Looper

Counting the paradoxes may cause a paradox

As Oscar-winning screenwriter Jim Rash once said (albeit while playing the role of Dean Pelton on NBC’s Community), “Time travel is really hard to write about.”  The fatal flaw in time travel films is often in the explanation of the time travel science itself – a problem wisely sidestepped in the recent Safety Not Guaranteed, which relied on character depth and development to forward the action.  The science problem tends to drag down films that are desperate to appear brainy – Primer and Donnie Darko come to mind.  In Looper, the third film by Rian Johnson (director of the subversive Hammett-esque high-school crime drama Brick), the exact science is sidestepped in a rather ingenious way: it hasn’t been invented until thirty years after the main story takes place, and even in that time, it’s so illegal that barely anyone knows it’s being used.  The main characters have no idea how it works; it just happens to provide them with an income.

The story centers around Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his 4th or 5th leading role this year, and it won’t be his last), an assassin known as a Looper.  His job does not involve stealth or theatrics, however: he simply receives a time and location, arrives there, and waits for a hooded prisoner to materialize out of thin air.  When that happens, he immediately pulls the trigger of his “blunderbuss” (a futuristic shotgun) and collects his payment (bars of silver).  The prisoners, whose faces are always shrouded, are targets of a crime syndicate thirty years in the future, who send their marks back in time to be disposed of without a trace.  Not a bad profession if you can stomach it; the pay is fantastic.  There’s one catch, however: when your contract runs out, the syndicate sends the future version of yourself back in time, and you execute yourself.  This is known as “closing the loop.”  Forget how many paradoxes this would cause in accordance with popular time travel theory (in movies, leastways); it’s an effective device.  In addition to Loopers, there are people called TKs – folks who can use telekinetic powers, but most of them can do nothing but float coins around in silly attempts to impress women, so they’re not taken seriously.

The trouble begins when Joe notices how many of his coworkers are suddenly closing their own loops.  Someone in the future is seemingly shutting down the Looper program. The reactions of the other Loopers is perhaps what’s so shocking about this: they’re all happy.  They receive a glorious payload (bars of gold this time) and drink up their paychecks with buddies before retiring and living lavishly for the next thirty years (at which point, we can safely assume, they are seized and sent back in time to have a hole blown in them).  This seems to be a commentary on the culture of immediacy we currently live in.  Is no one thinking about the future?  Are we only concerned with what we want right this second?  It’s an effective allegory for our times, and doesn’t try to borrow from George Orwell, like so many of these stories are tempted to.

One Looper, however, recognizes the voice of his future self and cannot pull the trigger.  This is Seth (Paul Dano), a good friend of Joe.  Having failed to complete his contract and close his own loop, Seth knows he will be hunted down by the incredibly efficient enforcers of the Looper program.  How do they operate so well?  Because they’re headed by Abe (Jeff Daniels), a man sent from the future to manage the Loopers and make sure everything resembles clockwork for the next thirty years.  Abe, despite Daniels’ vintage fuzziness, can be intimidating at times, and he convinces Joe to sell out Seth, which is immediately followed (as we know it must be) by Joe’s own loop being closed.  However, Old Joe (Bruce Willis) appears without a hood, and Young Joe has no chance to react before the former knocks him cold with a Magic Movie Punch and vanishes.

And so a double man-hunt begins: Young Joe is searching for Old Joe, because if he doesn’t kill him, his fate will be the same as Seth’s.  Abe’s right-hand man, Kid Blue (Noah Segan) would love nothing more than to see Joe dead as payback for an earlier insult, so tension is high.  Old Joe, on the other hand, is searching for someone else: in a diner conversation with his younger counterpart, he reveals a piece of information mentioned by Seth’s older self earlier – that in the future, a man called the Rainmaker has taken control of everything in a Fidel Castro-style takeover (apparently after seeing his own mother die), and is closing all of the loops for unknown reasons.  Old Joe has returned to the past in order to kill the Rainmaker before he can put his future plan into effect, thus ending this cycle and bringing his wife (Qing Xu) back to life.  Young Joe doesn’t care.  He wants to live his own life now.

