The Scarlett Johansson Project — #9

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

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

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

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

Role Type: Supporting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work):

***/*****


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

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

The 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):


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

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

Month in Review: November ’17

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

Time sure flies when you’re posting once a month! This November I think I spent more time growing a beard than growing my list of movies I need to keep tabs on. Now that we’re officially in the swing of the holiday season, awards chatter (and those WONDERFUL Christmas jingles . . .) have picked up dramatically. And there are questions. Lots and lots of questions. What movies are you most anticipating as this year comes to a close? What movies are you going to try and avoid because of crowds? Will Ridley Scott turn a miracle with All the Money in the World? What if Dunkirk takes home Best Picture? Could it be any more poetic that the great Daniel Day Lewis is choosing to bow out of the limelight after one more collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson? And how will Phantom Thread stack up in the PTA pantheon?

There’s as much to chew on there as there was at Thanksgiving dinner. Without further ado, here’s my November in a nutshell. Movies AND music combine in this month’s round-up! Let’s do it!

Hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving!


New Posts 

New Releases: Thor: Ragnarok

Blindspot Selection: The Usual Suspects (1995)


Asbury Park in a Blur

On Saturday, November 18, my dad and I took a two-hour jaunt south to famed Asbury Park, New Jersey to catch Dream Theater on their 25th Anniversary tour commemorating the release of their classic ’92 album Images & Words. By the time we got there it was long after dark, and a relative ghost town, most of the shops along the boardwalk darkened in their off-season slumber. The show at the historic Paramount Theater was my fifth DT show overall, our second experience together and in as many years, and for me it’s the one that won’t be topped.

While I will forever lament my inability to time travel back to the mid-’90s, before the band’s front man and singer James LaBrie ruined his voice thanks to a bout of food poisoning, there’s something uniquely entertaining about the way he tries to compensate in the live setting. In his older age, for the notes he can’t hit (that F-sharp at the end of Live Another Day comes to mind) he simply substitutes volume for pitch. That tendency, along with the gesticulations, are the kinds of quirks that tend to leave the most lasting impression. That and Petrucci’s attempt to grow a Gandalfian beard. By the time I saw him, he was halfway there.

Saturday’s official setlist (for those interested):

Act I
Intro sample: “The Colonel” (taken from Two Steps from Hell’s album Skyward)
“The Dark Eternal Night” (Systematic Chaos)
“The Bigger Picture” (Dream Theater)
“Hell’s Kitchen” (Falling into Infinity)
“To Live Forever” (Images & Words b-side)
“Portrait of Tracy” (Jaco Pastorius cover by John Myung)
“As I Am” (Train of Thought) — segue in/out “Enter Sandman”
“Breaking All Illusions” (A Dramatic Turn of Events)
Intermission
Act 2 — “Happy New Year ’92!” sample
“Pull Me Under”
“Live Another Day”
(James LaBrie notes the strong whiffs of marijuana in the crowd. Proceeds to give the thumbs-up)
“Take the Time”
“Surrounded”
“Metropolis Pt1 Miracle and the Sleeper” — segue in/out Mike Mangini drum solo
“Under a Glass Moon”
“Wait for Sleep”
“Learning to Live”
Encore
“A Change of Seasons” (A Change of Seasons EP)

Another Two-fer

Coco · November 21, 2017 · Directed by Lee Unkrich; Adrian Molina · An absolute feast for the eyes and for the soul, Coco is another richly entertaining and emotionally nourishing adventure that follows a young boy in his quest to live a life just like that of his idol, the great Mexican singer/songwriter Ernesto de la Cruz (voice of Benjamin Bratt). Unfortunately Miguel (newcomer Anthony Gonzalez) has more than stage fright to get over if he wants to make it big. For generations the Rivera family has banned music because it is believed to be the source of great emotional pain, caused when Miguel’s great-great-grandfather walked out on his wife and child to pursue a career of fame and fortune. Rejecting music outright, each subsequent offspring turned to shoemaking as a way to make ends meet, and now that burden has fallen to Miguel. Yet for him the plucking of guitar strings is as natural as putting one foot in front of the other, and soon he finds himself going to extraordinary lengths to prove his talents as well as the fundamental flaw in his family’s extant beliefs. Coco, steeped in the resplendent color and conceptual profundity of Mexico’s “Day of the Dead” festivities, offers audiences both a reliable Pixar package and a unique opportunity to experience culture as few animated films have before. Pixar isn’t taking as big a creative leap as they did when they conceived of a plot about what’s going on inside a child’s head, but they manage to arrive at a similar emotional depth with the way Coco gives equal weight to both cultural and individual values. (4.5/5)

The Babysitter · October 13, 2017 · Directed by McG · The latest offering from the director of Charlie’s Angels takes an almost perverse pleasure in serving bullies a dose of their own medicine in a violent, profane and generally antagonistic tale about an outcast teen who learns a shocking truth about his babysitter. Australian actress Samara Weaving inhabits the role of the “hot but psycho” babysitter whose trust is violated one night when young Cole (Judah Lewis) begins to spy on her when she thinks he’s gone to bed. Somewhere in this sloppily made, middlingly acted drama you may find amusing if not righteous commentary about standing up for yourself and fighting back against . . . well, cult-y babysitters who hit (and hit on) you. It might have even worked as a suggestion of where sexual frustration begins its descent into sexual deviation. Alas, the film is more immediately concerned with the cosmetic — cleavages doused in blood-syrup; abdomens scarred by sexy wounds; the generally ridiculous way people lose their heads over things. Any number of more meaningful readings could well be accidental. The Babysitter gets decent mileage out of shameless exploitation, but it very easily could have been something more than a goofily-acted male fantasy.  (2.5/5)


