Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Logan Lucky Review (2017)

While watching “Oceans Eleven” back in 2001 did you ever wonder what that heist comedy (directed by prolific auteur Steven Soderbergh) would be like if it was not about glamorous thieves robbing a snazzy Las Vegas casino but about a group blue collar folks from West Virginia and North Carolina who decide to rob a NASCAR track? Well, Soderbergh did, and he’s come out of retirement (from feature filmmaking) to make “Logan Lucky--” the exuberant redneck “Oceans Eleven” remake you didn’t know you wanted.

The film primarily revolves around brothers Jimmy (Channing Tatum, in his fourth collaboration with Soderbergh) and Clyde Logan (Adam Driver) who are down on their luck. Jimmy was a high school football star/failed NFL prospect, while Clyde got his hand blown off in Iraq. Believing that their entire family is cursed, they decide to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway during a major race. It’s one of those elaborate, outrageous heists that can only be pulled off in the movies. Among other components, the brothers will need to break well-known safe buster Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) out of jail for the job and then sneak him back into jail without anyone noticing. The Logan brothers also enlist the help of Joe’s brothers, Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid).

Despite how that plot synopsis might read, the dramatic stakes aren’t particularly high in “Logan Lucky.” The picture’s tone is loose and playful, while the pacing is relaxed all the way through. The mechanics of the heist can be confusing and not a lot of things really go wrong, even during the extended heist sequence itself. There are a few minor narrative hiccups the characters run into along the way but overall everything goes very smoothly, perhaps too smoothly for a film about a heist. In this regard,  “Logan Lucky” can feel predictable.

On top of that, the motivation for wanting to rob the racetrack in the first place is hazy and lacking in urgency. Soderbergh and screenwriter Rebecca Blunt (who may or may not be a real person) don’t establish the Logan brothers as desperate people who are caught in a bind and forced to commit a crime. Yes, they’re middle to lower class and Jimmy loses his blue-collar job at the beginning but the decision to execute the heist is treated very casually. That might have been okay, except that the film also doesn’t establish these characters as the career criminal types who would want to pull off such an elaborate crime.

And yet, “Logan Lucky” is still a lot of fun, primarily due to the cast and Blunt’s witty screenplay. In addition to Tatum and Driver, who turn in amusing and earnest performances, Soderbergh assembles a superb ensemble cast made up of young and old talent including: Daniel Craig, Riley Keough, Katie Holmes, Dwight Yoakam, Hilary Swank and Katherine Waterston, among others. Some of these actors only pop in for a scene or two (usually in a nonchalant manner) but they always make a memorably goofy impression. Also, can I say how great it is to see Craig playing a character that isn’t Bond, especially an eccentric, bleach blonde haired safe buster? Mr. Craig, you’ve been missed.

Aside from the cast, what keeps us engaged in “Logan Lucky” are the small comedic moments and details rather than the broad narrative beats. The nutty, bumbling interactions between the Logan and Bang brothers as they painstakingly plan the robbery. Those little quirks that make the characters feel human instead of comedic caricatures (Clyde’s insistence that he lost his hand and not his arm). Those off beat, absurdist scenes that make you forget about the film’s predictable nature.

For example, the Logan brothers meet one of Joe’s contacts nicknamed “The Bear” to acquire some materials for the heist, who turns out to be a man in a bear suit; a delightfully out of left moment that generated a hardy laugh from the audience at my preview screening. On a scene-by-scene basis, “Logan Lucky” is packed with laughs. It may not be great but Soderbergh’s return to filmmaking is a light, entertaining affair.


Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Dark Tower Review (2017)

Nikolaj Arcel’s “The Dark Tower (based on the seven book series by Stephen King) is a jumbled mess of Sci fi, Fantasy and Western. We’re thrown into a brand new world and introduced to a fresh, fairly complicated mythology. When done well, this can be a wondrous experience (think “Star Wars”) but  “The Dark Tower” is frequently confusing and sometimes plain incoherent. Arcel moves the action along quickly-- at the expense of valuable world building and character development. Reading the Wikipedia entry on the entire series after my screening provided some clarification about what went on but I shouldn’t have to do that. The picture doesn’t stand on its own feet.

