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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HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)

February 6, 2016

hail caesar Greetings again from the darkness. Homage or Spoof or outright Farce? Though the Coen Brothers motivation may be cloudy, their inspiration certainly is not. The Golden Age of Hollywood is skewered by the filmmaking brothers who previously applied their caustic commentary to the movie business in Barton Fink (1991). However, this latest seems to borrow more from the unrelated universes of their films A Serious Man (2009) and Burn After Reading (2008) in that it alternates tone by focusing first on one man’s attempt to make sense of things, and then with a near slapstick approach to “urgent” situations.

The film seems to be made for Hollywood geeks. Perhaps this can also be worded as … the film seems to be made for the Coen brothers themselves. Rather than an intricate plot and subtle character development used in their classic No Country for Old Men (2007), this is more a collection of scenes loosely tied together thanks to their connection to Eddie Mannix, Capitol Pictures “fixer”. Josh Brolin plays straight-laced Mannix, a twist on the real Eddie Mannix, notorious for his behind the scenes work at MGM in controlling the media, protecting the stars and studio, and protecting movie stars from their own idiotic actions. He was a real life Ray Donovan. It’s Mannix’s job that creates the hamster wheel to keep this story moving (complimented by narration from Michael Gambon).

We witness a typical day for Mannix as he confesses to the Priest that he had a couple of cigarettes after promising his wife he would quit, negotiates with communists who have kidnapped the studios biggest movie star, deftly handles the studio head’s greedy desire to shift a western movie star into a genre for which he is ill-prepared, plans a cover-up for the starlet having a baby out of wedlock, and juggles the demands of the competing twin gossip columnists searching for scandal. Mannix keeps his cool through all of this while mulling a lucrative job offer from Lockheed that would put him right in the midst of the nuclear war scare.

With an exacting attention to period and industry detail, the Coen’s remind us of the popular genres and circumstances of the era. George Clooney plays mega star Baird Whitlock, working on the studios biggest picture of the year – a biblical epic entitled “Hail, Caesar!” (think Ben-Hur, The Robe, etc). Whitlock is kidnapped by a group of communist writers (not yet blacklisted) who are striking out against a capitalistic studio that doesn’t share the rewards with the creative folks. It’s a different look than what Trumbo offered last year. In a tribute to Roy Rogers and famed stuntman Yakima Canutt, there is a segment on popular westerns featuring Alden Ehrenreich (Beautiful Creatures, 2013) as Hobie Doyle, a popular actor whose an artist with a rope and horse and guitar, but not so smooth on his transition to the parlor dramas being filmed by demanding director Laurence Laurentz (a terrific Ralph Fiennes). In boosting Doyle’s public perception, the studio sets him up on a date with a Carmen Miranda-type played by Veronica Osorio. Her character is named Carlotta Valdez in a nod to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Another sequence features Scarlett Johansson as DeAnna Moran, an Esther Williams type (with a behind the scenes nod to Loretta Young) in a Busby Berkeley-esque production number featuring the synchronized swimming so prominent in the era. One of the film’s best segments comes courtesy of Channing Tatum in a take on films like On the Town, where sailors would sing and dance while on leave.

Tilda Swinton (whose appearance improves any movie) appears as the competing twin sister gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thackery. Her hats and costumes are sublime and pay worthy tribute to Hedda Hopper (who also balked at being termed a gossip columnist). Jonah Hill’s only scene is from the trailer, and it could be misleading to any of his fan’s coming to see his performance; and the same could be said for Frances McDormand (a very funny scene as a throwback editor). And so as not to disappoint their many critics, the Coen’s have a terrific scene featuring four men of various religious sects who are asked their opinion of the script – so as not to offend any viewers. The pettiness is palpable.

Roger Deakins is, as always, in fine form as the cinematographer. The water and western productions are the most eye-catching, but he does some of his best camera work in the shots of individual actors or scenes-within-a-scene. We have come to depend on Joel and Ethan Coen for taking us out of our movie comfort zone, while providing the highest level of production – music, costumes, sets, camera and acting. While this latest will leave many scratching their heads, the few in the target audience will be applauding fiercely.

watch the trailer:

 


THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015)

December 27, 2015

hateful 8 Greetings again from the darkness. If one is to believe Quentin Tarantino, the leaked script scandal nearly turned this into a novel, rather than what it clearly needed to be … a Quentin Tarantino movie (his 8th).  It could even be considered a companion piece to Django Unchained (though this takes place in snowy Wyoming, as opposed to the balmy Deep South). It’s set soon after the Civil War and there still exists a palpable uneasiness between Confederate and Union types, creating a constantly teetering milieu between violence and progress.

