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Don Jon

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Reviewer: Philip Price

Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Stars:   Brie Larson, Glenne Headly, Jeremy Luke, Joseph Gordon-Levitt,Julianne Moore, Rob Brown, Scarlett Johansson, Tony Danza

Released: 15th November 2013 (UK)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt would like you to believe his directorial debut is a comedy, a commentary on the unrealistic expectations media-consuming millennials have come to expect because of what they see on the internet and in the movies. That these narcissistic brats who constantly text and stare at screens rather than go outside or spend quality one on one time with each other talking face to face have become so self-involved that they are numb to the effect another person might have on them; that, in many ways, we are incapable of experiencing real and true emotion. That is what the advertisements for Don Jon would have you believe, that Gordon-Levitt makes his writing and directing debut behind the smug script that caters specifically to his age set and cashes in on the unknown truth of what romance has become. There is good and bad to the fact that none of this is actually true. Don Jon is as much a romantic comedy with the R-rated twist of porn thrown into the mix as Flight was a mystery thriller about how a pilot saved almost everyone on board after the plane somehow malfunctioned. What makes Don Jon so engaging is the pure energy and palpable excitement that has been put into the project by its writer, director and star. This is clearly a project he’s worked tirelessly on and to have the opportunity to manage and control a creative venture is something the multi-talented Gordon-Levitt isn’t going to let slip away without leaving an impression. It is what kind of impression he leaves though that makes his film something of a question mark to figure out as you walk out of the theater. Sure, it tries to have its cake and eat it too, but it goes about it in such a charming way and has enough of a solid script and great casting to forgive the formulaic pitfalls it comes around to in the last fifteen or so minutes of the film. I like Gordon-Levitt, I think he has made smart choice after smart choice and continues to show why he deserves the recognition he’s been receiving since breaking the child star curse four years ago with (500) Days of Summer. In many ways, that film and Don Jon are kindred spirits in that both characters played by Gordon-Levitt have very specific expectations of what love is supposed to be and as a director Gordon-Levitt clearly has expectations for what his film wants and needs to be as well, but while it feels like he almost gets there he’s still missing that something extra.

We first meet Jon (Gordon-Levitt) in a seriously fun and engaging opening title sequence that Gordon-Levitt no doubt had in his mind for years which rolls effortlessly into the introduction of his best friends, Bobby (Rob Brown) and Danny (Jeremy Luke), who refer to him as “Don” on account of the fact he takes a different lady home every night, but absolutely nothing below an eight on their one to ten scale that grades women purely on their sex appeal. Jon is a very specific guy, he likes his routine, he likes his tradition. No wonder he is a practicing Catholic who goes to church and then straight to confession every Sunday. He follows that up with lunch at his parents, Jon Sr. and Angela (Tony Danza and Glenne Headly), who are constantly bickering at one another or at Jon and his sister, Monica (Brie Larson). Jon Sr. can’t sit at the dinner table without having a football game on in the background and Angela is stuck on the fact she is getting older but has no grandchildren to take care of and spoil while Monica mainly stays on her phone tuned out from the rest of the world. Jon likes to go to the gym, keep his body in check and say his penance while he’s at it so his soul is as clean as his pad and his ride. He has a fine enough job as a bartender and he enjoys his life and then there is the fact he can’t stop watching online porn. It’s a dirty little secret, but Jon has reduced it to even less than that as he truly comes to believe it is a normal thing that all guys do and do as consistently as he does. It is an addiction, an escape that allows him to fulfill the sexual needs that actual sex doesn’t reach and that no real woman could ever provide. He has come to idolize these porn stars who seemingly do anything he wants them to while he is unable to bed a chick from the club that doesn’t do the slightest kinky thing. This may seem hard to believe as they were more than willing to go home with him after the first night, but we let these little details slip by for the sake of the point Gordon-Levitt is trying to make and he begins to shape that point by introducing his protagonist to Barbara (Scarlett Johansson). This “dime” as he so affectionately labels her upon first sight is the one you drop the game for and put in real time with, but is he simply putting aside his routine and addictions to play a bigger role in the fantasy world Barbara is building for herself? Seems to be the case and thus trouble ensues.

