DON JON (2013, Joseph Gordon-Levitt)
I tried watching an episode of The Jersey Shore but I just couldn’t deal with it. As insanely clownish as the people were, I had trouble finding much entertainment value in watching a guido minstrel show. For many of the same reasons, I’m not down with Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut — in which he casts himself as The Situation with a porn addiction. There’s nothing about him (even in the final act) that’s interesting enough that I care about watching his transformation from d-bag to semi-d-bag. I spent most of the time looking for other characters to get interested in. But Gordon-Levitt’s Jon is on screen in every single scene.
Not that I dislike him as an actor — in fact, he’s been one of my favorite young talents for years. Just watch MYSTERIOUS SKIN, BRICK, and THE LOOKOUT to see the kind of phenomenal work he’s capable of. And here, he isn’t bad, but the script he wrote for himself is not appealing. Jon is a self-centered misogynist with frequent bouts of road rage, and we’re led to believe he gets a lot of this from his stereotypical Italian-American Jersey dad (played, not surprisingly, in two-dimensional sitcom fashion by Tony Danza). Scarlett Johansson’s Barbara starts off as far more interesting a person (and Johansson is really good, accent and all), but soon reveals herself to be as much a plot machine as anything else. Julianne Moore (perhaps the best actress alive not named Meryl) is obviously the most fascinating character we meet, but this is Jon’s story, not hers. And that’s a shame.
Aside from a few chuckles here and there and a quasi-interesting directorial gimmick where many shots are repeated to show the monotony of Jon’s life, this is shallow and predictable stuff. It does reek of a first film, a voice that wants to get everything out as loudly as possible, and it suffers for that. It isn’t loose or charming, it’s just a little dull.
RUSH (2013, Ron Howard)
People don’t remember with much fondness Tony Scott’s 1990 NASCAR movie DAYS OF THUNDER. It was TOP GUN on wheels and featured Tom Cruise coming off his first Oscar nomination with all the bravado and arrogance you’d expect — and he was co-starring with Nicole Kidman, whom he would soon marry. The film was full of Simpson/Bruckheimer cliches and had a dated rock soundtrack, featuring a Hans Zimmer score and songs like Steve Winwood’s “Gimme Some Lovin'” during its high-octane racing scenes. Its plot surrounded a rivalry between rookie driver Cole Trickle (!!!) and Rowdy Burns (!) that became a friendship after one of them was injured and nearly died in a brutal crash — and then fought to come back onto the racetrack.
Someone who may have had a little fondness for that film is Ron Howard. Howard directed Cruise and Kidman in their first post-wedding film together, FAR & AWAY (another film with a sour reputation – but one I enjoy). And now here he is, 23 years after DAYS OF THUNDER, making RUSH — starring Chris Hemsworth with the kind of cocky bravado one gets after starring in THE AVENGERS, and featuring a Hans Zimmer score and songs like Steve Winwood’s “Gimme Some Lovin'” during its high-octane racing scenes. Its plot surrounds the true-life rivalry between Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, that became a friendship after one of them was injured and nearly died in a brutal crash — and then fought to come back onto the racetrack.
But put aside two things: one, that the films share a little too much in common (I mean come on, “Gimme Some Lovin'” again? Really?); and two, that you may not have liked DAYS OF THUNDER as much as I did (I do think it’s not bad at all, and really like the Duvall-Cruise relationship in it). RUSH stands on its own in some interesting ways. Howard’s direction is as energetic as it’s been since probably BACKDRAFT or the aforementioned FAR AND AWAY. Using Anthony Dod Mantle behind the camera (Danny Boyle’s go-to DP), he makes the racing scenes roar with aggression and tension. With firing pistons in close-up, debris striking the lens, and hot bodies tangling in sex every half hour, you’d think Howard was a 20 year-old college kid on Red Bull. But the pace is perfect for the story, and this is as well-edited a mainstream feature as I’ve seen all year. Secondly, Daniel Bruhl (fairly unknown to me aside from a small role in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS) is terrific as Lauda, embodying the role of a serious German with a wealth of dimension and sympathy. Peter Morgan’s script leans a lot on the themes of competitiveness, macho posturing, and insecurity, but doesn’t really reveal anything profound about them. Still, there’s enough there to chew on during the precious few moments of downtime. The rest of the film is a propulsive piece of Hollywood entertainment, telling a story I’d never known with impressive slickness and swagger. And after efforts like THE DILEMMA and THE DA VINCI CODE, it’s nice to see Howard with a little spring in his step again.
PASSION (2013, Brian De Palma)
Makes SIDE EFFECTS look like BLOW OUT.
Seriously, this is De Palma just doing second-rate De Palma. I love the guy to death, and can count on one hand the number of bigger fanboys I know. (If you want a horrible evening, try spending it listening to me gush about FEMME FATALE, BODY DOUBLE, and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE; you’ll be hanging yourself by the end). But even I couldn’t buy this. First of all, the voyeur material has been done much better (in all three films listed above, as well as DRESSED TO KILL and more), with everything from spying cameras and mirrors and technology to high-angle peeping-tom-ism. So it isn’t like De Palma is saying anything new. Secondly, while he still knows how to frame a shot, move a camera, cut a frame, and dazzle with split-screens, split-diopters, and split-personalities, De Palma seems to have forgotten how to ground it in a suspenseful plot. I couldn’t give two shits about anything going on here because I didn’t believe I was watching people. Rapace has never been worse (she didn’t impress me in DRAGON TATTOO or PROMETHEUS, but she’s really not on the De Palma wavelength here), and McAdams almost seems contemptuous of the material — kind of like a serious version of Elizabeth Banks rolling her eyes at the script. There are certainly flashes here and there of the peerless genius we’ve been seeing for 40 years, but I’m starting to fear that at age 72, the poor guy has majorly lost a step.
AFTERSHOCK (2013, Nicolas Lopez)
A low-quality B-movie with grade-A nihilism. Definitely crushes HOSTEL in the category of Roth’s annoying formula (first third is horny tourists, last two acts are gory violence) by virtue of its rip-roaring pace and Lopez’s staging of the PIRANHA 3D-ish bloody melee. The last 55 minutes are one sustained sequence of pain, almost DESCENT-like (in many ways, all the way through the ending, which I won’t spoil), and there’s an overwhelming helping of misanthropy caked over the entire thing. Even in the first act, when not a drop of blood is spilled, the camera is despising its protagonists for enslavement to their mobile devices, including the ol’ cliche where one tourist points out a gorgeous view to a buddy who’s too busy playing a video game on his phone.
But the planting of this disgust pays off well, not just in that as the mundane bickering reaches its climactic fight between sisters, the earthquake begins, but in the message that as soon as disaster strikes, humanity’s true character is revealed — and it’s ugly. It’s not just me who agrees with this; remember the scene in Spielberg’s WAR OF THE WORLDS when Cruise has to fight off a hoard of selfish assholes who are after his car? Imagine that bleak vision of sociology stretched out for an hour, including a distasteful extended rape sequence and a moral code that levels its playing field by showing no mercy to the saints and sinners alike.
I’ve seen criticisms of this nihilistic view of humanity, especially the subplot about the street hooligans who become major antagonists in the second half. But wondering why these menaces aren’t scampering to safety from the damage and impending tsunami is to miss the point, not only of the film’s dark view of society, but of the disturbingly honest idea that these are prisoners who have been behind bars — and now those bars have come down and these men are finally free. Freedom feels good, and the horrifying reality this circumstance results in is that the prisoners enjoy the entropy and relish in the ability to take advantage of it. This is both a disaster movie and a horror film for the good guys, but a welcome sign from the gods for the evil ones. And despite the troubling moments (and shoddy acting) present throughout AFTERSHOCK, it’s that hopelessness which lingers. Like Goddard and Whedon with THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, Lopez and Roth have come to the conclusion that the world is not a fine place, and not worth fighting for, and perhaps it’s best just to wipe it all out and hit the reset button.