Sunday, October 08, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 (spoilers)

The beginning of Blade Runner 2049 offers some quick titles to update the story. The Tyrell Corporation, responsible for manufacturing "replicants" in the original Blade Runner, has failed and the use of replicants as slaves stopped for a time. A tech baron named Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) has since reintroduced replicants to the world, only this time they are designed to obey. No more inconvenient rebellions. A few older models like Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) still survive, but the profession of "Blade Runner" still exists too and the older replicants are being systematically hunted down and retired. All of this would be useful information if only Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve from a screenplay co-written by original Blade Runner co-writer Hampton Fancher, didn't forget about these facts so quickly. In the new film the Blade Runner in question is known as K (Ryan Gosling), and the filmmakers don't waste any time establishing him as a replicant. Although K appears to have some free will, he obeys his superior (Robin Wright) without question and appears to have no qualms about his charge to retire the older replicants. When K isn't working he goes home to a small apartment and a holographic girlfriend named Joi (Ana de Armas) who he brings with him via a sort of mobile hotspot. If replicants in 2049 are built as accessories for humans, then why are all the humans so angry at K? Why are there obscenities scrawled on K's apartment door? Most importantly, why did the makers of Blade Runner 2049 put a cipher with compromised free will at the center of this film? The conception of K plays into Ryan Gosling's worst tendencies to be stoic, but Gosling can't be blamed for the way the script keeps the film's level of urgency in check. Blade Runner 2049 is almost three hours long, and since K can only figure out the film's central mystery - the possible existence of a child born of two replicants - at the pace others allow him to that means that Villeneuve has plenty of time for shots of characters silhouetted against hazy backgrounds and K walking (very) slowly through abandoned cityscapes. Blade Runner 2049 gave me what I wanted from a Blade Runner film in terms of look and mood thanks to the work of cinematographer Roger Deakins and the other designers, but I got too much of it and not enough of what it means to be human in a world where humans come off an assembly line.

We are introduced to Jared Leto's Niander Wallace early on, in a scene where he inspects a nude replicant and then kills her because (it seems) she is incapable of bearing children. The plans Wallace shares with his replicant aide/enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks, who gives the film's most charismatic performance) involve another leap forward in replicant production, but they require the child that K has discovered was born 30 years before. Wallace doesn't return until late in the film, and while Leto's fussy performance isn't missed the character's absence makes it hard to remember what's at stake. K is also pursuing the child of course even though after a certain point people stop telling him to. In fact K lies to his boss about his progress on the case, a behavior that seems out of sorts with what we've been given to understand replicants are capable of. But again, no one is in a hurry. There's time for a sex scene involving K, Joi, and a sex worker (Mackenzie Davis) who seems a little too comfortable with replicants. Later K visits an orphanage where memories - possibly implanted ones - of his childhood are triggered. All of this of course is buildup to K's discovery of Deckard (Harrison Ford) hiding out in what I think is supposed to be a blasted out and empty Las Vegas. Ford, beautifully weathered and with a voice that sounds like the concept of roughness, adds a welcome layer of gravitas to the proceedings as he fills in the backstory of his relationship with Rachael (Sean Young) after the original Blade Runner concluded. If K and Deckard became partners at this point the story would have taken on some welcome emotional depth, but Deckard gets sucked back into the Wallace storyline and is mostly a passive figure in the final act while K - left alive for reasons that aren't clear - discovers the existence of a brewing replicant revolution in a subplot that goes nowhere. The ending of Blade Runner 2049 is satisfying for one or two characters, but it will shock those who appreciated the rigorous endings of Prisoners and Villeneuve's other earlier films.  The order of the world will go on for humans and "skin jobs" alike.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

American Made (spoilers)

