Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

Release: Friday, November 19, 2021 (limited)

👀 Hulu

Written by: Radu Jude

Directed by: Radu Jude

Starring: Katia Pascariu; Olimpia Malai; Claudia Ieremia; Nicodim Ungureanu; Andi Vasluianu

 

 

 

****/*****

If you are someone trying hard to block out the noise of the last few years of heightened enmity, this confrontational tragicomedy out of Romania is not going to be your friend. I’m not sure it’s anyone’s friend; it’s more like a troll in movie form, designed to trigger and infuriate. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is not always an easy watch but in getting under your skin, it’s one you are going to struggle to forget.

Yes, it’s a silly title — there’s some nuance lost in the translation from the original Romanian title into English — but the subject matter is serious and the atmosphere tense and uncomfortable. Set in the nation’s capital of Bucharest and filmed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the award-winning Bad Luck Banging holds up a mirror to our current times. It harnesses all the emotions and energy that have been bottled up inside and directs almost all of it toward a lone woman, a history teacher named Emi (Katia Pascariu), whose sex tape that she makes with her husband ends up circulating around the internet and causes an uproar at the well-to-do secondary school where she works.

It isn’t just the subject matter that makes this a challenging and sometimes maddening experience. Writer/director Radu Jude plays with form in a way that’s both fascinating and frustrating. He deploys a familiar three-act structure but really this is a self-contained, day-in-the-life style narrative interrupted by an interminable middle section. Here, the filmmaker free-associates every single pertinent concept and symbol in a montage that distills humanity down to its base functions. Though not without purpose, the second act is so cynical it eventually becomes off-putting. There’s a lot of national identity and rage tied up in this sequence but the criticism of society is so encompassing it feels like an unfocused rant.

However what lies on either side of this creative intermission is a modern social satire with serious teeth. Marius Panduru’s camerawork plays a large part in shaping what and how much you feel as the story evolves. What begins as objective, an observation of a woman going about her day doing errands and trying to figure out how to get the video removed from a place it was never supposed to be in the first place, steadily grows more opinionated, more vicious, more ridiculous.

In the first segment Panduru follows the actor from a distance as Emi makes her way through the busy city toward the parent-teacher conference that will soon determine her fate. Moving like a tourist, or perhaps a child trying to make sense of the circus around them, the camera occasionally, and suggestively, comes to rest on the immovable and inescapable objects of a world where sex sells everything from books to Barbie dolls. 

Eventually though, and like her fellow educators who purport to be morally and intellectually upstanding (despite their liberal use of offensive epithets, particularly to women and ethnic Romani), the camera too turns on her and settles in with the hecklers. The climactic confrontation is a spectacle worth the wait. Indeed, it won’t be the eyebrow-raising opening scene that will have people talking — cleverly-placed graphics serve as a running gag throughout, the more racy content suited and tied under the guise of decency. Rather, it will be the combustible third act which chains Emi to the whipping pillar as the accusations and insults fly.

As humiliating as the scene is, it’s also galvanizing and weirdly thrilling. Without divulging all the gory details, there are yet more surprises in store in terms of the way Jude experiments with traditional narrative delivery and subverts your expectation of where things go from here. It’s not that any of the hateful rhetoric being thrown around is funny but as the animosity intensifies it becomes almost impossible not to let something slip out; a nervous chuckle does the same job as the Xanax Emi is denied in a drugstore. You need some relief from the stress.

Bad Luck Banging embraces taboo in a way that will draw only passionate responses, not just from those who endured it but from those who have only heard things about it and want to dismiss it out of hand. That’s understandable, but the movie doesn’t end up as exploitative as the title sounds. Some of the artistic choices annoyingly delay what could be a more streamlined narrative, but as the tension builds in the final stretch there appears to be a method to Jude’s class(-less) madness.

Yummy.

Moral of the Story: Not for the faint of heart, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is caustic, bizarre and features elements so heavy you kind of wonder whether this even qualifies as comedy. This is my first experience watching a film from Romania (I think) and while it’s not one I will necessarily return to, it is a breath of fresh air away from Hollywood, a bold film barely able to contain its righteous anger. (Dialogue is in Romanian with English subtitles and captions.)

Rated: NR

Running Time: 106 mins.

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

Hustle

Release: Wednesday, June 8, 2022 (Netflix)

👀 Netflix

Written by: Taylor Materne; Will Fetters

Directed by: Jeremiah Zagar

Starring: Adam Sandler; Juancho Hernangómez; Ben Foster; Robert Duvall; Queen Latifah; half the NBA

 

 

 

****/*****

When you’re passionate about something it tends to show, and that’s what happens with Adam Sandler’s latest Netflix movie Hustle. The actor’s well-documented enthusiasm for the game of basketball bleeds over into his work here, which turns out to be some of the best of his career. Bobby Boucher and Happy Gilmore may have given us some good laughs, but Sandler is more compelling when he isn’t playing a cartoon.

In Hustle he shows that passion by bringing attention to the sidelines rather than center court. The behind-the-scenes role of the NBA scout is highlighted in a way that evokes the esoteric space of Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird (2019), which told the story of a sports agent navigating an NBA lockout. The emotional beats however hew closer to the traditional underdog narrative of perennial hardwood classic Hoosiers (1986). Sandler is a recognizable face but here he effortlessly blends into the crowd as a family man, a hard-working Philadelphian who loves this town, this game and being this close to it. His authentic portrayal is largely why something so familiar works so well.

A bloodshot-eyed, fast-food-slurping Sandler plays Stanley Sugerman, a top scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who has devoted years to traveling the world over in search of the next big talent. More familiar with airport terminals than the hallways of his own home, he’s looking for a promotion that will further challenge him and also keep him closer to his wife, Teresa (Queen Latifah) and aspiring filmmaker daughter Alex (Jordan Hull). Luckily his dedication and eye for detail have built a lot of credit with team owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall), who finally gives him a more active team role.

But then Rex unexpectedly passes away and, in a baffling development — one of a few head-scratching moments in Taylor Materne and Will Fetters’ screenplay, another being the weird decision to prop up the NBA Combine as if it has playoff implications — ownership is transferred not to his competent daughter Kat (Heidi Gardner) but rather to his inexperienced and vindictive son Vince (Ben Foster), who promptly 180s on his father’s decision and banishes Stanley back to the road. In Spain, he comes across a streetball game being dominated by a young phenom named Bo Cruz (NBA reserve Juancho Hernangómez) and immediately identifies him as a potential franchise-changer.

It’s already an uphill battle convincing the higher-ups to take an unknown as the #1 overall pick in the upcoming draft. It certainly doesn’t help when an emotional outburst during an exhibition game exposes Bo as a potential liability and triggers an unfortunate narrative in the media, one that Stanley has trouble getting in front of considering the omnipresence of Vince and his natural disdain for everything he does. The crux of the drama finds Stanley in damage control mode, trying to save his reputation while proving to his young prospect he actually cares about his future.

Hustle may shortchange the talented Ben Foster with a one-note corporate bozo role, but it’s the two leads whom we are here to see and they form a really likable team. Though each are impelled by love of family to compete at a high level, they couldn’t be more different in background and upbringing. The story doesn’t exactly shy away from sports drama tropes. Cue the obligatory training montage, where comparisons to Rocky are inescapable and feel almost intentional, and the evolution of a partnership into genuine friendship.

What helps offset the film’s many cliches is director Jeremiah Zagar’s commitment to world-building. Hustle has production design so authentic you might actually think Zagar snuck inside the Wells Fargo Center and filmed guerilla-style. Fans of the game will have a field day spotting all the names that come through the scene, with former and current players, coaches and front office staff all getting some camera time (while sneakily supplying the production with its quota of product placement). Yet it’s Anthony Edwards (of the Minnesota Timberwolves) who gets to actually leave an impression, stealing the show for a moment as a trash-talking hotshot who’s also a top candidate for the team. 

In the end, Hustle (and by extension, Sandler) isn’t trying to dazzle you with how much it knows about the X’s and O’s. It’s all about the game within the game, the psychological aspects that make pro sport so challenging. Don’t call it a classic, but the fourth quarter rally is very fun to watch. Because the performances are so earnest and believable, what’s routine ends up feeling rewarding.

“Look, I had this Rocky montage set up especially for you. Don’t blow it, kid.”

Moral of the Story: Perhaps more for NBA fans than casual viewers, Hustle is a modern-feeling sports drama that is also worth watching for another outstanding turn from the erstwhile King of Bad Comedy. (Do we start petitioning for Sandler to star in more basketball related movies? He seems to do those pretty well.) 

Rated: R

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “Guys in their 50’s don’t have dreams, they have nightmares . . . and eczema.”

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

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

Pig

Release: Friday, July 16, 2021

👀 Hulu

Written by: Michael Sarnoski; Vanessa Block

Directed by: Michael Sarnoski

Starring: Nicolas Cage; Alex Wolff; Adam Arkin; Darius Pierce; David Knell

Distributor: Neon

 

 

****/*****

On the outside Michael Sarnoski’s directorial debut appears to be ripe material for Crazy Nic Cage. This is a story about a man living in the woods who gets his pig stolen, then ventures into the city to find his pignappers. Sounds like the recipe for a future cult classic Midnight Movie — John Wick only with oinks instead of barks.

Defiantly, Pig veers off that beaten genre path and gradually reveals itself to be a much deeper movie than action-driven, bloody retribution and one whose concerns go beyond a missing animal. An existential drama paired with a buddy adventure, the story encroaches on some familiar territory — grief and loss, change and disillusionment are perennially en vogue themes — but if you dig below the surface of those broader ideas you’ll find a lot more flavor as questions are raised about materialism and commerce, the price of things weighed against the value of relationships.

Everything in this movie feels fine-tuned, whether it’s Pat Scola’s beautiful framing of the pacific northwest, the powerful emotive quality of Alexis Grapsas and Philip Klein’s string-based score, or the near-palpable aroma of the exquisite dishes that come to bear quasi-supporting roles. But it’s the acting that tends to stand out. Truth be told, as headline-grabbing as its leading man is and though the cast sheet may be small, every performer brings their A-game and makes Pig a surprisingly absorbing experience.

Wisely calibrating the exotic impulses that have given rise to his larger-than-life persona, Nic Cage turns in one of his most affecting performances to date as Robin Feld, a respected Portland chef who has turned his back on city living for a more humble existence out in the woods. Subsisting on the outskirts of the City of Roses without so much as a cell phone, his only companion is his truffle pig upon whose snout he relies for some good eating and a bite sized bit of business. His lone contact with the outside world is Amir (Alex Wolff), an opportunist who sells locally-sourced luxury ingredients to the highest bidder in town, hoping one day to escape the shadow of his father Darius (Adam Arkin).

Introduced as the weekly headache Rob must endure, the loud and brash Amir is quickly pulled in as a full-time participant, his foibles swiftly coming under the microscope in the same way Rob’s privacy inspires questions. When a midnight assault shakes up his peaceful existence the two reluctantly team up and head to the city for answers. The ensuing adventure pulls us into a strange, esoteric world through a network of back passages and secret doors, while the most privileged access remains in the conversations shared throughout — keenly observed moments that give us a good sense of who these men are and what motivates them. Along the way, a series of revelations threatens the tenuous thread of trust they’ve managed to build, particularly as the full complexity of the film’s relationships comes into clearer focus.

As the list of potential thieves shrinks and Rob’s desperation grows, the superficial setting plays just as much of a role as any character, human or otherwise. Steeping the drama in the highfalutin, pricy world of haute cuisine, Sarnoski turns Portland’s bustling food scene into an ecosystem teeming with predators and disingenuous types. It’s a cold, harsh environment where business is kind of like the Wild West — there’s poaching and territorial disputes and a sense of lawlessness. What justice there is seems to be out of reach for Rob, a ghost on the scene for a good decade who has lost all the credibility he once had. It’s not a flattering portrait of foodie culture but it feels, like the dialogues throughout, brutally honest. 

Pig could have easily been overcooked in the wrong hands. Slow but never boring, downbeat and moody without being overwrought, the movie surprises beyond its centerpiece performance(s). There is a level of elitism to its world and to the characters that could serve as a barrier to entry and yet it all feels incredibly relatable, in large part due to the compassion Sarnoski finds for his characters and the trust he puts in his performers. One memorable sequence finds Rob and Amir preparing a meal for a special occasion. It’s an intimate moment that seems to encapsulate the slow-burn sojourn as a whole: Pig is a labor of love, each morsel ultimately savored because of the time and care put in to the preparation. Movie title be damned, Sarnoski’s vision is profoundly human.

Trying not to stew over it.

Moral of the Story: Though perhaps not one for animal lovers, Pig‘s emotional realism and enigmatic character work make it an easy recommendation for more than just Nic Cage apologists. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 92 mins.

Quoted: “We don’t get a lot of things to really care about.” 

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

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

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!”

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

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

The World to Come

Release: Tuesday, March 2, 2021 (VOD) 

👀 Sundance 2021 Premiere 

Written by: Jim Shepard; Ron Hansen 

Directed by: Mona Fastvold 

Starring: Katherine Waterston; Vanessa Kirby; Christopher Abbot; Casey Affleck

 

 

 

 

***/*****

Mona Fastvold’s The World to Come, a beguiling romance set on the American frontier, is often literally perched on the edge of light and dark. Though its many contrasts are obvious they’re not always literal. This is a love story set in austere times yet delivered in a rather lyrical way, both through the language of its characters and the lens of André Chemetoff, whose rugged landscape photography is well-matched to the material.

The World to Come is an adaptation of a short story by Jim Shepard which tells of a clandestine relationship between two neglected wives and how their mutual attraction comes to threaten the patriarchal order in two households. In bringing it to the screen Fastvold prioritizes the characters and a gritty realism over groundbreaking storytelling. The resulting film, which uses a female perspective to explore its themes, certainly plots familiar footsteps. Yet with Fastvold’s detail-oriented approach and exceptional performances all around it remains throughout an engrossing and often tense affair.

A slow vertical pan down through the trees lands us on a farmstead somewhere in upstate New York circa the mid-1850s. Life here in this seclusion, where mail is delivered on horseback, on the outside looks quaint and peaceful. Fastvold wastes little time in ripping down that idyllic veil and apprising us to the immense challenges of settler life. What strikes you right away — beyond the silence — is the tedium (and amount!) of manual labor. However the setting is crucial in more ways than a convincing mise-en-scène, the central conflict far more complex than the physical.

Dyer (Casey Affleck) and Abigail (Katherine Waterston) are a humble farming couple who have suffered a tragedy on top of an apocalyptic winter that has wiped out nearly all their food. It does not take long to notice the lack of joie de vivre here. Little else seems to be shared beyond the toiling, the couple communicating with all the intimacy of complete strangers — brought together not as a match made in heaven but as a partnership of utility. Affleck’s Dyer may as well be on the moon emotionally as a devoutly pragmatic man who has known nothing but hard work and strife. It’s a very good performance that will catch you by surprise with its pitifulness and yet still have you questioning whether feeling pity is appropriate.

Abigail, on the other hand, is an intellectual who has become jaded with her rather plain existence. She’s realized through an arguably career-best Waterston whose soft-spoken mannerisms are most often heard in voice-over. In a rare example of narration actually contributing to the story rather than feeling like an unnecessary layer, Waterston reads entries from Abigail’s diary, largely a colorless record of the slow decline of a marriage that never seemed happy to begin with, as well as her own mounting frustration with her station as a housewife. Aside from establishing a crucial point of view these brief moments of introspection intimately connect us with the character in a way that makes us not observers but rather acquaintances.

Following a change of seasons — and a cacophonous storm sequence that remains the movie’s most vivid — those diary entries become ever more a testimony to what has been missing, or how much has been lying dormant under a façade of submissiveness. The arrival of spring brings with it a pair of fresh new faces in Finney (Christopher Abbott) and his wife Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), a well-to-do couple who move into a nearby (well, near-distant) farmstead. The free-spirited, enviably outspoken Tallie has an immediate affect on passive Abigail.

What begins as a neighborly gesture — donated fruit for a cobbler, for instance — soon turns into long afternoons spent under shady trees and entangled in philosophical conversation. It’s not long before the menial and the mundane are being forgotten, replaced by meaningful moments. A trend, of course, that does not go unnoticed by the men. The strength of the script, provided by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard, is in subtlety and nuance even if the developments are mostly foreseeable. Affleck’s enigmatic to the bitter end, his masterful body language telling a story both of irrevocable change and permanent resignation. Abbott, on the other hand, isn’t as fortunate, playing an obvious cad who is easy to boo from the get-go.

Quite obviously though it is the women to whom The World to Come truly belongs. Kirby’s presence charges the scene with exciting energy, and with her waterfall of ginger hair she makes for a wonderful muse for Chemetoff’s camera. Waterston captures demureness in a way that’s equal parts charming and crushing. Together, and despite their different backgrounds, these leading frontier ladies have the kind of chemistry that keeps you utterly invested despite the misery that encroaches on all sides.

Beautiful and bleak in equal measure, Fastvold’s period romance feels much more like a snippet of reality than a Movie Production. Prior to the Sundance screening she described the shoot being challenging. That’s something that comes across in the texture of the film. The world feels entirely lived in, authentic and with no traditional script-y exit doors in sight. The mood is undeniably heavy and somber, perhaps trending more towards the dark than the light. But that makes the oases of comfort and warmth, however fleeting, such a delightful contrast.

You’re my sun.

Moral of the Story: The film’s moral resolution may not be to every audience member’s satisfaction, and the themes of physical/emotional isolation and patriarchal oppression may be familiar but its the lack of force and politicization in conveying those ideas that make The World to Come an even more attractive period piece.

Rated: R

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “Meeting you has made my day.” 

“Oh, how pleasant and uncommon it is to make someone’s day.” 

Check out the quietly explosive trailer here 

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

Photo credits: imdb.com; Sundance Institute/photo by Vlad Cioplea 

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #7

I could not wait to get to this one. This is actually the one performance that made me officially choose Scarlett Johansson this year over my other choice.

Casting my mind all the way back to 2014, I remember walking out of the theater a total wreck. For anyone who has ever had an ex, it should leave a significant impact. This in my opinion is the pinnacle of romantic drama. I’m not saying this particular film is the one to beat all-time (although one could probably make that argument), but as someone who prefers emotional realism to the rom-com formula, it doesn’t get much more real than this unique look at the state of modern relationships. Plus the score provided by Arcade Fire is something else, too.

And while this is a post dedicated to Scarlett Johansson, I am compelled to give a shout out to her actually-on-screen co-star. The notoriously strange Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely tremendous here, putting in a sensitive and melancholic performance that proves why he is among the more interesting actors working right now.

Scarlett Johansson as Samantha in Spike Jonze’s Her 

Role Type: Supporting*

Premise: In a near future, a lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with an operating system designed to meet his every need. (IMDb)

Character Background: In a not-so-distant future humans are more socially distant than they are in a real-world global pandemic. There are no six-feet-apart policies at play but instead everyone is attached to their computers — quite literally — as they walk around in their own private one-person bubble. Everything is in reach and yet everyone is inaccessible. Spike Jonze’s smart directing and incredible — indeed, Oscar-winning — writing makes it feel entirely plausible this is the natural course the river of human interaction will take with the advent of hyper-intelligent A.I. In Her, it comes in the form of the OS1, a virtual companion tailored to our unique personalities and that has its own consciousness. (Yeah, in your non-face Siri!) This new tech is designed to keep us on schedule, keep us motivated and focused, and most significantly, keep us company.

An emotionally distraught writer named Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, decides to invest in one. He prefers his OS to have a female voice. Upon boot-up, and after quickly thumbing through a book on baby names (some 180,000 options in a literal split-second), his new friend christens herself Samantha. As the ice is quickly broken, Theodore becomes fascinated by Samantha’s ability to grow and learn. Before long, he’s starting to feel something more than pure admiration for the tech. A friendship evolves into romance and soon Samantha finds her bodiless self experiencing things she never knew she could and as well developing into something far more than anyone could have expected.

What she brings to the movie: a disembodied voice. That is literally it, at least in terms of the tools she has at her disposal to create the character. What she brings to the movie emotionally is truly profound. Jodi Benson had the hovering Weebo. Rose Byrne had an eerie resemblance to HAL-9000 as ‘Mother.’ Now, “Sexiest Woman Alive” Scarlett Johansson has no body as Samantha, a stunningly complex realization of a Somebody who is seeking connection and purpose and wholeness of feeling. It is a deeply affecting performance that encompasses the full spectrum of emotions and that becomes all the more impressive considering it required Johansson to be isolated in a sound booth. She and Phoenix never crossed paths on set.

Johansson’s distinctively husky timbre here becomes an aloe for an aching, bruised soul. Yet it isn’t just the physical qualities of her iconic voice that makes this one of the all-time greatest disembodied performances. The chemistry she shares with her co-star is utterly beguiling and convincing; the ubiquitousness of her presence both strange and comforting. Though in reality she’s a device often tucked into his shirt pocket, she feels like a real person sitting right in the room with Theodore, arms around him, chin on his shoulder.

In her own words: “Samantha makes [Theodore] realize that he can love again. I can’t imagine that I’ve ever had that relationship with my Blackberry. I guess the only thing that has changed my life, or had a positive effect on my life, is Skype or Facetime. Any of those video chats that you can do with your family or your partner or your friend are so life-changing when you are away from home for months and months shooting. It makes all the difference in the world to be able to see somebody.”

Key Scene: From the moment Samantha greets Theodore, with the most bubbly of “Hello’s”, Johannson has us in the palm of her hands.

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 

*****/*****

 

* A fun bit of trivia that I did not know when I first saw the movie back in 2014: Johansson was not the original voice for the part of Samantha. She in fact joined the cast in post-production, replacing Samantha Morton after Jonze decided the part needed something more. With Morton’s blessing, Johansson stepped in and the rest was serious tear-jerking history.


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Photo credits: IMDb; interview excerpt courtesy of Julie Miller/Vanity Fair

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.

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

Buffaloed

Release: Friday, February 14, 2020 (limited)

👀 Hulu 

Written by: Brian Sacca

Directed by: Tanya Wexler

Starring: Zoey Deutch; Jai Courtney; Judy Greer; Jermaine Fowler

Distributor: Magnolia Pictures

 

 

***/*****

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.”

Moral of the Story: 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 

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #5

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

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

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

Scarlett Johansson as Rebecca in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World

Role Type: Co-lead

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work):  

***/*****


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

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