Don Jon

© 2013 Ray Wong

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has, over the years, matured as an actor and a thinking-woman's sex symbol. Now with his writing and directorial debut, he has grown as a filmmaker as well.

Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), known as Don Jon to his friend, is your regular good guy. Typical for his Italian heritage, Jon is devoted to his life, his family, his church, and his friends. He is also quite a player, and is addicted to pornography. Even though he has no trouble hooking up with beautiful women, he could only "lose himself" with porn. Yet when he meets sexy, beautiful Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), he realizes that he could fall in love and everything could change.

Well, not quite. Even though he really adores Barbara, he is not convinced that anything has changed. Also Barbara wants Jon to improve himself, so he enrolls in adult classes. His friends are puzzled by his changes, but his parents are delighted that Jon is finally settling down. And yet Jon doesn't seem all that happy after all. He is still often angry; and he is still addicted to porn. Only now he is more secretive about it as Barbara forbids him.

At his class, he meets an older woman named Esther (Julianne Moore) who seems to have a crush for Jon. Annoyed by her approach, he tries to avoid her but somehow finds her mysterious and alluring at the same time. Meanwhile at home, his relationship with Barbara explodes when she discovers that he has been lying about watching porn.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Loopers) is a solid actor who has been stuck with lighter roles until recently. He wrote, directed and acted in this movie so it seems that he has complete control of the character and the story, and it shows. His acting is confident, natural (if not a bit overly aggressive), and sexy. Scarlett Johansson (The Avengers) also plays against type as the sexy, manipulative Barbara. Together they make a good pair and play off each other nicely.

Julianne Moore (Being Flynn) also turns in a great performance as Esther, the lonesome "strange" classmate who has a crush on Jon. Moore's subtlety gives the character an extra layer of truth that slowly reveals how the character plays a role in Jon's life. The supporting cast does their job effectively. Tony Danza (Crash) is somewhat over the top as Jon's hot-tempered father. Glenne Headly (The Joneses) is delightful as Jon's mother, and Brie Larson (Short Term 12) has only two lines but delivers them with amazing insight.

Gordon-Levitt's screenplay is quirky (it reminds me of (500) Days of Summer, also starring Gordon-Levitt himself), bald and raunchy. He doesn't shy away from the bald theme of sex, which earns the film a much deserved R rating. Granted, his version of the "straight male" is somewhat cliched and stereotypical: Don Jon is all machismo. There is no subtlety in that characterization; fortunately Gordon-Levitt gives the character a softer, more boyish inner core -- that this man just want to love and be loved like everybody else. The dialogue can be somewhat stiff and blunt, and the introduction of Esther seems forced. However, this being his first screenplay I find it rather well done. It is short and to the point, and often amusing.

His direction is also blunt and to the point. The style is very contemporary and non-apologetic. He uses repetition to depict Jon's inner self and the symbolism is well placed. The pacing is great and the tone is right. The film does get somewhat somber and serious near the end that seems slightly out of sync with the rest, but soon it picks up again.

Gordon-Levitt first filmmaking effort pays off. Although not on a grand scale, this should further establish him as a solid filmmaker and an emerging force in young Hollywood, which is in dire need for fresh breaths.

Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headly, Brie Larson, Rob Brown, Jeremy Luke
Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Writer: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Distributor: Relativity Media
MPAA Rating: R for strong graphic sexual material, dialogue, language and drug use
Running Time: 90 minutes


Script - 7
Performance - 8
Direction - 7
Cinematography - 8
Music/Sound - 7
Editing - 7
Production - 7

Total - 7.7 out of 10.0 


© 2013 Ray Wong

Prisoners is not your normal everyday Hollywood mystery-suspense. Using a kidnapping case as the backbone of the story, it examines complex themes such as family, morality, and to some extent, religion.

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a religious man, but he's also a practical man, always ready for the worst disasters. He and his wife Grace (Maria Bello), teenage son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) live in a Pennsylvania suburb and are good friends with neighbors Franklin (Terrence Howard), Nancy (Viola Davis) and their two daughters (Eliza and Joy). After Thanksgiving dinner, Anna and Joy go outside to play but they never return.The family's search leads them to an RV that was parked in the neighborhood earlier.

