Thursday, August 31, 2017


     Wendell Berry’s children relate how their parents were frequently reminding them to “Look and see; see what is around you…see the beauty…see what is wrong…what is ugly.”  Then think about it, consider what needs to be done, work hard, establish priorities, and work together with others to achieve something of value.  Berry has a fine reputation for his poems, novels, and essays, but he has always been a farmer, and one active in protesting war and the industrialization of agriculture.  He is the author of a book, The unsettling of American Culture and Agriculture. This documentary by Laura Dunn and Jef Sewell is a gentle reminder of his admonitions to be mindful of the richness of the earth and the need to take care of it for ourselves and for future generations.
     Berry narrates much of the dialog with the southern accent of an intelligent Kentucky farmer discoursing about the history of farming in America, the effects of industrialization not just on farms, but on small businesses and towns across the country as well.  Its effects extend to the larger culture in the erosion of values like independence, thrift, stewardship, private property, family, and neighborliness.  Replacing it has been technology-based forces whose only standard is profit.  Along the way, he began to realize that rather than spending time in the fields, which he loved, his life was taken up by management and bookkeeping.  A vicious cycle of increasing acreage, equipment, labor and debt and, paradoxically, steadily declining profits put him in crisis mode.  He did see his challenge as adapting to change, rather than reverting to old ways.
      Berry’s creativity helped him out of the mire, and that was to turn to organic farming and the local food movement, which he sees as of benefit to the land and to society in general.
     The documentary is pleasantly entertaining and visually interesting (some black and white, some color photography and drawings), with fine cinematography (Lee Daniel), and lyrical music (Kerry Muzzy).  Along with others, Robert Redford, Terrence Malick, and Nick Offerman were the producers, very likely enhancing the quality of the production.
     This is a quiet film, something I appreciated, but some may think it a bit too low-key.  Its format and pace allow the viewer to ponder the statements made, and consider their value.        I think it would have benefited from including an alternate view—if it’s valid—that the industrialization of agriculture, for all its negative effects, may feed so many more people, it might have value from that standpoint.   Laura Dunn is a young filmmaker whose early works should stand her in good stead for future endeavors.

A film about how industrialization of agriculture has affected American culture negatively.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Danielle MacDonald     Cathy Moriarty     Bridgett Everett     Siddharth Dhananjay     Mamoudou Athie

     Is there a more unlikely rapper than an overweight, kinky blonde-haired white girl without much in the way of charm?  That’s Patricia “Patti” Dembrowski aspiring to become a famous rapper in New Jersey.  One of the film’s strongest points is illustrating just how demeaning others can be toward someone like that.  She’s been teased since childhood—especially by one cruel kid from junior high—so has developed a thick skin, but it still hurts and can knock her off her feet (literally), especially when she’s caught up in her passion—rap.
     Up-and-coming writer/director/musician Geremy Jasper is impressive in his first feature film, in that he has found the perfect actress (all the way from Australia) to play the role with a New Jersey accent and the chops to rap; he has constructed an engaging story with emotional depth; and he steers the production expertly through potential mine fields (diversity in race, musical genres, family issues) with grace and care.  Danielle MacDonald is experienced in television drama mostly, but has no trouble transitioning over to moviedom.  She adds spunk to her character and easily conveys all the ranges of emotion Patti will experience as she rides the up and down course of a musician trying to make it.  Clearly, she could not have succeeded without some very special people in her corner.
    At home—which is a squalid apartment shared with her unsupportive and rather ungrateful alcoholic mother Barb (Everett), who competes with her and denigrates her taste—and her ailing Nana (Moriarty) in a wheelchair, who is faithfully in her corner every step of the way.  Another supporter is her friend and fellow musician Hareesh (Dhananjay)—actually a pharmacist—who is her personal cheering section able to overcome all her negative self-statements, although he does have his limits, which is to the good.  Finally, owing to Patti’s undaunted pursuit of a punk rocker living in a shack by the cemetery equipped with all the latest technology, Bob, self-named the “Antichrist”  (Athie), is persuaded to join Patti and Hareesh in producing the group’s first CD in their new name, “PPNJ.”
     In the beginning of the film, I found it hard to sit through all the scenes at home where no one ever seems to pick anything up, except Barb, whose hand is continually picking up a drink; endure the taunting on the street of “Dumb Patti” and violence toward her by a thug; and see how Patti scrambles with everything she can muster to support her mother and grandmother.  But gradually, some good things begin to happen, Patti learns how to manage and cope better, and she gets some breaks.  It’s not all rosy; there are still some downers, but it’s not hopeless.
     Patti Cake$ will not be to everyone’s taste and the viewer must have some appreciation for rap music, but those inspired by “true grit”, creativity, and sensitivity to social issues, will see much to be entertained and inspired by.  Those familiar with Bridget Everett’s and Cathy Moriarty’s early careers, will get a nostalgic kick out of their roles in this film.

Take a seat on the roller coaster ride to stardom—at least almost there.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Menashe Lustig     Ruben Niborski     Yoel Weisshaus     Meyer Schwartz

      Menashe (Lustig), a Hasidic Jew, has recently lost his wife after an illness, and his only consolation is his 10 year-old son Rieven (Niborski).  But in their religion, Rieven can’t live with his father until his father is married again; children must live in a two-parent home.  Menashe’s brother-in-law, Fischel (Weisshaus), takes Rieven into his home, where Rieven is happy enough, but he really wants to live with his father.  And Menashe desperately wants him.  There are a couple roadblocks to this arrangement.  One is the Talmudic rule about where children live, and the Rabbi (Schwartz) is strictly adhering to it.  The other is that Menashe is still like a grown kid, making mistakes and being irresponsible at almost every turn.  In other respects, he is a good father, playing with his son, teaching him principles, and so on.
     The big question of the film is whether or not Menashe will manage to get a wife and carry out his responsibilities maturely.
     It was important to Director Joshua Z. Weinstein that the film would be shot in Brooklyn in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood with locals serving as actors for authenticity.  The story is loosely based on Lustig’s life; however, he denies that he was as much a Schlimazel (chronically unlucky one).  Although he is referred to as that in the film, I regarded most of the upsets as his own fault (e.g., oversleeping and making his son late for school, not packing supplies well enough in the van and not securing the door, resulting in boxes being thrown out on the street and their contents being destroyed). 
     Menashe is intended to acquaint non-Jews with the Hasidic life and beliefs, something like a cultural lesson.   This is Weinstein’s first feature film after directing a number of documentaries and working in other capacities of filmmaking.  The story, which he helped write, moves at a good pace and keeps the viewer engaged, if one is interested in the subject.  The actors are noteworthy in the quality of their work, especially given that they are not professional actors.
     The film will probably be more appealing to those who hold religious beliefs (of any kind) than to those who do not belong to an organized religion.  I, for one, have trouble with such rules as a widower being required to have a wife before his child can live with him, and of course, I wonder if the rule applies to women as well.  Menashe had less appeal to me in that my interest in religious beliefs is not strong.

A rather hapless Hassidic widower tries to adhere to Talmudic law in order to bring up his own son.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, August 24, 2017


Robert Pattinson     Benny Safdie     Jennifer Jason Leigh     Barkhad Abdi

            Robert Pattinson as Constantine “Connie” Nikas is the reason to see Good Time.  His performance as a poor-planning low-level crook is fascinating to watch.  This character is a great improviser, and although his (usually poor) planning doesn’t work out, he’s always got another trick up his sleeve and smooth talking to get what he wants.  He’s got enough smarts to dream up schemes—even on the spur of the moment—but not enough to work out a solid plan of execution.
            A major flaw in the script is related to the basic premise, which is, that Connie feels a great deal of responsibility for his brother Nick (Safdie), who is mentally challenged.  But the story never fills in just why Connie feels such possessiveness toward him.  He consistently tries to “rescue” Nick, but does it in ways that are unhelpful at best and dangerous at worst.  The “why” would be a much more interesting story to me, rather than watching mistake after mistake by Connie, ostensibly to rescue Nick.  Nick would be fine without him; society at its best—as it appears in this film—will take care of him responsibly.  Although, I must say that it could be that the filmmakers are making fun of psychological help in some, particularly the last one.
            Connie starts off making a mistake by having Nick be an accomplice in a bank robbery.  Nick clearly doesn’t have the wits needed to evade the police and gets arrested.  The authorities can see that he is not really responsible and provides him with help while they pursue his brother, who is scrambling to make bail for Nick.  (The bank has been clever with handing over the money, which is no longer usable.)
            What follows is a bizarre sequence of events involving an inept attempt to spring Nick from a hospital, an encounter with a grandmother and her granddaughter who will be duped, an attempt to rob an amusement park, and so on.  You’ve got the picture.  Desperation results in more and more schemes and bumbling.  The self-centeredness of Connie is illustrated in one sentence:  “Don’t be confused; it’s just going to make it worse for me.”  Said to a 16 year-old girl.
            The purpose of Good Time escapes me.  It has potential to be comedic, but only a few scenes are made laughable.  It could be about heists that go wrong, but there is nothing really clever about these heists.  It could be a drama about a dysfunctional family, but it is colorless in this respect.  The only redeeming value seems to be that justice is finally served for both Nick and Connie in the end.

Good time is not a good time at all.

Grade:  C-                        By Donna R. Copeland


Steve Coogan     Rob Brydon     Marta Barrio     Claire Keelon     Tim Leach

      Much like The Trip (2010) and The Trip to Italy (2014), Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon do their guy touring thing, this time in Spain, with (mostly) witty repartee, petty bickering, and comedic miming of celebrities while dining in exquisite restaurants and motoring through spectacular scenery.  Thanks to cinematographer James Clarke, we get a “you are there” experience, depending on the power of our imagination.  
   This is more than a travelogue, though, in that the actors and director Michael Winterbottom have seen to it that both emotionally substantive and truly funny scenes are a part of it.  No “writer” is listed, implying that much of the dialog is improvisational. The story touches on professional rivalry and the need for self-advocacy (or sometimes, simply luck), ruminations and banter about aging, the ever-present real-life situations that impact the trip, and genuine heartbreaks and disappointments.
     The audience I was with in the screening was ideally responsive, and applauded at the end.  I enjoyed it almost as much, but tired a bit of the impersonation sequences.  There were a lot:  Mick Jagger, Michael Caine, John Hirt, Marlon Brando, Robert DeNiro, Woody Allen, Errol Flynn, Sean Connery, and more…and a Bach-Swingle-Singers-like rendition of Herb Alpert’s Band.  Coogan and Brydon compete and argue about who does a better job of imitating. 
    Although I did like the Herb Alpert tune, I found more entertaining than the impersonations the sequences where one or the other would assume the role of the expert scientist-historian, showing off their knowledge of the disciplines.  It was surprising to me that a line I found laugh-out-loud funny (“Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana”), is actually an illustration used by linguists “as an example of a garden path sentence or syntactic ambiguity, and in word play as an example of punning, double entendre, and antanaclasis” (Wikipedia).  Kudos to whoever knew that term and inserted it.  Another funny sequence is when the producers of Steve’s and Rob’s show dress them up and have them pose as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  Their irritation and discomfort made the scene. 
     The ending sequences are rather tender and surprising in their quality of “life goes on…”

A travelogue to Spain with humor, exquisite meals, spectacular road trips, and the preoccupations of 50+ year-old men.

Grade:  B-                        By Donna R. Copeland

Monday, August 21, 2017


Voices of:  Elle Fanning   Nat Wolff   Carly Rae Jepsen   
Maddie Ziegler   Terrence Scalmmel   Mel Brooks

     Leap! inspires viewers and has messages for children about how to succeed to achieve your dream.  Yes, you need to work hard, maybe cut a few corners (careful!), know who your friends are, have people rooting for you (but not distracting you), and cash in on a lot of luck.  And, by the way, you should be nice to people along the way.
     Felicie (Fanning) grows up in an orphanage in Brittany, with memories of a mother who says, “Never give up on your dreams” and gives her a musical box with a dancing ballerina.  While in the orphanage, Felicie makes friends with Victor (Wolff), a consistent supporter with an inventive mind, and they fantasize about their escape to Paris, where Felicie can pursue her dreams of being a ballerina and Victor his of being an inventor. 
     After being chased by the orphanage staff, Felicie and Victor do manage to escape and make their way to Paris where each will have experiences that enlighten and enrich their lives.  Felicie will get drawn into stealing an identity and bluffing her way into the Paris ballet academy.  Victor manages to be hired by a company that appreciates his inventive skills.
     But along the way, lessons are to be learned.  Because of her sense of wonder, caring, and passion for dance, Felicie gains the respect of the ballet master Merante (Scammell), and manages to trick her way into the ballet academy; but ultimately she has to prove her skills against a fierce competitor. 
     Leap! entertains beautifully, both in story (co-writer and director is Eric Summer with co-director Eric Warin) and visually (L’atelier Animation).  It has excitement, intrigue, and a little humor (reference to a sculpture as “the Statue of Puberty”).  I had reservations about a few things.  Most adults are shown to be mean and ugly, and two of the main characters, Felicie and Victor, adhere pretty much to stereotypical gender roles.  There seems to be at first a tacit approval of stealing, although eventually it is condemned. 
     The French-Canadian film can be praised for showing Felicie and Victor making mistakes, not always winning in their endeavors, and being rash.  It’s nice to see them learning from their mistakes and transforming into more admirable children.  Along those same lines, we see the ballet master Merante transform from snootiness and condescension to someone who is more objective in his judgments and more encouraging to his charges.  Ultimately, we get to witness forgiveness and support among many of the characters.  And it’s refreshing to see two competitors become fast friends.
     Elle Fanning and Nat Wolff voice their characters admirably, and Mel Brooks is hilarious as Mr. Luteau, the supervisor of the orphanage. 

A children’s movie beautifully animated with an engaging, inspirational story.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, August 17, 2017


Ryan Reynolds   Samuel L. Jackson   Salma Hayek   Elodie Yung   Gary Oldham

     The title of this film should have been “Sound and Special Effects”, or “Videogames Onscreen”, because the sounds are so eardrum shattering and the special effects so pronounced, they drown out what little dialog there is.  There is a bit of respite(?) in Michael Bryce’s (Reynolds) and Darius Kincaid’s (Jackson) repartee/arguments, and some of these are actually funny, but they get repetitious fast.  Really, the only value in seeing this film is to witness Salma Hayek as Mrs. Kincaid showing what she is made of.  No shrinking violet she!  And her tirades are more entertaining than anything else in The Hitman’s Bodyguard.
     The skeleton of the story is that Kincaid has evidence against Vladislav Dukhovich (Oldham), a ruthless Eastern European dictator, for crimes against humanity in the International Court of Justice in The Hague.  Now, Kincaid is a hitman, but the court is desperate for good evidence, so they have offered a deal to Kincaid that if he will testify against Dukhovich, his incarcerated wife (Hayek) will be freed.  [There’s a bit of romantic schlock thrown into the story:  Kincaid dearly loves his wife and will do anything to get her out of prison, even go to prison himself.  Bryce has bumbled his relationship with Amelia Roussel (Yung), and needs to make amends.]
     Amelia knows that the only way to get Kincaid safely to The Hague to testify is to hire a bodyguard, namely Bryce, to get him there.  That constitutes most of the story—getting Kincaid to The Hague without Dukhovich’s goons killing him first.  Along the way, helicopters, trains, and cars will be involved in deadly explosions, impossible car races, and blasting gunfire.  Magically, when Bryce and Kincaid get separated, they always know how to find each other and show up in the nick of time to save the other.  (Of course, there is always an argument about whether each needed the other or not.)
     The Hitman's Bodyguard is not bad because it’s not a good film; it’s bad because it’s a videogame (not a movie) that we’re not playing (someone else is).  At best, it is a parody of action films.  There is little character development, substantive issues addressed, or even plot.  Atli Orvarsson’s music could have been a witty commentary on the action, but it had to compete with the special effects and sound, which cancelled it out.  Plus, the music and sound effects were so intrusive at times, they drowned out dialog.
     This movie had potential, but when we see that there were 30+ producers, it may be that too many hands/interests were in the mix. 

If you love videogames and are more interested in action over plot and character development, you will be one to like this film.

Grade:  D+                      By Donna R. Copeland


Channing Tatum   Adam Driver   Riley Keogh   Seth MacFarlane   Katherine Waterston
Daniel Craig   Katie Holmes   Farrah Mackenzie   Hilary Swank   Brian Gleeson   Jack Quaid   Dwight Yoakum

            Crime capers are always fun when they’re cleverly worked out, smack of basic human truths, and have colorful characters.  Steven Soderburgh’s Logan Lucky is just such a film, keeping you guessing and chuckling throughout.  He is clearly the director, cinematographer, and editor, but the first-time writer named Rebecca Blunt is a mystery about whom Soderburgh’s lips are sealed.  But it doesn’t really matter, because the film is so playful, warmly human, and so well executed from the writing to the production, we don’t really care.
            In Charlotte, North Carolina, the Logan family has the reputation for being cursed, what with so many things happening to them through the years.  Jimmy Logan is having an especially hard time these days with a football promise coming to nothing, a failed marriage, loss of his job, a bum leg, and he can’t even pay his phone bill.  His brother Clyde seems to be doing reasonably well in his bar, even with part of his arm and hand missing because of a war injury.  They have a sister, Mellie (Keogh), who seems to be able to assist and manage any storm.
            Jimmy is desperate.  His ex-wife (Holmes) is getting ready to move out of town with her husband, taking his cherished daughter Sadie (Mackenzie) with her.  (Sadie is an amusing insertion into the story with her knowledge of tools to hand to her car mechanic daddy and her penchant for all things girly like fashion shows and the “culinary arts.”)
            What follows is Jimmy’s intricate plan to siphon off some of the Charlotte Motor Speedway’s  questionable betting practices, pulling in his brother Clyde (Driver), his sister Mellie (Keogh), prisoner Joe Bang (dynamite expert) (Craig) and Bang’s two brothers (Gleeson and Quaid), and other inmates.  To make matters even more entertaining and clever, some people are used unwittingly (but never exploited without compensation).  That is, no one is really harmed in this caper, making the crime go down as all part of the fun.
            The main characters are all warmly sympathetic—despite the film’s making fun of them in a loving way, absent of cruelty.  The actors should be congratulated on their southern accents, even British Daniel Craig.  The plot is set up to get back at “The Man”, which has a satisfying effect on the viewer and works to excuse the crime.  It roasts common defenses, such as firing a person for “liability issues”, a prison warden (Yoakam) swearing that X (fires, riots, escapes) “just does not happen here”, and a racetrack administrator claiming ignorance about an insurance claim.  I got a kick out of the last scenes showing pairs of characters getting together sometime later after the mysterious disappearance of a considerable amount of money.
            Channing Tatum is a star in evincing a character who is simple on the outside but enormously complex and intelligent on the inside.  Adam Driver is well versed in playing so many different types, and he comes across believably here as a younger brother looking up to his older sibling and really wanting to please everyone.  The actor Daniel Craig is almost unrecognizable as the bleached-blonde, hair-cropped felon he is.  I appreciated seeing the character of Sadie (Mackenzie) presented as a many-sided girl with diversified interests exploring the world. 
            I’m glad Soderburgh is back after a “retirement” from movie making.  He has a way of producing engaging films that have a social message, without detracting from their entertainment value.
Hee-haw heroes put one over on the powers that be:  a crime caper that’s an entertaining romp.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, August 10, 2017


Kyle Mooney     Mark Hamill   Greg Kinnear   Matt Walsh   Michaela Watkins   Jorge Lendeborg   Claire Danes

     This film comes at you out of left field.  The basic story is interesting, in that a childless couple kidnapped a baby from birth, rearing it as their own.  However, they’re a bit off their rockers and keep the child fearful about the outdoors and other people, and locked in a basement, which begins the weirdness of the tale.  The next eerie part is that the father, a professor at a college, “produces” a children’s show for James (Mooney) called Brigsby.  James doesn’t know his father is producing it; he only sees the videotapes.  It goes on for years until James is a young adult, who is completely enamored of the show.  The parents even create an audience that makes it seem like the show is a major hit.
     This goes on until the astute detective Vogel (Kinnear) becomes suspicious of some of the father’s actions, and discovers James’ true parents before he was kidnapped by the Mitchums.  He breaks this news to James gently and then connects him with Greg (Walsh) and Louise (Watkins) Pope.  This will be a difficult transition because James has not been out in the world before and appears to be much younger than his age, the Popes are nervously trying their best to make him feel welcome—not their daughter, who shows understandable ambivalence toward him—and James’ primary interest is in the Brigsby Bear saga.  When he finds out from his new friend Spencer (Lendeborg) that anyone can make movies, he becomes obsessed with continuing the saga on his own.  The problem with the latter is that all the props are being held by the police as evidence in the prosecution of the Mitchums.
     The rest of the film is about James’ continuing orientation to the real world and his new family’s getting used to him; his and Spencer’s and their friends’ efforts to get actors and props, resulting in James’ incarceration in a mental hospital; and how all this gets worked out.
     Many of the filmmakers (director Dave McCary, writers Kyle Mooney and Kevin Costello) have been associated with the television show “Saturday Night Live”, and this movie seems like an extended version of one of their skits with its fancifulness, its raw humor, and thinness in substance.  For example, the idea that someone with James’ history could suddenly become a moviemaker with a hit is fanciful.  Raw humor occurs when a young woman (maybe even a high school student) seduces him at a party, which does not end well, partly because someone gave him a drug.  Real substance is lacking, in that it’s not clear what the point of the film is (no underlying principle or thought), and there are obvious omissions, such as James—who had a very positive relationship and bonding with the Mitchums—experiences no grief in being separated from them.  It happens quickly, and he is informed by a police detective instead of someone skilled in that type of work.  There was some promise in the Popes’ engaging a therapist (Danes) to help James, but she wasn’t skilled either; she’s a typical Hollywood invention of a therapist.

Brigsby Bear is an extended Saturday Night Live skit not ready to be a feature length movie.

Grade:  D+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, August 9, 2017


     “Stepping” or step-dancing is one in which the dancer’s body is used like an instrument to make complex sounds and rhythms with footsteps, spoken words, and clapping.  This award-winning documentary by Amanda Lipitz was filmed at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW), a charter school founded by Lipitz’s mother, Brenda Brown Rever, for girls in middle and high school.  It focuses on leadership, college preparation, strong academics, and best practices for girls, with the motto, “Transform Baltimore one young woman at a time.”  Once, when Lipitz was visiting the school, the girls, knowing she was a filmmaker and Broadway producer, begged her to bring her camera and film them step-dancing.  Subsequently, she was asked to make a short film to raise money for the school.  She decided to make it about the Step Team, and focus on the lives of three of the students.  In 2017, the film was shown at the Sundance Film Festival and won a special jury prize for inspirational filmmaking, with Lipitz being nominated for a grand jury prize for directing.
     The theme of this truly inspirational film could be “It’s never too late to change.”  As the film follows the team, focusing on the lives of three of its dancers, the challenges they can face becomes very clear, including poverty, unstable family life, distractions, and consistent motivation to persist and succeed.  Many students have no models to go by, and that is where the teachers, counselors, and principal play key roles.  They have to love their jobs and these girls to give what it requires.
     The Lethal Ladies of BLSYW are working toward competing at the step competition in Bowie, where they’ve tried three times before, but never received a prize.  Teacher Gari McIntyre, Counselor Paula Dofat, and Principal Hall with their colleagues knock themselves out, pressing the girls to keep up their academics, come to practice, work as a team, and think positive.  They will do the same when it is time to apply to colleges.
     We see Blessin, a strikingly beautiful, charismatic teen and co-founder of the step team having more trouble than most.  Her interest in academics, and even the team, waxes and wanes.  Her mother is someone she resembles in temperament, but is not always a good role model for her.  Tayla, on the other hand, also comes from poverty, but has a mother who takes a fierce interest in her daughter and is proud of her achievement in becoming a correctional officer.  Tayla is quieter than most, but consistently makes good grades.  Cori is another dedicated student whose stepfather lost his job, putting the family’s finances in peril.
     All these accounts document the importance of an organization for teens where they can get inspiration and motivation; but it underscores as well the critical need for school officials (teachers, counselors, principals) to supplement the emotional and achievement support they get from the activity with real interest and strategic guidance.  My hope is that the film will be an inspiration for girls in high school, as well as school officials who are in a position to establish similar endeavors in their own schools. 
     In addition to its serious purpose, STEP is entertaining for the viewer in getting to know the girls and in learning about step dancing.  It’s exciting to see them compete in the Bowie State Step competition, an unpredictable process, that is touch-and-go at times, and uncertain as to whether the team can all pull together and make it there.
     Director Lipitz is skilled in drawing the audience into the girls’ lives and their stories that pull for just the right degree of sympathy and understanding of the circumstances they and their families face every day.  Music by Laura Karpman and Raphael Saadiq is energetic, tuneful, and soulful, while cinematographer Casey Regan’s camera guides us in watching the dancers and alternating with intimate portraits of the players’ lives, including the girls, their parents, and their teachers, counselors, and principal.

Take a spirited, soulful journey into the world of step dancing, its promoters, and its beneficiaries.

Grade:  A                        By Donna R. Copeland


Jeremy Renner     Elizabeth Olsen     Jon Bernthal     Martin Sensmeier     Julia Jones

      Taylor Sheridan (writer, director) is an artist who knows how to draw out the best from the other artists in his films—Cinematographer Ben Richardson, Musician Warren Ellis, Actors Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen and the rest of the cast, Production Designer Neil Spisak, Art Designer Lauren Slatten, and the other technical contributors.  Wind River represents a breathtaking example of the essence of accomplished filmmaking, from the sweeping snow-laden landscapes stained with blood, to the haunting musical score paired exactly with the dialog and action, to Renner’s wise old soul with extra sensory perception and gentle touch, and Olsen’s expert urban-trained FBI agent clearly not prepared for the different environment and population, but willing to learn.  There is even an exquisite/troubling blending of stunning beauty and unspeakable horror.
     I was especially impressed with cinematography that has the camera slink around with Cory tracking footprints in the snow, and guiding the eye upward or downward toward whatever it wants you to see.  A view to admire is one shot from an airplane over a snowy, mountainous landscape, showing lumbering trucks on the highway bearing heavy snowmobiles.  This prepares us for a showdown.
     One would like to imagine that the pristine snowscapes we admire on the screen (as we sit in our toasty, comfortable theater seats) would hold innocence and purity and be reflected in fit bodies and souls.  But alas, just as we hear about the brutal attack by a lion on a herd of cattle, we see a fallen human body in the snow with a head wound and blood coming out her mouth.  Tracker Cory (Renner) sadly knows who it is, which provokes memories of an earlier death that still tears at him.
     Cory is a good man, a respected local who, even without the memories, would willingly help FBI agent Banner (Olsen) who has been called in to solve the case.  These sequences constitute the few scenes tinged with humor, when the agent comes totally unprepared for the bone-chilling weather and has to borrow warm clothing from the sheriff’s stern wife.  (“Make sure you return it!”)  Later encounters with the locals are likewise amusing when Banner meets native Indians, unwittingly offending them, and roughnecks working on an oil drill.  Cory and the sheriff wryly get her up to speed from time to time, and she shows flashes of leadership and strength.  (I wish Sheridan had made her character much stronger, as many filmmakers are willing to do with females nowadays…but maybe this is happening only in action figures a la Wonder Woman, Atomic Blonde, and Valerian/City/Thousand/Planets?)
     This beautifully made film has substantive points to make as well as depth of character.  It’s about loss and death—especially of children—and the multifarious ways in which people cope with it; life on an Indian reservation (this part is not fiction); the nefarious effects of drugs on young people; the art of skillful, informed sleuthing and interrogation; and, finally, how satisfying justified retribution can be. 

Be prepared for an extravaganza of beauty in all its forms mixed with the realities of life lived.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland