Out of Nowhere: Midday on Film Looks at Actors Who Have Surprised Us

[Missed the show? Here’s the link to the podcast: http://wypr.org/post/midday-film-2]

2014-05-02 - Rodricks Poster - Text

Have you ever watched a film where an actor you had written off as mediocre suddenly surprised you with a brilliant – or, at least, somewhat committed – performance? Or have you gone back and watched an older film with an actor who is now just going through the paces of earning a paycheck, and seen what s/he was like at the start, and been wowed? Maybe you’ve even just been (pleasantly) shocked when a star who was known for comedy suddenly took on a dramatic role (or vice versa), and did well. If you’ve experienced any of these sensations, then get ready for our next Midday on Film show, when we’ll celebrate these kinds of thespian revelations.

Join us, then, on Friday, May 2, at 1pm, on WYPR (88.1FM), on the Midday with Dan Rodricks show, when Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed (that’s me) – Chair and Professor, Department of Film/Video, Stevenson University – will discuss, along with our host, Dan Rodricks, our (very subjective) choices of interesting shockers. These days, everyone thinks of Matthew McConaughey, who rescued his career from romcom hell and now just won an Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club. I first noticed that something was different about him with the 2011 thriller The Lincoln Lawyer. Other contenders for actors who have risen above their beginnings might include George Clooney, Amy Adams and Mark Wahlberg. Jennifer Lopez is my contender for someone who started strong and only then slipped into mediocrity.

How about you? What are your choices? Add your voices to the conversation via email (midday@wypr.org) or phone (410-662-8780 locally, or toll-free at 1-866-661-9309). If you can’t listen live, then check out the podcast later by visiting the show’s site. Should be fun!

“The Other Woman” Is a Miserable Affair

Other Woman

The Other Woman (Nick Cassavetes, 2014)

I wish I had something nice to say about The Other Woman, since it’s the only film I saw this week in a theater but, alas, I do not. It is a miserable affair, directed by Nick Cassavetes, son of John, who gave us such delightful independent film masterpieces as Shadows, Faces and A Woman Under the InfluenceThe Other Woman is everything that Cassavetes rebelled against in his own work: crass commercialism in service of a forgettable and offensively stupid story. The apple has fallen very far from the tree. Perhaps a better title for this awful misfire would be Women Under the Influence and Loving It.

Leslie Mann plays Kate King, who is married to wealthy entrepreneur and playboy Mark King (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, neither as interesting nor as good-looking as the film insists, and whose accent slips annoyingly in and out of place). He, unbeknownst to her, is carrying on a torrid affair with a successful New York attorney, Carly (Cameron Diaz), who has no idea he is married. Carly, in fact, thinks Mark may be “the one.” Until she travels to Connecticut to surprise him after he cancels a date, and discovers his wife. Gee, if it were that easy to track him down, one wonders how this man – who, it turns out, is a serial cheater – could escape exposure and detection in our social media-saturated world . . .

Anyway, after Carly flees the scene, Kate tracks her down and shows up at her office in Manhattan. Soon, these wronged women bond, become frenemies and, finally, friends. Before long, they discover that Mark has another mistress, Amber (a very dim Kate Upton, whose charms completely escape me). Despite the fact that Amber appears to have the IQ of a ferret, they convince her to join with them, and the three begin a campaign of retaliation against Mark. And – *spoiler alert* – they triumph! He gets his comeuppance. They get the money! They douse him with feminine hormones that make his nipples grow! They put hair remover in his shampoo that makes his hair fall out! They put laxatives in his drink that cause, as Mark puts it, a “fecal incident!” Ha, ha!

I will admit that I did, in fact, laugh once or twice (much to my chagrin, the “fecal incident” did force a few guffaws from my throat). But as the film wore on, I became increasingly morose. It was just so overwhelmingly disheartening. All of this female energy (the film is written by Melissa Stack) in service of a story that makes women look sad, desperate and man-obsessed. Even though she knows he’s a jerk, Mann’s Kate can’t help sleeping with Mark halfway through the film, so thrilled that he’s touched her again (and this is after the nipple incident – pay attention, guys, maybe enlarged male teats are the next big thing!). Even though I think the Bechtel Test is more interesting as an exercise rather than a valid way to evaluate films and their intent, I kept wondering how this movie would fare in that system. Yes, there are more than two women, which is good, but their entire existence and bonding is predicated on their shared hatred of a single man. They have nothing in common beyond that. And – since this is meant to be a raucous comedy – they often do very dumb things for a laugh. The portrait this movie paints of modern women is desolate, indeed.

