooner captivating his insanely loyal crowd. Even his nervous breakdown occurs off camera. Puchi discusses it, we see a brief scene of a zoned out Anthony, and then the couple is cooing over a backdrop of the Big Apple, relieved that everything is all right again. No Snake Pit freak out. No straight jacket screeching for this quickly cured basket case. In some ways, a docudrama with Lavoe’s story told via interviews, with Anthony recreating his presence on stage, would have worked a heck of a lot better than this Punch and Judy joke. If we wanted to see spouse’s spar with each other, we’d simply turn on Lifetime – or Dateline NBC.


It is clear that fans of this man and his music will have very little problem with the way they are portrayed in El Cantante. Lavoe comes across as a stained saint, and his presence on stage and in front of a microphone is solid. That just leaves Puchi as scapegoat for all the sorrow in his life – and isn’t it odd that Jennifer Lopez is left holding this particular bag. Maybe this is some kind of karmic payback for all the rotten things she’s rumored to have done over the last few years. From fiancés left in her wake,to full blown diva tantrums over insignificant petty issues, she’s singlehandedly destroyed any legitimacy she had as an artist. While one can blame the tabloids all they want, the proof of her unbridled hubris is plastered all over every frame of El Cantante. We were supposed to learn about how an earnest immigrant singer overcame obstacles to redefine salsa for the ‘70s. Instead, we discover that Jennifer Lopez is one out of control ogre – and that Marc Anthony will have a solid career, with or without her.



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Friday, Aug 3, 2007


It’s been a tough week for film fans. We lost Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, French film star Michel Serrault (Albin in La Cages aux Folles), and make-up artist William Tuttle (7 Faces of Dr. Lao, Young Frankenstein). It seemed like, for a while there, every time you opened your browser and clicked on your standard Internet news page, another famous face had left us. All loss is hard, but when it comes to the passing of our cinematic stalwarts, the forced filmic perspective is especially brutal. Who, if anyone, will be stepping in to take the place of such exalted names – and if there is no one waiting in the wings, why not? Could it be that Hollywood is so busy making a buck that they can’t be bothered by art anymore? That’s possible. It could also be that we aren’t looking in the right places. There are plenty of magnificent moviemakers out there, but unless they manage some sort of commercial appeal, they get left out of the cultural mix. Maybe the premium pay cable channel offerings for 04 August will shed some light on the subject. There’s at least one amazing movie in the bunch, something that could very easily stand the test of aesthetic time:


Premiere Pick
The Prestige


Yes, it does appear that SE&L will pimp this brilliant Chris Nolan film every chance it gets, but the reason for such shilling is simple – this is one of the best movies of the last ten years. Complicated, lush, and teaming with emotional heft, this story of competing magicians and the mistake that would forever connect their lives works as a thriller, a perfect period piece, a classic whodunit, and a clever combination of eye and mind candy. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale have never been better, and Nolan’s eye for detail and definition turn even the most minor moments into something significant and epic. With all its terrific twists and turns, it’s intricate character work, and brilliant basis in the weird world of magic and illusions, we wind up with something that resonates well beyond its limits as legitimate entertainment. What we have here is a masterpiece, and it’s a stunning sight to behold. (04 August, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Last Kiss


When Garden State arrives in theaters way back in 2004, pundits were predicting that star Zach Braff (who also wrote and directed) would wind up a genial generational guiding light. Fast forward two years and this sloppy anti-rom com has more or less robbed him of his aesthetic cred. Playing an indecisive dolt who can’t choose between his giving fiancé and a gal he used to grope in college, we wind up witnessing slacker ennui at its most aggravating. (04 August, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Marine


Glorified guilty pleasure alert! WWE wrestler John Sena stars as a stoic military man who makes a mistake, and finds himself all pumped up with no place to go. Luckily, his wife gets kidnapped by some escaping criminals, so all that lethal government sponsored training doesn’t go to waste. The result is a minimum of exposition and a lot of explosions. It’s not a great film, but is sure beats a Saturday night alone – sort of. (04 August, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

