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‘The Old Man & the Gun’ Is a Loving Tribute to ‘70s Cinema

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You can never really trust an actor when they announce their retirement, but if Robert Redford is to be believed, The Old Man & the Gun will be his final performance. He hasn’t ruled out directing future films, but this may be the last we’ll ever see on screen of his roguish good looks and tousled golden hair. As for the movie: it’s undoubtedly the least adventurous film David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, A Ghost Story) has ever directed. And yet. . . it’s the beneficiary of a breezy charm and genuine warmth that can warm even the most cynical of viewers. Lowery has made a delicately lovely film, a small work of art that pays homage to the great cinematic leaps of the 1970s and early ‘80s. But more than anything else, it’s a love letter to Redford.

The Old Man & the Gun is loosely based on a 2003 New Yorker article by David Grann (author of The Lost City of Z and Killers of the Flower Moon). The film stars Redford as Forrest Tucker, a man mysteriously drawn to robbing banks, a compulsion that seems to have lasted most of his life. Tucker (often aided by his co-conspirators, played by Danny Glover and Tom Waits) uses his boundless charm and a revolver (which may not even be loaded) to coerce tellers into handing over the dough. As one poor teller recounts, the robber was “sort of a gentleman.” Tucker starts by showing off the gun, then quite calmly and politely waits for the money (never a huge amount) to be collected. During one robbery, he comforts a visibly upset woman, even as he’s in the process of emptying out her register.

The band of elderly robbers come to the attention of Detective John Hunt (Lowery regular Casey Affleck) when Tucker robs a bank so discreetly that Hunt doesn’t even notice — despite being in line with his daughters to make a transaction. Affleck is excellent in his role as a weary detective; the job has turned into a grind, but his new pursuit of Tucker invigorates him. It’s not even clear that he wants to catch him — it’s more fun to keep searching.

The Old Man & the Gun

Tucker, whose life seems to revolve around little beyond his criminal activity, finds himself attracted to a woman he meets named Jewel (Sissy Spacek). She lives alone on a farm that’s too big for her, especially after her children have moved away. The payments are more than she can easily make, but she soldiers on, not wanting to give up something she has become so attached to. Redford and Spacek are quite moving in their slowly-building relationship, which is neither too hot and heavy nor unrealistically chaste. It’s surprising to see that these two titans of ‘70s cinema had never acted with each other prior to The Old Man & the Gun; they slip into the roles as if they’ve always known each other.

It’s a pleasure watching Redford doing what he does best on screen for one final time.

The version of the film that Lowery presents is far from Grann’s original article. The real-life Tucker was a much darker character, and his story involved seedier crimes (even murder). Lowery’s goal isn’t to make a work of history, or biography, but to make a film reminiscent of the great films of the ‘70s and ‘80s that he grew up on. To that end, the movie is shot on 16mm film, giving it a pleasantly grainy image. Nothing looks particularly sharp, which creates the sense that the movie has been moldering away in a forgotten film canister before its triumphant rediscovery.

The Old Man & the Gun

The film excels in nearly every aspect, but it’s Redford who steals the show. At 82, he’s as charming as ever. But there’s also something unexplained about him that tantalizes us. It’s clear that his bank robberies are almost compulsive — he practically sweats when passing a bank after pledging to give up the game. And yet he returns to his pastime again and again. In a playful montage from childhood to old age (including a clip of a young Redford in Arthur Penn’s The Chase), we see the many times Tucker has been incarcerated and subsequently broken out. But we don’t find out what drives this compulsion, nor how he grapples with it. This absence of easy answers is in line with Lowery’s homages; the ‘70s films he emulates often took old hat stories but told them using flawed or mysterious characters that wouldn’t have fit in Golden Age Hollywood. Redford’s Tucker is easy to like, but hard to understand, putting him in line with the protagonists Lowery admires.

The Old Man & the Gun lacks some of the spontaneity and excitement of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and its more moving moments don’t have the tragic sweep of A Ghost Story, yet Lowery still manages to pull off a supremely enjoyable film. It’s a pleasure watching Redford doing what he does best on screen for one final time. In the aftermath of one of Redford’s robberies, a bank teller can’t remember much about his face — except that he was smiling the whole time. While watching The Old Man & the Gun there’s a good chance a similar smile will start to creep across your face.

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

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Don’t Be Sad ‘A Rainy Day in New York’ Never Made it to Manhattan

Spend this rainy day playing a board game or something

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Rainy Day in New York

You do not come to late-era Woody Allen for anything resembling true originality. He is the drunken piano man, riffing off the same old hits in the same old bar, hoping that nostalgia will hit a chord with somebody. As in Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine, or even Irrational Man, his output over the last decade can still bring up moments of true inspiration and fresh-feeling angles on the same old tales, even if the plot-lines feel somewhat familiar. In the best humanist cinema, like that of Rohmer or Ozu, this repetition can make you see the same thing in a slightly different way. The same cannot be said of A Rainy Day in New York, a film so derivative it feels like it came out of an auto-generator, making me feel nothing but contempt for the waste of so much talent. If you are an American Woody Allen fan sad that this movie never made it to Manhattan, there’s honestly no need to be.

Timotheé Chalamet stars and narrates in a performance so poor that he must be happy this film hasn’t released back in the States. He plays Gatsby Wells, a student at upstate Yardley College, a place he detests yet tolerates because his beloved girlfriend Ashleigh (Elle Fanning) — heiress to a rich banking empire in Tucson — also studies there. As a writer for the University paper, she gets the chance to interview famous director Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber), giving them the possibility to explore New York together. Yet when they arrive there, a series of misunderstandings, mishaps, and fear of missed opportunities keeps them perpetually apart, handing them the chance to explore romance with others — including old flames, movie stars and, of course, high-priced escorts. 

Although his first name is Gatsby, Wells better resembles the other great male of 20th century American literature: Holden Caulfield. Like the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, he is born of massive privilege, shunning his supposedly phoney origins while still visiting the fanciest hotels and drinking in the fanciest bars. There is perhaps some kind of interesting modern portrait of New York privilege in here, but Woody Allen is simply not the right director for the material. It’s like asking a jazz pianist to bash out a techno tune. 

And just as Allen’s blinkered view of New York blinds him to the real world and its contemporary concerns, Chalamet’s nostalgia act cannot find a way to escape Woody’s wooden writing. The sensitive, pretentious, sensual young man who turned in such a deeply felt performance in Call Me By Your Name could be a natural fit for a Woody Allen character, if only he actually leaned into what makes him a great actor instead of trying his best Woody Allen imitation. While some actors can do Woody Allen well (Kenneth Branagh is uncanny in Celebrity, while Larry David is great in Whatever Works), Timotheé Chalamet has neither the studied talent to impersonate well, nor the arrogance to put his own distinctive stamp on it. Elle Fanning is similarly dire; playing both an intrepid, impetuous journalist and a thick floozy, she carries neither the charm nor the wit to make her a compelling co-lead.  

A Rainy Day in New York

I don’t blame either actor; they’re young, and there’s a feeling that they weren’t given much direction. In fact, almost every aspect of A Rainy Day in New York feels underdeveloped, underwritten, and under-thought. This is a film so lazy that it even recycles the ending of Midnight in Paris, perhaps hoping that the audience developed amnesia since 2011. Even Allen’s trademark eye for Manhattan is missing. Filming here properly for the first time since 2009, the city no longer seems like much of a character by itself, and instead comes off as it would in a generic TV Christmas Movie. 

While Allen’s early 00s work — easily his worst period — is characterised by its TV-movie lighting, his collaborations over the past ten years with cinematographers such as Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris, To Rome With Love), Javier Aguirresarobe (Blue Jasmine), and Vittorio Stororo (Cafe Society, Wonder Wheel) elevated his films’ look considerably, even when the writing may have been lacking. Sadly here, the legendary cinematographer behind Apocalypse Now and The Conformist — despite what seems like his best efforts to light generic hotel rooms with warmth and vibrancy — cannot save A Rainy Day in New York at all, which feels even more rushed and cut-to-pieces than usual. This is really only for die-hard Woody Allen completists; casual minds need not bother.

