Sunday, October 8, 2017

Logan Lucky

LOGAN LUCKY                  B+                  
USA  (118 mi)  2017 ‘Scope  d:  Steven Soderbergh                       Official site

I guess retiring from making movies at the age of 50 did not suit Soderbergh, as he’s back, rounding up an A-list of popular Hollywood celebrities to work in his film, something that actually works “against” the film, as these are the familiar faces of the industry, where watching them all working together closely resembles watching television, where we’re used to seeing familiar casts.  Soderbergh himself used familiar casts in his Oceans Eleven series (2001, 2004, 2007, with another one planned for release next year), which felt more like a small circle of friends and close associates that turned filmmaking into a party atmosphere among themselves, where let’s face it, there’s so much money handed out in this industry, what better way to spend it?  The problem is, it’s an absurd form of Hollywood nepotism, little more than a patronage system that rewards only your friends, preventing others from breaking into the industry, where a small circle of almost exclusively white actors continue to reel in the major pay dates, where it’s their faces that are continually plastered across the screens in American movie theaters.  In this film, the appearance of neo-Nazi’s is now viewed as acceptable, in this case comprising a jailhouse contingency, making no social comment whatsoever about this in the film, but elevating what was once deemed irredeemingly unacceptable back into the mainstream.  This is unfortunate, and feels like a step backwards, especially considering the deteriorating state of racial relations in America.  Certainly one reason to enjoy watching international films is to get a mixed flavor of faces and cultures, which better reflects the world around us.  But with Soderbergh, four years after a self-imposed sabbatical, it appears we’re targeting the Trump audience and attempting to profit from it.  It fits into the whole idea that in Hollywood in particular, films are a business, not an art form.   Most critics even evaluate their work from this perspective.  If it makes a lot of money, then it must be good, as if that’s the criteria for success.  Hollywood is the champion of capitalism.  But if truth be told, that’s why nearly everything coming out of Hollywood is pure crap these days, as it’s based upon a business model, not creativity or art.  In their eyes, commercial success is art, but it’s the art of making money.         

That said, this film is hilarious from the get go, surprisingly so, calling attention to a script from “Rebecca Blunt” that is more likely a pseudonym for the director himself, a kind of flashy, Robin Hood style of heist picture that’s a bit like David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water (2016), as these films elevate the smarts of local good ol’ boys who are typically one-dimensional, used only for laughs in SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT style regional Southern comedies, the second highest-grossing film (after STAR WARS) of 1977, where jokes and fast cars go down easy as light entertainment, accentuating individualism, often spoofing the authority of the law, as in deeply rural areas of the country they have little respect for the law anyway, so films that flaunt it become very popular.  Set in Boone County, West Virginia, this film makes excellent use of John Denver’s song “Country Roads,” John Denver - Country Roads (1995) - YouTube (3:06), where it comes across like West Virginia’s national anthem, a patriotic rallying cry for Southern regionalism.  Rich with Southern drawls and exaggerated inflections, the song actually opens the film, with Channing Tatum as Jimmy Logan working under the hood of his truck describing why he likes the song to his young daughter Sadie, (Farrah Mackenzie, providing the exact tools her Daddy needs much like a nurse handing surgical equipment to a doctor), as it was written by a couple of guys who had never set foot in West Virginia, yet produced a song that literally became the unofficial anthem of the state, becoming the theme song of West Virginia University, performed at every home football game since 1972, where the state legislature passed a resolution adopting it as the official state song, making it the stuff of legends, wholeheartedly embracing the power of American mythology, where people have a choice, but choose to believe what they want to believe instead of reality.  The film sarcastically takes off on that theme, giving the audience what it wants, a plethora of familiar stars, but dressing them up in unfamiliar territory, with Channing Tatum and Adam Driver as country hick brothers Jimmy and Clyde, as if they’re part of the Barrow gang in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), whose identity is defined by robbing banks during the heart of the Depression, where Clyde has an extensively thought-out theory about how the Logan family is simply unlucky, described as the Logan’s Curse, with the credits adding to the fun, “introducing Daniel Craig as Joe Bang,” breaking him out of the mystique of his familiar James Bond roles, turning him into an explosives expert who happens to be a convict behind bars, so the brothers hatch a plan to break him out of prison to help pull off a heist, targeting the Charlotte Motor Speedway during the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 race, then getting him back into prison again without anyone the wiser.  While the complexity of the operation is greater than anything they or we could possibly imagine, or so we think, what stands out is a moment of bewildering confusion when the Logan brothers are perplexed that Joe Bang does not use dynamite, but a chemical concoction that any child could devise, actually writing out the molecular formula on the wall for their better understanding “during” the operation, like a professor educating his students with a brief lecture, before they get back to carrying out the details of their master plan.  This brief little aside perfectly illustrates what works best in this movie, as it’s all about humorously establishing character.

