Sunday, September 30, 2012

Looper: Death To Geek Cinema


“Looper” is a film that features a lead character of casual immorality. Casually digesting drugs and spending off hours with prostitutes, he punches the clock as a hitman operating specifically through an elaborate time-bending operation where he doesn’t sweat the small stuff when it comes time to pump lead into his victims. “Looper” is a film of excessive casual violence, including bodies mowed down by heavy artillery and victims being shot in the head point blank. And in one late scene (and don’t worry, I will mark spoiler discussion later when necessary), a young boy is chased like a dog by a man with a gun with the intention to murder him.

These are very dark, somewhat vulgar, but otherwise mature concepts. They are escapist in nature, certainly, and I’ve seen many films with similar ideas and tropes. So why is it that when I saw them in “Looper,” I wanted to tear my hair out? Certainly there are a number of reasons. Chief amongst them, however, is that in the midst of all this darkness, in the middle of an important sequence, one character whizzes by in a sputtering flying motorcycle in an effect worthy of “Megaforce.”

It’s the moment when I threw up my hands and said, that’s it, I’m done with this. I’m done with Comic Con culture. I’m done with the forced legitimazation of juvenile adventure tropes and ideas. I’m done with the grown adults who clutch “The Hunger Games” and “Harry Potter” books. I’m done with those championing “The Dark Knight Rises” for Academy consideration. I’m done with the bleak nihilism of these stories, the idea that everyone dies except the hero, because the sacrifices he made killed him inside a long time ago. I’m done with the fact that today’s B-Pictures dress themselves up as A-Pictures, and “good movies WITHOUT lasers” is more of a genre than “movies where guys have capes.” I’m done with the “realism” where the unnatural has to have a scientific explanation, where everything has to be somewhat plausible, where things have to be dirty and grimy, violent and hopeless, where surprise and swagger gives was to dull inevitability and poker-faced efficiency.


“Looper,” for all its seriousness and pretension, is yet another contemporary pew-pew genre exercise. Somehow, despite being based around the central conceit of a man trying to change his past (Bruce Willis, otherwise excellent), “Looper” feels joyless and dire, a dead serious attempt at merging the fantastical (which Johnson is not yet skilled enough to achieve) with the arithmetic (which Johnson loves for clearly masturbatory reasons). Joseph Gordon Levitt plays the titular asshole, a glum-faced, self-medicating killer who doesn’t show any real character until he’s easily goaded into selling out his douchebag partner (Paul Dano, of course).

Gordon-Levitt has been pushed on the public for awhile now, and 2012 is his banner year, this being one of four big films this year from the actor. As far as movie stars go, he certainly tries hard. He doesn’t do much of a job giving his Joe an inner life beyond youthful selfishness, and you keep waiting for a deepening of his personality when Old Joe appears. Willis, wearing his regrets on his bald dome like a tattoo, is instantly two things -- interesting before we hear his dialogue, and absolutely nothing like Young Joe, despite the story’s insistence that they are the same person.

As it turns out, these Loopers, who kill people in 2044 or something, are sent victims from thirty years in the future. The forties don’t seem to have the same ID laws as the seventies, meaning that with time travel a possibility in the distant future, the mob is forced to dispose of bodies in the near future instead. A Looper’s job ends when they receive a body that happens to be an older version of themselves, loaded with gold. From that point, it’s a thirty-year free ride to the grave. Why they don’t just assign old Loopers to totally unrelated younger Loopers is a complete mystery to me, but I don’t time travel, so whatever.


The moment near the end of the first act where the story shifts (and I will gradually be spoiling the rest of the film from here on out -- I hope you still stay with me regardless) is when Young Joe ends up killing Old Joe. The picture then amusingly montages over the next thirty years as Gordon-Levitt ages into a much more peaceful older man played by Willis. There’s always been a sadness to Willis in his old age -- perhaps it’s his baldness accentuating the fact that, as an action hero, he’s never been a muscle-y type, and from certain angles, there’s a distinct frailty to his physicality. It’s why he seemed so out-of-place amongst the ‘roid-heads in the recent “The Expendables 2,” and why the hope is, once the “Die Hard” series ends after part, I don’t know, nine, Willis may segue into more dramatic work.

In minimal screen time, Willis establishes his Old Joe with enough humanity that you’re immediately on his side when he realizes his only choice is to surrender to his trip to the past to outwit his younger self (which he does, because, Bruce Willis). The plot is in motion, and as far as goofy-ass comic book plots, it’s a doozy -- a mysterious telekinetic (another superficial sci-fi element that cheapens the story) has taken over the mob families and is systematically eliminating all Loopers. If you thought it was the plot of a comic book super villain, it will be of no surprise to you that he goes by the name The Rainmaker.

Having done the detective work, Joe and Old Joe soon learn that the Rainmaker is a child in the current timeline, and Old Joe seeks to end the kid’s life in order to preserve the happiness of his old age with a saintly, wordless, much younger bride, the type these films always tend to have. What nags at me here is that the young actor who plays the boy is so sweet and so compelling that you immediately want this boy to survive, even if it complicates the lives of both Joes (young Joe is in deep for “letting his loop run”).



Spoiler discussion of the ending is approaching. I think spoilers are stupid, but I respect the fact you may not, hence spoiler warning. FYI, Hannibal Lecter totally gets away at the end.

What troubled me the most about “Looper” was how the ending is so deeply embedded in contemporary cynicism. Young Joe realizes that the Rainmaker’s motivation for killing the Loopers comes from Old Joe’s pursuit of the boy, where he gets away and his mother (or mother-figure - it‘s a little complicated) lets a bullet sandwich from Old Joe go straight to her hips, if you know what I mean. Seeing this happen, and not wanting the boy to give in to his darker urges, nor to see the Rainmaker spend the future hunting Loopers, Young Joe puts a bullet in himself instead. He dies, Old Joe fades from reality, the Rainmaker’s mommy lives.

Now, let’s put aside the ludicrous time travel logic of this event, which suggests, in a first timeline, that the Rainmaker plots to kill Old Joe, leading Old Joe to cause the origin of the Rainmaker in a second timeline. Let’s look at Young Joe’s solution. First of all, I am bothered by the idea that one more bullet is going to stop all the suffering. On an ideological level, I find that ugly dime-store dramatics, the suggestion that a cycle of violence can be prevented by another, isolated violent act.

But more importantly, the narrative takes a shortcut to obscure the more humanist conclusion to this story. First of all, we’ve just watched the boy murder the hell out of some sort of shifty agent who was stalking him, so the boy still has blood on his hands. His intentions are bad, and as he grows older, they’re bound to get worse, with or without Loopers. Maybe Young Joe saved the lives of these douchebag Loopers by ending his own, but why? Nevermind the fact that we know NOTHING about the identities of those the Loopers kill. Just a stack of dead bodies for Rian Johnson, he of the selective compassion.


So Young Joe is watching Old Joe take aim at the boy and his mother, and he doesn’t once consider the more sensible, compassionate solution. First of all, though he becomes a Terminator in the third act, fact is, Old Joe cannot kill Young Joe, because he would be committing suicide. That gives Young Joe thirty years to reach out to this orphaned, lonely boy, one whom it’s established he shares an immediate rapport. Thirty years dedicated not to preventing something (the boy becoming “Akira”) but to developing something else. His telekinesis helping the world. His growing up to not seek revenge on others, but to become a contributing member to society. And Young Joe finally becoming an actual proactive hero, for the first time in the film, instead of making himself a martyr based on an accurate hunch.

These elements of hopelessness and despair stick out amidst Johnson’s half-hearted world building (future Oklahoma is a dump, with the simpleminded suggestion being “people stopped caring”) and uninspired action sequences (shot with a refreshing austerity, but staged blandly and without imagination). I’ve heard the picture compared to Paul Verhoeven, and it makes me want to retch. I’ve heard Young Joe’s decision at the end compared to Oskar Schindler, and it makes my blood boil. Because it’s clearly a juvenile picture without a sense of humor under thought, callous, and without any redeeming qualities, given a pass because of many different plot dynamics, none of them interesting. It’s busy without being interesting, cluttered, but in the same way completely empty.

