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Nomination Predictions for the 90th Academy Awards

Film Title: Get Out

What’s good? This coming Tuesday, 23 January, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is going to announce their nominees for the Oscars in March and so like last time I’m back on that fun guessing game about what movies are getting nominated based on how the air felt this past year, soon to be followed by my trying to desperately catch up with these nominations by supplying any missing reviews. Here’s my guesses with minimal commentary

BEST PICTURE
Call Me by Your Name
Dunkirk
Get Out
Lady Bird
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

I only think there’s a chance in hell for these seven and NOTHING ELSE. Every one of them has snatched their own precursor awards except for the timely Spielberg Post and, well, Hollywood loves a political statement. Also, some dude challenged me to bet money that The Disaster Artist wasn’t gonna get a Best Picture nomination and then chickened out. Boy would it have been satisfying for him to take that bet he tried to propose.

BEST DIRECTOR
Guillermo Del Toro – The Shape of Water
Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird
Martin McDonagh – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Christopher Nolan – Dunkirk
Jordan Peele – Get Out

DGA seems to get it right, although I could see Gerwig being ousted for somebody else (either Paul Thomas Anderson or Steven Spielberg).

BEST ACTRESS
Sally Hawkins – The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie – I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan – Lady Bird
Meryl Streep – The Post

Pretty straightforward. Only possibly spoiler is Judi Dench taking over for Streep, but AMPAS is like… the biggest Streep fanclub in the world and The Post is her first great performance in a while.

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BEST ACTOR
Timothée Chalamet – Call Me by Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis – Phantom Thread
James Franco – The Disaster Artist
Daniel Kaluuya – Get Out
Gary Oldman – Darkest Hour

A month ago, I’d have called my hopes for Kaluuya’s nomination to be nothing but a pipe dream. Now with all of these accolades on his back, I’m excited. Head and shoulders above every nominee that’s not DDL.

Also, remember when I said some guy tried to bet me that The Disaster Artist would get a Best Picture nomination? That money would have come in handy now that I’m gonna owe a Mr. J.B. money after betting him that the movie would get NO nominations. And man, that performance is not a good ‘un.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Mary J. Blige – Mudbound
Hong Chau – Downsizing
Tiffany Haddish – Girls Trip
Allison Janney – I, Tonya
Laurie Metcalf – Lady Bird

I call to mind Melissa McCarthy’s sudden Oscar nomination for breaking out in Bridesmaids way back and see all the awards for Haddish and think to myself “Well, Hunter hasn’t been talked about in a long while unfortunately”.

I think any Mudbound nomination is on shaky ground, but if it can’t grab this, that’ll be the killing blow to any Netflix film’s Oscar chances until they change up their release plan.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Willem Dafoe – The Florida Project
Woody Harrelson – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Richard Jenkins – The Shape of Water
Sam Rockwell – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Michael Stuhlbarg – Call Me by Your Name

Frankly slim pickings, though Stuhlbarg has his “Big Awards Clip” moment and he excels at it (honestly any of his three appearances in a Best Picture contender have great moments… ok, maybe not The Post). There was also a bit of a kerfuffle in wondering which would get the coveted double nomination here – Harrelson/Rockwell, Stuhlbarg/Hammer, or with less likelihood Jenkins/Shannon. I think Billboards‘ continuous snatching of awards secures it here.

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BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Guillermo Del Toro & Vanessa Taylor – The Shape of Water
Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird
Liz Hannah & Josh Singer – The Post
Martin McDonagh – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Jordan Peele – Get Out

Yeeesh. Lemme tell you, if I’m right then anybody winning other than Peele is gonna make me fucking mad.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Steve Conrad & Jack Thorne – Wonder
Matt Greenhaigh – Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
James Ivory – Call Me by Your Name
Dee Rees & Virgil Williams – Mudbound
Aaron Sorkin – Molly’s Game

“Not today, Satan!” -me about any potential nominations for The Disaster Artist (though truth be told, I think it’s a safer prediction than Mudbound – which frightens me – but hope springs eternal).

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Roger Deakins – Blade Runner 2049
Bruno Delbonnel – Darkest Hour
Hoyte van Hoytema – Dunkirk
Janusz Kaminski – The Post
Dan Laustsen – The Shape of Water

Over/under on Deakins finally winning this year? I’d honestly claim he’s second-best here behind Delbonnel, but he did make the (barely) better movie.

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BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Paul Austerberry – The Shape of Water
Rick Carter – The Post
Dennis Crowley – Dunkirk
Dennis Gassner – Blade Runner 2049
Sarah Greenwood – Beauty and the Beast

Oh my god, I’m not prepared to fucking call Beauty and the Beast an Academy Award nominee and it looks like it will be, somebody halp pls!

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Cosolata Boyle – Victoria & Abdul
Mark Bridges – Phantom Thread
Jacqueline Durran – Beauty and the Beast
Ellen Mirojnick – The Greatest Showman
Ann Roth – The Post

If the Oscars could ignore the hell out of the Halloween costumes in Beauty and the Beast (sorry Durran, I still love ya) and give it to I, Tonya where the costumes are LITERALLY PLOT POINTS, I’d be ever so grateful.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Alexandre Desplat – The Shape of Water
Johnny Greenwood – Phantom Thread
Dario Marianelli – Darkest Hour
John Williams – The Post
Hans Zimmer – Blade Runner 2049

Round up the usual suspects.

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BEST FILM EDITING
Jonathan Amos & Paul Machliss – Baby Driver
Michael Kahn – The Post
Gregory Plotkin – Get Out
Lee Smith – Dunkirk
Sidney Wolinsky – The Shape of Water

The most editing out of my expected Best Pictures, plus Baby Driver because if Baby Driver doesn’t get nominated a lot of people are gonna have hissy fits.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
The Boss Baby
The Breadwinner
Coco
Despicable Me 3
Loving Vincent

Yep, that’s a pretty good lineu– WHAT THE FUCK IS DESPICABLE ME DOING THERE?!

BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM
A Fantastic Woman (Chile)
Foxtrot (Israel)
In the Fade
(Germany)
Loveless (Russia)
The Square (Sweden)

Only the loudest ones since I’ve heard nary a peep about the rest of the shortlist (which is a shame, Félicité is wonderful.

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BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Faces Places
Icarus
Jane
Strong Island

Well, if they made appearances on the awards road, I put them down.

BEST MAKEUP & HAIR
Bright
Darkest Hour
Wonder

Who’s ready for Mudbound to get nothing and Bright to take its place as Netflix’s awards contender of 2017?

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
“Mighty River” – Mudbound
“Mystery of Love” – Call Me by Your Name
“Remember Me” – Coco
“The Star” – The Star
“This Is Me” – The Greatest Showman

Globes, yo.

