Saturday, May 18, 2013
The last time I spent time around the backwaters of the Mississippi River, in a Southern Fried cultural slice of life picture, I suffered through the headache inducing "Beasts of the Southern Wild". So it was with some trepidation that I approached this movie. Much of it seems centered around a backwoods river culture that is not really that appealing as a setting to me. I respect traditions and the hard work that it can take for a person to make it under those conditions, but it also seems to breed, at least in movies, a suspicion of outsiders and a tendency to be insulated. Fortunately, this film while having many of the characteristics I was worried about, also has some very sympathetic characters and the traditions seem to be respected for the values they impart, not just for the differences they evoke.
This is a coming of age story that centers around the relationship of two fairly normal, rural river kids and a mysterious stranger. The man enters their lives, seeps into their consciousness, and drives their ultimate development, and maybe not always in the right ways. Matthew McConaughey plays the dangerous refugee named Mud. The character turns out to be just as familiar with the ways and people of the small town and surrounding areas as the two boys are. It turns out that while he is a stranger to them, he is not a stranger to their world. McConaughey gives a fantastic performance. His body language suggests confidence and superiority. At one point another character points out to the boys that they probably see him as a badass. While most of his physical demeanor might suggest that, his voice sometimes gives way to a sadness that allows us to see through the cracks. He is not always as certain of himself as he seems to suggest. His honey coated voice and corn pone manner of speaking are a disguise. One that is meant to convey power but often comes across like a kid embellishing the truth to make himself look a little better. McConaughey has always been trapped by his accent in his other roles. That may have masked the fact that his is a very competent actor. Here the accent fits the location and the character to a tee, and we get to focus on his performing gifts in an appropriate context. He runs with this part and makes Mud a compelling character that is maybe dangerously psychotic or achingly unfulfilled and yearning. Right now there are two names I am thinking about for Awards Season next winter, along with Harrison Ford in 42, McConaughey's name will probably be whispered by some and shouted by others.
The two kids are played by young men who are both perfectly cast and, at least at this point, show promise of a whole bunch of talent. Tye Sheridan has some acting experience, at least if you would call appearing in "The Tree of Life" acting. I don't remember enough about him from that film, I do know he was not the main actor playing Sean Penn as a kid. In this movie he has a perfect mixture of guts, naivete, and sweetness to make him believable. The scenes where he woes an older girl with some success and failure are very honest and easy to identify with. His motivations are pure, even if his actions are not always well thought out. When his character Ellis, interacts with his parents it is with the awkward love that a young teen would have, complicated by the uncertainty that his family situation presents. We can understand completely why he would believe the things Mud tells him, and dream of making life's wishes come true. His buddy Neckbone, is played by newcomer Jacob Lofland, and he is just a natural in the role. There may not be much technique in his acting because he basically plays a smart kid in a tough situation, who is making the best of it that he can. He plays the best friend like a real friend would act, and maybe that is the secret to casting child actors. Find a kid who really is the character they are playing.
Everyone else in the movie gets some moments to shine as well. Michael Shannon has some great comic moments but also infuses the situation with a serious tone when he speaks to Ellis as the protective Uncle of his best friend. There may not be much subtlety to the metaphor that he presents to Ellis, but it sounds sincere and properly concerned. Ellis' parents are both solid characters, living out an unpleasant reality while trying to keep their son on the straight and narrow path. Although they seem to approach the process in completely different directions, they are each trying to achieve the same goal. There are three other characters that figure prominently in the story. Sam Shepard gets a chance to shine as a neighbor who may know more about the events going on than anyone else. He looks much older in this part but his distinctive, flat voice carries the same authority it did in "The Right Stuff" thirty years ago. Joe Don Baker has made a living out of playing menacing big guys for nearly forty years. From good guys like the sheriff Buford Pusser in the original "Walking Tall" to the mob hit man tracking down "Charlie Varrick", he has always been effective. When he shows up, you know that trouble has come to town. He doesn't have much screen time but he makes the most of it. Also without a lot of screen time but showing herself to be the quality actress she is supposed to be is Reese Witherspoon. She is the trigger point for much of what happens on the screen, and she conveys the dangerously indifferent lover as world-weary and soft hearted at the same time. The echo of her behavior in Ellis' life is again a little obvious, but it needs to be for him to learn from the events that unfold.
