The Scarlett Johansson Project — #9

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

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

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

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

Role Type: Supporting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work):

***/*****


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

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

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #8

Well what do we have here? I admit this is an unlikely way to return, but hey it’s Halloween and this I think is as close as it gets to horror when it comes to Scarlett Johansson’s filmography. Sure, there’s the word ‘ghost’ in Ghost in the Shell. She played the luminous Janet Leigh in Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock (2012). And I already covered her role in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (check it out here if you like). 

But my mind was made up after watching Chris Stuckmann’s entertaining YouTube review of this cult classic from the early 2000s, a title I’ve definitely heard bandied about and (I think) typically in the context of “stupidest movie ever.”

Yep. My job today is not to defend against such sleights. This is a mercilessly silly movie. Some poor sap gets punched to death by a giant tarantula. An enlarged jumping spider zip lines down a wire and you hear it going “weeeee!” while an earlier scene finds a cat battling one of the first mutated buggers within the walls of a house, leaving cartoonish imprints within the dry wall à la Tom and Jerry. Elsewhere, Scarlett Johansson tases her boyfriend in the crotch while David Marquette must negotiate enraged arachnids and an acrophobic conspiracy theorist (played by 90s holdover Doug E. Doug) atop a cell phone tower. This thing is death by a thousand giggles, I tell ya. 

But I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t have a blast with it. Maybe that’s because I had Chris’ review in my head; campiness is one of those qualities you’re either going to love or hate, and it’s a hard mixture to get right. I think Eight Legged Freaks gets it right, even though I’m not exactly what you would call a creature feature expert or connoisseur of all things camp. So much winking at the audience, so much tongue firmly planted in cheek. And so, so much spider web and guts. 

Unfortunately, not a whole lot of Scarlett Johansson but she does have a couple of really fun scenes and it’s enough for me to justify this eighth installment, with only two more to go. We’ll wrap up the SJP in December, which will be exactly a year after when I was originally going to finish it up. Better late than never, right? 

Scarlett Johansson as Ashley Parker in Ellory Elkayem’s Eight Legged Freaks 

Role Type: Supporting

Premise: Venomous spiders get exposed to a noxious chemical that causes them to grow to monumental proportions. (IMDb)

Character Background: As the teenage daughter of a small-town sheriff (Kari Wuhrer), Ashley can’t catch a break. Her friends circle in particular is a bone of contention with her mom, and her bad boy boyfriend Bret (Matt Czuchry) doesn’t exactly feel the love from his father, incidentally the town Mayor (Leon Rippy), which enables him to run wild. When push comes to shove during a date one afternoon, Ashley takes advantage of the fact her mom has various self-defense weapons lying about the house. She may not like what her mom does for a living, or care much about anything but today she cares about the convenience.

Her ennui-fueled, punk-ish attitude is soon mellowed when the town gets overrun by oversized spiders who have been exposed to toxic chemicals. The creepy crawlers, once the prized jewels of a local collector named Joshua (Tom Noonan), eventually make their way to the Parkers’ house, where Ashley has a first-hand encounter with one of the hairy bastards. The ensuing frantic action largely loses sight of her, the cluttered plot spinning off to address the various confrontations town-wide, including the self-exiled Chris (David Marquette)’s attempt to free a cocooned Aunt Gladys (Eileen Ryan), and Bret’s wayward trip into the mines where the mighty female Orb Weaver is casually liquefying its victims for easier digestion.

What she brings to the movie: A burgeoning affinity for spiders? At just 17 years old, with already 11 films under her belt and a good 10 years before taking up the mantle of Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Black Widow, Scarlett Johansson would come face-to-face with a bunch of mutant spiders. She also has played a character named Charlotte (in Lost in Translation), which is also the name of the barn spider in the children’s book Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. Freakish, barely-even-coincidences aside, Johansson’s limited performance here ranks among the film’s best. Not a high bar when this isn’t a movie about the characters. Still, she has confidence and swagger, and easily adapts to the goofy, cheesy atmosphere that Eight Legged Freaks emphasizes. Plus her bad-girl persona gives us a glimpse of the kind of edgier roles she would later take on. 

In her own words: [on being “cocooned”] “Oh, it was awful. I have Dean [Devlin] in the background talking, like, ‘Yeah, it’s gonna be fun!’ And everyone else is running around, and meanwhile no one is paying attention to me. I’m like stuck on this wall for hours.”

