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Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Paul Greengrass

Can Paul Greengrass bring his magic touch to 'Fantastic Voyage,' or will the material shrink him?

April 1, 2010 |  3:23 pm

It only seemed like an April Fools' joke when we read it this morning-- Paul Greengrass would tackle a wholesome adventure. A remake. In 3-D.

Greengrass is of course the filmmaker who's stubbornly and brilliantly gone his own way, even when he's gone the studio way. The most recent two Jason Bourne movies were great not only because of solid acting and well-constructed action scenes but because they had the crisp editing and verite camerawork that Greengrass brought to their passion projects. As for those passion projects, "Bloody Sunday" and "United 93," well, they were near-masterpieces. And "Green Zone" was pretty strong too.

So what in the name of Donald Pleasence was he thinking in taking on "Fantastic Voyage?"

In agreeing to direct the (likely 3-D) remake of the 1966 medical adventure at Fox, Green was embracing something that seemed, while perfectly respectable, also boringly commercial. The original had an appealing conceit and an entertaining sheen but it was, in the end, an up-the-middle entertainment. It didn't seem to lend itself to Greengrass' many skills, which are contained in small, quick movements and grainy palettes, not the grand sweep of an underwater adventure (essentially what "Fantastic Voyage" is). And certainly not in the (oddly flattening effect, at least spiritually) of the new 3-D craze.

Sure, the Bourne movies are big, implausible thrillers. But they're fast, and Greengrass does fast. "Fantastic Voyage" ain't fast. Plus, there are only so many Paul Greengrasses out there. Unless we figure out a way to shrink -- er, clone -- him, every pedestrian movie he takes on is a promise-laden project he turns down.

Then again, if someone is going to remake "Voyage" -- and there have been many who've tried over the years, including, um, smaller lights like Roland Emmerich and Tarsem Singh -- it may as well be someone with this kind of chops. Maybe Greengrass will actually find some new and interesting uses for 3-D, just as he did for another technology/device that had been around for years, the hand-held camera. And Greengrass is particularly adept at editing (an area in which the first film was nominated for an Oscar) as well as another skill that could come in handy for "Voyage:" transporting us somewhere we never expected to be (such as a hijacked plane). Let's just hope this one doesn't carry him away from something more interesting.

--Steven Zeitchik

Photo: "Fantastic Voyage." Credit: 20th Century Fox.

Why 'Green Zone' failed

March 15, 2010 |  5:36 pm

It's dispiriting to sit back today and soak in just how poorly "Green Zone" performed over the weekend, earning a meager $14.3 million. Depression sets in because the Paul Greengrass movie is legitimately great, a potent thriller and action picture that entertains no matter your politics (we're not the only ones who feel this way -- the movie is the second best-reviewed wide release of the year according to meta-review site Movie Review Intelligence).

But what's even more discouraging about the results is that they offer definitive proof that even the highest-quality filmmaking and the most palatable marketing hook can't save a movie set in a tumultuous Middle East. This was a movie retailed as a Jason Bourne-like thriller made by the director and the star of same, with all the double-crosses, chases and explosions one would want from such a union. And yet no matter how deftly it was executed, audiences didn't see past the topicality. The simple presence of Iraq kept people home, as it has before for films of so many different stripes, tones and budgets.

What's less clear -- and, indeed, what gets under our skin -- is the debate over how specific politics are responsible for the film's failure. "Did politics sink Matt Damon's 'The Green Zone'?" an Atlantic blog asks. Andrew Breitbart's Big Hollywood compares the opening of "Green Zone," unfavorably, to the Damon-Greengrass collaborations "The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Bourne Ultimatum" and implies that politics did this one in. "Gee, I wonder what the difference was [compared to those films]?" the piece asks sarcastically. (Never mind that those two movies were sequels based on a huge Robert Ludlum franchise.)

And in a New York Times op-ed column today, Ross Douthat faults "Green Zone" for "refus[ing] to stare real tragedy in the face, preferring the comforts of a 'Bush lied, people died' reductionism." (Incidentally that's not true -- sure, there's a one-note Paul Bremer-Douglas Feith character played by Greg Kinnear. But the movie is rolling in nuance and is particularly adept at showing internecine Iraqi tribal politics, something no scripted feature has previously done well.)

But even accepting Douthat's one-dimensionality argument, it's hard to see how that played a role in the picture's dismal box office. Douthat draws a contrast to a little Iraq movie that just swept the Oscars. " 'The Hurt Locker,' of course, was largely apolitical," he writes. "Throw politics into the mix, and there seems to be no escaping the clichés and simplifications that mar Greengrass’s movie."

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