The less said about the story the better. Not because it is bad but because it works so well and it will be more enjoyable if you experience it as it is revealed. There are some surprises but mostly we get an honest outcome of the dangerous relationship these boys have with the title character. Sure there are a couple of lucky coincidences, that is true in all stories. We see people living lives that seem so obviously wrong headed at times, but they just are these people's lives and so it is normal for folks to miss the big picture at times. There is a morality in all of the lead characters that seems to come into conflict, so that it is not easy to say who is acting in the best way. We can clearly see however, that we want things to work out a certain way. That some of them do and some of them don't is life. I am willing to say that at this moment, this is the best picture I have seen that has been released this year. It isn't going to break the Memorial Day Box Office Record, it won't win a dozen awards at the end of the year, but it will satisfy you as you watch it. You will thank me if you take my advise and go see this movie. If you were going to see it anyway, you may not thank me, but I bet you will agree with me.
Thursday, May 16, 2013
If anything in the following commentary makes any sense it will be something of a miracle. I'm writing this after seeing the film at an 11 pm screening, I did not get to bed until 2 am, and I woke up at my usual start time, 5:15 am. Basically, I'm cruising on left over adrenaline from the film, and that is a pretty good thing because the movie did get the juices going. The fuzziness will melt away as the day goes on, or else there will be a lot of confused people for the next 12 hours. The easiest way to put this is that the movie is very entertaing, and there are enough plot spoilers that I will have to be careful what I discuss. I deeply loved and admired the J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek from 2009. In my opinion it was the best film of that year. "Star Trek Into Darkness" will probably not earn that moniker by the end of 2013, but it is a nearly great film, and so far the most entertaining film of the year.
The renewed crew of the Enterprise is sent on a secret mission to destroy a terrorist named John Harrison. The film begins with a completely unrelated action sequence, but it does set up some of the capabilities of the crew and reminds us of what an amazing ship the Enterprise is. There are two dramatic attacks by Harrison that set up the goal. In one of those attacks, Captain Kirk thwarts Harrison's objective and he develops a strong motivation to see the terrorist brought to justice. The original Star Trek was a show about ideas first and action was a sideline. The new films recognize that deep philosophical discussions by the principles are not going to bring in an audience every few years for a movie. So the ethical and moral stakes that are behind the actions are often hidden or hinted at. There is only one scene where there is an outright focus on those kinds of moral judgments, and when it happens, you will be proud of the stubbornness of a certain Scottish engineer. It turns out that if he did not choose the path he travels, the rest of the plot and the crew of the Enterprise would not be making it out of this film.
The relationship between Kirk and Spock is a more complex one in this new story dimension. Remember, this is a tentative friendship based on a limited amount of time. The jocular teasing that Shatner's Kirk gave to Spock is repeated here, but the bonds of the friendship have not been tested much. This movie, despite all the action, and the political intrigue, and the plot line featuring the villain, is really about the nature of Kirk and Spock's friendship. Each has expectations of the other and each is going to be disappointed early on in the story. Ultimately, the relationship is tested in a reversal of roles from the original Star Trek films plot lines. The way this is visualized and the touchstone nods to the original cast and past epic events is very well managed. Long time trekkers like me are going to laugh and cry over the spin that Abrams and the screen writing team have put together to entertain us. Those who are new to Trek may miss the echos from the other time line of stories, but they will still enjoy the resolution of those plot threads. And while all of that is happening, stuff crashes into the Earth, battles rage, fistfights against intimidating opponents and love stories, all wash over us. It takes a little while for the movie to get it's sea legs, but once the action moves to the Klingon home world of Kronos, the film hits it's stride and the dramatic events feel a lot more synchronized than they do in the first third of the film.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays the mysterious and extremely dangerous Harrison. This character turns out to be a lot more complex than we are originally lead to believe, although the fan community probably feels they have everything figured out ahead of time. When I was younger I sought out every piece of information I could find on upcoming films, I wanted to be an insider. These days I try to keep the spoiler information to a minimum, because I want the movie experience to be what seeing the film is all about. There will definitely be expectations about what takes place if too much is revealed about Cumberbatch's character. He has a passive but menacing face that suggests indifference to human concerns. His voice operates in a very controlled range but with enough inflection to convey ideas and feelings. At the end of the year, it is that voice that will largely determine how i feel about the second Hobbit film, because he is the voice of Smaug, the dragon. Peter Weller brings his talents to the film as well. He plays a politically astute Admiral in Star fleet, who sends Kirk on his mission, and he has an agenda as mystifying as Harrisons. The parallel universe in this Star Trek series means that characters from the other timeline will be a part of the story but that their paths may not always play out in the same ways. I was happy to see a new character introduced to this timeline, and she may be a key figure in future Star Trek stories.
Sunday, May 12, 2013
This is my favorite film of all time and I am planning a long post on it in the near future. I just wanted to say for the moment how wonderful it looked on the Big Screen at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. There were a couple of hundred people there to see a classic film in a classic setting. I am so spoiled, within eight days I got to see my two favorite films in their natural surroundings, a movie theater. This is Mother's Day and so we have been occupied with other events, but I have a thought that I want to share with any other bloggers out there who might be interested.
Tuesday marks the 75th Anniversary of this treasure from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I'd like to do a blog bomb on the film this month. If I could get a dozen bloggers willing to commit to a date sometime before June, I thought it might be fun for all of us to post on our sites the same day. I have a few loyal readers but not as many active blog writers as I might like to have for this project. If you could share this with anyone on your site who might be interested, I would appreciate it. I will make some requests at sites I frequent but maybe others of you could find someone that loves "The Adventures of Robin Hood" and would like to participate. Ask them to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org . When I have a dozen ready to launch, I'll set a date and we can all enjoy the results. I will be happy to post links to all blog posts submitted here on my site and I hope everyone else will do so as well.
I hope to hear from some of you soon. Thanks.
In the year of Our Lord 1191 when Richard, the Lion-Heart, set forth to drive the infidels from the Holy Land, he gave the Regency of his Kingdom to his trusted friend, Longchamps, instead of to his treacherous brother, Prince John.
Bitterly resentful, John hoped for some disaster to befall Richard so that he, with the help of the Norman barons, might seize the throne for himself. And then on a luckless day for the Saxons...
Saturday, May 11, 2013
This movie is going to drive two different groups of critics and bloggers wild. Half of them will be fighting the battle of Baz Luhrman, is his hyper-stylized approach romantic or headache inducing? The other half will be digging out the papers they wrote on the book in high school, anxious to defend or attack the source material depending of the reaction they had to a book most did not choose to read but were forced to read. Going in, I was not sure of which side on the first point I would take, but I was pretty confident that on the later, I knew where I stood. I read Gatsby twice, once in high school like everyone else and then once just after college. I remember it was one of the few books that I was required to read for an English class that I enjoyed and admired. I don't recall the paper that I inevitably wrote on it's themes and language but it was probably pretty average although enthusiastic. It has been more than thirty years since I read it the second time, but I did so because it was one of those books that haunts you and that seems relevant time after time.
My writing skills have probably atrophied since then, despite my work on this blog. Here I write for my pleasure and say what I want. I don't often go back and rethink my words, I let them spill out onto the internet and hope I am clear and don't embarrass myself too much. It is a terrible approach to developing as a writer, but it is liberating as a viewer of films. I often express my opinion as if I am having a lengthy monologue with a friend on the movie I just saw. Ideas sometimes come out in a jumble and words might get mangled as much as punctuation does in these posts. I mention all of this because I am going to approach this review the same way I do most movies, despite having thought about the source material in more depth. If you want a literary analysis there will be plenty out there to satisfy. This is a movie blog and Baz Luhrman is a visual artist. The story telling techniques he uses depend on performance and visual images. I thought it was interesting how much he resorted to the narration of Tobey Maguire's Nick to get a point of view across. This was especially true when he was showing those internal thoughts in pretty obvious ways on screen. It sometimes feels like overkill. While this may sound like a negative comment, in the end, it works quite well and this will be a definative version of the story on screen for a long time to come.
There is a framing device used in the film to justify Nick writing down all of his thoughts and impressions. This seems to me an invention of the director and screen writer. I have no recall of a sanitarium in the original book. This device almost directly copies the technique he used in "Moulin Rouge". In that film, a lead character is writing a play, here, our third lead is composing notes for therapy that apparently serve as the basis of a novel. Nick Carraway is going to morph into F. Scott Fitzgerald after his treatment. It works quite well in justifying Maguire's mono-tonal voice to fill in blank spots or highlight ideas that might not be clear. As I wrote earlier however, they use it several times when it is also unnecessary. Nick is much less a cypher of a character as a result, and the feelings he expresses near the end of the story are more meaningful because we hear that inner voice. For the first half an hour of the movie, it is vital to have that voice because the movie is frenetically out of control. The desire to show the jazz age is overwhelming, and the visual techniques to do so are also overwhelming. Characters come in and out quickly and plot points pop up so fast that without that voice it would be confusing and annoying. The whole tone of the movie changes quickly though with one great shot and piece of casting.
