The Scarlett Johansson Project — #1

After a monthlong delay prompted by my own disorganization, I am happy and excited to get into another new Actor Profile, this blog’s fourth such feature and the second to spotlight an actress. Check out the tab below the banner to access the others!

Born in Manhattan in 1984, Scarlett Ingrid Johansson is among the most recognizable faces in the film industry, no small thanks to her involvement in the phenomenally successful Marvel Cinematic Universe in which she portrays the spy Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow. It’s a role that has taken her to another level of stardom, though you could hardly call it a break-out role, as she had proven herself an A-list caliber actor long before that. It was in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) where she made a big impression on me, her chemistry with Bill Murray cementing that film as one of my all-time favorites.

Though she describes her childhood as “very ordinary,” her extraordinary adult life seemed predetermined by birthright, hailing from a family of screenwriters, actors and producers. She caught the acting bug at a very early age, putting on song and dance routines for her family, who were supportive of her dream to become an actor. When a talent agent signed her brother before her, that desire only intensified. Her goals became more crystallized when she figured out shooting commercials was not her thing. So she enrolled in the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in Manhattan, circa age 8. Her first public performance was in an off-Broadway production called Sophistry alongside Ethan Hawke. She had a total of two lines of dialogue. Her first film role was in the 1994 adventure film North, directed by Rob Reiner, and the first time she garnered awards attention was for her performance in Terry Zwigoff’s adaptation of Daniel Clowe’s graphic novel Ghost World (2001).

The role I’ve chosen for this month is one of her absolute best. And quite possibly one of the most difficult for me to approach since I am not qualified to talk about the challenges that come with being married. I have also been very fortunate to have been raised in a stable household with two parents who remained together through thick and thin. Yet I appreciate that a lot of marriages don’t carry out that way — in fact the divorce rate in America is alarmingly high, third highest of any country in the world. But I do know a good performance when I see one and this powerfully emotional showcase is legitimately one of the best I’ve ever seen from anyone since I started really paying attention to the intricacies of filmmaking.

Scarlett Johansson as Nicole Barber in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story

Role Type: Co-lead

Premise: Noah Baumbach’s incisive and compassionate look at a marriage breaking up and a family staying together. (IMDb)

Character Background: One of the most impressive things about Baumbach’s screenplay is the balanced perspective. It does not “take sides,” but instead gives equal weight to both Nicole and Charlie’s concerns. Because this feature is about one actor in particular, I am obligated to focus on Nicole’s perspective.

The opening few minutes of what turns out to be an emotionally gory drama are precious. They offer a treasure trove of insight into who Nicole is, particularly on a personal level. Marriage Story begins with her husband Charlie (Adam Driver) listing all the things he loves about his wife. Importantly there are a few honest criticisms sprinkled in amongst the compliments: “She makes people feel comfortable about even embarrassing things. She really listens when someone is talking,” though “sometimes she listens too much for too long.” She’s “a good citizen” and a very present mother. She gifts interesting, thoughtful birthday presents — a trumpet for Charlie to help him expand his creativity. Then there are the big things, such as the sacrifice she’s made in forgoing an acting career in Hollywood in order to help Charlie mount his avant-garde plays in New York, where she’s become her husband’s favorite actor.

Professional ambition is what fractures the relationship: Nicole, a former teen film actress, aspires to step out of the shadow cast by her husband. Once the love of Charlie’s life, it has become increasingly clear to Nicole his own obsession with preparing for Broadway has blinded him to his wife’s own career goals.

What she brings to the movie: From a young age Johansson had a passion for musical theater, and Nicole allows her to tap into her early professional experience as a stage actor. There’s a tremendous amount of range in this Oscar-nominated performance, from the nuanced expressions of remorse, resentment and anger to the more dramatic and demonstrative (see the scene below). There’s a level of physicality to the performance that I think is underrated.

In her own words: “What I was so attracted to and what I could relate to in this was actually what remains between the characters, which was a lot of love. It actually felt very much like a love story to me, which of course is heartbreaking but also so much more poignant than a film about two people who have just grown to hate each other, because that’s not really what this is about.”

Key Scene: The argument scene is undeniably one of the best in the whole movie. It’s probably THE scene everyone remembers, however it’s not my #1 choice because it’s really about the couple. I wanted to feature the scene where Scarlett Johansson goes on a long monologue when her character meets Laura Dern’s lawyer, Nora, for the first time. Because it’s not only a triggering event but one of the scenes where her character is opening up to someone else. Unfortunately I couldn’t find that clip anywhere.

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


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Photo credits: IMDb

The Platform (El Hoyo)

Release: Friday, March 20, 2020 

→Netflix

Written by: David Desola; Pedro Rivero

Directed by: Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia

In any other year the Spanish-produced, dystopian horror/thriller The Platform would still be an interesting albeit nauseating allegory for the dog-eat-dog world in which we live. Now, in the era of a global pandemic, with priorities shifted and critical resources running in drastically short supply, the depiction has become chillingly timely.

The Platform (original title El Hoyo) is the feature directorial debut of Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia and it is an angry one. He isolates his cast in a brutally violent, multi-floored metaphor for the imbalance of wealth in a capitalist society. This exceedingly grim tale of survivalism plays out entirely in a brilliantly designed high rise prison complex in which inmates are paired off on each floor, and the lower the floor number (i.e. the closer to the top of the structure) the better off you are. Each concrete cell has a large, rectangular hole carved out in the middle of the floor, through which a platform carrying a mountain of delicious foods descends every 24 hours from the Michelin star-worthy kitchen located on the top floor.

Ostensibly there’s enough food to go around but it proves very difficult to convince those above you to ration what they consume. You have a couple of minutes to dine before the platform makes its way down through the mist of an unfathomable depth, where those on lower levels must contend with the leftovers . . . of the leftovers . . . of the leftovers, until the spread is reduced to scraps and bones. Beyond that, self-preservation really starts to kick in and the desperate resort to cannibalism. Welcome to the Pit or, if you’re a part of the Administration, “vertical self-management center.” This is a place that makes Shawshank look like the Marriott. A place where suicide by way of hurling one’s self into the yawning abyss seems like a good alternative to death by starvation — or indeed, being eaten by your roomie.

Subtlety is not one of the strengths of David Desola and Pedro Rivero’s screenplay. Instead it revels in symbolism and sadism. They provide an audience surrogate in Goreng (Ivan Massagué), a young man who becomes a focal point of a revolt. His interactions with his cell mate Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor) give us an intriguing entry point into all this madness. While everything is “obvious” to the jaded elder, who is nearing the end of a 12-month sentence, Ivan struggles to get a grip on this new reality. He stashes an untouched apple in his pocket for later, only to discover hoarding is a punishable offense.

In the opening moments Trimagasi assures us where we are now (Level 48) is not such a bad place to be. In fact it’s pretty good, considering there are at least some 150 levels and you only spend a month on any given level. At the end of that period, prisoners are gassed and sent to a different one, which could be good news or it could mean a month of starvation. It’s like Chutes and Ladders but with bloody consequences. The filmmakers take a sadistic pleasure in playing with this motif of awakening into the unknown.

The delirium brought on by the Pit is filtered entirely through Ivan’s point of view. However the story also provides several different characters for him to feed off of. The screenwriters are not really interested in personalities. Instead they deploy the supporting cast more symbolically: There’s Imoguiri (Antonia San Juan), a former Pit authority figure whose terminal cancer diagnosis has inspired her to seek change from within; Baharat (Emilio Buale), a black prisoner who only ever gets shit on for trying to move up a notch; and a number of other contributors convey the varying psychological states of being on a higher or lower level.

The most fascinating character however is a woman named Miharu (Alexandra Masangkay) who freely roams through the prison supposedly in a desperate search for her missing child. Her agency becomes a vital piece in this puzzle of understanding what Ivan is and will become and, ultimately, what this movie is suggesting about society and class structure. While the ending is bound to frustrate those who are expecting the movie to continue to spell out everything, there is enough here to extract something positive out of this otherwise insanely dark and disturbing descent into human despair.

Recommendation: Not for the squeamish, nor for those who are bothered by English dubbed dialogue (that was a hurdle I personally had to overcome). With that out of the way, I’m now pretty eager to see Vincenzo Natali’s sci fi/horror Cube from 1997 — a movie that this Netflix offering has been compared to by a number of critics and bloggers alike. And vice versa, if you’re a fan of that cult classic I’d imagine you’re going to have some fun with this one. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “This is not a good place for someone who likes reading.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: IMDb; The Maine Edge 

Yesterday

Release: Friday, June 28, 2019

→HBO

Written by: Richard Curtis

Directed by: Danny Boyle

Imagine all the people living day to day without the music of the Beatles. Imagine John Lennon aging into his 70s, living a quiet life with an un-famous instead of infamous significant other. And imagine being Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), the only one in the world who still has a recollection of the band and their indelible influence. These are the things the very silly but undeniably charming romantic comedy Yesterday imagines and then makes real.

Jack is in a bit of a pickle. Well, first he’s in a hospital bed and missing some teeth after getting struck by a bus when a global blackout hits out of nowhere. Up to this point his pursuit of his musical passions has not been going well. He struggles to get gigs and when he does he plays to dwindling crowds, some of them so small his mates and his so-obviously-more-than-friend/manager Ellie (Lily James) are the crowd. When he plays a classic Beatles tune for them one afternoon and they’re none the wiser, Jack sees an opportunity. The blackout has seemingly wiped away the collective memory of the band that redefined music not just for a generation but forever. It’s not all bad though because apparently Coca Cola, cigarettes and Harry Potter no longer exist either.

Provided he can remember the lyrics, why not start passing off ‘Eleanor Rigby’ as his own? We don’t have to go crazy here and exhume ‘Yellow Submarine’ or anything like that but, really, who is he harming if he claims authorship of some of the most popular songs ever written? So he does, and with Ellie’s hand gently on his back, guiding him in the direction of his dreams yet unwilling to abandon her post as a schoolteacher, he embarks on the path to superstardom. He brings along his very socially awkward friend Rocky (Joel Fry) as his roadie.

Along the way Jack meets British singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran, for whom he opens at a big show in Moscow and later gets into a songwriting “battle” where the two are challenged to come up with a new song on-the-spot. I’ll let you guess as to how that works out. Jack’s situation becomes more complicated when he is introduced to American talent manager Debra Hammer (a deliciously nasty Kate McKinnon), who convinces him to dump bonny old England for the sunny coastlines of L.A.. Once there he faces increasing pressure to not only put together a collection of smash hits which will form “the greatest album of all time” but to overhaul his image into something that screams Success.

Yesterday is a fluffy bit of entertainment surprisingly directed by Danny Boyle. I say surprisingly because while it has the vibrant colors, fancy camerawork and busy mise en scène that make his movies so visually energetic and engaging, it is Richard “Love Actually” Curtis’s writing that ends up characterizing this movie. The fantastical premise is as littered with plot holes and contrivances as much as the soundtrack is with Beatles classics (the usage of which reportedly took up about 40% of the overall budget!). Yesterday is Boyle’s fourteenth directorial effort and it just may be his most formulaic.

Despite the flaws, none bigger than the fact the story never really delves below the surface of its complicated morality, it is hard to hate on a movie that is so amiable and so full of heart. That largely comes down to the efforts of the cast who make for great company at each and every step of the way. British-born actor Himesh Patel proves to be an impressive singer, and his genuine chemistry with Lily James had me smitten from pretty much minute one.

Recommendation: A bonafide cheesy, feel-good movie. I’m trying to decide if you’ll get more out of this thing if you’re a Beatles fan or a sucker for a good romantic comedy. As far as the music goes, Yesterday feels like a “Classic Hits” soundtrack. 2020 has been a rough year to say the least so far. Maybe “hunkering down” with a movie as familiar and ordinary as this is just what the doctor ordered. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “Miracles happen all the time!” 

“Like what?”

“Like Benedict Cumberbatch becoming a sex symbol . . . “

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb 

The Gentlemen

Release: Friday, January 24, 2020

→Theater

Written by: Ivan Atkinson; Marn Davies; Guy Ritchie

Directed by: Guy Ritchie

The Gentlemen appears as a sight for sore eyes for anyone hoping for Guy Ritchie to return to form. After a string of generic blockbusters that kicked off with Sherlock Holmes in 2009 and then lasted forever, it seemed pretty clear he was not returning to his old stomping grounds — the seedy, criminal underworld of London as depicted in indie hits Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1999) and Snatch (2000). And why would he? Franchise filmmaking has rewarded him. His “hot” Aladdin remake turned out to be really hot — grossing more than a billion dollars at the global box office last year.

Like a sequel, The Gentlemen is not as fresh as the early Cockney gangster films that put his name on the map but it is another example of the transformative effect of Ritchie’s style and process. His movies are litmus tests of his cast’s willingness to separate brand image from the bell-ends they’re compelled to become as well as their ability to adapt on the fly to his extemporaneous approach to shooting. His latest crime comedy features as many plot points, diversions and schemes as it does famous faces, and it does not disappoint when it comes to watching big-name actors trying to wrap their mouths around Ritchie’s barbwire dialogue. Some succeed more than others, but with the sheer size of The Gentlemen‘s roster, it’s a pretty high success rate.

Oscar-winner and proud Texan Matthew McConaughey passes muster as Mickey Pearson, an expat who left his poverty-stricken life in America thanks to a scholarship to Oxford. As many a McConaughey character is wont to do, he becomes a major cannabis advocate. What began as a small business venture selling to the stuffy students evolves into a massively profitable weed empire founded on (technically under) British soil and through violence and intimidation on the streets. When conspiring circumstances force the old man out of the game, he triggers an avalanche of plots and schemes as a long line of potentials vie to take his place upon the throne. But it will take more than pure business acumen to actually oust a king.

In the simplest terms, The Gentlemen boils down to a potential transaction between two savvy businessmen who both happen to be Yankees — Pearson and billionaire Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong, who seems least at home in this environment). In Ritchie’s world trust, like political correctness, is always in short supply. There’s borderline none of it here, with Strong’s annoyingly nebbish (but at least well-dressed) Berger possibly in cahoots with even worse people. Rogue agent Dry Eye (Henry Golding, doing good work to separate himself from a recent string of hunky eligible bachelor types) blows through the narrative, utterly unconcerned about the damage he’s doing and whose business he’s worse for. His arrogance makes him a true threat to Pearson’s power and legacy. Themes collide full-force in one of the movie’s signature scenes wherein a hopeful Dry Eye offers to buy Pearson out at an exorbitant price. And it is bad form to decline such an offer when it’s so clear his time is up as ruler of this urban jungle.

The characters are certainly worth remembering but the other big part of the equation is the deliberately convoluted storytelling. The Gentlemen is ambitious to a fault. It’s daunting enough to keep up with this labyrinth of relationships, clandestine partnerships and double-crosses unfolding. But, as it turns out, this whole farce is taking place in the not-so-distant past. The details are relayed to Raymond (Charlie Hunnam), consigliere to the King of Kush, by a gloriously against-type Hugh Grant as Fletcher, a smarmy private investigator who is trying to blackmail those who have wronged Big Dave (Eddie Marsan), the editor of a British tabloid journal. The framing device — “let’s play a game, Raymond,” Fletcher pleads like a school boy with a dirty little secret — overcomplicates an already stuffed narrative.

It’s not as though nothing good has come of Ritchie’s rise to prominence in the mainstream. The Gentlemen is a crime comedy of noticeably increased scale. We’ve outgrown the neighborhood of card sharps, street brawlers and estate agents and moved to the international ring of truly bad blokes and drug lords. Here you’ll encounter everyone from low-ranking British Lords to sons of Russian oligarchs and at least two generations of Chinese gangsters. There’s also Colin Farrell running around trying to repay a debt after his ragtag group of MMA fighters ignorantly steals something they shouldn’t have. For what it cost to make The Gentlemen, Ritchie could have made Snatch and RocknRolla with money left over to blow on van loads of ganja. Bigger doesn’t always mean better, yet from a technical standpoint the movie justifies the price tag — the wardrobes snazzy and the production design a classy, sleek upgrade.

For all that is ridiculous and excessive about The Gentlemen, I can’t really complain. It’s just nice to have our Guy back.

Henry Golding taking the mickey out of Matthew McConaughey

Recommendation: SPOILERS LURK IN THIS SECTION. Come for the cast, stay for the schadenfreude (and the insults). There aren’t too many good people here to root for. In fact, that’s part of what makes The Gentlemen interesting. It’s refreshing to see the villain come out on top for a change. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 113 mins.

Quoted: “There’s only one rule in the jungle: When the lion’s hungry, he eats!” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed  written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb 

The Way Back

Release: Friday, March 6, 2020

→Theater

Written by: Brad Ingelsby

Directed by: Gavin O’Connor

Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) had a future in basketball beyond high school. Probably beyond college. Once the pride of Bishop Hayes High in the 1990s, he led his team to more victories and championships in his four years than the many iterations managed in the decades since. These days, his alma mater barely manages to field a varsity team. They’re not an also-ran, they’ve been irrelevant for so long cobwebs are forming on those banners hanging from the rafters.

Now they’re without their coach, who has suffered a heart attack. Dan, an algebra teacher (Al Madrigal), pulls double-duty as an assistant but he’s no coach, at least not the one with the capital C. There are a few stand-out athletes running around the gym, but it’s all in disorganized fashion and the average player is as good at sinking three’s as Shaq was at free throws. Miraculously they still have a pep squad and a team chaplain (Jeremy Radin) and despite the dismal win record they abide by basic moral principles of competing fairly and with the understanding that the results of the game, fair or foul, do not define them as students, as young men.

Life after the game hasn’t been rosy for Jack. Working construction, living alone and drinking uncontrollably, Jack is functional but clearly in a good deal of pain. The Way Back slowly, cautiously inches its way towards an explanation as to why he has isolated himself not just from the game but from making social connections. One day he is thrown a lifeline in the form of a voicemail from Bishop Hayes’ Father Divine (John Aylward), imploring him to come and fill in as Head Coach for this struggling team. After a night of booze-soaked introspection and exhausting all possible reasons to turn down the offer, Jack of course shows up at practice and sets about coaching up. His goal is to toughen up the team, improve their fundamentals, make them eligible for the playoffs for the first time since his playing days.

Director Gavin O’Connor, most famous for Miracle (2004) and Warrior (2011), presents yet another character-driven sports drama. I’ve always admired the way he marries realistic, intensely choreographed action with interesting characters going on powerful emotional journeys. The Way Back has all those ingredients and yet the flavor lacks. The drama, whether on the court or off of it, really doesn’t have any surprise plays in its playbook. To its credit basketball is not where the movie really lies; Brad Ingelsby’s screenplay de-emphasizes spectacle for the quieter emotional battles taking place away from the game.

The difference here is the bonafide movie star who delivers the emotion and nuance this patently predictable movie needs. It’s a terrific, authentic performance, not least because it’s often difficult to separate the Movie Star from the character. Affleck does just that though, in fact he succeeds to an almost profound degree, especially in the scenes in which he is forced to confront the source of his pain alongside his estranged wife Angela (the lovely Janina Gavankar). Ultimately, Affleck’s heartbreaking performance — no doubt elevated by this acute awareness of what he himself has gone through over a prolonged period — is what redeems the movie.

Recommendation: Empathetically told and impressively acted, The Way Back (not to be confused with the 2010 drama The Way Back . . . or for that matter, the 2013 indie comedy The Way Way Back) is yet more proof of the natural, amiable personality of director Gavin O’Connor. It hopefully marks a rebound for actor Ben Affleck as well. Word of caution for fans expecting on-court drama and personal tension on a Hoosiers level: don’t uh, don’t do that. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “You want to know why they’re leaving you open? It’s because they don’t think you can hit the ocean from the beach.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb