REVIEW: Mud

19 01 2013

Cannes Film Festival 2012 / Sundance Film Festival 2013

(NOTE: I saw “Mud” at the first showing in Cannes last May.  I have no idea if the movie being shown in Utah is the same one I saw in France.  I have some lingering suspicion it might have been reworked and tweaked a little bit since it disappeared from the festival circuit for eight months.)

Third features are, for most filmmakers, really the first time we can gauge their capabilities and career trajectory.  A debut film is, well, a debut film.  Unless you are Orson Welles, whose first film “Citizen Kane” is the best of all-time to many, the first time behind the camera is rarely one that produces much beyond the promise of great things.  While many directors break out with their second film, some would consider that they still have the training wheels on the bike.

By the third film, however, we generally stop cutting them slack or grading them on a curve.  It’s do or die, make or break.  If you haven’t quite figured out how to make a good movie, perhaps it’s time to consider a career change.  Just to provide some perspective, Scorsese’s third film was “Mean Streets,” Spielberg’s was “Jaws,” Malick’s was “The Thin Red Line,” Jason Reitman’s was “Up in the Air,” and Ben Affleck’s was “Argo.”

Jeff Nichols, an emerging American filmmaker, made his first two movies with a very independent spirit.  His debut, “Shotgun Stories,” had an interesting concept but was poorly executed.  His second film, “Take Shelter,” was a superb ambiental drama that effectively visualized the state of economic and personal anxieties in the age of the Great Recession.  But his third feature, “Mud,” is so different that it almost feels like a first film.

With “Mud,” Nichols makes what I believe to be a very conscientious leap towards the mainstream.  It definitely plays more towards satisfying audience expectations with familiar storyline and aesthetics, not jarring them with the uncomfortable or the unknown.  And there’s nothing wrong with that; he’s fairly adept at capturing that boyish spirit in the coming-of-age movies that Steven Spielberg among others made so well in the 1980s.  But after the brilliance and originality of “Take Shelter,” I was hoping Nichols would not just fall in line.

And to reiterate, I don’t disdain “Mud” simply for daring to be similar.  It’s still quality filmmaking, but it feels more like a harbinger of things to come than something substantial in and of itself.  This transitional film is too populist to be indie; however, it’s also a little too indie to be truly mainstream.  I don’t usually talk about forces competing for the soul of a movie, yet it feels totally relevant for “Mud” as these two entirely different spirits of filmmaking run amuck throughout the movie.  Each claims a scene here or there, and the ultimate victor is unclear.

I would argue that the real winner of “Mud” are the characters, written with love and care by Nichols and brought to the screen with compassion by the cast.  Matthew McConaughey, the new king of career turnaround, beguiles as the titular character Mud.  He fancies himself an urban legend, an almost mythic figure of sorts.  Yet it’s fascinating to watch the man slip out from underneath his tough facade and see his guilt and shame manifested.

Though the movie is named for his character, Jeff Nichols’ film isn’t really about Mud.  It’s about the two boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan from “The Tree of Life,” albeit totally changed since that film was shot so long ago) and his sidekick Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who stumble upon Mud hiding out in a boat in the trees.  While Mud drives the narrative forward, the movie’s real story and power comes from the way those events affect these two adolescents.

“Mud” mainly follows Ellis as he navigates a new world, one where nothing seems clear-cut or black and white.  Mud teaches him what love and trust really are when they are together away from society, and then he reemerges to find alternative meanings of such concepts.  Sheridan lends a real authenticity to the struggles of growing up and realizing hard truths in a performance that evokes Henry Thomas’ Elliott in “E.T.,” a movie that feels like quite a kindred spirit of “Mud.”

To tap into a fraction of what Spielberg achieved is quite an achievement.  Now, it’s time for Nichols to relocate his old voice of originality and create a work just like “Mud,” only with that old aesthetic brilliance and creativity.  B2halfstars

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Marshall Takes Cannes: Day 10-12

28 05 2012

The festival is over and I have so much to report from these last few days!  I don’t know if I was in Cannes for my whole life or a nanosecond; in some strange way, I feel like it’s both simultaneously.  Now that the all the awards have been handed out and everyone has left the Palais (and basically the city of Cannes as well), I figure I’ll put a bow around my tales of Cannes to wrap it all up.

To all those who have been reading, thanks for following my adventures!  If you felt even a fraction of the thrill I felt at the festival, then I feel truly blessed to have brought even the smallest pinch of excitement into your day.  I’m traveling throughout Europe for the next 11 days, but I’ll try to post some outstanding reviews during my trip.  I wound up seeing 12 of the 22 competition films, which was far more than I ever expected!  I was very blessed and fortunate, and hopefully I can convince you to see or skip what I saw!

Day 10 – Friday, May 25

Thought about rushing “Cosmopolis” in the morning … yeah, that didn’t happen.  Still feeling a little queasy and definitely feeling extremely tired, I slept past that 7:00 alarm to get up for an 8:30 screening.  I arrived around 11:30 A.M. to rush the 1:00 P.M. screening, and no one from the rush line was able to gain entry to the screening.

Not wanting to waste another day without seeing a movie, I didn’t mope for long and went almost straight to the line outside the 60th Room (a rooftop tent theater on the roof of the Palais – yeah) for the reprise screening of “The Paperboy” at 2:00 P.M.  But I should have known something was up when the movie didn’t start on time.  I found two friends in the theater and we talked vaguely about people’s reactions to the film.

Then, at 2:30 P.M., the film started … in Spanish.  I suddenly realized that I was not going to be seeing Lee Daniels’ “The Paperboy” with stars like Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron.  Instead, I mistakenly walked into “Post Tenebras Lux,” the Mexican expressionist film that seriously made me want to rip my head off.  Thankfully, a character in the film showed me what that would look like, and that pretty much talked me out of it.

The Pavilion where I worked held a big party that night, which mostly hosted our normal guests (and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” director Benh Zeitlin) plus a few big names including Macy Gray and Lee Daniels, Oscar-nominated director of “Precious” and “The Paperboy.”  Don’t worry, I finally got a picture with a celebrity – not a blurry shot taken from God knows how far away!

Day 11 – Saturday, May 26

This one would be an early morning, though, as I managed to score a ticket to the morning press screening of Jeff Nichols’ “Mud.”  It was much different than I expected, veering away from the visual and visceral brilliance of “Take Shelter” and more towards a plot-driven mainstream Hollywood film.  I’m curious to see what this means for Nichols’ career and onto what trajectory this launches him.

I then quickly ran to see if I could spot Reese Witherspoon at her photo call on the roof of the Palais.  It was initially unsuccessful, but I would not be deterred!  I lingered around the back of the building hoping she would come out of the star entrance, and my loitering eventually paid off as I eventually spotted she and Matthew McConaughey walking across the bridge into the main building!

Naturally, I ran into the building hoping to catch her before she got into her car, but that never panned out.  I decided to go into the Palais to use the restroom, and I walked past a TV that showed the press conference for “Mud.”  Thanks to getting lost a decent amount of times in that Death Star, I knew exactly where press conferences at Cannes were held.  I decided to wait outside the room near the elevator where I assumed she would have to go; there was also another area closed to the entrance to the press conference room, but I thought she would pay them no attention.

Well, I was an idiot.  I never should have doubted that Reese Witherspoon is magnanimous.  Turns out, she went over to the other area and signed a few autographs before leaving – not out the elevator, but through some back entrance.  Grr.  I did get to glimpse her magnificent beauty and become dazzled by her radiant smile.  She’s even better than I ever could have imagined over the past ten years.  Here’s the picture I did get; Reese is the blonde blob in the middle.

The day was destined to go downhill from Reese sighting, but I didn’t think it would get as bad as “Cosmopolis.”  The Robert Pattinson-starrer was a serious disappointment, mainly due to the dialogue and direction.  R-Pattz wasn’t half bad, and I actually thought he was pretty good at the end.  Maybe there is hope…

It was also the last beach screening, which was listed as a “surprise screening” on the schedule.  Rumors circulated like mad about what the movie could be – I had heard “The Dictator,” Brian DePalma’s new film “Passion,” and footage from the new Bond film “Skyfall” all mentioned as possibilities.  Turns out, it was only a short film program that lasted for over an hour and a half.  I was a little underwhelmed and upset to say the least.

Day 12 – Sunday, May 27

The last day of the festival meant a lot of packing, a lot of cleaning, and a lot of goodbyes.  There wasn’t much of a wasted moment to be had – oh, and every single one of the 22 competition films was replaying again.  I got a chance to see “Holy Motors,” the French film featuring Kylie Minogue and Eva Mendes getting her armpit licked, and that was pretty fun.  I also saw “Beasts” director Benh Zeitlin yet again, just chilling and seeing a movie like a regular Joe.  Gosh, I hope he wins an Oscar or something – the man just seems so humble, modest, and unassuming.

I thought about trying to see “The Paperboy” after my Friday fiasco, but I ultimately wound up opting for food and fun with friends.  I’ll get to see it in no time at all back home in the States.  After convincing myself that I would go out on a high note with “Holy Motors,” the jury announced all the awards.  There was one big winner that I still had the chance to see – “Reality,” winner of the Grand Prix (essentially second place).  I quickly caught a bus from my apartment and made it to the theater in time to see the movie.  Don’t know that it was worth the trip, but I’m glad I can say I saw it – especially since it looks like Oscilloscope is going to hold it for release until 2013 in the US.

Oh, and going to the bathroom in the artist’s entrance finally paid off as I saw Emmanuelle Riva, the leading actress from the Palme D’Or-winning “Amour.”

I wound up seeing all but one of the North American films, the Palme D’Or, Grand Prix, Best Director, Best Actor, and Camera D’Or winners, as well as a smattering of other films that ran the gamut from great to God-awful.  Overall, a very interesting festival – hopefully, it won’t be my last.  There’s plenty of unfinished business I have left with Cannes, and so many things I want to do better in the future.  But for now, as I close this chapter, I am satisfied and truly grateful.

Much thanks to my parents for making this trip possible!  Hopefully, Cannes 2012 is just the beginning of many great things to come.