The Scarlett Johansson Project — #9

One of the things that I really like about, you know, not setting any rules as to how I go about these actor profile things is that chronology is never an issue. I can jump and skip around in an actor’s filmography as if time never mattered (this post’s belated publishing is proof that it indeed doesn’t here on Thomas J). Picking and choosing roles more or less at random has been liberating. 

The time has finally come for a healthy discussion of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut (and thus far his only feature directing credit). Back in 2013 the amiable and ever-busy native Angeleno broke the ice with a surprisingly clear-eyed look at the sacrifices and benefits of relationships, taking a modern, sex-positive approach to the subject and the nuances thereof — the corrosive effects of pornography and pop culture on one’s expectations of real sex; the difference between genuine, emotional connection and the thrill of infatuation. 

Despite the film taking its title from the fictional and life-long womanizer Don Juan, a name used to pin down the general attitude of men devoted to the Lothario lifestyle, Levitt’s direction balances baser instincts with more complex feelings in a way that satisfies far more than it feels manipulative and cheesy. The cast is small but fantastic and, predictably, does great work with well-written characters.

Scarlett Johannson as Barbara Sugarman in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon

Role Type: Supporting

Premise: A New Jersey guy dedicated to his family, friends, and church, develops unrealistic expectations from watching porn and works to find happiness and intimacy with his potential true love. (IMDb)

Character Background: Don Jon is a film with a strong personality. With it being set in a part of the country that also boasts a strong (some may say abrasive) personality, it’s no surprise the characters are going to let you know what’s on their mind, usually by yelling. Barbara Sugarman is a good example, a strong cuppa who isn’t afraid of dropping a few f-bombs in a sentence for proper emphasis. And really everything about her is emphatic: girl talks loud, walks fast and chews gum for the work-out. 

Barbara is a pretty shallow individual. She’s all about the artifice, how something appears rather than how it feels. One of the things that needs to be made clear is that Barbara is no villain, despite the character arc eventually pushing the viewer’s sympathies far more to Jon’s side. Not for nothing, she is very up-front about some of her principles. Don’t lie and everything will be all good. When Jon violates that simple rule, we understand her anger. What’s less reasonable is her expectation that relationships aren’t about work, it’s about comfort and pampering. Fine if you’re a Royal but in reality, at street-level, it takes two to make an effort and it would seem Barbara is putting in the wrong effort, or at least diverting her resources to the wrong cause.

Ultimately she is walking on a different side of the film’s thematic avenue. Unable to accept a man who prefers doing his own cleaning and taking care of his space, believing talking house chores is “unsexy,” Barbara fetishizes her knight in shining armor, attempts to contrive it in the same way Jon’s carefully curated collection of pornos has given him a far too specific code for stimulation. 

What she brings to the movie: Temptation. Sex appeal is largely the point of the character, though Barbara’s perfectly manicured image is also symptomatic of something rotten. Scarlett Johansson is of course the quintessential blonde bombshell but as this feature has gone to show she’s a talented actor capable of conveying depth across a diverse range of roles. So it’s almost anti-Johansson to take on a role that’s the very definition of the cliché of beauty being only skin deep. 

As a native New Yorker she also makes the thick Jersey accent easier to buy. It’s still affected, but is nowhere near as odd to hear as it is from her California-born co-star. 

In her own words: “I had romantic ideas when I was a kid. I don’t know, I always liked people who didn’t like me. I always wanted what I couldn’t have, and I’m still in the process of figuring out why that is. It is something about our own ego, I think, it strokes our ego, the idea of the chase, the challenge. When you actually think about it realistically, would you ever want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with you?”

Key Scene: An interesting moment, this one. Is this invasion of privacy? Or is that beside the point? Healthy debate time! Sound off in the comments. 

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work):

***/*****


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Photo credits: www.imdb.com; interview excerpt courtesy of ScreenSlam 

The Marvelous Brie Larson — #2

Welcome back to another edition of my latest Actor Profile, The Marvelous Brie Larson, a monthly series revolving around the silver screen performances of one of my favorite actresses. (If you are a newcomer to this series, here is a link to the original post).

