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“Tag” Is Often Gloriously Dumb, But It Wants to Be More

Probably the most interesting thing about Tag is that it was inspired by a true story. Director Jeff Tomsic and his team seem to understand this, as both the marketing and the movie itself remind you of its real-life origins on a regular basis. A group of grown men have been playing the same game of tag for the past three decades, spending one month each year doing everything they can to avoid one another, while also doing everything they can to secretly find and touch one another. It is, indeed, kind of incredible. And knowing that it’s a true story — a point emphasized by both the film’s opening and closing titles as well as the odd presence of a journalist character following our heroes around — I couldn’t help but spend much of the movie wondering about the actual mechanics of how such a game would work in real life.

Is that a problem? Yes and no. Glossy, high-concept studio comedies tend to have fairly low suspension-of-disbelief settings. The Other Guys, Step Brothers, Blades of Glory: These are not movies whose setups or plot mechanics I want to interrogate; so long as the laughs come reliably, I’m good. The laughs come reliably in Tag, too, but, knowing what I knew, I often found myself wishing I were watching a documentary about the actual guys instead. (This is a problem that the recent release American Animals — which is decidedly not a comedy, but is also based on a wild story about a bunch of guys doing something stupid — tries to get around by making itself a narrative-documentary hybrid. That’s an interesting approach, but that film has all sorts of other problems I won’t get into here.)

Still, even with the voice inside my head that wanted to know more about the real-life arrangement behind Tag, I found plenty to enjoy in much of Tomsic’s comedy. The film gets a lot of mileage from bouncing its otherwise disparate characters off one another. There’s Bob Callahan (Jon Hamm), CEO of an insurance company, able to turn on the chummy charm whenever he wants to. When we first meet him, he’s being stalked by intensely nebbishy Hogan Malloy (Ed Helms), a veterinarian who is actually willing to get a job as a janitor at Bob’s firm just so he can nail him in the middle of a big Wall Street Journal interview. There’s Chilli (Jake Johnson), a scruffy, dead-end stoner whose life appears to have mostly fallen apart over the years, and yet who’s still willing to put his body on the line for a game of tag; and Sable (Hannibal Buress), who has become completely suspicious of anything and everything thanks to their ongoing bizarre infantile ritual.

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The elusive fifth member of the group, Jerry (Jeremy Renner), whose impending wedding serves as a motivation for the crew to reunite, remains in a class all his own. No one has successfully tagged Jerry in all the years they’ve been playing the game, and it’s easy to see why. Whenever he shows up, the film launches into hyper-stylized, slo-mo Guy Ritchie-esque action set pieces in which Jerry brilliantly calculates things like velocity and positioning and then, dexterously and with superheroic ferocity, gives his pals the slip. (The knowledge that Renner’s arms had to be replaced with CGI in post-production after he broke them during shooting somehow makes these scenes even funnier.)

Renner is perfectly cast here, as a self-important little slickster who feigns chill while demonstrating Osterman Weekend–levels of paranoia behind closed doors. Actually, everybody’s well-matched to their parts. Hamm is at his backslapping best, as a smiling, friendly, chatty guy who’d secretly sell his mother to gain an edge. Helms is doing a variation on the earnest, taking-things-too-far klutz routine he’s perfected over the years, but he connects with Hogan’s desperation; there’s a reason why he’s the character who’s eager to bring everybody back together.

This indulgent little game has prevented these men from growing up in other ways. In the opening scenes, we see our heroes as young kids, sprinting through a school hallway trying to tag each other, ignoring the girls who observe them with bewilderment and a little disgust. The filmmakers occasionally pay lip service to these men’s complicated, regressive relationships with women, but this idea feels mostly sidelined until the end — not unlike the women themselves. Bob and Chilli have a long-festering romantic rivalry over a fellow classmate (Rashida Jones), which reignites when she shows back up in their lives, newly single. Hogan’s wife Anna (played hilariously by Isla Fisher as an intense, tough-as-nails spitfire) has effectively become part of the crew, but she’s still not included as a tagger. Meanwhile, a Wall Street Journal reporter (Annabelle Wallis) is Tag’s literal tag-along, along for the ride to watch these men’s behavior in the wild, but she’s given almost nothing to do.

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It all feeds into a broader problem, which is that Tag doesn’t know what kind of movie it wants to be. It wants to indulge in the childish spectacle of grown men playing a high-stakes game of tag — which it does rather well for much of its running time — while trying to point out the shortcomings of doing such a thing with your life. But then it pulls back, as a sentimental revelation at the end sends it into a whole other territory, celebrating the camaraderie this game has fostered among these men.

