Review: Mud

Mud is the latest film from writer/director Jeff Nichols, who gave us the amazing Take Shelter just a couple of years ago. His latest work is a coming of age story set in Arkansas, along the banks of the Mississippi River. Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) explore a nearby island and discover a boat beached in a tree as a result of a recent flood. Before they can fully claim it as their own, they discover that a drifter calling himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey) has been using the boat for shelter as he hides out on the island. He confides that he has recently been in some trouble and he is hiding out until he can be reunited with his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Mud’s story strikes a chord with Ellis, whose parents have been having marital problems and are well on the path to divorce, and the boys become Mud’s accomplices, bringing him food and supplies and helping him to plan their escape.

At the core of this film is Ellis and his changing view on love and the way people interact. He identifies with Mud as a romantic; an example of how relationships are supposed to work and how love is enough to manage any problem that might arise. Over the course of the story, however, he begins to understand that  love is a complex emotion – that just because it exists, that doesn’t mean it’s enough to see you through, and that just because you love someone, that doesn’t mean that your feelings won’t be abused or manipulated (It sounds totally depressing, but these are important life lessons, and I promise it’s not a total bummer).

The performances were all solid. Both actors playing the kids were charming, yet convincing – which is key to a film like this. If your child leads can’t carry the emotional weight of their characters, you’re done. But Lofland was great, and Sheridan as Ellis is really enthralling. He has the world-weariness of a kid who hasn’t led the cushiest of existences and is edging up on adulthood, but still the innocence of  youth that hasn’t been totally shattered by the harsh reality of growing up (even after all of the emotional lessons he learns – I promise, it doesn’t break him). And McConaughey’s awesome streak continues. There are a few scenes in this flick where he is completely captivating and you become lost in his portrayal of this strange loner.

While Mud offers a compelling story, and the river-rat setting makes for an interesting background for our characters, it is not a complete win. While it mostly works, it does have some pacing issues, stalling out somewhere in the second act and languishing under its own weight. Stories like these need to be able to take their time and evolve at their own pace, but it felt like Nichols couldn’t really find the happy medium between that and making it feel like we were headed somewhere.

I am interested in with Jeff Nichols can do as a filmmaker, but so far, I prefer the tighter, more character-driven work in Take Shelter. But even with its slow pace and a couple of elements that don’t completely fit, Mud offers some outstanding performances and dramatic moments, and is one of those films that I think I could find myself enjoying more in subsequent viewings, despite its flaws.

Review: Oblivion

Guys, this summer is going to be awesome. I am getting super-excited about the barrage of sci-fi flicks on slate in the coming months. And April is often sort of “summer lite.” The studios start building toward their monumental tentpole pieces, but hold back the stellar stuff until the summer itself is good and underway. Cue Oblivion.

Oblivion takes place in 2077. The Earth has been all but destroyed by a roving group of aliens known only as “Scavs.” Most of humanity has been evacuated and has set up shop on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. Jack Harper (Tom Cruise – by the way, this is the Tom Cruise-iest of Tom Cruise character names) and his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are the last humans remaining on Earth, effectively serving as the clean-up team. Their job is to repair and protect a group of water converts that are sucking up Earth’s water and using it as part of a fusion process to fuel our new civilization on Titan. With only two weeks left of the operation, Jack seems hesitant to leave. He has recurring dreams about a woman he does not remember, and a life he did not live. Things become even more unsettling for him when a strange spacecraft crash lands nearby, and he is able to rescue one of the survivors (Olga Kurylenko).

Oblivion is pretty good B-grade sci-fi. It’s pretty, it’s sleek, it’s got some fun action sequences and it has a pretty interesting story, but the story itself doesn’t have an ounce of originality to it. The plot is cobbled together from just about every other sci-fi property out there. If it’s sitting on your DVD shelf, its shadow probably makes an appearance in Oblivion. It’s like the not-so-smart, sort of feeble-minded brother of all of the super-smart, classic sci-fi flicks. The same themes and concepts and visuals are all there, but not used as well, and all sort of mashed together.

You know what? It’s like Billy Bob Thornton’s character from A Simple Plan. It’s like Jacob. It tries really hard and its heart is the right place, but it’s really not going to amount to much more than holding down a steady job (and you’re really proud of it for that, because it beats unemployment). Because at the end of the day, he’s just a simple guy and he didn’t get the brains in the family or the ambition (though he does have a way of putting things together from time to time). He really just lives the day-to-day and drinks beer with his equally simple friend and hangs out with his dog. But that’s okay. Because you like him anyway. And we can’t all be perfect.

Oblivion has a lot of fun stuff going for it, but requires a bit of latitude on the part of the audience. Some of the plot points are easily guessed early on, the script can be a little clunky at times, and some of the more important plot elements aren’t really as supported as they probably should be. But it’s still fun. 2001, this is not, but it is still a fun escape from the world for a couple of hours.

And if you haven’t seen A Simple Plan, you need to check that out too.

Review: The Lords of Salem

I have been a fan of Rob Zombie’s work since House of 1000 Corpses. I saw that flick at a midnight screening in college, and it was like nothing I had ever seen before. Raw, colorful, violent, and completely unpredictable, it didn’t follow any of the commonplace storytelling paths that regularly pop up in horror films. I felt completely out of control and totally at the mercy of this filmmaker. It was exciting. And unsettling. And completely unexpected. He went on to continue to push boundaries with The Devil’s Rejects (my favorite of his), The Halloween remake, and its (rather disappointing) sequel.

While Zombie’s work is never perfect, I always find it interesting, in one way or another. Whenever he releases a new film, I am always excited to see it and to see what it will bring to the table. His brand of horror always manages to catch me off guard in some way, and it’s always an interesting experience. This film is no different (yet, at the same time, very different).

The Lords of Salem follows Salem DJ Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie). A mysterious package shows up at the radio station one day from a group calling themselves “The Lords.” After playing it on the air (it’s uber creepy, by the way), the music has a strange effect on her. She begins feeling ill, she starts going into trances, and she begins having dreams about the activities and deaths of a witch coven from the early days of Salem (in this story, the witches were 100% real and 100% bad).

With The Lords of Salem, Zombie is playing in territories that he has not really entered before. Rather than ultraviolent throwbacks to 70’s Americana, this film is decidedly European in tone and in structure. Zombie seems to be drawing largely from the Italian Giallo style of the ‘70s on this one. The pacing, the strange, nightmarish elements and the hypnotic atmosphere all scream Suspiria to me (with a healthy dose of Kubrick thrown in for good measure), and for the most part, I thought it worked (and heads up, here- I am not a huge Giallo fan). I love the aesthetic on his previous films, but I was excited to see him stretching a bit with this one.

The Lords of Salem is both an interesting film and an interesting entry from Zombie himself. While he is incredible well-versed in genre films, this film represents an area in horror that he has never before traversed as a filmmaker. It is much more detached and restrained than his previous works, and it is not nearly as raw and in-your-face as we have come to expect. While some of the dialogue was a bit stilted, and there were a couple of aspects that felt a little forced and didn’t really fit the vibe of the overall story (a rather clumsily-inserted television promo for Heidi’s radio show is a prime example), I wouldn’t say that any of these flaws were distracting enough to ruin the entire effect.

That being said, The Lords of Salem is definitely not a mainstream film. Strange imagery, a slow, dreamy plot, few scares and bizarre elements that will leave the average movie watcher a little bored in seats (and probably a bit confused). But if you’re in the mood for something a little less conventional and to see Zombie play with a new set of paints, I definitely recommend checking this one out. It’s not perfect, but, like the rest of his films, it offers an interesting experience.

Review: Upstream Color

Hands down, the highlight of my weekend was getting to see Upstream Color. This is the second film from writer/director/jack of all trades (he did just about everything on this film – I’m not even kidding) Shane Carruth. His first film, Primer, was released in 2004. Fans were afraid he had disappeared off the map entirely in the subsequent years, but now he is back with Upstream Color.

A plot synopsis is futile here, so I won’t even bother. Much of the fun of watching this film is unpacking the pieces and fitting them together. So I won’t ruin that for you. Suffice it to say that, while Upstream Color isn’t as theoretical as Primer, it is equally dense, and requires more than passive viewing from its audience. Like Carruth’s previous film, Upstream Color is not a story you can walk into, kick back, and expect the movie to do all of the heavy lifting. This is what I am coming to love so much about Carruth’s work. It’s not impossible or inaccessible, but it does require an effort from its audience. These films are challenging and you have to be willing to engage with them in order to make the experience worthwhile. These are not films made for lazy movie-watching. They are made as brain teasers. And the reward is decidedly worth the effort.

The brilliance of Upstream Color does not rest solely on the plot. The visual and audio elements carry as much importance to the final product as the story. This film is beautiful – the imagery evokes a dreamlike quality, while still remaining grounded in reality. The sound design and score are incredible, and married with the cinematography, create a hypnotically enticing piece that will mesmerize you until the credits roll. The editing and sound work, in particular, are what provide so much of this film’s magic. Much of the credit here goes directly to Carruth, who was involved in just about every aspect of production on this piece, credited as writer, director, actor, producer, cinematographer, co-editor (with David Lowry), and composer.

Upstream Color is a film that demands multiple viewings. In a film as complex and well-built as this, it can be easy to overlook some of the finer details as you piece together the main storyline, and I look forward to diving into the treasures that this film offers again (and again, and again…). I love movies that challenge the audience, and that make you an active participant in the the time you spend with them. I am glad that Carruth is back, and the Primer wasn’t his one-hit success. I hope that we are just beginning to see what he is capable of, and I am beyond excited to take that journey.

Upstream Color is playing in limited release (did I mention that Carruth is self-distributing this? He is – and that fact is freaking awesome) and will be expanding to more cities this week. If it’s not playing near you, don’t worry – it will hit DVD and Blu-ray May 7th. In the meantime, Primer is on Netflix Instant – so if you haven’t seen it yet, now is the perfect time.

Review: Jurassic Park

I was about eleven when Jurassic Park first came out. I have a younger brother, and our parents decided that the ginormouse dinosaurs might be too intense for us in a theater, so we had to wait until the VHS release to finally experience what everyone else was talking about. It was a bummer. This was a movie that was meant to be experienced in a huge theater, with monster sound and a giant bucket of popcorn on your lap.

Last weekend, 20 years later, I finally got the opportunity to reclaim that experience. And it was awesome. I found the biggest theater I could and saw it in one of their showcase houses. Huge screen, and wicked sound. The dinosaurs were bigger than life, and when that T-Rex roared, it was so loud and thunderous that I felt it in my chair. Wicked awesome!

Jurassic Park is a classic film. It broke the boundaries of what we could do with CG effects at the time, but married them with some absolutely astounding practical work from Stan Winston. And it still looks really damn good. It was the first time I can remember actors talking in interviews about how they had to react to tennis balls on sticks because the dinosaurs would be inserted later in post, and we all marveled that such a thing could even be possible.

And it is part of that classic era of Spielberg that was all about awe and wonder. The first time Grant and Sattler see the dinosaurs when they first arrive on the island is one of my very favorite parts of the movie. They can’t believe that what they are seeing is real, yet they are so excited that it is – that their wildest dreams have come true. It was so cool to have that moment strengthened by the stellar theater presentation – I had a tear. I’m not even kidding. This is what going to the movies is all about.

As for the quality of the 3D, I can’t really say. It was okay, I guess. If objects were in the extreme foreground they looked a little wonky, and I think the 3D probably darkened the image, but in all honesty, I was much more entranced by finally getting to see HUGE ASS DINOSAURS on a HUGE ASS SCREEN. So I really wasn’t paying much attention to the 3D work. So if you’re not psyched about the conversion, it’s easy to ignore. And if you are excited about the 3D, it’s not terrible (because I would have noticed that, even in my happy stupor).

Even if you have seen Jurassic Park a thousand times (as many of us have by now), you need to make some time during this re-release to see it the way it was meant to be seen. Yes, our home entertainment systems are light years beyond what we had back in the day when I first had to watch this flick on VHS, but it still doesn’t hold a candle to being in a ginormouse theater and having the dinosaur stomps vibrate your ass!