Review – Mud

A serious contender for this year’s Great American Film, Jeff Nicholls’ lyrical, poetic third feature evokes a timeless quality all-too-rare in today’s cinematic landscape.

A serious contender for this year's Great American Film, Jeff Nicholls' lyrical, poetic Mud evokes a timeless quality all-too-rare in today's cinematic landscape

A serious contender for this year’s Great American Film, Jeff Nicholls’ lyrical, poetic Mud evokes a timeless quality all-too-rare in today’s cinematic landscape

Nicholls has quietly positioned himself among the most visionary and essential directors at work today with his striking 2007 debut Shotgun Stories and his belated follow-up, the disturbing and astonishing Take Shelter (2011).

The incredible boat in a tree in Mud

The incredible boat in a tree in Mud

In both Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, their leading characters (played each time by the mesmeric Michael Shannon) are driven by an almost insane conviction. That same dogmatic approach is adopted by Mud (Matthew McConaughey), the charismatic fugitive living out on a small island in the Mississippi River who befriends inquisitive teenagers Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). Mud has risked his freedom by returning to the area in which he grew up to be reunited with his true love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), but a group of killers arrive in town looking to avenge a past crime by Mud.

Nicholls has been quick to acknowledge the debt the film owes to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the overtly Finn/Tom Sawyer relationship between Ellis, who lives on a river boat with his squabbling parents (played by the excellent Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) and Neckbone.

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) first meet Mud (Matthew McConaughey) in Mud

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) first meet Mud (Matthew McConaughey) in Mud

The 14-year-old Ellis is an idealist who’s obsessed with reuniting Mud and Juniper because he believes in the power of love. As young teenagers, the concept of true love can be all-encompassing and Ellis acts with such doggedness in order to counterbalance the failing relationship of his parents. Likewise, he gets a tough lesson in the ways of love courtesy of an older girl he falls for.

The love of Mud's life, Junniper (Reese Witherspoon) in Mud

The love of Mud’s life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) in Mud

Mud brings to mind Terence Malick in its penchant for the Magic Hour (and its fascination with nature) and Nicholls with long-time director of photography Adam Stone captures a string of breathtaking shots. The relationship with Malick doesn’t end there; Mud’s producer Sarah Green worked on The Tree of Life, while Sheridan was given his debut in that film.

Jeff Nicholls' long-time partner Michael Shannon plays Galen in Mud

Jeff Nicholls’ long-time partner Michael Shannon plays Galen in Mud

He only has a limited filmography, but Sheridan is already showing himself as a young actor with a lot of promise. It’s a demanding role and he brings a lot of maturity to it. All he wants is for people to be happy and for things to be in order, so you can feel his pain when he realises life is much harder to get a handle on.

Maintaining his remarkable career renaissance (aka, his McConaisance), McConaughey is a revelation in the title role. Once the butt of many a joke for his languid, cheque-grabbing performances in duds like Failure to Launch, McConaughey of late has returned to the high watermark he achieved in the likes of Dazed and Confused and Lone Star. Lovelorn, scared, but determined also, his Mud is not so very different from Ellis.

Mud (Matthew McConaughey) tries to save his skin in Mud

Mud (Matthew McConaughey) tries to save his skin in Mud

The excellent supporting cast includes Shannon as Neckbone’s placid Uncle Galen (as far removed from Take Shelter‘s Curtis LaForche as you can get) and the impeccable Sam Shepard as Tom, who may or may not be a former CIA agent living off the grid in the Mississippi swamps.

Just as Malick managed to capture the coming of age adventure of adolescence in The Tree of Life, so too does Nicholls here. When we see a boat stuck up a tree (Mud’s temporary home), we marvel instead of questioning the unlikelihood of what we’re watching; such is the power of Nicholls’ persuasive vision.

The slightly fumbled ending doesn’t detract from what is a work of true poetry from Nicholls. Much like last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, Mud is a real one-off that will stay with you for a long time after.

