LOGAN LUCKY (2017)

August 17, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. When we think of public figures retiring, we typically accept that athletes, politicians and entertainers will no longer be honing their craft or grinding in their profession. Perhaps they will write their memoirs, or even dodge TMZ completely by spending their days fishing or playing golf. When Oscar winning film director Steven Soderbergh announced he was “retiring” from making movies after his 2013 SIDE EFFECTS, he simply transitioned to television (excellence in “The Knick”). Most of us assumed it was only a matter of time until he returned to the medium that made him famous. This “retirement” lasted less than 4 years.

When a line in the film describes it as “Ocean’s 7-11”, we can assume this is Mr. Soderbergh admitting that his “Ocean’s” trilogy was the inspiration for this comedy-satire heist film focusing on a well-planned crime by a team of siblings, rednecks and convicts. Channing Tatum, Adam Driver and Riley Keough star as the Logan clan – Jimmy, Clyde, and Mellie, respectively. With NASCAR as the target, the Logans are joined by the Bangs: Sam (Brian Gleeson), Fish (Jack Quaid), and Joe (a scene-stealing bleached blonde Daniel Craig).

Joining in the unconventional Hicksville fun are Katie Holmes and David Denman as Jimmy’s ex-wife and her new husband, a recently shorn Sebastian Stan as a race car driver, Seth MacFarlane as an obnoxiously rich blow-hard, Katherine Waterston in a too-brief role as a traveling medic, Hilary Swank as a determined FBI Agent, and Dwight Yoakum as a prison warden who rarely admits a problem. Also playing a key role is the music of John Denver … a move that teeters between tribute and punchline.

The set up and characters lend themselves to more laughter than we actually experience. There are more awkward moments than hilarious ones. As examples, brother Clyde’s (Driver) artificial hand is the center of focus on a few occasions, as are Joe Bang’s (Craig) expertise in science, and the small town West Virginia addiction to child beauty pageants. Their racetrack robbery plan is both ingenious and preposterous, which is also a fitting description of the film.

A writing credit goes to “Rebecca Blunt”, which in keeping with Soderbergh’s tradition, is a pseudonym (or nom de plume) for an unnamed writer (likely Soderbergh himself). The film mostly succeeds in delivering the opposite of the traditional Ocean’s slickness, and it’s entertaining to watch Channing Tatum and Daniel Craig (the credits list him as “introducing Daniel Craig) having such a good time on screen. While it doesn’t deliver the laughs of FREE FIRE or TALLADEGA NIGHTS, it is nice to have Soderbergh back where he belongs. Rather than an instant classic, it’s more likely to be remembered for Soderbergh’s attempt to change the movie distribution channels … Google can provide the details if you are interested.

watch the trailer:

 

 

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BRIGSBY BEAR (2017)

August 10, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Many kids get obsessed with their favorite TV show and characters. Perhaps it’s Minnie Mouse, Sesame Street or even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Whatever or whomever it is, they typically enjoy sharing their experiences with their friends. When we first meet James, he is staring, fully-engaged, at an odd, poorly produced show that appears to be a relic from the 1970’s. His room is packed with franchised merchandise like a bedspread, a lamp, toys, and even a stuffed animal. We immediately notice two problems: we don’t recognize this talking TV bear and James appears to be not a child, but a twenty-something with a 3 day beard growth.

Kyle Mooney has gained a following with his work (especially his quirky short films) on “Saturday Night Live”. Here he collaborates with director Dave McCrary (another SNL stalwart) and co-writer Kevin Costello on their first feature film. Mr. Mooney also stars as James, the “Brigsby Bear” expert who was kidnapped as an infant, held captive in a desert bunker and brainwashed by his captor “parents” Ted and April (an excellent Mark Hamill, Jane Adams).

Being confined and isolated in a controlled environment with only artificial culture in no way prepares James for the long-delayed release back into the wild known as society. His biological parents Greg and Louise (Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins) are thrilled to reunite with their long lost son, and very patient with James’ struggles to assimilate.

James is unceremoniously dumped into the real world without his one security blanket: a TV bear that doesn’t exist. He goes from being disconnected from the outside world to being disconnected inside a new world he doesn’t know or recognize. Despite the pressures he is up against (police, family, new friends), he refuses to let go of his obsession.

It’s at this point where we really root for Mooney and McCrary to embrace the weirdness. Instead, the story takes a bit of a conventional turn and we find ourselves no longer reveling in oddity, but instead cheering for James to continue influencing those who initially viewed him as the proverbial fish out of water. The film ends up as a creative story about creativity … if that’s what it’s about (or if it’s about anything).

Strong supporting work is provided by Greg Kinnear as Detective Vogel (with a secret passion), Ryan Simpkins (sister of Ty) as James’ somewhat reluctant sister, and Alexa Demie and Jorge Lendeborg Jr as the new friends who come to appreciate him for his perspective. Claire Danes is a misguided psychiatrist, Buck Bennett is a detective, Andy Samburg appears an acquaintance, and Kate Lyn Scheil is Arielle (and Nora).

The film can best be described as Funny-Sad, and a blend of ROOM (isolated and held captive), NAPOLEON DYNAMITE (a quirky dude), BEING THERE (an innocence that influences others), and ENCINO MAN (a guy being introduced to a new world). It has an emotional and heartfelt climax that is crowd-pleasing, and certainly deserves bonus points for not being a superhero movie, remake, sequel or reboot. Still, it leaves us wondering what direction this could have gone had the filmmakers remained true to the cause of embracing the weirdness.

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THE ONLY LIVING BOY IN NEW YORK (2017)

August 8, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. When a movie borrows its title from a great Simon and Garfunkel song, and then utilizes the song to emphasize a point during the story, we can’t help but have high expectations. This is often true even if it appears we are likely to be subjected to yet another movie featuring the all too familiar ground of New York intellectuals brewing and stewing their own problems. Director Marc Webb (500 DAYS OF SUMMER, GIFTED) delivers the type of film that critics tend to rip, and audiences like to watch.

Much of the story seems familiar, but the excellent cast prevents the clichés from being overly distracting. Callum Turner stars as Thomas, an aimless writer-wannabe and recent college graduate with daddy issues. Thomas spends his time dreaming about what he might be and pining for the beautiful, intelligent girl with whom he hangs out. It’s understandable why Mimi (Kiersey Clemons) has friend-zoned him, since she has ambitions and goals, while he mostly just talks and drifts through each day. One evening while enjoying their conversation over drinks, Thomas spots his dad getting beyond “friendly” with a beautiful young woman in a corner booth. This is upsetting because Thomas’ parents are still married, and his mother is at home working through clinical depression.

Ethan (Pierce Brosnan) is a well-known publisher and Judith (Cynthia Nixon) is an artist in a fragile state. As with most self-centered twenty-somethings, Thomas has just assumed the marriage was fine and their family fell into the “normal” range of dysfunction. It’s about this time when the movie assumes the tone of a Woody Allen movie. Thomas turns detective and begins following the mysterious beauty from the booth, and their first encounter is a bit awkward. He finds himself mesmerized by Johanna (Kate Beckinsale). She’s the stuff that dreams (and fantasies) are made of … for both fathers and sons.

Johanna is really the second spell that Thomas has fallen under. His neighbor W.F. has been providing sage advice on love and writing. It’s yet another terrific performance from Jeff Bridges, who plays the alcoholic mentor with secrets of his own. See, every character here carries the weight and burden of their own secrets and plays games in every relationship. In fact, much of the movie plays like group therapy – two characters at a time.

No superheroes exist in this world. There are no car chases or guns, and the only knife is used to slice strawberries in the kitchen. The movie could be described as a coming-of-age story; however, it’s not just Thomas that has growing up to do. A deeper message is on display for those who take notice. Every person and every family has secrets, and many people find an inability to be honest and open to be a much simpler way to go through life. We know that people aren’t always good – even when we really want them to be.

