Believe me, I’m as surprised as you are.
The Great Gatsby is about a non-judgmental young man who moves to Long Island in the roaring ’20s. He sells bonds during the day and returns to his modest shanty at night, right next to door to one of the wealthiest men in West Egg. Soon after arriving, he reconnects with his cousin across the bay, a woman who’s now married to a wealthy, bullheaded philanderer. Not long after, he receives a invitation to one of the notoriously lavish parties that his neighbor is so fond of throwing. Next thing he knows, he’s chumming it up with the host and going on bonafide bro dates with him to speakeasies in Manhattan. Turns out, this Gatsby fella’ has a history with the young man’s cousin, so in the spirit of being a good neighbor and all, the young man gets these two kids back together as they try to rekindle a love once lost.
I know it, you know it, and we all had to read it in high school because it’s the great American novel. Some may take issue with that sentiment, but with each new time that I’ve read it, the love has continued to grow. So with that being said and for a good two years now, I had been dreading this movie’s existence.
Two years ago was when I first heard that Hollywood was bringing Gatsby to the big screen again. Though initially intrigued for all of one second, my interest changed to sadness when Baz Luhrmann entered the frame. Now, The Great Gatsby is a novel that I adore for its subtlety, and last time I checked, Moulin Rouge! ain’t what you’d call a think piece. Of all the people that they could have gotten to adapt this, they get an Australian with a glitter fetish to lead the way. The logic eluded me, and by the time I heard it was being filmed in 3D, all foreseeable hope was lost.
Yep, wasn’t getting my hopes up for this one, no use beating on against the current. But then it went and caught one hell of a lucky break.
In addition to revisiting the source material, I figured I’d go the extra mile by finally taking a look at the 1974 version of Gatsby (“the Robert Redford version” as folks tend to call it). What I found was a sentence-for-sentence adaptation that was so mind-numbingly boring I had to stop watching it halfway through, and I never do that with a movie. It was one of the most drawn-out, lifeless movies I’d ever seen, one that even The Sundance Kid himself couldn’t salvage. So with that sour taste still fresh in my mouth, the prospect of Baz Luhrmann suddenly sounded quite sweet. Heck, if Meyer Wolfsheim showed up in a sequined unitard belting “Like a Virgin” halfway through, it still couldn’t be worse than that garbage I couldn’t finish.
Nevertheless, the skepticism lingered.
When it starts off with Nick Carraway holed up in a loony bin battling a long list of afflictions that start with “morbid alcoholism” of all things, the skepticism didn’t wane. Then we go back in time, back to when Nick was still a wide-eyed broker during the height of prohibition. The scene is one of opulence, of a culture driven by alcohol and excess. It’s an in-your-face imagining of life in The Big Apple and one that plays a much greater role than the one created by Fitzgerald. But unlike the Redford version, it’s alive. It’s fun.
As you’ve likely gathered from the trailer, this vision of extravagance is a theme that carries throughout. No expense is spared from one scene to the next, it moves at an oddly breathless pace at times and it’s understandably an approach that’s been dividing people across the board. After all, The Great Gatsby was never great because of the characters’ surroundings, it was great because of the characters themselves. This is not how Fitzgerald would have imagined it and some of that subtlety would have helped.
Then again, we already got the subtle version in ’74, and though I can’t speak for everyone on the matter, it was pretty effing horrendous. And is it really all that surprising either?
I’m of the mindset that some stories just don’t warrant adaptations, that we should just enjoy them in the medium they were intended to be enjoyed in and leave it at that. There are exceptions to every rule, but for the most part, I believe there’s good reason why certain stories are told as novels rather than movies and vice-versa. The Great Gatsby works as a novel because Fitzgerald worked as a writer, and with that in mind, there was only so much that the Redford version could only achieve.
I can appreciate the temptation that comes with approaching something of this stature and adapting it through a cut-and-paste process. After all, it’s perfect the way it is, so why fix what isn’t broken? But since there’s just no one-upping the source material in a situation like this, going with what’s familiar and hoping for the best is ultimately a naive temptation.
