Category Archives: Genre

Lady Driver bolstered by wonder of dirt-track car racing

Streaming: Netflix

I couldn’t help thinking that if NASCAR made movies like Lady Driver the sport would be cultivating a whole new legion of young fans and drivers. Fortunately, independent film companies like ESX Entertainment and Forrest Films are diving into these inspirational stories. While Lady Driver has its flaws, for the most part the movie is fun family-friendly entertainment. 

The Story

Lady Driver tells the story of an angst-filled teenager, Ellie Lansing (Grace Van Dien). She’s bucking against her mother’s confining parenting in upper-crust Monterrey, California. Ellie is frustrated by her own interests being pushed aside — like getting her driver’s license — for family obligations and the ostracization she experiences at school for being different. Ellie is habitually late; she prefers her time in shop with the gearheads rather than regular academic classes. Fed up, Ellie runs away to search-out her estranged Uncle Tim (Sean Patrick Flanery) in northern California. 

Tim, who is a functional alcoholic, has been shunned by Jessie (Christina Moore). Jessie is rebuilding a life with her second husband (John Ducey), and their daughter (Ellie’s younger stepsister). Unfortunately, the audience is given little information about Ellie and Jessie’s past. We suspect her biological father’s death is implied. While Ellie sees Uncle Tim as an escape, the manner of her father’s death will turn out to be pivotal. 

Tim runs an auto-repair business. He begrudgingly acknowledges Ellie’s natural aptitude toward working on and understanding cars. More importantly, she discovers that Tim is a former race-car driver, like her father. The brothers ranked among the most successful drivers on the northern California dirt-track circuit. When Tim takes her to a track to watch her first race, Ellie is captivated by the sounds and culture. With her uncle’s reluctant support, she sets out to conquer the local dirt track.

The Art

Unfortunately, the movie suffers from several story structure and continuity issues. Ellie’s rebellion against her mother, for example, never quite rises to the level audiences (or parents) will believe she would run away. The stakes simply aren’t high enough. Isolating herself, leaving home to stay with a friend, slamming doors? Definitely. Leaving home to travel hundreds of miles in a beat-up car to stay with an uncle she doesn’t know? Highly unlikely. The dialogue also tends toward the predictable and derivative, relying on unimaginative formulas well trodden by the genre. This tendency is particularly acute when Ellie begins to spar with the good looking, arrogant, older teenage rival on the oval, Buck McReadie (David Gridley). 

The Bottom Line

Fortunately, Lady Driver is saved by an excellent cast, including a top-flight performance by Grace Van Dien. She conveys a wonder and excitement about dirt-track racing that is difficult to convey without actually being on the sidelines and watching the action unfold. (Note: I have attended several stock-car races and can attest to the thrill.) Solid editing keeps the film at a fast clip during the race sequences. The movie benefits from the experience of a bevy of acting veterans, including Flanery, Moore, Amanda Detmer (as Tim’s friend, Loretta), and Casper Van Dien (as Ellie’s father in flashbacks). 

I also greatly appreciated the focus on dirt-track racing rather than asphalt and pavement tracks. Dirt tracks are more common on the local and regional circuits. They are an unheralded but critical cog in race culture and a stepping stone toward national circuits. While NASCAR’s major series — Cup, Truck, and Xfinity — get the most press, the local tracks are the ones where the stars are born. Dirt-track racing, as Lady Driver shows, has a style, technique, and set of skills unique to its own, well suited for fans and drivers learning the ropes. 

In Conclusion

Overall, Lady Driver is an enjoyable, low-stakes movie fitting for a family friendly audience. With any luck, a new crop of young women might be inspired to take to the oval through Lady Driver or other movies like it. We need a few more to give the old boys club a real run for the checkered flag.

The Rhythm Section carried by strong performance from Blake Lively

Venue: Amazon Prime

The Rhythm Section aspires to be part of a new wave of thriller movies. Unfortunately, the movie falters despite having good “bones.” The film simply doesn’t find its footing as an action movie despite plenty of opportunities in tense relationships, unexpected plot points, and excellent acting. 

The story focuses on Stephanie (Blake Lively), a college-age woman whose entire immediate family is killed when their plane explodes. Stephanie missed the flight, and survivor’s guilt plunges her into a world of drug addiction and prostitution. When a freelance journalist (Raza Jaffrey) contacts her, she learns that the flight was a terrorist target. Her parents, brother, and sister were just “collateral damage.” 

