September 27, 2013

Don Jon

The people sitting next to my friend and me walked out of Don Jon about thirty minutes into the movie. And why shouldn't they? Don Jon is about a self-absorbed d-bag from New Jerey (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who's a master of hooking up with women, but who admittedly prefers porn to actual physical contact. He and his buddies rate the girls at the club on a scale of one to ten, and when they spot Scarlet Johansson at the bar, all of them agree she's a "dime." Scarlet plays Barbara Sugarman (the name conjures up all kinds of licentious possibilities), a somewhat pampered girl who knows what she wants and how she can manipulate guys into giving it to her. She and Jon eventually become a couple, but he can't stop looking at porn, and when Barbara finds it on his computer, she's disgusted and breaks up with him.

If you're easily offended by crude language or nudity, Don Jon isn't your movie. As Jon describes his daily habit of trolling the internet for new XXX videos, we're met with a constant montage of images of girls from the web (most of the time just their faces, but sometimes more), and it's admittedly uncomfortable to see in a movie theater. (Porn isn't glamorous, and it isn't dignified. There's something shameful about seeing it even under these conditions.)

But Don Jon isn't about titillating the viewer. We're in the head of a guy who has become so detached from reality that he can't "lose himself" with another human being anymore. He has to go to porn. (The movie also makes some coy observations about women losing themselves in romantic comedies, their version of porn.) There are also some deliciously apt observations about the American family today, a family that's been beat into submissive silence by the booming television and the cell phones. (Jon's sister barely utters a word in any scene she's in: she's always texting, and his father has positioned his seat at the dinner table so he can watch football while he eats.)

There's something very unique about the character of Don Jon, and something very typical at the same time. I think he represents the current young American male: aggressively macho, high on his own sent, and too distracted and too hooked--whatever the drug of choice--to know how much he desperately wants real human interaction. The scenes of Jon at confession--being assigned a certain number of Hail Marys and Lord's Prayers depending on the number of times he's given into temptation--manage to be both hilariously and heartbreakingly believable.

In the end, it comes down to that same old story: boy meets girl, boy can't stop looking at porn, girl breaks up with boy, Julianne Moore sleeps with boy so he can find salvation. I do love Julianne Moore, but I feel that she has been doing this kind of thing for quite a long time. Moore plays a woman whom Jon meets at a night class, and with whom he learns to see more in a woman than just the degree of sexual pleasure she can afford him. She's wonderful--a voice of sanity amidst the cacophony.

It's hard to remember the last time an actor has so lost himself inside a character like this. Joseph Gordon-Levitt becomes the ultimate Guido (he also wrote and directed the film, and with a refreshing amount of imagination). It's almost miraculous that you could feel sympathy for him, since he resembles those idiots from the Jersey Shore, but you do. You really do. Gordon-Levitt has fashioned quite an impressive "romantic comedy," especially because it so honestly hits at some of the nerves being ignored almost everywhere else. With Tony Danza, Glenne Headley, Brie Larson, Rob Brown, and Jeremy Luke. Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum have cameos as the actors in the romantic comedy that Jon and Barbara watch.

September 26, 2013

One Is A Lonely Number

If The Mary Tyler Moore Show had been adapted into a dramatic film, One Is A Lonely Number (1972) is what it might have turned into. It opens with a man walking out on his wife of four years with virtually no reason given, and then follows her journey into self-reliance and acceptance. Her name is Amy, and she's never had to live without a man. She fights off the grubby advances of a sleazy employment agent, gets a job as a lifeguard, befriends a four-time divorcee (Janet Leigh) who's now the head of a club for divorced women who want to get even with their ex-husbands, and forges a sort of father-daughter relationship with an elderly produce man (Melvyn Douglas).

This film is a good example of the many episodic, slightly whimsical dramas to come out of the early 1970s. The director, Mel Stuart (best known for helming Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) manages to keep Amy from being too pathetic, but she has her moments, especially when she breaks down at a production of Shakespeare, crying on the shoulder of the wise old grocer who tells her to "cry until she's finished crying and then learn to live again." It's a noble, obvious women's picture, bolstered by Amy's eventual pluckiness. And the moral of the story isn't something completely silly like, "just wait and you'll find the right man." (When the "right man" does come along--a suave art aficionado played by Monte Markham--he turns out to be married.) Instead, Amy learns to forge a life for herself, and we're left with a cliched but encouraging image of her diving into a swimming pool, frozen in the air so she resembles a bird finally taking flight.

