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Entries in Joseph Gordon-Levitt (5)

Friday
Sep272013

Don Jon

There are certain actors that, as a general rule, don’t make bad movies. You can probably find an exception here and there, but for the most part, these actors choose daring roles in audacious movies that are in a capable director’s hands. They know exactly what they’re doing. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of those actors. From 2005’s underseen “Brick” to the emotional “50/50” to one of the most honest explorations of love ever put to screen in “(500) Days of Summer,” he has proven himself as one of today’s most versatile, and underrated, actors. His directorial debut, “Don Jon,” lacks the visual flair or steady pacing a more experienced director can obtain, but the quality is still there. From laughs to tears to some surprising and genuine meaning, “Don Jon” is a delight.

Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a ladies man. He’s so successful with picking up women on a week to week basis that his friends actually call him “The Don.” He has no problem showing up at a club, meeting a girl, seducing her and taking her home for some late night fun. The problem is he considers sex secondary to his one true passion: porn. Put simply, he’s a junkie, someone who watches porn dozens of times a week, only to confess to his priest and be absolved of his sins. However, he soon meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a knock-out he considers to be a perfect 10 in regards to looks. For the first time ever, he begins dating her, breaking his streak of hooking up with a new girl every week, but his love of porn and her strong hatred of it is going to strain their relationship.

“Don Jon” is a strange breed. It has central characters that aren’t good people, or even interesting ones. Aside from the title character, most are throwaway, including Jon’s two friends and his sister who stares into her phone the entire movie until speaking some words of wisdom near the end, and many of them do and say things that make you wonder why we should care at all about them. Even Jon has anger issues, particularly while driving, which is shown through random segues from scene to scene. While one scene culminates into him punching through the side window of a motorist’s car, the compilation of these scenes culminate to nothing. There’s no reason for this other than to create ill will towards a character we’re supposed to enjoy watching.

Yet the movie has a soul, even while some of the characters arguably don’t. Although most Hollywood movies portray sex and sexuality in ways that glamorize it to unrealistic heights, “Don Jon” looks at sex from a more spiritual view, despite the pornography focused central story. Jon is obsessed with porn and considers it the pinnacle of sexuality, something that can’t be topped by someone with whom he’s physically engaging. When Barbara comes along, he says he’s in love, but as he expresses his love to her, he says she’s “the most beautiful thing” he’s ever laid his eyes on. His love is purely for her aesthetic qualities and what she could potentially offer him in bed. He fails to realize the shallow and selfish person underneath those looks.

When they finally hop in the sack, she, unsurprisingly, fails to match the feelings watching pornography gives him. This is because he’s not truly forming a connection. Yet as the film goes on, he grows. From sources I won’t spoil here, Jon learns the true value of sex. He learns that sex can be something more than getting off, but rather something special between two people. It’s an interesting turn of events and a great exploration of what sex can offer aside from the obvious pleasures, even if the previous focus on porn addiction is simpleminded at best.

“Don Jon” isn’t a long film—a mere 90 minutes, including opening and closing credits—which may be why its themes don’t resonate as much as they should, but in a cinematic world that seems to value sex over love, we shouldn’t shun a movie that sees deeper meaning in the former, even while it mostly ignores the latter.

Don Jon receives 4/5

Friday
Sep282012

Looper

Writer/director Rian Johnson is one of the most creative and talented filmmakers working today. He changed the way film noirs were looked at with 2005’s Brick and in 2008, he made the wonderful and underrated The Brothers Bloom. His latest, Looper, reunites him with his Brick star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and the results are astounding. It’s the biggest mind-trip to hit movie theaters since 2010’s Inception, but whereas that film nailed its own internal logic, but failed emotionally, Looper nails both. It’s never confusing, it never seems to contradict itself (though, admittedly, repeat viewings may lead to plot holes) and it toys with your emotions, culminating in a satisfying ending that will send chills down your spine.

The year is 2044 and time travel hasn’t been invented yet, but it will be in 30 years. Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is a Looper. His job is to kill people sent back in time, people that his mysterious employers don’t want around anymore. It’s a cushy job that pays well, but it has one huge drawback. Because time travel is illegal in the future, his employers want to leave no trace of their Loopers, so when they decide a Looper’s contract is up, they send their future self back in time to be disposed of. After the younger Looper kills his older self, his contract is over and he has 30 years to live before his time comes. This is called “closing the loop.” However, if you fail to kill your future self, the powers that be, led by Abe (Jeff Daniels), a future man sent back in time to run things, come after you. Joe makes that unfortunate failure and now, along with his future self (Bruce Willis), he is on the run and trying to survive.

