Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Someone's living in our boat.

The moment I knew I loved Mud happens about a half hour into the movie, when 14-year-old protagonist Ellis (Tye Sheridan) sneaks away to the island hideout of the titular escaped convict (Matthew McConaughey) he's been assisting in the middle of the night. Sitting by a campfire, eating the canned franks and beans Ellis brought for Mud, Ellis mentions that his parents might be getting divorced. "I'm sorry to hear that," Mud responds, with enough real regret in his voice that I realized he wasn't just relying on Ellis for help but had quickly grown to care about the boy. It's a simple moment, written and acted perfectly, that made me feel like I'd known and cared about these characters for my entire life.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols' follow-up to Take Shelter, one of the best horror movies of recent years, is a southern Gothic that, as my friend Jason Alley pointed out, is a great coming-of-age tale in the vein of To Kill a Mockingbird and Stand by Me. Set in rural Arkansas, the story is told from the point of view of Ellis and his best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). Neckbone lives in a trailer with his uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), and Ellis lives on the river with his parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson). When Ellis and Neckbone discover Mud hiding out in a boat lodged in a tree, it gives Ellis the opportunity to be a part of a romantic adventure, helping Mud reunite with his beloved Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and proves a welcome distraction from the huge changes happening in his life and the looming threat of adulthood and the complications of adult relationships. With a largely embellished backstory and an escape plan straight out of Twain, Mud is essentially a kid in a lot of ways, and it's suggested that he sees himself in Ellis' idealism and chivalrous nature. But as the story unfolds, both characters are forced to face the harder realities of life and growing up.

I'd rather not say too much about how this occurs, not because Mud is full of plot twists but because it unfolds in such a remarkable way, seeming relaxed, almost folksy before revealing itself to contain unexpected depths. Nichols reveals worlds about his characters through subtle details - take, for instance, the many punk flyers plastered on the walls of Galen and Neckbone's trailer, advertising bands that were big when Galen was in his twenties. Then we remember Neckbone wearing a worn, ripped Fugazi shirt at the beginning of the film, and we understand everything about Galen, his life before he became responsible for Neckbone, and his obvious affection for the boy. Nichols' understated but remarkably assured screenplay takes its time establishing its characters and a sense of place, allowing information like how, for instance, a quiet old man who lives across the river (Sam Shepard) fits into the story. Moments like Ellis' first infatuation - and his first heartbreak - have a subtle but universal emotional impact.

Nichols' direction reminds, alternately, of the sense of wonder in '70s Spielberg and Terrence Malick if he were still interested in classical narrative. There are moments in Mud that felt so perfect, so full of warmth and love for these characters and their dreams, that I was practically hugging myself. By the final, beautiful shot, I felt positively euphoric. Other than Jason raving about the movie and its high score on Rotten Tomatoes, I had no particular expectations for Mud going in (between this and Inglourious Basterds, I've decided that Cannes buzz is useless). I'm glad it was that way; as the story, especially in the last third, took turns that I never expected, I found myself greatful to be in the hands of a great storyteller - after this and Take Shelter, it's clear that Nichols should be considered one of the best of the newest generation of filmmakers. If Mud is playing near you, I strongly recommend checking it out - don't read too many reviews in advance, just go see it and let it works its magic on you. Oh, and McConaughey is great in this - it's been a pleasure to see him step up his game lately, and he has the potential to become one of the great leading men of his generation. And he even manages to keep his shirt on for about three quarters of the movie.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Never trust a Vulcan.

Is Star Trek Into Darkness the first franchise movie where an iconic character's identity is treated like a spoiler? While I've never been one to seek out spoilers, I knew the real identity of "John Harrison" (Benedict Cumberbatch) last week thanks to the IMDb, and I think I preferred it that way. When "Harrison" properly introduces himself to Captain Kirk, about half of my audience gasped, so I guess it works as a surprise (though he pretty much gives it away a few lines earlier). As effective as the scene is, though - and Cumberbatch does make a terrific "John Harrison" - it highlights a big problem I had with Star Trek Into Darkness. In exchange for a momentary surprise, the film trades the opportunity to further develop the movie's central villain and his motivations, which are awkwardly related to us after the fact; Cumberbatch is good enough that the character makes a strong impression anyway, but the script doesn't do him any favors. While Star Trek Into Darkness is consistently entertaining, it sometimes falters due to its emphasis on momentary effect over a coherent story and character logic and, more damagingly, fan service over originality.

