July 24, 2013

MOVIES: Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2013)

Documentary from the actress-director, in which she explores her own family history.

It had long been a running joke at the Polley dinner table that Sarah looked less their father than any of her siblings, and when Sarah finally hears of the rumors that her actress mother (now deceased) may have had an affair with a co-star while out of town with a play, she decides to investigate.

And that's really all you should know about the story going in. There are surprises, unexpected revelations, delightful punchlines, complicated characters, and beautiful moments of painful honesty as the truth unfolds. It's a marvelous story, and Polley tells it in creative and entertaining style.

It will be interesting to see whether the Motion Picture Academy's Documentary branch chooses to nominate this for an Oscar; there are some storytelling choices that might have purists questioning whether this is really a documentary at all. I think that would be excessive quibbling; the movie certainly deserves a nomination.

MOVIES: Mud (Jeff Nichols, 2013)

In a small Arkansas town, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) set out for a small island in the river, where Neck has discovered a boat stuck up in a tree. The boys are surprised to find a man living in the boat. He is Mud (Matthew McConaughey), and he says that he is there to try and rescue his true love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), from her family, who disapprove of their relationship.

And he asks for the boys' help. Ellis is at the age where girls are just starting to become interesting, and his views of love are still romantically idealized, so he's delighted to get involved. Needless to say, the course of true love is not going to run smooth, and once you throw in his parents relationship struggles and his own fumbling attempts to impress an older girl, Ellis is headed for some painful disillusionment.

The re-creation of Matthew McConaughey as an actor to be taken seriously continues here; he's learned to calibrate his drawl with remarkable precision, and he's got it cranked all the way up here. Mud knows exactly how to manipulate Ellis to get what he wants, and you can see the gears turning behind McConaughey's eyes as he schemes and connives.

As good as he is, though, it's Tye Sheridan who most impresses here. It's a beautifully subtle performance, and not an easy one. There's an intense confrontation late in the movie, in which Ellis calls Mud out on his deception and cruelty; it's a scene that could have gone horribly wrong in so many ways, and would have in the hands of most young actors. But Sheridan plays it impeccably, and the moment is heartbreaking.

Mud is not quite at the level of Nichols' previous film, Take Shelter, but it's a darned good movie.

July 21, 2013

MOVIES: I'm So Excited (Pedro Almodovar, 2013)

An attempt at broad farce that has a few good moments, but never quite finds a consistent tone.

We're on a Peninsula Air flight to Mexico, but there's a problem in the landing gear, and the plane is stuck circling Toledo (Spain, not Ohio) waiting for a runway to be cleared. The passengers in economy are all asleep (having been drugged by the flight crew, who don't want to deal with them), and the first class stewards are trying to maintain calm among their half-dozen passengers. But since they're a group of ditzy, emotional queens, calm doesn't come naturally to them. (The gay stereotyping in this movie is unusually cheap and insulting for Almodovar.)

There are moments when the dialogue snaps with the energy of the best screwball comedies, but too often, mostly when we're spending time on the passengers' backstories, things slow way down and get far too draggy. And the tone of light fun is completely destroyed with a scene in which one of those drugged passengers in coach is raped while passed out.

The movie is reportedly meant as allegorical commentary on the economic situation in Spain, and I suppose I would understand the significance of certain things if I were up on my European economic crises, but I don't think understanding the allegory would help to make the movie any funnier.

Worthwhile only for Almodovar completists, I'm afraid.

MOVIES: Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon, 2013)

The biggest problems with Whedon's modern-dress version of Much Ado About Nothing are inherent to the play. The humiliation of Hero, and Claudio's eagerness to believe the accusations against her, are always hard to swallow, though Fran Kranz as Claudio certainly sells the hell out of the wedding scene. And even Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk cannot make the bumbling malaprops of Dogberry and Verges funny. (And why has Fillion been styled and dressed to look 50 pounds overweight?)

Whedon does make one directorial/interpretive choice that doesn't quite work. The film opens with a short wordless flashback to a one-night stand between Beatrice and Benedick, which is meant to give context to their constant bickering, but it also has the effect of making it even harder to sell the idea that Hero would be utterly disgraced as a Ruined Woman for having had a one-night stand of her own.

Speaking of Hero, newcomer Jillian Morghese is out of her depth in this company of actors. And blasphemy though it may be, I have never been fond of Alexis Denisof; he looks like a starving rodent and his reedy voice is like nails on a chalkboard to me. His performance is good and he certainly delivers the language clearly, but I longed for an actor with a more resonant voice and powerful presence in the role.

The rest of the cast is superb -- Amy Acker, Reed Diamond, Clark Gregg, Fran Kranz, Sean Maher -- and I'd single out Acker's Beatrice for particular praise; her "O, that I were a man" is ferocious. Whedon has skillfully edited the play to a manageable length. One of the play's more racist lines has been altered; another has been left intact, but with a nice directorial touch that draws attention to how awful it is.

Whedon also wrote the music, which is mostly unobtrusively nondescript, though his setting of "Sign No More" is very pretty.
Why, yes, it has been a while since I've posted here. But I have been going to movies and reading books, and hope to get caught up over the next week or so with at least some brief comments.