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.
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.
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.
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.