Sunday, August 19, 2012

Review: "The Bourne Legacy"

Director: Tony Gilroy
Runtime: 135 minutes

Rather than function as a full-blown sequel or prequel, The Bourne Legacy exists as a standalone adventure that exists alongside some of the events of 2007's The Bourne Ultimatum. Though Jason Bourne (Matt Damon, sorely missed) never appears on screen, the events of his story do tie in to the somewhat convoluted narrative involving the CIA and an experimental program gone awry. Yet even though series scribe Tony Gilroy is still involved (he also takes over directing duties), it's difficult to jump back into the Bourne universe this time around.

The most immediate, and glaring problem, is the characterization (or lacktherof). Though Jeremy Renner performs convincingly in the role of ex-agent Aaron Cross, he has no depth outside of his desire for answers. Were his quest understandable, this wouldn't be a problem. Unfortunately, Gilroy's screenplay is so dense, vague, and at times fractured, that it's difficult to get a grasp on the film's protagonist. Gilroy introduces a supposedly important plot point - a series of pills that Cross is required to take on a rigorous schedule - but never gives a decent explanation as to what they really do or why they matter.

With so little to latch on to, The Bourne Legacy trudges on through its first two acts or so. Throughout the narrative, we're given some painfully vague glimpses into Aaron Cross' past, but it adds up to precious little that carries any weight. Not helping things is a surprisingly uneven turn from Rachel Weisz, cast as a scientist who Cross coerces into aiding him in his quest for...whatever the hell he's supposed to be after. Things improve for the actress in the final act, but in one key scene (an interrogation), she's all lightweight surface, awkwardly shifting gears from anxiety/confusion to anger. 

Only in the finale does Legacy start to feel like a proper entry in the Bourne series. As dull and stagnant as much of the film feels, Gilroy and DP Robert Elswitt do an excellent job when it comes to capturing the film's action sequences, which have the series' trademark gritty energy and verve. Editor John Gilroy smartly strings them together, creating an electric sense of pace while still holding on shots long enough to give the viewer a clear sense of what's going on. 

Yet the finale isn't nearly enough to redeem the film as a whole. By and large, it feels dense , but also completely uninteresting. The vague sense that something important is happening pervades the run of dimly lit office scenes with Norton and company, but all it ever amounts to is one big shrug. Worse still is that Gilroy ends on a note meant to suggest some romantic possibility between Renner and Weisz, despite their absolute lack of chemistry.There is so little to latch on to here, that The Bourne Legacy ultimately becomes everything its predecessors weren't: just another action movie that lacks any pulse whenever people aren't running, jumping, punching, or shooting.

Grade: C/C-

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Review: "Bachelorette"

Director: Leslye Headland
Runtime: 87 minutes

It would be easy to dismiss Leslye Headland's Bachelorette on the grounds that it is nothing more than a cheap cash-in on the R-rated lady comedy trend bolstered by last year's Bridesmaids. However, that's not quite the case. Headland's film is based on her own play. Even if Bridesmaids paved the way for something like Bachelorette, this particular film shouldn't be passed over just because of its timing. Why? Because there are so many legitimate reasons to ignore Headland's dumb, ugly, and unpleasant film.

Regan (Kirsten Dunst), Gena (Lizzy Caplan), and Katie (Isla Fisher), three best friends from high school, suddenly find themselves in the bridal party of Becky (Bridesmaids' Rebel Wilson), whom they used to make fun of. To the dismay of the trio (mostly Katie), Becky says that her bachelorette party will be a tame affair, consisting of little more than hanging out in a nice hotel room and eating ice cream. Desperate to spice things up, Regan, Gena, and Katie soon find themselves in over their heads when matrimonial disaster strikes in a moment of mean-spirited fun.

And by matrimonial disaster, I'm talking about the moment when Regan and Katie, squeezing both of their bodies into Becky's plus size wedding dress, tear it almost completely in half. As part of a larger tapestry of screw ups, this incident could lend itself to a wild ride of bridal party hijinks. But that's it. No, really. The driving force of the plot is the torn dress, and nothing more. The only other wild and crazy incident in the whole mess is that Gena and Katie both did cocaine earlier in the night. Can you handle the manufactured wackiness? Suffice it to say that there are more laughs in any one of Bridesmaids' comedic set pieces than in the entirety of this film.

Not helping matters is that Headland doesn't seem interested in making her characters interesting or multidimensional. This only becomes a bigger problem because they're not remotely likable. Regan is a type-A bitch, Gena is a sarcastic slacker, and Katie is just an over-the-top party girl. The roles do little to capitalize on the gifts of the talented women playing them, especially when it comes to Fisher's Katie, who's rendered little more than a shrill and cartoonish nuisance. Headland seems to be striving for (once again, mind the comparison's chronological faults) a mix of The Hangover and Bridesmaids by way of a Noah Baumbach film, and it flat out doesn't work. I'm usually not keen on much Mr. Baumbach's work, but at least he's capable of crafting insightful character portraits and drawing strong turns from his leads. If Headland possesses that talent, she's done nothing here to indicate that this is the case.

And so Bachelorette chugs along, throwing in three blank 'love' interests (Adam Scott, James Marsden, and Kyle Bornheimer) for our protagonists, and an over dose subplot that only drags the film further down the rabbit hole into tedium. Much could be forgiven if the writing had any punch to it, but it just feels blunt, dumb, and mean. The occasional line or gag registers, but the successes are still weighed down by the failures of the whole enterprise. Worse is that Headland tries to wrap things up in typical raunchy rom-com fashion, with a happy ending where everyone gets together with "the right one." It's that unfortunate sort of bad movie where not even the strengths of the cast members make it worth checking out.

Grade: D

Monday, August 13, 2012

Review: "The Campaign"

Director: Jay Roach
Runtime: 85 minutes

Despite an early penchant for goofball comedies like Austin Powers and Meet the Parents, Jay Roach has evolved into quite the politically minded director. First came 2008's HBO film Recount, which tackled the aftermath of the (still) controversial recounts after the 2000 election. And then, just a few months ago, Roach and HBO gave us a second collaboration - Game Change - that looked behind the scenes of the 2008 election from the standpoint of the McCain/Palin campaign. Despite flashes of humor, both films showed that Roach was capable of doing much more than simply directing comedy vehicles for Ben Stiller. So, with the 2012 election right around the corner, it's not surprising to see a Roach-directed film in theaters centering around politics. The difference, though, is that Roach's latest, The Campaign, is a mix of the sincere political commentary of Roach's Game Change combined with the cartoon wackiness of your typical Will Ferrell comedy. As a result, the film is certainly relevant, but the humor is less successful, and The Campaign feels more like a valiant missed opportunity than a riotously funny political farce.

No stranger to playing larger-than-life oafs, Will Ferrell plays Cam Brady, a North Carolina Congressman who has never lost an election...because he was always running unopposed.  Over in Washington D.C., the manipulative Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow)   decide that Brady's district would be the perfect spot to pull off a scheme to help them become even wealthier. They decide to fund a candidate to unseat Brady, and settle on Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), a sweet oddball of a man who is estranged from his wealthy father (Brian Cox). From there, it's a slowly escalating war of idiocy as Huggins tries to take on Brady.

And just as Ferrell is comfortable playing oafs, Galifianakis is more than comfortable playing oddballs. Marty is a mincing, oddly prissy man who seems incapable of ever becoming angry, and Galifianakis nails the role when it comes to the broad strokes of the part. Unlike Ferrell, Galifianakis has a role that is (somewhat) opened up for an iota of genuine depth. After Brady humiliates Huggins at a supposedly friendly political breakfast, we see Marty walking to his car in tears. But Roach isn't playing up Marty's sadness for laughs. It's nothing heart-wrenching, to be certain, but Roach does allow it to work as a moment that can be played straight. Compared with the all-out silliness that characterized the Austin Powers films, The Campaign marks an interesting evolution in Roach's execution as a comedy director.

That's not to say that the film doesn't include the usual looniness. Most of it stems from Ferrell's side, particularly in the opening stretches before we first meet Marty. Where Marty is built up as a more sincere figures (despite some goofy scenes and lines), Cam is bombastic and hollow, though Roach and Ferrell keep the character from becoming as over the top as so many of the actor's other notable comedic roles. Playing things much more 'straight' is Dylan McDermott as Marty's Motch-appointed campaign manager, who so thoroughly gives Marty's life a make over that he even replaces his dogs (pugs) because they aren't American enough.

It's scenes like this that call to mind broader versions of the "make over" scenes of the Palin family in Game Change, and Roach proves adept at handling the very different forms of execution. Unfortunately, Roach doesn't really elevate the material he's working with, aside from keeping the proceedings from becoming total buffoonery. Though the film maintains a decent momentum, the script jumps unevenly between Brady and Huggins. Rather than feel like a solid look at both candidates, the alignment of scenes gives the feeling that the film would rather just stick with one major character, but then remembers that, oh yeah, there's that other guy. And even though the script has entertaining lines and scenes, they're more mildly amusing than hilarious. In trying to inject a bit of the maturity showcased in Game Change and Recount, Roach has somewhat sedated the broad comedy that the script is striving for. 

So when The Campaign settles into its last act, there's no doubt as to where it's going to go, in terms of narrative and message. Game Change, with its strong rooting in reality, packs more surprise. Ferrell and Galifianakis' talents are decently handled, but at this point in Roach's career, he doesn't seem like such a good fit for this sort of material on the whole. He wants to have dumb laughs and semi-earnest political commentary working side by side. Though it fares better than another Ferrell vehicle (the awful The Other Guys) in striving towards this goal, The Campaign winds up little more than a mildly amusing and thoughtful farce, rather  than a truly hilarious comedy with a thoughtful side.

Grade: C+