Tag Archives: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

“SNOWDEN” Review (✫✫✫)


The persecution of the American dream. 

Before you will have read this review, the government will have read it first. That is a fact that each of us must face and understand, although we shouldn’t necessarily accept it, even though many will tell us that we should. It’s been three years since Edward Snowden has leaked classified information about the NSA spying on its own citizens, and they still haven’t apologized or confronted the issue up front. To me that is an admission of guilt, and the movie Snowden is their sentencing.

Taking place years before the NSA leak, Snowden, portrayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is an American just wanting to do his best to support his country. He’s worked in numerous jobs with the government before, including the Special Forces and C.I.A. But when Snowden is employed by the NSA, he makes a devastating discovery: the government is surveilling all of its citizens, everywhere, 24/7.

How bad is it? Imagine Uncle Sam looking over your shoulder every second of every day, and you’ve got a pretty accurate idea of the government’s hold on you. Your phone. Your iPad. Your MAC computer. Even if any of these things are off, their cameras and audio software can still pick up everything you’re saying or doing. And that’s not to mention the NSA’s access to your internet, social media, emails, private messages, and video chats, along with every other surveillance tool at their disposal.

This is where the film finds its emotional core, caught square in the middle of political paranoia, distrust, and dread. Our hero is caught in that same place as well, navigating the morality and technicality of this reality trapped, like a mouse running lost through a maze. The end result feels exactly how it sounds: thrilling, revealing, and disturbing.

I’m going to get your biggest concern right out of the way. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is absolutely mesmerizing as Edward Snowden. Like the best method performances, Gordon-Levitt focuses on the slight mannerisms and habits of the real-life figure and mimics them to near exact precision. This is an actor who has taken on a variety of roles in action films, including Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, and Looper. There is no indication in the film that this is the same actor minus appearances. He embodies everything he needs to about Snowden: his social awkwardness, his physicality, his stammering, his idle movements. Everything that he did made me feel like he was a second Edward Snowden. My only complaint is that his voice is a little low-pitched compared to Snowden’s, but for an otherwise flawless performance, this is one flaw I’m willing to forgive.

The screenplay is also very well composed, giving vital insight into this man’s perspective that perhaps we didn’t know how to feel about before. Writer/director Oliver Stone isn’t unfamiliar with controversial subject matter. From confronting the U.S.’s treatment of veterans in Born on the Fourth of July, to conspiracy theories in JFK, to violent escapades in Natural Born Killers, Stone is experienced with telling a wide variety of stories and how they affect modern society. Snowden seems like a perfect fit for him. Stone confronts the facts headfirst, not shying away from any of the details, no matter how disturbing they may be to us. The resulting message does everything a film is supposed to do: it thrills us while at the same time informing us.

All the same though, there were some moments that just did not work with this picture. I’m talking about scenes and elements that sharply collided with the movie’s tone and took you out of the experience rather than further immersing you. The first thing I’m going to mention is the score by Craig Armstrong, which is an unusual thing to mention because in a movie about Edward Snowden, you would think your first complaint wouldn’t be about the music. In one early scene during Snowden’s special forces days, the score was so soupy and melodramatic you would think they were trying to emulate Saving Private Ryan. Kinda off-tone for a movie about government surveillance and whistleblowers, don’t you think? His score does eventually come back to the sharp rhythms and ominous tones that are appropriate for a subject like this, but even then, the soupy melodies repeat two or three more times in the picture. The inconsistencies in this score take us out of the moment of tension that we’re supposed to be feeling and throws us into a state of perplexity, as if we’re not sure what sort of movie we’re supposed to be watching here.

