The Scarlett Johansson Project — #2

Being quarantined at home may be the perfect time to look back on a movie that explores loneliness and connection. This was obviously not something I planned, but social distancing has a way of making us look at things differently and that includes the way we experience certain movies. That’s what’s happening with me and the classic romantic comedy Lost in Translation (2003) anyway.

I have a lot of love for this movie and I do think the feelings it evokes are intensified by this interruption in normal social life we are going through. Lost in Translation is a bittersweet story focused on two kindred spirits floating through weird periods of their lives. Neither know what they want, and both happen to meet in a foreign city and find something in each other that bonds them in a profound way. Lost in Translation featured a 17-year-old Scarlett Johansson alongside comedic great Bill Murray, who was stepping into a dramatic role for the first time in nearly 20 years. Director Sofia Coppola was completely blown away by the reception her movie received, feeling certain it would be viewed as pretentious and self-serving. It ended up netting her an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay that year.

In rewatching it in preparation for my monthly feature, I had forgotten how fleeting Lost in Translation really is — it’s all wrapped up in about 96 minutes. What happens within that time, however, what is said (and almost as often, what is not said), makes it so hard for me to leave the movie behind. I simply love these characters, especially when they’re together.

Scarlett Johansson as Charlotte in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation

Role Type: Co-lead

Premise: A faded movie star and a neglected young woman form an unlikely bond after crossing paths in Tokyo. (IMDb)

Character Background: Charlotte is a native New Yorker and recent college grad who is feeling unsatisfied and disillusioned with her marriage to John (Giovanni Ribisi), a celebrity photographer. On assignment in Tokyo, he’s kept busy and away from the hotel room leaving Charlotte alone and with plenty of time to wonder why she ever married this guy. She’s empty inside and her wandering eyes say as much. So she gets out into the city and does some exploring, soon turning acquaintances into friends, such as Charlie Brown (Fumihiro Hayashi). Over the course of about a week she also forms a deep connection with an older man named Bob Harris (Murray), a fading actor who’s staying at the same hotel while he endures a dreadful commercial shoot promoting whiskey. It is through their meaningful conversations and one really fun night soaking up the nightlife that we learn more about her and see her personality open up a bit more.

What she brings to the movie: very little experience for a role that aged her up 4 years from what she actually was. When Lost in Translation started shooting Scarlett Johansson was only 17 and had but a handful of acting credits total. Her claims to fame at the time were a starring role in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001) and a supporting role in the Robert Redford drama The Horse Whisperer (1999). Charlotte is her first adult role as far as the emotional complexities involved and the thematic content. Yes, it is true that Sofia Coppola would not have made this movie had she not been able to get Bill Murray, but Coppola also enjoyed Johansson’s performance in the 1996 comedy Manny & Lo so much she had to land her as a lead in one of her movies (Johansson would pass on Coppola’s début effort The Virgin Suicides, feeling it wasn’t right for her at the time).

In her own words: [on the age difference between her and Bill Murray, who is more than 30 years her senior] “It was hard to relate to one another, but I think what worked is that when the cameras were rolling and [it] actually came time to do the work, we worked really well together.”

Key Scene: I mean . . . there are other choices. There’s a really nice moment when Bob and Charlotte are talking while laying on a bed, having a deep conversation about whether life or marriage get any easier as time goes by. It’s a quiet but important moment that further solidifies their bond. But the key scene is in the way Sofia Coppola brings this wonderful week to a close. The kiss that almost never was, the mystery of whatever it is that Bob whispers into Charlotte’s ear. The sounds of the streets teeming with passing strangers. By the time The Jesus and Mary Chain come in with “Just Like Honey,” it’s very close to a perfect ending. Well, it’s one of the most bittersweet endings I’ve ever seen anyway. I never wanted this story to end, and yet Coppola does it about as gracefully as she possibly could have. According to her, “I just wanted to show a whole relationship just in a few days.”

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 

****/*****

 


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Photo credits: IMDb

The Beguiled

Release: Friday, June 30, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Sofia Coppola

Directed by: Sofia Coppola

The Beguiled is an unsettling, moody drama set against the American Civil War that finds a wounded Union soldier being taken in and nursed back to health by the inhabitants of a secret all-girls school in Virginia. These women, who have lived a pious but sheltered life, find themselves irrevocably changed by the intrusion of the outside world upon their guarded stoop. Beware: the sexual tension can be killer.

It’s not often you see a film set during this period told from the point of view of women. History is never short of a few omissions, and here is a fictional yarn that seems to inhabit such a space. It tells a story not necessarily about the Civil War, per se, but one heavily influenced by it — a mirroring of war’s disruptive and destructive nature. The Beguiled is a movie chiefly about sexual repression, but if with that description you think you’ve got it figured out, think again. This is a much broader critique of society, for when our most basic needs are not met how desperate we become, how quickly we seem to forget our humanity. The Beguiled tends to prove how thin a veil civility really can be.

