Sunday, September 30, 2012


LOOPER: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt (118 min.)

If anything, Rian Johnson's Looper is proof that there are still wonderful ideas and creative minds in Hollywood.  If the summer season has you convinced nothing new happens in Tinseltown anymore, see Looper, a crafty, clever, sleek and smart science-fiction thriller with great symmetry and writing which manages to outsmart the paradoxical nature of time travel movies.  It is maybe the most intelligent sci-fi film since the original Matrix.  So many questions arise throughout the film, and some are answered while others are wisely avoided to prevent a traffic jam of questions and conundrums.  It takes unexpected turns and tells a story I was not expecting, and what a relief that very notion is.

The film takes place in 2044 and, in a way, 2074, where time travel has been invented but immediately outlawed.  In 2074 illegal gang factions use time travel to erase their enemies by sending them back to 2044 where they are shot dead in a Kansas field by Loopers, hired assassins who sit waiting on their target to appear, bound and hooded.  Once the targets are killed the loopers collect their silver pieces from the body and dispose of the evidence, thus, in theory, erasing the person from existence.  There is a catch, however, as these Loopers will eventually kill the future versions of themselves.  This is known as "closing the loop," and once it happens loopers are allowed to retire and live the next thirty years of their life free and clear.  It is a strange existence, liberating and constraining at the same time.  What a paradox.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a Looper in 2044 who doubles as our narrator.  Joe, like all of the Loopers, is an aimless drug addict (as is the case with many sci-fi films, there is a new drug on the market) who was picked up off the streets and turned into this unusual contract killer.  Who else would take a job where they were assured of death thirty years in the future?  Of course, when Joe's future self appears (played by Bruce Willis), his head is uncovered, things go awry, and Old Joe escapes.  This sends Young Joe on a mission to find his future self and kill him so he can be set free.  For thirty years, that is.  Soon after Old Joe escapes he meets Young Joe in a diner.  The meeting is of course bizarre and a little mind blowing, but very immediate regarding the plot.  You know how you always imagine things you would tell your younger self if you had the chance?  Joe has that chance here, and he tries his best to drop some hints to his younger self without, well, I guess destroying all of time.

The plot thickens, and it carries Young Joe to a farm where Sara (Emily Blunt) lives with her young son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon), who has an interesting tie to the future.  This is where Looper uses a small plot point from earlier and turns it into a vital bit of the narrative structure.  I would say supernatural elements are at play, but the way this certain element is introduced it keeps things grounded in some sort of futuristic reality.  I can see my mind getting twisted writing this.

So much detail and time has to be spent on screenplays like Looper, because one slight misstep and the plot unravels and director Rian Johnson would lose his audience.  There is not any room for plotholes here.  Sure, there are some questions left unanswered and logical blunders here and there, but they are minute when placed inside the larger frame.  And the climax does a good job of sealing the fate of the film without allowing room for mistakes.  It is also a satisfying end to the story.  Johnson does a good job with his future world, peppering the outside of the frames with small gadgets and upgrades and technologies to indicate this is the future.  But none of it is distracting. 

I was worried about the makeup on Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose face is manipulated to resemble a young Bruce Willis.  It stays distracting.  With a long, droopy, puffy face, Levitt is basically unrecognizable as Young Joe.  I don't now if it was necessary to take such painstaking effort to make Levitt look like Willis.  Maybe a nip her and a tuck there, some contacts and a hairline alteration and, voila!  This extensive transformation is a major distraction.  But I suppose if makeup is the only issue with a sci-fi mind bender like Looper, you've done pretty well as a director.


Monday, September 24, 2012

Time To Think Horror: Sinister - The Red-Band Trailer

Rocktober, as I like to call it, is just around the corner.  It's time to start thinking about horror films.  Of course the Paranormal Activity movie is on its way, and there are a few scary flicks on the horizon.  The most compelling to me has to be Sinister, which seems to be packaged with a great deal of praise.  The film stars Ethan Hawke as a struggling novelist who finds a box of old home movies in the attic of his new home.  Of course, those home movies hide a gruesome and disturbing secret. 

the atmosphere seems right in Sinister, and the scares in the trailer itself are handled in a much more subtle way than most amped up horror previews.  What are your thoughts?

