Tag Archives: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Strings Attached


by George Wolf

I saw a tweet not long ago that suggested Disney should stop with the live-action remakes and instead, re-do their classics with the Muppets.

That logic is sound. Disney now owns the necessary rights, of course, and Muppet treatments would at least ensure creative visions that run deeper than “because we can.”

Heck, Tom Hanks could still star in them, as he does in this new live-action version of Pinocchio. Really, it would be more of a surprise if Hanks didn’t play the kindly Geppetto, and he’s just as fitting as you would expect a GD National Treasure to be.

And since the film mixes Hanks and other live actors with impressive digital animation, seeing the name Robert Zemeckis (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Polar Express, Welcome to Marwen) as director and co-writer gives you confidence the entire project will be well-crafted and satisfactory.

And it is. But if true magic is what your heart desires, keep wishing.

Young Benjamin Evan Ainsworth is in fine voice as the legendary puppet who longs to be a real boy, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt strains for that distinctive Jiminy Cricket phrasing and lands a little too close to South Park‘s Mr. Hankey.

But more importantly, Zemeckis and co-writer Chris Weitz seem too eager to justify their project via modern sensibilities. And in turn, they end up short-changing elements that made Disney’s original such an enduring favorite.

New songs add little beyond pop flavor, while one new character, Sofia the seagull (Lorraine Bracco) exists mainly to over-explain character motivations. Pinocchio’s friendship with Sabina (Jaquita Ta’le), a skilled puppeteer in Stromboli’s (Giuseppe Battiston) show, is well-intentioned but forced. Keegan-Michael Key’s foxy Honest John tempts Pinocchio with fame through references to “influencers” and Chris Pine.

Luke Evans does make a delightfully devilish Coachman, who leads Pinocchio to an effectively realized Pleasure Island that glimpses some darker themes. Exploring more of these layers would have strengthened the fairy tale roots, but it’s the tale of the Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo) that gets the shortest shrift.

“When You Wish Upon a Star” is not just a song for Disney. By now it’s the bedrock of their entire, world-conquering, fantasy-selling enterprise. And Erivo has a beautiful voice.

Let her let it gooooo! (pun intended). Yes, the song comes early in the film, but go ahead and hit us with an extended mix of full-blown goosebump orchestration while the fairy dust goes to work, then a reprise over the credits. Erivo deserves it.

It could have been a magical moment, and Pinocchio needs more of them. Much more than it needs Chris Pine.

The Whole World Is Watching

The Trial of the Chicago 7

by Hope Madden

Oscar winning, much beloved and frequently frustrating writer Aaron Sorkin first ducked behind the camera for the clever if overwritten 2017 indulgence Molly’s Game.

A courtroom drama (very Sorkin) about celebrity tabloid fodder (less Sorkin-like), the film seemed an odd match for the filmmaker. He’s found a much more comfortable focus in his follow up, the tale of eight defendants, their counsel, prosecution, and a corrupt establishment: The Trial of the Chicago 7.

Chicago 7 artfully and urgently recreates the scene of the federal court hearing against eight defendants alleged to have conspired to incite the infamous riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

The film rings with historical significance as well as disheartening immediacy. It is another courtroom drama, this one benefitting from surprising restraint, as well as Sorkin’s deep well of passion for the subjects of legal processes and liberalism. Like Ave DuVernay’s 2014 masterpiece Selma, Sorkin’s new film details the past to show us the present.

He’s assembled a remarkable ensemble, each actor leaving an impression though none gets an abundance of screen time. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is a blistering Bobby Seale while Frank Langella is infuriatingly believable as Judge Julius Hoffman. Eddie Redmayne, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Mark Rylance are all also excellent, as you might expect.

Jeremy Strong and Sacha Baron Cohen share a comfortable, enjoyable chemistry as Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, respectively. Both appear in the film, as they did in life, as the wise-cracking comic relief in the room, but Cohen’s turn is thoughtful, wise, and slightly tragic. He’s obviously a talent, but this may be the first time we’ve seen the magnitude of his acting prowess.

An alarmingly relevant look at the power of due process, free speech, and justice, Chicago 7 is catapulted by more than the self-righteousness that sometimes weights down Sorkin’s writing. This is outrage, even anger, as well as an urgent optimism about the possibilities in human nature and democracy.

If I may quote my own review of Molly’s Game and my take on Sorkin as a filmmaker:

His are dialogue-driven character pieces where brilliant people throw intellectual and moral challenges at one another while the audience wonders whether the damaged protagonist’s moral compass can still find true north.

Still the case. But with Chicago 7, Sorkin’s struck a balance. He’s found a story and convened a cast that demand and receive his very best, because The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a story about today, this minute.

Quietly Irredeemable


by Hope Madden

7500, the emergency code for an airplane hijacking, is the title of the feature debut for writer/director Patrick Vollrath. An Oscar-nominated and much lauded filmmaker of shorts, Vollrath and his lead, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, prove fine instincts for building tension while maintaining understatement in a film that probably just shouldn’t have been made.