But then in other scenes of the movie, you can’t fairly place blame on the music. Some scenes were just plain directed badly. In the omnipotent climax of the film, the highlight moment of the picture, the one where Snowden commits the act that we all know he’s inevitably heading towards, he finishes doing what he does, then he… smiles? His life has just been ruined, he’s now officially going to be hunted by the government as a fugitive, he has to run away from his home, his family, his friends, everything he has ever known to live in a country all by himself. And in this moment of self-sacrifice and legal martyrdom, he chooses to smile with the sun brightly illuminating his face, his hair blowing carefree in the wind? That’s not on-the-nose, cheesy, silly, and plain corny in any way, Stone. There’s no way to excuse a scene like that. It demanded a reshoot.

I fully believe everything I saw in Snowden. I don’t doubt a single frame in it. I believe it is real and it scares me. That’s a good thing though, because its supposed to scare you. The things you’re watching are things that have happened to you, and you should not be okay with them. You may not know the full story, but this is your opportunity to know.

Snowden may be the most important film you see this year, even if it isn’t necessarily the most well made.

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“SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR” Review (✫)

Can you kill me too while you’re so busy at it? Thanks. 

There’s a character early on in Sin City: A Dame To Kill For that describes the city as a place “where you go in with your eyes open, or you don’t come out at all.” He’s wrong. I went in and out with my eyes fully open. I only wished that I kept them closed.

Oh, where to begin with this. Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is, in a word, messy – a neo-noir thriller as confusing as a detective’s murder case and more violent, putrid and horrific than a crime scene. The only brains this movie has are the ones that it blows out of peoples’ heads.

The plot takes place sometime within the Sin City universe. The question is when? I honestly don’t know, and I don’t think the movie knows either. It’s part prequel, part sequel and part in-betweenuel that cuts to wherever and whenever it wants to.

Like the first movie, there are three main stories the plot revolves around and, likewise, three main characters to sympathize with. You have a young Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin), who, before he met Jackie Boy, was obsessing over a rich housewife named Ava (Eva Green). There’s Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an overly-cocky poker player who wants to come to Sin City and beat the king of all cards himself — Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). And then there’s Nancy (Jessica Alba), who is still coping with John Hartigan’s (Bruce Willis) suicide at the end of Sin City.

Following this easy enough? Good, because that’s all the explanation you’re going to get. The biggest problem with Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is that it’s so convoluted. Stories are meshed, mixed and thrown together without any sense of connection or correlation to its plot, and the entire time while I was watching it, I kept wondering where these stories were taking place and why I should care. Some movies do well with intertwining narratives, such as Pulp Fiction or Crash. This is not one of them.

A good example of this is in the very first scene of the film. Marv (Mickey Rourke), the hard-headed thug who was framed for the murder of Goldie in the first movie, wakes up next to two crashed cars with no memory of how he got there. He goes through mundane dialogue for five minutes in his obviously exaggerated thuggish accent, then the movie cuts to the story and almost completely forgets about him.

My first thought after watching this: why was that scene necessary? As the movie continued its runtime, I continued to ask this question in my head until I realized that none of it was necessary, that it was just a continuous farce of violence and delinquency that the kids who play Grand Theft Auto would just drool over.

This movie is definitely violent. That’s to be expected, I know, especially when you remember how violent the first one was. There is, however, a stark difference in how the violence is used in each movie. In the first Sin City, the violence was both shocking and satirical, at times being so disturbing that you can’t help but reel back from it, and at other times being so exaggerated that I laughed at it. Whether it was positive or negative, however, I at least felt something.

Here, nothing is felt. Here, we just look at all shades of black, red and white among severed body parts while we plod through the final act like it’s a homework assignment rather than the climactic ending that it deserves to be.

I’ll admit to having disliked the first Sin City. Does that matter? I give credit and criticism equally where it is due, and even though both Sin City’s are equally violent and despicable, the first one was at least more intriguing and had more cohesiveness both as a whole story and as smaller, separate narratives. This one fell flat, crumbled to pieces and was about as clear as a muddy window pane. Maybe that’s why Marv couldn’t remember anything at the beginning of this movie – he realized what he signed up for, and he tried to forget all about it.

