Friday, August 25, 2017

Winning Performances Keep Rap Musical 'Patti Cake$' Fresh



This review originally appeared on SFist.com

Going into Patti Cake$, I'll admit I had some trepidation. Is now really the time for a story about a white girl who wants to become a rap star? Also, didn't 8 Mile already cover this sort of thing well enough? But it didn't take long for Patti Cake$ to quell those fears, thanks to a completely winning performance by Danielle Macdonald as Patti.

Set in an unnamed town in New Jersey, where the Manhattan skyline is a constant visible taunt to those with dreams of making it there (or anywhere), Patti Dombrowski, AKA Killa P, AKA Patti Cake$ (and AKA Dumbo, to the bullies in town) is 23 but still lives at home, working part-time jobs as a bartender and a catering waiter to help support her alcoholic and perpetually unemployed mother Barb (Bridget Everett) and ailing Nana (Cathy Moriarty). She also has notebooks full of rhymes and big dreams, both figuratively and literally (her daydreams are brought to life onscreen) of becoming a rap star, like her idol and fellow Jersey-ite O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah).

Her best friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) provides her backbeats and choruses, and shares in her big-league dreams, pushing her forward whenever she doubts herself or feels crushed by the Jersey boys who won't ever let her forget her plus-size, white girl status. When Patti sees an open mic performance by a weird African American goth kid (Mamoudou Athie) who calls himself Basterd the Antichrist, she recognizes the musical genius behind his oddball facade, and convinces him to join her and Jheri.

Patti Cake$ is a musical, and it adheres to many of the cliches inherent in musicals; maybe too many — underdog status; meeting your idols; a final Big Show. And like most musicals, it succeeds or fails based on the strength of its music. Luckily, the music in Patti Cake$ is surprisingly catchy, especially when the oddball trio (with the addition of Patti's Nana on a vocal) lays down their first track "PBNJ" (also the name they give their band).


Director and screenwriter Geremy Jasper, who started out as a musician, wrote all the music and rhymes in the film. The result is nice blend of hip-hop and rock, with a touch of industrial. All the main characters in the film rely on music, in some way or another, to get them through the dreariness of their New Jersey lives, and I imagine Jasper's musical background and Jersey native status played a large part in making that feel believable, with some additional heavy lifting from the talented cast.

Bridget Everett is famous for her raunchy cabaret act, and the film definitely benefits from her larger-than-life presence and excellent singing voice, as her character tries to relive the glory days of her rock star hopeful youth. And Dhananjay's Jheri is funny, charming, and the ultimate hype man, both on and off the mic.

But Patti Cake$ would not be half as enjoyable without star Danielle Macdonald. Macdonald is Australian, but she manages the Jersey accent, and more importantly, the vocal swagger needed to convincingly sell all the raps in the film. Her Patti manages to have both pride and vulnerability, and such a belief in music (when she puts headphones on, Jasper shows her literally being lifted into the air by its power) that you can't help but root for her.  The story in Patti Cake$ may not be the freshest, but Macdonald's Patti most definitely is.

Friday, August 18, 2017

'Logan Lucky' Plays Delightfully Against Expectations



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

I don't think anyone seriously believed Steven Soderbergh in 2013 when he announced, (not for the first time), that he would be retiring from feature films. And, indeed, that retirement ended up being more of a hiatus, as his focus moved to TV projects. Now he's back with the self-marketed caper comedy Logan Lucky, his first theatrical feature since 2013's Side Effects.

Set in the world of NASCAR, the film has obvious similarities to the Ocean's franchise (someone in the film even uses the phrase "Ocean's 7-Eleven" to describe the culprits). While the caper aspect definitely invites that comparison, I found it also brought to mind 1998's Out of Sight, my favorite Soderbergh film, for both its inclusions of more middle-to-lower class criminal masterminds (some of whom are slightly lacking in the mind department) and its clever use of flashbacks.

Channing Tatum is Jimmy Logan, a former small-town football star who lost his chance to make it to the NFL after an accident left him with a bad knee. His brother Clyde (Adam Driver) lost his forearm at the very end of his military service in Iraq, so he tends to believe the local legend that the Logan family is cursed with a permanent unlucky streak.

