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Saturday
Oct132012

The Life of Death (2012)

Succumb, All Ye Faithful!

When I was invited to check out WildClaw Theatre's The Life of Death, part of me expected to see a gothic, bloody nightmare full of sex and philosophy-spouting monsters. The play is adapted from a Clive Barker story, after all. A few minutes in, though, I remembered that there are two Clive Barkers in popular culture: one who gave us Hellraiser's pierced, immortal perverts and one who prefers the Lovecraftian slow burn of average people grappling with enormous, ancient, cosmic forces. The Life of Death is mostly the latter, with a smattering (splattering?) of gore to sate those whose favorite holiday is Halloween.

The story opens on Elaine (Casey Cunningham), a young London professional who's in the early stages of recovery from a premature hysterectomy. She's severely depressed by not being able to give her boyfriend Mitch (Adam Soule) a child someday, and bizarre dreams of chanting, shadowy figures make sleep problematic. She skulks about her apartment, her office, and the streets in between, unable to relate to the Christmas cheer filling the air.

Elaine is so consumed by her own problems that she barely notices three major events affecting the community: a centuries-old church is in the process of being demolished, though excavation crews have been unable to pierce what experts believe is a crypt located under its stone floor; a serial killer has been terrorizing the area for weeks--strangling and disposing of bodies, and leaving no clues for the police; and the news has become fascinated with an Australian boater (Ira Amyx) who was rescued after spending an ungodly amount of time stranded at sea (his survival isn't half as interesting as his claims of seeing a man expectantly pacing the top of the boat during his most desperate moments).

Into Elaine's life strolls Kavanagh (Steve Herson), an older gentleman who's fascinated by the church demolition, and who takes a liking to the troubled girl he meets while paying a final visit. He's warm and a bit awkward, and is drawn to the deep loneliness that seems to mirror his own. They begin a friendship that, like all the others in Elaine's life, is put to the test when she is compelled by a dream to break into the crypt late one night. What she discovers beneath the sanctuary brings every recent event--foreground and background--into terrible, revelatory focus.

I won't go further into the plot, as The Life of Death demands a great deal innocence on the part of the viewer. If you're familiar with horror stories from the stage or the screen, it will come as no surprise that Kavanagh is not who he seems to be. But adaptor Charley Sherman and director Carolyn Klein do a tremendous job of keeping the narrative misdirection popping. Engaged audience members tend to treat these kinds of off-beat whodunits like two-hour brain teasers, and the people behind this production manage to stay several steps ahead until almost the very end.

They achieve this through brilliant multimedia distractions that transform the DCASE Storefront Theatre into more than just a stage play venue. The Australian's tale is told via news reports and interview footage played on a gigantic monitor hanging to the right of the stone church vestibule. It towers above a mini-set of Elaine's apartment that's centered around her big, comfy chair. Diagonal to that is an oft-illuminated catwalk that serves as the backdrop for cut-aways to people that Elaine speaks to on the phone. The effect of this crisscrossed arrangement is akin to reading comic book panels, allowing the viewer to zero in on key actions in various places without having to mentally block out the omnipresent church set.

This play is an immersive feat of black magic, thanks largley to the perfect marriage of sound (Christopher Kriz), lighting (Brandon Wardell), and scenery (John Wilson). The creators are in full command of where and how the audience focuses its attention--particularly in the crypt sequence, which caught me completely off guard in a genuine, jaw-dropping moment or terror. It's not so much that Elaine's grisly discovery is so shocking (thanks for the nightmares, Dave Skvarla!) as it is the way in which my eyes were led to it. I didn't think it possible for a live performance to perfectly recreate the editing techniques and camera movements of a great horror movie, but these folks have done so in spades.