Doug Liman's American Made is nominally the story of Barry Seal, a pilot, drug smuggler and operative for the U.S. government who was murdered by the Medellin Cartel in 1986. Seal is played by Tom Cruise with a shaggy haircut and great energy, but the film badly misjudges its tone and doesn't seem that interested in the colorful facts of Seal's life. Liman, working from a script by Gary Spinelli, tells Seal's story as jaunty comedy of 1980's excess. Seal and his (fictional) wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) are just starting a family in the late 1970's when Seal is approached by the CIA - Domhnall Gleeson plays Seal's handler - to fly over Central America and take pictures. On a trip to Colombia Seal is solicited by Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia) and the Medellin Cartel with an offer to fly cocaine into the country for money that will beat Seal's CIA salary. Seal agrees, and the rest of the film is the story of his toggling between his jobs and operative and criminal. Tom Cruise is at his best when he's harried, and he's very appealing in the scenes where Barry has to placate a worried Lucy or talk down an angry Contra leader. But Seal as written is a man without political convictions, he exists in the moment and the film depicts the way Seal handles the outrageous amounts of cash he is paid as a kind of domestic farce that eventually grows tiresome. By the time Seal's activities start to catch up with him and real-life figures like Oliver North (Robert Farrior) enter the story Liman has blown any chance to pull off the change in tone that he attempts. The film's version of Seal is so defiantly self-absorbed that the idea of the federal government bailing Seal out of a state prosecution in Arkansas ("Governor Clinton on the line.") plays as nonsense. Wouldn't the government want someone they could control? American Made gives Tom Cruise a chance to stretch to his comic side, a good move Cruise should make more often, but the film's lack of an opinion about its own main character fatally undercuts a good central performance.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Song to Song

My relationship with Terrence Malick began in college, when as part of a freshman English assignment I had to watch Malick's debut film Badlands and prepare a presentation with a classmate. I knew Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek of course, but at the time I had never heard of Badlands or its director. To describe the experience of a first viewing from over 25 years ago feels like a reductive exercise, one that would just end up being sentimental. I do remember that I loved Badlands immediately, though at the time I responded more to the dryness of Martin Sheen's performance - which of course hides the characters sociopathy - than the contrast between Spacek's narration and the violence that her character observes. Spacek's voice over in Badlands is among the greatest in American film, both brilliantly acted and the perfect execution of Malick's intention, and it is equalled and maybe surpassed by the narration of Linda Manz in Malick's next film Days of Heaven. The Criterion edition of Days of Heaven has a sort of all hands on deck commentary track from Malick's collaborators, and the biggest revelation for me was the level of Malick's indecision over where to place certain cuts of Manz's voiceover. When an artist is as inscrutable as Malick we like to think that the work springs forth fully formed, but for Malick as with any other director it isn't always clear what one has until the editing room. Twenty years later Malick released The Thin Red Line, an adaptation of James Jones's novel and a film arguably more famous for its production than for what ended up on screen. When I saw The Thin Red Line, which spreads the narration among a large cast, I knew instinctively that I was seeing a late career masterpiece but I now wish that I had bought another ticket and sat through the next show. (I later felt the same way about The New World and The Tree of Life.) The Thin Red Line seems to me a clear statement of Malick's great subject: Man is inextricably connected to the world around him while also being in opposition to that harmony. Later The New World would deepen and expand the argument, with the performance of Q'orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas contrasting with the bearded, angry colonists to represent everything Malick wants to say about how far we are from the "state of grace" he describes in The Tree of Life.

After The Tree of Life Terrence Malick could have retired with an unimpeachable reputation as the Thoreau of American film, but he has continued to work and has produced a series of films set in contemporary America. I wrote something about To the Wonder here, and Knight of Cups seems to me the first film in which Malick fails to dramatize his ideas in a way worth watching. In these later films Malick relies almost entirely on voiceover, with the internal monologues of various characters playing over dialogue scenes that we hear very little of. The effect can be maddening when there seem to be external things at stake in the films (To the Wonder) or when as in Knight of Cups we simply don't have enough information to find our way into the film. Malick's most recent release is Song to Song, a 2017 drama largely shot and set within the music community of Austin, Texas. One of the first things we see in Song to Song is the crowd at a large outdoor concert - muddy, sweaty, colliding with each other and full of life. Malick returns to these images later on, and seems to use them as an substitute for the more familiar nature shots of earlier work. Our reaction to music puts us just a little bit further towards harmony with ourselves and the world. The central presence in Song to Song is an unhappy woman named Faye (Rooney Mara), who at various times is the lover of both a musician named BV (Ryan Gosling) and a wealthy, debauched producer called Cook (Michael Fassbender). Faye gets the bulk of the narration, and the strongest through-line of Song to Song is her journey towards both personal happiness and a larger sense of meaning in her life. Faye is a musician too, we see her on stage with Patti Smith (who appears in several scenes and serves as a sort of kind of guiding spirit for Faye) and Cook offers her a contract as an attempt to pry her from BV. There is actually quite a bit of plot in Song to Song, including Cook's marriage to Rhonda (Natalie Portman) and BV dating someone played by Cate Blanchett, but the film loses momentum whenever Malick goes away from Faye.

Rooney Mara might never have been challenged as an actor quite the way she is here, since Malick's choices to insert narration or music mean that everything in a shot might have to be conveyed through a look or a movement. Mara is up to the task, and as the film goes on the accumulation of moments create a moving portrait of a person lost within a storm of sensation. Faye is carried along by the choices and needs of those around her, but Malick's technique suggests how Faye could become worn down simply by the fact that it all never seems to stop. At one point I sensed that Song to Song was moving towards a conclusion, as Faye balanced her attraction to BV with the security offered by Cook. Then I realized that the film had only been going on for forty-five minutes. (It runs just over two hours.) Some time is devoted to BV's family situation, but Michael Fassbender as Cook gets the better of the deal. It's fascinating to think about whether or not Fassbender considered what sort of film Song to Song was likely to be, whether he knew that Malick would give as much weight to a shot of him jumping around like a monkey as to any of his dialogue scenes with Mara. Whatever the process, the result is a physically free performance the likes of which we really haven't seen from Fassbender before. Too bad then that the character of Cook functions more as a vehicle for Malick's ideas about manhood and art vs. commerce than as an actual person. The same can be said for Gosling's BV, who gets a half-baked subplot about a dying father. The relationship between Cook and Portman's Rhonda, a waitress whom he picks up in a diner, feels as though it could be its own film or was maybe carved out from another Malick idea. Portman is the worst served of the four leads, given very little screen time to express her self-loathing as she is sucked into Cook's lifestyle.

It would be a betrayal of Malick's worldview to resolve Faye's story neatly, but while trying at times Song to Song is the best application of his signature techniques to a film set in the present. There are too many films fighting for space here, but it's a relief to see Malick's need to find beauty and meaning in everyday life articulated still with such curiosity. To put it another way:
"I've been thinking what to do with my future. I could be a mud doctor, checking out the Earth underneath."    -Linda Manz, Days of Heaven

Terrence Malick is still checking out the Earth almost half a century after his first film, and we're lucky that the exploration continues.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Wind River

A young woman - frightened, injured, and underdressed - makes her way across a snowy landscape at night. A few minutes later, a herd of sheep are menaced by wolves in the same countryside. The opening scenes of Taylor Sheridan's Wind River promise something dark and unforgiving, almost too much so. The crime film, Sheridan's feature directorial debut after writing Hell or High Water and Sicario, is a grim story of people carrying the weight of living in rough country. But there is also considerable emotional nuance, thanks in large part to an excellent lead performance by Jeremy Renner. Renner plays Cory Lambert, whose job for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is to track and hunt predators in and around the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. We learn early on that Lambert has a Native American ex-wife named Wilma (Julia Jones) and young son Casey (Teo Briones) who don't live on the reservation, but a sadness hangs over their house and Sheridan doesn't reveal right away why Wilma seems so unhappy with Casey visiting his grandparents at Wind River. The frightened young woman that Sheridan began the film with is named Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), and Lambert finds her body while tracking a lion behind the house of his former in-laws. The discovery brings both tribal police chief Ben (Graham Greene) and a young FBI agent named Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen, quite good and far away from her Ingrid Goes West role), who is smart enough to realize that her awkward interaction with Natalie's father (Gil Birmingham) is a sign she'll need Lambert's help with the case.