On the run from Abe’s thugs, Young Joe happens upon a farm owned by Sara (the wonderful Emily Blunt).  In spite of her trepidations, she takes him in, helps him through drug withdrawal, and agrees to let him stay for a few days under the condition that he stay away from her son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon).  We soon learn, however, that Cid, a powerful TK, may be the future Rainmaker, which means that not only is Sara in danger, but both Old Joe and Kid Blue’s posse will soon descend upon the farm.  The film makes use of effective and clear flashforwards in order to illustrate what might happen if certain conditions are (or aren’t) met, including which decisions on Young Joe’s part will either cause or prevent the rise of the Rainmaker, and the action ends with a The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly triangle-style shootout.  The action, though, doesn’t cap the film – we’re always encouraged to care about the characters before the sci-fi backdrop, which is an incredibly fresh change from inspired-but-flawed sci-fi installments such as the recent Total Recall remake.

Emily Blunt puts her heart into every role, and Sara is no exception.  I’m still on the fence about her character, however – per usual, there’s only one principle female character (the only other woman with lines is a prostitute played by Piper Perabo), and despite being tough as nails, Sara’s entire existence revolves around motherhood.  If nothing else, she overcomes the sci-fi trope of the women being either nonexistent or uber-dependent damsels who can find their way around a bedroom but not a gun, and it’s clear that Sara is an independent woman who holds all sorts of cards over Joe.  Bruce Willis essentially plays his Die Hard counterpart here, delivering tough-guy dialogue and mowing down legions of enemies while shouting “motherfuckers!”  Paul Dano is underused as Seth – did Johnson forget that Dano appeared in all sorts of Best and Almost Best pictures?  Jeff Daniels is great as Abe, which seems almost like a comeback role for him, and he successfully plays against type here.  Abe is also funny – when Joe talks about possibly moving to France, Abe says, very deadpan, “I’m from the future.  Go to China.” Unfortunately, his comeuppance is depicted off-screen, which is not only a wasted opportunity (Daniels vs. Willis!), but a lack of payoff from a film that promises an action finale (and as you know, I’m not one to pander for action).  Finally, Gordon-Levitt is made up to look like Bruce Willis, which I worried may be distracting and hokey (see DiCaprio’s makeup in J. Edgar), but it’s seamlessly done.  His character, a sci-fi leading man, is predictably one-note, but with more compassion than you might expect, and the performance is strong.

Looper is one of the better sci-fi thrillers to come out in a long time.  It handles its characters well, and never quite allows its material to get away from it or become too complex.  The most complex thing involved may be Bruce Willis’s feelings about playing a character called Old Joe.

Looper (2012); written and directed by Rian Johnson; starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, and Jeff Daniels. 

The Expendables 2

Male pattern badness
The Expendables 2, the sequel to what I once called the “manliest movie ever made,” is pretty much what you’d expect: laughable writing, sub-par acting by semi-retired action actors, big things blowing up, countless logical and scientific inaccuracies, ridiculous laconic dialogue, “in-joke” references to other movies featuring the film’s actors, and in spite of all this, at least some measure of fun.

The story, if we can call it that, once again follows Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and his band of mercenaries as they do the dirty work of Mr. Church (Bruce Willis).  This time, the mission involves retrieving information from a computer in a safe on a downed airplane in Albania (yup).  Refreshingly, the team is buffed by two new Expendables, one of which is a woman, Maggie, played by Chinese actress Yu Nan.  Ross immediately has a problem with her joining, maybe because he’s distracted by the urge to protect women, or maybe because he’s just sexist; we can’t be sure.  The other is Billy, played by Liam Hemsworth, the only actor in the movie who delivers a single line of convincing dialogue.  Ross’s best buddy, Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) once again appears, lest the team be bereft of anyone who can still perform anything requiring agility.  Terry Crews, Randy Couture, and Dolph Lundgren reprise their roles of taking up space, while Arnold Schwarzenegger returns as Trench, Ross’s arch-rival/frenemy, who makes far too many references to the Terminator films – this doesn’t work because Schwarzenegger already parodied his self-references in 1993’s Last Action Hero (and successfully, I might add).  Jet Li briefly resumes his role of martial artist Yin Yang (really?  That’s his name?), but he departs from the group early, as Li was working on several projects in China at the time of filming.

