The Scarlett Johansson Project — #10

Unlike certain things that are going on right now, this feature is indeed finally coming to an end. Believe it or not, the idea was not to drag this feature on until forever. (If you’re curious as to how things typically work, you can check the main Actor Profile page here.) Here we are at the end of a second year, finally bidding adieu to one of the most popular movie stars of this generation.

Setting my idealism aside, I am excited to have seen this latest project through and to have had so much good feedback on the roles I have chosen to cover. Unfortunately what ended up happening as far as role selection is concerned was not what I had intended, either; the original plan was to crowdsource ideas for which roles should be covered and then work from those, perhaps providing a link to the blogger’s site (should they have one) from the post they inspired me to create. In the end I inadvertently passed on an opportunity to build community by going with my own choices. It was never my intention to ignore others’ suggestions.

Besides, I’m 100% positive this suggestion would have made its way into the mix, some way, some how. Let’s be honest, you can’t really talk about certain actors without also considering their contributions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The cinematic landscape has been changed forever with Jon Favreau’s template-setting Iron Man in 2008. The prestige casting has only intensified since Robert “Sundance” Redford decided to loosen his tie and join the fun by playing Alexander Pierce in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The end credits of Black Widow, as an even more bizarre example, features Julia Louis-Dreyfus for crying out loud. One wonders, when all is said and done, what self-respecting Hollywood actor will have actually failed to have landed an MCU gig of some kind, if not on the big screen then on the small. Of course, that’s with the presumption the MCU is a finite thing. 

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff in Cate Shortland’s Black Widow 

Role Type: Lead

Premise: Natasha Romanoff confronts the darker parts of her ledger when a dangerous conspiracy with ties to her past arises. (IMDb)

Character Background: Born in Russia in 1984, orphaned as a child and trained up to become a KGB spy through a brainwashing program targeting young women, Natasha Romanoff lived quite the complicated life. Or, as Cate Shortland’s Black Widow suggests, perhaps it was two lives, what with her being part of two adoptive families — one a little indie start-up you might know as the Avengers and the other a trio of Russian sleeper agents posing as American expats in suburban Ohio.

Making her MCU début in Iron Man 2 as a flirty undercover S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who was clearly never going to be just a simple foil for Tony Stark (or a sex object for that matter), the enigmatic redhead quickly became a fundamental part of the MCU fabric, earning increased screen minutes in The Avengers (2012) and notably Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), evolving from a sidekick to a significant role player in the process. Natasha Romanoff may be without superhuman or godly powers but her speed and brutality in hand-to-hand combat make her a force to be reckoned with — skills that are put on full display in her long-overdue solo film (not to mention, her propensity for dramatic fight stances).

Age of Ultron provided a glimpse of her past trauma as the team collectively reeled under hallucinations brought on by an enraged Wanda Maximoff, but it wouldn’t be until 2020 2021 that the specifics of that past would be brought into the full light (or in this case, dark) of day. Black Widow is the film that acquaints us with Natasha’s original adopted family — a true highlight being the dynamic between her and “sister” Yelena — as well as the source of her torment, the hissable spymaster Dreykov, the man who turned an entire generation of women into weapons.

And although the chronology remains an annoyance there is at least a sense of evolution with the way themes of independence and control are evolved through the character’s actions here. In Black Widow Natasha makes the decision to stop retreating from and instead start running toward those who oppress her, aspiring not only to rid herself of Dreykov but free all those still under his influence. Even if the thing that she must do in order to achieve her goal feels disappointingly been-there-done-that, in becoming a leader of women and an inspiration to her “sister,” Natasha’s arc feels emotionally and psychologically complete.

What she brings to the movie: Pathos, pride and consistency. I’d wager no two actors are more inseparable from their MCU personalities than Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson. I say this in full recognition of all the fascinating roles she has made her own throughout a box office smashing career. Across an eight-film arc spanning more than a decade — nearly a third of her big screen career — Johansson has quite literally grown up with the character, one who has often been at the center of some of the most dramatic moments in the Infinity Saga. To say she knows Natasha well by the time Black Widow rolls around is some kind of understatement. 

