Neo-noir ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ is a pretty tone poem that skimps on story

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints/2013/IFC Films/105 min.

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” by writer/director David Lowery, opens with a quarrel between a pair of young lovers, ambling along the hills of desolate central Texas. Ruth (Rooney Mara with a Plain Jane, ’70s vibe) frets that her restless boyfriend Bob (Casey Affleck) is going to take off on his own and leave her behind.

He reassures her but her fears are not unfounded – when a robbery goes wrong, Bob goes to jail and Ruth must fend for herself. But knowing that Ruth is pregnant, Bob determines to escape and return to his wife and child.

Lowery creates and sustains a languid mood tinged with loneliness, frustration, guilt and longing, underscored by steady dread, thanks particularly to cinematographer Bradford Young’s pretty camerawork and Daniel Hart’s plaintive music. The director also draws subtle performances from Mara as a teen transformed by motherhood and a tenderly expressive Ben Foster as the cop who forms the third side of the love triangle.

Lowery’s work essentially belongs to the lovers-on-the-run tradition that mixes film noir, poetic realism and grisly fairy tale – presumably attempting to join the ranks of movies like “Gun Crazy,” “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Badlands.”

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” has impressed many critics, but I found it hard to connect with and the more I thought about it, the less I liked it. Lowery seems uncomfortable letting a simple tale unfold. Several narrative threads felt clunky and tacked on, without adding anything of substance. Some of the storytelling was hard to follow; other parts were boring (though, to be fair, action isn’t the aim here) and hollow.

Pretentious and plodding more than heartfelt and contemplative,“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” failed to move me.

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” opens nationwide today.

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on RedditEmail this to someoneTweet about this on Twitter

Stylish, seductive ‘Side Effects’ intrigues, doesn’t fully satisfy

Side Effects/2012/Open Road/106 mins.

Steven Soderbergh’s provocative new thriller, “Side Effects” is drawing much buzz. Glossy, intelligent and compelling, with an A-list cast, it’s part mystery, part exposé, part strangely subdued melodrama that’s played out among good-looking, affluent people, all of whom are in some way affected by the use of prescription medicine. “One pill can change your life,” says the movie’s tagline.

The movie opens with a shot of a New York apartment building; inside one unit is a bloody crime scene. Then we flashback several months before to another pivotal moment – the flat’s owners Emily and Martin Taylor (Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum) are reunited after Martin is released from a four-year prison sentence he received for insider trading. The two try to rebuild their lives, but it’s an uphill struggle.

Emily suffers from depression and, after a failed suicide attempt, she agrees to take an antidepressant prescribed by a kind, ambitious doctor named Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). When her symptoms don’t improve, Dr. Banks suggests a new drug, one that turns out to have dire results for the Taylors as well as for Banks and his wife (Vinessa Shaw).

And as Emily grapples with the consequences of committing a crime she doesn’t remember, Banks probes ever more obsessively into her past, specifically her psychiatric treatment by Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), icy and ultra-competent with an answer for everything.

Though at times “Side Effects” is a little hard to follow and perhaps awkwardly plotted, it’s well directed and never boring. There’s a lot going on and the powerful final twist upends everything we thought we knew about the principals.

“I wanted to write a noir-style thriller that took the audience in and spun it around, like ‘Double Indemnity’ or ‘Body Heat,’ set in the world of psychopharmacology,” says screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (“Contagion”).

Enjoyment of the movie may hinge on this factor: knowledge of these superficially interesting characters never develops into caring about them – they’re not sympathetic nor are they entertaining in their badness. For me, that made a difference – Rooney Mara’s character in particular struck me as more than a little odious, a woman with zero redeeming features.

Also, the insistently low-key emotional tone (almost as if the film itself had popped a Prozac) feels unsatisfying, given the high stakes of the story. But perhaps that was exactly Soderbergh’s intent. In a society that places a premium on quick fixes, instant answers and easy panaceas, it stands to reason that we’re comfortably numb more than often than we like to acknowledge.

“Side Effects” opens today nationwide.

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on RedditEmail this to someoneTweet about this on Twitter

Does ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ need Noomi Rapace to survive?

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo/2011/Columbia Pictures/158 min.

By Michael Wilmington

Noomi Rapace

When it comes to playing dark heroines with burning eyes, black jackets, multiple piercings and deadly temperaments, Rooney Mara is alas no Noomi Rapace. But the American actress (Rooney), who put down Jesse Eisenberg so effectively in “The Social Network,” proves surprisingly adept at putting down (and messing up) chauvinists and uncovering serial killers in Noomi’s old role of hacker/heroine Lisbeth Salander, in David Fincher’s remake of the Swedish sensation, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

It’s a very effective Hollywood movie as well, even if it’s one that, at least for “Dragon Tattoo” veterans, has few surprises. That’s because director Fincher (“The Social Network,” “Zodiac,” “Se7en”) and screenwriter Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) stay remarkably faithful to the original novels and the three hit Swedish movies made from the books.

Lisbeth of course is the astonishingly anti-social but utterly compelling heroine of the late Swedish journalist/novelist Stieg Larsson’s worldwide best-sellers: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.”

Those novels, all published posthumously, follow the investigations of fictional journalist Mikael Blomkvist (a character many feel was modeled on Larsson) into the mysterious disappearance, 40 years earlier, of Harriet Vanger, beloved great-niece of Mikael’s employer, Henrik Vanger. The elite Vanger clan has many skeletons rattling around in their mansion closets.

In turn, Mikael (played in the original Swedish films by Michael Nyqvist and by Daniel Craig in Fincher’s film) hires the unorthodox Lisbeth as his researcher because of her incredible Internet skills. Soon the two are swimming in a whirlpool of family secrets, scandal and dread – a multi-plotted terror trap that Larsson kept up though all three of the novels.

Some critics have complained that Fincher and Zaillian haven’t changed the story enough. But it should be obvious by now that the vast audience for these stories doesn’t want them changed.

Hewing to the original as much as possible: That was super-producer David O. Selznick’s rule on adapting beloved best-sellers and classics to the screen, from “David Copperfield” to “Gone with the Wind” to “Rebecca.” And Selznick was usually right.

The more important things about the new “Dragon Tattoo” are that it’s been smartly and deftly adapted, extremely well cast, and beautifully and excitingly filmed. The movie has serious themes, a strong social/political dimension and engaging characters as well as an intricately assembled and finely crafted story that’s also pulpily lurid. Overall, it’s the sort of intelligent entertainment we don’t usually get from blockbusters.

Adding greatly to that intelligence, and to the entertainment value, is the new film’s excellent cast. In addition to Mara and Craig, there’s Robin Wright as Mikael’s editor-lover Erika (the original’s Lena Endre role), Christopher Plummer as Mikael’s employer, Henrik Vanger; the always-superb Stellan Skarsgard as genial Martin Vanger; Joely Richardson and Geraldine James as Vanger family members Anita and Cecilia; Steven Berkoff as the dour family attorney Dirch Frode; and Yorick Van Wageningen as Bjurman, Lisbeth’s amoral nemesis and subject of the trilogy’s most shocking and notorious scenes: the rape and anti-rape.

Why do murder mysteries and detective yarns, film noirs and neo noirs, still captivate audiences, usually the smarter audiences, so intensely? Perhaps it’s because the best of these stories imply that the world, in all its mysterious tangles, can be fathomed – that justice, in all its vagaries, is not as fragile as it sometimes seems, that life’s chaos and horrors can be straightened out or at least understood.

That’s the appeal of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” in all its forms: as addictive novels, as arty foreign films and now as a Hollywood blockbuster. It’s a movie that doesn’t really need Noomi to survive, though it’s nice to know that she’s still around. And that Lisbeth still has her tattoo.

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on RedditEmail this to someoneTweet about this on Twitter