Sunday, September 29, 2013

Need for Speed: Ron Howard’s Racing Drama “Rush” is a Visual and Sonic Treat

My knowledge of car racing is limited to what I’ve learned from playing Mario Kart and watching Pixar’s movie Cars. It is a fact, therefore, that I know very little about the sport and could honestly care less. So it was with great surprise how much I simply adored Ron Howard’s Formula 1 racing drama “Rush.” It’s intense, stylish, gripping, and not the typical biopic drama Howard has become notorious for. It might actually be the Oscar-winning (for “Apollo 13,” um, I mean “A Beautiful Mind”) director Howard’s best work to date. It shows none of the standard, dare I say dull, cinematic form that invades most of his work. And I say this as a fan of both his Oscar-winning “A Beautiful Mind” and “Apollo 13.” He’s a great storyteller; he just lacks the cinematic flair of other popular auteurs. “Rush” changes all that.

“Rush” tells a story that many Americans are most likely unfamiliar with. Formula 1 racing has never quite caught on with those here in the US and therefore many people, myself included, know little about the rivalry between English racer James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth in a role he seems born to play) and Austrian Niki Lauda (a terrific Daniel Brühl) during the 1976 FIA Formula One racing season. It has all the makings a great Hollywood movie (though the film was actually independently financed) with big set pieces and larger than life characters. We’re introduced to James Hunt as Formula Three driver. He’s a typical playboy type. He womanizes and sleeps. You know the drill. Of course that doesn’t stop him from vomiting right before entering his car right before a race. Racecar driving is dangerous and the film lets us know it. He quickly forms a rivalry with Lauda after both of their cars spin out, with Hunt eventually taking first place - from then on it’s all about these two – and it sort of begins this symbiotic relationship. They’re both driven by each other’s need for victory.

Howard shows a visual eye here quite like I’ve never seen him show before. Perhaps it’s because Danny Boyle’s usual cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle - who has certainly come a long way since shooting The Celebration - is behind the camera, showing off his digital film trickery (which appears to be a first for Howard). I’m not quite sure how they pulled off some of the shots they did, but they’re incredible. It’s cliché to say it feels like you’re actually in one of those speeding cars, but its true; the racing sequences are unbelievably well done. The editing in these sequences is also top-notch, truly breath-taking work – not to mention Hans Zimmer’s driving and loud score; it’s a magical feat of sound and visuals.

Rush was written by biographer extraordinaire Peter Morgan who also wrote the wonderful scripts for “The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon.” Morgan avoids the standard biopic trappings by focusing on the rivalry between Hunt and Lauda. They are actually the equal focus even if the ads will make you believe this is a movie solely about James Hunt and his quest to bed every woman in the world. Hemsworth and Brühl are simply exquisite in their roles adding not only the physical look of their real-life counterparts, but the emotional depth as well. Just look at the extraordinary scene where Lauda meets his future wife – he ends up winning her over by racing his car after picking up two Italian men after their car breaks down. And even if the film wants us to think the movie is about James Hunt, it has no problem being critical of him; of showing the flaws of a man who lived life so dangerously on the edge. Both men seemed to want to race for different reasons and the script is wonderful at digging at that stuff. And apparently according to Lauda himself, the film is very accurate. Morgan doesn’t shoehorn in anything corny Hollywood feel-good stuff.

Rush is simply a must-see film. It has turned a subject matter that I’m truly not interested in into a breathtaking and dramatic action spectacle. It offers truly amazing camerawork, sound design, editing, acting, and a really great script, not to mention a delicious recreation of the 1970s. It’s easily one of the best films Ron Howard has made; it seems obvious he was driven to create something truly remarkable. And it’s one of the best films of the year.   GRADE: A

The Porn Identity: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “Don Jon” is an Audacious Directorial Debut

Everyone seems to know Joseph Gordon-Levitt these days. He was a child actor in Angels in the Outfield. He was a teenage alien on TV in “3rd Rock from the Sun” and he’s been in a string of successful films from the indie hits “(500) Days of Summer” and “Looper” to big summer spectacles like “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises.” But he has finally turned things around, quite literally, but getting behind the camera for his directorial debut “Don Jon.” And it’s about a guy who’s addicted to internet pornography. A hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Don Jon” boasts fine performances from its dedicated cast and a witty script by Gordon-Levitt as well.

