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):

***/*****


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

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #7

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

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

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

Scarlett Johansson as Samantha in Spike Jonze’s Her 

Role Type: Supporting*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 

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


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Photo credits: IMDb; interview excerpt courtesy of Julie Miller/Vanity Fair

 

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.


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Photo credits: Distractify; Amazon; IMDb

The Marvelous Brie Larson — #2

Welcome back to another edition of my latest Actor Profile, The Marvelous Brie Larson, a monthly series revolving around the silver screen performances of one of my favorite actresses. (If you are a newcomer to this series, here is a link to the original post).

Also this, from the first installment:

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

In this month’s installment I am going in the opposite direction by taking a look at a far more limited role. Indeed, this is a few steps away from being a cameo appearance, but there is no denying it has an impact on the main character and the direction the film goes in. First-time writer/director Joseph Gordon Levitt on what she brought to his movie: “Brie created a whole character who makes the audience laugh, but who also feels like a real human being. And she did it without saying anything. That takes a truly skilled actress.”

Brie Larson as Monica Martello in Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Don Jon

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Comedy/relationship drama/romance

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.

Character Background: Monica is the younger sister of Jon Jr., a ladykiller played by Joseph Gordon Levitt. Though she may be seen more often than not glued to her phone, she’s not exactly oblivious to the goings-on around her, except maybe the worst of her parents’ arguments or the score of whatever football game is on. When Jon breaks the news of his break-up with Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) — a girl he hoped and his parents hoped on top of that hope would actually be The One — we learn just how attentive to detail Monica really is.

It’s a small scene but a big gesture. On a broadly entertaining level it’s one of those “whoa, they actually talk!” moments — but her breaking silence isn’t played as a gimmick or just for laughs. It has a timeliness to it that suggests Monica just hasn’t had anything to contribute to the routinely hysterical family conversation. Most of the time she just wants to stay out of the squabbling and nagging but now that she sees a real rift dividing in the family — Jon and his father (Tony Danza) especially locking horns over the importance of family and long-term commitment — she does what any good sibling does and comes to her brother’s side, offering him her perspective on what she viewed as a one-sided, high-maintenance relationship. As we see later, when Jon finds more emotional intimacy with an older woman (Julianne Moore), it’s a bit of sisterly advice he clearly takes to heart.

Marvel at this Scene:

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work):


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

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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Release: Christmas Day 2013

[Theater]

By the seem of things, Mr. Stiller has been secretly getting all the little memos we, the patient viewers, have continued to slip underneath his door over the years, beseeching, imploring the actor to put his dormant dramatic sensibilities to good use for once — actually act in a movie instead of being the butt of everyone’s jokes. His directorial return with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty confirms that he’s been taking heed of the advice, because not only is this movie one of the more unique experiences of the year, Ben Stiller is simply wonderful as the titular lead character.

An odd little man, Walter is by all accounts Stiller at his best. His hunched demeanor packs all of his signature quirks into a nervous frame, a character that immediately screams ‘introvert,’ but in a fascinating, charming way. As a performer, Stiller hasn’t been this affable in years.

As a director, he might not have been better, either; although his Tropic Thunder was a stroke of genius in itself. Walter’s a difficult man to gauge because he’s perpetually lost in thought, and what’s more, his modest real-world status as a photo-negative developer at Life Magazine, operating out of the building’s dingy basement, is comically off-set by this tendency of his to daydream on a large, epic scale.

It’s quite clear he couldn’t resist exploiting this particularly inventive aspect to his retelling of the 1939 James Thurber short story.

Within the opening half hour we go on a number of mini-adventures that yank us out of the otherwise pretty poorly-written ‘present day’ narrative and into a world only a man like Walter Mitty could dream up. In these moments he can survive falling out of skyscrapers, jump as if he were on the moon, and take on any foe with confidence; he’s also a bona fide Romeo, dramatically courting his real-world crush Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) and can speak different languages. These moments are so immersive as to almost cause panic early on, begging the question of whether Stiller has enough material as a director to sustain this film’s fantastical elements for nearly two hours.

Though the second act snaps out of this crazy daydreaming phase, and ‘panic’ suddenly becomes a pretty glaring exaggeration. Stiller fortunately wrings out just enough entertaining interaction with supporting characters in some gorgeous locations to tip the scales in favor of Walter Mitty‘s decidedly more conventional, but equally endearing latter half.

When Mitty’s daydreaming is one day matched by his real-world experiences as he goes on a worldwide hunt for one of Life’s staff photographers, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), the true joy of this film begins. It is his negative that he must develop for the last printed edition of Life magazine and his jerk of a boss has threatened him multiple times about it.

Adam Scott provides the film’s greatest flaw in the over-acted and overly aggressive Ted Hendricks, the self-proclaimed “director of the transition” — a man whose only interest is publishing all content online now. He couldn’t care less about the current staff, and much less the awkward Mitty, who is supposed to be providing the cover photo of this last physical edition. In the process of trying to recover this photo (and thus an attempt to keep himself employed), Mitty embarks on a trip to the isolated regions of Greenland and later, Iceland by way of dumb luck but moreover a newfound determination to do something with his life.

The pace at which his life suddenly changes is inspiring and uplifting, and the second act and into the third provides a wonderful montage of beautiful landscapes and free-flowing travel sequences that instantly seduce viewers into believing they’re on this journey with Mitty. The events may happen rather conveniently, haphazardly. Sometimes the plot develops to a degree that can possibly strain credulity.

But just as Walter Mitty is spurred to move on from spot to spot, so must anyone trying to allow themselves to enjoy the spectacle. Sure this story is bound together rather flimsily and certain characters are better written than others — Stiller and Wiig turn out to be a surprisingly romantic pairing, as an example — but nitpicking the details to this wonderful adventure film is like spitting in a child’s face. You just don’t do it.

Stiller’s latest film is kind-hearted and well-intentioned, even if imperfect. It’s a journey that should be given further credit for remaining within the family-friendly PG-rating, which — especially from a comedic standpoint — can technically be viewed as a further restriction on particular content Stiller could have used. It’s safely inside, though there are one or two moments where there’s some obvious holding back.

All the same, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is successful since it balances a great amount of fanciful drama with Stiller’s welcomed quirky and more rugged appeal so the moments that don’t quite work are instantly overshadowed by some wonderful moments — arguably some of 2013’s finest. This is a life that most people are going to want to know the secret to making for themselves.

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3-5Recommendation: A very nice (re?)turn for Stiller in a decidedly more mature and likable role that is enhanced by his own directorial oversight. Performances all around are strong, and Wiig offers a charming performance that helps to reflect Stiller’s conscientious awkwardness. Combine the two leads’ steadily more compelling repartee with the fascinating backdrops and you’ve got one of the most interesting and genuine films of the holiday season.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 125 mins.

Quoted: “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”

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 

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Anchorman-2

Release: Wednesday, December 18, 2013

[RPX Theater]

Baxter! Bark twice if you’re in this movie!

“Woof-woof!”

. . .and, oh how he is! Baxter and the entire Channel Four News team assemble for the much-anticipated follow-up to Adam McKay’s 2004 smash hit. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. . .is, to put it completely unbiased-like and everything, well. . .it’s exactly the product you were expecting, but quite possibly funnier.

While the decades may have changed — the likes of Ron, Brian, Champ and Brick are now gone from Channel 4 News, doing their own thing, finding themselves slightly displaced with the 70s behind them — the characters that made the first movie so hilarious sure haven’t.

Sure, originality has faded a little since the prospect of seeing the guys “again” by definition means we are already accustomed to the antics and shenanigans that are likely to come our way. McKay does not take his audiences for fools, despite what some may think of the quality of his work. That we are already acclimated to this feverish silliness coming into the second film is really an advantage, since that leaves him with one option: making sure that we get to know the characters on a deeper level. That might not be something to necessarily expect from a sequel to a slapstick comedy like Anchorman, but that’s just what we get out of our second time around the block with four of Hollywood’s funniest forty-somethings. Well written, familiarly yet painfully hilarious, and perhaps even a touch more sincere than its predecessor, Anchorman 2 delivers the good news, and quickly.

