They’re Going to Destroy Our Casual Joys

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If I had seen Strange Days sometime in my teenage years, it would have been a part of my “25 for 25” project and had some deciding factor in how I put together my personal canon and identifying the aesthetics I am attracted to most. Instead, I saw it for the first time a few months shortly AFTER I had turned 25 and it never had the opportunity to turn me into the sort of cinephile it could have, although I find it fortunate that the sort of cinephile I am happens to be very compatible with it.

I’ll make one more declarative statement before getting into the thick of what makes me a fan: If I had seen it early in my high school life, it MIGHT — MIGHT – have become my favorite movie. Indeed, it is very easy to see what it shares with my main favorite movie champion holder* Blade Runner: they’re both the stories of disgraced ex-police dealing with a case over their head set in a future version of Los Angeles while grappling with the morality behind technological advances. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that co-writer Jay Cocks (with James Cameron, who conceived of the entire project) had previously attempted to option Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? with Martin Scorsese well before it was adapted into Blade Runner.

Any sci-fi film set in the future with even the slightest hint of noir owes its existence to Blade Runner anyway. Beyond that, Strange Days is a different film in every line of its DNA. Most of its differences feel rooted in the fact that Strange Days is set in 1999, which is easy to laugh aside now as an apparent lack of foresight but such if you fail to recognize that this movie was released in 1995. Cameron wanted to set the movie so close in the future that it’s practically the present, just around the corner with urgency towards its decrepit view of the future. As a result of the proximity of the time period, director Kathryn Bigelow and production designer Lilly Kilvert don’t give us flying cars and neon baths. Instead, things look like they’ve poisoned the concrete jungle into corpse-blue under Matthew F. Leonetti’s lens. The militarized police force occupy every corner, with each cut by Cameron and Howard Smith on the streets practically darting desperately to seed them. There’s an unstable paranoia that comes with being set in the turn of millennium. Even if you’re too young to remember the fears of Y2K, a character constantly refers to the imminent new year as the end of the world and it’s hard to argue when the designs feel on edge. It’s more anarchic than refined and it’s easy to see why the inhabitants of this world are eager to escape to memories of a better age with the main technology at the center of Strange Days: the SQUID, a cerebral device that is able to record an experience on a disc giving you the same physical sensations and emotions.

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We’re introduced to this tech (and the movie itself) through a visceral and roughly textured single shot with the point of view of a robber before a disorienting death drop wakes up Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), the aforementioned disgraced ex-cop who now makes his living selling discs on the black market as he lambasts his supplier for trying to sell him a snuff disc, because he’s got morals. As we spend more time with Lenny, we discover his pathetic and unhealthy inability to move on from his musician ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis). Lenny uses every possible opportunity to rely on the kindness of his overworked best friend, bodyguard/chauffeur-for-hire Lornette “Mace” Mason (Angela Bassett), to find his way to clients through which to make his unsavory trade and to facilitate his stalking of Faith in whatever seedy foggy multi-colored industrial punk dives she’s performing at whenever he’s not replaying overly bright SQUID memories of her in his lonely apartment at night.

Despite the wounded sleaze (It’s very easy to see how Fiennes got this role after playing the sloppiest Nazi character ever in Schindler’s List), Fiennes communicates a sense of warmth particularly through his shocking but calming eyes seeping through his greasy long hair (something brought up by more than one character and it’s not for nothing that the movie’s first shot is a close-up of his eye**). Nero is clearly a heart-on-his-sleeve louse that is pushed around rather than pushing others around and he’s constantly able to rollback up with a salesman smile. Lenny and Mace’s dynamic, thanks to being the best performances and the center of the movie, appear to be the most honest in the film: In Lenny’s aimless appellations and intentions and Mace’s frustrated objections and straight talk out of the heart. Bassett isn’t the protagonist Strange Days eventually turns her into from the start, but she walks in already with the exhausted attitude that she’s the only one getting her shit straight and Mace as a character benefits from that attitude as she enters with one of her many moments getting Lenny out of trouble.

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In any case, somebody trusts Lenny enough to arrive to him in a frazzled and anxious state asking for help: Iris (Brigitte Bako), an old friend from Lenny’s time with Faith, who drops a jack into Lenny’s car just before it’s repo’d and then disappears entirely. And whatever the reason she’s scared, Lenny is certain it has something to do with Faith’s manager/new boyfriend Philo Gant (resident 90s bad guy Michael Wincott) and a conflict of interest should be expected when you think the man your ex left you for is involved in some heinous stuff, particularly when it all circles around the impromptu murder of conscious and outspoken hip hop figure Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer), another client of Gant’s.

This is a lot of stuff, but Strange Days gets to clean it up nice because it seems like Bigelow and Cameron were intent on making two different yet harmonious movies. Cameron’s basis has always been on the emotional matrix between Mace’s feelings for Lenny while trying to protect Faith, it’s the very first element he ever conceived of the film before even the futurism (it’s for this reason that I find it very curious he gave this concept to Bigelow, who was already his ex-wife of 2 years by the start of production in 1993). And it’s a line carried through by the lead actors certainly, but Bigelow as a filmmaker appears to have little use for it. She’s making a conscious and angry film – galvanized to finally start this movie after the 1992 proved to be one of the most heated eras in American race relations – utilizing the arrangements of the characters to unlock different observations on brutality as a result of a police state, voyeurism on the sufferings of others, the self-deprecating and regressive effects of nostalgia, the ease of white men to avoid trouble that black people (and especially black women would find themselves in), the objectification of women in the media, black women being put in second rung or expected to lay down for white women, conspiracy theories, hip hop and music’s place in observing these issues and having an affect in communities, all mirroring the 1990s in which this film was released and the anxiety in the air. Surrounding these characters’ romantic complications is a whole society developing and decaying in ways that were apparent in the real world. The resultant world-building feels like an extension of the heightened emotions of their romantic complication and lack of awareness.

I’ve already gone through the production design insisting that police are ever-present, down to helicopter lights constantly flashing through the windows. But it’s also in the manner that, for a 2 1/2 hour movie, Bigelow’s direction is violently fast and may as well prove to be coming off her growth as a notoriously “masculine” director with Near Dark and Point Break. There are few action setpieces in Strange Days and they are dangerous and fantastic (while also being the areas where Mace takes charge), but even the majority dialogue sequences have Leonetti’s camera movements whipping around like a paranoid eye and Smith and Cameron’s cutting turning the atmosphere frazzled, denying any sense of calm. And Bigelow is unafraid to go to harrowing places: halfway through the film comes a controversial rape/murder sequence involving cross-cutting with a character witnessing it via the SQUID, first with gleeful interest as he misreads the scene and then with horror as he recognizes the victim, her emotions, and the actions. The end result indicts an audience’s interest in the exploitation of individuals for profit and entertainment.

