Sunday, August 20, 2017

Review: Patti Cake$

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Geremy Jasper's Sundance hit "Patti Cake$" manages to get by on the charismatic performance of its lead Danielle Macdonald and a certain amount of spunk, despite that the picture tells a story that has been told many times in one form or fashion and occasionally suffers from issues of credibility. In other words, you can spot where the film is going from a mile - or 8 - away, but it's the journey that mostly satisfies.

In the film, Patricia Dombrowski - who is unaffectionately called "Dumbo" by folks in her working class New Jersey neighborhood and often ridiculed about her weight - wants to be a hip hop star, but is stuck in a low paying existence in her employment with a caterer. She also has to watch over her ailing grandmother (Cathy Moriarty) and mother, Barb (Bridget Everett), an alcoholic with a set of pipes that once led her to dream of being a rock star. Now, however, Barb gets soused and performs karaoke at the local bar where Patti picks up a few shifts as a bartender and is often forced to hold her mother's hair while she pukes in the toilet.

Patti's best pal is a scrawny Indian fellow and pharmacist named Jhen (Siddharth Dhananjay), who shares in her dream of hip hop stardom and acts as a back-up vocalist to Patti when she freestyles - an early sequence involving this as the two sit on the hood of a car is among the film's most awkward moments. When Patti and Jhen meet another awkward misfit named Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), a hardcore metal solo artist who makes Trent Reznor seem tame by comparison, at a talent night, something clicks and the trio formed a group known as PBNJ.

Despite the film being an enjoyable rags to riches story, there are some questions of authenticity that came to mind while I watched it. For starters, there are hardly any people of color to be found anywhere - other than Jhen - during the scenes in which Patti joins in freestyle competitions with neighborhood kids on the streets and a sequence during which she attends a local hip hop performance by a jerk on whom she has a crush. In fact, the only African American to be spotted anywhere is Basterd, who is portrayed as a tortured artist and is vehemently opposed to societal norms, but he then quickly gives in to the mainstream tastes that Patti is pushing and joins her group with seemingly no second thought on the matter. Patti and Jhen record their demo in a wooded shack that Basterd inhabits and could best be described as a "lair."

There's a scene later in the picture during which Patti ends up catering the home of a hip hop mogul whom she idolizes and she sneaks him a copy of her demo. The guy - known as OZ - acts like a complete ass to Patti, but he sort of has a valid point when he accuses her of cultural appropriation, which is similar to charges faced by Iggy Azalea when she embraced the lifestyle of hip hop, but turned a blind eye to its cultural and political implications.

Patti is a more sensitive soul - certainly more so than Azalea or her mother, who tells her to "act her race" - but it seems as if she only interacts with black people when she needs to cut a record in a studio or perform at the film's talent search finale, where the audience goes from booing her - and the film seems to indicate that this occurs since she is a white girl in a fur coat - to cheering her within seconds once she starts performing.

On the other hand, Patti's ridicule at the hands of young men in her community and her bitter mother also make us want to root for her. It also helps that Macdonald's performance is such a good one - she's at once confident and vulnerable - and this helps to glide past some of the picture's less effective attributes. So, while "Patti Cake$" isn't quite the Sundance sensation as it was purported to be, it's a likable, well acted and plucky character study.

Review: Logan Lucky

Image courtesy of Bleecker Street Media.
Steven Soderbergh returns to filmmaking - and the heist movie in particular - with the breezy and entertaining "Logan Lucky," which ends up pulling the rug out from beneath viewers' feet, not due to a plot twist - although there are a few of those - but rather the way in which the audience comes to view the characters.

The motley crew of individuals who make up the story of "Logan Lucky," of which much is set in my home state of West Virginia, at first give off the impression of the type of down-on-their-luck nitwits that might pop up in a Coen Brothers movie, but by the end of the picture, well, maybe not so much. There's probably a good 20 minutes remaining in the film after the heist takes place and this time is used to deconstruct what we've seen and believed to have seen.

As the picture opens, Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) is a salt of the earth former coal miner whose life is a string of regrets. He was once pegged as a football star, but an injury to his leg - that still causes him to limp - halted all that. Jimmy is fired from his job due to his disability and he has a young daughter with an estranged wife (Katie Holmes), who is married to a rich moron. Jimmy's brother, Clyde (Adam Driver), is a bartender who lost part of an arm while serving in the military overseas. The brothers also have a younger sister (Riley Keough) who is a hairdresser.

