Friday, March 24, 2023

A Good Person: Dramatic irony

A Good Person (2023) • View trailer
3.5 stars (out of five). Rated R, for profanity, drug use and sexual candor
Available via: Movie theaters
By Derrick Bang • Published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.24.23

I cannot imagine the mental and emotional anguish of survivor’s guilt.


But Florence Pugh certainly conveys it persuasively, in this three-hanky melodrama.


Allie (Florence Pugh) is genuinely touched when Daniel (Morgan Freeman) shares his
model railroad depiction of their New Jersey community.

Writer/director Zach Braff’s film runs a bit too long, and he arguably lards the third act with one reckless transgression too many. That said, viewers may be inclined to forgive that excess, given the strong performances which take us to that point.

Following a quiet overview of a marvelously detailed basement toy train layout, accompanied by Morgan Freeman’s thoughtful voice-over, the story opens on a cheerfully rowdy pre-wedding gathering. Everybody has had a bit too much to drink — or smoke — while singer/songwriter Allison (Pugh) gamely performs one of her tunes on piano.


After the guests disperse, she and fiancé Nathan (Chinaza Uche) enjoy some quality quiet time, displaying the flirty, playfully sexy nature of their relationship.


(At which point, I glanced at Constant Companion — both of us having watched far too many movies, and therefore feeling that we’re being set up for some sort of catastrophe — and muttered, “Okay, when’s the penny gonna drop?”)


The following morning, Allie — as she prefers to be called — Nathan’s sister Molly (Nichelle Hines) and her husband leave their New Jersey neighborhood, intending to spend the day in Manhattan: trying on dresses, then taking in a play. As it’s a school day, their teenage daughter, Ryan (Celeste O’Connor), has been left behind with her grandfather, Daniel (Freeman).


The car chatter is lively; Allie’s eyes — she’s driving — keep straying from the freeway. She then worsens the situation by pulling out her phone, to check a map reference.


What happens next occurs very quickly. Braff, bless him, cuts to sharp black.


Our first glimpse of Braff’s delicate touch with deeply emotional scenes — and dialogue — comes next. Daniel, in the process of dropping Ryan off at school, gets The Phone Call. Freeman plays the scene wholly by the reaction in his gaze; we don’t hear the other end of the conversation. Then, the call concluded — sinking further into shock by the second — Daniel encourages Ryan to have a good day at school.


He gives the girl those precious few more hours of “normal,” before her life is ripped apart.


Allie, badly injured, wakens in a hospital bed. Nathan and her mother, Diane (Molly Shannon), are present. A police officer enters the room; chaos ensues.


Molly and her husband died in the crash; Allie survived.

Friday, March 17, 2023

Boston Strangler: Riveting true-crime drama

Boston Strangler (2023) • View trailer
Four stars (out of five). Rated R, for profanity and violent content
Available via: Hulu
By Derrick Bang • Published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.17.23

Writer/director Matt Ruskin’s new film is an excellent companion to last autumn’s She Said.


His fact-based account of the early 1960s serial killer is far more honest than its 1968 big-screen predecessor, with Tony Curtis in the title role; it focused exclusively on a lead detective — played by Henry Fonda — who “single-handedly” obtains the murderer’s confession.


After Jean Cole (Carrie Coon, left) and Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) become the
"public face" of the rapidly developing Boston Strangler story, they're soon flooded by
hundreds of letters from women who insist they've been approached by the killer.

That film is, to put it kindly, a work of fiction very loosely inspired by actual events.

It completely ignored the two newspaper journalists who — most crucially — broke the story; recognized the crucial patterns that pointed to a serial killer (a phrase not even coined, at the time); and doggedly pursued subsequent leads … much to the displeasure of the Boston police.


Both were women, of course: Boston Record-American journalists Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole, played here by (respectively) Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon.


We’ve lately been enjoying a welcome surfeit of films that shine a long-overdue light on previously unsung women of major consequence, from 2016’s Queen of Katwe and Hidden Figures, to last year’s The Woman King and She Said (all of which make me wonder how many more equally inspiring stories are waiting to be told).


Boston Strangler definitely belongs in their company.


Knightley’s McLaughlin is introduced as an ambitious journalist thoroughly bored — and frustrated — by the softball society column fluff to which she has been relegated. Efforts to cover meatier material get shot down by her editor, Jack Maclaine (Chris Cooper, appropriately gruff and grizzled), who is sympathetic but unwilling to budge.


The message is clear: “This is simply the way of things.”


But McLaughlin continues to follow police reports, and becomes intrigued by the murders of three Boston women, aged 56 to 85, during the latter half of June 1962. Lacking any effective inter-departmental means to share information, and with differing jurisdictional oversight in various parts of the city, the police fail to recognize a common element that links the killings: the fact that all three were strangled with nylon stockings or a bathrobe belt.


Another odd detail: None of the apartments showed signs of forced entry, suggesting that the victims either knew the killer, or assumed he was a “trusted” figure such as a building maintenance man, or some other service individual. (We roll our eyes, at the thought of such naïve, innocent times.)


McLaughlin wants to pursue this lead; Maclaine won’t have it. But he grudgingly agrees to let her profile the three victims — on her own time — to learn if they had anything else in common.


Friday, March 10, 2023

Chang Can Dunk: A worthy lay-up

Chang Can Dunk (2023) • View trailer
3.5 stars (out of five). Rated PG, for mild profanity
Available via: Disney+

Being a teenager was hard enough, back in the day. Foolishly rash or lamentable behavior was seen only by a gaggle of kids in the school corridor, or perhaps everybody in a single classroom.


In this social media era, the entire world becomes witness. How’s that for pressure?


Foolish, foolish boy: Bad enough that Chang (Bloom Li, foreground right) makes a rash
bet with school basketball nemesis Matt (Chase Liefeld) ... but he does it in front of
dozens of other kids, all of whom immediately turn the moment viral.

Writer/director Jingyi Shao makes an impressive feature debut with Chang Can Dunk, an engaging coming-of-maturity saga that focuses on the title character, sensitively played by Bloom Li. He’s a 16-year-old member of his high school marching band, who allows himself to be goaded into an impossible challenge.

Shao obviously remembers his own teen years; this saga of teenage angst, peer pressure, popularity and “fitting in” is equal parts motivating, aw-shucks endearing and wincingly embarrassing.


Band members have been branded high school nerds ever since their uniforms became de rigueur, and that hasn’t changed in the 21st century. Chang’s social circle therefore is quite small, limited primarily to best friend and fellow drummer Bo (Ben Wang).


The story begins on the first day of Chang’s sophomore year, which he has spent the entire summer envisioning will be far superior to the one before. He’s desperate to be liked, and considered cool; to that end, he has made himself over with a new haircut and wardrobe.


Bo, comfortable in his own skin, is puzzled by this transformation. He couldn’t care less if he’s viewed as a dork; he’s clearly playing the long game (and likely will wind up CEO of the company that employs some of his condescending school mates).


Besides which, and much to Chang’s disappointment, it quickly becomes obvious that he’s still viewed the same as before.


Matters are worsened when a new student, Kristy (Zoe Renee), joins the band’s drum unit. Chang’s crush is instantaneous, and the feeling initially seems mutual … until Kristy also is noticed and pursued by Matt (Chase Liefeld), the high school basketball star. Wanting to be admired for the same reason, Chang rashly bets that he can dunk a basketball by Homecoming, 11 weeks away.


Chang, it should be mentioned, is 5-foot-8.


Friday, March 3, 2023

Creed III: Punches at its weight

Creed III (2023) • View trailer
Four stars (out of five). Rated PG-13, for intense sports action, violence and profanity-laced song lyrics
Available via: Movie theaters
By Derrick Bang • Published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.3.23

This spin-off boxing series finally dances on its own two feet, having outgrown its Rocky Balboa roots.


Nice to see.


The calm before the impending storm: Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) enjoys some quality
time with his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and their daughter Amara
(Mila Davis-Kent)

The script — from Ryan Coogler, Keegan Coogler and Zach Baylin — delivers a satisfying blend of intimate family drama and riveting pugilistic action, along with a mystery that keeps folks guessing for awhile.

Star Michael B. Jordan also makes his directorial debut here. While he deserves credit for mounting a satisfying sports drama, he also has himself frequently framed in tight close-up by cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau (a frequent vanity misstep by actors-turned-first-time-directors).


And although this series always has threatened to drown in soggy melodrama, this newest entry again skates close to the edge, but (happily) doesn’t descend into slushy sentimentality.