The sequel can only be described as the natural succession in Will Ferrell’s most successful comedy outing. Mr. Burgundy and his former colleagues find themselves struggling to make ends meet in the new decade; that is, until Ron gets hired by a major 24-hour news station, GNN (Global News Network). He wants to reunite his team and deliver New York, and the world, the best damned news one mustache could provide.

Of course that means pitting his San Diego resume against that of the slick, professional and comically un-intimidating Jack Lime (hehe. . .Jack Lame). Ron soon finds that its going to take some serious news anchoring to get his name out, especially when he learns that his team is given the worst time slot to be on air (from 2 to 5 in the morning). Ron quickly discovers that no matter what time they’re getting to report the news, wouldn’t it be better to give the people greater quantity of “what they want” (like high-speed car chases and celebrity gossip) instead of what “they need” (high-profile interviews and clearly more quality stories like the ones Veronica Corningstone is trying to nail)? What is Ron going to sacrifice to get to that prime-time spot on GNN?

Fortunately none of the guys sacrifice their comedic wit in this second outing. McKay and company, much to their credit, bring back a lot of the jokes that helped make its predecessor so outrageous, and while that sounds like potentially lazy filmmaking, in this case it was a good idea. Familiarity can breed contempt, but rare are the dull moments when you’re around Ron and his dim-witted colleagues. Their antics are met with greater opposition at this station, as the four of them are overseen by a particularly no-nonsense station manager by the name of Linda Jackson (Meagan Good). . .and in comparison to others, the four seem to be the station’s least successful contributors.

That is, yes, until Ron discovers the secret of news reporting. Though set in the 80s, the heart and soul of this cackle-inducing comedy very much riffs on the state of more contemporary news outlets and the way they present information to the masses. It’s the soft news being spewed out by the likes of TMZ, MTV and even to some extent more reputable sources like NBC that get targeted by Ferrell and McKay’s still sharp and witty script. For the most part, it is as successful a formula as the one they came up with roughly a decade ago.

The only thing this film will likely not do is compete with the first’s quotability factor. While there are some epic moments here to remember, there are no glass cases of emotion to be found, nor one liners of pure gold such as “where did you get those clothes, at the toilet store?” Much to its credit though, this film’s sight gags are far more plentiful and these alone are worth paying for a ticket. One particular side-story is responsible for one of Ferrell’s most bizarre yet hilarious running visual jokes (that’s a pun, actually), a sequence which culminates in the most satisfying of comic climaxes. If you thought the scale of the last news team battle (and the list of big-name extras) was impressive in the first movie, just you wait.

The Legend does indeed continue. This is everything that a sequel to a comedy should be, and thanks to the reuniting of McKay with the same guys who helped make him a success in the early 2000s, the line between remaining reliably funny and becoming pretentious about what it’s trying to achieve is carefully avoided. It’s not a film that has a great amount of purpose, but it’s a deliciously entertaining film that shows a progression of the relationships between the guys from the Channel 4 News desk. It also makes some great use of supporting roles in Meagan Good and Greg Kinnear, bearing witness to some of the most brazenly racist and childish behavior any news team member has ever seen at GNN. You almost feel sorry for these two. Almost.

Long live the mustache, and most importantly, long live Baxter — the coolest dog any movie has ever seen.

anchorman-2

3-5Recommendation: This section is remarkably easy for this one. If you were a fan of the first, this will more than satisfy. If you weren’t, here’s one this December you can probably skip out on. The silliness is back in fine form here and although we had to wait nearly a decade to see a sequel, it’s more than great news that what awaited was not simply a ship waiting to sink.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “Suicide makes you hungry, I don’t care what anybody says.”

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

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

The Armstrong Lie

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Release: Friday, November 8, 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

In one of the more infamous press conferences involving the disgraced cyclist, Lance boldly made the claim that one of the reporters who had just asked him a tough question “was not worthy of the seat he sat in.” The irony of that biting statement is not lost on the rest of us, since no one anymore believes Lance is worthy of the one he once sat upon, either.

Before anything else is said, it should be noted that there’s not a great deal presented in this surprisingly dark documentary that the public hasn’t already known — unless you’re crawling out from under a massive rock, you are well aware this was one of, if not the greatest deceptions in all of sports history. And, spoiler alert, there’s no great argument presented that attempts to defend Lance. Based on the gravity of his actions and the way he went about handling the effects of them, he may be one of the most indefensible athletes in the era of televised sports.

An incredibly intimidating figure, Lance was not only infamously good at cheating an already broken system (plenty of bikers in the 90s were doping, and the film points out an alarming number of them), but perhaps the more important takeaway from all of this — the more disturbing motif of his life story — was his ability and desire to crush any opponent who dared cross him. If this happened on the bike, it would almost always guarantee you came in second place to the Plano, Texas-born rider. If ever you were unfortunate enough to blow the whistle on him off the bike, however, quite simply there’d be hell to pay. You’d rather Lance not know you.

Despite the air of familiarity, and the fact that the press has successfully plastered his image all over the globe by now, the quiet power of The Armstrong Lie is mostly derived from exclusive footage of the man himself. And, despite his true character, it feels almost like privilege to see Lance relaxing in a hotel room, discussing race strategies, considerations. . . such as how he’s going to transfuse his blood somewhere along the way. (Faking a transportation issue between race stages is one way to do it.) Multiple discussions are had between himself and his team about whether or not his doping will actually be a factor in the upcoming Tour de France. The frankness of such conversations might be best described as eye-opening.

We may all have some big picture idea of this guy and how his legend (rather, the lack thereof) is going to proceed him, but Alex Gibney managed to put himself in a position, both throughout the many stages of Lance’s penultimate Tour de France (2009) and throughout his day-to-day life across several critical years, a perspective that gives us little extra glimpses of a man we wished he could have been instead of what he became. Thanks to Gibney’s persistence in shadowing Lance, viewers officially have a more intimate window into the life of one of the world’s most efficient, professional and perverse deceivers currently walking around.

The word ‘perverse’ seems appropriate because of the many groups he has taken along for a ride (uh…pun intended?), the most disturbing of which undoubtedly being the organization he created to help cancer victims.

Debating whether he truly cared for other cancer patients sadly is academic when the overriding narrative is so heinous (though it’s a little difficult to think he didn’t, considering the terrible state he was in throughout his own extensive treatment). The man lied about his natural abilities on the bike and, natch, everything seems to come in second place to that fact. As a result, the foundation — formerly known as the Lance Armstrong Foundation — has been renamed to reflect the severity of his fall from grace. It’s now titled Live Strong, and Lance has lost all connections to it. Old news, yes. Still, there’s a lot of rare footage contained herein that allows the viewer to get closer to the rider than they might have otherwise been able to.

Perhaps the most crucial moment of all, both in the film and in Lance’s turbulent last ten years, revolves around one particularly embittered former teammate and friend, Floyd Landis, who rode with Lance on the USPS team. As Landis had also been involved in doping, he too faced punishment, though nothing to the extent his more notorious teammate would ultimately deal with. Landis’ 2006 Tour de France title was stripped and after several years of struggling to find another team to take him on after he admitted to continual drug use, his professional career more or less slipped away, in no small part due to the complicated relationship with Lance. His testimony is not only emotional, it’s difficult to comprehend. It is in these moments of the documentary we can get an idea of just what it was like living the professional cyclist’s life in the shadows of someone like Lance Armstrong.

One of the more poignant observations made here is that this is not a story about drug abuse, this is a story about power and the loss of control that fame can give someone. In some ways it is impressive to think about how he managed to hold things together for as long as he did. As an audience, the greatest reward for sitting through this depressing affair might be just getting to hear the words of defeat coming from the man’s mouth. Yes, it’s somewhat of a foregone conclusion that he would not get away with such a profoundly huge lie, but there is a sense of finality derived from this film that you might not get by sampling all the bad press he has on the internet and elsewhere.

