Sunday, February 8, 2015

Project 365: Movies 30 - 36

30 / 365: Don Jon (2013)
© Relativity Media

The male take on the romantic comedy. Writer & director, Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Jon, a body-obsessed, church-going Guido who spends his days waiting tables... and his nights partying at clubs with his buddies, ranking women and taking the hottest ones home. Oh, and he's also addicted to porn. No matter how many women he sleeps with, he never feels satisfied the way he does after jerking off to the right video. He has no interest in changing his ways or managing his unrealistic expectations of women... until he meets a total "dime" named Barbara (Scarlett Johansson).

Jon's narration is non-stop in this movie. Every thought is voiced, which starts out fine, but then begins to feel like Levitt doesn't trust us to be able to figure anything out on our own. He talks so much, it sets the timing for the choppy editing and spastic porn video inserts. I never thought I'd see a movie that was 80% B-roll footage. I expected to see a disclaimer during the credits that said "No tissues were harmed during the making of this picture." Despite all of this, Jon is a pretty likable character. He's completely delusional, but he seems to realize that. Barbara, however, is considerably less likable. Like Jon, she is blindly delusional about what women should expect from men in a relationship—where Jon's expectations are formed by porn, Barbara's are driven by romantic comedies. She, though, appears to have no idea that what she wants doesn't really exist.

This whole concept is really established as the primary theme, but strangely, it isn't explored the way I thought it would be. The subject is glossed over in the narration, but the action of the film never really drives it home. It was a huge missed opportunity to give the script a bit more substance. Jon's awkward interactions with Julianne Moore's character didn't help, either. The ending of the movie is touching, and I connected with it immediately, but I didn't think the rest of the movie did anything to earn it.

Rating: ★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Netflix
Seen Before: No

31 / 365: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
© Columbia Pictures

This movie was the #72 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

Rating: ★★★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Blu-Ray
Seen Before: Yes

32 / 365: Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 (2013)
© Magnolia Pictures

A strange but touching view of sex addiction, told from the perspective of someone who aims to cast shame on herself, but doesn't truly see the full picture of her affliction. The film, broken into two parts (for length) is directed by Lars Von Trier, the artiest of art directors to break into mainstream cinema. Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is our storyteller, recounting the follies of her youth to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who found her beaten in an alleyway and hopes to nurse her back to health. She views these follies as her "sins," as the reason she has ended up in this place.

"Why would you take the most unsympathetic aspect of religion, such as the concept of sin, and let it survive beyond religion?" Seligman asks Joe. With that, she starts at the beginning, with her younger selves, our primary focus being Young Joe (played by Stacy Martin) during her teen and young adult years. As she speaks of how she found her promiscuity, her sex addiction, Selgiman makes his own parallels, promiscuous sex being analogous to fly fishing. Or opera. Or the Fibonacci sequence. His goal being to explain her proclivities as something normal, innate--not destructive or sinful.

I had odd expectations at the start of this movie. Lars Von Trier is a director I've always been skeptical of, whether I liked his movies or not. Regardless of my opinion, I have always respected his vision. He paints one helluva a beautiful picture. The way that the sounds compliment the images—the flickering of leaves, the patter of rain—a visualization of something, almost literary. These characters are very intelligent, something I didn't expect. Sex is relatable and base, but it's given an intensity in Nymphomaniac that is simultaneously beautiful and grotesque.

The ending here is abrupt, which is to be expected of a film that was severed in half. I'm surprised how much I liked it; the graphic sex was incorporated and utilized in the best way to tell Joe's story. I would warn anyone that is sensitive to that on screen that you probably won't like this movie... but it's naive to think a story about a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac could be told in any other way. Von Trier colors the pornographic with poetry, which is to his credit. Oh, and Christian Slater makes an appearance as Joe's father, doing his very best Liam Neeson impression. Really, though, it's actually pretty wonderful.