Tarantino’s obsession with classic film led him to utilize the same Ultra Panavision 70 lenses used for Ben-Hur (1959), which required the retrofitting of 50 theaters across the country for the “road show”. This presentation includes an opening musical Overture, a midpoint Intermission, approximately 6 minutes of footage that highlight this rarely used format … stunning snow-filled vistas and wide shots of the frontier, and zero previews for upcoming releases.  When the film opens nationwide, the digital version will be straight-forward (though still nearly 3 hours in run time). The “road show” features are bonuses for us film geeks, and will have no impact on whether one enjoys the film or not.

Rather than follow in John Ford’s majestic Western footsteps, QT has the vast majority of the story take place within a one-room set called Minnie’s Haberdashery. Thanks to a record blizzard, the general store/saloon turns into a human snake pit filled with nefarious types who are quick with a quip and a trigger. The diabolical assemblage is made up of John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell, featuring world class whiskers), a bounty hunter who is handcuffed to his latest prize Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh); another bounty hunter (Union) Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson); British fancy boy Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) who says he’s the hangman for Red Rock; the self-professed new Sheriff of Red Rock Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins); General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a former Confederate officer; quiet cowpoke Joe Gage (Michael Madsen); and Senor Bob (Demian Bichir), whom Minnie left tending the store in her absence.

Now as you might expect, some of the above descriptions may be true, while others could be considered “conveniences”. What you also might expect is a steady rain of Tarantino dialogue delivered by the perfectly chosen cast. Each of these players grasps the cadence required to make this work … they have the rhythm of a stage play – a new direction that Tarantino has hinted at. And have no fear, over-the-top violence fills the second half of the story as the confined space and contradictory missions begin to clash.

No more need be said about the characters or the story. Russell, Jackson, Goggins and Ms. Leigh are especially effective at enlivening their scenes, and they are joined by supporting actors such as Dave Parks (son of the great Michael Parks), Gene Jones (who didn’t wish to call the coin flip in No Country for Old Men), Dana Gourrier (as Minnie), QT favorite Zoe Bell (as Six-horse Judy), and even Channing Tatum.

Legendary composer Ennio Morricone delivers his first western score in about 40 years, which is important since he’s the man behind the iconic music of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. On the topic of music, Morricone’s score is complimented by only a smattering of other songs (including a Roy Orbison gem and a solo from Jennifer Jason Leigh), which is unusual in the Tarantino canon. Three-time Oscar winner Robert Richardson re-teams with Tarantino and seems to have a blast with the challenges presented by the one-room set … he plays with focus and depth to create some fantastic shots. It should also be noted that the Sound is spectacular – everything from gunshots, to swirling wind, to boots and spurs, to galloping stage coach horses, and even the pouring out of coffee.

All of the above results in a stunning movie experience with the anticipated QT humor, violence, and anti-racism sentiment (though the N-word usage is once again tough to take) … yet somehow the final product doesn’t equal the individual moments of genius. It comes across as a blend of Agatha Christie, (Tarantino’s own) Reservoir Dogs, and John Carpenter’s The Thing minus the cohesiveness required for a great movie. So enjoy the characters, the technical achievements, and the terrific dialogue, but know that it’s unlikely to be one of those that cause you to stop down while surfing cable channels in a couple years.

watch the trailer:

 


FOXCATCHER (2014)

November 30, 2014

 

foxcatcher Greetings again from the darkness. The 1996 newscast remains vivid in my mind. It was captivating due to the bizarre circumstances and the tragedy involving an athlete whose Olympic career I had followed closely. Initially, I had trouble reconciling the story of this popular world class athlete and the mentally troubled billionaire who was part of one of America’s richest and most iconic families. This movie fills in some of the gaps.

Director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) is a meticulous filmmaker and is never in a hurry as a story teller. He allows the characters to develop on screen at their own pace … and this time the pace is excruciatingly slow – in a brilliant, yet painful to watch manner. The lead characters are a diverse trio of men. Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) won Olympic Gold in 1984, but he is shy and withdrawn to the point of being socially awkward and unable to capitalize on his victory. His older brother Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) also won a Gold Medal in 1984, and is very engaging family man who helped raise Mark, while building endorsements and job opportunities for himself. The triumvirate is completed by the incredibly odd billionaire John duPont (Steve Carell), who proclaims himself a wrestling coach after building a state of the art training facility on his family estate. The ultra rich can do such things.

John duPont was never able to live up to his mother’s (Vanessa Redgrave) standards. She even paid the chauffeur’s son to be John’s friend as they were growing up. With Mark always in the shadow of his more popular brother, duPont seizes the opportunity to capitalize on Mark’s vulnerability and invite him to lead his Foxcatcher wrestling team (named after the family estate which is near Valley Forge). duPont’s ultimate goal is to also have Dave join them, but it’s a tougher sell for various reasons.