It’s not impossible to juggle such seemingly conflicting impulses: I was reminded at times of The World’s End, Edgar Wright’s masterpiece about a group of old friends who have gone their separate ways in life being reunited by an attempt to re-create a legendary pub crawl from their youth. But Wright was smart enough to turn his boys-being-boys blowout into a gonzo sci-fi comedy about the seductiveness and destructiveness of nostalgia; he embraced the contradictions and went nuclear with his story. Tomsic and his team do no such thing. It feels like they’re determined to remain more grounded and realistic — which is absurd, because no matter how much they remind us that this is all based on a true story, at heart Tag is still a dumb, goofy Hollywood comedy with big stars running around making glorious asses of themselves. It’d be a pretty good one, too, were it not so afraid to embrace its essence.

Tag
Directed by Jeff Tomsic
Warner Bros. Pictures
Opens June 15

 

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Can a Movie Be Both Thoroughly Satisfying and Also a Disappointment?

Taylor Sheridan isn’t afraid to embrace genre. His Wind River plays more like an unusually well-made episode of CSI: Wyoming than the highly anticipated directorial effort from the screenwriter of Hell or High Water (which may well have been last year’s best-written film).

Set in the desolate, snow-covered Wind River reservation, it follows the efforts of expert marksman and haunted tough guy Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) and tenderfoot FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) as they investigate the death of a local teenage girl found frozen in the middle of nowhere. It’s a solid mystery setup: The girl, who may have been raped, appears to have been running away from something, and our heroes need to find out not just who’s responsible for her murder but what terrified her so.

Sheridan’s feel for psychology and setting are in fine evidence here. Wind River’s landscapes are forbidding and beautiful. Cory, whose ex-wife also lives on the reservation, once lost a teen daughter in similar circumstances, and he can empathize with the girl’s anguished, nearly suicidal parents. Because the film pays such attention to grief and atmosphere, I can forgive it some of its more frustratingly conventional plotting choices. Not to mention some of the casting: Renner feels out of place as the white-clad (and just plain white) Man’s Man Who Is One With Nature. For her part, Olsen does her best as Young Beautiful FBI Agent Out of Her League. And while it’s always nice to see the great Graham Greene, here playing the reservation’s sheriff, it would have been even nicer had the creators of this movie ostensibly about Native Americans allowed him room for a bigger role.

In Hell or High Water, Sheridan reimagined (and, along the way, reinvented) genre archetypes (the aging lawman, the outlaw on the run, the faithful partner, etc.) with such vigor that the movie became largely about them and their interactions, giving the whole thing a mythical kick. Here, the archetypes are largely functional in delivering a familiar thriller narrative — satisfying, though ultimately forgettable.

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The Tragedy of Gary Webb Stings Even When Kill the Messenger Flags

It was a mystery that reporter Gary Webb would have jumped on: a man who’d made powerful enemies allegedly committing suicide with two gunshots to the head. The tragedy is that Webb was the deceased. Michael Cuesta’s earnest, ire-inducing Kill the Messenger is a David-and-Goliath story where truth is the slingshot — a fragile weapon that needs to score a fatal hit before the big guy gets mad. Miss, and you’ll get crushed.

The giant is the CIA. In 1996, Webb published a thunderbolt piece in the San Jose Mercury News connecting the facts in a conspiracy that linked the government to the Nicaraguan Contras to the crack dealers of South Central Los Angeles. As the movie has it, after a tip from a sexy informant named Coral (Paz Vega) trying to keep her boyfriend (Aaron Farb) out of prison, Webb (Jeremy Renner) follows the dots to reveal that the CIA knowingly allowed the Contras to use drug profits to fund their joint struggle against the liberal Sandinistas — and even let them land their planes of cocaine at an Air Force base in Texas.

“Have you written that story?” teases Coral. He hadn’t. No one had. And the big players at the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times were peeved that this nobody from nowheresville had scooped them. Even Webb’s editor (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and executive editor Jerry Ceppos (Oliver Platt) were uncomfortable that the Mercury News had reached above their station. “We don’t do international,” Ceppos frets.

Webb was right, though the CIA wouldn’t admit it for another two years. If Kill the Messenger ended when Webb’s article broke, it’d be a scrappy celebration of an underdog done good — a true American Dream, built on the American nightmare of crack addiction in Watts. That’s certainly how he saw it: Webb was a hard-working father of three who’d proven his investigative chops. Yet in the two-year gap between his piece hitting print and the government’s public mea culpa, Webb’s career was trashed. No one threatens him or his family with violence. (In fact, one CIA man creepily overcompensates by assuring, “We’d never threaten your children, Mr. Webb.”) Instead, they destroy the man by destroying his credibility — and to an investigative journalist like Webb, the two are the same. This comes as a surprise to Renner’s Webb. He’s at once cynical yet childishly naive about the power of the press, certain that the truth will protect him. When a D.C. insider (Michael Sheen) warns him, “Some stories are just too true to tell,” he scoffs, “Bullshit!”

Webb’s rivals at the other papers attack, not by denying the truth, but by exaggerating Webb’s claims until they pop. His fellow news outlets, the cool-kids club he’d love to join, spin him into a whack job who thinks CIA spooks in trench coats are selling crack themselves in a conspiracy to destroy black neighborhoods.

