Logan Lucky

Cast: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Seth MacFarlane, Riley Keough, Katie Holmes, Katherine Waterston, Dwight Yoakam, Sebastian Stan, Hilary Swank, Daniel Craig

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Writer: Rebecca Blunt


Steven Soderbergh is no stranger to heist movies. In fact he’s probably the one who sets the standard for other filmmakers. His most notable contribution is, of course, the Ocean’s trilogy, a series of slick, stylish movies that brought together an ensemble of colourful characters to pull off a string of increasingly impossible capers. These movies, while far from Soderbergh’s best work, were suspenseful, entertaining flicks that rose above the regular standard by virtue of his expert direction. One of the staples of the heist movie is the big reveal, the practice of keeping the audience in the dark about what’s really going on before (surprise!) revealing that the shootout between Paul Newman and Robert Redford was actually part of the plan. Soderbergh did this by playing around with perception, showing some, but not all, of what was happening and then revealing that there was a bigger plan all along. Soderbergh brings that same direction here to create what one character describes as “Ocean’s 7-Eleven”.

Logan Lucky is set far away from the classy, sophisticated city of Las Vegas in the rural, southern land of North Carolina. Here lives Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), a blue-collar worker who is fired from his construction job due to a leg injury he sustained in high school. His daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) lives with his ex-wife Bobbie (Katie Holmes), but they’re planning on moving to Lynchburg soon which will make visitations harder for Jimmy. He concocts a plan with his wounded veteran brother Clyde (Adam Driver) and their rough and tough sister Mellie (Riley Keough) to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedaway where Jimmy was laid off. To pull this off they need the assistance of Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), an explosives expert currently serving time behind bars, and his two redneck brothers, one of whom is apparently a computer expert who knows “all the Twitters”. Thus a plan goes underway to break Joe out of prison for a day and steal the money from the stadium vault during one of NASCAR’s biggest and most profitable races.

The genius of setting the movie in this rustic backdrop with these unpolished characters is that we never really know how smart or dumb they really are, which plays right into Soderbergh’s perception game with us. There are enough silly, comedic moments with these unruly characters for us to think that their plan will end up going wrong in a million different ways, but that just makes us all the more curious to see how their elaborate plan with its several moving parts will actually work out. The Logans and their comrades are a far cry away from the cool, suave likes of Danny Ocean and his gang; in fact they would not be at all out of place among the dim-witted misfits you often get from the Coen Brothers’ films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? Watching them execute a convoluted heist in the Soderbergh tradition is as fascinating as it is entertaining.

Logan Lucky is so-titled because of what Clyde refers to as the Logan Family Curse. Much like those hapless Coen Brothers characters whose prospects are thwarted time and time again by events beyond their control, misfortune seems to haunt the Logan family at every turn (or so Clyde believes). Between himself and his brother they have six working limbs and they are descended from a line of Logans whose lives have never gone the ways they’d hoped. Thus there is some additional suspense there as we wait to see whether the family curse will strike while their heist is underway. The screenplay as penned by Rebecca Blunt (who many suspect is a pseudonym for Soderbergh’s wife Jules Asner) does a very good job of keeping this idea present in the audience’s mind without banging them over the heads with it. Everything that transpires does so with the sufficient motivation and fluidity for the whole story to feel organic. Everything we see happens for a reason and, in the end when the carpet is inevitably pulled out from under us, all the missing pieces that get revealed fit in just right.

Like Ocean’s Eleven, Logan Lucky is neither the deepest nor the most innovative movie Soderbergh has ever made. There are some moments that are genuinely affective and impactful, the most notable of which takes place during Sadie’s child beauty pageant (of all places!), but otherwise the movie is simply good fun. Most of the performances are enormously entertaining, especially Daniel Craig’s who seems like such a grump in his role as Bond that it’s quite refreshing to see him having a genuinely good time. There are some characters like Hilary Swank’s FBI Agent and Katherine Waterston’s medical worker who don’t get enough time to make an impression and Seth MacFarlane can be pretty distracting (silly, fake English accents seem to be a thing with Soderbergh), but they don’t really drag the movie down. Logan Lucky is the kind of engaging, suspenseful movie that Soderbergh knows how to do well and is well worth a watch.

