Don Jon (2013)

There are a lot of serious issues to confront when dealing with modern Western society, and the way that women are pervasively sexualised in advertising and on the internet is certainly one of them, so it’s to director/writer Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s credit that he tries to tackle this thorny issue in Don Jon. Unfortunately it flirts rather too much with being an earnest social problem film and as such is let down by overreaching in its final third, but these are flaws that point to Gordon-Levitt’s good intentions and I can only hope that with future films his writing will gain greater subtlety of expression.

As it is, the title character of ‘Don’ Jon (played by Gordon-Levitt), a young Italian-American man who is addicted to internet p0rnography, is put across rather programmatically. Perhaps befitting the character’s Catholic upbringing, his life is dominated by rituals — the film itself uses repeated shots to good effect, a sort of Groundhog Day-like tracking of changes via small deviations to the repetition. Jon is shown to be obsessed with his body image, with cleanliness in his home, and with keeping up his social obligations both to his family and to the Church. The self-regard he has for his own body is accompanied by a corrosively nasty attitude towards women he meets in the club, the primary place of bonding with his (male) friends, where each woman they see is rated and their bodies judged mercilessly. The point is, of course, that this attitude derives from the way women are depicted in the media, and not just p0rnography: we see Jon (and his father) paying particular attention to a heavily suggestive TV ad at his family’s dinner table, and lurid magazine covers (even ones aimed at women) show up in a supermarket aisle.

Aside from Jon’s (perhaps purposely) thin character, filled with rage and narcissism, one of the film’s chief problems for me is the treatment of his family, an hysterically overacted caricature of Italian-American family life, lacking only any implication of mafia connections. Jon’s father and mother (Tony Danza and Glenne Headly) get in regular screaming matches, quietening down only for their Sunday church visit, while Jon’s sister is glued to her smartphone and doesn’t say a word for the entire film, before at length revealing herself to be rather sensitive to his (and the film’s) issues. Still, Scarlett Johansson typically does very well with her similarly underwritten part as Barbara, a potential girlfriend for Jon (he having until this point sociopathically avoided any kind of relationship commitments in favour of one-night stands and, obviously, the lure of internet p0rnography). She brings a hard edge to her stereotypical Jersey girl, and the film makes a lot of play comparing her own untenable ideas about romance (as illustrated by a hilarious parody of a romcom starring Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway) with Jon’s equally skewed fantasies derived from p0rn.

It’s in the last third, when Julianne Moore enters the plot as an older woman taking the same evening business course as Jon, where credibility is particularly stretched. She has experienced some trauma in her home life and is thereby able to find an emotional bond with the younger man, which she turns into a healing process for his noxious attitudes. In the film this is largely expressed through his slightly altered hairstyle and more relaxed demeanour, suggesting a neat progression into responsible adulthood for his character where the emotionally-frayed and societally-pervasive subject matter doesn’t admit of any such easy conclusions.

I certainly didn’t hate this film by any means, even if its characters pushed the bounds of stereotype. The filmmaking, for a start, is laconically unflashy with its repeated motifs and shots, and moves along at a fair clip. Meanwhile, the actors have a good time with their thinly-sketched characters. Gordon-Levitt has shown brilliant sensitivity in many of his acting roles (for example, in Inception, Looper and Mysterious Skin, amongst many others), and still at a relatively young age. If this is a calling card for his behind-the-scenes skills, then it’s a promising start, and suggests better things to come.

Don Jon film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Joseph Gordon-Levitt; Cinematographer Thomas Kloss; Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 17 November 2013.

Looper (2012)

Rian Johnson’s debut Brick (2005), also starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, was a nice little story set at a high school, an original script but filtering it through all kinds of cinematic influences, not least noir movies. This film too is written by director Johnson but filtered through even more influences. It has a grandiose affect and purports to deal with the fate of humanity’s future, but at heart it’s a character-based drama, and is all rather goofily perplexing.

The film’s gimmick is that two of the actors (Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis) are nominally playing the same character, Joe, at different ages. However, thanks to alternate timelines, they are effectively different people, althougn the older Joe has the memories of the younger, and is physically affected by events that happen to his younger self. Confusingly, old Joe isn’t affected until they happen in younger Joe’s (past) time, but the film doesn’t spend too much time dwelling on the paradoxes of time travel. In fact older Joe basically tells his younger self to stop thinking about it — which is probably just as well, because as ever a few moments’ thought renders it all rather silly.

This leaves the narrative with Gordon-Levitt’s impersonation of Willis (padded out by some prosthetics, so I gather, although to me he comes across more as Daniel Craig than Willis), all taut whispers and explosive action, as well as the interactions between these two characters and Emily Blunt as impoverished farmer Sara. Her involvement comes around halfway through, as she is possibly the mother of a future crimelord who has killed older Joe’s wife, and prompts some handwringing for the protagonist about the way future events have been affected by both Sara’s unconscious choices and by those made by himself.

Ultimately all the issues raised within the story seem subordinate to the film’s sense of style. A Blade Runner-like future dystopia gets the hardboiled noir voiceover treatment, with some comic book gangsterism that resembles nothing so much as Back to the Future (1985) and its sequels. Willis’s involvement triggers memories of 12 Monkeys (1995), in turn recalling La Jetée (1962), present here in the flashbacks to old Joe’s home life and wife. However, this is just to touch on the influences: they pervade the film from start to end.

I imagine all this will be pleasing to many viewers but it gets a bit wearying to this one. However, I did enjoy the film, and it has plenty of forward momentum which carries it through to a surprising denouement. Certainly worth a watch, but take its advice on not thinking too hard about the time travel.

Looper film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rian Johnson; Cinematographer Steve Yedlin; Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), Friday 9 August 2013.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

This series is inspired by the Movie Lottery blog, whose author is picking DVD titles from a hat in order to decide which films to watch. I’ve selected another one from the hat to watch and present my review below.

FILM REVIEW: Movie Lottery 5 || Director Gil Junger | Writers Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith | Cinematographer Mark Irwin | Starring Julia Stiles, Heath Ledger, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Krumholtz, Allison Janney | Length 93 minutes | Seen at Manners Mall, Wellington, Sunday 6 June 1999 (and at home on DVD on numerous occasions, most recently Sunday 9 June 2013) || My Rating 3.5 stars very good

© Buena Vista Pictures

Unlike the previous films I’ve picked from a hat as part of my ‘Movie Lottery’ series, this is one I know pretty well, I think. I’ve watched it many times over the years, and have always enjoyed it, specifically for its likeable ensemble of young actors near the beginnings of their respective film careers. Thinking about it again with the aim of writing a review, I find myself perhaps a little more aware of where its strengths and weaknesses lie. The style, such as it is, leans heavily on the sounds and fashions of the 1990s, and in the end it really does depend on those acting performances, alongside the sparky script, which draws heavily from its trend-setting antecedent Clueless (1995), though here the teen translation is of Shakespeare (where that film took on Jane Austen).

The particular Shakespeare play in question, The Taming of the Shrew, is not one of his best and furnishes a rather silly plot, which the screenwriters have gamely followed through with. Newly arrived at Padua High School, Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) becomes infatuated with the coquettish Bianca (Larisa Oleynik), but her father prevents her from dating unless her older sister Kat (Julia Stiles) does too. So in order to go out with Bianca, Cameron must hook up her sister, for which purpose the school bad boy Patrick Verona suits well (Heath Ledger). The premise doesn’t always make a lot of sense, but here it helps to be adapting one of the Bard’s lesser achievements, so comparisons don’t come off badly for the film.

As mentioned, though, it’s the acting of the ensemble cast that carries the day. Continue reading “10 Things I Hate About You (1999)”