Logan Lucky

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Steven Soderbergh’s “Logan Lucky” ends the filmmaker’s short-lived “retirement” from directing theatrically-released features, and his return to cinemas is a welcome one. Extending his well-documented penchant for pseudonymous tomfoolery, “Logan Lucky” spreads the wealth to cinematographer Peter Andrews and editor Mary Ann Bernard, two of the director’s common disguises. The screenplay is attributed to newcomer Rebecca Blunt, and a recent “Hollywood Reporter” article suggests that like Andrews and Bernard, Ms. Blunt is also a fictitious person. Whoever wrote “Logan Lucky” deserves praise. The caper is filled with solid characters and incisive observations.

Channing Tatum makes his fourth appearance for Soderbergh. Playing a West Virginia hard hat whose bum leg gets him canned from a job at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, Tatum’s Jimmy Logan cooks up a wild robbery with his younger brother Clyde (Adam Driver), a bartender and veteran who lost a hand and part of his arm in Iraq. Hoping to escape Clyde’s superstitions regarding a family curse, the siblings visit incarcerated safecracker Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) to enlist the con in a wild cash grab involving everything from gummy bears to color-coded cockroaches to the pneumatic tube pipelines that dump piles of greenbacks underneath the sprawling racetrack.   

Soderbergh’s films unfold with professionalism and competence, and this one capitalizes on the strategy to withhold just enough of the Logan plan to keep the viewer invested. Soderbergh’s sly sense of humor is also in full effect: the simpleminded rednecks of “Logan Lucky” are anything but, and the NASCAR milieu is just as likely to host a hilarious riff on George R. R. Martin’s delayed “Game of Thrones” books as it is to take easy shots at backwoods caricatures. The usual complaints apply: actors of color are scarce, and talented women from Riley Keough, as the third Logan sibling, to Katherine Waterston, as Jimmy’s former classmate, are not given enough to do.

A few critics have gone fishing for any signs of overt or covert political commentary embedded within the goofy heart of Soderbergh’s antidote to “Ocean’s Eleven,” but for my money, they keep coming up empty. One of the best readings, courtesy of Anthony Lane, argues that Soderbergh’s catalog of red state tropes (including fighter jet flyovers, LeAnn Rimes belting “America the Beautiful,” and a sincere singalong to John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads”) examines “confused cultural attitudes toward the heartland.” Lane notes that Soderbergh plays this stuff straight, and warns, “mock it at your peril.”

But while the spectacle of the Coca-Cola 600 race simmers in the background as but one of a complex number of moving parts in the heist (a great directorial choice, by the way), Soderbergh cruises to the checkered flag without breaking a sweat. The secret, to a large extent, is in the actors’ elan and effortless sense of fun the filmmaker brings to the party. With its David vs. Goliath theme of inequitable wealth distribution and the economic hardships of the working class, “Logan Lucky” is the comic cousin to David McKenzie’s “Hell or High Water.” Jimmy’s adorable daughter — a beauty pageant contestant, no less — does the heavy lifting when it comes to the heartstrings. Soderbergh never takes “Logan Lucky” too seriously, and that attitude invites a wide grin and repeat viewings.  

A Ghost Story

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Reteaming with his “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” leads Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, filmmaker David Lowery has a very compelling tale to tell in “A Ghost Story.” Somber yet funny, and comfortable with exclamations of profundity and absurdity, the movie is an invitation to reflect on a few great philosophical questions. Beautifully conveyed in a squarish aspect ratio close to the approximate 1.37:1 dimensions of the classic “Academy” standard, Lowery’s instincts are rewarded by the stunning photography of Andrew Droz Palermo, who helps conjure a pharaoh’s tomb of pictures that meditate on place, love, loss, loneliness, and the ephemeral blink of the human lifespan.

As the couple known in the end credits only by single initials, M (Mara) and C (Affleck) inhabit a small rambler in which the shorthand of their relationship is communicated via moments of conflict, intimacy, and the recognizable patterns of daily routine. One night, they get out of bed to investigate the inexplicable and startling sound of something landing on the keys of the piano. Not long after, C dies in a car accident just outside the house, but his ghost — rendered as the classic white-sheet-black-eyeholes icon — stays behind, silently observing M as she first reels in shock, then mourns, and eventually moves on.

Lowery directs with confidence, masterfully modulating our feel for the passing minutes by the skillful manipulation of cinematic time. We learn how a kind of eternal present works differently for the ghost of C, which Lowery investigates via a range of straightforward devices so often taken for granted. For example, a series of shots of M leaving the house are exquisitely stitched together to appear seamless and unbroken. We’ve seen stuff like this before, but the context calls for our close attention. In one of the movie’s most imaginative and yes, haunting, displays of imagination, C spots a fellow ghost next door, and the two speak telepathically (helpful subtitles lighting the way for the viewer). The eventual outcome of that otherworldly acquaintance will take your breath away.

In his essay on the film, Anthony Lane shares a passage from Vladimir Nabokov’s “Pnin” speculating on the “democracy of ghosts,” but one could just as readily point to Richard McGuire’s astonishing graphic odyssey “Here,” which in its meditation on the intersection of space and time contains the thought, “Life has a flair for rhyming events.” I don’t know whether Lowery had McGuire in mind when he went to work on “A Ghost Story,” but several of the film’s most memorable and powerful scenes, including an eerie observation of a family of murdered settlers, echo McGuire’s incredible technical feat. Others, including Nick Johnston and Benjamin Rosenstock, have also noticed the parallels between the two works, the latter remarking, “‘A Ghost Story’ is probably the closest we’ll ever get to an adaptation of ‘Here.’”

Writing about “Here,” Chris Ware said, “You could say [the main character is] the space of the room, the arbitrary geometry imposed by a human mind on a space for reasons of shelter and as a background to this theatre of life. But you could also claim it is the reader, your consciousness where everything is pieced together and tries to find, and to understand, itself.” While “A Ghost Story” does not quite match McGuire’s achievement, Ware’s words could readily apply to Lowery’s film, which now takes a place alongside some of the screen’s great depictions of spirits and phantasms.

Detroit

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Kathryn Bigelow, to this day the only woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director, makes an admirable if flawed attempt to fictionalize key components of Detroit’s 1967 12th Street Riot. Timed in part to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the incendiary actions that resulted in 43 deaths and more than 7000 arrests, Bigelow — working for the third time with “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” scripter Mark Boal — concentrates on the so-called Algiers Motel Incident in which three black male civilians were murdered by white police officers. “Detroit” is carried along by Bigelow’s visceral facility for violence, but the filmmaker struggles to grasp the psychological interiority of the sprawling ensemble, whether black or white, guilty or innocent.

At 143 minutes, “Detroit” attempts to cover more territory than can be effectively addressed within the genre parameters of the fact-based history lesson. Following a Henry Louis Gates prologue explaining the Great Migration, a police raid on a “blind pig” leads to civil unrest that escalates until National Guard soldiers arrive. While the details of the Algiers Motel (both verified and speculative) take up the bulk of the film’s central sections, “Detroit” rushes through the aftermath of the crime. The resulting material, a streamlined and simplified abridgement of the legal proceedings that ended in jury decisions favorable to the police officers, is so different in tone to the preceding content it might have been eliminated in favor of a deeper look at security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega).

Boyega does absolutely anything and everything he can with Dismukes, often wordlessly conveying the unthinkable circumstances of being witness to a terrible and dangerous situation that continues to deteriorate. As the sole person of color depicted in a frontline position of any authority during the terrorizing perpetrated by a small group of white cops, Dismukes is shown multiple times making instant decisions that imply a desire to protect the “suspects” caught up in the horrific “death game” of racist ringleader officer Philip Krauss (Will Poulter). The filmmakers, however, only gesture toward the question of Dismukes’ possible complicity in the nightmare.    

Past and present remain in uncomfortable proximity, and the astonishing period detail is just about the only signpost we have to separate the Algiers from constant contemporary examples of unarmed black men dead after coming into contact with police. More than one critic has identified Bigelow’s grim and unflinching construction of brutality and mayhem as torture porn, and Krauss’ repetitive tactics certainly suggest that Bigelow was — rightly or wrongly — deliberate in her decision to take viewers through the punishing details of the gruesome “interrogations.”

As horror movies, “Detroit” and “Get Out” exist in distinctly different realms, but the readings of violence, ranging from A. O. Scott (“The specific, close-up acts of cruelty you witness are comprehensible as manifestations of a systemic, continuing and frequently invisible pattern of injustice.”) to Angelica Jade Bastien (“What is the value of depicting such nauseating violence if you have nothing to say about how that violence comes to pass or what it says about a country that has yet to reckon with the racism that continues to fester within its very soul?”) will continue to divide opinion regarding the film’s effectiveness.

Beatriz at Dinner

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Filmmaker Miguel Arteta is always worth watching, particularly when armed with a screenplay by Mike White. Their third collaboration, “Beatriz at Dinner,” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and is now making a modest theatrical run. Given the outcome of the November 2016 presidential election, the movie’s simple premise, a moral and ethical showdown between a spiritually-inclined healer/massage therapist (Salma Hayek) and a rapacious business mogul (John Lithgow), sets the stage for all manner of timely social and political commentary, as well as for the cringe-inducing discomfort that the Arteta-White team embraces.

Hayek’s title character, who provides her services to the wealthy Kathy (Connie Britton), is asked to stay for a carefully pre-planned dinner party when Beatriz’s car won’t start following an appointment at Kathy’s opulent Newport Beach spread. Kathy’s husband Grant (David Warshofsky), nervous about an impending deal involving Alex (Jay Duplass) and Lithgow’s Doug Strutt, reluctantly extends his hospitality to Beatriz. Shortly after the VIP guest arrives, Strutt asks Beatriz to refill his bourbon (“You were hovering. I just figured you were part of the staff.”) and the awkwardness commences.     

White and Arteta did not know who would win that election last fall, but “Beatriz at Dinner” has been accurately tagged as a film of its time. Unsurprisingly, Arteta’s sympathies align principally with Beatriz, a character whose careful navigation of English and Spanish-speaking settings alludes to her knowledge of class, race, and privilege (Arteta interestingly and deliberately omits some subtitles). But despite steady, condescending praise from Kathy, Beatriz is far from a saintly miracle worker composed of light and energy. Hayek likes Beatriz’s flaws and edges, and she is all the more interesting for her “fatiguing sanctimoniousness” (as Melissa Anderson put it).  

Just as good is Lithgow’s perfectly monikered developer. Strutt, so accustomed to being served and to getting his way, shares a number of traits with the current resident of the White House, but the filmmakers and the performer do a remarkable thing: they offer Strutt glimmers of humanity that prevent the caricature that could so easily be built from the man’s narcissism, self-importance, casual racism, and domineering discourse. Even the revelation of Strutt’s ultimate rich white asshole signifier — a cell phone photo of the rhinoceros trophy he bagged on an African safari — is transcended by Lithgow’s skill.

Both the real and false endings of “Beatriz at Dinner” will take some viewers by surprise, and each sequence raises questions that may not have been completely addressed by the fascinating stretches of dialogue preceding them. With a tidy 83-minute running time, it is possible that something more might have been explored (especially given the leisureliness of the film’s dreamy bookending device). Chloe Sevigny, as Alex’s spouse Shannon, is especially underutilized. Arteta’s film succeeds, however, in its stubbornness. We are not necessarily called upon to see things strictly from the perspective of Beatriz or the perspective of Doug Strutt. And the way those irreconcilable differences are treated by Arteta, White, and the ensemble recommend “Beatriz at Dinner” for anyone who wonders about our future.           

 

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Luc Besson’s “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” — touted as the costliest independent motion picture ever made — simultaneously melts eyeballs with its gorgeous visuals and narcotizes brains with its stiff dialogue and inert plotting. That frustrating combination places the movie in the company of countless post-”Star Wars” space operas designed for the big screen, a phenomenon accelerated/exacerbated by the evolution of photorealistic CGI that allows for limitless recombinations of alien species, rainbow-hued nebulae, and more recently, the videogame-esque first-person exploration of virtual reality.

Based on the French comics written by Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mezieres (who previously worked with Besson on enduring cult item “The Fifth Element”), “Valerian” fails to imagine a title character worthy of our love, attention, or respect. Dane DeHaan, continuing a performance style evoking a summer stock impression of young Leonardo DiCaprio, may not be as talented or charismatic as that star, but Besson’s antiquated chauvinism would be D.O.A. in the mouth of any actor. DeHaan’s Major Valerian, meant to be some kind of cool-handed and roguish ladykiller, partners with Cara Delevingne’s thankless Sergeant Laureline, a Girl Friday who — like the egalitarian name of the original series — surely deserved to share equal billing with the male lead.

In David Ehrlich’s spot-on assessment, the critic asserts that “Valerian” is “so high on its own supply that it makes makes ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ look like an Ozu film.” That bon mot may or may not imply that “Guardians” has “Valerian” additionally beat in the category of character development, but Besson’s curious filmic treatment of Laureline is certainly the movie’s single biggest disappointment. In her essay for “The Atlantic,” Gabrielle Bellot appraises the character and her historical importance to science fiction, writing that Laureline is, “Arguably the heart of the comics, she’s a remarkably powerful, and believable, feminist figure who still resonates today…” That version of Laureline gives way to the one Besson concocts: an undervalued subordinate who endures far too much disrespect and harassment from the infuriating “hero.”

Given Besson’s reputation, the midpoint absence of the film’s MacGuffin(s) serves as another indicator of the screenplay’s desperate need of polishing. Both the luminescent pearl pocketed by Valerian and the last-of-its-kind, magical armadillo/hedgehog mashup that can replicate said pearl are integrated only when convenient and/or necessary, and their disappearance for long stretches further diminishes a sense of urgency about Valerian and Laureline’s mission. One of those side trips introduces surprisingly sympathetic shapeshifter Bubble (Rihanna), a to-be-looked-at fantasy who models a parade of eroticized costumes including a Sally Bowles ensemble, a latex nurse, a schoolgirl uniform, a maid, and so on.

The fate of Bubble, a cruel bit of unceremonious deletion in the interest of dull streamlining, takes place down a rubbish chute that echoes the famous trash compactor on the Death Star. Her ethereal, otherworldly blue glow amidst the rotting garbage is as good an image as any to summarize Besson’s labor of love. Richard Brody, who called “Valerian” both a “colossal vision of total creation” and a “soulless blip,” claimed in the same review that “fantasy is a severe test of artistry.” In essence, Brody’s complaint can be distilled to the chorus rising from many of the film’s critics: a variation on the style-versus-substance charge that from “Star Wars” and “Blade Runner” to “The Fifth Element” and “Avatar” dogs the good, the bad, and everything between.

Okja

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Joon-ho Bong’s “Okja,” currently on Netflix instant watch, competed for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where its premiere — beset by an early aspect ratio glitch — met with jeers and cheers. Critics have been mostly kind to the movie, although Stephanie Zacharek voiced a strong and well-argued negative opinion. “Okja” is nowhere near as rich and resonant as career highpoint “Mother,” but fans of Bong’s wild grab-bags “The Host” and “Snowpiercer” aren’t going to quibble with the film’s blend of extremely broad comedy, unsubtle satire, CGI-abetted action, and heartstring-thrummed melodrama. Nothing can come between a girl and her super-pig.

Thumbing his nose at notions of tonal consistency, Bong knows exactly what he wants, even if the total package never fully comes together. Leading with a meat-is-murder takedown of industrial farming/ranching and capitalist greed that evokes the anthropomorphism and partial plot design of “Charlotte’s Web,” “Okja” swerves from emotion to emotion and genre to genre, alighting on the countless kiddie stories featuring grown-ups in suits threatening harm to darling pets. The title creature is a massive mash-up of solid hippo and floppy-eared, saucer-eyed adorableness. Even if Okja tastes really effing good, who could eat something with such a sweet face?     

One of Bong’s hallmarks is a nutty range of deliberately directed acting styles. On one end of the spectrum is Seo-hyun Ahn’s relatively restrained Mija, the caretaker of Okja whose stoic determination in the relentless pursuit of her beloved companion’s safety keeps the movie grounded. Farther out is Tilda Swinton, playing twins for the second time in the span of a few months. Her Lucy Mirando and Nancy Mirando, heirs to the multinational corporation looking to engineer meat products for the masses, are no less outre than “Hail, Caesar!” pair Thora Thacker and Thessaly Thacker.