While the script isn’t as intelligent as it thinks it is, it certainly has its clever moments and it becomes clear that the theme of girls fantasizing about romance, relationships and the opposite sex is just as heightened and unrealistic as that of the ideals guys come up with after seeing porn, but it is simply due to the fact women get theirs from romantic comedies that it is more acceptable. It is a fine thought and has probably been the source of more arguments in more relationships than I could imagine, but what this film does best the majority of the time is to show us this main idea rather than simply having a character spell it out for us. While this is done mostly through a parody of these Nicholas Sparks-inspired love stories that features a couple of on-point casting choices that were unfortunately spoiled if you saw the trailer, Don Jon goes about developing its characters with ample amounts of detail and dialogue that continue to build a case and give examples of why this main idea has become an absolute truth in today’s society. When we first meet Barbara she comes across as a level-headed, non-too easy independent woman who has her stuff together and is more than willing to give a guy a shot if he is willing to fit into her future plans. She has goals, she isn’t above giving as long as she is receiving, but when we begin to see her use her physicality and sexual control as an advantage of changing the person Jon is into nothing more than the mold she needs him to be so that she may retain her entitled, obsessive nature this makes her little more than the exact person Jon is with just as bad an addiction and just as selfish a mentality. This leads to the revelation that Don Jon, more than anything, is a coming of age tale for the titular character as he would eventually have to break out of his mold were he introduced to Barbara or not. Jon inflicts himself with these unrealistic fantasies that come to mean more than anything to him and in many ways come to define his life and bring more meaning to him than anything else, which is genuinely pathetic. As hokey as it may sound, and this is where Gordon-Levitt’s script really shines, it comes down to the fact that despite looks, despite social status, or any of those factors society has so kindly deemed important that when it comes to sex or real love making it actually comes down to someone you honest to God have a connection with. Jon has been having meaningless sex for so long that he feels more connected with the women on his laptop than the ones in his bed and it takes someone with just as much confusion and honesty in their soul to give Jon the experience he only thought possible with himself.

These types of layered characters that bring these themes to life and present the moral of the story without seeming too conventional are what help the film rise above the standard indie comedy with something bold to say yet not necessarily thinking of a new way to say it. The film is very much a quirky/indie type film that wants to be up front and honest about its content, but resorts to the genre it is in many ways lampooning to get its message across. I didn’t have a problem with this because of the characters involved here as Gordon-Levitt himself is charming and completely immersed in the world of this guido who is naturally vain, but more sophisticated than one might expect while Johansson turns in a performance that makes you believe she can truly act again. She is essentially putting on her best Jersey Shore impression, but it never comes across as cheap or transparent. She has the gum-smacking, thick accent down and her assured Barbara is exciting to watch because she is unpredictable. We think we know who she is and how she operates and Johansson plays these traits up while never divulging the whole of her personality until she is ready to let you in. Danza is especially notable here who, as he seems to have no filter whatsoever, cusses up a storm at the family gatherings and is more than comfortable with checking out his sons new girlfriend when she comes over for dinner. He isn’t on screen nearly enough, but admittedly it would have likely been too much of a good thing were he to play a bigger role in the story. Brie Larson has little to do, but her presence is nicely capitalized on near the end of the film with a perfectly placed line of dialogue. The diamond in the rough here, Julianne Moore, is hard to pin down though as she comes into the fold rather early and despite the fact I could see the film potentially going in a certain direction it went further with that option than I ever expected it to. It is a slightly surprising revelation Jon comes to, but it makes sense in the confines of his world and I was more than willing to accept it on the terms that Gordon-Levitt was able to make us believe that once we get past the sarcasm, the condescension, and the arrogance our jaded generation seems to constantly guard ourselves with that we can appreciate genuine, raw human emotion. Don Jon is a surprisingly dark and heavy handed film that deals with issues like addiction and societal expectations head on, but in the grand scheme of things this isn’t a game changing film or even one that will stick with me for more than a few days. It is a fine example of a first time director who is confident in his style and even more assured in the editing room as that energy effortlessly translates to the screen and has me anxious to see what Gordon-Levitt does next, but little more than that.

I love movies, simple as that. I watch them with an intent to write about them and have always enjoyed discussing the latest news and releases with others. I received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and Mass Communications/Digital Filmmaking and combined those interests when I began writing about cinema. Hope you enjoy the reviews, Happy reading!

DVD/Blu-ray

God’s Own Country (DVD/Blu-Ray Review)

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Released: 29th January 2018

Directed By: Francis Lee

Starring: Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu

Reviewed By: Barry Levitt

Last year may have been unbearable in many facets, but for queer cinema, 2017 was a landmark year. Starting the year with Moonlight winning Best Picture, a number of LGBT films were released around the world including the critically acclaimed Call Me By Your Name, A Fantastic Woman and Princess Cyd. But perhaps the finest of them all was Francis Lee’s debut feature God’s Own Country, a story of a young farmer in Yorkshire whose way of living is permanently altered when a Romanian worker comes to work at the farm for lambing season. The film is out via Picturehouse Entertainment on DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD on the 29th January.

