Filling the blanks in 2013: “Don Jon”

Just because you know how to drive a car, doesn’t mean you’ll know how to fix it, let alone build one. I think every actor, who desires to make the transition to the other side of the lens, should be told exactly that, and having seen “Don Jon”, I believe Joseph Gordon-Levitt should have seriously considered staying where he was. Surely, there has been a number of film stars who succeeded in taking that step (Mel Gibson, Tim Robbins, George Clooney, Clint Eastwood, or more recently Ben Affleck, to name a few), but the ability to perform simply does not warrant one’s ability to direct other actors and build a film from start to finish.

Just to set the record straight, at no point before seeing “Don Jon” (formerly known as “Don Jon’s Addiction”) had I been subconsciously discrediting this work and I was secretly hoping it would be as good as the raving Sundance reviews built it up to be. But let’s be honest – the idea of an actor going for a triple whammy as a début writer/director and a lead star in a comedy (dramedy?) based around a concept of the social perception of online pornography did raise a few flags – at least for me. I find it quite sad, because it could have been much more interesting, if done right.

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In essence, “Don Jon” is supposed to be a story about a guy with a problem. Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a young, attractive stud that works out regularly, goes to night clubs with his buddies, picks up chicks for the purpose of banging, swears in his car, attends Sunday mass, and has regular dinners with his parents. Oh, I almost forgot… He also frequently, diligently and shamelessly jerks off to the ‘tune’ of online porn. It’s not that he’s a loser who can’t bed a girl – he’s just the opposite, but the real stuff never does it for him, because real girls would never do anything remotely close to what he can see online.

At some point, Jon finally finds ‘The One’, Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), who has it all – hot, funny, (a little too) bossy… the whole caboodle. She convinces Jon to finish a degree and get a better job and basically turns him into a nice little boy-toy. Everything falls apart, though, the minute she discovers Jon’s little dirty secret, as she feels betrayed, because her man needs to seek satisfaction in the arms of virtual bimbos. This brings Jon to a defining moment in his life, where he will have to find out, whether he can do without his addiction. Weirdly enough, at the same time he befriends Esther (Julianne Moore) at his evening classes, who seems to be struggling with vices of her own.

The biggest problem I have with “Don Jon” is its story, or more to the point – its lack. I think it is more accurate to call whatever-this-is an idea stretched out to 90 minutes rather than a fully fleshed out story with compelling character arcs and an interesting (and more importantly – deeper) discussion on problem of the social and emotional disconnect between the online fantasies and the reality of a relationship. For some reason I don’t think Gordon-Levitt had a clear idea of where he wanted his characters to go, because past the setup the story goes exactly nowhere and the direction slides more into chaos with every minute of running time.

It seems to me that Gordon-Levitt was more concerned with filling the film with bullshit irrelevant dialogue instead of making it work in service of the characters, or the story as a whole. There is not a single minute within “Don Jon” that is not carpet bombed with unnaturally fast-paced dialogue (or the off-screen narration, equally fast). I could maybe see it as inspired by David O. Russell’s work, but it takes much more than putting four characters in a room and have them yell at each other to have it look good. In reality, the notion of leaving no silence between the lines comes across as awkward instead of brisk and refreshing, as though he was genuinely afraid of having his characters play without words. And it gets tiresome after a while, because nothing else really happens in this film – people just talk and whenever the story needs to take a step forward, we will see a character on screen spell it out for everybody. I mean, we are not that stupid, you know, and we can figure stuff out from the context, or body language, but I guess this is the ‘new guy thing’. As a result, “Don Jon” instead of touching on an important problem, it glosses over it in a morally infantile manner, thus making it look more like an after-school special about the dangers of masturbation.

Gordon-Levitt’s inexperience spills out onto basically every other aspect of the film. I can’t seriously blame the actors for their wooden and over-the-top performances, because they are for the most part very good actors. I know for a fact, Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore cat act brilliantly when directed by a seasoned veteran who has the balls to enable them in a best way possible. Having your characters speak all the damn time and shout over each other doesn’t really come close to the level of the previously mentioned David O. Russell’s craftsmanship.

