Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Movie Review: Logan Lucky

Logan Lucky **** / *****
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh.
Written by: Rebecca Blunt.
Starring: Channing Tatum (Jimmy Logan), Adam Driver (Clyde Logan), Riley Keough (Mellie Logan), Daniel Craig (Joe Bang), Hilary Swank (Agent Sarah Grayson), Seth MacFarlane (Max Chilblain), 
Katie Holmes (Bobbie Jo Logan Chapman), Katherine Waterston (Sylvia Harrison), Sebastian Stan (Dayton White), Brian Gleeson (Sam Bang), David Denman (Moody), Jack Quaid (Fish Bang), Dwight Yoakam (Warden Burns), Macon Blair (Brad Noonan), Charles Halford (Earl), Ann Mahoney (Gleema Purdue).
Since he “retired” from directing movies in 2013, Steven Soderbergh has kept busy – directing 20 episodes of his TV show The Knick - on which he also served as cinematographer and editor – two jobs he also did for Magic Mike XXL, the sequel to the film he directed. And now, he’s back directing movies again, with Logan Lucky. We knew Soderbergh wasn’t really retiring right? He’s one of the prolific directors out his generation – there are multiple years where he saw more than one of his features hit theaters, so although he’s undeniably right about so much of what he says about the state of the movie industry, it always seemed odd that one of its major players would just step away. And yet, perhaps it was a good thing for Soderbergh to do that. I think that perhaps he was too prolific for a time – and he spoiled us into thinking he’d always be around, producing high quality, entertaining genre films better than just about anyone else. Looking back at some of my reviews of his work, I think I was certainly guilty of taking Soderbergh for granted. Perhaps the reason I liked Logan Lucky as much as I did is because, without having Soderbergh around for a few years, you get to appreciate just how effortless he makes a heist film like this look.
The film stars frequent Soderbergh collaborator Channing Tatum as Jimmy – who was once going to be a football star, but hurt his leg, and is instead stuck in his dead-end West Virginia home town – a failed marriage in the rearview mirror, and a young daughter he adores – but no work to support himself. His brother, Clyde (Adam Driver) lost an arm (really, a forearm and a hand he says) in Iraq, and now works in a bar in the same town. There sister Mellie (Riley Keough) works in a beauty salon. Jimmy hatches a plan to rob the motor speedway – he had a short term job fixing sinkholes underneath it, and found out about their pneumatic tubes that takes the money to the vault. He’s going to need the help of his siblings of course, but also of an explosives and safe cracking expert. This is Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) – who wouldn’t seem to be available to pull a job since he is currently in-car-cer-rated – but the brothers have a plan to break him out so he can help with the robbery – and then back in, so he doesn’t get caught, and is out in 5 months like planned.
To say more would be to spoil the fun, so I won’t – except to say that this is the type of film Soderbergh excels at – the film plays with that knowledge, directly acknowledging the Ocean’s 11 movies that Soderbergh directed, although the film (written by Soderbergh’s wife, under an assumed name) has a touch of Coen brothers in it as well. For much of the running time, you really don’t know if these characters are complete and total idiots, or some sort of geniuses. The cast – most of whom are not from West Virginia – have fun with their exaggerated, mismatched accents. It was smart to cast Keough, Elvis’ granddaughter, who with this an American Honey is showing herself to be a great actress – and one who can plausibly play Southern, without devolving into caricature (the rest of the cast does that to a certain extent, so Keogh works as a counter note). I loved everyone in the cast pretty much though – Driver is probably the funniest, and Tatum shows that move star charisma the movie needs in the lead role.
The film works like a well-oiled-machine and even if you think you’ve spotted a plot hole, you really haven’t – the movie just hasn’t gotten to that point yet. It’s not an overly deep or overly original film – but it doesn’t have that ambition either. It is precisely the film it wants to be – and the most fun I’ve had at the movies since Baby Driver.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Movie Review: The Trip to Spain

The Trip to Spain *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Michael Winterbottom.