The core plot stands on its own, but viewers unfamiliar with the two earlier films may be puzzled by some of the family dynamics, notably the (apparently) strained relationship between Adonis Creed (Jordan) and his beloved mother, Mary-Anne (Phylicia Rashad). 


The film opens on a flashback that expands on our hero’s origin. It’s 2002, and 15-year-old Adonis (Thaddeus J. Mixson) sneaks out of his house late on evening, in order to watch his slightly older best friend, Damian Anderson (Spence Moore II), win a key boxing match. The two bonded during the two years they lived in a juvenile center, when Damian schooled Adonis in the “sweet science.”


Following Damian’s victory, while stopping for snacks at a convenience store, — a suddenly enraged Adonis starts beating on an older guy who exits the place. (And we think, what the heck?)


Cue two sudden cuts: the first showcasing the adult Adonis winning the bout that makes him World Heavyweight Champion, and then — just as quickly — several years later, to the present day. Adonis has retired and now runs the Delphi Boxing Academy with his former cornerman, Tony “Little Duke” Burton (Wood Harris). Current champ Felix Chavez (Jose Benavidez) is in residence, as Delphi’s star boxer.


Adonis shares his lavish Bel Air home with loving wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson), whose previous life as a pop performer has blossomed into an equally successful career as a music producer. They dote on young daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent, absolutely adorable), whose deafness hasn’t harmed her spirit.


Jordan and Davis-Kent share marvelous chemistry, and this story’s father/daughter sequences are totally charming. Amara worships her father, and wants to learn more about boxing … to Bianca’s dismay. Particularly since the little girl tends to settle school disagreements with a punch.


(Davis-Kent actually is deaf, which adds a solid touch of authenticy to her performance.)

Friday, February 24, 2023

The 2023 Oscar Shorts: An engaging program

The Oscar Shorts (2022) • View trailer
Four stars (out of five). Not rated, with parental guidance strongly advised
Available via: Movie theaters
By Derrick Bang • Published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.24.23

Many of the past several years’ worth of Academy Award-nominated live-action shorts have been grim and unbearably depressing.


Happily, this year’s voters have regained their senses of balance and humor, while still focusing on relatable real-world issues. Rest assured: Two of them still pack a gut-punch.


Unhappily, the Academy members who selected the animated entries remain too willing to reward weird style over narrative substance: a shortcoming that definitely compromises two of those entries.

But let’s start on a happier animated note. Australian director Lachlan Pendragon’s An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake, and I Think I Believe It is a droll claymation riff on 1998’s The Truman Show (and further inspired, Pendragon explains, by the 1953 Chuck Jones Warner Bros. cartoon, “Duck Amuck”).


A young telemarketer has long focused on toaster sales in an office crowded with numerous phone-bank workers … until, quite unexpectedly, the large avian of this film’s title informs him of a much larger world beyond his office walls.


Suddenly made aware that he has no knowledge of his childhood or upbringing — as also is the case with all his co-workers — our hero’s disorientation shoots into hyperdrive after realizing that his actions are controlled by Something Out There.


Pendragon’s 11-minute film doesn’t really have a point, but it’s fun to watch.


That isn’t the case with Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby’s The Flying Sailor, a bizarre and clumsily animated depiction of an urban legend that emerged in the wake of the horrific 1917 Halifax Harbour explosion: the largest human-made explosion at the time, equivalent to 2.9 kilotons of TNT.


As the legend developed over time, an English sailor was sent skyward, blown out of his clothes, and landed — unharmed — two kilometers uphill. Canadians Forbis and Tilby intend their 7-minute short to be a parable on making peace with the moment, as one’s life flashes before panicked eyes … but the execution is too sloppy to be effective.

Armageddon Time: Heartbreaking growing pains

ArmageddonTime (2022) • View trailer
4.5 stars (out of five). Rated R, for profanity and drug use
Available via: Amazon Prime and other streaming options

If Armageddon is viewed as the end of life as we know it, that’s also an apt description of the rude awakening experienced by an adolescent, the first time s/he is confronted by the world’s harsh realities.


When the emotional complexities of adolescence prove overwhelming, Paul
(Banks Repeta, left) knows that he can count on understanding and benevolent
wisdom from his Grampa Aaron (Anthony Hopkins).
Because that moment truly is the end of blissful childhood innocence.

Writer/director James Gray’s delicately nuanced, semi-autobiographical drama is both familiar and painfully intimate. It’s an excellent companion piece to Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, with a similar focus on interpersonal dynamics and emotionally shattering revelations. Both families are Jewish, and this heritage plays a strong role in their lives. Both sets of parents have worked hard to be upwardly mobile, determined to create better opportunities for their children.


But whereas Spielberg’s protagonist ultimately finds release in artistic expression, it’s not entirely clear that Gray’s young alter-ego will be similarly successful.


His achingly poignant narrative gets additional punch from the well-crafted work by young Banks Repeta, starring here as Paul Graff. Film dramas often take place at a remove, with viewers aware of the distance between themselves and the characters on screen. Thanks to Gray’s sensitive direction, Repeta’s complex performance — and similarly excellent work from the supporting cast — that sense of distance vanishes. 


We frequently feel like interlopers, somehow eavesdropping on real-world events taking place in a home just a few doors down from our own.


The time is autumn 1979, the setting New York City at its worst. Paul lives with his parents Irving (Jeremy Strong) and Esther (Anne Hathaway), and older brother Ted (Ryan Sell), in a semi-detached two-family row house in Flushing, Queens. The story begins as Paul begins his first day of sixth grade at the local public school, where he immediately stakes out a reputation as a disruptor.


He’s intelligent and funny, but not particularly attentive.


Paul’s tendency toward disrespect continues at home, where he’s an insufferably picky eater, battles constantly with his brother, and frequently talks back to his mother. The Graff home — and dinner table — often are boisterous affairs laden with grandparents and other aging relatives. Paul’s behavior skates, in part, because his beloved Grandpa Aaron (Anthony Hopkins) understands that the boy still is finding himself.


Even so, while Paul remains a sympathetic character — for the most part — he often isn’t likable. (Not unusual for a kid that age.)


Friday, February 17, 2023

Marlowe: Rich, retro gumshoe ambiance

Marlowe (2022) • View trailer
Four stars (out of five). Rated R, for profanity, violence, sexual content and drug use
Available via: Movie theaters

Noir fans will love this one.


Director Neil Jordan, always up for a challenge, has faithfully embraced the hard-bitten realm of Raymond Chandler’s laconic, world weary private detective, Philip Marlowe.


Marlowe (Liam Neeson) is seasoned enough to know it's unwise to fall for a client, but
Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger) is rather hard to resist...

William Monahan’s screenplay draws from 2014’s The Black-Eyed Blonde, a Marlowe continuation novel authorized by the Chandler estate, and written by celebrated Irish author John Banville under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, which he has adopted as a pen name for his crime novels. 

Banville’s book is set during the 1950s, as befits a case taking place after Chandler’s final novel, 1958’s Playback, wherein Marlowe acknowledges his advanced age. Jordan and Monahan’s key change bounces these events back to October 1939, the year Chandler’s first Marlowe novel — The Big Sleep — was published.


It could be argued that star Liam Neeson, now in his early 70s, would have been a better fit for the seasoned 1950s Marlowe … but the actor slides so smoothly into the character’s shrewdly observant, quietly sardonic PI manner, that it scarcely matters.


Production designer John Beard has done a remarkable job of re-creating the Southern California metropolis of Bay City, Chandler’s fictitious depiction of Santa Monica (particularly since exterior filming took place in Barcelona, Spain). As befits the smoky noir atmosphere, cinematographer Xavi Giménez makes excellent use of light, dark, shadows and reflections, particularly during the story’s many nighttime settings.


Events kick off when chiffon blond heiress Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger) hires Marlowe to find her lover, Nico Peterson, who has been missing for a fortnight. Marlowe and his new client spar verbally, amid mildly flirtatious overtones; she likes it when he uses her last name as her first name. Neeson and Kruger handle this exchange smoothly, further enhancing the tone we expect from a Chandler novel.


Marlowe senses that Clare isn’t being entirely candid; additional information requires patience. She eventually acknowledges that her husband Richard (Patrick Muldoon) loves only “polo, alcohol, waitresses … and my money.” Even so, it would appear that Nico was more than a passing fancy.


With help from cop friend Joe Green (Ian Hart), Marlowe soon learns that Nico is dead, having been run over by a car while exiting the posh, gated and heavily guarded Corbata Club: playground of the rich and dissolute. Club manager Floyd Hanson (Danny Huston), when Marlowe finally wheedles an interview, is brusque and unconcerned; the accident took place on the street outside the club gates, and — therefore — isn’t his concern.