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“DON JON” Review (✫✫✫)

Oh, Donnie boy…

 “There’s only a few things I really care about in life,” a rich, deep boston voice says as we look at him staring  at his bright laptop screen shirtless in a dark room. “My body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, and my porn.”

That last one doesn’t really belong there, but whatever, its in there.  The man we are looking at is Joe Martello (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a thick, cut, and strongly appealing young man who has a slick, black haircut and a grin on his face that looks like he just finished up business in the bedroom.  His friends call him “The Don” because he’s able to score “dimes” on the weekends, which is another way of saying “That woman is a ten!”

One night in the bar, Donnie meets the best dime he’s ever seen: Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), a beautiful blonde bombshell that turns heads and raises attention everywhere she goes.  To Donnie, this is simply another case of trying to score a hot night, but Barbara isn’t that easy.  She wants something more meaningful than just a one-night stand: she wants an affectionate, fairytale relationship, the cheesy kind you see in those unbearable romantic comedies starring Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum.

So Donnie takes a deep breath and waits it out, hoping for her to come around eventually and give him the chance to slip under the covers with her.  The more time he spends with her, however, the more his addiction to pornography gets in the way and stops him from having a more meaningful relationship.  Now conflicted between his feelings between Barbara and his dependency on pornography, Donnie needs to figure out which is more important to him before she leaves him and all he has left is his laptop and his internet wifi.

Before I continue, let me issue a short disclaimer.  If you do not like R rated movies, do not watch this movie.  If you don’t like looking at nudity, do not watch this movie.  If you don’t like swearing, do not watch this movie.  And if you don’t like movies about sex, DEFINITELY do not watch this movie.  This is a picture stuffed to the mouthful with sex, nudity, T&A, F-words, censored and uncensored pornography to the point where I believe it deserved, and should have been rated, NC-17.

The only reason I issue this warning is because I know my readers, and the majority of my readers do not appreciate sexually explicit films that make jokes about the male/female anatomy and what goes on inside the bedroom.  Their views are warranted, and in many ways I share many of those same views with my readers.  I, however, am not as close-minded to this idea if it means not enjoying Don Jon, and believe me, that is a very hard thing to do.

That’s probably the worst word I could have used to describe this picture just now, but nevermind.  Don Jon is good.  Very good.  How good?  So good that it made me, a conservative reviewer who hates excessive nudity, enjoy it very, very much.  Trust me, I am not easy to please.  If you don’t believe me, you will when I tell you I rated The Hangover as the worst picture of 2009.

I find it interesting how effective Gordon-Levitt is here as a filmmaker.  His writing is fresh, fun, and original, exercising dialogue that is both clever and witty while at the same time being deeply meaningful and expressive.  The cast is equally brilliant, as their charismatic portrayals breathe life into these characters in ways that not even an animated rendition could do.

What I find more interesting, however, is how Gordon-Levitt handles this film as a director, using space and situations in his film to define Jon’s character and to show what sort of emotional state he’s in.

For instance, look at how he shows Jon’s everyday routine.  When Jon wakes up in the morning, he cleans his room the best way a bachelor knows how, he drives to Church, he goes to confession, he eats lunch with his family, he works out at the gym, he goes to a club to meet some beautiful lady, and then he ends his nights watching a skimpy porn video.

Got it?  Okay, now look at the variations of this same routine shown throughout the film.  At first its just the same thing over and over again, but later as Jon’s character changes, so does how he behaves during his routines.  When he’s depressed, his room get messy.  When he’s excited, he sings to Marky Mark in the car.  When he’s optimistic, he exercises with other people when he goes to the gym.  But what remains consistent in all of these sequences is him going to confessional and confessing his sins to the Catholic Priest he’s never met, hoping one day to have a clean slate in the eyes of the father.

