Rian Johnson’s “Looper” – An audacious temporal thriller

Rian Johnson’s Looper may be the closest thing to a perfect time travel paradox since the Terminator franchise. Once again, meddlers from the future are changing the past, using their perfect foreknowledge to make things better for themselves. If they want to make someone disappear, they don’t just murder them and destroy the body- they zap the target back in time to be killed by assassins in the present day (in this case, 2044), called loopers. The problem arises when looper Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is presented with having to murder his own future self (Bruce Willis). Joe the Elder escapes from his younger self and strikes out on a mission of his own, to preserve his life in the future.

This outlandish premise works for two reasons. First, the world-building for both time periods is extremely effective. 2044 is a grim, dark, crime-ridden place, and 2074 seems perhaps even more so, just a bit cleaner (especially if you go to China, which is obviously an economic powerhouse). Both periods feel very lived-in despite their obvious budgetary constraints.

Second, the film sets up a clever time travel mechanic wherein Future Joe – whose mere presence is altering his own timeline – doesn’t know the outcome of every situation involving his younger self, but he does remember it once it happens. It’s an action-oriented version of Marty McFly fading away from a photograph, and the film explains it with just the right amount of technobabble and disturbing imagery, punctuated by Willis telling his younger self (and perhaps the logic centers of the audience’s brains) to kindly shut the fuck up and stop wasting time slogging through the murky waters of time travel.

This bit of hand waving makes for an extremely haunting and effective ending, as we’re left to consider the full and lasting impact of Future Joe’s presence in this timeline. Looper dares to present us with high personal stakes for both versions of its protagonist, set them in opposition to each other, then force us to consider whether the future of this despicable person should be saved. It’s a theme that has been touched upon before (Doctor Who’s The Girl Who Waited comes to mind), but never with such a thoroughly unsympathetic protagonist. It’s a bold choice, and it definitely pays off.

Gordon-Levitt’s performance is unsettling, to say the least. His face is nearly unrecognizable in its attempt to resemble Willis- so much so that I suspected some kind of digital alteration, but after watching the film, the illusion is surprisingly convincing. When Gordon-Levitt is telling his older self to “do what old men do and die”, I could almost shut my eyes and imagine Willis delivering the line. Much of this is due to Gordon-Levitt’s physicality and voice work. But the physical alterations (whether digital or cosmetic) went from being a slight and deliberate distraction to an effective filter for the audience to forget at least one famous face and think of these two men as one and the same. And for the record, I never would have guessed this from the trailer.

Along the way we meet Sara (Emily Blunt) and her possibly-adoptive son Cid (Pierce Gagnon), whose farm becomes the central setpiece for the film’s final act. The film takes a bit of a turn with the introduction of this odd little family. Cid is an alarmingly precocious child, and not in a grating, Short-Round sort of way. In fact, Cid’s intelligence and command of the situation is intimidating to characters and audience alike. To put it mildly, there’s something off about this boy. While it would spoil much of the film’s climax to reveal his precise role, it’s safe to say that his effectiveness hinges on a brilliant performance from this child actor.

The only weak link is Blunt’s character. Much of the film’s ending hinges on her intrinsic good nature, and we get very little evidence of it apart from her own word on what a good mom she is. The best explanation I could muster for the obligatory love scene was “Why not?” Sara’s baffling seduction of Joe could be readily explained by the loneliness of a rural, single mom, but it seems a bit far-fetched given his status as a murderous drifter – which she seems fully aware of from the moment they meet.

Despite this issue, Rian Johnson has crafted a smart and effective thriller with well-drawn characters and a novel take on time travel. During his grand hiatus of TV directing since The Brothers Bloom, I’ve had time to forget just how effective his dialogue can be. Every exchange in this film is multifaceted enough that it will surely benefit from repeat viewings. The relationship between mob boss Abe (Jeff Daniels) and young buck Kid Blue (Noah Segan) – who may in fact be the same person – is certainly worth another look.

FilmWonk rating: 8/10

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FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #25 – “The Expendables 2” (dir. Simon West)

Poster for "The Expendables 2"

On our two-year anniversary show, we go back to the well and review the sequel to our very first podcast subject, The Expendables 2! Can the acting stylings of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Randy Couture impress us a second time? Find out below! (31:33)

May contain some NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 6.5/10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode comes from the score to the The Expendables by Brian Tyler.
  • The director of photography for this film is Shelly Johnson.
  • We referred to this rumor from back in January, which stated that the film had been edited down to be PG-13 in order to secure the participation of Chuck Norris. According to director Simon West last week, that rumor was never true.
  • Nope, it appears Jean-Claude Van Damme has never ripped anyone’s heart out on film. But he has done this
  • If you absolutely must see a heart-rip, here’s the dude from Temple of Doom. Or here’s Jim Carrey.
  • Correction: Our first podcast was in August 2010, making this our two-year anniversary show!

