American Assassin

Directed By: Michael Cuesta
Written By: Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (based on the novel American Assassin by Vince Flynn)
Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, Taylor Kitschamericanassposter

American Assassin opens on the beautiful Ibiza beachside where all manner of tourists have collected. Mitch Rapp is one (Dylan O’Brien), his girlfriend Katrina (Charlotte Vega), to whom he has just proposed, another. We know from the trailer that immediately out of this moment of peace comes a moment of horror. Terrorists suddenly open fire on the beach, calmly trudging along the sand and picking off whoever happens to be nearby with a chilling calculatedness— Katrina one of the victims. It’s a moment which taps into a very palpable fear, something which seems to mar real-world television screens all too often.

There are a string of sequences just like this in the film Continue reading “American Assassin”

It

Directed By: Andy Muschietti
Written By: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman (based on the novel It by Stephen King)
Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Bill Skarsgard

Peculiarly, 2017’s rendition of It—a 059ede3d16084937ad6efe52572b6d49narrative hardwired as a macabre odyssey of demonic spirits, hideous bullying, parental abuse, child murders and psychological torment, is a film chiefly characterised by affection. The film is steeped in it, affection for its source material (a 1986 eleven-hundred page epic by Stephen King of the same name, as well as a 1990 T.V miniseries); affection for cinema’s history in horror— indulging a slew of clichés and boasting a villain who appears to have Norman Bates for a decorator and Freddie Kruger for a coach (at one stage we see a cinema’s banner advertising screenings of Elm Street 5); but above all a director’s affection for his characters, allowing a septet of utterly endearing, Continue reading “It”

47 Metres Down

Directed By: Johannes Roberts
Written By: Johannes Roberts and Ernest Riera
Starring: Claire Holt, Mandy Moore, Matthew Modine

47 Metres Down is a better film in 47-Meters-Down-New-International-Posterpitch form than it is in practice. One could hardly conjure a more perfect premise for a ‘B movie’ horror: two sisters are marooned on the ocean floor, confined to a cage that’s encircled by a parade of 20-foot Great Whites, their oxygen supply rapidly vanishing.

The sisters are Kate and Lisa, played by Claire Holt and Mandy Moore respectively, and they find themselves in said predicament when they are talked into shark diving whilst on vacation in Mexico. There are some clear warning signs when the two first board the boat that will host their adventure—it’s rickety, rusty, tended by a creepy second-in-command who illegally chums the water (although captained nicely Continue reading “47 Metres Down”

American Made

Directed By: Doug Liman
Written By: Gary Spinelli
Starring: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, Jesse Plemonstimthumb.php

Succinctly, American Made is a superficial yet serviceable entertainment. It tells us the true story (true in the Hollywood blockbuster sense of the word) of pilot, turned CIA reconnaissance man, turned drug smuggler Barry Seal, whose tale might have been a terrifying one if the man didn’t have such a whale of a time being a crook.

In terms of style the film is familiar, queuing in a long line of recent picaresque-biographies-come-cautionary-tales in which up-tempo rock standards drive a hustling energy, the protagonist gleefully justifies their misdemeanours via narration, freeze-frames aplenty, and many retro details are indulged. Gold, War Dogs and Wolf of Wall Street all share in part with this approach, offering a snapshot of the fleeting highs and inevitable lows of the dishonestly attained American dream, pointing to Scorsese’s Goodfellas before ultimately consigning to its shadow.

American Made is no exception, hitting many of Goodfellas’ stylistic cues without ever bracing the depth or evocativeness of that particular crime saga. The film bears pretensions of depth, gesturing toward some unrealised political statement. It attempts to parlay the highly profitable misadventures of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) into an underlining of the U.S government’s delusions of morality and innocence, treading a familiar line in the process—those on top stay on top, shielded by their desks and never having to bear the costs of their own depravity, while those beneath are left to burn (a la The Big Short, Quiz Show). The film juxtaposes footage of Ronald and Nancy Regan waging war on drugs and various political threats to the American ideal, with the chief storyline, in which Regan’s administration enables those very threats by empowering someone like Barry Seal.

