REVIEW: Short Term 12

14 03 2015

Short Term 12“Look into my eyes so you know what it’s like, to live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like,” raps Keith Stanfield as Marcus in “Short Term 12.”  The musical moment occurs early on in the film, so the mood of momentarily subdued hopelessness is well established.  But his vulnerable profession of pain still feels like it comes out of nowhere, blindsiding us and leaving an aching bruise on our heart.

Writer/director Destin Cretton derived the film from his own experiences working in a home for troubled teens, so the scenes portraying the residents of the short term living facility are the most vividly realized.  They possess a potent, palpable authenticity that is rare to encounter outside of documentary film.  The kids do not come across as characters wandering around inside a story – they feel like people who happened to step in front of the lens.

“Short Term 12” would be a compelling enough film had it just focused on the backstories of the teenagers and what led them to the home, but that does not exactly lend itself handily to the narrative form.  Thus, to tie all the elements together, Cretton introduces Brie Larson as the home’s supervisor, Grace, into the script.

Larson is phenomenal in the role, bringing equal parts heart and grit to the table.  But the problem is, the rest of “Short Term 12” just lies on an entirely different level as her.  Everyone else appears to be inhabiting and living; Larson, unavoidably, always has to act.  They are authentic, while she is honest – two modes that are closely related but not quite synonymous.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Don Jon

28 01 2015

Don JonFor all those who might have found Steve McQueen’s sex addiction drama “Shame” too intense in either content or form, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s comedic “Don Jon” may provide the perfect vehicle for discussing the same issues.  The film acknowledges many of the ills facing men in the age of internet pornography, such as the objectification of women and the notion that sexual satisfactions is deliverable on demand at the leisure of a Google search.

“Don Jon” will prove enlightening for anyone who has never thought deeply about masturbatory pleasures, especially because Gordon-Levitt’s script telegraphs his social commentary through heavy-handed voiceovers from his lead character Jon.  Anyone who has ever taken anything more than psychology or sociology 101 is likely to find the film’s observations shallow and skin-deep.  But if it gets people talking and consciously reconsidering their habits, then the movie at least serves some purpose.

And in case someone tunes out during Jon’s long-winded (and perhaps somewhat implausibly aware) confessionals on his porn addiction, the plot also effectively echoes the simple yet important message.  Though the womanizing, GTL-exuding Jon lands a smoking hot girlfriend Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), she quickly flees once she discovers the extent of his dirty secret and leaves Jon a wreck.  Only when he heeds the learned wisdom of Julianne Moore’s middle-aged Esther, who reminds him that sex is about satisfying two people, can he regain the same pleasure in the orgasm.

Though “Don Jon” may not speak fluently on matters on sexuality, Gordon-Levitt certainly understands gender politics quite well.  The film really nails some of what needs to change in our current conception of masculinity, and he begins to tackle the way that females reinforce that.  At one point while shopping, Barbara insists that Jon cannot, as a man, clean his own house because it clashes with the performance of manliness that she expects.  That, unfortunately, proves the extent of glancing at the other side of the gender divide, yet there is always time to explore further.  Gordon-Levitt ought to make a “Don Joan” movie to examine femininity as well since a little too much was left on the table in “Don Jon.”  B2halfstars





REVIEW: The Gambler

23 12 2014

In Rupert Wyatt’s “The Gambler,” Mark Wahlberg plays Jim Bennett, an English professor by day and a high-stakes better by night.  When he gets himself into a tight situation with creditors coming to collect a big debt, Bennett resists help from his put-out mother (Jessica Lange) and a prodigious student (Brie Larson).  Instead, he responds by digging his hole deeper to vault himself out on an even larger scale.

Wahlberg plays the character with a vulnerability and self-deprecation when spitting out screenwriter William Monaghan’s rapid-fire dialogue.  Yet when his lips are still, Wahlberg imbues Bennett with a staggeringly ambivalent sense of hubris.  Viewing a week in his quickly disintegrating life is a strange experience because so much about him seems contradictory.

Bennett is best understood by not trying to understand him at all, simply watching and observing rather than identifying or analyzing.  Monaghan, working from a forty-year-old New Hollywood flick of the same name, harkens back to the era of the characterization’s conception.  Bennett exemplifies the ’70s-style impenetrable antihero, but Monaghan cleverly reassembles him for relevance in the time of TV’s current “difficult men” like Don Draper and Walter White.

Bennett cannot be explained by nor reduced to a few biographical details. Nothing indicates some massive familial implosion. His condition does not appear to have any psychological roots at all, in fact. Bennett has simply shed all illusions about life and convinced himself that the only game worth playing is one where the stakes are all or nothing.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: 21 Jump Street

16 12 2012

Recently, I watched “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” the 1982 comedy still considered to be one of the best high school movies ever made, for the first time.  It has obviously become incredibly dated (but is still absolutely hilarious), yet it took me seeing the film to realize that virtually every high school movie for the past 30 years owes it a humongous debt.  Its fingerprints are all over the genre today, so much so that it has become almost inconspicuous.

The “Fast Times” social order still reigns supreme today.  Nice guys finish last, slackers come out on top.  If you’re smart, you’re a nerd.  If you’re a jock, you’re cool.  If you don’t hang around them, you probably aren’t.  And of course, just don’t try at anything because the naturally cool will just have people attracted to them like bugs to a light.  Whether the movies that came out of this mentality actually reflect high school is questionable, but they have all served to reinforce the “Fast Times” ideal.

21 Jump Street,” on the other hand, is a bird of a different feather.  It actually dares to question the preconceived notions of high school movies and imagine an entirely different set of tropes, ones that feel modern and appropriate.  The film’s protagonists, undercover cops Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) graduated high school in 2005 in a very “Fast Times” environment and expect little to have changed when they go on a covert operation to their alma mater in 2012.  Boy, are they wrong.

Read the rest of this entry »