Logan Lucky

Director Steven Soderbergh, owner of one stealthily stellar filmography (gems like “Erin Brockovich” and “Side Effects” are rarely counted among his best work) and one of Twitter’s most undervalued accounts, has been missing from the silver screen for four long years. Not that his self-imposed “retirement” involved many Mai Tais. The auteur lensed and edited Reid Carolin’s sequel to his own “Magic Mike” under two different pseudonyms while pulling double duty as executive producer and director on Cinemax’s “The Knick.” Call his return to theaters inevitable, call it predestination, but it’s our luck. Heist comedy “Logan Lucky” isn’t his most substantive work, but it’s so good to have him back in the saddle.

In its marrow, “Logan Lucky” is Soderbergh’s third “Ocean’s Eleven” sequel, a flighty shrimp and grits caper that willfully evokes the best – and a little of the worst – of the director’s billion dollar-grossing heist trilogy.

West Virginian Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) is uncermoniously laid off from his construction job at the Charlotte Motor Speedway over injury concerns and, simply enough, resolves to rob the place. Part a function of the crossroads of his life – he’s a divorced dad who doesn’t get to see his sweet beauty pageant contestant daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) nearly enough – part a need for something to pass the time, he begins by recruiting two men. First, his one-armed ex-military bartender brother Clyde (Adam Driver). Then, the character who ends up being the pic’s biggest coup: an incarcerated safecracker appropriately named Joe Bang (Daniel Craig).

Tatum and Driver are good, turning in wry performances that don’t quite hint at the depth of their capabilities. They wisely cede the stage to Soderbergh’s perfectly attuned time and place and, more importantly, Craig. For an actor who’s suddenly found himself in the 007 doldrums, Joe Bang is a godsend – for Craig, Soderbergh, and viewers all. Bang is a character in every sense of the word, the kind of half-stitch, half-deadpan comic presence so rarely afforded to leading men (Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine in “Inglourious Basterds” is the closest analogue) and Craig hits it past the county line.

Anyone not doubled over in laughter as Joe dryly explains in his extraterrestrial twang how to make explosives out of gummy worms, bleach pens, and salt substitute just might be dead.

A plan is in place and a date is set – Jimmy knows the ins and outs of the Speedway’s tunnel system – but then, a hiccup. Construction is ending early, meaning the score will have to be moved up. As it happens, to the day of NASCAR’s big Memorial Day race: the Coca-Cola 600. Jimmy and Clyde strike the match on their elaborate, cockamamie scheme of getting Joe out of prison and then back in before anyone notices. The con is on. With Jimmy’s sister Mellie (Riley Keough) on board as driver and point person, the Logans, Joe Bang, and Joe’s thickheaded younger brothers Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid) head for Charlotte, prepared to initiate a game of dominoes that should see them off with trash bags full of cash from the Speedway’s new pneumatic tube system.

Soderbergh’s penchant for wide shots and natural light provides a nice counterpoint to the excess of cartoonish characters, and the screenplay – written by newcomer Rebecca Blunt, suspected to be a pen name of Soderbergh or a close associate – wields a pleasant mix of suspense and comedy. If only it were more concise. The movie flags enormously in its homestretch, marked by a stilted extended cameo from Oscar winner Hilary Swank as an FBI agent. Comedian Seth MacFarlane’s turn as a snooty British businessman and NASCAR sponsor also begins to wear here, his presence rounding out to an entirely unnecessarily narrative wrinkle.

But the “Ocean’s” films were all shaggy, too. Their reliance on excess was part of their woolly charm. “Logan Lucky” is no different, slotting in loosely, comfortably between “Twelve” and “Thirteen” as Soderbergh’s third best heist offering to date. Few will ever mention it as the best its director has to offer, but it puts another reliable two hours on his resume. If only he visited us more often.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: August 18, 2017
Studio: Fingerprint Releasing, Bleecker Street
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenwriter: Rebecca Blunt
Starring: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Riley Keough, Farrah Mackenzie, Seth MacFarlane, Katie Holmes, Katherine Waterston, David Denman, Dwight Yoakam, Sebastian Stan, Brian Gleeson, Jack Quaid, Hilary Swank
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for language and some crude comments)

Annabelle: Creation

New Line’s “Annabelle: Creation” arrives with the dubious distinction of being a prequel to a prequel, coming after but taking place before 2014’s amateurish “Conjuring” spin-off “Annabelle.” With three times the budget of its predecessor, “Lights Out” director David F. Sandberg and returning screenwriter Gary Dauberman have been afforded a sheen that instantly raises “Creation” over its cheap-looking precursor. Great, but where are the scares? Where each film in the Conjuring universe to date has delivered on at least that front, “Creation” doesn’t, limping along on the backs of thinly sketched characters and a procession of loud noises.

