The Bourne Migraine & Doomsday Family Time
By Fernando F. Croce

I eagerly await the enterprising artist who will do for the epileptic camera what Nicholas Ray did for the CinemaScope rectangle or Robert Altman did for the glancing zoom. Paul Greengrass ain't that artist -- his spot at the head of the Seizure School of Filmmaking (other graduates include J.J. Abrams, Fernando Meirelles, and whoever gets hired for 24 episodes) has less to do with any vision than with TV-trained technical facility and a panoply of shrewd projects which gives the impression of tapping the zeitgeist. Bloody Sunday was a sturdy stab at resurrecting the politicized pyrotechnics of Pontecorvo and early Oliver Stone, The Bourne Supremacy was awash in paranoia from the events reconstructed in United 93 and now Abu Ghraib makes an oblique cameo in The Bourne Ultimatum. Matt Damon is back as lethal, international man of mystery Jason Bourne, and, after equally taciturn performances in The Departed and The Good Shepherd, is closer than ever to an oak plank. His involuntary flair for springing into an ass-whopping whirlwind is rivaled by his gift for staring into space and projecting smudged flashbacks onto his eyelids; having lost his beloved (Franka Potente), Bourne is now grimly determined to uncover his roots, with the CIA (led by dastardly exec David Strathairn) ready to mow down civilians in pursuit of their secret agent turned "threat." The globe-trotting plot (with stopovers in Moscow, London, Madrid, Turin, New York) is propelled by a continuous hum of surveillance and information, plus a dictionary of spy-hard tricks (out of The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, The Quiller Memorandum, The Drowning Pool, The Holcroft Covenant, etc.).

The Bourne Ultimatum reportedly has some of the greatest action sequences in years: Bourne, a journalist (Paddy Considine), a killer behind a revolving billboard and a sea of people and cameras in London's Waterloo Station; a chase through corkscrewing Casbah streets and rooftops, capped with a dash of Torn Curtain; a Manhattan demolition derby aimed at outdoing the car melees of Bourne Identity director Doug Liman. I say "reportedly" because I could not see them -- the superb set-pieces are probably somewhere in the mincemeat, but Greengrass can't shoot a door sign without darting into it, and the film becomes a deck of cards shuffled for two hours straight, its tedium the polar opposite of the "pure adrenaline shot" it's supposed to be. It's such predictable filmmaking that even the lackadaisical Ocean's series can scalp it by simply throwing in a bit of jiggle in a shot of Damon jabbering on his cellular (the new Bourne dubiously returns the favor by unveiling Albert Finney at the top of its shadowy pyramid). The politics are just as torpid as the style: The haunted Frankenstein monster comes home to the system that's whelped him (a system whose deadly stupidity will only end, the villain says, "when we've won"), but never mind the prisoner hoods or subterranean corruption, good government agent Joan Allen is there to assure audiences "this isn't us." Bourne is in the end rather forlorn, apologizing for "what I've done... what I am," and facing a fellow cyborg before a leap into the void. "It gets easier," he says of killing; "Yes... considerably," replies Daniel Craig's James Bond, who's snatched from Robert Ludlum's anti-007 hero the resonance of the human toll of spy games.

*

Several dozen gags, stunts, references, and assorted wise-guy bits have been crammed into the long-gestating The Simpsons Movie, yet the most piercing moment is, simply, the sound of Julie Kavner's voice gravelly wavering as Marge questions her marriage to Homer. By that time, the family is hiding out in Alaska after Homer dumps a silo of swine crap into the Springfield river and the town's officially branded a "toxic nightmare;" when Pres. Schwarzenegger (!) orders it sealed in an impenetrable dome, the townsfolk go after the clan with torches and pitchforks. The Simpsons are welcomed into their new land with a $1000 gift for "allowing the oil companies to ravage the state's natural beauty," but it isn't long before communal and familial bonds kick in and send them back home, guided by an Inuit crone's heaving bosom reflected on the moon (one surreal jest among many). Computer-tweaked and expanded for the widescreen, the characters nevertheless retain the show's two-dimensionality, along with its multilayered feeling for pop and sociopolitical sedition -- scarcely exploring the liberties of cinema the way the South Park movie did, The Simpsons Movie still showcases deeper and truer colors, distilling the juggling act of bleak satire and all-embracing humanity that's made the show invaluable for two decades. The switcheroo-gag with Moe's Tavern and Rev. Lovejoy's congregation has been justly noted, Green Day is eulogized with "American Idiot: Funeral Version," Bart's full-monty skateboard ride is a three-headed joke (on the CinemaScope format, PG-13 absurdities, and the right-wing slant of its own studio challenged by none other than Ralph Wiggum). There are also the evils of Disney, the horrors and beauties of pop culture, and, utterly sincerely, what Marge dubs "doomsday family time" -- a bracing episode of The Simpsons, in other words.

*

A different breed of eco-conscious cartoon, Danny Boyle's Sunshine has a more limited palette -- yellow is not in the characters' skins but in an interplanetary light that, mixed with greenish control panes and the pitiless black of outer space, suggests a slowly expiring candle flame. It's 2057, the sun is starting to die, and a spaceship christened "Icarus II" is sent out to try to reverse the process and save humanity; Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Hiroyuki Sanada and Rose Byrne are on board, eventually joined by a blurry, cast-whittling solar fiend. Boyle could be John Boorman's heir in sheer restlessness, yet he lacks Boorman's passion: His magpie mise-en-scène is culled from safe sci-fi spare parts (2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Alien, Minority Report), ending with a giant lava-lamp scored to the kind of synthesizer fuzziness the Mystery Science Theater 3000 guys once categorized as "Music From Some Guys in Space." Derivative as they are, the visuals are preferable to the ideas, which drown Boyle's spiritual wonderings before a divine celestial eye ("We are dust, nothing more") in loads of unwieldy gobbledygook ("As we flew through the dark side of Mercury, the iron content of the planet acted as an antenna"). Sunshine is not without spurts of arresting pothead-abstraction, but it's a barely noticeable eclipse next to the poetry of Woman in the Moon and Mission to Mars.

*

Talk about expiring suns: Two film titans, Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007) and Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007), have recently died within a day of each other. Even before I could see the films, I would hear their names ceremoniously at home, where my mom would vividly describe scenes from Cries and Whispers and my dad would go over the closing tracking shot in The Passenger -- neither had as big an impact as my grandfather pantomiming the Monster getting a lapful of hot soup in Young Frankenstein, yet they alerted me to the art awaiting down the road. Then, finally, film school, Persona and L'Avventura, bewilderment and exhilaration and, above all, the shock of seeing anxiety made visceral, cinematic. Despair, but also more: Tumultuous sexuality, sneaky humor, grace at the edge of the abyss, Bergman's faces shot like buildings, Antonioni's buildings shot like faces. I never understood people who would go to these films as if downing castor oil, something that was good for you but tasted terrible -- their works strike me as alive, carnal, often very funny and, despite the filmmakers' status as grand old men of art-house dourness, glowingly spiritual and hopeful. Let their last images of vision stand as their epitaphs: Antonioni himself returning the gaze of Renaissance art in Michelangelo Eye to Eye, and Bergman melding film and video in Liv Ullmann's face in Saraband.


Reviewed August 11, 2007.

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