Mud (2013)

★★★★★

Director: Jeff Nichols

Release Date: May 10th, 2013 (UK and US)

Genre: Drama

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon

“Well ain’t that somethin’?”

Matthew McConaughey’s would-be convict Mud appreciates the trivial simplicities of life: a boat for crossing water, food to quench hunger and loyalty in a time of need. What else if not the bare minimum, would a man of his troubles seek refuge amongst? His runaway status evokes moral juggling — do you root for the criminal, or sentence the lover? Jeff Nichols’ admirable tale of two boys who tend to see the best in otherwise dour surroundings works well on a number of narratively distinct levels. However it’s only when each aspect blends with the other elements above, below and to either side that Mud emerges from good film status, to really great film status.

And that most definitely is something.

Ellis and Neckbone spend their days stretching their curfews to the maximum in the jungle-like plains of Arkansas. They’re young, ambitious and boast that primitive exuberance driven by the desire to learn and discover, an energy that only fully manifests out on the edge of civilisation, where uninhabited landscapes taunt with hidden secrets. On another planned excavation to an abandoned boat planted high in a tree, the boys encounter the mysterious Mud: grizzled, somewhat wearisome yet poised and alert. From then, perhaps partly captivated by the stranger who appears to be the ultimate wild-man and also drawn upon the notion of trust, optimism and loyalty, Ellis and Neckbone make it their prerogative to assist the moored Mud in his attempts to reconnect with the girlfriend he murdered a perpetrator to protect.

On full throttle through his self-professed McConaissance, Matthew McConaughey delivers another outstanding performance as the titular Mud. The romcom stalwart turned highly-rated ‘serious’ star has an underplayed role, seldom emitting bouts of raw emotion (although when he does, he succeeds). McConaughey is challenged opposite two younger actors; he must act as a buffer for their highly-spirited intuition whilst developing his own character’s persona simultaneously. It’s fitting that he is the centrepiece of the narrative, the proverbial glue holding everything together, however it should be noted that McConaughey is not the centrepiece of the film. That’s the pair of maturing youths, Ellis and Neckbone, both portrayed brilliantly and charmingly by Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland.

Ellis and Neckbone are instantly drawn to the rugged fugitive. Although indecisive (particularly Neckbone) the boys see something in Mud that they do not have in their own lives — a father figure. Ellis, parents’ relationship cracking, is often faced with a distant dad who worries more about his own future rather than that of his son. Neckbone lives with his uncle, an outgoing type resembling the cooler big brother as opposed to a caring father. Growing up in a masculine culture, one defined by putting food on the table, working and earning and treating women with utmost respect, Ellis sees hope in Mud’s outright optimism. Optimism for love and a secure relationship in the face of violence and restraint. Optimism for freedom against restriction. Tye Sheridan, who the camera follows more than anyone, holds his own in scenes opposite a multitude of big-name actors: other than McConaughey, the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson and Michael Shannon make up an efficient, talented supporting cast.

Stand by Me is an obvious comparison but the coming-of-age component is only one of two main plot lines, the other channelling a more commonly depicted fugitive (and subsequent search for) story. Mud, having murdered the man who impregnated the love of his life Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) and later thrown her downstairs, has no allies. Police prompt his image in the faces of residents and passers-by. The father and brother of Mud’s victim spend their relentlessly watching Juniper, ready to pounce and eliminate the outcast on sight. Mud has done wrong, but his eloquent treatment of the two boys demands admiration. He becomes their guru, and a trusted one at that (“It’s a hell of a thing ain’t it?” Hell of a thing”). You want him to succeed, just as much as you root for Ellis and Neckbone in their numerous quests: for maturity, for relationship, for acceptance.

The two primary narratives amalgamate into one, creating a wonderful Winter’s BoneMoonrise Kingdom hybrid. Our main characters share a familier desire. Others are interested in self-preservation of body, property and history. There are even boats and water, a lot of it. The setting shares connotations with both films too, and is the very first nuance you are aware of as the outing begins. Shot beautifully by Adam Stone, the widespread landscapes juxtapose Mud’s isolation and loneliness, highlighting just how much he is hemmed in by a multitude of threats. His lack of ever-presence reinforces this idea of being trapped, and along with McConaughey’s composed-yet-ready-to-burst demeanour, you are always captivated by Mud and ultimately invested in his fate.

Jeff Nichols writes as eloquently as he directs. Camera enveloping atmosphere, words rhyming off lips propelled by their engrossing southern drawls, Nichols offers up a truly splendid piece of film. Alongside his young co-stars, McConaughey matches the excellence served up by his director and delivers on all fronts.

On present form, is there any stopping him?

Trouble with the Curve (2012)

★★★★

Director: Robert Lorenz

Release Date: September 21st, 2012 (US); November 30th, 2012 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Sport

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake

Whereas Bennett Miller’s Moneyball laid out the intricacies of baseball and created an engrossing film about the sport for people who don’t know the sport, Trouble with the Curve sees baseball solely as a starting point; as the spark that will go on to ignite a splendid tale of relationships, trust and stubbornness. The cast is excellent and each bring something different to the field, but it’s simplicity that allows Trouble with the Curve to thrive. The low-key approach is very laissez-faire, almost as if the film isn’t striving to make that home-run. Only, it just about gets there anyway.

Gus Lobel (Clint Eastwood) is an elderly scout who has plied his trade at the Atlanta Braves for decades. He has devoted his life to baseball and Gus’ ageing mind is always wandering in search for the next bat. Eyes failing him (a scout’s nightmare) and given one final chance to unearth a diamond, Gus finds himself on the road with his daughter Mickey (Amy Adams) whose success in law suggests more than just strength and independence, as it instead covers up the cracks dealt in a life without her father.

Not an awful lot happens in Trouble with the Curve, but it’s exactly that deficiency in over-doing things that gives the film its mellow charm and warmth. Having its toes dipped in the sports genre, a danger certainly exists where the attraction of glorifying situations and entering an all-too-familiar schmaltz territory is never far off, but director Robert Lorenz ensures sappiness is kept to an absolute minimum, meaning that when it does rear its mushy head, you are obliged to forgive. In a film about overcoming obstacles, it’s definitely more fitting to have some puddles of slush rather than sheets of uncompromising ice.

At the heart of the film are two performances, both of which provide the elevation needed for Trouble with the Curve to stand out from the pack. Clint Eastwood is gravelly, rustic, abrasive, croaky and a whole manner of other blemishes associated with an elderly man who has seen his best years, and who probably wont see much more of the sport he loves and lives. Gus Lobel’s colleagues are often seen exclaiming, “He may be ready for pasture,” “Game’s changed,” and “New blood”, and although he doesn’t hear these put-downs in the open, Eastwood’s defiant yet deep-down defeated demeanour tells you all you need to know about his character’s own perception of a bleak future.

Along, then, comes the simply delightful Amy Adams, who bursts with soul as she injects life into both Eastwood and the film. Although a cagey lawyer-type in the beginning, her relationship with Eastwood develops into an absorbing one: sometimes sad, sometimes funny, but always worth its weight in screen time. Gus and Mickey are far too stubborn to admit defeat (in their eyes, at least) and the film plays with this idea of withholding from loved ones until it might be too late. Mickey is always coiled up in work; her aspirations of getting a promotion in an industry she only entered to please her father are shallow, as he is never there to see her thrive anyway (“Everything’s okay as long we don’t talk”). Gus is distant, embroiled in baseball and relentlessly stutters when attempting to unveil feelings and sentiment towards his daughter. Justin Timberlake portrays former player Johnny Flanagan, someone who was apprehensive in the past about discussing the arm injury that prematurely ended his playing career. Timberlake deserves recognition for his charismatic contribution too, and together the three actors develop brilliant chemistry which ultimately drives the film and sharpens its principals.

In its lack of narrative extravagance, Trouble with the Curve does run the risk of inducing monotony, however the aforementioned engaging characters should be enough to guide you through until the end. Although not as funny as other road-trip films (which it essentially is) there are undoubtedly moments of comedy, a handful of which tread the black humour realm. This is Eastwood’s first non-self-directed acting expedition since a Casper cameo in 1995, and one or two playful sniggers towards age and losing touch with reality are on show — the whole ‘loss of sight’ element might even be a nod towards Eastwood’s real life front-of-camera career wind down.

It is all about the people involved, and thankfully the people involved are excellent company — there are even fun roles for Matthew Lillard and John Goodman, who has been pried from the Coen Brothers’ grip in order to film this. Purity is pivotal throughout Trouble with the Curve; heck, maybe a riskier, more diverse plot would’ve offered surprise and ingenuity. That’s wishful thinking though and, to be honest, probably a disservice to the brilliant effort on show from those involved.

Anyway, it is breakfast time… where’s my pizza?

Genre Toppers

Having spent the past few days thinking about different ideas and topics to write about, I have come up with a new ‘feature’, if you will.

Instead of primarily relaying new film announcements or reviewing recent film releases (which I will still do, obviously) I think it is time to write about my some of favourite films that I have had the pleasure of viewing throughout my nineteen years of existence.

However, rather than just creating a generic top ten list, I have decided to focus on particular genres and decipher my favourite films encompassed by each genre. I have yet to decide how many genres I will include, but you can count on the usual ones being in there (drama, horror, sci-fi, action, comedy and so on).

The plan is to lay out five top films in each genre and then give a sort of ‘mini-review’ of each film, basically outlining why I like the film so much.

Watch out for my first genre list which will be available to read either later today or tomorrow, and will be titled something like “CBF’s Genre Toppers: (insert genre)”. CBF stands for Consumed by Film, but you already knew that.

The word ‘genre’ is really getting on my nerves now.