Key Scene: Apologies for this being a fan edit but it’s the only clip I could find of Ashley’s big moment. I actually kind of love the goofy tribute to Alien in the face-to-face. Also, ew. 

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 

***/*****


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

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

Just a Quick Thought

Well it’s been a minute. Actually it has been the longest stretch of no posting since the earliest days of the blog, since my “hiatus” from July 2011 until March 2012, a period that abruptly ended when I saw Todd Phillips’ Project X and felt compelled to go on the internet to complain about it afterwards.

While nothing dramatic like that is happening this time, I just wanted to leave a note here to let you all know that this blog is not, you know, shriveled up and dead.

I am unbelievably behind on movie watching. Keeping notes on any movies I have seen is useless because I think my writing hand is all defective and shitty. On the other, and less shitty hand, I think I am more okay with my blog falling apart for a couple months (or, indeed even for much longer) than I would have been if there were no pandemic.

But dear readers should know it has been my intention to return. A part of me certainly feels missing not being fully immersed or at least more engaged than I have been in the conversation around the latest movie news, releases and controversies. I basically can’t wait to get back in this room and bowl other people over with my opinions. 😀 So if you still feel like being the pins to this film blog’s 18-pound ball, keep your eyes peeled for more to come!

Thanks for sticking with me!


TRIVIA: Did you know that I have never seen the Jason Bourne movies? that’s right, i’m an idiot. I finally rectified that this month by watching the original trilogy plus the most recent Jason Bourne movie, skipping the non-canonical one with Jeremy Renner. 

Just a Quick Thought: The New Rules of IMDb

. . . do they include not being able to use images anymore from their library?

I have been trying to find good images for an upcoming review (which shall remain nameless) to place on my site. As you probably are already aware, I make sure to acknowledge licensed content at the bottom of each and every one of my reviews. Part of that has been to protect my own intellectual property as I have had issues in the past with my writing appearing on some less-than-reputable websites and without my permission. The other part is to make sure that I am giving the right attribution for any photos and media I am using that I did not create.

In recent weeks I have noticed that IMDb — at least as it displays for me on my MacBook Air — no longer allows one to right-click on an image and save it. There is no obvious way to use the images they have on their site, and though it is quite possible I haven’t cracked the code yet, I find this pretty frustrating as IMDb is such a good source of movie stills and promotional material. I have no issues at all with going forward with Google image searches for any given movie, but already what I’m finding is that there is no place quite like IMDb for your movie blogging needs.

What are your experiences with the “new” IMDb? Am I maybe just experiencing a glitch (for the last several weeks)? Is this a new normal I wonder?


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

Photo credits: Amazon 

Nine Years of Movie Blogging

Go go gadget holy sh*t! I’ve just been reminded that today marks my ninth year of blogging with WordPress! (If you want to read something quaint, here’s the review that began it all.)

Some time ago, maybe circa 2013-14, I jokingly commented to someone that I’d be doing this for a decade. Well, that’s actually doable now. I’ve been really happy about how this blog has helped me focus on the craft of writing, despite the fact I probably abandoned my original goal (to write columns with word counts that adhered to proper AP style) within the first year or two. Or was that the first post? Either way, after awhile I’ve come to realize that this platform lends itself more to free form writing. I’m not a website. I’m a blog, and a pretty obscure one at that!

In year nine of what is probably going to be an arbitrary number of them, I notice several major areas of improvement for myself. Namely, in the self-promotion department. I am awful at it! In fact I’ve been so proud of my avoidance of Twitter for all these years. But I reluctantly admit now that that strategy hasn’t really helped me. It’s also worth noting my Letterboxd profile desperately needs attention as well. It’s pretty much stagnated since I first opened it up sometime last fall.

When it comes to content, I have major blind spots in terms of genres, major names, and eras. I used to run a weekly feature called Throwback Thursday (yeah, what an original name, right??) and that would be an opportunity for me to dive back into films of the past. It’s possible that feature makes a return, either in its original form or some slightly tweaked version.

Whatever the changes that are to come and that have taken place over the years, one thing has remained true: it is because of the friends and followers I have had for nearly a DECADE that has kept my motivation going. I can’t overstate what it has meant to have people reading these obscure scribblings. It may be 10 years next July, but I’m not considering that the end of my journey. I hope you’ll still be following along. 

Top That: Five Movies I Probably Shouldn’t Have Paid to See

I just can’t help myself. I’m debating whether or not to go see The Impractical Jokers Movie in theaters. It seems like this should be an easy ‘no,’ right? Especially when there are some good options out right now (The Lodge; The Photograph; The Invisible Man). Yet I’m having trouble resisting.

For those who don’t know, Impractical Jokers is a hidden-camera, prank-based show that debuted on TruTV back in 2011 and features a group of lifelong friends — Joe Gatto, James Murray, Brian Quinn and Sal Vulcano — who basically go around making fools of themselves in public. The half-hour long show is structured as a kind of game wherein the guys challenge each other to do all kinds of ridiculous things in public, often involving random strangers who happen to be nearby. It’s pass or fail. Whoever ends up with the most failed attempts at the end of the day gets put through one final round of humiliation. It’s all in the name of good, silly fun of course. How they’re going to pull this off in a full-length feature film I’m not sure. I like these guys but do I enjoy their antics enough to sit in a theater for 90 straight minutes of it? Better question: Can I not just wait until this thing comes on TV? Aren’t these shows best enjoyed from the comfort of your couch?

This has spurred me into thinking about some of the other poor decisions I have made when it comes to choosing what to see in theaters. So here is a Top That! post dedicated to this very concept. We’re going to keep this simple, limiting my “mistakes” to a top five rather than ten. Tell me — what was the dumbest thing you’ve spent money on at a theater?


Jackass: The Movie (that’s 1, 2 and 3) (2002; ’06; ’10) You’d think I would have gotten my fill after one or two, but no. I did the trifecta (and I consider these all the same movie pretty much so this all counts as one item). Sometimes I really do miss being in high school. Back then it was fun to gather a crew together and go laugh at these buffoons basically destroying themselves in the name of low-brow entertainment. Even then though I found the law of diminishing returns quickly setting in as we got to 3. I still find it amazing how out of all of this nonsense Johnny Knoxville actually emerged with his body and brain intact enough to go on to have minor success acting in actual movies, some of which really play to his “strengths” as an “actor,” others surprisingly managing to contain him. The same cannot be said for the others, though. Like, I wonder if Chris “Party Boy” Pontius is still running around in his banana hammock.

The Spongebob Squarepants Movie: Sponge Out of Water (2015) All I remember about this sequel to the 2004 Spongebob Squarepants Movie is that the 3D design is the stuff of nightmares. And yet they made this weird design not just a part of the experience, but pretty much the movie’s raison d’être. The story culminates, as you might have guessed, in Mr. Squarepants and friends venturing out of their comfort zone and breaching the ocean surface as they track down Antonio Banderas’ “diabolical” pirate Burger Beard, who has stolen the secret formula for Krusty the Krab’s famous Krabby Patty. A girl I used to live next door to had all kinds of Spongebob posters on her bedroom wall, so it would have made sense if we had seen this thing together. But no, I made the really bad call of tripping out to this one on my lonesome. Why would I ever do this again?

The Simpsons Movie (2007) This totally unnecessary extension of America’s longest-running sitcom apparently came out in 2007. That means I was about 20 years old when I saw this in theaters — old enough to know better. To know my extremely casual fandom of the show probably means I won’t be getting much out of the movie. The plot finds Homer doing Homer things, polluting Springfield’s water supply and causing the EPA to put the town under quarantine. The Simpsons are subsequently labeled fugitives. The only thing I remember about this utterly forgettable event is Homer riding a motorcycle up the glass dome the EPA encases the entire town in, and dropping an explosive device in the very convenient opening at the very tippy-top. Hey, I may not have really cared for the movie but it was a major success, grossing $530 million worldwide and becoming, at the time, the highest-grossing film ever based on an animated show. There’s a happy ending for ya.

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) In my review of this rather flaccid romance/mystery thingy, I described it as a car wreck. Well, I described the critical response as a car wreck. This really dull movie was the car. The notoriously troubled production bore itself in the final print. The performances are as stiff as Morning Wood. Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey and Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele have zero chemistry. The drama is listless and is paced like a snail. I went to see the cinematic adaptation of the book that had gained “global phenomenon” status because . . . well, I was curious. Needless to say, I didn’t do that again. I heard the sequels were even worse.

Movie 43 (2013) Arguably the worst movie I have seen since starting this blog in 2011, and among the first handful of reviews I posted. (Check it out here, if you dare.) The intensely negative buzz surrounding its release was not enough to stop me and a buddy from checking this out. Not for nothing, but this absolute dumpster fire of an “insult comedy,” one that inexplicably attracted a massive cast, became a conversation piece. “Can you believe how terrible that movie was?” I still can’t, actually, no. I lost respect for a lot of the actors involved here. I think we all did.


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

Photo credits: Distractify; Amazon; IMDb

Month in Review: December ’19

Happy New Year from Thomas J! New year, new decade and a new slate of movies to take in and start complaining about immediately! 😀 Let’s do it!

I’ve come out of 2019 tripping over my own damn shoelaces. Not only did I botch the landing when it comes to finishing off the Marvelous Brie Larson actor feature within the year (that final installment is still coming by the way, it’ll just be posted in a new decade instead), I reviewed exactly none of the movies I watched in December: The Irishman; The Report; Waves; The Two Popes; Uncut Gems; Ford v Ferrari; Tennessee Walking Man.

But that’s why these monthly re-caps are handy, right? Below you’ll find a few blurbs about a select few of those titles, and while these movies absolutely deserve more expanded reviews — two of them were really best-of-year material for me — I feel like getting something out now is better than likely nothing later.

How long can you keep a movie in your head before the details start to blur? If you write reviews, are you a note-taker or a no-note-taker? 

For those who missed it, here’s what little actually did happen on Thomas J during December.


New Posts

Theatrical Releases: Jojo Rabbit

Alternative Content: When a Song Gets Bigger than the Movie: Walking on a String


Bite Sized Reviews: Three from, uhh, November 

Waves · November 15, 2019 · Directed by Trey Edward Shults · Texan-born indie director Trey Edward Shults is in the family business — all three of his films thus far have been about families in crisis. Waves is his follow-up feature to his 2017 horror/thriller It Comes at Night and in it he provides one of the most extraordinary, if not also painful film experiences of the year. Replacing the cold and lifeless backwoods of the Appalachians with the sunny and vibrant coastlines of South Florida his new film may not take place in as much literal darkness but as an exploration of guilt and grief, a testament to familial love and perseverance, it certainly goes to some deep and dark emotional places. A powerfully affecting journey that follows an African-American family through a tragedy and how they come together again in the aftermath, it’s really the authenticity of the performances you notice first. Not a single actor here registers a false note, yet it’s perhaps Kelvin Harrison Jr. (returning from It Comes at Night) who crests the highest, encapsulating both the Jekyll and the Hyde sides of his gregarious, fun-loving and athletically gifted Tyler. When he receives some medical news that’s not necessarily favorable for his plans to go to college for wrestling, he goes into a tailspin that ends up having devastating consequences for his entire family. Beyond its excruciatingly personal story Waves also has a stylistic quality that is impossible to ignore. As a movie about what’s happening on the inside, very active camerawork and the moody, evocative score — provided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — work in concert to place you in the headspace of the main characters. It all adds up to an experience that’s felt more than just passively taken in, and by the end of it you’ll feel both rewarded and exhausted. (5/5)

The Report · November 15, 2019 · Directed by Scott Z. Burns · This dour-faced legal thriller (available via Amazon Prime) details the efforts of a young and ambitious White House staffer named Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) as he leads an investigation into the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The five-year process would result in a 6,700-page document called The Torture Report and, ultimately, in the McCain-Feinstein Amendment being passed in November 2015. What begins as an inquiry into the destruction of  videotapes by a high-ranking CIA official — this at the behest of California Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) — builds into the largest investigative review in Senate history, with Jones both making a name for and a nuisance of himself even after the Bush administration has left the building. Director Scott Z. Burns confidently guides us through an information-dense narrative, and Driver’s stoicism is well-matched by the gravitas provided by a very good supporting cast, which include but is not limited to the likes of Jon Hamm, Maura Tierney, Tim Blake Nelson, Jennifer Morrison, Corey Stoll and Ted Levine. Ultimately a quiet celebration of a whistleblower who’s name has already been forgotten, The Report is perfectly watchable though not exactly what I would call gripping drama. (3.5/5) 

Ford v Ferrari · November 15, 2019 · Directed by James Mangold · A pure joy ride from start to finish, James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari does for Le Mans what Ron Howard’s Rush (2013) did for Formula 1. It alleviates the air of elitism that tends to hang over these kinds of races with a crowd-pleasing tale of triumphing over the odds. You don’t have to be a car enthusiast to feel the thrills of these movies. Ford v Ferrari is a superior racing movie because not only does it describe multiple levels of competition, the most fascinating scenes are those that take place behind closed doors at the Ford Motor Company as a clash between blue and white collars threatens to derail the company’s grand plans of besting Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a brutal endurance race that tests the very limits of mechanical integrity and driver performance. That’s not to say the sequences along the Circuit de La Sarthe aren’t positively thrilling themselves. But Ford v Ferrari really puts its characters first, and you have to admire Mangold because there are a lot of human components and even more technical ones to juggle. Like a finely tuned engine all those parts work in harmony with one another — and Christian Bale and Matt Damon as British racer Ken Miles and acclaimed American car builder Carrol Shelby once again prove why they’re so highly paid actors. The result is a racing movie that may just be one of the year’s best movies, period. (4.5/5)


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

Photo credits: IMDb; IMP Awards 

 

 

Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood

Release: Friday, July 26, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino is among the biggest names in the biz today and in his ninth and apparently penultimate film he’s relying on clout more than ever to get mass audiences invested in something that he takes as seriously as Jules does Ezekiel 25:17 — and that’s cinematic history. Yawn if you must, but with QT you can safely assume you’re going to be getting something with a little personality. With Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood he’s reminding us of how great the Golden Age was, those good old days when original narratives and marquee names were actually worth a damn. More specifically, he’s harkening back to an era when creative collaboration meant even stunt doubles had a say in what would happen in a particular scene.

Sure, this grand paean to how it used to be is kind of predictable from a guy who rejected film school and yet still obsesses over just about every technical, romantic aspect of filmmaking — he’s one of those loud voices decrying digital projection and remember how he rolled out The Hateful Eight as a “roadshow” presentation, replete with intermission and everything? Hollywood is both his home and his Alma Mater, the place where he took in more films as a kid than any human being might reasonably be asked to view in a lifetime, constantly observing, absorbing, studying in his own way.

However, the way he carries out his long-gestating passion project proves a little less predictable. Dare I say it’s even . . . wholesome? Maybe I shouldn’t get too carried away.

In Once Upon a Time (the title an obvious homage to Italian director Sergio Leone, father of the so-called spaghetti western and a huge influence on Tarantino) he trades out buckets of blood for buckets of nostalgia. The surprisingly gentle, more meditative approach finds the gorehound putting the clamps on his violent tendencies, creating a more good-natured, less bloody affair that isn’t propelled by a single narrative objective as much as it is a mood, a feeling of uncertainty brought about by change. Indeed, Once Upon a Time is a different cinematic beast, chiefly in that it isn’t very beastly, not in comparison to his last three outings, a string of ultra-violent, in-your-face western/revenge thrillers beginning with the Nazi-slaying Inglourious Basterds (2008) and culminating in what is arguably his ugliest and most deliberately nasty The Hateful Eight (2015).

The timeline spans just a couple of days but a TRT that approaches three hours, coupled with extraordinary period-specific detail, make it feel like a tapestry that covers much more ground. Set in 1969, at the crusted edges of what was once Golden, the story mostly concerns the career tailspin of fictional TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) as well as the relationship he shares with his stunt-double, driver and all-around gopher Cliff Booth (a briefly shirtless Brad Pitt — contractually obligated, I’m quite sure). Their friendship takes center stage as the two professionals are forced to negotiate rapid change. This was a time when people like Cliff had more creative input in productions, where actors and their doubles were attached at the hip working on multiple projects together. Today freelancing has opened up myriad opportunities, thereby eroding that closeness and this is just one aspect of the modern industry the filmmaker clearly laments.

I mentioned earlier how big a deal the name is. Nowhere is his status as Big Time Filmmaker more apparent than in the cast he is graced with here. It’s an embarrassment of riches Tarantino somehow manages to allocate just the right way. I just named DiCaprio and Pitt and that’s only two of the three principles. Famous faces are everywhere, in bit parts and in more extensive supporting roles. Australian rep Margot Robbie joins them in a tangential role as American tragicon Sharon Tate, who moves in next door to Rick on Cielo Drive with her famous director husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), setting up the much-talked about arc that puts a wholly unexpected spin on one of the darkest chapters to unfold in 1960s Tinseltown.

Elsewhere, Al Pacino plays a hot-shot agent named Marvin Schwarz (that’s SchWARz, by the way, not SchwarTZ) channelling — yes, still — Tony Montana. He’s here to present a gut-check for the sensitive actor, reaching out to Rick with an offer to take part in an Italian Western. Rick’s appreciative of Marv’s offer but outside his presence he’s inconsolable, confiding in Cliff that he believes this is a sign that his career is well and truly over. Cliff, however, would like him to reconsider, because hey, he’s Rick “f-word” Dalton, and Cliff can’t get any work until Rick does because of vicious rumors circulating the old mill about the stunt man having murdered his wife some years back. Ergo, we go to Italy, right?

Bruce Dern is in it briefly as George Spahn, the owner of Spahn Movie Ranch, the site where many westerns were once filmed, now overrun by a cult of hippies who turn out to be not exactly all about peace and love. While we’re at it, it isn’t just in the way he handles the Tate/Polanski angle where QT shows restraint (and paradoxically absolutely no mercy, if only toward those “damn hippies.”) A sidebar shows Cliff making a brief visit to the Ranch after dropping off a scantily clad hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), and while he’s there he’d like to check in with his old friend and the now-blind owner to ensure he’s not being taken advantage of by these layabouts. It’s a scene pregnant with tension, a stand-off from a western wherein long, cold stares precipitate a sudden and brief outburst of violence. But Tarantino feels nothing but contempt for those brainwashed by Manson’s Helter Skelter bullshit, turning the tables on them and converting what should have been another grisly murder into something resembling a farce.

Then there are bit parts snatched up by the likes of “intrinsically 60s” Kurt Russell as a stunt coordinator/Cliff’s former boss, and a highly entertaining Mike Moh doing a bold impression of famed martial arts actor Bruce Lee; Timothy Olyphant is a co-star on one of Rick’s late-career shows; Damon Harriman, for the second time this year plays Charles Manson (albeit in a cameo here while his other appearance was in the second season of Mindhunter — it must be those eyes); and Luke Perry in what turns out to be his final screen appearance (he passed away in March). Tarantino also makes a brilliant discovery in newcomer Julia Butters, who plays a precocious child actor who takes Rick to school in on-set professionalism. All of these characters add little considerations to the world Tarantino is reconstructing — resurrecting — and while some arcs leave more to be desired they each contribute something of value.

The pacing of the film no doubt languishes. It’s not his most action-packed film ever. In fact, save for that controversial house call, it’s his least. Yet because Tarantino is so obsessively compelled to detail environments and lives it might just be his most insightful. Not a scene feels wasted or unnecessary, maybe a little indulgent in length at times, but excisable — I’m not convinced. The rich mise en scène steals you away to a decade long since buried underneath modern multiplexes touting the latest CGI spectacles, and I particularly enjoyed the little meta moments he provides, such as clips from Dalton’s most popular gig Bounty Law, or when Robbie’s Tate decides to check out a matinee showing of her new movie The Wrecking Crew at the old Bruin Theatre — the latter a nod to QT himself attempting to check out True Romance (a movie which he wrote but did not direct) when he was a young pup.

All of these details add up to the very antithesis of the movie I had anticipated when it was first announced. Once Upon a Time is proof that you can indeed teach an old reservoir dog new tricks. Or, rather, Tarantino has taught himself some new tricks and empathy looks good on him. He’s successfully created a modern fairytale out of Old Hollywood. It’s a surprising movie, one full of surprising moves but still imbued with that irascible energy of his. It’s one hell of a good time.

Margot Robbie puts her best foot forward as Sharon Tate

Recommendation: It’s a film full of intrigue for those up for a little history lesson as far as the industry and some of the early ingredients that formed the QT soup are concerned, while reports of “less violence!” and “more sympathy!” can only be a good thing in terms of attracting a broader audience.

Rated: R

Running Time: 161 mins.

Quoted: “When you come to the end of the line, with a buddy who is more than a brother and a little less than a wife, getting blind drunk together is really the only way to say farewell.”

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

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

Month in Review: May ’19

Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit’s that time again! Another month of cinematic magic to look back on, or . . . since it’s early in the year, perhaps lament the lack thereof. From yet more pointless biopics (Tolkien, if you take a look at the numbers, apparently only has $4 million worth of fandom, but that paltry figure surely betrays the popularity of his works and indeed of the man himself, whose fantastical realm created a global fraternity of deeply loyal, line-memorizing fans), to Dennis Quaid looking totally annoying and embarrassingly in need of a paycheck intruding your local cineplexes in this hackneyed home-invasion “thriller”, or even a lack of good animated films (Ugly Dolls — no thanks, no thanks), I’ve felt like Keanu Reeves wandering the arid Sahara in search of answers, or at least decent entertainment this month. (Oh but John Wick 3 delivered. Or, it delivered what we have come to expect from it by now and not a shred of texture beyond that.)

May did hold some intrigue, however, what with the Godzilla sequel (yes, I know you hated the first but I didn’t) and the Elton John biopic (admittedly bordering on gratuitous profiting too) both coming out on the same weekend. There have also been several interesting things popping up on streaming platforms that uh, yeah, I haven’t gotten around to yet — remember when I said I would do a whole month of streaming-based reviews? Thank goodness this is a blog and not an actual job. I’d be fired twice by now for not delivering. Maybe I should fire myself. I suppose it’s not too late to do such a thing (stream an entire month’s worth of movies that is, not fire myself). But I’m not setting any hard deadlines.

Before we dive into it, there’s just one other thing I’d like to mention. Note the new feature on the side, Beer With Me! This is something I’ll be maintaining casually as I stumble upon new beers that I like (and can confidently recommend) and maybe figure out some ways to incorporate my love of IPAs with my love of movies. Like, for example, I might feature a Beer of the Month in these recap posts — something that might actually justify this otherwise middling and superfluous feature I created. Give it a look, feel free to share comments/suggestions about what I should try next in the comments section here or, of course, on any of my posts.

Without any further verbal spewage, here’s what has gone down on the world’s most active movie-related blog in the month of May.


New Posts

Theatrical Releases: Pokémon: Detective Pikachu; John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum

Other: The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot (Redbox)

Alternative Content: 30 for 30: Seau


Bite Sized Reviews

High Flying Bird · February 8, 2019 · Directed by Steven Soderbergh · Calling all NBA fans! This is your movie. His second consecutive “portable” production, once again shot entirely on an iPhone, Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird tells of the creative maneuvers an ambitious, hard-working talent agent (André Holland) seeks to pull off in a bold attempt to put an end to the 2014 work stoppage that prefaced that season. Melvin Gregg plays Holland’s (fictitious) rookie client, Erick Scott, a gifted player both lusting after the glam and the glory of being a pro baller while being scarily unprepared for the realities of being a professional athlete. Deadpool 2‘s very own Zazie Beetz plays a crucial supporting role in both his personal and professional development. The script by Moonlight scribe and accomplished playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney draws undeniable parallels between old-fashioned slavery and NBA ownership (and if that seems sensationalist, consider the awful spectacle that befell the Los Angeles Clippers — incidentally that very same year, when then-owner Donald Sterling was forced to sell the team after audio recordings of him making some odious remarks about his own players were leaked to the public). Brief interviews with current players (Karl Anthony Towns, Donovan Mitchell and Reggie Jackson) tie seamlessly into the narrative and give perspective on the pressures faced by rookies to perform in the modern game and age of Twitter. So, in case it isn’t obvious, High Flying Bird is a film of specifics — it’s inarguably the Ocean’s 11 director’s most esoteric project yet, with sport and business jargon abounding. High Flying Bird is also a notable step up in terms of picture quality, thanks almost entirely to the gleaming urban setting. Unlike the drab, murky interior shots that dominated (and plagued) his previous effort Unsane, here buckets of sunshine wash over the silver edifice of New York City, adding a sense of style and elegance to a narrative that isn’t afraid of tackling the ugly underbelly of the National Basketball Association. Insightful for fans, likely isolating and boring for everyone else. (4/5)

Venom · October 5, 2018 · Directed by Ruben Fleischer · Oh boy, where do I even start with this. I guess let’s start with I hated it, pretty much beginning to finish. The first standalone, live-action movie focused upon the (only bad) people-eating exploits of the anti-hero Venom, an alien symbiote who inhabits the body of disgraced journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), finding it a match made in alien heaven, is one I only wish I could un-see. The first half of the film obligingly fulfills some human drama quota, trudging through the consequences of Brock’s overreaching during a tense interview with self-anointed global savior Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, victim #1 of some truly terrible dialogue and bland, wanton villainy), his probing questions over what’s really going on behind the scenes at the mysterious Life Foundation causing his fiancee (Michelle Williams) to lose her job there and thus end their relationship, leaving Brock vulnerable to forcible alien penetration. When his superpowered alter-ego begins taking over in earnest, Venom swings like a bipolar teen from dull and no fun to sensationally goofy and downright dumb, the voice of Venom coming across as a misunderstood rascal rather than an extraterrestrial being of dubious morality. The movie hits a low with Williams shoving her tongue down the throat of said alien, the act managing to be both creepy and an utterly unconvincing change of heart in one fell swoop. Hits a high when the end credits roll. Okay, that’s not entirely fair — Tom Hardy at least deserves a nod for being a good sport, though neither he nor the rest of the talented ensemble (including Jenny “Marcel the Shell” Slate as a scientist with a conscience) are enough to elevate this clunker out of the lower echelons of superhero adaptations. (1.5/5)


What’s been your favorite movie this month?

Month in Review: June ’18

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

June was the month of my grandmother’s visit. She spent four weeks here in New Jersey with us, having made the exhausting journey from England to the United States at the age of 86. Sipping limoncello in the shade became a motif while she watched her great-grandchildren splash in the pool. This was the first time I had seen her in 12 years. The first time I’d seen her without her lifelong friend and partner by her side. The first time since my grandfather on the other side passed the year prior. The first time since I said goodbye to my dear mother.

So much can change — does change — in a decade, but what hasn’t is my family’s support of my hobbies and passions. My Nan hasn’t quite got the wherewithal to be a daily visitor, but she asked me during her stay how the writing was going. Over these years those hobbies and passions have also changed. The last time I saw her was in England, and I was doing that thing where you skate up and down ramps and slide down rails and ledges — for no discernible purpose other than to get hurt. An entire decade’s worth of climbing has elapsed as well, an activity in which I made such great friends. I have gone through the whole rolodex of obscure, niched hobbies and yet, she sorted through all of that history. She found where I am today, despite all that distance time put between us.

So with that said, thank you to my Nan and as always to YOU, for reading what I have had to say. And this is what has been going on on Thomas J during the month of June.


New Posts

New Releases: Deadpool 2; Solo: A Star Wars Story; Tag


An Embarrassing Admission

The other day I caught Nic Cage in the 2009 global disaster movie Knowing. Even knowing what had been said about this rig, merely one of several in a long string of titles that have all but sullied the good Coppola name, I still allowed this to happen to me. If you care to know, the movie is about a professor (Cage) and his son coming into the possession of a cryptic message that seems to have predicted every single major disaster that has occurred over the last 50 years, including the dates, death tolls and geographic coordinates of those events. It even goes on to warn the lucky recipient about an impending apocalypse. Something about the sun going kablooey. Sure, Knowing is terrible, but it’s not the fact Cage plays an MIT professor who gets caught up in the most absurd plotline you’ve seen since Howard the Duck that makes it so. It’s mostly bad because the tone is just so unrelentingly dour. Why so serious Mr. Proyas?

But what really makes this an embarrassing admission is that . . . well, no real surprise here. I liked it! May all our children be kidnapped by aliums and taken away to the Garden of Eden on some remote planet. Good god man this movie is silly. I just wish Mr. Cage got to let loose a little more in this one. That was probably my biggest grievance.


Blogging News 

I have added the following blogs to the DSB Blogroll (which, may I add, is in desperate need of an update. Three quarters of that list are blogs that have either gone into hibernation or are no more). Be sure to check out these new additions, and stop in and give them a page like while you’re at it!

SPOOL. 

IT CAME FROM . . . 

Flicks and Pieces 

Films etc. 

Psychology of Film