‘Looper’ – From the Director of ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’

Looper movie poster

Rian Johnson’s “Looper” is an ingenious movie which combines the genres of noir, science-fiction and western into a mind twister of a film which will have you enthralled throughout. It reminds you of all those time travels movies you grew up watching, and yet it feels very original when compared to them. It also proves Johnson is a creative filmmaking force to reckon with, and it gives each cast member an opportunity to give their best performance in any film they appeared in during 2012.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe Simmons, an assassin in the year 2044 who works for the mafia and kills agents sent back from the year 2072. In this future, time travel is possible and also illegal, and the mob takes advantage of it to get rid of their garbage. The movie’s title refers to the kind of assassin Joe is, a foot soldier who is paid on the condition their targets never escape. They are given a shotgun called a Blunderbuss which doesn’t have much of a range but it is powerful enough to kill a person up close. When “Looper” starts, Joe looks to have been doing this for a while and has been living the good life as a result.

Things, however, change drastically when the mob decides to “close the loop” by sending back the Loopers’ future versions of themselves to eliminate. Joe ends up coming into contact with an older version of himself (played by Bruce Willis), and the old Joe escapes before young Joe can get him in his sights. From there, the young Joe is on the run as he has searches for his older self in order to get the mob off his back and live to see another day, so to speak.

To say more will spoil some of “Looper’s” most inventive moments as it is full of surprises you don’t see coming. The story looks to have been very well thought out, and its focus is more on the characters than anything else. Also, it creates a future which looks futuristic and yet not far removed from our present. Some movies can alienate you with their overreliance on special effects, but “Looper” isn’t out to blow you away visually. Instead, it finds its most potent moments involving the insane situations Levitt and Willis find themselves in.

Seeing Levitt and Willis face off in a diner gives us one of the most riveting scenes in any movie released in 2012. Considering how brutal they are to each other throughout “Looper,” I couldn’t help but think: talk about being hard on yourself!

Time travel as a concept has been done to death in movies, and Johnson is fully aware of how familiar audiences are of the rules surrounding it. I loved how he used this familiarity to his advantage here as it makes “Looper” easier to follow than it might seem at first. Johnson also succeeds in juggling different storylines to great effect as things could have burned out creatively speaking before the end credits came up. You go into “Looper” thinking it’s about time travel, but then it becomes about something else entirely. It is a film which demands to be seen multiple times for you to take in all its meanings.

Levitt had a fantastic year so far in 2012 with terrific performances in “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Premium Rush” and “Lincoln,” but “Looper” was truly the icing on the cake for him. As the young Joe Simmons, he gets one of his meatiest roles ever as an assassin who’s a drug addict (what’s in those eye drops anyway?), but who still has a conscience even after all the damage he has done to himself and others. While the prosthetics on his face, which were used to make him look more Willis, are a bit awkward to take in at first, Levitt gives the role his all and looks thrilled to able to transform himself into a character like this.

So much has been said about Bruce Willis over the years as his role as John McClane from “Die Hard” will forever be burned into our consciousness, but seeing him as old Joe in “Looper” reminds us of what a great actor he can be. His Joe is driven to correct the past so he can save the future he has built up for himself, but it also forces him to do things which leave him morally conflicted. Seeing the pain which crosses Willis’ face makes us root for him somewhat in “Looper” even as his character goes seriously astray with his deadly actions.

Then there’s Emily Blunt who plays hard bitten single mom Sara, and she is an incredibly powerful even when she is not wielding a heavy-duty shotgun. Blunt has been a continually wonderful presence in each movie she’s appeared in, and here she gets to be both bad-ass and very vulnerable. Her scenes with Pierce Gagnon, the 5-year old actor who is amazing as her son Cid, are as emotionally powerful as they are deeply suspenseful.