End of Watch

END OF WATCH : Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena, Anna Kendrick (109 min.)

End of Watch is a superb police procedural, one of the better in the genre in a long time.  It is anything but a hollow shell of action and spectacle, and the weight of emotion and the pull and plausibility of these characters surround the tension and the gunplay with a real world the audience can fully embrace.  I was more surprised by the emotional pull of the film than any of the expertly-crafted gunfights.  The violence is a main issue in the film, make no mistake, and the way these two men walk into dangerous situations might go too far in the logic department.  But End of Watch earns its embellishments.

The two officers are Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena), a pair of beat cops who occupy the most dangerous districts in Los Angeles.  Brian and Mike are also best friends, which is to be understood having spent so much time together in such dangerous sitruations.  I cannot imagine the level of trust that comes along with friendship within the force.  These characters, however, are not "types," which is an excellent move by writer and director David Ayer.  Neither of these policemen have a gambling issue, neither of them is an alcoholic or an abusive womanizer with some sort of checkered past.  Brian has a girlfriend (Anna Kendrick) he wants to take the next step with, Mike has a wife and children, and they all exist in the same circle of trust, love, and appreciation.  These scenes away from the action are vital to the story and none of them feel arbitrary.  The dialogue ties the knot of emotion tighter around the lives of these officers. 

For a change, Los Angeles cops are portrayed fairly, and balanced.  Brian and Mike aresimply devoted, hard-working cops whose ego gets the better of them as they work too hard to save the day.  Theymake one power move after another on the streets until their amateur police work gets them involved with a drug cartel operating out of the inner city.  They become marked men.

Of course Brian and Mike walk into a number of violent situations and they fire their weapons more in these few weeks than the majority of police officers would fire in a lifetime.  But this is a movie, so embellishments are allowed to amp up the tension and the action.  All of the scenes are filmed as if this were a documentary, and some of them are even shot through the lens of a camera Brian is using "for a project."  I wanted a little more information on this hand held so it didn't feel like a distraction, but it's a nitpicking issue I suppose.

As I mentioned earlier, End of Watch is elevated beyond some empty action thriller thanks to the attention paid to the characters over the action.  The dialogue and the scenes in the police station feel as authentic as any I remember, thanks in part to Ayer.  And I must say it's time to acknowledge Ayer (who wrote Training Day, Dark Blue, and wrote and directed the underrated Harsh Times), who has his finger on the pulse of the Los Angeles crime drama as good as a young Michael Mann.  Gyllenhaal gives one of the weightier performances of his career, since Brokeback Mountain, but Michael Pena deserves Oscar consideration.  He sells the relationship between the two officers because he is the one trying to keep things light, even in the face of danger.  The final act of End of Watch is abrupt and moves quickly, and the epilogue drives home the emotional weight of the film it has worked to earn all along.


Friday, September 21, 2012

The Master

THE MASTER: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams (138 min.)

One thing is certain when seeing a Paul Thomas Anderson movie.  Despite the inspirations in Anderson's mind or the allusions to the brilliant directors before him, when you watch a PTA film it will be like nothing you have ever seen.  The Master is almost indescribable beyond simple details of the characters and plot, however little plot may truly exist or even be relevant in the end.  The density and the challenge of the film is overwhelming at times.  I don't quite know how good The Master is ultimately, but I do know it is interesting and begs to be seen two or three times before anything can be understood.  I have always likened Anderson to Robert Altman, but in The Master I see something altogether different.  I see Kubrick.

Joaquin Phoenix is Freddie Quell, a severely damaged human being who may or may not have been mentally destroyed by World War II.  In early scenes we see Freddie cracking aboard a Naval ship alone and unstable.  There is hinting at such a thing, but nothing concrete.  Nevertheless, Freddie is a lost soul who obsessively manufactures cocktails of jet fuel, floor cleaner, film chemicals, anything he can find.  Freddie is also severely sexually corrupt.  As he bounces from job to job until an outburst of violence or another mishap sends him fleeing, he stumbles upon a ship leaving port in San Francisco one night.  The ship is led by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a soothing intellectual who floats on his words, proud of each one.  Dodd has created a new "religion," called simply The Cause, and his disciples fill the boat. 

