The Scarlett Johansson Project — #9

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

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

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

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

Role Type: Supporting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work):

***/*****


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

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

The Marvelous Brie Larson — #4

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.

As I mentioned in my opening comments on the first edition of The Marvelous Brie Larson (you can find that here) watching an actor you really like take on a character or be involved in a movie that, for whatever reason, doesn’t end up working for you can be an interesting experience in itself. I find myself in that very position with this fourth installment.

The movie I’ve decided to talk about this month, Unicorn Store (on Netflix), has the added bonus of being the directorial début of Brie Larson so, really, how could this feature go without it? We might debate the meaning of the movie’s underlying metaphor, or how well it’s served by the film’s super-flowery style but what’s undeniable is how much of a passion project this was for her. In an interview with IndieWire she describes Unicorn Store as “such a weird abstract portrait of myself. It feels like the most vulnerable I’ve been with this quirky, fun, lighthearted comedy.”

While Unicorn Store has always been a project associated with words like ‘quirky,’ ‘imaginative’ and ‘colorful,’ it hasn’t always been specifically a Larson-centric film. Circa 2012 Australian actress Rebel Wilson was cast as the lead and Miguel Arteta (Youth in Revolt; Cedar Rapids) was going to be the director. Larson had auditioned for a part but the production never got underway. An Oscar win for her dramatic turn in Lenny Abrahamson’s Room (2015) changed her fortunes. She was approached by the right people at the right time to not only play the lead but direct something that would turn out to be more of a personal journey of discovery.

Brie Larson as Kit in Brie Larson’s Unicorn Store

Role Type: Lead

Genre: Comedy/drama/fantasy

Premise: A woman named Kit receives a mysterious invitation that would fulfill her childhood dreams.

Character Background: Larson oscillates between gratingly infantile and winsome in the lead as Kit, an emotionally immature twenty-something who drops/fails out of art school and is forced to reassess her dreams of making it as an artist when she has to move back in with her parents. It’s a tricky balancing act that the seasoned actress for the most part pulls off, though there are moments when her acting feels a little forceful and stilted. Kit’s a millennial with a sense of entitlement, natch, but she’s also completely relatable in her fears of failure and disappointing the people she cares most about. I have to be completely honest and say this isn’t among my favorite performances of hers, but Larson always remains sincere in the role — one of the qualities about her acting that has always kept me coming back. She’s not quite as natural in this movie as she is in, say, Room or Short Term 12, but there’s a playfulness to this character that I really enjoyed.

Marvel at this Scene: 

This scene is not only an encapsulation of the awkwardness of Larson’s character (and the movie as a whole, actually), but it merges together perceptions in a brilliant (if cringe-inducing) way: the reality vs the fantasy. What we picture happening in our heads so often doesn’t work out that way in practice. Larson plays this off to great comedic effect. I love this scene. It’s so incredibly awkward.

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: http://www.imdb.com 

Year in Review: 2018 on Thomas J! (Part 2 of 2)

In Part 2, we finish up the year (July thru December) in movie reviews, my seventh (technically sixth full-year) since first joining WordPress back in 2011. (Click here or just scroll your happy self to the bottom of this post if you missed Part 1!)

The back half of 2018 found Thomas J putting up 22 new film reviews, plus two more 30 for 30 pieces. Fair warning, this is a MUCH longer post than Part 1 (10 posts total). I probably should have taken into account the two months of NO REVIEWS that I had in the first half, and maybe restructured this whole thing. C’est la vie. Here is what the rest of my 2018 looked like:


July 

I celebrate my seventh year of blogging this month by posting a few thoughts on movies both political and comedic (and in one case, a bit of both). No celebratory post to mark the occasion, though sequels are a hit with me at this point in time apparently, with Sicario 2 and the new Ant-Man installment.

Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado: a sequel that struck me as unnecessary before I actually sat down to watch it. Soldado offers a far more traditional, action-driven film than what Denis Villeneuve supplied in Sicario, a white-knuckle thrill ride that packed a powerful sociopolitical punch. Yet its timeliness what with current border politics, in conjunction with its even more morbid, anything-goes attitude (again, timely) and the return of Josh Brolin and Benecio del Toro made this invitation impossible to decline. A lesser film absolutely, but one with its own unique thrills. I enjoyed it enough to want a third. I don’t say that often when it comes to sequels.

Ant-man and the Wasp: good things come in small packages, and the sequel to 2015’s charmingly diminutive Ant-man is further proof. Timing works in this film’s favor as well, occupying a very special place on the MCU timeline in the wake of the devastation brought on by Infinity War — it still cracks me up that that movie actually made people cry. Yet despite the calculated timing, what makes the sequel refreshing is that, just like the incredible shrinking Pym lab, the drama is very self-contained; there is almost nothing linking this film to the Avengers narrative at-large, with the exception of the constant berating Scott Lang receives from his former mentor and his daughter, Hope Van Dyne (a.k.a. The Wasp). Fun, fast-paced and . . . well, more time with Paul Rudd. Need I say more?

