“Non-Stop” – a tasty home-made stew spiced with adrenaline

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I don’t believe I have had this much fun watching a pure action genre film since… I don’t know… …“Taken”, which conveniently enough also starred Liam Neeson in his full-blown bad-assery.  Bad-assdom? …Whatever… The point is that “Non-Stop” is a fun-to-watch well-paced thriller that will teleport you back to the late 80’s, or early 90’s when instead of superheroes, real men (very macho men at that) with guns were more than enough to save the world.  It is by no means a perfect film, but through solid craftsmanship and a suspenseful story-telling, it provides enough entertainment to keep your disbelief firmly suspended. Continue reading

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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“Carrie” (2013) blew a perfect opportunity to make itself memorable…

Apart from the obvious, what exactly is the point of a remake? I completely understand it at the basic level of taking the easy way out to, by circumventing the creative step, come up with a brand new revenue-generating title. Now, I have always been a strong supporter (or a zealous opposition to lack thereof) of creativity in cinema, but I do believe that remaking already existing films has its place, so long as it brings something new to the table. But the world isn’t perfect and whenever there’s money involved, chances are the emphasis is not going to be put on refreshing a given title and adding to its artistic value, but rather on making sure all the boxes are ticked to attract the desired demographic.

Don’t get me wrong, especially when it comes to the horror genre, remakes and sequels don’t necessarily have to be all that bad and this year’s reimagining of Sam Raimi’s cult classic “Evil Dead” can be a perfect example of it. With the right people and a solid (and creative) idea, any classic can be raised from the dead (sic!) to the cheer of the collective fan-base of the original.

And with those exact expectations I walked in to see the remake of Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” (1976)… Now, the choice of words I used to describe “Carrie” (2013) is by no means accidental here, because even though both of those films are adaptations of the Stephen King’s debut novel, the remake has clearly drawn from its film predecessor, rather than the source material.

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Coming back to the issue of bringing something new to the table, in case of “Carrie” could have meant any number of things. Having recently watched the original (in preparation for the remake; I read the book years ago when I was a young lad), I can honestly say that any semi-skilled director with a half decent cast of actors could be able to make an improvement on the original – it’s that bad. In fact, it’s so bad I am willing to devote a separate occasion just to rant about how shitty De Palma’s film is, and how I can’t possibly understand how oh-so-many people cream their pants over it, as if it was a cult classic… Give me a break…

Now, with this year’s “Carrie”, the draw was supposed to be the fact that the original film was very sparse with the violence in the climax and due to budgetary and technological limitations, certain aspects of the story had to be cut, or reworked to fit the bill. Now, I was sold on this idea alone and I would have loved to see “Carrie” come to a climax on a proper scale. In fact, since the story was being shoehorned into the modern day, I would find it intriguing to see a ‘found footage’ take on it; maybe not in its entirety, but at least in the third act. Interestingly, such treatment would bring the film a bit closer to the book in character, because the original story is neatly interwoven with excerpts from newspapers, journals and what-not that referred to the events from the book, as if it was a real disaster of massive proportions. And the director Kimberly Peirce (known for “Boys don’t cry” and pretty much nothing else) promised me just that… “Carrie” was supposed to go beyond the original and depict the mayhem that ensued following the events from the prom night, and if it had done just (and only) that, it would have been much better off…

In spite of all the waffle that preceded its release, “Carrie” is not much more than a word-for-word retelling of De Palma’s adaptation, but in modern setting and with different (and way better) actors. It’s a story of Carrie White (Chloë Grace Moretz), a teenage outcast raised by a religious nut mother (Julianne Moore) who finds herself to possess telekinetic powers. Bullied at school by a bunch of bitchy cheerleader types, Carrie is slowly being brought to the brink of self-control, so in combination with cruel treatment she receives at home, it doesn’t take long for her powers to be used in destructive way.

 

At this point in time, when the visual cues known from both the overwhelmingly popular book and De Palma’s film have a somewhat iconic status ingrained in the popular culture, it’s pretty difficult to present this story in a novel way. In reality, in doing so one would seriously risk damaging the original, so the fact “Carrie” plays out exactly as its predecessor is not its biggest flaw. In truth, I think this year’s retelling of “Carrie” is far superior to the original in terms of acting performances, exposition and the overall flow of the story. However, it still feels alien to hear the line “It’s not over! Not by a long shot”, because regardless of how it’s delivered, it sounds bad. I mean, who talks like that? But then again, most of the dialogue is taken ‘as-is’ from the source material, so I can only blame Stephen King for how clunky and disjointed it reads on screen. Bear in mind, it was his first book…

Acting-wise, “Carrie” is pretty solid with a convincing performance by Chloë Grace Moretz as Carrie and Julianne Moore as her mother. In fact, I would have loved to see the mother’s character pushed a bit more towards the creepy kind of religious nut, but she played her cards quite well, even though she was at times ‘at eleven’. Sadly, almost every other character in the film was pretty forgettable and as a result, the main play between the bullies and Carrie doesn’t feel relevant at all. So in the end, when everything unravels, it almost seems to stem from Carrie’s traumatic home life, rather than the relentless torment at school, but once more the finger points at King.

All of that aside, the reason “Carrie” came to be remade this year was to go nuts in the third act. Therefore, I wasn’t too concerned with how we would get there, as long as the story would come to a satisfying climax. Sure, I can get on board with the story; swallow the awkward lines, and dodgy motives for the characters… I am more than willing to do the dance, provided there’s a reward at the end of it all. And here’s where everything falls apart.

I would have been so much happier, if the makers of “Carrie” had the balls to actually take some creative liberties with the source material. Not even that, because the book is not to blame here, but this film would have seriously benefitted from a good injection of gore and violence. Whenever the shit hits the fan and Carrie is ‘born in blood’, there’s so much potential for a satisfying and gruesome climax that would bring the story to a whole new level. We could have had some fun with telekinesis that hasn’t been shown before and “Carrie” played it as safe as it could. Give or take one or two scenes, it’s the same wet noodle of a climax, as shown by De Palma. Think about it: telekinesis could be a potential bag of gore just waiting to be opened. Skip the traditional moving objects around and throwing them at people – it’s all too emotionless! It’s 2013 and a “Carrie” film should definitely end in gory scenes of dismemberment, guts, blood and mindless violence. The story itself calls for appropriate ending and it should feel grand, scary, and revolting, so it pains me to say that the people behind the remake of “Carrie” failed to take a leap of faith.

However you’d want to retell it, the story of “Carrie” will always ride on its ending. None of the character development is really relevant, as long as we get to see the massacre at the prom. I know it might be hard for the ‘money people’ to swallow, but risking an R-rating is not exactly bad for the movie. In this day and age, being completely desensitized towards violence, we need to be properly shocked to get a kick out of a horror film. And if you go soft on a film like “Carrie”, the end result looks more like a mediocre teenage drama, and not like a ballsy all-out gore extravaganza. Maybe Fedé Alvarez should have had a go at directing it instead…