REVIEW: “Looper”


Time travel is one of those fun and intriguing concepts that has found its way into every movie genre. Obviously there is time travel in science fiction films, but it can also be found in the horror, action, drama, comedy, and even romance genres. So there’s an apparent attraction to the idea of time travel and its been explored in a variety of different ways. Therefore the real challenge for a filmmaker is to take this familiar subject and give us something new and fresh – something we haven’t seen before. I’m thrilled to say that’s exactly what writer and director Rian Johnson has done with his mind bending sci-fi action film “Looper”.

As you can guess, “Looper” takes place in the not-to-distant future. Time travel has been realized but by the year 2074 it has been outlawed. The crime syndicates illegally use time travel as a means of executing and disposing of targets, something that has grown increasingly difficult to do in their time. That’s where loopers come in. They are mob killers who execute the targets sent from the future, collect the silver bars sent with the target as their reward, and then dispose of the bodies – no mess and no connections to the mob. Loopers operate out of Kansas City in the year 2044 and are headed by a mobster named Abe (Jeff Daniels). In fact, we learn that Abe is essentially running the entire city.

Joseph Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one of Abe’s most trusted loopers. He’s efficient and by-the-books. But soon Joe is faced with what’s called “closing the loop” – the syndicate’s version of retirement. You see, the looper will be sent the future version of the himself to be executed. No party or shiny plaque. Just a hefty payment in gold bars and a release from their contract. “Good-bye” and enjoy the next 30 years. As we hear in the movie, the looper job doesn’t attract the most forward thinking people. Joe is surprised and unprepared when his latest target turns out to be himself only 30-years older and bald (Bruce Willis). He makes the biggest mistake a looper can make – he hesitates and old Joe jumps him, knocks him out, and then escapes. Soon young Joe has the mob hot on his trail as he’s trying to “make things right” by catching up with and killing old Joe. But old Joe has a mission of his own which really turns everything on its head.

The first half of the movie focuses more on the loopers, on introducing us to Johnson’s world, and setting up Gordon-Levitt’s character. A huge part of any movie like this, especially when dealing with time travel, is creating a believability to what you’re presenting. In other words, we need to buy into what we’re being shown. The concept behind this Rian Johnson futuristic concoction is brilliant and a breath of fresh cinematic air. What’s even more impressive is how well it’s realized on screen. He doesn’t overdo his futuristic landscape so I never felt too disconnected from this world. But there is some cool technology and Johnson clearly has fun with some of it including his ugly green energy dependent cars and the bad cell phone reception. But the city itself is a dirty and unpleasant place filled with poverty and drug use – just what you would expect from a mob-led city.

The second half of the movie takes a slight change in direction. Much of it takes part on a farm outside of town owned by a single mother Sara (Emily Blunt who exchanges her English accent for a country girl one) and her son Cid (Pierce Gagnon). Young Joe’s search for old Joe leads him to the farm where he hopes to find shelter from the syndicate and clues to what his older self is up to. But he quickly learns that there’s more to this farm family than meets the eye. These scenes add some authentic emotional punch to the film. But Johnson also uses this part of the movie to open up several new doors which add more and more layers to the already challenging story. Of course there were a couple of times where I had to stop and process what I had just seen, but I really liked these different directions and as a whole, the complex yet miraculously cohesive script is constructed with such intelligence and precision so that I never felt lost nor did I feel the material ever bogged down.

It’s also worth mentioning the spectacular visuals and no-holds-barred action sequences. It doesn’t take long to recognize Johnson’s skill with framing shots and moving his camera. He uses several unconventional techniques which give the move a unique look. We get several close-ups where Johnson wants the expressions of his characters to tell the story. He also often times places his camera at ground level giving us the feeling we are looking up at them. This is very effective particularly during the buildup to a couple of key action scenes. Speaking of the action, it is incredibly done. It’s a brutal and violent mix of sci-fi and 1980’s gun-blazing action and both work extremely well. Johnson doesn’t skimp on the blood but it feels right at home in this picture.

I also have to talk about the acting. The performances in “Looper” are solid throughout with some being Oscar caliber in my opinion. Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to prove that he’s a top Hollywood talent. Here he’s armed with heavy makeup, a prosthetic nose, and a Bruce Willis smirk. The funny thing is he channels Willis perfectly from his slouch to his expressions, all while giving a very different performance than Willis. And speaking of Willis, he is excellent here. What stood out was the range that he shows in this performance. For instance there are scenes where he’s a cranky codger, an emotional wreck, and laugh out loud funny. But there were also scenes that reminded me of John McClane from Die Hard – steadily yelling while his machine gun pumps loads of lead. Emily Blunt is fantastic as always, Jeff Daniels just eats up his lines, and Paul Dano plays the same measly, wormy character that he always plays. Then there is young Pierce Gagnon who is phenomenal. He’s such a tender presence but his performance goes well beyond that standard cute kid role. He’s given a lot to do and he really stands out.

I’m sure it’s obvious by now that I really liked “Looper”. But it’s not a perfect movie. While the story is intensely original and thoroughly engaging, there are a few plot holes as well as some pointless throw away scenes in the first half of the movie. For example early on we see young Joe has a relationship with a prostitute. He appears to be quite fond of her even though she’s only in a couple of scenes, one of which seems to be there strictly to add some pointless content to the film. This time could have been spent better elsewhere. I also couldn’t help but ask the question – what type of crime organization would actually hire Paul Dano’s character to be a looper? His performance is fine but I had a hard time believing in him. That said, he did provide us with one of the films very best sequences. I’ll just leave it at that.

I could go on and on about “Looper” but let me just sum it up by saying that it’s the most ambitious and imaginative movie I’ve seen all year. It’s smart and audacious and Rian Johnson actually pulls it all off. It’s completely unpredictable and no matter how hard you try, you never catch up with it. It’s always one step ahead of you. “Looper” takes the familiar device of time travel to new places through a brilliantly original concept. Johnson lays out that concept clearly for the audience. Then he takes it, shakes it, twists it, and contorts it and then challenges the audience to keep up. He dabbles in different genres and themes, examines societies, questions morality, and asks us to take it all in and process it. That’s something I’m happy to do especially when the movie is this good.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Men in Black 3”

Let me preface this review by saying that I wasn’t the biggest fan of the previously two “Men in Black” movies. But I was certainly in the minority. The first “Men in Black” earned just under $600 million at the box office. The sequel brought in another $440 million. Obviously expectations are high for this third installment and it’s $300 million budget. Both Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are back as is director Barry Sonnenfeld and Steven Spielberg as Executive Producer.

It’s been almost 10 years since we last saw Agent K (Jones) and Agent J (Smith). K is still the stiff-as-a-board, emotionless, straight-shooter, J is still a rapid-fire wisecracker with attitude to spare, and aliens are still on earth masquerading as humans. They both still serve as operatives working for a secret agency commissioned to protect the Earth from alien threats. This time their main threat is an alien named Boris (Jemaine Clement). Agent K apprehended Boris back in 1969 and put him in a lunar prison designed specifically for him. But Boris escapes and travels back in time to kill Agent K before he is able to thwart his original plan. After noticing K’s absence and a difference in the timeline, J travels back to 1969 a few days prior to K’s death to protect him from Boris.

The movie starts off looking and feeling just like a “Men in Black” film. Funny exchanges between K and J and alien confrontations get the movie off on the right foot. There’s also a really cool time travel sequence as J heads back to 1969. It’s here that the movie both introduces it’s biggest asset as well as hit it’s biggest speed bumps. Josh Brolin plays the younger Agent K and he is fantastic. I swear there were times where I completely believed I was watching a younger Tommy Lee Jones instead of someone doing a Tommy Lee impersonation. Whether it’s his accent, his nicknames, or facial expressions, Brolin nails a 29-year old Agent K.

But while Brolin shines, the story really spins it’s wheels. There are a few back-in-time set pieces and late 60’s details that are fun but they get lost in the story that’s really pretty flat and lifeless. The humor loses it’s pop and seems to rely much too heavily on Will Smith’s quick wit. There’s great chemistry between Brolin and Smith but even it gets bogged down in the sometimes drab exposition. I have to admit, I found myself struggling to stay focused and interested in what was going on especially when an all-knowing alien named Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg) enters the picture. I did enjoy Emma Thompson and Alice Eve as the older and younger Agent O and the movie is a visual delight. I just wish there was more energy and substance to go with the movie’s stronger points.

