Thursday, 17 August 2017

Logan Lucky

(M) ★★★★

Director: Steven Soderbergh.

Cast:  Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Riley Keough, Daniel Craig, Brian Gleeson, Jack Quaid, Seth MacFarlane, Katie Holmes, Hilary Swank, Katherine Waterston, Sebastian Stan.

"The name's Bang. Joe Bang."
NO one ever really retires these days.

Every retirement is followed by the inevitable comeback, whether it be a one-off thing or a fully-fledged return that retroactively morphs the "retirement" into an "hiatus".

Take, for example, Steven Soderbergh, who retired from making movies in 2013 following Behind The Candelabra, his Liberace biopic for HBO. Since then he's done some TV (including the well-received The Knick) and some painting, but given his eclectic and rapid cinematic output over the years, it always seemed unlikely that he was done with film.

And here we are, in 2017, watching his comeback film, because no one ever really retires.

But it's a good thing Soderbergh is back, because Logan Lucky is quite a return. The obvious descriptor is that it's the redneck Ocean's Eleven - a hillbilly heist film that is similarly playful but set far further down the intellectual and socio-economic scale. Soderbergh himself called it the "anti-glam" version of his Clooney crim trilogy, noting the central robbery was based on "rubber-band technology". This home-spun idiocy is all part of the charm.

The hicks behind this heist are hard-luck divorcee Jimmy Logan (Tatum), his one-armed brother Clyde (Driver), their beautician sister Mellie (Keogh), incarcerated explosives expert Joe Bang (Craig) and his dimwitted brothers Sam (Gleeson) and Fish (Quaid). Their target is the Charlotte Speedway - the home of NASCAR - on the biggest race day of the year.


Soderbergh has always followed the "one for the studio, one for me" film-making ideology, and this falls into the former category, while still being unlike anything else he's ever done before. The fun-lovin' tone is perhaps closest to his Ocean's films or maybe Out Of Sight, but really its beats and quirks give it more of a Coen-esque quality.

As a result it lives or dies on its cast, and Soderbergh's ensemble is mostly spot-on. Craig is particularly good, outshining the quality duo of Tatum's everyman Jimmy and Driver's dour Clyde, who also have to compete with scene-stealers Quaid and Gleeson. McFarlane, sporting an English accent as distracting as his moustache, is probably the only mistake the casting agent made. Equally unsatisfying is Keogh's character Mellie. It's not Keogh's fault - she seems to be given plenty to do but sadly little development to go with her actions.

Much like Tatum and Craig in this film, the script (reportedly written by UK writer Rebecca Blunt who is rumoured to not exist) is a little flabby. By the time Logan Lucky slides into its fourth act FBI investigation (a nice cameo from Swank), it starts to wear out its welcome, but there's a satisfying ending with a little bit of a sting in the tail to make it all worthwhile.

Predominantly this is a joy to watch. The heist has a wonderfully homemade quality to it that makes the film a lot of fun, especially when mixed with the humour delivered by a wonderfully deadpan cast. A sequence involving a makeshift explosive is hilarious, as is a prison stand-off centring on Game Of Thrones.

Its always hard to rate Soderbergh's back catalogue because it's a bit like comparing apples and oranges and tractors, but this is certainly in the top bracket of his output alongside the likes of Out Of Sight, Traffic, Ocean's Eleven, The Informant!, Magic Mike, and Sex, Lies & Videotapes. Welcome back, Mr Soderbergh.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Valerian & The City Of A Thousand Planets

(M) ★★

Director: Luc Besson.

Cast: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Sam Spruell, Kris Wu.

"Are you sure we didn't mix up our uniforms?"
"Pretty sure."
WIKIPEDIA tells us that early in Luc Besson's career, he was part of movement critics dubbed cinéma du look, which was a classy way of saying Besson and his fellow French directors à la mode favoured "style over substance, spectacle over narrative".

More than three decades on, Besson's latest film Valerian & The City Of A Thousand Planets tells us nothing has changed. It must be this eye for the visual that has kept Besson's name as a selling point, because it sure as hell isn't his scriptwriting if Valerian is anything to go by.

More than 20 years on from his international career-defining one-two punch of Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element, Besson has managed to make the biggest film of his career - a love letter to the French graphic novel that inspired The Fifth Element and Star Wars, to name but two sci-fi descendants of Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières' comic book series. But much like many of his films since The Fifth Element, the script is a mess. Valerian is visually stunning, no doubt, but its screenplay leaves a lot to be desired.

The story focuses on government agents Valerian (DeHaan) and Laureline (Delevingne), who have been tasked to retrieve an item from an intergalactic marketplace. That item has a major role to play in something sinister that's taking place on Alpha, which was originally the international space station but in the 28th century has become a universal hub for aliens from every corner of the cosmos.


Spoilers prevent further explanation of the plot, but so does the plot itself. The story is such a tangled confusion of poorly thought-out strands that it defies explanation. When the various machinations and half-baked ideas are somewhat explained in the final act, it elicits an "Oh" from the audience - not in surprise and awe, but more an "Oh - is that what they were trying to do?".

Which brings us back to the "style over substance" thing from Wikipedia, which is so scarily accurate in this case that I wouldn't be surprised if someone recently created the "cinéma du look" page purely in response to having seen Valerian.

The film looks incredible. Every one of its €200 million has been spent on piling the pixels sky high to create worlds and aliens that would give George Lucas funny feelings in his pants department. There is no shortage of creativity on display and its visual spectacle has to be applauded, even if a lot of it feels like it's there for no reason other than showing off.

But its all way too much pretty tinsel piled onto a dead Christmas tree. Contributing to the failure of the story is the depiction of its main characters. Valerian and Laureline vacillate between annoying and stupid and the script throws them headlong into an awkward relationship that is really hard to get on board with straight up. Easing us into their uncomfortable workplace situation might have made it easier to stomach and made it feel a little less "I should report you to HR".

Laureline occasionally gets to be a butt-kicking heroine, but all too often feels like a bunch of reductive stereotypes, while Valerian is primarily a jerk. DeHaan and Delevingne do their best individually but lack chemistry together. After that, everything else is doomed to fail. No one in the cast comes out of this smelling of roses, except probably John Goodman in a brief voice role.

All Valerian has going for it is its stunning visuals, an occasional good idea amid the mess, and a destiny as a cult favourite, which is what usually happens with similarly over-stuffed sci-fi films. The reality is that this is the next Jupiter Ascending, as opposed to being the next The Fifth Element.

Friday, 11 August 2017

REWIND REVIEW: Cloud Atlas

(MA15+) ★★★

Director: Tom Tykwer & The Wachowskis.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, James D'Arcy.

This picture encapsulates why I don't go to pubs anymore.
Are you ready for my most self-indulgent blog to date?

Here goes.

One of the trickiest aspects of film reviewing is trying to get it right after just one viewing of a film. My theory has always been 'once to feel it, twice to watch it', but as a reviewer you're very rarely afforded the luxury of seeing a film twice before penning a critique. And so reviewers become accustomed to simultaneously feeling (ie. sitting back and letting it wash over you) and watching (ie. studying) a film on the first go.

It means we're sometimes wrong. I would say that 19 times out of 20 I'm on the money, but sometimes I'm off. In my summary of Christopher Nolan's career, I highlighted my overly generous star ratings for The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, although the reviews themselves were fairly close to my current thoughts. I once did a podcast on this topic titled I Was Wrong (but it appears to have since disappeared from the internet) highlighting in particular my overzealous reviews of the Matrix sequels. I also canned Step Brothers probably harder than I should have.

All this brings me to Cloud Atlas, which I watched again recently (thanks to F Project Cinema in Warrnambool).

Here's my original two-star review from 2013. If you can't be bothered reading it, it's okay because this present review of Cloud Atlas is actually masquerading as a review of my own Cloud Atlas review of 2013. It's a bit meta and masturbatory but this is basically the long way round of highlighting this particular thing I said in 2013:

"Going back to soak (Cloud Atlas) in again and again could make this film a rich experience that rewards over time - it's likely this is destined for cult status."

Before going to watch Cloud Atlas again recently, this notion kept ringing in my ears. The film is dense with ideas and interwoven themes - no surprise given it tells six parallel stories across six different eras spanning roughly five centuries - and I was curious to see whether I was right about the whole "destined for cult status" thing.

I think I was (yay, we got to the point I was trying to make all along). In 2013, I was overly enamoured with David Mitchell's incredible book, hence giving the film two stars, which was a little harsh in hindsight. But despite the same flaws still weighing the film down, Cloud Atlas is definitely a film worthy of cult status. There is a lot to take in - it's the cinematic equivalent of a Where's Wally book. There's so much going on you can't see it all in one sitting, and it practically begs you to come back and dig deeper into it.


The problem is it's still a haphazardly structured three-hour monster with wavering entertainment value. It struggles to balance its six stories, occasionally cutting back to one narrative for mere seconds, seemingly simply to remind you that storyline still exists in the film. It also misses golden opportunities in its editing - as much as it tries to line-up similar events in different eras, it fails to do so as often as it does. So we watch Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) involved in a bold escape from an old folks home, then later we watch some other characters pull off a bold escape. The tone of each is different but it gives the film an unwelcome sense of repetition.

But yes, cult film, totally. Three stars this time around. I doubt it will go higher than this because it's far too flawed to be a true masterpiece. Also its yellowface/brownface/whiteface effects have aged badly. A slightly Asian Hugo Weaving is one of the more unsettling things seen in cinema in the past five years. But who knows? Maybe it will be a four-star film next time I watch, whenever that may be.

But if nothing else, Cloud Atlas is a noble defeat. It attempts to wrestle an unfilmable book into a watchable beast and works surprisingly well in places. Some of its core themes and notions about the interconnectedness of everyone and everything get a little lost amid the mass and mess of the storytelling, but there are some bravura moments in the editing room chaos. Everyone gets their time in the sun, with Hanks, Grant, Berry, Broadbent, Whishaw, and Sturgess shining on occasion (in between some dreadfully hammy performances). Best all-rounder, surprisingly, is Grant who is excellent in every one of his guises.

All of this is a long winded way of saying "I was sort of mostly right but also a little bit wrong".

I watched Cloud Atlas at a screening hosted by F Project Cinema in Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia. Here's what's coming up at future FPC screenings at the Mozart Hall (all screenings are at 7.30pm):

The Queen Of Ireland - August 23

Rashomon - September 13

I Am Bolt - September 27

The Bicycle Thief - October 11

Amy - October 25

Closed Circuit - November 8

Marina Abramovic - November 22

Metropolis - December 13

The Princess Bride - January 10

Waltz With Bashir - January 24

Monday, 7 August 2017

The Big Sick

(M) ★★★★

Director: Michael Showalter.

Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Adeel Akhtar, Zenobia Shroff, Anupam Kher, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant.

"I'm sorry, I can't hear you over the cuteness."
If you're getting tired of the typical rom-com fare Hollywood has been serving up in recent years, grab a seat at the table for The Big Sick.

This rom-com is utterly refreshing, like a big bowl of ice cream after a serving of spicy food. Probably strawberry. Or chocolate. Whatever flavour you like - this film is that flavour.

The back story behind The Big Sick is also the err... front story (front story?). It's the true tale of Kumail Nanjiani (who plays himself) and his wife/co-writer Emily (played by Zoe Kazan, just to confuse matters).

After several meet-cutes and despite their best efforts to not fall in love, Kumail and Emily inevitably fall in love, only to fall out again very quickly when Emily discovers Kumail's Pakistani heritage means he will most likely be forced into an arranged marriage with a Pakistani girl.

But soon after the break-up, Emily falls ill and has to be placed in a medically induced coma. This leaves Kumail sitting in the hospital alongside Emily's parents (Romano and Hunter), who have never met Kumail but are fully aware Kumail and Emily have recently broken up.



It's interesting (and totally pointless, but when has that ever stopped me before) to wonder if this film would be as good if you knew it wasn't based on a true story. The plot almost feels too bizarre - it's in the realms of having people scoff "that would never happen in real life" even though it actually did. And obviously the film doesn't play out exactly like it happened in real life (these things never do), but the absurd situation is such a wonderful set-up, and its milked for every possible laugh. This weird mix of a culture-clash romance and a worst possible Meet The Parents is laden with potential and Nanjiani and his wife/co-writer Emily V. Gordon don't let it go to waste. The style of humour is wonderfully natural amid a strangely unnatural setting.

Nanjiani is great as a nervier version of himself. He's hapless, earnest, and dorky, making (hilarious but) ill-timed 9/11 jokes and having mental breakdowns at fast food drive-thrus or comedy open mic nights, but you want him to be your friend. It's easy to dismiss the performance of someone playing themselves, but he does a good job with the role, particularly when he's required to do some emotional heavy lifting.

He's surrounded by good co-stars. Romano has never been better and is perfectly cast as the hang-dog middle-aged dad, while Hunter is always excellent and shows the required mix of spark, spunk and maternal drive in a great role that blends the comedy and the drama. Kazan is also good, giving Emily the right amount of Pixie Dream Girl, but leaving out the Manic and making her seem like a real person for the bookending bits of the film when she's awake and gets to actually do stuff.

And then there's Kumail's family, who have fewer big moments but are just as important and just as well played. Bollywood legend Kher and scene-stealing Shroff as Kumail's parents are great, while Akhtar gets some hilarious lines as Kumail's brother.

The Big Sick has such an excellent set-up but could have been so easily botched. By keeping the tone predominantly light and the comedic style natural, it works a treat. This is perfect for date night and one of the better rom-coms in recent years.