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BEST SOUND MIXING
Baby Driver
Blade Runner 2049
Dunkirk
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Wonder Woman

BEST SOUND EDITING
Baby Driver
Blade Runner 2049
Dunkirk
The Shape of Water
Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Playing it by ear, just picking Baby Driver for both.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Blade Runner 2049
Dunkirk
The Shape of Water
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
War for the Planet of the Apes

Ya always gotta have a Star Wars on the slate, even when that Star Wars has the poopiest effects in the franchise. Ya always gotta have a Planet of the Apes on your slate or imma cri mane (and I’m definitely ready to cry when it doesn’t win, probably to Dunkirk). Blade Runner 2049 is called out for being pretty af and two Best Picture nominees are extremely safe bets though I would not be blindsided by a Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 nomination in place of Water.

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I’m going to be very transparent about my shorts predications being essentially the same as Nathaniel’s on the Film Experience because I’m too winded by my grief at World of Tomorrow Episode 2‘s knockout of the shortlist to bother putting thought into it.

BEST ANIMATED SHORT
Cradle
Dear Basketball
In a Heartbeat
Life Smartphone
Negative Space

BEST LIVE-ACTION SHORT
Lost Face
My Nephew Emmett
Rise of a Star
The Silent Child
Watu Wote/All of Us

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT
Edith + Eddie
Heroin(e)
Kayayo – The Living Shopping Baskets
Ram Dass, Going Home
Ten Meter Tower

Whelp, Ten Meter Tower is great.

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Expect later this week, my response to the revealing of the nominees.

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You Think This Is a Game?

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I didn’t get to review Central Intelligence from 2016 before and that’s a hell of a shame. Because it was, not shitting you, my most-watched movie of 2016 by a lot. And this isn’t some “Oh my god, I can’t escape it” or “man, this movie won’t stop being on tv all the time” (although most of my watches of that movie were impromptu on HBO). No, Central Intelligence was a movie I fucking loved, warts and all. I left it with an unhidden appreciation for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who I already was in love with since I was a kid) and Kevin Hart (who I always suspected since Think Like a Man had a knack of comedy as a straight man foil, but never had much area to impress me until Central Intelligence). Central Intelligence was hella casual comfort food for me during a mostly blegh and uncertain year so I might be biased on that front, but it also helped me recognize a dynamic sort of friendly chemistry between the two actors I would not have expected and got me ready to appreciate whatever was next for their careers.

If my unapologetic love for Central Intelligence is the decision that causes anybody who reads this blog to decide I don’t know shit about movies, so be it. I promise I didn’t open with this to weed out my enemies about this film. Instead, I wanted to just establish that if there’s any such audience for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle – the 2017 sleeper hit sequel to the 1995 original, once again co-starring The Rock and Hart – I’m it. I sat my ass right down on this seat because I was looking forward to another screwball go ’round between those two actors. What a pleasant surprise to me when it turns out that they are outstaged by Jack Black and Karen Gillan in the movie, but to explain that, I may as well outline the plot first from Chris McKenna’s script.

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Like the last film, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle opens with salvaging itself from cries of blasphemy in having the famed decrepit board game be retconned into a video game… it actually transformed into one. After a teenager named Alex (Mason Guccione – and while I don’t think who plays him as an adult is eventful to be a surprise, it certainly surprised me. All I will note is that I love how Alex’s visual admiration for Metallica was a cue for our identification of the character and, lest you forget what is the namesake of this blog to begin with, it got a lot of points by me) in the late 1990s declares board games to be no longer cool and the sentient game thereby turns itself into something to accommodate Alex’s tastes and lure him into a disappearance.

20 years later in 2016, four stereotypical teenagers straight out of a low-effort high school picture all find themselves in detention for cheating in the case of the bookish nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff, man those Naked Brothers are sticking around, aren’t they?) and his former friend and now uncertain jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), mouthing off to her gym teacher in outsider Martha’s case (Morgan Turner), or just taking a phone conversation in the middle of her class in superficial popular girl Bethany’s (Madison Iseman). And lo and behold, the very Jumanji game is located in the school basement which their detention takes place and they unwisely turn it on, ending up sucked into the game like Alan Parish in the last film, but this time we actually see the world of the game. And as a new twist, they have been embodied by their avatars. And my interest in the movie is in the reverse order.

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For, you see, The Rock, Hart, Black, and Gillan are those avatars – Spencer has become the brawny explorer Professor Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), Fridge his meek zoologist valet Dr. Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Hart), Martha has turned into the gorgeous combat-ready Ruby Roudhouse (Gillan), and Bethany into the obese cartographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Black). And in addition to all of the actors having something of a blast in their respective Republic Adventure Serial role, all of them are able to embody some form of their younger counterpart’s personalities so as to be recognizable to us: Johnson’s boyish anxiety at his predicament and wonder at the things he’s capable of doing in Bravestone’s body, Hart’s grasping at confidence even despite the good height advantage Johnson has over him, Gillan’s adolescent surliness (as well as a hilarious montage in which she has to practice the most ridiculous sexy strut to show how ridiculous she feels trying to fit into a gender role), and Black’s, like, everything. Black is ridiculously brilliant at playing femininity frequently and turning that into self-deprecating horror at the middle-aged man Bethany has become and the uninhibited infatuation she has with Bravestone or later the already-taken fifth avatar of Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonagh (Nick Jonas – so we have TWO alumni from young boy bands in the 2000s and yet nobody thought to put him in the same scene as Wolff). Guess who that one is?

Anyway, while those five are indeed the most enjoyable and entertaining of the bunch, the cast of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is still filled with the sort of pop-up appearances that would only amuse me in something this frothy like Rhys Darby, Bobby Cannavale, or William Tokarsky popping in as extremely novel Non-Playable Characters (Darby especially is phenomenal at the rigidity and looped enthusiasm that makes his character feel like a program rather than a person, Tokarsky is just right at home with other exotic or dangerous looking mugs in a bazaar).

Of course, that’s the cast and they’re doing heavy lifting to provide a movie more fun than the rest of it allows. All my apologies to the usually extremely talented director Jake Kasdan, but the adventure movie he’s intent on crafting all around these performances doesn’t feel nearly as propulsive or engaging as one would hope. This is especially going to be the case when your cards are against you in structure (once again, the high school drama framing the video game narrative is kind of unfortunate, though at least it’s not as overstuffed as its predecessor film) and visual effects (which the previous film beats this sequel at and you will remember that I used those special effects AGAINST Johnson’s film). There’s obviously a possible argument that the effects are supposed to be unconvincing and cartoonish and not grounded and that just doesn’t stop these hippos and elephants and bugs from making my eyes water (the bugs though – at the control of Cannavale’s updated hunter villain Van Pelt – get to feel crawly enough to be effective).

So, fuck the adventure. Don’t come for the adventure, it’s episodic and you can feel each story beat thud in how it’s put together and the characters’ development in their personalities is shoehorned in. Come to hang out with four extremely funny personalities bounce off of each other while meeting with the demand of having to play young again and having a joy doing it. And I know I’ll be back the next time any of these four decide to collaborate once again. Maybe the Rock can bring them all back in his inevitable Fast and Furious spin-off.

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In the Jungle, the Miny Jungle

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It’s been a little over 3 years now, but I don’t think we as a film culture have ever healed from the shock of Robin Williams’ suicide and I don’t think we ever will frankly. And the reasons why are as clear as the nose on our face. Not only was it upsetting to discover how Williams was suffering in such a sudden fashion, but it was the suffering of a man whose constant animated mugging and heavy warmth moved an entire generation of young filmgoers in a sentimental manner away from a similarly manic but not nearly as heartfelt a contemporary as Jim Carrey. And I am sorry to say that, despite growing up right in the middle of that generation (Aladdin and Mrs. Doubtfire having come out around my first year on Earth and being inescapable), I am not one of those people as an adult. As a child, it was probably easier for me to enjoy but as an adult, I just don’t think the mugging and tenderness mix very well, though I think Williams pulled it off wayyyyyyy better than somebody like Roberto Benigni.

Let this often be a lesson in how heartless and muted from nostalgia I am as a human being.

Joe Johnston’s 1995 adventure children’s book adaptation Jumanji has more than enough mediocre elements in it that I don’t really have to talk about Williams any more once I get started than to say that while there are moments where he is definitely selling the manchild aspect of his character of Alan Parrish (most particularly his anxious body language in a scene where he avoids kissing Bonnie Hunt’s love interest Sarah), this is a frustratingly sedate performance that doesn’t nearly make good on the promise of a wild man emerging out of the jungle biome of the titular cursed board game, Jumanji, an admittedly interesting piece of lived-in production design that feels carved and otherworldly. At the center of that board game is a supernatural looking orb that feels like it’s just full of darkness.

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How Parrish ends up trapped in that board game to begin with is of the interest of the first scene set in 1969 as the adolescent Alan (Adam Hann-Byrd) and Sarah (Laura Bell Bundy) deal with Alan’s troubles with his wealthy and overbearing father (Jonathan Hyde), bullying from Sarah’s boyfriend, and guilt from costing one of his only friends Carl (David Alan Grier) his job by playing Jumanji and ending up with Sarah traumatized by watching Alan get sucked in and then getting run out by a bunch of bats.

Fast forward 26 years and now the board game has fallen into the hands of newly orphaned siblings Judy and Peter Shepherd (Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce, respectively), who begin playing it after moving into the Parrish home and finding themselves in peril as the board game unleashes a jungle into the house and with it eventually an adult Alan (Williams). Finding out soon enough that they cannot undo all this damage to the house until they complete the game AND that they cannot progress in the game without the now adult Sarah (played now by Hunt), they begin tunneling their way through warning rhymes of a new beast prowling amongst them that they must dodge or incapacitate as vines and trees and rain and other environmental elements begin covering up the Parrish home.

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Now, essentially this is just a platform for setpiece after setpiece of our characters versus Giant Venus Flytraps and Crocodiles and Lions and all until the in-game hunter Van Pelt (Also played by Hyde, probably to represent Alan’s unwillingness to grow up in a very shallow way, but Hyde’s clearly having fun with it) breaks out and the mayhem spills into suburbia. And the unfortunate thing is that these are… bad setpieces. Forgettable and flat, with terrible CGI (though I doubt this bothered me in the 1990s, but the monkeys especially look bad. The best looking monkey is a makeup job.) and a lack of urgency in the way they’re cut at all.

Joe Johnston is mostly hit or miss with me as a filmmaker, but I get the feeling that Johnston is so much stronger when he gets to work in period pieces like the previous Rocketeer and the later Captain America: The First Avenger. And Jumanji is not not that, given that the “young Alan in the 60s” scenes take up a frustrating amount of runtime but they’re shot in the most default Rockwellian aesthetic that would have been the laziest thing I’ve ever seen Johnston do if it wasn’t for the carwreck that’s The Wolfman. And that’s the closest to inspired he ever feels, for when it gets to the modern world… everything’s so bland and uninteresting to look at, especially in a very central chase through a department store where any energy comes from a clamorously percussive score by James Horner and a completely uncertain sense of cutting by Robert Dalva. Neither of these things give the movie a manic chaotic sense of fun, it’s just tiring in a nauseating way. The jungle scenes in the mansion at least want to have some sense of atmosphere but they’re so clearly colored in a funereal manner that dampens any sense of fun and lit like an amusement park’s promotional material. It’s unable to match up to Jumanji‘s goal of being an answer to the earlier Jurassic Park – a family oriented hit about a dysfunctionally put-together “family” trying to survive the savagest elements of nature.

Even when the movie finally gets everything wrapped up neat and tidy in the 90s storyline, there is still no less than 15 minutes left to go as it tries to solve all of Alan’s childhood dilemmas in one swing and even when it’s nowhere near as long, it’s reminiscent to me of the feeling I had with the multiple endings of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. I had a desire for things to just stop and fade eventually for I did learn or gain anything from watching Jumanji and could feel the time slipping out from under me like Alan’s fingers slipping into the board game.

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Stop Making That Big Face!

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Faces Places sounds weirdly like exactly the sort of documentary that I would normally be averse to. On the surface of it is just a couple of artists trying to document their artistic project. Which is hardly a terrible concept (though still sounding self-congratulatory), especially when you see how it affects the witness to that art (which is obviously also documented) and they’re all emotional and receiving the nice and warm fuzzies from way in which they are artistically immortalized: the artists in question take photos of their face, print them into blowouts, and paste them against large flat surfaces that usually mean a lot to the person whose face it is showing up in (not entirely immortalized, one of the artists mentions that the pastings have a finite lifespan and there is a scene where one of their works ends up not lasting until the next morning). But it’s something that I’d much rather experience or witness on my own, like most fine art. You can’t really get the full power of the work from watching a movie about it, frankly.

The way Faces Places gets to circumvent around this for me is the fact that it is the latest film by French New Wave legend Agnés Varda, one of the brains behind this artistic project, the other one being photographer and graffiti artist JR, who Varda shares credit with. This sharing of credit is not for anything: JR and Varda remark early on about how it took them so long to meet each other (after a hilarious and disarming montage of “what if?” scenarios behind their fateful meeting – the one that brings the biggest smile to my face is the quaint little comedy about JR wanting to buy chocolate éclairs and losing them to Varda), having long had admiration for each others work, and they have a wonderful chemistry together as dear friends and as collaborators. They are of similar spirit and soul – socially conscious, approachable, curious, extremely stylish and photogenic in an unassuming way. Indeed, the charm behind Varda’s presence was definitely the first reason this movie was on my radar. I would not have expected Faces Places would have the lovely opportunity to introduce me to another personality that would make for a charismatic screen companion to her and I’m totally following JR for the rest of his career.