The mission, as it must, goes awry, and the information from the plane’s computer falls into the hands of a megalomaniac aptly named Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme), who also murders one of the Expendables in order to make some nebulous point.  After burying their brother, the remaining Expendables flatly state their goals for the remainder of the film: “Track ’em, find ’em, kill ’em.”  Stallone should have added, “So that I can finally have my showdown with Van Damme.”  This proves to be the only reason for Van Damme’s presence in the movie, as his character is barely onscreen and is given no opportunity for development.  I’m not made of stone; I know a fast-paced actioner starring Sly Stallone is not meant to be character centric, but having a reason to want the villain (especially one who is basically named “villain”) to receive his comeuppance would serve to streamline what is otherwise a bump-laden adventure.  Vilain, while sparsely seen until the final duel with Stallone, is apparently so badass that he wears sunglasses even at the bottom of a mine shaft.  Unfortunately, the filmmakers rely too much on Ross’s motivation – revenge for the death of someone we as an audience barely know – and not development of the villains as characters, which renders Vilain and his right hand man (played by longtime Van Damme collaborator Scott Adkins) ineffective compared with the villains played by Eric Roberts and Stone Cold Steve Austin in the first film.

A movie like this relies upon its action, and if you enjoy ludicrous gunplay and fight scenes constructed with the goal of destroying everything in sight, this movie does not disappoint.  Inexplicably, the Expendables appear to be some sort of superpeople.  Ross, while speeding down a zipline, is shot twice, and doesn’t seem so much injured as he does simply disappointed about being hit.  When shot by Expendables, however, enemies transform into airborne chunks of meat.  While not as intentionally gory as the first movie, this has its share of grisly demises for Vilain’s army of redshirts, including one that follows the tried-and-true Theorem of the Magnetic Helicopter Blade, which states that if a fight scene takes place within thirty yards of an active parked helicopter, someone will be diced up in the propellers.

Much of the dialogue in the opening action scene reminded me of things I might shout when getting particularly excited about a video game.  “Here we go!”  “Take this, you bastards!”  etc.  Stallone at one point shouts the line “Rest in pieces!” after a henchman is shot about a thousand times, and even with his action-star enthusiasm, it’s still a groaner.  Even in an Expendables film, lines like these should be left on the cutting room floor.  It’s frustrating to think that big-budget films (i.e. the ones being greenlit and funded by major film studios) are the ones populated with writing so poor, while incredibly ambitious and dramatically sound films like Safety Not Guaranteed are being made with a budget barely hefty enough to pay the cast’s salaries.  To add to the badness, there’s a slightly-more-than-cameo by Chuck Norris, whose acting rust is supremely evident and who serves little purpose but to kill legions of un-Americans and deliver his famous “Chuck Norris facts,” which he still doesn’t seem to realize are parodying him rather than glorifying his martial arts exploits.  Unforgivably, Sergio Leone’s music is used to percuss Norris’s appearances.

The real highlight of the film is Yu Nan’s Maggie, Stallone’s first attempt to write a female character in a world inhabited by overgrown boys hauling gigantic phallic symbols around.  She gets more lines than one might expect (or that a viewer with Ross’s sensibilities might want), but she quickly proves herself as trustworthy and more intelligent than anyone in the group and fully capable of taking down five or six of Vilain’s henchman at a time.  While forming a friendly bond with Ross, she doesn’t end up as anyone’s love interest, though there’s a funny reference to the fact that she and Dolph Lundgren once starred in a film (Diamond Dogs) together.

The cast is studded with action stars, but is diluted by the inclusion of Lundgren, Couture, and Crews.  There are a few good performances, but the characters who deliver them vanish within the first half hour.  Van Damme looks to be in great shape, but doesn’t get to fight much.  The Expendables are made vulnerable by the death of a member, but the wrong Expendable dies.  I’ve heard talk of Nic Cage, Steven Seagal, Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, and Wesley Snipes gearing up for possible appearances in The Expendables 3.  The impetus of the series has always been to elevate has-beens to currently-ares, but the problem with keeping things current is that you have to keep doing it, and The Expendables is about to reach a point of unsalvageable irrelevance.

The Expendables 2 (2012); written by Sylvester Stallone and Richard Wenk; directed by Simon West; starring Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Yu Nan, and Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Moonrise Kingdom

What kind of bird are you?

Wes Anderson has somehow generated a collection of movies (with the possible exception of Fantastic Mr. Fox) that can be watched in any order and seemingly belong to the same universe.  The dry humor, the pallet of exclusively primary colors, the jump-cuts that act like missing reels, and the delicious mulligan of working class heroes and frustrated rich people pop up again and again.  Moonrise Kingdom features Anderson’s most eclectic ensemble cast yet, and the most amazing part is that these characters revolve organically around two first-time child actors.