One Is A Lonely Number is certainly dated, but that's part of its charm. It has an enjoyable time-capsule quality to it, and it's refreshing that the film never pretends to be anything other than the story of a woman learning to live on her own. If you can accept the movie on those terms, you'll likely enjoy it.

As for the lead actress, Trish Van Devere, this was her star vehicle. Van Devere's film career was mostly eclipsed by her more famous husband, George C. Scott (with whom she starred opposite many times). But here she's quite good, though miscast. Trish Van Devere almost always is miscast. She's a capable actress who has the makings of an ice queen or a sexy New England boarding school headmistress. But it's hard to believe she could ever be from San Francisco (where this movie is set). (Indeed, Van Devere hails from New Jersey, and she exudes that proper, almost English dignity that makes her always appear to be acting. You can hardly picture Van Devere allowing a man to treat her so badly in real life.) But when she's smiling and cutting up her acting loosens up.

It doesn't help that the dialogue (the script is by David Seltzer from a Rebecca Morris story) feels stilted and stagey, too much like writing. But, as it is, I enjoyed One Is A Lonely Number. (It comes on Turner Classic Movies every once in a while. Since it's never been available on DVD, this is the only way to see it currently.) With Jane Elliot. 97 min.

September 18, 2013

Dead Ringers

Jeremy Irons' performance as twin doctors Beverly and Elliott is certainly the best thing about Dead Ringers (1988), a sordid psychological melodrama from David Cronenberg about the ambiguous boundaries of the self and the shared experience of twins whose relationship is more than a little unusual and decidedly creepy. Beverly and Elliott were interested in bodies as children, and as men they've become a pair of imminent gynecologists who have their own practice. All the trouble begins--or shall we say is exposed--when Beverly falls in love with a patient, a flaky actress (Genevieve Bujold) who at first seems like the unstable one in the relationship. But her presence exposes the strange hold the brothers have over each other, and from there Dead Ringers just gets stranger and stranger.

Twins have always been an irresistible topic of interest for directors of the macabre. They fascinated De Palma in his kooky horror film Sisters, and Hitchcock played around with them some, or at least with the idea of the Double (particularly in Vertigo). Where Hitchcock tended to explore the Double on a Freudian level and De Palma for the mere shock value, Cronenberg goes for a more internalized approach: he wants to understand his own fascination with the kind of splintered identities that horror movie twins always occupy. But he doesn't move this worn out genre staple in any new directions. He merely opens them up for a kind of cinematic dissection.

To a degree, the film is successful in its morbid quest. Cronenberg is nothing if not consistent. But it's a depressing experience, from the taciturn actors to the drab yuppie-ish set design to the absolutely humorless script. There's nothing remotely enjoyable about it, unless that clinical Cronenberg look and feel is your idea of a good time. With Heidi von Palleske, Barbara Gordon, Shirley Douglas, and Stephen Lack. 115 min.

September 15, 2013

The Last Days of Disco

The Last Days of Disco (1998) is such a strange movie, a movie about how the night can take on a life of its own, and how that which is sexy at twelve midnight is pretty pathetic at twelve noon.  It has writer-director Whit Stillman's signature mock-intellectual dialogue (which served him so well in Metropolitan), and a terrific soundtrack (provided you like disco music), as well as one of the best long party scenes I've ever seen, taking up the first half hour of the movie and imbibing it with a kind of fluid magic.

The characters might as well be carbon copies of those in Metropolitan. One of the actors from that movie, Chris Eigeman, even plays a thinly-veiled variation on his character from that film, and newcomers Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale could be the two main girls from it, except with different hairdos. Sevigny is understated and smart but critical, and Beckinsale embodies a kind of cattiness as her observant and opinionated friend/roommate. Together they inhabit a New York nightclub and it becomes a sort of stage to enact the drama of yuppie romance and friendship.

I liked Last Days for the same reason I loved Metropolitan: The conversations, as in Metropolitan, were generally interesting, and so other-worldly in their quasi-Victorian-ness that they left me somewhat dumbfounded and fascinated. But there was also something a bit false about Last Days of Disco. The dialogue always seems to be teetering between refreshing and ridiculous. It is rather nice to hear people talking in complete sentences and using correct grammar, but when the owner of a nightclub comments on someone's wrong usage of the past perfect tense, something feels disingenuous.

Then again, director Stillman often seems like he's toying with his characters' intelligence in the first place. He lets them get puffed up on their own sophisticatedness and then watches them become caricatures, although he doesn't completely dehumanize them. It's a lot more subtle that that. They're somewhere between soap opera and sitcom, book smart and street smart, bold and terrified. And all of these contradictions are masked by a veneer of success and confidence that we the audience can generally see through. 

The real problem with Last Days is that everything about the film feels too familiar, as if Stillman were simply unable to do anything but recycle old ideas. I think it's very likely he wanted to explore the same ideas in a slightly different context. He's too interested in these types of people--educated, privileged upper-class sophisticates--not to use them in his films. This at least makes them interesting for us, up to a point, but their intelligence often morphs into myopia, and this turns them into shallow, unappealing characters toward the end of the film.

And then of course, the fact that at some point this film is acknowledging a kind of reverence for the disco era is laughable, especially at the end when passengers on the subway begin dancing to "Love Train." Was that really such a great way to end a movie that's so self-consciously clever? It's difficult to know if the film is trying to be hip, ironic, or subversive. I think perhaps it's a combination of all three. The cast includes a lot of promising young actors including Mackenzie Astin, Matt Keeslar, Robert Sean Leonard, Jennifer Beals, Matt Ross, Tara Subkoff, and David Thornton. 114 min. ½

September 13, 2013

Friday the 13th Part 2

Because Friday the 13th (1980) was such a huge hit, more teenagers had to die in Part II (1981), which picks up a few years later, when another group of camp counselors is butchered one by one at the now infamous Crystal Lake. As with the original, the idea here is body count, and the uninteresting characters are dispatched in the usual ways. The writers even manage to steal the famous double impaling scene from Mario Bava's A Bay of Blood. But this is the kind of pedestrian thriller that makes you yearn for something a little more sophisticated, a little more clever, and a little more fun. However, it's a wonderful movie to heckle with a group of friends. Directed by Steve Miner. With Amy Steel, John Furey, Warrington Gillette, Betsy Palmer, and Adrienne King. ½

September 08, 2013

Raiders of the Lost Ark

The template for all the big, overlong adventure films of the past quarter-century, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) still looks impressive, but it's a slightly overrated piece of pop, the product of H. Rider Haggard-inspired boyhood fantasies. It's from a story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, and a screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan. As Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford, the modern-day Allan Quatermain, is an admittedly perfect casting choice: he's the right mixture of intellectual, heel, and romantic, driven by his singular fascination for the Ark of the Covenant. Karen Allen, as his girl Friday, Marion, is one of the spunkier heroines in American adventure films. She's right up there with Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley in her ability to hold her own, and that's a breath of fresh air. (Apparently she had to fight director Steven Spielberg on this; he must have chosen Kate Capshaw for Temple of Doom because he knew she wasn't above screaming and whining for the entire film.)

The creators of this behemoth once again show their inability to restrain themselves, pulling in everything from the Ark of the Covenant to the ancient Egyptians to the Nazis: it's set in 1936, when Hitler was allegedly doing research on the occult, among other things. Thus, Indiana Jones becomes involved in one of those dreary races against time, fighting Nazism, venomous snakes, giant, fast-moving boulders, skilled Egyptian sheiks, and any other potential obstacle that can be put in his way. The film is best when it lets a little levity into the mix, but it's such a busy production that Spielberg and company barely have time for such trivial things as humor.

Ultimately Raiders of the Lost Ark doesn't capture as much of the exotic charm and fascination of Egyptian culture (much of it takes place in Cairo) as it would like, despite good set design and production values. It's too much of a pastiche of other films, mixing some Humphrey Bogart vehicles (The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca come to mind) with King Solomon's Mines. As overblown movies go, Raiders isn't offensive (despite John Williams' overbearing music score, which announces triumph at the drop of a hat); but the fact that its success (along with Jaws and Star Wars) has made modern movies what they are--too big, too long, and too cookie-cutter--is quite offensive indeed. Raiders still manages to be entertaining, with noteworthy scenes including the chase scene in Cairo and a descent into a snake-infested tomb. With Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott, Wolf Kahler, and Alfred Molina. ½