It wouldn’t be right to linger any longer on this aspect of the story however, for that would be to make the same mistake as the film itself, attributing greater heft to it than is earned. American Made is most effectively viewed through the lens of a high-energy underworld romp. Barry Seal liked to have fun, and the film is at its best when it follows his lead.

It was directed by Doug Liman and written by Gary Spinelli, but this is Tom Cruise’s movie, it hinges on his magnetism. Here, Cruise does his greatest hits, fusing that devil-may-care cockiness of his early features (The Colour of Money, Days of Thunder), with the more physical, high-octane edge of his latest work (the Jack Reachers and Mission Impossibles—Cruise of course performs his own stunts), all whilst calling to mind Tony Scott’s Top Gun as we see Cruise once again don a pair of aviators and slide in behind the controls of an aircraft. It’s enough to make one wonder if the whole exercise isn’t just a means of mocking Mr. Cruise, lovingly so.

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He plays Seal, a prodigious TWA pilot (the youngest in airline history) who by the time we meet him in the late ‘70s has grown bored with his monotonous routine. To spice things up he starts using his international commutes to smuggle Cuban cigars into America, catching the eye of Domhnall Gleeson’s CIA agent Schafer along the way. When confronted by Schafer on his side project, Barry (as you or I might) doesn’t gulp and panic, but rather ignites at the prospect of excitement—“Holy shit! You’re CIA!” he exclaims in the tone of a child on Christmas.

Barry is right to be unalarmed. Schafer doesn’t reprimand Barry, but instead enlists him to fly over communist insurgents in South America and take reconnaissance photos. Barry’s good at it too, even if he is shaky on the legitimacy of it all; “all this legal?” he asks. “If you’re doing it for the good guys” Schafer shoots back, wry grin creeping across his face. By film’s end, “good guys” is just another way of saying “me”. Barry, though, is not the type to protest when there’s a thrill on the table and a buck to be made— “I do tend to leap before I look” he remarks in one of many VHS diary entries which form the film’s narration device.

During one such mission, Barry finds himself in the company of the Medellin cartel, and things explode from there. Soon he’s smuggling cocaine into Florida for Pablo Escobar, and running guns to alleged freedom fighters warring against the communists. He’s gifted his own private, CIA funded airline, he finds himself at the heart of the Iran-Contra Scandal, and along the way he accumulates literally too much money. It gets to the point where Barry can’t bury a duffle bag of cash in his backyard without unearthing another such bag, or open a closet door without drowning in bank notes. He even gets his own private vault at the bank which is twice the size of the vault reserved for the rest of the clientele.

 

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Liman insists on demonstrating Barry’s routine to the point of superfluity (Barry journeys to South America, commits his deeds, counts his money, wash-rinse-repeat), but the director remains adept in burrowing into the frenzy of it all, scribbling expositional text onscreen as if the film itself is in a rush, conjuring a sweltering atmosphere (Cruise is glamorously haggard—perpetually dowsed in sweat, looking as though he’s been to hell and back fifteen times in the day and loving every bit of it), and maintaining a breathless pace. It adds up to an intoxicating portrait. What Liman accomplishes is a visceral tap into Seal’s spiral down the fiery rabbit hole of corruption, keeping the real-life narrative grounded even as its wheels threaten to leave the runway.

Cruise is the glue though. He is the auteur of the film, more so than Liman or Spinelli—at once repulsive and alluring, never skimming on the sleaziness of Seal but retaining that trademark Cruise charm. It’s the central performance that allows the actions of Seal to be in equal part appalling and exciting, that allows us to enjoy the company of Barry even as we snarl at him. There is still something boyish about Cruise, 55 going on 30, where with little more than an innocuous smile he can cut through all the grease and filth and pinpoint something irresistible. It’s his film, and so it should be.

To reitterate the point, it’s never enough to instil substance in this skin-deep biography— American Made as a piece won’t persist in the memory. But glibness be damned, the sight of Tom Cruise fleeing a plane crash slathered in cocaine on a kids bike with a duffle bag of cash over his shoulder is, much like Barry would say of his own life, fun while it lasts, and in the absence of any registering statements, that’s at least something.

Rating:

2.75/4

 

 

Logan Lucky

Directed By: Steven Soderbergh
Written By: Rebecca Blunt
Starring: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Riley Keough, Seth MacFarlanelogan-lucky-poster-2

There are many films that come to mind when watching the allegedly retiring Steven Soderbergh’s latest Logan Lucky. It’s a film borne out of a long line of heist movies and caper flicks—The Sting is one, The Italian Job another, The Hot Rock too— none begging for comparison more so however than the Ocean’s trilogy, a series which heralds from Soderbergh’s own back-catalogue. One might in fact describe Logan Lucky as a redneck Ocean’s 11, lensed through a more subdued personality, one that dials down the freneticism of Soderbergh’s star studded affair from 16 years prior yet maintains that same happy-go-lucky charm and infectious high-spirit. There’s no personal score to be settled this time around, nor is there a chief antagonist, but the machinations of the heist are much the same, as is the basic selling point of a cast bloated with big name stars. Like Ocean’s 11 there is even a British bomb expert on deck, however Daniel Craig’s Britishness in Logan Lucky is strictly off-camera, onscreen he’s tasked with a syrupy Southern accent, whilst Ocean’s resident pyrotechnic was a Missourian donning a syrupy British accent in Don Cheadle. Seth MacFarlane unadvisedly takes Brit duties in Logan.

The unravelling of the plot is nothing new then. Soderbegh’s key alteration is relocating the heist from the bustling, neon lit stage of Las Vegas to the earthier, more humble surrounds of West Virgina and North Carolina, dealing in stereotypes and romance equally in his depiction of redneck America. Hardly the suit wearing, aristocratic masterminds of heist films prior, these characters toss toilet seats instead of quoits, bob for lobster claws instead of apples, offer their own take on the English language (“All the Twitters, I know ‘em” one character exclaims), and are as filled with pride for their nation as they are for NASCAR. But Soderbergh, himself a Georgian, isn’t condescending towards his characters. Rather, he has great affection for them, going to lengths to exhibit the intelligence that lay within people who are so often in movies dismissed as simpletons.

Case in point are the Logan brothers, Jimmy and Clyde, written off as a pair of jinxed, fail-prone dingbats; “you Logans must be as simple minded as people say” remarks Craig’s explosives expert, aptly named Joe Bang, as he sits upon the wrong side of a prison bench. “People say that?” replies Clyde. As the brothers proceed to demonstrate, there is much more to them than meets the eye.

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Jimmy (played by Channing Tatum) is a divorced father of one. He’s close with his young daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie), despite Sadie’s living with her mother Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes). The film’s opening is a quiet yet radiant portrait of the father-daughter tandem. Jimmy lectures Sadie on John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads (Denver has been well represented in film this year, from Free Fire to Alien: Resurrection, however this marks the first time his anthems have been used more out of sincerity than juxtaposition) whilst Sadie retrieves various wrenches and screw drivers for her Daddy as he tinkers under the bonnet of a car. They discuss Sadie’s upcoming beauty pageant, they muck around as Sadie flexes her non-existent muscles and Jimmy evades her attempts for a high five. There is an earnest affection there, both between the characters, and Soderbergh in his viewing of them, one which persists even as the film transfigures into an increasingly wild, pulpy, comedy caper.

Problems arise firstly when Bobbie Jo informs Jimmy that she’ll be moving interstate with their daughter, and secondly when Jimmy, a blue-collar labourer working underground to patch up sink holes beneath the Charlotte Motor Speedway, is laid off due to a limp he incurred back in his football days. Clyde (Adam Driver) has his own injuries, a veteran who lost a hand during a tour of Iraq—post military tour Clyde tends bar.

Given his situation, Jimmy could do with some extra money, and given his knowledge of the Charlotte Motor Speedway (which in a manner of weeks will be hosting its biggest annual event, the Coca-Cola 600), the opportunity to gain such has just presented itself. Clyde, after spotting a robbery “to-do list” on Jimmy’s fridge, and possibly sensing a chance to redeem the too often mocked Logan name, is the first to jump on board, followed by their sister Mellie (Riley Keough).

The “in-car-cer-a-ted” Joe Bang is next, Daniel Craig giddily turning his stiff upper lip propensity on its ear. Joe Bang might have been plucked from a Coen brothers film, he has albino like blonde hair, is strewn with tattoos, campy and eccentric by equal measure, dons a black and white striped prison costume (just to up the cartoonishness), and all the while is a safecracking, bomb making mastermind. Joe Bang enlists the help of his own seemingly dim-witted brothers, Sam and Fish (Brian Gleeson and Jack Quaid respectively) before the heist is fully set in motion. An all-around family affair.

Film Review Logan Lucky

Little of the heist itself will be revealed here—as is so often the case with these films, the question of whether the crime will be successful is second to the crime itself. Suffice to say it’s elaborate, among its facets: explosives, gummy bears, prison breaks, cockroaches, nail polish, cake, breaking back into prison, vacuums, prosthetic limbs, fires, riots, trash, cash and more.

So much of the film’s charm and quietly indomitable spirit hinges on its performers. These anti-heroes make for fun company. Not since Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead have two onscreen brothers beared as little resemblance as Tatum and Driver do here, yet like that altogether more morbid heist film, the two performers trump that discrepancy with sheer chemistry. Neither is particularly showy, Tatum drawing primarily from an intuitive warmth and understated resolve, whilst Driver, more passive, leans on his droopy features and mastery of stoicism to achieve an oddly irresistible comic presence. The two performances click together like puzzle pieces.

Nor, since Sean Connery in The Untouchables, has a 007 so effectively stripped themselves of the James Bond baggage in their performance as Craig (typically reliable) does here. Craig is offered the chance to steal the show via the batty Joe Bang, relishes the opportunity to do so, and then seizes it. Watching Craig as he contorts the English language—“I’m about to get nekkid”, improvise explosives out of candy and salt substitutes, and exercise his commanding-as-ever physical presence, one is reminded of his mercuriality, of his chops as a character actor. Bang is ultimately the film’s ace in the hole, it’s comedic stalwart who with him ushers in an air of unpredictability to an otherwise measured story.

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Rebecca Blunt’s screenplay (the mysterious Rebecca Blunt, no one can confirm her existence and is likely a pseudonym for Soderbegh) provides all the necessary shifts and twists in the heist without exceeding the realms of plausibility. This isn’t a caper film preoccupied with swerving the viewer as much as it is focused on demonstrating a creative pragmatism. Particularly clever is the way Blunt’s screenplay assembles and arranges the pieces underneath our noses, allowing them to imperceptibly take shape before us. It’s that emergence of the final picture that is the central joy to a film of this genre– Logan Lucky assembles that picture with a relative seamlessness, and in the process surprises us without contrivance.

What the story never achieves is an emotional payoff worthy of its characters. For all its hijinx, Logan Lucky seems to end on a note of anticlimax, politely petering to its end credits, perhaps a symptom of its laid-back Southern demeanour. There are certain structural issues, exasperated by Soderbergh’s leisurely, stop-start pacing ; the story hits its peak and then, oddly, insists on continuing for a significant time more, never fully regathering its momentum. Hilary Swank’s hardboiled FBI agent doesn’t even enter the fray until the narrative is in its down-swing, leaving things feeling somewhat incomplete, as do the seemingly cobbled inclusions of the distinguished likes of Katherine Waterston and Sebastian Stan.

Perhaps this saga isn’t complete. Soderbegh’s last original heist film, as noted, spawned 2 sequels— Logan Lucky seems to leave the door open for such a future. There may be no greater testament to the film than to say that in this age of sequels and elongated series, its characters are so involving that a revisitation might have merit. Logan Lucky is in its own, unspectacular way, a great entertainment— an engaging, good-natured redneck romp that mightn’t end with a Bang, but which crackles nicely along the way. They say it’s best to retire with reserves still in the tank. If this is indeed the end, Steven Soderbergh can take comfort in the fact that his storytelling seems far from exhausted.

Rating:

3.25/4

The Big Sick

Directed By: Michael Showalter
Written By: Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani
Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher

The Big Sick, without TBS_onesheet_Quotes_NZ_LRconjecture, is a critical juggernaut. Acquiring its first batch of lovers at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Judd Apatow’s (producer of the film) latest has snaffled imaginations with its accessible, luminous personality, and has since only grown in stature. After Sundance there was South by South West where awards followed, then a limited release, and now the film is viewable in cinemas broadly, where the adoration persists.

It’s not hard to see why The Big Sick has registered like it has. It’s a film endeavouring to march to the beat of its own drum whilst pinpointing that ever-palatable tone Continue reading “The Big Sick”

Atomic Blonde

Directed By: David Leitch
Written By: Kurt Johnstad (based on the graphic novel the The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart)
Starring: Charlize Theron, Jameatomic-blonde-posters McAvoy, John Goodman, Toby Jones, Sofia Boutella

“On November 9 1989 the Berlin Wall fell” we are informed by Atomic Blonde’s opening onscreen text. “This is not that story” we are next told—it certainly isn’t, indeed oftentimes Atomic Blonde is barely a story at all. The film, helmed by David Leitch in his first solo directorial effort, has a plot like a jack-in-the-box—built on a spring base that swirls and loops and relentlessly doubles-back on itself before ultimately popping and catching you off guard. It makes for a fun little espionage guessing game of who is really who and what side is which, even if the twists get too cute for their own good in the final stanzas. This plot however isn’t particularly salient, it’s more just something there to contextualise Continue reading “Atomic Blonde”

A Ghost Story

Directed By: David Lowery
Written By: David Lowery
Starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara

The first pleasure of David a-ghost-storyLowery’s A Ghost Story is its singularity. To use a cliché, this is a film which defies description. It’s certainly not a horror, despite the very occasional jump scare and whatever macabre thoughts the title might conjure. It’s not a comedy, nor a romance, nor a drama, at least it’s none of these things in the ways that we have come to expect them. The best way I can think to whittle A Ghost Story down to a succinct snapshot of tone and style is to suggest it’s a cross between something from the mind of Tim Burton, with its quirky, gothic sensibility, and something from the mind of Jim Jarmusch, with its odd enchantment and unexpectedly warm embrace.

I’m reluctant to reveal much Continue reading “A Ghost Story”

War for the Planet of the Apes

Directed By: Matt Reeves
Written By: Matt Reeves and Mark Bomback (inspired by the novel Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle and characters created by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver) 
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Millerapesposter

War for the Planet of the Apes is defiant in its refusal to conflate its simian characters and its humans. Even in the film’s most explosive, calamity filled set-pieces, writer director Matt Reeves keeps his eye fixed on character, fixed on maintaining the two sides of the coin as distinct. No character becomes faceless in light of the action, particularly impressive when one considers how easy that might have been given that War is the finale in this Apes reboot trilogy—in Rise the pieces were assembled, in Dawn the pieces were arranged, the next logical step would be for the pieces to collide. How easy to misplace politics and morality and personality on the backburner for just a passage or two in order to Continue reading “War for the Planet of the Apes”

Dunkirk

Directed By: Christopher Nolan
Written By: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy

Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s dunkirk-posterlatest subversive blockbuster, opens with a collection of British soldiers strolling, with quiet trepidation, through an eerily desolate town. Above them, flyers drift from the sky like snowflakes, bearing a message from the Germans. The Brits are cornered, and the clock is against them. One boyish ally (Fionn Whitehead) plucks a flyer from the air, takes it in and moves on, before the quiet of the town is ruptured by crackling gunfire. It’s from here, after but one eye-catching visual, that writer/director Nolan puts his foot to the pedal, seizing us with a vice-like grip inside merely a handful of frames, and refusing to relinquish his stranglehold for the duration of his film. Continue reading “Dunkirk”