Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

Director Rian Johnson, maker of the divisive Star Wars: Episode VII—The Last Jedi, and also the brilliant Looper, takes a crack at the whodunnit genre—and comes up aces.

Daniel Craig stars as private-investigator Benoit Blanc, mysteriously hired by somebody in a rich family after the strange “suicide” death of their patriarch, mystery-author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer, still going strong). There’s something fishy about his death, and his personal nurse, Marta (the awesome Ana de Armas), knows something the rest of the family doesn’t. What transpires is a solid mystery with a fun set of characters featuring a stellar cast, including Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, LaKeith Stanfield and Chris Evans. Everybody has a blast, as does the audience, as Johnson takes the genre and twists it into an entertaining pretzel.

Craig is especially good in a role that allows him to show his comic side, with Shannon and Johnson impressive as a couple of paranoiacs. Above all, the film gives the talented Armas a chance to really shine.

Knives Out is playing at theaters across the valley.

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A gang of losers plots to rob a NASCAR racetrack during one of its busiest weekends—and they do it in a hackneyed way that makes absolutely no sense in Logan Lucky.

Steven Soderbergh comes out of retirement to direct Channing Tatum as Jimmy Logan, a former football player who has fallen on bad times, and then suddenly gets it in his head to rob the racetrack. His plan involves sneaking people out of prison, blowing things up with gummy bears, and using secret allies within the establishment.

Soderbergh did the Ocean’s Eleven movies, and the first one included a reasonably fun and inventive heist. Well, this is sort of Ocean’s Eleven for rednecks—but it’s hard to believe this group would have the ability to pull off the heist.

The film is almost saved by some of the supporting performances, including Daniel Craig as an incarcerated safe cracker who digs hard-boiled eggs, and Adam Driver as Jimmy’s one-armed brother. But for every character who is a plus, there’s a lame one, like Seth MacFarlane’s heavily accented millionaire who is not as funny as he thinks he is. Hilary Swank shows up in the final act in a role that feels tacked on.

The movie doesn’t come together in the end, and its robbery scheme is too cute to be realistic. The big reveals feel like a cheat rather than a unique twist.

It’s good to have Soderbergh back in action, but this is just a rehash of something he’s done before—with the addition of a Southern accent. It’s much ado about nothing. There are a few laughs here, but not enough to justify seeing Logan Lucky in theaters.

Logan Lucky is playing at theaters across the valley.

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The Daniel Craig-led James Bond movies have represented the franchise’s high point.

The films starring Craig have included a little thing called “genuine emotion.” The series peaked with 2012’s Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes and featuring Javier Bardem as a classic Bond villain.

Mendes has returned for the latest installment, and this time out, the action is amped up. Spectre has some terrific set pieces, including a dizzying helicopter sequence to open things up, as well as a nasty fight on a train. That’s what’s good about the movie.

What’s bad? Regrettably, a good chunk of it is bad. After the full experience that was Skyfall, Spectre feels incomplete and shallow.

During a layover in Italy, Bond finds out a few hard truths about his origins, and that much of the pain he’s gone through in his last few chapters is attributable to one man. Christoph Waltz shows up (barely) as Oberhauser, a past acquaintance of Bond who is now leading a dark society called Spectre—responsible for terrorist attacks worldwide.

Of course, Bond will get a girl along the way. This time out, it’s Madeleine Swann, played by Léa Seydoux of Blue Is the Warmest Color. Not only does she fall for Bond; she falls for Bond in a way that kind of makes her look like an idiot.

Throughout the film, there’s a sense that Craig is getting a little tired of the Bond shtick. He just doesn’t seem fully committed at this point. Also—and this is a rather strange observation, but I’m going to just put it out there—he looks totally gross when he’s kissing women. I’m going to go ahead and call him the worst Bond kisser ever. (Yes, worse than Roger Moore!) He looks like he’s out to eat somebody’s face. Seydoux probably had to check for her lower lip after takes.

Waltz is fun in his few scenes, but saying his villain is underdeveloped would be an understatement. He barely gets a chance to register. Ralph Fiennes returns as M, and his portion of the story—regarding the Secret Intelligence Service being in danger of getting shut down—is actually interesting. It’s a bad thing when the subplot is more interesting than what Bond is actually doing.

At 148 minutes long, with a price tag in the $250 million range, Spectre suffers from some serious bloat. For all of that money, couldn’t the art department come up with a better-looking staged photo of Bond during his youth? This movie has one of those photos in which young pictures of the actual actors are Photoshopped together to make it look like the characters co-existed in a past moment. The staged photo looks like somebody used scissors and Scotch tape.

I have no complaints about the action sequences. Dave Bautista shows up as a Spectre goon named Hinx; he’s the one who dukes it out with Bond on the train. He makes for a good Bond monster. In addition to the aforementioned excellent action sequences, the film includes a building collapse in which Bond narrowly escapes. It’s good stuff.

It’s the emotional stuff that drags the movie down. Yes, it was welcomed in Skyfall, but this film feels like it is trying too hard. There are certain things we don’t need to know about James Bond and his past. The past the film paints is completely unnecessary.

Craig is under contract for one more picture, but something feels final about Spectre. If he should return for another go, somebody needs to find a way for Bond to have fun again—because Spectre is a drag.

Spectre is playing at theaters across the valley.

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Skyfall is my all-time-favorite Bond movie.

Mind you, this is coming from a guy who didn't really get it when it came to James Bond. I've warmed up to him over the years, but I used to hate him. The first time I witnessed Bond in action was as a boy, seeing Sean Connery use a bikini top to choke her in Diamonds Are Forever. This act scared the shit out of me, and made me think Bond was some sort of bad guy. (I had similar child-brain confusion with Robert Shaw's Quint in Jaws ... he was just so mean.)

When I was "coming of age," so to speak, Bond got silly, with Roger Moore and stuff like Moonraker and Octopussy. I turned my adolescent attention to the likes of Star Wars, Rocky and The Pink Panther movies. It wasn't until Pierce Brosnan took over the franchise that I started to think the enterprise was OK. Then, I went back and watched the Sean Connery films, and realized those were actually a lot of fun. Sean Connery's Bond was a misogynist, but he wasn't a bad guy.

Which brings me to Daniel Craig (after skipping over George Lazenby and Timothy Dalton ... hey, I have a limited word count). Craig IS James Bond to me at this point. He's made three Bonds in a row that I can tolerate—and Skyfall is a showstopper.

It has a Bond villain that I count as the most memorable since, say, the goofy Jaws guy with the teeth from the Moore era. Javier Bardem plays Silva, a former agent who has a major bug up his ass regarding M (the awesome Judi Dench). His first meeting with a tied-up Bond is perhaps Bond's best meeting ever with one of his adversaries. It's also perhaps the most erotic, which took me a bit by surprise. Bardem relishes a good bad-guy role, as he proved in his Oscar-winning turn in No Country for Old Men. He's a genuinely funny and nasty creep.

Skyfall has stunts and chases that had me fully engaged. When Bond faces off with an assassin atop a moving train crossing over a series of bridges and going through tunnels, it amounts to the year's best action sequence ... and that's before the opening credits.

Those credits, by the way, are a series of astonishing visuals set to a beautiful Bond song—the title track delivered by Adele. As the opening credits played out, I was hooked already, and it only got better from there.

This one comes courtesy of director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road), and it's clear that he has a tremendous amount of love and respect for the icon. While the movie gives us an older and arguably dated Bond, it also shows us that a man who is good with a gun and popular with the ladies might win out over megabytes after all.

As for the ladies, there are a few, and they don't register as much as past Bond women. Naomie Harris is on hand as Eve, a fellow agent and sharpshooter. Harris is fine, and she shares an interesting shaving sequence with Bond, but she doesn't make an indelible impression. Maybe it's because she should've been called Serenity Bottoms or some other naughty name. Those tend to stick.

Bérénice Marlohe plays Sévérine, a girl with a tough past—and an even tougher future. She's fine, but again, she doesn't truly register.

The one lady who makes a big impression this time out is Dench's M, who shares a funny, sometimes caustic and somehow sweet, motherly relationship with Bond. This movie pulls her into the plot more than past efforts (including those with Brosnan; she's been around for a while). Mendes offers some great odes to past Bonds, including a sweet Aston Martin and some funny wordplay. By the time Bond faces off with Silva in the film's finale, we get a true sense of vintage Bond as much as future Bond.

There's also some typical product placement, including pitches for Cadillac, Heineken and, surprisingly, Sony VAIO. The film's new and much-younger Q (Ben Whishaw) is seen prominently using a Sony laptop. I found this relatively implausible. Those things freeze up way too much for a high-level British agent to be utilizing one during a tense good-versus-evil showdown. I had one once, and it met its demise by being smashed on the corner of my coffee table after one too many blue screens of death.

This dark, brooding and somewhat deep Bond is a Bond I'm more interested in as a moviegoer. No more choking girls with a bikini top unless they're brandishing a broken bottle as a weapon or something!

Bond has evolved over the years, while staying true to his origins. In Skyfall, he's actually at his most mature ... and his most badass.

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