And that’s why Luhrmann works. Even with an unnecessarily lengthy run time of 142 minutes, he succeeds because he makes a Baz Luhrmann movie instead of a bland re-telling that anyone could have made. There are times when it becomes too much of a Baz Luhrmann movie and things get a bit too dramatic or flashy for their own good, but he still stays true to the heart of the story without smothering it along the way. It’s easy on the eyes, it isn’t nearly as abrasive as Moulin Rouge! was and it certainly doesn’t hurt that he has a swell cast to work with.
The best thing I can say about Leo is that he’s a fitting Gatsby, which is the most I was really hoping for anyway. He’s at his best when Gatsby reveals his true self as this inviting, level-headed individual that Nick and Daisy would naturally gravitate towards. In my humble opinion, that’s when Leo’s always at his best, when he finally relaxes and acts with pretense. Not that his performance suffers when Gatsby’s putting on airs, I suppose it’s just another instance of wishing Leo would take more roles that would let him lighten up. Dude just loves playing the headcase.
Tobey Maguire, on the other hand, is a fantastic Nick Carraway. Maybe that’s because Nick’s such a level-headed character from beginning to end, but Tobey does a fine job of embodying the qualities that make him such an engaging narrator. As much I’d love to see an adaptation that’s completely devoid of Nick’s narration (if only as an exercise in showing, not telling), I really liked the way it turned out here. It doesn’t come off like someone’s reading from the text (looking at you, Sam Waterston), it sounds like it’s coming from the mouth of Nick Carraway. And while I’m still not sure how I feel about Nick suddenly becoming Gatsby’s best friend during the last 10 minutes or so, it’s hard to fault Luhrmann on that one. All depends on how you read that last chapter, really.
Always nice to see Isla Fisher get some work and Joel Edgerton has it down pat as Tom Buchanan, the rotten sonofabitch that he is. Carey Mulligan is also good as Daisy, which is a complement and then some with Mia Farrow’s unfortunate performance as my only base for comparison.
Two years ago, I never would have imagine writing a review like this. But that’s one of the great things about Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, that for everything we’ve always loved about it, there’s no right way to read it. I don’t expect Luhrmann’s Gatsby to garner the same kind of acclaim over time, and since I doubt this is the last time I’ll see it adapted to film, I can’t imagine it’ll be regarded as the be-all-end-all interpretation. Man, I don’t even expect to be in the majority with this one and nor could I argue with those who find it a travesty. But considering that the novel is a work without equal, it was refreshing to see Luhrmann make it his own. And for a movie that I seemingly had every reason to loathe, you can color me impressed by the end result.
Apologies for the long title, had no idea how to phrase this thing.
I didn’t really know what to say when Roger Ebert passed away last month, mainly because there’s only so much you do a life like his justice in a mere blog post. Ultimately, paying tribute to his greatest point of contention with the interwebs seemed like a fitting way to go about it. As an avid reader and a lifelong gamer, I still don’t know where my preference falls on this one, but that’s not really the point now, is it?
There aren’t too many film critics, let alone public figures, that take it upon themselves to ask these kinds of questions and prompt such interesting, cross-generational discussions. Roger Ebert was one of the exceptions to that rule. It’s no mystery why he’ll always be considered as the go-to reference for just about every movie out there, because it’s rare and it’s special to find someone who could write and voice their opinions the way he did. He set the bar, and because that just wasn’t enough, he was model human being to boot.
It’s because of him that silly little blogs like this are possible, it’s because of him that film critics have a place in this world. I don’t know about you, but that seems like one heck of a legacy to leave behind.
- A great video game: 31 votes
- Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: 24 votes
Swell voting, folks.
8/10 Natural Instincts
Well that was different.
Upstream Color is about a woman who finds her entire being under the control of a stranger after falling victim to a drug unlike any other. When she’s released from her high, she finds her life in shambles, unable to recall what she’s done or who’s to blame. Not long after, she crosses paths with a man who, unbeknownst to her, has gone through similar circumstances. Their connection is undeniable, they start going steady, and as she tries to pick up the pieces, he helps her to remember where things went wrong.