Additionally, cutting the film into three-second-long shots and overflowing the running time with the repetitive visual cues (as if ripped off from Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream”) does not make the film seem brisk and modern, but rather unoriginal and artificially cool. Then again, it can all be piled onto the curb of inexperience, because Gordon-Levitt clearly had no clue how to convey his ideas, so whenever he couldn’t have the characters say things out loud, he resorted to showing everything. Thus, whenever Jon watches porn, we see him watch porn. When he’s done wanking, we see a tissue. When he has a change of heart, we immediately see the obvious difference in his swearing in a car… The list goes on.

I could maybe give this film a pass if it wasn’t hyped up so much, because it evidently is a debut feature through-and-through. It’s flawed and full of rookie mistakes, with bland cliché characters and a very basic story arc, on which everything is hinged. Joseph Gordon-Levitt definitely needs to hone his skills before he can be recognized as a full-blown director and having the world raving about that rubbish film is not going to help him at all. If anything, he might end up with a severe case of Macaulaculkinitis, which we all know is fatal to one’s career.

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“Fear and Desire” – Stanley Kubrick’s baby steps

Not very often one has the opportunity to watch something quite like that. Now, however, courtesy of Lovefilm Instant, I got to see the very first feature shot by the great Stanley Kubrick“Fear and Desire”. And it is something special, to say the least.

Stanley Kubrick was not the most prolific of directors. He was well known for almost OCD-like attention to detail and perfectionism. He thought – just as the great Alfred Hitchcock – that his next piece needed to be better than his last one. Kubrick directed 13 feature films and 3 short documentaries in his lifetime and it took him on average 4.1 year to release a new movie. However, on the span of 36 years of his film making career his process got progressively more and more time-consuming, to which a 12-year-long period of silence between “Full Metal Jacket” and “Eyes wide shut” can testify most accurately. Kubrick’s approach towards cinema certainly had its clear advantages, because none of his works can be classified as sub-par. Although in some circles “2001” is referred to as a ‘overrated’ (even though it clearly kick-started what we know now as sci-fi) and “The Shining “ garnered two nominations for the very first Razzie Awards, we can all safely assume that Kubrick’s legendary focus and perfectionism earned him his place among the gods of cinema. Every genre Kubrick touched, he redefined… but we all have to start somewhere.

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Just as I did with Chris Nolan’s “Following”, I think I would like to say a few words on “Fear and Desire” – the first film Kubrick made. He was only 25 years old when he decided he wanted to film something different than a documentary. He borrowed some money from his uncle, took his savings (which added up to around 10 thousand dollars), got a group of friends together, hired 5 Mexican guys to carry his equipment (true story), and headed out to the wild in order to shoot “Fear and desire”.

In short, “Fear and desire” tells a story of a group of soldiers that crashed somewhere behind the enemy lines and are trying to get back to safety. While they are trying to come up with a plan to do so, they learn that an enemy general and his close associates are stationed nearby. Therefore, they decide to try and assassinate him in order to help out their own country. It’s nowhere near your usual war film. It’s very metaphorical – almost too metaphorical, although spelled out a bit loud. The way the story is told, it resembles Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. The majority of the story takes place inside the characters’ minds, which slows down the pace a notch; it’s not a bad thing at all – “Apocalypse Now”, anyone?

Now, I don’t think I can (or should, for that matter) review an amateur film that was made 60 years ago. It would be inappropriate to pass judgment on it, simply because I am in no capacity to understand the reality of the early 50’s in terms of its cinema. Now that I look at films, I look at them and judge them against a body of art that spans a century. Bear in mind that in 1953 that body of films was less than half of what we know now. So it is only fair not to say anything about the film’s production value or questionable acting. It was the 50’s and let us leave it at that.

