The funny thing about Sundance is that any person at any time could be a star. On the street you're just waiting to peer under a pair of aviators or a fur-trimmed parka hood to see someone totally famous. Everyone is looking for the same thing in the movie theaters too. You go out to see the stars, like Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon in the new movie Mud, but the problem is, while the stars show up, the movie always doesn't. Mud is a movie filled with great performances not only from the biggest names on the marquee, but also American Horror Story mainstay Sarah Paulson, Oscar nominee Michael Shannon and the two teenage newcomers Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland. The problem is, they're the best thing about the movie.
There are things to like about writer/director Jeff Nichols' (Take Shelter) heartwarming coming-of-age story, but its problems outweigh its delights. It's biggest problem is that the 130-minute running time is about 40 minutes too long. The second, and boy is it a doozy, that the movie is so close to verging on misogynist that the more feminist leaning parts of the Internet should rev up their keyboards now. There is not a woman in this movie who doesn't betray her man, cheat on him, use him, steal his home, rob him of his authenticity, make him move to a boring condo complex in the suburbs, or otherwise force him of his natural and driving male essence.
The story is about two boys, Ellis and the wonderfully named Neckbone, two kids who live along a river in Arkansas and one day stumble upon a fugitive (McConaughey) living in a boat stranded on an island in the river. He is a sweet-talking charmer (does McConaughey play anything but) who is on the run from the law after killing the man who beat up the woman he loves (Witherspoon). He has nothing but a pistol and a magic shirt that he uses for protection (the irony of the oft-topless McConaughey having a magic shirt should be lost on no one) and he needs the boys to bring him food. Slowly they get embroiled in his plot to escape with his girl Juniper and avoid both the law and the dead man's family that is hunting for him. This is all while Ellis' father and mother are getting a divorce and he's dealing with falling in love with his first girlfriend, who, of course, cheats on him and then humiliates him in public. This thing might as well be a river fort with a giant "No Girlz Allowed" sign out front.
The takeaway to the story seems to be that the only people you can count on in this world are your male friends and your father figure. At the end of the movie, after all hell breaks loose as Ellis and Neckbone's entanglement with Mud gets crazy and deadly, we see each male character have a touching moment with his father figure. None of them are any good – Ellis' father can't make money, Mud's adopted father is a deadly "assassin," and Neck's uncle treats women possibly the worst of any of them – but, heck, in a man's world it's the man who teaches you how to man like a man that man man man. And some of the man manning that men masculine you with is hatred of women. Ellis' father (the wonderful Ray McKinnon) tells him at one point, "Women are tough. They set you up for some." Eventually, when Ellis confronts Mud about how much girls suck, Mud replies, "If you find a girl half as good as you, you'll be all set." See, a woman can never be as good as a man. At least not a man who is loyal to other men. The movie ends with the Beach Boys song "Help Me, Rhonda," which a character explains earlier is about a man who needs to get over a girl by having sex with another girl. Even as the credits are rolling this movie is telling us that women are fickle and replaceable, good only for sex, and not nearly as good as the men in life.
For all of its gorgeous cinematography and Southern charm, this is a well-told story. Film festivals need another movie about teenage boys coming of age and their complicated relationships with their father like a Big Mac needs more calories. And it's not especially adept in its storytelling. There is a mention of snakes in the first 30 minutes followed by a complicated explanation that everyone in the theater sees is going to end in a snake bite and a redemption. The ending isn't as saccharine and predictable as you might think, but it's close. And of course that redemption in the end is only for those in the possession of at least one Y chromosome. Seriously, our stars deserve better than this.
Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan
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An Oscar conversation during the summer time? Believe it.
While Hollywood is saving their prestige pictures for Fall/Winter release (the supposed sweet spot for Academy Awards-friendly movies), the recently-concluded Cannes Film Festival has kicked the competition into high gear, introducing a slate of movies with Oscar written all over them. The award ceremony won't air until February 24, 2013, but Cannes strategic placement puts it ahead of the curve — and there's evidence that a debut at the French festival has worked before.
