Monday, December 30, 2013

Movie Reviews-Don Jon, 47 Ronin

Don Jon
directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Don Jon is a nice heartwarming little comedy despite its unfortunate overreliance on broad stereotypes of East Coast Italian-Americans and its explicit subject matter. Although it's not really in the same universe as (500) Days of Summer, like that film it has something to say about how men and women see and use each other. There does appear to be another nod to that film when the protagonist's little sister can see things more clearly than the protagonist. The growth and change is once again done primarily by the male character.  I appreciated that this movie subtly called both men and women on the carpet for unrealistic and unhealthy expectations. Everyone has fantasies. They can be escapist but they can also shape what we desire in the real world. Some argue that these fantasies are completely socially constructed and unhealthy. I tend to disagree with that. But the cultural zeitgeist tends to be that male fantasies are nasty, degrading and disgusting and should be suppressed if not stamped out while female fantasies are wholesome, uplifiting and something that males should aspire to fulfill. Right. Well as anyone who's ever been intimate with anyone knows, the reality is usually very different than the fantasy. Often the reality is better in the long run though it's always more challenging. The film seems to be saying that there's nothing wrong with fantasies per se, but that you should never let fantasies prevent you from enjoying real life. 

Jon Martello (JGL) is a bartender who appears to have been a perfect fit for The Jersey Shore. As he explains in voice over there are a few things he really cares about. These include his friends, his family, his girls, his ride, his body, his church, his home and his porn. That's pretty much it. He and his friends Danny (Jeremy Luke) and Bobby (Rob Brown) do the dance club/night club circuit where they attempt to have as much meaningless sex as possible with the female versions of themselves. They can be friends because they all have slightly different tastes in women. Jon, aka Don Jon for his success at loving them and leaving them, prefers the leggy hourglass shape. Bobby likes a woman with a healthy bottom frame while Danny seeks a more slender figure. Their preferences all occasionally overlap of course but one thing that all three men can agree upon is that becoming attached to just one woman let alone getting married is completely out of the question. 
Jon however has found that no matter how much or what kind of sex he has there's no woman out there who can give him the physical and emotional transcendence he attains from visual pornography. So as far as Jon is concerned porn is a permanent part of his life. Any woman he's intimate with will just have to accept that. But when he has a chance meeting with Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johanssen) this is put to the test. Barbara meets or far exceeds all of Jon's physical requirements, so much so that he tells his stunned buddies that she is beyond a "10". When he admits to being in love his friends know he's lost his mind. Barbara's mojo is such that she can make Jon wait for intimacy until she's ready. This is unheard of! Barbara can even force Jon to go back to night college classes.The white collar worker Barbara doesn't see herself in a long term relationship with someone who didn't graduate college. Jon's parents, Jon Sr. (Tony Danza) and Angela (Glenn Headley) are super delighted that Jon finally appears to be on the verge of settling down and starting a family. 
Things look like they're going well. But both over time and in some darkly humorous sudden shock setpieces, Barbara reveals both deliberately and unwittingly that she has fantasies and expectations that if applied to real men, are just as restrictive and unfair as Jon's porn driven dreams of no holes barred sex are to women. Barbara doesn't like pornography and is not shy about letting Jon know it either. This leads to static and to Jon questioning his values and what he wants out of life. An older student in his class, Esther (Julianne Moore) provides a different sort of catalyst to Jon's growth. This was Gordon-Levitt's directorial debut. It worked. It's a smart funny film. It's ironic and probably just part of the human condition that we can see so clearly the weaknesses, contradictions and foolishness in someone else's fantasies while being blind to similar drawbacks in our own. Such is life. Be aware that Don Jon contains numerous brief clips from hard core adult movies which are used to puncutate Jon's thoughts or ridicule his oft-altered state of mind. His frequent confessions are also played for laughs.

47 Ronin
directed by Carl Erik Rinsch
47 Ronin is a fantastical reinterpretation of the true story of 47 Ronin in Japan, who against the odds and the law avenged the unrighteous death of their feudal lord. 47 Ronin should have been a better movie. Unfortunately there is never a sense of massive scale or that these particular masterless samurai are such bada$$es that being outnumbered by high ratios is no big deal for them. If you wish to impress me that only 47 men pulled off an impossible task then you need to show me greater numbers of opponents so that I understand. Give me a way to tell the Ronin apart. Have some of them have an interesting backstory or special power. For example this was done to great effect in the first Matrix movie (where Neo and Trinity storm the building to save Morpheus), the movie Equilibrium (where Preston fought his way past all the bodyguards to kill Brandt and DuPont), or the classic Five Deadly Venoms movie (pick any scene). Unfortunately 47 Ronin doesn't really have any scenes like that until the very end where it's probably a bit too late. This is definitely a wait for DVD, Saturday afternoon kind of film.

Nevertheless the story is quite familiar even though I hadn't heard of it previously. Some things are just universal. We have familial rivalries, deceit, forbidden love, death before dishonor, the execution of a beloved father figure, the destruction of a clan's power and a princess captured by her family's enemies and forced to marry those who murdered her father. And bloody revenge. I wonder if George R.R. Martin was familiar with this story.
One thing that doesn't translate well in my opinion is the Japanese tradition of seppuku, or ritual suicide to avoid or atone for misdeeds or dishonor. It's one thing to fight to the last man giving no quarter and accepting none, blow yourself up in order to take down some of THEM with you, or take a position that you know will be overrun in the hopes that your fight until hell freezes over and then fight on the ice sacrifice will inspire fear in your enemies or give your distant comrades enough time to regroup and avenge you. I get that. It's something else again to kill yourself because you offended your military leader or broke some code of honor. No thanks. If I'm going to die anyway I'm taking some enemies with me.

When Kai (Keanu Reeves) is a child he is discovered running away from a witch/demon den by Japanese soldiers. He's half dead already. As the soldiers don't trust him anyway they are about to kill him but are prevented from doing so by their Lord Asano (Min Tanaka). Lord Asano is a kindly man and raises Kai as his ward. This doesn't prevent his soldiers from bullying Kai about his mixed ancestry or prevent Kai from having to accept his low non-Samurai status. As a child Kai grew friendly with Lord Asano's daughter and heir, Mika. As an adult he and the beautiful Mika (Kou Shibasaki) struggle with some obvious and complicated feelings for each other. Lord Asano is blind to this but his other samurai pick up on it and don't like it one bit.
During a hunt for a wild magical beast Kai notices some strange events in the forest but is ridiculed when he tries to bring this to others' attention, especially Oishi's (Hiroyuki Sanada). Oishi is Lord Asano's most powerful and loyal retainer. But he's not overly fond of Kai. The shogun (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and the powerful Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) are arriving for festivities and a tournament. Lord Kira has goo goo eyes for Mika, who isn't betrothed yet. He lets her know of his interest by the traditional time honored male tactics of the slow gaze that takes her in from head to toe, the invasion of personal space and of course the old mistaking her for her father's concubine routine. Do those moves still work ladies? Anyway via sorcery from Kira's concubine, advisor and much much more, Mizuki (Rinko Kukuchi):
  • The Asano family loses the tournament.
  • Kai is disgraced and sold into slavery.
  • Lord Asano is forced to kill himself.
  • The Asano lands pass into Kira's control.
  • Asano's samurai are stripped of titles and expelled, except for Oishi who is arrested and tortured for months.
  • Sansa Stark Mika Asano is compelled to marry the smirking Lord Kira, in order to bring peace between the two families.
  • Revenge is strictly forbidden via direct order of the Shogun himself.
But if you want to stop revenge you never should have left Oishi alive. Inexplicably released from prison Osihi goes to find Kai. They're going to put the band back together. They intend to take bloody revenge and shake the pillars of heaven. This was okay just somewhat underwhelming. The penultimate battles were nice but most of the film just didn't live up to what I thought it could have been. As usual, Reeves is a bit vacant. There is a fair amount of magic and fantasy interwoven into the story. I've skipped the trailer here as the ones I've seen give away the film's only impressive surprise. And I don't know if anyone told Megyn Kelly but in the actual historical event there weren't any Caucasian or even semi-Caucasian Ronin. 47 Ronin is visually impressive at times but there wasn't enough there.
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