The dynamic of an emotionally withdrawn man and a less experienced woman could easily go wrong, but Sheridan balances the relationship intelligently. Banner isn't green, she's undermanned, and the resignation of Graham Greene's Ben over the chance the murder won't be solved is a tidy symbol for the powerlessness that everyone on the reservation feels. Sheridan is interested in people living in difficult landscapes, and his version of the country in and around Wind River is of a cold, empty place that offers no opportunities for its people. Lambert is a useful guide through the both the literal and cultural wilderness of Wind River but he isn't a cop, and Banner is on her own when violence breaks out early in the investigation. To say more about the story would spoil the experience, but the ugliness and smallness of those responsible for Natalie's death is even more striking when placed in relief against the bleakness of the country. The last section of Wind River includes a flashback to Natalie's last night, and it's a set piece of slowly building horror. Fair enough then that when the case has concluded - the climactic violence is immediate and disturbing in a way I don't think I've seen before - Lambert and Natalie's father can simply sit together in a grief they share. (A title card announces that there is no law enforcement data kept on missing Native American women, which appears to be generally true.) Jeremy Renner has never quite balanced intelligence, charm, and unhappiness the way he does here, and his performance is so quietly charismatic that I wouldn't even have minded if Lambert and Banner had gotten together. (They don't.) Wind River is an adult entertainment of a kind we need more of, a work of mature storytelling that doesn't forget to be human.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a film which turns 40 in 2017, begins with a marvelous sequence of disorientation. We are in Mexico, and the the characters gathering near a small village are almost overwhelmed by wind and dust. Introductions are made and questions are shouted, and an American cartographer named Laughlin (Bob Balaban) is drafted as the interpreter for a French scientist named Lacombe (Francois Truffaut). Lacombe, Laughlin, and their colleagues are in Mexico to see a group of planes reported missing in World War II. The planes have appeared on a tiny Mexican airfield, still in working order but with the crewmen unaccounted for. Later on the scientists will find a lost ship in the desert and track reports of mysterious sounds in India. A globe-hopping film about UFO's and dashing scientists sounds very much like the work of the Steven Spielberg we came to know in the 1980's, when Spielberg turned the credit he had earned making Jaws and Close Encounters into a series of era-defining hits. But Spielberg was a different filmmaker in the mid 1970's, still very much taken up with issues such as divorce and suburban living, and in viewing Close Encounters across forty years what resonates isn't the aliens but of course the people. The research of Lacombe and his team is background to a film about messy lives, about our faith in institutions, and the lengths that those institutions will go to in order to manipulate the people they serve. It is useful to remember - as Spielberg points out in a short documentary before the new re-release - that Close Encounters was written and made in the immediate post-Watergate years, a time when the underpinnings of American society felt shaky in a way that audiences these days might appreciate. Spielberg wrote the script for Close Encounters in a time of high paranoia about what our government might do to us and just how much we didn't know.

The heart of Close Encounters lies in Indiana, where Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) raises his family and works for the power company. The sheer messiness of the Neary house will feel familiar to any child of the 1970's. Where today both parents and children might retreat to the their devices, then there was no place to go for anyone to have a moment's peace. Roy's personal space seems to take up most of the living room and has encroached on the space of his wife Ronnie (Teri Garr), so all that's left is for one of Roy's young sons to climb into the youngest child's playpen and bang a doll to pieces. It is little wonder then that when Roy is ecstatic when he encounters flashing lights and a flying structure while answering a call one night. The lights are something of Roy's own, only he soon discovers that he isn't the only one who has seen them. Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) sees them too, and she meets Roy while following her young son Barry (Cary Guffey) away from their house. (Barry's father is never mentioned.) Barry Guiler is in fact the first character we see to be enchanted by whomever is out there. Barry's toys - in a scene that seemed wondrous to me when I saw Close Encounters as a child - come to life and eventually lead him out of the house. Later the same lights that Roy sees will come back for Barry and the Guiler's house will come alive again, this time to terrifying effect. The fear that Spielberg creates in the scene of Barry's abduction has a tactile quality, and a sense of the everyday turning against us best represented in a shot of the Guiler's upright vacuum turning itself on and chasing Jillian and Barry. The obsession that Roy and Jillian share over what they've seen - Roy is searching for meaning and Jillian for her son - puts them on a course both towards each other and in conflict with almost everyone else. On viewing Close Encounters as an adult the emotional crux of the film is the arc of Roy's disintegration. Unable to stop thinking of a tower shape, Roy pulls further away from Ronnie and his children until a long sequence that begins with Roy throwing bushes from the yard through his kitchen window and ends with Ronnie leaving with the kids while still in her nightgown. One element of Close Encounters that doesn't play as well in 2017 is the fact that this fight scene is the last time we see Teri Garr or the children in the film. It is as if Ronnie and the kids were needed only to get Roy to the place where he can construct a giant mud sculpture of what he soon comes to know as Devil's Tower in his living room, and then were ushered out a side door. It is hard to imagine Spielberg handling these story elements the same way today, but in the mid-1970's he may not have known how to put families back together.

