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.

★★★★

Advertisements

Alien: Covenant

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir

Director: Ridley Scott

Writer: John Logan, Dante Harper


Alien: Covenant is one of those times when I felt like I was watching a great film trapped in a mediocre film. The film as a whole is objectively the third best in the Alien franchise, but that’s not saying much. It suffers from the same sort of inauthentic Nolan-esque dialogue that made Prometheus such a chore to sit through as its characters spend much of their time spouting vaguely important sounding declarations explaining what is happening or what they are feeling. The film also suffers from a sense of sameness as it follows most of the beats we’ve come to expect from the Alien films to the point that it isn’t worth even getting to know the minor characters since we already know they’re only there to serve as cannon fodder. In the middle of all that though, there is a genuinely great story being told about death and creation, birth and parenthood, and man and monster. All of the scenes that focused on Michael Fassbender made this movie worth the price of admission.

Set a decade years after the bloody events in Prometheus, the colonisation ship Covenant is en route to a remote planet with its crew in hibernation while Walter (Michael Fassbender), a new version of the synthetic David from Prometheus, monitors them. A disaster occurs that requires Walter to bring the crew out of stasis and results in the captain’s death. After the first mate Chris Oram (Billy Crudup) assumes the role of Acting Captain, the ships picks up a transmission from a nearby planet that exhibits signs of life ideal for colonisation. Despite the objection of Daniels (Katherine Waterson), the captain’s widow, the crew decides to investigate this planet rather than go back into hibernation and continue their journey. Things of course go wrong when the ground team arrives on the planet and are attacked by vicious creatures, but they are presently rescued by a figure who turns out to be David (Fassbender again). As he explains to them the nature of the threat they face, the crew must work out how to escape.

Fassbender delivers a remarkable dual performance as Walter and David and it is these two characters and the relationship between them that makes this movie stand out from all the other Alien movies that came before. David has changed (or evolved as he puts it) in the years he has been stranded on this planet and has achieved what he views as a higher state of being. David is essentially a Frankenstein’s monster who has over time grown into a new Dr. Frankenstein, intent on creating new life to fulfil the purpose for which he believes he was created. He therefore sees Walter as some sort of a twisted combination between a brother, a son, and a lover and sees within him the potential to transcend humanity the way he has. In this way Covenant has more in common with Ridley Scott’s magnum opus Blade Runner than it does with the other Alien films. The bond David shares with Walter and the philosophical and psychological themes that they explore gives this movie an emotional core that was absent in Prometheus. My favourite scene of theirs was when David teaches Walter to play the recorder, a moment that is all at once compelling, funny and even weirdly seductive.

I wish I could have seen more of David and Walter because the rest of the film was about as typical as you could expect an Alien prequel to be. We get callbacks to the original film, generic characters making stupid decisions that get them killed, and plenty of carnage at the hands of the Giger-designed xenomorphs. The film is certainly watchable enough, but it offers little to all but those viewers who have not seen Scott’s original 1979 horror. One of the positives is Waterson as probably the film’s only compelling human character, a grieving widow set on fulfilling her late husband’s dream of building a new home, only to find all her hopes dashed by the desolate place and their forlorn situation. The design is also good, particularly that of the dead city where David has been hiding for the last decade. This forsaken ruin of what had once been a great civilisation has exactly the right air of foreboding and isolation that you would what for a movie such as this.

If Ridley Scott had set out to make a film about a synthetic being with a god complex (a Roy Batty movie maybe?), this could have been something special. As it is, Alien: Covenant is a competently made rehash of the first two Alien movies with a marvellous story lurking within the otherwise derivative plot. As far as being a prequel goes, I’m not sure whether the movie adds anything that will actually affect how I watch Alien or Aliens. As fascinating as the David and Walter narrative was, the question of whether it will add any sort of significance to the Ellen Ripley stories remains to be seen. In and of itself though, it was an excellent storyline that deserved more time and focus. The survival horror movie stuff that came in between was entertaining enough that I was willing to watch it while I waited for the movie to return to the Fassbender bots, but that’s all it did for me. Although this is one of those times when a star rating is grossly inadequate to reflect my mixed feelings on this film, on balance I’ve decided on four stars as a testament to the strength of the David/Walter story against the rest of the film.

