Don Jon by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Don Jon by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Jon “Don Jon ”Martello is dedicated to his family, friends, his apartment, church and one night stands with women. But none of these compare to the transcendent bliss he achieves with pornography. Dissatisfied, he embarks on a journey to find a more gratifying sex life, but ends up learning larger lessons of life and love from two very different women.

Don Jon marks as the debut film of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is the writer, director and star of the film. What’s most praiseworthy about JGL’s direction is how he puts the audience into the world view of his lead character Don Jon. It makes a good cinematic explanation of how Don Jon prefers pornography over bedding real women, a character trait that can easily be viewed as unlikeable or disgusting if mishandled. We never really venture outside his world, but yet Don Jon’s views seem logical enough to keep the audience invested in what happens to him.

Directing duties aside, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s ability to transform himself amazes me. Having seen him in Inception, (500) Days of Summer and The Dark Knight Rises have familiarized me with the sound of his real voice, but I was still astounded by Don Jon’s macho New Jersey-accented voice. I was carefully listening to Don Jon’s dialogue and couldn’t detect any hints of Gordon-Levitt’s real voice underneath. It is artfully consistent and was the core element that sold me on the Don Jon character.

Scarlett Johansson has been said to be a wooden actress in the past. I think this was probably one of her better performances. This character felt like a real person to me. I have met and dated girls like Barbara. Furthermore, the allure of Scarlett Johansson is cinematically ramped up to eleven. She hasn’t been filmed to this level of sexiness since Match Point. For fans of the Black Widow, I’d even argue that this tops that. This is probably more to the credit of the direction. We feel Don Jon’s hunger for her. And like Don Jon, she too mesmerized me. And not just cause of her looks. She seemed like the ideal girlfriend at first and couldn’t really see her character flaws till late in the film. When I realized her character flaws, I was surprised I didn’t see them before. That was a very compelling moment for me in the theater. Honestly, Johansson’s character distracted me so much, I would need a second viewing to tell you anything about the Julianne Moore character.

Seeing Tony Danza as Don Jon’s father Jon Sr. takes me back to my childhood. He was the only man on TV who can make my dad cackle like a fiend in the English language. Danza’s presence adds warmth and makes for a convincing father. Brie Larson gets to do a Silent Bob type gag that is quite amusing.

The film’s brutally truthful display about the realities of men and women as a source for comedy, while handled tastefully with charm by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, hits a little too close to home. I have had discussions like this with a girlfriend similar to the Scarlett Johansson character. It accurately captures why it’s hard for men to explain the joys of pornography to the opposite sex. As Louis C.K. once put it, men just need to release so they don’t go out and murder somebody. That’s really it, but it’s not a pleasing satisfying statement to convince a girlfriend with. I’d argue that any girl that needs an explanation wouldn’t be convinced anyways because they probably have double standards. The film seems to take the same stance. All that said, the film managed to end on a poignant tender note.

In the end, Don Jon is somewhat of an odd animal. I wouldn’t personally recommend it as a date movie with your girlfriend, for the very fact that it might just open the awkward discussion of “How much pornography do you watch?” with your girlfriend. I still think people should see it as it is a competent debut film.

So on a more politically neutral note, I’d say guys would have more fun with it watching it with their guy friends and likewise with girls and their girlfriends. It’s probably better to be charmed by it separately than leaving the theater together primed for an awkward argument.

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2 Guns by Baltasar Kormákur

2 Guns by Baltasar Kormákur

2 Guns by Baltasar Kormákur

A DEA agent and a Naval Intelligence officer find themselves on the run after a botched attempt to infiltrate a drug cartel. While fleeing, they learn the secret of their shaky alliance: they are both undercover agents.

2 Guns is reminiscent of buddy cop movies in the late eighties and nineties. Unlike a lot of recent throwback 80’s action films, it tastefully retains much of the fun factor by concentrating on character and dialogue and removing some of the modern tropes that have gone stale, like the oversaturation of pop culture references. With its setup and buddy dynamic, at times it actually reminded me of the 1996 Adam Sandler and Damon Wayons buddy cop movie Bulletproof.

What elevated 2 Guns from standard action fare were exactly the snappy dialogue and the buddy dynamic between Washington and Wahlberg. The two lead actors create a believable long-time friendship and it gave the movie a sizzling charm that you just can’t look away from. Watching Walhberg and Washington rapidly throw zingers back and forth alone made the price of admission. After seeing his facetious performance in this film, it’s easy now to imagine Mark Wahlberg taking over the role of Tony Stark in future Marvel films.

The film has a good supporting cast. James Marsden and Edward James Olmos seem overqualified for these supporting roles. It’s nice to see them but they have too little time to truly shine. Paula Patton is cast in a seemingly intelligent female role, but is ultimately there for her sex appeal. Bill Paxton is the only one who gets to properly chew up some scenery as a scary CIA agent with a flair for torturing his victims.

The story moved along fast like a shark, for fear that stopping for a thoughtful pause would ruin its momentum and shatter the illusion of how complicated the plot seems. The action scenes are fun. More importantly, they are visible and you can follow what’s going on.  When it came to the finale, the film said “Screw it!” to all the dramatic buildup from the first two acts and serves a lesser solution to its conflict.
 Had it been a slower moving story with less charming leads, I would have considered the finale a cop out ending and been pissed.

But this time, I just went with it. I’m a sucker for buddy cop movies. 2 Guns just oozes old school charm, and charm can go a long way.

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This is the End by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

This is the End by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

While attending a party at James Franco’s house, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel and many other celebrities are faced with the apocalypse.

First off, I want to say I am a fan of the Judd Apatow team. Before Judd Apatow made The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, I wasn’t really into the American comedies that were dominated by Ben Stiller, Will Ferrel and Vince Vaughn. The improvisational nature of Apatow’s comedy and the crude sophomoric jokes infused with a heartfelt message hit me on a deeper level. As a lover of buddy cop movies, I’m also generally a sucker for bromance movies, of which I would argue is a close relative. Most of all, I like Apatow’s cast of actors. Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Michael Cera, James Franco… they’re all funny in their own idiosyncratic way and seem to have free reign over their own personas.

This brings me to my first critique of This is the End. The central gag of having the actors play themselves isn’t as funny as the film thinks it is. For example, This is the End‘s version of Michael Cera is a foul-mouthed cocaine addict. Why? Because the filmmakers thought it’d be funny to do a total reversal on Cera’s real life persona. That gag is only truly funny if we know what Michael Cera is like in real life. Most of us, unlike the filmmakers, can only drawn upon Michael Cera’s timid onscreen persona. That creates enough of a contrast to elicit laughs and it does. However, the filmmakers are ultimately more connected to the joke than the audience can ever be, and that is problematic on some level. I get the feeling I should be laughing harder than the film is making me.

Just to reiterate, I did laugh. There were times when the celebrity gag won me over. I liked how the character relationships were set up and they all have great chemistry. Jay Baruchel plays the audience’s avatar and reacts to all colors of obnoxious behavior exhibited by the other actors. Actually, the film even takes it one comedic step further. When Danny McBride enters the film, he does his brand of obnoxious behavior that happens to be so overwhelming, the other annoying actors call him on it and ask him to stop.

When the film doesn’t rely on the celebrity gag and gives something for the characters to do to survive the Apocalypse, it’s much more creative and funnier. I liked the graphic novel-like style that went into the world creation of the apocalypse. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg deliver some surprises to what’s going on outside James Franco’s house. The parts in between that didn’t pertain to surviving the Apocalypse are strung by improvisational dialogue scenes and they stick out as the weaker moments. I recognize the ability to improvise scenes and be funny on camera, but watching the cast react to the fantastical elements was more interesting than watching the celebrities react to each other. As the audience’s avatar, Jay Baruchel ends up being outnumbered as he is the only genuine likable character in a cast of six. So for somebody isn’t already warm to these actors, they easily come off as very unlikable. And that can get taxing rather quickly. The writing isn’t doing enough to build enough character for the cast and the film is completely reliant on what we know of these actors and their past works.

Due to its leaning towards it’s own self-referential quality than being a apocalyptic survival film, This is the End is ultimately a fan film for the Judd Apatow audience. (Think Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back for Kevin Smith’s Viewaskew Universe) If you never liked any of the comedies from the Judd Apatow team, this movie isn’t going to convert you. If you don’t like none of these actors, I’d tell you to just skip it altogether. I am part of the Apatow audience and like these actors, and even with that, it felt like watching one gigantic inside joke.

