Sunday, September 30, 2012

LOOPER Screws With Your Mind Just Enough

LOOPER - (dir. Rian Johnson, 2012)

“Looper” makes you feel smarter than everyone in the room just for describing it accurately, until you realize they could all figure it out too. Here is an exceedingly complicated movie presented in an exceedingly straightforward way, with linear lines drawn from point A to point B, characters whose motivations are clear, and an emotional through-line that feels forged organically – not just because it’s in the screenwriting manual.

That we understand why everyone is firing their guns in the finale is impressive. That we actually care about who stands on the receiving end is a minor miracle.

Most time travel movies poke fun at the paradoxes inherent in the system, gleefully toying with the impossibilities that come standard with these stories (remember Doc Brown literally tracing the story of “Back To The Future II” on a chalk board?). Here, director Rian Johnson (“Brick”) simply embraces the paradoxes with a straight face and moves on.

That’s not to say those paradoxes don’t exist here too. But Johnson has a story to tell, knows how to tell it, and it just happens to involve time travel. He allows us to feel invested in the story itself, not bogged down by the logic.

Sporting an appropriate amount of frown line make-up, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a “looper” in 2042 Kansas. Time travel will be invented some way down the future and immediately outlawed, leaving professional crime syndicates to use it for easy murders. A person in the future is bound and gagged, sent 30 years to the past, immediately shot dead by a looper and disposed of. No body, no trace.

It seems like an easy job if you know how to report it on your income taxes. The one catch of being a looper is you will eventually have to “close your loop.” Meaning that when your boss in the future decides you’re no longer necessary, your own older self is sent back for you to do in. When this happens to Levitt in the form of Bruce Willis, Willis escapes, and Levitt must decide whether or not killing him is even necessary.

Portraying this sorta distant future, Johnson pulls off the mean feat of making it feel like an authentic, lived-in world. Easy enough (if you can imagine it) to throw flying cars and orgasm booths on screen if your goal is a cheap wow. “Looper” goes the route of Spielberg and “Minority Report” instead, starting with the world as we know it and building from there. Maybe it’s the product of a visionary. Maybe the product of a low budget with no room for special effects. Either way, it works.

What if I meet my future self? How will altering my past affect my future? Is fate on a straight line, or can it be diverted? Such are the questions raised by “Looper,” and such are par for the course with hard sci-fi. Anyone who even uses the phrase “hard sci-fi” could bang out a screenplay with the same basic concepts just as easily.

But the devil is in the details, and it’s in the details that “Looper” roasts other movies that get near it. Most sci-fi movies would be content to use these questions as the excuse for action and let its coolness remain conceptual – it sounds really wild only when you describe the idea, not the execution. 

Johnson uses these questions as the CATALYST for action, not the excuse, of which there is a huge difference. Shoot-outs and chases in “Looper” don’t happen just because they’re supposed to in this kind of stuff. They happen because they evolve from the scene before, which evolved from the scene before, and so on. And in the meantime, he gives the characters room to breathe and talk to each other, and he trusts the audience to decide how we feel about this.

Key to this success are the performances of Levitt and Willis. Technically they’re the same person and indeed carry some of the same physical traits (a scene in a diner, one of the few that seems to poke fun of time travel paradoxes, highlights this). Surprising, though, that not only do we feel for them, but we do it for entirely different reasons. Both actors do exemplary jobs at playing a character at two very different points in his life, with complex emotions that make it difficult to know entirely who to root for when their guns are drawn at each other.

In a genre especially that is reliant on Big Twists to shake what we thought the movie was about, “Looper” plays its finale shockingly, almost touchingly, straightforward. It’s easy to script an ending born out of plot. That’s just things happening. Much harder to make it born out of character. That requires nuance, depth, motivation, and empathy. 

When the final events of “Looper arrive exactly as expected, it’s so much more satisfying than plot twists because it feels earned.

“Looper” on the whole is charmingly old-fashioned in its approach – tell a good story, tell it well, and stay the hell out of the way. This isn’t groundbreaking sci-fi. It won’t rattle the landscapes. What it is is a still-bolder-than-usual tale that actually gives a damn about things.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Charming, And Better Than The Blank Screen

(dir. Robert Lorenz, 2012)

“Trouble With The Curve” might not add up to much more than the sum of its parts, but to enjoy it, you don’t exactly need to be smart enough to understand math anyway.

It’s a sports movie. And it’s predictable. But you know what other sports movies are predictable? Almost EVERY OTHER SPORTS MOVIE. Who cares? When it works, it works. And when your movie is anchored by a performance as undeservedly committed as Clint Eastwood’s, forgiveness is doted out in easy supply.

Eastwood, acting for another director for the first time since 1993’s “In The Line Of Fire,” turns in one of those roles where his grunting practically functions as a line of dialogue when you can feel the screenwriter hit a wall. As Gus, he is an aging talent scout for the Atlanta Braves who isn’t ready to admit that his increasingly poor eyes are being replaced by computer systems (here is a movie where a character referring to the “interwebs” doesn’t just feel like a cheap joke).

