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Mud leads pack of titles

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This is one of those clusterfuck movie release weekends where there’re half a dozen films opening so let’s cut to the chase.

If you saw Take Shelter it should come as no surprise that Jeff Nichols is a director to watch. His grasp of narrative and composition and in the case of TS eeriness puts him on my A-list anyway. Mud, his third film, takes place in a small Southern river county town, involves a criminal hiding out in the woods and some young boys who discover him. Nichols will be the first to tell you the film has a Mark Twain vibe especially in the way the kids keep Mud (Matthew McConaughey) and his stealth tree house a secret as well as help him with food and supplies. Tye Sheridan (Tree of Life), Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Sarah Paulson, and Joe Don Baker co-star, and they all have impressive scene stealing moments of their own.

Nichol’s creates a world where we view things through the eyes of a child, and then observe same through the eyes of adults, some of them off their rocker, and some of them seeking vengeance. Mud’s particular refuge is situated on an island along a waterway in southeastern Arkansas, and there’s always the sense that a small tributary will become an expanse of blue water around every bend. Mud employs a lyrical atmosphere, and you could almost recommend this adult story for kids too, at least until a violent confrontation at the end.

Mud’s cast has names like Senior, King, Juniper, Neckbone, Galen, Tom Blankenship, and, well, Mud. Yes, these assorted river rats and trailer trash have their flaws but there’s nothing wrong with their dreams and aspirations. Mud is longer than most films but it’s lean, no fat here. Specifically there’s one moment where a character you’ve kind of forgotten about reappears and it just sends a jolt to the audience.

Starbuck comes from Canada (French), so there’s coolness to the humor that’s more than the average American flick allows. That’s why it’s a good pick. But also it’s being remade by the same director (Ken Scott) as a Hollywood release (Delivery Man starring Vince Vaughn from DreamWorks, out in October). That makes the compare and contrast possibilities intriguing. The plot revolves around a man who a generation before donated sperm. A large amount of sperm evidently because he’s fathered hundreds of kids, who themselves have filed a kind of class action suit to find out his identity.

The Numbers Station features John Cusack in a straight up action flick. There’re agents, ops, codes, shooting and chasing and fighting. It’s like Cusack in Grosse Point Blank mode (also War, Inc.) but without a hint of satire or jokes. It’s the most compelling film this week after Mud. Malin Akerman and Liam Cunningham co-star.

Arthur Newman has moments to be sure, lots of nicely thought out shots of a car on the road or pulling into a lonely motel and a clever premise. A man fakes his death so he can reinvent himself (as a golf pro driving across the country to get a job at a country club). Along the way he picks up a strange young woman who’s also, shall we say, going through her own identity crisis. Casting Colin Firth and Emily Blunt doesn’t hurt until you realize that she’s supposed to be strung-out on cough syrup, sleazy and dirty. There’s just no way to de-glamourize Blunt to the point where she’s that criminal. Firth can play the greenhorn or the schlub well enough. To make matters worse AN more than once comes to a complete stop in the middle of its roadtrip. The best thing Arthur Newman does is cast two recognizable actors so it can, down the road, attract non-believers of quality on cable and disc.

- Michael Bergeron

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