There are also other terrific performances to be found in “Looper” from actors like Paul Dano who plays the neurotic assassin Seth, and Noah Segan who channels Billy the Kid into his role of a six-shooter carrying killer named Kid Blue. And there’s no forgetting the great Jeff Daniels who brings both danger and humor to his role of mob boss Abe. Some are surprised to see Daniels in this kind of role given how he has been typically cast as nice guys in movies, but keep in mind, this is the same guy who played the most embittered of writers in “The Squid and The Whale.”

It’s a treat for moviegoers that a film as endlessly inventive as “Looper” got produced in a time where creativity was at a cinematic low. Everyone involved in this picture clearly came to it with tremendous enthusiasm, and it shows in every single second which unfolds before us. It is not only one of the best movies of 2012, but also one of the best time travel movies ever made. And watching it again makes me all the more excited for Johnson’s biggest movie yet, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

* * * * out of * * * *

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‘The Dark Knight Rises’ Caps Off a Perfect Batman Trilogy

The Dark Knight Rises poster

With “The Dark Knight Rises,” filmmaker Christopher Nolan has completed one of the greatest trilogies in cinematic history. It is a thrilling spectacle with tremendous emotional power, and I came out of it not just fulfilled, but quite shaken. Regardless of whatever plot holes this movie may have, or if it has one too many characters to deal with, it is still as brilliant as its predecessors.

Now I’ll give you more or less a brief outline of “The Dark Knight Rises” without giving away major plot points. I know you all have been seriously pissed about reviewers ruining this movie for you like Homer Simpson ruined “The Empire Strikes Back” for a crowd waiting to see it outside a Springfield movie theater on “The Simpsons,” and I wouldn’t dare to do the same thing here.

Eight years have passed since Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) took the fall for Harvey Dent’s death in order to hide the murders he committed and let him remain a hero in the eyes of Gotham’s citizens. Since then, Gotham has entered a time of peace and prosperity, all of which is based on a lie. Enter Bane (Tom Hardy), a brutal and methodical terrorist who plans to reduce Gotham to ashes slowly but surely. This brings Batman out of hiding, but he also has to deal with cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) who catches him off guard, a beautiful corporate executive named Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), and the idealistic young cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) whose “hot head” ways make him much smarter than his fellow officers. So that’s it for the movie’s story.

Actually, to go into full detail over the plot of “The Dark Knight Rises” would take forever as it goes in various directions to where seeing it once is not enough to take everything in. Nolan has said part of his inspiration for this film was Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” which is known for this famous quote:

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”

Now while this quote is never spoken in “The Dark Knight Rises,” it never needs to be. Nolan is fascinated with how the lie over Dent’s death has helped Gotham while at the same time turned it into a prison state where freedoms are eroded. It also parallels current events in the real world by taking into account the continuing gap between the rich and the poor and how people will go out of their way to manipulate the collective anger regarding it. This movie is a huge action spectacle, but it has a lot of things to say about the world we live in today which makes it all the more powerful.

Many have been calling this the “darkest” Batman movie of them all, as if the two which came before it were a sunny paradise in the realm of “Batman & Robin” (they most certainly were not). But while “The Dark Knight Rises” is indeed a dark vision of a city under siege, it also has a strong ray of hope emanating from it. Bruce Wayne has always wanted to hold Batman up as a symbol to inspire people, and you revel in seeing the impact he has on the characters around him.

People have also been saying Nolan has put far too many characters into this movie. Newsflash, Nolan has done this with each of his “Batman” movies, but what truly amazes me is how he has gotten away with doing so each time. Every single character in “The Dark Knight Rises,” from Matthew Modine’s bone-headed Deputy Commissioner Peter Foley to Ben Mendelsohn’s greedy businessman John Daggett, informs the movie’s main characters and overall themes throughout. Not a single one of them feels extraneous to the plot as each illustrates examples of justice and personal responsibility, and of how easily misconstrued they can end up being.

Christian Bale completes his tour of duty as Batman with a deeply felt performance. In many ways, “The Dark Knight Rises” is more about the rise of Bruce Wayne than anything else as he is forced to deal with who he is than what his alter ego can do. While Spider-Man and Superman are endowed with super powers, this movie renders him all the more vulnerably human as he starts off walking with a cane and dealing with injuries not easily healed. It’s those human flaws, however, which make Bale’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne all the more powerful and enthralling.