 


An Inconvenient Truth


Al Gore may not have won the electoral war, but he sure is making more significant global changes than the rube the Red States put in office. This Oscar winning warning about the legitimate threat from climate change challenges the conventional wisdom about nature’s resilience while offering practical solutions to save our environment. No wonder it became an indie doc phenomenon. The voting public may be persuadable, but they’re not dumb. (03 August, Showtime, 5PM EST)

Indie Pick
Half Nelson


The story sounds slightly sensational – well meaning inner city teacher reaches out and connects with his underprivileged students by day, goes home and smoke crack like an addict at night. Yet Ryan Fleck reached ridiculously splendid heights with just such a premise. Thanks in no small part to the award winning work of another same named star – the unbelievably brilliant Ryan Gosling – the outsider auteur found a happy, hopeful medium between outrageous and original. While many praised the star for his solid, skillful turn, a great deal of attention focused on Shareeka Epps, playing the inner city kid who stumbles upon her instructor’s dirty little secret. The two share a bond that’s both believable and breathtaking, making the movie more than just an examination of social status, race relations, and dire personal problems. In fact, what Fleck does better than most in his particular position is find the humanity inside the horror. If you haven’t already seen it, now’s the time to do so. (04 August, Sundance Channel, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
O’ Brother Where Art Thou?


The Coen Brothers surprised everyone, including their tuned-in fanbase, when they answered the slick pot smoke swagger of The Big Lebowski with this period piece take on Homer’s Odyssey. Even more unusual, they loaded up the soundtrack with classic country and bluegrass tunes, acting like a Greek chorus for all the shinbone alley shenanigans going on. The result was the boys’ biggest mainstream hit, and a Grammy winning soundtrack album to boot. (05 August, IFC, 9PM EST)

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance


Oldboy gets all the glory. Lady Vengeance gets all the geeks. But this first installment in Chan-wook Park’s Revenge Trilogy set the standards by which both its sequels function. While the narrative falls outside the mob war mandates of the standard Asian action flick, this diligent director does such a great job with his scripts that we don’t miss the mafia. In fact, Park’s proposal that all humans have an inherent need for justice speaks louder than any slow-motion gunplay. (06 August, Sundance Channel, 2:45AM EST)

Employee of the Month


Don’t get nervous – SE&L hasn’t lost its mind and decided to champion that horrible Dane Cook/Jessica Simpson comedy from last year. No, this 2004 effort focuses on an unlucky bank employee who loses his job, his fiancé, and his car all in one horrible day. Believe it or not, the following morning things only get worse. Hated by most critics when it hit theaters in a limited release, the small screen may be the place to enjoy this unusual tale. (08 August, IFC, 9PM EST)

Outsider Option
Berserk/ Trog


Ah – the sad fate of the fading Golden Era Hollywood superstar. Indeed, what are your options when the studios won’t hire you, the public no longer cares, and the lovely lifestyle you’ve been used to for the last 40 years comes back to bite you in the budget. Well, if you’re Joan Crawford, you buck the fudge up, drop the pretense of pride, and take any scritp that happens to come your way. Thus we have the fading fortunes of her otherwise legendary career – to genre jokes of undeniable goofball pleasures. The first film focuses on a circus “cursed” by a determined slasher. The second features the world’s least convincing caveman making nice with the star’s pseudo-scientist. Had TCM’s Underground included both Straight Jacket and I Saw What You Did, we’d have a quadrilogy of quirkiness that would be hard to beat. Instead, just sit back and enjoy this daffy duo. (03 August, Turner Classic Movies, 2AM EST)

Additional Choices
Hellraiser: Deader


It’s hard to figure out what’s more shocking – the fact that this is the seventh installment in the Clive Barker series, or that there remains an audience eager for this many versions of Pinhead and Company’s ‘pain is pleasure’ paradigm. Having long since dispensed with the Lament Configuration in favor of narratives that briefly touch on the Cenobites before going off on their own genre tangents, this promises to be excruciating – and not in a good way. (05 August, SciFi Channel, 3AM EST)