Also this, from the first installment:

The idea behind this feature is to bring attention to a specific performer and their skillsets and to see how they contribute to a story. This probably goes without saying, but I will be focusing on how they POSITIVELY affect an experience. It would seem counterintuitive to feature roles in which they weren’t very good, were ill-fit or the movie overall was just plain bad. Of course, there is always that rare occasion where a great performance can single-handedly improve a fundamentally poor movie, so I won’t rule out that possibility.

In this month’s installment I am going in the opposite direction by taking a look at a far more limited role. Indeed, this is a few steps away from being a cameo appearance, but there is no denying it has an impact on the main character and the direction the film goes in. First-time writer/director Joseph Gordon Levitt on what she brought to his movie: “Brie created a whole character who makes the audience laugh, but who also feels like a real human being. And she did it without saying anything. That takes a truly skilled actress.”

Brie Larson as Monica Martello in Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Don Jon

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Comedy/relationship drama/romance

Premise: A New Jersey guy dedicated to his family, friends and church develops unrealistic expectations from watching porn and works to find happiness and intimacy with his potential true love.

Character Background: Monica is the younger sister of Jon Jr., a ladykiller played by Joseph Gordon Levitt. Though she may be seen more often than not glued to her phone, she’s not exactly oblivious to the goings-on around her, except maybe the worst of her parents’ arguments or the score of whatever football game is on. When Jon breaks the news of his break-up with Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) — a girl he hoped and his parents hoped on top of that hope would actually be The One — we learn just how attentive to detail Monica really is.

It’s a small scene but a big gesture. On a broadly entertaining level it’s one of those “whoa, they actually talk!” moments — but her breaking silence isn’t played as a gimmick or just for laughs. It has a timeliness to it that suggests Monica just hasn’t had anything to contribute to the routinely hysterical family conversation. Most of the time she just wants to stay out of the squabbling and nagging but now that she sees a real rift dividing in the family — Jon and his father (Tony Danza) especially locking horns over the importance of family and long-term commitment — she does what any good sibling does and comes to her brother’s side, offering him her perspective on what she viewed as a one-sided, high-maintenance relationship. As we see later, when Jon finds more emotional intimacy with an older woman (Julianne Moore), it’s a bit of sisterly advice he clearly takes to heart.

Marvel at this Scene:

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work):


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Photo credits: http://www.pinterest.com; http://www.fancarpet.com; http://www.imdb.com

Snowden

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Release: Friday, September 16, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Oliver Stone; Kieran Fitzgerald

Directed by: Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone tackles one of the most elusive and polarizing figures of the 21st Century in his Edward Snowden biopic, a match made in cinematic heaven given Stone’s penchant for courting controversy with the material he works with. So why doesn’t it work?

Snowden is kind of a snooze when it should have been a gripping, poignant drama. The character is portrayed confidently by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, no spoiler alert there, but the movie that surrounds him feels more like a college lecture on national security rather than a dramatization that could have shown us specifically what made the ideologue’s pursuit of government secrets — namely, the NSA’s tracking and collecting of mass amounts of user data by tapping into cell phones — so disturbing. Or,  interpreted another, more liberal way — so important. Stone has never been one to keep politics out of the equation, and he’d be a fool to do so this time.

Indeed, Snowden sits pretty far out there on the left wing but that’s not one of the film’s weaknesses unless you consider yourself a fastidious conservative. What’s more problematic is how insipid the study of a life less ordinary really is. I shouldn’t be using such words to describe anything related to Edward Snowden, and combined with the almost purely expository nature of the narrative I’m having déjà vu here: wasn’t this the same thing that plagued the Julian Assange picture? Stone’s new film concerns the period between 2004 and 2013 in which Edward Snowden rose meteorically from computer geek to national security asset (and later, threat). It also chronicles his romantic affair with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) and suggests an alternative life for him, one that never quite eventuates.

We begin in the present tense, where a documentary crew is rendezvousing with Snowden in the upscale hotel The Mira Hong Kong. Over the next several days director Laura Poitras (here portrayed by Melissa Leo but whose work can be seen in the 2014 documentary Citizenfour), along with journalists from The Guardian — Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) — are given unprecedented access to what Snowden knows. But before all that good stuff can happen we must first go back to where it all began.

Clunky transitions (“here’s what I did back in this time”) jettison us back to the early 2000s where we get the skinny on Snowden’s young adult life: his brief time in the military, two stints with the CIA and one with the NSA — an impressive résumé if there ever were one. A lack of backstory in terms of what his upbringing was like and who his parents were leaves us with the impression that Snowden was a lone wolf long before he truly became one. We gain access inside top-secret facilities as he makes an immediate impression on fictional CIA recruiter Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), a relationship that eventually sours as Snowden’s awareness of shady government activity increases. There are more innocuous exchanges as well, like the friendship he strikes up with the jaded Hank Forrester (a much calmer, more effective Nicolas Cage) who has been with the agency for too long and an NSA employee played by Ben Schnetzer.

Snowden is another prestige biopic that tentatively skirts around the fraying edge of sanity. Snowden’s romantic life manifests as the framework within which we can compare his  particular stresses to those we mere mortals go through on a daily basis — Lindsay is a free-spirited girl with a flair for photography who understandably tires of his weird work hours, amongst other things. The drama just comes across as obligatory and unearned, a perfectly good performance from Woodley gone to waste thanks to a sloppy, contrived and manipulative storyline. Stone also shoehorns in a sex scene that feels totally out of place. We have all come to the movie to see how well Snowden performs in bed, right?

The intimacy is not necessarily gratuitous but it’s symptomatic of the film’s major issue. It’s perfunctory and sex in and of itself isn’t the best way to add depth to your human characters. It’s a good way to add sex. Snowden owed it to the subject (and to us, natch) to ask tougher questions and to deliver more passion. There should be more outrage, more urgency. Where’s the intrigue here? And what are we getting in this film that we can’t find out on Wikipedia? The answer is absolutely nothing.

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Recommendation: I can’t say this frustratingly routine, safe docudrama is something you have to see unless you can’t be bothered to skim a Wikipedia page on the guy. Or unless you are a diehard Oliver Stone fan. Personally, I’m disappointed with the way this came out even with no particular expectations coming in to it. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “The modern battlefield is everywhere.” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Night Before

The Night Before movie poster

Release: Friday, November 20, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Jonathan Levine; Kyle Hunter; Ariel Shaffir; Evan Goldberg

Directed by: Jonathan Levine

I was enjoying, for the most part, the latest incarnation of the Seth Rogen and Friends Show, finding myself more than a little amused by their storming of New York City in an effort to live it up one last time this Christmas Eve; finding comfort once more in the familiarity of their crassness and the simplicity of the mission: let’s get wasted and have a blast, maybe even learn a thing or two about each other in the process. (Yes, people actually get paid millions to do this.)

Then suddenly, from out of nowhere, Jason Mantzoukas shows up, dressed as one of two drunken Santa Clauses and wipes the smile from my face. This I don’t call a Christmas miracle. This I call a threat to a movie’s enjoyability. Seriously, this guy is the worst. Is this his talent, being a buzz kill? If the name’s not familiar, you’re either lucky or you haven’t caught many episodes of The League. In which case you are also lucky. Mantzoukas doesn’t appear for long in The Night Before but apparently it’s enough to cause me to go off on a rant about how much I dislike the characters he plays.

Where’s my egg nog? Ahh, there it is. Right. Now we can actually talk about the film.

It’s no secret Seth Rogen isn’t a man of great range. A few weeks ago he managed to impress me with his dramatic turn as Steve Wozniak in Danny Boyle’s intriguing examination of the late Apple CEO and he also played it somewhat straight as Ira Wright, an up-and-coming comedian in Judd Apatow’s underrated Funny People. However, nine times out of ten you know what you are going to get in a film bearing his name prominently on the poster.