The film opens in the early 1940s. An unexcitable dollmaker named Samuel (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) are living a quiet rural life with their 7-year-old daughter when a tragic roadside accident takes her life. We unceremoniously jump forward twelve years and Samuel is in the process of taking in a nun, Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman), and six girls whose orphanage was recently shuttered. Young Janice (Talitha Bateman), her frail body ravaged by polio, and best friend Linda (Lulu Wilson) quickly become targets of a malevolent spirit haunting the house, the identity of which leaves no room for suspense.

The presence is, of course, the ghost of Samuel and Esther’s daughter. Affectionately referred to as “B” in the film’s prologue and inevitably revealed as the eponymous Annabelle, her spirit is initially locked in a closet, inhabiting one of her father’s inexplicably creepy dolls. Then a curious Janice unleashes her.

Not even this children-in-peril setup is enough to make Sandberg’s unimaginative staging remotely frightening, with Dauberman’s screenplay seemingly consisting of an inordinate number of sound cues. Insert loud noise here! The cast is unconvincing across the board, although they’re given nothing to work with but bare bones characterization and heaps of predictable reaction shots. Only Otto’s mysteriously disfigured Esther breeds a hint of intrigue, and even then the character wastes away out of sight until her number is called for a pointlessly gory death scene.

All of this is to say that Sandberg and Dauberman can’t summon a single distinguishing mark, their film disintegrating in comparison to James Wan’s emotionally labyrinthine and genuinely terrifying Conjuring sequel. The Conjuring branding would be the worst enemy of “Creation” if its creative team weren’t so incapable of conjuring scares. The admittedly arresting production design and period detail don’t add a lick of horror to the proceedings, only underlining the limpness of the story being told.

Even the first “Annabelle” was chilling in short bursts. “Creation” is dead on arrival, hoisted by its own universe-building petard. As a prequel to a prequel there’s virtually nothing that can happen within to take us by surprise. It’s no more than two hours of filling narrative gaps that didn’t need to be filled in, and doing it as conventionally as possible. Less demanding genre fans might get their base level fill. Most will be left wondering if they’ve ever seen an exercise in horror branding more lifeless than this. Odds are they haven’t.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: August 11, 2017
Studio: New Line Cinema (Warner Bros.)
Director: David F. Sandberg
Screenwriter: Gary Dauberman
Starring: Stephanie Sigman, Talitha Bateman, Lulu Wilson, Philippa Anne Coulthard, Samara Lee, Tayler Buck, Anthony LaPaglia, Miranda Otto
MPAA Rating: R (for horror violence and terror)

Ingrid Goes West

For former “Parks And Recreation” breakout Aubrey Plaza, the passage from small screen stardom to big screen success has been choppy. Beyond a small part in cult favorite “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” and a starring role in indie charmer “Safety Not Guaranteed,” the actor has developed an affinity for sex comedy misfires, from the forgettable (2013’s “The To Do List“) to the disastrous (2016’s “Dirty Grandpa”). This writer skipped last year’s other Plaza starrer, “Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates.” Reception was largely unkind.

Outwardly, social media driven comedy-drama “Ingrid Goes West” is the perfect escape from the blue comedy blues that have enveloped Plaza’s career, affording a showcase for her substantial acting chops. On the other hand, the movie’s innate superficiality is in line with the actor’s worst work, the material begging a shallowness that doesn’t lend itself to feature length. This is precisely what stops the movie dead by the halfway mark, eventually washing up as a one-note, less than insightful character study that isn’t the career pick-me-up it might have been.

Credit to writer-director Matt Spicer for not exploiting his mentally ill lead character for easy laughs. Ingrid Thorburn (Plaza) is not well, using an inheritance from her recently deceased mother to pack up and move from Pennsylvania to Los Angeles, California. It would’ve been easy as pie to mine Ingrid’s emotional volatility for slapstick, her awkwardness for weapons grade cringe comedy. Spicer and co-writer David Branson Smith don’t do it, and the movie is better – if surprisingly straight-faced – for it.

Venice Beach, like a glittery tractor beam of social artifice, pulls Ingrid in. To wit, a glamorous Instagram “influencer” named Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen) whose impossibly photogenic life perfectly numbs the negative connotations of the word “follower.” To “follow” her is to vicariously live her dream life, but for Ingrid it’s not enough. Our protagonist rents a house from a kindly Batman enthusiast and aspiring screenwriter named Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and immediately gets to work on befriending (stalking) Taylor.