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In Defense of ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’

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Star Wars The Last Jedi

The anger and vitriol directed at Rian Johnson’s 2017 film is misplaced, as it’s actually the best ‘Star Wars’ movie since the original trilogy

Over the course of the last few years, a tiresome debate has been had, over and over again, over whether certain popular blockbuster movies have become too politically correct, too inclusive, too “woke.” 

This debate has touched just about every piece of mass entertainment, from Marvel to Terminator to Watchmen to Charlie’s Angels, and it’s often used as a cudgel to gloat over negative box office results. 

It’s all both exceedingly tiresome and not the slightest bit new, as it’s just a different name for what used to be called “liberal bias” analysis, back in the 1990s. But the worst thing of all about it the modern version of this is that “woke” is often merely another word for “this movie has women and minorities in prominent roles.” 

“Every word of what you just said was wrong”

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Probably the apotheosis of the recent version of this was Star Wars: The Last Jedi, director Rian Johnson’s film that came out in December of 2017. The Last Jedi received positive reviews, with a Rotten Tomatoes critics score in the 90s, and made $1.3 billion worldwide, good for 13th all time. It was the #1 movie at the domestic box office in 2017, even though it was released two weeks before the end of the year. 

However, since the time of the film’s release, there’s been a bitter, angry backlash against The Last Jedi, against director Rian Johnson, and in favor of a counter-narrative that says the film “ruined” Star Wars. 

Yes, there are other arguments, about the film not being true to the character of Luke Skywalker, about Star Wars not being what it used to be following its 2012 acquisition by Disney, and other specious contentions that The Last Jedi “ruined” characters Star Wars fans used to like. 

Nevermind that a certain subset of Star Wars fans has reacted with seething anger to just about every new Star Wars project, going back as far as Return of the Jedi. (The Mandalorian seems to have escaped this, through its first few episodes, but give it time.) Or that many of the complaints about The Last Jedi, from its hamfisted dialogue to its overly cute characters to the slowness at times of its plot, is true of just about every Star Wars movie. 

Things get ugly 

Of course, the backlash against The Last Jedi has taken on even uglier tones. There were death threats against Kelly Marie Tran, the actress who plays Rose. Trolls admitted to manipulating the movie’s audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. That petition to strike the film from the Star Wars canon.  The film has been the subject of way too many angry, ranting, three-hour YouTube videos. 

Nasty as all of that stuff is, these people are just plain on the wrong side. That’s because The Last Jedi is a beautiful, special film, one that holds up on repeated viewings, and is by a pretty significant margin the best Star Wars film since the original trilogy. 

There are many great things about The Last Jedi, starting with the return of Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. The film centers Luke in a way that one hadn’t since Return of the Jedi, and explores the character in a fascinating way that is, contrary to what Last Jedi haters say, true to what may become of Luke. 

There’s also a ten-minute sequence in the middle of The Last Jedi that’s up there with the very best of the Star Wars saga. That throne room scene, followed by Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo slamming into the ship -which Johnson shot as a knowing 2001: A Space Odyssey homage – is such a thrilling succession of events that I rewound and watched it again the last time I watched the movie. This part, in particular, made everyone in my critics’ screening gasp: 

Then there’s the final scene, in which kids are playing with a Luke Skywalker toy. 

The silly thing at all is that the film doesn’t even have much of a political agenda, unless you’re the sort of person who thinks that women and people of color having prominent roles in a movie is, by its very nature, problematically political. 

It really can’t be emphasized enough that Star Wars has now been around for over 40 years. If you’re part of the original generation of fans, that saw the original movies in the theater and collected the original toys and everything else, you’re not only not the entirety of the Star Wars fan base anymore, but you’re not even the majority. And when it comes to Star Wars today, I care a lot more about what kids think than about what 45-year-olds think. 

Rian Johnson

The director speaks

For Rian Johnson’s part, he’s found a way to often cleverly retort to trolls who still harass him regularly for directing a movie they didn’t like. 

“The key to being on Twitter is like anything else- you have to enjoy it,” Johnson told me in a red carpet interview when his new film, Knives Out, showed at the Philadelphia Film Festival back in October. “If you’re not enjoying being on there, there’s no reason to be on there.. if you’re having fun, and you’re getting more out of it than you’re putting more into it- and I do, in all the interactions with the fans. 