I don’t think this movie is about a man struggling with his addiction to pornography.  I think this movie is about a man struggling between his lusts and sexual desires and the guilt he silently feels he needs to be redeemed from.  Think about it for a second.  Why else would he go to Church so frequently despite his promiscuous lifestyle?  He’s a grown man, he knows he doesn’t have to go to church if he doesn’t want to.  So why does he go so frequently even though his lifestyle isn’t congruent to that of a catholic?  There’s a deepness developing silently to Don Jon that can only be barely noticed, and if you don’t look out for it, it will slip you past you.

There’s obviously the negative element of watch a movie about pornography, and I would be the first to agree with you.  Even though the pornography is at times censored, its still there, and we can’t help but visualize everything because we’re seeing a rendition of it on the screen.

Still, since we’re talking about pornography, let me retaliate with another film that is also about addiction: a 2011 film titled Shame, starring Michael Fassbender and directed by Steve McQueen.  Like Don Jon, Shame is about a man who holds an unsatiated lust for porn and sex, and his life sinks into a swamp of sadness and depression because of his unsatiated hunger.  Unlike Don Jon, however, Shame is downtrodden, depressing, sickening, despicable, ugly, demeaning, and has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, outside of the acting and the composition.

Don Jon is different.  Unlike Shame, it is upbeat, energetic and joyous, and even though there are dramatic moments in the movie, there is never a moment that feels ugly, sickening, or unclean.  Don Jon is a stylish, articulate, and simply brilliant dramedy.  It is not only a film filled with clever dialogue and solid character development: it actually has a good, wholesome message to take away from the story, something to make you appreciate the small things in life that you never really notice.  I know some people are going to look at this movie from a first glance and ask “Why would I want to watch a feature-length pornography?”  Believe me, fellow reader, if this film can even be categorized as a pornography, its probably the best of its kind.

On a closing note, please don’t tell my mother.

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A Good Ol’ Cup Of Joe

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down at a college roundtable for an in-person interview with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the award-winning actor most known for movie roles including Tom Hansen in 500 Days Of Summer, Robert Todd in Lincoln, and John Blake in The Dark Knight Rises.  Recently Mr. Gordon-Levitt (Or “Joe”, as he likes to introduce himself) was working to get publicity for his writer-director debut Don Jon, a romantic comedy coming out this Friday and the reason why me and three other college journalists were able to interview him.

The man who introduced himself to us couldn’t have been more humble, or for that matter, more real.  As I walked into the room with the other university journalists, it was hard to imagine that the well-combed, professionally-dressed man sitting casually at the table in front of us was the same man who fought through topping cars and buildings in Inception, or the same guy who shaved his head in front of Seth Rogan in 50/50.  And yet when he walked up to me, shook my hand, and said “Hi, my name is Joe,” the introduction couldn’t have been more fulfilling, or for that matter, more meaningful.

I was in attendance to the event alongside journalists from Northwestern University, Southern Methodist University, and the University Of North Texas.  We were all eager to ask Mr. Gordon-Levitt our questions about the film and what it was like making the movie.  These are our questions, and this is how he responded.

Question: Before anything else, can I just say that it was completely shocking to see your new look in the first few minutes of the film? Very well done sir.

Joe: Right on. That’s what we were going for.

Q: Since we’re all college students, if you and Don Jon were to teach a course in college, what would you both teach?

J: Jon I guess would probably teach at a bartending school. I don’t think he would teach anything undergrad or graduate.  But what class would I teach? I guess a storytelling class of some sort. I went to college for a couple years and I stopped, which isn’t to say that anybody else should, but for me personally I learn best by doing stuff. So I feel like for me, film school really was working on sets and watching directors do what they do and I don’t know if you know, I run this company called HitRecord, where anybody can come and contribute and its not your traditional production company, but it actually bears a lot of similarities to production companies other than the fact that its open and anybody can contribute. If you’re interested in the process, in how things are done, I would definitely recommend spending some time on the site to contribute to some of our collaborations and paying attention to how its done. I’m on there everyday. These days, we’re in the middle of making a TV show, and I’m directing it, and making stuff. It’s different than a classroom because in a classroom your goal is to teach every student, whereas HitRecord, our goal is to make the best TV show we can possibly make. So unfortunately I don’t get to necessarily spend time with everybody who comes and contributes, because there’s thousands everyday. But I think there’s a lot to be learned there and its really cool actually to see artists that do come in and contribute to HitRecord and do so for a while. You can see them grow as artists. You can see them learn from what they’ve done, and from notes I sometimes give as feedback and watch them improve. That’s always really satisfying.