When Leonardo DiCaprio looks out at us as the visage of Jay Gatsby for the first time, it is a great example of a movie star moment. His smile and expression are inviting but seem to be contained. There is a mystery in his eyes that is haunting and a bit empty. He looked so much like Robert Redford in that one brief shot that for a moment, i was reminded of the 1974 film which was far less successful and not nearly as well acted. DiCaprio takes over the story, and in spite of the fact that he is something of a mystery, he becomes the most vivid character in the movie. That's a good thing given the title, we want our Gatsby to be great. For the rest of the film he gives a very solid performance. Sometimes he rests on his good looks and movie star charisma to carry a scene, but when you see his embarrassed behavior at tea at Nick's with Daisy, you will see a real actor doing the things we want them to do. He makes us feel the rush of love, the anxiousness of awkwardness and the blindness to his own situation that will ultimately be his downfall. Even though the visual pyrotechnics have settled down a bit, Luhrman turns a rainy afternoon tea into a vivid dream with some nightmare qualities that melt away as the sun comes out. It is the most lovey moment of the film, and the one place where we might hope for a happy outcome.
The story is not a happy one however, and the darker elements creep in during a number of sequences. The valley of ashes might as well be a cemetery for all the symbolism and imagery it lays out for us. Gatsby's parties take on an increasingly distracting tone with the intrusion of guests that don't fit with the image he wants to portray. Daisy's husband spouts off about racial superiority and the affair he is having seems more and more ridiculous as the story progresses. Personally, I love the deco motifs and the clothes of the era. The cars are beautiful as are the furniture. Everything in both the Buchanan and Gatsby mansions is over the top, Nick's rented cottage is the most pleasant set in the whole film but the speakeasies, hotel rooms and gas stations all seem vividly real. The cars never move in a real way however. The director makes them as speedy and quick as a cartoon can get. In fact the movie this film most reminded me of visually was "Speed Racer". It is so packed with visual extravagance that you may not notice the shallowness of some of the characters. Early on we can see what a delight daisy must have been to the younger Jay Gatsby, but here tentative embrace of his renewed affections is masked by the opulence of the surroundings. Gatsby is blinded by the world he lives in and it is easy to see why as we explore his house, and his closet. Hell, we can almost believe Tom when he proclaims his love for Daisy over all the other dalliances he has had, because the wind in the curtains or the rain on the clothes or the modified visual movements of the cars and characters distract us from the emptiness and meanness that is there. Gatsby's pink suit goes from being a splendid reminder of the pure heart but flawed man that he is, to the source of a valid criticism by an unworthy competitor.
The final act brings all the visual techniques together with the plot to make the resolution seem so appropriate. There is a horrifying car accident, a flash of yellow or blue automobile, and multiple shots of pearls being scattered on beautiful wooden floors or dusty soiled furniture. The three way phone shot right before the violent aftermath of the hectic preceding night, is a mastery of visual misdirection that tells us that Gatsby's only friend is not the one he most longed for. Everyone in the movie is cast extremely well. I know I made fun of Maguire's nasally tone earlier but he looks the awkward young man who is in over his depth. Carey Mulligan is beautiful and vapid and uncertain as Daisy. She is an object of affection that ultimately proves unworthy of Gatsby's dreams, but she is a vision to dream about. The Wilson's are played by solid professionals who bring the right amount of sex in the one case and blue collared indignation in the other, to the screen. Joel Edgerton is an actor I have seen in several movies where his character was sympathetic, here he plays the heel Tom Buchanan, not as a monster but as a self entitled manipulator who does have some gifts, even if they are not always admirable. The movie lives or dies though on our acceptance of Gatsby as a hero, even though he has enormous flaws of character. Leonardo DiCaprio works, and he works because he was cast right and he knows how to play the part. I was worried after the opening section of the movie, but in the end "The Great Gatsby" feels to me like a nearly great film because of it's lead.