In the “Dark Tower” universe, there are two earths: the regular earth with technology and civilization and a second earth that’s in a barren, post apocalyptic state. At the center of the universe is The Dark Tower, a literal dark tower that keeps things in balance and prevents a force of demons from invading the worlds. The antagonist of a story is The Man In Black, (played with campy menace by Matthew McConaughey) a sorcerer who wears black and has telekinetic powers and really likes killing people. He wants to destroy The Tower and let the demons in because…he’s evil? That’s pretty much the extent of his motivation. How will he do this? He’s somehow built a state of the art power station on Earth 2, which has a device that can transform children’s minds into energy bolts because only children’s minds can destroy The Tower apparently. You still with me?

To assist him in his master plan, The Man has an army of loyal creatures that wear human suits for some reason. Are they aliens? Mutants? Demons? Do they originally come from Earth Two? How did they come into contact with The Man and why do they serve him? Are they at all connected with the force of demons threatening to break in? None of these questions are answered. Some of the human suit creatures also live on Earth One, blending in with regular society, so they can abduct more kids. They take them back to Earth Two using a portal. Oh yeah…there are also portals between worlds.

There’s plenty more but I’m starting to get a headache. Unlike a traditional adaptation that would center on one book, this film apparently incorporates elements from all seven "Dark Tower" books, making for an extremely messy result. All of this Sci fi/fantasy material is haphazardly crammed into a relatively brisk hour and thirty-five minutes, rendering it trite and surface level. A longer run time might have actually provided some clarity and depth. The picture has to cover so much ground that this universe never feels like a coherent, three-dimensional space. The screenplay by Arcel, Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner and Anders Thomas Jensen is utterly sloppy and lacking in focus while Arcel’s direction is rushed; the internal logic goes from inconsistent to nonsensical. In general, I don’t need every plot point and bit of exposition to be sounded out but this movie plays out as though everyone in the audience is as well versed in the “Dark Tower” mythos as King is. It feels like the third or fourth film in a series rather than an introductory chapter.

As a result of all this confusion, “Dark Tower” is flat line most of the time as it rushes through its convoluted story. There’s little in the way of tension or suspense; the central threat (demons trying to invade the universe) is hollow and vaguely defined. Making matters worse, the plot builds to the predictable and bland climactic fight sequence that’s become commonplace in recent super hero films. The movie doesn’t quite come down to an inter-dimensional portal having to be closed but it’s pretty close to that.

Luckily, the casting is superb. McConaughey looks like he’s having a blast and Idris Elba is very good as the film’s co protagonist, a supernatural/mythical gunslinger named Roland Deschain who wants to kill The Man in Black. Elba is cool and understated, with a touch of deadpan humor. The scenes where he visits New York on Earth One contain some wonderful fish-out-of-water humor. Honestly, I stopped caring about Elba’s character (the mythology involving Deschain is just as muddled and poorly defined as the rest of the film) and kept thinking about how great it would be for the forty four year old actor to be the gunslinger in an actual Western. He’s certainly got the swagger and gravitas; the scene where Deschain takes on an entire room full of human suit creatures with only two six shooters is giddy and exhilarating.

Thanks to Elba and McConaughey, “The Dark Tower” is never entirely unwatchable but they belong in a much better, more cogent film.


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Atomic Blonde Review (2017)

David Leitch’s “Atomic Blonde” is a sleek and stylish action/thriller set at the tail end of the Cold War. It’s easy to get lost in the airbrushed 80’s aesthetic, Jonathan Sela’s lush, meticulously crafted visuals and the all around unruffled attitude the film (and its characters) exhibits in every frame. There is a plot but it’s extremely rote and superficially complex; at about the halfway point I simply stopped caring about where things were going. Still, the picture oozes style. It’s more about secret agents looking cool and smoking cigarettes and beating each other up than anything else. Furthermore, the film is bolstered by a magnetic Charlize Theron who plays the titular badass blonde, a character that combines the classiness of James Bond with the brutality of John Wick.

Visually, “Atomic Blonde” is marked by two distinct styles: during the day the color palette is muted, dominated by grey and white. But at night, Berlin transformers into a neon lit wonderland--multicolored lights are everywhere, at the various bars and clubs. A cramped, unassuming watch shop where cold war spies sometimes do business is lit in curious green. The hotel room where MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) stays is aggressively lit by blue, pink and red. In fact, the neon lighting appears to be installed underneath and behind her bedframe. The lighting design gives the film a seedy yet romantic glow.

