Don Jon, 2013
Written and Directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Hey folks, Wilson here. As an unabashed fan of Mr. Joseph Gordon-Levitt ever since his 3rd Rock form the Sun days, Mr. Struggan was very eager to assign me this week’s film review. Don Jon marks Gordon-Levitt’s debut as a screenwriter and director, and sets up a starring role for the affable and multi-talented actor.
The film’s titular character, as you may have guessed, is a Don Juan / Lothario, re-imagined for the 21st century as a suave Jersey clubber named Jon. The beginning of the film introduces a decidedly two-dimensional character, whose admitted foci in life revolve solely around his appearance, his family and friends, his sexual prowess, and most importantly of all, the gratification he receives from consuming pornography. Jon is thrown off his routine, however, upon meeting Barbara (wonderfully played by Scarlett Johansonn) who grabs enough of his attention for him to consider a real committed relationship. What Jon soon realizes, though, with help from his new community college classmate Ester (Julianne Moore) is that he’s merely traded one routine for another, and that relationships in this day and age, though maybe easier to find, are harder to maintain than it seems.
At first, the film and its characters come off as a bit predictable and shallow; people depicted as two dimensional rom-com caricatures who are present only for comedic effect. Under Gordon-Levitt’s writing and direction, though, the film matures and blossoms as it progresses into something with depth, without any cheap sugarcoating. The supporting characters turn out, in the end, to be wonderful foils and deliverers of a healthy balance of humor (Tony Danza and Glenne Headly delight as Jon’s parents). Ultimately, Gordon-Levitt gets by on sheer confidence in his story and where he wants it to take us.
Hollywood’s recent streak of confronting the issue of sex addiction seems mostly built to capitalize on a hot topic, but that shouldn’t dissuade you from seeing this movie. Its statement about love in the age of internet porn isn’t much of an epiphany, but it’s worth stating nonetheless, and turns out to be a clever interpretation of the Don Juan legend.
Mr. Struggan sends his Regards.
Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, 2012
Directed by Ice T
Wilson here. Mr. Struggan, the hip-hop aficionado he is, assigned me to review last year’s documentary The Art of Rap for our film review this week. He has been bugging me for quite some time to watch it for him, ever since he learned of its release from a subway ad tucked away in Brooklyn’s Morgan Avenue station last summer.
The Art of Rap is a strong, but incomplete history of rap and hip-hop’s roots and traditions. The film’s goal, as director and narrator Ice T states from the start, is to give insight into the technical processes behind the global cultural movement that is rap music. Towards this end, he takes the audience on a loose and winding historical tour through the Bronx, the movement’s birthplace, south through New York City, then across the country to Los Angeles. Along the way, Ice T stops to meet with some of hip-hop’s greatest emcees to chat about their processes, approaches, techniques, experiences, and influences. What comes out of this odyssey is a remarkable amount of insight into the art form and what it takes to be the best in one of the world’s most popular musical genres. We also get treated to a wide range of entertaining freestyles and anecdotes from some legendary figures, including Grandmaster Caz, Melle Mel, KRS-One, Q-Tip, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg (pre Snoop Lion reincarnation), Eminem, Yasiin Bey (The Artist Formerly Known as Mos Def), Kanye West, and others.
Ice T, as our tour guide, is able to show us the inside story from the perspective of a true insider. He is perhaps the most logical fit for a project of this scope and ambition, considering his own position as a founding father of the hip-hop movement in LA and his consistent career as an actor. The perspective he is able to offer is fascinating and what he achieves is a film that truly celebrates the craft of hip-hop, without damaging itself by taking a self-congratulatory tone.
What Ice T doesn’t quite achieve, however, is the full picture. There is an over reliance in the narrative on the dichotomy between hip-hop’s New York origins and its second life in Los Angeles. The only thing in between is a brief stop in Detroit to pay homage to Eminem. This leaves some glaring omissions, most notably from the South; such figures as Ludacris, TI, Lil Wayne, and Andre 3000 and Big Boi from Outkast are left unrecognized. Perhaps this doesn’t concern the film and it is simply content to present the huge sample that it does. From my point of view, though, that sample would have been better if fully representative of hip-hop’s stylistic diversity.
Mr. Struggan sends his Regards.
Warm Bodies, 2013
Directed by Jonathan Levine
Wilson here. Mr. Struggan has a hefty dose of disdain for the type of rom-coms that roll out every year to capitalize on the emotional ups and downs of the Valentine’s Day ritual. It is for this reason that his interest was piqued by Warm Bodies, which seemed to him a very atypical early February release. He sent me to see it this week for a review ahead of the 14th to let you all know his thoughts.
Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer lead the film as R and Julie, the latter a young woman and member of the human resistance against a zombie apocalypse that has overrun the planet, the former a young zombie who falls in love with Julie during a feeding frenzy in which he eats her boyfriend. Vowing to protect her from his undead cohorts, R and Julie begin to discover a bond between them despite their differences, and ultimately unlock the key to the zombie cure (spoiler alert: the cure is love).
The story, adapted from a novel by Issac Marion, largely follows the story arc of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; two young people (or one young person and one young zombie) from two warring factions, thrust into an improbable love despite their differences. Added to this is a clever take on the typical zombie story, giving us a humanized protagonist in the midst of an existential crisis surrounding his droll routine as a zombie and his self-contempt at his need to satisfy his hunger for human flesh. The end result is a unique genre bender that, despite an oddball premise, delivers a fun and funny film with an authentic message about love and the human experience.
