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

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #24 – “The Dark Knight Rises” (dir. Christopher Nolan)

Poster for "The Dark Knight Rises"

This week, Glenn, Daniel, and special guest James Quinn discuss the epic final chapter of Christopher Nolan‘s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises (54:32).

May contain some NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 7/10 (Glenn/Daniel), 6/10 (James)

Show notes:

  • Spoilers begin after the warning (15:52).
  • Music for this episode comes from Hans Zimmer‘s original score to The Dark Knight Rises, including the tracks “Despair” and “Rise”.
  • Special thanks to James for contributing to this episode! Find out about his new sci-fi web series (in which Glenn plays a bear-alien named Uzor) at MasterOfOrionSeries.com.
  • I resisted the temptation to read this before we recorded, but here’s an excellent rundown from the folks at /Film of everything that bothered them about the film. We touched on several of these points, but there are a couple that I flat-out disagree with (most notably a major scene between Bruce and Alfred, which I thought was brilliantly written and acted). But if there’s one thing this film valuably inspires, it’s diversity of opinion, at least in terms of which storytelling issues people hate the most, so it’s well worth reading.
  • Also worth reading: Christopher Nolan’s eloquent farewell to the Batman franchise.
  • CORRECTION: I incorrectly stated that Guillermo Del Toro’s upcoming film, Pacific Rim, is “an adaptation of something” – it is an original work (albeit an obvious homage to Japanese monster films). Either way, we’re stoked.

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

2011 Glennies, Part 3: Best Actor/Actress

Best Actress

#5: Michelle Williams – Marilyn Monroe, My Week With Marilyn

Michelle Williams in "My Week With Marilyn"
Warning: This write-up will be chock full of backhanded compliments.

With a deeply flawed script and unlikable lead character, the core performances from Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branaugh are basically the only reasons to see this film – and it is a testament to the strength of these performances that the film is actually quite worth seeing. Williams brings a complex vulnerability to the titular icon that I found simultaneously appealing and fascinating, despite not having any previous knowledge of Marilyn Monroe besides her well-known (and highly sexualized) cult of personality. The film relies pretty heavily on the unspoken understanding that Marilyn Monroe is a figure of unquestionable appeal, but Williams’ performance manages to sell this appeal to a much greater extent than the film’s script and story ever does. She presents a difficult, tortured, and uncertain actress in the thrall of a surly acting teacher and under near-instantaneous hostility with her new film’s intense and egotistical director. While her relationship with Branaugh’s character is never much more affecting or complex than a sitcom clash, her romance with Colin Clark owes all of its poignancy to Williams’ performance and chemistry with co-star Eddie Redmayne, whose uneven turn might otherwise have ruined the film.

#4: Rooney Mara – Lisbeth Salander, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Rooney Mara in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"
As I mentioned on our “Ladies’ Night” podcast, I was wary about seeing Rooney Mara in this role, because the only other performance I knew her for was The Social Network, in which she is, for lack of a better description, nice and normal-looking. These were both red flags for ruthless cyberpunk heroine Lisbeth Salander, but Mara completely acquitted herself in this role. The highest praise I can give to this performance is that I didn’t once think of Noomi Rapace while watching it. Mara’s performance is both fearless and original, bringing a tender edge to a character that is subject to some rather horrific abuse and dubious sexualization over the course of the film.

Listen to me and Daniel discuss the film in-depth:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #15: “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”, “Young Adult”

#3: Bérénice Bejo – Peppy Miller, The Artist

Bérénice Bejo in "The Artist"
What can I say? I’m a sucker for actresses playing actresses, and Bejo is a total charmer as up-and-coming talkie actress Peppy Miller. Her chemistry with Dujardin is impressive (even with the film’s silent format to muddy the critical waters), and I found their relationship appealing even as a long-term friendship, despite the film’s half-hearted attempts to paint it as a romance. To see these two friends deal with their competing careers amid the inexorable fall of silent cinema is the heart of this film’s appeal, and is surely the most affecting element of a film that could have been slight and insubstantial otherwise. Bejo’s performance served an essential role, challenging the obstinate artist George Valentin with both the new cinematic medium and the actress’ undeniable charisma within it.