One day prior to his being laid off, Jimmy - who commutes to work in Charlotte - notices a series of tubes in the mines where he works and realizes that they are used to transport money from the NASCAR stadium above ground. He comes up with a scheme to steal a large chunk of money from the tubes and enlists his brother, sister and a convict named Joe Bang (a very funny Daniel Craig) as well as Joe's two numbskull brothers, whose decision making process on whether to join the scheme resulted in one of the year's biggest laughs. But first, Clyde gets himself thrown into prison in order to bust Joe out for the job.

Although "Logan Lucky" is a heist movie and an engrossing one at that, it's also a movie about a community and the pluck of its individual members. And while the film mostly operates as an often very funny comedic caper, it also has heart, which is best exemplified during a sequence that could have turned maudlin, but doesn't, involving a school pageant and Jimmy's young daughter.

The movie is loaded with talent and, arguably, a few of the characters aren't fleshed out as well as, perhaps, they could have been - I'm thinking Keough's character, Katherine Waterston's love interest for Jimmy and Hilary Swank's FBI agent. Then again, several of the other bit parts are particularly successful, such as Seth MacFarlane's asshole NASCAR driver.

"Logan Lucky" marks the return to the big screen of one of American film's most adventurous directors. It may not be an artistic statement in the realm of "Traffic" or "Sex, Lies and Videotape," but it's a very well made and enjoyable crime picture - and Soderbergh had already proven himself one of the masters of the genre with "Out of Sight" - and one that I'd highly recommend.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Review: Annabelle: Creation

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
For those seeking a horror movie that will genuinely scare them and keep them on the edges of their seats for the duration of its running time, "Annabelle: Creation" mostly gets the job done. It's significantly better than the first "Annabelle" movie and there are a few sequences that are pretty terrifying. However, the film is still a fairly generic haunted house movie that pulls out all the usual horror tropes and relies more than a few times on jump scares - of which I'm not particularly fond.

"The Conjuring" was a well made and frightening horror movie that has led to one direct sequel, the first "Annabelle" picture and, now, this one - all in the past four years. In other words, this cinematic world is being milked for all it is worth. "Creation" is mostly unnecessary, but director David Sandberg has put a certain amount of craft and care into this prequel that make it slightly better than you might expect.

As the film opens, a young girl - you'll never guess her name - plays a game with her loving father (Anthony LaPaglia) and mother (Miranda Otto) in their creaky old home in the middle of nowhere. The date is never given, but I'd expect this intro is set at some point in the 1940s. But a tragedy befalls the family and - more than a decade later - the couple lives alone in the old house, which is now being used as an orphanage, where a young nun and a group of pre- and teenage girls will come to live. You'll never guess what happens next.

LaPaglia's character was once a doll maker and, naturally, one of his creations was the creepy glass eyed titular character, which has seemingly been possessed by a demon of some sort. This demon taunts the house's new denizens and eventually takes possession of one of them. Much time is spent by all creeping around in the dark - turn on the lights, for heaven's sake! - and walking into rooms where something spooky is obviously taking place. As I'd mentioned before - horror tropes.

There are a few set pieces that are particularly jarring, especially one involving a young girl atop a bunk bed who believes that something is lurking in her room. Sandberg shoots the sequence from a variety of angles, especially an effective overhead shot that reveals only a little at a time. There's another scene in a barn involving a scarecrow that is also creepy, but also - let's be honest - pretty silly.

There's a lot of screaming to be heard in "Annabelle: Creation" and some of it is likely coming from the audience. Things pop out not when you expect them to, but a few seconds later. The filmmakers toy with expectations and while it occasionally pays off, the same set-up becomes a little tiresome after a while. But I'll give credit where it's due - Sandberg's picture creeps along at its own pace and the suspense builds fairly well. Although I can't wholeheartedly give this picture my full endorsement, it's significantly better than its predecessor - "Annabelle" - and not half-bad for a standard horror movie prequel.

Review: Good Time

Image courtesy of A24.
So, here's the thing - Benny and Joshua Safdie's Cannes Film Festival favorite "Good Time" is a tense, well shot and acted and stylish throwback that gives off the vibe of Sidney Lumet making a remake of "After Hours." And while that may sound all and good - and "Good Time" is indeed a pretty decent movie - it's not without its problems.

