I DO… UNTIL I DON’T

by Alan Yudman

I DO… UNTIL I DON’T. That is not only the title of Lake Bell’s new film, but how one comes to feel about the movie. You like it, then eventually you don’t. This was a major disappointment for me. I was so looking forward to this after 2013’s IN A WORLD. That film was everything this is not. Original, unique, smart and funny.

There are moments in this film that made me chuckle. There were others that made me giggle or laugh lightly. But mostly it misses every mark. The premise is well, I’m not sure what the premise is. The film goes in two different directions. First we are introduced to two couples, Noah and Alice (Ed Helms and Bell) and Harvey and Cybil (Paul Reiser and Mary Steenburgen). We are lead to believe we’ll be following these two couples. One younger, facing financial hard times and trying to get pregnant. The other older, seeming on the edge of divorce. Then Bell throws Vivian (Dolly Wells) into the mix. She is a documentary filmmaker whose current project starts with the premise that marriage should be for seven years wth an option to renew. The two couples become part of Vivian’s documentary and are joined by a third couple, Alice’s sister Fanny and her partner Zander (Amber Heard and Wyatt Cenac). They are free, have an open marriage and a child and are very modern hippie-like.

So which is the narrative that drives the story? Both. And that’s a problem. When you try to tell two stories at the same time, neither gets served. There are a lot of devices that Bell uses in a attempt to draw the stories together, but it’s just not working at all. None of the emotion or tension feels earned in any way. Things just happen for little or no reason. As a result you don’t really care about any of the characters or the situations.

I could go on and on about why this was so mediocre, bordering on bad. But there were a couple of glimmers of light. It was great to see Paul Reiser working. Where has he been? Probably in TV shows or movies I haven’t seen, but he was pretty good here. Ed Helms did the best he could with the material and is also pretty good at the indie romcom leading man thing.

Ok, that’s it. That’s all there is to like. The third act is a mess. It rushes to the finish. Well, let’s just hope that this was a sophomore slump for Bell. I will say she has directing chops. That’s the one thing she does well in this film, but she cannot save her own screenplay. I Do? No, I just can’t.

THE TRIP TO SPAIN

by Alan Yudman

Every few years Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon go on a trip and they bring along a whole movie crew and director Michael Winterbottom. Ok, they may take more frequent trips, but these come across as sophisticated buddy movies. First was 2010’s THE TRIP. in 2014 the pair went on THE TRIP TO ITALY. (Both are available for streaming on Netflix). Now they are off on THE TRIP TO SPAIN.

The basics of the movies are the same. Coogan and/or Brydon have an assignment to check out hotels and restaurants on a weeklong drive through “fill in the blank.” This time Coogan is writing a travelogue to promote a new project. Brydon is writing a similar piece for a British paper. There are not a lot of preliminaries. Coogan calls, asks Brydon if he wants to go, Brydon looks at his screaming or crying kids and quickly says yes.

The charm of these movies is the easy chemistry and familiarity of Coogan and Brydon. They have great comedic timing and play off each other so well. The jokes are there, the impressions are there. Michael Caine, Robert De Niro, Sean Connery, and some new ones… Brando, Mick Jagger and a long gag featuring Roger Moore. Interspersed with the jokes are beautiful shots of that particular country’s countryside and mouthwatering shots of chefs preparing gourmet meals. It’s a feast for the ears and the eyes.

There is also always a back story of some personal or career dilemma. This time Brydon seems very grounded and settled while Coogan is dealing with a new agent, a studio that wants to bring in a young writer to polish his latest script, his son Joe’s personal crisis and his love for a married woman. It’s a lot. They try to give Brydon something by having him take a call from Coogan’s former agent, who pitches Brydon his services. It feels thrown in and doesn’t create any dramatic conflict between the friends. That’s something that is missing in this one. There is little conflict between the too as there was in the previous two films. It’s not terrible, simply misplaced.

This one also ends with something of an unanswered question that makes you wonder if this is the final installment or they are just setting up something else.

More of the same is usually death in film. But THE TRIP TO SPAIN feels like catching up with a couple of old friends, and it is always great to see them.

GOOD TIME

by Alan Yudman

Despite seeing previews for a month, I really had no idea what GOOD TIME was going to be about. But it looked interesting and had received some prestigious awards and nominations, including a Palm d’Or nomination at Cannes. Ok, that was enough to motivate me to drive through a rare Los Angeles summer rain storm to see the film. It was worth risking my car on a wet freeway.

GOOD TIME is a heist gone wrong movie on the surface. But the film has layers. Brotherly love. Family angst. Desperation to do better. And a helluva performance by Robert Pattinson (yes, from the Twilight films).

