Sunday, May 26, 2013


I am a fairly unabashed lover of big-budget action spectacles (see Star Trek Into Darkness or The Avengers), but every now and then I like to enjoy a small, character-driven film to mix things up. This has usually been fairly rewarding (see Moonrise Kingdom), though I've admittedly been drawn in only after hearing positive word-of-mouth beforehand. Mud has not only garnered critical acclaim since its limited release, but it also held academic opportunities for me, particularly towards the leading actor Matthew McConaughey. It's recently been reported that McConaughey will be the star of Christopher Nolan's next feature, Interstellar which comes out next year. As Nolan is probably my favorite filmmaker working today, I really wanted to see whether McConaughey was up to scratch to perform in such a (presumably) serious and complex film that has become Nolan's specialty. I'll follow up on that in November of next year, but this film was able to interest me enough to completely drop my "research" on McConaughey's dramatic chops and focus on the story it was telling.

Ellis is a fourteen year-old boy who lives on the banks of a river in southern Arkansas, selling frozen fish to vendors in a nearby town. However, Ellis and his friend Neckbone take a motor boat to an island on the river and find a boat lodged in a tree. As they inspect closer, they realize that someone has been living in the boat and climb down to find a disheveled and mysterious man who later introduces himself as Mud. Ellis takes a personal interest in Mud, particularly when he realizes that Mud is hoping to reunite with his longtime love, Juniper. On a trip into town, however, Ellis discovers that Mud is being hunted down by local authorities for unknown reasons. Stuck between his parents' impending separation and his own struggles to woo an older girl, Ellis grows more and more determined to help Mud escape with Juniper even as deadly forces conspire against them.

The first thing that stuck out to me on this film was how beautifully it was shot. 100% of the movie was shot on location in southern Arkansas, which is fairly evident given the authenticity of the scenery. There's a very earthy quality to this film that isn't necessarily glamorous, but instantly transports the viewer to a place they may never see again. The narrative also plays out like a modernization of a Mark Twain story, giving it a familiar yet somewhat unusual feel.

As mentioned above, I had a few reservations about Matthew McConaughey going into this viewing. Don't get me wrong, I really enjoy his work in comedic films, but not every actor can make a convincing jump from comedy to drama, particularly one with such a reputation. Not only was I amazed at his acting, however, I think this might be McConaughey's best performance to date. This is not a glamorous film, and Mud is not a glamorous character. He wears a yellowing shirt throughout the film and constantly has dirt smeared all over his body. The icing on the cake is the chipped tooth that takes away any remnants of the stereotypical Matthew McConaughey that we see in most movies.

This film may not be for everyone (Lara and I heard a few vocal detractors making dim-witted puns about what "Mud" is when spelled backwards), but the complexity of each relationship in this movie is pretty fascinating to watch. Mud isn't necessarily my kind of movie on paper, but I found myself completely wrapped up in the story of Ellis trying to figure out the meaning of love while risking his life to help a complete stranger regain his own. If I had to find a complaint about this film, I'd say that the beginning starts a little too slowly and the language gets a little obnoxious (particularly from Neckbone). Some of the characters are a little crude, though that does seem pretty authentically portrayed. Other than that, I really enjoyed Mud. It may not be as clever or quirky as Moonrise Kingdom, but this film may be more meaningful. If it's playing in your city, I definitely recommend it. I give Mud three and a half stars.

MUD is rated PG-13 for some violence, sexual references, language, thematic elements and smoking.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

Wow! To anybody who feared that JJ Abrams wouldn't meet expectations after the terrific 2009 reboot of the iconic sci-fi series, Star Trek Into Darkness proves the director has plenty left in the tank. But even beyond that, this is one of the rare sequels that actually improves on the previous installment. The characters are more well-rounded and the villain is truly terrifying (something I could never say about Nero from the first film). I saw this film last night at a semi-early screening, and from the opening scenes I was glued to the screen, gripping the armrest of my seat until the credits rolled.

