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 

Anomalisa

'Anomalisa' movie poster

Release: Wednesday, December 30, 2015 (limited)

[Redbox]

Written by: Charlie Kaufman

Directed by: Charlie Kaufman; Duke Johnson

Someone please give Michael Stone a hug. I’m starting an online petition to see if we can get Michael Stone just one good hug, because he really, really, really, really, really needs one. Either him or writer-director Charlie Kaufman, I’m not sure who needs it more. Anomalisa is perhaps the slowest trek through misery and loneliness he has yet made, and that’s even keeping in mind 2008’s Synecdoche, New York.

Very much like that epic slog, Kaufman’s latest, an experiment in stop-motion that feels very much overdue considering his offbeat and peculiar sensibilities seem tailor made for the style, is almost too cold to handle let alone enjoy. But it is something to admire and admire I did; I just wish I could put my arms around the thing and connect with it on the level Kaufman clearly wanted me to. The misanthropy is one thing; I can handle misanthropic characters. I often eagerly embrace them and go on to love them. It’s the monotony that really killed my enthusiasm over this technical achievement.

Michael (David Thewlis) is a successful customer service agent whose latest book ‘How May I Help You Help Them?’ has just been published. He’s traveling to Cincinnati to deliver a motivational speech to other service agents looking to boost their careers. At the same time he’s promoting the new book and . . . searching for a way out of his current marriage and domestic life, both of which have whittled his zest for life down to the bone. He becomes smitten by a woman he meets that is somehow “different” than everyone else — meaning, she’s the only other supporting character not voiced by Tom Noonan. (He is credited simply with the responsibility of voicing Everyone Else.)

Michael’s staying at the Fregoli Hotel. It’s a swanky joint whose odd name isn’t meant to merely induce giggles (although it is a pretty funny word); ‘fregoli’ is actually a social anxiety/disorder in which the sufferer sees everyone around them as the same person, voice and all. Michael seems to be experiencing that very delusion but it’s not clear at first whether this is just how this guy views Cincinnati — after all he already scoffs at the lesser intelligence of anyone else who happens to be in the room with him — or whether he’s suffering the effects of a psychological condition that’s gone untreated far too long — something he himself ponders often.

Anomalisa confines itself almost entirely within the walls of this hotel. The limited setting is successful in inducing boredom and cabin fever. We watch as Michael shuffles around, utterly disconnected from the world and disinterested in doing much beyond finding some ice cubes to put into a glass and make a drink. That scene takes approximately ten minutes to eventuate. After this he shuffles around some more, grumbling over the introductory remarks in his speech notes. The shuffling takes us on a tour of the Fregoli and its many oddities, including, but not limited to the hotel manager himself. (Again, Tom Noonan. Tom Noonan everywhere.) He also gets obsessed with tracking down old acquaintances that either turn out to be painfully awkward, generally unpleasant episodes or wild goose chases. All this running around while annoyingly doing nothing eventually introduces us and Michael to two adoring fans, a couple of local girls who somehow find the author a very interesting man.

One girl, a chatty blonde who is more outspoken than her considerably stranger and more socially awkward friend Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is saddled with, you guessed right, a man’s voice. Leigh Lisa stands out for her unique voice and face in a sea of sameness. Her demeanor is strange but beguiling, at least it is to Michael. To us she comes across a kind of simpleton with a knack for contributing to the film’s quota of depressing introspective soliloquies. Also, her voice eventually starts breaking into that of Tom Noonan. Nothing good ever seems to last.

Aha! We have struck a nerve. Temporary constructs like one-night stands are radically misconstrued for representing the start of something new, something fresh. Poor Michael can’t figure out how to even start spelling ‘h-a-p-p-i-n-e-s-s’ let alone experience it. Anomalisa is an exercise in wallowing in self-pity despite its billing as a dramatic comedy; Michael’s stuck-in-a-rut attitude feels more suffocating and hopeless than The Lobster‘s persecution of single folk. It’s certainly more uncomfortable. It bears all the hallmarks of a Kaufman think-piece, one that delves far beneath the surface of the kinds of conversations a great many screenwriters offer up. There’s no denying Anomalisa is uniquely his. But the lack of interesting material feels unfamiliar.

Michael, torn between leaving his family behind for a fresh new start and a responsibility to his son . . . oh wait, yeah that’s right. He doesn’t really seem to care about that either as he can barely muster the interest to speak with him on the phone for longer than five minutes. Yeah, forget this guy man. And almost everything about this really tedious, beautiful, boring, complex, ultimately off-putting experience.

David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh in 'Anomalisa'

Recommendation: “The most human film of the year,” maybe. But the most entertaining? Hardly. Charlie Kaufman has built a reputation for being a tough filmmaker to embrace and Anomalisa is just another solid example. It’s a film for the Kaufman purists I think. Unless you are a glutton for punishment and enjoy sitting through true downers, I have to say give this one the old swerve if you’re the least bit skeptical on the filmmaker. Damn. I really wanted to like this, too. So I’m kicking it an extra slice for the technical marvel that it really is. The stop motion is incredible, truly.

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “Sometimes there’s no lesson. That’s a lesson in itself.”

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 

Sausage Party

sausage_party_ver2_xlg

Release: Friday, August 12, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Seth Rogen; Evan Goldberg; Kyle Hunter; Ariel Shaffir

Directed by: Greg Tiernan; Conrad Vernon

Sausage Party represents Seth Rogen’s strongest screenwriting effort since Superbad. It’s been even longer since he’s been this charming in a lead role as well, and he plays a six-inch-long frankfurter. Or sausage, wiener, whatever. He’s a real hot dog in this outing, a riotous, deliriously perverse bite of modern satire that will in all likelihood cause you to think twice the next time you’re thumbing through greens-turning-brown in your local Wal-Mart.

In the world of Sausage Party, Wal-Mart would be the Warsaw ghetto for perishables. In the world of Sausage Party the Food Pyramid takes on an entirely new meaning, a reality that’s manifested brilliantly via anthropomorphic food groups. There’s hierarchy and a universal belief system that shoppers are Gods. Food items believe they’re destined for great things once they’re Chosen, that they’re headed for a place called The Great Beyond where they’ll enjoy an eternity of being loved and treated like royalty by the human that rescued them from their prisons/shelves. A place where a sausage like Frank (Rogen) looks forward to slipping inside a nice, warm bun. A place where an Arabic flatbread named Kareem Abdul Lavash dreams of being greeted by 77 bottles of extra virgin olive oil that will help him stay lubricated and not dry out and be nasty and shit.

Broader arcs, involving Frank’s quest to save his sweet friends (and even salty foes) from continuing to be blinded to a horrible reality — food gets eaten, not laid — and Brenda’s determination to not act on her own sexual urges in fear of upsetting the Gods, are not exactly revelatory. Nor are the main beats delivered en route to one of the most ridiculous afterparties you are likely to ever see. (Yeah, This is the End may have been blessed by the Backstreet Boys but you’ve never seen food porn until you’ve watched this movie.) Because the story is rather store-brand generic, you’re left sort of worrying if there is a way Rogen and company can wrap things up without cooling off completely or melting down or some other food metaphor that suggests deterioration.

But there is no need to worry. At all.

And broad arcs be damned by the way. Getting lost in this supermarket is just way too much fun. There’s so much to see and do. Rogen, once again reunited with Evan Goldberg and aided as well by Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir (the latter two co-wrote The Night Before with Goldberg, a rare case in which Rogen did not share writing duties), has crafted a genuinely hilarious and heartfelt film that manages to strike a near-perfect balance between satire and sobriety. One wouldn’t necessarily think Sausage Party has any right to be stepping into arenas like proving the existence of God, thereby the purpose of religion, or that packaging certain foods into certain aisles could be viewed as segregation but we should never downplay Rogen’s creativity.

In this adventure there is strength in numbers. That applies both to the mission Frank and friends find themselves embarking on as well as to how we’re able to connect with this strange little world. Frank is joined with varying degrees of hesitation by fellow wiener Barry (Michael Cera), who suffers from serious confidence issues; Frank’s love interest, the curvaceous bun Brenda (Kristen Wiig) and two squabbling neighbors from the International Foods Aisle in David Krumholtz’ Lavash and Edward Norton’s argumentative bagel Sammy (I still can’t believe that was not the voice of Woody Allen). The diverse selection of characters makes the watch more dynamic and energetic. Nevermind the fact that mainstays like Ketchup, Mustard, apples and oranges are wholly unoriginal, they don’t really lend themselves to comedy. And even though a hot dog does take center stage, brilliantly the summer grilling classic is broken down into two distinct characters. And of course we know why.

Food puns abound and as is expected, ethnic, gender and religious stereotypes play a role in deciding which items we are going to spend time with (for example: the non-perishable items are colored as wizened old Native Americans who have seen it all and it’s no coincidence that the film’s primary antagonist is a Douche named Nick Kroll. Er, played by Kroll, rather . . .). Incensed after Frank cost him his chance to go to The Great Beyond during a shopping cart collision, Douche sets out on a murderous vendetta to take out the wiener (and bun) responsible for not only the missed opportunity but his new physical deformity. (In this reviewer’s opinion we venture a little too deep into TMI territory when watching him mentally breaking down, mourning his lack of purpose. And we really could have done without 90% of Kroll’s brutal dude-broisms.)

It wouldn’t be a comedy from the Rogen-Goldberg school of puerility if it doesn’t make you feel at least a little guilty for laughing at some of the things you end up laughing at. Even still, Sausage Party (hehe) finds a number of ways to justify genre-defining tropes like making sex jokes out of literally everything. Wiig brings strength, courage and conviction to the part of a sexy piece of bread. Some things will never change though, as even here Rogen’s every bit the pothead we’ve come to love him for being as he finds room for a scene where a wiener gets roasted with a can of water and a gay Twinkie, and he does it without disrupting the flow of the narrative. The characters are well-defined and each have individual motivations for survival, which is critical in helping us actually “buy into” the situation at hand. (Let’s get real: we never take any of this seriously but we take it far more so than we thought we would when the project was first announced.)

Sausage Party is classic Seth Rogen-Evan Goldberg. It’s rib-ticklingly funny from start to finish, with only a few brief moments where all action comes to a halt in favor of more somber reflections on the state of life in a grocery store that’s about to erupt into civil war. You’ll find almost every alum from previous Rogen-Goldberg offerings here, and, hidden behind the guises of ordinary foods, they become icons. This is far too fattening a meal to keep having, but damn it all . . . why does fat have to taste so good?

Stephen fucking Hawking gum and Michael Cera the wiener

Recommendation: Irreverent, profane, over-the-top, delirious, and bizarrely heartwarming. Sausage Party uses anthropomorphism to its advantage and then some, creating memorable characters out of mundane food items and giving them distinct human personas that we can identity with and care about. (Obviously some more than others.) The rules of course still apply: fans of Seth Rogen’s sense of humor need apply while all others who aren’t big on the guy probably won’t find much mustard to squeeze out of this one. Visiting the supermarket will never be the same again, and I think that more than anything is the mark of an effective comedy.

Rated: R

Running Time: 89 mins.

Quoted: “Banana’s whole face peeled off, Peanut Butter’s wife Jelly is dead! Look at him, he’s right there.”

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

Nerve

'Nerve' movie poster

Release: Wednesday, July 27, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Jessica Sharzer

Directed by: Henry Joost; Ariel Shulman

If you accept the dare to watch Nerve, understand a few conditions first: 1) this is a teen-centric, sexed-up adventure thriller set in the Twitter Age, thereby you are volunteering up brain cells you’re never going to use again; 2) James Franco’s not in it, his lesser talented and less interesting younger brother is, along with Emma Roberts who is just as bland; 3) the film ends in such a way you may find yourself requesting a refund. If you accept these terms and conditions, by all means log in and join the action.

Based on Jeanne Ryan’s 2012 novel of the same name, Nerve addresses the addictive nature of social media and the Insta-Fame effect. It creates a world parallel to ours in which a kind of sadistic, cyber version of Truth-or-Dare (minus the Truth part) has become extremely popular. Er, rather, has ‘gone viral.’ Curious surfers are given the choice to either be a Watcher or a Participant — the film even helps itself to The Matrix‘ supply of red/blue pills in thinking we would feel shortchanged without the extremely hackneyed visual.

Watchers, yup, they just sit and observe (like total buzzkills) and Participants agree to do crazier and crazier things as requested by the Watchers, for increasingly large cash prizes. Sure enough, it has cost the lives of participants, as was the case one year in Seattle. Some poor sap apparently fell from the top of an industrial super-crane. Nerve enthusiast Ian (Dave Franco) witnessed the tragedy first-hand. How convenient that he happens to be Vee’s first challenge (kiss a random stranger for $100), parked in the very diner where she’s finally trying out the game “just this once.” She’s trying Nerve just so she stops feeling like the loser her friends have made her feel she is. It’s nice to see that peer pressure not only manifests as a theme but as an important plot device as well.

Unfortunately you can’t really just check this game out once and be done with it. There are two ways to lose the game: by Failing to complete a Dare or Bailing on it. When you lose, you don’t get the money. (I feel like there should be another consequence if you Bail, like Watchers reserve the right to kick your ass for being a ninny; merely losing the money just seems too easy.) Also, Snitches Get Stitches, people. Snitches . . . get . . . sti . . . I can’t believe I’m reviewing this movie. Long story short, Participants are strongly advised against seeking the appropriate authorities, even when you believe dares are getting out-of-hand. Even if they’re getting a little on the illegal side. If you do snitch, Watchers actually will come and kick your ass.

Nerve‘s frantic, coincidence-riddled narrative revolves chiefly around Vee’s experience as a Participant as she hooks up with Ian downtown and commits to a series of dares that have an immediate, positive impact on her bank account. Her mother, working the night shift as a nurse, is receiving a flood of notifications on her phone as a result. It’s raining virtual dolla-dollas! The adventure finds Vee completely breaking out of her shell — this happens so quickly you’d think she’s suffering from some sort of personality disorder — and leaving behind her boring, predictable self. To prove she’s got what it takes, I guess to be popular, she accepts one particular dare that demands she and Ian reach a speed of 60 miles an hour while the driver is blindfolded. Gee, I wonder how this turns out . . .

Character development is not a priority here, and it really should be. We shouldn’t feel numb when a friendship turns sour between Vee and her best friend Sydney (Emily Meade), when the latter accidentally overhears a private conversation between the two that Vee’s phone happens to pick up. (Oh yeah, I forgot to mention: one of the main complaints I’d like to file is the fact that in order for the game to work, they have to be capturing themselves on their phone’s camera. This naturally gives rise to a few preposterous moments.) We are supposed to laugh at the superficiality of Sydney’s concerns, that’s really the point. To all of this. Social media is the real enemy here!

Ignoring a plethora of contrivances — there are Watchers clinging to every single corner of the frame; they’re literally everywhere so dares come quick and they come often and always just at the right moment — Nerve still provides a perfectly serviceable experience for three quarters of its runtime. Energy levels remain high and the film glows in Michael Simmonds’ sleek cinematography. But then we run into the post-Hunger Games gladiatorial arena into which our internet sensation friends here are dropped and ordered to eliminate the other. The laziness of such a set-up should be enough to lose several, perhaps less patient followers — and then the twist happens. A twist that would make M. Night Shyamalan proud, a bizarre kink that shamelessly deletes the villainous human component in one fell swoop. It’s like we never needed it to begin with.