Deadly Snake vs. Kung Fu Killer


Okay, we admit it. We know next to NOTHING about this 1977 martial arts movie, but – come on! – check out that title! How can you not love something that celebrates its chop socky schlock value so? As a matter of fact, the actual translation of the original Chinese title (Tin loh daai poh ng hang chan) is Deadly SNAIL vs. Kung Fu Killer. It could be a load of derivative dung for all we know. Thanks to the tag, who cares? (02 August, Drive In Classics Canada, 7PM EST)

Mad Love


Another noted mix-up here at SE&L Central. We thought we’d be celebrating the delirious Peter Lorre vehicle from 1935 about a mad scientist who substitutes the hands of a gifted pianist with those of a serial killer. Instead, we get Drew Barrymore going insane, and her good natured doormat bohunk Chris O’Donnell desperate to save her. Sigh. Oh well, they say this movie has its moments. We’ll have to take their word for it.  (09 August, Indieplex, 7:20PM EST)

 


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Thursday, Aug 2, 2007

The Summer of 2007 has been tough on the tre-quel: that seemingly final chapter in a studio mandated trilogy or continuing franchise. So far, we’ve had the excellent Pirates pic, the so-so Spider-man saga, and the dreadful stench of the latest Shrek mess. Yet if one is looking for a clear winner in the three-peat paradigm, it would be that latest attempt to reclaim his part by the amnesiac government assassin, Jason Bourne. As portrayed with Cold War cruelness by a breathtaking Matt Damon, the latest installment in the Robert Ludlum inspired series picks up six weeks after the event in the preceding chapter. Also back are the team behind Supremacy’s success—screenwriter Tony Gilroy and acclaimed director Paul Greengrass. But the maintenance of creative continuity is only one of the newly named Bourne Ultimatum’s saving graces. As with any last acts, the inevitable clash between mystery solved and said truth’s significance offers a sizeable challenge. Here, it creates a compelling and clever espionage thriller.


With his girlfriend dead and his memory intermittent, our aggressive anti-hero is still trying to figure out who he is, and why the government trained him to kill. While following up leads in Moscow, Bourne learns of a reporter who is threatening to blow the lid off some special ops project code named “Blackbriar”. Desperate to discover what he’s found—and more importantly—the source that gave him all this classified information, Bourne heads to London and contacts the journalist. Unfortunately, the CIA, lead by devious department head Noah Vosen, wants the same data. While agent Pamela Landy continues to help the troubled operative, higher ups in the bureau want both Bourne and the journalist silenced—forever. Bourne eventually finds himself in Spain, seeking a man who once supervised the entire Blackbriar project. There, he runs into another old friend, agent Nicky Parsons, who helps him track his target to Tangiers. Of course, there are hired killers everywhere, and Bourne narrowly escapes with his life. All paths lead right back to the US, and as his memory returns, so does his resolve to expose the agency’s wrongdoing once and for all.


It seems like a complicated cat and mouse exercise, but the great thing about The Bourne Ultimatum is that all the spy vs. spy intrigue is carefully controlled and eagerly explained. Greengrass knows that modern audiences, not used to thinking during their action packed stunt setpieces, need this kind of material spoon fed to them. So every once in a while, he lets his wildly erratic handheld camera settle down for a few seconds, so that important pieces of the puzzle can be fitted together. Since some have complained that the director’s ‘from the gut’ approach to cinematography can lead to a nauseating case of shaken camera syndrome, not only do these sequences aid the exposition, but they also help the queasiness pass. There is a wildly evocative ‘you are there’ approach to Greengrass’s style, and some will find it disorienting. But when you have sequences as strong as these, the artistic quirks can be forgiven.