The story focuses on the adventures of Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), penpals who decide to run away together, the former from his blooming career as a “Khaki Scout” and the latter from her dysfunctional family, who live in a lighthouse.  When their respective caretakers discover their disappearance, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) is dispatched to find them.  Unbeknownst to Suzy’s father, Walt (Bill Murray), Sharp is having an affair with Walt’s wife, Laura (Frances McDormand).  In addition, Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton), who cares deeply for his scouts (including Sam), leads the rest of the Khakis on a journey to apprehend the wayward couple.  Throughout the story, the threat of a terrible storm looms over New Penzance (the fictional New England town in which the story takes place), reported via the amusingly-named “Narrator” (Bob Balaban), an incredibly dry documentary filmmaker.  The storm, which in part provides a reference to Noah, serves more to foreshadow Sam and Suzy’s coming adulthood: they both know this is the final summer during which they’ll be young enough for these sorts of adventures.

The cast is fun to spend time with, especially as the people and conflicts accumulate.  Jason Schwartzman, who appears in most of Anderson’s films, shows up here as Cousin Ben, a relative of one of the camp scouts who offers to help Sam and Suzy escape.  He never removes his sunglasses.  Tilda Swinton appears as Social Services, a stern character who embodies her job, and there’s even an appearance by Harvey Keitel as Commander Pierce, the leader of the Khaki Scouts.  The world Anderson has created for this movie does not operate under the parameters of real life; desire reigns supreme here, and simple imagination can translate to very real magic.  This sense of fantasy is buttressed by the intricate maps of the fictional region and the nonexistent (in real life) young adult novels that Suzy brings along for the trip.

As the adults scramble and worry, the children enjoy the only true freedom either of them have ever had, as far as we can tell.  Walt, played with a familiar melancholy by Murray, seems to look at the world with a resigned disappointment, performing certain functions only because his maleness demands him to.  “I’m going to find a tree to chop down,” an axe-wielding Walt informs his three young sons as he wanders shirtless out the back door of his home.  None of these scenes are delivered with any kind of self-conscious humor.  Sharp and Laura know their affair cannot go on; Laura is simply bored with Walt, and Sharp has no companionship in his life.  There seems to be no escape for adults in the world of Moonrise Kingdom; there is only the cage of childhood, the thrill of adolescence, and the frustration and dissatisfaction of adults who were once thrilled to be alive.  The individual conflicts are resolved in the film’s colorful and imaginative finale, but we have to wonder, what is the trigger?  The storm?  The influence of the children on the stilted grown-ups?  Genuine epiphanies on the part of the adult characters?

The dialogue between Sam and Suzy during the soon-to-be iconic beach scene (after they discover their hiding-out spot, name it Moonrise Kingdom, and adeptly set up camp there) is delivered as thoughts-out-loud, a decidedly Anderson-esque method of conveying information and deepening characters.  For example, the children discuss kissing before they actually do, and grant verbal permission for other activities (“You can touch them if you want,” says Suzy).  It’s hard to put a finger on this technique, but it gels with the story’s pacing and provides several very funny moments (if not only serving to remind us how awkward everyone’s first romantic encounters actually are).

Lastly, a dog is killed in this movie.  People get upset about that.  I admit, sometimes these moments are sad, but I cannot understand being on the fence about an entire film (especially a wonderful one such as this) due to the appearance of a fake dog corpse.  At least the dog in this one didn’t deserve it; I recall a viewing of the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men during which two friends (a couple) became vocal and disturbed after Josh Brolin’s character kills a vicious hunting dog in self defense.  They did not, however, bat an eyelash during scenes in which Javier Bardem brutally murders countless innocent bystanders.  This oversensitivity to dog death in movies – and it’s always dogs; cat death is often portrayed humorously (see The Boondock Saints) – was parodied to an unbelievable extent in What Just Happened with Robert de Niro and Michael Wincott, in which a test audience has a berserk reaction to the ending of a film: they’re okay with Sean Penn being shot a zillion times by gangsters, but not with the fact that the gangsters also kill his dog.  Bruce Willis also appeared in that film, not as a cop, but as an exaggerated version of himself.

Canine murder aside, Moonrise Kingdom is one of Anderson’s best live-action movies, an adolescent echo of The Darjeeling Limited’s sensibilities, and if its characters will one day become the characters of that film, let’s allow them to live on their fantasy island for good.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012); written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola; directed by Wes Anderson; starring Jared Gilman, Sarah Hayward, Bruce Willis, and Edward Norton.

