The Scarlett Johansson Project — #5

Another new movie experience and another lesson learned. The one we have to talk about this month has become something of a cult classic since its release nearly two decades ago. I can see how it has earned that reputation. It’s a very well-made movie, a realistic take on teen alienation that comes with a prickly sense of humor. Unfortunately I cannot say I enjoyed it very much. In fact the first third of this movie was a constant struggle not to hit the Back button on my remote.

In the Pros column, the performances are outstanding. They absolutely do their job. It’s cool to have finally seen the first comic book adaptation Scarlett Johansson took part in. This is a different kind of comic than what audiences are accustomed to seeing her in today. Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World is a movie with a defiant personality. It’s (mostly) costume-less, leisurely paced and gleefully misanthropic. This cynical dramatic comedy is based on the 1995 serial (later turned into a graphic novel) by Daniel Clowes, whose collaboration on the screenplay surely helped the film pick up that Oscar nom. The movie is also notable for being the role that put a young Scarlett Johansson on the map. She celebrated her Sweet 16th after it came out.

Ghost World has, oh let’s see, a 92% critical score and an 84% positive audience response on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a movie about outsiders, but I’ve been left at the end feeling like one myself. That’s not to say I didn’t identify with anything the characters were saying or that I didn’t understand what the movie was doing. I was just put off by the aggressively nihilistic attitude. I found it a struggle to really care about what happened to any of these characters after a certain point.

Scarlett Johansson as Rebecca in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World

Role Type: Co-lead

Premise: With only the plan of moving in together after high school, two unusually devious friends seek direction in life. As a mere gag, they respond to a man’s newspaper ad for a date, only to find it will greatly complicate their lives. (IMDb)

Character Background: Rebecca is best friends with Enid. They’re a pair of misfits who have had each other’s backs all through high school. Now staring at a wide open calendar, they find themselves listless and aimless. They may not have plans like all the losers bound for college but they’re going to make it a goal to mess with other people’s plans. Yes indeed, the opening minutes prove they aren’t really the gossipy type. Trash-talking is more their style and everyone is a target — the crippled, the elderly and possibly senile, struggling parents and fugly waiters.

To her credit, even from the beginning Rebecca comes across as the more mature one. She often pulls up short of the line Enid is willing to cross. You also get the sense Rebecca is more popular with boys. Yeah she’s pretty but moreover she’s more approachable; she isn’t constantly spitting venom. The movie is about how the two friends eventually drift apart over the course of the summer. We get a steady trickle of moments where Rebecca demonstrates a desire to move on, to change. To grow. Director Terry Zwigoff, a bundle of anxious nerves himself, observes all these changes in the most mundane of ways but there’s clearly a sense of stability in Rebecca that we do not find in Enid.

What she brings to the movie: confidence, the kind only working with the Coen brothers can provide. Coming on the heels of The Man Who Wasn’t There, Ghost World you can almost consider Part Two in a two-act coming-out party for the young teenage actor. She pendulums from a clearly not-shy teen in a 50s noir to a disaffected teenager in a post-Kurt Cobain world. The sultry and seductive voice that defined her character in The Man Who Wasn’t There is traded out for an amusingly dry monotone that rarely raises above calm speaking voice. Her portrayal is nuanced and authentic and, at least for me, the most sympathetic of all the main characters.

In her own words: “Terry just let us be ourselves. He understood that he cast two people who had really good chemistry. We were kid actors who, by that point, had started to understand how to do our job and explore this kind of naturalism that the film required. I think that is what is so great about Ghost World, is that it captures these characters at this very specific point in their lives.”

Key Scene: when Enid goes to visit Becca at work is one of my favorite moments in the movie. It perfectly captures the soul-crushing nature of minimum wage jobs, while also subtly introducing the fracture that ends up becoming quite a rift between the two besties. (Also, while I may not have really liked Thora Birch’s character, the movie gets bonus points for this being the only identifiable costume in this comic book adaptation.)