The various spies and authority figures that populate “Atomic Blonde” are always cool and mysterious, trying to act nonchalant (and not doing a very good job at it most of the time. They really do a poor job of blending in with their environment) as they conduct their shady spy business in the streets of paranoia drenched Berlin and fight one other. Relationships are surface level and loyalties are for sale--the characters are driven by their own agendas. They walk around with a detached, self-assured swagger. Leitch turns Berlin into a colorful, hypnotic labyrinth, teeming with Cold War dread.

The coolest and most mysterious of the characters is Lorraine. She wears nothing but snazzy outfits— a new elegant and sexy dress every night. During the daytime she wears a pristine white pea coat, red heels and large shades, an outfit that compliments her straightened blonde hair. Lorraine’s movements are graceful and calculating. She knows instinctively when she’s in trouble, or being set up (which happens a lot in this movie) and quickly switches into action mode. Her hands turn into lethal melee weapons and she takes care of business, looking good while doing it. Even when Lorraine simply sits in her neon lit hotel room smoking a cigarette she emits an effortless glamour, like a Femme Fatal in an old school film noir. Theron is mesmerizing. Understated and ruthless, cold and detached but also very aware of the alluring effect she has on the men around her, which she uses to her advantage. 

The espionage narrative is expectedly twisty and underwhelming. It’s simultaneously convoluted and not as clever as it thinks it is. Most of the major plot twists and character revelations are obvious long before they happen. The screenplay by Kurt Johnstad (based on a graphic novel series by Antony Johnson and Sam Hart) relies on a lot of well-worn spy movie clichés. Lorraine and the rest of the characters are after a top-secret list containing the true identities of thousands of agents from the around the world, an overused MacGuffin. Overall, the film contains a lot of bland, familiar plotting that adds up to very little.

 Ultimately, “Atomic Blonde” is too derivative and muddled to be a great film but it’s still entertaining thanks to its enthralling style and Theron’s onscreen radiance. There’s also a much buzzed about five minute long single take action sequence that’s a real doozy. It’s captured with a blunt handheld clarity. The melee combat is brutal and visceral (you can feel every punch, kick and shove) and clumsy and sluggish at the same time.  Lorraine and the various henchmen take turns slugging each other and then go to catch their breath. It plays out in a more realistic manner, rather than being choreographed like a dance. The sequence is exhilarating and it gives Lorraine’s character a layer of vulnerability. It might be worth the price of admission alone.


Sunday, July 16, 2017

A Ghost Story Review (2017)

I’m ready to declare 2017 the year of the art house ghost movie. Both Oliver Assayas’ “Personal Shopper” and now David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story” are mundane, quietly eerie supernatural dramas about grappling with grief and finding closure. “Personal Shopper,” which came out in March, starred Kristen Stewart as an amateur medium desperately trying to make contact with the spirit of her recently deceased twin brother. Meanwhile, “A Ghost Story” takes the point of view of a grieving ghost stuck in a purgatorial state.

That ghost is/was C, (Casey Affleck) a musician who died in a sudden car accident. After his widow M (Rooney Mara) goes to identify his body at the morgue, the ghost…wakes up. He stands up and proceeds to walk out of the room with a white sheet still covering him. Out in the hallway, a portal containing a blinding white light materializes in front of him, presumably a door to the afterlife. However C chooses not to go and instead walks across roads and fields, back to his suburban house to see his grieving wife. What does he do? Does he try to make contact with her? Does he help her make pottery? No, he just watches her, still dawning that white bed sheet, now with a pair of eyeholes, reminiscent of a child’s Halloween costume. This low-tech costume choice is oddly effective--creepy, mysterious and refreshing.

Of the two films, “A Ghost Story” is more experimental and abstract. Aside from containing very little plot and action, it’s primarily composed of lengthy single take shots that sometimes go on for five to seven minutes. This deliberate visual style mimics C’s onscreen behavior and desires. He wants to spend as much time as he can with M before he passes on. He wants to cherish every moment, every movement and every grief inspired breakdown. There’s a palpable, aching feeling of longing and sorrow pulsing through these lengthy scenes.

Admittedly, these scenes can be frustrating at times. There’s a much talked about scene involving M grief eating an entire pie while C watches from beyond that’s kind of painful to sit through. It’s moving and Mara’s performance is subtly devastating but it’s also a…really really long scene of a woman eating an entire pie. A really long scene. I admit I zoned out during the picture a few times. “A Ghost Story” may be the longest hour and twenty-seven minute movie I’ve ever seen.

