Pig

Release: Friday, July 16, 2021

👀 Hulu

Written by: Michael Sarnoski; Vanessa Block

Directed by: Michael Sarnoski

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

Distributor: Neon

 

 

****/*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trying not to stew over it.

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

Rated: R

Running Time: 92 mins.

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

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

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

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 

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Release: Friday, September 3, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Dave Callaham; Andrew Lanham; Destin Daniel Cretton

Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton

Starring: Simu Liu; Awkwafina; Tony Chiu-Wai Leung; Meng’er Zhang; Fala Chen; Michelle Yeoh

 

 

****/*****

Marvel Studios’ most recognizable batch of comic book origins stories are behind us, but given Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings‘ strong box office haul it isn’t going to be falling on hard times any time soon. And the numbers are justified. This movie is as entertaining as it is absorbing.

Following somewhat in the footsteps of Black Panther (2018), Shang-Chi immerses the viewer in a culture largely relegated to the muddy riverbanks along the Hollywood mainstream. The 25th overall film in the MCU is one of the most visually delicious, featuring spectacular sets where the mise en scène is often its own character and where — finally! — flashy CGI actually supports rather than hinders. The production design is a lavish platter sampling everything from the urban to the rural to the mythical and where the exquisite, violent dance of Kung Fu is ensconced in the sophisticated and occasionally literal scaffolding around it.

Underneath the obviously heavy budget however lies a hero’s journey that’s just as rich with human emotion and soul, qualities that Short Term 12 director Destin Daniel Cretton is no stranger to and that are most welcomed in a movie of this scale. The story tells of a deeply personal conflict between an immortal, power-obsessed patriarch Wenwu (Tony Leung — Infernal Affairs; The Grandmaster) and his children, son Shang-Chi (Simu Liu — Women is Losers; Kim’s Convenience — TV) and daughter Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). Given the film’s title, the focus narrows to the father-son dynamic as Shang-Chi is forced to confront the trauma of his past and the man responsible for much of it.

As an origins story largely divorced from the Avengers era Shang-Chi feels like a breath of fresh air in a staling superhero environment, even as it honors the tradition of Marvel’s prescribed narrative formula. While Cretton and his writing team are granted the proper space to explore their own world that’s not to say they don’t have some fun tricks up their sleeve, bringing into the fold former foes from past movies who end up mercifully repurposed into something more useful. This story is only beginning but the first chapter lays a lot of emotional brickwork, almost to the point of being burdened by it. The pacing is not always ideal but the trips down nightmare lane are intriguing and rarely feel purely extraneous.

The exhaustive (maybe a little exhausting) narrative structure is most compelling when building up the villain, extensive flashbacks offering a rare opportunity to understand the man behind the monster. When Wenwu met his wife he vowed to give up his never-ending quest for power, the very quest that brought him to the clandestine village of Ta Lo where he first encountered her. Shunned by the residents the pair fled to start a family, a halcyon period that tragically wouldn’t last. As a heartbroken, tormented father Leung authors one of the best villains the MCU has yet seen, oscillating between sympathetic and menacing, coldly composed and dangerously delirious, yet passing on the histrionics a lesser actor might have pursued.

In response to loss Wenwu relapsed back into his old ways, resolving to toughen up his son to be an assassin worthy of joining the powerful Ten Rings organization, so named after the physical rings he discovered that gave him immortality. However, following in his father’s blood-stained shoes is a destiny Shang-Chi grew uncomfortable with and so he fled for sunny San Francisco, changing his name and starting up a new life parking cars for wealthy elites alongside best friend Katy (Awkwafina — The Farewell; Crazy Rich Asians), a proud underachiever whose mother lovingly prods her to jump-start her life. When the pair are attacked on a bus one afternoon, Shaun has some explaining (and traveling) to do, while Katy recognizes an opportunity to help a friend in need.

