The Reviews: Mud Perfectly Captures The Adolescent Experience

This review was originally published on TopicalTodd.com 5/21/2013

With Mud, the latest from writer/director Jeff Nichols ­ and the first to not have Michael Shannon in the lead role, ­he taps into the nostalgia we associate with both the start of our adolescence and the end of our childhood. While this doesn’t seem difficult since they come hand in hand, it’s rare to capture both with such high reverence. A lesser script would focus on either the loss of innocence that comes with adulthood or the joys of being a child one last time but here, each romanticized while also full of disheartening clarity when we see how the world works in both the good and the bad. Its portrayal of the early teen years is one we see as our own even though it’s merely one we wish we had.

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The film follows Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Loftland) who live in a small Arkansas town along the Mississippi River. Ellis lives on a houseboat with his parents who have their own matrimonial troubles. He’s reserved, perceptive but still has thoughts and desires of his age. Neckbone is younger both in stature and personality. He lives with his womanizing uncle (Michael Shannon) who enjoys a regular jam session with his drinking buddies.

One day the boys take a boat out to an island on the river and discover a tree­-stranded boat from a previous flood. Their first actions when they discover the ship is a brilliant representation of the differences in their personalities. ­ Neckbone is fascinated with the “Penthouse” collection ” on-­board while Ellis is preoccupied with the signs the last owner left behind. Ellis quickly realizes  someone is lives in their new hideout. Turns out it’s a runaway who goes by Mud (Matthew McConaughey).

Those who bought awards stock on McConaughey ten years ago when it was at its lowest thanks to films like How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days should get ready to cash out soon. He’s the best he’s ever been here and proves his excellent work in last year’s Bernie and Magic Mike weren’t flukes. Mud is an awards bait roll but not an awards bait performance. He’s charismatic which definitely helps gain the trust of our protagonists but more importantly, he treats them as equals. McConaughey makes us believe the character sees the boys as such, while still carefully calculating which bits of his past to reveal to convince the boys help him find what he needs to make his getaway. Those two necessities are an engine for the boat and his life­-long love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) – one of her best performances as well.

Ellis needs to believe Mud and Juniper are supposed to be together because he needs to believe in true love. He’s just met his first love – a girl a year older – and his parents are setting a poor example as they inch closer to divorce. His clinging to predestined love is the perfect metaphor for growing up. He’s been told of its existence from the moment he was born but as soon as he reaches an age where he can experience it ourselves, he discovers it’s more complicated than he thought. It’s another way the film shows us how our parents affect our worldview.

Sheridan and Loftland’s performances who second only to the script. There’s a trend in independent film to direct child actors, particularly the younger batch, to stress naturalism. While there are excellent performances from that school of thought, it’s as much  the result of  direction as it is the performance. It’s the opposite here with both actors. This is Loftland’s first role and his timing, both comedic and dramatic, is spot on. I look forward to seeing him in his next role. Rightfully though, this is Sheridan’s movie. He first caught audiences attention in The Tree of Life and everything he showed in that film, he brings here tenfold. His performance creates a childhood that isn’t your own but we believe it was all the way to the end.

Speaking of the end, there were pieces that felt false as I walked out of the theater. Some of that still lingers but those moments exist as part of a larger whole and the film is more complete for them.

****1/2 / *****

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The Reviews: Iron Man 3

This review was originally published on TopicalTodd.com 5/7/2013

With it’s hype and box office performance, Marvel’s aim for Iron Man 3 to top last summer’s The Avengers. For the most part it succeeds. The latest from the franchise is one the studio’s best, especially when it explores the main character’s darker tendencies, but it falls to prey to the films unmemorable tendencies that keep the film from being something special.

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As the first film in Marvel’s “Phase Two,” line of films – which also includes Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers 2Iron Man 3 is very much its own film thus eliminating one of the problems of the previous film and Captain America, both of which were mainly set-up for The Avengers. Here, the events of that film are used to great effect by asking how someone reconciles fighting aliens with a god, a cryogenically preserved soldier and a Hulk then return to a normal life. This is likely because Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is the most three dimensional character of S.H.E.I.L.D’s band of heroes.

Downey has been quoted as saying he believes the character has been exhausted and might not return to the character many more times. He’s played him four times now but the character hasn’t been as interesting (or as fun) here since the first film. As much as Downey brings to the performance credit is due to director Shane Black who worked with the actor in the excellent buddy cop comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Black’s familiarity with Downey and infuses an irreverent humor which works well with the films darker tone.

Speaking of the darker tone, it’s one of the films strengths and its biggest weaknesses. Marvel’s films have created a reputation of being the “fun” superhero movies where as DC (read: Christopher Nolan’s Batman films) are much more serious. While the Marvel tone allowed for Downey to give a performance that’s rightfully made him a star, it also makes the villains and periphery characters feel inconsequential. Guy Pearce is very good as Aldrich Killian the greasy business man who may have ties to the terrorist who calls himself The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) – who’s also great – but there’s nothing memorable about him.

The same goes for Stark’s girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) or his best friend Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle). Both have significantly richer roles than in the past films but their characters don’t bring anything unique. The same goes for many of the films action sequences – with the exception of a sky diving rescue mission which was shot using actual stuntmen. When I think about the finale or the attack on casa de Stark, there are stand out moments but nothing is memorable on its own.

That’s the film’s defining characteristic. It’s usually fun thanks to the Downey and the writing but it isn’t memorable which keeps the film from being the true event of the summer.

*** 1/2 / *****