With Bane, Nolan has fashioned a villain far different from Heath Ledger’s Joker which was a smart move. While the Joker was far more desirous of watching the world burn, Bane simply wants it to suffer right down to its dying breath. With Tom Hardy, Nolan has found the perfect actor to portray Bane as he brings to life the character’s twisted code of ethics and his utter brutality which allows him to batter his helpless opponents with sheer efficiency. Thanks to Hardy, Bane proves to be Batman’s most formidable foe yet.

As for Anne Hathaway, she is excellent as the character known as Catwoman but who is never actually called Catwoman in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Her portrayal of Selina Kyle never invites easy comparison with the actresses who played her in the past as her version exists in the world of realism created by Nolan. Hathaway succeeds in giving this movie the feeling of exuberance and fun it needs from time to time, and she more than holds her own against Bale and Hardy. But then again, this should be no surprise to those who remember her Oscar nominated performance in “Rachel Getting Married.”

And, of course, you have the usual cast of supporting characters played by Sir Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman. All of them are fantastic as always, and they give this movie the emotional heft it calls for throughout. We also get a great bunch of franchise newcomers like Joseph Gordon-Levitt who is sensational as the intelligent John Blake, and Marion Cotillard who radiates both beauty and mystery as Miranda Tate.

Technically, “The Dark Knight Rises” looks flawless with cinematographer Wally Pfister capturing the dark corruption consuming the citizens of Gotham which they are forced and inspired to rise out of. And with Hans Zimmer, minus James Newton Howard this time around, we get another rousing and thrilling music score which keeps our adrenaline pumping along with movie’s thrilling action set pieces.

Yes, the movie has some plot holes which I’m sure you will discover for yourself. None of them, however, were enough to derail my enjoyment of this awesome spectacle Nolan and company have put together. I’m not sure where I would rate this in the series, but while it doesn’t best “The Dark Knight,” it still comes very close to doing so and continues Nolan’s reign one of the best movie directors working today. I don’t think I am overreacting in the least when I declare “The Dark Knight Rises” to be a brilliant motion picture.

Oh yes, some will say that the movie’s final scenes seem to spell out a potential new direction for this franchise to take as if it were a set up for a sequel. I’d like to think it speaks to the influence Batman hoped to have on the citizens of Gotham, to inspire them to do good. Thanks to Nolan, Batman is a hero we can appreciate and applaud.

* * * * out of * * * * 

‘Inception’ May Be the End All of Mind-Bending Motion Pictures

Inception movie poster

“What the hell are dreams anyway?”

“Mysteries, incredible body hocus pocus; the truth is we still don’t know what they are or where they come from.”

                                        -from “A Nightmare On Elm Street” (the original)

 

“I can make you mine, taste your lips of wineAnytime night or day

Anytime night or day

Only trouble is, gee whiz

I’m dreamin’ my life away”

                                    -from “All I Have To Do Is Dream” by the Everly Brothers

 

“It’s too bad that all these things

Can only happen in my dreams”

                                                -from “In Dreams” by Roy Orbison

 

My reaction upon seeing “Inception” was pretty much the same one I had after I saw Christopher Nolan’s last movie “The Dark Knight:” BRILLIANT!!! In a summer movie season which has been largely bland and seriously lacking in excitement, Nolan once again stimulates the imagination by giving us a very well thought out story with complex characters. This is all in addition to the slam bang entertainment we expect from a summer blockbuster, and Nolan delivers on both fronts. Seriously, this movie feels like a godsend in a time where studio executives are way too risk adverse. Even if “Inception” borrows from movies like “Blade Runner” and “The Matrix,” Nolan still makes it all his own. I’ve already seen “Inception” twice in one week, and there is just as much to discover about it the second time around as much as the first.

