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Gavin Grades The Movies

Posts from September 2013

Don Jon (Rated: R)

There isn't a soul on this planet who hates Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  I'm totally right, aren't I?  Girls think he's cute as a button and sweet and sensitive and sexy.  Guys think he's funny and cool and hip and shockingly tough.  Regardless of your sex or sexual orientation, we can all agree the guy is talented.  Someone who started out as a child actor making the same dumpy movies that child actors make; but in the last couple years, he's really chosen some impressive and challenging roles in some of the best films of those years.  So when I heard that he was writing, directing and starring in a romantic comedy I thought the guy from Inception, Looper, (500) Days of Summer, Lincoln, The Dark Knight Rises and 50/50 deserved my full attention.

The premise for Don Jon is pretty inspired.  It follows a Jersey douchebag as he struggles with his porn addiction in a new relationship.  I know that doesn't sound very original but it poses the question "What creates more false expectations in a relationship - men and their porn or women and their romantic movies?"  It's a conversation that couples will have with each other for days after seeing the movie and it's one that's challenging and important; unfortunately the movie itself is not.

I give Gordon-Levitt (HEAR MY FULL INTERVIEW WITH HIM BELOW) a lot of credit because Don Jon is impressive for a first-time effort in writing and directing.  The problem is that it has the depth of a Sex and the City episode.  That's not really a slam on either but they have their place in entertainment and quality isn't one of them.  What makes it even worse is that the characters are all cliches and one-dimensional.  What does that lead to?  Predictability and heaps of it.  From the opening credits you can successfully predict where the film is gonna go and how it's gonna end.

The other mistake Gordon-Levitt made was making it so incredibly sexually graphic that most of the women who go to see it will be turned off by it and guys sitting next to them will be too uncomfortable to enjoy it.  Remember that the main character has a porn addiction, right?  Well, there are lots of actual clips of actual porn in the film and when you add them all up, you probably will have watched a full three minutes of XXX porn.  Now, I'm no prude and it didn't turn me off but it did shock me that a mainstream Hollywood film would make a film that would be advertised to attract one type of audience just to turn them off before they have a chance to enjoy anything about it.  But maybe Gordon-Levitt did that to challenge the audience and for that I have to respect his decision but I still think it was a mistake.

Don Jon isn't a film for everyone which is a shame because with the right fine-tuning it could have been.  The biggest tragedy is that it's about something that most couples should be dunked in and prompted to discuss with each other.  But there isn't anything super funny, super moving or super original.  The good news for JGL though is that he's still covered in "Clooney Coolness" (as I tell him in the interview), so no matter how you feel about Don Jon, his fanbase will remain steadfast.

Listen to Gavin's full interview with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, writer, director, and star of Don Jon:
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Rush (Rated:R)

There isn't a single thing I like about car racing.  And when I say "car racing," I mean car racing in every form.  I think it's all boring and never impressive.  Rush, the new film from Oscar-winning directory Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13), is about Formula One racing.  Now, if you're gonna rank the different factions of this "sport," NASCAR is definetly on the bottom and Formula One is at the top.  So obviously this movie had its work cut out for it if it was going to win me over as a fan.  I'm thrilled to say that it did and might be one of my favorite films of 2013 so far.

Specifically, the movie is based on the true story of rivals James Hunt, who's played by Chris Hemsworth (Thor, Cabin in the Woods) and Daniel Bruhl (Inglorious Basterds, The Fifth Estate HEAR MY FULL INTERVIEW WITH HIM BELOW), as NIki Lauda.  It spans many years of their relationship but mainly focuses on the 1976 Grand Prix championship.  I know nothing about the world of Formula One but I knew the name Niki Lauda before seeing this because he always shows up on all the Top 10 Worst Sports Injuries of All Time lists.  If you don't know what happens to him, I won't spoil it here but it's pretty gruesome and Howard shows it in all its ugly glory.

But what sets this film apart from most other sports films is that it's about the men and not the sport.  Their relationship was complicated, competitive and inspiring.  It's not a sports movie that's sappy like Brian's Song but you may feel your eyes sweat in certain scenes because they're so moving.  Both actors are great but Bruhl pulls ahead fully capturing the almost Autistic nature of Lauda.  He's unlikable and likable in every single sentence he says.  It's a very impressive character to watch.  Hemsworth shows us that he's more than just a pretty boy or superhero however playing a sexy, playboy must not have been much of a leap for him.

However, the reason you see Rush is for Ron Howard's directing.  This may be his finest film and yes, I know how bold of a statement that is.  The man who made Backdraft, Willow, Ransom, Cocoon, Frost/Nixon and Cinderella Man may have made something better than all of those.  The only film that gives Rush a run for its money is A Beautiful Mind but Rush is so different from that I think I can only say they're equally as good.  Aside from the attention to the 1970s details in sets, cars, clothes, etc., the racing scenes are utterly spectacular.  It's hard to tell what's stock footage, what's Green Screen and what's live racing shot for the film.  The pinnacle of the film is the historic and infamous rain-soaked race that took place in Japan in 1976.  That 10-15 minutes of the 123-minute-long running time is enough to earn the man an Oscar nomination and I really hope he gets one.

I know it's cliche to say that the Oscar race is on but with a film like this I think it's totally appropriate.  Rush is a movie that manages to be tender and ferocious; fun and inspirational.  I can't think of many sports films that can pull off this level of quality and, speaking for myself, it's even more impressive that it's about a sport that I could honestly care less about.  Prior to seeing Rush, I'd say it was made for a very narrowed audience but after a viewing I can honestly say that there aren't many people who wouldn't absolutely love it.

Gavin spoke with one of the stars of Rush, Daniel Bruhl:
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Prisoners (Rated: R)

One of the signs of a great movie is when you can't stop thinking about it. Usually those kinds of films are what you get when you leave the theater with your friends or your date and discuss what you just saw and what you either think it means or try to explain it. Those discussions will last you the drive home but it's really rare that you're still talking about it the next day or the day after that. That's exactly the kind of experience Prisoners is. I brought my friend Mimi and we not only talked about it the whole way home but emailed each other the next day with our theories.

Before the film started, the studio representative read a letter that director Denis Villeneuve wrote welcoming us and preparing us for the film. It was oddly humble and warmly inviting. He explained how this was his first mainstream American movie and, despite that, the final product was still very much his original vision, which makes sense because at almost three-hours-long, a studio would have tried to shave that down by an hour. I'm not sure if this letter made me enjoy Prisoners more than I should have or if the movie really is that good.

It follows two families dealing with the loss of their daughters who are abducted on Thanksgiving. One family, lead by Terrence Howard (The Butler, Crash) and Viola Davis (The Help, Doubt), deals with the loss by collapsing on each other with grief and the other, lead by Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello (A History of Violence, World Trade Center), deal with it...well...differently. The star of the film is Jackman who is pushed to his limit and resorts to kidnapping the lead suspect, who's played masterfully creepy by Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, Looper). Once that happens, the movie is pitch black and hopeless. It's a true statement on how far a father will go and how far a father should go.

Jackman delivers a performance that is Oscar-caliber. He stands out in a cast of amazing performances showing a character that is terrifying and vulnerable at the same time in every single scene. However, his opposing force is Jake Gyllenhaal, who's the detective trying to find the girls but also getting more and more suspicious of Jackman's grieving father. Both men have crafted characters that are so well carved out that you know so much about their pasts without it ever being addressed in dialogue. It's an utterly incredible character study.

However, the performances aren't enough to make this the masterpiece that it almost was. As I mentioned before, the running time is kind of unforgiving. Scenes are allowed to play out at the pace that Villeneuve wanted and I'm not entirely sure they were all necessary. The other flaw was on the fault of the script which has predictable twists and plot holes that are passed off as clever and tricky; they're neither. Just as you're wrapping your mind around this film, something is brought up or discussed that seems interesting and mind-blowing but then is dropped, never addressed again or left to hang out there in hopes you'll forget it. It just makes the final product confusing.

Despite that, Prisoners is a film that will be talked about and featured in Oscar nominations. It's a movie that shows us the darkest parts of humanity and how regular people can react to them. It's depressing and awful and not for everyone. That's not to say that it's graphic but the mere suggestions of what happens can make you ill. The grey, rainy bleakness of the Central Pennsylvania fall featured in the movie is the only visual tone that matches the story, which overstays its welcome by about twenty minutes. But if you're searching for the performances that may define a career, Prisoners is the place to be.

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Insidious: Chapter 2 (Rated: PG-13)

Whenever a movie ends on a cliffhanger and that cliffhanger makes you think that the hero didn't get away or something awful happened regardless of all the attempts to make things right in the film, I like that.  At the final seconds of the first Insidious, which came out in 2010, that is what happened.  It was a cool little moment that made you forget that the last 20 minutes you just watched really sucked compared to the rest of the movie that was pretty damn scary.  If you're going to do a sequel that shows what happened right after that final moment, you take a risk that people like me will have a moment they enjoyed ruined.  Not only did Insidious: Chapter 2 ruin that moment but they ruined a lot of thers too.

Director James Wan has been on a one-trick hot streak.  He is the guy behind the original Saw but that was in 2004.  It took six years for him to get a hit again and he did with the spook house creeper Insidious; it was good and made us realize that this guy was capable of scaring the crap out of us without relying on the excessive gore that was featured in Saw.  But what was amazing was The Conjuring which was more of the same but elevated to a masterful level.  However, that came out just a few months ago and this now follows on its heels and it has fulled the theorgy that when you pick quantity over quality mean quality suffers.

The good news is that the whole cast is back for more, including Patrick Wilson (Watchmen, Hard Candy) who we just saw also in The Conjuring.  His wife in the film, played by Rose Byrne (Bridesmaids, Insidious), is even better this time around proving that she's more than just a shrieking housewife.  Even Lin Shaye (Something About Mary) is back, which you may think is a bit of a spoiler but considering how silly her return is, you might thank me for warning you about that.

Everything that spooked you about the first one is here again but in a far more condensed version.  That's good because we're getting a little over Wan's haunted house tricks but it's bad because it's what we enjoyed about the first one.  The reason why all the startles are rushed is to make way for a much larger story that involves a mystery as to who that old woman who haunted Wilson's character in the first one is and where is she now.  The answer to that involves ghosts (of course) and it also involves time travel.  Now, I like ghosts.  I like time travel.  Blending those two genres together sounds interesting but when you see it play out in front of you, you discover that it's not and it's pretty terrible.

However, I do have to admit that I appreciate that at least Wan tried to take the story in a different direction and give the overall tone a new feel.  Insidious: Chapter 2 has elements of The Shining, Silence of the Lambs and Back to the Future II but doesn't come close to kicking as much ass as those three films did.  Sure, there are parts that are scary and there parts that I thought were clever.  As a whole though it doesn't work and ends up making you realize that Insidious wasn't that great either since there huge plot holes left there with the intention of filling them in with this.  But a hole is a hole no matter when it's filled and it's even worse when it's filled like this.
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