I Don’t Have A Vote: The 89th Annual Oscars – You are ruining Everything

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89th Annual Oscars – You’re Ruining Everything

Save us, Jimmy Kimmel. Save us.

This year, with all that’s going on in the rest of the world, we need movies more than ever as a distraction. Awards shows in the modern era normally have a certain amount of politics thrown in, but Meryl Streep’s  flatulent performance at the Globes really ruined it for a lot of people, including our entire house. One can hope they don’t hand her a microphone this year, but this is unlikely.

My heart was set even further asunder when I saw how good a speech can be. George Kennedy is not everyone’s first thought as an Oscar winner. And that also included George Kennedy.

Could you imagine anyone winning the award Post Halle Berry handling it with such grace? It beats talking about saving the planet from climate change and then flying off in a lear jet to go spend time on one’s yacht any day.

My wife wants to skip it. My youngest daughter wants to watch Jimmy. So do I. Looks like we’re going to have to rely on our DVR so we can cut the crap and enjoy the crappy spectacle.

As a result of that one complete overindulgence, I nearly lost the will to tell you what I liked best this year. This is as close to forcing it as writing comes for me. There was some good things in the movies this year though, and I think we need to talk about it.

My pick for the best in film this year is a lot closer to what the Academy picked this year. I can almost see it from here when there are no clouds at night. It’s somewhere behind Pluto.

So I will give everyone my take on who I would have won the awards. Often it’s someone who isn’t on the board, and that is okay. This follows with who I think should win of the nominees. I hope you find some way to enjoy some movies that may not be mentioned at all tonight.

Best Film:

I gave my highest rating to Hacksaw Ridge, Fences,  The Girl With All The Gifts, Loving and Captain America: Civil WarArrival and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story almost got there, too. That’s a pretty good year. Of these films, the one that I think accomplished the most is McCarthy’s take on an apocalyptic vision. In under two hours we see one of the most brilliant philosophical musings about moving forward as a species ever placed in such a humble package. If you haven’t seen it and you can stomach a zombie film that discusses and understands Schrödinger’s Cat, you should.

Of the nominees:

I need to go with Fences. It’s the best of those films. La La Land will likely win. Most winners for best picture ended up being just above average (at ***1/2 stars) for me.

Best Director: 

Arrival accomplished the most amazing thing this year in its approach to sci-fi. We have as many heady subjects going on as are occurring in The Girl With All The Gifts, and most importantly, Villeneuve works carefully with his team to avoid any of the tropes that we see in even the best sci-fi. It’s lone weakness of circular logic is insignificant when one considers we are going back to the most basic form of communication to ponder some of the deepest philosophical and heart-wrenching truths of human existence. His work here, along with an incredibly dense (if short) career’s worth of work places him just above McCarthy.

Of the nominees: 

Villeneuve. Gibson has created a powerful film that seems at once of its time and timeless, but I have to defer to the power of Villeneuve’s simple choices.

Best Actor:

Andrew Garfield has a great performance as a man driven by impulses that many can’t understand. Denzel Washington has the kind of vulnerable performance that he’s never done before. My favorite performance of the year is Ryan Gosling in…The Nice Guys. I spent much of La La Land realizing how good he had been and subsequently went home and watched it again. His range therein moves from incomparable weenie, to overwrought widower, horrible father to great father. If there were ever a performer that completely absorbed Shane Black’s vision, this is it.

Of the nominees:

Garfield may never be nominated again, and it would be nice to see him win. But there is no way he was better than Washington.

Best Actress:

Sennia Nanua has what I consider the most memorable and poignant performance of the year. Her journey from complete innocence to an understanding of her role in the advancement of humanity is one that I will not forget.

Of the nominees:

I am so hopeful that Ruth Negga wins this category for Loving. Her performance is the best of those that I saw. What I have seen of Huppert’s performance in Elle intrigues me. WeMissE has me thinking I need to watch this film today. But dear God, whatever you do, don’t give this to Streep.

Best Supporting Actor: 

Russell Hornsby and Stephen Henderson keep coming to my mind for their divergent takes on the sons of Troy Maxson in Fences. Both present incredibly resonant reactions to a father who is different to both of them and continues to change. I didn’t expect to be so enamored with their bit roles, but they really help to bring the story into focus with their performances. No one can take this award from Mahershala Ali, though.

Of the nominees: 

Ali.I love Shannon. He really made chicken salad here. Bridges is great here, too. But he’s done this guy before, even if the ending of this film pushes him to another level.