When merely shadowing Taylor’s favorite hangouts proves fruitless, Ingrid resorts to dognapping, playing hero by both returning the pooch and declining the reward money. Taylor and her bearded art bro beau Ezra (Wyatt Russell) are understandably thrilled to have their furry friend back, receiving Ingrid into their inner circle almost immediately. To say that Ingrid’s obsession with her Insta idol spirals out of control is an understatement; she goes to lengths greater than dognapping to grow and then maintain their relationship, culminating in an intense tête-à-tête with Taylor’s cokehead brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen).

Once it becomes obvious that there’s no discernible arc at hand for Ingrid, no chance for salvation, a sense of inevitability sets in and the unpleasantness of the characters begins to wear. Only Dan is the least bit endearing, with Jackson following up his star-making turn in “Straight Outta Compton” with another multifaceted gem of a performance. He alone is almost reason enough to indulge the pic’s thin plot and suffer through a downer of a third act that flies in the face of its bubbly marketing campaign.

If “Ingrid” isn’t the millennial epic it wants to be, at least its digital bent never grates (an accomplishment in itself; social media is notoriously difficult to depict on film) and it righteously calls on us to reconsider the very notion of the Internet celebrity – the sort of vain, vacuous, talentless folks who have become famous for talking over video game footage on YouTube or letting their materialism run amok on Instagram or parlaying an inheritance into a reality show and then a place in White House.

As cinema, “Ingrid Goes West” is a near miss, not good enough to reverse the recent professional foibles of its star. (A similar theme and tone were captured much more successfully in season one of TBS’ underseen “Search Party.”) But at least what “Ingrid” asks of its audience is instructive. Who among us truthfully likes the reflection they see in their phone? The film has no answers, only questions, but it’s a good start in that it’s two hours not spent watching “Dirty Grandpa.”

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: August 11, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: Neon
Director: Matt Spicer
Screenwriters: Matt Spicer, David Branson Smith
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Wyatt Russell, Billy Magnussen
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, drug use, some sexual content and disturbing behavior)

Death Note

Contrary to online chatter, the ultimate tragedy of Netflix’s “Death Note” adaptation isn’t its general infidelity to its source material; it’s that it sucks.

Like 2017’s other feature film whitewash of Japanese manga, “Ghost In The Shell,” the pitfalls of “Death Note” only begin with its cursory adoption of an explicitly Eastern work for American audiences. (Manga is more than a 20th and 21st century art form; it remains deeply rooted in Japanese art dating back centuries.) Past the film’s ice cold cultural detachment – which dovetails nicely with its juvenile screenplay – director Adam Wingard and writers Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater have made a deeply prosaic work that rests on genre laurels of ugly violence and thoughtless characters, uninterested in drawing out meaning from a lead with a literal god complex.

Nat Wolff (“Paper Towns”) stars as teenage Seattleite Light Turner, a stock mopey high school outcast given no time for characterization before a magical book, the titular Death Note, falls out of the sky and into his lap. Tellingly, Light never becomes more than our first glimpse of him; he is the kid who quietly daydreams of getting back at his tormentors, actualized when a spiky demon named Ryuk (Willem Dafoe) shows up and explains the power of the book that just fell out of the heavens.

In it, Light scribbles the name of his bully, along with a desired cause of death, and watches with disturbing nonchalance through his bedroom window as the young man is decapitated. It is here that Wingard and his writers find the uneasy balance beam on which their film will remain; a purgatory between young adult and horror, between the source material and something else entirely. Not serious but not fun, without the confidence or style of Wingard’s “You’re Next” and “The Guest.” No, this is much closer to his disastrous “Blair Witch,” a project that couldn’t even clear a modest baseline of justifying its own existence.

With a godlike protagonist comes an innate void of central conflict and this is reflected in Wolff’s apathetic performance. As Light enacts his wrath on a bevy of varyingly wicked targets, there’s nothing to counteract the violence but a sudden, awkward narrative swing at geopolitical conflict. As if things weren’t clumsy enough when kept inside Seattle’s city limits. When the screenplay goes global, the wheels fall off.

