LOGAN LUCKY (Movie Review)

**1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for language and some crude comments)
Released:  August 18, 2017
Runtime: 119 minutes
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Riley Keough, Katie Holmes, Katherine Waterston, Seth MacFarlane, Hilary Swank, Jack Quaid, Brian Gleeson, Farrah Mackenzie

Critics are gushing like fanboys over Logan Lucky, the return of director Steven Soderbergh to the big screen following a self-imposed retirement that lasted all but four years (in which he produced an entire TV series, The Knick).

I embrace the comeback, too, one that seemed inevitable, but it’s harder for me to give a pass for the loose, at times lazy movie that marks it. One wonders, had this been Soderbergh’s last film before retiring instead of his first one after it, if the consensus reception would’ve been “yeah, it kinda seems like he’s ready to”.

Simply put, Logan Lucky is the kind of movie that Soderbergh can make in his sleep, and it often feels like that’s exactly what he’s done.

Truth be told, Logan Lucky exists for an endgame beyond itself. Soderbergh is back because he’s devised a way to make movies outside of the studio system on a mid-range budget, the kind that studios have all but abandoned, too small and marginal for Hollywood but also too big for indie investors to wholly finance. (You can read more about it here on Salon.)

The endeavor could be game-changing. The movie, not so much.

A white trash Ocean’s Eleven, this hillbilly heist is well-worn territory for Soderbergh, one where you can still see some of his strengths. The most obvious is the intricate construction of the heist itself, an underground robbery of the Charlotte Motor Speedway on its busiest day of the year. It’s a marvelously conceived concoction that, once set in motion, almost makes up for the dirge it takes to get there. (Almost.) It boasts clever turns with unexpected altruism.

The unfortunate surprises are new weaknesses. When Soderbergh goes commercial, his capers are taut machines. It’s his experimental efforts that breathe more, sometimes cryptically, but always with intent. Here, however, the reins are slack. Logan Lucky is a two-hour movie that has no business being longer than 90 minutes.

Amiable to a fault, the first hour is often lethargic, establishing characters that aren’t really interesting or unique, belaboring setups beyond necessity, and rolling out rural tropes right down to kindergarten beauty pageants, all played with caricatured performances that lay the Appalachia on too thick to ever become endearing.

The southern fried shtick of the all-star cast is forced, with up-and-coming Riley Keough (granddaughter of Elvis Presley) being about the only one who feels authentically connected to this world. Channing Tatum does, too (and should, given his poor youth in the South), but the conventional script doesn’t do him any favors (dialogue especially).

Everyone else feels like a fish out of water, not least of which is Soderbergh himself. Broad and simplistic, Logan Lucky plays like an outsider’s hunch of what NASCAR Nation is like.

There’s affection for these people, not condescension, and even some genuine humanity, but it’s never actually convincing. Soderbergh stumbles in a niche subculture more suited for the Coen Brothers, unable to modulate performances or his straightforward tone in a way that reveals layers beneath the surface quirk.

Soderbergh’s heart doesn’t seem to be in the filmmaking either. The saturated, at times moody color palette is definitely his, but it’s shot more workmanlike, lacking visual inspiration, and edited the same way.

Logan Lucky, then, isn’t a passion project that compelled Soderbergh back to the movies; it’s an easy endeavor, squarely in the filmmaker’s wheelhouse, that plays strictly for commercial appeal. Aiming for box office isn’t selling out but, in this case, it’s the safest means to an end for a start-up venture. The cast isn’t so much acting for Soderbergh as doing him a big favor.

The meta-con here is that Logan Lucky is a film that exists to prop up a new business model. As a moviegoer, you’d prefer that it’d work the other way around.


BRIGSBY BEAR (Movie Review)

*** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for thematic elements, language, brief sexuality, drug material, and teen partying)
Released:  August 18, 2017
Runtime: 100 minutes
Director: Dave McCary
Starring: Kyle Mooney, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear, Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, Ryan Simpkins, Alexa Demie, Claire Danes, Beck Bennett

This isn’t your typical transition from small screen to big for a cast member of Saturday Night Live, but then Kyle Mooney‘s never been your typical SNL cast member.

Sort of an anti-breakout star, Mooney’s unique brand of uncomfortable off-beat humor is more conceptual than joke-driven, causing his sketches to regularly land in the final barren slots of SNL broadcasts when only diehard viewers are still up and watching.

Despite never having a sketch character that’s struck the pop culture zeitgeist, Mooney has amassed a cult following of those eager to see what awkward quirk he comes up with next for SNL’s waning minutes. Given that, his launch into feature films was never going to follow the traditional path of stretching out a skit to feature length either. Instead, what we’ve finally been given is Brigsby Bear, a perfect vehicle for Mooney’s wheelhouse of heartfelt weirdness.

From a script co-written by Mooney and Kevin Costello, Brigsby Bear follows a young man’s passion for a fictional children’s show by that title, one he’s loved since childhood. The catch: that show is unknown to the world, as is the young man James Pope (Mooney). James has been raised in a literal bubble of sequestration by a couple (Mark Hamill, Jane Adams) that kidnapped him as a baby and have raised him as their own.

Fake Dad Hamill has produced “Brigsby Bear” on low-rent 1980s production values over the years. It has served as the primary entertainment for James but has also slipped in indoctrinating thought-patterns to keep James oblivious to the truth of his reality, and ignorant of the world.

When events lead to a disruption in the regular delivery of a new “Brigsby” episode, James becomes obsessed with finishing Brigsby’s story on his own. In the process, he becomes conscious of the wider world, and that world begins to discover that it has as much to learn from James’ innocence as he does from them, and probably even more so.

The details of how all that unfolds are best left for the experience of the film itself, particularly since Brigsby Bear is about the power of story, of myth, and of how fantasy prepares us to face reality.

Those simple formative stories of our childhood can become transformative in our adulthood, tapping into our innate nostalgic impulses and then transcending them, cleansing us and re-grounding us, if we soften our hearts and allow them to.

When taken seriously, as we once did in our innocence, these myths help us to regain sight of the purity we’ve lost, and the identities we’ve abandoned.

Director Dave McCary, a previous collaborator with Mooney, applies a twee tone that arcs from sinister to sweet along James’ journey. It’s effective though not as distinctive as it’s admirably striving to be; ambitious yet not quite as visionary as a Spike Jonze or Charlie Kaufman fable. But as the movie goes, it grows – and it grows on you.

By the final act, we’re given a really beautiful expression of what family is, of what it should be, and the grace found in a generosity that embraces people for who they are rather than what we’re hoping they’ll become.

Humor is mined from James’ extreme arrested development, as you’d expect, but eventually that’s also where the movie gets its heart, its soul, and its sincere challenge to become like a child again. Sure, that’s a nice sentiment, maybe even Pollyannaish, but Brigsby Bear makes a convincing case that it’s also wise. And, if we’re really honest, it’s necessary.

Lucasfilm Launches Development For OBI-WAN Anthology Movie (NEWS)


Ben there, doing that?

Lucasfilm is officially developing a brand new Star Wars anthology film that will focus on Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi. Rumored to be a possibility for a long time now, in large part due to prequel-star Ewan McGregor‘s outspoken desire to make one, Lucasfilm announced their plans to move forward with the concept.

Although no details were given (not even McGregor was confirmed in the press release), a lead creative has been tapped to spearhead the project: Stephen Daldry, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker of movies such as Billy Elliot, The Hours, and The Reader (those last two efforts earned Academy Awards for Nicole Kidman and Kate Winslet, respectively). Daldry is also an award-winning theatre director, and recently helmed early episodes of the Netflix series The Crown.

No deal has been finalized, but Daldry is negotiating to direct from a script that he writes (or at least oversees). The likelihood is that this latest Star Wars stand-alone would focus on Kenobi’s time as a hermit on Tatooine, between the events of Episodes III and IV, when the Jedi Master kept a distant eye on the young Luke Skywalker.

If this ends up being the approach, as most expect, it’ll be interesting to see if a young Luke Skywalker would be woven into that narrative as well, and if they’d cast a young boy as opposed to a young teenager. Going younger would allow Lucasfilm to pursue sequels if that first anthology effort strikes a chord.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that the story would go much further back to a very young Obi-Wan, perhaps with his master Qui-Gon Jinn, but that seems less likely as that’s not really the story that Star Wars fans are clamoring for. People want to see McGregor’s Kenobi outside of George Lucas’s flat tonal confines. Plus, McGregor would sell more tickets.

Whatever the Obi-Wan movie ends up being, let’s hope it’s some damn fool idealistic crusade.


STEP (Movie Review)

***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG
(for thematic elements and some language)
Released:  August 4, 2017 limited; August 18 wide
Runtime: 84 minutes
Director: Amanda Lipitz
Starring: Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger, Tayla Solomon, Gari “Coach G” McIntyre, Paula Dofat

Set against the backdrop of the 2015 Freddie Gray tragedy in Baltimore, what makes Step resonate even more today is that it opens wide in theaters just one week after the neo-Nazi protests of Charlottesville.

Step, a stirring documentary about an inner-city African-American dance troupe from an all-girls public charter school, only makes tangential reference to the Gray aftermath (for cultural context) and has nothing to do with white nationalists. Yet it now has a power that director Amanda Lipitz and her real-life subjects couldn’t have possibly imagined.

On the surface, recent films like Detroit, Moonlight, and Selma are more thematically relevant to our cultural divide, and seminal documentaries such as O.J.: Made in America, 13th, and I Am Not Your Negro have more to say about U.S. racial tensions that continue in the 21st Century.

But when it comes to a movie that can actually affect change, Step transcends them all. How is that even possible? It comes down to something pretty simple, and fundamental: those other movies are protests against injustice, but Step is an answer to it.

It’s an answer because its basis is proactive, not reactive. What we see isn’t a response to a wrong; it’s an institutional pre-emptive strike against a vicious generational cycle that still plagues this nation, stemming from its original sin.

You may watch the news, feel hopeless, and wonder, “What on earth can possibly be done?” When you watch Step, you’ll actually see the answer. This. This. A thousand times this. What the heroes of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women are doing, please, for the love of God, duplicate that over and over, anywhere and everywhere, again and again and again.

In 2009, that educational experiment in the heart of Baltimore began, a publicly funded charter school with the core purpose to not simply graduate every one of its young female students but to also get them into colleges (a first for most of their families).

The 2015-16 school year marked the first graduating class for BLSYW. Step follows the stories of three seniors from the school’s dance squad – Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger, and Tayla Solomon – through academic and personal challenges, and their team’s pursuit of a first ever scholarship competition title for the aptly named “Lethal Ladies of BLSYW”.

Blessin is charisma incarnate, a founder of the Lethal Ladies that stacks her Bible and Bob Fosse book together, but her passion is also volatile, as much a strength as a liability, making her the most challenging academic project. Cori is the exact opposite, a quiet type striving for valedictorian whose involvement in dance is outside her comfort zone. Tayla is somewhere in-between, a determined introvert who reflexively pushes back at authority but comes around to its wisdom.

This isn’t just about the girls; it’s also about the women who form them. We get to know the three mothers as much as their daughters, each who have fought and continue to overcome their own bad life choices. There’s also Paula Dofat, the school’s guidance counselor. She is an absolute gladiator (for and with each student) that strives to help girls reach their full potential. Dance team coach Gari McIntyre is the lynchpin that unifies them all, as much an advocate for the moms and administrators as she is the girls.

These are the women that raise, train, and mentor these young ladies of promise. They’re fighting for these girls, crying for these girls. It’s not always easy. The love is often tough, strict. There are hard lessons along with the uplifting ones; life victories, but also losses. The absence of men is glaring (save one loving stepdad), but that’s an issue for another time. Suffice it to say, that absence makes the fortitude and resolve by these women of all ages that much more inspiring.

The guidance these moms and mentors show is rooted in the truth that goals must have discipline, and vice versa. One without the other doesn’t work. Discipline alone is just discouraging, and goals alone only remain dreams. In turn, the gratitude the girls show to their teachers for this tough love, and the pride they have in their mothers, is a beautiful example of what happens when families and schools work together.

Along with the human stories, Step is a thoroughly persuasive argument for the politically-contentious issue of publicly funded charter schools. Those who oppose them have their agendas, but in light of movies like this (Waiting for “Superman” is another), those agendas wither. If you don’t walk away convinced that charter schools are a transformative societal good, I honestly don’t know what to tell you, other than to put politics aside, empower educators who will care and who will fight, and give disenfranchised kids an honest chance.

Step isn’t just a crowd-pleaser, it’s a life-changer. Movies and stories like these work so much better, and more powerfully, than any divisive, circular political debate. This isn’t theoretical; it’s real. The humanity is undeniable. How can a white supremacist watch something like Step and not at least question his ideology? Sure, there are some who’ve completely hardened their hearts beyond persuasion, but for those who’ve been raised to think a certain bigotry yet their hearts are still soft, and open, Step can work like a humbling epiphany.

Protests have their place, but we need hope. This is credible hope. Cable pundits and late night comics can spew their biased intellectual bile and snark all they want, and citizen slacktivists can tweet and post with a righteous moral superiority that earns them easy “like”s, but it’s these valiant teachers and warrior mothers that are actually making a difference.

The media is toxic noise. This is clarity. You want to know what I think and how I feel about what’s going on in our country right now? Simple: Step is what I think. Step is how I feel. Step is what I believe.

Adam Sandler Gets Serious In THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES On Netflix (VIDEO/IMAGES)

The Netflix/Adam Sandler partnership has been a disastrous collaboration. It looks like that’s about to change with The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).

Sandler co-stars with Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, and Emma Thompson in the new dysfunctional family drama from a filmmaker who knows how to make them, writer/director Noah Baumbach.

A frequent writing partner on Wes Anderson‘s films, Baumbach is more hit-and-miss with his own movies. But when he hits – in gems like Frances Ha or The Squid and the Whale (his best) – his well-observed character ensembles are some of the best New York stories this side of Woody Allen.

Following its premiere to rave reviews at the Cannes Film Festival this past spring, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) will debut on Netflix and in select theaters on October 13, 2017.

Click on any picture for larger image gallery.




Episode 12: Wars From The Past, On the Streets, the Sci-Fi Future, and Other Dimensions

For this edition of The OFCC Podcast, available on iTunes, our roundtable of critics from the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle return after a month off from podcasting to discuss the latest in movies for July and early August 2017.

You can also stream Episode 12 by clicking here.

On this episode, the critics include:

 The Dark Tower (starting at 1:10)
Detroit (at 13:00)
Dunkirk (at 28:44)
War for the Planet of the Apes (at 45:36)
The Big Sick (at 55:28)
A Ghost Story (at 1:03:30)
– Landline (at 1:10:22)

And brief thoughts on:
– Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (at 1:16:00)
– Maudie (at 1:20:50)
– Atomic Blonde (at 1:23:28)

Click here to subscribe through iTunes, and look for the August 11, 2017 episode.