Monday, June 16, 2014

The Intriguers of 2013, Part III: Lone Survivor, Spring Breakers, and Matthew McConaughey

Today, the Manifesto wraps up its look at The Intriguers of 2013. You can find Part I here and Part II here.

Lone Survivor. Peter Berg's Lone Survivor exhibits a blockheaded simplicity that's both insulting and oddly refreshing. In an era of governmental distrust and uncertainty—one in which even superhero movies such as Man of Steel and Captain America: The Winter Soldier offer glancing criticisms of drone warfare and look dubiously at unchecked military might—Berg has made a throwback. Lone Survivor is an unapologetic paean to the valiant heroism of the American soldier, and it feels like a spiritual cousin to the propagandistic action flicks of the 1980s, those celebrations of masculinity in which Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone slaughtered countless Cold War baddies. Afghanistan has replaced Russia, and the Taliban now stands in for the KGB, but the principle remains the same: We're the good guys, and our job is to kill the bad guys.

Viewed intellectually, that's a dangerously blunt ethos, one with no shades of grey and no room for doubt. But there's a purity to Lone Survivor's patriotism that feels sincere, and its ignorance of any larger political implications is also its point. Berg is less concerned with the mission than the men, and while he pays tribute to vague notions of duty and honor, he's really invested in venerating the far more literal virtues of teamwork and loyalty. The realism of Lone Survivor's action scenes is occasionally questionable—its four Navy SEALs gun down countless Taliban foes thanks to either vastly superior marksmanship or remarkable luck—but for the most part, the movie functions as an effective, often bracing depiction of how soldiers collaborate in times of crisis. (It also makes you feel their pain: More than once, the SEALs tumble down obstacle-ridden embankments, and as they slam into various objects, the film's sound design mercilessly captures every unforgiving thwack.) Our heroes take cover, strategize, and use both brain and brawn in their ongoing struggle to survive, and Berg chronicles everything with an arresting immediacy that verges on intimacy.

Toward its conclusion, Lone Survivor makes a stab at sociopolitical relevance, which only makes its unfiltered jingoism more glaring. But when it strips away the subtext—when it puts you in the foxhole and lets you feel the heat and the rush and the bullets flying by—it feels honest. Sometimes, from a war movie, that's all we can ask.

Mud. Mud is something of a bait-and-switch. It bears the skeleton of a crime drama, one in which an overeager, impressionable youth becomes entangled with a shadowy, complex fugitive. (The Client comes to mind, as does Clint Eastwood's A Perfect World.) But the genre elements, while competently executed, feel perfunctory, almost as though writer-director Jeff Nichols originally conceived the movie as a thriller, then changed his mind halfway through. That's a bit of a shame, since he could have crafted a potboiler that combined the unsettling paranoia of his prior feature (the strong, occasionally riveting Take Shelter) with the more stock elements of a gangster fable. If nothing else, that alternate version of the movie presumably wouldn't have wasted a fine performance from Matthew McConaughey, who continues his career transformation from matinee idol to legitimate actor, and who imbues the slippery title character with equal parts mystery and menace.

But Mud isn't really about Mud. It's more about Ellis (Tye Sheridan), the precocious teenager struggling to find his place in a world that he doesn't understand and that exhibits little interest in understanding him. Ellis takes it upon himself to help Mud build a boat and thus navigate a path to freedom, but he must also navigate the more perilous waters of typical adolescence: meeting girls, combating feelings of loneliness and alienation, and reconciling his parents' affection for him with their obvious antagonism toward each other. And so, while Mud can sometimes feel limp in its plotting, it nevertheless demonstrates a sure understanding of the syncopated rhythms of the coming-of-age story. It also features one of the most touching father-son relationships in recent memory. How often in cinema do we see a father (Ray McKinnon, very good) tell his son that he loves him, without a trace of irony or shame? That's the kind of rare, emotionally genuine moment that makes Mud memorable, and it typifies Nichols' warm regard for his characters, whom he treats as people rather than plot points. Nichols could still serve to drive his story forward with greater urgency, and Mud ultimately fails to arrive at a final destination. But at least it takes some welcome and distinctive digressions along the way.

