Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Man on Film: Mud

With Jeff Nichols latest film, Mud, one thing is clear: Nichols is a cinematic force to be reckoned with. Hot on the heels of the spectacular schizophrenia mindfuck Take Shelter, Mud is a contemplative coming-of-age story juxtaposed against a powder keg of a love story set in the last vestige of a dying way of Southern life on the river.

Owing much to Mark Twain, Mud follows Ellis (played by the luckiest kid in the world, Tye Sheridan, as his other film credit was The Tree of Life) and his friend Neckbone (first-timer Jacob Lofland) as they come across a boat left in a tree after a flood. Wanting the boat for themselves, they find that a mysterious stranger has taken it for his home. That stranger is Mud, played by the down-home charisma bomb Matthew McConaughey, who is in the midst of an artistic hot streak few actors experience. Nichols uses this classic set-up to allow his contemporized Tom Sawyer to explore the notion of love, using the idealized vision of love that Mud and Juniper's (Reese Witherspoon) story presents to contrast the crumbling relationship of his parents (brought to life by Sarah Paulson and the inimitable Ray McKinnon). As Ellis and Neckbone take to Mud's cause, Ellis is emboldened to venture into the romantic fray.

That film in and of itself could be poignant, but where Nichols's film sets itself apart is in the way that reality crashes the party with pangs of truth and flashes of violence. By setting Mud in a poorer Southern river town--it was filmed and obviously set in southeastern Arkansas--the world in which Ellis lives is a poor one. His parents scrape by living a way of life that society is quite forcibly leaving behind. This socioeconomic backdrop adds a level of import to the proceedings, of the inevitability of external pressures forcing the individual down a set path, or amplified consequence to one's actions. More importantly, though, Nichols's keen eye and unique voice when trained upon this world renders a vivid and compelling picture. He is able to breathe such life into these characters, and he wisely colors the periphery with brilliant but small performances from the likes of Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Joe Don Baker, and Paul Sparks. His masterful dance between Ellis's world and his own escape to the island and the lyricism inherent in his direction is positively captivating, conjuring memories of the early films of Terrence Malick and David Gordon Green (who along with Nichols was a product of the film program at the North Carolina School for the Arts), but with a propulsive narrative presentation largely absent from either of those directors' works earlier, not dissimilar works. As he reintroduces the outside world into Ellis's walking fantasy bit by bit, the audience is reminded along with Ellis that true escape is much more difficult than one could possibly hope for, that life will intervene and the hoped-for happy ending may not come.

Having now directed two straight films which insert themselves almost instantly into the shortlist of contemporary films not soon to be forgotten, Jeff Nichols has emphatically inserted himself into the conversation of most exciting directors of the next generation with the brilliant Mud heading the very short list of best films of this early year.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Man on Film: Trance

As directors go, there are few whose work I've been as diligent about seeing theatrically as Danny Boyle. There have only been two Boyle films that I didn't see in the theater, Shallow Grave (which came out when I was 15 and most assuredly never played in La Crosse, WI) and Millions (which I never saw). With the exception of Millions (which I can't speak to), Trance is the least impressive Boyle release since The Beach. Part of that is owing to the fact that Sunshine, 28 Days Later, 127 Hours, and Slumdog Millionaire are the films that have come since The Beach, but when you are dealing with a director whose curriculum vitae is as visceral and impressive as Boyle's, it is hard to divorce expectations from the film-going experience.

Despite a promising premise and the attempt to craft a labyrinthine psychologically-complex narrative, Trance sputters through its 101 minutes of running time, never managing to get its cylinders running with a synchronicity that one would expect from such an accomplished auteur. Working from a Joe Ahearne script originally contrived around the time that Shallow Grave came out and then doctored by frequent Boyle collaborator John Hodge--the scribe responsible for writing and/or adapting Boyle's first four films--Trance starts us off with a first-person narrative presented by Simon (James McAvoy). Boyle, Ahearne, and Hodge use this construct to their advantage in framing Simon as the sympathetic protagonist from the film's onset. If there is one element of the film that works especially well (other than Rosario Dawson laying herself quite bare, which no red-blooded male or a not insignificant chunk of the female movie-going population is going to mind one bit), it is the manipulation of the audience's expectations by way of this narrative presentation. As the amnesiac Simon tries to piece together a history of events, motivations, and relationships, the audience is brought in tow, both narratively and emotionally.