Best Supporting Actress:

There really can be no other discussion beyond who is second best. Davis has this award locked and she deserves it. This is a performance of the ages.

Of the nominees:

Davis. Just don’t thank Meryl Streep.

Best Original Screenplay:

Hell or High Water has about the best ending of any film this year. The only one that was better is Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy’s Rogue One A Star Wars Story. It’s remarkable achievements include creating a cast of original characters, making A New Hope‘s weaknesses disappear, and adding to the mythology while detracting the dorkiness factor. It’s truly a remarkable achievement in a series I had given up on seeing a good script from.

Of the nominees:

La La Land has a good script, but of this group, the best one I have seen is Hell or High Water. Sheridan is on a roll.

Best Adapted Screenplay:

This truly is a race between Fences, The Girl with All the Gifts and Arrival. The difference here is that the former is almost entirely word for word from the original. There is no real adapting, because it is perfect the way it is. Arrival is has had some work done, but then there is that circular logic thing. I enjoy both of them so much, it’s literally a tossup. Either of them will not be forgotten. My pick is The Girl with All the Gifts. It’s an extraordinary story that could be understood by kids as well as adults, even if the subject matter can be gruesome.

Of the nominees: 

Same here, though I give Arrival a slight edge since Wilson has already taken home some pretty impressive accolades (including 2 Pulitzer Prizes, one for this) and he would not be around to pick up the trophy, since he passed 12 years ago.

Best Cinematography:

Arrival and La La Land are both fantastic in this category. Simon Duggan’s work in Hacksaw Ridge is extraordinary. The work that stands out for me is Ben Davis’ seamless blend of effects and imagery in Doctor Strange. It’s one thing to push forward the incredible work done in dimensional photography in Inception. It’s quite another to completely replicate the remarkable comic book look shot for shot.

Of the nominees: 

This is one category I think La La Land should win.

Best Animated Film:

Moana is another in the long line of Disney Princess films that will resonate for generations. Sure it misunderstands the purpose of promoting a woman is to make her look good without denigrating men, but damn the visuals are exquisite and the songs are catchy. Zootopia is a really good movie too, but it’s preaching so much, the good stuff is harder to detect while trying to weave out the bad. For this reason, I have to go with the art of Kubo and the 2 Strings.

Of the nominees:

Kubo

I don’t know if I will ever stop watching this celebration of movies. As bad as it usually is each year, it’s still the best thing we have to mark the passage of a year in the age of film. It really helps if Jimmy Kimmel is on his game, though. We need him more than ever this year.

 

 

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Nocturnal Animals (*) is weak

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Nocturnal Animals – 2016

Written and Directed by Tom Ford
Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen

Nocturnal Animals is the kind of story shared by people I will never be associated with in real life. I suppose this would not inherently make their viewpoint any less valid to me. That they don’t know how to tell their story effectively might, though.

It’s the kind of story where someone leaves an abortion clinic after having the procedure performed and then tells the person she is having an affair with that she is “Catholic and I don’t even believe in abortion.”

She is Susan (Adams), a “debutante” like her mother (Linney). At one point, she married her college sweetheart, Edward (Gyllenhaal) and tried to deny her true self. Even if she was not artistic, she could appreciate someone who was, right? Wrong. Her mother told her it was wrong in one of many poorly played out scenes at a fancy restaurant. She resisted for a while, then she ended up with Hutton (Hammer) after breaking it off with Edward and killing their baby.

Years later, after having a child of their own who is now full grown, Susan and Hutton are breaking apart. Edward sends Susan a manuscript out of nowhere and she begins to read it. What follows are scenes truly worthy of the MST3K treatment. There are so many boring shots of Susan reading Edwards story in any of a variety of comfortable rooms, it lampoons itself.

Meanwhile, the story she reads is preposterous. A family of 3, driving on a seemingly desolate road, are accosted by three random rednecks. Gyllenhaal is a father figure here named Tony. He has another red head (Fisher) as his wife and they have a daughter that has red hair too. This is curious to no one. It’s obvious what they are meant to represent. Anyone that doesn’t know what happens when rednecks come across families at night on a desert road in a movie can keep watching, if they can make it through. If they do, they deserve a reward. They won’t get one.

Tony ends up working with Detective Andes (Shannon) to find the rednecks afterword. That Shannon is nominated for supporting actor is not surprising. He truly made bad dialogue and a worse premise sing. He should not win for this garbage of a film, though.

