The Scarlett Johansson Project — #4

We’re more than halfway through 2020 (and thank goodness for that), and yet not quite halfway through The SJP (thanks to a delay up front in Jan/Feb). In case anyone has noticed there hasn’t been a whole lot of organization to this feature, which I have actually enjoyed. There was a version of this where I went through her career in chronological order, but I like the freedom of skipping around and picking and choosing roles more at random.

So that’s how we are kind of circling back this month to where this whole thing began, addressing the second of two performances she submitted last year that brought her deserved widespread acclaim. 2019 turned out to be an exceptional year for Johansson, for there was this other bit of business she had to take care of with the whole Avengers: Endgame thing.

This month’s selection is the first adaptation I’ve featured in the SJP, though I may be using the word ‘adaptation’ loosely here considering how dramatically (and tonally) different the book and movie version of this story apparently are — to the point where by the time you get to the end of the movie you’re really only halfway through the book. This insightful article over at SlashFilm catalogs the many differences between Christine Leunens’ book and Taika Waititi’s movie. The movie version is more of a crowd-pleaser than the source material seems to be, but even with that knowledge I still found the movie uniquely charming and impactful. It didn’t crack my Top 10 favorite movies last year but it was really close.

Scarlett Johansson as Rosie Betzler in Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit

Role Type: Supporting

Premise: A young boy in Hitler’s army finds out his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their home. (IMDb)

Character Background: Rosie is a widowed mother who, like many Germans, faces a profound challenge. She is trying to raise a good child during Nazi occupation, to foster an environment of love, compassion and positivity — the key ingredients she believes one needs to overcome hate and oppression. That proves to be especially daunting given the power of Hitler’s propaganda machine. Her husband has been KIA. Her son, Johannes, played by a very impressive Roman Griffin Davis, is coming of age and feeling the urge to join the ranks of his fellow countrymen. He imagines the Führer as his friend who gives him some guidance. To fulfill his “patriotic duty” he signs up for a Hitler Youth camp where a series of events leads to his ostracism and further compounds his mother’s despair.

But Rosie is more than just a single parent, albeit one with an unbelievably upbeat attitude considering the climate. She’s an active member of a secret anti-Nazi movement, her bravery on full display at various times throughout the movie as we see her disseminating leaflets across town, encouraging the townspeople to resist Nazi control. However her moral obligation brings the danger of the outside world into her own home when Jojo, after discovering the Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) Rosie has hidden in the walls of their house, begins questioning everything around him — including his own mother’s patriotism.

What she brings to the movie: energy; compassion; strong maternal instinct. Johansson gave birth to daughter Rose in 2014, making the character she’s parenting in the film only a couple of years older than her actual daughter. Her tender portrayal of motherhood and her use of humor to cope with unfathomably dark times is a real boon to Taika Waititi’s vision — after all, his movie was sold to us as an anti-hate satire, not a straight drama or even historical drama. While the writer/director himself got most of the attention playing a dolt version of Hitler, she’s the movie’s best asset. Despite her sketchy German accent, she turns in the movie’s best performance and her chemistry with Roman Griffin Davis is absolutely wonderful.

In her own words: “Being a parent myself was just invaluably helpful to me. I had empathy for Rosie’s plate that I may not have had insight on otherwise. She was just a joy to play. She’s a warm, lovable character that felt really comfy to me. And I wanted that to come across, that she’s just comfortable and kind of sugary and warm.”

Key Scene: I really like this scene as it both encapsulates the sweet relationship between mother and son and the personality of the movie itself. It’s a small moment in a movie full with much showier ones but it’s also one of the few innocent moments we see between Jojo and Rosie, where they’re talking about something that is, for a lack fo a better word, ordinary. Relationships. It’s a nice moment because for much of the movie these two are painfully at odds with one another.

Bonus Clip (because I just love outtakes!): 

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: LA Times; IMP Awards

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #3

My apologies for a lack of content this month. It’s been a rough May. With all that’s going on right now I’m surprised I’m even this sane. I sincerely hope my fellow bloggers and readers have been holding up okay and doing whatever they can to stay healthy, positive and productive/creative.

The one thing I wanted to make sure I kept up with this month is the Actor Profile feature, particularly as I missed out on the first two months this year. This month’s SJP is a good example of what happens when you gamble and select a movie you’ve never seen before. This crime noir from the early 2000s is a fairly obscure title, even within the context of the Coens’ filmography. All I knew going in is that this movie features a very young Scarlett Johansson, at something like 15 years old, and that she isn’t a star in it. As it turns out, the part is barely above a cameo appearance. Still, for however short-lived her appearance is, the role is narratively important and it’s fun to see her in a Coen brothers movie before fame came a-knockin’ on her door. (She would later appear in her second Coen brothers movie, the 2016 comedy Hail, Caesar!)