Yes the subject of “Don Job” is pornography. And yes we see a lot of it. Or at least however much porn an R-rating can get you, which apparently is a lot in this case.  But the movie isn’t really about porn. And you know what? It’s not a message movie about how porn is evil and will ruin your life. This isn’t some kind of religiously conservative movie made by Kirk Cameron. It’s actually a movie that is about the role of men and women in society and a criticism of patriarchy and the objectification of women.

 Gordon-Levitt plays Jon. He’s a typical New Jersey “guido” type we’ve come to see in various media outlets (i.e. “Jersey Shore”). He has a routine. He likes his apartment to be neat and tidy, he loves his close-nit traditional family, his best guy friends, loves working out, and loves the ladies. Oh and he loves porn. He loves the fantasy it provides more than actual women. It only seems to become a problem when he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) at a night club. He doesn’t sleep with her right away like he would with most women. She seems special; she also plays hard to get.  Eventually they start an actual relationship. That means that after having sex, he must sneak away to the fantasy world of his computer anyways. Things get really crazy when she catches him watching one of his naughty videos. She’s disgusted. And she has every right to be.

We’ve come to accept in society that pornography is degrading, filthy, and for perverts. But I think it’s more complicated than that and so does Gordon-Levitt. Yes pornography exists solely for men who objectify women. But that happens in daily life as well. All the movies, TV shows, and advertisements use women’s bodies for men to oogle. Gordon-Levitt even comments on male and female roles when Barbara gets annoyed at Jon because he likes to clean his own apartment. Apparently that’s a woman’s job.

Gordon-Levitt, who begins his film in a purposefully formulaic way makes things interesting when he introduces Esther, a middle-aged woman who Jon meets during his night school class. The film sets up Jon as a man’s man, and Barbara as a woman’s woman and you expect a typical romantic comedy set up. But as Barbara and Jon’s relationship begins to crumble because of his addiction, Esther becomes more important to the film’s story than we’re prepared to thing. Of course she must be important however since she’s played (wonderfully) by Julianne Moore. It’s sort of strange story development, but one what that is unexpected even if it feels not completely natural.

Gordon-Levitt knows the clichés and trappings that come to romantic comedy territory. Is “Don Jon” actually a romantic comedy? I believe it is. It is funny, but at times it feels real. The characters seem all too realistic at times and therefore it gives it the dramatic weight missing from similar films like this. It’s certainly not for everyone – it’s frank depictions of sexuality is something not regularly seen by wide audiences but it has such a fun time picking apart what you’ve come to expect from a movie like this (even with hilariously game cameos from Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum) that you can’t help fall for “Don Jon.” It might make you feel a little icky inside, but it’s an assured and bold film from a new talent I’m excited to watch develop artistically.  GRADE: B+

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Ghost Dad: “Insidious Chapter 2” is Clever but It Conjures Few Scares

First, I must say that the first Insidious is an extremely well-made and efficient horror film. Many found the film’s third act to be a bit hokey. You either go with it or you don’t. I liked it. I can’t quite say I was necessarily eager for a sequel but here we are. Insidious Chapter 2 feels a little disappointingly mostly because it’s simply not as scary as its predecessor and director James Wan is coming right off the huge success of the supremely scary and intelligent summer movie “The Conjuring.” Any sequel to a supremely scary film is never going to be quite as scary because it automatically lacks the most important factor: the unknown. However, while the film ultimately doesn’t really need to exist, the filmmakers have a done a decent job deepening the mythology while cleverly incorporating the events of the first film into this next entry.

