Monday, 20 May 2013

Film Review - Mud

Someone must have a had a quiet word with Matthew McConnaghey around 2010 and told him he was in danger of becoming a joke. Lampooned in Family Guy and mocked on YouTube he was quickly transforming into the male version of Sharon Stone, a rent-a-pecks coasting along on his southern charm and displaying very little in the way of actual acting ability.

Whether the blame lies with him or his agent is a moot point. Movies such as Failure To Launch, How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Fools Gold cemented him as the go-to-guy for casting directors wanting to populate their lame Rom-Coms with a bit of male eye candy.

Apropos of nothing McConnaghey suddenly started making films worth watching. Whatever the reasons for his Damascene conversion McConnaghey's star has now never been brighter. After a string of great performances in The Lincoln Lawyer, Magic Mike and Killer Joe people have started to realise there is more to McConnaghey than tousled hair and a killer six-pack .

In Mud, McConnaghey completes his artistic renaissance by playing the titular fugitive on the run from police and bounty hunters out to avenge Mud's crimes of passion. He cuts a desperate, weather beaten figure as he lays low on a tidal island deep in the Arkansas woods with little more than the shirt on his back and pistol in his waistband. A hopeless romantic he is awaiting the arrival of the flighty love-of-his-life Juniper (Reece Witherspoon), the reason he finds himself physically and emotionally marooned in the first place.

Two local teenagers Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) cruise upriver in search of a boat that is rumoured to be stuck in a tree and stumble across Mud and decide to help him out him. Their own home lives are far from idyllic and Mud's "badass" credentials make him an exciting male influence. With Mud unable to show his face in town they are sent on errands to sneak food, contact his girlfriend and scrounge the necessary parts to turn the stranded tree-boat into Mud's ticket to salvation.

Mud may be part coming of age tale and part slow burn thriller but fundamentally it is a story about heartbreak: marital heartbreak, childhood heartbreak and regular common or garden heartbreak. A character driven small town story told mostly from the point of view of the 14yr old Ellis its no surprise that writer/director Jeff Nichols struggled to get a Hollywood studio to fund the project. It’s completely devoid of sort of cliché and sentimentality you would expect from mainstream cinema and as a result is a huge breath of fresh air.

Beautifully shot by cinematographer Adam Stone and languidly plotted the movie is much like the Mississippi river it showcases. A real character piece, the eternity Nichols spent sweating over the script has paid handsome dividends. The cast of backwater hicks, small town bullies and strangers with dark secrets is thoroughly fleshed out and Nichols genuinely manages to convey a sense of authenticity that runs through this slice of rural Americana like the fluid and beguiling river at the centre of the story.

Nicholls wrote the part of Mud specifically for McConnaghey seeing him an untapped quality perfectly suited to this role. It was a gamble that has paid off. He is superbly supported by the modern Huckelby Finn/Tom Sawyer pairing of Sheridan (who was excellent in Terrence Malick's Tree of Life) and Lofland (amazingly appearing in his first movie) acting futures look bright. These three anchor the film but are surrounded by a talented ensemble with Sam Shepard as secretive neighbour Tom and the ever watchable Michael Shannon as Uncle Galen.

It is hard to imagine this type of film being made here in over populated Britain yet the central ethos that life is hard, and love is complicated will resonate with the residents of DeWitt, Arkansas as much as it does in Coventry, Calcutta or Cape Town . There will always be room in our hearts for dreamers.

I struggle to find any fault with this film which excels in virtually all areas. Arkansas-born Nichols delivers the sort of storytelling its impossible not to become enraptured by and this masterpiece marks him out as one to watch. One of the finest movies I have seen in the last few years I recommend this to anyone who has a heart.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Film Review - Exploding Helicopter - Iron Man 3

Let's face facts, once they hang up the cape most superheroes are as dull as ditch water. Clark Kent is a socially inept wet blanket. Bruce Wayne a reclusive misery guts. Peter Parker a dweeby geek. You'd have to have a cavernous hole in your diary to be desperate enough to invite them out for beers. 

Tony Stark on the other hand would be a riot. Not only is he is charismatic, loaded and has more one liners than Tommy Cooper but he is to women what the BBC is to paedophiles (look it up).

The success of the Iron Man is due in no small part to Robert Downey Jr,'s suave, sardonic portrayal of the millionaire playboy.  You feel he isn't acting so much as portraying a slightly exaggerated version of himself.  Downey cocks a perpetual eyebrow at the more po-faced excursions into this comic book universe and as a result the first film felt like a breath of fresh air.