Indeed, The Bourne Ultimatum lives and dies by its car chases and fisticuffs, and it has to be said that some of the best examples in the genre exist in this electrifying film. It is especially true of a second act situation in which Bourne follows an assassin targeting gal pal Nicky Parsons. As he leaps from rooftop to rooftop and through many a Moroccan citizen’s window, we anticipate an amazing standoff once the significant players meet. But Greengrass does away with all the glorified machismo grandstanding and simply lets two professional killers do what they do best. Like the mano-y-mano magnificence of the extended brawl between Roddy Piper and Keith David in They Live, Bourne beats the ever-lovin’ snot out of a dark, mysterious murderer, skin smacking and flesh pounding with such unmitigated ferocity the audience can practically feel each blow.


Even better is the last act car chase between Bourne, the CIA and his ally Landy. As he makes the Feds look foolish, our ‘hero’ wheels a selection of vehicles through Manhattan. Careening past—and sometimes off—buildings while squealing around corners with hairpin histrionics, it’s the kind of vehicular mayhem that’s more or less missing from your typical popcorn romp. The reason is simple—Greengrass doesn’t cheat. Instead of using CGI autos to achieve his ends, he smashes real ones up, Blues Brothers style, errant parts and unpredictable chaos creating that much more of an adrenalin rush. Yet even when not trying to take on the entire collection of black ops agents (as in the opening slink through Waterloo Station), The Bourne Ultimatum understands suspense. It’s not just that we care for these characters—it’s that Greengrass follows of golden oldie formula of metering out just enough information to keep us guessing. And once our brain is engaged, the rest of our knotted nervous system is sure to follow.


Of course, none of this would work without characters and performers who can make you believe that the random images generated by a computer monitor actually mean something in the grand scheme of national security. Behind the boards, David Strathairn is undeniably nasty as the patsy pushing buttons for the big boys in the Cabinet, while Joan Allen delivers a dynamic turn as the whistleblower waiting for the goods to give her resolve. While she’s suffered from some miscasting in the past (The Omen remake) Julie Stiles is actually very good here, playing the kind of Barbie bargaining chip one would easily see the CIA recruiting for her espionage eye candy value. As Simon Ross, the reporter holding the key to Bourne’s ultimate identity, Paddy Considine has a hound dog face that just screams extended tour of duty. Though he’s not on screen for very long, his nervous need to confirm the facts make him an instant audience guide.


And then there’s Damon. As an actor, this iron-jawed good guy has always seemed one role away from finally coming into his own. Even as part of the stellar cast in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar winning The Departed, he tends to have a frat boy weightlessness that’s hard to overcome. But here, turning down the volume and amplifying his noted physicality, he comes across as commanding, dominating, and most importantly, deadly. You believe his Bourne is a ticking timebomb of brainwashed brutality and remorseless destruction. While he tells Stiles’ Parker that he’s haunted by the face of everyone he’s ever killed, this is a machine managing to continue on its highly lethal path with relative ease. Without an individual who can sell us on such terrifying tenacity, these movies would fall apart (imagine his buddy Ben Affleck here—hmm…). But thanks to Damon, it steamrolls over the shakier bits to deliver boffo blood and guts.


While by no means the end of the Bourne narrative (fans of the novels know this all too well), what The Bourne Ultimatum actually represents is the final phase in both Paul Greengrass and his maturing stars’ ascension into the box office big time. By consistently delivering the goods in a genre that hasn’t been relevant since Reagan regaled the Russians to “tear down this wall”, they’ve outdone a certain Mr. Bond while proving that, with the right material and the right talent behind and in front of the camera, even the hoariest old cinematic clichés can be revived and enlivened. While he may not have had the insurmountable mandate of making pirates culturally relevant again (somewhere in cinema heaven, Gore Verbinski’s table is on infinite reserve), Greengrass got this right. After all, in 2007 spies seem better suited for spoofing. Yet The Bourne Ultimatum simply does what it does best—defy convention while embracing its best bits. The result is one of the summer’s surest efforts. 



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