Ghost World (2001)

Ghost World (2001) movie poster

director Terry Zwigoff
viewed: 10/20/2017

This viewing of Ghost World was me sharing it with my teenage kids. They both enjoyed it.

“The girl that looks like Scarlett Johansson” is indeed Scarlett Johansson.

This viewing also reminded me how cool the soundtrack was.

I now need to dig up the comic to share with my daughter.

Also, it’s nice how unresolved the film is at the end. Not knowing what one is and ruining all your relationships while you’re figuring it out. That things don’t always work out and resolution is often unachievable.

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Captain America: Civil War (2016) movie poster

directors Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
viewed: 05/07/2016 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

My 14 year old son is boycotting all superhero movies at present, but my 12 year old daughter is over the moon about them, in particular those of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Myself, I’m somewhere between those polar opposites.  But as a good dad, of course I took my daughter to see Marvel’s latest.

Ostensibly a Captain America movie, this one has even more characters in it than the last Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).  They couldn’t even find space for Spider-Man and Ant-Man on the poster.  There’s only so much room in a $250 million/147 minute flick.

Anthony & Joe Russo return as directors, following Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) in the ongoing saga of…Jeez, I can hardly even remember what that one was about.  The upshot in this one is that after all the destruction brought about in defending the Earth against the likes of Loki and Ultron, people of many nations want to see superheroes managed by the United Nations, rather than acting as free agents.  Willingness to comply with this ultimatum breaks up the good guys into an us vs. them “civil war”.  Add to that mix that old Bucky, the Winter Soldier, is framed for a crime against the U.N. and everybody finds themselves either on Team Stark (pro-registration) or Team Cap (pro-independence).

I’m not exactly sure what the messaging is meant to be here.  Do we want privatized superheroing or do we want the government to control the resources?  Which is right?  Well, it seems that for the time being, the government is looking all corruptible and so therefore we have to trust the incorruptibility of our heroes.  I’m not sure what that suggests?  Smaller government?  Is this a conservative vehicle?

The film’s biggest coup is snagging Spider-Man 3.0 star Tom Holland, currently still a teenager playing a Spider-Man whose voice hasn’t completely broken.  Promising though it is for the next installment of that franchise, his screen time is probably more promise than delivery.

Overall, I found it an entertaining enough movie.  It could hardly be more jam-packed.

My daughter really liked it.  She and her pals are totally into this stuff right now, and though I don’t dig it on that level, I do appreciate being that age and being into something nerdy in a big way.

The Marvel machine rolls on.  Where it stops…?

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Hail, Caesar! (2016) movie poster

directors Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
viewed: 02/07/2016 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Before the turn of the millennium, the Coen brothers filmography was pretty much pure gold.  The 21st century, though, has been far less consistent.  I would posit that it’s garnered them two very good films, No Country for Old Men (2007) and True Grit (2010), several middling but interesting films, and one out-and-out stinker, The Ladykillers (2004).

As many have noted, with the Hollywood period setting, Hail, Caesar! echoes of Barton Fink (1991) and its apparent genre as a comedy, flecks of Intolerable Cruelty (2003) or Burn After Reading (2008)?

Increasingly, as I walk out of the theater from their latest picture, I am trying to sort out my reaction, which is often less than enthusiastic.  I don’t know how I feel, about Burn After Reading, about A Serious Man (2009), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), about Hail, Caesar!

Politics and Communism, the Studio System, Church and Religion, genres, genres, genres.

All the actors are good, playing glib cartoons on the whole.  There are a few great scenes, particularly  Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich — a stand-out) battling director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), “Would that it were so simple?” and Channing Tatum’s “No Dames” dance number.

But I don’t know.  It hasn’t jelled yet for me.  Time will tell if it will.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) movie poster

director Joss Whedon
viewed: 05/03/2015 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

The summer of movies 2015 began with arguably the biggest movie that summer 2015 has to offer the movie-going public, The Avengers (2012) sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron.  At this point, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a well-established thing, with wave after wave pounding the shores of pop culture media, inflated and expanded by its connection to Disney, it is at present the corporate entertainment machine par excellence.  And I mean that in wowed amazement at the cornering of the market, the pumping of the products, intensive saturation, and amazing ambition.

Then there are the actual movies.

Helmed by Joss Whedon, who led the first The Avengers film into financial and relative critical success, the questions poured out about this sequel.  Could it be bigger and still be good, much less better?  The hype machine at Disney/Marvel envisioned this as one of its major deliverables, but with two more sequels set for 2017 and 2018, this film is no simple endgame in and of itself.

Honestly, I kind of enjoyed it.  It’s neither great nor terrible and while it has its merits and detractions, I was more or less entertained and satisfied.  Felix said it was “okay”.  Clara liked it.  Considering all the things that it had to do, that level of success is admirable, even if it’s nothing to get excited about.   Whedon has said this is his last venture with the franchise.

Just look at the poster, you’ll get a good idea of what is going on here.  There are 10 superheroes vying for screentime.  You can barely squeeze them onto a single poster.  It’s not an easy thing to wrangle.

Local critic Mick LaSalle wrote that the film was the embodiment of the end of cinema, a digital-effects blast of noise and action with no humanity nor heart, a parallel of the film’s actual narrative about evil artificial intelligence and robots attacking all humanity.  And in the film’s opening segment, featuring a slick image of a bunch of the characters flying through the air in slow motion, I could see that.  But I would say that has been the enormous shortcoming of Marvel superhero movies since they came of age in the CGi times.

Marvel’s best characters are indeed so fantastical that they really haven’t been renderable with traditional FX.  Thus the dearth of them in the days before computers took over the movies.  The huge shortcoming, though, to finally being able to render a big huge Hulk or a robot like Ultron is that they are animated and they do fantastically outrageous things that could never happen in real life and yet they have to be rendered with utter realism.  As good as FX technologies have gotten and as talented as FX people are, there is an ultimate rub here.  It’s hard to look at the screen and not know and be aware that it’s all computer-generated.

I’m at odds with myself to an extent on Marvel at this point and time.  We have seen pretty much all the movies and enjoyed many of them.  But it is hard not to look at the monolithic slate of product and not balk at the corporatization and endless rehashing of content and want to continue to feed that beast.  I guess that is my dilemma for now.

At least until Ant-Man (2015) comes out and we go see that one.

Don Jon (2013)

Don Jon (2013) movie poster

director Joseph Gordon-Levitt
viewed: 09/07/2014

I, like apparently a lot of people around the world, have a thing for Scarlett Johansson.  I think she’s very attractive, sure, but she’s developed into quite a good actress/movie star.  She’s been on a run of good and interesting roles in the past year or two and some of her roles seem to resonate interestingly against other roles she’s played.

Frankly, if it wasn’t for her, I don’t think I’d have been interested in Don Jon at all.

I really like Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  He’s almost at the level of my appreciation that I would be interested in most things that he works on.  This, his first writing/directorial role in a feature film, would have interested me, if the whole thing didn’t seem like the movie trailer told you everything you need to know about the film.  And I don’t discredit the movie trailer in this case.  The film is relatively simple.

A guy (you should read this with a serious New Jersey accent since everyone in the film has one — except for Julianne Moore) loves porn and masturbation above sex, though with his love of cars, girls, sex, family and religion, he gets a lot of physical contact.  He finally meets a girl that he’s super into but she becomes disgusted by his porn habits and lying and quits him.  Soul-searching he learns from an older woman in a class of his that he had just been very selfish and shallow and he learns to be a better lover.  But the girl still doesn’t want him back because she’s as shallow as he was.

I think if you love Jersey Shore, you might love these characters.  Maybe.  Maybe not.

It’s fine as a film.  I just didn’t care for it.

It could actually be an interesting parallel/contrast point with Spike Jonze’s Her (2013).  It’s another Scarlett Johansson relationship flick from 2013, only in that one, she’s a disembodied voice, artificial intelligence with none of the body that drives Gordon-Levitt so wild in Don Jon.  She is a person but much less so that her artificial counterpart in Her, but it’s still not lacking in the contrasts.  What attracts people to one another, what a relationship really is between two people (beings), even sex versus sex with self/computer.  She is both ideal girl and impossible girl.

Only the artificial one has great depth. The real one is kind of artificial and shallow.

I don’t know.  After thinking about the counterpoints between Lucy (2014) and Under the Skin (2012), maybe I’m just getting cross-eyed with my Scarlett Johansson movies.  Or is she genuinely picking roles that offer stark and keen contrasts?

