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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Double Header: MUD and Now you See Me

Mud


Mud’s crown is it’s visual storytelling, nearly stringing the viewer along from image to image, setting up this peril, then letting it wait, teasing us with constant surprises and making us gibber breathlessly, what’s next? Whoa didn’t see that one coming! Whats next?The films second best asset is its beautiful shots of the mighty Mississippi, her backwaters, and swamplands she clothes herself in. The shots of beaches, waters, creeks and the rolling river overwhelm the dusty shots of Dewitt Arkansas where the story takes place.


Mud is billed as a coming-of-age tale, but there’s a lot of starcrossed-romance and good-man-in-bad-trouble stirred into the mix as well. The story centers around fourteen year old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his friend, the handy but rather crude Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). Ellis is a boy from a crumbling family, who’s grown up on the river, has a deeply idealized (ridiculously idealized, says this curmudgeon) view of Love, and responds to almost any threat by punching people in the face. He and Neckbone, who give off a modern day Sawyer and Finn flair, find a boat on a wooded island, treed from the last flood, and a man living inside it. Mud (Matthew McConaughey) as this mysterious man calls himself, has been hiding out from the law and a team of bounty hunters after having killed the man who abused the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Entranced by Muds tales, Ellis convinces Neckbone that they should act as Muds emissaries to Juniper and provide him with the tools to make his escape, as the murderous circle tightens around him.


I cannot claim to be any judge of child actors, but I salute the efforts of Sheridan and Lofland, for maintaining their southern deadpan and spirit of men trapped in boy’s bodies. McConaughey gives a fine performance, exuding affability, adorability and creepiness whenever a new layer is revealed. Witherspoon and Paul Sparks (who plays Carver, the appropriately knife-wielding organizer of the hunt for Mud) both leave something to be desired, largely stopping at pretty/villainous faces without adding anything so complex as emotion or thought into said faces. Sam Shepard (who plays Tom Blankenship, the Old Ex-Marine who raised Mud) has some curious line readings, but by and large steers his character admirably.


Now You See Me


I must confess I have a serious Thing for movies about magicians using their powers to commit the most convoluted crimes possible. I would gladly watch The Illusionist and, O pearl among films, The Prestige over and over again. I’d place Now You See Me before the former but far behind the latter. It takes the cake for number of TWIST! moments (the denouement is absolutely chilling) and for general visual affects niftiness. The chase scenes can get a bit jumpy (a pet peeve of mine) and the last shot makes no bones about being CGI but for 98% of the film the magic looks, well, magical and very authentic.


The story is split upon two tracks, that of the Valjean's and the Javert’s. The Four Horsemen, a collaboration of formerly two-bit magicians brought together by a mysterious benefactor, suddenly make themselves know to the world by inviting America to witness three very public bank robberies. The team is comprised of perfectionist and banterer Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg, who else), snarky mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson, who else), the street smart petty criminal Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) and mistress of showmanship Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher, better suited here then her recent stint as Myrtle Wilson). All are using their powers (which might be real manipulation of reality or merely diamond sharp cleverness) to set right past wrongs, while operating under the unsuspecting auspices of evil Insurance CEO Arthur Tressler (Michael Cane).

Meanwhile, as the magicians proceed with their impossible crimes, FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), marked for his bad manners and his incompetence, teams up with mysterious and horribly chic Interpol agent Alma Vargas (Melanie Laurent, who’s rapidly becoming the latter day Audrey Hepburn) to a. take the Horsemen down before they strike again and b. figure out why they are doing all this in the first place. They are aided in, and thoroughly mocked throughout, their quest by evil TV Magic Debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman).


While the plot and the mystery and all the puzzle points are first rate (none revealed before their proper time, none glaringly tacked on at the end) the character development (among the Valjean’s) leaves something to be desired and the character employment (among the Javert’s) is all held up on one side.


The Horsemen banter a lot and there are many amusing digressions and insults slung about, but in terms of actual charaters there is not a lot to work with. Harrelson is the best written and the best performer out of all of them: carefully unpeeling his lines, cycling through a thousand wry expressions, and placing his barbs with a master craftsmen care. On the other end of the spectrum Franco, save for his very visible (and audible) New York audacity and some tasteful fight sequences, might not be in the film at all. Eisenberg and Fisher fall in between. Both are well tailored for their roles ( if you can overcome their vices: uni-purpose expression for him, annoying squeeky voice for her) but neither are given much to play off the belligerent sexual tension strung between them like guitar strings. We understand that Headly was Daniel’s assistant back in the day before a messy parting of ways, but there is no real transition throughout the film from bitter banter to reconciliation. We just leap from one to the other. ‘Oh look, he’s an anti-social control-freak and she gets her kicks by scaring the bejeezus’s out of her audience members. They’re Made for each other!’


However, squeaky voices aside, I must say that Mark Ruffalo, at least in this film, is a bad bad actor. All his lines are snarled or slurred, his face never leaves the port of bitter and peeved while his sudden, and sullen, ventures into humility or enlightenment are as unexplained as Atlas’s and Reeves’s relationship repair. Laurent holds up almost all of their interactions (exactly as Agent Vargas does with the investigation) with frustration, righteous anger, a steel nerved sense of prodding rump and taking names, and genuine wonder of the Horsemen’s art. Part of Laurent’s power as an actress (aside from her exotic Gallicness and her not unremarkable countenance) stems from a very admirable authenticity. For example, just watch her practicing card tricks, where she giggles “cool” (rendered “kule”) and lights up like a little kid, then cut to a few scenes later when she is fully focused on running a runaway magician to the ground. It’s kind of a waste to see her, both as an actress and a character, paired with Ruffalo. More then once I wanted to whisper, “Miss, you don’t need a man, especially not this man, to get ahead in your life OR your career. He treats you like dirt one half the time, like a object of carnal gratification the other, and spoils all your hard work. Sock him in the jaw, kick him to the curb and get on your way!”


Yet despite these shortcomings, even if the plot was knock kneed, and even if the magic was unconvincing and run of the mill the whole time would be worth the price just to watch Morgan Freeman and Michael Cane (two of the most celebrated and impersonated voices in the business) engage in Villainous Musings and Bad@ss Boasts while threatening each other with a Voodoo doll in a New Orleans Magic shop. It’s a crowning moment from two fine performers as well as being a hallmark of movie impersonation history.

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