Last year's The Artist took home Cannes' Best Actor award for Jean Dujardin and followed up the win with an Academy Award in the same category (not to mention the Best Picture win). The film was universally loved by the fest's global audience — a key component in the Weinstein Company's early push for Best Pic buzz. The other top Cannes films of 2011 were also fierce awards competitors, including Palme d'Or winner The Tree of Life (which nabbed an Oscar Best Picture slot), Drive's Nicolas Winding Refn who took home Best Director, and Cannes' Best Actress winner Kirsten Dunst, for her apocalyptic drama Melancholia. By year's end, Refn and Dunst lost the momentum they saw out of Cannes, but smaller movies still benefited — the Cannes 2011 winner for Best Screenplay, the Israeli drama Footnote, earned a nomination for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars.
This year's slate of Cannes winners have equal prospects at making an impression with Academy voters. Director Michael Haneke received Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography Oscar nominations for his 2009 Palme d'Or-winner The White Ribbon. His follow-up 2012, Amour, took home this year's Palme d'Or, making Haneke only the second director to ever win the award with back-to-back films. While Cannes is a breeding ground for foreign film potentials, the win for Amour combined with the success of Haneke's previous movie may bump the French language film into the mainstream — and Best Pic territory.
Immediately following the debut of her film Rust and Bones, Marion Cotillard was pegged for a Best Actress nomination. The buzz didn't permeate to the winners, with Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan both taking home the award for their portrayal of two female friends in Beyond the Hills (the win was a tie). The actresses may not be recognizable enough for final Hollywood race, but like Footnote before it, the positive reception of the Romanian film (and an additional Cannes win for its screenplay), could keep it in the conversation for a Best Foreign Language Film nomination. But as we learned from last year, being a well-known name isn't requirement when it comes to translating a Cannes win to an Oscar statue — and unlike Dujardin, this year's winner Mads Mikkelsen (for The Hunt) has a handful of blockbuster credits to his name, including Casino Royale, Clash of the Titans and the upcoming Thor 2. If his performance is truly up to snuff with the 2012 competitors, the Cannes win his a huge boost.
While the American competition entries didn't pick up any Cannes accolades, they're not out of the running come Oscar time. Following his highly-regarded 2011 indie Take Shelter, director Jeff Nichols' Mud could gain traction with a standout performance by Matthew McConaughey and young Tye Sheridan of The Tree of Life. Mega-producer Harvey Weinstein declared early that "The Artist just happened again" after his musical comedy The Sapphires screened, but critics were less enthusiastic, putting a damper on the movie's climb to the top. And of course, it never hurts when big name stars like Brad Pitt, Robert Pattinson and Kirsten Stewart turn out for Cannes, sporting well-received (and Oscar-friendly) dramas Killing Them Softly, Cosmopolis and On the Road, but the real winner of the bunch may be writer/director Wes Anderson. His fest opener Moonrise Kingdom played to cheers in France and broke indie opening records at the box office this past weekend. The gorgeous coming-of-age tale could earn a few craft awards at the Oscars and ,if it's as beloved as it seems, a Best Picture nomination.
So keep munching your popcorn and cheering for superheroes, but don't underestimate awards season. If you think it's creeping up, look behind you! It's already here.
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
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[Photo Credit: Zentropa, Wild Bunch]
I am inexplicably drawn to the plot of Mud: a fugitive on the run befriends a fourteen year-old boy who helps him escape the authorities and bounty hunters in order to return to the love of his life. It doesn't sound all too imaginative. It's not especially inspiring. It sounds pretty run of the mill, actually. But for some reason, I am enthralled.
Matthew McConaughey will play Mud, the man on the run from all things good and evil, with the simple wish of drinking in the splendor of love once more. Playing Ellis, Mud's teenaged confidante, is The Tree of Life's Tye Sheridan. And, finally, as the sought-after leading lady: Reese Witherspoon.
So WHAT IS IT that makes this movie so... invigorating? Is it the blunt simplicity of the title? The mismatched pair of conman and middle schooler? Is it the Witherspoon? COULD IT BE THE WITHERSPOON? Probably. Everytime I think of Reese Witherspoon, I think of this. And that just makes my day.