“Family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation.”
“White noise”, both figuratively and literally, may be an apt description of Noah Baumbach’s dialogue style, a skill he has deployed with varying effectiveness over the course of his filmography. White Noise, adapted from Don DeLillo’s breakout novel, seeks to explore the anxieties at play in a typical 1980s American middle class family, a pervasive existential dread and specifically fear of death. As someone with an apparently atypical relationship with my own mortality, I am perhaps not best placed to opine on Baumbach’s presentation but these were frustrating characters to observe navigating their issues. This is through no fault of the actors — Adam Driver is an ever-reliable lead, as a professor who is more a performer than an educator, and Greta Gerwig is similarly effective as his wife, though her character becomes increasingly absent over the course of the film. Divided into a series of discrete but thematically connected events, the most resonant was a train derailment that spews a toxic cloud into the air — whilst the children worried, Jack displayed a complacency that they would be unaffected by the disaster, shielded by their privilege — and there seems to be an underlying suggestion that American society is particularly ill-equipped to deal with events outside their control. This broader social satire is White Noise at its best, like man who demands attention because he is scared, as if his fear would be validated if deemed newsworthy. The detailed period recreation is impressive, and at times astonishing like a meticulously stocked supermarket filled with old branding. Production, costuming and acting are each impressive in isolation but White Noise feels considerably less than the sum of its parts, its increasingly absurdist tone distancing the audience from the subject matter.
“You Logans must be as simple-minded as people say.”
In this blue collar heist movie, Steven Soderbergh transfers the template of his Ocean’s trilogy from the glitz of Vegas to the Deep South in his return to feature filmmaking following a four-year hiatus after Side Effects. The Logan siblings are hoping to break their family’s “curse” of bad luck with a big score at a NASCAR track, cajoled by the newly unemployed Jimmy who is worried about losing his daughter. Rounding out the central pack is Daniel Craig, wielding a far less ostentatious southern accent than in Knives Out, as the explosives expert they need break out of jail. It is all colourfully ludicrous and the tone is more comedic than thriller. Vitally, the Southern setting is not a punchline in itself — there is plenty of ineptitude at play, but only specific side characters are portrayed as simple and we are generally laughing at the absurdity rather than the individuals. Their bumbling often undercuts Logan Lucky’s tension although it also leaves greater uncertainty as to the eventual outcome. With Soderbergh again handling directing, cinematography and editing, the visual storytelling is both familiar and effective, and the two hours fly at a rapid pace as soon as the plan starts to take shape. However, following a late twist, it is really the closing fifteen minutes that makes Logan Lucky stand out as a crime movie with a heart.
“This is really awful. Maybe the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”
Chief Cliff Robertson
Not quite as mangled a mess as those corpses, The Dead Don’t Die is still a deeply disappointing waste of talent. Given his original take on the vampire genre with the exquisite Only Lovers Left Alive, I was excited by the prospect of Jim Jarmusch turning his talents to a zombie movie with an exceptional ensemble cast led by Bill Murray and Adam Driver. Sadly, the best cast ever to grace a zombie movie cannot combat a flat and uninspired script with little to say. Sure, the undead are drawn to their addictions in life so we are treated to moans of “Chardonnay” and “wifi” rather than “brains” but the social satire is stale for a genre that was built upon it — a voiceover about consumerism seems laughably derivative three decades after George Romero popularised that parallel. There is some humour to be found in the small town residents’ laid back attitudes leading to less panic than one might expect; however that same lack of energy does little to aid the viewing experience. Driver manages to inject a little charm as does Selena Gomez, but nothing here is memorable once the heads and credits roll.
