Film review – Logan Lucky (Steven Soderbergh, 2017)

A well-chosen ensemble cast and a smattering of quick-witted humour makes ‘Logan Lucky’ an enjoyable ride as Steven Soderbergh returns to the heist genre that has served up some of the most-popular films of his career.

The film stars Channing Tatum and Adam Driver as the Logans, two brothers who are renowned for their lack of fortune as much as their lack of intelligence. After Jimmy (Tatum) gets laid off from his job at the Charlotte Motor Speedway track, he and brother Clyde (Driver) hatch a plan to perform a heist on the track during a race day. Enlisting Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) and his brothers Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid), the elaborate plot forms the centre piece for a smart cinematic sandwich that delivers more than it promises in the trailers.

The action on the speedway racing is kept to the minimum, which gives the racing much more appeal outside the southern areas of USA. When it does appear, it injects a bit of adrenaline without detracting from the focus of the story.

But it is the humour that really delivers the best moments for the film. Whether it’s the stupidity of the lesser-known Bang brothers, Craig unexpectedly being a great over-the-top comedian, or the slapstick visual gags involving prosthetic arms, it never fails to amuse.

It’s not all rosy. Seth MacFarlane’s performance as the pig-headed obnoxious businessman Max Chilblain does undo some of the hard work in other parts of the film. Perhaps it was hard to get past the woeful British accent, which may have been slightly off-kilter to create laughs, but it was too off-putting to set aside. I thought at times he might have been Australian. It’s frustrating when you know the man behind the moustache is one of the modern comedy greats.

Soderbergh’s previous heist films were famed for their great soundtracks but fans hoping for another great driving playlist will be sadly disappointed. For a quality soundtrack that accompanies a car-based action film, music fans will have to keep playing Baby Driver for a while longer yet.

Tatum plays the headstrong and world-weary lead excellently, but his comic abilities were almost completely untapped. I didn’t feel this was necessarily a bad thing. Soderbergh had a lot of character actors playing wildly outside their comfort zone in a manner that could have easily fallen flat. Here, it doesn’t. Adam Driver playing comedic straight man to a prosthetic arm? Yes please.

Logan Lucky won’t be as popular as Ocean’s Eleven but it doesn’t have the big money behind it to reach those peaks. Indeed, as of 21st August 2017 it is recorded as having the 25th worst opening weekend for a 3000+ cinema release film of all time.

If it fails to make its money back it will be a disaster that would tell you nothing about the quality of this picture.

Film review – Baby Driver (Edgar Wright, 2017)

There aren’t many moments in cinema where you start to watch the opening scene and an uncontrollable giddy smile engulfs your face, such is the joy of what is unfolding on the screen. It needs to be a brilliant idea, executed to perfection and in a language that speaks to you.

Baby Driver, Edgar Wright’s latest cinematic masterpiece, achieves just that. But the moment I knew it was a truly great film was when I realised the credits were rolling and my smile hadn’t left.

Oh, Baby!

The titular Baby is played by the young Ansel Elgort, who many will recognise as Caleb Prior from the Divergent film series. Baby is a young man who suffers with tinnitus, a whistling hum in the ear, which he got from an initially mysterious childhood incident. He works as a getaway driver for a heist masterminder named Doc (Kevin Spacey), who counts amongst his rotating team of goons a highly-strung Bats (Jamie Foxx), passionate love birds Buddy (John Hamm) and Darling (Eiza González), Griff (Jon Bernthal) and Eddy No-Nose (Flea). Lily James also stars as a waitress named Deborah.

To drown out the noise, Baby has a series of iPods to suit his moods. These are essentially soundtracking his life with a mixture of classic tunes that also serve as the soundtrack to the film, from Beck to Sam and Dave, The Commodores to The Damned.

It is these playlists that also serve as the film’s soundtrack, with sounds and visuals perfectly in sync with one another. For fans of music, and in particular soundtracks, Baby Driver is an absolute dream. The music is the backbone, catalyst and cherry on the icing, all at the same time. It’s a remarkable achievement.

If the opening sequence seems familiar, Wright used the same scenario in 2003 for the music video he directed for the track ‘Blue Song’ by Mint Royale. This hit the music airwaves mere months prior to his directorial breakthrough Shaun of the Dead, but watching it now you can see he probably had the idea for Baby Driver in his head as a starting point.

One of the best examples of how perfectly it works comes during the opening credits, when the first job has been completed and Baby goes to pick up some coffee from a shop near to their hideout. As Bob and Earl’s ‘Harlem Shuffle’ is played through his earbuds and the backdrop becomes subtly flourished with graffiti, shop names and visual signposts, it was clear that something special was unfolding before my eyes. That this was done as a one-shot makes it all the more beautiful.

The film goes far and beyond being just a glorified music video. The car chases are breathtaking from the get-go, and there’s no let up as the story progresses. They’re believable and easy to follow, with no cheap cuts to hide poor editing and hide continuity – something of an epidemic in cinema in the 21st century.

Many of the actors are a little out of their familiarity zones with their characters, but it’s obvious that the likes of John Hamm and Jamie Foxx are taking great pleasure in being allowed to indulge their acting abilities. Kevin Spacey may be on more familiar ground, but it doesn’t make for poor viewing in the slightest.

I think her name is Debra! Or Deborah…

There’s a great use of the song ‘Debra’ by Beck in a scene that cements Baby’s relationship with Lily James’s waitress. They’re both stuck in a rut and in need of a route out, so their inevitable desire to be together is an expected story arc. Only Edgar Wright would, at this point, think it was a good time to drop in a song about a man wanting to have a threesome with two sisters. It’s a hilariously sweet moment that comes just at the right time in the film, softening up the audience before the rollercoaster second half of the story.

The fact that Elgart spends the opening thirty minutes dressed in an outfit that is very reminiscent of Han Solo shouldn’t be overlooked either. Elgart came close to being cast in Disney’s upcoming problematic Han Solo standalone film, before being overlooked in favour of Alden Ehrenreich. It’s clear that the coolness of Harrison Ford’s character is something Wright was trying to remind the audience of. However, Wright recently denied the connection in a Twitter Q&A, saying that the similarity was purely coincidental.

Similar to Han Solo? Wright is denying any links.

I just can’t be effusive of the film enough. It’s something I could watch time and time again and I’m certain I’ll be getting enjoyment out of it for years to come.

Baby Driver could well be the greatest film of Wright’s illustrious career. If you’ve not been taking notice yet, now’s the time.

Film review – Cars 3 (Brian Fee, 2017)

I always try to stay positive about a film I’ve seen. With that in mind, I can happily announce that Cars 3 is one of the top three films in the series.

The wayward plot that feels deeply familiar on many levels. It’s Rocky III on wheels, with the care and attention of The Karate Kid III. This does little to rescue a franchise that looked in danger of sinking since the poorly-regarded Cars 2.

Put simply, Cars 3 is defined by lacklustre character designs and a thinly veiled attempt to use a film as a means to sell merchandise and toys.

This time around, Lightning McQueen (the returning Owen Wilson) is struggling as an ageing racing car. An arrogant young car named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) has shown up and is utilising modern technology to achieve better performance from his specs, forcing cars based on the older technology into retirement. McQueen refuses to retire and pushes his car too much in the final race of the season, leading to a horrific crash that takes him months to recover from. Determined not to retire, McQueen takes on additional training at a new facility sponsored by Sterling (Nathan Fillion), though he seems to want McQueen to retire and turn him into a brand rather than let him keep racing. Regardless of this, he’s given a personal trainer called Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) who he quickly strikes up a love-hate relationship with.

One of the tough sells for the film outside of North America is that McQueen is essentially a stock car racer. NASCAR is the second most popular sport on American televisions, but is largely unpopular in Europe and the UK. Indeed, the sport is ridiculed by many who see it as vastly inferior and less exciting than the likes of Formula One and MotoGP. Perhaps as a British film fan I am spoiled when I see stock car racing – maybe the subtleties of the skill involved are lost on me. But converting that into an exhilarating plot point in a film is an unenviable task and something I don’t think is achieved in Cars 3.

cars3screen.jpg

For all the disappointment associated with the story, the visuals are nothing short of stunning. There have been huge advancements in animation in the eleven years since the original’s release. The benefits are felt with the backdrops, which feel somehow much more life-like than it’s predecessors. Even the character design, which is hampered by the restrictive nature of bringing cars to life, feels more advanced; a clear sign they’ve learned from two predecessors.

At its heart, this film eventually ends up being a buddy movie. Whilst it takes a while to get there, it’s an important move to bring the film closer to the original movie. I didn’t like either of the first two instalments, but Cars 3 stands alongside the original as being more in line with the Pixar ethos. It is, as the investors would say, “on brand”. So, whilst the first-time director Brian Fee has taken no risks here and the outcome is something that probably won’t overly please anyone, but nor will it offend anyone.

A safe bet that will maintain the franchise and opens the door for further sequels. Bland, forgettable, but pleasant enough to keep its target audience happy.

Though I do think Cars 2 is a better film.

Duke Weaselton’s Officially Licensed Movies

Around eighty minutes into the magnificent Zootropolis, there’s a great moment where Lt. Judie Hops (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) follow a lead to solve their case. They wind up at a dodgy DVD stand manned by Duke Weaselton, voiced by the ever-entertaining Alan Tudyk.

That character is in itself a riff on his character in Frozen, the Duke of Weselton, but the jokes don’t stop there. His dodgy DVDs are all parodies on recent Disney movies, clearly having a pop at the endless rip-offs that flood the market every time a new Disney film is released.

The films include Pig Hero 6 (in place of Big Hero 6), Wrangled (a take on Tangled) and Wreck-It Rhino (Wreck-It Ralph).

They even then pan onto a second pile of DVDs and Weaselton brags that he has films that haven’t even been released yet. Those include Meowana, which is a take on the then-yet-to-be-released Moana that replaces the lead character with a cat. Giraffic, the second in the pile, is a Giraffe-themed parody of the upcoming Gigantic, which is a Jack and the Beanstalk tale due for release in 2020. Finally, Floatzen 2 is Frozen but with a moose and two otters in the lead roles, with a review attached underneath that reads “The best film of the year starring a moose and two otters.”

Digging even further, there are more hidden in the row above those in the centre of the screen. Most notable is what appears to be a sequel to Giraffic – a similar cover to the first film but with the tagline “AN INSTANT SEQUEL”. There are also alternative covers for Meowana, Wreck-It Rhino and a mystery film in the top left corner of the first screen (as above), which doesn’t match up with any of the other films but could be a draft poster for something like Ralph Breaks The Internet or one of the other upcoming projects.

Zootropolis is full of weird Easter Eggs and it’s certainly worth checking out again to try to pick them all up.

Film review – My Life as a Courgette (Claude Barras, 2017)

My Life as a Courgette is a stop-motion animated film directed by first-time feature director Claude Barras. Short in length but big in heart, it has a way of drawing the viewer in and delivering a weighty emotional drama, despite its saccharine veneer.

It tells the story of the titular Courgette, a boy who is forced into an orphanage at the age of nine. He has come from a lonely and unhappy background but quickly learns to adapt and find his path with the six other children he lives with, notably the over-confident Simon and new girl Camille, whom he takes an immediate liking to.

This shot is one of the most memorable lingering shots of the film

The narrative is carried out from the perspective of the children, which gives rise to some elements of humour whilst giving the situation a melancholic edge. These are children all going through the same issue, as one child puts it they’ve “ran out of people to love them”.

The animation is truly beautiful and endearing, with a unique character design coupled with an a seamless stop-motion animation style. It is simply a joy to watch.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more emotionally-involving story in cinemas right now. This is one that needs to be seen.

My Life as a Courgette is out in cinemas now. You can watch a free ten minute preview below.

Film review – Mindhorn (Sean Foley, 2017)

Julian Barrett and Simon Farnaby have come together to create a brilliantly British comedy in Mindhorn, with the pair co-writing and co-starring in a story about a washed up actor who can’t let go of his former glories.