Looper is as uncommon as movies come. Sure, it borrows some things from other movies and occasionally relies on screenwriting coincidences (as all movies do), but it does something so special with them that it feels completely different. Despite all the action, gunfire and explosions, Looper gives off a unique feeling, an extremely rare one makes you feel both compassion and resentment simultaneously, causing your inner emotions to tug back and forth between what you deem right and wrong. Through a brilliant turn of events (that I’ve deliberately avoided describing), the film sets up Joe to be both the good and the bad guy, though, at certain times, it’s hard to tell which version is which. Both have their reasons to do what they do and even though we know them to be selfish or immoral, we understand. It’s a strange feeling to have, especially when those feelings are polar opposite of each other and, really, about the same man.

The only real downside to this otherwise captivating plot turn is that it spoils a portion of what is to come. Gordon-Levitt and Willis play the same character, the former from the present and the latter from the future. That means that if something happens to Gordon-Levitt, Willis disappears, but the nature of the story dictates that Willis must be around. If you take away future Joe, the story doesn’t happen. This leads to a few tensionless scenes where the young Joe is fighting, hiding or running for his life. Despite the danger around him, it’s a foregone conclusion he’ll escape unscathed. Any type of suspense that could have been around otherwise vanishes.

But that’s the only big complaint in an otherwise incredibly exciting futuristic film noir. Looper redefines the way we think of science fiction, fantasy, action, screenwriting and even make-up, thanks to the flawless prosthetics placed on Gordon-Levitt’s face during shooting to ensure he resembled his older counterpart. It keeps you on your toes and once it introduces telekinesis to the equation, all bets are off. Paradoxical implications aside, Looper is flat out terrific. If Rian Johnson continues on this path of well above average filmmaking, he could turn out to be one of the best to ever do it.

Looper receives 4.5/5

Tuesday
Jul172012

The Dark Knight Rises

There are few people that would argue The Dark Knight is anything less than a fantastic film. Most tend to agree it’s one of, if not the best superhero movie ever made. There are even those who think it’s one of the best movies ever made, superhero or otherwise. That film raised the bar for superheroes so high that it’s likely to be a very long time before one reaches or surpasses it. That philosophy holds true for director Christopher Nolan’s follow-up, The Dark Knight Rises, but luckily, the film is only a disappointment in comparison. It may not reach the brilliance of The Dark Knight, but it’s still the best and most exciting movie of the summer. Dark, violent, terrifying and exciting, The Dark Knight Rises fires on all cylinders.

When we last saw Batman (aka Bruce Wayne, played by Christian Bale), he was running from the cops. He was taking the fall for the murder of Gotham’s district attorney, Harvey Dent, who the people of the city had put their faith in to clean up their streets. In Bruce’s mind, it was his duty to prove that true good couldn’t be corrupted, which meant making a martyr out of a madman. Now, Bruce has hung up his cape and mask because the city has turned against him, thinking him to be a violent sociopath who deceived their trust. However, a new villain is emerging. His name is Bane (Tom Hardy) and he’s out to destroy the city. He’s a bullish brute and it soon becomes clear that the police force won’t be able to stop him, which forces Batman out of retirement.

The Dark Knight Rises may be a misleading title for the film, seeing as how Batman does more falling (both literally and figuratively) than he does rising, but that’s why these films work. Nolan doesn’t treat his hero as a god. He treats him as he is: a human being. Bruce has demons to wrestle with, first isolated to the anger felt from losing his parents all those years ago, but now combined with the heartbreak of losing his only love, Rachel (played by both Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal, respectively), at the end of The Dark Knight. He’s not cracking jokes like Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man (despite the occasional witty moment). There’s too much at stake for such trivialities. His desire to fight stems not just from doing what’s right, but from the pain he’s feeling, his need to restore balance to a city gone mad, a city that took the life of everyone he ever loved. The Dark Knight Rises is a dark adult tale told by a masterful filmmaker who knows how to balance the necessary action with character development and relationships.

