The Scarlett Johansson Project — #3

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

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

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

Role Type: Supporting

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

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

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

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

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

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 

* Ethan Coen also directed but only joel was credited 

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

Photo credits: IMDb 

Lost River

 

Release: Friday, April 10, 2015

[Redbox]

Written by: Ryan Gosling

Directed by: Ryan Gosling

On a scale of crypticness, Lost River sits right in between the obtuseness of garden variety Terrence Malick and Ryan Gosling’s second collaboration with Nicolas Winding Refn, though the distances are pretty great on either side. It doesn’t come close to even appearing to profess thematic profundity like Malick’s work, though it doesn’t share a disdain for accessibility quite like Only God Forgives.

Given a chance to have full artistic control of his own project, Gosling proves his oddness runs deeper than his strong-but-silent types as of late, for Lost River is its own world, one which few are likely going to want to visit anytime soon. Rampant with poverty, violence and haunting (haunted?) characters, the titular town epitomizes economic collapse. It’s a ghost town strewn with a few souls still desperately hanging on to life. A horror film in which reality has been forsaken for surreality and an oppressive sense of hopelessness. If it sounds like I enjoyed this piece, it’s because I did.

Then again, for all its indulgences in style and a plethora of other barricades to most reasonable viewers, maybe ‘enjoyed’ is the wrong term. For a time I sat in awe of what Gosling was trying to express through a melange of vivid, bizarre images comprised mostly of things on fire and buildings being swallowed up by natural environs. That was before I tired of drinking in admittedly gorgeous visuals, my brain thirsting instead for real, useful information. Around 30 minutes in Gosling’s inexperience writing a story and directing it with focus and purpose becomes all too evident.

Some semblance of story revolves around single mother Billy (Christina Hendricks) and her son Bones (Iain de Caestecker), scrambling for the money to keep a roof over their heads. Billy is told by a corrupt bank manager (Ben Mendelsohn) that he knows of a way she can cover at least the next three months’ payments, but she’ll have a hard time saving face — almost literally — by taking up this unscrupulous offer. Meanwhile, Bones goes searching for scrap copper wiring from which he hopes to earn whatever cash he can by selling it to a junkyard. Or is that a cleverly concealed graveyard for anyone who has tried to make something of themselves in this place?

Bones is more successful instigating the ire of the psychotic Bully (Dr. Who‘s Matt Smith) who gets a thrill from parading through the town, terrorizing anyone within earshot (of a loudspeaker) from his armchair affixed atop a white convertible. All that’s missing from the scene is a justified second gunman on the grassy knoll. Someone please snipe this bastard. On the flip side of the coin: Billy now finds herself working at the burlesque night club from Hell, where performances, led by Eva Mendes’ Cat, emphasize realistic murders designed to titillate audiences whose tastes in entertainment would be pointless to elucidate they are so baffling. So off-putting. A seeming reflection of how most have come to regard Gosling’s directorial debut.

The kicker though, is that I don’t think my finding of that parallel is forced by some twisted means of trying to defend the film. While Lost River meanders (and it does it so much it isn’t a film to watch with the lights off I’ve found out — not so much for the nightmarish imagery but the slumber it can cast you off into) the scenes in the night club encapsulate Gosling’s obsession with distancing himself from the typical narrative package. Acquired taste? Yes. Do I smell a hint of pretentiousness here? Also, yes. But let’s, for a second, pretend that word doesn’t exist and recognize Gosling’s strengths as an actor first and foremost and quite likely as an individual second. He’s one with uncommon style, an expert on esoteric self-expression, though none of that ever fully justifies his shortcomings as director and writer.

The film ends miserably — not thematically but in terms of satisfaction — and this is where any reasonable defense similarly must come to an end. If the joke has been how ridiculously abstract a film can be made with a limited budget and even more limited experience, the punchline isn’t a punchline. Gosling fucks up the joke. I was, for the most part, humored by some of the things he was presenting in the form of the downtrodden, the sleaziness of an ever-reliable Ben Mendelsohn, the purity of Matt Smith’s mania. Or maybe I was in some weird way trying to humor him by putting myself through a film that I can’t deny is far too reminiscent of Refn, Malick and any number of established filmmakers who have made a career out of the abstract and thematically impenetrable. David Lynch seems to be cropping up often in the conversation as well.

I hope I’m not patronizing too much here by saying that Lost River is, at the very least, eye-catching. It spills forth from Gosling’s mind, a stream of consciousness showered in stark imagery that won’t disappear easily from your own.

Recommendation: Lost River represents Ryan Gosling echoing perhaps too loudly the stylistic flourishes of those he looks up to but it’s a gorgeous film and a curious one that I’d recommend to anyone who thinks Gosling and Refn have something unique to offer. And if you gave a thumbs-up to Only God Forgives, there’s no reason you won’t be able to find things to like with this one. Lost River will fail to attract many outside of those circles, though and that’s unfortunate.

Rated: R

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “Everyone is looking for a better life somewhere else.”

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