When Jimmy loses his job as a tractor driver for failing to report his minor disability on his job forms and his ex-wife (Katie Holmes) announces she and her new family will be moving out of state and taking their daughter with her, Jimmy realizes he better come up with some money fast, if only to pay for a lawyer to fight for custody.

Jimmy's construction job was under the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina, repairing sinkholes that had started to plague the track. In the course of his work, he learned the facility uses a pneumatic tube system to deliver cash from food and beverage vendors into a vault under the speedway. And thus, a plan to break into the vault is hatched.

Despite trepidation over the whole family curse thing, Jimmy convinces Clyde to come on board, and they both seek out the help of notorious safe cracker Joe Bang (Daniel Craig). As his name may suggest, he's less a safe cracker, and more of a safe-exploder. The one problem is that Joe Bang is in prison, due for release in a few months, and that's time the boys can't wait out. So, a plan to break Joe out and then back INTO prison is added to the caper.

The screenplay by Rebecca Blunt (who, most likely, doesn't actually exist) doesn't lay out the entirety of their plan up front, instead slowly letting the audience in on a scheme that includes the use of cockroaches, fake salt, and gummi bears, as well as the addition of more team members, including Joe Bang's slightly dim brothers Sam and Fish Bang (Brian Gleeson and Jack Quaid, both hilarious) and Jimmy and Clyde's sister Mellie (Riley Keough), a hairdresser and ace getaway driver who should get her own movie.

Soderbergh's comedies have one winning thing in common, and that's an authenticity and looseness that comes from his actors and their dialog. Some might argue that he's painting these Southerners with a broad brush, and Driver definitely lays on the hee-haw accent a little thick. But there's never a feeling that he's looking down on them or Southern culture in general. And while the actors definitely have fun with their characters (particularly Daniel Craig, who I would have never even considered a possibility for an American comedy), they never mock them.

Logan Lucky also manages to play against expectations. It's a heist movie set at a NASCAR race and hardly features any actual race footage. It's a crime story in which no guns are shot, and what violence does happen is against a truly despicable character (appropriately played by Seth MacFarlane). There's even a prison riot that culminates in a hilarious bit of back-and-forth negotiations between a despicable warden (Dwight Yoakam) and a prisoner, centered on Game of Thrones.

It also manages to work in a completely unexpected final act that is only slightly soured by the addition of Hilary Swank as an FBI investigator whose only purpose seems to be to give the movie the type of ending it doesn't really need. But that's a minor complaint. It's rare that you can enter a film with full confidence that everyone involved knows what they're doing, and they're going to be excellent doing it. And in that way, Logan Lucky is the ultimate caper.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

'Ingrid Goes West' Is A Creepy Indictment Of Instagram Chicanery



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

When we first meet Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) in Ingrid Goes West, she's crying over Instagram photos of a wedding, the typical golden filtered, "dream-fulfilled" posts anyone with an IG account has no doubt seen more than enough of. We quickly learn that Ingrid is parked outside that wedding, and instead of the usual eye-roll reactions to the photos most of us might have (and, incidentally, most of Aubrey Plaza's previous characters would have had), Ingrid barges into the reception and maces the bride in the face.

This stunt lands Ingrid a stint in a mental hospital, and once she's out, it's clear she hasn't exactly been cured. Living on a diet of junk food, in an empty house where the death of her mother still lingers in the dusty air, Ingrid continues to obsessively scroll through Instagram, hoping for Instafriendship by leaving comments like "Damn girl, that looks amazing! What's your email address?" on stranger's posts.

Eventually she finds the perfect object for her obsessions, an Instagram "influencer" named Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen) whose @_welltaylored_ account documents her meticulously styled Southern California lifestyle. Ingrid decides to pack the inheritance her mother left her into a backpack and heads west.

Social media makes it easy for Ingrid to stalk Taylor and find out where she gets her hair done, where she shops, where she eats her avocado toast, and where she lives. Thanks to that backpack full of money, Ingrid is able to remake herself in Taylor's image, including renting an apartment in nearby Venice, and through a dog-napping stunt actually befriends her.

Plaza plays against her usual deadpan and sarcastic character type, replacing it with awkwardness and dorky obsession, and it's a welcome change. But what does remain, and I'm not sure Plaza will ever be able to shake this off, is the sense of danger that always seems to be lingering behind her huge eyes. And that works perfectly for Ingrid.

