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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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.

Side Effects by Steven Soderbergh

Side Effects by Steven Soderbergh

Side Effects is the new thriller from Steven Soderbergh about a young woman’s (played by Ronney Mara) world being turned around when a drug prescribed by her psychiatrist (played by Jude Law) has unexpected side effects.

Similar to Lian Johnson’s Looper last year, Side Effects is a film that continually mutates its genome and plays its surprises based off the audience’s familiarized expectations of genre convention. I did not know anything about the film going in. In its first act, I thought it was a serious issue-tainment film about the modern practice of prescription medicine. To the end of the first third, it shifted into a new place. By the mid-point, I just stopped trying to guess where it was going to go and decided to just enjoy the ride. I was on the edge of my seat and did not have any grasp of what was to come. Where it ends up is insane and it will divide audiences but I much rather credit the ride more than the final destination.

Rooney Mara plays the pain of depression in a very realistic fashion. At times, it felt like watching a documentary. That’s how real she played it. This performance could have easily fit into a serious drama about having depression if they chose to continue with the first third of the issue-tainment portion.

Jude Law has the heaviest task to do because he balances a lot of the film as it goes through its many tonal shifts. As the psychiatrist character, he is the most reliable character the audience can trust and there is a lot less wiggle room for his character to suddenly change along with the genre shifting or plot twists. He manages them well and does a good job anchoring the film as it gets crazier in the third act.

I haven’t seen Chicago but Catherine Zeta-Jones’ acting in the past has always been distracting to me because she’s constantly preening for the camera. She is too aware of the camera positions and constantly adjusts how much to tilt her head, dilate her pupils or purse her lips for each shot (she’s doing up in the poster! See above). It’s like she’s constantly posing for still-based fashion photography slideshow instead of performing for a time-based forward-motion medium. It doesn’t help the story move forward if you’re constantly asking the audience to ogle over you. Yes, you are pretty, I get it. Kudos to you! I know I am ranting now, but that’s how frustrated it made me.

That aside, she is also playing up a campiness that seems tonally incongruent to the other performances in the film. It’s in her tongue-in-cheek delivery of the dialogue. She’s the odd one out of the entire cast and threatens the overall quality of the movie. Fortunately her part is a supporting one and she manages through the film on wafer thin ice.

Steven Soderbergh says this is his last film. Not that I really ever believe it when any director/celebrity/athlete say they’re retiring anyways. Side Effects is a decent way to go out but I certainly hope this isn’t his last film.

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21 Jump Street by Phil Lord and Chris Miller

21 Jump Street by Phil Lord and Chris Miller

A pair of underachieving cops are sent back to a local high school to blend in and bring down a synthetic drug ring.

Confession: I have a very big soft spot for buddy cop movies and have seen way too many that is considered healthy for a normal bloke by civilized society. I like the setups, the witty banter, the themes of overcoming differences and looking inside the friendships and brotherhood between men. Some noteworthy examples of mine are The Hard Way, The Last Boyscout, Curry and Pepper (with Stephen Chow and Jacky Cheung), the Lethal Weapon series, Tsui Hark’s Double Team (no cops but it technically counts),  Die Hard with a Vengeance, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang… the list goes on. Even though it was probably for the better how things turned out, I was really rooting for Shane Black’s Lethal Weapon 5 script to be filmed. Yes, see what I mean?

Now with my bias established, on with the review…

First off,  I’m unfamiliar with the original show, all I know is how much Johnny Depp hated being on the show but it was where he did his 10,000 hours of honing his craft. The idea of cops going undercover as students seems like such a far-fetched and out-dated idea that it would only seem to work as a comedy. So the question is… does it work?

Suffice to say, it really does. I laughed a lot more than I expected with 21 Jump Street. In many ways this is what Cop Out failed to do. 21 Jump Street does do  the genre convention gags and references movies but unlike Cop Out does not focus the entire movie on them. The convention gags (I am not going to spoil any of them here.) are handled well with balance. It never goes overboard with its meta sensibilities and still manages to deliver surprises.

Jenko (played by Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (played by Jonah Hill) are two believably stupid characters. Stupid characters are a tricky act to balance writing wise so it was impressive to me how many gags they were able to get out of these two characters while keeping their stupidity consistent. Jenko and Schmidt start off as classmates, one is a jock and the other is a geek who both end up befriending each other in police school when they need each other’s strengths. That bromance story is something that I never really get tired of. Stupid characters are a tricky act to balance writing wise so it was impressive to me how many gags they were able to get out of these two characters while keeping their stupidity consistent. There is a decently written plot and it provides some nice twists and turns that genuinely surprised me. I’m going to spend the rest of the review mainly talking about the comedy writing

The time change between the present and the 1990’s is also addressed and 21 Jump Street does it in an interesting way: it addresses the idea of popularity and how it has changed since the 90s. Nerds (specifically hipsters) have become cool and jocks are out. It becomes the best gag in the entire movie and is the source of many of the best jokes. When the reversal of popularity dawns on Channing Tatum’s Jenko, he’s suddenly become the social outcast.

