The Scarlett Johansson Project — #1

After a monthlong delay prompted by my own disorganization, I am happy and excited to get into another new Actor Profile, this blog’s fourth such feature and the second to spotlight an actress. Check out the tab below the banner to access the others!

Born in Manhattan in 1984, Scarlett Ingrid Johansson is among the most recognizable faces in the film industry, no small thanks to her involvement in the phenomenally successful Marvel Cinematic Universe in which she portrays the spy Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow. It’s a role that has taken her to another level of stardom, though you could hardly call it a break-out role, as she had proven herself an A-list caliber actor long before that. It was in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) where she made a big impression on me, her chemistry with Bill Murray cementing that film as one of my all-time favorites.

Though she describes her childhood as “very ordinary,” her extraordinary adult life seemed predetermined by birthright, hailing from a family of screenwriters, actors and producers. She caught the acting bug at a very early age, putting on song and dance routines for her family, who were supportive of her dream to become an actor. When a talent agent signed her brother before her, that desire only intensified. Her goals became more crystallized when she figured out shooting commercials was not her thing. So she enrolled in the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in Manhattan, circa age 8. Her first public performance was in an off-Broadway production called Sophistry alongside Ethan Hawke. She had a total of two lines of dialogue. Her first film role was in the 1994 adventure film North, directed by Rob Reiner, and the first time she garnered awards attention was for her performance in Terry Zwigoff’s adaptation of Daniel Clowe’s graphic novel Ghost World (2001).

The role I’ve chosen for this month is one of her absolute best. And quite possibly one of the most difficult for me to approach since I am not qualified to talk about the challenges that come with being married. I have also been very fortunate to have been raised in a stable household with two parents who remained together through thick and thin. Yet I appreciate that a lot of marriages don’t carry out that way — in fact the divorce rate in America is alarmingly high, third highest of any country in the world. But I do know a good performance when I see one and this powerfully emotional showcase is legitimately one of the best I’ve ever seen from anyone since I started really paying attention to the intricacies of filmmaking.

Scarlett Johansson as Nicole Barber in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story

Role Type: Co-lead

Premise: Noah Baumbach’s incisive and compassionate look at a marriage breaking up and a family staying together. (IMDb)

Character Background: One of the most impressive things about Baumbach’s screenplay is the balanced perspective. It does not “take sides,” but instead gives equal weight to both Nicole and Charlie’s concerns. Because this feature is about one actor in particular, I am obligated to focus on Nicole’s perspective.

The opening few minutes of what turns out to be an emotionally gory drama are precious. They offer a treasure trove of insight into who Nicole is, particularly on a personal level. Marriage Story begins with her husband Charlie (Adam Driver) listing all the things he loves about his wife. Importantly there are a few honest criticisms sprinkled in amongst the compliments: “She makes people feel comfortable about even embarrassing things. She really listens when someone is talking,” though “sometimes she listens too much for too long.” She’s “a good citizen” and a very present mother. She gifts interesting, thoughtful birthday presents — a trumpet for Charlie to help him expand his creativity. Then there are the big things, such as the sacrifice she’s made in forgoing an acting career in Hollywood in order to help Charlie mount his avant-garde plays in New York, where she’s become her husband’s favorite actor.

Professional ambition is what fractures the relationship: Nicole, a former teen film actress, aspires to step out of the shadow cast by her husband. Once the love of Charlie’s life, it has become increasingly clear to Nicole his own obsession with preparing for Broadway has blinded him to his wife’s own career goals.

What she brings to the movie: From a young age Johansson had a passion for musical theater, and Nicole allows her to tap into her early professional experience as a stage actor. There’s a tremendous amount of range in this Oscar-nominated performance, from the nuanced expressions of remorse, resentment and anger to the more dramatic and demonstrative (see the scene below). There’s a level of physicality to the performance that I think is underrated.

In her own words: “What I was so attracted to and what I could relate to in this was actually what remains between the characters, which was a lot of love. It actually felt very much like a love story to me, which of course is heartbreaking but also so much more poignant than a film about two people who have just grown to hate each other, because that’s not really what this is about.”

Key Scene: The argument scene is undeniably one of the best in the whole movie. It’s probably THE scene everyone remembers, however it’s not my #1 choice because it’s really about the couple. I wanted to feature the scene where Scarlett Johansson goes on a long monologue when her character meets Laura Dern’s lawyer, Nora, for the first time. Because it’s not only a triggering event but one of the scenes where her character is opening up to someone else. Unfortunately I couldn’t find that clip anywhere.

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


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Photo credits: IMDb

While We’re Young

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Release: Friday, March 27, 2015

[Theater]

Written by:  Noah Baumbach

Directed by: Noah Baumbach 

As the tagline suggests, life never gets old but can the same be said for aggressively hipster, disingenuous characters and convoluted stories?

Noah Baumbach is a director I should have written off already. What I’ve been able to gather through only two films (this and 2013’s Frances Ha) is that he’s all about some hipster shit. From what I understand, his back catalog has this tendency to be a bit off-putting. If he weren’t such a brilliant writer with observations so keen on actually making me think people really can reinvent themselves from the inside out — that’s much cornier now that I say it out loud (let’s face it: most movies fail to change us in any way that’s discernible) — I probably would have given up.

Baumbach’s talent for plucking characters and situations from reality and surrounding them in a cinematic environment is on display in While We’re Young. So is his penchant for working with difficult-to-like personalities. I have to get over that. I really do. It’s either that, or I don’t have to. I could go on eager to embrace only that which makes me comfortable and engages on all levels, pretending that the world exists for my sensitivities. I’m an idealist and it kind of sucks. That goes far beyond selecting what films appeal to me and what do not. I’m a little like Ben Stiller’s documentarian Josh who demands purity and absolute truth in the films he makes. (Me, lacking his film-making ambition.)

Currently he’s in the middle of a big project and is having great difficulty keeping it going. Josh has strung together a rather paltry career as a documentary filmmaker and now he finds himself, along with wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts), in the throes of middle-age as the New York couple are seeing friends all around them growing up with their own children, an experience that Josh and Cornelia have longed to share in but haven’t been able to due to infertility. That’s something of a private matter, so where does this concern us, exactly? While We’re Young begins as an evaluation of a couple finding a surprising amount of joy in their childless adult lives, but Baumbach has grander aspirations than suggesting all people who have kids eventually lose themselves to parenting duties.

Josh finishes up another of his lectures at the local college and comes across a young couple, Jamie (Adam Driver) and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who take an immediate interest in his approach to film. They insist he and Cornelia join them for dinner. Quickly Josh and Cornelia become infatuated with the way these twentysomethings seem to be “so engaged” in everything and anything around them. They have youth on their side, sure, but soon it’s an entire lifestyle that convinces the documentarian and his producer wife they’ve been hanging out with the wrong people for awhile now.

It’s a matter of time and a few awkward scenes before they are miming Jamie and Darby’s nonchalance, shedding everything about themselves save for their few well-earned wrinkles and grey hairs. Stiller looks less silly in a pair of thick-framed glasses and a fedora than Watts does taking up hip-hop dance classes with Darby, unable to disengage the twerk wherever she is for the remainder of the film. (I’ve never been able to describe Watts as a particularly convincing actress and here she really hit some alarm buttons.)

The foursome’s lives are further intertwined when Josh, who has always preferred working by himself, eventually caves and allows Jamie to help steer his long-struggling documentary in the right direction. ‘Right’ is an extremely subjective term, as it becomes clear Jamie is more in it for being able to work his way up the ladder of prestige and success, while Josh merely wants to put out a good story, an important one. Granted, when you listen to him explain his ambition, don’t blame yourself for struggling to stay awake. I certainly don’t. While We’re Young frustratingly finds success in sending up the generational gap that exists between our principal actors while simultaneously detaching us from them with an overindulgence of technical talk about the medium of documentary film and Josh’s convoluted ideas.

As such, a final showdown (that shouldn’t really feel like a final showdown) that occurs between the idealist and opportunist behind the scenes of an award ceremony where Cornelia’s successful father (Charles Grodin) is accepting the top prize for documentary filmmaking, comes across forced and a tad goofy given all the dramatic set-up. Cornelia’s father has been at the center of Jamie’s attention for sometime. Is this why he has been interested in Josh’s work this whole time? It really doesn’t matter; we’ve tuned out for the most part and are awaiting this mid-life crisis to end.

