The main problem I have reviewing Rian Johnson’s Looper is that the most interesting discussion about the film can only be had with others who have seen it. The film diverges brilliantly from its marketing premise about half way through and the surprise is so precious – and adds even more fascinating layers – that to discuss it here would be the absolute definition of the word spoiler. Suffice to say: if you like intelligent science fiction you should make immediate plans to view Looper and allow time afterwards to digest with other people. It changes, the more you talk about it.
The premise is enticing enough. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a Looper, a specialised hitman with the job of rubbing out inconveniences from the future who are sent back in time by the mob so they can be cleanly disposed of. Every now and then a Looper’s future self is sent back in order that another layer of evidence is removed. This is called “Closing the Loop” and the Looper then knows he has 30 years left to enjoy life before he’ll end up as his own victim.
Readers of last week’s column will know that I am currently overseas on a quest, a mission – a pursuit if you prefer – hoping to discover a new kind of cinema. After a week at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado I am now in New York and have got a clearer idea of what that vision should look like.
I think I’ll name this new cinema goodcinema and it’s main characteristic will be the absence of films like Hit and Run and The Watch, two of this week’s new releases. Is it possible to redefine rubbish like this out of existence?
The first is a Dax Shepard vanity project about a man choosing to give up his place in a dull witness protection programme so that his girlfriend (Kristen Bell) can get a job in the big city. In the space of a single day his previous identity as a top getaway driver is revealed to her and his new identity as a dreary small-town non-entity is revealed to the dimwitted but single-minded hoods who he ratted out.
Ron Howard’s Angels & Demons, sequel to the blockbuster Da Vinci Code from 2006, is what you might call an equal opportunity annoyance – happily misrepresenting theology and science.
Tom Hanks returns as Harvard scholar Robert Langdon, this time summoned to Rome by mysterious Vatican security to investigate the kidnapping of four Cardinals on the eve of the election of a new Pope. A clue (helpfully reading “illuminati”) leads him to believe that a the secret society of scientists and truth-tellers have come to take revenge for their 17th century purging. The Large Hadron Collider (actually working in this piece of fiction) creates a macguffin that could change the shape of Rome as we know it – if not the world.
This week I’ve had my intelligence insulted by the very best. Steven Spielberg is credited as Executive Producer of Eagle Eye, but if he spent more than one meeting overseeing this crapitude I would be very surprised. Eagle Eye is designed to appeal to cro-magnons who still believe that computers are inherently malevolent self-perpetuating pseudo-organisms and that the US Dept of Defence would invent an all-powerful, surveillance super-computer that you can’t switch off at the wall. And fans of Shia LaBoeuf. Director D. J. Caruso (last year’s Disturbia) is confirmed as a name to avoid and Michael Jackson lookalike Michelle Monaghan has done (and will do) better than this (Gone Baby Gone).
In interviews, Rainn Wilson (Dwight Schrute in the American “Office”) has admitted that he is behind Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Jack Black, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson whenever the choicest scripts are handed out, so what that says about The Rocker (his first leading role) I’m not sure. Wilson plays a Pete Best-like drummer, fired from the band he named (Vesuvius!) just before they shot to stardom in 1988. Twenty years and twenty dead-end jobs later, he gets a shot at redemption playing with his nephew’s high school band. Wilson really doesn’t have enough presence to carry the film but he’s likeable enough and there’s some nice supporting work from Jeff Garlin (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) and the lovely Christina Applegate (who really deserves to be a much bigger star than she is).
One week on from the depressing Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging, there’s even more misplaced girl power on display in The House Bunny. Scary Movie star Anna Faris gets to executive produce a vehicle for herself (written by Laurie Craig and Karen McCullah Lutz, the female screenwriting duo responsible for the possibly Nobel Prize-winning Legally Blonde) and with that power comes great responsibility, responsibility that she puts to good use setting back the cause of feminism nearly 40 years.
Almost-Playmate Shelley (Faris), kicked out of Hef’s mansion for being too old becomes sorority house mother to a bunch of “ugly” misfits (including Emma Stone from The Rocker and Bruce Willis and Demi Moore’s eldest daughter Rumer). It’s the lack of ambition that I find so disheartening, although it did contain my favourite line of the week: “Concentrate on the eyes girls, remember – the eyes are the nipples of the face.”
Roald Dahl’s daughter Lucy is another female screenwriter stuck in cliché hell. Her script for Wild Child could have resulted in passable entertainment, but is let down by poor direction and some odd post-production decisions. Last year’s Nancy Drew, Emma Roberts, plays the fish out of water, Malibu rich-chick, sent away to an English boarding school run by firm-but-fair Natasha Richardson. There she makes friends and enemies and falls in love with handsome Roddy, played by the worst actor I’ve ever seen get his name on a major film: Alex Pettyfer (remember the name, folks).
Most fun of the week can be found in Space Chimps, a boisterous CGI-animated comedy for kids (and those that might find WALL•E a little too emotionally demanding). Ripping a long at a great pace, it has plenty of gags per minute and benefits from having great voice-actors like Patrick Warburton and Kristin Chenoweth involved rather than big name stars slumming it. Recommended.
The Russo-Sino-Co-pro Mongol really deserves to be seen on a giant screen, as befitting the giant landscape and giant story. The first of a proposed trilogy telling the life story of Genghis Khan, this instalment follows the 12th century warlord from his own birth to the birth of an empire spanning half the known world. Uniting the tribes of Mongolia was a brutal business and there’s plenty of CGI blood splashing around as young Temudjin (Tadanobu Asano) discovers his destiny.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday, 1 October 2008.
Let’s get the unpleasantness out of the way first: watching The Farrelly Brothers’ ugly remake of Neil Simon’s The Heartbreak Kid was a trial beyond all human endurance. After about 20 minutes I was begging for release (which came shortly afterwards as blissful unconsciousness overtook me). Sadly, no studio executive will ever get fired for green-lighting a racy Ben Stiller romantic comedy so no matter how bad this one is it won’t be the last one we are forced to endure.
While the Film Festival takes up a justifiably huge chunk of time and mindspace during these two weeks the world of commercial cinema has hit back hard with two of the best films of the year.
Amazing Grace is a handsome period piece about the campaigning life of William Wilberforce, tireless toiler for social justice and what we now call human rights in the 19th century. The film focusses on his leadership of the movement to ban the transatlantic slave trade in the teeth of entrenched commercial and political opposition. 11 million African men, women and children were dragged from their homes, clapped in chains and forced to work in the plantations and refineries that fuelled the British Empire.
Wilberforce is played by Mr Fantastic (or Captain Hornblower, if you prefer) Ioan Gruffudd and, despite his lack of heavyweight credentials, he holds up nicely in competition with some of British cinema’s finest. The Great Gambon (most recently Dumbledore in Harry Potter), Rufus Sewell (The Illusionist), Toby Jones (Infamous), Stephen Campbell Moore (The History Boys) and the marvellous Albert Finney all get moments to rise above the occasionally clunky, exposition-heavy, script.
Finney, in particular, as the former slave-ship captain John Newton who actually wrote the hymn Amazing Grace (and the line “who saved a wretch like me” comes from deep inside a tortured conscience) is splendid.
Even better is Knocked Up, Judd Apatow’s brilliant follow-up to The 40 Year Old Virgin. Supporting actor in the earlier film, Seth Rogen, gets promoted to the lead as Ben Stone, a fun-loving layabout who gets his one night stand pregnant and then learns the hard way about responsibility, adulthood and love. Or you could say it’s about Katherine Heigl’s character Alison Scott, an ambitious reporter for the E! Channel who gets pregnant to a one night stand and then learns the hard way about family, sacrifice and pain.
Either way you choose it, Knocked Up is a wonderful film that shows a deep-seated love for life in all it’s gooey glory. The supporting cast are perfect, including (the sometimes patchy) Paul Rudd and Mrs Apatow, Leslie Mann, as the scary married couple our heroes use to alternately inspire or repel each other.
Judd Apatow made his name in television, writing and producing shows like “The Ben Stiller Show” and the great “Freaks and Geeks”. Another “Freaks and Geeks” alumni, Mike White, also has a feature out this week: Year of the Dog starring Molly Shannon. Shannon plays dowdy secretary Peggy whose beloved dog Pencil dies in somewhat mysterious circumstances leaving her alone to face the world.
In her attempts to replace Pencil with something (another dog, a man) she learns a little bit about the world and an awful lot about herself. Like Knocked Up there’s a contrast-couple, there to show our heroes what life might be like if only they gave up being themselves, in this case played by Laura Dern and Thomas McCarthy; and like Knocked Up there’s a lot of episodic comedy moments though with a much darker edge.
Year of the Dog is White’s first feature as director (after writing films like Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl and The School of Rock) and it seems as if he hasn’t directed this film so much as written and photographed it. That’s not to say that it isn’t enjoyable – it is. It’s just not terribly cinematic.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 25 July, 2007.
Nature of conflict: Year of the Dog opens at the Academy Cinema in Auckland on Weds 1 Aug. I do contract work for them designing and maintaining their website.