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):  


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

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

Month in Review: September ’17

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

As Green Day’s very own Billy Joe Armstrong once whined: wake me up when September ends. (I guess I overslept, because it’s now October and all the trees are thinking about getting naked.) If you’re paying attention to what’s going on in the world right now, Setbacktember has been a disheartening month, politically, socially and morally. But I have literally edited myself ten times here trying to figure out a good way of expressing my thoughts about recent events without going on a rant. I failed, epically. (If you want to read one of those drafts out of morbid curiosity, here’s a link.)* There’s already too much negative energy in the room right now anyway, so I’d rather talk about the good movies I’ve seen this month. While escapement has been rather difficult to say the least, here is what I have been seeing/doing/being a snob about.

It’s important right now to not feel de-feeted.


New Posts

New Releases: What Happened to Monday (Seven Sisters); mother!; Wind River

Blindspot Selection: Reservoir Dogs (1992) · The nucleus of everything Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs is an economically produced, yet chatty and hyper-violent crime thriller that takes place almost entirely in a single room. Its plot focuses squarely upon a group of jewelry thieves who, after bungling a seemingly simple job, suspect a traitor to be in their midst.

Though rough around the edges, this bold and brazen feature debut demonstrates Tarantino’s EAR for natural dialogue, not to mention characters that feel plucked right from the seedy streets of a more dangerous side of America. While certain scenes that tend to ramble on offer a little too much transparency with regards to budgetary constraints (his overhead famously rose from a very modest $30,000 to $1.5 million after actor Harvey Keitel signed on as a producer and agreed to take part), these small-time, thin-tied crooks whose volatile, panicky temperaments make for often uncomfortable and unpredictable viewing, anchor the movie. They’re sloppy, but they’re at least icons of criminal slop. Between Steve Buscemi’s “I don’t tip waitresses” Mr. Pink and me discovering that Sean Penn has a younger brother, and can do C-R-A-Z-Y so disturbingly naturally it may not even be acting, I might well have discovered the one Tarantino movie I will constantly be surprised by no matter how many times I watch it. This shouldn’t work as well as it does.

(Also, why is Tim Roth playing a guy named ‘Mr. Orange?’ He spends far more time being red!)

A Four-Pack of Film Reviews

Good Time · August 25, 2017 · Directed by the Safdie brothers · The criminal life has never looked so stressful and unsexy in the Safdie brothers’ highly emotive and constantly subversive look at life as a desperate youngster trying to survive on the streets of a side of New York you don’t usually see in the movies. The film appears to provide rising star Robert Pattinson another showcase for his not inconsiderable dramatic talents, but what it actually does is offer the former Twilight star his best shot of Oscar glory in years. Possibly the best he’ll ever have. Gah, if only the movie had better timing. As Constantine “Connie” Nikas, Pattinson reaches deeper than he ever has to construct the profile of a truly desperate young man, a criminal lowlife who does well to reject every attempt the viewer makes to feel for him. Connie finds himself enduring a night from hell when he makes the rounds trying to free his mentally handicapped younger brother Nick (Benny Safdie) from a Rikers Island holding cell in the aftermath of a botched bank robbery. The energy of the film is what strikes you most, radiating directly from Pattinson who rushes about the scene like a Tasmanian devil, destroying lives and burning out like a comet himself in the process. It’s quite simply an awesome performance and the film essentially lives or dies on whether you find him effective. The Safdie brothers are a duo you’re going to want to keep an eye on going forward. (4.5/5) 

The Big Sick · July 14, 2017 · Directed by Michael Showalter · A romantic comedy standing defiantly against the odds, this based-on-a-real-life-courtship offers more than just the deets about how Pakistani-born actor/comedian Kumail Nanjiani met his wife (screenwriter Emily V. Gordon). Cultures clash and toes are trodden upon — often painfully — as Kumail (playing himself) and Emily (Zoe Kazan) struggle to reconcile their radically different upbringings along with the expectations heaped upon them both by family and society at large. This uncommonly emotionally resonant and surprisingly enlightening story is not always pleasant to endure. It often feels like real heartache, and that’s a compliment of the highest order when it comes to this genre. One of the year’s greatest surprises, and yet more proof that Nanjiani is among the more disarming comics working today. (4/5) 

Their Finest · April 7, 2017 · Directed by Lone Scherfig · Lovingly crafted and superbly acted by a likable ensemble led by Gemma Arterton, Danish director Lone Scherfig’s testament to the power of propagandistic filmmaking also doubles as a rousing tribute to the strength and courage of one woman who managed to ascend to a position most women living in 1940s Britain could only dream of — being regarded as equal amongst their male peers. Aspects of Catrin Cole’s personal and professional lives are rather well-balanced, though it’s undoubtedly her rise to prominence as a screenwriter on the production of an epic reenactment of the Dunkirk evacuations that weighs heavier here. While Sam Claflin’s contributions as an already-established screenwriter who initially struggles to curb his chauvinism are earnest, his increasing prominence threatens to undermine the film’s seriousness of purpose in its thematic explorations of female empowerment and independence. Still, Their Finest is just too finely acted to become caught up in the lesser details. Arterton is complemented by an almost exclusively British cast, with Jake Lacy providing some American color to proceedings as an Allied hero/wooden actor. (3.5/5)

It · September 8, 2017 · Directed by Andy Muschietti · The horror event of the year failed to strike fear into my heart (though that’s not to discredit Bill Skarsgård as the titular freak, who is kinda-sorta fun). A tediously long and uninteresting slog through horror cliches, Andy Muschietti’s highly-anticipated adaptation of Stephen King’s epic horror novel plays out like a haunted house attraction in which you are constantly being led around by a tour guide who tells you you can’t touch anything. (Out of fear of ruining the magic, I would assume.) As everyone knows by now, It of course isn’t over. Chapter One merely describes the initial encounter with a shape-shifting demonic entity from King’s imagined Macroverse, in which the teen protagonists must do battle with not only Pennywise the Dancing Clown, but a ring of local bullies whose threat often and ironically drowns out that of the central villain in his own movie. If only the kids (minus Jaeden Lieberher‘s “Stuttering Bill”) facing down their demons were in the slightest bit developed, maybe I would have been able to use my heart instead of my brain to get over Muschietti’s disappointingly workmanlike treatment. (2/5) 

Blogging News

More music might be in the future on Thomas J! We are drawing nearer to the one-month mark to my next Dream Theater show, this time in historic Asbury Park, New Jersey. That post will drop sometime late November. As we’ve seen lately with how I follow through on Blog-related promises, I can’t capital-P promise, but how bout I just lower-case-p promise for now?

Word.

* Ha! you got duped; there is no link, plus now you’re wasting time reading this!

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

TBT: Fargo (1996)

Get the heck out of here, August. Take all your bad vibes with you. Not that this month has been a particularly bad one for watching movies, new and old alike. But, sheesh, would you just please get out of the way so the fall season can begin? And I’m looking forward to more than just good movies as well as lower temperatures — it’s soon the beginning of football and later, the basketball season. And then, the inevitable cold grip of winter. (Although I will say I don’t get to look forward to anything like my friend in the north Ruth does on that front.) Watching this movie today gave me a taste of what she may be dealing with within the next few months, so my thoughts go out to her. I’m thankful I don’t have to deal with the conditions found in

Today’s food for thought: Fargo.

Chilling out since: Friday, April 5, 1996

[DVD]

So Fargo is an odd one. Not purely because of the content — it is quirky and at times pretty uncomfortable, no doubt about it — but owing more to the fact I could barely react after finally undertaking the journey. High production values, coupled with the Coens’ affinity for quirking out and all that are qualities that I admire about it, but if I have a duty to actually love what I’ve watched, then I’ll have to force the feeling.

And yet, I’m not comfortable saying I dislike it either. I’m frustratingly indifferent to the whole thing. Beyond the peculiar accents that implied lots of vocal coaching for the principals, the wood chipper murder scene and Frances McDormand’s unflappable Marge Gunderson, there’s not much about Fargo that will stay with me. To further muddy the waters, I can’t disagree with its success at the 69th Academy Awards ceremony, being nominated for an impressive seven awards and winning two — one for its original screenplay and another honoring McDormand’s lead performance. In fact I see the film just as deserving of a gold statue for its subtle yet effective production design. That’s the trifecta of achievements that has earned Fargo its reputation over the last two decades, at least as I see it.

Do I blame the reputation itself for my own lackluster experience? Maybe a little, but then that kind of argument feels more like an excuse, an object for me to hide behind because     . . . well, you know, popular opinion can be a hell of a tide to swim against. Fargo is so very Coen-esque, but give me The Big Lebowski any day over the farcical trials of a few northern Minnesotans. Of the two dark comedies, bowling alleys made for a more compelling visual motif than a snow-covered highway. But I get the point. Fargo was never intended to uplift and inspire the kind of ‘happy’ laughter The Dude and his oddball friends do. Fargo is downbeat, its amusement derived from the ineptitude of many of its characters. That and the sheer hopelessness of the winter season.

When Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a desperate car dealer, hires a pair of thugs to kidnap his wife in an elaborate scheme to extort nearly one million dollars from her wealthy father (his boss), Wade (Harve Presnell), things go pear-shaped for the criminals, leaving Jerry in an awkward position between them and Wade, who is unaware the actual ransom is only $80,000. Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (a particularly nasty Peter Stormare) are transporting the wife when they’re unexpectedly pulled over by a state trooper just outside of Brainerd. The encounter turns ugly quickly when an enraged Gaear shoots and kills the officer and hunts down the unfortunate kids who happen upon the scene moments later.

“Looks like a triple homicide,” deduces a curious Marge the next day. And, yah, I get what is going on here, too. I’m supposed to be mesmerized by her very un-mesmerizing attire, a uniform of brown and gray, vivid when set against a never ending sea of white. No doubt about it, her presence is visually significant, a kind of modest icon who seizes every opportunity to provide the film (or more critically, viewers) a modicum of reason. Her intuition at the scene of this odd crime scene suggests that, aside from her doting husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch), the coalition for reason in Fargo is considerably weak.

I have a high threshold when it comes to films that are deliberately weird. I get along great with Lebowski, find something thrillingly disturbing in A Serious Man, and even accept characters who are meant to be enjoyed less than they are pitied, people like Llewyn Davis. The Coens managed to at least pique my curiosity even if their collaborative effort failed to fully engage me. Emotionally I was kept at an arm’s reach as I witnessed a crime story devolving into a mere battle of wits between Officer Gunderson and that slimy little Jerry fella. Performances from Buscemi and Stormare helped boost my enthusiasm — more so the former than the latter — and offset this sense of duty I felt for having to put up with Macy’s sniveling little scumbag of a car dealer. (Credit where credit is due, though: my frustration with his character is once again derived from his high caliber acting; if he weren’t good he’d have elicited no reaction from me at all.)

For a film that has been as lauded as it has over the years I exited feeling more or less unchanged, as if I were watching the movie with glazed-over eyes. I kind of feel guilty. While I will forever maintain that Fargo was robbed of a production design award — saying I exited feeling unchanged isn’t quite accurate actually, I just felt cold and lonely at the end — I feel similarly robbed, with expectations perhaps unreasonably elevated to insurmountable heights given its reputation as “an American classic.” What did I miss on my first visit? I suspect I’m going to have to go back and watch again because now the guilt is starting to feel a little more like paranoia.

Recommendation: Fargo is the Coen brothers at perhaps their most idiosyncratic. This is a production filled to the brim with strong performances and the filmmakers’ penchant for finding comedy in the funereal. Aside from McDormand’s policewoman I feel like there’s not much to recommend about this film, despite everything I have ever heard about it. But maybe I just need to sit down and give it another chance. Not exactly a prospect I’m looking forward to though. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 98 mins.

TBTrivia: The snow plow that drives past the motel at the end of the film was not part of the script. Signs in the area warned motorists not to drive through due to filming, but a state employee ignored them.

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