The Scarlett Johansson Project — #10

Unlike certain things that are going on right now, this feature is indeed finally coming to an end. Believe it or not, the idea was not to drag this feature on until forever. (If you’re curious as to how things typically work, you can check the main Actor Profile page here.) Here we are at the end of a second year, finally bidding adieu to one of the most popular movie stars of this generation.

Setting my idealism aside, I am excited to have seen this latest project through and to have had so much good feedback on the roles I have chosen to cover. Unfortunately what ended up happening as far as role selection is concerned was not what I had intended, either; the original plan was to crowdsource ideas for which roles should be covered and then work from those, perhaps providing a link to the blogger’s site (should they have one) from the post they inspired me to create. In the end I inadvertently passed on an opportunity to build community by going with my own choices. It was never my intention to ignore others’ suggestions.

Besides, I’m 100% positive this suggestion would have made its way into the mix, some way, some how. Let’s be honest, you can’t really talk about certain actors without also considering their contributions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The cinematic landscape has been changed forever with Jon Favreau’s template-setting Iron Man in 2008. The prestige casting has only intensified since Robert “Sundance” Redford decided to loosen his tie and join the fun by playing Alexander Pierce in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The end credits of Black Widow, as an even more bizarre example, features Julia Louis-Dreyfus for crying out loud. One wonders, when all is said and done, what self-respecting Hollywood actor will have actually failed to have landed an MCU gig of some kind, if not on the big screen then on the small. Of course, that’s with the presumption the MCU is a finite thing. 

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff in Cate Shortland’s Black Widow 

Role Type: Lead

Premise: Natasha Romanoff confronts the darker parts of her ledger when a dangerous conspiracy with ties to her past arises. (IMDb)

Character Background: Born in Russia in 1984, orphaned as a child and trained up to become a KGB spy through a brainwashing program targeting young women, Natasha Romanoff lived quite the complicated life. Or, as Cate Shortland’s Black Widow suggests, perhaps it was two lives, what with her being part of two adoptive families — one a little indie start-up you might know as the Avengers and the other a trio of Russian sleeper agents posing as American expats in suburban Ohio.

Making her MCU début in Iron Man 2 as a flirty undercover S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who was clearly never going to be just a simple foil for Tony Stark (or a sex object for that matter), the enigmatic redhead quickly became a fundamental part of the MCU fabric, earning increased screen minutes in The Avengers (2012) and notably Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), evolving from a sidekick to a significant role player in the process. Natasha Romanoff may be without superhuman or godly powers but her speed and brutality in hand-to-hand combat make her a force to be reckoned with — skills that are put on full display in her long-overdue solo film (not to mention, her propensity for dramatic fight stances).

Age of Ultron provided a glimpse of her past trauma as the team collectively reeled under hallucinations brought on by an enraged Wanda Maximoff, but it wouldn’t be until 2020 2021 that the specifics of that past would be brought into the full light (or in this case, dark) of day. Black Widow is the film that acquaints us with Natasha’s original adopted family — a true highlight being the dynamic between her and “sister” Yelena — as well as the source of her torment, the hissable spymaster Dreykov, the man who turned an entire generation of women into weapons.

And although the chronology remains an annoyance there is at least a sense of evolution with the way themes of independence and control are evolved through the character’s actions here. In Black Widow Natasha makes the decision to stop retreating from and instead start running toward those who oppress her, aspiring not only to rid herself of Dreykov but free all those still under his influence. Even if the thing that she must do in order to achieve her goal feels disappointingly been-there-done-that, in becoming a leader of women and an inspiration to her “sister,” Natasha’s arc feels emotionally and psychologically complete.

What she brings to the movie: Pathos, pride and consistency. I’d wager no two actors are more inseparable from their MCU personalities than Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson. I say this in full recognition of all the fascinating roles she has made her own throughout a box office smashing career. Across an eight-film arc spanning more than a decade — nearly a third of her big screen career — Johansson has quite literally grown up with the character, one who has often been at the center of some of the most dramatic moments in the Infinity Saga. To say she knows Natasha well by the time Black Widow rolls around is some kind of understatement. 

It’s in her solo film where that comfort level is most felt, as we get to see Johansson flex more than her muscles in what has always been a physically demanding role. The weariness and cynicism in her performance feels true to where the character is at this point in time, itinerant and alone; down but hardly out. She also has this fantastic chemistry with Florence Pugh that makes this film human in ways it might not have been with different actors.  

In her own words: “When you find her in the beginning [of Black Widow] she’s just broken. By the end of the film the goal is to put her back together different than before, you know? I think Natasha has a lot of compassion and that’s not necessarily what I would have anticipated when we were filming Iron Man 2 or Avengers or whatever. You’ve seen glimpses of it and it’s developed over time, as we’ve been able to bring the character to the forefront in different instillaments, but she’s a very compassionate person and that passion is actually what drives a lot of her decision making. I mean, she’s also practical and pragmatic and I don’t think those two things have to necessarily work against each other. That part of her is what really touches me.”

Key Scene: A brutal trip down memory lane. There are so many good scenes between Johansson and Florence Pugh but one of the more poignant is this exchange between Johansson and Rachel Weisz, as the two reminisce over fake Christmases, fake traditions, fake family memories. It’s perhaps not a signature action scene but I’m always for the more grounded, human moments and this one’s a memorable one. 