★★★★

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Silence

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds, Liam Neeson

Director: Martin Scorsese

Writer: Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese


Although this is just the third time in his illustrious career, after The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, that Scorsese has depicted a centrally religious story, one need only look at his other movies to see how strongly the themes and symbols of Silence resonate in his filmography. In the many gangster films and thrillers that he is best known for directing, Scorsese has depicted such themes as sin, perdition, weakness, hypocrisy, reckoning and deliverance and has done so with great artistry and conviction. In Silence however, a film that was decades in the making and clearly a passion project of his, these themes are confronted in a challenging, relentless, punishing way unlike anything he has made before. Scorsese has basically made a career out of displaying the dark side of people and the violence they inflict, but this is a film that cuts on an entirely deeper, more emotional level. This picture is ruthless, demanding and excruciating and it is one of the director’s greatest masterpieces. If Scorsese could be regarded as the American Kurosawa (in terms of prestige and significance to cinema), then Silence is his Ran.

Two Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) leave Portugal for feudal Japan in search of their mentor Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). It is believed that Ferreira has forsaken his vows after being tortured at the hands of the Japanese, a rumour that the two priests desperately hope will prove to be unfounded. They reach the island with the help of the drunken fisherman Kichijiro (Yösuke Kubozuka), a Japanese Christian undergoing a crisis of faith, and find the village of Tomogi where the townsfolk worship the Christian faith in secret. The arrival of the priests proves to be both a blessing and a curse to the villagers as they are now able to receive sacraments but are also now in danger of being discovered by the Japanese authorities who have been tasked with purging Christianity from their land. As the Japanese Christians suffer torment and death at the hands of the samurais, the two priests can only watch helplessly in silence until they too are finally captured. As captives of the Japanese governor Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata), the priests are subjected to unimaginable pain as their faith is put to the ultimate test.

As these two priests are tortured and bear witness to the torture of others they are forced to ask themselves painful questions, only to find themselves woefully without answers. How much suffering can a man endure to preserve his faith and how much should he have to endure in the name of his merciful, benevolent God? Is it more moral to maintain one’s faith while others continue to suffer or to renounce one’s faith so that they might be spared? However brutal and barbaric the Japanese people’s methods are, are they right to view this Western religion as a corrosive influence on their own culture? Scorsese doesn’t have the answers to any of these questions nor does he ever try to provide one. There is no secret answer to the tests these priests are forced to go through, there is no divine inspiration or enlightened resolve; there is only helpless screaming and futile protest, followed by silence. The film does not condemn or condone, it doesn’t judge or absolve, and it doesn’t vilify or idolise. It creates a severely authentic and mesmerising experience for the audience that allows them to understand the thoughts and emotions behind these questions. The point isn’t to provide viewers with the answers; it’s to fuel their contemplation.

It takes a master director to create this kind of cinematic experience and there are few, living or dead, who deserve that title more than Scorsese. Another director might have opted to display the violent content of this film graphically, loudly and up close in order to try and create a more visceral experience, the way Mel Gibson did for instance in his own tale of religious violence, The Passion of the Christ. Scorsese however shows that some scenes can be even more emotionally devastating and unbearable when exercising restraint. Distance is used to emphasise helplessness and the absence of a divine presence. A slow pace is used to heighten the tension and prolong the agony. Silence is used to drive home the cruel finality of death and the unfeeling indifference of the world these characters inhabit. Scorsese goes beyond spectacle to create an engrossing, authentic, emotional experience. This isn’t a movie that the viewer watches; it is one that they endure and are affected by.

Silence is certainly a difficult film to watch which is why it likely won’t get the same level of popularity as Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street. Still, if time is kind to this film and it gets hailed as a classic years from now, maybe it will earn the same level of esteem and commemoration as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. It definitely deserves to. The film is utterly gut wrenching and truly profound. It certainly feels like more of a personal film for Scorsese than many of his most recent projects, as if he himself has been undergoing a deeply intense crisis of faith in the decades it has taken him to complete this film. With all of the horrific trials, tribulations and atrocities he portrays and the tortuously confounding nature of the questions raised, I can only imagine the amount of soul searching Scorsese must have gone through while making this picture. The result is one of the most magnificent and enigmatic films of his prolific career and certainly one of the best films of 2016.

★★★★★

Paterson

Cast: Adam Driver, Goldshifteh Farahani, Barry Shabaka Henley, Cliff Smith, Chasten Harmon, William Jackson Harper, Masatoshi Nagase

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Writer: Jim Jarmusch


Paterson is one of those films that somehow feels like a neorealist drama and a timeless fantasy at once. It is one of those films where virtually nothing happens, and yet it enraptures you all the same. This is a film of a type that Jarmusch has done before, most notably with his early masterpiece Stranger Than Paradise. The film, in a sense, is a poem. It isn’t about telling a story, it’s about capturing something; a mood, a time, a place, a feeling. Something. The film flows like a poem, there is a rhythm and a pattern to its structure. There is no beginning or end to Paterson, it is a film that exists in the present, in its own telling. It is a calm, quiet, even serene film; one that is perfectly at ease with itself and that plays out simply and naturally (fans of Ozu will be pleased indeed). The film doesn’t exactly feel real, but that’s because poetry seldom does feel real. Truthful is the word that I’d use.

The plot? There isn’t one. There is a protagonist; his name is Paterson (Adam Driver) and he lives in Paterson. Every day he wakes up next to his wife Laura (Goldshifteh Farahani), he goes to work and then he comes home. His job is driving a bus around his hometown, a job that allows him to see life in action and to contemplate it all. Anytime he gets a free moment, he will jot his thoughts into his notebook. In the evenings he takes his wife’s loathsome dog Marvin for walks and leads him to a bar where he stops for a drink. There he meets with the regulars and talks to them about life, love and their town Paterson. While he’s at work, Laura stays home and finds herself different projects to do such as decorating the house, learning the guitar and baking cupcakes. She whimsically flies from one project to the next as she searches for her calling. Paterson indulges her (or encourages her depending on how you interpret it) but is perfectly content with his station in life and with his daily routine.

Paterson’s life is devoted to poetry but, despite Laura’s encouragement, it doesn’t seem to be something he wants recognition for. His poetry is just for himself. He spends his days observing the ordinary and daily activities of those around him and his poems are simple and plain-spoken. In one of Paterson’s compositions, ‘Love Poem’, he simply describes the design of a matchbox that he and his wife both use. His language is plain and straightforward and his delivery is deadpan. Yet through that bluntness is conveyed a fascination for what others might perceive as mundane, the everyday. Paterson himself is by all means quite an unremarkable person. He is quiet, passive and utterly stoic (qualities that Driver plays to perfection). His spends his entire day in contemplation and finds inspiration in everything around him, whether it’s an overheard conversation on the bus or a character he encounters. His favourite place to go and contemplate is Paterson Falls, a famous source of inspiration for William Carlos Williams in his ‘Paterson’ collection.

In fact, Paterson as a town is shown to be a source of pride for Paterson and his fellow townsfolk. The city itself, which was once a prosperous industrial city and a centre for union activity and immigration, now seems still and silent. Yet, through Paterson the man’s eyes, we are provided with a tremendous sense of time and place as he observes the people of Paterson going about their lives and learns something new about his home with every day. At the bar where he frequents we see Wall of Fame for the town, celebrating such big names from their town as Lou Costello. As Paterson drives his bus he overhears conversations about Paterson’s fascinating history from the Italian anarchist Gaetano Bresci, who made a living as a weaver in Paterson, to Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, who was falsely convicted for a triple-murder committed in Paterson. Some of the moments Paterson observes are not just revelations about the town’s history but rather of its character. He finds, for example, just as much to think about from a conversation between two guys about these totally hot girls who definitely wanted them, if only they hadn’t been so tired at the time or else they’d have definitely gone for them.