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work):  


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Photo credits: IMDb; interview excerpt courtesy of the Criterion Collection 

Paddleton

Release: Friday, February 22, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix 

Written by: Mark Duplass; Alex Lehmann

Directed by: Alex Lehmann

It’s not often that the Duplass brothers make a heavy movie. Darting in and out of the so-called mumblecore scene and playing with time in pleasantly nostalgic trips down memory lane (Blue Jay) or lurching ahead into the future with spirited abandon and childlike naivety (Safety Not Guaranteed), they typically go for heartache rather than rip-your-heart-out. But the timeline we’re dealing with in Paddleton makes it absolutely the bitterest of sweet efforts from the guys who got away with making navel-gazers about a guy living at home and a puffy chair.

Yeah Paddleton is another slice-of-life drama (supposedly the first in another four-picture deal Duplass Brothers Productions have secured with the streaming behemoth Netflix), but then it’s also a story dealing with cancer and mortality so it’s really more like the whole damn cake we’re tucking into here — life, death and . . . haunting your friend in the afterlife, maybe? This is a more serious movie, there’s no doubt about that, but if there’s a way to find the humor in something as distressing as one’s own impending death, leave it to the Duplasses to find that way.

In Paddleton Mark Duplass plays a 40-something bachelor named Michael and he’s given a diagnosis that turns out to be terminal. As an actor Duplass is a pretty reliable commodity at this point and so it’s Ray Romano playing his upstairs neighbor Andy who’s the revelation. He might never have been better than he is in this utterly neurotic, quietly devastating role — his second consecutive dramatic persona following a supporting part in Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick (2017). The two eke out a quiet, fringe existence wherein they escape the 9-5 doldrums by watching kung fu movies, eating pizza and engaging in this strange but totally fun-looking game they’ve invented called ‘paddleton’ — a hybrid of tennis, squash and basketball played off the back of a dilapidated building.

It doesn’t look exciting or rewarding but they slip into this routine like one pulls on their favorite torn Levis. There’s a comfort and security in simplicity, a notion that’s only reinforced — and with surprising profundity, too — once we’ve arrived at the crux of the movie, when Michael decides to end his life on his own terms rather than wait for the disease to land him in the hospital, hooked up to machines. Michael’s choice sets up a philosophical conundrum that Andy of course wrestles with, urging his friend to fight back. Michael doubles down, insisting this is a quality-over-quantity situation. He’d much prefer to spend his remaining time doing just what they’ve always done: pizza, kung fu, paddleton. Not necessarily in that order. Indeed there’s comfort in having a routine. No bucket-list stress, no grand speeches (well, there might be a good half-time speech delivered by Andy at some point). No plastic feelings, please.

Director Alex Lehmann previously worked with Duplass alongside Sarah Paulson in 2016’s Blue JayThe collaboration resulted in two outstanding performances and that’s been duplicated here. Romano and Duplass make for an endearing bromance that shoves the likes of Seth Rogen/Jonah Hill/James Franco and Will Ferrell/John C. Reilly to the way back seat. Paddleton is an amiable drama that toots along at about two miles an hour, features about five actors total, and physically goes almost nowhere — the narrative briefly kinks out into a brief road trip “comedy” of sorts when the pair have to procure some controversial medicine — and yet it manages to hit some profound depths along the way.

What starts out as an air of melancholy progresses to a rather stunning, emotional climax, a responsibly handled if challenging to watch dramatization of those last, ultra-heady stages of the grieving/dying process. Acceptance is a toughie, mostly because of the stepping stones you have to cross to get that peace of mind. A moment of paralyzing fear becomes the Duplass’ signature capital-A awkward scene. Yet for all the excruciating detail, Paddleton is ultimately life-affirming. These two dudes care for each other deeply. Despite being tinged with some ugliness the movie is beautiful because it makes this relationship the focus.

“Okay, so . . . if reincarnation is actually a thing . . .”

Recommendation: Two note-perfect performances elevate Paddleton above the potentially overly-sentimental, sugar-coated drama it might have otherwise been. Heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure, Paddleton is probably the most challenging Duplass Brothers movie currently on offer but along with the pain comes plenty of reward. A high recommendation for fans of Mark, Jay and whatever other Duplass may be lurking out there. Oh, and Ray Romano too. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 89 mins.

Quoted: “I’m the dying guy!”

“I’m the other guy!”

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

Unicorn Store

Release: Friday, April 5, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Samantha MacIntyre

Directed by: Brie Larson

Very much like a unicorn the directorial début of Brie Larson is a colorful curiosity. Unicorn Store reunites her with her Captain Marvel co-star, Samuel L. Jackson, albeit under entirely different circumstances. Instead of trying to prevent intergalactic war here we’re dealing with a millennial figuring out how she’s going to get out of her parents’ house and support herself. And, you know, support the unicorn that she’s about to get — the one she’s dreamed about owning since she was a kid.

Something you need to know about me before we move forward: I may not believe in unicorns but I’m a big believer in Brie Larson. I’ve loved her in most things I’ve seen her in. I also like to think I have a fairly high tolerance for quirky, “precious” indie movies. In 2015 Swiss Army Man rocketed to the top of my favorite movies, while Wes Anderson’s remained among my favorite filmmakers for some time. I’ve stuck by the Duplass brothers at their mumbliest and apparently on a good day I’ll even tolerate a Hipster Baumbach movie.

With all that said, I couldn’t really buy into the intentional absurdity of Unicorn Store. I lay most of the blame at the foot of Samantha MacIntyre, whose words have a touch as soft as a sledgehammer through glass. Hers is one of those overly affected screenplays that tries too hard to convince you it’s as quirky as its competitors (Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus is another film that springs to mind, though granted the characters in Unicorn Store are far less obnoxious). Here, just as in Magical Cactus, overt attempts to be different result in performances that feel something less than natural and a viewing experience that’s more grating than is necessary.

Larson pulls double duty as she not only directs but stars as Kit, the emotionally immature protagonist who starts the film failing/dropping out of art school and who for the longest time is convinced the only thing she’s succeeded at in life is disappointing her parents (an okay Bradley Whitford and an (intentionally?) annoying Joan Cusack). They work as camp counselors for troubled youth. Their eternal optimism is constantly offensive to Kit’s sensibilities. After a few nights of being back under her parents’ roof, mixing glasses of Cabernet with several shots of self-loathing, she stumbles into a boring routine at a soul-crushing(ly colorless) temp agency, a 9-5 which revolves around pushing buttons on a copier and having her own pushed by a creepy VP named Gary (Hamish Linklater — no relation to Richard).

While working on a marketing pitch for a vacuum cleaner for her Real World, real priggish bosses, Kit starts receiving mysterious invitations from an equally mysterious Store. Specifically, from a Salesman (Jackson) adamant he can provide Kit what she’s always dreamed of having. It’s in this weird, brightly decorated, strangely tailor-made space — it even has its own ice cream bar! — she learns that unicorns are not only real, they come with owner’s manuals. The presentation’s flamboyant but the details enclosed are written plainly in black and white.

They describe a binding contract that considers everything from the quality of the proposed living quarters, feeding and dietary habits, even the prospective owner’s financial and emotional stability. It’s all very complicated and considered. It’s apparently a responsibility, one that Kit must prove to the eccentric Salesman — and to herself — she’s capable of handling. As she commits gung-ho to her goal, she discovers she’ll need some help in completing one of the first basic requirements: providing adequate living conditions. That’s where hardware store hunk Virgil (Mamoudou Athie) comes in. Although Athie and Larson share a nice chemistry it’s hard not to question the logic behind this “relationship.”

Depending on your penchant for reading deep into things Unicorn Store is likely to leave you either underwhelmed or confused by its less-than-metaphorical denouement. You might just be indifferent to how literally it all plays out. It’s a movie perched on the edge of reality and fantasy, and it definitely has interesting ideas going on. Credit Larson’s reliable acting for the film’s few moments of poignancy. Yet as director, much like she’s written as the lead, she is often too forceful with her hand, too eager to rush seemingly important developments to nab the ending she thinks she’s due.

I shall call you ‘Thanos.’

Recommendation: Unicorn Store‘s an easier one to access if you’re a Brie Larson fan and you have a lot of patience for awkward, relentlessly self-deprecating millennials. If the word ‘Adulting’ doesn’t make you want to throw chairs. Believing in unicorns would be a plus, too. Of course the subject matter isn’t what’s off-putting. The narrative execution makes it hard to invest in the fantastical off-shoots of the real-world, and in this modern Peter Pan fairytale, not being able to believe is kind of a big problem. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 92 mins.

Quoted: “The most adult thing you can do is failing in what you really care about.”

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

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