Logan Lucky

“Logan Lucky” is Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s 7/11,” a sly heist movie with a hilarious Southern drawl and character that makes it a true surprise.

Logan Lucky PosterI was tinkering with an expression like “Backwater Ocean’s Eleven” or “Blue Collar Ocean’s Eleven” to describe Logan Lucky, but then sure enough, Steven Soderbergh, self-aware as ever, comes up with “Ocean’s 7/11.” It may look stupid and quaint, but just like the characters in this movie, it’s actually a lot smarter than you.

Logan Lucky is a pure heist movie, but set in Appalachia with a group of Good ‘Ol Boys subbing in for George Clooney and Brad Pitt. They’re planning quickly, we’re learning the stages of the heist on the fly, and just as in Soderbergh’s Ocean’s, the film slyly withholds the twist details of how they dunnit until everyone’s in the clear. But listening to these hicks talk and strategize, it’s as if they’re all stuck in molasses. It’s a hilarious departure from the Rat Pack slick act. Continue reading “Logan Lucky”

Midnight Special

Michael Shannon stars in this mysterious and surprising sci-fi of fathers and sons.

MidnightSpecialPosterWith “Midnight Special,” Jeff Nichols’s fourth film (“Mud, “Take Shelter”), Nichols remains the best emerging American director today, capable of infusing any genre with earthy, Americana trappings and unpacking the intimate character drama within. “Midnight Special” channels sci-fi, noir and family melodrama in unpredictable, startling ways and resembles a modern day stab at the personal conflict of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or the spirituality of “Contact.”

Except the story of “Midnight Special” defies easy classification and blends genres with thrilling results. At its very core a chase film, “Midnight Special” begins with Roy (Michael Shannon) on the run for having abducted a young boy named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher). He and a former cop named Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are trying to get Alton to an undisclosed location while evading a religious cult who sees Alton as their savior and the FBI who believes Alton knows confidential government information. Roy however is really Alton’s birth father, separated from him by the cult leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard).

Above the sci-fi tension and conspiracy theories, the father-son dynamic between Alton and Roy truly drives “Midnight Special.” Alton possesses untold powers that change and grow more intense and severe the more they remain unchecked, from being able to unconsciously tap into radio frequencies to locking eyes with powerful blue tractor beams of light. Roy can’t fully comprehend all that’s happening to Alton, covering his eyes with blue swim goggles and transporting him only at night, but he displays a need to protect him above any greater cause the boy might represent to the cult or to the government.

As a result, Shannon proves a touching father figure. His eyes and body language are more muted and less intense than in many of his other fiery roles, but he’s gruff and a man of few words in a way that will be familiar to many fathers and sons. “I like worrying about you. I’ll always worry about you Alton. That’s the deal,” he says. All this family drama weaves wonderfully within “Midnight Special’s” denser scientific jargon and spiritual underpinnings. The ambiguous nature of Alton’s abilities and ties to another world all serve the film’s mystery and suspense.

And “Midnight Special” is highly entertaining and beguiling. Nichols seeps the film in darkness and other-worldly lens flares. The quiet, procedural and noir-like filmmaking make Alton’s skills all the more startling when the fireworks begin. “Midnight Special” even has a sense of humor. Adam Driver (“Girls,” “The Force Awakens”) as the NSA analyst tracking Alton is out of place in the best way possible. He has an awkward, nerdy charm that’s practically foreign to the more rural sensibilities of the rest of the cast.

With “Midnight Special” Nichols has proven that he can take a larger budget and still deliver the intimate character drama of an indie. As a director and screenwriter, Nichols has as much untapped potential as Alton.

4 stars

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

StarWarsEpisodeVIIPosterI was 9 years old when “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” was released, and despite all the bile hurled at the prequels, at that age I had no concept of good. All I knew was that there was more. More Star Wars was a good thing, and for the Millennials like me who give the prequels the most hatred, “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” is the first Star Wars movie we’ve been able to see for the first time as adults.

“The Force Awakens” doesn’t need to be as great as “A New Hope” or “The Empire Strikes Back” for it to live up to expectations. It needs to be able to fit snugly into the Star Wars canon in a way the prequels never seemed to belong. J.J. Abrams has delivered less than a masterpiece, but “The Force Awakens” is a Star Wars movie.

“The Force Awakens” has the spectacle, the whimsy, the humor, the campy, screwball charm, the romance and the invigorating excitement of the original three films. In channeling the same themes of good and evil and the mythos of the Force, this film has the spirit of a Star Wars classic.

In part, it’s because J.J. Abrams has nearly remade “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.” In between films, a new evil entity known as The First Order has risen to power. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has vanished, and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is the dark lord out to find him and put an end to the rise of the Jedi. A Resistance pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) hides a map to Luke’s location in a droid called BB-8 and sends it off on a desert planet. The person who finds it is another scavenger, a person without a family and with dreams of becoming a pilot and getting out of this desolate place. Starting to sound familiar? The only difference is that this young person is a woman, Rey (newcomer Daisy Ridley). Along the way a Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) will break off from The First Order and even stage a daring, hapless rescue of Poe before meeting Rey, working to protect her and banish his own past demons.

Though “A New Hope” is proud to boast themes of good and evil in the biggest and broadest of space opera, it is a film about growth, finding identity and believing in yourself. Luke makes that spiritual journey and sheds his youthful naiveté, and Rey will go on that same journey, answering the call to believe in the Force and embrace her destiny.

This is what Star Wars is about, and in that spirit Abrams more than delivers. As with the best of the franchise, the film dances between different moments of action on the ground and in the air. There are thrilling lightsaber duels, stunning dogfights, goofy chases and escapes from an amorphous tentacled creature, a scene inside a seedy cantina full of quirky galactic beings, and even something of a new Death Star. Despite the high CGI gloss, Abrams has captured the tempo of these pictures as much as the tone, with cathartic, cheerful action set pieces that avoid chaos and over-stylization in a way that’s classical and tangible.

John Boyega has a lot of uncontained enthusiasm as Finn, Adam Driver has a lot of angsty rage as Kylo Ren, and Daisy Ridley has a lot of scruffy, rugged charm and star power. Yet all three are led by the master, back in character as though he never left: Harrison Ford as Han Solo. Han is one of the great pop culture characters of all time, and he continues to get the best lines, and Chewbacca the best reaction shots. Ford is acting from the seat of his pants, sarcastic and cool yet always in a hurry and thinking on the fly. Finn has brought Han to the new Death Star and reveals he has no plan for taking down its shields, but maybe they can use the Force. “That’s not how the Force works,” Han bellows in his trademark exasperation. This could be Ford’s best performance in nearly two decades.

“The Force Awakens” does at times feel like a reboot, but hearing John Williams’s magical score swell in all the right places reminds us that there’s no harm in not reinventing the wheel. And the film does take one massive risk that will surely be polarizing. But regardless of if the plot has holes or if the twists hold up, this is still Star Wars. More is good.

4 stars

What If

Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan have wonderful chemistry and Adam Driver steals the show.

While the romantic comedy formula rarely updates, the rules about love, friendship and sex must adapt to the way people experience relationships today. Modern rom-coms have been obsessed with high-concept rule making involving social media, texting and most recently sex tapes inexplicably uploaded to “the Cloud”, but they’ve never resonated with the Millennial generation. Our generation has fashioned itself more self-aware, ironic and cynical to all the social norms and barriers that define our romantic lives.

“What If” may just be the first Millennial rom-com, a spiritual successor to “When Harry Met Sally”, an often insightful look at the way contemporary notions of love shape our relationships and the first big studio rom-com in a long time in which every character in the cast feels like a human being.

It starts with the simple meet-cute of Wallace and Chantry in front of a refrigerator playing with magnets. Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) has just gotten over a year-long depression over a bad break-up. Chantry (Zoe Kazan) seems perfect, and she even gives out her number, just as she mentions she has a boyfriend. Continue reading “What If”

Frances Ha

“Frances Ha” touches on the same generational dilemmas of modern millenials in the same way as “Girls,” but does so with its own style and originality.

Does 27 feel old? 23-years-old, which I’ll be in a week, is starting to feel that way: too young to really have forged a career in this day and age, yet too far out of school to still be coasting.

So it must feel ancient for someone like Frances (Greta Gerwig), the title character of “Frances Ha,” who is rapidly approaching that of a mature failure, but still feels young enough to be figuring things out. Noah Baumbach’s film captures the generational feel of modern millenials, much the same themes as Lena Dunham’s “Girls,” but does so in a way that feels fresh and personal.

Frances might just be a female Woody Allen surrogate for a new generation. Baumbach and Gerwig’s dialogue often feels like vintage “Hannah and Her Sisters,” with four-way conversations surrounding a dinner table that touch on joblessness, hipster poverty and casual hook-up culture in all the best ways, and all of it happening a mile a minute. Continue reading “Frances Ha”