Sunday, September 09, 2012

August Movie Roundup

Summer movie seasons tend to begin with a bang – lots of bangs, actually, and lots of booms, too – and end maybe not with a whimper, but certainly a lot more quietly than they began. Hollywood nods off in August, the sleepiest of months, conserving its energies for the fall full court prestige press. The rare breakout hit to emerge from this doldrum period, appropriately enough, is nearly always a “sleeper.”

Sadly, there don’t seem to be any sleepers emerging from this August, which – at least for me – marked a pretty anemic close to a somewhat underwhelming summer. Looking back, I can’t say that the movies were worse than usual this summer. Rather, I had more elevated expectations than usual, which for the most part were not quite fulfilled. Don’t get me wrong: there were movies I genuinely enjoyed, sometimes deservedly (“The Dark Knight Rises”), sometimes less deservedly (“The Amazing Spider-Man,” aka “The Amazing Adorableness of Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone”), sometimes unexpectedly (“Moonrise Kingdom”) and other times less-than-expectedly (“Prometheus,” aka “The Dumb, Pretty Younger Brother of Alien and Blade Runner”). But if you’d asked me back in May whether “The Avengers” was going to be the high point of my moviegoing summer, I’d have bet money against it. And yet, so it was. Nothing’s quite matched the sense of rollicking fun that that movie had, and too often the reaction I’ve had coming out of the theater since then has been “good enough, but could have been better.” Not surprisingly, this was precisely the reaction I had to the three movies I saw in August.


Directed by Tony Gilroy
Starring Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Ed Norton, others

“The Bourne Legacy” is a solid, workmanlike thriller, suspenseful and well paced. It builds smartly on the foundation laid in the original trilogy, so that the absent Jason Bourne feels like a presence, as well as a natural catalyst for a whole new sequence of events. It’s fine entertainment, in short.

What it isn’t is anything special—a problem only because the original trilogy was. And the difference-maker, wouldn’t you know, is Jason Bourne.

Note that I said Jason Bourne, not Matt Damon. Damon’s an excellent actor, but so is Jeremy Renner, who plays “Legacy”’s protagonist, Aaron Cross, and plays him very well. If he ultimately proves a less compelling figure than his predecessor, that’s a limitation of the writing, not the acting, of the character. At the outset, Aaron Cross seems no more or less an enigma than Jason Bourne was, and indeed our first view of him is a direct, undoubtedly deliberate visual echo of Bourne’s first appearance in “The Bourne Identity.” In due course we discover that Aaron is a genetically enhanced superspy from a shady CIA-sponsored program, separate from but linked to the one that created Bourne, and that when Bourne threatens to blow the lid off his program, the de facto head of operations (Ed Norton) decides—for national security reasons, of course—to bury the whole lot. This sends Aaron on the run – not to escape his operation, nor to expose it, but to avail himself of its resources.

We learn more about Aaron’s agenda and motives after he teams up with a fetching scientist (Rachel Weisz) who worked for Aaron’s program before it got shut down. And while his back story isn’t without its own pathos, which Renner taps into quite effectively, it simply doesn’t match in power the peculiar existential crisis of Jason Bourne. What made Bourne’s predicament so riveting was the fact that the man was a mystery to himself, thereby merging his perspective with that of the audience. His amnesia was our ignorance; his disorientation ours as well; and every step he took towards solving the mystery, every incomplete flash of illumination, as new to us as it was to him. That kind of visceral empathy is largely absent from “Legacy,” as there’s never any doubt Aaron knows full well who he is, what he’s after, and why, and is merely being tight-lipped about it. The overall effect is one of detachment, not engagement, and we don’t see quite enough of Aaron’s past self to fill in the gap.

Protagonist swapping aside, “Legacy” also suffers by comparison as an action movie. This has little to do with its execution, which is perfectly competent, and everything to do with following what might have been the best action movie trilogy of the last decade. Unsurprisingly, “Legacy”’s strongest set pieces are those that don’t evoke the prior movies. They generally involve Weisz’s character trapped in an extended game of cat and mouse, with no Aaron by her side, and no guarantee that he’ll be there to help her. By contrast, the obligatory bravura chase sequence – this one on motorcycles – pales next to the sensational Mini Cooper car chase of “The Bourne Identity” and the breathless three-man (well, two men and one woman) footchase of “The Bourne Ultimatum.”