On the other hand, what I can say now is that “Fear and desire” – being a quintessential amateur piece – showed me a tiny glimpse of the genius. It’s in no way a fantastic film; it’s rather tiresome, but still “Fear and desire” contains that little grain of something that with time grew and blossomed into a phenomenal talent. The way certain scenes were shot, the use of close-up photography and the narrative, all allowed me to understand that it was indeed Kubrick who stood behind the camera, though I cannot really say that I would have guessed who directed it, had I not known it beforehand. I’d say that it’s all too subtle to identify and I’m not that well-versed in the subject (yet).

All things considered, if – like me – you know full well what you are about to watch, “Fear and desire” makes up for a fantastic hour of your time. Let’s be honest here – it’s piece of history. And prior to 2012 it was almost impossible to see it. I should say at this point that Kubrick, once he was well-established, grew so ashamed of his own debut that he went out of his way to make sure no-one would see it ever again. He would allegedly collect various copies of “Fear and Desire” and keep them out of public’s reach. Now that he’s long gone, we have the pleasure to witness Kubrick’s baby steps ourselves.

And I have to say – “Fear and desire” is nowhere near as bad as Kubrick made it out to be in various interviews. I mean, it’s an amateur film made for a cheap buck, but it is after all an important piece of a puzzle that Kubrick’s mind most certainly was. Once you’ve watched it, you should immediately realize that Kubrick’s journey towards immortality was quite rocky and it didn’t start off with a bang. Even though you could clearly identify the elements of Kubrick’s style in it, “Fear and desire” should remain a testament of human perseverance and focus in context of things that came next. After all, no-one would expect that a career that peaked with “Full Metal Jacket” could have been ignited by a film like that. Now I do and my respect for Stanley Kubrick has only grown because of it.

“Mama” – Tripped on the last hurdle

“Mama” could be a perfect example of what can happen to a talented man if the circumstances are right. If you think about it, 4 years ago Andrés Muschetti most likely did not even dream about a possibility of being handed a multimillion dollar budget to make a full feature film. Add also the fact that he would get to direct one of the most promising (and now recognized thanks to her phenomenal role in “Zero Dark Thirty”) actresses of her generation – Jessica Chastain – and top it all off with a persona like Guillermo del Toro leading his project from the producer’s end. If he had said he would become a successful Hollywood director by 2013, no-one would have believed him. Well, now they have to…

Directorial debut is a risky endeavor  Someone’s trusted your talent enough to put his money and reputation on the line in order for you to have a chance to shine. The stakes are high, because no-one knows you and the only person that people would recognize would be the producer who paid for your party. If you’re lucky enough and your script is good, or if maybe people who want you to succeed pull some strings, someone relatively known will get signed to star in your thing. But that’s it. If you cock it up, their reputations will be damaged, you’ll piss in someone’s resumé (let’s face it, how many actors have at least one performance in a dodgy movie under their belts… all of them?), the studio and the producers will lose money and you will never get a second chance, because life’s a female dog.

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Fortunately enough, Muschetti managed to woo enough people to make his debut a commercial success and now he’s already signed to direct his next film. Much to my disappointment, however, he failed to woo me. Well, he did take me on a good date, but he managed to ruin everything before a good-night kiss. I’m getting ahead of myself…

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from “Mama” when I sat down in the cinema. I love a good horror story and I know a bad one when I see it. So, when the end credits rolled and the lights went back on I knew full well. It was not great, it was not bad… It was fine. And that is not good enough for a genre movie.

If you have seen the short film, on which “Mama” is based (watch here) you’d know that its power lied within the uncertainty. We didn’t know who mama was, we didn’t know what it wanted, and we only knew that it was there and that it wanted something from the girls. And that’s where the horror comes from. This is what subconsciously fuels our fear – not knowing. So, the minute I learned that “Mamá” was being adapted into a full-grown feature horror, I was intrigued. I wanted to experience the same horror in its final form. I think it was a reasonable assumption on my part because the short film is merely a sequence without a story, so there must have been something interesting behind it worth translating into the language of film.