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I am making this movie sound a lot more unpleasant than I feel it is: it is paranoid, it is violent, it is charged, but it has two lead performances able to guide us and make us feel safe even when they don’t and it has moments of relief from the tension that appears throughout the movie [particularly scenes involving Mace’s family and particularly her son Zander (Brandon Hammond) who has a small but comforting slow-motion shot involving fireworks to assuage Mace’s fears]. I also feel like I am making this movie sound perfect, which is not even close to. For one thing, while Strange Days is ahead of its time in many ways, it’s not altogether prophetic. Being a 1995 film about the future that doesn’t invoke the internet at all makes it an outlier and not in a good way. It also has a mostly unimpressive supporting cast beyond Fiennes and Bassett: Lewis feels like the weak link in the movie’s core conflict, feeling way too young for the jaded rock star part she’s trying to play and treating her character’s contempt for Nero less as genuine frustration of a man who is essentially stalking her and more like a teenager lying because she feels like it. Even if that’s how the character is meant to be (which I don’t think so – I like to think Faith does not want Nero to get hurt but she genuinely does not have any remaining romantic feelings for him), it feels like it makes the emotions so much flatter. Meanwhile, the best the supporting cast can do is play unidimensional archetypes of roles they seemed to be typed as in the 1990s like Vincent D’Onofrio being one note of angry or Tom Sizemore being one tone of grimy.

And yet still, I love Strange Days with all its future warts and if there’s something I think signifies how easily I am able to forgive its sleights, it is its climactic finale during a boisterous New Millennium party in the streets. At one point, it is the most harrowing sequence in the film as someone is beaten to the ground in closeness, the next the crowd has jumped in to save a life and it’s a release of all the pent-up anger the film has built under itself, and finally Bigelow inconsistently decides that all is right: justice is served by a confused system that nearly killed an innocent minutes ago and the world does not end at midnight like we feared. And while this is an ending I fundamentally disagree with, the final grace note of where our characters end feels so emotionally right and reassuring as the streets celebrate all around them and we look up to a new night sky while Lori Carson & composer Graeme Revell fades into Deep Forest in a peaceful compulsively delightful ending.

And then the disc ends and I open my eyes.

*give or take a Casablanca.
**In fact, that’s another thing Strange Days and Blade Runner have in common: a close-up of a character’s eye appears within the opening cuts of each film.

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…Are the Same That Burn Crosses.

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I like to think of myself as a formalist. And Spike Lee’s latest film BlacKkKlansman is by most angles formally and aesthetically sound, with a brilliant leitmotif by Terence Blanchard that varies in tempo and key depending on the mood and tone of a given scene and radically propulsive editing by his regular Barry Alexander Brown. I mean, it would have to be at least some amount of aesthetically distinct to win Lee the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Rarely do I find myself put off by the actual content of a film if the film attached works extremely well as cinema and Lee has long proven himself one of the most adept directors in utilizing cinematic tools to amplify his attitude and using his vast knowledge of film history as one of the industry’s resident scholars to turn the medium’s ugliness against itself.* I frankly think BlacKkKlansman is a movie where he accomplishes this, so I do walk away thinking it’s a good movie.

But – and this is where I have to admit Lee is infinitely more qualified to tell how angry is “angry enough” when it comes to the United States’ atmosphere of racism – I don’t think BlacKkKlansman is angry enough and that’s disappointing to me.

To my knowledge, the script was originally written by Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz until Spike Lee joined last September, apparently rewriting a part of the script with Kevin Willmott (who worked with Lee on his previous film, Chi-Raq). The parts Lee and Willmott rewrote are easy to pick out and I’m not sure they outnumber Wachtel and Rabinowitz’s contribution. For there are moments that full of an unmistakable charge towards racism in America (particularly the lecture prologue on the scientific proof of white supremacy by an unflattered Alec Baldwin feels entirely like something I’d expect if I saw C.S.A.: Confederate States of America and only its being preceded by a famous shot in 1930s cinema is what prevents me from assuming it’s all Willmott), but there’s also a lot of neutral summarizing of the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel).

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In 1972, he was recruited into the Colorado Springs Police Department and eventually roses from the records room to working as an undercover attendant of Black Power figurehead Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins)’s local speech to initiating his own investigation into the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan just by lifting up his office phone, calling local chapter president Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), and proclaiming his hate of all non-Aryan races in the earshot of everyone in his office, including fellow officers Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) and Jimmy Creek (Michael Buscemi). Flip meets on Ron’s behalf face-to-face with the chapter, including the intense paranoiac Felix (Jasper Pääkönen), while Jimmy is recording the encounters and Ron continues to correspond with the Klan over the phone, eventually reaching National Director Grand Wizard himself David Duke (a brittle-yet-prim Topher Grace in his non-Ocean’s-movie career-best).

Most of this material is presented in the cleanest manner and I mean completely clean, like two steps away from Wikipedia summary if not for the liberties the screenplay takes with the story. Not just how matter-of-fact Lee’s direction of moments like Ron’s beginnings in the records room or his mingling with local black student union president Patrice (Laura Harrier), but how absolutely unwilling it is to delve into the complications of the matter. Flip says some vile things to Ron while undercover, some of them to his own face, and there’s never a doubt on the film’s mind that Flip’s aggression is all a game. Despite the Chief of Police claiming in one scene that Ture is a threat to the peace, Stallworth insists in one scene that he is not and the Chief accepts that he is not. The police force depicted here are all unconflicted good guys except for one character by Frederick Weller who exists solely to be booed and jeered as the “bad apple” in the force. In general, despite Patrice’s only major contribution being somebody Ron has to protect and occasionally explaining how racism is institutionalized, the film refuses to confront Ron’s desire to battle the system while being unfortunately a part of that system as it arranges for its depiction of the system to be altruistic. The only disorganization comes from the buffoonish and dumb hicks that are the resident KKK, an approach that feels like the sort of white liberal reassuring I would not have expected from Lee.

