Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Don Jon

Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headly, Brie Larson, Rob Brown, Jeremy Luke
Running Time: 90 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

There's a point in Don Jon when the womanizing title character is roped into taking his date to a formulaic romantic comedy starring Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum. It's especially ironic considering this film could have easily turned into one of those in less capable hands than Joseph Gordon-Levitt's, whose directorial/screenwriting debut (and the first feature under his HitRecord production banner) has some clever, surprising things to say about sex and relationships, at least by Hollywood standards. The conclusion it comes to and the paces he takes to get there proves he could have as much potential behind the camera as in front of it, which is no small praise. While the genre and topic it covers would definitely seem to be a strange choice for the actor better known for dark, gritty dramas, the story confounds expectations, in addition to providing plenty of laughs. And in doing that, he also manages to write himself a role that's as big a departure as anything he's recently done as an actor.

In his own words, New Jersey native Jon Martello cares about only a few things: "my body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, my porn." If he were to rank them in order of preference, that last one would come in pretty high. Despite having a very active sex life, Jon's addiction to online pornography is out of control, with his most controversial claim being that he could never get the pleasure out of sex that he does from masturbating to porn. Through voiceovers and some really clever editing, he explains in detail exactly why. It's only when out clubbing with his friends and rating girls that he encounters Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), who isn't surrendering to his charms without a fight. And even when she does, seems determined to reform him, forcing Jon to work for it and play the long game to win her over

It's clear early Barbara isn't just another one of his conquests, as she holds an unflinchingly traditional view of relationships. She even convinces him to enroll in school, where he meets Esther (Julianne Moore) a kooky, highly emotional middle-aged woman who can't seem to leave him alone. Now finally with a girlfriend that earns the approval of his doting mother Angela (Glenne Headley) and sports-obsessed, profanity spewing father, Jon Sr. (Tony Danza!), he has to hope she'll be able to overloook his escalating porn addiction, which is threatening to destroy their relationship.

Don Jon exposes a lot of uncomfortable truths about how men and women behave in relationships, and why, despite the best of intentions, they frequently fail to make it work. This is essentially about two characters in a fantasy, with the addition of a third, who seems crazy but is actually the only one clued into reality. Aside from some of the porn footage interspersed throughout the picture to depict the extent of Jon's addiction, the full-fledged nudity is actually kept at a minimum, which had to be intentional given that this isn't what this is about. Initially we hear some pretty crazy things via Jon's voiceover that most other movies (especially mainstream rom-coms) wouldn't even touch. And we see it and hear it in graphic detail, which is kind of disturbing since it hits on some uncomfortable truths neither gender would publicly admit to. Some of it is crude and unfair, but a lot of it just simply stems from the title character's inability to connect with women on any level but the physical. And according to him, he isn't even finding enough fulfillment in that area either.

Whether it's porn online or a girlfriend, sex for Jon is a one-sided, masturbatory exercise in getting himself off and there's nothing even Barbara can do to change that. She's just as deluded and into herself as he is, extracting from him what she needs to attain the perfect, unrealistic life depicted in the goofy romantic comedies she loves. Operating under the false guise of class and stability, she thinks Jon's job is to provide it to her, with no questions asked. That in exchange for sex is why this relationship is bad news from the get-go. It makes sense she'd be repulsed by his porn addiction and he'd be repulsed by her freaking out over discovering it. Neither character is particularly likable in the least, but they are complex, with both actors giving the audience a window to their motivations.

JGL writes himself a role that reminds us that before all the dramatic acclaim, he was (and still is) a gifted comic presence. He infuses Jon with considerably more substance than the character's misogynist musclehead persona initially suggests while Johansson has the tough task of playing someone who's integrity is first underestimated then greatly overestimated by the end of the picture. For some reason, I was surprised at every turn with what happened with Julianne Moore's Esther and her ultimate purpose in the story. It's an odd part, yet she has every bit of it covered without missing a beat, with a role more significant and interesting than anything the trailers and commercials hinted at. Moore, the pro she is, finds a way to make it even more intriguing than that by slowly revealing this crazy, nosy, disheveled woman as someone wise and worth paying attention to.  

Reunited with his Angels in the Outfield co-star, the great Tony Danza steals scenes as Jon's overexcited dad, even more impressed with the hotness level of his son's new girlfriend than the score in whatever game he's watching during dinner. It's a treat anytime the too frequently underseen sitcom hero, boxer, teacher, author and former talk show host appears in anything, so it's a relief when Danza's let completely loose to entertain like only he can, providing most of the film's biggest laughs. And in a nearly wordless, dialogue-free performance, Brie Larson's face may be buried in her phone texting as Jon's sister, Monica, but conveys more with an occasional eye roll or sideways glance than most other actresses would with pages of dialogue. She knows exactly what's happening and we know when she does eventually speak, it'll be important. Compare this to most other rom-coms, which do have characters text throughout the entire film. But not as a joke or commentary. They really have no clue what's going on.

It isn't often that you have no idea where a rom-com is going but this one caught me completely off guard with its u-turn midway through. What starts out looking like it's going to be an extended episode of The Jersey Shore gives way to something more profound, as its clear JGL is using these character types for a reason. The movie is wiser and funnier than it lets on, leaving much of the work to the audience in figuring out how. While this isn't as strong a film, it does make an unlikely companion piece to (500) Days of Summer, hitting a few of the same notes, but in a more graphic way that doesn't go down quite as easily. Both are about two characters living in relationship fantasy land. While Don Jon still seems like a strange choice for JGL's directorial debut, there's no question he makes very tricky material work when it has no business to. There are many ways this could have turned into a disaster but he saves it, delivering something that's increasingly rare: A smart romantic comedy.   

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Man of Steel

Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Antje Traue, Ayelet Zurer, Christopher Meloni, Russell Crowe
Running Time: 143 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ (out of ★★★★)

Well, better late than never. The fact that I waited nearly a year before finally seeing Zack Snyder's Man of Steel should give you a pretty good idea how high on my priority list it was. Not because I dreaded it in the slightest or was at all protective of the character, which is easily the most challenging of all superheroes to adapt to the screen. But because I'm just so burnt out from superhero movies and franchises to the point that it's almost impossible to distinguish them from each other. You can blame Marvel for that.  So now it's good to know every day I avoided seeing this wasn't time spent in vain because in attempting to "reimagine" Superman and make him relevant to contemporary audiences, Snyder's stripped away the character's essence, succeeding only in making an overblown Marvel movie out of a DC property.

About 10 minutes into the film I completely checked out, realizing we've seen this all before when it was titled Thor, Captain America, Iron Man and The Avengers. But this is actually much worse than all those, and perhaps even worse (or at least barely even with) Bryan Singer's much-maligned Superman Returns, which made the supposedly crucial error of being too slavishly devoted to Richard Donner's original vision. Snyder is slavishly devoted to blowing things up, as his vision features some of the most mind-numbing, soul-crushing CGI I've ever seen in a film and a third act that literally had me tapping out and reaching for the Advil.

Remember when the teaser trailer came out and everyone actually compared it to The Tree of Life, thinking we'd be in for a deeper, more contemplative treatment? With few exceptions, this project is actually more of a disaster than it's been credited for, with the only hope being that this darker, more other worldly incarnation of the character is eventually seen for the embarassing misstep it is. But now that Snyder has temporarily been entrusted with Batman as well, that seems unlikely. If this Superman really is a reflection of our times, that's not a compliment.

This almost two and a half hour movie can essentially be broken down into four sections:

1. Thor Redux
2. "The Deadliest Catch"
3. "Field of Dreams"
4. Avengers Redux

Of these, the first section is by far the weakest and most pointless, not to mention the most troublesome aspect of the mythology to depict on screen. We spend nearly 30 minutes on the depleting Krypton learning how scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) come under attack from evil commander General Zod (Michael Shannon) and are forced to launch their newborn son Kal-El to Earth, his cells infused with the genetic code of the Kryptonian race. It's a sequence that could have easily been depicted in two minutes, but Snyder drags it out, calling attention to some spectacularly bad visual effects in the process. The opening resembles Thor's in terms of how much boring mythology is unloaded as a mere excuse to pummel our senses. That said, when Kal and the movie land on Earth, I really appreciated what it was trying to do and for a while it  actually looked like Snyder could pull this off.

Our first glimpses of an adult Superman (Henry Cavill) are interspersed with flashbacks to his childhood in Smallville, Kansas, where he's raised as Clark, the adopted son of Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) Kent. These scenes of the young Clark being picked on at school and the advice he receives from his father about the importance of accepting, yet also concealing his identity, comprise the strongest moments in the film. By far. Why everything didn't just begin here is a mystery, but perhaps the filmmakers worried this ground was already covered in the Smallville TV series and fanboys would throw a hissy fit if the god awful Krypton scenes weren't included.

The idea of an adult Clark Kent as a bearded, brooding fisherman is a novel one that earns points for originality. Snyder is nothing if not a visualist and it clearly comes across in these scenes and especially the ones in Smallville, which are beautifully filmed. It's his commitment to actual storytelling that's a weak spot. Hans Zimmer's elegiac score is a plus, making it unlikely anyone will miss John Williams, whose incredible orchestrations just wouldn't fit here.  I refer to the Kansas section as "Field of Dreams" not out of sarcasm, but as a compliment to Costner, who delivers the film's finest performance with limited screen time. It's also perfect casting, not only playing up the actor's famously down home persona, but giving us a fresh but comfortable entry point into what could have been tired territory. Instead, watching this father trying to protect his unusually gifted son provides the only humanity in the story, as it all flies off the rails from there.

As Superman, Cavill is okay. With all the speculation about who would play the "Man of Steel," who would have thought that the choice ultimately wouldn't matter? Most of the time he takes a back seat to the distractingly bad effects and confusing set pieces. The British actor definitely offers a more brooding take on Clark Kent that won't soon be confused with anything done by Christopher Reeve or Brandon Routh. In fact, it's so far removed it won't be confused with anything related to Superman or Clark Kent at all, as even David Goyer's script goes out of its way to avoid mentioning him by name (see title). Some may appreciate these attempts to supposedly go "darker" or more "realistic" with the character but it's hard to even apply those adjectives when so many of the action sequences undermine it. But at least this is the best the costume they've had and if Cavill really was hired because he didn't look ridiculous in it, that's as good a reason as any to pick him for what's always been an impossibly thankless role.

The Lois Lane situation is bizarre in the sense that she's almost TOO involved, as if the filmmakers felt a need to justify the big name (and admittedly lazy) casting of Amy Adams by having the character wear as many hats in the story as possible. She's still the Daily Planet reporter. but there are almost as many points where you'd confuse her for a geologist, a military commander or maybe even a superhero herself in the last act. While Adams going out there and simply delivering lines still surpasses the miscast Kate Bosworth in Returns, it's worth noting that's all she does. Giving Lois a more prominent role and having her played by an older, more experienced actress than the male lead was an excellent idea on paper, but Adams seems completely bored with it, as if she can't get to the bank soon enough to cash her royalty check. And forget about any chemistry between the two. There's none.

Poor Russell Crowe is given what's easily the silliest expository dialogue of the entire cast as Jor-El. That he can deliver it with a straight face even long after his character's initial demise is more deserving of an honorary medal for screen survival than an acting award. He does great under terrible circumstances, working with material that's the polar opposite of Costner's. As Zod, Michael Shannon didn't need to be Terrence Stamp. He just needed to be Michael Shannon. But what's strange is how this movie doesn't even allow him to do that. Ironically, when playing a superhero villain, our creepiest, scariest actor is somehow not very creepy at all. Snyder just has him yell and and yell some more in a terrible CGI suit.

German actress Anteje Traue as his Krytonian sidekick Faora is a different story, as she basically steals every scene she's in, giving a seductively badass performance that recalls the best of Sarah Douglas as Ursa in Superman II. In his few scenes, I liked what Laurence Fishburne did with Daily Planet editor Perry White, but the part is so miniscule it barely warrants a mention. Metropolis itself is similarly shafted as a setting, functioning only as a CGI battleground for the tortuously long final act during which it's often difficult to make out what's happening. Those crying heresy at Superman (SPOILER AHEAD) killing Zod should probably consider the context in which it happened, not to mention the fact that this movie would still be continuing right now if he didn't. So for that, I'm eternally grateful.

Superman just isn't the type of superhero that lends itself to various interpretations or reimaginings. It can't be a campy 60's TV series or an 80's Gothic styled blockbuster or the first part of a dark, reality grounded Christopher Nolan trilogy. The character just doesn't have that flexibility, and despite the marketing trying to convince us we were getting the latter, they were really just trying to deliver a Marvel entry. Nolan may have a producing and story credit, but does anyone believes his involvement extended beyond giving a couple of notes and getting his name on the picture as a show of goodwill to him and a sign of reassurance to audiences? You can tell this was made by a committee looking to cash in on the Marvel craze, while poorly sprinkling traces of Nolan's tone to silence doubters.

That the writer is Batman trilogy scribe David Goyer is a surprise, but most of the problems lay in the execution more than the conception. It's obvious all the big creative decisions resulted from Warner Bros. guiding Snyder to create a DC "universe" or franchise for future tie-in installments. He did exactly as asked, with the irony being that Man of Steel ends at the exact point it really should have started, negating this film, yet putting them in a decent position for the follow-up. Unfortunately, all that was originally special about the Superman character was sacrificed in the process, resurrected in a way we never thought possible: As just another superhero.             

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Counselor

Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Rosie Perez, Natalie Dormer, Edgar Ramirez, Ruben Blades, Goran Visnjic
Running Time: 117 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★) 

It would give me great satisfaction than to say that Ridley's Scott's The Counselor isn't nearly as bad as you've heard. But that would only be half the truth. Viewers' tolerance for just how "bad" it qualifies as will vary. But sandwiched within the mess are flashes of brilliance resulting in the type of spectacular near-miss that could only be made by a talented filmmaker. Scott definitely earns an "A" for ambition, as its easily his most intriguing effort in a while, despite wildly mixed results. If you're going to fail this is at least the most respectable way to do it, taking risks and swinging for the fences. Unsure if its a pulpy crime thriller or pitch-black comedy, the only thing audiences can be certain of is that they'll be baffled and repulsed, and maybe even a little shocked to discover the story comes from the Pulitzer Prize winning author of No Country For Old Men and the director of Gladiator. And that's assuming they can even make it through to the end. Just don't say you weren't warned.

Michael Fassbender is the unnamed "counselor" of the title, a respected attorney who finds himself in the middle of a dirty drug deal with the Mexican cartel thanks after taking some bad advice from his eccentric friend Reiner (Javier Bardem), whose cheetah-obsessed girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) has some nasty intentions of her own. Despite being warned off the deal by business associate Westray (Brad Pitt), the counselor seems to sink deeper and deeper, not only jeopardizing his own life, but that of his girlfriend Laura (Penelope Cruz). Their relationship is perhaps the only traditional element in a story that's told unconventionally, often forsaking plot and narrative drive in favor of dishing out long, symbolic soliloquies that ruminate on the nature of man and the presence of evil.

There are a couple of scenes that merit mention if only because it's unlikely you've seen anything else like them in a movie before, for better worse. One is obviously the now infamous Diaz scene, in which she pleasures herself on the windshield of a yellow ferrari as Javier Bardem's wide-eyed, crazy haired Reiner looks on in utter shock and disbelief. But what you haven't heard about this flashback is how little it has to do with anything and how it's dropped in the middle of the story without any real rhyme or reason. That's less a criticism than an observation, but also that could also reasonably apply to just about every other crazy scene in the movie, of which there are plenty. It's just that this one takes the cake as its most sensational and tittilating, its existence intended to incite that very debate. There's also a big moment in the last act involving Brad Pitt's Westray that can't really be described, not so much at the risk of spoiling anything, but because  a mere description can't do it justice.

The only predictable element in a project this bizarre is that the performances would also have to be, with the exception of Fassbender's character who is essentially the put-upon straight man amidst the insanity, with Cruz gamely taken along for the ride. Since we're so used to seeing the actor playing edgier roles that exploit his intensity it's a neat reversal to see him as an essentially weak, helpless character, dialing down the charisma he's known for. The rest of the characters at times seem to function primarily as mouthpieces for Cormac McCarthy's philosophizing, spouting thematic observations about greed and selfishness. Given her most delicious role in years, Diaz again proves (as she did in Vanilla Sky) that she's born to play a heel, making you wonder why she isn't given villainous opportunities more often. Complete with spotted tattoos, her Malkina channels a predatory cheetah in both physicality and attitude, making her by far the most eccentric and intriguing character. She flat-out steals the movie, and for reasons entirely unrelated to her showcase scene.

On paper, The Counselor seems like something that deserves praise for at least being unique and stepping outside the box, transforming what could have been a pedestrian crime thriller into an entirely different animal. But it's just such a mess, marred by the nagging feeling that there's a much better movie trapped inside, struggling to get out. It looks great but is often such a slog that it's tough to get a handle on what's happening and who's double-crossing who. McCarthy's script undoubtedly contains ideas, but they're dispensed in such an undigestable manner that the film's events seem almost beside the point.

This is all about style and flash, two words that more frequently leap to mind when considering the late Tony Scott's filmography than his brother's. In fact, if I didn't know better I would have really thought it was his last film because in many ways, it kind of plays as a bizarre tribute. For Ridley, it's major departure, and one that probably needs more than a single viewing to fully absorb as it contains considerably more passion than many of his superior films. There's an extended director's cut out there and I'd be curious to discover if any of the issues are resolved since this reeks of a project that came apart during the editing and post-production stages. But even in its current state, it's hard to claim anyone involved is phoning it in. Most successful movies aren't nearly as compelling as this failed one.