Sunday, September 29, 2013

RUSH 9/29/13

Ron Howard has directed a $50 million dollar banal, predictably romanticized, Hollywood film, RUSH, based on a “true story” of a renowned male rivalry in Formula One racing lore. Ironically the movie was so “formulaic” that I found it difficult not to forecast the dialogue and the accompanying cinematography as events materialized. The heavens open up with a blazing sun at the moment of victory; the grinding and spewing of white smoke from the turbocharged engines emit their groans and roar at the moment of orgasm; supercharged cars are like their supercharged drivers – sleek and fast – as fast as they can be pushed before splintering apart. Bombast, bluster, swagger and disdain seem to characterize the protagonist’s behavior toward one another – both are “assholes” – a term they often utter to one another sotto voce and I agree.

This loud, ear-shattering, tumultuous movie is set during the 1976 Formula One racing season focusing on the competition between a handsome blonde British playboy James Hunt (played by Chris Hemsworth) who is the intoxicating, wild Dionysius to the analytical, methodical Appolonian Austrian driver, the “darker” Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl.) The psychological collision between two ambitious men who are willing to risk death in their pursuit of the world championship – racing in grand prix after grand prix – from country to country, delivers some dizzying visual excitement. Yet the film despite its big budget cast of characters, special effects, and pounding musical soundtrack lacks any emotive drama. I am left unmoved.

RUSH gives us a touch of the biographical history of James Hunt and Niki Lauder; each of them born into wealthy aristocratic households, and single-mindedly pursuing their dream of racing in opposition to familial pressure. Ron Howard does not attempt to delve any deeper into their psyches except to bifurcate them as attractive vs. unattractive, reckless vs. deliberate, and loyal vs. unfaithful. There are lovers and wives in the movie but they are basically accessories to the men who love their cars, speed, and have eyes only for one another. The intense competition between adversaries, involving the risk of crashing and burning, creates a subliminal, sentimental attachment between foes. There is a connection that only they can understand having competed in the same fierce battleground.

Oddly what I found most compelling about RUSH was capturing a glimpse of a sub-culture that involves machines and the engineering that goes into making these potential “burning infernos.” The physical vulnerability of the participants is ever-present as is the thin line between adroitness, skill and chance. Once strapped into their Ferraris or McLarens the ace drivers are flying on the racetrack tempting death and incineration, and like life there are no safe passages. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

DON JON 9/28/13

Billed as a comedy, DON JON is a film that has comedic moments, but is wrapped tightly around a young man’s “coming of age’ – no pun intended - in an era of pervasive free-flow porn on the Internet. The media’s ability to manipulate desire is at the core of this movie, whether it be the objectification of the “other,” or the equally insidious notion of repackaging one’s individuality to fit Hollywood’s “romantic” ideal.
This is an ambitious task for Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his directorial debut from a script that he wrote, and a movie in which he stars as Don Jon, nicknamed by his pals for the legendary libertine Don Juan, though Jon is more of a Lothario – a self-gratifying seducer of women – than a lover. We are first introduced to this thickly, accented Jersey boy spending his nights at clubs with his buddies, arguing and rating one woman after another’s physical attributes from 1-10 or the rare “dime” which is the top-of-the-line.

Joseph Gordon Levitt gives a complex performance as Jon who exudes a real boyish charm, which contributes to his success in the bedroom, but his body language is as rigid and taut as his phallus. The drama begins when he lays eyes on the gorgeous Scarlett Johansson who is terrific as Barbara Sugarman (aptly named,) a Jersey girl with her own dreams of “love and marriage.” A culture clash of two different realities ensues – each blinded by their own illusions, caught in the bubbles of both traditional passion and self-indulgent lust.

We learn more about both Jon and Barbara in visits to their respective families. Director Gordon Levitt in a nod to Woody Allen’s ANNIE HALL contrasts Barbara’s more genteel household with Jon’s clich├ęd working class parents, (Tony Danza and an excellent Glenne Headly) seated at a dinner of pasta, the males attired in whiter-than-white tee-shirts, engaging in strident dinner arguments interspersed with screams at the TV, as the football game is blasting in the background, and his silent sister (the wonderful Brie Larson) soaking it all in, while her eyes are glued to the ever-present smartphone.

The movie is structured in such a way that we are given vital information about Jon and his struggle with addiction to pornography through the repetition of scenes involving the Catholic Church confessional, a gym and the computer – the source of intense passion and satisfaction as evident by the accumulation of “used” tissues that are tossed into the garbage bin.  Confusion and a lack of self-examination (other than the physical) contributes to Jon’s attempts to be just as gratified by a flesh and blood partner, as he is by his interactions with the Internet on x-rated sites.

The catalyst for change is the older, beautiful Esther played by Julianne Moore in a lovely performance, as a vulnerable, fragile classmate of Jon’s in the night school they are both reluctantly attending. She befriends him and DON JON, the comedy, slowly becomes a more perceptive and deeper view of what acceptance and reciprocity can be in a relationship. There is a tragic edge to this film that asks the question - How can we take off our rose-colored glasses and eventually connect and “see” one another stripped of our constraints? The answer is simple but difficult to accomplish. This movie makes an attempt though it just skims the surface.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


A strangely disturbing, plot twisting, chilling film with a religious/moral subtext, PRISONERS from director Denis Villeneuve, deals with the kidnapping of two young friends whose families are celebrating Thanksgiving together. How the authorities and their parents respond to this horrific event is at the core of this film exploring the biblical phrase “an eye for an eye”, the nature of sin, and its roots in life’s tragic adversities. What lengths can one go in the pursuit of justice without the malignancy of hate corrupting our very being?

Passages from the bible are invoked in the first scene where we come upon a vulnerable deer silently moving through the wet, beautifully lit trees - and then the camera focuses on the barrel of a rifle and BANG – this innocent creature falls to its knees. The tone and mood of PRISONERS is thus established and reiterated by a voiceover verse from the bible. Father and son are the hunters and Hugh Jackman as Keller Dover the tightly wound “survivalist” parent, gives an intense if not frenetic performance of a man who will stop at nothing to keep his family safe even if it means seeking vigilante justice. His wife Grace (Maria Bello,) seems to need sheltering, as she conveys a somnambulistic helplessness in the face of this tragedy.

In contrast the other couple, whose child is also missing, despair and grieve deeply, but keep their moral center intact - or at least attempt to. Terrence Howard as Franklin Birch is an actor whose portrayal of an anguished father is more emotive in his understated, quiet, velvety manner than his histrionic bullying male counterpart. Viola Davis as his wife, Nancy Birch, is the voice of quiet reason, but she too is compromised by the need to seek retribution for the disappearance of her adored daughter. The unknowable can be a force for ethical transgression when one is confronted by drastic circumstances.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki, is the embodiment of the legal system - a twitching (is this part of his character or the actor’s own affliction?) officer of the law with a 100% clearance rate on his arrest record; so we the spectators put our faith in him to unravel the many clues and suspects that arise, creating a deep climate of suspense. Gyllenhaal’s characterization, though adequate, was not “inspired” which could be due to the many plot zigzags as well as contortions of basic legal procedures that were distracting, and took me out of the small-town Pennsylvania environment back into my own dubious head.

Paul Dano plays the prime culprit, Alex Jones – a young man with disabilities who is both sympathetic and repellent and living with his “aunt” the wonderful actress Melissa Leo. He is mentally “a child” and one that becomes the symbol of an infantile captive who is the victim of perverted rage and vengeance. Yet we are left hanging as new stratagems keep turning up leaving the audience exhausted.

PRISONERS not only refers to those who are physically held hostage, jailed, or restricted against their will, but those who are moving about freely yet are psychologically subjugated by fanatical demons that erupt when the stress of an event collides with their inherent emotional being. Despite the beauty of the cinematography that delicately defined the melancholy spirit of this brokenhearted world, the movie could not overcome the tendency to engorge itself in melodramatic horror, and that is its fatal flaw.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

SHORT TERM 12 9/11/13

Years ago, I visited a family member – one that I cared about deeply - who was temporarily confined to an adult group home for psychological treatment; the memory of that confinement made me all-the-more curious to see the film, SHORT TERM 12, written and directed by Destin Cretton, focusing on a facility for “at-risk” youth named Short Term 12 . The plot counterpoints the communication challenges amongst the charges in this community, with the personal obstacles that arise in the relationship between the two supervising young adults - Grace (beautifully played by Brie Larson) and Mason (a sympathetic, too-good-to-be-true John Gallagher Jr.) - who have the responsibility of keeping a group of desperately troubled teens, under 18 years of age from sinking further into the abyss, which is always waiting to detach them from the pain of surviving in a slippery world. The Director ricochets back and forth from the Short Term 12 agency to the intimacy of Grace and Mason’s living quarters, and in the process revealing the couple’s private histories and tragic familial affiliations.

The movie spotlights 4 of the individuals who are restricted to the Short Term 12 Center for treatment. All the youngsters are a mixture of the innocence of breached childhood trust, resulting in severely damaged personas. The roots of their problems come from abuse and loss of the gravity that keeps us anchored to a steady, knowable world. Grace, because of personal experience can relate to those in her care, and she does so with a lovely “grace” and demeanor that belies her own unwillingness to confront the anguish she is grappling with.

SHORT TERM 12 is filled with occurrences that I doubt could ever happen in such a facility; where the caretaker and those being supervised merge beyond the traditional boundaries of treatment. But this is a movie and we the audience can “suspend belief,” if only for 96 minutes. A particularly appealing Michael Stanfield plays Marcus – a man who will be discharged because he is turning 18 and his performance is both sensitive and empathetic, though the character’s actions are alas predictable. The more complex Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever,) a new “intake” becomes the catalyst and pivotal turning point upending the lives of many of the residents as well as the staff, resulting in some crucial resolutions to difficult questions.

I was very aware of the use of cinematography as a predictor of mood change. The blinding white glare of the sun on the exterior of the Short Term 12 building contradicted the hue and cry of the lives battling to be free of their inner “specters.”  The movie was also structured circuitously so that the beginning and end used similar narrative and visual devices completing a cycle of never ending repetition, or perhaps continuous beginnings.

SHORT TERM 12 could have been titled “All You Need is Love”; the belief that the love of one’s fellow man/woman harvests a solution to deep-rooted conflict. Yes there is truth to that hypothesis – seeds are strewn, but simple cathartic instances rarely cure complex conditions. Insight develops with time. This film is idealistic, with some delicate performances punctuated with hopeful moments showing that “creativity” – art, and music are central to one’s development of self-respect and worth. BUT I was frustrated by the opposite of what many critics loved about this movie – its supposed authenticity… I thought it was not authentic enough.