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If Varda gets to take over on the cinematic front, JR is the specialist in the form of flyposting murals as art (both are photographers) and he seems so much more confident in performing the labor and verbalizing the project and ideas to any subjects that would like to be photographed. Varda herself however proves to be just as creative in ideas for this new medium for her as she did in cinema back in the 50s and 60s, especially since many of the areas they visit and work in have some memorial attachment to Varda. There is at one point where they discuss Varda’s past relationship with the late photographer Guy Bourdin (who modeled for Varda) and it becomes the basis of an attempted tribute to his memory. This particular flypost is also the one that seems most collaborative at heart for Varda and JR, both of whom have a particular history with the area of the Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer beach of Normandy. JR is particular is the one who discovers the fallen German bunker where they perform the tribute.

There is another thing that makes Faces Places‘ status as an Agnés Varda project much more attractive to me is how, like Varda’s most notable works of the 21st Century The Gleaners and I and The Beaches of Agnés, it functions as autobiography and reflection of her current age. Constantly throughout the film, Varda can not help but remark and sometimes interpret otherwise harmless statements by JR as commentary on the fact that she is 88 years old and losing her sight. Which is probably what makes her so eager to immortalize several people by this project, her coming knowledge that nobody in this world will last and that it’s important to leave a big imprint.

And certainly the director of La Pointe-Courte would know better than anybody else how everyone has their story in the world and they’re equally as important as the latest Star Wars picture. With each stop, we are privy to the lives and history of the area we watching transform before us – a row of abandoned houses left to decay before being brought to life by the neighboring community in a festive celebration. An industrial plant given a mural within a trench illuminating the hard teamwork and collaboration of two different shifts that otherwise don’t really interact. Three women working the docks of Le Havre being able to tower over the men in their field by stacks of shipping containers, before eventually sitting in the spot that their own hearts would inhabit. We meet these faces and learn what are the interior lives behind these faces are. The visual results of Varda and JR’s work are wonderfully modern and moving art by the way, looking like a splash on a usually dull concrete surface despite only being in newspaper blacks and whites and greys.

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In any case, that project is once again only what Faces Places appears to be in the surface and we watch JR’s wonderful SLR-camera-looking van drive down the road to affable music by Matthieu “M” Chedid, the more obvious it peels back to look at Agnés awareness that she can’t see or move the way she once did and what does that mean for her artwork. Which is why it’s extremely touching to see her interact with JR, who tries to respond to her bubbly statements and imaginations with his own bouncy and spontaneous postures and movements without seeming like a cartoon (during a late-in-the-film tribute to one of my favorite movie moments JR suddenly jumps up mid-run into a crazy perpendicular legs-up-in-the-air pose and it makes JR a lot cooler in my eyes than it should).

JR may be the actual young one in the duo, but Varda’s still a child at heart and the real conflict seems to be how Varda knows her body isn’t going to be able to follow her soul. It’s the source of some amount of tension: particularly in the metaphorical usage of her eyesight and JR’s trademarked sunglasses that he’s never seen without and which Varda attempts to pester him into removing, while also reminding her friend and the only other living French New Wave titan Jean-Luc Godard. And all three of these things – her eyesight, his sunglasses, and Godard himself end up orbiting the content of the final third of Faces Places, combining together for an ending to their voyage that feels at first cruel and cold until JR decides to help Varda re-author it through his generosity into a moment of serenity between two good friends.

JR and Varda will certainly not last together as a pairing for longer than the end of this decade. It feels blunt but fair to recognize that Varda will probably not live much longer than the next 3 years. And yet the most powerful thing I can’t help leaving Faces Places with is the inability to picture one of them without the other – and I’ve been a long time fan of Varda’s without even knowing who the hell JR is – and the knowledge that even while I consider that maybe more than a few of their “storyline” in this documentary is “staged” (I’m just that distrustful of documentaries, especially documentaries by narrative filmmakers centering on themselves), few relationships in this world are probably as pure, artistically charged, and loving without being romantic as Varda and JR.

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What a Happy Day It Is

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I’m going to spend almost the entirety of this post gushing over what I consider to be THE cinematic achievement of 2017 (and arguably the last movie I saw that year if you live in a timezone that is not mine), so I think I can be forgiven for identifying the most frequent criticism I hear on animator Don Hertzfeldt’s last-second released* short sequel to glorious and wonderful World of Tomorrow, this one titled World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts. That criticism is essentially “it does not hold up outside of the context of World of Tomorrow, more particularly it does not hold up without watching World of Tomorrow immediately before it.”

Now, identifying that criticism does not mean I agree with it. Certainly, people would enjoy World of Tomorrow better with the knowledge of having seen Episode Two and it’s probably a lot easier to catch all the neat continuations of World of Tomorrow‘s visual anchors with the first short film fresh in your head, but Episode Two is certainly its own standalone story with its own insights on humanity and its own abstractions of those emotions into gorgeous technicolor seas washing together to fill the screen and sharp digital lines of various forms.

That said, Episode Two is soooooooo very much rewarding with the context of its predecessor in many ways. For one, much as Hertzfeldt made clear how tough it was to craft a new narrative from the new audio recordings he took out of his 5-year-old niece Winona Mae, there’s not only a challenging yet coherent narrative out of Episode Two, there’s also an evident growth from the last time we saw Mae’s character Emily Prime, rendered as a stick figure like every other character Hertzfeldt ever animated who isn’t a Simpson. There’s a lot of room for a little maturity and confidence between ages four and five, as Emily will indicate when a new adult clone of Emily (animator Julia Pott again) with a 6 on her forehead and a clangy metallic machine on her back suddenly barges into the child’s peaceful drawing time with a lot more urgency behind her “HELLO EMILY” (or is that just the fact that every line Pott delivers from this heavily damaged being is so loud and heavy? She still retains her mostly emotionally stilted line readings like before, still a huge strength) and Prime responds to her presence with a frank “you have to sit down, okay?”.

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I don’t want to go to far into what follows that introduction of Episode Two on a narrative sense (I will try to keep things thematic instead) because it’s so eventful and full of wonderful surprises that I refuse to spoil, but I will say that the way in which segueway into the same arresting colorful backdrops of dynamically undefinable computer generated shapes comes from ours and Prime’s entry into the mind of the clone. And if you thought the universe Hertzfeldt gave us in World of Tomorrow was dysfunctional, at least that one had real-world logic to it so we could recognize a rock when we see it or what part is the ground. Here, Hertzfeldt takes advantage of the opportunity to frequent glitch (both in on-screen and on the soundtrack) and leave remnants of visuals well after it’s communicated that the character or object is not there anymore to establish the fragile and impaired state of the being whose memories and emotions we are exploring.

