Kurt Loder Movie Reviews

Don Jon, We Are What We Are and Muscle Shoals

Joseph Gordon-Levitt scores, horror finds a new style, and Southern R&B lives again.

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Jon Martello is a very modern Don Juan. Awash in hot chicks, bedding a different knockout every night, he only truly gets off on pornography. "Real pussy is good," he says, "but it's not as good as porn."

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the star of Don Jon (Martello's nickname among his envious buddies at the local pickup club), also wrote and directed the movie, and it's an impressive debut. His Jon is an audacious comic creation, a strutting stereotype of young Italian-American manhood, from his sleeveless muscle shirts and greased-back neo-mullet haircut to the thick honk of his North Jersey accent. But in Gordon-Levitt's vision, he's a stereotype with soul, or at least the potential of something like it.

Jon is a compulsive guy. He's fanatically tidy (very into vacuuming his sex-den apartment) and committed to a heavy schedule of gym workouts. He's devoted to his family—doting mom (Glenne Headly), sports-nut dad (Tony Danza) and phone-addicted sister (Brie Larson)—and to his Catholic faith (he never misses Mass or skips confession). But he also sees nothing problematic about his porn habit. Early on, we witness him in a sweaty wrangle with a woman he has brought home from the club; as soon as she drifts off to sleep, he slips out of bed and into another room, where he fires up his laptop and starts cruising his favorite porn sites, a box of tissues close at hand. How could this be a problem?

Then he meets a girl named Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a hot number with an addiction of her own. Barbara loves movies, but only one kind—sappy romantic comedies. She sees Jon as a fixer-upper, and compels him to start attending night school, to make himself worthy of her idealizing love. She's also very slow to come across. In an especially funny scene at the door of her own apartment, to which she refuses to allow him entry ("I can't let you come inside just yet," she purrs), she allows Jon to dry-hump her from behind in the hallway. (In days that follow, he begins to notice that all his pants have developed stiff, flaky crotches.)

Meanwhile, at night school, Jon meets an older woman named Esther (Julianne Moore). When Jon blithely admits his porn fixation, Esther isn't shocked; she simply suggests that sex might be better in full interaction with another person—for Jon, an alien concept.

Since we spend considerable time watching Jon interacting with his laptop, Gordon-Levitt realizes he has to show us what's on the screen. He gives us glimpses of real Internet porn—bare breasts and wiggling butts sheened with carnal exertion—without stepping over into easy titillation. And he never strays far from the comical details of Jon's daily routines (especially his sessions in a church confessional, where he earnestly lists his sexual transgressions in exchange for a painless penance of Lord's-Prayer and Hail-Mary recitations.)

As a director, Gordon-Levitt elicits deft performances from his actors. You might not expect Johansson to be convincing as a gum-chewing Jersey girl, but she pulls it off handily. And Danza gives a full-throttle performance as the elder Martello, whose own utilitarian attitudes about sex were obviously a model for Jon. (When junior brings Barbara home to meet the parents, dad pulls his son aside and asks, "Those tits—they real?")

The movie is a quick, crisp 90 minutes, and Gordon-Levitt the actor carries off his role with a comic spirit that hasn't been entirely apparent in big-budget productions like The Dark Knight Rises and Inception. But the real surprise is his filmmaking skill. As a director, he's not just going places—he's already arrived.

We Are What We Are

We Are What We Are is a rich, dark horror movie that achieves much of its haunting effect through a pervasive atmosphere of dread and corruption. It's technically a remake of a 2010 Mexican cult film by Jorge Michel Grau, but director and co-writer Jim Mickle (Stake Land) has extensively re-tooled the story, and the result is a much better-looking picture with a more complex weave of narrative themes.

The movie is set in the rainy woodlands of rural upstate New York. It begins with a sick and shaking woman, Emma Parker (Kassie DePaiva), falling into a ditch, where she dies. The surviving members of her family—husband Frank (Bill Sage), teenage daughters Iris (Ambyr Childers, of The Master) and Rose (Julia Garner, of Martha Marcy May Marlene), and small son Rory (Jack Gore)—are bereft. The clan maintains a shabby trailer park on one corner of their extensive land, and Frank repairs watches in a shack near their house, but they're barely getting by. Worse, Emma was a key participant in the family's "tradition," which dates back more than two centuries and involves the killing and eating of luckless individuals from the surrounding area. Frank has always been in charge of burying the victims' bones in a nearby riverbank; Emma's role was to brew their flesh into a chunky red soup to be consumed at solemn family dinners.