Ford’s incompetent storytelling lays waste to the best efforts of Gyllenhaal. Rarely have I seen him try so hard and come up with so little. Adams is horrible. It could be this performance that kept her from her nomination worthy performance in Arrival. Everyone else in this movie come across like mannequins reading bad dialogue. That’s the best I can give it.

Ford has no talent that I can see for the art of movie making. Most of his shots come across like those awkward photos of kids in the 70’s when you get the front view and a soft side view in one shot. It’s supposed to be poignant and deep. It only produces awkward chuckles.

(* out of *****)

Loving (*****) brick by brick

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Loving – 2016

Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Michael Shannon, Nick Kroll, Martin Csokas, Bill Camp

The thing about Jeff Nichols movies is that one can feel them as well as viewing them. Richard and Mildred Loving are not brilliant people. They are just ironically named lovers who become married on the verge of a good and necessary change. Yes, they are interracial and that makes them part of that change. Thing is, they still have to work, pay bills and carry on. There are not a series of grandstand moments and brilliantly phrased quotes. The line that sticks with me is the last one quoted before the end credits.

He took care of me.

This hit me because the actions that the Loving’s take with each other are always the small things, right down to handing a glass of water and a gentle massage when the other comes out of the heat. This is stuff people do for one another when they are in love. At least this its my experience. It’s defiance of gravity. It’s working around it.

Richard (Edgerton) is a laborer who becomes a brick layer by trade. Throughout the years with everything that happens, we always see him out there, laying bricks down. Just as importantly, we get to see the bonding agent applied to every layer. They don’t forget the little things. This movie is all about the stuff that fills in the cracks.

Mildred (Negga) is smiling, uncomplaining and always at work herself. Making sure that the house is kept in order and the children are grateful and ever learning. The children are described as bastards in the eyes of the law.  We get to see the obvious pain this causes the parents. Not by words, but by enduring.

Edgerton and Negga present nomination worthy performances in an divisive age. No matter what side of the political coin, we’ve seen race used as a political gimmick that puts steps forward like those endured by the Lovings in jeopardy. No one today suffers like they did back then. On the other hand, those times were not augmented by “protesters” paid to wreak havoc and spread fear of “others.”

Daniels, Edgerton and Negga show love happens regardless of politics and differences. We see their experiences and are allowed to judge for ourselves. The people presented are not all bad and good. Rather, they are working within an oppressive system and leading people in the way they best know how, while still maintaining their homes and jobs.

If you haven’t figured it out, Jeff Nichols is one of the best filmmakers today. After so many years of enjoying his style and his incredible depth, I had an intake of breath when I found he would be covering the story of the Lovings vs. The State of Virginia. If he had make any false step, I would have been in a well of misery. Thankfully, he stays true to the subject, not making any false political comparisons to events and politics of today. There are no false equivalents. There is just Richard and Mildred. And I am loving the way they took care of one another.

(***** out of *****)

Midnight Special (****) has a familiar shine

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Midnight Special – 2016

Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher, Sam Shepard

“…Where heading for the day of reckoning
I’m telling ya, it’s all building up to something
Something that can be repeated with fire…”

Pete Townshend – Give Blood

Jeff Nichols career has been a steady uphill climb until now. His simple approach with complex characters in more complex situations has been a recipe that no others in his field have come close to matching. Each of his first three films, Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud, have reached the classic status. This time out, he was given a budget to match his rising esteem in the business. What he did with it borders on great, but fails in the one aspect that seems irrelevant to his talent – special effects.

The story revolves around a family that is reconstructing after being separated by a cult. The father, Roy (Shannon) has just procured his child, Alton (Lieberher) with the help of his childhood friend Lucas (Edgerton). That his friend willingly surrendered his career as a state trooper exemplifies the importance of the mission. The cult had excommunicated Alton’s mother (Dunst) whilst its leader took the role of Alton’s father, even going so far as to adopt him. All of this happens offscreen before  we ever see any of the characters.

Now the men and boy are on the run. They encounter some dangerous circumstances, even from those that they are supposed to trust. Some of this is extremely surprising, more for what happens than who it happens to. At the same time, the federal government has gotten wind of the disappearance and take advantage of the situation to close in on the cult.

Alton, we discover, has certain abilities that have brought concern to those who keep secrets. At the same time, his gifts have convinced the cult that something is going to happen within days. Both groups have sent forces out in an attempt to reacquire Alton as he and his now reunited family make their way to a set of coordinates ordained by the boy.

Paul Sevier (Driver), who is working for the government, is trying to piece it all together. His efforts within the reach of the government, the forces of the cult and the family must converge at some point. All of this is plays out in a fascinating way.

