Thursday, March 21, 2013

2013 Atlanta Film Festival: Opening Night, and MUD

March 15th of this year marked the debut of 2013's Atlanta Film Festival and, per usual, it means (1) a generous host of boisterous parties, (2) a buncha Atlanta- and Georgia-based movies of sometimes impressive, sometimes dubious quality, the inclusion of whom is meant to scratch the backs of those filmmakers that work in the region, and (3) sometimes truly great film product--often NOT based in the Southern United States--that might not get public viewings any other way (I should point out that there are VERY few non-English-language titles programmed here, because they are inevitably low-attended by the locals, who presumably do not cotton to subtitles).   What that means for someone like me, who's always into watching something superb, is that (1) I cannot go to too many of those wild parties, because the free-flowing liquor can hobble clear-headed assessment, (2) I need to avoid most Atlanta- and Georgia-based productions because they're accepted without regard to quality, but instead on the basis of which of the AFF film festival programmers/board members they know personally, and, as a result (3) I have to choose my screenings VERY carefully, in the hopes of being able to deliver a kind number of favorable notices and to, thereby, have an enjoyable time myself (since all I really care about here is seeing good movies, as watching a bad movie is quite painful to me).  But, really, at the point that I am writing this, I suppose I have picked correctly, because 90% of everything that I have seen at this year's Atlanta Film Festival has been unwaveringly splendid. 

As always, I attended the opening night film (hosted at the city's oldest continually running movie theater, the recently--and fabulously--refurbished Plaza Theater--where I personally worked from 1992 to 2001) and festivities (the inaugural party, at Atlanta's amazing Paris on Ponce, is always an immense treat).  But I didn't talk to too many attendees, because I don't want to set them or myself up for disappointment.   Always at a film festival like this one (and it's similar to many film fests all across the U.S.), if you meet too many filmmakers (who are all, I believe, genuinely nice people), a serious film maven can find themselves committing to see some movies that might be of a lesser quality than other works that do not have their makers in attendance.   The flip side of that coin is that sometimes you meet a filmmaker that is so vociferous about the quality of their movie that you can be swayed to see it, and be pleasantly surprised at the fact that their show is as good as they hype it.  The more experience you have at a festival, the better one is at figuring out who has the goods and who doesn't.   As for me, I would have to characterize myself as someone who is informed, but still able to be deceived (because, really, I want to believe every movie out there is a masterpiece). 

One thing I can confidently say about the AFF is that it's very much fun to attend (for those with Filmmaker, Staff, and All-Access badges; those with Press badges like myself, perhaps a little less so, as they're not really used to press coverage here).   There are get-togethers galore, a fine set of informative seminars (on producing, screenwriting, and technical concerns), and one really gets the impression that the festival heads really care about showing their attendees a good time.   But, though I've seen 90% terrific stuff this year, I still have to wonder if the heads at this festival are totally committed to showing the best of the best out of their 2000+ entrants.  Still, I realize they are programming for a local audience, and that they are looking to get butts in seats and, in Atlanta, that means focusing IN on Atlanta product.   This is a landlocked city in more ways than one.

The opening night movie this year was a mostly tasty but briefly ever-so-sour plum.  Jeff Nichols' follow-up to his breakthrough feature Take Shelter (a film that was highly praised, and rightly so, for Michael Shannon's lead performance, but which left me with a WTF reaction, and not in a good way) is a film called Mud.  In it, Matthew McConaughey plays the title character, whose name is Mud both literally and figuratively.  He's a starving man living in isolation on a wooded island, whose prized possessions are his shirt and his pistol, and who is seeking shelter from the crime boss (a bulldogish Joe Don Baker) who's after his hide after he killed his son, a man who raped Mud's estranged lifelong love (played by Reese Witherspoon, in a largely insubstantial role for an actress such as she).  All that know Mud characterize him as an imbalanced, unreliable, habitual liar.  But the viewer get to know him in a different light.  (McConaughey's performance here, by the way, is quite respectable, but not on that Magic Mike level, though still it's one that let's us know that the actor's mind is currently on much more serious footing.)

Thankfully, Mud is entirely, and very wisely, shot through the eyes of its true main characters: pre-teen newcomers Tye Sheridan as Ellis (the film's extraordinary and true lead actor) and his adventurous co-hort Neckbone (played by first-time actor James Lofland in a fun performance).   They are Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, in a way, and their presence makes this film into a Southern-fried boy's adventure story, but with heart and realistic sentiment.   Ellis and Neckbone run across Mud after investigating a mysterious boat that's caught up in the trees of this deserted island (a wonderfully surreal image, that).  Upon noting the boys' intrusion, Mud comes out of the woodworks and asks what they are doing messing around in his boat, and then quickly forges a friendly bond with the boys that thrust them into the middle of the drama he himself (he's a boy, too, at heart) is caught up in.   In this way, the film owes a debt to Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, another story in which a criminal gets a boy to do his bidding (though here the deed is done with friendship rather than fear as a motive).

Nichols' film has a notable cast that includes Sam Shepard as a hermetic old coot who may or may not be Mud's father (the actor totally owns a few of the movie's best moments), Michael Shannon (as Neckbone's offbeat uncle and guardian), and Ray McKinnon as Ellis' dad.  McKinnon is terrific here, in a larger role than has ever been won by this Georgia-born filmmaker/performer (who won an Oscar in 2001 for his--and his late wife, actress Lisa Blount's--short film The Accountant, after which McKinnon became further recognized for roles in The Blind Side, Take Shelter and HBO's Deadwood). As you might be able to tell, this is very much a story about fathers and sons, and that makes it a very male-oriented tale; the females in Mud, including Witherspoon's femme fatale Juniper, Ellis' dissatisfied mother (Sarah Paulson), and Ellis' older first love May Pearl (a very fine Bonnie Sturdivant) are portrayed as largely distrustful harpies. 

Still, Mud is satisfying Saturday-afternoon fun, and this is almost completely because of the lovely performances given by Sheridan and Lofland, who are clearly the stars here.   Adventurous and randy, Lofland gets many of the laughs in the film (I love his line deliveries, even if they sometimes feel charmingly stilted, as might be expected from a newly-minted actor), and Sheridan completely steals the movie in every scene.   I'm remembering now his blushing glow as his receives his first kiss from Sturdivant, his honest back-and-forth while confiding with dad McKinnon in the family truck, and his stultifying heartbreak at the realization he's been deceived and used by Mud (this is a really GREAT scene--perhaps the film's pinnacle--and one can chalk it up to Sheridan's preternatural acting). 

Nichols should be commended here, too, for constructing an utterly credible Southern atmosphere that never feels insulting to the region or its people, while being absolutely true to its Arkansas locale (in that way, the film reminds me a little of Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade, another Arkansas-based personable epic, to which Mud is indebted but cannot hope to match).  The art direction is realistically grimy, the locations are naturally breathtaking, the cinematography--by Adam Stone--sports equal moments of credible degradation and glorious beauty (I love the sun-dappled look of this movie, and it has a quite moving final shot) and Nichols' screenplay deftly walks a delicate line between grubby pulp and genuine sweetness.   In this way, I'm forced to wonder if Mud will appeal to those who loved Take Shelter, as this is a much less cynical story.  But I surely hope this perfectly entertaining little film brings fans over to that island where Nichols' generous head currently resides. 

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