Sunday, May 27, 2012

Cannes '12 Review(s): "Cosmopolis" and "Mud"

 Cosmopolis dir. David Cronenberg [Competition]
A strong match of director and material, David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis, an adaptation of Don Delilo's novel, is an odd, icy film that remains compelling despite some intentionally brittle performances. Set over the course of a single day, we follows Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), a 28 year old executive who wants to travel across town to get a haircut. For various reasons, the trip is delayed, and over the course of the day, Packer's life undergoes enormous personal and financial changes.

From the outset, Cosmopolis seems to be split in two. One half, the atmosphere, is quietly compelling, drawing you in even as the other half, the performances, seem designed to keep us at bay. The dialogue feels rigid, and the performers generally go along with the withdrawn oddity of the general tone. Trapped mostly in Packer's luxurious limousine, this is a surprisingly quiet film, one that mimics the protagonist's state of mind. Packer is part of the 1%, a man so dedicated to empty pleasure and wealth, that he pays almost no attention when he sees riots going on just outside of his car. The same is true of those who visit him, whether it's friend with benefits/art collector Didi (Juliette Binoche), or financial philosopher Vija (Samantha Morton). It's starts off oddly distancing, yet as it progresses, Cosmopolis' tone comes to the foreground, and the performances, appropriately, warm up. The non-1% characters, played by Mathieu Amalric and Paul Giamatti liven the film up considerably, knocking both Eric and the audience out of the stifling stillness of the limo. 

Pattinson, known mostly for the Twilight films, finally has his moment to prove himself, and he acquits himself adequately. At times he seems too hindered by the tone at the start, yet he really does improve as the character gets drawn out of his catatonic state. The show, however, belongs to Giamatti, who delivers a lived-in performance as a man filled with bitterness and philosophical resentment. Just as the movie starts to flag, Giamatti comes in and helps drive Cosmopolis through to its finish. Bolstered by Howard Shore's subtly mixed-in electronic score, there remains a quiet, pulsating energy throughout, although I suspect many will be left completely turned off by the chilliness of the entire enterprise. For those with whom the film actually connects, however, there exists a very good, perhaps not quite great deconstruction of the financial elite, as only David Cronenberg could present it.

Grade: B/B+

Mud dir. Jeff Nichols [Competition]
Thought it feels decidedly broader and more commercial than the incredible Take Shelter (2011), Jeff Nichols' Mud is a touching and effective coming-of-age story that should open the talented director up to a wider art house (and possible mainstream) audience. Set in Mississippi, two young friends, Ellis (Tye Sheridan of The Tree of Life) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), discover a fugitive named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) living in their favorite secret hangout. 

The hangout in question is a small boat that has, somehow, wound up lodged in a tree, and the image brings to mind the whimsy of films like Tim Burton's Big Fish, as well as classic stories like "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." This is a film predominantly focused on one boy's experiences with love and betrayal, and all of the right ingredients are there on paper. What Mud is lacking, however, is a sense of surprise. Nichols feels comfortable with the material, but it doesn't feel like he's really pushing himself. It's good to know he can write this sort of indie crowd pleaser, but also disappointing in terms of how unremarkable (and occasionally repetitive) the plotting is. At 130 minutes, the film certainly isn't dull, but there are times when the nature of the story keeps it from being as taut or compelling as it could be. Then there's the climax, which, though handled well on its own, starts a little too abruptly, and borders on deus ex machina. 

That doesn't mean that there isn't a lot to like about Mud, because there really is. From the opening shots, including some lovely overhead shots of the Mississippi River, the nostalgic (but never sappy) tone comes through beautifully, thanks to Adam Stone's richly textured cinematography and David Wingo's lush, ambient score. The performances also help drive the story. McConaughey turns in his best performance in quite some time, devoid of his usual acting tics. He brings the sort of charming (but not smug) quality to Mud that makes you understand why people would be drawn to him, even if he might have ulterior motives. Reese Witherspoon is solid as well in a small role as the love interest Mud is hoping to reconnect with. Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson deliver strong turns as Ellis' parents, even though some of their material is among the weakest (one big fight scene turns uncomfortably on the nose). 

The standout, however, is young Mr. Sheridan, who really carries the film with his presence. He's an inherently watchable, likable screen presence, and Nichols extracts a performance from him that doesn't feel overly mannered or coached. When he finally gets his big moment, an outburst at Mud, he brings it home, cementing himself as a powerhouse. He captures Ellis' journey through romantic and idealistic disappointment with such naturalism, that I think it must be one of the best child performances to grace the screen in some time. For all its imperfections that keep it from greatness, Sheridan is excellent and, above all else, the best reason to stick through Mud all the way through its predictable, yet still touching finale.

Grade: B

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