The Safdie brothers are previously responsible for "Daddy Longlegs," which is unseen by me, and "Heaven Knows What," a similarly tense and grimy movie about down-on-their-luck types that also had an unnerving synth score, grainy photography and unsettling performances. But also similar to that previous picture, "Good Time" is among those category of films that I admire - at least, from the standpoint of stylish filmmaking and solid acting - more than I love.

As the picture opens, Nick - a low-level thug who also has some form of mental handicap - is pulled out of a therapy session by his excitable brother Connie (Robert Pattinson) and the two proceed to pull off a heist at a bank. During the robbery, the two men wear rubber masks that give them the appearance of black men, although it's plain for anyone to see that their faces are covered in rubber. This is one of the first instances in which the film inadvertently deals with the matter of race - but more on that later.

After the bag full of money turns out to have an exploding dye pack that leaves the brothers with red faces, Nick gets pinched by the cops and thrown into Rikers Island, leaving Connie to undertake a wild night of attempting to raise $10,000 to spring his brother from jail. Along the way, Connie attempts to convince his girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to give him the loot - and when that fails, he smuggles a man whom he believes to be his brother, who has been attacked in jail in hospitalized, out of the hospital. As it turns out, he's freed another low-life criminal, who ends up getting involved in Connie's scheme to raise the money.

There's a particularly unsettling sequence (more on that later) involving Connie and an elderly black woman and her granddaughter after he swindles his way into their living room to hide out from the police. And the picture's finale is set at an amusement park in Queens, where Connie and his pal from the hospital - a particularly dim bulb named Ray (Buddy Duress) - attempt to find some cash that Ray, a drug dealer, had stashed earlier in the day.

As I've mentioned before, "Good Time" is visually stylish and propulsive. The pulsating score by Oneohtrix Point Never gives each sequence during which Connie is barreling forward through the streets of Queens during the course of the night a certain urgency. And Pattinson is on fire as Connie, who is neither a particularly sympathetic or intelligent character, but manages to remain compelling.

And yet, while "Good Time" appears to tackle some serious issues, it only does so as an aside. For starters, most of the victims of Connie, his brother and Ray are people of color - from the bank teller whom they harass to a cabbie who gives Ray a ride, but also the 16-year-old black teenager living in the house where Connie hides out and an immigrant security guard whom Connie and Ray beat nearly into oblivion. There's a shot during which one of the film's thuggish white characters is taking a drug and a part of it drips on a newspaper clipping featuring Pepe the Frog - you know, the symbol of white power that the alt-right has adopted. But that controversial image's appearance seems to have no purpose.

And during the film's most unsettling moment, Connie distracts the aforementioned teenage girl when his face pops up on the news by putting the moves on her. He nearly has sex with her, but is interrupted during a sequence in which I was unsure whether the filmmakers were playing it serious or for laughs. It would appear that the filmmakers have something to say about the picture's mostly heinous lead characters - who are white - and their treatment of minorities, but it never does much other than present the fact that they are all cretins. Plus, it would also appear that the filmmakers are asking us to root for Connie and Nick - which is a mistake. And finally, the Safdies mostly shoot the mentally handicapped Nick in close-ups, pushing in constantly on his face - but again, for what purpose?

If there's any sort of statement to be made here - and I certainly do not require one in any movie, although if one tackles weighty subject matter, a filmmaker should be prepared to follow through - it's during the end of the picture after Connie - spoiler alert - has been arrested and it's mentioned by Nick's psychiatrist that "he's where he ought to be." So, while "Good Time" is a movie that impresses by the Safdies' filmmaking prowess, it's far from perfect. I'd recommend it as a well made piece of work, although its flaws must also be considered.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Review: The Dark Tower

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
I've read a great many of Stephen King's books, but I'll admit that I have yet to crack open a copy of any of the entries into his beloved "Dark Tower" series. Perhaps, one day I will. My hope is that the books - which have garnered their share of praise and fandom over the years - will be better than this long-awaited film, which ranks as one of the worst adaptations of King's work - and that's saying something.

Apparently stuffing material together from several of the "Dark Tower" volumes, Nikolaj Arcel's picture bounces several genres around at once - and all clunkily. As the film opens, a young boy named Jake (Tom Taylor) has been experiencing odd dreams that might have something to do with the unexplained earthquakes that rock his hometown of New York and other parts of the world. His mother (Katheryn Winnick) thinks that her son might be cuckoo when he tries to explain the connection between the quakes and the vivid nightmares he experiences.

Meanwhile, somewhere else - hey, that's the best I can do in this instance - a figure known as the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey, engaging in some series hamming it up) wants to destroy the titular structure, which protects the universe or something to that effect. On his trail is Roland (Idris Elba), a gunslinger armed with two pistols that seemingly never run out of ammo and some mantra that scolds people for forgetting the faces of their fathers.

Upon the threat of being sent upstate to a camp for wayward children, Jake flees his home and manages to end up in Roland's world, where the cryptic gunslinger obligingly allows him to tag along. Meanwhile, the Man in Black is seeking out children who "shine" - a word to which King apparently took one back in the day - and can, therefore, do whatever it is that they do when McConaughey's villain hooks them up to a machine that seemingly causes a large amount of light to shoot out of their heads.

"The Dark Tower" is loaded with problems. It's not particularly suspenseful, although there is a shootout sequence late in the picture that is well staged. King is a good writer and he's often an ace at capturing how ordinary people talk, so it's disappointing that this film's mostly expository dialogue is like nails on a chalkboard. Also, the few instances in which otherworldly creatures - several in a forest and a house that appears to come alive - are, to say the least, confusing.

This could be a case of a novel that is seemingly unadaptable. There are such things. For the sake of reference, look up "Breakfast of Champions" and "A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." Next month, we'll get the long-awaited film adaptation of "It," which is much more cinematically inclined. The verdict is obviously still out on that one, but "The Dark Tower" is an unequivocal bust.

Review: Detroit

Image courtesy of Annapurna Distribution.
Equally powerful and punishing, Kathryn Bigelow's "Detroit" is a film that can - at the same time - draw admiration for its dynamic filmmaking and be a difficult viewing experience. I don't mean to say that the film doesn't engage - boy, does it ever - or that I didn't think it was a great piece of cinematic art - I do - but it is relentlessly disturbing, angry, shocking and despairing. In other words, it's a movie to which people should submit themselves, white America especially.

There have been some arguments that Bigelow, who is white, is not the person who should have told this story and Hollywood's history of white people telling black stories (for example, "Ghosts of Mississippi" and other movies that focus on race relations) has often been one of sanitization. That is not the case here. In fact, if anything, "Detroit" is unflinching to the point of making one uncomfortable - as it should - and occasionally unbearable to watch.

The picture is, of course, set amid the massive 1967 riot in the titular city that began as civil disobedience after police conducted a raid at an unlicensed, after hours bar known as the Blind Pig and were unnecessarily rough with the black patrons whom they arrested. This then turned into a full-scale riot that is considered among the most destructive of its type in U.S. history.

And amid all the confusion and melee taking place on the streets of Detroit, a horrific incident at the Algiers Motel - which takes up a majority of Bigelow's film - is one of the most prominent and terrifying examples of police brutality on people of color. It is also one that - and I'm pretty sure that this won't ruin the moviegoing experience for anyone as it should probably come as no surprise, given our nation's recent history - resulted in abusive white officers mostly going unpunished.

There are multiple plot threads in Bigelow's film and there has been some criticism - and some of it not completely off the mark - that the numerous characters in the movie only get minimal development. In other words, most of them are archetypes, however, for the purpose of the film it didn't take much away from my personal experience of the picture.

Gathered at the Algiers are a member of The Dramatics - yes, the great 1970s soul-funk outfit responsible for "What You See Is What You Get" - named Larry (Algee Smith) and his pal Fred (Jacob Latimore), another group of black men who are having a party upstairs at the hotel, two young white women who are in town from Ohio and a military veteran named Greene (Anthony Mackie). When one of the men from the party sets off a starter pistol, local police and National Guardsmen mistake the shots for a sniper and descend on the hotel.

There are various sets of law enforcement officials - Detroit cops, Michigan troopers, Guardsmen - who wind up at the motel, but the most significant are the heinous, racist Krauss (Will Poulter) - who is seen earlier in the film shooting a young shoplifter in the back as he flees - as well as two of his cohorts and a security guard known as Dismukes (John Boyega, who is the film's MVP), who also happens to be the only black person wearing a badge and carrying a gun in the movie. Dismukes wanders onto the scene in the hopes of keeping the peace amid the riot, but finds himself bearing witness to the atrocities that take place.