As with every Jeff Nichols story, the story, acting and dialogue are superb. Michael Shannon is the engine and is once more the de facto altar ego for Nichols. His fierce determination to get his son to where he needs to go pervades every scene. Shannon has had a wonderful career, but he reaches another level working with Nichols. It’s a partnership that one has to hope is rewarded one day.

His son gradually grows in understanding of his ability and his role in life. Lieberher has the gravity to evolve before our eyes in a believable way. His Alton is childlike and wise at once: a tough trick to pull off for a child actor, much less someone writing for and directing the actor.

Edgerton gives a great performance in what would be a throwaway role for most stories of the kind. His motivations are rarely clear, but his loyalty is unquestionable. He has an incredible Texas accent, given his Australian heritage. It’s a character that should be just the driver, but in Nichols’ and Edgerton’s hands, he is a person we come to know, if not entirely understand.

Dunst is to be commended in her performance. She totally disappears into the character. We feel the guilt, elation and a connection to the reality of this most spectacular series of events. It’s tough to imagine her kissing Spider-man with the feeling one possesses while seeing her attempt to reconnect with a son she is seeing change even in the short time they’ve reconnected.

Driver here plays the Charles Martin Smith role in the story. We see his dedication to curiosity and what is right even through the machinations that seem oblivious to good as a concept. That he is better here than he is as Kylo Ren should not be a surprise. Here’s hoping he can apply some of the depth to his next outing donning the mask and saber.

Many of the elements and filming methods of the story are borrowed from other movies. We feel an obvious connection to Starman and Close Encounters. The strangest similarity is perhaps the one least intentional. Everything works for the most part until we find this similarity in the midst of the confusing final act. It makes one wonder if the reason for the delay in releasing the film (from November 2015) is due to how closely it resembles a film that was released last year. It’s too close for comfort even now. Despite that drawback, the final shot of the film succeeds for those who enjoyed the way Take Shelter ended.

Nichols succeeds with this story, but not to the level of his previous work. The pace works, and the effects are in keeping with the rest of the story up until that big reveal. If you loved what Nichols has done before, you will like this one. That it’s not the groundbreaking work one would hope for feels like a disappointment, and that’s a little unfair. If you hadn’t seen the previous work of the director with his number one actor, you’d think this film is more than fine.

(**** out of *****)

Forgotten Gem: My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?

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My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done? – 2009

Director Werner Herzog
Starring Michael Shannon, Willem Dafoe, Chloë Sevigny, Udo Kier, Michael Peña, Grace Zabriskie, Brad Dourif
Screenplay by Herzog and Herbert Golder

Herzog and Golder were thinking of making a movie about the real life murderer Mark Yavorsky, who committed a matricide, mirroring the play of Orestes.  He had been cast in the lead of the play at his college, UCSD and took things a tad too literally.  Golder had met with Yavorsky for a series of interviews, and upon Herzog’s meeting with him during their last interview, an idea was hatched.  Soon afterwards, Herzog discovered that Yavorsky had created a shrine dedicated to one of his films.  They decided to scale back on the direct comparison to the subject in the script.  What they came up with is disturbing, to say the least, and perhaps most because of its basis in reality.  Michael Shannon has a lot to do with it, too.

The meeting of Herzog and Shannon is not without its flaws.  There are more than a few segments that stand out as goofy and almost sophomoric.  Most of the screen time with Sevigny is a mystery to me.  By now we are all used to seeing her acquiesce to the strangest characters on the screen.  As brave as the choice was, it’s almost impossible to think about The Brown Bunny when I see her on-screen.  She always comes across as a timid shrew who just puts up with abuse, craziness or both.  Her onscreen persona feels like, “Please pay attention to me, as I am trying not to draw attention to myself.”  This time is no exception.  As Ingrid, she is the betrothed to Brad McCullum (Shannon), she bears witness to many odd conversations, most of which Brad is having with himself.

She’s not the only one who puts up with this odd behavior.  She’s not even the only one who excuses it.  Everyone wants the best for Brad.  It just seems that he has not been the same since he came back from the trip to Peru, when he was smart enough to not get on a boat during the most dangerous boating season of the year.  He claims God told him to avoid it.  Perhaps it was that he had eyes and he wasn’t on drugs.  Either way, when he comes back, these voices continue, or something does.

His mother, who loves him oppressively, but not cruelly.  Mrs. McCullum (Zabriskie) plays along as well as she can.  She follows along with his claims as reasonably as she can, while placing herself firmly in a wedge between Brad and Ingrid.  Ingrid remains steadfast, though.  No one, it seems, will keep her from her crazy love.

