Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Ain't Them Bodies Saints (***1/2)

Written and Directed by David Lowery


The evolution of the American Western in cinema is a fascinating one. Once the jewel of all Hollywood genres, it was marked by plots outlining black & white moralities. In the 1960's, the movies became more cynical, the thrill of cowboy action was replaced by science fiction, and the Western has been a niche genre ever since. When a Western strikes with audiences these days (does anyone remember the last time that happened?) it's usually for gimmicky reasons. But in 2007, three films came out - the Coens' No Country For Old Men, Andrew Dominick's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood - that changed the spectrum of the Western. The Wild West was no longer seen as a thrill ride where white and black hats faced off, but instead showcased a nightmarish, barren landscape filled with greed and danger. David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints is a continuation of that tradition.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler (**1/2)

Directed by Lee Daniels

Lee Daniels is a filmmaker of high ideals and low taste, and he enjoys making the two things clash violently in his films. What usually follows are sloppy stories, interesting casting decisions, and more times than not, a movie that is more fun to talk about then to watch. Precious was his big crossover hit, a harrowing story of inner-city poverty, that earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Director. His follow-up, The Paperboy seemed to take any drop of sincerity that Precious had and totally disregard it. Paperboy was a movie about dirty, sweaty people with dark souls and even darker secrets. It seemed preoccupied with being a showcase for these despicable characters, had particularly carnal performances from its cast - which included Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, and John Cusack - and seemed completely cynical. But now, with The Butler, Daniels tries his hand at the esteemed Civil Rights drama, perhaps the most sincere of all cinema's sub-genres. It's a combination that is quite interesting indeed.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Elysium (**)

Written and Directed by Neill Blomkamp


There is a sincerity within Elysium that's hard to fault. It really wants to be about something - socioeconomic classes, South African apartheid, brutal federal government - but has a bit of a lazy way of being about it. It wants to be hard-hitting and sharp, filling the audience with rage at all of the injustice and how goddamn unfair everything is. But the template with which Elysium tries to make us feel all that injustice is hackneyed and uninteresting, a standard Hollywood action movie with all of its pieces moving in highly predictable ways. It wants to make you feel uncomfortable about the way of life presented, but makes damn sure that you don't feel uncomfortable with your viewing experience, with all of the good guys and bad guys ending up exactly where you want them to be. It wants it both ways, to be edgy and safe. This is material that could have really been challenging, but it settles for being something that wants to make everyone smile.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Prince Avalanche (***)

Written for the Screen and Directed by David Gordon Green


There was once a time, before Pineapple Express and The Sitter and Your Highness, that David Gordon Green was one of the most interesting independent filmmakers in America. From George Washington to All The Real Girls, he was the master of the contemporary, ethereal Southern Gothic which has now inspired films by Lee Daniels and Jeff Nichols. But then he cashed in with Pineapple Express, and rightfully so. That was a successful stoner comedy, with great comedic performances from James Franco and Danny McBride (McBride and Green have a long relationship making projects together, and it's safe to say that McBride has been the most responsible for any monetary success Green has ever had), and I thought at the time that Green, ever the visual maestro, deserved a nice paying gig. But that was 2008 and it seems like it's been a long time since the formerly prolific filmmaker had made anything challenging.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Spectacular Now (**)

Directed by James Ponsoldt


Before my screening for The Spectacular Now, one of the film's screenwriters, Michael H. Weber, gave a brief introduction in which he spoke of the film as something that he and his co-writer, Scott Neustadter, saw as a blatant reaction to what was happening with high school movies. They wanted to deviate away from the vampires and witches that have plagued the teenaged romances of today's cinemas. Weber and Neustadter also wrote (500) Days of Summer, one of the best romantic comedies in several decades, but where Summer made expert use of several visual gimmicks - and a star-turning performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt - The Spectacular Now tries to run almost exclusively on sincerity, a tried-and-true tale of the ne'er-do-well finding his way. Gone are the bells and whistles, and hello are the melodramatic soliloquies.