Thursday, January 30, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: JACKASS PRESENTS: BAD GRANDPA (2013); DON JON (2013); and DARK TOUCH (2013)

(US - 2013)

BAD GRANDPA is a departure film for the JACKASS team as Johnny Knoxville goes solo in the franchise's first narrative feature.  Of course, the plot isn't the focal point of this ramshackle affair as Knoxville, under heavy makeup as lecherous 86-year-old widower Irving Zisman, who goes on a road trip to throw his wife's body off of a bridge (per her final wishes) and turn his eight-year-old grandson Billy (Jackson Nicoll) over to his shitbag father (Greg Harris) when Irving's daughter (Georgina Cates) has to go to jail.  The hook here is that other than the primary actors, no other onscreen players are in on what Knoxville and a show-stealing Nicoll are up to as they go on a series of outrageous misadventures that owe more than a slight debt to Sacha Baron Cohen's BORAT and BRUNO.  There are quite a few screamingly funny scenes--Irving in an African-American male strip club; Irving sharting in a diner; Irving bringing a margarita blender to a bingo hall; Billy in drag at a beauty pageant, dancing to Warrant's "Cherry Pie"--and quotable dialogue ("They used to call me Jizzy Gillespie in my younger days"), but the whole narrative element is unnecessary and not that interesting.  It works best when focused on the shocked reactions of those around them, caught by numerous concealed cameras as shown during the closing credits (usually the owners of the establishments were in on it, but not the patrons).  Knoxville has a great rapport with a game Nicoll, a brave and fearless young actor who's so good at staying in character and keeping a straight face that you can see genuine affection and admiration even through the old-man latex on Knoxville's face.  It's ragged and inconsistently-paced, but an outrageous, offensive blast all the same.  (R, 92 mins; 102-minute unrated version also available)

(US - 2013)

In films both small (MYSTERIOUS SKIN, THE LOOKOUT) and huge (INCEPTION, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES), Joseph Gordon-Levitt has built a solid reputation as one of the most gifted, natural actors of his generation.  He's also an immensely likable guy, though he does seem to occasionally try a little too hard to please, so it's nice to see that his debut as a filmmaker--directing, writing, and starring in DON JON--is indicative of a confidant and assured talent behind the camera as well, the work of someone who's clearly spent a lot of time on movie sets observing and learning from others.  It's to Gordon-Levitt's credit that DON JON isn't the vanity project that it could've been, though it's not quite as deep and meaningful as its creator intended.  In a role originally planned for Channing Tatum but taken over by Gordon-Levitt himself, the actor plays Jersey meathead Jon, a cartoonish pussy hound who enjoys the simple things in life:  working out, clubbing with his bros (Rob Brown, Jeremy Luke), and getting laid.  He also has a serious pornography addiction that's rendered real sex with real women unsatisfying, and he goes to church every Sunday to confess his sins, which are usually limited to out-of-wedlock sex and how many times he masturbated to online porn.  Thinking a meaningful relationship will make the sex more fulfilling, Jon pursues Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), a gum-smacking Jersey goddess who tries to mold him into her image of the perfect guy, including making him watch insipid romantic comedies and badgering him into taking night classes to better himself.  While the sex is OK--he laments that she won't do anything but missionary and refuses to give him blowjobs--he genuinely loves her but can't resist the temptations of the anything-goes, money-shot netherworld that awaits him on his laptop.

