(On Cable TV, May 2018) Only maverick filmmaker Stephen Soderbergh could tackle Logan Lucky, going over such extremely familiar material (a heist movie à la Ocean’s Eleven) that another director might have been accused of copycatting. But, of course, Soderbergh never does things like others, and so Logan Lucky takes the large-scale heist down the social classes to NASCAR-obsessed West Virginia/North Carolina, with blue-collar protagonists motivated by larger economic forces. The exceptional casting (Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, etc.) is fantastic, but the real draw here is the way the script is handled with blockbuster entertainment savvy by Soderbergh. The intricate heist plot multiplies one gambit after another, creating a dense tapestry of tricks, plans and improvised manoeuvers in which even dupes unaware of any heist have a role to play—and, hilariously enough, are rewarded for it. Taking ideas for an Ocean’s Fourteen film and recasting in redneck country makes for a refreshing change of pace and unusual heroes, as characters that would be treated as hillbillies in other films here get a chance to prove that they’re criminal masterminds. Then, of course, there’s the idea that the film is handled in pure escapism mode, reaching for comedy as often as it can. (The ridiculous prison riot, complete with Game of Thrones references, is particularly funny.) Logan Lucky is very successful, and counts as one of the year’s most delightful surprises.
(On Blu-ray, March 2018) So the newest mainline Star Wars movie is out and wow is it interesting. After criticisms that The Force Awakens was a carbon copy of A New Hope, here comes The Last Jedi, seemingly determined to outdo The Empire Strikes Back and undercut expectations at every turn. Never mind the mind-warping idiocy of the premise (space bombers requiring gravity? A space chase in which they need fuel to keep going the same speed? Why is this so dumb?) when the entire movie, from plot points to one-liners, seems determined to shake up the Star Wars legacy. Consider the repeated undercutting of the heroic male as represented by Poe. Consider the savaging of the idea that Rey’s parentage was important. Consider Luke as a reluctant mentor. Consider the silly humour of “general Hugs” or the milking sequence, at odds with the series so far. Consider the script, replete with dialogue along the lines of “I didn’t expect that,” “I assumed, wrongly,” “let the past die,” “It’s time for the Jedi … to end.” Heck, simply consider the misdirection in which a steam iron is momentarily made to look like a new ship. Most of the plans hatched in this movie are near-complete failures. Dozens of plot arcs launched in The Force Awakens are cut shot here, usually unceremoniously. The ending is the bleakest in the series so far, even in acting as a counterpoint to The Empire Strikes Back. This is no mere accumulation of coincidences: Official interviews confirm that there was very little overarching plotting for the trilogy—writer/director Rian Johnson was able to go wherever he wanted with this film, with little regard to the intentions of the previous film. Considering that, it’s easy to understand why a number of Star Wars fans were infuriated at the result—it certainly doesn’t fulfill expectations, and arguably destroys quite a bit of the Star Wars mythos in the process. On the other hand … for jaded viewers who have been contemplating a yearly Star Wars franchise unable to take risks, this is a welcome shot in the arm. It’s worth reminding everyone that the trilogy isn’t complete—there may be retractions and further revelations to build upon the earthquake seen here. It’s all very interesting, which wasn’t necessarily something to be said about The Force Awakens (although it was one of the strengths of Rogue One). It helps that the film itself is reasonably made, although with significant issues. At nearly two hours and a half, it’s too long by at least fifteen minutes—the last act in particular feels like an afterthought after the climactic throne room confrontation. The idea of Canto Bight is far better than its execution, and while cutting off dramatic arcs in unexpected fashion is intriguing, it’s also frustrating—the case example here being the somewhat unceremonious end for Captain Phasma. The special effects work is fantastic, the Porgs aren’t as annoying as expected, and the actors aren’t bad either—among the newcomers, the ever-interesting Laura Dern makes a good impression in an unusual role, while Kelly Marie Tran brings a bit of welcome diversity (not simply in ethnicity, but also in class) to the usual cast. Mark Hamill makes the most out of his acting repertoire, while Adam Driver is a bit more than an angsty antagonist this time around. Still, the star here is the plot and its willingness to go against expectations. I’m not entirely happy with the results, but I’m far more interested in seeing where the next episode will take us than I was at the end of The Force Awakens. I’m still bothered by a lot of the world building, but, eh, it’s Star Wars after all. Plausibility doesn’t factor in.
(On Cable TV, December 2016) There’s an interesting dichotomy at play in Midnight Special that’s likely to make Science Fiction fans as happy as it’s bound to infuriate them. Writer/director Jeff Nichols made a name for himself in crafting intimate character-driven dramas such as Take Shelter and Mud. But in tacking explicit science-fictional themes in Midnight Special, Nichols may have exceeded his capabilities. The good news are that his character-driven approach is still very much showcased here. He has an uncanny ability to portray the small details of his story and characters in an immediately compelling and credible way. On a moment-to-moment basis, Midnight Special is compelling for its quasi-tactile ability to portray reality. The small beats of the film are grounded to a phenomenal level, and it doesn’t take much for him to sketch his characters and make their adventures feel real. The opening sequence is immediately gripping, and there’s a fascinating moment later on when we see the result of a car chase rather than the chase itself. There are some serious skills on display here, and I would certainly like more directors (especially SF directors) to take notes on how to ground their concepts into believable real-world details. The way he uses his actors is also fascinating: Michael Shannon is magnetic as the lead character, a father trying to protect his son with special psychic powers. Kirsten Dunst shows up briefly in a lived-in role as a suburban mom, while Adam Driver gets an unusually sympathetic role as a scientist trying to understand what’s going on. But for all of the good that one can say about Midnight Special in five-minute increments, it’s a building disappointment to find out that the small moments and good sequences don’t build to anything particularly compelling. Answers are withheld, not all of the Weird Stuff is pulled together in a coherent whole, and the ending seems to peter out before the answers that it promised. There are some spectacular moments in Midnight Special, and some of them even include a terrific sense-of-wonder sequence at the climax of the film. But they don’t add up to something as good as its individual components, and that’s where Nichols’ lack of understanding of Science-Fiction as a genre shows up most clearly. Too bad, because Midnight Special is great in ways that don’t often have to do with SF.
(On Blu-ray, April 2016) It’s not that The Force Awakens is un-reviewable—it’s that there’s so much to say that a full review would take a few pages, encompass the recent business state of Hollywood, meander on commodified nostalgia, indulge in insufferably nerdy nitpicking, and yet deliver an assessment not that far removed from “wow, competence!” This is a capsule review, so let’s start cracking: My first and biggest takeaway from The Force Awakens is that I’m not 7 years old, watching Star Wars on French-language broadcast TV and being so amazed that I can’t say anything bad about it. The Force Awakens is far from being perfect, and it doesn’t take much digging to find it crammed with problems. Even on a first view, I’m not particularly happy that thirty years later, The Rebellion hasn’t managed to establish a workable government and seems stuck in an endless echoing battle against evil. (Heck, they still haven’t changed their name, apparently.) My mind boggles at the economic or political absurdities of what’s shown on-screen, and the moment I start asking questions about basic plot plausibility is the moment I start making a lengthy list of the amazing coincidences, contrivances and plain impossible conveniences that power the plot. The jaded will point out that director J.J. Abrams has never been overly bothered by plotting logic and The Force Awakens certainly bolsters this view. Worse, perhaps, is the pacing of the film, which often goofs off in underwhelming ways rather than go forward. Then there’s the way this return to the Star Wars universe seems unusually pleased in echoing the first film’s elements, all the way to another who-cares run through a Death Planetoid’s trench. On the other hand, echoing is forgivable when the point of this film is to reassure everyone that the soon-to-be-endless Star Wars franchise is safe now that Disney took it away from George Lucas. In that matter, The Force Awakens is a success: it feels like classic Star Wars, from the visuals to the music to the elusive atmosphere of the first three films. Sometimes, a bit too much so: The decision to shoot the movie on actual film introduces film grain issues that sometimes vary from shot to shot, which is enough to drive anyone crazy. (Witness the Rey/Finn shots in the cantina…) Star Wars clearly isn’t as much about story than characters and set pieces, and that’s also where The Force Awakens succeeds: Harrison Ford seems timelessly charming as Han Solo, while John Boyega, Daisy Williams and Oscar Isaac are also easily likable in their roles. (Boyega and Isaacs are effortlessly cool, but Daisy Williams has a more delicate role as a stealth superhero.) Adam Driver has a tougher job as the intriguing Kylo Ren, riffing but not copying the series’s iconic villains. Then there are the set pieces, which often work despite shaky logic, implausible premises and nonsensical engineering. Coring a new planet-killer out of a planet may not strike anyone as the best plan, but it’s good for some fantastic images and at some point, that’s what really counts. Especially when, in the end, we’re left satisfied that this seventh Star Wars film is better than the prequel trilogy, and are left looking for more. Mark these words: There will now be a Star Wars movie every year for at least a decade and probably more. This one’s special, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t age well once the sequels start piling up.
(Video on Demand, July 2015) It’s good to see Ben Stiller play something closer to his age, in a movie where he doesn’t have to mug for frantic attention via cringe-worthy humiliation, or competing with special effects. Having him play an early-forties man in While We’re Young is still shaving a decade from his age, but at least it’s a step in the right direction. It helps that this is a film about aging, and the aches and pain and nagging doubts of encroaching middle-age. Stiller has been featured in so many broad comedies than seeing him in something more adult, more dramatic and more subtle is almost a revelation. Here he’s paired with Naomi Watts as a childless couple suddenly confronted by the rest of their lives as their friends settle down with kids and they befriend a young hipster couple (Amanda Seyfried and Adam Driver is good performances.) While We’re Young starts as a low-key observational comedy and does a lot of mileage out of ordinary middle-age anxieties, it does veer off into something a bit stranger by the last third: By the time our protagonist races down the freeway in an attempt to uncover the world’s most trivial conspiracy, it’s hard to avoid thinking that this is not the film it started to be. Still, the interplay between Stiller and Driver, as well as the gradual revelation of a character’s true nature, provides a lot of dramatic mileage to the film. There’s are little bits about hipsterism, the ethics of documentary filmmaking, couple relations, making friends in your forties, drug-fueled revelations, ambition masquerading as something else. The film is surprisingly absorbing, truthful, sadly a bit underwhelming in its conclusion, but a good time nonetheless. I suspect that I liked it because it’s reaching me at a very particular time in my life… but that’s how it goes.
(Video on Demand, January 2015) Considering the amazing cast put together for This is Where I Leave You, it would be understandable to expect a bit more from the results. I count at least nine interesting actors on the top bill, and seeing some of them play against each other is almost fun no matter the material they’re given. As siblings (and their assorted partners) reunite after the death of their father, the film becomes an intricate multi-ring circus of entwined subplots –enough of them that you’re guaranteed to relate. There are laughs, cringe-worthy situations, a surprising amount of R-rated material and an ending that ties up most loose ends hopefully. Jason Bateman is his usual leading-man self, Jane Fonda gets a late chance to play her curves, Corey Stoll and Adam Driver finally gets substantial big-screen comedy roles, Tina Fey and Kathryn Hahn are effortlessly likable… think of this film as a buffet and you won’t be too far off the final impression. Of course, this means that some parts don’t entirely work, or feel contrived, or are executed more mechanically than anything else. There’s wasted potential here, magnified by the known-name actors. (I suspect that had it featured unknowns, the film would have earned better reviews.) Still, as far a dysfunctional family comedies and assorted romantic dramas go, This is Where I Leave You is decently enjoyable, with enough twists and turns and revelations and set-piece sequences to justify the running time.