Q: What audience demographic were you aiming for?  Are you afraid that this type of film because of its content will lose some of its audience? 

J: I was really wanting to make a movie for everybody and so far the reactions have been across the board, whether young or old, or male or female, people have been digging it. So, I was pretty intent on not having it be just a movie for cinephiles. I wanted it to be for everybody. And I think its talking about a lot of stuff that everybody can understand or relate to. I mean, I certainly think it’ll be popular on college campuses. My mom loved it, and I’ve spoken to a bunch of reporters today, some of whom were younger than I am some of whom that were older than I am. Everyone seems to really like it.

Q: This is the first time you’re credited as a screenwriter and director for a feature-length film. What inspired the idea of Don Jon and what story did you find relevant to tell in Don Jon’s character? 

J: Well, I wanted to tell a story about how sometimes people treat each other more like things than like people. I imagine that came from my own experience. You know, actors in our culture are often treated more like things than like people. It’s sort of weird. But I don’t think its just actors, I think everyone experiences that. We have a tendency to put each other in boxes and label them. And rather than actually listening to what someone is saying and paying attention to what is going on right here, right now, we sort of project our own pre-conceived notions onto them and I think it happens all the time everywhere. So I wanted to tell a story about that, then I wanted to tell a story about how media plays into that, also probably because I pay a lot of attention to how media works and the impact it has on people. And so, I thought of a story about a relationship between a young man who watches too much pornography and a young woman who watches too many romantic hollywood movies would be a funny way to kind of get at that question. So that’s the origin of that story.

Q: How similar are you and Don Jon’s viewpoints of the Hollywood system right now? Are you worried people are going to look at that in the movie in a bad way?

J: Not very. I mean, Jon I don’t think really has much of a view on the Hollywood system, I don’t think he thinks about it much. By the end of the movie, he is starting to maybe ask a few questions, and that’s good. But he’s mostly a guy that’s just sort of expects things to be how they’re supposed to be, and wouldn’t really notice if they weren’t. He just treats them as if they are. And you know, the way things are supposed to be is largely defined by the media. By the movies you see, the shows you watch, or the pornography videos you watch, or the magazines you read, or the radio shows you listen to, or the newspaper, any number of things.  You also learn, of course, these expectations from your family, your friends, your church, etc and that’s all in the movie too.

Q: Looking at your filmography, you seem to have a particular interest in the romantic comedy genre. Can you tell me what about that genre that appeals to you?

J: Well, I do all kinds of genres in movies, but why do the romantic comedies appeal to me? I mean, they’re fun to watch, you get caught up in them. I don’t know, what can I say, I’m a romantic person maybe? Me personally, I’m probably closer to Barbara Sugarman than Jon Martello as far as getting twisted up into pre-conceived fantasies from the screen. But you know, romantic comedies, especially really conventional ones, they tend to present things in black and white and love is not that way. Love is actually way cooler than that. Way way more interesting and rich and fulfilling and beautiful than some kind of sappy string section while you’re riding off into the sunset. You have to look for it. And if you’re too busy comparing real life to these sort of overly-simplified stories that you’ve seen, you won’t see it. You won’t see what’s so great about it. But if you kind of let go of those and go “Okay, those are nice movies to watch sometimes, but what is really going on?” There is so much to discover, and that’s I guess what Don Jon is sort of making fun of.

Q: How involved were you with casting? Did you get exactly the people you wanted for this film or did you kind of have to pull some strings for it to work?

J: I wrote it with Scarlett in mind the entire time. From the very beginning of conceiving the character I pictured her playing the part. Julie, I did not, to be honest. I never would have believed that she would have done it and it was a beautiful surprise when she read the script and she did want to do it. I think both of them just turned in such excellent performances. Scarlett is so different from any character you’ve really seen her really play before and I think she brings such charm and specificity to the character, yet at the same time, the character’s shortcomings are very apparent. Those are my favorite kinds of performances because they feel the most like human beings when they’re strengths and weaknesses are on display.

Q: You’re chemistry seemed so intimate and so sincere with Julianne Moore and Scarlett Johansen. What’s it like working with them?

J: On set? On set you know you’re just making a movie. It’s a very technical thing. It’s not like it seems in the scene. We’re creating an illusion. We’re crafting a story. So what its really like is you do the scene for a few seconds, and then you hop up and talk to camera, talk to sound, talk to lights, so its work. But its good work, I love doing it. It’s not honestly too dissimilar from any other scene, where you do the scene and then you cut and you talk about it a bit and figure out how to make it better, see if you have what you need, if you can move on or if you have to do it again. They’re really kind of just like any other scene, they fit into the story and you need to accomplish a certain thing to advance the story in that moment, and you shoot it until you have those ingredients necessary.

Q: When did you make the decision to do these long Carl’s Junior ads instead of having it in the background and putting a focus on it?

J: Yeah, and that’s in the script, there is a scene in the script as the family watches a television commercial with bikini girls in the background. Because again, I think that all types of media are sort of perpetrating a lot of these stereotypes and expectations, and I think any distinction between pornography and many of mainstream media is purely technical distinction. It’s still the same thing. It’s turning a woman into a sex object and reducing her to that.

Q: Now, I heard that Christopher Nolan advised against you starring and directing in your first film.  Can you tell me a little bit about that?

J: Well, that’s not quite accurate. He asked about it. And he pointed out some valid concerns and he asked like “Would you consider directing something first before directing and acting at the same time?” But he did not say like “You shouldn’t do it”.  He was nothing but encouraging. He was never discouraging and that was really meaningful to me.

Q: Regardless, what were some of the challenges you faced during filming? 

J: Yeah, well so its pretty normal for an actor, and I felt this way in the past, when you see yourself on screen, the sight of your own face and the sound of your own voice can be disconcerting. For me, I think just because I’ve made a ton of little short films and videos and things, pointing the camera at myself, loaded the footage onto my computer and cut it up into something and I’ve just done that over and over and over again for years, I’ve sort of gotten used to the sight of my own face and the sound of my own voice. So, that was a challenge that I sort of felt that I had already kind of overcome.

Q: Now in the movie, Jon was very dedicated to church despite his deviant lifestyle. Why did he have such a dedication to church despite the guilt he would bring on upon himself for that?

J: Good question. I think just because that’s how that had always been. That’s the answer. He just did it because he had always done it. That’s what was expected of him. I think that’s kind of why everyone in his family goes to church. I don’t think any of them are really thinking very much about why they are doing it. They’re just kind of doing it. And you know, at the end of the movie, there’s a bit of a change in that, and that’s how I think the whole movie goes, is that by the end this mold that he’s sort of stuck in is beginning to crack and he’s starting to be more curious and start to actually pay more attention to what is going on right here right now.

Q: What do you think happened to Jon after the end of the movie? Did he sort of move on, did he go to college, what happened? 

J: I hope he sort of breaks out of the mold. I think by the end of the movie he’s beginning to ask more questions and be more present and rather than comparing everything in his life to preset expectations he’s beginning to sort of actually pay attention to what is in front of his face. I’m hopeful that he’ll continue along that path. I don’t know whether he’ll finish college or not, I think he was sort of doing that because again, he was supposed to.

-David Dunn

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