Review: Don Jon

So, I don’t really generally subscribe to romantic comedies. There are exceptions to every rule, of course and some manage to charm their way into my cold cold heart, but generally, they don’t do it for me. It’s a genre that I have always found to be rather lazy, giving you broad, unrealistic characters who can only described as douchebags, but because they are played by Julia Roberts and, more frequently, Katherine Heigl, audiences respond and side with them anyway, even though they are often total assholes. These flicks can be fun and occasionally light entertainment, but in general, they really don’t appeal to me.

Don Jon is one of the exceptions to the rule, and a big chunk of that is what writer/director/star Joseph Gordon-Levitt does in the story to subvert the genre.
Don Jon is the story of Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a typical Jersey boy straight out of a reality show who clubs every weekend, rates the women he sees, and continues his fuck streak by taking home the most attractive specimen he can find. He also attends weekly Mass with his family, where he confesses all of his misdeeds to the patient priest and dutifully prays his rosaries as penance. Rinse, repeat. Also, there is his MASSIVE porn hobby. You might even call it an addiction. Through voice-overs (which could have come across as irritating, but, thanks to Gordon-Levitt’s delivery, were always sort of charming) he explains the allure. Sex is just never as good in real life as it is in porn. Even with the profane number of women he has taken to bed, nothing can measure up to the way he loses himself in a porn video, and no women physically compare to the idea set up in that world.

Until he meets HER. While out at a club one evening, he spies the lovely Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) – a 10, on the bro scale. The two start dating, and while the sex predictably isn’t living up to his expectations, he still finds himself falling head over heels for this girl. They find themselves trying to navigate the early stages of their relationship while both bringing their respective baggage to the table – Jon with his porn and his inability to derive pleasure and a personal connection from a real sexual relationship, and Barbara, with her penchant for love stories and her Princess complex – the belief that true love means that you are more than willing (and happy) to change yourself for your partner (specifically, the man doing the changing for his beautiful Lady).

The thing that Gordon-Levitt tried to do here (and mostly succeeded) was to examine just how ill-equipped we are to deal with real, actual relationships. Whatever the medium (for Jon, porn; for Barbara, Hollywood romances), our expectations for love and relationships have been influenced from an early age to be something nigh-on impossible. Heights that we cannot possibly (and probably should not) expect a partner to live up to, and yet, The Jenna Jamesons and the Richard Geres are the templates for our romantic partners.

After being caught porning one night, Jon realizes the negative impact that his hobby can have on a relationship, and takes pains to hide it. It is only after a conversation with a classmate (Julianne Moore), that Jon really begins to look at where the obsession comes from and how it impacts him, both personally and as a partner.

Don Jon is at once an indictment of traditional rom-coms, and a subversion of them at the same time. I can see this same story told more traditionally. Girl Meets Boy. Girl and Boy fall in Love. Girl discovers boy has a big thing for porno. Hilarity ensues as this fixation finds new and scrappy ways of presenting itself in their relationship. One day, it finally hits the breaking point, and girl says that boy must stop. Boy agrees, but totally lies. Girl says she just can’t be with him anymore, because he lied to her. Girl leaves. Boy shows up a few months later, newly out of porn rehab, saying she is the most important thing in his life and he wanted to prove that he could really go the distance for her. Girl and boy make up and live happily ever after. The end.  (that’s not how it ends, by the way. Gordon-Levitt wrote us and ending that is actually worth watching). Here, we get to see how both individuals are caught up in their own bullshit and how that bullshit colors their outlook on their relationships.

The cast is great though, and they are clearly all enjoying these roles. Gordon-Levitt and Johansson have a great chemistry together. Tony Danza and Glenne Headly as Jon’s parents are a great match, with Danza in particular scoring some great moments. Brie Larson, as Jon’s sister, though she has precious few lines, is a great presence in the story, serving a something of an audience surrogate as she constantly notices the same issues that the viewer is picking up on, yet which the other characters seem oblivious to.

For a freshman effort, Don Jon is a solid film. There were a couple of times the plot events and pacing sort of collided, but it recovered. If anything, I think I would have liked to have seen the story told with a little more of Barbara’s perspective thrown into the mix. I think it could have been beneficial to get a closer view of where she was coming from and to have seen her a bit more well-rounded. It’s tempting to see her as just a poorly-written female character, but I think it’s important to note that neither of our leads was particularly likable, for the majority of the film. Sure, Jon is charming, in his own way, but he’s also kind of a tool for the majority of the story. You’re siding with him because he’s clearly our protagonist, and you like him well-enough but he doesn’t really become our hero until act 3 hits and he begins to gain some perspective on his life and relationships.

Don Jon is an entertaining film that examines a lot of different issues (some more than others), including intimacy, trust, relationships, our society’s constant and ongoing objectification of women, expectations and connections. Gordon-Levitt brought a lot of ideas to this film, and while the 90 minute runtime didn’t give him ample opportunity to completely explore them all, there is a lot of room for contemplation and discussion upon leaving the theater (which is more than I can say for most rom-coms).

Review: Insidious: Chapter 2 – Messy, but Still Fun

Insidious: Chapter 2 is fun and interesting, but doesn’t manage to avoid the typical pitfalls of horror sequels. While it does some interesting things to expand its universe and mythology, it often gets a little too caught up in these expansive elements and is unable to tell a clear and convincing story.

Insidious: Chapter 2 picks up right where the first film left off, with Renai (Rose Byrne) discovering Elise (Lin Shaye) sitting dead in the chair in the family’s living room. From there, the story moves on to the Lambert family moving in with Josh’s mother, Lorraine (again played by Barbara Hershey) while the police get everything sorted out back at their house. The don’t even really get much of a reprieve from the events that have plagued them for the past few weeks, as strange phenomena immediately pick up the night they move in – ghostly apparitions, phantom piano playing and, of course, an terrifying (and rather obnoxious) kid’s toy. Plus, there’s the fact that Josh (Patrick Wilson) just hasn’t been acting like himself since his recent voyage into The Further.

The crux of Chapter 2 is to dig deeper into Josh’s past in order to release him from whatever currently has a hold on him, and to free the family once and for all. So the story splits and takes a two-pronged approach: watching Josh acting creepy and weird (and DAMN, can Patrick Wilson be unnerving and intimidating), and hanging out with Lorraine and the two remaining paranormal investigators from the first film (Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson) while they work to uncover more about Josh’s history with otherworldly entities.

The film is fun enough, but it does suffer from a common problem among horror sequels. You make the first film based off of a simple concept, and have this huge, wide world to play around in. A lot of what the audience sees doesn’t really serve much of a purpose beyond being scary (which is perfectly fine – fun, in fact). There is no larger web holding everything together, and that is as it should be. But then you go about making a sequel, and suddenly our open world becomes smaller as a cool story becomes a mythology. Elements that were simply cool stage dressing in the first film now become dots that have to be connected together in order to support the story’s growing mythos. And the story begins collapsing under its own weight.

And while the Chapter 2 can hardly be considered a failure or a waste (at all – I had fun watching it), it does feel a bit unnecessary. But, such is the way of horror sequels. It’s a problem that can be difficult to escape. And Leigh Whannell and James Wan do their best to circumvent the issue by finding rather clever ways to tie this continuation back into the first film, it still manages to feel a bit bloated. The story doesn’t always evolve terribly smoothly, some of the plot points feel rather messy and shoehorned in, and they rely a little too heavily on incorporating footage from the first film (they were actually dancing dangerously close to pissing me off, on this front), but it was still a pretty fun experience.

Wan’s tactile visual style was once again on full display, the mysterious, unknown of The Further set the scene nicely and more than once, I found myself tensing up waiting for the inevitable jolt as one of the scary-ass ghosts got too close to the camera (and to me) for comfort. Like many sequels, it delivers what you want and gives you an enjoyable experience, but is unable to do so elegantly. But again, that’s fine. It’s an expected result in the genre, and it doesn’t always mean that the audience won’t have a good time. I certainly still did, and would definitely recommend the film to fans of the first one.

Review: Short Term 12 is a Piece of Subtly-Crafted Brilliance

Every now and then, a small, unassuming film comes along and blows past all of your expectations, delivering so much more than you imagine it could. Short Term 12 is just such an experience. It takes a pretty simple story and bulks it up with an extremely talented cast and direction that pulls out all of the most perfect moments in their performances and highlights them for all to see.

Written and directed by Destin Cretton, Short Term 12 is the story of a short-term foster care facility for at-risk youth, the kids who inhabit it, and its staff. Leading the group are Grace (Brie Larson) and her co-worker/boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.).They are supported by a couple of other staff members, one of whom is a noob, looking to broaden his horizons and gain some “real world” experiences by working with underprivileged kids. He is a combination of an audience surrogate and a foil used to show us exactly what Grace and Mason aren’t.

They are not trying to save the world. They are not trying to make their mark. They are simply trying to help in any way that they can, and to do their jobs the best way they know how. Not with fancy degrees, techniques or theories. But simply by being there, listening, and connecting with these kids. That’s what really makes the difference here. And yes, the therapy the kids are getting during their stay at the facility is invaluable, but the work that this staff does just by being a constant presence in these kids’ lives is given equal (if not more) weight. Grace and Mason try simply to make each day in these kids’ lives a little better than the last. With some days being successful, and others not so much. But they do their best, and they get by.

Rounding out this cast of characters are, of course, the kids inhabiting the facility. At the forefront are Marcus (Keith Stanfield), about to turn 18 and phase out of the system (and struggling with all that this encompasses), and new arrival, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever). Aloof and disinterested in interacting with anyone, she begins to challenge Grace in a new way. You get the idea early on that Grace has her own demons buried deep below the surface. Jayden’s arrival and her story cause Grace to step back and examine holder own life in ways she has never had to. She begins to face her own past and experiences and to face the fear that comes with doing so.

The portrayal of the kids is one of the ways the film really shines. We get to see all of the problems and issues that they are struggling with, but more through the eyes of the staff. And because Mason and Grace have slogged through their own rivers of shit in their own lives, they are able to see and understand the kids in a unique way. Additionally, the script and the incredibly elegant performances that these young actors turn in allow for a very realistic, non-cheesy portrayal of their problems. This never once feels like an after-school special. Nothing is driven into the ground or hit too-spot on. You get a full understanding of what these characters are dealing with, without ever being given a lecture or feeling as though the script is reading the DSM aloud.

Brie Larson gives a truly stunning performance as Grace. So many subtle moments go into crafting this character and making her as multidimensional as possible. From her relationships with the various kids in care,  to her relationships and interactions with her co-workers to the private moments we spend with her by herself, getting a glimpse of what is going on in her head, but like Mason, clueless as to the full complexity of what lies within. We get to see how the presence of Jayden affects her – through subtle behaviors, through small bits of dialogue, through quiet moments. We get to see the past that Grace has been bottling up and hiding away slowly being pulled to the surface as she prepares to confront and truly deal with it for the first time.

Cretton managed to create some amazingly intimate moments in this story – moments that gave us so much insight into the plot as well into the minds and hearts of the characters themselves. This technique is only amplified by the incredible performances that these actors give us. There are  a couple of moments with Marcus and with Jayden that had me utterly mesmerized. The camera gets almost uncomfortably close as they dare to open themselves up for a brief moment, giving us a fleeting glimpse at what lies beneath their layers of armor, and yet we still feel distanced from them and know they can never truly let us in. They are able to convey so much about these characters while simultaneously holding so much inside. It’s amazing.

If you get the opportunity to see Short Term 12, I really can’t recommend it enough. It takes a familiar story and manages to give it more complexity and legitimate heart than the Hallmark movie you might expect it to be. It’s really a story about what it takes to connect with another human being and just how important that connection can be – from both sides. This film is one of the best we’ve had this year, and every single thing about it is just perfect. It’s rare that a piece of cinema comes together as flawlessly as this, and that fact alone is something to celebrate.

Review: Europa Report is Smart Science Fiction

We live in a very exciting time. Last year, the Mars Rover landed and started exploring a planet we have been dreaming about for decades. Multiple private ventures have launched programs dedicated to exploring past the borders of our planet, from potential colonies on Mars to asteroid mining, to whatever lies beyond. As space travel moves beyond the bounds of government entities and into the private sector, our dreams of exploration are closer than ever before.

And the events of Europa Report suddenly don’t seem as restricted to the realm of fiction as they would have been even five years ago. Science fiction has long been the  realm of dreams and possibilities, but now, they are closer than ever to our reality. And that point is one of the most fascinating things about Europa Report. The fact that in a few short years, crews could be setting out to travel further than mankind ever has – and who knows what could be waiting for us out there.
The plot of Europa Report is fairly simple – a team of astronauts head to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, on the theory that there may be life under the planet’s icy crust. After a technical failure results in the loss of a crew member and the ship loses communications with Earth, they continue on their journey, only to find something completely unexpected when they finally reach Europa.

The story is told found-footage style through the various cameras on board the ship, supplemented by some additional interview footage from back on Earth – not unlike what you might see on the Science Channel. But the found footage is used more elegantly here than it has in other films in recent memory. The film is shot documentary-style, but without many of the typical embellishments. We see the crew going about their business, and we see the events of the story, but everything is kept pretty trim and focused. Few unnecessary conversations, few awkward scenes meant to sloppily establish characters or convey background information but leave you wondering why the hell this is being filmed or is in the movie at all. Everything is pretty much straight to the point, with little unnecessary bloat. And yet, it never feels too thin. It actually goes a long way to making you feel as if you are watching actual documented footage because it’s not really constructed like a typical Hollywood story.

The thing that makes this story work so well, in fact, is its simplicity and its dedication to being grounded in fact. The great thing about this film is that writers cemented the believability of this scenario by grounding it in actual science. Science and knowledge that we have today, which not only makes the story logical and believable, but also gives it a number of realistic limitations.

When things start going wrong, the crew members don’t have all the answers. They have the information that their instruments are able to gather, and then develop hypotheses accordingly. The situation isn’t over-explained because, frankly, it doesn’t need to be. Because the mystery of the unknown is a fantastic tension-builder, so why bring it unnecessarily into the light? It doesn’t have to be overly-thought-out because the near-truth can be provide more than enough story and emotion.

These little details go a long way in establishing Europa Report as a smart, realistic piece of science fiction. It is an intelligent story told in a very grounded and convincing manner, yet still able to play up the tension (very well, I might add) at appropriate moments. It’s a great example of just how good low-budget genre films can be. It is currently in theaters and available on various VOD platforms, and I highly recommend you check it out.