Sequels rarely improve on the predecessors and Iron Man 2 was a case in point, foregoing some of the knockabout fun of the original in order to set up the convoluted plot for Stark's appearance in franchise crossover The Avengers Assemble. There he battles an alien invasion with his superhero buddies and now Iron Man 3 sees a shell-shocked Stark suffering from burnout in the aftermath.

Holed up in his Malibu mansion he spends all his time tinkering with an army of Iron Man suits, arguing with his missus Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and suffering from panic attacks. As Stark licks his wounds a string of terrorist bombings perpetrated by flamboyant Osama-like The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) causes chaos in the US and injures Stark's head of security (Jon Favreau).

In Stark's agitated state he misguidedly goads the terrorist into challenging him personally and after giving out his address live on air The Mandarin is only too happy to oblige.  He sends a trio of heavily laden attack choppers to Stark's hillside hideaway to, lets say, "redesign" Stark's premises through the medium of missiles.

The lead chopper flies in over the sea and fires off a couple of missiles that blow a huge hole into the property's art deco frontage. The explosion catches Stark in the blast radius but he quickly dons his suit and returns fire by launching a huge chunk of masonry at the helicopter. He hits his target but the chopper does not explode and flies out of shot.

A second chopper goes in for the kill but Stark hits the jackpot when another piece of hurled debris hits its target. The impact causes the helicopter to spin in classic whirly-bird fashion but unfortunately the stricken chopper crashes straight into the mansion's supporting structure. As a result the entire building then tumbles down into the sea below with only a miracle saving Stark from being crushed in the carnage. The last chopper pilot thinks his work is done and pootles off for a well earned pint.

Artistic Merit

Its a juicy set piece, nicely shot and with plenty of destruction but the helicopter explosion is delivered with a reddish glow which betrays its CGI origins. The mansion tumbling into he sea after succumbing to the helicopter wreckage is a nice touch.

Exploding Helicopter Innovation

Whilst the destruction of the chopper is pretty routine its not often you see a helicopter reduce a mansion to rumble.

Do Passengers Survive

Unusually the first chopper pilot, despite being hit by a massive slab of concrete, looks like he may have been able to make an emergency landing. The 2nd chopper pilot would have definitely came a cropper though.


As to be expected for a Marvel adaptation action fans will feel as satisfied as Lindsay Lohan on holiday in Colombia with the Green Bay Packers.  All the set pieces are executed with aplomb (I particularly enjoyed the skydiving sequence) and there is more shiny CGI than you shake a stick at.

The studio has also managed to corral a great acting ensemble together so Downey is not left to prop up the picture on his own. Guy Pearce delivers another convincing performance as evil mastermind Aldrich Killian that continues to make his time as Mike Pearce in Neighbours seems like a cheese induced dream. Ben Kingsley as always is a delight and delivers an unexpected character twist that is usually absent in this genre .  To top it off we get ultimate movie asshole Miguel Ferrer, of Robocop fame, pop up as the crooked Vice President Rodriguez.


Despite the acting chops not everything is rosy in the Iron Man universe.

Director Shane Black may be responsible for writing the classic Lethal Weapon series but its wise-cracking buddy formula doesn't work so well here.  Stark befriends a precocious brat (Ty Simkins), whilst investigating the dubious explosions that maybe linked to the accident that befalls his head of security . Their "banter" feels forced and not a little ridiculous.

The pacing of this film is also questionable lurching as it does between knock about one liners to gruesome deaths in the space of a minute. Whilst the original film had its moments of levity rooted in Downey's louche portrayal of Stark, here the "comedy" is overdone and borders on the schizophrenic.

Also, the technology in the original movie was reasonably grounded in reality but here the audience is required to take a greater leap of faith. Stark's new remote control Iron Man suits and Killian's DNA regeneration programme feel like one step too far and possibly a case of jumping the shark.

Overall the film is more enjoyable than Iron Man 2 but fails to live up to the alchemy of the original. I wouldn't go out of your way to see it.

Favourite Quote

Brandt: Is that all you've got? A cheap trick and a cheesy one-liner?

Tony Stark: Sweetheart, that could be the name of my autobiography.

Interesting Fact

Shane Black is a bit of a jack of all trades. Not content with being a mere screenwriter or director he has also dipped a toe in the acting world. Keen eyed exploding helicopter fans might recognise him as the bespectacled radio operator Hawkins from the classic Predator. This bit of trivia is just an excuse for me me to quote the following lame joke

Hawkins: Billy. Billy! The other day, I was going down on my girlfriend, I said to her, "Jeez you got a big pussy. Jeez you got a big pussy." She said, "Why did you say that twice?" I said, "I didn't."

[Billy stares blankly]

Hawkins: See, cuz of the echo.


Hang about until the credits have rolled to see Stark on the psychiatrist couch with Dr David Banner. Worth waiting for.