Don Jon

               Sometimes movies can just be movies, and still have an impact on society. The power of film as an art form is two-fold: it can be just that, art, and create a visual and/or narrative story in an original, powerful, and complex way; but it can also be a simple piece of media that slyly comments on the society it is portraying, and indeed, the audience who is watching it.

                Joseph Gordon-Levitt has just made a film that fits that latter description. Don Jon is a simple movie that isn’t trying to be a piece of art, but it uses its cultural power over society to make an important statement. The genius of it really begins with the marketing—the trailer is upbeat, funny, and probably appealing to everyday movie-goers who aren’t necessarily interested in subversive media. But it is subversive. From the opening credits, displaying the media’s portrayal of women as sex objects, the film is rebelling against the status quo of Hollywood; it’s completely aware of itself, and certainly has an agenda. That is, Gordon-Levitt has an agenda.

                He stars in his film as Jon, or Jonny, or Don Jon—a guido guy from Jersey, who has a pretty good life, from the point of view of most Americans, especially young American males. He makes good money bartending, has a nice apartment, a cool car, gets with any girl he wants, and does the whole Sunday-church-dinner-with-family thing like a good guy. He also watches a lot of porn, but hey, who doesn’t? One night, he meets a gorgeous girl, Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), and starts a serious relationship. Everything seems great–the family loves her, he loves her, she loves him–he just has to pretend he’s quit watching porn for her. But of course, he hasn’t. He also has to take a boring night class and try to get an office job, and oddly, stop cleaning his own apartment. But it’s all for love, right?

                The film constantly comments on gender roles and relationships, from the way Jon and his guys rate girls at the club, to how Barbara and her friends talk about her amazing achievement of getting him to hold out for sex, to how Jon’s parents (Tony Danza and Glenne Headly) talk to him and ignore his sister (played by Brie Larson, who has one line). His family dynamic is an important part of illustrating how gender roles are implanted within the family, such as the machismo so evident in his dad that is then displayed in Jon’s serious road rage. Moving beyond just gender roles, the film also explores restrictive societal norms such as religion, marriage, and career.

                The portrayal of sex is a large part of the film. Get ready for lots of porn clips to be thrown at you, as well as what may be seen as overly-simplistic sex scenes, but this all has a valid point, in my mind. First of all, this movie excels in using stereotypes: the Jersey stereotype, the guido stereotype, the overbearing girlfriend, the black best friend, and also a stereotype of sex. One hopes that most adults have better sex than what Jon has in this film, but the simplistic view it takes of sex (Jon’s point of view) is, I believe, completely accurate for many young people. The bland sex scenes also comment on how used to Hollywood’s overly-sensual sex scenes we’ve become. It moves beyond the stereotype of love as well, and becomes more about making a real human connection.

                The film does wrap up perhaps too quickly and nicely. Julianne Moore’s character comes in and becomes an unlikely mentor and friend for Jon, making him aware of the real things in life (i.e. not porn). But her character makes a smooth entry into the narrative, and it is indeed possible for one’s life to change just from one person’s new viewpoint. Overall, and down to the smallest details, Gordon-Levitt has created a piece of media that uses its power in a bold and smart way. The agenda is to portray a sect of society in a culturally acceptable medium, through a simple narrative and recognizable characters. He uses these aspects to delve into what human relationships have become, and how gender roles and ideas of sex are not only portrayed in the media, but also dealt with among family members and friends in a completely skewed manner. It’s simplistic and completely unsubtle, but it’s all for a reason.

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Frances Ha

Frances Ha succeeds in being something one rarely finds these days: a smart comedy. Noah Baumbach follows up his dryly comic, somewhat sardonic previous films like The Squid and the Whale with what could be described as a modern-day Manhattan. It’s not only the unaffected black and white cinematography of the city that begs a comparison with the classic Woody Allen film, it’s also the authentic yet idealistic ode to the city that is at play, through the eyes of an odd but endlessly appealing protagonist.

Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the script with Baumbach, plays the title character with great energy and guts; she lets herself go with this confused and flighty young woman who has small and surprising moments of enlightenment along her jumbled pathway of NYC existence (probably using some of her own personal experiences and quirks). Gerwig’s breakout supporting role came in Baumbach’s Greenberg, but this is the actress’s real breakthrough—whoever sees this film will become entranced with her subtle comic talent and natural presence. She’s certainly one to watch, to say the least.

The narrative is loose; we follow Frances as she breaks up with her boyfriend rather than moving in with him, shares an apartment with a pair of single guys, strives to become a main dancer with the dance company she works for, and experiences ups and downs in her relationship with her best girlfriend. The film doesn’t rely on a strict plotline—the real charm comes in-between the important bits of storytelling, with witty dialogue, genuine interactions, and some laugh-out-loud lines. The comedy is never front and center, however, it’s a bi-product of the extremely well-written scenes surrounding Frances and her bumbling persona as she interacts with those around her whilst attending awkward dinner parties or working at her alma mater (Vassar) for a summer. Many of these in-between scenes are also clever observations of living in New York City, and they all add up to create a specific sense of place. Even when Frances flies impulsively to Paris, or goes home to California for Christmas, New York is always the backdrop of her life.

The melancholy which sometimes permeates Baumbach’s other films about everyday life is certainly present here; Frances seems upbeat and cheerful, but is quite lost in her life, and unsure of what she should be doing. But the film ultimately has a strong sense of optimism, as Frances simply keeps going, re-evaluates herself, and eventually finds joy in her life. This film may speak most strongly to all those young New Yorker women in their late twenties who can greatly identify with Frances’s tribulations, but it can instill appreciation within any viewer through the simple, yet profound and endearing, glance into someone’s existence. It is a thoroughly enjoyable misadventure.

Something in the Air

 

Something in the Air (or Apres Mai, its French title that refers to the May 1968 uprising in Paris and makes much more sense than the English title) is the new film of the gifted writer/director Olivier Assayas. In it, he portrays an apparently autobiographical story of a young man, Gilles (the somber and natural Clement Metayer) who drifts through the early 70s in France and Italy, endeavoring to be part of a revolution that may or may not be played out. At the beginning of the film he’s still in high school, but is a talented artist, and along with other schoolmates , is fighting the still corrupt government and bureaucracy of Paris: they break into the school at night and graffiti the walls, distribute underground liberal newspapers, and even blow things up. The first scene is hard-hitting and shows the brutality of the police against these youngsters. But as the film goes on, we follow Gilles as he traipses through Italy during summer vacation, falls for two enchanting but very different girls, (one of whom is played by Lola Creton, a wonderfully talented new French actress) and meets other young artists and travelers along the way. Gilles, and therefore the film, becomes less focused on revolution and begins simply exploring the society that has gone through so acute a change in the previous five years.

Assayas is presenting a moment in time, and from his own memory, which is the aftermath of that revolutionary period and struggling to be meaningful in its own right. He cleverly, or perhaps just naturally, frames everything through the eyes of a young man also in a transitional time of his life, and that feeling of being an adolescent, somewhat lost and searching for meaning and love, is reflected in the larger illustration of a generation. The gorgeous French (and Italian) countryside is shot languorously, the camera savours the golden light, the pastoral bright greens and yellows, and lingers on the youthful faces. It is technically a period film, but everything is so naturally rendered that it doesn’t feel as such. It feels like it was captured at the very time it represents, but one is also very aware of the director looking back at that time.

The film does perhaps drag at times, and is not always making a point about one thing or another; it goes back and forth between the more hard-edged scenes in Paris and the slow-moving scenes in the country or abroad, although there are intense and emotional scenes scattered throughout, often involving the confusion and pain of young amorous relationships. This, I feel, is all part of Assayas examining the experience of both a period in history and a period in his life. The last shot is perhaps the most self-reflective in that it takes place on a film set, and offers a glimmer of the next chapter in this character’s/director’s life: there is a ridiculous studio science fiction film being shot, very much in contrast to the film we’ve just seen, and Gilles disappears into the shadows behind the chaos of crew members, lights, and dollies. It is the end of one moment in time and the start of another. What we’ve just seen is a small segment of one person’s life, of one generation’s experience, yet rendered so delicately and meaningfully that it speaks across generations and countries, as all great art should.

Beyond The Hills

Cristian Mungiu’s new film is a deftly realized, beautifully crafted exploration of antiquated religion in the modern world. What makes it so complex and interesting, however, is that it portrays modern society (specifically rural Romanian society) as being just as problematic as the religious society portrayed, an isolated Orthodox monastery. Religion is by no means condemned or vilified—the priest and nuns are shown to be kindhearted, if simple-minded. Their world is thrown off kilter by a strong yet disturbed young woman from the outside.

The conflict is between Alina (Cristina Flutur), who has been living in Germany, and the residents of the monastery, including her best friend, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), whom she is visiting and had planned to take with her back to the West. The film subtly and smartly illustrates the isolation of the monastery; any time they speak of the outside world, or go into town and are amidst society, it is portrayed as vulgar and frightening. Voichita is the audience’s eyes and ears; she is in nearly every scene and we, for the most part, see the world through her eyes. She seems out of place and awkward when outside of the monastery. Society as she knew it before becoming a nun consisted of growing up in a terrible-sounding orphanage, where abuse from men (what kind of abuse is left to the imagination) was a daily occurrence, so finding God has given her peace and contentment. Alina was her closest friend and protector, as well as lover, in the orphanage, and did not fare so well after leaving. She struggles with her life and looks to Voichita for peace and contentment, just as Voichita looks to God. These two girls represent their respective, very different, worlds. They are also, though, very real characters, frightened and unsure of the world around them.

During her tumultuous stay in the monastery, Alina is not berated for being a non-believer, but her unstable mental state is treated as a demonic possession rather than a mental sickness in the end. They help her in the only way they know how, after the institution of the hospital fails. The priest (Valeriu Andruita) and nuns take every rational action they know to help Alina, before going through with an extreme solution which seems ridiculous and criminal to the outside world, but is the result of their firm belief in God and the devil. The film remains objective in its portrayal of religion, but certainly exposes the possible tragic result of such blind belief. At the same time, of course, the institutions of the hospital, governmental offices, and police force are shown to be ineffective and apathetic, and therein lies the problematic vision of society examined here.

Mungiu continues the distinctive Romanian style of long takes, though they are not quite as noticeably long as in some other contemporary Romanian films, including his Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days. He also uses some gorgeous and affecting tracking shots, as well as static shots to reflect the stasis of life in the monastery. The composition of this film, and other Eastern European films with a similar style, is exceptionally crafted because the longer shots make one aware of every detail within the frame, and the camera movement and editing is definite and purposefully conspicuous. This powerful yet subtle technical style reflects the performances (Flutur and Stratan shared the Best Actress award at Cannes) and the story. It is yet another example of the groundbreaking (in style and subject matter) filmmaking coming out of Eastern Europe.

The Best Films of 2012

Here’s my list for the best narrative films of the past year. It does not include docs, shorts, or animated films. Also, if anyone missed my list last year, certain foreign films released this year that are on many best of the year lists, were on my list last year (The Turin Horse, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia). Lastly, I decided for no particular reason to have a list of 20 films, rather than 10 or 15, but they are in order.

1 Holy Motors

2 Amour

3 The Kid With a Bike

4 Beasts of the Southern Wild

5 The Master

6 Lincoln

7 Moonrise Kingdom

8 Zero Dark Thirty

9 The Deep Blue Sea

10 Wuthering Heights

11 Rust and Bone

12 Life of Pi

13 Looper

14 The Silver Linings Playbook

15 Your Sister’s Sister

16 Tabu

17 Barbara

18 Promised Land

19 Django Unchained

20 Take this Waltz

Your Sister’s Sister

A realistic and simple drama with exceptional dialogue and great performances, Lynn Shelton’s new indie film is a welcome alternative to the summer blockbuster. The three characters and their histories are introduced slowly and naturally, and each scene is well constructed, yet seemingly effortless. Much of the dialogue felt improvised, and if it wasn’t, then it was just incredibly well-written, a pretty rare thing these days. The multi-talented Mark Duplass (also part of a directing team) gives a believable and heartfelt performance, Emily Blunt is great and luminous as always, and Rosemarie DeWitt proves to be an actress of wide range.

The specific dramatic plot device that comes into play 3/4 of the way through the film makes everything a bit overly dramatic, and becomes the focus, taking away from the interesting characters somewhat. But, in a way, that shift is also a necessary addition to the overall film, and provides a climax. I would have been happy with less plot and more character exploration, but this isn’t a ’60s French film; it’s a solid indie American film, showcasing some fresh and original talent.

Prometheus

The much-anticipated prequel to Alien and a return for Ridley Scott to the sci-fi horror genre he does so well, this film could have been great, but it’s simply good. Good cast, good cinematography and special effects, as well as editing, but not the best screenplay or dialogue, owing perhaps to relatively inexperienced writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof. There are some holes in a somewhat overcomplicated plot, and some annoying moments typical of the horror genre (mainly characters acting like they have zero common sense).

But the central idea of the film is an intriguing one–archeologists on a mission to find where humans came from, or more specifically, who made us, using science to explain our genesis, and, as pointed out, disproving the theory of Darwinism. This idea combined with the evil aliens, and sexual innuendos made explicit through the genre of horror (vaginal phalluses, penetration, impregnation), which Scott loves to explore, makes for a very interesting new Alien film.

Michael Fassbender is fantastic as the robot David, although some of his villainous actions are unexplained (again, the fault of the script) and Noomi Rapace gives a strong performance as the lead character Elisabeth Shaw, who is both victim and survivor, reminiscent of, or anticipating, Ripley. Charlize Theron and Idris Elba stand out in the supporting cast.

The film is by no means bad; it is a conscientious and well made genre film, better than many of the past Alien sequels and spin-offs, but the badly written dialogue, half-drawn characters, and unnecessary length hinders it. Those hoping for the greatness achieved in Alien and Blade Runner will most likely be disappointed.