1. As I Lay Dying
For fans of: Terrence Malick, Southern literature, William Faulkner
When you can watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $3.99.
In the past few years, James Franco has made less of a career out of acting than he has out of Being James Franco. Apart from acting, Franco has enrolled in numerous Ph.D. and Masters programs, directed numerous documentaries and short films, written short stories and poems and plays, painted — this list could actually go on. Franco is a renaissance man, and he wants to make sure we all know that. That motive seems to be the impetus for his ambitious feature film directorial debut: An adaptation of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, a classic novel about a southern family in the early 20th century.
Faulkner's novel is brilliant, poetic, and devastating, but it's also a doozy: The author employed his trademark stream-of-consciousness style, which finds each chapter narrated by a different main character — 15 in all. It's a literary style that makes Faulkner's already challenging work even harder to adapt to the big screen. Franco's attempt is a noble effort, sticking as close to the source material as possible. Unfortunately, it's also a complete mess.
The story follows the Bundren family, who set out on a long road trip, via horse and carriage, to fulfill their dead matriarch's last wish: A burial in Jefferson County. During the course of the trip, the oldest son, Cash (Jim Parrack), severely breaks his leg while helping the family try and ford a river. This is only the beginning of many complications.
Although the plot is fairly straightforward, Faulkner's novel is loaded with metaphors, descriptive imagery, and inner monologues that explain each character's personal turmoil. Franco attempts to translate that to film with a barrage of bold, but ultimately tiresome stylistic choices. Much of the film is shot split screen, in an attempt to express two different character's perspectives at the same time. He also uses off-camera narration to help internalize what's going on in the minds of each of the main characters, but which quickly becomes too confusing to keep track of.
With a talented cast that includes Franco, Parrack, Tim Blake Nelson, Beth Grant, Logan Marshall-Green, and Danny McBride, As I Lay Dying seems like it should be a vehicle for award-winning performances — but unfortunately, each actor seems like they know as much about what's going on as we do. Nelson's character, the patriarch Anse, talks in a barely decipherable Southern accent, and the rest of the cast feel like they're phoning it in. But As I Lay Dying isn't a total failure, thanks to cinematographer Christina Voros, who delivers an aesthetically rich film — even if you're never quite sure what's going on. In the end, Franco's As I Lay Dying is a chore to watch, but Faulkner purists will certainly appreciate Franco's well-intentioned attempt to bring the great novelist's unique voice to film.
2. Last Days on Mars
For fans of: Alien, Prometheus, The Europa Report, zombie films
When you can watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $6.99.
Ridley Scott's sleek, stylish, and utterly terrifying 1979 masterpiece Alien was a cinematic achievement like no other at the time of its release. Unfortunately, the imitators came shortly after. Alien's formula — the existential terror of space and isolation coupled with the looming presence of a grotesque alien creature — inspired many shameless knock-offs in the 1980s, like William Malone's Creature and George P. Cosmatos' Leviathan. And now that Scott has returned to the universe with 2012's not-quite Alien prequel Prometheus, it seems as though we're starting to see that same cycle repeat itself all over again.
Prometheus isn't nearly the film that Alien was — but since its release, the cheap ripoffs have already started to pour in. One of the first films I reviewed in this column, Europa Report, seemed at first glance to be the found footage version of Prometheus — but actually proved to have a more brainy premise and impressive visuals than its hackneyed description. Ruairi Robinson's Last Days on Mars, unfortunately, lacks both the hard-boiled script and the cinematic ingenuity to rise above the obvious comparisons.
Working off a script from Clive Dawson, The Last Days of Mars takes place during the tail end of a lengthy mission on the red planet. Liev Schreiber heads the cast as Vincent Campbell, a communications tech on an extended stay on Mars. The crew, tasked with studying the planet for signs of life, is eager to get home, and that eagerness causes great tension among them — especially with Olivia Williams' Dr. Kim Aldrich, who is particularly peeved that the mission has come up empty-handed. Of course, that doesn't stay true for long when one of the other scientists, Marko Petrovic, makes a startling discovery that compromises everything.
From here, the formulaic plot becomes even more formulaic: Petrovic's discovery of an infectious bacteria that turns all those exposed to it into a murderous zombie quickly spreads among the crew, and pretty soon the movie merely devolves into Schreiber vs. Space Zombies. But given the film's low ambition, that's not entirely a bad thing. As illogical and ill-defined the plot may get, Last Days of Mars boasts sleek visuals (especially considering its meager budget) and some impressive creature effects to keep your pulse pumping. But no matter how much slack you're willing to cut Last Days on Mars, it's difficult to shake off what it really is: The latest in a long, long line of cheap Alien knockoffs that just can't measure up to the original.
For fans of: French New Wave, taut relationship dramas
When you can watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $6.99.
Concussion begins they way you'd expect it to: Abby (Robin Weigart) is bleeding profusely from the head after one of her children accidentally nails her with a ball. Her wife Kate (Julie Fain Lawrence) takes her to the hospital, but it's too late. Her concussion has awakened something in her: The realization that her sex life is stale, and that she yearns for something more.
And so goes Stacie Passon's delicate portrait of a bored housewife who finds new ways to spice up her life. As it happens, Abby has a friend dating a woman who runs a lesbian prostitution ring. At first repulsed by the idea, she soon becomes curious and infatuated by it, until she signs up and reinvents herself as Eleanor, a call girl for lonely women.
Passon conjures up the French New Wave in her slow-burning, deeply intimate portrait of Abby. It sounds like a classic bored-housewife-in-the-suburbs-seeks-something-more premise, but Passon rises above the tired scenario by delicately exploring Abby's internal struggle between desires and reality. At first, it's all easy-going: Abby meets her "clients" at a coffee shop in the city to pre-screen them and then instructs them to come to the loft she's fixing up downtown, where she can conduct her "business transactions" without fear of getting caught. The anonymity of her clients provides her with the peace of mind that she won't run into them in her suburban housewife world back home. But when the lines between her home life and her working life behind to blur, Abby's operation begins to fall apart.
As a feature film debut for Passon, Concussion is an assured and singular vision — but it sometimes feels like it's not quite sure what story it wants to tell. The middle half of the film is essentially an extended montage of steamy sex scenes — not placed to be exploitative, but simply because the film doesn't know what else to do before the narrative can reach its inevitable climax. Perhaps a tightening of the script could many of these scenes feel like something other than sexy fodder — but if you can live with the flaws, the Concussion is a well-acted, intriguing film.