Scarlett Johansson as Rachel ‘Birdy’ Abundas in Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Man Who Wasn’t There*

Role Type: Supporting

Premise: A laconic, chain-smoking barber blackmails his wife’s boss and lover for money to invest in dry cleaning, but his plan goes terribly wrong. (IMDb)

Character Background: Birdy is a minor supporting character who ends up having a major impact on the main character of Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), a barber in 1940s Santa Rosa, California — a man barely present in his own life. The teenage daughter of alcoholic lawyer Walter Abundas (Richard Jenkins), Birdy is a typical high school student who hasn’t set her sights on any particular career path just yet, though she thinks she might want to become a veterinarian.

She might also have a talent for the piano, but who could really say? Not Ed, that’s for sure, who can’t distinguish a classical Beethoven sonata from a warm-up exercise. Birdy has a strange effect on Ed, the man who never talks. When he first comes across her at a Christmas party thrown at the department store where his wife (Frances McDormand) works, he’s immediately entranced. Drawn to her beauty, sure, but also to the beauty of the music. Birdy is the walking manifestation of hope for someone as hopeless as Ed. Once his wife is sent to jail he finds himself spending more time with her, and through major fault of his own assumes — fantasizes, ultimately — a gifted pianist with great potential, whose career he imagines himself managing. It’s all hogwash of course; he’s not only old enough to be her father but there’s a fundamental misperception of who each other really is that makes this relationship dynamic both amusing and awkward, something that tends to come to a head in that bizarro car ride scene.

What she brings to the movie: Birdy may be more of a plot device than a three-dimensional character but Johansson, at just 15 years old, already has presence and here she’s wielding that powerfully seductive voice to her character’s advantage, turning a fairly typical teenager into a symbol of temptation. She also just fits in to the 1940s aesthetic, her face cherubic and hair in a short bob and the conservative use of make-up allowing her natural beauty to shine through.

Key Scene: One of but a few pretty bizarre forks in the road in the second half of this increasingly surreal movie. Oh, heavens to Betsy, it’s all just a weird scene misunderstanding.

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 

* Ethan Coen also directed but only joel was credited 

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

Photo credits: IMDb 

Decades Blogathon – Notorious (1946)

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Day four in Decades, where me and that guy you should already know by now — Mark from Three Rows Back —  are exploring movies from decades past, where we’re asking contributors to talk about their favorite movies from any year ending in ‘6,’ brings us to another quality post, this time from Cindy Bruchman. I’m sure many of you already follow her but if you don’t, please go over and check out her site. Rare are the sites I find with so much in-depth analysis and thoughtful ruminations on so many different topics, ranging from movies both old and new, books, and other forms of entertainment. She’s also a great photographer. Let’s see what she has to say about the 1946 classic Notorious


1946 was a great year in film if you like Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains. This post is dedicated to TOM AT DIGITALSHORTBREAD  who is hosting a blogathon and called for submissions about one’s favorite film ending in the year six. Notorious is my favorite Hitchcock film for many reasons, and I am happy to share why.

The Plot

A WWII Nazi war criminal is caught and imprisoned. His daughter is Else (Ingrid Bergman), a party-loving bad girl. She is persuaded to spy for the U.S. government who is trying to break up the boys from Brazil. She falls in love with her co-conspirator, Devlin, played by Cary Grant, whose occupation has trained him to distrust everyone, especially the seductive charms of women. He knocks her lights out after she drives recklessly drunk. After the famous kissing scene on the phone, he allows her to prostitute herself with wily, love-sick Sebastian, and then calls her a harlot and a drunk for much of the movie. Now that’s love, gals.

Notorious pic

The plan is to infiltrate the opulent manor of Sebastian and his creepy mother and spy on their operations. The cellar holds the secret, and the key to the door is the small prop with grave consequences for Else. Will Devlin save her in the niche of time and redeem himself?

Hitchcock creates an exotic mood of the thriller by taking full advantage of his exterior settings like the Florida drunk-drive at night, the shots from the plane of the statue of Jesus Christ at the summit of Mount Corcovado, Rio de Janeiro, the bustling city, the race track, and the manor home by the sea. Whether in a crowd or on a terrace with the harbor as a backdrop, you want to be there. Still, there are three exceptional scenes with unique cinematography for 1946 that are clever and bolster Alfred Hitchcock’s reputation for suspense and a great director.

  1. Else has a hangover and sees Devlin’s silhouette in the doorway. When he approaches, you are Else and through her perspective, the camera turns upside down.
  2. The two and half-minute kissing scene which bent censorship rules and joined sensory imagery and eroticism with a chicken in the oven.
  3. Else glides down a staircase with a key in her hand. Hitch uses a crane and zooms into the key in her hand in one graceful moment. The magnificent checkerboard floor, her Edith Head black velvet dress, the diamonds and general beauty of the setting merge with the people. It’s aesthetically balanced and lush.
  4. The reflective shots of mirrors in general whether they are binoculars at the race track or in cars or the house.

If you haven’t seen this masterpiece, I hope you will soon. It’s one of the best movies ever, especially from 1946.


Photo credits: http://www.imdb..com 

TBT: Citizen Kane (1941)

Let’s send October off in style, shall we? Four Thursdays and several classics later, we arrive here at the fifth installment of TBT. And really, how can I ignore this one? It’s a film I saw a few months ago and I haven’t seen it since, so with any luck my memory will not fail me. I can finally now say that I have gotten to experience

Today’s food for thought: Citizen Kane.

Incinerating sleds since: September 5, 1941

[Netflix]

How does one hope to reveal anything new or exciting about Citizen Kane, one of cinema’s most poured-over films and a release that’s now over 70 years old? The truth is, they can’t. The best thing that I can hope to do is nod my head and silently agree with everyone who has ever sung its praises. This is a film with such a reputation that it actually takes some effort not to watch it.

Some months ago now I pressured myself into ordering the DVD through Netflix. When it arrived it then sat on top of the Xbox for awhile before I finally decided I should just give it a chance. I carried a healthy level of skepticism going in because there was no way this film was going to be as good as everyone had told me it was. Fifteen minutes in I was completely entranced. Orson Welles’ most celebrated film, and please pardon the strange comparison, absorbs and entertains — and ultimately repulses — much in the same way as Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, creating an almost mythical character at the heart of the story and protecting him behind layers upon layers of exposition, each one invariably tainted by bias and prejudice. Both feature characters so much larger than life it takes at least 120 cinematic minutes to properly represent them.

In hindsight, Charles Foster Kane (Welles) might be easier to sum up than you would think. The word ‘enigma’ comes to mind. Even ‘celebrity.’ That’s an incomplete picture though. And really, that’s the impression Welles (as director) wants first-time viewers to have. His approach all but beckons those same viewers to watch again, to find out what pieces of the puzzle they have missed. Citizen Kane, in the mode of a film à clef, weaves a dense and complex narrative to paint a collage of impressions about who Kane was, what he represented, and how his legacy would proceed him.

Kane, himself a collage of real-life personalities, was loosely based upon American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Chicago business tycoons Samuel Insull and Harold McCormick, as well as aspects of Welles’ own life. Despite his incredible wealth and influence, Kane was, for all intents and purposes, an American everyman — someone who, if you saw him on the streets, you could walk right up to and touch. And you, in all your mediocrity, would matter to him. At least, that’s how it seemed.

Among the most fervently discussed aspects of this production is its inventive narrative structure, one which spindles out like a spiderweb to incorporate virtually every aspect of this man’s life, accumulating dramatic heft until a remarkable revelation. The core of the story is concerned with developing Kane’s professional life, detailing his impoverished childhood in Colorado, his subsequent adoption by a wealthy banker named Walter Thatcher (George Coulouris), and his meteoric rise to national prominence after entering the newspaper business and seizing control of the New York Inquirer, what many today recognize as the tabloid paper The National Enquirer.

Within this framework we see Kane (d)evolve from ebullient and idealistic publisher seeking immortality via his unfathomable business savvy — save for the little hiccup in 1929 where the stock market crash resulted in his forfeiture of his controlling share of The Inquirer — to a mere mortal set on gaining as much power as a man can have — he briefly dabbled in politics before an affair effectively put an end to that venture — while essentially destroying anyone who dared cross him, and God forbid, chose to marry him. One particularly memorable sequence depicts the gradual dissolution of his first marriage to Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warrick), a niece of the President of the United States, by staging a series of conversations at a dinner table.

All of these developments are relayed through flashbacks, which result from the many interviews conducted by modern-day newspaper reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland). He’s seeking the significance of Kane’s last dying words (really, it’s a single word ‘rosebud’), at the behest of his newsreel producer. Interviews include friends and associates, some of whom are willing to speak freely about the man while others (notably Susan Alexander, Kane’s second wife) initially refuse to be interviewed. Even disregarding the immensity of the character being explored, Citizen Kane established its brilliance through this kaleidoscopic approach, using other people to inform a third party’s opinion about who this man was and why his death was so significant. As people are inherently complex, it only makes sense our best chance of gaining intimate knowledge of a single person is through the perspectives of many.

Quite simply, this is an extraordinary picture that almost suffers from an abundance of potential talking points. I haven’t even delved into how ornate and beautiful its imagery is. The symbolism. The scale. The humanity and the lack thereof, particularly during scenes at his elegant Floridian estate, known as Xanadu. The use of shadows to evoke danger and tension. The sharp suits and elegant dresses suggesting power and prestige both earned and usurped. The film has been praised countless times for its groundbreaking technical aspects, and while I claim to know little about that aspect of filmmaking, to my untrained eye it’s praise well-deserved.

To the uninitiated, Citizen Kane and all of its clout might seem a bit overwhelming and even off-putting. After all, lofty expectations usually serve to disappoint. In my case, I don’t think there was a way to prepare myself for how good this was. The film ends in an estate sale, wherein Kane’s bevy of personal possessions — most of them statues and busts and expensive paintings — are being divided up either for selling or discarding. It’s telling that this cavernous enclave is mostly filled with priceless items that, collectively, mean very little. They probably meant very little to Kane himself. The accumulation of wealth is so ridiculous it consumes the entirety of the frame. In fact, the only thing more consuming than his apparent obsession with gaining more and more stuff is that nagging sensation that we’ve missed the significance of the word ‘rosebud.’

Recommendation: Unforgettable. And quite simply a classic. Orson Welles truly outdoes himself in the lead and as a director, and if you are yet to see this film I urge you to put some time aside and give it a shot. I personally had grown tired of hearing how good a movie Citizen Kane was, but that was before I actually got around to watching it. Between the visual aesthetic and the scope and ambition of its content, this may not be the ‘best movie I’ve ever seen,’ but for all its comprehensiveness and elegant craftsmanship, it’s likely to remain in a fairly elite group for years to come.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 119 mins.

TBTrivia: The audience that watches Kane make his speech is, in fact, a still photo. To give the illusion of movement, hundreds of holes were pricked in with a pin, and lights moved about behind it.

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

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

Decades Blogathon – Mildred Pierce (1945)

Screen Shot 2015-05-17 at 10.15.56 PM

Greetings everyone! Crazy thought, but Mark and I have officially been hosting this Decades Blogathon for a full week now. This has been an absolute joy to put on, and the interesting entries only continue with today’s review of 1945’s Mildred Pierce. This review is brought to you by Anna of Defiant Success. It’s a page you need to check out for an expansive collection of book and movie reviews and one I will be getting to more often as well as it’s brand new to me! 


Mark of three rows back and Tom of Digital Shortbread are hosting a blogathon where the theme are films from years ending in the number five. Admittedly most of my favorite films are off by that particular year either one way (A Star is Born, Quiz Show, Shattered Glass) or the other (Bigger Than Life, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Fountain). Fortunately I came up with a good film to focus on:

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(1945, dir. Michael Curtiz)

As most people know, very rarely do you find a solid female-led film. Granted, that’s been rectified in recent years (Young Adult, Blue Jasmine, Wild) but even then, Hollywood still has a long way to go. Most female roles are reduced to one of four roles: mother, virgin, slut and bitch. (Basically they’re reduced to how they’re identified by men.) Is it that hard to write a role for an actress that isn’t one-dimensional?

This is why Mildred Pierce clearly stands out. It has well-written female characters (then again, most female characters in films from Hollywood’s Golden Age had to have some form of dimensionality) and a well-structured plot. How often do you see that with contemporary mainstream films? (Answer: not very.)

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Starring in the title role is Joan Crawford in her Oscar-winning performance. At the time, her career was in somewhat of a slump. (It was labeled with the dreaded term “box office poison”.) Thanks to her persistence in getting this role (Curtiz wanted either Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Olivia de Havilland or Joan Fontaine for the role), Crawford proved that her career was far from poisonous.

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As the vain Veda is Ann Blyth, another Oscar nominee of the film. This film proved to be Blyth’s big break and boy, you can see why. You don’t see many females roles this manipulative and heartless nowadays, do you? (Well, Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl aside.) All I can say is it’s a miracle she didn’t get typecast as a result.

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As the love interest (God, that felt good writing that) Monte Beragon is Zachary Scott. At first glance, he seems like a charming fellow. But it doesn’t take long before Mildred (and the viewer) realizes he has ulterior motives. (Rule of thumb when you’re watching classic films: if there’s a male character with a pencil-thin mustache and he’s not played by the main actor, he’s not someone to be trusted. Only exception is Laurence Olivier in Rebecca.)

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As the wise-cracking Ida Corwin is Eve Arden, the third Oscar nominee of Mildred Pierce. It’s clear that Arden provides most of the film’s humor which is obviously a good thing considering the nature of it. She also provides (in my humble opinion) the best line of the film: “Personally Veda’s convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young.”

Very rarely do you find a film that works this well when it comes to characters and story. And yes, I am fully aware that it deviated from James M. Cain’s novel a great deal. But that doesn’t mean I enjoy the film less, does it? (Answer: of course not.)