★★★★

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Ron Perlman, Colin Farrell

Director: David Yates

Writer: J.K. Rowling


As a Brit, I was of course required by law to read the Harry Potter books growing up and, like everyone else, I loved them. The epic adventure, the unforgettable characters, the profound morals, the thrills, the imagination, the sensation and the magic of it all; I loved every bit of it. Although I don’t think the film series as a whole truly captured the books in all their appeal and wonder (a few of them got close though, my favourite being Prisoner of Azkaban), they have undeniably left their impact in recent movie history and I suppose a spin-off was only a matter of time. J.K. Rowling is still very much a part of the franchise and has penned the screenplay to this feature, a move that could either have worked very well or very badly. On one hand Rowling is the mastermind behind this magical universe so who better to decide on its next direction? The same however can be said of George Lucas who ran his own franchise into the ground because nobody would dare tamper with his vision. Either way, I was very interested in seeing what the result would be.

The film takes us away from Hogwarts and transports us to New York in the Jazz Age, a decade of glamour and prosperity for the States, but also one of repression and intolerance. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has arrived on a boat on his way to Arizona. In his suitcase are a host of diverse, magical creatures including the mischievous, platypus-like Niffler, which escapes and wreaks havoc in a bank. During the chaos Newt accidently swaps suitcases with a No-Maj (an American Muggle) aspiring baker called Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). While Newt is taken into custody by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a recently demoted Auror, three creatures escape into the city and must be recaptured. Meanwhile Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) has emerged as a leading No-Maj voice against wizardry in light of the recent crimes of the infamous Gellert Grindelwald. Her abused son Credence (Ezra Miller) however has found a friend in Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a high-ranking Auror who is searching for a mysterious creature that has caused great destruction around Manhattan. These two stories intersect as Newt discovers the nature of this creature and the truth of Graves’ intentions.

By taking such a drastic change in its setting from the familiar magical school in England to 1920s New York, much is gained but also lost by this film. It is a change that allows for a new exploration of Rowling’s world from a side that has been almost entirely untouched even by the books. This breakaway from the books also allows the film considerably more freedom with its characters and narrative than Harry Potter’s story ever allowed. The downside is that much of what we identified with Rowling’s universe is lost in the transition. It is admittedly difficult to define what exactly constitutes an identity that extends beyond character and setting except that we know it when we see it. It’s the reason why The Hobbit films, while reviving many familiar people and places, didn’t quite feel like The Lord of the Rings. Fantastic Beasts doesn’t have to be Harry Potter, but it does have to feel like it. Does it succeed? Yes… to an extent. There is that sense of darkness and wonder that were defining traits of the Harry Potter series as well as some of the whimsy from the two Columbus films. But there is also some of that generic, artificial blockbuster action that I would associate with a superhero movie before I would with Rowling’s stories. How many movies have we seen by this point where a large city gets levelled by an unstoppable force of CGI? Enough for it to feel tired in this film.

Now, this isn’t to say that Fantastic Beasts is not an entertaining, enjoyable movie in its own right, because it is. It has a likeable protagonist in Newt Scamandar, an eccentric wizard with some tics and a sly grin that evoked memories of Matt Smith as The Doctor. Fogler shines as Jacob Kowalski, the comic-relief sidekick who manages to be more than a comic-relief sidekick. He is our Muggle (sorry, No-Maj) surrogate in this world of magic and, just like us when we were first introduced to Rowling’s universe, he falls in love. The Potterverse is one of those franchises that can have its pick of top-quality actors and Fantastic Beasts gets its fair sure, including a couple of big American stars. Amongst the strongest of these supporting performances are such names as Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller and Ron Perlman. There is also an ensemble of cartoon-like magical creatures (a little too cartoony in my opinion) that will delight little children to no end. The film is at its best when it just takes a moment to revel in the world it inhabits and to enjoy the wondrous things in it. The moment my interest waned was the climax when the film ceased to be its own unique thing and instead became another typical fantasy-action blockbuster. Not bad or dull, just routine.

David Yates, who directed four of the eight Harry Potter films, is very much the safe choice for this film and he delivers about what you’d expect. He and Rowling mercifully restrain themselves from DC levels of franchise building with only the odd reference to Dumbledore, a woman called Lestrange and a (rather obvious) plot twist near the end. The story for the most part is self-contained and easy to follow. There is some of the darkness that Harry Potter was known for as the strained relationship between the wizarding and No-Maj worlds arouse themes of prejudice and intolerance. Credence’s story is also quite grim as he seems to display hints of a magical nature (and perhaps a bit of affection for his confidante that many at the time might have regarded as intolerable) but is forced to suppress that side of himself for fear of being discovered by his puritanical mother. On balance with the cutesy scenes with the magical creatures however I don’t think there is much in this film that’ll scare kids. Fantastic Beasts is by all accounts a fun, enjoyable film. The climax was underwhelming and some characters were forgettable but I definitely had a good time. There were parts that made me laugh, there were one or two moving scenes, and there were moments of spectacle that struck my inner-child. Whether this film will overcome the shadow cast by Harry Potter is a question that only the future can answer.