The Expendables

The manliest movie ever made

After Sly’s alarmingly violent Rambo reboot, I forced myself (despite my excitement) to reserve expectations for The Expendables, thinking it might end up another gorefest involving Stallone “playing in the jungle,” as Mr. Schwarzenegger puts it.  I had some confidence going in, however, because the formula for a classic actioner was always there.  Present in the film’s initial trailer and the opening credits sequence: Stallone’s banter-laden tough-guy dialogue, bullets, clouds of flame, projectile body parts/human bodies inexplicably shooting through the air, and the main cast members’ surnames splayed over the action in metallic silver text (although how Randy Couture’s name ended up on the screen will forever be a sad mystery to me).

Stallone’s newest effort is not so much a “who’s who” of action films as it is a “who’s been there.”  An early sequence features Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Stallone himself talking in a church.  If this hadn’t been shot with a digital HD camera and presented to me as part of a film, I might have thought it was just the three of them reminiscing about the glory days.  It’s a scene with some true magic, and it is refreshingly obvious that these roles were written specifically for these actors.  “What the fuck is his problem?” Willis asks as Schwarzenegger leaves.  “He wants to be President,” Stallone replies snidely as Arnold gives him a look you could shoot out of a cannon.

As relatively straightforward as the movie is, you’ll likely forget the story once you get caught up in the fun.  I’ll give it a shot: Evil dictator teams up with rogue CIA agent and Stone Cold Steve Austin; mercenaries needed because CIA killing their own guy looks bad; wizened old-timer (Mickey Rourke, despite being younger than Stallone) tells touching story about old days; Stallone and his buddies take the job; mission is not what it seems.  It’s the type of story meant for Stallone’s writing style: simple, plenty of room for one-liners, and littered with dead people.

This film is such an action-star cast party that you’ll also probably forget the characters’ names, and if you remember them, you’ll feel a bit silly using them.  But the names are worth remembering if only for their novelty.  The cast includes Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), a heavy weapons expert whose only monologue is about explosives; Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), the only one in the group who actually has a girlfriend, though he has somehow kept from her the fact that he’s a ruthless murder-machine.  Statham gets a role that is a bit deeper and infinitely more fun than the expressionless, American-accented statues that pass for characters in such popcorn action fare as the Transporter and Death Race films.  The role of Lee is no Turkish or Bacon, to be sure, but at this point in his career (unless he makes it into Guy Ritchie’s proposed remake of RocknRolla), Statham is unlikely to be doing anything but this kind of film for a long time.  In addition, we get Yin Yang (Jet Li), who has more speaking scenes in this film than American directors usually allow him, and they’re magical to witness, particularly a driving scene with Stallone in which he discusses the positives and negatives of his stature, and his fighting scenes are, as usual, dazzling (though it’s clear that a fight team is helping him out with the tougher material these days).  Dolph Lundgren also appears as Gunner Jensen, a Swedish sniper and apparent junkie.  How long do you think Rocky and Drago can last on the same team?  Just watch the first scene and you’ll know.  The last member of the team is Toll Road (Randy Couture), a demolitions expert and…y’know, he does that MMA schlock.  He’s one team member too many, and I know this isn’t dramatic, Oscar-race cinema, but every time he was alone on screen, I was embarrassed for him.  Rounding out the cast are a decent group of one-note bad guys, including an extremely hammy Eric Roberts as “James Munroe,” a corrupt CIA agent with a suspiciously allegorical name; General Garza (David Zayas), the apparently-evil dictator, though we’re expected to simply take the narrative’s word on that; The Brit (Gary Daniels), a stereotypical European enforcer who we just know will end up fighting Jet Li later; and Dan Paine (Stone Cold Steve Austin), Munroe’s bodyguard.  This is the type of role Austin should have been playing at the very beginning of his acting career (note: this is still the beginning, but he’s been in a few films now, and the henchman role suits his abilities).  Charisma Carpenter and Gisele Itie’ appear as the film’s women, but you may not remember them either.

The Expendables manages to be manly without being misogynistic, overly gory, racist, or a sweat-inducing sausage-fest (i.e. 300) .  Not a single breast or naked rear end is shown, and the two females with speaking parts are treated with respect.  The most violent scene occurs within the first ten minutes, and the gore slows down in favor of telling a story.  The cinematography is nicely crafted – care is put into every corner, not just the mindless stuff.

This film is classic action fare with witty references, a writer/director/star who knows the genre, and a cast of familiar (and likable) faces.  Perhaps the body count in this film will clear up some room for Kurt Russell to appear in a sequel?

The Expendables (2010); written and directed by Sylvester Stallone; starring Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li and Mickey Rourke.