The Night Before, in which he plays Isaac, a mild-mannered (when sober) thirty-something, is the long-lost lovechild of This is the End and Knocked Up. It’s a film that knows when the party should stop and embrace important life events like childrearing, relationship-building and aggressive product placing. While it will never be as good as vintage Rogen-inspired raucousness — I refer to the likes of Pineapple Express and Superbad — this collection of Yuletide yucks offers a suitably raunchy alternative to the saccharine stories about family and togetherness we’re about to be hit with in the coming weeks.

We’re introduced to Isaac and his buddies Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) via a cringe-inducing voiceover that plays upon the titular poem, explaining how Ethan had lost both parents several Christmases ago and has since spent the holiday with his pals. Despite the support, he has found himself stuck in a rut while constantly running into obstacles in his personal and professional life. He’s no longer with his girl Diana (Lizzy Kaplan) and he works odd jobs, most recently as a miserable little elf.

The others take it upon themselves to make this Christmas the best one ever, as Chris’ NFL career is starting to take off and he finds himself with less time to spend hanging out, consumed ever more by social media and the associated vainglory. Betsy (Jillian Bell) hands her hubby (Rogen) a bag of drugs before they hit the town, reassuring him he’s earned himself a night of recklessness before properly settling down. Say no more, we know where this is all going. Mostly.

Along the way we bump lines, ingest psilocybin by the ounce, hallucinate in a manger, buy pot from Michael Shannon (can this guy do any wrong?), take relationship advice from Miley Cyrus, play some Goldeneye (yes, on N64!), promote Red Bull and even find time to reconcile past and present tensions in a subway car. All of this farce ultimately leads us to the Nutcracker party, the party anyone who’s anyone finds themselves at after midnight on Christmas Eve. That includes Ethan’s ex, which means you know the guy is bound for redemption sooner or later.

The Night Before settles on tried-and-true Rogen/Goldberg formula, simultaneously  mocking and embracing the spirit of Christmas by developing a none-too-surprisingly wholesome bromance between a never-more-stoned Rogen and his cronies. ‘Tis the season to be giggling uncontrollably, although I couldn’t call you a grinch if you wanted to take a pass on this hit.

JGL is a Wrecking Ball with Miley Cyrus in 'The Night Before'

Recommendation: The Night Before doesn’t rank amongst Rogen’s best but it’s a perfectly satisfying blend of juvenile humor and sight gags as well as heartfelt relationship building. (Interestingly it manifests as only the second time Evan Goldberg wrote a script without Rogen.) Save for a few questionable cameo appearances, this still manages to offer the quota of amusing supporting roles and it is nice to see Rogen reunited with Gordon-Levitt.

Rated: R

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “You have been such a Rock throughout this whole pregnancy. You are like my Dwayne Johnson.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.movie-torrents.net

The Walk

Release: Friday, October 9, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Robert Zemeckis; Christopher Browne

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

In this episode of Remarkable Feats of Human Spectacle and/or Idiocy, Joseph Gordon Levitt balances on a one-inch thick steel cable rigged between the newly-constructed towers of the World Trade Center, looming steel giants that would go on to cast infinite shadows across Lower Manhattan in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Levitt portrays a man with an insatiable death wish, French high wire artist Philippe Petit, who, after coming across a magazine article in a dentist’s office about the towers, becomes obsessed with the idea of creating the “artistic crime of the century.”

If you like going to the circus, Robert Zemeckis’ sensationally goofy ode to stunt/suicidal men should sit right with you. The Walk tiptoes precariously between harmless popcorn entertainment and shameless exploitation, using Petit’s brazen decision to defy death in the most ridiculous way possible to remind the world once again of how terrible a day Tuesday, September 11, 2001 was. In fact, Zemeckis is so obsessed with recapturing what our world looked like physically prior to that day of darkness that I lost track of the number of vertical-panning shots of these most uninspired-looking structures.

