Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Don Jon Review

“Don Jon”—the writing and directorial debut of actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt—is easy enough to enjoy. It’s fairly straightforward, it has some wonderfully funny and vulgar bits and Levitt brings a certain level of energy and zaniness to the whole affair that makes it hard to completely dislike. At the same time however, you can tell that it’s a directorial debut. Despite its simple pleasures, Levitt’s screenplay doesn’t cut deep enough. Most of the characters remain underdeveloped, he tosses around certain themes that aren’t explored very much, and there are major plot points and revelations that come a little too late. On a whole it’s a worthy effort even if it doesn’t entirely work.

Levitt plays the title character Jon, a loud mouthed hot headed New Jersey male, you know sort of like the kind you would see on a show like “Jersey Shore.” He only seems to care about a few things in life: women, working out, and spending time with his family on Sunday after church. And when he’s not spending time with family or pumping iron he and his bone headed buddies can be found at the club grinding on chicks.

Levitt himself is probably the main reason to even consider seeing “Don Jon.” Even though the role doesn’t fit into his history of playing intelligent (sometimes charming), witty, nice guys (Jon is almost the exact opposite), he’s still likable. He may not be the brightest bulb but there’s something genuine and upfront about him that makes you remain on his side the entire time. He also has a few little quirks--like being a clean freak and confessing his sins every Sunday even though he doesn’t try to improve himself—that add a bit more to his personality.

 In most respects he’s the classic romantic comedy stud; it usually takes only a single glance and he’s in bed with a smokin’ hot girl and then never sees her again. That is, until he encounters Barbara (a gum snapping Scarlett Johansson with a Jersey accent) who, in Jon’s words is a “dime” (perfect ten). She doesn’t sleep with him right away but instead makes him play “the long game” (I know, bummer right?). He does, and pretty soon they’re going out and after a month he finally gets to seal the deal. But then there’s this other chick Esther (Julianne Moore) who’s in one of his night school courses. She’s older, not as attractive, kooky, meddlesome and kind of a mess (they first meet each other when he sees her crying in a doorway) and yet slowly but surely a spark appears between them.

Though, Jon has one peculiar obsession that sets him apart from all of the other rom-com studs: he loves Internet porn. No I mean really loves porn. In fact he loves it more than actual sex because it’s one sided. When you sleep with another human being you can’t always do what you want to do, you know because there’s two people, whereas on the Internet you’re in control. And every so often when goes to his next session we get voice over commentary from him telling us his justification for doing it.

So when he’s not with his family, pumping iron, or hitting the clubs he’s spanking the monkey. Sometimes, the morning after he’s slept with someone (including Barbara) he sneaks off to rub one out before they wake up. It’s pretty much an addiction. In this way, “Don Jon” shares a little bit of DNA with Steve McQueen’s 2011 movie “Shame” in which Michael Fassbender played a sex addict. But of course McQueen’s movie takes the matter very seriously--the sex and masturbating in that picture didn’t look fun one bit—and in “Don Jon” it’s treated lightly. This isn’t a bad thing and it proves to be a mildly interesting quirk but after a few masturbation scenes it starts to get a little stale and repetitive, Levitt doesn’t take it anywhere very remarkable or exciting. We get it, he’s a selfish guy and by the end he’s probably going to change.

This isn’t the only problem with “Don Jon.” Levitt also spends too much time on the Jon/Barbara relationship. Johansson does what she can but the role doesn’t have much substance. She’s a knockout in the looks department and she makes him wait on having sex but those seem to be the only reasons why Jon is enamored by her. Towards the end there is a suggestion that she too has a one sided approach to relationships but it comes a little too late and isn’t explored any further.

What Levitt should have focused on was the Jon/Esther relationship, because it turns out to be the central relationship. She’s not Jon’s typical girl but she sees right through his shtick and exposes his flaws. As good as Levitt and Moore are together their relationship isn’t given enough time to develop naturally. I didn’t quite buy his attraction to her, or vice versa. On top of that there’s a rather important scene where we find out why Esther is such a mess (the only real serious, emotional scene in the whole movie) that should have come sooner; in its current place it comes too much out of left field, doesn’t match the rest of the movie’s comedic tone and it’s sort of just discarded after that scene.

