Saturday, September 28, 2013

Review: Don Jon

Image courtesy of Relativity Media.
Joseph Gordon Levitt's directorial debut, "Don Jon," is a pretty ballsy movie for a first-time behind the camera effort for an actor, especially one who is relatively young. That's not to say that the film is without its faults, but you can't fault Levitt for lack of ambition.

The picture pokes fun at the mindset of a certain type of male. You might think I'm referring to the Jersey Shore type of guy that Levitt is obviously lampooning here, but that's not exactly it.

In the film, Jon is a lothario who easily picks up women from bars and brings them back to his home for one night stands. But what he truly prefers, as he tells us via voice over, is watching porn on his computer. Jon says that actual sex cannot compare, for him, to the fantasies involved with watching adult movies online.

Of course - since this is a romantic comedy, Jon meets a young woman who changes his mind about this addiction - at least, for a while. Her name is Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), whom we, at first, find plucky before getting some reservations about her later on.

It's important to note the other lead characters in the film, including Jon's homebody mother (Glenne Headly), who is obsessed with her son settling down, his father (Tony Danza), who curses loudly at sports games on the television, wears a wife beater and comes across as the stereotypical father you'd expect to see in a film of this sort, and a sister, whose sole line in the movie includes some sage advice.

And then, there's Esther (Julianne Moore), a middle aged woman whom Jon meets during a night class that he is prompted to take by Barbara. I won't give away what role Esther serves, but let's just say that you might think the film is going in one direction before it veers off in a completely different one.

One of the more interesting aspects of the film is its comparison of Jon's and Barbara's addictions. As I've mentioned before, Jon is into online smut. At one point in the picture, a character points out to Jon that his obsession with porn - as opposed to sex with a real woman - may have to do with the fact that he does not have to do anything for the women in the videos.

On the other side of the coin, there are Barbara's fantasies derived from watching schmaltzy Hollywood rom coms, which are satirized in a clever sequence involving Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum. The film draws parallels between Jon's porn and Barbara's rom coms and dissects how both genres lead to unhealthy expectations in relationships.

"Don Jon" does not always work. I'm no prude, but the onslaught of graphic images and language during its first 30 minutes feels a bit forced as if the first-time director were trying to prove something - that his film has edge, perhaps. And several of the scenes between Jon and his family seem to fit deliberately into the mold of all ethnic families portrayed in onscreen comedies.

But the picture, on the whole, is a little more clever than you might think and the performances are all pretty solid. "Don Jon" is a solid directorial debut that takes risks, most of which pay off.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Review: Rush

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
I gotta give Ron Howard credit. Here's a director that takes subject matter that might not necessarily appeal to an audience - and, in this case, I'm referring to myself - and makes it interesting. I wouldn't have thought that a picture about a mathematician losing his mind would be that compelling, but "A Beautiful Mind" was just that.

And now, here's "Rush," which follows the intense rivalry between two Formula One racing drivers in the 1970s. To get this off my chest: I could care less about NASCAR, Formula One racing or any other event that involves people driving cars around and around and around. I have no need for speed or, for that matter, "Days of Thunder," "Driven" or any other pictures of the sort. The documentary "Senna" is the rare item of interest.

And yet, "Rush" is a pretty involving film. It's not one of Howard's best films - "A Beautiful Mind," "Parenthood" and "Apollo 13," for example - but it's effective, well acted and nicely shot.

The film follows the hate-hate (and maybe just a little love) relationship between James Hunt, a cocky British driver whose adventures in the bedroom rival his performance on the track, and Niki Lauda, a cocky Austrian driver who everyone views as a pill, but - hey - the guy gets the job done.

Chris Hemsworth, breaking out of comic book purgatory, does a nice job of balancing Hunt's arrogance with the obvious reservoir of feeling he keeps buried beneath the surface, while Daniel Bruhl is effective as the purposefully icy Lauda.

This is not a character study per se. The main character is not so much Hunt or Lauda, but rather their rivalry and how they use their seeming distaste for one another to inspire greatness in themselves.

