The Scarlett Johansson Project — #1

After a monthlong delay prompted by my own disorganization, I am happy and excited to get into another new Actor Profile, this blog’s fourth such feature and the second to spotlight an actress. Check out the tab below the banner to access the others!

Born in Manhattan in 1984, Scarlett Ingrid Johansson is among the most recognizable faces in the film industry, no small thanks to her involvement in the phenomenally successful Marvel Cinematic Universe in which she portrays the spy Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow. It’s a role that has taken her to another level of stardom, though you could hardly call it a break-out role, as she had proven herself an A-list caliber actor long before that. It was in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) where she made a big impression on me, her chemistry with Bill Murray cementing that film as one of my all-time favorites.

Though she describes her childhood as “very ordinary,” her extraordinary adult life seemed predetermined by birthright, hailing from a family of screenwriters, actors and producers. She caught the acting bug at a very early age, putting on song and dance routines for her family, who were supportive of her dream to become an actor. When a talent agent signed her brother before her, that desire only intensified. Her goals became more crystallized when she figured out shooting commercials was not her thing. So she enrolled in the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in Manhattan, circa age 8. Her first public performance was in an off-Broadway production called Sophistry alongside Ethan Hawke. She had a total of two lines of dialogue. Her first film role was in the 1994 adventure film North, directed by Rob Reiner, and the first time she garnered awards attention was for her performance in Terry Zwigoff’s adaptation of Daniel Clowe’s graphic novel Ghost World (2001).

The role I’ve chosen for this month is one of her absolute best. And quite possibly one of the most difficult for me to approach since I am not qualified to talk about the challenges that come with being married. I have also been very fortunate to have been raised in a stable household with two parents who remained together through thick and thin. Yet I appreciate that a lot of marriages don’t carry out that way — in fact the divorce rate in America is alarmingly high, third highest of any country in the world. But I do know a good performance when I see one and this powerfully emotional showcase is legitimately one of the best I’ve ever seen from anyone since I started really paying attention to the intricacies of filmmaking.

Scarlett Johansson as Nicole Barber in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story

Role Type: Co-lead

Premise: Noah Baumbach’s incisive and compassionate look at a marriage breaking up and a family staying together. (IMDb)

Character Background: One of the most impressive things about Baumbach’s screenplay is the balanced perspective. It does not “take sides,” but instead gives equal weight to both Nicole and Charlie’s concerns. Because this feature is about one actor in particular, I am obligated to focus on Nicole’s perspective.

The opening few minutes of what turns out to be an emotionally gory drama are precious. They offer a treasure trove of insight into who Nicole is, particularly on a personal level. Marriage Story begins with her husband Charlie (Adam Driver) listing all the things he loves about his wife. Importantly there are a few honest criticisms sprinkled in amongst the compliments: “She makes people feel comfortable about even embarrassing things. She really listens when someone is talking,” though “sometimes she listens too much for too long.” She’s “a good citizen” and a very present mother. She gifts interesting, thoughtful birthday presents — a trumpet for Charlie to help him expand his creativity. Then there are the big things, such as the sacrifice she’s made in forgoing an acting career in Hollywood in order to help Charlie mount his avant-garde plays in New York, where she’s become her husband’s favorite actor.

Professional ambition is what fractures the relationship: Nicole, a former teen film actress, aspires to step out of the shadow cast by her husband. Once the love of Charlie’s life, it has become increasingly clear to Nicole his own obsession with preparing for Broadway has blinded him to his wife’s own career goals.

What she brings to the movie: From a young age Johansson had a passion for musical theater, and Nicole allows her to tap into her early professional experience as a stage actor. There’s a tremendous amount of range in this Oscar-nominated performance, from the nuanced expressions of remorse, resentment and anger to the more dramatic and demonstrative (see the scene below). There’s a level of physicality to the performance that I think is underrated.

In her own words: “What I was so attracted to and what I could relate to in this was actually what remains between the characters, which was a lot of love. It actually felt very much like a love story to me, which of course is heartbreaking but also so much more poignant than a film about two people who have just grown to hate each other, because that’s not really what this is about.”

Key Scene: The argument scene is undeniably one of the best in the whole movie. It’s probably THE scene everyone remembers, however it’s not my #1 choice because it’s really about the couple. I wanted to feature the scene where Scarlett Johansson goes on a long monologue when her character meets Laura Dern’s lawyer, Nora, for the first time. Because it’s not only a triggering event but one of the scenes where her character is opening up to someone else. Unfortunately I couldn’t find that clip anywhere.