For what it’s worth, Franco and Roberts make a good team and while their characters certainly fail, the names are just enough to make Nerve tolerable, but not enjoyable. Everything you could possibly fear about a movie geared towards the post-Twitter teenage bracket Nerve squeezes in in 96 short minutes. It’s firmly rooted in escapist entertainment. That doesn’t mean there aren’t redeeming qualities, but predictably each opportunity the film is given to rise above and become something better it bails for an easy way out. #fail

Dave Franco and Emma Roberts in 'Nerve'

Recommendation: Socially relevant commentary really could have used the Sophia Coppola touch. Her magic wand could have turned all the sexiness into something useful and she’s really good at crafting pictures aimed at an entitled generation who think the world revolves around them. Nerve, a giddy teen-centric outing that doesn’t really offer much at all, fits that bill. The end result is pretty disappointing given that the story has something to say. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 96 mins.

Quoted: “Somebody is putting money into my account!” / “White people problems . . . “

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 

The Neon Demon

'The Neon Demon' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 24, 2016 

[Theater]

Written by: Nicolas Winding Refn; Mary Laws; Polly Stenham

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn

Elephant in the room: there are more lines of dialogue in Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film than there were in his last. That wasn’t enough to stop The Neon Demon from scoring Refn his second-straight booing at the Cannes Film Festival. The film is still delicate as fine china when it comes to plot but this is Refn as I like him: at least somewhat accessible. Booing him this time seems more like a ritualistic exercise than a just reaction.

Cautionary tale about a teen who puts her high school career on hold to take modeling gigs in Los Angeles epitomizes the Refn-ian vision: lots of bright, pretty colors colliding and compensating for the stark lack of light elsewhere on screen (i.e. each time there’s an alley, a corner or anything capable of throwing shadows); a heightened sexuality that frequently veers into the perverse before fully tipping over into depravation. Most characters stare more than they speak, their inactivity designed to draw attention to form, not function. A psychosexual soundtrack courtesy of regular collaborator Cliff Martinez.

Yeah, so . . . about that staring obsession. Unlike in Only God Forgives it actually serves a purpose here. The pulpiest bits of the story concern the danger young Jesse (Elle Fanning, who celebrated her 17th birthday during filming) finds herself in when she becomes the object of a make-up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone)’s affections. Jesse’s natural beauty starts posing a major threat to other models, specifically Sarah (model-turned-actress Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), women terrified that their time in the spotlight is quickly coming to an end with the arrival of such an angelic, naive presence. Long, lustful stares carry a tension that’s more palpable than it is logical: are we really supposed to believe one of these women is better looking than the other?

Passing glances evolve into death stares as Jesse catches the eye of Alessandro Nivola’s brutally cold fashionista. If haughtiness is an indication of expertise, this guy has had all the experience. Refn, self-described as a pornographer, remains steadfastly committed to the physique: cameras ogle over Jesse’s long legs and Rapunzelian hair constantly. As we transform from viewers to voyeurs, we become haunted by this combination of wanting to stop watching but being physically unable to do so. There’s just something so watchable about The Neon Demon, an obsession to know more that gave me flashbacks of the 2011 haunting beauty that was Drive.

Refn may still be a few challenging movies shy of earning comparisons to contemporary provocateurs like Gaspar Noé and Lars Von Trier (a fellow Dane), but here he is, persisting anyway. Once again the world as he sees it is a brutal, cruel construct, a jagged jumble of broken hearts and heinous acts carried out in the name of self preservation. Malone’s necrophiliac tendencies demonstrate the depths to which these women will sink to obtain whatever it is they perceive Jesse having over them. (What that was was never clear to me but then again, it’s been awhile since I last thumbed through an issue of Vogue.)

The Neon Demon doesn’t break much, if any, new ground in its exploration of the vacuum of happiness that is the fashion industry. It’s neither a history lesson nor a revelation. Perhaps the movie is best when we consider the specifics of the clichés, like how Keanu Reeves takes a stock character and turns him into something we come to fear or the metaphorical beauty of Jesse’s fall from grace landing her at the bottom of an empty pool. Or how uncertain we are that her fellow models are even human. Given the potency of this hallucinogenic trip, it’s safe to say that in 2016 Refn is found reaching for his 2011 highs rather than stooping to his 2013 lows. Thank the neon demons for that.

Recommendation: The Neon Demon represents Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s most female-driven film so far. Some have dismissed this as a sexist, sadistic bit of pretense but that’s overly harsh. It may not be the most original film, nor one where we get all the answers to life’s problems but on the basis of its twisted, mesmeric visuals, The Neon Demon is further proof that Refn is a director to keep an eye on going forward. A great leap forward for the young Elle Fanning, as well. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “She’s a diamond among a sea of glass.”

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

Decades Blogathon – She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

 

Be sure you don’t miss Movie Man Jackson’s take on the 1986 Spike Lee Joint ‘She’s Gotta Have It,’ over on Three Rows Back!

three rows back

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Everybody Wants Some!!

'Everybody Wants Some' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 15, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Richard Linklater

Directed by: Richard Linklater

All right, all right, all right — so it’s been over twenty years since Matthew McConaughey brilliantly repurposed those famous Doors lyrics, and it might seem a little suspect that director Richard Linklater would take another trip like this down memory lane, in 2016. Has he run out of ideas? How will he find a way to crowbar some long-lost cousin of David Wooderson in to the story? How close was he to leaving the project titled Dazed and Confused 2? Naturally, a project like this raises more than a few questions.