I don’t want to lay this on the feet of the white co-writers necessarily. I know that Flip’s Jewish identity was an invention of theirs and a mid-film monologue regarding his feeling of assimilation among white people is one of the few times Flip gets to register as a complex character with his own arc, though it is unfortunate that the entire arc gets contained to one scene. Mostly, it just feels like the main priority was just putting together the episodic investigation with only a few avenues for it to truly become a Spike Lee joint, which it does the more and more it leads to its own finale after a wandering middle where the pieces shuffle inch by inch. That it doesn’t seem interested in talking about racism ingrained in the police force is unfortunate, but I’m gonna assume the man who made Do the Right Thing knows all about that anyway.

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Anyway, the “Spike Lee joint” material pops in every now and again after that Alec Baldwin rant (which mind you has terrific editing to imply how flustered and foolish even the most “learned” person can be when all of his mistakes are public). Enough to outweigh the bland stuff, if not in quantity then in quality. Ture’s speech is superimposed by beautiful black faces in chiaroscuro lighting as he verbally tears down perceptions of ugliness towards black people, making us see exactly what inspiration Ture sees in his fellow peers. The most powerful cue of Blanchard’s theme appears at a cold reveal involving a Klan shooting range, defiant and sad at once. Most impressively, Harry Belafonte delivers an account of the horrifying Jesse Washington lynching in 1916 in gruesome detail accompanied by photos while cross-cut with the Klan watching the infamous Birth of a Nation and celebrating the Gus lynching scene, defiantly condemning one of the foundational motion pictures in cinematic history and its acclaim and legacy.

And yet it only feels like bits and pieces have that fiery soul to them rather than the whole movie and even while it ends on its most impassioned moment, involving a direct wake-up call to remind us that a few prank phone calls and averted cross-burnings did not stop racism and violence from remaining in the US, it’s of a ballsy unwieldy move involving archive footage and a static final shot that feels dynamic in its message that some might call the messy side of Spike Lee. Personally, I wish the entire film was that kind of ballsy messiness (after all, I don’t doubt we’d still have moments I loved most with that don’t give a fuck attitude). It’s the most galvanizing moment the entire movie has contextualizing the story with the current atmosphere and it’s impossible to ignore the message from that moment, misfire or not. Maybe Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting both spoiled me, and I can’t pretend a movie led by this kind of performance from Washington (who has clearly inherited his father’s confidence) is boring, but I was not expecting the filmmaker who had been fighting these battles before Boots Riley or Daveed Diggs had to be pulling some of his punches.

*Matter of fact, now that I have that down, I’m thinking BlacKkKlansman would make a worthwhile double feature with Inglourious Basterds, which has similar observations and practices towards cinema. Ironic given the notorious feud between Lee and Quentin Tarantino.

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Make It Rain

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I haven’t seen any of the Sharknado films*, but the vibe I get is that it’s self-aware in a smug way and trying too hard to appeal to the so-bad-it’s-good crowd. And that strikes me as obnoxious and unaware of what makes the appeal of a movie that’s so-bad-it’s-good: it’s not that the movie’s aren’t trying to be good on the assumption of a camp factor they haven’t earned, but that they are trying so damn hard that we can’t help admiring their chutzpah. It’s the same sort of vibe I get from Samurai Cop 2 casting Tommy Wiseau as its villain. You don’t cast Tommy Wiseau without trying to cheat your way into camp cinema cred and I apologize to the memory of Samurai Cop as a film I hold dear to my heart, but I didn’t feel like bothering with its 24-year-later successor.

I almost got the fear early into The Hurricane Heist, Rob Cohen’s latest action thriller. It was very quickly relieved by the fact that the same thing that made me wonder if they’re going to try too hard also made my friend and I laugh our heads off in the theater.

It was a CGI skull superimposed in the middle of a hurricane sky.

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You see, Cohen is not new to making trash movies that have somehow turned into fine ironic entertainment. His very last film before this was the tawdry teacher-student sex film The Boy Next Door and my, would that have been quite a hit in the 1990s. Instead it’s a diamond in the rough of 2015**. And it’s hard to believe the people involved in that film were oblivious to the sheer lunacy of their screenplay but there wasn’t a shred of detachment from the execution of that film without letting the audience in on the fun as well. The Hurricane Heist is probably also aware of how utterly dumb it is, but it doesn’t want that to stop you from coming for some sincerely ridiculous “watch it with your friends while drunk” material, starting from that CGI skull (and let me tell you, this is not the last time we will see it).

The skull hurricane happened to be terrorizing the huddled children Will and Breeze Rutledge shortly after witnessing their father being killed by debris in a heavy Category 5. The incident left a distinct impact in each of them as they grew up into Alabama Good Ol’ Boys: Breeze (Ryan Kwanten) has become a functioning alcoholic taking care of their pops’ electrician garage, the only thing he has left to remember his pop. Will (Toby Kebbell) has become vengeful enough against the forces of nature to become a meteorologist who drives a high-tech version of the Tumbler from the Dark Knight movies. Will spend his whole runtime functioning as a harbinger of doom for the latest storm kicking up in the way of his hometown, declaring it pre-emptively as an off-the-charts Category 5 and trying to convince his headstrong brother to evacuate with the rest of the city.

This just happens to coincide with the treasury drop-off of $600 million set to be shredded, looked over by haunted agent Casey Corbyn (Maggie Grace) and her zen Irish partner Connor Perkins (Ralph Ineson). Casey just wants to get these done quickly to prove herself capable of handling official responsibilities again, Connor’s calm demeanor has something to do with the fact that he planned to use this opportunity to rob the Treasury of that doomed money with no intent of harming a single individual in the building. And so he enacts his plan almost immediately and while there is little understanding as to whether or not he was aware he planned this theft in the middle of a huge-ass hurricane, he was definitely aware that Casey was no longer in the building as she went off to grab Breeze so he can repair the Treasury building’s generator.

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I say again, Connor was aware that Casey was no longer in the building and thus not among the hostages his heist team rounded up. And yet he still started his plan without that important detail. Shenanigans lead to Casey returning with Breeze to a welcome of gunfire in the stormy grey rain. While Casey is able to evade capture, Breeze is apprehended and forced to work on the generator so that Connor’s hacker couple, Sasha and Frears (Melissa Bolona and Ed Birch), can continue their hacking into the vault. Connor also needs Casey’s IPad to open it, which we as an audience are aware he simply needs to dig into, like, an inch of shredded bills to find. Y’know, Connor may not have figured his plan all the way through.

The overly complex presentation of a story that does not need to be this damn complex is only one layer where The Hurricane Heist brings joy to my heart. There are wild creative decisions all around, like the fact that Sasha and Frears are dressed like this is a night at the club or Will’s constant response to a physical threat by the robbers by using the strong tropical winds in his favor. At one point, he just throws a bunch of hubcaps down wind with unconflicted success in impaling several of Connor’s gang with them. At another instance, he swears to Casey they’re safe using sports equipment to remain tethered to a mall while their assailants are sucked into the focused cyclone. Meanwhile, Casey and Will are fucking SLAMMING onto the building’s roof and don’t die somehow. This movie does not give a damn about the physics except insofar as they could provide a ridiculous outlet for Will to thwart the villains without having to use a gun.

Meanwhile, this is also a movie very much aware of the fact that it’s set in Alabama despite being shot in Sofia, Bulgaria and not having a single Southern American in its main cast. The artificiality of the film’s Southern identity is like a wall for it to smash through. The sole yankee is Grace and everybody else is just doing their best mock-up of a shit-kicking cowboy. Except Ineson, but IS doing an understated imitation of an Irish accent and that’s the most sedate part of his performance. His brilliantly tragic work in The Witch would have convinced anyone he’s above this sort of work, but Ineson just doesn’t care: he’s channeling Nicolas Cage-esque tension, repeating unconvincingly that he’s not a violent individual before cursing and snarling at everyone that his plans are ruined including, yeah, at one point cursing the Hurricane face-to-face (again, this character does not appear to be smart).

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Nobody else gets close to Ineson’s level, though Ben Cross from that most Southern of films, Chariots of Fire, tries playing every inch of a ruthless hick sheriff stereotype. And Kebbell is just about the source of any possible urgency the film has, constantly having a look on his face like whatever he’s about to do is a terrible idea but doing it anyway because the movie says so. It’s only more amusing that the points where the film’s pace slow down most are “character moments” between Will and Casey as they give a heart to heart while urinating outside IN THE MIDDLE OF A HURRICANE or take a lunch break to discuss the distinction between peanut butter and tuna fish sandwiches WHILE WILL’S BELOVED BROTHER IS IN DANGER.

I mean, it sounds contradictory to say that this film is proud of its own stupidity but I can’t help feeling like Cohen and company saw the potential to take this film off the rails and took it. And while its craft is not the stuff of masters, Cohen’s editor Niven Howie is certainly intent on presenting the action in a manner that can accidentally wow the right sort of viewer. This is an ambitious movie: one that wants explosions, dwarfing storm clouds, overwhelming overcast rains, destroyed models wherever it can fit them (showing Cohen’s heart is in the best place), and climactic truck chase involving the heroes jumping between them like they’re in a Western. And probably most ambitious of all: this is a film that presents the utopian concept of southern folk who are explicitly proud supporters of climate change theory AND the second amendment.

I wish one of those things was characters shooting guns at the hurricane to stop it, but we can’t have everything. Sometimes, it just takes the simpler things in life to satisfy me.

*Holy shit, there are 6 of them bitches.
**Not to imply that 2015 wasn’t an amazing year for movies because it actually was.

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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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Send Me a Sign

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Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri (and oooh baby do I love that title) has an unfortunate sin within it that I wish it didn’t have. Something certain people would argue is present in last year’s big Best Picture frontrunner* La La Land, but in a more direct and frankly unpleasant manner. Before I can get into what that is, I gotta lay out what it’s about.

The premise of writer/director Martin McDonagh’s screenplay begins eight months after the investigation (ten months after the crime itself) of the rape and murder of teenage Angela Hayes (Kathryn Newton) and setting the film that far ahead of the crime establishes it within the film as a long cold case that McDonagh is not concerned with solving. This is not a mystery. Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri is instead about the aftermath of a town’s lack of closure from it and the woman at the center of it all is Angela’s misanthropic hard-headed mother Mildred (Frances McDormand), who in her frustration tries to light a fire under Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) by renting three billboards close to her home with a message on each one: “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, and “How come, Chief Willoughby?”.

Obviously, that’s going to inflame a lot of outrage in such a small town as Ebbing (where most of the action takes place in only three locations). It stresses the hell out of Mildred’s depressed son and Angela’s sister Robbie (Lucas Hedges) to continue to be reminded of her awful death, it infuriates Mildred’s ex-husband and Angela’s father Charlie (John Hawkes) with his history of violence and stone animosity to his ex-wife, and it especially puts Mildred on the wrong side of the largely corrupt police force. It certainly upsets Chief Willoughby despite his understanding of Mildred’s pain and wish to solve the case and in the context of a personal development that feels too much like a spoiler to let on, but it’s the alcoholic and unruly Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) who takes it the hardest and tries to abuse his power unrestrainedly to make the life of anybody even slightly involved with Mildred a living hell. This is not particularly new to Dixon, considering how quickly Mildred throws his history of racially charged police brutality at him and that’s where it becomes a little less kosher for me.

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Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri does not want to be about racism. In a town full of bigots in every corner (McDonagh’s dialogue is chock full of some very unfortunate phrasing about race, sexuality, physical deficiencies, mental deficiencies, and so on), it just so happens to have to deal with a local police station in a town where it reflects all of the flaws and problems with the people inhabiting it themselves. And unfortunately there is no possible way to make a film revolving around police officers in such a toxic environment that doesn’t identify brutality and racism without being painfully naive. That those things play as window dressing to the subsequent interiority of characters who partake in them is untimely given this day and age of BlackLivesMatter (especially since the only three black characters in the film have little to no characterization, which is just awful) and that’s enough to hold it against Three Billboards, but I don’t see that as the sum of its parts.

Me, I just happen to think it’s a really well-sketched story of three people who have to deal with grief and failure in their own ways and all three of those people are portrayed in tragic and bitter shades by McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell (preferred in that order), spitting out McDonagh’s venom like a second language. McDormand especially makes the profanities that come out of her feel effortless with a clear amount of hurt and self-preservation behind them to inform us enough of the character within her first few scenes. Harrelson and Rockwell approach their own characters from an opposing spectrum of sensitivity and vulnerability that softens the edges of their characters in a way that helps the subsequent third act feel natural and less objectionable (Harrelson’s Willoughby is absolute soft edges and diplomacy, Rockwell’s Dixon an unfortunate shit of a person).

