It Seems Michael Fassbender Has Been Bad…

Michael Fassbender, The Counsellor

…and I’ve a feeling that’s very, very good for the rest of us.

I’ve been talking about and extolling the talents of Michael Fassbender for quite some time now. Six years after 300, I can say that  the days  of “Michael who?” and “What’s a Fassbender?” may be over. Though still not exactly a household name, nor is he, thankfully, a staple of the tabloids (at least not in the US) and despite high profile roles in high profile films like X-Men: First Class and Prometheus, it is a shame (no pun intended) that instead of being recognized for his talent, he’s most widely known for having the guts to display a certain sacred part of the male anatomy (and not the first time either, by the way).

Ever hopeful, I think that’s about to change.

I’ve already mentioned one of the two of Fassbender’s  “Oscar bait” films due out this year and discussed my opinion of his awards chances when I posted the trailer for Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.  The second is Sir Ridley Scott’s The Counselor.

From an original screenplay by Cormac McCarthy (No Country For Old Men, The Road and All The Pretty Horses), we may need a Venn diagram for The Counselor’s pedigree. Re-teaming with his Prometheus director, Sir Ridley, the film also puts Fassbender back together with Brad Pitt, who has a small role in 12 Years a Slave.  Cameron Diaz (as Malkina. Think she’s a ‘bad girl’?) took a role originally intended for Pitt’s paramour Angelina Jolie, as well as Penelope Cruz and her husband Javier Bardem (would you believe Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner were rumored for his role?), but they don’t share any scenes together. Bardem, who won an Oscar for No Country for Old Men, seems to be trying to out-weird Anton Chigurh’s infamous bowl haircut with the coke-addled Troll doll look seen in the stills below.

Fassbender plays “the Counselor”, a successful lawyer who gets himself tangled up and in over his head with unscrupulous (are there any other kind?) drug dealers.

Sir Ridley told Empire Magazine that the story  has “classic Cormac McCarthy darkness which makes you sick to the pit of your stomach… It’s saying: ‘Don’t play with the devil, don’t step across the line, don’t think you can do it and get away with it. You can’t.'”

Take a look at this first trailer:

The rest of the cast includes Natalie Dormer, Dean Norris, Rosie Perez, John Leguizamo, Goran Visnjic, Bruno Ganz, and Ruben Blades. 20th Century Fox will release The Counselor in the US on October 25 and in the UK on 15th November.

Oh and if the high brow likes of The Counselor and 12 Years a Slave weren’t enough of a Fassy fix for 2013, there’s also the upcoming comedy (that’s right folks, comedy…okay it’s a dramedy), Frank , costarring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Domnhall Gleeson, loosely based on the life of paper mache-head wearing Frank Sidebottom, the alter-ego of British comedian and musician Chris Sievey, who died of cancer in 2010. While that part certainly isn’t funny, the fact that Frank Sidebottom always performed with a hand puppet called “Little Frank” (especially being played by Michael Fassbender) is.

More on Frank when the trailer is released. I can’t wait!

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#ForbiddenLove: A New Version of Romeo and Juliet

poster, Romeo and Juliet,  Hailee Steinfeld, Douglas Booth

Amber Entertainment/Relativity Media

I am always in favor of a new version of a Shakespeare play hitting the big screen.  I loved Mel Gibson’s Hamlet almost as much as Kenneth Branagh’s version. While they were wildly different, both were beautifully filmed and featured extraordinarily gifted casts. And both, I have no doubt, brought new appreciation for the original texts upon which they were based. That, in my humble opinion, is the point.

