The Marvelous Brie Larson — #4

Welcome back to another edition of my latest Actor Profile, The Marvelous Brie Larson, a monthly series revolving around the silver screen performances of one of my favorite actresses. If you are a newcomer to this series, the idea behind this feature is to bring attention to a specific performer and their skill sets and to see how they contribute to a story.

As I mentioned in my opening comments on the first edition of The Marvelous Brie Larson (you can find that here) watching an actor you really like take on a character or be involved in a movie that, for whatever reason, doesn’t end up working for you can be an interesting experience in itself. I find myself in that very position with this fourth installment.

The movie I’ve decided to talk about this month, Unicorn Store (on Netflix), has the added bonus of being the directorial début of Brie Larson so, really, how could this feature go without it? We might debate the meaning of the movie’s underlying metaphor, or how well it’s served by the film’s super-flowery style but what’s undeniable is how much of a passion project this was for her. In an interview with IndieWire she describes Unicorn Store as “such a weird abstract portrait of myself. It feels like the most vulnerable I’ve been with this quirky, fun, lighthearted comedy.”

While Unicorn Store has always been a project associated with words like ‘quirky,’ ‘imaginative’ and ‘colorful,’ it hasn’t always been specifically a Larson-centric film. Circa 2012 Australian actress Rebel Wilson was cast as the lead and Miguel Arteta (Youth in Revolt; Cedar Rapids) was going to be the director. Larson had auditioned for a part but the production never got underway. An Oscar win for her dramatic turn in Lenny Abrahamson’s Room (2015) changed her fortunes. She was approached by the right people at the right time to not only play the lead but direct something that would turn out to be more of a personal journey of discovery.

Brie Larson as Kit in Brie Larson’s Unicorn Store

Role Type: Lead

Genre: Comedy/drama/fantasy

Premise: A woman named Kit receives a mysterious invitation that would fulfill her childhood dreams.

Character Background: Larson oscillates between gratingly infantile and winsome in the lead as Kit, an emotionally immature twenty-something who drops/fails out of art school and is forced to reassess her dreams of making it as an artist when she has to move back in with her parents. It’s a tricky balancing act that the seasoned actress for the most part pulls off, though there are moments when her acting feels a little forceful and stilted. Kit’s a millennial with a sense of entitlement, natch, but she’s also completely relatable in her fears of failure and disappointing the people she cares most about. I have to be completely honest and say this isn’t among my favorite performances of hers, but Larson always remains sincere in the role — one of the qualities about her acting that has always kept me coming back. She’s not quite as natural in this movie as she is in, say, Room or Short Term 12, but there’s a playfulness to this character that I really enjoyed.

Marvel at this Scene: 

This scene is not only an encapsulation of the awkwardness of Larson’s character (and the movie as a whole, actually), but it merges together perceptions in a brilliant (if cringe-inducing) way: the reality vs the fantasy. What we picture happening in our heads so often doesn’t work out that way in practice. Larson plays this off to great comedic effect. I love this scene. It’s so incredibly awkward.

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 

 

***/*****

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

Release: Friday, May 3, 2019 (limited) 

👀 Netflix

Written by: Michael Werwie

Directed by: Joe Berlinger

Starring: Zac Efron; Lily Collins; Kaya Scodelario; Angela Sarafyan; Haley Joel Osment; Jim Parsons; John Malkovich; James Hetfield 

Distributor: Netflix

 

***/*****

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile may appear on the surface as a redundant exercise. Do we really need another take on the American nightmare that was Ted Bundy? Like it or not we have come to know the man behind at least 30 murders of women down to his jaw structure, down to the most grisly details of his most heinous actions. We’ve even taken note of his days working as a call taker at a suicide prevention center in Seattle.

Extremely Wicked justifies its own existence through the harrowing perspective it shares, that of Bundy’s longtime girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer. The dramatic feature from highly influential documentarian Joe Berlinger is based upon the memoir written by the real Kloepfer (Kendall her pen name), and paints a picture of domestic bliss slowly rotting, one in which its stars, a chillingly effective Zac Efron and an equally impressive Lily Collins, dance delicately along a clearly defined yet precarious line dividing dramatization and reenactment. These are challenging roles to portray without sensationalizing, and with the guidance of Berlinger’s sensitive direction they rarely, if ever, hit a false note.

The one exception being the way the former High School Musical star interprets his character’s reaction to the final sentencing, Efron putting on a waterworks display that feels out of sync with his character’s alien-like indifference to the lives he took. The tears are a little too theatrical even considering the antics that went down in those trials. Indeed those trials were a circus in which you might recall Bundy throwing out his own defense team and acting as his own legal counsel, even having the audacity to take advantage of an obscure Florida law that allowed him to propose during his second murder trial (in 1980) to witness Carol Ann Boone (Kaya Scodelario in the movie) — a former coworker at that Seattle crisis center, a stalwart of Team “Of Course I’m Innocent, Look at Me!” all the way up to the point of their divorce in 1986, three years before Bundy’s execution.

Scodelario does well to garner our sympathy — she’s nothing more than another victim, albeit a lucky one, of Bundy’s brutally manipulative mind-game. But if Boone was just played for a fool, Kloepfer was essentially a concubine of Bundy’s deceitful charade, her heart held hostage by a smooth talking, intelligent predator. In one of the movie’s heaviest moments we see all of that come down on her, the reality that she had blindly allowed a serial rapist and murderer to help raise her own child, Molly. He, in return, secured the unconditional love of an innocent child. It’s upsetting stuff. As time marches on Collins’ performance becomes more gesticulative and broad, Liz disappearing in a haze of cigarette smoke and alcohol-fueled depression as her own concern turns to fear and tensions between the two continue to mount as the lie continues, evolves. Yet her work is never less than sickeningly effective in communicating how trapped this woman must have felt, pinned between a romantic idyll of the man she’s with and the ugly reality of his face routinely showing up in the papers.

It’s the intense focus on this relationship, on a perception of normalcy that also justifies Extremely Wicked‘s stylistic choices, namely the omission of graphic violence and even the abductions themselves. We more often than not see Bundy fleeing the scene in his beige VW beetle and in a calm, cool and collected state even in the face of suspicious lawmen. (Side note: if you thought the casting of Efron, a known sex symbol, was an interesting choice, A) you’ve missed the point completely and B) it’s not as weird as seeing Metallica’s physically imposing frontman James Hetfield as Officer Bob Hayward, a Utah patrolman and the first officer to arrest Bundy. It’s a double-take moment, yet the casting isn’t completely out of left field, as Berlinger co-directed the Metallica documentary, Some Kind of Monster, back in 2004. And for what it’s worth, he acquits himself well in his first ever scripted performance.)

Berlinger is no stranger to potentially upsetting and controversial material. His Paradise Lost trilogy of documentaries exposed a terrible real-world witch hunt that had condemned three young men either to execution or life in prison for a crime in which they ultimately were found innocent. Yet his work has also had a profound, real-world impact. The release of those films actually expedited the release of at least one of those men in the West Memphis Three case. I’m not so sure this film has had the same sobering effect. More of film Twitter seemed to get hung up on the hunky casting (again, by design) and whether or not Efron even had it in him to convince you of Bundy’s extreme wickedness (he does).

Rather than trampling on the victims’ memory by dramatizing their last moments alive, Berlinger instead focuses on the emotional and psychological disintegration of Kloepfer who for so long denies the deranged duplicitousness that allowed her boyfriend to freely move in between their shared sanctuary and the streets of an unsuspecting America as he engaged in a spree of murders that, at its height, saw women disappearing at a rate of one every 30 days. Extremely Wicked is a film about juxtaposition, the seemingly impossible contrast between sweet naivete and outright monster. It leaves you feeling dirty. Violated. It’s a disturbing account of factual events that needs little graphic imagery to convey the evil and the vile.

Moral of the Story: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (which takes its long-winded title from the official opinion handed down by the judge presiding over the trial, the Honorable Edward Cowart, played by John Malkovich) I’d imagine works pretty well as a companion piece to the documentary. Me, though, I’ve had my fill with this drama. Biggest takeway: the performances are uniformly good and some truly unsettling. I never thought I’d say I would be scared of Zac Efron. (Some offense intended.) Film also features strong input from Haley Joel Osment as one of Liz’s concerned coworkers, and Jim Parsons as a Florida attorney tasked with presenting some of the most disgusting details you’ll probably ever hear from this particular horror show.

Rated: R

Running Time: 110 mins.

Quoted: “People don’t realize that murderers do not come out in the dark with long teeth and saliva dripping off their chin. People don’t realize that there are killers among them. People they liked, loved, lived with, work with and admired could the next day turn out to be the most demonic people imaginable.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Point Blank

Release: Friday, July 12, 2019 (Netflix)

👀 Netflix

Written by: Adam G. Simon

Directed by: Joe Lynch

Starring: Frank Grillo; Anthony Mackie; Marcia Gay Harden; Boris McGiver; Teyonah Parris; Christian Cooke; Markice Moore 

Distributor: Netflix

 

**/*****

Point Blank isn’t a very good crime drama, but in its pairing together of some famous superheroes (third-tier Avengers, but who’s counting) it surely hopes to distract you from that inconvenient fact of quality. I suppose that depends on how you define quality, for you could make the argument Point Blank is actually a great laundry movie — ideal for blasting through the tedium of folding socks, for example.

Borrowed from the 2010 French film of the same name, the plot is as follows: An ER nurse named Paul (Anthony Mackie) gets pulled into a life 24-hour-period of crime when his heavily pregnant wife Taryn (Teyonah Parris) is kidnapped by a career criminal named Mateo (Christian Cooke). Turns out, Mateo’s got a brother named Abe (Frank Grillo) and he’s the patient Paul’s currently caring for. They’re both in deep with even worse people. If he’s to see his family again, Paul must follow a series of orders that compels him to violate hospital policy, his own moral code and even the law itself in a race against the clock — one mostly dictated by how far apart his wife’s contractions are.

Abe is played by the gritty Frank Grillo, a compulsively watchable actor who puts his tough guy act to good use here, playing the part of an outwardly bad person with a complicated past. Mackie’s character is less complex but he remains empathetic even as he’s starting to do things a registered nurse would never do. Point Blank thematically screams don’t trust cops but it also straight-up makes a mockery of medical professionals. Hospital passes and IDs are swiped from under “capable” people’s noses, and the Hippocratic oath all of a sudden seems to encompass firing guns in public places. “Do no harm, my ass,” says this movie. Do harm when necessary (i.e. when your wifey-poo is about to go into labor in the presence of her kidnapper)!

Point Blank would be far less tolerable were it not for its leading men. The former Avengers foes strike up an enjoyable if unlikely rapport as two people from distinctly different walks of life. They tread familiar arcs, Paul learning to toughen up (and how to shoot a gun with some degree of accuracy) and Abe learning to trust someone outside of his own wayward family. There is some surprising poignancy in a development later on that makes Point Blank ultimately a statement about family and what we do to protect them.

And Joe Lynch’s remake automatically improves just by including the likes of Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden and House of Cards‘ Boris McGiver, who pop up as a pair of homicide detectives. Meanwhile The Walking Dead‘s Markice Moore truly hams it up as the quintessentially, paradoxically diminutive “Big D” who rolls with bodyguards twice the size of Arnie. I had fun with him, but his performance is microcosmic of the movie’s biggest issue: tonality. It’s inconsistent, considerably threatening one scene, goofy and jovial the next. Like the brothers Guavera, Point Blank just doesn’t quite know what it wants to be.

I mean, other than a nice distraction from that damn laundry. That I have just now realized I am yet to take out of the washer. Fantastic.

“Third tier? What’s that mean bro?”

Moral of the Story: The mileage you get out of this overly familiar, tonally bipolar buddy/cop actioner will depend on your nostalgia for The Avengers. From a genre standpoint there’s not much here to recommend, sadly, other than the really economical 86 minute running time. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 86 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Release: Friday, May 31, 2019

👀 Theater

Written by: Zach Shields; Michael Dougherty 

Directed by: Michael Dougherty 

Starring: Kyle Chandler; Vera Farmiga; Millie Bobby Brown; Bradley Whitford; Sally Hawkins; Charles Dance; Thomas Middleditch; David Straitharn; Ken Watanabe; Zhang Ziyi; O’Shea Jackson Jr.; Aisha Hinds

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

***/*****

The sequel to Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014) is undeniably a different beast, dispensing with its predecessor’s drip-fed action and methodical pacing for more direct, adrenaline-spiking payoff. Edwards had his chance to thrill us and apparently he botched it so in steps Michael Dougherty, the dude who gave us the anti-Santa horror-comedy Krampus. He offers himself up to fans as a most humbled servant, giving the world’s most famous kaiju a few new friends to hang out with, effectively creating a much bigger spectacle that puts primal, brutal showdowns front-and-center.

King of the Monsters may not make any move bolder than killing off its presumed main characters within the first fifteen minutes, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have big things in store. Over the course of an indulgent two-and-a-half hours Dougherty sends us on a visually spectacular journey from the plush greens of the Yunnan rainforest to the blinding white of the Antarctic Circle, establishing the monstrous battles for supremacy against a backdrop of environmental apocalypse and human hubris — precisely the kind of thematic posturing you’d expect from a movie about a creature born of the nuclear age.

From an action standpoint King of the Monsters absolutely lives up to its title, presenting a series of city-leveling confrontations as an epic territorial dispute wherein we lowly humans are caught on both sides of an ideological divide: Do we attempt to force our hand or do we let Mother Nature run her course? The film features several of the classic Toho creations and captures them using all the bells and whistles of breathtaking modern CGI. Behold the luminescent beauty and grace of Mothra as she unfurls her wings; the screaming intensity of the volcanic-born predator Rodan; the sickening size and freaky three-headedness of “Monster Zero” (King Ghidorah, if you prefer) — the latter serving as the film’s primary villain and fulfilling his classic role as arch-nemesis of Godzilla.

King of the Monsters inherits its predecessor’s human problem but that component of the story is slightly more involving this time around, even if the characterization is again pretty generic. But let’s be reasonable here, it’s nothing if not par the summer blockbuster course and it’s certainly not pre-2000 Godzilla, where Roland Emmerich had us all on pins and needles wondering whether anyone would actually pronounce Matthew Broderick’s character’s name correctly. An ecoterrorist named Alan Jonah (Charles Dance) despairs at the overpopulation crisis and humanity’s wanton disregard for their environment and so endeavors to return the planet to a “more natural” state. On a collision course with his special brand of crazy are the Russells, a science-minded family who have helped the secretive government agency Monarch develop technology used to measure the activity of the many known “titans” across the globe, technology Mr. Jonah seeks for his own nefarious agenda.

Stranger Things‘ Millie Bobby Brown may only be 15 years old but in her big-screen début she stands out among her more experienced co-stars, particularly a tired-looking Kyle Chandler and an uncharacteristically unconvincing Vera Farmiga who play her parents now separated after the loss of their younger child. At least their anti-kaiju stance advances the modern narrative in a way that’s believable. They are remnants of a world that didn’t quite know how to negotiate a 390-foot-tall, upright-walking reptile who also spits nuclear radiation. A world that didn’t really understand what his relationship was to us, what his purpose was.

Brown’s Madison convincingly bridges those eras. She doesn’t share her parents’ hatred for the big guy. Her compassion proves an evolution of understanding. With her mother held hostage physically and ideologically by Mr. Jonah she emerges as one of the few voices of reason in a world gone mad. Well it’s her and Ken Watanabe, who reprises his role as Monarch scientist Dr. Ishiro Serizawa. As one of the elite few Japanese actors who got to take part in these big American event films, it’s about damn time he gets more of a say in these matters, his arc not only emotionally resonant but vital to the story.

King of the Monsters is an old-school-feeling, globetrotting smashing adventure that prioritizes big time fun over mood and pathos — kinda the opposite of Godzilla of five years ago. Not that that movie wasn’t entertaining, of course. I miss the discipline Edwards showed in building up to that incredible, vertical-panning shot that gave us our first good look at the main star. I miss that raw power of adrenaline. The sequel, however, offers its own excitement. The action is revved up to more crowd-pleasing levels, while the sheer amount of effort poured into the creature design and indeed the fights justifies the price of admission, whether that’s the sound engineers edging Godzilla’s roar closer to the original 1954 sound, or Dougherty urging his visual effects team, led by Guillaume Rocheron, to really imbue the creatures with their innate animal-like behaviors and physical traits — Ghidorah memorable for not just having three heads but those heads each moving independently like cobras waiting to strike.

King Ghidorah, and indeed King of the Monsters overall, makes a fairly strong case for bigger (and more) being better. It left me eagerly awaiting what comes next and in my opinion that’s what a good movie, a good second chapter, should do.

“Count your blessings. Your lines are better than mine.”

Moral of the Story: If you haven’t seen this movie yet, don’t be a Charles Dunce like me and miss the end credits! (Is this movie still even playing theatrically?) 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 132 mins.

Quoted: “Goodbye, old friend.” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com