Friday, August 10, 2012

Your Bourne Again Weekend at the Movies

Posted by on Fri, Aug 10, 2012 at 9:00 AM

THERE WAS NEVER JUST ONE
  • THERE WAS NEVER JUST ONE
The Bourne Legacy: A consensus will almost certainly form that The Bourne Legacy is not as good as its Damon-starring, mostly Greengrass-directed predecessors, and to an extent, I understand this. Jeremy Renner, as strong an actor and presence as he is, makes for a less unexpected, less immediately likable everyman-supersoldier hybrid than Damon, and Tony Gilroy, longtime Bourne screenwriter who cut his teeth on classy imitation-Soderbergh work like Michael Clayton and Duplicity, doesn't have Greengrass's flair for quick-cut images. But at the same time, it may be time to admit that the Greengrass Bourne sequels are two of the most overpraised big-studio productions of the past ten years. They tell essentially the same story as each other, and very close to the same story as the first, superior movie directed by Doug Liman; they mix exciting if sometimes hard-to-follow action with tedious, repetitive scenes of guys in offices and control rooms reacting to said action. Basically, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum are kinda like The Bourne Identity, but a little more serious and not quite as enjoyable; similarly, The Bourne Legacy is like The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, only a little sillier (an early scene pits Renner against a wolf).

The inessential nature of this movie shouldn't be taken as a blotch on the series reputation, then, but a simple illustration of its limits. Sure, you can hire Edward Norton to be the guy in the control rooms and offices, and he'll bring an extra layer of oily condescension, and Rachel Weisz is always a welcome sight, but the Bourne formula simply doesn't encourage much invention. The major difference here is how the action gets doled out: most of it happens in the final 40 or 50 minutes of the movie's 135-minute running time. This reshuffling may convince some audience members that they're having an entirely different, far less satisfying experience, but I swear to you, I could not tell you anything that happens in the Bourne sequels beyond a vague description of some fights and chases. Bourne Legacy, though, is very much the product of a house screenwriter, as it pays scrupulous, almost comical attention to the details of the previous movies and integrating this new story into those old ones (you know, like a Saw sequel). It's a nice gesture, but also fittingly empty; despite their geo-political overtures, very little goes on beneath the surface of those movies, which is why, 10 years on, Liman's first iteration, being more novel and also more fun, still works best. The Bourne Legacy plays like an expose of itself; apart from a few cosmetic differences, little that's wrong with this movie isn't also wrong with its immediate predecessors.

The Campaign: Will Ferrell seems to be in the midst of this great career thing where he doesn't do crummy paychecky comedies; even when he's in big-studio fare (and make no mistake: his last comedy was a Spanish-language goof that didn't crack $5 million domestic), it's at least in an R-rated political comedy that takes broad shots at the Koch brothers. The Campaign isn't absolute top-tier Ferrell; it's more like Blades of Glory than the even more glorious comedies he makes with Adam McKay, a producer here. But in the years since Blades of Glory (pretty much a for-hire gig, albeit one stacked with comic talent), more of Ferrell's comedies have come from Gary Sanchez Productions, the shingle he co-runs with McKay. As such, his in-between comedies usually have Gary Sanchez/SNL/Funny or Die staffers behind the scenes; The Campaign is directed by mainstream comedy guru Jay Roach, but the script comes from Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell (both writers on Gary Sanchez's HBO series Eastbound and Down, among others). Basically, Ferrell is doing the Adam Sandler thing where he rotates His Guys in and out of the writing and directing seats for his vehicles, only way funnier on average. (One of his next projects, Three Mississippi, will cross-breed the two camps, with Sandler and his That's My Boy director teaming up with Ferrell and producer McKay.) As with Sandler's cronies, it can be difficult to parse the different sensibilities at work, if any, beyond various degrees of Ferrell/McKay strength—though as I mention in my review, anyone who doubts McKay's comedy-directing acumen ought compare the funny but too-quick Campaign with the more assured, hilarious Step Brothers or The Other Guys.

