The Scarlett Johansson Project — #2

Being quarantined at home may be the perfect time to look back on a movie that explores loneliness and connection. This was obviously not something I planned, but social distancing has a way of making us look at things differently and that includes the way we experience certain movies. That’s what’s happening with me and the classic romantic comedy Lost in Translation (2003) anyway.

I have a lot of love for this movie and I do think the feelings it evokes are intensified by this interruption in normal social life we are going through. Lost in Translation is a bittersweet story focused on two kindred spirits floating through weird periods of their lives. Neither know what they want, and both happen to meet in a foreign city and find something in each other that bonds them in a profound way. Lost in Translation featured a 17-year-old Scarlett Johansson alongside comedic great Bill Murray, who was stepping into a dramatic role for the first time in nearly 20 years. Director Sofia Coppola was completely blown away by the reception her movie received, feeling certain it would be viewed as pretentious and self-serving. It ended up netting her an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay that year.

In rewatching it in preparation for my monthly feature, I had forgotten how fleeting Lost in Translation really is — it’s all wrapped up in about 96 minutes. What happens within that time, however, what is said (and almost as often, what is not said), makes it so hard for me to leave the movie behind. I simply love these characters, especially when they’re together.

Scarlett Johansson as Charlotte in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation

Role Type: Co-lead

Premise: A faded movie star and a neglected young woman form an unlikely bond after crossing paths in Tokyo. (IMDb)

Character Background: Charlotte is a native New Yorker and recent college grad who is feeling unsatisfied and disillusioned with her marriage to John (Giovanni Ribisi), a celebrity photographer. On assignment in Tokyo, he’s kept busy and away from the hotel room leaving Charlotte alone and with plenty of time to wonder why she ever married this guy. She’s empty inside and her wandering eyes say as much. So she gets out into the city and does some exploring, soon turning acquaintances into friends, such as Charlie Brown (Fumihiro Hayashi). Over the course of about a week she also forms a deep connection with an older man named Bob Harris (Murray), a fading actor who’s staying at the same hotel while he endures a dreadful commercial shoot promoting whiskey. It is through their meaningful conversations and one really fun night soaking up the nightlife that we learn more about her and see her personality open up a bit more.

What she brings to the movie: very little experience for a role that aged her up 4 years from what she actually was. When Lost in Translation started shooting Scarlett Johansson was only 17 and had but a handful of acting credits total. Her claims to fame at the time were a starring role in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001) and a supporting role in the Robert Redford drama The Horse Whisperer (1999). Charlotte is her first adult role as far as the emotional complexities involved and the thematic content. Yes, it is true that Sofia Coppola would not have made this movie had she not been able to get Bill Murray, but Coppola also enjoyed Johansson’s performance in the 1996 comedy Manny & Lo so much she had to land her as a lead in one of her movies (Johansson would pass on Coppola’s début effort The Virgin Suicides, feeling it wasn’t right for her at the time).

In her own words: [on the age difference between her and Bill Murray, who is more than 30 years her senior] “It was hard to relate to one another, but I think what worked is that when the cameras were rolling and [it] actually came time to do the work, we worked really well together.”

Key Scene: I mean . . . there are other choices. There’s a really nice moment when Bob and Charlotte are talking while laying on a bed, having a deep conversation about whether life or marriage get any easier as time goes by. It’s a quiet but important moment that further solidifies their bond. But the key scene is in the way Sofia Coppola brings this wonderful week to a close. The kiss that almost never was, the mystery of whatever it is that Bob whispers into Charlotte’s ear. The sounds of the streets teeming with passing strangers. By the time The Jesus and Mary Chain come in with “Just Like Honey,” it’s very close to a perfect ending. Well, it’s one of the most bittersweet endings I’ve ever seen anyway. I never wanted this story to end, and yet Coppola does it about as gracefully as she possibly could have. According to her, “I just wanted to show a whole relationship just in a few days.”

