Archive for September, 2013

Don Jon

Monday, September 30th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

In a famous line in Laura Mulvey’s influential “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” the film theorist writes, “In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.” Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the onetime child performer turned serious and sought-after actor, makes his feature writing and directing debut with “Don Jon,” a loaded, comic spin on the prerogatives and expectations of masculinity and femininity in the age of ubiquitous Internet pornography and media-constructed messages selling us the just-out-of-reach good life. Gordon-Levitt’s decision to situate his characters within the world of working-class New Jersey Italian-Americans is simultaneously the movie’s strongest asset and greatest liability.

As swaggering bartender “Don” Jon Martello, Jr., Gordon-Levitt adopts the hairstyle, wardrobe, and thick accent necessary to distance key elements of his more contemplative public persona and previous role choices from the broader exaggerations of his priapic new character. The tactic, underscored in one of the movie’s effective trailers, serves as a reminder that Jon derives pleasure from a particular set of basic offerings. Possibly in ascending order of importance, Jon cites “my body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, and my porn” as the few things that he really cares about. The central conundrum for the young man, then, is outlined by Jon’s perceived failure of real life to recreate the same thrills offered to him by the fantasy world of pornography.

Jon is accustomed, night after night, to alcohol-fueled club hookups that rarely extend beyond one-night stands. When he spots perfect “dime” Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), Jon has no clue that his predictable pattern of predatory conquest will be challenged, upended, and torched. Gordon-Levitt suggests that Barbara’s own sense of entitlement is driven by a no-less damaging enslavement to the happily-ever-after mirages served up in countless big screen romantic comedies. Johansson’s extraordinary physicality coincides with Mulvey’s claim that the viewer takes scopophilic pleasure in “using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight” (Gordon-Levitt was enthusiastically praised by Reddit users for his “genius” casting) and her character is decidedly situated within the “language of the dominant patriarchal order” to which Mulvey refers.

Strictly from a narrative standpoint, the inclusion of Julianne Moore’s older woman, a grieving widow named Esther who teaches Jon that “real” sex is a “two-way thing,” softens and subdues the movie’s flirtation with chauvinistic brutishness. The revelation of Barbara as a manipulative, demanding, castrating princess, rather cleverly communicated in the only dialogue spoken by Jon’s otherwise silent, eye-rolling, constantly texting sister Monica (Brie Larson), gives off the slight whiff of sour stereotype. Moore’s worldly, mature guide contrasts efficiently with the high-maintenance Barbara, allowing Gordon-Levitt to investigate a mother-whore equation and let his character off the hook.

When the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was published in May, some mainstream press articles and essays fixated on the tricky terminology of sexual “addiction” by noting the convoluted history of hypersexuality in the DSM and the ongoing question of whether compulsive use of sex and porn is more than a “condition” in need of additional study and research. In spite of the graphic descriptions of sexuality and the inclusion of lurid but carefully edited clips of well-known “adult” industry veterans like Alexis Texas and Tori Black, it might be a stretch to describe “Don Jon” as edgy and challenging when the movie’s conclusion hews to Jon’s description of the pretty woman and pretty man who drive off into the sunset even though “everyone knows it’s fake.”

Prisoners

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Like Baran bo Odar’s “The Silence,” theatrically released this year in the United States, Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” deploys a large ensemble cast and interwoven plot threads involving victims, police detectives, perpetrators, and the bereaved to examine moral relativism in a stomach-turning crime involving children. Both movies follow the rules of the procedural, but “The Silence” emerges as the superior film based on its director’s deliberate objectivity in exploring the range of individual motives and personalities. Villeneuve, whose previous feature “Incendies” was selected to represent Canada as an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, struggles to find much room for nuance in Aaron Guzikowski’s sprawling screenplay.

In a weird inversion of the typical direction of the biblical allusion, Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a struggling carpenter whose love for his daughter is so great, he is willing to do harm to an individual the police have questioned and released. On a crisp Thanksgiving Day, Dover’s young child disappears from her own neighborhood along with the daughter of family friends. The chief suspect, a creepy, monosyllabic manchild named Alex Jones (Paul Dano), drives an old RV that the girls were seen climbing on, but following a dramatic arrest, no trace of the missing children can be found in the vehicle or the home of Alex’s grim aunt, Holly Jones (Melissa Leo, distractingly made up to look heavier and older).

Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki is assigned to handle the case, but the absence of any forensic link between Jones and the lost girls forces the officer to pursue other leads. Unsatisfied with Loki and driven by a sense of urgency, Dover takes matters into his own hands, abducting and imprisoning Jones, the single action that should drive the story’s thorniest dilemma: would you become a monster to stop a monster? That’s a question addressed in many movies – see Ji-woon Kim’s “I Saw the Devil” for a particularly riveting and graphic example – but “Prisoners” can’t quite rise to the challenge. One scene with Viola Davis alludes to a deeper exploration of thought experiments on the ethics of torture, but the direction it points toward is not pursued.

While the levels of contemplative sophistication are running on empty, “Prisoners” is still worth seeing for the remarkable cinematography by superb image-maker Roger Deakins. The longtime collaborator of the Coens has been Oscar-nominated without a win a staggering ten times, but his work is always award worthy. In “Prisoners,” the texture and sense of scale in composition rendered by Deakins transcend the shortcomings of the drama’s pretend thoughtfulness, and the movie is a visual feast of practical lighting that caresses the outdoors and imagines the boundaries of asphalt and woods and daytime and nighttime with startling clarity.

The outlandish twists and turns in “Prisoners” include a crimson herring so red it’s positively bloody, and Villeneuve wastes far too much time digging in that particular rabbit hole. Gyllenhaal’s Loki is deprived of any meaningful explanation of his pained demeanor. His policeman is a blank page and we are given no glimpse into any kind of life outside his relentless quest to maintain a perfect record of solutions. The potential of seeing Jackman, Maria Bello, Viola Davis, and Terrence Howard process their walking nightmare is a promise unfulfilled, as Bello disappears into catatonia and Jackman takes center stage.

The Spectacular Now

Monday, September 16th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Observant and sincere, James Ponsoldt’s adaptation of Tim Tharp’s “The Spectacular Now” is quieter and more naturalistic than the recent version of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower, another novel-to-film coming of age story willing and eager to treat its teenage characters with sensitivity and respect. Both stories deal substantially with the encroachment of the unwelcome responsibilities of adulthood, and Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are perfect as young people negotiating the rapid approach of life after high school. A worthy addition to the canon of serious-minded teen movies, “The Spectacular Now” could mark breakthrough turning points for the talented young leads, both of whom showcase their finest screen performances to date.

The plot is as easygoing as protagonist Sutter Keely (Teller), a quick-witted high school senior interested in the Spicoli-esque pursuit of a good time, all the time. Sutter is the kind of kid who outwardly makes it all look so easy, even if his borderline math grades pose a minor threat to graduation. Behind the smiling façade, however, are the lasting scars of paternal abandonment, now taking up residence in the form of Sutter’s dependence on the contents of his ever-present hip flask. Sutter’s mom Sara (Jennifer Jason Leigh) works hard to provide for her son, clearly hoping he won’t follow in his father’s unsteady footsteps. Recently dumped, Sutter surprises his friends and himself by pursuing a rebound romance with the quiet, overlooked Aimee Finecky (Woodley).

As a filmmaker, Ponsoldt takes obvious pleasure in collaborating with the performers, and some of the most rewarding exchanges of “The Spectacular Now” emerge from the long takes and unhurried intimacies that give Teller and Woodley the space to listen, react, and respond to each other. The opposites-attract combination of smart but slightly sheltered girl and sociable, underachieving wiseacre boy will remind some of Cameron Crowe’s beloved “Say Anything…” but “The Spectacular Now” appears to aim for a slightly different kind of epiphany for its central pair. John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler never doubts his suitability as a partner for Ione Skye’s Diane Court the way that Sutter second-guesses being with Aimee.

As admirably as “The Spectacular Now” holds focus on Teller and Woodley, Ponsoldt sometimes fails to fully capitalize on the story’s grown-ups. The film certainly would have benefited from one or two more short conversations featuring Jennifer Jason Leigh. The same goes for the brilliant Andre Royo as Sutter’s patient geometry teacher Mr. Aster. Bob Odenkirk plays a terrific turning point scene as Sutter’s tailor shop boss and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who starred as an alcoholic elementary school teacher in Ponsoldt’s previous feature “Smashed,” appears as Sutter’s slightly older, married sister.

For many viewers, the film’s highlight will be Sutter’s ill-advised journey to visit his absentee father, an irresponsible lush whose glassy eyes instantly relate the grim knowledge that he spends most of his time inebriated. As Tommy Keely, Kyle Chandler steals the brief segment in which he is featured. The father-son interaction is clearly engineered as a bleak wake-up call to Sutter and a reminder to the audience that history can come uncomfortably close to repetition. Sutter’s anger and resentment reside next to a pained and fragile vulnerability that positions “The Spectacular Now” as one of the year’s most welcome entries.

Blackfish

Monday, September 9th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Next to the events that inspired it, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s “Blackfish” is the worst kind of public relations nightmare for marine park giant SeaWorld Entertainment. Systematically documenting and dismantling years of questionable practices and dubious assertions about orcas, the gripping film uses an array of footage, from degraded old television spots to freshly composed interviews with scientists and former killer whale trainers. Most dramatic, however, are clips from several harrowing incidents in which the massive black and white captives have inflicted harm on one another and on human beings. SeaWorld representatives declined requests to be interviewed, and issued a rebuttal to some of the film’s charges.

The movie’s central non-human subject is a twelve thousand pound bull orca named Tilikum. On February 24, 2010, Tilikum killed 40-year-old SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau. The same orca was also previously involved in two other deaths: trainer Keltie Byrne in 1991 and Daniel Dukes in 1999. Although Tilikum has become one of the most widely known whales in captivity due to these three incidents, other captive orcas have killed trainers and there are dozens of well-documented near misses. In the wild, orca attacks on humans are nearly nonexistent.

A reasonable person might ask why Tilikum has continued to perform in SeaWorld shows after killing Dawn Brancheau and the answer, not surprisingly, is financial. Tilikum’s value as a stud is of tremendous significance to his owners. Motley Crue drummer and animal rights activist Tommy Lee – who does not appear in “Blackfish” – has called Tilikum the “chief sperm bank” of SeaWorld. Graphic video of trainers collecting whale semen underscores the exploitation, and the revelation that Tilikum is the most prolific sire in orca captivity leads Cowperthwaite to a deeper and more disturbing discussion of the cruelty of separating offspring from parent. Orca researchers know that killer whale calves remain with their mothers for life, and descriptions of desperate, long-distance cries as the young are taken by force leave a deep impression on the viewer.

To be fair, SeaWorld does not break up all mother-offspring family units, but shrewdly, Cowperthwaite builds a case that exculpates the whales for presumably just responding to the appalling conditions in which they are forced to exist. In the wild, orcas swim many miles each day, and the cramped pens of SeaWorld in no way, shape, or form offer adequate room for the animals to thrive. Among the repercussions of cell-containment are behaviors in which whales rake one another with their teeth, dental problems from gnawing and chewing on barriers, and the most pathetic visual reminder of the difference between wild bull orcas and those in captivity: the collapsed dorsal fin. SeaWorld’s explanation for the numbers on flopped-over dorsal fins doesn’t align with scientific data.

The closest cinematic companion piece to “Blackfish” is probably “The Cove,” the gruesome expose of Dolphin hunting in Japan, but Cowperthwaite’s film also shares much in common with Werner Herzog’s phenomenal “Grizzly Man,” particularly in the way the ethics of human interaction with wild creatures are pondered. Interestingly, “Blackfish” omits any footage from “Free Willy,” although a few shots of Richard Harris in the much maligned 1977 “Jaws” pretender “Orca” are used to underscore some points about long-held misperceptions of killer whale behavior. Two other films are worth noting: “Blackfish” may lead some to Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone,” one of the most memorable films of 2012. Also, Amy Kaufman reported in “The Los Angeles Times” a few weeks ago that the ending of Pixar’s upcoming “Finding Dory” was “retooled” following a screening and discussion of “Blackfish.”

Twenty Feet from Stardom

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

An engrossing and thoughtful look at the backup singers whose voices grace some of the most familiar recordings of popular music, “Twenty Feet from Stardom” is certainly a must-see for rock fans. Tracing the enormous and all too often unheralded contributions of the supremely talented vocalists whose job requirement more or less demands a kind of selfless anonymity, director Morgan Neville’s documentary opens up a conversation on the mysterious alchemy of stardom and the painful realities of a cold-blooded industry. Colorfully supported with vintage film and video footage, archival photographs, and interviews with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, and Sting, “Twenty Feet from Stardom” shines a light on a segment of the music world long overdue for just this kind of consideration.

With the possible exception of 2011 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Darlene Love, the incomparable voice cruelly exploited by Phil Spector, most of the singers profiled by Neville are unknown to a general audience. Along with Love, the performers who receive the most screen time include Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer, and Judith Hill, although Neville includes many more figures whose individual tales could easily support entire films of their own. “Twenty Feet from Stardom” makes the case that any one of these women could have – or should have – achieved the stratospheric levels of adoration and compensation enjoyed by the rock stars they complement, but as Sting points out, there is no way to figure the luck and timing and fortune that smile on some and ignore others, regardless of talent.

In a document filled with lore and legend, no anecdote is more potent than the story of Merry Clayton receiving an invitation to a late night session for “Let It Bleed.” Clayton describes being pregnant and dressed for bed, but determined to hold nothing back with each take. Without her scorching contributions to “Gimme Shelter,” particularly the lacerating wail of “rape, murder, it’s just a shot away,” the track is unthinkable, unimaginable. Neville treats the viewer to a sample of Clayton’s vocal isolated from the mix, and the sound sends a chill up and down the spine of any appreciator of the Rolling Stones’ apocalyptic hurricane.

Many of the most complex skeins involving race and gender are at least acknowledged if not completely and satisfyingly untangled by Neville. The movie opens with a brief discussion of the famous line “and the colored girls go…” preceding the Thunderthighs “doo do doo” backup on Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” and any time the director reaches for the details of songcraft and collaboration – Bowie’s “Young Americans” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” are two of the other examples – the movie soars.

Slightly less successful is the handling of the sticky question confronting the extent to which the women were used by the performers who hired their services. Even though Neville does not directly make note of it, Claudia Lennear’s intimate relationship with Mick Jagger inspired him to pen “Brown Sugar” (she is also regularly cited as the inspiration for Bowie’s “Lady Grinning Soul”). Lennear, who would leave the music business and find work as a tutor and teacher, carefully and tactfully alludes to her time in the orbit of the Stones, leaving one to marvel at her grace and class. Robert Christgau once called “Brown Sugar” a “rocker so compelling that it discourages exegesis.” After spending a little time with her in “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” one could say the same thing about Lennear.