Johnny (Josh O’Connor) spends his evenings drinking and searching for casual sex with other men in an effort to escape his own mundane existence. He lives and works with his father and grandmother on a quiet Yorkshire farm, though due to his father’s ailing health, Johnny is forced to take care of the day to day operations. As lambing season approaches, the farm is in need of extra help as Johnny’s drinking has prevented him from doing the work necessary to keep the farm afloat. Johnny’s father Martin (Ian Hart) hires a Romanian worker named Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) during the busy lambing season to help keep the farm going.

God’s Own Country has been often described as a British Brokeback Mountain, and while the film’s similarities are worth noting, they are remarkably different in approach. The main romance in question in Francis Lee’s film is warmly embraced. The sex scenes in particular are dealt with beautifully: free of mystery and shame, the scenes are explicit without being pornographic, and bursting with passion. Sure, the resistance is there – Johnny is deeply frustrated sexually, and his sexuality is kept secret from almost everyone, and he does not exactly instantly warm to Gheorghe’s presence. The film’s power comes from Lee’s excellent script and calm, patient direction. As a viewer, Johnny’s loneliness is almost palpable, making his motivations clear and as a result it is easy to empathise with him.

Lee also does a tremendous job bringing the Yorkshire farmlands to life. His camera evokes an almost tactile response, and it is as if you could feel the grass and the mud; this film is simply full of raw and unflinching moments. There is a particularly touching sequence which Gheorghe tends to a newborn lamb that wonderfully evokes everything that God’s Own Country represents, things that seem broken can be reborn and renewed with tender love and care.

The film’s beauty also comes down to tremendous performances from the principal cast. O’Connor and Secareanu bring a wonderful vulnerability that is vital to the film’s beating heart. Ian Hart and Gemma Jones, who plays Johnny’s grandmother, are both utterly exceptional. God’s Own Country is a tender, quiet and moving meditation on love and loneliness, and wouldn’t be half as powerful without these great performances.

The home entertainment release of God’s Own Country comes with a series of deleted and extended scenes. Though it is easy to see why they were cut down or removed entirely, there is some interesting stuff here that fleshes out some of their characters. The film looks and sounds great, but it is a shame that such an excellent film wasn’t given more bonus material. Still, for fans of the film and for those who have yet to see it, one of the best films of 2017 absolutely deserves a home in your collection.

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The Small World Of Sammy Lee – DVD Review

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Reviewer:  Freda Cooper

Director:  Ken Hughes

Stars:  Anthony Newley, Julia Foster, Robert Stephens, Wilfrid Brambell, Warren Mitchell, Roy Kinnear

Certificate: 12

Released 14th November 2016

 

In 1958, Ken Hughes’ half hour play, ‘Sammy’ appeared on British television.  It attracted huge acclaim and turned its solidary actor, Anthony Newley, into a star.  Several years later, he returned to the same part, this time in the much-expanded ‘The Small World Of Sammy Lee’, written and directed by Hughes and released in cinemas in 1963.  The response wasn’t so warm.

Now described by some as a lost gem of British cinema, it returned to the big screen in a newly restored version at the London Film Festival and is released on DVD and Blu-Ray this week.  Time for a re-assessment.

The Sammy Lee of the title (Newley) is the compere at a Soho strip joint and a fast talking chancer.  He’s also up to his neck in debt with the local bookie and has just five hours to raise the cash that will prevent paying up in a more painful way.  It’s a race against the clock for him to find the money, through all manner of dodgy deals.  At the same time, he has to cope with a major complication in his life, the young Patsy (Julia Foster) who fell for his showy offer of a job and has left home to pursue him. 

Right from the opening shot, this is a period piece and a large chunk of nostalgia for anybody familiar with the London of the 60s, Soho especially.  The early moments show streets that are empty, except for the bin men collecting the remains of the night before.  Them aside, there’s hardly anybody around, but all that changes as the day progresses.  You find yourself picking out street names and locations – Berwick Street market for one – while the black and white photography introduces the inherent seediness of the area, such as the strip club interior both back stage and front of house, the snooker halls, the pokey bed-sits.  It extends to the characters as well, from Sammy with his stock of hackneyed, vaguely smutty gags straight out of the Archie Rice joke book to the pathetic Harry (Wilfrid Brambell) who runs his errands and, inevitably, falls down on the job.