It's a swiftly paced picture and has an effectively grainy '70s look to it. As I've said before, race car driving isn't my thing, but I can appreciate that the numerous scenes of it in "Rush" are handled well.

This is one of those cases in which you may not have to be a fan of the sport depicted to enjoy the film, which is both engrossing and entertaining.

Review: Prisoners

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
The best - or, at least, my favorite - thrillers tend to be more than just simple whodunnits, but rather movies that use mysteries to get at a bigger picture, such as "Zodiac," "Vertigo" or the films of David Lynch.

Denis Villeneuve's relentless "Prisoners" is a thriller of this sort. And although it treads some ground already covered by "Mystic River," "Zodiac" and "The Silence of the Lambs," the film has some interesting ideas of its own, an increasing sense of dread, some terrific performances and numerous plot twists and red herrings that not only tie together neatly at the film's end, but also deepen its themes.

For those not familiar with the French Canadian filmmaker, his previous work includes the haunting school shooting drama "Polytechnique" and the Best Foreign Film nominee "Incendies." While both of those films are powerful, somber dramas, I believe his American debut is his strongest work to date.

At the beginning of the picture, two families celebrate Thanksgiving together: survivalist and hunter Keller Dover (an intense Hugh Jackman) and his wife (Maria Bello) and pals Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis). Their teenage children take their two younger daughters out for a walk, during which they attempt to climb onto a rusty old RV that is parked near their street. They all return to the house and it isn't until a short while later that the families discover that both young girls are missing.

The police are called and the inspector who shows up to investigate is Detective Loki (an excellent Jake Gylenhaal), whom we first meet as he eats Thanksgiving dinner alone at a Chinese restaurant. The RV is tracked down and its driver - Alex (Paul Dano) - is arrested. But Alex is mentally stunted and soon released after not being found to be a probable kidnapper.

The film becomes a sort-of tug of war between two personalities: Loki's calm intelligence and Keller's righteous anger, which leads to him kidnapping Alex and torturing him in the hopes of finding out where his daughter has been taken. Of course, no one in the film knows for sure that Alex had anything to do with the kidnapping. Keller says he knows, but does not appear convinced.

The two-and-a-half hour film is filled with plot twists, some of which are creepy, and clues, none of which are insignificant. Here is a thriller that actively makes you think. It's a good and, sadly, rare thing. You may think you know where it is all leading, but you most likely won't.

On the one hand, "Prisoners" is a skillfully made - and beautifully shot, courtesy of Roger Deakins - thriller and, on the other, it is a morality play, of sorts, that made me think of Lars Von Trier's "Dogville," which may not appear to be the most likely point of comparison. But both films question the acceptability of cruelty toward others during difficult circumstances, whether it's grief (in the case of "Prisoners") or economic despair ("Dogville").

The entire cast of Villeneuve's film is pretty terrific. Gylenhaal gives his best performance in a while and it's not as easy as it may look. Sometimes, an understated performance can be trickier than a showier one. And Jackman is frighteningly committed as the humanly flawed father of one of the missing girls. Even the bit players give it their all, including Dano and Melissa Leo as Alex's aunt.

It's a rare thing to find a thriller this smart, intense and skillfully made. It's the real deal.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Review: Insidious Chapter 2

Image courtesy of Film District
And so here's the obligatory sequel of the week that you've likely not been waiting for. James Wan's "Insidious" is one of the few horror movies of the past few years that I've actually found to be frightening, inventive and fun.

It was a modest hit, which - for a horror movie - means an invitation for a sequel. And, not surprisingly, "Insidious 2" falls into the same category as the sequels to "Halloween," "Jaws," "The Exorcist" and "The Blair Witch Project." I assume you'd recognize that I'm not paying a compliment here.

As far as horror movie sequels go, "Insidious: Chapter 2" is not a debacle. If that sounds like faint enough praise for you, you could be the desired audience. My advice would be to watch Wan's recent "The Conjuring" or, better yet, "Insidious" rather than sit through this tired sequel.

To get into the plot would be a fruitless venture. Suffice it to say that in the first film, a young couple (Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson) discover that their young son is being tormented by a demon from a world to which he travels in his sleep known as The Further.