So it’s been almost a decade now since Shane Carruth was kind enough to grace us with his debut effort, Primer. For those who haven’t seen it (especially those who dig time travel), it’s high time you took care of that situation. But for those who have, I think I speak for the majority of us in these next few sentences:
Primer may not have been the time travel movie we were expecting or used to, and it probably took more than one viewing to truly appreciate/wrap our heads around it, but once we drank the Kool-Aid, it was hard to deny everything that was so damn brilliant about it. It was further proof that you didn’t need a big budget to astound, that all you need is a great idea and an intelligent script that wasn’t afraid to do something different. Oh yes, it was something else, and we’ve been waiting very patiently to see what Carruth would do next.
And while the meat of it couldn’t be more different, a lot of the things that make Upstream Color so magnetic are the very things that I adore about Primer. Yet for all that the former has in common with the latter, the odd thing about it is that it’s utterly unique.
Now, I’m no expert on the matter, but if you’ve ever wanted a crash course in experimental film making, this isn’t a bad place to get acquainted. Right from the start, it’s all very strange, and under someone else’s direction, the end result could have been very, very stupid. Surrogate swines, hypnomaggots and telepathic teens are just a few of the colorful things you’ll encounter here, and as weird as it all sounds, it works for what it is. As for why it works, all praise be unto Carruth.
It’s because he tells this story with intention and care, letting his audience do the legwork rather than baby them along so that everything’s crystal. It makes all the difference, and with each seamlessly-constructed scene that drives the plot forward, he provides us with just enough info so that we know what’s going on. It’s just enough so that if you’re not paying attention, it won’t be long before you’re hopelessly lost, and even if you are paying attention, you’ll only be able to fool yourself into thinking you get it. Oh yes, it leaves much to interpretation, but it’s all so unusual and it leads us on so well that it’s straight-up hypnotic in turn. It’s less like watching a movie than it is an abstract painting in motion.
What can I say, as nice as it is to just look at and absorb, it’s even nicer to be treated like I’ve got a goddamn brain. If this is the payoff, I’ll take the head trip every time.
From the outset alone, there’s a whole lot to account for. But as for what it’s really about, what it all really means, your guess is as good as mine. As you can imagine, it makes for one hell of a talking point and it’s the kind of thing that folks will likely be talking about until Carruth follows it up in the year 2023. Unfortunately, the catch is that as much as I could throw back a couple beers and talk about this sucker ’til I’m slurring, I imagine that’s its a pretty hard sell for those who aren’t intrigued.
As it likely goes without saying by now, if you’re looking for a straightforward moviegoing experience driven by true-to-life conflicts and relatable resolutions, steer the hell clear from Upstream Color. The only movie I can imagine comparing this to is Eraserhead, and that might be a crap comparison considering that I’ve never even seen it. I wasn’t expecting to make two David Lynch comparisons in two consecutive reviews, but yeah, this has got some Lynch in it. At any rate, it’s an iffy movie to recommend if only because it’s so contrary to what we’re used to getting from this industry. But by the same token, that’s a big reason why I’m so taken with it.
Maybe it has to do with Steven Soderbergh name-calling Shane Carruth in his glorious tirade on the “State of Cinema,” but it seems that we need Upstream Color now more than ever. Because for everything that I love about movies, the way movies are approached is terribly formulaic and it’s a formula that is rarely strayed from. It’s gotten to the point where originality and talent have fallen to the wayside so that we can remake more stuff that doesn’t warrant a remake, and I think we can all agree that that’s just bad business. Not to say that it’s a bad formula as it’s proven to work like gangbusters over the years, and though I’m aware that movies are indeed a business, it is first and foremost art. If anything, Upstream Color is a damn good reminder of that.
I don’t know, I just never understood why that formula became “the norm” and why there aren’t more film makers out there trying to go against the grain. That’s why I’m still defending The Tree of Life and those goddamn dinosaurs, and that’s why Upstream Color does warrant a recommendation: because it’s bold, it’s unfamiliar and it doesn’t compromise on its vision.
I don’t expect everyone to dig this one as much as I did, and that’s perfectly understandable, perfectly okay. It ain’t the most accessible movie of the year and it’s a short list of friends that I would have invited to see it with me. The relationship between these two characters could have used some work, too. At least give us some smiles, guys.