Written by: Michael Winterbottom.
Starring: Steve Coogan (Steve), Rob Brydon (Rob), Claire Keelan (Emma), Rebecca Johnson (Sally - Rob's Wife), Justin Edwards (Greg), Kerry Shale (Matt), Marta Barrio (Yolanda), Margo Stilley (Mischa), Timothy Leach (Joe), Tom Clegg (Busker), Kyle Soller (Jonathan).
There are now “Trip” movies, all directed by Michael Winterbottom – the prolific English director, who seems to be slowing down a little bit now (perhaps having concluded he’s just about accomplished the goal of having a film of every genre) and starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing versions of themselves, and the drive around a country, stopping at various, amazing looking restaurants apparently for “magazine pieces” and generally riffing with each other. The comedians are competitive, but mainly friendly and by this third film, they’ve more or less settled into a routine. Yes, they can still grate on each other’s nerves, and play games of one upmanship – but they more or less understand each other, and give each other enough slack.
We’ve seen them in North England in 2010’s The Trip and Italy in 2014’s The Trip to Italy, and now, of course, we see the pair of them in Spain. Coogan is the bigger international star of course, and has the ego to prove it – not least of which because he received an Academy Award nomination for co-writing Philomena a few years ago, a fact he will mention to anyone if given half to chance. He’s also the more neurotic and insecure of the two of them still sort of struggling with his now 20-year old son, and an affair with a much younger woman, who happens to be married to someone else. Brydon has a young family himself (at 50, he says he snuck them in under the wire), and while the movie gets a laugh in the opening scene as Brydon surveys his life – including his crying 2-year-old – before immediately agreeing to another trip, he seems pretty comfortable and happy in his domestic life, and in his marriage.
The films don’t strain for any sort of relevance really – they know they are more or less meaningless, and an excuse to watch these two comedians riff with each other. The dueling impressions have become infamous – and while nothing here matches the brilliance of their Michael Caine’s in The Trip to Italy, there are good moments here where they compare Mick Jagger’s and David Bowie’s. There is a (very) one near the end where they start doing dueling Roger Moore’s – trying to impress two of the women who have shown up to help them through a photoshoot – and Coogan eventually tries to impress them with his knowledge of Spain – only to have Brydon just keeping going and going and going (and going) with his Roger Moore, which goes from hilarious to painfully awkward more than once. The movie only really hints at darker things that in their both of their minds – particularly Coogan’s – who is more apt to get hurt or embarrassed and sulk away (“He doesn’t like to be told things he thinks he knows” Brydon offers a young man who offends Coogan with travel advice).
The ending of The Trip to Spain is a little strange. I thought that movie was pretty much ending because Brydon and everyone else apart from Coogan are return to England – but Coogan stays for a little, and then travels farther. I don’t quite know what to make of it. But I do hope that Coogan and Brydon take another trip at some point. While you would think the charm of these films would have worn off by now, it really hasn’t.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Classic Movie Review: All About Eve (1950)

All About Eve (1950)
Directed by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz.   
Written by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
Starring: Bette Davis (Margo Channing), Anne Baxter (Eve Harrington), George Sanders (Addison DeWitt), Celeste Holm (Karen Richards), Gary Merrill (Bill Simpson), Hugh Marlowe (Lloyd Richards), Gregory Ratoff (Max Fabian), Barbara Bates (Phoebe), Marilyn Monroe (Miss Casswell), Thelma Ritter (Birdie Coonan). 
Some films have become so infamous, so part of the canon – the foundation on which so much else has been built – that it can a little difficult to see them clearly for what they are. All About Eve is a film like that – it was a critical, financial and Oscar hit when it was released in 1950 – that rare best picture winner that is also a masterpiece, nominated for (still) a record 14 Oscars – including 5 acting awards (four for women, another record – although, of course, it was the one man nominated who was the only one who won). It is famous mainly for the acid tongued dialogue written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who also direct) and the performances by Bette Davis and George Sanders – career bests for all of them. I saw the film a couple of times years ago, but hadn’t revisited it recently. I remembered a bitter, cynical but wickedly funny film – all of which is true – but there’s more to it than that as well. The title character is (necessarily) a cipher – she changes to whatever she needs to be at any time – but the rest of the cast are fully realized people. There is cynicism to All About Eve – a lot – but it remains a story of people who feel real.