It doesn’t help Webb that the American public found the truth hard to understand. It’s even hard to follow here in the film’s fast-moving trot between courthouses and Central America — it’s only clear that something interesting is happening from the “A-ha!” excitement on Renner’s face. When he digs out a deliciously dirty fact, he looks like a badger in blue jeans who’s caught a fat snake. Sometimes it’s a little hard to care about the particulars because it feels like we’re playing catch-up.

Like Webb himself, Kill the Messenger is a little rumpled. Cuesta isn’t out to impress us with slick tricks — he just cares about the facts, almost as if he fears that if the camerawork were prettier, the movie would look more like fiction. The film doesn’t really get going until the midpoint, when Webb’s article, “Dark Alliance,” drops like a bomb. There’s a moment of stunned silence, and then the blowback tears him apart.

Webb is a great character, because he was — and still feels like — a real, flawed human being. Cuesta and screenwriter Peter Landesman don’t elevate him into a hero. He’s a hunter, and when his rivals at the New York Times scrutinize his past, he’s made enough personal mistakes that he’s easy to discredit. (So have we all — against the purity of truth, no one looks clean.) In Webb’s case, he has a temper, he had a mistress, and when he gets spooked by stalkers outside his house, we know enough about the news cycle to scream, “Put down that gun and look normal!” What happens to him here is scary because the way it plays out is so familiar, and because we’ve bought into it ourselves every time we allow another stranger to be spun into a national joke.

For media junkies, Kill the Messenger plays like s&m porn — it hurts so good. Yet, when the sting fades, so does the film. It doesn’t entirely engage, in part because it’s so determined to correct the story that it can’t let us explore it ourselves. When Webb gets paranoid and starts sounding crazy, the film doesn’t allow us to ask if he’s gone overboard. (Which, given the debate over his death, we need to do.) Instead, it’s insistently sympathetic. Webb would have called it an editorial. But at least in defending his name, Kill the Messenger is also defending his mantra: “Don’t let the assholes win.”

Directed by Michael Cuesta. Written by Peter Landesman. Based upon the books Dark Alliance, by Gary Webb, and Kill the Messenger, by Nick Schou.

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The Immigrant Feels Classical But Also Breathes

In 2014, any filmmaker who has a feel, and a flair, for romantic melodrama is doomed, and just one recent example from the world of blockbusters suggests why: In the final moments of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the hero tragically fails to save a major character, but the moment, coming after endless green-screen shots of villains being zapped with spider silk, has zero weight. A plot point that should pierce us is just a mechanical motivation for the lead character to slip into a funk and to decree sulkily — for, it seems, the millionth time — that he doesn’t want to be Spider-Man anymore. And so a potentially operatic gesture becomes an expensive shrug. In a world like this, what chance does a period melodrama like James Gray’s The Immigrant have?

To Gray, the director of unapologetically impassioned dramas like We Own the Night and Two Lovers, the shrug is a foreign gesture. He’s unafraid of strong emotion; he doesn’t care about looking cool. And with The Immigrant, in which Marion Cotillard plays a Polish immigrant struggling to find her place in New York in the early 1920s, he’s made a picture that feels classical but also breathes. There’s no other movie on the landscape like it, which is perhaps why the Weinstein Co. has relegated it to a very small limited release: In today’s movie-marketing climate, The Immigrant probably has too much feeling for its own good. But anyone who cares about movies, and about what movies can be, should try to see it on the big screen. It’s as if the ghosts of an older, vanished New York have been freed from the tyranny of faded photographs and allowed, once again, to move, think, and feel.

Cotillard’s Ewa has just made the crossing to the United States with her sickly sister, who’s whisked away by the authorities upon arrival and detained indefinitely in an Ellis Island hospital. Ewa almost doesn’t make it into the country herself: An immigration bureaucrat, having heard reports of her “low morals” aboard the ship, informs her that women of her ilk aren’t welcome here. Just then, like a knight in a bowler and a celluloid collar, Joaquin Phoenix’s Bruno steps in: He gives Ewa a place to stay and hints at possible employment. It turns out Bruno runs a cabaret/brothel, and with half-courtly, half-cagey seductiveness, he persuades Ewa that the surest way for her to earn the money to free her sister is to join his bevy of salacious beauties. Ewa, of course, stands out in that crowd. Her face — Cotillard’s face — is determined and refined, even after her virtue has been sullied; her radiance is intertwined with her dignity. Bruno tries to possess her, but it’s his cousin, Orlando (Jeremy Renner), who charms her. None of the characters here read as precisely good or bad, conniving or kind; scoundrels can have noble hearts, and purity isn’t the same as innocence.