Since I have not read comic books for almost forty years, I am often unfamiliar with the back story and the multiple mythologies that grow up around those characters. The Marvel comic book movies of the last seven years or so, have gone a long way to bringing new audiences to those stories. The first "Iron Man" movie back in 2008, was one of the best films I saw that year, much less one of the greatest comic book movies ever made. Tony Stark was an original interpretation and Robert Downey Jr. was the right man for the job. Today, after several movies where he has played that part, I think it is safe to say that he is earning every dollar that he gets paid. The whole persona that Stark puts out in these movies is a reflection of the performance that RDJ gives. While the character of Iron Man/Tony Stark may continue after he leaves the part, his impact will hang over every future story that Marvel tries to tell.
If you like Robert Downey Jr.s' snarky persona and witty one liners, then you should find plenty to enjoy in the third film that bears the name of the main character. This movie is all about giving Downey Jr. the chance to quip and pontificate and pose for the audience as the brilliant and self absorbed billionaire superhero. He trades throwdown insults with the villains, he plays modest megalomania with secondary characters, and he gets to pose heroically when the suit gets thrown on him. That said, there are a few things about the movie that are going to be problematic for fans of story telling. This film is all over the place, setting up confrontations that don't pan out and building a set of rules to operate under that are going to be ignored. It is overstuffed with visual gimmicks and there is a never-ending series of fight scenes that while great to look at, don't make much sense and do little to build any tension in the film. The motivations of the characters remain murky, that includes our hero, his sweetheart, and the multiple villainous characters that come along.
The premise of the challenge that Iron Man faces here concerns a DNA regeneration process that might allow for the kinds of physical restorative powers shared by The Wolverine in that sister series of comic book heroes. At the same time, there is a mysterious terrorist with incredible reach who seems to be honing in on an ultimate act of terror that no American know how or strength will be able to respond to. It turns out that these two threads of storyline are connected in an interesting way, but it will probably escape anybody who is not paying close attention because neither of those plot lines gets any development except through action. I generally agree that movie stories should be shown and not told, but we are not shown enough in the events of the film to make the threat completely clear and what is explained is sketchy and fragmented and inconsistent. In "The Avengers" last year, our team of superheroes was faced by aliens with godlike powers and advanced technology. It's a comic book so we can swallow that. The powers that are faced down in this story are supposed to be based on human science and genetics, but they come off as a little outlandish. When the main enemy opens his mouth and becomes a creature out of "The Fellowship of the Ring", it is too hard to swallow. In the climactic battle sequences, the powers of those evil opponents seem to fluctuate so much that they might better have been mutants who developed separate strengths. It is never clear why some are defeated and others continue. The final battle between Iron Man and his nemisis is also inconsistent. One strategy works temporarily and then fails but when it is repeated a few minutes later it succeeds, without any explanation.
There are some fun surprises along the way. The Mandarin character is underutilized, and there is a reveal that is clever but undermines the tension of the story. It does however help explain the weird accent and why Ben Kingsley is playing a character who is supposed to be from the orient. Guy Pearce starts off well but by the time the storylines are being played out, the originality of his character is lost and the most important part of any action film (the quality of the bad guy) gets lost in a series of action sequences and fights that are great to look at but make very little sense. I did enjoy the rescue stunt that involves Air Force One. There was a quieter scene when Tony is waiting for his technology to come to the rescue that works pretty well. One henchman voices the thoughts that all of us should wonder whenever there are hundreds of extras being killed in service of the plot. It was the most entertaining bit in the movie. It got a big laugh and it was one of the only times in the movie that someone other than Tony Stark was half way interesting. Unfortunately that moment lasts about five seconds and then it is back to the mayhem.
The choices that Tony Stark makes and the technology that gets employed are both arbitrary. He is alone in Tennessee working with nearly nothing at one moment, and then has the command of three dozen robotic versions of Iron Man in another instance, without much reason why except that it helps make the final conflict bigger. In the first "Iron Man", Stark is the hero and the story is about his rise to face adversity. The second and third editions are all about spectacle. They provide that but without the kind of emotional connection we got from the original story. If they are not careful, Tony Stark will turn into Jack Sparrow, a great character in need of a story that will wear out his welcome."Iron Man 3" will play well for early summer, and it will live on video and broadcast quite happily. It is not as disjointed as the first sequel was, and it has a high level of entertainment value, but it does not have the drama that it needs to reach for greatness. The trailers for the film promised an uncompromising confrontation between a sinister and mysterious figure and our hero. What we got was even more conventional than that, and it was less satisfying as a result.