A mostly involving, wonderfully acted drama, MUD has been getting all kinds of STAND BY HUCKLEBERRY'S BEAST OF THE SOUTHERN SLING BLADE accolades, and deservedly so for the most part. I greatly admired Jeff Nichols' previous film, TAKE SHELTER. It was a visceral, intense experience. MUD is much more measured and languid. It's like watching a very long novel unfold before your eyes. Nothing wrong with that, but I have my reservations. Let's start with the good stuff first.
Ellis (a fantastic Tye Sheridan) and his horny best buddy Neckbone live in the Mississippi swamplands where one day they come upon a strange boat nestled high up in a tree. The boat is occupied by an enigmatic fugitive named MUD (Matthew McConaughey, who is doing some of the best work of his career these days, eh?). The boys become involved with his attempts to reunite with his one true love, played strongly and quietly by Reese Witherspoon, who makes the most of her very limited screen time. Oh, and he's also on the run from some bounty hunters who would like to see MUD dead.
It's a coming-of-age tale by way of pursuit thriller and heartbreaking romance. The pieces are all here for a great film. Believable locations, unfussy (albeit unmemorable) cinematography, and a large cast who stay true to their environments. Yet, yet, yet, I wish I cared more.
For this to work, I needed to want to go to the ends of the earth with Ellis. I should ache for this kid to find happiness by reuniting our lovers. Although Sheridan is appropriately sullen and joyless throughout, I wanted a sense of wonder. I wanted this kid to have a fantastical inner life where we SEE that he believes in fairy tales despite his drab environment. I guess I wanted this to be more Spielbergian and less REAL. Indie films sometimes, in their pursuit of authenticity, forget that we crass Americans sometimes like a little pizazz in our entertainment.
Billy Bob Thornton certainly got the memo in his remarkably similar SLING BLADE. He knew that Karl needed some entertaining catchphrases to get the audience on his side. Who could forget his "Mmmm hmmm's" or his "I like them French fried potaters"? It's what elevated that film. THE LAST PICTURE SHOW is a bit of a long slog, but every shot is a masterpiece, so it becomes a beautiful experience. MUD could have used a little of that. I'm sure many will disagree with my assessment, but just because you CAN make a snail's paced slice of realism, doesn't mean you should. TAKE SHELTER, as slow as it was, had the good sense to knock us out every few minutes with jaw-dropping end-of-the-world sequences. There are worse ways to spend your moviegoing dollars, but MUD is a bit of a stick-in-the...wait for it....MUD.
As far as cracked-out conspiracy docs go, this is the CITIZEN KANE of them. I see your House Of Numbers and raise you two Zapruder films. ROOM 237 is ostensibly about a collection of "experts" who read into what they believe to be hidden symbolism in the 1980 Stanley Kubrick film, THE SHINING. Presented as disembodied voices, a cinematic representation of anonymous internet trolls who plague the comments sections, there are allusions to everything from the plight of Native Americans to victims of the Holocaust, numerology taken to the extremes, and the most insane backwords/forwards analysis since THE BEATLES were rumored to have planted "I buried Paul" within the song, STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER.
As the riduculata start to pile up, the film takes on a different meaning. It's not about THE SHINING at all, but about the people with WAY too much time on their hands. I was brought back to my days at UCLA Film School. Friends would always tell me that it would ruin me as an audience member because I would, from that point forward, notice things the casual viewer wouldn't, thus deadening the entertainment value of any film. Instead, I would roll my eyes in certain classes, because I somehow knew that not every filmmaker would intentionally play with iconography, and that the "red wall" in a scene had nothing to do with blood and had everything to do with the fact that it was the only color the Production Designer could find on that particular day. Movies are often a series of happy accidents.
Of course, Stanley Kubrick was a notorious perfectionist who would ask for hundreds of takes from a performer, He was known to pore over every details, so who knows? Maybe these nutjobs are onto something. It really doesn't matter, since nobody from the Kubrick estate is endorsing ROOM 237. Better to just listen to the insane musings presented here and delight in their awkward"I know this sounds crazy" laughter.
What a long, strange trip this was. OBLIVION is a bizarre hybrid of epic sci-fi (gorgeously shot) and underpopulated chamber piece. Assigned to hunt stray scavengers, the last remnants of an alien invasion which led to the destruction of our planet, Tom Cruise is Jack Harper, our somewhat lone hero, who whooshes around in his gyroscopic co*ck and balls ship. The whooshing part is very cool, and every time the ship did a 180, it reminded me of that banking carnival ride from yesteryear known as The Scrambler. Jack works with his lovely partner, Vick (Andrea Riseborough), who communicates with him from a Neutra-inspired, glass apartment high above the clouds. For the first half, it's just the pair, and a living, breathing WALL-E came to mind. There just aren't that many people in this film! I'm used to seeing Tom Cruise with a thousand extras at his beck and call. What the hell is happening???!! Yet, every shot is a work of art, and despite the slow pace, I was mesmerized. The fact that the characters are somewhat blank didn't bother me up to this point, because the visuals were so spectacular.
All, however, is not what it seems, and as the onion layers are slowly peeled away on this story, I got the overwhelming sense that this was a film about moods and feelings somewhat clumsily inserted into some fairly predictable action beats. There are the many Deathstar-like chase sequences, and the "R2D2-having-sex-with-Pikachu" Drones beeping and squiggling and occasionally going ballistic. There are lots of things that go boom, and a Matrix 2-like underground world led by a steam-punked out Morgan Freeman. I won't spoil his involvement here, but suffice it to say, there are many twists and turns designed to challenge our perceptions of exactly what is happening.
All of the parts are here for a fantastic film, except for characters with anything resembling, well, character, It's all fairly blank. Intentionally so, I might add...but blank nonetheless. It's GATTACA-sleek, VANILLA SKY-strange and at times, oddly compelling to sort out...yet I only wish I cared more. Kudos to Melissa Leo, who with this and the execrable OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN, has officially entered the CASH GRAB phase of her career. She must have shot her role on her own iPhone during lunch on the prior film, as she appears only as a thumbnail on a video screen throughout. She LITERALLY Skypes in her performance! Cruise, unfortunately, just doesn't have a character to play. He's an Everyman who runs and jumps a lot. If only the script had allowed him a little levity, a little Han Solo humor, and if the pace had been picked up here and there, I would have thought this a Kubrickian-pastiche mindbender.
Instead, it's a not-bad attempt at injecting some poetry and soul into sci-fi. Too bad they skimped on the soul. About midway through, there's a terrific reveal, and things escalate rather nicely from there, until we get the big AHA OF A CLIMAX and the somewhat saccharine finale. I totally get why it was made, and only wish the writers had done one more character pass on the script.
Sometimes filmmakers have stories burning to be told and sometimes they have a type of storytelling they're itching to explore. TRANCE falls into the latter category, as Danny Boyle gets to exorcise all of his "Heist Movie" demons here. Filled with twist after twist, it's fairly satisfying as filmic explorations go.
James McAvoy is Simon, an auctioneer who loses a valuable painting and his memory when art thieves try to steal a Goya. He enlists the aid of a hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson) in order to help recover the masterpiece. To discuss the relationships in this film would spoil the story, and let's face it, this film is ALL about its plot points.
From a script by Joe Ahearne and reportedly doctored by TRAINSPOTTING genius, John Hodge, TRANCE has the syncopated rhythms of that aforementioned film, especially in its use of voiceover. You can almost imagine the "Choose Life" speech fitting in perfectly. The evocative and constant use of music takes a page from DRIVE handbook. Boyle plays with stories within stories and mixes filmmaking technologies seamlessly. In the hypnosis scenes, he switches points of view and inserts characters into memories to constantly keep you guessing as to what is real and what's not.
I was reminded quite a bit of SIDE EFFECTS, Steve Soderbergh's pulp thriller genre exercise from earlier this year. Both directors seem to be having a bit of fun instead of making some passion project. While not entirely plot heavy, TRANCE peels back layer after layer to finally expose the "real" and sad story underneath it all.
At the heart of this are wonderfully engaging performances by McAvoy, who brings the right amount of sweetness Ewan McGregor usually brings to Boyle's films, Vincent Cassel, as an incredibly soulful head thief, and especially Dawson, who shows a heap-ton of command and range. She's ferocious, interesting, unpredictable and in one startling shot, literally naked. Filled with Boyle's usual narrative and cinematic tricks and with frequent collaborator, the great cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, providing one sleek image after the other, TRANCE is best remembered for giving Dawson the richly deserved lead performance we've been waiting for, and as such, it's worth the price of admission alone.
Sometimes a filmmaking challenge is enough to sustain my interest. How to you make a film exciting which takes place almost entirely in confined spaces? CUJO, BURIED, and PHONE BOOTH are examples of these contained thrillers. THE CALL joins this list, and most of the time, it works really well. Halle Berry is Jordan, a 911 Operator, who takes a call from a kidnapped girl (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE herself, Abigail Breslin), and tries desperately to save her while redeeming a past mistake. This is pretty cookie cutter stuff here, but director Brad Anderson knows how to keep things moving.
In lesser hands, we would have grown bored right away, because the large majority of this film shows us two people talking on a phone. Anderson, however, ratchets up the tension, aided by a lean, mean script by Richard D'Ovidio , and managed to keep me on the edge of my seat through most of it. Things do run off the rails in the last act, where Halle Berry manages to ignore ALL of her considerable training and become the person audiences are guaranteed to scream such things as, "Don't go in there!" and "Girl!!!".
Additionally, there are a few too many loose ends (seriously with the inability to track the call?) and shoddy police work (if only the cops had looked around a little bit more), and I could have done without Anderson's annoying habit of freeze frames right before something excessively violent was about to happen. The editing is crisp and there isn't one ounce of fat in the film. It hits GO and GOES! Berry is appropriately tense and Breslin proves scrappy, but poor Michael Imperioli is not going to let this topple THE SOPRANOS on his resume. A big shout out to my friend, Rakefet Abergel, who shows up briefly as a fellow operator. WTG Girl!
All in all, THE CALL plays out like an exciting series pilot. Imagine if Clarice Starling from SILENCE OF THE LAMBS could solve crimes using a headset and a good GPS, et voila! It's not terribly deep or original, but it does the job.