Hope Springs: Directing comedy isn't as easy as it looks; sometimes hilarious movies go underappreciated for their filmmaking, while movies that aren't particularly funny get heralded as well-made comedies. Back when David Frankel was knocking off Woody Allen with Miami Rhapsody, I thought he held promise as a comic director. But since adjourning his TV detour with the 2006 hit The Devil Wears Prada, he's moved into bizarre simul-comedy territory. I know there are some semi-stinging Emily Blunt lines and allegedly comedic bad-boss behavior in The Devil Wears Prada, but not everyone remembers that movie isn't particularly funny (Blunt and Stanley Tucci really only have a handful of big moments; the rest is mostly Anne Hathaway looking sad and conflicted). Since then, Frankel has certainly worked with comedians; Owen Wilson stars in Marley and Me and The Big Year, with Jack Black and Steve Martin joining up for the latter. In fact, The Big Year is a perfect post-Prada Frankel movie in that it gathers together three of the funnier and more successful comic actors of their generations and teams them up for a gentle, mildly amusing, pleasant but never particularly funny non-romp. Miami Rhapsody isn't exactly a non-stop laugh riot, but it's indebted enough to Woody to actually include jokes; The Big Year is watchable but strangely cautious, as if all but the lightest and faintest of smiles would ruin some kind of delicate spell Frankel imagines has been cast over the audience.

In this context, the trailer for Hope Springs, which is cut together as if showcasing actual jokes and comic situations instead of vague discomfort, makes a lot of sense. We see Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones stuck in a rut of a friendly but not particularly affectionate marriage, and then they embark on a marriage counseling retreat led by Steve Carell. It sounds like a comedy—specifically it sounds like a Meryl Streep comedy that must have come out by now, but hasn't—but most of the trailer's big comic moments involve Jones, uh, getting uncomfortable and saying let's go home. Hilarious? I have read some early reviews calling the movie more of a low-key, beautifully acted relationship drama with a few light moments, which I guess also squares with that terrible trailer—although that still means this is a low-key, beautifully acted relationship drama where Elisabeth Shue plays a straight-shootin' diner worker who asks all of the folksy regulars to hold up their hands if they're not having sex, to the giggling surprise of Streep. In other words, it's hard to picture the comic notes of this movie, however brief, being anything but cutesy and muffled. But maybe the serious stuff will overtake it; a weird thing to hope for from an alleged comedy director, but there you have it.

Red Hook Summer: Speaking of trailers: the trailer for this does an expert job of selling the movie you and possibly distributor wish the filmmakers had made instead: that is to say, slice-of-life Spike Lee instead of crazy-rambling Spike Lee. What actually happens in the movie itself is by turns frustrating (in that it steers the movie way out of slice-of-life Spike Lee territory and overpowers several of its characters in the process) and fascinating (because it is unexpected and thought-provoking). In other words, it's very Spike Lee. The trailer and PR for this movie focuses on another, more pleasing Spike Lee tradition: in a bit of auteurist marketing, this movie has been branded as part of Lee's "Brooklyn Chronicles"—I'm honestly not sure if his Brooklyn-set movies have ever really been mentioned as being part of a series, inasmuch as most of Lee's movies are New York-based and his Brooklyn-set ones are so diverse that they fit easier under Lee's general chronicling of life in NYC. In the years since his last Brooklyn movie, He Got Game, Lee has been in an every-other pattern: the wonderful Game followed by the fascinating but rambling Bamboozled, followed by the masterful 25th Hour, followed by the insane mess of She Hate Me, followed by the slick, smart entertainment of Inside Man, followed by the bloat of Miracle at St. Anna (which I admit: I could not finish when I finally caught up with it via Netflix). Red Hook Summer does not, unfortunately, match any of those heights—though it's a more focused and heartfelt piece of work than She Hate Me. [What isn't? —Ed.] As an engaging but somewhat unsatisfying mixture of amateurish but charming child acting, aimless but sweet coming-of-age, a tour-de-force performance from character actor Clarke Peters, and Spike Lee's ability to confront hot-button issues head on, it's undoubtedly personal. But Lee, as a sometime practitioner of the free-associative-essay-about-what's-on-my-mind school of filmmaking, could sometimes stand to get a little less personal.

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