The first quarter of the film lays the groundwork, depicting war-zone-like sequences in which rioters and looters duck and cover as police pursue them. Also, Larry and Fred prepare as The Dramatics are set to take the stage to perform on Detroit's "Swingin' Time" program, where they will follow Martha and the Vandellas, who are singing "Nowhere to Run." But the riots interrupt the program and the group never gets the chance to take the stage.

At least half of the movie is set in the Algiers Motel, where Bigelow stages a harrowing sequence during which Krauss and his officers raid and then terrorize the black men on the premises as well as the two white women, whose presence appears to anger the officers even more. It's amazing that more than half of the entire movie involves characters facing a wall while police officers search the premises and engage in all manner of psychological and physical abuse. It's one of the most terrifying set pieces I've ever experienced - but what makes it even more powerful is that it is preluded by a speech from one of the hotel's denizens, who describes such experiences as everyday occurrences in the lives of black men in America.

In the wake of the motel incident, which leaves three dead - all shot in cold blood by police officers - the picture follows the ensuing trial, which is, arguably, a bit too straightforward stylistically, considering all that has gone on before. There's even a scene in which someone has an outburst in the courtroom. In any other movie, it would have been an example of eye-roll-inducing melodrama, but here it's more than earned.

"Detroit" may not quite reach the heights of Bigelow's previous film - the remarkable "Zero Dark Thirty" - but it's pretty stunning nevertheless. It's been said numerous times about numerous other recent movies and it'll be said again, but this picture is not only a powerful recounting of a horrific moment in U.S. history, but also a window into where we are now.

Incidents such as the one at the Algiers are seemingly never-ending in our culture. It would take more than two hands to count all of the incidents that have made the news in recent years during which a young, unarmed black man was gunned down by police. Bigelow's film shines a light on one such particular incident - and the experience is overwhelming and gut wrenching. Art has many purposes - and one of them is to put viewers into the shoes of others to enable one to understand the experiences of others. "Detroit" does such a thing and the result is devastating.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Review: Atomic Blonde

Image courtesy of Focus Features
The combination of her work as Furiosa in "Mad Max: Fury Road" and spy Lorraine Broughton in David Leitch's uber-violent "Atomic Blonde" leads me to believe that Charlize Theron is the best game in town for an action movie heroine. Broughton is a character whose motives may always be questionable, but Theron - when not pummeling wicked men into submission - brings insight and depth to the character with as little as a flick of the eye or a smile.

In the picture, Broughton has been sent - in 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall - to Germany to - well, I'll try to explain this - play a role in the transporting of a Russian mole from East Berlin to West Berlin. The mole is named Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) and he apparently has a list that is frequently referenced, but as vague and mysterious as the suitcase in "Pulp Fiction."

Broughton's guide in Berlin is a shifty character named Percival (James McAvoy), but she is surrounded by numerous characters with suspicious motives - a French spy named Delphine (Sofia Boutella), a CIA spook (John Goodman), a British intelligence officer (Toby Jones) and numerous Russians, most of whom want to kill Lorraine.

"Atomic Blonde" is bathed in neon and much of the action is set to the tune of such 1980s hitmakers as 'Til Tuesday, Nena, New Order, David Bowie, After the Fire and Public Enemy. In terms of style, "Atomic Blonde" comes up aces. As for story, well, the picture remains entertaining throughout - for the most part - although its labyrinthine plot leaves those attempting to figure out who's double crossing whom in the dust.

But the picture's focal point - which should come as no surprise as it has been directed by Leitch, who is a former stuntman - is a series of incredible fight scenes, each one more brutal and beautifully choreographed than the next. The most intense one involves Theron and several men on a staircase that, for the life of me, baffles as to how it was accomplished without any of the actors killing or seriously wounding themselves. There's also a stylish shootout in the film's finale and a whole number of broken bones, gouged cheeks (ouch!) and car chases in between.

"Atomic Blonde" might leave you scratching your head if you're attempting to follow its numerous twists and turns and it doesn't tell you much about the fall of the Berlin Wall other than, well, it made a lot of people happy.

But the film has some nice touches - especially a lesbian sex scene that comes off as liberating rather than tackily added for the sake of titillation and a sequence during which Broughton fights a group of men in a theater screening Andrei Tarkovsky's legendary "Stalker" - and it's a mostly thrilling, brutal, high energy and well made action picture that proves that Theron is a bona fide action star. In "Atomic Blonde," she's a force of nature.