Sunday, September 16, 2012

Campaign, emphasis on the pain.

Movie Review: The Campaign

Director: Jay Roach

Reviewed: 22 August 2012

jamesintexas rating--**

The Campaign is a comedy with one uncontrollably funny scene.  The pairing of Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis proves to be all sizzle and no beef, though some winning segments and silly satirical moments try to carry it to some sort of importance.  Watching these two performers at the top of their game square off against each other is part of the appeal of The Campaign.  Director Jay Roach, beloved for Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and Meet The Parents seems content to let the film remain on autopilot, guiding itself to its inevitable conclusion with a little danger, a little savagery and anarchy thrown in, but it's never enough to rock the boat.

Roach fails to set up Galifianakis's Marty Huggins as a real character, a true eccentric, a small-town busybody with passion or straight up weirdness before diving into an underdeveloped relationship with his spiteful father (Brian Cox) and aforementioned scene of hilarity at the dinner table with his wife and kids.  Ferrell's Cam Brady doesn't fare much better, though his foul-mouthed hilarity on an answering machine is quite fun, as is his smooth command of the politician's lingo.  Brady's numbers drop when his filthy answering machine message gets national play.  As a result, Huggins is the challenger with greatness thrust upon him by two wealthy political operators (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow, playing the Coke Brothers) who desire to turn the North Carolina district into a Chinese sweatshop of insourcing.  Huggins challenges Brady, and things degenerate into vicious television ads, ridiculous debates, and outrageous stunt after outrageous stunt as each man tries to one up the other.

Both main characters have wives who are sadly underwritten and children that disappear for most of the film.  What an interesting and possibly funny film this could have been if those supporting players would have been given something to do.  Or, if a stronger actress, like a Melissa McCarthy or Olivia Spencer got to play one of the spouses or even the candidates?  And, Aykroyd and Lithgow could have been utilized more and with more hilarity; it was so good to see them both, yet they had little to do besides look nefarious.  A maid with a penchant for accents is quite funny, as are sequences involving baby-punching, dog-punching, and Ferrell spouting his typical jibberish.  Yet, it feels lacking of the danger or inspiration of the best performances from each main actor.  There's no Hangover-ish air of 'What the heck is he gonna do next?' hanging over Galifianakis's scenes, though the accent is funny; there's no full-tilt madness here from Farrell that was there in, say, Old School, Anchorman, or even his turn as Ricky Bobby.  The whole enterprise feels rote, routine, and stale, despite attempts to make some sort of social commentary in an election year.

We All Scream For...

Movie Review: Scream 4

Director: Wes Craven

Reviewed: 16 September 2012

jamesintexas rating--1/2 *

A phone rings.

"Who is this?" a girl utters.

"Not an App," a dark, deep voice answers.

Aside from cheeky dialogue that really, really tries to reflect our times and seem deep, I want to open my review for Scream 4 with a question of my own.

Why would anyone want to be friends with Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell)?

After an unsettling and unsatisfying opening, Wes Craven's newest addition to the Scream franchise welcomes back Deputy-turned-Sheriff Dewey (David Arquette) and his wife journalist Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), as well as survivor-turned-author Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), though I have difficulty believing Sidney's book can consist of more than a list of directions to evade would-be killers: kick them in the face, lock doors, swing off roofs, luck out with your multiple stab wounds to your stomach, glare intensely, continue to put yourself in situations with very little cell phone reception, few weapons, and cavernous houses where the killer's tactic is coming up behind you and grabbing you.  Killings follow Sidney's return to Woodsboro, and Ghostface killer returns in parking garages, dark hallways, bedrooms, and local parties, wrecking havoc and causing carnage with the iconic glinty knife.

Things fall apart.  The center cannot hold.