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: www.imdb.com; interview excerpt courtesy of Ashley Robinson/Collider 

Just a Quick Thought: A Birthday Movie 18 Years in the Making

What a pairing.

Figured I would take up a little space here and share the exciting news of having family in town for the holiday season. This is me with my Uncle Paul, sharing our first beer together — ever. The last time I saw my extended family was 18 years ago. My dad’s second-youngest brother has made his first trip to the States. He has come along with my grandmother, who turns 90 this year. She’s actually made her third trip over in the last five or so years — logging some 15,000 air miles in the process. 

Tonight at 9, to celebrate my birthday, Paul and I are going to re-enter the Matrix. I can’t tell you how cool this is to have this company. While the vast majority of the time I take in movies on my own, company always makes a movie better, especially an event film like this. The last time a Matrix movie was released (oddly enough, for as big a fan as I am I don’t remember the fact that Reloaded and Revolutions came out in the same year, in 2003) was only a few months after my last visit to England. So there’s this weird meta thing going on, what with the passage of time and not seeing familiar faces in so long. 

With that said, I hope everyone has a safe and enjoyable holiday season and that you get the time to see some good movies! 

The French Dispatch (of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun)

Release: Friday, October 22, 2021 (limited)

👀 Theater

Written by: Wes Anderson

Directed by: Wes Anderson

Starring: Bill Murray; Owen Wilson; Adrien Brody; Benicio del Toro; Léa Seydoux; Tilda Swinton; Frances McDormand; Timothée Chalamet; Jeffrey Wright; Mathieu Amalric; Ed Norton; Steve Park; Elizabeth Moss; Willem Dafoe; Saiorse Ronan

Distributor: Searchlight Pictures

 

****/*****

Trying not to laugh in a Wes Anderson movie is like trying to suppress a sneeze. All the little absurdities he is synonymous with are those constant tickles that build toward something you can no longer contain. Of course, his movies aren’t pure comedy and so you’re fighting a battle of needing that sweet release and being stifled by the seriousness that sits right beside the silliness.

The French Dispatch (etc, etc) is yet another example of that uniquely entertaining struggle. But it might be a struggle in another way, for this is the most ambitious project Anderson has yet undertaken. As such it isn’t a great starting point for a newcomer (I highly recommend beginning with his début Bottle Rocket — it’s low-key but full of the elements that would later make him an auteur). In some ways, early Anderson might be the best Anderson as you see raw talent more than the money. Post-Royal Tenenbaums, the intensifying style and increasing magnitude of cast represent an elitist form of repetition, with his exacting precision and obsessive-compulsive control over all elements remaining forever the things you remember more than story beats.

Don’t get me wrong though; I’m a fan, and if he so chooses to make a movie that somehow tops this level of complexity, consider me there. But I also wonder about the sustainability of the future — can Anderson just keep drilling down into more and more complicated narratives or does something eventually give? His tenth film is a doozy, at one point a post-World War II musical (that’d be something to see!) now turned into a detail-laden love letter to journalists that unfolds as though one is watching a magazine come to life on screen. For Anderson, the way a story is told has always been tantamount to the subjects of those stories and in drawing inspiration from The New Yorker he’s found an ideally idiosyncratic space in which to run wild with his obsessions.

It’s the end of an era for the staff of the titular paper, a foreign bureau of a fictional Kansas publication based in the delightfully made-up French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé (literally Boredom-upon-Apathy). The editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), has suddenly passed away from a heart attack. Usually it’s no news is bad news but this is bad news for his underlings, a tight-knit group often coddled by Howitzer — a character loosely based on The New Yorker founding editor Howard Ross. As per his wishes, Howitzer’s death means the end of the paper. The overarching plot, manifested in a prologue and epilogue, revolves around this bittersweet development as the loyal staff gather themselves, without crying, to reprint a series of stories for the paper’s final issue.

Sporting an insane cast The French Dispatch all but demands a second viewing if you want more than the basic shape. The first segment, titled ‘The Concrete Masterpiece,’ is relayed to us by J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), an art aficionado prone to personal digressions at the lectern. Her presentation describes a strange relationship between incarcerated, tortured artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) and his prison guard/muse Simone (Léa Seydoux). Adrien Brody complicates the scene as an art dealer who intends to sell Rosenthaler’s provocative abstracts to the highest bidder. The buyer’s persistence sets off a chain of amusing events that becomes impressively convoluted considering the confinement of the scene.

From a physical altercation we pivot into social unrest in ‘Revisions to a Manifesto,’ which centers on journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), a lonely writer who emphasizes professional objectivity yet develops an intimate relationship with a student protestor (Timothée Chalamet) as she helps him formalize his complaints in writing. The righteous cause in this case is getting campus rules rewritten so that boys can visit girls in their dorms. As the movement evolves, the town of Ennui becomes ensconced in greater conflict, in what becomes known as The Chessboard Revolution. The tableau is constructed as farce but finds real-world roots in the May 1968 student-led protests that snowballed into nationwide strikes and even prompted a temporary government shutdown. It’s a tricky area in which Anderson’s unbridled whimsy could easily feel inappropriate, but he avoids unfunny facsimile by keeping the focus almost exclusively on the (intentionally inappropriate) dynamic between writer and subject.

Finally we arrive at ‘The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,’ which, for now at least as my brain tries not to overheat, is at risk for being remembered only for the breathtaking action midway through, an Adventures of Tintin-style animated sequence down narrow French streets that effects a New Yorker comic strip in moving picture form. During a television interview, forlorn foodie Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) recounts the kidnapping of the Commissaire (Mathieu Amalric)’s son by members of Ennui’s seedy underbelly, represented by Ed Norton‘s Chauffeur. The kidnapper’s motive (and fate) prove far less significant than the recollection itself, which encompasses his painful backstory of how he, an openly gay writer, came to be hired by the Dispatch.

Each of these stories are works of art unto themselves. Although some are more memorable than others, it’s not crazy to imagine any one of them being stretched into a full-length film of its own. Details matter more here than they ever have. In a story overflowing with minutiae perhaps this is no small thing, but it’s important to note the way Anderson regards journalists — at the very least, his journalists — not as unassailable heroes incapable of doing harm but rather emotional beings who have egos, biases, habits, neuroses. The French Dispatch is not a lamentation of clickbait or a yearning for the days when long-form journalism didn’t need to be qualified as ‘good, old fashioned.’ This is a satire of writerly sensibilities, of insecurities and imperfections, ironically delivered by a veritable perfectionist. 

While the laughs may not come as easily on the first try, the layered narrative approach and copious relationships ensure The French Dispatch will be a piece worth returning to time and time again. 

If you mention block-editor to me one more time . . .

Moral of the Story: The French Dispatch is a movie that finds Wes Anderson pushing his iconic style and atmosphere to extremes, such that style and substance become one and the same. The subject matter is more esoteric than something like the romantic escape of Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and more complex even than the history of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), but the good news is that you don’t need to be aware of all the homages and references that are made to enjoy what Anderson is doing here. As with so many of his films, what you put into it is probably what you will get out of it. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins. 

Quoted: “As you know by now, we have kidnapped your son.”

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

Photo credits: www.impawards.com; www.rogerebert.com 

Red Notice

Release: Friday, November 5, 2021 (limited) 

👀 Netflix

Written by: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Directed by: Rawson Marshall Thurber 

Starring: Dwayne Johnson; Ryan Reynolds; Gal Gadot; Ritu Arya; Chris Diamantopoulos 

Distributor: Netflix

 

 

**/*****

A red notice is associated with something of very high value, such as an art thief of international notoriety. It’s what INTERPOL uses to identify and/or extradite highly wanted suspects. If you haven’t heard, there’s one out for writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber, who is guilty of making a very expensive heist comedy featuring Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot feel cheap and lazy.

Originality is not the issue, although (and with due respect) it never has been with Thurber, who has set his sights on pure escapism and is now a three-time Dwayne Johnson collaborator. As his filmography has shown he’s a guy who likes to rub shoulders with big-name talent. But I’m not sure he’s ever rested on the laurels of his cast quite in the way he does here. Red Notice is expensive but creatively bankrupt — a two-plus-hour conveyor belt of farcical episodes that are forgotten as soon as they happen, all capped off by one of the most asinine endings you’ve seen in a while.

As the Cliff’s Notes prologue establishes, thousands of years ago some dude named Marc Antony gifted three bejeweled eggs to the war-mongering Cleopatra as a wedding gift and a symbol of his “devotion.” Don’t worry too much about brushing up on your Ptolemaic history though; this thing is mostly just jokes and good-looking actors being captured in the perfect light. In the present day, an Egyptian billionaire thinks it would be neat if he replicated the symbolic gesture for his daughter on her wedding day. Whoever can recover all three eggs and deliver them on the big day will become a very rich man or woman indeed. 

The leading trio has certainly ensured their own personal wealth, commanding $20 million a head, but we as viewers (or armchair critics) aren’t exactly enriched by watching reheated performances from other, better movies. This is the kind of pablum that tends to cool even the hottest of Hollywood celebs. Reynolds and The Rock do alright with the odd-couple dynamic but their characters are paper thin. Gadot fares better and seems like the only one who’s trying to do something more fun with her enigmatic character The Bishop, less a femme fatale as a rogue in rouge.

Thurber, who may never set the world on fire, knows how to make a good time happen but Red Notice finds him struggling to make a $200 million production come to life. Though DP Markus Förderer injects some energy with the rinse-and-repeat FPV drone shots that link us to every important place — we start in a priceless museum in Rome, make a daring prison escape in Russia, crash a masquerade ball in Valencia and dig into the rich history of Argentina’s underground, Nazi-stuff-stashing tunnels — the temperature in every room, or outside of them for that matter, remains the same. There is no tension to any of the developments, no significant stakes. But if you are looking for an obnoxious Ed Sheeran cameo, boy do I have the movie for you. 

The Bishop and her pawn

Moral of the Story: I was actually looking forward to Red Notice when it was first announced. Those expectations weren’t anything wild, but I also was not anticipating something so machine-processed. So for me it’s hard to overlook even the minor flaws. I very much doubt I’ll be wasting my time on the two sequels that are soon coming. I’ve done pretty well avoiding most of the crap that floats around on Netflix but this time their cute little algorithm got me. Looks like I’m the chump. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 118 mins.

Quoted: “Do you know who I am? I was in The Game of Thrones! I’m Ed Sheeran, bitch!” 

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

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

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #9

One of the things that I really like about, you know, not setting any rules as to how I go about these actor profile things is that chronology is never an issue. I can jump and skip around in an actor’s filmography as if time never mattered (this post’s belated publishing is proof that it indeed doesn’t here on Thomas J). Picking and choosing roles more or less at random has been liberating. 

The time has finally come for a healthy discussion of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut (and thus far his only feature directing credit). Back in 2013 the amiable and ever-busy native Angeleno broke the ice with a surprisingly clear-eyed look at the sacrifices and benefits of relationships, taking a modern, sex-positive approach to the subject and the nuances thereof — the corrosive effects of pornography and pop culture on one’s expectations of real sex; the difference between genuine, emotional connection and the thrill of infatuation. 

Despite the film taking its title from the fictional and life-long womanizer Don Juan, a name used to pin down the general attitude of men devoted to the Lothario lifestyle, Levitt’s direction balances baser instincts with more complex feelings in a way that satisfies far more than it feels manipulative and cheesy. The cast is small but fantastic and, predictably, does great work with well-written characters.

Scarlett Johannson as Barbara Sugarman in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon

Role Type: Supporting

Premise: A New Jersey guy dedicated to his family, friends, and church, develops unrealistic expectations from watching porn and works to find happiness and intimacy with his potential true love. (IMDb)

Character Background: Don Jon is a film with a strong personality. With it being set in a part of the country that also boasts a strong (some may say abrasive) personality, it’s no surprise the characters are going to let you know what’s on their mind, usually by yelling. Barbara Sugarman is a good example, a strong cuppa who isn’t afraid of dropping a few f-bombs in a sentence for proper emphasis. And really everything about her is emphatic: girl talks loud, walks fast and chews gum for the work-out. 

Barbara is a pretty shallow individual. She’s all about the artifice, how something appears rather than how it feels. One of the things that needs to be made clear is that Barbara is no villain, despite the character arc eventually pushing the viewer’s sympathies far more to Jon’s side. Not for nothing, she is very up-front about some of her principles. Don’t lie and everything will be all good. When Jon violates that simple rule, we understand her anger. What’s less reasonable is her expectation that relationships aren’t about work, it’s about comfort and pampering. Fine if you’re a Royal but in reality, at street-level, it takes two to make an effort and it would seem Barbara is putting in the wrong effort, or at least diverting her resources to the wrong cause.

Ultimately she is walking on a different side of the film’s thematic avenue. Unable to accept a man who prefers doing his own cleaning and taking care of his space, believing talking house chores is “unsexy,” Barbara fetishizes her knight in shining armor, attempts to contrive it in the same way Jon’s carefully curated collection of pornos has given him a far too specific code for stimulation. 

What she brings to the movie: Temptation. Sex appeal is largely the point of the character, though Barbara’s perfectly manicured image is also symptomatic of something rotten. Scarlett Johansson is of course the quintessential blonde bombshell but as this feature has gone to show she’s a talented actor capable of conveying depth across a diverse range of roles. So it’s almost anti-Johansson to take on a role that’s the very definition of the cliché of beauty being only skin deep. 

As a native New Yorker she also makes the thick Jersey accent easier to buy. It’s still affected, but is nowhere near as odd to hear as it is from her California-born co-star. 

In her own words: “I had romantic ideas when I was a kid. I don’t know, I always liked people who didn’t like me. I always wanted what I couldn’t have, and I’m still in the process of figuring out why that is. It is something about our own ego, I think, it strokes our ego, the idea of the chase, the challenge. When you actually think about it realistically, would you ever want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with you?”

Key Scene: An interesting moment, this one. Is this invasion of privacy? Or is that beside the point? Healthy debate time! Sound off in the comments. 

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: www.imdb.com; interview excerpt courtesy of ScreenSlam 

Greenland

Release: Friday, December 18, 2020 (VOD)

👀 Amazon Prime 

Written by: Chris Sparling

Directed by: Ric Roman Waugh

Starring: Gerard Butler; Morena Baccarin; Roger Dale Floyd; David Denman; Hope Davis; Scott Glenn; a comet named Clark

Distributor: STXfilms 

 

 

 

***/*****

Downbeat disaster movie Greenland reunites star Gerard Butler with Angel Has Fallen director Ric Roman Waugh and for the second time running they’ve delivered solid if logically shaky entertainment. There’s clearly a synergy between these two for they will collaborate again on a Greenland sequel, a prospect that seems justified beyond the profit margin. 

A comet is coming to town and a bearded Butler has to get himself and his family to safety, or whatever around here passes for safety when it turns out the threat isn’t one cohesive object but rather a large group of fragments. What was supposed to be a spectacular near-earth passing witnessed on TV now has extinction level event written all over it. Comet forecasting isn’t an exact science but boy does the situation deteriorate quickly. Florida gets obliterated, and soon enough mass panic grips society.

Waugh’s doomsday thriller has a different, more serious thrust than something the likes of Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich might concoct. More concerned with what’s going on in people’s heads rather than what’s happening in the sky, Greenland imagines a scenario where one’s employment status determines whether they are invited to the apocalyptic afterparty. When Atlanta-based engineer John Garrity (Butler), his estranged wife Alison (Morena Baccarin) and son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) are selected by the government for emergency sheltering, hope for safe passage is dashed by a pesky medical detail which prevents them from boarding a plane and thrusts them into the very chaos the patriarch’s shrewdly selected career path was about to spare them from.

As if navigating the collapse of society as a family isn’t scary enough — jet fuel, open gunfire and panicked mobs at Robbins Air Force Base make for a lethal combination — Chris Sparling’s screenplay further ratchets up the drama by scattering the Garritys across the map, splitting the time fairly evenly between the two camps. Butler in particular is impressive downplaying his action hero persona, convincing as an everyman who disgusts himself with the things he ends up doing in an attempt to reunite with his loved ones.

Meanwhile Alison hatches a plan to rendezvous back at her father (Scott Glenn)’s farmstead. Baccarin is rock-solid in the role, and if our sympathies aren’t already aligned with her — John’s presumably had an affair, something that’s only ever hinted at a couple of times throughout — they are wholly and completely when Nathan is imperiled by opportunists posing as Good Samaritans (David Denman and Hope Davis, both very good in their contributions to the Worst Of side of the humanitarian ledger).

Despite some serendipitous turns that force the plot to go where it needs to, Greenland maintains a level of gritty realism that feels rare for the genre and wrings fairly consistent tension from the often unpleasant exchanges between strangers. Even the grand finale is understated, the antithesis of Michael Bay. A select few moments of cheap-looking CGI confess to the modest ($35 million) budget, but for the most part the intimate scope creatively disguises those limitations.

Marginally worse than Black Friday at Wal-Mart

Moral of the Story: The anarchic, human angle and an atypical Gerard Butler performance make Greenland a pretty easy recommendation for fans of end-of-the-world thrillers. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “My friend Teddy says your life flashes in front of your eyes when you die. I think it would be better if it did that while you lived. That way, you could see all the good memories and be happy.”

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

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

No Time to Die

Release: Friday, October 8, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Neal Purvis; Robert Wade; Phoebe Waller-Bridge; Cary Joji Fukanaga

Directed by: Cary Joji Fukanaga

Starring: Daniel Craig; Léa Seydoux; Rami Malek; Christoph Waltz; Ralph Fiennes; Lashana Lynch; Ana de Armas; Ben Whishaw; Naomie Harris; Jeffrey Wright; Billy Magnussen; Rory Kinnear

Distributor: Universal 

 

***/*****

The time has come for James Bond to move on to greener pastures. In an unlikely turn of events, arguably the world’s most ineligible bachelor is looking to settle down and bid cheerio to his obligation to protect Queen and country at all costs, even especially ones of a personal nature. All good things must come to an end and with endings we look for closure. Ah, but is closure always satisfying?

We saw him get close before. Tantalizingly, torturously close to leading a normal life. The departed Vesper Lynd still haunts him. In No Time to Die, we see him pay his respects at her tomb in the scenic Matera, Italy, which might feel like a deleted scene from Casino Royale if not for the staggering mark of maturity in “I miss you” — a line Daniel Craig delivers in such a way you really feel the weight of those 15 years. James Bond is all grown up now. You feel it most in the dialogue, which allows Craig to serve up his best performance yet as the iconic super-spy, the actor going beyond his era’s stiff upper lip stoicism and confessing to things you’ve never heard his or any Bond say before: “I love you;” “I’m truly sorry.”

No Time to Die is such a weird experience. Watching Bond soften like a Walls vanilla ice cream cone on a hot summer day is weird. It’s also wonderful. But for whatever reason, I just could not get into the action. Partly due to the buzz-killing aroma of Greek tragedy. Partly due to the fact that no stunt here really blows the roof off. And that ending really bothers me, so we may as well get it out of the way now. If packing Kleenexes in anticipation of the soap opera ending is what the people want in all their big franchise arcs, fine. Personally I feel there’s a way to be dramatic without going scorched earth. Is this perhaps why people lament The Dark Knight Rises so — that needling incongruity of the brooding vigilante suffering all only, ultimately, to be done a kindness?

You say tonally inconsistent; I say it’s compassionate.

Directed by Cary Joji Fukanaga, clearly a talented director capable of steering a massive ship, the overly dour, overly long story details Bond’s tango with foes both old and new as he is yanked out of retirement to save the world for one last time. There is a ton of moving parts in this movie and a daunting number of relationships to stay Onatopp of, though not all are worth the effort. The backbone of the film concerns tension between Bond and Madeleine (Léa Seydoux, reprising her role from Spectre), specifically the former’s shifting perception of the latter’s innocence/complicity. When the two are ambushed in Italy by Spectre assassins it’s déjà vu all over again with Bond unable to see Madeleine as anything but Traitor #2. More shaken than stirred, Bond buggers off to Jamaica where he is soon contacted by an old friend from the CIA in Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) who’s desperate for his help in tracking down a kidnapped scientist (David Dencik). 

For all that gets shortchanged and is made unnecessarily cluttered, the conflict presented in No Time to Die offers more bang for your buck, presenting not one but two evil forces with which Bond and MI6 must contend. The inimitable Christoph Waltz returns as arch-villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, here regrettably confined to a portable holding cell as if a Hannibal Lecter knock-off and doing most of his limited damage via a removable bionic eye that enables him to call the shots from a safe distance, this time with comically epic failing results.

When it comes to new threats, No Time to Die offers an expected bit of double-agent treachery with Billy Magnussen’s disturbingly smile-happy Logan Ash, and goes old-school with Rami Malek’s soft-spoken rage: “My family got wiped out by one man, now the entire world will pay!” On the one hand, you kinda have to love the Scaramanga-like excessiveness, yet that crazy leap in logic feels regressive, underscoring how good we had it with Le Chiffre’s far more nuanced, relatable desperation. And Bond, never one to mince words, is dead right: All his opponent is is another angry man in a long line of angry men, coming up a little short in terms of the gravitas required of a figure framed as the ultimate reckoning for 007.

Where No Time to Die truly frustrates however is in its handling of internal conflict within MI6. M (Ralph Fiennes)’s judgment is called into question with the revelation of Project Heracles, code for a dangerous bioweapon that targets victims’ DNA so anyone related to them is at risk as well. Supposedly there was a morally upstanding justification for its deployment, but in the wrong hands (i.e. Safin’s) it’s going to wipe out millions, including the entirety of Spectre. Bond and M are at loggerheads, which is fun to watch, especially with Fiennes getting to go a little bigger with the role than he has before, but it’s the flippant treatment of Nomi (Lashana Lynch) as Bond’s ostensible replacement that baffles. A fun, strong performance from Lynch is severely undermined by the decision to have her character fall back in line with SOPs, her agency the equivalent of borrowing the keys to the DB-5 for a quick joy ride.

Added all up, it really sounds like I hated this movie. At first, I think I did. Like Roger Ebert after watching the movie North. But Fukanaga and his writing team don’t deserve childish vitriol. No Time to Die is a messy dish but the meat and potatoes are there at the bottom. After all, the Craig era has always been infused with pain and coldness. His final outing is an odd blend of the past and the present, where throwbacks to classic lairs and bad-skinned baddies are welcomed while the mimicking of Tony Stark martyrdom feels off-brand and, yeah, unsatisfying. 

They’re bringing Knives Out at a gunfight

Moral of the Story: I’m extremely wary of my own reaction here. I had a similarly negative response to Quantum of Solace, the direct follow-up to Casino Royale. I have since gone back and watched that movie at least twice, and despite it bearing the worst title of any Bond film — of any movie really that has nothing to do with physics — I’ve appreciated it a bit more. It’s closer to a pure action movie. So it’s certainly more simplistic than something like No Time to Die. It’s possible I warm up to what Fukanaga and his writing team have done here but as of this moment it remains a big disappointment.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 163 mins.

Quoted: “It’ll be great! I’ve had three weeks training!”

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

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #8

Well what do we have here? I admit this is an unlikely way to return, but hey it’s Halloween and this I think is as close as it gets to horror when it comes to Scarlett Johansson’s filmography. Sure, there’s the word ‘ghost’ in Ghost in the Shell. She played the luminous Janet Leigh in Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock (2012). And I already covered her role in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (check it out here if you like). 

But my mind was made up after watching Chris Stuckmann’s entertaining YouTube review of this cult classic from the early 2000s, a title I’ve definitely heard bandied about and (I think) typically in the context of “stupidest movie ever.”

Yep. My job today is not to defend against such sleights. This is a mercilessly silly movie. Some poor sap gets punched to death by a giant tarantula. An enlarged jumping spider zip lines down a wire and you hear it going “weeeee!” while an earlier scene finds a cat battling one of the first mutated buggers within the walls of a house, leaving cartoonish imprints within the dry wall à la Tom and Jerry. Elsewhere, Scarlett Johansson tases her boyfriend in the crotch while David Marquette must negotiate enraged arachnids and an acrophobic conspiracy theorist (played by 90s holdover Doug E. Doug) atop a cell phone tower. This thing is death by a thousand giggles, I tell ya. 

But I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t have a blast with it. Maybe that’s because I had Chris’ review in my head; campiness is one of those qualities you’re either going to love or hate, and it’s a hard mixture to get right. I think Eight Legged Freaks gets it right, even though I’m not exactly what you would call a creature feature expert or connoisseur of all things camp. So much winking at the audience, so much tongue firmly planted in cheek. And so, so much spider web and guts. 

Unfortunately, not a whole lot of Scarlett Johansson but she does have a couple of really fun scenes and it’s enough for me to justify this eighth installment, with only two more to go. We’ll wrap up the SJP in December, which will be exactly a year after when I was originally going to finish it up. Better late than never, right? 

Scarlett Johansson as Ashley Parker in Ellory Elkayem’s Eight Legged Freaks 

Role Type: Supporting

Premise: Venomous spiders get exposed to a noxious chemical that causes them to grow to monumental proportions. (IMDb)

Character Background: As the teenage daughter of a small-town sheriff (Kari Wuhrer), Ashley can’t catch a break. Her friends circle in particular is a bone of contention with her mom, and her bad boy boyfriend Bret (Matt Czuchry) doesn’t exactly feel the love from his father, incidentally the town Mayor (Leon Rippy), which enables him to run wild. When push comes to shove during a date one afternoon, Ashley takes advantage of the fact her mom has various self-defense weapons lying about the house. She may not like what her mom does for a living, or care much about anything but today she cares about the convenience.

Her ennui-fueled, punk-ish attitude is soon mellowed when the town gets overrun by oversized spiders who have been exposed to toxic chemicals. The creepy crawlers, once the prized jewels of a local collector named Joshua (Tom Noonan), eventually make their way to the Parkers’ house, where Ashley has a first-hand encounter with one of the hairy bastards. The ensuing frantic action largely loses sight of her, the cluttered plot spinning off to address the various confrontations town-wide, including the self-exiled Chris (David Marquette)’s attempt to free a cocooned Aunt Gladys (Eileen Ryan), and Bret’s wayward trip into the mines where the mighty female Orb Weaver is casually liquefying its victims for easier digestion.

What she brings to the movie: A burgeoning affinity for spiders? At just 17 years old, with already 11 films under her belt and a good 10 years before taking up the mantle of Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Black Widow, Scarlett Johansson would come face-to-face with a bunch of mutant spiders. She also has played a character named Charlotte (in Lost in Translation), which is also the name of the barn spider in the children’s book Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. Freakish, barely-even-coincidences aside, Johansson’s limited performance here ranks among the film’s best. Not a high bar when this isn’t a movie about the characters. Still, she has confidence and swagger, and easily adapts to the goofy, cheesy atmosphere that Eight Legged Freaks emphasizes. Plus her bad-girl persona gives us a glimpse of the kind of edgier roles she would later take on. 

In her own words: [on being “cocooned”] “Oh, it was awful. I have Dean [Devlin] in the background talking, like, ‘Yeah, it’s gonna be fun!’ And everyone else is running around, and meanwhile no one is paying attention to me. I’m like stuck on this wall for hours.”

Key Scene: Apologies for this being a fan edit but it’s the only clip I could find of Ashley’s big moment. I actually kind of love the goofy tribute to Alien in the face-to-face. Also, ew. 

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 

***/*****


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In the Earth

Release: Friday, April 16, 2021

👀 Hulu

Written by: Ben Wheatley

Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Starring: Joel Fry; Ellora Torchia; Reece Shearsmith; Hayley Squires; John Hollingworth; Mark Monero

Distributor: Neon

 

 

 

 

***/*****

Cabin fever never sounded so appealing after “getting back out there” in the new psychedelic experiment from avant-garde British filmmaker Ben Wheatley. His tenth film In the Earth is a thoroughly disorienting and unsettling venture through the woods, one set against the backdrop of a global pandemic.

Filmed over the course of just 15 days and during a locked-down August 2020, In the Earth may be horror done on the cheap but it doesn’t particularly look or feel like it. What admissions there are chiefly surface in some character interactions that feel rushed, while later on the more abstract passages can feel indulgent to the point of being filler. Impenetrable though it may become, you have to be impressed with the fact Wheatley has wrangled together such a crazy movie amidst creatively infertile conditions.

It’s what he manages to pull off with setting and atmosphere that leaves a bruising mark and that serves as the best distraction from the film’s financial limitations and, quite frankly, the barriers to comprehension it tends to build, particularly towards the end. A stone monolith with a perfect hole in the middle watches over all. You’ll spend almost the entire movie trying to get in its good graces so that it may allow you to understand what the frikk it is. The table-setting (and plain old setting) is reminiscent of Annihilation (2018) but this time the foolish entrants aren’t loaded with pistols and rifles and thingies that explode. Nope, just backpacks and research materials. And, as with so many characters in this kind of story, plenty of arrogance.

Stripped of the basic comfort of likable protagonists — they’re not unlikable per se, but hard to get a read on — In the Earth is a trippy, gory and at times perverse horror that follows a scientist and a park ranger into a forest laced with threats, some natural and others inexplicable — a surreal and dangerous ecosystem with its own rules, its own creepy mythology and maybe even its own agenda. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) arrives at a lodge that’s been converted to a research facility on the edge of a dense forest just outside Bristol, England. He’s here to check in on a colleague and former lover, a Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), who hasn’t been seen or heard from in months.

Upon arrival he’s whisked through a rather serious sanitization procedure and meets a few researchers hanging about the place, all of whom seem physically and mentally worn down. Martin is to make a two-day trek to her research base deep in the woods, accompanied by experienced park guide Alma (Ellora Torchia). With all his focus on rescuing Wendle, he has no time to really care about the strange painting on the wall of the lodge, a depiction of an apparent woodland creature known around these parts as Parnag Fegg. That’s nice. It’s just cool artwork though, right?

The journey starts off with a bad omen as Martin confesses with annoying nonchalance to a lack of fitness and experience roughing it. Then a midnight assault in which both campers lose all essential equipment, including shoes, forcing them to continue barefoot. (Does this style of hiking ever end well?) Eventually they cross paths with a grizzled loner (Reece Shearsmith) who after a tense standoff introduces himself as Zach and offers to help and heal. It is at this point your brain might recall that early childhood lesson: Do not drink the mushroom milk offered by strange men in the woods.

All of this, including the unholy and stomach-churning sequence that soon follows, remains predictable for a horror flick buried deep in the deciduous. Especially when you have nervous doctors back at the lodge foreshadowing the shit out of people’s tendencies to get “a bit funny” in the woods. On another level, for those better traveled in Wheatley’s exotic and weird brand of filmmaking you know the film is, sooner or later, going to walk off a cliff.

Avoiding of course the literal precipice, In the Earth frustratingly descends into an edit-fest, assaulting you with aural and visual menace in massively churned-up chunks of footage that feel pieced together from the weirdest acid trip you could possibly have. Dissonant sound overwhelms while strobing lights penetrate the eyeball like knives. Encroaching fog presents a terrifying new challenge while the stone monolith continues to breathe and sigh. The final act is something to behold, if not quite believed or even understood. Like the film overall, it becomes something to admire rather than enjoy.

Stoned out of your mind

Moral of the Story: Though appearing to be set in a time similar to our present miserable reality, this appears to me to be as much a movie about man’s relationship with nature as it is one about man and virus. Far from a crowd-pleasing good time, In the Earth is a novelty horror for the more adventurous. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “Let me guide you out of the woods.”

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

Titane

Release: Friday, October 1, 2021 (limited)

👀 Theater

Written by: Julia Ducournau

Directed by: Julia Ducournau

Starring: Agathe Rousselle; Vincent Lindon; Garance Marillier; Bertrand Bonello; Adèle Guigue

 

 

 

*****/*****

Really the best way to follow up a critical success is to make another, while further pushing boundaries to see what you might get away with. Titane certainly tests some limits. This is a potent, unpredictable and morally challenging exhibition that will either have you recoiling or marveling at the audacity of the artist.

A story involving cars, sex and violence sounds pretty mainstream but then this is Julia Ducournau, far from your garden variety director. Thus, gearheads and Fast & the Furious fans need not apply. For the moment, Ducournau seems enamored with transformative narratives that fixate on the body and alienate her protagonists from their own skin. But where her cannibalistic début feature Raw was more literal, in Titane it’s more about skin as one’s interiority, their sense of self. Though vaguely thematically related I suspect not even Raw‘s hard-to-stomach content would serve as adequate prep for the wild and uncomfortable ride she offers with her follow-up.

Titane deals with a young woman named Alexia who we first meet as a child (chillingly played by Adèle Guigue) in the jolting opening sequence — a car crash caused by her distracted father (Bertrand Bonello) which leaves the little girl with a titanium plate in her skull. Jumping forward in time Ducournau’s camera shadows older Alexia (Agathe Rouselle) as she heads in for another shift as a sexed-up model working seedy auto shows. When not writhing around suggestively on top of shiny hoods she’s signing autographs for desperate dudes . . . and murdering them when they try to get cute.

Indeed, it doesn’t take long to appreciate Alexia’s wired differently than most, the scar on the side of her head a kind of red marking to warn off her prey. And her prey turn out to be alarmingly susceptible. Acts that begin in self-defense become upsettingly random. We also quickly learn her sexual preferences are in constant flux and, uh, exotic.

There’s a girl, Justine (Garance Marillier), and a steamy moment where you begin to believe the movie is about to course-correct into a more familiar drama about being lost and desperately hoping to be found. However all bets are off when lovemaking with a car turns out far more productive than with her coworker, the former leaving Alexia pregnant and the latter devolving into a multi-room, multi-victim bloodbath that forces her to go into hiding by committing to an elaborate ruse that will have profound physical and psychological impacts.

Though the surreal, foreboding atmosphere never relents and disbelief and discomfort remain constant companions, Ducournau’s monstrosity (a term of endearment, in this case) evolves as a tale of two measurably different halves, distinguished not by quality but rather purpose as well as a noticeable shift in tone away from something fiercely feminine and toward brute masculinity. All the while this moody, bathed-in-neon head trip also morphs into something that for awhile seems out of reach; it becomes relatable.

French screen veteran Vincent Lindon provides a crucial link and the sledgehammer performance needed to match his co-star. He plays an aging fire chief who continues to mourn the disappearance of his boy Adrien ten years ago while blasting himself through with steroid injections, often to the point of collapse. When Adrien seems to reappear in police custody joy is soon replaced by concern over his son’s mute, sullen behavior. He attempts to integrate Adrien back into society, with mixed results.

In only her second film the 37-year-old provocateur is a rising star in her own right. The fact that she manages to turn so many negatives into a small but notable positive takes serious talent. But let’s not get things more twisted than they already are. There are many aspects that help inform the off-kilter vibe she’s going for — the rattling, industrial score and disturbing make-up work loom large — but not one thing, not one person commands your attention like newcomer Agathe Rousselle, an androgynous actor who burns up the screen, leveraging her lack of A-lister conspicuousness into one of the most compelling characters and performances this year has to offer, one that’s hauntingly human-adjacent.

The Palme d’Or winner at Cannes 2021, Titane might be memorable for timing alone, winning in a year in which the pomp and glam returns to the French Riviera after the event’s first hiatus since World War II. But Ducournau has the bizarre content and undeniable confidence to justify the strong reaction. Titane isn’t a crowdpleaser, it’s a crowd shocker, designed to start a conversation or quite possibly end one.

Not quite Titanic

Moral of the Story: I stop short of saying best movie of the year because ‘best’ is such an awkward term to apply to something so uncompromising and unusual, a movie touting a very challenging character to root for, no less. So to be more accurate Titane sits comfortably among the most unique cinematic experiences you are going to have in 2021. For all that is bizarre and unpleasant, I put it in the category of must-see-to-believe (or not). A stunning effort from a name already making noise in the industry. Spoken in French with English subtitles. 

Rated: hard R

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “My name is Alexia!” 

Strap in and hold on for dear life in the Official Trailer from Neon Productions here!

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