The Scarlett Johansson Project — #5

Another new movie experience and another lesson learned. The one we have to talk about this month has become something of a cult classic since its release nearly two decades ago. I can see how it has earned that reputation. It’s a very well-made movie, a realistic take on teen alienation that comes with a prickly sense of humor. Unfortunately I cannot say I enjoyed it very much. In fact the first third of this movie was a constant struggle not to hit the Back button on my remote.

In the Pros column, the performances are outstanding. They absolutely do their job. It’s cool to have finally seen the first comic book adaptation Scarlett Johansson took part in. This is a different kind of comic than what audiences are accustomed to seeing her in today. Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World is a movie with a defiant personality. It’s (mostly) costume-less, leisurely paced and gleefully misanthropic. This cynical dramatic comedy is based on the 1995 serial (later turned into a graphic novel) by Daniel Clowes, whose collaboration on the screenplay surely helped the film pick up that Oscar nom. The movie is also notable for being the role that put a young Scarlett Johansson on the map. She celebrated her Sweet 16th after it came out.

Ghost World has, oh let’s see, a 92% critical score and an 84% positive audience response on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a movie about outsiders, but I’ve been left at the end feeling like one myself. That’s not to say I didn’t identify with anything the characters were saying or that I didn’t understand what the movie was doing. I was just put off by the aggressively nihilistic attitude. I found it a struggle to really care about what happened to any of these characters after a certain point.

Scarlett Johansson as Rebecca in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World

Role Type: Co-lead

Premise: With only the plan of moving in together after high school, two unusually devious friends seek direction in life. As a mere gag, they respond to a man’s newspaper ad for a date, only to find it will greatly complicate their lives. (IMDb)

Character Background: Rebecca is best friends with Enid. They’re a pair of misfits who have had each other’s backs all through high school. Now staring at a wide open calendar, they find themselves listless and aimless. They may not have plans like all the losers bound for college but they’re going to make it a goal to mess with other people’s plans. Yes indeed, the opening minutes prove they aren’t really the gossipy type. Trash-talking is more their style and everyone is a target — the crippled, the elderly and possibly senile, struggling parents and fugly waiters.

To her credit, even from the beginning Rebecca comes across as the more mature one. She often pulls up short of the line Enid is willing to cross. You also get the sense Rebecca is more popular with boys. Yeah she’s pretty but moreover she’s more approachable; she isn’t constantly spitting venom. The movie is about how the two friends eventually drift apart over the course of the summer. We get a steady trickle of moments where Rebecca demonstrates a desire to move on, to change. To grow. Director Terry Zwigoff, a bundle of anxious nerves himself, observes all these changes in the most mundane of ways but there’s clearly a sense of stability in Rebecca that we do not find in Enid.

What she brings to the movie: confidence, the kind only working with the Coen brothers can provide. Coming on the heels of The Man Who Wasn’t There, Ghost World you can almost consider Part Two in a two-act coming-out party for the young teenage actor. She pendulums from a clearly not-shy teen in a 50s noir to a disaffected teenager in a post-Kurt Cobain world. The sultry and seductive voice that defined her character in The Man Who Wasn’t There is traded out for an amusingly dry monotone that rarely raises above calm speaking voice. Her portrayal is nuanced and authentic and, at least for me, the most sympathetic of all the main characters.

In her own words: “Terry just let us be ourselves. He understood that he cast two people who had really good chemistry. We were kid actors who, by that point, had started to understand how to do our job and explore this kind of naturalism that the film required. I think that is what is so great about Ghost World, is that it captures these characters at this very specific point in their lives.”

Key Scene: when Enid goes to visit Becca at work is one of my favorite moments in the movie. It perfectly captures the soul-crushing nature of minimum wage jobs, while also subtly introducing the fracture that ends up becoming quite a rift between the two besties. (Also, while I may not have really liked Thora Birch’s character, the movie gets bonus points for this being the only identifiable costume in this comic book adaptation.)

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work):  


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

Photo credits: IMDb; interview excerpt courtesy of the Criterion Collection 

The Night Clerk

Release: Friday, February 21, 2020 

→Netflix

Written by: Michael Cristofer

Directed by: Michael Cristofer

The problem with The Night Clerk is not its depiction of a developmental disorder or that it tries to be two movies in one. It’s that those two elements — character study cum genre film — don’t properly coalesce. It works actually quite well as the former but the crime mystery aspect leaves a lot to be desired. Yes indeed, there will be no mistaking this for a Hitchcock thriller.

In fact it works so much better when considered as a character piece that any other label feels like an irresponsible misnomer. If I were compelled to review this movie accordingly (that is, as a crime drama/mystery), then writer/director Michael Cristofer has just redefined the slow-burn with The Night Clerk‘s super-cautious, almost tedious tip-toeing toward exculpation. Viewed through this lens this Netflix film becomes quite possibly the most uneventful crime drama you’re going to see for some time.

Bart Bromley is our conflicted main character, a hotel clerk with Asperger’s played by Tye Sheridan, a young actor seemingly born for stardom having graduated from high-quality dramas such as The Tree of Life and Mud into full-blown Spielbergian spectacles. The Night Clerk offers him a chance to strut his stuff as a legitimate leading man and Sheridan does not waste the opportunity, providing a complicated protagonist whose humanity extends beyond a neurodevelopmental condition many movies have been guilty of identifying as their character’s most significant trait. He pours into the performance a sincere commitment to the details: struggle with eye contact; lots of long-winded, one-sided conversations; a level of self-awareness that nods toward him falling on the high-functioning end of the spectrum.

After what is basically another routine shift change — save for the fact his co-worker, Jack (Austin Archer), arrives 15 minutes early to relieve him, something Bart’s endearing meticulousness does not allow to go unnoticed — he witnesses the woman he recently checked in getting assaulted by an unidentified man who comes to her room. He’s privy to the drama due to his rigging up of small cameras around the room, which he has linked to half a dozen monitors back at home in his basement-level bedroom and through which he studies other people’s behavior so as to improve his own social interactions. Bart’s reaction to what he sees sets the action, as it were, into motion and a criminal investigation follows.

The Night Clerk is driven more by mood and feeling than mysterious twists and shocking reveals (the movie does present some of those, though shocking might be putting it too strong). Cristofer’s screenplay really drills into the loneliness, creating an environment in which Bart’s relationships with everything are fleeting and mostly experienced at a distance. It’s a tough circumstance because if Bart’s voyeuristic approach seems creepy, it definitely is, and yet the more direct route to getting to know people, learning how to “blend in,” is often barricaded by the insensitive, ignorant attitudes of others.

The humanity it seeks justifies both The Night Clerk‘s glacial pacing and its flirting with the basic structure of a crime mystery. While it has some activity going on in the background the story spends most of its time inside Bart’s head and heart as he wrestles with his increasingly strange predicament. To Detective Espada (John Leguizamo) the body language and passionate over-explaining are big red flags. To Ana de Armas‘ beautiful and mysterious Andrea Rivera, the movie’s great anomaly who accesses Bart in a way not even his mother (Helen Hunt) has been able, his social awkwardness is more charming than off-putting.

The Night Clerk manages to strike some poignant notes in its observation of a life lacking the nutrients of social connection. It plays with morality and culpability in some interesting ways, not quite absolving anyone from some kind of guilt. Everyone in this movie does something wrong. As far as unraveling the sordid crime, it’s nothing a gumshoe couldn’t solve. The worst thing about The Night Clerk, as is often true in social situations, is the inaccurate labeling.

What is this pain in my heart?

Recommendation: If complicated resolutions are what you seek, you should probably avoid checking in with The Night Clerk. For a great performance from Tye Sheridan and a rare sighting of Helen Hunt (!) you might want to pay attention to the details here. It’s a good movie, and even better if you just don’t think of it as a crime drama. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “That’s a very complicated question.”

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

Photo credits: IMDb

The Lovebirds

Release: Friday, May 22, 2020 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Aaron Abrams; Brendan Gall; Martin Gero

Directed by: Michael Showalter 

The entertaining but uneven The Lovebirds gives one the impression director Michael Showalter wanted to do something more laidback and lightweight following The Big Sick. While The Lovebirds has a few of the elements that made his 2017 romantic comedy such a success, it doesn’t appear to have much interest in providing the same level of emotional connection.

Chief among those elements is the film’s well-chosen pair of lead actors in the innately likable Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae. They play a thirty-something couple who, over the course of one wild and dangerous night, reevaluate themselves and their status as a couple, for better and for worse. For the second film in a row Showalter features a mixed-race couple who are imperiled somewhat by the judgment they face from others. Unlike The Big Sick, which used smart, cutting observational humor to broach difficult conversations, The Lovebirds relies more on broad, goofy humor to propel a familiar wrongfully-accused story.

It opens with a prologue detailing the halcyon days of a romance blossoming between Jibran (Nanjiani), a documentary filmmaker, and Leilani (Rae), an advertising exec. Everything’s perfect. All that’s missing is a dreamlike filter on the lens for this montage of the meet-cute. Cut to four years later and the once very happy couple are miserable tenants stuck in a longterm lease in Resentfulsville. Everything’s an argument, and competitive reality shows seem to be a source of epic blow-ups. (Leilani thinks they could win as contestants on The Amazing Race while Jibran . . . doesn’t even watch the show.)

During the drive over to a dinner party with friends and colleagues, it’s looking (and sounding) more like they are a thing of the past when a bicyclist suddenly, very suddenly, becomes the thing colliding with their present and their car windshield; the thing that ends up shaking up more than just an otherwise awkward evening. Not seconds after Jibran’s careless error they’re being carjacked by an angry man with a mustache (Paul Sparks) claiming to be a cop and that the biker is a criminal. A hectic pursuit ends with Leilani and Jibran left at the scene of a murder and looking anything but innocent when some passersby profile them and call the cops.

The resulting fall-out has the two running for their lives, simultaneously attempting to clear their names and doing some freelance detective work of their own as they track down Mustache. Along the way, the script has them engage in petty crime while donning costumes and pretending to be gangsta as they “intimidate” frat boys for info. Frustratingly only a few of these comedic sketches truly land with their intended effect. It’s important to note how, even as orgies break out before them and bullets whizz by their face, the two very much remain broken up. Yet it’s their being together that gets us through what turns out to be a rather sloppily executed narrative.

Though most of the time it’s simply silly fun, the story is at its most unbelievable, in the most literal sense of the word, when the pair stumble into an Eyes Wide Shut situation involving a connection to Mustache who could help clear their name. It’s a development that comes out of nowhere and registers as nothing more than a poor homage. Nanjiani and Rae for the most part are enough to elevate the poor writing, though Nanjiani was absolutely better in his first collaboration with Showalter. Then there are the dire moments they just can’t improve, such as when they’re forced into explaining their whereabouts to their friends after crashing the party.

It is still a fun little escapade, more so if you disregard the baker’s dozen plot contrivances and leaps in logic that allow the adventure to play out the way that it does. Natural-born comedians in Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae make that so much easier, riffing their way through from one farcical and forced plot point to another.  Their winning chemistry ultimately saves the movie as much as, if not more than, their characters save themselves.

Recommendation: I wish I could stop comparing this movie to The Big Sick, they’re clearly not the same movie and yet I can’t help but wonder what this amiable but silly action comedy might have been like if once again Nanjiani not just acted but wrote the jokes. The Big Sick definitely benefitted from what he brought as a writer. (It also benefitted from the fact it was based on a true story.) Still though, I think what the two movies do have in common is maybe something more important, and that’s a really likable pair of characters the audience can really get behind and want to see succeed. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 87 mins.

Quoted: “Look, I’m sorry I have to kill you guys. You seem like a nice, though somewhat annoying couple.”

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

Photo credits: IMDb

Nine Years of Movie Blogging

Go go gadget holy sh*t! I’ve just been reminded that today marks my ninth year of blogging with WordPress! (If you want to read something quaint, here’s the review that began it all.)

Some time ago, maybe circa 2013-14, I jokingly commented to someone that I’d be doing this for a decade. Well, that’s actually doable now. I’ve been really happy about how this blog has helped me focus on the craft of writing, despite the fact I probably abandoned my original goal (to write columns with word counts that adhered to proper AP style) within the first year or two. Or was that the first post? Either way, after awhile I’ve come to realize that this platform lends itself more to free form writing. I’m not a website. I’m a blog, and a pretty obscure one at that!

In year nine of what is probably going to be an arbitrary number of them, I notice several major areas of improvement for myself. Namely, in the self-promotion department. I am awful at it! In fact I’ve been so proud of my avoidance of Twitter for all these years. But I reluctantly admit now that that strategy hasn’t really helped me. It’s also worth noting my Letterboxd profile desperately needs attention as well. It’s pretty much stagnated since I first opened it up sometime last fall.

When it comes to content, I have major blind spots in terms of genres, major names, and eras. I used to run a weekly feature called Throwback Thursday (yeah, what an original name, right??) and that would be an opportunity for me to dive back into films of the past. It’s possible that feature makes a return, either in its original form or some slightly tweaked version.

Whatever the changes that are to come and that have taken place over the years, one thing has remained true: it is because of the friends and followers I have had for nearly a DECADE that has kept my motivation going. I can’t overstate what it has meant to have people reading these obscure scribblings. It may be 10 years next July, but I’m not considering that the end of my journey. I hope you’ll still be following along.