Don Jon

25 Mar

 

don jon

 

Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Writers: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 90 minutes

 

 

The internet has substantial power to corrupt and harm peoples’ perceptions of sex. The lack of real and immediate intimacy can desensitize those viewing sex remotely. Internet sex can advance stigmas, prejudices and encourage anti-social behaviour. It can be the same with internet violence, but that subject is less taboo than pornography which is, ironically, the most trafficked online content. It is rare for a film to tackle the topic of porn addiction so Joseph Gordon-Levitt (JGL), the writer, director and star here, deserves plaudits for Don Jon.

Gordon-Levitt’s Jon is sort of positioned as a modern day Don Juan and has accepted the ‘Don’ nickname from his admiring buddies. Jon spends his nights picking up ladies in neighbourhood bars and clubs and his days working out at the gym and watching porn. It’s a simple life. So simple that his work status is never confirmed. What we are told is that he loves his mother, goes to church each week, values his ride, his body, and good-looking chicks (on and offline).

Jon’s problem is his addiction to porn. He cannot go a day and sometimes an hour without it. He obsesses as much about internet sex as he does about his gym workouts and his weekly church confessions. It clouds his views on sex, love and relationships (that Jon feels are inferior in the real world). And that is the story being told here; how online porn can distort and ruin lives by preventing users from making real connections. It is a worthwhile and interesting tale, but the film comes up short in some key areas.

Jon is an unpleasant and one-dimensional character which is brave of JGL to create and play, but is unhelpful for most of the film. His interactions with the two main female characters are often awkward and Jon is hard to engage with. He chases and dates Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) and hangs out with Esther (Julianne Moore). He loves the way that Barbara looks and he likes the way that Esther challenges him, but those couplings don’t always convince. It feels forced, the plot turns are well sign-posted, Jon’s family is a sit-com cliché (with Tony Danza playing dad), and only in the final 20 minutes does the film provoke real emotion.

Overall, this is a good first effort from JGL and the film should be applauded for its subject matter. The acting is solid, with Moore as usual showing up to best effect, and there are a few funny lines and scenes. It’s not particularly subtle or insightful, but I imagine that the intended 18 – 28 year old target audience will thoroughly enjoy it and possibly learn from it. To that extent it has to be classed a success.

The Selfish Giant

7 Mar

the selfish giant

 

Director: Clio Barnard

Writer: Clio Barnard

Stars: Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas, Sean Gilder

Motion Picture Rating: 15

Runtime: 91 minutes

 

Clio Barnard, the British writer director of The Arbor (2010), was inspired by Oscar Wilde’s short story for children to bring this piece of social realism to the screen. Wilde’s giant owns a beautiful garden in which children love to play on their way home from school. Barnard’s giant is a tough scrap metal merchant and his ‘garden’ is the rusting, dark and dangerous yard for which most children stay clear. That’s the children regularly attending school, the children with parents to worry about them whilst they get on with their homework. That’s not the two children at the centre of this tale; Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas).

The two boys hanging around the scrap metal yard come from an impoverished community on the edge of Bradford. They live on council estates in broken homes. Jobs are scarce, life is hard and there is a pervading air of anger and despair. Both boys, best friends around 15 years old, show flashes of anti-social behaviour from the outset, but Arbor is particularly troubled. He is on medication, clearly struggles to control himself and rarely attends school. He sees the scrap yard as a way to make money and drags along the gentle and mature Swifty. They annoy the yard owner Kitten (Sean Gilder), but he allows them in, gives them odd jobs and takes an interest in Swifty.

The story is simple. It follows the boys’ interactions with Kitten, the escalation in risks they’re willing to take to collect scrap and the impact of both on their friendship. Throughout there are some beautiful shots of dusk and dawn in the boys’ neighbourhood; of pylons, common ground, stray horses and vacant lots. Everything is haggard and past its best, but at the same time the cinematography pulls something from the void. It is rarely hopeful, but it is beguiling.

