Tag Archives: Scarlett Johansson

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ASTEROID CITY (2023)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Jake Ryan, , , Grace Edwards, Tom Hanks, , Brian Cranston

PLOT: Playwright Conrad Earp writes “Asteroid City,” about a photojournalist visiting the titular location with his gifted son for a Junior Stargazers convention; everyone is stranded there when an extraterrestrial event causes the town to be quarantined.

Still from Asteroid City (2023)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: We’ve been waiting and waiting for Wes to go full weird; he takes his swat with Asteroid City. It’s also the weirdest movie Tom Hanks has ever appeared in—a low bar, for sure, but that has to count for something.

COMMENTS: Skipping over the prologue for the moment, Asteroid City is everything you expect from a Wes Anderson movie: symmetrical, meticulous, stylized, deadpan, with a large cast of familiar faces portraying well-defined quirky characters snapping out witty dialogue. The locale is a mid-century America desert village—a one-road stop with no more than a gas station, diner, motel, observatory, train tracks, and an unfinished on-ramp to nowhere—with atomic tests periodically sprouting mushroom clouds in the background. The color palette is turquoise skies and beige sand, with the occasional burst of radioactive orange, bathed in (as the stage directions instruct) clean, unforgiving light. Anderson manages to make shot-on-location look like shot-on-a-sound-stage; you’re amazed when a car drives off into the distance and doesn’t crash into a matte painting backdrop, but somehow just keeps going. The film locates itself in a gee-whiz Cold War fantasy, a mythical time where bright middle-schoolers design their own jet packs and particle beams and everyone has complete faith in the US military—and why shouldn’t they? They haven’t lost a war yet.

All of this makes for a perfect sandbox for Anderson to drop what may be the most impressive cast he’s yet worked with into. Wes stalwart Schwartzman takes the lead as a stoic pipe-smoking war photographer, with a “brainiac” son and a trio of elementary school triplets (who think they’re witches) in tow. Scarlett Johansson plays a movie star attracted to battered woman roles. Tom Hanks shows up as a grumpy grandpa (in a role that was probably originally written with in mind.) Steve Carrell is the solicitous local motel owner (beginning almost every sentence with “I understand.”) is an astronomer. is a mechanic. There are various-sized cameos by , , and, um, . Furthermore, a gaggle of students, parents, teachers, military personnel, singing cowboys, and others inhabit the hamlet, making up a real, if temporary, community. And yet, the stage never feels too crowded; everyone gets their moment to shine in this mosaic of comedy.

It plays like a quite usual, sophisticated, twee Anderson outing, except that it isn’t. In the first place, the artifice is doubled (or tripled), since the main story is, in fact, a play written by a Tennessee Williamsesque playwright (Edward Norton) and directed by an East Coast workaholic (Adrian Brody), whom we see at work developing the production. And we’re further introduced to these characters through a television documentary hosted by Brian Cranston (who occasionally, and amusingly, drifts into the theatrical production). The action occasionally shifts from the main story (in widescreen color) to the fictional background material (in black and white, Academy ratio). At about the film’s midpoint, Anderson inserts what may be the most audacious—and hilarious—scene he’s ever shot. (You might guess what the event is, but never in a million years would you guess the manner in which it happens.) And the third act goes especially bonkers, as the playwright explains that he wants the finale to be a case of the entire cast dreaming due to their shared cosmic experience, and enlists an actor’s studio to help stimulate his creativity. More fourth wall breaking follows, there’s a hoedown featuring a song that starts with the lyric “Dear alien, who art in Heaven,” and a repetitive chant at the climax flirts with the surreal. The film doesn’t always hang together, but the dialogue is razor sharp, the cast is magnetic, and the laughs are abundant. I don’t know if it’s Wes’ best movie, but it is his boldest and most consistently surprising.

Asteroid City doesn’t seem to know what it wants to say, and that is, it seems, what it wants to say. “I don’t understand the play,” Schwartzman complains, breaking character. The answer is that he doesn’t have to understand it. The author doesn’t. He just needs to act it.

The Asteroid City DVD/Blu-ray comes with a short making of featurette. We would not be surprised to see a more elaborate release down the line (the likes to publish every Anderson feature they can get their mitts on.)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The purest distillation of what this director brings to cinema, it’s beautiful to look at, surreal, nostalgic and funny in a weird, distanced way.”–Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)

303. UNDER THE SKIN (2013)

“We wanted to create a space that felt alien, but in the knowledge that you’re limited by the fact that you’re doing it using human imagination… So then you’re kind of in dream space, or nightmare… You’re trying to get to places that are more felt than thought.”–Jonathan Glazer

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Jeremy McWilliams, Michael Moreland,

PLOT: An alien comes to Earth and assumes the form of a human woman. She drives around Scotland in a van, picking up unattached single men with no families and taking them back to her lair, where she performs a bizarre ritual that eventually consumes them. After an encounter with a deformed man, she decides to go rogue and flees to the countryside, pursued by an overseer on a motorcycle.

Still from Under the Skin (2013)

BACKGROUND:

  • Under the Skin was based on a novel of the same name by Michel Faber, although the screen treatment does not follow the original very closely.
  • The movie was in development for more than a decade.
  • Many of the scenes were filmed documentary style, with Johansson (unrecognizable in a wig with sunglasses) walking around Scottish streets and shopping malls. Some of the men who entered the van were not actors, but were being filmed without their knowledge. It’s been reported that the team shot over 270 hours of total footage.
  • Included in Steven Schneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”
  • Selected by 366 Weird Movies readers as one of two winners of our penultimate readers’ choice poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The black goo, especially seen from the victim’s submerged perspective. (We wouldn’t want to spoil it too much).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Discarded skin; gore sluice; neurofibromatic empathy

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Under the Skin‘s structure is almost skeletal. But as an experience, the film is all about its own weirdness: humanity as seen in a newly formed alien eye.


Original trailer for Under the Skin

COMMENTS: The black room where Scarlet Johansson’s alien takes Continue reading 303. UNDER THE SKIN (2013)

CAPSULE: GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Rupert Sanders

FEATURING: Scarlett Johansson, , Pilou Asbæk,

PLOT: While tracking down a terrorist, a cyborg cop discovers that her target may be connected to her own mysterious past.

Still from Ghost in the Shell (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ghost in the Shell paints a vivid and sometimes disturbing vision of a future where power is consolidated in a handful of corporations and people are in thrall to robotics and body modifications. Some of the ideas remain surprising and unusual, but many more have been disseminated far and wide, leaving the story’s innovations dated and even tedious.

COMMENTS: The problem with being an innovator is that when others use and expand upon your innovations, you end up looking like you’re late to the party. Such is the position that Ghost in the Shell finds itself in; coming years after the original manga comic and a celebrated animé adaptation (which this reviewer has neither read nor seen), the new live-action film has to prove itself in a landscape that it has already influenced extensively. The result is that Ghost in the Shell, a slick-looking dystopian film interested in the loss of identity, is in the awkward position of being derivative of itself. The ad-dominated skyline of a neo-Hong Kong megalopolis is taken directly from Blade Runner. The visualization of the world as a wilderness of code references The Matrix. The incomplete android woman seems to shout-out Ex Machina. There are images that shock and amuse: a geisha robot who assumes the pose of a spider, a pair of flip-up eyes, an elaborate assembly line for building a humanoid robot shell. But too much of the film, while spectacularly realized, has a been-there, done-that vibe.

That puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of Scarlett Johansson, and she is a strong enough actress to pull off the internalized torment of a character who is intentionally devoid of personality. Considering the collection of archetypes she’s acting opposite (the loyal partner, the duplicitous maternal figure, the absurdly cartoonish villain who actually utters the line, “that’s the problem with the human heart”), she manages to make a real person out of a  cypher who could easily have been little more than an ass-kicking sex object. However, given her previous turns as an alien attempting to decipher humanity, an operating system achieving sentience, and a party girl coming to grips with the untapped reaches of her own mind , it’s fair to argue that Johansson, like the movie she’s in, is revisiting old themes.

But it is impossible to talk about the actress without discussing the elephant in the room: based on the source material, her role is an Asian woman, which she is decidedly not. The whitewashing accusation is clearly an issue that resonates; the studio now admits that the controversy may have negatively impacted box office returns. It’s not clear-cut: Johansson’s performance does a lot to justify the studio’s trust in her, the history of race in manga is deeply complex, and fans in the story’s native Japan were completely nonplussed by the furor. Indeed, the new film itself stands as a kind of monument to the internationalization of Hollywood product. From the studios (American, Chinese) to the locations (Hong Kong, New Zealand) to the cast (American, Japanese, Danish, British, Singaporean, French, Romanian, Australian, Kurdish-Polish), Ghost in the Shell is aggressively global.

All this would be easier to dismiss if the adapters hadn’t written the controversy directly into the script. In this telling of the tale, the brain that is transferred into Johansson’s android body turns out to be that of a young Japanese woman. This makes the loss of identity palpable, in that this consciousness is transplanted with no respect to its sense of self, but that tragedy is terribly trivialized if you view the filmmakers as having done the same thing. The choice—whether through total cluelessness or extreme chutzpah—is a mortal blow to the story’s credibility.

Ultimately, the casting of Johansson just another example of the filmmakers trying to have it all. Her character is divorced from humanity, yet repeatedly sexualized. (In particular, in the wake of a bomb blast, the damage all seems to located primarily at her chest and genitals, meaning we are staring in the general vicinity of Johansson’s privates as a team of 3D printers reassemble her body.) It wants to be an action thriller with a brain, but the exploration of identity is entirely surface-level, while the action is perfunctory and punctuated by one-liners that fall flat. Beyond “let’s make a live-action version of Ghost in the Shell,” there’s not much of a reason for this movie, no greater vision. Since it doesn’t know what else it wants to be, it ends up being not very much at all.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Visually, this film is stunning. The cinematography is beautiful, with some very innovative shots and framing, really making the most of this fictional future Japan’s shiny weirdness…  It could have been better if more care had been taken with the human side of things though: a bit more focus on the ghost, a bit less attention to the shell, if you like.” – Tim Martain, The Mercury (contemporaneous)

WOODY ALLEN’S CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989) AND MATCH POINT (2005)

In 1935, Peter Lorre (in one of his few great roles) seared the screen as Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment (Josef von Sternberg directed, unevenly). is too original to give us a direct adaptation of his literary hero, but he certainly utilizes a   Dostoyevsky diving board  for his own Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), just as he did (in parody) in Love and Death (1975).

Judah Rosenthal () is a phenomenally successful Manhattan ophthalmologist having an extramarital  affair with flight attendant Dolores (). It’s his first affair, and it turns out to be brief and tragic. Judah consults with both his blind rabbi best friend Ben (Sam Waterston) and his mafioso brother Jack (Jerry Orbach). Both give contrasting advice, as expected. As he did in 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen utilizes a large ensemble cast here, interweaving character narratives. Allen himself plays Cliff Stern; a serious low-budget documentarian who, through family connections, has been commissioned to make a promotional film about smug television producer Lester (Alan Alda).

Still from Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)Landau earned an Academy Award nomination for his role. He had been nominated for the previous year’s Tucker: A Man and His Dreams and would be nominated again (and finally win) in 1995 for playing in ‘s Ed Wood. Landau shines in his nail-biting, pacing-the-floor moments, but it’s Alda as the vulgar, bouncing-off-the-walls, dumbed-down producer who steals the film.

Both Lester and Cliff are competing for Halley (Mia Farrow). Will she choose the romantic outsider artist, or status through money? As Ed Wood () tells Georgie Wiess (Mike Stall) in Ed Wood, “Georgie, this is drama.” Actually, here it’s bleak comedy, and the film peaks with this love triangle.

Crimes And Misdemeanors repeats familiar Allen themes. As in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) there is love unrewarded. As in Dostoyevsky, there is murder unpunished. Despite those familiar themes, Crimes and Misdemeanors excels in lucid, innovative storytelling. There is symbolism aplenty (the blind rabbi, the ophthalmologist’s father warning him that God can see everything). It is the type of film that literary minded students are prone to dissect, but Crimes’ self-assured humor is what wins us over.

In Match Point (2005), Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy” serves as Allen’s literary reference (in addition to Dostoyevsky). Some critics found it a weaker sibling to Crimes and Misdemeanors, but also noted it was Allen’s best film in a decade. Putting aside sophomoric better than or weaker than gauges, Match Point again finds Woody in superior narrative form. He has listed it as being his best work, undoubtedly aided considerably by Remi Adefarasin’s icy, noirish lens work. At 124 minutes, it is also his longest film to date.  Refreshingly, Allen is forthright about influences when Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is depicted reading “Crime And Punishment.”

Still from Match Point (2005)The object of Chris’ obsession is Nola (), and the two lead actors give sizzling performances. Myers’ mechanically cold blue eyes contrast with Johansson’s earthy anxiousness (Allen worked with her again in 2006’s Scoop and 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Like the antagonist/protagonist in Dreiser’s epic work, Chris comes from poverty. He is on a tennis tour when meets affluent pro Tom (Matthew Goode). Tom’s girlfriend is the wannabe actress Nola. At the opera, Tom plays cupid, introducing Chris to his single sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). The seeds of marrying right are planted. However, after Tom dumps Nola (she doesn’t live up to familial expectations), Chris throws the proverbial monkey wrench into his own machinery when he begins a torrid affair and impregnates Nola.

Allen takes a smarter route than George Stevens did in A Place In The Sun (1951), his update of “An American Tragedy.” In the earlier film, Stevens cast as an unattractive, pathetically nagging girlfriend to Montgomery Clift. When Clift contemplates murdering Winters to further his romance with the wealthy Elizabeth Taylor (in one of her most sensuous roles), we can only feel relief. Although none of the characters in Match Point rise above being reprehensible, Johansson, at her most complex, inspires more sympathy than Winters did. As in the source material, there is a pointed condemnation of unfettered capitalism, but Allen also makes a comment about existence without meaning: “I’d rather be lucky than good.” By removing himself from the film’s ensemble cast, Allen’s commitment to the unfolding narrative is complete. Upon its release, many critics cast it as Allen’s most atypical film. There is a degree of truth in that, but Allen also manages to make avarice and homicide pay, when we almost expect a Dickens-like Scrooge to heed the ghost’ warning. In Allen’s world, the response is quite different.

CAPSULE: LUCY (2014)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Amr Waked,

PLOT: An American student develops godlike powers when she is accidentally dosed with an experimental drug.

Still from Lucy (2014)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: I’m unsure whether Luc Besson is just joshing around here or whether Lucy the worst premise for a seriously intended science fiction movie of the year, but even the sight of Scarlett Johansson morphing into a black tentacle biocomputer can’t compensate for the feeling that you’re using less and less of your cerebral capacity the longer you watch this movie.

COMMENTS: Lucy may be a looney lark, or it may be one of the dumbest sci-fi movies to come down the pike in quite some time. The premise, that human beings have areas of the brain they never use which might house great untapped powers, might have played in the 1970s at the height of the paranormal craze, but in the age of the Internet, everyone who can read an IMDB message board is aware that the old “humans only use 10% of our minds” canard is complete b.s. And of course, even if it were true that you could find ways to utilize more of your “cerebral capacity,” that wouldn’t allow you to flex your neurons on objects located outside your cranium, change your hair color, or commandeer cell phone signals. Lucy‘s plot device is just a trick to give its protagonist whatever magical powers she needs to breeze past her next obstacle. The science in this fiction is on the sophistication level of a Marvel superhero movie, except those omnipotent heroes are always given equally omnipotent villains to square off against. Here, there’s no one in the movie capable of even landing a blow on Lucy from the very first moment she develops her powers, which creates a very odd, tension-free dynamic. It’s somewhat to the film’s credit that this lack of inherent conflict doesn’t completely kill it, but the main way the movie soldiers on is by throwing another action or effects sequence at you every five minutes: Lucy telekinetically flinging gangsters around the room, Lucy commandeering a cop car and putting her 40% optimized cerebral capacity to work stunt driving down the streets of Paris. The movie’s emphasis on action set pieces is completely and ridiculously at odds with its supposed philosophical ruminations about human evolution and the nature of time. It ends with a totally irrelevant bloodbath shootout that makes no logical sense whatsoever.

To his credit, Besson does toss most of his kitchen appliances into the movie, leaving only the sink unthrown. The effects are spectacular and are clearly the only reason for the movie to exist. There’s Lucy’s spontaneous levitation, the curtain of multicolored beams she sees descending from the heavens which she can swipe and manipulate like a cell phone app, and the spectacular moment when her facial molecules inconveniently start to drift apart during an airline flight. Besson includes references to 2001: A Space Odyssey (ape men), The Tree of Life (dinosaurs), and the Sistine Chapel (by way of E.T.). Maybe the strangest touch of all is the revelation that the miracle drug in question is actually a pregnancy hormone (!) The most favorable way to see the movie would be as a Lucy’s dying hallucination as she lies poisoned by the ruptured bag of drugs in her intestine; it would justify a lot of the film’s illogic, and her dopey gnostic omniscience would then appear to be a sly satire on delusions of “consciousness expansion” and chemical enlightenment. Unfortunately, the only serious justification for that reading I can come up with is the fact that Lucy‘s speculations are too ridiculous to be taken seriously on their face.

Around here, we last noted Luc Besson working on The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, a homemade French fantasy with a wealth of imagination undermined by a dime store CGI pterodactyl. The bi-continental auteur, who splits time between Gallic and Hollywood movies, follows up a great fantasy script with laughable effects with a laughable script featuring terrific effects. It’s almost as if he’s deliberately trying to protect stereotypes—American movies are big, dumb, and spectacular, while continental movies are smart but underfunded. C’est la vie, I guess.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the sheer weirdness of Lucy’s imagery—a telekinesis-assisted car chase, a USB stick containing all the knowledge of the universe, people growing animal limbs—prevents it from registering as run-of-the-mill summertime ‘dumb fun.’ It comes across, instead, as a directorial flight of fancy, an imaginatively goofy take on an already goofy idea, exaggerated by Besson’s blunt style and an uncommonly fast pace.”–Ignatiy Vishnevetshy, A.V. Club (contemporaneous)