Dodd's family is on board.  His daughter is married on the boat, and his son is skeptical of The Cause.  His wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), may be the most fascinating of the three given her juxtaposition to the acting.  There are blatant hints to Lady Macbeth in the way Peggy manipulates things behind the scenes.  She sees Freddie as a danger, but a danger to what?  Freddie is weak and angry and lost, and Dodd is simply trying to help him, or so he says.  He works Freddie over, piercing his thoughts and trying to release him into this new belief.  It takes some time, but soon Freddie is manipulated to a point where he defends Dodd and The Cause blindly, and with violence.  A man shows up at one of the meetings and aggressively questions the validity of Dodd's theories and Freddie pays him a visit later that night.

We all know The Master is based on - but not really - the beginnings of Scientology and that the Hoffman character represents Scientology's founder L. Ron Hubbard.  That is all well and good to me, I find no need to discuss the controversy or objections or whatever.  It is clear Anderson is telling his own story.  Dodd gives Freddie what is called "processing," a rapid and intense series of questioning that has to mirror the infamous "auditing" program in Scientology.  We are given a loose bullet-point description of The beliefs in The Cause, but we do get a firm feel of the grass roots movement of a new religion.  But what is real in the film and what is a scam by Hoffman and Adams' as Lancaster and Peggy?

The way The Master opens up into a handful of different interpretations is the blessing and the curse.  It remains opaque maybe to a fault, even though I regret saying something like that.  Because, as I mentioned earlier, Kubrick is in Anderson's work here, and Stanley Kubrick's films took years to digest.  There is a separation between the viewers and these characters, and Anderson still manages to draw them completely.  Simple looks, throwaway lines, key shots, almost everything means something in the structure of the film.  And there is no beginning and end; the film starts, and it ends, and what you are presented with is a film dominated by performances.

I already mentioned Adams and the way she paints the background with intrigue.  Hoffman has all the charm and panache of the finest snake oil salesman, but there is darkness and rage in his character.  It shines through in a handful of brief, powerful, angry outbursts.  But this is all about the hypnotic and stunning performance from Joaquin Phoenix.  Thin, lumbering, his odd shoulders hunched even further in front of him, Phoenix portrays Freddie as a shriveling man in a cloud of poison.  He speaks through clenched teeth and carries darkness in his eyes.  As he falls under the spell of Dodd, rather than improve Freddie simply transplants his sickness into other areas.  By the end of the film, Freddie is dangerously thin and sickly, a shell of a human being.  All of these idiosyncrasies of the Pheonix performance aren't distracting because he knows how to manage them within the confines of the film.  It is an Oscar-winning performance.

The Master is an experience, and it is an interesting film, but I am reluctant to give it some sort of arbitrary letter grade right now.  Anderson has pulled off another film that is beautiful and succinct with the work of composer and Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood.  These two have started something together that may work for a long time.  My mind is all over the map trying to process the deeper aspects of the film, but thus far what is written here are things I know. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012



ARBITRAGE: Richard Gere, Tim Roth, Susan Sarandon, Brit Marling (100 min.)

There are two actors out there, two of our better American actors, who can fill out a billionaire's suit in a film better than anyone else.  One is Michael Douglas, who has made his living playing snakes in suits.  The other is Richard Gere, who absolutely owns his latest film Arbitrage from start to finish.  Perhaps it is confidence, or his shifty eyes, or the fact that he is unassumingly handsome; whatever the case, Gere has always felt at home in an Armani power suit.  In Arbitrage he plays an increasingly familiar villain in these modern times, one with a financial background who will do anything in his power to save himself from ruin.  But what makes the film much more intriguing and elevates it to an impeccably-constructed, refreshingly-adult drama is the observation of gray areas.  These sticky situations arise in every facet of the story and keep the screws tightening.

