Saturday, October 5, 2013

September 2013


DON JON  (2013)
    Boldly stylish, sarcastically funny and unabashedly crude, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s debut as a writer-director is a surprisingly unflinching look at how the proliferation of sexual images has altered romantic expectations. Starting at the same place as a typical Judd Apatow comedy—young men reducing sex and women to sport—“Don Jon” presents a character who has put thought into his life, living an orderly, disciplined existence, yet has chosen to make online pornography the center of it.

     Title character Jon Martello (Gordon-Levitt) keeps his apartment immaculately clean, screams obscenities at bad drivers, works out religiously at the gym, goes to confessional every Sunday and spends most weeknights with his “boys” at nightclubs scouting for “dimes”—women rating a 10 deemed worthy of one-night stands. Yet whenever he has a free moment, even after sex while his partner slips off to sleep, Jon is in front of his computer enjoying porn videos.

      His exactingly planned life is upended when the ultimate beauty, Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson, sporting a hot, slutty New Jersey look) enters his life. But before she’s staying over, Barbara wants Jon to enroll in night classes, attend a baby-dominated party at her mother’s and have the obligatory dinner his parents (funny clichés played by Tony Danza and Glenne Headly) who, of course, just love her.

     Then she discovers his “hobby” and while he talks his way out of it at first, you just know this is going to be a problem. At the same time, in class he meets an emotionally fragile, talkative “older” woman (Julianne Moore, spot-on in this small but crucial role). She quickly sees problems he didn’t know he had, causing him to rethink his entire life.

      What impressed me about filmmaker Gordon-Levitt is the manner in which he matched the film’s visual style with the content, reflecting Jon’s narrow viewpoint of life with the repetitive scenes of his weekly routines and making the numerous sex scenes as mundane as his gym workouts. This is a very accomplished debut behind the camera for the 32-year-old actor, along with a fearless performance in front of it. Interestingly, his grandfather, Michael Gordon, was a Hollywood director from the 1940s to the ‘60s, helming such hits as “Cyrano de Bergerac” (1950) and “Pillow Talk” (1959).

      If you are uncomfortable watching images of pornography—so many that I am amazed the film didn’t earn an NC-17—you probably should avoid “Don Jon.” For everyone else, this is the rare American film that addresses sex, in the age of hookups and the internet, as more than the opportunity for sophomoric jokes and attractive skin; “Shampoo” for the cellphone generation.   

      It’s rare that I write about a television series, or any work that I haven’t seen to the end. But this British documentary, showing in one-hour segments on TCM each Monday into December, is a must see for anyone who loves movies.

     Directed and narrated by Irish film historian and TV host Mark Cousins, “The Story of Film,” by focusing on filmmakers who moved the medium forward, offers a fresh look at a well-travelled road. Cousins, with his superb use of clips, an extensive knowledge of the entire century plus of movies, and a world-view that doesn’t always center on Hollywood, is able to establish the who, what, when and how of the advancement of narrative film.

    In an early episode of the 15-hour documentary, Cousins shows the first time a film offered multiple views of the same action: an apartment fire seen from the street and then a shot of those trying to escape from the inside. It is easy to forget that the idea of seeing action in this way is purely cinematic; we don’t experience that in real life or even in live theater. For turn of the century audiences, it was a revelation.

    Unlike most film histories, “The Story of Film” uses Hollywood moviemaking not as the centerpiece but as a comparison to the artistic developments taking place around the globe, where filmmakers, not producers and major corporations, were deciding what made it to the screen. Even as someone who has spent a good portion of my life reading about film history, I have already been introduced to films and filmmakers I was either unfamiliar with or only knew their name. To support the documentary, TCM is showing three or four films each Monday that are highlighted in Cousins’ narrative.

      I watched “The Goddess” the other night, a 1934 Chinese silent featuring Lingyu Ruan, a huge star in that country whose suicide (at age 24) and funeral was front page news in the New York Times. It’s to these types of lost figures that Cousins clearly hopes to bring new recognition, along with the works of such masters as Abel Gance, Marcel Carné, Yasujiro Ozu, Jean Vigo, Carl Dreyer and Dziga Vertov, who he discusses along side of Alfred Hitchcock, Ernst Lubitsch, Busby Berkeley and Howard Hawks. This documentary reminds me of Martin Scorsese’s two exceptional film histories, “My Voyage to Italy” and “A Personal Journey.” Like Scorsese, Cousins is making a very personal survey of film history.

        Cousins sometimes stretches believability as he attempts to connect filmmaking styles and influences through the years, but, overall, this chronology offers a fresh view of the medium’s fascinating evolution. In last week’s episode he points out the dream world vs. reality theme of three 1939 pictures, “Ninotchka,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind.” In the final line of the show, he states in his self-assured, dramatic manner, “Ninotchka, Dorothy and Scarlett show that escapism was the main melody in 1939, but listen carefully and you can hear the distant drums: war, realism and Orson Welles.”

      If you don’t get TCM, or want to watch it from the start, “The Story of Film” is available on Netflix.

     Filmmaker Derek Cianfrance makes it clear right from the start that this movie, no matter what transpires in the course of the story, is about Luke, played by a blonde and tattoo-covered Ryan Gosling. In a dazzling opening shot, the director’s handheld camera follows the cool, confident Luke from his dressing room, through a busy carnival and into the tent where he performs as a motorcycle daredevil. He’s James Dean reincarnated; at least until he discovers that a fling he had with a local waitress (Eva Mendes) resulted in a baby boy.

     Quitting his carnival gig, Luke tries to settle down in Schenectady, New York, in hopes of being a real father to his young son and win over his ex-girlfriend, even though Romina is with another man.

    Frustrated by his meager earnings as a mechanic, he joins his employer in a series of local bank robberies, which, at first, pay off handsomely.

    Then, unlike any other film in recent memory, the focus shifts and the main character of the film becomes police officer Avery (Bradley Cooper), who takes advantage of a high-profile police action to promote his ambitious goals. His decisions, Luke’s decisions and those made by others around them collide in the film’s final act, set 15 years after the main action and focusing on the two men’s sons.

     Cianfrance, along with co-screenwriters Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, offers a deeply cynical view of life and the way one’s fate can ultimately be determined based on decisions we have no control over. While this multi-generational, almost epic, drama seems a bit too pat, with so many life-changing events affecting this small group of people that you can see the puppet strings, it still resonates in the way it shows how lives are shaped by offhanded, often hasty choices.

      The director’s equally intense film “Blue Valentine” was among the best films of 2010 and earned Michelle Williams an Oscar nomination. Gosling, who should have been nominated for “Blue Valentine,” richly deserves a nod for “Pines,” a complex role that shows how different two sides of a man can be. The performance has the theatrical bravado and brooding undercurrents of the brilliant film work of Al Pacino in the ‘70s.

    Cooper and Mendes, along with Ray Liotta as a very scary, very corrupt cop are also terrific, but the performance that really jumped out at me was Ben Mendelsohn’s as Luke’s robbery partner Robin, who quickly becomes devoted to his friend but gets little back in return. Unlike Luke, Robin has no moral compass, but he recognizes when a good thing has run its course. In the world of “The Place Beyond the Pines” that’s a very valuable asset.

BREEZY  (1973)
     It seems strange to me now, but when I first saw this cross-generational romance on television when I was in my early 20s I just loved it. Somehow, even 35 years ago, I could relate to a middle-age man finding some kind of love with a much younger girl. Seeing it again, now a few years older than William Holden was when he played Frank, a cynical, divorced Los Angeles real estate agent, (as I write this I really can’t believe it—how can I be older than Bill Holden?) he’s easy to understand; in many ways, he’s every middle-age man, whether we’re married, divorced or single.

      Frank’s life changes one day when he walks out of his rustic Laurel Canyon home to find a talkative teenage hippie who insists he drive her down the hill. Turns out that Breezy (Kay Lenz) has just arrived in L.A. from the Midwest with the kind of youthful optimism that died sometime around the arrival of MTV. Soon she’s spending most of her time at Frank’s, making herself at home despite his rather-unconvincing protests. Before you know it, this fiftysomething World War II generation suit-and-tie man is walking hand-in-hand down the beach with a free-spirited girl just out of high school. It may be the most romantic film ever directed by Clint Eastwood (at least before “The Bridges of Madison County”)—it was just his third effort behind the camera.

     Of course, there are plenty of obstacles to make this love to work and who would you rather carry you through them than Holden? He was always a great actor—see his work in the 1950s in “Sunset Boulevard,” “Stalag 17” and “The Bridge Over the River Kwai”—but his performances in the late ‘60s and 1970s I find even more interesting. By then, he’d grown into his cynicism, looking like a man who had lived a life, who had endured the disappointments and losses inevitable as the years pile up.

      And that voice: a skillfully modulated tenor with impeccable diction; few actors of the era could deliver a meaningful soliloquy with as much conviction. The obvious examples are his Pike Bishop in “The Wild Bunch” and Max Schumacher in “Network”—two of the smartest and self-aware characters in modern film. Like his Frank in “Breezy,” the characters are dinosaurs in a world they can’t quite understand yet are determined to make a stand for dignity’s sake. 

        Maybe when I was 20, I just wished I could grown into the confident, smart dude that Holden’s Frank was, yet I was naively unaware of how to get there. Or maybe it was the idea of having an uninhibited, sexy girl fall for you, whether you’re 20 or 50. Some things never change.

ON THE ROAD  (2012)
     Few novels as well known and influential as Jack Kerouac’s audacious temperature-taking of mid-century America have taken longer to arrive on the big screen.

    For what must have been 20 years, it was mentioned as Francis Coppola’s “next project” (he’s an executive producer on the finished film) but it never made it to the screen until last year, with Coppola as an executive producer and Brazilian Walter Salles (“The Motorcycle Diaries” “Central Station”) directing. While I didn’t anticipate a great film—rarely do novels as iconic as “On the Road” lead to brilliant cinema, this bland, tame and conventional movie is so forgettable that it seems a crime that this legendary title is attached to it.

     The story, published in 1957, begins with Sal Paradise (Kerouac alter-ego), a struggling writer living in New York, finally meeting the much-talked about Dean Moriarty (a fictionalize Neal Cassady) by way of his poet friend Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg in real life). Dean, described as having spent one-third of his life in prison, one-third in bars and one-third in the library, is the ultimate free-living bohemian, embodying the Beat-generation that this trio is on the verge of inventing or, at least, bringing into the mainstream.

    There are various trips, with Sal alone or with Dean and his teenage wife Mary Lou and other assorted friends, from New York to Denver to San Francisco to Louisiana and, eventually, to Mexico. The road and the charismatic, adventure-loving Dean are at the center of everything.

      The book offers Kerouac’s observations of the places and people he meets on his cross-country treks, along with his tales of the hard-living Dean. But the film spends too much of its time on the soap opera of the trio of Mary Lou, Dean and Sal, all but eliminating the writer’s sublime insight into the America he discovers.

      None of the principle actors do much to elevate the picture. Sam Riley as Sal, Garrett Hedlund as Dean and Kristen Steward as Mary Lou don’t give bad performances, but don’t come close to matching the richness these characters have on the pages of the book. Hedlund, best known as young Sam Flynn in the “Tron” sequel, is an especially disappointing Dean, whose real life counterpart Cassady was one of the most memorable characters of the counter-culture movement—he went on to drive the bus for Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters as the mid-1960s LSD movement hit the road. Nick Nolte made a much more interesting Cassady in the underrated gem “Heartbeat” (1980), about the real life events behind the novel.

     An all-star lineup of supporting characters show up throughout the film: Terrence Howard as a cool jazz musician; Viggo Mortensen as the fictionalize version of beat writer William S. Burroughs and Amy Adams as his insane wife; Kirsten Dunst as Camille, Dean’s second wife; and Steve Buscemi as some weird dude. But they enlivened things up only for a scene or two.

     What makes the novel so memorable are passages like this:

    “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plane till you see their specks dispersing?—it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-by. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”

     Not a moment in the film comes close to matching the poetic vividness of those lines.

     Sofia Coppola’s film about a group of over-indulged rich kids from a suburban Los Angeles high school who break into and rob celebrity homes could not have been more sympathetic if it had been written and directed by the actual criminals.

      In fact, I would rather have seen that film than Coppola’s slow-moving, repetitive and exploitive movie. In the long pointless scenes inside the celebrity homes, as the teens ooh and aah over the clothes and bags and jewelry of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Audrina Patridge, Coppola seems to be asking the viewers to share in this admiration of unchecked materialism. If there was a hint of condemnation, I missed it.

     The kids, led by new best friends Rebecca (Katie Chang) and Marc (Israel Broussard), and also including students played by Emma Watson and Claire Julien, are portrayed as the coolest in the school and their criminal adventures admired by everyone—even after they’re caught.

    I don’t write this often, but there is absolutely nothing in this picture for me to recommend it; unless you’re fascinated by Coppola’s train-wreck of a career.

      What has become clear recently is that the only reason she continues to receive backing for her projects is her last name. After a very impressive debut with “The Virgin Suicides” (1999), in which she captures the same type of morally ambiguous teens yet in a much truer fashion, she moved into the big time with the overrated “Lost in Translation” (2003). Lacking in energy and plot, her breakthrough film benefitted greatly from charismatic performers Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, who make you believe their unlikely relationship can work.

      Since then, Coppola has made three box office and critical failures, with “Marie Antoinette” (2006), “Somewhere” (2010) and this latest dud.

     “The Bling Ring” could have been a very funny, sarcastic look at the misguided admiration of celebrity and wealth that is an epidemic among the youth; instead it’s a dull docudrama of spoiled brats.

    It has almost become an official movie genre in Great Britain: old friends who haven’t seen each other in years, usually because of some ugly incident, are brought together by the one member of the group who refuses to grow up.

   Inevitably, drinking, women, confessionals and overcoming an outside threat are involved and, along the way, each one of the group is provided with a moment to reveal his deepest fears and regrets about life.

     For good measure, this version of the cliché throws in blue-blooded aliens who have taken over the gang’s hometown.

     Idiotic? Beyond words. But Edgar Wright, who also directed many of these actors in “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” keeps it entertaining by giving plenty of rope to his cast, which includes some of the UK’s best character actors. They’ve come together, most reluctantly, to complete the town’s legendary 12-bar pub crawl that they failed to finish 20 years ago after high school.

     The instigator of this slightly juvenile adventure is Gary King (Simon Pegg), who we first see in a group therapy session; he’s a rootless alcoholic still telling the same jokes he thought were cool in high school. Gary convinces (in some cases, deceives) his more successful friends (played by Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan) to head back to Newton Haven for an epic night of imbibing. But before they can get close to the final tavern (appropriately named The World’s End), they discover that their beloved town has been appropriated by robot-like aliens.

   The main joke, played to death, is that Gary is a childish bore who stopped being funny for the other guys at least a decade ago. It takes the evil invaders to rouse their school spirit again, as they refused to give up the pub crawl. Adding to the nonstop, sophomoric humor is Rosamund Pike, as a crush from the old days, and Pierce Brosnan as their ageless teacher.

      Sober, “The World’s End” was a mindless amusement; more appropriately, the film should be enjoyed after three or four stops on your own pub crawl.

GET SHORTY  (1995)
    I won’t pretend to be a big fan of crime writer Elmore Leonard now that he’s dead. While I could never warm up to his prose, I have to admit that Leonard’s stories were the source of more first-rate movies than almost any writer of the  20th Century. You’d have to include him with literary giants Graham Greene, E.M. Forster and Ernest Hemingway—nice company—among those whose books made for excellent cinema.

    Two of the best Westerns of the 1950s—when cowboys ruled the screen—were based on his short stories, “The Tall T” and “3:10 to Yuma,” both released in 1957.  “The Tall T” is one of director Budd Boetticher lean, smart and tough actioners starring Randolph Scott as the saddle-worn loner who never strays  from his moral compass, while “3:10 to Yuma” has bad guy Glenn Ford (in one of his best performances) in a battle of wits with solid-citizen Van Heflin. Even the 2007 remake with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale was pretty good.

     In the same vein as these films—a standoff between outlaws and ordinary folks—is “Hombre,” an underrated Western released in 1967 starring Paul Newman.  

     The next Leonard-sourced film that stands out for me is John Frankenheimer’s “52 Pick-Up” (1986), the story of a respected businessman (Roy Scheider) who heads into Detroit’s slimy underbelly to take on blackmailers. Dismissed at the time, the film captures the era’s inner-city hopelessness as well as any picture of the 1980s.

     Then there’s “Get Shorty” (1995), a smorgasbord of sarcasm and cool that eviscerates Hollywood like few other films ever have. Director Barry Sonnenfeld and screenwriter Scott Frank maintain the perfect temperature for a crowded parade of marvelous characters all trying to make sense of loan shark turned producer Chili Palmer. As this slick, fearless made-man, who also is an obsessed movie lover, John Travolta gives one of his best performances (along with his work in the Leonard-influenced “Pulp Fiction”), completely believable as a discontent mobster who fits right in with the Hollywood crowd.

    In addition to the film forming a fine stage to remember Leonard’s film contributions, it’s also a good place to honor Dennis Farina, who died earlier this summer.  Sporting a pink jacket that looks as dumb as he is, Farina’s Ray “Bones” Barboni, another Florida mobster and the bane of Chili’s existence, provides many of the film’s funniest moments, include a fascinating debate on the difference between “e.g.” and “i.e.”   The movie also includes one of Gene Hackman’s best comic roles, playing Harry Zimm, a heavily in debt horror-film producer who first brings Chili into the biz.

       Filling out the superb supporting cast are Rene Russo as Zimm’s unhappy girlfriend, a second-rate actress tired of the Hollywood game; Delroy Lindo and James Gandolfini as unlikely drug runners also looking to invest in movies; Bette Midler as Zimm’s bossy mistresses; David Paymer as a nerdy dry cleaner living the high life on someone else’s money and Danny DeVito, absolutely priceless as the typically egotistical movie star who everyone wants to star in their latest project.  

      It’s Leonard’s keen ear for sparkling dialogue that makes “Get Shorty” such an entertaining picture, e.g.: “You think we watch any of your movies, Harry? I’ve seen better film on teeth” and “I spent all day crawling out of a grave. The director said I was incapable of reaching the emotional core of the character” and “What is the point of living in L.A. if you’re not in the movie business.” The movie also features loving tributes to Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo” and Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” to secure its film buff bona fides.

       Hollywood cashed in twice more with major Leonard-sourced hits: “Out of Sight” (also scripted by Frank) with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez and “Jackie Brown” (from “Rum Punch”), indulgent in ways only Tarantino can achieve but filled with great performances and characters.

       Another, barely released, film from a Leonard novel “Killshot” (2008) doesn’t completely hold together, but is well worth catching. Mickey Rourke is very effective as a low-keyed hit man after a family under witness protection. The well-made film by John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) also stars Diane Lane and, as a psychotic killer, Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

     No doubt, this is hardly the end of the Elmore Leonard-Hollywood story; in fact, later this year there’s a version of the writer’s “Life of Crime,” starring Jennifer Aniston and Tim Robbins.