Gordon-Levitt plays Tobias Ellis, co-pilot of a German aircraft on its way to Paris. When Muslim terrorists attempt to overtake the plane, Tobias finds himself in the unenviable position of refusing their demands and witnessing the havoc they wreak.

We haven’t really seen JGL since Oliver Stone’s mediocre 2016 biopic Snowden. (He’s done a lot of voice work since, but we haven’t seen him.) But there was a time when the ageless actor (he’ll be 40 in February but he’s still playing baby faced 30-year-olds) appeared in almost every interesting film being released: Inception, The Dark Night Rises, Looper. And then came his own debut as writer/director: Don Jon—the best antidote for a romantic comedy perhaps ever.

Since then, even when his performance is solid (and it usually is), his film choice is not.

There are some exceptional reasons for the actor to show us his face again in 7500. The role offers clear, no doubt fascinating challenges. Much of the film is a one-man-show, and more intriguingly, the actor and filmmaker work together to ensure that this hero is as dialed-down and honest as he can be.

Vollrath’s film never revels in vengeance, never lusts after opportunities for comeuppance. And the downplayed emotion, the minutia of flying, the fear—all elements generally discarded in your Big Heroic Movie—give this film an unexpected air of humility.

Better still is the savvy use of limited vision, the claustrophobic nature of air travel, the confinement of the hero to ratchet up tensions.

And yet.

For its subdued, humble approach, 7500 is a white savior film about an American man protecting those in his care from scary brown people. It picks a scab that’s been fingered to death, offers no real new take and absolutely no excuse for its choice of antagonist.

This isn’t a true story. Vollrath could have imagined absolutely anyone to be hijacking this plane, and the subtlety of the filmmaking feels even more insidious because of his choice. No swelling strings, glib one-liners, flying flags or bombast mark this as pandering white supremacy.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t.


You Lookin’ at Me?


by Hope Madden

Oliver Stone’s cinematic output has been hit or miss. The hits leave a mark: Platoon, JFK, Salvador. Unfortunately, it’s been mostly misses this millennium.

But any time Stone has a topic that means something, one with government conspiracy and one hyper-serious guy trying to make things right, at least he’s in his wheelhouse.

Snowden offers him exactly that.

Opening with the clandestine meeting between NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the journalists who would make the 2014 documentary Citizenfour (see it if you haven’t), Stone takes us through the harrowing journey that led to that taping.

Gordon-Levitt continues to impress in a performance that is eerily authentic. We see Ed as an optimistic patriot who becomes increasingly more outraged by what he sees and does with his high-security clearance for the CIA.

Interestingly, what the film itself lacks is outrage. Ed Snowden’s personality is very subdued. This no doubt benefitted his escapade, but it does not make for a vivid film.

And while vivid is Stone’s middle name, his attempts to enliven the story too often feel like tricks from an old bag: the mysterious mentor who conveniently shares information just when it’s most provocative; intensely suspicious camera angles; ominous score.

For the most part, though, Stone dials it down this time around, and that’s kind of a shame. Just a touch of the hyperbole and bombast of his usual fare might have benefitted a film that should deeply shock and appall, but does not.

Streamlining would have helped, as well. The 2+ hour running time sometimes feels like 3, often because Stone and his team of writers skim across so much information rather than digging deeply in a single area.

A large supporting cast includes some real gems – Zachary Quinto is especially good. Many of the minor characters, though, are so cartoonishly drawn (Rhys Ifans, in particular) that they distract from what is, in most areas, a reasonably realistic portrait.

There are just enough Stone-isms here to make the film irritating, but not enough to leave a mark. Despite strong performances and directorly panache, Snowden feels unfocused. Worse still, it lacks the gut punch that it should deliver.


The Weed of Christmas Present

The Night Before

by Hope Madden

It was fun spending the apocalypse with Seth Rogen and his friends, so why not Christmas?

The Night Before gives you that chance. Isaac (Rogen) and BFF Chris (Anthony Mackie) have spent Christmas Eve with Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) every year since his parents died. They have the same routine, hit the same spots, seek the same elusive party. But the tradition’s getting a little pathetic as the trio heads into their mid-thirties, so this is their last holiday hurrah.

It’s a lame set-up about embracing adulthood without abandoning your true friends, but there’s magical Christmas weed and a slew of hilarious cameos, so maybe things will work out OK?

JGL is reliably likeable, Rogen is – well, you know what you get with him. Mackie is no comic genius and his performance feels a bit too broad. But the secret here is in the supporting players.

Jillian Bell is characteristically hilarious, as is Broad City’s Ilana Glazer, but the way Michael Shannon walks away with scenes is tantamount to larceny. He doesn’t do a lot of comedy (unless you count that sorority girl’s letter online), but his deadpan performance is easily the highlight of the film.

It’s hard to tell whether the film is too silly or not silly enough. It has its laughs, raunchy though they are, but the adventure feels simultaneously slapped together and formulaic.

Director Jonathan Levine (50/50) and his team of writers (including Evan Goldberg, natch) dip a toe in schmaltz rather than investing at all in actual character development, preferring to string together episodes of goofball fun.

The zany misadventures aren’t enough to carry the film, and lacking depth of character creates a “holiday spirit” climax that is tough to care about.