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is assigned to the case. He arrests Alex Jones (Paul Dana), the driver of the RV, as a potential suspect, but due to the lack of physical evidence and the fact that Alex has the IQ of a 10-year-old, Loki has no choice but let Alex go. Infuriated and convinced that Alex is involved in the kidnapping, Keller decides to take matters in his own hands. He abducts Alex and locks him in an abandoned apartment building. He coerces reluctant Franklin to help him interrogate Alex. Also a religious man, Franklin believes what Keller is doing is wrong, and eventually he drops out, forcing Keller to deal with Alex on his own.

Meanwhile, Loki's investigation leads him to a priest who is hiding a dead body in his basement, and a recluse who buys children clothing at a thrift store. It also leads him back to Keller, whose odd behavior puzzles Loki as Alex has somehow disappeared.

Hugh Jackman (The Wolverine) has sharpened his dramatic skills in the past few years, earning his first Oscar nomination in Les Miserables. Here, Jackman plays the conflicted man -- a man of faith who is also desperate to find his daughter -- with great intensity and power. His character is the most complex and difficult in the movie, and he does a good job. Jake Gyllenhaal (End of Watch) plays a simpler character named Loki -- a dedicated, introspective detective. Yet Gyllenhaal plays the character with a depth and sensitivity that defy the stereotype. What could have been a cliched "detective" character turns into a very human character in Gyllenhaal's sensitive portrayal.

Other than the two leading men, the supporting cast is extraordinarily strong. Viola Davis (Beautiful Creatures) and Maria Bello (Grown Ups 2) play the grieving mothers with heartbreaking intensity. Terrence Howard (The Butler) is also good as the meek Franklin, whose sense of morality conflicts with his dire effort to find his daughter. Paul Dano (Ruby Sparks) is superb as Alex Jones, and Melissa Leo (Olympus Has Fallen) is also solid as his aunt Holly.

Aaron Guzikowski's (Contraband) screenplay is taut and suspenseful. It follows familiar suspense-mystery footprints, but at the same time deviates to examine something more disturbing. What is right and what is wrong? In the name of justice and personal anguish, is "torture" right? Guziknowski doesn't provide the answer, but through the character Keller, there are plenty of questions that he raises to provoke us. He also taps into one of the biggest, most unimaginable fears of any parent: losing a child in insidious situations.

As a mystery, there are plenty of obligatory red herrings and wild goose chases, some of which could become tedious and predictable for the avid mystery fans. For everybody else, however, the puzzles are well thought-out, if somewhat manipulative, and it's a fun thing to connect the dots and see if the audience gets it before the Keller or Loki does. As in the any mystery, the clues are there and they are doled out gradually to lure the audience in and keep them in the story. Some of the clues and connections do seem rather contrived, however.

But Denis Villeneuve's (Incendies) direction keeps everything tight together. His style is gritty and gloomy, perfectly supported by Pennsylvania's winter landscape. The pacing is right except for a few slow spots (at 153 minutes the movie does feel a little too long). Villeneuve plays it close to his vest, often cutting away and letting the audience take their guesses or make their own conclusions. The technique works beautifully. He also slows down enough to develop the characters and let the actors bring their characters and relationships to life. I appreciate that. The slower pace also allows the audience to collect the clues and piece it all together. The downside is, of course, the astute audience could be a step ahead of the story. The payoff, however, is excellent.

Prisoners is a moody, suspenseful and skillfully crafted drama that is both entertaining and thought provoking. Even though there are familiar mystery and suspense trappings and manipulations, I think the audience will be willing to become prisoners in the theater for this movie for 153 minutes.

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Aaron Guzikowski
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language
Running Time: 153 minutes


Script - 8
Performance - 8
Direction - 8
Cinematography - 7
Music/Sound - 7
Editing - 8
Production - 8

Total - 7.9 out of 10.0 

The Butler

The Butler

Director Lee Daniels became a household name with his critically acclaimed film Precious. With The Butler, which is loosely based on the life of real-life White House butler Eugene Allen, Daniels also focuses on the plight of one African-American individual with the civil rights movement as his backdrop.

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker; with Michael Rainey Jr playing young Cecil) is the son of a cotton farm worker (David Banner). After an incident that results in Cecil's father being shot dead, Cecil is taken in by the estate's caretaker (Vanessa Redgrave) and becomes a servant. Throughout the years, Cecil advances in the career as a black servant. Meanwhile, he meets the love of his life, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), and together they have two sons, Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelly).

Through a series of events, Cecil is hired to become a butler at the White House during the Eisenhower (Robin Williams) administration. Under the supervision of head butler Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding Jr.), Cecil begins to blossom. As he focuses more and more on his job, his home life with Gloria and his sons, especially Louis, suffers. After Louis goes off to college as Fisk, he joins a student group and eventually drops out of school and become actively involved in the civil rights movement. This puts a huge strain on his relationship with Cecil, who pride himself as someone who serves his Presidents and country, not fight against them.

Cecil and Louis become estranged, and Gloria turns to the bottle as their family falls apart. Meanwhile, the civil rights movement heats up, and Cecil secretly fears of his son's safety. While having all the insider knowledge, Cecil feels like an outsider as he has no voice, and his loyalty to his employer is at odds with what he feels is right for his people. All this comes to a head during the Reagan administration, and Cecil has a decision to make.

Forest Whitaker (The Last Stand) has always been a solid, fantastic, understated actor. In the role of  Cecil Gaines, Whitaker exercises his restraint and grace and personifies the butler with dignity and a constant sense of conflict and struggle. Whitaker should be commended for his subtle portrayal, never rising above a certain level of camp and overt drama.

Oprah Winfrey (Beloved) once again reminds us that she is first and foremost an actress, not just a personality. While perhaps not the greatest actress alive, Winfrey holds her own next to Whitaker, and her portrayal of a conflicted wife and mother is affecting. David Oyelowo (Lincoln) is also excellent as Cecil's deviant, headstrong son who is so idealistic that sometimes you want to smack him in the head, while admiring his courage and conviction.

The supporting cast is like a who's who in modern black film history. Mariah Carey (Precious) proves that Precious was no fluke for her, and we can all forget about the atrocious Glitters. Cuba Gooding Jr. (Don Jon) is somewhat typecast as the sassymouthed Carter, but Lenny Kravitz (The Hunger Games) is the strong, silent type as fellow butler James. Terrence Howard (Dead Man Down) is also solid as Cecil's philandering neighbor, who carries on a brief affair with Gloria.

The Presidents and their wives are also a who's who list of veteran actors: Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon, James Marsden as Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as LBJ, and Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as Ronald and Nancy Reagan respectively.

While the acting in general is good, I feel that the screenplay by Danny Strong (The Hunger Games), and Daniels' direction are rather heavy-handed when it comes to the civil rights movement, as if they want to cover as much ground as possible. What comes off is a more like a history lesson than drama, and at times I feel that the material strains to be relevant in parallel to Cecil's life story. Also, the drama is now shifted from Cecil's fascinating career as a White House butler (we yearn to see more interactions and insider drama with the Presidents, the First Ladies and the White House staff) to street drama of violence and injustice.

Don't get me wrong, black history is important and this serves as a good reflection of what African-Americans had to endure in the past 50 years, long after Americans fought in the Civil War. Still, as a drama, the backdrop history takes center stage. At times I feel that Louis Gaines is the true protagonist of this story, as Cecil is by and large passive and reactive. And yet we don't get the full scope of Louis's story either. So what we can is a hybrid that feels more like a lesson in Black History (and a who's who list of Black leaders) than a biopic. At the end, I wasn't moved because the story feels too preachy and academic, instead of personal and intimate.