Let me clarify, should this come off as too negative, that there's a lot to like about the film, particularly the returning cast. The movie's great opening sequence opens with a chase in progress, as Kirk (Chris Pine) and Bones (Karl Urban) are being chased by the primitive inhabitants of a planet covered with brilliant red foliage while Spock (Zachary Quinto) finds himself stranded in an erupting volcano. Within a few minutes, we've been reintroduced to all of the principal cast, and it feels like no time has been lost at all. With the excellent first movie having gotten the task of establishing these new actors in their familiar roles, the cast is able to have more fun this time around - there's an obvious ease in Bones' griping or Spock and Uhura's (Zoe Saldana) bickering that make these characters feel fully lived-in, and it's a pleasure to watch them play off each other. J.J. Abrams' direction is assured, and while his lens flares have become an easy target, I like them and his aesthetic sensibility - he strikes a balance between fantasy and verisimilitude that's a great fit for Star Trek. And the movie is a delight to look at, thanks to the wonderfully detailed Enterprise sets and excellent visual effects; the ribbons of blue light the Enterprise leaves in its wake have never looked better. I highly recommend seeing it in IMAX or, if you don't live near an IMAX theater, on the biggest screen possible.

Unfortunately, the script by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Damon Lindelof can't quite support the story's huge canvas; worse, it often doesn't really feel like Star Trek. I don't say that as a Trekkie or because I think there's only one right way to approach Star Trek. But the film's attempt to continue the series' traditions of plotlines with contemporary resonance stumbles here; echoes of drone warfare are interesting but quickly discarded in favor of nonstop action, which has the effect of making the movie's frequent allusions to 9/11 disturbingly shallow. The plot's incorporation of a corrupt Starfleet admiral (Peter Weller) who is responsible for creating the villain is a clear attempt to mirror our ethically murky political climate, but it comes at the expense of a future that, as usually depicted in Star Trek, represents the fulfillment of our highest ideals. There are several moments when Kirk and his crew kill villainous or even mildly adversarial characters when other obvious solutions were available; it's a huge contradiction of the characters as we've come to know and love them. While I don't expect Star Trek Into Darkness to go full Next Generation and have characters engage in lengthy philosophical debates, I have to admit that when Scotty (Simon Pegg) complained that the Enterprise's mission is exploration, not combat, I couldn't have agreed with him more.

It's true that the previous Star Trek also emphasized action over ideas, but that one worked better for me because of moments like the moving opening sequence and the scenes exploring Spock's human side. It had a genuine sense of wonder, and the time-travel plot left the series open to exploring fresh new stories and opportunities to get to know these characters better. On this basis, I was ready, for most of its runtime, to forgive Star Trek Into Darkness for not quite being the Trek I know and love. Then the movie reaches its climax, an explicit reworking of the iconic, devastating ending of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The movie spends 90% of its running time asserting itself as a more action-packed, Star Wars-flavored version of Star Trek, then shamelessly mines the series' previous high point in an attempt at borrowed emotions. Pine and Quinto are good enough that the moment is kind of moving, but reusing specific images and lines of dialogue in a slightly different context only serves to remind us what a superior job the earlier film did of building their relationship. In Star Trek II, the ending feels like the tragically logical place the movie had been headed all along, both in terms of story logic and thematically. Here, the ending is about nothing except exploiting our affection for the earlier, better movie. Worse, any possible emotional impact is immediately dulled by a lame plot device that undoes in five minutes what the original series took an entire other film to resolve. It's a dumbed-down, chickenshit move - Abrams is often referred to as "the next Spielberg," and as far as lame cop-out endings go, he's already far surpassed Spielberg's entire filmography.

Star Trek Into Darkness is still worth seeing for the many things it does right, but its missteps are surprising and very disappointing. Maybe they shouldn't be, given the fact that Abrams has repeatedly said he never liked Star Trek and wanted to make a movie for people like him. I don't want to minimize what Abrams achieved, breathing new life into a series that had grown stale and making a new Star Trek movie something worth getting excited about again. I just hope the next chapter really takes advantage of the freedom the first film established to tell new stories and take the Star Trek mythos into uncharted territory. Congrats, J.J., for succeeding in your stated goal of making Star Trek more like Star Wars. Now go make your goddamn Star Wars and, while you're at it, why not find a filmmaker who loves Star Trek to replace you?

Monday, May 13, 2013

Gatsby? What Gatsby?

I had two thoughts as I left a matinee of The Great Gatsby yesterday afternoon. The first was that it may be impossible to make a truly great adaptation of the book. While I easily preferred Baz Luhrmann's movie to the 1974 version, it has a few of the same problems - an elusive heroine that is more of a symbol than a character, occasional difficulty translating plot incidents that are witnessed from a distance by our narrator into cinematic terms - that suggest that the greatness of Fitzgerald's book is so specific to its medium that even a director taking the formally literary approach of Two English Girls or The Royal Tenenbaums would still only approximate the novel's impact. The second is that, imperfect though they may be, I'd love to see several different directors' takes on the material - the aspects of the book that are suited for film are rich with possibilities, and could be interpreted any number of ways to fascinating effect. Luhrmann's interpretation is pretty much exactly what a Baz Luhrmann version of The Great Gatsby - opulent, often gaudy, beautifully shot and boldly, proudly theatrical - and yet it understands Fitzgerald's book far more than I expected (or than the reviews suggested). It's sometimes exhilarating, sometimes maddening, always teetering on the edge of ridiculousness, and thoroughly entertaining.

