Friday, August 18, 2017

Step: Moves to a terrific beat

Step (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for thematic elements

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.18.17

Far too many years have passed, since we’ve been enchanted by feel-good performing arts documentaries such as Mad Hot Ballroom (2005) and Young@Heart (2007).

We also need reminding — particularly these days — of the value, power and rewards to be experienced, when people work hard toward a common goal.

All eyes are on their (unseen) coach, as she demonstrates a routine for the performance
piece being rehearsed by members of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young
Women's step class; the participants include Tayla (standing, foreground) and Cori
(also standing, center left)
All of which makes Step a welcome addition to the big-screen documentary family. Director Amanda Lipitz’s film is both celebratory and at times painfully intimate: a raw, mostly unvarnished window into the lives of inner-city families that barely tread water, while attempting — often with limited success — to do better by their children.

The setting is the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW), the city’s first all-female public charter, which opened in 2009 with enough space for just 120 students. The school boasts a motto — “Transforming Baltimore one young woman at a time” — that is just as ambitious as its goal: to graduate 100 percent of its high school senior class, and send all of them to college.

This film depicts events taking place during the 2015-16 academic year, as BLSYW prepares to graduate the 60 members of its entering class who’ve become high school seniors. Lipitz, one of the numerous volunteers who helped found the school, actually began shooting footage in 2009; that’s when she discovered that a subset of sixth-graders had formed a step team, soon to be known as the Lethal Ladies of Baltimore.

Lipitz, already a veteran documentarian, knew that she’d found her narrative hook.

After a bit of vintage footage introduces the youthful step team, and briefly explains the school’s purpose and origin, Lipitz brings us to the beginning of the girls’ senior year. They’re introduced to a demanding new step mentor, Coach G (Gari McIntyre), who bluntly insists that everybody needs to do much, much better, in the wake of a disappointing junior year that saw many of the girls slacking off.

Team leader Blessin Giraldo all but abandoned her post that year, cutting school frequently enough to jeopardize her academic standing.

Blessin is one of three students profiled extensively, along with their families, during the course of this film. She’s a tough cookie with a chip on her shoulder: a talented step performer who nonetheless feels “stuck” at school and at home. She makes repeated promises to do better, but her subsequent behavior belies such claims. She’s not dumb; she tearfully recognizes the consequences of sloppy effort, particularly during frequent meetings with tenacious BLSYW college counselor Paula Dofat (who deserves sainthood for patience and understanding, and is by far this film’s most engaging adult).

But when push comes to shove, Blessin is too easily distracted, and too prone to impulsive behavior. She comes by it honestly; her single mother, remarkably candid on camera, laments the degree to which her daughter takes after her. Blessin is fortunate to have several other adult relatives at close quarters — all women — but we worry that she’ll nonetheless fall through the cracks.

Friday, August 11, 2017

An Inconvenient Sequel: On the road again, with Al Gore

An Inconvenient Sequel (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.11.17


Accidentally or intentionally, justifiably or unfairly, in the moment or only through the lens of history, great events of progressive socio/economic change often become associated with a single individual.

Standing at the foot of Greenland's rapidly dwindling Russell Glacier, former U.S. Vice
President Al Gore sadly contemplates the implication of all this ice melt, and the impact
that so much water will have, throughout the world.
John Muir, and the modern environmental movement. Upton Sinclair, and working-class labor reform. Mahatma Gandhi, and nonviolent civil disobedience. Rosa Parks, and the civil rights movement.

Al Gore, and climate crisis.

That modifier is intentional and preferable, because the phrase “climate change” isn’t getting the job done; it’s much too passive. Human beings don’t respond to “change,” because it sounds slow, and therefore easy to ignore. Why bother, folks are inclined to think; it won’t matter during my lifetime.

A crisis, however, is an entirely different issue ... and the climate situation definitely is a crisis. At this point, nay-saying ostriches have about as much credibility as the Flat Earth Society, or those who believe Elvis still lives, or those who insist that the Moon landing was concocted on a secret Hollywood sound stage.

And yet there are so many nay-saying ostriches.

Everybody associates former U.S. vice president Al Gore with 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth, although director Davis Guggenheim certainly deserves much of the credit; he’s the one who carried home an Academy Award, a Humanitas Prize and dozens of film festival and Critics Circle awards. But Gore remains most associated with the film — no surprise — because it profiled his relentless march on the lecture and conference circuit, sounding the alarm about the dangers of global warming and climate crisis.

For the most part, he preached to the converted; the film frequently was ridiculed, in many cases reflexively, along political lines ... as if a pending global crisis were something that affected only Democrats and liberals, and could be ignored safely by Republicans and conservatives.

But the mere fact that An Inconvenient Truth provoked debate, was good enough. There’s also no question that the film played an important role in what has come to be known as the “sustainability revolution.”

Plenty of people also jeered at 1989’s Roger & Me, but — similarly — there’s no question that Michael Moore started something, and opened a lot of eyes.

The Glass Castle: A shattering family dynamic

The Glass Castle (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and generously, for dramatic intensity, family dysfunction, children in peril, and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

And I thought Detroit was hard to watch.

(It is. So’s this one.)

As Friedrich Nietzsche observed, That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.

Rex (Woody Harrelson, center), ever the ludicrous idealist, attempts to put a positive
spin on the dilapicated shack that his family is about to call hom; everybody else — from
left, Lori (Sadie Sink), Brian (Charlie Shotwell), Jeannette (Ella Anderson), Rose Mary
(Naomi Watts) and Maureen (Eden Grace Redfield) — is justifiably appalled.
Jeannette Walls must be pretty damn strong.

Walls’ riveting — and frequently heartbreaking — 2005 account of a childhood spent with nomadic and unstable parents remained a fixture on the New York Times Best Seller list for an astonishing 261 weeks. The book is a deeply personal memoir told with grace, perceptive intelligence and unexpected wit; it leaves readers not only with great respect for Walls — and her three siblings — as survivors, but also emphasizes the spiritual importance of closure and forgiveness.

Most readers undoubtedly finished the final pages with awe, thinking, You’re a better, nobler soul than I, Ms. Walls.

Her book has been transformed into an equally compelling film by up-and-coming director Destin Daniel Cretton, who with co-scripter Andrew Lanham has distilled the crucial essence and vitality of Walls’ book, while miraculously finding the heart of a saga that feels unrelentingly tragic. Granted, he had help: not only from his three primary stars, but also from an impressively well-selected collection of young actors.

Everybody turns in a masterful, thoroughly persuasive performance. Which, of course, makes the film that much harder to watch.

Cretton begins his film in 1989. Jeannette (Brie Larson) is polished, poised and refined: every inch a late twentysomething Manhattan journalist, regaling friends and professional acquaintances with often hilarious tales of her encounters while penning the “Intelligencer” column for New York magazine. She’s engaged to marry David (Max Greenfield), an ambitious financial advisor on the fast track to Big Apple aristocracy.

But we sense something. Jeannette is too elegant: less a human being and more a porcelain doll. Larson’s features are frozen, and she moves with a stiffness that suggests fragility, and the possibility that she might shatter at any moment.

A chance encounter during a late-night taxi ride home calls up memories, at which point Cretton establishes the format for his narrative: Jeannette’s saga will bounce back and forth, from present to past, until the two intersect.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Detroit: City in flames

Detroit (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for strong violence, dramatic intensity, pervasive profanity and fleeting nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.4.17

Very few dramatic films — as distinguished from documentaries — have left me feeling nauseous, in response to the monstrous behavior of human beings.

Schindler’s List is one; that was a quarter-century ago.

Racist cop Philip Krauss (Will Poulter, center left) gleefully takes charge of the lit-fuse
"interrogation" of half a dozen wholly innocent Algiers Motel residents, using the greater
Detroit riot as an excuse to terrorize and torture them.
Detroit is the most recent; that was a few nights ago.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal both took home well-deserved Academy Awards for 2009’s The Hurt Locker; they re-teamed for 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, their equally mesmerizing portrayal of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, which concluded with his death during a Navy SEAL raid in May 2011.

The latter film lost some of its luster — and probably a few Oscars — due to political sniping over the accuracy of the CIA’s depicted use of torture (an accusation that still seems specious, given that relevant documents remain classified). That controversy tainted a film that deserves better recognition both as a nail-biting drama, and for having gotten “the important stuff” right.

Bigelow and Boal may run into the same problem with Detroit, which would be an even greater tragedy. Although their riveting new film shines a necessary spotlight on a grievously under-remembered tragedy in American history — the so-called 12th Street Riot, which consumed Detroit, Mich., from July 23-27, 1967 — Boal’s script suffers somewhat from tunnel vision, differs at times from long-established eyewitness accounts, and in one conspicuous case succumbs to flat-out speculation.

We experienced this problem with 2000’s The Perfect Storm, which detailed the real-world fate of the fishing vessel Andrea Gail, lost at sea during the nor’easter that developed in late October 1991. The paradox was obvious: Since everybody on board died, nobody could possibly know what actually happened during the boat’s final hours. That didn’t diminish the film’s impact, but one had to acknowledge the contrivance of its entire third act.

Bigelow and Boal obviously are aware of the liberties taken here, and concerned enough to conclude their film with a text block that acknowledges “necessary” extrapolation.

I hope that’s good enough, because it would be awful if Detroit were caught up in petty arguments over detail, thereby obscuring the incontrovertible, big-picture degree to which clearly innocent, mostly black civilians were brutalized by blatantly racist, thuggish white cops during a particularly ghastly incident triggered during the riot.

Kidnap: Race with the devils

Kidnap (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for violence, dramatic intensity and profanity

By Derrick Bang

At his syndicated prime, Joe Bob Briggs would have been all over this one.

Kidnap is a classic drive-in exploitation flick: gratuitously violent, wholly preposterous and at times laughably acted ... but you gotta give director Luis Prieto credit for momentum, and for cunningly winding up his viewers.

Karla (Halle Berry) spends most of this film's vehicular pursuit looking ahead, toward the
car that contains her kidnapped son ... except when the baddies in that car do something
dreadful to other folks.
And for knowing when to get off the stage. At a revved-up 82 minutes, his film certainly doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Matters could have been improved considerably, however, had Prieto bothered to find a better writer. First-time scripter Knate Lee may have delivered a smashing concept pitch, but his dialogue is atrocious ... particularly during the first act, when star Halle Berry spends far too much time talking to herself (by way of — needlessly — telling us stuff that we already know).

Berry’s clumsy, unpersuasive delivery doesn’t help the situation. She’s far more convincing during the final act, when she talks less and relies more on mama-bear fury. By that point, you should expect to hear repeated shouts of “You go, girl!” from the audience.

And you’ll probably be perched at the edge of your own seat, as well.

Prieto opens his film with a sickly sweet montage that demonstrates the depth of Karla Dyson’s (Berry) devotion to her son Frankie, from birth to adorable young kidhood. Now played winningly by Sage Correa, the bespectacled Frankie is every inch the lovable, trusting and achingly vulnerable little boy.

Karla, alas, scrambles as a hard-working New Orleans waitress and single mother, often taking double shifts just to make ends meet, and embroiled in a custody battle with her ex and his new girlfriend. Both are much more financially stable.

The latter subplot, apparently introduced for character depth, goes absolutely nowhere. It’s entirely superfluous and offers no closure. Sloppy.

A rare shared afternoon’s fun at the magnificent City Park grants Karla and Frankie some quality time, until her attention briefly wanders while taking a phone call from her divorce attorney. But that’s enough for Frankie to vanish, Karla’s initial concern igniting into full-blown panic when she sees her son being hauled into a scruffy hatchback by an even scruffier woman.

An unseen driver roars out of the parking lot, but Karla is close enough to her minivan to hop in and give chase.

And “chase” is rather an understatement.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Atomic Blonde: A noisy bomb

Atomic Blonde (2017) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for strong violence, nudity, sexuality and relentless profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.28.17

British author Antony Johnston obviously grew up reading John Le Carré, because his 2012 graphic novel — The Coldest City, with moody art by Sam Hart — is laden with the sort of spycraft that George Smiley would have recognized: bleak cynicism, operatives known only by code names, squabbling between Intelligence Agency factions, cut-outs, traitors and double-crosses.

It's just another day in the office for Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), as she tries
to prevent KGB thugs from reaching — and killing — the defecting East German
intelligence officer under her protection.
The story takes place in Berlin in November 1989, immediately before and after East and West are unified. An undercover MI6 agent is killed trying to bring invaluable information back to the British: a list believed to identify every espionage agent working on both sides of the wall. Veteran undercover operative Lorraine Broughton is sent to Berlin, to retrieve the list and identify her colleague’s killer; her task is complicated by the chaos of mass demonstrations calling for unification, while KGB loyalists resist with increasing viciousness.

Definitely a hook on which to hang a slick, thoughtful espionage saga.

Too bad director David Leitch and scripter Kurt Johnstad didn’t see it that way.

They’ve essentially re-cast 2014’s loathsomely violent John Wick with a female lead, and the briefest of nods to genre spycraft. (No surprise there, since Leitch was an uncredited co-director on the first Wick.) The distinction is immediately obvious with a name change — Atomic Blonde — that more accurately reflects star Charlize Theron’s luminously white hairstyle, and the luxuriously wild outfits that she wears so well: most of them also vibrant white, with striking black accoutrements. Costume designer Cindy Evans, take a bow.

The Berlin setting is persuasively reproduced by production designer David Scheunemann; cinematographer Jonathan Sela deserves equal credit for gritty street scenes, strobe-lit nightclubs and shadow-laden noir tableaus. No question: This film looks terrific, and feels like the ideal backdrop for cloak-and-dagger subterfuge.

But Leitch has no finer sensibilities. His film is flashy trash: violent, tawdry and depressingly nihilistic. Midway through this two-hour exercise in brutality, it becomes impossible to keep track of who’s good, bad or in between; Johnstad’s script keeps changing its mind, seemingly on every other page.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Dunkirk: An intense, masterful drama

Dunkirk (2017) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated PG-13, for intense war violence and occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.21.17

Christopher Nolan doesn’t merely spin a crackling good yarn; he tells it in a provocative, wildly imaginative manner.

Thousands of Allied soldiers wait anxiously on the "mole" — a narrow, kilometer-long,
wood-boarded breakwater that pokes precariously out into the cold waters of the
English Channel — while praying they'll be able to board a rescue ship before being
strafed by Luftwaffe Messerschmitts.
His fascination with nonlinear storytelling began with Following and Memento — the latter ingeniously unfolding both forwards and backwards — and ultimately became too much in Inception (a dream within a fantasy within a head trip within a nod to Orson Welles ... quite overcooked, but audacious nonetheless).

Dunkirk does not succumb to such excess, although some viewers may be perplexed by how its three parallel storylines intersect ... until the penny drops, resulting in a richly satisfying — dare I say exhilarating — A-ha! moment.

This film is a masterpiece: a compelling, ingeniously conceived and choreographed slice of suspenseful, nail-biting history transformed into a thoroughly absorbing drama. Everything connects here, starting with the superlative work turned in by a huge ensemble cast composed primarily of unfamiliar faces and a few high-profile character actors.

Nolan both wrote and directed this stunning slice of edge-of-the-seat cinema, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he also came up with the attention-grabbing tag line: “When 400,000 men couldn’t get home ... home came for them.”

Remember being riveted, in 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, by Steven Spielberg’s 20-minute handling of the Normandy Beach landing sequence?

Nolan ups that ante. Dunkirk maintains that level of suspense and peek-between-your-fingers anxiety for its full 106 minutes. You literally dare not blink during his ticking-clock handling of simultaneous narratives that come together brilliantly, in time for a climax that’s no less triumphant, for our prior knowledge of how the story concludes.

The drama comes from the skillfully sketched, ground-level characters, whose fates we most definitely don’t know, history notwithstanding.

This is a snapshot of a seminal event during the early days of World War II: an incident that began with a ghastly military disaster, but concluded with an amazing miracle that demonstrated anew — here’s a lesson worth repeating — how individual civilians absolutely can make a massive, heroic difference.