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.

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.



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.

THE BIG SICK (Movie Review)

**** out of ****
Rated R
(for strong language including some sexual references)
Released:  June 23, 2017 limited; July 14 expands
Runtime: 124 minutes
Director: Michael Showalter
Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, Adeel Akhtar, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler

It’s rare to have a romantic comedy barrel into theaters aboard the kind of hype train that The Big Sick arrived on. Given the genre’s dearth of quality this millennium (especially following the 1990s Golden Age), it’s easy to forgive a bit of gushing hyperbole. Except in this case, the hype is not overstated. It’s real.

This Sundance Film Festival sensation is not only the best romantic comedy in years – and probably of the young century – but it will be impossible to talk about The Best Films of 2017 without having The Big Sick squarely at the heart of that conversation.

The intriguing hook here is three-fold: the guy of the “meet cute” is Pakistani, the woman he meets then falls into a coma about halfway through, and it’s all based on the real love story of its two screenwriters. One of them, Kumail Nanjiani (HBO’s Silicon Valley), also stars.

These idiosyncratic elements certainly make the film something special in its own right, but here’s what renders The Big Sick as truly distinct: the characters are so rich, so honest, and so true that they’d stand out even without the Pakistani heritage or the Arranged Marriage curveball that comes along with it. The couple’s spark, and their romance, is so authentic and alive that it’d be unique even without the coma blindside.

In short, The Big Sick works on every conceivable level (and works in every conceivable trope) that you’d want from a romantic comedy, but then it goes somewhere further. By the end, it actually touches on ideas that are not only timely, but wise and challenging.

Set in Chicago, Nanjiani keeps his first name in this autobiographically fictionalized version of himself, as does the character of Emily, played here by Zoe Kazan in a deeply emotional performance that ranges from endearing to searing. After Emily playfully heckles Kumail during one of his standup routines, the two strike an instant spark and become blissfully obsessed with each other in short order.

Looming over their soulmate kismet is the fact that Kumail’s parents, as first generation immigrants, expect him to marry within their Muslim faith and to a fellow Pakistani. The prospects for an arranged marriage are presented to Kumail via regularly scheduled dinners that serve as auditions. Kumail goes through these motions with no intention to follow through, but he doesn’t have the guts to tell either his family or Emily about where he stands, let alone tell them about each other.

This tightrope scenario is further complicated when an unknown sickness hospitalizes Emily, requiring her to be sedated in an induced coma. Her North Carolinian parents (Holly Hunter, Ray Romano) fly in for support, but friction and suspicions between them and Kumail compound the circumstances.

As serious as all of that sounds (and it is), a plot description inaccurately undercuts how funny this movie actually is. It’s hilarious throughout, from the early stages of Kumail and Emily’s romance to the niche world of standup comedy and its backstage subculture (real-life comic Bo Burnham and SNL’s Aidy Bryant are standouts here).

The chemistry between Nanjiani and Kazan is so vibrant, so effortless and organic, with flirting and banter so natural that it’s difficult to imagine the chemistry between the real Kumail and Emily being any more potent. Nanjiani and Kazan capture whatever he and his wife have, like lightning in a bottle.

Given how personal this story is for the screenwriters and its lead actor, it’d be easy to assume that director Michael Showalter is merely a facilitator. That assumption would be wrong, and grossly unfair. On the contrary, between this and his previous Sally Field indie Hello, My Name is Doris, Showalter has confidently graduated from sketch comedy roots to become a legitimate filmmaker, one with an insightful touch that elevates even top tier talent, bringing out the best of seasoned A-listers.

As circumstances turn, and the two leads bare their hearts and souls – along with Hunter and Romano – the screenplay still manages to deftly maintain its comedic wit, including the first credible 9/11 joke you’ve ever heard, earning the film’s biggest laugh (which is saying something). The humor, however, is not dark or gallows; it’s clever and appropriate, which is an even bigger feat.

And yet the dramatic stakes remain real, not just in regard to Emily’s health crisis but to the relationship barriers that must be confronted, regardless of her outcome. It’s in this that The Big Sick becomes more than a first rate Rom-Com. It’s honest and raw about how tragic events bring clarity to things we overcomplicate.

It’s also about Kumail becoming a man, growing a spine, acting like a man, and how life-and-death circumstances require maturation (not to mention wishing we’d had that maturity before life forced it upon us). Exercising character and integrity doesn’t instantly become easier, but it does become necessary. A man doesn’t avoid or run from these necessary decisions; he makes them, with resolve but also humility. For Kumail, the journey becomes unexpectedly formative.

It’s highly commendable too, and increasingly rare, that religious faith and tradition are not marginalized. They’re genuinely respected, as are their adherents. This is where The Big Sick offers up its timely wisdom.

Each of us holds true to certain values and, in good conscience, cannot bend from certain convictions. What Kumail’s, Emily’s, and their families’ story beautifully conveys is that, gasp, there’s nothing wrong with that. Being devout and pious doesn’t make someone inherently backwards or bigoted. Here’s what’s important: when we reach an intransigent impasse with the people we love, we keep loving each other anyway.

Love may not conquer all, but it does keep us united. That’s what The Big Sick is really about. In our toxically divisive times, I can’t imagine a more relevant or unifying virtue than that.

THE DARK TOWER (Movie Review)

**1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for thematic material including sequences of gun violence and action, and language)
Released:  August 4, 2017
Runtime: 95 minutes
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Starring: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Jackie Earle Haley, Katheryn Winnick

Forget what you’ve heard: as pulpy entertainments go, The Dark Tower is a pretty decent diversion.

Not having read Stephen King’s eight-book multiverse saga, I couldn’t tell you how much this brisk 90-minute adaptation butchers its source, though it’s safe to assume that it does. Taken on its own terms, however, The Dark Tower is a simple, sleek genre mash-up that should satisfy popcorn chompers just fine.

It’s impressive, actually, how director Nikolaj Arcel effectively distills the labyrinth narrative’s core premise, A tall, dark tower stands at the center of space and time, holding the universe together. As long as it stands so does existence, but if the tower falls then say goodbye to everything.

Legend has it that the mind of a child may be able to bring it down. A malevolent supernatural figure called The Man In Black (Matthew McConaughey) abducts children and brings them to his lair in another dimension to see if their brains can be the key to trigger his apocalyptic ends.

Standing against these schemes is the last Gunslinger (Idris Elba), a defender of the Tower. He comes to the aid of Jake Chambers, a boy whose psychic connection to this great beyond could be turned to cataclysmic means if the Man In Black gets to him first.

It’s your basic Good vs. Evil construct, told via a Western/Sci-Fi genre fusion.

To strip this down, Arcel’s movie is (by all accounts) not an adaptation of what King has written but, simply, a sequel to it of sorts, or at least a new story that essentially lives and exists in this same mythos. Whatever the depths of King’s multiverse are, they’re barely scratched here. This movie isn’t particularly obsessed with world-building.

That, understandably, should disappoint fans and even frustrate newcomers who’d be curious to see a full-fledged introduction to what King created, but the limited story told here stays within its means, and works.

Even so, those limits are obvious, most notably in how the Tower itself remains uncharted. It’s never explored, visually or narratively, reducing this crucial titular centerpiece to nothing more than a monolithic McGuffin. The climax, too, is so, er, anti-climactic that it’s a cheat, but the drop-off to that letdown isn’t very steep.

What’s left are the three central characters, and whatever sense of style director Arcel can bring to the material. All things considered, they all acquit themselves rather well.

McConaughey brings a more sinister authenticity to his evil archetype than the trailer’s scenery-chewing clips suggested, as Arcel leaves many takes seen in the promos on the cutting room floor in lieu of more restrained options. The Man In Black is still a creature of genre, but McConaughey calibrates him well. Tom Taylor is convincing, too, never obnoxiously precocious as the kid who gets caught up in this middle of this cosmic struggle.

Elba, however, is the hero in more ways than one, bringing a true mythic quality to his role as the Gunslinger. There’s a rugged swagger to his persona, from an Eastwood-like stoicism to a dry Ford-like sense of humor. He brings a great physical command to the role as well, brandishing his superbly designed and tailored costume – along with his weaponry – as well as anyone since Keanu Reeves in The Matrix.

Arcel proves himself a solid stylist, never resorting to slow/fast time-ramping (that’s Zack Synder’s crutch) or chaotic (Michael) Bayhem. Clear, well-shot action cut together fluidly, with straightforward yet inventively slick slow-motion grandeur, Arcel’s direction is more than adequate. It’s legitimately satisfying.

The Dark Tower doesn’t do justice to the Tolkien-sized world that King’s books built. Shoot, it barely does justice to what Elba brings to the screen, and it won’t leave anyone hungry for more. But it should leave the average moviegoer thrilled by the time they spent, even if the ride is also instantly forgettable.

LADY MACBETH (Movie Review)

** out of ****
Rated R
(for some disturbing violence, strong sexuality/nudity, and language)
Released:  July 14, 2017 limited; expands August 4
Runtime: 89 minutes
Director: William Oldroyd
Starring: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank, Golda Rosheuvel

Shakespeare, it ain’t. Literally.

A 19th Century period piece set in rural England, this Lady Macbeth isn’t an adaptation of “Macbeth” from a different point of view, nor does it have any direct association to the infamous wife of the doomed would-be Scottish king. Confidently mounted though it may be, and executed with palpable dread, Lady Macbeth is not worthy of the source it references. To put it bluntly (as this movie does), it’s basically sick.

More nihilistic Brontë than Bard, Lady Macbeth is the story of a young English woman named Katherine who’s sold into marriage with an older abusive husband. Confined to the house and kept on a tight suffocating leash even within that, Katherine rebels against the stifling oppression by taking on a torrid sexual affair with one of the servants.

This triggers a path of obsession that goes to dark, unpredictable places as the spiraling journey corrupts her soul.

Much of the film’s first half is a raw look at Katherine’s life, one much more brutal than mere quiet desperation. It depicts the cruel privilege of pre-modern patriarchy, with Katherine as the victim.

She is, essentially, a house accessory by day and human sex doll for her husband by night. Katherine’s humanity is debased at every single moment. This paradigm expands to the servants as well, seen in a moment when Katherine catches the men abusing a maid for their pleasure.

The experience is unsettling to watch and it only gets worse, at times bordering on Art House Torture Porn, all to no thematic virtue. It’s as if director William Oldroyd graduated magna cum laude from The Michael Haneke School of Cinematic Sadism, and this is his thesis project debut.

It’s an exercise that’s pointlessly provocative, with a villain that’s nothing more than a melodramatic strawman, in which inhumane sexual tyranny is met with callous, twisted revenge.

The final act adds a layer that holds the potential of some humanity, even redemption, but Oldroyd takes it in the exact opposite direction, doubling down on the brutality, compounding it with selfishness, and turning Katherine into an anti-heroine unnecessarily, not to mention offensively. The climax will straight piss you off.

To the extent the title is valid, Katherine initially wields a strength to do what needs to be done, a resolve that the men around her lack. In the end, however, she never carries the guilt of this film’s iconic namesake.

The young Florence Pugh gives a powerhouse performance; so commanding is her turn in the titular lead that it appears destined to be the first of many in an instantly promising career.

But beyond being a showcase for a should-be future star, Lady Macbeth is, well, to quote “Macbeth”, a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.