In this sequel, the family is still being tormented, but not by the exact same demon. There's a reasonably clever twist that explains why this particular demon, which makes an appearance in the first picture, is doing the tormenting. So, it's unfortunate that rather than doing something interesting with this concept, the filmmakers rely on the same increasingly tired jump scare tactics, creepy little children, doors creaking open and various other cliches that come to mind for these types of movies.

I once said that comedians do not necessarily become funnier by speaking more loudly. I can now amend that statement to also add that ghosts that move fast and scream loudly are not any scarier than their quieter peers. It might make you jump when something flies out of a closet, but that shows little in the way of filmmaking skill.

There's a sequel to literally everything these days. OK, maybe not to "Precious." But you know what I mean. And if you're as tired of seeing producers and studios milk every little ounce of creativity from every little intriguing idea that comes along, you'd be better suited to wait a few weeks, rather than seeing "Insidious 2." The fall movie season is, after all, on the way, so better cinema hopefully awaits us all.

Review: Blue Caprice

Image courtesy of Sundance Selects
Alexandre Moors' "Blue Caprice" is a disturbing, often compelling and slightly enigmatic take on an event that is known about by most, but understood by few - if any.

That event is, of course, the Beltway sniper murders that took the lives of 10 people and injured three others outside of Washington D.C. as well as in Maryland and Virginia in 2002.

This new film is not a moment-by-moment reenactment of the incidents in the vein of "United 93," but more similar to Gus Van Sant's terrific Columbine-inspired "Elephant" in that it sets the scene for the known incident, but comes to the conclusion that there is no logical explanation for it.

"Blue Caprice" is pretty effective and features some solid performances, including Isaiah Washington, who portrays John Allen Muhammad, and Tequan Richmond as Lee Boyd Malvo. Tim Blake Nelson and Joey Lauren Adams provide some solid supporting work as a couple that provides a place to crash for the duo, who, in the film, play out a twisted version of a father-son relationship.

At the film's beginning, Malvo is living in Antigua with his rarely present mother when he meets the alluring Muhammad, who is on a vacation with his children, whom he has managed to smuggle away from their mother, from whom he is divorced. It's easy to see why Malvo is taken in. Muhammad is - at least, at first - a pretty convincingly loving father figure.

It's not until Muhammad has sort of adopted Malvo, brought him back to the United States and begun engaging in all manner of paranoia that we get a closer glimpse of who the man truly is. The film is a chilling portrayal of a dominating personality and the apostle willing to go as far as it takes to please him.

The film is set in post-9/11 America, but Muhammad's mission is not politically motivated. Rather, he is out for revenge, but it is unclear against whom he is seeking it. He is angry that his wife has kept his children from him, but the plot to randomly murder people at gas stations along the Beltway appears to be an effort on the killers' parts to bring about chaos, rather than make a statement or achieve a means to an end. In other words, you won't find any easy answers here.

"Blue Caprice" is muted - at times, perhaps, a little too much so. But the film is an effective piece of true crime filmmaking that views its subjective with an investigative eye, rather than a critical one, and is all the better for it.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Review: Riddick

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures
Those who like their science fiction to alternate between overly ponderous sequences and grotesque, but dopey, violence with a touch of a sexual assault vibe and a visual style that could best be described as a "spray tan," then "Riddick" could be just the film for you.

For those of you who thinks this sounds torturous, it probably will be.

For those unfamiliar with the franchise, David Twohy's picture is a follow up to 2000's "Pitch Black," a minor sci-fi horror film that helped propel the career of Vin Diesel, who would soon become a star with the "Fast and the Furious" films and "XXX." That film was followed by "The Chronicles of Riddick," a bland outer space action film.

Now, in this latest movie, the violent planet-hopping criminal Riddick (Diesel) has landed on a planet that appears more coppery than anything in "300" with a group of bounty hunters following close behind. But first, we must experience the film's first 20 minutes or so in which Diesel pals around with a mangy coyote-looking thing and battles off some bland serpents that keep emerging from the water.

Then we get to the aforementioned bounty hunters, who are a decidedly mixed lot. There's the Bible quoting pretty boy (Nolan Gerard Funk), the meathead muscle (Dave Bautista), the sleazy leader (Jordi Molla) and others. The one thing they have in common is that most of them - Riddick included - make really blatant advances and rape threats against the film's one female character (Katee Sackhoff), whose purpose here is to show some skin and occasionally punch out one of the men, delivering tough dialogue in the process.

After the bounty hunters spend about a quarter of the film deciding how to handle Riddick, they are attacked by those boring serpents from before, only there are about a thousand of them at this point. People and serpent alike are maimed and killed in grotesque ways.

There's very little to recommend here. When "Riddick" is not moving at a snail's pace, it's a sound and fury action movie that's only slightly more involving. Here is the year's most obligatory sequel. And yes, I do recall that "Grown Ups 2" was released this year.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Review: Passion

Image courtesy of Entertainment One
I can simultaneously appreciate the artistry and style behind Brian de Palma's "Passion," which is a remake of Alain Corneau's "Love Crime," and still find the picture to be a not completely satisfying experience.

It's not a bad film, per se. De Palma is a master of provocative thrillers, including "Blow Out," "Body Double" and the notorious "Dressed to Kill."

And yet, I felt a bit underwhelmed by "Passion" as I did with de Palma's last few pictures, including "The Black Dahlia" and "Redacted." I'm still hoping he has in him another "Femme Fatale," which, for me, was the last great movie by the director.

If you've seen "Love Crime," de Palma's film stays pretty true to the story before veering off slightly at the end. Noomi Rapace plays Isabelle, a young woman working in the world of advertising whose concepts often overshadow those of her boss, Christine (Rachel McAdams), a back-stabbing ice queen.

Christine takes credit for one of Isabelle's best ideas, setting off a chain of events that lead to infidelity, a corporate cat and mouse game, humiliation and, eventually, a brutal murder.

Of course, de Palma would not have taken on this story if a few twists and turns were not involved - and there are more than a few. No character is completely innocent and the film includes a fairly masterful series of sequences during which one character sets up the perfect murder.

But most of De Palma's best thrillers have something lurking under the surface, whether it's the held-over 70s paranoia in 1981's "Blow Out," the psycho sexual themes of "Dressed to Kill" or the Hollywood satire of "Body Double."

While "Passion" is set within the cutthroat corporate world, it really has very little to say on the matter. It's basically an exercise in style, albeit not a bad one by any means. It's just not the triumphant return for de Palma for which I've been waiting.

Review: Getaway

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

Based on the song by Earth, Wind and Fire... Sorry, I couldn't help myself.

Courtney Solomon's "Getaway" is a loud, mostly obnoxious and incredibly repetitive new action movie that wastes the talents of Ethan Hawke, gives Selena Gomez a variation on the same line to repeat for nearly 90 minutes and shows disturbing close-ups of Jon Voight's mouth speaking in what I believe is supposed to be a Bulgarian accent.

I'm sure that the filmmakers are hoping to present some sort of existential crime drama in the vein of Walter Hill's "The Driver" or Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive," in which nameless characters take on nameless villains for nebulous reasons, but "Getaway" is clearly not on par with those films.

At the beginning of the picture, Ethan Hawke - a retired race car driver - comes home to find his home in shambles and his wife missing. He gets a phone call from Voight's mysterious kidnapper, who gives him a set of instructions that include driving full speed through a crowd of Christmas revelers in Sofia, where the film is set, and leading cops on a series of wild car chases. You might be infuriated when you hear Voight's absurd ulterior motives at the film's end.

During these mostly lackluster proceedings, Hawke's driver picks up a car thief (Gomez), who spends a majority of the film yelling "Oh God," "No!," "Stop!," "What are you doing?," "I hate you!,"and the like as Hawke drives wildly, knocking over everything in sight with his vehicle.

The film is shot in that frenetic style typical of most Hollywood action movies that gives me the impression that, if slowed down, the filmmakers would be afraid that the audience would realize that there's not much to gaze upon.

"Getaway" is all sound and fury - signifying nothing - or sturm und drang or whatever other cliche you might want to apply here. Regardless, I'm sure it's fitting.