Vol. 2 of Nymphomaniac will be reviewed during next week's film grouping—you know, once I've watched it.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Netflix
Seen Before: No

33 / 365: A Most Violent Year (2014)
© A24

A Most Violent Year is like a long, deep breath. This is the mobster movie for the anti-Goodfellas crowd, those who would love to see a family navigate their criminal activities without all that flash and violence and terror. Okay, for a lot of you, that probably sounds pretty dull. And you wouldn't be completely wrong, if it weren't for the fact that this story is filmed so beautifully and the acting is ridiculously top-notch.

Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is a young husband, father, and businessman who owns an oil distribution company in New York City in 1981, the most violent year in the city's history. He purchased his company many years before from his wife's father, who was a known mobster and crook, but for Abel, running a clean business takes priority over everything else. When his employees start getting attacked on the streets and his tanker trucks of oil get stolen, his resolve to stick to the letter of the law is put to the test. Jessica Chastain plays Abel's wife, Anna, and she is a beacon of perfection. It is only a matter of time before she takes Meryl Streep's crown as the Queen of Accents.

I didn't love this movie, but it is, undeniably, very well done. It's slow, and it takes awhile to pick up speed--and even then, it never moves very fast. We spend a lot of time meeting other characters related to the business, or competitors of the business, or law men aiming to bring the business down... but none of them are interesting enough to focus on for too long. Rather, it would have benefited the movie greatly to explore the world and relationship of our two leads, Abel and Anna. They are the movie's golden ticket, that is where the interesting story was, but instead, it's put on the back-burner and never brought to a boil. I found myself getting fed up with the plot, because it wasn't as intriguing to me as what Abel had going on at home, the history of his relationship with this clearly powerful, and influential woman.

The direction and acting are winners here. I can't say the same for the script.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Theater
Seen Before: No

34 / 365: Burt's Buzz (2013)
© Film Buff

This simple documentary is about Burt Shavitz, the 76 year old co-founder of Burt's Bees. Eccentric, odd, and a bit cantankerous, Burt carries his fame awkwardly, as he tries to understand why everyone treats him like the icon he never asked to be. Burt's co-founder—and the driving force behind what the company became—is Roxanne Quimby... who pushed Burt out of the company before she selling 80% of the business to Clorox for $900 million. This robbed Burt of hundreds of millions of dollars in the buyout... a truth that appears to have had little affect on him.

There are many little characters that pop up in Burt's life, who are just as fascinating as him. My favorite being Burt's handler (and apparently, personal assistant) Trevor. Trevor is Burt's Pepper Potts. He does anything that Burt needs—he's also really young and really handsome. Halfway through watching Burt's story, I wanted to pause and learn all about Trevor. How did he get this random job taking care of a hippie in the woods of Maine? So many questions, so little answers, but then of course, this documentary isn't about Trevor now, is it?

The film has a little aimless, and hardly compelling. If anything, it's a bit of a head-scratcher. Most of us know BURT'S BEES products. In fact, their pomegranate lip balm is the only thing I have to carry with me at all times. But I had never given any thought to the man behind the logo. Nor did I imagine there were places in the world where he was treated like the Beatle's long-lost 5th member! This is Taiwan, I'm speaking about, and the film spends quite a bit of time there showing Burt taking awkward pictures with young women and fans who just want to hug and kiss him. Strange and captivating, but again, only because we're all left wondering why.

Burt's past and current life is really the main focus. I admit to tearing up during a wonderfully touching moment when Trevor asks Burt about the death of his old dog, Rufus, whose likeness appears on many Burt's Bees product labels. Burt spends most of the movie brushing off all feelings, but he can't hide his feelings about Rufus, and that makes him just a bit less of a mystery.

A documentary that I'm not sure needed to get made, but it was enjoyable nonetheless.