The mommy issues and brother issues drive the need for validation and are at the core of story here, as are ego, “patriotism”, and ultimately delusion. Steve Carell sports a nose apparatus that captures the reason DuPont nicknamed himself the “eagle”. He also kicks his head back, while slumping his shoulders, in physically capturing duPont’s unorthodox movements. But that’s nothing compared to the eerie aura he puts off whenever he must deal with another person. He sends up red flags to anyone even minimally aware of their surroundings, but to a lost soul like Mark, he becomes a father figure and “coach”.

A wrestling movie would figure to be male dominated, but even with that, Sienna Miller (as Dave’s wife) and Vanessa Redgrave (as Jean duPont) are almost non-existent as the only female characters. Anthony Michael Hall has a brief supporting role, and it’s nice to see Guy Boyd back on screen as well. However, most every scene is some mixture of Carell, Tatum and Ruffalo, and they each deliver. It’s a side of Carell we have never before seen (many of the greatest comics have a dark side), and Tatum is spot on as the hulking, sulking Mark, while Ruffalo captures the easy charm and sensitivity of Dave.

The story offers further proof that life can be stranger than fiction … especially when it involves an insecure and mentally unstable billionaire who envisions himself as a leader of men.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are familiar with the 1996 story OR you want a lesson in how not to act once you become a billionaire

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a typically comedic Steve Carell performance (he is creepy in a not-funny way)

watch the trailer:

 


22 JUMP STREET (2014)

June 14, 2014

22 Greetings again from the darkness. In this day of 3 minute trailers that give away the best gags, if one can walk out of a comedy having laughed a few times, it must be deemed a success. Such is the case with this sequel to 21 Jump Street (2012), which was borne from the 1980’s hit TV show of the same name.

A couple of years ago, officers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) went undercover at a high school to bring down drug dealers. This time, they head to a local college for the same purpose. If that sounds like a re-tread, at least the film acknowledges such. In a scene with Nick Offerman, a few minutes of self-parody are devoted to the misgivings of re-do’s … even with double the budget! Co-directors (back from the first, and fresh off The Lego Movie) Phil Lord and Christopher Miller make this film the butt of its own joke, and for the most part, that approach works.

The best buddy comedies work because of two things: the script and the rapport of the leads. The pairing of Jonah and Tatum works very well, even when we get the predictable split into liberal arts and sports (take a stab which actor gets which assignment). There are a couple of actresses who play vital supporting roles – Amber Stevens as Schmidt’s love interest, and Jillian Bell in an offbeat and quite funny take as the nemesis. Oddly enough, Jenko’s relationship is a bro-mance on the football team with the QB played by Wyatt Russell (Kurt and Goldie’s son). One of the poor decisions was to quadruple the screen time for Ice Cube … his antics are funny in more limited doses. Very limited.

There are some terrific “old man” jokes, more than 25 songs, and references to Maya Angelou and Tracy Morgan … both who have been in the news for less-than-uplifting reasons lately. Most will find the best sequence to be after the movie ends and before the credits begin. The mock sequels (23 Jump Street, 24 …) appear in rapid fire mode with a couple of cameos and some creative “schools”. While the movie wobbles between spot on and over-the-top, it delivers what we expect … a funny enough sequel to a funny enough tribute movie.

**NOTE: this sequel offers up a Richard Grieco cameo rather than the Johnny Depp cameo from the first one

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: mindless comedy hits the spot during the summertime OR you enjoyed 21 immensely and have been anxiously awaiting 22

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting another Johnny Depp cameo OR Ice Cube yelling and scowling is an annoyance you prefer to avoid

watch the trailer:

 

 


WHITE HOUSE DOWN (2013)

June 30, 2013

WHD1 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Roland Emmerich loves destroying buildings. In Godzilla, he crushed Manhattan. The Statue of Liberty was trashed in The Day After Tomorrow. Independence Day saw The White House explode, and, as you would expect by the title, The White House gets pretty banged up again in his latest. We have come to expect summertime big, slightly dumb, action-packed popcorn movies, and this one certainly fits the bill (emphasis on dumb).

Relased just 3 months after Olympus Has Fallen, the plot is similar, but the approach is diametrically opposite. Emmerich seems to think he gets a free pass thanks to a steady stream of punchlines … spread amongst most every character. Hey, it’s a parody of action films so if you don’t like it, you must not “get it”. Unfortunately, we do get it and it’s just not that funny … the action is weak … the CGI appears shortcut … and the characters ring hollow. Through it’s numerous similarities and tips of the cap, Emmerich seems to beg us to compare it to the class of this genre … Die Hard (1988). WHD2We’ve all seen Die Hard, and sir, this is no Die Hard.