When Roy and Jillian - who sees the same tower that Roy does - arrive at Devil's Tower in Wyoming the government is already there. Spielberg spends quite a bit of time on scientists and generals figuring out the aliens' message, and the discovery that Devil's Tower is the preferred landing spot for our visitors involves a group of government scientists rolling a giant globe down a hallway in a hilarious bit of inefficiency. Lacombe is with the government here, although he seems more interested in figuring out how to communicate with the aliens through music. (The famous John Williams five tone "alien greeting" is remarkable for its simplicity.) When the decision is made to go to Wyoming the government trucks are disguised with Coca-Cola and Piggly Wiggly signs - familiar things working against us - and the "toxic spill" that causes an evacuation around Devil's Tower is carefully stage managed. What can't our government do? After Roy and Jillian escape quarantine and climb the mountain, Close Encounters makes a choice to privilege the wonder that Roy and Lacombe are feeling over anything else. I haven't studied the various cuts of Close Encounters closely enough to know what shots come from what version, but there's a moment where an alien ship comes so close to the humans that it appears the characters are interacting with a giant toy. The most effective part of this climactic scene is the most human, as Barry and other abductees are returned to Earth. Jillian is almost forgotten about once Barry comes back, since she's unable to share Roy's sense that the spaceship offers some kind of fulfillment. The last time we see her she's snapping pictures like a supportive aunt. The sight of the aliens themselves doesn't offer any solutions for her.

Seeing Close Encounters 40 years later is a great pleasure despite the objections raised here. There is something very winning about the way we are invited in and asked to consider the world both tangible and beyond our understanding. Steven Spielberg's craft has only improved over the years, as has his sense of how the movement of history affects people. The imagination and vulnerability on display here are signposts to all that was to come.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Ingrid Goes West

Aubrey Plaza plays the title role in Ingrid Goes West, a dark comedy about the hollowness of online lives. Plaza's Ingrid Thorburn is first seen obsessively liking Instagram pictures of a wedding in real time before storming uninvited into the reception and pepper spraying the bride. After a hospitalization Ingrid returns home to the sight of her late mother's hospice bed in still in her living room. Armed with an inheritance and newly infatuated with Instagram "star" Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), Ingrid decides to start over in Los Angeles. Ingrid Goes West was directed by Matt Spicer, who wrote the script with David Branson Smith. Spicer is the first director to figure out what to do with Aubrey Plaza, who seemed for a time to be headed for a future of being the most memorable part of movies you were never going to see. Plaza is as edgy and wound up as the role of Ingrid requires, but she also gives the character a degree of self-awareness about her own failings. Ingrid rents a room from Dan (a charming O'Shea Jackson Jr.), a Batman-crazy screenwriter, and proceeds to figure out a way to have her life collide with Taylor's. If Ingrid Goes West were just the story of a sad woman doing increasingly inappropriate things to preserve a friendship founded on lies then it wouldn't be worth watching. The film would probably feel a good deal like a feature-length version of those climactic conversations on the television show Catfish. Where Spicer and Smith's script goes right is the way it considers a life lived on social media as performance. Ingrid's plan is successful, and she quickly becomes fast friends with Taylor and her husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell). The Instagram pictures from Taylor's account that we see are a stream of perfectly arranged furniture, minimalist interior design, and locally sourced meals. Joan Didion is quoted in one post, and I'd love to know where Taylor and later Ingrid found copies of The White Album with the retro dust jacket. (I found a copy with same jacket here, and it's a first edition.) Of course there are tensions behind the heavily designed bliss of Taylor's persona. Taylor and especially Ezra are worried about money; it seems Taylor has "forced" her husband to quit his stable job with the idea that Ezra has untapped artistic talent inside him. The art of Ezra's that we do see is hilarious, and Ingrid ingratiates herself with the couple by paying twelve hundred dollars for what appears to be a picture of horses upon which Ezra has printed "#squadgoals". Soon Taylor and Ingrid - in Dan's borrowed truck - are off to Taylor's second house in Joshua Tree, and Ingrid is beside herself with bliss.

Ingrid Goes West could have gone more deeply into the idea that Ingrid and Taylor are really both pursuing the same intangible dream, but the plot kicks in with the arrival in L.A. of Taylor's brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen). Nicky finds Ingrid suspicious right away, and his attention is only briefly diverted when Ingrid brings Dan to a pool party and announces he is her boyfriend. O'Shea Jackson Jr. is very winning as Dan, who seems to be attracted to Ingrid in spite of her behavior and comes close to pulling her out of her own head. Much humor is drawn from Dan's love of Batman, and the sex scene in which Ingrid plays Catwoman will probably become a social media phenomenon of its own. It is unfortunate then that the appealing Dan-Ingrid relationship is defeated by story elements - an aborted kidnapping, Ingrid betraying Taylor's secret - that feel devised just to push events to a resolution. When Ingrid hits bottom, out of money and haggling over the price of toilet paper, the speech she gives into her iPhone (and then posts) is the best acting Plaza has done onscreen. But if you also feel like you're being set up for a final stinger, trust that instinct. Even though too much story comes to close to the end, Ingrid Goes West establishes a tone and for the most part follows through. The next time you're on Instagram, remember this: sometimes avocado toast hides deeper issues.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Logan Lucky/Valerian