The one respect in which the film does advance beyond the original trilogy is its expanded vision of a surveillance state that doesn’t feel far removed from our current reality. In the post-Bourne world, any target’s whereabouts can be tracked down within a matter of hours by tasking a roomful of wired-in agents with gathering and sifting through all available camera footage and electronic transaction information within a certain time period and geographical range. What’s really striking about the film’s depiction of this process (other than the improbability of such efficient coordination by, you know, the government) is how utterly businesslike and matter-of-fact it is. No one’s rubbing his hands or chuckling at his own omnipotence, and no one even looks remotely like a villain; for the trackers, it’s just another day at work, albeit a particularly busy one. As a snapshot of our slipping control over personal privacy, it’s all too chillingly plausible—and may end up being the most memorable aspect of “The Bourne Legacy.” Big Brother is still watching you, and he looks like a federal government worker. If that doesn’t scare you, nothing will.



Directed by Jay Roach
Starring Will Ferrell, Zach Galifinakis, Jason Sudeikis, Dylan McDermott, John Lithgow, Dan Aykroyd, Brian Cox

Timely and funny, but ultimately fairly forgettable, “The Campaign” isn’t the election year satire some of us have been waiting for since – well, since “Election” (ok, “Election” didn’t actually come out in an election year, but you know what I mean). While that’s admittedly a high bar, I had hopes that the director of “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” and HBO’s “Game Change” would get great comic mileage out of the sorry state of the American political process. And he does – to a point. But only to a point.

“The Campaign” pits a fictional North Carolina congressman, Cam Brady (Will Ferrell), against a political novice named Marty Huggins (Zach Galifinakis), an effete, rambling pipsqueak of a man who at first glance seems like he stumbled into the race by mistake. But in fact Marty Huggins has been carefully hand-picked to run by a pair of kingmakers, the none-too-subtly named Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd), who represent powerful corporate interests and who sense an opportunity to take control of Brady’s seat when the dim bulb incumbent gets embroiled in a sex scandal. Thanks to a ruthlessly efficient, Motch-appointed campaign manager (Dylan McDermott) who gives the feckless Marty and his unprepossessing family a full makeover and marching instructions, the challenger who started out as a joke becomes a genuine threat.

Political campaigns are easy objects for ridicule, and “The Campaign” racks up some easy laughs spoofing their empty, repetitive rhetoric and obsession with appearance and façade, as well as voters’ susceptibility to such trivialities. And although neither Brady nor Huggins ever articulates a political platform that’s identifiably liberal or conservative, the movie pokes fun at both sides’ violent allergy to the word “socialism” and their addiction to zealous flag-waving. It quickly becomes clear, though, that the main target of the movie’s scorn isn’t the inanity of the political process but its manipulation by shadowy moneyed interests, embodied in the Motch brothers. In a way, the movie’s earnestness on this point is its undoing—not because it’s wrong, but because it isn’t funny. It could be made funny in a savage way, if the writers were willing to take more risks, but they instead pull their punches to offer a sop of hope that individual candidates can rise above – and even defeat – such corrupting influences. Maybe I’m too much of a cynic, but this felt like too easy a way out.

Or maybe my expectations were unrealistic, since the driving force behind this project clearly wasn’t trenchant political satire but the first-time pairing of its two comic stars. On that front, “The Campaign” works quite well, milking the physical contrast between the galumphing Ferrell and the plump, compact Galifinakis for all it’s worth. Ferrell launches his unhinged overgrown man-baby act, which I’ve never found as funny as other people seem to, with his usual gusto, but like his character he’s upstaged by his challenger, who shifts nimbly from cringingly awkward goober to cringingly plausible puppet while remaining oddly likable through it all. A big part of why the movie works is Galifinakis’ ability to get you to root for Marty even as you’re laughing at him.

