The Scarlett Johansson Project

Indeed, it’s time to do another one.

What do you think of the choice?


Scarlett Johansson’s movies have grossed a total of $14 billion, making her the third-highest grossing box office star of all-time. That alone kind of makes her an easy choice for my next Actor Profile. Add to that the fact she stars alongside Bill Murray in one of my favorite movies of all time.

The native New Yorker is, of course, a stunningly beautiful movie star, but as her impressive résumé proves she’s far more than a sex symbol. As she moved into her late 20s (and now in her mid-30s especially) Scarlett’s been seeking out roles that are both strange and complex. Her striking canvas has been used in a variety of interesting ways. Her sultry voice somehow lent profound humanity to an advanced AI. It gave a jungle-dwelling cobra a certain hiss. She’s also proven herself capable of the more athletic acting gigs that are required when you sign on to the MCU, portraying Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow starting in 2010 with Iron Man Mark 2.* And 2019 was a particularly red-letter year for Scarlett, having become the first actress nominated for an Academy Award in both a supporting and leading role in the same year since Cate Blanchett in 2007. She’s fast become one of my favorite modern actresses and I’m really excited to share a few thoughts on some of her roles over the next year. I hope you are along for the ride!

For the first time here I’d like to open this up to my readers. I’m going to be selective with what roles I talk about — I can’t get to all of them unfortunately — but I’d like to hear what roles YOU think I should go with here. (Let’s ignore Black Widow, the Female, Kaa and Charlotte as I’ve already mentioned those above and they’re automatic shoo-ins.)

The Scarlett Johansson Project officially kicks off at the end of February — so please sound off in the comments ASAP!

* seriously, why wasn’t this the title? what a missed opportunity

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Photo credits: Giphy 

The Marvelous Brie Larson — #5

Welcome back to another edition of my latest Actor Profile, The Marvelous Brie Larson, a monthly series revolving around the silver screen performances of one of my favorite actresses. If you are a newcomer to this series, the idea behind this feature is to bring attention to a specific performer and their skill sets and to see how they contribute to a story.

Okay, it’s probably not the best time to be bringing up a summer blockbuster, not for us in the northern hemisphere at least as we slip into the early autumn, but here goes this anyway.

We’ve all seen this one. Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ 2017 Monster-verse contribution came in the form of Kong: Skull Island. It immediately followed up Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla. It was a cotton candy blockbuster that put fun first and character and symbolism second. It’s not a storyline that reinvents monster mayhem in any significant way but the film does benefit from a distinct ’70s milieu and a stellar (and I mean STELLAR cast — including a memorably antagonistic Samuel L. Jackson, who actually makes this installment more appropriate as it was during this film shoot when Jackson campaigned hard for Larson to put him in her directorial debut Unicorn Store, the previous role I highlighted for this feature).

There’s no denying the movie delivers in its capacity as a crowd-pleasing, goofy throwback to creature features of the past. And while the characters certainly aren’t the main attraction here (sorry Brie, it’s true) she fits in to this crazy world with ease, fulfilling a role that’s arguably the closest to providing an audience proxy than any of the other famous faces along for the ride.

Brie Larson as Mason Weaver in Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island 

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Action/adventure/fantasy

Premise: After the Vietnam war, a team of scientists explores an uncharted island in the Pacific, venturing into the domain of the mighty Kong, and must fight to escape a primal Eden.

Character Background: Just to start off, I’d like to say how relieved I was to learn this wasn’t going to be yet another Kong-goes-to-New-York story, which necessarily meant the fate of the lone woman in this big burly blockbuster wasn’t going to be anything like the classic Ann Darrow/damsel-in-distress arc made famous by Fay Wray and most recently inhabited by Naomi Watts in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake. (And can I also just say how much I hated how excessively indulgent that movie’s running time was?)

Mason Weaver is a natural fit for Larson’s preference for playing strong, independent female characters. Self-described as an “anti-war photographer,” Mason is a woman of conviction and toughness who has leveraged her experience in capturing humanity at its worst into securing a coveted position on an “exploratory” mission to the mysterious Skull Island, an expedition Mason has strong suspicions is not what Monarch researcher Bill Randa (John Goodman) initially describes it as. Raised a pacifist, Mason’s biggest obstacle isn’t a 100-foot-tall gorilla who can fling helicopters for miles or slings 50-foot-tall trees like missiles, but rather the aggressive and war-crazed Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Packard believes it’s hippie journalists like Mason who undermined the American presence in ‘Nam, and some of the best scenes in the movie result from the pair’s starkly opposed viewpoints on whether to kill Kong or . . . let him Rule.