This is proof that you should never ever write anybody off because chances are they will find their niche and surprise you. This is the Channing Tatum’s greatest role yet and probably the best thing I have ever seen him in since Michael Mann’s Public Enemies. Tatum is doing a parody of himself and plays it absolutely straight to a cheeky level. He’s the good looking straight man hero, he knows it and the film knows it. As he gets more mad at being ostracized and left out by his nerd friend Schmidt, we laugh harder at him struggling and attempting to process that anger. A funny noteworthy scene is where Jenko enters a room and starts beating Schmidt with stuffed toys and humping him as he is on the phone with the love interest Molly (played by Brie Larson). There’s no dialogue, it seems like a friend messing with another friend but we get totally why Jenko is beating him. The fact that Schmidt is unaware makes it totally funny. 

There’s a trend of lazy writing going in comedies these days with the Judd Apatow movie trend, where he turns on the the camera and lets his actors improvise too often. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t but overall he relies on it too much. I’ve read a draft of the Funny People screenplay and it was clear that they just wrote down the gist of the scenes and improvised their way through shooting. I bring this up because it came very apparent to me that 21 Jump Street seemed it was really written by writers who stayed up late at night on expressos chiseling the right zingers.

The issue with improvised lines is that they draw a lot of attention to themselves because often the audience instinctually feels that the camera is lingering for something that’s not moving the story forward. Many of the comedic zingers in 21 Jump Street were throwaway lines and there is something very artful about them. Jokes come and just past by. You have to catch them or many of them will zip by. It was a more engaging experience that way and I found myself finding new funny lines on a second viewing.

I laughed throughout the entire movie (last movie where this happened for me was 2010’s Morning Glory) and still am currently quoting lines with friends. It was equally enjoyable on a second viewing and I actually noticed new things that made me laugh. I would recommend this to anybody but especially for anybody is a fan of the buddy copy genre.

Please sign me up for the sequel!

Haywire by Steven Soderbergh

Haywire Movie Poster

Gina Carano holds her own as the lead and actually is the most interesting thing about the film. Along with how the fights are filmed, she brings much gravitas to the film. You never doubt her fighting ability for a second. And most importantly, we feel the pain of these fights. Even given that  she’s probably padded underneath her clothes and is pulling the punches, the force of the hits look real. Often, she is being knocked against objects, which cannot be faked. I’m all for more martial arts films filmed in this way.

Much of the film’s style takes from the Ocean’s 11 movies: the jazzy, snappy music plays along as people go inside and outside of buildings, scoping out an environment and hatching up plans. There is something very cinematic about seeing something being assembled (i.e. like a sniper rifle being assembled or a team of thieves hatching a plan for a heist). And there is nothing Steven Soderbergh likes more than filming people opening and closing briefcases or car trunks, picking up bags and moving along to some other place with a plan to do something.

I believe this Ocean’s 11 heist film style works against the film. It brings too much lightness, which is antithetical to the reality of the world that it is set in. And also the reality of what the fight scenes are bringing to the table. There is a really subtle moment where Gina Carano, escaping from capture, trips over and hurts herself. It’s a small moment that brings a lot of reality, A) she’s not invincible B) she makes mistakes. But all that ultimately is unbalanced because those other heist-like scenes are filmed too slick. It takes away the tension and the pain, and you feel that she will get away with it with the finger-snapping soundtrack playing in the background.

Oddly, all the thespians are sidetracked because they’re not really given anything interesting to do. The film seems to slow down when it’s just the actors as there is no real scenery-chewing to be done. I wish they would replace one or two of these actors with other real-life mixed martial artists so she would have someone challenging to fight with in the film. Like in Ong Bak (or what I call Look What Tony Jaa Can Do!), as many henchmen Tony Jaa took down, they still build up the end fight with another martial artist (the one on steroids, for those keeping track).

Though being a massive martial arts fan, I really look forward to seeing more of Gina Carano. If they ever make a live-action Wonder Woman movie, she would be the ideal choice. Heck, at one point in the movie, they even called her Wonder Woman.

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