While Paul Dano as the somber leader of the quasi-terrorist Animal Liberation Front and Giancarlo Esposito (underutilized) as Swinton’s consigliere keep it relatively under control, Jake Gyllenhaal shakes one up and uncorks as if, according to Bilge Ebiri, “he lost a bet with Swinton.” Arguments over the approach Gyllenhaal takes to the shrill, obnoxious, hyperactive, and grotesque television personality/zoologist Dr. Johnny Wilcox are deeply divided, and Jordan Crucchiola and Kevin Lincoln unpacked the madness in a smart, funny, and highly recommended “Vulture” thread that uses the Wilcox character (“Squealing like an alcoholic teakettle, wearing a child’s shorts and a car salesman’s mustache…”) to critique Bong’s social agenda and figure out just what in the hell is going on.         

“Okja” throws so much at the wall that not everything sticks, but Bong’s go-for-broke filmmaking gusto and imaginative originality deserve to be seen and savored. Bong conjures eye-popping visuals in both the verdant countryside of Korea and the concrete and steel jungle of New York City. Cynics will point to the movie’s most transparent devices — slicer and dicer Armond White calls out, among other things, the movie’s “concentration camp metaphor and a ‘Sophie’s Choice’ moment for extra maudlin flavor” — but Bong’s stylistic verve, coupled with the film’s impressive technical integration of the realistically rendered Okja, recommend a look.

 

The Beguiled

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

For her work on “The Beguiled,” Sofia Coppola was awarded the best director honor at the Cannes Film Festival. She is only the second woman in that particular derby to do so in the festival’s seven decades, following Yuliya Solntseva’s 1961 nod for “The Chronicle of Flaming Years.” The title of Solntseva’s film works well as a critique of the gender imbalance at both Cannes and in the film industry in general, so it is no surprise that a great deal of the writing on Coppola’s feature focuses on issues of femininity, womanhood, and sexuality.

Set during the Civil War, “The Beguiled” was first a 1966 novel by Thomas Cullinan, narrated in turns by the eight females who reside at a boarding school near a skirmish that produces wounded Sixty Sixth New York Union Corporal John McBurney, a native of Ireland with a silver tongue to match his home country’s finest talkers. Incapacitated by a mangled leg that will figure heavily in the ensuing suspense, McBurney (played by Colin Farrell) is both beguiled and beguiler, casting a heady spell on the household. The novel cranks up the secrets and lies to a level of feverish intensity. It is weirder, richer, and much more satisfying than either movie adaptation.      

Basing her script on the book as well as the screenplay for the 1971 Clint Eastwood vehicle directed by Don Siegel, Coppola almost always aligns with the latter. Most obviously, she retains the Siegel film’s device of combining two of the novel’s key characters into one. Edwina, played here by Kirsten Dunst, is a student but retains key elements of Harriet Farnsworth, the sister of headmistress Martha (Nicole Kidman). One of the novel’s great pleasures blossoms from the increasingly antagonistic relationship between the bitter and competitive siblings, and the new film version might have been refreshed and invigorated had it restored that key dynamic.

More attention has been paid to the troubling decision to eliminate Matilda Farnsworth, a slave owned by Martha (and also to skip dealing with the issues of a mixed race character who “passes” as white). Renamed Hallie and portrayed by Mae Mercer in the Eastwood film, Matilda is indispensable in Cullinan’s telling of the tale. Coppola’s erasure, which has been called out as whitewashing in Slate, Teen Vogue, the Root, the Mary Sue, the Washington Post, and scores of other outlets, emerges as only one of the movie’s liabilities, but it is the most egregious.  

As Charline Jao asserts in her excellent essay on “The Beguiled,” “the ‘Southern belle,’ especially, is a figure that romanticizes the economic prosperity that rises from slave labor — she cannot exist without the slave. Their so-called ‘proper’ femininity cannot be separated from that of the black woman, as invisible as she is in the film.” Jao goes on to a nuanced assessment accounting for the film’s strengths without excusing its weaknesses. Her comments, like the comments of Clarkisha Kent, illuminate a problematic pattern that stretches far beyond the filmography of talented Oscar-winner Coppola. Unfortunately, Coppola’s Cannes victory will likely be a mostly hollow one; “The Beguiled” is nowhere near her strongest work and will be chiefly remembered for what it didn’t include rather than for what it did.

Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Less successful but no less important than “The Internet’s Own Boy,” “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press” marks another David-versus-Goliath call to action in the filmography of writer-director Brian Knappenberger. Originally saddled with the even more cumbersome title “Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press,” the documentary begins with the salacious sex video case involving the once popular professional wrestler and ends as a cautionary warning about the chilling power wielded by the super-wealthy in a contemporary media landscape where oxymoronic absurdities like “alternative facts” are asserted by White House spokespeople.

The Orwellian doublethink and doublespeak spewing from the current administration comes back closer to the film’s conclusion, but the long shadow of Donald Trump’s bizarre relationship with television and print outlets thematically informs Knappenberger’s broad thesis. In the film’s opening sections, Knappenberger lays out the strange case known as Bollea v. Gawker, in which Hogan sued the gossip website and several of its employees for invasion of privacy, infringement of personality rights, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. At issue was Gawker’s post of an explicit recording of Hogan, also known as ”Terry” Bollea, and Heather Clem, the spouse of Todd Clem, a radio personality known professionally as Bubba the Love Sponge.

The revelation that billionaire Trump supporter Peter Thiel, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist who co-founded PayPal, had financed the prosecution in the Bollea v. Gawker trial temporarily sharpens Knappenberger’s focus. Established precedent regarding public figures, the boundaries of journalism, and the basics of a free press are swallowed up as Hogan’s team successfully builds an argument that Hogan and Bollea can and should be treated as two distinct entities. Gawker defendant AJ Daulerio also digs his own grave with ghastly deposition comments creating the impression of ethical corruption.

“Nobody Speak” jumps from the Gawker trial to the purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by Sheldon Adelson. Like Thiel, fellow billionaire Adelson has aligned himself politically with Trump, and Knappenberger could easily have made an entire feature on the casino kingpin. Instead, a lengthy aside covers Adelson’s attempt to keep his purchase private. Ken Doctor summarized the curious scenario, writing, “the paper’s own reporters and editors attempting to report on the sale — and to question the potential editorial impact and brand damage of the ‘secret’ sale — reportedly saw their online-first story significantly changed, and the presses subject to a brief halt, as the paper re-plated with a new version of the suspect story.” In other words, an awful lot of people thought that Adelson bought the paper to make sure it no longer published content critical of him or his interests.   

Not all of Knappenberger’s pieces fit together seamlessly, and the timeliness of Trump’s election win appears to have inspired some late modifications to the film. Advocacy storytelling focused on the outsize antics of the president will very likely populate film festivals for the foreseeable future, and “Nobody Speak” joins titles like “Michael Moore in Trumpland,” “Get Me Roger Stone,” and “Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of All Time” to make sense of the unorthodox policies that terrify one segment of the population and energize another.   

S Is for Stanley

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Now available on Netflix following a lengthy film festival run, Alex Infascelli’s “S Is for Stanley” is required viewing for Kubrick obsessives and cinephiles. Based on Emilio D’Alessandro’s memoir “Stanley Kubrick and Me,” the documentary presents a chronological account of the relationship between the legendary filmmaker and the unassuming family man and driver who would labor as Kubrick’s courier, chauffeur, gofer, and personal assistant for three decades. D’Alessandro went to work for Kubrick in too-good-to-be-true fashion: he made a safe and timely delivery in inclement weather of the “rocking machine” — the penis sculpture/murder weapon brandished by Alex in “A Clockwork Orange” — and the rest is history.

Like some of the anecdotes shared in Jon Ronson’s fascinating, parallel “Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes,” the stories expressed by D’Alessandro — which often speak to Kubrick’s fastidiousness, intellect, and obsessive note-writing — are illuminated with complementary images of both the daily minutiae of SK’s longhand and typed instructions as well as numerous physical objects and artifacts accumulated over the years by D’Alessandro. Kubrick fanatics will love the goofy, endearing missives about getting fussy jacket zippers repaired just as much as the supply of tasks directly related to film productions from “Barry Lyndon” to “Eyes Wide Shut.”  

D’Alessandro dispels no myths governing Kubrick’s reputation as an eccentric, offering multiple examples of the spectacularly high expectations set by the director for the devotion, competence, and all-hours availability of those in his employ (one comical aside relates Kubrick’s desire to have D’Alessandro install a telephone in the latter’s farm tractor so that he might be reachable in the field). But Infascelli and D’Alessandro also take care to reveal Kubrick’s largesse and magnanimity, including an offer of help following a devastating accident that severely injured D’Alessandro’s son.