Nolan has actually been working on this screenplay for over a decade, and it is an intricate puzzle of a flick which might seem difficult to follow, but not really. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Dominic Cobb, a highly experienced dream infiltrator who works at extracting precious information from his targets. Basically, he steals ideas from his clients before they even realize it, and they are very valuable ideas which will put him and his crew on easy street for a time. Working with him is his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) whose job is to research the clients’ history and see if they have any mental defenses built up which could hinder their mission. As we first see them in “Inception,” they have seemingly failed a mission, but they soon find out it was actually an audition.

Their target, Saito (Ken Watanabe), a wealthy businessman, offers a job which will have them doing the opposite of their job description. This brings us to the movie’s title which means planting an idea in the mind of their target’s subconscious. Although thought to be impossible, Cobb says it can be done because he has succeeded in doing it before. “Inception” then takes Cobb and his team on an adventure which will go into a dream, and then into another dream within that dream. Just when you think they couldn’t go any deeper, they do. It sounds confusing, but it was easier to follow than I thought. You want a tough movie to follow? Check out the first “Mission Impossible” movie which Brian DePalma directed. I still can’t figure out what it was about after all these years (the stunts were cool though).

The concept of entering a person’s dream is fascinating because it gives the story infinite possibilities to explore, and all sorts of directions to take it in. Dreams themselves still fascinate us as we still have no clear idea what generates them. They can be very unpredictable and go from one place to another before we know it. Dreams could be our subconscious minds trying unburden itself of all the baggage we bury down into its recesses in the hopes of forgetting the most painful things in life. Looking back at the dreams I have had which have stayed with me, be it good or bad, they continually astonish me with their vividness and how our brains and imaginations can conjure up such amazing images as we slumber away in beds which are hopefully kind to your back. You’d think after all these years we would be able to be consciously aware of when we are in a dream and control it to our advantage, but no such luck. When you’re deep into one, the difference between what is real and what is not becomes irrelevant.

That’s the other thing I loved about “Inception;” you are always questioning whether you’re in a dream or wide awake. Even if you already know how the movie ends, it couldn’t possibly spoil the experience for you when you witness it. As in “Total Recall,” reality is always in question and open to interpretation, and it’s unlikely everyone will come to the same conclusion. I was also reminded of David Cronenberg’s “eXistenZ” which ended on a note of sheer ambiguity as the line between what’s real and what is not becomes permanently blurred. “Inception” all but starts out this way, and the theories behind the action and what’s really going on continue to abound. How cool it is to have a movie of this size and scope which really gets you to think!

For a moment, I thought DiCaprio was going to portray the same character he played in Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” Teddy Williams. Both characters have inescapable similarities; they are tortured by memories and actions they cannot repair, they are married to beautiful women whose current state of mind is in question, and they are both really moody guys who are not a barrel of laughs to be around. Oh yeah, both are also struggling with the reality of everything happening around them. I guess what Cobb has over Teddy is his grip on reality is much firmer, but even Cobb’s sanity comes into question throughout “Inception.”

DiCaprio continues to prove he is not only one of the very best actors working, but also one of the few stars who genuinely take risks. Not content with being forever imprisoned as a movie star, he nails the complexities of Cobb to where we see the various dimensions of his character. In essence, Cobb is a thief after the big score, and he shuts himself off to other people. But DiCaprio really gets at what is beneath his character’s guilt and shame, and he makes us want to join him in his dream exploits. For him, it is never about just making the character a likable one.

It’s also great to see Levitt here as well. Having been the indie darling for a few years, turning in one great performance after another, and he more than holds his own here. When everyone else is in a state of uncontrollable panic, Arthur always keeps his focus clear which allows him to stay on top of things. His method of preparing his team members for “the kick” in one dream is ingenious. Watching Levitt here almost makes me forget he was on “3rd Rock from The Sun” all those years ago.