Blind Detective by Johnnie To

Blind Detective by Johnnie To

Forced to leave service after turning blind, former detective Johnston Chong See Tun (played by Andy Lau) makes his living by solving cold cases for police rewards. During a bank robbery case, he meets an attractive hit team inspector Goldie Ho Ka Tung (played by Sammi Cheng). When Ho notices Chong’s strong sense of hearing and smell, she enlists his help in a missing person case.

Blind Detective marks the sixth time Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng have played an onscreen couple. Three of them, Needing You, Love on a Diet and Yesterday Once More were all Milkyway productions. Their first collaboration in the office romantic comedy Needing You is the original blueprint of their coupling, establishing the lovable quirks of Sammi Cheng, the catchy pop theme song sung by Cheng and her charming chemistry with Andy Lau. When Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng are next to each other in a movie, it’s so dripping in charm you feel like anything can happen. They can be pigging out at a restaurant, do crazy borderline illegal things or scream at each other. No wrong can be done.

In a way, that is the guide to enjoying Blind Detective. Lau and Cheng completely drive the film, not the plot or the mystery. It’s a combination of Johnnie To’s 2007 Mad Detective and the fourth sequel-in-spirit of Lau and Cheng Milkyway romantic comedies. In fact, having that preexisting knowledge is a requirement to understanding the film’s meandering tone.

At 130 minutes, Wai Ka-Fai’s script takes on more subplots than necessary. The mystery plot had me most engaged, and I liked how the crime-solving plot sprouted in multiple cases. The final reveal seemed rushed and a bit far-fetched to be truly believable. And there were details that should have been caught. The subplot with Andy Lau trying to woo a dance instructor played by Gao Yuan Yuan is cute but extraneous. It’s like the filmmakers brainstormed every possible thing for Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng’s characters to do, filmed all of them, and couldn’t decide what to take out.

In the end, Blind Detective is a weird animal. It won’t translate to overseas audiences and probably shouldn’t have premiered at Cannes. It’s biggest achievement is it knows its stars are the main attraction and does everything it can with them. Andy Lau seems to be relishing in this role and it’s adorable how his character is a major foodie. I laughed throughout it’s entirety, never really questioning where the plot was going because I knew the context. And for that, people who are familiar with Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng’s coupling in Milkyway productions will have a better time.

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The Incredible Burt Wonderstone by Don Scardino

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone by Don Scardino

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone by Don Scardino

When a street magician’s stunts begins to make their show look stale, superstar magicians Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton look to salvage on their act and their friendship.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, for a lack of a better comparison, is akin to a by-the-numbers Will Ferrell comedy, that it is about a cocky professional at the top of his game, who falls from grace and must learn to be humble again. Character act dumber than they would realistically seem. Unlike many Will Ferrell comedies, this film actually focuses more on character, even though they often act inconsistently to serve the comedic gags. I don’t have a big problem with this, but it’s that kind of movie.

It’s important when showing a magic trick onscreen, unless there’s something more interesting going on in the plot (i.e. The Prestige), that it includes the audience to be a part of the spectacle as well. The film does this with by presenting a few magic tricks in-camera which genuinely give the “Hey, how did he do that?” sensation. But again to serve the random comedy, some of the tricks don’t make sense. It’s the kind of thing you laugh at when you see it, but the moment you think about it again, it completely falls flat. The awe of the in-camera tricks fare better in comparison.

Steve Carell is funny in his over-the-top theatrical voice and bleached bombastic wigs and carries the film well.  Jim Carrey is a fun antagonist but I am scratching my head about his role. I wonder what drew Jim Carrey to the role as it seems he’s played similar roles before. . Carrey’s magician is reminiscent of Fire Marshall Bill from In Living Color. It seems too small of a part to really explore anything acting wise and they could have gave him something more special to do. Watching Carell and Carrey’s scenes, they all seem to be following the script and I wonder how much they were allowed to veer off from script. Steve Buscemi is a central role to the arc of the story and the film unfortunately forgets this. They could have used more of him as well.

The script was shopped around for many years before it was produced. Unfortunately, the material is a little out-of-date. Comedy does rot after all. Celebrity magicians just do not seem relevant now as they were years ago. I am semi-aware that the three lead magician characters are meant as a parody of actual real-life magicians, but I don’t know who they are specifically drawing from. So unless you are a magic fan, it feels like there’s a layer of humor that we all do not have access to.

The final resolution to Burt Wonderstone’s conflict is funny, but it is a politically incorrect cheat that also betrays the heart of the protagonist. The antagonist is also done away in a deus ex machina fashion that feels too easy. This would be acceptable for a short comedy sketch, but for a theatrical film it feels lazy. To think about it seriously, the ending actually betrays the integrity of magic and stage performance.

Do I care? Not really. If The Incredible Burt Wonderstone didn’t star Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, Steve Busemi and Alan Arkin, I probably would have turned it off. But lying down watching it on my laptop for 100 minutes was the right way to experience it. I laughed, but probably would never watch it again.  It’s not incredible, but good enough.

Design Of Death by Hu Guan

Design of Death by Hu Guan

The violent death of an unpopular village miscreant Niu Jie Shi is initially blamed on an infectious disease, but an investigation shows that everybody in the village had a reason to murder him. A doctor who is assigned to the village begins an murder investigation.

Following the trend of the success of Let the Bullets Fly and Crazy Stone, has set a new trend of these Chinese absurdist satirical “anything goes” comedies. The tropes include quick dialogue banter, quick cuts, anachronistic music, a “life is meaningless” theme and surreal absurdity. For anybody who may be familiar with the satirical writings of Lu Xun, it is exactly like that satirical acidic literary voice and transported it to a cinematic experience. Derek Yee’s The Great Magician attempted a version of this earlier this year and failed. And now comes Design of Death, based on a novel by Chen Tie Jun and directed by Hu Guan.

Just a sidenote, my mentioning of the film’s influences is not a critique. Being aware of (I will be adding this to my “Common Film Review Cliches to be Avoided” page ) a film’s influences is not direct to it’s own quality. I only bring it up to set up my review. On with the actual review now…

The mystery and the plot of Design of Death was what I was mostly invested in throughout the 109 minute running time. I wanted to know the story of what happened in this village. It wasn’t that it was really that mysterious or that kept me guessing with its twists and turns. With its surreal setting where anything can happen (i.e. there’s an X-ray machine in a village in the 1940s.), the lack of a consistent world rules seemed pointless to guess the mystery at all.

Huang Bo as Niu Jie Shi finds the proper balance of annoying and likable and carries the movie with a lot of charm. It’s tricky because he has to be annoying enough for you to see how the villagers grow annoyed of him but innocent enough for the audience to feel bad for it when he gets his comeuppance. He manages to build a character through the first half of the movie which mainly comprise of comedic gags and hijinks. Taiwanese actor Alec Su understands the kitsch of the film enough to have fun with his role as Dr. Niu. He plays it completely straight like he’s some evil scientist from a Saturday morning cartoon. Even his white costume is reminiscent of a lab coat. Yu Nan is not good looking in a traditional movie star way but has a unique presence as Niu Jie shi’s taciturn wife. I do not know how she managed to land a role in The Expendables 2 but I look forward to seeing her kick ass in that. Simon Yam is always a welcome presence in any movie but the fact that he’s being dubbed took it away for me.

It’s a bit superfluous talking about acting in the movie because it’s not a story that hangs on performance. The actors are not playing characters. Design of Death is not functioning on any sense of pathos with developed characters. Every character is a stereotype representing different ideas solely functioning to serve the film’s message.

Ultimately I do not find Niu’s actions reprehensible or deserving of his fate. He is an annoying little hemorrhoid of a human being I’ll give you that, but the way Huang Bo plays Niu Jie Shi suggests that he is not evil in his own nature or has no intention to harm others. He’s just annoying simply because it’s fun to annoy everybody in the village and there’s nothing else to do.

By the end, I saw where the film was going with it’s message and it asks that you go with it and attacks it with it a very “anything goes” satirical tone. I laughed more than I did in Let the Bullets Fly but it’s just simply an emotional place I did not want to go. I sat back and let the film lead me to it’s conclusion and finally it was a hollow experience.

There is a current rise of these comedies in China. With it’s harsh censorship and restrictions, these absurd satirical comedies makes sense because it is a way to laugh at things but still able to contain a strong unsubtle moral message. I understand its existence but I really hope these trend of films will go away. It’s run out of steam.

After all, why I would pay to watch a film to laugh my way to finally feel hollow?