That is pretty much how the film plays out. There is a momentous event near the end, and an affective one at that given how invested I was in Paterson’s life and work, but it isn’t one that should be mistaken for drama. There is no deliberate sequence of events (not one that makes itself apparent anyway) nor is there an obstacle that needs to be overcome. There are setbacks, sure, but that’s life. His relationship with Laura, for example, is one that brings him joy and grief in equal measure. She is a loving, incessantly cheerful person who supports Paterson wholeheartedly in his poetic pursuit but she is also capricious in her activities and often too impulsive for her own good (plus she has an utterly hateful pet). Still it is clear that the two adore one another and their life together is, if nothing else, a content one. In living his life in such a routine way Paterson finds that he can still be surprised by encountering something or someone new or by discovering something new in what had once been familiar. These moments are the subject of his poems, perhaps because they are the moments that provide meaning and fulfilment to a procedural life.

★★★★★

Midnight Special

Cast: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher, Sam Shepard

Director: Jeff Nichols

Writer: Jeff Nichols


With the blockbusters of today being almost entirely made up of sequels, prequels, adaptations and reboots characterised by massive scale, abundant special effects and action-driven stories, it’s interesting how closely our modern independent movies resemble the blockbusters of 20-30 years ago. When watching Midnight Special for instance the influence of Steven Spielberg was unmistakable. If Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T. were to be released today, films that feature original character-driven stories, few (if any) movie stars, and strong but restrained use of special effects, it’d be difficult to imagine them being advertised as blockbusters. The advances in technology over the past few decades means that independent filmmakers like Jeff Nichols now have the means to make these kinds of films. Not only is Midnight Special impressive visually but it is also a smart, intimate story about faith and parenthood.

The film starts off ambiguously with a man called Roy (Michael Shannon) hiding in a hotel room with his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) and his childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). We learn that the boy possesses otherworldly powers and was recently liberated by his father from a religious cult who is now wanted by the government. Roy reveals that he must take his son to a certain place by a specific date despite not knowing why or what will happen. All he knows is that it is a mission of paramount importance. Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) the leader of the FBI investigation into this case learns of the boy’s powers and seeks to learn more of the mystery behind their quest. Along the way Roy enlists Sarah (Kristen Dunst), Alton’s mother, for her help with this endeavour. With only days before this unknown event is supposed to take place, Roy will stop at nothing to protect his son and to help him fulfil his calling whatever it may be.

I was unsure of what to make of this film after seeing it mainly because it is such an ambiguous movie. Although the mystery surrounding Alton’s abilities and quest serves as the dramatic crux of the movie, very few answers are provided. This isn’t necessarily a weakness because sometimes the mystery is the point. The real question is whether the mystery has stimulated you or just left you confused. After seeing how the film ended I was initially left dissatisfied by the lack of an explanation. Even though I saw what happened I still didn’t know what the actual purpose of Alton’s mission was or what was actually accomplished. Then it occurred to me that perhaps I was missing the point. After all one of the vital themes depicted in the movie is faith, an idea that is defined by the unknowable. By asking what Alton’s mission was I might as well be asking what was in the suitcase in Pulp Fiction. That’s not what the film is about. This is a film about how people react to that which they don’t understand, the bond between a parent and their child, and the search for meaning and purpose. Such themes are ambiguous and mysterious in nature and whatever answers there are to be found must be discovered by the viewers themselves. That is how faith works.

It is clear that Nichols is putting a lot of faith in his audience as very little is spelled out for them. For example in the opening minutes of the movie it isn’t actually stated that Roy is Alton’s father. It doesn’t need to be because Nichols trusts that we can figure it out ourselves based on their body language. That’s the sign of a good visual storyteller. The imagery in this film is so clear and effective that Nichols is able to escape making use of exposition that might have otherwise stolen away from the mystery. Little is explained and yet so much is felt. It also helps that the performances, particularly Shannon’s, are strong enough that the qualities of the characters are readily apparent through their gestures and expressions. One needs only to see how Roy holds and looks at his son to know that he is going to do everything in his power to keep Alton safe.

The ambiguity and elusiveness of Midnight Special will definitely put some people off; there is no way around that. It is a film that needs to be analysed and questioned in order to be appreciated. It is certainly a strange film as it delves deeply into the supernatural and the unknown. Those who watch Midnight Special looking for straight answers are not going to find them because it isn’t that kind of film. It is a contemplative exploration of mysterious themes that is supposed to raise unanswerable questions. The beauty is in the mystery itself. I can certainly say that this film has stimulated me on an intellectual level, but I did also feel a little underwhelmed on an emotional level. Although I remember the characters and did follow them all the way through, I never felt like I really got to know them or was able to form an attachment with them in the way that I did with Spielberg’s films. Still Midnight Special is an engaging, thoughtful film that stirs the imagination and stimulates the mind.

★★★★

While We’re Young

Cast: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin, Adam Horowitz

Director: Noah Baumbach

Writer: Noah Baumbach


Growing old is strange. It can creep up on you before you realise it and, when you do, you start to wonder where all the years went. It is often perplexing, difficult, and even scary once you realise that you’re not as young as you once were. In While We’re Young we are presented with a couple who have suddenly become aware of this. Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are a middle-aged couple who have lost their youth. Josh, a documentary filmmaker who has been stuck on a project for the past ten years, has lost the spark, the drive, and the fervour that he had possessed as a young man. Cornelia is an aging housewife who has lost her energy, her spontaneity, and her thirst for adventure. The two of them live a quiet, settled, comfortable life and have convinced themselves that it is the life that they want. However, beneath their complacency, there is a clear sense of unfulfillment. Both of these characters have deep regrets, unrealised potential and quashed dreams that they keep hidden from those around them, from each other, and perhaps even from themselves. They have resigned themselves to a life of apathy.

However everything changes when Josh meets Jamie (Adam Driver), an aspiring documentarian in his mid-twenties who emulates Josh and his work. Jamie and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried) are everything that Josh and Cornelia are not. They are young, energetic, impulsive, idealistic, carefree and fun. They live in the moment and every day is an adventure for them. The two of them live an unconventional (hipster, for lack of a better word) lifestyle complete with old vinyl records, video cassettes, and home-made avocado flavoured ice cream. Josh and Cornelia become close friends with them as they set out on a journey to recapture their lost youth. The journey proves challenging as Josh and Cornelia struggle to keep up with their young friends, but they carry on regardless with all of the enthusiasm that they can muster. From a bike ride around the city to a hip-hop dance class to an ayahuasca ritual, the two couples partake in activities in which the generational gap between them makes for a funny and interesting viewing experience.

Ben Stiller shines out amongst the impressive cast as the proud but dissatisfied Josh. He resents himself for not living up to his potential as a filmmaker but is too stubborn to ask for any help on his decade-long project, least of all his father-in-law Leslie (Charles Grodin), a renowned and accomplished filmmaker who originally mentored Josh as a documentarian. He instead adamantly proceeds to figuratively bang his head continuously against a brick wall as he vainly tries to complete what he hopes will be his magnum opus. When Josh sets out to help Jamie with his own project, he both admires and envies him for his energy, his resolve, and his confidence. Jamie is a man who knows what he wants and how to get it, two qualities that Josh lacks. When Jamie’s project stumbles into something bigger and more substantial, Josh starts to resent him for his good fortune and the admiration he receives and becomes all the more bitter about his own vacillation and impotency. Stiller plays his character with enough empathy and humanity that Josh always remains both appealing and relatable throughout the film.

While We’re Young tackles many interesting and complex themes. It discusses what it means to grow old and to retain one’s youth. It is often said that you are only as young as you feel, and so this film tests the reality of that assertion. The film examines the gap that exists between the generations as the two couples spend their time together and learn from each other. Although they are younger, Jamie and Darby appear to be the wiser and more experienced of the two couples, in some respects at least, and seem to have their lives figured out. As they spend more time together, Josh and Cornelia start to wonder what it is they want out of life and whether or not they’ve been going about it the wrong way. The role of the documentary is also given a large focus as the film discusses what it means to tell real stories and, on a broader level, what it means to tell the truth.

The highlight of this film is Baumbach’s script. The dialogue has a real Woody Allen feel to it, in that the discussions held are intelligent without ever being pretentious. The humour is funny but stays grounded without ever veering into the silly or the ridiculous. The characters are authentic and are never boring. Baumbach tackles the depressing themes of getting old and losing one’s youth with such heart and wit that While We’re Young comes across as an enjoyable, bittersweet film.

★★★★