If you’re not a fan of the circus, you may find The Walk to be, in the words of my generation, a shit show. Not in the traditional sense of the phrase, in that Petit or his many accomplices that he guilt-tripped into assisting him were perpetually drunk throughout the picture. Rather, this show is just shitty. It’s not particularly well acted (save for Levitt who, as per usual, is clearly dedicated to his craft), it drags for at least half the runtime and it tries to compensate for the recklessness by striking a fanciful tone. The whole thing comes dangerously close to being pointless as tension fails to be generated given we know the outcome before the opening scene spirits us away to Paris and before we’re inundated with a lot of exposition covering the man’s personal and early professional background.

During one of my many periods of zoning out I recalled when American daredevil Nik Wallenda deemed it a good idea to fix a line between a narrow section of the Grand Canyon and walk it without the aid of safety nets or harnesses. (These people view that kind of silly stuff as some form of emasculation.) If we’re talking entertainment value, there’s no comparison between waiting for this fairytale’s happy ending and realizing Wallenda’s walk carried with it the very real potential of having an actual death broadcast on television. Macabre? Maybe, but at least the threat was right there, making viewers the world over extremely uncomfortable for the better part of an hour. Some families reportedly didn’t allow their children to watch it. They’d be fine watching this, though. It’s completely kid-friendly, one of a small handful of aspects you can stick in the Positives column.

As The Walk progresses, something strange happens. As we draw ever closer to the red letter day (August 6, 1974) — that is to say, as Petit’s dream becomes more real — the less authentic this true story feels. Maybe it’s because the actor’s safety never being in question is too thinly veiled. Maybe it’s just because Levitt is such a nice guy he fails to convey the level of arrogance necessary to fully transform. (His accent doesn’t help, either.) Despite Dariusz Wolski’s breathtaking cinematography culminating in several vertigo-inducing shots as we dare look past Petit’s feet and into the abyss, more often than not the film is unable to escape its Hallmark movie channel sheen.

The Walk relies on the power of illusion. This is Barnum & Bailey on the big screen. If I had known that that was what I was paying to see I would have stayed home and forced myself to rewatch Man on Wire; of course that would mean having to endure the actual high wire artist’s grating cocksureness. In the end, I’m really not sure why I put myself through this. Maybe it’s me and not Petit that needs the psych evaluation.

Recommendation: I’ve said it once but I will say it again: if your circus experiences have served you well in the past, here’s another you can attend but this time from the confines of a theater chair. I suppose in some way The Walk is more than just the single act; it is a respectful tribute to the twin towers as well as reminder that it’s pretty impressive what people can do when they put their minds to it. But my recommendation comes down to something simple: whether or not you can stand listening to people say things like, “You gave that building a soul,” or “It’s amazing how you never gave up on your dreams.” If you cringe at stuff like that, then I think for you the carrots are cooked, as they say.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “The carrots are cooked.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

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Release: Friday, August 22, 2014

[Theater]

Okay so there apparently is a major self-destructive streak in me, for I went to see the purportedly ill-advised Sin City sequel and walked out a happy customer. Perhaps more so than I rightfully should have been, too.

Has it really been ten years since the last time we wallowed in the streets of Frank Miller’s sick and twisted imagination? (Actually, it’s been nine but who’s counting?) Point being, its enough time for a follow-up film to be rolled out to the sound of crickets chirping. Moderate fans of the first have all but forgotten that there ever were plans on revisiting this place. Diehards likely even struggled to maintain a reasonable level of optimism. Everyone else simply went about their lives.

See, these aren’t the kinds of films that really move the viewer. And A Dame to Kill For had no intention of changing that, but in a twist of irony it kind of did. It moved people to the point of total disinterest. I had five people in my screening on opening night. Five, myself included. And I didn’t go to the crappy theater at the mall this time, either. Grossing a measly $6.4 million over the weekend (approximately $22 million less than its predecessor), one of its competitors that was already three weeks into its own theatrical run, Guardians of the Galaxy, perhaps snatched that up within a couple of showings over that weekend alone.

I suppose me going on to say that Hartigan (Bruce Willis) is back but only for a paycheck won’t help anyone still on the fence about seeing this. Sure, Bruce’s here, but he’s literally in the background. Instead we get a new group of desperados born and bred in the filth of two of Miller’s graphic novels. He, along with returning director Robert Rodriguez, merges the titular novel with one called Just Another Saturday Night, along with two new stories created solely for the film. We first stumble upon a returning hard-man in Mickey Rourke’s battered and bruised Marv, who is seen picking himself up in the wake of a car crash. He starts recounting the last things he remembers and what brought him to this new low point. This part represents the second of two graphic novels used for the story.

Then, some new blood. Joseph Gordon-Levitt appears out of the blue (okay, the black-and-white) as a cocky but composed card player whose good fortune seems to know no bounds. Unfortunately, neither does his ego as he pits himself against one of the most ruthless scoundrels in all of Basin City — the one and only Senator Roarke (Powers Boothe). The Senator is back and more ruthless than ever, making it his personal mission to track down Johnny and reclaiming the money he “stole” at the game. Yeah, it doesn’t end well for Johnny.

And finally we come to the third main thread in Josh Brolin’s Dwight (played by Clive Owen in 2005), a man with a horrific past now doing his best to stay sober. That is, until the titular Dame comes into the picture, tempting Dwight back into a life he thought he had successfully gotten out of. Eva Green in this film doesn’t fit the description of ‘femme fatale;’ she doesn’t even epitomize it. She’s something else entirely, and it’s terrifying. (Well, I say ‘terrifying;’ others might have another word for it.) Macro-psychotic? Sexy? What?

Let’s actually talk about that for a second. How does A Dame to Kill For compare in its thematic presentation? If you recall, the day Sin City was released wasn’t exactly a red letter day for actresses the world over. Violent, sloppy and misogynistic to a fault, the movie indulged in sequences that had Jessica Alba’s hips gyrating, Rosario Dawson cleavage-ing, Devon Aoki compensating for her looks by just being a raging lunatic. But back then the over-the-top toplessness was. . .and forgive me for saying this. . .unique to the production design. The sheer lack of boundaries in terms of violence and sexuality contributed to the experience that was a solid graphic novel adaptation. Fast-forward nine years and the fact that Eva Green spends 90% of her scenes naked just comes across as sleazy and lazy.

Fortunately Nancy Carrigan’s story has an ever-so-slight silver lining to her dark cloud. Slipping into despair, the concubine chops her hair, mars her face with shards of glass (if women aren’t going to be sexy, they may as well destroy those useless good-looks, right?) and ultimately abandons her post dancing at the bar. Thank goodness. She makes moves to overcome her own personal hell, following Hartigan’s selfish act of suicide. Nancy then decides to partner up with Marv, who similarly has seen enough of this dirty old town.

Audiences clearly have already reached that threshold. But in the same way I find Rodriguez’ and Miller’s need to overcompensate for truly original storytelling with even more sexually explicit imagery and brutal violence an act of desperation (watch for an amusing cameo from All-State insurance guy Dennis Haysbert as Manute. . .and what happens to his poor eyeball), I view the mass amount of negativity heaped upon this release similarly desperate.

No, this is not Frank Miller’s Sin City, but it’s the next logical step and it is still a Frank Miller creation. It’s just too bad those who cared enough had to wait this long. There’s something to be said for the amount of power this trio of stories has likely lost after nearly a decade laying in wait.

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3-0Recommendation: An all-around consistent film in terms of appealing to its uniquely deranged fan base, A Dame to Kill For steps up the intensity of its thematic elements in an attempt to draw in fringes of a general interest audience. It may have failed in that regard, but for returning customers there’s enough to like here to warrant a ticket purchase, if not then definitely a rental at some point. On the other hand, if there was anything that put you off in Sin City, you probably could avoid this.

Rated: R

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “Never lose control, never let the monster out.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Wind Rises

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Release: Friday, February 21, 2014

[Theater]

Hayao Miyazaki’s final film is poetry in motion. It was also Oscar-worthy this year, receiving a nomination for Best Animated Feature. Unfortunately the spotlight fell upon Disney’s Frozen in a move no one is really going to call surprising. It is unfortunate only because this is a film that deserves more than just the tip of the hat. Its a hats-off kind of motion picture event, not just because of the gorgeous animation but due to its epic sweeping narrative that has the presence of mind to include a heartfelt romance, engaging historical context and a dreamlike, thought-provoking perspective.

The Wind Rises is the Japanese artiste’s eleventh outing as a director whose filmography dates back to 1979 and includes the likes of critically and commercially successful animations such as Castle in the Sky, Porco Rosso and Spirited Away. If Miyazaki’s other works are as colorful and emotionally satisfying as this film — and according to major sites, they seem to be that way — we are looking at a unique director insofar as he’s in a tier of consistently satisfying filmmakers that a great many will fail again and again at breaking into.

His swan song concerns the fascinating life and career of a hardworking and intelligent Japanese youth named Jiro (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the English language version), as well as his quest for finding love and happiness in the arms of a woman.

The film opens with a young boy going for an early morning joy ride in a single-propeller plane mounted to the top of his parents’ home before things take a turn for the ugly. As it so happens, this all occurs in a dream sequence. One of the focuses of Miyazaki’s film is that Jiro tends to live a life filled with these. Unfortunately he is also acutely near-sighted, a condition that disqualifies him from ever becoming a pilot. So he decides to dedicate his life to working on planes. In time he would carve out a career as one of the world’s leading aerospace engineers. His efforts almost single-handedly propel his country into the forefront of technological advancement during the years of World War II.

The Wind Rises is filled to the brim with gorgeous animation. You’d have to dig deep to find another film not made by this master of animation that is as vibrant and passionately detailed as it (okay, one that’s also not this year’s Oscar winner). The sky is a robin’s egg blue canvas upon which planes streak like paintbrushes in little strips of white, diving and soaring. The places in which major character developments occur epitomize the romanticism in Miyazaki’s farewell film. Sunsets bleed oranges and reds. After watching, one tends to carry around in their memory vivid snapshots of the film’s strongest images, including the one found on the movie poster.

Color doesn’t just apply to the artwork, though. Characters bubble with eccentricities, and this includes our protagonist. Although Jiro remains as a relatively static character in terms of his genuine likability and affection for aircraft, it’s his obsession that makes him a curious specimen. As previously mentioned, he daydreams often and is frequently teased about this by some of his peers, including another brainiac named Honjô (John Krasinski). Jiro’s boss straight out of school is a comically short and ill-tempered man (Martin Short) who grows to appreciate Jiro as a company asset. This man’s greatest quirk is his hair, bouncing up and down whenever he moves or yells. Other, lesser characters are also imbued with some cartoonish elements as well.

What really distinguishes this anime, though, is its level of realism. A great many films that fall into the category of ‘anime’ tend to really overdramatize the stories they tell — such is the appeal of the genre. Characters’ voices are manic, their mouths and bodies move frenetically and the action surrounding them often can be chaotic to the point of causing headaches. By contrast The Wind Rises is patient, perhaps even a little plodding at times. At over two hours in length, it’s a sprawling journey that not only pays homage to a troubled nation in a time of great crisis, but one that features a tender love story at its center.

When in the earlygoing Jiro helps save a young girl named Naoko (Emily Blunt)’s maid by carrying her from the site of a train accident following a massively destructive earthquake, he seems to win her affection then and there. It would be many years before a chance run-in with the same woman, Naoko, would reunite the two. The couple’s passion for one another feels real and honest; sweet and worth the time required to buy into it.

Slow pace aside, The Wind Rises is a breathtaking production wherein style beautifully complements the spectacle.

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4-0Recommendation: Here is a thoroughly engaging film that many should spend the time watching, in whatever format they possibly can. It’s historically significant and emotionally rewarding. I, for one, have a great deal of homework to do as I attempt to go back and invest myself in Miyazaki’s other equally praise-worthy films that have been created over the course of several decades.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 126 mins.

Quoted: “Airplanes are just cursed dreams, waiting for the sky to swallow them up.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Don Jon

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Release: Friday, September 27, 2013 

[Theater]

Joseph Gordon-Levitt goes for broke here, starring in his big screen directorial and writing debut. He’s Jon Martello, a confident, handsome twenty-something born and raised in New Jersey, first introduced as a club regular, ladykiller and porn addict. Or, well . . . as someone who prefers porn to having sex with someone.

Indeed, Don Jon winds up becoming an unusually revealing and provocative experience. It’s also refreshingly honest. I can’t recall the last screening I attended in which there was quite so much nervous laughter and so many outbursts of it, moments in which you get the “haha, oh yeah that’s totally me” kinds of laughs intermixed with genuine bouts of uncontrollable hysteria. This is what’s known as the Joseph Gordon-Levitt Effect.

All I can say for that is, thank goodness someone approved of JGL’s idea to write, direct and star in his own film. As it turns out, not only is his debut a thoroughly entertaining one, it manages to balance its overt sex appeal with a healthy dosage of decency and maturity. Don Jon scrubs the Paganism from the subject of talking hot and heavy sex. When Jon meets the woman of his dreams at a club, his life might well be heading in a new direction. Set on a collision course with finding true love, will she be the one to make his life better, and thus that of his mother as well? (Are grandchildren so much to ask for??)

First off, JGL does a great job of not really caring what a certain portion of his fanbase may or may not think of his creative choices, as there is many a debasing moment with him shirtless, hunched over and alone by his laptop, his naked despair (or despairing nakedness, whichever) occupying the center of the screen. There’s a good bit of narration as well, most of which serve as explanations as to why Jon prefers watching sex to actually engaging in it. In short, JGL puts it all out there, and the film benefits.

At the core of the very-nearly-sappy story is a man who’s so good at being one-dimensional he hasn’t ever stopped to think twice about settling down and starting a family, though that’s surely what his parents — the great Tony Danza, and a hilarious Glenne Headly — want and expect from him. They have no idea about his relationship with his computer. Jon doesn’t much care; life is working for him perfectly well as is. But when he comes across Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), the young man’s suddenly finding himself having to rearrange his daily life . . . and maybe even his priorities?

The skeletal framework of the film is hard to ignore — arguably the only major crack in its composure. Splicing scenes of ‘the Don’ at the gym, doing his “thing” at home, going to confession, and combing the clubs, all in equal measure, the routine becomes somewhat predictable, and likely will be even more obvious upon repeat viewings. That said, it works just fine for a debut film from someone as young as Levitt. It’s an effective, albeit conspicuous, story-building technique that prompts laughs perhaps more often than the sight of ridiculous clips from various pornos.

The most fascinating aspect of Don Jon has to be the personal growth, the progress of maturity as the story unfolds. While attending classes (at the request of Barbara, in order for him to actually “make something of himself”), Jon comes across an older woman (Julianne Moore) in the same class. His first encounter with her is more than awkward and seems dismissive yet, what JGL does next (from a directorial standpoint) is one of the few developments in his film that’s unpredictable, and quite frankly, one which gives the film a great deal of credibility — if only also slightly threatening mawkishness.

Jon’s situation is really just a contemporary version of a man in denial; in 17th Century Spain, Don Juan roamed the Spanish hills, conquering women, slaying men, and later boasting about it. The bigger the challenge, the bigger reward, in his eyes. Eventually, the great misogynist would find his soul depraved, and denied salvation due to the unconscionable nature of his sins. The amiable native Angeleno cleverly adapted the basic qualities of the fictitious lothario for a modern audience. Then he managed to attract the attention of some of the most beautiful people working in the industry today. The result is a very satisfying mixture that is far more poignant than might first be assumed.

Don Jon is as successful as one might expect from a virgin director. It would seem the young actor has a bright future ahead of him, now in multiple aspects of the art form. He’s got a few areas to develop on as a director, but seeing as though this is his starting point, it should be fascinating to see what might come next from one of Hollywood’s fastest rising stars.

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3-5Recommendation:  Don Jon finds JGL at his most exposed — literally and figuratively, of course. I think the trailers do their job quite well with this one. And, if you like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, then you’re already there, aren’t you?        

Rated: R (for risqué)

Running Time: 90 mins.  

Quoted: “They give awards for porn, too. . .”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com