★★★★

Inherent Vice

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson


I am a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson and his work. There Will Be Blood stands out in particular as one of my all time favourite films. Therefore I was very much looking forward to seeing Inherent Vice, based on the Thomas Pynchon book of the same name. Having not read any of Pynchon’s work, it is my understanding that he is famous for writing novels that many consider to be unfilmable – dense and complex stories with large narratives and interweaving characters. If any director is capable of adapting that kind of story to the screen, it’s definitely Anderson. His work on Magnolia shows that he knows how to make a film that encompasses several different stories and characters that all serve to articulate an overarching narrative. However, unlike Magnolia, I did not find myself to be particularly impressed or entertained by this film. The trouble is that I cannot figure out whether this is because Anderson has failed as a writer and director to convey this story or if I have failed as a viewer to understand it. I always try to be careful not to fall into the trap of dismissing a film just because I don’t get it, so I will try to proceed with caution.

As best as I understand it, the story involves the private investigator Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) who is called upon to investigate three different cases that intertwine with one another and all point to one elaborate conspiracy. The first of these cases arrives in the form of Shasta (Katherine Waterston), an old flame who asks Doc to save her new lover Mickey Wolfmann from a plot devised by Mickey’s wife and her lover. The second comes in the form of a Black Guerrilla Family member who hires Doc to track down an Aryan Brotherhood member who owes him money. This AB member Glen Charlock happens to be one of Mickey Wolfmann’s bodyguards. The third case comes in the form of Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone), a former drug addict who appeals to Doc to find her missing husband Coy (Owen Wilson), a saxophone player who she’s been told is dead but whom she believes to be alive. All the while the narration of Doc’s journey is provided by the (possibly) ethereal Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) whose guidance often helps Doc whenever he is stuck.

The film is set in California during the psychedelic 70s and Doc is very much a man of his time. He is a lethargic stoner without any drive or ambition who is only spurred into action by a desire to win his ex-girlfriend back. He wanders aimlessly from place to place and stumbles his way into sticky situations that he meets with a somewhat apathetic attitude. Phoenix plays him to perfection. The problem is that I did not find his story to be very engaging. As soon as we are introduced to Doc, the film presents us with plot point after plot point and never allows any time for the audience to take it all in. Perhaps this was intentional on Anderson’s part, to present the viewer with an overabundance of information in order to convey a chaotically absurd tone that engulfs the viewer with an overwhelming sense of incongruity and arouses their curiosity. However such a concept only works if the viewer is at least entertained and stimulated by what is happening even if they cannot necessarily follow or understand it, kind of like watching an episode of Louie. Even in the parts where I was able to follow what was happening, I simply wasn’t very interested or absorbed by what was happening or by what Doc was going through. I never found myself rooting for him and I never found myself overcome by the chaotic strangeness of what was happening.

There are certainly strong points to this film. There are a wide range of eccentric characters played impeccably by their actors, especially Lt. Det. Christian F. ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a comically hard as nails cop who relentlessly persecutes Doc and beats him indiscriminately. Anderson, who is famous for his attention to detail, expertly creates an environment that depicts 1970s California with its sunny beaches, vibrant clothing and bizarre people all clouded by the hazy fog of smoke through which Doc views the world. He also includes a plethora of visual gags, from Bigfoot and his chocolate-coated bananas to the hippie recreation of the Last Supper, that provide the film with humourous highlights. However it is difficult to appreciate the strengths of this film when confronted with an overwhelming lack of engagement in the overall story.

I find myself wondering whether this is a film that I could possibly grow to appreciate with successive viewings. However, if it is the case that this film needs to be viewed multiple times in order to be appreciated, does that make it a good film or a bad one? If I had read Pynchon’s book beforehand and allowed this vast and complicated story to develop at my own pace, would I have been able to engage with this film and enjoy what Anderson was able to bring to it and, more importantly, would that make it a good adaptation or a bad one? Usually when I’m struggling to understand a film, I find that the best way to assess it is by my engagement and emotional response. A few weeks ago I went to watch the thematically similar Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and, even though I did not have a fucking clue what was happening, I was still able to enjoy the film for its wonderfully strange visuals, its twisted humour and its ridiculously weird characters. Inherent Vice, in contrast, failed to engross me in what was happening and failed to have any significant impact on me. While writing this review it occurred to me that I cannot even remember how the film ends. I’m sure that there are many who disagree with me and who enjoyed this film, but for me it was simply not captivating or memorable.

★★