All of which makes the more law-abiding characters stand out.  There’s a one-scene portrait of Sammy’s family, his hard working brother Lou (Warren Mitchell) who runs a Whitechapel delicatessen and wife Milly (Miriam Karlin), dripping in costume jewellery and lacking any sympathy for Sammy when he arrives on the scrounge.  So much so, that you suspect there may have been something between the two before she settled for his brother.  And there’s the naïve Patsy who sees him for what he is but still adores him and finds promotion from waitress to “dancer” in the club upsetting and humiliating.

The scenes in the club give away the film’s 30 minute original, there’s one too many scene of Sammy running through the Soho streets and the Patsy love interest feels like padding, but why should a film with so much in the way of character and location fall so flat when it was released?  One reason could be timing.  It didn’t fit with the move towards “kitchen sink dramas” – it came out in the same year as ‘The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner’ and ‘This Sporting Life’, while ‘A Kind Of Loving’ had been released in 1962.  Sammy’s story isn’t a thriller either and doesn’t make the most of the dramatic potential of his limited time for raising that money.  Nor is it a comment on society.

But, despite its shortcomings, there is much to enjoy, particularly among the performances.  Newley is suitably nervy to the point of hyper as Sammy, while the oil positively drips off Robert Stephens’ club owner.  And it’s littered with cameos from other familiar faces, like Derek Nimmo, Roy Kinnear and even Linda Baron (Nurse Gladys Emmanuel from ‘Open All Hours’).  The street scenes in Soho are so evocative you can almost smell the garbage and the club interior is always viewed through a fug of cigarette smoke.

It adds up to a film rich in curiosity value for today’s audience, something of a love letter to the Soho of the 60s, but one that misses the dramatic target by a whisker.  Second time round, it seems destined to appeal to a limited audience all over again, one that treasures older, unsung British films.

 

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One Million Years BC – DVD Review

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Reviewer:  Freda Cooper

Director:  Don Chaffey

Stars:  Raquel Welch, John Richardson, Martine Beswick

Certificate: PG

Released: 24th October 2016

 

Cinema history may be littered with bikini moments, but only a few have achieved true iconic status.  Ursula Andress in ‘Dr No’ (1962) for one, followed by numerous other Bond girls who tried to re-create the moment, most notably Halle Berry in ‘Die Another Day’ (2002).  And there was Bo Derek in ‘10’ (1979).  But only one actress had the dubious honour of sporting a fur bikini.  She was the almost-unknown Raquel Welch in ‘One Million Years BC’ (1966) and the garment, with its remarkable adhesive properties, made her an international star. 

The film makes its return in a newly restored version on DVD to mark its 50th anniversary.  And, while Welch in her bikini is easily its best known image, it also overshadows the film’s other achievement.  Not only was it the most successful film ever to come out of Hammer Studios, it was also the big screen’s most famous dinosaur epic until the arrival of ‘Jurassic Park’ some 26 years later.  And much of that was down to the creations of the legendary Ray Harryhausen.  While some of them aren’t up to his usual standard – little more than enlarged versions of a lizard and a turtle – there’s a great dinosaur battle which shows the maestro at his best.

The audiences queuing to see the film in ’66 certainly didn’t go along for the plot.  It’s pretty basic stuff, all about two tribes.  The Stone People are a vicious lot, living in the mountains and regularly knocking seven bells out of each other.  They kick out Tumak (John Richardson), one of their leader’s sons, and he finds his way to the coast where he discovers the Shell People, who show him a different, more peaceful way of life.  It’s not long before the two tribes come into conflict, but then they eventually have to come together in a battle for survival.

Unsurprisingly, the dialogue isn’t up to much – the occasional word and a few grunts – so the demands on the cast are more physical than anything.  And, once director Don Chaffey has exhausted the appeal of Harryhausen’s dinosaurs, he throws the kitchen sink at the film in the shape of the final sequence, a volcanic eruption and earthquake, all of which is pretty spectacular for its day.

The restoration has certainly sharpened up the look of the film and the DVD comes complete with a variety of extras, including interviews with Welch and her co-star, Martine Beswick.  But comparisons with today’s special effects are inevitable and, while Harryhausen’s monsters are seriously impressive for their day, both they and the film are more of a period piece, laden with nostalgia for fans of the 60s.

 

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