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Review – Man Of Steel

The superhero’s superhero is back, but not as we’ve seen him before, in Zack Snyder’s earnest origin story that strives to put the king-daddy of comic books back on his throne.

There's enough in Man Of Steel to promise much for future adventures, but let's hope there's more fun next time around

There’s enough in Man Of Steel to promise much for future adventures, but let’s hope there’s more fun next time around

While his ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound and run faster than a speeding locomotive naturally lend themselves to incredible set pieces, Superman as a character has always been tricky to build a movie around. His intrinsic capacity for good is far less dramatic than the dark, brooding of Batman, for instance, or the cocksure machismo of Iron Man.

Jor-El (Russell Crowe) prepares to sending his son away from a dying Krypton in Man Of Steel

Jor-El (Russell Crowe) prepares to send his son away from a dying Krypton in Man Of Steel

Uninspiring action sequences, a lacklustre plot and an over-extended running time sank Supes’ last cinematic outing, 2006’s Superman Returns, so the challenge was on to rediscover the magic of 1978’s Superman and make him relevant to a modern day audience.

The news that Man Of Steel would be ‘A Zack Snyder Film’ was hardly a great start. Since his highly watchable 2004 remake of Dawn Of The Dead, the quality of Snyder’s output has diminished further with each new release, to the extent that his most recent film, 2011’s Sucker Punch was virtually unwatchable.

Clark Kent flashbacks to his childhood in Man of Steel's best moments

Clark Kent flashbacks to his childhood in Man of Steel’s best moments

Although the presence of Batman alumnus Christopher Nolan and David S Goyer as, respectively, producer and screenwriter can be felt, there’s no mistaking this is a Snyder movie, which means stylised violence delivered at an ear-bleeding volume.

Taking the character back to his roots, Man Of Steel begins at the moment of his birth on a dying Krypton. His father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and mother Lara (Ayelet Zurer) manage to launch the spacecraft carrying Kal-El before maniacal rebel General Zod (Michael Shannan) is able to get his hands on the child. Crash-landing on Earth, he’s raised by honest-to-goodness farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), who name him Clark. When Clark starts to develop super-human powers, his alien lineage is revealed to him by his father, who warns of the need to keep his abilities a secret for fear that a confused, frightened society would reject him. However, when Zod and his followers arrive years later demanding that Earth surrender Kal-El or suffer the consequences, Clark must finally embrace his Kryptonian ancestry and become the superman he was destined to be.

Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) consoles a confused Clark in Man Of Steel

Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) consoles a confused Clark in Man Of Steel

While the dark and serious approach taken by Nolan for his Dark Knight trilogy works for a superhero who lives in the shadows, the similar direction Man Of Steel takes doesn’t make much sense. Tossing words around like “edgy” and “realistic” is all well and good, but when you’re dealing with god-like alien beings beating the hell out of each other and laying waste to half of Metropolis (and killing thousands of faceless people in the process, although this doesn’t seem important) on a scale not seen since the The Matrix Revolutions, “realistic” is stretching it somewhat.

Taken on their own merits, the childhood flashbacks Clark has during his Christ-like wandering phase in the film’s first act are the film’s finest moments. Handsomely filmed, these scenes are richly evocative and beautifully played by Costner and Lane. Indeed, the brief, wordless moment when a young Clark plays with the family dog and wears a makeshift red cape is Man Of Steel‘s high watermark.

Intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) in Man Of Steel

Intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) in Man Of Steel

A typically restrained Michael Shannan as General Zod in Man Of Steel

A typically restrained Michael Shannon as General Zod in Man Of Steel

However, they look like they belong in another film when Snyder switches into default mode and lets the CGI do the talking. While there was a palpable sense of jeopardy for Iron Man and co during Avengers Assembled‘s extended final battle in New York, here the only thing you feel is a sore backside.

In his big break, Henry Cavill does everything that’s asked of him, from brooding lonerism to conflicted turmoil and finally self-assurance that falls on the right side of smug. He’s no Christopher Reeve, but then who is? Anyone aware of Shannon’s turns in the likes of Take Shelter and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire may wonder like me how much CGI was actually required to show Zod’s heat vision, so intense are Shannon’s eyes anyway. It’s hardly a stretch, but it’s fun nonetheless to watch him deliver Zod’s semi-regular meltdowns.

Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and his staff take shelter in Man Of Steel

Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and his staff take shelter in Man Of Steel

Although she starts out well as feisty reporter Lois Lane, Amy Adams struggles with a script that runs out of things for her to do. Laurence Fishburne, meanwhile, dons his Morpheus hat for a spot of sermonising as Daily Planet editor Perry White and Crowe at least gets to run around more than Marlon Brando.

Superman (Henry Cavill) at one with the suit in Man of Steel

Superman (Henry Cavill) at one with the suit in Man of Steel

Hans Zimmer’s score may indulge the Christ motif a little strongly at times (there’s only so many angels you need to hear), but is otherwise stirring and haunting in all the right places and doesn’t make you pine for Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic composition.

Snyder drops in a few nice touches to prepare the ground for the inevitable sequel (a Lexcorp lorry is overturned during the Superman vs Zod melee, suggesting Mr Luthor is being primed) and one can only hope it makes room for a bit more fun next time around.

It’s ironic that a film featuring a character gradually finding himself should lose its way as it goes on. There’s enough here to promise much for future adventures, but this man of steel still has a long way to fly if he hopes to reclaim his crown.

London Film Festival 2011 – Chapter 7

Out of all the days of the festival, this was the one I was most looking to as it had two of the films I was desperate to see – and boy did neither of them let me down.

Mathieu Kassovitz has never quite managed to reach the same heights as his hard-hitting debut feature La Haine (1995). In fact he was fast turning into a hack for hire with such lightweight US genre fare as the terrible Halle Berry ‘shocker’ Gothika (2003) and Vin Diesel-starring sci-fi dud Babylon AD (2008).

Well, Kassovitz is back in France and back to his best with the searing, heavyweight political thriller Rebellion, which chronicles an incident in 1988 in the French colony of New Caledonia when 27 hostages were taken by a group of indigenous guerilla fighters seeking independence, and the bloody military rescue operation that subsequently took place.

Rebellion

Kassovitz films the drama through the eyes and experiences of Philippe Legorjus (played by the director himself), a Captain with the French GIGN counter-terrorist special forces, which were called on to assist the army with tracking down the ‘insurgents’ and freeing the hostages.

Legorjus and his men are primarily trained to deal with hostage-takers through negotiation, but the Captain quickly gets the impression that talking isn’t the number one goal of the military brass and French minister Bernard Pons (played by Daniel Martin), especially when there’s a presidential election taking place in France and incumbent President François Mitterrand and his opponent Jacques Chirac are trying to out-do each other over their tough stances on the unfolding crisis.

Legorjus nevertheless tries to make contact with the group holding the hostages and succeeds after he is himself taken hostage. He wins the hard-earned trust of leader Alphonse Dianou (Iabe Lapacas) and is set free, promising to do what he can to give the group a platform in which to put their case for independence forward.

With the situation still tense, Legorjus works around the clock trying to convince the powers that be that the hostage-takers are willing to negotiate, but keeps running into brick walls until time runs out and a full military assault is ordered. With no time left, Legorjus realises he must betray Dianou’s trust in an effort to save as many of the hostages as he can.

Counting down over the course of 10 days until the dramatic, bloody assault on the cave where the hostages are being held, there’s a growing sense of inevitability that Legorjus is fighting a losing battle.

There are pointed remarks sprinkled throughout the film as to where this path is headed; when Legorjus tells a lawyer living on the island that the order to attack has been given, he asks the captain incredulously “the government wouldn’t do that would they?”. Another moment comes earlier in the film when Legorjus reminds his men that the population of New Caledonia are officially French citizens and therefore not ‘the enemy’. Needless to say these words ring hollow later in the film.

Thought-provoking and provocative, the anger of the film seeps out of every frame. It’s likely to cause controversy when it is released in France in November, but there should be no mistaking that this is brave, prescient film-making of the highest order.

