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Mini Review: Mud (2013)

Mud #1

by Steve Habrat

Over the years, actor Matthew McConaughey became known as the guy who starred in all those fuzzy romantic comedies that your mother and girlfriend loved. Every so often, he’d jump into a disposable action movie like Reign of Fire or Sahara, or surprise you with his dark turn in the underrated horror movie Frailty, but you couldn’t help but peg him as that romantic comedy dude who was always chasing around Kate Hudson or Sarah Jessica Parker. Recently, McConaughey has broken from his usual roles and started accepting beefier parts that really showcase his talents as an actor. One of these roles would be the title character in director Jeff Nichols’s critically acclaimed drama Mud, which debuted a Cannes in 2012 and then enjoyed a quiet limited release in 2013. Hailed as one of the standouts of 2013, Mud is a surprisingly candid coming-of-age drama that features strong emotional turns from McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon, an actress that has kept a relatively low profile since her Academy Award winning role in Walk the Line. While Mud is certainly a down-to-earth Southern tale about love found and love lost, the film feels a bit too familiar in places, something that ultimately holds it back from tru greatness..

Mud introduces us to Ellis (played by Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), two preteens battling boredom in De Witt, Arkansas. One day, Neckbone takes Ellis out to an island on the Mississippi River where he has discovered a rickety boat stuck high up in a tree. Ellis and Neckbone intend to make their discovery a new hangout location, but they are shocked when they discover that there happens to be a man living in the boat. The man introduces himself as Mud (played by Matthew McConaughey), a shaggy drifter who claims to be hiding out on the island and in desperate need of some food. Mud tells the boys that if they’ll bring him so food, he’ll allow the boys to have the boat when he leaves the island. Ellis and Neckbone agree to help the mystery man out, but they soon learn from police department that Mud is, in fact, a fugitive on the run from the law. When the boys return to the island, they learn that Mud killed a man for severely injuring his girlfriend, Juniper (played by Reese Witherspoon). Mud explains that he is waiting to be reunited with Juniper and that he is on the island to avoid a slew of bounty hunters that are looking for him. Fascinated by Mud’s story, the boys decide to help Mud in his quest to be reunited for Juniper, but soon, the bounty hunters arrive looking to make Mud pay for what he has done.

Mud #2

While the tale of the shaggy-haired outlaw waiting for his ladylove is the surface story of Mud, the film’s true story belongs to the kids. A good majority of the film follows Ellis as he experiences his first love and watches his home life fall apart. We catch glimpses of his parents duking it out with each other at the kitchen table as Ellis sneaks away to meet up with Neckbone. He spies on them for only a moment before fleeing off to that island to hide from the world inside that tree boat. In town, he crushes on an older girl, May Pearl (played by Bonnie Sturdivant), who may not be taking their developing relationship as seriously as Ellis takes it. Nichols, who also wrote the film, isn’t shy about telling Ellis’s story in a realistic manner, addressing the fears of change and the sting of heartbreak in a serious tone. Despite not mincing words, this side of Mud is extremely gentle. It’s never cold-hearted or cynical, even when things seem to be at their lowest for poor Ellis and Mud. The darker side of the story manifests in Mud’s looming confrontation with the bounty hunters. They beat Juniper in the hopes of learning Mud’s whereabouts and they strike in a swarm to guarantee that our outlaw hero has absolutely no chance of escape. This certainly ups the sense of dread and it does make us fear for Mud’s safety as the final confrontation nears.

The main attraction of Mud is the undoubtedly performances, especially the ones from McConaughey and Witherspoon. McConaughey is absolutely fantastic as the lovesick outlaw with a heart of gold. The relationship he develops with Ellis is incredibly sweet, sparking hope in the young boys eyes and igniting a sense of adventure that allows him to escape his rocky home life. Witherspoon’s Juniper is a flirty free spirit who questions her affection for the marooned Mud. Sheridan is the film’s heart and soul as Ellis, a seemingly tough teen with a soft center. Lofland plays it even rougher and tougher as Neckbone, a foul-mouthed teen who means well enough. Also present are Sam Shepard as Tom Blankenship, Ellis’s mysterious neighbor who has ties to Mud and ends up being an essential ally in his fight to stay alive. Nichols regular Michael Shannon gives a small but sweet performance as Galen, Neckbone’s scuba-diving uncle. Overall, while it certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel and it does end up feeling quite a bit like several other rundown dramas of recent memory, Mud is still a sensitive and ultimately optimistic drama bustling with performances that are alive with everyday emotion.

Grade: B

Mud is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

This Means War (2012)

by Steve Habrat

Love is a battlefield, a clammy, sexy, battlefield according to director McG, the hot shot, second rate Michael Bay. This Means War is a film overly concerned with a sexy appearance and frankly, not much more. McG, the director of such sugary blockbusters like Terminator: Salvation and Charlie’s Angles, is only interested with the outer shell of his products, sacrificing story and even moments of coherence just to nab a shot of Reese Witherspoon’s bottom to drive the male audience wild or twist Tom Hardy or Chris Pine into the proper pose to take the female audience’s breath away. For a film as shallow as This Means War, there are sporadic moments of hilarity and fizzy chemistry between the three stars that almost make up for a one-note script, half-hearted message about love, and a sub plot that is almost entirely forgotten by the people behind the camera. Oh well, at least it looks good!

This Means War introduces us to super spies FDR (Played by Chris Pine) and Tuck (Played by Tom Hardy), a pair of best chums who globe trot around in slick suits, hit on gorgeous gals, and track a terrorist by the name of Heinrich (Played by Til Schweiger). After their target narrowly gets away in the opening shoot out, a confrontation that leaves Heinrich’s brother Jonas dead, FDR and Tuck return to the states and are benched out of protection from Heinrich. These perfect male specimens also apparently have crappy luck when it comes to women. FDR enjoys womanizing and Tuck, a divorced dad, resorts to online dating to meet a good gal. As it turns out, down-on-her-luck Lauren (Played by Reese Witherspoon), a product-testing executive, is paired up with Tuck. After their first date, which goes rather well, Lauren bumps into FDR, who pursues her until she agrees to go on a date with him. FDR and Tuck soon decide to reveal to each other who they have been dating. When they realize it is the same girl, they decide they are still going to pursue Lauren and let her decide who she wants to be with. This does not stop them from trying to sabotage each other in the process, using every spy trick in the book.

This Means War leans heavily on the gag that these two guys use every espionage tool at their disposal to keep tabs on each other’s progress with Laruen, who remains clueless the entire time. They conceal hidden cameras in her apartment, tap her phone, and have a team of techies that aid them along and deliver information. It’s all slightly amusing but never overly hilarious until Tuck takes Laruen paintballing, after she tells her best friend Trish (Played by Chelsea Handler, who plays herself here) that he is a bit too safe and earnest. What transpires is a hysterical shoot out at a paintball range, a scene that single handedly out shines every other humorous moment This Means War has to offer. This trumping each other does get fatigued at times, the film always trying to devise another scenario where one can shoot the other with a knock out dart or one can use a mini spy plane to tail the other.

When the one note gag yawns, the film suddenly remembers the side plot involving Heinrich, who is slowly making plans of his own to find FDR and Tuck. The problem here is that the film brushes over these moments and seems too anxious to get back to Tuck and FDR’s battle for Lauren. If the filmmakers were going to half-ass this aspect of the film, you would have thought that they would have made their scuffle over Lauren the only plot. What makes this even worse is that there are so many plot holes in the Heinrich plot that nothing ever adds up! Half the time we are just left hanging. We learn that he is a terrorist but who does her terrorize exactly? What is the device at the beginning of the film and why is it so sinister? Why does he even need to be arrested? Because he is frequents swanky rooftop bars? Who cares, back to Tuck hijacking a radio frequency and feeding FDR false information while he is on a date!

For such a lackluster film, at least Pine, Hardy, and Witherspoon all come out with their dignity in tact. In addition to their physical appearance, these three actually posses talent and know how to make everything work, even if they are straining. It’s good to have Witherspoon back after a string of low-key dramas no one remembers. She was lovable while she juggles two love interests. If you’ve seen Inception, Bronson, or Warrior, then you already know that Hardy is an astonishingly talented guy (Seriously, see Bronson for a mind blowing performance) and here, he plays things fairly average, something that was both fresh after some of the roles he has taken and somewhat disappointing because he is a truly colorful guy. Like Witherspoon, Pine hasn’t had much of a presence at the movies since his awesome performance as Captain Kirk in Star Trek. He retains some of the cockiness he utilized when he tackled Captain Kirk, acting as the much more confident one to Hardy’s average Joe.

This Means War is loaded with photogenic moments. A glimmering explosion here, a sexy thespian there, and strobe like fight scenes everywhere. It’s painfully obvious at times (Lauren is a product tester who is also testing two guys to figure out who is the better choice) and the message is about as subtle as an elephant crashing through your front door. Yes, love is a battlefield where people get hurt and it can also be a game where you have to plot your next move meticulously. But in This Means War, the plotting of the moves is sometimes borderline creepy (Seriously, phone tapping?!). It’s all in good fun says director McG, who plays everything up to juvenile boys just being juvenile boys. I enjoyed myself in spurts during This Means War, never really hating it but never really having my funny bone tickled too hard (The paintball scene was an exception). I guess I should look on the bright side, at least Katherine Heigl was nowhere to be found.

Grade: C+