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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 26, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 17
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Love that dirty water - Gritty Mud is a powerful coming-of-age adventure
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

MUD
Opens April 26


Ellis (Tye Sheridan) is 14. He lives on a houseboat on the banks of a country river in Arkansas with his parents, Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson) and Senior (Ray McKinnon). He has a crush on 16-year-old high-schooler May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant). His best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), scavenges the river with his eccentric uncle, Galen (Michael Shannon), for lost treasures the two can refurbish and sell.

It's a typical summer for the two boys - typical, that is, until they hear tale of a gigantic motorboat stranded atop a tree on an island not far from the mouth of the river. Wanting to claim the boat as their own, they discover a peculiar, talkative loner calling himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey) living within, spinning a yarn about saving the life of his dearest lady love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and how the two of them will sail away into the sunset together.

Ellis wants to believe this stranger for a multitude of reasons, especially because he longs to believe that love is as true and as pure as the stories say. Even though he's warned off by wizened old man Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), living in seclusion on far bank of the river, and although it's apparent Mud is wanted by the police and that Juniper isn't the angelic, devoted woman Mud has led him to believe, the teen still wants to help him, and even if it means putting his own life on the line he's going to make sure his new friend achieves the deepest desires buried within the confines of his not-so hardened heart.

UNEXPECTED TWISTS
Mud is the third film from indie darling Jeff Nichols. Like Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter before it, the movie is a character-driven descent into the lives of people who are instantly familiar - individuals you can relate to and understand almost as if you've known them your entire life. Also like those two previous efforts, Nichols once again subverts genre convention and slowly goes in directions you don't always see coming. If his debut was a Hatfield-and-McCoy descent into familial darkness and his sophomore effort a psychological freak-out combining nature in upheaval and a devoted father slowly losing his marbles, then his third is a coming-of-age drama of faith, understanding, and friendship that defies convention resulting in an authentic urgency unique unto itself.

The whole movie is seen through Ellis's eyes, and it is his view of the world that anchors the narrative. He sees his parents struggling to keep their marriage intact, he is told that his time living on the river may be coming to an end and he experiences the first throes of an all-consuming crush. Each of these elements weigh on him in almost equal measure, making him question if love exists in the world or if it is nothing more than a fantasy people choose to embrace in order to give their everyday lives momentum and meaning.

In the person of Mud he constructs a figurehead to test all of his ideas and constructs, to prove to himself that love can save the day and heal all wounds. But like all fairy tales the truth is far more complex, and it is the darkness and the dangers surrounding Ellis's quest that will give him insights he'll carry with him for the rest of his life. Much like the boys searching for the body of a missing classmate in Stand By Me, the journey is what it is of most importance, not the supposed pot of gold to hopefully be discovered at the end of it, making what happens along the road all the more tender and evocative in the process.

MAGIC McCONAUGHEY
McConaughey's hot streak continues, the actor delivering another strong performance that proves his serpentine, complicated portraits in films as diverse as The Lincoln Lawyer, Killer Joe, Bernie, The Paperboy, and Magic Mike were anything but flukes. He makes Mud a fascinating figure, the multifarious layers lurking within this slithery storyteller coming to the forefront in fits and starts, the actor holding his cards as close to the vest as he can. McConaughey has moments of surreal beauty reminding us all why we thought he was going to be the Next Big Thing after 1996's A Time to Kill, coming into his own during this current stretch of crackerjack performances in ways few would have thought possible beforehand.

Yet as great as he is - and he is terrific - none of this would matter if not for Nichols's faith and trust in his main two child stars, Sheridan and Lofland. He allows the duo to disappear inside their roles in ways that defy description, the pair of boys living the film heart and soul instead of role-playing it as if they were outsiders dropped into a world they'd never known beforehand. Sheridan, in particular, dominated my attentions, the youngster having moments of affecting magnificence that brought a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye.

Nichols doesn't get it all right, and there are a few dramatic narrative shortcuts involving Shepard's and Witherspoon's characters that don't feel anywhere near as authentic as the majority of the rest of the picture does. Additionally, Joe Don Baker and Paul Sparks are more or less wasted as the heavies, and while the pair do have a couple of individual moments where the potential for them to terrify is insidiously insinuated, I can't truly say either of them sent shivers up and down my spine. Finally, the climactic events at Ellis's home were a little too overblown, and while Nichols stages these explosive last acts with energy and panache they didn't ring anywhere near as truthfully as the majority of the rest consistently did.