While I did have issues with the middle of the movie, it was almost made up for by a really good and surprisingly tender ending. There’s no way I can go any further without spoiling things, but I’ll just say that it makes you look at all three “Men in Black” movies from a different perspective. The ending is well conceived and even though there were a few questions that immediately came to mind, it really worked for me.

“Men in Black 3” most certainly isn’t a great movie but it’s definitely an upgrade over the almost unwatchable second film. Then again, that’s not really saying a much. MiB3 starts off strong and has a nice ending but it’s what’s in between that keeps it from being as good as it could be. Brolin is the highlight and he’s a lot of fun to watch. There are also some other pretty good performances. As I mentioned, the visuals are high quality, exactly what you would expect. But none of these pluses can outweigh the minuses. There’s just not enough substance or humor to make this anything more than an okay movie.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “The Hunger Games”

With this week’s release of the incredibly popular “The Hunger Games” on DVD and Blu-Ray, I had a chance to see it for a second time. I thought it would be fun to share my review of the movie again for those who may be newer to my blog. What are your thoughts on this much talked about picture? Were the odds ever in your favor as you sat down to see what all the hype was about? Here’s my take.

It’s been called the next big thing at the movies. It’s projections point to an opening weekend of around $150 million. Fans are filling theaters with anticipation. With such hype and expectations, how is it that I had never heard of “The Hunger Games” before seeing its first movie trailer? Expected to be the first in a profitable series, “The Hunger Games” is based on a series of novels written by Suzanne Collins. It’s a dystopian science fiction film that’s based on a preposterous premise yet it manages to be strikingly entertaining.

With the “Twilight” series mercifully set to end later this year, “The Hunger Games” is looked at as the next big franchise and has even drawn some misguided comparisons to the romantic vampire versus werewolf films. But there are several things that separate “The Hunger Games” from the “Twilight” series. First, this film opens itself up to a much broader audience. The movie embraces several good sci-fi and action elements that should appeal to a wider variety of moviegoers. ”Twilight” made millions but had a much more restricted target audience. Also “The Hunger Games” made a point to bring in quality performers and it really shows in the finished product. The acting is head and shoulders above the teeth gnashing performances in “Twilight”. In other words, “The Hunger Games” has more to offer than many of the other popular multi-million dollar series.

The movie takes place in Panem, a nation broken up into 12 districts. It’s a futuristic world that features a capital city filled with advanced technology surrounded by landscapes that resemble the Ozark or Smokey Mountains. The power and affluence are confined to the Capitol while the outer districts are filled with poverty-stricken villages struggling to survive.  We learn that years ago there was an uprising in the districts that resulted in a strong militaristic response from the Capitol. After quenching the uprising, The Capitol instituted “The Hunger Games”, an annual competition that required each district to provide one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to compete against each other in a survival fight to the death. There would be only one winner and that winner would receive fame and glory. The games were intended to serve as a lifelong punishment for the district’s uprising and to show the twisted view of mercy and forgiveness of the Capitol.

To add yet another warped component to the story, The Hunger Games have become a Super Bowl like event. Much like 1987′s “The Running Man”, citizen’s throughout the capital city watch and cheer the games like they would a major sporting event. Special events and talk shows centered around the participants and leading up to the games are soaked up by the heartless and blood-thirsty Capitol crowds. In contrast, those watching in the outer districts do so not out of sport but out of concern for their loved ones. The movie goes all out to show a stark economic and moral difference between the wealthy city people and the poor district citizens. It’s a contrast that looks to play a bigger role in the future films.

The movie starts inside the very poor District 12. Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, a tough 16-year old girl forced to take care of her mother and little sister Prim (Willow Shields) after the death of her father. The sisters gather together with the other kids from their district for what’s called “The Reaping”, a random drawing to find out who will represent the district as “tribute” in the year’s games. When a terrified Prim is chosen, Katniss steps in and volunteers in her sister’s place. Joining Katniss from District 12 is a baker’s son named Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). The two are shuttled to the Capitol where they are prepped and paraded around until the day for the games is upon them.