The film is not without its shortcomings, however. Hoult and Palmer carry the film with two very strong performances, but the rest of the cast is very one dimensional. This is somewhat the fault of bad pacing, where parts of the film could have used more breathing room to further develop the characters and their motivations. The film is still a very entertaining watch, especially for fans of the zombie genre, and provides breath of fresh air to the standard February fare.
Mr. Struggan sends his High Regards.
Everything Must Go, 2010
Directed by Dan Rush
Wilson here. Mr. Struggan, in search of something to assign for my next film review, took a scroll through his Netflix queue this past week. He settled on Everything Must Go, a 2010 film that he’d been hesitating to watch for some time. Being the willing test subject that I am, I offered to watch it and write up a review to save him the trouble.
After watching the film, my recommendation to Mr. Struggan was clear: don’t bother. The film reaches for the pinnacle of mediocre filmmaking, and nearly makes it to the summit. It is no surprise that the film was director Dan Rush’s debut, and no wonder that his IMDb page lists no projects since.
Will Ferrell leads the film as our protagonist Nick Halsey, an alcoholic who, after being fired from his job, returns home to find his wife gone, the locks changed, and all of his possessions piled up on his front lawn. With nowhere to go, Nick decides to take up residency on the lawn and, with the help of teenage neighborhood loiterer Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace) and with the emotional support of his new neighbor Samantha (Rebecca Hall), sets about staging a yard sale to rid himself of his things.
None of the cast members are particularly bad; Ferrell, considering the circumstances, actually forces a good performance into the production, seemingly through pure willpower. His character conveys the sad charm that it ought to, and his chemistry with Rebecca Hall holds a few key scenes together, like their middle-of-the-night confrontation, enough to add a silver lining to the viewing experience.
By and large, however, they are let down by core characters whose relationships with each other aren’t developed well enough for us to care about them, and extraneous secondary characters who add little (Glenn Howerton’s second scene as Nick’s boss at the end of the film), if anything at all (Stephen Root as Nick’s BDSM enthusiast neighbor) to the story. An overhanded score, several unresolved plot points, and ultimately a lazy script, amateur editing, and unassertive direction top off the the long list of reasons why one mustn’t go see this movie.
Mr. Struggan sends his Low Regards.
Gangster Squad, 2013
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Wilson here. Mr. Struggan sent me out to the cinema last weekend to see the new film Gangster Squad. Based on true events, the film centers on the rise of Mickey Cohen’s criminal empire in Los Angeles in the late 1940s and the secret task force of policemen charged with taking him down.
As director, Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) doesn’t hold any punches while laying on heavy doses of gritty pulp and comic book flair. Luckily, he does so without sacrificing substance. He avoids the traps of this type of period action film, which can often devolve the story into cheesy cliche, at times by subverting these elements with opportune moments of comic relief, but more often simply by executing them in a measured, authentic manner.
The headliners, Josh Brolin and Sean Penn, deliver strong performances. Sean Penn especially deserves praise; as Mickey Cohen, he brings gravity to his character’s menace without going over the top. This was a fine line to walk, and Penn pulls it off well where other actors might have failed. A supporting cast that includes Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, and Nick Nolte similarly brought their best to their scenes.
The film was not, however, without its weak points. The plot felt rushed in places, especially in terms of character development. The core cast is introduced in a well executed “assemble the team” montage, yet past the introductions we aren’t given much more. This hurts one’s ability to identify with the characters later on, and the cast’s diversity risks coming across as cheap tokenism where it should have been a highlight.
All in all, though, Gangster Squad is definitely worth a visit to the theater, and is a welcome and downright fun break from the serious mood of Oscar season.
Mr. Struggan sends his High Regards.
Citizen Kane, 1941
Directed by Orson Welles
Wilson here. Mr. Struggan passed down his first film review assignment to me with great urgency the other day, not even for the blog’s sake so much as for my own; after admitting to Mr. Struggan that I’d never seen Citizen Kane, he had little difficulty suggesting which film to review first in our new format.
What more is there left to say, though, that hasn’t already been said about a film regarded as not just one of, but the greatest ever made? From its very first shot, as the camera pans on Xanadu’s “No Trespassing” sign, the film simply captivates. I immediately began to understand the hype.
Superb acting from the ensemble and gorgeous cinematography stand out as strong points, but what defines the film’s brilliance above all else is its narrative structure and Orson Welles’ clear vision as performer, director, and writer. The story unfolds as a newspaper reporter sets out to uncover the meaning behind media mogul Charles Foster Kane’s mysterious last words. Kane’s life has already been summarized for us in the film’s opening newsreel obituary, and so, as we follow the reporter’s investigation, as told to us in flashbacks by those closest to Kane, we constantly refer each new piece of information back to what we’ve already been told. Instead of answers, though, all that emerges are more questions as Kane, like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, grows more enigmatic.
All this, of course, is owed to Welles. His acting performance as Kane stands out above all the rest for its consistency and intimate confidence in the face of a demanding role, likely the result of a holistic understanding of his other creative responsibilities as screenwriter and director. The end result is a film that is well crafted from every angle and which holds our attention effortlessly.
Mr. Struggan sends his Highest Regards.