Larson had appeared in some fairly high-profile movies prior to Skull Island (a supporting role alongside Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his directorial debut Don Jon; with minor parts in popular comedies 21 Jump Street and Trainwreck) but as an action blockbuster this is decidedly new territory. Like her costars Larson had to base much of her performance around reactions to images she was provided of characters’ spacial relationships to Kong via an incredible augmented reality app provided by visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic (whose undeniably breathtaking work earned the film an Oscar nomination). That she was convincing and sympathetic in that capacity surely must have convinced someone at Marvel of the indie darling’s ability to play to a bigger crowd at the cineplex.

Marvel at this Scene: 

I can’t help but feel like this is meant to be a tribute to the Jurassic Park scene where Lex reaches out toward a brachiosaurus with a runny nose. The ultimate in human-giant creature diplomacy. Fortunately this one doesn’t end in someone getting covered in snot. This is quite literally a touching scene, Mason having the unique opportunity to show Kong not everyone here is all about killing and exploiting.

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

The Marvelous Brie Larson — #1

And here we go! Welcome to a brand new edition of Actor Profiles — with a slight twist. Whereas my previous features focused on well-established actors, this time I am drawing attention to a star on the rise — the marvelous Brie Larson. I suppose you could make the argument she has already arrived, having been validated by the Academy in 2016 for her heartbreaking turn in Room, and she is about to be the new face of the MCU when she becomes Captain Marvel this March. Still, even with those achievements she still isn’t quite a household name.

The idea behind this feature is to bring attention to a specific performer and their skillsets and to see how they contribute to a story. This probably goes without saying, but I will be focusing on how they POSITIVELY affect an experience. It would seem counterintuitive to feature roles in which they weren’t very good, were ill-fit or the movie overall was just plain bad. Of course, there is always that rare occasion where a great performance can single-handedly improve a fundamentally poor movie, so I won’t rule out that possibility.

Luckily that isn’t the case here, as the first installment features Brie Larson in her very first leading role. The movie is an absolute knock-out and Larson’s complex, emotionally vulnerable performance plays a major factor.

Brie Larson as Grace Howard in Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12

Role Type: Lead

Genre: Drama/inspirational

Premise: A 20-something supervising staff member of a residential treatment facility navigates the troubled waters of that world alongside her co-worker and longtime boyfriend.

Character Background: As part of the staff of Short Term 12, a shelter for troubled and neglected youths where they can stay up until the age of 18 (at which point they “age out,” being legally recognized as adults), Grace Howard is a kind, empathetic supervisor always willing to listen and someone who is able to deal with a variety of delicate, sometimes literally life-and-death situations. Outwardly Grace seems like a complete, well-adjusted young woman — she lives with her loving and supportive boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), with whom she is expecting her first child, and she both enjoys her job and is good at it. But two key supporting characters along the way help us get to know Grace on a much more personal level and what motivates her to take on such uniquely challenging and exhausting work. One is Marcus, one such resident about to turn 18 and who is struggling with the prospect of leaving the facility. While Marcus (brought to life by a brutally honest performance from Lakeith Stanfield) proves to be a litmus test for her abilities as a professional, it is really the newcomer Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) — a tortured soul because of her violently and sexually abusive father — with whom Grace identifies the most and causes her to look inwards in ways she hasn’t before. The writing and character development gives her a strong foundation, true, but it is Larson’s dignity, naturalism and staggering confidence that makes Grace fully human and in that way unforgettable.

Marvel at this scene:

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work):


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

Because Oscar Said So: Best Supporting Actress Nominees

BOSS - supporting actress nominees

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 break down overwhelm my poor readers with my ramblings on 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.

I talked at some length (maybe rambled is the better term) about the Oscar nominations for Best Actor in a Supporting Role last time, so naturally the conversation  turns now to the Supporting Actress nominees. If you’re wondering why I’m focusing on the supporting roles instead of the leads, I refer you back to that post here.

The year 2015 marked some improvement in the availability of strong female characters, and thankfully these ran the gamut from mega-popular leads (Daisy Ridley, is she a lead or a supporter? Whatever she is, unfortunately one thing she is not is an Oscar contender anymore) to more subtle, less commercial-friendly bit parts (Alicia Vikander has been ridiculously busy this year but only one of her roles has garnered the Academy’s attention). Still, 2015 does have strength in numbers.

We already know Gal Gadot is about to become the year’s most fervently discussed heroine, stepping into the role of Diana Prince/Wonder Woman in the upcoming mega-blockbuster Superman vs Batman: Dawn of Justice. (Have fun dealing with those press junkets!) Amy Adams will be right there with her, albeit probably not quite as prominently in the conversation, and likely will be still fielding questions as to whether she was the right fit for Lois Lane.

Alicia Vikander as Gerda Wegener in 'The Danish Girl'

Looking ahead at the 2016 slate, opportunities once again abound for female leads and supporting performances. The Natalie Portman-starring western Jane Got a Gun (a by-now infamously troubled production), finally set to premier at the end of January, features Portman as one of two or three women in the entire film; contrast that with indie drama About Ray and the hotly contested remake of the Ivan Reitman classic Ghost Busters, a production attempting to further distinguish itself by pushing the words together to form Ghostbusters — how crafty.

Like them or not, these are some of the year’s most notable productions. The headstrong rebel fighting for survival in a dystopian world remains alive and well this year, with the final installment in the Divergent series set for a mid-March release. Meanwhile, Melissa McCarthy continues to try to impress with her ability to carry an entire movie on her back in the form of The Boss. Kristen Bell, for some reason, found something to like about the story and she’ll offer support.

That’s of course just a small sample of what the year has on offer, but suffice it to say that’s already a pretty eclectic mix of things to look forward to. One could make the argument that last year still has the upper hand in terms of offering more prominent roles for female talent, and that’s a difficult argument to defend against. But 2016 won’t go down without a fight. Felicity Jones takes on perhaps a career-defining role in the upcoming Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One, which is looking to be unleashed upon rabid audiences this coming  December. I think the only obvious question that should be asked is how will Jones compete against Daisy Ridley’s break-out performance as the orphan Rey, within whom the force apparently has awoken?

But enough about the lead performances. B.O.S.S. isn’t interested in those insanely high-profile characters (even though I know I am) — this is all about shining a light on the top-grade supporting performances we were treated to last year. With one major exception, I find myself once again nodding in agreement far more this time around than I have in years past. Maybe it’s just that I was able to see more award-contenders this year than I have before; or maybe I just got lucky. Whatever the case, the five actresses on display here are more than deserving of any and all accolades that have been coming their way.

Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet in 'Carol'

Picking a truly dominant performance from this batch is nigh on impossible. Kate Winslet perhaps comes the closest to being a lock, what with her typically effortless grace and charm lending her Joanna Hoffman, marketing executive under the thumb of one Steve Jobs, a power that rivaled that of Michael Fassbender’s eminently watchable and simultaneously loathsome Apple co-founder. Joanna Hoffman is imbued with the kind of humanity that leaves viewers with little choice other than to empathize with her as Jobs’ petulant behavior reaches critical mass. Time after time she’s the one left picking up the pieces of a slowly crumbling man who would rather deny his responsibility to family than sacrifice a single opportunity to show off his new shiny toys.

The biggest surprise nomination has to be Jennifer Jason Leigh’s contribution to The Hateful Eight, the brand new chapter in Quentin Tarantino’s apparently very finite filmography. As Daisy Domergue, two-thirds of Leigh’s presence is rendered silent, and that’s by design. For most of the runtime, any time she speaks she is rewarded with violence at the hands of Kurt Russell’s hostile John “The Hangman” Ruth, who, as it turns out, makes for a rather lousy bounty hunter. (Perhaps he shouldn’t have kept his captives alive after all.)

Swedish actress Alicia Vikander has exploded onto the scene this year with a trio of compelling performances — and, okay, a fourth that has been too easily forgotten (let’s just blame Burnt for being a disappointingly undercooked dish). Her work as an exceptionally intelligent machine in Alex Garland’s scintillating Ex Machina introduced her to a massive audience, blurring the line between human and robotic intelligence. She then moved into a slightly less demanding capacity playing a pseudo damsel-in-distress in Guy Ritchie’s throwback action-comedy The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Admittedly this role hewed much too close to stereotype, though Vikander still made it work).

Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman in 'Steve Jobs'

But it would ultimately be her emotionally hefty supporting part in The Danish Girl — the story of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, one of the world’s first recipients of gender reassignment surgery, in which she played Gerda Wegener, wife of Einar/Lili — that would earn her serious attention from the Academy. Will her own emotional transformation — from quiet outrage to eventual acceptance — be enough to actually win her the coveted trophy though?

The most subtle of all the selections this year are almost certainly Rooney Mara’s interpretation of Therese Belivet, a young lesbian who falls for an older, more sophisticated and upper-class woman named Carol (Cate Blanchett, herself in the running for Best Leading Actress); and Rachel McAdams’ resilient and emotionally restrained Sacha Pfeiffer, a Boston Globe reporter who helped expose the decades-long cover up of the Catholic church’s involvement in child molestation at the hands of Boston area priests. Neither of these performances are the flashiest you’ll see this year but they’re certainly deserving of recognition, if for no other reason than they’re marks of exceptional maturity for both actresses.

All five of these nominees have epitomized why Hollywood should be populating the cinematic calendar with more female-driven productions. Each one of these unforgettable characters lend significant weight to their respective projects and I for one am delighted to see their hard work pay off. As easy as it is to criticize Hollywood sometimes, it is, slowly but surely, moving in the right direction.

Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer in 'Spotlight'

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Photo credits: http://www.popsugar.com; http://www.comingsoon.net; http://www.time.com; http://www.aroundmovies.com; http://www.servingcinema.com; http://www.variety.com; http://www.hypable.com; http://www.historyvshollywood.com 

Exclusive Interview: Jennifer Laporte Talks ‘Clinger’

 

Greetings! As part of my contributions to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings, I had the opportunity to chat with one of the leads in Clinger, a horror comedy I recently reviewed. Jennifer Laporte was cool enough to take some time out of her schedule to chat about her role in the film, and how her work in theatrical productions have helped shape her young career. Please enjoy the interview over at Mr. Rumsey! Thanks again, James.

Everly

Release: Friday, February 27, 2015

[Redbox]

Written by: Yale Hannon

Directed by: Joe Lynch

There’s an unshakable sense Joe Lynch and company didn’t fully appreciate the opportunity they had with Salma Hayek playing the lead in this economical, often comically violent home invasion thriller.

Despite having a strong presence Hayek is relegated to the role of Donkey Kong: all she must do is survive an incoming wave of bad guys and, barring something just completely off-the-wall in the script, she’ll be home free. Er, in a manner of speaking. She’s actually home the entire time, as Everly rarely leaves the confines of an upscale loft apartment, and when it does it saunters out into the hallway for a few long seconds just to see if the coast is clear. But it rarely is, and Everly is certainly not free.

If it’s not giving the film too much credit, Everly seems to harp on the idea of freedom more than its bloody special effects. On a small scale, Everly wants needs to be free of the physical and mental anguish brought on by her psychotic ex-boyfriend Taiko (Hiroyuki Watanabe). That her family winds up getting in the middle of several attacks (albeit on the back of some extremely foolish decisions) is surely reason enough for Everly to break free of her dark, dangerous past. Ironic that Lynch’s film can’t break free from the mould of the typical brainless action outing. Everly’s background is as unknown as the environment outside this building. And if there is freedom to be found it exists only in the physical: some way of escaping this hell-hole.

Everly’s ability to defend herself, while more often than not entertaining, makes her a thorough enigma if we are in fact meant to be rooting for her. Given the waves upon waves of attackers, each one seemingly more violent and depraved than the last, we want to assume Everly’s done something worse than cheat on poor Taiko; surely no degree of infidelity would justify this kind of a response. While the various intrusions mark Everly a prisoner in her own home her natural ability to quickly solve each recurrence of that very problem necessarily redirects a spotlight back upon her past. Alas, we don’t ever fully get to understand Everly.

As she exists in this version of the film — the final product, sadly — Everly is neither person nor prisoner. She’s a heavily-tattooed survivalist with no last name. Her current predicament, no more complicated than that classic video game. The controls are basically run, shoot/throw things, duck and hide. Despite Hayek’s faintly detectable humanity — even though, ew, she’s a hooker and shame on her for not being around for her young daughter — she doesn’t get to leave the stinging impression that the physicality of her performance wants her to. Drama is far more obsessed with getting even, an eye-for-an-eye when at least one of those eyes should be focused on the details. Like, why we should care about any of this.