Rating: ★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Netflix
Seen Before: No

35 / 365: Jupiter Ascending (2015)
© Warner Brothers

"Okay Wachowskis, how about this time, don't try to be too philosophical or too weird or too interesting. Maybe just make a regular ol' sci-fi movie, yeah?" With those instructions, the Wachowski siblings regurgitate up Jupiter Ascending, now playing in your local theater. It plays like the unwanted step-child of Chronicles of Riddick, which wasn't playing with a full deck itself. Needless to say, this movie has literally nothing new to say and is embarrassingly bad.

Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is an illegal Russian immigrant cleaning the houses of rich people with her mother and aunt. Her father, now deceased, had a big hard on for astrology, hence the name "Jupiter". Jupiter dreams of a life that is different than her own, and little does Miss Jones know, there is a battle of power happening on her namesake planet... as well as probably a dozen or so other planets. Turns out, Jupiter is a long lost Queen, and aliens and humans alike come after her as if to shout "NO, really, you're super special!" And then... in glides Caine Wise, rocking gravity roller blades (seriously). He is a spliced human-wolf hybrid (not kidding) played by Channing Tatum who means to sweep her up and deliver her to someone-or-other, but then feelings happen, and all that.

It's been awhile since I've witnessed a movie like this that suffers from such a crippling lack of personality—or self-awareness. The script was so stunted, it gave me hives. The Wachowski sibs are no strangers to cinematic failure following the waves of The Matrix' success (Speed Racer comes immediately to mind), so this may not come as a shock to anyone. But when an entire theater bursts into laughter merely at the sight of Eddie Redmayne an Balem Abrasax... or that ridiculous moment where Jupiter insists everyone call her "Jupe"... or when Tatum sucker punches a dinosaur-dragon.... you've landed in a very dismal place indeed.

The hard truth is that none of these actors are talented enough to rise above the dialogue they're saying. The movie also doesn't do them any favors by surrounding them with ridiculous creatures, bombastic CGI, and a score that mirrors the finale of an Italian operetta. If you are even the least bit tempted to see this thing, do yourself a favor and see it in a theater full of people. Their riotous laughter at inappropriate times will remind you that shared disdain for the same garbage can really bring people together.

It gets one star for bringing the lolz.

Rating: ★ / 5 stars
Watched: Theater
Seen Before: No

36 / 365: The Duchess (2008)
© Paramount Vintage

I read the biography by Amanda Foreman several years ago, on which this movie is based. It's an expansive and meticulously researched biography on my favorite figure in history, Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. This was my first time watching the film since finishing the novel (which collected hundreds of personal letters from this late 18th century icon), so I had a lot more insight that I did before.

A quick history lesson: Georgiana Spencer (distant relative to Princess Diana, fun fact! and played by period piece favorite, Keira Knightley) was the politically savvy first wife of William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). His only ask of her was that she bear him a son, and after a slew of daughters, Georgiana commits herself to endeavors elsewhere. Including what became strong addictions and obsessions with politics, not-so-secret affairs, drinking, and—her worst vice—gambling. The film manages to capture all of these aspects, with a strong focus on her lifelong friendship with Lady Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell) and her passionate romance with lover Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper).

What the movie shows less of is Georgiana's close relationship with Marie Antoinette, which is a huge aspect of G's life. Georgiana was a fashion icon, the biggest of her day, and many looks (like the massive wigs with bird nests and feathers and jewels dripping from them) that we usually attribute to Antoinette... really were made popular by Georgiana. In this world of royalty and the upper echelon of society, the same world that Jane Austen romanticized for centuries of readers to come... Georgiana was at the forefront of it all.

I'm a bit biased in my love of this movie, because I find the Duchess herself beyond reproach. Knightley is undeniably talented in this type of role, and while the look isn't all there, the rest feels just right. If I could complain about one thing, it would be the way the movie handles the passage of time. There are awkward jumps that are unfortunately very necessary, since we're covering decades in a matter of two hours. Regardless, it feels choppy until we get about halfway through, when the jumps in time happen less and we get into the fun stuff. Beautifully shot, based on one of my favorite books.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Netflix
Seen Before: Yes

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