TIFF 2013 – Someone Special: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s DON JON

don-jon

DON JON has an perfectly compelling premise: a pair of characters attempt to start a relationship, both of whom have been shaped by the conflicting media they’ve consumed. One is a machismo archetype, addicted to pornography (Jon, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt); the other is the ideal woman (Barbara, Scarlett Johansson), who expects her man to “be a man” – which means doing everything she asks of him. Anything less would be to spit in the face of romanticism, to fail to meet the bar that her idealized dreams (fuelled by Anne Hathaway-Channing Tatum Hollywood blockbusters) have jammed into her head. Add it up, and you’ve got the makings of a compelling dramedy. So why doesn’t the film work better?

As child-actor-turned-Hollywood-superstar Gordon-Levitt’s debut as a writer / director, DON JON shows promise. Ultimately, however, he also has some room to improve and mature behind the camera. His premise is compelling, but it’s undercut by heavy-handedness, unnecessary hyper-stylization and an overall need to drive home a message. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the film; it’s quite funny, well-acted and has some really great moments. But its flaws are harmful to the overall product and reveal that maybe Gordon-Levitt isn’t quite there yet as a storyteller.

Many of the parallels between Jon’s addiction and Barbara’s love of cheesy movies are terrific. Her beliefs about romance are as warped and ill-conceived as his are, and Gordon-Levitt does a great job laying the groundwork between them: romance semiotics bleed off the screen and into Jon and Barbara’s relationship, from the grand musical cues when they kiss to the way he changes everything about himself “for her”. But when the subtext of that parallel becomes straight text, it also becomes less interesting. If Jon recognizes these parallels but she doesn’t, even when she’s called out on them, it makes both characters less interesting – Barbara because she comes across as a stubborn bitch (admittedly, intentionally so), and Jon because his realization garners her no pity in his eyes. Had his revelation been a more last-minute realization, it might have better impacted their final moments together.

Also troublesome is the dynamic between Jon and Esther (Julianne Moore), which feels unearned. Worse still, it evolves into something which had stronger emotional potential for the climax than was actually depicted on screen. Though the place that their relationship winds up rings completely true from a human perspective and serves Jon’s story well, it doesn’t really seem to deserve to get there. It also ends in a very bizarre place – somewhere neither here or there. Jon acknowledges his progress, but also acknowledges the fleetingness of it all; something which is fine in of itself, had the story taken the time to delve into what that conflict means to him as a person. But it doesn’t. It seems to want to have it both ways, so neither really works.

Even more bizarrely, the film totally wastes Brie Larson, who utters a single line of dialogue in the entire film. Granted, it is a pointed, meaningful line on which the entire final act hinges, but it’s still something that could have been handled by just about anybody. The rest of the cast is awesome (especially Tony Danza as Jon’s father), and everybody gets a chance at a laugh; it just would have been nice to see a bit more done with the talented Larson.

But overall, the film has a lot of good going for it. It is often laugh-out-loud funny, it’s sexy and clever, and Gordon-Levitt proves that he can do a good job behind the camera if only he can polish up his screenwriting a bit first.

[B-]

d.a. garabedian

I’m Always Angry: Joss Whedon’s THE AVENGERS

A mere four years ago, Marvel unveiled a plan that would alter the landscape of superhero films forever. Rumours flooded the internet that there was a “secret scene” following the credits of IRON MAN; that there was something special waiting at the very end of the film that would get fans very, very excited. They weren’t wrong. As Samuel L. Jackson – playing the infamous Nick Fury, of course – strutted out of the shadows in Tony Stark’s apartment to declare the formation of the Avengers Initiative to the world, millions of nerds the world over cried out in joy. It was too good to be true: that the long-accepted comic book practice of crossing over various superheroes into a single story could possibly make the leap to the big screen seemed impossible. It was too crazy, too difficult, too brilliantly simple. Whereas DC was busy using Nolan’s glorious but thoroughly-contained-within-its-new-medium Batman revival as the pinnacle of their branding, Marvel had decided to go in the opposite direction: revive all of their most notable superheroes individually and then bring them all together again in a single, monstrous film, embracing the spirit of their original medium in ways that had heretofore never been attempted. And this weekend, their half-decade, five-film experiment came to fruition in the form of THE AVENGERS.