Full disclosure: I saw Scream during my freshman year in college in 1996-1997, and it was riveting and a formative experience for me.  I was terrified at the film's iconic mask, captivated by its construction and post-modern angle, as well as moved by the performances of Campbell, Arquette, Cox, and the rest of the cast.  Scream hit a nerve for me, amplifying the killer-in-the-house genre to scary, hilarious levels, and feeling dark and resonant, playing on fears of being alone in the house, of getting a phone call from someone that you don't know, of masks, silent killers, and someone who wants to do you massive harm.  Beyond a statue bust of Henry Winkler, the slain principal from the first film, in a throwaway shot as disposable characters walk down pristine hallways of Woodsboro High School, there is simply nothing that resembles that first film's greatness.  Even musically that original film introduced me to Nick Cave and Moby, to some pretty haunting moments and sequences which felt fresh in their exploration of the genre and commenting on it as it unfolded.  And, after a series of sequels offering diminishing returns, it has come to this: Scream 4.

I'm going to construct this review as a series of questions.

Does Neve Campbell realize how underwritten her role as Sidney is?

Does she care?

Can David Arquette carry a scene anymore as tired Sheriff Dewey?

Could he ever?

Does Courtney Cox realize the ridiculousness of watching her Gale character set up web camera in a bizarre Stab-Fest party in an abandoned farmhouse?

Does it get frustrating for Kevin Williamson to write a screenplay which consists of multiple characters who exist only to be flayed after teasing us as possible suspects?

Does that construction mean that we simply see less, care less about Sidney, her cousin, Sheriff Dewey, Gale, as well as the rest of the cast?  I think he's destroyed his own franchise by taking the focus off of the central characters.  There simply isn't enough time for us to connect with them.

Why can't cops parked out front of houses, presumably watching them, keep creepers from entering second story windows?

Why does the Ghostface killer continue to slowly, strangely cock his head to the side while watching his victims squirm and try to wheedle their ways out of imminent death?

Why are there never any parents in any of the houses in this town?

Also, why are there no motion-sensor lights to foil a creeping killer?

Would I have enjoyed this film more if the famous actors from opening scenes had been the ones doing the heavy lifting in the film instead of a cast with few names and (more importantly) less emotional connection?

Yes, I have to think so.  I mean, we have Julia Roberts' niece Emma Roberts, a Culkin, a Jaime Kennedy wannabee, Hayden Panettiere, as well as a series of forgettable faces and performances.  Alison Brie from Community and Mad Men is wasted here in a ridiculous role as Sidney's publicist who should know better than to park in a dark parking garage.  Anthony Anderson, a very funny and good actor, is wasted as a throwaway police officer.  As this film progresses, I found myself caring less and less for all of the characters.


Why not have the heroes carry guns, mace, or tasers to protect themselves in 2011?  Any single modern weapon would have leveled the playing field immensely and made standing their ground more of an option.  

Why do the police take over twenty minutes to get anywhere in this city?  How big is this city?  How much traffic is there in the middle of the night?

Why, Ghostface killer, are you so intent on grabbing people's ankles instead of using that shiny knife whenever you are close to them?

To sum up, Scream 4 is completely unsatisfying and unworthy of the Scream name.

Also, filmed in Michigan.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Then It Fell Apart: Bored of The Bourne Legacy.

Movie Review: The Bourne Legacy

Director: Tony Gilroy

Reviewed: 2 September 2012

jamesintexas rating--*1/2

"Extreme ways are back again / Extreme places I didn't know / I broke everything new again / Everything that I'd owned" (Moby, "Extreme Ways" from the album 18, the unofficial theme song of the Jason Bourne films.)

Broken is the appropriate image to leave the theater with after enduring this quasi-sequel, messy spin-off of the very successful Jason Bourne trilogy.  I'm still angry after seeing this movie over six days ago.  Angry.  Not at Jeremy Renner or Rachel Weisz who do credible jobs with their underwritten characters as super-assassin and PhD chemist, respectively.  Not at cinematographer Robert Elswit who films pristine snow white scenes alongside blindingly white research labs, infusing this action film with atypical grace.  Not at Moby who wrote such a terrific coda song "Extreme Ways" to cap the ending of each Bourne film (it's on my workout mix).  Not the terrific sense of place in this film: Alaska survival camp, a pill factory in the Phillipines, a terrifying sequence in a laboratory.  I guess I'm just angry at the unrealized potential here, the squandered possibilities, the choppiness and, at times, laziness, of Tony Gilroy, the director of the great Michael Clayton, trying to show us the story behind the stories told in three previous films about amnesiac-laden assassin Jason Bourne.  However, it ends up looking like an amalgamation of out takes and afterthoughts from three previous films, bonus footage or unused scenes being rushed together, like a sixth grade science project with pages of printed out Internet research just stapled to the trifold display board.

