The Scarlett Johansson Project — #5

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

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

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

Scarlett Johansson as Rebecca in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World

Role Type: Co-lead

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work):  

***/*****


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

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #3

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

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

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

Role Type: Supporting

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

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

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

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

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

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 

* Ethan Coen also directed but only joel was credited 

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Photo credits: IMDb 

TBT: Amélie (2001)

new tbt logo

Our second stop this December on Throwback Thursday finds us head-over-heels in like (?) with a very unique girl. A hopeless romantic. A dreamer. A dream-weaver. Though this entry doesn’t strictly qualify as a film that spreads holiday cheer, it’s one that spreads cheer and is the definition of a feel-good film. It’s a testament to the combined strengths of the performances, some delicious cinematography and memorable visual effects that I was eventually won over by this film. I was so very tempted to shut this thing off after about 40 minutes as it is a rather slow journey. But by the end I was actually kind of moved. For the second time this month I’m having a new experience with  

Today’s food for thought: Amélie (2001).

Amelie minimalist poster

Romancing the City of Love since: November 2, 2001

[Netflix]

The City of Love dazzles and shines in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s fantastical portrait of a young girl touching the lives of many a downtrodden Parisian. It aches with a melancholy the warm yellow hues of Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography (he helped set the mood for Inside Llewyn Davis with his distinctly colder, bluer photography) help offset, but only just. There are people everywhere but not much life to be found. People are shells of their former selves, save for Amélie, who has grown up in a unique but largely unenviable way.

Her parents, both hard workers but far from ideal caretakers — her father, never spending much time with her, had his only daughter incorrectly diagnosed with a heart condition; mother, a bit of an emotionally cold person who sadly lost her life in a most bizarre manner — effectively isolated Amélie from social settings. She was homeschooled. Amélie’s upbringing created many challenges for her, but that didn’t stop her from being curious about the world of which she was a part.

After witnessing the news of the death of Princess Diana and coming to the realization that life is all too fleeting, she became hooked on the idea of spreading joy to other people’s lives. She hoped maybe she could help them improve their outlook and in so doing, make her life have meaning. She sets about helping an older man recover a box filled with all sorts of memories from his past; a reclusive artist learn how to socialize; a young boy overcome his circumstances working for a nasty, ungrateful boss at a corner market. She even starts working her magic at The Two Windmills, a small café she has been working at, playing Cupid for one of her co-workers who can never seem to attract the attention she longs for from a regular customer.

It’s strange that someone who suffered such a cruel childhood could grow up to become such a romantic and an eternally kind-hearted person. In fact this protagonist is so incongruent to the way in which the real world works she comes across as a character only a movie could create. Amélie is a little girl nobody really seems to pay much mind to, yet she’s larger than life. I found it difficult to buy into her blossoming as a young woman. Not to mention, the film takes an eternity to get to where it really wants to go. The first half of this picture is nothing short of a slog as it sets about establishing dynamics between these many other lost souls who have all, in some way, shape or form had their hearts turned to stone.

Despite the unlikeliness of this enigmatic personality, it’s something of a task to resist her charms. Amélie may crawl like molasses spilling forth from the jar but it’s this process of slow absorption that finally won me over. I just couldn’t help it. I mean, how can you not fall in love with this girl, the short-cut, jet-black-haired woman with a perpetual twinkle in her eye that suggests she’s up to something? Parts of her recall Macauley Culkin in Home Alone, what with her mischievous nature as she goes to lengths to make life a little more difficult for the people who deserve it, while sending a potential lover, Mathieu Kassovitz’s Nino, on a whimsical journey across the city, scattering clues all over in an attempt to win his heart and, in effect, make her first true connection to someone in the real world.

And this is what, for me, made Amélie often a challenge to root for. She can be so helpless. She’s been programmed not to make direct contact with others, despite her affinity for passing through their lives like wind through the leaves on a branch. As the reclusive Dufayel observed, unable to conceal his disdain: “she would rather imagine herself relating to an absent person than build relationships with those around her.” It’s not all her fault of course but at some point it’s less about her failure to make that contact as it is her fault that she fails to do so on so many different occasions. “For Pete’s sake, go and get him!”