In a recent New York Times article Steven Soderbergh proclaimed that he had lost interest as a director in working on "anything that smells important". It seems it was in part the difficulties involved in financing and making Soderbergh's Che that drove the filmmaker into a "retirement" which involved mostly working on The Knick instead of feature films. Soderbergh has now returned with Logan Lucky, his first theatrical release in four years, and while the film lacks any sense of self-seriousness it is the furthest thing from unimportant. The charms of Logan Lucky come from the film's insistence on working as a pleasure for adults, and it's that same insistence that makes it such an outlier in today's mainstream cinema. Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) works on a construction crew at Charlotte Motor Speedway but lives in West Virginia near his young daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie), ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes), sister Mellie (Riley Keough), and brother Clyde (a deeply funny Adam Driver). Jimmy's crew is tasked with preventing sinkholes at the Speedway, but when Jimmy is fired he decides to use the knowledge he has acquired about how the racetrack moves its money to secure his family's economic future. Part of the great fun of Logan Lucky is its self-awareness about its own genre, and how it uses exposition to develop character. When we first meet Mellie - who Keough plays with a crackerjack intelligence - she gives an overly detailed explanation of the route taken driving Sadie to pageant practice. Sure enough, it's Mellie who does the driving when the heist is on. Later Jimmy and Clyde recruit Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) out of a prison visiting room to blow the Speedway vault. If Joe seems to know quite a bit about the salt substitute he puts on his eggs then let's just say there's a reason why.

As funny as Logan Lucky is, the script by Rebecca Blunt (who may not exist) is never arch. Channing Tatum plays Jimmy, a football star derailed by injury, with a layer of disappointment that the character doesn't know what to do with. The best thing that happens to Jimmy during the film isn't the chance at a payday, but rather his passing encounter with a nurse (Katherine Waterston) who remembers him from high school but doesn't care about Jimmy's Golden Boy narrative. Waterston's character probably isn't in the film enough, yet the emotional honesty is welcome amid all of the mechanics of the heist. The only comic element that doesn't work involves a race car team owner (a broad Seth MacFarlane) who crosses the Logan brothers at Clyde's bar and then encounters them again at the wrong moment. The heist itself is a skillful set piece, with subtle misdirections - Joe Bang's stopping to buy Gummi Bears is important - and just a hint that the partners in crime are turning on each other. While the robbery is going on we are also cutting back to a "riot" at the prison Joe Bang was once incarcerated in, and to the warden (Dwight Yoakam) who's trying to save face. The last act of Logan Lucky involves an apparent betrayal, Sadie's pageant performance (between this and Free Fire, John Denver now signifies lost innocence), and the arrival of an FBI agent (Hilary Swank) assigned to the case. The movie isn't interested in the follow-through on a procedural level. Swank's character is given only boiler plate things to say and do, and the momentum sags a little here. The explanation of what "really" happened during the crime - an elegant extended flashback - is very pleasing though, and it feels of a piece with the decency and intelligence of these characters that has already been established. Logan Lucky is a "caper" film in the same way that Soderbergh's Ocean's films are, but there is a welcome layer of humanity and, yes, warmth here that demonstrates Soderbergh is interested in more than going over the same ground. Welcome back, Steven Soderbergh. You were missed.

In Luc Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, an galactic cop named Valerian (Dane DeHaan) is in love with his partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne). Valerian spends the first part of the film hitting on Laureline and soft-pedaling the fact that he has already acquired a reputation as a ladies' man. Later, he proposes marriage. If none of that sounds interesting then wait; there's a plot involving a lost planet and nefarious goings-on at the International Space Station, which has now become a busy crossroads for the Universe. What Besson can't deliver in character or plot - the villain's identity isn't a surprise - he makes up for in visuals. Valerian is overflowing with aliens all designed to with exhaustive imagination, and the City of a Thousand Planets is a dizzying and overcrowded utopia. Besson must have gotten the wrong lesson from Kubrick's 2001. Here as in The Fifth Element, space is teeming with life and computers only work some of the time. Dane DeHaan can't quite handle the level of comic-book swagger required for Valerian, and it's actually Cara Delevingne who seems more tonally in sync with what the film is trying to do. Valerian is the cotton candy of this summer at the movies.