“A Ghost Story” can be difficult to endure but after the first thirty minutes or so, the movie really picks up steam. Time itself accelerates, while space rapidly changes shape. Days, years, decades, centuries pass before our eyes in a matter of seconds. Before you even have a chance to blink, a small suburban house materializes into a mighty skyscraper. It’s exhilarating and beautiful. “A Ghost Story” goes from being a claustrophobic film about a wandering soul (yanked out of his body too soon) trying to find closure with his beloved, to a more expansive, ambitious affair. It morphs into a lyrical mediation on the fluidity of time, the nature of legacy, the significance a certain place (a cherished family home, a plot of land) can hold for someone, the vastness of the universe and our minuscule place in it. Lowery manages to pack quite a bit into such a brief run time.

The film becomes one long, surreal, mind-bending montage. Time keeps pushing forward until suddenly it stops and starts over from the beginning, taking our white sheet-wearing friend with it like a current pushing a stick down a river. If you were bored and frustrated with the film before, you won’t be able to take your eyes off it now. “A Ghost Story” can be rough going, especially at the beginning but once it changes into this bigger, more thought provoking film, it’s endlessly absorbing.


Friday, July 14, 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets Review (2017)

“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” is a sprawling, overwhelming, exhausting Sci fi epic.  Writer/director Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element,” “Lucy”) crafts a weird, vibrant Sci fi world bursting at the seams with creativity and visual splendor. A plethora of diverse alien cultures, civilizations, eco systems and nifty gadgets mesh together in absurd and exhilarating ways. As in “The Fifth Element,” world building is this film’s greatest strength and it almost distracts you from the bland protagonists and overly convoluted plot.

The titular ‘City of a Thousand Planets” (known as Alpha in the movie) is actually the new and improved International Space Station. As we see in the film’s inventive opening credit montage, what was once a station inhabited by humans from thousands of countries around the world has slowly grown into a home for hundreds of alien races and species from across the universe. In another section, we’re transported to a seemingly barren desert planet called Kyrien that’s home to a massive, bustling marketplace that exists in another dimension and can only be accessed via special equipment.

Besson and production designer Hugues Tissandier create a living, breathing cinematic environment. The City of a Thousand Planets isn’t just a one-dimensional backdrop for the characters to stand in front of and play out the central plot; it’s a character in and of itself. There’s a lot of detail and texture here; you’re overwhelmed by it but you also can’t get enough. The first hour and a half of the picture is an immersive, breathless wonder-- Besson guides us through this chaotic and intricate filmic space, introducing us to dozens of eccentric bit characters and creatures (that could have their own movies) along the way.

If only the rest of “Valerian” had been better. The plot is that of a socially conscious mystery involving government cover-ups, alien refugees and the importance of not covering up ones ugly past. This all sounds intriguing enough and it can be but it also gets needlessly convoluted. During the last third the cool and irreverent world building ceases and the film just becomes a confusing slog. When we reach the pivotal moment, wherein all facets of the central mystery are finally revealed, a lot of additional exposition is shoehorned in, making for a tedious and mind-numbing finale. Besson ties up all the narrative lose ends in sloppy, overly melodramatic and even heavy-handed ways.

“Valerian” also suffers from ho hum main characters. Our protagonists are Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline, (Cara Delevinge) two young agents that work for Alpha and are semi dating. Valerian and Laureline are standard issue: he’s the laid back, cocky playboy while she’s uptight and no nonsense. Pretty much all of their personal and romantic drama consists of Valerian trying to prove to Laureline he’s mature enough for her. Yawn. For a movie that takes place in such a vivid futuristic world and loaded with various alien species, it’s kind of disappointing that our protagonists are so run of the mill. There’s nothing particularly memorable or unique about them.

DeHaan does his best to play slick and charming but his low voiced, too-cool-for- school attitude is affected to the point of obnoxiousness. He consistently takes you out of the film. Delevinge fairs a little better but even her performance, her runway model-esque body movements and facial expressions, can come off robotic. Although Besson’s screenplay doesn’t do either actor any favors. It’s full of terribly cliché dialogue—the romantic banter is cloying while the comedic banter is painfully awkward and unfunny. Valerian and Laureline’s romance is cornball to say the least, which isn’t inherently a bad thing but the script renders it inauthentic.

Ultimately, I stopped caring about Valerian and Laureline, instead wanting to go exploring in this rich and colorful Sci fi world on my own. There’s a lot to look at and experience in “Valerian,” which means I can’t totally dismiss the film. But it certainly could have been better.