As expected, Luhrmann treats narrator Nick Carraway's (Tobey Maguire) introduction to the nonstop party of Gatsby's world on Long Island with the same hyperactive style as Ewan McGregor's first visit to the Moulin Rouge (maybe just a notch less manic). The movie is great eye candy, bringing the empty surfaces of Fitzgerald's wild party to life with obvious glee as Luhrmann crowds the frame with flappers, jazz musicians and the many drunken recipients of Gatsby's hospitality. The movie really comes to life when Carraway finally meets the elusive Gatsby - DiCaprio is perfect in a very challenging role, balancing Gatz's charisma with his disarmingly naive longing for lost love Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and the character's more elusive qualities. Gatsby is a self-created man who, when given the chance, escaped the life he was born into and chose to become someone else (I realized, watching the film, how much Don Draper has in common with Gatsby). It's a balancing act for any actor, and DiCaprio does a fine, subtle job, making the character appealing yet remote and reminding me, at times, of David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth (another work strongly influenced by Gatsby).

Mulligan is lovely as Daisy, perhaps as good as any actress could be, but it occurred to me this time that Daisy is, to some extent, an unplayable character. If I remember correctly, her motives for the choices she makes are mostly guessed at by Carraway in the novel; she remains distant, a symbol for the elusive American dream that even a man with Gatsby's will and determination can only grasp at (Gatsby serves as the perfect critique of John Galt thirty years before Atlas Shrugged was published). One of Luhrmann's smartest decisions was to play the romance between Gatsby and Daisy for the human drama, rather than the metaphor (the mistake that kills the painfully solemn Jack Clayton film). It's romance done with Luhrmann's typical bold strokes, and it's not entirely successful. But I was pleasantly surprised when the director actually toned down his bombastic visuals in the movie's second half, as the story turned to the destruction of Gatsby's hopes. The conventional reading is that the many bad things that happen by the story's end are a cynical comment on the essential emptiness of the excesses of Gatsby and his world; where Luhrmann departs, fascinatingly, is to treat this as a tragedy, a loss of innocence for Gatsby as well as his narrator. The movie celebrates Gatsby's essential optimism - it's done a little clumsily, and I'm not sure I agree with the interpretation, but it's a valid reading of the text that Luhrmann is able to support, and I honestly prefer a unique approach to the book that makes me raise an eyebrow to a reiteration of musty received wisdom.

It's this idea that there's a "correct" way to adapt Gatsby that has showed up in many of the scolding reviews by critics that have taken it upon themselves to defend the novel's honor. I suspect that Fitzgerald, whose work was bracingly modern in 1925, would chuckle at this; one of the earliest writers to really understand the ephemeral, shifting nature of popular culture, it seems likely that he would have gotten a kick out of a Gatsby film scored by Jay-Z (he probably would have been tickled by the very idea of hip hop). This is not to say that Luhrmann's approach is entirely successful, or that one is wrong to dislike it. The framing device of having Carraway telling the story as a novel he's writing while recovering from alcoholism in an institution, aside from the lovely effect of typewritten words literally floating across the screen, doesn't really work at all, and Tobey Maguire's performance - not bad, but not very interesting and punctuated by Maguire-isms - doesn't help (thankfully, the supporting cast is terrific, particularly Joel Edgerton as Tom and Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker). And I wish Luhrmann had taken a little more time on the aftermath of the story, the wreckage of Gatsby's grandiose illusions (though, as the movie runs 140 minutes already, I can understand the impulse to wrap it up).

That said, I admire Luhrmann for always swinging for the fences. Usually, the result is either terrific (Moulin Rouge) or very bad (Australia), with very little room in between. While Gatsby, surprisingly, is at neither extreme, I imagine that, in the long run, it will prove more divisive; it's one of those movies that is bound to gain devoted fans to match its detractors. As for me, I'm thankful for the movie for one of DiCaprio's best performances, for the times I'll rewatch this on Blu-ray to savor the eye candy, and for all the high school kids who will have a better time than I did on the day that their teachers wheel in the TV set from the library.

Sidenote: Though I usually find 3D annoying and pointless, I was glad I took a chance on it here. This is the fourth movie, out of the maybe ten or so I've seen in the format, that was really enhanced by the process (the others being Avatar, Jurassic Park and, of course, Piranha).