12/17/13: Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Elysium, The Family, Night Train to Lisbon, Kick-Ass 2

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (R, 2013, IFC Films)
When a local sheriff (Ben Foster) talks his way into the home of Ruth (Rooney Mara) — wife of freshly-escaped outlaw Bob (Casey Affleck), mother of their child and a heavier participant in Bob’s crimes than is commonly known — the unspoken implication of what’s to come is another case of a cop abusing his power and verbally throwing his weight around to no good end. What follows instead is a conversation so honest that it makes one feel bad for harboring such cynicism, even if it’s the movies themselves that trained us to be so cynical. In the scheme of things, it’s a minor point, and given what we’ve already seen by then, it may even be an obligatory one. But it’s one of several instances where “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” plays with expectations while also occasionally playing deliberately into their hands. There’s nothing complicated about the premise: Bob wants to return to Ruth, Ruth wants him back, and everybody in town, up to and including the cops, knows it. But only Bob, Ruth and the audience know the full details of what happened the day Bob went down, and “Saints” plays along by keeping the outlaws on the customary path while everyone on the right side of the law grows increasingly trickier to read. No attempts are made to deceive or play tricks on us, and “Saints” is, in numerous respects, as simple as it initially looks. But that small, occasional but effective element of surprise, mixed into a bounty of skillfully-realized characters playing beyond their archetype, makes “Saints” more engrossing than its premise and tempo would suggest at a glance.

Elysium (R, 2013, Sony Pictures)
Apparently, if the recent crop of movies about Earth’s demise is to be believed, the rarest mineral on our rotted planet will be a middle ground. There certainly isn’t one to be found in 2154, where billions of sick and poor labor on a ravaged, toxic Earth while their bosses and the rest of the wealthy elite live like royalty on a utopian space station, Elysium, that’s brimming with blue skies, delicious food and med bays that can heal the sick with the snap of a finger. Which begs the question: If it’s that easy to fix the sick, then what, besides an impossibly callous mob mentality, compels Elysium’s high society to deny Earthlings such an easy fix? “Elysium” can’t say — or rather, it’d rather not, because that would kneecap the extremely broad parable about healthcare and immigration that constantly, via equal parts extremely fallible logic and nakedly ham-handed lecturing, undercuts its own science fiction. Visually, “Elysium” — whether on Earth, in paradise or even the vast space in between — looks terrific. It looks so good, in fact, that during the stretches where it focuses on shutting up, looking good and moving quickly, it’s great entertainment. But when “Elysium” stops and talks for too long, the caricatures, lectures, heavy strokes and implausibilities it creates strike back with a vengeance. Optimistically, that affords us multiple ways to enjoy “Elysium” — through saintly patience as pretty sci-fi, ironically as accidental self-parody, or as a detective picking apart the bounty of ways these opposing worlds just don’t believably add up. On the other hand, wouldn’t it be nice if just one of these movies could either find some shades of gray or, if unable to do so, check the lecture at the door and just entertain us for a couple hours? There are ways to spin parables about our present condition in ways that won’t alienate those who feel differently, but “Elysium” is so broad that even those who do agree may sense a tinge of alienation seeping in. Matt Damon, Jodie Foster and Sharlto Copley star.
Extras: Extended scene, six behind-the-scenes features.

The Family (R, 2013, Fox)
Millionaire mobster-turned-snitch Giovanni (Robert De Niro) and his family (Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo) have, via witness protection, relocated — and not for the first time, and likely not for the last given their bad habits and Giovanni’s continued pursuit of the good life. This time, the destination is Normandy, France, and the family blends in about as well as a family from Brooklyn’s cartoon character district should expect to assimilate. “The Family,” meanwhile, does some peculiar blending of its own. Is it a comedy? A family drama? A farce? A straight-faced violent mobster movie? Mostly, sometimes, sort of and yes. To varying degrees, it’s even successful at all four, even if it’s only truly funny when Giovanni is genially giving his FBI contact (Tommy Lee Jones) headaches. The divided attention finds “The Family” wearing an identity crisis up and down its sleeve, and the lack of focus results in a weird movie that clearly wishes it had twice as much time to reconcile the gap between comedy and violence. On the other hand, the attempt to make that reconciliation makes this entertaining in its own strange way. We’ve had more than a few straight-faced mobster movies and more than enough attempts at mobster farce, and “The Family’s” desire to have it all — not unlike Giovanni’s own wishes — makes it fun to watch and root for even if its failure to actually get it all is a foregone conclusion.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features.

Night Train to Lisbon (R, 2013, Lions Gate)
During a brisk, rainy walk across a bridge en route to work, professor Raimund Gregorius (Jeremy Irons) spots and saves a woman seconds before she was to jump to her death. Though she follows him to his classroom, she disappears not long after, prompting Raimund to abandon his class mid-lesson, chase after her and gather enough information to board a train she supposedly is riding to Lisbon. Sounds exciting, right? Certainly. But all of this happens within the span of “Night Train to Lisbon’s” opening scenes, and the thrill of a man spontaneously dropping everything over a chance encounter rapidly peters out from there. Raimund’s clue-gathering journey leads to a book, which leads to an author (Jack Huston) and an author’s history whom Raimund plunders in hopes of finding a connection to the woman he saved. Much of “Lisbon,” meanwhile, occurs in flashback form as Raimund seeks answers to those questions and finds himself heading down a whole different rabbit hole than originally intended. Had “Lisbon” purely been framed as a story about the past Raimund discovers, the extra focus and cohesion may have turned it into something arresting. But as a disjointed history lesson about characters who mostly do not even exist in the film’s present day, it’s a dry, steep fall from the excitement of that opening scene. By the time “Lisbon” once again becomes a story about Raimund, the thrill has long since gone, and the meek attempt to bring it back is more fruitless than a butcher shop.
Extras: Interviews, behind-the-scenes feature.

Kick-Ass 2 (R, 2013, Universal)
Dumb fun, sure, but amid a glut of sterile, indistinguishable superhero movies, “Kick-Ass” was a revelation that used regular people — and kids (Chloë Grace Moretz, Aaron Taylor-Johnson), no less — to more vividly convey the ugly side of superheroism than its glossier rivals ever got close to replicating. A few years and a few more regular-folks-as-superheroes movies later, it’s like nobody learned anything. Perhaps feeling pressure to outdo its predecessor, “Kick-Ass 2” spills out everywhere, with graphic violence just because, bad one-liners everywhere, a dozen-plus people in ridiculous hero and villain getups, and all the noise (from music montages to bodily functions gone bad) that movies with nothing to say make when the silence gets uncomfortable and there’s lots of time to kill. The great irony of it all is that in between the attempts to shock, there’s a storyline that bears all the dull markings of a second film in the kind of tired superhero trilogy the original “Kick-Ass” put to shame. It’s a mostly poor attempt, particularly with regard to how ridiculously, unreasonably absurd Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s character has become in his transformation from two-faced sidekick in the first film to stupidly-dressed supervillain here, but the stale scent holds court over this mess all the same.
Extras: Cast/writer/director commentary, alternate opening, extended scenes, seven behind-the-scenes features.