Don Cheadle

White Noise

13/12/22

The Cameo, Edinburgh

Noah Baumbach’s latest film – based on the 1985 novel by Dom Delillo – is mostly about death: humanity’s fear of it, the inevitability of it and the final irrefutable truth that one day it comes to us all. If this makes White Noise sound about as much fun as a car crash at a funeral, don’t be misled. It’s a fascinating film, by turns absurdly funny, deeply puzzling and profoundly worrying. If, ultimately, it attempts to bite off a little more than it can chew, it’s nonetheless an ambitious and bravely experimental slice of filmmaking.

We’re somewhere in the American midwest where Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) is ‘Professor of Hitler Studies’ at the prestigious ‘College on the Hill’, where he’s fond of waxing lyrical about the rise of the Nazis without, it seems, any inkling of how distressing a subject it actually is. He’s also hiding the embarrassing fact that he can’t speak a word of German. Jack enjoys an adversarial friendship with another lecturer, Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), who specialises in two main subjects, Elvis and er… car crashes. A scene where the two men attempt to engage in a kind of intellectual battle of wits in front of a spellbound class is a particular highlight.

Jack lives with his wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), and their extended family. Both have had previous marriages and the gaggle of kids who live with them are all better informed than either of their parents. The family lives in a bubble of domestic bliss, interspersed with regular trips to a gigantic, day-glo supermarket, which seems to hold for them the importance of a church. But not everything is quite as cosy as it seems. What are those pills that Babette is secretly taking? And why, when challenged, does she deny their very existence?

Matters take a dramatic turn for the worse when a freight train laden with dangerous chemicals collides with an articulated lorry, carrying something equally nasty. The result in an ‘airborne toxic event’ which sends clouds of deadly fumes into the sky. The Gladney family – and just about everybody else in the vicinity – vacate their home in a desperate attempt to escape. But what exactly are they fleeing from? And what’s the prognosis if you’re exposed to those ‘deadly’ clouds? Nobody seems to know.

White Noise offers as many questions as it does answers. If not everything we’re offered here quite comes off, much of it works brilliantly. Baumbach’s vision of suburban America is packed full of surprises, from doctors who clearly don’t care about the welfare of their patients to a Mother Superior who rubbishes the idea of heaven and angels. There are perfectly judged performances from Driver and Gerwig (particularly the latter who plays her role as if in a permanent drug daze) and Lol Crawley’s cinematography gives everything an unearthly sheen.

In the film’s final third, Jack finds himself driven to seek out the person responsible for Babette’s addiction, but even that doesn’t follow the lines you’d generally expect to encounter in such a narrative. It’s here that the film begins to feel a little too unhinged, though the enterprise is rescued by a delightful end-credit sequence.

It’s an ingenious device that keeps me glued to my seat until the screen finally fades to black.  

3. 8 stars

Philip Caveney

Logan Lucky

07/09/17

It’s four years since Steven Soderbergh made the shock announcement that he was retiring from filmmaking. Mind you, he hasn’t exactly been putting his feet up with a cup of cocoa. There’s the little matter of directing two seasons of medical TV show, The Knick (under an alias) and his involvement in the upcoming project Mosaic (of which I know very little, other than it’s a ‘branching narrative’) So there’s the distinct impression that he may have returned to the big screen with Logan Lucky for a quieter life.

In a way, he’s returning to familiar territory, as this is a heist movie, a path he’s already worn fairly smooth. But put aside all thoughts of the slick, ultra cool Oceans 11. As one character observes in Rebecca Blunt’s caustic script, this is more like Oceans 7/11 – a tattered, down-at-heel story set in West Virginia. (John Denver on the soundtrack? Naturally.)

Channing Tatum plays Jimmy Logan, a down-on-his luck former sports star, who loses his job as a bulldozer driver because of an old injury which has left him with a permanent limp. Divorced from his wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) and with a precocious young daughter to care for, he comes up with a desperate scheme to make money, one that he shares with his taciturn one-armed war veteran brother, Clyde (Adam Driver). The two of them will rob the Coca Cola 600 Race in Charlotte, Virginia, a massive sporting event that generates millions of dollars. Clyde decides that he’s ‘in’ but, to carry out the robbery, the brothers will need to enlist the services of infamous explosives expert, Joe Bang (Daniel Craig, as you have never seen him before). Only problem is, Joe is already doing time for other misdemeanours, so the brothers will need to break him out of jail, do the heist and get him back inside without his presence being missed. Complicated? You bet. Impossible? Well, it’s going to take some planning and, of course, this is exactly the kind of premise that Soderbergh loves to play with.

There’s plenty here to enjoy. Tatum and Driver work well together, even if they are the most unlikely film siblings since Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito. Riley Keough puts in an appealing performance  as Jimmy’s resourceful sister, Mellie, and both Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson are brilliant as Joe’s dumb-and-dumber brothers, Fish and Sam, who Joe insists must be brought on board to help expedite the robbery. And Craig really does have a whale of a time as the outlandish explosives expert, addicted to eating hard boiled eggs and able to create explosives from the most innocuous ingredients. Gummy Bears? Who knew?

But not everything in the mix is perfect. I could have done without Seth MacFarlane’s oafish Max Chilblane, sporting an English accent that’s almost as bad as the one employed by Don Cheadle in the Oceans movies. Hilary Swank is mostly wasted in the role of a ruthless investigator trying to nail the perpetrators of ‘the Hillbilly Heist’, given little to do but stand around and glower at people and, in my opinion – at just under two hours – the film is about thirty minutes too long. A leaner, meaner narrative would have helped no end here, but perhaps I’m quibbling. This is a very enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours in the cinema and there’s no doubt that Soderbergh has returned to the movie business with a palpable hit.

What next for him, I wonder? Another ‘retirement?’ More TV? And that branching narrative he keeps mentioning? We’ll just have to wait and see.

4 stars

Philip Caveney