Of course, we do get the obligatory dinner party with a table full of New York intellectuals (including Wallace Shawn) reminiscing about what a great city it used to be. Actually, nostalgia is an underlying theme throughout. The dinner party does provide Thomas the opportunity to drop the best ‘Philadelphia’ line since W.C. Fields. The script provides some other quality lines, and though it’s certainly not at the level of Whit Stillman or Noah Baumbach, it marks a step up for writer Allan Loeb, who is renowned for such lackluster efforts as COLLATERAL BEAUTY, THE SPACE BETWEEN US and JUST GO WITH IT. He likely owes director Webb and cast a debt of gratitude.

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COLUMBUS (2017)

August 3, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The first feature film from Korean writer/director/editor Kogonada provides intimate and revealing slices of life that are somehow simultaneously familiar, thought-provoking, and enlightening. There is so much going in this seemingly quiet little story that we are left thinking that it could easily have been split into 2 or 3 movies.

Haley Lu Richardson stars as Casey, a local girl who works in the library and as a tour guide. She’s clearly smart, and readily admits to sacrificing her future for the responsibility of looking after her mother (Michelle Forbes) – a recovering addict to both meth and “s***heads”. Her exchanges with Gabriel (Rory Culkin) carry the weight of intellects-in-development, as well as strained attraction that is regularly shut down through sneakily awkward and uncomfortable moments. Their back-and-forth on reading, video games and attention spans is one of the best on-screen exchanges we will hear this year.

The film begins with an elderly man having some type of seizure, sending him to the hospital and canceling his scheduled architecture presentation. His son Jin (John Cho) arrives from out of town and the next morning has an initial inelegant crossing of paths with Casey. The lack of connection between the two transforms in a beautifully written and photographed scene the next day. Shot from the other side of the window glass with no audible dialogue, we witness the moment Casey lets down her guard and Jin becomes enamored. It’s a unique and wonderful scene – so quiet, yet it changes everything.

Columbus, Indiana is the other star of the film. Its famous modern architecture is featured prominently throughout as Casey guides Jin to her favorites. Their corresponding conversations, usually while puffing on cigarettes, gradually become more detailed and more revealing. Doorways, bridges, windows, and buildings become part of the conversation, and crucial to the look and feel created by cinematographer Elisha Christian.

Mr. Cho captures the stoic nature of a son inconvenienced by a Korean culture that requires him to be present should his father die. He is miffed by the need to ‘adequately grieve’ for the man who never put his own life on hold for his son. Ms. Richardson is the revelation here. Having seen her in SPLIT, THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, and THE BRONZE, it was obvious she had screen presence, but here she shows the depth and range that portends a long and varied acting career. Her slumped shoulders and panged expression are spot on for a 19 year old who is too smart for her situation, yet too young and unworldly to know how to forge ahead.

Kogonada proves himself a sly storyteller as well as a master of visual setting, utilizing language, architecture and above all, conversation. At one point, Jin asks Casey “Are we losing interest in everyday life?” This filmmaker is doing his part to keep us aware and interested.

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THE LITTLE HOURS (2017)

July 13, 2017

Oak Cliff Film Festival 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s not often when the obvious comparison to a movie is the classic 1975 comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and it’s even more unusual for such a film to be making the rounds at festivals (I saw this at Oak Cliff Film Festival) where schedules tend to be loaded with serious and dark subject matter. This outlandish comedy won’t be to everyone’s taste, as it is profane and at times mean-spirited.