While it’s good to see a female spin on this steadily-growing subgenre of action films popularized by Liam Neeson and his brand of vengeance-seeking, Everly overcompensates for its casting, eventuating in a grotesquely violent shocker that will be remembered less for Hayek’s energy than it will be for the blood stains it leaves behind.

“Say ‘Hola’ to my little friend!!!”

Recommendation: For those desensitized to brutal action, Everly delivers a lot of the good/red stuff. It’s suitably a short-lived home invasion and the experience packs in enough disturbing events to satisfy those sorts of fans but it’s a problem having someone as talented as Hayek in a role so poorly developed. She’s too mysterious to embrace but nowhere near sadistic to be rejected. Sad to say Everly is one to watch less for the character/actress than the crafty little kills she’s responsible for throughout.

Rated: R

Running Time: 92 mins.

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

The Overnight

Release: Friday, June 19, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Patrick Brice

Directed by: Patrick Brice

This one time, at Jason Schwartzman’s house . . .

No, but seriously. This is no band-camp experience; this is a movie about adults having a sleepover. Wait, that sounds even weirder. Schwartzman’s Kurt is hosting. Well, he and his wife Charlotte (Judith Godrèche) are and they want to do everything they can to ensure all guests enjoy themselves. The occasion? Welcoming some new friends to the neighborhood.

Recently relocated couple Alex and Emily (Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling) have been having a hard time finding their crowd in suburban Los Angeles. One afternoon they happen upon Kurt when his son Max and Alex and Emily’s son R.J. become fast friends at a local playground. Kurt is empathetic to the newcomers’ situation and invites them over for dinner and drinks and even offers to help them find ways to branch out in their community. Though a little strange, Kurt seems like a genuine person so the couple accept.

Given its often surprising direction, a title like The Overnight winds up being sufficiently vague, even if there’s barely enough material to justify a full-length feature. Running a scant 80 minutes, young writer-director Patrick Brice’s new film begins as an innocent play-date amongst four thirtysomethings with children. However, it’s after the children have gone to sleep where we really start to reap the benefits of a rather nondescript title: while we stay within the luxurious confines of Kurt and Charlotte’s beautiful, bohemian abode we dive into another world marked by a perverse subversion of social etiquette and/or the complete absence of personal boundaries. After the children have gone to sleep, things get weird.

On the surface, The Overnight asks of whatever small audience it is going to find what lengths would we go to in order to make new friends in a strange city? Where would we draw the line at a party hosted by people we have only known a day or so? Said party involves the usual — drugs and alcohol (of course) — but what if, for the sake of our supposed enjoyment, it took a turn for the surreal? Do we draw the line before or after skinny dipping has been suggested?

Digging beneath that surface, Brice’s sex comedy won’t exactly inspire the most profound conversation, but it goes deeper than just a raunchy sketch. An intimate portrayal of two long-time couples seeking — accidentally or not (certainly not without some cringe-inducing moments) — sexual gratification, The Overnight could inspire some pillow-talk. Finding ways to spice up a couple’s romantic life doesn’t necessarily lend itself to dinner conversation, but that’s why Brice has the kids put to bed and has created a suitably dynamic environment in which such a discussion can take place naturally. Or as naturally as possible with these people involved. Needless to say the affairs become pretty personal; the opening scene has become a great barometer for the party environment into which we step.

Brice’s sophomore effort feels more like a series of personal confessions of people we know caught on film than a comedy performed by seasoned actors. It’s a precariously slight production, liable to be forgotten all too soon. Still, a very game cast help make this series of escalating, bizarre scenarios more pleasurable than it has any right to be.

Recommendation: Suffice it to say this won’t be the most substantial film you’ll see this year — it’ll likely finish second if you manage to limit your movie watching to just two all year — but that doesn’t mean it’s not good. It’s worth a look if you’re a fan of the kinds of shenanigans Adam Scott seems to find himself in a lot. In fact the entire cast is really likable and the situations, though they get weird, are pretty fun to see get played out. The Overnight would probably function better as a short film or even a series of shorts, but as a sex comedy, it finds minor success. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 79 mins.

Quoted: “I feel like I just gave birth to myself.”

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

Hateship Loveship

hateship-loveship-movie-poster

Release: Friday, April 11, 2014 (limited)

[Redbox]

Written by:  Mark Jude Poirier

Directed by: Liza Johnson

At a certain point, restrained filmmaking can put a strain on its relationship with its audience. Liza Johnson’s thoughtful but underwhelming Hateship Loveship is a film that dares to be subtle, so much so that it has trouble balancing its thematic and entertainment responsibilities.

Despite the oddball title Johnson manages to skirt around pretentiousness but the end result might be something worse: Hateship Loveship is a boring outing. This despite arguably its star, the versatile Kristen Wiig’s finest performance to date. This despite a grab-bag of reliable performers playing second fiddle to Wiig’s painfully awkward Johanna Parry. Indeed there are many things to like about the picture and the characters are up there with the most memorable of all the elements, but they are stranded in a story that focuses too heavily on the mundanities of existence.

Live-in-maid Johanna has known no other life than cleaning houses and taking care of her clients, the most recent of which has just passed away in their own bed, causing Johanna to move out. She lands a job tidying up Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte)’s lavish home and taking care of his granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld), daughter of alcoholic and absentee father Ken (Guy Pearce). Sabitha has a very bitchy friend whose uncanny resemblance to Justin Bieber may not be intentional but the convincingly spiteful performance by young actress Sami Gayle is. Moving on . . . Sabitha and Edith take an instant dislike to the quiet and uncomfortable new maid and when they learn of her receiving of a letter from Ken welcoming her to the job and giving her confidence they both use it as an opportunity to trick her into thinking he is romantically interested.

Through a series of well-written emails the pair of teens in effect cause Johanna to drop everything at the McCauley residence and make a hasty trip to Chicago, in search of Ken and a possible new start. When he is taken aback by her sudden appearance in his cluttered room within a ramshackle motel he owns (interestingly enough, this is the same motel/location used in Dallas Buyers Club) Johanna is — well, it’s pretty obvious what emotions she experiences. Er, no. Actually it isn’t. It ought to be, but the direction is understated to the point of being nonexistent. Wiig’s in a perpetual state of detachment so when this big moment happens the emotional fall-out barely registers as disappointment when it should be an all-out, visceral collapse into permanent introversion. The circumstances are ripe for heartbreak, but the moment passes rather quickly.

Of course, the film isn’t over. Hateship Loveship presents a relationship born out of uncertainty and despair. Okay, so it’s not exactly original storytelling but we needn’t ask for much here. We can get by on the rough charm of Pearce’s broken Ken and the profundity of Johanna’s social anxiety. They are quite obviously meant for one another the moment she begins scrubbing his hardwood floor with the determination to overcome her most recent betrayal while Ken stares blankly at her, a cigarette glued to his lips. Sadly there are no developments thereafter that spin the genre or can pick the audience up from what has become a collective, steady slump into their seats. The pacing is languid, the conversations rendered uninteresting by predictable human behavior; the drama is not to be found in a film described as part drama-part comedy.

And where, pray, is the comedic element? Barring a moment where Wiig slinks her way out of a door and mutters a “thank you” when Sabitha compliments her on her shoes, there is little of Wiig’s comedic self to be found. But that’s less important as she’s running a clinic on how to transform one’s self into a dramatic role. If there are meant to be bits of humor elsewhere they are overwhelmed (or underserved, depending on how you want to look at it) by the sobriety of this woman’s slow journey through time. Frankly her situation is anything but funny if you were to ask me . . . but I don’t think anyone is so let’s, again, move on.

Johnson’s movie is an adaptation of Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, the title story in a collection of short stories. Though rich in characterization, the slow pace and ultimate inconsequence of virtually every plot strand leaves very much to be desired. Hateship Loveship frustrates and defies expectations in the worst ways in its plainness. Perhaps it does have a higher purpose elsewhere, and that is left on paper.

guy-pearce-and-kristen-wiig-in-hateship-loveship

2-5Recommendation: So frustratingly, Kristen Wiig is a marvel as a detached and lonely woman who comes into her own when she meets a kind but equally emotionally fragile man. Guy Pearce and Nick Nolte turn in warm performances as well but they too are done a disservice with predictable character arcs. Characters are what make this somewhat watchable but the story is something of a slog and that is almost enough for me to recommend you save yourself from this one. . .

Rated: R

Running Time: 104 mins.

Quoted: “You’re, like, with her now, aren’t you . . .?”

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

Spare Parts

spare-parts-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 16, 2015 (limited) 

[Theater]

Written by: Elissa Matsueda

Directed by: Sean McNamara

Well-intentioned but also thoroughly cliched, Sean McNamara’s strict adherence to the inspirational Wired.com article ‘La Vida Robot’ still manages to surprise with an atypical performance from George Lopez.

Lopez plays Fredi Cameron, a substitute teacher whose inexperience with the troubled Carl Hayden Community High student body is predicted to eventually overwhelm him. A grilling interview with the principal (Jamie Lee Curtis) suggests he should take his engineering mind elsewhere. His character is actually an amalgamation of real-life instructors Fredi “Ledge” Lajvardi and Allen Cameron and is a personality that meshes well with Lopez’s kind eyes and warm smile.

Mr. Cameron decides to tough it out and soon discovers a group of students with some unique talent, the likes of which are doomed to be overlooked in favor of the statistical probability their undocumented status in the States will lead them down a dead-end road. There’s Oscar (Carlos PenaVega), a senior with aspirations of joining the Armed Forces after school and whose confidence masks his deep-seated fear of being deported; Lorenzo (José Julián), a 16-year-old with a penchant for getting into trouble on the streets but more importantly a mind for building and designing things; Cristian (David Del Rio), a genuinely good kid whose youth belies one of the sharpest minds in the community, possibly in the greater Phoenix area and whose home life has him living in a small shed off to the side of the house; and Luis (Oscar Gutierrez), a quiet and unconfident young man undoubtedly conscientious of his physical size and self-assessed lack of practical skills.

The foursome rally around an extremely amiable Lopez even as he’s somewhat reluctant to invest his own time in the school’s robotics club. He sees the kids desperately need some direction, but it’s not until he’s finally won the support of a cute colleague (Marisa Tomei), who believes the students don’t need any more misleading, that Mr. Cameron realizes his passion for engineering can actually marry with his desire to help others. The robotics club sets their sights on the underwater robotics competition hosted at the University of California, Santa Barbara where they will have to pit their $800 robot, built out of PVC piping and nicknamed ‘Stinky,’ against teams with arguably more talent, confidence and community support and most assuredly more financial aid.

The end result of said competition is a foregone conclusion since there’s now a film based on the story, but in getting there the journey really has to be seen to be believed. Spare Parts falls back on trope after trope but it’s not doing this to intentionally harm anyone’s image, least of all those of the student subjects. If anything — and here’s a more cynical way of considering the production — this is a career-booster for the Californian talk show host who has made a habit of providing ridiculous faces and fluff commentary on his show Lopez Tonight. Here he is putting in substantive work and it is appreciated. The actors portraying the students leave a stronger impression than Lopez, though and are the real stars of the show. Convincingly portraying the utter despair and turmoil that their individual situations have thrust them into, these relatively undiscovered actors will hopefully pick up some more work later on down the road.

Richard Wong’s gritty and saturated color palette tends to flick the dirt and grime of the Phoenix area in our faces with an effectiveness that might overshadow any other element present here. This world looks and feels real; intimate and often dimly-lit settings emphasize serious overtones that are otherwise frustratingly undermined by cringe-inducing dialogue and contrived plot development.

Spare Parts manages to sustain its enthusiastic spirit and reverence for not only Joshua Davis’ excellent in-depth examination but the team itself. It is a joy to see a visual interpretation of an extraordinary chapter in this Phoenix-based school, a school that has since gone on to receive global recognition for its technical achievements. However, that’s nothing compared to what these trials and tribulations have done for young Oscar, Lorenzo, Cristian and Luis. How do you not applaud these kids.

george-lopez-in-spare-parts

3-0Recommendation: An uplifting family drama through-and-through it’s difficult not to root for Spare Parts. It’s full of heart but also filled with a lot of things that could have been done much better to limit the eye-roll factor. And why, again, does Marisa Tomei have to be relegated to such a restricted role? Ugh. I’m getting tired of this; she’s better than this! Or, maybe not? Cliched or not, this is a story that does deserve to be watched. I give it one-and-a-half Roger Ebert thumbs up (one of my thumbs is like, turned sideways . . . or something).

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “They’re not adults, they’re kids. Every day in a hundred ways they are told they are worthless. . .”

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