Gere is Robert Miller, a hedge-fund manager with untold amounts of wealth, power, and prestige in the highest circles of Manhattan.  I would imagine Bernie Madoff is, as is the case with all of these films, an inspiration for the Gere character.  I imagine the character as a darker side of Gere's character in Pretty Woman.  Miller loves his business and he loves his family, but his poor decisions have begun to catch up to him as the film opens.  He is attempting to sell his company but has finagled the books, massaged a few things, and wound up with a $400 million discrepancy that could cause the deal to collapse.  His daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), matched in brains and beauty, is the Cheif Accountant for her father's firm and her sharp attention to detail is what catches the illegal activity.

Gere is Robert Miller, a hedge-fund manager with untold amounts of wealth, power, and prestige in the highest circles of Manhattan. I would imagine Bernie Madoff is, as is the case with all of these films, an inspiration for the Gere character. I imagine the character as a darker side of Gere's character in Pretty Woman. Miller loves his business and he loves his family, but his poor decisions have begun to catch up to him as the film opens. He is attempting to sell his company but has finagled the books, massaged a few things, and wound up with a $400 million discrepancy that could cause the deal to collapse. His daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), matched in brains and beauty, is the Cheif Accountant for her father's firm and her sharp attention to detail is what catches the illegal activity.

Meanwhile, Robert is in the midst of a long affair with an artist, Julie (Laetitia Casta), whom his company backed to get her studio off the ground. One night Julie and Robert are in a car accident in her car. She is killed and Robert flees the scene in a panic. Of course, things do not disappear and a dogged detective, Bryer (played by the great Tim Roth) begins digging into the accident and finds himself in Miller's office. Miller's wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon, a little under-utilized here), stays quiet but never seems to not be in the loop. Without ruining the developments of the third act I will just say the plot thickens but not to a point of disaster for the audience. Things stay smart, but easy to follow.

Richard Gere has never gotten the respect of his peers it seems, but with Arbitrage he is able to command the screen unlike he has in the past.  It is a testament to his acting here that no matter how devious Miller becomes throughout the film there is still humanity in his actions.  Somehow he still feel like pulling for the guy.  His verbal sparring with Roth's detective is compelling and tense and director Nicholas Jarecki does some interesting things with body language of the two characters.  Miller is square and as rigid as his surroundings, like everyone orbiting his world of money and power.  Bryer is slouchy, unkempt, his suit doesn't quite fit.  He is ruffling the feathers of the wealthy and you might even suspect he was done wrong by one of these hedger fund bigshots somewhere along the way.

There is wonderful balance between the two conflicts in Miller's life.  We go from the events of the accident and the affair to the company falling apart seamlessly without losing an ounce of tension.  The most emotionally satisfying pairing in the film involves Miller and Jimmy (Nate Parker), a young black kid who finds himself between the truth of what he knows and his understandable loyalty to Robert.  Maybe the final twist of Arbitrage is a bit weak and it lets the story off the hook but there is still plenty to savor here, starting with one of Gere's finest performances of his long career.


Monday, September 17, 2012

Must See Trailer for the Unburied Treasure, Wake in Fright (1971)

For anyone a fan of an edgy thriller, of those violent films which expose the darkest sides of humanity, I implore you to check out this trailer for Wake in Fright, a film by director Ted Kotcheff (First Blood) from 1971.  Now, over forty years later, the wonderful Alamo Drafthouse is releasing the restored version of the film in October.  Described as the Deliverance of the Australian Outback, Kotcheff's thriller was stuck in limbo all this time, seen only by a handful of people.  Martin Scorsese, as it is noted in this trailer, seemed impressed with his viewing. 

I can't wait to see Wake in Fright, because it looks like some of the best films of today only with that distant and unsettling vibe of the experimental filmmaking techniques born in the 70s.  And it looks like one hell of a ride:

Thursday, September 13, 2012

TRAILER BULLETIN: Spielberg's Lincoln

There are things I learned from this Lincoln trailer.  The film will be on an epic scale, undoubtedly; the acting will be brilliant from top to bottom; Daniel Day-Lewis has done it again as far as physical transformations are concerned, not to mention this solid voice alteration.  Whether or not Lincoln will be good is to be seen, but hopefully this trailer isn't a mirage.  Just because it is supposed to be good doesn't mean it will be. 

