Colin Firth and Emily Blunt look for an escape in this drama.
Arthur Newman - Equal parts intriguing and contrived, Arthur Newman is a drama that never quite seems to find its footing despite two powerful lead performances. This offbeat film tells the story of Wallace Avery (Colin Firth, proving to be quite capable with an American accent), a self-proclaimed failure of a husband and father who fakes his own death to reemerge as Arthur Newman, a professional golfer. With aspirations of a more hopeful life and promising future, he sets out to Indiana to make good on a once promised Country Club position as a residential pro. Along the way, however, he meets Michaela (Emily Blunt), a rebellious and directionless young woman who is not who she seems to be. These two dishonest and misguided misfits then begin a dark and sexual pursuit of trying on other peoples’ identities and shedding their past lives – only to confront each other’s painful truths, pasts, and problems. It certainly is an interesting premise for a film, and Becky Johnston’s script is actually quite capable and efficient of examining the psychological drives of losing and adapting an identity. Firth and Blunt’s characters are expertly written and developed, but are fully brought to life by the pair’s dynamic and fresh performances. Firth, weary-faced but quietly optimistic, is restrained but comically erratic when his character begins to be a bit impulsive, while Blunt portrays a (borderline) mentally ill woman without ever stepping into histrionic parody or stereotype. She’s believably nuanced and engaging. The problem with Arthur Newman, however, is the direction. Dante Ariola cannot decide if he wants his film to be a road movie, a dark comedy, or a serious drama. Three different genres compete to have tonal superiority, but only distract the audience from the drama at hand and create an inconsistently moody film. Like its characters, Arthur Newman cannot quite figure out what it wants to be. It’s a shame, given that the script and performances are top-notch and solid. If only the direction was just as committed. B-
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Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron star in this low-key melodrama.
At Any Price - Attempting to channel Arthur Miller-esque family drama through the contemporary economic crisis, Ramin Bahrani’s At Any Price is an intermittently effective effort. The film takes place in rural Iowa where Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) leads his family-owned farming empire to mostly profitable and sustainable results. His son, Dean (Zac Efron), is rebellious and disinterested in taking over his father’s profession and instead wants to chase his dream of becoming a Nascar racer. The two never seem to find the same footing and agree on the same plan for one another until Henry’s business is investigated for recycling seeds, while Henry’s mistress (Heather Graham) begins to take interest in Dean. It’s earnest melodrama disguised as socio-economic commentary, but if the film ever wanted to get away with such facade then it should have at least tried to be entertaining. Most of the film drags with slow pacing, development, and predictability. Dean and Henry repetitively butt heads and undermine one another, while the subplot involving Graham’s character is only there to add extra tension that isn’t communicated through the actress’ weak turn. Furthermore, Efron is not convincing as a conflicted young man who is torn between aspirations and family. Quaid, however, gives a strong performance that is full of charisma, seediness, and moral ambiguity. He lures you in with his familiar affability, but personifies and builds the film’s sole emotional backbone with his inner turmoil. It’s a great turn by the actor that you wish was more front and center, rather than sharing screen time with so many unnecessary and distracting concurrent elements that don’t add any cinematic weight. C
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Matthew McConaughey enlists some unusual help in Jeff Nichols’ third film.
Mud - Jeff Nichols has established his voice in the independent film world by now, with two haunting, impressionistic, and thrilling Southern dramas (Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter) under his belt. His latest, Mud, is decidedly different in tone but still displays Nichols’ enveloping and distinct gift of cinematic storytelling. Mud tells the story of young Ellis (Tye Sheridan), a preteen experiencing the divorce and separation of his parents (Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon) while growing up in a slow-moving Arkansas town. Nothing that exciting happens in his life up until he meets Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a mysterious drifter living on a boat washed ashore on an island. This opaque and potentially dangerous figure acts as an idealistic beacon of love for Ellis, as he enlists the young boy’s help to get his boat off the island and reunite with his lover, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Ellis’ ambitions and aspirations are thwarted by suspicions about Mud’s illegal activities and Juniper’s questionable nature, as he’s forced to confront challenges of adolescence, acceptance, and love. Just by the plot alone, audiences can see that this is relatively new territory for Nichols – it’s not as simmering or ominous as his past efforts. Instead, this is a generally upbeat, romantic, and moving piece of work that still doesn’t forsake Nichols’ directorial mark. It’s full of his authentic perspective on Southern life and Arkansas’ socio-economic culture while presenting the narrative through an elegiac and fluid tone full of mystery, thrills, and melodrama. It never wavers dangerously close to either end of the spectrum, staying true to its story and feeling while carefully unfolding its complicated characters. Sheridan gives one of the best child performances I’ve seen in recent memory – full of heart, excitement, and remorse, he’s terrific. McConaughey continues his recent streak of valuable turns with an outstandingly complex performance full of intrigue and humanity. Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, and Michael Shannon (a staple in all of Nichols’ films thus far) are equally solid in their supporting roles. While the film may take some time to get to its more gripping and resonant moments (it runs at 130 minutes, easily deductible by ten), Mud is an emotionally sweet-and-sour Southern drama from one of the more exciting cinematic voices working today. A-
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