Logan Lucky – Film Review

Whether the rumor that screenwriter Rebecca Blunt is really a pseudonym for director Steven Soderbergh is difficult to say. Perhaps by the time you read this, someone, somewhere has unveiled the truth. But the real truth is, it doesn’t really matter; it’s a great screenplay, and it’s the backbone that makes this hillbilly heist comedy work so well. Logan Lucky is a riot, in the best sense.

Unlike the charm and sophistication of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven crowd, the characters in Logan Lucky are the polar opposite. Call them the Ocean’s 7-11; the film does. They’re the ones without the sharp clothes, the fancy technology, the money, or the health insurance. And, unlike the glam and glitz of the bars and restaurants of shiny Las Vegas, most of these characters hang out at the Duck Tape Bar & Grill.

Because of a limp that was never mentioned on his application form, down-on-his-luck divorced dad Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) loses his job filling up those pesky, underground sinkholes at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Someone in management noticed how Jimmy walked and considered it a pre-existing condition that was never declared. “They’re calling it a liability issue,” his boss tells him.

Getting fired is just one of a life-long list of unlucky events befallen both Jimmy and his slow-poke bartender brother, Clyde (Adam Driver), a man who lost his forearm while on duty in Iraq. Which is why robbing the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina during Memorial Day weekend sounds like such a good idea.

Because of his time working behind the scenes, Jimmy knows how the speedway money moves around. There’s an old-fashioned system of pneumatic tubes that travel underground, funneling the takings into a bank vault. Jimmy knows where to go and how to get there, but he needs help. With the aid of Clyde and a third Logan, their sister Mellie (Riley Keough), the three start rounding up the accomplices.

First there’s explosives and expert safe-cracker, Joe Bang (Daniel Craig, hilarious with a blonde buzzcut and a comically raw, redneck accent). He could help them get into the vault, except for one problem: Joe is in prison with five more months to serve. When Jimmy and Clyde visit him behind bars and begin by asking how’s it going, Joe replies, “I’m sitting on this side of the table wearing a onesie, how d’you think it’s going?” But Joe is intrigued with the plan. He wants in. The idea will be to help Joe escape, get him to the speedway, blow the vault, then get him back to prison before anyone notices he ever skedaddled out of there.

Then there’s Joe’s two younger brothers, Sam Bang (Brian Gleeson) and Fish Bang (Jack Quaid) who agree to help, a deal made while attending the toilet seat-tossing contest at the local county fair. Jimmy needs someone with a knowledge of computers. “I know all the twitters,” insists Fish.

Both the elaborate escape out of prison and the complications of the robbery itself are so surprisingly sophisticated, you reach a point where you can’t believe these idiots could ever plan such a thing, let alone pull it off. But with an approach that rests heavily on timing and everything going exactly as planned (and a considerable amount of information withheld from the audience), the brothers spring Joe from prison and make their way underground to the speedway without being seen. With no time to get his hands on a stick of dynamite, Joe improvises a blast using a plastic bag, a couple of bleach pens and some gummy bears. These truly are the thieving country-fried po’ folks of Charlotte. The funny thing is, after awhile, you want them to get away with it. And if they do, hopefully it will finally break the curse of the unlucky Logans.

There’s a lot more to Logan Lucky going on, and all of it is funny in one way or another, even if you’re not quite sure why there needed to be so many extra characters. There’s Jimmy’s ex gone a little upscale, Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes); an old friend from high-school, Sylvia (Katherine Waterston); a prison warden who refuses to let the outside world know there’s ever a problem within his complex, Warden Burns (Dwight Yoakam); a no-nonsense, straight-laced FBI agent who could easily be Joe Friday’s unknown grandchild, Special Agent Sarah Grayson (Hilary Swank, suspicious of everyone); an obnoxious London cockney racing car driver, Max Chilblain (an over-the-top Seth MacFarlane, just waiting for someone to break his nose); and several real-life recognizable NASCAR drivers, surprisingly not sitting behind a wheel at the speedway but humorously cast as state troopers, security guards, a limo driver and a deliver boy.