You can’t talk about “The Hunger Games” without talking about Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. A lot of great young actresses tried out for the role including Saoirse Ronan, Chloe Moretz, Hailee Steinfeld, and Shailene Woodley. But Lawrence was chosen and she was the perfect choice. Since I first saw her in her Oscar nominated role in “Winter’s Bone”, she’s been one of my favorite young actresses. Here she gives a strong and committed performance that feels true and authentic. In fact, she often times rises above the material and when the story goes a little off-track she manages to elevate it and carry it on her shoulders. It’s a brilliant performance and she fleshes out every quality of her character that you would expect.

Lawrence is joined by a nice supporting cast including Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, a bumbling boozer who is the only survivor to ever come out of District 12. Stanley Tucci is great as Caesar, the voice of The Hunger Games. He hams it up with his wild blue hair and huge grin but he’s also a bit slimy and disturbing. Elizabeth Banks plays Effie, a Capitol liaison to District 12 and Lenny Kravitz plays a stylist who has the job of making Katniss and Peeta make a good impression. We even get Donald Sutherland delivering his signature overly dramatic but perfectly effective lines as the sinister President Snow. While these supporting performances are quite good, some of the younger actor’s work doesn’t quite measure up.

The story itself captures a lot of what makes for good science fiction. It also does a nice job building up the tension leading up to the start of the games. I also saw myself emotionally caught up in several of the movie’s more heart-felt scenes. The action sequences aren’t as plentiful as some have advertised and the violence is strategically edited to ensure the PG-13 rating. But I did find watching teenagers hack each other up, some with pretty flippant attitudes, to be a bit uncomfortable. I also felt the tributes (the Hunger Games participants) to be inconsistently written. Several are introduced in a way that makes you think they are significant but they meet their demise in fairly meaningless fashion. Better writing could have made the tributes (aside from a small handful) feel more important therefore giving the games themselves a lot more weight.

There were also a few head-scratching moments in the story. Throughout the preparation leading up to the games, everything seemed to focus on making a good impression in order to gain sponsors needed for survival. The wardrobes, the introductions, the interviews – everything was for the purpose of sponsors. But during the games, sponsorship didn’t have much of an impact at all which made all the posturing seem pointless. I also couldn’t help but wonder what a society would find entertaining about kids having a survival fight to the death. Look, I understand that they were sick and morally bankrupt people. But a 12-year old little girl in a competition to the death shouldn’t be that interesting even to the most twisted and perverse individuals.

But even with a story’s occasional clunkiness, there’s something that drew me into the world of “The Hunger Games”. From the very start, I found the film created a futuristic society and sociopolitical environment that was surprisingly realistic even though it’s science fiction. I also felt the film’s fluid pacing helped create several moments of genuine tension that had me on the proverbial edge of my seat. There are also several heart-wrenching and emotional scenes that never felt fake or manufactured. And while the ending was a little underwhelming, it puts in place several intriguing possibilities for the next film. “The Hunger Games” is a movie that could have been better with a little more polished and thought-out script. But it’s also a film that puts together a disturbing yet enthralling world that I was totally caught up in. Combine that with an amazing performance from Jennifer Lawrence and some strong supporting work and you have the groundwork for a very satisfying franchise. May the odds ever be in our favor as this series moves forward.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

“JOHN CARTER” – 4 STARS

After seeing the mixed reviews for Disney’s $250 million “John Carter”, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s the kind of movie that you automatically expect to receive some unfavorable reviews. It’s a large-scaled science fiction epic and they simply don’t appeal to a certain group of people. I’m a pretty big sci-fi fan but even I had concerns going in to “John Carter”. Being someone completely unfamiliar with the source material, could the movie pull me into its enormous, sprawling world? Could Taylor Kitsch headline such a huge, ambitious project? Let me just say I was thoroughly drawn in right from the start of the film and Kitsch, while certainly not profound, does enough to get the job done.