Kier, as play director and friend Lee Meyers, also spends some gloriously awkward times in the fluctuating circle of sanity.  His appearance is strange outside of the environment of the play stage.  Indeed, one of the highlights of the film is when Brad takes Lee to visit Uncle Ted (Dourif) on the Ostrich farm.  The combination of Tedd and Lee is glorious, especially when Lee loses a pair of glasses.

Dafoe and Peña are largely wasted as two detectives who interview folks between flashbacks.  As straightforward as the premise is, Herzog manages to leave images that burn in the mind, using the talent of Shannon in effectively limited doses.  There are many things that contribute to tragedy, but Herzog doesn’t push many theories on the viewer.  The result is disturbingly effective.  The viewer knows they are seeing some unusual behavior, but it is not limited to the protagonist / antagonist Brad.  Each of the people that surround him are unwitting contributors to the tragedy.

My Son… ends up being an effective demonstration of the helplessness in modern society to mental illness.  Since the matricide that served as inspiration for the screenplay, the de-regulation of sanitariums and HIPAA have help to create a society of watchers who understand someone needs help, but are powerless to act until tragedy strikes.  It’s hard enough to act in the first place.  Now we are prohibited from seeking information, and almost entirely prevented from committing someone until it’s too late.  At times this is very frustrating to watch.  When you see the moment that Brad literally thrusts someone into the position of acting, and then they don’t, it’s hardly surprising.  People are trained to follow laws and remain passive.  It’s institutional.  Crazy is anything acting out of the framework of the institution.

There are some brilliantly obtuse moments littered throughout the story, including a comical revelation of the hostages.  Shannon has so many ways to stay appealing even when you think he couldn’t be any more nuts.  His attendance at the open of the play could have been played myriad ways, and somehow he found the right one.  I appreciate the Razzle and the Dazzle.  Even if it might cost me dearly.

(**** out of *****)

(****)

The Iceman just wants to be a landlord

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The Iceman – 2013

Director Ariel Vroman
Starring Michael Shannon, Winona Rider, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta, James Franco, David Schwimmer, Stephen Dorff, Erin Cummings, Robert Davi
Screenplay by Vroman and Morgan Land

No one can economize a performance like Michael Shannon.  His countenance is always sober, but seething underneath.  His performance in Man of Steel was a thankless one, given his competition was another great sober seether, Terence Stamp.  Naturally, he had to take an alternate path, and that path was exaggerated passion.  In The Iceman, Shannon is back to the quiet storm.  Shannon’s performance as Richard Kuklinski,  the real life hitman of somewhere between 100 and 1000 people, is spot on.  He is literally the guy you don’t want to make eye contact with at the diner.

The Iceman plays like a lean version of Goodfellas.  These are the same type of guys.  Ray Liotta is even here this time.  It even takes place at around the same time as the Scorsese classic.  This time, it’s the guy who does the hard work, instead of the 3 wise guys that send him to it.  Somehow, with no barrier between himself and the crooks he works for, he manages to raise a family.  Like any working class schmo.

Vroman efficiently portrays events that were likely combined with others. My only complaint would be that the efficiency borders on brevity,   We find out through well placed flashbacks that he is the product of an abusive environment that leaves one amazed that he did not kill more.  His rational approach to his chosen profession was a delicate balance.  He loved his family, and felt absolutely nothing for the rest of us.  All one had to do, in his rationale, was to leave him and his family alone.  Those who did not follow this rule lost the game.

Rider has perhaps her best performance since Girl, Interrupted.  Her loving, somewhat insecure Deborah, is simple enough to be shocked to discover after years together that her husband edits porn as compared to the cartoon voice over career he told her she had.  She is then wise enough to not ever ask him why he lied to her.  They have kids to raise, after all.

Ray Liotta has the same kind of energy that he has used in his better performances.  Chris Evans is thoroughly committed to his role as Kuklinski’s occasional partner.  James Franco gives my favorite performance by just getting killed like a coward.  Brava.

For anyone who can handle the aforementioned Scorsese classic, this film will work.  Extra points go for those who appreciate seeing one of the world’s top actors in his prime.