The year is 1347 when writer/director Jeff Baena’s story kicks off outside a convent where it takes less than a couple of minutes to realize that these aren’t your usual nuns. Profanity spews forth, as does laughter from the audience. Dave Franco plays a servant who has a good reason to flee from his King (Nick Offerman) and agree to a cockamamie plan suggested by the local priest (John C Riley). The plan has Franco working at the convent pretending to be deaf mute, while struggling to decline the advances from the aforementioned warped nuns played by Aubrey Plaza (the director’s long-time girlfriend), Alison Brie (“Mad Men”), and Kate Micucci (Unleashed).

Plot is barely an after-thought here, and most of the movie plays like interrelated “Saturday Night Live” skits. In fact, Fred Armisen and Molly Shannon are part of the ensemble, along with Paul Reiser and Adam Pally. Just as the characters begin to wear a bit thin, a new character is introduced, resuscitating our interest. Each of the actors deliver, but it’s Armisen and Micucci who are especially fun to watch, as is Riley’s tendency to turn communal wine into a community beverage.

Raunchy medieval comedies filled with debauchery and outrageously misdirected nuns could be classified as a bit of a stretch. However it makes more sense when you learn that Mr. Baena has adapted this from Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron”, and his use of modern day dialogue and attitudes, delivered by an ultra talented comedic cast, makes this one to watch after a particularly rough day or week of work. Expect an altar filled with f-words and blasphemy with a wink. If you are OK with that, you’ll likely laugh and enjoy the temporary reprieve from real life … even without any killer rabbits or Knights who say “ni”.

watch the trailer:

**I could only find a red band trailer – and ‘nun’ of that is appropriate.


THE BIG SICK (2017)

June 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Those of us who tend to avoid Hollywood Romantic Comedies honestly have nothing against them in theory (no really, it’s true). The problems with the genre stem from (years of) cringe-inducing clichés, story structure re-treads, and inane dialogue – all of which is usually accompanied by acting that comes across as significantly short of believable. So when a rom-com (like this one) hits the silver screen and it provides emotionally dramatic moments, organically generated laughter, and multiple characters that we genuinely care about … expect the accolades to start flowing.

Real life husband and wife Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”) and Emily Gordon have collaborated on the script; an autobiographical re-telling of the saga known as the beginning of their relationship. It’s a story that starts simply enough with a meet-cute in a Chicago comedy club where Pakistani-American Kumail is performing his stand-up routine (in between Uber-driving shifts), and Emily is in the audience firing off some mild heckling which progresses to flirting and then … well, activity that leads to both saying “this can’t happen again”.

Director Michael Showalter continues to prove that he doesn’t mind breaking the mold for relationship movies. Hello, My Name is Doris was one of last year’s more creative films in this genre, and now Showalter has taken another step forward with this true life script. Kumail plays himself, and rather than a larger-than-life presence, he comes across as exactly life size. Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of legendary director Elia Kazan) plays Emily. The two actors are believable together (and apart) and allow us to buy in to them as a couple – and as not a couple. Their relationship shines a spotlight on religious and cultural challenges, and family pressures that those from a traditional Muslim family carry. For some, moving to the U.S. doesn’t override religious and cultural traditions such as arranged marriages and preferred professions. The script addresses this beautifully and without pulling punches – although some humor does help.

The supporting cast is excellent and plays a substantial role in the story, especially as Emily (Kazan) lay quite ill in the hospital. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano play her parents, and deliver an emotional wallop, even while dealing with their own marital issues – one of which allows Romano and Kumail to bond a bit. Kumail’s parents are played by Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff, while his brother is played by Adeel Akhtar. They each capture the shock and disappointment that follows when Kumail seems to choose Emily over the family. Since this is a rare multi-dimensional script where characters can’t just be labeled “boyfriend” or “best friend”, Kumail’s cohorts at the comedy club are played by Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler, and David Alan Grier – each bringing more depth to the story.