So this is a cannibal movie. But the spirit of George Romero, so heavily in evidence in most films of this sort, is only lightly invoked. There are some bloody shocks for sure, but Mickle more often finds inventive ways of suggesting the gruesome goings-on without actually showing them to us. (One corpse is prepared for the kitchen by diagramming cuts of meat on its skin with crimson lipstick.)

Mickle's most interesting choice was to ground the family's tradition in their singular religion. The ritual consumption of body-and-blood has a visceral resonance here, and there's a suggestive use of a Bible-like book to rationalize the Parkers' cannibalism. ("All is forgiven in the eyes of the Lord," Frank says, in a brooding patriarchal tone. "It was God who chose for us to be this way.")

Complications arise when a storm washes away part of the riverbank, and the local doctor (Michael Parks, of Django Unchained and the Kill Bill films) finds a human bone in the exposed soil. At the same time, elder daughter Iris has been approached by a police deputy named Anders (Wyatt Russell), who has long been in love her and now tells her so. Iris feels a reciprocal romantic impulse, but she has inherited the family culinary duties from her dead mother, and now must turn Anders away. Sister Rose, on the other hand, is sick of the gruesome family tradition. "I wish we were like everyone else," she says. Iris tells her, "We're not."

The movie is beautifully designed. The drenching rain and howling winds outside the Parkers' house impart a sense of hopeless isolation, and the low-lit interiors—illuminated by candles and kerosene lamps—create a mood of oppressive intimacy. This is a very stylish picture. And what really sets it apart from other genre exercises is the family members' clear love for one another—a mutual devotion that is beginning to be eaten away by the hideous activities that they've never before questioned. The movie ends in a scene of hair-raising depravity, but even here, in a way, that devotion endures.

Muscle Shoals

Among America's several great regional recording centers—Memphis, Chicago, New Orleans and so forth—one of the most improbable, and almost certainly the smallest, was Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Now, in Muscle Shoals, a new documentary by first-time director Greg "Freddy" Camalier, we get a remarkably vivid chronicle of what came to be known, in the 1960s and '70s, as "the Muscle Shoals Sound"—a rock-solid combination of white musicians and black performers that produced records as distinctively powerful today as they were 50 years ago.

The movie is a marvelous compendium of little-seen studio film footage and candid photos. Its focus is on musician and producer Rick Hall, a sharecropper's son with big dreams, who set up Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals in the early '60s, and in short order scored a hit with Arthur Alexander's "You Better Move On"—the first Muscle Shoals classic. After cracking the Top 40 once again with the great Jimmy Hughes R&B ballad "Steal Away" (recorded in one take), Hall and his studio began attracting heavy outside attention. Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler brought Wilson Pickett in to record some of his biggest hits: "Mustang Sally," "Funky Broadway," "Land of 1,000 Dances." (His unlikeliest smash was "Hey Jude," a Beatles cover suggested by Fame house guitarist Duane Allman.)

Wexler also flew in Aretha Franklin, who had been languishing as a pop singer on Columbia Records. Aretha caught fire at Fame, turning out indelible tracks like "Chain of Fools," "Respect," and "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)"—the latter recorded in about 20 minutes.

In 1969, Hall's by-now-legendary rhythm section—drummer Roger Hawkins, bassist David Hood, guitarist Jimmy Johnson and keyboardist Barry Beckett—left Fame to set up their own operation, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Now the little town on the banks of the Tennessee River became a prime destination for an endless stream of stars in search of its inimitable musical juice. Along with Bob Dylan, Elton John and Paul Simon, the Rolling Stones – who'd recorded a cover of "You Better Move On" early in their career—pulled in for a few days to record tracks for their Sticky Fingers album, among them, "Wild Horses" and "Brown Sugar." In the film, one of the players on those sessions claims no drugs or alcohol were necessary to nail the songs —but then we see a snippet of old footage in which Mick Jagger is seen to be swigging enthusiastically from a bottle of cognac.

Jagger is one of the many musicians interviewed here, along with Keith Richards, Steve Winwood (his band Traffic recorded in Muscle Shoals), the ubiquitous Bono (who marvels that such great R&B records were backed by "a bunch of white guys"), and Jimmy Cliff, who in contemplating the Muscle Shoals sound observes, "There are certain places where there is a feel of energy." Which pretty much says it.