And those memories and emotions are the product of a feeling of incompletion and dishonesty to one’s identity (indeed Emily Six’s existence as a clone/storage unit to Emily’s experiences is what gives her the titular “Burden of Other People’s Thoughts”), visually represented by backgrounds with gaping angular holes in them either interrupting an otherwise colorful scene with big spots of empty black or cracking a monochrome shot with chaos underneath it all. The uncertainty of our character at one point causes the colors to bleed in an artificial and digital way and it is the moment when it is clear Hertzfeldt has now mastered the usage of computers for his animation style. The force with which he deconstructs already unstable settings with dissolves and superimpositions** and aggressive revolutions of vertical smoke and clouds in dark tones of purple and red (Taylor Barron is credited for those clouds and, man, the movie would not nearly feel as urgent without them) is reminiscent in my mind of “Part 8” in this year’s return of Twin Peaks***, a rivaling attempt to translate intangible interior sensations such as depression and pain and loneliness into pure stimuli for the viewer. It is then no wonder “Part 8” and World of Tomorrow Episode II are the only competitors for the Best. Damned. Thing. I. Watched. in. 2017. The difference, other than moods since Hertzfeldt has never been as dark as viewers, is that Twin Peaks‘ anchor is the context of the TV series itself and Episode 2‘s anchor are distinct character presences. We’re here not only to sink into the mindframes the visuals lull us into, but in turn to recognize how that is the way the apparently blank Emily Clone 6 feels before we dig into the why.

Did I not mention this movie is funny? I promise it is, even despite what I just described.

Indeed, the more time we spend within the clone’s mind, the more we realize “oh this piece of scenery is her memory” and the clearer it is what the elements on her person, like the “6” and the bracelet across her wrist are AND what they happen to mean to her, neither of which are very happy answers. I don’t have trouble guessing that the way Hertzfeldt tried to cheat his way around Mae’s mostly unconnected lines is by crafting the true crux of the narrative around Emily Six (indeed, there is a span of time where Pott is the only voice in the film and it’s the most structurally clean moment in the film, though it also contains the broadest humor in the work – which is still hilarious if not very surprising – rather than the joyous randomness of Mae’s presence) and it means that we’re privy to more sadness surrounding the first 2/3 of Episode 2‘s 22 minutes.

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The last third, though, oh my Odin. Let me count the ways in which it accelerates World of Tomorrow Episode 2 into my heart as a wonderful blanket for the soul. First, we witness the full clout Mae gets over Hertzfeldt’s story in two moments (one of which preceeds that last third, mind you) where she ends up giving resolutions we would not at all expect to this dense and dark depth into questions about existence we never want. And in the way that only a five-year-old child could possibly do. Second, by that hand, Hertzfeldt indulges in simple yet bright and playful (and so much cleaner) designs full of cotton-candy-colored energy and life while retaining the still-impeachable logic that the setting would need, acting a foil to all of the fearfulness we saw before (it also is maybe the most rewarding sort of callback to the first World of Tomorrow and I feel like even being vague about how is kind of a spoiler). And third is by a lovely sequence of fluid movement and animation lifted up by The Nutcracker‘s compositions, not only surprising for a stick figure, but particularly for Hertzfeldt who has never in his career given us anything to imply he could make his characters so graceful and flowing as he does within the last few minutes of Episode 2 and probably could not have done so if he hadn’t finally mastered the digital technology with which he now animates.

It’s at once a shining moment of unexpected versatility on Hertzfeldt’s part but a beautiful tear-welling moment of catharsis after an exhausting 22 minute journey. It’s not often that you see an artist who will bravely dive deep into the sort of melancholy and gloom that Hertzfeldt is more than familiar with at this point and still rise effortlessly back up into unabashed optimism and inner peace. It’s possible that he couldn’t do it without the help of the innocence of his niece’s imagination and that is kind of one of the conclusions The Burden of Other People‘s Thoughts lands on: that while it doesn’t do to live in the past, even when it hurts us, there is still a solace in our childhood we ought to embrace and remember. But that is only ONE conclusion of many The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts holds in its treasure trove and here’s hoping more can be pulled out before the next Hertzfeldt comes to surprisingly top this one (I didn’t think World of Tomorrow could be topped and yet here we are). I have only scratched the surface in my first two viewings.

Oh, I watched it twice. Did I mention that? On the same day.

*A last second release that probably cost it a spot on the shortlist for The Academy Award for Best Short Film, Animated and that shit is GOING TO STING for the rest of my life.
**Again, Hertzfeldt’s usual M.O.
***For those who read this asking when I will return to my David Lynch retrospective, STinG is not here at the moment but if you leave a message, I will get back to you as soon as possible. Thank you, bye bye.

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My Favorite Self-Writings of 2017

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Happy New Year everybody!

I highly suspect 2017 was the year I did the most filmwriting in, like… ever. And that’s surprising because it was a film year I wasn’t very impressed by, but still that puts me in a good damn position to lay out my favorite film writings of the year (including the ones as part of my new tenure on The Film Experience) as we’re moving beyond.

Living for the City – In which I diverge from my short-lived attempt at reviewing every Best Picture Oscar winner in a row to vouch for the unjustly snubbed by Academy history Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.

Relationship Goals – In which I list my favorite couples in movies and still miss more than a few that would have made the list (like Morticia and Gomez Addams). Maybe this coming Valentine’s Day I can fix that.

The Heart of the World – In which I try to mention a history of women in cinema.

In Which I Push Myself to Acknowledge Inspiration – In which I talk about my artistic inspirations in writing, music, and film.

Little Green Planet – In which I provide just a little gallery for Earth Day.

Be Our Pest, Be Our Pest… Put My Patience to the Test – In which I am so exasperated by my hate for Beauty and the Beast that I opt out of a proper review and just list the (numerous) things I hated and the (few) things I didn’t.

25 for 25 Epilogue – In which I sum up my 25 for 25 review series (my suggestions for any readers would be Night of the Living Dead, Close-Up, Seven Samurai, Repo Man, Stop Making Sense, or Begone Dull Care)

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – In which I give a passionate defense for the dismissals of Atomic Blonde as a superficial film.

Resident Evil: A Bloody Valentine – In which I wax rhapsodic over the collaborate power of Milla Jovovich and Paul W.S. Anderson and how it provided one of my favorite horror movie presences of all time.

This Is Halloween – In which I describe what Halloween looks, sounds, and feels like to me and how that translates to movies.

Salim Gives Thanks – In which I give my Thanksgiving thanks about certain things in pop culture.

Rian Johnson: A Star Wars Story – In which l excitedly lay out the rise of Rian Johnson to the position of directing and writing a Star Wars film (boy was that excitement turned into disappointment)

Christmastime Is Here – In which I lovingly explain what makes A Charlie Brown Christmas an annual tradition for me.