Sorry to Bother You: first of all, was this a dream or did this movie actually happen? Was anybody expecting this movie to be like . . . that? The Oakland, California-set directorial début of Chicago-born rapper and social justice activist Boots Riley epitomized uniqueness. From my review — “Perpetually forward-bounding with gusto and verve, with an intensely likable Lakeith Stanfield leading the charge, Sorry to Bother You is a strange but powerful experience that you really shouldn’t miss out on — even when there is a percent chance greater than fifty you walk away from it feeling something other than purely amused.”

Skyscraper: an amiable action thriller featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and the perpetually under-rated Neve Campbell that both functions as a throwback to classic action films of the ’90s (Die Hard, anyone?) and gives the former wrestler another platform for demonstrating his not-inconsiderable range. The family dynamic presented in Skyscraper is genuine, likable and creates a surprising amount of tension even as the action bits themselves stretch credulity well past the breaking point. Of the two Dwayne Johnson summer flicks that were on offer this year (Rampage being the other), the glimmering lights of Hong Kong’s impossibly lofty skyline was absolutely the place to be.

August

August is responsible for one of my favorite movies all year, actually a documentary. In stark contrast to that, I also have the misfortune of going against my better judgment and seeing the latest Jason “I act better when shirtless” Statham movie. Sports film coverage also makes a cameo appearance this month with my second (and quite accidentally, final) 30 for 30 review.

Three Identical Strangers: to put it simply, one of the best movies I have seen all year. This outrageous true story about three young boys discovering the true nature of their existence is entertaining, captivating and ultimately disturbing. Where do we draw the line between science and ethics? While there is a great deal of fun and excitement in the first half of the film, the revelations brought to light in the second are stomach-turning to say the least. You just can’t make this stuff up (even if I wish it were made up).

The Meg: yes, I saw this movie. Yes, I’ve seen worse, like Deep Blue Sea. But no, not the kind of ringing endorsement Statham et al were looking for, I can’t imagine.

 

 

Alpha: I really enjoyed this narratively simple but deliciously atmospheric survival film about a young Cro Magnon (Kodi Smit-McPhee) befriending a wolf (a Czech wolf dog named Chuck — I am actually not kidding) after he becomes separated from his tribe and father/tribal leader Tau (Game of Thrones‘ Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). The story isn’t very inventive but the filmmakers’ decision to create an entirely new language (comprised of roughly 1,500 words) really helped sell the authenticity of the period. Heartwarming without being overly sentimental.

30 for 30: Mike and the Mad Dog: a bonafide classic, especially for the New York sports fan. Details the relationship between oversized egos/sports jockeys Mike Francesa and Chris ‘Mad Dog’ Russo and their many (many!) ups and downs across a wild 19 years at WFAN 101.9 FM.

 

 

September

Things start to get kind of exciting (unless you are a Tennessee football fan). A new Spike Lee joint that had been sprayed with critical praise during its festival run finally opens to the public (granted back in August, but I wouldn’t get a review up until weeks later), while word-of-mouth about an unusual thriller about a father’s desperate search for his missing daughter starts to really pick up. (And now I see that that movie was also released the month prior. Damn it, I really have been playing catch-up this entire year!)

Searching: I could not — still cannot — believe how tense and emotional Aneesh Chaganty’s first feature film was. This was an absolutely fantastic conceit that became so much more than a gimmick. The story told of a father (an excellent John Cho) having to go to extreme lengths to track down the whereabouts of his suddenly missing daughter (Michelle La) by delving into her social media accounts in a desperate race-against-time, a seemingly hopeless search for the clues that could make the difference between miracle and tragedy.

BlacKkKlansman: this was one wild ride. Loosely based upon the 2014 memoir of the same name (minus that little ‘k’ that writer/director Spike Lee threw in there), it recounted the experiences of an undercover black police officer in the late 1970s, when he cozied up to a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in an effort to bring them down from the inside. Despite the foul regions of humanity it must poke and prod around in, BlacKkKlansman proved to be a mightily entertaining movie. It’s intermittently even beautiful, but more importantly it’s alarmingly relevant.

Operation Finale: a film that passed all too quietly, Chris Weitz’ handsomely mounted and smartly-casted Operation Finale takes audiences on a top secret mission into the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires, following a group of Israeli spies as they attempt to capture a high-ranking Nazi officer who fled Europe at the end of the war to seemingly escape without consequence. While the broader historical significance of the mission objective cannot be overstated, the drama is at its most compelling when it gets personal, when it explores the emotional rather than political stakes.

White Boy Rick: a drama about a wayward Detroit teen (introducing Richie Merritt) and his equally morally bankrupt father (Matthew McConaughey) getting into the coke-‘n-guns business in the Motor City circa the mid-’80s that just fell flat dramatically and really lacked an empathetic hook. I learned in this movie you can feel bad for a person’s circumstances without actually feeling bad for the individual. Barring a few moments here and there, this turned out to be a disappointingly middling effort from Yann Demange, the director of the sensationally gripping war drama ’71 (2014).

October

Even though I am not the biggest fan of horror, I was still disappointed in my lack of horror viewing this year. Particularly in the month of October. I wasn’t interested one iota in David Gordon Green’s retooled Halloween (“Hi, I’m Michael Myers. I have enormous psychological issues and now I am going to take them out on you!”) so I ostensibly skipped the month’s biggest event. Apostle is a Netflix horror that has picked up favorable reviews yet I still haven’t gotten to it; the revamped Suspiria never even ventured into my area and the only thing scary about the Goosebumps sequel was just how silly/geared-to-children it suddenly appeared. Thus:

A Star is Born: one of the true big hits of the year, a doomed love story that’s already been told three times before! The main attraction here was the excellent chemistry between stars Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga — the latter proving she can be as captivating a performer without all that ridiculous make-up and wardrobe as she can with it. I fell in love with the performances and the music, and apparently so did the world. For romantics, this movie is a must.

 

First Man: it kills me how contentious a release this became. If you want to live in ignorance that is your prerogative. But we went to the Moon and Damien Chazelle made a pretty jaw-dropping movie about it. I will happily have people disagree with me on that point. More specifically, he made a brilliantly personal film about what it might have felt like to become the first person to have stepped foot on two different worlds. There of course have been more since Neil Armstrong’s historic lunar walk (eleven in fact, four of whom are still living), but Neil was the first. A technical masterclass besides, First Man features one of the year’s most curious and intensely internalized performances from the enigmatic Ryan Gosling. And, as an aside, now that China has successfully planted a lander on the Dark (or much-less-cool-sounding “far”) Side of the Moon, I am sure there are those out there who are going to deny that, too. Go right ahead.

mid90s: an unexpected (not in terms of quality but rather subject matter and style — and yes, okay, a little in terms of quality too!) début for Jonah Hill, the once-pudgy star of such raunchy Judd Apatow-esque (and actual Judd Apatow-produced) comedies Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and SuperbadMid90s creates a fully lived-in environment with its urban setting, natural performances, smartly chosen locations, its street-skating-video aesthetic and eclectic musical choices, simultaneously inspiring whiffs of nostalgia for an era long since passed while never really trying that hard to be about nostalgia. A small but pretty valuable gem.

November 

This month introduces me to some of the year’s best — a small sample size for sure but two films that leave a lasting impression still.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Melissa McCarthy at the top of her game, and another potential top-five candidate for this reviewer. My goodness, I loved this movie. The performances are one thing, but the milieu is just perfect. I could smell the leather-bound books in the cute little bookstores dotted around Manhattan, feel the cold harsh of winter breathing down those streets. Smelled the stink of failure (and festering cat poop) within poor old Lee Israel’s dingy apartment. I actually don’t know what it was that prevented me from giving this a perfect score. However, I am not really in the habit of retroactively adjusting my ratings.

Avery: a fun post that found this apparently uninspired writer reviewing a snowstorm FFS. Yellow journalism at its finest.

 

 

 

 

Widows: the new Steve McQueen movie that I had been anticipating for nearly a year, with some trepidation! The British auteur was, until this film, 3/3 in terms of delivering grueling, hard-to-watch dramas about people living in hell-on-earth. Widows, which tells the story about four women having to atone for their husbands’ indiscretions when they rob from the wrong guy, is no slouch either, especially with the twist at the end there, but it isn’t quite as punishing as what has come before. Still, it is a far more robust genre film than you’re likely to get from almost anyone else, packing one hell of a timely message in amongst its gritty action.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web: a far less intriguing but nevertheless worthwhile follow-up to David Fincher’s 2010 hard-hitting The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Spider’s Web featured an impressive Claire Foy taking over from Rooney Mara. Heavy on style, much lighter on substance.

 

 

December

And I finish off 2018 strongly with five new reviews. No monthly wrap-up post nor any timely viewings/write-ups of seasonal releases old or new as celebrating the holiday season just, ya know, gets in the way. Again. Even with the best of intentions, I STILL have yet to see classics like It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street. (I know, I know . . . ) Plus working at a liquor store during the holidays tends to take something out of you.

Assassination Nation: if the popularity of this post was anything to go by, Sam Levinson’s scathing political/social media satire was not exactly the year’s hottest item. I was glad to have been one of the few to have seen it, even if it was tonally uneven and became kinda sanctimonious at the end. Still, you can’t deny the film’s energy and chutzpah. A Salem Witch Trials for our generation, this is one righteously angry film with a lot on its mind.

 

Free Solo: a documentary of great interest to me given I devoted 10+ years to climbing both indoors and outside. I worked at rock climbing gyms for several years, where I made some long-lasting friendships with some great people. Free Solo exposed the world-at-large to one of the great risk-takers in the game, one Alex Honnold. His goal to climb the world-famous El Capitan in Yosemite Valley without a rope was captured by Jimmy Chin and a team of creative minds that, due to the death-defying nature of the undertaking, had to rethink their entire approach to filming it. Honnold’s 3,000-foot free solo is one for the history books.

Beautiful Boy: I was completely and utterly moved by Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell, and perplexed by the lukewarm reviews the movie overall received. I thought this was a brutally authentic yet sensitive portrayal of drug addiction that had a well-defined emotional component to it that I latched on to right away. I may be in a minority on this one, but I am completely fine with that. “Everything. Everything.”

 

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse: an incredibly eye-popping trip into the pages of the iconic comic books of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Into the Spider-Verse just has to be one of the biggest surprises of the year. Into the Spider-Verse has it all: an incredible visual spectacle, a streamlined but hardly contrived narrative with a big heart and a great sense of humor, a villain with a compelling motive, one heartbreaking reveal and an emotive soundtrack. Best of all, the multiverse doesn’t require an intimate knowledge of what is canonical and what isn’t for you to really get inside it. A rare example of a PG-rated film earning a perfect 5 rating from me (for whatever that is worth).

Mock and Roll: okay, so this was a really cool way to cap off 2018 in movies. I was fortunate to have been contacted by Mark Stewart, one of the writers of this underground film from Columbus, Ohio. I haven’t reviewed a truly independent film in some time, so having this experience was a total refresher. It lit a fire under my ass to do some more digging and find more stuff like this. Silliness and hijinks run amok in this one. Stream the film on Amazon Prime, today!

 


Happy New Year everyone! Shall we do another round?

I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.

Release: Friday, February 24, 2017 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Written by: Macon Blair

Directed by: Macon Blair

In his directorial debut Macon Blair shows how much he’s learned from his Qui-Gon Jinn, the one and only Jeremy Saulnier, director of Murder Party, Blue Ruin and Green Room — all of which Blair has had at least a supporting part in. His cryptically titled I don’t feel at home in this world anymore. manifests as another economical, small-crime comedy that saves all its strength for one last, brutal outburst that pulls it right in line with everything Saulnier has done thus far.

I don’t feel at home in this world anymore. is about an idealistic, socially awkward woman named Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) who, after having her home broken into and having some valuable possessions stolen, goes on a moral crusade to find and confront the person(s) responsible, not just for taking her things but for violating her privacy. In the process she exposes herself to an underground world of crime she isn’t exactly prepared to take on.

Ruth is a textbook misanthrope. She doesn’t really believe in the innate goodness of people; rather, the opposite. In fairness, she has plenty of evidence presented to her on a daily basis that confirms those beliefs. And when the police, led by Detective Bendix (Gary Anthony Williams), exhibit comedic levels of resistance to her cause Ruth becomes utterly exasperated. She’s been disillusioned for some time but now she’s moved to action, a psychological tipping point which sets in motion the events of this darkly comedic suburban adventure.

The thirty-something-year-old nurse’s assistant forms an unlikely alliance with her eccentric neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood), a devout Christian who’s really into heavy metal, throwing stars and nunchakus. He agrees to help her track her stolen laptop and come along as back-up in case things get messy. Invariably the hapless gumshoes become the targets of a trio of thugs who suspect them of being, unwittingly or not, on a trail to discovering some larger agenda. When push finally comes to shove and rusty sawed-off shotguns start backfiring, things indeed become messy.

If there is one element that speaks to Blair’s influences more than any other, it’s the violence and how he deploys it — sparingly. The tension builds nicely towards the inevitable final confrontation in a film full of confrontations — the bloody exclamation point on a story fueled by righteous if occasionally misdirected anger. The baddies are deliciously nasty too, and much like they do in a Saulnier picture they serve as mainly incompetent desperados. Led by David Yow’s menacing Marshall and supported by the greasy, wormlike Christian (Devon Graye) and psychotic Dez (Jane Levy), they inject enough danger into the story to make us feel uneasy about Ruth’s increasing obsession with inserting herself into the lives of decidedly terrible people. Not people she’s decided are terrible, but actual, legitimately terrible people.

In fact, the uncanniness is the only reservation I have about I don’t feel at home in this world anymore. Is the film truly original? It’s plenty entertaining — pessimistic, borderline nihilistic black comedy bathed in the blood of Quentin Tarantino (undoubtedly yet another link to Blair’s mentor). This is the kind of confident debut that promises better to come, and yet I’m still compelled to remind people how Ryan Gosling got skewered for liberally borrowing — some say downright thieving — from his inspirations when he delivered Lost River in his directorial debut.

Granted, the yawning abyss that separates those two films manifests itself quite obviously in the quality of the final products and is enough to make my argument invalid. And it’s not like “borrowing liberally” from someone as exciting as Jeremy Saulnier is the worst crime you can commit, especially when imitation is often considered the sincerest form of flattery.

Recommendation: The erosion of civility and decency within American society is the topic of conversation in Macon Blair’s directorial debut. There’s something almost therapeutic about the way the film bluntly expresses itself. And really that comes down to great performances, especially from Melanie Lynskey. If this is a film you enjoyed or looks like something you might enjoy, may I also recommend Bobcat Goldthwaite’s God Bless America.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 96 mins.

Quoted: “Sometimes I feel like I’m underneath a whirlpool, like I can’t even breathe.”

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

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

The Gift

Release: Friday, August 7, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Joel Edgerton

Directed by: Joel Edgerton

The Gift is a kind of addictive drug. The more of it you consume the more of it you want.

Considering this is the first time Australian actor Joel Edgerton has been in full control of a project, that may seem hyperbolic. However, the logic follows. Edgerton has proven over the course of a 17-year career on the big screen he’s able to do much with a bit of determination. And, well yeah, some pride and confidence. Edgerton’s not just talented but he’s principled. Criticism about projects he has chosen has rarely, if ever, questioned his faith in his own work. With resilience to spare, he continues to bear the marks of a reliable thespian. It would only make sense his efforts would translate to an altogether new aspect of filmmaking. This, the year 2015, would be the time to prove it.

The Gift, now almost three years in the making, is a gift to those who have kept the faith in him. As a mystery thriller it is incredibly tense, well-acted and the epitome of unpredictable. In it Edgerton co-stars alongside Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall, who play a recently relocated married couple settling into the sprawling suburbs of Los Angeles from their native Chicago. While shopping for home supplies, Simon (Bateman, in a compelling, atypically dramatic performance) bumps into someone who claims to recognize him from their high school days, a socially awkward but seemingly harmless Gordo (Edgerton). While the timing isn’t convenient to catch up in the store, Simon promises they will be in touch.

Simon is a partner in a billion-dollar company. His wife Robyn works from home as a designer. From what we gather initially the pair are but two seeds swept up in the current of modern day living, one that all but necessitates independent career earnings to support a family. Their beautiful home alone is but a part of a larger picture of success, and Simon and Robyn seem very happy together. One afternoon Gordo drops in unannounced; Robyn invites him in for a tour of their abode, not wanting to be rude to Simon’s ostensible old friend. This leads to a pleasant dinner later that evening, during which Simon and Gordo finally do some of that catching up. Most of it is casual chit-chat, but Edgerton being Edgerton, his character possesses a depth that jumpstarts his former classmate’s uptightness. An uptightness that gradually morphs into paranoia. Paranoia that evolves into legitimate suspicion.

The Gift is also written by the Aussie. On that front he proves himself a talent to keep watching, crafting a perpetual shape-shifter that creates at least as many questions as it does answers. That should be taken as a compliment of the highest order when it comes to the genre. Beyond an acting showcase — show me the role in which Jason Bateman has been better (or Rebecca Hall for that matter) — the film, particularly in its final moments, offers an adrenaline rush that manifests more as a high than anything else. Indeed if The Gift is a drug, it’s good for both the brain and body.

In an auspicious directing debut, Edgerton provides more than just sound narrative structure and an atmosphere in which his co-stars have clearly flourished — nevermind the fact that he shot his own role two weeks into production and in the span of a single week. He’s made his stance on childhood bullying abundantly clear. And of course he’s not content to stop there, evolving the conversation on the long-term effects of that infuriating reality into a discussion about how it takes a much darker and potentially more harmful turn when applied to adults engaging in such shameful behavior. If someone is looking for a fault in the film it’s that perhaps the issue is handled a little less than subtly in the pulse-pounding conclusion but that’s so incredibly secondary to the fact that he has taken this issue seriously, as it ought to be.

Recommendation: If you’re in the mood to be toyed with psychologically Joel Edgerton has the perfect film for you. Filled with deeply emotional performances and a wicked final (double) twist, his first shot at directing should earn him a score of new fans. This is pretty exciting stuff from a guy who’s always been reliable as an actor, and it’s safe to say this will go on to become a favorite for fans of the mystery thriller and intelligent, provocative filmmaking in general. The Gift is one of 2015’s greats. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “Good people deserve good things.”

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 

Lost River

 

Release: Friday, April 10, 2015

[Redbox]

Written by: Ryan Gosling

Directed by: Ryan Gosling

On a scale of crypticness, Lost River sits right in between the obtuseness of garden variety Terrence Malick and Ryan Gosling’s second collaboration with Nicolas Winding Refn, though the distances are pretty great on either side. It doesn’t come close to even appearing to profess thematic profundity like Malick’s work, though it doesn’t share a disdain for accessibility quite like Only God Forgives.

Given a chance to have full artistic control of his own project, Gosling proves his oddness runs deeper than his strong-but-silent types as of late, for Lost River is its own world, one which few are likely going to want to visit anytime soon. Rampant with poverty, violence and haunting (haunted?) characters, the titular town epitomizes economic collapse. It’s a ghost town strewn with a few souls still desperately hanging on to life. A horror film in which reality has been forsaken for surreality and an oppressive sense of hopelessness. If it sounds like I enjoyed this piece, it’s because I did.

Then again, for all its indulgences in style and a plethora of other barricades to most reasonable viewers, maybe ‘enjoyed’ is the wrong term. For a time I sat in awe of what Gosling was trying to express through a melange of vivid, bizarre images comprised mostly of things on fire and buildings being swallowed up by natural environs. That was before I tired of drinking in admittedly gorgeous visuals, my brain thirsting instead for real, useful information. Around 30 minutes in Gosling’s inexperience writing a story and directing it with focus and purpose becomes all too evident.

Some semblance of story revolves around single mother Billy (Christina Hendricks) and her son Bones (Iain de Caestecker), scrambling for the money to keep a roof over their heads. Billy is told by a corrupt bank manager (Ben Mendelsohn) that he knows of a way she can cover at least the next three months’ payments, but she’ll have a hard time saving face — almost literally — by taking up this unscrupulous offer. Meanwhile, Bones goes searching for scrap copper wiring from which he hopes to earn whatever cash he can by selling it to a junkyard. Or is that a cleverly concealed graveyard for anyone who has tried to make something of themselves in this place?

Bones is more successful instigating the ire of the psychotic Bully (Dr. Who‘s Matt Smith) who gets a thrill from parading through the town, terrorizing anyone within earshot (of a loudspeaker) from his armchair affixed atop a white convertible. All that’s missing from the scene is a justified second gunman on the grassy knoll. Someone please snipe this bastard. On the flip side of the coin: Billy now finds herself working at the burlesque night club from Hell, where performances, led by Eva Mendes’ Cat, emphasize realistic murders designed to titillate audiences whose tastes in entertainment would be pointless to elucidate they are so baffling. So off-putting. A seeming reflection of how most have come to regard Gosling’s directorial debut.

The kicker though, is that I don’t think my finding of that parallel is forced by some twisted means of trying to defend the film. While Lost River meanders (and it does it so much it isn’t a film to watch with the lights off I’ve found out — not so much for the nightmarish imagery but the slumber it can cast you off into) the scenes in the night club encapsulate Gosling’s obsession with distancing himself from the typical narrative package. Acquired taste? Yes. Do I smell a hint of pretentiousness here? Also, yes. But let’s, for a second, pretend that word doesn’t exist and recognize Gosling’s strengths as an actor first and foremost and quite likely as an individual second. He’s one with uncommon style, an expert on esoteric self-expression, though none of that ever fully justifies his shortcomings as director and writer.

The film ends miserably — not thematically but in terms of satisfaction — and this is where any reasonable defense similarly must come to an end. If the joke has been how ridiculously abstract a film can be made with a limited budget and even more limited experience, the punchline isn’t a punchline. Gosling fucks up the joke. I was, for the most part, humored by some of the things he was presenting in the form of the downtrodden, the sleaziness of an ever-reliable Ben Mendelsohn, the purity of Matt Smith’s mania. Or maybe I was in some weird way trying to humor him by putting myself through a film that I can’t deny is far too reminiscent of Refn, Malick and any number of established filmmakers who have made a career out of the abstract and thematically impenetrable. David Lynch seems to be cropping up often in the conversation as well.

I hope I’m not patronizing too much here by saying that Lost River is, at the very least, eye-catching. It spills forth from Gosling’s mind, a stream of consciousness showered in stark imagery that won’t disappear easily from your own.

Recommendation: Lost River represents Ryan Gosling echoing perhaps too loudly the stylistic flourishes of those he looks up to but it’s a gorgeous film and a curious one that I’d recommend to anyone who thinks Gosling and Refn have something unique to offer. And if you gave a thumbs-up to Only God Forgives, there’s no reason you won’t be able to find things to like with this one. Lost River will fail to attract many outside of those circles, though and that’s unfortunate.

Rated: R

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “Everyone is looking for a better life somewhere else.”

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

The Water Diviner

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Release: Friday, April 24, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Andrew Knight; Andrew Anastasios

Directed by: Russell Crowe

Guided more by passion than a need for coherence, Russell Crowe’s directorial debut is strong enough to ensure there will be projects forthcoming from the Academy Award-winning Aussie.

Crowe busies himself by taking on the lead of, funny enough, Australian farmer Joshua Connor who is adept at locating pockets of water deep underground on his sprawling property. The year is 1919 and the dust from World War I is still settling. Joshua and Liza (Jacqueline McKenzie)’s three sons have not returned from the fight in Gallipoli and each are presumed to have perished at this point. Liza, unable to cope with the loss, ends up taking her own life.

These terrible events set the wheels of Crowe’s historically-tinged sojourn in motion. Having to bury his wife in his backyard, Joshua vows to find their boys and provide them a proper burial beside her. To any other person the odds against finding them would be knowledge enough to shred any last fibers of hope, but as Joshua explains later, hope is a necessity where he comes from. His first stop is in Turkey, where he stays in an Istanbul hotel run by the beautiful Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), herself made a widower by the war. She has a young boy named Orhan (dangerously close to ‘orphan,’ wouldn’t you say?) with whom Joshua bonds during his brief stay in the hotel.

After warming to Joshua upon hearing his reason for his visit, Ayshe tips Joshua off to the possibility of talking his way onto a boat bound for the shores of Gallipoli, an island that is now more akin to a mass grave than a place anyone would dare visit. Of course, Joshua’s trip isn’t for pleasure. When he arrives there he encounters more resistance from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who are scouring the territory for remnants of the dead and have declared the grounds off-limits to civilians.

Much to his advantage a Turkish officer, Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdoğan), who had experienced the bloodbath on these grounds and happened to be in the company of Joshua’s three sons, permits him to stay after putting two and two together. Recalling the surname and citing that he’s the only father who came looking for his children, Hasan’s empathy can easily be read, at the peril of the film’s credibility, as an insincere, somewhat flippant reaction to justify The Water Diviner‘s most unlikely story as well as its attendant emotional manipulation.

It is upon these isles of hardscrabble and stubborn vegetation where some 7,000 Turks and thousands of non-Turkish soldiers were slaughtered before British forces were forced to retreat, this battle lost but the end game — the Allied powers’ ultimate victory over the Ottoman Empire — won. To that end, it seems odd that this personal story, adapted from screenwriter Andrew Anastasios’ book of the same name, should bear worth mentioning given the dramatic backdrop of so many left buried and scattered amongst the ruins but I guess that kind of argument becomes academic as soon as a man of Crowe’s stature takes an interest in the material.

However, skeptics are given more opportunity to question The Water Diviner‘s raison d’être as character development is sparser than water sources in the Outback. Crowe’s paralleling of Joshua’s prophetic abilities is pretty hokey. Seemingly he’s just as adept at finding water as he is finding the remains of those he sent off to war. While his character feels authentic given all he has lost, others are not as lucky. Kurylenko’s character flips the switch from cold as ice to becoming a potential future wife for Joshua in the span of a few scenes of saccharinity. (Hey, the sweeter your coffee, the more likely it is that your barista likes you, right?) The British government intervene in Joshua’s mission just to throw more wrenches in his plan, citing bureaucracy because of . . . well, reasons. Though none are painted in as broad a stroke as the nasty, brutish Greeks, who play a role that wouldn’t be so out of place in 300.

This all being said, The Water Diviner is not without its strengths. Crowe clearly — admirably — finds a striking contrast in the natural beauty and a haunting historical significance in the locales. These otherwise gorgeous places conceal horrendous occurrences that we bear witness to in shocking flashbacks, a great many involving Joshua’s sons. And despite a lack of development for his characters Crowe has attracted a cast that is more than capable of delivering the gravitas a war film requires. Tender moments between Joshua, Ayshe and Orhan have their charm. And Crowe himself is excellent in the lead.

He has ample room to grow as a director, certainly. After all, few people, if any, have perfected the art of the craft the moment they settle into the chair, and while it doesn’t do anyone much good in making excuses, it’s plain to see his acting pedigree has helped more often than it has hindered him here.

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3-0Recommendation: Those who embrace culturally and historically significant films ought to test out Russell Crowe’s first directorial effort. It does bear the markings of a first-timer in that capacity but as an actor he is as reliable as ever. Heartrending, inspiring, gruesome and beautiful in equal measure, The Water Diviner is going to satisfy anyone who has appreciated the Aussie’s contributions to film in the last few decades.

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “It was my job to steer my boys to manhood. And I failed them.”

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

Danny Collins

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Release: Friday, April 10, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Dan Fogelman

Directed by: Dan Fogelman

Perspective is a tool we come to wield better with age.  As months beget years and years decades, we can look back and reconsider things we could have or shouldn’t have done. I’d like to not put too fine a point on it by calling this process regret; at a certain point all of us end up looking into a mirror and realizing that physical changes can sometimes be the least noticeable ones.

That’s a complete cliché and this blogger knows he’s used his fair share since beginning to write about movies but in this instance, where the tribulations of fictitious folk singer Danny Collins have been irrevocably affected by the 40-years-belated reception of a note penned by John Lennon, reflecting upon the past turns out to be a potent storytelling device. Al Pacino’s hard-drinking, hard-partying 60-something celebrity isn’t built completely out of fabricated material, however; he’s based upon English folk singer and songwriter Steve Tilston. The note Lennon actually wrote said something to the effect of “being rich doesn’t change your experience in the way you think.”

The letter addresses a then-21-year-old Danny who was interviewed by a magazine at the beginning of his success and reported that he was in fact terrified of what his career might bring him — fame, fortune . . . the sort of stuff many of us would drool over while fantasizing about our new wardrobes, our new social circles, our new everything. And that was his fear, how these things would affect his ability to craft quality music.

Danny Collins is the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Fogelman (Crazy, Stupid, Love; Tangled; Cars) and features Pacino in a decidedly less destructive role but with Pacino being Pacino you are unable to dismiss the choice as wayward from the glory days (cough-cough, Robert De Niro). There I go with comparisons again. Not that they’re difficult to make as De Niro has become an easy target and Pacino is that rare kind of performer who just stays excellent (though, granted, perhaps I need to experience his Starkman before I can accurately make that statement). His charisma as a musician stagnating in his latter years, reduced to playing the same hits every night, largely defines this picture.

It’s his manager Frank Grubman (Christopher Plummer) who brings the letter to Danny’s attention. After a typical night of boozing and using Danny decides he wants to reverse the course of his self-destructive habits, start writing songs again (after a three decade hiatus) and maybe even get in touch with his son who he has never met. He moves into a random New Jersey hotel, managed by the charming but guarded Mary Sinclair (Annette Bening) who repeatedly rebuffs Danny’s offers for dinner. The first time they meet remains a highlight moment, dually serving as affirmation that Fogelman can write great dialogue. The banter between them is something that doesn’t fail, even if the film overall nearly collapses with sentimentality as a jelly doughnut does with too much filling. (Yes, I’m a firm believer doughnuts can have too much filling.)

Fogelman’s first directorial effort is undoubtedly elevated by experienced actors making mushy material work so much better than it really ought to. Predictability is a bit of an issue, as are character archetypes that are visibly influenced by script rather than the almighty charm of Pacino’s musician. Bobby Cannavale plays Danny’s son Tom. Jennifer Garner is his wife, Samantha. They’re raising what first appears to be a precocious young daughter, Hope (Giselle Eisenberg) but as time goes on she’s revealed to suffer from severe hyperactivity and has learning disabilities because of it. They’re trying to get her into an educational institution where her needs will be met. Cue Danny’s first opportunity to get back into his family’s life. It won’t take great acting for us to realize there’ll be some resistance. But Cannavale is superb and erases his character’s strictures with ease. We empathize with Tom perhaps more than we should. Garner is also solid, although she has very little to do but win the race of who’s-going-to-forgive-Danny-first.

It’s not as if it hasn’t happened before, but this is a stage far removed from the spotlights of Tony Montana and Michael Corleone. Pacino has demonstrated a capacity for tolerating questionable material — things of the Gigli and Jack & Jill variety — as well as a willingness to embrace extremes (he makes for quite a charismatic Satan in Devil’s Advocate). He’s not above anything and that kind of attitude may very well be the reason he’s regarded as one of cinema’s greatest American icons. It’s evident that being rich hasn’t changed his experience in the way he thinks.

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3-5Recommendation: Al Pacino and a talented, intensely likable supporting cast give Danny Collins‘ weaker moments a pass, though this is far and away Pacino’s film. Depending on your level of enthusiasm for the guy, this is a must-see in theaters or a rental you cannot miss. It’s a solid adult dramedy, one of an elite few so far in 2015.

Rated: R

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “Well, you look . . . slightly ridiculous . . .”

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

Don Jon

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Release: Friday, September 27, 2013 

[Theater]

Joseph Gordon-Levitt goes for broke here, starring in his big screen directorial and writing debut. He’s Jon Martello, a confident, handsome twenty-something born and raised in New Jersey, first introduced as a club regular, ladykiller and porn addict. Or, well . . . as someone who prefers porn to having sex with someone.

Indeed, Don Jon winds up becoming an unusually revealing and provocative experience. It’s also refreshingly honest. I can’t recall the last screening I attended in which there was quite so much nervous laughter and so many outbursts of it, moments in which you get the “haha, oh yeah that’s totally me” kinds of laughs intermixed with genuine bouts of uncontrollable hysteria. This is what’s known as the Joseph Gordon-Levitt Effect.

All I can say for that is, thank goodness someone approved of JGL’s idea to write, direct and star in his own film. As it turns out, not only is his debut a thoroughly entertaining one, it manages to balance its overt sex appeal with a healthy dosage of decency and maturity. Don Jon scrubs the Paganism from the subject of talking hot and heavy sex. When Jon meets the woman of his dreams at a club, his life might well be heading in a new direction. Set on a collision course with finding true love, will she be the one to make his life better, and thus that of his mother as well? (Are grandchildren so much to ask for??)

First off, JGL does a great job of not really caring what a certain portion of his fanbase may or may not think of his creative choices, as there is many a debasing moment with him shirtless, hunched over and alone by his laptop, his naked despair (or despairing nakedness, whichever) occupying the center of the screen. There’s a good bit of narration as well, most of which serve as explanations as to why Jon prefers watching sex to actually engaging in it. In short, JGL puts it all out there, and the film benefits.

At the core of the very-nearly-sappy story is a man who’s so good at being one-dimensional he hasn’t ever stopped to think twice about settling down and starting a family, though that’s surely what his parents — the great Tony Danza, and a hilarious Glenne Headly — want and expect from him. They have no idea about his relationship with his computer. Jon doesn’t much care; life is working for him perfectly well as is. But when he comes across Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), the young man’s suddenly finding himself having to rearrange his daily life . . . and maybe even his priorities?

The skeletal framework of the film is hard to ignore — arguably the only major crack in its composure. Splicing scenes of ‘the Don’ at the gym, doing his “thing” at home, going to confession, and combing the clubs, all in equal measure, the routine becomes somewhat predictable, and likely will be even more obvious upon repeat viewings. That said, it works just fine for a debut film from someone as young as Levitt. It’s an effective, albeit conspicuous, story-building technique that prompts laughs perhaps more often than the sight of ridiculous clips from various pornos.

The most fascinating aspect of Don Jon has to be the personal growth, the progress of maturity as the story unfolds. While attending classes (at the request of Barbara, in order for him to actually “make something of himself”), Jon comes across an older woman (Julianne Moore) in the same class. His first encounter with her is more than awkward and seems dismissive yet, what JGL does next (from a directorial standpoint) is one of the few developments in his film that’s unpredictable, and quite frankly, one which gives the film a great deal of credibility — if only also slightly threatening mawkishness.

Jon’s situation is really just a contemporary version of a man in denial; in 17th Century Spain, Don Juan roamed the Spanish hills, conquering women, slaying men, and later boasting about it. The bigger the challenge, the bigger reward, in his eyes. Eventually, the great misogynist would find his soul depraved, and denied salvation due to the unconscionable nature of his sins. The amiable native Angeleno cleverly adapted the basic qualities of the fictitious lothario for a modern audience. Then he managed to attract the attention of some of the most beautiful people working in the industry today. The result is a very satisfying mixture that is far more poignant than might first be assumed.

Don Jon is as successful as one might expect from a virgin director. It would seem the young actor has a bright future ahead of him, now in multiple aspects of the art form. He’s got a few areas to develop on as a director, but seeing as though this is his starting point, it should be fascinating to see what might come next from one of Hollywood’s fastest rising stars.

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3-5Recommendation:  Don Jon finds JGL at his most exposed — literally and figuratively, of course. I think the trailers do their job quite well with this one. And, if you like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, then you’re already there, aren’t you?        

Rated: R (for risqué)

Running Time: 90 mins.  

Quoted: “They give awards for porn, too. . .”

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