Walk of Fame

The Walk

by George Wolf

If you’ve seen Man on Wire, the Oscar-winning documentary from 2008, you may wonder if The Walk is even necessary (as if Hollywood cares). James Marsh’s look inside the legendary wire walk across the Twin Towers was as poetic as it was thrilling, and it left any other film on the subject a skyscraper-high hill to climb.

The Walk brings together director Robert Zemeckis, star Joseph Gordon-Levitt and some vertigo-inducing wizardry to give the story an newly polished sheen.

Gordon-Levitt is Philippe Petit, the effervescent Frenchman who pulled off the “artistic crime of the century.” In August of 1974, he successfully rigged a wire from the top of one tower to the other and walked across…and back..and back again.

The high whimsy count in the film’s first half could be expected from the director behind Forrest Gump, but it’s also a clear attempt to create a distinct identity for re-telling the tale. Zemeckis, who also co-wrote the script based on Petit’s book, has Gordon-Levitt in character atop the Statue of Liberty, scaling the “fourth wall” and narrating his journey from naive street performer to international sensation.

The overly fantastical narrative loses its charm pretty quickly, never approaching the emotional connection that drove Man on Wire. Gordon-Levitt, though, is a wonderful choice for Petit, with a performance good enough to make those unfamiliar with Petit’s tireless personality think the portrayal is over the top. No, that’s Petit.

The backstory does seems rushed, and when Petit’s team converges on the WTC to put the illegal scheme in motion, you’re not sure he’s earned the right to try it. But if Zemeckis is in a hurry to get Petit out on that wire, you quickly find out why, as questions about the film’s necessity are rebutted once the moment of truth arrives.

Man on Wire could only provide still photos from, as Petit calls it, “the coup,” but The Walk puts you there. Zemeckis and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (Prometheus) unveil an array of truly wondrous visuals not for the faint of height. As with the recent Everest, this is a film meant to be seen in all its 3D IMAX eye-popping glory

Zemeckis saves any subtlety for where it counts the most, treating the memory of the WTC towers with a welcome, restrained dignity. That, coupled with the breathtaking recreation of a once-in-a-lifetime feat, makes The Walk a worthy trip.






Familiar Faces, Fresh Filmmaking Voices for Your Queue


Lake Bell makes her feature directing debut with a clever and insightful look at the world of voiceover talent, In a World… , which is available today on DVD. Also writing and starring, she plays Carol, quirky vocal coach and daughter to a buttery-voiced industry legend who doesn’t believe women belong in his business. Boasting finely drawn characters as well as wit and charm to spare, Bell’s unique debut will leave you smiling.



Pair it with Joseph Gordon Levitt‘s debut behind the camera and pen, Don Jon. Both newbie filmmakers show surprising confidence and genuine aptitude. JGL plays a Jersey player who has either found the girl of his dreams or is facing a harsh reality about his intimacy problems. A witty and honest and insightful observation of our times.



Tony Danza, Scarlett Johansson and Porn

by Hope Madden

Look at little Tommy Solomon! Joseph Gordon-Levitt has proven himself a versatile actor in the years since his TV career in the guise of a pre-pubescent Earthling. With his newest effort, Don Jon, he exhibits surprising confidence and aptitude as both a screenwriter and a director.

The film follows Jon (Gordon-Levitt), a Jersey player who cares deeply about only a handful of things: his bod, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls, his porn.

Guess which one of those gets him into trouble.

Maybe the best way to appreciate what Don Jon is, is to quickly cover what it is not. Don Jon is not a traditional romantic comedy. It is not a sexy romp, or a perfect flick for hangin’ with your bros.

No. It’s a sexually frank, cleverly written, confidently directed independent comedy/drama about our culture of objectification. It’s an alert comment on a society that fears intimacy, collects trophies, and looks to get more than it gives; a culture that raises girls to want to be princesses, and guys to collect sexual conquests. A culture where a fast food restaurant honestly advertises its newest sandwich by having an oiled up, bikini clad super model spread her legs while she enjoys the tasty burger.

The effort certainly carries its flaws, but JGL gets credit for upending expectations, and for brilliantly paralleling romantic comedies and porn – because, let’s be honest, they are equally damaging to our concept of relationship.

Writing and direction are nothing without a cast, and Gordon-Levitt proves just as savvy in that department. Tony F. Danza, ladies and gentlemen! Danza has fun as Jon’s role model father, while this season’s go-to girl Brie Larson – with barely a word – scores as his observant sister.

Gordon-Levitt’s own perfectly crafted swagger finds its match in a gum-chewing Scarlett Johansson, whose sultry manipulator is spot-on.

The fledgling auteur stumbles by Act 3 – quite a letdown after such a well articulated premise. The underdeveloped resolution would hinder the effort more were it not for the presence of Julianne Moore as the eccentric and wise Esther. The role may be a bit clichéd, but Moore is incapable of anything less than excellence.

It won’t be long before we’re saying the same of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Until the end, he proves himself an insightful observer of his times, a cagey storyteller, and an artist with limitless potential.