If anything, it’s the action that dragged down Nolan’s first film, Batman Begins, which was heavy-laden with too much shaky cam and too many cuts. Whether a product of the time, when the Bourne movies were finding so much popularity with the technique, or simply due to Nolan’s own inexperience with staging and filming fast paced action scenes, they were easily the film’s weakest aspect. But with The Dark Knight, Nolan refined his craft. The camera was smooth for much of the action, moving only to give us a better view of it, not to blur it. Nolan carries that maturity over into The Dark Knight Rises. While large in scope, including an absolutely incredible opening and appropriately epic finale, the action is never too much, never overloading your senses like many action movies these days. It’s presented in a way that feels organic, not forced for the sake of keeping action hungry audiences at bay, and Nolan’s steady hand approach ensures we get to savor every second of it.

But regardless of the film’s strengths, it’s impossible to watch The Dark Knight Rises and not compare Tom Hardy’s Bane to the late Heath Ledger’s Joker. When doing so, there is a clear winner. The Joker was a larger than life personality, one that gave the film a quirky feeling, kind of in the vein of a dark comedy, and the man behind the make-up gave one of the best performances ever put to film. Awarded posthumously at the Oscars that year, Heath Ledger created a terrifying monster, one that frightened, yet delighted at the same time. Bane, on the other hand, is too prophetic to be frightening. The majority of the fear instilled by him comes mainly from his size and brute strength rather than from anything psychological. He intimidates visually, but lacks the personality and off-the-wall insanity that made Heath Ledger’s cackling Joker so terrific.

Of course, Bane isn’t a bad character and Tom Hardy’s representation of him is just fine; they look worse only because Heath Ledger’s Joker was so amazing. The only true problem with the character comes from his voice, which is so modulated (thanks to the ever present mask covering his mouth) it’s sometimes hard to understand what he’s saying. Why such a problem was left unhandled—despite Nolan’s partial admittance to making select modifications after fan complaints from an early trailer—baffles the mind. A few other problems bring about the same reaction, like Bane’s nonsensical villainous plot that, for some reason, takes at least five months to unravel or why Batman would waste time lighting his logo on fire on a Gotham City bridge when he has mere hours before the city is destroyed. These moments don’t necessarily make sense, but they make the proceedings flashy and tense (and it’s impossible not to smile when that logo lights up).

The Dark Knight Rises is bogged down by a bit too much expository dialogue as well, but it more than makes up for it with a plethora of other brilliant little touches, like a sly reference to Killer Croc, another villain in the Batman universe. In an act of extreme skill, Nolan brings this story full circle, wrapping up his take on the character in as satisfying a way as one can imagine (though that very last shot, which I dare not spoil, should have been taken out). It works narratively, emotionally and on a visceral level—if the final 30 minutes don’t get your blood pumping, nothing will. It’s certainly not perfect and if comparing it to The Dark Knight, then it’s a disappointment, but if that’s the case, this is one of the best disappointments I’ve ever experienced.

The Dark Knight Rises receives 4.5/5

Friday
Sep302011

50/50

Cancer is a touchy subject. Make a joke about cancer, or someone with it, and people give you a look like you just punched an elderly woman in the face. To laugh about such a terrible disease seems inappropriate, so kudos to 50/50, the new (only?) cancer comedy, that reaches for the forbidden fruit and takes a big bite out of it. This is a movie with guts that is unafraid to use cancer as a comedic tool, but what many will find surprising is how delicately it’s handled. 50/50 doesn’t make light of cancer; that would be offensive. It treats it as it is and by the end, you’ll realize the joking was the only way these characters could have dealt with it. It’s a smart turnaround that, upon reflection, changes your perception of the movie. The more you think about it, the better it seems.

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) works at a Seattle public radio station. He’s a normal guy, just like anyone else. He has a girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), a best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen) and a clingy mother (Anjelica Huston). His life is fine, if uneventful, but it’s shaken up a bit when he finds out he has a very rare type of cancer. His chances of survival are 50%, which is better than most cancer sufferers get, so to fight it, he undergoes chemotherapy and attends therapy with the young Katie (Anna Kendrick), a doctor in training who, if you include Adam, has had a grand total of three patients.

Isolate that plot synopsis and 50/50 would appear to be a serious drama, but more often than not, it lets loose its silliness, including a great scene where Adam awkwardly tries to pick girls up at a bar by telling them he has cancer. Another example is when Kyle exploits Adam’s sickness to bag a date with a pretty girl at a bookstore. These things may seem wrong (especially the latter), but aside from a joke about the late Patrick Swayze, the film never crosses the line. It makes it okay to laugh about cancer, even if doing so feels kind of weird. It takes a deadly, incurable disease and knocks it down to size, treating it like something that deserves to be mocked.

In the midst of all the joking, it sometimes feels like 50/50 is forgetting to acknowledge the enormity of such a disease. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as capable of an actor as he is, doesn’t seem to be putting forth the emotion. It’s hard to tell whether his character is struggling with his diagnosis or has made peace with it. He seems more emotionally distraught when he finds out his girlfriend is cheating on him than he does with the fact that he only has a 50% chance of living. It isn’t until the third act that the feeling finally comes through, but in retrospect, it seems appropriate. Adam is undeniably scared at the news, but is optimistic at first. He passes the news along to his family and friends and he dishes out more consolation than he receives. The gravity of the situation hasn’t yet sunk in. But as time goes on, his health starts to fail, he stops responding to the treatment and one of his chemotherapy buddies, who appeared to be healthy and happy, suddenly dies. Finally, with the awareness that he’s fast approaching death, he starts to break down and lose hope. To go any further would ruin it, but now that I’ve had the time to think about the film, I can’t see these events playing out any other way.

50/50 has a big heart and even though it takes the time to poke fun at cancer, it also acknowledges how scary it is, making it the most faithful depiction of the disease I can recall seeing in the movies. It follows an emotional path that seems authentic, though it’s one that hopefully none of us will ever have to test. 50/50 is one of those rare movies that can make you laugh with a tear in your eye and if you don’t see it, you’ll be missing out.

50/50 receives 4.5/5

Thursday
Jul152010

Inception

It would be underselling it to call The Dark Knight a success. This time two years ago, the world was readying itself for the return of Batman and chomping at the bits. Expectations were high, yet, somehow, they were met. Destined to go down as one of the greatest cinematic experiences of all time, The Dark Knight changed the way we look at movies. Well, prepare to have that view altered again, this time by Inception, director Christopher Nolan’s ambitious, mind-bending experiment that ranks among the best of the year.

However, explaining why may prove difficult. Having just finished it, with its story behind me and an analysis before me, I think it may be better to just skip the plot synopsis altogether because discovery is better left up to the viewer and, well, I wouldn’t know where to begin. Still, these key things must be understood. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are extractors, men who dive into the minds of their targets and steal information while they sleep. To do so, they need an architect, found in the form of Ariadne (Ellen Page), a person who can construct the dream to make it seem real to the target. Their latest job takes them into the mind of Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), but this one is different from the rest. Instead of stealing a memory, they will be implanting one through a process called inception.

In my excitement for this movie, I had a dream. I dreamt I was sitting in a theater and the lights were dimming. The title card appeared and I was ready. I was about to watch Inception. I had been waiting months for it and could hardly contain myself. As it began, however, the crowd became angrily loud. Babies were crying, illiterate kids were asking parents what the subtitles were saying and moviegoers with no etiquette spoke loudly so as to disrupt my enjoyment. I soon awoke and realized how bizarre my dream world had been. The theater was misshapen and it contained no walls, with hallways stretching to the left and right as far as I could see. But it felt so real.

Inception uses this as the foundation for its story. At one point, Cobb tells Ariadne, “It’s only when we wake up that something seems strange.” He explains that in our slumber, our minds play tricks on us and we are unable to distinguish between real and imaginary. This idea is so infused in the movie that the questions it raises linger on well after the credits roll. Cobb has demons of his own and goes into his own dreamlike state to visit a lost love. But is it real? Are those feelings we feel when we’re dreaming—fear, anxiety, happiness, sadness—authentic? If they feel real, who’s to say they aren’t?

While those are important thematic questions, I don’t want to get too philosophical. Inception is an action picture through and through. From a rotating room to a zero gravity battle to a James Bond like ski slope shootout, this film has it all. You’ll see things you never thought were possible, or even thought of at all. You’ll follow the characters through multiple layers of dreams, each stacked on another like a poker chip, but it never gets too confusing. It’s a thinking man’s action picture, which is a breath of fresh air in a summer diluted with idiotic action fare.

If there’s one problem with the film, it would be the lack of emotional connection to what’s unfolding onscreen. So much time is spent on the twisting story that it forgets to provide us with a reason to care. But when your movie is as smart, exciting and unique as this, it’s easy to look past it. Nolan directs with a careful eye, always shooting for practical effects over digital when possible, and masterfully juggles the overlapping dream worlds while the more than capable cast give outstanding performances. All of this adds up to a fantastic, bizarre, imaginative masterpiece of cinema. I guarantee you’ve never seen anything quite like Inception.

Inception receives 5/5