His daughter Mickey (Amy Adams), worried about her father’s health, accompanies him on a scouting mission to spot a hot young high school player in Asheville, despite a major case looming ahead in her law firm. In the meantime, she falls for Justin Timberlake, as a former Red Sox pitcher, now a talent scout himself, nursing the wounds of his lost career. And John Goodman shows up too, because who’s gonna say no if he does.

You ask, will Eastwood’s old school scouting methods beat modern computer programs? Will Timberlake and Adams prove a perfect match? Will the nice baseball players triumph while the mean ones get cast aside?

It’s cute that you use so many question marks. Every plot point is telegraphed a mile away (spoiler: It’s no accident the poor kid selling peanuts can throw a bag really hard). Once you realize the movie will massage every desire for comeuppance and victory you have, it’s just a matter of settling into the groove and waiting for those resolutions to arrive. 

Seeing “Trouble With The Curve” with a packed audience the day after seeing “The Master” with a crowd of 10 or so at a press screening, I’m reminded of the importance of Roger Ebert’s fundamental law: “A movie is not what it’s about, but how it’s about it.” Would I have seen this movie in a similar private setting, I almost definitely would have felt lukewarm. Its predictability becoming more blatant. Its mawkishness more skin crawling. Its multiple happy endings more shameless.

Those are simply the ingredients, and they have been described appropriately. There’s also a word to describe its methods, though, and that word is “warm.” Just because a movie doesn’t appeal to me directly doesn’t mean it automatically loses value when it connects to the rest of that packed crowd so thoroughly.
What this movie brings to the table, largely thanks to the performance of Eastwood, is credibility. It means what it says. 

There’s an early scene when Eastwood visits the grave of his wife, pours her half a beer, and starts reciting the lyrics to “You Are My Sunshine.” Sounds silly on paper, and indeed, you can feel yourself twitching to hold back chuckles when it starts. “Trouble With The Curve” does not share our appreciation for irony. And by the end of the scene, Eastwood and director Robert Lorenz wear us down, armed with nothing but conviction.

It’s like a goony looking date you agree to see a second or third or seventh time because he’s persistent. You could do worse.

Movies like this won’t last until next year. Hell, it won’t last until next month. If you’d rather see “The Master” this weekend, go ahead. You’re almost definitely right. Honest, old fashioned sincerity means something too, though. “Trouble With The Curve” might not be selling anything of much importance, but it sells it better than it has any right to.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Frustratingly fascinating or fascinatingly frustrating. Definitely one of those.

(dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)

Here is an opaque movie shot with such authority of purpose that it practically dares you to dislike it. "The Master," Paul Thomas Anderson's latest, is indefinable to the point of maddening, cold to the point of numbing. It's also exquisitely framed, precisely written, and containing depths which render a first viewing practically superfluous. 

Maybe it's a masterpiece. Maybe it's hogwash. It might be nothing, but it's definitely something.

What Anderson accomplishes, and what will prove to be the movie's downfall to some, is create a central character who remains perpetually out of reach, then cleverly structure the movie to mirror him exactly. A rare feat for a movie to be genuinely smart. Rarer still to be smart in the exact same way its star is. "The Master" isn't content to show us its lead - we have to KNOW how it feels to be near him.

And believe me. You can feel it. Languidly paced to make "There Will Be Blood" feel like "Run Lola Run," Anderson cashes in almost all of his artistic capital earned with "Blood" and "Boogie Nights," asking us to trust that he's taking us somewhere as he skirts along a threadbare narrative. Finally playing actual characters again after his descent in "I'm Still Here," Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie Quell, a seaman who returns from WWII to a country that essentially discards him, bouncing around from job to job, without any knowledge of where he'll end up or a desire to even make it there. 

Through sheer chance, he stumbles onto the boat of Lancaster Dodd (always reliable Philip Seymour Hoffman), charismatic leader of a new belief system called The Cause. Freddie becomes Dodd's right hand man, and through his eyes, we must decide if Dodd truly believes what he's coughing up, or if he's stringing everybody along as pawns.

Lets get this out of the way now: "The Master" is decidedly NOT the "Scientology movie." It's not the insider's expose on L. Ron Hubbard. Well, OK. Maybe it is. But in the same way that "Prometheus" is an "Alien" prequel. It hits those notes, but the music is something else entirely.

And what is it, exactly? Bear in mind I'm not being entirely rhetorical. Like obvious inspiration Stanley Kubrick, Anderson proves himself to a master at telling us precisely what we need to know and nothing more, then finding artistry in cold, grand gestures. Large chunks of "The Master" consist of nothing more than things happening, followed by other things happening. Freddie lazes on a beach. Works as a department store photographer. Suffers through Dodd's treatment session of touching a wall and window over and over again, forced to describe it differently each time.

That last sequence fittingly sums up "The Master" on the whole. Anderson presents a work that appears entirely superficial, drags us through it repeatedly, and leaves the heavy lifting to us. As moviegoers, we're conditioned to assume that nothing in a movie's final product happens by accident. Everything happens and is shot for a reason. So when confronted with a movie that so defiantly shuns easy explanation, we become desperate. We want an explanation. Any explanation. And what we ultimately arrive at probably says more about us than it does about the movie.

Which is really one of Anderson's greatest triumphs here. "The Master" at its core is really about lost souls in an America growing too big to accommodate them all, turning to the first person whose playbook says "Answers" on the cover, whether there's anything inside or not. It's about how desperation makes blind submission seem satisfying, and how those leaders are just as clueless as the rest, except their id is fed by loyal subjects, not commands. And just as Anderson structures his movie to intellectually resemble Dodd, he allows it to emotionally resemble Freddie, putting the audience firmly in his shoes.

We're desperate for easy answers in a movie that provides none.

For a movie of such sweeping statements, Anderson and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. shoot in luxurious 65mm film, the stock of such classic epics as "Lawrence Of Arabia" and "Patton," reportedly even using the same camera as "2001: A Space Odyssey" for select scenes. Predictably doing figure eights when he should be doing circles, though, Anderson ultimately shoots "The Master" as a startlingly intimate character study. Think you've seen all there is of Joaquin Phoenix's gums and nostrils? Think again.

The film stock of sweeping landscapes, last applied in full to friggin Kenneth Branagh's take on "Hamlet," finds itself reduced to uncomfortably close close-ups in "The Master," allowing for uncommonly rich detail within the frame. It's a jarring effect, narrowing the focus square on these two characters, and raising their inner turmoil to the forefront. If the house lights must go down on celluloid in an increasingly digital world, at least it's granted one hell of an encore.

It takes a true artist to tackle a medium or form which come with rigidly defined purposes, then recraft it to fit his own. And that's precisely what Anderson does. Prepare to feel frustrated. Prepare to feel dumbfounded. Maybe practice looking like you're in deep introspection, but really it's because you can't think of anything to say. "The Master" arrives with its own beats and rhythms, never catering to what you hope.

It also further cements Anderson's growth as a director of intellectual thrills, shaking what we think the movies can and should do.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Buy a ticket to a PG-rated review and sneak into this one

(dir. William Friedkin, 2012)

“Killer Joe” contains one of the most sadistic scenes I’ve seen a mainstream star perform in a movie, and I’ve seen the “Star Wars Holiday Special.”

The film might not reinvent the wheel. Beat by beat, it performs essentially how you expect. But its own existence justifies itself. Offering a sort of “Double Indemnity” for the trailer park set, within it beats the lurid, seedy soul of film noir. A world offering moral depravity without apology, justification, or meaning.

And guiding it all is the performance of Matthew McConaughey, capping off a banner 2012 which saw him drift from the oily lawyer in “Bernie” to the weary-eyed strip club owner of “Magic Mike” to this without missing a beat. As the eponymous Joe, he’s a detective moonlighting as a hitman, brought in to end a redneck Texas mother so her son and ex-husband can collect on the insurance policy.

Suggesting a second career playing heavies might be in the cards, he oozes dread, but keeps it boiling right beneath the surface. How hard must it be for an actor to convincingly play scary? Harder still to do while being the quietest guy in the room. McConaughey here causes you lean forward in your seat simply by stepping onto the screen.

Long relegated to being a movie star in the classic sense, playing variations on what we believe to be himself, he reveals depths here that almost piss you off for not being known earlier. It’s as if Michael Jordan tried playing baseball again, but didn’t suck.

If the movie surrounding him is by the numbers, eh, so what? We also knew things wouldn’t turn out so well for the characters in “Touch Of Evil” or “Detour” either. Noir isn’t about the destination, but it’s barely even about the journey. It’s about the window dressing. The details. The attitude.

That isn’t to say “Killer Joe” is a shrugged case of style of substance. It’s to say the style IS the substance.
What impeccable style it is, too. With director William Friedkin of “The Exorcist” and “The French Connection” and screenwriter Tracy Letts, you feel in the steady hands of people who really really know what they’re doing.

During the movie’s particularly shady scenes of morality, this trust goes a long way. Such as when Joe seduces a preteen girl, sidling near her and choreographing a moment of depraved romance, the movie threatens to fly off the rails by virtue of its own oily residue. Another scene involving fried chicken that no doubt earned the movie its NC-17 rating likely won't see an advertising tie-in with KFC. But Friedkin and Letts keep things grounded.

It never exists for its own sake. It never delves into the giggling world of, “Can you believe what we’re getting away with?” Instead it remains a respectable, “Can you believe what these people are doing?”

Perhaps it might have been a more rousing success if it tore down that distance. As it is, “Killer Joe” remains a perfectly admirable case of seedy characters kept at arms length. Never does it delve into their motivations, and never does it hold us culpable for enjoying their crimes. The great film noirs make us feel like we’re part of the action. If this movie is a circus geek biting the heads off chickens, it’s presented by a barker who clearly never hangs out with him backstage.

As movie crimes go, though, a fairly minor one this is. Even if “Killer Joe” never crosses the realm of “movie you show to your cool friends” into “movie you show everyone,” let us still thank God it did its thing anyway. Having the balls to admit this world of people even exists is a bold move. And to do so without apology is even bolder. Here is a movie that inspires baths.

It’s enough to make you forget that Hazy Davy never shows up.