William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has already been filmed more than 30 times, including alternate versions like West Side Story and the animated, Gnomeo and Juliet. It is, arguably, THE classic tale of star-crossed, ill-fated love and everything else is just some form of imitation. Having said that, I believe that every generation deserves it’s own version of this tale, “that of Juliet and her Romeo”. It’s a story of young love, first love.  While the themes will forever be fresh, the presentation should bear the faces of its current audience. (Believe it or not kids, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet was 17 years ago.) This is the first Romeo and Juliet for the internet generation, so of course it’s being advertised with a poster that contains a hashtag, #ForbiddenLove, for Twitter users. No Facebook page, although there are pages dedicated to both the 1996 and 1968 versions (as well as the play itself), but I have no doubt one will soon follow.

I was already half in love with this new version, adapted by Julian Fellowes of Gosford Park and “Downton Abbey” fame, from the first still I saw of Douglas Booth. It’s not that I have some sort of unhealthy crush on this preternaturally pretty English actor, it’s that he looks so much like Leonard Whiting, the actor who played Romeo in Franco Zefferelli’s version in 1968. I grew up watching countless repeats of that one on television. Nothing has ever induced a squishy, girly, bosom-heaving sigh-inducing romantic feeling in me like the love theme, “A Time for Us” used to. I wanted to learn to play the piano so that I could play it.  An aunt had the sheet music and the soundtrack LP so I used to sing it into a hairbrush.  So while many of my fellow internet scribes may picture Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio, when I think of Romeo and Juliet, I picture Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting.

I hear a chorus of owls at those two names. Olivia Hussey was only 17 when the movie came out and is still acting, although her most recognizable post-Juliet roles came in the 70’s with Black Christmas and Lost Horizon. Her Romeo fared less well. There’s not much of note on Whiting’s resume other than 1973’s Frankenstein: The True Story (a tv movie with Jane Seymour) and the fact that he sang back-up and did voice work on two Alan Parsons Project albums.

I think Hailee Steinfeld, who replaced Lily Collins, and Douglas Booth will fare much better. Steinfeld, of course, received an Academy Award nomination for her first film, the Coens’ remake of True Grit. She’s got two other films due out in 2013 as well: the possible franchise starter, Ender’s Game, and Can a Song Save Your Life with Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley. Next year should see Tommy Lee Jones 2nd directorial effort, The Homesman with Hilary Swank, with four other films in various stages of production.

Booth beat out Sam Claflin, Josh Hutcherson and Logan Lerman, but is still probably best known as Pip from one of the two versions of Dickens’ “Great Expectations” produced last year. He appeared in the BBC/PBS version with Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham and Ray Winstone as Magwitch. You can also find him as Eustace in reruns of Starz’s Pillars of the Earth (and if you have to, with Miley Cyrus in LOL). While the success of Romeo and Juliet may earn him a break-out role, it may also sentence him to a life in period costume.

If a new version of a Shakespeare play isn’t “updating” as in Luhrmann’s 1996 film set in Verona Beach (or Branagh’s Hamlet set in the Napoleonic era of the early 19th century) then I want faithfulness. I don’t expect anything from this new version of Romeo and Juliet, directed by Carlo Carlei (who has been toiling in Italian television since his last feature, 1995’s Fluke) and filmed in the actual gorgeous medieval towns of Verona and Mantua, Italy, other than sumptuous costumes and a faithfulness to the spirit of the thing with as much of the original text as possible.  Judging from this first trailer, I think that’s what we’ll get:

MTV has posted a new version, for the US market, that’s essentially the same. You can find it at the link.

In addition to the two leads, there are truffles like Kodi Smit-Phee and Ed Westwick. The pretty teenagers (okay, Westwick’s not a teenager. Work with me here) can lure the youth market. A beautiful, well told love story aimed at their hearts and minds is a rare thing these days.  (The key words being “well told”. This is Shakespeare. There be no brooding, sparkly vampires,  werewolves with six-pack abs, witches on the edge of the dark side or aliens in need of eviction here.)  For the adults, there is Mr. Fellowes’ screenplay, plus the rest of the cast is chock full of talented names like Stellan Skarsgård, Damian Lewis, Paul Giamatti, Lesley Manville, Tomas Arana, and Natascha McElhone… and Tom Wisdom (Astinos! Where have you been? 40 and still looks 22).

