Friday, May 24, 2024

The Garfield Movie: Frantic feline frolic

The Garfield Movie (2024) • View trailer
3.5 stars (out of five). Rated PG, for action/peril
Available via: Movie theaters
By Derrick Bang • Published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.26.24

I had doubts.


A few years after its 1978 syndicated debut, the Garfield newspaper strip quickly devolved into a coldly calculated product, tediously recycling the same dozen bland gags for the next half-century. And still does so.


Otto, far right, goes over the precise details of an extremely improbable infiltration plan,
while (from left) Vic, Garfield and Odie listen with a blend of disbelief, fear and respect.

Creator Jim Davis even admitted that Garfield was intended as a “marketable character.”

Point being, very little on which to hang a full-length feature film.


This became blatantly obviously when 2004’s Garfield: The Movie and 2006’s Garfield: A Tale of Two Kittiesdeservedly bombed. Bill Murray’s signature laid-back smugness may have been perfect as the voice of Garfield, but the scripts and direction were strictly from hunger.


Expectations for this new Garfield Movie therefore weren’t high.


Happily, director Mark Dindal and his three writers — Paul A. Kaplan, Mark Torgrove and David Reynolds — have gone in an entirely different direction, by re-inventing the sarcastic orange feline’s tone and world. Granted, this Garfield still hates Mondays, is insufferably snide, and eats 75 times his body weight in lasagna, pizza and spaghetti. Every day. (And somehow doesn’t gain a pound.)


But Dindal and his writers have adjusted the character dynamics — a vast improvement — while delivering a hilariously frantic adventure paced more like a 101-minute Road Runner cartoon, complete with clever animation, snarky one-liners, well-timed reaction shots and all manner of droll pop-culture references and inside jokes.


The best transformation: Garfield’s yellow canine buddy Odie, no longer the dumb and hapless victim of the cat’s nasty pranks, has morphed into a wise, resourceful and impressively ingenious sidekick. And, unlike all the other characters in this wild romp, Odie remains Buster Keaton-style silent, often with a tolerantly stoic gaze that screams, “See what I have to put up with?!?”


After a prologue that introduces Garfield (enthusiastically voiced by Chris Pratt), Odie and their hapless owner, Jon Arbuckle (Nicholas Hoult), the saga gets underway with the unexpected appearance of Vic (Samuel L. Jackson), our feline hero’s long-estranged father.


This prompts a flashback sequence that reveals how Garfield, as an adorably cute kitten — who could resist those saucer-size eyes? — is adopted by Jon, after being abandoned by Vic.


Turtles All the Way Down: A touching teen drama

Turtles All the Way Down (2024) • View trailer
3.5 stars (out of five). Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, brief profanity and sexual references
Available via: MAX

Far too much time has passed between captivating film adaptations of John Green novels: not since the marvelous one-two punch of The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns, in 2014 and ’15, respectively.


Although Aza (Isabela Merced, left) is nervous about wearing this dress on what might
become an actual date, Daisy (Cree) assures her that it's perfect.

While director Hannah Marks’ handling of Turtles All the Way Down isn’t quite in their league, it’s nonetheless a poignant character study anchored by richly nuanced performances from its two stars.

Green’s books sometimes have been labeled “teen tragedy wallows,” but that’s unfair; it’s more accurate to credit him for sensitively bringing attention to people who — in real life — often get marginalized by debilitating conditions. That’s definitely the case here, and scripters Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker have delivered an impressively faithful adaptation of Green’s 2017 novel.


On the surface, Aza Holmes (Isabela Merced) seems like any other 16-year-old Indianapolis high school student, but she’s often crippled by anxiety and acute OCD. She obsesses about the contents of her microbiome and is terrified of infection, particularly the spore-forming bacterium C-diff (Clostridium difficile). During panic attacks, she scratches open an unhealed callus on one finger, hoping to drain imagined pathogens.


It’s impossible to avoid wincing each time Aza does this. Although Marks certainly doesn’t linger on the bloody result, there’s something primal, awful and invasive about witnessing this act of minor self-mutilation ... and it certainly establishes this young woman as tragically damaged.


Aza frequently skips the meds that would ease such anxiety, much to the frustration of her caring psychiatrist, Dr. Kira Singh (Poorna Jagannathan, recognized from TV’s Never Have I Ever). But it’s clear that Aza doesn’t “feel like herself” while on the meds: an excuse that’ll be recognized by all who are forced to make such a choice.


“Your now is not your forever,” Dr. Singh stresses.


Aza is burdened further by having lost her father — the one person who “really got her” — at a young age. Her devoted mother Gina (Judy Reyes, late of TV’s Scrubs and Devious Maids) does her best to compensate, but is well aware — to her anguish — that it isn’t quite enough.


Fortunately, Aza is blessed with a longtime loyal friend, Daisy Ramirez (Cree Cicchino, now going solely by her first name). Daisy is everything Aza isn’t: vivacious, enthusiastic, bold, effortlessly cheerful and flamboyant in appearance. She’s sensitive to Aza’s condition, and does her best to “normalize” their time together; they’re also mutual friends with Mychal Turner (Maliq Johnson), an aspiring artist who’s clearly sweet on Daisy.


Friday, May 17, 2024

The Fall Guy: Rip-snortin' mayhem

The Fall Guy (2024) • View trailer
Four stars (out of five). Rated PG-13, for action violence, drug content and fleeting profanity
Available via: Movie theaters
By Derrick Bang • Published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.17.24

This is way too much fun.


Director David Leitch and scripter Drew Pearce dumped their stars into a frothy, tongue-in-cheek action epic that never takes itself seriously ... while simultaneously delivering a heartfelt indictment of Hollywood’s shameful refusal to properly acknowledge the brave, hard-working stuntmen and women — and their support teams — who’ve operated in the shadows since the dawn of cinema.


With everything to lose, Cole (Ryan Gosling) makes a last-ditch effort to solve the weird
mystery that plagues his ex's film shoot.

A few have been appropriately recognized, over time: the utterly amazing Yakima Canutt, gender-breaking pioneers Helen Gibson and Evelyn Finley, stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham, and acrobatic stars such as Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan.

Most, though, remain anonymous ... thanks in great part to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ ongoing refusal to honor them with an Oscar category.


(They’re about to add one for casting directors ... but still not for stunt workers? Shameful.)


But I digress.


Pearce’s balls-to-the-wall plot, very loosely based on the 1981-86 Lee Majors TV series of the same name, opens as well-respected stuntman Colt Seavers (Ryan Gosling) successfully completes a drop-shot as a stand-in for insufferably self-centered movie star Tom Ryder (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The latter, egged on by producer/manager Gail Meyer (the hilariously overblown Hannah Waddingham, late of TV’s Ted Lasso), demands a retake; too much of Colt’s face is visible in the shot, spoiling the illusion that Ryder does his own stunts.


(This arrogant PR nonsense, notorious among far too many of Hollywood’s insecure “action heroes,” is woefully tolerated even to this day.)


The retake ... goes badly.


In a sickening sequence that draws horrified gasps even though Leitch keeps it off-camera — and is a disturbing echo of the real-world accident that crippled Daniel Radcliffe’s longtime stunt double, Davis Holmes (sensitively addressed in a poignant 2023 documentary — Colt breaks his back.


Flash-forward a year and change. Colt has withdrawn from life and the career he loved so much ... and from the woman, Jody Moreno (Emily Blunt), who also meant so much to him. He now works a dead-end job as a parking attendant; she has parlayed her behind-the-scenes film set responsibilities into a first-time directing assignment on an overblown sci-fi epic dubbed “Metalstorm.” It stars Ryder, of course, with Gail as executive producer.


But there’s trouble on the set. Unknown to Jody, Ryder has mysteriously vanished; worse yet, so has his stunt double, Kevin (Ben Gerrard). Gail, knowing that she can stall for a few days by suggesting that Jody focus on second-unit action scenes, reaches out and begs Cole to step in.


“Jody wants you,” Gail insists. “She needs you.”


Although plagued by doubt and guilt over how he abandoned Jody, Colt cannot resist this plea; could it mean that she has forgiven him?

Friday, May 10, 2024

The Three Musketeers: Milady — Thoroughly enjoyable

The Three Musketeers: Milady (2023) • View trailer
Four stars (out of five). Not rated, and akin to PG-13 for violence
Available via: Amazon Prime and other VOD options

No surprise: The second chapter of French filmmaker Martin Bourboulon’s swashbuckling epic is every bit as entertaining as its predecessor.


You'd think he would learn! Milady (Eva Green) once again has D'Artagnan (François Civil)
at her mercy ... although what she intends to do with him, remains an open question.
As director Richard Lester did, back in the 1970s, Bourboulon closed the first half on a (mostly) triumphant note, with the French queen’s reputation preserved, thanks to the heroic efforts of D’Artagnan (François Civil) and his fellow Musketeers; they foiled a nefarious plot by the scheming Cardinal Richelieu (Èric Ruf) and his henchwoman, the malevolent Milady (Eva Green).

Our heroes also thwarted an attempt to assassinate King Louis XIII (Louis Garrel). 


But Bourboulon and his co-scripters — Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de La Patellière — couldn’t resist adding a nasty cliffhanger. D’Artagnan, warned that his beloved Constance (Lyna Khoudri) was in danger, was just in time to see her snatched and whisked away in a black coach ... after which he was whacked on the head and left to an uncertain fate.


This second chapter picks up immediately thereafter, as D’Artagnan regains consciousness in a wood crate shared with a corpse (yuck!). He overcomes his captors and captures the Comte de Chalais (Patrick Mille), a secondary villain whose role expands in this film. D’Artagnan believes that the Comte has Constance in a prison cell, and instead is surprised to find Milady chained within.


In a nod to the old proverb — “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” — the subsequent skirmish finds D’Artagnan and Milady fighting as unlikely allies: an uneasy alliance that Bourboulon continues to exploit as the story progresses.


Both actors have fun with this prickly dynamic. Although still impetuous and reckless, Civil’s D’Artagnan no longer is as foolish or callow; he doesn’t trust Milady ... but she’s so damn seductive, that his guard frequently drops. Green, in turn, positively delights in her character’s shameless malice; she’s every inch a black widow spider waiting eagerly to ensnare and devour hapless prey.


Green’s eyes sparkle with cold, cunning evil: the pluperfect villain we love to hate.


(The writers attempt to justify Milady’s behavior by adding references to abusive treatment by men earlier in her life, but that’s an eyebrow-lift. Go with the obvious: She’s bad because she enjoys it.)


Friday, May 3, 2024

Immediate Family: A thoroughly entertaining look at music legends

Immediate Family (2022) • View trailer
Four stars (out of five). Not rated, and suitable for all ages
Available via: Hulu
By Derrick Bang • Published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.10.24

Everybody reading these words has heard these four guys perform.


You simply didn’t know it at the time.


Members of The Immediate Family — from left, Daniel "Danny Kootch" Kortchmar, Leland
Sklar, Waddy Wachtel, guitarist Steve Postel (new to the group) and Russ Kunkel —
stroll city streets like they own them. And, indeed, they do.

The quartet collectively known these days as The Immediate Family — guitarists Daniel “Danny Kootch” Kortchmar and Waddy Wachtel, bassist Leland Sklar, and drummer Russ Kunkel — entered the music scene in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when pop hits crooned by camera-ready headliners (but written by others) gave way to folk/rock singer/songwriters who composed and performed their own material.

Kootch, Wachtel, Sklar and Kunkel quickly became in-demand session musicians: the backing “shading artists” who brought memorable highlights to chart-topping tunes by this new crop of talent.


But as filmmaker Denny Tedesco makes clear in this thoroughly absorbing documentary — and you can’t watch it without constantly smiling — these guys weren’t overnight sensations. They’d all been honing their musical chops since early childhood.


Their histories unfold via a series of individual on-camera interviews, vintage clips, brief bits of cute animation, and playful banter between all four of them, seated together and inspiring each others’ memories.


Kootch, a native New Yorker, met then-unknown James Taylor when both were teenagers spending summers at Martha’s Vineyard. They subsequently formed a band dubbed The Flying Machine, which survived long enough to produce one album’s worth of songs (finally released, rather hypocritically, only after Taylor hit big with the album Sweet Baby James, on which Kootch also played backing guitar).


Taylor’s hit song, “Fire and Rain,” references this band with the phrase “sweet dreams and flying machines, in pieces on the ground.”


Kootch eventually gravitated to Los Angeles, where he became part of a trio dubbed The City, alongside Carole King. Following Sweet Baby James, Kootch backed King on her 1971 breakthrough album, Tapestry.

Friday, April 26, 2024

The Greatest Hits: A most unusual love story

The Greatest Hits (2024) • View trailer
3.5 stars (out of five). Rated PG-13, for drug use, sexual candor and fleeting profanity
Available via: Hulu

Writer/director Ned Benson’s beguiling little charmer expands upon a premise that’ll feel familiar to everybody: the power of a beloved song to take us back in time to where we were, and who with, the first time it was heard.


After a couple of chance encounters, sparks fly when Harriet (Lucy Boynton) and David
(Justin H. Min) playfully argue over who gets to purchase a rare, one-of-a-kind LP in
her favorite music store.

But in the case of Harriet (Lucy Boynton), the result isn’t merely a memory; she literally re-lives the few minutes when she first heard the tune with beloved boyfriend Max (David Corenswet).

This isn’t a happy ability. 


As revealed when this story begins — after Harriet, alone in her apartment, cues up The The’s aptly titled “This Is the Day,” on her fancy turntable — that tune was playing when she and Max were involved in a car accident. He died; she wound up in a coma for a week.


Upon wakening, she discovered — to her horror — that every tune she and Max ever heard, during their four years together, yanks her back to that particular moment of their relationship. Her past self’s awareness of this doesn’t help; we realize, from Harriet’s forlorn bearing, that she has tried many, many times to prevent the accident. And failed.


Two years have passed, during which Harriet has — as a means of self-preservation — cocooned herself into an isolated life. She has forsaken a once-budding career in music production, to work in the silence of a library. When not there, or at home, she wears noise-canceling headphones, in order to prevent accidentally overhearing a “trigger” song; if that happens, her present-day self goes into an unconscious trance ... which, obviously, could be dangerous.


Over time, she has catalogued scores of trigger songs that allow her, in the privacy of her apartment, to re-live happier moments with Max. But this is unhealthy, as it prevents her from processing grief; indeed, such sessions simply fuel her misery. Her only companion is the devoted little dog she “inherited” after the accident.


She always sits in an antique armchair, facing her system speakers, in a pose that cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung cheekily lifts from Maxell’s iconic 1980s “Blown-Away Guy” ads for audiocassettes. (I have to wonder how many of this film’s viewers will recognize the reference.)


Jamie XX’s “Loud Places” sends her back to the music festival when she and Max first met. Yellow Days’ “Gap in the Clouds” finds them during a romantic moment on an isolated beach. And so forth. (Benson’s film is wall-to-wall music; every song is carefully selected to add impact or irony to a given scene.)


It’s like a drug, and Harriet is hooked: “It’s so easy to be pulled back into the past.”

Friday, April 19, 2024

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: Jolly good show!

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare (2024) • View trailer
Four stars (out of five). Rated R, for relentless violent content and some profanity
Available via: Movie theaters
By Derrick Bang • Published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.19.24

This one has it all:


Taut suspense; superb direction and pacing; well-crafted characters played by a terrific cast; dry, mordant humor; and a jaw-dropping, war-era assignment that unfolds like Mission: Impossible without the gadgets, and is based on actual events related within Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s declassified memoirs, as detailed in Damien Lewis’ 2014 nonfiction book, Churchill’s Secret Warriors: The Explosive True Story of the Special Forces Desperadoes of WWII.


Gus March-Phillips (Henry Cavill, center) believes that he and his lads — clockwise from
left, Geoffrey Appleyard (Alex Pettyfer), Anders Lassen (Alan Ritchson), Henry Hayes
(Hero Fiennes Tiffin) and Freddy Alvarez (Henry Golding) — can seriously compromise
Nazi U-boat activities.

To be sure, director Guy Ritchie and his co-writers — Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson and Arash Amel — have, um enhanced these events quite a bit; that’s to be expected from the flamboyant filmmaker who brought us (among many others) SnatchThe Gentlemen and cheeky updates of Sherlock Holmes and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

But enough truth remains to make this one of the most audacious covert operations ever to emerge from World War II.


England is in dire straits as this story begins, with London enduring nightly Nazi bombing raids, and American forces unable to cross the Atlantic due to the persistent threat of German U-boats (that latter detail stretching the truth a bit). Determined to break this impasse, Churchill (Rory Kinnear) authorizes an off-books assault — dubbed Operation Postmaster —  proposed by Special Operations Executive Brigadier Colin Gubbins (Cary Elwes) and his personal assistant, Lt. Commander Ian Fleming (Freddie Fox).


(Yes, that Ian Fleming. He had quite the colorful career during the war.)


The details are to remain a secret between Churchill, Gubbins and Fleming: withheld, in particular, from War Office senior officers who favor trying to cut a deal with Hitler (!).


The plan: a clandestine black-ops mission — in other words, “ungentlemanly,” by the norms at that time — involving a small group of carefully selected mercenaries, tasked with destroying a crucial U-boat supply ship berthed in a neutral Spanish port on the volcanic island of Fernando Po.


Gubbins’ choice to head the mission: Major Gus March-Phillips (Henry Cavill), currently a guest of Her Majesty’s prison system.


(Well, naturally.)


What follows is a thrilling blend of The Dirty DozenThe Magnificent Seven and, yes, the aforementioned Mission: Impossible. Once released and apprised of the assignment — when he isn’t cadging fine spirits, cigars and Fleming’s lighter (a cute bit) — March-Phillips assembles his team, each of whom would walk through fire on his behalf:


• Henry Hayes (Hero Fiennes Tiffin), an Irish navigations expert;


• Freddy “The Frogman” Alvarez (Henry Golding), a demolitions pro fully at home underwater; and


• Anders Lassen (Alan Ritchson, recognized from Amazon Prime’s “Reacher” TV series), an unstoppable killing machine, equally adept with knives and his beloved long-range bow and arrows, who has a charming habit of collecting the hearts of his Nazi victims.