Infascelli makes good choices with regard to organization and pacing, and displays confidence and comfort in his reliance on D’Alessandro’s on-camera interview as the backbone of the narrative. Kubrick’s presence, of course, is every bit the movie’s main attraction, and Infascelli uses voiceover by Anthony Clive Riche (and Roberto Pedicini in the original Italian language version) as Kubrick whenever key text is read aloud. D’Alessandro’s wife Janette Woolmore is the movie’s only other significant subject to appear in content newly shot for the film, and she contributes several insights that whet the appetite and fire the imagination for thousands of fans who will marvel at the simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary world built by Kubrick (a great example of which is carpet from the Overlook Hotel set of “The Shining” that still covers the floors of the home shared by Woolmore and D’Alessandro).

D’Alessandro is not shy about naming famous names, and Kubrick would frequently ask his opinion of the actors selected for important roles, but Infascelli holds the gossip to a minimum. Jack Nicholson is torched by D’Alessandro for the twin vices of sexual conquest and cocaine. Tom Cruise shared a brief silver screen moment with D’Alessandro when Kubrick asked the latter to appear as a news vendor. And even though little detail is offered, D’Alessandro and Matthew Modine bonded like father and son. Aside from the celebrities, Infascelli projects warm regard for Christiane Kubrick, who introduced the documentarian to D’Alessandro. Disappointingly, although not surprisingly, “S Is for Stanley” does not discuss Kubrick’s more well-known personal assistant Leon Vitali, leaving aficionados to speculate as to the nature of the relationships within Stanley Kubrick’s trusted inner circle.

Thoroughbred

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

First-time feature filmmaker Cory Finley adapts his own play and comes up with one of the year’s most diabolically pleasurable movies in “Thoroughbred,” a taut exercise in moral darkness. One of the most sure-footed debuts at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, the movie is certain to attract a devoted audience when distributed by Focus Features. “Thoroughbred” injects jet-black comedy into the tightly and deliberately constricted premise of carefully plotted parricide, placing the sensibility closer to the dreamlike fantasies of “Heavenly Creatures” than to psychological devastation of “We Need to Talk About Kevin.”

Anya Taylor-Joy’s Lily and Olivia Cooke’s Amanda are wealthy, East Coast nightmares of entitlement and privilege. Childhood acquaintances (and maybe even once upon a time friends) brought together again by parental decree, the girls initially circle one another carefully, poking and testing for weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Both are troubled: Lily has been busted plagiarizing an essay and Amanda is a social pariah after an “Equus”-like incident with a valuable horse. The former has been retained to tutor the latter, but just who is the teacher and who is the student proves too slippery to guess as Finley toys with audience expectations.

As Lily and Amanda spend more time together, they progress toward a stomach-turning conspiracy to murder Lily’s stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks), and Finley constructs a perfect storm of paranoia and dread as the stakes get higher. We are constantly unbalanced by the dangerous unreliability and untrustworthiness of the young women, who could as easily be playing each other as working together. The addition of small-time drug dealer Tim, engaged by the girls to dispatch Mark, escalates the suspense and, like classic noir, multiplies the ways things can go sideways. Tim is played by Anton Yelchin in one of his final roles, and the actor brings an excitement to the screen that will be missed.   

While the virtually single location dialogue underscores the drama’s stagebound origins, Finley capitalizes on the noteworthy skills of his collaborators. In addition to the perfectly modulated performances of his dual leads, the director transforms the elegant mansion where the action is set into a recognizable character, working with talented cinematographer Lyle Vincent, whose contributions to “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” testify to his expertise. Louise Ford’s editing, Jeremy Woodward’s production design, and Erik Friedlander’s score form another cinematic hat-trick. Roland Vajs’ sound design, especially the evocative, Poe/Melville-worthy relentlessness of Mark’s rowing machine, adds another layer.  

Taylor-Joy and Cooke make a formidable pair, exploring the thematic contours of amorality with arresting ease. Amanda, who practices a terrifying ability to feign empathy every time she gazes in the mirror with her dazzling but phony smile, can simulate emotion for any occasion. A scene in which she offers a master class in on-demand tears is one of several that elevate “Thoroughbred” into a sly metanarrative exploration on the nature of acting and performance. That sort of icebox talk, so closely associated with Alfred Hitchcock (as well as obvious inspiration Clouzot in “Diabolique”), often manifests as imitative flattery, but in Finley’s case, the comparison to earlier masters is to be taken as a compliment.