Captain James Kirk is being reprimanded yet again for his refusal to comply with Star Fleet regulations. His incessantly-obedient first officer, Spock, has filed a report admitting serious malfeasance during their most recent mission (and without informing Captain Kirk beforehand). Despite the allegations, Admiral Christopher Pike vouches for Kirk during an official tribunal against the captain, resulting in the demoting of Kirk to first officer on the Enterprise under Pike's command. However, a former Star Fleet agent named John Harrison enacts several acts of terrorism against the peace-keeping armada before promptly beaming himself beyond Star Fleet jurisdiction. Enraged at the personal loss Kirk suffered during the attack, he takes the crew of the Enterprise on a man-hunt for the terrorist, unaware that the fugitive he is attempting to capture is a one-man weapon of mass destruction with a keen intellect and nefarious plans.

This is one of the most spectacular films I've seen in years. The visual effects are off the charts and the grandeur depicted in the action scenes are truly breathtaking. Beyond the mere spectacle of the film, however, the truly captivating parts of this movie are the relationships between the crew members; particularly Kirk and Spock. While both were great in the previous film, the interplay between them and the growth of each character have been upgraded. Zachary Quinto especially nails the character of Spock even better than before, and (though this may be controversial) I might even enjoy his portrayal more than Leonard Nimoy.

As great as these two actors were, the true star of Star Trek Into Darkness is Benedict Cumberbatch. Playing the mysterious John Harrison, Cumberbatch's menace is instantly expressed by subtle facial expressions and body language. His voice is probably the most striking thing about Cumberbatch, which almost sounds digitally altered for maximum intimidation. The antagonistic and yet parallel relationship Harrison shares with Kirk is one of the many joys of this film.

Star Trek Into Darkness holds a lot of surprises that may upset intensely devoted Trekkers, but that I found completely satisfying. It may be good to re-watch the previous film, but also "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" in preparation for this movie. There is so much to enjoy about this film. Not only has JJ Abrams constructed a beautiful and gripping action spectacular, but it's also a compelling drama where characters experience deep, emotional trauma that will surely wet the eyes of many. I absolutely love this movie and have no reservations whatsoever about Abrams' future with the Star Wars series (which is much more important to me). This is by far my favorite film of the year so far and I give it a solid four stars!

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence

The Great Gatsby

Sometimes the critical consensus on a film can be a detriment to my enjoyment of that film, either by calling attention to its weaker aspects or building up expectations too high to possibly be satisfied. In the case of The Great Gatsby, however, the opposite seems to be the case. Because the general opinion on this film has been slightly negative, I reset my expectations and probably enjoyed the movie more as a result. Like almost everyone, I remember reading this book in high school and have a fairly vivid recollection of the more memorable plot points. While not everything I say about this film will be positive, I think that those who have read the book will be (mostly) glad to see the way it's been translated to the big screen in this adaptation.

Gatsby is a mysterious figure in a gargantuan house that everyone knows for the enormous parties he hosts on a regular basis. His neighbor, a struggling bond salesman named Nick, is particularly fascinated by the cryptic multimillionaire, even garnering an unprecedented "invitation" to one of his famous parties. As Nick gets to know Gatsby further, however, he realizes the wealthy young man isn't all he appears. For one thing, his motivation for throwing such lavish parties was simply to attract the attention of a former lover who lived across the bay. Knowing that Daisy and Nick are cousins, Gatsby recruits him to set up a meeting between the estranged couple. As their lives become entwined, Gatsby's past and emotional attachments come back to wreak havoc on his plans for greatness.

This movie is beautifully filmed and the costumes are extravagantly designed. However, the 1920's setting makes the filmmakers' musical choices somewhat confusing. While I was prepared for the unusual melding of period details and contemporary style, it was still jarring to hear Jay-Z (who also served as the executive producer of the film's soundtrack) interwoven with early 20th century characters and sets. Those who are fans of the genre might not mind the mash-up, but I honestly found it pandering toward younger audiences who may not enjoy the period details of the 1920's.

Regardless of the film's unfortunate musical influences, the performances in this movie are really what make it enjoyable. Joel Edgerton does a great job of portraying Daisy's deplorable and unfaithful husband, while Tobey Maguire's wondrous and loyal Nick is a breath of fresh air from the other morally ambiguous cast members. Despite the greatness of the other characters, the clear stand out is Leonardo DiCaprio as the titular Gatsby. His range of emotions is really impressive to see, and I can't imagine anyone playing the part better than he does in this film.

I didn't see this film in 3D (not being a huge fan of the format), but the visual style definitely looks like it might benefit those who do appreciate the depth of field. The CGI looked a little hokey in certain scenes, but overall the visuals in this movie were great. The story itself is kind of depressing, but the relationships in this film are very intricate and warrant further exploration even after the movie ends. The Great Gatsby isn't as bad as the critics would make you think, but it also doesn't hit the highs that the trailer promises either. I give this film a slightly generous three stars.

THE GREAT GATSBY is rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language

Friday, May 3, 2013

Iron Man 3

The official summer movie season has begun with Marvel Studio's newest production, Iron Man 3. I was a huge fan of the first two Iron Man films and an even bigger fan of The Avengers last summer. The trailers hinted at a more serious, high-stakes adventure for Tony Stark in the latest film and a worthy continuation of the Iron Man legacy. So needless to say, I was incredibly hyped about this movie. One of the hardest things about critically analyzing films you are anticipating is setting aside your own excitement and love for the already-established characters and looking at the movie on its own merits. Unfortunately, I couldn't really do that for Iron Man 3. Knowing that my objectivity would be somewhat diminished, I simply attempted to set aside my critical tendencies for as long as I possibly could.

Tony Stark survived the attack on New York where the Avengers first assembled, but he did not return to his Malibu mansion unscathed. His psyche bears the daily weight of the trauma he experienced that day, and he spends his restless nights in his lab doing what he does best... building the latest and greatest Iron Man suits. Meanwhile, an international terrorist calling himself "The Mandarin" is taking over television airwaves across the nation, warning the people of his impending attacks. Tony, following a cataclysmic explosion at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, publicly calls The Mandarin out by giving him his home address. However, shortly after the press arrives, missile-towing helicopters begin raining destruction down on Tony, eliminating his Iron Man suits and forcing him into seclusion. With his Iron Man suit out of commission and the enhanced DNA of his enemies making them almost impossible to kill, Tony must find a way to protect the one thing he cares about and thwart a national catastrophe.

While there may be some mild spoilers in the plot introduction, that much can easily be surmised by the trailer as well. One of the best things about this movie also turned into one of the primary complaints I have about it... the plot twists. Don't worry, I won't be giving any away in this review. However, I will say that some of the twists in this film are spectacular, some are somewhat predictable, and some are actually a bit of a let-down. Perhaps repeat viewings will rectify my initial reaction to this, but it definitely left me a little unsatisfied.

One thing the film definitely got right, however, was the visual effects. Tony Stark's mansion being destroyed is one of the most impressive things I've seen in the theatres, and a scene of Iron Man attempting to rescue over a dozen people being sucked out of an airborne plane is incredibly effective. Despite not being much of a fan of the format, we saw this film in 3D, and for the most part it wasn't a problem. Having said that, there were moments where the CGI looked a little cartoony being superimposed to look closer than other objects. The Iron Man suits still looked incredibly real, however, and the final battle is a wonder to behold. Surprisingly, Tony's circumstances are such that he isn't necessarily in the suit that often throughout the film. This might be a problem if the performance of Robert Downey Jr. wasn't so captivating. He's at his comedic best in this film, and his portrayal of a man with a damaged psyche is truly impressive.

I don't feel I can go into much more without spoiling some of the surprises in this movie. Suffice it to say, Iron Man 3 may not be the best film in the official Marvel Universe, but it is a solid entry that makes me excited for future installments as we build towards the next Avengers film. It's a very entertaining two hours that will have you engaged (laughing, clutching the arm rest, etc.) throughout its running time. I recommend seeing this film in theatres, and as with all Marvel films, please stay through the closing credits. This film is a lot of fun (though perhaps squandering some of its potential) and I give it a solid three stars.

IRON MAN 3 is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence throughout, and brief suggestive content