In many respects, the whole film feels like it’s all one big dead-pan joke, especially when during the credits there’s a disclaimer stating that during the film, no actual people were robbed of their money… except you. But no one’s being robbed here, least of all the audience. Logan Lucky is a fun time, and even though none of what you see could ever have possibly worked in the manner in which things occur, particular when planned and executed by these hee-haw heroes, like discovering the real identity of the screenwriter, it really doesn’t matter. Enjoy.

MPAA Rating:  PG-13   Length:  119 Minutes   Overall Rating:  8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

The Hitman’s Bodyguard – Film Review

A funny thing happened on the way to the court room. “My job is to keep you out of harm’s way,” states special protection agent Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) to the man he’s meant to protect. “I am harm’s way,” responds the client, hitman, Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson). It’s the best line in the film.

In the new action comedy from director Patrick Hughes, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, one of the world’s most notorious hitmen needs protection. Darious Kincaid is about to testify at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, The Netherlands. There’s a murderous Eastern European dictator (Gary Oldman) standing trial, and it will be Kincaid’s revealing testimony that should put him away. But it all depends on two things.

As long as there’s a pardon granted to Kincaid’s imprisoned wife, Sonia (Salma Hayek, in full, jaw-dropping, foul-mouthed glory) he’ll testify. But if he testifies, there’s another problem. Any witness who attempts to take the stand against the dictator somehow disappears or winds up dead before getting to the Dutch courts. Plus, there’s a time limit. Kincaid needs to get to The Hague before 5pm the next day or it’s case dismissed, and he’s still across the North Sea in London.

Knowing that not even the protection of Interpol agents will be enough, the authorities bring in professional aid; a triple-A rated executive protection agent. But that presents another problem; Agent Bryce and hitman Kincaid have history, and it’s not good. They hate each other, exacerbated by the fact that Kincaid tried to kill Bryce at least 28 times over the course of their professional relationship. “You’re about as useful as a condom in a convent,” declares Kincaid to Bryce.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard is really two films. The action comedy has action, then there’s the comedy, and then there’s the visible join. Writer Tom O’Connor’s script was originally a drama. But then the studios insisted on an emergency rewrite before filming. They wanted a comedy, like a buddy road movie where the two men making the journey hate each other, constantly squabble, throw insults, then by journey’s end develop a little respect, all while dodging bullets, cars, and explosives along the way. What was described as a “frantic” two-week rewrite turned a drama into a comedic bickering session punctuated with explosive action. But here it’s oil and water; they just don’t mix.

The comedy is more a series of aggressive insults where the majority of the punch-lines are delivered by Jackson as an f-bomb retort. Admittedly, Jackson’s voice and his in-your-face style has made an art out of making obscenities sound funny – the line doesn’t need wit, it just needs another mother-effer from Jackson and you’ll laugh – but there are no funny characters in The Hitman’s Bodyguard, nor any genuine funny lines, just Jackson at his most colorfully verbose, and Ryan playing the put-upon, frustrated, straight man trying to hold it together while hell breaks lose around him.

Director Hughes attempts to soften the line between the two styles by his use of music. When running through the streets of Holland that will eventually go from inside of stores, to motorbikes racing across the city’s bridges, to speed boats racing under them, all while dodging bazooka fire, the accompanying music is Spiderbait’s Black Betty which at the fade becomes Chuck Berry’s Little Queenie. When Jackson tells of how he met his wife, Sonia, as she crushed bones in a bar, smashed beer bottles and severed arteries with the glass, Lionel Richie’s melancholy Hello runs underneath. “It was the most amazing display of violence,” Kincaid declares, full of love and admiration for the psychopath he’ll soon be marrying. For Jackson’s character, it was love at first sight.

The action, the shoot-outs, the stunts and the non-stop, everlasting chases are certainly well-staged and executed, but they’re also excessively violent, way over-the-top, and way too long. Just when you think the film is practically over following another massively staged, violent chase through Holland, one that crushes boats, cars, has locals diving for cover, and sends bad guys’ bodies flying through the air, the film brings on yet one more that in sheer size tries to outdo every explosive stunt you’ve already seen. It doesn’t know when to say when. The film may benefit from great locations – London, the streets of Coventry, the canals of Amsterdam, The Hague – but all it can do when showing these sights is to blow them up within seconds of arrival, or cause a great deal of damage, with no consequences or any apparent damage to the main characters.

A few funny things really did happen on the way to the court room, only somewhere along the road it became too violent, and too mean spirited. And for something the studios wanted to turn into a comedy, not nearly funny enough.

MPAA Rating:  R   Length:  111 Minutes    Overall Rating:  5 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Shrek The Musical (2017) – Theatre Review: Valley Youth Theatre, Herberger Center, Phoenix

For many, it may feel as though it was only a few weeks back when director Bobb Cooper began Valley Youth Theatre’s 24th season of shows. It opened with a sparkling production of Shrek The Musical at Herberger Center downtown. But that was four years ago. From the perspective of VYT casting, a whole generation of young performers have moved on. Now, to begin its 28th season, and its 39th staging at the Heberger, Shrek The Musical returns, this time with a new generation of VYT talent, some of whom either saw the previous presentation and could only dream of appearing in a future production, or by those who were simply too young to remember what they were dreaming about as long ago as 2014.

A lot has changed. With new choreography, this time from Nathalie Velasquez, and an overall fresh approach to something that has now become a local perennial favorite, the opening night performance of Shrek The Musical was delivered with an unflagging energy that ultimately proved irresistible. Performed by a new, attractive ensemble of talent, some of whom may well join the ranks of previous VYT alumni who went on to make theatre a career, the show’s intention was always to be nothing more than brash, candy-coated entertainment, and that’s exactly what you’ll see.

Based on the 2001 animated feature, much of the comical pokes of Disney, and Disneyland in particular, are mostly gone, replaced by comical nods to other Broadway musicals such as Wicked, Dreamgirls, and Once Upon A Mattress. There’s even a reference to Babe – “That’ll do, Donkey, that’ll do” – and Judy Blume’s book Are You There God, It’s me, Margaret, when Princess Fiona sings, ‘Are you there, God, it’s me Fiona?” Presumably, much will go over the heads of the young, including many in the cast, but the older set should delight in the recognition. However, Disney doesn’t fully escape the ribbing. The opening song, Big Bright Beautiful World where a young Shrek sets out on his journey, remains a cheeky dig at Disney’s Carousel of Progress theme, A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow, though without Broadways’ revolving stage reflecting the movement of the theme park’s famous exhibit, the joke is no longer quite so apparent.

As is often the case with a VYT season opener at Herberger Center, production values are high, a continual reminder that what you’re witnessing is as removed from a high-school performance as any other professional production in the valley, despite the youth of the talent. Those familiar with the original Broadway show may notice how sets and certain scenes are understandably streamlined – there’s no huge talking Magic Mirror, and those nursery rhyme glimpses of a cow jumping over the moon, a dish running away with a spoon, plus the brief appearance of Lion King characters are all absent – but with atmospheric lighting, clever scenic designs, plus steam shooting up from near the orchestra pit representing a river of boiling lava below, the visual effects of a fairy tale world remain hugely effective.

Particularly eye-catching is the oversized dragon, operated by several young puppeteers. On mere appearance, it’s entrance is a genuine crowd-pleaser, and even though the movement of the puppet’s head and its mouth appear somewhat stiffer than its impressive arrival suggested it might be, the essence of the character’s colorful presence is made all the better by the powerful vocals of Emily Bowlby, giving voice to the dragon’s song, Forever (regionally replacing the character’s more elaborate Broadway number, Donkey Pot Pie).

The large cast of fairy tale creatures and the colorful citizens of Duloc, with their colorful costumes and their sharp, tightly performed song and dance numbers, give excellent support to the overall production. What’s Up, Duloc and Freak Flag are both outstanding. Yet as with VYT’s earlier production, director Cooper has once again cast four great, new talents as principle leads. Steven Enriquez, who was last seen with VYT as the Lion in The Wizard of Oz, is here even more impressive as Shrek. He may be hidden under layers of green makeup with a bald head, a fake, fat nose and bulbous belly stuffing, but his personality shines. When Shrek mistakenly believes he’s unloved by the princess, Enriquez’s convincing sense of rejection can’t help but make you feel genuinely sorry for him.

As the motor-mouthed Donkey, there’s always a tendency for performers to imitate Eddie Murphy’s undeniably powerful attack voice delivery from the 2001 film, but like all good theatrical interpretations, Brach Drew avoids imitation and makes the character his own. “I’m like a GPS with fur,” he declares.

Whoever plays the slight of stature Lord Faquaad automatically benefits from the hilarious sight of short, artificial legs while scampering around the stage on his knees. However, rather than relying solely with the gag of the visual (as some past performers are guilty of doing) with comical facial expressions and a keen sense of cartoonish malevolence, Jared Barbee’s individual interpretation is laugh-out-loud funny. He’s the brat who grows older but never up, both figuratively and literally.

But the center of attention by sheer energy alone is Addison Bowman as Princess Fiona. There’s an added moment during the show’s introductory song that was never in the Broadway show. It’s where Fiona suddenly interrupts the proceedings and indicates to the theatre tech crew up in the booth to cut the lighting on the sign hanging center stage that reads: Shrek. She’s letting us know that this is really the story of Princess Fiona, and she’s right. With this production, it is. With comical timing, an added level of muscular power behind her movements, a large dose of sass, and a great voice to boot, Addison steals the show. Her song, I Know It’s Today, sung from the balcony of the tower where she’s imprisoned with a young Fiona (Olivia Fearey) and a teen Fiona (Abby Cardenas) is a production highlight.

Shrek The Musical plays at Herberger Center Center Stage until August 27.

Picture Courtesy of Cliff Cesar

A Brief Footnote:

At the risk of sounding like an old theatrical curmudgeon, not to mention upsetting a few parents, allow an editorial indulgence.  While the discipline of the young cast is undisputed, the same can’t always be said for certain sections of the opening night audience. While enthusiastic applause, cheers, and overall support is always encouraged, just because you know someone on stage, high-pitched whooping, hollering, scream level woo-whooing, and the desire to make Broadway songs a participatory clap-along at every opportunity are not. Neither is taking private phone calls and talking as though the house is some kind of private phone booth. Please, these talented young performers are being given a rare opportunity of performing on a professional stage, for some it might be their only time; the response from the audience should be equally professional. Keep in mind, they’re actors performing at Herberger Center, not cheerleaders at a high-school pep rally.

Posted in Theatre

Annabelle: Creation – Film Review

The elements of scare are all there. Lights flicker at meal times, footsteps run across the landing at night, the young girl on the top bunk just knows there’s something on the bottom, and there’s a creepy scarecrow back in the woodshed. Plus, Annabelle: Creation does for You Are My Sunshine what Insidious did for Tiptoe Through the Tulips; the crackling 78 rpm plays on its own accord just at the moment when you really don’t want to hear it.

Though the marketing reminds us that Annabelle: Creation is part of The Conjuring universe, the real-life characters of Ed and Lorraine Warren are this time nowhere to be seen. As a prequel to everything seen before (including the other prequel, 2014’s Annabelle) this introductory chapter to what presumably will produce more films starts literally at the beginning. A toy eyeball is dusted with a doll maker’s brush, then inserted into the newly molded, plastic head. Once the first of a limited edition of handmade, pigtailed dolls is completed, it goes in the box.

In a heartbreaking prologue, the doll maker’s playful daughter, Bee Mullins (Samara Lee) is killed in a devastating car accident. It’s one of those moments when everything in life is fine, then an an instant, that world is irrevocably changed.

The now sullen doll maker, Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia, whose native Australian occasionally slips in) and his wife, Esther (Miranda Otto) live in a huge house among the country hills, a few miles from town. It’s twelve unhappy years since the loss of their daughter, and Sam has decided that his large and mostly empty home could be put to good use.

An orphanage has closed. Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) and six young girls of varying ages have nowhere else to go, so Sam and his now bedridden wife decide to open their doors to save the orphaned girls. And in they move, excitedly exploring all corners of the house while claiming their rooms. But there’s one room that’s off-limits, and it’s the one you expect it to be: the Mullins’ departed daughter’s room with it’s nursery contents and a large dolls house all left intact. And it’s always locked. And, naturally, that’s the room that young Janice (Talitha Bateman) is attracted to. But when Janice tries the door, it opens. So does that curious door within the room that appears to be housing an unusual looking doll with pigtails, as if it was purposely locked away, imprisoned. Let the flickering lights, the running footsteps on the landing, and all the other creeps begin.

In this house, I feel a different kind of presence,” Janice tells Sister Charlotte during an impromptu confession. Considering the things Janice has already seen running around the place, including that doll under a sheet walking towards her that vanishes once the sheet falls to the ground like a conjurer’s magic trick, having a feeling that something is there is a understatement.

As with his previous film, the effective Light’s Out, director David F. Sandberg plays with light and shadows that help add creeps and menace to the chills, but occasionally he cheats. When young Janice and anyone else who later enters the forbidden bedroom, they’ll walk in and slowly step among the toys with the spooky feeling that something might be hiding in the shadows, but they neglect to do the one thing that is second nature to anyone who enters a darkened room at night; they never switch on the lights, and there it is, in plain sight, on the wall, right by the door; the light switch. You’d buy the moment if any of them had tried it and it didn’t work, but here, where they need some light the most, they don’t even bother to reach for it.

There are also questions about the guide lines of the doll’s possession, what it can do, and where the evil will next appear. Rather than follow something consistent, there are apparitions everywhere, and not only at night, but in the middle of the day, both inside and outside of the house. The most efficient and certainly the most powerful scares come when the film deals exclusively with the doll as a conduit for evil, not so much the apparitions that will later turn up. The doll never actually moves when watching it, but turn away for a second, then look back – the head has turned. Like those Weeping Angels in TV’s Dr. Who, you don’t dare blink.

Purists tend to scoff at the James Wan cinematic world of supernatural horrors, calling films like Insidious or The Conjuring as horror movies for audiences who don’t like horror, but director Sandberg’s Annabelle: Creation might make a difference and bridge the gap. With it’s conventional scares, along with a couple of obligatory Boo moments, and the all-out poltergeist climax of everything in the house being thrown against the walls, including the cast, there are also several effectively creepy occurrences that could cause even the most hardened of audience members to suddenly clutch the arms of their seats.

When one of the girls comes across Bee’s secret diary, the writing ends just before her untimely death twelve yeas earlier. But when the following empty pages are flicked through, there appears to be an extra entry buried in there some time later. In scratched writing, it reads: Dear Diary, today I came home. Now, that’s creepy. And so is the thing on the bottom bunk that can’t immediately be seen. And so, too, is the lyric coming from the record player in the forbidden bedroom, “Please don’t take my sunshine away.” But more importantly for both purists and mainstream horror audiences alike, it’s all a huge improvement on the previous Annabelle.

MPAA Rating: R    Length: 109 Minutes    Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Brigsby Bear – Film Review

Comedian Kyle Mooney’s Brigsby Bear is an odd little film. In fact, the SNL writer/performer’s comedy is so unusually odd, it poses a dilemma: What do you tell without spoiling things for those who want to know nothing? On the other hand, by knowing nothing, how would you decide whether you’ll want to see the film in the first place?

It’s not that the movie contains great surprises, or even clever twists and turns. Hardly. But its deliberate, slow-paced, deadpan, eccentric form is so peculiar, those enticed by such a singularly one-off style of subject and how it’s being told will benefit from knowing little in advance. Those who don’t warm to off-centered, flaky styles of comedy will need to steer clear. Seriously. The following should help you decide where you stand.

Start with the opening act. It’s the setup, so don’t consider what you read as a plot-spoiler; everything explained in this paragraph is revealed fairly soon. James Pope was kidnapped from hospital at birth. His kidnappers, Ted and April (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) whisk him off to a desert bunker, the kind that survivalists might build to hide away from society off the beaten path. Posing as his parents, the couple raise the boy (Kyle Mooney) into manhood. He may now be in his mid-twenties, but he’s still a boy; an innocent with no knowledge of the outside world, believing that to wander outside of the bunker is to expose himself to toxic air.

His only source of entertainment is a TV show delivered to his bedroom once a week on VHS. It’s called Brigsby Bear, and it’s the kind of low-budget, studio-bound, video taped show public television might have produced in the seventies. Brigsby is a human-sized Teddy Ruxpin kind of character. Each week the bear has a new interplanetary adventure with its own life lesson to learn, such as “Curiosity is an unnatural emotion’ Young James has loved it all his life. The problem is, it’s not a real show. It’s made by his faux dad, Ted. Brigsby Bear has an audience of one.

And then, James’ world is turned inside out: The FBI arrive.

The authorities arrest Ted and April for kidnapping, then introduce James not only to the real world but also to his real parents. But among the many adjustments James will have to face, there’s one major problem that no one could ever have foreseen. “Everyone says they’re trying to help me,” complains James with heartfelt emotion to the police, “But no one’s got me the new episode of Brigsby!”

As you might tell, this fish-out-of-water tale of a man-child obsessed with a TV show that no one else has ever seen is an audience divider. Not everyone takes to deadpan to the degree that Brigsby Bear delivers, no matter how sweet its intentions. In a mainstream theater, audiences who do will be easy to detect; they’ll be the ones seated in small pockets, grouped together, scattered around, occasionally laughing while those around them remain silent. It’s like watching an SNL short where everyone plays it straight; you can see there’s humor within, but you’re waiting for the silliness to get out of the way while waiting for the funny. Despite its intelligence, for many, Brigsby Bear is going to feel just like that, but instead of lasting only five minutes, it continues for ninety-five more.

There are a couple of ways you could interpret the themes that Mooney and his co-writer Kevin Costello are going for. One could be about the idea of freedom and what you can achieve with a little know-how and some financial help from those happy to give. Another could be about the unhealthy obsession with junk culture and how some embrace it tighter than they should. They’re the ones who allow it to determine everything they do and say in their day to day life. Then again, maybe it’s really about neither. It’s difficult to say. Maybe it’s meant to simply show the joy of someone choosing to be happily deluded.

Speaking personally, it’s the deadpan approach to comedy every time. The off-beat and weird are always welcome, plus, Mooney has proven to be naturally funny on SNL. But still, Brigsby Bear didn’t work; not for me. Mooney’s James continually relating everything to something Brigsby did or said often proves irritating. But comedy is personal. And if this sounds like your kind of humor, in this particular case, maybe you should just sit back and allow it to unfold before you without analysis. As the bear teaches in one of the weekly videos, in the end it’s best not to think about it; after all, curiosity is an unnatural emotion. With Brigsby Bear, lesson learned.

MPAA Rating: PG-13    Length: 100 Minutes    Overall Rating: 4 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

STEP – Film Review

Picking subjects for a documentary is risky business. Recording aspects of reality regarding events already occurred is one thing; you know the outcome – the difficulty is to make the re-telling interesting. But when you’re documenting something as it’s unfolding, with no clear vision as to how things will conclude, filmmakers can never be sure where the film is going, or whether in the end they even have a film.

In the new documentary, STEP, director Amanda Lipitz followed a high-school step dance team during its senior year, and the result is exhilarating. Set against a feeling of unrest, even despair in the largest independent city in America, Baltimore (it’s not part of any county), STEP documents something quite remarkable. It records what happened when the principle at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLYSW) declared it was her goal to ensure that every member of the senior class was accepted to and graduated from college. But the film is more than that.

By opening with TV newsreels of the violent 2015 protests and riots that followed the death of Freddie Gray, the young man arrested for possessing what the police alleged was an illegal switchblade, the film sets a backdrop of constant unrest. Those clips illustrate the hurdles of everyday, inner-city life that many Baltimore residents in the black community are forced to climb in order to simply get through the day.

It doesn’t politicize what happened to Gray, and it doesn’t wave the Black Lives Matter banner high atop of every scene throughout the film. But by witnessing the aftermath and the public response to Gray’s death, and hearing Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake state that this was “One of our darkest days as a city, and we’re much better than this,” the film makes you constantly aware of the challenges many have to endure in ways that other residents from other areas of the city, and even around the country, never have to consider.

There are 274 days of school to go until graduation. Director Lipitz centers those days on the girls of the step team. Difficulties of the classroom are one thing; issues of family and home-life are another, but when those young women are practicing for step, there develops a major difference to performance and attitude.  For many of these girls, step turns into life, and the desire to win in life becomes all encompassing.

At the beginning of the school year, we’re introduced to step’s new coach Gari Mcintyre, referred to as Coach G. “I’m the only person in my family with a degree,” she tells the girls, adding for the record that she lives on the street where Freddie Gray died. Her desire and enthusiasm for getting the step team not only to the finals at year’s end but to see that these girls succeed in all aspects of school life is contagious. Her t-shirt displays the letters PhD across the top, followed by it’s real meaning: Pretty Hungry and Determined.

Instead of covering all the girls in the team, the film centers on three. First there’s Blessin Giraldo who states for the camera that step is a passion and she’s good at it. “We’re making music with our bodies,” she explains. But life at home isn’t easy. Blessin struggles with grades. A meeting at school with teachers and parents regarding financial aid for college is of overriding importance, but getting her depressed mother to leave the house is not quite as simple. “I will be there, and that will be square,” her mother insists. But on the night, Blessin’s mother is a no-show.

Then there’s Cori Grainger, who tells the camera, “I’m an introvert. Step is everything I am not.” But when practicing step, she becomes a different person, channeling her energy into those aggressive moves in a way she could never display in day to day life. Born into a family with six siblings – her mother had Cori when she was just sixteen – like Blessin, life at home is a constant struggle. At one point while filming, her father loses his job, the bills pile, and the power is cut.

Completing the trio of the film’s focus is Tayla Soloman, raised by a single parent, a mother who adores her daughter and shows it through good humor and an eagerness to make her daughter smile. “She’s an embarrassment,” Tayla states with a reluctant grin.

With the continual tough-love support of the school, the guidance and discipline of Coach G, the constant reminder of how difficult life in the real world is going to be, and the work required to not only survive but to succeed once high-school is over, STEP is more than a document of a final year. It’s a hugely entertaining, often broadly funny account of what happened, leading up to the excitement of the step finals. Considering that the year before, the eleventh grade team lost at every level, what happens in the senior year is touching and genuinely ennobling. Like an action movie, STEP is an unexpected, inspirational thrill ride.

MPAA Rating: PG    Length: 83 Minutes    Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)

 

Posted in Film