Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Reel Review: DON JON

DON JON, the directorial debut from actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is a fun and sexy romp which takes a look at love and lust, romance and sex, and the dangers of being too comfortable in our routines. It is often obscene and slightly flawed, but very well-intentioned.
Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a ladies’ man who shags a new girl every weekend, but still finds more gratification in beating off to online porn. His world is turned upside down when he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a beautiful and old-fashioned girl who disapproves of porn.

DON JON sets itself up as a standard boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl tale. What makes the familiar storyline feel fresh is the added element of obsession. Jon is a man who is obsessed with porn and his self-centered lifestyle; which focuses on his porn addiction, his exercise routines, his car and his apartment. Jon is unwilling, and unable to let go of those addictions and alter his daily routines, so when Barbara, whom he falls for, enters the picture and begins changing things, it makes for excellent drama and character development. This is the heart and soul of DON JON and it works very well.
However, once Barbara gets wise to Jon’s porn addiction, things kind of screech to a halt. Jon eventually finds solace in Esther (Julianne Moore), a widow who brings sound advice via her experiences to Jon. At this point the film turns into a lecture hall as it endlessly monologues into debates over sex and lust. While the effort is well-intentioned, it gets dull in a big hurry.

But there is still a lot to enjoy in DON JON. Joseph Gordon-Levitt keeps the pacing brisk for the most part, and the editing is sharp and fun; making the film a blast to sit through despite a few sloggy parts in the story.
Performances are tremendous. The chemistry between Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson is tremendous; they both light up the screen and nail their New Jersey accents perfectly. Julianne Moore is as good as ever, and the show is nearly stolen by an electrified Tony Danza, who plays Jon’s father. You can’t get enough of Danza, and he is matched very well by veteran actress Glenne Headly, who plays Jon’s mother.

DON JON’s climax eventually comes by way of a slow build as opposed to a hot geyser. The film loses a lot of its momentum in the third act, but there is still a great amount of satisfaction to be had in the morning after. DON JON is probably not for everybody with all the sex and sex talk, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt shows some tremendous promise in his debut, one that we would love to shag up with again.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Reel Facts & Opinions: All You Need to Know About METALLICA: THROUGH THE NEVER

Last week, THE WIZARD OF OZ began a short, one-week re-release in the glorious 3D IMAX format. This week, the rainbow song gives way to the heavy metal thunder of Metallica when they release their first theatrical concert film, METALLICA: THROUGH THE NEVER. Here are the Reel facts on the film:
So it’s just another concert film? Not really. THROUGH THE NEVER is a concert film with a plot. As the band plays a sold-out arena, a young roadie is sent on a mission to retrieve an item. His task takes a surreal turn when his van is struck by another vehicle and he suddenly finds himself up against a death-dealing horseman. The band’s live performance is inter-cut with the adventure out on the street.

Who’s in this? The members of Metallica (James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammet, and Rob Trujillo) appear as themselves. The young roadie is played by Dane DeHaan, who recently appeared this year in the critically acclaimed film THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES.
Who directed this? METALLICA: THROUGH THE NEVER is directed by Nimrod Antal, who has helmed PREDATORS (2010), ARMORED (2009), VACANCY (2007), and the Hungarian-language film KONTROLL (2003), which won the Award of the Youth at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004.

Is it IMAX 3D Only? The film will be released in IMAX 3D on September 27th, the 27th anniversary of former Metallica bassist Cliff Burton’s death, before a release in standard 3D on October 4th.
Who is this for? The music of Metallica is not for everyone, so if heavy metal is not your cup of tea, you don’t need Reel Speak to recommend that you stay away. Outside of those mortals, THROUGH THE NEVER seems to offer a lot. It is a concert experience and a story all in one bundle; fans of the band’s music over the past 30 years and lovers of cinema will certainly find a lot to latch onto. It’ll be loud, it’ll be a visual treat, and if anything it’ll be a fresh take on the concert film experience.


Monday, September 23, 2013

Reel Facts & Opinions: The Rating of THE WIZARD OF OZ

Next year, THE WIZARD OF OZ will mark its 75th anniversary. In preparation for the diamond-event, the classic film has been re-released in theatres in the IMAX 3D format. Despite being digitally remastered for superior picture and outstanding sound, the film is unchanged from its 1939 version, save for one thing: the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has changed its rating from G to PG.
The MPAA’s rating system is intended to help parents decide which films are suitable for their children. The rating of G means a film is intended for general audiences, while a PG rating means some material may not be suitable for children. THE WIZARD OF OZ has had a rating of G since its release in 1939, and subsequent re-releases on the big screen, TV-broadcasts, and home video.