Those concerns all but disappear without notice like a Saturday morning hangover when, after only a few opening scenes, we find ourselves jettisoned back to the days of disco, coke (well, here it’s replaced by a wealth of weed) and, of course, the Walkman. Part of the deal here is remaining open-minded about developing another love affair with a different decade but the same director, and if you’re able to do that you’ll find there was indeed room for one more of these in his catalog. Everybody Wants Some!! may have to wait some time before it gains cult status, but then, so did all those hazy high school hijinks.

Rather than focusing on the culmination of another semester wherein the best and the worst of seniors and their underclassmen alike are brought out, Linklater inverts the time table and builds toward the first day. The story follows a collegiate baseball team through the final weekend of summer, centering on a new pitcher named Jake (Blake Jenner), one of the most talented players at his high school, who finds himself navigating this unfamiliar, deeper pool of talent and competitiveness. Meanwhile he and his teammates negotiate, and largely embrace, the various social stigmas attached to being a college athlete.

Once again Linklater gathers together a cast of relative unknowns to help keep the distraction of celebrity status to a minimum. There’s the mustachioed and most-likely-to-go-pro McReynolds (Taylor Hoechlin); Roper the ladykiller (Ryan Guzman); stoner Willoughby (Wyatt Russell); faux-philosopher Finnegan (Glen Powell); Plummer (Temple Baker) . . . who’s just kinda there; Jay (Justin Street), who’s a total psycho and the team’s current pitcher; the gregarious Dale (J. Quinton Johnson), who also kindly takes on the task of orienting freshmen to the team; Beuter (Will Brittain), a good-old boy with the southern-fried accent; and Nesbit (Austin Amelio), an upper-classman burnout with a passion for the game. There are others as well but this is the core.

They’re wholly believable as an actual college baseball team, and if not that then their perpetual involvement in shenanigans establishes them as the next best frat house behind Delta Tau Chi. It helps that the performances are uniformly fantastic — energetic and naturalistic. There’s genuine camaraderie between them, especially once the movie shifts into its second third, where the boys start figuring out what everyone is all about. On the female side, there are far fewer stand-outs — Everybody Wants Some!! is likely to struggle to pass the Bechdel Test — but Zoey Deutch as Beverly, a theater major Jake finds cute, anchors the film in slightly more romantic territory with her warmth and optimistic outlook on life.

The love child of Animal House and Dazed and Confused, Linklater’s baseball-themed bacchanalia feels like a long lost relic, a film made years ago that’s only now being rescued from the clutches of development hell and resuscitated for audiences too young to appreciate how far out Linklater’s paean to the ’70s really was. It’s a fleeting watch, and it’s not for the narrative-minded. The story boils down to a team learning to gel before the grind of spring training locks them back into regiments and routines. From start to finish this is a raucous party atmosphere and it might be harder to identify with a group of extroverted athletes than say, a cross-section of high school broken down into its many cliques.

Nevertheless, Linklater has once again managed to tease out intensely strong feelings of nostalgia and bittersweetness by stuffing so much into these precious last days of summer. The film, despite itself, is a study of maturity and accepting responsibility. Kids turning into adults is as inevitable as waking up one morning in these houses to find crude drawings all over your face.  Everybody Wants Some!! is about finding your place in a larger group, about figuring out what you can contribute. Find out what matters most to you. That’s true of college but it’s most poignant when you consider the vaster pool of possibilities outside of school.

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Recommendation: A gentle nudge in the direction of some of our glory days, Everybody Wants Some!! functions as a highly amusing diversion (even if it’s not outright hilarious). A game cast combines with a mise en scène that brilliantly pays tribute to the fashion and social etiquette of a decade long since passed. Perhaps it’s best not to make comparisons, but this one’s kinda hard not to recommend to those who fell in love with the director’s previous efforts. Baseball fans might be disappointed to learn how little ball is actually played, however. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “I’m too philosophical for this shit!”

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

Love

'Love' movie poster NSFW

Release: Friday, October 30, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Gaspar Noé

Directed by: Gaspar Noé

French-Argentinian Gaspar Noé has chosen to follow up his “psychedelic melodrama” Enter the Void with a graphic examination of relationships driven by lust and jealousy, and while it is a warmer film than his previous effortsLove is a far cry from feel-good and offers its own set of challenges. Owed in part to Noé’s fascination with close-ups of body parts — genitals in particular — the film finds the controversial director again exploiting extremes in his quest to understand what exactly love is and what it does to us.

The good news is that Noé gives viewers, the morbidly curious or otherwise, an easy out: the opening frame leaves little doubt as to what you have to look forward to over the next two plus hours (as if the posters don’t). While it is reductive to label Love‘s no-holds-barred depiction of sexual intimacy as pornographic — there’s much to be said about the purpose of these sex scenes versus those created in an industry that’s only interested in form and not function — offhand comments about this being a movie for fetishists I can at least understand as the number of scenes that indulge in excess is in itself excessive.

Centering around Murphy (Karl Glusman), an American ex-pat in Paris studying to become a filmmaker, Love features a brutally nonlinear narrative that intertwines his past and present relationships, making for a rather disorienting, disjointed watch that is on more than one occasion difficult to commit to. Murphy claims to aspire to making films that celebrate our baser instincts but all he really seems to ever accomplish is finding ways to have more intense sex with his nutcase girlfriend Electra (Aomi Muyock). This isn’t the girl we first see him with, however.

We first meet Murphy awakening in an apartment he likens to a prison cell ever since his new girlfriend Omi (Klara Kristin) moved in. This is the girl he now has a child with, but she’s not the one he ‘cares’ about. His drug-addled existence is explored in a meditative, if not meandering story that measures his loss of self-control (and by extent, happiness) by showing us the various stages of both relationships, the latter originating after a night in which Murphy and Electra’s ultimate fantasy is finally realized. Two years after their break-up, when he gets a phone call from her mother telling him Electra has disappeared, Murphy finds himself cast back into the throes of regret. Consequently we’re sucked into his mind, where we’re subjected to a maze of flashbacks intended to demonstrate the unreliability of memory.

In Noé’s neon-tinged world, sex manifests itself both thematically and in the way the narrative expands to encapsulate the life cycle of a relationship, atypical as it may be. The numerous bedroom scenes aren’t created just to rile up audiences, even if stimulation or repulsion is an inevitability. While several scenes carry more than a whiff of misogyny and are shot with a masculine power that’s hard to ignore, aggression also stems from Electra who asks her lover to go to some very dark places in order to please her. Tone plays a huge role in how we perceive the lovemaking. Turns out, both individuals are as depraved as the other. (I don’t know if ‘depraved’ shows some lack of sensitivity on my part but I tend to draw the line where I’m forced to watch people receiving fellatio from transvestites.)

On the matter of Love‘s themes: Noé relies heavily on sexuality and sexual aggression as a means of contrasting cultures — Paris is, after all, the city of love and he thrusts an American into this whirlwind of flesh and fantasy fulfillment. It’s not exactly an exhaustive approach; for as much sex as this movie contains the romance you expect to see surrounding a couple so infatuated with one another is surprisingly sparse, save for a fleeting scene that finds the couple meeting for the first time in public — Murphy playfully chastising Electra for not having seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, his favorite film, and she reciting lines from her favorite Robert Frost poem.

The word of the day certainly seems to be ‘intense,’ for Love is an intensely internalized realization. The majority of the film takes place within Murphy’s memory as he tries desperately to reconcile what he has lost with his current romantic life: “I’m so tired of this bitch.” Whatever happened to Electra? What would have happened to her if she never knew Murphy? Was this fate? Is that oh-so-coveted feeling truly sustainable, for human beings are such selfish creatures.

Unfortunately by the time the shower scene commences we’re entirely unsure of what to think. The film is a test of endurance, not simply due to the content but the glacial pacing that finds its actors shuffling between discreet underground night clubs, the S&M and all of that. Lost in a perpetual haze of lust and thrill-seeking, we’re dared to watch committed acts of unsimulated sex. But Noé isn’t that shallow. There’s more to all of this than masturbatory imagery, though I can’t put my finger on what that is specifically. Maybe that’s the point.

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Recommendation: Love finds Gaspar Noé doing a lot of soul-searching in a decidedly passionate, if muddled, examination of human relationships and what causes them to deteriorate. He is a filmmaker who doesn’t make concessions for the mainstream. Love is an extreme film and it should be approached with caution by anyone who thinks they can handle it. 

Rated: NC-17

Running Time: 135 mins.

Quoted: “If you fall in love, you’re the loser.”

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TBT: The Graduate (1967)

new tbt logo

For the second pick of November ’15 we’re going back to what has been referred to me time and again as a classic. A coming-of-ager to end all coming-of-age films. It’s Dustin Hoffman’s second big screen appearance, one that officially opened up the doors to a promising and diverse career, one that I am ashamed to admit I have experienced precious little of. My world has been rocked today as I have learned that 1) Dustin Hoffman, and I mean this in the most complimentary of ways, has been around much longer than I had thought he had been; and 2) I hadn’t planned this at all, but this TBT is in a way commemorative. Today marks one year since the sudden and tragic passing of the much-acclaimed director of 

Today’s food for thought: The Graduate.

'The Graduate' movie poster

Worrying about the future since: December 22, 1967

[Netflix]

An idle mind is the devil’s playground, some Philippians once decreed. Given that, I had an entire sandbox and an assortment of twisty slides to go down thinking about all of the dirty things I could be doing instead of watching this incredibly annoying movie. This character (yes, that’s right, the graduate) doesn’t do anything the entire movie but complain about upper middle-class white male privilege. “Oh no, my life is going in no direction in particular. Guess I’ll go float on a raft in the middle of my pool for the rest of the summer.”

A solid basis for a Kevin Smith movie. Let’s just watch Dustin Hoffman look really good for an hour and 40 minutes in a sun-tinged pool in some swanky house in Burbank. Or wherever the location was. I do find it kind of ironic: I have drifted for much of my post-collegiate life (because I’m no good at making actual, important decisions). I’m middle-class . . . maybe not upper-middle-class but I’ve been fortunate. Where are the cameras? Oh yeah, that’s right, I think out loud, snapping back to reality.

Two things, one probably more important than the other: 1) I’m not an attractive, young movie star and 2) I’m not an attractive, young movie star who gets his bones jumped by Anne Bancroft. See? I’m telling you, this is a movie about privilege.

The Graduate is supposed to be this whole quirky, kinky romantic thing involving Hoffman’s Ben Braddock and a family friend, the lovely but pathetically insecure Mrs. Robinson (Bancroft). The film is hardly romantic and it certainly isn’t charming. Although it does tick the quirky and kinky boxes. It all starts when she asks Ben to drive her home after a welcome home party in Ben’s honor.

Things get a bit awkward as Ben suddenly finds himself alone with her in her room as she undresses. But they won’t do the dirty here — no, they end up getting a room in a hotel where apparently all manners of trysts and assignations occur. This is where we get that iconic shot of Bancroft’s crossed legs in the foreground, with a smitten Ben Braddock lingering in the background, hands in his pockets. Perhaps if Ben weren’t such an incorrigible stiff — I mean that in the least sexual way possible — this movie would be over a heck of a lot sooner, saving me and anyone else who can’t buy into whatever charm Hoffman’s supposedly laying on in his second big screen performance from another 80-some-odd minutes of flaccid comedy.

Complications arise when Ben’s parents set him up on a date with the Robinson’s daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross), much to Mrs. Robinson’s disapproval. She hates the thought of Ben going for someone his own age. (Yeah, what a pervert.) When Ben eventually falls in love with Elaine, following a rough first date during which he attempts to distance himself from her at the behest of her mother, all bets are off that Ben’s once quiet life will continue as normal.

Early in the film a family friend encourages the young man to live a little, to enjoy himself just for awhile before he settles down. That was actually Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton) who gave him that advice. Ergo, anything comical about The Graduate stems less from performances and situation as it does from our omniscient vantage point. We know everything and the poor husband knows nothing. I saw more disdain for living than pleasure in embracing life’s unpredictability. Less comedy and more pent-up sexual frustration. The Graduate is all about the latter; I’m not so sure about the former. I suppose one thing that was pretty amusing was how adamant Ben was in ensuring Mrs. Robinson he isn’t a virgin.

More mysterious than how this film has garnered such popularity is Hoffman’s awkward, wooden performance. The goal is to exude that post-graduation malaise but his delivery doesn’t seem very assured. Not to mention, being a womanizer first and a stalker second doesn’t really speak to my experience. And I doubt I’m alone. I’m also not a saint, but if The Graduate is supposed to be a commentary on that awkward ‘next step’ after college — his insufferable parents would like it very much if he attended graduate school; after all, what were those four years of undergrad for anyway? — it’s painting anyone who hasn’t had a life plan in broad strokes and in a pretty ugly color.

Setting aside thematic content, The Graduate just isn’t that creative. It assesses the budding relationship between Ben and Elaine as they continue finding common ground, while an ever envious Mrs. Robinson goes out of her way to make life exceedingly difficult for Ben. It’s another tale of home-wrecking and heartbreaking. The malleability of a young man’s happiness: if he can’t get this, then he’ll settle for that. If not that, then something else. Ben, in the latter half of the film, goes into full-on creeper mode, seeking out Elaine after a major reveal causes her to move out of her parents’ house and back to college, where she apparently is now with some other guy. And while the conclusion ends on a curiously ambiguous note, it’s not wholly unpredictable. The whole damn thing has been about indecision.

All of this ho-ing and hum-ing is set to the tune of a fairly inspired Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack, which is one of a few things I’ll take from this movie and cherish. The film is brilliantly scored. So here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson. Seems other people will love you more than you will know. Just . . . not . . . me.

Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in 'The Graduate'

Recommendation: If you like your movies testing your every last nerve, you might try out The Graduate. Yeah, it’s an early Dustin Hoffman performance but I didn’t find it a great one. A coming of age movie with almost no wisdom to impart, I have to say I am massively underwhelmed by this thing. 

Rated: PG 

Running Time: 106 mins.

TBTrivia: In Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft’s first encounter in the hotel room, Bancroft did not know that Hoffman was going to grab her breast. Hoffman decided offscreen to do it, because it reminded him of schoolboys trying to nonchalantly grab girls’ breasts in the hall by pretending to put their jackets on. When Hoffman did it onscreen, director Mike Nichols began laughing loudly offscreen. Hoffman began to laugh as well, so rather than stop the scene, he turned away from the camera and walked to the wall. Hoffman banged his head on the wall, trying to stop laughing, and Nichols thought it was so funny, he left it in.

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Spectre

Spectre movie poster

Release: Friday, November 6, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: John Logan; Neal Purvis; Robert Wade; Jez Butterworth

Directed by: Sam Mendes

Spectre, a proposition with so much weight and symbolism behind it it required four writers to collaborate on the story. Four writers means four times the quality, right?

Right . . . ?

After three years James Bond comes flying back into action in Sam Mendes’ parting gift to fans of a franchise that’s by now half a century old. The literal sense of ‘flying’ is certainly more applicable as Mendes spends precious little time setting up his first action spectacle involving a helicopter, a stepping-stone of a henchman and a backdrop of Mexico engulfed in the Day of the Dead festivities where everyone looks like skeletons. A none too subtle reference to the fact Bond is now literally up to his neck in death. It’s an inescapable entity.