Light and his new girlfriend Mia (Margaret Qualley), a yawning nothing of a character, begin executing international criminals under the name Kira. People the world over start worshiping this omnipotent force for justice, leading to an evitable pushback. A mysterious FBI agent known as L (Lakeith Stanfield, locked in a battle with Wolff over the pic’s worst performance) picks up the couple’s scent, homing in on Seattle as Kira’s base and soon chatting up Light’s cop father (Shea Wigham) for information at his dining room table.

Even the highlight here – Dafoe’s CGI-enhanced Ryuk – is a miss. The character, outwardly enthralling, is reduced to veritable squawking parrot on Light’s shoulder, sidelined for long stretches of the film. The root of his power is all but glossed over. Early on, there’s an intriguing warning scrawled in the book by a past owner. “Don’t trust Ryuk. He is not your pet. He is not your friend.” It never amounts to anything.

The pic’s other peaks are bleached facsimiles of Wingard’s previous work. The synth-heavy soundtrack is enjoyable and the visuals are often sleek, occasionally enveloping the ugly, predictable story that lurks beneath. But when Light inexplicably makes his last stand on a ferris wheel, the movie comes crashing down with it, revealing the inner workings of a project that never made it out of bed. Where “The Guest” was a genuinely surprising thriller on top of exuding cool, “Death Note” is only concerned with the latter, leading to a painfully awkward marriage between beloved property and creative culd-de-sac. The dead fish romance at the center of it all is part and parcel with a creative team that has no discernible fever for making this particular movie.

In the end, we have no reason to care if Light can overcome his own corruptibility, or if he’ll pay for his crimes, or who comes into possession of the Death Note next. The screenplay, and as a result, the experience of watching the picture, is so passive, so dependent on the moment – This shot looks kind of neat! Hey, I know this song! – that it is almost the idealization of Netflix’s anti-theatrical feature film model.

Don’t be sad, dear Death Note fans, that you weren’t able to see it in on the big screen. Be sad that you were able to see it at all.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: August 25, 2017
Studio: Netflix
Director: Adam Wingard
Screenwriters: Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater
Starring: Nat Wolff, Margaret Qualley, Lakeith Stanfield, Shea Wigham, Willem Dafoe

Good Time

Just when it seemed like esteemed indie distributor A24 was running out the clock on survival thriller “It Comes At Night” as the most poorly titled movie of summer 2017, they’ve tossed a screwball into the mix. The Safdie Brothers’ “Good Time,” a sleek, small-scale crime thriller, arrives with a title that’s half humdrum, half incongruous, seemingly plucked at random from a throwaway line of dialogue spoken by a supporting character. Fortunately, the film, or at least the first two-thirds of it, is a distinctive head rush that pairs a handful of refreshingly earnest performances with a great sense of style, topped off by a Vangelis-inspired score that ranks as one of the year’s very best.

Billed as a breakthrough for erstwhile “Twilight” star Robert Pattison, “Good Time” is exactly that; it finds its star revealing layers of himself that didn’t so much as flicker in the $3 billion-grossing vampire romance series. Here he plays Constantine “Connie” Nikas, a scrappy New York bank robber who shamefully enlists his developmentally disabled brother Nick (expertly played by co-director Ben Safdie) to help him relieve a Flushing, New York bank of $65,000. Pattinson’s portrayal is a deft mix of confidence and folly, as manic and magnetic as the film unfolding around him.

The duo is successful in their robbery until they aren’t. As soon as they’ve ditched their disguises and innocently hailed a cab, a dye pack – placed by a sly bank teller – explodes in one of their bags, sending them scurrying into a Domino’s Pizza bathroom while a jittery manager shrieks at them through the door. Soon after they exit the restaurant, they’re confronted by a cop and Nick panics, leaving him to be dragged off to Riker’s Island while Connie escapes. The rest of Josh Safdie and Ronald Bronstein’s screenplay follows Connie on a series of increasingly desperate attempts to rescue his vulnerable brother from one of the roughest jails in the United States.

As sleek as the visuals are – think Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers,” also from A24 – the biggest wave the movie catches is its music. From Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never, the synth-based soundtrack calls to mind Vangelis’ eternal “Blade Runner” score and John Carpenter’s “Escape From New York” title track. It is indispensable to the defiantly slight story being told here, infusing a low-key crime caper with massive soundscapes that might one day grow into the iconography of its obvious influences. Strip the picture of its soundtrack and it isn’t half as effective, making Lopatin its obvious MVP.

