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Archive for the ‘Scarlett Johannson’ Category

Hail, Caesar!

18 Feb

Hail, Caesar! – written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Comedy. 106 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

The Story: Scandals that flare up must be doused by the studio fixer.

~

What do I make, one asks at first glimpse, of this Jollywood piece?

It opens in a confessional with Josh Brolin disgorging petty sins with wracked soul. When the priest asks him how long since has been to confession he says something like 27 hours, and is fobbed off with the penance of a few hail maries. We know at once by the solemnity of Brolin that we are in Jollywood land, that is to say we are in the selfsame satire-land as Singing In The Rain, dealing with the same object, and at just about the time Singing In The Rain was shot; that is, we are in the dread early ‘50s and we shall, therefore, now gorge on a full blown and deftly played Jollywood satire.

Jollywood? A comedy actually making fun of Hollywood.

And what pleasures there are, to be sure!

We have Tilda Swinton as vicious identical twin sisters, as antipathetic to one another as de Havilland and Fontaine. Swinton does the spitting cobra better than anyone around. Then we also have Scarlett Johansson in a major impersonation of Esther Williams in full fishtail and from the Bronx.

With this sort of acting, the actors do not have to do anything but – as Jack Nicholson has told us – “act accordingly,” which means that all Johansson has to do is inquire about the strength it must take for a legal clerk to stamp a page, and all Jonah Hill has to do it raise his big clerk’s to say “It’s my job” and let them fall on the first woman who has ever flirted with him in his life – and you know, no further word said, that something hysterically unlikely is to happen.

How do actors do that?

The words are not nothing, but the fleeting attitude of the actor seals it.

And here every actor is in sync with a subtlety of style which the Coen Brothers command from every side. It’s called making fun of something without using a pig bladder.

Brolin, a marvelous actor, once again carries the film. He plays the role of the fixer, Eddie Mannix from MGM days (although Capitol Films is what the present firm is named), and he goes about putting out fires that might incinerate reputations.

The main of these is the kidnapping of superstar George Clooney, almost through filming a film of the bloated Quo Vadis ilk, but snatched off by a covey of commies who claim blackmail from Brolin. Clooney is the most deft of light comedians, but his funniest scene in the film is his most serious: I shall not tell you; you’ll know it when it comes.

As side dishes we have Frances McDormand as an overdressed obsessive film editor, Ralph Fiennes as an Edmund Goulding type director, and Channing Tatum superbly dancing a big Gene Kelly sailor-on-leave production number. Each one hits the comic nail delicately on the thumb.

But the performance that seals the film and steals it too is by the darling Alden Ehrenreich – at least he plays a darling – as a young singing cowboy thrust into a drawing room comedy. He’s great at rope tricks and fancy bronc riding, but he can’t seem to get his lips around a word beyond “Tarnation!” He’s a wonderful actor and fresh as a daisy. You must delight yourself with this performance. Don’t miss him.

The film is pure entertainment.

Pure?

Sheer entertainment. That is, it is transparent. You think maybe that the values of the ‘50s Hollywood are dead and gone? Think it at your peril. The ‘50s are gone, but the values are in full force in 2016. How could it be otherwise?

The Coen Brother are, after all, masters of the hollow.

 

 

 

 

 

Her

29 Jan

Her – directed by Spike Jonze. Psychological Romantic Drama. 126 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

The Story:  A thirty-something divorcé starts up a love-affair with a perfectly formulated human who is a voice on his computer.

The premise may seem so repellent as to keep you away. But the execution of it is so arresting you will remain riveted to the screen. And the reason for that is the voice is that of Scarlett Johansson who delivers the best performance of her life, a piece of work made more wonderful because she never appears before one, for Johansson’s physical appearance and mimetic awkwardness has been a detriment to her creamy advantage all along.

You will also remain riveted because, when you are not, you are riveted by your own mulling of the matter at hand. These recesses come up whenever the writing declines to the tropes, diction, and obligations of soap opera. For, alas, the director is also the writer, and when this happens a picture usually tends to fall foul of a want of critical acuity and an absence of slapping self-indulgence on the fanny. The divorce-papers scene between the man and his soon-to-be former wife is such a scene. It is not necessary, and it does not ring true, unless the two participants are stewed on daytime drama and their emotions are quotations hiccupped up from it.

The acting is helpless not to imitate these TV styles of histrionics. Joaquin Phoenix falls into the trap of the unnecessary smile, the puerile giggle, the senseless smirk upon which soap opera actors lean with toppling weight to flesh out the vapid moment and lend it a smear of good will. Amy Adams, as his chum, is no less a victim of the style. But it’s not their fault. There is no other way to play junk save as junk, unless you are Garbo – and, don’t worry, Garbo smiled a lot! That’s not the problem. The problem is the style. The style turns everything silly — silly without being funny. But that’s only sometimes. For:

However. And there is a big however here. We still have Joaquin Phoenix, who is the most sensitive actor before the cameras today, and we have Amy Adams who is as versatile as her hair-dos. And we have Scarlett Johansson, speaking endearingly, intelligently, gamely, with him. We have the ups and downs of their courtship. We have the surprises of her development as a character, as a human, as a spiritual possibility – and she is the only character who has these traits – and so the picture never flags. We are kept poised for the next interruption of her into his life. We are poised for the next unexpected. And it always captures us unpoised.

The story takes place in some unset time when all humans seem to conduct their lives in talk to earphones. Where writing folks’ billets-doux is parceled out to love-letter-professionals. Where jobs involve TV productions in which housewives fuck refrigerators. Where automaticity reigns.

Is Love a Machine? Is Romance a Fabrication? Companionship a Contraption?

Except that people remain absolutely themselves. Human. Real. Baffled. And yearning.

I should go see it, if I were you. It is the most unusual Hollywood film I’ve seen all year.

 

A Good Woman

08 Dec

A Good Woman – directed by Mike Barker. High Comedy. A woman of mystery turns up in Amalfi and immediately arouses gossip since it appears she is being kept by the recently married husband of a highly proper young woman. 83 minutes Color 2005.
★★★
Lady Windermere’s Fan was made famously by two famous directors, one with Ronald Coleman by Ernst Lubitsch in 1925, a silent film renowned for its mute success despite Wilde being the most verbally distinctive of writers; again in 1945 by Otto Preminger with Madeleine Carroll, George Sanders, and Jeanne Crain. The play was clearly ripe for a redo.

No, it wasn’t.

Although the play itself would be unworkable as a movie, the writers have kept Wilde’s structure, but lifted Wilde’s japes and jokes from other sources and flattened them to fit the lips of 1930’s socialites wintering on the Mediterranean, and the only actors who can get their mouths around them properly are the two old troupers who form a chorus of snipers and scandalmongers and tipplers, Roger Hammond and John Standing, and aren’t they fun!

The beautiful English actor Mark Umbers plays the now Americanized (the once Arthur and now Robert) Windermere (no longer a lord) and his wife (no longer Lady Windermere) is played by the seventeen year-old Scarlett Johansson. Johansson is a baffling presence in film, and although she comes to this one with a good deal of experience behind her, it does not show. Her voice is flat and badly placed and seems uninvested in meaning. Her heifer eyes register a wounded stupidity. She moves clumsily. She does not wear clothes well. Of course, her skin takes the camera so well, you think she must be God’s gift to the movies; I give her back unopened.

She is matched by Helen Hunt, who plays the intriguing adventuress, Mrs. Erlynne. Hunt is also American, and she too has the wrong voice for the part, oddly pitched, high, flat, and eggy. I like her face a lot, but, with its thin lips and sunken cheeks and hawk-like nose, it is likely to be miscast as that of a femme fatale. She has too much plea in her timbre. She does not have the inner puma, she’s not a wild animal in lamé, she does not have the sexual certainty to promise. She looks well in her clothes, with her beautifully proportioned, slender figure. And she is a good actress, so she makes the most of everything opposite Tom Wilkinson as Lord Augustus.

Wilkinson is the only real character we care about here. The part, a much-married playboy now in high middle age, is made much larger than in the play, in which he is presented as one of Wilde’s dear old fools. Wilkinson has several good scenes with Hunt, and with the two geezers, as they and the old trouts of leisure snipe at the scandal and inflate it by examining with vitriol eye that corpse, the institution of marriage.

But to really enjoy Lady Windermere’s Fan, one must read it. I do so in a first edition of it, old now, with its odd intestinal cover with three gold leaves, Elkin Matthew 1893: Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Play About A Good Woman. Indeed: a play about goodness of many and various stripes and kinds.

 

We Bought A Zoo!

18 Jan

We Bought A Zoo — directed by Cameron Crowe. Family Drama. A widowered adventure writer takes his kids and his inheritance and buys a small zoo on its uppers. 124 minutes Color 2011.

* * * *

As soon as Thomas Haden Church appears on the screen we know we are in for a forgone conclusion: it’s going to be a dogmatically sentimental tale plotted-up so’s everything ends hunky-dory at the credits. Mr. Church is wonderfully amusing as the character of the narrow-minded older brother trying to convince his younger brother not to jump into the swamp of zoo-purchase. The problems lie not with the actor but the role. It is the role of a false antagonist, unneeded because we have a real antagonist in the person of the stickler zoo inspector played with equal comic skill by John Michael Higgins. Up until the older brother, we are sailing along quite nicely in the company of Matt Damon and his two children, a darling little girl played by Maggie Jones who never missteps into the poo of child actorishness, and by Colin Ford, playing the 14 year-old sullen son. For as soon as Church does appear his performance is our gain and the story’s loss, for we instantly know the film is going to be devoured whole by massive plot contrivances. The conflict in this film is really simple, and does not need either a contrivance or a plotty plot: it is whether Matt Damon can kill an old suffering tiger. In favor of its putting-down is Scarlett Johansson. She is a plain girl, and it is good to see her out of the sequins of her seductivity and instead where she truly belongs, in rude jeans and scraggly hair. She plays an experienced and devoted zoo professional, and is perfectly convincing in the role. But we are eventually given her hair set more glamorously in order, one supposes, to validate an attraction between her and Damon, an attraction which is completely disconsonnant with all we are told about his devotion to his recently dead wife. Along with this we are bombarded with a standard conflict between the father and son, a romance with the son and a local 12 year-old, the zoo inspection impending then occurring, running out of money, inclement weather on opening day, and even the misadventure of a fallen tree keeping customers out, and the older brother. What is lost by all of this?  What’s lost is Matt Damon’s performance. All this pulls the rug out from under it by doing all the work for him – whereas, good actor that he is, he might have compassed it all which we would have been glad to see him do. But Cameron Crowe does not seem to have the common sense to keep things simple. Moreover, we are wrung dry by the score which crowds us out more and more as the film goes on. Crowe doesn’t allow us to participate; he rams it down our throats instead of letting us swallow it on our own. He doesn’t allow us to do our job; he doesn’t trust his audience. Fortunately, his actors trust themselves and it is them that we bide our time with, with a certain satisfaction, even though none of them are given close relations with the animals themselves, save with the tiger, whose demise, the only real dramatic action natural to the material, we are, unfortunately, spared. There are a couple of good arguments and a couple of cunning one-liners, true. But I am not a robot. And I do not need controlling.

 

 
 
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