Originally titled The Road Back, and intended to detail the miraculous recovery of this athlete and his improbable return to glory on the bike, Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie proves instead to be a thoroughly damning product, and one that shouldn’t be missed, if you can help it.

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4-0Recommendation: Not likely to move audiences in the sense that we might see something about the supposed seven-time Tour de France winner that we haven’t known about him. There is no positive takeaway, but this well-constructed story certainly adds color to an already dramatic event that effectively tarnished the sport of professional cycling in its entirety. I’d recommend it to those who hate his guts. I’d even recommend it to Landis.

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

Quoted: “I like to win. But more than anything, I can’t stand the idea of losing, because to me, that equals death.”

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

Out of the Furnace

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Release: Friday, December 6, 2013

[Theater]

Sneaking up on you quietly, toxically, like steam billowing from the chimneys that scratch and tear at a skyline of charcoal gray, this original screenplay from Scott Cooper is most likely not the product most people were expecting. It is a solemn look at the not-so-quiet life in the Appalachian region; a story that’s as laced with brilliant performances as it is populated with shots of its gorgeous, rustic backdrop.

That the affairs ongoing in this unrelentingly dark tale might lead anyone other than Russell Baze (Christian Bale) to the breaking point much sooner than the two hours it takes for him is not really the surprising factor that I refer to. A title like Out of the Furnace is — yes, okay, grimly poetic — but moreso foreboding, and the title alone should be enough for most people to realize that what they are laying down $10 for is not for the sake of comedy.

Just as the thick plumes of smoke snake ever higher into the air, eventually to caress and blend in with the clouds, expectation levels of this particular story have similarly soared. Not that that was an unexpected phenomenon, or anything. Cooper’s ensemble cast in 2013 far and away outdoes that of his critically more successful debut film in 2009, and is probably one of the best casts of the year. Understandably, it’s difficult not to imagine a film featuring a cast like this offering up dramatic and epic grand gestures, scene after scene.

That’s not the case here, though. There is such a thing as actors also humbling themselves.

If the main impetus for seeing Out of the Furnace is for the performances, then it is going to be equally difficult to consider this an underwhelming experience. The talented cast should leave audiences speechless, as only one this good can.

Bale in particular is exceptional. In fact, he might be less recognizable as this down-and-out, soft-spoken countryboy than he was behind a cape and cowl. As Russell, Bale plays the elder brother to Rodney (Casey Affleck) with a heartbreaking tenderness and vulnerability that should virtually wipe clean any memory that he was indeed our Dark Knight.

He works a dead-end job at the local steel mill in an effort to keep a roof over his and his beautiful girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana)’s heads. At the same time, his family life burdens him. Russell splits his time working longer hours to pay off Rodney’s ever-mounting debts — for reasons he doesn’t quite know — and caring for their terminally ill father. As if this isn’t stress enough, Russell is for the longest time left oblivious to the real reasons his younger brother is in such debt. Until the day Rodney goes missing in New Jersey.

Rodney, desperate to pay off the debt himself and already having fallen in with a tough crowd, forces local bar manager John Petty (Willem DaFoe) to put him into a legitimate street fight in which he could stand to win good money. Rodney’s been serving in the military for years and whenever he’s back home he fights for money, finding himself unable to take up a normal job or joining his brother at the steel mill. Unfortunately his pride, blind determination and short temper land him in a ring overseen by the notoriously violent and demented redneck Harlan DeGroat (an ice-cold Woody Harrelson). He’s told to take a dive (intentionally lose) in this match, but will his ego be too big to obey this simple request?

Out of the Furnace examines these issues — pride before the fall; showing mercy versus seeking vengeance; the deliberate counting of one’s own sins — using a myriad of characters facing a different set of circumstances to show what they would do to right the wrongs. In so doing, the film takes a much more graceful, deliberate pace than many might be expecting to undergo. It might be difficult to understand that each of these brilliant actors, each with a legend preceding them, are much less of a “key” factor in the story as they more quietly assume puzzle pieces in a tragic story — much like the gigantic cast of Prisoners. Instead of jumping off the page as we all might expect them to do — an exception might be Harrelson, as he’s truly the personification of vile filth here — they end up passionately coloring in an otherwise black-and-white story of loss and redemption.

There are more than enough emotionally charged and nuanced performances that, even if are unsuccessful in breaking your heart, will at least make it ache.

The last thing screenwriters Scott Cooper and Brad Ingelsby are likely to be accused of here is a convoluted script. The hotheaded Rodney falls into the wrong crowd and it is up to Russell to try to bail him out. While the describable “problem” that arises out of the story is about as simple as that, the overarching story is actually an emotional journey that is something to behold.

The steam that belches out of the factories suitably obscures good guy from bad here. The moral ambiguity on display runs fathoms deep; hence, the beauty of this film. Each character, acting on his or her own reasons, is rendered with deep flaws, some perhaps more severe than others. DaFoe operates as a bartender, yet he finds himself balls-deep in debt with DeGroat and several nasty fellas up north as he spends a lot of money betting on bad street fighters. . .namely, Rodney. Saldana’s limited role as Lena is not without complication, either. Undoubtedly though, Bale’s character is the one who stands to lose the most, and becomes the centerpiece to this grim tale.

It’s not a film without its shortcomings, however. Forest Whitaker, as Sheriff Wesley Barnes, feels a little underused to say the least. As does Saldana. In fact, trailers seem to be quite misleading as the cut that is used in a rather dramatic moment involving Whitaker’s character does not actually make final cut. (This appears to be one of the movies that suffers from a pretty misleading trailer, in terms of its editing anyway.) Suffice it to say, though, that the limited screen time Whitaker gets he uses to its full potential. Ditto Saldana. The two add more concrete evidence for the argument that each character involved is deeply flawed, on some level.

There are also a few moments that feel a bit drawn out and redundant, but mostly these boil down to editorial issues rather than the innate elements that compose this surprisingly harrowing story. It’s again nothing to do with how unwelcome these people will likely make you feel; these are their woods you are trespassing in, and Harlan DeGroat’s neck of the woods is the meanest of all.

The acting is inspirational. It’s cinematography almost dreamlike. Cooper’s follow-up film respectably relies on its remarkably talented cast to bear the weight of the heavy emotions that penetrate these small towns and unstable relationships. It doesn’t need to lean on big-budget police chases, the high-stakes dramatic stunts and whatever else may go into what may be getting misperceived as a blockbuster film to get its brooding message across.

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4-0Recommendation: The film is quite simply incredible, while still possessing a few dents in the armor. Look to this film for it’s powerful performances and beautiful scenery; the story may be a bit lacking for some, and it’s likely this will become more obvious on repeat viewings; however it’s more than easy to overlook simplicity for the sake of some of the year’s most provocative performances.

Rated: R

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “The people up in those hills, they have their own breed of justice, and it does not include us.”

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

Kill Your Darlings

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Release: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

Harry drops out of Hogwarts to start attending Columbia University — good idea?

Probably one of the easier observations anyone is going to make when referring to Kill Your Darlings, a film that tips its hat to the romantics who inspired a literary revolution both stylistically and philosophically, is the fact that it does indeed feature Daniel Radcliffe in one of the lead roles. The next largest elephant in the room has to be Dane DeHaan, whose impressive performance earlier in the year in The Place Beyond the Pines, an epic story spanning several generations of family, garnered him a great deal of praise very quickly. As it turns out, the attention was well-deserved. DeHaan is equally brilliant — if not more so — as he bolsters his career further in this film involving hipsters. . . .before hipsters were actually hipsters*.

Kill Your Darlings‘ tightly-knit plot sorts through the intricate relationships amongst the young poets Allen Ginsberg (Radcliffe), Lucien Carr (DeHaan), Jack Keruoac (Jack Huston) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster), and how these relationships grew and evolved over the disquieting years in the wake of World War II. A singular event casts a shadow over the futures of these writers when the murder of an outsider, the older David Kammerer (Dexter’s Michael C. Hall), implicates Ginsberg, Carr and Burroughs during the ensuing police investigation in 1944.

The mention of hipsters that surfaced a little while ago is not really accurate. The writers who inspired what came to be known later as the Beat Generation — Ginsberg’s most famous piece, ‘Howl,’ Burrough’s ‘Naked Lunch’ and Karuoac’s ‘On the Road’ being the most notable examples of these times — intentionally went against the grain in an effort to expose the claustrophobic amour-propre of the time. No longer was poetry to suffer the restrictions of rhyme and meter, or anything else that was declared as traditional, societally-accepted forms of expressionism. ‘Hipster’ is a bit of a misnomer because the Beat Generation may be more naturely associated with the peace/hippie movements of the 60s and 70s.

However, it was the attitudinal divergence that makes such a comparison to contemporary hipsters easy to make. Ginsberg, Burroughs and, in particular Carr, discounted traditional methods of storytelling and instead pushed for less restrictions in the constructions thereof, leaning more towards open, honest and potentially graphic interpretations of the human experience.

With hindsight, Radcliffe and DeHaan seem to be ideal actors to personify such ambitious types. While Ginsberg was certainly more of the quieter, more easily intimidated of the two, Carr had no issues whatsoever in flaunting publicly his disdain for the institutions that were. DeHaan plays this up terrifically, and we have a great deal of fun reveling in his casting-out of mainstream society. Radcliffe settles into his post-Potter role with grace as well, at once demonstrating the intense love he had for Lucien while at the same time revealing his own personal fragilities. Ginsberg went to college, leaving behind a mother (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) who was mentally ill and a father with wandering eyes. He also found his new home at Columbia University extremely intimidating, a reality that Radcliffe acknowledges behind glasses exceptionally well.

In many ways, John Krokidas’ debut film recalls the passion of dare-to-live films like Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, and October Sky. Its cast is possessed with those same feverish desires to escape and expand beyond the oppressive powers and circumstances that are already in place; the settings and locations are just as romantic and timeless. Desperate actions occur at the most inopportune of moments. But the thing that sets Krokidas’ work apart is a clever blend of the artistic and the lawful. The events that take place in these semi-turbulent times play out much like a murder-mystery, yet they bear all the trademarks of a romance piece. It’s an effective, lively blend of genres that makes for a quick hour and forty-five minutes of viewing.

While the film ultimately doesn’t draw the most grandiose of conclusions from what transpires, it doesn’t necessarily have to. History has already been made and here, Krokidas is trying to recreate it using film as the medium. Clearly there are liberties to be taken along the way, and it’s unlikely that each and every aspect to Darlings is completely untainted by a director wanting to dramatize certain elements for entertainment’s sake, but the combination works deliciously well.

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3-5Recommendation: Some are going to view this is as a stuffy film (if they’ve even heard of it), but I urge those people to give it a chance. It involves some delightful characters, simultaneously making great use of its young actors in Radcliffe and DeHaan, while respectfully paying tribute to some of America’s most transformative writers. This forthcoming comment is going to sound limiting, but if you enjoyed Robin Williams and his secretive Dead Poets Society, you will be guaranteed to fall in love with this as well. There’s a palpable joy and love in both narratives that is difficult to shake after watching.

Rated: R

Running Time: 104 mins.

Quoted: “Another lover hits the universe, the circle is broken.”

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

Only God Forgives

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Release: Friday, July 19, 2013 (limited)

[Netflix]

Ah, but does He forgive a movie like this?

Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling again team up to put forth another noir-rich effort that skimps on dialogue — only this time it’s one that has left audiences scratching their heads rather than thoughtfully rubbing their chins.

To be fair, it’s difficult for lightning to strike twice in the same spot. Wait, does it? It’s evident Refn was reaching back again for the same kinds of restrictions on your traditional film delivery that made his 2011 effort such a success. It’s also easy to see why he would try to do such a thing again. The lack of dialogue in his recent movies has been intentionally drawing the focus away from what’s being said and more towards what characters and situations are doing, representing. How they are moving, physically, through a story. Refn has hoped that the same approach would yield even greater results if his technique is utilized to an even more extreme degree. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Lightning does not hit the same tree twice, it seems.