Then you have the beautiful Marion Cotillard, plays Cobb’s late wife, Mal. While Mal may be short for Mallorie, in Latin it means “evil,” and she exists only within Cobb’s dreamscape as he has buried her deep in his memories. However, his control over her continues to erode as Mal continues to intrude in different dreams he has as she gets the upper hand and continually threatens to ruin anything and everything. Cotillard plays Mal with a cold detachment as well as a deeply wounded person who feels betrayed by her husband. As the movie goes on, you begin to wonder if she is truly dead or alive.

At first, having Ellen Page in this movie might seem weird as we all still identify her with her character from “Juno.” It’s been easy to forget what a wide range she can have as an actress, but this is not the case here as she acts as the guide for the audience in the world of dreams. Her character of Ariadne is the architect, the one who constructs the world of the dream which the team will enter into. She also acts as the conscience Cobb needs as he continues to be drawn by Mal into a state of limbo which he may never return from. As a result, Ariadne is the strongest, most objective and levelheaded in the group because she sees what consumes Cobb and how it can endanger everyone. She becomes the voice of reason Cobb must listen to if he hopes not to drown in his own guilt. It feels like it has been too long since I have seen Page in anything, and she once again proves to be another fantastic actress of her generation.

Tom Hardy, who plays the forger Eames, is fun to watch here as he approaches the role with a touch of irresistible sarcasm as he gleefully plays around with the other team members and their self-consuming seriousness. Eames gets an especially big kick in getting a rise out of Arthur who takes his work perhaps more seriously than most. Throughout the movie, Hardy’s presence proves to be one of the film’s most entertaining, and his star continues to rise.

Nolan also brings some of his “Dark Knight” cast members along for the dream ride including Sir Michael Caine and Cillian Murphy. Both are terrific in any role given to them, and the performances they both give in “Inception” are no exception. Another supporting actor worth noting here is Dileep Rao who plays Yusuf, the chemist who formulates the sedatives which put the group and the target under so they can complete their mission. I think he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with all the other actors whose names appear on the posters.

But the big surprise in “Inception” is the appearance of Tom Berenger, a well-known actor who has for far too long been relegated to the realm of straight to DVD movies. It’s so nice to see him here in something other than a “Sniper” sequel (how many have there been anyway?), and he hasn’t missed a step as an actor after all these years.

With movies like “Inception,” we have come to expect directors will spend more time on the visual element to where they inadvertently forget the other important ones like dialogue and acting. Having made several movies already, Nolan proves to be one of the best directors working today as he handles each part of a movie with the same amount of attention, something increasingly rare among filmmakers.

Nolan fills the movies with such inventive images as Arthur fights off armed men while the dream he is in is thrown out of balance as it spins him from the floor to the ceiling. Levitt really sells the scene by showing his character struggling to maintain control as he is forced to crawl over the place when gravity no longer works in his favor. Then there is the final scene, which I won’t dare to give away, but taking in the audience’s strong reaction showed just how successful Nolan was in holding us firmly within his grasp. I loved the inescapable ambiguity of the film’s conclusion and how it drove some audience members crazy.

Plus, Nolan once again employs Hans Zimmer to do the score, and what he brings us is not another rehash of the Caped Crusader’s music. Zimmer gives a strong score dominated by electronics, drums, and brass instruments which are primed to blow out the speakers at a theater near you. Capturing the scope of the visuals in Inception which are quite immense, Zimmer once again gives great power to Nolan’s amazing concepts which Warner Brothers was smart enough to let the director run wild with instead of just containing his imagination in fear of releasing something which might seem “uncommercial.”

In a sea of endless remakes, questionable reboots, and half-assed concepts which somehow got a green light from studio executives, “Inception” is a rare breed of film which is as thought provoking as it is entertaining. It also makes clear Nolan is a genius filmmaker who has set the bar high for summer tent pole movies just like he did with “The Dark Knight.”

* * * * out of * * * *

Lincoln

lincoln-movie-poster

The one thing which always drove me nuts in history class as a kid was how the teachers and the books we read made the past seem so much better than our present. We were taught about how Presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were such great leaders who helped make America the country it is today, and in the process, they were turned into mythological characters to where we forgot they were human beings like the rest of us. Juxtaposing this with the politics of America back when Ronald Reagan was President, it looked like we could do nothing but complain about the state of the world. It made me wonder what we did as Americans which made us seem so ungrateful for what our forefathers brought about.

This is why I’m thankful for movies like Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” which helps to humanize those historical figures we learned about in class. In this case, the historical figure is Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States. The film focuses on the last four months of his Presidency when the Civil War was raging on and was insistent on getting the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, passed in the House of Representatives. It presents this President, one of the greatest America has ever known, as a flesh and blood human being endowed with strengths and flaws which will make you admire him more than ever before.

Much of the accomplishment in making President Lincoln so vividly human here is the result of another unsurprisingly brilliant performance from the great Daniel Day Lewis. Known for his intense method acting and laser sharp focus in preparing for each role he does, he brings his own touches to a man so defined by his historical deeds, and he succeeds in making this character his own during the movie’s two and a half hour running time.

“Lincoln” also shows how the world of politics has always been a cutthroat place to be in. The Republican and Democratic parties were much different than from what they are today, but during the 1800’s getting certain amendments passed involved a lot of tricks which were not always highly regarded. Even Lincoln wasn’t above hiring three politicians, played by Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes and James Spader, to lobby members of the House to vote in favor of passing the Thirteenth Amendment. But what made this President’s actions especially courageous was how he wasn’t just thinking about solving the country’s problems but of the effects this particular amendment would have on generations to come.

“Lincoln” also delves into the President’s personal life which had been fractured by the loss of a child and was also unsteady due to the fiery personality of his wife Mary, played by Sally Field. Watching Field here reminds us of what a remarkable actress she remains after all these years. Field is such a live wire as she struggles to make her husband see the consequences of the actions he is about to take. The actress had signed on to play this role years ago, back when Liam Neeson was set to play Lincoln, and she had to fight to keep it. It’s a good thing Spielberg kept her around because she has always been a tremendous acting talent, and she enthralls us in every scene she appears in.

Like many of Spielberg’s best films, there isn’t a single weak performance to be found in “Lincoln” which boasts quite the cast. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who had a heck of a year in 2012 with “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Looper” and “Premium Rush,” is excellent as Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert, who considers quitting school to join the army and fight for his country. David Strathairn is a wonderfully strong presence as Secretary of State William Seward, the great Hal Holbrook is unforgettable as the influential politician Francis Preston Blair, Gloria Reuben is very moving in her performance as former slave Elizabeth Keckley, and Jackie Earle Haley has some strong moments as the Confederate States Vice President Alexander H. Stephens.

But the one great performance which needs to be singled out in “Lincoln,” other than the ones given by Lewis or Field, is Tommy Lee Jones’ who portrays the Radical Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens. Jones is a powerhouse throughout as he empowers this fervent abolitionist with a passion as undeniable as it is undying, and seeing him reduce other congressional members to jelly is a thrill to witness. Jones is tremendous as we see him fight for what he feels is right regardless of how he goes about achieving it.

Spielberg employs his usual band of collaborators here like producer Kathleen Kennedy, director of photography Janusz Kamiński, editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams to create a movie which captures the importance of Lincoln’s place in history while also making it intimate in a way we don’t expect it to be. He also benefits from having the great playwright Tony Kushner on board as the movie’s screenwriter. Kushner’s knowledge of history has never been in doubt ever since we witnessed his magnum opus of “Angels in America,” and word is he spent six years working on the script for “Lincoln.” His efforts do show as he gives us a riveting portrait of a divided nation on the verge of making a major change, and even back then America was resistant and deeply frightened to making certain changes regardless of whether or not it would benefit from them.

Granted, Lincoln’s life would probably be better explored in a miniseries as there is so much to explore, and this movie can explore only so much of it. Regardless, “Lincoln” is an invigorating portrait of a great American President who fought for the benefit of his country’s future. The sacrifices he made tragically cut his life short, but his legacy will never ever die as Spielberg’s film rightly proves.

* * * * out of * * * *