Gordon-Levitt is good as the conflicted Jon, who's not quite as dumb as he tries to make himself look.  He and Barbara exists in one of those Italian-American Jersey enclaves firmly devoted to tradition and remaining largely unchanged over the decades:  other than the HDTV and Jon's morose sister (SHORT TERM 12's Brie Larson) silently texting, Jon's parents (screeching Glenne Headly and a bloviating Tony Danza) live in a house that looks like it's frozen in 1980, with Jon Sr. generally wearing a wifebeater with a football game blaring in the background and Mom wanting nothing more than grandchildren (the first thing out of Jon Sr.'s mouth when he hears the name "Barbara Sugarman" is "She a Jew?  She sure as hell ain't Italian").  Though very light on explicitness, there's a hard-R boldness to DON JON in its dialogue and in Gordon-Levitt's decision to play a character that constantly straddles the line between likable mook and a lunkheaded Neanderthal.  A late-film subplot involving Julianne Moore as a middle-aged classmate is well-played by Moore but its transformative effect on Jon doesn't really ring true, nor does his falling head over heels for Barbara, who almost immediately comes off as a manipulative, ballbusting clich√©.  DON JON is a credible directing debut for its talented star, but it plays a lot like the kind of diverting but generally forgettable indie that Miramax would've bought at Sundance in the '90s.  (R, 90 mins)

(France/Ireland/Sweden - 2013)

Since working for her mentor Francois Ozon as an actress (1997's SEE THE SEA, 1998's SITCOM) and as a writer (2002's 8 WOMEN), Marina de Van has demonstrated a no-holds-barred penchant for in-your-face provocation.  2002's IN MY SKIN, her profoundly disturbing directing debut, found the writer/star crafting an almost Cronenbergian take on self-harm and body image, with de Van casting herself as a young woman whose leg injury leads to self-mutilation and eventually graduating to consuming her own flesh.  2009's double-identity head-games thriller DON'T LOOK BACK was purported to be her "maturing" work, though it comes off as a bit too ponderous and gimmicky despite strong performances from Monica Bellucci and Sophie Marceau.  Apparently staying behind-the-camera full-time now (she hasn't acted since 2007), de Van returns with DARK TOUCH, which has an almost mainstream air about it (it's also her first English-language film) while still dealing with sensitive and uncomfortable issues.  Opening in a disorienting, in medias res cacophony of confusion, 11-year-old Niamh (Missy Keating) flees her house and takes refuge with neighbors/family friends Nat (Marcella Plunkett) and Lucas (Padraic Delaney).  Niamh's tongue is cut and she's covered in bruises, which are explained away by her parents Maud (Catherine Walker) and Henry (Richard Dormer) when they arrive to pick her up.  The next night, a supernatural force invades Niamh's house, destroying the interior and brutally killing her parents.  Her infant brother, also seen covered in bruises, dies as a result of Niamh clutching him too tightly while escaping the destruction.  The local Garda attribute it to a home invasion, but nobody seems to do much investigating as Niamh temporarily moves in with Nat and Lucas, who have two children of their own and recently lost their oldest daughter--around Niamh's age--to cancer.  Niamh remains unreceptive to any kind of affection and soon demonstrates a telekinetic, CARRIE-like ability to move objects as well as possessing a strange, psychic hold over other children when she feels threatened by them.

Young Keating is very impressive in a demanding, difficult role, and de Van succeeds in weaving a thorny subtext into what plays very much like a commercial horror film.  The abuse Niamh endures at the hands of her parents has generated an uncontrollable telekinetic ability born of sheer rage, and it's an anger she uses to take on the adults in her town, even ones like Nat and Lucas, who are trying to help her but don't really know how.  Feeling almost like it could've been a British or Italian fright film made in the 1970s, DARK TOUCH uses the classic tropes of the "evil children" subgenre--in addition to CARRIE, you'll spot elements of ORPHAN (2009), Tom Shankland's little-seen gem THE CHILDREN (2009), the OMEN-inspired British cult favorite THE GODSEND (1980), and Narciso Ibanez Serrador's WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? (1976)--to show the horrific effects of child abuse on the victims and those around them.  It works merely on a surface level, but de Van is digging for something more and doesn't always find it.  Some plot threads are underexplored, perhaps intentionally, and some may find the loose ends frustrating.  It's not the confrontational galvanizer that IN MY SKIN was, but de Van continues to be a bold, ballsy voice in European cinema.  (Unrated, 92 mins)

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