That’s not to undercut the impressive work from the Safdie brothers and their rock-solid cast. They direct each performer with pinpoint precision – Jennifer Jason Leigh is reliably excellent in an underutilized role as Connie’s girlfriend – keeping the entire piece of one thematic persuasion. Underneath it all, this is not a film about crime or excess or questionable decision-making, but the omnipresence of consanguinity. And that’s made evident in every performance, from Pattinson’s wild-eyed turn to Taliah Webster’s performance as Crystal, the unassuming 16-year-old unknowingly thrown into Connie’s amusement park life.

The script succumbs to wheel spinning in its third act – a sequence inside a literal amusement park drags beyond reason – but the talent both behind and in front of the camera keeps us enveloped, no matter how abrasive or alienating Connie becomes. As the Safdies’ highest profile release yet, “Good Time” is absolutely a creative success, but more than that it’s an announcement; that they are worthy of serious regard, both now and moving forward, solid bets to keep pushing the medium forward in their own idiosyncratic way. If “Good Time” isn’t quite a good time, it’s a great time to get on board with its unusually inventive creators.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: August 11, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: A24
Directors: Ben Safdie, Joshua Safdie
Screenwriters: Joshua Safdie, Ronald Bronstein
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Ben Safdie, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Taliah Webster, Barkhad Abdi, Buddy Duress
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, violence, drug use and sexual content)

Wind River

During a Q&A following a recent Arclight Hollywood showing of his latest film “Wind River,” actor-turned-writer-turned-director Taylor Sheridan made a remarkable assertion: that he wrote “Sicario,” “Hell Or High Water,” and “Wind River” over a period of six months. Turning out three screenplays in half a year is nothing to sneeze at, but to write three movies that got made and delivered? It’s a wild feat, with Sheridan’s latest, his directorial debut, capping off a thematically attendant trilogy of films that anyone in the industry would be proud to stand by.

“Wind River” unfolds on the snow-covered Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. A tracker named Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is on the trail of some coyotes when he discovers the body of an 18-year-old local girl named Natalie. Natalie froze to death miles from anything of note, without shoes or a winter jacket. Blood splotches on her pants heighten suspicions of homicide. In the face of an impending snowstorm that could cover over crucial evidence, Lambert and Wind River’s Tribal Police Chief (Graham Greene) wait on the feds to show.

But instead of a parade of black Lincolns, the only arrival is greenhorn FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), sent in from Las Vegas; the closest operative to the scene. There will be no cavalry of black suits sent to solve the murder of a young Native American girl; only a tenacious but inexperienced agent, a middle-aged police chief, and a steely-eyed sharpshooter.

The superiority of Sheridan’s work here isn’t just in its tautness, although it is an unusually suspenseful crime thriller that delivers some sternum-rattling gunplay. Its true victory is in its empathy, interested not only in revenge, but in justice. Natalie is so much more than a likely homicide victim; her innocence and humanity pulses throughout the pic, felt deeply by Lambert – dealing with a significant loss of his own – and, ultimately, by those who took her life. There are no effortless answers in “Wind River,” but there are effortless emotions, with Sheridan’s masterful ear for dialogue making the melancholy of it all feel vital instead of maudlin.

The cast is uniformly superb. Renner and Olsen have worked together previously in Marvel’s “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” and “Captain America: Civil War,” but here their chemistry is so much more fully formed, and not at all in a romantic way. Instead of a trite “two loners looking for love” subplot that could have so easily been, Lambert and Banner are just two people who learn to care about each other – and a young girl who’s been tragically taken away from her family.

Actor Gil Birmingham, who was so good playing off Jeff Bridges in “Hell Or High Water,” makes a beautiful turn here as Natalie’s father, while Jon Bernthal (“Fury”) makes a crater-sized impact in less than ten minutes of screen time as Natalie’s mysterious boyfriend. The surplus of memorable characters and performances isn’t just strong evidence that Sheridan’s recent string of success is no fluke; it suggests that his ceiling as a director could be sky-high.

“Wind River” is unlikely to receive the awards of attention of Sheridan’s previous work – it’s less flashy and not as technically accomplished, marred by some shoddy snow effects – but that doesn’t make it any less worthwhile for moviegoers. It’s stout, confident work that’s conversely intense and moving, its 111 minutes breezing by before we’re forced to say a somber goodbye to its leads. Taylor Sheridan doesn’t have to be the showiest writer or director working to keep his streak going; he only has to maintain his current level of smarts and heart to ensure a place as one of Hollywood’s most compelling creative voices. Whether it’s on the page, behind the camera, or hopefully, both.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: August 4, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director: Taylor Sheridan
Screenwriter: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal, Julia Jones, Kelsey Asbille, James Jordan
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, a rape, disturbing images, and language)

The Dark Tower

Superstar author Stephen King’s prose has proved tough to crack for a wealth of filmmakers since Brian De Palma did it first with “Carrie” in 1976. Just ask King himself. The Mainer famously loathes Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” writing it off as a gross misinterpretation of his book. And for every inarguably successful translation like “Misery” or “The Shawshank Redemption,” there have been half a dozen feeble ones to match; a sorry group that’s just found one of its sorriest members ever in “The Dark Tower.”

Writer-director Nikolaj Arcel and three other scribes have adapted King’s series of eight Dark Tower novels into one 90-minute feature, bafflingly stripping it down to its most basic elements: A boy named Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) teams up with a Mid-World gunslinger named Roland Deschain (Idris Elba) to defeat a demonic sorcerer known as the “Man In Black” (Matthew McConaughey). There is shockingly little more to it than that, playing like a TV pilot crudely pared down after it wasn’t picked up for more episodes.

Even unloved 2003 horror-thriller “Dreamcatcher” captured some of King’s joyfully berserk spirit. “The Dark Tower” bears hardly a speck of its creator’s beautiful madness, content to do little more than function – barely – as a feature film.

Elba is its lone highlight. The “Beasts Of No Nation” actor raises every scene he’s in with his natural charisma, valiantly offsetting some pretty extreme narrative apathy. Arcel and his co-writers saddle both actor and character with the dullest kind of hero’s journey until all that’s left is a performer performing his heart out in the face of complete creative failure. Taylor does his best as the boy from New York City with visions of the destruction of an extra-dimensional tower, but the teen can only do so much to convince us he’s frightened of an extraordinarily hammy Matthew McConaughey.

McConaughey’s disastrous performance as the man who would destroy the titular tower as to unleash all kinds of evil into the ether would lay the film to waste if it weren’t already so dispensable. The Oscar-winner is all kinds of bad here – contrarily disengaged and embarrassingly over-the-top – consistently reminding of how badly the film is missing the point of its source material. Instead of the sprawling, pleasantly familiar series starter that should have been, the movie, along with its villain, bleeds indifference, checking in and checking out without a single creative spark.

Summer 2017 has given us worse reasons to head to the multiplex – “The Mummy” and “Transformers: The Last Knight” linger in mind as the worst kind of cinematic vermin – but none have been as dispiritingly lifeless as “The Dark Tower.” It is, from top to bottom, barely there, harboring not a single memorable image or character moment or line of dialogue to cling to. It is a lock to alienate Dark Tower fans and novices in equal measure, leaving all to look immediately to the near feature for their King-on-film fix. “It” releases next month.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: August 4, 2017
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Screenwriters: Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, Nikolaj Arcel
Starring: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Katheryn Winnick, Claudia Kim, Fran Kranz, Abbey Lee, Jackie Earle Haley, Dennis Haysbert
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material including sequences of gun violence and action)

Atomic Blonde

Action movies are allowed to be one-note. With the focus on fighting or shooting or chasing or, preferably, all of the above, textured storytelling can take a back seat. What an action movie isn’t allowed to be: dull. Charlize Theron vehicle “Atomic Blonde” is just that for the majority of its 115-minute running time, skimping on action in favor of an arthritic spy yarn whose sputtering of narrative exhaust blankets its real but infrequent thrills. When things get moving, the film is a rush. But things move rarely in “Atomic Blonde,” leaving “John Wick” co-director David Leitch’s solo debut to float away into the action movie ether.

Good female-led actioners are an important but uncommon part of Hollywood history. Before Gal Gadot’s recent turn as the title character in “Wonder Woman,” there was Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, Uma Thurman’s Bride, and not a whole lot else, lest Paul W.S. Anderson be given even an ounce of credit for his reviled “Resident Evil” series. The world of female-driven cinema is so insular that this summer’s two female-based action offerings are only one degree removed. “Wonder Woman” director Patty Jenkins directed Charlize Theron to her Best Actress Oscar for “Monster” in 2003.

Theron has been a capable lead for at least as long, failing to spin an action franchise out of 2005’s “Aeon Flux” but beating Tinseltown’s typical cocktail of ageism and sexism and maintaining significant star power into her 40s. “Atomic Blonde” comes as the perfect opportunity to reestablish her might, a la Keanu Reeves in “John Wick.” But “John Wick: Chapter 2” made a strong case for Chad Stahelski of the original film’s Stahelski-Leitch team as the one to follow. As seen here, Leitch isn’t nearly as imaginative. He and screenwriter Kurt Johnstad drag their star down with sluggish pacing, insipid musical choices, and – plain and simple – not enough mayhem.

Based on 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City, the Cold War-set story is more than a little familiar, evoking Brian De Palma’s “Mission: Impossible,” among other features.

Berlin, 1989, just before the collapse of the Wall. A KGB agent kills an MI6 agent over a list of active Soviet spies, leading MI6 ass-kicker Lorraine Broughton (Theron) on a wild goose chase to retrieve the list. With the assistance of a loopy field agent named David Percival (James McAvoy), Broughton finds herself entangled in a web of sex, violence, and pop music, coming to head in the form of a dizzying apartment-set fight sequence and subsequent vehicular chase that rivals the “John Wick” films for visceral ingenuity.

If only the rest of the movie weren’t so sluggish.

Instead of telling the story in real time, the screenplay sees Broughton recount her version of events to an MI6 officer (Toby Jones) and a CIA operative (John Goodman). These scenes are good for allowing Leitch to begin his film with an already badly bruised heroine, which lends a serious amount of intrigue to the character. But otherwise, it compounds the overlong running time and leads to a late-game twist that tests the outer limits of suspension of disbelief.

Some of “Atomic Blonde” is the sex-soaked actioner promised by its trailers – Sofia Boutella’s fiery turn as an amorous French agent is all that and more – but too much of the picture gets bogged down in the kind of pretzel spy logic that no one goes to shoot-em-ups for. Check in for the impressive bursts of violence but be prepared for a surplus of downtime – a near death sentence for a movie called “Atomic Blonde.”

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: July 28, 2017
Studio: Focus Features
Director: David Leitch
Screenwriter: Kurt Johnstad
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones
MPAA Rating: R (for sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity)

A Ghost Story

It’s a rare thing for a movie to find true celestial beauty in the mundane. For such an occurrence, see Jim Jarmusch’s recent “Paterson,” not David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story.” Jarmusch’s 2016 film is an unusually lyrical one that doggedly pursues and ultimately captures the art inherent in everyday life – like a lightning bug in a mason jar. As for “A Ghost Story,” its aim is as off as its execution, reducing big, existential questions to Oscar-winner Casey Affleck (“Manchester By The Sea”) moping around in a bed sheet.

It’s as disappointing a follow-up to the filmmaker’s magnificent “Pete’s Dragon” remake as could be imagined: A halfhearted retreat from studio filmmaking that results in an oxymoronically small-scale drama with movie stars. Affleck and Rooney Mara (the same two stars that headlined Lowery’s breakthrough “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) lead, guiding the picture from intimate portrait of death and grief to a series of increasingly desperate lunges at profundity. The latter is its true form. Instead of shedding new light on what it means to live, love, and lose – a worthy goal, to be sure – it amounts to an uncommonly ponderous hour and a half that goes off like a glib film student’s magnum opus.

Take, for example, the film’s inescapable centerpiece: A ludicrous 8-minute sequence of Rooney Mara eating pie. Affleck’s character, recently deceased, spies on his still living beloved, looming behind her in his white sheet with two cut eyeholes. Mara stabs at her pie with a fork for eons, with Lowery presumably just off-camera scaling mostly untraveled peaks of cinematic self-indulgence. Maybe the writer-director is toying with his audience. But more likely, he thinks watching a grieving woman eating pie will afford us some unknown insight into pain. It does not.

There is a painterly beauty to the movie, particularly when Mara exits and Affleck is left to haunt his abode’s new tenants. Even when Lowery’s narrative instincts desert him, his visual eye remains true, treating us to dozens of memorable shots. Yes, even Casey Affleck in a bed sheet carries an intrinsic poetry with it. When Lowery resorts to aping the spacey visuals of Terrence Malick’s similarly laborious “The Tree Of Life,” “A Ghost Story” is still a pleasure to look at.

But to experience? The imperiousness of the pie scene runs thick through the movie’s blood, rendering it inaccessible to all but the most rabid – and broad-minded – of cinephiles. Lowery hasn’t made a bad movie, but he has made an enormously maddening one – one that climaxes in a dense monologue about the futility of human existence, because of course it does. Alternately stuffy and silly, condescending and naïve, “A Ghost Story” is the work of a filmmaker conflating his biggest strengths and biggest weaknesses. It’s not quite a pie in Lowery’s face, but it’s dangerously close.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: July 7, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: A24
Director: David Lowery
Screenwriter: David Lowery
Starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara
MPAA Rating: R (for brief language and a disturbing image)


Moral victories were hard to come by for the Allies in World War II, but one of their biggest came quickly: in late May and early June of 1940, less than a year into combat. On the beaches of Dunkirk, France and in the waters offshore occurred a veritable miracle. 400,000 British and French troops found themselves backed into a corner by German forces sweeping west across France. That corner was a French fishing village named Dunkerque, just 40 nautical miles from England. Utterly unprepared for a mass evacuation of men, let alone tanks, weapons, and more, British officers seized on a brief hesitation from the Germans to cobble together a plan: Operation Dynamo.