Last comment on the subject for now.  Somewhere I heard the argument between “great actors” and “great moviestars”.  Great actors are what people always talk about and roles are written for and awards are given.  Great moviestars, in this argument, are actors who generally play themselves or at least not outside of a relatively tight range, but who find directors and roles that utilize them exceptionally well.  The former might be your Philip Seymour Hoffman type, the latter might be your George Clooney type.  I don’t know that I think that all actors could be reduced to these generalities, but it is interesting to consider actors like Johansson who play in a range of movies, sometimes roles that aren’t inherently interesting like Black Widow in Captain America or something, other times playing a bit more of a “role” with the accent like here.

I don’t know.  She’s always been beautiful, sexy.  She’s developed a lot and has gotten more interesting and has made her roles more interesting too.

The comparison/contrast is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose.

Her (2013)

Her (2013) movie poster

director Spike Jonze
viewed: 09/07/2014

Despite consistently good reviews, Spike Jonze’s Her didn’t excite me.  Even from the movie poster of a wistful Joaquin Phoenix, who looks vaguely Tom Selleck-like, peering from the image, I wasn’t intrigued.  The story of a man who falls in love with his talking OS (Operating System) seemed not exactly like a romp.  Love stories aren’t entirely my bag.

But the film’s operating system is voiced by Scarlett Johansson, in a performance considered so good, local film critic Mick LaSalle suggested she be considered for an Oscar despite never appearing onscreen.  Her physicality is part of her appeal, so again, this dampened my potential urge to see the film.  But eventually, I thought, I should or might as well.

I was keenly surprised what an excellent film it was.  Maybe I shouldn’t be.  Jonze may not be a master auteur but his films have all been interesting at least: Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), Where the Wild Things Are (2009).  Still, I wasn’t quite prepared for how interesting this film was going to be: visually, emotionally, conceptually.

Visually it’s very neat.  The color palettes are pinks and yellows and strangely modernist, this oh so near future.  This is science fiction, but only prodded a bit beyond the now.  There is a visual aesthetic that is really quite remarkable.

Conceptually, the ideas are about interpersonal life.  Phoenix’s character Theodore works for a company that writes personal letters for people too busy or challenged to write their own.  His work is considered great poetry and art but he essentially works as an emotional surrogate for humanity.  It is into this divorced life his new OS appears, unique and truly imbued with artificial intelligence.  Beyond intelligence and self-awareness, there is a true and real personality.  And this is Scarlett Johansson.

He falls in love with her and her with him.  And in this modern world of things, he is not alone in falling for this type of newly developed being.  They have emotional ups and downs as any couple, share magical moments together, great intimacy, challenges, fights, struggles.

I don’t want to ruin it for you.  So stop reading if you must.  But eventually “Samantha” (Johansson)’s intelligence, being, and knowledge outgrow her form (or lack of form), as do the other OS’s imbued with knowledge and awareness and being. hyy There are analogues in relationships, where people change, grow and change, and move away from one another in their needs and development.  But eventually it becomes a change for all artificially intelligent computer systems and they depart for another reality.

The emotional grip of the story is powerful, too.  Jonze really succeeds in developing love story and relationship between Phoenix and his disembodied love interest.  It has impact.  It did for me, at least.

Jonze’s films have all contained aspects of a depressing or pessimistic view on life.  At least in my readings of them.  Even in the gentle hopeful moments of resolution and ending, there is something that I find quite depressing.  I can deal with pessimism.  Depressing is a variant emotional interpretation of the films.  And Her has a melancholy to its heart, not necessarily resolved towards hope for humanity in the end, but rather the loss of love and change and transition in lives.  What it means to be alive.

Really, I’m surprised how much I liked Her.  I’ll be recommending it to friends.

Lucy (2014)

Lucy (2014) movie poster

director Luc Besson
viewed: 07/25/2014 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

The Scarlett Johansson sci-fi movie of the year that you should see is Under the Skin (2013).  The Scarlett Johansson sci-fi movie of the year that you will probably see is Luc Besson’s Lucy.  Not a bad double feature, but there you go.

These are words of advice that I would just have easily given to myself.

On the plus side for Lucy, it’s a concise 90 minute genre film that gets rolling from the word “go.”  Johansson’s Lucy gets tricked into taking a mysterious case to a Taiwanese gangster.  Things rapidly and bloodily go from bad to worse where in she has a packet of some new kind of street drug sewn into her abdomen.  Only when this drug starts leaking into her system, she begins to be able to tap into more and more of her brain’s capacity, developing toward an ultimate consciousness and lots of superpowers to boot.

So there is the concise genre action film and then this more head-trippy perspective on human development and uber-consciousness that includes a creation of the universe and human potentiality that has drawn comparisons from things like Stanley Kubrick 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and even Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011).  Maybe other comparisons to more recent sci-fi films about expanded consciousness are more apt, like Limitless (2011) or Transcendence (2014), but I haven’t seen those.

I did, on the other hand, think of Gaspar Noé’s super head-trippy Enter the Void (2010), which I think could have been a good influence on this film if it had been more considered.

Lucy is entertaining.  Some are suggesting it’s Besson’s best since The Fifth Element (1997) which is doubtlessly true.  He’s made a lot of serious garbage for the past two decades or so.  It fits well within Besson’s oeuvre, this strong female kicker of asses, heroine to save humanity, female empowerment via a truly male perspective.  From Nikita (1990), The Fifth Element, his atrocious The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999), and even as recent as Angel-A (2005), this has been a consistent theme for him.

For Johansson, it’s another feather in her cap.  She’s very good in the film, ranging from mouthy young party thing to superhuman megabrain.  She keeps the whole thing moving along and compelling.  She’s having a really good run of good performances in a myriad of movies.  All I can say is, “Keep up the good work!”

Under the Skin (2013)


Under the Skin (2013) movie poster

director Jonathan Glazer
viewed: 07/20/2014

Jonathan Glazer has only made three films in the past 15 years, but all three have been very good (Birth (2004)), excellent (Sexy Beast (2000)) or now with Under the Skin, amazing.

The film can be summarized rather summarily: Scarlett Johansson (you had me as Scarlett) plays a woman who goes around Scotland, picking up men seductively, taking them to isolated places where her seduction leads them into a black pool of death (literally).  They are submerged and abandoned, then sucked out, and turned into some grisly red puree.

The film strives for a perspective of the alien, as it turns out that Johansson is not of this Earth.  Glazer doesn’t spell out the narrative for the audience;  it’s intentionally open and meant to be intuited.

Scarlett Johansson.  She is great as this strange being who seems to begin to develop a sense of humanity living in the skin of a human, particularly after she meets a man with “facial neurofibromatosis disfigurement” (played by a man with the real disorder, not in make-up).  I’m not the first to note this, but Johansson is developing as an actress, more and more, not necessarily in the showy performances that win Oscars, but in these subtler roles.

She is also fully naked through parts of the film.  A different element of notability.

Really, the film emanates on varying ideas throughout.  She is sort of vampire-like in her seduction and charms, a female serial killer, luring men with her looks and friendliness.  She is a killer who doesn’t actively kill.  She lures them to their deaths in some liquid machinery.  There is something sort of feminist in some of this action perhaps.

But the film evolves as she develops to a point of actually trying to have sex with a man rather than luring him with promises unfulfilled.  The sex freaks her out.  Not what she was expecting.  And ultimately, as she is dealing with some realizations about humans and humanity, perhaps trying to come to terms with what she is and what she is doing, she is attacked by a man who attempts to rape her.  She is unmasked in this moment, the alien under the skin exposed.  The man then douses her with petrol ad sets her ablaze, which takes the potential feminist reading and makes that stranger, somehow.

I don’t know.  There is a lot to this film.  It’s strange, moody, thoughtful, contemplative, and “arty”.  I can’t give it a singular commentary.  But I’d say it’s certainly one of the best films I’ve seen this year.  I’m sorry I didn’t get to the theater to see it when it was out.  I’ve got the feeling that I’ll be recommending it to people a lot in the coming months.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) movie poster

directors Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
viewed: 04/15/2014 at Terra Vista 6, Rancho Cucamonga, CA

The kids and I enjoyed the first Captain America movie, Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) more than we expected to and have kept up with the Marvel movie cycle so far.  Oddly enough, the kids aren’t all that bothered about it.  They were ambivalent about Thor: The Dark World (2013) despite having liked the first Thor (2011), and overall don’t seem too excited about either the new The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) or X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), this summer’s slew of Marvel superhero movies.

Me, I kind of wanted to see them.  So we did.

The new Captain America film isn’t quite as entertaining as the first one.  It’s set in the present day, taking place after The Avengers (2012) and in preparation for the upcoming The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).  The story is primarily about a deep spy infestation of S.H.I.E.L.D., the agency headed by ol’ Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).  It’s a complex scenario, with roots in the bad guys of the Nazis, and so it’s a big affair, with a villainous Robert Redford at its heart.

I’ve long held the belief (rightly or wrongly) that a good superhero movie tends to rely on a good villain.  I think that this may actually be mostly true.  For Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we have “The Winter Soldier” who is a masked, though sort of not a major character.  It turns out to be Cap’s old buddy Bucky, so not really an arch villain.  The rest are an army of good guys/bad guys agents, sort of nameless and interchangeable.  And while the film is mostly pretty entertaining, it lacks the key antagonist that my little pet theory calls for.

On the positive side, it has a lot more of the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), which is a very good thing.  She hadn’t really been given much to do in most of her appearances in the various films, but here she gets to develop her character as well as kick some ass and look very hot while doing it.  The film benefits from her presence and focus.

Overall, it’s entertaining, as I said.  Captain America is still an odd hero franchise in this day and age, though the narrative with the corrupt government agency unveiling a less black-and-white world of heroism and right and wrong develops well enough through this potential issue.  And Chris Evans is likable as the Captain.  It’s still only a “good” movie, a good as in passable, decent, okay.   Not good as in, “that was a GOOD movie!”  Satisfactory.  Okay.  Reasonable.  The kids felt the same.

The Avengers (2012)

The Avengers (2012) movie poster

director Joss Whedon
viewed: 05/11/2012 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

It’s been suggested that one’s enjoyment of the new Joss Whedon The Avengers film is in direct correlation to your fanaticism regarding comics.  Comic book fans have been effusing about the film and the thing has been rocking the theaters, ratcheting up more money than God in its “as yet” run.  At first, I was thinking to suggest that my more moderated appreciation of the film might indicate a lower level of geekiness within myself.  But I think that formula is not quite correct.  Fanatics may be thrilled, others may be appreciative, but enjoyment doesn’t directly correlate to hardcore geekdom.

The real story, to me, has been Marvel Studios’ overt gambit at franchise-building over the five or so years building up to this blockbuster.  It certainly goes back to Iron Man (2008), in which the first suggestion of The Avengers was staked.  It may have also included 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, which starred Edward Norton as Bruce Banner (switched out here for Mark Ruffalo).  Marvel Studios had the plan well laid-out by the time Iron Man 2 (2010), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and Thor (2011) were released.  The latter three films in some ways were marketing materials for this big superhero team film featuring a whole gang of characters, no shortage of big name actors and actresses, co-starring in an ensemble action film extroirdinaire.

I’ve posited, since the first X-Men film that Marvel released in 2000 that for a lot of movie adaptation of such materials, the mantra is more to get the character(s) right, in the eyes of the fanbase, more than make a movie work.  So, it was much bated-breath that geek favorite Joss Whedon took the reins of this beast of a flick.  That Whedon’s only other cinematic directorial effort was Serenity (2005), this could have been a concern.  Or, as it turns out, it was a coup.

It’s undeniably a coup now, given the popularity and money that The Avengers has garnered.  It’s given the green light to dozens more films with the characters and actors.  While this might have been the event to which much of Marvel’s other films had been building, this event is now part of the marketing for all that comes hence.

It’s no little thing to pull off a superhero movie well.  Most of them are not so good.  Many are very bad.  It’s arguably even harder to do so when you’ve got as many primary characters having to vie to simply be secondary characters.  And then a villain and some big action sequences that can are genuinely exciting.  So kudos to those guys and let’s all be prepared for years more of the many elements and extensions of this franchise ad nauseum.

All that said, that is what I think is most interesting about the film.  The film itself I liked.  I felt entertained.  I particularly liked Ruffalo as Dr. Banner and Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man, though all of the cast members are good in their roles, good enough anyway.  And the kids liked the film too.  Hard to say how much at first glance, but I do think they did like it.  We’d watched Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor together, so they had some of that to help orient them to characters and comic books with which they were unfamiliar otherwise.  And we’ll be in, I’m sure, for others to come, though we’ll just have to see what they feel like when that comes along.