Thursday, August 31, 2017

Good Time: One Bad Night on the Big Apple's Mean Streets

Robert Pattinson stars in the thriller "Good Time"
I’ll say this for Good Time: It has personality. Awash in a toxic sludge of neon and grime, it is a distinctive, assaultive film, made with energy and aggression by its sibling directors, Josh and Benny Safdie. It is also a deeply unpleasant experience, and not in the way it seeks to be. Desperate to rattle you with its jittery style and glammed-up ugliness, Good Time instead just feels punishing and self-indulgent, mistaking excess for excitement and confusing shock with craft.

In their previous feature, Heaven Knows What, the Safdies explored the agony of urban drug addiction, plucking actual addict Arielle Holmes off the street and then building a movie around her sad circumstances. (Holmes went on to appear as one of Andrea Arnold’s itinerant magazine salespeople in American Honey.) Most critics praised Heaven Knows What for its grubby authenticity, but I found it cold, slack, and unrelentingly miserable. I feel much the same about Good Time, which is marginally less bleak and slightly more polished but shares with its predecessor a defiant disregard for visual coherence. Working again with cinematographer Sean Price Williams (who also shot Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth), the Safdies favor extreme, unsteady close-ups, the camera hovering near the characters’ faces like a drunken dermatologist. Some might call this approach intimate. I’d call it a mess.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Logan Lucky: Robbing That Racetrack, and Maybe Stealing Your Heart

Channing Tatum and Adam Driver plan a robbery in "Logan Lucky"
Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky opens with Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) regaling his 10-year-old daughter, Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie), about the creation of “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. It’s a colorful tale, complete with serendipitous car crashes and an all-night jam session, and Sadie asks her father if he perhaps admires the classic ballad because of the story behind its genesis. Jimmy responds that, while he appreciates the ditty’s backstory, that isn’t what makes it special. “I like the song because of the song,” he says.

It’s a sweet, disarming scene, quickly establishing the film’s gentle and laid-back vibe, but for cinephiles, it takes on a meta context. Those of us who mourned Soderbergh’s announcement in 2013—that, after releasing two movies that year (the slightly overrated Behind the Candelabra and the decidedly underrated Side Effects), he was retiring from filmmaking—could be forgiven for cherishing Logan Lucky simply because it heralds the return of one of American cinema’s most gifted and versatile directors. But while I’m delighted to have Soderbergh back in theaters (during his so-called retirement, he made two seasons of The Knick for Cinemax), my appreciation of Logan Lucky doesn’t stem primarily from him ending his self-imposed hiatus. To paraphrase Jimmy: I like the movie because of the movie.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Wind River: Danger in a Strange Land

Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner hunt a killer in "Wind River"
The chill runs bone-deep in Wind River, the astute and mournful second feature from Taylor Sheridan. After penning two electric screenplays that sweltered in the suffocating Southwest heat, the actor-turned-writer-turned-director has turned his gaze north and flipped his thermometer upside-down. Taking place on the titular Indian reservation in Wyoming (filming took place in Utah), Sheridan’s newest movie is cold and stark, the snow blanketing its landscapes and its characters like a paralytic force. The opening shot, of a teenage girl racing barefoot across a frozen plain in the dead of night, will make you shiver. Don’t expect to warm up anytime soon.

Not that Wind River is emotionally icy or remote. Quite the contrary; it’s a lively crime picture that’s also unusually elegiac, as interested in grief as it is in thrills. Sheridan’s protagonists may be ruthless—Benicio Del Toro’s vengeful assassin in Sicario can still trigger nightmares, while Ben Foster’s wolfish reprobate in Hell or High Water gunned down innocents without hesitation—but they are also motivated by anger and loss. Wind River’s hero, a Fish and Wildlife agent named Cory Lambert, is a literal hunter, a killing machine with a rifle on his back and a hole in his heart.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Detroit: Black and White and Dead All Over

Will Poulter and Anthony Mackie in Kathryn Bigelow's "Detroit"
Detroit opens with a police raid on an African-American nightclub, an edgy incursion that concludes with dozens of black patrons being forcibly loaded into paddy wagons. The movie, which takes place in 1967, was released in theaters on July 28, 2017. That same day, the President of the United States said this:

So, yes: In an era where virtually every American movie feels unnervingly topical—from franchise films to alien adventures to romantic comediesDetroit resonates even more than most. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, it rakes up considerable muck, tackling two intertwined issues—endemic racism and police brutality—with unapologetic frankness. This relevance almost automatically makes Detroit worth seeing; it’s rare for a film to firmly exist in both past and present at once. But if you can set aside its political significance (not that you should, of course), what emerges is a strange, decidedly uneven movie. Helmed by a filmmaker renowned for her precision, Detroit is oddly undisciplined, chaotic, even flabby. Yet it is also, at least during its extended central passage, a gripping, nightmarish tale of sweaty panic and helpless inevitability. It doesn’t always seem to know where it’s going, but it sure shakes you up in the process of getting there.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Atomic Blonde: She's a Lady, and a Killer

Charlize Theron is cool as ice in "Atomic Blonde"
These boots are made for kicking in Atomic Blonde, David Leitch’s sexy, overstuffed actioner of new-age kineticism and carefully curated retro cool. Forged of tactile black leather and stretching what seems like acres up to their subject’s knee, the boots adorn the statuesque body of Charlize Theron, that South African goddess with a 14-year-old Oscar and a newfound thirst for blood. As a one-armed warrior in Mad Max: Fury Road, Theron showcased a bristling physicality that meshed nicely with her more classical qualities. She has all of her limbs back in Atomic Blonde, and good thing too, since she does roughly as much talking with her fists—and those boots—as with her mouth.

If anything, there’s too much dialogue in Atomic Blonde, which tends to stall whenever its heroine isn’t in slick, liquid motion. Adapting the graphic novel The Coldest City, screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300—you get what you pay for) piles on the spy-speak and the Bournean intrigue, layering the busy plot with triple agents, double-crosses, and a single ungainly framing device. It isn’t incomprehensible, exactly, but Leitch, who previously co-directed John Wick before departing its sequel to make this film, has little use for all this blather. He’s much more interested in cranking up the music—the post-punk-heavy soundtrack here feels like the offspring of a union between The Americans and Deutschland 83—and unleashing his leading lady as an unstoppable force of lithe, purposeful destruction.