Put simply, THE AVENGERS is the single greatest achievement in the history of the superhero genre. Though it cannot match THE DARK KNIGHT in terms of objective, cinematic qualities – its story, cinematography and themes are all a bit too haphazard to compare to the great Nolan – it is such a successful, ambitious experiment that it simply does not matter: this is what superhero films have wished that they could be since the dawn of the genre. Director / screenwriter Joss Whedon has set the bar so high in terms of pure, spiritual reverence and execution that from this day forward, Nolan’s universe will be considered the exception, rather than the rule; no longer will superhero films need to be “dark” and “gritty” in order to be powerful and excellent. In fact, THE AVENGERS succeeds because it is the exact opposite of those things. This is a fun, exciting, fist-pumping blockbuster that’s firing on so many cylinders that one can practically feel J.J. Abrams getting green with envy.

I am no Joss Whedon fanboy. He has done some things that I have enjoyed (including his contributions to the impossibly excellent CABIN IN THE WOODS, released only last month), whereas I have been less taken with the majority of the rest of his work. Still, it’s hard to argue that this is the franchise that he was born to be a part of, and his natural talents – his impeccable dialogue, his insane knack for ensemble-based character dynamics and his overall unique wit and charm, to name a few – are all on full display here. But what’s key is that all of these things that make Whedon the filmmaker that he is are the things that make THE AVENGERS what is is; without all of these elements that are naturally inherent to the man behind the curtain, the film would fall apart so gloriously that Marvel may have never properly recovered from it. It cannot be stated enough times that Whedon makes this film what it is. He took the absolutely impossible task of synthesizing the tones, stories and baggage of five films (not to mention their respective all-star casts) and not just distilling them down, but combining them into something that is exponentially greater than the sum of its parts. Taking the worlds and characters of IRON MAN, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, THOR and CAPTAIN AMERICA and making them all fit into a single universe should have been impossible – Whedon doesn’t just make it look effortless, he makes it feel like it was meant to be this way from the start. He will make you a believer.

And he doesn’t just stop there. It’s not enough to take the wildly different tones of Kenneth Branagh’s tongue-in-cheek THOR and Joe Johnston’s satirical, propaganda film CAPTAIN AMERICA and mesh them together into something logical. Whedon actually introduces even more characters to the mix: Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow finally gets a real chance to shine here, as does Jeremy Renner’s barely-seen-previously but impossibly-awesome Hawkeye. Plus, we get Cobie Smulders (of HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER fame) as Agent Maria Hill and a brand new alien race that both ties in previous villains and sets up new ones (make sure you stay through the credits – there are two post-credits scenes this time around, as is Marvel’s new trademark). But what’s most impressive about Whedon’s inclusion of these new characters isn’t that they don’t just feel like window dressing: I came out of THE AVENGERS wanting a solo S.H.I.E.L.D. film more than I wanted a sequel to any of the other major players. I wanted to see Black Widow and Hawkeye team up with Fury and Agent Hill in an all-out espionage film, and I’m certainly hoping Marvel delivers it.

Because, really – why the hell wouldn’t they at this point? They’ve amassed such a stunning cast and such an organic, alive universe that there is literally, literally no end to the spinoffs and sequels they can have going at any one time. New entries for Thor, Captain, Iron Man, S.H.I.E.L.D. and, yes, even the Hulk are all possibilities at this point, not to mention The Avengers themselves – that’s six independent (dependent?), simultaneous franchises going at once, and it wouldn’t be difficult to open up the world even further. With Edgar Wright’s ANT-MAN looming ever closer on the horizon – not to mention the rumoured entries for Doctor Strange, The Guardians of the Galaxy that THOR and THE AVENGERS’ extraterrestrial dabbling may make possible – there is seemingly no end to what their new universe can accomplish. Because as much as THE AVENGERS feels like a culmination of everything that came before it, it feels even more like the start of something new – the dawn of a new age. That’s not something that many films can boast: a redefining of their genre in such a critical way that everything that comes after it will be expected to at least attempt to reach its ambitious heights. Any way you cut it, this is a good year for Whedon, who did the same to the horror genre with CABIN only three weeks ago.

What made me happiest about THE AVENGERS is that it feels like a culmination for Whedon, too. There is no doubt that the man has some serious talent when it comes to writing and directing dialogue, and there is simply no other filmmaker who understands group dynamics in the way that he does, but I haven’t felt emotionally connected to any of his previous work in the way that I’ve wanted to. I’ve recognized his skills, but felt that there was something lacking. Not so here. On THE AVENGERS, all of those skills come to full and glorious fruition, making him into the filmmaker that I always knew that he could be. The sparkling, beautiful dialogue is something truly amazing to behold, and Whedon – not to mention the unbelievably stacked cast – makes it seem so unbelievably natural that most viewers won’t even recognize its silky smoothness. It just feels right – the quips, the wit, the interplay, it’s all perfect. Whedon and Robert Downey Jr. were born to work together, and Joss’ script makes use of Downey’s commanding grasp of Tony Stark in a way that makes even his solo outings seem tame.

More importantly – in fact, most importantly – are the character and group dynamics. Every character gets their chance to shine, and the film’s 142-minute running time flies by with perfect pacing as a result. Based around the idea that bringing together all of these characters from various worlds (and, more metaphysically, tones and films) should be impossible, THE AVENGERS makes the characters work for it – there is an abrasiveness to the characters’ interactions that is really refreshing and genuine. It’s completely natural and expected that Chris Evan’s moralist Steve Rogers would find fault with Stark’s punk-rock attitude, or that Stark would find it personally offensive that Bruce Banner (played this time by Mark Ruffalo, who takes over the mantle of Bruce Banner from both Ed Norton and Eric Bana with expert precision) is so terrified of allowing himself to reach his full potential, even if it means getting his hands dirty. Appropriately, there is actually more fighting between the heroes than there is between the heroes and the villains; Thor is introduced into the film with a full-out brawl between himself, Stark and Rogers. All of that bickering climaxes in a dazzlingly intimate argument scene between every single character that seems almost impossible to fathom in this genre, and makes it all the more rewarding when the full team-up finally happens in the final act.

(Speaking of Ruffalo: I was most surprised by his version of Hulk than anything else in the film. It seems that Marvel, Ruffalo and Whedon have finally nailed the character, and I’m excited to see more of the Hulk in the future.)

And what a final act it is. The climax of THE AVENGERS is the finest, most impressive action sequence ever executed in a Marvel film. It’s not just that its scope is impressive, or that it’s a ton of fun; it’s that every character is always accounted for, and that every single one of them – at this point, the count is at Captain, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye – gets their moment. They are integral to the execution of their defences. They are all important cogs in the Avengers machine, and that’s what keeps every single one of them relevant in a way that could have easily been screwed up. But Whedon never allows it, most impressively in a sequence that features a single shot that floats from character to character throughout the battle. And even when the guns start blazing and the CGI starts flying, Whedon never ignores the humanity and the humour of the moment – some of the funniest moments in the entire film take place in the middle of this epic battle.

THE AVENGERS is everything that Marvel needed it to be. Whedon, together with his amazing cast, have crafted something that has raised the bar for the entire genre. And not just the genre, either: this is one of the most ambitious projects in the history of cinema. Period. Nothing like this has ever been attempted before, and it fills me with joy to know that it succeeded so flawlessly: five films make way to one unified world with a cast that includes Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Stellan Skarsgard, Tom Hiddleston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Clark Gregg and Cobie Smulders (wow.). If Natalie Portman had shown up, I think the film may have imploded.

See this film, then go and eat some shawarma. Trust me.

It’s a good day to be a nerd.

9/10

d.a. garabedian