Romeo and Juliet, which debuted at Cannes last May, gets a (limited) US release on October 11. No word yet on the UK or anywhere else.

Will you see it? Do you agree with me, that the world continues to need fresh new versions of Shakespeare’s plays or are you of the “seen one, seen ’em all” school of thought?

Don’t Know Daniel Bruhl? You Will: Trailers for Rush and The Fifth Estate

Rush, Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl

poster courtesy Touchstone via IMP Awards

Daniel César Martín Brühl González Domingo is a thirty-five year old Spanish-born German actor probably best known to English-speaking audiences for Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Daniel Brühl played Fredrick Zoller, the face of Joseph Goebbels’ planned cinematic propaganda campaign, a sort of Nazi Audie Murphy.

Of course, before QT “discovered” him, Brühl had payed his dues in a lot of German television and smaller film roles, until his break-out in 2003’s festival favorite Good Bye Lenin. The first thing I saw him in, which sent me to imdb to look him up, was a little-seen film from 2004, Ladies in Lavender with Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith (and directed by Tywin Lannister himself, Charles Dance). Brühl plays Andrea, a violin prodigy who survives a shipwreck and washes up on the beach near the Cornish home of sisters played by Dench and Smith. The film is about his effect on the sisters, their small village and a beautiful German woman played by Natasha McElhone.  It’s a well-crafted, elegant little gem with wonderful performances from the principals and the supporting cast made up of the usual brilliant British character actors like David Warner, Miriam Margolyes, Freddie Jones, Clive Russell, and Toby Jones.

Brühl turned up in The Bourne Ultimatum as the brother of the now deceased Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente) and as Julie Delpy’s love interest in her blood-soaked version of the tale of Elizabeth Bathory, The Countess. He also appeared in her 2 Days in Paris and 2 Days in New York.  His days on the fringes, however, are about to come to an end.

Daniel Brühl is about to be seen in two very high profile films, Ron Howard’s Rush, opposite Chris Hemsworth and Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The latter film has just been chosen to open this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

Rush is the story of the intense rivalry between Formula 1 drivers, Austrian Niki Lauda (Bruhl) and British James Hunt (Hemsworth). The film is actually Lauda’s story, focusing on his horrific crash in 1976 and how his rivalry with Hunt fueled his triumphant comeback.

“Set against the sexy, glamorous golden age of Formula 1 racing in the 1970s, the film is based on the true story of a great sporting rivalry between handsome English playboy James Hunt, and his methodical, brilliant opponent, Austrian driver Niki Lauda. The story follows their distinctly different personal styles on and off the track, their loves and the astonishing 1976 season in which both drivers were willing to risk everything to become world champion in a sport with no margin for error: if you make a mistake, you die.”

With a screenplay by Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon, The Last King of Scotland) Rush is set to be something of a comeback for director Howard. It’s his first feature since 2011’s The Dilemma. ( I’d love to know what he was thinking with that one. A rare misstep to be sure, but it was practically off a curb into oncoming traffic).

Take a look at the latest trailer (#3) for Rush below:

Now take a look at the 1st trailer.

It’s not difficult to figure out that they’re using the face of Thor to sell this movie. Hemsworth is, right now, the bigger name, at least with American audiences,  so naturally he has a bigger presence in the latest domestic trailer. The first one, however, would seem to be a more balanced overview of what the movie is about.

Either way, despite the fact that this is based on true story, the trailers I’ve seen don’t leave me with the feeling that I’ve seen the whole thing. I want to see how Howard has handled both the scenes on the speedway (the excitement of which is NOT easily captured on film) as well as the well-documented private lives of the two racers. (Although I’d venture to guess that most of the buyers of tickets to Rush probably had never heard of Lauda and Hunt prior to the first trailers.)