Metaphorically speaking? Well, if we’re talking big picture — and why not, this is a pretty big picture after all . . . arguably second only to that movie about wars amongst the stars coming up in December — Bond doesn’t so much come flying back as he does carefully, calmly touch back down with parachute attached, in the vein of one of his many improbable escapes in this movie.

Spectre had one hell of a steep mountain to climb if it was interested in besting its visually spectacular, emotionally hard-hitting predecessor, though it’s going to have much less issue summoning the spectators who are curious as to where Bond’s threshold for enduring misery and pain comes, if it comes at all. Invoking the sinister organization that gave Sean Connery a bit of grief back in the ’60s is one way to attract the masses (not to mention, something to build an aggressive marketing campaign around). Budgeted at an almost incomprehensible $250(ish) million, it’ll go down as one of the most expensive productions of all time.

Recouping that may not be as much of a challenge as I’m thinking it might be right now. When word gets out that Spectre is merely decent and not great — and it will soon enough — it will be interesting to see what happens. Will a lack of ambition deprive it the opportunity to become a major contender for top grossers this year? I suppose I better hold my tongue because anything can and does happen.

Ignoring its business potential, and for all of its shortcomings, of which there are disappointingly many, Spectre is still good old-fashioned James Bond, emerging a stylistically superior product — sleek and ultra-sexy, bathed in shadow and whipping slithery, shiny tentacles with menace in another memorable opening title sequence. Yet for all the familiarity this is the least Daniel Craig-y Bond we’ve seen. It’s a bizarre mix of some of the heaviest themes the franchise has yet visited with a comical edge reminiscent of the Pierce Brosnan era. (I won’t go as far as to bring up Roger Moore’s name . . . whoops.)

In some ways it makes sense; Mendes probably felt he needn’t overdo the dourness this time as we’ve been thoroughly bruised by what 007’s sacrificed in Casino Royale and now Skyfall. These aren’t DC Comic film adaptations; they shouldn’t be all punishment. The film should have some balance, and while the humor’s less punny as Brosnan’s brand, the way it’s introduced draws attention to itself in often jarring ways. Something doesn’t quite feel organic.

Spectre‘s concerned with shaking Bond to his core, as a man and as a professional assassin with a British accent and impossibly high-class taste in women. He’s going to get rattled even more so than he was in the last outing, where he basically lost everything. Mendes finds ways to make it more personal as we move beyond M and start digging into Bond’s familial history. Bond stumbles upon a mysterious ring that has an octopus symbol on it and sets out learning about its origins and who else might be wearing one. There’s also an old photograph, with parts of it burned away so you can’t make out one of the faces in it.

This hunt, unapproved by MI6, leads him on another exotic globetrotting mission — these transitions feel considerably less inspired than in times past — that takes him from Mexico to Austria, Tangiers to a desolate meteorite crater in Morocco and ultimately back to MI6 headquarters in London. On the way he comes into contact with friends both new and old — top of the list is the daughter of a rapidly ailing Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux, who is somehow even sexier than before), whom he must protect even when she insists she can protect herself thank you very much. But she doesn’t factor in Dave Bautista’s brute of a hitman, Hinx.

Madeleine turns out to be a handy traveling companion as she helps Bond get closer to finding out what the octopus ring represents. She, with a dark past she would rather soon forget than get into another gun fight, is reluctant to join Bond in seeking out the lair of one Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). She does anyway because the script is that insistent. (So no, to answer the question: four writers does not necessarily equate to four times the quality.)

As Bond is off galavanting about, the situation on the home front is turning rather dire as MI6 has become absorbed by a larger network of secret service agencies, the CNS, spearheaded by Andrew Scott’s sneering and highly enjoyable Max Denbigh. His rhetoric is not as newsworthy as the filmmakers would like us to believe it is. He wants to shut down the 00 sector and replace human field agents with drones and computers, arguing one man in the field is no match for technological upgrades. He’s right.

But it doesn’t matter because with Bond being Bond, especially now with Craig taking the role in a direction that’s ever more hinting towards the muscularity of a Jason Bourne and away from the debonair of Sean Connery, there’s little they can do to prevent him using his License to Kill. I don’t care how threatening you may appear in front of Ralph Fiennes, you can’t take scissors to a card and denounce Bond’s status as an agent. You can scrub him from the official files, I suppose. Alas, the old argument: the instincts and emotional judgment of man versus the unfeeling, calculated efficiency of A.I. Sigh. This is, unfortunately, where we go in Spectre. And as for the family matters, the less said about it the better (take that as both a good and bad thing).

Mendes’ last entry is a good film on its own terms but it shrugs off its responsibility to be the most compelling entry in the franchise thus far, at certain points seeming so disinterested in upping the ante and instead revisiting many classic Bond moments in a pastiche that feels both unnecessary and awkward. Save for the aforementioned supervillian, who is by turns thoroughly disturbing and darkly funny — here’s where the humor would be a bit too sophisticated for the Brosnan era — Spectre introduces precious little new information. It’s a painful thing to say, but perhaps this sector is indeed obsolete at this point.

Recommendation: While not vintage James Bond, Spectre offers enough to fans of this long-standing franchise to keep some momentum going, even if quite a lot is lost. A good film with more than the usual number of flaws, is this film yet another victim of the hype machine? What do you think?

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 148 mins.

Quoted: “It was me, James. The author of all your pain.”

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

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