#2: Kristen Wiig – Annie Walker, Bridesmaids

Kristen Wiig in "Bridesmaids"
My description of this performance may skew toward the non-specific (I haven’t seen seen this film since theaters), but I can say this with total certainty: Kristen Wiig is a star. Cinema is dreadfully short on believable depictions of female friendship, and Wiig manages to craft several solid (and starkly contrasting) rapports with co-stars Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, and Melissa McCarthy. Her “anti-chemistry” with Byrne is particularly impressive, leading to some of the most striking moments of comedic tension in the film. This is a complicated mess of a character (although not quite as much so as my #1), and surely one of Wiig’s finest creations.

#1: Charlize Theron – Mavis Gary, Young Adult

Charlize Theron in "Young Adult"
Speaking of messes, Mavis Gary is the most fascinating trainwreck of a character I saw this year (and she had some serious competition from Mel Gibson). If there is a female equivalent of a manchild, this is surely it – Gary is nothing short of a delusional and self-destructive alcoholic, and Theron managed to bring a wickedly black sense of humor to the character. Her ruthless give-and-take banter with an equally strong and sarcastic Patton Oswalt is an absolute wonder. This is a character that should be utterly unsympathetic, and yet by the end, she completely drew me in, even as the character learns very, very little from her experience.

Listen to me and Daniel discuss the film in-depth:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #15: “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”, “Young Adult”

Honorable Mentions:

  • Rinko Kikuchi as Naoko in Norwegian Wood
  • Atsuko Okatsuka as Atsuko in Littlerock
  • Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre

Best Actor

#5: Jean Dujardin – George Valentin, The Artist

Jean Dujardin in "The Artist"
From my review:

Jean Dujardin is forced to convey a great deal of emotional nuance through Valentin’s slightest glance or gesture, and the film resorts to techniques and shots that, in any other film, would have seemed incredibly manipulative. There’s a scene late in the film when Valentin confronts a room full of his old belongings, covered in sheets. As the music swells, he dramatically rips down every sheet, revealing the vestiges of his former success, finally staring heartbroken at a prized full-body portrait of himself in a tuxedo. His tears come forth, and Ludovic Bource’s score swells to overpowering heights, just as it does in many other scenes. But somehow, the tense crescendos of music that punctuate this film manage to craft a believable emotional arc of their own, even lacking the additional tones of a wailing, tormented man’s voice. The score supplements the visible emotion and physicality of Dujardin’s performance. These scenes worked, and in this medium, they seemed entirely appropriate.

#4: Ryan Gosling – Driver, Drive

Ryan Gosling in "Drive"
It would be easy to say that Gosling is doing very little in this performance (and many people have), but this understated performance is exactly what the taciturn unnamed driver needed in this film. The driver is a vision of restrained and intense masculinity, seeing himself as equal parts valiant knight and unattached mercenary. As this veneer starts to crack over the course of the film, the stakes of the story rise palpably. This is completely Gosling’s film, and his overpowering chemistry with Carey Mulligan led to one of the most bizarre and operatic romantic beats I’ve ever seen on film.

#3: Michael Fassbender/James McAvoy – Erik Lehnsherr/Charles Xavier, X-Men: First Class

Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy in "X-Men: First Class"
Each of these performances is individually strong, with Fassbender’s intense and ruthless physicality contrasting nicely with McAvoy’s poise, charm, and control. But what makes this film work is the relationship between the two – the yin and yang that is so central to both the development of Magneto as a character and the film’s powerful climactic moment. This is an intense and complex relationship – utterly unmatched on screen this year, and it owes heavily to both actors’ performances. More on their individual performances in my review.

#2: Mel Gibson – Walter Black, The Beaver

Mel Gibson in "The Beaver"
From my review:

This performance may be hard to write about, but it was even harder to watch. The beaver persona strikes a comedic note at first, but these beats seem increasingly out of place as the film descends further and further into Walter’s insanity. Whenever Walter is forced to speak in his own voice (without the jaunty British accent), Gibson conveys such intractable discomfort and crippling hopelessness with every syllable that you wonder how Walter has managed to stave off suicide thusfar. His mere existence is a punishing chore. At the beginning of the film, I wondered if I would be able to judge this film without pondering Gibson’s real-life persona. By the end, I forgot Gibson entirely and found myself nearly weeping for the increasingly pitiful creature that is Walter Black. This performance may be unpleasant to watch, but it is certainly one of Gibson’s finest.

#1: Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Adam, 50/50

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "50/50"
There is a precarious balance of tone at work in this film. Adam is a young man who has been struck with cancer, and a performance that hits too many hopeless notes would have easily driven audiences screaming from this film. Gordon-Levitt’s comedic performance is nothing short of remarkable, engaging in both credible friendly banter with co-star Seth Rogen and bringing a constant barrage of levity that the film sorely needed to avoid falling into crippling hopelessness. And yet, when the character is forced to confront the fragility of his present existence, Gordon-Levitt delivered once again. Adam’s confrontation with mortality is one of the most powerful and resonating aspects of this film, and Gordon-Levitt brought an intensity to the struggle that I haven’t seen since Andrew Garfield in Never Let Me Go. He is sympathetic, memorable, and hilarious, and to hit all of these beats in a single performance is an astounding achievement.

Listen to me and Daniel discuss the film in-depth:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #13: Jonathan Levine’s “50/50”

Honorable Mentions:

  • Super-duper-honorable mention: Michael Shannon as Curtis in Take Shelter (saw it too late to qualify)
  • Patton Oswalt as Matt Freehauf in Young Adult
  • Ed Helms as Tim Lippe in Cedar Rapids
  • Ewan McGregor as Oliver Fields in Beginners
  • Michael Fassbender as Brandon Sullivan in Shame


2011 Glennies, Part 1: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2011)
2011 Glennies, Part 2: Best Supporting Actor/Actress
2011 Glennies, Part 3: Best Actor/Actress

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #13: Jonathan Levine’s “50/50”

This week, Glenn stumbles forth from a weekend of short film madness to join Daniel and review 50/50, a new comedic drama from director Jonathan Levine and screenwriter Will Reiser, loosely based on Reiser’s own experiences getting cancer at a young age. Can such dour subject matter succeed as a comedy? Tune in and find out (28:54).

[may contain some NSFW language]

FilmWonk rating: 8/10

Show notes:

  • 50/50 is out in theaters this Friday, September 30th.
  • Music for this episode is “Carries On“, from Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, which appears in the film’s trailer.
  • In the podcast, we refer to Adam’s two “chemo buddies”, who are played by Philip Baker Hall and another actor we weren’t familiar with. The other actor was Matt Frewer.
  • Stick around for a blooper if you’re game.

Listen above, or download: 50/50 (right-click, save as).

2009 Glennies, Part 4: Best Actor

#5: Sharlto Copley – Wikus Van De Merwe, District 9


Sharlto Copley in "District 9"

I can’t remember the last time I saw a film with such a thoroughly despicable protagonist as Wikus Van De Merwe. He is vicious, self-serving, inept, and almost a complete coward. But newcomer Sharlto Copley (a producer and personal friend of director Neill Blomkamp) completely brought this character to life. Wikus begins the film as the consummate corporate stooge, showing obvious enjoyment and aptitude at his middle management job, even as he perpetrates some incredible acts of callousness and destruction in the alien ghetto known as District 9. Copley’s performance in some of these moments is downright giddy, with a thoroughly believable grin on his face as he supervises the abortion – via flamethrower – of an alien breeding shack (“It’s like popcorn!”). Copley’s character and plotline reminded me a great deal of Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond, and as with that film, if the character had remained the terrible person he was at the start of the film, there would have been little for the audience to connect with. But even as District 9 loses some of its more provocative social themes and becomes more of a big, fun action film, Copley’s emotional transformation becomes as real as Wikus’ physical one. And this is especially remarkable considering that every line of Wikus’ dialogue is improvised! (source). Copley gives a masterful performance that absolutely makes this movie work, and I’m simultaneously eager and a little frightened to see what he does next.