Oz the Great and Powerful. Yes, Sam Raimi's update is a shameless cash grab, capitalizing on the enduring popularity of a timeless classic. So are most major studio pictures these days. But the fact that Oz the Great and Powerful is a product of commercial calculation does not automatically render it artistically bankrupt. As it turns out, Raimi's modern appendage to an age-old treasure isn't half-bad. The special effects are first-rate, seamlessly blending into their environments without making a fuss of it, and the production design pays homage to that fairytale land from 1939 while also updating it with a sleek, modern touch. James Franco is serviceable as the eponymous charlatan, while Rachel Weisz is excellent as a certain sorceress presiding over eastern lands. (Mila Kunis, unfortunately, is horribly miscast as her westerly sister.) And Raimi maintains a buoyant tone that provides a welcome contrast to the growling, glowering blockbusters that dominate today's marketplace.

More importantly, Oz the Great and Powerful actually delivers in its third act. Many big-budget contemporaries start off strong, only to fizzle when the premise expires and nothing but obligatory action remains. Oz the Great and Powerful operates in reverse; its opening is rather dull, with a tired story and strained character interactions. But Weisz's arrival gives the film a major boost, and Raimi sustains that momentum as he glides toward a masterful conclusion. Blessedly, the film's climax is not another tedious sensory assault in which thousands of extras are sacrificed at the altar of explosions and excess. It is, instead, an ode to the power of illusion—in defeating his enemies, Raimi's hero relies on guile and sleight-of-hand rather than brute force. In this, Oz the Great and Powerful functions as a sly metaphor for movie-making itself. Sure, it's just a man behind a curtain, flicking some switches and pulling some levers, but if he's committed to his craft, he can show us wonders.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Ordinary life can be extraordinary. So posits The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller's earnest, enjoyable, not-quite-triumphant remake of the 1947 Danny Kaye vehicle. We're all dreamers, the movie insists, and each of us worker-bee drones retains the capacity to find richness and meaning in our lives—it's just a matter of seizing it. Stiller plays the title character as an unappreciated artisan (he develops the pictures taken by a world-famous photographer, played by Sean Penn), an unfulfilled loner who regularly fantasizes about engaging in heroic exploits but who's never actually done much of anything. That changes when he undertakes a mission to salvage one of the photographer's greatest images, leading him on a globe-trotting expedition that requires him to perform daring feats of action and to conquer all manner of personal fears.

The irony of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is that its execution undercuts its message. The film's early fantasy sequences—in which Walter repeatedly rescues a beguiling coworker with whom he's smitten (Kristen Wiig, nicely restrained) or does battle against a noxious superior (Adam Scott, suitably hammy)—pop with energy and imagination, as Stiller continues to flash the stylish filmmaking chops he previously demonstrated in Zoolander and Tropic Thunder. (As an actor, he continues to delicately straddle the line between relatable Everyman and bland dullard.) But once Walter's adventures shift from fantasy to reality, the movie's momentum stalls. The concept makes sense, but the escapades themselves—such as Walter leaping from a helicopter or fleeing an erupting volcano—feel curiously restrained and half-formed, when they need to rush with headlong passion. If Walter expects us to go out and seize the day, his day must first seize us.

Still, there's a genuine sweetness to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty that's virtually impossible to resist. Stiller and Wiig make a surprisingly adorable couple (Wiig's impromptu musical number is a delight), and the film's story of self-discovery is so universal that it makes rooting for its hero an easy sell. That coveted photograph promises to capture "the quintessence of life", and while the movie doesn't quite do that —it is both too eager and too tentative to embody life's chaotic, unpredictable tempo—it does manage to pull off something equally rare and inspiring: It's pure.

Short Term 12. Movies about troubled youths are dicey propositions—those that aren't irritatingly precious tend to overcorrect and become sullen exemplars of miserabilism. For the most part, Dustin Cretton's Short Term 12 avoids falling through either of those trapdoors, largely because it focuses less on the kids than their counselors. The film is really a character study of hesitancy and hidden strength, traits embodied in equal measure by the unfortunately-named Grace, played with tenderness and heaps of feeling by emerging star Brie Larson. Grace spends her life surrounded by tragedy and loss, and while she's both forceful and empathetic as a supervisor, all of that pain seeps into her personal life. Not only does she rail against her own bosses, but she also struggles committing to her relationship with Mason (The Newsroom's John Gallagher Jr., excellent), her boyfriend and fellow supervisor. Grace is so focused on helping the kids that she seems incapable of helping herself.

In attempting to establish a compassionate link between the supervisors and their charges, Short Term 12 tries a bit too hard. Cretton (who also wrote the screenplay) hardly needed, for example, to make Grace a victim of child abuse herself, thereby dangerously implying that the only adults who can truly help traumatized children are those who have suffered similarly in the past. (See also: Hunting, Good Will.) And Grace's battles with bureaucracy come off as somewhat superior, even if she's righteous. But there's true sensitivity in the movie's relationships, both between Grace and Mason and between the counselors and the counseled. Two teens in particular—a volatile cutter named Jayden (Justified's Kaitlyn Dever) and a glum musician named Marcus (Keith Stanfield, very good)—snare your sympathy, primarily because they seem like real people with their own wants and fears rather than like archetypal problem children in need of rescuing. They're full of desire and pain, and though they stumble in channeling those emotions in the proper direction, their feelings are genuine. In other words, they're a lot like Short Term 12.

Spring Breakers. At first, Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers presents itself as little more than a particularly voluptuous and vulgar episode of MTV's Spring Break. Young and naked bodies gleam in the Florida sun, while a quartet of collegiate hotties pine longingly for the sex-and-drugs-filled paradise that's only a coastal bus ride away. Korine and his cinematographer, BenoƮt Debie, film the proceedings like an X-rated music video, with a gauzy, neon-soaked tone that only heightens the utter carnality on display. For a time, the movie resembles the Jersey Shore-inspired beefcakes whose muscles Debie's camera eyes eagerly: It's both very sexy and very dumb.

But an undercurrent of troubling darkness ripples beneath Spring Breakers' surface obsessions with debauchery, and you get the sense that Korine is after more than simply glorifying youthful excess. That suspicion is verified upon the arrival of Alien, a manipulative, gregarious gangster played with unabashed glee by James Franco (reminding the world that, for all of his questionable career choices, he remains a talented actor). Constantly flashing his silver teeth in a metallic smile, Alien encapsulates our heroines' ultimate fantasies—he is filthy rich, and all he ever seems to do is party—even as he establishes himself as a predator and a lawbreaker. He's a scary dude, but what's truly frightening is how easily the women allow themselves to be seduced by his bushel of swag and vacant promises of "Spring Break Forever". (The exception is Selena Gomez's fretful Faith, who quickly departs the picture, though not before appearing on the receiving end of Franco's most hypnotic, terrifying monologue.) It isn't like they're bamboozled; they want Alien's life of casual crime, and they happily join in the fun, even upping the stakes.

This still doesn't mean much. Korine wants to tap into an entire subculture of depraved immorality, but his thesis seems to be little more than, "Girls just wanna have fun and fire automatic weapons." Worse, with the exception of Faith, the women in the movie don't differentiate themselves—they're all sex-crazed airheads who locate within themselves a hidden lust for violence. But the execution of Spring Breakers is frequently mesmeric, with Korine bathing everything in a neon glow that lends the movie a haunting, dreamlike quality. He also knows how to deliver a serious set piece, such as a crime-laced montage set to Franco's rendition of—wait for it—Britney Spears' "Everytime". It's an absurd, beautiful moment, but it's fleeting, and that ephemeral quality provides Spring Breakers with a surprising sadness. It's a grand party, but all parties end. Even at the movies, spring break can't last forever.

Next time out: The Executors.

Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Intriguers (Part II)
The Intriguers (Part I)
The Failures (Part II)
The Failures (Part I)
The Unmemorables: The Least Memorable Movies of 2013 (Part II)
The Unmemorables: The Least Memorable Movies of 2013 (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013

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