Speaking of movies, I'd like to point out a couple of scenes that I still can't stop marveling over. One takes place in Elaine's office, and involves an eerily convincing eight-hour time lapse; the other is set in a dance club where the revellers snap from hard-driving techno grinding to a perfect slow-motion ballet and back again. In both cases, Movement Designer Karen Tarjan and the cast create a puzzling illusion that took me right out of the play--in a good way. I literally couldn't understand how I was seeing what I was seeing. Perhaps this is a function of my newness to these kinds of live performances (I'm mostly a film critic, after all), but I've been searching for this level of innovation and talent at cineplexes for years.

The special effects and staging would be impressive even without a terrific cast; luckily, The Life of Death is a complete entertainment package. Cunningham and Herson make a captivating duo, a sort of gender-reversed Harold and Maude who both harbor damage and dark secrets. The supporting cast are authentically annoying, precisely in the way they were designed to be. A big theme in Barker's work is the soul-dead mediocrity of the people surrounding his protagonists. Here, everyone from Elaine's smarmy ex to her obnoxious best friend Hermione (played with deceptive nuance by Michaela Petro) to her cheery boss (Bryson Engelen) and his ditzy secretary (Mallory Nees) draw a horrifyingly upbeat contrast to our heroine's inner turmoil. Like Mark Renton's detox montage in Trainspotting, we feel Elaine's isolation deeply, especially when she's surrounded by friends.

My one problem with the play comes towards the very end, and is a simple matter of timing. There are perhaps ten minutes between two back-to-back scenes that feel like unnecessary hand-holding. Elaine delivers an extended monologue that is meant to convey her thoughts, but which strays into "Why is she talking to herself so much?" territory. In the next scene, there's a bit of a dance between her and Kavanagh that would have been more suspenseful had the big twist not shown up ahead of schedule. As my friend Graham noted, it's not good when the audience gets ahead of the narrative, and I'd say this is the one instance in which Barker (or perhaps Barker and Sherman) fall behind.

Despite that bump in the road, I highly recommend The Life of Death. It's a good story carried by great themes, greater performances, and a refreshingly imaginative way of engaging an audience. This is Halloween-season entertainment for adults who don't mind a little blood-'n-guts with their gut-wrenching existentialism.

Details: The Life of Death runs Thursdays through Sundays until November 4th at Chicago's DCASE Storefront Theater (66 E. Randolph, Chicago, 60601). Tickets range from $15 to $25, and can be purchased through Brown Paper Tickets.

Note: It wasn't until the morning after I saw The Life of Death that I was able to dislodge a nagging mental splinter: I knew I'd seen Herson in something before, and that I'd really enjoyed that performance, too. It turns out he had a small but very memorable role in one of my favorite films this year, Dead Weight.

Wednesday
Oct102012

Frankenweenie (2012)

Slop Motion

Before leaving for the movies the other night, I predicted that sitting through Frankenweenie would be a chore. My wife shot me her patented Zero Sympathy look and whined exaggeratedly, "Poor me! I've gotta go watch a movie! Uuugh!"

In that moment, I considered the horrors of global poverty and war, and conceded her point with a shrug.

Then I fired back with, "Yeah, well I have to write about it, too!"

Before you accuse me of biasedly attacking Tim Burton's latest film, please understand this: it's true that I have preconceived notions about movies, based on trailers and posters. I'm human, after all.

Sometimes my reaction to marketing materials is the exact inverse of what the marketers had hoped to achieve. With Frankenweenie, I saw the same drab, skinny-legs-and-pumpkin-heads character designs that have failed to evolve in the two decades since The Nightmare Before Christmas came out, and determined that the movie would likely not be for me. Danny Elfman's Xeroxed score didn't help matters, nor did the ubiquitous Universal monster movie references that felt like fifty-year-old Mad Magazine gags. Add to that the fact that it looked as though the stop-motion animation was just a gimmick to cover up Burton's stretching a flimsy short-film premise over an hour and a half, and I had zero enthusiasm heading into the theatre.*

Here's the point in the review where I say, "Well, I was wrong! Frankenweenie is terrific!"