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Christmastime Is Here

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I don’t watch TV very much and I don’t really celebrate Christmas except depending on who I’m dating at the time and if they celebrate. I do certainly admire the season though, especially if I’m spending it in an environment that’s nice and chilly and cold and bonus points if it’s snowing. It is certainly my favorite time of year. And regardless of if I’m attending a Christmas party that year or not, I’m gonna be spending more than a little bit of time watching certain favorites as a force of habit, namely holiday TV specials. Y’know, the kind that were animated and best made in the 1960s (though not by any “objective” standard. Even today, TV animation on a budget is pretty rough as is but Rankin/Bass’ stop-motion certainly tried to circumvent this). They’re short and sweet so I can watch enough to fill an hour before I sleep the night before Christmas and they’re a nice little amount of mood to continue on for the rest of the season. And I’ll especially give TV specials one thing over films:

If it weren’t for TV specials, I wouldn’t enter every winter season without the song “Christmastime Is Here” playing in my head. And I’m very happy to have that be the theme song of my winters, nice and falling singular piano notes apply a melody in my head to the imagery of snowflakes gently dropping to the ground. Just one piano tune over and over, something to cement early in my life the idea that jazz is always the best Christmas music, and Vince Guaraldi was the genius to make me think that.

Guaraldi’s soundtrack – which also includes “Linus and Lucy” another very close theme song to my childhood and a children’s choir performing the hymn “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (there is also a children’s choir involved in “Christmastime Is Here” but my mind just goes to the piano underneath and its wonderful and evocative simplicity) – is not the only great thing that the 1965 TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas gave me, but it is the thing that sticks most to me. If it were not for the special, I don’t see myself being so enamored with jazz at such a young age that I would find it calming or atmospheric and all through the best kind of minimalism.

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If it weren’t for A Charlie Brown Christmas, I also would probably be a lot more cynical about Christmas than I actually am as an adult who has no intentions of religious alignment in his life and is in many ways actively against religious institution. I’m sure one more cynical about religion than I am could probably be dissatisfied as the makers feared with the solution to the loveable child blockhead Charlie Brown’s usual depressive woes, this time centered around the Christmas season, as simple as (SPOILERS FOR A TELEVISION SPECIAL OLDER THAN MY DAD WHICH I DON’T THINK PEOPLE WATCH FOR THE PLOT ANYMORE) the blanket-dragging child Linus reciting from the Gospel According to Luke and poof! There’s Charlie Brown’s answer to the missing meaning of Christmas, but it IS true in a literal sense and it’s a spirited and confident reading from a child! A legit child actor, Chris Shea, was able to stand and deliver the Bible communicating the full and expressive meaning of the Shepherds’ Annunciation of the Nativity of Jesus and as somebody who grew up in Islamic Sunday School watching a lot of fellow kids trying to memorize Qur’an, I can’t imagine most of my teachers would have deigned for that sort of awareness of the material and declarative reading.

That’s kind of the miracle of A Charlie Brown Christmas that makes it so pleasant for me. The entire cast from Peter Robbins as Charlie on down to Sally Dryer in a one-scene part delivering a proud insistence she never sent Charlie a “Merry Christmas” are all young children around the 9-to-11-year-old range and they have these blocks of dialogue expressing existential crises and criticisms of capitalism and “commercialism” (I don’t think I knew the meaning of the word “commercialism” at their ages) that they have to deliver and they ace it with flying colors. Emphasis on the right elements while still sounding wholly like the stuff children would say with only the slightest hint of a hand tipped in maturity.

Credit it to director Bill Melendez for knowing how to direct voice acting, credit it to Charles M. Schulz – creator of the original Peanuts comic strips series that A Charlie Brown Christmas is a part of and writer of the special (the television special was made right at the height of the franchise’s popularity) – who would know these characters better than anybody else in the world and knows just the right amount of character and youth to imbue into the writing, credit it to whichever casting director was able to pull in this many intelligent young actors who could certainly know how to express thoughts like these, and of course credit it to these kids for pulling it off most of all and instantly sticking to our ideas of how these characters sound. The moroseness in Brown’s voice, the bold egotism in Lucy’s, these are just impossible to remove from the characters as I remember them, even when I’m just looking at the comic strip that reliably entertained me from my own childhood onward.

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I am, truth be told, shocked that I’m nearing the end of my praise for my definitive work of Christmas-based pop culture and only now mentioned Melendez. Melendez’s animation work makes the best with what little they had, pushing the budget and month as far as he could, maintaining the flat 2-dimensional primitive stylizations of the hand-drawn comic strip so that it’s all in one plane, thereby establishing the style that every single Peanuts production since would have to live by lest they mess with tradition. And yet there’s still motion and spacing that Melendez is willing to play with, filling out an entire skating rink with individual (if still repeated motions) including a wonderful amount of liberty taken with Charlie’s beloved beagle Snoopy as he glides over the light blue ice (including a wonderful moment where he drags the other characters in a line all across the shimmering screen) or the memorable setpiece of everybody dancing to Linus, Pig Pen, and Snoopy playing “Linus and Lucy”. In fact, if it probably wasn’t for Melendez’s conservative usage of lines and colors in a manner that feels lovingly personal, it probably be able to sell the cuteness behind Charlie Brown’s choice of Christmas tree for the Christmas play, a lonely bent stick with barely peeking out of its branches. In a special that’s hardly the stuff of immaculate craft, this little tree that somehow means something to Charlie Brown doesn’t feel quite as bad and that means we sympathize with the care and adoration he wants his friends to give to the tree as well.

So, yeah, it’s not perfect. The audio feels like an unfinished element with missing sounds from what we’re viewing and very apparent seams where we hear what lines of dialogue are put together from separate takes (although there is a terrific gag of Snoopy giving his best impression of several different animals). And I’m sure some look for a more detailed design or fluid kind of animation from their animation, but I can’t see myself ever being dissatisfied with a Christmas night sitting down and playing this. A Charlie Brown Christmas is a television special that wants us to understand the meaning of Christmas and delivers it not just in substance but in the amount of soul that every single person involved in this special put into it. Melendez, Schulz, Guarini, and all their company gave us this one undiluted package of Christmas joy. I couldn’t feel any more merry after watching it if I tried.

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Nothing’s Gonna Change My World

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It is a relatively good thing, I think, that I saw Luc Besson’s summer space adventure Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets before I was able to start reading the original Franch comic series by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières by the name of Valerian et Laureline*. It is a brilliant and wonderful work of pulp artistry and adventure storytelling that Valerian certainly lives up to in more than a few ways, but also stands as the kind of visual swashbuckler comic literature I wish I had access to as a child. That I read it after seeing the movie being a good thing is due to how little the characters within the comic series – dashing handsome and tall Valerian and red-haired ingénue from the Middle Ages Laureline – do not at all look similar to Besson’s leads, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne. I like to hope that wouldn’t have bothered me, but just to be sure, the fact that I saw Valerian before reading them ensured that the only reason I’d fell the leads are miscast is because of their performance.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a damn great movie in my eyes, regardless of what the detractors of the movie think. It is more than a bit likely to show up on my top 20 of the year and it’s easily my favorite space opera of essentially the four major ones we’ve received this year (the others being Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Thor: Ragnarok, and sadly Star Wars: The Last Jedi in that preferred order). And yet the one thing I can’t find myself to argue with detractors about (and indeed there are plenty) is that the leads don’t work. Less so Delevingne, who takes command of every moment like her character’s name wasn’t removed from the title with intelligence but would probably do much better with a co-star that she could actually have romantic chemistry with. It’s more DeHaan, not only being unable to pass for dashing anything but instead looking like the son of Peter Lorre in all those baggy eyes and delivering his macho lines like he’s barely out of breath. Lines that, mind you, are essentially a space soldier harassing his partner and only the best kind of screwball chemistry would make it feel less objectionable. DeHaan, an actor I overall love and want to see in more movies (who definitely helped with this year’s earlier A Cure for Wellness) is not that actor.

An out-of-place lead actor is certainly not something I could hold a moviegoer accountable for being unable to ignore, but in truth my love for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is one that supersedes all of that just as much as my love of Star Wars does likewise. If I ever go to watch a space opera because I want compelling substance, please slap me in the face because something’s wrong with me. Valerian delivers an overwhelming amount of world-building in its gaudy biome designs of different regions in its titular International Space Station (we witness the growth of the original Space Station into this wondrous cornucopia of alien cultures and civilizations in an opening montage to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” that even detractors find lovely, slowly having several of Besson’s usual collaborators like Louis Leterrier and Olivier Megaton welcome several disarming but lovely extra-terrestrials in the spirit of galactic brotherhood).

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Hell, the moment that the trailer featured a long-shot sequence of Valerian crashing his way past walls separating several different environments and habitats, a variety of smooth surfaces, bold various colors, and dazzling lighting servicing several the kind of cartoonish but ambitious and engrossing CGI convinced me I was going to watch this movie in 3D and the second scene in the movie inviting us to explore a shiny shimmering beach planet where the very skin of its silver natives glows and pearls flow like water before showing off the depth of field by having a violent and explosive invasion occur is when I was certain I made the right decision.

See, I don’t really have a problem with Besson’s screenplay. It’s certainly slightly less stupid than Lucy (which I also stan for) and has a certain subplot that involves a detour introducing us to a wonderfully hammy turn by Ethan Hawke and a crazy fun outfit-switching dance performance by Rihanna (and whatever dance double they had)**, but its main purpose is to utilize the Ambassador of Shadows storyline into the making of a world-building adventure from setpiece to setpiece – here’s a trans-dimensional bazaar where Valerian has to interact with one dimension while inhabiting another to extract an item followed by a monster chase, here’s deep sea dive filled with imaginative sea life before Laureline has to wear some brainsucking jellyfish as a helmet, here’s a Gilliam-esque throne room for a couple of laughs while troll-esque aliens feed their picky king, and so forth. The context isn’t what has to make these experiences joyous to me, Hugues Tissandier’s construction of these sets and creatures does more than enough to do so and then Alexandre Desplat’s sparkling epic score lifts the film to ethereal heights (and it’s not even his best score of the year given The Shape of Water), the sort of spectacle driven cinema that gets butt in the movies to begin with.

Listen, if something as ridiculous looking and sounding as Valerian was not going to be your thing, that’s alright. I stan for the likes of Jupiter Ascending so it could hardly be unexpected that I walked out of it feeling my summer was made. It’s utterly shallow, but it’s also transfixingly vibrant. It doesn’t have as comforting an audience surrogate as Bruce Willis in Besson’s previous The Fifth Element, but if you’re willing to just go for the ride without anyone to relate to, you will still find yourself sucked in. You may or may not have to go into Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets with a very specific idea of what you look for in movies, but luckily it provides exactly what I look for: a brilliant living expansion of worlds and domains for which we can witness setpieces unlike anything we ever have seen before and possibly won’t see since.

*I will go on the record as to pointing out that I find removing Laureline from the title of the film to be a dirty fucking move, especially since I think the argument can be made that Laureline has more screentime overall.
**Between this, Girlhood, and American Honey, movies are really trying to make me overlook my dislike for Rihanna’s music and turn me into a fan of hers. It’s working.

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Lucky as a Rabbit’s Foot

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What do I get to say about Logan Lucky that wasn’t already said in one phrase before the movie was even over: “Ocean’s 7-Eleven”, a very knowing grace note of a background line by returning-after-a-4-year-hiatus director Steven Soderbergh (who had helmed the recent Ocean’s trilogy) and mysterious writer Rebecca Blunt (speculated by some to be a pseudonym for someone else, namely either Soderbergh or his wife Jules Asner).

It is impossible to conceive of a more accurate representation of what that movie is and presents about its characters and their lives, that it’s a heist movie from the exact opposite end of the economic background spectrum (Logan Lucky discusses this last element as a central motivation for the heist and certain actions after the heist, though Logan Lucky is not nearly as tenacious a commentary on finances the way Magic Mike is but it is a big one on class. More on that later.)Those characters being the Logan siblings – limping laid-off divorcée Jimmy (Channing Tatum), amputee veteran bartender Clyde (Adam Driver) who has a prosthetic left arm, and dry hairdresser Mellie (Riley Keough) who is apparently on the most stable footing out of the three of them.

They are frequently down-on-their-luck, due to a curse according to Clyde, Southern folk who are clever enough to attempt to turn that into the makings of a damned big heist of Charlotte Motor Speedway, THE Nascar home track, a heist that through that same hard luck ends up forced to occur on one of the busiest days of the speedway’s year – The Coca-Cola 600 Race.

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Most of this sounds a lot more glamorous and epic than it actually is, especially naming Tatum and Keough among the cast, which I want to make clear isn’t the case. Soderbergh’s given us an very muted heist film, trying to feel casual and at-home within the humble settings between Virginia and North Carolina and pleasant about all of the culture of country life in all of its fairs and impromptu hang-outs in bars or mobile health clinics. Most of all there is nothing glamorous in how Jimmy, a recently laid-off divorceé, is faced with the possibility of not getting to see his daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) as his re-married ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) has to move from North Carolina to Virginia, one of the things that spurs this heist’s necessity to him.

I don’t want to call it a shaggy film because the thoroughline with which it explores this community swiftly (not in-depth, but enough that we’re not wondering where we are) and the rush by which it gallops through the heist are all too tight to become anything we could call “shaggy”, but it’s a more relaxed movie than any heist movie has any right to be. We may as well speculate that Soderbergh is happy to be back in the south (having been born in Georgia) after spending time in the glitzy glamour of Hollywood and the world and that probably the chance to make Logan Lucky within his familiar home region might have coaxed him out of his retirement to make the film just as well as his proclaimed newfangled concept of film production and distribution. And that home feeling just radiates out of the film without any self-consciousness about it being rural and grainy south, especially when the movie uses John Denver as a wonderful emotional anchor (out of the multitudes of films released in the US in 2017 that famously utilized Denver’s music in its soundtrack, Logan Lucky has my favorite one by a landslide).

Tatum himself is also Southern (Alabama-born) and its no surprise he’s able to slip into the handy and gentlemanly but rugged state of mind and guide us through it like a second language to him, but it’s a surprise when most of the cast are able to follow up on him. And as this movie is not necessarily the Tatum show, it leaves Daniel Craig’s blonde manic Joe Bang and Keough’s Mellie with more than enough room to upstage the star in his own territory. Still all are pleasant and welcoming and interesting as the last, except for the deliberate point of Seth MacFarlane’s obnoxious British caricature who is meant to stick out like a sore thumb and be generally odious. For the first 2/3 of Logan Lucky, while it’s lightly aimed at the unfairness of the established economy on the little guy, MacFarlane and Dwight Yoakam’s bit turn as Warden Flop Sweat are the closest we have to present antagonists and Yoakam is too hilarious to be at all unlikable.

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At the last third of the film is when Soderbergh and Blunt seem to lose track of what kind of movie they were making and suddenly shifting to an incongruent FBI detective film starring Hilary Swank in a performance where we can understand what she’s going for even while she falls flat on her face as Sarah Grayson, the investigator in the aftermath of the heist. And frankly, it outstays its welcome given how little we want to see the Logans get a comeuppance, the amount of nothing to come out of Grayson’s entry into the story (including a very misfire of an attempt to recreate the final note of the first Ocean’s Eleven), and the frank fact that the movie just stops being a hell of a lot of fun and clunks and drags on its way to the finish line.

It’s not enough to stop me from falling in love with Logan Lucky as a return for Soderbergh, probably because ironically the damage of the third act makes me appreciate what preceded it even more. You see, Logan Lucky is frankly safe as a movie for Soderbergh. It maps neatly onto most of the work he’s already done and it’s shot and set in an area of the world that he has a strong affinity for. It’s not necessarily a challenge for him nor does it provide something new for the viewer if they’re already fond of Soderbergh. But it’s fun and it has energy and it’s breezy and it’s hard to see myself not having a good time with it. So sometimes, taking the country roads home rather than speeding around in circles is the best sort of drive to take, especially if it’s your first time back on the wheel in a while.

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Severance Package

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The Belko Experiment is the sort of premise that, unless it has an immaculately talented director behind the wheel who could balance it all, could almost only go in one of two directions – it could either be a broad comedy doubling as light satire or it could be a cold harsh and cruel picture that’s a tense watch, though not a hard watch. I don’t think a movie with this many pieces that would make us go “but how the fuck does THAT work logistically?” could survive trying to play things too straight-faced and serious.

And so James Gunn’s screenplay for The Belko Experiment ends up a double-edged sword, in how it does have a broadness to it in the mystery behind its central location – an apparently outsourced office for Belko Industries all the way in Bogotà, Colombia that is outrageously guarded with military-grade weaponry and prison looking concrete gates on the outside, though still seeing the need for indoor security headed by the casual Evan (James Earl). The also ridiculous logic behind employees agreeing to painfully implanted trackers or the building of steel doors to cover up the entire building could like wise not be entirely taken straightfaced without being a total wink at how far people are willing to go to be offered any position, though that’s just too general here already. And especially when a voice on the loudspeaker (Gregg Henry) announces to its employees that they must kill each during an allotment of time or they will utilize the explosive trackers to kill many more. It’s not hyucks, but it’s got heightened distance. If anything, the only element of the film that doesn’t seem to have an actual business atmosphere analogue is how all of the management heads, including COO Barry (Tony Goldwyn), are former military with heavy combat experience, thus having a head up on the men and women beneath them that they can kill, but overall it’s an unsubtle portrayal of competitive work environments except with physical violence instead of the downsizing and staff cuts.

And so, Gunn’s script able to sell these with enough humor behind it desperately wants to be something of a comedy and satire. Indeed, the film even includes in its large ensemble many of Gunn’s regular actors, such as Henry, his brother Sean, and Michael Rooker (Gunn remains a producer on the film and I’m sure he was slated to direct at one point). There’s also one very recognizable comedic character actor in the form of John C. McGinley. So humor is in the idea of this movie to especially sell the commentary of cutthroat office atmospheres.

And unfortunately, director Greg McLean is just not funny.

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Mind you, McLean is actually a wonderful idea for a movie about the brutality of others desperately shedding each others’ blood and as a result The Belko Experiment ends up working very capably as a thriller. It should be no surprise that the director of the nihilistic and overwhelming Wolf Creek is able to carry this movie’s stakes and horrors (though I’m not certain I’d call this a horror movie). Not enough to make this into a nailbiter, but given the amount of familiarity the premise of “put people into a room and make them slaughter each other in order to make a statement” at THIS point in the decade, it’s amazing to have any amount of tautness in the atmosphere at all.

And to be quite real, McLean certainly feigns in the direction of some amount of irony. It’s hard to deny that in how editor Julia Wong uses the occasional Spanish covers of classic rock tunes such as “California Dreamin'” into a rhythm for which our hearts jump on each shot and axe to the face (Wong, easily the movie’s best weapon, also has a way of utilizing cuts just at the moment of a body part giving way to the film’s not-quite-severe gore – enough to let us see the ugly viscerality of it and sell it before she cuts to the next element of the scene leaving it still fresh in our mind when we move on).

That honestly leaves the cast themselves to be guided by McLean to turn into sweaty and harried blood-covered beings who have two particular types – those who can’t grapple with this kill-or-be-killed environment or those who are eager to just step all over their peers – and the cast, mostly fronted by either John Gallagher Jr. or Melonie Diaz (as the unfortunate new recruit) all know how to turn their bodies into collapsing alarms of panic. And once again McLean, Gunn, and Wong structure all this material into several diverging storylines so that we can capture enough of the characters to make it hurt more when we see their grisly demise, the same sort of multi-narrative angle Battle Royale perfected with the premise beforehand.

Basically, it’s not reinventing the wheel and I can’t figure out anything within it that makes it a must-watch. But The Belko Experiment is not anything less than a decent bloodletting thriller as well, short enough not to outstay its welcome and shallow enough to prevent the nihilism within it from ruining our day.

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