So whatever mirth I experienced through the first half of the film began to sour, and soon I could only taste the curdle. The audience I was with seemed to be having a good time, overall, so maybe you will, too. Or you could go see Captain America: The Winter Soldier again, to keep it on top of the box office for one more weekend. That film, in spite of all of its testosterone, has a main female character (only one, it is true) – Black Widow – with more of an internal life than all three of the “other women” combined.

A Study in Scarlett: The Siren Song of “Under the Skin”

Under the Skin

“Isserley always drove straight past a hitch-hiker when she first saw him, to give herself time to size him up. She was looking for big muscles: a hunk on legs. Puny, scrawny specimens were no use to her.”

– Michel Faber, Under the Skin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000).

Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

Billed as “based upon the novel Under The Skin by Michael [sic] Faber,” perhaps the most remarkable thing about the third feature by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy BeastBirth) is how absolutely unique and unlike the source text the movie evolved to be. According to the press kit, Glazer originally wrote a faithful adaptation, but then experienced a breakthrough while writing Birth (an interesting, if deeply flawed film), and decided to focus almost exclusively on the one aspect of the book that most interested him: identity. What would we look like to an alien species, and what would happen if that alien species began to identify with us as more than just objects for consumption? Filmed with lingering long-duration takes that draw us in to the mind of said alien, the movie also asks what happens to us when we identify with the alien. It is a disturbing, if deeply mesmerizing, experience.

In the book, Isserley – a female of her species, surgically altered to look relatively human – cruises the highlands of Scotland looking for muscular men to capture, bring back to her company’s farm, fatten, and ship off to her home planet. In the movie, the alien (Scarlett Johansson) – never named – cruises the streets of Glasgow in a white van, picking up any men (muscular or not) in need of a ride, and brings them back to an abandoned building where she strips naked and lures them into a pool of black viscous liquid where they float suspended until their vital essence is sucked out, leaving them as desiccated husks of discarded skin. She is assisted by mysterious men on motorbikes who clean up any messes (and evidence) left behind. Why she is here, where she is from and why she needs us is not important. She is predator; we are prey. The siren calls, and we respond.

Certain passages bring to mind the existential questions at the heart of another great science fiction film, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which used the genre as an excuse to explore the nature of the human condition, particularly as viewed by its own non-human character, the HAL computer. Like Kubrick, Glazer uses extreme close-ups and abstract compositions and graphics to create occasionally unfamiliar landscapes out of ordinary objects. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the striking opening sequence, where we hear Johansson’s voice struggling to pronounce new words, yet see at first only white, then a bulbous object that slowly resolves into an eye. We don’t see Johansson, herself, until a few scenes later when, naked – and still in that white space – she strips clothes from a female victim, adopting her new human persona.

The choice to keep the Scottish location of the book helps the viewer to feel like an alien him/herself (unless one is Scottish). The impenetrable Glaswegian accents (some more indecipherable than others), in contrast to the crisp English accent adopted by Johansson, keep us more in her head than theirs. And since the men are often sizing her up, who is really predator and who is really prey? They follow the siren willingly, unable to resist the sexual promise of her ample curves.

There is, however, one scene that serves to remind us of this creature’s complete indifference to any empathy for the human race. Standing on a beach, Johansson’s alien watches as a woman swims after a drowning dog, only to start to drown, herself. When the husband attempts to rescue the wife and gets into trouble, too, a nearby swimmer manages to pull him out, at least, but then collapses, exhausted, at the edge of the waves. As the desperate husband swims back out into the surf Johansson approaches the would-be rescuer and beats him senseless with a rock. It is then that we hear a baby crying in the background. It is the now-drowned couple’s child. Later that night, when one of Johansson’s helpers goes back to the beach to remove traces of her presence, the baby is still there, crying, near the water, alone. The man walks away, leaving the child. I think it is one of the most disturbing images I have ever seen in a film.