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


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Photo credits: IMDb

In the Shadow of the Moon

Release: Friday, September 27, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Gregory Weidman; Geoffrey Tock 

Directed by: Jim Mickle

I’ll admit that what drew me to the recently released Netflix original In the Shadow of the Moon was not Boyd Holbrook, even though he’s, uh . . . he’s the main dude in it. In this era of super-important and super-niche brand appeal it seems a little silly to volunteer two hours away to a movie heavily featuring an actor you’re not much of a fan of. But I am somewhat drawn to time-traveling narratives and on the surface In the Shadow of the Moon seemed to have me covered. In an ironic twist it was Holbrook I came away thinking more about than anything else.

Director Jim Mickle (Cold in July; We Are What We Are) mixes and mashes genres and ideas in a way that results in a viewing experience that’s very much a tale of two halves.  Set in the city of brotherly love In the Shadow of the Moon begins its life as a grittily compelling — and pretty icky — police procedural, then gives itself over to a time-traveling farce that gets bogged down in increasingly convoluted internal logic and noisy social commentary, the latter updating Minority Report‘s stratagem to target politically-motivated terrorists rather than plain, old murderers.

Taking place over the span of roughly 30 years — 36 but who’s counting? (you should be, that’s who) — the thrust of the narrative concerns the relationship between a devoted cop who eventually finds himself a detective, but loses a lot of other things, and a blue-hooded terrorist bent on righteous retribution, one with the ability to travel backwards in time and who resurfaces on one particular moonlit night every nine years to exact justice on future perpetrators of even worse, broader acts of violence. Key developments are parsed out every nine years across an episodic story broken up into “chapters” — ’88, ’97, ’06, ’15 and finally looping back to the dreaded 2024, where the film begins — drip-feeding clues that appear to draw the detective and the terrorist closer together, even though they’re traveling through time in opposite directions.

For emotional investment, the movie relies on that old gambit of obsession being the hero’s ultimate undoing. Officer Lockhart (or is that Locke? not even IMDb seems to know) devotes years — decades — to a seemingly impossible criminal case, which creates a rift between him and his family (his daughter played at various stages by different actors) and casts him as a hopeless defendant in the court of common sense and reason. His peers, including laidback partner Maddox (Bokeem Woodbine as a Roger Murtaugh type) and Detective Holt (Dexter‘s very own Michael C. Hall), who happens to be Lockhart’s brother-in-law, invariably jump ship well before the hair and old-age makeup transition Holbrook from handsome to “haggard.”

Fortunately the performances and a few adrenaline-spiking chase scenes provide enough of a human heartbeat and broad entertainment to make the journey relatable and not a completely polarizing exercise in political extremism and inflammatory left-wing rhetoric. Holbrook is clearly committed, a proud southerner who found his way into acting by way of Michael Shannon dropping in to his home town (his high school didn’t even have a drama department), and who has used his fashion model looks to get him considerable attention in bit parts and more substantial roles (Narcos; Logan). He remains a sympathetic presence throughout. Opposite him, the striking-looking Cleopatra Coleman as that enigmatic time-traveler doesn’t need to do much to be effective. With a shaved head and the lips to incur the envy of Angelina Jolie, her canvas is easily one of the most unique assets this movie has tucked in its holster.

Blue Hoodies Matter

Recommendation: I left with a better impression of actor Boyd Holbrook, though if you’re here for Dexter you might not leave quite as satisfied a customer. While the rules governing the agency of each of the two leads becomes increasingly convoluted, you have to praise In the Shadow of the Moon for its ambition. It’s certainly one of the better Netflix offerings currently available. I just wish it could sustain the quality of the much better, seedier first half. 

Rated: TV-MA

Running Time: 115 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

The Peanut Butter Falcon

Release: Friday, August 23, 2019

→Theater 

Written by: Tyler Nilson; Michael Schwartz

Directed by: Tyler Nilson; Michael Schwartz

Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz make their narrative feature début with what could be the year’s most Googled movie title, The Peanut Butter Falcon. Previously known for their short films and documentaries, the duo are now behind this year’s biggest crowd-pleaser, a breezily entertaining, stunningly authentic slice of southern living that updates classic Mark Twain for a 2019 audience, one in desperate need of a feel-good moment.

As an evocation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn the narrative adheres to a predictable formula, following a pair of runaways who form an unexpected bond in the pursuit of a better future all while being pursued by their own troubled pasts. Shia LaBeouf plays the scraggly Tyler, the ‘Tom Sawyer’ archetype, on the run after having stolen some crab pots from a rivaling crabber (John Hawkes) and his Yelawolf crony, while newcomer Zack Gottsagen, a 34-year-old actor with Down syndrome, gives us an unforgettable ‘Huck Finn’ in the form of Zak — uh, that’s without the ‘c’ I guess. An escapee of the nursing home to which the state of North Carolina has banished him, his newfound independence becomes an increasing concern for his caretaker, Eleanor (a wonderful Dakota Johnson).

