Monday, August 26, 2013
AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS - Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster, directed by David Lowery (105 min.)
Ain't Them Bodies Saints lends itself to a familiar cinematic tradition of young lovers skirting the law. In the vein of bonnie and Clyde and Badlands, two masterpieces of doomed love, this new feature debut from writer/director David Lowery exists in a world we all know, in a setting we have seen before, and with characters whose motivations have been divulged in countless stories in films past. Maybe this set up is doing a disservice to the film, but I don’t think so. Familiarity is fine if it is done well, and done with performances that outweigh what is expected. That is the strength of Ain't Them Bodies Saints, acting that overshadows genre tropes, beauty in cinematography, and a score and soundtrack that separates the film from its predecessors. It isn’t better than the films which inspired it, but it is different.
Ruth has their child, a daughter, and for four years they live happily in a home given to them by a local property owner, Skerritt (Keith Carradine, in a role you would expect from Sam Shepherd). All the while Bob is writing letters to Ruth, promising his return. He tries and tries to break out of prison until one day, finally, he succeeds. As Bob tries desperately to hide out and inch closer to Ruth and his daughter, another story blossoms between Ruth and Patrick, who has taken a liking to Ruth and the little girl. Foster steals every scene he is in, as Patrick represents a much different, much safer and viable option for Ruth. Does she wait for Bob and escape their comfortable life together with their daughter, or does she stay safe with Patrick?
Saturday, August 24, 2013
THE WORLD'S END - Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Rosamund Pike, Paddy Considine, directed by Edgar Wright (109 min.)
Edgar Wright and Co. know how to mash up genres better than anyone around. Their films are fanboy mixtures of horror (Shaun of the Dead), action (Hot Fuzz), and now, Science fiction in their latest collaboration, the consistently entertaining The World's End. Wright, along with stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, have their finger on the pulse of a specific type of film. Always rousingly funny, well shot, action-filled and - most importantly - intelligent, The World's End continues to showcase the teamwork of Pegg, Frost, and Wright, along with other regulars from films past. If there is but one drawback to this and the other films, it is the length. Fifteen minutes trimmed away, a little nip and tuck, would serve the picture well. But believe me when I say that is a minor quibble to one of the more entertaining films of the summer.
Twelve pubs make up the crawl, and the quintet shall have a pint per pub until they finally stumble into The World's End, the final pub. In their youth they were unable to complete the journey, so it is Gary's main goal - really his only goal - in life to finish what he started so long ago. Dressed in all black, Gary has clearly never matured beyond those teenage years, and is a constant thorn in the side of his companions along the way. The early portions of the pub crawl focus on the funny. The first two pubs have fallen victim to "Starbucking" as they call it, and the evidence is made clear in a great sight gag. But we all know where this film as headed, and before long the sci-fi elements of the story work their way into the action.
As of that one drawback I mentioned; the film could have been trimmed in a few places along the way. Once the sci-fi elements take over, the proceedings lose a little steam. But this is most certainly not enough to steal away the solid film that is The World's End.
Wednesday, August 21, 2013
A SINGLE SHOT: Sam Rockwell, William H. Macy, Kelly Reilly, Jason Isaacs, directed by David M. Rosenthal (115 min.)
Editing can make or break a film. Everything on a picture comes together in the editing room, and clumsy cut and paste can hinder continuity, mood, and momentum of any movie out there. A Single Shot, the new thriller starring the great Sam Rockwell, seems to suffer from editing malfunctions along the way. What could have been a slick, mean, dark mountain thriller turns into a choppy, slow, sometimes confused drama with bright spots that are undercut by a lack of explanation. The film looks great, the performances are compelling, but if the structure of the film cannot support the acting, then you get something that is ultimately a mess.
Rockwell stars as John Moon, an uneducated mountain man living high in the grey, damp hills of West Virginia. As the film opens, John is poaching deer deep in the woods, and one of his blind shots into the trees hits and kills a young woman. John's investigation leads him to an area in the woods where the woman was apparently living. This is the first of many unclear transitions. At the woman's hideout, john finds a box full of cash, stashes the body, and returns to his life in town. His life consists of a wife (Flight's Kelly Reilly) and a young son who have kicked him out because he can't keep a job. John sees the money as a way to win his family back, but here comes the next problem with the film's structure; John never really uses the cash for anything except to pay a shady lawyer named Daggard Pitt (William H. Macy) to do, something. Then the cash is virtually forgotten as certain shady characters come looking and threatening John and those close to him.
The final act of A Single Shot improves the film as the tension mounts and John is forced to confront the psychotic Waylon, but it only strengthens things as it is a singular moment of taut conflict. The confrontation is resolved a little too easily, tied up a bit too neatly, and the next thing you know the story has been wrapped up. Despite all of the great tension in these final moments, things are once again undercut by rushed editing and simplicity in the screenplay. Everything that happens raises questions and ignores answers, leaving the actors bouncing from one choppy moment to the next, lacking any clear motivation or destination.
Friday, August 9, 2013
ELYSIUM: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, directed by Neill Blomkamp (109 min.)
There was no subtle message in District 9, Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 science fiction thriller that managed to grab a Best Picture nomination. Apartheid was front and center in the picture, made into an allegory with aliens, but the characters were loose and limber and the emotional pull of the story was undeniable. Blomkamp’s latest sci-fi allegory, Elysium, is just as heavy handed as District 9, functioning as an obvious comparison/indictment of immigration and health care, only it doesn’t have the advantage of being well thought out, emotional, or particularly engaging. Everything important this time around is rushed and wafer thin characters serve only to be thrust into action scenes. And while I do admit the action scenes are exciting and intensely violent at times, they aren’t enough to salvage the movie as a whole. They aren’t enough because, ironically, they are too much.
Once again we are in a dystopian future of our own doing; it is 2152 Los Angeles and pollution and wars and general neglect has made the world a nasty place to live. The rich one percent have built a satellite in space where they live peacefully, insulated from the poverty and sickness of Earth. The satellite is Elysium, and here wealthy people can be cured of any ailment or disease by spending a few minutes in a healing chamber. Things are great on Elysium we are told, but we never really get to study this utopian world beyond a few glimpses. Also, why would these rich folks set up shop right outside Earth’s atmosphere? It is made clear they want nothing to do with the poor people back on the home planet, so it isn’t as if they communicate or work with earthlings. Is it just to brag? Who knows.
Matt Damon plays Max, one of the unfortunate earth inhabitants with a checkered past of grand theft auto and assault. He works in a factory that makes – something – and runs with a few other lowlife buddies. Max longs to travel to Elysium, just like everyone else I imagine, but his longing is sped up once he is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation at work and is told he has five days to live. He seeks out the help of an underground criminal mastermind, Spider (Wagner Moura), to get him to Elysium. Spider agrees to help him, but first he must hijack the memories of a native Elysium-ite, played by the always reliable William Fitchner. This requires Max to be hooked up to an exoskeleton that drills right into his skull and taps into his brain. It also keeps him up and moving, because the radiation would cripple him otherwise.
The plot builds and stumbles along with more developments that don’t seem necessary. Max meets his childhood friend, Frey (Alice Braga), who, wouldn’t you know it, has a child who is sick and would love to hitch a ride to Elysium. But Max doesn’t have time for her, even though it is the daughter of his friend and a woman he obviously loves. Not a very admirable move if you ask me. And somehow I’ve gotten this far without mentioning Jodie Foster’s character, the Secretary of Defense Delacourt, who is vile and cold and ruthless and confused on what sort of accent she wants to have. Why is she like this? Beats me. This is Foster’s worst performance I can remember.
The one bright spot as far as the characters go is Sharlto Copley, who plays a mercenary for hire named Kruger. Looking as if he just stepped out of Thunderdome, Kruger is wicked and despicable and a fantastic villain who deserves a better film. I wanted to spend all my time with Kruger and not with anyone else. He can’t save the plot, however, which is held together with duct tape and chewing gum. Any of the emotional attempts of the picture – the relationship between Max and Frey for example – fall flat. There is no time spent developing anyone in the film; Copley does his own development with a delightfully wicked role. I expected more from Elysium, and maybe more would have served the picture well. More character development, more exposition, more conversations, more patience.
Thursday, August 8, 2013
Badlands is loosely based on the 1958 Starkweather-Fugate murders, where a young couple traveled across South Dakota indiscriminately murdering unsuspecting victims. But this film is not so much a true crime as it is a mixture of genres where the audience can never quite settle into a level of comfort or complacency with the characters. Martin Sheen stars as Kit, a garbage man in a small Dakota town who makes up with bravado what he lacks in brains. Kit is cold, flat, detatched from just about everyone around him. Everyone, that is, except Holly, a young teenage girl he meets in town played by a fresh-faced Sissy Spacek. Kit and Holly have an obvious attraction with one another and they fall into an offbeat relationship. Only Holly's father strongly disapproves, dismissing Kit one afternoon when Kit approaches him at his job painting billboards. Kit decides the best route is to murder Holly's father, so he does, and the two hit the road.
Martin Sheen is hypnotic in the lead role of Kit. He kills indiscriminately, without remorse and without much regard for human life. Holly is impressionable, lonely, and her adventurous spirit my be responsible for getting her in over her head with Kit, who is homicidal. Badlands is also the only cameo from Terrence Malick, notoriously reclusive from this moment forward. He plays a man outside the door of a wealthy family Kit and Holly have invaded.
Badlands is a mystical and visual masterwork from Malick, who has maybe tarnished his legendary stature in recent years with films that can be interpreted as purposefully oblique and without purpose. i can see that argument with the frustrating To The Wonder, but Tree of Life is evidence he still has his fastball. That being said, his two earlier films are on another level of simple beauty and sublime direction. Both Badlands and the follow up, Days of Heaven, deal in the currency of guilt, and whether or not the guilt of murder is enough to keep a person from their ultimate desires. Both films also deal with passion and love, but in vastly different ways. Where Days of Heaven involves a love triangle, Badlands has a currency of pureness in its romantic angle. And there is something about the impending doom of Kit and Holly that draws me into Badlands on a deeper level.
It is true that Bonnie and Clyde may have influenced the pastoral nature of Badlands, and Bonnie and Clyde has its own string of cinematic influences across time. But the direct correlations between Badlands and some of the better "doomed love" crime dramas are undeniable. The strength of the film lies within the performances of Sheen and Spacek, and of course the very raw and then unpolluted directorial career of the great Terrence Malick.
Tuesday, August 6, 2013
Over the last few years, Matthew McConaughey has changed his image with cutting-edge films like Magic Mike and Killer Joe, both fantastic works from top-notch directors in Steven Soderbergh and William Friedkin. His transformation could be seen a year earlier with slight, but still more challenging films like The Lincoln Lawyer and Bernie. Mud represents the top of the mountain for McConaughey thus far in his career, a towering performance that is as physical as it is layered and emotionally engaging.
Taking place in the far Southeastern region of Arkansas, just off the Mississippi River, Mud tells the story of a precocious young boy named Ellis (Tye Sheridan). Ellis has a loving mother and father, but the poverty of their lives are beginning to take hold. His father (Ray McKinnon) and mother (Sarah Paulson) are separating, leaving Ellis caught in the middle to struggle with his own changes as an adolescent. Ellis spends his days with his friend, Neckbone, played with some boorish comic relief by Jacob Lofland. Ellis and Neckbone go out on a small boat one morning, out to an island that is beyond their parent-enforced cutoff in the tributary leading out to the mighty Mississippi. The island, they think, is abandoned, but during their exploration they find McConaughey's character, Mud, a mysterious drifter with crosses nailed into the bottom of his boots. "To ward off evil spirits," he says.
Mud is baked by the sun, his hair is greasy and long, and his teeth are in bad shape. He is mysterious, vague in his responses to the boys at first, and the details of his life are delivered slowly, patiently, as the stories work to complete the character. Part of the brilliance of the screenplay by director Jeff Nichols is the time he takes developing Mud, shown only through the eyes of Ellis and Neckbone. The audience cannot quite get hold of Mud and pick up on his motivations. Is he bad? Is he a good man in the wrong place? Those details are delivered with such meticulous work in the screenplay that the film is most fascinating when we are listening to the slow drawl of McConaughey tell his story.
There is a rather intricate plot at play here, deepening the mystery along the way. Mud has killed a man, but only in defense of the woman he loves and has loved since he was a child, perhaps around Ellis's age. This love tale intertwines with Ellis and his struggles to understand older girls in high school. Mud is on this island hiding out, certain that his girl, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), has a plan to meet him out there so the two of them can live happily ever after. But first she must shake the heavies on her tail, family members of the mudereded man who are low-rent gangsters and killers. It seems the man Juniper was dating had it coming. But Mud needs help from the boys, help in getting an abandoned boat out of a tree, likely planted there during a flood. Ellis and Tye work to bring supplies back to Mud from in town, despite Neckbone's growing suspicion of Mud's intentions.
The plot also involves a number of working parts, including Sam Shepard as Tom Blankenship, a mysterious man with a connection to Mud, and the impending doom which grows with every passing scene. The picture has everything, from humor and wit to heavy emotional drama, suspense, and, most importantly, fantastic performances. Everyone here is wonderful in their roles. We have said enough about McConaughey as Mud, an Oscar-worthy performance, but do not overlook Tye Sheridan as Ellis. As we spend a majority of the time with Ellis, Sheridan's job is vital to the success of the film, and as Ellis we buy into the angst of turning into a teenager, of balancing familial strife with raging hormones and, of course, of this new mysterious man on the island. Mud is among one of the finest pictures of the year, an unforgettable work of Southern Gothic storytelling that is - yes - the final step in the rehabilitation of Matthew McConaughey's career.
Friday, August 2, 2013
2 GUNS: Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg, Paula Patton, Edward James Olmos, Bill Paxton, James Marsden, directed by Baltasar Kormakur (109 min.)
Sometimes a film has no higher hopes or aspirations than to just be entertaining. Not every film is the best, or the funniest, or the most complete, but those films that never set out to be anything other than what they are seem to function properly. 2 Guns is such a film, a whimsical, breezy action flick that is comfortable in its own skin. Nothing here is new, and it isn’t necessarily trying to be new; this is just a great example of a solid cast giving it their all and having some fun, and their fun shows on the screen. It also helps to mask the issues with the muddled plot, the clichés, and an ending that fizzles more than it pops.
Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg star opposite each other for the first time, which is obviously the strongest aspect of the picture. Washington is Bobby Trench (a name found only in the movies), a DEA Agent working undercover to try and overthrow a drug cartel south of the Texas border. His partner, Stigman (Wahlberg), is an undercover Naval Intelligence officer trying to do the same thing. The two men are unaware of their partners’ secret identity, and both are using the other to get to the big wig in Mexico, played by Edward James Olmos.
Of course plot is paramount in a film like 2 Guns, where character development takes a back seat to the twists and turns and action and one-liners. The partners soon discover each other’s identities once they find out they are being set up. Stigman’s boss, Quince (James Marsden), is trying to ruin his career and have him killed, while Trench is being pursued and subsequently framed by a rogue CIA agent, Earl, played by an over-the-top Bill Paxton. I had the biggest issue with Paxton’s character, a bad guy who happens to be a CIA agent? I never quite saw where he was coming from, and his corny accent is distracting.
There’s also the issue of $43 million Trench and “Stig” rob from a bank early on. Everyone has a claim to the cash, and everyone comes looking for it. Trench’s off-and-on girlfriend, a fellow DEA agent played by Paula Patton, also gets caught up in this cobweb of a plot. But the main point of all of these twists and turns is to throw our heroes from one scenario to another, and from one action set up to the next. The action is a lot of fun, including a clever chase scene around an apartment and a well-conceived car chase between Trench and Stig. Washington and Wahlberg have never shared the screen before, but something about their pairing feels completely natural. Wahlberg delivers some great laughs a few times, and Washington is silky smooth, and obviously having a good time.
I don’t think anyone involved with 2 Guns expected anything profound, so they never set out to try. Director Baltasar Kormakur has a firm grasp on his material here, and aims to make it fun. The plot is a little too complicated for its own good, and the final scene is rushed and it feels a bit forced. But the attraction is Wahlberg and Washington doing the physical action and delivering the lines. And a solid cast around them helps to keep things interesting. If you go in expecting something groundbreaking you may be disappointed but, really, why would you expect that here anyway?