McDonagh’s script is obviously not perfect. In fact, I would call it the weakest element of the whole film. It’s thematically clumsy on those elements and there’s missteps on its structure – such as the decision to include a flashback that doesn’t really tell us anything about Angela we wouldn’t already learn later and imbue some eye-rollingly contrived dark irony – but it’s much closer to McDonagh’s brilliant feature debut In Bruges to his merely fine sophomore effort Seven Psychopaths, full of a mechanical domino effect in incidents and character motivations that ends up slowly billowing to a fire before it just exhausts itself with energy (in a very good way) in the final act and mostly keeping this up with a muted but present sense of bitter black humor for palatability and unexpected sympathy for characters that one might argue doesn’t deserve it.

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And that still leaves enough praise for how McDonagh as a director works so well to keep the small scale of the town established (with the help of an ensemble that honestly has little to work with but make the best of it – Samara Weaving, Jon Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, and Caleb Landry Jones all feeling lived-in) by containing most of the primary action to three major spots, one of which must have been a miracle of location scouting in having the police station and the publicity office where Mildred rents the billboards, setting the stage for one very wild and violent long-shot sequence as well as a little experiment in paced cutting by Jon Gregory as we witness Mildred take out her fiery wrath in the middle of the night unknowing of her shocking victim. Ben Davis’ photography and Carter Burwell’s score provide a sarcastic rural Americana feel to the proceedings (including the bluest nights one can dream of with a brilliant wide shot of Mildred rushing in between two blazing fires in the middle of an otherwise vacant field) all of which give the full package to diving deep into these characters’ sense of their lives being broken by a rape-murder and their inability to find closure from it all.

In the end, it’s all the McDormand/Rockwell show and McDonagh seems to want to arrange all the best elements of his film to compliment their presence. And in Rockwell’s case especially, this depends on how your mileage may vary because it’s impossible to pretend Three Billboards does not put itself right in the crosshairs of those who would rightfully call it out as giving interiority to racists and homophobes and general bullies and we live in an age where some people might not want to see that. But there’s something pretty comforting about its willingness to see the clumsy sloppiness in anger and hate and how people just don’t know how to square with their problems. Some use it to attack and blame, some use it to abuse and beat down and Three Billboards doesn’t pretend to have an answer to that, just a very sad lens to the people who think they found it.

*While it’s probably not THE frontrunner this year – I don’t think there is a “THE frontrunner” yet – Three Billboards is certainly A frontrunner.

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Horrid Henry

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So, between Colin Trevorrow’s The Book of Henry and M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, 2017 sure has me kind of turnt on narratives about sexual abuse to young girls that are written and directed by men absolutely unqualified to write about these topics. They’re not entirely clueless and there are elements of it that they illuminate, but in the overall narrative, they end with some extremely grievous final notes on the matter and that leaves a shockingly bad taste in my mouth watching these movies. However, while Split apparently houses some genre work that I spied well enough that I might be somewhat interested in re-watching and evaluating it someday, I have absolutely no desire to ever put myself through The Book of Henry again unless somebody is willing to sit down and roast the movie with me*. It’s a miserable experience alone.

And the fact that this movie has such a well-meaning but toxic male savior-esque attitude about rape is only the half of it. That’s not the main thing The Book of Henry is about nor is it the only thing wrong about the movie. It has been said by many people by now, but let me repeat, there is not one narrative element of The Book of Henry that doesn’t sit me down and wonder “who on Earth thought this movie was a good idea?” The answer is clearly present in how much Trevorrow and company dedicate their efforts in the craft, right down to Michael Giacchino trying to give the sparkliest imitation of mid-90s Amblin’ family fare that only 90s kids like I would get, forever a sign of how cursed we are as a group. Trevorrow and his crew are dedicated to providing us to the most amiable Rockwellian blanket atmosphere making this feel like a warm family story, totally ignorant of the fact that the script Gregg Hurwitz is fucking psychotic.

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That script’s duotagonists are the titular precocious 11-year-old Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher) and his “struggling” single mother Susan (Naomi Watts who has made damn sure we will remember her 2017 as the year of Twin Peaks and not this shit). I put “struggling” in scare quotes because she insists on continuing to work hard as a waitress and driving a very distressed looking automobile, but Henry is gifted enough intellectually to turn her paychecks into hundreds of thousands of dollars thanks to stock-brokering over a goddamn payphone at his school. He’s also apparently intelligent enough to crush a kid’s dreams of being an Olympic dodgeball champion in the classroom in a manner that apparently impresses his middle school teacher for appealing to her existential crisis, despite clearly deflating a child in her care.

Henry’s a fucking asshole. Like, flat out. And the movie thinks we’re going to be rooting for him when he begins elaborating on a plan to discreetly assassinate his next-door neighbor Police Commissioner Glenn (Dean Norris) that we know Henry can and will execute. Even with the knowledge of Glenn consistently abusing his step-daughter Christina (Maddie Ziegler), even with most of the movie told through the wide-eyed perspective of Henry’s younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) whom Henry protects from school bullies, all as emotional blackmail, Henry is so repulsive as a human being in his judgmental attitude towards his mother struggling to find a way to function as a mother figure despite Henry ripping all financial agency and maternal responsibility from her life, superiority complex towards his kids, and the clear psychopathy in his leap from “try to appeal to authorities or superiors who can help Christina and fail” to “I’m going to shoot this man to fucking death” in less than a week. Mind you, when you’re trying to appeal to your principal to help someone, you’re not going to get anybody on your side busting into the door with “Goddammit, Janice”.

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Even before we approach the middle development of the film where it takes a narrative turn that flips this at-first terribad Radio Flyer reboot (and mind you, Radio Flyer was already garbage) upside-down and incapable of figuring out what direction it can go with its story, Trevorrow is clearly interested in providing the most treacly nostalgic child’s wonder treatment of this material that is wildly inappropriate by any means, sun-dappled cinematography and directing the cast to be as casual about the shit that has to come out of their mouth as possible. Watts looks like she’s suffering the worst of it and wants to bail ASAP, while Sarah Silverman looks like there’s absolutely no bit of this she will take seriously, giving the sloppiest Amy Winehouse impression I could witness top to bottom. And when one looks at Hurwitz’ previous work*, which includes runs on the Batman comics and thriller novel series about genetically-modified hyper-intelligent assassins, I don’t know how anybody thought he was worth the benefit of the doubt on writing this movie, it reads on paper like just another one of his thrillers but if he sent it as a Peanuts story commission and wasn’t laughed out of the building.