Stars: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Mariah Carey, Vanessa Redgrave, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Terrence Howard
Director: Lee Daniels
Writers: Danny Strong (based on Wil Haygood's article)
Distributor: Wienstein Company
MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, language, sexual content and thematic material
Running Time: 132 minutes


Script - 6
Performance - 8
Direction - 7
Cinematography - 7
Music/Sound - 8
Editing - 7
Production - 7

Total - 7.5 out of 10.0 

Short Term 12

© 2013 Ray Wong

While semi-biographical based on writer-director Destin Cretton's own experience, Short Term 12 is an intimate drama that deals with the psychological problems of the troubled kids as well as their caretakers.

Grace (Brie Karson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr) help run a foster care facility for troubled kids called Short Term 12 -- most kids stay there for less than 12 months, even though there are exceptions such as Marcus (Keith Stanfield) who has been there for three years. Grace and Mason also are secretly dating. When Grace finds out she's pregnant, she has a tough time deciding whether to keep the baby (and tell Mason) or do what she thinks is right as she believes she would make a terrible mother.

Grace and Mason also both came from broken homes. Mason himself grew up in a foster home, and Grace was sexually abused by her father, who is now safe behind bars.  But Grace never really deals with her trauma and she keeps everything inside. Mason, on the other, says whatever is on his mind.

When a new girl named Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) arrives at the facility, she invokes the maternal instinct within Grace. Also Jayden's background reminds Grace of her own, and she suspects that Jayden, too, has been abused by her father. Yet Grace has no proof, and in frustration, Grace lashes out on Mason. In light of their conflict, Grace further believes that she is unlovable and unsuitable to be a mother.

The assemble cast focuses on two leads: Brie Larson (Don Jon) as Grace and John Gallagher Jr. (Newsroom) as Mason. The pair has tremendous chemistry together. Larson is the silent, strong but kind type of girl next door that you can't help but have feelings for. And Gallagher plays the goofy, relaxed Mason with strong conviction and his affection for Grace is palpable. You can't help but root for the pair as they are fundamentally good people with a lot of baggage but not by their own wrongdoing. And they are there to help the kids to cope with similar problems (many troubled kids come from broken homes and child abuse).

Kaitlyn Dever (The Spectacular Now) plays the moody, antisocial Jayden perfectly with both spunk and vulnerability. Stephanie Beatriz (Southland) and Rami Malek (The Master) play the other two workers effectively. Keith Stanfield (Short Term 12) stands out as Marcus, a brooding 18-year-old whose imminent departure from Short Term 12 creates much internal turmoil.

Based on his own experiences and his same-titled short film, the screenplay extends the drama of the foster care facility to include a core romance between the two leads. The result is a much more multi-layered drama that only examines and sheds light on the troubled kids, but also the aftermath of these problems even as adults. While Mason seems rather well adjusted (basically because he grew up with great foster parents), Grace continues to struggle even though she puts up a strong front.

Cretton's screenplay and direction are both intimate and personal, and packed with emotional punches. His down to earth and casual style also adds to the material as there is a certain documentary feel to it. Granted, at times the shaky handheld camera shots made me nauseous. That and the occasional heavy-handedness of the plot and message are my only gripes. Certain parts (especially with regard to Jayden's history) seems too obvious and contrived.

Still, the production is realistic and full of genuine emotions. You simply cannot peel your eyes away from these characters and  you feel deeply for them. Technically the movie feels like an indie, but that's part of its charm. It's not a glossy Hollywood production. With stellar performances from the young actors and the director's keen, personal eye on the material, Short Term 12 is worthy of our increasingly short-term attention.

Stars: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Stephanie Beatriz, Rami Malek, Keith Stanfield
Director: Destin Cretton
Writers: Destin Cretton
Distributor: Universal
MPAA Rating:  R for language and brief sexuality
Running Time: 96 minutes


Script - 8
Performance - 8
Direction - 7
Cinematography - 7
Music/Sound - 7
Editing - 7
Production - 7

Total - 7.8 out of 10.0