“John Carter” is based on of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel “A Princess of Mars”, the first book of the 11-volume “Barsoom” series. The movie starts with Edgar Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) arriving in Richmond, Virginia after inheriting the estate of his recently deceased uncle, John Carter (Kitsch). Edgar hasn’t seen his uncle in years but he’s always cherished the wonderful stories he used to tell. Edgar is given a private journal that John Carter said was to only be read by his nephew. It’s through Edgar’s reading of the journal that we’re whisked away on the interplanetary journey that makes up the majority of the story.

In the journal John Carter writes of his time prospecting for gold in the Arizona Territory after the Civil War. He’s taken into custody by a U.S. Calvary officer (Bryan Cranston) who wants to recruit him to join their fight against the Apache. Carter finds himself caught in the middle of a shootout between the Calvary and the Apache. He takes shelter in a cave where he finds not only gold but a mysterious medallion that ends up transporting him to what he later finds out to be Mars. He quickly finds that the planet is inhabited by a race of four-armed aliens called Tharks. Their leader, Tars Tarkas (Willem DaFoe) takes a liking to him and is especially intrigued by Carter’s newfound gravity-manipulating leaping abilities. We also learn that two humanoid cities, Helium and Zodanga, are at war with each other. At the center of the conflict is the beautiful Princess Dejah (Lynn Collins). Her father and Helium leader (Ciaran Hinds) is pressured into giving his daughter in marriage to an evil Zodanga general (Dominic West) in hopes that it will bring peace between the two groups. Dejah wants no part of it and of course John Carter finds himself right in the middle of it.

The movie puts together a solid supporting cast of quality actors. In addition to DaFoe, Hinds, West, and Cranston we also get Mark Strong  as the leader of the god-like Holy Therns, a sinister group of shape-shifting eternals who have been manipulating historical events on several planets. Strong is good here and he adds yet another solid “bad guy” performance to his resume. Thomas Haden Church has a lot of fun playing an evil Thark who desperately wants to overthrow Tarkas and gain power over the Alien tribe. But the main focus is on Taylor Kitsch. The first thing you notice is that he has all the physical attributes needed to play John Carter. He’s quite believable and he certainly knows how to handle a sword. The one thing I noticed is that he didn’t have a very wide range of emotions. The character is intended to be cold and reserved. But there are scenes that call for more emotion and Kitsch doesn’t add much to them. He’s not bad, but he doesn’t have a lot of charisma. I did buy into the chemistry between him and the lovely Lynn Collins. While her character is given a few pretty cheesy lines, she’s still pretty good and she shares some really fun scenes with Kitsch.

While Kitsch may not necessarily stand out, the special effects certainly do. “John Carter’s” assortment of creatures look impressive and its alien technologies are a cool cross between futuristic and archaic. I was blown away by the detailed structure of the solar-powered air ships. I also really liked the CGI design of the Thark creatures. Director and co-writer Andrew Stanton, better known for his work at Pixar Animation, creates a planet that’s full of life yet that looks barren and on the verge of death. And while the landscapes do look fitting, they resemble an Arizona desert far more than what you would expect Mars, The Red Planet, to look like.

Stanton’s Mars is also a place of a strained but structured social order. There are a lot of politics at work between the two humanoid cities and we even get a bit of rather corny social commentary along the way. Mars also has its system of theology that ends up helping Carter and Dejah along the way but I would be lying if I said I understood exactly how. But together, the politics and theology of the planet do make it more than just a wasteland full of monsters and little green men. It makes it’s inhabitation feel more structured and complex and I actually bought into it (with a slight bit of suspension of disbelief).

“John Carter” is the first big blockbuster of 2011 and it’s already been viewed as a “flop”. It’s mediocre opening weekend at the box office did little to cover the film’s $250 million price tag. But I have to say that I had a lot of fun with the film. I enjoy good science fiction and I feel this qualifies. “John Carter” isn’t without its faults but it overcomes them by creating a huge new world that I had never experienced. I’ve never read Wright’s books but I think I could, and I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing “John Carter” become the full trilogy it was intended to be. I’m certainly not calling this the best movie of the year. But I’m also not calling it the terrible movie that some are. For me it was a creative and entertaining motion picture experience – the type of thing that makes the movies fun.