REVIEW: “Take Shelter”

Take Shelter poster

“Take Shelter” is a beautiful and tender yet painful and unsettling drama written and directed by Jeff Nichols. It’s a near flawless exercise in enigmatic but measured filmmaking anchored by an unforgettable Oscar worthy performance from Michael Shannon. Nichols brings a haunting realism to his examination of mental illness and it’s because of our genuine relatability to his believable and organic characters that the journey is so heart-wrenching.

Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a loving husband and father who begins to experience disturbing dreams and hallucinations. His dreams always start with an approaching storm and as he teeters on the edge of insanity, the storm becomes more and more of a reality to him. Curtis is different than so many of these characters we have seen before. He’s not an bad man. While he does struggle to keep his grasp on reality, he also recognizes it and takes several sensible measures to curb it. He genuinely loves his family and his greatest fear is that the same mental illness that effected his mother will effect him and those closest to him. As the storm from his dreams melds more into Curtis’ reality, he begins working on an old tornado shelter in the backyard. It’s this project that brings his troubles to the surface and it’s the family he desperately hopes to protect that may pay the ultimate price.

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Shannon is simply brilliant in this film. There was no other performance that year that grabbed me and moved me the way he did in “Take Shelter”. There are so many elements to his character and Shannon sells them all. In some scenes you hurt with him as he fights the coming storm. Other times you can’t help but fear him as he loses ground in the war for his sanity. The entire film hinges on Curtis’ character and without Shannon’s captivating work the movie would have flat-lined.

Jessica Chastain beautifully portrays Curtis’ wife Samantha. She’s given much more to do here than in her earlier film “The Tree of Life” but she’s just as mesmerizing. Samantha is a loyal and devoted wife and mother. She’s a woman of faith with an unwavering love for her husband even as things get more complicated. In many ways she is the more sympathetic character in the film. Not only is she the gentle voice of reason, but she must deal with the changes in her husband while taking care of their hearing impaired daughter. She truly is a remarkable woman and Chastain is magnetic in every scene she is in. It’s impossible not to be drawn in by her authentic and subtle performance.

“Take Shelter” moves at a very deliberate pace, slowly developing the story but never getting weighted down by the subject matter. The main characters are so well written and their unfolding relationship keeps things grounded while also raising the stakes. Nichols also does a fantastic job capturing the details and nuances of small town middle America. It’s little things like embroidered pillows and Lion’s Club luncheons that stand out for those like me who are familiar with this part of the country.

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My one problem with “Take Shelter” is its vague and ambiguous ending. Sure it leaves things open for all sorts of interpretations but I’m not sure that’s the best approach for this type of story. I can think of a couple of places close to the end that would have made for a stronger and more moving finish if only Nichols could put down his pen. It’s not that it’s a terrible conclusion to an otherwise great film, but it’s confusing and I would be lying if I said I knew exactly what took place.

“Take Shelter” paints an intriguing picture of an embattled man losing a war within himself. It presents such an authentic family dynamic that makes the consequences of Curtis’ potential fall so much more devastating. It can sometimes be a difficult film to watch but it’s thoroughly rewarding. Shannon and Chastain both deserved Oscar nominations for their work in what is one of my favorite movies of the past few years.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Mud”

MUD posterAfter just two feature films Jeff Nichols has become a director whose name instantly attracts my attention. His first film “Shotgun Stories” was a real and gritty look at rural southern life. His next movie “Take Shelter” was a powerful and potent look at mental illness and its effects on a working class family. It was pure brilliance and one of the best films of the last decade. Now he’s back with another slice of southern gothic storytelling. This time he teams up with some marquee stars and a slightly larger budget to give us “Mud”. But does a little more cash and bigger names equal success or does it take away from the down-to-earth filmmaking that Nichols is known for?

Let me get this out of the way, “Mud” is a scintillating piece of cinema. It’s a coming-of-age story. It’s a thriller. It’s a skewed romance. It’s a film that dabbles in several areas yet it all comes together in a gripping story full of life and grit. Nichols takes us to a world that I was mesmerized by and lost in – a world that many people don’t know exists today. He also gives us characters that interest us and that we care about. He raises the stakes and wraps them up in a mystery that we can sink our teeth into. In other words he gives us the experience that is at the heart of why we go to the movies.

Jeff Nichols started writing the story for “Mud” around 2000 and it’s clearly a personal project for him. Many critics have called this film a modern-day “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and for good reason. Nichols was particularly influenced by the Mark Twain classics. But what makes this movie stand out is the familiarity that Nichols has for the locations and the people he is depicting. The reason we buy into the story is because of the sharp reality that we see through his constantly moving camera. Like me, Nichols is an Arkansas native and the stunning detail and unashamed portrayal of a vanishing river subculture and small town life was as honest of a depiction as I’ve ever seen on screen.

It’s here in the south Arkansas delta, that 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) calls home. His family is part of a low income river community that works the waterways as a source of income. He and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are adventurous sorts. One day they take their boat out to an island and discover a bigger boat left in the trees after a recent flood. They claim it as their own but there’s one problem. Someone has beaten them to it, namely a mysterious stranger who goes by the name of Mud (Matthew McConaughey). Ellis and the more cautious Neckbone develop a friendship with Mud but soon find out he’s a man of many secrets.

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Sheridan, Lofland, & McConaughey

The movie builds itself around the mystery of Mud. Who is he, where did he come from, and why is he hiding on the island? Is he harmless? Is he dangerous? McConaughey and Nichols combine to create a fascinating character and I was thoroughly intrigued by him as they peeled back layer after layer. McConaughey seems to have reinvented himself over the past two years and his career has taken a better turn. But despite his recent good work, nothing he has done matches the phenomenal performance he gives here. For my money this is his very best work and I found myself always anxious for his next scene.

Just as impressive is young Tye Sheridan as the sensitive, tough, and vulnerable Ellis. I loved watching Sheridan navigate his scenes of discovery, revelation, and heartbreak like a seasoned professional. There was never a moment in the film that seemed too big for him and he felt right at home in his character’s shoes. This is really his story and the movie wouldn’t have worked without his amazing performance.

Nichols also puts together an incredible supporting cast loaded with personal favorites of mine. Reese Witherspoon plays a beautiful stranger who arrives in town and who may have deeper connections to Mud. She’s very good here and her name adds some pop to the cast but it’s a fairly small role. Sam Shepard is great as a surly old river hermit who prefers to be left alone. A Jeff Nichols favorite, Michael Shannon also appears in a small but well acted role as Neckbone’s uncle and guardian. But I want to single out a terrific supporting performance by the underrated character actor Ray McKinnon. He plays Ellis’s father and it’s a much more layered role that you might at first think. This is a character that’s right in McKinnon’s comfort zone and he shines particularly in what I thought were two of the movie’s more stirring and emotional scenes.

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Matthew McConaughey as Mud

While “Mud” is a deep south thriller filled with mystery and intrigue I was surprised to find a deeper reoccurring theme that penetrates the entire story. It’s really a movie about love. Throughout the film we see the ravaged emotions, fractured relationships, and heartbroken cynicism left in the wake of failed love. A big part of the film focuses on Ellis’s confusion over what he believes love to be and the harsher reality that he witnesses all around him. It’s sad to watch him innocently cling to his idyllic perception of love. In fact, every character in the film has some dealings with the painful side of love. The way Nichols weaves this throughout his narrative is simply genius.

There are only a couple of things which keep me from calling this the perfect movie. One centers around the Neckbone character. Young Jacob Lofland delivers a nice performance especially considering he had no acting experience. My problem with his character isn’t in his work but surprisingly in Nichols’s writing. Neckbone is a potty mouth and Nichols uses that as a source of humor. But he constantly goes back to it over and over through the entire movie. First of all I don’t particularly find a cursing kid that funny, but beating the same drum over and over was a drag. There’s also a big sequence at the end that is actually satisfying although it’s a bit jarring. It delivers in the end but it did feel a little out of place with the rest of the movie.

That said, it’s clear to me that “Mud” once again verifies that Jeff Nichols is a master craftsman who uses his southern roots and appreciation for classic filmmaking to tell stories rich with vigor and authenticity. “Mud” is an atmospheric and evocative film that takes a southern fried look at adolescence. It’s nestled in the reality of trot lines, cottonmouths, Piggly Wigglys, and Big Banjos while never coming across as clichĂ©d or condescending. It’s a part of the world not far from where I live which makes the movie’s treatment all the more satisfying. “Mud” was my most anticipated movie of 2013 and my expectations were through the roof. Thanks to Jeff Nichols for exceeding those expectations with what will surely be one of the year’s best films.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

Small Roles, Big Performances Blogathon

Fellow movie-oholic Ruth at FlixChatter has thought up a great idea for a blogathon. It’s simply titled “Small Roles, Big Performances”. The idea is to draw some attention to great supporting performances from actors or actresses that seldom get the love that they deserve. These are performers who haven’t received a lot of notoriety or major awards but nonetheless are incredible talents. I love it! FlixChatter will be highlighting many contributors to the blogathon so be sure to check there regularly. I know I will.

This project really took a lot of thought because there are so many actors and actresses known for their small roles that I adore. I mean these are the people who often times provide the backbone of a picture. I just had to figure out which person I wanted to single out. After much thought, it came to me – Ray McKinnon. Anytime I see Ray McKinnon appear in a scene, he gives a sensational performance. Well, maybe with the exception of “The Blind Side”. His feature film career dates all the way back to a small role in “Driving Miss Daisy” all the way to his performance in Jeff Nichol’s “Take Shelter” from 2011.

