Everything Everywhere All At Once

Release: Friday, March 25, 2022

👀 Theater

Written by: Dan Kwan; Daniel Scheinert

Directed by: Dan Kwan; Daniel Scheinert

Starring: Michelle Yeoh; Ke Huy Quan; Stephanie Hsu; Jamie Lee Curtis; James Hong; Jenny Slate

Distributor: A24 

 

 

***/*****

No one makes a movie like Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, nor does anyone dare try. Relatively unknown as the guys behind viral music videos such as DJ Snake’s Turn Down For What, the writer/directors etched their shared first-name moniker into audiences’ minds forever with their supremely strange feature film debut Swiss Army Man in 2016. Now they return with a proposition that makes their first effort seem unadventurous by comparison.

With a fatter budget and increased confidence Daniels take massive swings for the fences with their own indie flavored multiverse movie. Everything Everywhere All At Once is undeniably the product of two of the most inventive and unapologetically odd filmmakers running around Hollywood at the moment. It is also a rare casualty of production company A24’s artist-friendly approach. Unfettered weirdness mutates from exhilarating to eventually exhausting over the course of two long and chaotic hours.

In the off-kilter and unpredictable world of Daniels nothing is certain except death, taxes and this pesky thing called Jobu Tupaki, an anarchic entity intent on destroying literally everything in existence. The story centers on a Chinese-American family whose matriarch is unwittingly pulled into a confrontation with this threat. In acquiring all kinds of abilities and insight jumping in and out of the various lives she might have lived she becomes the only one who can stop it. However, her ability to succeed may well hinge on her willingness to make amends with those closest to her.

The simple yet heavy question “what if my life went differently” is at the heart of this highly cerebral and often ridiculous journey. When we first meet her, Evelyn Wang (a dynamic Michelle Yeoh) is not exactly living the high life. Struggling to make ends meet with her laundromat, she is preparing for an audit by the IRS (represented by an amusingly frumpy Jamie Lee Curtis) while nervously awaiting the arrival of her intimidating father Gong Gong (James Hong). All is not well on the home front either as husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), at wit’s end trying to make their life happy, trails her around with divorce papers. Meanwhile daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) wants to introduce Gong Gong to her girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medel) but Evelyn doesn’t think that is a good idea.

There is enough tension and acrimony in the early going to serve a compelling family drama on network television. But this is Daniels, not This is Us, and so the film with all of its fantastical elements takes a rather circuitous route in elucidating what really matters. When we arrive at the IRS building the story takes on an entirely new life — The Matrix meets Boots Riley — and it’s as though Daniels have bailed on their early suggestion of more intimate drama. In an elevator, a transformation occurs and suddenly Evelyn’s pushover hubby becomes a kung fu master brimming with charisma. Like Morpheus, this more assertive Waymond from the “alpha-verse” has searched far and wide to find the right one for the job.

As it was with Swiss Army Man, the established rules and mechanisms that enable the action to tick forward can be challenging to accept. Here you’ll receive a crash-course in “verse-jumping,” learn what “mind-splintering” is (and perhaps, like me, experience it yourself) and encounter bagel-worshipping cults and people with hot dogs for fingers. Absurdism is part of the filmmakers’ appeal, but Everything Everywhere takes liberties with your goodwill — a moment in which a man flings himself across a room for the specific purpose of impaling himself on a sex toy seems like an easy cut to make.

Fortunately the performances are really good, particularly the dynamic between Yeoh and Quan. Together they imbue the narrative with just enough humanity to make the insanity relatable. Yeoh is a force to be reckoned with as she multitasks as both hero and an everywoman. Semi-retired actor Ke Huy Quan makes a triumphant return to the screen, falling toward the center of emotional devastation as a man who can’t imagine any version of his own life without his wife. As the daughter, Hsu fits in nicely as well, creating a character full of believable torment — a young woman caught between cultures who never seems to measure up to expectations.

Everything Everywhere toes the line between artistic freedom and pretentiousness. For all that this swirling mass of energy and ideas does differently and at times movingly, the cumulative effect is not entirely satisfying, the payoff frustratingly minimal for all the energy required to keep pace.

Gonna take this to another level.

Moral of the Story: Kung Fu Bagel. Enter the Bagel. Big Bagel in Little China. Whichever way you want to slice it, this crazy visual feast is unlike anything you’ll see this year. Personally, I don’t think the film’s messaging is particularly original or profound, but there’s certainly stuff here to strike an emotional chord. And I also do appreciate how the film’s conflict revolves around imperfect people vs chaos, rather than pure good vs pure evil. The villain(y) is refreshingly nuanced. 

Rated: R (for rocks!)

Running Time: 139 mins.

