The Scarlett Johansson Project — #2

Being quarantined at home may be the perfect time to look back on a movie that explores loneliness and connection. This was obviously not something I planned, but social distancing has a way of making us look at things differently and that includes the way we experience certain movies. That’s what’s happening with me and the classic romantic comedy Lost in Translation (2003) anyway.

I have a lot of love for this movie and I do think the feelings it evokes are intensified by this interruption in normal social life we are going through. Lost in Translation is a bittersweet story focused on two kindred spirits floating through weird periods of their lives. Neither know what they want, and both happen to meet in a foreign city and find something in each other that bonds them in a profound way. Lost in Translation featured a 17-year-old Scarlett Johansson alongside comedic great Bill Murray, who was stepping into a dramatic role for the first time in nearly 20 years. Director Sofia Coppola was completely blown away by the reception her movie received, feeling certain it would be viewed as pretentious and self-serving. It ended up netting her an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay that year.

In rewatching it in preparation for my monthly feature, I had forgotten how fleeting Lost in Translation really is — it’s all wrapped up in about 96 minutes. What happens within that time, however, what is said (and almost as often, what is not said), makes it so hard for me to leave the movie behind. I simply love these characters, especially when they’re together.

Scarlett Johansson as Charlotte in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation

Role Type: Co-lead

Premise: A faded movie star and a neglected young woman form an unlikely bond after crossing paths in Tokyo. (IMDb)

Character Background: Charlotte is a native New Yorker and recent college grad who is feeling unsatisfied and disillusioned with her marriage to John (Giovanni Ribisi), a celebrity photographer. On assignment in Tokyo, he’s kept busy and away from the hotel room leaving Charlotte alone and with plenty of time to wonder why she ever married this guy. She’s empty inside and her wandering eyes say as much. So she gets out into the city and does some exploring, soon turning acquaintances into friends, such as Charlie Brown (Fumihiro Hayashi). Over the course of about a week she also forms a deep connection with an older man named Bob Harris (Murray), a fading actor who’s staying at the same hotel while he endures a dreadful commercial shoot promoting whiskey. It is through their meaningful conversations and one really fun night soaking up the nightlife that we learn more about her and see her personality open up a bit more.

What she brings to the movie: very little experience for a role that aged her up 4 years from what she actually was. When Lost in Translation started shooting Scarlett Johansson was only 17 and had but a handful of acting credits total. Her claims to fame at the time were a starring role in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001) and a supporting role in the Robert Redford drama The Horse Whisperer (1999). Charlotte is her first adult role as far as the emotional complexities involved and the thematic content. Yes, it is true that Sofia Coppola would not have made this movie had she not been able to get Bill Murray, but Coppola also enjoyed Johansson’s performance in the 1996 comedy Manny & Lo so much she had to land her as a lead in one of her movies (Johansson would pass on Coppola’s début effort The Virgin Suicides, feeling it wasn’t right for her at the time).

In her own words: [on the age difference between her and Bill Murray, who is more than 30 years her senior] “It was hard to relate to one another, but I think what worked is that when the cameras were rolling and [it] actually came time to do the work, we worked really well together.”

Key Scene: I mean . . . there are other choices. There’s a really nice moment when Bob and Charlotte are talking while laying on a bed, having a deep conversation about whether life or marriage get any easier as time goes by. It’s a quiet but important moment that further solidifies their bond. But the key scene is in the way Sofia Coppola brings this wonderful week to a close. The kiss that almost never was, the mystery of whatever it is that Bob whispers into Charlotte’s ear. The sounds of the streets teeming with passing strangers. By the time The Jesus and Mary Chain come in with “Just Like Honey,” it’s very close to a perfect ending. Well, it’s one of the most bittersweet endings I’ve ever seen anyway. I never wanted this story to end, and yet Coppola does it about as gracefully as she possibly could have. According to her, “I just wanted to show a whole relationship just in a few days.”

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


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Photo credits: IMDb

Angel Has Fallen

Release: Friday, August 23, 2019

→Netflix

Written by: Robert Mark Kamen; Matt Cook; Ric Roman Waugh

Directed by: Ric Roman Waugh

Angel Has Fallen is the third but definitely not last installment in the Fallen action movie franchise. That there are enough of these movies to justify the word ‘franchise’ seems an indictment of the American Secret Service. How many other landmarks and VIPs are going to fall on Mike Banning (Gerard Butler)’s watch before he gets fired? Before the concept itself falls into parody? Are we there already?

Angel has probably fallen out of the memory of anyone who caught it in theaters last year but it’s the one I would return to again, no arm-twisting involved. And with no driving involved either, it’s quite possible this review is going to be much sunnier than others you have read. Ric Roman Waugh is the third different director in a series that has at least three more films planned and a TV series spinoff, so it’s anyone’s guess as to how the quality goes from here. For now it seems the third time’s the charm. Angel Has Fallen is a surprisingly fun diversion that I actually had a good time with.

The tables have turned against Butler’s bulletproof Banning as he becomes Public Enemy #1. The story sees the formerly disgraced Secret Service agent due for a promotion to Director. He would be replacing Lance Reddick‘s Director David Gentry, a man who suggests some level of class might be required for the position. The time has finally come to domesticate Banning the wild animal. (The script has these very manly men actually calling each other lions.) While his body is telling him the days of saving the president over and over again are indeed over, what with the chronic back pain and migraines that he keeps secret from his wife (Piper Parebo), his ego is what keeps him in the field and wincing off to the side.

Besides, if he graduates to a big boy office job, when is he ever going to find the time to reminisce about those crazy days in the Army with his old buddy Wade Jennings (Danny Huston)? (Now the CEO of a private military outfit called Salient Global, Wade is the second of the two self-proclaimed lions.)

During a private fishing trip President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) extends Banning the offer but a drone strike rudely interrupts the day and lays waste to the rest of the security detail, ultimately leaving Mr. President in a coma and Mr. Indestructible handcuffed to his own hospital bed. Banning awakens only to find he has been named a prime suspect by what Special Agent Thompson (Jada Pinkett Smith) of the FBI is calling an attempted assassination. One rather aggressive interrogation and a couple of pretty thrilling developments later and Banning’s on the loose, on the run, in a race against the clock to clear his name and establish the identities of those responsible.

There’s no denying Angel Has Fallen is a generic action thriller. You’re never in doubt as to whether the hero will succeed, or even as to what his next move is going to be. Undoubtedly its biggest flaw is the lack of character development. It’s pretty pathetic that after three movies we still don’t know much about Mike Banning (well, we now know he’s a lion). In fairness, the filmmakers do attempt a deeper background check on the guy than their predecessors. One of the best stretches of the story takes us down the twisty backroads of West Virginia where Banning eventually makes a pit stop at his old man’s heavily fortified cabin to lay low for a while. Clay Banning (Nick Nolte) is your quintessential disillusioned war vet who no longer trusts the government and hasn’t seen his family in years. The grizzled and bearded Nolte somewhat succeeds in providing some emotional weight to the story but his character, like all the other supporters, is a walking cliché.

It’s interesting to note that series creators and original screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt are not along for the ride this time. Filling in for them are Matt Cook and Robert Mark Kamen, who have Patriots Day, Taken and The Transporter writing creds between them — all solid action thrillers if not entirely game-changing originals. More importantly they seem the right kind of background for those looking to add their own link in this chain of middling action movies. The pair collaborate with the director on a screenplay that turns out to be very formulaic. However their concept incorporates more of an adventure element into it, making this effort different enough for me to feel more comfortable recommending. That’s definitely a first for this series.

He said I was a lion. Was he lyin’??

Recommendation: Netflix has made this a win-win situation. I get to experience more of the world’s most generic action movie franchise, now at least 60% more guilt-free: I don’t have to put gas money towards a Gerry Butler movie. I’m spared the shame and possible confusion of a ticket attendant mistaking me as a fan of this series even after London Has Fallen. I can pause the show however often I need (per empty beer glass, in this case). And best of all I get to prop my feet up and yell at the screen every time a character does or says something dumb, which in this movie happens a lot. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “I’m glad it was you. Lions, Mike . . . lions.” 

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Photo credits: IMDb

Coffee & Kareem

Release: Friday, April 3, 2020 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Shane Mack

Directed by: Michael Dowse

I really like Ed Helms. He is an actor I apparently will follow even into the seedier, more desperate corners of Netflix. I don’t know much about director Michael Dowse, other than the fact his résumé is populated with such silly titles as It’s All Gone Pete Tong (2004), Goon (2011) and Stuber (2019). Now there’s Coffee & Kareem, a ridiculous, over-acted (and, at times, ridiculously over-acted) crime comedy set in Detroit where the only things being enforced are stereotypes about white cops and black citizens.

Objectively speaking, this movie is uh, it’s . . . well, not . . . uh, not very good. Did I laugh, sure. I suppose the more accurate word would be giggled, like fans of Anchorman do the first six times they listen to Steve Carell utter random nonsense. That doesn’t mean I didn’t feel kinda bad about it later. Coffee & Kareem is a really crass movie that annoyingly uses racism for the basis of most of its comedy. The crime is that this Netflix “original” casts the likable Helms as James Coffee, a feckless cop who gets swept up in an increasingly violent and ludicrous conspiracy plot involving dirty cops and inept criminals.

The cards are stacked against Coffee from the moment he appears on screen rocking a “molester ‘stache.” He’s the laughingstock of the precinct and Detective Watts (Betty Gilpin) has it out for him. He gets demoted after allowing a criminal to escape his squad car, which, yeah that’s justified. What isn’t justified is the violent plot being fomented against him by his girlfriend Vanessa (Taraji P. Henson)’s bratty teenage son Kareem (introducing Terrence Little Gardenhigh), who already harbors a disdain toward white cops. But this is personal, so he seeks help from a thug to scare away Coffee once and for all. Actually, he wants him crippled from the waist down. He’s a charming kid, one who makes the foul-mouthed child actor from Role Models look like an angel.

In step one of like, a thousand in this grand plan to show his commitment to getting to know the family Coffee reluctantly gives sweet little Kareem a ride to his friend’s in a bad part of town, but really he’s inadvertently expediting his own wheelchair-bound fate. Kareem then witnesses the murder of a cop and soon the two find themselves scrambling to escape a trio of thugs (RonReaco Lee; Andrew Bachelor; William ‘Big Sleeps’ Stewart) and then things go really pear-shaped when Vanessa becomes involved. Hell hath no fury like a mother tased by her own child, and later assaulted by the same thugs after her son.

If cliches were a crime, screenwriter Shane Mack would be doing hard time. If predictability were its only offense, Coffee & Kareem might have gotten away with just a slap on the wrist. I get it; madcap is supposed to be high-energy and kind of crazy, but this particular story just falls apart the further it progresses. The wannabe-gangster kid becomes an irritant while the adult actors flounder. Helms is given few scenes in which he can shine, and Henson even fewer (though she does get one of the film’s highlight scenes in a motel room when she gets to open a can of whoop-ass on her assailants). Meanwhile, Gilpin has to be a better actor than what I’ve witnessed here.

With sloppy attempts at social commentary, ridiculous caricatures and often shockingly violent exchanges Coffee & Kareem is, in the vernacular of kids these days, a bit extra.

Don’t roo-doo-doo-doo-doo it, Andy!

Recommendation: Contrived odd couple comedy shoots for the heart but ends up hitting you right in the crotch instead. Fans of Ed Helms could leave disappointed with what he’s able to contribute. And I think I need to see another movie with some of these other actors (specifically Gilpin and Gardenhigh) in them before I make a decision on them. But on this evidence alone, yikes . . .

Rated: R (for ridiculous)

Running Time: 88 mins.

Quoted: “You f–k my mom, I’m gonna f–k your life.”

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

Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb

6 Underground

Release: Friday, December 13, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Paul Wernick; Rhett Reese

Directed by: Michael Bay

It’s my fourth week of isolation and while we’ve got a way to go still before we can socially un-distance, I’m pretty sure I’ve just hit a low point. I am now inviting Michael Bay in to my living room to give me some company. What an insult to Tiger King that I prioritized this spectacle of awfulness over it. Bay’s latest happens to be his first ever direct-to-streaming offering, so I thought there might be something different about 6 Underground. Something, oh I don’t know, more restrained about it. That’s cute, Tom.

6 Underground vomits two hours of non-stop destruction of city monuments and human bodies that could have been trimmed to 90 minutes if you cut out all the fancy slow-motion shots. In what passes as a story barely held together by duct tape editing, a crew of six (or is that seven?) vigilante agents fake their own deaths in order to take on the Great Evils of the world without having to deal with all the government red tape. In this movie, one of an inevitable many, the bad guy is a tyrannical dictator named Rovach Alimov (Lior Raz), who rules a fictitious Middle Eastern country through brutal violence and threatening the people through state-run media.

These ghost agents aren’t referred to by their names but rather their numbers, because getting personal proves really tricky when you’re busy saving the world. ‘One’ is a billionaire played by Ryan Reynolds. He’s Team Leader and this quasi-genius who has made his fortune on magnets. The half of 6 Underground that isn’t spent on things blowing up in a fireworks display or peering up women’s skirts is dedicated to a sloppily constructed, disorienting montage where we learn how the others have been seduced into contributing to his humanitarian efforts. ‘Two’ (Mélanie Laurent) is a CIA spy; ‘Three’ (Manuel Garcia-Rolfo) a hitman; ‘Four’ (Ben Hardy) a parkour runner/thief; and ‘Five’ (Adria Arjona) a doctor.

The story begins with an Italian job gone to hell that culminates in their driver/’Six’ getting violently and fatally impaled, meaning Dave Franco gets a mercifully small role to play in this farce. He’s replaced by an Army sniper (Corey Hawkins) who is suffering survivor’s guilt after a mission in Afghanistan goes wrong. He’s brought in to the fold as ‘Seven,’ but mostly serves as a conduit through which we learn how the others were drafted and how there are advantages to this whole “being dead” thing. The actors do what they can with bland characters who riff on this whole concept of being gone and forgotten. Meanwhile, back and forth and up and down and side to side the narrative goes, one that’s so unfocused it is hard to believe it’s created by the writers of Deadpool and Zombieland.

Structurally, this action thriller is three 40-minute-long action sequences occasionally interrupted by a few moments of respite where the main goals are established with some F**k You’s thrown in to make sure you know this is an R-rated picture. Within those action sequences there are some memorable set pieces, such as the infiltration of a high rise in Hong Kong where the gang must capture the aforementioned dictator’s younger, nicer brother Murat (Payman Maadi). The granddaddy of them all, however, is the billion-dollar yacht that gets turned into “the world’s biggest magnet” and serves up a number of creative, intensely violent kills.

6 Underground is a gorgeous looking movie. That’s straight-up fact. Bay blitzes you with scenery featuring grand architecture sparkling in the blood orange sunsets. There are some pretty inventive camera angles that throw the chaos in your face as if you yourself are about to get bisected by some random object. If you pay attention, you might even see a shot of some camels in their natural element! But in the way Laurent is forced into stripping down for a pointless sex scene between two dead people, 6 Underground and its entire cast suffer from Bay’s fixation on artifice. Bonus points if he can get all these good-looking people splattered in the blood of the soon-to-be-not-living.

It’s a still frame, but you can still detect the slow-mo

Recommendation: Queue it up on Netflix for you to knock out on Quarantine Day #309. Don’t be a Tom. Don’t be in a such a hurry to watch Michael Bay indulge in all his worst excesses. 6 Underground is a total mess, a bad movie even by his standards.  

Rated: R

Running Time: 128 mins.

Quoted: “They say that your soul departs when you pass. Well, for us, it was the opposite. The moment nothing to lose became something to gain. And the whole wide world seemed a little less haunted.”

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

Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb 

Villains

Release: Friday, September 20, 2019

→Hulu 

Written by: Dan Berk; Robert Olsen

Directed by: Dan Berk; Robert Olsen

In terms of competence, small-time criminals Mickey (Bill Skarsgård) and Jules (Maika Monroe) are closer to the Harry and Marv end of the spectrum than they are the Bonnie and Clyde side. These impetuous twenty-somethings are not very good at crime. They are also on the verge of retiring to Florida. Once they rob this convenience store — wearing goofy animal masks, because, why not? — they vow to turn over a new leaf. Soon enough they will literally be selling sea shells down by the seashore. It’s not much of a plan, but it’s a plan nonetheless.

Problem #1: They run out of gas before they can even get out of the woods of Wherevertheyaresville, and are forced into sidetracking to an isolated house where they hope to grand theft auto their way down to the Sunshine State. Justifying their actions turns out to be a pretty fun and rewarding game for those of us watching from afar. These are two kids who make bad decisions but have good hearts; they seem committed to one another and to this idea of living a different kind of life. Once inside the house, they promptly set about snorting coke in order to inspire a plan to relieve the homeowners of their car (or at least enough gas so they can continue on their merry way).

Problem #2: They aren’t exactly expecting to find a young girl (Blake Baumgartner) chained to a pipe in the basement. Mickey wants nothing more than to just GTFO; Jules insists they take the child with them. When they head back upstairs to find the keys to free her they stumble right into George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick) and Problem #3 begins. And it’s a doozy. Small-time crooks must learn how to outwit big-time weirdos whose calm demeanor and southern mannerisms are a thin veneer masking sinister intentions.

Villains is the third feature from directing duo Dan Berk and Robert Olsen, a pair of up-and-comers whose first full-length movie, 2015’s Body, was made on a budget of $50k and filmed in 11 days. Villains is another budget-conscious film but one that gets a lot of mileage out of its simple premise, confined setting and small cast. Berk and Olsen describe it as a creative breakthrough. It’s an impressively ergonomic production. This is indie filmmaking elevated by established acting talent and an addictive combination of offbeat humor and palpable tension. The cast dig into their roles with fervent energy, and skillfully use that energy to create memorable characters who, Sedgwick aside, don’t come with much of a backstory.

Villains may not do anything radical, yet the filmmakers manage to throw in a few interesting wrenches into each party’s plans that make for a fun-filled adventure, one that builds to a violent and satisfying payoff. It’s a spirited good time and while the scales tip decidedly more toward comedy than horror, the murky morality of the whole thing is sure to encourage multiple rewatches.

Hands off the table, please.

Recommendation: It’s the high-energy acting that really sells it. Fans of Bill “Pennywise” Skarsgård and Maika Monroe are strongly urged to track Villains down. Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Donovan are no slouches either. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 82 mins.

Quoted: “What makes you feel good? Ice cream. Mint choc –“

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

Photo credits: IMDb

When a Song Gets Bigger than the Movie: Stay Alive

This one is for all the daydreamers and travelers out there who want to be anywhere but stuck at home right now.

The song ‘Stay Alive’ is one of several the Argentinian-Swedish indie folk singer/songwriter José González contributed to the soundtrack for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a 2013 adventure drama/fantasy starring Ben Stiller, Sean Penn, Kristen Wiig and Adam Scott. The movie is an amazing journey, taking audiences on a globetrotting adventure when Life magazine photographer Walter (Stiller) embarks on a search for a famous photographer whose work is to be included in the final print edition of the mag, which is about to transition into digital form. While a lot of critics were divided on Stiller’s direction and the whimsical, disjointed narrative, few took issue with the visual composition.

What’s more amazing than the cinematography and scenery is that, even after all these years, it’s the music that stays with me. Few soundtracks move me in the way The Secret Life of Walter Mitty did. Put together by Theodore Shapiro, it features, among others, Of Monsters and Men, Arcade Fire, Jack Johnson and David Bowie, so there is no shortage of inspiring songs I could have used here.

But ‘Stay Alive’ — and I do stress the fact this is the one without the gerund, because f**k The Bee Gees — is just one of those songs that marks a moment in time for me. From the opening piano keys and the ticking clock, through to the drum-fed crescendo, the poetic lyrics written by Ryan Adams and Shapiro and vocalized by González, it’s a quietly profound song that swells with great hope. It’s a meditation on life and love; a journey toward fulfillment that both compliments the physical journey Stiller goes on and transcends it. Indeed, this song captures the spirit of the movie best.

Then again, I have a propensity for being dramatic and often suffer delusions of grandeur so, I don’t hold it against anyone for not being moved in the same way.


Stay Alive (lyrics by Ryan Adams and Theodore Shapiro)

There’s a rhythm in rush these days
Where the lights don’t move and the colors don’t fade
Leaves you empty with nothing but dreams
In a world gone shallow
In a world gone lean

Sometimes there’s things a man cannot know
Gears won’t turn and the leaves won’t grow
There’s no place to run and no gasoline
Engine won’t turn
And the train won’t leave

Engines won’t turn and the train won’t leave

I will stay with you tonight
Hold you close ’til the morning light
In the morning watch a new day rise
We’ll do whatever just to stay alive
We’ll do whatever just to stay alive

Well the way I feel is the way I write
It isn’t like the thoughts of the man who lies
There is a truth and it’s on our side
Dawn is coming
Open your eyes
Look into the sun as the new days rise

And I will wait for you tonight
You’re here forever and you’re by my side
I’ve been waiting all my life
To feel your heart as it’s keeping time
We’ll do whatever just to stay alive

Dawn is coming
Open your eyes
Dawn is coming
Open your eyes
Dawn is coming
Open your eyes
Dawn is coming
Open your eyes

Look into the sun as the new days rise
There’s a rhythm in rush these days
Where the lights don’t move and the colors don’t fade
Leaves you empty with nothing but dreams
In a world gone shallow
In a world gone lean

But there is a truth and it’s on our side
Dawn is coming open your eyes
Look into the sun as a new days rise