Indeed the film is nothing if not a traditional love story, steeped in karmic and coincidental reality. Amélie seemed destined to help others, but — and the film is almost too conscious of it — she’d be a fool if she would forget about her own happiness in the process. As the film builds into a crescendo composed of the efforts she has made to brighten others’ days, it begins to gain an unwieldy belly that, for the most part sits content, but often can feel a bit overstuffed and bloated. Engorged on sugary romance. Part of me wants to say this film isn’t exactly my tasse de thé and if it weren’t for Tautou’s mesmerizing performance I would have never made it past those first 40 minutes.

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 6.12.35 PM

Recommendation: A film defined by its central performance, Amélie is one for romantics at heart and French cinema enthusiasts. While bearing some fantastical camera techniques that remind one of Charlie Kaufman, this is a decidedly more upbeat and optimistic film than anything he’s done. Entertaining, beguiling, entrancing. This is a pretty great movie and I was ultimately rewarded for committing to it.

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

TBTrivia: Of all the things this movie inspired, it wasn’t so much passionate love affairs, but rather the advertising campaign of Travelocity. Throughout the film, Amélie, in an attempt to inspire her shut-in father to get out and see the world, hatched a scheme wherein the family garden gnome would be sent to various famous international locales and have its picture taken and sent back to him. Hence, the Travelocity Gnome.

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

TBT: Out Cold (2001)

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As the leaves continue their mass exodus from their branches, I’m reminded that my favorite season is just around the corner. Why winter? A couple of reasons. First of all winter seasonals are some of my favorite beers. Second, winter usually means snow, and snow usually means it’s time to go and hit the slopes. And of course you can’t have ski trips without the aprês ski — very few things go better together than a long day of shredding and then hitting the bar at the bottom of the mountain at the end. Then there’s the other clichés of course: hot chocolate, the turn of the New Year and all that that entails. The list goes on. To mark the occasion I figured we’d take a look at a snowboarding film I remember fondly from high school. I distinctly remember wearing this disc out, well beyond playability I watched it so many times. 

Today’s food for thought: Out Cold.

Getting awkwardly stuck in jacuzzis since: November 21, 2001

[DVD]

For those of a certain comedic persuasion, it doesn’t get much more nostalgic than when you think back on the first time you watched the Malloy brothers’ Out Cold, a low-budget, low-risk, bacchanalia-obsessed film about a group of snowboarders trying to save their rinky-dink ski town from being converted into a commercialized tourist trap.

While the film has all the hallmarks of a direct-to-DVD feature — which I’m fairly certain it was — it goes down like a swill of your favorite Rocky Mountain brew, its outrageous (and numerous) Zach Galifianakis-centered hijinks and small-town frolics producing that oh-so-warm-and-fuzzy feeling buddy comedies are so adept at. Trust me, if you haven’t ever seen the movie it’s not anything you can’t figure out using the above movie poster as a reference. Out Cold is about as silly as they come, but unlike other films of its ilk it has a surprising amount of staying power.

The uniformly memorable cast of characters goes a long way in cementing the film as one of the best in a bunch of very mediocre and unambitious slacker films; Jason London’s Rick Rambis heads up a crew of twentysomethings who have probably spent a little too much time at elevation, for all intents and purposes good kids who have allowed the combination of fresh mountain air and bong smoke dictate every major life decision they need to make — whether it’s properly honoring Bull Mountain resort founder Papa Muntz or figuring out how to tell your crush they’re the only one for you.

Aiding Rick in his inebriated misadventures are Anthony (Flex Alexander), Jenny (A.J. Cook), the endearingly brain-damaged Pig Pen (Derek Hamilton) and his only slightly-more-coherent brother Luke (Galifianakis in his break-out role), and the bar tender Lance (David Denman), who has severe self-esteem issues . . .

Of course there are a few stand-out supporting roles that add some flavor to this Raunch Sandwich: David Koechner plays town weirdo Stumpy, a guy more comfortable in shorts than in proper winter gear and with a penchant for going on rants (be careful what you wish for, Richard); Lee Majors shows up in a small but pivotal role as John Majors, the businessman who poses a threat to Bull Mountain’s stoner status quo; Swedish model Victoria Silvstedt blends nicely into the Alaskan scenery as Inga . . . and of course by ‘nicely’ I mean she sticks out so much it becomes comical. At nearly 6 feet tall and long, flowing blonde hair she is quite the woman. Too bad she’s only a weekend visitor, schtepdaughter to Mr. Majors. The resort, a family business, is now being run by Muntz’ bumbling son Teddy (Willie Garson). And then of course there’s Thomas Lennon being, well, Thomas Lennon.

It may seem odd to give this many people a nod in a movie this small, particularly when considering only a few of them — Galifianakis, Koechner, Hamilton and Denman — leave a lasting impression. Yet Out Cold lives and dies on the camaraderie of its cast; this is very much a festive occasion with more emphasis on penis jokes, practical jokes and even practical penis jokes than story. Sadly Out Cold can’t quite resist the urge to toss in a thoroughly sugar-coated romantic subplot involving Rick and his former gal, who just so happens to stop in at their watering hole one afternoon. Oh, and she also happens to be Majors’ daughter, Anna (Canadian beauty Caroline Dhavernas). What are the odds?

London and Dhavernas share about as much chemistry as Galifianakis shares with his polar bear friend in the early stages of the film. Unable to move on since being stood-up at the end of a week-long fling in Cancun, Rick finds himself pining after his long-lost love to the tune of some seriously overdone clichés that offer up the film’s lamest scenes. Apparently the romance is a tongue-in-cheek reference to Casablanca (though I’ll leave it up to you to determine how successfully that comes across for anyone who hasn’t seen this film). Barring this unnecessary frill, Out Cold does well by its decision to stick to the open slopes instead of heading into the trees where less-traveled narrative paths run the risk of potentially exhilarating or completely losing its audience.

Out Cold is as predictable as they come but the party atmosphere, conjured by a great cast, makes for a highly enjoyable and unexpectedly hilarious package.

Recommendation: One to watch in your early 20s, there’s no doubt about it. Make that late teens. There’s no nudity in this one folks, which is a little odd considering, once again, the party atmosphere. (For whatever reason these guys were aiming at the PG-13 rating. . . presumably to net a larger audience, but . .  eh.) Definitely a great one for early, stand-out comedic touches from the likes of Galifianakis, Koechner and Denman. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 89 mins.

TBTrivia: Very loosely based on Casablanca. It can be seen when Rick has the flashback of him and Anna, when Rick says, “Of all of the bars in all the ski towns in Alaska why did she have to pick this one?” (much like “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world . . .”), when Anna has Luke (Sam in Casablanca) play their song and Rick walks in, and finally in one of the closing scenes when Anna gets on the plane and Rick says, “We’ll always have Pedro O’Horny’s,” which is a direct reference to Humphrey Bogart’s famous, “We’ll always have Paris.”

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Photo credits: http://www.martiperarnau.com; http://www.alchetron.com 

TBT: Behind Enemy Lines (2001)

. . . and just when everyone thought this thread was dead uhhhh-gain, it makes a triumphant reappearance. Well, semi-triumphant. I finally watched a war film I had been wanting to see for many a year and as it turned out, well . . . phooey on all that anticipating. It wasn’t really worth it! Oh well. It’s still a decent romp. You could do a lot worse as far as cheap-looking war movies are concerned, things that fail to succeed to even entertain on some basic level, such as what can only be presumed to be the case for the disastrous direct-to-VHS sequels to 

Today’s food for thought: Behind Enemy Lines.

Being ridiculously jingoistic since: November 30, 2001

[DVD]

Behind Enemy Lines is an awkward blend of entertainment and information. Or maybe misinformation would be a better term. Director John Moore’s fictionalized account of American involvement in the final days of the Bosnian War isn’t so much irresponsible as it is lazy. This is too easy of a film, quickly digestible and dispensable. But at least it was . . . fun?

Owen Wilson played Navy flight officer Lieutenant Chris Burnett, an intelligent but rather undisciplined young man who gets deployed on a holiday mission by Admiral Reigart (Gene Hackman). Joining him in what was supposed to be a routine reconnaissance mission is pilot Lieutenant Jeremy Stackhouse (Gabriel Macht). During the flight Burnett suggests they make use of their “shiny new digital camera” — since they’re missing the Christmas dinner onboard the ship they may as well make good use of their time. They end up taking aerial photos of a site that is decidedly outside of their lawful flying route, a demilitarized zone that just so happens to contain a mass grave, an operation being conducted secretly by Bosnian-Serb paramilitary General Miroslav Lokar (Russian actor Vladimir Mashkov). Of course they are spotted and subsequently shot down.

The Americans eject and avoid death by pine tree at Mach 3, though Stackhouse suffers a leg injury and stays behind while Burnett searches for higher ground to radio back to the USS Carl Vinson for help. Unfortunately Serbian forces appear over the horizon and gasp, spoilers! are quick to interrogate and then execute the lone Stackhouse. Burnett goes on the run, but not before he accidentally exposes himself (no, not in the Lenny Kravitz in Sweden kind of way). So ensues an hour and a half of cat-and-mouse across the frozen and rugged mountains of Bosnia-Herzegovina. How long can a sole American Naval officer survive behind enemy lines? If this film’s questionable historical basis (that of U.S. Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady) is anything to go by, apparently it’s six days (or as long as the running time says).

To provide the drama at least some depth, Moore injects his production with the typical political farce. Burnett’s survival hinges upon whether Hackman’s Reigart can convince the dispassionate NATO Commander — who is overseeing the peace talks between American and Serbian forces — that it will be worth his while to rescue this one guy. While the concerns of Admiral Piquet (Portuguese actor Joaquim de Almeida) are valid, there’s very little to justify how long it takes for Admiral Reigart to finally disobey orders by taking matters into his own hands.

Plot holes and predictability notwithstanding, Behind Enemy Lines is, at its best, exemplary of that ‘good-old boys’ huzzah that was clearly gunning for the viewer not as concerned with more accurate, less video-gamey war depictions in the vein of Saving Private Ryan, Enemy at the Gates and Black Hawk Down. Though its can-do spirit feels more like faded glory now as the special effects are profoundly poor, chaotic and overly dramatic. Added to which a script that has the typically excellent Gene Hackman stuck between a rock and a hard place delivering, visibly hesitant, corny lines that are intended to motivate Burnett. The blue wash of light from the ship’s command center on Hackman’s face offers some concealment of an actor in discomfort. And as refreshing as it is to see Wilson in a dramatic role — this, mind you, being in retrospect given his upcoming career — he doesn’t fare much better when his final dozen lines devolve into a festival of “goddamnit”‘s.

Behind Enemy Lines has almost innumerable issues, from the technical to the practical. Portrayals of Serbs as the obvious bad guys and Americans as the unquestionable do-gooders make the film ripe for parody. It’s not much of a surprise to learn the filmmakers were unable to hire any Serbian actors for those particular roles. That wasn’t enough to stop Moore from creating a silly, slight but still somewhat enjoyable slice of American action.

Recommendation: Behind Enemy Lines is far from the best war film you’ll see but the cast do a thorough enough job getting into character so believing in the situation isn’t as absurd as it might have been with less experienced actors. That said, the special effects and general clumsiness of the script (particularly the dialogue) leave too much to be desired to warrant anything but a shaky recommendation from me. All that said, this has got to be legions better than anything else that has proceeded it in the so-called “series.” 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 106 mins.

TBTrivia: Director John Moore was nearly killed in the scene where the tank busts through the wall. He was pulled away by a stuntman just in time.

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.channel4.com