The star of the film is obviously Simu Liu, who handles the duality of his character’s emotional and physical sides with grace and finesse. He’s likable and convincing in the action scenes, particularly for playing a character famous for being proficient in multiple martial arts styles, but the film excels because of the tag-team effort. Awkwafina is the yang to Liu’s yin, her terrific camaraderie making it easy to get over the goofy stage name (real name Nora Lum) and embrace the 30-something actor/rapper as more than comic relief; she’s a genuine friend whose expressiveness also makes for a perfect audience surrogate, especially as the narrative takes leaps and bounds away from the pedestrian and into the fantastical.

Thematically the movie isn’t a radical departure, certainly when in view of this summer’s Black Widow whose central thrust was also about the futility of running from one’s past. These movies share assassins and miserable childhoods in common. But where Black Widow was cold and absolute in eliminating the architect of pain and suffering — and justifiably so — Shang-Chi is more interesting in the way it confronts those committed to similarly transgressive behavior. It knows, perhaps on the level of a Captain America: Civil War or Winter Soldier, that good guys and bad in reality come with their shades of gray. We’re told it’s always personal, but here’s a case where mourning feels more appropriate than celebration; the anguish over what must be done makes the obligatory climactic battle that much more grounded despite the high-flying theatrics.

As it turns out, Cretton’s first run with the Marvel big dogs is a beautiful movie in more ways than one, and a really exciting way to kick off a new, less familiar chapter. Ta Lo is the pinnacle at which all things conceptual come together, invariably violently. This fascinating bubble within the multiverse is where everything goes down, and yet almost every scene along the way overflows with meaning and symbolism. It’s a movie with a spectacular finishing move, but also one of measurable personal growth. The friendship dynamic refreshingly remains undisturbed by studio heads undoubtedly desirous of something more expected. At once crowd-pleasing and nuanced, Shang-Chi is a superior Marvel offering.

No one’s up in arms . . . yet

Moral of the Story: The fun factor is through the roof with Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings. It’s also got a nice message to send, it looks fantastic and, though far be it from me to say this is true for all, seems a legitimately diverse, passionate and truthful representation of Chinese culture and traditions. Me to you: I freaking loved this movie and would see it again in theaters in a heartbeat. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 132 mins.

Quoted: “Welcome to the circus.”

Feast your eyes on the Official Trailer from Marvel Studios here! 

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; www.indiewire.com

Together Together

Release: Friday, April 23, 2021 

👀 Theater

Written by: Nikole Beckwith

Directed by: Nikole Beckwith

Starring: Ed Helms; Patti Harrison

 

 

 

 

****/*****

More than an acting showcase for its two leads, Nikole Beckwith’s romantic comedy Together Together is a wonderfully subversive effort that reconfigures the way we look at intimate relationships and how they can be formed.

If not wholesale reinvention — structurally this is still beholden to a formula — her sophomore feature film, following 2015’s psychological drama Stockholm, Pennsylvania, proves there are still nooks and crannies to explore within an overcrowded genre rife with trite titles. Written and directed by Beckwith, the story tells of a pair of strangers brought closer together through the shared experience of a surrogate pregnancy and how they reconcile the ephemeral nature of their connection. So the movie builds from an already intriguing and specific place. When you add in the sensational performances from Ed Helms and transgender actor Patti Harrison, you have something pretty special.

The film’s penchant for surprising you begins with the characters. In a career-best performance Helms plays Matt, a 40-year-old app developer who wants to start a family but the pieces just haven’t come together. What reads on paper or might come across in another rom-com as a potential sad-sack is brought to life by Helms as an average Joe with an unyielding optimism that makes you gravitate to him quickly, warts and all. Matt is undeniably an awkward dude, but his bouts of overbearingness and invasiveness come from genuine caring and excitement. His confidence and sense of purpose separate the character somewhat from the archetypal drifter or forever bitter man-child. It’s the fact his search for fulfillment involves having offspring rather than hooking up that makes him a rare breed of male rom-com lead.

