Saturday, September 28, 2013

Ain't Them Bodies Saints Review: The Devil Wears Spurs


             Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, the feature debut of editor/cinematographer David Lowery and owner of the year’s most amazing title, is the kind of movie that you can’t talk about without sounding at least a little pretentious. It’s the kind of movie that invites descriptive phrases like “lyrical” and “atmospheric” from those who adore it and “derivative” and “languid” from those who don’t. In short, it’s a Film with a capital “f”; whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on who you are or, more specifically, how partial you are to copious lens flare and long shots.

             As it turns out, both descriptions are somewhat true. On the one hand, the story itself, following two young lovers after he takes the blame for a police officer’s death, isn’t anything special; you can clearly see the influence of old-fashioned Westerns and ‘70s-era crime dramas such as Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde, with a sprinkling of Homer’s The Odyssey thrown in for good measure. The film functions more as an homage to those classic genres than as an attempt to subvert them, adhering fairly close to time-honored tropes like that of the enigmatic, morally ambiguous outsider and the steely-eyed lawman (though in this case, the latter figure is represented not by Ben Foster’s kindly police officer but by Keith Carradine’s menacing criminal-turned-guardian). Not a whole lot happens in the movie. Lowery, like a certain reclusive auteur to whom he’s been frequently compared, is more interested in mood than plot or character development.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Review: Don Jon Objectifies Objectification and It’s Pretty Awesome


        Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut Don Jon is like the more risque, rated-R-bordering-on-NC17 older cousin of his quirky 2009 hit (500) Days of Summer. Although not quite as inventive as that Marc Webb gem, Don Jon similarly studies romance through the skewed perspective of a young, self-absorbed man and positions itself as a takedown of rom-com clichés and traditional media portrayals of relationships. The result is a hyper-energetic, scathing critique of the ways Hollywood shapes both our love life expectations and our treatment of the people around us that has just enough genuine emotion to prevent the snark from feeling soulless.

        Just like with any regular romantic comedy, Don Jon’s success rests heavily on the shoulders of its cast. Fortunately, Gordon-Levitt has assembled a group of actors who are not only incredibly talented, but also share precisely the right kind of chemistry and mesh well without threatening to overshadow each other – not to mention, they all somehow manage to make the exaggerated Jersey accents amusing rather than unbearably grating. As the title character and inarguable lead, Gordon-Levitt exudes a delicate balance of charisma and sleazy, douchebag arrogance as he struts around the screen in a slicked-back pompadour and tank tops that deliberately show off his shockingly muscular arms. With his gym-sculpted appearance, immaculately groomed bachelor pad, preoccupation with sex and porn and unrelenting self-absorption, Jon is like a 21st-century Patrick Bateman but without the whole secretly-a-psychotic-murderer issue. The genius of the performance, though, comes from the way Gordon-Levitt takes what could’ve been an amusing but wildly unlikable caricature and convinces us that this character is capable of real change, that he is, in fact, human. As Jon becomes gradually more aware of the unfulfilling nature of his current existence, he taps into a repressed well of lost, insecure tenderness that might break your heart in the film’s climax, which also acts as a perfect example of how sex scenes can produce emotional resonance, instead of being merely titillating diversions.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Review: Pacific Rim Is a Robots’ World, We’re Just Living in It



        If you mash up some of the biggest hits of Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich’s careers, you might end up with something resembling
Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s flashy, big-budget love letter to Japanese monster movies. The numerous scenes of robots and supernatural monsters beating the crap out of each other inevitably bring Transformers to mind, though the action here isn’t quite as mind-numbing. A diverse group of people who come together and have to save the world by dropping a nuclear bomb down a small crevice a la Armageddon? Check. In fact, the central motivation of the kaiju, an alien race that invades Earth from another universe, has been plucked straight from Independence Day, and there’s a speech at the film’s climax that aims for the fist-pumping adrenaline rush of Bill Pullman’s classic tribute to American exceptionalism and extraterrestrial ass-kicking but falls woefully short. Add in a dash of Godzilla, the movie’s most obvious and probably only intentional influence, and a pinch of James Cameron’s Avatar, and you’ve got Pacific Rim.

        Perhaps that’s doing the film a bit of a disservice. As loud and testosterone-heavy as it is, there’s a sincerity to del Toro’s vision that’s absent from the cynical, manufactured destruction porn of Bay and his ilk. Eye-popping, state-of-the-art CGI breathes life into the monstrous kaiju and robotic Jaegars, allowing viewers to fully appreciate the extensively detailed creature design, always a strong suit of del Toro’s work, and the care poured into constructing the movie’s internal universe and mythology is evident within the first twenty minutes. In contrast to the bleak, dystopian approach that modern sci-fi often seems to gravitate towards, Pacific Rim offers up a more optimistic future where humanity sets aside its differences in order to unite against a common enemy, because apparently, nothing brings people together like war and the threat of imminent annihilation. It’s a nice utopian ideal, even if the movie doesn’t convey it as effectively as it could have or transcend the usual, dumb action movie clichés quite as much as it wants to. Still, this earnest belief in the power of teamwork gives the film a lightness that prevents it from devolving into the monotonous, chaotic self-indulgence that too often plagues summer tentpoles.