As Stephanie learns more about the facts behind their deaths, revenge consumers her. When her journalist contact is killed, she tracks down Ian (Jude Law), a discredited MI6 agent living in Scotland. Despite misgivings, Ian is impressed by Stephanie’s grit and trains her to be an assassin. They commit to tracking down all the terrorists associated with the plane crash. Stephanie commits to “killing them all.” Violently. 

The movie is well produced. Fitting with the genre, the movie globe trots, touching down in places such as Scotland, London, Madrid, Tangier (Morocco), New York City, and Marseilles (France). Blake Lively provides depth in her role as Stephanie as she climbs from the London underworld to become a trained assassin. A fine cast that includes Sterling K. Brown as a “retired” CIA agent facilitates the intrigue as Stephanie tracks down each element of the terrorist plot. 

Still, The Rhythm Section falls flat. The time put into Stephanie’s inner turmoil is time taken away from the action of the film. For most viewers, Ian’s decision to take Stephanie — an underweight drug addict with a slight, unathletic build — under his wing will be a mystery. Indeed, Stephanie continually puts herself in jeopardy through missteps and hesitation, making her close escapes from what should be certain death formulaic plot points.

Nevertheless, a strong performance from Blake Lively carries the movie. Even though the movie misses an opportunity to redefine its genre, The Rhythm Section provides mild entertainment to those looking for a way to pass the time on a lazy weekend. 

Spike Lee’s BlackKKlansman brokers larger discussion on race in America

The knot in my stomach churned up by BlacKkKlansman still gnawed at my insides more than an hour after the credits stopped scrolling. The knot emerged while watching Spike Lee’s brilliant opening scenes in his most recent contribution to our nation’s discussion on race in America.

While I don’t think it rises to be one of best movies of 2018, for artistic reasons I discuss below, Lee’s Oscar nomination for Best Director is well deserved. The movie is well worth watching although viewers should be prepared: the substance will not be easy to digest (nor is it intended to be).

The History

Blackkklansman is inspired by a true story: an African-American police officer who infiltrated the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. The movie apparently depicts the mechanics of the undercover operation pretty well and accurately. Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is hired as the city’s first African American police detective. He answers an ad by the local KKK chapter by telephone, pretending to be a racist white man interested in joining the Klan. The local chapter president, Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), agrees to meet with him. Since Stallworth is black, the police department arranges for his white partner, Philip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to stand in. (In the real world, the identity of Stallworth’s partner was never revealed.) Over time, Stallworth/Zimmerman parlay their way into the local klan’s trust despite skepticism by more radical and violence-prone members.

In a world before cell phones, the Internet, and cheap hand-held video devices, the ploy works… for a while. As the pair burrow deeper into the organization, even developing a relationship with KKK grand wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), their ability to keep the ruse going, predictably, begins to unravel. Lee does a good job of keeping the tension up throughout the movie as the klan chapter becomes increasingly bold, driven by its own racial hatred, and more willing to use violence to achieve their ends.

The Art

So far so good… except this is a Spike Lee movie. The story is more than a just good guys putting away bad guys, or coming up with nice pat answers about how to address (let alone resolve) America’s race issues.

The movie is set in the early 1970s, an artistic choice on the part of Lee and his screenwriters to take advantage of the real-world tensions of the times to up the dramatic stakes: the Vietnam War, the Black Power Movement, violent protest, and fundamental tensions about political strategy and tactics within the African-American and white communities. Lee puts the Black Power movement, and its calls for violent protest and revolution squarely against the rising calls for violence with the Klan. No one has a monopoly on the threat or intended use of violence.

These tensions serve the story well, even if they play loose with history and Ron Stallworth’s true account. A case in point is the interplay between Stallworth and his girlfriend Patrice (Laura Harrier). Patrice challenges him on his naive faith in Colorado Spring’s white police department (and law enforcement more generally). These tensions set up dialogue that allows BlackKklansman to be relevant to issues playing out today.

The Bottom Line

Unfortunately, the movie’s focus on broader social tensions detracts from the more personal stories of the individual characters. Despite a top notch cast, the actors can’t seem to break away from dialogue laden with existential ponderings about identity and meaning. While real, these tensions are never really brought home to drive the plot or character development. No one seems to have moved forward in a meaningful way by the end of the movie. This is likely to leave many in the audience unsatisfied. But then again, this feeling of emptiness and meandering may be the point. Fortunately, the action keeps audiences engaged, even if the search for personal meaning does not.

I came of age at the time this movie is set — the 1970s — and virtually everything about the film brought home the brutal reality of the race during these times. The knot in my stomach, which Spike Lee’s direction so craftily created, resulted from the the painful truth that the attitudes that drive racial violence in America persist to this day. Spike Lee fans will not be disappointed, nor will anyone still taking these issues seriously in America today.