Skip to main content

But that was then. And this is now. I'm back home. Right where I belong.

Mudbound
(2017)

(SPOILERS) Mudbound has had to make do with just the four Oscar nominations, all well-deserved (although honestly, I’m not so fussed by the overly earnest song), failing to trouble the big four categories, but it’s a much better film than at least several of the nine selected for the top prize. Perhaps that’s a reflection of the Netflix factor, or that Academy members only feel inclined to given the nod to one movie about racism per year. Mudbound, set in and around Jim Crow Mississipi in the ‘40s, isn’t just about racism, but it’s infused into its characters and locale such that all other themes are informed or affected by it. At times, there’s a sense that it’s trying to achieve too much, spread its canvas too broadly for the time it has, but when it hits its stride, it’s outstanding.


Director Dee Rees adapted (with Virgil Williams) Hillary Jordan’s 2008 book of the same name, which may partly explain the overly novelistic approach of the opening sections as, attempting set up so many different perspectives, she adopts successive voiceover monologues for each individual, white and black, serving to foster varying degrees of empathy and understanding, dependent on their own self-awareness. The reliance on this device diminishes as she, and we, become more secure in the setting and those occupying the farm. There’s a sense, in combination with cinematographer Rachel Morrison’s earthily – muddily – textured landscape, of Malickian ruminations on the cards fate has dealt, only minus the nebulous existentialism.


Not everyone is favoured such insights – what would it serve other than to further disavow him (if that were possible), to gain access to the inner processes of Jonathan Banks’ racist monster Pappy? And Jason Clarke’s Henry, whose foolhardiness brings the McAllans to the farm, is allowed rare comment, which is interesting as his is the most self-perpetuating mind-set, tolerating the Jacksons because of economic realities but coming down on his father’s side when it’s about preserving the status quo (the scene with Ronsel being told to leave the general store by the back door).


Henry is contrasted with Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), forced to teach resignation to the way things are to his offspring in the name of self-preservation while qualifying it with the need to aspire to something better than their lot (his daughter wishes to be a stenographer, he wishes to own land, while conscious of the fragility of any rights therein for a black man; “And so I ask, what good is a deed?”) His relationship with Henry is one of take-take on the latter’s part, calling upon Hap’s help, but when Hap is in need, budging not an inch (Hap breaks his leg, but rather than lend him a mule to aid in planting the crops, Henry loans him one).


Florence (Mary J Blige, able to say much while saying very little and easy to see why she garnered that Oscar nomination) too is positioned in a place of reservation and considered distance, but the picture’s point of crossing race boundaries comes via common concerns, such that her shared motherhood with Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan), while the latter (mostly) dutifully submits to her husband’s edicts, allows for a degree of tacit understanding (Laura may be “one of the good ones”). One might say that both patriarchs endure mutual hardship, but since that’s true of everyone working the land it isn’t such a communicable element, certainly not one acknowledged in any respectful manner by Henry (and Hap has little time for Henry’s introduction of a tractor).


Initially at least, Laura is the audience identification figure, a sheltered, sensitive woman rudely thrown into unfamiliar circumstances and required to sink or swim, but while we return to her inner monologue throughout, it holds gradually less prevalence and importance. Consequently, there’s a sense that the only fully developed plotline is one that forms almost halfway through the proceedings.


The friendship between Ronsel (Jason Mitchell, previously memorable as Easy-E in Straight Outta Compton), Hap’s son, and Jamie (Garret Hedlund), Henry’s younger brother, quickly becomes the core of the movie, displacing what looks at the outset to be shaping up as a love triangle between Henry, Jamie and Laura (it’s there, but ultimately tangential). Again, it is the shared experience that offers the bond, the bruised psyche of the combat veteran. We don’t have much insight into Jamie’s views on race prior to World War II, but he cites an experience when he was saved by Tuskegee Airmen in response to Ronsel querying “Why you being so nice to me?”. But as conscious as Henry is of “the way things should be”, Jamie is entirely disinterested in propping them up, and his dependency on alcohol leads to carelessness that has tragic results for Ronsel.


Ronsel has glimpsed a better life, ironically, at war (“But them Europeans don’t have a problem with us at all”), and is offered an olive branch of solace at the end of the picture (diverging from the novel, as Jordan’s forthcoming sequel finds Ronsel’s mixed-race son setting off for America to find his father). There’s a catharsis of sorts in the revenge Jamie takes on his father (“I wanted to make sure I looked you in the eye”), although he professes to feel no peace as a result. But, while the Jacksons are shown to eventually have their much-prized own place to live, there isn’t the same sense of completeness to either their or the remaining McAllans’ stories.


Rees employs a flashback structure, introducing us following Pappy’s death and with the knowledge that something has happened to make the Jacksons reluctant to help the McAllans. It’s an effective device, one informing attentions and casting a spell of foreboding over subsequent events; not all the choices in this adaptation are equally successful, but her eye for detail is unstinting, and, through observing rather than preaching, Rees communicates the manner in which, while progress has been made in legal terms, the undercurrents of discrimination persist and endure, not least generationally. The results are never less than powerful and engrossing.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

It’ll be like living in the top drawer of a glass box.

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) (SPOILERS) The first of a pair of TV movies John Carpenter directed in the 1970s, but Someone’s Watching Me! is more affiliated, in genre terms, to his breakout hit ( Halloween ) and reasonably successful writing job ( The Eyes of Laura Mars ) of the same year than the also-small-screen Elvis . Carpenter wrote a slew of gun-for-hire scripts during this period – some of which went on to see the twilight of day during the 1990s – so directing Someone’s Watching Me! was not a given. It’s well-enough made and has its moments of suspense, but you sorely miss a signature Carpenter theme – it was by Harry Sukman, his penultimate work, the final being Salem’s Lot – and it really does feel very TV movie-ish.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

By whom will this be rectified? Your ridiculously ineffectual assassins?

The X-Files 3.2: Paperclip Paperclip recovers ground after The Blessing Way stumbled slightly in its detour, and does so with some of the series’ most compelling dramatics so far. As well as more of Albert performing prayer rituals for the sick (perhaps we could spend some time with the poor guy over breakfast, or going to the movies? No, all he’s allowed is stock Native American mysticism).

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

That’s what it’s all about. Interrupting someone’s life.

Following (1998) (SPOILERS) The Nolanverse begins here. And for someone now delivering the highest-powered movie juggernauts globally – that are not superhero or James Cameron movies – and ones intrinsically linked with the “art” of predictive programming, it’s interesting to note familiar themes of identity and limited perception of reality in this low-key, low-budget and low-running time (we won’t see much of the latter again) debut. And, naturally, non-linear storytelling. Oh, and that cool, impersonal – some might say clinical – approach to character, subject and story is also present and correct.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008) (SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanley was well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley , our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“ too syrupy ”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog.  Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has c