Gray has a knack for wrapping big themes into an intimate embrace, and The Immigrant feels both epic and fine-grained. He does nothing by half-measures, which is one of the chief complaints filed by those who don’t care for his movies, that everything he does is just too much. But the too-muchness is the point. Shot by Darius Khondji, partly on location on Ellis Island, The Immigrant is quietly glorious to look at, rendered in muted brick-and-mortar tones that nevertheless have a glow about them, as if lit from behind by lantern light. Gray and Khondji don’t glamorize Ewa’s situation or her living conditions, but they make them movie-beautiful, believable in a way that pleases the eye; the result is a kind of stylized neo-realism. When Bruno invites Ewa to stay in a mysterious little flat, offering her a day bed and a blanket, she slips a sharp weapon under her pillow, just in case.

Emotions run high in The Immigrant, but they’re tucked into cramped interiors. There are always too many people sharing too-small quarters, with not enough of anything to go around. When Bruno, kicked out of his club and his home, leads his beauties to a dank underpass in Central Park, he dresses them up in cheap silky robes and shiny headdresses from a theatrical costume trunk, mischievously passing them off to potential clients as daughters of New York aristocracy. They strut and preen in their tattered Art Deco finery, but the point isn’t to make us feel sorry for these young women in compromised circumstances; the movie allows them their self-respect, assigning some tawdry glamour to the art of just scraping by.

If The Immigrant were being released in 1934 instead of 2014, and I were writing the text for its advertising poster, I’d go with “A woman who will do anything to survive. A man transformed by love.” That about sums it up, in the barest terms, but Gray (who co-wrote the script with the late Ric Menello, also the co-writer of Two Lovers) adds so many gossamer layers to that framework that it defies cliché. The picture might be considered an ode to the way movies used to be, not just in terms of look and style but in the way they’d unfold before us, unashamed of teasing out deep, raw feeling, and the actors are game. Phoenix, always a bit of an eccentric, modulates his quirks here, as if in deference to the story and its nuances — he has a nightshade intensity, and the obsessive, twisted love he comes to feel for Ewa is believable in its confused complexity. Renner, with his tough little newsboy mug, is a scamp with a soul.

Cotillard, deft and subtle, is best of all. The new world Ewa has entered is hardly welcoming, but she strides into it with an explorer’s spirit. Late in the film, trying to reconcile herself with all the unspeakable things she’s done in order to help her sister, she wraps herself in a shawl and enters a Catholic church. “Is it a sin to want to survive when I have done so many bad things?” she asks the priest to whom she confesses. This isn’t modern-day speech but proud, defiant movie dialogue, a distinct language that some may laugh at but that others will understand instinctively. Lines like these are like mutable vessels, changing shape and color depending on what the actor pours into them. Into this one Cotillard pours despair, anxiety, and more than a few drops of defiance. As a newcomer and a woman of little means, Ewa is at a disadvantage in this busy, indifferent world. The naked honesty of her face only makes everyone want to lie to her. But that doesn’t make her the liar, and her fearlessness in the face of thieves and tricksters makes all the difference. The Immigrant is a story about the way determination can mutate into a kind of rough magic, turning a place where you’re not wanted into one you can call home.

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Cannes: Marion Cotillard Shines in James Gray’s The Immigrant

You know those two little lines you get in your forehead when you frown? The ones that, if you frown too much, stick there for good? The French have a name for that: “the lion wrinkle.” And by the 10th day of Cannes, there are a lot of lion wrinkles visible among critics and journalists around the Palais des Festivals. People are tired and cranky and appear to be thoroughly sick of the French Riviera, if such a thing is possible.

By Lion Wrinkle Day, the joint has begun to clear out—like most festivals, Cannes is generally, if unofficially, front-loaded, which means most of the potentially significant films screen earlier on. At least that’s the perception, but it’s never a good idea to get too complacent. James Gray’s The Immigrant, which screened for the press on Friday, May 24, is one of the strongest films in the festival competition, although as with nearly all of Gray’s films, critics here seem strongly divided on it.

For me, it’s yet more evidence that Gray is a director who can tease rich, subtle colors out of melodrama. He’s unafraid of strong emotion; he doesn’t care about looking cool. And the movie he’s made, a stylized take on the experience of a Polish immigrant newly arrived in New York in the early 1920s, feels classical, but it also breathes. It’s as if the ghosts of an older, vanished New York have been freed from the tyranny of faded photographs and allowed, once again, to move, think, and feel.

Marion Cotillard plays Ewa, newly arrived in the United States. She made the crossing with her sickly sister, who was whisked away by the authorities upon arrival and detained indefinitely in a hospital on Ellis Island. Ewa has nowhere to go and no way of making a living, but she’s befriended by Joaquin Phoenix’s Bruno, who gives her a place to stay and hints at possible employment. It turns out Bruno runs a cabaret/brothel, and with half-courtly, half-cagey seductiveness, he persuades Ewa that the quickest, surest way for her to earn the money needed to free her sister is to join his bevy of salacious beauties.

Ewa, of course, stands out in that crowd. Her face—Cotillard’s face—is determined and refined, even after her virtue has been sullied; her radiance is intertwined with her dignity. Bruno may try to possess her, but it’s his cousin, Orlando (Jeremy Renner), who charms her. None of the characters here read as precisely good or bad, conniving or kind: Scoundrels can have noble hearts, and purity isn’t the same as innocence.

Gray has a knack for wrapping big themes into an intimate embrace, and The Immigrant feels both epic and fine-grained. Shot by Darius Khondji—partly on location on Ellis Island—it’s glorious to look at, rendered in muted brick-and-mortar tones that nevertheless have a glow about them, as if lit from behind by lantern light. The performances are incandescent, too: Phoenix, always a bit of an eccentric, modulates his quirks here, as if in deference to the story and its nuances—he has a nightshade intensity. Renner, with his tough little newsboy mug, is a scamp with a soul.

Cotillard, deft and subtle, is best of all. The new world Ewa has entered is hardly welcoming, but she strides into it with an explorer’s spirit. The Immigrant is a story about the way determination can mutate into a kind of rough magic, turning a place where you’re not wanted into one you can call home.

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Fear a Steady Diet of Movies Like Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

Steven Spielberg and his jaunty little apologue about the 16th President of the United States aside, it’s no longer enough in movies for an historical figure or literary character to do simple stuff like abolish slavery or find a man of intelligence and character. Abraham Lincoln is reduced to slaying vampires. Elizabeth Bennet is stuck fighting off zombies. And Hansel and Gretel, having already suffered the indignity of being abandoned in the woods by lousy parents, can’t just kill off one cannibalistic witch and call it a day: In Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, they’ve grown up to become bounty hunters who must roam the land, kicking gnarly witch butt.

Actually, according to this assertively revisionist reading of the Brothers Grimm, young Hansel and Gretel were led into the woods by their parents for a very good reason, having to do with the naked ambition of a very bad witch, Muriel (Famke Janssen). As it turns out, the grown versions of Hansel and Gretel, now celebrity witch hunters—they’re played by Gemma Arterton and Jeremy Renner—have been brought to a small village to find the crone who’s been snatching the local children, and damned if it isn’t Muriel herself, accompanied by a whole coven of evildoing uglies in makeup left over from The Devil’s Rain.

The point, maybe, is that we’re supposed to take great pleasure in watching these nasty old gals being fried to death or blown to smithereens with a medieval Gatling gun. But there’s actually no pleasure at all to be had in this Hansel & Gretel, which was directed by Tommy Wirkola, whose previous credits include the 2009 Nazi-zombie horror comedy Dead Snow. (He also wrote the script.) The violence here is cartoonishly bloody without being exhilarating. The plot is as misshapen as a mutant gingerbread boy. And, at least as it was shown at the multiplex where I saw it, the picture has a dank, murky look, as if it had been left under a pile of mulch to marinate for a decade or two.

If you’re thinking of experiencing Hansel & Gretel as it was made to be seen, with special glasses that will set you back a couple of extra bucks, you might want to reconsider: The movie’s laff-riot gross-outs aren’t particularly enhanced by 3D. (When you’ve seen one guy vomiting half-digested meat and maggots, you’ve seen them all.) And for a horror-comedy, Hansel & Gretel is curiously humorless. In the single touch approaching cleverness, the faces of the missing kinder, rendered in old-timey engravings that resemble the original promotional art for Les Mis, are lashed with twine to glass milk bottles. But the gag hits 10 minutes into the movie; after that, there’s nothing to look forward to.

Still, there is a truly intriguing mystery here: What on Earth are Renner and Arterton doing in this godforsaken thing? Arterton is a reasonably appealing presence who’s been toiling away in features like the revived St. Trinian’s franchise, in addition to playing sword-and-sandal babes in pictures like Clash of the Titans and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. She has haunches of steel and the kind of raspberries-and-cream complexion you might see in a George Romney painting. Surely, someone can think of a better use for her than being knocked around, pretty savagely, by a crooked town sheriff? (He’s played by Peter Stormare, whose Brobdingnagian overacting at least suits the brutish scale of the picture around him.)

Renner’s presence here is even more mystifying. Wirkola and Harper haven’t really given him a character to play. Hansel is mostly just a collection of cute tics—he’s neurotic and a diabetic, to boot (the result of being force-fed candy as a child at the hands of that first witch). But unlike his sister, he at least gets a love interest in the form of a fetching strawberry-blond white witch, played by Pihla Viitala.

Renner trundles through Hansel & Gretel looking glum and constipated, as if he were just praying for the whole thing to be over quickly. At this point, he may be wishing he could get another role like the one Kathryn Bigelow gave him in The Hurt Locker, as a hotdogging Iraq War explosives expert. Renner has a tough little mug, like a modern Dead End Kid, and Bigelow knew just how to use him: He was terrific as a perpetually angry Lost Boy. Here, he’s just lost, and there’s no trail of breadcrumbs to save him. The Brothers Grimm may have come up with some cruel, weird material in their day, but they’d never condone actor abuse like this.

Directed by Tommy Wirkola. Written by Tommy Wirkola and Dante Harper. Starring Gemma Arterton, Jeremy Renner, Famke Janssen, Peter Stormare, and Thomas Mann.

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The Bourne Legacy: Who’s the New Guy?

The Bourne films have more than just overstayed their welcome and outlasted the Ludlum books—they’ve been Van Halenized, with an abrupt change of frontman and a resulting dip in personality. The only big-ass popcorn franchise of the past decade to have not been spawned on computers, the series up to now has survived via Matt Damon’s beady gaze, making decisions about where the story goes, even as director Paul Greengrass’s jittery action fuzz did its best to render the set pieces of the past two entries almost unwatchable. (Doug Liman’s initial film, maybe because it eschews the safe harmlessness of CGI, still pulses with panic and still freezes the channel-surfing thumb in mid click.) Now, we have Jeremy Renner as another Treadstone mega man (there were nine, apparently), and though he is a likable enough pug-nosed action figure, the Damonlessness is sorely felt.

Renner is not stranded by himself—The Bourne Legacy is chockablock with busy character-actor casting, from Edward Norton’s nasally fed bulldog to fleeting cameos by David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Albert Finney, and Joan Allen. (For the extra work of a Guardian journalist who’s killed without a line of dialogue, they even bothered to get Paddy Considine.) The film is as densely packed with officious people and global villages as Syriana and takes itself about as seriously. Mostly, though, Renner has on-the-run scientist helpmate Rachel Weisz, who is 41 going on 23 and brings a badly needed, full-throated payload of personal energy to her tagalong scenes, even though they’re just that.

Given the film’s relentless slam-blam effect, it’s rather amazing that anybody gets to act at all. (James Newton Howard’s score is abusive, with every mere establishing shot of Tokyo or Chicago getting a brontosaur’s soundtrack stomp.) But acting does happen, mostly in a two-sentence splats, just enough to kick the narrative one more foot down the highway on its way to the inevitable showdown. There’s a lot of pensive screen-watching in dark surveillance rooms.

Tony Gilroy, on his fourth Bourne and now unleashed from Ludlum’s paperbacks (the subsequent Eric Van Lustbader sequels, even the one titled The Bourne Legacy, were not consulted), overplots in the Christopher Nolan manner. But Gilroy was smart enough to make room for juicy dramatics: After the film’s lengthy centerpiece begins with a hairy workplace-shooting ordeal that Weisz survives, she heads to her crumbling fixer-upper mansion in the woods, where she’s visited by seemingly concerned feds. Antics ensue, but only after a hearty dose of old-school interpersonal tension. The story in general takes a while to hit gears, but its primary task is revealing the broader program from which Bourne arose and the pharmaceutical basis of its behavioral modifications. Renner’s Aaron Cross, first met fighting off wolves in Alaska, is a pill-
popping über-mensch who suddenly realizes, as per Norton’s bureaucratic fiat, that the program is being shut down and its progeny eliminated one by one. He’s motivated to survive the onslaught (at first, via drone) but also to score more über-dope; Weisz’s lab geek agrees to help only after realizing she’s being hunted, too.

This presents a dynamic Damon might not have enjoyed: Without his meds, the quick-minded Cross would revert back to his old learning-disabled self, like the experimental subject in Flowers for Algernon. (“I’ve got a long way to fall,” Cross says, grumbling.) You can’t blame the lug, though the notion that only a daily dose of “viral” beanies was all Damon’s Bourne needed to be Bourne is disenchanting, to say the least. The exposition supporting this chemical backstory fills the eddies in the action flow in ways the Bourne movies never required before, and the techno-gibberish flies like confetti.

Bourne, we’re told, is also still evading assassination somewhere, and perhaps Universal is hoping for a Damon/Greengrass reunion for number five, which we’ll call The Bourne Redundancy for now. Renner might just be a placeholder. Working in the trenches so he can eventually make himself another Michael Clayton, Gilroy keeps things brisk and relatively smart, but he can’t be surprised if we find the rooftop-‘n’-motorcycle chase through Manila a little rote by now, however white-knuckly and free of Greengrass camera palsy. The late-in-the-game introduction of a supervillain—a Bourne 2.0 from a “beta program” flown in from Bangkok in white skinny jeans—feels like outright pandering. But hell, it’s the fourth film, and that’s what happens when Hollywood hyperextends a simple paradigm beyond even the patience of the last cast and crew. (Greengrass just “wasn’t interested” in another Bourne, and without him, Damon bailed.) Are we expecting much more?

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What’s Up With Jeremy Renner’s Sexuality?

There was much happy hoopla recently about Ben Whishaw (the British actor from Bright Star and the play The Pride) being coy about his private life and even going along with one magazine’s contention that he’s straight. But a theater source in the U.K. tells me, “Whishaw never tried to hide his sexuality here. He’s been with his partner since RADA and it’s not an issue at all. But sadly, perhaps that’s all about to change.” Not if I can help it, honey!

Completely unaltered, a fun CSI actor turned up at my recent anniversary bash and was overheard blithely asking a twink to go home with him. When the staunch twinkette replied, “No,” the aggressor amped things up with “But I’m on TV!” I’ve tried that. Doesn’t work.

Jeremy Renner is in the movies—and he’s single—but what does that say about his sexuality? I don’t know, but when the Hurt Locker actor brought his mother to the Oscars, that raised my waxed eyebrows even higher than when Ellen Page came with her lesbian publicist. I promptly did some research and found out that Renner used to work in theater, he was a makeup artist, he claims he’s too busy for a relationship, and he had a male “co-investor” on a house that just sold. Alarms were ringing louder than they do in dance songs at the Black Party. But before I get chided like Meredith Viera did for wondering if she should “worry” because Renner and Anthony Mackie were hugging really emphatically on the Today show, let me just say that Renner still doesn’t ping that hard for me. It’s possible he’s actually straight, in which case he just detonated about five stereotypes. But wait, The Enquirer just came up with an outing quote from someone in his past—and they were right about John Edwards‘s love child! Alas, the tab’s conclusion is as weak as mine: “Renner sends mixed messages.” No Pulitzer there.

Clichés are also kicked in the scrotum in Geoffrey Nauffts‘s Next Fall, which is a wonderful biscuit sandwich of a play—brittle and flippant in the first half, meditative and moving in the second—as it probes a spiritually discordant relationship between a guy who feels praying after sex will save his soul, and his atheistic partner, who would rather just have more sex. The lead characters are named Luke and Adam, but everything else about this work is so subtly ingratiating that any serious theatergoer who misses it will surely burn in hell.

Or maybe they’ll just find themselves at A Behanding in Spokane—a loopy but labored comedy about people doing extreme, barbaric things as the audience roars with laughter. The play is supposedly written by Martin McDonagh, but it’s more like Mamet meets Ionesco, with racist and homophobic language tossed around to score a rise out of the customers, all in the extended-comedy-sketch vein of God of Carnage via SNL. But at a certain point, things got so comically absurd that I started laughing along, especially since Christopher Walken has just the right deadpan weirdness and drolly emphasizes all the wrong syl-LA-bles. He always has!

From loopy we go to Looped, the female drag show in which Valerie Harper gives a committed performance as Tallulah Bankhead, though, oddly, someone’s written a play around her in which the soothsaying mess of a diva taunts a self-loathing, emotionally sterile sound editor. (Yes, he’s the season’s 100th or so anguished gay. We’ve come a long way, baby.) It’s all an excuse for Tallu to guzzle, snort, emit her one-liners, act out a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire, and guzzle some more.

The lines were fresher at the ECNY Awards for comics at Comix, which host Jon Friedman described as “the show that keeps recognizing the same 40 people.” To add to the incestuousness, Friedman also happens to be a producer of the event—and he turned out to be one of the winners, too, wouldn’t you know. But there was no real favoritism going on, I assure you. In fact, when Friedman’s speech went over the 30-second limit, they drowned him out with “Me So Horny” just like they did with everyone else.

PS: Here’s a sample joke from the host/producer/trophy holder: “I find the line ‘I can’t wait to see the red carpet’ works better on Oscar night than on a first date.”

I traversed a spotless carpet to enter the Tastemakers event at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, where I sampled bits of prosciutto and slices of exotic tangerines, only to hear an announcement blaring, “There will be a butchery demonstration on a whole pig in five minutes!” Finally, something at my level!

Oinky behavior recently happened on the roof deck of the Boom Boom Room when an unanguished gay proceeded to brazenly fellate another such person. I know this because—and I’m hardly ashamed, mind you—one of them happens to be a close personal friend.

Total gay raunch is promised for the Saint-at-Large’s aforementioned Black Party this Saturday at Roseland, where faux-vomit spewing Rose Wood will charm the tastemakers and trannie dominatrix Danni Daniels (whom I knew as Ludwig) will fuck a bunch of pretend soldiers and cum on their faces in her own butchery demonstration. Don’t ask, don’t smell.

This should top Danni’s performance last year, when she shot rubber eggs out of her butt as the crowd got the yolk. On the phone last week, Danni told me that while she may not have her own eggs, she did recently have breast augmentation, while decidedly keeping her penis. “I live as a transsexual,” Danni said. “I like to say ‘transsexual’ more than ‘woman.’ I’m very comfortable being in the middle.”

With schlong in tow, Danni stars as an s/m top in various trannie porn films, a way bigger niche market than my vanilla mind ever imagined. “This year,” Danni informed me, “transsexual porn has outsold lesbian porn three to one. Ninety percent of it is dominant transsexuals that fuck a big straight guy. The audience is straight married men and women as well.”

But wait—how straight are these people? As Danni wryly replied, “When they’re getting a close-to-nine-inch cock up their ass, you have to wonder. But I’m the very last person to be labeling people, let alone gender and sexual orientation!”

Meanwhile, I’ve been popping extra bon mots out of my butt at anyone who’ll read them on Twitter, which is supposed to be about both sending messages to your followers and receiving them from folks that you follow. But I’ve noticed that some celebs are way more interested in getting out their ideas than fielding others’. For example, while Paris Hilton has 1,609,837 followers (and tweets to them all day about adopting animals and loving Zoolander), she’s only following 262! That ratio ain’t right!

Even more distinctively, Rufus Wainwright is followed by 19,334 people and he’s following zero! Zilch! Not even Paris Hilton! I’ve always loved his individualistic resolve.

By the way, if you want to be my Facebook friend, you have to either comment “I love your work” or look incredibly cute and/or creative. Otherwise, I can’t be bothered.

A new friend—in real life—is Cuban singer Margarita Pracatan, who served me paella and personality in her Upper West Side apartment last week. Margarita’s malapropisms are delightful (She says “Juilliard” when she means Club Juliet, and “Larry Delafonte” for the singer of “Day-O”) and so are her personal pronouncements. “I haven’t had anyone downtown in 25 years,” Margarita exclaimed, referring to her private area. “I had a boyfriend, but he died, thank God.”

Jeremy Renner, what’s your excuse?

musto@villagevoice.com

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Take

Take sketchily crisscrosses narrative strands involving a man on death row and the working-class mother whose life he has ravaged. Taking outlandish delight in the nature of the focal crime, director Charles Oliver follows Ana (Minnie Driver) as she drives to the prison facility where Saul (Jeremy Renner) will receive a lethal injection. When he can no longer disguise from the audience that Ana’s little boy is a goner, now only a projection of the woman’s mirror-infused reality, Oliver gets his sick rocks off by teasing the audience with how the special-ed-bound Jesse (Bobby Coleman) bit the bullet on the fateful day he and Mommy were inside a supermarket when Saul pulled a gun on the store’s customers. Tricked out with bizarre fuzzy-wuzzy point-of-view shots, a tinkly soundtrack, overly considered compositions that foreground oddball acts of human behavior, and screechy literalizations of psychological trauma and healing (behold as Ana leaves her baggage behind in the final shot), Take has the audacity to excuse its bad cinematic habits as figments of both Saul and Ana’s imaginations. Oliver wants to defend restorative justice, but his interest in this form of victim-offender mediation registers only as an afterthought—unelaborated and presented solely as a means of dodging criticism.

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Harried . . . With Children

Like his first feature L.I.E.—and like half of the glib provocations that tumble off the indie assembly line—Michael Cuesta’s Twelve and Holding is a sneering inquiry into the florid dysfunction that lurks deep in leafiest suburbia. Striking in both its confidence and its incoherence, L.I.E. detailed the queasy platonic relationship between a pretty, neglected teenage boy and the kindly neighborhood pederast. Cuesta’s new poisoned valentine to adolescence, a tragicomedy of pubertal acting out, is likewise premised on the clueless self-involvement of parents and the innate wisdom of children.

Punctuated by the gluttonous commemorations of various American holidays, the movie opens with a vicious act of juvenile retribution on the Fourth of July. Two bullies toss a flaming cocktail into their sworn enemies’ treehouse, killing 12-year-old Rudy. The dead boy’s sullen twin brother, Jacob (Conor Donovan, playing both roles), copes by visiting the juvenile detention center, plotting revenge on—and bonding with—one of the killers. His stunned parents (Linus Roache and Jayne Atkinson) are of little help—Jacob’s status as less favored twin is signified by his port-wine stain birthmark, which he often conceals behind a hockey mask.

The brothers’ two close friends, facing elaborate complications of their own, provide mild pathos and broad humor: Lonely Malee (Zoe Weizenbaum) develops an age-inappropriate crush on a construction worker (Jeremy Renner); the bemused stud happens to be a patient of her mother (Annabella Sciorra), a distracted shrink and embittered divorcée. In the most grotesque subplot, overweight Leonard (Jesse Camacho), injured in the accident that killed Rudy, loses his sense of taste and smell, and to the horror of his obese family, embarks on a fruit and vegetable diet.

To call Twelve and Holding cartoonish is to put it mildly. Marked by reckless tonal shifts, Anthony Cipriano’s screenplay traffics in sensationalism and sentimentality. Its treatment of adolescent sexuality, especially in comparison with last year’s Mysterious Skin, is at once self-congratulatory and squeamish. (It takes a certain sick humor to position Renner, who first attracted attention for playing Jeffrey Dahmer in a 2002 biopic, as an object of underage lust.) That said, the movie is on the whole pleasingly populated with underused pros like Sciorra and Roache. And as he demonstrated in L.I.E., Cuesta has a real skill—or maybe a perverse gift—for coaxing persuasive performances from young actors, never mind how nonsensical the role or contrived the situation. The pint-size cast lends some credence to a self-canceling mode that scans as humane Todd Solondz. But look closer—as this film’s most obvious forerunner, American Beauty, advised—and an uglier logic emerges. In Cuesta’s cynical formulation, the pretense of empathy is simply license to mock, gawk, and vulgarize.