But the performance I want to focus on is his incredible work in the 2009 film “That Evening Sun”. It’s a story of Abner Meecham, an elderly man (Hal Holbrook) who feels forgotten by his family after being placed in a nursing facility. He escapes the home and heads back to his farm only to find that his son has sold it to a young family. Abner will have none of it and makes himself at home in the small cabin right next to the farm house. McKinnon plays Lonzo Choat, the new owner of the farm. He doesn’t take kindly to Abner’s presence on his property which triggers several confrontations that soon get way out of hand.

McKinnon is wonderful at creating a character that we don’t know what to make of at first. He has every right to the property since he bought it fair and square. But he’s also a boozer who verbally abuses his wife and even physically assaults his daughter. McKinnon sells this guy perfectly and you can’t help but to hate him. The movie is set in small town Tennessee and McKinnon’s deep and true southern accent, course mannerisms, and rough redneck appearance is absolutely perfect for the part and key to making many of the film’s strongest scenes work. He and Holbrook square off multiple times and it’s McKinnon who often steals the scenes. He’s detestable and frightening – a perfect movie antagonist and you’ll never doubt the authenticity that McKinnon brings to the role.

Ray McKinnon can be seen next year in Jeff Nichols’ next film “Mud”. In the meantime, check him out in “Driving Miss Daisy”, “Apollo 13”, “O Brother, Where Art Thou”, and of course “That Evening Sun”. Thanks again Ruth for providing a forum for talent like Ray McKinnon to get a little love. And as I mentioned, visit FlixChatter to learn hoe you can join in on the blogathon.

REVIEW: “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

No one does off-the-wall, quirky comedy like Joel and Ethan Coen and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is another example of that. The brothers have written and directed a wide variety of movies including crime dramas, gangster pictures, and even a remake of a John Wayne western classic. But the Coens always find their way back to their unique and peculiar brand of humor. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was released in 2000 and features so much of the Coen’s signature style and presentation.

The movie is a depression-era film set in rural Mississippi. It follows Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallup (John Turturro), and Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson), three prisoners who escape and set out to recover a “treasure” that Everett hid after knocking off an armored car. The three come across a blind man who begins prophesying about their quest saying that they will find a fortune but not the one they seek. Pay close attention to this early scene because it does come back into play later on in the film. They take off on an adventure where they encounter backwoods relatives, a crazy sheriff, George “Babyface” Nelson, seductive river sirens, the Ku Klux Klan, and more.

This is a movie that’s truly more about the journey than the destination. There are several familiar subtext and certainly an interesting ending that deals with a couple of common Coen themes. But it’s getting to that ending that offers the most enjoyment. Also, many Coen brothers films focus on specific regions of the country as well as incorporate clever usages of language. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is no different. The recreation of rural Mississippi during the 1930’s is fabulous. The three travel through period-perfect small towns, swampy yet beautiful bayous, and lush green forests. The film has an amazingly authentic look to it. The heightened accents and deep south lingo help give it more of a southern tang but also injects the movie with some of it funniest moments. The brothers’ almost poetic butchering of language is such fun and is just as regionally centered as several of their other films such as “Raising Arizona”, “Fargo”, and “No Country for Old Men”.

Music plays a big role in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”. The film is filled with bluegrass, folk music, country gospel, and southern blues. One of the movies funnier turns is when the boys unwittingly create and record a smash hit song that becomes the hottest thing in the state. The song, titled “Man of Constant Sorrow”, won several awards including a Grammy. The music is spot on and adds so much to the picture. It’s clearly intended to be an important part of the storytelling and it really works regardless of whether you like that type of music or not.

The performances are strong throughout the film. Clooney really shows off his comedic side and perfectly subjects himself to the material. Nelson is great as a naive simpleton who you can’t help but love and Coen regular John Turturro is also quite good. We also get Coen favorites John Goodman as a loony one-eyed Bible salesman and Holly Hunter as Penny, Everett’s ex-wife. Ray McKinnon, one of my favorite character actors in the industry, has a small but fun role as a campaign manager and Penny’s “bona fide suitor”. Chris Thomas King, Charles Durning, Wayne Duvall, and Lee Weaver also give really good performances. The Coen’s are particular when it comes to casting and this film, like so many others, shows the benefits of that.

I’ve only scratched the surface of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”. The movie also takes humorous looks at subjects ranging from southern politics to racism. It’s sharp dialogue and wacky antics may not appeal to everyone and they do occasionally feel a little overdone. But it’s still a remarkably well-crafted and well-written film, exactly what you would expect from Joel and Ethen Coen. The film is made with the same impressive stylistic technique that we’ve seen in other Coen films yet it creates its own unique look and feel. There’s a lot going on under the surface and the movie offers plenty of laughs. Unlike most of today’s comedies, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” actually delivers.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS