Tag Archives: Josh Hartnett

Valley of the Gods (2019, Lech Majewski)

Valley of the Gods is a cautionary tale. If you’re going to make a combination of Citizen Kane—with either actual footage or a recreated shot—and then a bunch of vague Kubrick nods, including Keir Dullea (arguably in the film’s best performance) as a snippy butler and a HAL while doing a retelling of the Navajo creation myth set on the Navajo Nation Reservation near Monument Valley and the Valley of the Gods… I don’t know, make sure you’ve got enough money your cinematographers (director Majewski and Pawel Tybora are credited) are able to light the digital video well and maybe, even more importantly, hire CGI people who are good at their jobs. The third act of Gods should be an outrageous disaster but instead it’s a whimper of one, as each of the film’s four “plots” fails.

The driving force is the Navajo creation myth retelling, which has Steven Skyler—who is not good—getting drunk and sad because an unseen industrialist is going to mine uranium on the Reservation and pay off the tribe. So like any drunk man who is sad, he goes home to girlfriend Owee Rae and kind of tries to rape her but, you know, they’re dating and he’s drunk so what’s her problem.

So he goes off and forces himself on a rock.

Majewski—who also writes, co-produces, and co-production designs (I feel like this one is where he’s got real strength)—has a lot of interesting writing choices. They’re bad, yes, but they’re also exaggerated tropes. I forgot to mention Skyler’s got some kind of problem with Rae because she won’t bear him a son or something. It’s not an actual subplot because making it a subplot might require giving Rae some lines. She gets like two. But a nude singing scene because, you know, life’s pretty empty otherwise.

With Skyler’s story, Majewski’s writing more or less gets a pass because he’s trying to do the creation story. The film opens with the creation story in text, which is way too obvious but Majewski’s always way too obvious. If there’s something good he could make better by not explaining it, he spends six minutes explaining it. Like why is top-billed Josh Hartnett driving out into the Valley of the Gods, parking, getting a writing desk out of his SUV and sitting down to write in fountain pen on special paper—I’m not looking up the term—the point is Hartnett’s a luddite artisté writer without a cell phone who’s a dedicated… wait for it… ad writer in L.A. He hates the life, as one would imagine his coworkers hate their lives too when they have to fax him—it’s okay because he’s got a fax machine in his car—but at least he’s got wife Jaime Ray Newman. Except she leaves him because he’s not exciting and he’s overdramatic with his writing needs. She dumps him for a hang-gliding instructor. Maybe. I hope. It’s be something good so let’s pretend.

Newman’s terrible.

Hartnett holds it together okay for a bit but once he’s in John Malkovich’s CGI Citizen Kane castle, it’s all over. Simultaneously we meet Bérénice Marlohe, whose son has been taken away for some reason—I wasn’t paying close enough attention to the teensy-weensy visual detail explaining it; Majewski can’t stop with the narration so long as it’s about Hartnett being sad about being a White guy or everyone talking about Malkovich being the “richest man on the planet” (Majewski grew up speaking Polish… does that phrase sound less insipid in Polish?), but when it’s establishing Marlohe, he’s got no time. Doesn’t matter, she’s basically a single night sex partner for Malkovich, who brings in a different woman every night to pretend to be his dead wife. Still alive, but like, his dead wife.

Because Valley of the Gods is all about the healthy relationships between men and women. As long as that healthy relationship is women pampering men—seriously, the stuff with Newman having to coddle Hartnett’s ego is painful and seems way too based on reality.

Malkovich is fine. Like, he’s in a hood a bunch of it so they could use a double, but when he gets his big scene it’s fine. He can act through the bad. Especially in close-up, which he gets, unlike most everyone else. Hartnett gets the wrong close-ups—he does get a solid rant scene at one point; shame the dialogue’s crap. It’s at his psychiatrist’s. John Rhys-Davies plays the psychiatrist and he blathers nonsense at Hartnett to set up the plot (Hartnett’s supposed to do absurd things, hence the desk in the desert, ruining it being an interesting vision) and he does sound vaguely authoritative but I think it’s because Rhys-Davies is Freud-ing up the accent. But their appointment is sort of when all reality goes out the window. It’d be more believable if Rhy-Davies were just some guy Hartnett bothered into listening to his problems as opposed to a mental health professional who recommends his depressed patient risk his life multiple times.

There’s a lot you could do in Valley of the Gods and make it work by just not being nonsensical about it.

But Majewski doesn’t.

For a while it seems like absolutely gorgeous production design—presumably a lot of it mixing in CGI and doing it very well (before the finale does it very poorly)—exquisite editing (Eliot Ems and Norbert Rudzik), good photography from Majewski and Tybora (the Valley exteriors are appropriately gorgeous and foreboding), and the script not being too terrible (yet)—it seems like Valley might make it. Then Newman’s second scene ruins it and it’s just a slide down.

Marlohe’s bad but maybe it’s Majewski’s fault—he doesn’t direct the actors, which all of them except Malkovich and Dullea apparently need because the writing’s so wanting….

Take out all the talking, entirely rescore it, and fix the inept CGI and who knows. Pretty might be enough.

Though it does move pretty well for two hours, I guess.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Lech Majewski; directors of photography, Majewski and Pawel Tybora; edited by Eliot Ems and Norbert Rudzik; music by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek; production designers, Christopher R. DeMuri and Majewski; costume designers, Ewa Kochanska, Carolyn Leone, and Ewa Minge; produced by Majewski and Filip Jan Rymsza; released by Well Go USA Entertainment.

Starring Steven Skyler (Grey Horse), Josh Hartnett (John Ecas), Bérénice Marlohe (Karen Kitson), Keir Dullea (Ulim), John Malkovich (Wes Tauros), Joseph Runningfox (Third Eye), Jaime Ray Newman (Laura Ecas), and John Rhys-Davies (Dr. Hermann), and John A. Lorenz (Bird Face), and Owee Rae (Sweet Grass).


Inherit the Viper (2019, Anthony Jerjen)

Inherit the Viper is an unfortunately titled but acceptably mediocre crime drama about rural siblings Margarita Levieva, Josh Hartnett, and Owen Teague running an opioid business. Levieva’s the merciless boss, Hartnett’s the reluctant muscle, Teague’s the enthusiastic but uninvolved teenager. Everything’s going fine—well, outside the occasional fatal overdose for customers—until Teague decides he’s got to go into business for himself. Only he’s not very bright and his idea is to steal his family’s product to sell on the side, forcing Levieva (who wanted to get Teague involved) and Hartnett (who didn’t) to make some tough, momentous decisions. Renewed interest from local law enforcement (Dash Mihok) and a justifiably enraged recent widower (Brad William Henke) complicate matters.

So, a fairly standard family crime drama.

Andrew Crabtree’s script throws a lot at the characters but in targeted bursts. Viper never overreaches. Crabtree and director Jerjen never do anything they aren’t sure they can successfully execute. The film’s got some great production values—Jerjen, cinematographer Nicholas Wiesnet, editors Gordon Antell and Kiran Pallegadda put some drone shots to great use for establishing shots, showcasing the desolate, failed rural community. Jerjen’s composition for the talking heads scenes, which are most of the film until the final third or so, is usually the same parallel shot, giving the actors each their space. Even though Jerjen’s got the patience for the talking heads and showcasing the actors (really, the film often plays like a demo reel for its stars more than a serious dramatic effort), he never gets in close enough to really look. When Levieva finally shows her humanity, when Hartnett finally shows his fear, Jerjen doesn’t have any way to help the actors rise above the script, which is fairly pat as far as character motivation and development go. Both the script and the direction posit the characters as somewhat tragic, even though the point of Levieva is she would reject that tragedy and it would be consuming the soulful Hartnett, who has a much better understanding of the world—ostensibly due to his time in Iraq War II, but more because the script needs it—than his peers.

Well, except of course how the film then positions other people as the good folks just facilitating the opioid ring without actually getting their hands too dirty (special guest star Bruce Dern plays a bar owner and friend of the family’s absent, smalltime crook dad).

Instead of Levieva or Hartnett, the film focuses on Teague. It’s both a trope—the child grows up—and the most economical. Hartnett getting more of a focus would mean more to do with pregnant girlfriend Valorie Curry and, even though the film starts spotlighting Levieva, she barely gets any character development throughout. And, when she does, it feels like the film’s trying too hard. Because to transcend the material, the script would need to be better and there’d need to be more of a budget (the film looks great, moves well but it’s obviously streamlined as can be). Jerjen does what he can with the constraints the production’s got and it works. The drone shots do get tiring by the end but more because they never really impact how the narrative plays; they’re always technically solid. Especially set against Patrick Kirst’s score.

For over half the film, Viper acts like it isn’t going to rest the whole thing on whether or not Teague can carry it through the third act to the finish, then it hands it off to Teague and, sure, he can get it to the finish but… not spectacularly. It’s a pass and no pass situation. Teague passes, adequate, no reason to rejoice.

Levieva’s the film’s best performance, even with her character going off some rails in the third act. Hartnett’s good, but it’s a propped up majorly supporting role; Teague’s not compelling enough, Hartnett picks up the slack for it. It’s unclear whether Jerjen would be able to do more. He’s got a lot of technical chops as a director and he’s pretty good with the actors, but Viper never seems thoughtful enough. Jerjen’s successfully realizes the script but without any imagination. It’s like he’s too good, technically, to have to be inventive.

Inherit the Viper—the title’s even worse once you find out what it means—isn’t bad, it’s just rote, even with its cast’s solid efforts.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Anthony Jerjen; written by Andrew Crabtree; director of photography, Nicholas Wiesnet; edited by Gordon Antell and Kiran Pallegadda; music by Patrick Kirst; production designer, Tracy Dishman; costume designer, Emily Batson; produced by Michel Merkt and Benito Mueller; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Margarita Levieva (Josie Conley), Josh Hartnett (Kip Conley), Owen Teague (Boots Conley), Valorie Curry (Eve), Dash Mihok (Kyle), Chandler Riggs (Cooper), Brad William Henke (Tedd), and Bruce Dern (Clay).


Sum Up | Utility Man: Josh Hartnett, O, and the Blood at the Root

Tim Blake Nelson’s O adapts Shakespeare’s Othello as a modern, moody, lush, teenage Southern Gothic. Sixteenth century Venice becomes a South Carolina prep school, Palmetto Grove, in the late 1990s; Venice’s armies become the school’s basketball team, the Hawks. The Hawks are crushing it this season, all thanks to jersey number 4, senior Odin James (Mekhi Phifer). Other standout players include sophomore Michael Cassio (Andrew Keegan) and another senior, Hugo Goudling (Josh Hartnett). When it comes time for coach Duke Goulding (Martin Sheen) to award the MVP, Odin’s the obvious choice. The surprise comes when Odin decides to share the award with a teammate, selecting Michael. Not Hugo. That night, Hugo tells his roommate Roger (Elden Henson) he’s got a plan to break up Odin and his girlfriend, Desi Brable (Julia Stiles). When Roger asks Hugo why—“I thought you were his friend,” he says—Hugo explains the co-MVP should have gone to him, at least as far as Odin’s concerned. But there’s at least another layer to Hugo’s motivations—coach Duke Goulding is his dad and straight-A student Hugo has put four years into the basketball team. The MVP award his senior year would’ve been a perfect acknowledgement and a seemingly possible one.


“I’m considered a utility man. I rebound, I can shoot, I play guard, forward, power forward. You name the position, I fucking play it.”

Hugo to Roger


O doesn’t just update the setting and situations of Othello, it profoundly changes the characters. Phifer’s Othello/Odin—the only Black student at the South Carolina prep school—has some specific fears and insecurities about that status. He’s secretly dating Desi, after all, and Desi’s the white dean’s white daughter, which incurs a lot of outside aggression, albeit ones mostly passive and micro. Inside their relationship, despite any posturing, Odin’s devoted to Desi, devoted to what she represents, what they–together–represent.

Hugo intuits all those insecurities and encourages them into weaknesses and into what become fatal flaws for everyone involved. Hugo’s an unquestionable villain, but he’s just working with what he’s got. If Michael weren’t eager to please, if Roger weren’t resentful (the wealthiest blue blood on campus yet the girls still go for the jocks)—they’re both naive from various privileges. Hugo’s able to make it work. His first plan, which he starts concocting at the MVP ceremony, appears to simply be getting Odin in trouble for dating Desi. Or at least to stir things up. But it’s already a more layered one, with Michael as the target. Because Hugo understands Michael’s desire to impress Odin.

And Hugo (thanks to Roger’s willingness to be Michael and Odin’s frequent punching bag) is able to get Michael off the team. At least out of games, which doesn’t necessarily give Hugo any better opportunities on the court, but it does get him close to Odin. Close to Odin, he tries to cement further distrust of Michael. Because Hugo’s already got Michael trying to befriend Desi so she’ll tell Odin to fight for him to get back on the team. Duke will listen to Odin. Odin, Duke tells everyone at the MVP ceremony first thing, is like his son. Not “like a son,” but “like his son.” Except Odin and Hugo are very, very different. And Hugo’s an afterthought to Duke. A relied-upon afterthought, but an afterthought. He’s just not good enough. Duke’s been waiting his whole career for Odin.


“You know I don’t ever have to worry about you, thank God. You’ve always done well and you always will, but Odin’s different. He’s all alone here. There’s not even another Black student in this whole damn place. We’re his family.”

Duke to Hugo


Once Hugo has gotten his girlfriend Emily (Rain Phoenix) to steal a memento from Desi (they’re roommates), and used it to convince Odin of Desi and Michael’s affair, Hugo’s got the problem of three loose ends. Odin will never believe Michael or his protestations of innocence, especially not after—advantageously and presumably unexpectedly, but maybe not—Michael lets his racism out when talking about Odin.

Master eavesdropper Hugo has already got Odin listening in so it couldn’t go better.

Michael’s not guilty of pursuing or seducing Desi—he’s actually just some dopey sophomore who makes an effort to listen to his female friends, though it’s a Madonna-whore thing, not because he sees them as people or anything—but he’s still not not guilty. He’s not not racist. He’s not not a bully. He’s not not a bad guy when it comes to girls. He doesn’t deserve what he gets, but he gets it because the material is there for Hugo to work with.

So Michael’s not going to be a loose end for long. He’s the most disposable, in fact. Emily’s a loose end, though Hugo doesn’t anticipate her being a problem. He’s got a plan for Roger, which he doesn’t share with anyone else because Hugo does see Roger as a fellow victim. Hugo understands what’s going at Palmetto Grove—he understands how his father treats him, how it feels, why his father’s doing it, he understands Odin, he understands Michael, Roger, Emily—and, of the men, Roger’s the only one Hugo shows any compassion. Even when he doesn’t have to show it to keep Roger going with the scheme.

And Desi’s a loose end. Desi’s the biggest loose end. Getting Odin not to believe Michael only takes so much work, it’s an achievable goal. Michael’s going to dig himself in deeper, one way or the other. Roger won’t crack for anyone at school, not when Hugo’s already convinced him to take multiple beatings. But Odin will want to believe Desi, which will reveal Hugo’s manipulations. So Desi’s got to go.

O doesn’t have most of the traditional Othello trappings as far as Iago/Hugo’s motivations go. The MVP thing sets Hugo off, sure, but it’s already been established he’s envious of Othello/Odin’s position as an athlete, as Duke’s favored “son.” Hugo describes it all as jealousy but it’s closer to envy. A functional one, at least until he’s racing downhill trying to keep the lies from catching up. Hugo’s going off to college. He’s going to be fine. He’s just got to get to the finish, with at least Odin intact.


“Nobody doesn’t like [Hugo]. I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t have at least one enemy.”

Desi to Emily


Unlike Othello, O doesn’t suggest Odin and Emilia/Emily fooled around or anything like Hugo having a crush on Desdemona/Desi. Quite the opposite on the latter. The two seem to loathe one another, which makes sense. They’re both staff’s students. The school’s performative with its scholastic egalitarianism, putting the dean and coach’s kids in the dorms, the upper middle class among the real upper class. Desi and Hugo know each other. They have known each other a while. And they have zero empathy for one another. Desi’s the only one who thinks Hugo’s a creep. Everyone else just sees the good student, the good teammate. Even as Hugo tries to destroy Michael, the team’s games always come first. Winning is the important thing; even if Hugo’s not singled out for contributing (because Duke has clearly never singled him out with a positive comment). It reflects on Hugo. He doesn’t have to worry because no matter how much turmoil he creates, Hugo can always rely on Odin to come through on the court.

There’s no one in O who has higher expectations for Odin than Hugo. Hugo lionizes him. Hugo sees his father living the white savior sports movie dream with Odin and believes the dream to be valid, just not Duke’s execution of it. O isn’t about Hugo and Odin, it’s about Hugo and Duke. It’s about Duke and his son. Everyone else is collateral damage. For Hugo, Odin is a prized action figure. For Duke, he’s a trophy.

Hartnett’s performance is all about his expressions. It’s all about watching this emotional cut wound him, this emotional stab, this observed opportunity, this revealed insecurity. Hugo’s always thinking, watching, listening. The plans form across Hartnett’s face, in his blinks, his pauses, his patience. Everyone in the film has their implied interiority and all, but with Hartnett, the whole thing hinges on his understanding and essaying of Hugo’s interiority. When Hugo refuses to explain himself, leaving his motivations a mystery, his loose ends tied, the audience has already seen some of them. Or at least those Hugo let affect him.


“You won’t ask me nothing. I did what I did. That’s all you need to know. From here on, I’ll say nothing.”

Hugo to Odin


It’s also in the expression when O gets in its last surprise. Being an Othello adaptation, a lot is predictable. But Hugo’s got one last reveal, one unquestionably authentic reaction. And it changes the entire film, start to finish, untying the bow, folding it over, retying.

O came at the end of the late nineties-early aughts teen Shakespeare adaptation boom. Brad Kaaya’s script leverages the source material rather than relying upon it, letting Nelson turn it into that Southern Gothic, with Hartnett a metaphor for the culture he and his victims exist in. He’s not some pedestrian evil, he’s a prodigious and entirely natural one. The teenage sociopath who wants to be a real boy but just can’t make his brain wooden enough. Far from shocking, Hartnett’s Hugo is inevitable in a way Iago never could be.


The Faculty (1998, Robert Rodriguez)

Robert Rodriguez gives his actors a lot of time in The Faculty. The supporting cast–mostly the titular faculty of a high school (albeit one suffering an alien invasion)–gets to be showy. The film opens with a great showcase for Bebe Neuwirth, Robert Patrick and Piper Laurie. The main cast of kids trying not to be assimilated, they get a lot of quiet time.

There's a lot of listening, a lot of thinking, a lot of reflecting. All amid this tightly paced teenage Body Snatchers. Kevin Williamson's script is careful to take the time to set up the characters. Rodriguez doesn't really use montage, instead of lets the camera dreamily float through the high school. He edits the film too; it's hard to imagine anyone else getting it right. Rodriguez cuts the film perfectly.

All of the principals–Elijah Wood, Jordana Brewster, Clea DuVall, Laura Harris, Shawn Hatosy, Josh Hartnett–are excellent. Every one of them gets at least five great moments in the film; the script allows the characters self-awareness, Rodriguez gives the actors room to essay it.

The standouts are DuVall, Hatosy and Hartnett. Their complexities are more omnipresent. DuVall's probably the best.

And the supporting cast is excellent too. Patrick, Neuwirth, Famke Janssen, Daniel von Bargen. Rodriguez doesn't have a bad performance in the lot of them. They make the fantastical not mundane, but vicious in context.

Thanks to the thoughtful verisimilitude on the part of all involved, The Faculty excels. It's a superior film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Edited and directed by Robert Rodriguez; screenplay by Kevin Williamson, based on a story by David Wechter and Bruce Kimmel; director of photography, Enrique Chediak; music by Marco Beltrami; production designer, Cary White; produced by Elizabeth Avellan; released by Dimension Films.

Starring Elijah Wood (Casey), Clea DuVall (Stokely), Jordana Brewster (Delilah), Shawn Hatosy (Stan), Laura Harris (Marybeth), Josh Hartnett (Zeke), Salma Hayek (Nurse Harper), Famke Janssen (Miss Burke), Piper Laurie (Mrs. Olson), Christopher McDonald (Mr. Connor), Bebe Neuwirth (Principal Drake), Robert Patrick (Coach Willis), Usher Raymond (Gabe), Jon Stewart (Prof. Furlong), Daniel von Bargen (Mr. Tate), Jon Abrahams (F’%# You Boy) and Summer Phoenix (F’%# You Girl).


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