Sadly, I didn't care for the film--in fact, I had trouble staying awake through most of it. Burton and his team of artisans have pulled off a great technical feat. From the puppets' movement to the elaborate, weather-affected environments that make up the world in which they live, everything about the production is spectacular. But the same can be said about Michael Bay's Transformers trilogy, or Hannah Montana: The Movie. Large budgets buy you slick production values by default; what matters most is story, and Frankenweenie is as rudimentary as it gets.

The movie centers on a little boy named Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) and his cute dog, Sparky. Victor's dad (Martin Short) encourages him to join the softball team, instead of spending every waking hour making monster movies in his attic. During one of the games, Sparky runs after a ball that Victor has knocked out of the park, and gets hit by a car. Later, while half paying attention during science class, Victor learns about the body's ability to conduct electricity--and decides to dig up and reanimate his beloved pet.

From here, Frankenweenie becomes a grade school version of Pet Sematary, with Sparky coming back a little different than before (still loyal and friendly, but without the requisite parts to, say, digest water or keep flies from crawling out of his stitched-up throat). A classmate named Edgar "E" Gore (Atticus Shaffer) wants to steal Victor's formula in order to get in with the cool kids, and before you know it, a gaggle of not-quite-right animals have been resurrected. There are Sea Monkey gremlins, a mummy-slug, a cat-bat, and something else I don't care enough to remember; there's also an old windmill that gets set ablaze, serving as the story's climactic backdrop.

Believe me, I'm as bored typing this out as you are reading it.

The only bright spot is Victor's under-utilized science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau, doing a variation on his Bela Lugosi voice from Ed Wood). His explanation for why lightning sometimes strikes people is hilarious and inventive in a way that the next seventy minutes are decidedly not. Rzykruski exits the picture way too early, on the heels of a bogus and confusing town meeting in which the citizens of New Holland--all of whom have mysteriously become anti-science fundamentalists--blame him for all their problems. This scene might have worked had the film been specifically (or even tangentially) about Science Versus Superstition; as it stands, it's an awkward soapbox planted squarely in the middle of a boy-and-his-(zombie)-dog story.

What's stunning about Frankenweenie is its lack of imagination. It is devoid of colors both figurative and literal, and I'm surprised that Disney shelled out almost $40 million for a ten-steps-back vanity project built around Burton's tired sad-boy shtick. I've disliked almost every movie the man has made in the last two decades, but I rarely thought they lacked personality. This thing is full of monotone characters who seem to live in a town polluted by a leaky Prozac factory.

Had Burton and screenwriter John August learned the most important lesson from the classic monster movies they hold so dear, maybe the film would have stood a chance. James Whale and Tod Browning broke new ground in storytelling and filmmaking in the 1930s, as evidenced by the fact that people have been ripping them off or paying Frankenweenie-esque homage to them ever since. But Burton and company's spiffy, new, labor-intensive production does nothing to advance the medium and says nothing new about the source material. Hell, Frankenhooker was a better homage than this: Frank Henenlotter used a handful of iconographic touchstones to tell a bold, wacky new story, where Burton just puts on a glorified school play.

The only way you're likely to get anything out of Frankenweenie is if you've managed to live in a pop-culture-proof bubble for eighty years--or if you're under the age of ten. All I took away from it was a heartfelt wish for someone to come along and create a new cinematic language, one that inspires not only copycats but visionaries, too. Tim Burton used to be one of those, or at least had the potential to become one. But his output has gradually become an imitation of art, a hunk of too-long-dead flesh into which life simply cannot be breathed.

*All of this begs the question, "Why bother seeing it, then?" Two answers: 1. Avoiding every movie that you think looks terrible guarantees a life free of surprises. 2. The only alternative was Taken 2.

Saturday
Oct062012

Halloween (1978)

Reconsidering a Masterpiece

Damn you, Tom Savini! Some time ago, I heard a story that the makeup effects legend has a big problem with John Carpenter's seminal slasher film, Halloween:* In the opening scene, six-year-old Michael Myers (Will Sandin) stalks his older sister, Judith (Sandy Johnson), and stabs her to death with a large kitchen knife. We see all of this from Michael's point of view--which is odd, because the first-person shots are high, as if a six-foot-plus-tall man is committing these terrible acts. Even when Michael's parents come home and pull a clown mask off his head, the scene cuts to find Dad in a crouching position, where the moment before he'd been standing and reaching up past the camera.

Yes, it's going to be one of those reviews.

I didn't set out to watch Halloween with an overtly critical mind, but the Savini anecdote stuck. It opened me up to scores of other details I'd missed the twelve times I'd seen the film before, during a childhood and young adulthood spent hailing it as a horror masterpiece. Though groundbreaking in its day, and not without its chills, Halloween really is a movie for kids. That's hard to admit to myself, but it's not a bad thing.

Co-writers Carpenter and Debra Hill set out to make a low-budget thriller that would hopefully turn a profit for their backers. They succeeded beyond anyone's expectations, as Halloween grossed $47 million; spawned seven sequels, a remake, and a sequel to that remake; and launched Michael Myers as an iconic pop villain for the ages. It also marked the big-screen debut of Jamie Lee Curtis, served as the launching pad for one of horror's eeriest and most recognizable scores (also by Carpenter), and cemented a "slasher genre" template that's still in use today.

Much of the film's success, I think, has to do with context and nostalgia. It shocked audiences who'd never experienced anything like Carpenter's white-masked, invincible bogeyman before. Sure, Myers was preceded by Leatherface and the evil crank caller from Black Christmas, but both of those films took place in unconventional locations (a remote Texas farm and a sorority house, respectively). Halloween brought the terror into suburbia. The adult Myers (Nick Castle), freshly escaped from an insane asylum, returns to Haddonfield, IL to kill as many people as possible. And he begins with a trio of babysitters--you know, the people parents hire to protect their children at home during carefree evenings away.

One of the reasons the movie has remained popular, I believe, is that so many people of my generation saw it as children. The ill-fitting William Shatner mask and anonymous, faded mechanic's jumpsuit were imprinted on countless young brains, giving an instant "scare pass" to anything he appeared in.** Plus, the Internet wasn't around in 1978, meaning audiences wouldn't be burdened by nitpickers' treasure trove of inconsistencies for another two decades. For example:

  • The movie takes place in Illinois, but for every shot of a character walking down a long sidewalk surrounded by blowing, brown leaves, there's another of that same character looking across the street to sunny, manicured California lawns (a dead giveaway as to the film's actual shooting location).
  • During the iconic scene where Myers stabs one of the babysitters' unlucky boyfriends through the stomach, impaling him against a wall, it's obvious that there's way too much knife blade sticking out. It's a cool idea, but the visual payoff is just ridiculous.
  • In the middle of a scene where Annie (Nancy Kyes) is driving Laurie (Curtis) to a babysitting job, the setting changes from late afternoon to late evening, mid-conversation. It gets dark early in the Midwest, but this is black-magic meteorology if I've ever seen it.
  • The three actresses playing high school-aged babysitters are in their twenties. At the time of filming, Kyes and P.J. Soles were almost thirty years old--which makes all the shy talk about getting asked by boys to the big dance a little creepy. The girls do well enough in their roles, but they struggle with Carpenter's "teen-speak" in a way that suggests they're out of touch with the age group they're supposed to be portraying.
  • Speaking of age, I did the math and realized that Michael Myers is only twenty-one when he goes on his killing spree. Castle strikes an imposing figure, sure, but there's something silly about running away from an "embodiment of evil" who's barely old enough to vote. For me, great movie killers should either be creepy little kids or undead, middle-aged adults who've lived a bit. Otherwise, all the dramatic heavy breathing and stomping around just comes off as frustrated moping.***
  • During Myers' climactic, twelve-minute assault on Laurie, the frantic babysitter gets the best of her attacker--and then throws her giant knife away. Twice. The first time is hilarious, but might be written off as a function of panic. The second time is a case for the audience to hope Myers gets up again and finishes his work.

That last twelve minutes is what really pulls Halloween together. For much of the film, Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey play with long, narrow POV shots that put the audience in the protagonists' shoes; the key difference is that we have a clue as to the danger the leads are in, and it instills an involuntary flight response. When Myers comes after Laurie, all of the wide open spaces are gone, but the narrowness and distance are recreated in confined spaces like hallways and the famous closet scene.

At a certain point, there is a great sense of inescapability that makes watching the movie unnerving. For whatever flubs Carpenter and company might have let slide leading up to the climax, Halloween's last act is worthy of all the praise it can get. Hell, it even manages to make Donald Pleasence's Dr. Loomis worth a damn.

Ah, Dr. Loomis. Arguably the franchise's biggest gem next to the masked killer. As a kid, I thought he was a badass mystic who doubled as a psychiatrist. After treating Myers for a couple years in the asylum, he determined that his charge was, in fact, evil incarnate, and devoted his life to keeping him locked up. He follows Myers back to Haddonfield and spends much of the movie lurking in bushes and saying ominous things to the skeptical sheriff (Charles Cyphers).

On this last viewing, though, I realized that Loomis is just a cross between Friday the 13th's Crazy Ralph and Quint from Jaws--a weird, old kook who's great at describing scary stuff with flowery language. His main role in the film is to trick the audience into believing that the killer is the devil himself, and not just a silent, cold-blooded maniac. Honestly, if Carpenter had removed all of Loomis's lines to this effect, we would have no indication that Michael Myers is more than just a really creepy guy with serious respiratory issues.

This is all blasphemy, I know, but it seems to me that Halloween is in danger of fading from "horror classic" status as older generations of fans die off. It really is an Assurance Picture: chances are, you couldn't sit a sixteen-year-old or a twenty-five-year-old down in front of this movie and have them buy into its corny, unsophisticated charms without a generous heaping of back-story regarding its place in cinema history. It pains me to say this, but Rob Zombie was justified in remaking Halloween for the Millennial crowd.****

I appreciate Halloween for what it is, but watching it as an adult who watches a lot of movies, I can't flip whatever magical brain override is supposed to give the film a pass. It's a fine indie picture with numerous problems, a hell of an ending, and the blessing of the marketing gods. It stands tall in the annals of horror, but much of that--it seems to me--is the stuff of myth rather than substance.

*I'm pretty sure it's attributable to Savini. If not, I apologize.

**For awhile, anyway: as the later sequels strayed from the core terror elements and ventured into myth-building and fad-chasing, Myers became a watered-down afterthought (as evidenced by his lack of a scary mask beyond the Halloween 4 poster).

***This comment is not meant as a serious criticism; the thought got its hooks in me early on and made me giggle at various points throughout the film.

****That's an endorsement of the effort, not the end result.

Monday
Oct012012

Dredd (2012)


Steel-toed Reboot

I've long believed--and this is by no means an original idea--that only bad movies should be remade. Honestly, what did Joel Schumacher and Marcus Nispel bring to Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, respectively, that Alfred Hitchcock and Tobe Hooper did not? Before last week, the only exception that sprang to mind was Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead, which used modern filmmaking technology and makeup effects to expand the scope of George Romero's original.

Well, now there are two exceptions: director Pete Travis, writer Alex Garland, and, most importantly, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle have breathed new life into the action genre with Dredd. Ostensibly a do-over of Sylvester Stallone's 1995 franchise non-starter, Judge Dredd (as well as an adaptation of UK comics anthology 2000 AD's most iconic character), the new film offers a gritty return to the ruthless, graphically violent heyday of Paul Verhoeven and proof that mindless shoot-'em-ups can also be beautiful, engaging works of art.