“Mama” basically tells a story of two little girls (3 and 1 years old) whose father, after murdering their mom, kidnaps them with intent to kill them as well. He finds a cabin in the woods somewhere near Richmond (Virginia) to be a perfect place to put an end to his family in a poetic way, however, before he gets the chance to kill his defenseless children, he is killed by some sort of entity (that is definitely not human nor animal). Fast forward five years; the girls are found in the same cabin by their uncle – father’s (twin?) brother. Having lived five years in the wilderness they appear dehumanized to say the least. They don’t speak, but growl and moan instead, they run on all fours and they have almost completely forgotten about who they used to be. The uncle (together with his somehow reluctant girlfriend – Jessica Chastain) decides to take the challenge of giving the girls the home and family they deserve with a hope that they would learn how to be human again. The couple soon start to suspect that along with the girls someone else has entered their lives. Someone only the girls can see and refer to as ‘mama’.

 

That sounds like a perfectly ok horror story, doesn’t it? We have a house, a couple, children who are scary in their own wicked way and the unknown evil that will do everything to keep the girls to itself. I have to say that throughout the bulk of the movie I was very positive about it. The mood was just right and even without the jump-scares (that are still quite abundant in the genre) I felt terrified most of the time. The beautifully portrayed scenery amplified the horror perfectly. The girls (especially the younger one) made me feel uneasy with their very convincing acting and Jessica Chastain took the lead in a very subtle way without overshadowing anything and anyone. I loved the way Muschetti managed to incorporate the sequence from the short movie and I loved how ‘Mama’ was portrayed. Her disfigured, inhuman body and most diabolical movement made me feel uncomfortable even after I got used to her.

That’s what usually happens, right? Be it “Child’s play”, “Nightmare on Elm Street”, or anything else for that matter, after the initial terror, sooner or later, we grow accustomed to that scary little bad guy. And by the end of the movie, we are perfectly ok with it. I have to say that Mama continued her reign of terror right until the very ending – right until the climax.

Because it’s the ending, that is the weakest spot of “Mama”. You see, we could have had a decent horror story that was paced rather well, the acting was fine, the mood was perfect – it was terrifying. But somewhere along the way I started to suspect that no-one had a clear idea how to end it.

In the current climate, if you want a horror to be remembered as something more than just a run-of-the-mill shocker, you need to be somewhat creative. It’s not the 90’s anymore and you can’t just get on a torture porn or found-footage band wagon, because there’s so many of them. The haunted house and ghost stories have been exploited ad nauseam in all possible ways, so it is really difficult to come up with something new, at least from the point of view of a story.

I think that nowadays a proper mood is your safest bet. If you make your picture damn scary and/or gut-wrenching people will remember it. “Mama” had all the chances to succeed in that department, but this potential has been squandered. The minute the film started to focus around investigating who Mama was and what she wanted, it started to descend down a one-way street towards a nasty cliché. I really preferred not to know everything. I loved the mystery. But when it was solved and everything was uncovered – it was all gone. The king was naked.

If I ever see “Mama” again, it will not be the same. I can’t be afraid of it any more. What started out as a promising take on the ghost story (that was not revolutionary in a conventional sense) with everything you’d possibly want from a movie like that, ended up just another pointless shocker killed by its own ending. I have to say that as of now, I’m still rather disappointed with “Mama”. It’s a perfect example of how to shoot oneself in the foot by trying to explain too much. Some things need not be said. Some things need to be left alone. I don’t even want to know what would have happened in the story had it been 20 minutes longer.

All in all, I think I could turn my blind eye at the sad excuse for a climax “Mama” had to offer. It delivered very well when it comes to the atmosphere. The scares were genuine and the story – while it could have strayed further away from the beaten path – was good enough to be able to stand on its own two legs within the genre. Sadly, the lack of experience reared its ugly head eventually and murdered the film with anticlimactic plot development that stemmed from a terrible mistake of trying to explain to much. Knowing that I can only give the guy a pat on the back and say ‘good effort’. Next time round I won’t be merciful.