But we need to see that in order for the alien’s later transformation to be meaningful. One of the men Johansson picks up is deeply deformed (played by Adam Pearson, who has neurofibromatosis), and something in his condition and apparent helplessness seems to touch her. After the encounter, she changes, unable to continue reaping the same harvest as before. Uncomfortable in her role, she becomes literally uncomfortable in her own skin, and wanders the countryside in a daze, until the film ends as she is forced to confront who she is and what she has done. Although I am still struggling to interpret that ending, I found the film beautiful, mysterious and shocking, and – much like the male hitchhiking victims – willingly followed Johansson wherever she led me.

For it is truly Johansson’s movie. Much of it was filmed with non-actors – actual hitchhikers who were unaware of Johansson’s identity (a nice parallel to the actual story) – shot with hidden cameras in the van, on the street, or in a nightclub. Later, if these men agreed, they signed releases and ended up in the finished work. It’s a fascinating technique – and quite brave of Johansson, who was alone in the van with strange men – and brings an authentic feel to the awkwardness of the interaction. Beyond just those scenes, however, Johansson – who has very little dialogue – brings great power and presence to the role, acting with her eyes as only a great screen actor can do.

The score – by first-time film composer Mica Levi – also contributes to the film’s off-kilter atmosphere, alternating between tremolo and pizzicato strings and synthesized chords. Cinematographer Daniel Landin does wonderful job shooting at night in low-light conditions. Ultimately, though, it is Glazer’s vision and Johansson’s performance that makes Under the Skin one of the best films I have seen so far, this year.

“Oculus” Has an Eye for Editing

Oculus

Oculus (Mike Flanagan, 2013)

I am not a particular connoisseur (or fan) of the horror genre. Occasionally, I find myself blown away by films like The Others (if that ghost story counts), Let the Right One In or even The Ring, not to mention such older classics as The Shining or The Haunting, or true classics like Frankenstein. But I do not seek out scary films, and so I am far from the target demographic of Oculus. I will say, however, that the clever parts of this new film from Towson University alumnus Mike Flanagan (Absentia) will probably appeal to all cinema fans, regardless of genre preference. Even if I did not ultimately enjoy the story – I tuned out at about two-thirds of the way through – I found much to admire in the movie’s stylized editing: its temporal and spatial ellipses and shifts were almost breathtaking at times. The film geek in me was pleased until the narrative storyteller reared his ugly head and asked for greater coherence and follow-through.

Oculus tells the story of a mirror possessed by a malevolent supernatural force that compels people to commit horrible suicidal and murderous acts by manipulating the reality around them so they realize not what they do. In the course of the film, we learn that said mirror has existed for hundreds of years, leaving a barely traceable trail of destruction in its evil wake – after all, if it looks like suicide and murder, why would anyone suspect anything different? Well, it turns out that 11 years prior to the main events of the film, Kaylie (played as an adult by Karen Gillan of Dr. Who” fame) and her brother Tim (played as an adult by Brenton Thwaites of Blue Lagoon: The Awakening) had survived attacks by their mirror-controlled parents (Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff), and actually witnessed the physical manifestation of the evil force. Now, the 21-year-old Tim is being released from the mental ward where he has stayed ever since, and Kaylie – who has spent the same years in foster homes researching the mirror’s past – greets him with the news that the time has come to take their revenge. Back they go to their old house, where Kaylie installs the mirror in its former place. She has a plan to defeat the power within. But the mirror has been waiting, and knows how to defend itself.

Much of the film consists of marvelous editing tricks, where we cut seamlessly back and forth between the present and the past, the real and the fantasy, the memory and the nightmare. We think we’re in one space, only to discover that we’ve been fooled by the mirror and are actually elsewhere. Flanagan, who also edited, deserves full credit here for creating a wonderfully paranoid atmosphere where nothing is what it seems. Unfortunately, his lead actress (Gillan) has a tendency to overact with her eyes (perhaps appropriate for a film entitled Oculus), though Sackhoff (Starbuck on the  “Battlestar Galactica” reboot) is terrific. The film also features lovely production and costume design (I was  a big fan of the green blouse which complemented Gillan’s red hair). Unfortunately, it’s at the script level that Oculus falls apart, as there’s only so many gotcha surprises we can tolerate before we stop caring. Also, at some point, it becomes clear how ill-matched the one side is against the other, so the ending lacks suspense. Sure, there are some creepy visuals (those glowing eyes in the reanimated spirits are not pleasant to look at), but those don’t make up for the missing chills and thrills.

Still, there is plenty to recommend, and if you like the genre, I suggest you give Oculus a try.

