Tag: scarlett johansson

Jojo Rabbit


Jojo Rabbit (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Leave it to writer-director Taika Waititi to helm a daring comedy surrounding a ten-year-old boy who wishes so badly to become one of Adolf Hitler’s soldiers, he is beyond excited that the day has finally come for him to join the German Youngsters of the Hitler Youth. Jojo has got blind Nazism on the brain, his imaginary friend is Hitler himself (Waititi). The satire is sharp, biting, and extremely funny (some might claim insensitive or offensive). And yet—the picture is not simply a parade of amusing gags, which range from recurring visual cues to anachronistic songs or phrases. When it really counts, it takes a serious look at having to wrestle against one’s racism, prejudice, and brainwashing. Its satirical jabs command power, but it is also surprisingly emotionally intelligent.

Roman Griffin Davis plays the memorable titular character in a wonderful debut. He exudes charisma and heart; he commits in every dramatic and comic scene as if he’d appeared in an array of projects before. That confidence translates well when he is required to hold a scene against great performers like Scarlett Johansson, who portrays Jojo’s mother, and Sam Rockwell, as a Nazi captain in charge of the Hitler Youth Camp. This is not a role in which a young actor can rely on looking cute because the subject matter proves to grow more complex as the story moves forward. I hope that Davis would choose to play equally colorful personalities with substance in future roles.

Perhaps on purpose, the first third of the film does not prepare the viewers for what’s about to come. Waititi makes the Hitler Youth camp feel, look, and sound like summer camp—only the children are made to go through militaristic obstacle courses, are given pocket knives and handed hand grenades. These segments are filled to the brim with vivid and warm colors, particularly yellow and green, and there is an exciting, anything-can-happen attitude in the air. In every scene and in just about every other line of dialogue, there is either a sight gag or a joke thrown on our laps. A few people might consider the gags or jokes to be offensive—and that is what makes the work a good satire. It’s not safe.

Fast-paced with seemingly a plethora of ideas to spare, the work confidently moves toward a more solemn tone just about halfway through. Its point is to show that Jojo’s desire to belong in a white nationalist hate group and kill Jewish people has dire consequences. When they finally come around, it is a like a punch in the face and a kick in the stomach. I admired that even though the work is a satire and its main character is a child, it remains willing to show the evils of the Nazis. The easier choice would have been to show the mother telling his son that being a Nazi is wrong. The writer-director is correct to choose the more cinematic choice: to show how and why fervent antisemitism is a moral corruption, a cancer.

Another strong aspect of “Jojo Rabbit” is the relationship between the boy and the Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) who is hiding in the attic. Their connection is handled with subtlety and insight with an occasional dose of cuteness—never hammy or syrupy. Their friendship is never about romance but reaching a common understanding. In lesser hands, the two young characters would kiss and everything would have turned out all right. But in this film, war has costs. And some costs you can never take back.

Marriage Story


Marriage Story (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Despite the plot revolving around a messy divorce, it is without question that “Marriage Story” is first and foremost a love story between two people who must go their separate ways. This is because writer-director Noah Baumbach is able to recognize that although events must occur to push the story forward, he puts the most time and effort in ensuring that the script is alive and the lead performances fine-tuned to the highest quality so that the standard plot turns are never bland, gathering tension the more we learn about the circumstances. What results is a work that has something universal to say about love: sometimes loving another person—even loving them deeply—may still not be enough to sustain a marriage.

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver play the couple, Nicole and Charlie—she a one-time movie star in Los Angeles who decided to move to New York City with him and he a theater director who is so passionate about what he does, he doesn’t seem to mind making pennies despite his prodigious talent. She gets to star in his plays. They have a child eventually. For a while, the usual rhythm and beat of their chosen lifestyle has worked for them. But, just like any other marriage, the small flaws in their relationship soon begin to tilt the balance. They begin to question what they deserve, what they have accomplished, are they truly happy or simply plateaued? Johansson and Driver deliver terrific performances; they are so effective at both comic and dramatic scenes that you never know what to expect when a scene starts to unravel.

For instance, when a situation appears to build up to a massive confrontation, it is instead diffused. The reason is because Charlie and Nicole know each other so well, they know how one another might respond when approached a certain way or when a specific subject is broached. And so they try to get ahead of it. But then there are moments when they really wish to get under each other’s skin—often due to the resulting frustrations of the divorce process—that they drill and drill until the yelling in room is deafening and pointless. We get a genuine impression that this former couple has a long, detailed, and complex history—which is critical in humanistic dramas.

I appreciated that neither parent is portrayed as a monster nor a saint. Charlie, for example, is so busy with making sure that the final product is the best play it can be that it would have been easier to show us a neglectful father. Instead, it is shown that he cares a whole lot for his son and tries to be there when he can—but discerning viewers will quickly recognize that it just isn’t enough. Charlie is both a father who loves his family as well as a workaholic. Nicole, too, is given shades of complexity. On the one hand, she enjoys being a stage actress in NYC. But she misses LA, her home, and being recognized as the star—not just the director’s wife who just so happens to be playing the lead role. For Nicole, it is a matter of being seen and respected.

The picture is also elevated by memorable supporting characters and performances. Some of them appear a few times, others only once or twice. But every person gets a reaction from us, from Laura Dern as a divorced divorce lawyer representing Nicole with such enthusiasm one cannot help but wonder if she is genuine initially; Ray Liotta as a cunning (and expensive) NYC lawyer who is not above a shouting match in court; Alan Alda also another lawyer but a different breed: he seems to genuinely care about the people involved in the divorce, not just who wins or loses—notice how he takes his time to deliver his words and gestures; Martha Kelly aptly credited as “The Evaluator” because her character blends into the background… until she decides to speak up with that muted but creepy voice.

“Marriage Story” is an effective drama with observant comic moments because it bothers with the details: of the divorce, of how a parent interacts with his or her child; of how a child processes difficult situations; of how a lawyer’s strategy changes when provided potentially juicy information; of how feelings and motivations change with time. Clearly, Baumbach understands divorce from a deeply personal experience. The work would not have been this searing, this complicated, this true had it been otherwise.

Avengers: Endgame


Avengers: Endgame (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

It requires a daring decision to surprise me when it comes to modern superhero films and, quite miraculously, “Avengers: Endgame” manages to do so about fifteen minutes in. It has been a while since a Marvel film left me wondering, “So then… what’s next?” and it is a most refreshing feeling, a promise, a question mark followed by an exclamation point, that there is plenty more to unbox considering its hefty running time of three hours. The well-paced and consistently entertaining direction by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo gives the impression that just about anything can or will happen given that the material at hand is meant to be a closing chapter to one of the most ambitious projects Hollywood has given moviegoers.

The expectation is enormous and the picture delivers for the most part. The action sequences are busy but always given context in addition to being well-choreographed and so those giving at least a modicum of attention would not be lost; the special and visual effects are first-rate—certainly ostentatious at times but not once do they come across as empty decorations; there are enough moments of silence and ponderation given the fact that the characters remain in mourning over their fallen comrades and loved ones after Thanos (Josh Brolin) succeeds in eliminating half of the universe’s population; and the direct and indirect nudges to Marvel films that came before are throughly entertaining—handled with creativity, humor, and a solid sense of foreboding.

And yet the picture is not without notable shortcomings. The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely takes on a monumental task of putting together more than a decade’s worth of stories and creating an unforgettable, possibly instant-classic, culmination. While I admired that the goal is nothing short of magnificent, the work scrambles at times at trying to be everything at once.

Most noticeable is the humor, how it comes across as shoehorned—at times cringe-y—when events begin to feel a little grave. In previous films, the well-written and well-delivered comic lines succeed in alleviating tension. Occasionally, it works here. But not nearly all the time. I think the reason is because the heavy atmosphere of foreboding consistently points to the demise of characters we’ve learned to love. Laughter fizzles rather than helping to elevate excitement. In the middle of it, I wondered if it would have been a more daring decision to minimize the humor that Marvel films thrive on. It absolutely would have been more challenging.

Considering the running time, it is curiosity that there isn’t more in-depth character development. Instead, we receive one too many scenes or shots of our heroes looking solemn or trading conciliatory handshakes. Sometimes there are close-ups of tears flowing down one’s cheeks. I found the melodrama to be unnecessary; a more elegant choice might been to trust the audience to grab onto the story and understand the gravity of the plot without such dramatic signposts.

The remaining tension between Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), for instance, may have been worth exploring. Instead, the two leaders are given only about three to five minutes to sort out their personal issues. People forget that Evans and Downey Jr. are dramatic actors; they work best not when the charm is on but when it isn’t, when the material demands that they let go of their masculine chain mail and reveal their character foibles.

While the chosen strategy is understandable from a point of view of an action-centric story, an argument can be made that an amplified drama leads to stronger moments of catharsis. Here, catharsis often comes in the form of surprise deaths and teary reunions. I was not particularly moved by any of them—with one exception that comes late into the picture.

Ghost in the Shell


Ghost in the Shell (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Rupert Sanders’ “Ghost in the Shell” offers the kind of entertainment that one can dive in and out of while doing laundry or some other chore around the house. This is a testament to the lack of depth in the writing—problematic because the material brings up questions about what makes us human, what it means to be alive, what it means to have an identity of our own, what we are in charge of in an increasingly automated world.

These are philosophical questions and yet, for some bizarre reason, the writing avoids rumination, as if the persons who helmed the screenplay—Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger—were afraid of or did not know how to build intrigue. This is a picture more interested in external stimuli rather than what it could potentially make the audiences feel or think about long after the film is over.

Its special and visual effects look expensive, occasionally impressive but at times distracting. I enjoyed that every time a scene takes place outside, roads and skyscrapers are overcome by advertisements, overwhelming people to buy products or to upgrade themselves through “enhancements,” cosmetic surgeries, to become a better, stronger, faster, more intelligent version of themselves. In a way, this is a hyperbolic version of our society—which would have been an effective critique had the writing been more willing to delve into the rules and ethos of its universe.

Less effective are beautiful but boring action sequences. While it offers a certain moody look reminiscent of pictures like the classic but, in my eyes, overrated “Blade Runner,” the stylized shootouts and hand-to-hand combat do not come across gritty enough to be believable even within the context of a futuristic world where the line between man and machine is blurred. We are simply not immersed into the action. Rather, we stand right outside it as we struggle to feel for the characters, to care whether they lived or died, whether they walked away hurt or unscathed. For instance, certainly we are supposed to feel connected to Mira (Scarlett Johansson), a creation who has a brain of a human being but the body of a machine. And yet we do not until she begins to ask questions about who she is, where she came from, who she is working for.

The “ghost” in the title refers to the human soul, but there is nothing soulful about the film. Somewhat interesting is the friendship between Mira and Batou (Pilou Asbæk), both working for the government as anti-terrorist agents, but the screenplay actively avoids meaningful conversations that reveal about how they perceive and process the world, their goals as to how they could try to change it for the better. Isn’t a part of what makes us human the ability to relate with others in meaningful, messy, complicated ways?

“Ghost in the Shell” is a product of the desire to make a quick buck rather than to create a work that can potentially stand the test of time. A commonality among great science fiction pictures is that they strive to say something about the world of today and exploring that thesis like an excellent research paper. There is a balance between technical details and information that can be understood easily, a certain universal factor. Here, there is only pretty visuals and fast-paced action, pedestrian from flesh to wiring.

The Jungle Book


The Jungle Book (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

These days it is simply not enough to have beautiful images gracing the screen, especially when it comes to family-friendly films where every age must be engaged and entertained. “The Jungle Book,” directed by Jon Favreau, is able to translate a Disney animation classic, about a boy named Mowgli (Neel Sethi) who is raised in the jungle by wolves, into a live-action adventure that is full of thrills and wonderment. Favreau takes a beloved material that has been told a number of times before and breaths new life into it.

Although the majority of the animals are made using a computer, they are convincingly life-like. The details of their furs, ears, snouts, tails, and eyes are impressive; the longer one admires every feature, the more tactile they appear to be. But it doesn’t stop there. Look at how the filmmakers manage to capture the correct posture of the computer-animated animals when they rest, eat, and interact with one another. One gets the impression that great efforts were made to research actual animals in order to create a most convincing universe.

The film offers numerous memorable sequences, from Mowgli being mesmerized by a giant Indian python (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) to heart-pounding chases involving a villainous Bengal tiger (voiced by Idris Elba) whose face is half-burnt. But one might argue that the best parts of the movie are times when nature is front and center. Two standouts include a terrifying mudslide as unsuspecting water buffaloes make their way on the side of a mountain and the other involves Mowgli’s attempt to kick down honeycombs hanging from a cliff as he is stung by bees.

These two scenes are vastly different yet somehow they fit perfectly in the film. For instance, the former is drenched in black and gray while the latter features kaleidoscopic hues. The mudslide scene reflects a struggle for survival, as signaled by rapid camera movements, while the honey gathering scene highlights a growing bond between a man-cub and a new friend (voiced by Bill Murray)—this time the camera still and overall tone playful. The balancing act is assured and professional. What keeps it all together is the consistent eye for detail.

Admittedly, it took me a good while to get used to the animals’ mouths moving when they speak. The mouth movements and voices are not distracting—in fact, all of the voice actors are well-chosen—but the partnership is, at first, unnatural. After about thirty minutes, however, the transition was complete and I was able to get into the reality that some of the animals were able to speak.

“The Jungle Book,” based on the collection of stories by Rudyard Kipling and screenplay by Justin Marks, dazzles and delights the senses. It might have been improved if the subject of belongingness and home were explored more deeply and with more mature insight.

Under the Skin


Under the Skin (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Some movies are so defiantly opaque that one cannot help but marvel at the brazen display of pretension oozing through the screen. Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” is that type of picture. There is absolutely an audience for movies like this, but I was not impressed.

Scarlett Johansson signs up to be objectified. The first half involves her character seducing men in Scotland and luring them into a house where, once inside, it is pitch black and the unsuspecting prey is eventually swallowed by a calm liquid. We watch Johansson stripping off her clothes until she is down to her bra and panties, all the while retaining a blank look on her face. The second half is somewhat similar although the performer soon reveals her breasts and crotch. It is all supposed to be “artistic,” I guess.

The screenplay is insistent on not answering any nagging questions and so it fails to connect to the audience beyond sensory level. Why is Johansson’s character, who seems to be an extraterrestrial being, only targeting young white men? Who is “she” exactly and what is her purpose? What are the men used for? Food? Energy? Eventually, we are allowed to observe what happens underneath that mysterious liquid. However, it serves only to showcase visual effects that is not even all that striking.

There are three good scenes surrounded by close to worthless, deathly boring, lifeless expositions. The event that unfolds at a rocky beach, for instance, commands true suspense. The raw image of people being swallowed by increasingly strong and violent waves makes us wonder at which moment we will no longer see a person struggling. Second, the young man with a deformity offers a glimmer of true emotions in an otherwise emotionally static script. Lastly, the final scene in the woods shows how good the movie could have been if the writers, Walter Campbell and Glazer, had allowed us to empathize with the protagonist more often.

It takes great talent to turn style into substance. This is why names like Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick hold value to me and the name Glazer does not. In Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” while the ending sequence boggles the mind, at that point it requires that we be confused or not know how to respond exactly because the story takes a leap into the unknown. In “The Tree of Life,” the lyricism is welcoming and consistent. Although a sensory experience for the most part, we understand the core of its subjects.

“Under the Skin” is an art-house film with a small brain and even smaller ambitions. If Glazer’s intention were to create a picture for the sake of it existing, then congratulations. But let us not pretend that this is anything remotely original or, worse, attempting to set the standard for anything. It will not be remembered fondly twenty or thirty years from now. This I guarantee.

Don Jon


Don Jon (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) claims to value only few things in life: his body, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls, and his porn. Though Jon is able to bed just about any woman he sets his eyes on, he remains convinced that porn is better than real sex. When he begins to date Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), he is challenged to keep a distance between himself and pornography since she thinks the whole thing is sick and disgusting. This proves difficult not only because getting off at pornhub.com has become a part of his daily routine but it is also likely that he might have an addiction.

Comedic on the surface with a few layers of questions worth asking that envelop its dramatic core, “Don Jon,” written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is a joy to watch even if the subject it tackles—addiction to pornography—is not always pretty. This is partly due to the charming performances by the leads, Levitt and Johansson, and how the screenplay allows the characters to become more than stereotypes. Don could have easily been some sort of meathead and Barbara being some blonde curvy bimbo.

The three relationships unfold: between Jon and Barbara, between Jon and an older woman (Julianne Moore) who catches our protagonist watching porn on his phone, and between Jon and his precious videos. Each his handled with intelligence and no one (or thing) is treated like a joke. Instead, the characters are allowed to be imperfect and messy. We even watch them being hypocrites once in a while. We judge them through what we value in terms of what we believe a healthy relationship should be like.

The weakest part of the picture involves Jon’s family mainly because they are one-dimensional, not at all matching the more subtle aspects of Jon’s life. The father (Tony Danza) is a typical tough guy who cannot seem to pry his eyes off the television, the mother (Glenne Headly) keeps asking when her son is finally going to get a girlfriend so she can have grandchildren, and the sister (Brie Larson) is always on her phone and does not say anything until the movie is almost over.

The whole sham of somebody not speaking until she has “words of wisdom” to impart annoyed me immensely. And when she does speak, she does not say anything profound. This surprised me because many reviews claim that it is one of the best scenes in the picture. I was far from impressed. I thought her “words of wisdom” is glaringly obvious within the first forty minutes. There is no punchline or real insight.

“Don Jon” is most entertaining when it shows believable characters, having us like them, and then discovering something about them that feels a little off. That is why the Swiffer pad scene, hair gel appraisal, and others like it—a normal activity followed by an unveiling of an ugly (or beautiful) trait—make an impact and create rippling effects that challenge (or strengthen) the foundation of a relationship.