By Steve Persall
There's an unusual alignment of stars at select theaters this weekend: Big-time stars in four modest movies getting only limited releases.
The list of heavy hitters includes a half-dozen Academy Award winners, five nominees who arguably should've won, and a handful of actors whose names appearing in a cast means something about the movie is bound to be good. That's a lot of established talent being treated by distributors no differently than the so-called next big things.
Why? That's easy. Like everything else in Hollywood it comes down to money. The projects these celebrities signed up to do aren't blockbuster propositions. Not by a long shot. They're movies built on characterization and relationships, rather than special effects, 3-D glasses and franchises. They're made for adults, not the kids driving the box office these days.
As a result, you may need to drive a little farther than usual to catch these movies, and do it soon. Entertainment made for grownups generally doesn't last long in multiplexes, especially with Iron Man and Star Trek sequels just around the corner.
Movies don't come any more grownup than The Company You Keep (R), directed by and starring Robert Redford. He plays Nick Sloan, former member of the 1970s radical group Weather Underground, now living legit and widowed as a small-town lawyer under the assumed name Jim Grant.
Nick was involved in a bank robbery that led to murder, and when a former accomplice (Susan Sarandon) turns herself in to police decades later, Jim goes on the run with his daughter (Jackie Evancho) and a mysterious reason for wishing to clear his and others' names.
The case intrigues newspaper reporter Ben Shepard (a solid Shia LaBeouf), who begins a parallel cross-country pursuit of Nick/Jim. The trail leads through a Who's Who of mature actors (Julie Christie, Chris Cooper, Nick Nolte, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Sam Elliott) briefly playing other former anarchists either escaping or waxing nostalgic about their days together. The mystery is transparent fairly early but the thrill of seeing one terrific actor after another pop into scenes never goes stale.
This is twisty material, filmed by Redford in a style recalling his white-knuckle collaborations with Sydney Pollack and Alan J. Pakula in the '70s. If that sounds appealing, it's worth the trip to BayWalk 20 in St. Petersburg, Woodlands Square 20 in Oldsmar, Tampa's Citrus Park 20 or Park Place 16 in Pinellas Park. B+
Equally fine is Mud (PG-13), a sort of a modern-day Huckleberry Finn adventure featuring a mesmerizing portrayal by Matthew McConaughey in the title role. Set in a part of Arkansas that time mostly seems to have forgotten, the movie focuses on the bond between homeless, superstitious and criminally enigmatic Mud and two boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland).
The boys meet Mud on a desert island, living in a boat lodged high in a tree after a flood. Mud claims to be waiting for his true love, Juniper, to return, enlisting the boys as secret accomplices to steal materials he'll need get that boat back in the water and running. He says he killed a man who mistreated Juniper. Ellis, whose parents are divorcing, and the orphaned Neckbone deeply respect what Mud is willing to do for true love.
Writer-director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) unfolds this yarn at a deliberate pace, tossing in a few too many subplots and backwoods eccentricities but offering them through solid performances, especially by Reese Witherspoon as the damaged (and damaging) Juniper, Sam Shepard as a gruff river rat and Michael Shannon as Neckbone's oyster-catching uncle. The plot goes haywire in the final reel, abruptly switching genres and tone but by then you're hooked.
Best of all there's McConaughey playing a true beast of the Southern wild, drawlin' and sweatin' and declarin' his way to yet another great performance that Oscar will likely overlook. Check it out for yourself at Veterans 24 in Tampa, Woodlands Square 20 in Oldsmar and St. Pete's BayWalk 20. B+
Two other new, unscreened releases appear to be solely for their stars' most devoted fans.
Oscar winner Colin Firth stars as Arthur Newman (PG-13), a fading golf pro who fakes his death and assumes another identity (New man, get it?). Arthur winds up falling in love with another scam artist (Emily Blunt) and the kind of romance Hugh Grant gave up years ago ensues. Arthur Newman opens Friday at Starlite 20 and Citrus Park 20 in Tampa.
Finally, there's The Numbers Station (R), with John Cusack trying to get his career back on track after The Raven and The Paperboy both flopped. He stars as a U.S. government assassin protecting a code encryption specialist (Malin Akerman, since all cryptologists are hot). Doesn't sound as much fun as Cusack as an assassin in Grosse Pointe Blank but see for yourself starting Friday at Veterans 24 in Tampa.