Capone's Art-House Round-Up with AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS, THE GRANDMASTER, THE LIFEGUARD, THE ATTACK & SATURDAY NIGHT MASSACRE!!!
Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…
AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS
The first thing you'll notice about writer-director David Lowery's latest work is how old everything looks. At first, it's tough to even establish which decade this story of two young lovers separated by a crime takes place. But even after the 1970s Texas Hill Country setting is made clear, the weathered color tones (courtesy of award-winning cinematographer Bradford Young) and well-worn look of the production design and costumes gives the feeling that AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS is a tale set during the Dust Bowl era or perhaps the early 1950s. Lowery wants his film to look like a faded photograph or yellowed postcard of a bygone era, and it seems entirely appropriate.
The young lovers/criminals in question are Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara), who announces during the film's opening argument that she is pregnant. Soon after, the pair finds themselves in a shootout with police, and Ruth shoots young officer Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster, in a truly masterful performance). Bob confesses to the shooting and ends up getting a 25-year sentence as a result, leaving Ruth alone under the protective gaze of family friend Skerritt (Keith Carradine). But even more unsettling is that in the years Bob rots in jail, Wheeler becomes a frequent visitor on Ruth's doorstep as her child grows up without a proper father.
One of the many remarkable aspects of AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS is that, although to a certain degree we want to see Bob and Ruth reunited (if only because Bob wants it so desperately), Lowery is smart enough to plant the idea in our head that the pair probably shouldn't be together for too long. Ruth is torn between the sexy bad boy and father of her child and the safe protector that exists in Wheeler, who also presents a sound case for him being her significant other. When Bob escapes from prison and makes no secret of the fact that he's coming for his family, everyone's nerves are on high alert, and we really have no idea what Ruth will decide (although it's not a complete surprise either).
AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS is a film that is high on atmosphere and settings that are both stark and lush, but may be slightly lacking for those of you hung up on complicated, layered plot. The love-triangle plot here is as old as storytelling itself, but there's a texture to the acting that pulls you into these lives and makes you wonder and fret about where they will land. In particular, Mara is devastating and deeply uplifting by the film's conclusion, while Foster just slow-burns his way from cool and reserved to finally revealing the depth of his feelings toward Ruth.
Before this film, Lowery was possibly best known as the editor of such recent works as Shane Caruth's UPSTREAM COLOR and Amy Steimetz's SUN DON'T SHINE, but with AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS, he has decidedly made his mark as a director of quality and a writer of substance.
The latest from Wong Kar Wai (IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, CHUNGKING EXPRESS) is a tough call. On the one hand, it's gorgeous to behold, whether it's a martial arts fight sequence (choreographed by the great Yuen Woo-ping) in the rain or a simple, lingering shot on the face of its female lead Ziyi Zhang. But Kar Wai's loosely-based-on-reality telling of the life of kung fu teacher Ip Man (played by the director's favorite Tony Leung, making this the pair's seventh film together) is so bogged down by a love story and wartime drama that it misses many opportunities to get into the master's impressive real-life story (which includes training a young Bruce Lee).
I'm hardly suggesting that a film whose focus is on martial arts can't stray into other areas, but the various styles on display in THE GRANDMASTER (including Ip Man's Wu Ping kung fu) are impressive that you can't help but get exasperated when the movie wanders away from various fighting contests and lessons on the geography of China (apparently split into the Northeast and tropical South for these purposes) and how they dictate said styles.
It's easy to get lost in Kar Wai's visual feast of a film and not notice the storytelling flaws—at least for a short time it is. There's no shortage of great acting in the film, but much like a Hollywood film with excellent performances and visual effects, you still need a functioning story to bring it all home and make it great.
The strange thing is, few directors tell such passionate, emotionally driven stories as Kar Wai, but when you have these eye-popping fight sequences pulling your attention in every direction, it's sometimes difficult to backslide into an unrequited romance between Leung and Zhang — one that I'm pretty sure has no basis in reality.
Its my understanding that this version of THE GRANDMASTER is 15-20 minutes shorter than the international cut, and that the cuts made to this Weinstein Company release were supervised by Kar Wai himself. There are a great number of much-appreciated title cards that explain who many of the characters are and give a great deal of history, particularly when it comes to the vicious Chinese-Japanese conflict. I'm beyond curious to see if the original cut is significantly different, and if you have access to foreign DVD releases, it may be worth checking out.
When THE GRANDMASTER sticks to Ip Man the teacher and occasional fighter, the film is magnificent. But when it detours into his fictional personal life, it suffers more than you might expect for a film from a master filmmaker like Wong Kar Wai. There are certainly a great number of stunning and exciting fight scenes, but not nearly enough to box out the miscalculations in the scripting and editing.
Writer-director Ziad Koueiri (LILA SAYS, WEST BEIRUT) has made a shocking and powerful drama with THE ATTACK, based on the novel by Yasmina Khadra. The story zeroes in on respected Palestinian surgeon Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman), who has been living with his lovely wife (Reymonde Amellem), as a highly assimilated couple in Tel Aviv society with Jewish friends. One day while working in his hospital, Amin hears and feels a massive explosion nearby, killing 19 bystanders, the result of a suicide bomber.
Shortly after the incident, Israeli police take Amin into custody and inform him that his wife was the bomber. In fact, her covered, blown-to-bits dead body was wheeled right by him in the hospital, and now he must positively identify her before being questioned and harassed for days. This is not a film about whether or not Amin knew about his wife's plan or political leanings; it's about a husband coming to grips with the fact that the comfortable, loving life he had lived for years with his wife was a lie. And he sets out to discover when and why she changed, and most importantly who put these ideas in her mind to begin with.
Suliman gives a pained and heart-wrenching performance as a man who refuses to believe his wife is guilty until the evidence is piled before him. We get brief glimpses of them in happier times, but as the film goes on, we see what happens to her right before and right after these seemingly innocent moments, which are merely a smoke screen for her husband.
Eventually Amin heads out to the somewhat dangerous Palestinian territories where the wife traveled several times before the bombing, where he is horrified to find posters, banners and other images of his wife, who is being celebrated as a martyr. THE ATTACK pulls no punches as Amin bull-charges into homes and mosques of extremist types demanding to know what they did to his wife, but the answers confuse more than clarify.
The Attack does its best not to judge the participants, but I also think it's clear who we're supposed to be sympathizing with in the story and who we're supposed to fear. The deeper Amin goes into his search for answer, the more tense things become. We get a very clear sense that the only reason these Palestinians aren't killing him is because of the work his wife did, and that makes us and him even more solemn. The acting here is top notch, especially Suliman, who drags us through his personal hell and makes us feel both the sadness and anger of his journey for the truth. This is a film you will not soon forget, nor should you.
A popular theme at this year's Sundance Film Festival (and of last year's work HELLO, I MUST BE GOING) was grown women having affairs with younger (in some cases underage men/boys). In THE LIFEGUARD, the perpetrator of said affair is Kristen Bell's Leigh, the top of her Connecticut high school class and fairly successful New York reporter, who hasn't felt more together and happy than she did than in those teenage years, during which she also had a job as a lifeguard at the local pool. When she has a minor breakdown at work, she retreats for home where several of her closest school friends still reside, including her best friends Mel (Mamie Gummer), who works at the school, and Todd (Martin Starr), a semi-closeted gay man with identity issues of his own.
Also still back home is that old lifeguard job, which Leigh gets back, hoping for a little mental downtime. At the pool, she meets Jason (David Lambert), the son of the caretaker and a student at her old school. And for the duration of THE LIFEGUARD, Leigh relives her younger years of smoking pot, drinking, and having sex with Jason. In fact, this might be one of the only times Bell has had on-screen sex when it wasn't meant for laughs. I'd even go so far as to say that the sex is rather graphic, intimate, bordering on erotic.
Unfortunately for the film, first-time writer-director Liz W. Garcia's script is a little fuzzy, especially when it comes to what exactly is Leigh's mental state. She seems the victim of free-floating anxiety more than an actual disturbance, which may explain why she gravitates to vacation-like activities to relax and unwind. The inclination whenever a story features a relationship of this nature is to assume the woman is somehow broken, but Leigh just seems sadly lacking in a loving relationship and finds one in this kid. It's not appropriate at all, but Garcia isn't exactly trying to sell us on the idea that it's 100 percent wrong either.
Bell breathes a great deal of much-needed heart and warmth into Leigh, as she embarks on one selfish pursuit after another, but it's not quite enough to pull the film out of its dramatic doldrums. The bigger problems rest in the subplot involving Mel finding out about the affair and being torn about whether to report it (cuz that's her job) or protect her best friend, all the while she and her husband are trying to have a baby and she's freaking about about that too. Seems like the emotional breakdown character at the center of this film should have been her. And Todd hits on one too many people who aren't interested in him, and it's just embarrassing to watch.
There are portions of THE LIFEGUARD that absolutely work, but so much of it is an emotionally fuzzy mess that borders on pointless.
SATURDAY MORNING MYSTERY
I've heard this surprisingly effective little horror tale called a live-action spoof of the "Scooby Doo" gang, a description I couldn't disagree with more. While it's very clear that SATURDAY MORNING MYSTERY (until recently called SATURDAY MORNING MASSACRE) takes its cues from the story of the cartoon series (complete with a dog), the idea here is, "What if the Scooby gang actually went into a house that might be haunted and confronted things like death, gore and real scares?" While the film is occasionally funny, it works best when it pulls out the stops, hurls blood on every surface and delivers genuinely terrifying sequences that make this a great additional to that midnight movie slot at your local rep theater.
In this configuration of the familiar gang (although none of the characters have the same names or neon-colored clothes as their cartoon inspirations), the nerdy Velma-esque Nancy (Ashley Spillers) runs the operation and books the "hauntings" for her group of paranormal investigators/hoax busters to dispel. Jonny Mars plays Floyd (pulling inspiration from Shaggy), Jospehine Deck is Gwen and Adam Tate is Chad, to round out the group, which is on the verge of going out of business when they get a call from a local bank to verify that a local abandoned schoolhouse/mansion (known as Kyser House) is not the setting for any long-rumored satanic practices or other paranormal goings-ons. The bank wants to set up its annual haunted house in the building, but want it cleared of any suspicions beforehand.
With the help of a kindly local sheriff (Paul Gordon as Officer Lance), the gang hears the troubling stories of Kyser House and spends its first night wandering the place looking for any anomalies. Director Spenser Parsons doesn't waste any time scaring the piss out of us by making it clear that something is truly off about the place when the investigators begin their processes to find out the nature of what may be haunting it. It's a sometimes brutal ride, but never without a dose of fun.
As you might suspect, the film launches into a game of who lives and who dies, along with the game of what exactly is behind these nasty hauntings at the Kyser House. As much as it might seem like you've seen things like this before, SATURDAY MORNING MYSTERY actually feels like something a little different with its take on ghost hunters (aside from the obvious comparison).
And the production looks and feels like it had a higher production budget than it likely did. You're not constantly noticing where the filmmakers cut corners, and that helps us settle into the proceedings and concentrate on the act of letting them creep us the hell out. And I won't lie, Ashley Spillers is cute and quirky enough to keep things interesting. I don't tend to speculate on things like this often, but she might actually have a shot at breaking out into bigger, more mainstream works down the line if that's her goal (and no, I've never met her or spoken to her). The film is a great deal of fun, and considering I'd never even heard of it until about two weeks ago, I can add it to the list of low-budget surprises that entertained me far more than most of the big-budget films I saw this summer.
-- Steve Prokopy
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