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

Photo credits: my dad’s iPhone!; http://www.impawards.com

Dream Theater’s The Astonishing — Live

On Wednesday, October 19, 2016 the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark hosted Dream Theater for ‘An Evening With’ as the progressive-metal giants played in its entirety their brand new album, the sprawling odyssey that is The Astonishing — an epic tale of betrayal, loss, hope and redemption set in a dystopian future circa 2285 in an America not that dissimilar to the one you find in The Hunger Games.

emperors-palace

The Astonishing represents the band’s 13th studio release, and their third since the departure of original drummer and one of the band’s founding members Mike Portnoy in 2010. While the album certainly features all of the elements and ingredients that have helped maintain the band’s longevity (they’ve been rocking since 1989), The Astonishing is undoubtedly their most ambitious and most exhaustive undertaking to date, featuring 34 tracks and running over 2 hours in length over the course of two discs overflowing with virtuosic musicianship, deep emotional hooks and conceptual grandeur. It’s quite unlike anything the band has tried before and they have tried a lot of things in their 30 year history. Rumor has it that guitarist John Petrucci has ambitions of turning it into a Broadway play . . . although I’m not sure Broadway is ready for something like that. Or ever will be.

map_final

For those curious about what’s established here in The Astonishing:

The Great Northern Empire of the Americas would look eerily familiar yet terrifyingly primitive to the people who occupied roughly the same territory three centuries before. After a great calamity precipitated a gradual societal collapse, medieval-like feudalism reemerged alongside the relics of technology and “progress” from a now all but forgotten era. Safety in servitude replaced ambition. An aristocracy replaced nobility. The ever-watching omnipresent NOMACs (Noise Machines) broadcast an empty cacophony; all that remains of music and creativity in this dystopia. But in Ravenskill, a village situated on Endless Isleland, a lone voice heralds the arrival of a reawakening in human consciousness. Freedom of expression finds a way, in the purest of musical outpourings not heard in generations, to stir the hearts of the people and shake the very foundations of power.

For more, you should visit the band’s official website at dreamtheater.net.


So the Newark show was actually my fourth time seeing the band and while I can’t quite say it ranks amongst my favorite shows this experience reaffirmed the notion that Dream Theater is simply a band you have to see in the live setting. There’s something electrifying about seeing Petrucci take center stage when he dives into one of his incredibly complex solos, even if you are like me and don’t exactly count yourself amongst the elite musicians of the world (I can’t even hold a guitar the right way). The power of that musician is in itself astonishing. Every time I’ve seen the guy play — be it in Atlanta, Cleveland, Asheville or Newark — I’ve been amazed how effortlessly the guy manages to seduce his audience, holding thousands in the palm of his hand as he unleashes a maelstrom of sound through those ever-reliable Mesa Boogies.

Then of course there’s the lead singer, Canadian James LaBrie, who is a character unto himself. The number one complaint I’ve heard from people I have tried to recruit into Dream Theater Land is that they have an issue with the vocals. Why does the singer sound like that, they wonder. And I never have the right answer, other than the default “well, he’s sung opera before . . .” Come out to the live show and listen to him then. There’s a good chance he will persuade you. And last but absolutely not least the other musicians — bassist John Myung, keyboardist Jordan Rudess and drummer Mike Mangini — surround these guys with their own brand of face-melting awesomeness. It is such a complementary band, one fully attuned to its own idiosyncrasies. There’s no one quite like DT and they know it. That’s why they can get away with selling out major venues as a single act playing their new album from start to finish. How many other bands can get away with that these days? How many have albums that are long enough to sustain the length of a concert?

With all that in mind, I have to concede that The Astonishing represents my least favorite of the band’s thus far. In fact I hadn’t even listened to the entire album before seeing them reenact it on stage, a span of almost ten months. But that actually gave me a unique opportunity to treat the show as my proper introduction to the album and all that it entails. I don’t think I have ever had that experience before. Of course, that also meant not being able to sing along and anticipate some of the highs — those Petrucci solos seemingly came at random and largely caught me off-guard —  but in the end I don’t know if I would have had it any other way. This was such a different way to experience a concert, even if it ultimately hasn’t really had much of an impact on what I think of the new work. There are some good bits here and there but structurally I’m not a fan of it. And when I heard Petrucci comparing the album’s concept with that of something like Game of Thrones, I cringed. I mean, this has never been a band to float the mainstream. If anything has changed since the departure of Portnoy, it’s that they have flirted more with that line. It has gotten a little scary at times. I’m hoping with their next album we’ll revert back to stuff that’s a little more original.

The Astonishing — Live! also provided me a chance to share my love for this band with my dad, who had been getting into them ever since I introduced him to their 2005 album Octavarium some years ago. Getting him in to his first DT show was a bucket list item for me absolutely, and it feels great to be able to tick that off. There were a lot of nerves before the curtain went up for me, and I think that stemmed mostly from the fact that I was greatly anticipating how he would react. In the end, I needn’t have worried.

dream-theater