Rush also stars Olivia Wilde, Natalie Dormer, Christian Mackay, Alexandra Maria Lara and Jamie Sives (as well as a host of the European versions of “that guy” whom you may recognize even if you don’t know their names). It opens in the UK on 13th September and September 27 in the US.

Daniel Brühl, Benedict Cumberbatch, The Fifth Estate

photo courtesy Dreamworks via imdb

Speaking of true stories, The Fifth Estate covers a period of much more recent history. In fact, one could say that it’s a story without an ending since the fate of WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange has yet to be sealed. (As of this writing he’s still in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he’s been given political asylum since June of 2012.)

In The Fifth Estate, Assange is played by Benedict Cumberbatch. The film is told through the eyes of Daniel Brühl’s character, Assange’s friend and colleague, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (aka Daniel Schmitt), a German technology activist named by Foreign Policy magazine in 2011 to its list of top global thinkers. Bit of trivia: Brühl replaced James McAvoy, who had to drop out because of his commitment to “Macbeth” in London. Joel Kinnaman was reportedly interested in the role (just as Jeremy Renner was interested in that of Assange) but Brühl won out.

from Dreamworks:
“…{The Fifth Estate} follows the heady, early days of WikiLeaks to its abrupt end after a series of controversial and history changing info leaks. The website’s overnight success brought instant fame to its principal architects, but as their power expanded across the globe, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Bruhl) grew increasingly disillusioned with Assange’s (Cumberbatch) questionable tactics and ethics. The rift between the two friends became irreparable and their ideological differences tore them apart, but not before they revolutionized, for better and worse, the flow of information to news media and the world at large.”

The first trailer was released last week. Take a look:

If the action is the real star of Rush, in The Fifth Estate, Brühl holds his own going toe to toe with Cumberbatch, one of the best actors working today. (He could probably play a convincing Muppet, he’s so good.) He also shares the screen with an outstanding international cast that includes Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney, Alicia Vikander, Anthony Mackie, Carice van Houten, David Thewlis, Peter Capaldi, Dan Stevens and Moritz Bleibtreu.

With a big neon “Oscar Bait” sign plastered over it, The Fifth Estate is based on the books “Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website” by Daniel Domscheit-Berg and “WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy” by Luke Harding. The screenplay is by first time feature writer Josh Singer, best known for tv’s “Fringe”, “Lie to Me”, “Law & Order: SVU” and “The West Wing”.

After its World Premiere at TIFF (the Venice lineup has yet to be announced, but it could well close the Festival on September 7), the film will be released in the US on October 18, but not until 1st January in the UK.

If those two films aren’t enough to raise Brühl’s profile, there’s always A Most Wanted Man, based on a John Le Carré novel (who in turn based the book on a true story) and directed by Anton Corbijn (The American, Control).

“When a half-Chechen, half-Russian, tortured half-to-death immigrant turns up in Hamburg’s Islamic community, laying claim to his father’s ill gotten fortune, both German and US security agencies take a close interest: as the clock ticks down and the stakes rise, the race is on to establish this most wanted man’s true identity – oppressed victim or destruction-bent extremist?”

The cast of that one includes Rachel McAdams (in role coveted by Carey Mulligan, Amy Adams and Jessica Chastain -!-), Robin Wright, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Willem Dafoe.  No trailer yet (an Italian site has one but it was taken down), but expect one soon. In the meantime, here’s Le Carré discussing the source novel back in 2008:

A Most Wanted Man will be released in the UK on 22nd November. No US date yet.

You don’t know Daniel Brühl? You will.