The movie is largely repetitive. Jon drives to church in his Mustang, goes to confession, has brunch with his family: dad (Tony Danza), mom (Glenne Headly) and sister Monica (a criminally underused Brie Larson). Then he goes to the gym (where he recites his Hail Marys), then he either goes out clubbing or spends time with Monica, and finally he goes to his college class where he talks to Esther. Oh, and throw in at least two or three masturbation sessions. I gather that this is intentional, Levitt is trying to give the story’s structure a rhythmic quality (and at the end there’s a sense that this “routine” is broken) but the movie is repetitive without giving us much new information or developing the characters.

Other than the fact that his father is an aging version of him, we don’t learn much about Jon Sr. and their relationship seems to only consist of yelling at each other across the table or agreeing on how hot Barbara is. The mother and sister remain even more one note and the same can be said for Jon’s club buddies. Perhaps the film could be longer (it’s only ninety minutes) although I’m not sure it utilizes the time it does have very well. Overall, the picture doesn’t come together and it ends midstory.

I don’t mean to come down too hard on “Don Jon.” It is a first feature and it’s not terrible. Levitt has now shown that he has some talent (when it comes to comedy) not just in front of the camera but behind it as well, and I think if he continues to direct he could definitely improve. I was never bored during the movie, there are some clever bits of humor and all of the acting is solid, but “Don Jon” is simply not fully realized.


Rush Review

The best thing about “Rush”—Ron Howard’s exhilarating new movie—is that it’s one hundred percent character driven. Forget the fact that the movie is about Formula One Racing, or tells the true story of the 1970’s rivalry between British driver James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and German Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), Howard’s main goal is to develop the lives of these fascinating guys, who had very different approaches to the sport. Approaches that yielded both strengths and weaknesses.

The film is about their rivalry but Howard doesn’t choose sides. He doesn’t make one driver appear better than the other; he doesn’t set the movie from the point of view of either driver. Instead he gives each one ample time, remaining objective. “Rush” has some of the best character development of any movie I’ve seen this year, in fact to call them “characters” is kind of insulting. As portrayed in the movie, Hunt and Lauda are human beings, with strengths and flaws.

Hunt is the more aggressive of the two. To him racing is the ultimate ride, an adrenaline rush (no puns intended) and he has no problem staring death in the face during each and every race. With his classic good looks (chiseled face and long flowing blonde hair) and his all-around charming personality, James is made out to be the likable one, initially. But Howard digs beneath this likable exterior and exposes his downfalls. As much as he likes attention and to be around people (you can see him having a celebratory drink after just about every race) he’s incredibly selfish and arrogant, rubbing his victories in his rivals’ faces. On top of that, while his aggression and headstrongness does pay off in some regards, he’s also wildly inconsistent when it comes to winning. Not to mention his playboy tendencies; I lost count of how many women he has sex with during the movie. He does take a wife, a women named Suzy (Olivia Wilde) but it’s mainly just for show and it ends badly when he violently snaps at her after a bad race.

Overall, what we can gather about James is that he’s restless and unable to settle down which proves to have dire consequences; at the end we’re informed that he died of a heart attack at age forty-five. This is by far the most complex character Hemsworth has portrayed, and yet it still plays to his sensibilities as an actor. He slips into the role with almost no effort.

Though, Bruhl has the more difficult role to play. Where Hunt initially comes off charming and likable, Lauda comes off cold and unpleasant, and unlike Hunt he doesn’t have the good looks (Hunt even remarks that he looks like a rat). To him, Formula One racing is a science more than a sport. He knows more about the cars from a technological standpoint but he doesn’t appear to be having much fun doing it. For him, safety is the number one concern and he likes to have everything calculated out. Sometimes this comes in handy and sometimes he over calculates (when he gets in a violent crash). His philosophy is almost the exact opposite of Hunt’s. On top of that he doesn’t like to socialize all that much and he has this smug sense of entitlement; to him his way is the best and only way. All of this contributes to his cold exterior.

At the same time, there’s something to be said for Lauda’s disciplined approach to the sport. He’s more consistent when it comes to winning, he doesn’t spend a lot of time basking in his victories and when he gets married (to a gal played by Natalie Dormer) you can see a legitimate connection between them. To Lauda, Formula One racing isn’t a game but an art form. Ultimately, we can surmise that Lauda is more passionate about the sport itself; he’s more dedicated, whereas Hunt is more of a thrill seeker and a showman. Bruhl injects sly wit into his performance, and even though Lauda remains unlikable for much of the movie you can’t take your eyes off of him.

The filmmakers immerse us into this intense and exciting environment. Howard and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Danny Boyle’s regular cinematographer) utilize hand held cameras--a lot of them, apparently. There are cameras all over the place; in the air, in the crowds, on the racetrack and there appear to be about six or seven attached to the cars alone (there are a number of POV shots). Howard keeps the picture going at a breezy pace and the editing by Daniel P Hanley and Mike Hill is fast paced. The film zips from one scene to another with so much kinetic force that it’s exhilarating. Howard brings us up close and personal to all of the fury. You can almost smell the burnt rubber and exhaust, and hear the engines roar. It’s overwhelming, in a good way.

 Besides the rivalry, Peter Morgan’s (“The Queen”) multilayered screenplay addresses a number of other issues associated with Formula One, or any kind of racing for that matter, such as the impersonality of the sport. For all the thrill and excitement Formula One is a business and the more money you have the better chance you’ll have of racing. You can be a very talented driver but if you can’t find any sponsors you can’t compete. More importantly the film addresses the very real danger connected with racing. For as fun and freewheeling (again, no pun intended) as the movie can be, Howard takes this aspect extremely seriously. As we see later on, accidents can happen and serious injuries can occur. This adds another layer of tension to the movie.

Even with these issues addressed though, everything goes back to Hunt and Lauda. They’re the central force of the picture. It’s absolutely mesmerizing watching them, as they take shots at each another at races or at press conferences, as they interact with their spouses and crewmembers and seeing what motivates them on and off the racetrack. You may be rooting for them one minute, or detesting them the next but no matter what they always keep your interest.


Thursday, September 19, 2013

Prisoners Review

If you’ve seen the trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s new movie “Prisoners” and you’re a little angry that it appears to spoil much of the movie, I can now happily say, having seen the whole movie, that there’s nothing to worry about. Yes, the trailer does give away some important plot points (if you can avoid seeing any trailers that would be your best bet) but it only scratches the surface.

The movie is a kidnapping drama/thriller but it’s also much more than that. The screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski is multilayered and full of plenty of twists and turns not seen in the trailer and Villeneuve’s blunt, restrained handling of the picture will—excuse the cliché—actually keep you on the edge of your seat.

“Prisoners” begins on a calm and peaceful note, probably the only peaceful moment in the entire movie. Two families--the Dovers, led by Keller and Grace (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and the Birchs, led by Franklin and Nancy (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), along with their kids--gather for a meal. This is a happy occasion, but there’s also a sense of dread looming over the whole ordeal. You can tell something bad is going to happen and sure enough the young daughters in both families suddenly go missing. Keller’s oldest son remembers seeing a mysterious RV parked near their house, but it’s gone now.

Instead of spending too much time on this moment and letting the movie turn into a melodramatic Life Time kidnapping drama (thankfully we don’t get a long sequence where either mother breaks out into tears and goes around shouting “where is my daughter?”) Villeneuve keeps the action moving and switches over to Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), the loner detective who’s assigned to the case. Within hours after the kidnapping is reported he tracks down the RV and the first suspect Alex (a wonderfully creepy and pitiful Paul Dano) is brought in, but the girls are still missing.

He seems to fit the kidnapper bill at first; he’s creepy looking and mentally unstable, plus what was he doing driving that RV around by himself in a neighborhood where he doesn’t live? Or does he? Immediately your mind starts asking questions. Alex is the first suspect and usually in mysteries the first suspect is never the perpetrator, right? Or, is that what Villeneuve and Guzikowski want us to think? We find out that Alex has the IQ of a ten year old and is looked after by his aunt Holly (an almost unrecognizable Melissa Leo). He looks pathetic and incapable of hiding two girls, but what if this is all an act? What if he’s much smarter than he appears to be? From there the plot thickens, Villeneuve gradually unravels Guzikowski’s complex screenplay, and the tension and sense of dread slowly increase.

“Prisoners” is by no means a happy movie; its tone remains rather cold and morose for the duration of its running time. Gray, cloudy skies and pouring rain dominate the movie’s small town setting. There are a few minor moments of humor but overall it’s treated very seriously, as it should be. Child abduction is a serious matter. This of course won’t appeal to everyone’s tastes but I appreciated the fact that Villeneuve doesn’t overplay the emotions and dramatics in any scene. He never uses one bit of melodrama; everything feels grounded in reality and is presented straightforwardly. Johann Johannsson’s score is used subtly and sparingly, mainly to amp up the tension. There is some cringe-worthy violence but not a lot and it never feels exploitive; Villeneuve shows us just enough to warrant a reaction and then cuts away.

At times during some of the most dramatic and tense moments, the audience at the advanced screening I attended would burst out laughing, not because the scenes were poorly made, but because they made you uneasy, sort of like when you laugh during a tense moment in a horror movie. “Prisoners” contains some horror movie moments (a scene involving boxes of snakes towards the end) and it does make you feel uncomfortable at times, but that’s a good thing.

The film’s pace might also be a little too deliberate for some general audience members, and at two and a half hours it is long. But in this age of fast paced thrillers it’s nice to see a mainstream movie that’s as patient as “Prisoners.” Villeneuve isn’t in a hurry to get through the story. Instead of just presenting a clue or a plot point and then quickly moving on to the next one, Villeneuve slows down and lets us examine the situation for ourselves and come up with our own answers before going on. Villeneuve, along with master cinematographer Roger Deakins (who’s done a number of Coen brothers movies) stage each scene delicately and gracefully. It’s a relief to see a movie with smooth pans and tracking shots, as opposed to shaky handheld camera ones we’ve been seeing a lot of lately.

While detective Loki is off pursuing various leads, Keller is also looking for his daughter, but in a different way. “Prisoners” is as much a character study about Keller—a decent family man who descends into depression and darkness—as it is a kidnapping/rescue thriller. Keller is, after all, the head of the family and he feels like he’s let everyone down. Now he feels obligated to search for his daughter in any way he can. The film asks the questions: how far would you go to find someone you love? And would you operate outside the law? Loki is doing the best he can but he also has to operate within the judicial system, a system filled with many rules and technicalities. Keller is impatient and wants to find answers his way.

In this regard, the characters in “Prisoners” do a lot of acting on their emotions (on their gut reactions) instead of assessing the situations logically. When Alex is released from the police due to lack of evidence, Keller kidnaps and tortures him in an abandoned house without even thinking about the repercussions. He’s driven solely by his guilt and determination to rescue his daughter. This is probably the darkest character Jackman has ever played.

Much like his character in David Fincher’s own dark, complex crime thriller “Zodiac,” Gyllenhaal’s Loki is dedicated and humble but develops an almost unhealthy obsession with the case. He uses unorthodox interrogation methods and enters houses forcefully. Sometimes this aggressive method pays off and at other times it doesn’t, like when he pushes another unstable suspect to suicide during an interrogation. This is some of the best acting work both Gylenhaal and Jackman have ever done, both actors immersing themselves in their roles, not afraid to show us the darker, more visceral parts of their characters.

There are a few minor weak parts in “Prisoners,” specifically the fact that the wife characters aren’t given a whole lot to do. Bello makes the most of her few scenes but for the most part she spends the majority of the movie lying in bed acting depressed and except for one scene where she’s included in some of the major activity, Davis is also left to sit around and a wait for the men to bring her child home. Even so, “Prisoners” is still an outstanding movie, and a far more complex one than the trailers would suggest.

It won’t be for everyone (despite the many recognizable names in the cast); it’s downbeat and not always easy to watch, but then again should a movie always have to be upbeat and easy to watch? If a film can make you uncomfortable while at the same time keeping you invested and on edge, then I’d call that a success.


Friday, September 13, 2013

Touchy Feely Review

Lynn Shelton’s “Touchy Feely” is one of those Mumblecore (a term used to describe micro budget pictures about awkward white people) movies that you just shrug at when done watching it. This doesn’t mean it’s completely bad. Considering all of the major studio comedy slog that comes out on a weekly basis, it is refreshing to see a comedy featuring awkward, average looking people and one that’s not shot in the glamorous sectors of New York or Los Angeles. At the same time however, the characters in “Touchy Feely” are so thinly sketched and the situations they find themselves in feel so trivial and insignificant (this is true of all Mumblecore movies but for some reason the situations feel especially trivial in this film) that it doesn’t leave much of an impression. While watching it you may be mildly entertained but when you’re done it will almost completely evaporate from your mind. I think “Touchy Feely” can be best described as a ninety minute “sigh.”

Shot on location in Seattle, WA— and made in the homemade deadpan/quirky manner, characteristic of all Mumblecore movies—“Touchy Feely” follows the goings on of two siblings (a brother and sister) who suffer from identity crises and need to be emotionally recharged.  The sister Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a masseuse who’s a free spirit and into all of that Zen stuff, typical of any Indie-quirky comedy character. She’s currently seeing a bike shop owner (played by Scoot McNairy) who suggests they move in together, which she agrees to hesitantly. But then, one day she develops a sudden aversion to physical contact with humans. This means she can’t do her job and can’t interact with her fellow.

We never find out why she gets this sudden aversion and quite frankly Shelton doesn’t give us much of a reason to care. Perhaps it’s caused by the proposal for her to move in with her boyfriend (I’ve forgotten the name of McNairy’s character and I can’t find it anywhere online) but he seems decent enough and before he can even figure out what’s going on she runs away from him. So ultimately Abby comes off mopey and shallow and her problem feels so “First world.” Shelton probably wanted it to be ambiguous but her character is so thin that you don’t really care to think that much about it afterwards.

The brother Paul (Josh Pais) is a little more interesting, although he’s still thinly drawn. He lives a mundane, uptight life as a dentist with his daughter Jenny (a surprisingly restrained Ellen Paige). Initially his dentistry (plainly named “Family Dentistry”) is struggling but then, seemingly out of nowhere (much like his sister’s bizarre condition) he acquires a “Magic Touch” and without boring you with more details, his waiting room goes from empty to full. Admittedly I found some mild amusement from this whimsical little tangent but Shelton doesn’t do a whole lot with it and it’s resolved fairly quickly. After that there’s not much else for Paul to do.

However, Jenny is probably the weakest note in the entire picture, despite Paige’s best attempts. We get the impression early on that she’s not entirely happy working and living with her dad, and would like to go to college (she even fills out applications but doesn’t send them in, out of fear that her dad might not be supportive) but she doesn’t appear to have any ambitions or interests. Or at least we don’t see any. Of all the main characters we learn the least about her and so she doesn’t seem to serve much of a purpose.

For ninety minutes “Touchy Feely” proceeds to wander around from one mundane situation to the next, nothing much of interest happening in each one. Until it finally reaches its resolution, which—much like the rest of the movie—is underwhelming. The only major message I took away from the entire picture is that consuming tablets of ecstasy can help you get your life back on track. Like I said before, the movie isn’t all bad, the interactions between the characters feel perfectly natural and are handled without any melodrama. Also the acting overall is solid (especially Pais, whose mannerisms and tone of voice are shockingly normal. He doesn’t appear to be giving a performance) but in the end “Touchy Feely” amounts to very little.