Listen above, or download: The Expendables 2 (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser).

SIFF Review: Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” – A triumphant, romantic caper

Poster for "Moonrise Kingdom"

If I were to categorize Wes Anderson, I would place him in a similar camp to Tim Burton. They both have a distinct and instantly recognizable vision for the bizarre worlds in which their films take place, and they both tend to work with an abundance of the same actors. But while Burton’s recent contributions have been marked by a nearly linear decline in quality and coherence, Anderson’s films have taken a far more regrettable route… They have become utterly forgettable. While I have seen [and modestly enjoyed] every one of Wes Anderson’s films since Rushmore, I can scarcely recall a single moment from any of them since 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums. While Anderson’s quirk and theatricality has remained as distinctive as ever, his overall vision has somehow become completely unremarkable.

Until now.

Moonrise Kingdom is a triumphant return to form for Anderson (along with co-writer Roman Coppola), meticulously crafting a rich and memorable world in the fictitious island of New Penzance off the Atlantic Coast. The story kicks right into gear as a young Khaki Scout, Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) leaves a hand-scrawled letter of resignation in his jamboree tent and strikes off into the wilderness in a purloined canoe. At the very same moment, his preteen sweetheart Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) runs away from home on the other end of the island, leaving her parents, Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand), at a loss to explain her disappearance. An immediate search begins as both the local police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) and Khaki Scout Master Randy Ward (Edward Norton) both rally their respective posses to search for the wayward couple.

The film takes a bit of time to find its footing, owing to the bizarrely precocious dialogue of its young, first-time leads. Their initial line readings have an almost wooden theatricality, with drawn-out banter so improbably delivered that it seems like Shakespeare in the Park as read from a teleprompter. But as their chaste and cordial romp gets into full swing, the two actors somehow find an accord. They become a fascinating romantic screen presence, even as the overall plot starts to take on a flavor none-too-dissimilar from the first Rambo film. An early “showdown” ensues between the young couple atop a hillside and some unrelenting Scouts who have happened upon them. Without grownup supervision, the Scouts are tenacious in their pursuit, armed with absurdly dangerous homemade melee weapons, an archery kit, and a lead Scout primed to charge the young lovers on his dirt bike. It’s all a great deal of fun, but the romance starts to make a bit more sense when viewed through this adversarial lens. These kids are determined to skip ahead to grownup life, bidding farewell to their erstwhile families and making a life for themselves in the wilderness. They are the embodiment of “us against the world”, even if their oppressive world is like something from the mind of Roald Dahl or J.K. Rowling.

Still from "Moonrise Kingdom"

In fact, the entire cast plays the film remarkably straight, even as the stakes continue to ramp absurdly upward. An on-screen narrator (Bob Balaban) informs us that a hurricane will strike in three days’ time. In fact, he tells us that this has already happened. By playing the entire film as a historical document, the various perils that befall the characters take on a tense fatalism. As the film goes on, any time a character steps onto a boat or seaplane feels like it might be the last time they’ll ever been seen alive. In this way, Moonrise evokes another much more adult film – Shutter Island. While Suzy will simply be returned to her parents if caught, Sam faces potentially greater peril, as it is revealed early on that he lives in a foster home that will not be welcoming him back, due to his unspecified “emotional problems”. The specter of Social Services (embodied by a hilariously dry Tilda Swinton) hangs over the proceedings at all times, along with all the potential horror of 1960s psychiatric practices. If Sam manages to survive his adventure, his life will get irrevocably worse.

Slightly less interesting are the marital problems of Suzy’s parents. Murray and McDormand are amusing together – a pair of attorneys who sleep in separate beds and speak of little else but their cases – but Murray and Willis, both rivals for the lady’s affections, are the real standouts. They each give their best comedic performances in years, engaging in a relentless duel of nonchalance and quiet resignation. Edward Norton is also brilliantly straight-laced, although the film seems to run out of practical use for him by the final act (not counting a bizarre stunt with Harvey Keitel). Given that Willis’ arc is probably the most underdeveloped in the film, it almost seems like the ending of Norton’s storyline was chopped and given to Willis instead. It was an odd choice, but it did feel just barely earned, as the film gives each character just enough setup to justify their final choices. Except, perhaps, for Jason Schwartzmann, who shows up just long enough to be awesome and underused as Cousin Ben, the obligatory helpful rogue. As an Anderson vet, Schwartzmann is so well-equipped to handle this material that I couldn’t help but want a bit more of him.

This would seem to be as far down the quirky path as Wes Anderson can delve without diminishing returns. Not everything in this film worked – as much as I was enjoying the meticulous opening cinematography of the Bishop home, I found myself rolling my eyes at its more superfluous elements, including Frances McDormand’s rather grating use of a megaphone to call for her children. But once the story got started, I was completely swept up in it. There is so much in this film that I’ll fondly recall, from the ridiculously tall treehouse to the Terabithian splendor of the titular Kingdom. This film is a sweet and nostalgic chronicle of the wondrous worlds that we create in childhood, and even manages to delve into the dire consequences of growing up, without ever losing a bit of its charm.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast: Sylvester Stallone’s “The Expendables”

In this first episode of the FilmWonk podcast, Glenn and Daniel review Sylvester Stallone’s “The Expendables”, starring Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, Randy Couture, Steve Austin, Terry Crews, Mickey Rourke, and David Zayas. (13:56)

[may contain some NSFW language]

FilmWonk rating: 5 out of 10

Listen above, or download: The Expendables (right-click, save as)

Kevin Smith’s “Cop Out” – Painful and forgettable.

Poster for "Cop Out"

I have an abiding respect for Kevin Smith. Between college Q&As, prolific tweeting, and a hilarious podcast with his longtime producer and friend Scott Mosier, here is a man who wears his entire life on his sleeve. A man as likely to talk about his first sexual experience as the time he accidentally pooped in the shower. A man who constantly admits the breadth of his ignorance, never stops calling himself a fat bastard, and freely admits that his writing is terrible and that he has no directorial style. But despite his posturing, he has proven himself a reliably effective screenwriter and an occasionally brilliant director. He’s carved out a well-fitting niche of self-promotion through self-deprecation, and on those rare occasions when he isn’t funny, he’s nearly always endearing.

And then he goes and does something like this.

Cop Out (originally called A Couple of Dicks) is the story of Jimmy (Bruce Willis) and Paul (Tracy Morgan), a pair of no-nonsense cops who play by their own rules. Naturally, “their own rules” amount to a level of brutality and incompetence seldom seen outside of airport security, and they’re immediately suspended. And do they have to give up their badges and guns? Of course. And is Tracy Morgan still dressed up like a giant foam-rubber cell phone as the captain bawls them out? You betcha.

After their suspension, they keep right on acting as cops, trying to retrieve a priceless stolen baseball card from a ruthless drug kingpin, Poh Boy (Guillermo Diaz), who wants to take over the entire east coast drug trade by way of a magical USB thumbdrive. They join forces with Dave (Seann William Scott), an incompetent parkouring thief who spends nearly every moment verbally abusing them. Or repeating whatever they say. Oh, and there’s a kidnapped drug moll…or possibly a nun (Ana de la Riguera), whose sole language is “fuckin’ Spanish”. Nearly every one of her lines will call you out for the hijo de puta you are, and she serves almost no purpose in the film except as a comely MacGuffin.

Still from "Cop Out"

The first act is frankly painful to sit through… At several points, the characters stop just short of winking at the camera as they announce that all of their tactics and dialogue are stolen from better movies (“It’s called an homage!”). But even as Tracy Morgan gradually started to amuse me, Bruce Willis seemed completely unsure of what movie he was in. And before too long, his confusion spread to the audience, as the plot took one bizarre turn after another. Seann William Scott is amusing, but this character is nothing new for him, and it’s never entirely clear why these two cops would involve themselves with him. Guillermo Diaz is almost completely wasted in this film, losing most of the charm and dark humor he showed on Weeds in favor of playing a generic, humorless dick. And the less said about Rashida Jones’ vacuous subplot, the better.

I don’t want to spend much more time on the plot of this film because frankly, it doesn’t seem like writers Robb and Mark Cullen did either. The film strives to be a buddy cop flick in the tradition of Beverly Hills Cop, but ends up being something more akin to Showtime or Hollywood Homicide. And I can’t elaborate on that comparison any further, because like those films, Cop Out is almost completely forgettable.

It is only because I’ve liked Smith’s other films that I even feel like talking about this one. He didn’t write it himself, opting instead to work with the pair that wrote an abyssmal Showtime pilot called Manchild for Smith and several others (his subplot is just about the only funny part of it). The action direction is definitely something new for the filmmaker, but it’s nothing terribly complex, given the limited demands of this genre. Dave Klein’s cinematography is striking at times (this is the guy who shot Clerks?!), but the look of the film is wildly uneven, with some scenes seemingly taken out of completely different films.

The film inexplicably gets fun at around the second hour, but I certainly can’t call it good… At the end of the day, Cop Out seems little more than a bewildering evolution for its filmmaker. And like the Neanderthal before it, I can’t help but hope it will wander off into some corner of Eastern Europe to die.

Sorry, Kev. I hope you get writing again soon. If your next film really is as good as Chasing Amy, I’ll happily give this one a pass.

FilmWonk rating: 3 out of 10