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


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Photo credits: IMDb

Paul G — #9

Paul G logo

Last time we were here, Paul was brought in as a psychological consultant on a top-secret government project involving an artificially intelligent being named Morgan. All two of us who saw that movie know how that turned out. Now this month we’re going to find out what happens when you take Paul and shove him into a movie about comic books, and no, we’re not going to be talking his contribution to the spectacle of disappointment that was The Amazing Spider-Man 2. This month we’re going to be discussing a role with a little bit more substance and nuance than his admittedly terrible Aleksei Sytsevich.

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Paul Giamatti as Harvey Pekar in Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor.

Role Type: Lead

Genre: Biopic/comedy/drama

Plot Synopsis: An original mix of fiction and reality illuminates the life of comic book hero everyman Harvey Pekar.

Character Profile: Harvey Pekar was an underground comic book writer who developed a unique style and voice by creating the ‘American Splendor’ comics, stories that were autobiographical in nature and that seemed to elevate his everyman status to that of a quasi-hero as he set about dealing with his mundane struggles in a harsh, unforgiving world.  But if you asked him, Harvey was just another guy, another depressed fellow living in a depressing city working a depressing job. Naturally his work reflected a rather dim outlook on life. Born of Polish immigrants, Harvey was one of the few white kids to grow up on his block in a Cleveland suburb and as a result, found himself often being beaten up and without friends. An unhappy childhood seemed to bleed into adulthood. He attended college for a year before dropping out, enlisted in the armed forces but was soon discharged — allegedly for personal hygiene-related reasons. After shuffling through a series of miserable jobs he finally became a file clerk at Cleveland’s Veteran’s Administration Hospital. His friends circle was limited to those with whom he worked, and his romantic life was defined by a series of hastily made decisions that ended in two divorces, though in 1984 he met Joyce Brabner, a writer and comic book shop owner from Delaware. She had written a letter to him seeking a way to obtain a single copy of his latest comic since her store had already sold out. The 2003 film American Splendor divulges much of this, as well as the time the two spent collaborating on ‘Our Cancer Year,’ a graphic novel based upon Harvey’s diagnosis and survival of lymphoma, employing a thoroughly unique format — a hybrid of documentary and dramatic/comedic elements — to bring his personal tales to life. And Harvey may have staked a reputation through his ability to convey mundane struggles in comic form but he never quit his job as a file clerk until he retired. He was also a prolific record collector and dabbled in music and literary critiques. He passed away in Cleveland Heights in 2010 at the age of 73 after an accidental overdose on anti-depression medication having been diagnosed a third time with cancer.

Why he’s the man: Paul Giamatti very well could be at a career-best with this fascinating character, one who teeters on the edge of being sympathetic due to his relentless pessimism and iconoclastic tendencies. There’s something that Giamatti does that seems very small but that which very nearly ultimately defines the creator of American Splendor as a person. Apparently Harvey had a tendency to yell whenever he became frustrated or upset, and Giamatti milks it for all its worth, sounding in some early scenes as though he’s just rubbed his vocal chords against sandpaper for an hour. A memorable (read: hilarious) scene in a diner when he receives the good news that a fellow comic would be willing to illustrate his creations finds the actor shouting out with glee, causing a scene. His voice cracks like a high schooler going through The Puberty. His vocal issues come into play a couple of other times, and while they’re certainly not the only thing to take away from this performance, these moments are excellent touches. The tenor of his voice, when not breaking, is mildly saddening,  Giamatti powerfully channeling a sense of hopelessness and fatigue. Rest assured, though, the actor manages to effect a spectrum of emotions on his journey from a nobody to a relatively obscure somebody. In spite of himself, Harvey remains a compelling presence, a certifiable Average Joe with an unusual gift for creating. This is outstanding work from the actor and quite possibly my favorite role of his.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):


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

TBT: Love Actually (2003)

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Once more I’m faced with writing about a movie I have never seen before. (Shouldn’t these TBTs be movies from my past, from my childhood? Isn’t that what a ‘throwback’ really is, a memory?) Yes, somewhere along the way I kind of lost my focus, or maybe I just don’t watch enough movies to make this a legitimate feature. I suppose what this has turned into is okay in the end, because I have only seen a finite number of films in my past; there’s (almost) no limit to what I can see in the future. Even still, I can’t help but think that maybe this part of the blog has run its course. With that in mind, we go to yet another new (to me) entry for the final segment this year!

