Tag Archives: Scarlett Johansson

Jojo Rabbit

26 Oct

‘Jojo Rabbit’: Hitler Youth’s imaginary friend, true enemy battle for territory in his affections

 

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“Jojo Rabbit” is something you’re not likely prepared to see – and that’s a good thing. The best way I can lay it down: It’s as if Wes Anderson did Hitler. That’s accurate but not entirely fair, because it’s written and directed by by Taika Waititi, a creative stylist in his own right with the vampire comedy “What We Do in the Shadows” (2014) and the grand uber-hero crackup, “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017) – probably the only Marvel film Scorsese and Coppola might tolerate – to his credits. “Jojo Rabbit” takes place in Germany on the eve of major turns at the end of the war, and Hitler, played with grand, goofy gaiety and menace by Waititi himself, factors large into the dark satire about a 10-year-old boy coming of age during complicated times (to put it mildly).

We catch up with Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) as he heads off to a Hitler Youth boot camp for a weekend. He’s a proud loyalist and, because dad’s gone missing, his male surrogate is the führer himself. Talk about an unholy and unhealthy imaginary friend, but Waititi, who is half Maori and half Jewish, plays the part with a deft, humorous touch, giving Hitler a warm, avuncular sheen while not letting him off the hook for, well, everything.

The leporine tag of the title comes from that boot camp, where the undersized Jojo botches a test of manhood and is tagged a “scared little rabbit.” The best part about the camp is that we get Sam Rockwell as a snarky, demoted officer running things and Rebel Wilson as his chortling assistant – “Get your things together, kids, it’s time to burn some books!” Back at home, Jojo’s mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) doesn’t quite share her son’s all-things-Aryan zeal. Then there’s that someone hiding in the walls: Turns out mom and dad are anti-Nazi propagandists, and the older girl living in a secret compartment upstairs is Jewish, and being sheltered by mom. Jojo discovers Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) and begins to study her (keeping a science journal detailing “the Jewish beast,” which, while shocking and telling, also becomes a major turning point in the film). As the interviews progress, a friendship begins to take seed. They never let Rosie know that Jojo knows, but in passing Jojo tells his pal Yorki (Archie Yates, whose round-faced exuberance makes him an infectious scene stealer) he’s “captured one,” and even Rockwell’s officer. But no one really believes him or cares, as the Third Reich has begun to crumble.

Beyond the wide-eyed  transformation of its young protagonist, the heart and humanity of “Jojo Rabbit” radiates through its women. Since she’s donned Lycra in the Marvel Universe and teamed up for freaky times with Luc Besson (“Lucy”), filmgoers might have forgotten ScarJo’s emotive resonate from past immersions into nuanced roles of cold alien bait (“Under the Skin”) or a dislocated American in Japan (“Lost in Translation”). She carries the part of a conflicted mother fully. You know her Rosie detests sending her son off to boot camp, but does so not only because of the bigger forces at play, but because she’s an adoring mother trying to support her progeny as best she can. McKenzie, who gave such a mature and central performance in the off-the-grid drama “Leave No Trace” (2017), ups her stock here. Her character’s somber reflectiveness and innate compassion go a long way in disarming Jojo’s regime-first reactiveness. The scenes of the two communicating indirectly while connecting on a personal level build subtly and effectively, offsetting the mad world outside.

I’m not sure if there’s such adroit, slapstick skewering in “Caging Skies,” the book by Christin Leunens on which the film is based, but in Waititi’s World War II universe, shouts of “Heil Hitler” – initially shocking – ultimately become something of a comic refrain, like, say, in a Mel Brooks movie, and Rockwell, Wilson and Waititi play their deplorables with over-the-top, nod-and-wink perfection. The material is equal parts grim and hysterical (especially the debate over which of the Allied forces are worse to humans and dogs – Americans, Russians or the British), and folk will likely seize on comparisons with “The Death of Stalin” (2017) due to the era, comedic style and subject. It’s only natural, but “Jojo Rabbit” delivers a palpable human story that touches as we laugh and the world around explodes. And somehow David Bowie and the Beatles find their way in.

Avengers: Endgame

25 Apr

‘Avengers: Endgame’ was a long time coming, and it’s another exceptionally long time going

 

And so it begins, or ends, and no matter how you see it, it’s a long one. “Avengers: Endgame,” the de facto part two of “Avengers: Infinity War,” clocks in at more than three hours – 30 minutes longer than “Infinity” and chock full of maudlin eddies that should have been pared back. That said, “Endgame” gets the job done, passing the baton as it closes out a long-running chapter with some sentimental eye rubs. Where Disney’s Marvel Universe goes from here is likely a focus on new blood such as Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Captain Marvel (Brie Larson). They’re both in “Endgame,” tossed in as inert garnish.

In case you need a rewind: At the end of “Infinity War,” Thanos (Josh Brolin), blessed with the unholy alignment of all six infinity stones (the power of a god to create and destroy), has eradicated half the life in the universe and, with that, half of the Avengers crew. We catch up with Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) floating near-dead in space, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) searching desperately for his wife and children and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) spit out unceremoniously of a five-year time warp – in a beat-up Ford Econoline or the like, to boot. The film moves along sluggishly for the first half-hour, and I’d be wrong to tell you fully how it flies, but the simple answer is: The remaining Avengers crew need to somehow turn back the clock. Given that this is Marvel, and a superhero fantasy (the opening with Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy” is nearly as ingenious as the use of “Mr. Blue Sky” in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” – is there some mandate for classic rock songs with “Mr.” in the title in the Marvel Uni?) that time travel quest – with semi-hilarious film references to “Back to the Future” – happens sure enough, and the “Infinity War” with Thanos gets something of a do-over.

Before that the film notches some of its greatest self-deprecating wins, namely in that the buff god of thunder, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), some five years after Thanos’ win in Wakanda, is now a potbellied booze bag looking like the portly Val Kilmer, “large mammal” portrayal of the latter-years Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s “The Doors.” Or take the Hulk/Bruce Banner, (Mark Ruffalo) who has gotten his raging greenness and mild manner intellect to come to terms. And then there’s Hawkeye, who’s been bestowed the worst hairstyle imaginable – an unholy marriage of a mullet and a mohawk. How and why this choice was ever made is never explained and demands a film of its own, but yes, it’s a weird alternate reality out there, and not necessarily a bad one. As one observant Avenger points out, with half as many humans on the planet the water in the Hudson is now so clean, pods of a resurgent whale populations are hanging out where there were once toxically polluted slurries.

Ultimately “Endgame,” like “Infinity War,” both directed by the brothers Russo (Anthony and Joe, who made the far cheekier and superior “Civil War”) turns into a major CGI boggle of superheroes battling a herd of creepy-crawly things from another planet. Amid all the chaos there’s one gratuitous yet neat scene where an all-female phalanx of supers try to get the final wold-saving run done, and yes, Captain America (Chris Evans, with the requisite square-jawed woodenness)  is there to anchor the whole shebang; in very (too) small metes, we also get Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford and Tilda Swinton. It’s a very crowded affair.  Some big names and friends move on and out with a tear or two to be shed, but I was more struck by other matters looming at the edges of the frame, including nature’s resurgence in a less populated world, curiosity for how far Brie Larson and the “Captain Marvel” franchise can realistically go and, most of all, that haircut Renner is saddled with. It’s indelible and unshakable. If his Hawkeye could travel back in time to the 1990s there would be NHL hockey teams north of the border that would surely inject him in the first line based on hair alone.

Avengers: Infinity War

27 Apr

‘Avengers: Infinity War’: Marvel’s universe has built to a climax, which isn’t this movie

 

Some might find this a bit of a spoiler, but it’s really more of a public service announcement: If you go into “Avengers: Infinity War” thinking it’s a neat, trim chapter like “Avengers: Age of Ultron” or “Captain America: Civil War” let me set you and the record straight – this is a “Part One.” Somewhere around the two-hour mark of the two-and-a-half-hour running time, I thought to myself, “How that heck are they going to tie this all up in less than 30 minutes?” They do, kind of, with a massive smackdown on the grassy plains of Wakanda pitting warriors and superheroes against a limitless pack of mutant space dogs, but how it ends isn’t an ending. It’s not even like Han Solo getting frozen in “Empire Strikes Back”; the last scene simply ends. You expect another scene, but the credits roll.

“Wah!” you might think, but a quick walk through IMDB shows myriad actors employed by the Marvel universe have signed up for a mysterious “Untitled Avengers Movie.” I can help all the people at Disney and Marvel: Your untitled film’s title is “Infinity Wars, Part Deux.” Continue reading

Ghost in the Shell

1 Apr

Put a pretty girl in some Lycra and, poof, you got a movie, right? Well, yes and no. It worked with Kate Beckinsale and Milla Jovovich in the “Underworld” and “Resident Evil” series respectively, but not so much for Charlize Theron in “Aeon Flux” or Halle Berry in “Catwoman.” You can add Scarlett Johansson to that “not” list with this live-action adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga “Ghost in the Shell,” done more righteously in the 1995 animation feature directed by Mamoru Oshii. Sure, Scar-Jo looks fetching, much as she does as the Black Widow in the “Avengers” series, and the film, helmed by Rupert Sanders (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) with lush cinematography by Jess Hall, might even be more optically alluring. The “Blade Runner”-esque reimagining of a near-future Shanghai is a wonderment in its own right and perhaps worth the price of entry, but not enough to atone for an inert script and robotic acting.

Things begin promisingly enough when Scar-Jo’s Major rises elegantly out of a synthetic pool, the first cybernetic organism manufactured by the Hanka Robotics corporation. Major’s a leap forward in human and technology fusion (the flesh and steel body being the “shell,” with her computer-infused brain the “ghost”), yanked from her scientific incubators (a matronly Juliette Binoche among them) and appropriated as a weapon to fight cyberterrorists. The target du jour is an elusive entity known as Kuze (Michael Pitt), who’s out to hack Hanka and the government to pieces. Major’s barely out of the lab when we get a glimmer of her prowess, leaping from a tall building and taking out a room full of assassins with barely a hair out of place. It’s a fiery, kinetic jolt that perhaps comes too early for its own good. The shell in which the film operates becomes quickly inconsistent in tenor and tone, bouncing from somber, semi-serious oppressive future vision (back to “Blade Runner”) to hyperbolic free-for-all and, in the process, uproots the prospect of suspension of disbelief.

Sadly too, Scar-Jo, so fantastic in “Under the Skin” (2013) and normally quite capable, comes off Ben Affleck-wooden here and is further undermined by the film’s lack of an emotional core. The device of Major struggling to tap into her “ghost” to discover her true identity, much akin to Peter Weller’s cyborg in “RoboCop” (1987), piques interest at turns, but ultimately feels tacked on and beholden to the larger sheen. The corporate and governmental double dealings, which strangely seem apt as metaphor for the Trump presidency and its shadowy ties to Russia, also could have been played for greater satire and bite but also become lazy and lackluster plot points. By the end of the film, everything’s empty and contrived. Then the “spider tank” shows up and hyperbole takes off her gown to reveal a not-so-appealing figure.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

30 Apr

‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’: Jam-packed amusement park ride moves too fast to feel


Marvel’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is a a big noisy actioner that storms into theaters this week to kick off the blockbuster season. It’s perfect summer fare: not too deep, with plenty of action and a dash of sexy; destined to make a killing at the box office and the merchandising table. But as far as owning the opening kick, “Ultron” is a bit late to the party – the equally noisy “Furious Seven” has been cleaning up for the past three weeks, and it’s a far more genuine and heartfelt affair even if stripped of the sentimental nostalgia built around tragically deceased star Paul Walker.

043015i Avengers- Age of Ultron“Ultron” begins with a wham-bam as Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and the whole Avenger cadre battle camouflage-veiled troops in a forest somewhere near what most recall as Transylvania. There’s a castle to storm and an “infinity stone” (six to rule the universe) to nab, but not without some resistance from an evil syndicate known as Hydra (something far less interesting and formidable than Spectre from the Bond series) in the form of a pair of embittered twins – the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) – who cause the motley crew of righteousness some lingering headaches.

The siege and bloody ebb and flow is all done with nimble, dizzying CGI effects. It’s like an amusement park ride: You can’t just focus on one thing, and if you do, the whole backdrop will have changed by the time you elect to pull back. Much of the plot is like that too. Just when you think you’re making sense of who or what Ultron is, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) lets on he’s got a wife and kids out in the cornfields of the midwest or the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner/Hulk start having life-partnering talks.

Johansson, already a star attraction with her fetching form firmly packed into snug-fitting black lycra, knocks it out of the park in this go-round with a husky, sultry coo while flirting with Banner. She’s one of the film’s few gems, along with that infinity stone that gets embedded into a synthetic uber-being played by staid and somber Paul Bettany, but that’s a whole ’nother plot thread that crops up and fades in the rear view, only to crop up again like so many things in this fate-of-mankind tempest where skilled thespians are reduced to such cerebral throwaways as “let’s do this” and tired maxims about being united as a team and righteousness. The deepest-reaching dialogue comes from Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark (Iron Man sans the iron), enumerating on a colleague’s comment about a long day, tagging it “Eugene O’Neill long.” It’s one of the few witty ah-has that sticks.   Continue reading

Women Who Prey

18 Apr

Film Review Under the Skin

Much will be said about the women and their use of sex as a means to an end in Lars von Trier’s two part Nymphomaniac and Jonathan Glazer’s alluring new film,Under the Skin. Sex in both endeavors is a must; an addiction in the former and a tool for sustenance in the latter. But in both cases the women are driven by something beyond their control and as a result, they prey.

Joe (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, with Stacy Martin as the young incarnation), the insatiable protagonist in von Trier’s pandering provocation, embarks on her first hunt aboard a train wearing gleefully self-described “fuck me” garb. She’s looking to achieve a series of bathroom conquests and baits the men, packed like sardines into cramped traveling compartments, with fluttering doe-like eyes as she requests help in finding the washroom, and later, for her crowing achievement, settles on a more stately married man in first class. He is so morally affixed and committed that to break that bond will yield the greatest conquest and the most points in an ongoing game of sexual one-upmanship with a fellow train cruiser. After swaying the reluctant mark,  he passively empties himself into her mouth. The man is changed, drained, and emotionally shaken from the transgression he consciously wished no part of until mid-ejaculation. For Joe the act is simply a tally notch, a big bull buffalo on the savanna that her sleek apex feline sussed out, isolated, and brought down. How the man returns to his wife, or if his life is disrupted from the interlude, is of no concern.

In the wild, the act of predation is cold, calculating and necessary. There is nothing civil or remorseful about it. While Joe does it to feed her id or inner dysfunction, Scarlett Johansson’s intoxicating incarnation in Under the Skin, largely nameless but identified as Laura in the credits, does it out of rote need. She’s not of our world but something supernatural, a celestial traveler who has been transfigured to look like us, and on something of a farming mission to harvest human flesh for her ilk. The urgency of her assignment renders palpable and strong as she patrols the streets of Glasgow in an austere white van asking for directions (uncannily similar to Joe’s locomotive panderings).  Continue reading

Under the Skin

11 Apr

‘Under the Skin’: Scarlett Johansson drags us to dark territory of otherworldly novel

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Jonathan Glazer, whose brief cinematic résumé began with “Sexy Beast” and includes 2004’s “Birth,” purportedly spent nearly a decade trying to bring Michel Faber’s otherworldly novel to the screen. The wait is well worth it. Glazer spins rapturous scenes that will be hailed universally as Kubrickian – and rightly so – but in the process also concocts an eerie, wholly unique experience that will resonate deep within viewers’ bones.

041014i Under the SkinIf you haven’t read Faber’s novel and have no discerning of its plot, educate yourself no more; going in less educated will yield you a better viewing experience. Glazer’s arcane imagery and Mica Levi’s all-consuming score forge an indelible confluence that is not your typical cinematic fare. Sure, there are arguably three acts, but it’s more a washing over than a sum of parts with a resolution; when “Skin” does subscribe to these traditional framework devices, that’s when it starts to loose its sheen and transcendent allure.

As strange as it may sound, American starlet Scarlett Johansson plays a taciturn female entity who patrols the weary streets of Glasgow in an austere white minivan. The credits identify her as Laura, but I’m not sure she’s given a name during the film. In any case, she’s not human. What she is and how she comes to be is part of the film’s pleasurable mystery; to tell you any more or to compare and contrast elements of Faber’s novel would be to do you and the film a disservice. Continue reading