Ingrid Goes West is a comedic thriller that brings to mind similarly obsessed tales like Single White Female, The King of Comedy, and especially Robert Altman's 3 Women, whenever the setting moves to the Southern California desert and Taylor's second home in Joshua Tree. Olsen's Taylor is the quintessential Coachella chick, all gauzy tops and slouchy hats, "slumming" it at Pappy and Harriet's for the photo ops. Her image is a tightly controlled vision of easiness, and in reality is just as fake and manufactured as Ingrid's.

The film also features some great performances from the men in the women's lives, including Wyatt Russell as Ezra, Taylor's top-knotted husband, an aspiring artist who paints catchphrases over thrift store paintings (Ingrid is his first and only customer); O'Shea Jackson Jr, who steals almost every scene he's in as Ingrid's pot-selling, Batman-obsessed, aspiring screenwriter landlord and love interest; and Billy Magnussen as Taylor's coked-out, Hollywood leech brother Nicky, who quickly sees through Ingrid.

Director Matt Spicer and his co-screenwriter David Branson Smith aren't really telling a new story here; movies about obsession are as old as the medium itself. What is new is the platform that fuels Ingrid's obsession. It's not by accident that Ingrid is thrust at us with no real back story and no explanation for her behavior. Ingrid may be a blank slate, but aren't we all the minute we click that "Create a New Account" button on a social media app?

Friday, August 11, 2017

'The Glass Castle' Sells Its Heroine Short



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

There are plenty of tales of drunken fathers with big dreams that can never be fulfilled, and plenty of stories of families who are as poor as dirt but nevertheless manage to find happiness and strength through the force of their familial bond. Hell, if you grew up reading the Little House on the Prairie books, it might even seem like that latter dynamic is built into the fabric of America.

But there aren't a lot of stories about women who come from backgrounds of desperate poverty, parental neglect, and family alcoholism, who then grow up to be successful writers dishing about the rich and famous for New York Magazine, while their parents, by choice, are rooting through the city's trash and squatting in an abandoned tenement. That's the true story Jeannette Walls told in her memoir The Glass Castle, but it's a story the movie version does not pay enough attention to.

When we meet Jeannette (Brie Larson), she has just spent the evening at an expensive restaurant with her investment banker fiancee David (Max Greenfield) and two of his clients. As she's riding home, she sees an elderly couple digging through a dumpster. The man seems to recognize her, but Jeannette ignores them. We soon learn those people are her parents.

As the film jumps back and forth in time, we see Jeannette as a young girl (a heartbreaking Chandler Head), one of four children of Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) and Rex Walls (Woody Harrelson). Rose Mary is a painter, Rex an aspiring inventor (a solar run house he calls a "glass castle" is his biggest aspiration), which means neither of them brings home much money, and both tend to focus more on themselves than on their children. So it's no surprise when young Jeannette almost burns herself alive making boiled hot dogs for dinner.

When creditors, the law, or any other kind of authority comes a knockin', Rex's first instinct is to take the family and run, moving from rundown house to rundown house, even sleeping under the stars when nothing else is available. But for Rex, this is all an experience, and to him, experience is what life is all about. "Everything else is a damn lie," he says.

And for a while, the family thrives on the adventure. But as the kids get older, the lack of roots, food, and any income starts to wear them down, so they reluctantly return to Rex's West Virginia hometown and a family that likely abused Rex both physically and sexually. The move does nothing to help Rex's drinking problem.

Ella Anderson plays the pre-teen Jeannette, and she turns in a really great performance, matching Woody Harrelson in scene after scene. In fact, it's hard to be critical of a film that doesn't contain a single bad performance, even when, as is the case with Watts's Rose Mary, they aren't given a lot to work with. Rose's only character trait is her love of painting, and while she occasionally challenges Rex, we never fully understand why someone sober and seemingly sane would choose to stay with a raging drunk like Rex.

In reality, Rose suffered from her own mental illness, but this is never alluded to in the film. Instead, we're just supposed to accept she's eccentric, and nothing else.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton is smart to structure the film using back-and-forth chronology; the jumps into present day (actually, 1989) help to dampen the misery of those early years a bit when we see that Jeannette and the rest of the family gets out of West Virginia alive. Yet, a big chunk of the story is missing. After the Walls children realize no one is ever going to take care them, they resolve to take care of themselves, by going to school, earning their own money, and getting the hell out of there.