Whilst the story is simple, there is more going on in this film to subtly challenge the viewer. As with Wilde’s fable for children, themes touched upon include the end of childhood and the bonds between friends and within communities. Arbor and Swifty have their friendship challenged by their interaction with Kitten and the scavenging for scrap ekes away at their childishness. They are forced to become ‘adults’ and that’s as sad as the broken communities in which they roam. As such this is a deeply affecting film and I shed a tear or two at the end. Clio Barnard has produced a perfectly small, powerful and moving film about real life and with two excellent performances from the young and novice actors.

The Act of Killing

24 Jan

the

 

Directors: Joshua Oppenheimer, Anonymous

Stars: Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, Syamsul Arifin

Motion Picture Rating: NR

Runtime: 115 minutes

 

I have watched a lot of films, I still love doing so, but I am too rarely surprised by them. I try not to prejudge, but often my knowledge of the basic plot, the cast and crew and my experience of the trailer provokes subconscious comparisons that can be hard to shake. It is the ‘curse’ of the film critic. However, when a film does come along like The Act of Killing it is a truly thrilling experience. It makes all of the painful, forced and insulting movies fade into the background and reaffirms my belief that film-making is the most essential modern art form. This film did that and more. It is a vital piece of cinema and without a doubt one of the best films that I have ever seen.

Joshua Oppenheimer spent a long time in the North Sumatra province of Indonesia producing this documentary. He immersed himself in the communities, learnt the language and he researched in great detail. The film that emerged from his exhaustive investigation is not what was imagined by him and is certainly not a traditional documentary, but it is sublime. He allowed the film to take shape around the subjects that he followed and their journey into darkness is profound and unexpected. Of them it is Anwar Congo, gangster, executioner and celebrity that the camera focuses on.

Anwar Congo was a low level gangster in 1965 in the city of Medan who transitioned from selling black market cinema tickets to leading a death squad that tortured and murdered thousands of citizens. The military overthrow of Sukarno’s left-leaning and anti-imperialist government set those wheels in motion. Congo and his buddies took what they learnt at the local picture house – lots of American gangster and cowboy movies – and applied it to the coup. They were feared, feted and promoted during a period of extreme violence. Today Congo and the others remain popular and proud of their murderous past. There has been no truth and reconciliation commission for Indonesia and the failure to deal head on with the genocide makes this film so powerful. Oppenheimer somehow manages to get Anwar Congo and cronies to discuss, debate and to re-enact their crimes.

1 million people were killed in 1 year by paramilitaries and gangsters as Suharto ousted Sukarno in 1965. To this day the military and the gangsters are still in power in Indonesia – hence Congo and his group of ageing death squad members remain popular (as “history is written by the winners” as one of them tells Oppenheimer). It is a unique and unsettling situation. This documentary captures that by giving those winners a voice. They describe their torture techniques and justify their actions. The current leaders applaud them and many encourage discussion of the ‘open secret’. They tell us many times that the word gangster actually means free man. Their perspective and the film scrambles your mind.

The cruelty and barbarism that is re-enacted by the participants during the documentary is very disturbing. Genocide is the blackest of holes. It is mankind with no humanity. To have it explained, debated and joked about is almost too much for the senses and yet this is The Act of Killing. Congo looks straight into the lens and describes how hacking people to pieces produced too much blood so strangulation became a preferred method of execution. At times the retired gangsters dress up and act out scenes of interrogation and torture for the camera. At those points the word surreal almost doesn’t cover it. One of the gang – fat, sweaty, dim-witted and menacing – takes female roles in the amateur productions and happily slaps on the make-up and piles into sequined dresses. Quite simply, I have never seen anything like this. Has anyone?

The journey that Anwar Congo goes on in contributing to The Act of Killing changes him. You can see it happening as, for example, he tells the director that he realizes how his squad’s use of torture took away victims’ dignity. Congo faces up to his past, tries to brazen his way through it, but can’t outrun the ghosts that he’s created. The final scene, where he revisits one of the slaughter houses, is almost too much for him to bear and it has stayed with me since I saw it more than a week ago. It is incredibly powerful. And Oppenheimer handles it so very well.