After literally setting fire to the competition, for Tyler the goal is simply to get out of dodge and move to a small fishing town in Florida where he can get a new start. That mission gets more complicated when he finds a stowaway on the same johnboat he’s planning to commandeer — a young man, wide-eyed and slathered in what appears to be jelly, barely clinging to his underwear. Zak declares he’s on his own mission to track down the whereabouts of his wrestling idol, The Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), who he’s watched on VHS so many times his former roommate (Bruce Dern) knows all the moves himself.

Where The Peanut Butter Falcon really distinguishes itself is in the acting department, particularly in the leading duo — and eventual trio — whose natural chemistry makes it no secret as to what the culture behind the scenes was like. According to the filmmakers this was quite an atypical film shoot; everyone got to know each other intimately. Coming to work meant being part of a family wherein cast and crew spent “morning, noon and night” together, swimming, grilling out, getting into rap battles — basically doing the things Adam Sandler does every year, except the difference is a quality product. (And it’s also hard to envision a Happy Madison production regularly wrapping in a big, group hug — something mandated, apparently, by the outwardly affectionate Gottsagen.)

It is almost impossible not to look at The Peanut Butter Falcon as a redemption story for the seemingly perennially embattled LaBeouf, who really seems motivated to put the distractions behind him here as he filters the turbulence of the last several years through the foibles of Tyler. However it is Gottsagen who is the movie’s heart and soul. His character’s arc is inspired by the true (and truly feel-good) story that has been his own journey to the big screen. The aspiring movie star was discovered by Nilson and Schwartz a few years ago by way of a short film produced at an acting camp for those with and without disabilities. When they finally met, the directors were candid about his chances of making it in an industry where those with Down syndrome — indeed, a wide range of physical and mental development problems — are among the most marginalized. Entirely unfazed, Gottsagen compelled what would become his future bosses and creative partners to be those first few people to “make it happen.”

What ended up happening is one of the year’s warmest and most entertaining movies. What began life as a 10-minute short (available on YouTube as The Moped Diaries) evolved into one big mama hug of a full-length feature film, one that couches the universality of its themes — ostracism, self-worth, independence and friendship/family — within the filmmakers’ distinct sense of regionalism (it helps Nilson is actually from North Carolina). The movie is also shot beautifully and with some degree of poignancy, Nigel Bluck’s photography capturing both the geographic character and economic stagnation that explains the likes of Hawkes’ desperate Duncan, a man who, like everyone else, is just trying to live life but is really struggling.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is what you would describe as an original property — it’s not a direct adaptation of an IP or a sequel of any kind — but of course it’s not wholly original. Nilson and Schwartz are drawing from the deepest parts of the well of American literature. Importantly this modern incarnation is kept rooted in southern soil (though we exchange Missouri and the Mighty Mississippi for the tributaries and barrier reefs of the Outer Banks) and it retains many of the symbols native to the source material while telling its own story with unique and memorable characters. With a renewed spirit — and an intensely infectious one at that, thanks to the fantastic performances — The Peanut Butter Falcon softens Mark Twain without sacrificing the grit and pain that was so pronounced in his writing, the film managing not only to justify itself but to make what’s old not necessarily feel new but certainly revitalized and just an absolute joy to sit through once again.

Recommendation: The Peanut Butter Falcon makes it fun to float the river with a trio of sincere, heartfelt performances, and easy to set aside any preconceived notions we might have of some of the cast. Plus, wrestling fans are sure to get a kick out of a couple of well-placed cameos. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: “What’s Rule Number One?”

“. . . Party!”

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

Paul G — #11

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Last time we were here, Paul was having to contend with an illusionist in Ed Norton’s brilliant(ly elusive) Eisenheim. Paul has certainly played a variety of interesting characters over his career. He has enjoyed perhaps a most unlikely of career trajectories, going from a relative unknown to a highly sought-after talent for both prominent supporting and notable leads in a span of time many (admittedly much better-looking) actors only wish they could find for themselves. And now, somehow, we find ourselves at the end of 2016 and the end of Paul G. It’s with a note of bittersweetness I get to send him off in style, featuring one last lead performance from the man, the myth, the legend — but mostly just him being the man. Fittingly, this is a role in a four-time Oscar-nominated film, a buddy-comedy adventure that took home the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 2005. The two lead actors, Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, appropriately received accolades of their own.

