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Column Fri Aug 10 2012

The Bourne Legacy, The Campaign, Hope Springs, Celeste and Jesse Forever & Searching for Sugar Man


The Bourne Legacy

Is there even precedent for a franchise losing its title character/main actor and continuing on? Smokey and the Bandit 3, maybe. Still, I have to admit, The Bourne Legacy makes a daring leap of faith and comes out the other side pretty strong thanks to an ambitious script by Tony and Dan Gilroy (Tony directed as well) and a nicely conceived lead performance by Jeremy Renner, who continues to impress me as a thinking man's action star in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and The Avengers.

Set in a timeline that is largely parallel with The Bourne Ultimatum (which we're aware of thanks to key shots of some of that film's supporting players like David Strathairn, Joan Allen, Scott Glenn, Albert Finney and Paddy Considine), the new film reveals that Jason Bourne was not the only chemically enhanced government agent. But because Bourne went rogue and exposed the role of one particular division (led by Edward Norton, in full-on bad-guy mode) in this project, those in the know decide it's time to shut down the project in a hurry. And they don't simply call in the agents; they kill them all, mostly by poisoning their daily meds. But Renner's Aaron Cross (a slightly more rugged version of Bourne) is targeted for a missile launch at a small cabin in the snowy mountains where he's hiding out. He doesn't die but those trying to kill him think he did.

Concerned that his meds (or Chems, as he likes to call them) have run out, he makes a clandestine run for Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), the scientist that does his blood work every few months when he comes in from the field. Turns out Norton wants anyone with knowledge of this project dead, so agents are sent to kill her as well, and Cross shows up in the nick of time. The rest of the film is the two of them running for their lives, trying to get him more meds so that a virus-like element in his body can be eliminated as a danger to his health, and attempting to expose the program to the world.

Like all of the Bourne movies, the cast is critical to selling some of the more outrageous plot elements, and this chapter has some great actors, including Donna Murphy, Corey Stoll and Zeljko Ivanek to add some substance to a film that already has an impressive list of returning cast members and Norton. The one thing that may shock some audience members is that the film features a whole lot of talking and exposition, which, quite frankly, it needs. The first two-thirds of the movie are light on action, but the final third makes up the difference, including a fantastic foot/motorcycle chase through downtown Manila.

I'm not sure too many actors outside of Renner could have kept me as interested in his plight; it doesn't hurt that his adversary is a heartless prick like Norton's character, and you don't realize until the end that, if memory serves, the two only share the screen once, and that's only in a flashback. There isn't a huge mystery hanging over this story, since we know most of the agency's secrets thanks to the last film, so Gilroy and company can focus on making one of the most intriguing cat-and-mouse stories I've seen in a long time.

With all of these pluses, the biggest negative I have to offer is that I don't think I want another film with the name Bourne in the title if Matt Damon isn't a part of it. One time is clever; two times is a cheat. Hell, some may think one time is a cheat, but it all worked for me. Renner is on a real nice run right now playing slightly detached heroes who we still care about a great deal, so bring on (gulp!) Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.

The Campaign

Director Jay Roach is an anomaly to me. The man has helmed two extreme smart and entertaining HBO films about politics (Recount, Game Change), and he's also done all three Austin Powers movies, the first two Meet the Parents films and Dinner with Schmucks, to name most of his filmography. Some of his works I consider essential watching; others are disposable junk. But with his latest work, The Campaign, Roach has taken his informed knowledge of politics and injected it into a raunchy comedy about two very different candidates running for a North Carolina Congressional seat. Will Ferrell plays Cam Brady, the seasoned incumbent who has run unopposed since he took office, while Zach Galifianakis plays Marty Huggins, an established loser and son of a powerful businessman (Brian Cox) with friends who want a puppet congressman in their back pocket.

While Marty would never knowingly become a stooge, there's a lot Marty doesn't know, including how to speak in public and dress for success (ugly sweaters are his forté), and after a few embarrassing moments (most of which come courtesy of Cam, who doesn't appreciate having to work for his seats this time around), Marty has to buckle down and play the nasty game of politics with the help of hired-gun campaign advisor Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott), hired by the money men behind Marty's run, Glenn and Wade Motch (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd, clearly playing a barely veiled version of David and Charles Koch, who have been taking shots from HBO's "Newsroom" lately, too).

Ferrell has done a version of this before, playing George W. Bush on stage, and I have always loved Galifianakis' affected Southern persona (basically his "twin brother Seth" character). It didn't take much to tweak those characters into two fleshed-out roles that begin by providing a look at the the poles that political candidates can exist at. Naturally, they drift closer in style and substance to each other by the end.

While its two lead characters may be deliberately playing dumb about certain subjects in The Campaign, the film actually has a thread of intelligence running through it, primarily in the form of the wives of the two candidates, played by Katherine LaNasa (Mrs. Brady) and Sarah Baker (Mrs. Huggins). They are perfect prototypical political wives — one a re-sculpted version of Cindy McCain and the other a more down-home wife and mother who shuns glamour but still knows what her husband must do to stay competitive. I also liked the relationship between Cam and his right-hand man Mitch (Jason Sudeikis), who have a long history of covering up the congressman's indiscretions.

But the film also largely works as a finely crafted piece of vulgarity, beginning early with Cam banging an admirer in a Port-O-Potty ("It smells bad in here," she says. "You get used to it," he answers. Gross on every level.) There are times when the rude jokes fall flat and the political observations are too broad and obvious to be clever.

But for the most part, The Campaign is full of big laughs and insight into a process that seems to have mostly to do with money and little to do with integrity. Sure, a lot of the inside-baseball stuff will be a met with "No shit" by many, but that doesn't stop the film from being funny more often than not. At the very least, there's a baby-punching scene that is had me nearly on the floor laughing so hard. If you tend to have a feel for Ferrell's better work, you'll feel right at home with this one.

Hope Springs

If you think you're walking into a comedy about an older husband and wife going in to tune up their stale, repetitive marriage and being forced to talk about sex and inner feelings, you're only about half right. Fortunately, the part you're wrong about is replaced by something quite a bit more dramatic than the marketing for Hope Springs would lead you to believe.

Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep (two fine actors when they set their minds to it, I think we can all agree) star as Arnold and Kay, married 30 years and in a routine/rut that is painful to watch. She slides him the same breakfast every morning, he reads the newspaper, she announces what will be for dinner that night, he says what time he'll be home, and the two never make eye contact. They sleep in separate beds, naturally, at first because he needed the space to recover from a procedure, but then just because. The film never tries to pin the blame for them getting to this place on one or the other, although because Kay is the one to suggest the therapy, we tend to side with her — though not always.

Both characters are painted as repressed in every sense, especially sexually, but it's clear that any expression of emotion or intimacy is met with confusion, and often rejected. When Kay announces to Arnold that she wants to enjoy her life with him again by going to a week of therapy in Maine under the guidance of Dr. Feld (Steve Carell, playing things as a total profesional), he rejects the idea without a moment's thought, but after she threatens to go without him, he relents and complains about how much money they're spending almost the entire time. She endures it because he's there.

The movie goes from good to nearly great during the therapy session, and there are several lengthy exchanges between the doctor and his couple, who sit at varying distances from each other on the couch, depending on how well their at-home exercises went the day before. But in these sessions, the couple's deepest, most intimate moments come out, and many of them are not pleasant. Turns out they stopped having sex partly because she lost interest (if she ever had any) and partly because he just hopped on, did his business, hopped off. The humiliation Arnold and Kay are experiencing is written all over their faces as they discuss their fantasies, openness to even just touching each other, and their brief but beautiful honeymoon years.

Director David Frankel (Marley & Me and The Devil Wears Prada) has a solid sense of when to turn up the emotional awkwardness and when to let things just be nice between the couple. In one promising sequence, Arnold attempts to surprise Kay with a romantic dinner and a stay at a much nicer hotel than the motel they are staying in to save money. And as quickly as things start to get hot and heavy, they collapse into a horrible mess. Sex (talking about or having) is rarely played for laughs in Hope Springs, but if you do laugh, it might be because of the sheer embarrassment that the patients have in talking about it.

Among writer Vanessa Taylor credits are "Alias" "Everwood," "Game of Thrones," and HBO's "Tell Me You Love Me," which was one of the most brutally honest characterizations of various relationships I've ever seen on television. Hope Springs isn't quite to that level, but it's also impossible to dismiss its most emotionally heavy moments. Things wrap up a little too quickly and neatly, and even a film this wise can't avoid the occasional unnecessary music montage, but for the most part, Streep and Jones keep Hope alive with some especially fine work. All of that being said, do everything in your power not to see the movie with your parents if they are around the age of these two characters; that would be humiliating for everyone involved.

Celeste and Jesse Forever

I see its flaws and limitations, but something about Celeste and Jesse Forever drew me in and made me care so deeply about these characters that I found it extremely easy to look past its shortcomings. And a big reason for my affection for this film is star and co-writer Rashida Jones, who I've always enjoyed as an actor, but really found myself pulled in by here. Her character Celeste is so sure that what she's doing is right that when she comes to the realization that she might be horribly wrong, it breaks your heart. Actually, a lot of things about this film will break your heart.

What's exceedingly clever about this movie is how it sets itself up to be a traditional romantic-comedy and then flips it around into an unusual drama about a couple (Jones and Andy Samberg) who have been together since high school, got married, and are now in the process of getting divorced. The twist is that they want to skip the bitterness and animosity portion of the divorce and decide to stay best friends and still hang out together all the time, something that makes nearly all of their friends really uncomfortable.

Jesse is clearly not in favor of the divorce, but because he thinks this is one of Celeste's phases, he goes along with it, waiting for it to pass. Celeste feels they have grown apart, and that divorce is the right move, but her constant refusal to admit she's anything but right could keep her from seeing the truth. But then he meets a woman, and this shifts the balance of things. She sees this as a way to kickstart him out of his unemployed, slacker ways, but when the consequences of getting divorced finally sink in with her and she realizes that real emotions are involved, she panics and things become unpredictable. She throws herself into her work as a media consultant, and lands a huge pop star client (Emma Roberts), which simply adds to her frustration levels.

There's a lot of humor in Jones' script (which she co-wrote with fellow actor Will McCormack), but director Lee Toland Krieger (I strongly recommend his last feature, The Vicious Kind, starring Adam Scott) seems a little more interested in pulling away the veil from Celeste and Jesse's relationship, and digging into what makes them work and what made them fail. Celeste and Jesse Forever has some nice supporting work from the likes of Elijah Wood, Ari Graynor, Eric Christian Olsen and Rob Huebel, but really, the film succeeds on any level because Jones and a dialed-back Samberg are so believable, especially in the scenes where they argue; they fight like people who have known each other for a long time. And it's that authenticity that wins the day and won me over. It's not a perfect film, but the emotional honestly is flawless. The film opens in Chicago today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Celeste and Jesse Forever star/co-writer Rashida Jones and co-writer Will McCormack, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Searching for Sugar Man

This is an impossible film to review without running the risk of giving away too many secrets. Part of the pure joy of Searching for Sugar Man, one of my favorite docs of the year so far, is discovering the truth about the almost mythical Detroit-based folk/protest singer-songwriter known as Rodriguez, who released two albums in the late 1960s (which sold nothing) and was never heard from again. The legends, according to the very few people who cared, was that he killed himself on stage, either by setting himself on fire or shooting himself in the head.

But somehow, a copy of one of his albums, Cold Fact, made its way to South Africa and become one of the biggest-selling albums of all time in that nation. Desperate to know more about the man who made this album, a small group of music lovers in South Africa began a search for details about the late singer's life. They scoured his lyrics for clues, tracked down his producers (who had worked with several Motown artists, including Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder), found the record labels that were releasing (probably illegally) the album in South Africa to find out where the royalty checks were going.

Searching for Sugar Man serves two purposes: it provides a lovely tribute to Rodriguez's music, but in its bigger message, it also honors a certain higher level of musical obsession. And while Rodriguez's music was in no way obscure in South Africa (some credit Cold Fact with being one of the fuels in the internal anti-Apartheid movement among whites), these men who went in search of their hero's story were just tired of not knowing anything about their favorite musician.

There's a huge portion of this film that I'm not talking about in this review, because the journey truly is the reason to see Searching for Sugar Man. And as director Malik Bendjelloul follows these South Africans on their epic path to separate fact from fiction, things are discovered that simply can't be revealed (although I'm sure some critics are happily spoiling all the film's secrets). All I will say is that music lovers, fans of mysteries and investigations, and just movie buffs who love a great story will all get a huge kick out of this remarkable little film. It opens in Chicago today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Searching for Sugar Man director Malik Bendjelloul. But if you haven't seen this movie yet, don't read this interview.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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