Bette Davis gave her best performance in a career full of them as Margo Channing – the “aging” Broadway star, who will turn 40 during the course of the movie, but is still packing in audiences when she plays characters in her 20s. She is a legend, and she knows she’s a legend – as does everyone else. Her boyfriend is her director, Bill (Gary Merill) – only 32, something that if their gender were reversed wouldn’t matter – but, of course, they’re not, and it does. The playwright is Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), who knows Margo is his meal ticket, but still wishes he’d be recognized for his own (perceived) greatness. He’s married to Karen (Celeste Holm) – Margo’s best friend. It is soft-hearted Karen who first meets Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). She is on the street after a performance of the latest play – she has seen every performance she says, and taking pity on her, Karen invites her to meet Margo and company. Margo loves the attention, and laps up Eve’s sob story – everyone else does to, except for Birdie (Thelma Ritter) – Margo’s dresser, who sees through Eve from the get go. Eve has soon got herself inside Margo’s inner circle – where she’ll go from an assistant to an understudy to a rival of Margo’s.
The movie is narrated by Sanders’ Addison DeWitt – the powerful newspaper gossip writer and critic – who is the most cynical person in this film full of cynics. He has the power to make or break people, and he uses it. In Eve, he finds a kindred spirit of sorts – someone as ruthless as he is, but better able to hide it. Every word out of his mouth is full of cynical, sinister glee, except for the scene with him and Eve alone, where he brings it down a register – he knows precisely how to bring her down. Sanders is perfect for the role (given the wording of his suicide note, which I’ll let you look up, even more perfect than you first realize). Yet, as a great as Sanders is, even he plays second fiddle to Davis’ Margo. The aging actress is in many ways a clich├ęd movie role by now – Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond this same year for instance, and many films center on an aging actress and her youthful rival. None are better than All About Eve, and that’s because of Davis, capable of delivering the bitterest, most cynical lines in the movie, and still come across as sympathetic. Her speech about Bill being 32 is one of the best in screen history – and she makes the most of it. David knew this role all too well – she was 42 at the time – but she was already aging out of where Hollywood likes their leading ladies – she was a perennial Oscar contender from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s, but hadn’t gotten the really good roles in a while (was nominated 7 times between 1935 and 1944 – and 1950’s All About Eve was her first since). This is a sad story for most actresses – who have much to offer after 40, but Hollywood isn’t interested – but downright tragic for Bette Davis, best at playing strong willed, mature women. She knew Margo Channing, she was Margo Channing, and that’s why it’s one of the great performances in film history.
The rest of the cast is fine as well – although neither Merill or Marlowe could keep up with the women (Merill does have a great put down of Eve, but other than that doesn’t do much, Marlowe remains a clueless dope throughout). You feel the worst for sweet, lovable Karen, as Holm makes her not stupid, but friendlier then the rest, and that gets her in trouble. I would have loved more Thelma Ritter – who seems born to play Birdie, but the film doesn’t make much time for her. Marilyn Monroe shows up at the infamous party scene, and when she’s onscreen, you cannot look away. As for Baxter, she is pretty much perfect as Eve – she is right in every moment in the film, even if Eve never really becomes a believable three-dimensional character – then again, perhaps Eve doesn’t have three dimensions at all. Margo is a great actress on stage, Eve is acting always. Davis – and others – blame the fact that Baxter was nominated alongside Davis for Best Actress, as to why Davis didn’t win the Oscar this year – because Baxter split the vote. Perhaps that’s true – perhaps Swanson, playing another aging actress, and going over-the-top with it – stole some votes to (Judy Holiday won for Born Yesterday – and fine, its good, but Davis and Swanson are literally two of perhaps the 10 greatest performances ever by an actress).
All About Eve is so beloved, so iconic so entrenched in the canon that I fear some are intimidated by it – what else is there to say about the film. Perhaps not much. But is beloved for a reason, iconic for a reason – and if nothing else you should see it to find out why.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Movie Review: Manifesto

Manifesto *** / *****
Directed by: Julian Rosefeldt.
Written by: Julian Rosefeldt.
Starring: Cate Blanchett (Various). 
Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto is one of those challenging movies that you have to accept on its own terms, or not at all. I cannot say the film “works” in a traditional sense, because the film isn’t interested in “working” in that way. It is a film in which its star – the great Cate Blanchett – plays 13 different characters, delivering 12 different Manifesto’s from history – mostly centered on art and the artist. Rosefeldt is a visual artist by trade, and the film started out as an art installation, and was later edited in the form we see it now. It’s a thought provoking mess of a film – humorous and self-important, brilliantly acted and staged, and yet confused and messy by design. It’s an odd film to be – maybe not a good one, but certainly not a bad one. Its one-of-a-kind whatever it is.
Casting Blanchett in these 13 different “roles” is important. I’m not sure there is another actress (maybe Tilda Swinton) who could have pulled this off, or that you would want to see attempt to. The word chameleon is overused a lot when discussing actors, but it’s fitting for Blanchett, who really does disappear into her roles. She’s perfectly suited for this role because she has always excelled at playing characters who themselves are playing characters – characters who are in essence putting on one face for those around her, but allowing the audience to see something different (this is one of the reasons why she works so well with Todd Haynes in I’m Not There, playing Bob Dylan at his most self-involved, and in Carol, as a closeted lesbian, pretending to be a perfect 1950s housewife).
In Manifesto, Blanchett plays everything from a houseless derelict screaming Karl Marx’s words through a megaphone, to a prim and proper elementary school teacher “teaching” Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 rules to her students. In another segment, she’s a news anchor and the “reporter on the street” she is interviewing about conceptional art. Or she’s a drunken punk in a bar, a housewife saying prayers around a Thanksgiving meal, a figure out of what seems like a dystopian future, a woman making puppets, the gallery host at an expensive art gallery, a choreographer upset with her dancers, a struggling single mother, etc. The various real life manifestos she is delivering are devoid of context, often contradict each other, and usually have little to nothing to do with how Rosefeldt has chosen to stage them, or how Blanchett has chosen to deliver them.
At this point, you may well be asking yourself what the purpose of all this is, or what it all means. Those are perfectly reasonable question to ask, and I don’t have adequate answers to them. I’m not going to trying to pretend that I even understand Manifesto completely, because I don’t. If the whole thing sounds like a pretentious art exercise, I think you’re partially right – except that I think Rosefeldt and Blanchett know that as well. There is something incredibly pretentious about manifestos in themselves, and the film recognizes that and pokes fun of that.
I’m not sure if Manifesto is a good film or not – but I do know that no matter what it is, it is by design, and is one-of-a-kind. Even if that doesn’t quite work, is that itself worth celebrating?

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Movie Review: Annabelle: Creation

Annabelle: Creation *** / *****
Directed by: David F. Sandberg.
Written by: Gary Dauberman.
Starring: Anthony LaPaglia (Samuel Mullins), Talitha Bateman (Janice), Stephanie Sigman (Sister Charlotte), Miranda Otto (Esther Mullins), Lulu Wilson (Linda), Grace Fulton (Carol), Philippa Coulthard (Nancy), Tayler Buck (Kate), Lou Safran (Tierney), Samara Lee (Bee Mullins), Mark Bramhall (Father Massey). 
It’s become a standard trick in genre films over the years – when you run out of ideas of sequels, go back and tell the origin story that no one needed or asked for. That way, you can at least keep the lucrative franchise churning, for at least one more film. That’s kind of what happened here in Annabelle: Creation – the film is a prequel to 2014’s Annabelle, which itself was a spinoff/prequel to James Wan’s The Conjuring – one of the best mainstream American horror films of the decade. The original Annabelle was a middle of the road horror film – not great like The Conjuring was, but not horrible either. And best of all for the studio – it made money. But, there was a problem – that story took the title character – a creepy, inanimate doll – right up to the point where the protagonists of The Conjuring, Ed and Lorraine Warren, have the doll under lock and key – preventing it from having further evil adventures. So even if it kind of, sort of looked like they explained the origins of the evil in the doll in the original Annabelle, Annabelle: Creation reveals that wasn’t quite the case, and tells the origin story of that doll, and how that lead into Annabelle. By all reasons of logic, this movie therefore shouldn’t work at all – and yet, it does. It is magnificently creepy and atmospheric, and fits in well with the themes of the entire series up to this point. It is better than the original Annabelle – even if it doesn’t reach the level of either Conjuring film. It is, basically, as good as this movie could reasonably be expected to be.
The film takes place in the 1950s – and opens with what seems like a wholesome, mid-Western family – the Mullins. The father (Anthony LaPaglia) makes dolls – and we see him making Annabelle in the opening scene – and along with his wife (Miranda Otto) and daughter, Bee (Samara Lee) – they seem to be the personification of the ideal 1950s nuclear family. And then Bee gets hit by a car and dies. 12 years later (I’m just realizing now, that in order for the time line to fit with what we know, the main action of the film happens in 1955, which means that opening must have been 1943 – odd that everyone seems so enamored with the Mr. Mullins doll during WWII – but no matter), the Mullins welcome a nun – Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) and a group of six orphan girls – ranging in age from about 10-16 – into their large home. Mr. Mullins barely speaks, and Mrs. Mullins is even more mysterious – she stays in her room day and night, and rings a bell when she needs anything. The film quickly focuses in on Janice (Talitha Bateman) – a young girl stricken with polio, and her friend Linda (Lulu Wilson). Mr. Mullins tells Janice not to go into his daughters old room – which he keeps locked at all times. But at night, the door becomes unlocked for some reason – and Janice cannot resist. You can tell where things will go from here – Annabelle the doll makes a return appearance, and soon everyone’s soul is on the line.
The film was directed by David F. Sandberg – which shouldn’t be too surprising, since his debut horror film (last year’s creepy and effective Lights Out) was produced by The Conjuring’s James Wan. Like he did with Lights Out, Sandberg clearly shows skill at slowly building atmosphere and tension, getting on the audience edge, so just a little push has them scared (it worked like a charm in the nearly full theater I saw the film in). The film is so well made by Sandberg in fact that it helps the film overcome many of its problems – the chief among them is the film internal logic consistency, which it doesn’t have it all. It almost feels like the screenwriters were making up this logic as the film progressed – which is a no-no in horror films, which thrive best when they stick to the rules they set out for themselves. Had Sandberg also found a way to make the film a little shorter (it runs nearly 2 hours, but doesn’t have nearly that much plot, so it does grow repetitive) the film would have been even better.
Annabelle: Creation should have been terrible, so the fact that it’s a good horror film is a pleasant surprise. It confirms the talent that was apparent in Lights Out – that Sandberg is a classicist horror director, and I want to see him make something even better. Something like, say, The Conjuring.  

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Movie Review: The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature

The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature * ½ / *****
Directed by: Cal Brunker.   
Written by: Bob Barlen & Cal Brunker & Scott Bindley & Peter Lepeniotis & Daniel Woo based on characters created by Peter Lepeniotis.
Starring: Will Arnett (Surly), Katherine Heigl (Andie), Maya Rudolph (Precious), Jackie Chan (Mr. Feng), Isabela Moner (Heather), Peter Stormare (Gunther), Bobby Cannavale (Frankie), Bobby Moynihan (The Mayor), Jeff Dunham (Mole), Gabriel Iglesias (Jimmy), Sebastian Maniscalco (Johnny), Tom Kenny (Buddy), Kari Wahlgren (Jamie), Rob Tinkler (Redline), Julie Lemieux (Lil' Chip).
It sometimes surprises me what movies get sequels. The original Nut Job – from 2014 – was a forgettable animated film, about cute, talking animals that I don’t think has entered my mind since I wrote my review of it then. It wasn’t exactly a huge hit at the time (although when I checked Box Office Mojo, it is the highest grossing film released by Open Road Films – ever – sadly, beating out the Liam Neeson and the wolves film The Grey) so that probably explains it. The fact that it made less than half what the first film did in its opening weekend is a sign no one was really clamoring for this film. And yet, here it is, and it’s my daughter’s 6th birthday, and she wanted to go (as did her 3 year old sister – who I must be raising right, as this was her first 3-D movie and she complained that the “glasses make the movie dark”, which has been my complaint for years) and so we went. Like the first film, it is a fast paced, cheaply animated, lazily written film that produces a chuckle or two because of its talented voice cast, and then ends without ever really doing much of anything. It’s not a painful sit – it’s nowhere close to as bad as The Emoji Movie for instance – but there’s not much reason for it to exist either.
The film is the further adventures of Surly the Squirrel (Will Arnett) and his posse of forest animals, who when we last saw them were living large in the nut shop, where they no longer had to work for food. In the opening of this film though, the nut shop explodes – and these pampered animals have to head back to the park, and scrounge for food. That would be bad enough, but even worse is that the corrupt mayor (who, I’m sorry, reminded me of Donald Trump) is angry at the park, because it’s the one part of town that produces no profit, and he needs to keeping skimming off the top – he has a private Golf Club to maintain, etc. So the mayor wants to make the park into a cheap amusement park to milk money out of suckers. And it’s up to the animals to stop him.
The Nut Job 2, like the first movie, makes the mistake of thinking that all you need to do to please kids have cute talking animals, some lame jokes, and quickly paced action sequences and they’ll be happy. My two kids were quiet during the movie, but I didn’t sense they were all that engaged. They had fun – because they always have fun at the movies (like I mentioned before, they enjoyed The Emoji Movie – so perhaps I should take back that comment about how I must be raising them right). Basically, I cannot help but think that a movie like this is little more than a babysitter – something to throw on TV on rainy Sunday afternoon, when your kids are bored of all the better animated film out there. In that way, it’s very much like the first film. I doubt I’ll think of it again after I finish this sentence.

The Return of Star Ratings

A couple of years ago, I stopped issuing star ratings on my movie reviews – essentially because I think they are kind of silly, and often I get bored of questions of why this film got 3 stars, and that one got 3 ½ stars – or that, over the course of days, weeks or months, I change my mind, and people seem to want absolute consistency, which I cannot guarantee. So I stopped. And yet, on Letterboxd, I continue to assign star ratings, so after a lot of though, I’ve decided to bring it back – and this time, I’ll use the LEtterboxd 5 star system, instead of the Roger Ebert/Leonard Maltin 4 star system I used for years. I think five stars give a little more nuance than 4. I will note this – don’t expect too many five star reviews (probably 2-3 per year (for instance, last year, I gave 5 stars to OJ: Made in America, Manchester by the Sea and Toni Erdmann – the year before, to Inside Out, Carol and Anomalisa – and nothing so far in 2017). This extra nuance allows me to reserve 5 stars for the best of the best. I’m going to go back and put star ratings on the 2017 films I have reviewed – but I won’t go back and further, and for the time being on the “classic movie reviews” I won’t be doing that either. I’ll see how it goes.
Basically the star ratings work like this
5 Stars - Masterpiece
4.5 Stars – Great Film
4 Stars – Very Good Film
3.5 Stars – Good Film
3 Stars – Mediocre
2.5 Stars and Down – Various degrees of Bad
Basically, I’d recommend anything 3.5 stars and up, and wouldn’t recommend 2.5 stars and down – and if it’s a three, it’s a tossup.