So as I was saying, is it all the hipsters’ fault for While We’re Young not striking a match and lighting the cinematic world on fire? Of course . . . not. It’s a film that astutely observes the pains of life in its many forms — in this case, the advantages and pitfalls of aging and of youth, and how the process of discovery often is more important than the results we find in the end. But the film is unfocused and yes, okay, is made longer by characters that are tough to identify with. The latter is rendered harder to ignore when the former is the larger issue.

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2-5Recommendation: These characters and these lifestyles and these interests are certainly not my cup of tea. Maybe I’m not qualified to write a recommendation for this thing, but I did find a lot to like here. There are a number of excellently crafted and funny scenes but these feel scattershot and overwhelmed by a sea of mediocre ones. Stiller and Watts make a convincing couple, with emphasis on the former. Driver and Seyfried are excellent at the hipster thing. And Baumbach excels at nailing some truths here. It’s a decent outing, give it a go if you’re a fan of his previous work.

Rated: R

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “I remember when this song was just considered bad . . .”

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

Frances Ha

Frances Ha

Release: Friday, May 17, 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

Oh, Greta Gerwig — where have you been all my life? I’m sure many guys have asked you this, and even though you’re going to let my forthcoming flattery roll off you and your leather jacket like water off a duck, I’m going to ask this anyway: Can I go out with you? Please?

No?

Well, that was to be expected. Gerwig’s character in Frances Ha (I think you might guess her name relatively quickly) is at once committed to something, and then not so much. That’s either by choice or by the forceful hand of reality. That’s actually not entirely accurate. Her character is bound by circumstance. Sometimes she’s doing something strange (like, really strange — to the point of seeming delusional) and other times she’s making moves we all likely would make in these particular moments. Whatever she’s doing though, she’s doing what a girl has to do to get along in this life, even though she doesn’t know quite exactly what to do or how to do it.

She’s a New Yorker with no high-rise apartment. Actually, make that really no apartment at all. Frances is caught in the beginning of the movie in an awkward transition between a soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend’s small loft and, well, the next. . . . place. She ends up rooming with a few new friends — two guys who seem to be on tracks of their own relative success. But this also does not work out for much longer, as she finds herself struggling to make even the minimum rent payment. It seems that nothing is going to work out for our giddy protagonist for too long.

The movie is paced as such. It’s like flipping through a photo album, each photo on the page telling a brief yet intimate and complete story. The majority of scenes that make up Frances Ha last only but a few minutes, but are such great snapshots of life it is impossible to argue they are too brief. Director Noah Baumbach pieces each snapshot together with utmost skill, forming a unique cinematic experience that plays out more like a relic of the 1940s or 50s. Maybe a lot of that  is impressed upon me thanks to the exquisite locations (Manhattan, Paris, etc.). Maybe it’s because it’s shot totally in black-and-white. Maybe I was taken away because of my hopelessly misplaced sense of romanticism.

Frances is an aspiring dancer whose apprenticeship with a New York dance company is really taking her nowhere. Her best friend Sophie is moving out to chase dreams of her own, leaving Frances in some kind of a daze. Her parents are unable to help out financially, though they wish they could. Frances is “un-datable.” Indeed, this film is very much steeped in real world issues and sentiment, and if you don’t mind a narrative that takes its time in finding just where the sweet spots in life are, this is the film for you. At points it’s easy to be thrown off as to where we are really going with it all, and the ending certainly can sneak up on you.

But it’s imperative with a film like this to enjoy all the simple things as well as the complex; Frances’s walks about town are as integral to the story as her idealistic conversations with Sophie; with her parents; with her peers at the dance company.

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4-0Recommendation: There’s no denying this film’s awkwardness. There’s a lot of charm to that awkwardness, though and it was very enjoyable to see a previously unknown actress (to me at least) blossom into a soon-to-be star with this role. Greta Gerwig is fantastic and is worth paying to see this movie even if you know little to nothing about it. I highly recommend this one.

Rated: R

Running Time: 86 mins.

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

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