Today’s food for thought: Love Actually.

Love Actually movie poster fart-fanugens

Loving, actually since: November 14, 2003

[Netflix]

Despite heartwarming performances from a stellar ensemble cast, this is actually a pretty terrible movie. Love Actually may not be quite as stuffed a turkey as more recent holiday disasters like New Year’s Eve or Valentine’s Day — here’s a hint: if you want a quality bit of entertainment, you’d do well to stay away from films named after a holiday — nor is it quite as blatant in its commercialization of those holidays. Love Actually is, all the same, entirely too ingratiating.

The impressive ensemble helps make proceedings go down a little easier, but it’s still like trying to chew a wad of taffy that’s way too large for one person to handle. And taffy is kind of gross anyway.  But it’s not as gross as watching actors as talented as these try to make something out of a script that contrives human interaction in such a way that Love Actually becomes quasi-fantastical in its attempts to sell the events as something born out of love — you know, the kind of stuff that gets people by in the real world, not the sweet syrupy stuff in movies. Oh, how the irony stings.

After enduring these spectacularly unspectacular interweaving love stories for more than two hours, I can now only question my thoughts and feelings — all of which were positive — towards Curtis’ similarly precious About Time, in which Domhnall Gleeson discovers he could manipulate his ability to travel through time to build the perfect relationship with Rachel McAdams (or make her his concubine, I’m not sure which). Maybe I ought to just chalk that overly enthusiastic review up to being blinded by Gleeson’s likability. The guy can almost do no wrong. Add in Bill Nighy and you have a cast that’s hard not to be won over by.

Love Actually at least somewhat benefits from a similar reality, except this is a much larger pool of talent and not all participants fare well in this sugary, sappy mess. Like kids in grade school, the ensemble pairs off into smaller groups to tackle ten interrelated, England-set stories that end up coming together through circumstances that I feel more comfortable calling serendipity. I certainly can’t call it the product of good writing.

We have Nighy’s rock’n roll legend Billy Mack who is recording a Christmas song even he despises but goes on to promote it anyway because it has a chance of becoming a #1 hit. Throughout the film he lays on his anti-charm pretty thick, abusing his fat manager Joe (Gregor Fisher) and seemingly bent on self-destruction in a very Russell Brand-like way. His is one of the few stories that actually remain engaging throughout and ends up being far less manipulative. Maybe it’s just coincidence that his is the only story to remain completely independent from the others.

Liam Neeson, playing stepfather to Thomas Brodie-Sangster‘s Sam, sets himself apart from the chorus of others who can only sing in one key: and that is feeling lovelorn and lonely. His Daniel represents an entirely different, more tender side of Neeson that is entirely welcomed. It’s too bad his backstory revolves around the painful loss of his wife (the same wife, we assume, that many of his characters in later action thrillers will too be mourning). Daniel is a warm presence and his relationship with his stepson (also played very well by Sangster) affords Love Actually at least one or two brownie points.

Outside of these threads we start venturing into stories that become less interesting by powers of ten. The best of the rest manifests in Colin Firth’s genuine, affable Jamie, a writer whose girlfriend has been having an affair with his brother. Devastated by the discovery, he retreats into a cottage he owns in France where he meets Portuguese housekeeper Aurélia and soon falls for her, despite the language barrier. So he learns to speak Portuguese and tracks her down after making a brief return trip to England, because, well the movie’s all lovey-dovey like that.