Expect the best giraffe and 9/11 jokes you’ve likely ever heard, but mostly rejoice in the graceful balance between life and death, comedy found in daily life, and the real relationship struggles. It’s not even the first coma-centric romantic-comedy (While You Were Sleeping, 1995), but here, the human feelings on screen remind us that most decisions in life are complex, and we all make mistakes of the heart. Kumail is caught in “no man’s land” between family obligations and his own identity. Hopefully life hasn’t stuck you in Kumail’s spot – hanging out in the hospital waiting room with the parents of your ex as she lay comatose down the hall as you slowly come to realize that she’s the girl of your dreams (and your parents’ nightmare). It may not sound like the makings of a traditional rom-com, but that’s what makes it so exceptional.

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BABY DRIVER (2017)

June 29, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. If his movies are any indication, writer/director Edgar Wright would be fun to hang out with. He thrives on action and humor, and seems committed to making movies that are entertaining, rather than philosophical life statements. Many know his work from Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End), while others are fans of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. High concept, high energy and a creative use of music are identifiable traits within Mr. Wright’s films, all of which are crucial to the success of his latest.

Ansel Elgort (excellent in The Fault in Our Stars) stars as Baby, a freakishly talented getaway driver paying off a debt to a no-nonsense crime boss Doc played by Kevin Spacey. Baby has an unusual movie affliction – a childhood accident killed his parents and left him with tinnitus. He compensates for the constant ringing in his ear by listening to music through ear buds attached to one of his many iPods (depending on his mood). In fact, his insistence on finding just the right song for the moment adds a colorful element to each escape route.

The film opens with what may be its best car chase scene and the hyper-kinetic approach sets the stage for something a bit different than what we usually see. There are no car drops from airplanes or train-jumping (I’m looking at you Fast and Furious franchise). Instead these are old school chases in the mode of Bullitt, or more precisely, Walter Hill’s 1978 The Driver (Mr. Hill appears briefly here as a courtroom reporter). A heist-romance-chase film with a diverse and truly remarkable selection of songs, high energy, more than a few comedic moments (the Mike Myers mask sequence is brilliant) and a recurring Monsters, Inc quote requires a strong lead, and young Mr. Elgort aces the test. Baby is the DJ to his own life, and possesses a moral compass that others on his jobs can’t comprehend. It’s a heart of gold in a bad spot.

Spacey plays Doc with his chilling dead-eyed stare, and even has his own moment of action sporting an automatic weapon during a violent shootout. Spacey’s various crime teams (he varies the pairings) include psycho-lovebirds Buddy (Jon Hamm in his continuing effort to distance from Don Draper) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), Jon Bernthal, Flea, and an aptly named Bats (Jamie Foxx), who is not the clearest thinker of the bunch. Other supporting work comes courtesy of the rarely seen songwriter/actor Paul Williams, musician Sky Ferreira (as Baby’s beloved mother), young Brogan Hall as Doc’s talented nephew, and CJ Jones as Baby’s foster father. Mr. Jones is one of the few deaf movie actors and he adds much to Baby’s life outside of crime.

The crucial role of Baby’s love interest goes to the very talented and likable Lily James (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) as singing waitress Debora, who introduces him to Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y” song, while he plays “Debora” from T.Rex for her. She and Baby share the not overly ambitious life plan: “to head west in a car I can’t afford and a plan I don’t have”. They are good together and that helps make up for the always cringe-inducing red flag of “one last job” prior to the lovers running away together.

Buried in the Miscellaneous Crew is Choreographer Ryan Heffington, who deserves at least some of the credit for the most unique and creative aspect of the presentation. This appears to be a movie fit to the music, rather than music fit to the movie. There are some astounding sequences where the drum/bass beats are right on cue with the action – gunfire, driving, and character movements. “Harlem Shuffle” plays as Baby playfully dances past graffiti and sidewalk obstacles that perfectly match the beat and lyrics. We see what is likely the best ever movie use of “Bellbottoms”, and without question, the most creatively brilliant use of “Hocus Pocus” by Focus. At times exhilarating to the senses, the infusion of comedy shots and new love help offset the tension of crime jobs and the thrill of the chase.

watch the trailer: