Don Jon

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

As I type this review, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is limping towards a sixth place showing at the box office. However, if you glance at IMDb.com, you’ll find that it has a respectable average user rating of 7.2. Count me among the IMDb tribe, as I found the movie to be just as visually stunning as its unique predecessor. Director Robert Rodriguez (Machete Kills) and Troublemaker Studios reunite the likes of Mickey Rourke (The Courier) and Rosario Dawson (The Captive), while adding newcomers Eva Green (300: Rise of an Empire) and Josh Brolin (Oldboy) to another hard-boiled tale from the back alleys of Basin City.

The movie opens against the familiar black & white backdrop we experienced in part 1. Recall that Bruce Willis’ character tangled with Senator Roark and his demented pedophile son, and that he ended up killing the younger Roark. In the sequel, Roark Sr. remains a corrupt senator, just as vicious as before. He crosses paths with a young gambler named Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Don Jon), and when the cocky upstart bests him in a game of poker, Roark erupts in violence. This is just a small slice of life in Sin City, and it prepares the viewer for what’s to come.

Familiar characters Marv (Rourke) and Nancy (Jessica Alba, Little Fockers) collide at the hole-in-the-wall bar where Nancy performs nightly on stage. It’s the perfect seedy setting for the cast of characters in this dark underworld. We’re introduced to Dwight (Brolin), a private eye with a tortured past – just like nearly every other man in Sin City. Dwight is beguiled by ex-lover Ava Lorde (Green), a “dame to kill for.” His resolve crumbles, despite feeble attempts to resist her advances. The female characters in Sin City reminded me of a line from The Godfather: they’re more dangerous than shotguns.

As the tale unfolds, the characters have distinct yet overlapping storylines. The atmospheric tone and the cinematography were amazing. Cigarette smoke wafted through the air and lingered like smog, while splashes of color punctuated the otherwise monochromatic landscape. I saw the movie in 3D, and for once it was used effectively, as Frank Miller’s graphic novel sprang to life. I loved the gravelly narration, as both Dwight and Marv brought us into their world. Some viewers may not like the stereotypical portrayals of men as burly brutes or women as vampy but vulnerable vixens, but what other inhabitants would you expect in a place called Sin City?

If you enjoyed the first Sin City, you will probably think this one is even better; I did. The movie was a visual feast, if nothing else – and I found it supremely entertaining. My sole criticism is that each vignette ended in somewhat silly fashion, as the characters met their respective fates. This movie isn’t for everyone, but I sure enjoyed it. I normally give letter grades, but it’s more accurate if I just say this was 8/10 for me.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I often lament sequels, because more often than not they are unsatisfying. However, sometimes Hollywood manages to build effectively on an original movie by improving upon the protagonist in the sequel. Superhero movies are in a different realm right now, with The Dark Knight trilogy and Marvel’s The Avengers serving as the standard bearers for the genre. Whereas the Iron Man and Thor sequels have represented a slight decline in quality, I thought Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a marked improvement over its predecessor.

Chris Evans (most recently of Thor: The Dark World) reprises the role he established in 2011, but this time the storyline is significantly more entertaining. Evans has the interesting distinction of playing more than one superhero, having also portrayed Johnny Storm in The Fantastic Four franchise. Steve Rogers/Captain America is a much more compelling character, though his straight-arrow persona lacks the texture of his fellow Avengers. The sequel finds our hero adjusting to life in the 21st century while still feeling like a fish out of water. Recall that he was cryogenically frozen during World War II, only to be thawed out in a completely different era.

The movie opens with a reintroduction to the super soldier Steve Rogers as he undertakes a routine mission for S.H.I.E.LD. It’s established relatively early that Captain America has a simple but unwavering way of doing things.  He likes to deal in facts and strives to be truthful and straightforward in most aspects of life: what you see is what you get.  So when he discovers that S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, RoboCop) is less than forthright about the mission at hand, he feels slightly betrayed.

Fury’s dishonesty makes Rogers mistrustful of him as well as friend and fellow Avenger Black Widow (Natalia Romanoff) (Scarlett Johansson, Don Jon), who was privy to the deception but doesn’t have the same inflexible “code” as Rogers. This movie differed from the other Marvel entrants in that Fury was featured much more prominently. When he inexplicably becomes the target of assassins, he reveals to Rogers that a splinter group has arisen within S.H.I.E.L.D. That rogue faction is known as Hydra, and they’ve been operating since S.H.I.E.L.D.’s inception. Fury ominously warns Rogers that he can’t trust anyone, and soon he too feels Hydra’s wrath. Robert Redford (All is Lost) is featured as S.H.I.E.L.D. higher-up Alexander Pierce, a questionable character in odd pursuit of Rogers after casting suspicion upon him regarding Director Fury.

The title of this sequel references The Winter Soldier, a soldier every bit as impressive as Captain America. He’s relentless and formidable, complete with a metal arm and seemingly indestructible exterior. His origin is unknown, but Black Widow explains to Captain America that his kills are the stuff of legend. Captain America must expose the Hydra agents within S.H.I.E.L.D., while uncovering their end-game goal. All the while he must contend with The Winter Soldier, a foe against whom he is evenly matched. I’ve tried to describe the movie in a way that is accurate but doesn’t reveal too much – so I’ve been intentionally cryptic about a few details.

I enjoyed the movie because it was entertaining and action-packed. The storyline was more interesting than the first movie, and Rogers’ character was fleshed out more. Additionally, the supporting characters proved to be worthy additions, including Anthony Mackie (Runner Runner) as Falcon, an affable sidekick who fits in nicely alongside Captain America and Black Widow. Men (and some women) will appreciate Scarlett Johansson’s assets, and I thought she more than held her own. All of the Avengers are well cast, and Chris Evans is well suited in the starring role. I don’t go for the “straight-arrow” superhero types, as I like my heroes with a darker side – but he didn’t disappoint. I thought Iron Man 3 and Thor 2 were recent Marvel missteps, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier has the studio back on track and is poised to crush the box office. Grade: A-

 

Her

Sometimes movies take you back to a painful place in your life, or they can open your mind and heart to untold possibilities.  The movies that resonate most with me are those like Her, which struck an emotional chord with its subtle, deeply moving performances and beautiful cinematography.  The film captures the very essence of what it feels like to be in love, from those early stages of rapture, to the uncertainty and fear experienced when a once vibrant love affair begins to dwindle.  To be in love is to feel new and alive in a way that you’ve never felt before, and director Spike Jonze (Where The Wild Things Are) has given us a very interesting, moving film.

The film is set in an unspecified period in the future.  Jonze doesn’t overwhelm us with flying cars or anything too deep within the realm of sci-fi; rather he shows us a very plausible world where our gadgetry and technology are significantly advanced.  We’re introduced to Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix, The Master), a quiet unassuming man who works as a “letter writer,” an odd profession involving personalized hand-written correspondence akin to a greeting card.  Theodore seems reclusive, but he isn’t without social graces.  We see him interact with others, but there is a hint of social ineptitude.  One day he purchases a new operating system for his computer, and his life begins to change.

The operating system is an interactive upgrade, capable of basic tasks like reading his email, but much more.  If a person were able to read your emails, check your browsing history, read every tweet or Facebook post you’ve ever written, and all of the appointments in your calendar – a picture would begin to emerge.  The operating system can do this in an instant, and so it quickly learns about Theodore’s personality and the recent events in his life, including a pending divorce.  Theodore was able to choose the operating system’s gender, and chose a female that ultimately named herself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson, Don Jon).  Initially he uses Samantha as a functional tool, but she is so advanced that she responds emotionally to him.  Eventually they form the equivalent of a long-distance relationship, conversing regularly and bonding deeply.  Samantha is able to share Theodore’s world because there is a camera on his mobile device and he can hear her with an earpiece.  They go on “double dates,” and even have phone sex.

I don’t really want to discuss the plot any further; I think I’ve set it up for you sufficiently.  I’d rather point out the things that I enjoyed about the film.  Firstly, Phoenix turns in one of his most memorable performances.  This guy is really talented when he’s not making faux documentaries (I’m Still Here).  Theodore and Samantha’s “relationship” waxes and wanes, and the slight tonal shifts Phoenix conveyed were outstanding.  The ebb and flow of their relationship was fascinating, because Samantha is never pictured (obviously).  That means that Phoenix has no counterpart to physically play off of, and that Johansson must do EVERYTHING with her voice.  It was brilliant.

Secondly, Jonze did some incredible things from a visual perspective.  The staging and usage of color and light was genius.  In one scene, Phoenix is shown up close as sunlight filters through the camera lens, the drops of sunlight flickering to and fro. We feel the emotional connection between characters and feel like we are taking the journey with Theodore.  In another scene, Samantha composes a melodic ditty that perfectly captures the shared moment between the two.  Sound, light, and color blended perfectly as we witnessed a magical emotional display.

Some may reduce this movie to its plot and say that it’s about a man who falls in love with his computer – but that would be a disservice to the filmmaker and all involved.  This was a film about love and that deeply human connection that we so desperately need to establish with another person – whether we admit it or not.  And while Samantha wasn’t human in the actual sense, we never doubted the authenticity of their connection – and that’s kind of what makes the movie so special.  When you’re in love the sun shines brighter.  You view the world through different eyes, and Her captured this perfectly.  There were elements that reminded me of Lost in Translation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – so if you liked anything about either of those movies, I think you’ll enjoy.  Grade: A-