To that end, perhaps the most brilliantly written character is reserved for a Logan sister, and that would be Riley Keough from American Honey (2016) as Mellie Logan, a scene stealer amidst a cast of scene stealers, yet she distinguishes herself for her cool under pressure and the sheer audacity of her wit, as she knows cars and trucks better than any of the boys, yet works as a hairdresser, known for its steady work, unlike the hit or miss jobs of brother Jimmy Logan, who seems more of a drifter, working whatever job happens to be available at the time.  What gives him the idea for the heist, however, is he was temporarily employed doing construction work underneath the Charlotte Motor Speedway where he became familiar with the pneumatic tubes used to transfer the money, thinking it could be intercepted before reaching its destination.  Blowing the generator, making credit card transactions inoperable, vendors would continually feed the system with a constant flow of cash, blind to what’s happening underneath, where they stand an excellent chance of hauling away a massive payroll.  While this is nothing less than a criminal operation, Jimmy isn’t seen in that light, as he’s a doting father to his adorable daughter, wants to spend every waking hour with her, and has to battle with his ex-wife (none other than Katie Holmes as Bobbie Jo) for visits, who has made matters worse by moving out of state to neighboring Virginia, upsetting the status quo of his existence, where his daughter is the center of his world.  In a nod to LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006), a hugely successful indie film that featured an infamous performance scene at a kiddie beauty pageant, Sadie has her own pageant coming up coinciding with the planned heist, so of course it offers an opportunity for the perfect alibi.  Wanting to provide for his daughter, however, becomes the driving force behind the heist, altering our perceptions of what constitutes a criminal offense, as the audience is clearly aligned with the success of his plan.  While there are inevitable obstacles in their path, moving to Plan B and C, etc, this group has a surprising ability to adjust on the fly, heading off potential disasters, where the meticulous planning seems ingeniously carried out without a hitch, yet there are a series of surprises that occur along the way, not the least of which is the amount of time left in the film “after” the heist, which suggests there’s plenty more to come.  Once discovered, the Speedway calls in the FBI to investigate, which includes the straight-laced agent Sarah Grayson (Hilary Swank), whose gravity and somber mood is at odds with the rest of the picture, seemingly out of sorts with the otherwise blistering pace of the film, slowing things down considerably.  While everyone else is lighthearted and funny, she’s not, becoming something of a weight dragging this picture down, as she simply doesn’t fit with the exaggerated caricatures.  One could think of at least a dozen other people who might have been better suited for the role, where a sharp-as-a-tack, Wanda Sykes-style black female comic matching wits with these mountain boys might have been interesting, taking a turn out of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967), where leisurely affability is countered by more sophisticated and scientific police methods.  With a few narrative hiccups that go awry, mostly this remains a heavily calculated, audience friendly experience throughout, something of a hoot, a tribute to white rural America and their home-grown brand of patriotism, with flags, men in uniform, muscle cars, and LeAnn Rimes belting out the national anthem, defying the stereotype with these country bumpkins outsmarting the city slickers, yet the irony is the film was created and designed by ultra-rich and extremely successful Hollywood types who rarely, if ever, set foot in rural America, bypassing West Virginia altogether, instead shooting the film in Georgia and North Carolina.  Unlike the myth of the film, which may as well be a feel-good fairy tale, this film uses the reality of the Trump model, where the joke is on the white working class Americans who voted him into office, as the real heist is that instead of a penny actually going to working class Americans, all the money made by the film (which is considerable) is collected from them in ticket sales and funneled to the bigshot Hollywood moguls who are already millionaires or billionaires, transferring wealth from the poorest to the richest Americans.       

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