It’s in her solo film where that comfort level is most felt, as we get to see Johansson flex more than her muscles in what has always been a physically demanding role. The weariness and cynicism in her performance feels true to where the character is at this point in time, itinerant and alone; down but hardly out. She also has this fantastic chemistry with Florence Pugh that makes this film human in ways it might not have been with different actors.  

In her own words: “When you find her in the beginning [of Black Widow] she’s just broken. By the end of the film the goal is to put her back together different than before, you know? I think Natasha has a lot of compassion and that’s not necessarily what I would have anticipated when we were filming Iron Man 2 or Avengers or whatever. You’ve seen glimpses of it and it’s developed over time, as we’ve been able to bring the character to the forefront in different instillaments, but she’s a very compassionate person and that passion is actually what drives a lot of her decision making. I mean, she’s also practical and pragmatic and I don’t think those two things have to necessarily work against each other. That part of her is what really touches me.”

Key Scene: A brutal trip down memory lane. There are so many good scenes between Johansson and Florence Pugh but one of the more poignant is this exchange between Johansson and Rachel Weisz, as the two reminisce over fake Christmases, fake traditions, fake family memories. It’s perhaps not a signature action scene but I’m always for the more grounded, human moments and this one’s a memorable one. 

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 Ashley Robinson/Collider 

The French Dispatch (of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun)

Release: Friday, October 22, 2021 (limited)

👀 Theater

Written by: Wes Anderson

Directed by: Wes Anderson

Starring: Bill Murray; Owen Wilson; Adrien Brody; Benicio del Toro; Léa Seydoux; Tilda Swinton; Frances McDormand; Timothée Chalamet; Jeffrey Wright; Mathieu Amalric; Ed Norton; Steve Park; Elizabeth Moss; Willem Dafoe; Saiorse Ronan

Distributor: Searchlight Pictures

 

****/*****

Trying not to laugh in a Wes Anderson movie is like trying to suppress a sneeze. All the little absurdities he is synonymous with are those constant tickles that build toward something you can no longer contain. Of course, his movies aren’t pure comedy and so you’re fighting a battle of needing that sweet release and being stifled by the seriousness that sits right beside the silliness.

The French Dispatch (etc, etc) is yet another example of that uniquely entertaining struggle. But it might be a struggle in another way, for this is the most ambitious project Anderson has yet undertaken. As such it isn’t a great starting point for a newcomer (I highly recommend beginning with his début Bottle Rocket — it’s low-key but full of the elements that would later make him an auteur). In some ways, early Anderson might be the best Anderson as you see raw talent more than the money. Post-Royal Tenenbaums, the intensifying style and increasing magnitude of cast represent an elitist form of repetition, with his exacting precision and obsessive-compulsive control over all elements remaining forever the things you remember more than story beats.

Don’t get me wrong though; I’m a fan, and if he so chooses to make a movie that somehow tops this level of complexity, consider me there. But I also wonder about the sustainability of the future — can Anderson just keep drilling down into more and more complicated narratives or does something eventually give? His tenth film is a doozy, at one point a post-World War II musical (that’d be something to see!) now turned into a detail-laden love letter to journalists that unfolds as though one is watching a magazine come to life on screen. For Anderson, the way a story is told has always been tantamount to the subjects of those stories and in drawing inspiration from The New Yorker he’s found an ideally idiosyncratic space in which to run wild with his obsessions.

It’s the end of an era for the staff of the titular paper, a foreign bureau of a fictional Kansas publication based in the delightfully made-up French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé (literally Boredom-upon-Apathy). The editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), has suddenly passed away from a heart attack. Usually it’s no news is bad news but this is bad news for his underlings, a tight-knit group often coddled by Howitzer — a character loosely based on The New Yorker founding editor Howard Ross. As per his wishes, Howitzer’s death means the end of the paper. The overarching plot, manifested in a prologue and epilogue, revolves around this bittersweet development as the loyal staff gather themselves, without crying, to reprint a series of stories for the paper’s final issue.

Sporting an insane cast The French Dispatch all but demands a second viewing if you want more than the basic shape. The first segment, titled ‘The Concrete Masterpiece,’ is relayed to us by J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), an art aficionado prone to personal digressions at the lectern. Her presentation describes a strange relationship between incarcerated, tortured artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) and his prison guard/muse Simone (Léa Seydoux). Adrien Brody complicates the scene as an art dealer who intends to sell Rosenthaler’s provocative abstracts to the highest bidder. The buyer’s persistence sets off a chain of amusing events that becomes impressively convoluted considering the confinement of the scene.

From a physical altercation we pivot into social unrest in ‘Revisions to a Manifesto,’ which centers on journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), a lonely writer who emphasizes professional objectivity yet develops an intimate relationship with a student protestor (Timothée Chalamet) as she helps him formalize his complaints in writing. The righteous cause in this case is getting campus rules rewritten so that boys can visit girls in their dorms. As the movement evolves, the town of Ennui becomes ensconced in greater conflict, in what becomes known as The Chessboard Revolution. The tableau is constructed as farce but finds real-world roots in the May 1968 student-led protests that snowballed into nationwide strikes and even prompted a temporary government shutdown. It’s a tricky area in which Anderson’s unbridled whimsy could easily feel inappropriate, but he avoids unfunny facsimile by keeping the focus almost exclusively on the (intentionally inappropriate) dynamic between writer and subject.

Finally we arrive at ‘The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,’ which, for now at least as my brain tries not to overheat, is at risk for being remembered only for the breathtaking action midway through, an Adventures of Tintin-style animated sequence down narrow French streets that effects a New Yorker comic strip in moving picture form. During a television interview, forlorn foodie Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) recounts the kidnapping of the Commissaire (Mathieu Amalric)’s son by members of Ennui’s seedy underbelly, represented by Ed Norton‘s Chauffeur. The kidnapper’s motive (and fate) prove far less significant than the recollection itself, which encompasses his painful backstory of how he, an openly gay writer, came to be hired by the Dispatch.

Each of these stories are works of art unto themselves. Although some are more memorable than others, it’s not crazy to imagine any one of them being stretched into a full-length film of its own. Details matter more here than they ever have. In a story overflowing with minutiae perhaps this is no small thing, but it’s important to note the way Anderson regards journalists — at the very least, his journalists — not as unassailable heroes incapable of doing harm but rather emotional beings who have egos, biases, habits, neuroses. The French Dispatch is not a lamentation of clickbait or a yearning for the days when long-form journalism didn’t need to be qualified as ‘good, old fashioned.’ This is a satire of writerly sensibilities, of insecurities and imperfections, ironically delivered by a veritable perfectionist. 

While the laughs may not come as easily on the first try, the layered narrative approach and copious relationships ensure The French Dispatch will be a piece worth returning to time and time again. 

If you mention block-editor to me one more time . . .

Moral of the Story: The French Dispatch is a movie that finds Wes Anderson pushing his iconic style and atmosphere to extremes, such that style and substance become one and the same. The subject matter is more esoteric than something like the romantic escape of Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and more complex even than the history of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), but the good news is that you don’t need to be aware of all the homages and references that are made to enjoy what Anderson is doing here. As with so many of his films, what you put into it is probably what you will get out of it. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins. 

Quoted: “As you know by now, we have kidnapped your son.”

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

Photo credits: www.impawards.com; www.rogerebert.com 

Greenland

Release: Friday, December 18, 2020 (VOD)

👀 Amazon Prime 

Written by: Chris Sparling

Directed by: Ric Roman Waugh

Starring: Gerard Butler; Morena Baccarin; Roger Dale Floyd; David Denman; Hope Davis; Scott Glenn; a comet named Clark

Distributor: STXfilms 

 

 

 

***/*****

Downbeat disaster movie Greenland reunites star Gerard Butler with Angel Has Fallen director Ric Roman Waugh and for the second time running they’ve delivered solid if logically shaky entertainment. There’s clearly a synergy between these two for they will collaborate again on a Greenland sequel, a prospect that seems justified beyond the profit margin. 

A comet is coming to town and a bearded Butler has to get himself and his family to safety, or whatever around here passes for safety when it turns out the threat isn’t one cohesive object but rather a large group of fragments. What was supposed to be a spectacular near-earth passing witnessed on TV now has extinction level event written all over it. Comet forecasting isn’t an exact science but boy does the situation deteriorate quickly. Florida gets obliterated, and soon enough mass panic grips society.

Waugh’s doomsday thriller has a different, more serious thrust than something the likes of Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich might concoct. More concerned with what’s going on in people’s heads rather than what’s happening in the sky, Greenland imagines a scenario where one’s employment status determines whether they are invited to the apocalyptic afterparty. When Atlanta-based engineer John Garrity (Butler), his estranged wife Alison (Morena Baccarin) and son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) are selected by the government for emergency sheltering, hope for safe passage is dashed by a pesky medical detail which prevents them from boarding a plane and thrusts them into the very chaos the patriarch’s shrewdly selected career path was about to spare them from.

As if navigating the collapse of society as a family isn’t scary enough — jet fuel, open gunfire and panicked mobs at Robbins Air Force Base make for a lethal combination — Chris Sparling’s screenplay further ratchets up the drama by scattering the Garritys across the map, splitting the time fairly evenly between the two camps. Butler in particular is impressive downplaying his action hero persona, convincing as an everyman who disgusts himself with the things he ends up doing in an attempt to reunite with his loved ones.

Meanwhile Alison hatches a plan to rendezvous back at her father (Scott Glenn)’s farmstead. Baccarin is rock-solid in the role, and if our sympathies aren’t already aligned with her — John’s presumably had an affair, something that’s only ever hinted at a couple of times throughout — they are wholly and completely when Nathan is imperiled by opportunists posing as Good Samaritans (David Denman and Hope Davis, both very good in their contributions to the Worst Of side of the humanitarian ledger).

Despite some serendipitous turns that force the plot to go where it needs to, Greenland maintains a level of gritty realism that feels rare for the genre and wrings fairly consistent tension from the often unpleasant exchanges between strangers. Even the grand finale is understated, the antithesis of Michael Bay. A select few moments of cheap-looking CGI confess to the modest ($35 million) budget, but for the most part the intimate scope creatively disguises those limitations.

Marginally worse than Black Friday at Wal-Mart

Moral of the Story: The anarchic, human angle and an atypical Gerard Butler performance make Greenland a pretty easy recommendation for fans of end-of-the-world thrillers. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “My friend Teddy says your life flashes in front of your eyes when you die. I think it would be better if it did that while you lived. That way, you could see all the good memories and be happy.”

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

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

The World to Come

Release: Tuesday, March 2, 2021 (VOD) 

👀 Sundance 2021 Premiere 

Written by: Jim Shepard; Ron Hansen 

Directed by: Mona Fastvold 

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

 

 

 

 

***/*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re my sun.

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

Rated: R

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “Meeting you has made my day.” 

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

Check out the quietly explosive trailer here 

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

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

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #6

In perhaps one of the more extreme examples of not knowing what you have until it’s gone, this month’s installment takes a look at a movie that begins with the absence of humanity and works backward, discovering in the process the aches and pains and consequences of being alive. More specifically, being human.

Unfolding as one of the most profoundly unique visual presentations you will ever see, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin tests the boundaries of narrative filmmaking in every scene. It’s not a conventional plot. It’s certainly not a crowd-pleaser. Its themes are many and sometimes murky. Is this movie even from this earth? From my review: “It’s distressing. It’s disturbing. It’s occasionally even disgusting.” What’s more is that you don’t often see movies that are so uncompromisingly experimental and strange with such a high-profile A-lister involved.

Somewhat disappointingly, I later learned Under the Skin is an adaptation of a 2000 novel by Michael Faber, albeit a loose one, proving that indeed, nothing is ever entirely unique. And on that note, as is true of all my SJP posts, there are a lot of details following so I highly recommend if you still wish to see this movie unspoiled you should avoid reading any further.

Scarlett Johansson as The Female in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin

Role Type: Lead

Premise: A mysterious young woman seduces lonely men in the evening hours in Scotland. However, events lead her to begin a process of self-discovery. (IMDb)

Character Background: Wow, this one’s a doozie. Let’s begin with calling her the opposite of a townie. Known only as “The Female” her modus operandi is cruising around the streets of Glasgow etc in a white van, pulling over and asking for directions to some place, then offering the poor sap a ride. Or a fun night back at her “apartment.” In Under the Skin, sexual roles and behaviors are reversed to powerful effect, with the Female as the Predator and the men the Prey. There’s nothing even approaching post-coital bliss here. The mating ritual is nightmarish, not sexy, with the Female damning her victims “to another dimension where they are nothing more than meat.”

But if you’re asking me about her origins, I’m flummoxed. That’s part of the whole deal. Maybe there are some things we are not meant to know, much less be able to catalogue as familiar, quantifiable. What’s made patently obvious in one early scene that takes place on a rocky beach, one of the coldest scenes you’ll see in a movie, is that our intrepid visitor here is as familiar with the concept of emotion as an infant is with the concept of drowning. As she/it begins to bear the burden of feeling, a change starts taking place that really becomes quite heartbreaking.

What she brings to the movie: a familiar face, and a ton of confidence. This is famously the first role she’s done where there is full-frontal nudity. The nude scenes are tastefully done, shot less with the intent of arousal as they are a matter-of-fact observation of the human form. Putting her trust in director Jonathan Glazer, Johansson uses her alluring curvature to carve out a character that is truly haunting and unique. It’s one of the best performances I have ever seen and the role had to have been daunting. She is challenged to act as a tourist in a human body, while shedding her fame as a rising actress to blend into this environment. The wardrobe and hairstyling helps, but her facial expressions are so masterfully subtle and nuanced. It’s those small details that make this performance what it is, and Under the Skin one of the best movies made this side of the new millennium.

In her own words: “I started having conversations [with Jonathan Glazer] a few years ago. Initially it was going to be a two-hander, more of a story that revolved around these two characters sort of assimilating to society and not being “found out.” There’s this story of the townspeople and this discovery of what was happening to them as they were being picked off, and then you’d see the couple and their relationship. As opposed to this film which is seeing this world through these alien eyes. I wasn’t really convinced I could do this until Jonathan was convinced that I could do it.”

Key Scene: Caution: I’m not sure how long this video will be up given YouTube’s propensity for pulling down videos that don’t meet their criteria for copyright protection. Double caution: This scene does not mess around. It’s incredibly disturbing. You will not be able to un-see this stuff. 

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


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

Photo credits: IMDb; interview excerpt courtesy of David Poland and DP/30: The Oral History of Hollywood

Buffaloed

Release: Friday, February 14, 2020 (limited)

→Hulu 

Written by: Brian Sacca

Directed by: Tanya Wexler

Buffaloed is a great example of why I love Zoey Deutch. I haven’t always loved the movies she’s been in — Why Him? (which I’ve seen) and Dirty Grandpa (which I make my life goal to avoid) I like to think are good examples of her good sportsmanship. On evidence of the last several movies the 25-year-old can kick it with just about any crowd, whether it’s slumming it with Robert DeNiro, getting super nostalgic for the 80s with Richard Linklater or turning stereotypes of the valley girl airhead into one of the most memorable aspects of Ruben Fleischer’s zombie apocalypse.

In Buffaloed, a rare kind of comedy that manages to be both crass and endearing, she takes the reins of the leading woman and wields them with such fervor the reins almost break. She plays Peg Dahl, a recent high school grad highly motivated to get out of her rust-belt hometown of Buffalo, a blue-collar community in upstate New York that takes pride in having the best hot wings in the world. And then of course there’s football, which here is a religious event attended by all in the ceremonial garb of blue and red jackets, sweaters and ball caps. As any self-respecting Buffalonian would, she still roots for the home team — scalps tickets, even — but she’s outgrown this place.

In pursuit of her American Dream to make a name (and lots of money) for herself, Peg is overjoyed to learn she has been accepted to an out-of-state college. There’s just the small issue of covering the astronomical cost of tuition. When her initial plan falls apart through a series of unfortunate events, not least of which being the actions taken by the world’s least helpful defense attorney (Adrian Griffin), Peg has to reinvent herself. She does this by becoming the very thing that has been hounding her family for decades, taking a job at a shady collection agency run by a guy named Whizz (played by Jai Courtney, who just oozes sleaze).

While there is certainly an air of Jordan Belfort about the way her character’s lack of scruples funds her meteoric rise from boiler room to head of her own competing agency — a move that puts her squarely in the crosshairs of Whizz and his cronies — the arc that’s most familiar is that of Andrew Garfield in the 2015 economic drama 99 Homes. Director Tanya Wexler makes sure that, even when Peg’s bullheadedness finally catches up to her, she remains a character worthy of redemption despite all the damage she causes.

Wexler, a native Chicagoan, and writer Brian Sacca, himself a born and bred Buffalonian, off-set the familiarity of their themes by creating an experience overflowing with personality and idiosyncratic charm. The spirited performances, not just from Deutch but from a strong supporting cast including Judy Greer as mother Kathy and Sorry to Bother You‘s Jermaine Fowler as a socially awkward detective, often triumph over the movie’s flaws, namely its abrupt tonal shifts and questionable logic.

In attempting to be many things all rolled into one 90 minute package — a critique of capitalism, a farcical family drama, a comedy of criminal ineptitude and an underdog story — Buffaloed isn’t always a smooth ride. Serious scenes often smack up against moments of pure farce in a way that’s jolting. Ultimately it functions best as a showcase for Zoey Deutch’s talents. She does so well with this true-blue New Yorker you totally forget she’s a Cali girl at heart. At the same time, there’s something endearing, almost intentionally meta, about the movie’s lack of refinement. Like the best hot wings, Buffaloed has a good, spicy zing to it that makes it quite enjoyable.

“Sir, I’d like my money back, please.”

Recommendation: For fans of the cast, particularly Zoey Deutch, Buffaloed is kind of a must-watch. This small-town Wolf of Wall Street story is couched in a distinctly female perspective, without going overboard on political correctness or comedic crudeness. It is occasionally a subversive movie, particularly when it comes to certain relationship dynamics. Most all though, director Tanya Wexler should be credited for making a movie about debt collection really entertaining! 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “I had a dream. That John Travolta took off his wig and on his scalp was another John Travolta face. Double Travolta. I could never get that image out of my mind.”

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

Photo credits: IMDb 

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #5

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

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

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

Scarlett Johansson as Rebecca in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World

Role Type: Co-lead

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work):  


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

The Night Clerk

Release: Friday, February 21, 2020 

→Netflix

Written by: Michael Cristofer

Directed by: Michael Cristofer

The problem with The Night Clerk is not its depiction of a developmental disorder or that it tries to be two movies in one. It’s that those two elements — character study cum genre film — don’t properly coalesce. It works actually quite well as the former but the crime mystery aspect leaves a lot to be desired. Yes indeed, there will be no mistaking this for a Hitchcock thriller.

In fact it works so much better when considered as a character piece that any other label feels like an irresponsible misnomer. If I were compelled to review this movie accordingly (that is, as a crime drama/mystery), then writer/director Michael Cristofer has just redefined the slow-burn with The Night Clerk‘s super-cautious, almost tedious tip-toeing toward exculpation. Viewed through this lens this Netflix film becomes quite possibly the most uneventful crime drama you’re going to see for some time.

Bart Bromley is our conflicted main character, a hotel clerk with Asperger’s played by Tye Sheridan, a young actor seemingly born for stardom having graduated from high-quality dramas such as The Tree of Life and Mud into full-blown Spielbergian spectacles. The Night Clerk offers him a chance to strut his stuff as a legitimate leading man and Sheridan does not waste the opportunity, providing a complicated protagonist whose humanity extends beyond a neurodevelopmental condition many movies have been guilty of identifying as their character’s most significant trait. He pours into the performance a sincere commitment to the details: struggle with eye contact; lots of long-winded, one-sided conversations; a level of self-awareness that nods toward him falling on the high-functioning end of the spectrum.

After what is basically another routine shift change — save for the fact his co-worker, Jack (Austin Archer), arrives 15 minutes early to relieve him, something Bart’s endearing meticulousness does not allow to go unnoticed — he witnesses the woman he recently checked in getting assaulted by an unidentified man who comes to her room. He’s privy to the drama due to his rigging up of small cameras around the room, which he has linked to half a dozen monitors back at home in his basement-level bedroom and through which he studies other people’s behavior so as to improve his own social interactions. Bart’s reaction to what he sees sets the action, as it were, into motion and a criminal investigation follows.

The Night Clerk is driven more by mood and feeling than mysterious twists and shocking reveals (the movie does present some of those, though shocking might be putting it too strong). Cristofer’s screenplay really drills into the loneliness, creating an environment in which Bart’s relationships with everything are fleeting and mostly experienced at a distance. It’s a tough circumstance because if Bart’s voyeuristic approach seems creepy, it definitely is, and yet the more direct route to getting to know people, learning how to “blend in,” is often barricaded by the insensitive, ignorant attitudes of others.

The humanity it seeks justifies both The Night Clerk‘s glacial pacing and its flirting with the basic structure of a crime mystery. While it has some activity going on in the background the story spends most of its time inside Bart’s head and heart as he wrestles with his increasingly strange predicament. To Detective Espada (John Leguizamo) the body language and passionate over-explaining are big red flags. To Ana de Armas‘ beautiful and mysterious Andrea Rivera, the movie’s great anomaly who accesses Bart in a way not even his mother (Helen Hunt) has been able, his social awkwardness is more charming than off-putting.

The Night Clerk manages to strike some poignant notes in its observation of a life lacking the nutrients of social connection. It plays with morality and culpability in some interesting ways, not quite absolving anyone from some kind of guilt. Everyone in this movie does something wrong. As far as unraveling the sordid crime, it’s nothing a gumshoe couldn’t solve. The worst thing about The Night Clerk, as is often true in social situations, is the inaccurate labeling.

What is this pain in my heart?

Recommendation: If complicated resolutions are what you seek, you should probably avoid checking in with The Night Clerk. For a great performance from Tye Sheridan and a rare sighting of Helen Hunt (!) you might want to pay attention to the details here. It’s a good movie, and even better if you just don’t think of it as a crime drama. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “That’s a very complicated question.”

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Photo credits: IMDb

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #4

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

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

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

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

Role Type: Supporting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus Clip (because I just love outtakes!): 

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


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Photo credits: LA Times; IMP Awards

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #3

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

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

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

Role Type: Supporting

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

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

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

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

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

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 

* Ethan Coen also directed but only joel was credited 

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

Photo credits: IMDb