Barrett takes the role of Richard Thorncroft, who is better known as the titular TV detective Mindhorn. Twenty-five years after his show was axed, disgraced Thorncroft is desperately in need of a fresh angle to kick start his career. The love of his life and former co-star Patricia Deville (Essie Davis) has now married Clive Parnevik (Farnaby), who was previously a stunt double for Mindhorn. When a police investigation into a probable murderer called Paul Melly (Russell Tovey) takes a bizarre turn, Thorncroft is brought on board to help talk to the man and discover the real truth.

The jokes come thick and fast, though many could be easily missed for those not tuned into this style of comedy. Plenty of the beats come from Alan Partridge and it does feel like a variation on the script for Alpha Papa. This isn’t a bad thing at all. Incidentally, Steve Coogan appears as a rival and former co-Star of Thorncroft named Pete Eastman.

The story is quirky, but comedies live and die on the amount of laughs they deliver. In this sense, Mindhorn soars. From the nuanced references to 1980s British television, to cringeworthy moments largely shared between Barrett and Farnaby, it is hilarious from start to finish.

Foreign markets are yet to experience the brilliance of the film. If I’m honest, I’m not sure how it will land. The humour is distinctly British, whatever that means. Mind you, it’s more accessible than the likes of Monty Python and The Mighty Boosh, which all enjoyed global audiences, so hopefully I am wrong on that front.

This isn’t the kind of film that rises to the top of the charts on its first week of release. Instead, I’m predicting it will follow the path of Anchorman and Hot Rod to become a comedy sleeper hit that people will talk about in a few years’ time.

Do yourself a favour and get in on the act now. You can’t handcuff the wind.

Film review – Their Finest (Lone Scherfig, 2016)

You may look at the premise of Their Finest and, coupled with the cast, assume that the film is a lighthearted romp with its aim directly at those to whom World War II is a trip down memory lane rather than a history lesson. It’s an assessment that isn’t wildly wide of the mark, but there’s more substance here than meets the eye.

The story is about a woman rising up against industry stereotypes and an oppressive partner to become a great screenwriter for propaganda war films. That woman is Catrin Cole (Gemma Arteton) and the film-within-a-film depicts two sisters’ efforts in the miraculous evactuation of stranded Allied troops from Dunkirk beach. Central to this film is the drunken Uncle Frank, set to be portrayed by Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), whilst the film is co-written with Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin). Other minor roles include Jeremy Irons as the Secretary of War and Richard E. Grant as a studio executive.

Claflin and Arteton

Despite a feeling that a romantic subplot was going to undo all the hard work put in by a female lead being expertly guided by a female director, it was a wise choice to make her feelings for co-writer Tom serve a purpose to inspire Catrin’s career rather than making her career integral to her romantic endeavours. In this way, her feelings towards her co-writer is simply a character-building device.

There was a brief moment where I felt they were throwing away a really interesting character in her faux-husband Ellis Cole (Jack Huston). This is a man who has been injured in a previous battle and thus cannot join the war effort, nor can he earn a consistent living to support himself and Catlin. His failings are that he cannot bring himself to accept his partner’s financial support. In 2017 this is likely to stir an element of frustration amongst the feminist cinema-goers, which is a perfectly reasonable response given this remains such a hot topic. However, if one really tries hard to imagine the emotions of a man suffering from inadequacy-related depression in the height of World War II, I can’t help but feel that his side of the story wasn’t explored enough. His eventual lack of faithfulness was the easy route out of a cul-de-sac.

Bill Nighy’s role was satisfyingly gripping. His portrayal of an older actor struggling to be taken seriously following earlier successes is something that must resonate with many in the industry. Nighy is consistently and effortlessly funny in every role he tackles and that must, in an unusual way, be quite restrictive for his role choices. Here he is very much light relief but he plays a pivotal role in the final act when it comes to reasoning with a depressed Catlin. It’s a heartbreaking scene that really stands out as a centrepiece for both character arcs.

For all the accuracies in the costumes, scenery, colour choices, music and tone, the whole film would be nothing without an excellent performance from Arteton. This is a role that is specifically targeted to resonate with women who have had to rise up against criticism from men at home and at work throughout their lives. 

From Gemma Arteton all the way back to novelist Lissa Evans, the women involved with bringing this tale to life have left their mark. Women creating high quality cinema was a surprising success in 1940 and it’s a shame that the industry still feels the same way almost eighty years later.