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Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Gordon-Levitt’

Just the other week I was observing with a degree of sadness that Joseph Gordon-Levitt seemed to have rather dropped off the radar in recent years: this was, of course, the cue for him to reappear in what I suppose must qualify as a fairly high-profile movie (it’s a streamer, but conventional releases still seem to be on pause while the accountants see how well Tenet and The New Mutants do in the new climate). It seems, by the way, that Gordon-Levitt took a couple of years off to concentrate on raising his family – which is highly laudable, of course, even if the fact he has this option just drives home how extravagant the salaries of Hollywood performers often are. There’s a trade-off, he suggests, saying that the professional options open to him have narrowed compared to what they were before his break.

I wonder if this could be construed as why an actor sometimes to be found in rather prestigious studio productions now finds himself in an original superhero movie made by Netflix? Perhaps I am letting my prejudices show, for I am still wary of anything which seems to undermine the theatrical experience in the way that Netflix’s business model does, while it’s hard to think of an own-brand superhero movie (by which I mean, not based on a pre-existing comic book character) with any real merit. (I suppose some people would argue for Darkman.)

The movie in question is Project Power, directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. The setting is the city of New Orleans, still depicting as struggling many years after the impact of Hurricane Katrina. But now the citizens of the Big Easy have something new making their lives more difficult: a designer drug is being sold on the streets. Known as ‘Power’, the one and only effect of it is to give the taker superpowers. There are some arbitrary genre movie rules attached to this, of course: the powers only last for exactly five minutes, and it’s not like you get a random new power every time – it’s more as if the drug activates whatever potential you have.

(Shame they can’t organise posters like this so everyone stands under their own name. Hey ho.)

So far, so preposterous but at the same time fairly generative as far as story ideas go – but, possibly to try and make it all sound a bit more credible, the writer (Mattson Tomlin) attempts to put some kind of quasi-scientific gloss on this by indicating the drug gives people powers derived from the natural abilities of various animals. Nothing too objectionable about this, I suppose, but the movie rather blows a hole in its own credibility by introducing a character whose power, when activated, is so terrifyingly destructive even he is frightened of it. And what animal has he apparently gained this from? A shrimp. You can’t beat a bit of bathos.

Anyway, the actual plot concerns a trio of characters: maverick cop Frank (Gordon-Levitt), who has taken to using Power in order to allow him to stand a chance against criminals who are using the drug; teenage drug-dealer and aspiring rapper Robin (Dominique Fishback), who is his supplier; and the Major (Jamie Foxx), an ex-military drifter who has blown into town and is determined to find the source of the drug for reasons of his own. Can they sort out their various differences and work together to get the drug off the streets?

It’s almost inherent in the superhero genre that the premise of a story is going to be fairly unlikely, and once you factor this in the premise of Project Power does not look entirely un-promising. There is the potential here for all the requisite action and crash-bang-wallopery, but in a slightly more gritty context than usual – it’s clear from the script that the writer intended to make points about the various injustices of US society and engage in other bits of social commentary too.

Well, I suppose in the end the movie’s higher aspirations are all still present, but you have to look quite hard for them as they sort of vanish into the background. I do wonder if I am unfairly prejudiced against some of these streaming movies – it’s possible that if I’d seen a movie like Project Power on the big screen, I might have been more impressed by the fact it is trying to be a bit more intelligent and thoughtful and engage with social issues as well as being a special-effects action movie. The film’s advantage in that setting would have been the faculty-numbing effect of a giant screen and huge sound system (this is all part and parcel of the theatrical experience I mentioned earlier). Watching it on a small-ish TV or laptop, it just doesn’t have the effect the makers are presumably hoping for.

In the end you are left with a movie built around lavish special effects action sequences, and while they look pretty good they are an essentially superficial pleasure. The very nature of these set-pieces and the way they are presented is really at odds with all the other things the script is trying to do: if you’re trying to make a film which has serious points about America’s drugs problem and its underprivileged citizens, you surely want to make something which is fairly gritty and naturalistic, not just another slick and glossy Marvel-style entertainment. That really would have been something new and interesting in this genre. As it is, the film’s noble intentions just seem like a fig-leaf to justify CGI overload and a lurid, colour-drenched visual style.

