Saturday, 27 May 2017

DOUBLE WHAMMY: War On Everyone & American Honey

The Midnight Ramble takes a look back at two flicks that would and should have been reviewed last year, War On Everyone and American Honey. 

War On Everyone
Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, this was super high on my list of 'must-see' movies last year. His previous movie, The Guard, was my favourite from that year, and the trailers made this movie feel like an American cousin to that flick.

    Two corrupt cops (Alexander Skarsgard and Michael Pena) spend their days blackmailing criminals. When they sniff out a bigger fish, the tables are turned...

    I am sad to report that this movie was kind of disappointing. There is a hip archness to the whole flick which I could never click into. I've been struggling to get my finger on what my problem with this movie is, and this is the best I can come up with: it feels like I have seen it before. 

    This movie feels like a Tarantino ripoff from the mid-nineties: too-cool characters operating outside the law, pontificating on pop culture and philosophy while they engage in drugs/robbery/hesits/porn etc. All the parts are there, but they don't end up amounting to anything. It feels like empty pastiche with no purpose. Compounding this staleness, this movie committed a serious screen-writing sin, in that every character seemed to be speaking with the same voice. Coming from a writer like McDonagh, it's really disappointing. 

    For the first forty minutes I was struggling to get invested. Once the plot clicked into view, the movie started to gel. But it was clear I was not going to love these characters like I did Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle in The Guard.

    Pena is good in his role, but there was nothing sympathetic or just interesting about him. Meanwhile Skarsgard's character is dealing with some kind of unspoken trauma. This would be fine, but it requires a strong actor whose mere presence can fill out these gaps. Skarsgard is fine, but he does not have that kind of charisma. The pair's dynamic never really comes into focus -- Skarsgard is a bit dumber and haunted, but that's about it. There's no real spark between them that makes you want to watch them.

    Despite these criticisms the movie is not a total loss. A bad John Michael McDonagh is still better than most stuff out there. Stephanie Sigman (Miss Bella) and Tessa Thompson (Creed) are good as our antiheroes' significant others, but they are really just side characters. Theo James is also okay as the bad guy, James Mangin. The problem is that they are all hampered by the same vacuous-ness that runs through the whole movie. The one interesting character is Caleb Landry Jones as Mangin's weedy little henchman, but even then, he doesn't hold a candle to the minor characters of McDonagh's earlier films.

    The one stylistic choice that really clicked with me was the use of Glen Campbell's music. Every scene with a Campbell song suddenly brings this movie into focus. Skarsgard's character is defined by his love for Campbell's music, which gives the character his one sliver of pathos. My favourite sequence involves Skarsgard and Thompson dancing to Campbell's 'Rhinestone Cowboy' through his house. It's the one scene where the movie drops trying to be clever and just has fun.

    Overall, War on Everyone is not as funny or as clever as it thinks it is. 

    American Honey
    Written and directed by Fish Tank's Andrea Arnold, American Honey stars newcomer Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf in a free-wheeling story about a group of young'uns road-tripping across middle America.

    Unlike War on Everyone, this movie was not on my radar until late last year. I was a fan of Fish Tank, and this looked to be built on similar parts: an unknown lead, and a story about young people at the fringes of society. 

      Lane plays Star, a teen who is plucked off the street by a van full of kids led by Krystal (Riley Keogh) and Jake (LaBeouf). This 'crew' go from city to city selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door. While learning the ropes, Star falls for Jake, whose daredevil antics and jealous rage become her introduction to adult relationships.

      After the wobble of her Wuthering Heights adaptation, Andrea Arnold returns to a story about contemporary youth, in the mould of her excellent Fish Tank. There is very little plot, beyond the core premise, and like that previous effort, a lot of its effect is derived from the pairing of an established thespian with a non-actor.

      As Star's lover/mentor, Shia LaBeouf is fantastic. Simultaneously balancing adult urges and powered by childlike impulses, Jake is the role LaBeouf was born to play. A few years away from his various offscreen antics, LaBeouf is back in the business of being a character actor, and American Honey hopefully inaugurates the beginning of LaBeouf being taken seriously.

      The heart and soul of the movie is Sasha Lane. Like her character, Lane was literally picked off the street by Arnold, who spotted her on a beach during Spring Break. Lane is so natural and unaffected, it is hard to look away. She has a unique charisma that makes her the centre of every scene. Even when other characters (like LaBeouf) take centre-stage, I found my gaze going to Lane, to register her reactions to whatever is going on. She is really fantastic. 

      This movie is over two and a half hours long, and yet you never feel it.While there is no real plot, the movie is always moving and spinning in different directions every few minutes. There is a tension and an unpredictability to the story which make sit completely riveting. Arnold's approach has been the downfall of so many indie helmers, but the difference is that Arnold keeps a tight rein on the movie's most propulsive elements: its characters. 

      American Honey has not really received much hype down here, so if you haven't seen it yet, check it out. It's worth the time.

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