This Hillbilly Heist is as Trivial as it is Brilliant

Logan Lucky
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 119 minutes
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Riley Keough, and Daniel Craig


Auteur film director Steven Soderbergh comes off his brief four retirement with a new heist film in the same vain of his popular Ocean’s saga, that has been surprisingly polarizing outside of the main film critic spheres. In one camp, Logan Lucky is nothing more than a boring film energized by eccentric performances. However in the other camp, Logan Lucky is a near-perfect creatively comedic caper that is in contention of being one of the iconic filmmaker’s best films to date. I for one happily reside in the latter group.

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Jimmy (Tatum) and Clyde (Driver) Logan visit Joe Bang (Craig) in prison to discuss the terms of the job

Logan Lucky is about a pair of down-in-their-luck brothers, Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) and Clyde Logan (Adam Driver), who decide to rob the money vault of a nearby NASCAR stadium during one of its busiest racing events in an attempt to disprove a family curse. To aid in the heist, they employ the help of their car-enthusiast sister Mellie (Riley Keough), infamous safecracker Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), and Bang’s two moronic brothers Sam Bang (Brian Gleeson) and Fish Bang (Jack Quid). Along the way they also encounter a slew of characters played by a cast of familiar faces: Seth MacFarlane as a British energy-drink NASCAR sponsor, Sebastian Stan as a hot-shot NASCAR driver under contract with MacFarlane’s character, Katherine Waterston as Jimmy Logan’s old high-school acquaintance turned nurse, and Hilary Swank as an FBI agent on the tail of the Logan family and company, just to name a few.

What I love about Logan Lucky is exactly what its main detractors find so off-putting: it’s lack of external motivation. Jimmy Logan comes up with the intricate plan of robbing the NASCAR stadium not to get back at any antagonistic figure or make any political statement. He does it because he can, and he presumably wants be able to visit his daughter more frequently. The point is though, that the money to earned from the job is not essential to any character. Jimmy’s brother Clyde, agrees to help solely because Jimmy made breakfast that morning and because he admired his “attempt at being organized.” The character’s respective motivations for the heist are hilariously arbitrary, which in turn makes this heist film especially creative than the rest.

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Max Chilblain (MacFarlane) and Clyde (Driver) exchange hostilities in the small town bar

In the past, I’ve had a bittersweet relationship with director Steven Soderbergh’s films. His unique, but odd filmmaking style a lot of times feel distant and inaccessible. His films like The Informant!, The Girlfriend Experience, Haywire, and Magic Mike are especially guilty of this. However every now again that peculiar style complements the narrative, as was the case with films like Contagion and Side Effects, two films that epitomize what I love about the art form. In that respect, Logan Lucky embodies all of the positives of the latter and more. Lucky Logan embodies Soderbergh’s typical style but at the same time transcends it with the help of the delectably Coen-esque script. I can’t recall another one of Soderbergh’s films that I’ve seen that flow as compellingly or as organically as this one.

If you aren’t turned off by the rustic aesthetic of the film’s setting or the lack of any grand spectacle, you can’t find a better movie than Logan Lucky. And if you are, there’s no doubt that you’ll find the film at least mildly entertaining.

9.6/10

‘It’ (2017) Puts Heart Before Scares – and is Better for It

It
Rating: R
Runtime: 2 hours 15 minutes
Director: Andy Muschietti
Starring: Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, and Jeremy Ray Taylor


Coming off the cultural phenomenon that is Stranger Things, It (2017), the latest on-screen adaptation of prolific writer Stephen King’s beloved horror novel of the same name, cashes in on the high-demand 80’s nostalgia trend while managing to be scary, endearing, and most importantly, heartfelt.

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Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) ambushes Beverly (Sophia Lillis) in her bathroom

For anyone unfamiliar with the Stephen King novel or the 1990 TV mini-series, It follows a group of a adolescent misfits who call themselves the “Losers’ Club” shortly after one member’s little brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), is preyed upon by a malevolent, demonic clown named Pennywise who feeds off the fear of children. Together, they must all confront and overcome their deepest fears in order to defeat Pennywise before he can make them all “float too.” I have been looking forward to this incarnation of It since the first images of Pennywise the clown over a year ago. While many fans of the story were perfectly satisfied with the 1990 TV mini-series with Tim Curry playing the homicidal clown, the campy 1990 adaptation never particularly resonated with me. The still images of Bill Skarsgård as the iconic clown however peaked my interest and hinted at a more serious, eventful take on the character and having now seen the movie, my expectations of a compellingly creepy Pennywise have been met and more.

Skarsgård does for Pennywise what Heath Ledger did for the Joker. He’s mesmerizing in every scene he’s in, so much so that I found myself looking forward to his appearances throughout the film instead of dreading them, which could be seen as a good or bad thing depending on how you look at it. By the end of the film, I was hungry for more Pennywise, specifically in scenes where he’s free to engage in dialogue with the kids. The majority of Pennywise’s scenes are of him jumping out at or lunging at one of the kids, and those are effectively scary, but Skarsgård really shines in the handful of prolonged exchanges he has with certain characters (the storm drain scene with Georgie at the beginning of the film, a close encounter with Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) in an old burned down house). Seriously, Skarsgård performance alone is worth the price of admission. However, an amazing Pennywise performance alone does not a great film make, and luckily this film has a lot more going for it.

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The Losers’ Club confronts Pennywise in his sewer lair

The kids of It could not have been better cast, directed, or performed by their respective actor/actress. Each member of the Losers’ Club – Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Beverly (Sophia Lillis), Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Mike (Chosen Jacobs), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), and Stanley (Wyatt) – never miss a beat with their performances. Everyone gets their time to shine and they’re all great, but really there are two characters that I feel stood out: Sophia Lillis as Beverly and Finn Wolfhard (of Stranger Things fame) as Richie. Sophia Lillis organically conveys confidence, vulnerability, and psychological torment all at the same time, which makes sense considering the fact her home-life in the film is by far worse than that of any of the other Losers, save for maybe Mike (the only black kid in their all-white town). Like in the novel, Lillis’ Beverly is the cohesive agent keeping all the main characters together, no matter how dire the situations get. Here Lillis lays the foundation for what looks like a very promising acting career. While having a significantly smaller role than Lillis, Finn Wolfhard steals his scenes as the wisecracking Richie. Many critics and fans of Stranger Things, another horror story centered on a group of kids against a malevolent being, pointed out Wolfhard has roles in both projects. Now I don’t know what he gets to do on that show in terms of acting presence, but in It, Wolfhard commands the screen like a seasoned movie star. We never get a proper look at his home life, and his character is essentially nothing more than comic relief, but his presence is integral to the heart of the film nonetheless.

If there was one quality that best encapsulates the 2017 It, it’s its heart. As creepy as Pennywise is and how violent the film can get, It never loses it’s heart. Everyone from the talented cast to the on-point direction of indie horror director Andy Muschietti (who previously directed Mama (2013) and the horror short that inspired it) to ‘True Detective’ season 1 creative mind Cary Fukunaga and his well-written script, all coalesce to make a deeply satisfying event film that will undoubtedly be added to the canon of classic horror in years to come.

9/10
Horror Scale: 8.2/10

Season 1 of Netflix’s Marvel-Hero Team-Up Is a Bittersweet (Mostly Sweet) Affair

The Defenders
Season: 1
Platform/Network/Channel: Netflix
Episode Count: 8
Starring: Charlie Cox, Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter, Finn Jones, and Sigourney Weaver


After 5 separate outings with Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist, Netflix’s tangential Marvel cinematic-TV universe culminates with first season of The Defenders, a quasi-Avengers team-up consisting of the Netflix Marvel superheroes.

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(From left to right) Luke Cage, Matt Murdock, Jessica Jones, and Danny Rand share a meal whilst hiding from The Hand

The Defenders brings together the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen/Daredevil (Charlie Cox), super-strong PI Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Power Man Luke Cage (Mike Colter), and The Immortal Iron Fist, Danny Rand (Finn Jones), to defend New York City from the ancient shadow organization known as The Hand, lead by special guest actress Sigourney Weaver. Those familiar with the Daredevil and Iron Fist series will remember The Hand as the antagonists of those shows, but all anyone needs to know about them is that they are a group of heavily-funded ninjas who are a lead by 5 immortal Kung-Fu masters, hence the “hand” association.

The Marvel Netflix Universe (MNU) has held a special place in the heart of superhero fandom. Known for its darker content, the MNU has stood out from the typically light-hearted, family-suitable theatrical Marvel Cinematic Universe films and the other cable Marvel shows (Agents of Shield, Inhumans). Season 1 and 2 of Daredevil successfully delivered a kind grittiness and violence that countless superhero films and TV shows over the years have attempted to but failed to pull off. It also didn’t hurt that it not only redeemed a character whom had a infamous theatrical outing in 2003, but lead off the first complete production of many Marvel properties that had reverted back into Marvel Studios’ arsenal from a variety of movie studios. Next came Jessica Jones, which not only carried over the dark tone of Daredevil, but also offered a thoughtful allegory of rape politics intertwined with a captivating story with Marvel’s best on-screen villain, Kilgrave (David Tennant). Likewise, Luke Cage embraced its blackness and internalized themes of pacifism, brotherhood, economic hardship, racism, and police brutality in black communities in an endearing and tasteful way. With Iron Fist however, world building and lore took precedent over compelling characterization and good story, and suffered greatly for it.

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Cage, Jones, and Murdock lay low in a subway car to evade police arrest as they try to get across the city

Like Iron Fist, The Defenders too prioritizes the unimpressive spectacle in the form of The Hand and its lore over the innovative storytelling that made the previous solo series so special, although that’s not say anything that made those shows unique is completely devoid. Most notably, each of the four leads go through some kind meaningful character development over the course of the 8 episodes. Matt Murdock comes to terms with the fact that Daredevil is an essential part of who he is, even if it costs him his career as a lawyer, the company of his friends, or his love life. Jessica Jones, still shook by her experiences with Purple Man/Kilgrave, learns to swallow her cynicism and accept the company of others like her to fight for the common good rather than just for her personal investments. Like Jessica, Luke Cage realizes that even needs help from those more vulnerable than him and is willing to sacrifice his freedom in exchange for the well being of the community. Lastly, billionaire Danny Rand gets a rude awakening that he even though he houses the ancient power of the Iron Fist, he doesn’t need to punch his way out of every battle when he’s as rich and white as he is, although he still ends up having to punch his way out of trouble by the end of the show.

While the characters work on display in The Defenders is quite good, the story and the villains are notably underwhelming. The show opens almost immediately after the conclusion of season 1 of Iron Fist with Danny Rand and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) hunting down operatives of The Hand around the world, introducing the show as more of a direct continuation of the Iron Fist arc rather than a organic progression of every character’s distinct stories, save for maybe Matt Murdock/Daredevil. In that regard, Defenders positions Danny Rand as the main protagonist while Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage are essentially along for the ride. This narrative frame would have been interesting enough if it weren’t for the botched depiction of The Hand. After season 2 of Daredevil and season 1 of Iron Fist, the threat of The Hand in Defenders should feel epic and formidable, but instead feels like a mere nuisance that Daredevil and Luke Cage could handle just the two of them. The Hand’s endgame, the reason they want to capture Danny Rand/Iron Fist so badly, is equally unspectacular, but I won’t spoil it here. Sigourney Weaver as the main villain and leader of The Hand is fun to watch and I do think she adds a sense of grandeur to the series, but she’s ultimately under-utilized as an expositional tool and a means for Elektra (Elodie Yung) to become central to the plot.

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Luke Cage and Claire Temple try to comfort one another with The Hand on their tail

Speaking of Elektra, Defenders brings back many of the side characters of series past that fans have come to love. Daredevil’s martial arts mentor Stick (Scott Glenn) delights the screen once again with his snarky, badass attitude, this time with a substantially greater role in the story. Additionally, Daredevil’s Foggy (Elden Henson) and Karen (Deborah Ann Woll) also appear to feed Murdock’s internal struggle. From Jessica Jones’ corner is floor-mate Malcolm (Eka Darville) and best friend and radio-host Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), though they have the least to do story-wise compared to other secondary characters. Luke Cage’s police officer acquaintance Misty Knight (Simone Missick) supports the team as a detective in the Harlem Police department and hence has a fairly large part to play. Lastly, Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), the connective tissue of all the Netflix Marvel shows, resumes her Luke Cage and Iron Fist roles as the loyal sidekick who, despite not having any powers, puts herself in the sights of ninjas and killers for the greater good. After spending a minimum of 13 hours with each MNU show, it’s nice to not just see each hero interact with one another, but to also see each hero’s inner circles merge together.

In addition to the exciting character interactions, Defenders’ fight choreography emerges as another positive to the show. Until Iron Fist, the intricate fight choreography was, for the most part reserved, for the Daredevil series, with Jessica Jones and Luke Cage depending more on story and mood. Considering Iron Fist being about a marital arts master with the ability to channel his chi into a fist, it was expected that the fight scenes in that show would be on par if not better than those in Daredevil. However, Iron Fist hilariously dropped the ball in that department, and virtually every other department. Defenders effectively corrects the ship in terms of fight choreography, especially for Finn Jones’ Danny Rand, whom seemed visually uncomfortable trying to pull off the fight moves in his show. Here, it shows that he’s been practicing; making his many fight scenes all the more believable.

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Danny Rand/Iron Fist and Luke Cage look on perplexed as Stick (Scott Glenn) deals with a dangerous captive

At the end of the day, The Defenders is a must-see series for fans of MNU that more than makes up for lackluster villains and unimpressive story with satisfying character developments and interactions, as well as impressive action scenes that grant some kind thematic turning point for each of the four heroes, successfully setting the stage for new seasons of all the shows in the near future.

7.8/10

Ingrid Personifies our Unsustainable Social Media Economy

Ingrid Goes West
Rating: R
Runtime: 1 hour 37 minutes
Director: Matt Spicer
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, O’Shea Jackson Jr., and Wyatt Russell


After a potentially career-defining turn as Lenny Busker in season 1 of Noah Hawley’s X-Men spin-off show Legion, popular awkward-girl Aubrey Plaza once again steps to up the proverbial plate in an dazzlingly dark and relevant film that can be best described as The Cable Guy (1996) for generation Y.

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Taylor Sloan (Elizabeth Olsen) rides shotgun as Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) drives them out to Joshua Tree National Park

Ingrid Goes West follows the Instagram-obsessed Ingrid, played by Aubrey Plaza, after she’s released from a psychiatric ward following an incident with an acquaintance she knows through Instagram. At some in the recent past, Ingrid’s mother passes away and leaves her $60,000 through a life insurance policy. She then uses that money to move to Los Angeles to stalk and befriend a magazine-published Instagram star, Taylor Sloane, played by Elizabeth Olsen. Along the way she befriends her landlord and eventual romantic suitor, Dan Pinto, played by O’Shea Jackson Jr., and struggles to juggle her relationships with Taylor and Dan while doing everything she can to satiate her obsessive social media addiction.

The filmmaking on display here is lean, energetic, and compelling. First-time feature director Matt Spicer expertly stages the bizarre plot in a way that’s as disturbing as it is entertaining without a hitch. The cast (Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, and O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is every bit as responsible for the film’s success as the director. Plaza uses her innate awkwardness to her advantage, keeping her blatantly psychotic performance just understated enough to have you oddly rooting for her in one scene, but repulsive enough to still make you hate her (in a good way) in other scenes. Elizabeth Olson perfectly emulates the typical avocado-toast loving, LA white girl, so much so that you forget that she’s also an Avenger. O’Shea Jackson Jr. steals the show as Ingrid’s lovable partner-in-crime Dan, who often times falls victim to Ingrid’s destructive impulses. As soon as Jackson’s character is established as being an active participant to the plot, it’s obvious that Ingrid will end up screwing over at some point, and while she does in fact do that more than once, it’s heartwarming to see his persistent dedication to her – in a twisted, unhealthy kind of way. As a result, Ingrid Goes West avoids the easy trap that a lot of indie films fall into: being too boring for the casual moviegoer.

However, while the casual moviegoer may find a lot to like about this film, I suspect the film’s deeper meaning will be lost in its explicit conflict. The anti-social media sentiment that the movie appears to argue with is nothing new to anyone who’s seen even one of those preachy, masturbatory, pseudo-intellectual millennials-are-robots slam poems on Facebook or YouTube. Yes, Ingrid literally spends her days browsing Instagram and drinking beer. She is an antisocial hermit that lives through her phone, but there’s a deeper meaning to Ingrid below the surface. And that deeper message becomes clear about half way into film when Ingrid and Dan go on a date.

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Ingrid’s charismatic landlord, Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is always willing to help out

Ingrid asks Dan about his obsession with the DC hero Batman, to which he explains that like Batman, he grew up an orphan and was deeply inspired by the character’s feats and successes despite him not having the guidance of his parents growing up, and not having super powers. However, it isn’t Dan who truly relates to the iconic superhero; it’s Ingrid. Like Batman, Ingrid too loses her parents (her mother, whom she calls her best friend, passing away at the start of the film) before assuming a faux-identity (Ingrid forcibly inserting herself into the Taylor’s life) in order to cope with her world. Like Batman, Ingrid doesn’t know who she is: her volatile, Instagram-inspired self or her natural-born self. Like Batman, Ingrid suffers from a total identity crisis. Likewise, all the characters of Ingrid Goes West, and really a lot of people that actively participate in social media, suffer from some form of perpetual existential crisis that is fostered and sustained by the commodification for profit, of self-perception through social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook, albeit to a less extreme extent compared to Ingrid.

American culture is defined by consumerism. Nearly every aspect of American society is commodified for profit no matter the cost socially, economically, or psychologically. Ingrid is an eventuality of our commodity society, a consequence of unchecked Capitalism. Ingrid Goes West is a creatively-made commentary on the current and future state of American psychology on its present course; not to mention an especially accessible indie film that deserves to be seen by as many eyes as possible.

9.7/10

‘The Hitman’s Bodyguard’ is as Cliché as They Come, but Reynolds and Jackson Inject Enough Fun to make it Worthwhile

The Hitman’s Bodyguard
Rating: R
Runtime: 1 hour 58 minutes
Director: Patrick Hughes
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, and Salma Hayek


Would you believe this isn’t the first time Ryan Reynolds has been tasked with protecting a dangerous fugitive played by an acclaimed black actor?

After having to protect a fugitive played by Denzel Washington in 2012’s Safe House, Ryan Reynolds once again plays a highly skilled protector of a dangerous hitman, this time played by Samuel L. Jackson. Together, they must travel across Europe in time to make an international court hearing to testify against a genocidal Belarusian dictator. But this movie is really about high-stakes situational comedy, gratuitous violence, and expletive-ridden banter between the two lead actors. And that’s where all of the enjoyment to be had with The Hitman’s Bodyguard stems from.

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Sonia Kincaid (Salma Hayek), Jackson’s on-screen wife, awaits release from an Amsterdam prison

Reynolds and Jackson are the heart of the film and do a great job of selling the mutual distaste for the other. Reynolds is an “AAA-rated” professional bodyguard who is regularly hired to protect high profile, and high-risk clients, while Jackson is a prolific contract killer who has made countless attempts on Reynolds’ clients over the years. As occupational adversaries, they have an organic reason to hate each other, which naturally sets the stage for some needless competition and violent shenanigans. That being said, the premise of this movie is nothing new. We’ve seen it a thousand times before in some way, shape, or form. All the twists, turns, and reveals are so obviously telegraphed, you’ll see them coming from a mile away. But while inherently stale, Bodyguard knows to utilize the comedic chops of its leads and tries to create some thematic uniqueness through its villain.

The villain of Bodyguard, played by Gary Oldman is a Belarusian dictator, perfectly smug, unapologetic, and intimidating in his portrayal. He’s actually very reminiscent to real-life Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov who has been accused of committing genocide on homosexuals in Chechnya. Oldman’s villain brings some weight to what’s at stake for the narrative. I have to say, it’s refreshing to see a serious villain in these kind of movies for once, even if it doesn’t make the movie better or worse.

Luckily for Bodyguard, it doesn’t matter how predictable or unoriginal it is as long as it manages to entertain and inspire laughs, and it succeeds in doing just that. There really isn’t much more to say about The Hitman’s Bodyguard; it’s a forgettable action comedy that tries to spice up it’s familiar premise with an of-the-times villain, but at the end of the day, it’s a perfectly watchable, fun movie that’s at least worth a single viewing.

6.5/10