Then again, that’s not really the kind of movie this is. In immediate hindsight, that’s actually a petty-ass non-complaint to even bring up in light of everything else that succeeds here. For me, the lasting impression was more one of appreciation and admiration than escapism or enjoyment, and holy hell, is there no shortage of things to appreciate and admire. So as I stand here on my soapbox, raging against the status quo, still wondering what it all means, one can’t help but be hopeful about the State of Cinema when there’s artists and originals like Carruth to shake things up.
It’s definitely not the movie that I was expecting it to be, but hey, conformity’s for suckers anyway.
Well hello there, boys and girls! Apologies once again for the delay on this sucker, but rest assured, we are still very much alive. This week on Best Movie Ever, we’re talking about the perks of upgrading to Bluray and the ringing in Evil Dead with The Best Most Disgusting Scenes Ever. It’s lots of fun for the whole family to enjoy, so strap grandma to the roof and click on that banner already!
For chrissakes, bring the Zoloft.
The Place Beyond the Pines is about a traveling stuntman who winds up back in Schenectady, NY after being on the road for a year. He runs in to a girl that he hooked up with the year prior, and much to his surprise, discovers that he done got her pregnant. So he quits his death-defying job at the carnival and tries his damnedest to be present in his son’s life, or at the very least financially provide for him. But since biking with carnies doesn’t look great on a resume, it isn’t long before he starts robbing banks let and right. Next thing he knows, a heist goes awry and he crosses paths with a local cop who has an infant son of his own. From that point forward, their lives – and the lives of their children – become unalterably intertwined.
Before I went to see this, just about everyone I know who beat me to the punch had told me how disappointed they were. From what they’d been led to believe, they were gearing themselves up for a cops-and-robbers picture starring three of planet Earth’s most ridiculously attractive people. And when you consider that it’s being marketed as that very same movie, I really can’t blame them for getting their hopes up.
Because while banks do get robbed and Cooper chases Gosling, the only real truth to the situation is that everyone is ridiculously attractive (and even that one’s a stretch at times). So if you’re expecting to have your adrenaline pumped, then you’re setting yourself up for a letdown. But if it’s a generational drama about fathers and sons that you’re after, well today’s your lucky day. Really helps to know this stuff ahead of time, and now that we’re all on the same page, the million dollar question is how it fares as is.
As for the answer, well I guess I’m still working on it.
To give you a better idea of what we’re dealing with here, this script is structured in a way that makes it feel more like three movies than one. The first Act revolves around Gosling’s character, the second Act revolves around Cooper’s character and the final Act revolves around their sons. It’s highly unusual and I can imagine it won’t gel with certain folks (especially those who aren’t expecting it), but it actually works a whole lot better than I figured it would.
After all, given the attention-grabbing nature of stick-ups and all, it was almost disappointing to see the focus shift over from Gosling’s story to Cooper’s. By the time it happens, we’re already invested in Gosling’s character and we’re used to having him in the spotlight. Although if Hitchcock could pull it off, so can Derek Cianfrance. And while the shift is awfully sudden, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Cooper’s storyline was just as compelling as his co-star’s.
Alas, it’s hard to go into details about either of these storylines without giving something away, but the connecting thread between these two fathers is their habit of doing “bad” things for the “right” reasons. And as it interesting as it all was in the moment, it wasn’t until after that I really started to appreciate it.
As is usually the case with characters like, oh, I don’t know, Walter White, much of the appeal is generated by the moral ambiguity surrounding them. Folks tend to form their own opinions about characters like these, and even if they do, oh, I don’t know, cook meth, it can be hard not to sympathize with them (or even like them) at times. But, again, for reason I can’t get into, I felt like these two were pretty cut-and-dry judging by how they acted and reacted to everything that came their way. For me, the wrongs that they committed were grounded in such a grey area that their good intentions and the steps they take to make things “right” were enough to make me overlook most of their flaws. Unfortunately, it’s also a viewpoint that ended up muddling things for me towards the end.
Anyhow, that was the long and short of it, so when I finally made my way out of the theater and with the assumption that we were on the same page and all, I asked my wife what she thought about these two fellas. But wouldn’t you know, she had a totally different opinion on the matter. Alright, maybe it wasn’t totally different, but it varied enough to make me reassess some of the heavier stuff Derek Cianfrance puts them through.
So in the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, it wasn’t until my wife chimed in that I realized how open to interpretation this movie is. Not only did it serve as one of my more eye-opening cinematic discussion points in recent memory, but I haven’t been able to get it off my mind since. It’s an uncommon strength that can be hard to do well, one that actually reminded me of Do the Right Thing. Furthermore, I can’t imagine I’m the only one out there that’s been mulling this over at length either. So yeah, it’s definitely got that going for it.
As a character study of sorts, it left me with no shortage of things to work out. And from its beautiful, eerie score to the way it quietly fades from one scene to the next, there was a lot about this movie that also reminded me of David Lynch. Throw that open-ended nature into the mix and you’ve got a style that really works, especially with everything taking place in the underbelly of an idyllic American town, the kind of place you’d expect Frank Booth to crawl out of. Oh yes, everything was going swell alright, right up until that damn final Act.
Now whether it’s turning to a life of crime or turning on your fellow officers, Gosling and Cooper are all about making drastic decisions in the first two Acts of this movie. As suspect as their decisions may be, they’re easy enough to justify since Gosling and Cooper have their backs against the wall when they make them. But when their sons take over in the last half-hour, the decision-making process changes from one of parental desperation to adolescent peer pressure. Just like their dads, these kids take some pretty drastic measures, but unlike their dads, the justification isn’t there thanks to the paper-thin motive that is peer pressure. As a result, it often feels more like drama for the sake of drama.
From one measure to the next, my wife and I found ourselves exchanging glances of frustration, shaking our damn heads in silent agreement. “What the fuck are they doing?,” we thought to ourselves, hoping for some kind of reprieve from the soul-crusher we’d entered into. And after a good two hours of smooth sailing, I can still only wonder as to why things took such a turn for the over-dramatic?
Speaking of over-dramatic, allow me to introduce you to Bradley Cooper’s son, A.J. He’s the one on the left in that picture down below, and rest assured, he is a douchebag. Not to say that douchebags make for bad characters, but in light of how believable and engaging every other character is, his entire being borders on intolerability in turn. At the risk of poking a beehive, he reminded me an awful lot of Telly from Kids, hands-down one of the most loathsome characters I’ve ever come across in a movie. It’s not that characters like Telly and A.J. are unrealistic or don’t have real-life counterparts who are just as ingratiating as they are, it’s that they come off more like caricatures than actual people. And if you’re trying to tell a real story about real people, caricatures are just no bueno. Really not sure why he was written that way.
But like I said, every other character and the individuals who play them are top notch. This might be the best performance of Bradley Cooper’s career, it’s business as usual for the great Ryan Gosling, and Dane DeHaan continues to be one to look out for. And as much as I like him, I can’t help but feel bad for Ben Mendelsohn. How many times is this poor guy gonna get typecast as the token slimeball? Starting to worry that he’s just stopped bathing at this point. Of all the roles to get pigeonholed into…
With all that being said, I realize that the Verdict up there might not be lining up with all the positive things I’ve had to say about The Place Beyond the Pines. And while there’s certainly a lot to appreciate, the one thing that’s stuck with me most is what an overly-punishing movie this was to sit through. I think the last time I’ve watched so many people make so many poor life choices like this was with the world’s worst brothers in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. As much as I liked that movie, it’s not one I plan on seeing twice. And like Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, I don’t know if The Place Beyond the Pines’ achievements are enough to outweigh its increasingly depressing qualities.
When I think back to what a buzzkill Blue Valentine was, maybe it’s my own fault for not mentally and emotionally prepping myself for Cianfrance’s sophomore effort. Then again, that last half-hour got way out of hand, and as the end closes in, you’ll be bracing yourself for the absolute worst. Still, I liked The Place Beyond the Pines and it’s a movie that I think will grow on me throughout the year. But at the end of the day, is a little bit of levity really so much to ask for?
Thank god I married a hugger.
Glad to have you back, Tony.
Iron Man 3 picks up with our genius/billionaire/playboy/philanthropist struggling to keep it together after his near-death experience in The Big Apple. He’s staying up for days, he’s having panic attacks in public, and he’s too damn busy with his suit collection to give Pepper the time of day. Folks, it ain’t good. On top of all that, an international terrorist who calls himself The Mandarin has been wreaking havoc in the US because the President’s a jerk or something. Next thing you know, Tony’s calling the dude out after his best bud almost gets vaporized, and things just go south from there. So after learning the hard way why don’t give your address to terrorists and with everything in his life hanging in the balance, Tony starts to rebuild.
Now that we’ve had some time to properly reflect on the matter, I think we can all agree that the last time we caught up with Tony in Iron Man 2, the overall experience left something to be desired. Don’t get me wrong, Iron Man was no easy act to follow, but following it up with one big teaser for The Avengers was not what the doctor ordered. It was a letdown alright, but in the spirit of letting bygones be bygones, here we are with our very first entry in a post-Avengers universe. And given the way that one went, one couldn’t help but be hopeful about this.
The first upside to life after The Avengers is that we’re finally done with all those goddamn Easter Eggs. No more nerds twerking in the aisles over Mjolnir showing up, no more waiting for the credits to end just to have Sam Jackson pay us another visit. I can’t speak for the masses on this one, but all that hooey was never much of a draw to begin with, and with each year we got closer to assembling these fools, it was becoming more about fan service than telling good stories. But that’s all over now. Now we can rest easy until The Avengers 2.
As for the current state of the Marvel movie universe, we’re left with the lingering effects of those Chitauri jerks as evidenced in the form of witty asides and Tony coming to grips with his own mortality after, you know, setting off a nuke in space. Oh yes, it’s a big ol’ upgrade from the way it once was, even if it doesn’t add all that much to the story here.
On that note, am I the only one who thought that Tony didn’t seem phased by almost dying and whatnot? For chrissakes, the dude was housing shawarma not ten minutes later. Well apparently it was a way bigger deal than he was making it out to be because it’s now the driving force behind his fragile state and is a big factor in why he throws down with The Mandarin. And I get it, now that he’s got Pepper he’s got more than just himself to worry about, but it still seems kinda weak as far as character development goes, especially considering the long list of inner demons that Tony’s had to fight in the comics. Not to mention the handful of times we’ve almost seen him die.
So Tony’s anxiety certainly isn’t the best thing this story has going for it, but that’s okay, because this here is a Shane Black picture. Shane Black knows what he’s doing, and if that name ain’t ringing any bells, it’s high time you did your homework.
For all you out there who have yet to see Iron Man 3, do yourself a favor and go watch Kiss Kiss Bang Bang first. It’s a great little number by Shane Black (our writer/director of the hour) and it’ll only make you appreciate what he does here that much more. Before the credits even start, you’ll know this is one of his movies just from the sound of Downey’s rambling voice-over. Being familiar, being a fan and knowing full well that no one reads a Shane Black script quite like Robert Downey Jr., it was an awesome way to start things off. But alas, the excitement is short-lived.
See, the thing about the first Act of Iron Man 3 is that it feels a lot like the entirety of Iron Man 2. From side characters to side plots, mental states to past encounters, the first Act is juggling a bunch of things at once and doing its best to establish them all within a 30-minute span. Here’s what Tony’s new suits can do, here’s the people you’ll want to remember for later, yada yada yada. It comes with the territory on occasions like these and Joss Whedon proved that it could most definitely be done. But since it doesn’t give itself any time to breathe or play to Black’s strengths as a writer, it just feels rushed as a result. At least it affords a couple moments for Downey and Jon Favreau to chew the scenery, but these are also the best scenes by a mile and they just made me wish there was more to go around.
Given how attention-grabbing that opening monologue is, it’s too bad that the first Act rings more like Shane Black writing a Marvel movie instead of a Shane Black writing a Shane Black movie…that just happens to star Iron Man. The end result bordered on vapid and it was concerning enough to have me bracing for what followed. But, boy howdy, did things start righting themselves once that first half-hour wrapped up.