Michael Shannon has in the space of just a few short years broke out from bit parts to become one of America’s most exciting acting talents.

His piercing stare and intense eyes singled him out for parts as unhinged lunatics in films such as Bug (2006) and Revolutionary Road (2008), for which he was Oscar-nominated. It probably wasn’t until he was cast as prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire that he was allowed to properly broaden his horizons and show there was more to him than that.

This has continued in 2011 with Return, the disappointing indie drama also shown at the festival which he nevertheless gave a thoughtful, restrained performance as the husband of a soldier returning from a tour of duty, and now Take Shelter.

Take Shelter

Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a loving husband to wife Samantha (the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain) and deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). He’s your classic everyman, a guy doing the best he can for his family through his job at a sand-mining company in a small Ohio town.

But all is not well with Curtis. He is being plagued by apocalyptic dreams – massive storm clouds gather overhead; rain resembling motor oil falls from the sky; masses of birds fly ominously above and crazed strangers attack him and his daughter.

The dreams are so real to Curtis that he becomes convinced they are something far more frightening – visions of things to come. With these terrifying thoughts running through his mind Curtis gets to work on beefing up the storm shelter at the back of the house. At the same time he weighs up whether he is succumbing to the same mental illness that has left his mother in a home for the past 25 years.

To this end, he goes to the library to check if he has the symptoms and goes to see a counsellor on his doctor’s advice. At first the sedatives he is given to help him sleep seem to work, but then the dreams return, more frightening than ever and he re-doubles his efforts to get the shelter ready for what he is convinced is the storm to end all storms. However, his actions have serious ramifications on his friends who think he’s lost his mind, on his job and with his wife, who struggles to understand why Curtis seems so hell-bent on bankrupting them.

Shannon and writer-director Jeff Nicholls worked before on Nicholls’ debut feature Shotgun Stories (2007) and there’s clearly an understanding between the two of them on how to get the best out of each other. Shannon turns in a career-best performance as a man holding on by his fingertips in an unsafe world, who is struggling to comprehend the visions he is having and unsure whether he is protecting his family from harm or putting them in harm’s way by his actions.

Chastain is given a more rounded role than the angelic, ethereal one she played in Terrence Mallick’s The Tree of Life earlier this year and does a fine job, although quite why the scene in which Curtis finally tells her what’s going on doesn’t allow her a response is a bit mystifying.

The dream sequences are especially unsettling, while the ending, which makes you reassess everything you’ve seen before, is sure to be a talking point for those watching it. And watch it you should.

London Film Festival 2011 – Chapter 4

After a cracking day of documentary it’s back to planet fiction, starting with the Scandinavian thriller Headhunters.

Once thought of as an enlightened, peaceful part of Europe, Scandinavia has become something of a hotbed of nastiness  in recent years if the glut of grisly crime fiction is anything to go by.

Steig Larsson’s best-selling Millennium trilogy has already been adapted for film once and is getting the Hollywood remake treatment courtesy of David Fincher for those who struggle/can’t be bothered to read subtitles on screen. Danish series The Killing was a massive hit for the BBC (an American TV adaptation soon followed), which also had a stab at the Kurt Wallander series of books (hot on the heels of the Swedish TV series).

Headhunters

Now it’s the turn of award-winning Norwegian author Jo Nesbo to have his work brought to the screen. Famous for his Harry Hole detective novels and Doctor Proktor children’s series, it’s actually his 2008 stand-alone book Hodejegerne (The Headhunters) which director Morten Tyldum has brought to the screen.

While The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels were filmed in a very muted, televisual way, with no visual flourishes, Headhunters immediately feels like something different; sexier, fresher and with a cool and glossy visual style that fits the character of Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie).

One of Norway’s most successful headhunters, reputation means everything to Roger, whether it’s earned or manufactured. Away from work, Roger lives in a beautiful house with beautiful trophy wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund). He seems to have it all, but in reality he’s hopelessly in debt and has turned to art theft to keep the wolves from the door.

When Diana introduces him to the charismatic Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau from American TV series Game of Thrones), Roger sniffs not one, but two opportunities; to headhunt Clas for a high-flying position he needs filling, but also to solve his financial woes once and for all. For Clas is in possession of an extremely valuable painting and so Roger sets into motion with his partner in crime, security firm employee Ove (Eivind Sander) a plan to swipe the artwork and sell it on.

But the best laid plans of Roger and Ove go horribly, horribly wrong and soon Roger is running for his life and in the middle of an industrial conspiracy he can barely understand.

Headhunters is an intriguing recipe of styles; with a smattering of The Thomas Crown Affair here and a dash of Enemy of the State there before turning into what it ultimately is – a rollicking good roller-coaster ride with more twists and turns than a Hitchcock thriller.

Unlike The Girl With… films, Headhunters also knows when to poke fun at itself and the humorous vignettes, most absurdly when Roger drives down the road in a tractor with a domestic animal stuck on the end of it, manage to sit comfortably with the moments of intense violence because they are so blackly comic.

Sometimes Headhunters can be too clever for its own good and it’s hard not to turn your nose up at some of the more unlikely plot twists (the moment when Roger makes a phone call to his wife only to get a rude awakening feels like exactly what it is, a necessary moment to move us into Act Two), but it’s equally difficult not to get swept along by the film’s kinetic energy. If this doesn’t get remade in America as well I’ll cut off my own head.

Just as the struggle to return to a normal life after the Vietnam War was addressed in films such as Coming Home (1978) and The Deerhunter (1978), so the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have seen their fair share, with the likes of In the Valley of Ellah (2007), Stop Loss (2008) and, to a lesser extent, The Hurt Locker (2008).

It’s virtually impossible to avoid politics in films such as these, but that’s what Liza Johnson tries to do in her debut feature Return.

Return

Not one mention is made of George W Bush and no-one beats their chest questioning the reason as to why our boys and girls are over there. As the title suggests, Johnson instead focuses solely on how Kelli (Linda Cardellini) copes with civvie life, beginning with the moment she is reunited with her husband Mike (Michael Shannon) and their two daughters in the airport after a year’s tour of duty (it’s not specified where, reinforcing it’s irrelevancy in Johnson’s eyes).

The community is delighted to have Kelli back, and following a welcome home party she returns to work at the local factory, seemingly well-adjusted and unaffected by her year away. Gentle questioning by her friends as to what is was like over there prompts the broken-record reply of “others had it much worse than me”, a mantra that becomes increasingly meaningless the more she says it.

It’s only a matter of time though before her outwardly happy exterior begins to crack and the alienation, confusion and sense of purposelessness starts seeping out. First she walks out on her job, then her marriage begins to fall apart as she discovers Mike has been seeing another woman in her absence, before a moment’s stupidity leads to her getting caught drink-driving. And when she receives a piece of devastating news, she’s left with stark choices as to where to go next.

Johnson directs with a suitably stripped down palette, a wise move bearing in mind the often painful subject matter. She’s assembled a sturdy cast, with Shannon more restrained than he’s been on screen before and Tony Slattery swapping the fine tailoring of Mad Men for a sweatshirt and battered old baseball cap as a fellow war vet and damaged soul.

However, this is former ER cast member Cardellini’s film and she doesn’t drop the ball in what is her biggest role to date. There are no histrionics, instead she reigns it in, only allowing her eyes to show the anguish and confusion Kelli is going through.

That being said, Johnson’s script can feel very clunky at times, throwing in narrative jumps that aren’t properly explained or believably handled (the breakdown of Kelli and Mike’s marriage happens very quickly, especially as he seems so keen to go back to the way things were before). Mike’s being a plumber also feels a little heavy-handed (he can fix everything except her).

The fact that it’s a woman returning from a tour is refreshing – the only other film dealing with this subject from a female perspective that comes to mind is the British indie In Our Name (2010) – but it’s not enough to give Return an honourable discharge.