Quoted: “So, even though you have broken my heart yet again, I wanted to say, in another life, I would have really liked just doing laundry and taxes with you.”

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 

No Time to Die

Release: Friday, October 8, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Neal Purvis; Robert Wade; Phoebe Waller-Bridge; Cary Joji Fukanaga

Directed by: Cary Joji Fukanaga

Starring: Daniel Craig; Léa Seydoux; Rami Malek; Christoph Waltz; Ralph Fiennes; Lashana Lynch; Ana de Armas; Ben Whishaw; Naomie Harris; Jeffrey Wright; Billy Magnussen; Rory Kinnear

Distributor: Universal 

 

***/*****

The time has come for James Bond to move on to greener pastures. In an unlikely turn of events, arguably the world’s most ineligible bachelor is looking to settle down and bid cheerio to his obligation to protect Queen and country at all costs, even especially ones of a personal nature. All good things must come to an end and with endings we look for closure. Ah, but is closure always satisfying?

We saw him get close before. Tantalizingly, torturously close to leading a normal life. The departed Vesper Lynd still haunts him. In No Time to Die, we see him pay his respects at her tomb in the scenic Matera, Italy, which might feel like a deleted scene from Casino Royale if not for the staggering mark of maturity in “I miss you” — a line Daniel Craig delivers in such a way you really feel the weight of those 15 years. James Bond is all grown up now. You feel it most in the dialogue, which allows Craig to serve up his best performance yet as the iconic super-spy, the actor going beyond his era’s stiff upper lip stoicism and confessing to things you’ve never heard his or any Bond say before: “I love you;” “I’m truly sorry.”

No Time to Die is such a weird experience. Watching Bond soften like a Walls vanilla ice cream cone on a hot summer day is weird. It’s also wonderful. But for whatever reason, I just could not get into the action. Partly due to the buzz-killing aroma of Greek tragedy. Partly due to the fact that no stunt here really blows the roof off. And that ending really bothers me, so we may as well get it out of the way now. If packing Kleenexes in anticipation of the soap opera ending is what the people want in all their big franchise arcs, fine. Personally I feel there’s a way to be dramatic without going scorched earth. Is this perhaps why people lament The Dark Knight Rises so — that needling incongruity of the brooding vigilante suffering all only, ultimately, to be done a kindness?

You say tonally inconsistent; I say it’s compassionate.

Directed by Cary Joji Fukanaga, clearly a talented director capable of steering a massive ship, the overly dour, overly long story details Bond’s tango with foes both old and new as he is yanked out of retirement to save the world for one last time. There is a ton of moving parts in this movie and a daunting number of relationships to stay Onatopp of, though not all are worth the effort. The backbone of the film concerns tension between Bond and Madeleine (Léa Seydoux, reprising her role from Spectre), specifically the former’s shifting perception of the latter’s innocence/complicity. When the two are ambushed in Italy by Spectre assassins it’s déjà vu all over again with Bond unable to see Madeleine as anything but Traitor #2. More shaken than stirred, Bond buggers off to Jamaica where he is soon contacted by an old friend from the CIA in Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) who’s desperate for his help in tracking down a kidnapped scientist (David Dencik). 

For all that gets shortchanged and is made unnecessarily cluttered, the conflict presented in No Time to Die offers more bang for your buck, presenting not one but two evil forces with which Bond and MI6 must contend. The inimitable Christoph Waltz returns as arch-villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, here regrettably confined to a portable holding cell as if a Hannibal Lecter knock-off and doing most of his limited damage via a removable bionic eye that enables him to call the shots from a safe distance, this time with comically epic failing results.

When it comes to new threats, No Time to Die offers an expected bit of double-agent treachery with Billy Magnussen’s disturbingly smile-happy Logan Ash, and goes old-school with Rami Malek’s soft-spoken rage: “My family got wiped out by one man, now the entire world will pay!” On the one hand, you kinda have to love the Scaramanga-like excessiveness, yet that crazy leap in logic feels regressive, underscoring how good we had it with Le Chiffre’s far more nuanced, relatable desperation. And Bond, never one to mince words, is dead right: All his opponent is is another angry man in a long line of angry men, coming up a little short in terms of the gravitas required of a figure framed as the ultimate reckoning for 007.

Where No Time to Die truly frustrates however is in its handling of internal conflict within MI6. M (Ralph Fiennes)’s judgment is called into question with the revelation of Project Heracles, code for a dangerous bioweapon that targets victims’ DNA so anyone related to them is at risk as well. Supposedly there was a morally upstanding justification for its deployment, but in the wrong hands (i.e. Safin’s) it’s going to wipe out millions, including the entirety of Spectre. Bond and M are at loggerheads, which is fun to watch, especially with Fiennes getting to go a little bigger with the role than he has before, but it’s the flippant treatment of Nomi (Lashana Lynch) as Bond’s ostensible replacement that baffles. A fun, strong performance from Lynch is severely undermined by the decision to have her character fall back in line with SOPs, her agency the equivalent of borrowing the keys to the DB-5 for a quick joy ride.

Added all up, it really sounds like I hated this movie. At first, I think I did. Like Roger Ebert after watching the movie North. But Fukanaga and his writing team don’t deserve childish vitriol. No Time to Die is a messy dish but the meat and potatoes are there at the bottom. After all, the Craig era has always been infused with pain and coldness. His final outing is an odd blend of the past and the present, where throwbacks to classic lairs and bad-skinned baddies are welcomed while the mimicking of Tony Stark martyrdom feels off-brand and, yeah, unsatisfying. 

They’re bringing Knives Out at a gunfight

Moral of the Story: I’m extremely wary of my own reaction here. I had a similarly negative response to Quantum of Solace, the direct follow-up to Casino Royale. I have since gone back and watched that movie at least twice, and despite it bearing the worst title of any Bond film — of any movie really that has nothing to do with physics — I’ve appreciated it a bit more. It’s closer to a pure action movie. So it’s certainly more simplistic than something like No Time to Die. It’s possible I warm up to what Fukanaga and his writing team have done here but as of this moment it remains a big disappointment.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 163 mins.

Quoted: “It’ll be great! I’ve had three weeks training!”

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 

In the Earth

Release: Friday, April 16, 2021

👀 Hulu

Written by: Ben Wheatley

Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Starring: Joel Fry; Ellora Torchia; Reece Shearsmith; Hayley Squires; John Hollingworth; Mark Monero

Distributor: Neon

 

 

 

 

***/*****

Cabin fever never sounded so appealing after “getting back out there” in the new psychedelic experiment from avant-garde British filmmaker Ben Wheatley. His tenth film In the Earth is a thoroughly disorienting and unsettling venture through the woods, one set against the backdrop of a global pandemic.

Filmed over the course of just 15 days and during a locked-down August 2020, In the Earth may be horror done on the cheap but it doesn’t particularly look or feel like it. What admissions there are chiefly surface in some character interactions that feel rushed, while later on the more abstract passages can feel indulgent to the point of being filler. Impenetrable though it may become, you have to be impressed with the fact Wheatley has wrangled together such a crazy movie amidst creatively infertile conditions.

It’s what he manages to pull off with setting and atmosphere that leaves a bruising mark and that serves as the best distraction from the film’s financial limitations and, quite frankly, the barriers to comprehension it tends to build, particularly towards the end. A stone monolith with a perfect hole in the middle watches over all. You’ll spend almost the entire movie trying to get in its good graces so that it may allow you to understand what the frikk it is. The table-setting (and plain old setting) is reminiscent of Annihilation (2018) but this time the foolish entrants aren’t loaded with pistols and rifles and thingies that explode. Nope, just backpacks and research materials. And, as with so many characters in this kind of story, plenty of arrogance.

Stripped of the basic comfort of likable protagonists — they’re not unlikable per se, but hard to get a read on — In the Earth is a trippy, gory and at times perverse horror that follows a scientist and a park ranger into a forest laced with threats, some natural and others inexplicable — a surreal and dangerous ecosystem with its own rules, its own creepy mythology and maybe even its own agenda. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) arrives at a lodge that’s been converted to a research facility on the edge of a dense forest just outside Bristol, England. He’s here to check in on a colleague and former lover, a Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), who hasn’t been seen or heard from in months.

Upon arrival he’s whisked through a rather serious sanitization procedure and meets a few researchers hanging about the place, all of whom seem physically and mentally worn down. Martin is to make a two-day trek to her research base deep in the woods, accompanied by experienced park guide Alma (Ellora Torchia). With all his focus on rescuing Wendle, he has no time to really care about the strange painting on the wall of the lodge, a depiction of an apparent woodland creature known around these parts as Parnag Fegg. That’s nice. It’s just cool artwork though, right?

The journey starts off with a bad omen as Martin confesses with annoying nonchalance to a lack of fitness and experience roughing it. Then a midnight assault in which both campers lose all essential equipment, including shoes, forcing them to continue barefoot. (Does this style of hiking ever end well?) Eventually they cross paths with a grizzled loner (Reece Shearsmith) who after a tense standoff introduces himself as Zach and offers to help and heal. It is at this point your brain might recall that early childhood lesson: Do not drink the mushroom milk offered by strange men in the woods.

All of this, including the unholy and stomach-churning sequence that soon follows, remains predictable for a horror flick buried deep in the deciduous. Especially when you have nervous doctors back at the lodge foreshadowing the shit out of people’s tendencies to get “a bit funny” in the woods. On another level, for those better traveled in Wheatley’s exotic and weird brand of filmmaking you know the film is, sooner or later, going to walk off a cliff.

Avoiding of course the literal precipice, In the Earth frustratingly descends into an edit-fest, assaulting you with aural and visual menace in massively churned-up chunks of footage that feel pieced together from the weirdest acid trip you could possibly have. Dissonant sound overwhelms while strobing lights penetrate the eyeball like knives. Encroaching fog presents a terrifying new challenge while the stone monolith continues to breathe and sigh. The final act is something to behold, if not quite believed or even understood. Like the film overall, it becomes something to admire rather than enjoy.

Stoned out of your mind

Moral of the Story: Though appearing to be set in a time similar to our present miserable reality, this appears to me to be as much a movie about man’s relationship with nature as it is one about man and virus. Far from a crowd-pleasing good time, In the Earth is a novelty horror for the more adventurous. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “Let me guide you out of the woods.”

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; www.movieinsider.com 

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #6

In perhaps one of the more extreme examples of not knowing what you have until it’s gone, this month’s installment takes a look at a movie that begins with the absence of humanity and works backward, discovering in the process the aches and pains and consequences of being alive. More specifically, being human.

Unfolding as one of the most profoundly unique visual presentations you will ever see, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin tests the boundaries of narrative filmmaking in every scene. It’s not a conventional plot. It’s certainly not a crowd-pleaser. Its themes are many and sometimes murky. Is this movie even from this earth? From my review: “It’s distressing. It’s disturbing. It’s occasionally even disgusting.” What’s more is that you don’t often see movies that are so uncompromisingly experimental and strange with such a high-profile A-lister involved.

Somewhat disappointingly, I later learned Under the Skin is an adaptation of a 2000 novel by Michael Faber, albeit a loose one, proving that indeed, nothing is ever entirely unique. And on that note, as is true of all my SJP posts, there are a lot of details following so I highly recommend if you still wish to see this movie unspoiled you should avoid reading any further.

Scarlett Johansson as The Female in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin

Role Type: Lead

Premise: A mysterious young woman seduces lonely men in the evening hours in Scotland. However, events lead her to begin a process of self-discovery. (IMDb)

Character Background: Wow, this one’s a doozie. Let’s begin with calling her the opposite of a townie. Known only as “The Female” her modus operandi is cruising around the streets of Glasgow etc in a white van, pulling over and asking for directions to some place, then offering the poor sap a ride. Or a fun night back at her “apartment.” In Under the Skin, sexual roles and behaviors are reversed to powerful effect, with the Female as the Predator and the men the Prey. There’s nothing even approaching post-coital bliss here. The mating ritual is nightmarish, not sexy, with the Female damning her victims “to another dimension where they are nothing more than meat.”

But if you’re asking me about her origins, I’m flummoxed. That’s part of the whole deal. Maybe there are some things we are not meant to know, much less be able to catalogue as familiar, quantifiable. What’s made patently obvious in one early scene that takes place on a rocky beach, one of the coldest scenes you’ll see in a movie, is that our intrepid visitor here is as familiar with the concept of emotion as an infant is with the concept of drowning. As she/it begins to bear the burden of feeling, a change starts taking place that really becomes quite heartbreaking.

What she brings to the movie: a familiar face, and a ton of confidence. This is famously the first role she’s done where there is full-frontal nudity. The nude scenes are tastefully done, shot less with the intent of arousal as they are a matter-of-fact observation of the human form. Putting her trust in director Jonathan Glazer, Johansson uses her alluring curvature to carve out a character that is truly haunting and unique. It’s one of the best performances I have ever seen and the role had to have been daunting. She is challenged to act as a tourist in a human body, while shedding her fame as a rising actress to blend into this environment. The wardrobe and hairstyling helps, but her facial expressions are so masterfully subtle and nuanced. It’s those small details that make this performance what it is, and Under the Skin one of the best movies made this side of the new millennium.

In her own words: “I started having conversations [with Jonathan Glazer] a few years ago. Initially it was going to be a two-hander, more of a story that revolved around these two characters sort of assimilating to society and not being “found out.” There’s this story of the townspeople and this discovery of what was happening to them as they were being picked off, and then you’d see the couple and their relationship. As opposed to this film which is seeing this world through these alien eyes. I wasn’t really convinced I could do this until Jonathan was convinced that I could do it.”

Key Scene: Caution: I’m not sure how long this video will be up given YouTube’s propensity for pulling down videos that don’t meet their criteria for copyright protection. Double caution: This scene does not mess around. It’s incredibly disturbing. You will not be able to un-see this stuff. 

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 David Poland and DP/30: The Oral History of Hollywood

Palm Springs

Release: Friday, July 10, 2020 (Hulu)

→Hulu

Written by: Andy Siara

Directed by: Max Barbakow

Palm Springs, a buzzy new Hulu original starring Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti and J.K. Simmons, for me has an unusual distinction. This romantic comedy about two strangers stuck in a time loop at a wedding boasts one of the best post-credits scenes I’ve seen in a long time. It seems like such a small thing, not even worthy of mentioning in a review much less in the lede, but the closure it provides is just so satisfying it improved my opinion of the movie overall.

That might seem like a slam against everything preceding it. It’s not. Max Barbakow’s modern reinvention of Groundhog Day is far from perfect but it is very enjoyable and it ends in a way that sends the audience off on a high. Any movie that has the potential to get fresh eyeballs on that Bill Murray classic is okay by me. Palm Springs is perhaps even an homage to it, with lines like “it’s one of those infinite time loop situations you may have heard about” seemingly gesturing in the direction of the late Harold Ramis’ beloved 1993 comedy, or at least, toward a recent history of films inspired by it.

Harder to ignore is the fact the famously goofy 42-year-old positions himself as an intensely cynical, occasionally even unlikable leading man who has to get over himself in order to break free of the barely metaphorical cycle of living without purpose or fear of consequence. Samberg is Nyles, a drifter doomed to wake up on the same day in November ad infinitum. He takes the expression “going through the motions” to a whole new level with his presence at a wedding for Tala (Camila Mendes) and Abe (Tyler Hoechlin). His only connection is his high-maintenance girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner), who is in the bridal party.

Groundhog Day fans already know the drill: Nobody else is aware of his situation, and nothing he does seems to change it, not even multiple, technically successful, suicide attempts. After being stuck here for an indeterminate amount of time Nyles’ ability to care has been worn down to a nubbin. Then, during one loop, he introduces himself to Sarah (Milioti), who sticks out like such a sore thumb due to her visible discomfort in seeing her younger, far more successful (and selfless!) sister get her happily-ever-after that it kind of amazes me how Nyles does not pick up on this any sooner.

Mostly this is because the script from Andy Siara prefers giving the former SNL star the space and time to do his sketches rather than worrying too much about internal logic. Not for nothing, there are some really creative inventions as the filmmakers play around with the character’s prescience. A memorable sequence early on has Nyles going through a dance sequence so bizarre no person would possibly be able to pull it off without his “experience.” It also is a really fun way to get the two main characters to initially hook up. Of course, just as things are turning amorous a series of crazy happenings causes Sarah to fall into the same trap Nyles has been stuck in. All I will offer is that it involves a crazy-eyed, face-painted J.K. Simmons wielding a bow and arrow, and a cave of glowing light.

Palm Springs not only asks you to suspend disbelief for a minute (or two, or depending on how cynical you are, maybe 90) but it also seems like one of those movies that would rely heavily on dramatic irony. However it moves surprisingly quickly beyond that, evolving into a quasi sci-fi adventure and thereby making Sarah a more interesting, smarter character. When she comes to accept what’s happened, she proves to be very (and darkly hilariously) solutions-oriented, especially when she learns a little bit more about the guy she’s stuck here with. Time loop movies can go to some dark places and Palm Springs, despite its tropical setting, is no exception.

For a story steeped in the tradition of two icy hearts gradually warmed by shared intimate experiences, we don’t really get a lot of character development. Interestingly Sarah feels like a more fleshed out character than does Nyles. That feels like a first. Generally speaking Palm Springs relies on actor personalities. For example, J.K. Simmons. Every time I see him in a movie — with the notable exception of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash — I just want to kick back with a stogie and a glass of whisky with the guy and just shoot the breeze. Less involved but also fun are Peter Gallagher as the father of the bride and the wonderful June Squibb as an older wedding guest. And though the conclusion is patently predictable, I just cannot deny the warm fuzzy it leaves you with.

I feel ya buddy

Recommendation: Andy Samberg plays one of his more “unlikable” characters that I can recall. I put quotes around that word because it’s just really hard to gauge where his attitude stems from — bad childhood? Too many loves lost? Parental issues? Wtf is his deal? The movie isn’t great on character development. But it is big on mood and ideas, and that’s plenty enough for me to give this a hearty recommendation to fans of smartly done romantic comedies. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “I can’t keep waking up in here. Everything that we are doing is meaningless.”

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

Photo credits: IMDb 

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #4

We’re more than halfway through 2020 (and thank goodness for that), and yet not quite halfway through The SJP (thanks to a delay up front in Jan/Feb). In case anyone has noticed there hasn’t been a whole lot of organization to this feature, which I have actually enjoyed. There was a version of this where I went through her career in chronological order, but I like the freedom of skipping around and picking and choosing roles more at random.

So that’s how we are kind of circling back this month to where this whole thing began, addressing the second of two performances she submitted last year that brought her deserved widespread acclaim. 2019 turned out to be an exceptional year for Johansson, for there was this other bit of business she had to take care of with the whole Avengers: Endgame thing.

This month’s selection is the first adaptation I’ve featured in the SJP, though I may be using the word ‘adaptation’ loosely here considering how dramatically (and tonally) different the book and movie version of this story apparently are — to the point where by the time you get to the end of the movie you’re really only halfway through the book. This insightful article over at SlashFilm catalogs the many differences between Christine Leunens’ book and Taika Waititi’s movie. The movie version is more of a crowd-pleaser than the source material seems to be, but even with that knowledge I still found the movie uniquely charming and impactful. It didn’t crack my Top 10 favorite movies last year but it was really close.

Scarlett Johansson as Rosie Betzler in Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit

Role Type: Supporting

Premise: A young boy in Hitler’s army finds out his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their home. (IMDb)

Character Background: Rosie is a widowed mother who, like many Germans, faces a profound challenge. She is trying to raise a good child during Nazi occupation, to foster an environment of love, compassion and positivity — the key ingredients she believes one needs to overcome hate and oppression. That proves to be especially daunting given the power of Hitler’s propaganda machine. Her husband has been KIA. Her son, Johannes, played by a very impressive Roman Griffin Davis, is coming of age and feeling the urge to join the ranks of his fellow countrymen. He imagines the Führer as his friend who gives him some guidance. To fulfill his “patriotic duty” he signs up for a Hitler Youth camp where a series of events leads to his ostracism and further compounds his mother’s despair.

But Rosie is more than just a single parent, albeit one with an unbelievably upbeat attitude considering the climate. She’s an active member of a secret anti-Nazi movement, her bravery on full display at various times throughout the movie as we see her disseminating leaflets across town, encouraging the townspeople to resist Nazi control. However her moral obligation brings the danger of the outside world into her own home when Jojo, after discovering the Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) Rosie has hidden in the walls of their house, begins questioning everything around him — including his own mother’s patriotism.

What she brings to the movie: energy; compassion; strong maternal instinct. Johansson gave birth to daughter Rose in 2014, making the character she’s parenting in the film only a couple of years older than her actual daughter. Her tender portrayal of motherhood and her use of humor to cope with unfathomably dark times is a real boon to Taika Waititi’s vision — after all, his movie was sold to us as an anti-hate satire, not a straight drama or even historical drama. While the writer/director himself got most of the attention playing a dolt version of Hitler, she’s the movie’s best asset. Despite her sketchy German accent, she turns in the movie’s best performance and her chemistry with Roman Griffin Davis is absolutely wonderful.

In her own words: “Being a parent myself was just invaluably helpful to me. I had empathy for Rosie’s plate that I may not have had insight on otherwise. She was just a joy to play. She’s a warm, lovable character that felt really comfy to me. And I wanted that to come across, that she’s just comfortable and kind of sugary and warm.”

Key Scene: I really like this scene as it both encapsulates the sweet relationship between mother and son and the personality of the movie itself. It’s a small moment in a movie full with much showier ones but it’s also one of the few innocent moments we see between Jojo and Rosie, where they’re talking about something that is, for a lack fo a better word, ordinary. Relationships. It’s a nice moment because for much of the movie these two are painfully at odds with one another.

Bonus Clip (because I just love outtakes!): 

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: LA Times; IMP Awards

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #3

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

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

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

Role Type: Supporting

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

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

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

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

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

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 

* Ethan Coen also directed but only joel was credited 

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Photo credits: IMDb 

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

Earthquake Bird

Release: Friday, November 15, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Wash Westmoreland 

Directed by: Wash Westmoreland 

I spun the Netflix wheel on a Saturday night and landed on this thing called Earthquake Bird. Turns out, it was the caliber movie that rewards in kind the minimal effort I put in to finding it. This slow-burn of a psychosexual thriller has reliable commodities on both sides of the camera, with Wash Westmoreland, one half of the duo behind such well-received dramas as Quinceañera (2006), Still Alice (2015) and Colette (2018) directing and Oscar winner Alicia Vikander in the lead. Unfortunately the end result is nowhere near the sum of its talented parts.

Earthquake Bird is an adaptation of a 2001 novel of the same name by Susanna Jones. I haven’t read the book but it’s not hard to imagine it’s better, even just by browsing through a couple of critical blurbs. This desultory drama revolves around Vikander’s Lucy Fly, a Swedish expat living in Japan circa the late 1980s who gets swept up into a dangerous love triangle and is named a suspect in the disappearance of the other woman, a young American named Lily Bridges (Riley Keough). Written and directed by Westmoreland, the movie incorporates thriller, crime and “romance” elements but fails to make a good, frothy stew out of any of them.

It begins with Lucy being hauled away from her cubicle where she works as a translator — currently on subtitles for Ridley Scott’s 1989 thriller Black Rain (a cute little nod to him serving as producer here) — and to the police station where she vexes the authorities with her evasive answers and soon thereafter the audience with her complete lack of personality. You get these movies all the time where the narrator is an unreliable messenger, but Earthquake Bird steps it up a notch by providing an unreliable narrator in an unreliable framing device. What begins as a focused (if not harsh) police interrogation soon gives way to an ocean of flashback. Any sense of narrative structure or cohesion gets abandoned in favor of pure mood and atmosphere, qualities emphasized by Atticus Ross’ foreboding score.

Lucy traces her steps back to the day she met the mysterious and oh-so-handsome Teiji (Japanese dancer Naoki Kobayashi in his first English-language role), a noodle shop employee who hobbies, somewhat obsessively, as a photographer. His fascination with puddles is soon replaced by a fixation on her pretty visage in black-and-white. She becomes his muse, they enter into a relationship wherein honesty and openness are valued above all else. Physical intimacy is much lower on the list. Their dynamic carries the emotional conviction of a stapler. Yet there’s a symmetry between their worlds of quietude and isolation that makes them kindred spirits. There’s logic to them being together but no feeling in the togetherness.

Enter Lily, who wastes no time ingratiating herself in the lives of these two lovely-looking and lonely people. Thank goodness for Keough, who kicks the movie into a higher gear with her energetic presence. Her character is also more interesting. She’s introduced at first as a nice but needy new acquaintance, then a romantic foe and possibly even destroyer of worlds. Lucy is in a very delicate place, her life a constant shuffle as she seems always to be outrunning something. She has this weird relationship with death, the grim reaper always trailing her. Initially the tension between the two women isn’t purely adversarial; there’s something free and uninhibited about Lily that Lucy wants and also envies. When the trio embark on a weekend getaway to the scenic Sado Island, the sexual tension builds. A strange development further destabilizes an already awkward situation.

Ever since the Swedish dancer-turned-actor blew up on the scene in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina in 2015 I don’t think I’ve seen a performance of hers I haven’t liked. Lucy Fly isn’t exactly vintage Vikander but I blame more of my apathy towards her on the writing rather than the acting. This is a very restrained performance that’s more technically impressive than emotionally resonant — her Japanese, at least to my untrained ears, sounds perfect. Her thousand-mile stare is unsettling. Still I find it pretty terrible that her most interesting, defining trait is the black eye she carries around. And her backstory, when it’s finally barfed out in a much-delayed expositional sequence toward the very end, isn’t nearly as interesting as one hopes it would be for such a protracted build-up.

As if to remind us the title means something, periodic earthquakes rumble through the story in a kind of motif. In the immediate aftermath, a shrill birdsong alerts the town the coast is clear. It very well could be my brain shorting out but I didn’t find any relevance between this and the story at hand. Undoubtedly there’s some deeper metaphorical meaning behind it but the movie doesn’t do near enough to warrant the amount of effort it takes to decode that. Never mind its human Rubik’s cube of a leading lady.

“Tell me all your secrets, like, yesterday.”

Recommendation: What starts out as a kind of Lost in Translation meditation on loneliness and isolation (d)evolves into a run-of-the-mill, Girl on the Train-type murder plot that really doesn’t go anywhere. The characters, save for Riley Keough’s, are totally uninteresting and not worth the effort it takes to understand what drives them. That’s really disappointing when you’re talking about Alicia Vikander and the very interesting-looking Naoki Kobayashi. Le sigh. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: ““If every time I took a photo it took a piece of your soul, would you still let me?”

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Photo credits: IMP Awards; Polygon 

Jojo Rabbit

Release: Friday, November 8, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Taika Waititi

Directed by: Taika Waititi

New Zealand writer/director Taika Waititi has always been the magic elixir to make things better.

Viago the vampire was one of my favorite characters in the frightfully funny comedy What We Do in the Shadows (2015). In 2017 he gave the MCU a whack of feisty, vibrant energy with Thor: Ragnarok. His goofy humor had the kind of impact that gets directors invited to do another one. He’ll release Thor: Love and Thunder in 2021. It’s also the mainstream breakthrough he needed to make his “anti-hate satire” possible, with Jojo Rabbit collecting dust on a shelf since 2011. If Ragnarok had not received the response that it did, all bets are off the ones cutting the checks would have confidence in the director pulling off a Nazi-bashing black comedy.

Loosely based on Christine Leunens’ 2008 novel Caging Skies, Jojo Rabbit is an undeniably heartfelt movie about how love, compassion and optimism can be the tools in fighting against hatred and prejudice. Similarly, Waititi’s infectious spirit and cutting wit are his most powerful weapons in combatting the cliches of his story. The fact and manner in which he plays Adolf Hitler — as the childish, imaginary friend of our embattled pretend-Nazi Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) — is the defining characteristic of Jojo Rabbit. It’s certainly what gives the movie an edginess. He’s portrayed as a doofus with the maturity level to match the kid who thinks of the Führer as more mate than maniacal monster.

The native New Zealander is neither the first filmmaker to pair comedy with Nazism nor the first to receive flak for doing so. He is, however, the first filmmaker who identifies as a Polynesian Jew to not only don the ugly garb and horrendous hairstyle of the German dictator but to attempt to undermine his authority by playing him as a complete bozo. There are nuances to his performance that have been overlooked amidst the scathing criticism he’s faced by appearing to downplay the threat of Hitler. Au contraire, Waititi isn’t afraid of unleashing his character’s vitriol. As the story progresses his performance intensifies, becomes more bullying and scary.

Whether in front of the camera or behind it Waititi is conscious to balance the silly with the somber. There is persecution in Jojo Rabbit; however, this is not a movie about the Holocaust. Its scope is limited to what’s happening inside the head and the heart — the fundamentally warped psychology that enabled Hitler’s lapdogs to create systemic oppression that eventually culminated in one of the worst events in human history. If that’s not dark enough of a backdrop Waititi reminds us that children were not immune to Hitler’s hateful rhetoric. Yet he also gives us hope by suggesting that a child, unlike a world-weary adult whose beliefs are more ingrained, is not entirely beyond saving.

When the impressionable Jojo is confronted with a unique circumstance he’s forced to reconcile what he has been indoctrinated to believe with objective, observable reality. His mother Rosie — wonderfully played by Scarlett Johansson — is part of a quiet anti-Nazi uprising and has hidden a teenaged Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in the walls of their house. When he realizes he can’t spill the beans out of fear of being turned over to the SS — represented primarily by Stephen Merchant in a surprisingly scary capacity — he decides instead to use the intel he’s being fed by Elsa to create a pamphlet on how to identify “The Enemy.” After being dismissed from the Hitler Youth camp after a mishap with a grenade that left him slightly deformed, he will use this to impress his old pal Captain Klenzendorf — a weird role inhabited by Sam Rockwell, who plays the one-eyed Nazi as more bloke than baddie — as well as make himself feel as if he’s still involved in “the German cause.”

Naivety plays a big role in the movie. It’s the wrinkle that gives Jojo Rabbit‘s good-vs-evil trajectory more sophistication. The story is heartwarming and heartbreaking in almost equal measure, because you also look at Yorkie (Archie Yates), and wonder if his becoming a child soldier (albeit one who really has no business handling a rocket launcher) was really his fate. There are a lot of great performances in this time-worn tale of love ultimately triumphing over disproportionate evil. The real battleground in Waititi’s screenplay is not the inevitable blitz on the small town courtesy of the Allied Forces but rather the conversation between two youngsters on starkly opposite sides of a literal and metaphorical divide. The young actors are impressive with the way they trade barbs. It’s just unfortunate those heart-to-hearts come at the expense of McKenzie, who isn’t afforded anything approaching character growth and instead operates as a narrative device to make the could-be killer see the error of his ways.

Truth be told, Waititi loses a few battles along the way but ultimately wins the war. There are so many ways Jojo Rabbit could have gone wrong and probably would have gone wrong in the hands of a less capable and bold filmmaker. The big question surrounding his passion project (is this a passion project?) was whether he would be able to balance the disparate tones of drama and comedy in a story about Nazi Germany. I think he does that admirably.

“I think it’s best we Nazi each other right now . . .”

Recommendation: If you ask the chuckleheads sitting next to me in the theater who, on top of entering the movie ten minutes late, laughed at everything Taika Waititi said so loudly no one else in the room needed to, he’s absolutely the reason the movie is kind of a must-see, even if the story it tells is less interesting than the performances. Waititi = lovable. Hitler = not so much. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “Now this is my kind of little boy’s bedroom . . .”

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

Photo credits: Twitter; IMDb