The rest of the picture can be filled in as follows: Keira Knightley and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who play newlywed couple Juliet and Peter, contend with the latent feelings of Peter’s old friend Mark (Andrew Lincoln); Martin Freeman and Joanna Page, body doubles in movies who find attraction to one another while staging sex scenes; Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson, a longtime married couple now face a crisis in the wake of Karen (Thompson)’s discovery of an affair her husband is potentially having with a coworker; Hugh Grant’s Prime Minister, the most self-deprecating individual ever to find himself in a position of such power, can’t help but feel attracted to one of his secretaries even after her indiscretion with the sleazy U.S. President (an absolute waste of Billy Bob Thornton’s time). Rowan Atkinson has a slightly amusing cameo. And the less said about Laura Linney and Rodrigo Santoro’s parts, the better.

Love Actually too forcefully reminds the viewer that the world is indeed a small place and, playing out like one of those old McDonald’s commercials from the ’90s (“hey, it could happen!”), it champions taking a risk on romantic gestures over the holiday season. Because, hey — that thing you really want to have happen, it can happen. Because, as the movie justifies itself, it’s Christmas and it’s a time to be bluntly honest with each other.

So let me be bluntly honest with you. I took a chance on this film actually making an attempt to be believable after a few head-scratching developments up front, but too much of a good thing — the spreading of joy in this case — is worse than not enough of that good thing. Mr. Curtis apparently isn’t familiar with the concept of ‘less is more.’ Choked with coincidence and serendipity, Love Actually may spread holiday cheer like a wild fire but the feeling I get from it is more like . . . well, hate actually.

Liam Neeson and Thomas Brodie-Sangster in 'Love Actually'

Recommendation: Star-studded romantic comedy bogged down by unabashed sentimentality. Stars are good, story is horrendous — played out, predictable, way too cheesy and not subtle in the slightest. A few supporting turns make some of the effort worthwhile but in the end, Love Actually isn’t one you turn to for performances. You turn to it to feel much better about getting to escape the banality of real-world Christmas events. A feel good movie that made this little grinch feel quite bad.

Rated: R

Running Time: 135 mins.

TBTrivia: Kris Marshall, who played Colin, a caterer at Juliet and Peter’s wedding, apparently returned his pay check for the scene where the three American girls undress him. He said he had such a great time having three girls undress him for twenty-one takes, that he was willing to do it for free, and thus returned his check for that day.

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Photo credits: http://www.playbuzz.com; http://www.fanpop.com  

JCR Factor #5

For some reason, August is already here. You know what that means? Time for a new edition of the John C. Reilly Factor — Thomas J’s latest character study. To find more related material, visit the Features menu up top and search the sub-menu Actor Profiles.

As reliable as the man always seems to be, one can’t help but notice there are certain roles of his that seem interchangeable. Today I was going to go with a different comedic role but then, while browsing images on Google I came across a particularly striking image and knew right then and there what my next focus was going to be. John C. Reilly is many things, but in the case of this edition of this feature, he’s . . . bald.

John C. Reilly as the older version of Arnie Shankman in Peter Segal’s Anger Management

Role Type: Supporting (uncredited)

Genre: Comedy

Character Profile: Dave Buznik’s childhood nemesis, that good old wedgie-giving thug known as Arnie Shankman, may be one of Reilly’s more limited roles but that doesn’t mean he’s limited in his effectiveness. As a childhood bully, Arnie grows up regretting all of his aggressive behavior and secludes himself to the woods, surrounding himself with peace and quiet and becoming deeply contemplative and meditative. That is, until Dr. Buddy Rydell pressures Dave into facing his past as another way of exorcising his angry demons. Insisting this will be for his benefit, Rydell assaults the now introspective Shankman with a tirade of insults that effectively reawaken the jerk within.

If you lose JCR, the film loses: one of the film’s better cameos. There are more memorable turns from the likes of Woody Harrelson’s transvestite prostitute Galaxia (an image I will never get out of my head), but Reilly does an admirable job handling a very brief appearance that surprisingly runs the gamut of emotions from remorse to deep-seated anger. This is one Monk you do not want to rile up.

That’s what he said: “Answer me, Buznik. Did you get it on . . . with my sister?”

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):


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Photo credits: http://www.sharespark.net