“The bad stuff gets written up a lot, but 95% of my interactions on there are wonderful and lovely,” he added. “And the stuff that’s bad, I’ve seen so much of it, I see the patterns it falls into, you don’t want to engage with it too much, but once in awhile it’s fun to just kind of play with it a bit.” 

Too many Star Wars fans seem to think, despite everything, that they’re part of a small subculture of nerds and outcasts, as opposed to the closest thing to a worldwide monoculture that still exists. 

It’s part of the ugly trend towards fandoms taking on the properties of identity politics. No, liking Star Wars doesn’t make you part of a marginalized, persecuted minority. You just didn’t like a movie, that’s it. George Lucas didn’t “rape” your “childhood,” and no, neither did Rian Johnson.  All Johnson did was make a great film that took risks and saw nearly all of them pay off.

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‘Greener Grass’ Is a Pain in The Ass

Maybe get high for this one

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Greener Grass

Co-written, co-directed, and co-starring Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe as two soccer moms who battle it out over who has the more perfect suburban life, Greener Grass looks like it creators are having a lot of fun. Possibly more fun than anyone actually watching the film, a surrealist satire of suburban life that is neither cutting enough to be insightful nor funny enough to be worthwhile. While watchable thanks to its strange, cartoonish world-building and bold production design, it ultimately fails both as comedy and as meaningful commentary. 

Greener Grass starts with Jill (Jocelyn DeBoer) and Lisa (Dawn Luebbe) watching their kids play soccer; Jill has a new baby, which Lisa hadn’t previously noticed. In the first sign that this world is completely askew, Jill just gives her baby to Lisa as a present. This is one of the least weird things that happens in a film with little concern towards logical construction or narrative coherence. 

Featuring a soundtrack giving off serious original Twin Peaks vibes, the world of Greener Grass is one of pure strangeness: cars are replaced by golf carts, characters wear matching coloured suits, and the whole town gives off a twinkling aura reminiscent of classic television adverts. Jill and Lisa are classic models of femininity, at one point switching husbands to kiss as a comment on how generic their men seem. Nonetheless, they are constantly competing, with the ever-susceptible Jill constantly on the lookout for a way that she can finally improve her life, while Lisa tries to iron out her own familial issues. Sadly, neither Jill nor Lisa ever make it past their sketch-show characterisations, making them at first unrelatable, before eventually becoming straight-up annoying.

Greener Grass

There is a sense here that more care has been put into crafting this weird universe then telling a coherent story of what actually happens in it; Greener Grass mostly using its setting as an excuse to string together a bunch of middling skits. At first, the randomness seems freeing; when you watch so many films for a living, B constantly following A can get rather repetitive. This is a world where anything can happen and nothing is explained. For example, when Jill’s son turns into a dog — suddenly leaving the woman who once had two children with none at all — the how of it all is never asked, and the event is instead used as a means to explore Jill’s relationship to Lisa. Yet, once it becomes obvious that there is no true connective tissue between absurdities (like you might find in the tightly-wound films of Yorgos Lanthimos), the world of Greener Grass grows easily tiring — even moreso considering its barrage of adolescent, amateurish, awkward and atrocious attempts at comedy. 

Comedy is a hard thing to quantify. Sometimes it simply boils down to whether something makes you laugh…or at least smile. While the madcap world of Greener Grass is aesthetically delightful, the jokes can come across as painfully awful — the kind of try-too-hard skits you find in the bottom basement of a bar at the Edinburgh Fringe. Undeniably an each-to-their-own kind of situation, its an even bigger shame that these jokes cannot even be corralled into something actually interesting. 

The obvious influence here, in both form and construction (featuring a subplot with a mysterious killer), is David Lynch. Yet, while Twin Peaks (at least in season 1 and The Return) and Blue Velvet used that weirdness to expose the darker underbelly of American life, it’s hard to say what Greener Grass is actually saying about the nature of suburban aspiration. While it seems that the point is to show how suburban life is already kind of absurd, dialing the zaniness up to eleven doesn’t hammer in that point any further. It comes as little surprise that the feature film is adapted from a short. Perhaps it should’ve stayed that way. 

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