For the week of December 31st, Twentieth Century Fox's Don Jon streets on Blu-ray. The initial buzz wasn't promising on this one. Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt is such a compelling on-screen presence, galvanizing films like Mysterious Skin, Brick, Looper, and The Dark Knight Rises, but after all that, for his first full-length feature as a director…he makes what appears to be a smutty comedy about a muscle-bound dolt (Gordon-Levitt) trying to reconcile his sexual conquests alongside his abiding love of pornography? Really? For anyone else, this premise might spell trouble, but it turns out Gordon-Levitt is as talented a filmmaker as he is an actor, and he turns Don Jon into one of 2013's best films. The first hour of Don Jon is broad but deeply winning; what could come off as Jersey Shore-era antics – Don Jon's pumped-up chauvinism, the verbal affectations of his gum-snapping female conquests, the constant bickering of his loud Italian parents (Glenne Headly and a very good Tony Danza) – works because of both Gordon-Levitt's fast-paced, kinetic direction (the staccato, rhythmic editing patterns that depict Jon's lifestyle get laughs all on their own – it's like if Darren Aronofsky had a sense of humor) and a cast that invests fully in this potentially objectionable material. People like Scarlett Johansson (as Jon's brassy Noo Joisey girlfriend), Headly, Danza, and (especially) Gordon-Levitt keep these characters from becoming stereotypes, and as a result, we quickly grow to care about Jon and his girl troubles. That connection pays off dividends in the last half hour, when Jon begins a tentative, halting relationship with an older woman (Julianne Moore, terrific), and the movie becomes something richer and more emotionally complex: a serious look at how the illusions we use to build ourselves up can also cut us off from those around us. Jon's not expecting to mature into a person of substance, and the change surprises him. It surprises us, too. Don Jon has a lot to say about the nature of love and sex, but it never feels didactic or preachy – it earns its insights through honesty, filmmaking brio, and a whole lot of humor. If this is what Joseph Gordon-Levitt the director has to offer for his first time at bat, then he – and we - are in for a hell of a run.
In addition, Millennium Home Entertainment is bringing Hell Baby to Blu-ray. This comedy represents one end of the creative spectrum for filmmakers Tom Lennon and Robert Ben Garant; while the duo's family-friendly screenwriting efforts like Night at the Museum and The Pacifier have netted over $1.5 billion in box-office gold, Lennon and Garant are also two of the founders of the absurdist comedy troupe The State, the members of which have helped engineer such cult comedy programs as Stella, Viva Variety, and Reno 911. Hell Baby falls in this latter camp. It's an extremely raunchy goof that takes particular delight in skewering the Omen and Rosemary's Baby-type subgenre of horror films: Rob Corddry and Leslie Bibb play expectant parents who move into a haunted house with designs on their unborn children. For Hell Baby's first half, Lennon and Garant go about the not-so-funny business of setting up their supernatural premise, relying on formless improvisations to score the few laughs they get (minus the consistently hilarious performance from Key & Peele's Keegan Michael Key as Corddry and Bibb's overly comfortable neighbor F'resnel). It's all pretty dire until about forty minutes in, and then Hell Baby starts paying off, with Lennon and Garant churning out one oddball setpiece after another, including two extended po'boy-eating montages, some unbelievably uncomfortable nude scenes (courtesy of Childrens Hospital's Alex Berg and Garfunkel and Oates' Riki Lindhome), a bout of contagious vomiting, and – most bizarrely – the cast's reception to F'resnel's "classic pizza salad." This is weird stuff, and it gets progressively incoherent as it goes along, but I suspect that was Lennon and Garant's intention all along, and it should satisfy any State or Reno 911 devotees.
Martin Liebman found Hell Baby to be "a wholly inconsequential film without wide appeal. It's the sort of movie that's easy to make on-the-cheap and that'll probably make a decent return on investment considering the broader success of the horror-comedy-parody sub-genre, appealing to audiences inclined to enjoy these types of movies. As far as "these types of movies" go, Hell Baby is not a disaster. Though it does slow down quite a bit in places as it repeats jokes almost ad nauseam (think the vomiting scene, the sandwich-eating scenes, and all the times F'resnel and Jack scare one another), it does enjoy a rather grounded sense of humor, leaving behind all of the popular culture riffs and general obnoxious trends of the other movies of its kind. It aims for a more subtle brand of humor, at least a good portion of the time, not often beating its audience into submission but rather teasing its plot and character arcs all the way towards the end. The finale, too, drags on a bit too long, and the payoff is nothing that savvy audiences (not to mention anyone who knows the title of the movie) can't see coming from the very beginning. The performances are fine, and that push towards a more subtle sense of humor certainly helps save the movie from falling into the trap of nauseating low-brow and no-thought humor that dominates most other movies of this variety."
Hell Baby would make a good double-feature with Sony's Insidious: Chapter 2, a sober-minded look at similar material (and one of the few Blu-rays released last week on 12/24). This supernatural chiller continues the story begun in the 2010 sleeper hit Insidious, but - perhaps more importantly - it's the most recent step in the development of director James Wan. Wan's last film was the brilliant ghost story The Conjuring, which showed Wan in full command of his cinematic gifts; the hyper-fast editing and frenetic camerawork of his Saw and Death Sentence gave way to a classical, slow-burn approach that embedded scares within elegantly composed, fluid cinematography and staging. Insidious: Chapter 2 gets the benefit of Wan's increased confidence and patience, and from a filmmaking perspective, it's a better movie than its predecessor. Whereas the first Insidious had the relentless aesthetic pitch of, say, Wan's Dead Silence, the follow-up presents a slower, gliding terror, as the spirits that plagued Renai and Josh Lambert (Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson) re-insinuate their way back into the Lambert family. Unfortunately, Leigh Whannell's script isn't as good as Insidious or Chad and Carey Hayes' Conjuring screenplay. For all its frights and creepy setpieces (and if nothing else, Insidious: Chapter 2 merits a recommendation solely because it is so scary), the script commits two sequel sins: 1) much of Chapter 2 feels like a retread of the original (it's better made, but familiar ground all the same), and 2) in delving into the backstory surrounding the "Further" spiritworld, the script undercuts much of the mystery and uncertainty surrounding the film's ethereal menace.
Of Insidious: Chapter 2, Martin Liebman wrote that "even as the film does its best to redeem itself...th[ere]'s just far too much cliché in too short a time to bear. On the plus side, Insidious: Chapter 2 does handle that cliché rather well. Director James Wan and DP John Leonetti have constructed a rather moody, enveloping experience that's certainly hurt by the abundance of cliché but not destroyed by it as a lesser film might. At its best, this is a slick, high-end horror production, a moody picture that accelerates in its second half and certainly builds a story Insidious fans will be eager to see. Yet that's another problem. The film doesn't just work with the material introduced in the last film, it demands its audience be intimately familiar with it all, with the characters, plot specifics, and world nuance all. This is certainly not a non-fan-friendly sequel. It picks up immediately where the last film left off (beyond its opening ten minutes) and digs deeply into series lore thereafter. The plot grows a bit convoluted for the casual or first-time-series viewer, but it holds its own well enough to make for, at least, a moody and entertaining experience if one can get beyond the overexposure of basic genre elements. The film does wonders with how it works both the living and the dead into both this and the 'Further' universe, mixing the two bravely and intelligently in a rather intense final act."
Finally, Millennium is also offering Ninja II on Blu-ray. Over the last few years, the DTV action genre has been enjoying somewhat of a renaissance; beginning with 2009's Universal Soldier: Regeneration, many of these films started compensating for their budgetary shortcomings through sheer visceral prowess. Features like Regeneration, its sequel Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, and Undisputed III: Redemption cast actual martial artists and professional fighters in the lead roles so that their directors can stage long, exceedingly complicated action choreography with a minimum of shakycam and quick cutting, and Ninja II (which bears the unfortunate subtitle "Shadow of a Tear") continues this trend to thrilling degree. The film, which reunites star Scott Adkins and director Isaac Florentine (they worked together on Undisputed III and the first Ninja picture), doesn't reinvent the wheel - plotwise, it's an amalgam of Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning and classic kung-fu fare like The Octagon, as Adkins' attempts to seek revenge for the death of his wife lead him into a shadowy conspiracy involving ninja warriors and evil drug-runners - but the innovations arrive in a series of bone-crunching, propulsive, and incredibly lucid fight scenes. Adkins has a compelling physical presence - after complaining about how Fast & Furious 6 hamstrung natural physical performers like Gina Carano and Joe Taslim, I appreciated seeing Florentine give his star full coverage during his many violent altercations. If this were 1987, we'd be talking about Adkins with the same reverence as Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Plus, unlike Insidious: Chapter 2, this sequel bests the previous Ninja in every way. It feels leaner, more stripped-down, and it mostly eschews the silly CGI that augmented the earlier Ninja. For anyone complaining about how tame most mainstream action-adventures feel, take notice of Ninja II: it stands as a welcome corrective.
In his Blu-ray review, Martin Liebman wrote that "much of the film's beauty comes from its simplicity. There are no opportunities for the movie to needlessly expand its scope or over-complicate matters. It's driven to accomplish one thing, and that's to dazzle its audience with plenty of fast, exciting martial arts action, which it does with much success...There are no cartoonish fight scenes or moments that push the limits of believability. That the film remains true to its actors' skills and relies on their knowledge and formidable execution of martial arts rather than a bunch of wires and digital effects and phony fight scenes is one of its strengths, another factor in its "less is more" formula for success. Adkins' co-stars are rather good, too, most of them, again, playing one dimensional parts but getting the most out of the roles without hamming it up or trying to build something that the movie doesn't need. Technically, the film proves a major success, again because of its simplicity. The film isn't fully reliant on lightning-fast edits, camera whiplash, or any sort of hyperrealism. Director Isaac Florentine allows the actors to set the pace and tone, framing them and their battles and allowing their own skill and movement to dictate the film's speed. It's a welcome departure from movies that are so scatterbrained and so bent on showing everything from every angle and with every available speed that it becomes almost impossible to get a grasp of what the actors are doing and enjoy the skill with which they do it. It's that skill, and the audience's ability to actually see it in all its glory, that helps push Ninja II into the upper-crust of direct-to-video action films and make it one of the better overall action films of 2013."