But the years that it takes them to do this is given about 10 minutes of screen time, and we never find out how Jeannette got to New York Magazine and learned enough about high society to be able to write a column about it, let alone live the life herself. Instead, the focus of the film is on Rex, and whether or not Jeannette will be able to forgive him for the troubled life he forced upon her, her siblings, and her mother.

Brie Larson does such a great job as the steely and resolved Jeannette (with the help of some severe 1980's shoulder pads) that I wanted to see more of her life, navigating high society, a hillbilly girl in pearls taking home everyone's leftovers after a fancy dinner out. A drunken father hoping for forgiveness as his life ends? It's an all too common story that, frankly, doesn't need another telling. Jeannette's rags to riches to repletion story does, and thankfully, her book is still around to tell it.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

'Good Time' Will Take Your Breath Away



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

Good Time begins with a close-up on a young man's face. When he speaks, the sound of his voice suggests that he has a developmental disability. His name is Nick, and he's with a psychiatrist who's performing a standard psychological test centered on proverbs and their meanings. It brings to mind the opening of Blade Runner, and its Voight-Kampf test ("Describe in single words only the good things that come into your mind about your mother..."), but the young man's reaction is much different from the replicant Leon's response; he doesn't react with violence, but instead, with a single tear that falls down one cheek.

He's responding to the frustrating limitations of his own mind, but he's also responding to the kindness the social worker is showing him and the realization that his future is not looking too bright. It's a great bit of acting, which becomes even more impressive knowing the actor is Ben Safdie, who, along with brother Josh Safdie, is also one of the film's directors.

It's also an intense beginning that gets even more intense when Nick's brother Connie (Robert Pattinson) barges into the meeting and takes Nick away. Connie doesn't think his brother needs any social services, and besides, he's got big plans for the both of them.

Those plans center on a heist. Connie has convinced Nick that after this one score, they'll be able to buy a farm where they can both live happily ever after — perhaps with Nick tending to some rabbits.

Nick and Connie both don eerily life-like masks and generic construction worker costumes, enter a bank, and proceed to silently rob it by passing notes back and forth to the teller. Connie is the bag man, and Nick is the muscle. But Connie is not a smart thief, and it isn't long before the cops are after them. It's Nick who gets nabbed.

The rest of the movie centers on Connie's attempts to get Nick out of jail, first by trying to get enough money to raise his bail, and then by busting him out of a hospital after Nick gets in a prison brawl. All of this occurs over the course of one very long night in Queens.

Robert Pattinson has had a very interesting post-Twilight film career. After all, he can afford to take on roles in low-budget independent films, playing characters that don't have to be attractive or even likable, and Connie is at times very unlikable. But as Pattinson plays him, you also can't help but root for him, even as he's using everyone around him to get what he wants through a combination of charm and mania. He's moving so fast that people get sucked into his schemes before they have a chance to understand what they're doing.

The Safdie brothers are masters at creating tension, even in relatively action-free moments. In one scene, Connie is at the bail bond office with his girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) hoping she can use her credit cards to raise the rest of the bond. One by one, everyone in the office gets on their phones, until eventually everyone is on a call, some screaming, some trying to hear over the screaming, all trying to get the bond posted before a judge leaves for night. I swear it gave me heart palpitations.

Sound plays up the tension throughout the film be it barking dogs; an alarm system that won't shut off; a guy who won't shut up; or, most of all, the film's brilliant techno score (by Oneohtrix Point Never). The film's intensity makes it feel like what we're watching is happening in real time, while the locations and settings drive home the authenticity. The Queens houses and apartments feel lived in and real, and if that Adventureland amusement park looks familiar, it's because it was actually shot at Adventureland on Long Island.

Good Time moves at such a breakneck pace that you don't really have time to take in a lot of its nuances as you're watching it. It wasn't until the movie was over, and I could breathe again, that I was able to recognize some of the things the Safdie brothers were focused on, including some sly commentary on race and the criminal justice system.

If I have one complaint, it's that sometimes it feels like the Safdies are sticking with the dramatic when a lighter hand would be better. I don't know if they're just bad at humor or unwilling to acknowledge the absurdity of many of the film's scenarios, but some scenes fall flat because the tone is off. Martin Scorsese, whose After Hours the film resembles in many ways, has always seen the need for humor even in his darkest tales, so it's exciting news to hear that he's executive producing their next film. I look forward to seeing how that possible good time plays out.

Friday, August 4, 2017

'The Dark Tower' Lands With A Thud



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

I've read almost all of Stephen King's books, having started way younger than I probably should have (around age 10), yet The Dark Tower series never did it for me. I tried the first book, but its use of western and fantasy genres — the two genres I am probably the least interested in — meant it was a Stephen King world I wasn't willing to spend a lot of time in.

Still, I appreciated the series and its grandiosity, and how King used it as a means of tying all of his work together into one giant, interconnected universe, with the (literal) Dark Tower at its center. But after years of trying to bring it to the screen, with luminaries like J. J. Abrams and Ron Howard taking a stab at it (Howard remains as producer), The Dark Tower finally lands with a decidedly loud THUD in theaters this week.

Directed by Danish filmmaker Nikolaj Arcel, whose latest work was the period drama A Royal Affair in 2012, the film is rushed, flat, devoid of any real excitement, filled with terrible dialog, and anchored by a truly awful performance at its center.

The man behind that performance is Matthew McConaughey, whose "Man in Black" (AKA Walter, a ridiculous name that at least does not go without comment) resembles the type of greasy character you might find in a tacky nightclub, using his limited skill in "magics" to try and impress some drunk chicks. Complete with slicked back hair and a black shirt buttoned low enough to show off a gold chain, McConaughey spends the majority of his performance strutting and preening, at least when he isn't wielding his weaponized jazz hands.

Walter lives in a post-apocalyptic, old west looking universe known as Mid-World, and his chief goal, as it is with so many villains, is to destroy the universe — or at least the Dark Tower, the powerful monolith at the center of all of it all that somehow protects everyone from impending monster attacks. Walter has figured out that the only weapon that can bring down the Dark Tower is the mind of a psychic kid (as long as you strap the kid into a chair that can somehow suck out all that brain power out and beam it across the universe in the form of a mighty stream of fire), and he's searching for the most powerful ones.

Enter Jake (Tom Taylor), a boy living in New York who is suffering from nightmares and visions that feature a tower, a mysterious Man in Black, a Gunslinger, and some creepy rat-faced people who pass as human by wearing fake skin suits.

His mother (Katheryn Winnick) assumes this is all a result of trauma related to the death of his firefighter father, while his stepfather (Nicholas Pauling) just hopes Jake is nuts enough to be sent to a loony bin so he can have his mom all to himself.

Using his own dream-inspired drawings, Jake tracks down a house in Brooklyn that contains a portal to Mid-World, where Jake learns all his visions are real and the Gunslinger is an actual man.

That man is named Roland, he's played by Idris Elba, and he's the film's only redeeming feature. Any fan of Elba knows he can pretty much do anything, and through the strength of sheer magnetism he is able to sell the character of the Gunslinger; a lesser talent having to deliver some of the Gunslinger's dialog would have the audience laughing instead of cheering. (::cough:: McConaughey ::cough::)

I've long realized that when it comes to Stephen King, there are some things that work on the page that just don't translate well to the big screen. He can often get away with hokey dialog in his books, but once it's actually spoken aloud, it can become unintentionally comedic. And that's something that hampers a lot of The Dark Tower.

Jake, with his psychic powers (or "shine," as it is not so subtly called) and the Gunslinger and his ancient marksman skills team up to bring down the Man in Black, which means a return to New York, and the secret evil minion club that hides a portal to Walter's weapons lab. ("Brooklyn's hottest club is Dixie Pig. This place has everything: rat-faced boys in human skin masks, inter-dimensional portals; JACKIE EARL HALEY.")

Jake and the Gunslinger's New York adventure is the film's only highlight, but it's woefully brief, coming at the end of the film's scant 95 minutes. Now, I love me a short running time, and I don't think I'd actually want to see another minute of this Dark Tower. But the fact that it feels short to someone like me is a clear indication that this material needed a much larger scope. And while the original plan was for the film to lead in to a TV series, I can't see audiences clamoring for more after walking out of this.

Unless it's just a weekly show featuring Idris Elba in a long leather trench coat, glowering and shooting things. I'd watch the hell out of that.