This is a strange, fascinating, dark and disturbing piece of cinema. The director deserves enormous credit for two specific achievements that I will close on. Firstly, the film breaks many film conventions with success. For example, Oppenheimer mixes the dry traditional documentary style with some jaw-dropping cinematic flashes of brilliance. Secondly, the film examines a topic that is extremely important, but rarely broached. That is the support for torture and genocide that citizens of war torn countries can readily supply. That is happening today in Syria, in Sudan and elsewhere. Military backed coups and dictatorships continue around the world to suck in all manner of local ‘gangsters’ to murder and maim in their cause. Sadly there are still men like Anwar Congo turning on their neighbours.

The Iceman

24 Nov

the iceman

 

Director: Ariel Vromen

Writers: Morgan Land (screenplay), Ariel Vromen (screenplay)

Stars: Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, James Franco

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 106 minutes

This is based on the true story of a contract killer living and murdering in New Jersey in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The hitman, Richard Kuklinski, achieved notoriety because of the number of murders that he was associated with (approx. 100), the iceman nickname that the press gave him and because of the very ordinary and healthy family life that he maintained. Kuklinski, of Polish origin, appeared to be a regular Joe, but was far from it. His psychopathic tendencies were funnelled into contract killing for local mobsters and that allowed him to support and to nurture a family. This film focuses on the central contradiction of his life.

Michael Shannon plays Kuklinski and his towering frame dominates the film. He is a large man and a brooding and menacing presence. Here he is reminiscent of James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, but with added threat. Shannon is well respected by other actors, but is far from a household name. Acting like this, he probably should be; this is a big performance from a very talented actor. His large head, cold eyes, slow and purposeful walk fit the character, but Shannon is more than his physical attributes and imbues Kuklinski with magnetism, depth and a strange poignancy.

There is not a great deal of plot and when the story gets more complicated it less easy to follow and oddly less interesting. The second half mainly involves a lot of tough guys mumbling about double crossing each other. The most intriguing scenes later on provide an insight to the Kuklinski childhood dominated by an abusive father. The young Richard is prone to torturing animals in a clearly desensitized reaction to the physical abuse routinely met out by dad. A conclusion is that the contract killing work of the adult Richard is a way to stay level and to keep demons at bay. He thus manages to live a normal life with wife and kids.

This is a good and mostly gripping film. The 1970’s production and design are on the mark and there are a couple of very good supporting turns by the likes of Ray Liotta. Shannon is excellent throughout and pulls the audience in as his two wholly separate and compartmentalized lives unravel and collide. There are some smart observations about psychosis too in between the assortment of murders. It is not perfect by any means, but is very nicely done. A small, tight and rewarding movie. 

World War Z

9 Nov

world war z

 

Director: Marc Forster

Writers: Matthew Michael Carnahan (screenplay), Drew Goddard (screenplay)

Stars: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz

Motion Picture Rating: PG-16

Runtime: 116 minutes

Big budget action movies getting into production difficulties? I admit I keep an eye out for reports of on-set fights, funding gaps and artistic differences. I waited to get a good look at Waterworld, The Brothers Grimm, Wolfman and Gangster Squad knowing their productions were disastrous. And it’s the same with World War Z. Brad Pitt’s belief drove the project forward, but at what cost? The film was edited multiple times and endings were swapped in and out as Paramount tried to manage pre-release bad buzz.

Unlike the majority of other troubled productions, this film did well at the box office. It is actually one of Pitt’s most successful films. Interest in his more adult take on the zombie genre was helped by his substantial personal promotional campaign, but there are elements to admire here. This is not a bad film.

Pitt is the retired UN conflict manager Gerry Lane living a quiet suburban life outside of Philadelphia with his wife and children. That life, and planet Earth’s survival, is threatened by a plague of fast moving zombies. The Lane family escape the first onslaught in downtown Philly, but then have to battle to meet up with Gerry’s UN crew. Thereafter Gerry is brought out of retirement and sent out by the UN to try and track the source of the zombie virus. He heads to South Korea and to Israel, but strangely ends up in Wales.

The first 20 minutes of panic and pandemonium are brilliantly shot and open the film with a bang. The CGI takes it close to a video game, but the mayhem is suspenseful and scary. Later scenes of rampaging zombie hoards, especially in Israel, are equally as effective. It is hyperactive and fast with these signature shots as good as anything I’ve seen (in the LOTR series for example). That the big stuff is handled well is not in doubt, but the glue keeping the set pieces together is unfortunately not as sticky as it should be.

The final third of the film takes place in a lab in Wales. Gerry has an idea for a cure and pulls in some stranded scientists. The action slows to the pace of a traditional zombie shuffle and the fairly patchy story comes to some form of conclusion. It’s clear that the studio had problems with the ending and the one decided upon is not perfect. All of the early energy and suspense dissipates. The result is close to two different films being sandwiched together and it doesn’t really work. There are some good set pieces and it’s enjoyable, but the film ends with a whimper.

Byzantium

31 Oct

byzantium

 

Director: Neil Jordan

Writer: Moira Buffini (play)

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Sam Riley

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 118 minutes

 

 

Although film and TV vampire stories are being remodeled for younger viewers – Twilight, True Blood, and The Vampire Diaries – one of the best remains Neil Jordan’s 1994 film Interview with the Vampire. That was an adult tale of two vampires in a very gothic 18th century New Orleans. With Byzantium the same director returns in subject matter and tone, but the two vampires are female and the setting is a distressed English seaside town.

Gemma Arterton is Clara, a streetwise exotic dancer and guardian to sensitive Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan). They wash up in a rundown coastal town after Clara has a violent encounter with a thug from their past. They are seemingly on the run, but it’s not clear from what. Their relationship is also ambiguous as the age gap makes them closer to sisters than mother and daughter. The 200 year back story is revealed slowly and in fragments. Their first encounters with vampires are explained and that past is carried as a burden.

The two women take refuge in a defunct boarding house called Byzantium. Clara meets the owner Noel (Daniel Mays) whilst turning tricks down by the pier. As the dancer / hooker Gemma Arterton is saddled with a shaky accent, but is effortlessly enticing. The harlot with a heart of gold is a bit of a cliché, but never has it been played with such sex appeal. Arterton does well, but is outperformed by Ronan who is typically captivating. At 19 she is already a mighty talent.

The look of Byzantium is washed out, distressed and grey. There are splashes of colour, such as the symbolic red cape that Eleanor wears, but mostly the aesthetic is reminiscent of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) by Tomas Alfredson. I like the production design in this, it suits the story and frankly most English seaside towns are shabby, dull and foreboding.

Those chasing Clara and Eleanor include Sam Riley as a shady policeman. He appears in present and in flash backs as part of some form of vampire secret society. Jonny Lee Miller also appears as a rotten naval officer. The centuries evolving plot is borderline ridiculous, but the actors commit to it and the slow reveal keeps it interesting. There is a nice modern day relationship, very much taken from Let the Right One in (2008, again Alfredson), involving Ronan and local teenager Frank (Caleb Landry Jones). Its youthful sweetness part balances the sourness of the adult liaisons.

There is a nice mix of serious and schlock in Byzantium and I enjoyed it. The film is sexy and scary at times and the cast is impressive and works hard throughout. It is not young and dumb like so much of the content in Twilight or True Blood and that’s one way to put some freshness back into the immortal bloodsuckers.

Compliance

29 Oct

Compliance

 

Director: Craig Zobel

Writer: Craig Zobel

Stars: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 90 minutes

 

Compliance is a film that is “inspired by true events”. As such it is a shocking piece of cinema. It focuses on how people react to immoral direction from persons in authority. The setting is not in the military or on Wall Street, but in a fast food restaurant in middle-America. It is all the more powerful for that. What starts as a small and easy going fly-on-wall film about fast food workers morphs into something that is very troubling and very powerful.

Sandra (Ann Dowd) manages the ChickWich and appears to do an effective job. Becky (Dreama Walker) is one of the few staff members that show her a lack of respect. When an Officer Daniels calls Sandra to report a customer complaint of theft, the finger is pointed at Becky and the cop on the phone asks Sandra to keep Becky in the storeroom. The officer reassures Sandra that she is just doing her job and that he will take the fall if the accusation is proven false or if Becky is uncooperative. What follows is a detour into a dark and damaged place where Becky is detained and mistreated on the instruction of Daniels.

The cop on the phone is masterful in his manipulation. He plays characters off against each other and dispenses thanks and threats to great effect. He pulls the strings of those brought in to watch over Becky and he convinces them to overstep the mark. The result is a claustrophobic and taut story with a true escalation of shocks.

Compliance feels like a real-life demo of the Milgram Experiment. That measured the willingness of subjects to perform acts conflicting with their conscience when prompted by an authority figure. Milgram’s work is subject to a lot of debate, but he completed it to try and make sense of Nazi war crimes. Were German people accomplices? Were Nazis just following orders? Those are controversial and uncomfortable questions. Milgram’s conclusions were the same. He felt that compliance can sustain brutal behaviour and Craig Zobel’s film supports the hypothesis.

This is a short, small, but impactful film. The story is shocking and made more so by its basis in real life events. Zobel keeps it tight and the acting is good across the fairly unknown cast. It is no wonder that this did so well on the indie film festival circuit. It is exactly the surprisingly great type of film that breaks out of Sundance etc every few years.

Passion

27 Oct

Passion

 

Director: Brian De Palma

Writers: Brian De Palma, Natalie Carter

Stars: Rachel McAdams, Noomi Rapace, Karoline Herfurth

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 102 minutes

 

 

This is a remake of a 2010 French film called Love Crime from writer-director Alain Corneau. This time around the driving force is Brian De Palma; the 70 year old Hitchcock enthusiast famed for Carrie (1976), Scarface (1983) and The Untouchables (1987). It has been a while since De Palma produced a great film and the wait continues. Still, most of his neo-noir patchwork pieces of sex, manipulation and mind games are fun to watch.

One of this film’s taglines was ‘No backstabbing; Just business.’ That sums it up nicely. Noomi Rapace is Isabelle, a quiet and low ranking advertising creative who comes up with a clever mobile phone campaign. She has the credit for it taken by her ambitious and arrogant boss Christine (Rachel McAdams) and thereafter they play a strange game of one-upmanship with undertones of sex and obsession. The two female leads flirt with each other and Christine’s sexual preferences tend to S&M. There is a murder and the second half plays out like a crime thriller. It is certainly odd, and relatively fun, but for a movie called Passion there is a lack of fireworks.

Christine dresses in red and Isabelle dresses in black for most of the film. There are a lot of primary colours on display and plenty of stripped back sets. It looks like a De Palma film from the 1980’s and that aesthetic is enhanced by the lighting, décor and soundtrack. I have never seen a workplace like this one, but the lack of reality almost suits the outlandish story and characters. Passion plays like Basic Instinct at times which in 2013 you cannot seriously get away with.

De Palma filmed and financed this in Europe with Berlin the prime location. Just like Woody Allen, here he is reliant on past film glories and undiscerning Euro investors to bring his cinematic ‘vision’ to life. It is a strange phenomenon, but it gets older US directors out of the house, funds them to visit Europe for a while and allows local investors to get that Hollywood feeling. That the resulting output is invariably poor (Match Point, Scoop!) is by the by. With this film De Palma tries hard, but is actually doing little that’s original and he delivers a strangely cold, calculated and dull film.

The Place Beyond the Pines

6 Oct

the place beyond the pines

 

Director: Derek Cianfrance

Writers: Derek Cianfrance (story), Ben Coccio (story)

Stars: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 140 minutes

 

This slow burn drama was hot property on the film festival circuit, but its heat dissipated at the cinema. Regarding the cast, story and end product I am surprised by the poor reception. This is a good film and deserves an audience beyond Sundance and Venice. The issues for the ‘mainstream’ I am sure lay with the rather ambitious layering of three connected stories, the slow-quick-slow pacing of the film and Ryan Gosling’s character. His fairground stunt rider dominated the marketing of the film, but the story actually revolves around Bradley Cooper’s character.

The transition from Gosling to Cooper is the first of two significant shifts in a film that aims to tell three connected stories. Both gear changes have the propensity to frustrate, but I went along with them and ultimately enjoyed this from writer-director Derek Cianfrance. No doubt Gosling die-hards will be disappointed by this and the snobbier film critics scoffed at Cianfrance’s ambition. All of that is understandable up to a point, but I was taken with this. It reminded me of a couple of films from Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby and In the Valley of Elah) where stories veer suddenly off in unexpected directions, but then come back again to connect the dots.

Coming after Drive this is another strong, silent and Steve McQueen-esque turn from Ryan Gosling. Here he shifts from expert getaway car driver to expert getaway motorbike rider, but again his criminality pays for his working class girlfriend to move on with her life. Eva Mendes is that girl and Bradley Cooper is the cop that goes after Gosling. It is a strong cast of gifted actors. We have seen it before from Gosling, but Cooper is stretched further than usual here and is convincing as the conflicted and ambitious cop.

There are two excellent supporting turns in this; one from Ray Liotta as a crooked and bullying colleague to Cooper and one from Ben Mendelsohn as Gosling’s partner in crime. Liotta still has the ability to put people completely ill at ease and is nicely menacing here. Mendelsohn was fantastic in Killing Them Softly and is on top form again. He is a laid back actor, but somehow captivating to watch and his relationship with Gosling, including a nice Hall & Oates inside joke, is a highlight.

The second narrative swerve, into the third act and final story, is not as effective as the first and at 140 minutes this is a little on the long side. It is not a perfect film, but it is very watchable, genuinely moving, well-acted and well worth your time. The conflict between criminal Gosling and lawman Cooper ignites the film and what follows is a sincere deliberation on the relationships of fathers and sons and the struggle to outrun the past. Cianfrance is a talented and thoughtful film-maker and has followed up strongly on the 2010 film Blue Valentine (also with Gosling).

Sightseers

7 Sep

Sightseers

 

Director: Ben Wheatley

Writers: Amy Jump (additional material), Alice Lowe (screenplay)

Stars: Alice Lowe, Eileen Davies, Steve Oram

Motion picture rating: R

Runtime: 88 minutes

 

What if Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers went on their crime spree in a cheap and cheerful caravan? That has to have been Alice Lowe’s launch point for dreaming up this dark comedy; two amorous psychopaths, the open road and a shabby mobile home. It is a unique set up and Lowe found talented collaborators in husband and wife team Ben (Kill List) Wheatley and Amy Jump. Together they have fashioned a twisted comedy that the sicker members of the English tourist board can have only dreamt about in feverish dreams.

The writer Lowe plays Tina to Steve Oram’s Chris. They are a quirky couple in their early 30’s and in the early stages of a romance. They head out in Chris’s car / caravan combo on a road trip of English tourist attractions leaving Tina’s invalid and disapproving mother behind. She is wary of geeky Chris and with good reason because it’s not long before he’s meeting out tough justice on litterers, opinionated ramblers and Daily Mail readers. Chris is sociopathic and possibly psychopathic. He is the Travis Bickle of the caravan society and carries a full rack of emotional baggage. He desperately wants to be respected, but is dismissed at every turn. Frustration and rage boil inside.

Simple minded Tina learns to understand her deadly companion and then wants to join him. We have seen a wicked side to her earlier in the film, but the relish with which she ups the murderous ante is shocking. Soon Chris is worried about Tina, but by then they are too far gone down the road of train museums, rough sex, caravan sites, and bloodshed.

Wheatley shoots this with panache and the script from Lowe and Jump has some very funny lines. The leads are convincing with Oram particularly effective as the edgy Chris. The film owes something to early Shane Meadows’ films (such as A Room for Romeo Brass) and as such mixes black humour with social comment. It is not easy to watch at times, but it is often surprising and certainly a lot more fun than the overblown Oliver Stone road trip rampage from 1994. I liked Sightseers a lot and, whilst sick and twisted, there is something undeniably English about it.

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