So what’s the deal? THE WIZARD OF OZ, if released today as a new movie, would probably never get released as a G movie without substantial edits and changes. This is a film with some nightmare-inducing characters including flying monkeys and a green-skinned witch.  By the letter of the MPAA’s own law, a G-movie may contain mild violence and horror, but it must be cartoonish in nature and minimal in quality. A PG film may contain violence, disturbing/startling images, mild horror, action and peril, and emotional intensity. Looking at the guidelines, OZ seems to fall into the PG category more than a G. The MPAA may be operating on the side of caution, but on paper they seem to be putting the film where it belongs. This is also a sign that G movies may soon be a thing of the past. Of the 175 films released in North America this year, only one has been given a G…and that would be Pixar’s MONSTERS UNIVERSITY.
It can be a bit maddening to figure out the logic behind the MPAA’s decision making. As a wee-lad, two of this Blogger’s favorite animated films were (and still are) WATERSHIP DOWN (1978) and THE SECRET OF NIMH (1982). Both films were eye-openers as it was this Blogger’s first experience with cartoons going dark. WATERSHIP DOWN had rabbits clawing each other to death, not to mention a tagline which read “if they catch you they will kill you”, while NIMH had fuzzy little creatures stabbing each other with swords.  Both films had a fair amount of character deaths and bloodshed, and yet WATERSHIP was slapped with a PG, while NIMH scurried away with a G. The MPAA guidelines support a case for both films to be PG, or even a G. It’s a very subjective thing and clearly parents need to do the homework and decide for themselves. Maybe the important thing to remember is that the MPAA isn’t a rule; it’s a guideline.

But back to the wonderful WIZARD OF OZ…in the grand scheme of things this won’t matter. Parents and grandparents are still going to take their children to see the wizard and eagerly share the memories. Despite the new acronym on the bottom of the poster, the slippers are still ruby, the brick road is still yellow, and the munchkins are still short. The legacy of THE WIZARD OF OZ transcends its rating; it did so in 1939 and it will for another 75 years and beyond.

What say you?

THE WIZARD OF OZ will enjoy a one week run in IMAX 3D, which started September 20th.

Friday, September 20, 2013

A Reel Review: PRISONERS

PRISONERS, the latest film from Oscar-nominated director Denis Villeneuve, is a film which tries to be many things at once; a whodunit, a family-drama, a police procedure and a cold-case solver. Cramming in so many different genres and storylines into a single film isn’t unheard of, nor is it always a mistake; which puts the burden on PRISONERS to make everything blend together.
Keller (Hugh Jackman), his wife Gracie (Maria Bello) take their family to spend Thanksgiving at their neighbor’s and best friends family home (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis). After dinner, their daughters vanish, which causes Keller to kidnap and punish the lone suspect in the case (Paul Dano); a dimwitted young adult with a poor IQ who is cared for by his aunt (Melissa Leo). The mystery of the missing girls is tackled by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhall).

PRISONERS sets itself up to be a complex whodunit film with lessons of morality sprinkled all over it. The film seeks to explore just how far a person would go to find their missing children, and the places it goes are dark and meant to disturbing. However, PRISONERS often gropes around in the dark with no light to guide it. Once Keller takes matters into his own hands and begins his rite of torture against the lone suspect in the case, the film loses focus and goes all over the place. Detective Loki goes and does his thing while Keller does his, which involves a pointless time-waster of a subplot involving a priest, and the storylines never quite mesh and PRISONERS completely loses its way. The many complexities strip the emotion from the film, and for a story that is supposed to make us feel for parents of missing children…you won’t find yourself giving a rats ass about any of it.
Director Denis Villeneuve was smart enough to hire Roger Deakins as his cinematographer for PRISONERS, which is about the highlight of the technical side of things. Deakins does his usual brilliant work here; using excellent dim lighting techniques to match the grim nature of the film. Villeneuve in the meantime derails all that with very pedestrian directing as his camera never does anything inspired. He also seems to feel that the audience is full of idiots; objects and places are shown over and again as if we missed it the first 50 times. Dialogue through the entire film is full of melodrama; every line over-reaches and we are punished with cringe-worthy crap that no human being would ever say in real life, not to mention untimely curse-words that always feel out of place. The film also has some sluggish pacing; it’s running time of two-plus hours feels more like a thousand.

Acting is decent throughout, although every cast member seems to be grasping for something to latch onto. Hugh Jackman shows much of the ferocity that he has been known for, and can occasionally bring the tears. Maria Bello works the hardest and does well, while Terrence Howard might as well have been a chair on set. Paul Dano turns in his creepiest performance ever, and Melissa Leo is brilliant as always. The movie belongs to Jake Gyllenhaal, who gets the most screen-time (an odd move since we’re supposed to be empathizing with the parents), and makes the most of it.

The last act is loaded with many twists and turns, many of which are clever and almost salvage the ride. By that time however the convoluted storytelling and painfully slow pacing has taken its toll, and the ending (which is a weird one), can’t come soon enough. PRISONERS has a lot going on inside, but nothing to show for it.


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Reel Review: GRAVITY

Every great movie has a certain level of re-watchability. There are the tragic and depressing films, which despite their great storytelling are such an emotional drain that it is difficult to want to revisit them again. There are movies which are a big ball of whimsical fun that you simply cannot wait to see over and over again, and then there are the films which are so special, so different, and such a unique cinematic experience that you have to file it under a once-in-a-lifetime event. Enter Alfonso Cuaron’s GRAVITY.
Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), is a veteran astronaut on his final mission with first-time spacewalker Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), when an accident destroys the space shuttle and sends the two of them tumbling off into space with nowhere to go.

GRAVITY, at its core, is a very simple survival story as our two astronauts tumble around helplessly in space looking for something to hold onto. The basic structure at a glance feels a little tedious as the two characters go from the frying pan to the fire and back in the pan over and over again. But what makes it all work is director Alfonso Cuaron’s ability to create an unprecedented amount of tension and dread in every second of the film. Cuaron’s camera never stops moving; there are endless tracking shots sweeping from character to character and object to object, and switches seamlessly from third-person to first-person perspectives, literally dropping us right in the middle of the goings-on. The excellent 3D work (a must see in 3D) and stunning visuals make our characters and situation seem all the more real, and you dare not blink in fear of missing something. You may even forget to breath.
Cuaron makes excellent use out of the surroundings. Never before has the vastness of space seemed so vast, beautiful, and so deadly all at the same time. Science is strictly adhered to; with no sounds in space, the only audio we get is heard from the perspective of the astronauts…so every bump and collision comes through as a subtle, yet somehow frightening thump which is more than enough for Cuaron. Despite the simplicity of the plot, Cuaron still manages to sneak some allegories here and there, giving GRAVITY a little more weight and little more to latch onto. Characters are a little thin but are developed just enough to care about, and real-life space-mission procedures are cleverly used to help tell the story.

George Clooney and Sandra Bullock have great chemistry together. Clooney turns on the charm times-ten, and although Bullock occasionally still can’t seem to hit fifth gear, does enough to be convincing. With their characters being the total opposite of each other, Clooney and Bullock are given a lot of good material to explore, and they both do it well.
The finale rolls in only after battering every one of your physical and emotional senses, and it isn’t until the credits roll when you can finally relax. It is a very hypnotic film as there is so much to look at, so much to care about and so much to dread. There are techniques in GRAVITY that have never seen the big screen before; it is brand-new, awe-inspiring, stunning to look at and exhausting to experience. This is filmmaking like we’ve never seen. This is a master craftsman at work. This is a landmark.


Reel Speak was pleased and honored to view GRAVITY at a special early screening. The film opens wide on October 4th.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Reel Facts & Opinions: Real-life Tragedy in the Movies

This month, first-time writer/director Alexandre Moors’ film BLUE CAPRICE will appear in select theatres. The film is based on the Beltway Sniper shootings which terrified the Washington, D.C. area in 2002, and follows the true events through the perspective of the two shooters as they plan and carry out their attacks.
Needless to say, the film is not without controversy. Those who lost loved ones or who were living in D.C. at the time of the shootings would probably have no interest in seeing the film and re-living events which may still be a bit too close to their lives. It has been eleven years since those shootings, and yet it doesn’t seem to be far enough away before revisiting. It begs the question of just how much time is enough.

Movies based on real-life tragedy are nearly as old as the medium itself. In 1912, a film called SAVED FROM THE TITANIC was released only 29 days after the sinking of the famed ocean liner, and actually starred a Titanic survivor…wearing the actual clothes she had on during the sinking. The attacks on PEARL HARBOR were dramatized only a year after the event in a B-movie called REMEMBER PEARL HARBOR, while FROM HERE TO ETERNITY waited until 1953 to roll out. Here in modern times, director Oliver Stone only waited five years after 9/11 to dramatize the day in his WORLD TRADE CENTER, and Paul Greengrass’ FLIGHT 93 was also out the same year. Small-scale tragedy has also been dramatized, as there have been countless TV and big-screen dramas based on real-life serial killers; persons who do not deserve to get their names in print here.
So how long is long enough? It’s difficult to put a number on it, and even more difficult to look at it as a case-by-case basis. These days, with 24-hour media and social networking, tragic events that happen half-a-world away are easily made closer and can be re-visited at will; there are twelve-million videos on YouTube related to 9/11. Having that media in such close proximity make events from a decade ago seem like they happened just yesterday.

But why do this in the first place? Nearly every movie ever made has been based on, or at least inspired by real events. Some films hide the inspiration with allegory, while others, like BLUE CAPRICE, boldly lets it all hang out. It is true that people go to the movies for an escape from the real world, but film should never shelter us to the point of ignorance. The silver screen can entertain, but it can also inspire and educate…two things which the world can put to good use.
What say you?

BLUE CAPRICE goes into limited release this month. It is the directorial debut from Alexandre Moors, and stars Isaiah Washington, Tequan Richmond, Tim Blake Nelson, and Joey Lauren Adams.


Thursday, September 12, 2013

A Reel Review: LOVELACE

In her lifetime, Linda Lovelace, arguably the most famous porn star of all time, wrote two books about her life. The first, which is believed to have been ghost-written by her abusive husband at the time, portrays her as a sex-happy nympho who was in a constant state of party-time bliss. The second book, authored by Linda herself, painted her as a victim of spousal abuse and prostitution who was forced into the porn industry to pay off her husband’s debts. These two very different books are the basis for LOVELACE.
Linda Lovelace (Amanda Seyfried) is forced into a life of adult films and prostitution by her husband/manager Chuck (Peter Sarsgaard); a life which brings her fame after her role in the infamous porn film, DEEP THROAT.

LOVELACE sets itself up as a standard-fare, rags-to-riches, rise-fall-rise-again story as Linda is forced into a life she doesn’t really want but makes it work for herself. Just when things become predictable, the film takes a left-turn and offers alternate versions of previous scenes. It is at this point where LOVELACE goes from the adaptation of one book to another, while only taking a few moments to get that point across. Audiences who are not up-to-speed on the approach going in may be a bit confounded, as the sudden shift in tone is jarring and not quite explained enough.
Co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are very faithful to the 1970’s era. The film has that soft and grainy 70’s look, and scenes which are re-created from DEEP THROAT are tastefully done and seemingly exact to the finest detail. LOVELACE however suffers from a lack of creativity in the editing department; there is a noticeable lack of zip or energy in the film as it slogs through endless scenes...and for a story full of sex and marital violence, there isn’t a whole lot to shock or surprise you.

Amanda Seyfried is excellent as Linda. She displays a wide range of emotions and isn’t afraid of showing her body for the camera; this can certainly be considered to be a “coming out” role for her. Peter Sarsgaard shows some great range in playing one of the most despicable characters in recent memory, and Sharon Stone literally vanishes into the role of Linda’s mother; Stone is so good audiences may be surprised when her name rolls around in the post-credits. Smaller roles are held down excellently by Juno Temple, Chris Noth, Robert Patrick, Bobby Cannavale, Hank Azaria, Adam Brody, Chloe Sevigny, and Eric Roberts…and James Franco turns in a weird, yet memorable performance as a young Hugh Hefner.
The finale turns into a doom-and-gloom morality lesson as it beats us over the head with the message of spousal abuse. Considering the efforts of the real-life Linda in her later life this is probably the way she would have wanted it, but as a movie it feels like the filmmakers were more concerned with the things that happened to Linda, more than the actual character whose name is on the poster. There is a lot to love in LOVELACE as the performances are great and the message is important, but there is a lot to be frustrated by as the storytelling is clunky and the characters are only explored so far. At the end of the night, LOVELACE is a lot of excellent foreplay with no real finish.


Tuesday, September 10, 2013


In 2011, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn and actor Ryan Gosling teamed up to put together the smash hit DRIVE; a stylistic crime thriller which entertained as much as it did fascinate. Here in 2013, Refn and Gosling collaborate again for ONLY GOD FORGIVES; another crime film which is heavy on style but light everywhere else.
Julian (Ryan Gosling) and his brother Billy (Tom Burke) run an underground Thai boxing club. Billy is murdered and their mother/family boss Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives to enact revenge against his killers, which involves the sadistic and murdering police chief, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).

ONLY GOD FORGIVES has a very simple and thin plot consisting of revenge and eye-for-an-eye. With so little story, director Nicolas Winding Refn relies on the presentation to beef up the interest and seemingly the running-time. The story unfolds with very little dialogue and is displayed through long, sweeping camera moves, bizarre dream-like sequences, a few outbursts of violence and some scattered naked body-builders and karaoke (not making that last part up). The film wants us to believe that there is allegory going on, but offers no hints as to what all the music and colors are all about. It’s pure style over substance as the story and characters exist in an empty, albeit beautiful-looking screen.
Nicolas Winding Refn has created one of the most stunning-looking films in recent memory. His work with lights and shadows and music is excellent; you don’t want to blink out of fear of ruining every visual moment. The flashes of violence seem to be timed out well, but the pacing of the film, which is a constant stop-start-stop-start, is frustrating as there is never a groove, rhythm, or heartbeat to be found. His characters exist only to recite a few lines here and there and are never developed past their first names.

Acting is tough to judge as no one really acts. Ryan Gosling doesn’t do much other than his typical blank and lifeless stare (save for one moment), but he does get to do some decent physical work once in a while. Kristin Scott Thomas gets the most lines and the most work, and pulls off an unlikeable character very well.
By the time ONLY GOD FORGIVES wraps, audiences are guaranteed to be scratching their heads because they (a) don’t know what they just saw, and (b) can’t decide if they enjoyed it or not. It’s more of an experimental exercise than a traditional film, which is an approach that can be appreciated more than enjoyed. It’s 95% style and 5% story, and often feels like Refn took a handful random dreams he once had and loosely sewed them together. Beautiful to look at, but almost unwatchable. Almost.


Friday, September 6, 2013

The Year in Film 2013: Episode VIII

Summer has come and gone and hot on its heels is the mixed month of September; full of cast-off films with low expectations along with a few early Oscar hopefuls.
The journey begins with…

RIDDICK – Vin Diesel reprises his role of the blind anti-hero Riddick for the third time in this sci-fi adventure. David Twohy (THE FUGITIVE) directs.
SALINGER – One of the most anticipated documentary features of the year dives into the life of author J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye.  SALINGER interviews over 150 people including Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, John Cusack, and Danny DeVito.

ADORE – This psycho-sexual drama was shot in the classic and seldom used 35mm cinemascope format. Stars Naomi Watts and Robin Wright
HELL BABY – This screwball comedy is scripted by frequent collaborators Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant (NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM), and tells the tale of a new couple who move into a haunted house.

MY FATHER AND THE MAN IN BLACK – Another highly anticipated documentary feature is an inside look at Johnny Cash as seen through the eyes of his former manager and Cash’s son, who re-discovers his father through a series of newly discovered audio diaries and recorded phone calls.
INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 2 – Horror team James Wan and Leigh Whannell (SAW) reunite for the first followup to their successful INSIDIOUS film from 2011. Stars Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne.

THE FAMILY – In this action comedy, a mafia boss and his family are relocated to a small town in France under witness protection. Stars Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Tommy Lee Jones. Directed by Luc Besson (LEON THE PROFESSIONAL).
BLUE CAPRICE – This chilling-looking film tells the story of the Washington, D.C. snipers who terrorized the Beltway in 2002. Stars Isaiah Washington.

PRISONERS – Hugh Jackman is the parent of a kidnapped child in this thriller with an all-star cast. Co-stars Terrence Howard, Jake Gyllenhall, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Maria Bello, and Viola Davis. It is directed by Denis Villeneuve, whose 2010 film INCENDIES was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.
A SINGLE SHOT – David M. Rosenthal directs this backwoods thriller starring Sam Rockwell, Jeffrey Wright, William H. Macy, and Jason Isaacs…in which a hunter accidently kills a young woman.

PARKLAND – Recounts the events that occurred on the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It stars Paul Giamatti, Billy Bob Thornton, Jacki Weaver, Jeremy Strong, Marcia Gay Harden, James Badge Dale, Zac Efron, and Jackie Earle Haley.
RUSH – Ron Howard returns to directing his own dramas in this race-car yarn starring Chris Hemsworth (THOR), Daniel Bruhl, and Olivia Wilde.

DON JON – Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes his directorial debut and stars in this film, which tells the tale of a man torn between his porn addiction and his new girlfriend. Co-stars Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, and Tony Danza
AS I LAY DYING – James Franco also takes a stab at directing in this adaptation of the novel from the 1930’s by William Faulkner.


Next month, Episode IX previews the equally-packed month of October.