Colin Farrell inherits the part famously played by Clint Eastwood in an against-type role as Corporal John McBurney, a fighter for the Union cause who suffers a leg injury and, somewhat ignobly, abandons the war. (Cowardice is certainly not a trait you see Eastwood embracing all too often, though it’s even harder to picture him playing the part of an Irish immigrant.) When a young girl, Amy (Oona Laurence), is out one day picking mushrooms, she comes across the bloodied man and bravely decides to help him hobble back to the school. There, the stern Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) assesses his condition and determines they have no choice but to tend to the wounded, but also that no other pleasantries shall be extended the stranger.

As he convalesces, McBurney begins having a strange effect on some of the girls — particularly the ones who are, in theory anyway, coming-of-age. The strictures of their daily existence have clearly stunted emotional growth. Natural instincts are bound like hands behind one’s back. The mere physical presence of the soldier, whose intentions are purposefully left unclear, introduces a palpable tension which the narrative relies increasingly upon as the film develops. The Beguiled doesn’t offer much in the way of visceral drama; the battles raging all around are so tangential they don’t even appear in frame. Inside this house a different kind of war is quietly being waged. And not for nothing, the injury the soldier has sustained serves as a pretty effective reminder of what he has left behind.

There is a caveat to unlocking the film’s dark secrets. To get to the good stuff, you have to endure an excruciatingly slow opening half hour. I sat through the entirety of The Bling Ring, but struggled not to walk out early here. Such is the meditative nature of the film. The deliberate pace and sparse action — even dialogue — remains a necessary evil if you are to appreciate the gravity of the simple act of betrayal that occurs later on.

Fortunately the impressive cast assembled makes even these drier, less eventful scenes more watchable. Coppola attracts a range of talent and ages to fulfill the roles of this tight-knit community still hanging on, tooth and nail, to their way of life while the unpredictable violence continues to rage on all around, shaping the world into something too ugly and dangerous for any of them to be a part of. But at what cost has this sheltering from perceived harm come?

Kirsten Dunst, a Coppola favorite (Marie Antoinette; The Virgin Suicides) once again delivers in a complex role as schoolteacher Edwina Morrow. Her character demonstrates stability, an unyielding devotion to the education of the young girls. But then she also has eyes for the newcomer. Dunst is a real stand-out in a pivotal role, whose conviction in the character is really only matched by Kidman’s impressive solemnity and Elle Fanning’s precariously hormonal state. The trio are given ample support from two young up-and-comers in Angourie Rice (the precocious young detective from The Nice Guys) and the aforementioned Laurence (Billy Hope’s voice of reason in Southpaw), who crucially contribute innocence and naivety to an increasingly hostile and unstable environment.

The Beguiled may be defined more by its cast than by anything it offers in the way of escapism. Drowned out by the indefatigable wave of superhero films that has been en vogue for close to a decade now, it’s something of an unconventional mid-summer release. You won’t have much competition for seats in the theater, that’s for sure. But don’t be like me. Don’t be so quick to judge the film by its tedious opening, by the preciousness of its appearance. This is a grim affair, whose wildly unpredictable shift in mood will linger long after credits roll. It’s arguably the darkest film Sofia Coppola has made thus far. That counts for a lot in my book.

Recommendation: Darkly and disturbingly seductive. The Southern gothic drama The Beguiled pairs a great cast with a director with an avant-garde style that is, notably, suppressed here in favor of allowing the performances to rise to the top. It’s not the film everyone’s going to this July, but it offers a lot to recommend for fans of Coppola, the cast and period dramas with a unique perspective. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 93 mins.

Quoted: “We can show ’em some real Southern hospitality . . . “

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 Bling Ring

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Release: Friday, June 21, 2013

[Theater]

The Bling Ring has everything to do with the loss of innocence in the youth today.

Haha. No, I’m not really going to stand on that soapbox, but I also have no real obligation to sit here and lie about this movie, either. The characters — all of them, and (unfortunately) especially Emma Watson — are detestable little shits in this film and this really made Sofia Coppola’s new movie a difficult one to sit through. It had to have been no longer than thirty or forty-five minutes into this thing when I had decided roughly how the shape of my pie rating system would look like paired up with my review later — that it would be decidedly less than half a pie. (You can jump to the bottom real quick to see for yourself what it ended up being, or wait until you’re finished reading. . . .)

There have been those films that I’ve enjoyed myself in because the story was good, despite the main characters or some supporting roles that I really just didn’t like; and there are those films out there where the characters would do horrific things but managed to somehow stay in good standing with the audience due to brilliant scriptwriting and various other things. Take Meet the Parents (the first installment in this series), for example. Most of the characters were somewhat annoying (or so I thought) yet their actions all added up to one amazing little movie that brought out the truth about all (or at least some) of its key players. The character of Greg Focker was one giant fall from grace which I thought really worked to make the film a believable one. I could do you one better than that, actually. How about The Silence of the Lambs? If you’re willing to say you actually really liked Hannibal Lecter as a person rather than what he meant to the movie, then we might have to have a chat.

Some other movies that come to mind that exhibit unlikable characters but whose presence didn’t greatly impact the experience might be: Hall PassA Scanner DarklyThe Rum Diary, Seven PoundsWin/Win, Pulp Fiction, and probably a whole slew of others I’ve seen but aren’t remembering well right now. In fact, the entire premise behind the original Saw took two highly despicable people and called them out on it. And of course, we all know what I mean when I phrase it as “called them out;” it’s a little more serious than that sounds. 

So I’m not dismissing this film simply because the characters don’t fit or are distracting from the story in some unforgivable way. They’re intensely annoying Valley Girls who clearly value material possession over healthy relationships, and that much is certain. But that’s who these real-life thieves were. I’m sure the film is relatively accurate in portraying the real-life personalities. Because I don’t spend a good deal of time consorting with impossibly shallow, materialistic individuals, I think I might not necessarily be the target audience for a film like this. Regardless. . . my review continues. . .

Coppola directs her new movie with some deftness and confidence behind the cameras. There are several very nice and unusual shots in here that help effect the attitudes held by millions of youngsters who in some way, shape or form are climbing up the ladder to popularity based on the perfumes, jewelry or make-up they’re sporting or whose name they have printed onto their garments. Indeed this is a dream movie for anyone interested in fashion and the lifestyles of the rich and the famous. The Bling Ring follows the escapades made by five high schoolers who have been relocated to something known as a “alternative high school,” for those who have behavioral issues or exhibit anti-social tendencies. Coppola finds a cast that epitomizes both.

When Marc (Israel Broussard) finds himself to be the latest newcomer during his first classes at his new high school, he quickly falls in with a crowd of fashionistas who seem to be all about finding their latest fashion statements in the most unlikely of places: the homes of well-known celebrities. Rebecca (Katie Chang) takes to Marc pretty quickly and soon he is with an “in” crowd he’s been wanting to be a part of all his life. When the two start snatching money and drugs from parked cars one night, Marc realizes he enjoys doing this as much as the others apparently do. And so they simply keep going, raiding a good number of homes belonging to the likes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Rachel Bilson and Orlando Bloom. They do these places substantial damage as they revisit them again and again.

At first you might think, “How easy must it be to rob and loot in L.A.??” Then you have to think of all the V.I.P. parties Hilton et al must attend nightly. Cleverly, this bunch of alternate high schoolers figure out via articles on TMZ and associated sites exactly when their places will be empty, and then they make their moves, removing everything from designer jewelry to framed artwork, to pets. Its a thrill seeing the level of brazenness on display here, but what it also is (and more likely to be for more well-adjusted, matured viewers) is a damn sad portrait of kids losing their identities. This is, though, a place where identity and fashion seem to converge, and it’s not difficult to avoid so much as it is easy to be turned on by the psychosis that if you spend big, your friend circle thus will be big. Here’s a film that literally values the fact that bug-eyed glasses are more popular than reading spectacles; skimpy shirts and dresses are acceptable cold weather clothing; leopard print is more common than fleece. How could I have possibly gotten to where I am now without bending to the rules of fashion sensibility and design? I ask myself this while typing on a newly acquired MacBook Pro.

Identity is identity, I suppose. And I love me some Macintosh, yo. . .

Coppola certainly feels strongly about that sentiment, anyway. Her direction brings to the forefront the collective psychology of youngsters who want to feel part of the success of famous people, by way of stealing their things, that is. She focuses on the many lootings that occurred in the valley by setting up wide angles of an entire house left empty while Marc and Rebecca enter and do their thing. This is both an example of one of the great parts of this movie and of her attention on how these kids play a role in the grander scheme of things. You can look away from the house for a second and see the vast expansion of the surrounding area around Calabasas, and where they ultimately physically fit into the “bigger picture.” I actually thought this scene and the way the shot was set up to be a stroke of genius. It is such a shame to report that this was certainly the exception rather than the rule here, though. Trailers had this guy fooled.

What The Bling Ring boils down to is a rather flat story that weaves in and out of random celebrities’ homes (if they were really allowed access to these people’s homes, it was cool to see inside. . . think a glorified edition of Cribs) while offering next to no substance in the way of developing its characters. When you meet Marc and Rebecca, well. . . you’ve met Marc and Rebecca. And now you’re stuck with them for the duration of the picture. Fortunately, though, Marc is much easier to empathize with as the ultimate consequences do end up getting faced. I applaud Coppola for at least showing some realism to her artistry in making lowlives stealing from the rich look like badasses.

Look, I’m no high roller. I don’t necessarily think the real Bling Ring were “evil” for stealing from some of the wealthiest people in Los Angeles, but their portrayal in this film wasn’t exactly interesting. You couldn’t really feel for them, in any sense of the word — aside from a steadily increasing dislike for every one of them and the way they talked. I have never been as put off in a movie based on the characters alone, but I felt like I was stranded throughout this entire picture.

tbr2

2-0Recommendation: The Bling Ring is far too one-dimensional to really recommend. If it had made an attempt to characterize the people who were involved in such bold and reckless schemes, and didn’t just fall back on the girls using “selfie” shots as transitions between scenes, then we might have had a real movie here. But what we have instead is a cold and calculated examination of the nature of obsession. Not even Leslie Mann can save this one.

Rated: R

Running Time:  90 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.com; http://www.imdb.com