Even so, Mud works, plain and simple, everything building to a poetic final set of images that brought a smile to my face while it invigorated my heart with an overall ebullience I could barely contain. McConaughey proves again he's an actor willing to take chances and dive into even the most unspeakable aspects of a character with a fearless abandon others would be terrified of. As for Nichols, once again he shows he's a director worthy of the hype and praise continually thrown in his direction, and as excited as I am about this release, that's nothing compared to my breathless anticipation to discover what he's got up his cinematic sleeve next.


Bleakly funny Disaster an instant cult sensation
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

IT'S A DISASTER
Opens April 26


Emma Mandrake (Erinn Hayes) and her husband, Pete (Blaise Miller), host a semiannual Sunday brunch for their closest friends. As per usual, Tracy (Julia Stiles) is bringing her latest beau, university professor Glen (David Cross), and even though things are going well (it's their third date) she's pessimistically certain he'll prove to be insane just like her past boyfriends. Other guests include chemist Hedy (America Ferrera), her longtime boyfriend Shane (Jeff Grace), and vivacious marrieds Lexi (Rachel Boston) and Buck (Kevin M. Brennan). Jenny (Laura Adkin) and Gordon (Rob McGillivray) are also supposed to attend, but they're perpetually late for everything.

Things go as normal - the girls bicker and banter back and forth while a few of the guys wonder what the score of the game is. Yet things aren't what they seem. Shane's attempt to bid for a rare comic book is undone by a bad cell connection. The score of the game can't be ascertained because the cable is out. Going to the computer isn't helping, as the Internet is down as well. On top of that, Emma and Pete are getting a divorce, a little tinsel of information that inadvertently slips out long before the pair intended it to.

And oh yeah. On top of all the regularly scheduled domestic drama, terrorists have detonated a handful of 'dirty' bombs downtown, the effects of which are slowly engulfing the remainder of the city. Trapped in the house, no way to escape, forced to seal it off completely from the outside world, the four couples are slowly coming to the realization that this afternoon just might be their last, their individual problems still important if now a bit insignificant considering current events.

DEEPLY COMPLEX
The genius of writer/director Todd Berger's (The Scenesters) It's a Disaster is just how rudimentary and mundane much of what transpires within its fiendishly brief 88 minutes turns out to be. While these seven friends and one newcomer to the group do freak out, do have moments where they ponder doing more than they are humanly capable of, by and large they treat the revelation that this could be their last day on Earth in a way that feels honest, realistic, emotional, and true. It's like someone took The Big Chill, Manhattan Murder Mystery, A Wedding, The Last Supper, Right at Your Door, and a random episode of 'The Big Bang Theory' or 'Modern Family' and dropped them in a Cuisinart, the resulting mélange a surprisingly smart and consistently funny stew I found wholly satisfying.

It's interesting, considering how short the movie is, combined with the number of individuals involved in the chaos, to discover how richly defined all of the characters are. Each is given their own beat, their own moment (some more than others), each performer asked to craft three-dimensional complexity out of the briefest of brushstrokes. Berger's script isn't afraid to push to the extremes, doesn't shy away from potentially alienating viewers by having someone say or do something that might be considered unforgivable, always making sure to keep perspective and the enormity of the situation resonating even if the sandbox being played within is a small one.

It goes without saying that certain actors make more of an impression than others, Stiles and Cross somewhat unsurprisingly stealing a great deal of the limelight. But it should be noted that all of the women excel here, Hayes, Ferrera, and Boston all taking center stage on more than a number of occasions. Each of them makes a magnetic imprint, the deep complexity of the performances a genuine surprise that kept me on my toes.

A SATIRICAL TRIUMPH
Some of this can feel staged, especially early on, Berger's dialogue trying to find just the right John Sayles-meets-Lawrence Kasdan rhythm without quite ever getting there. For about ten minutes I was worried the facile banality of it all was going to force me tune out, and even though I was somewhat intrigued by the way each of the actors was throwing themselves into the proceedings, I wasn't certain there was going to be enough in the way of narrative meat and potatoes to keep me wanting to watch.

How wrong I was. The setup to all that is going to happen is pure inspiration, Berger upping the ante and tightening the screws with confident inspiration. He makes each person real, a flesh-and-blood persona I could relate to and in many ways understand, making the bleak nature of the dark comedy to come all the more hysterically poignant. Better than that, the director crafts a final ten minutes that are as bleakly humorous as they are sublime, closing things out with an imaginative gusto bordering on perfection - making It's a Disaster a satirical triumph almost certain to stand the test of time.