Pattinson and co-director Benny Safdie are the Nikas brothers, Connie (Pattinson) and Nick (Safdie). Nick is developmentally disabled. Connie is some kind of low level criminal who decides to rob a bank with his brother’s help. His motivation seems to get Nick out of New York to the country (Virginia). the heist seems to go off without a hitch, but the brothers are quickly found out and run. Nick is captured, but Connie keeps running. The rest of the film involves Connie trying to get Nick out of jail so they can get out of New York. Whether that is trying to con his much older girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) out her mother’s money to pay a bail bondsman, or trying to break Nick out of a prison ward in a hospital, Connie is desperate to make things work. But, no plan works. Obstacles are everywhere. Every turn is another roadblock. As the minutes and hours go by, you feel the growing desperation.

This is a meaty role for Pattinson and makes a meal of it. You can see the wheels constantly turning behind his darting eyes and frustrated grins. He is determined and focused despite everything. It’s easy to portray this character as unsure or filled with doubt. But Pattinson’s unwavering focus allows the audience to believe that he might just pull off this whole thing. Sorry, no spoilers about whether he does or doesn’t.

The Safdie Brothers have done a lot of documentaries and shorts. This is one of their first full length dramas. You would never know it. Their chosen style here is gritty and dark. The spit and polished New York is nowhere to be found. This looks like New York of the 1970’s. The French Connection New York. The New York where the city is a character. GOOD TIME is a tight 100 minutes of adrenaline fueled desperation that works on every level. I look forward to what Josh and Bennie Safdie do next.

LOGAN LUCKY

by Alan Yudman

Steven Soderbergh took a sabbatical. Now he’s back. And we are all better for it. His latest take on the heist movie is LOGAN LUCKY. Soderbergh has famously explored this genre before with the OCEANS series. Now he’s taking a shot with a heist that in the movie is called “Oceans 7-11”.

The Logan from the title refers to a family made up of Channing Tatum, Adam Driver and Riley Keough. Tatum is the older brother Jimmy. A former high school football star who ruined his knee. Driver is Clyde who went off to fight in Iraq and lost his left hand. Keough is Mellie who is a hair stylist with a scary knowledge of traffic patterns. The Lucky part is ironic. In the film Driver explains how the family is anything but lucky by detailing their misfortunes. The audience is lead to believe they are just a bunch of screwed up West Virginia rednecks. Jimmy is divorced with a “cute as a button” daughter (Farrah Mackenzie) and an ex-wife (Katie Homes).

Jimmy loses his construction job. That sets in motion the series of events that lead to a plan to rob Charlotte Motor Speedway on the weekend of the Coca-Cola 600— one of NASCAR’s marquee events. Given the family’s history you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking this is never going to be successful. Ah, but Jimmy is smarter than we are lead to believe and they hatch a remarkable plan with the help of expert safe cracker Joe Bang (hilariously played by Daniel Craig) and his two brothers.

The film sets up expectations then smashes them to bits. All the while it makes you laugh. Not chuckle, but gut busting guffaws. This is one hysterically funny movie. Soderbergh and screenwriter Rebecca Blunt (more on her later) poke fun at the image of the redneck then turn the stereotype on its head.

Jimmy is a sweet and caring father. Tatum hits the notes perfectly. Driver’s performance shows a real knack for subtlety and sly humor. Craig is having all kinds of fun, something he might want to think about bringing to his last turn as James Bond. The rest of the cast is great, including Dwight Yoakam as the local prison warden (did I mention they have to break Joe Bang out of prison and return him on the same day so no one knows he’s been gone— trust me, you’ll love that).

The third act has a few twists that are surprising and satisfying, yet also leave you wondering just how successful the heist really was. That brings us to Rebecca Blunt. There are all kinds of rumors that she is not a real person. Even her IMDB page (Rebecca Blunt) questions whether she exists. Is it Soderbergh? Some other screenwriter ghostwriting? Maybe we’ll find out one day, but the script is solid. There’s a couple of loose threads that you shouldn’t worry too much about pulling on. They won’t ruin your enjoyment of LOGAN LUCKY. Just sit back and enjoy a fun, funny movie and be glad that Soderbergh is back making movies.

OBIT.

by Alan Yudman

Everyone reads the obits in the newspaper when someone famous dies. Even if the person isn’t famous but contributed to society in some meaningful way, an obit can be interesting or enlightening. But who writes them? in OBIT. the filmmakers look at one of the writers for one of the last remaining obituary departments in the country. Of course it’s at the New York Times.

These men and women aren’t ghouls or obsessed with death. They are great writers who enjoy telling interesting stories. Director Venessa Gould gives us a look inside through interviews with the writers. They are former culture or entertainment critics who have moved to this new job. They take their jobs very seriously, but also have a sense of humor about what they do. They feel its important and are trying to keep their corner of the business alive.

The film is very interesting. You learn how they put the obits together and what the standards are. Who gets one and who doesn’t. How they find a way into certain lives that may make someone relatively obscure interesting to the masses.

Throughout the film the writers are working on various obits. You see the creative process unfold. It sounds like it may be deadly (pun intended) dull, but it’s interesting because these writers are fascinating people. But my favorite person in the film is the man who runs the Times’ Archive. The library of old clips and photos the writers and editors use as source material. He is kind of nerdy in a “lives in his parents basement” kind of way, but he also knows where all the bodies are buried. Literally. He is a true character.

OBIT. give us insight into a part of the paper that is largely ignored and rarely thought about. The best compliment I can give is that it made me want to run to the Times’ Obit page and read about who died.

WIND RIVER

by Alan Yudman

After SICARIO and HELL OR HIGH WATER one could argue Taylor Sheridan was among the best screenwriters in the business. With WIND RIVER, Sheridan cements that reputation.

Sheridan specializes in stories that speak to broader issues yet are intensely personal. The idealistic DEA agent in SICARIO who learns what battling Mexican drug cartels is really like. The brothers who are trying to save the family ranch in HELL OR HIGH WATER while sticking it to the bank that ripped off their mother. Now Sheridan tackles the neglect and mistreatment of Native Americans in WIND RIVER through the lens of a murder mystery.

There are several special performances in this movie, chief among them Jeremy Renner. He is a tracker for the Wyoming Department of Fish and Wildlife. He hunts down animals who have come too close to humans and kills them. He is divorced with at least one child. Don’t want to spoil too much.. but he did have an older daughter who is dead. That seems to have ended his marriage. While tracking down some mountain lions on the Wind River Indian Reservation he comes across the body of a young woman frozen in the snow. That is the inciting incident that sets the mystery in motion.

The reservation police force isn’t equipped to investigate this, so the FBI is called in and they send one agent, a young woman played by Elizabeth Olsen. She is driven and dedicated and want to track down the murderer, but is somewhat thwarted by the politics and culture of the reservation and the brutal Wyoming winter.

She enlists Renner’s help because he is something of a “track” whisperer. He can interpret tracks in the snow and knows there is more to this story. The investigation takes several twists and past tragedies are revealed in a way that is both surprising and satisfying. When we finally learn how the young girl was murdered, it is shown with brutal realism.

There are several winning performances here. Olsen’s innocent earnestness feels true. Graham Greene as the tribal police chief is a delight. And Gil Birmingham (Jeff Bridges’ partner in HELL OR HIGH WATER) steals his few scenes as the grieving father.

But it is Renner who takes Sheridan’s story and drives it with a ferocity I have not seen from him since THE HURT LOCKER. His grief lives just beneath the surface, yet he is wise and calm in the face of more tragedy dropped into his life. It is a fabulous performance.

I should also mention the cinematography by Ben Richardson would do Roger Deakins proud. His sweeping shots of the relentlessly cold Wyoming mountains add to the bleakness of feeling.

Sheridan has crafted a murder mystery that manages to also say something important about Native Americans and how they are isolated and ignored by the United States. Drugs and violence are part of life. The murder is so unimportant to the FBI they drag Olsen’s character out of a conference to send one agent to investigate. It’s easy to read between the lines and see the truth. Sheridan deals in truth. It’s brutal truth, but told in such a compelling fashion. And that is what makes Sheridan one of the best screenwriters in the business and what puts WIND RIVER on best of 2017 list.

ATOMIC BLONDE

atomic blonde poster

by Alan Yudman

Charlize Theron is a force of nature. She imposes her will on average movies and makes them infinitely better. She is not just an Academy Award winning actress. She can take the action movie and bring that intensity and talent to the role and improve the movie. Those skills are on full display in ATOMIC BLONDE.

The movie is set in the days before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Theron is a British agent assigned to recover a list of operatives. But, she must work with James McAvoy who as they say in the film has “gone native”. It’s not clear what his agenda might be, other than making money and creating chaos.

ATOMIC BLONDE is a twisty spy thriller that is highly stylized. That’s not surprising when you find out it was directed by David Leitch who was one of the co-directors of JOHN WICK. His way of directing fight scenes needs to be copied by those who attempt to put the camera in the middle of the action. Leitch keeps the camera back a bit and that gives you a sense of place and movement. That style makes a fight scene on a set of stairs where Theron takes on a bunch of Russian bad guys one of the best set pieces I’ve seen in a while. The other signature of a Leitch fight scene is people get tired. By the end Theron and the last man standing are worn out, each having trouble even standing up. It feels (and probably is) real.

The movie is framed around the interrogation of Theron’s character after the mission is complete. She must explain how it went so sideways. The interlocutors are Toby Jones and John Goodman. The questioning is tense and Theron is particularly annoyed that Goodman, a CIA representative, is even there. I point this out because I have seen some reviewers complain that the film has Third Act problems. That it kind of goes off the rails. I would argue that the extremes on display in that act pay off a lot of what Theron is being questioned about. It is very satisfying.

Then there is the soundtrack. The film is set in November 1989. The music is a sampling of Euro-pop from the entire ‘80’s. 99 Luftballons, Major Tom (in German), Der Kommissar, Cities in the Dust, The Politics of Dancing, Cat People (Putting out Fire)… you get the idea. It’s a nostalgic treat.

The movie isn’t perfect. Sometimes it is difficult to follow who is on whose side. And one of Theron’s love interests is killed for no really apparent reason.

But Theron is so good, so tough, so empathetic that it smooths over the rough edges. ATOMIC BLONDE is just another example of a great actress at the top of her game.

DUNKIRK

by Alan Yudman

When Winston Churchill spoke of a “miracle of deliverance” in June 1940, he was talking about DUNKIRK. The evacuation of allied forces from the beach in northern France was certainly a miracle, as it seemed hopeless. Soldiers surrounded on all sides with their only escape route the English Channel, constantly being bombed from the air and torpedoed from the water. It seemed hopeless, yet the evacuation was an inspiration for the British war effort.
Christopher Nolan captures the desperation, the hope and the valor in his epic retelling of the evacuation of Dunkirk. This could have been a bloated story. Another director might have chosen to show the British high command’s deliberation and planning. Or the ruthless precision of the German Luftwaffe and Navy. But Nolan decided to focus simply on the evacuation from three different perspectives. Soldiers desperate to get off the beach, pilots hopelessly outnumbered engaging an overwhelming enemy as they flew toward France to provide air cover, and the civilian Navy that sailed across the Channel to ferry nearly 200,000 allied soldiers to safety.
While the overall story is huge, Nolan personalizes it. He follows a three soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles and Aneurin Barnard) in their desperate attempt to flee. They keep getting on ships. The ships keep blowing up thanks to the Germans. They’re back in the water. He follows a civilian sailor (Mark Rylance) as he takes his boat out with his son and his son’s friend in what seems like the impossible task of rescuing soldiers from the beach. Finally he follows a pilot (Tom Hardy) who heroically battles German fighters and bombers in a David vs. Goliath struggle. Those individuals draw the audience into the story.
That doesn’t mean this is a small or quiet movie. This is big ticket filmmaking. The special effects are some of the best you will ever see in a movie depicting battle. Of special note are the dogfight sequences.The cameras are positioned in such a way that it puts you right in the dogfight. It’s probably nothing new to the video game generation, but in a big Hollywood movie it is something I have seen rarely, if ever. The bombs, the blood, the sinking ships. Nolan pays homage to Steven Spielberg’s opening sequence in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.
What also makes this work is the lack of dialogue. DUNKIRK is a master class in using pictures to tell the story. Don’t tell us, show us! And Nolan certainly shows us. Who needs words when you have powerful visuals? No one, that’s who.
The acting is first rate. I don’t think Hardy has more than a page of dialogue and like in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, his face is obscured for almost the entire movie. But, wow. He conveys emotion and confidence with his eyes and the movement of his head. It’s fabulous. The rest of the cast is very good also. Whitehead and Styles spend most of the movie jumping in and out of the Channel but you get their sense of desperation. Rylance is well, Rylance. A fantastic actor. Kenneth Brannagh plays a British naval commander who is overseeing the evacuation. I think he has the most dialogue in the entire film, but he also does a lot of standing and staring glumly at the desperate scene around him.
Nolan can be a great director, but sometimes he gets in his own way (INTERSTELLAR and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES come to mind). But here he strips it down to the essentials, and less is definitely more. DUNKIRK is a powerful movie that will have you thinking about the meaning of heroism. What makes a hero? Sometimes it’s just a boat. No cape. No superhuman power. It’s what’s inside. Nolan dives deep into the question and comes out with an answer we are familiar with. Regular folks can elevate themselves if the stakes are high enough. The stakes in DUNKIRK were life and death for an entire country, maybe the entire world. Nolan gets the point across in spades. DUNKIRK is an epic story told in supremely compelling fashion. Nolan deserves whatever accolades he will get because this is a fantastic film.

OKJA

by Alan Yudman

As NETFLIX becomes more of an entertainment behemoth, the streaming service is branching out from prestige television to films. The conceit from culture dinosaurs (your reviewer is now raising his hand and waving it madly), is that anything that skips theaters and goes straight to video must be somehow “less”.
We need to get over ourselves. Bong Joon Ho is the South Korean director responsible for the underrated 2013 Sci-Fi adventure SNOWPIERCER. So he’s back with another story that paints a demented version of the future. This time his target is corporate greed and his device is an adorable little girl who is just trying to save her genetically enhanced pig. That pig is OKJA. She is one of 26 pigs distributed to farms around the world by the Mirando Corporation. The one raised most successfully will be brought to New York where the pig will be shown off before slaughter. That last part isn’t revealed outside the company. Once the little girl Mija realizes what’s going on she tries to stop it, but she’s a little girl. What can she do? That’s where a group from the Animal Liberation Front led by Paul Dano steps in to help and expose Mirando’s lies. Several rescue attempts and twists later they wind up in New York and then a slaughterhouse in New Jersey.
Bong (and co-writer Jon Ronson) makes his point with a sledgehammer, but it’s never annoying. We know where he comes down. That’s clear by the characters associated with Mirando. Tilda Swinton in a dual role as the overly earnest, out of her depth CEO and her evil sister. Giancarlo Esposito as the brains behind the evil plans. And Jake Gyllenhaal as a Steve Irwin type reality show host who is incredibly insecure and slightly drunk. Those four characters are drawn as completely nuts. So, yeah we know where this is going.
OKJA is kind of a shaggy pig story. The genetically enhanced pig is hippo-sized with a beautiful personality. It is also seemingly more intelligent than most of the humans in the movie, save Mija. This is altered reality sci-fi. It’s not true, but you cannot totally dismiss the possibility that it could be. In the end OKJA is less about its message than the sweet relationship between a girl and her pig. And that may make you love the movie as much as I did.

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING

by Alan Yudman

Every Spider-Man fan must have thought the same thing when SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING was announced. Oh, not again. But if you have to please do it right.
Mission accomplished. Here’s what people are tired of seeing when a superhero story is rebooted. They don’t want to see the origin story again. I swear if I have to watch Bruce Wayne’s mom’s pearls bounce on the ground in slo-mo one more time…well, you wouldn’t like me when I’m upset. Similar argument from fans of Spider-Man. We’ve seen Uncle Bens Cliff Robertson and Martin Sheen murdered. We’ve seen Peter Parker bitten by the spider. We all know the origin story. There is nothing any filmmaker can bring to that part of the story that we haven’t already seen. So why waste time on it? The answer is we shouldn’t.
And full credit to director Jon Watts and the dozen people who got some kind of screenwriting credit. They avoided the cliches and it was perfect. The other smart move was having Marvel Studios more involved. That made it a part of The Avengers and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So we pick up the film after CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. A few flashbacks to help illustrate Peter’s journey to that story and we’re good.
The filmmakers also let Peter be a high school student. So he’s awkward and insecure and nerdy. That means when he’s out being Spider-Man he is living a fantasy life that most teenagers would experience through video games. I mean Peter and his best friend Ned make a LEGO version of the Star Wars Death Star. Can get much more nerd-cred than that.
The origin story of Vulture (Michael Keaton) is also told quickly and perfectly. Keaton is a great villain. He’s just menacing enough without being too cartoony (yeah, odd for a movie based on a comic). And when the twist occurs that puts Peter at odds with Vulture before their final battle it elevates the normal teenage boy versus girlfriend’s dad dynamic (oops, did I spoil something?).
Quick plot summary: Keaton is stealing alien tech left over after The Battle of New York and repurposing it, selling it to criminals. Spider-Man figures out what’s going on and tries to stop him. But is thwarted by his own inexperience and Tony Stark’s (yup, Robert Downey, Jr. is back) unwillingness to trust him.
Tom Holland is a great choice for Spidey. He looks like a kid. He’s likable, but slightly annoying. You know, a teenager. I like him better than Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. He seems to fit as both Peter and Spider-Man. That casting and the overall stakes of the movie make this work than any of the other 5 movies. Let’s face it. No one was clamoring for “The Amazing Spider-Man”. It was a cash grab and and ill-fated one. Two terrible movies. The first trilogy helmed by Sam Raimy went from good, to very good to bloated and out of control.
This feels like an authentic journey. A kid growing up and maturing, with the added complication of having superpowers. SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is a perfect way to restart the franchise.