I missed Buster’s Mal Heart last year at the Chattanooga Film Festival, a festival whose tastes almost always align with mine; as a result, when it showed up on Netflix, I figured it was worth checking out. A weird, twisty, psychological thriller starring Rami Malek (of Mr. Robot fame) and written/directed by Sarah Adina Smith, Buster unfolds in three separate stories whose connections are unclear for much of the film’s running time. In one, a heavily bearded Malek drifts in a rowboat on the ocean, screaming Spanish obscenities at the sky; in another, he plays a wandering drifter named Buster who’s wandering in and out of the houses of the rich. But in the main story, he plays Jonah, a hotel clerk whose marriage and relationship with his daughter is suffering under the strain of his night shifts and the influence of a wandering drifter (DJ Qualls) preaching about the evils of civilization.
It’s all an interesting enough setup, and Malek plays his parts incredibly well. But Buster’s Mal Heart is far less than the sum of its parts, with the ultimate connection between the story feeling meaningless and more than a bit pretentious, and some of the film’s other big moments ending up thudding and obvious. It all feels like it’s going for something profound, or at least mind-bendy, but instead, it just ends up muddled and dull, Malek’s performance aside, turning into something little more than a tired retread of ideas from better movies. Rating: **
I’m pretty glad that Steven Soderbergh is unable to retire, from a film fan point of view. As long as he’s working actively, I’m guaranteed a regular stream of interesting, engaging movies; more than that, he’s almost completely incapable of repeating himself (a couple of Ocean’s sequels aside), as Logan Lucky shows. It would be entirely easy for Soderbergh to retread Ocean’s 11 again; after all, this is a heist film at its core. But, instead of giving us a smooth, sophisticated con game, we get something more low-key and natural-feeling, which befits the different world of Logan Lucky. This isn’t high rollers and con men; this is the working poor, stealing to stay alive, and Soderbergh brings a more controlled, thoughtful approach to much of the film’s setup period.
Indeed, it’s fascinating how much the downturn in the economy has shaped recent Soderbergh films, from Magic Mike to The Girlfriend Experience, and Logan Lucky is perhaps the most explicit version of this to date, with Channing Tatum’s single working dad getting laid off due to insurance liability, and Adam Driver’s bartender only having one arm thanks to three tours in the Middle East, a job he took due to a lack of other options in the area. It’s never hammered on, but the subtext is impossible to ignore here, and it’s what keeps the movie from being the condescending look at the poor that some people have accused it of being. Soderbergh’s clearly got some cynical feelings about corporations and big business, culminating in a brief scene in the aftermath of the heist where we get the business’s side of it, and his sympathy is deeply with these characters. Does he find the comedy in them? Oh, undoubtedly – Logan Lucky is incredibly funny. But all of these people are smarter than you might first assume, and there’s an undeniable Robin Hood feeling to the heist – the poor robbing from the rich.
All of which adds up to a great heist movie, but something that’s also quintessentially Soderbergh – something more character-driven, more stylish, and more entertaining than the simple story would ever lead you to believe. I had a blast with it, and love that Soderbergh’s work ethic means he’s going to be churning out more movies for a long time to come. (Oh, and the famous Game of Thrones joke? It’s every bit as funny and wonderful as you’ve heard and then some.) Rating: **** ½
Before he made the incredible The Florida Project (my favorite movie of last year), director Sean Baker rose to fame with Tangerine, a dark comedy/drama that follows two transsesxual prostitutes on a Christmas Eve of manic events, largely orbiting around Sin-Dee’s (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) efforts to track down her pimp/boyfriend who cheated on her while she was in prison. At the time, I was never sure if Tangerine was famous because it was good, or because it was shot entirely on an iPhone and still looked pretty great; having seen it, I can tell you that it’s almost entirely the former.
Yes, Tangerine looks incredible, to the point where you probably won’t remember the iPhone shooting while you’re watching; it doesn’t hurt that Baker has such a great eye for finding the beauty in everyday images, as well as a cinephile’s eye for framing. But as he did in Tangerine, Baker creates a naturalistic, fleshed out world, one where you don’t feel like you’re watching a movie so much as trespassing in a whole society that we’re only barely privy to. As Sin-Dee and her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) make their way around the city – Sin-Dee hunting down her boyfriend, Alexandra trying to drum up audience interest in her performance that evening – we watch as they argue, talk at each other and everyone else, chat with old friends and new enemies, and just sort of exist. The result is a little more plot driven than Florida Project was – the two women have a full character arc each, as does Razmik (Karren Karagulian), a local cab driver who’s got his own life that weaves in and out with these women. Again working with primarily new faces, unknown actors, and inexperienced newcomers, Baker brings his world to life, depicting these lives without pity or judgment.
The end result is surprisingly funny; there’s no end of drama and screaming, but I ended up laughing at a huge amount of it, and there’s no denying that Alexandra’s dry commentary on half of the drama makes every scene all the better. But Baker finds the emotional core buried deep within the women, ending on a quiet scene that’s perfect in every way – a moment of tenderness, understanding, and peace in the middle of all of it. In a way, that’s Baker’s movies, too – an affectionate, nonjudgmental portrait of people we tend to overlook. Rating: *****