Frybread Face and Me: Profoundly spiritual
1 December 2023 | 9:00 am

Frybread Face and Me (2023) • View trailer
Four stars (out of five). Not rated; suitable for all ages
Available via: Netflix
By Derrick Bang • Published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.1.23

Discovering marvelous little gems such as this one, is the best part of my job.


Writer/director Billy Luther’s semi-autobiographical film is less a coming-of-age drama, and more a coming-of-identity revelation.


Although Benny (Keir Tallman) has nothing in common with his cousin Dawn (Charley
Hogan), they become inseperable during a summer that allows the boy to better
appreciate his cultural heritage.

The year is 1990. Eleven-year-old Benny (Keir Tallman, in a sensitive big-screen debut), raised in San Diego, barely is aware of his Diné (Navaho) roots; the only visible evidence is his luxuriously long hair. His mother, Ann (Morningstar Angeline), has instead encouraged his devotion to Fleetwood Mac and particularly Stevie Nicks; during their most carefree moments, they dress up like Nicks and dance uninhibitedly.


Benny also plays with action figures — he bridles when somebody refers to them as “dolls” — but his make-believe scenarios focus on kissing and their imagined sexual relations.


Perhaps due to pressure from his disapproving father, Benny is shipped off to Arizona, and the family “rez” where his Grandmother Lorraine (Sarah H. Natani, every inch a gentle, loving soul) has lived her entire life. She doesn’t speak a word of English — she refuses to learn, as it’s the “oppressor’s” language — and Benny speaks no Diné. They therefore talk past each other, although Lorraine is generous with her affection.


Benny has better luck with his kind, free-spirited Aunt Lucy (Kahara Hodges), a counter-culture throwback who makes and sells jewelry. His curt, quick-tempered Uncle Marvin (Martin Sensmeier), is more judgmental, believing the boy a disgrace to his Diné ancestry. Marvin fully expects him to help maintain the ramshackle pen where their sheep are kept each night, despite Benny’s total lack of experience with such things.


Small wonder Benny thinks solely of returning to San Diego, in order to see the Fleetwood Mac concert he’d earlier been promised. His isolation is total; even if he knew how to fit in, he’s disinclined to try.


The dynamic shifts with the unexpected arrival of his older cousin, Dawn (Charley Hogan), also dumped for the summer by her no-good mother (Owee Rae). Lorraine takes this in stride; we suspect Dawn frequently gets abandoned in this manner. She’s an aggressively odd duck: defiantly unkempt and somewhat overweight, which long ago prompted the unkind nickname — “Frybread Face” — by which most people call her (because that staple is “round and greasy”).


She’s never seen without her prized possession: a makeshift doll with a Cabbage Patch baby’s head and furry animal body, dubbed “Jeff Bridges” because the only movie she’s seen — repeatedly — is 1984’s Starman (on the rare occasions her grandmother’s generator is working).


Dawn initially shares Marvin’s belief that Benny is useless, rolling her eyes and disdainfully mocking his inability to speak Diné, and his unfamiliarity with their culture. But she gradually thaws upon realizing that Benny is a similar misfit, which — ironically — makes him “special” (tolerance being a key element in Diné culture). 


The two don’t exactly bond, but they come to an understanding, and become constant companions. She soon leaps to his defense, in the face of Marvin’s anger and cutting remarks; Benny, in turn, constantly reminds others that her name is Dawn, not Frybread Face. Their subsequent “adventures” are modest, as befits this humble environment, but no less consequential, in terms of Benny’s development: finding a stray sheep, abruptly learning to drive (genuinely hilarious).


And, despite himself, Benny begins to watch and learn. He’s fascinated by his grandmother’s ability to weave rugs; thanks to subtitles, we understand her quiet explanation of the rituals involved in this creative process, even though he doesn’t grasp a single word. Despite the simplicity of her existence, she is wholly content, living in Hózhó — balance and harmony — a state that will forever elude someone like Marvin.


Benny and his grandmother’s relationship becomes more loving, particularly when she washes his hair, insisting that he never should use “white man’s soap,” because it would ruin his natural luster.


Luther is Diné, Hopi and Laguna Pueblo; he made his film on location, with a Diné crew, and the authenticity is apparent in every frame of Peter Simonite’s cinematography. He makes excellent use of occasional long shots, with Benny and Dawn walking in the distance, to convey the enormity of the vast and gorgeous landscape (actually New Mexico, standing in for Arizona).


The gentle story is laden with Diné rituals and culture, with their wonderful blend of mysticism and real-world harmony. Benny unexpectedly earns everybody’s respect when he makes an infant cousin laugh, little realizing that this is her first laugh: an important milestone seen as a sign of the baby’s desire to leave the spirit world and join her earthly family and community. This, in turn, makes Benny a key player in the subsequent ceremonial celebration of this momentous event.


The irony is that the infant’s parents — Uncle Roger (Jeremiah Bitsui) and Aunt Sharon (Nasheen Sleuth) — are aggressively unpleasant and condescending boors who’ve “gone white” and look down on everybody else. (Both actors excel at arrogance. We hate them on sight.)


This thoughtful, uncomplicated film is laced with gentle humor, much of it coming from Hogan’s gift for well-timed one-liners. The key inclusiveness elements are a running theme, but never obtrusively. The acting is uniformly excellent: unmannered and authentic. I often forgot that this was a film, feeling instead that I was spending the summer with these people.

Luther makes the most of his economical 83 minutes, and his conclusion is particularly sweet. Even so, I wished for more ... and how often does that happen, these days? 

Wish: Wish it were better
24 November 2023 | 9:00 am

Wish (2023) • View trailer
Two stars (out of five). Rated PG, for no particular reason
Available via: Movie theaters
By Derrick Bang • Published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.24.23



What a mess.


The proverbial roomful of chimpanzees, banging away at typewriters, could have written a better script. 


Asha initially is enchanted when Magnifico shows her one of the thousands of "wish
spheres" he protects in his castle study ... but she quickly realizes that his outward
benevolence conceals something much darker.

The Disney Animation folks desperately need to pay closer attention to how their Pixar colleagues develop a storyline. And the six (!) writers credited here need to be reminded of the most crucial axiom, when it comes to fantasy: It’s even more important, than with real-world dramas, to establish a logical set of rules and stick to them.

Co-directors Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn’s bewildering train wreck is a blatant example of “art” submerged beneath crass commercialism: dictated solely by the need to reinforce the Disney brand and traditions ... and it certainly ticks all the boxes.


• Plucky young heroine? Check. (Another outfit to be worn by young Disney Princess fans).


• A tragically absent parent? Check. (Goes all the way back to Bambi, donchaknow.)


• An insufferably cute animal sidekick? Check. (The plush toys will fly off store shelves.)


• A plethora of new songs, each one striving to become the next popular power ballad? Check. (Great for social media clicks.)


• Frequent “clever” references to previous Disney films? Check. (In this case, scores of such references ... clearly a case of the tail wagging the dog).


The only thing missing is a coherent narrative. And characters we actually care about.


Actually, that isn’t entirely fair. Our heroine, Asha, is captivating: intelligent, resourceful, ethical, and granted a wide range of emotions courtesy of Academy Award-winning voice actress Ariana DeBose. But one can’t help feeling sorry for Asha, stuck in this poorly constructed story. She deserves better.


The so-called plot, then, with back-story supplied via a storybook-pages prologue:


Long ago, following personal loss, Magnifico (Chris Pine) taught himself to become a powerful wizard; he then established the island kingdom of Rosas, where “wishes come true.” Over time, he and his wife, Amaya (Angelique Cabral), appointed themselves king and queen; they’ve watched with pride as Rosas has grown into a peaceful realm that has attracted newcomers from throughout the world, lured by its reputation.


All adults — and children, upon turning 18 — surrender their innermost wish to Magnifico, during a popular public ceremony. He keeps them all safe in his castle — in small, magical blue spheres — and, once a month, he grants someone’s greatest desire.


Which is to say, stripping away the magical setting:


Everybody sacrifices their innermost dreams for “safety” under a benevolent dictator.


This is a good thing?


Asha hopes to become the king’s new assistant — the (ahem) “sorcerer’s apprentice” — in part because she hopes to persuade Magnifico to honor the 100th birthday of her beloved grandfather, Sabino (Victor Garber), by granting hiswish. Asha’s interview with the king goes badly, particularly when she realizes that he has no intention of everreturning (granting) most wishes. This is how he controls the kingdom: by dangling false hope.


Magnifico, in turn, realizes that he has revealed too much to the girl ... which gives her further evidence of his true colors.


Despondent beyond words, Asha — accompanied by her devoted pet goat, Valentino — flees to the place she closely associates with her late father. She then, well, wishes upon a star ... and dang, one obligingly drops from the sky. This shimmering, golden, adorable little entity is a cosmic force that possesses its own magic, most notably used to give voice to every plant, animal and object sprinkled with its stardust.


Including Valentino, now voiced by Alan Tudyk, and given to wincingly awful one-liners.


At which point the entire forest, from trees and mushrooms to bunnies and bears, joins Asha in a rowdy rendition of the message song “I’m a Star.” During which she realizes, y’know, that we’re all “stars” in our own right, deserving of our own dreams. And wishes. (Cue the heartstrings being tugged.)


The true “jump the shark” moment comes not much later, after Star gives voice to a castle pantry filled with chickens. At which point, Constant Companion and I exchanged glazed glances.


Sadly, most of the seven Julia Michaels/Benjamin Rice songs aren’t the slightest bit memorable, with the exception of the first one — “Welcome to Rosas” — which has the lively, setting-establishing energy of other “introduction” songs such as “Belle” (Beauty and the Beast) and “The Family Madrigal” (Encanto).


Unfortunately, all the rest become increasingly intrusive. Properly designed musicals have clever songs that integrate seamlessly with on-screen events. Songs in bad musicals merely interrupt the flow (although, in this case, there isn’t much flow to interrupt). After this film’s third tune, each subsequent rising swell of Dave Metzger’s orchestral score prompted a groan of “Good gawd, they’re gonna sing again...” 


A duet between Magnifico and Asha — “At All Costs” — feels oddly creepy, as if he’s grooming her. Much later, his vengeful “This Is the Thanks I Get?” is the time-wasting nadir.


Asha’s “forever friends” are noteworthy solely because of the way they’re modeled on Snow White’s seven dwarfs, and this one-note lift is their sole personality: Dahlia, the baker (Doc); the large, yawning Simon (Sleepy); the short, argumentative Gabo (Grumpy); the allergy-ridden Safi (Sneezy); the cheerful Hal (Happy); the somewhat silly Dario (Dopey); and the shy Bazeema (Bashful).


Late in the game, though, one of them betrays Asha ... which makes absolutely no sense.


Actually, quite a lot makes no sense. Given Magnifico’s enormous magical skills, once he succumbs to the dark side — insert moral: absolute power corrupts absolutely — Asha escapes him by merely running? And then he chases her on horseback?? And she gets away???


And don’t even get me started on Star’s similarly ill-defined powers. Once again, this is a contrived and sloppy story where every magical entity is only as strong, or as weak, as a given scene demands.


I struggle to identify this film’s target audience. Nobody over the age of 8 would tolerate this nonsense, and the story isn’t coherent enough to please anybody younger.

But Buck and Veerasunthorn do manage one impressive feat: Their film is only 92 minutes long ... and it’s boring. 

The Killer: Grimly fascinating
17 November 2023 | 1:18 pm

The Killer (2023) • View trailer
Four stars (out of five). Rated R, for strong violence, profanity and fleeting sexuality
Available via: Netflix
By Derrick Bang • Published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.17.23

Given that so many of director David Fincher’s films are cold, brutal and often quite disturbing — Se7enPanic Roomand Zodiac leap to mind — he’s the obvious choice to helm an adaptation of the long-running graphic novel series by French creators Alexis Nolent and Luc Jacamon.


Surveillance is an exercise in extreme patience, as this career assassin (Michael
Fassbender) has learned, during a long and successful career that often involves
waiting days for the target to show up.

And, given that the primary character is a career assassin, the role similarly is a natural for Michael Fassbender, who excels at ruthless indifference. He radiates a degree of calm that is pure façade: a surface mask that conceals a cobra’s speed with a grizzly’s explosive brute force.

Scripter Andrew Kevin Walker augments the film’s already detached atmosphere by leaving all the characters nameless (except for a few clever and deliberate exceptions). They’re known solely by the “handles” employed by those who inhabit this lethal line of work: The Client, The Lawyer, The Expert, and so forth.


Fassbender is The Killer, whom we meet many days into his surveillance of an apartment on the other side of an active Parisian street. He’s holed up in the now-empty offices once occupied by WeWork (rather prescient on Walker’s part, given that the company filed for bankruptcy last week). He’s waiting for The Target to return home, at which point he’ll be executed by our assassin’s wicked-looking rifle.


The story is split into distinct acts, each taking the name of its primary focus. Thus, Act 1 — “The Killer” — profiles this man as Fassbender clinically details the rules, strengths, weaknesses, pitfalls, rash assumptions and mistakes that characterize his profession, in a grimly philosophical and nihilistic voice-over that runs nearly half an hour, while we watch him exercise, sleep, eat, yoga and remain focused on the apartment.


(“Trust no one.” “Forbid empathy.” “Anticipate, don’t improvise.” “Never yield an advantage.” “Fight only the battle you’re paid to fight.”)


Depending on a viewer’s sensibilities, this lengthy monologue will either be fascinating ... or dull and needlessly protracted. (I’m in the former camp.) Something about Fassbender’s presence and serene detachment makes it difficult to look away. Fincher and Walker also manage an undercurrent of very dark humor (which some viewers may not appreciate).


This mordant streak also emerges in the numerous arch songs by The Smiths that occupy The Killer’s playlist, and which Fincher alternates with the disquieting score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.


The Target eventually arrives (at long last, some will think, with relief) and The Killer goes to work. Maddeningly, the man keeps pausing behind the small chunk of wall that separates two large windows. Then the moment comes, and... goes wrong.


“This is new,” The Killer thinks aloud, with a soupçon of genuine surprise.


As the story slides abruptly into its second act, the narrative becomes taut and suspenseful. What comes next is easy to anticipate. The Killer screwed up; people who paid a lot of money for this job are angry and vengeful. The only path to survival will involve eliminating everybody connected with this assignment, from The Client down.


That plan first involves what should have been a brief detour to his “safe house” in the Dominican Republic, to collect cash, fresh weapons and multiple passports. But it immediately becomes clear that this cover has been blown by party or parties unknown, with their own penchant for nasty wet work. It turns out The Killer does indeed have a “special somebody” for whom he cares. Deeply.


Thus, the man who has survived this long by refusing to improvise ... does just that. 


During a subsequent hunt that takes him to New Orleans and beyond, The Killer slides effortlessly into hotels, offices and anywhere else his outwardly bland manner allows him untroubled access: a process made easier because — this is a shrewd thematic undercurrent — people are too distracted these days, focused on screens, or simply not paying attention.


The cat-and-mouse pursuit takes on the air of a John Le Carré Cold War spy story, with The Killer adopting fresh identities at every turn, drawing from a roster that becomes the film’s best running gag.


The violence is sudden and vicious, but not protracted; Fincher doesn’t linger longer than necessary for a given scene. On the other hand, one mano a mano skirmish is impressively ferocious, and superbly orchestrated by Fincher and editor Kirk Baxter.


This certainly isn’t new territory; it has been well exploited since Frederick Forsyth introduced us to a similarly soulless assassin in 1971’s The Day of the Jackal, made into an equally suspenseful film two years later. And it wouldn’t work here if Fassbender were any less fascinating. As the saga slides into its final act, we realize, with some surprise — despite fleeting appearances by costars such as Charles Parnell, Arliss Howard, Kerry O’Malley and Tilda Swinton — that he essentially carries the film by himself.


That’s a major ask of any actor, and Fassbender makes it look easy.


Fincher’s best films gets under one’s skin, leaving a creepy-crawly sense of unease. This one’s no different.

Definitely not for the faint of heart, but suspense fans will be riveted.


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