Review: Logan Lucky

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Rebecca Blunt
Starring: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Seth MacFarlane, Riley Keough, Katie Holmes
Released: August 17, 2017
Grade: B+

Logan Lucky
54-year-old director Steven Soderbergh has made some terrific films across his lengthy career – Sex, Lies and Videotape, Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Magic Mike and the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy.  He also won an Academy Award in 2001 for creating one of the best films of that year, Traffic.  Given his success and reputation within the industry, it was a big surprise when he announced his retirement in 2013.  He told reporters that he was fed up with studio interference and the lack of creative control he was afforded as a director.

Soderbergh was clearly frustrated but the good news, certainly for his fans, is that he has returned to the big screen with his first feature film in four years, Logan Lucky.  Things are different though.  Soderbergh has taken matters into his own hands and is trying to change Hollywood’s risk-averse mentality.

Rather than relying on a major studio to distribute the movie, Soderbergh made a deal with the recently created Bleecker Street Media, a small company based in New York.  As part of the deal, Soderbergh had full control over all trailers, advertising and other marketing.  This is unusual within the industry.  Bigger distributors have fine-tuned marketing machines that seek minimal input from directors.  It’ll be interesting to follow the box-office over the coming weeks.

Turning to film itself, Logan Lucky taps in a genre that Soderbergh has already explored through the Ocean’s Eleven franchise.  It’s a heist movie.  The theme is a little different though.  It’s about the poorer class of society getting a little revenge against the wealthy who have tipped the scales too strongly in their favour.

Jimmy Logan (Tatum) is an Iraq war veteran who is now making ends meet as a lowly paid construction worker.  When his boss sees him limping on the job, Jimmy is called into the office and told that his services are no longer required.  The company doesn’t want the hassle of the additional medical insurance.  His brother, Clyde (Driver), has had a tougher run.  Left with just one arm after the Iraq War, he works in a dingy bar and puts up with taunts from rude customers.

With the help of a few others, they concoct a plan to rob the nearby Charlotte Motor Speedway during a major race.  There are tunnels and rooms under the track that allow millions of dollars to be transferred directly from the concession stands and into a bank vault.  They intend to intercept the cash and sneak it out of the stadium.

This is a fun film.  These characters aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed and they make a few mistakes along the way.  Aside from Channing Tatum and Adam Driver, there’s some great banter between others involved including Daniel Craig, who plays a slightly off-hinged safe-cracker, and Seth MacFarlane, as a cocky race driver.  These are distinctive, memorable characters.  I’d give the screenwriter credit but I’m not sure who they are!  The credit belongs to a “Rebecca Blunt” but she has no previous credits and no one has been able to prove she exists.

I love a great heist flick and so I only wish the plan relied on more skill as opposed to luck.  As the title suggests, there are a few too many parts to the film that are convenient and coincidental.  They could have just bought a lotto ticket instead given their good fortune.  Perhaps I watch too many real-life crime documentaries but I prefer realism over fantasy.

The bottom line is that Steven Soderbergh is back and I know that many are going to be happy.


Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Directed by: Luc Besson
Written by: Luc Besson
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock
Released: August 10, 2017
Grade: A-

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
A lot has been said and written about the budget for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.  The total production cost was roughly $200 million which makes it the most expensive film to have ever been shot and produced in France.  It was a big gamble but the risk was shared around.  Funds were pitched in from a substantial number of production companies and distributors across the globe.

This is now relevant because the film has been labelled a “box-office flop”.  It opened in 5th place at the U.S. box-office in mid-July and slipped outside of the top 10 within two weeks.  The early figures out of the United Kingdom (where it opened last weekend) weren’t much better.  Thankfully, the home crowd threw their support behind it.  The opening day box-office in France was the second highest of the year thus far.

Roughly 25% of the cinema releases in Brisbane this year have been a sequel, spin off, reboot or remake.  Some of those films were watchable (e.g. Cars 3) but if I had the choice between a sequel or something fresh, I’d always choose the later.  It’s therefore a shame this film hasn’t found an audience.  French director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Lucy) has reached into the depth of his mind and crafted one of the more creative action films we’ve seen in recent years.  It saddens me to think that the formulaic, mindless Transformers: The Last Knight sold more tickets.

I’ll willingly admit this script isn’t perfect but there’s more than enough to compensate.  I’m describing Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets as a cross between Star Wars and The Matrix.  It’s set several centuries into the future where a human-made space station, known as Alpha, is now home to hundreds of alien species from across the universe.  They all live in harmony (well, kind of) and their vast and varied knowledge.

When the film begins, we’re introduced to Major Valerian (DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Delevingne), two members of a security unit that help maintain law and order.  Working under the instruction of their commanding officer (Owen), they travel to another planet and recover a small animal known as a “converter”.  They’re not sure what it’s needed for but they realise it has significant value.

Things get messy when they return to Alpha.  A radioactive zone has been identified and if not contained, the entire space station could be consumed within a week.  Further, the commander is kidnapped by a group of mysterious aliens and taken to an unknown location.  Valerian and Laureline are drawn into the situation but they’re unsure about their role and end goal.

This is a fun, cool, wild ride.  Besson taken the French science fiction comics created by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières and brought this beautiful, colourful world to life on the big screen.  There’s an incredible level of detail and you can appreciate the high price tag.  The creative opening sequence in the marketplace where characters straddle between dimensions sets the early benchmark and there are many other highlights throughout (including a great cameo from Rihanna).

Most importantly, the film never takes itself too seriously.  I enjoyed the banter between stars Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne as they continually flirt with each other whilst also trying to stay focused on the job at hand.  One could argue that it’s a little cheesy but I was still amused by their sly remarks and insults.  The lack of a villain also frames the film has a quasi-mystery.

Not everyone will go for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.  It’s bold and unorthodox – qualities that have hindered its positive world-of-mouth to date.  Forget the naysayers.  Go in with an open mind and be entertained. 


Review: The Big Sick

Directed by: Michael Showalter
Written by: Emily V. Gordon, Kumail Nanjiani
Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff
Released: August 3, 2017
Grade: B+

The Big Sick
If you’re a screenwriter looking for inspiration, it’s not a bad idea to look close to home.  Mike Mills wrote about his upbringing in California and his relationship with his mother.  The finished film, 20th Century Women, picked up a much deserved Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.  As another example, Richard Linklater recently admitted that his much acclaimed Before Sunrise was based on a real life encounter that took place in Philadelphia.

39-year-old Kumail Nanjiani has made a name for himself in recent years by starring in HBO’s Silicon Valley.  Before that, he was picking up insignificant roles in feature films.  If you search through the Internet Movie Database, he played characters credited as “Pakistani Chef”, “Gary the Delivery Guy” and “Airfield Security Guard”.  You wouldn’t have picked him as someone to break out from the crowd.

Nanjiani has taken matters into his own hands with The Big Sick.  He wrote the script, cast himself in the leading role, and earned the trust of Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Trainwreck) who serves as one of the film’s two producers.  It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January 2017 and the distribution rights were snapped up for $12 million after a bidding battle between several studios.  It was evident that the film had commercial potential.

Kumail plays himself in the film.  Well, to be clearer, he plays a slightly “alternate universe” version.  He’s a struggling stand-up comedian living in Chicago who is looking for a big break.  He has a close group of friends and they’re giving it their best shot each night in a small comedy club.  What he makes isn’t quite enough to pay the bills and so he moonlights as an Uber driver to help get by.

One night at the club, he meets Emily (Kazan) and the two head back to his place with what appears to be a one night stand.  Things progress however and the two start spending more and more time together.  There’s a problem though.  Kumail is of Pakistani heritage and his loving/interfering mother is intent on arranging a marriage with a Pakistani girl.  He keeps tight lipped about his relationship with Emily but the more it progresses, the harder it becomes to conceal from his family.

An unexpected event suddenly puts everything in perspective.  Emily is struck down by a mysterious virus and is placed in an induced coma at a Chicago hospital.  It’s there where Kumail meets and spends time with Emily’s parents, Beth (Hunter) and Terry (Romano), while also realising just how strongly he feels about her.  Things are going to get messy but there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

It may have the appearance of another fabricated Hollywood screenplay but most of this took place.  Nanjiani was a comedian working in Chicago back in 2007, his girlfriend spent more than a week in an induced coma, and he had battles with his family because of the fact he was a Muslim and she was a Christian.  The real Emily co-wrote the screenplay but decided not to play herself in the film.  That responsibility was left to Zoe Kazan (Olive Kitteridge) who is very good (when not lying unconscious on a bed).

Many films have been made about cross-cultural relationships but The Big Sick will win over most in the audience with its delicately balanced mix of comedy and authenticity.  It’s getting to the heart of issues that many people have dealt with whilst also having a laugh along the way. 


Review: An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

Directed by: Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk
Released: August 10, 2017
Grade: B

An Inconvenient Sequel
Released back in 2006, An Inconvenient Truth tried to raise awareness about global warming and its possible effects.  It was well received.  Along with numerous other awards, it took home Oscars for best documentary feature and best original song (the Melissa Etheridge tune ‘I Need to Wake Up’).

A decade has since passed but in the eyes of many, progress on climate change has been disappointing and it’s become a political issue.  On the Internet Movie Database, the public can weigh in with their thoughts on each film and give a rating between 1 and 10.  For this sequel, 40% gave it a score of 10/10 whilst 42% gave it a score of 1/10.  That division highlights just how passionate some people are their views.

For the record, I believe in the work performed by the overwhelming majority of scientists and that climate change is real.  We need to do whatever is necessary to stop global warming before it is too late.  That said, I’m still happy to look at this film objectively and review it on its merits. 

Director Davis Guggenheim wasn’t available this time around and so he handed over the reins to Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk.  Their film doesn’t delve into too much scientific detail but rather, tries to prove global warming in a visual form.  It refers back to prophecies made by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore in the first movie which leads into footage of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy and the destruction that was caused.  We also travel to the world’s biggest glaciers and witness their deterioration over time.

The film’s biggest focus is the lead up to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference which took place in Paris.  After a lengthy period of negotiation, many world leaders agreed on the “Paris Agreement” – a document that set greenhouse gas emissions targets that would hopefully lead to meaningful change.  The cameras follow Al Gore and his team as they meet with influential people in the lead up to conference.  Trying to get close to 200 countries to agree on a single issue is not an easy assignment.

The timing of this sequel is appropriate given that global warming is back in the political spotlight.  Research showed that the original movie did change the views of many around the world.  Cohen, Shenk and Gore will be hoping that’s again the case here.  With President Donald Trump announcing two months ago that the United States will be withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, this is a subject that will be soaking up plenty of media time in the weeks and months ahead.

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power makes some important observations but its power isn’t as strong as the original.  Perhaps that’s because I’m already on the side of Al Gore and he’s simply “preaching to the converted”.  Perhaps it’s because this issue now gets far more attention than it did 10 years ago which makes this documentary slightly superfluous.  Perhaps it’s because there’s not as much material to cover this time around and the weighting given to the Paris conference is too much.

Qualms aside, does this film need to be seen by as many people as possible?  The answer is a clear “yes”.


Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

Directed by: Matt Reeves
Written by: Mark Bomback, Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Amiah Miller
Released: July 27, 2017
Grade: B+

War For The Planet Of The Apes
I’ve been impressed by the way in which this rebooted franchise has evolved.  Writer-director Matt Reeves has created three distinctly different films that are very different from the original series that was released between 1968 and 1973.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) focused on the humans.  A group of scientists had created a drug which could be used as a possible cure for Alzheimer’s disease.  It was tested on chimpanzees who developed human-like intelligence.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) was set 10 years in the future and focused on both the humans and the apes.  After a man-made virus had wiped out a big percentage of the human population, a battle raged to see who would be the planet’s dominant species.

War for the Planet of the Apes continues the shift in perspective and is told solely from the viewpoint of the apes.  It’s set further into the future where the apes, led by the much-loved Caesar (Serkis), have created a hideaway in a secluded forest.  They wish to live a peaceful existence and have nothing more to do with the human race.

Unfortunately, some of the humans feel otherwise.  Woody Harrelson plays the leader of a rogue military group that wants to capture the apes and use them for his own villainous purposes.  He has other motives too and these become clear later in the film.  Caesar would rather steer clear.  He knows he should take the other apes and flee to safer ground.  Deep down though, he is tired of running and wants revenge against the humans who have killed his family.

Part of this film’s allure is the way it makes you feel sympathetic towards the apes and their plight.  They’re the ones with traits such as warmth and forgiveness.  It’s the humans who come across as “animals” in that they are selfish creatures with no respect for others or their planet.  I’d have preferred more depth to the human side (all we see is the crazy Harrelson) but can understand Reeves bold move in going with the ape perspective.

The script plays its part but another reason audiences will care so passionately for Caesar and the other apes is because of the incredible work of the special effects artists.  Motion capture has been used once again to create apes that look as real as anything else you’ll see on screen.  This is particularly evident when you see the hair, scratches and blemishes during facial close-ups.  It’s a shoe-in for Oscar nomination in the visual effects category.

Culminating with a tense action-packed finale in a snow-covered landscape, War for the Planet of the Apes is a fitting end to a worthy trilogy.


Review: Atomic Blonde

Directed by: David Leitch
Written by: Kurt Johnstad
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones, Bill Skarsgard, James Faulkner
Released: August 3, 2017
Grade: B-

Atomic Blonde
November 1989 would have been a great time to visit Berlin.  After decades of separation, the Berlin Wall came crashing down and a further step was taken towards the unification of East Germany and West Germany.  I was only 12 years old at the time but I can remember watching news footage at the time and realising it was an historical event.

Atomic Blonde is set in Berlin at precisely the same time.  It’s a curious decision from writer Kurt Johnstad given that the film isn’t about the fall of the wall itself.  Rather, it’s a completely fictional spy thriller that as a James Bond-like feel.  The individual who is front and centre to all the action is Lorraine Broughton (Theron), an MI6 agent who has been sent to West Germany to recover a watch that has been stolen from a deceased agent.  Inside the watch is a list of undercover agents that, if it were to fall into the wrong hands, could be hugely damaging to MI6 and the CIA.

The film is structured as a “who’s playing who?” kind of story.  There isn’t a single character that comes across as honest and well-intentioned.  James McAvoy is a fellow agent based in Berlin who has his own agenda.  Sofia Boutella is a French agent who keeps her cards close to her chest.  Eddie Marsan is a Soviet defector looking to exchange information for protection.  John Goodman and Toby Jones are two senior agents working out of London who are trying to take charge of the situation.

The best parts of Atomic Blonde are the fighting sequences.  Lorraine is attacked repeatedly and she uses every trick in the book to stay alive.  It’s one of those movies in that instead of just killing her enemies with a gun, she gets caught up in lengthy battles that involve punching, kicking, battering and strangling (because a simple bullet is too boring).  Director David Leitch is a former stuntman and was an uncredited co-director on the original John Wick.  He has a good eye behind the camera and knows how to create an exciting action scene.

It’s the story which doesn’t enthuse to the same extent.  The characters keep yammering on about the secret list and the dangers of not recovering it.  They’re the two main attractions but the conversations between Charlize Theron and James McAvoy lack spark.  All they seem to do is express their mistrust for the other in a repetitive, not-so-interesting manner.

Lietch has thrown in a 1980s soundtrack which older audiences should appreciate.  I never thought I’d ever hear the song “I Ran” from A Flock of Seagulls used successfully in a movie but it’s now happened twice in a year following on from the Oscar-nominated La La Land.  Other artists to feature here include David Bowie, Queen, George Michael, Duran Duran and The Cure.

It’s great to see a female-led action film but Atomic Blonde is a few notches below John Wick.