With all British troops behind a perimeter on marshy land that couldn’t be traversed by German tanks, hundreds of vessels of every size would ferry soldiers across the English Channel from Dunkirk to Dover. Cue the proverbial “It’s so crazy, it just might work.”

It worked.

It’s a story most skillfully told by writer-director Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight”) in his tenth feature, aptly titled “Dunkirk.” Shot mostly on IMAX cameras with no expense spared on any front – expensive and complicated practical effects abound where most filmmakers would have settled for CGI – the picture is best experienced in the stunningly high resolution of IMAX theaters equipped to roll 70mm film. Instead of the character-based recreation of one of World War II’s most harrowing incidents that might have been – the movie might have finally landed Nolan his Oscar – he’s delivered the year’s premier experiential drama, boldly putting a premium on audio-visual immersion over traditional storytelling. Much like the military plan it depicts, it works. Against all odds.

The always temporally minded filmmaker (“Memento,” “Inception,” “Interstellar”) once again masterfully plays with our perception of time, this time by intertwining three distinct story segments of varying durations. These three fictionalized but spiritually faithful accounts of Operation Dynamo combine to form a cable with so much tension that it’s lucky “Dunkirk” ends up one of the auteur’s shortest works to date. 107 minutes is just right.

First, “The Mole,” the part of the story that unfurls on land over the course of a week. Actor Fionn Whitehead is the closest thing “Dunkirk” has to a lead, playing a gawky British Army private and our avatar for those soldiers in desperate need of a ride home. After escaping German fire on the streets of Dunkirk, he makes it to the beach only to find himself in an extended state of limbo. German attacks via air and sea hamper his and so many other’s attempts to find passage, leaving him in a present that’s even more frightening than his immediate past – and potentially fatal future.

Second, “The Sea.” This portion takes place over the course of a day. At the behest of the Royal Navy, a British civilian named Dawson (the marvelous Mark Rylance, “Bridge Of Spies”), his teenage son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and their boat hand George (Barry Keoghan) set sail from England to Dunkirk to assist in Operation Dynamo. The trio has a star-crossed encounter with a wrecked, traumatized British soldier (Cillian Murphy) and then makes a tense rescue attempt of a downed British fighter pilot (Jack Lowden).

Third, “The Air.” An hour in the life of a Royal Air Spitfire pilot named Farrier (Tom Hardy). Farrier and the aforementioned Collins engage in several dogfights with German planes high above the English channel, breathlessly – on our part as well as theirs – fending off threats to the hundreds of thousands of men below. Tom Hardy, his face typically concealed by a mask, unsurprisingly steals the show, doing more acting with one-third of face than most can do with an entire body. Adding to the excitement of the aerial battles is the emphasis on practical effects, with no apparent seam between real and computer-generated. It’s impossible to tell – a boon for a film reliant on absolute immersion.

Conversely, Hans Zimmer’s ticking-clock based score is more bane than boon, ably ramping up tension on its own but never quite blending in with the sparseness of Nolan’s direction. Instead of accenting the pic’s sublime audiovisual notes, Zimmer cuts through the fog of war like a scythe, falling well short of the screenplay’s surprisingly understated symmetry. On several occasions when the three stories overlap both visually and thematically, Zimmer is there with unnecessary musical hand-holding. Nolan’s writing and Lee Smith’s editing are musical in themselves – often mesmerizingly so – making the bombast of a literal ticking clock quite unwelcome.

Musical missteps aside, “Dunkirk” should age beautifully, with its stunning 70mm IMAX presentation a shoo-in for revivals down the line. If it’s not Chris Nolan’s most emotionally resonant film to date (both “Inception” and “Interstellar” more effectively wear their hearts on their sleeves), it’s his most immersive and technically accomplished by a bit. For a concurrently dead simple and wildly innovative white knuckler of a war pic, look no further. One of our greats is back with more greatness.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: July 21, 2017
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenwriter: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense war experience and some language)

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