Insidious Chapter 2 takes pretty much exactly where the first film left off. In fact, you must have a strong knowledge of the first film or you’ll pretty much be completely lost. It also relies on flashbacks to the childhood of the adult Josh (Patrick Wilson) who we learned from the first film had the ability to leave his spiritual body while sleeping. It’s a gift he passed to his son Dalton and in the first film a demon attempted to take control of the child. We get to see young Josh as he experiences his own ghoulish encounters .  Josh doesn’t seem quite right after the events of the first film, which left him as the suspected murderer of an elderly medium named Elise (Lin Shaye). He’s eventually cleared of the murder, though his wife Renai (Rose Byrne) thinks he’s not acting quite right. Meanwhile Josh’s mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) teams up with the a younger pair of psychic investigators to figure out the connection between the events that occurred during Josh’s childhood with what’s happening in the present. It’s all a tad convoluted.

And that’s where we have our problem. The characters are embroiled in a somewhat interesting mystery but nothing they encounter is nothing quite as terrifying as what we saw in the first film. Although I did like the mystery element and the events of Josh’s past eventually make sense with what’s happening in the present. Even screenwriter Leigh Whannell, who also plays on the of investigators, has fun going back to the events of the first film and seeing things from a slightly different point-of-view ala  “Back to the Future Part II.” It’s extremely clever I’ll admit, though I’m not sure how much actually sense it makes. But it sort of dug it.

“Insidious” was made on a literally a shoestring budget, but you’d never know it. Chapter 2’s budget is slightly higher, but it retains the same look and feel as the original. A significant portion of the film takes place in the ghostly world of “the further” and it’s certainly an interesting world they’ve created. Many people will likely roll their eyes, but I care enough about the characters to just go with it. The problem lies in the fact that we’ve seen most of this stuff before and it was must scarier the first time and the plot remains slightly hokey – much more so than the first film.

Overall, I was disappointed with “Insidious Chapter 2.” Though what it lacks in scares it makes up for in interesting story elements and it has fun playing with what we know about the events of the first film. The actors are good and it’s atmospheric to a point, but I’m sure some scenes will have viewers rolling their eyes rather than covering them.  GRADE: B-

Friday, September 13, 2013

Jason Vex: Ranking All Twelve Friday the 13th Films

Happy Friday the 13th! You know what that means right? Don’t let a black cat cross your path. Don’t walk under a ladder. Don’t break a mirror. And don’t have sex in the woods in a tent while smoking weed. The Friday the 13th films series is one of the most endearingly popular horror film franchises of all time. You know what? I’m not all that surprised. But the truth is this I’m way more a fan of Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers than I am of Jason. While some of these movies kind of scared me as a kid, Jason was never all that frightening or interesting. As a horror-obsessed film geek though it’s now my duty to take all these films (I’ve even included Freddy vs. Jason, because hey why not?) and put them in my personal preferential order. Let’s be clear that there’s not even one really truly outstanding horror film on this list, as even the original Friday film is basically a cheap rip-off of "Halloween" without any of the artistic merit. I’ve made no attempt to actually analyze and figure out why these films have endured the test of time with horror fans. I think it’s the solid ratio of gore and boobs. But who knows really?

1 - Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)

Yes. The fourth film in the series is actually the best. Why? It has the most creative deaths, some of the more memorable characters (which isn’t really saying all that much), and it’s the first movie that features Jason in his hockey mask for the entire movie (he got in in the third movie). Young Corey Feldman goes on a seemingly idyllic summer vacation with his family when he runs into a group of horny teenagers also on vacation and the machete-wielding maniac Jason Voorhees. Gore make-up maestro Tom Savini, who worked on the first film, returned with the promise that he could kill Jason for real. Cue eight more movies. Notable Deaths: the guy who gets his face crushed in the shower, the hitchhiker who gets stabbed through the throat who only wants to enjoy her banana, and Crispin Glover taking a machete to the face.  GRADE: A-

2 - Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)

Part 4 and 6 are practically interchangeable in terms of being my favorite; it depends on the day. By the time the sixth entry came around I think people were a little tired of Jason. But they missed him in part 5 because Jason wasn’t actually the killer. But director Tom McLoughlin, who also wrote the screenplay, sort of had free reign to inject the perfect dose of self-aware humor into the film. In a way it’s the most meta of the entire series. It’s essentially the Scream of the Friday films. So Jason comes back to life yet again after being revived by a bolt of lightning (ala Frankenstein) and wreaks havoc on unsuspecting victims. This entry is notable for also reintroducing Jason as basically an unkillable zombie monster. Also, the film also returns the action back to the camp setting, which actually has children campers. One of them even humorously quips to another, “So what did you want to be when you grew up?” Notable Deaths: the woman who gets her face crushed in the RV bathroom and the 3 paintballers who get slashed with one swipe, and the guy who gets folded in half. GRADE: A-

3 - Friday the 13th (1980)

This is where it all started. It’s important to note that Jason was not the killer in the original Friday the 13th. In fact, the killer is not even revealed until the final act when the kindly, motherly Mrs. Voorhees shows up and says that she began murdering horny camp counselors after they failed to notice her son had drowned in the lake. The whole thing isn’t all that scary and is pretty much just a rip-off of Halloween’s formula of slice and dice but with much more gore and way less suspense. However, of all the Halloween rip-offs in the 80s this one is definitely the best. And it has Kevin Bacon, so there you go. Notable Deaths: Kevin Bacon gets an arrow through his neck after porking his girlfriend, a girl takes an axe to the face, and Mrs. Voorhees gets decapitated. GRADE: B+

4 - Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)

The second Friday the 13th movie is practically a remake of the first movie, except with Jason as the killer. He has yet to receive his hockey mask and instead has a giant sack over his head with an eyehole. There are practically double the number of deaths as the first one and some are even more creative. I think Amy Steel as Ginny (I had to look up her character’s name because frankly no one knows any of these people) makes a pretty decent and tough final girl. All the other teens are practically forgettable. Notable Deaths: two teens get shish kebabed while doin’ it and the poor guy in the wheelchair takes a machete to the face.  GRADE: B

5 - Freddy vs. Jason (2003)

I like Freddy vs. Jason simply because it has two of the ultimate horror icons in the same film. Of course, no one realized just how little sense it makes for Freddy and Jason to occupy the same time and space. But whatever. The plot is ludicrous and most of the teenage cast is forgettable, and there’s a disturbingly over-reliance on CGI but this is a decent enough entry in both series. It has the fans in mind and you can tell. Notable Deaths: the guy who gets stabbed in bed, and the chick from Destiny’s Child rightfully gets slammed against a tree after using a gay slur. GRADE: B

6 - Friday the 13th Part III (1982)

Instead of basically remaking the first two movies for part III, the filmmakers decided to remake the first two movies, but film it in 3D! This third entry is notable for several reasons. Jason finally acquires his trademarked hockey mask, he also kills adults (including an entire motorcycle gang) along with teenagers, and it’s not about camp counselors. Part III started the formula of having a group of random young people vacation in the middle of the woods near Crystal Lake a cue that many of the sequels after this would copy. The 3D effects are silly but fun and like all 80s 3D movies seem completely out of place when viewed in 2D. Notable Deaths: a spear shot through the eye, a guy gets macheted down the torso as he walks on his hands, and a guy’s eye pops out after his head is squished. GRADE: B

7 - Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)

I actually don’t hate this eighth entry the way many people do. It’s not very good, but it’s not that awful. There’s nothing really technically wrong with it except that its title is a blatant lie. Jason is awakened from his watery grave, he boards a cruise ship that’s headed towards New York and he spends most of his time dispatching the crew and passengers. It’s sort of Friday the 13th meets The Poseidon Adventure. Once the final act rolls around Jason finally begins to interact with the stereotypical 80s NYC. Gangs, thugs, druggies, you know the drill. He even punches a guy’s head off. Notable Deaths: a woman takes a guitar to the face, a guy in a sauna takes a hot rock to the gut, the guy from Naked Gun 2 ½ drowns in a barrel of toxic waste. GRADE: B-

8 - Friday the 13th (2009)

They should have subtitled this one “Jason Takes a Hostage.” The remake of Friday the 13th kind of frustrated me. It’s really a remake of the first four films and is therefore more a “best of” type of entry. It kind of bummed me out that it wasn’t about camp counselors getting ready to open summer camp and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t have been. And the biggest thing that just doesn’t make sense is that Jason holds a girl, alive, in his underground lair. It just doesn’t make any sense in Friday the 13th terms. Jason is quick about his victims, he dispatches them and that’s all. There’s no reason why he’d keep a girl alive long enough for her brother to attempt to find her. She was the McGuffin and that’s all. The teenagers here are just as obnoxious as any of the other bad Friday films and the death scenes, although graphic, aren’t all that memorable. It’s sort of just meh, but still watchable. Notable Deaths: burned alive in a sleeping bag and party boy gets arrowed in the head. GRADE: C+

9 - Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)

This is where the series really started taking a nosedive. They couldn’t think of anything to really do with this series after the funny hijinks of part VI so they decided to take things more seriously have a teenage girl with telekinetic powers battle Jason. It’s sort of Carrie vs. Jason. The acting and story here are some of the worst the series has ever seen and it didn’t help that by 1988 the MPAA was going through their whiny brat phase and forced the film to cut out lots of graphic violence which basically stunted the film’s impact. The death scenes just feel neutered. Notable Deaths: sleeping bag against a tree, an old guy takes a power saw to the gut, and girl gets axed in the face. GRADE: C+

10 - Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985)

Friday the 13th Part V is essentially the Halloween III of the Jason franchise. Jason is not the killer – though it does still follow the storyline of the previous entries. While you think Jason is the killer with this trademark hockey mask, a twist reveals that it’s a random guy who’s dressed as Jason killing everyone. Lame with a capital L. And it’s the most ridiculous reason too. A guy kills an annoying teen at a halfway house and it turns out the killer is actually the boy’s father who goes insane and kills everyone ala Mrs. Voorhees. Needless to say the fans balked at the idea and Jason returned in Part VI. This entry is notable for continuing the storyline of Tommy Jarvis, now a teen, who was played by Corey Feldman in part IV.  This one sort of ranks evenly with part VII but gets downgraded simply for not having Jason be the killer. Notable Deaths: a girl takes gardening shears to the face, a guy gets his head squished against a tree, and a guy gets a road flare shoved down his throat. GRADE: C+

11 - Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993)

Oy vey. What can be said about the ninth entry that hasn’t been said before? Jason explodes at the beginning of the film (by a SWAT Team ambush) and his remains and his still beating heart are transported to the morgue. The coroner then eats his heart which then “infects” him with Jason’s “spirit.” As the infected host kills more people its forced to regurgitate a worm-like creature into a new host. So what we’re left with is more of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers type movie than a Friday the 13th movie. It’s sounds stupid. It is stupid. It has some good kills and a very fun teaser ending. And that’s about it. Notable Deaths: Jason literally gets blown up and a fornicating couple gets ripped apart in a tent. GRADE: D-

12 - Jason X (2002)

I’ll admit that I haven’t even made it all the way through Jason X. It’s that dumb. Although I should attempt to watch it again for some “so bad its good” camp value. I can’t even remember what I did see. Though I remember a woman getting her face frozen and then it’s smashed to bits. Its plot has Jason begin frozen by the government and thawed out in the future (ala Austin Powers) and in space. Ugh I don’t even care anymore. Notable Deaths: the aforementioned frozen face death. GRADE: F