Channing Tatum takes on the lead action role, though he is working with a safety net … the buddy picture element supplied by Jamie Foxx. Unfortunately Tatum has neither the acting chops or the screen presence to pull off the lead, and Foxx’s President Sawyer is simply a poorly conceived character. Tatum’s daughter is played by Joey King, who was so good in Crazy Stupid Love.  Here she plays the role of smarter-than-adults kid and is clearly designed to be the patriotic heart of the film.

For these type of films to work, we need a nasty bad guy. James Woods is fun to watch as he chews scenery as the Secret Service Director. He holds one of the numerous personal grudges against the government and the faceless “Military WHD3Industrial Complex”. Woods’ number one guy on the assault team is Jason Clarke, who was last seen in a key role in Zero Dark Thirty (no coincidence, I’m sure). The rest of the supporting cast is pretty much wasted, including a miscast Maggie Gylenhaal, Richard Jenkins, and the always fun Michael Murphy (where has he been?).

There is nothing wrong with pure escapism, but rather than compare this to the classic 1988 Die Hard, it really has more in common with this year’s mediocre A Good Day to Die Hard. If you prefer your White House terrorist attack movies to be serious and full out action, then Olympus Has Fallen is the better call. Instead, if your preference is strained one-liners, an awkward buddy-film and hazy bad guy motivation, then White House Down might do it for you.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: three months is the maximum amount of time you can go without a new attack on the White House action flick OR you just need some pure escapism with a stream of punchlines during what should be a high-tension event

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your action flicks to focus on action and not slapstick comedy OR you are already convinced Channing Tatum is less talented than Jason Statham despite his appearance in most movies these days (admitted exaggeration)

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4AXbiCdmXgw


SIDE EFFECTS (2013)

February 11, 2013

side Greetings again from the darkness. Director Steven Soderbergh says this is it. His final film. At age 50, he says he is walking away from making movies. Over the years, he has provided some good and some not so good, but never has he bored us. Movie lovers will always be grateful to him for his 1989 Sex, Lies and Videotape, which single-handedly brought the spotlight back to indie film. While I am quite skeptical of his retirement claim, it’s noteworthy because the absence of one of today’s true auteur’s would be a loss for the art of cinema.

As for this “last” film, it begins as Hitchcock-esque, but concludes as more like Basic Instinct or Dressed to Kill. Put simply, the first half is mesmerizing while the second half devolves into a trashy pulp thrille … which, depending on your tastes, may or may not be a negative.

side2 The first half brought to mind the term pharmacological thriller. It seems as though Soderbergh and frequent writing collaborator Scott Z Burns (Contagion, The Informant!) are making a statement about our current societal trend of seeking answers, and even cures, through medication … despite the risky side effects. We meet Emily and Martin Taylor (Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum) as he is released from prison (insider trading) and she is falling back into her depressive ways. She is soon enough being treated by Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a doctor who seems typical in his belief that finding the right pill cures most ills.

Since this is a suspense thriller filled with numerous twists and double, even triple-crossings, it’s impossible to go too deep into what happens without spoilers … something I won’t do here. What can be said is the pharmacological thriller shifts into legal drama and finally a who-done-what kind of conclusion. The solving of the mystery comes courtesy of another oft-used Hitchcock theme: the wronged man seeking vindication.

side3 Rooney Mara and Jude Law are both excellent here and to whatever extent the story works for you, they deserve the credit along with Soderbergh. Ms. Mara was outstanding in the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Mr. Law continues his transition from lame rom-com’s to quality dramatic actor. The same shouldn’t be said for Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays Dr Victoria Seibert, Emily’s first psychiatrist. Every scene she shares and every line she speaks just screams “look at me”, not a desired quality for a supporting role.

Support work is provided by Polly Draper, Mamie Gummer (Meryl Streep’s daughter), Vinessa Shaw, Peter Friedman, Laila Robins, and Ann Dowd. Soderbergh does not disappoint from a technical aspect. His odd camera angles and unique shots are quite impressive and effective in sustaining the mood, even as the story spirals towards far-fetched. If it’s truly his swan song, it seems appropriate that we see both the highs and lows of director Soderbergh. Here’s hoping he returns very soon to the medium where his impact is needed.  If not, the side effects aren’t pretty.

**NOTE: If you look quick, there is an advertising poster featuring Julia Roberts. (Ms. Roberts is a Soderbergh favorite from films such as Erin Brokovich)

**NOTE: Soderbergh does have a TV project set to air later this year.  Behind the Candelabra is the story of Liberace starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you believe it’s Steven Soderbergh’s final movie OR you enjoy a pulpy thriller

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer psycho-thrillesr that avoid the slide towards trash-pulp

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEQDMFveSbQ