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”

Side by Side: Kingsman and Jupiter Ascending

The spy movie “Kingsman” and the sci-fi “Jupiter Ascending” share more in common than being B-movies.

Sometimes the hate or love for a film just doesn’t make sense. In “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and “Jupiter Ascending,” you have two wildly creative films that both look like video games, are trashy fun, feature outlandish performances and stunning special effects, and yet one is considered genuinely good and the other is a cult film, but only because it’s so terrible.

I’ll flip that script and say I believe “Jupiter Ascending” to be a genuinely good movie. Everything about “Jupiter Ascending” is bananas, but the Wachowskis have made an endlessly inventive film that begs pouring over their imagination. Channing Tatum plays a hunter spliced with the DNA of a wolf, and he sports pointed ears, a scruffy blonde goatee and gliding rocket boots, but he fights and acts with the acrobatics of Magic Mike, employing his senses and a holo shield to evaporate pale nymph monsters. Eddie Redmayne gives the definition of a scene-chewing performance, but he seems to know what movie he’s in, curling his fingers in a lilting, vampiric performance. His voice raises octaves as he strives for range, and it never grows tiresome despite how it grows out of proportion. Even the human characters on Earth are colorful, cartoonish Russian greaseballs that make the film ever livelier. And they’re matched by the CGI spectacle of lush palaces and exotic gowns that put “The Hunger Games” to shame. At the same time, we’ll see Tatum flying in front of tacky green screen backdrops made to represent the Chicago skyline, and the film’s artificiality and B-movie charm shine through.

“Kingsman” has just as many quirks and goofy scenarios that extend far beyond the realm of believability, but Matthew Vaughn, as in “Kick-Ass,” has a tendency to confuse pure lunacy and anarchy for style, and gratuitous cartoon violence for humor. “Kingsman” doesn’t actually have sensational stunts. Rather, we see a delirious whooshing of the camera (accomplished digitally) rather than traditional action editing. It allows Vaughn to whip projectiles across the room or zoom in ultra close on various gadgets. One scene has Colin Firth knocking a tooth out of a thug’s mouth, and the tooth hangs in the air in slow motion before flying past another thug’s dumbstruck face. Another is the hyper-violent bloodbath that takes place as a result of Valentine’s mind control. Is there anything about this scene that’s funny other than it’s set to the tune of the “Freebird” guitar solo? And why exactly does Samuel L. Jackson talk with a lisp in this movie?

I still had fun with both of these films, but what’s interesting is how each film approaches class dynamics. It’s rare for movies this trashy to actually have credible substance about society, and yet the fact that they do goes a long way to elevating them beyond their frivolous fun.


Britain of course concerns itself far more with class and upbringing than Americans do generally, so perhaps in Britain this isn’t so revolutionary. But across the pond, “Kingsman” raises some interesting questions. In the film, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) comes from a working class background. When he arrives at the Kingsman training facility, all the other selected candidates are pompous, posh and preppy. They ask whether he’s an Oxford or Cambridge boy, which to anyone in England, coming from “Oxbridge” is an obvious sign of class and snobbery. The film shows that becoming a “gentleman” has little to do with your roots and everything to do with your actions. The film’s set pieces have stakes because they’re as much tests of character as they are feats of strength.

As for Jupiter (Mila Kunis) in “Jupiter Ascending,” the Wachowskis make a point to say that Jupiter was born over the Atlantic, literally without a country and that she’s “technically,” an alien. She explains how astrology has been a guiding factor in her upbringing, and each morning she complains saying, “I hate my life,” as though had she been born under different circumstances, things wouldn’t be so bad. Of course, Jupiter will find that all the wealth and royalty in the world will not make her want to change her heritage and her life.

Both evil plots are also governed by class dynamics. Valentine’s plan is to create a “culling” on Earth, in which the population whittles itself down through mass murder, leaving only the wealthy elite (like Eggsy’s privileged classmate) to survive. The culling process in “Jupiter Ascending” is a bit more sci-fi. The royal families have claims to individual planets, owning them and harvesting their resources like farms in order to extend their lives, but it’s still a process that favors the rich and treats other human beings as second class citizens made to serve.

People have been pointing to the libertarian politics in something like “Captain America: Civil War,” and yet Marvel deliberately makes their films wishy-washy and bland, scrubbed of an explicit position. The Wachowskis and Vaughn may have appeared to make innocent, meat and potatoes action films, but they’re far more sophisticated. Rather, because these are films “of the people” that reject sophistication, let’s just say they have a lot more character.

The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino’s 8th film is an overwritten slog.

HatefulEightPosterQuentin Tarantino, a truly favorite director of mine, can be called a lot of unsavory adjectives, but I never thought “boring” could be one of them.

“The Hateful Eight,” his eighth film as he proudly boasts, is an overwritten slog. At three hours and filmed in 70mm Panavision, Tarantino has the audacity to take those cinematic tools reserved for epics and apply them to a cozy, claustrophobic character drama set in a cabin in the woods. Tarantino bottles all his despicable characters and ideas about race and gender into a room and takes forever for them to explode, then even longer to clean up his mess.

The film involves bounty hunter John “Hangman” Ruth’s intentions to collect $10,000 reward by bringing in Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) alive, a principle of his to personally see all his victims hang. Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) is a former black officer in the Union Army and now full-time bounty hunter who still enjoys killing white boys who would rather see him dead. Warren hitches a ride with Ruth and former marauder, now Sherriff, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) to a haberdashery where they’ll wait out a blizzard.

This set up consumes the film’s first of three hours, a drawn out procession of formalities and mistrust in on the nose period dialogue. It’s theatrical play-acting, and Tarantino still confines all their conversation to the two walls of a cramped stagecoach. Tarantino leaves very little to subtext, with Warren, Ruth and Mannix each speaking detailed personal histories despite how much they seem to know about each other already. This is conversation for the audience, a way for Tarantino to show these allies are still at odds with one another, Mannix just a little racist and Ruth very much on edge. The mystery is Domergue, who spends the stagecoach ride with a black eye and a streak of blood down her cheek from Ruth’s blow to the head. She’s a monster, not a lady, we’re told. How much of her abuse can we endure? Tarantino is goading us, and the movie has barely started.

Waiting for them are four other travelers, each an Old West stereotype more likely drawn from cinema than from reality, as is Tarantino’s penchant. Tim Roth plays Oswaldo Mobray, complete with a thick and eloquent British accent that suggests Christoph Waltz could’ve been in mind for the part, as could’ve “Unforgiven’s” English Bob. Demian Bichir as the Mexican keeper of the haberdashery is Bob, easily a surrogate of Eli Wallach in “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” Bruce Dern is a grizzled and apathetic Confederate General made enraged by Warren’s taunting. And Michael Madsen is the reserved, anonymous cowboy Joe Gage, just off to visit his mother. Of course Tarantino takes the time to have Ruth and Warren reintroduce themselves to all four individually.

No one can be trusted, and Ruth warns that one or some of the remaining four could be in cahoots with Domergue. But to what degree are we invested in seeing whether this woman gets to the rope or not? We have more doubt as to whether they are innocent rather than whether they are guilty. It’s just a matter of how long Tarantino takes to arrive there, and how much we choose to tolerate along the journey. His cards are all on the table.

Or maybe not. Tarantino back tracks in a clunky, narrated aside to fill in the gaps that we didn’t see, rather than allow those twists to emerge through character or dialogue. It’s too contrived to not be exactly as Tarantino intended. We’re made to realize that this genre setting, this overly theatrical dramatizing, this will they/won’t they scenario is in service of how much he can get away with and how hateful he can make his eighth film.

Violence here serves as an exclamation point and punch line rather than a consequence or for stylish entertainment value. The Ennio Morricone score is fascinating, operatic and lovely but staged over extended sequences of Ruth’s driver walking out into the cold to use the bathroom. The N-word rankled some feathers when Tarantino used it as coloring in “Django Unchained,” but here it seems notably superfluous. And there’s not much more to be said for measured storytelling nuance when your characters start projectile vomiting blood onto a woman’s face.

“The Hateful Eight” isn’t just hateful, it’s depressing and a drag. Tarantino has used his time to say everything despicable and nothing in particular.

1 star

Magic Mike XXL

Channing Tatum is a true star in the sexy, super fun, bro-fest that is “Magic Mike XXL”.

MagicMikeXXLPosterThe first “Magic Mike” was a surprise not just because it was the start of the McConaissance and because it took a chiseled action hero with a square chin and turned him into a bona fide sex icon. The whole look and feel of Steven Soderbergh’s 2012 film made it feel more art house than sexploitation.

“Magic Mike” was Soderbergh tinkering with genre yet again. In “Haywire” he had people who could really fight, so he made them fight and shot them in a way that didn’t hide it. In Channing Tatum, he had a guy who could really strip, and he definitely didn’t hide anything. The film was an experiment. But it was a modestly budgeted experiment that made $176 million.

Despite “Magic Mike’s” massive success, that film school explanation wasn’t quite good enough for a lot of women who really just wanted to watch a bunch of dancing naked dudes.

Rest assured, “Magic Mike XXL” has a lot more of that.

Soderbergh has passed on directing duties to Gregory Jacobs, but stayed on as cinematographer (with the pseudonym Peter Andrews) to give “Magic Mike XXL” that same art house look of classic mid-range shots, clever mood lighting and sharp, alluring coloring. But it’s such a refreshing and scandalous blockbuster because it has turned the story of identity and a seedy stripping community into a bro-tastic road trip movie and movie musical. Ladies will like it just fine, but “Magic Mike XXL” is also wonderful counter programming to the bros who sat through the hateful, thick-headed misogyny of the recent “Entourage” movie.

That’s because the bros of “Magic Mike XXL” don’t strip just so they can bang chicks; they want to make these girls smile. The film does just that when Mike encourages his cohort “Big Dick Richie” (Joe Manganiello) to go into a gas station convenience store and get the attention of a sad looking employee. “That girl looks like she’s never smiled in her life,” he says, but she will if the right tune comes on and if he puts his heart into his moves.

“Magic Mike XXL”’s plot concerns the Miami boys’ “one last ride” (maybe this is good counter programming for “Furious 7” as well) to a stripper convention in Myrtle Beach, but the film is actually an assortment of creative set pieces and isolated vignettes. They stop at a burlesque home where Mike’s former boss Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith filling in nicely for Matthew McConaughey in the emcee spot) manages black male dancers for an almost entirely black female clientele. But in addition to a dance or a sexy song (from an excellent Donald Glover/Childish Gambino) they get some guys who will listen and for a moment make them feel loved. When they crash a party of the moms of some of their younger girlfriends, they get close to women who haven’t been touched or appreciated for their beauty in years. And when the boys party on the beach, they reveal all of their ambitions and dirty pleasures, whether it’s for making smoothies or watching Oprah.

These moments arguably have more sexual tension and chemistry than anything on stage. It makes for a wonderfully feminist movie that doesn’t detract from the bro love fest. And no one would expect a movie about strippers to be this perceptive.

And yet Magic Mike himself is the reason you’re really “coming”. Channing Tatum is such a star. David Ehlrich wrote in Rolling Stone that Tatum is “this generation’s Gene Kelly, and ‘Magic Mike XXL’ is his ‘Singin’ in the Rain”. In what might be one of the best scenes of the year, Mike is building furniture in his woodshed, and when Ginuwine’s “Pony” comes on, Tatum literally starts making sparks. He moves so easily, and with so much more than just sex appeal. He makes love to his workbench, and from that early moment you know it’s on. He also keeps up with one of the best hip hop dancers in the world in “So You Think You Can Dance’s” Twitch, who choreographed everything and appears in the film’s supersized final dance number along with Tatum.

But Tatum is such a perfect Magic Mike not for his looks alone but for his goofy charms and immensely positive attitude. He loves his bros so hard, and rather than put downs and snarky one-liners he’s a goof who dishes motivational idioms to his buds and chats up the joys of eating Oreos to his girls. “Someone stole your smile,” he says to romantic interest Zoe (Amber Heard), “and you need it back.” SWOON.

The first “Magic Mike” was simply not a blockbuster, and it almost doesn’t make sense to compare the two films. “Magic Mike XXL” is on its own level, and even more so than blockbusters like “Avengers: Age of Ultron” or “Furious 7”, it deserves its XXL suffix. Because when you combine the dancing, the charm, the guys, and the style, “Magic Mike XXL” has one massive package.

3 ½ stars


Steve Carell’s chilling performance as John Du Pont anchor the great work of Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo.

The characters of “Foxcatcher” act as a somewhat grotesque portrait of America. Channing Tatum plays a hulking, brutish mass who is really just a lost puppy looking to please. Mark Ruffalo plays a compassionate, tender and measured leader for which things don’t go as planned. And Steve Carell, in a villainous, sinister turn, is transformed into a wealthy, privileged and cold man of delusion.

That director Bennett Miller (“Capote”, “Moneyball”) has packaged them all into a tense, skin crawling thriller and sports movie says something about how rooted American culture is in these institutions. Continue reading “Foxcatcher”

22 Jump Street

’22 Jump Street’ is quite literally the same story and idea as the first film, and it’s much lesser for it.

Nick Offerman delivers a monologue at the start of “22 Jump Street” about the surprise success of the 21 Jump Street case, i.e. the plot at the center of 2012’s “21 Jump Street,” obviously. He explains that no one cared about it the first time around, but now they’re going to throw more money at, as though that would produce better results, do the same thing and keep everyone happy.

It’s a wickedly self aware moment, and Offerman is talking about this original film, but he may as well be talking about “The Hangover” or any action sequel ever made.

Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller proved earlier this year that they can be transparently self-aware and still be innovative with “The LEGO Movie.” So they more than anyone know that for “22 Jump Street” to be good and even better than the original, it would have to be more than a sequel about bad sequels.

And yet here Jonah Hill is, doing slam poetry that isn’t as funny as his Peter Pan song. Here’s a drug tripping sequence involving split screen dream worlds for both Hill and Channing Tatum that isn’t as funny as Tatum diving through a gong or Rob Riggle trying to put Hill’s tongue back in his mouth. And here’s Tatum stupidly saying Cate Blanchett when he means “carte blanche,” and the movie not following up on getting that cameo the way they did with Johnny Depp the first time around.

“22 Jump Street” is literally the same movie as the first one with more money thrown at it, and that might be the point, but that doesn’t make it a stronger or equal film. Continue reading “22 Jump Street”

Side Effects

Steven Soderbergh’s movie “Side Effects” may just be his last film. Hopefully that’s not true, as this coldly clinical, but limp conspiracy thriller would be a disappointing way to end a great career.

“Side Effects” is supposed to look like a Zoloft commercial, correct? Steven Soderbergh’s film, which I hope is not his last despite his hints, sustains a flat, picturesque aesthetic resembling a medicine ad in a magazine or on TV. It’s designed to make the characters appear phony or untrustworthy, but the unfortunate side effect, for lack of a better term, is that the whole film falls limp in the process.

That you can’t trust these people or their actions is about all the hint I can give you without treading in spoiler territory. It involves the months after Martin (Channing Tatum) has just been released from a white-collar prison to his wife Emily (Rooney Mara). His presence, though loving and supportive, causes her to try and commit suicide shortly thereafter. A doctor named Jonathan (Jude Law) agrees to release her from the hospital on the condition that she come in for treatment and therapy, both of which will eventually lead to Emily’s mental breakdown, a lawsuit, some jail time and a conspiracy.

“Side Effects” is a film about the unexpected consequences of trying to do good. We look for a fix, or a cure, and more problems are borne out of it. Jonathan will drive himself insane trying to mend this problem he’s created in Emily, and he’ll eventually become a slave to his own medicine. Continue reading “Side Effects”

Magic Mike

Careful ladies. Girls’ night out just turned into evening at the art house.

Along with the equally stylish “Haywire” earlier this year, Steven Soderbergh has again taken a no-nonsense genre picture that in another director’s hands would just be sugary fun, if not forgettable, and transformed it into something with intellect and class.

Now if you ask me, if you wanted to make a movie about male strippers, you couldn’t have a better director behind the helm than Soderbergh. The guy is the master of the mid-range shot and can make even the simplest exchange look like a sexy music video set piece. Soderbergh isn’t coy enough to cast Sexiest Man Alive Channing Tatum and former Sexiest Man Alive Matthew McConaughey and not include some juicy fun erotic dances. But even an average watcher only in this for the physical pleasures will see the film’s canted lens and intense low angle shots and sense there’s something disturbing going on here, not entirely an empty montage of sexy fun.

Tatum plays Mike, an independent construction contractor, entrepreneur and male stripper, in case you thought I was kidding about his business ventures. He builds custom furniture when he’s not dry humping a cougar’s face for money, so all around he has this keen understanding of women and people in general. He meets the 19-year-old Adam (Alex Pettyfer) on the job and instantly ropes him into this noisy, colorful underworld of tough, yet spotless characters and seductive environments of booze, drugs and girls.

Mike develops a crush on Adam’s older sister Brooke (Cody Horn) and reveals he’s more than just a stripper with a heart of gold. Tatum’s performance is confident, yet subtle enough that even amidst Soderbergh’s elaborate cinematography, he still looks somewhat like a guy in distress.

“Magic Mike” is an art house bromance in a lot of ways. It’s an identity crisis movie between two male strippers, one entering into the world at his lowest point and the other trying to leave it. Both Mike and Adam become friends and rivals, and their chemistry is thankfully more than skin (or leather chaps) deep.

But it does have its visceral pleasures. McConaughey is on fire as the flamboyant gangster type in charge of the stripper joint. He seems to know how to use a prop or wear a skimpy workout outfit better than anyone else. He commands an extended take in which he instructs Pettyfer to take off his clothes like a man and make love to a wall.

There are only so many times a stripper routine can be sexy before it looks sad. “Magic Mike” recognizes that and makes for a colorful film that acts accordingly and will surprise in ways you didn’t expect.

3 stars

21 Jump Street

Thus, “21 Jump Street” is a sharp, silly and self-aware movie that barrel rolls head-on into its ridiculous concept.

I’m used to seeing movies where the characters flash back to their embarrassing days in high school in the ‘80s and ’90s. Now in “21 Jump Street” even seven years earlier in 2005, when I was in high school, can seem like an eternity ago. Time moves fast, and jokes have to move even faster.

Thus, “21 Jump Street” is a sharp, silly and self-aware movie that barrel rolls head-on into its ridiculous concept as willfully as Channing Tatum dives head first into a gong while tripping out on drugs.

The film pairs Jonah Hill and Tatum as Schmidt and Jenko, two hapless cops who together are physically and mentally inept at their jobs. Their punishment is a reassignment to an undercover operation in high school to locate the supplier of a new synthetic drug.

The two were in different worlds in high school, but now they’re best buds, and the movie never messes too much with their bromance. They remain likeable even as they bro out and act too big for their egos, and “21 Jump Street” has a way of being raunchy and endearing simultaneously. It’s wild and absurd without being cynical in a way perhaps no blockbuster comedy has done since “Superbad.” Continue reading “21 Jump Street”


“Haywire” is a no-frills action movie that measures what can be accomplished in a genre film.

Something with as many ass kickings as “Haywire” couldn’t possibly be called an experimental film, can it?

Steven Soderbergh built one around porn star Sasha Grey, so why not for martial arts fighter Gina Carano?

“Haywire” is a no-frills action movie that measures what can be accomplished in a genre film.

It minimizes on sweeping photography or handheld queasy cam effects and produces a stylized, precise and expertly choreographed film. Its simplicity is compelling just in admiring the craft of it all.

Carano plays Mallory Kane, a secret agent betrayed by her private contractor (Ewan McGregor), but the plot too is stripped to its bare bones to the point that the cryptic details are just filler for “Haywire’s” artsy combat set pieces.

Soderbergh gives us full-bodied fights that lovingly make use of space, his rapid editing still delineating clear angles as though he were photographing Carano in the octagon.

The gorgeous Carano makes for an unusual movie star with how at home she is during the film’s many battles.

She’s the key in a film uninterested with her striking sexuality. But Carano demands presence, and although she could serve as a better feminist icon than Fincher’s Lisbeth Salander, Carano is too tough and impressive for anyone to really notice or care.

3 ½ stars