Tag: joseph gordon-levitt

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez, “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” is a disappointing sequel to a visually stunning, funny, thrilling, and engaging picture that is still unique to this day. While it does offer two opposite but interesting performances, the screenplay by Miller fails to offer anything fresh or exciting. He forgot to ask and answer a most basic question: What makes the sequel worth visiting?

Perhaps Miller thought that the visual acrobatics and trickeries would be enough to sustain our attention. While I still enjoyed that the film is presented in beautiful black-and-white, painted with bright primary colors once in a while, there is barely any dimension to any of the characters. And although most of them are supposed to be tough and have a proclivity for bloody violence, it does not mean that there should not be anything else to them. Successful graphic novels that fall under the action genre translated onto screen tend to work well as drama, too. It is because audiences are able to emotionally invest in the characters since the characters are, in a way, a reflection of ourselves—our insecurities, our doubts, we feeling like underdogs at times.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Johnny, gifted with hands that are lucky. Every time he puts a dollar into a slot machine, coins come rushing down like waterfall. Card games are a piece of cake for he always gets the best hand. He hopes to snag the attention of the feared Senator Roark (Powers Boothe), still angry about his son’s death. Gordon-Levitt plays Johnny with a calculated cool and we hope for the character to get exactly what he wants. But the story takes place in Sin City, not la-la land.

Eva Green plays Ava, a beautiful, seductive woman who hopes to be set free from her abusive husband. She enlists the help of a photographer named Dwight (Josh Brolin), a former lover who remains to have feelings for her despite her previous act of betrayal. Green is delicious in every scene because she plays her character like a snake eyeing its dinner. Ava is the most unpredictable of the bunch and Green knows it. And so she milks every frame of every scene.

The rest relies on platitudes. The script has a tendency to offer lines such as “Death is like life in Sin City.” Perhaps it is meant to be a serious commentary on the moral decay of the place but it comes across as cornball fluff. And speaking of cornball fluff, Jessica Alba once again rests on her physical beauty and fails to create a convincing character who is angry and full of angst. It is not entirely her fault.

Alba plays a stripper—one that remains fully clothed for the duration of the performance—who wishes to end the life of Roark. But every time she is given the opportunity, she cannot muster her fingers to pull the trigger. I was confused as to why Miller wrote the character to be this way in this film when he knows that Alba is not a performer who has much range. She is good at playing soft, flirtatious, and friendly characters.

What she lacks is a desperation in the eyes to denote her character’s craving to really hurt someone for the sake of payback. The screenplay demands the character to disfigure herself to come across as tough. It does not work because even though her outer appearance has changed, the inside—the absence of inner brutality—remains the same.

Don Jon

Don Jon (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) claims to value only few things in life: his body, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls, and his porn. Though Jon is able to bed just about any woman he sets his eyes on, he remains convinced that porn is better than real sex. When he begins to date Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), he is challenged to keep a distance between himself and pornography since she thinks the whole thing is sick and disgusting. This proves difficult not only because getting off at pornhub.com has become a part of his daily routine but it is also likely that he might have an addiction.

Comedic on the surface with a few layers of questions worth asking that envelop its dramatic core, “Don Jon,” written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is a joy to watch even if the subject it tackles—addiction to pornography—is not always pretty. This is partly due to the charming performances by the leads, Levitt and Johansson, and how the screenplay allows the characters to become more than stereotypes. Don could have easily been some sort of meathead and Barbara being some blonde curvy bimbo.

The three relationships unfold: between Jon and Barbara, between Jon and an older woman (Julianne Moore) who catches our protagonist watching porn on his phone, and between Jon and his precious videos. Each his handled with intelligence and no one (or thing) is treated like a joke. Instead, the characters are allowed to be imperfect and messy. We even watch them being hypocrites once in a while. We judge them through what we value in terms of what we believe a healthy relationship should be like.

The weakest part of the picture involves Jon’s family mainly because they are one-dimensional, not at all matching the more subtle aspects of Jon’s life. The father (Tony Danza) is a typical tough guy who cannot seem to pry his eyes off the television, the mother (Glenne Headly) keeps asking when her son is finally going to get a girlfriend so she can have grandchildren, and the sister (Brie Larson) is always on her phone and does not say anything until the movie is almost over.

The whole sham of somebody not speaking until she has “words of wisdom” to impart annoyed me immensely. And when she does speak, she does not say anything profound. This surprised me because many reviews claim that it is one of the best scenes in the picture. I was far from impressed. I thought her “words of wisdom” is glaringly obvious within the first forty minutes. There is no punchline or real insight.

“Don Jon” is most entertaining when it shows believable characters, having us like them, and then discovering something about them that feels a little off. That is why the Swiffer pad scene, hair gel appraisal, and others like it—a normal activity followed by an unveiling of an ugly (or beautiful) trait—make an impact and create rippling effects that challenge (or strengthen) the foundation of a relationship.


Lincoln (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is up for a second term as the president of the United States and he is determined to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, designed to ban slavery across the country, by the end of January 1865. Although it had been passed by the Senate on April 1864, the House of Representatives is an entirely new arena: twenty more votes from the democratic side are required to pass the amendment. With the American Civil War in its fourth year and everyone is growing weary, Lincoln believes it is of utmost importance, morally and politically, to douse slavery and its possible reemergence once and for all before the war comes to a close.

As someone who does not know much about Lincoln other than the fact that he had managed to abolish slavery prior to his assassination, I found “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg, as an educational and moving portrait of a leader who has, in a theory, a lot of power but at the same time almost enslaved to it because his ambitions are not often in tune with a public that is either not ready for or not willing to face radical changes.

Choosing to focus on a specific time frame of Lincoln’s legacy is smart because it gives us ample time to get to know the man on a more personal angle. While we are given several chances to observe how he interacts with those closest to him professionally, fellow republicans, and democrats, it is interesting that much importance is placed on his internal personal struggles to make slavery illegal. This is when Day-Lewis’ sublime performance comes into play. Yes, he looks very eerily like the Lincoln we see in photographs but without the specific knowing and sparkle in his eyes, most of us might find it difficult to believe his character for wanting to push for the change that he thinks the country needs in order to move forward or at least be better than it was prior to the hundreds of thousands lives lost in the Civil War.

As a side note, this may sound strange because we often yearn for the opposite but because Day-Lewis’ performance feels so complete, I found myself wanting to see a glimpse of the actor playing Lincoln. Eventually, I felt like I was able to but it required considerable effort and patience. When the actor is quiet, it is like staring down a sphinx. And most of the time Lincoln keeps his feelings to himself. But when he shows the anger and frustration of his character, those very discerning can recognize the man behind the performance. I wish I can tell you why my gut needed a reminder that I was watching an actor playing Lincoln. Perhaps it is an uncommonly traversed avenue to connect with the material on a deeper level.

The look of the picture is also impressive. I like to look at faces, especially in profile, and so I could not help but notice the way light is utilized to create an additional angle on a face or shadow to reflect fears or doubts during one-on-one conversations. A similar observation can be applied when the camera pulls away from the faces. Since most of the deliberations occur indoors, when there is a special point to be made, most of the light is focused on the center of the room. And yet at the same time, the dark sides and corners of the room draw us in. It is a fascinating way to tie in to the picture’s overarching theme. A room can be interpreted as a reflection of the nation’s attitudes toward putting slavery to death. Although most of those under bright lights are informed and ready for change, there are those who remain in the dark, some will do anything to resist being in that light. Imagine if the rooms had been completely lit. The mystery painted on the people’s faces and the tension in the room might have been absent altogether.

“Lincoln,” based on the screenplay by Tony Kushner, is also peppered with memorable performances by Sally Field as Lincoln’s wife still in a state of grief over their son’s passing due to typhus, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s eldest son who wishes to leave school and enlist in the army, and David Strathairn as the Secretary of State. Because the film is able to function as a character study, Lincoln the storyteller being the most revealing and entertaining, as well as detailing a specific time in history, it overcomes our awareness that the Thirteenth Amendment will inevitably pass.


Looper (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) does not mean for him, his future self, to get away, a momentary hesitation that allows Old Joe (Bruce Willis), sent from year 2074 by a criminal organization using a time machine to be executed and disposed of in 2044, to escape which prompts the boss (Jeff Daniels) to initiate a hunt to kill the two. It is the only way to minimize further changes in the future. The problem is Joe wishes to live a full life even though he already knows that being a looper, an assassin of the present assigned to murder people sent from the future, comes with an expiration date of age thirty. Meanwhile, Old Joe hopes to alter the past by killing a person called The Rainmaker in order to undo the death of his wife.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson, “Looper” explores a handful of interesting and intertwining ideas about the people affected by time travel, outlawed by the government upon its discovery, and avoids many details and technicalities of the concept itself. There is a difference and it is an important one because by focusing on the former, the writer-director constructs a story that we can, first and foremost, invest in or care about and, secondly, appreciate a fictionalized world of flying motorcycles and people with the ability to move objects using their minds due to a genetic mutation that affects ten percent of the population.

I enjoyed that the interactions between current and future Joe are kept to a minimum. Their one conversation set in a diner is imbued with an electric dialogue that is ironic and funny but serious and intelligent, too. This scene is not only a stand out because of the script. It is the point when we can observe how alike–or different–the actors are with respect to them playing, essentially, the same person. One is able to match the other not simply in terms of quirks but, for example, how one delivers a calculating gaze to a threatening or curious figure. The way in which they place stresses on particular words are also fun to pick up on.

Though it was easy for me to divorce between actor and makeup, I would have preferred that Gordon-Levitt was not given prosthetics so that he would look more like Willis. Since the picture functions on a relatively high level of imagination, it would have made sense for the filmmakers to assume that we had the initiative and the capacity to imagine the two actors, given that their performances complement each other well, playing a variation of one character.

What works less effectively is that the script does not give enough details about the organization led by Abe (Daniels). Is its goal more related to business like running a drug cartel and strip joints or is its objective more concerned about the bodies that come from the future? Furthermore, while Abe is nicely played by Daniels because he tends to choose quiet over hyperbolic menace, we do not see the character do much other than give orders. For someone who is supposed to be the leader, he does an awful lot of waiting for everyone else to do their jobs right. Ultimately, watching him does not feel like we are being engaged with a character who has much purpose underneath the archetype of a mob boss of some sort.

“Looper” may be and is faulted for its irregular pacing particularly when the story takes a detour on a farm. I respected this change of pace because it ties in to the idea that the picture is not just a sci-fi action film padded by chases and bullets flying. It takes a risk worth noting. It gives itself a chance to turn its attention toward one or two moral questions by setting aside almost half of its entertainment value. This approach is not common but it sure is admirable.

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Eight years since the death of Harvey Dent, a former District Attorney and one of the leaders of the fight against war on crime, organized crime had been completely exorcised from Gotham City. Since Batman took the fall for the demise of the white knight and several police officers, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) had been living as a recluse. This temporary peace in Gotham, however, was threatened by the arrival of Bane (Tom Hardy), a thewy mercenary who recently kidnapped an important scientist. But Bane was not a typical mercenary: he was a former member of the League of Shadows, the same group that trained Bruce before he created Batman, and personally exiled by its leader, Ra’s al Ghul. “The Dark Knight Rises,” directed by Christopher Nolan, delivered an absorbing exposition by allowing us to feel sympathy for the true hero that afforded Gotham citizens the kind of city they’ve always wanted. More than ever, Bale was allowed to shine in the way he meticulously but naturally portrayed a character who was no longer needed by his creators. There was drama not simply because Bruce felt lost and depressed, it was due to the fact that we knew that he deserved fulfillment, a life he could call his own, outside of the mask. No other person could understand the man behind the mask more than Alfred (Michael Cane), Bruce’s help, best friend, and father figure. The most emotionally moving sections of the film involved the two clashing in terms of what the city really needed versus how Bruce should go on with his life. Cane was so good with his line deliveries, I teared up a bit when Alfred mentioned his yearly vacation in Florence, Italy and what he hoped to see across from him while sitting in a restaurant. There was a much deserved complexity in Alfred and Bruce’s relationship which was more than I can say about Bane’s plot to so-called give the people exactly what they wanted. While the action scenes held an above average level of excitement, such as when the villain made his first public appearance, there were too many characters running all of the place–characters who were worth knowing more about. There was Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), conflicted in terms of whether he should reveal Dent’s true colors to the public; Officer Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an ardent young man willing to fight to preserve the good in his city; and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar who wished to wipe her criminal past clean. And then there was Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), Bruce’s romantic interest that came so far out of left field, I found it completely unconvincing. There was already little chemistry between Cotillard and Bale and the writing didn’t help them in building something the audience could get behind. Each of the supporting characters was given the spotlight one way or another but the screenplay didn’t have enough time to really drill into what made them more than pawns in the people’s liberation against Bane’s grasp. And so when the denouement arrived, some of the revelations, one of which I found predictable in a fun way, did not feel entirely rewarding. Based on the screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, while “The Dark Knight Rises” was undeniably entertaining, it could be observed that perhaps it attempted to take on too much. It wasn’t a breezy bat-glide to the finish line.


50/50 (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) seemed like a healthy twenty-seven year old who abstained from smoking and doing drugs. He even chose not to learn to drive a car because it is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. When a pain in his back began to bother him, he decided to see a doctor. The results weren’t good. It turned out that he had a rare cancer and an aggressive form of treatment was necessary. Written by Will Reiser and directed by Jonathan Levine, “50/50” successfully made the topic of cancer easier to digest by highlighting the comedy without losing track of the sadness and fear upon discovering the news and dealing with the reality. The filmmakers made a smart move by making human relationships the primary concern instead of the cancer. Kyle (Seth Rogen) was Adam’s best friend and rock throughout the ordeal. One of the best scenes between the two was in the way Kyle reacted to his friend’s grim diagnosis. Rogen balanced amusing allusions of famous people who had beaten cancer and tenderness without being obnoxious. I was glad that their relationship didn’t have a significant arc. It didn’t need to. There were still unexpected discoveries along the way, but their friendship was a good place. Another important support Adam had was Katherine (Anna Kendrick), a young, perky counselor working on her doctorate. Their interactions were amusing because there was an awkwardness in their attempt to find a solid footing with something new: Katherine and her job; Adam and his cancer. Adam and Katherine shared wonderful chemistry but it wasn’t creepy, unethical, nor inappropriate. Through their conversations, they learned to form a special friendship. We rooted for them to take that next step without forgetting the fact that there should be a line between a professional and her client. However, there were some connections that weren’t as strongly established. Diane (Anjelica Huston), Adam’s mom, was always worried about her son. Adam felt suffocated by her ways of showing affection and he constantly felt the need to prove that he was strong and capable of being independent. I wanted to know more about that tension between mother and son, the mother’s specific feelings in no longer being needed. Huston was only given about half a dozen scenes and she made the best out of all of them. I think that if her character was closer to the center, the actress’ talent for balancing regal quiet power and in-your-face emotions would’ve made the project soar. Lastly, the conflict involving Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), Adam’s girlfriend, sometimes felt forced. I understood that the point was some people are just not equipped enough to handle long-term sickness. I appreciated that the filmmakers acknowledged that reality. Unfortunately, it all boiled down to whether or not she would ultimately stay with Adam. It felt out of place, too shallow, for a movie about mortality. “50/50” is a reminder: When you do have that moment where you catch yourself staring miserably at your empty glass, people who love you in the best ways possible can fill it right up. Then it doesn’t seem so bad.


Uncertainty (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

A couple played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lynn Collins decided to flip a coin because they couldn’t make up their mind regarding how to spend their Fourth of July holiday. Once the coin was flipped, we were immediately taken on two paths: the couple spending their time with the girlfriend’s family (the talented Olivia Thirlby among them) and the couple finding a cell phone in a taxi which criminals desperately wanted in their hands. I really liked the concept of the movie but it just didn’t move me in any way because it was very uneven. I understood that a big part of the picture was its use of contrast but I felt like it spent more time developing the thriller aspect (the cell phone) instead of balancing it with drama (the family). They could have done so much with the family such as expanding the tension between the boyfriend and the girlfriend’s mother or perhaps going deeper into the uncle’s illness. Instead, the movie focused on the characters running all over New York City; while initially it was exciting because I was curious about why certain people wanted the cell phone so badly, over time the tension caught a bad case of diminishing returns. I just grew tired of the couple making one bad decision after another. I was even surprised that they managed to survive for so long. I found it difficult to believe that the couple trying to survive was the same as the two who were having dinner with nice and welcoming people. While the events were very different from one another, it would have been nice if we saw certain characteristics of the lead characters that crossed boundaries set by the cinematic style. There was also a disconnect between the level of acting between Gordon-Levitt and Collins. When the former tried to achieve depth, the latter almost always decided to go for the obvious, not just in the way she said the lines but the body language lacked subtlety. I wished that Thirlby was the lead female instead because, from what I’ve seen from her other films, she can achieve subtlety without sacrificing charisma. Written and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, I saw potential in “Uncertainty” but it took far too many missteps and I lost interest in it over time. While the use of contrast was nice, it didn’t quite break out from the usual patterns to go for that element of surprise. It needed more time to ponder over why one small decision could lead to big (and sometimes unfortunate) events in our lives. I guess I needed the movie to actively connect with its audiences instead of just being stuck in its own universe. With such an interesting premise, I thought it would be more versatile in terms of its tone (especially since McGehee and Siegel both directed one of my favorite films “The Deep End”–the masterful balance of thriller and drama) and it wouldn’t be afraid to take risks time and time again. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.