We all remember J. Edgar, right?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


The Master - There are two predominant posters for Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, each sending their own message.  The first one on the left is a kaleidoscopic shot of the three leads, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Perhaps showing the hypnotizing pull of Hoffman's preacher character, this first poster is meant to entice mystery and spirituality.  I don't quite like it as much as the one on the right, a indirect shot of the desperation of the Phoenix character, and a much more creative poster.  It is some daring artwork for a poster like this, even if it shouldn't fade quite as much near the bottom.  I enjoy the split through the center of the title, indicating maybe Phoenix's character being saved from figuratively drowning along the way.  Regardless of the motive behind the poster, it stands out next to the first one.


Looper - This is another poster I'm pretty lukewarm about, though it captures the central theme of the film.  The orientation of Levitt and Willis (and there are four variations on this poster, with the characters flipped and each one with their own) taps directly into the science of the film, and the title is the focus.  But there is a great deal of negative space and the characters themselves seem frozen when they should be in motion to energize the center.  I'm not saying the poster needs to be filled to the brim with visuals, but a white canvas drowns out the entire thing. 


Killing Them Softly - Another pair of posters for another one of my most anticipated Fall film releases.  Killing Them Softly looks sleek, sinister, edgy and smart all the way around.  And these posters play right into my expectations.  The first poster is a minimalist approach, hinting at certain themes in the film, perhaps revolvers and American flags.  Intriguing to say the least.  But the second poster is a genuine work of pop art.  The title, bold and simple, is a direct homage to the posters of the 70s.  And the shot of Brad Pitt on the lower corner ties together the entire Sidney Lumet tone of the film.  A brilliant and spot on poster.


Cloud Atlas - This latest poster from the Wachowski's upcoming book adaptation could have been better.  The film looks fascinating, though I know little about the story.  Nevertheless, the feature here in this tired style of bunched up characters doing different things is the tattooed face of Tom Hanks.  The top of the poster is interesting and well done, but then the cavalcade of characters start to crowd the canvas and the artwork up top loses its appeal and feels generic.  I have higher hopes for the film than this ad. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

THURSDAY THROWBACK: First Blood (1982)

We are nearing the thirty-year anniversary of the birth of an American cinematic icon.  The Rambo franchise has spanned four films and raked in $700 million in theatrical runs over the last thirty years, and virtually kept Sylvester Stallone working at times.  But John Rambo was birthed in a film unlike any of the other Rambo entries.  First Blood is a small film with heavier themes and more things to say than any of its sequels, all concerned more with the spectacle.  It is also the best of the Rambo films and it stands outside the franchise as one of the better American action films ever made. 

Rambo arrives in a rain swept Oregon town searching for his Army buddy.  But when he discovers his friend has died, he is left aimless, hopeless, a shadow of the Vietnam Army walking through a country filled with disdain for him.  This is exemplified when he walks into the town of Hope, and crosses paths with the Sheriff, Teasle (Brian Dennehy), who makes it clear to Rambo they don't want "his kind" in their town.  Defiant, Rambo does not leave, is arrested, and treated inhumanely by Teasle's deputies, namely the nearly-sadistic Galt (Jack Starrett).  They push and push until he cracks, ransacking the police station with supreme ease, swiping a dirt bike and fleeing into the forest surrounding the town.  First Blood then becomes Rambo facing off against the bloodthirsty Sheriff's department.

What these policemen didn't bargain for is the fact Rambo is a decorated green beret, trained to kill and kill efficiently.  The police pushed him until he cracked, and the mental damage done by the failed war breaks him open.  He works these deputies over one by one until the National Guard is called in.  Rambo's commander in the Army, Trautman (Richard Crenna), comes in to try and lure Rambo out of the forest.  He also warns the men they have no idea what they have done pushing this man.  Teasle will hear nothing of it, and he presses on until eventually the conflict spills down into the streets of Hope and Rambo destroys the town; a one man army.

The performances in First Blood are firm and robust.  Rambo's mask of stability slips away as he finds himself back in a war, but one he never expected or asked for.  Stallone has never been an actor of great detail, but he gives exactly what he needs to the role and makes it a surprising, inward performance.  The inward energy builds to a rousing final speech once Rambo is cornered and spills his guts.  Stallone's inner confidence and intensity is matched perfectly by the brash and boastful turn by Dennehy as the Sheriff.  Teasle is a snake and a coward and the ability for Dennehy to simply leak this through his patented smirk drives the audience against him.  The director, Ted Kotcheff, mostly a television director who somehow had Weekend at Bernies in his future, never really did a directing job close to what he does with First Blood.

First Blood is moody and full of rage.  The early 80s was a dark period for sentiment in this country, as the sour taste of Vietnam was being directed towards these Vets, many who would become drifters without a place much like John Rambo.  Stallone shows sadness as he is loading up and taking down the city of Hope and its police force.  First Blood is a response to the anti-Vet sentiment in the country, so it had something to say and a much heavier reason threads the action together.  Rambo, First Blood Part II was a solid entry in the franchise.  It carried the story of John Rambo forward, but it was missing the soul of the original.  Nevertheless, it was a worthy sequel to a superior film.  Then, it was all downhill after that.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


V/H/S : Calvin Reeder, Lane Hughes - (113 min.)

It's safe to say now that the string of found footage horror films are officially a subgenre.  It is no longer a long line of cheap ripoffs riding the coat tails of the Paranormal Activity franchise (or, to go back further, The Blair Witch Project).  These are individual films now with different gimmicks and their own individual identities.  And as it goes with horror subgenres (and all subgenres), there are great ones and there are terrible ones.  Inventiveness must be at the heart of films reliant on a gimmick like found footage.  So, without going too far into my analysis of V/H/S, the Sundance hit and viral darling of the horror world, I must give it credit above anything for delivering this subgenre in a fresh and creative new package.  While it may not completely work, credit must be given for giving found footage a much-needed face lift.

V/H/S is new, but it is also old.  It is an anthology of short films tied together by a narrative vehicle, much like Creepshow and Tales From the Crypt did back in the 80s.  In this case, the thread carrying these short films is a big disappointment.  Three misfit jerks spend their days with cameras, assaulting women for reality porn sites, demolishing empty buildings, and thieving whatever they can.  The defacto leader of the group gets a "job" one day; the trio must break into a home and steal a mysterious vhs tape from an old man.  They don't know what the tape is for or what is on it, they just know they will be compensated well.  This set up, which never goes anywhere, is merely a jumping off point for these goons to find various tapes and watch them while they scour the house for a specific video. 

There are five shorts directed by five unique directors (one, Radio Silence, a group of directors), all of which use the found footage gimmick in different ways.  The first one involves a group of loud and obnoxious college students out to try and film a sexcapade with a random girl.  One of the three men is equipped with a tiny camera hidden in his eyeglasses.  The drunken buffoons find a couple of girls and bring them back to a hotel, and one seems to be... well... off.  I'll say no more.  The result of this first one is intense and ultimately horrifying.  The second short is much calmer and quieter, involving a married couple traveling to the Grand Canyon.  This short creeps under your skin and is much more gradual in its horror. 

Then there is a quartet of friends visiting a spooky lake with a history.  This goriest of the entries is also the shortest.  And it lies somewhere in the middle of the road as far as quality.  The fourth film takes place all on skype, where a boyfriend and girlfriend discuss the strange goings on at the girl's apartment.  This short begins promising but dissolves into a less interesting climax.  The gimmick of skype is interesting, but the scares are deflated by the final twist which is never really explained.  The fifth and final film is a Halloween party at a haunted house which feels more like a traditional film than any of the others.  It is heavier on the effects, and rather exhilarating.

All of these shorts have their merits, either in the uniqueness of their found footage gimmick, or in genuine scares.  Some are more frightening than others, but all are well made.  the biggest issue is with the frame of the story.  Things happen in the house holding the tapes, but it is never explained when an explanation is necessary.  And the opening sequence with these despicable hoods is tough to get through.  But, I will say, fighting through this opening sequence has a payoff in the five shorts.  V/H/S is worth your time if you like scares, gore, and a fresh take on this found footage renaissance.