Similarly, the pregnancy does not define the woman. Matching the established funnyman stride-for-stride, and in many instances besting him, is Patti Harrison in her début lead role. As Anna, the relative newcomer brings an authenticity that seems effortless. She, a 26-year-old single woman working as a barista, is of an obviously different social sphere and, less obviously but more significantly, a different background than Matt. Her own past is marked by controversial decisions that have led to strained familial relationships. In contrast to Matt’s to-a-fault enthusiasm Anna is more enigmatic and downbeat, not morose or depressive but rather more emotionally conservative despite the chaos under the surface. She also has aspirations beyond helping Matt fulfill a dream, using the money she will make from the transaction to fund her college tuition.

While Beckwith’s story is most interested in the awkward tension between her two principles, she also has an eye on external factors, such as the social norms that compel outsiders to speculate, judge, assume and/or in some way push back against something they view as weird or even amoral. In supporting roles (not all of which are necessarily supportiveTogether Together features the likes of Fred Melamed (In A World. . .; A Serious Man) and Nora Dunn (Pineapple Express; Bruce Almighty) as Matt’s parents, the latter the most overt representation of disapproval. Tellingly, Anna’s parents never appear on screen.

Conspicuous meta commentary on infamous Hollywood perverts notwithstanding, this is a charitable movie that considers a lot of different perspectives, and those who aren’t necessarily supporting the team aren’t made out to be villainous. Others, if not fully-realized characters, are at least enjoyable to be around: Tig Notaro warmly plays a therapist who monitors the not-couple’s psychological and emotional progression across the weeks, while Sufe Bradshaw (Murder Mystery; VEEP) as an irritable technician and Julio Torres, in his first feature film appearance as Anna’s self-destructive coworker Jules, are here to kick the comedy factor up a few notches.

What’s impressive is the way Beckwith keeps the parameters of a more traditional romantic plot in place (the awkward dinner, the moving in together, the “break-up” and reconciliation) while never losing sight of the unique stakes. Rather than feeling like lazy checkpoints the tropes feel entirely plausible and, with the exception of a couple of overly quirky scenes, natural.

Delivered in three distinct acts turned appropriately into trimesters, Together Together opens with an interview as Matt vets Anna as a potential surrogate. These candid minutes are the first uncertain moves in what ends up becoming a complex, difficult and ultimately rewarding dance that the two characters engage in on a journey from strangers to something more than friends but less than lovers. The tricky part is not getting too emotionally attached. As it turns out, that might be even harder for us as viewers than it is for the participants.

We love Lamp.

Moral of the Story: Short, sweet, and as poignant as it can be funny, Together Together doesn’t set a new standard but it comes with a level of humanity that feels really rare in the genre. Even better, there is such great balance from a writing standpoint, neither character or their concerns overshadowing the other. Nikole Beckwith’s compassionate, sensitive direction is not to be taken for granted. Now streaming on Hulu. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 85 mins. 

Quoted: “It’s weird to be perceived as hopeless in this moment when I’m feeling incredibly hopeful.”

Get a taste of the meet-awkward in the Official Trailer from Bleecker Street here! 

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; www.nytimes.com 

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #7

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

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

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

Scarlett Johansson as Samantha in Spike Jonze’s Her 

Role Type: Supporting*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 

*****/*****

 

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


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 Julie Miller/Vanity Fair

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #1

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

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

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

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

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

Role Type: Co-lead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


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Photo credits: IMDb

The Dawn Wall

Release: Friday, September 14, 2018 (limited)

→Netflix

Directed by: Josh Lowell; Peter Mortimer

Generally speaking, if you want climbing films done right, you turn to the Lowell brothers. In 1997 Josh and Brett Lowell co-founded Big UP Productions, and over the last two decades have documented some of the most stunning climbing achievements across the globe, even earning a Sports Emmy for outstanding camerawork. Their latest is The Dawn Wall, which follows big wall climber Tommy Caldwell on a seven-year quest to conquer a previously unclimbed section of the famous El Capitan.

2018 was a great year for climbing documentaries (and for Yosemite Valley, apparently), with The Dawn Wall being the first of two such films to get a theatrical roll-out. It predated the Oscar-winning Free Solo by a mere three months, and while it did not receive the same amount of fanfare I found The Dawn Wall to be the superior film both in terms of the story it tells and the climbing action featured.

There is no denying Free Solo deserved the mainstream spotlight. The life-and-death aspect of Alex Honnold’s attempt to climb the 3,000 foot monolith without any protective gear made that film immediately attractive to an audience beyond the climbing community. Along with the gut-wrenchingly obvious consequence of failure came the complicated morality of the undertaking, with the filmmakers actually having to brace for the potential reality of capturing a death on camera while going to lengths to ensure they wouldn’t be a distraction to Honnold during the ascent. (For the record, Free Solo hasn’t changed my opinion on free soloing — it still seems to me to transcend the realm of reasonable risk-taking. I did however appreciate that the filmmakers included multiple perspectives on the matter and how clear it was to see the strain this endeavor put on the camera crew and others.)

The Dawn Wall, in stark contrast to the loneliness of Honnold’s quest, is this epic buddy adventure that takes place for the most part on the Wall and gets more into the nitty gritty of climbing, whether that’s the technique involved in a tricky section or the broader tactics of big wall climbing. Before it gets into the gory details of the Dawn Wall project, the film takes a step back into the past and builds a profile of its meek-and-mild-mannered subject, tracing his rise from a painfully shy kid (and the son of a gregarious bodybuilder, to boot) to one of the elite climbers in the world, as well getting into debates surrounding nature-versus-nurture and dedication versus obsession.

It almost seems like an epidemic in movies where a cold open teases a big moment in the present before that gets put on hold so we can get the backstory, but with Tommy Caldwell, you really need that backstory. This film is about so much more than the physical act of climbing; it’s about everything that went into the ambition. The Dawn Wall‘s first half hour or so proves to be every bit as dramatic and compelling as the titular event it covers. A treasure trove of archived footage mixed in with interviews in the present day introduce several personalities that have been instrumental in Caldwell’s life and the experiences that they have shared together — such as the time Tommy, his then-girlfriend Beth Rodden and two other friends were held hostage for six days by armed rebels in Kyrgyzstan during an expedition there. To a lesser extent we also get to know his Dawn Wall partner, Kevin Jorgensen, a lauded and fearless boulderer who isn’t as experienced in the travails of big wall projecting.

Because ropes and harnesses play crucial supporting roles here you likely won’t find yourself sweating like you were in Free Solo, but what The Dawn Wall lacks in peril it makes up for in humanity . . . and pure, unadulterated climbing psych. The drama that unfolds circa Pitch 15 — a desperate traverse across a 300 foot ribbon that hinges around dime edges and features the hardest climbing on the entire 3,000 foot climb — is quite an amazing display of graciousness and selflessness, with Caldwell refusing to leave a comrade behind in battle. (Editorial: the ideal situation in big wall climbing, at least at the professional level, is for all participants to climb the entire route without falling.)

Let’s get one thing clear: this climb, defined largely by swaths of slick, seemingly feature-less granite, is so intensely difficult it is all-out war. The 32-pitch route is considered by many within the community the most consistently difficult climb in the world, while outsiders like John Branch, a sports writer for The New York Times and the first to break the story (and usher in the media circus), view it as among the greatest athletic feats of a generation. Skin is scarred, torn, chafed, bloodied, bruised. The mind brutally pummeled by doubt. All the while the saga is gaining traction in the media and the world is watching. Waiting.

The Dawn Wall is the more engaging film because, well, A) the subjects just aren’t Alex Honnold — the dude is an enigma and for me it probably helps that I have actually met Tommy in person — and B) the supporting material rummages through some pretty personal stuff, with Caldwell addressing his divorce in the early 2000s and how loneliness, perhaps desperation, motivated him to seek a new way up the face of El Capitan. (As an aside, he’s responsible for several first ascents up the face, and even did two routes in a single day — that’s 6,000 feet of climbing in 24 hours). Between Caldwell’s geekiness and Jorgensen’s indefatigable positivity the film is absolutely the warmer, dare I say the more relatable experience, even if the climbing involved is alienating.*

The Dawn Wall is about teamwork, physical endurance, and unbelievable willpower. It is ultimately a celebration of an historical climbing achievement but delivered in a way that allows the layperson to get a feel for the effort and hardship involved. The emotional crescendo to which the saga builds, coupled with the obligatorily breathtaking cinematography**, makes the film a must-see experience.

* One aspect the film does leave out is that while Tommy and Kevin weren’t alone on the Wall by virtue of the camera crew being there, they also had a team of climbers shuttling supplies up and down the wall frequently — with none other than Alex Honnold making a quick lap up to their “base camp” to provide lip balm 
** In my review of Free Solo I incorrectly assumed drones were used in the shooting. it is illegal to fly helicopters and drones through the park.

Tommy entering the crux sequence of Pitch 15.

Me and my friend Todd (green jacket) with Tommy and Beth circa October 2006 at Foster Falls, near Nashville, TN. The couple were premiering their section for a new Big UP Productions film, wherein Tommy did two El Cap routes in a single day

Recommendation: Comparing the two films is inevitable, especially when they came out basically back-to-back. For climbers, The Dawn Wall has more climbing action to get giddy over, making it perhaps the purer climbing film. But for those who were won over by Free Solo and don’t climb, this is kind of an ideal companion piece. It gets you even better acquainted with El Capitan, the practicalities of living on a rock face for days and weeks at a time, and to me it truly embodies the spirit of climbing. What Alex Honnold did and continues to do for a living is impressive and takes an enormous amount of courage and a rare kind of focus, but it doesn’t really represent what I know and love about rock climbing.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 100 mins.

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

The Marvelous Brie Larson — #1

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

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

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

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

Role Type: Lead

Genre: Drama/inspirational

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

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

Marvel at this scene:

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work):


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

Aquaman

Release: Friday, December 21, 2018

→Theater

Written by: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick; Will Beall

Directed by: James Wan

Four weeks on and the box office still hasn’t dried up for DC’s latest superhero origins story, the rise of one Arthur Curry, a.k.a. the Aquaman. Director James Wan has kinda done the unthinkable (not to mention given his bosses a nice Christmas present) by making a boatload of money — cracking the $1 billion mark this past weekend — with a movie that could not be more out of season. To me, a title like Aquaman screams summer blockbuster. Yet here we are in January, teeth chattering, talking about the highest-grossing DCEU film to date and the fifth-highest grossing film of 2018. Apparently, the fact that half the world still has months to go before they even start thinking about getting their beach bods back hasn’t been a factor.

Its release window isn’t the only thing whacky about Aquaman, a largely underwater-set action extravaganza starring Game of Thrones‘ Jason Momoa as the amphibious half-breed. Wan goes big on the special effects (as he always has, now just with more CGI pizzazz, and damn does this become a pretty thing to look at) but he goes pretty much all-out in trying to restore a little dignity to DC, proving his new employers aren’t nihilists obsessed with suffering. Aquaman embraces the absurdity inherent in its very existence, both in dialogue and in action, winking-and-nudging at the audience at every opportune moment — especially during those where bad guys are seen riding on souped-up seahorses, talking of uniting the Seven Seas and mounting an insurrection against those godless land-living creatures.

Aquaman certainly plays the part of a commercial-friendly summer winter blockbuster in terms of delivering big action spectacle, pounding the pavement immediately with an opening confrontation before moving on to successively bigger (and increasingly ridiculous) stand-offs that are as grand in scale as anything we have come across in the DCEU. If it isn’t Leviathan size, it’s the over-the-top masculinity of the combat scenes and the objects that are incorporated into them that make them larger than life — at one point I do believe the Fishboy can be seen conking an opponent on the noggin with the head of a missile. The fights are actually fairly clean — choreographically and just plain graphically — but what truly sets Aquaman apart in this regard is the exoticness of the locations, with half of the action taking place in ornate, gorgeously rendered submarine worlds where light refracts and splinters into shards of pale yellows and greens.

But (and here is the part where I expect to get laughed at) perhaps what is most unexpected from a DC film is the depth of the story, and I mean beyond the eyeball-popping pressures of the ocean bottom and gratuitous Amber Heard cleavage. (She plays Princess Mera, and aside from the predictably revealing outfits, this is probably her best role in years.) The thrust of the narrative concerns ideas of unity and cooperation and that works on scales both large and small. While the superhero thread follows the title character’s eventual acceptance of his status as a powerful leader, one who’s prophesied to bridge the two worlds (the land and the sea), the more human side finds Arthur struggling to come to terms with the consequences of his birth and the sacrifice his mother made in the interest of keeping her family safe.

As the mythology goes, Arthur is conceived out of a deep love between a human lighthouse keeper, Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison) and Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), the Queen of Atlantis, a once surface-level sovereignty now damned to the oceanic depths after a catastrophic meteor strike. As that opening fight scene reveals, Atlanna isn’t quite human. Her actions — falling in love with and marrying a human man with whom she conceives a child, who will possess the ability to communicate with all marine lifeforms — have made her a traitor to the people of Atlantis, and have earned the intense ire of Orm (Patrick Wilson), her other son and the current ruler of the aquatic civilization.

When Arthur comes of age and learns about his powers — fine-tuned with the guidance of trusted confidante Vulko (Willem Dafoe), also a ‘scientific advisor’ to King Orm — and what he represents to both sides, he of course does the very un-superheroic thing and hides away from the world, rejecting Atlantis and the very notion he can be a savior to all, including his own family. He isn’t entirely incapable of doing good deeds, as we observe in an early scene where he saves a gaggle of sailors from a Russian sub hijacking. In the process he also makes an enemy in David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), whose father Arthur mercilessly leaves to drown. Whoops.

Enter Princess Mera, who, despite this being the guy who actually defeated Steppenwolfe, begrudgingly convinces Arthur to return to Atlantis and face his half-brother, who has set his sights on the destruction of the surface world. Heard and Momoa share a playfully antagonistic chemistry that helps Aquaman stay afloat through its most silly moments. And while we’re on the subject, it is very awkward the way Wan crowbars in commentary on oceanic pollution in a film that really doesn’t want nor need to be taken seriously — that’s a reality that does need to be taken seriously, and inserting it here is more than corny, it’s disingenuous. As they embark on a globetrotting adventure to track down the Trident of Atlan, a powerful artifact that only the worthiest of Ocean Masters can wield, we endure the scorching heat of the Sahara Desert and then hop on over to the Italian isle of Sicily, experiencing setbacks (hello, Black Manta!) and personal revelations along the way.

Despite the patently absurd final battle and a few other sidebar items, at its core this is a family affair, with Arthur and Orm diametrically opposed in ideology yet almost one and the same in terms of conviction and what they are willing to sacrifice to win. Ultimately it is in Arthur’s longing for his parents to be together once more where Aquaman becomes arguably every bit the emotional journey as Diana Prince’s loss of innocence as depicted in Wonder Woman. His inner turmoil, expressed by a quite natural and earnest Momoa, help me more easily overlook the clunky narrative at-large, the predictable writing (who didn’t see that epic under-water kiss coming?) and cheesy dialogue: “Redheads, gotta love ’em!” [proceeds to throw self out of plane while a caged goat bleats in horror.]

Yes, Aquaman is conceptually whacky, narratively clunky and overly reliant on CGI on more than one occasion. But the numbers don’t lie. This movie is a crowd-pleasing good time that ticks the biggest Superhero Blockbuster box of all — prioritizing fun and escapist entertainment above all. Against many odds, Aquaman is a DCEU installment that swims far more than it sinks.

My trident is cooler than your trident.

Recommendation: This movie has been out for nearly five weeks as of this writing. You’ve either seen it or aren’t going to. Not much more I can really say here. (Oh, there is this: if you’ve wondered whatever happened to James Wan’s partner-in-heinous-crime from the Saw days, Leigh Whannell apparently appears as a cargo pilot in this film — which I find hilarious. The trajectories of these two filmmakers have been quite incomparable.)

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 143 mins.

Quoted: “What are we doing?”

“Hiding inside a whale. I got this from Pinocchio!”

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

The Foreigner

Release: Friday, October 13, 2017

→Theater 

Written by: David Marconi

Directed by: Martin Campbell

Martin Campbell has been behind two of my all-time favorite Bond movies, Casino Royale and Goldeneye (incidentally two films that also saw a changing of the guard amongst the ranks of the 00 elite), and now he’s responsible for one of my favorite Jackie Chan movies ever. The Legend is back, and as The Foreigner he’s kicking ass and taking names in ways we haven’t seen before.

Before going any further, before my bias toward the Kiwi’s new movie renders me a totally unreliable resource, I should point out that this is the same director who made Vertical Limit, the face-palming result of woefully apparent and inadequate research that turned the rock climbing community into the laughingstock of audiences everywhere. The critical and commercial failure that was Green Lantern in 2011 further sullied the good Campbell name. Fortunately those are stains that have come out in the wash. The Foreigner is his first theatrical release since then, and it’s one of his best.

The New Zealand-born filmmaker is arguably an entertainer first and a director second, as not even his lesser output — Vertical frikkin’ Limit included — fail to provide at least some degree of escapism. The Foreigner offers something a little different in that regard. Though the movie does at some point become farcical, the viewer can’t afford to completely detach, much less get comfortable, for it is the gnarly landscape of our present reality over which the narrative cautiously treads. Steeped in the world of dastardly complex politics in an age of global terrorism, the story tells of a retired Vietnam War special forces op named Quan (Chan) who seeks justice for his daughter who is killed in a London department store bombing.

Hong Kong’s biggest action star subverts roughly 30 years of expectation by portraying a father pushed to the brink of sanity, a man who tiptoes the line of morality in his quest to expose the identities of the culprits — a group who call themselves “The Authentic IRA.” In The Foreigner, Chan goes full-on Liam Neeson, a brute force awakened from slumber whose very particular set of skills, shaped by his survival of Vietnamese internment camps as well as a life overflowing with personal tragedy, are called upon when he finally loses everything. So, yeah. Rush Hour this ain’t. Reportedly Campbell had to make two separate trips to China in order to convince Chan this is a role he should take.

Not everything is unfamiliar. At 63, and in post-Lifetime Achievement Award territory, Chan is still risking life and limb for the sake of bona fide performance art. The stunts aren’t as spectacular as they once were, that’s true, but I’ll run that number by you again. He’s 63 and still jumping out of second-floor windows, narrowly avoiding death like a parkour expert in their early 20s. It’s as if death wishes are part of some non-negotiable clause in Chan’s career contract. Separating this role from most, however, is that added edge of emotion that sees that mischievous grin of his traded in for a face twisted in grief and pain.

Chan’s not the only one turning in a surprisingly impactful performance. Quan’s queries, which in the language of these familiar action movies become obsessions, eventually lead him into the office of Irish deputy minister Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan). He’s an intimidating man with a dark history to match, one made public by his own admission but the true extent to which it remains relevant becomes a mystery only Quan seems prepared (or desperate enough) to investigate. Aging suits Brosnan well, particularly in a more complex role like this where he appears to be bad at keeping the peace — let all The Troubles be forgot — but better at playing the sadistic puppeteer.

As the story unfolds it relies increasingly on these performances. Throughout we become bombarded with subplots detailing the total lack of trust between the Irish and the British, where acts of terrorism are perpetrated in the name of government favors and special interests. There’s a lot of orchestration going on behind the scenes, most memorably highlighted in an intensely heated exchange between Hennessy and a rogue IRA member played by Dermot Crowley. In the end, it’s the cat-and-mouse game between the film’s two stars that gives us reason to invest. The politics may become a bit silly, but these guys really aren’t fucking around. I enjoyed The Foreigner probably more than I should have, for that reason alone.

Recommendation: Fans of The Legend and the James Bond that M once lovingly called “a relic of the Cold War” should have a lot of time for a movie like The Foreigner. As a story it’s familiar, but Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan challenge the assertion that a cliché movie is a bad movie.

Rated: R

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “Politicians and terrorists, they are just two ends of the same snake. What’s the difference?”

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