2 Trailers, 2 Actors – 1 VERY Early Oscar Prediction

Fruitvale Station, Michael B. Jordan, Ryan Coogler

poster via imdb

Having seen an advance screening of first-time director Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station (it hasn’t opened here in Boston yet), a movie about a real incident involving the death of a young black man,  that was already worthy of inclusion in a national conversation about the state of race relations in the United States, but is now even more sadly relevant given recent events, I can say that at this (extremely) early stage in the race, it is my prediction (and I am far from alone here) that Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle) will be recognized with an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

Take a look at the trailer:

trailer courtesy of The Weinstein Company via YouTube

My pal Harvey and The Weinstein Company are still rolling Fruitvale Station out across the country. If the film, which won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival before bowing at Cannes, is not coming to a theater near you, try to catch it on VOD. You will be hearing a lot more about it.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave

poster via imdb

If you’re as addicted to film as I am, you’ve probably already heard a lot about Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.  I’ve been following the film’s progress since it was announced back in August 2011 that it would be the director’s next project, following up Shame which hadn’t even been released at that point.

Watch this:

trailer courtesy Fox Searchlight via JoBloMovieNetwork/YouTube

One might say, judging from that trailer above alone, that Chiwetel Ejiofor, would also be a lock for an Oscar nomination. Fox Searchlight, despite the fact that 12 Years a Slave missed Cannes, (but will probably debut in Venice and/or Toronto) has moved UP the release date from December 27 to October 18 on the basis of what Deadline called “exuberant test screenings”.

12 Years a Slave has, let’s be honest, the aroma of “Oscar bait” all over it. Based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free-born African American, kidnapped and sold into slavery, the cast includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard, Quvenzhane Wallis and Brad Pitt (who also produced), among many others. All it takes is two and a half minutes to recognize the power of the piece.

So, one might call Ejiofor a lock. I wish I could. He’s an actor I’ve long admired and I’m thrilled that he’s got a role that,  again, based solely on those two and a half minutes, is a showcase for his talents. However, in the not so distant past, I had that same thought about the star of that other Steve McQueen directed film, the one I mentioned earlier – a little piece of celluloid called Shame. Its star, Michael Fassbender, gave what was, by nearly all accounts, one of the best performances of 2011. He ran away with accolades and acting prizes from Venice to LA. He was nominated for Golden Globes, BAFTAs and SAGs. Of course, we now know, the illustrious Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences didn’t care a fig for all of that and failed to nominate him for an Oscar.

(Fassbender, you’ll no doubt have noticed, appears in 12 Years a Slave as well – his 3rd appearance in a McQueen film, of which there are three – and though it is a supporting role, it is a role we’ve not seen him play before: an out and out villain. He looks to have given another awards-worthy performance. Perhaps he will be recognized this year in the lesser category. Perhaps the Academy feels that the cheeky German-Irishman needs to work up to a Best Actor nod? Maybe his director will get one this time as well.)

So I won’t call Ejiofor a lock, but his post is about something else anyway. This post is about the distinct possibility that some REAL history might be made this year. I realize it’s only July, but I’m calling it right now. It is my hope that come January 16, 2014, that the names of not just one, but two black leading men will be read in the category of Best Actor in a Leading Role: the British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor  for 12 Years a Slave and the American actor, Michael B. Jordan for Fruitvale Station. Even better, if the names of their directors, Steve McQueen and Ryan Coogler, were read out as well. No offense Denzel or Forest, but that would be real progress.

Trailer or Spoiler: Justin Timberlake Edition

Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake, Garrett Hedlund, Inside Llewyn Davis movie

Inside Llewyn Davis – CBS Films via imdb

I can see your furrowed brow as you read that headline. “Huh?”  Stay with me. Justin Timberlake, having grown bored with bringing his own brand of sexy back to people who didn’t know it was missing, has turned his hand to acting more than music these past few years, his new album notwithstanding.

What appeared to be a lark in a straight-to-dvd crime thriller, 2005’s Edison, continued in 2006’s Alpha Dog, earning him good notices, The Social Network in 2010, and then got real in 2011 when he top-lined Friends with Benefits and In Time (in which JT was asked to do most of the heavy lifting alongside the slight Amanda Seyfried). This year, Timberlake will appear in two films, both slated for fall release and for which there is already (very) early awards season buzz.

