1. Prince Avalanche (Directed by David Gordon Green. Starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch)
For fans of: George Washington, All the Real Girls, Explosions in the Sky
When you can watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $6.99
Director David Gordon Green's career has a kind of Doctor Jekyll/Mr. Hyde quality to it: After he gained a modest but respected following within the indie film circuit with quiet, poetic films like George Washington and All The Real Girls, he suddenly morphed into a Hollywood comedy monster with stoner comedies like Pineapple Express, Your Highness, and last year's The Sitter. His latest film, Prince Avalanche, is a return to his more lyrical indie work — but it's also not quite the return to form fans have been hoping for.
Though it's based on a 2011 Icelandic film called Either Way, Prince Avalanche is a kind of late-80s period piece. Paul Rudd stars as Alvin, a wannabe Henry David Thoreau who embraces the solitude of a job repainting the traffic lines of a remote, wildfire-ravaged stretch of Texas highway. As a favor to his girlfriend, he brings along her slack-jawed, loose cannon little brother Lance (Emile Hirsch) so he can have a chance to straighten out his life and have some stability. While they spend the work week sequestered in the woods, the film follows their turbulent relationship as they bond and bicker with each other through a series of surreal situations.
Set to a moody, echoing soundtrack by Explosions in the Sky, the director's camera beautifully captures the scorched-earth Texas landscape. Prince Avalanche contains a few encounters with semi-mystical figures — there's a cheery old truck driver who makes a habit of popping up with vodka-spiked bottles of 7-Up, and a spiritual older woman whom Alvin comes upon in a dream-like scene. Alvin and Lance's budding bromance grows even as the pair bicker and butt heads, in what's clearly a tactical diversion to avoid confronting the real issues that are gnawing at each of their cores.
While it's certainly refreshing to see David Gordon Green operating as a distinguished auteur again after broad studio comedies like Pineapple Express, Your Highness, and The Sitter, Prince Avalanche isn't a full return to form. Long stretches of silence and contemplative landscape shots are beautiful — but they don't exactly add anything to this character study. Rudd and Hirsch are quite good — but in the end, even their performances can't save Prince Avalanche from tedium.
2. Ain't Them Bodies Saints (Directed by David Lowery. Starring Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster)
For fans of: Badlands, Days of Heaven, Bonnie & Clyde
When you can watch it: Beginning Aug. 23 on Amazon Instant, Digital Download, VOD for $9.99
"This was in Texas." With that text, we enter writer/director David Lowery's terrific Western Ain't Them Bodies Saints. It's the Old West version of "Once upon a time," and it sets the stage for this Southern-fried version of an outlaw fairy tale.
Outlaw Bob (Casey Affleck) is locked up in prison after a robbery that goes awry and ends after he and his wife Ruth (Rooney Mara) engage in a bloody firefight with local law enforcement. The shootout leaves one of Bob's cohorts dead and a particularly warm-hearted cop (played by the always terrific Ben Foster) wounded. Ruth manages to avoid imprisonment on a technicality, and is left alone to raise their child. Fueled by love and a burning desire to reunite with his family, Bob escapes, setting the film's primary narrative in motion.
But Lowery isn't so much concerned with advancing the narrative as he is with establishing a specific tone — an inquisitive meditation on love and devotion. Ain't Them Bodies Saints recalls early Terrence Malick films like Badlands and Days of Heaven. Like Malick, Lowery demonstrates his visual mastery by letting his free-floating camera capture beautifully framed, exquisitely rendered moments during each word of Affleck and Mara's letter-reading voiceover.
Ain't Them Bodies Saints is anchored by subtly intense performances from Affleck, Mara, and Foster, as well as Daniel Hart's hauntingly rustic score. This is a quietly powerful film that relies less on tense, violent outbursts than it does on softer, more contemplative moments, resulting in something far more profound.
3. Touchy Feely (Directed by Lynne Shelton. Starring Rosemarie DeWitt, Josh Pais, Ellen Page, Scoot McNairy, Allison Janney, and Ron Livingston)
For fans of: Quirky family dramas, mumblecore
When you can watch it: Now Available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $9.99
The most frustrating thing about Touchy Feely — the latest feature from Humpday and Your Sister's Sister writer/director Lynn Shelton — is how much untapped potential it has. The film follows two characters who go through a sort of mystical aura-swap: Where one loses her "healing touch" and becomes emotionally unhinged, the other gains the healing touch and a new sense of purpose. But while this Freaky Friday personality-swap drives much of Touchy Feely's central emotional conflict, the film never manages to spin that into a compelling narrative.
Rosemarie DeWitt stars as Abby, a free-spirited massage therapist who spends much of her day making sure her chi is balanced. Things inexplicably go south for her as soon as her freewheeling boyfriend (Scoot McNairy) asks her to move in with him. Suddenly, Abby loses her healing touch and becomes repulsed to the point of nausea at the thought of touching another person's skin. Meanwhile, her straight-laced, emotionally vacant brother Paul (Josh Pais) seems to inherit Abby's healing powers when he suddenly begins healing patients with seemingly incurable chronic jaw pain at his dental practice with a simple touch.
Unfortunately, Touchy Feely is so jam-packed with subplots that there's no easy way to make them all tie together. Though it strives to be a closely observed familial drama, it spends plenty of time on auxiliary characters: There's Paul's daughter, Jenny (Ellen Page), who struggles with living her own life out of fear of abandoning her lonesome father; Scoot McNairy, who spends most of the film trying to figure out what's wrong with his relationship while Abby; and a pseudo-romance that Paul strikes up with one of Abby's coworkers. As if that wasn't enough, Ron Livingston shows up in the last 20 minutes as one of Abby's ex-boyfriends in one of the most pointless cameos in recent memory.
As a key player in the mumblecore movement, Shelton's biggest strength is understanding how to make characters express their true feelings without actually saying them. Shelton has done it before, and she may do it again. But with Touchy Feely, it seems as though her characters, like Shelton, have no idea what they want.
4. Passion (Directed by Brian DePalma. Starring Noomi Rapace, Rachel McAdams)
For fans of: Basic Instinct, Alfred Hitchock, erotic thrillers
When you can watch it: Now Available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $9.99
Director Brian DePalma has never been shy about his deep and abiding love of Alfred Hitchcock. Films like Murder a la Mod, Sisters, Obsession, and Blow Out are less like homage and more like obsession — and even when he went mainstream with films like Scarface, Carlito's Way, and Mission: Impossible, he'd follow them up with some sort of Hitchcockian psychosexual thriller (remember Body Double, Raising Cain, and Femme Fatale?).
So it's no great surprise that DePalma's latest film — the steamy, twisted thriller Passion — is a remake of the late Alain Corneau's Hitchcockian erotic thriller Love Crime. But while Passion is a decidedly old-school thriller, it has a distinctly timely feel as its underlying theme grapples with the perverse role technology plays in our society, and how easy it now is to record a person's every little move.
Noomi Rapace stars as Isabelle, a smart-yet-naive associate at a rising international advertising firm who goes head-to-head with her ruthlessly fierce boss, Christine (Rachel McAdams) after she takes credit for one of Isabelle's ideas. To get back at her, Isabelle engages in an affair with Christine's boy toy, Dirk (Paul Anderson) — but much to Isabelle's dismay, it yields little effect.
For the first hour or so, Passion is laughably tacky, with hammy dialogue, over-the-top score, subdued filmmaking, and stiff performances from Rapace and McAdams. But after about an hour, it seems as though both DePalma and the film jolt awake. The plot begins to twist and turn. In one particularly inspired scene, DePalma utilizes his trademark split-screen tactic, juxtaposing one character's brutal murder with that of a ballet performance the other is attending.
As Christine continually manages to thwart Isabelle's attempts at sabotage, DePalma cleverly turns Passion's plot into an old-fashioned whodunit that leaves you wanting to go back and look for clues in the film's dreary first hour. And though the film is uneven at best, DePalma manages to stick the landing with a sleek style that harkens back to Hitchcock's finest. That's enough to make it worth a rental for any genre fan.
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