Tag Archives: B


Producers: Rishi Rajani, Lena Waithe and Brad Weston   Director: Jingi Shao   Screenplay: Jingi Shao   Cast: Bloom Li, Dexter Darden, Ben Wang, Zoe Renee, Chase Liefeld, Mardy Ma, Jay Williams, Kimberley Anne Martin, Kendrick Perkins, Eric Anthony Lopez and Nile Bullock Distributor: Disney+

Grade: B

Here’s a high school sports movie that throws a few curves, even if the sport is basketball.  At first it seems poised to be a replay of those old teen tales about bets—the fellow who wagers he can get a pretty girl for a prom date, for example—except in this case the issue on the line is whether a short kid can master the slam dunk (winning the pretty girl too, of course).  But after an hour in which the debut feature from writer-director Jingi Shao appears to be following the standard playbook—indeed reaches its natural climax—it takes a sharp turn into territory that raises some serious issues, and handles them intelligently even as it sprints to an upbeat conclusion with what amounts to the old freeze-frame shot.  “Chang Can Dunk” tweaks formula to surprisingly satisfying effect.

Bloom Li brings a soulful affability to Chang, or Xiao Ming to his single mom Chen (Mardy Ma), a hardworking nurse separated from his dad.  He’s beginning his sophomore year at Cresthill High in Connecticut, determined, as he tells his buddy Bo (Ben Wang), to become the newly popular Chang 2.0.  And luck seems to be with him when he meets Kristy (Zoe Renee), a pretty transfer student who’s joining him on the drumming contingent of the school’s marching band.  They’re hitting it off until Matt (Chase Liefeld), the star of the Cresthill basketball team, interrupts.  An erstwhile childhood friend of Chang’s, he shows an interest in Kristy, too.

Later, at a post-game party, Chang is bullied by Matt and his sidekicks, and decides to issue the public challenge to his one-time buddy, putting his valuable Pokémon card up against Matt’s cherished Kobe Bryant jersey to prove that though he’s only 5’8”, he’ll be able to dunk the ball by season’s end.  That puts him into a training regimen with Deandre (Dexter Darden, terrific), a former pro player now demonstrating his skills online while working at a Verizon store—all recorded by movie buff Bo (in a style specified by Deandre as Michael Bay rather than Martin Scorsese) and posted online, where the clips become a viral sensation.  It all culminates in the moment Chang goes for the basket in the school gym before an expectant crowd, and we see the underdog triumph. 

But that climactic scene comes only an hour into the movie, and much more is to follow.  Some of it is fairly predictable, like the instant celebrity that brings Chang into the ESPN studio with Kimberley Anne Martin and Kendrick Perkins, and to a gala party where he consorts with stars like Jay Williams.  His changed attitude soon causes friction with his friends Bo, Kristy and Deandre.  But an even sharper turn is to come.

Precisely what won’t be revealed here; suffice it to say that it takes “Chang Can Dunk” onto much more dramatic turf—Chang 3.0, as it were—in which his relationship with Chen plays a prominent role.  The shift requires viewers to consider issues of responsibility for one’s actions that are no longer matters of a lighthearted frolic.  And it compels Li to deepen his performance substantially; happily he proves up to the task, and Ma complements him well in some quite powerful mother-son scenes.

That’s not to say that the film suddenly becomes all darkness and gloom; Shao proves adept in juggling different moods, and by the end the movie has reasserted an equilibrium between drama and comedy, ending with a triumph of another sort.  But it winds up as a more complicated, layered piece than it seemed at the start.  Other Disney family pictures have attempted balancing acts like this, but rarely have they succeeded as well. 

“Chang” is a technically modest movie, but thanks to production designer Maite Perez-Nievas, costumer Joshua J. Marsh and cinematographer Ross Riege, it looks fine (with actual Connecticut locations), and Brad Turner edits with a sure hand; even the online insertions aren’t allowed to get oppressive. Nathan Matthew David’s score hits the mark, and the plethora of pop songs selected to accompany the action add jolts of energy as needed, even if the occasional swatches of classical music (Mozart’s “Dies Irae”?) seem ill-placed.                            

“Chang Can Dunk” shoots and scores.


Producers: Jina Panebianco, Robert Ogden Barnum, Michael J. Reiser, Michael Shannon, Lucas Jarach, Byron Wetzel and Josh Kesselman   Director: Michael Maren   Screenplay: Michael Maren   Cast: Michael Shannon, Kate Hudson, Jimmi Simpson, Zach Braff, Mark Boone Junior, Kate Linder, Aja Naomi King, M. Emmet Walsh, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Don Johnson, Perry Mattfeld, Benjamin King, Wendie Malick, Romy Byrne, Adhin Kalyan, Natasha Hall, Peyton List, Erica Janey and Giorgia Whigham   Distributor: Saban Films

Grade: B

Roger Ebert once enunciated a rule that any movie that featured Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role couldn’t be altogether bad.  Now in his late eighties, Walsh has a small (and hardly pivotal) role in Michael Maren’s adaptation of Chris Belden’s 2013 novel “Shriver.”  Ebert later noted that the rule was occasionally violated—when Walsh appeared in Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1999 calamity “Wild Wild West,” for example—but overall it apparently still holds.  “A Little White Lie,” as Maren has retitled his version of Belden’s book, is a flawed but curiously winning comedy-drama of mistaken identity set in the rarefied world of academic literary culture.  Among films of that peculiar genre, it’s not the equal of Curtis Hanson’s 2000 “Wonder Boys,” but deserves comparison to Mark Poirier’s 2008 “Smart People.”

And it’s especially fortunate to have not only Walsh in the cast, but Michael Shannon as C.R. Shriver, a down-on-his-luck super in a run-down apartment building who’s one of a score or more of guys with that name to receive a letter from Professor Simone Cleary (Kate Hudson).  She’s a creative writing teacher at little Acheron University trying to save her department’s annual literary festival from the university’s cost-cutting president (Kate Linder) by inducing a major writer to attend this year’s event.  And she has a cultural Moby Dick in mind with Shriver, who published a massive, acclaimed novel twenty years before and then vanished, never having given an interview or permitting himself to be photographed.  Her mass mailing is an attempt to locate him and persuade him to be her festival’s guest of honor.

The obvious allusion here is to J.D. Salinger—Walsh, playing the department’s befuddled elder statesman, even mentions him, only to be informed by his colleague Wasserman (Don Johnson), a gnarly poet so given to drink that, refused a driver’s license, his mode of transport is a horse, that Salinger is dead.  But of course Salinger was merely reclusive, not disappeared.

Shannon’s Shriver is urged by a pal (Mark Boone Junior) even more of a wreck than he is to reply to the letter as the author and travel to Acheron to receive a promised award.  En route he meets one of the festivals most loyal fans, ebullient Delta Jones (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who not only “recognizes” him but presses a manuscript on him to read (as others will do as well).  Once he gets to the airport he reconsiders his imposture, but on meeting Cleary drowning her sorrow at his no-show in the bar, he relents and goes ahead with it. 

Some of what follows is thoroughly predictable.  Shriver and Cleary, also a writer but not a successful one, gradually connect romantically, though a last-act roadblock will endanger the relationship.  Shriver’s encounter with radical feminist poet Blythe Brown (Aja Naomi King) and her super-sensitive partner (Perry Mattfeld) turns out badly, and his dependence on the harried TA (Romy Byrne) assigned to see to his needs reflects the pressure that put-upon graduate students must often face in the real world.  On the other hand he gets unstinting support from the garrulous, quotation-sporting Wasserman, and from the endlessly supportive Jones.

Other plot twists are more out of left field.  A cop (Jimmi Simpson) shows up after Brown disappears, suspicious that Shriver might have done away with her just as the protagonist of “his” novel did his wife.  The festival’s main patron, wealthy Dr. Bedrasian (Wendie Malick), tries to seduce Shriver and add his photo to those of the literary icons prominently displayed as virtual trophies on her bedroom wall.  And a second man claiming to be the real C.R. Shriver (Zach Braff) shows up to derail the closing ceremonies and claim the award for himself.

Frankly the more predictable episodes work better, simply because, like the gags in a David Lodge novel, they’re grounded in the plausibly ridiculous circumstances that prevail at actual academic conferences.  The more outrageous occurrences are played more flamboyantly, coming off as less credible and, as a result, less funny.  One might also question the wisdom of having Shriver’s conscience appear on occasion (also played Shannon, appropriately sterner) to question what Shriver is up to.   

But what keeps you willing to go along with even the less successful bits is Shannon’s meticulously modulated performance.  In his hands Shriver is an awkward, hesitant guy whose courtesy toward junior faculty like playwright Victor Bennet (Adhin Kalyan) makes him likable whether or not he’s the real author, and whose occasional bouts of eloquence and perception, delivered seemingly unbidden with a becoming lack of ego, convince us that he might be the genuine article, as he comes to suspect himself.  Hudson hasn’t as much material to exploit, but though less nuanced she makes a fine partner for him.  Among the others Johnson will be a primary crowd-pleaser, a single serious reflection added to his character’s drunken volubility humanizing him a bit.  Some of the others, Braff and Malick among them, would have done well to tone things down somewhat, but they were presumably following Maren’s instructions; his touch is occasionally uncertain, though with Shannon he strikes the golden mean.

The shoot of the film was interrupted for more than a year because of the pandemic, but the hiatus doesn’t appear to have affected either the cast or the crew, who do an excellent job as well.  Derrick Hinman’s production design is attractive (the main location was the campus of the University of Redlands east of Los Angeles), and Edd Lukas’ cinematography is equally so; Ed Yonaitis’ editing is well judged and Alex Wurman’s score is cheeky without becoming oppressive. 

Befitting its title, this is a small, wistful dramedy that invites chuckles rather than the big belly-laughs of so many raunchy campus farces.  And it’s all the better for it.