Friday, December 20, 2013

MUD (2013)

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) spends his day much as you’d expect a 14-year-old would. He lives on a dilapidated houseboat with parents Senior (Ray McKinnon) and Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson) and, when he’s not helping his father sell fresh catches of fish in town, he explores the rural Arkansas environs with best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who lives with uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), an oyster fisherman. One morning the boys set off to a nearby island in the Mississippi River where Neckbone found an abandoned boat in a tree (left by a recent flood) to which they plan to stake claim. When they arrive a disheveled, enigmatic man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) has already moved in. At first he only asks Ellis to bring him back food while he waits for a mystery woman. But each time Ellis visits the requests increase, and Mud parcels out more of his strange story. He has been obsessed with Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) since high school, and throughout their troubled history she has become involved with abusive men and turned to Mud for help, usually by him beating them up. The last time, however, he shot the man dead, and now he hides on the island. Ellis becomes fixated on this less than requited love story and agrees to acquire various parts and supplies to make the tree-bound boat seaworthy so Mud can run away with his dream girl. In town Ellis discovers Juniper holed up at a nearby motel, but also learns that the murdered man’s father has hired thugs to kill Mud. Relative newcomer Sheridan has a natural, commanding presence, and McConaughey gives his opaque drifter an earthy charm and a menacing reticence. Writer/director Jeff Nichols’ film starts out as a boys’ adventure tale and gradually evolves into a bittersweet coming-of-age story that forgoes cheap nostalgia. Like Ellis we want to get swept up in his romantic idealism, but events and Nichol’s world-weary parental figures remind him (and us) that adults are as adept at casual deceit and emotional blindness as feckless youths. Despite an ending that nearly succumbs to action film tropes, Nichols maintains an enveloping tone of almost magical realism.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


The original ANCHORMAN was the first Will Ferrell movie I could recommend without reservation. With the terrific comic chemistry between Ferrell and Christina Applegate (as rival and lover Veronica Corningstone) Burgundy became the most endearing of film blowhards. The sequel, again directed by Adam McKay, moves the story from ‘70s San Diego to ‘80s New York, where the anchor couple faces a marital crisis when the network promotes Veronica and fires Ron, sending the egomaniac into a tailspin. Then Freddie Shapp (Dylan Baker) offers him the chance to gather his old news team – Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) and Champ Kind (David Koechner) – and join the Global News Network’s innovative 24-hour program. Because Ron feels threatened by GNN’s handsome star anchor Jack Lime (James Marsden) he makes a foolish wager. However, in his desperation to win Ron stumbles upon the novel concept of giving viewers the news they want, and his ratings go through the roof. This sudden success boosts Ron’s already inflated ego and wins him a new girlfriend in GNN’s black station chief, Linda Jackson (Meagan Good). But soon our Icarus with salon-quality hair flies too near the sun. Kristen Wiig and Greg Kinnear are welcome cast additions, but the movie is overstuffed with celebrity cameos and gives Applegate little to do. McKay and Ferrell’s script never attains the original’s narrative cohesion and too often evokes and attempts to surpass sublime moments from its predecessor. The advent of the 24-hour news cycle creates dispiriting comedy and mainly serves to remind viewers of the depressing state of current television news. The original movie used feminism to spark Ron and Veronica’s professional and emotional friction. Except for a dinner in which Ron meets Linda’s family and a love scene in which a Jackie Robinson film clip appears, the sequel’s interracial romance doesn’t provide much kick because Ferrell and Good never ignite comically. While some may “agree to disagree” that the movie has plenty of laughs (which it does), I found it more strained and less of a “big deal” this time around.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Modern horror movies have become little more than fictionalized snuff films, with few scares and less humanity. While horror need not satirize society as George Romero’s seminal zombie pictures did or tap into a zeitgeist anxiety like THE EXORCIST, it should at the very least frighten its audience. This gripping tale of paranormal terror does just that. Based ostensibly on a true story, the film is set primarily in 1971 in and around a Rhode Island farmhouse with a past that includes witchcraft and filicide. Unaware of this Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and Roger Perron (Ron Livingston) move into the rustic home with their five lively daughters. Strange noises, sentient doors opening and closing, and frequent sleepwalking by one of the girls, quickly fray the family’s nerves. After they begin to explore the cluttered, dusty cellar, the phenomena increase and become more malevolent, so the Perrons turn to paranormal experts Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) and Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson). Lorraine, a psychic recovering from an exorcism gone awry, persuades her husband, a demonologist with ties to the Catholic Church, to verify the claim. The Warrens surmise that a demon has attached itself to the Perrons and soon discover it has done the same to them when it starts threatening their daughter as well. With admirable restraint writers Chad Hayes & Carey W. Hayes parcel out hints of the impending horror in the film’s first half. Director James Wan shrewdly follows this example, using off-screen sounds and vague shapes lurking at the edge of vision or just out of focus to foment anxiety. As the demon begins to manifest itself Wan uses misdirection and asymmetrical framing to create a palpable sense of dread and keep the viewer off balance. His most potent tool, however, is his remarkable cast. Wilson’s wonky sincerity and Livingston’s flannel-shirted stability lend credibility to the escalating events, while Taylor and Farmiga, with their ferocious commitment within the film’s genre trappings, draw us in. We experience their desperate terror when the scares come and, in the end, their relief, and take comfort in the triumph of human decency.