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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson star in "Don Jon."
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson star in "Don Jon."

Yo, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's "Don Jon" is totally not a dime, bro

I like Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I mean, how can you not?

He’s an exciting and charismatic actor, whether he’s doing comedy, drama or random dance breaks at the Oscars. He picks great movies to do – "Inception," "Looper," "50/50," the list goes on – with interesting, inventive directors. He just seems like a gentleman and an all-around swell guy, and I don’t think it hurts that he’s rather dashing as well (ladies, amirite?). I’ll admit to finding any plausible excuse to wear a shirt, tie and vest after seeing "Inception" in the hopes that someone would say I looked like him (nobody did).

I’m not saying that I have a bit of a man-crush on JGL … but I’m pretty much saying that I have a bit of a man-crush on JGL. So the fact that I didn’t like "Don Jon," his debut as a writer-director, is kind of awkward. I don’t want to stop getting invites to the monthly JGL Fan Club screenings of "Premium Rush," but his new movie is a clumsy mess, a first attempt at writing and directing that really plays like a first attempt at writing and directing.

Gordon-Levitt plays Jon Martello, a slick-haired Jersey boy who lives his life in a strict routine of working out, cleaning, praying, eating with the family (Tony Danza, Glenne Headly and a near-silent Brie Larson), hanging with his bros and hooking up with girls from the local club. Oh, and masturbating to a whole Internet’s worth of porn. That’s his true calling in life, and he easily prefers cuddling up to the enticing glow of his laptop (which he doesn’t seem to use for anything else) to any actual woman he’s met. For one, porn actresses seem up for anything; his real life conquests, less so.

The romantic ménage a trois between Jon, his laptop and his hand gets a shake-up when he meets Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson, outrageously alluring even with a thick Jersey Shore accent) at the club. It’s instant infatuation for Jon, but even with seemingly the girl of his dreams on his arm, he still can’…

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Brie Larson and Keith Stanfield star in "Short Term 12."
Brie Larson and Keith Stanfield star in "Short Term 12."

"Short Term 12" is a perfect 10

It’s easy to take for granted the small wonder that is "Short Term 12" and the things it does so incredibly well. After all, this isn’t a big movie with fancy special effects that clearly cost a lot of time and money. It doesn’t have elaborate sets or action sequences. It doesn’t blow you away with showily beautiful cinematography or camera tricks. There’s no big, obvious, grandstanding performance moment that the Academy Awards can point to and trim out for the nominee clip.

No, "Short Term 12" is low on flash, but it’s high on everything that actually matters in a movie. It’s an experience as a raw as a cut to the bone but also as warm as a blanket. With a passing glance, it might not look like there’s a lot here to grab you or blow you away in a conventional, Hollywood manner. But while watching it, writer-director Destin Cretten’s sophomore feature does exactly that with the mere power of its wonderful, rich characters and perfectly told story. And its soul-raising grip lasts long after seeing it.

Grace (the terrific Brie Larson, last seen wringing the most out of an absolutely wasteful one-line role in "Don Jon") is a twenty-something supervisor at Short Term 12, a foster care facility for at-risk children and teens. She works alongside her doting goofball boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), Nate the awkward new guy (Rami Malek, "The Master") and Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz).

Grace is essentially the mom of the house, carefully navigating the fine line between being a friend and being a stern caretaker. She clearly loves the kids and the environment they’ve fostered in the hopes of preparing the troubled teens for the world awaiting them outside the gate. However, there’s also an occasional weariness in Grace’s eyes. After all, this is a place where a calm day still includes chasing down a child frantically making a break for the gate.

The long, stressful days for Grace at Short Term 12 soon get even longer and more stressful. Marcu…

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Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl star in "The Fifth Estate," now playing.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl star in "The Fifth Estate," now playing.

WikiLeaks story "The Fifth Estate" is a hack job

Remember back when "The Social Network" came out in 2010, and it made computer jargon, programming and other seemingly dry behind-the-scenes stuff seem exciting and thrilling? Fincher and company gave the proceedings a rich, dark mood, while Sorkin’s Oscar-winning script was predictably snappy, but also smart and insightful.

Bad news, folks; that’s not "The Fifth Estate," the much-ballyhooed biopic of lauded and loathed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The real life Assange, still currently still in asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, has already spoken out against the project, calling it inaccurate and getting his revenge by leaking the script a month before its release.

"I do not believe that this film is a good film," Assange said in a letter to star Benedict Cumberbatch. Say what you will about the man’s ethics or politics, but he’s dead on when it comes to this inert number.

When the audience first meets Assange (Cumberbatch), he’s awkwardly, if effectively, presenting WikiLeaks at a conference to a smattering of disinterested hackers and computer junkies. His goal of justice and accountability, however, captures the attention of Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl, "Rush"). The two join forces and start muckraking their way to fame, taking down corrupt dictators and banks until they come upon the biggest leak of all: a collection of thousands of classified government war documents.

They decide to post the leaks with the coordination of multiple landmark newspapers. The U.S. government – played by Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie and Stanley Tucci – would prefer they didn’t.

As a history lesson, "The Fifth Estate" works decently enough. TV vet Josh Singer’s script and Bill Condon’s direction speedily run the audience through as many notable events in the history of WikiLeaks as possible. The problem is that, like many of the history lessons you may remember doodling through in school, it’s not very interesting.

The screenplay blandly reg…

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"Blood Brother" won two awards at this year's Sundance Film Festival back in January.
"Blood Brother" won two awards at this year's Sundance Film Festival back in January.

"Blood Brother" focuses on a good story, just not the right story

In case this point gets lost over the next 791 words, let me put it right up front: "Blood Brother" is a good movie. It’s impeccably made, and it tells a powerful, often devastating story with honesty and energy. It’s just the wrong story.

Director Steve Hoover’s documentary – the closing night selection for the Milwaukee Film Festival and a big winner at Sundance back in January – focuses in on Rocky Braat, a 20-something Pittsburgh native looking for a spark for his life. Taking inventory on himself, he finds a person of troubled family relationships and few real connections (other than his best friend, Hoover). In his search for some meaning, Rocky heads off on a trip to India.

While there, he finds his purpose in the form of a hostel for young Indian children afflicted with AIDS. He becomes incredibly dedicated to the facility and the children housed within it, who need all of the help and love they can get. As an incidental reward, Rocky discovers the unconditionally loving family and community that he never had before.

After a quick return to the States, he heads back, and the plan is to stay for good this time. Hoover comes in tow, capturing Rocky’s new-found mission in the hopes of sharing it with others – and making sense of his best friend’s decision to abandon the comforts of his native country for a life in hot, often unsanitary conditions (some of the locals aren’t too fond of their new American neighbor), doomed to be surrounded daily by equal doses of joy and pain.

Rocky makes for a nice subject. He’s a kid at heart, energetic and earnest about his love for the kids and the country he now calls home. However, there are terrific subjects in Steve Hoover’s documentary: the children, fighting their terrible circumstances with both bravery and youthful glee. They’re just stuck playing co-star.

To be fair to Hoover, I don’t think this is pandering or vindictive. It’s not as egregiously blatant as in some films like "The Blind S…

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