It just does not work.

To paraphrase Yoda, "There is another [Bourne]!" and this film picks up on the assumption that the programs with vaguely menacing names run by the intelligence czars in D.C. are using blue and red colored pills and extreme training to build and monitor super spies capable of withstanding extreme amounts of pain, quickening reaction time, and becoming perfect weapons.  When the fallout from Jason Bourne's exploits in the previous films begins to damage the cache of the intelligence community, retired Admiral Turso (Stacy Keach) and retired Colonel Byer (Edward Norton) implement protocols with far-reaching effects for spy in training Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) who is doing his best Liam Neeson in The Grey impression by fighting wolves off with torches in Alaska and Doctor Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a chemist at the forefront of exciting developments in human capability who talks vaguely about "advancing science" as justification for her involvement with genetic engineering.  A chase film, the heroes outwit and outmaneuver their enemies, making their way to Manilla to a pill factory, I think.

I cannot remember a time when a movie worked so hard to actively remind me of its far superior predecessors.  Every shot of Matt Damon's stock face on his Jason Bourne passport reminded me of how much I would rather be watching any of those three films: The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum.  Any time there was a cutaway to Pam Landy (the wonderful Joan Allen) I wished that she were really featured in this film instead of basically a cameo that may have just been recycled footage from a previous film.  As much fun as it is to see Edward Norton and Stacy Keach go all bleary-eyed and intense as CIA/NSA Cheney-esque puppet masters, playing God in conference rooms, poring over data about super secret spy programs, they drop out of the film and cannot equal Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Albert Finney, Chris Cooper from the first film, Julia Stiles...  It is fun to see Edward Norton again.  Why has it been so long since he's done good work?  Unfortunately, his role does not build towards anything in this film.

Gilroy and Elswit construct several intense action sequences, and early scenes in Alaska are brutal with the weather and wolves.  A terrifying highlight is a ten-minute nightmarish set piece inside of a lab involving a violent act, and the tight confines, the unforeseen parallels to recent shootings inside of a Colorado movie theater, and the sense of slowly unfolding horror.  The film never again reaches the intensity of that sequence, and other scenes pale behind other Bourne action sequences (I mean really, why put someone on a bike after seeing Matt Damon dart through and over the streets and roofs of Tangiers?).  And Damon's films handle the quiet, devastating moments of Bourne's realizations better; a denouement of the second film involves a quiet, guilt-ridden, emotionally powerful conversation between spy and unintended victim of his violence.

With The Bourne Legacy, I haven't been as surprised at an ending to a film in years.  Not surprised in an "I didn't see that coming! Wow!" kind of way.  But, every instinct that I have as a moviegoer told me that The Bourne Legacy was building towards something more giant in the showdown, something more profound, something more intense.  Maybe a villain introduced in Act 3 doesn't carry enough screen time.  A fight scene on motorbikes, admirably filmed and sufficiently dangerous yet curiously inert and uninvolving for me, culminates in the Moby music playing as the credits roll and my general confusion.  The movie is over?  Where does this leave us?  Where do we go from here?

And if the answer to that question is a super hybrid action film which combines Matt Damon and Jeremy Renner, I'm all in as long as Paul Greengrass returns at the helm as director or the script finds some sort of logic amidst the chaos as well as recommits to using its deep supporting cast in real ways.  As an attentive audience member, I just shouldn't feel like Jason Bourne in a Bourne movie: Who is that guy?  Why are they fighting?  Where are they now?  Why is it over?  Where are they going?  What happened to Edward Norton?

Moby's song "Extreme Ways" culminates in these lines: "I would stand in line for this / It's always good in life for this / Oh baby, oh baby / Then it fell apart, it fell apart...Like it always does."  I guess I did stand in line for this, but the concept of The Bourne Legacy, for me, fell apart completely.