Review: Logan Lucky

•August 19, 2017 • Leave a Comment

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Steven Soderbergh can make movies in his sleep. Liberated from the need to make “important” or “prestige” fare, he dives into whatever genre fascinates him at any given time, and leaves his stamp on it. With the latest venture in his versatile career, he takes the crackerjack spirit of his Ocean’s films and injects it into the South. The result is Logan Lucky, a loose and freewheeling ride that may lack tension and stakes to its narrative, but is chocked full of colorful characters.

Natives of West Virginia, the Logans are a hobbled bunch, cursed with a family history of accidents and bad luck. The latest setback has fallen on Jimmy (Channing Tatum), fired from his construction job in Charlotte, North Carolina, on account of a limp that can’t be covered by insurance. He’s a loving father, but his divorcee wife (Katie Holmes), plans to move across state lines, his ability to afford getting to see his daughter dwindles. Fortunately, Jimmy sees an opportunity, in pulling a heist at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the location from where he had just been fired. Familiar with the underground tunnel system that leads to a vault, he enlists the help of his military veteran brother Clyde (Adam Driver), his hairdresser sister Mellie (Riley Keough), and most importantly, imprisoned convict Joe Bang (Daniel Craig). Thus commences an unconventional sceheme that will almost certainly go awry, but may end up rehabilitating the Logans’ reputation.

Where Soderbergh’s Ocean’s films are about professional criminals, the crew of Logan Lucky is a patchwork of personalities. Channing Tatum and Adam Driver make terrific brothers, both nailing West Virginian accents, and providing good foils from each other. Tatum’s easygoing movie star charm butts up against Driver’s more insular focus, and the comedy often comes as much from silences as from punchlines. As Joe Bang, Daniel Craig completely goes against his hard nosed tendencies, opting to play boisterous mischief and shrewd intellect in equal measure. Rounding out the gang are the siblings, with Riley Keough’s Mellie Logan begrudging her brothers’ outlandish plans, a pair of dim witted Bang brothers (Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson) that have Joe’s implicit trust.

For a film that ostensibly carries a wealth of plot intricacies, Logan Lucky is a pretty laid back affair. Indeed, the narrative goes on more than a few twists and turns, from a prison breakout, to the central heist itself, and the eventual involvement of law enforcement, headed by Special Agent Sarah Grayson (Hilary Swank). Yet the film doesn’t seem in any rush to move the plot from one scenario to the next. The approach is a bit of a double edged sword. The stakes to the heist are relatively low, and therefore, there’s no ticking clock and only a few moments of genuine surprise or urgency. While this detracts from some occasionally needed tension, the relaxed tone benefits the ensemble. Soderbergh has always been proficient at executing a good narrative, but digging into characters can be more rewarding. With Soderbergh’s technical fundamentals as assured as ever (he’s both his own cinematographer and editor), perhaps it’s fitting that the rebellious Logan Lucky is reflective of the director himself, free to follow (or ignore) whatever rules he wants.

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Review: Detroit

•July 31, 2017 • Leave a Comment

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Just last week, the President of the United States stood before a large gathering of law enforcement officers and made some none too subtle remarks encouraging police brutality. It seems the present still has much to learn from the past. While this country still strives for a more perfect union, it must do so by acknowledging the deep wounds of the decades and centuries prior. As racial tensions remain a major facet of life in America, it’s worth looking back as how history repeats itself. In the 1960s, Detroit was as racially inflamed a city as any in the country. As riots escalated, African Americans often found themselves in the hands of law enforcement, often for committing no wrongdoing. A major moment in the Detroit race riots came in 1967 at the Algiers Hotel, as depicted in Kathryn Bigelow’s new film. While searingly depicted in Bigelow’s confident docudrama style, the situation is played more for the polarities between right and wrong, and perhaps less for the moral ambiguities that simmer beneath the surface.

The incident at the Algiers Hotel resulted in the deaths of three African American men and is depicted in the film from three crucial points of view. The first comes from Larry Reed (Algee Smith), a talented singer and part of the up and coming group The Dramatics, who ends up at the hotel after a canceled performance. Will Poulter plays Detroit police officer Philip Krauss, whose thinly veiled racism reaches its boiling point that night. The third perspective comes from Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a local security guard who finds himself caught in the mayhem and tension, torn by moral choices. Detroit provides some background on each man from slices of their day to day lives, but their paths cross that night when gunshots are heard coming from the hotel. Police and national guardsmen surround the building, and in the ensuing chaos a man is killed. Completely sure that a weapon is hidden among the hotel patrons, Krauss begins resorting to violent and terrifying tactics. Though totally innocent, Reed is both helpless and horrified, while Dismukes is unwittingly put in an impossible position, in which he must both assist the reckless cops, and protect those who are blameless.

For a film that parallels the present in startling ways, Detroit has a wealth of setup before arriving at the pivotal central event at the Algiers. The film opens with an animated sequence portraying the conditions that fostered discrimination in the 1960s, but it belabors the point a bit much. Much more effective is the film’s first live action scene, in which dozens are arrested at an underground club, inciting rioting and violence from those passing by. Bigelow’s immediacy and on the fly staging of the scene and subsequent riots gives the film a vital veracity of emotion. This tension is brought to its most wrenching levels in the Algiers Hotel, a sequence that seems to last for at least an hour. While the film makes clear the lines between moral and immoral, the quandaries in between aren’t fully explored. There’s no mistaking the despicable acts that the police commit, nor the sheer terror of those being needlessly antagonized and assaulted. The aftermath of the event ripples major aftershocks out to all those involved, but it’s the eyes of Boyega’s Dismukes that carry the most resonance. An anchor of decency throughout, Dismukes is suddenly thrown into a tempest of emotion in the third act, simply by having been present at the Algiers Hotel that night. We’re never sure what, if any, kind of resolution he found, but perhaps that’s the point. After bearing witness to such horror, is it ever possible for solace to arrive?

Review: A Ghost Story

•July 24, 2017 • Leave a Comment

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With a title like A Ghost Story, one might surmise that such a film carries all the traditional spooky trappings of genre. However, this film’s interests are much more explicitly metaphysical, while also occasionally nodding to the familiar elements of an apparition filled narrative. Indeed, the polarities between our physical lives and the undetermined trajectories of the afterlife are at the core of director David Lowery’s film. While some of its conclusions are more concrete to fit a storytelling need, A Ghost Story is less an actual story, and more a meditative poem about both the importance and futility of leaving behind a legacy.

The central couple of A Ghost Story are simply named C (Casey Affleck), and M (Rooney Mara), both living together, but preparing for a move. One night, they hear a thud on the piano, the source of which is unknown. The following morning, C is killed in a car accident. M identifies him at a morgue, covers his face and leaves. Moments later, C arises suddenly, his afterlife begun. In a clever low budget approach, C’s ghost is depicted as if in a children’s fairy tale: a white sheet with two black eyes. His consciousness freed from Earthly shackles, C ventures out to the into world, but only has one destination. He returns home, observing M as she grapples with his loss and, in time, moves on. C bears witness to future tenants of the house he once lived in, from a new family, to a bunch of twentysomethings partying, and even the house’s eventual destruction, making way for a new city untold centuries into the future. All the while, C travels through time freely, but remains in the same spot, seeking to reconnect with M in some capacity.

A Ghost Story owes its existence from expressionistic and European arthouse cinema more than anything American, yet its themes remain universal and timeless. The 1.33 :1 aspect ratio lends a storybook quality to the film, and the protracted first half underlines M’s grief as much as C’s invisible presence. Long takes dominate, whether it’s the couple falling asleep together, or M’s consuming a whole pie as her emotions overwhelm her. At times Lowery lays his thesis too straightforward, especially when a partygoer philosophizes about the impossibility of maintaining an individual legacy due to the ultimate fate of the universe. It’s a verbose scene that stands in stark contrast from the otherwise dialogue light film. However, there are more successful passages, such as the parallel editing between M and C, as he introduces her to a new song he’s composed, and later, as she listens to it in the aftermath of his passing. Far deeper into the film, the song reappears, but in a context both surprising and appropriately mysterious.

C’s journey through the afterlife bears many of the same hallmarks as other ghostly narratives. As with other ghosts, he haunts his home, looking for some kind of catharsis or resolution, but our empathy for him derives from his point of view. Granted, we aren’t afforded any clues as to his emotional state after death, or whether he has any emotions to spare. This is where one of the oldest editorial concepts comes into play brilliantly, for C is a case study in the Kuleshov effect. By cutting between an expressionless character (such as C’s ghost), and whatever that character sees, the audience is able to project upon the character their own thoughts and feelings. Thus C’s experience a unifying one, for death is a certainty to all, and ultimately embracing that fate is our only common destiny.