Delivering Us from Evil: “Joe” is Southern Gothic at Its Best

Joe

Joe (David Gordon Green, 2014)

I saw Joe at the 2014 SXSW Festival, and found it both powerful and difficult to watch. It features a terrific lead performance by Nicolas Cage as a man at war with himself, an equally compelling supporting performance by up-and-comer Tye Sheridan (so engaging in Mud), and a riveting art-imitating-life performance by real-life homeless alcoholic Gary Poulter (who drowned in a lake before the film was released). They each represent three different points on the trajectory of male violence that David Gordon Green (George Washington, Pineapple Express) has chosen to examine in this, his ninth theatrical feature. From Sheridan – as a 15-year-old just learning the ropes of a life made rough by poverty, despair and addiction – to Poulter – as his ravaged, brutal father – there lies a clear and predetermined path, with Cage’s Joe at its midpoint. The film is about how these men’s lives intersect, and whether or not the journey is as foreordained as it originally seems.

Be prepared for scenes of extreme violence (made more disturbing by the cheerless setting, like the Ozarks in Winter’s Bone, only – ha! – less rich) between men and other men, men and children, men and dogs, and dogs and dogs. What women there are there for sex and submission, if they matter at all. Small-town Texas has never seemed so bleak.

Joe’s the good guy, but even he is a heap of trouble. He runs an illegal business poisoning trees in the woods, yet appears to be a boss who is well-liked by the African-American laborers he picks up every morning in his pickup truck. He drinks – even heavily – but never gets really drunk (or violent). Into his carefully constructed world – and it is carefully constructed, as we soon discover, since he has done previous jail time as reckless younger man – comes Gary, the son of a man who has given himself wholly over to his drinking. Poulter’s Wade – all hollowed cheekbones and wiry frame – is a frightening creature, and though he looks like the wind could blow him over, turns out to have a lot of strength left in those gnarled hands, which he uses to beat Gary down and (possibly) rape Gary’s sister (or at least pimp her out to willing strangers). The mother is a shadow, barely present.

Gary asks Joe for a job – money is scarce – and before he knows it, Joe is both surrogate big brother and father to the desperate young man. As he becomes more and more involved in the miseries of Wade’s clan, Joe’s own propensity for violence – along with his drinking – threatens to destroy his hard-fought (relatively) peaceful existence. But perhaps it will all be worth it, if he can save Gary from following in Wade’s and his footsteps.

Peopled with other local non-actors beyond Poulter and shot in real locations in and around Austin, Texas, Joe brings a fine level of authenticity to it, even while starring a major Hollywood actor. Perhaps it’s because that actor has never been finer, and the emotions he and his fellow cast members bring to the story feel as real as the sets. “What keeps me alive is restraint,” is what Joe says at one point in the film, and Cage seems to take that mantra to heart. Not always known for restraint as an actor, he here understands just what is needed. If you can keep your eyes open during the tough parts, you’ll find the experience of watching Joe well worth the discomfort.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” – Everything You Want and Need in a Superhero

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony Russo/Joe Russo, 2014)

I did not grow up reading comic books. I was no fanboy. It was not until I was in graduate school and was desperately looking for things to do other than write my Master’s Thesis (I am a world-champion “productive procrastinator,” always reading avidly that which needs not be read at that given moment) that I discovered my then-roommates’ treasure trove of Marvel and DC comics. I had a lot of desperate fun learning about Spider-Man, Animal Man, the X-Men, etc. (but not Captain America, sadly), as well as discovering the fantastic graphic novels by Alan Moore, including The Dark Knight Returns, V for Vendetta, and Watchmen. I’m pretty sure I haven’t read a comic since. But the better stories still resonate, and in this age of comic-book movies – many of which just aren’t that interesting – I often long for a superhero movie that will give me good character-based drama, great action and topical relevance to the world we live in today (like much of Alan Moore’s work). Sadly, I rarely get what I’d like.

The role of science fiction and fantasy should be to help us explore the important issues of our time in a seemingly alien context (what the Russian formalists called “estrangement“). This distancing device can, if handled properly, make us more receptive to the ideas therein, slyly working in societal critiques that we fail to interpret, at first, as anything more than fantastical plots. Little by little, we find ourselves hooked on the adventure, and only afterwards realize that we were reading a book or watching a movie about ourselves. Sometimes, messages are better conveyed in the guise of escapist entertainment than as sincere social commentary.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the kind of superhero film that gives us (or me, anyway) all of the action and adventure we need, great characters to root for (with little digital imagery to distract), and a terrific and timely politically paranoid plot that forces us to contemplate our contemporary lives in serious ways. I liked Captain America: The First Avenger (the first film in this series) better than any of the other “Marvel Universe” movies, including Iron Man, which I nevertheless enjoyed. That introduction to Steve Rogers – the 90-pound weakling who is transformed into a brawny super soldier by an experimental serum – featured Chris Evans (who had previously appeared in another superhero series, Fantastic Four, as Johnny Storm) as its protagonist, and he brought a warmth and humanity to the proceedings that made us truly empathize with Rogers’ demons, both internal and external. Rogers had grit and a strong moral compass – which is why he was chosen to be injected with the serum, rather than his healthier peers – and bore his “Captain America” moniker with grace and humility. Set during World War II, that film featured an inevitable showdown with Nazis and people even worse than Nazis, presenting familiar tropes with an energy reminiscent of the best Indiana Jones films. It also ended on a surprisingly melancholy note, as Rogers sacrificed himself to save the world, plunging his doomsday weapon-laden plane into the ice and freezing himself in the process.

Captain America returned in The Avengers, a film I also enjoyed, but which featured too many competing characters (Hulk! Iron Man! Thor! etc!) for any single one to stand out. And, compared to his truly superhuman colleagues in that film, Rogers – just recently rescued from his icy grave and miraculously revived – seemed physically reduced. But now he gets his own movie again, or at least a movie in which he is the star. There are plenty of other terrific actors around to help him shine, however, including Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow (when will she get her own movie?), Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury (the head of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Robert Redford (yep – Bob has decided to lend his considerable talents to a superhero film, and we are very grateful) as Alexander Pierce, and Anthony Mackie (always appealing) as a U.S. Army veteran who is befriended by Rogers in a very funny opening scene. More importantly, the same screenwriters – Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely – who made the first film such a winning combination of wit, heart, adrenaline and soul, are back for this second outing, and have here crafted a story that is superior to its predecessor. Brothers Anthony and Joe Russo – who haven’t made a feature film since the dismal You, Me and Dupree in 2006, but have been working in TV ever since – display a solid talent for working with their stars and staging the big set pieces, even if some of the later action sequences are a bit too chaotic to be coherent (though an earlier car chase scene with Samuel L. Jackson had me on the edge of my seat). It’s wonderful to see good actors delivering good performances, rather than the showboating we so often see in the Iron Man films.

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the threat to our world comes from within. Following the massive chaos and terror unleashed in The Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D. – basically, the NSA on steroids – has decided to develop massive gunships that can stay aloft virtually forever and eliminate terrorist targets, perhaps even before they commit any acts of terrorism in the first place (shades of Minority Report). When Nick Fury discovers an anomaly in the controlling algorithm, he orders a delay in the program’s implementation. After which, all hell breaks loose, since certain forces have their reasons for wanting the gunships to fly. At the center of the film’s plot is a very discussion of the ethics of violence-in-the-name-of-security, as well as of the dangers of the government’s ubiquitous data mining of the secrets of our lives. What would you trade in the name of ostensible safety? I am hardly the first person to see interesting parallels between this film and the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s, of which Three Days of the Condor – starring Robert Redford, making his presence in this new film especially resonant – was one of the best. Those films asked similarly complicated questions of us, and it’s a welcome surprise to see such weighty material handled in a genre that all too often focuses on silly God-like lunkheads from other planets. True, much of the dialogue is rendered in comic-book simple sentences (you can see The. Bold. Lettering.), but that doesn’t detract from the complexity of the issues considered.

What’s particularly refreshing, as well, is how beautifully Captain America: The Winter Soldier (and I haven’t even discussed that “Winter Soldier,” preferring to leave him as a welcome surprise for you) plays to an audience that has no interest in the overall “Marvel Universe.” I watched the post-credit sequence, in which Joss Whedon (director of The Avengers and its upcoming sequel) sets up additional characters to come – Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch – and I thought, “who cares?” That thought, however, did not detract from the wonderful experience I had just had. I wholeheartedly recommend this film and hope it kicks Iron Man’s metal behind.