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Logan Lucky

22 Aug

It’s only been four years, but feels much longer, since director Steven Soderbergh last treated filmgoing audiences to one of his quirky, deconstructive gems. Granted, “Side Effects” (2013) was something of a disappointment, but the director’s HBO biopic of flamboyant performer Liberace that same year generated plenty of heat, as did his previous feature, “Magic Mike” (2012). Soderbergh, an against-the-grain filmmaker, has always been one to toss the dice, be it his casting of a martial arts expert or a porn star in character-driven lead roles (“Haywire” and “The Girlfriend Experience”) or being one of the first to deliver a film simultaneously into theaters and on-demand (“Bubble” in 2005). For his latest, the American auteur taps into the skin of some of his more commercial fare – “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Out of Sight” – while farming fresh territory.

So it’s no surprise “Logan Lucky” is a heist caper – though not nearly as hip as the “Ocean” films. It’s set at a massive Nascar speedway in North Carolina, with the bulk of its protagonists down-on-their-luck West Virginians. Glitz and glamour are scarce, but arrive in the form of Riley Keough (so wickedly good in “American Honey” and adding to her stock here) as one of the Logan clan in on a plot to drain the speedway’s vault, and Katie Holmes as the ex-wife who’s traded up in social class and occupies a sprawling McMansion. At the center looms lovable Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum, who’s been in several of Soderbergh’s more recent projects, including the Mike in “Magic Mike”) a golden-armed QB who never made good his promise to play at the collegiate or professional level because of a bum knee; as a result he toils as a second-string laborer, and a prideful one at that, refusing financial help from the ex who’s constantly offering to buy him a cellphone so they can better coordinate handoffs of their beauty pageant-obsessed daughter. Continue reading

Wind River

14 Aug

Taylor Sheridan, the screenwriter behind “Sicario” who garnered an Oscar nod for “Hell or High Water” last year, gets back in the director’s seat (he helmed a “Saw”-esque flick in 2011 called “Vile” that you might have missed) for “Wind River,” a crime thriller set high in the Wyoming wild. Much like “High Water,” the landscape and desolate character of the setting becomes a central player in the action – and there’s oil to be had as well.

Jeremy Renner stars as Fish and Wildlife officer Cory Lambert, who gets enlisted by FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to help solve the murder of a young Native American woman (Kelsey Asbille) on an Indian reservation. They’re assisted by the local sheriff (Graham Greene), who has ties to the native community. From Florida and unfamiliar with Native American traditions, Banner couldn’t be more of a fish out of water, and she’s also got that wet-behind-the-ears, can-do gene that made Clarice Starling so indelible in “The Silence of the Lambs.”

What drives “Wind River” isn’t so much the present action but the heavy backstories the characters carry, which burn with real, raw emotional palpability. Lambert, married to a Native American, lost a daughter due to negligence – he’s haunted by not knowing the full details – and saw his marriage dissolve because of it. The weight of that resonates in the tired creases of Renner’s face and becomes Lambert’s unenviable yet natural bond with the victim’s father (Gil Birmingham, whose rendering of parental despair is heartbreaking). Then there’s the plight of the native population ground down by alcoholism, drug addiction and broken dreams, an ensnaring downward cycle on sharp display.

Bodies pile up, and the narrative cuts back on itself smartly and seamlessly as Lambert and Banner get closer to the truth. The scenes of rape and murder are brutally graphic, yet serve to illustrate the depths of disregard when humans get blinded by rage, desire and pack mentality. The issue of racism gets explored as well as in the deep, snow-covered heart of the reservation and oil-drilling site, which is guarded by imported security forces; as the screw turns, the sense of law and order there become a wispy notion. “Wind River,” like “Hell or High Water,” ultimately becomes a Western in construct, with Renner’s reluctant Lambert something of a “Shane”-like last barrier. The combination of character, setting and weave makes well-known tropes fresh and new.

Atomic Blonde

2 Aug
Charlize Theron is a literal knockout in this fast-paced spy thriller

Action and intrigue abound in this hyper-stylized spy thriller that takes the former quite seriously, boasting some of the best fight choreography on screen in recent years and a car chase worthy of Baby Driver. It’s also violent as hell and makes no apologies as it punches its way through end-of-the-Cold War Berlin — on the eve of the Wall coming down — where a crucial “list” of British intel assets is up for grabs with the KGB, MI6, and other interested middlemen locked in a bloody game of chess to procure it.

The driving fear at British HQ is that if the list falls into Russian hands, it could extend the Cold War by decades, and while that might have factored mightily in Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s 2012 graphic novel that the film’s based on, The Coldest City, it’s nothing more than a McGuffin here and a catalyst for Charlize Theron’s MI6 operative, Lorraine Broughton, to drop from one gonzo battle royale to the next — even a same-sex hookup in a night club bathroom ends at the barrel of a gun.

The film begins inauspiciously enough as a British agent with the list on his person is stalked through the streets of Berlin and taken out smash-bang style. We then catch up with Lorraine 10 days later in London rising naked out of a tub of ice and covered in bruises. The connection between the two events and the framework for the film becomes a jigsaw puzzle of slow reveals fed to us in flashback snippets as Lorraine’s debriefed by her MI6 higher up (Toby Jones, who seems made for the part) and a curmudgeonly CIA handler (John Goodman). Part of the fun here is drinking in Lorraine’s sultry resistance to their inquiry, which bears a certain familiarity to Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tramell — another can-do blonde under the thumb of authority — in Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct. Continue reading

The B-Side

14 Jul

‘The B-Side’ Brings Pioneer Cambridge Photographer Elsa Dorfman Out From Behind The Camera

A portrait of Elsa Dorfman from July 2007. (Courtesy Neon) 

The latest documentary from revered local filmmaker Errol Morris is essentially a love letter to his longtime friend and fellow Cantabrigian, Elsa Dorfman.

“The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography” profiles the life of the woman who spent more than 30 years profiling others in her studio. She was a pioneer of photography, best known for her 20×24 inch Polaroid portraits. Given that Morris’ lens has been trained on such diverse and idiosyncratic subjects as pet cemeteriesrenown cosmologist Stephen Hawking and an off-kilter Holocaust denier, “The B-Side” may seem something of a whimsy by comparison, but it’s Morris’ most intimate and warmest output to date.

Elsa Dorfman. (Courtesy Neon)
Elsa Dorfman. (Courtesy Neon)

Morris first met Dorfman when she photographed his son — then 5, now 30 years old — and has had the urge to make this film for some time.

“I’ve known Elsa a long, long time,” Morris says in a conversation with Dorfman on her back patio just outside Harvard Square. “I had the idea for this movie for a while, and when I told Elsa she was skeptical.” Continue reading

War for the Planet of the Apes

14 Jul

Since the CGI resurrection of the “Planet of the Apes” franchise (can we all agree to forget the ill-conceived 2001 Mark Wahlberg-Tim Burton version?), the films – “Rise” (2011) and “Dawn” (2014) – have been working their way slowly up to the events that frame the classic 1968 film penned by “Twilight Zone” host Rod Serling and starring Charleston Heston. With “War for the Planet of the Apes” we get more breadcrumbs leading from here to there.

The plot picks up two years after “Dawn” ended with Caesar (Andy Serkis, the action-capture actor who so viscerally brought Gollum to life in “The Lord of the Rings” films) and fellow simians holed up in the woods trying to find a peaceful foothold as man employs military might to hunt down and eradicate them. We learn too that the simian flu that has decimated humankind makes apes smarter while it mutes humans and dims their mental capacity. (There’s your first breadcrumb).

The script by director Matt Reeves (“Let Me In” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) and Mark Bomback, who worked with Reeves on “Dawn,” adds some smart wrinkles with the apes trying to disengage from war, setting off to find an ape Eden out of human reach, while Caesar, having incurred deep personal loss, ventures off on a revenge mission. To stir the pot we get Woody Harrelson as a Col. Kurtz type – fittingly titled “The Colonel” – hellbent on preserving humankind via extreme methodologies and, as a result, coming into conflict with other military heads. Like Kurtz he’s gone off the reservation and has a legion of special force-trained believers to back his madness. He also has a few apes that have become turncoats, labeled “donkeys” and regarded slightly above slaves; only prisoner apes have it worse. Continue reading

Baby Driver

3 Jul

Ansel Elgort stars as the titular wheelman in Edgar Wright's kinetic caper film

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Ansel Elgort stars as the titular wheelman in Edgar Wright’s kinetic caper film

 

Edgar Wright, the man behind the edgy romps Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), comical deconstructions of the zombie and cop buddy genres, as well as the quirky, if not gonzo, adaptation of the graphic novel series Scott Pilgrim — as Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010) — moves into far darker territory with his latest, Baby Driver. The project may have taken root as a result of Wright’s affiliation with Quentin Tarantino on the 2007 B-flick homage, Grindhouse, but the texture isn’t so much Tarantino pulpy as it is the kind of criminal abyss you might find in a Nicolas Winding Refn film if served up with the kitschy kinetic flourishes of an unbridled Luc Besson.

The film, in short, is an adrenaline shot that never lets down. You won’t get a chance to go to the bathroom, but also, because of the breakneck pace, the audience never gets a chance to get caught up emotionally. Wright gets right to it as a squad of robbers (played by Jon Bernthal, John Hamm, and Eliza González) and their driver, the titular Baby (Ansel Elgort) hold up a bank. We don’t go into the bank for the job but hang out in the car with the aptly named wheelman (née, boy), who has the fresh face of a J. Crew model and doesn’t appear old enough to drink, as he listens to tunes on his iPod and plays air guitar. It’s a cute moment for a while, but after a bit, it becomes clear it lacks the energetic meanness of Tom Cruise in his skivvies in Risky Business. Blessedly, the robbers pour out of the bank with the heat hot on their tail, and this is where Wright and the film really kick it up. Baby’s got Mario Andretti skills and Steve McQueen cool and to prove the point, we get an endless phalanx of blue and whites to chase Baby’s hot-red Subaru through the streets of Atlanta. Cars crash, traffic backs up, and there’s nothing Baby won’t try as the net tightens. Wrong way down the freeway, no problem.  Continue reading

The Beguiled

20 Jun

Nicole Kidman turns in a commanding performance as the matron of a Southern estate undone by the arrival of a wounded soldier

Focus Features

Nicole Kidman turns in a commanding performance as the matron of a Southern estate undone by the arrival of a wounded soldier.

 

Given Sofia Coppola’s penchant for strong female characters and repressed sexuality, be it the pairing of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation (2003) or the alluringly perverse texture of The Virgin Suicides (1999), it somewhat makes sense that she set her sights on remaking Civil War Gothic The Beguiled, which starred Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page. That 1971 film, based on Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel The Painted Devil was directed by Don Siegel — who would later that year pair with Eastwood for the maverick cop avenger fantasy Dirty Harry — who mined Eastwood for all his macho virility as a Yank soldier, wounded behind enemy lines and brought to an all-woman seminary to recuperate. Given the prim nature of the house, the sheer presence of male pheromones wreaks havoc on the females’ sensibilities as Eastwood’s Corporal John McBurney proves to be a feral manipulator, having his way with several of the women and even pitting them against one another. Coppola’s version throws a dash of saltpeter on the role here undertaken by Colin Farrell who turns the good corporal into a more humane, less lurid incarnation.

You’d think a softer touch might educe a deeper plumbing of the complex emotions that get brought to the surface by war, strictly imposed Christian values, and a member of the enemy — and the opposite sex — lying in the very next room, but that doesn’t necessarily prove to be the case. Coppola chases authenticity in small, subtle strokes. Siegel took a far different approach, creating something of a psychological thriller, inserting gauzy fantasy sequences and quick intercuts of the lean Eastwood in bed with one of the lasses as horror etches across the faces of the estate’s matrons attuned to the meaning of the giggles and bumps echoing from the far reaches of the house. The film, a box office disappointment that was to prove Eastwood’s range beyond revenge westerns, bordered on near spectacle, but it possessed an edgy energy that never flagged.  Continue reading