I could gripe about a few other things – the film can’t seem to resist beating the viewer over the head with pop-culture references, for example – but that is its main problem. That said, as this kind of film goes, I’ve seen much worse, and it has some visually impressive fights and chases (I should mention there are some rather grisly moments along the way). The presence of charismatic leads like Foxx and Gordon-Levitt is also, obviously, a plus, while everyone seems to agree that this film features a potentially career-launching turn from Dominique Fishback – I can’t argue with this, though I wonder if that career will be as an actress or a rapper (let’s face it, in today’s media landscape, probably both). In the end, though, this feels like another piece of slickly assembled and packaged Netflix product rather than anything genuinely interesting or exciting.

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Back a couple of months ago when they first announced the re-opening of the cinemas, the lack of new movies was supposedly going to be made up for by the reappearance of many old classics to lure people back into the habit of going to the flicks. In Oxford at least this never really happened, as most of the cinemas are still shut and will stay that way for nearly another week – the Phoenix showed a revival of Spirited Away (which, to be fair, they seem to do about once a year anyway) and a screening of The Blues Brothers and that’s about it. (Would I have been tempted out by the promised showing of The Empire Strikes Back? We shall never know. I wouldn’t have wagered against it.) Maybe this would have paid dividends, however, as I am pleased to report that this week’s cinema attendance was up from two to five, possibly because the film on offer was another revival, if perhaps not quite a golden oldie: Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception.

Of course, there are revivals and revivals, and it is telling that the spruced up Inception re-release was preceded not just by a short retrospective film concerning it, but a preview piece for Nolan’s latest, Tenet. I am beginning to worry that expectations for Tenet are running impossibly high – even if it weren’t for the fact that the film has taken on a kind of totemic significance as the First Big Post-Lockdown Release, the look and feel of the publicity is leading people to think it is somehow a spiritual successor to Inception itself. Living up to this will be a stern test of even Nolan’s abilities.

I say this mainly because Christopher Nolan is possibly my favourite living film director: no-one currently working in mainstream cinema has the same track record when it comes to making films which are not just technically proficient, but also sophisticated and resonant, taking what look from some angles like glossy genre pictures and turning them into something affecting and mind-expanding (even Dunkirk, which is the first Nolan film I was significantly disappointed by, is still made to the highest of standards).

And (as you may have guessed) Inception is my favourite Nolan film: I saw it on its opening weekend ten years ago, staggering back to my digs in a due state of happy disbelief straight afterwards. I watch it once a year or so, on average: I seem to have ended up with two copies of it on DVD, although I have no real recollection of where the second one came from.

What makes it so special, in my eyes at least? Well, let us consider the situation pertaining at one point towards the end of the film. A group of people are on a plane, sleeping. They are dreaming that they are in a van in the process of crashing off a bridge. Some of the dream-versions of themselves in the van are asleep, dreaming they are in a hotel where gravity has been suspended. The dream-versions of some of the people in the hotel are also asleep, dreaming they are in an Alpine hospital surrounded by a small private army, with whom some of them are doing battle. Others are asleep, and are dreaming they are exploring an infinite, ruined city of the subconscious mind. So, just to recap: they are on a plane dreaming they are in a van dreaming they are in a hotel dreaming they are in a hospital dreaming they are in a ruined city. The miraculous thing about Inception is not merely that this makes sense while you are watching it, but it actually feels entirely logical and even somewhat straightforward.

One element of this film which I feel is too-little commented upon is the playfulness of it – a very deadpan sort of playfulness, admittedly, but even so. The main characters are thieves and con-artists, for the most part, and there’s a sense in which Nolan himself, as writer, is pulling an elaborate con-trick on the audience. A writer I interviewed many years ago suggested to me that writing pure fantasy is essentially cheating at cards to win pretend-money: a pointless exercise. The internal mechanics of Inception are pure fantasy: the story is predicated on the existence of technology allowing people to dream collectively, which is entirely fictitious (and the film naturally just treats it as a fact, not bothering to even suggest how it works). Yet Nolan comes up with underlying concepts and principles for the dream-sharing experience which are so detailed and plausible you buy into them without question, even though this requires the film to teach them to the viewer, in some detail, starting from scratch. Simply as a piece of expository work it is a startling achievement: militarised subconsciousnesses, dream totems, the ‘kick’ used to waken dreamers – all of these are very significant to the plot, and the script elegantly explains how and why without slowing down or seeming unnecessarily convoluted (I’m not going to pretend Inception isn’t convoluted or somewhat demanding for the viewer, but the rewards are more than worth it).

Just conceiving the world of the movie and then communicating it to the audience to tell a story of guys on a mission to break into someone’s subconscious mind and plant an idea there would be a noteworthy achievement, but threaded through this is a much less procedural and genuinely moving story of guilt and grief: main character Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is haunted by the memory of his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) – but, this being the story that it is, this becomes literally true. In the dream worlds memories and metaphors have genuine power and existence, and the dream motif which dominates the film seems to me to mostly be there to facilitate this metaphorical level to the story – the heist-movie trappings are yet another mask, or con trick.

And yet there is another level to the movie, too – or perhaps another way of looking at it. For what is going to the cinema at all if not an exercise in collective dreaming? The idea of dream-as-movie is another pervasive one – Nolan uses the standard techique of beginning a scene with two characters already in place to indicate the discontinuities of the dream world. And the dream worlds the characters descend through, getting further away from reality as they go, resemble increasingly outlandish kinds of thriller – initially something quite gritty and urban, then the slick and stylised interior of a hotel where a complex Mission: Impossible-style scam is attempted, and then finally the Bond-like action in and around the Alpine fortress. Is it a coincidence that the next Bond film to be released featured a lengthy sequence in a ruined city bearing a striking resemblance to the subconscious realm of this one? Perhaps a compliment was being returned.

Great script, great direction: superb cast, too, many of them doing what is surely amongst their best work. You watch it now and are suddenly aware that Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, to name but two, seem to have dropped out of sight as far as mainstream cinema is concerned; even Tom Hardy seems to be only doing one film every two or three years, and those mostly blockbusters. (You look at Hardy in this film and realise that he does seem to be doing his audition piece for Bond: he seems either unaware of the fact that he’s not the main character in this movie, or deliberately choosing to ignore it.) I suppose there is still the consolation of Ken Watanabe making Transformers and Godzilla movies in the meantime.

For something to really grab my attention it usually has to be very big or very complicated, or preferably both: Inception meets these criteria, and then some. Every time I watch the movie I see something new, some new angle or connection or little piece of trickery, usually in the least expected of places. Add Hans Zimmer’s score to all the other things I’ve mentioned and – well, I suppose it is theoretically possible that Inception is not the best film of the 21st century so far. But I cannot think of another candidate.

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As one legend of Japanese cinema makes a long-awaited return to UK screens, another bids farewell: at least that’s what the publicity for Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises indicates, for this film is described as his ‘farewell masterpiece’. Even if we can’t be 100% sure about the ‘farewell’ part, the ‘masterpiece’ thing seems pretty much on the money. But then this is Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, and masterpieces are virtually their stock in trade. Beauty and charm, along with dazzling technical expertise, are what you expect from a Ghibli movie, even the ones dealing with somewhat off-the-wall subject matter (demon bathhouses, child starvation, and possible cases of genetic sexual attraction).

The-Wind-Rises

It says something about how peculiar some of the Ghibli back catalogue is that a romantic social history of Japan between the two World Wars, focussing on the life story of the man who designed the Mitsubishi Zero (the all-metal fighter plane used by the Japanese navy to devastating effect in the early stages of the Pacific war), is a relatively straightforward choice of story by comparison. This is a heavily-fictionalised biography of the engineer in question, Jiro Horikoshi.

As a young boy in 1918, Jiro dreams of becoming a pilot, but his poor eyesight makes that impossible. Inspired by a dream in which he meets the Italian engineer Giovanni Caproni, he decides to become an aeronautical designer instead. The film follows him through university and his career with Mitsubishi, taking in major historical events like the 1923 Kanto earthquake and the great depression, as well as his relationship and ultimate marriage to his long-term sweetheart. The film also covers the rise of totalitarianism throughout the 1930s, both in Japan and Germany – the relationship between the two countries is, to some extent, dealt with in the film.

And, as usual, the artistic virtuosity on display throughout is simply jaw-dropping, including virtually photo-realistic backdrops and astonishingly intricate designs for characters and planes. Much of the time every inch of the screen is filled with colour and movement, and it is immaculately done – I’ve said this before, but I don’t think even the Disney company in the golden age of hand-drawn animation had the sheer level of expertise and attention to detail that the Ghibli animators routinely deploy. Nobody has ever made traditional animation better than this.

On paper the story does not sound especially engaging, but the actual film is very absorbing: quite apart from the sheer look of the film (which, as I believe I said, is gorgeous), the characters are appealing and the story is not without a certain fascination. Rather as in From Up On Poppy Hill, nostalgia for an older, unspoilt Japan is evident throughout The Wind Rises – there are numerous lovely landscapes, and everyone lives in beautiful traditional houses – but given that this is a film set in the 1920s and 1930s there is always a slightly ominous tone to the story. Every time Jiro or one of his colleagues vows to help Japan become a modern, technological country, a rival to Germany or America, you can’t help but be reminded that this is really not going to end well for the Japanese people.

It’s a mark of the film’s enormous subtlety that this point, though clearly intended, is never laboured or dwelt upon: in short, it treats the audience with intelligence (and, by the way, it’s clearly intended for a mature audience: probably not a movie to take your four-year-old to see). There’s also something very Japanese about the delicacy of the way in which it deals obliquely with some elements both of history and its own story. The climax is oddly obscure and understated, with a considerable amount left for the audience to surmise for themselves, while a post-War coda alludes to the terrible events which have occurred without addressing any of them in detail.

There is perhaps an issue with this, in that Jiro’s own responsibility as the designer of a warplane is never really addressed by the film. He is clearly a patriot, and a man interested in technical achievement for its own sake – ‘All I wanted to do was make something beautiful,’ is Jiro’s own comment – but to what extent does that excuse him from culpability, given his involvement with the Japanese war machine? Is there a greater responsibility than to nation and beauty? Again, it’s left for the audience to decide, but the difference here is that it’s a question that the film almost feels keen to evade.

Nevertheless, this is a minor issue given the achievement of the rest of the film on virtually every level. I saw the American dub, featuring the vocal talents of (amongst others) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, William H Macy and Werner Herzog, and all of them are fine, but the real strengths of this film are in the script and the realisation. This is a thought-provoking and beautiful film – and, yes, a masterpiece. I am actually rather astonished this film did not win the Best Animated Feature Oscar – perhaps it is just a little too mature and thoughtful for comfort. Either way, The Wind Rises is a superb film and a fitting conclusion to Miyazaki’s career.

 

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‘I can’t account for how at any given moment I feel the need to explore one life as opposed to another, but I do know that I can only do this work if I feel almost as if there is no choice; that a subject coincides inexplicably with a very personal need and a very specific moment in time.’   Daniel Day-Lewis

Well, I don’t know about you, folks, but to me that sounds less like a working method than a description of some sort of disorder, but hey, it clearly works for Mr Picky as he won his third leading-role Oscar last week. Come on, Marvel, get him on board for the Avengers sequel or whatever! I’d like to see him try method-acting Thanos or the Abomination.

Lincoln

Anyway, as a conscientous sort of chap who cares about his readers I thought it behooved me to go along and actually have a look at Day-Lewis’ turn in Lincoln, and as a purveyor of cheap jokes I worried that a lengthy biopic about the American Civil War and human rights might be a bit short on laughs so I took my trusty Comparison Wrangler with me (apparently he has some sort of Illinois heritage and, as a result, a personal connection to Lincoln – I believe that, in his lawyering days, the 16th President failed to get one of his ancestors off a parking ticket, or something).

Following the movie:

‘Okay, it’s time for the question. What would you compare that film to?’

An unusually lengthy pause. Then: ‘Forrest Gump meets Dirty Harry.’

I must confess to being more startled than usual by this latest gem. ‘Explain,’ I eventually managed to request.

‘Well, he was always telling people little stories – he had a story for every occasion – like Tom Hanks, in Forrest Gump.’

‘And Dirty Harry?’

‘He kept squinting all the time. Oh, and he was looking for justice, too.’

Believe it or not, I do go to the cinema with this guy out of choice. I can’t honestly endorse his appraisal of Spielberg’s film, though. This is one part historical portrait to two parts political drama, notably lighter on martial arts vampire fighting than last year’s somewhat similar Lincoln bio-pic.

The bulk of the film occurs in the space of a few weeks early in 1865. Lincoln has just been re-elected as US President, which is good, but the Civil War is in its fourth year, which is bad. That said, the Confederacy is virtually exhausted, which again is good, but Lincoln has not yet managed to get the US Constitution amended to outlaw slavery, which is also bad. For various political reasons it is absolutely vital that the amendment be passed by the House of Representatives before peace breaks out, but in order to do this Lincoln needs to manufacture a two-thirds majority which he simply does not possess.

Most of the film depicts Lincoln’s various endeavours to cobble together the majority required, which results in a number of plotlines going off in various directions – a fervent abolitionist played by Tommy Lee Jones has to be persuaded to moderate his position in order not to frighten the metaphorical horses, a dodgy political operator played by James Spader is retained to get votes from Lincoln’s Democratic opponents by offering sinecures, peace overtures from the South have to be carefully finessed, and so on. As I’ve said before, I’m not a great expert on American history, and my knowledge of their political system mainly derives from early seasons of The West Wing, but I found this all to be fascinating, challenging stuff, and I did come away wanting to learn more about the history of this period.

Less successful, I thought, was material concerning Lincoln’s relationships with his various family members – Mrs Lincoln is played by Sally Field, who to be perfectly truthful I like less than Mary Elizabeth Winstead from the other movie, and Lincoln’s eldest son is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt – cue the inevitable whisper of ‘Hey, it’s Batman!’ from the seat next to mine. If this stuff is here to try to humanise an iconic figure, or possibly portray him as a hero with feet of clay, then it doesn’t quite work, possibly because Spielberg’s heart isn’t quite in it. The film isn’t quite a hagiography of its subject, but it does have an aura of reverentiality to it, and while it’s by no means humourless, it is definitely steeped in gravitas.

Daniel Day-Lewis is operating on full power as Lincoln himself, but – as usual – I found the results to be oddly mannered and ostentatious. His performances are always arresting and remarkable, but for me he never disappears into the character he’s playing: instead he straps the accoutrements of their personality on like some ornate suit of baroque armour. I found Tommy Lee Jones’ performance, which isn’t nearly so technically refined, far easier to relate to.

But then this is clearly intended as a serious film on an important topic. Spielberg’s strike rate with this sort of thing is rather variable – and personally I prefer his films when they involve people being eaten by special effects – but this is certainly towards the top end of this section of his oeuvre, engaging, illuminating, crisply scripted, uniformly strongly played, and unflashily-directed. ‘Enjoyed’ is probably the wrong word for my reaction to Lincoln, but I certainly appreciated the skill that had gone into making it.

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(I don’t know, you wait ages for a review of a movie about time travel, and then two come along at exactly the same moment messing up each others’ causality and changing their own endings. Tut.)

Yet more evidence of dodgy judgement at the UK’s premiere cinema chain named after the Greek word for theatre: never mind their fondness for not showing Jason Statham movies, converting perfectly lovely foyers into coffeeshops, and not employing nearly enough (or indeed any) ushers to keep the vast numbers of foreign students who patronise their establishments quiet, they’ve also decided not to show Rian Johnson’s Looper at any of their standard cinemas.

I really wanted to see this film, given the subject matter and glowing reviews it’s received, and so there was nothing to do but attempt to get to Oxford’s out-of-town multiplex, an undertaking I have never before attempted without the benefit of a lift. To cut a long story short, two bus rides, a reasonably long walk, some unplanned hitch-hiking and a possible unexpected appearance on The Super League Show later, I found my way to said establishment.

(The Oxford Vue is not quite as lovely on the inside as its Cribbs Causeway counterpart, but the seats and facilities are still notably better than the ones at the sweetshop and the coffeeshop – especially since the refurb of the latter. )

Anyway, the epic journey turned out to be worth it as Looper is that rare beast, a good, intelligent SF film that works as a satisfying genre movie too. Our protagonist is Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an inhabitant of Kansas City in the year 2044 and on the face of it a fairly nasty piece of work – a drug addict who funds his habit by working as a mob executioner, or ‘Looper’. Why this unusual nomenclature? Well, therein lies the tale.

Joe’s employers are based in 2074, by which point time travel has been invented. In order to confound the cops in that year, when the syndicates want someone eliminated, they have him zapped back to 2044 where he is instantly killed by Joe or another Looper and his body disposed of. However, there is a catch – to protect themselves, sooner or later the mob always send the 2074 version of the Looper back in time to be killed by their younger self (this basically constitutes a termination of contract in more ways than one).

Most often the Looper executes himself without even realising it until it’s too late – but mistakes do happen, and the consequences for everyone involved are severe (Johnson includes a sequence of bravura nastiness and ingenuity early on to illustrate this point). Inevitably the day dawns when Joe finds himself sighting along his blunderbuss barrel at… himself.

But the future Joe (played by Bruce Willis) is not just here to be another victim – there are very particular things he wants to do very badly now he’s back in 2044. Can young Joe figure out what his elder self is up to? And even if he can, can he really bring himself to end his own life this way?

Well, the first thing one must say is that, unless you just treat time travel as a plot device to get you to the scene of an adventure, it’s virtually impossible to come up with a story using  it which actually makes sense. Even the first Terminator, which seems to have been an influence on this film and is generally pretty coherent, got accused recently by an acquaintance of not making any logical sense. And while Looper has a pretty good stab at explaining why it is that future Joe doesn’t remember everything that’s going to have happened in the film on account of his already will having-had been there as young Joe (oh, time travel, gotta love the grammar), the same is broadly true: most of the details don’t really hang together.

On the other hand, Looper‘s consistent inventiveness, wit and style do a tremendous job, not necessarily of covering this up, but ensuring you’re not actually that bothered by it. The storytelling manages to be both clear and surprising, setting up a complicated scenario with commendable speed and economy and then constantly finding new spins and angles on it. On top of this, the movie’s action sequences are also solidly put together and genuinely exciting.

What really makes the film work are the central performances – Jeff Daniels has a great extended cameo as a very laid back crime-boss from the future, but most of the work is done by the leads. Emily Blunt deploys an extremely decent American accent as a character who’s crucial to the second half of the story, and manages to be more than just decorative. Joseph Gordon-Levitt turns in a sterling performance, all the moreso given the constraints on him – for one thing, he’s wearing prosthetics to make him look a bit more like a young Bruce Willis, and for another, he’s not just playing Joe, he’s playing Willis playing Joe. The prosthetics are not 100% convincing but the performance is. Bruce Willis himself is at the absolute top of his game in this film – watching him here you remember just how good he can be, both as a straight actor and an action movie star.

The presence of Willis, plus a few other elements, really put one in mind of the early films of M Night Shyamalan (before he completely lost the plot) – is this to suggest that Looper concludes with a monumental twist? I fear I cannot in all decency confirm or deny this. In any case, this is a startlingly good and clever piece of film-making that entertains and surprises virtually non-stop for two hours. Recommended.

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