It’s really hard not to turn this into just “this moment sucked and this moment sucked and so did this one” like I really really want to. Not only because of spoilers but there are so many miscalculations – from Silverman kissing Lieberher to a talent show montage crosscut with a climax that ends up wildly Brooksian in tonal whiplash all the way down to the final resolution the movie provides in the end – so all I can do is just give you my horrorstruck stare at what kind of movie everybody was ok with and how frustrating it is that people actually believed in this as wholesome and worth delivering to a family audience. Fucking miss me with this shit, don’t ever talk to me or my son ever again.

Man, J.J. Abrams is definitely not my ideal director of Star Wars: Episode IX, especially if The Last Jedi does a hell of a lot of work to move the new trilogy far beyond. But The Book of Henry is the most engaged time I’ve had watching any of Trevorrow’s three movies and at this point I’m glad to take anything out of the possibility of a Star Wars film by this guy.

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*Seriously, I gotta make a commentary for this movie. It’ll be to The Book of Henry the exact opposite of what Roger Ebert did to Citizen Kane.
**The way I got Hurwitz’ CV was from looking through his Wikipedia page, which reads heavily like a man trying to impress me, including non-sequiturs about going undercover in cults and swimming with sharks and sneaking into demolitions ranges with Navy SEALs. I would not be surprised if he wrote his own wikipedia page and if so, he sounds exactly the sort of dude who’d introduced himself by saying “I went to Harvard AND Oxford” and thus exactly the sort of dude who’d identify with Henry and want us to find him impressive.

This Very Minute

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I haven’t seen his debut As Tears Go By, but everything about Wong Kar-Wai’s sophomore feature film Days of Being Wild feels like the beginning of the famous Hong Kong filmmaker’s style being coalesced* and this doesn’t make it feel amateur in the slightest. In fact, it’s really impressive how this quickly Wong was able to develop his cinematic personality based on a sedate patience, lilting airy romanticism so ephemeral that it mirrors the characters’ inability to consummate their love, and an ability to visually distinguish colors while making them feel as muted as the characters that are surrounded by them (another reason that Days of Being Wild feeling like the beginning of true Wong is that it was his first work with one of his most famous collaborators, cinematographer Christopher Doyle). What’s especially impressive on Wong’s part is his confidence in establishing for the majority of the brisk hour and a half film, that he’s able to provide a violent third act development that is shocking enough to really make the whole thing feel like such a deliberate break from his modus operandi. Obviously, I have almost all of his filmography behind me to contextualize the scene in question, but I feel even if I had only seen Days of Being Wild as my first Wong Kar-wai, that moment might have pulled the rug out from under me. Wong has a talent for that.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself by talking of the ending first. There’s a story preceding it – kind of two, but it’s hard not to claim it’s not just one story with different perspectives. The one that’s truly “guiding” the film is the aimless flirtings of bad boy casanova Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) or ‘York’ as his English name as he roams through Macau in 1960 preying on the heart of the young worker at the local stadium Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung) and the relationship – which is presented with Su’s voiceover to establish as the point of view for the first 20 minutes – is cut through so quickly that it already feels so long past and like a scattered memory by the time we get to Yuddy’s new girlfriend, a taxi dancer who goes by many names like Leung Fung-ying, Lulu (which she gives Yuddy), or Mimi [which she gives to Yuddy’s best friend Zeb (Jacky Cheung**)]. Yuddy clearly doesn’t have any care for the devastation she clearly left Su in when she confronts him one night for her things or to the disposability he makes Lulu feel and this apathy doesn’t feel like a performance but instead something that stems from his lack of knowledge of who or where his true mother is and thus his inability to come up with any real identity or life for himself. This also fuels his own antagonistic nature in his crime dealings with his closest mother figure, prostitute Rebecca (Rebecca Pan).

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Leslie Cheung, whose suicide in 2003 left the feeling that his life was no less conflicted than Yuddy’s, embodies the self-destructive nature using only body language while having a stonewalled expression on his boyish face for every grievance his victims give him and it ends up being layered and telling in spite of Yuddy’s in-text intentions. And Wong graciously gives Leslie room to have that uncertainty redefine Yuddy as a character, including moments where he looks himself in the mirror and dances to Wong’s usual preference for Spanish tunes. Obviously, even the several names of Carina’s character reflects Yuddy’s struggle for identity.

Meanwhile, there is Su Lizhen’s side of her story after the break-up and the pacing is more generous to her returns to Yuddy’s place and the police man Tide (Andy Lau**) who tries to console with ambiguity over his intentions with her romantically than it was with in the rushed opening sequence of her time spent as Yuddy’s girlfriend. And Maggie is wonderfully empathetic drenched in rain in such a sorrowful manner surrounded by the beautiful black and blue of the streets of Hong Kong, a very modern touch to a semi-period piece. That modernness is one of my favorite things about Days of Being Wild, the ability of Wong and Doyle to use its sense of place and time to give it a very now feeling – most particularly evident in the moments between Su and Tide where the repetition of their encounters and the circular walk they take as Andy plays a frustrated stoic audience to Su’s fears of solitude is the closest thing such a fluid film has to being a structure. Su’s clearly such an open character that Wong would later return to her throughout his career the way Richard Linklater takes Jesse and Celine around life, which makes her sudden departure from the film forgivable if still disappointing.

Then when the film moves over – through clear narrative logic on both Yuddy and Tide’s part – to the Philippines for its final act, it teases a serenity in the characters’ eventual encounter (especially in the colors being less severe there) only for it to be viscerally explosive and the opposite of fulfilling for everyone involved. And that’s a very bold thing for Wong to do early in his career, interrupting the otherwise patient manner of his storytelling to pull in fist fights and gunshots that are exciting but only solidify Yuddy’s complete lack of control for his life. But it’s also something I’m thankful for, as the deliberate nature of it very clearly established Wong as a figure who could easily flip back and forth between eroticism, melancholy, and tragedy without broad tonal shifts. That sort of versatile elegance can only be praised when it comes to a contemporary filmmaker.

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*And this is not just because of the fact that it’s the first part in an informal trilogy – though not that informal since Maggie Cheung plays the same character in all three – by Wong including In the Mood for Love in 2000 and 2046 in 2004.
**Despite having the same birth surnames, Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, and Jacky Cheung are not related at all. Guess it’s just the Chinese version of Smith. Likewise for Carina and Andy Lau.

Shut Up and Drive

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I’m in exactly the perfect age bracket to be surrounded by the hype and frenzy for Edgar Wright’s latest Ant-Manrebound passion project, the 2017 crime caper comedy Baby Driver. And I can’t say a lot of that acclaim it’s received is entirely undeserved, as a stylistic montage of car chase and foot chase setpieces soundtracked by some of the most body-jiving music you could ask a kid to listen to music older than him for, it is an absolute joy. It’s nothing exactly revelatory from either Wright (given his early Mint Royale’s “Blue Song” video feeling entirely recreated by the opening five minutes) or the car chase subgenre (‘cause y’know Mad Max: Fury Road, John Wick: Chapter Two, The Raid 2, and Nightcrawler literally just came out, y’all), it’s a candy-colored rhythmic distraction that is both fun and exciting as the demands of each scene go, from square on all the way to… well, all the way to close to the end, but well, let’s square with this before this and get the ugly stuff out of the way before I can return to what’s really good about Baby Driver.

I’m surrounded by dozens of calls by peers for it being a masterpiece or one of the best films of the year and I so very much wish I could side with that because I barely like Baby Driver as it is, when it spends most of that nearly two-hour runtime focusing less on the caper side of things and more on our protagonist getaway driver Baby’s (Ansel Elgort) quick courtings with waitress Deborah (Lily James). This is the first film that Wright has written on his own and without any actual source material to go on (I’ve heard the comparisons to The Driver and Drive, but Baby Driver feels so absolutely different than those) and the last two movies without the co-writing partnership Wright had with his previous muse Simon Pegg have been very informative. Wright finds a lot more free reign to play along with visuals and music in those than he kind of got to do with The Cornetto trilogy, but there’s also less believable humanity in those movies (I don’t wanna say heart, because come on, Wright clearly loves making movies) than when Pegg himself was dedicated to crafting and fully-fleshing out these characters, where we could see these characters however weird they are – Nicholas Angel the closest to caricature – living in the real world.

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We get some of that in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World but not as much, we absolutely do not get that in Baby Driver, which is fine since that’s not the point. But it means James has so little material to work with – a brief backstory dump in a Laundromat attached to no real character beyond “likes baby and music” – and try as she might, she’s clearly struggling with having all these reactions coalesce into a compelling romantic lead rather than just in-the-moment acting.

Elgort, on the other hand, holy shit. He’s bad, people. The Divergent series, he was barely noticeable in a sea of vanilla performances. The Fault in Our Stars, he turned an on-paper joke of a character into a smug self-satisfied twerp. And Baby Driver just demands things out of him that he’s absolutely incapable of doing. When he’s first meeting Deborah, the lines coming out of Baby’s mouth are so delicately obtuse (in that self-protected way) that they need somebody who can provide them with sincere uncertainty and instead Elgort recites them with the smirking shallow satisfaction of a serial killer. When the movie gets much darker in its second half and the stakes escalate, Elgort’s idea of toughness is to pout his face as hard as he can and maintain that monotonously like a kid’s impression of Ryan Gosling in Drive. When he shares scenes with Baby’s foster father, he… Well, actually that’s one of the few moments Elgort actually is great, providing a personality that actually seems genuine and fun. I’m gonna be nice and not imply that’s only because he has a stellar scene partner in the one-man-show deaf actor CJ Jones.

Indeed, the supporting cast to those two lovebirds – namely the ones who inhabit Baby’s life of crime that threatens to interrupt his romance – are much better but not by much. Jon Bernthal plays “Douchebag” reliably again but is gone after one scene. Kevin Spacey likewise is inhabiting the kind of sardonic wise guy personality he can do in his sleep, but when the movie demands a fatherly warmth out of his character at the last minute, he has no clue what he’s doing and it’s a tonal whiplash from his preceding coldness. Jamie Foxx is certainly dangerous presence but he’s also replaying the same beats as Motherfucker Jones in Horrible Bosses, so that leaves Eiza Gonzalez and Jon Hamm as the last folks standing as a scene-stealing cocaine Bonnie and Clyde-esque couple and between the two of them, Hamm is the only one that gets enough screentime for us to see a whole person with his own tragic story going on.

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Basically when the movie tries to get a story going on, it’s between weak (the crime side) to DOA (the romance), it doesn’t have the script or cast to support it. But when it gets to being just dances of camera, cuts, and drum beats, Wright has an enviable grip on tone and form that leaves on catching their breath after every chase and resembles a bunch of impromptu music videos with all the joy of that Mint Royale music video. The very opening credits is grooving one-shot stroll that feels light as a Nora Ephron comedy and the “Brighton Rock” finale is just a bone-shaking barrage of impacts that imperils the viewer alongside our hero, central to the film is a bicathlon of foot chases and car chases and gunfights from the busy streets of Atlanta and through a shopping mall and it is the most sophisticated and joyous action work of Wright’s career since Shaun of the Dead’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” and a clear sign that Wright belongs in this atmosphere of popcorn movie homages, mixing its musical cues so wonderfully with the roar and squeals of the pursuits that the marriage feels natural and just sinks into the whole experience.

These are aesthetics that demands to be seen in a big screen with a big sound system in all the biggest senses and if it gets interrupted by a watery plot that’s hard to feel emotionally attached with, I can’t help shrugging that off. I’m very clearly in the minority on that script matter anyway so if you’re like the rest of the world, you won’t even need to shrug it off. You can very well leave Baby Driver with a bigger smile on your face than I did.

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25 for 25 – Why So Serious?

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I have it on relatively reliable authority (my mother) that I’ve been obsessed with superheroes since I was a child. Like go to the toy store with my mom and ask only for superhero action figures. Be taken to the comic book store by my dad and just grab whatever comic looked the coolest. Namely Batman. Especially Batman. At the risk of being basic, Batman was my favorite superhero as a child and even when I couldn’t understand the English words, I’d love witnessing him come to life from the art of Neal Adams and Kelley Jones (my very first Batman artist) growing up and how shaded and somber he’d look. I hate to say it but darkness is so much more interesting than brightness (captivating as brightness is, which is why I liked Superman a lot too).

I think child me is happy to have his love for Batman validated by the new decade (though I would be curious how he would be if he lived in 1989, when the first wave of Bat-Hype came about). For The Dark Knight is perhaps one of the biggest cinematic events that I have ever lived through and – unlike Titanic and Avatar – one that has its influence spread all over pop culture into this new decade since. For which I’m really glad I wasn’t writing about movies at the time so I could turn around in retrospect and comment on the effect.