Unfortunately, the vim and vigor usually present in a Danny Boyle joint are only occasionally present. The clever narrative manipulation fails to compensate for the unusually and uncharacteristically plodding plot line. The concern the audience is to feel for Simon's well-being at the hands of the crime boss Franck (Vincent Cassel) never becomes palpable because Franck and crew are never quite menacing enough to actually be scary. With whom the blame for that should lie is up for debate, but regardless this is a problem. We certainly understand that Simon's life depends on his remembering what happened to the painting at the center of the story, but the tension, the threat against Simon never reaches the level that a sense of dread strikes the audience. The ensuing deconstruction that occurs is then left not quite as clever as it could be as the foundation it tears down was of flimsy consistency to begin with.

While Trance is far from a great film and feels significantly longer than its 1:41 run-time, it is not so bad as to warrant its complete avoidance. Much is required of McAvoy, and for the most part he imbues the role with deftness required to sell Simon to the audience. Cassel is serviceable, even if each has moments where he feels a bit out of place in the film. Dawson uses her femininity and sexuality spectacularly well, running the gamut from sultry to vulnerable to manipulative to authoritarian with ease. There are moments where there are slight hiccups, and Dawson feels a bit out of place--either in the role or in the film--but those are forgivable blips for the most part. Ultimately, it feels as though the film was simply lacking in the requisite uniformity of approach to set this apart from Boyle's more forgettable and flawed films like The Beach or A Life Less Ordinary.

(Red Band Trailer - Not Safe for Work, but fuck you if that matters.)

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Man on Film: Pain & Gain

So far this year, I've seen films directed by Terrence Malick, Danny Boyle, Harmony Korine, and Derek Cianfrance this year, but the best movie I've seen so far was directed by Michael Bay. I know, I can't fucking believe it either, but Pain & Gain was better than all of those films. Perhaps this says something about me, as Pain & Gain revels in the idiocy of these wannabe criminals like a twisted Elmore Leonard novel in which the bad guys are the center of the tale and you want them to succeed, but it was a dark, crime-driven action comedy, and while Bay's skills are typically a bad fit once he is thrust into the science fiction genre (or whatever the fuck you call those Transformers abominations), the Bad Boys flicks were a rollicking good time.

Where Pain & Gain is most successful is in its optimization of its stars' strengths. Pain & Gain is an optimal vehicle for both Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson.

In Daniel Lugo, Mark Wahlberg has role that allows for his gifts to shine. If there is one thing that Wahlberg does like nobody else, it is playing a slightly dimmer character who thinks he's more intelligent than he actually is. His treatise on the patriotism of fitness and the American Dream is brilliant on its own, but with Wahlberg delivering the speech via voice-over, it is fucking sublime. As he extols the virtues of maintaining physical fitness, he's delivering a laugh every five seconds. His steadfast belief in self-improvement being the key to realizing the American Dream is funny, but the amorality in his approach and the inherent contradiction in his willing to screw someone else over to better himself is priceless.

Perhaps most importantly, Dwayne Johnson gets to stretch out as Paul Doyle. In nearly every film Dwayne Johnson has been cast in, he is underutilized. Pain & Gain is far and away his best performance. His performance is rich with a comic naïveté colored by his religious belief. He is easily influenced by others who exploit his malleability. He is also enormous, and unlike in most other films, Johnson's physicality is used to the benefit of the film.

That's not to say the rest of the film is without strong performances, too. Anthony Mackie and Rebel Wilson are both good, as is Ed Harris. Tony Shalhoub gets his best chance to shine since The Man Who Wasn't There.

Of course, none of this would have been possible without a biting screenplay, which the team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely deliver with a surprisingly deft hold on the darkness given that their previous efforts were the Chronicles of Narnia series, You Kill Me (which could theoretically have worked in that realm, but I've never heard of the film), The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, and Captain America. Pain & Gain is consistently hilarious and deliriously twisted, with much of that owing to the screenplay.

This undersells what Michael Bay does. His skillset isn't the most flexible. It only works in a very specific setting. Pain & Gain is that setting. While his direction may in fact be the byproduct of years of untreated ADHD, this film feels like Miami at its trashiest, which seems to have been the intent. I really never thought I'd say this, but I loved a Michael Bay film. Bravo, sir. Bravo.

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