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By Cole Smithey

‘The Bourne Ultimatum’

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Even audiences new to the Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) spy thriller franchise will respond with compulsory excitement at the elaborately orchestrated chain of exhilarating chase sequences that lead up to a philosophically satisfying whopper of a climax. Paul Greengrass continues his directing duties after “The Bourne Supremacy” and gets stellar results from returning cameraman Oliver Wood and editor Christopher Rouse. After losing his girlfriend Marie to an assassin in the last movie, former CIA hit man Bourne is hotter than ever to uncover his true identity, mysteriously erased from his brain. International locations like Moscow, Paris and London change like a roulette wheel ball as Bourne perpetually turns the tables on teams of kill squads ordered to snuff him out by CIA bigwig Noah Vosen (David Strathairn). Canny dialogue, solid performances and virtuoso editing and scoring make “The Bourne Ultimatum” a thrill ride you won’t soon forget.

Jason Bourne is a spy who knows too much about systematic strategy, but almost nothing about his motivation for the precision killings that he commits on a daily basis in order to survive. The historical dilemma regarding his memory is a burning question that has fueled three films worth of fast-twitch brutality and mind-boggling car chases. Bourne operates purely on trained killer instinct and adrenaline. He is an archetype for the modern cinematic spy because he chases the action that chases him, albeit with humorless venom liberated by his utterly autonomous existence.

A “Guardian” newspaper article-linking Bourne to a CIA black-ops group called “Blackbriar” draws him to London to question the journalist that wrote the piece. The encounter that follows is a crash course in ducking CCTV surveillance cameras positioned around Waterloo station as viewed by Noah Vosen’s CIA headquarters, committed to stopping Bourne in his tracks.

CIA specialist Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) returns to assist Vosen in trapping his quarry, but becomes suspect of the chief’s unethical treatment of the case. The interior female-inflected shift to Bourne’s side coincides with the return of suave CIA op Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) just after Bourne has efficiently finished off a goon squad inside CIA offices in Madrid.

Muted romantic sparks fly between Parsons and Bourne, and it’s their delicate acknowledgement and necessary disavowal of the attraction that underlies a super-action motorcycle and foot chase sequence that leads up to one of the most impressive hand-to-hand combat displays ever filmed. After surviving a car-bomb explosion and escaping from hordes of Spanish police, Bourne goes toe to toe with an agent sent by Vosen to kill he and Parsons. Within the tight confines of an otherwise unoccupied apartment, Bourne and his equally skilled opponent go at it with everything they’ve got. The scene is unaccompanied by music and only sound from the men’s mortally threatening grunts and blows punctuate the silence. Although the scene is filled with quick-cut editing, this is far from the music video-styled compositions that have wrecked innumerable features. Instead, we get an intense representation of a life-or-death struggle where each man is fully invested in using everything at his disposal to kill the other. The episode promises to do for fight scenes what the car chase in “Bullitt” did for auto pursuits in every movie that followed.  

The second act ends once Bourne advises Parsons that “it gets easier” on a train platform, after narrowly escaping a series of attacks. The screenwriters do something magical in combining a “Casablanca” brand of romanticism with a determinedly 21st century tone of unrelenting pulsing action. But, they go one further by delivering a thematically polished ending that embraces political and social commentary that cuts so close to the bone of America’s manifold militarized social crises that audience members of certain military or political bents may be inclined to figuratively shit their pants. The Jason Bournes of the world are out there, and they will eventually come home to roost. CV

‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’

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Just as Daniel Radcliffe has matured as an actor, the fifth Harry Potter franchise installment has graduated in scope toward a movie capable of entertaining adults and children alike. After so much critical hullabaloo about “darkening up” the films, British director David Yates (“The Girl In The Café”) takes the reins of J.K. Rowling’s politically pertinent storyline rendered by screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (“Contact”) that errs on the side of drama over comedy. Harry’s days of coming-of-age are officially over when he becomes the ambivalent leader of a revolution at Hogwarts after an opportunist Professor Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton – “Vera Drake”) is appointed to usurp power. Yates tosses in dashes of snappy thematic touches from films like “1984,” “Brazil” and even “The Exorcist,” to create a subtext-rich, visual palate for a narrative that compartmentalizes sentimentality into a handheld crystal ball.

The action kicks off with a gothic tone as caliginous storm clouds interrupt a playground confrontation between Harry and his ridiculing cousin Dudley. The inclement weather forebodes the arrival of two Dementors (death angels, if you will) that chase Harry and Dudley into a tunnel where they commence sucking the life force from the two boys. Harry skillfully dispatches the vile creatures with his trusty wand, but soon pays a toll when a talking envelope arrives from the Ministry of Magic announcing his expulsion from Hogwarts’ school for practicing magic in the presence of a Muggle. Alastor Moody (Brendan Gleeson) arrives to spirit Harry away by broom to the dingy secret headquarters for the Order of the Phoenix where Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) blesses his Godson’s intention to continue fighting Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) with a knowing wink. But first, Harry must endure and defeat an inquisition within the blackened corridors of the Ministry of Magic where Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore defends Harry’s disbelieved story about Voldemort’s recent return.

Harry doesn’t realize that his personal persecution is about to extend to his classmates under the fake smile of Hogwarts’ new professor of the Dark Arts, Ms. Umbridge. In a running gag consistent with the evaporation of America’s articles of its constitution, Ms. Umbridge begins posting an increasing list of limitations on the students while firing trusted staff members such as the daffy Sybil Trelawney (Emma Thompson). After replacing the student’s practical textbook on magic with an elementary manual, Ms. Umbridge shows off her torturing talents by privately making Harry write “I must not tell lies” with blood ink that comes from the flesh of his left hand. The openly political coup that Imelda Staunton’s divisive character commits establishes the Ministry’s control of the school by stealing liberty right out from under the nose of its well-intentioned staff, including Dumbledore.

It’s in this turn of events that Harry convenes freedom-fighting magic classes for his appropriately named “Dumbledore’s Army.” Ultimately the magic lessons primarily serve to prepare Harry for an inevitable battle against Voldemort and his freaky assistants Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs) and Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter). The clandestine displays of wizardry allow for some enjoyable montages of wand waving that pave the way for Harry to share an extended kiss with heartbreaker Cho Chang (Katie Leung).

You get the sense that “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” is the culmination of efforts from a group of highly talented and rapidly aging actors who have more at stake this time around. Every performance from such notables as Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman and from the ever-surprising Imelda Staunton, carries an added dimension of personal significance. With David Yates already in pre-production on the next Potter movie (“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”) it seems that the franchise may finally have arrived at its balance. Although marred by some inept editing by Mark Day, “The Order of the Phoenix” is the first of the series to resound as a multifaceted narrative that understands its own intentions. CV

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