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Florence Pugh

Florence Pugh and Morgan Freeman in a scene from 'A Good Person' Photo by Jeong Park/MGM

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Zach Braff is best known for his acting work, most notably for his nine seasons as Dr. J.D. Dorian on the sitcom Scrubs. Additionally, his extensive work behind the camera includes producing, writing, and directing. The works encompass short films, television, and, most notably, the feature film Garden State (2004), a quirky but effective rom-com featuring Braff and Natalie Portman. Unfortunately, his follow-up, the domestic comedy-drama Wish I Was Here (2014), was not well-received.

Braff’s third offering, A Good Person, is a drama of dysfunction and addiction. The film opens with Morgan Freeman’s voiceover as he works on his model trains, wistfully proffering the idea that life is neither neat nor tidy. Then, the idyllic moment shifts to the raucous engagement party of Allison (Florence Pugh) and Nathan (Chinaza Uche). Allison sings an original song to her future husband, much to the delight of the guests.

The next morning, Allison drives her future sister-in-law and brother-in-law from New Jersey into New York City. Checking the map app on her phone, Allison involves them in an accident where her prospective in-laws die.

A year later, Florence is an unemployed pharmaceutical rep addicted to pills. She lives in a perpetual state of conflict with her mother, Diane (Molly Shannon), who lacks the insight or emotional resources to help her struggling daughter. Florence has run through her oxy, and none of her doctors will refill her prescription. After a failed attempt to blackmail a former colleague, she ends up in a bar where she smokes with two low-lifes with whom she had gone to high school. Florence has hit bottom.

She attends an AA meeting, running into Daniel (Morgan Freeman), the man who would have been her father-in-law. She leaves, but Daniel stops her, suggesting fate has brought them together. They form an odd bond that becomes a tenuous friendship. 

Retired Daniel was a cop for forty years and a drunk for fifty. Sober ten years, he grapples with raising his orphaned granddaughter, the now rebellious Ryan (Celeste O’Connor). He accepts that he does not know how to raise a teenager, having left that to his wife. The worlds collide as Allison and Ryan accidentally meet at Daniel’s house and also form a strained connection. Ryan shares her late mother’s feelings that Allison was the best thing to happen to her uncle Nathan. Ryan lets slip that her grandfather blames Allison for the accident.

The film is rife with revelations and the sharing of histories. An alcoholic father abused Daniel. In turn, Daniel became a blackout drunk, mistreating his own children. In an inebriated rage, Daniel beat Nathan so severely that the boy lost hearing in his right ear. Estranged, the adult Nathan and Daniel have only the slightest of relationships. 

While the film covers no new territory, the narrative contains the makings of a dramatic and interesting story. Sadly, the gap between intention and execution can be the distance between Perth Amboy and Perth, Australia. 

The film tackles difficult subject matters—guilt, addiction, withdrawal, forgiveness—but somehow manages to avoid depth. Director Braff works from his screenplay, which seems a patchwork of acting class scenes. The occasional smart quip—“the opiate of the masses is opium”—is lost among aphorisms and cliches—“Comparison is the thief of joy.” 

Daniel’s Viet Nam veteran cap is jaw-droppingly unsubtle. In a film brimming with life and death issues, the result is often tensionless and pedestrian. The metaphors—the model trains, Allison’s father’s watch, swimming, songwriting—even a haircut—are heavy-handed. 

However, while Braff the writer might have failed, he cast well and brought out strong performances. Florence Pugh finds the anguish and ugliness in Allison’s spiral. She is mesmerizing rawness in every moment, alternating between a hyper-aware ferocity and a disconnected stupor. Morgan Freeman is incapable of shoddy work and remains one of the most watchable cross-genre actors. While Daniel sits in the center of his range, he manages to nuance the darker moments, contrasted with Freeman’s often-seen “wise” humor.

Molly Shannon’s mother is a bit shrill, but her brittleness and immaturity are not misplaced. Chinaza Uche is given little more than shades of pain, but what he does is imbued with sincerity. Twenty-something Celeste O’Connor embodies the angry teenager, Ryan, and easily holds her own against Pugh and Freeman. She proffers fire, grief, and even joy, while hovering on the verge of implosion.

So much of A Good Person feels manipulated, if not downright manipulative. Ultimately, Braff confuses messy lives with sloppy filmmaking. 

Rated R, the film is now playing in local theaters.

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Florence Pugh and Harry Styles in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Actor Olivia Wilde made her directorial debut with Booksmart (2019), a coming-of-age comedy about high school seniors looking to break the rules on their final day of classes. The hugely successful film received critical accolades, landed on multiple top-ten lists, and garnered many nominations. 

Florence Pugh and Harry Styles in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Unfortunately, Wilde’s sophomore outing, Don’t Worry Darling (New Line Cinemas), is an empty, tedious psychological thriller that borrows liberally but poorly from better and smarter films.

Perfect couple Alice (Florence Pugh) and Jack (Harry Styles) reside in an idyllic 1950s community in a seemingly perpetually honeymoon of romance, domesticity, and sex. The California oasis, all sunlight and happiness, is the town of Victory; the name derives from the mysterious company for which the men work. 

Each morning, the wives stand on their perfectly manicured lawns and bid goodbye to their spouses, who join an automotive caravan into the adjunct desert where they labor on an unnamed project. The stay-at-home wives clean, cook, and then visit the club pool where they while away the day gossiping. They vaguely speculate on the corporation’s actual work, discouraged from questioning their husbands on the much-lauded “development of progressive materials.” The Stepford vibe permeates the entire film.

Olivia Wilde and Nick Kroll in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. 

The company/community is the brainchild of Frank (Chris Pine), a cult-like figure who stares and smirks and even watches as the happy couple has sex in his kitchen. He leads the group in question-response mantras: “What is the enemy of progress?” “Chaos.” “What are we doing?” “Changing the world.” References to family and to “the mission” are trotted out. The generic catchphrases somehow overwhelm the attempts at tension, resulting in an underwhelming blandness. As Frank lords over the men, his wife, Shelly (Gemma Chan), dominates the women. In a dance class, she encourages them to chant, “There is beauty in control. There is grace in symmetry. We move as one.”

Eventually, cracks begin to show, beginning with ostracized Margaret (KiKi Layne), who went with her son out into the forbidden desert but returned without him. At an afternoon gathering, Margaret claims that Victory took her son away from her, and her husband quickly subdues her. The community sees Margaret as mentally imbalanced and dismisses her accusation. However, there are other indications that something is not wholly right or real in this utopia: A topless woman strolls poolside. Freedom in language uncommon in the period. Jack’s strange dance when he is promoted to the inner circle. Whole eggs that are empty. In the midst of this, Alice has visions and hallucinations, driving her to question the fabric of her life.

Florence Pugh and Harry Styles in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Conceptually, there is little new on offer in Don’t Worry Darling. The ideas have been presented in countless films. And while there is much that is stylish in the design and Matthew Libatique’s rich and often sunbaked cinematography, the action becomes predictable and repetitive, plodding along with few surprises. 

Florence Pugh gives the scream queen Alice as many dimensions as possible. She is a riveting and honest performer and creates a dimensional woman questioning both her world and her sanity. Pugh makes every moment count as she battles with an ever smaller grasp of reality and what seems to be communal gaslighting.

Styles’ Jack is stiff in a stiff role and incapable of raising the (possibly intentionally?) stilted dialogue. Chris Pine succeeds to a certain extent in the enigmatic Frank, but there is a certain lack of texture to his villain. Wilde is strong as the gossipy and slightly bullying Bunny, Alice’s confidant. Late in the film, she has the most powerful revelation, one of the few moments that manages to be chilling and cathartic. Gemma Chan finds the right balance in the ice princess Shelley. Timothy Simmons provides a creepy, if obvious, doctor, playing it just to the edge of too much. The supporting cast fills out the town ensemble but is given little else: the men curry favor with Frank, the women with Shelley. 

A great deal of publicity has swirled around the film, with backlot drama—initially between the director and the originally cast Jack, Shia LaBeouf, and later between the director and Pugh. But, in the end, the white noise is irrelevant.

And while Don’t Worry Darling attempts to make statements about society and gender roles, the pretentious screenplay by Katie Silberman (from a story by Silberman, Carey Van Dyke, and Shane Van Dyke) fails to answer any of them. Wilde’s showy but hollow direction does nothing to solve the problems or enhance the experience. In the end, Don’t Worry Darling becomes relentless shrill, building to an ambiguously frustrating cheat of an ending.

Rated R, the film is now playing in local theaters.

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From left, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan and Eliza Scanlen star as the March sisters in the latest adaptation of Little Women. Photo courtesy of SONY Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical novel Little Women was published in two volumes between 1868 and 1869. It told of the four March daughters: pretty Meg, tomboy Jo, delicate Beth and willful Amy. The book follows them from childhood to womanhood and was both a critical and commercial success. It spawned two sequels: Little Men and Jo’s Boys.

Over the years, there have been multiple screen and television versions and even a Broadway musical. Notable films have included the 1933 George Cukor version starring Katherine Hepburn as Jo; the 1949 one with June Allyson and Elizabeth Taylor; and the most popular, the 1994 version featuring Winona Ryder, Kirsten Dunst and Claire Danes. Best of all is the 2018 Masterpiece/BBC co-production that manages to find the balance between its original source and a contemporary audience.

Saoirse Ronan as Jo and Timothée Chalamet as Laurie in a scene from the film.

The newest incarnation is written and directed by Greta Gerwig, best-known for her breakout with 2017’s Lady Bird. There is a distinctly modern feel to the adaptation, and this is unmistakably intentional. The more progressive pieces in the story are emphasized, and it highlights the daughters’ independence. Certain departures from the original story shift some of the motivations and subsequent reactions, but, overall, the film is very true onto itself. It even manages to provide two endings that are able to live side-by-side so that Jo does not lose her individuality.  

Little Women is not necessarily long on plot. Instead, it is really a series of events that reveal character. At its heart, it is about a family dealing with the world. Even though it is set during the Civil War, this cataclysmic event stays on the periphery. It is the day-to-day world of the March family: financial challenges, separations, illness, marriage, career. It is the detail with which these struggles and triumphs are told that make the tapestry.

Undoubtedly, it requires a gifted cast, and this one does not disappoint. The quartet at the center all fair well. Emma Watson makes for a dimensional Meg, whose mild vanity does not overwhelm her good intentions. Eliza Scanlen as Beth is appropriately winsome without resorting to the usual caricatures of shyness and fragility. 

Timothée Chalamet and Florence Pugh play Laurie and Amy in ‘Little Women.’

At the center of any Little Women is Jo, a wonderfully complicated character, whose dream of being a writer drives much of the narrative. Saoirse Ronan is dynamic in her passions and vulnerable in her confusions. She holds center and keeps the story and the family together. But it is Florence Pugh as selfish Amy who finds a true arc and is the only one of the four to succeed in playing the character’s age range and subsequent growth; it is an unusual and artful performance.

Laura Dern’s Marmee is appropriately kind and matriarchal if the most modern of the players. Timothée Chalamet presents a more human Laurie, who, thwarted in his love for Jo, sinks into visible dissipation; it is a bold choice on Gerwig’s part, but it pays off in the resolution.  

Meryl Streep’s Aunt March lacks a true imperiousness; part of this is that the brittle and icy center has been softened with some odd choices that are so antithetical to Alcott’s vision, it makes her too knowing and less of an antagonist to both overcome and win over.  

Laura Dern, Meryl Streep and Florence Pugh in a scene from the film.

In smaller roles, Bob Odenkirk seems lost as the father while Tracy Letts, as Jo’s first editor, Mr. Dashwood, hits all of the right notes. Chris Cooper, as neighbor and later friend Mr. Laurence, never quite gets to underlying pain. James Norton’s John Brooke, Laurie’s tutor and eventually Meg’s husband, has been reduced to a cipher, which is a shame given his importance. 

The same could be said of Louis Garrel’s Professor Bhaer, Jo’s New York suitor: there just isn’t enough of him to make an impression. Jayne Houdyshell, as the family housekeeper, Hannah, manages to make the most of her scenes and avoids stereotype as best she can.

One element that has always been a challenge in adapting Little Women is the progression of the sisters from pre-/early teens to twenties. Most have not solved this problem, and this manifestation suffers worse than the previous versions. This is because of the film’s one major flaw: Gerwig chose to eschew a linear structure, instead shifting back-and-forth over about a 10-year period. With one very powerful exception, nothing is gained by this lack of chronology. Many of the shifts are clumsy, and the viewers must regroup to figure out where they were left in the previous time line. For those not well-versed with the story, it would probably make for a confusing and occasionally frustrating experience.

However, putting this aside, the final result is still worthwhile. There is an honest emotional core, and it is hard not to invest into this fresh new foray into the March family. While this might not be the definitive Little Women, it is certainly one for our time. Rated PG, Little Women is now playing in local theaters.