Mud: The dream of love lives on

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Mud – 2012

Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shephard, Jacob Lofland, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Michael Shannon, Joe Don Baker, Stuart Greer, Michael Abbott, Jr., Bonnie Sturdivant

I was never more fiercely dedicated to the pursuit of love than when I was in the Grade School.  My nerves were such that I only comfortable when I pursued it from a distance.  The closer I got, the more inaccessible it seemed to me.  This kind of love is the place in which Mud (McConaughey) exists.  He is clear minded in his ideas of how he is going to pursue that which he loves.  Right down to the shopping list of things that it would take to get a boat down from where it rests on top of a tree in a swamp, get it running and then pursue the object of his desire.mudboat2

There to help him on his journey are two boys, Ellis (Sheridan) and Neckbone (Lofland).  Ellis is the product of a family that is breaking apart.  The latter is his friend, who never did know his parents.  The two boys found the boat, and had a mind to claim it for their own, when they discover Mud, a fugitive who is waiting to meet up with his girl, Juniper (Witherspoon).  Ellis is taken by the earnestly whimsical nature of Mud.  He has stories to tell and ideas expresses.  Neckbone does not take to him so easily.  Nonetheless, he is a dedicated supporter to his friend and dutifully follows as Ellis is reeled in.

Mud is rife with characters that may be ignorant, but certainly are not stupid.  In this way, his work is reminiscent of one of his literary heroes, Mark Twain.  He also writes with a sense of the characters of William Faulkner.  His characters are passionate and often startlingly intelligent while appearing to be disarmed and slack-jawed.  As well-developed as the character of Mud is, it is all the more amazing to realize that he is more of a symbol of unrequited love as anything.  The moment he comes closest to his love shows this.  If he ever crosses the Rubicon of his ideal represented by Juniper, reality is dashed.

The gist of the story is really coming of age.  Ellis is seeing love challenged everywhere around him.  He feels it fiercely as anything he ever will in his life.  His parents are splitting apart.  His mother (Paulson) seeks anything new beyond the river.  His father (McKinnon), like anyone anchored in the old south, wants to stay on the river, eeking out a meager living and enjoying his misery.  Ellis himself is falling for a girl (Sturdivant).  He needs to see the love he imagines between Mud and Juniper to succeed so that he can know that he has a chance.  The whole sad cafe blend of relationships is the most genuine feeling in a deeply realistic film.

The acting, always a strength in Nichols films, is once more a highlight here.  McConaughey has been this good before, but he is not this good often.  He took a role written for him by Nichols and performed it perfectly.  His presence suggests another director who Nicholas reminds me of: John Sayles.  Nichols got the idea of casting him after seeing McConaughey in Lone Star.  Like that classic (one of the best movies I have ever seen) the characters express so much more than just exposition for a story.  They are metaphors, one and all, representing places in life, stages in life, trappings and freedom.

Tye Sheridan is going to be a great adult actor one day.  He is already a great child actor.  His face expresses so much with every frame, the film could work with half of his dialogue.  Michael Shannon’s time on the set was limited due to his filming Man of Steel.  He is so at home in the worlds that Nichols creates that he can create a highlight from the smallest amount of screen time.  Nichols claims that Shannon is the best actor in the world.  I believe this to be so.  I also think that Nichols may be the best director in the world at this point.  He is definitely the best since Sayles released films like MatewanCity of Hope, Limbo and Lone Star.

McKinnon and Paulson are exceptional, especially in the powerful scene about the stolen boat motor.  The momentum is thrown so strikingly off kilter, only an actor like McKinnon could hang with the curve.  Witherspoon is nearly unrecognizable as the cute starlet that we saw in Legally Blonde, or even Walk The Line.  Her role as the temptress with a heart that is not necessarily pure gold.  In a role that could very easily been a distraction, she serves her purpose well.

Sam Shephard is right at home with good writing, and his character is an ironically essential outlier.  On the other end of the acting experience spectrum, Lofland has an easy nature that fits within the environment as well as the story structure.  His relationship with his Uncle Galen (Shannon), is very organic.  There is a scene where one of Galen’s suitors walks out the front door after a romantic session.  She implores the boy not to treat women like his Uncle.  In the midst of her admonishment, she sees him staring at her breasts.  She is aghast, and he just smiles.  Like Uncle like nephew.

The film is essentially a tribute to young love.  That does not mean it is not a complexly dense.  It’s a bunch of simple parts expertly constructed to be a thriller, a drama and a romance.    Mud is as rich as any film I have seen in the past year.  It is a beautiful thing to have a director who is so in tune with life.  I anxiously await his future work.

Since I have grown older, the love is not as fierce, but it’s a lot wiser and deeper.  Ellis will know this one day, even if Mud will stay frozen in time in his mind.

(***** out of *****)

Bearing the weight of the Man of Steel

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Man of Steel – 2013

Director Zack Snyder
Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane, Christopher Meloni, Ayelet Zurer
Screenplay David S. Goyer

Well documented are the difficulties of making a movie about a man with no weaknesses.  As good a Superman as Christopher Reeve was, there was really nothing for him to do after he beat Terrance Stamp’s General Zod way back in Superman II.  It took 2 more movies before they realized it.  The beautiful but flawed Superman Returns showed that, even with better special effects and an extreme emphasis on character development, they had nothing to fall back on but a literal sea of Kryptonite.  Now, with the help of Christopher Nolan, savior of the Batman franchise, the push was towards darkness and the weight of morality.  It is a bold decision, and one that nearly succeeds.  This Man of Steel has more death and destruction than any super hero film I have ever seen.  Yes, that includes The Avengers and the third Transformers film…combined.

The story starts out on the doomed planet of Krypton.  We get extensive back story that explains (for the most part) the reason for the planet’s demise and the actual sins of General Zod, which are closer to an insane nobility than unchecked arrogance as presented in the Reeve franchise.  Crowe, Shannon and Zurer are all exceptional here, as is the variety of living beings present.  It starts to make sense.

Once on earth, we are presented with a story for Kal-El in the same winding and flashback fashion that we got to see in Batman Begins.  It’s at this point that Man of Steel is at its most daring.  We get to see what makes him the son of Jonathan and Martha Kent (Costner and Lane) in contrast to what it means to be the son of Jor-El (Crowe) and Laura (Zurer).  The contrast is interesting, and it really encourages an interest in his development.  All of this dovetails very nicely with the introduction of Amy Adams as Lois Lane.  Thankfully, she avoids the playful pluckiness of Kidder, who had made the character her own opposite Reeve.  Instead, we get a mostly believable journalist who ruled as much by her conscience as her desire for the story.

From here, the film takes its most jarring turns.  Shannon is every bit the equal of Stamp in the role of the antagonist.  His vitriol, mixed with an unexpected intelligence, creates a worthy adversary for Superman.  There is a leap into megalomania which would seem inconsistent with all but the most irrational beings and it wreaks havoc on the rest of the film.  The result is a mixture of destruction and exposition that is curiously ill-fitting.  What we see is breathtakingly horrific, and decisive.  The very next moment, we hear its reasoning verbalized.  The explanations seem more the “just in case you don’t follow” variety.  That aside, Shannon is riveting and worth every moment on-screen.  He is hands down the best actor around now.

Superman is the hero that started everything.  He is also the end of all heroes.  There is no DC Universe without him.  There is just Batman, and a bunch of one offs.  Cavill does a great job here, working well with all he is given, and my God what a winning smile.  There could not be a better director for visual effects, save Del Toro or Jackson.  Even so, it’s a barrage of destruction that comes close to overwhelming everything else that the story is attempting to build.  For this I have to blame the writer.  We see decision foisted upon the hero answered with such a casual quip it’s quite shocking.  One can’t imagine that I could make such a decision.  Then there is the ending.  It’s impossible to imagine anyone could smile after all that happens.  But then, there still is hope.  We do have Superman.

(**** out of *****)

Premium Rush: Don’t expect Fly By Night

Premium Rush Ride Like Hell

Premium Rush – 2012

Director David Koepp
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Shannon, Dania Ramirez, Wole Parks
Screenplay Koepp and John Kamps

Ever since discovering we were going to get a preview of Michael Shannon as a bad guy in Premium Rush, the movie rose to the top of the must see list.  His skills have shown him without peer in the last few years (Take Shelter and Boardwalk Empire).  It seemed a fait accompli that he was to play General Zod in the one must see Superman film (Man of Steel) destined to be a huge hit since the second Christopher Reeve opus.  One has to hope, however, that he can rise above this performance.  Channeling Gary Oldman, closer to Norman Stansfield from Leon than James Gordon from the Dark Knight Trilogy, Shannon uses an accent closer to Boston than New York.  It’s not that he is all that bad.  It could be that by now, one can expect nothing short of excellence each time out.

As cycling savant, Wilee, Gordon-Levitt gives it a game effort.  There will be no awards forthcoming, to be sure, but one can truly buy someone of his stature and swagger as a bike messenger in the concrete jungle.  His back and forth with the other cyclers seems frenetic, brash and resourceful.  It’s hard to imagine that they would not all be arrested within a week, but hey, this is the big screen.  We all want to see stuff we wouldn’t see in our daily lives, and there is plenty of that here.

