A mixed bag of four new films
It’s a busy week at the movies and a mixed bag of outcomes, including veteran stars who elevate their material and films that both benefit and suffer by being associated with true stories.
The Big Wedding Written and Directed by Justin Zackham
This is the first of two movies this week that become more than they might otherwise be by virtue of their casts. In this case, what would otherwise probably be a C+ grade comedy romp is pulled up a notch or two by stars Robert De Niro, Susan Sarandon (see below also), Diane Keaton, and a refreshingly understated performance from Robin Williams.
It’s a surprisingly raunchy-at-times (and appropriately R-rated) take on a dysfunctional family wedding with a modern twist, in that bridegroom Alejandro (Ben Barnes) finds himself trying to juggle three mothers (or mother figures): His staunchly catholic and Columbian biological mother, his now-divorced adoptive mother, and his adoptive father’s long-time girlfriend who has been a quasi step-mother.
Some of the familial relationships feel quite genuine at times, including sibling rivalry raised to the level of sport, and the film has enough funny moments to cause subsequent lines of dialog to be obscured by audience laughter. But it’s also rather unbalanced and inconsistent, with somewhat abrupt editing, and the fact that it works even as well as it does is because of the talent and gravitas of the actors delivering the lines. If the thought of A-list actors in a C-grade sex comedy is appealing to you, this could be your movie.
Sidenote: I see a lot of movies, including horror films and thrillers, and few things have shocked me as much recently as watching a character in “The Big Wedding” casually throw a martini glass into a swimming pool. Which just goes to demonstrate how much I’m affected by real life scenarios as I leaned over to my companion and said “They’re going to have to drain that entire pool!”
The Company You Keep Directed by Robert Redford
“The Company You keep” has an even more impressive cast than “The Big Wedding” including, again, Susan Sarandon, along with Robert Redford, Julie Christie, Stanley Tucci, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Elliott, Richard Jenkins, Chris Cooper, Nick Nolte, Terrence Howard, and relative youngsters (who look like teenagers by comparison) Brit Marling, Anna Kendrick, and Shia LeBeouf. Frankly, it’s a dream cast and I’d probably enjoy watching them all play dead for two hours – so I go into a film like this with an inherent bias.
Sarandon plays a suburban housewife who, for three decades, has hidden her identity as a former member of The Weather Underground – a Vietnam War era domestic protest group that elevated their activities to a level that we would now label terrorism. She took part in a bank robbery that left a guard dead and she’s arrested on her way to turn herself in. LeBeouf plays a young local newspaper reporter who’s drawn in by the story and begins to realize there are more folks around whose pasts cover similar ground.
The legitimacy of the backstory, with the actual Weathermen having roots around some of the movie locations, adds credence to the story and it’s a topic that is remarkably fresh despite those roots being 30 or more years old. As characters discuss their original motivations, their complaints and concerns sound as though they could be current and new, and that’s an obviously intentional aspect of the screenplay. That it also comes to screens so close to the Boston Marathon bombings makes it seem even more topical and, truthfully, it’s a subject matter that could play in almost any decade, with only the exact motivations of those involved changing.
Redford’s last film “Lions for Lambs,” was similarly political in its content and messages although “The Company You keep” is, perhaps, a little less heavy-handed in that regard. However, while Redford is a very capable director and storyteller, he doesn’t waste time on too much subtlety when he has a message to convey. And here we get multiple corollary messages, such as the death-struggle of print journalism and the work that can sometimes only come from a doggedly determined local investigative journalist, and the relative complacency of younger generations for whom the gross injustices of an earlier time have become the status quo.
This is a solid film, reminiscent of the drama “Running on Empty,” which tackled similar themes of long-term fugitive status and its effects on family and relationships. It’s also an excellent reminder to those of us who are out of shape that 76 year old Robert Redford can still run through the woods carrying a backpack in a manner that leaves me winded just thinking about it.
Pain & Gain Directed by Michael Bay
“Pain & Gain” is my most conflicted movie of the week and is the second that’s affected by being based on truth – in this case a true crime story from Miami. But it’s that truth that forms the basis of my conflict.
This is the story of a bungling group of thieves who attempted to get rich through a couple of kidnappings and the associated theft and extortion that followed. The ring-leader is played by Mark Wahlberg, with Anthony Mackie and Dwayne Johnson in tow as his accomplices. They’re supported by an effective secondary cast, including Tony Shalhoub as one of the victims and Ed Harris as the ex-cop turned private detective who investigates the events.
It’s actually a well made and well acted film that manages to deliver some genuine laughs along the way, in much the same way that we enjoy stories of crooks who try to pull ATM”s out of walls by tying chains to their cars only to end up leaving an axle or transmission behind. The problem is that the film tries to deliver those laughs consistently across its content – something which would normally be a good thing. The difference here being that while it’s fine to laugh at the villains (who are closer to being the heroes of the film) and their incompetency, we’re also asked to laugh at the scenes of torture and murder and, for example, the difficulties encountered while trying to return a chain saw to a home improvement store with human hair stuck in the mechanism.
This may be a very personal and subjective reaction, and others may differ in this regard, but I couldn’t separate myself from the fact that this is a real story about actual torture and murders. A couple of weeks before seeing the film, I had read a newspaper article about the relatives of the original victims who were irate at their loved ones’ deaths being the subject of a comedy re-telling of the facts of the story. And the film even pauses as it gets to a point of seeming ridiculousness to remind us it’s all true.
For me, this one was too close to the bone to enjoy, especially being played so obviously for laughs. A darker, less farcical telling of the same facts and the same events might have worked for me, but this just seemed crass.
Mud Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols
Which brings me to my favorite new film of the week – “Mud” – written and directed by Jeff Nichols, who last wrote and directed 2011’s “Take Shelter.”
Matthew McConaughey plays the title character, who is discovered by two young boys in rural Arkansas, hiding from law enforcement on an undeveloped island in the river that dominates their lives. One of the boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan), lives with his parents on a condemned houseboat, working with his father to sell fish and other meat out of coolers from the back of a pickup truck. His best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) lives with an uncle who uses home-made diving gear to harvest shellfish. Together, the two boys enjoy the kind of largely unfettered and undefined childhoods that have remained relatively unscathed in rural areas, exploring their world in a manner that Huckleberry Finn would probably appreciate.
It’s a world that’s foreign to many of us, although still far more recognizable than the extreme independence and poverty depicted in last year’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” And it’s brought to life through solid acting, especially and most noteworthy from the two child actors – Sheridan who first appeared in Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” and who already has another film in the can, and Lofland in his debut performance. This is a film that couldn’t work at all without these two parts being played this well – it’s more their story than Mud’s.
In essence that story is one of love, in multiple forms. It represents my favorite film genre, the multi-layered coming of age drama in which characters of multiple ages come to realize new things about the world around them. The film centers primarily on Ellis and his burgeoning understanding of human relationships, not just of the girl he likes but also the changing nature of his parents’ failing marriage, and the ill-fated love he sees between Mud and Juniper, the woman Mud has loved since he was younger than Ellis. But we’re also seeing those, and other relationships, through the other characters’ eyes as well as Ellis’ as they each discover more about themselves.
It’s a beautifully simple and effective film, with only the most minor of missteps, and my pick of the week.