Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

Logan Lucky

Logan Lucky Review by FilmZ

We missed Logan Lucky when it made its theatrical run because my associate, Guy S. Malone, Researcher, dismissed it as "Oceans 11 for the NASCAR set."  The fact that his summation was accurate doesn't alter the fact that our family thoroughly enjoyed it on New Year's Eve while Guy S. Malone, Researcher, turned up his nose and decided instead to, erm, "research" a gallon of moonshine his Allegheny Mountain cousin Harley distilled and named "Daytona 500 Fuel."  I only mention this because the delicious irony was lost on my associate along with several million of his brain cells and nearly his eyesight.

We should have appreciated the fact Steven Soderbergh, a master of crime movies, including the Oceans trilogy, came out of his brief retirement to direct Logan Lucky, a film produced by and starring former collaborator (Magic Mike) Channing Tatum.  Along with first-time screenwriter Rebecca Blunt (rumored to be a pen name of Soderbergh's wife, Jules Asner), they have concocted a fast-paced heist movie whose implausibilities and coincidences we go along with because everyone is having so much fun.

Jimmy Logan (Tatum) is a former West Virginia high school football hero, who has just lost his construction job at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.  His ex, Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) has custody of their daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) and is intent on making her a child beauty queen, but in spirit she's more like her dad.  Jimmy has a hairdresser sister Mellie (Riley Keough), fast driver and quick wit, who also happens to be the smartest of the Logans, and a brother Clyde (Adam Driver), a bartender who lost his left arm in the military.  Unemployed, with no discernible skills, and living under the infamous "Logan curse," Jimmy hatches a dubious plot: to rob the Charlotte Speedway.  He has a plan, written in simple, and simple-minded steps on butcher block paper tacked to the wall in his home.  While he was on his job, you see, he discovered the system of vacuum tubes by which the race track gathers its money and whooshes it to a central underground vault.  After recruiting his siblings, he and Clyde visit Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), an appropriately-named safecracker in prison.  With the promise of an airtight alibi and a split of a take, they bring him in, but at a cost: Jimmy must also employ Joe's moronic brothers, Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid).

As the convoluted (in a good way) scheme becomes operational, the Logans and their crew run into Soderbergh's typical array of extended cameos: nasty Brit Max (a Snidely Whiplash-mustachioed Seth MacFarlane), angelic bloodmobile nurse Sylvia (Katherine Waterston), reckless racecar driver Dayton (Sebastian Stan) unwittingly helpful prison warden (Dwight Yoakam), and dogged FBI agent (Hilary Swank), and true cameos from LeAnn Rimes, Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, and Mike Joy.  The primary cast is uniformly likable, and they seem to have had genuine fun in the same way the old Burt Reynolds rural working-man comedies did.  Riley Keough is sharp and strikes all the right notes as the savvy, sassy sister; Adam Driver shows a comic flare as brick-dumb but sincere brother, and Channing Tatum keeps getting better.  But the real star is Daniel Craig cast against type, as a bleached blonde, comic hardcase.  Soderbergh's signature finishing touch--a step-by-step flashback trail revealing how the pieces of the heist came together don't come together perfectly without our buying several implausibilities and coincidences, but in the end we should allow the Logans a little luck, shouldn't we?

7.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
4.0 out of 10 on an Awards Scale

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi review by FilmZ

The Last Jedi is the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back.  I realize that might be considered as damning with faint praise, especially after the sheer garbonia (garbage with a foul odor) the series has produced, from Ewoks through young Anakin.  In 2015 came the reboot with The Force Awakens--or should we say the remake of A New Hope?--with the familiar swings from wooden acting to over-emoting and gung-ho corniness.  Then came Rogue One, a B-level Guns of Navarone.  So, yeah, as the lights lowered, our belief was that only the "Star Wars" label saved these films from a stint on Mystery Science Theater.  Then came the thrilling strains of John Williams score and the opening crawl, and I returned to 1977 and my own new hope.  This time, it was rewarded, and credit goes to new writer-director Rian Johnson who, as scribe, created an original, layered story, infused with passion; as director, he actually directs the actors, coaxing honest, believable performances out of most of them.

We pick up where we left off with Rey (Daisy Ridley), having flown with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) to the remote island where Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), AKA The Last Jedi, is holed up in a state of self-loathing Depression.  We've been waiting two years for Rey to hand off that lightsaber, and as she does, Luke becomes, shall we say, difficult.  Rey is nothing if not determined.  Refusing to leave, she splits time between meditating and haranguing Luke to train her.  During the former, she makes a psychic connection with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and begins to develop the notion that she can turn Ren away from Snoke (Andy Serkis) and the Dark Side.  Luke is doubtful, given his experience with his former padawan, not to mention Ren's homicidal history.

A subplot follows the ragtag band of Rebels as they try to survive a race across space, pursued by First-Order dreadnoughts and destroyers, led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Ren.  It opens with flying ace Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) leading a squadron of X-Wings in support of bombers, trying to down a dreadnought (yes, we mean down, for, in Star Wars outer space, somehow gravity exists--bombers descend when hit, the bombs drop down from bombers).  The Rebels prevail, but at such a cost of bombers and crews that Poe incurs the wrath of Gen. Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), whose prime directive is to escape the pursuing First Order while saving as many rebels as possible.  They don't reveal their strategy in what seems like a hopeless situation, which drives Poe to the brink of mutiny, as he wants to attack (with equally hopeless odds).  A third subplot is murky and, ultimately pointless, other than to give Finn (John Boyega) something to do--and, most hopefully, provide the seed for another spinoff film.  On the positive side, it introduces two terrific characters to the SW universe.  The first is Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a resourceful mechanic smitten with Finn who also wants retribution for the loss of her bomber pilot sister.  The second is DJ (Benicio DelToro), a safecracker Finn and Rose recruit to assist is the Rebels' escape.

Smash cuts from plot to subplot to subplot move faster than we can sort at times, and, although the story moves forward only incrementally it becomes deeper and richer.  With a runtime of more than two-and-a-half hours, TLJ could have easily cut a couple cycles.  The film is never boring, though, just redundant at times, mainly the flying combat and Finn's adventure, though the hand-to-hand and lightsaber fights are well-choreographed--the fight in Snoke's throne room is one of the best in the entire series.  And Johnson makes room for welcome humor.  As the pompous but ineffectual Hux, Gleeson shows a deft comic flair that serves as a release valve during some otherwise heavy scenes.  Tran is a find; her Rose is both offhandedly brilliant techie and exuberant fangirl.  And Johnson even made inventive use of a nuisance: On Luke's island, so many puffins disrupted filming that the director decided to CGI them into adorable "porgs" that bring some soulfully comic moments with Chewbacca.  And then, of course, there is every scene BB-8 steals.

Perhaps the greatest improvement is the acting, and in this, we can make direct comparisons with just two years ago.  Actors from whom we expect top performances, based on their other film work deliver this time around.  Oscar Isaac is less hammy flyboy and more passionate warrior, Adam Driver is no longer Emo-Vader; he is a psychologically damaged young man, resentful of his abandonment.  In 2015, we didn't have a book on Daisy Ridley; for all we knew her ever-present threat-level midnight grimace comprised the extent of her talent.  In TLJ, we see her performance nuanced--searching, ardent, determined; in short, Rey is a character we can identify with, have feelings for.  With John Boyega, it's a little different.  Like Ridley, in The Force Awakens he was unimpressive; in TLJ, it seems like he's trying to imitate Denzel.  Oh well.  Special effects, of course, are a Star Wars specialty, and as the years have advanced, so have they.  The aerial battles still push the edge of our patience, but the new creatures are cool.  In addition to porgs, there are "caretakers," creatures indigenous to Luke's island that look like amphibian potatoes; "fathiers," space horses raced competitively; coolest of all, "vulptices," crystal foxes that can light the way at night.  And finally, that most consistent of the series stars, John Williams' score.  His variations on the basic theme and specific motifs still drive both our nostalgia and adrenaline.  Enjoy The Last Jedi, folks, just as Rey handed the lightsaber to Luke, Rian Johnson will be handing the baton back to J.J. Abrams for Episode IX.
8.0 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
7.0 out of 10 on an Awards Scale (potential nominations in technical production catagories)

Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice) teamed with writer Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) on Darkest Hour, a historical drama about Winston Churchill's early days as Britain's Prime Minister, and they succeeded where so many have failed: even though we knew the ultimate outcome, they kept us on the edge of our seats.  Curiously, this is the third of three Dunkirk movies released in 2017 (comedy-drama Their Finest in April, Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk in July).  Darkest Hour chronicles the viewpoint of Churchill (a fabulous Gary Oldman) and drives home how dire the situation was--for the world, for Europe, for Great Britain, and for Churchill himself.  One of the many strengths of this film is Wright's and McCarten's ability to bring context and perspective to the cataclysmic events of May 1940 while rarely leaving Churchill's side.

It is early May, and British Parliament has delivered a vote of no confidence to the government of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), due to his appeasement of Hitler.  Hopes are high that Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) will pick up the gauntlet, but he argues his time has not yet come.  They strike a reluctant political decision to recruit Churchill, the only candidate to meet favor with the opposition, even though he is hardly in favor with his own party and, more importantly, with King George (Ben Mendelsohn).  Time is of the essence, though: Germany has overrun Belgium; France is falling; the Western Front is disintegrating so fast that over 300,000 British troops are trapped on the Dunkirk beach and may be driven into the sea before Churchill can mount an evacuation.

That is the macro.  The micro is filtered through Churchill's interpersonal relations, mostly with Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), his new secretary, whom he initially terrorizes but soon develops a fondness.  She is our British everywoman, and it is through her eyes we see the man's inner workings and thoughts as her nuanced expressions--frustration, pain, fear--mirror our own.  At home, his loyal wife Clemmie (Kristen Scott-Thomas), whose tart wit exceeds even that of her husband, buoys his spirit and cuts him down to size as the situation demands.  In the War Ministry, elder statesman Chamberlain quietly tries to temper Churchill's combative impulses, while Halifax is oppositional to the point of undermining the Prime Minister.  As each day brings Britain closer to the brink of destruction, Halifax urges peace negotiations with Hitler as brokered by Mussolini while Churchill rejects any and all solutions that smack of capitulation.  Through weekly lunch meetings with King George, Churchill grudgingly shares information.  For his part, the monarch, initially untrusting and somewhat cowed by his blustery PM, maintains a calm, objective distance.  Over time, that relationship develops, and at the darkest hour, when Churchill seems to have exhausted all options, a bit of simple, subtle wisdom from the King lights the path for Churchill.

Amid high profile Hollywood fodder, bombastic campaigns, hyped performances, and film festival darlings, Darkest Hour slips in unobtrusively, taking a modest nibble out of the holiday box office.  With uniformly excellent performances across the cast, cinematic authenticity, and compelling narrative, our regard for this film increases upon reflection.  This is Gary Oldman's finest hour; inside remarkably invisible prosthetics, he becomes Churchill, and very well may garner that elusive but richly deserved Oscar.  Lily James continues her impressive roll; if she had the benefit of Margot Robbie's aggressive publicists, she would be among the favorites for Supporting Actress.  Ben Mendelsohn's subtle perfection of the King's speech, is among the year's best Supporting Actor performances.  Bruno Delbonnel's Cinematography gives a strong feeling of place and time.  Add Dario Marianelli's score, the film's Production Design, Costume Design, and Makeup/Hairstyling, and the senses rush to 1940 London to a most vivid darkest hour.

9.0 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
8.5 out of 10 on an Awards Scale
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