#4: Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Tom Hansen, (500) Days of Summer


In my original review, I noticed that Joseph Gordon-Levitt had once again proven his two central characteristics… He’s one of the finest young actors working today, and he hasn’t aged a day since “Third Rock from the Sun”. He was utterly charming in this film, proving as capable at reckless, romantic zeal as sullen, intractable brooding (as the story’s unconventional breakup narrative demanded). His chemistry with Zooey Deschanel was fantastic, and made this one of the most memorable romances (if not love stories) of the year.

#3: Jeremy Renner – SSgt. William James,
Anthony Mackie – Sgt. JT Sanborn,
Brian Geraghty – Spc. Owen Eldridge, The Hurt Locker


Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie in "The Hurt Locker"
Brian Geraghty in "The Hurt Locker"

I’ll admit, this is a total cheat, but as I noted in my original review, I can’t single out any of these performances in Kathryn Bigelow’s fantastic Iraq War action film, The Hurt Locker, as the superlative one. As an ensemble, however, these three work immensely well. Renner’s performance is appropriately intense (and only slightly clichéd, as the new, loose-cannon commander of the squad), but Mackie and Geraghty are just fantastic, and make for ample balance among the three. The film features Bigelow’s typically strong portrayal of male friendship in intense circumstances, when the characters aren’t sure if they want to embrace or murder each other… But thanks to these three performances, the dialogue feels authentic, and the characterization is solid. These men may be considered heroes, but as far as they’re concerned, they’re just doing what they have to do. They’re here, and they’re going to keep doing the job until they go home or get killed.

#2: George Clooney – Ryan Bingham, Up in the Air


George Clooney in "Up in the Air"

Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air is the story of Ryan Bingham (Clooney), a corporate road warrior who spends over 300 days a year flying around the country firing people for a living. Ryan is already a fascinating enough character just from that description, and Clooney’s performance delivers on every bit of promise the character demands. He has remarkable chemistry with both of his co-stars, and his relationships with each of them are completely what make this film work. As I noted in my original review, the film constantly tries to have it both ways with Ryan, granting him semi-omniscient voiceovers that are equal parts self-aware and self-deprecating, but shying away from taking a position on whether he truly believes in what he’s doing. But somehow, Clooney’s performance just makes it all work. He plays with this ambiguity in a way that keeps Ryan’s rhetoric as one of the film’s most important themes, but stops it from becoming didactic. And later on in the film, as the character’s transformation becomes apparent, he completely conveys (but doesn’t overplay) how emotionally shaken Ryan has been by the film’s events. This is surely one of Clooney’s finest performances, and one of the best I’ve seen this year.

#1: Sam Rockwell – Sam Bell/Sam Bell, Moon



In my original review of Duncan Jones’ Moon, I called it a film for people who love big ideas. The film’s “big reveal” comes in the first 15 minutes, as Sam Bell (Rockwell), the solitary worker of a lunar mining base, wanders outside to investigate a crashed lunar rover, and finds an unconscious clone of himself behind the wheel. As the film begins to explore its deeper sci-fi themes, Rockwell imbues each of the Sam Bells with a distinct, but related personality. They both play to familiar territory for Rockwell – unshaven and slightly unhinged, but even as the film skips over the expected tropes of its genre (at no point does one clone chase the other around with a knife), Rockwell’s performance creates a compelling dynamic between the two. The only other character in the film is GERTY, the artificially intelligent base computer, which can only communicate its emotions via on-screen emoticons and the mellifluous voice of Kevin Spacey. But while the relationship between Sam and the computer is one of the most fascinating aspects of Moon, it is Rockwell that carries the weight of the film. Like Tom Hanks in Cast Away before him, this is Rockwell’s one-man show, and he acquits himself masterfully in the role.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Seth Rogen as Ronnie Barnhardt in Observe and Report
  • Mark Ruffalo and Adrian Brody as Stephen and Bloom in The Brothers Bloom
  • Clive Owen as Joe Warr in The Boys Are Back
  • Jesse Eisenberg as James Brennan in Adventureland
  • Robin Williams as Lance Clayton in World’s Greatest Dad

Click here to see the rest of the 2009 Glennies.

Week in Brief: “G.I. Joe”, “Gamer”

Poster for "G.I. Joe".
Check out the trailer here.

This film almost made me reconsider my love for Team America: World Police. There are no lengthy musical numbers to speak of, nor are there any wooden puppets (with the exception of Dennis Quaid), but the premises feel very much the same. IN THE VERY NEAR FUTURE, an uber-patriotic team of American heroes (well, they’re actually a multi-national NATO force based under the sands of the Sahara, but who’s counting) utilize high-tech weapons and a complete disregard for national sovereignty to fight the forces of evil. In this case, the forces of evil include a rogue weapons manufacturer with a plot to “steal” some high-tech nanobot warheads – which he also manufactured – and use them to destroy three major cities, which will allow him to take over the world. Somehow.

Why he can’t skip the pretense of stealing the warheads is unclear, since he does have an underwater base and an entire army of fearless, mind-controlled super-soldiers at his disposal – a base which, according to the Joes, is “the perfect location – difficult to locate, and easily defensible”, and yet becomes the perfect deathtrap as soon as someone cracks one of the windows. What it becomes is a climactic set-piece for an underwater version of a Star Wars battle, and the result is cheesy, but satisfying.

Conversely, the Joes’ base was one of the worst setpieces in the film. At no point does the base feel like it could be a real place on this planet. It makes Team America flying out of Mt. Rushmore seem plausible. The CG design of this place was laughable, and indeed, a lot of complaints have been made about the “bad CG” in this film.

But I must speak to one sequence of “bad CG”, in which the two lead Joes (played with great gusto by Channing Tatum and Marlon Wayans) don “Delta-6 Accelerator Suits,” which allow them to run and jump at superhuman strength and speed through the streets of Paris. The movement of these entirely CG characters does indeed look cheesy and artificial, but I must question whether any such CG could ever truly look realistic. Even the best uses of CG involving humans will inevitably break the illusion as soon as the characters engage in impossible stunts. And while this particular sequence could certainly have looked better, I don’t think it could possibly have looked real.

They’re chasing a Humvee with a spiked snowplow on its front – a vehicle with the uncanny ability to hurtle skyward any car that it smashes through. It’s as if Stephen Sommers’ saw the legendary car-tossing sequence from Bad Boys 2, and thought to himself, “Needs more cars.” The sequence is absurd, plays freely with the laws of physics, but is nonetheless quite fun. The only drawback was the complete lack of tension over whether or not the Eiffel Tower would be destroyed, thanks to the film’s trailer. The only real surprise is the sheer amount of collateral damage inflicted upon the population of Paris by both sides in the process.

I won’t speak too much about the acting, since the only actor that seems to be straining his craft is Channing Tatum… Dennis Quaid swaggers maniacally as General Hawk, with a voice somewhere between John Wayne and George C. Scott. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (“Lost”, “Oz”) reverts to his native, but nonetheless uncharacteristic British accent, and Jonathan Pryce dons a half-assed American accent as the completely useless American President. I was pleased to see the return of Brandon Soo Hoo (Tropic Thunder) for one of the film’s many brazen flashback sequences (in a scene that was shockingly brutal and effective for one involving child actors).

I’ll say very little about Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, except that I thoroughly enjoyed his performance, and his comical (and digitally-enhanced) voice reminded me a great deal of gay porn star Brandon St. Randy* (Justin Long) from Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno (clip is likely NSFW, due to language and brief Seth Rogen ass):

*An observation I first heard from IFC.com’s Matt Singer on a recent episode of the /Filmcast, but the resemblance of the voices was uncanny nonetheless.

Laremy Legel of Film.com, in a recent article, makes a pretty convincing case against lowering one’s expectations for any film. The point applies quite broadly, but really didn’t apply to this film for me. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra delivered on most of my expectations, and to say that I lowered them would be an oversimplification.

I’ve had a great affection for director Stephen Sommers ever since the Mummy films. He’s an earnest Michael Bay – a purveyor of CG diarrhea who seems to genuinely believe that he’s creating artful cinema, and the results are generally pretty satisfying. And despite my nitpicks about this film (of which there were many more than I included in this review), I actually had a very good time with it.

FilmWonk rating: 6.5 out of 10

Poster for "Gamer".
Check out the trailer here.

IN THE VERY NEAR FUTURE, the top spectator sport in the country is “Slayers”, a first-person shooter in which gamers take mental control of a real human being in full-scale combat. The top competitor in this game is Kable (Gerard Butler), who is controlled by Simon (Logan Lerman), an overprivileged teenager. From the trailer, this film looked like a second-rate knockoff of a third-rate remake, Paul W.S. Anderson’s Death Race, and indeed, the backdrops are very similar. In both films, the participants are ostensibly volunteers – death row inmates (of which there seems to be an ample supply) playing in exchange for a slim chance of freedom. And in both films, society revels in the violence inflicted by the inmates upon each other.

Unlike in Death Race, the viewers aren’t just casual observers of a gladiator-like spectacle; they’re active participants. In addition to “Slayers”, there is a game called “Society”, an X-rated mind-control version of “The Sims”, in which blubbery leviathans take control of attractive people and force them to engage in every kind of debauchery. While the gamers who play “Slayers” use full-body controls and appear to be in good shape, we are shown a typical “Society” player who is depicted, to put it mildly, as a fat, self-deluding, sexually deviant waste of life.

I probably wouldn’t have bothered with this film, if not for the fact that it is written and directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the same team of manic guerilla filmmakers behind the thoroughly entertaining Crank series. Neveldine and Taylor bring their usual frantic handheld style to this film, along with their particular flavor of over-the-top action.

But unlike in the Crank series, this film starts out taking itself completely seriously. And the result is a rather boring first half. The gaming sequences, which make up the majority of the first hour, exist in the same generic grey/brown ruined city and shaky-cam style that all boilerplate first-person shooters include at some point. These sequences are jarring, frenetic, and subject to constant interruption by fake static and video cutting out, which made them almost impossible to comprehend.

Nonetheless, there’s still some pretty compelling imagery in the first act. The prison where these men are held (when they’re not playing) appears to be set down inside a canyon, and is shot in such a way that the desaturated blue sky feels huge and all-encompassing. The resulting setpiece feels bizarre and otherworldly – an almost Limbo-like place for these men to await their doom.

The film really hits its stride in the third act, when we’re subjected to the most hilarious scenery-chewing from the Southern dulcet tones of Michael C. Hall (“Dexter”) as Ken Castle, the inventor of “Slayers” and “Society”. Castle is basically Dr. Evil – a parody of a James Bond villain, and Hall is immensely fun to watch in this role.

This film’s most significant improvement over Death Race is that it effectively depicts just how backward, complacent, and violent a society would have to be in order to support this kind of system. And this may also be its most significant disadvantage. Gerard Butler plays his part completely straight, given that Kable has real stakes (wife and child), but the film just doesn’t make enough sense to be taken seriously. And while the ending is immensely satisfying, I can scarcely say the journey was worth it.

FilmWonk rating: 5 out of 10

Glenn’s Indie Movie-Wank – Part 3: Marc Webb’s “(500) Days of Summer”

five_hundred_days_of_summer

This is a story of boy meets girl, a stern, wry narrator informs us before the credits of Marc Webb’s self-styled “anti-romantic comedy”, (500) Days of Summer. The narrator goes on to warn us (not in so may words) that if we’re expecting a love story, we’ll be sobbing as hard as Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) after he gets dumped by Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). This film doesn’t bury the lead; after a brief sequence on day 1 (when the two first meet), we jump forward to more than a year later (somewhere in the 380s), as Summer declares her love for pancakes and the relationship’s imminent demise. It makes sense in the scene.

This film revels in quirk and hipster sensibility almost as much as Juno (albeit less annoyingly so), and spins its relationship tale with as disjointed a timeline as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. 500 Days makes a suitable companion piece to the latter film; both come from music video directors bringing some of their usual stylistic flourishes, and both use unconventional storytelling and a nonlinear timeline to offer their perspectives on love via exploration of a failed relationship.

But that’s where the similarities end… For a film in which the male romantic lead spends the majority of the time brooding and sobbing, 500 Days is remarkably uplifting and funny. The film takes place largely from Tom’s perspective, and at times, inside his head. It is a film about expectations. Summer, whose parents split up when she was a child, doesn’t expect anything from a relationship, and doesn’t really even want one. Tom, having internalized the lessons of a childhood of romantic songs and movies (and a total misread of the ending of The Graduate), doesn’t think he’ll be truly happy until he finds “the one”. Unfortunately, he only has the vaguest idea of what “the one” will be.

In the opening sequence of Eternal Sunshine, Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) ponders why he falls in love with any woman who shows him the slightest bit of attention (in that case, the enigmatic Clementine, played by Kate Winslet). Tom is a character that could easily end up in the same boat as Joel, even after the emotional smackdown that he experiences in 500 Days. While neither Kate Winslet nor Zooey Deschanel are true examples of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in their respective films, their men seem bent on regarding them as such. They are each warned to manage their expectations as they begin the relationship, and they each pay a steep emotional price for failing to do so.

500_days_of_summer_movie_image_joeseph_gordon_levit_and_zooey_deschanel

The performances are quite adept. Joseph Gordon-Levitt once again proves his two central characteristics… He’s one of the finest young actors working today, and he hasn’t aged a day since “3rd Rock from the Sun”.

But even as Gordon-Levitt continues to prove as capable at reckless, romantic zeal as sullen, intractable brooding, it is Zooey Deschanel that steals this film. To put it bluntly, this is a character that the audience could easily have ended up despising. And while the character of Summer is mostly well-written, the characterization and non-linear progression of the story demand a great deal from Deschanel. And it is her performance that just manages to make the character sympathetic.

As Tom reflects on his relationship, many of his scenes with Summer are cast in a different light through subsequent flashbacks. On the second run through, the film’s editing calls attention to the slightest glance of the eyes, or twinge of the cheek muscles, or the most minor apathetic tone of voice… In each of these microexpressions, Deschanel’s performance is masterfully subtle. And throughout the film, she brings all the mystery, likeability, and sensuality that the character demands, but couples it with a subtle undertone of cold, mature pragmatism. She manages to force the audience through nearly the same process as Tom, despite our advantages of an outside perspective and sardonic narrator to keep us objective.

It is a lot easier to hate Chloe Moretz, a 12-year-old actress who may inadvertantly end up typecasting herself. In Matthew Vaughn’s upcoming adaptation of the graphic novel “Kick-Ass”, Moretz will play Hit Girl, a precocious, sword-wielding assassin. Here, she plays an equally unrealistic youngster in the form of Tom’s sister Rachel, who spends the entire film feeding him uncannily adept relationship advice in-between soccer matches. Despite Moretz’s solid performance, this character is the film’s biggest misfire. She could easily have been written out of the film without losing anything but doddering exposition. Perhaps I could have tolerated either an unrealistically savvy child or prolific movie trailer narration, but the inclusion of both nearly causes the film to collapse under the weight of its own cleverness.

And indeed, all of the characters occasionally feel overwritten. Summer intones with uncanny frequency how much she “loves” a particular band or food or [anything but Tom], and Tom’s job as a greeting card writer often seems like merely a clever setpiece for unrealistic emotional dialogue (consult your local Hallmark dealer for further examples). But somehow, the result is immensely enjoyable. This film is equal parts fable and reality, but it has a lot of insight to offer about love and relationships. (500) Days of Summer has earned its place alongside Eternal Sunshine and Forgetting Sarah Marshall in the “broken hearts” section of my pantheon of cinematic romances.

If you see this film, it will almost certainly speak to you on some level. If you don’t see yourself in one of these characters, then you might just see someone you know.

Or knew.

Or loved.