Subtly unnerving Salem a supernatural terror
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE LORDS OF SALEM
Opens April 26


Salem, Mass., radio personality Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie) has received an unusual package, purportedly from a new underground band calling themselves The Lords. She and her partners, 'Whitey' Salvador (Jeffrey Daniel Phillips) and Herman Jackson (Ken Foree), play it on the late-night airwaves to gauge the reaction, and that evening's guest, local historian and museum curator Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison), is immediately curious as to where the record came from and who was responsible for its production.

Back at home, Heidi is certain someone has moved down the hall from her into a vacant apartment, but kindly building manager Lacy (Judy Geeson) does her best to assure her this is not the case. She also takes the time to introduce her favorite tenant to two of her most devoted friends, women she refers to as her 'sisters' even if it's plainly obvious the trio isn't related by blood: eccentrically catty Sonny (Dee Wallace) and plainspoken psychic Megan (Patricia Quinn).

That's all I'm going to say in regard to plot or synopsis as it concerns Rob Zombie's latest horror enterprise, The Lords of Salem, although I'm pretty sure you can figure out what might be going on and where all of this is heading. Safe to say, this story is set in Salem for good reason, and to surmise that something supernatural might be going on isn't a gigantic stretch.

STARTLING EFFECTIVENESS
To say I have not been a fan of Zombie's previous films would an understatement. I was OK with House of 1000 Corpses, but no more than that, and found The Devil's Rejects to be an abhorrent pile of trash I wouldn't want my worst & well, anything, to be forced to endure. As for the former musician's 2007 remake of John Carpenter's Halloween (and its 2009 sequel), the less said about those the better.

So I'm slightly surprised to admit that for the most part, up until the whack-a-doo finale, I was pretty darn impressed with The Lords of Salem. The movie is chillingly effective, moving with an unnerving precision recalling in some respects Robert Wise's The Haunting, Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, and Ti West's The House of the Devil. While the imagery can be a little psychedelically silly and while the gothic overtones can be on the heavy-handed side, the central emotional whirlpool is still startlingly effective, the events circulating around Heidi attempting to seduce her into embracing an inner darkness she didn't even know was there viscerally compelling.

I will say that, for all his storytelling faults, Zombie has always been an intriguing visual stylist, giving his films a look and feel that avoids many of the usual pictorial clichés, allowing them to have an unnerving vibrancy uniquely their own. He takes that to a new level here, Brandon Trost's (That's My Boy) steadily self-assured camerawork navigating the claustrophobic confines of Jennifer Spence's (Splinter) exquisite production design with aggressively uncomforting grace. The self-control he showcases, his allowances for silence and for serenity to speak for itself, his eschewing of the typical jump scares and obnoxious music cues all-too-familiar to the genre, all of it showcases a marvelous maturation on his part I cannot help but applaud.

ENDING A LETDOWN
The way things climax I did find to be a tad annoying, everything devolving into some sort of heavy-metal music video montage that's sadly nonsensical. The air of mystery surrounding Heidi's ultimate destination is supposed to chill, supposed to take our breath away and leave us shivering in questioning fear. Yet all I felt was disappointment, thinking that Zombie himself wasn't certain exactly where he wanted to take things, instead deciding on a climax that's too obnoxiously ephemeral for its own good.

All the same, when the movie works it does so marvelously, the fact I sat in the theater in frazzled rapt attention not something I dismiss lightly. Tension ratchets up throughout, and the director has crafted great character parts for genre icons Stone, Quinn, and the nakedly frightening Meg Foster. Geeson does a deliciously malevolent ballet that Ruth Gordon herself would cheer if she were still around, while Davison anchors things with an authentic intellectualism easy to urge on and root for even though an air of tragedy ominously circles him right from the start.

Is it great? Sadly, no, I can't go that far, the closing 10 minutes nowhere near as satisfying as the opening 80. But even so, The Lords of Salem is a giant step in the right direction for Zombie, and for a director I've thought precious little positive about in the past, the fact I'm now excited to see what he's got in store for us in the future speaks volumes.




Forever Prince - The Purple One rains some love on Seattle
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Murs invasion - On the verge of a U.S. breakthrough, the exhibitionistic Brit reveals all
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Collateral damage - Black Watch tells timeless truths about war and humanity
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Warts and all - Book-It's Huck Finn gives you the unvarnished Twain
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Sunny day duo - Colvin, Carpenter pair up for memorable performance
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Osborne gets bluesy at Jazz Alley
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Passion, perfectly realized
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Love that dirty water - Gritty Mud is a powerful coming-of-age adventure
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Bleakly funny Disaster an instant cult sensation
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Subtly unnerving Salem a supernatural terror
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Northwest News
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Letters
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