I have struggled with these recent pictures in this vein. Critics went gaga over “The Raid: Redemption,” and while I appreciated the reverence to Johns Woo and Carpenter, I found it an empty exercise in sadism, without any characters, and with a certain monotony to the violence borne out of it’s setting (as if the filmmaker, like the characters, were stuck in this claustrophobic world). “The Dark Knight Rises” was embraced because it acknowledged politics was the elephant in the room of superhero films, without once giving a coherent reading of said ideologies, content to wallow in pornographic, bludgeoning melodrama and violence instead. And then there was the inexplicable hosannas thrown the way of “Dredd 3D,” a serviceable time-waster that nonetheless showcased execution-style killings, unknowable drug-addled villains and a hero that’s essentially a bullet with feet. All seemed, on paper, like pictures that would thrill me. All are cut from the same cloth as “Looper.” It’s cloth I don’t think I can wear anymore.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

David Denby Throws Down The Gauntlet

Probably the finest, and most important, film writing I've read in years.
Read it all here. Choice paragraph...

"The audience goes because the movies are there, not because anyone necessarily loves them. My friends’ attitudes are defined so completely by the current movie market that they do not wish to hear that movies, for the first eighty years of their existence, were essentially made for adults. Sure, there were always films for families and children, but, for the most part, ten-year-olds and teens were dragged by their parents to what the parents wanted to see, and this was true well after television reduced the size of the adult audience. The kids saw, and half understood, a satire such as Dr. Strangelove, an earnest social drama such as To Kill a Mockingbird, a cheesy disaster movie such as Airport, and that process of half understanding, half not, may have been part of growing up; it also laid the soil for their own enjoyment of grown-up movies years later. They were not expected to remain in a state of goofy euphoria until they were thirty-five."

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Don't Review "The Master," Digest "The Master"


First of all, let's put this aside: a new PT Anderson movie is an event. The guy's proven himself to be a MAJOR filmmaker, and any critiques of his work seem petty. In twenty years, all of his films will be PT ANDERSON FILMS, and THE MASTER is no different -- a must-see for any film lover, bizarre, challenging, commanding, and utterly unique in every way. Whatever your expectations may be, shelve them. PT's got this on lockdown.

That said, this is one downbeat, cynical, often intentionally ugly film. I've seen Joaquin Phoenix in a few movies thus far; I don't recognize this Joaquin Phoenix. Craggy, beaten-down, possibly autistic -- we spend most of the time with him, seeing the world through his perspective. Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd is accurate: he is a "scoundrel," one who hops from job to job, distills his own probably-toxic alcohol, fucks and fights freely.

Of course, when Dodd adopts him, he's also adopting a dog. He consistently says men are not animals, but he chides Phoenix's Freddie as a "naughty boy," congratulates him as a "good boy." He's clearly trying to make this slobbering fool into his own personal lapdog. Sometimes, attack dog.

Hoffman's Dodd is commanding and overwhelming, very much like Orson Welles playing Ron Burgundy, in that the mask keeps slipping, and you keep learning that this man is a blowhard jackoff. He gets accosted by some contrarian asshole at a party, and first completely dominates him, but soon loses his cool and berates him as a "PIG... FUCK!"

The film plants doubts about Dodd in the second act (including suspicious seeds planted regarding his scary wife, Amy Adams -- not sure what to make of that), suggesting a third act crumbling of the house of cards. Instead, the third act is elliptical, impressionistic, and proudly opaque. Dreams and reality mingle, the film's point of view keeps altering. It's absolutely bloated in a way "There Will Be Blood" was lean -- I'm not certain that's a bad thing with a filmmaker like Anderson, who keeps putting beguiling images and amazing performances onscreen. There's one scene with a motorcycle in the desert that will inspire debates because of how maddening and confusing it seems, tonally, thematically and conceptually. There's other scenes where a static shot captures a long walk down a hallway, simply to showcase depth of field for no reason whatsoever. Not sure where Anderson was going here, to be honest -- you could have reorganized much of the third act, and it would still make a similar sort of sense to me.

Anyway, it doesn't really matter. This is big event filmmaking from a world-class filmmaker still at his peak. It works because it can't be digested, because you'll need time to process it. You'll need to stare this film in the eye, unflinching, and somehow process it. I wish you luck. Let me know how far you got with this film in the comments.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Recent movies at a glance


For about three quarters of “Cosmopolis,” I was convinced I had a tenuous grasp over the surreal storyline, which boasted a labrynthe conceptual narrative with a startling confidence. It’s not enough that this young, tortured millionaire would be spending an entire day getting through Manhattan traffic for a hair cut -- director David Cronenberg has to shoot the limo scenes with transparently fakey rear projection methods that clash with his high-def photography. The effect almost makes Robert Pattinson (appropriately low energy) the captain of a starship, one that keeps picking up refugees informing him exactly how his empire is running, how much fuel is left in this otherworldly vessel.

Those folks include Jay Baruchel (almost starstruck, though the character is his brother), Samantha Morton (both embracing and puncturing her position as an analyst of “theory”) and Juliet Binoche (who shares her views on what does and does not belong to us while Pattinson is between her legs). Each performer (there are several others, including a weirdly sexy Kevin Durand) has the sort of human connection with Pattinson set up to almost remind him that yes, he is human. Like Cronenberg’s other work, it’s impossible to distinguish where the characters’ bodies end, and their “stuff” begins -- a moment where Pattinson gets out of his parked limo only to walk into a taxi has the sort of conceptual playfulness that 3D films can only faintly suggest, while also confirming that Pattinson is making a lateral move, a gesture that seems as normal to him as extending his arm. The scenes where Pattinson is outside of his transport show a young man outside of his comfort zone -- his actions upon leaving his limo seem dedicated to re-affirming to himself that he has a body, and that it serves several functions.

I’m still trying to figure out the film’s climax, which pits Pattinson face-to-face against a rat-like underling (Paul Giamatti). Their battle isn’t necessarily physical, nor is it a clash of wits, but political and social philosophies. I did not have to read afterwards that Cronenberg had preserved the bulk of Tom DeLillo’s prose, as it was present in the circular way characters talk each other into having separate points of view. It’s a talky movie, yes, and to some, fairly impenetrable, and once that ending scene arrived, I felt like the plate I had tried to balance had come crashing to the ground, scattering my marbles. I don’t think it’s a sin to admit you didn’t fully understand a film, though it is to blame your own misunderstanding of a film on a meticulous filmmaker about a dozen films into a storied career. Which is to say perhaps several critics should have merely placed their pen down before they wrote their confused, indignant reviews about “Cosmopolis” being a “bore.” Cronenberg, to his credit, is also smart enough to know what effect elliptical dialogue would have coming out of the mouth of a teen heartthrob like Pattinson, in a performance specifically designed to be alien and unrelateable. Which, to some, is a closed door, and to others (like most of Cronenberg’s filmography), a key placed in the palm of your hand.

***


Dredd 3D” is a trashy, violent film based on the popular cult comic series, of which I am sadly unfamiliar. My knowledge of the character and his world stems from the considerably lighter “Judge Dredd” which starred Sylvester Stallone in the early nineties. Whereas that felt like an ersatz attempt to make a definitive film about this character, “Dredd 3D” seems more like a minor-key effort of gruesome violence at a decidedly low temperature. Less a concerto and more of a movement, “Dredd 3D” tells a bleak story about our monosyllabic, masked hero and his attempt, with rookie in tow, to escape from an obvious trap in a poor tenement called the Peach Trees housing thousands of baddies ready to get a piece of Johnny Law.

My lack of knowledge of the source is probably the reason for this, but the threadbare script leaves room mostly for blandly expositional dialogue and rote action setups -- I could have closed my eyes and imagined it to be a cheap “Robocop” sequel, though that may say more about “Robocop” than it does me. Regardless, aside from some early satirical elements suggesting the fascist nature of this depleted future world (which we don’t see, aside from a few establishing shots), “Dredd 3D” is a bang-bang shoot-em-up where the hero treats it as just another day, the villainess is too drugged-up to get too angry (she demands thugs to be skinned as if she were ordering a pizza), and the location offers little variety between apartment buildings and narrow hallways. It’s supposed to be the POINT that everyone’s going through the motions: don’t look for action hero swagger, more along the lines of execution-style kill shots. Enjoy.

***

[Rec] 3: Genesis” begins by utilizing the found footage aesthetic of the first two films, as a zombie virus descends on a beautiful wedding, scattering the reception guests and separating the beautiful bride and groom. As the running undead pursue the nephew filmmaker holding the camera, he hides out with a group of survivors in the kitchen. When he makes the genre-standard argument that he must keep documenting what’s happening because “people need to know,” the groom throws the camera to the ground and stomps it to pieces. The good news is, the gimmick is now dead. The bad news is, this is now essentially a Spanish sequel to “Demons.” Not a good kind, but one of the unofficial sequels, with something like four alternate titles.

The first two films, which Paco Plaza and Jamie Bagaulero directed together, were relatively straightforward genre exercises benefiting from the handheld treatment. With Plaza directing on his own (Bagaulero is apparently also working on a solo segment), Plaza acts as if Dad is out of town, and that he can finally have some fun. So the spooky occult leanings of the first films give way to silly supernatural Catholic ideas involving chants and rituals, while he finds an arcane and unconvincing excuse to dress his leading man as a medieval knight. The setups have the spirit of early Peter Jackson, but Plaza bypasses punchlines in favor of rote jumpscares and the old chestnut about our loved ones turned into bloodsuckers. Plaza recovers for a surprisingly poignant fifteen minutes that trade on the expressiveness of gorgeous Leiticia Dolera’s raccoon eyes, but it feels less organically compelling and more like a welcome distraction from typical genre excess.

***

If you’re a stickler for accurate casting, you’ll hate “Ten Years,” which posits that a host of thirtysomething actors, including Channing Tatum, Rosario Dawson, and Lynn Collins, are all attending their high school reunion. You can get away with this with an actor like Anthony Mackie, endlessly watchable even if he’s not given a character to play. But in the case of say, Justin Long, you wait for the other shoe to drop, since his presence isn’t compelling enough to justify such suspension of disbelief. It’s why some actors are convincing as superheroes, and others make you realize that comics are for children. Side note: Justin Long has seriously become a red flag when involved in any film. This one is no different.

Tatum, who spearheaded this film, has proven to be a star this year, but he’s certainly not an actor and the suggestion seems to be that he’s lucked into finding all these compelling directorial collaborators (and, perhaps, that they’ve utilized their commercial instincts in hitching their wagon to the one young leading man that could actually be considered a Man). Freed from that, Tatum and his “Magic Mike” collaborator Reed Carolin called in several favors for this film, overstuffing it with name performers who seem asked to invent a characterization on the fly. The results are mixed: TV actor Chris Pratt embraces chubby-actor pratfalls, while Oscar Isaac transcends the cheeseball crooner he’s forced to portray. But Dawson, as The One That Got Away, has little to do but be luminous to nostalgic ex Tatum, who has to deal with the insecurities of real-life wife Jenna Dewan-Tatum. While Ron Livingston shows up to become a potential Baxter, the problem with the film becomes writ large -- none of these people remotely have problems, and none of their likely improvisational conversations buzz with immediacy or even necessity. Coming so soon after French boomer drama “Little White Lies” (which superficially but effectively covers the same ground), it looks even weaker.