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Paul Giamatti as Miles Raymond in Alexander Payne’s Sideways

Role Type: Lead

Genre: Comedy/drama/romance

Plot Synopsis: Two men reaching middle age with not much to show but disappointment embark on a week-long road trip through California’s wine country, just as one is about to take a trip down the aisle.

Character Profile: Miles Raymond, a depressed English teacher and unsuccessful writer, is shuffling through his forties with not much to show for it. He has been trying for what seems like forever to get his novel published but to no avail and has become slave to his own mental conditioning that life and everything about it kind of just sucks. Except wine. Crushed grapes are his collective savior and vintage vino his second language. As his college roommate Jack Cole is set to be married in a week’s time, the pair set off on a tour of the California wine country, with Miles intent on enjoying a week of golfing, wine-tasting, good food and relaxation. His TV-actor friend and former college roommate has different plans, and wants to get Miles laid. When they visit Miles’ favorite restaurant, they encounter Maya, an intelligent and attractive waitress that Miles has become acquainted with from his routine trips to Santa Ynez Valley but his self-loathing tendencies have always held him back from taking the next step. When he begins to take notice of the genuine bond he and Maya seem to share he starts to realize that there is never a better time to start enjoying the finer things in life.

Why he’s the man: I’m not sure if there is a better actor for the role of Miles Raymond than the man, the myth and the legend. Paul Giamatti utterly owns it in Alexander Payne’s beautiful but often painful exploration of searching for satisfaction in a world full of disappointments. Payne likes to work with troubled, fully fleshed-out characters and he has found a gem in Giamatti’s interpretation of a man nearing a catastrophic meltdown. The writing is excellent, but when it comes to demonstrating the pain a man who has suffered a series of personal setbacks is concerned, his star absolutely sells it. And while I could care less about wine snobs, I was fully buying into Miles’ obsession with the culture. So much so that I could picture the actor himself having an extensive knowledge of vintage Merlots . . . er, excuse me — pinots. Paul Giamatti’s face is riddled with hopelessness in this picture, and it’s his charisma buried deep underneath all the hurt that ultimately makes him a character that’s still worth rooting for. A class performance from a class actor.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):

5-0


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Photo credits: http://www.psychologyoffilm.com  

Paul G — #10

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Last time we were here, Paul was drawing comics — dark and sort of depressing ones, but successful ones nonetheless. He was portraying Harvey Pekar, author of the underground comic series ‘American Splendor,’ autobiographical accounts of an ordinary and, yes, depressing life. (Hey, he was from Cleveland.) But now the plot thickens as we turn the page to a new role that’s both in itself complex and embroiled in an altogether more complicated and slightly more romantic story. Let’s play cops and illusionists in this month’s Paul G, shall we?

paul-g-as-chief-inspector-uhl

Paul Giamatti as Chief Inspector Uhl in Neil Burger’s The Illusionist

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Drama/mystery/romance

Plot Synopsis: In turn-of-the-century Vienna, a magician uses his abilities to secure the love of a woman far above his social standing.

Character Profile: Chief Inspector Uhl, loyal servant to the brutal Crown Prince Leopold of Austria and an intelligent man to boot, is due for a promotion. When Sophie, the Duchess von Teschen, is apparently murdered at the hands of the very man she was to marry the inspector is called upon to get to the bottom of it, a task that soon proves difficult when he must contend with the mystic powers of the infamous Eisenheim, with whom the Duchess shared a history. A first encounter with the performer proves tense though ultimately innocuous, with the inspector pressing to find out the secrets behind Eisenheim’s tricks. As the story plays out, Uhl proves to be quite the complex character, seemingly unable to avoid becoming seduced by the magician’s transcendent abilities, while trying to remain as ever simultaneously committed to Prince Leopold and to his duties as an officer of the law.

Why he’s the man: Chief Inspector Uhl is yet another great example of Giamatti’s ability to walk a fine line between being a guy we’d like to hate or see fail for some of his actions or the way he seems to sympathize with terrible people, and being someone who manages to convince us he’s ultimately out for the greater good. Uhl is on more than one occasion left between a rock and a hard place, having to demonstrate his loyalty to the Crown by tracking down and arresting Eisenheim for his spirit-summoning performances — the most egregious offense is when he seems to reincarnate Sophie who says she was indeed murdered but there has been a fall guy involved — all while abiding by a strict moral code of conduct. As an officer of the law he can leave no stone unturned, and Giamatti is fantastic in convincing us of the dilemma he finds himself in. An intriguing role made all the more so by the ever-dependable Paul G.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):


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Photo credits: http://www.dogomovies.com 

Paul G — #8

Paul G logo

Last time we were here, Paul had turned to the dark side in the animated wonder The Little Prince, playing the part of a harsh(ly shaped) Academy instructor who enjoyed scaring children into becoming workaholic machines. This month let’s turn our attention to . . . well, another role in which he’s playing a rather confronting individual. This time, much more so. In keeping with last month’s theme of talking about stuff he’s recently been in, I’m going to be diving into a role that’s hot off the press, his turn as a psychiatrist brought in to help a corporate risk manager decide whether or not a scientific experiment is still worth pursuing or must be shut down.

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Paul Giamatti as Dr. Alan Shapiro in Luke Scott’s Morgan.

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Sci-fi drama/horror/mystery

Plot Synopsis: A corporate risk-management consultant must decide whether or not to terminate an artificially created humanoid being.

Character Profile: Arrogant psychologist Alan Shapiro has an important job to do: he’s charged with evaluating the mental state of Morgan, the brilliant but potentially dangerous end product of an advanced scientific project that has created a human-like being out of synthetic DNA. After a violent outburst revealed Morgan’s capacity for anger, the corporation responsible funding the project orders a psych evaluation. In walks Shapiro, initially taken aback by the fact the scientists at the lab would ever have him try to communicate with Morgan behind a glass wall. At his insistence, they allow him to have a face-to-face in the same room as a potential killer. Shapiro opens a line of communication fairly casually but before long he is diving headlong into an intense interrogation, wanting to know what Morgan actually thinks about her “life” and her living conditions, about being stuck in a holding cell. He challenges her further, asking what she would do if he recommended that she “be terminated.” Still believing he has things under control, the doctor begins to scream at Morgan, borderline threatening her. What will Morgan do?

Why he’s the man: In a film that generally fails to mine the best out of its talented cast, Paul Giamatti shines the brightest here as a rather confronting (borderline chilling) psychologist who manifests as a major catalyst in determining the kind of fate Morgan and her “captors” await. He may not have much time on the screen, and yet it is stunning how quickly his character is able to get under your skin and chill your blood. Morgan isn’t a film with many happy or pleasant characters, and Dr. Alan Shapiro is a particular stand-out, lighting the screen up with incredible intensity, a seething disdain for the government project that sits before him. It’s really strong work from one of the most reliable character actors we have right now.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):


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Photo credits: http://www.foxmovies.com 

Elvis & Nixon

'Elvis & Nixon' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 22, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Joey Sagal; Hanala Sagal; Cary Elwes

Directed by: Liza Johnson

Maybe it would’ve been too cheesy to use, but I was totally surprised when I never heard the line “Elvis has left the building.” But let’s get one thing straight: Elvis & Nixon is plenty cheesy, so it might have actually fit. I guess I have to move on now.

With two figures as iconic as The King and Tricky Dick filling the frame, Liza Johnson‘s decision to fashion a breezy, lightweight dramedy around them is, in hindsight, a sensible one. After all, she knows we’ve all come to listen in on a singular conversation, one behind closed doors. And since this isn’t Frost-Nixon she has no compunction to prop everything up on stilts for the stakes just aren’t as high here. There are barely any stakes at all, as a matter of fact. Despite that, Johnson’s aware of the remarkable position she’s in, able to use creative license as a way to get a foot inside the Oval Office on that day, December 21, 1970.

This infamous meeting took place prior to Nixon taping all of his conversations. No one knows what really happened. What was spoken about? What was Elvis trying to gain by meeting with the leader of the free world? How did he act? How awkward was Nixon? Most importantly, did Elvis thank him very much on the way out the door?

As the story goes, Elvis, disturbed by the deteriorating fabric of American society as drug abuse and stinging Vietnam protests swept across the nation, felt a responsibility to help in the fight against the counterculture. Call it counter-counterculture. He was into collecting police badges and was proud of the concealed firearms they enabled him to carry. All that Elvis lacked was a federal badge and the authority to actually go undercover as a “federal agent at large.” He felt his appearances in movies afforded him the art of disguise and he would be able to infiltrate schools without being recognized. So he sought approval first from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and when that didn’t pan out he requested a meeting with the President.

Elvis & Nixon is a film that lives and dies on its casting, which is both the film’s strength and its weakness. Michael Shannon certainly looks the part, donning the mutton chops (I don’t care if they’re not real, they look pretty good on him), the gold-plated necklace and rings. He’s got his collar riding high around his neck, and the ladies come swooning, flocking into whatever room he’s in just for a visual confirmation that “it’s him.” As to the Prez — fans of House of Cards are going to have to dial back their expectations of Kevin Spacey’s cinematic politician. Even while embracing Nixon’s relatively off-putting demeanor, Spacey is so stiff in the role you’d think he’s never played a man in such power before.

Those two are such consummate professionals the fact I could never see past the actors wasn’t an issue. If anything, it’s a treat being aware of performers working with material with this many implications, just to see what two of the greatest working actors today are able to do. That hand-slapping reflex test was improvised by Shannon, apparently. Of the two, Spacey is generally better because you could argue his awkwardness blends magnificently with Nixon’s persona. Shannon neither looks nor sounds like Elvis, though his soft charm and towering presence positively oozes The King of Rock’n Roll.

Supporting them is an impressive albeit random mix of recognizable names. Some, like Colin Hanks’ Egil “Bud” Krogh, fare better than others. Krogh is significant as he’d go on to be convicted for his role in the Watergate scandal, so it’s difficult to believe someone as innately likable as the son of Tom Hanks would have this potential to be so corrupt. Evan Peters plays another faceless White House employe — Dwight Chapin — and he barely registers. Worst of them all is Alex Pettyfer, Elvis’ close friend and confidante Jerry Schilling. Pettyfer prefers to sleepwalk rather than use charisma to get through. In a surprising twist, though, Johnny Knoxville seems to be taking acting a bit more seriously these days. He’s quite watchable as another member of the ‘Memphis mafia,’ Sonny West.

The film moves quickly, working from the outside in, providing glimpses of the powers that be, comfortable and in control in their respective spaces before the weight of inevitability obliges the editors to get to the good stuff, a dynamite, if not bizarre, twenty-minute scene in which Spacey and Shannon are allowed to unbutton and let loose. Weak supporting parts notwithstanding, Elvis & Nixon is a graceland for larger-than-life characters. It’s a movie where every actor has to fight in some scenes to be taken seriously, but hey, this isn’t heavy drama, so what does it really matter in the end as long as we have some fun with it?

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Recommendation: Elvis & Nixon turns out to be a very fleeting event. It essentially improvises one of the stranger moments in the Nixon presidency by giving us a visual of what happened behind closed doors. It’s a film for those looking for less intense Kevin Spacey and Michael Shannon-lite. That doesn’t mean that this is an altogether forgettable film, though. The fact that this very bizarre afternoon really happened is likely to stay with you for some time.

Rated: R

Running Time: 86 mins.

Quoted: “Who the f**k set this up?”

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

Paul G — #2

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Last time we were here, Paul was getting all his buttons pushed by controversial radio deejay Howard Stern in the underrated 1997 comedy/biopic Private Parts. In that first edition of this latest character study we became privy to Paul’s intense irascibility, and as crazy as he became he was on some level, empathetic due to the kinds of circus tricks Stern put him through. This time though let’s take a look at a performance that is far less defensible, if it’s defensible at all.

Paul G as Dr Eugene Landy

Paul Giamatti as Dr. Eugene Landy in Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Drama/biopic

Plot Synopsis: In the 1960s, Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson struggles with emerging psychosis as he attempts to craft his avant-garde pop masterpiece. In the 1980s, he is a broken, confused man under the 24-hour watch of shady therapist Dr. Eugene Landy.

Character Profile: Dr. Eugene Landy was a well-known therapist/psychotherapist renowned for his unorthodox round-the-clock therapy but better known for the many ethical violations associated with former patients, most notably Beach Boys’ vocalist Brian Wilson. Brian Wilson might have been his most high-profile case but he was also employed by other celebrities including Alice Cooper, Richard Harris, Rod Steiger, Maureen McCormick and Gig Young. Landy was initially hired in 1975 but due to outrageous out of pocket expenses he was relieved, only to be re-employed in 1983. His style of therapy was invasive to say the least. Treatment was more comparable to applying a vice grip around Wilson’s neck, as every aspect of Wilson’s life became highly controlled — Landy eventually gained control over his recordings, eventually becoming his executive producer, business manager and business adviser. Medication was regulated and even Wilson’s diet fell under the column of things his doctor ought to control. Landy’s relationship with Wilson was ended permanently in a restraining order. He would also have all professional licenses revoked by the state of California on the grounds of patient misconduct.

Why he’s the man: Paul Giamatti’s slime ball character is a perfect match for the actor’s skill set, particularly when dealing with a man who’s less a villain as he is a thoroughly unlikable human being. (There is a difference.) Though in this case his Eugene Landy comes damn close to becoming one, though never a caricature. In the role Giamatti exudes confidence as a professional who believes he is doing what’s right for the client while equally believing he can profit from his calculated methodology. It’s sickening stuff and Giamatti unsurprisingly delivers a nasty performance that makes it that much easier to root for our beloved Brian Wilson. One of the four pillars that made this film such a phenomenal and deeply emotional production.

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Photo credits: http://www.theweeklings.com 

Paul G — #1

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The spotlight turns to another actor I consider quite the chameleon. It’s Paul Giamatti, of course, a guy who could do pretty much anything. Hand him some oranges and he’d make some delicious apple juice out of it. The 48-year-old New Haven, Connecticut native has contributed his talents to an impressive range of films of both comedic and dramatic appeal. The guy has rarely plays someone who isn’t complicated on some level, and he’s just as good at the sleaze ball villain as he is the nice guy you kind of want to be neighbors with. It’s time now to talk about Paul G, the man, the myth, the legend. But more than anything else, he’s the man. 

Paul Giamatti as Kenny in 'Private Parts'

Paul Giamatti as Kenny “Pig Vomit” Rushton in Betty Thomas’ Private Parts

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Comedy/biopic

Plot Synopsis: The autobiographical story of Howard Stern, the radio rebel who is now also a TV personality, an author and a movie star.

Character Profile: Kenny is the program director at WNBC in New York City, the very radio station the controversial disc jockey Howard Stern aspires to join. When Stern is hired by the station, upper management isn’t prepared for the shitstorm that is to come. Kenny voluntarily shoulders the burden of corralling Stern himself. There will be no bringing women to orgasm over the air like he did in Washington D.C. This is a serious station with standards to meet and Kenny threatens to fire him should anything get out of hand. Things soon get out of hand.

Why he’s the man: Giamatti plays up the corporate slime ball perfectly, assaying a role that’s as fun to root against as it is to root for Stern. Classic antagonistic relationship, despite its many embellishments, earns Private Parts much of its reputation. This may be a dramatization of the meteoric rise of a different kind of radio personality, but you simply cannot talk about Stern’s success without talking about his struggles, and Giamatti seems more than prepared to offer up himself as one of his great career hurdles. It’s too much fun watching how quickly and effectively the two drive each other to the breaking point.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):

 


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Because Oscar Said So: Best Supporting Actor Nominees

BOSS - best actor nominees feature image

Because Oscar Said So (B.O.S.S. for short) is yet another first for this blog. In years past I haven’t spent much time going into detail about the major categories recognized at the Oscars ceremony, particularly the official selections as quite often I find myself at odds with the Academy’s choices. Longtime readers of the site know that I like to take matters into my own hands by putting together a mock awards ceremony, a post in which I overwhelm my poor readers with my ramblings on break down several different aspects of the year in film. If you’ve yet to come across The Digibread Awards, you can click here to find out what’s up with all of that.

When it comes to my reaction to the official recognition of achievement in the acting categories, this year has been a little different as I’ve found myself agreeing with an unusually high percentage of the names that have made the Oscar’s shortlist, and now I would like to offer some thoughts on the subject; hence, B.O.S.S. This two-part post shall manifest as Thomas J’s coverage of outstanding achievements in a supporting role for the year 2015. Why the supporting roles, you ask? Great question.

While I made a concerted effort to see as many films as I could where the odds of making an appearance at the Oscars in February were very much in their favor, I wasn’t entirely successful and therefore I can’t comment on every lead performance that’s been nominated. (Missing from my list is Charlotte Rampling’s Kate Mercer in 45 Years, and Brie Larson’s “Ma” in Room.) That’s a major motivation to look to other categories.Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone in 'Creed'

Secondly, I find the supporting role category needs a stronger cheering section. There’s almost no comparison between the amount of recognition headlining names get versus those of supporting players. And yet, when it comes right down to it, preparation for each type of role is far more comparable — particularly when supporting parts become so substantial that the line between ‘lead’ and ‘support’ begins to truly blur. However, with prestigious lists like the ones we have this year, perhaps the tide is slowly changing. Names like Christian Bale, Tom Hardy and Sylvester Stallone are so large you’d be forgiven for assuming these are the film’s major stars . . but in these cases, they are indeed taking a backseat to other talent, or at the very least they’re willing to share the spotlight. The relative humility is refreshing.

Basic (read: compulsory or less memorable) supporting roles offer, if nothing else, structure to a given story. Strong support affords emotional balance (or occasionally the lack thereof) and perspective; superior actors know how to interact with more prominent characters, while lending both depth to the environment (be it fictitious or real) and credibility to the story being told. Fulfilling a supporting role doesn’t necessarily mean one has an easier task ahead of them than a lead, though. Often it can be a thankless proposition, with a variety of factors playing host to challenges both large and small, including, but certainly not limited to significant physical, emotional and psychological transformations. Actors take on these assignments and the research necessary to bring the characters to life, all while knowing they’re not going to be receiving the level of attention some of their colleagues undoubtedly will.

Rare are the productions that don’t require supporting parts to occupy screen space in some way, shape or form; only two films come to mind in the past several years (that I’ve reviewed, anyway) in which a single actor was called upon to carry the entire film. Those films, Locke and All is Lost, are rare exceptions — low budget but ultimately high risk productions. But if done well, these can be incredibly effective.

When it comes to this crop of nominees, there seems to be a movement towards bigger, stronger, more popular casting and films like Adam McKay’s The Big Short and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant — the former a dramatic comedy centered around the collapse of the housing and credit bubble of 2008, the latter a brooding take on life on the frontier in 19th century America — epitomize star-studded casts.

Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes in 'Spotlight'

Christian Bale has been selected for his contributions to the energetic but awkward financial flick, playing hedge fund manager Michael Burry, who is one of the first to point out the instability of subprime mortgage loans circa 2005. The role is a completely different beast for Bale who has spent a lifetime putting on dramatic disguises and turning in powerful performance after powerful performance. He’s nearly unrecognizable in  a role this casual; the portrayal of a man who prefers to listen to death metal while at work, and parading around the office without shoes on.

Tom Hardy (who happens to be the star of that one-man road show Locke), on the other hand, cranks up the intensity with his portrayal of 19th Century fur trapper John Fitzgerald. He manifests as The Revenant‘s primary antagonist and conveys open hostility from the word ‘go.’ The man is ferocious in a film that demands a lot from its actors. In fact he’s so good the Academy likely is going to find a way to deny Leo once more, stripping him of the Best Leading Actor trophy and bestowing it upon the native Londoner. It would be a move that would surprise very few.

Sylvester Stallone makes a triumphant return to glory, reinvesting in his iconic Rocky Balboa but this time with an entirely different energy and sense of purpose. Here’s a supporting role that has already garnered a Golden Globe and a global standing ovation for the Rocky we have come to know and love has matured into his latter years with uncommon grace, providing a mentor figure that most sports films require, only this one is far more believable than any other that have come before. I suppose it helps that Stallone has lost none of his imposing physique. Sure, he’s older but the guy is still a massive screen presence and the material surrounding him elevates a performance with gravitas already built in.

There are quieter, more humbled performances lying in wait this year as well. Mark Ruffalo and Mark Rylance turn in tremendous work with their respective contributions to fact-based stories Spotlight and Bridge of Spies. Whereas the former focused on the troubling investigation into the molestation of children at the hands of Boston-area priests, the latter finds Steven Spielberg once more tapping into the history books as a source of inspiration. Spies revolves around the tensions between American and Russian diplomacy, when a suspected Communist spy is arrested in New York only to be represented by insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks); meanwhile, an American pilot is downed over Russian soil, leading to a protracted set of negations and creating a drama that resembles a high-stakes chess match.

Of all the nominees this year it’s Ruffalo who is most likely to go home empty-handed this year as in my opinion his work isn’t all that distinguishable from his co-stars — and that’s a very, very good thing. His Michael Rezendes, a contributing reporter to the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team, epitomizes actors sharing in the burden of absorbing an information-dense and conceptually rich script. The work from the others (Michael Keaton, John Slattery, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Brian d’Arcy James) is just as outstanding, and it seems odd to single out any of the actors if the entire cast can’t take the stage in February. (Of course, I realize the fantasy of that argument. The Academy isn’t exactly fair.)

Rylance is subtle and graceful as the suspected Communist, casting a shadow that’s nearly as long as that of the legendary Tom Hanks. He’s not too shabby for an actor who has worked most of his life in theater, and this relative break-out performance is one not to be missed by anyone who has typically got along well with the Spielbergian brand. Never mind the fact political movies always seem to curry favor with critics, it’s quite possible we have a  dark horse in our midst with his restrained, brilliantly nuanced performance. Sweating over whether he’s a lock seems to be both a waste of time and energy, though. Would it help?

Ultimately the call isn’t mine to make. It isn’t up to any of us to decide; it’s up to whoever happens to be announcing the winner on stage in the Dolby Theater. And for anyone watching on, we just have to trust that the name that echoes throughout that auditorium, is the same name that’s written on the index card. Sure, the popular vote counts for a lot, but if it has taken Leo this long to get to a place where he seems like a shoe-in for Best Actor in a Leading Role, I’m prepared for all kinds of surprises. The argument that the Oscars are rigged is a bit overblown but there’s no doubt the politicization of the whole thing is very much a reality we have to deal with. Who really ought to go home with the trophy? That’s another great question, to which I can only respond: it’s whoever’s name gets called on that fateful night.

Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel in 'Bridge of Spies'

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