In a week that saw the death of one Python, it was wonderful to see another’s dream finally realised. After (at least) 25 years Terry Gilliam’s take on Don Quixote, inspired by Cervantes’ novel principally by the titular character, will finally reach a wide audience this year, having been shown at Cannes in 2018. His ill-fated shoot with Johnny Depp is captured in the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha, and the new film is dedicated to Jean Rochefort and John Hurt, both previously cast as Quixote but who died before the film could be made. Suffice to say, Don Quixote carries significant baggage. In the script that emerged, Gilliams deftly translates the novel’s themes of the power and danger in fantasy from the medium of books to filmmaking, as a man is consumed by a role he played a decade ago while a girl is seduced by the idea she could be a star. Adam Driver is excellent as Toby, a dissatisfied director returning to rural Spain where he once shot a student film and witnessing the impact left behind. Jonathan Pryce spent years lobbying for the role of Quixote and dons the armour made for Rochefort with aplomb, bringing a sense of guileless innocence to the role. Whilst most of the women are under-served by the script, Joana Ribeiro’s Angelica is more nuanced: her dream may have crumbled in contact with reality with trite predictability but she owns her choices even if she has regrets; Toby’s guilt seeks to rob her of agency. Gilliams’ skill has always lain in occupying the inchoate space where fantasy and reality merge at the edges so his obsession with Quixote is understandable. Perhaps fittingly for a film about the dangers of fantasy, it is the full-blown dream sequences that feel like an unnecessary confusion. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote may not be an unqualified triumph but it is a joy to watch — at last the curse is lifted and this quest is complete.
“This will be the final word in the story of Skywalker.”
The Rise of Skywalker is a bloated, unimaginative conclusion in which a lot of stuff happens but for no particular reason and largely without consequence. With JJ Abrams back at the helm, this all feels very familiar. I was forgiving to The Force Awakens‘ blatant retread of A New Hope because some nostalgic connective tissue was necessary to bridge the gap between old and new. If The Last Jedi was Rian Johnson’s response to this over-reliance on nostalgia and mystery boxes, looking to a future of fresh stories in this vibrant universe, Abrams uses the final film of the saga to reassert himself with disappointing results. He leans heavily on Return of the Jedi, restoring the importance of Rey’s heritage in an interesting twist, but the ultimate payoff is non-existent for such a central plot point despite all manner of ways it could have been satisfyingly concluded. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren remains fascinatingly conflicted but the film’s most interesting character is largely wasted in this outing. The side-plots, often derided in The Last Jedi, feel even more perfunctory here. There are positives: the CG is first rate, Rey and Kylo’s scenes together are engaging, and children will probably be entertained. Meanwhile the returning characters from the original trilogy are relegated to trite, disjointed cameos (the subtler return of Wedge Antilles being the only truly welcome one). This slavish devotion to the past, coupled with setting a third of the film on desolate rocks, means the Star Wars galaxy has never felt so empty. This entire mess is ultimately Disney’s fault. Embarking on a trilogy in a $4 billion franchise without charting the major story beats in advance was an exercise in stupidity, particularly when compared to the carefully coordinated construction of Marvel’s Infinity Saga over 23 movies, but such is the way when strip-mining an IP for profit is placed above artistic merit.
“Getting divorced with a kid is one of the hardest things to do. It’s like a death without a body.”
In The Meyerowitz Stories, I praised Noah Baumbach’s ear for conversational dialogue, which he deploys here to greater effect in a script that prizes raw emotion above the indie intellectualism of his recent output. This is a nuanced, even-handed exploration of the personal toll of fractious divorce, worsened by legal tactical considerations (I cannot think of a starker reminder of why I considered family law for only a moment), strongly reminiscent of Kramer v Kramer. Similarly, the film rests upon two powerhouse central performance, both Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson delivering award-worthy turns. They allow us to sympathise with privileged characters whose circumstances are far from universal even if their personal problems are more familiar. Of note is an intense single-take argument at the centre of the film, in which we see two people who know exactly how to hurt one another even when they have no intention of doing so. It feels slightly more scripted than the sublimely natural extended argument in Before Midnight, but it highlights perfectly the tragedy and loss of control inherent in the expiry of any loving relationship.
With his early films Spike Lee cemented his reputation as a defining black voice in cinema but lately he has struggled to find relevance. His latest joint is both timely and relevant, by turns hilarious and then horrifying in the familiarity of the racism it portrays. Peppering in slogans being used by the alt-right today would feel trite if it were not so blisteringly accurate. Lee’s intention is to encourage more people to vote, though it is not a message delivered expressly. The film’s lighter tone and typical Hollywood gloss on the story of a black police officer infiltrating the KKK will no doubt draw some ire from those who expect the subject of racial struggle to be handled with greater gravitas, but it allows Lee to entertain his audience whilst highlighting the serious risks posed by the recent resurgence of these right-wing ideas, all the more starkly when it follows a moment of levity.