From that point forward, it goes right back to being a Shane Black movie, one that only gets better by the minute. The dialogue gets funnier to the point where I was laughing out loud from one-liner to one-liner, the plot goes in some wonderfully unexpected directions that would make Chris Nolan nod in approval and now I’m still wondering whether it’s better than Iron Man? As much as I dig that movie and everything it did right as a blueprint of sorts for this genre, there’s really something unique about the chances this one takes.
At the end of the day, it’s just a winning combination of writing, casting and directing that couldn’t be better suited for a franchise like this. Shane Black can write some snappy dialogue; no one can deliver it quite like Downey. Downey’s playing Tony Stark; Tony Stark is all about the snappy dialogue. Need someone to play the best villain in the series? Good call getting Ben Kingsley to steal the freaking show. Want to riddle your movie with some of the most creative and exciting action scenes in recent memory, scenes that at times rival those in The Avengers? Double good call giving the reigns to the creative genius behind Lethal Weapon and The Long Kiss Goodnight. Just some good calls all around, really.
Yeah, it takes a little while to get there, but once the juices start flowing, this sucker’s firing on all cylinders. And with the exception of that first Act that’s easy enough to overlook when all is said and done, I can’t think of a damn thing worth complaining about. Maybe it doesn’t do character development as well as Joss Whedon did and I guess I can understand how some purists out there might be tiffed about some of the liberties it takes. But as someone who knows next to nothing about the source material, I really wish more movies of this sort would take liberties like these. This was a pleasant surprise, and even if I had been into the comics, I’d be surprised if I thought otherwise.
Not only that, but coming off the heels of a disappointing sequel and existing in the wake of Marvel’s magnum opus, Iron Man 3 had more reasons to fail than succeed. Yet succeed it did with flying colors. Kids, what can I say other than that it’s a total blast, it’s a bonafide crowd-pleaser and it’s a pretty swell way to kick off the summer. I wouldn’t call it “deep” by any means, but hey, that’s what Man of Steel is for.
The point is, a mighty good time was had by all and that’s more than enough to earn this baby an 8.
Shane Black and Ben Kingsley, man. Truly a thing of beauty.
And the love continues to grow…
Mud is about a country boy who lives down on the river with his ma’ and pa’, not over in the city with those damn townies. His parents’ marriage is on the rocks, girls are a downright conundrum, and when he’s not helping his old man sell fish, he’s hanging out with his best friend, Neckbone. One day, the boy and his friend go exploring down the river in their dinghy. They come upon a deserted island and discover a motorboat that got lodged up in a tree during a flood. Much to their surprise, they meet the mysterious drifter who’s been living in that there boat: a smooth-talking fella’ who calls himself Mud. Rather than tell his folks or the authorities about his chance encounter, the boy decides to help Mud get off that island and reunite with the love of his life. But thanks to a whole bunch of bad dudes who are looking to looking to kill Mud, the boy winds up putting his neck on the line in the process.
Now that I think about it, it’s actually not too far off from Huck Finn in a lot of ways. And given that this is a Jeff Nichols feature, that isn’t all that surprising.
If the name isn’t ringing any bells, then prepare yourself for one doozie of a statement, because with only three movies to his name, Jeff Nichols might be the best American director out there today. I don’t expect everyone to start nodding their heads in unison on that one, but in my humblest of opinions, the writing’s on the wall.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s no shortage of American-born film makers who’ve been doing their thing and doing it well long before Nichols entered onto the scene six years ago. But the thing that sets him apart from the bunch isn’t that he’s from Little Rock or that he just happens to make great movies, it’s that no one is telling American stories like his, stories born out of the DNA of our culture.
First, there was Shotgun Stories, a Southern-fried family drama about violence begetting violence from one generation to the next. Then there was Take Shelter, an extraordinarily subtle character study of a good man struggling to do what’s right for his family at the risk of his own well-being and reputation. With Mud, we’ve got ourselves a good old-fashioned coming-of-ager about the innocence of youth and the high cost of trusting others. Like I said, might as well come with apple pie on the side.