To call Dredd "mindless" isn't exactly fair. Granted, nothing about the story is original. Many have compared this to The Raid: Redemption, which came out earlier this year, and they're half-right to do so. Travis's film wrapped long before The Raid began filming, but both movies share eerily similar premises: police officers working a lawless beat get trapped inside a high-rise run by a demented crime boss. Their only way out is to fight their way to the top, through hundreds of heavily armed maniacs intent on staying in the chief heavy's good graces. The building element is new, but we've seen this bloody, dystopian, reluctant-partners cop movie a hundred times before.

But we haven't seen it presented quite like this. Garland establishes a bombed-out future America, where 800 million people have been crammed into a sleazy, drug-crazed hell hole called Mega City One. An elite squad of law enforcement agents, called "Judges", patrol the city and perform on-the-spot trials and executions of legions of psychotic gang bangers. Though the few glimpses we get of Mega City One suggest that corporations are still trying to gloss over problems with neon lights and ads for sugary drinks (even after nuclear warheads have decimated the country), there's very little to suggest that society is more than a year away from full-scale revolt. Garland and Travis take this premise and confine it to a single location for most of their film, a bold move--and an ingenious one.

Whereas most sci-fi blockbusters bombard the audience for hours with CGI landscapes and endless, epic-scale chase scenes, eighty percent of Dredd is confined to a "mega block" called Peach Trees. A cross between a city-sized shopping mall and an apartment complex, the bustling community is the perfect laboratory for drug-kingpin-on-the-rise Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) to develop, market, and mass produce her new narcotic, SLO MO, in secret. When a Judged named Dredd (Karl Urban) and his partner-in-training, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), pick up Ma-Ma's second in command while responding to a triple homicide in Peach Trees, Ma-Ma activates the building's nuclear blast shields--cutting it off from all outside interference.

Unlike The Raid, whose wall-to-wall "badass" fight scenes got repetitive by the forty-five-minute mark, Dredd's filmmakers give their story time to breathe. There's as much hiding and strategizing here as there is loud, explosive action, and the two are balanced perfectly. Travis and Garland also pull off the amazing feat of making it seem like Dredd is in real danger of not making it out alive. This is a franchise kick-off picture, after all, though the gang's relentless assault on the Judges is so absolute that I wondered just how they would survive the night. The answer, of course, is by being truly badass--which involves brains and cunning as much as giant gloves that leave knuckle imprints on criminals' throats.

The character of Dredd, on paper, is not really a character at all. He's a steel-jawed, comic-book archetype who takes a "rinse/repeat" approach to dispensing justice. Urban plays him as such, but the actor's innate sensitivity creeps through, implying a back story that we never get to see. There's a ton of warped humanity behind that badge and identity-concealing helmet.* In a later scene, after our hero has been placed firmly at death's door, Urban uses his mouth and body language to convey disappointment, disillusionment, anger, and something resembling regret--all in the course of a few seconds. It's a great, actorly nuance that I can almost guarantee no one expected to find in a bloody genre film.

Thirlby is also wonderful as Anderson. Her character is a wide-eyed idealist who wants to make Mega City One a better place. She can also hold her own in psychological warfare, which comes in handy when dealing with Ma-Ma's number two, a rapist and murderer with a penchant for skinning his victims named Kay (Wood Harris). I love that Anderson is an optimist who's also had the crap kicked out of her by life. She's not bubbly, or sarcastic; she's not comic relief. She strikes me as a serious-minded recent graduate of a police training program who simply hasn't been field tested. Thirlby is our gateway into this insane world, providing just the right amount of timidity, awe, and terror at the outset to make her relatable when things get rough for her character.

As villains go, I'm tempted to say that Headey's Ma-Ma is underused. That's not quite right. She pops up here and there to turn the screws, like a scar-faced Wile E. Coyote, and though she's the catalyst for all of Dredd and Anderson's problems, this isn't her movie. In the end, she's just a smart drug dealer in a world full of dumb ones; the film's climax reinforces this by being quicker than I'd expected, and free of the drawn-out, bogus tension that usually drags these films down. 

Dredd's unsung star is director of photography Mantle. His depiction of how SLO-MO deceives the brain into thinking that time has slowed to one percent its normal speed is used to great effect here. From the luscious water cascades formed by Ma-Ma flicking water in the bathtub to stomach-turning, first-person sequences in which people are shoved off of hundred-story balconies while on the drug, there are scenes in this movie that feel like museum installations on experimental filmmaking. Mantle and Travis never forget they're making an action movie, though, and include plenty of jaw-dropping, gory SLO-MO moments as well (when Dredd busts a drug den, we see a bullet shatter a young man's face so thoroughly that his teeth rattle around inside his exploded cheek).

You may recognize Mantle and Garland's names from their collaborations with director Danny Boyle. Both worked on 28 Days Later. Garland wrote Sunshine, which, like Dredd, took an established genre in new and interesting directions. Mantle is this movie's real "get", though, having won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire and a BAFTA for 127 Hours. I didn't care for either of those, but I recognize the significance of an artistic master lending his skills to admittedly pulpy material. Everyone involved in this project performed as if they were making an awards-season Robocop, and the result is as amazing as that implies.

Note: It's been more than a week since I saw Dredd. I've pieced this review together during gaps in my crazy schedule, and am sorry that it's taken so long. In its first week in theatres, the film has plummeted from the number six spot to number eleven, officially cementing its "bomb" status. This is a tragedy (as moviegoing matters go) and a mystery. Travis's film is precisely the kind of intelligent, innovative, action movie the masses claim they want to see--yet refuse to support when it comes right to them.

See Dredd in the theatre, quickly. See it in 3D. Yes, it's worth the up-charge. In crafting a genuinely thrilling experience, Travis, Garland, and Mantle have given people a reason to look forward to going to the movies. This film is not a reboot, a rehash, or a re-anything-else. It's just Dredd. And it is awesome.

*Which, for the record, never comes off--save for a moment in the beginning where we see Dredd in silhouette.

Saturday
Sep292012

Looper (2012)

Flux Capacity

Some movie trailers make me giggle. Others make me roll my eyes. An elite few achieve both. In the case of Looper, I couldn't help but laugh at the bizarre makeup applied to Joseph Gordon-Levitt's face to make him look like a younger version of Bruce Willis. The baby-hawk nose and exaggerated turtle lips had me on the prowl for the moment in the preview where it's revealed that Gordon-Levitt's character is wearing a disguise or something. Didn't happen--which gave the two-minute spot's epic seriousness all the emotional resonance of White Chicks.

I almost couldn't handle the capper, when I saw that Looper was written and directed by Rian Johnson, one of my generation's most overrated "visionary" directors. His debut film, Brick, is possibly the most painful movie I've ever had to talk about, mostly because I don't feel it's worthy of conversation. Once again, I find myself in the smallest of minorities on this one, but what can ya do?

Because this is the week's big, new movie, I knew I had to go see it, and the level of disinterest with which I said, "One for Looper, please" cannot be measured on any instruments yet created by science. But when the theatre lights came up three hours later (more on that in a moment), I'd forgotten every bullshit problem I'd had going in. You see, sometimes, a trailer is a giggler, an eye-roller, and a glimpse at one of the year's best films.

I'm not going to get into spoilers with this one, which would make me as low-down a criminal as Looper's main characters. This movie demands the respect of going in cold, and joins the pantheon of all-time-wonderful brain-teasers like The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense, Donnie Darko, and Fight Club. I will say that, like Quentin Tarantino, Johnson pays homage to what I assume are some of his favorite films, by masterfully rolling their more iconic ideas into something that feels utterly new in the moment. Looper is Back to the Future, The Terminator, Witness, and a pinch of The Twilight Zone's "It's a Good Life" episode all mashed into a story about hard-boiled characters living in a violent, high-tech future where time travel and psychic abilities are commonplace.

If you noticed that one of those films is not like the other, congrats on figuring out that Looper isn't your standard sci-fi action flick. It begins as a really smart version of that, but at almost precisely the mid-way point, Johnson slams on the brakes and dials the narrative way back; he raises the stakes while practically switching genres on his fast-paced head-scratcher. This may turn some audiences off, but taken as a whole, the relatively pastoral forty minutes that bridge the second and third acts are the most important--and the most moving.

In case you're lucky enough to have no idea what movie I'm talking about, and unsure of my advice to see it immediately, Looper takes place in Kansas, in the year 2044. Thirty years from then, time travel will have been invented and instantly outlawed. Organized crime has gotten hold of the technology, and uses it to send its enemies back in time--where they are summarily executed by hitmen called "loopers". Gordon-Levitt plays a cold, efficient, and extremely prolific looper named Joe, who blasts his victims in the sugar cane fields just outside the pitiful metropolis that has sprung up in the heartland. The trailers would have you believe that Joe's big "Until Something Went Wrong" moment happens when he's faced with executing an older version of himself (Willis), but that's only about a quarter of the story (an eighth or a sixteenth, if you're up for some hearty mental gymnastics).

Johnson achieves in Looper what he'd only aimed for in Brick: creating a modern hard-boiled noir film that dresses up classic detective thrillers in shiny, new clothes. The key is that, instead of taking the idea literally and having present-day high school students talking like Philip Marlowe, he allows the story to dictate the characters glum and desperate states--which, in turn, compels them to craft sad, scary, and down-and-out scenes without the distracting affectations. There's a scene towards the middle in which Willis and Gordon-Levitt meet at a diner that is funny, tense, and informative--and which may bring you to the verge of tears. This ten minutes has more plot, intrigue, and forward momentum in it than all two-and-a-half hours of The Master. It's also better acted. That's a bold call, I guess, but I stand by it.

Besides the two leads, who have never been better, the film is packed with terrific performances from the likes of Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, and Emily Blunt.* Maybe someday I'll write an in-depth analysis of why the fate of Dano's character blew my freaking mind. But this is not that day (plus, I'm lazy). You really need to see for yourself what they do with the juicy roles they've been given. 

With Looper, I believe Rian Johnson finally deserves the hype ascribed to him for over half a decade. He drops the audience into a far-fetched version of the future and lets them live with characters who are so used to the reality-shattering notions of time travel and psychic powers that these things have become societal punch-lines. Thanks to fate getting constantly twisted by disruptions in the space-time continuum, these lost souls also given a shot at a better life--one that could destroy or save absolutely everything. In the midst of this are solid, moving meditations on aging, parenthood, and the importance of each decision we make.** This is heavy stuff, but it's uplifting beyond belief.

Note: The funny thing about Gordon-Levitt's makeup is that, in the context of the full, big-screen experience, it didn't bother me at all. Yes, there are a couple of scenes where he looks odd, but that's just because I know what the actor looks like in real life. The applications are so eerily seamless that now the star looks weird to me without the prosthetics.

Additional Note: Wanna know just how much I love Looper? At five different points during the screening I attended, the sound cut out (ah, the magic of digital presentation!). Between the minutes of waiting for someone to grab an usher, the various ushers' promises that things would be "worked out momentarily", and having to watch five-minute stretches of film repeatedly as the projectionist performed courtesy track-backs, much of my experience was a first-world-problems nightmare. But I didn't leave. I couldn't. I had to know how the film ended, that day.

*The exception is her introductory scene, which finds the English actress trying on the most ridiculous American accent this side of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. In fairness, this might have come early in her filming schedule, as it mercifully disappears by the next scene.

**If you just want to see explosions, tits, and severed limbs, there are plenty of those, too.