The movie’s more hit and miss in its treatment of the supporting cast, for the most part wasting the comic talents of Lithgow and Aykroyd, not to mention Jason Sudeikis as Brady’s long-suffering campaign manager, while making brilliant use of its straight men, particularly McDermott’s brand of steely-eyed cool and the grim deadpan of Brian Cox as Marty Huggins’ father, a wealthy Southern conservative who can barely conceal his contempt for his son. (One of the funniest scenes in the movie is one in which Galifinakis and Cox sit together in a boat, with the latter saying hardly anything at all.) Best in show, however, goes to Karen Murayama as an Asian maidservant who spends her limited screen time doing what the rest of the movie doesn’t—completely and delightfully overturning expectations. Without giving too much away, I can say that hers is the sharpest and gutsiest performance in a film that, on the whole, plays it far too safe. “The Campaign” could have used more of her subversive spirit.



“Compliance” is the kind of film that raises interesting questions without being particularly interesting as cinema. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing, just that it’s best seen with minimal advance knowledge and expectations. However, there is one crucial point that every viewer should know going into the movie, which has ben stirring up controversy ever since it debuted at Sundance earlier this year: It’s closely based on a true story, albeit one that still requires a strong suspension of disbelief.

Because, as adapted by first-time writer-director Craig Zobel, it’s a grim, sordid, frankly incredible little story that reflects poorly—to say the least—on humanity. It starts with a phone call to a nondescript fast food restaurant in a nondescript, wintry suburb (call it Anywhereville, U.S.A.) from a man identifying himself as a police officer (Dan Healy). He tells the restaurant manager (Ann Dowd), Sandra, that one of her young female employees working the counter (Dreama Walker) has stolen money from a customer, explains that he can’t spare any officers just yet to come to the restaurant, and asks Sandra to take the girl, Becky, to a back room and attempt to find the stolen money. From there, all I’ll say is that Sandra, suspecting nothing, dutifully follows his instructions, and things get worse—much worse.

It’s the “worse” that will strain the credulity of some viewers, and that’s already incited walkouts and criticism for being exploitative, even misogynistic. And yet the worst that happens on screen actually happened in real life. With that fact in mind, “Compliance” offers a disturbing reminder of just how readily presumably freethinking individuals will submit without question to authority, or the appearance of authority, a point famously (or notoriously) demonstrated in the Milgram experiments of the 1960’s. As a conversation-starter, it’s a doozy from any angle, moral, psychological, or sociological.

As a film, however, it falls a little flat, even as it becomes increasingly difficult to watch. Dowd does a good job making Saundra a three-dimensional character—well-meaning and not unsympathetic, but too preoccupied with other worries, too harried and distracted by the Friday rush, and too easily flattered and manipulated by the phony officer to spare a moment of empathy (or common sense) for a somewhat flaky employee she doesn’t really trust to begin with (and whom, the movie rather pointedly suggests, she may subconsciously resent for being a young, pretty blonde who’s popular with the boys). Somewhat less successful is the casting of Becky: Walker, who also stars in the TV sitcom “Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23,” comes across here as a little too snappy and snarky initially to be so easily cowed and, well, compliant later on. And while Zobel ably builds up the squicky, slow-burn dread of watching Becky’s escalating humiliation, he tends to dilute the effect, and the seemingly hypnotic power of the authoritative voice, by cutting frequently to other parts of the restaurant and even scenes outside the restaurant. He’s particularly fond of queasy close-ups of fast food cooking and people eating, and the detritus left behind by both—perhaps intended to heighten the nausea the audience may already be feeling at what’s going on in the back room. After a while, though, the lingering shots on the grease-stained deep fryer, dirty countertops, and unappetizing-looking patties and “chick-wiches” start to feel pointless and self-indulgent.

But the film’s biggest misstep, by far, is the decision to show the man on the other end of the phone line. By making it unambiguously clear that “Officer Daniels” is no officer but a sociopath who’s just fucking with everyone for his own sick amusement, “Compliance” undercuts its central premise: that people would obey the increasingly outrageous commands of an unseen stranger because they believed he was an officer of the law. Perhaps Zobel wanted to emphasize the wide discrepancy between the deception and the reality; perhaps he was simply concerned about the potential monotony of keeping all the action in one claustrophobic back room, guided—choreographed, even—by a disembodied voice. That approach, however, arguably might have made a tighter, more effective film. As it is, “Compliance” is really neither one thing nor another; it has neither the depth of a documentary nor the punch of a psychological horror movie. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction at its best should illuminate the truth or make it more compelling. “Compliance” doesn’t quite do either.



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