In this regard, it’s easy to see Mud as a natural progression of sorts, and it’s interesting because when I first saw the trailer for this movie I figured I had a good idea of what to expect. And while much of it is indeed driven by our boy Ellis helping our guy Mud and Mud’s true colors coming to light, it actually ends up being more about Ellis getting a hard-learned lesson on love.
I don’t know if that’s gonna come as disappointing to some, but it shouldn’t. Maybe it’s because, like Ellis, my parents also split up when I was younger and largely affected my worldview on love and relationships in turn. I totally got the way he acts around his folks, the conclusions he jumps to in his own love life and his instant attraction to Mud, the spiritual Sigfried that he is. Granted, I probably would have loved this kid if he’d been raised by the Brady Bunch, but given his circumstances and how he gives himself so honestly to those around him, it only made me care for him that much more. You root for the kid, you want to see his worldview realized and the same goes for all the people he depends on.
With that being said, it’s no stretch of the imagination to guess that not everyone in Ellis’ life lives up to the pedestal he puts them on. And for all the times that Nichols veers his characters away from trite behaviors and predictable circumstances, there are still a few occasions where the expected comes to fruition. On any other day, this could make for some awfully sappy moments that feel less like life and more like…something else. But not here, because on most other days we don’t get characters like these: recognizable people that aren’t prone to disappointment.
And that’s one of the other big reasons I’m so fond of Jeff Nichols: the way he keeps inadvertently highlighting the things that drive me nuts about a lot of other movies. More specifically, the overwhelming amount of characters who inevitably disappoint for the sake of creating drama and the ungodly amount of characters who talk for the sake of talking. And that’s the thing about Nichols’ characters: when they have something to say, they say it, and when they don’t, they don’t. A little goes a long way in this regard and it’s a rule of thumb that I’ve tried to emulate in my own life. Since they speak when they have something to say, the words that come out have actual thought and substance to them. Their frustrations are felt as vividly as their appreciations, and the end result makes something simple feel special.
Not to mention that it makes you so much more invested in a character and what they’re going through when their words have actual value. Folks, it’s a textbook example of actions speaking louder than words and the world would be better off if more writers got the memo.
At any rate, whether it’s the dialogue, the plot or the air of mystery that’ll keep you wondering right through to the finish, it’s just a fantastic script in general that plays into Nichols’ established strengths. Plus, it also happens to provide every member of his cast with some fantastic material to work with.
This really is one of those rare instances where it’s hard to single out just one performance because everyone’s operating at such an equally high level, and as far as problems go, that’s not a bad one to have. Matthew McConaughey gives one of the best performances of his recent “McConaissance” (really wish I could take credit for that one); despite being just his second feature film, it goes without saying I was quite the fan of Tye Sheridan as Ellis; and as far as big-screen debuts go, most kids would kill for a performance like the one Jacob Lofland gives as Neckbone (talk about some great names, huh?). Then there’s the absolutely hilarious turn from Michael Shannon as Neckbone’s uncle (yes, that Michael Shannon); Ray McKinnon couldn’t be more convincing as Ellis’ old man; and what’s not to love about Sam Shepard? Let me tell ya’, folks, this one’s a keeper.
And bonus points to Nichols for putting one hell of an unexpected action scene together. Didn’t know the guy had it in him.
So this is the first 9 I’ve given all year, and while I’m sure there’s more to come, I’d be surprised if too many others end up leaving such an impression. On its own, Mud is one of the finer, more genuinely affecting coming-of-agers I’ve seen in recent memory. It’s refreshingly simple and it earns each of its praises in ways that I wish were more commonplace. Not only that, but it earns them across board. What can I say, I’m just a sucker for real movies about real people.
As the third effort from Jeff Nichols, it only furthers my admiration for the guy and bolsters my lofty hopes that, in due time, his contributions will be treated with the same kind of national reverence as those of F. Scott FItzgerald or the Coen brothers. Again, I may very well be in the minority on this one, but if all this acclaim is coming as news, Mud ain’t a bad place to start drinking the Kool-Aid.
After all, what’s more American than Mark Twain?