You see, I mentioned in my X-Men review that the door was opened for superhero movies as a trend by the one-two-three success punches of Men in BlackX-Men, and Spider-Man causing everybody to run for comic book properties, but 2008 was the year comic book movies took their most important and recognizable shapes and began being recognized as legitimate arts for cinema. Iron Man supplied the universe-obsessed irreverent lively bright comic book films while The Dark Knight became the nihilistic sober-minded revisionist drama mode. Every superhero movie, even the ones that people claim to do something different like Deadpool or Logan, have the success of one or both of these movies in their DNA (like Deadpool‘s character focused, small-scale irreverence being a child of Iron Man‘s right down to the unorthodox action hero choice, while Logan‘s helpless nihilism is The Dark Knight in a Western setting).

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I think it’s very safe to say The Dark Knight may have made the bigger splash on how superhero movies can be taken seriously and its box office appeal (being the fourth movie to break the $1 billion barrier before it became a regular thing) and its subsequent critical acclaim leading to an outcry for its lack of a Best Picture nomination that led to the Oscars expanding the slate to up to 10 movies. Consensuses call it among the best movie of the 2000s, IMDb lists it as the fourth best rated movie since its release, and it’s roundly considered the best superhero film ever made.

Let’s get my opinion on it straight: it’s not my favorite superhero movie. Hell, it’s not even my favorite Batman movie. Hell, it’s not even my favorite of the Batman films directed by Christopher Nolan, of which The Dark Knight is the second part after Batman Begins (my favorite). And I wouldn’t hesitate in thinking it’s a somewhat overrated film (I am of the reducive attitude that any pop culture with that amount of popularity has to be overrated, whether Citizen Kane or The Beatles). If I’m recognizing the flaws that truly hold me back from considering it perfect, there’s infamously plodding dialogue (“NO MORE DEAD COPS!”, “Have a nice trip. See you next fall.”, etc.), the prisoner’s dilemma incorporated into the climax, and most grievously the double-edged sword of Nolan grounding the film making it feel more derivative of crime pictures (namely Michael Mann’s work) and having Wally Pfister’s cinematography downplayed after the expressionist wonder of Batman Begins‘ construction of Gotham City. Now, it’s Chicago. The Dark Knight calls it Gotham, but it’s totally Chicago. And that removes a lot of magic.

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Now that’s what I don’t like about a movie I love, so I’m gonna talk about what I do love. Grounding Batman in the real world may not be as pretty as I’d like, but it still provides a more effective narrative hook to follow – now we have legalities and public perception to worry about for our Dark Knight Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale), GCPD Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) trying to reel in the chaotic carnage of The Joker (Heath Ledger). And these factors aren’t just mentioned once and never shown up again, Batman’s arc revolves around whether or not he can retire so that Dent – the cleaner non-vigilante image for Gotham’s hero – can take over the fight that wears him down so.

There’s Nolan and Pfister’s expert usage of action setpieces. I know that’s not a popular opinion, but hell with it, I think Nolan and editor Lee Smith are the only people who have been able to follow through on Paul Greengrass’ famously kinetic physical action editing style that portrays and compels the viewer into feeling in the action while still giving a sense of confusion and incoherence without losing ourselves. I can’t imagine anybody trying to convince me the truck chase scene in the middle of the film is a poorly-edited scene and we do realize the opening bank robbery that introduces us to the Joker is kind of the favorite sequence of most viewers for a damn reason.

Aiding that editing by giving it its rhythm is one of the first scores that introduced to the idea that Hans Zimmer could not be bad in his collaboration with James Newton Howard. While much of it is just a re-packaging of leitmotifs served better in Batman Begins, it is indeed the Joker’s theme – a savage, slightly percussive undertone wonderfully described by Zimmer as “razor blades on cellos” – always able to tighten up a listener and briefly blasting horns in a consistently interrupted way as it climbs in intensity and puts our mind to the ticking timeclock Batman has to beat in order to overcome all of the Joker’s obstacles and beat his games.

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And that means addressing, finally, the elephant in the room: the much-mythologized penultimate performance of Heath Ledger as Batman’s Clown Prince of Crime arch-nemesis – the first acting performance nominated for an Oscar posthumously, the second awarded the Oscar, the subject of much speculation that the role was dangerous enough to cause Ledger’s premature death (speculation I honestly find tasteless and disrespectful to his abilities as an actor). He’s fantastic, personifying destruction and chaos in such an unexpected manner. He knows he owns each scene he appears in and drives it as far as he can, an energetic but never light or bouncy presence in the film that brings sickening darkness from his attire (provided by Lindy Hemming) to his grungy makeup to his lip smacking. He gets the closest he can to being believable in this pseudo-real world environment without losing the theatricality of a cinematic portrayal and his lack of restraint is not overzealous but measured. Sure, the other performances are fine, but people go to see The Dark Knight at this point for Ledger and it’s only serendipitous that Nolan’s movie surrounding him is also absolutely great.

I called the movie overrated, sure. But it doesn’t mean it’s not solid, intelligent popcorn cinema full of power and thunder. It’s bleak and operatic nihilism in the most accessible fashion, even moreso than No Country for Old Men. And while some of its gravitas has to have been informed by Ledger’s unfortunate death, that gravitas is still there and makes it compelling to watch without any guilt.

I mean, it’s been nearly ten years. I’m kind of gracious I gave the 16-year-old who first walked out telling his dad “I think it’s my favorite movie” time to figure out above all the overhype if The Dark Knight is still a great movie and I think the answer is loud yes. Sure, I’m not gonna call it one of the greatest comic book movies or of the 21st century and in the end I like my comic book movies bright and bouncy. But if The Dark Knight were a bad movie, it would not have survived the test of time. No, its grandioseness as a dark superhero picture in the post-9/11 world has leaked itself into so many films trying to copy some of that summer movie mojo and honestly none of them have been able to do much more than pale in imitation.

There can only be one Dark Knight.

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Video

The Passionate Disappointment of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For – Part 2: Scramble the Yarns

First of all, thank you guys so much for your patience. You guys really rock. I stated that the first straight-up video of Movie Motorbreath will be a pitch of re-arranging the yarns used in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For and here it is. Made painstaking over many late night hours crammed in a work schedule that is leaving me dying, just for you.

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