Only God Forgives features good-looking Gosling as the mysterious Muay-Thai boxing club owner named Julian, an American ex-pat who’s even more inept at conversing than a nun. When his brother Billy (Tom Burke) is brutally murdered, Satan the pair’s mother arrives on the scene in Bangkok, flying in from London to identify whether it is indeed her firstborn’s body or not.

Kristin Scott Thomas is intended to be the film’s most complex character, simultaneously embodying evil as fully as a person can without sprouting horns, while ultimately remaining fiercely defensive of her baby boys. And as generously as I can possibly be in my — nay, any — defense of this film, Thomas delivers quite the performance. She uses her still-living son as bait to try and protect herself from what she knows will be certain, horrible death at the hands of a corrupt vigilante cop, named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).

The rest of the characters are intended to be multi-layered as well; however, most of them end up being painted in the same neon blues and reds as the cinematography is bathed in. If you will, let the red represent motivation (revenge) and the blue the cold, hateful attitudes possessed by each character. Julian is virtually wordless, which proves to be nothing but frustrating and next-to-impossible to identify with, while his enemy, Chang is equally hostile, albeit for slightly different reasons. One might be able to understand his quietness more than Julian’s.

Refn renders some of humanity’s darkest moments of depravity using the most minimalist techniques. There’s barely a script because words mean nothing; actions and non-actions are meant to represent the difference between life and death. Long, unbroken shots of people staring are meant to generate tension. While the silence that permeates each and every neon-lit scene will undoubtedly be excruciating to most viewers, its a method Refn deliberately employs to emphasize a third-party presence to these most grim of proceedings.

Despite all of this sounding like its in defense of his new film, these are the best things that can be said about Only God Forgives. There are concepts Refn is reaching for here that he ultimately misses, sometimes just barely, other times by a mile. Instead of tension being built up throughout the movie’s slowgoing, silent periods a thick air of frustration descends, because we have no reference point to anything in the story. The characters are introduced in a confusing manner — despite the film’s scenes being filmed in chronological order — and a severe lack of anything being stated (in words) it’s oftentimes hard to understand what’s happening in a given scene.

In these instances it seems like it would be highly advantageous to be a Mind Reader.

It’s clear Refn is trying to give audiences a challenge here, not only in the fiercely defiant way he’s going against “traditional” storytelling, but in his usage of some seriously graphic violence. And to me, it’s not clear right now whether this film got booed at Cannes because of this factor or its sheer ambiguity. My guess its a combination of both that makes this film a particularly difficult work of art to ‘like,’ necessarily. If Drive was considered polarizing, Only God Forgives is what that film wanted to be when it grew up. Refn seemingly is one-upping himself in terms of what he thinks modern audiences are willing to accept before completely giving up entirely on the prospect. Unfortunately for him, this ends up occurring far earlier than the ending credits.

This film is plagued by several issues, but the one that I could not get over at all was it’s inability to explain anything. Black eyes, broken hearts and corrupted consciences are one thing (look to things like Taken, Saving Private Ryan, and There Will Be Blood for exemplary moments of all three), and then there’s just obnoxious. Only God Forgives and it’s complex story exists somewhere even outside of the latter, as it insists on being as detestable, abstract and anti-establishment as possible for as long as possible. Quite frankly I grew tired of the gimmick halfway through and I sat through the rest in an effort to be as respectful as I could to both director and actor.

The rest is as forgettable as the story is nonsensical, and moreover, uninspired.

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1-5Recommendation: Only God Forgives will not cater to any one’s needs — that’s not its purpose for existing. The actual, true purpose? That answer we never arrive at. This is a product best described as experimental. At its worst? Well, there are some choice words I could implement here, but I really would rather not, because. . . well, you already get the idea. A missed opportunity, for sure. The future will be interesting just for the sake of seeing if these two ever make a film together again.

Rated: R (for really, Ryan Gosling? Really?)

Running Time: 89 mins.

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

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