The Scarlett Johansson Project — #6

In perhaps one of the more extreme examples of not knowing what you have until it’s gone, this month’s installment takes a look at a movie that begins with the absence of humanity and works backward, discovering in the process the aches and pains and consequences of being alive. More specifically, being human.

Unfolding as one of the most profoundly unique visual presentations you will ever see, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin tests the boundaries of narrative filmmaking in every scene. It’s not a conventional plot. It’s certainly not a crowd-pleaser. Its themes are many and sometimes murky. Is this movie even from this earth? From my review: “It’s distressing. It’s disturbing. It’s occasionally even disgusting.” What’s more is that you don’t often see movies that are so uncompromisingly experimental and strange with such a high-profile A-lister involved.

Somewhat disappointingly, I later learned Under the Skin is an adaptation of a 2000 novel by Michael Faber, albeit a loose one, proving that indeed, nothing is ever entirely unique. And on that note, as is true of all my SJP posts, there are a lot of details following so I highly recommend if you still wish to see this movie unspoiled you should avoid reading any further.

Scarlett Johansson as The Female in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin

Role Type: Lead

Premise: A mysterious young woman seduces lonely men in the evening hours in Scotland. However, events lead her to begin a process of self-discovery. (IMDb)

Character Background: Wow, this one’s a doozie. Let’s begin with calling her the opposite of a townie. Known only as “The Female” her modus operandi is cruising around the streets of Glasgow etc in a white van, pulling over and asking for directions to some place, then offering the poor sap a ride. Or a fun night back at her “apartment.” In Under the Skin, sexual roles and behaviors are reversed to powerful effect, with the Female as the Predator and the men the Prey. There’s nothing even approaching post-coital bliss here. The mating ritual is nightmarish, not sexy, with the Female damning her victims “to another dimension where they are nothing more than meat.”

But if you’re asking me about her origins, I’m flummoxed. That’s part of the whole deal. Maybe there are some things we are not meant to know, much less be able to catalogue as familiar, quantifiable. What’s made patently obvious in one early scene that takes place on a rocky beach, one of the coldest scenes you’ll see in a movie, is that our intrepid visitor here is as familiar with the concept of emotion as an infant is with the concept of drowning. As she/it begins to bear the burden of feeling, a change starts taking place that really becomes quite heartbreaking.

What she brings to the movie: a familiar face, and a ton of confidence. This is famously the first role she’s done where there is full-frontal nudity. The nude scenes are tastefully done, shot less with the intent of arousal as they are a matter-of-fact observation of the human form. Putting her trust in director Jonathan Glazer, Johansson uses her alluring curvature to carve out a character that is truly haunting and unique. It’s one of the best performances I have ever seen and the role had to have been daunting. She is challenged to act as a tourist in a human body, while shedding her fame as a rising actress to blend into this environment. The wardrobe and hairstyling helps, but her facial expressions are so masterfully subtle and nuanced. It’s those small details that make this performance what it is, and Under the Skin one of the best movies made this side of the new millennium.

In her own words: “I started having conversations [with Jonathan Glazer] a few years ago. Initially it was going to be a two-hander, more of a story that revolved around these two characters sort of assimilating to society and not being “found out.” There’s this story of the townspeople and this discovery of what was happening to them as they were being picked off, and then you’d see the couple and their relationship. As opposed to this film which is seeing this world through these alien eyes. I wasn’t really convinced I could do this until Jonathan was convinced that I could do it.”

Key Scene: Caution: I’m not sure how long this video will be up given YouTube’s propensity for pulling down videos that don’t meet their criteria for copyright protection. Double caution: This scene does not mess around. It’s incredibly disturbing. You will not be able to un-see this stuff. 

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 David Poland and DP/30: The Oral History of Hollywood

Palm Springs

Release: Friday, July 10, 2020 (Hulu)

→Hulu

Written by: Andy Siara

Directed by: Max Barbakow

Palm Springs, a buzzy new Hulu original starring Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti and J.K. Simmons, for me has an unusual distinction. This romantic comedy about two strangers stuck in a time loop at a wedding boasts one of the best post-credits scenes I’ve seen in a long time. It seems like such a small thing, not even worthy of mentioning in a review much less in the lede, but the closure it provides is just so satisfying it improved my opinion of the movie overall.

That might seem like a slam against everything preceding it. It’s not. Max Barbakow’s modern reinvention of Groundhog Day is far from perfect but it is very enjoyable and it ends in a way that sends the audience off on a high. Any movie that has the potential to get fresh eyeballs on that Bill Murray classic is okay by me. Palm Springs is perhaps even an homage to it, with lines like “it’s one of those infinite time loop situations you may have heard about” seemingly gesturing in the direction of the late Harold Ramis’ beloved 1993 comedy, or at least, toward a recent history of films inspired by it.

Harder to ignore is the fact the famously goofy 42-year-old positions himself as an intensely cynical, occasionally even unlikable leading man who has to get over himself in order to break free of the barely metaphorical cycle of living without purpose or fear of consequence. Samberg is Nyles, a drifter doomed to wake up on the same day in November ad infinitum. He takes the expression “going through the motions” to a whole new level with his presence at a wedding for Tala (Camila Mendes) and Abe (Tyler Hoechlin). His only connection is his high-maintenance girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner), who is in the bridal party.

Groundhog Day fans already know the drill: Nobody else is aware of his situation, and nothing he does seems to change it, not even multiple, technically successful, suicide attempts. After being stuck here for an indeterminate amount of time Nyles’ ability to care has been worn down to a nubbin. Then, during one loop, he introduces himself to Sarah (Milioti), who sticks out like such a sore thumb due to her visible discomfort in seeing her younger, far more successful (and selfless!) sister get her happily-ever-after that it kind of amazes me how Nyles does not pick up on this any sooner.

Mostly this is because the script from Andy Siara prefers giving the former SNL star the space and time to do his sketches rather than worrying too much about internal logic. Not for nothing, there are some really creative inventions as the filmmakers play around with the character’s prescience. A memorable sequence early on has Nyles going through a dance sequence so bizarre no person would possibly be able to pull it off without his “experience.” It also is a really fun way to get the two main characters to initially hook up. Of course, just as things are turning amorous a series of crazy happenings causes Sarah to fall into the same trap Nyles has been stuck in. All I will offer is that it involves a crazy-eyed, face-painted J.K. Simmons wielding a bow and arrow, and a cave of glowing light.

Palm Springs not only asks you to suspend disbelief for a minute (or two, or depending on how cynical you are, maybe 90) but it also seems like one of those movies that would rely heavily on dramatic irony. However it moves surprisingly quickly beyond that, evolving into a quasi sci-fi adventure and thereby making Sarah a more interesting, smarter character. When she comes to accept what’s happened, she proves to be very (and darkly hilariously) solutions-oriented, especially when she learns a little bit more about the guy she’s stuck here with. Time loop movies can go to some dark places and Palm Springs, despite its tropical setting, is no exception.

For a story steeped in the tradition of two icy hearts gradually warmed by shared intimate experiences, we don’t really get a lot of character development. Interestingly Sarah feels like a more fleshed out character than does Nyles. That feels like a first. Generally speaking Palm Springs relies on actor personalities. For example, J.K. Simmons. Every time I see him in a movie — with the notable exception of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash — I just want to kick back with a stogie and a glass of whisky with the guy and just shoot the breeze. Less involved but also fun are Peter Gallagher as the father of the bride and the wonderful June Squibb as an older wedding guest. And though the conclusion is patently predictable, I just cannot deny the warm fuzzy it leaves you with.

I feel ya buddy

Recommendation: Andy Samberg plays one of his more “unlikable” characters that I can recall. I put quotes around that word because it’s just really hard to gauge where his attitude stems from — bad childhood? Too many loves lost? Parental issues? Wtf is his deal? The movie isn’t great on character development. But it is big on mood and ideas, and that’s plenty enough for me to give this a hearty recommendation to fans of smartly done romantic comedies. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “I can’t keep waking up in here. Everything that we are doing is meaningless.”

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

Photo credits: IMDb 

Buffaloed

Release: Friday, February 14, 2020 (limited)

→Hulu 

Written by: Brian Sacca

Directed by: Tanya Wexler

Buffaloed is a great example of why I love Zoey Deutch. I haven’t always loved the movies she’s been in — Why Him? (which I’ve seen) and Dirty Grandpa (which I make my life goal to avoid) I like to think are good examples of her good sportsmanship. On evidence of the last several movies the 25-year-old can kick it with just about any crowd, whether it’s slumming it with Robert DeNiro, getting super nostalgic for the 80s with Richard Linklater or turning stereotypes of the valley girl airhead into one of the most memorable aspects of Ruben Fleischer’s zombie apocalypse.

In Buffaloed, a rare kind of comedy that manages to be both crass and endearing, she takes the reins of the leading woman and wields them with such fervor the reins almost break. She plays Peg Dahl, a recent high school grad highly motivated to get out of her rust-belt hometown of Buffalo, a blue-collar community in upstate New York that takes pride in having the best hot wings in the world. And then of course there’s football, which here is a religious event attended by all in the ceremonial garb of blue and red jackets, sweaters and ball caps. As any self-respecting Buffalonian would, she still roots for the home team — scalps tickets, even — but she’s outgrown this place.

In pursuit of her American Dream to make a name (and lots of money) for herself, Peg is overjoyed to learn she has been accepted to an out-of-state college. There’s just the small issue of covering the astronomical cost of tuition. When her initial plan falls apart through a series of unfortunate events, not least of which being the actions taken by the world’s least helpful defense attorney (Adrian Griffin), Peg has to reinvent herself. She does this by becoming the very thing that has been hounding her family for decades, taking a job at a shady collection agency run by a guy named Whizz (played by Jai Courtney, who just oozes sleaze).

While there is certainly an air of Jordan Belfort about the way her character’s lack of scruples funds her meteoric rise from boiler room to head of her own competing agency — a move that puts her squarely in the crosshairs of Whizz and his cronies — the arc that’s most familiar is that of Andrew Garfield in the 2015 economic drama 99 Homes. Director Tanya Wexler makes sure that, even when Peg’s bullheadedness finally catches up to her, she remains a character worthy of redemption despite all the damage she causes.

Wexler, a native Chicagoan, and writer Brian Sacca, himself a born and bred Buffalonian, off-set the familiarity of their themes by creating an experience overflowing with personality and idiosyncratic charm. The spirited performances, not just from Deutch but from a strong supporting cast including Judy Greer as mother Kathy and Sorry to Bother You‘s Jermaine Fowler as a socially awkward detective, often triumph over the movie’s flaws, namely its abrupt tonal shifts and questionable logic.

In attempting to be many things all rolled into one 90 minute package — a critique of capitalism, a farcical family drama, a comedy of criminal ineptitude and an underdog story — Buffaloed isn’t always a smooth ride. Serious scenes often smack up against moments of pure farce in a way that’s jolting. Ultimately it functions best as a showcase for Zoey Deutch’s talents. She does so well with this true-blue New Yorker you totally forget she’s a Cali girl at heart. At the same time, there’s something endearing, almost intentionally meta, about the movie’s lack of refinement. Like the best hot wings, Buffaloed has a good, spicy zing to it that makes it quite enjoyable.

“Sir, I’d like my money back, please.”

Recommendation: For fans of the cast, particularly Zoey Deutch, Buffaloed is kind of a must-watch. This small-town Wolf of Wall Street story is couched in a distinctly female perspective, without going overboard on political correctness or comedic crudeness. It is occasionally a subversive movie, particularly when it comes to certain relationship dynamics. Most all though, director Tanya Wexler should be credited for making a movie about debt collection really entertaining! 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “I had a dream. That John Travolta took off his wig and on his scalp was another John Travolta face. Double Travolta. I could never get that image out of my mind.”

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

Photo credits: IMDb 

Terminator: Dark Fate

Release: Friday, November 1, 2019

→On Demand 

Written by: David Goyer; Justin Rhodes; Billy Ray

Directed by: Tim Miller

Terminator: Dark Fate is the best installment in the series since Judgment Day and it’s not even close. That said, having never been a die-hard I have gotten along pretty well with most* of the sequels, even the mind-bendingly-complex-and-not-in-a-good-way Terminator Genisys, so what do I know?

One thing I know is that this movie was fated to be poorly received. Faith in this once glorious franchise has been steadily eroding ever since we entered the 2000s. In 2019, oh how the mighty have fallen: In America Dark Fate basically flat-lined, barely recouping a quarter of its $185 million budget. Losses for the studios involved topped $130 million. That’s even more damning considering it is directed by the guy who made Deadpool. It seems this female-led retcon of one of the most convoluted storylines in franchise filmmaking history** was destined to become the next Terminator film to disappoint. The question was whether it would disappoint in the same way or if it would mix things up by being disappointing in other areas.

Dark Fate, in fact, does neither. Director Tim Miller and his writing team create a solid action movie underpinned by relevant themes and bolstered by the welcomed return of original characters plus a few memorable new ones. James Cameron also resurfaces as producer, ensuring fidelity to not just the general formula that brought tremendous fame to the doorstep of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton, but specifically to  style and tonality. Bitter and violent but with a streak of humor persisting through all the hardscrabble survival shit (mostly at the expense of Arnie, but hey it’s welcomed), the story is stripped down and actually coherent. The action is visceral and the acting frequently intense.

Twenty-five years after Sarah Connor thwarted Judgment Day, and the future is repeating itself anyway. The details are almost a matter of semantics; instead of Skynet, there is now Legion. Somewhere along the line, someone screwed up. Artificial intelligence gained the upper hand. The machines have once again sent back in time a representative to crush a human uprising before it can even begin. This upgraded model of terminator called the Rev-9, besides sounding like a new line of Mazda sport car, makes the T-1000 obsolete. He is played coolly (and cold-bloodedly) by Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s Ghost Rider Gabriel Luna. His mission is to track down and eliminate the de facto new John Connor — a teenage girl named Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) who lives an unassuming life as a factory worker in Mexico City.

This is of course the part where you’re expecting Arnie’s T-800 to drop out of thin air to protect the girl, kick some robot ass and maybe disappear from whence he came (or into a vat of liquid metal). But like with the androids we carry around in our pockets some updates are more significant than others. Arnie is indeed back, not with a vengeance but rather a conscience. Filling in his old shoes is a hybrid of human and terminator not-so-subtly named Grace (Mackenzie Davis). She has also been sent back to convince Dani of her role in the human resistance while also contending with unexpected roadblocks, such as Sarah Connor and her own beliefs in fate.

No, this movie does not throw heavy punches of originality. Signature one-liners, even when delivered by the legendary Linda Hamilton, feel like hand-me-downs rather than organic reactions. It’s not like this latest chapter doesn’t do anything to set itself apart. Dark Fate carries some heavy emotional baggage and the script occasionally hits some poignant notes as its leading trio of women confront loss and grief. That weight is mostly shouldered by the older and wiser Sarah Connor and her complicated relationship with the T-800 but it’s also a pain shared by all involved, whether that’s Dani receiving a brutal crash course in terminator-human relationships or Grace recounting her experiences of surviving the apocalypse through flashback.

Retreading old footsteps does not make a movie bad however. It’s when directors and producers forsake the spirit of the original in an attempt to chart a new course that often leads to trouble. Dark Fate is made with an obvious reverence for Cameron’s seminal sequel. I consider its familiarity a strength. And if indeed it is the last hurrah (and it sure looks that way) I would also consider it an homage to greatness. If given a choice between a safe and familiar package and a narrative so convoluted you don’t even care where or when you are on the timeline, I will always choose the former.

* all except salvation. nope, can’t do it. it’s bad when a movie’s best scene is that artfully edited together clip of Christian Bale going berserk on set 
** DARK FATE, in acting AS A DIRECT SEQUEL TO JUDGMENT DAY, BOLDLY — AND WISELY — ERASES EVERYTHING THAT HAS HAPPENED SINCE 1991, EXcepT THE AFOREMENTIONED and iconic meltdown 

Two headaches for the price of a not-even-wanted one

Recommendation: I think the mileage you get out of this one really depends on whether you think the homage is unwarranted or if it is kinda cool. Or, indeed, if you even view it as an homage. Genisys was, by comparison, a regrettable reboot of the series with a young Sarah Connor and it technically introduced the dad-joke-making Terminator, so you can’t go around blaming Dark Fate for that. This movie undoes all of that stuff, all the way back to Rise of the Machines. I think it is a big shame there will be no future installments as I really enjoyed this cast and seeing Hamilton back in action was really satisfying. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 128 mins.

Quoted: “Do you believe in fate, Sarah? Or do you believe we can all change the future every second by every choice that we make? You chose to change the future. You chose to destroy Skynet. You set me free. Now, I’m going to help you protect the girl, because I chose to.”

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

Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb