Tag Archives: C

AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS

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C

The title sounds like a bit of ersatz down-home poetry (it’s actually derived from a folk song), and the same can be said of the whole of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” a sophomore feature by David Lowery that’s a sad disappointment after his remarkable 2011 debut “St. Nick.” With ostentatiously artsy visuals, a flat, parched script, cruelly deliberate pacing and far more concern for mood than narrative coherence, it’s a film that tries to mimic the style of Terrence Malick and succeeds only too well.

The picture is basically a tale of doomed young love. In small-town Texas, time not specified, Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and his girlfriend Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) are captured after a shoot-out at a ramshackle farmhouse where they were holed up after a robbery. But their partner—again unspecified—is killed by the cops, and Deputy Patrick Wilson (Ben Foster) is wounded in the exchange of fire. Bob takes Ruth’s gun—it was she who shot the lawman—and the rap as well, as a result getting a long prison term. Meanwhile Ruth gives birth to Bob’s daughter Sylvie and raises her on her own, though the recovered Patrick takes an interest in them that bespeaks a romantic longing.

Bob writes long love letters to Ruth from the joint, but that’s insufficient, and after a few years he breaks out and makes his way back to their hometown. After hiding out for a time with barkeep Sweetie (Nate Parker), he makes his way to the general store on main street run by Skerritt (Keith Carradine), an elderly gent who’s been a father figure to Ruth, whom he’s provided with a house, and apparently to Bob too. Muldoon intends to reconnect with Ruth and their daughter, but when he approaches her place he discovers the solicitous Patrick in attendance and departs. And before he can act on his impulse again, three men show up gunning for him, and a fight ensues.

This much is relatively clear, though much else is not. Presumably the fellow killed in the opening shootout was Skerritt’s son—there a later reference to his death in Bob’s company—but that’s never spelled out. Nor is the identity of the desperadoes who come to town looking for Muldoon. One supposes they’re bounty hunters, but were they brought into the situation by Skerritt, or is the fact that they come to his store just an accident? Was Walker’s interest in Ruth something that preceded her relationship with Muldoon, or did it arise after his sentencing—and if the latter, how? Perhaps these and other pertinent plot points are obscured by the muddy sound recording—at least in the screening on which this review is based—but even if they’re explained somewhere, it seems as though they’re given very short shrift.

In any event, Lowery’s emphasis isn’t on clear-headed storytelling but the visual realm, and there, working with cinematographer Bradford Young, he certainly succeeds. “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” exudes atmosphere; the images have a hazy but almost tactile sense—you feel that sticking your hand into the screen would be like putting it into a warm shower. Within this matrix the characters moon and mope about, none more than Bob, whom Affleck plays with a somber deliberation that recalls his turns in “The Killer Inside Me” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” where the technique worked better. But Mara, Foster and Carradine aren’t far behind. Mention should also be made of David Hart’s score, which avoids cliché but is sometimes too obtrusive.

There’s no denying that Lowery has real cinematic vision, but as this film shows, he also has a tendency to opt for self-conscious poeticism. One hopes that he’ll tame that more effectively than his apparent inspiration Terrence Malick has.

JOBS

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C

It’s highly unlikely that Joshua Michael Stern’s film about the founder and guiding force behind Apple will attract the massive hordes of impatient customers who throng the company’s stores whenever it introduces some new technological marvel. Although it’s a sincere effort to delve into the man’s personality while doing justice to his influence on the digital world, “Jobs” is ultimately a pedestrian work that exhibits none of the imagination and daring its subject was famous for.

Matt Whiteley’s script largely ignores the last fifteen years of Jobs’ life, content to open with one of his last presentations to his devoted staff and glide over his leadership of Apple, and his domestic affairs, after 1996. Its focus is on the period from 1973 to 1996, from Jobs’ decision to drop out of Reed College after just a few months to his retaking control of the company after a decade’s exile. It concentrates on how as a young man he and a cluster of friends—most notably Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad)—built the Apple I in his parents’ garage and, with an investment from Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney), saw the fledgling business grow into a major player in the emerging computer industry. But his inability to conform to the expectations of a bottom-line board headed by Arthur Rock (J.K. Simmons) and John Scully (Matthew Modine), whom he had himself chosen as CEO, led to his exit from Apple in 1985.

The company floundered in his absence, however, and by 1995 was near collapse. New CEO Gil Amelio (Kevin Dunn) begged Jobs to return as an advisor. It didn’t take long for the board to conclude that only his undisputed leadership could right the ship, however, and Jobs effectively engineered the ouster not only of Amelio, but of Markkula and everyone else he suspected of not sharing his vision of a risk-taking, innovative leader in the industry. He revivified Apple’s sense of mission, and the rest is history.

A history that, frankly, the film presumes everyone is familiar with. There’s nothing here about the iMac, the iPhone or the iPod; knowledge of those and the other Apple wonders that Jobs is credited with inspiring between 1998 and his death are taken for granted. The premise is that the prologue to all that creativity is what explains it—Jobs’ nature, which led to his driving himself and everyone he worked with to the limit of their capacities (and beyond), his utter exclusion of everything he deemed extraneous to his work (including his girlfriend and the child he long refused to recognize as his own), and in the end his ruthlessness in dealing with those he considered unequal to the tasks he intended to see accomplished.

All of which means that the portrait of Jobs that the film draws, while certainly respectful and even at times reverential, doesn’t overlook his darker side. (There’s even a suggestion of “Citizen Kane” in the scene in which Wozniak comes to Jobs to announce that he’s leaving the company, which calls to mind Jed Leland’s disillusionment with Kane.) But the film could hardly be termed a critical one. The point of view seems to be that the steely determination that defined the man, often to the exclusion of acting generously or even sympathetically toward those he determined weren’t up to his standards, was necessary to the fulfillment of a higher end—the revolutionary products that have changed the world. And Jobs’ methods, at times verging on the cruel, and manner, often brusque and tinged with simmering rage, did achieve his goals. Whether they were worth the human cost is something each viewer will have to decide.

In the hands of Whiteley and Sterns, moreover, “Jobs” deals with these matters in a rather flat, prosaic fashion that’s miles from the flamboyance Orson Welles brought to “Kane.” That can also be said of Ashton Kutcher’s performance in the title role. He works hard to get the voice and mannerisms right—when the camera follows him loping down the hall, the resemblance is striking—but in terms of inner life all he’s able to offer is a generalized sort of intensity. Gad’s Wozniak is an affable counterweight, but the character is only marginally fleshed out, and the rest of the supporting cast—including Mulroney, Modine, Simmons, Dunn, Lukas Haas as Daniel Kottke and Ron Eldard as Rod Holt—are basically stuck with one-note roles, though Eldard at least brings some exuberance to his shaggy engineer. Freddy Wolff’s production design gives the picture visual authenticity, and Russell Carpenter’s cinematography is okay if unadventurous, but Robert Komatsu’s editing is too often enervating.

Reportedly there’s another Jobs biopic in the planning stages with a script by Aaron Sorkin, which could be interesting coming from the man who gave us “The Social Network.” In the meantime this is at best a stopgap, a picture that tries hard but falls short.