Runner, Runner costarring Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton and Anthony Mackie, is currently scheduled to be released in the US on September 27. It’s a drama that centers on the world of offshore online gaming and an increasingly tense relationship between the founder of one such successful business (Affleck), and his protege (Timberlake).

Written by David Levien and Brian Koppelman, the team behind Rounders, Runaway Jury and Ocean’s 13, as well as the upcoming Untouchables sequel, Capone Rising with Tom Hardy, and produced by Leonardo DiCaprio (among others), Runner, Runner is directed by Brad Furman, best known for The Lincoln Lawyer. All of the above makes it one of fall’s hotly anticipated flicks, especially since it’s Affleck’s first since Argo. (Affleck has himself gone from punchline to bona fide auteur whose mere presence will give whatever he does from here on out a patina of respect.)

The other film has that same shine because it was written, produced and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Inside Llewyn Davis premiered back in May at the Cannes Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize, essentially the runner-up to the Palm d’Or.  It stars Oscar Isaac as an aspiring folk musician in the early 1960s. The film, by all accounts, belongs to Isaac and is, after Sucker Punch, Robin Hood, W.E. and Drive, the one that will finally make him a star. The rest of the cast includes Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, F. Murray Abraham and…Justin Timberlake.

The Cannes buzz (it will probably go to Venice and Toronto as well) along with the Coen Brothers pedigree,  finally got the film distribution, and it is currently slated for an awards-friendly (limited) US release date of December 3 (before going wide on the 20th). I’ve had my eye on this one since filming began in Greenwich Village in January of 2012. The Coen Brothers. That is all. When can I buy my ticket?

Since all that these two films have in common is Justin Timberlake, I’m but using him as a jumping off point to introduce a trailer for each.

The name of the game is “Trailer or Spoiler”. Those few minutes of footage for Runner, Runner would seem to be yet another example of a “teaser” that gives the game away. It’s a story that’s already been told countless times: wide-eyed innocent gets a taste of the good life, starts to lose his soul (prodded by the devil’s surrogate), comes to his senses thanks to the love of a good woman and does battle with the devil and vanquishes the evil in his life. But, shouldn’t one have to buy a ticket to find out if it is, in fact, the same old song and dance?

The arc of the plot won’t be a mystery to most (especially since Robert Luketic covered nearly the same territory in 2008’s 21), but is that reason enough to lay it all out in these few flashy feet of footage?  Shouldn’t the producers have enough faith in their material, not to mention their cast, to let them attract ticket-buyers? The fact that Runner, Runner is being released in September and not in, say, November, coupled with this seemingly no-holds-barred first look, does not bode well for the finished produce. Just my humble opinion.

The clip below is not the first, but the third trailer released for Inside Llewyn Davis and while we can put a lot of the pieces together from what we’ve been given, we do still have to use our noodles to get a clear idea of what’s going on here.

We already know the film is about struggling musicians on the cusp of the folk wave about to break in the early 1960s, but does Davis have any talent? We can tell that Isaacs’ title character has some sort of relationship with Carey Mulligan, but the exact nature remains a mystery (even if earlier trailers gave us more of a hint).  Where does Timberlake fit in? Who is John Goodman’s character? Will Davis ever make it big? And why is he carrying around that cat? Will we get to hear more of JT harmonizing with Marcus Mumford?

Perhaps because this film is more a character study than a high-concept adventure/drama, there are still plenty of secrets left to uncover. (Unless of course one chooses to read any of the spoiler filled reviews that came out of Cannes, but that’s another rant for another day.)

Runner-Runner-Timberlake Runner-Runner-Affleck Runner Runner poster Inside Llewyn Davis poster

Mud: Huck Finn for the New Millennium and the Re-Birth of McConaughey

Mud, poster, movie, Matthew McConaughey

poster via Lionsgate and imdb

Walking out of the theater in which I saw my first viewing of Mud, I was reminded of star Matthew McConaughey’s performance in John Sayles’ Lonestar, a film which, thematically, has little in common with Mud. Specifically, I remember thinking that McConaughey hadn’t been this good since that earlier film. What makes that really interesting to me is that 1. I just read that it was Lone Star that Mud director Jeff Nichols had in mind when he cast his star and 2. That movie came out in 1996. Seventeen years ago. “What the hell happened in between?” you may well ask.

Frankly, there have been some damn fine performances in between. I have to admit to being a Matty fan, but if all you know of him is  his breakthrough role as skirt-chasing stoner Wooderson in the cult classic Dazed and Confused, or lame pseudo romantic comedies like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch or Ghosts of Girlfriends past, you’re missing out on some very good performances in some very fine films like A Time to Kill that came out the same year as Lonestar, Contact, directed by Robert Zemeckis and costarring Jodie Foster, (One of my favorites from the 90s.) and Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. In fact, even while making the aforementioned dismal comedies, there were movies like Frailty (Bill Paxton’s directorial debut. Seek it out if you’re not familiar) and We Are Marshall. Of course, I even liked Reign of Fire. (Christian Bale, Gerard Butler and dragons. C’mon!)

The real problem was that overshadowing the good performances in either iffy movies or good movies no one saw, Matty became a certified movie-star and  his private life (including liaisons with ATTK costars Sandra Bullock and Ashley Judd, as well as naked bongo playing) began to get more ink than his performances. He became a punch line more famous for his physique than his acting chops. (Remind you of anyone? – read that with Craig Ferguson’s voice and side-eye)

The real ‘why’ of it is anyone’s guess. It could have been the lure of the lifestyle and big paychecks or believing one’s own hype and publicity, you name it, it’s as big a mystery as what sparked the turn-around.

Was it the fact that he started wearing a shirt when he settled down and started having kids? Who knows, but the fact is that beginning with The Lincoln Lawyer, perceptions about the actor Matthew McConaughey began to change.  When that movie became a surprise hit in the spring of 2011, McConaughey was suddenly part of the conversation again, in a good way.

His extraordinary run has continued with impressive work  in four wildly different films in 2012: Bernie a black comedy based on real events involving a small-town Texas funeral director, costarring Jack Black and Shirley McLaine (it’s available on Netflix instant and definitely worth a look);  Steven Soderbergh’s penultimate film (so he says) Magic Mike, Lee Daniels’ follow-up to Precious, the divisive The Paperboy with Nicole Kidman, John Cusack and Zac Efron that anyone who saw it either really loved or really, really hated, and William Friedkin’s screen adaptation of Tracy Letts’ award winning play, Killer Joe.  Another black comedy (the blackest), this one is not for everybody. It’s violent, bloody and very twisted. (It may put you right off fried chicken.) Matty plays a lawman who moonlights as a hitman and his performance was nominated for an Independent Spirit award as Best Male Lead.  In 2013, we’ll see the actor so famous as an ideal of male pulchritude minus  more than 45 pounds, the weight dropped from his already lean frame in order to play a drug treatment crusader dying of AIDS, in the upcoming drama Dallas Buyers Club, slated for an awards-friendly fall release.  2013 will also bring Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Matty will be vying against Matty at the box office and possibly on the trophy circuit.

With Mud, which went to the Cannes Film Festival in 2012 and Sundance in 2013, the career make-over, deliberate or otherwise, continues.  McConaughey plays the title character, a drifter, a fugitive from the law risking his life and freedom for love, in a film that, to me, is nothing short of a “Huck Finn” for the new millennium.  Jeff Nichols’s subtly sweet coming-of-age tale, set on the Mississippi River, in southern Arkansas, is about an adolescent boy’s search for love and it is filled with indelible characters played by an exceptional ensemble cast that includes Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, and Reese Witherspoon.

Here’s the (somewhat spoiler-y) synopsis from Roadside Attractions:

14 year-old Ellis(Tye Sheridan) lives on a houseboat on the banks of a river in Arkansas with his parents, Mary Lee (Paulson) and Senior (McKinnon). His best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), also 14, lives with his uncle, Galen (Shannon), who makes a hardscrabble living diving for oysters. The two boys set out to an island on the Mississippi River, where Neckbone has discovered an unusual sight-a boat, suspended high in the trees, a remnant of an extreme flood sometime in the past. They climb the tree and into the boat only to find fresh bread and fresh footprints.Leaving, they find footprints near their boat and that’s when they meet Mud, a gritty, superstitious character with dirty clothes, a cracked tooth, and in need of help. He tells the boys he will give them the treehouse boat, his current hideout, in exchange for food. Neckbone is reluctant, but Ellis brings food to Mud, and they develop a tentative friendship.

Ellis learns that Mud has killed a man in Texas, and police and bounty hunters are looking for him, but Mud is more concerned about reuniting with his longtime love, Juniper (Witherspoon). Ellis, who has recently developed his own crush, agrees to help Mud escape with Juniper. Ellis and Neckbone carry out bold schemes in an effort to protect Mud and relay messages to Juniper, who is holed up in a fleabag motel, under constant surveillance by a Texas bounty hunter taking orders from the cold-blooded King (Joe Don Baker). As the boys risk everything to reunite the lovers, Ellis’s own ideas about love and romance are challenged by the strains in the relationships closest to him: his parents’ marriage is dissolving while he himself falters in his efforts to impress May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant). Through it all, Ellis struggles to look for an example of love that he can believe in, learning about the unspoken rules and risks of love and the reality of heartbreak.

McConaughey, is definitely a version of Mark Twain’s Jim, but defies Southern caricature. He’s a combination of both Boo Radley and Boyd Crowder— the “unknown” who can strangle as easily as save, rather than say, Max Cady (either the Robert Mitchum or Robert DeNiro versions) or Long Hair (Bruce Dern in the Cowboys).

As eye-catching as McConaughey’s performance is — thanks, in large part, to a leathery suntan, body-wrapping tattoo and snaggly prosthetic teeth — Mud belongs to the two boys who cross Mud’s path, with memorably fateful results. Without the extraordinarily performances from Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life) and Jacob Lofland, there’d be no movie. Sheridan in particular, is in nearly every scene and you can’t take your eyes off of him.  If Sheridan’s Ellis represents youthful wonder, Lofland’s Neckbone represents a more clear-eyed reality.

Mud, Tye Sheridan, Jacon Lofland, movie

photo courtesy Facebook for Mud The Movie

Nichols uses close-ups of Sheridan’s and Lofland’s open, expressive faces to strike a balance between naturalism and more fantastical elements in telling a story in which menace and tenderness coexist,  often in the same scene, sometimes in the same sentence.

Ellis’s reality is a dilapidated houseboat, in which his parents are constantly skirmishing over his mother’s desire for something more, particularly  to move into town.  Neck, ostensibly an orphan, lives with  his well-meaning if ill-equipped, uncle Galen (Shannon).   But as we go with the boys out to the golden, sun-dappled river and to the island where that improbable boat suspended in a tree awaits, Mud shrugs off reality and becomes something more mythic and fairy-tale like.  The movie is more than half over before anyone other than the boys has any contact with Mud. Until then, he may has well have been the boys’ invisible playmate, albeit one not designed to prolong their childhoods but rather take them by the hand and lead them toward adulthood.

Mud extols the basic virtues of honesty, hard work and most of all, trust. The film’s only misstep is a preposterous, in my humble opinion, climax that not only goes on way too long, but the outcome of which is utterly predictable.  Fortunately, by the fade to black, it’s the outcome we’ve all  hoped for anyway.

Here’s the trailer from Lionsgate: