Tag: julia garner

The Assistant

The Assistant (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

First one in, last one out. This has been the life of Jane since having taken on the assistant position just five weeks ago for one of the heads of a major film production company based in New York City. She is played with deep nuance by Julia Garner, capable of making us feel specific emotions, and to what degree, oftentimes without saying a word. When writer-director Kitty Green focuses on her subject’s face, especially during moments of great stress, the dramatic picture functions almost like a thriller in that we wish to scream for Jane—out of frustration, out of anger—to get the hell out while her humanity hasn’t yet been spirited away by a job that demands a person to look the other way for the sake of getting ahead.

The story unfolds over one work day. We observe Jane heading to and entering her place of work while it’s still dark outside. Much attention is paid on her usual menial tasks. There is no dialogue, just sounds of her footsteps, her breathing, files that must be organized, the printer vomiting out scripts, schedules, photographs. These are shot with great patience and a terrific eye for framing. Notice the minimal use of primary colors. The color gray and bluish-gray pervade the screen. The workplace feels like a cold storage for the dead or dying. We can almost hear a pin drop.

We study Jane’s face. Her work might be boring to us—and it might be boring to her as well considering her level of education and drive—but notice there is not a moment in which she fails to take every single chore seriously. The action around the character may be considered nondescript, but the character herself is never boring. Garner reminded me of a young Meryl Streep because it inspired me to consider if certain quirks possessed meaning not in terms of plot but in terms of character. It is without question she’s one to watch.

Once more people are in the building, we are tasked to observe the workplace environment. It is uncommon for people to look at each other in the eye—especially, for example, between a lowly assistant like Jane and a powerful executive in a suit. There is no laughter among co-workers despite their stations being only a few feet away. Not even a smile. Competition can be felt in the air. It’s the kind of workplace where people snicker and gossip when they notice you did something even remotely wrong. When there is laughter, it is the polite, professional laughter shared among people with power. Assistants are invisible… unless they are needed. Or had spoken or did something out of turn. I wondered if the writer-director, clearly confident with her material, intended for the viewers to ask, “Why are we like this to one another?”

This is a movie that shows more than tells. A typical moviegoer can dismiss it for not being exciting. And he or she would be right, if one only considered the surface. It is not for everyone, certainly not for impatient viewers, but it is for me. Some may claim that the picture only takes off the moment Jane decides to visit the head of Human Resources (Matthew Macfadyen) and report a possible inappropriate relationship. But I disagree.

I believe this is the climax of the picture, the scene that puts a face on her highly toxic work environment. It stands out because it is the first time that we get a chance to look at power not as an idea but as an ordinary man who silences legitimate concerns in order to maintain status quo, to protect those already in power, to keep the small powerless. This is a microcosm of modern America.


Grandma (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Grandma,” a solid day-in-the-life comedy but not a particularly memorable one, is a barometer for Lily Tomlin’s powerful but seemingly effortless presence. One looks in those eyes and that face for mere seconds and one cannot help but to imagine her character’s history, to ask what she’s all about, what she stands for.

Tomlin plays a lesbian poet named Elle whose granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), knocks on her door and asks for six hundred and thirty dollars to pay for an abortion. Sage has an appointment at the clinic that very afternoon. Although Elle would like to help, she, too, is strapped for cash given that she had just paid off her debts and destroyed her credit cards. But the feisty grandmother has an idea: To visit some old friends—some she has not seen in years—and borrow some money.

Although the picture offers a relatively simple premise, it navigates through an archipelago of emotions. Each visit is, at the very least, superficially interesting, often with a wonderful ear for dialogue. Tomlin has a talent for showing a different side to her character with each confrontation. Thus, we consistently learn something new about Elle. The past is often alluded to and one cannot help to imagine her younger, possibly more reckless, self. Clearly, Elle is a woman worth knowing. Love her or hate her, the viewer will not walk away having no opinion of her. Such is a mark of a well-written protagonist.

Perhaps the most memorable visit involves a man in his sixties or seventies, played by Sam Elliot. There is great tension during his scenes because Elliot is able to match Tomlin’s presence. Both, physically, are like grandparents you’d love to hug and hang out with, but the moment Elle and Karl talk about their shared history, there is clearly pain there. I relished the stark contrast between Elliot’s relatively calm exterior but every intonation in his voice communicates something else entirely just underneath.

The comedy does not come across as forced. One of the reasons is because writer-director Paul Weitz trusts his leading performer’s instincts, coupled with Tomlin’s intelligence and knack for playing against what may sound script-like and making it rather flawed or human. She is not afraid to make fun of her character—and herself. As a result, a line or two that might have sounded silly or trite in lesser hands sounds and feels natural here. Elle being a self-deprecating woman works for the material.

The picture might have been stronger if Sage were written and played more interestingly. Although we see a few sides of her personality, by the time the film ends, we still feel as though we don’t know her well enough. Garner plays the character with a level of laissez-faire attitude—appropriate at times because she is a rebellious teenager, after all—but a bit more presence and enthusiasm might have taken the character on another level. Still, “Grandma” engages throughout because the writing is often crisp and Tomlin is more than up to the task of commanding the screen.

The Last Exorcism Part II

The Last Exorcism Part II (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Nell (Ashley Bell) is sent to live in a home for girls after she is found with only fragments of memories involving what had happened to her while living in the woods. There is one thing she knows for certain: her entire family had perished in a fire. At first, her integration goes well. She gets along with her roommate, Gwen (Julia Garner), and has made friends with all of the girls in the house. Also, there is a nice boy around her age, Chris (Spencer Treat Clark), who seems to show genuine interest. But the demon that possessed Nell in the woods is not finished with her. Its plans have evolved and it is desperate to get her back.

“The Last Exorcism Part II,” based on the screenplay by Damien Chazelle and Ed Gass-Donnelly, feels like a rehash of a rehash. While it does offer a few hair-raising scenes, there is a lack of control in many of its attempts to scare and so the majority of them end up silly or laughable. For instance, must Nell make sexual sounds while being possessed as she sleeps? Is she supposed to be liking it? I don’t know, but it made me feel awkward. A lot of people tend to make jokes about the title. The truth is, the joke is on those, like myself, who has taken the time to sit through the picture and hoped that it would get better. It did not.

The first third is tolerable. I enjoyed the way it is communicated that Nell has lived such a sheltered life. Bell does a good job in underlining the fragility of Nell. Like a child plucked out of the darkness, a lot of things, like rock music, are new to her. Though she cannot remember the graphic details of her past, I rooted for the character because I did not want to see her get hurt. She deserves a new beginning.

There are warm moments between the girls, particularly during Mardi Gras and while at work, but getting to know some of them might have elevated the picture. As a movie that relies on formulas, we know that it is only a matter of time until they figure out Nell’s bizarre history. The betrayal that she feels would have packed more wallop if we had known the girls as much as we know Nell. Instead, during that important scene, the girls end up looking like bullies when, in reality, it is likely that they have troubled pasts, too.

Its ailment is having no ambition: it lacks solid scares because of its reliance on tired techniques. For example, when the camera moves down a hallway, it slithers so slowly that it is obvious that it wants us to wonder what is right around the corner. When the supposed jolts do arrive, the loud music does all the work.

When all is silent, cue the CGI and–can you believe it–more loud music. This is especially problematic in the second half. Horror is at its most effective when simple. Instead, we watch black vein-like figures on the wall (why is that scary?) and various moving shapes underneath a woman’s stomach (it comes across as an act of desperation than being genuinely creepy). The lack of context in these would-be scare attempts is astonishing.

I went into “The Last Exorcism Part II,” directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly, willing and ready to be scared. One is more susceptible to be played like a marionette or a piano when one is willing and ready. But the picture barely lifts a finger. Instead, the sheer laziness of the writers and director ends up being on screen for the world to see. If I were them, I would be really embarrassed.