The rest of the cast is bland and ethnic enough to represent the melting pot, in a Democratic sense.  There is nothing resembling real personality here.  It’d be nice if there was someone on the level even of Argyle from Die Hard, even.  This is mostly the doings of director/writer David Koepp.  His work has been between blockbuster good (Jurassic Park and Spider-Man) and awful (The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Snake Eyes, Angels and Demons and the 4th Indiana Jones movie).  The problem with this movie is not the story, or even the cinematography.

The world of the bicycle messenger is something so readily cinematic, it just begs to be filmed.  Koepp’s crew is more than up to the task with everything other than the “choose your own adventure” intersection scenes, which are funny in more than one way.  The animation for each of those spots are not up to the task of the humor.  The chases are exciting as well as unnerving.

The biggest problem with Premium Rush is the pacing.  Koepp cuts things, rewinds, goes forward, sideways and absolutely nowhere with his attempt at Tarantinoesque editing.  He tries to cover up the lack of depth my moving plot points everywhere.  The result is much more annoyance than enlightenment.  All of this renders the film mostly useless for repeat viewings.

It’s been almost 30 years since Kevin Bacon was in another Bicycle Messenger film called Quicksilver.  I don’t remember much about the movie now, but I do remember 2 things.  Laurence Fishburne was wise to change his name from “Larry” and that film really made me want to ride my 10 speed.  The problem for me then was every where I went was hills.  The problem for me now is the rather large hill on my upper abdomen.  This film awakens those long dormant feelings.  That should be enough for one time through.

(*** out of *****)

Machine Gun Preacher: A worthy effort about a flawed, good man

Machine Gun Preacher – 2011

Directed by Marc Foster
Starring Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Shannon, Kathy Baker, Souléymane Sy Savané, Rhema Marvanne
Screenplay by Jason Keller

Sam Childers is not an easy man.  His path through early life was drugs, booze, prison and then he graduated to armed robbery for more drugs, and then to attempted murder.  Around the time he was getting out of prison, his wife, who was taking care of their child, stopped stripping, got a job earning “good money”  and found Jesus.  Things as they were, Sam (played with heart and grit by Butler) got tired of trying to wipe bad blood off his hands, his clothes, his soul.  He went to church with his family.  He found God.  It was a struggle for a while.  This film shows the true path of Christianity as a long hard road.  Sam and his wife (Monaghan), built on those struggles, eventually coming up with half-share in a construction company that allowed for his family to move out of their Mobile Home park and into a good house.  In the process, Sam took the time to reach back into his old life, grab his lifelong friend (the realistically pathetic Michael Shannon), help him sober up and then eventually get clean.

At this time in his life, Sam comes up with ideas, both of which his wife supports.  He is going to make a church in their town in Pennsylvania, and at the same time, he is going to go to Africa (specifically southern Sudan and northern Uganda) to “see what’s going on.”

What he finds there changes his life in a dramatic way, pushing him to the edge of his faith and, similarly, his family and friends to the edge of their faith in him.  The thing that works about this story is that because Childers decides to do something good does not make him a genius, or someone who makes all the right decisions.  Butler, in one of his best performances, shows Sam to be a deeply flawed, but even more deeply compassionate man.

When he sees many children seeking a place to sleep in the open at night below his hotel room on that first trip, he immediately goes down and starts rousing them up, inviting him into he and his friend Deng’s two bed room.  Sure, they won’t all fit.  The point is, he doesn’t let that keep him from trying.

Similarly, when armed men, working for the fabled leader of “Kony 2012” in the Lord’s Resistance Army, try to lay waste to the good he is working to build, he takes up arms without hesitation and starts firing back.  He is criticized by people at home and abroad for actions like this.  These people, for the most part, have no skin in the game.  His wife’s encouragement is enough for him to keep building…and keep using arms to save kids.

For those of you who views the work of philanthropy requires that one carry a stethoscope and pretend they are Angelia Jolie, this film will challenge that notion.  This film trades on hope, but it also shows real people making do with what they have.  Some have said that the mixture of guns and religion loses the message.  Sometimes you just need to escape to live another day for another shot at redemption.

This is an effective film, and I really have a sense for the man and his efforts by the time the credits roll.  At that time, you get the chance to see the real man and his friends and family.  While seeing this, a chill swept through me.  Sam Childers is a scary man, who is intensely determined to do what he feels is right.  His commitment, flawed or not, is greater than anything I think I could muster.  God might be able to do a better job, but Childers is the first of his children there.  And you can be sure he’s going to be the last one out.

(***1/2 out of *****)