That’s Adequate (1989)

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Bruce Willis, Robert Downey Jr, Ben Stiller.

The initially surprising thing about this movie is, with the above guys in it, plus a cast absolutely packed with stars and other well-known names, is how difficult it is to find. TV showings seem non-existent and it’s never been released on blu-ray or DVD, meaning we lovers of the offbeat have to track it down via VHS or less-than-legal means (which still means a battered 25-year-old VHS transfer). Information is very scarce about it, too, meaning the reason for this lack of availability may forever remain a mystery – is it in some sort of legal limbo? Does the company that own the rights to it not exist any more? Did one of its stars buy the rights to it and ensure it was never seen again?

Sketch comedy films are relatively recent. Although the trend seems to have been started with Monty Python and 1971’s “And Now For Something Completely Different”, the majority of them aren’t based on a previously existing TV property but are just new things – to name a few, “Kentucky Fried Movie”, “Amazon Women On The Moon” and more recently, “Movie 43”. The last one was put together by one of the Farrelly brothers calling in all his Hollywood favours, and if I had to guess I’d suggest that’s how this one was made too. Like, they sent a camera to wherever Bruce Willis was filming at the time, gave him a few lines and just filmed him for 20 minutes.

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“That’s Adequate!” is based on the fake Adequate Films, a bottom-of-the-barrel company who produced garbage for 60 years. There’s a host who takes us through it all, an ongoing interview with the head of Adequate, and then lots of clips from their films and TV shows. As with most sketch movies, the quality of these varies wildly – “Einstein On The Bounty”, starring Robert Downey Jr, is hilarious, but some of the repurposed public domain footage is weak, as they really do nothing other than dub swearing on top of it, or edit it so it looks like Abraham Lincoln is fighting robots and has a team of hawkmen. The linking interview is weird in that it’s obviously mostly improvised and every now and again, one of the two men will just stonewall a leading question. Reshoots, people!

There a couple of really good bits, though. “The Phallus Follies of 1945” is so odd that it almost forces you to laugh, and I liked the silent romance star who carried on even after he was dead. Robert Vaughn made a funny Hitler. And Richard Lewis as comedian-turned-actor Pimples Lapedes gave it his all too. So there’s plenty to like, but the problem is that it’s just not strong enough. It feels a little bit like a movie created for the 80th birthday of a Hollywood bigshot, with all his friends and stars from down the years doing their bit, without needing to be especially funny; and I feel if I’d seen it at the time, a lot of the references would have appeared fresher, or at least 25 years less old.

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Still, if you can find it, it’s a fascinating curio and is worth popping on for 80 minutes. See if you can think of the reason it’s so completely disappeared from public view.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

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Looper (2012)

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I saw the trailer for this movie and thought it looked ok. I mean, Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the former willing to star in any number of quirky Sci-Fi movies (Fifth Element, Surrogates, 12 Monkeys) and the latter just being in great movies (Inception, 500 Days of Summer, The Dark Knight Rises) are both in it, so that’s a good start. Also, unbelievably, I quite like Sci-Fi.

"Where's my frikkin' cappucino?"

“Where’s my frikkin’ cappucino?”

The trailer does a great job of spoon feeding you the plot in a way only Hollywood can. Having seen that trailer, you can probably predict exactly what is going to happen. There will be a chase in a suitably futuristic vehicle, some pivotal futuristic technology for which there is no or little explanation yada yada… Look, watch enough of these movies and they all start to look the same. At least this one hasn’t liberally fashioned itself after a Philip K Dick story…

And yet, Looper is surprisingly great. Huh.

What makes this movie different is that while the trailer does tell you what’s going on, it really and actually doesn’t at all. The story here is not what you think and that is awesome.

Trailers commit some pretty heinous cinematic crimes. Like The Village, which made out it was a horror story (it isn’t, it’s a period drama WITH A TWIST!) or X-Men: First Class (which blew one of the biggest moments in the movie, thanks movie trailer!). The trailer for Looper actually told all you need to know without actually telling you anything. Good job!

So I sat down to watch it, expecting Minority Report Version 4.0. Instead, I got an indie film that lavished some care attention on things like character and motivation. Huh.

Point of fact, there was a moment when Joseph Gordon-Levitt is sat talking to another character and I realised he was doing a great imitation of Bruce Willis’ mannerisms. You know, the thin-lipped smile hiding his real emotions… You know what I mean.

"Daddy?"

“Daddy?”

So the plot isn’t the A to B Sci-Fi chase movie you think it is. It has some great moments, good acting and amazing pacing. Why isn’t everyone raving about it?

Well the Science Fiction is somewhat wonky. It works if you squint (and they at least try to give an explanation, even if it is somewhat hand wavy).

And ultimately, no matter how well you make a movie about gangsters co-opting time travel to send victims into the past to be killed so there’s no crime, it’s still a movie about gangsters co-opting time travel, i.e. it’s a bit silly. Average Joe and Jane Movie Goer will never rave about a film that is A Bit Silly.

"I just shot myself in the face."

“I just shot myself in the face.”

I was surprised by a lot of things in this film and came away really enjoying it. If you don’t mind vaguely bullshit science fiction, you’ll probably get something out of this.

In fact, go watch the trailer: it will tell you nothing about the actual plot of this film.

TL:DR “Sci-Fi film surprises all by not being as brainless as the trailer makes out. Definitely one to watch.”

Hudson Hawk (1991)

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“Hudson Hawk” is one of the more interesting curios in recent Hollywood history. Bruce Willis was beyond famous at this point – the first two Die Hards, Look Who’s Talking and Moonlighting gave him a huge fanbase and meant he could pretty much do whatever he wanted. What he wanted, it turns out, was to make a knockabout comedy about a famous cat burglar and the world-domination plot he gets himself involved with.

Willis is the titular character, just finishing a decade or so in prison; and Danny Aiello is his old partner, waiting on the outside for him. Hawk is blackmailed (by his parole officer, no less) into stealing Leonardo da Vinci’s famous “Sforza” statue from an auction house, and from that meets an undercover Nun (Andie MacDowell, never more beautiful), a group of CIA agents with a rather confusing agenda (led by James Coburn, with a very young David Caruso as part of the team), and the insane billionaire Mayflowers (Richard E Grant and Sandra Bernhard, who appear to be loving every overacting minute of their time on screen).

The action relates to a mechanism Da Vinci invented to perfect the art of alchemy, with the pieces hidden inside other works of his. There’s a lovely bit at the beginning where we see Da Vinci, a torrent of ideas coming out of his head, with a nice Mona Lisa joke, but most of it is the scrapes Hawk gets into, and his continuing quest to get a cappucinno. The world domination plan is sort of a good idea, if only alchemy worked. I’d like to live in a world run by the Mayflowers.

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I love this film, and think its critical mauling is ridiculous. Firstly, it was a huge box office disaster ($17 million, from a production budget of around $70 million) which means it was safe to have a dig at – if it made double its budget back, do you think the press would have insulted it in such droves? Willis was sensible enough to not defend it too strongly, and Richard E Grant’s autobiography gave it an absolute pasting, insulting everything about it.

Also, it seems a lot of critics have a problem with comedies that are deliberately over the top. There’s this idea that the weird style moments – for example, Willis enters the next scene several times by falling from somewhere completely different in the last scene – are the result of bad editing, and not just a deliberate choice. It’s an unrealistic world, and there are some self-indulgent choices – like, the two thieves time their jobs by singing old songs, just an excuse for Willis to crowbar some singing into his movie. Richard E Grant and Sandra Bernhard are amazing, starting at 1000mph bonkers and getting worse, and it saddens me that Grant hated the experience. They do put in some sequences that work in their own right, though, like the ambulance gurney chase and the raid on the castle at the end, even if they are full of Willis cracking jokes.

I imagine it wasn’t a great set to work on – director Michael Lehmann, who made “Heathers” and “The Truth About Cats And Dogs” before becoming pretty much exclusively a TV director, was frozen out of most of the decision making by Willis and producer Joel Silver; and Willis was apparently not all that bothered by being on the set – if you ever see him from the back in a scene, it’ll be his double. But we can’t really go on that, all we can judge it on is what’s on the screen, and it’s a fun, deliberately logic-free, lunatic comic caper movie.

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I’d not watched this film in years, and revisiting it made me realise what I’d missed as a younger man. I appreciated its willingness to not care even more; but there’s also some unpleasant casual racism and homophobia tossed about, and one of the CIA agents (Andrew Bryniarski, last seen by us in “Cyborg 3”), while wondering about how they can keep Hawk in line, asks his boss, “Do you want me to rape him?” It’s very odd, as are the very large amount of Nintendo references, but as the sort of film that doesn’t get made any more – the super A-lister’s weird passion project – if nothing else, it’s worth a watch.

Rating: thumbs up

Looper (2012)

It’s the year 2044. Time travel has yet to be invented but, evidently, it soon will. Joe Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a Looper, a mob assassin with a particularly niche speciality in despatching targets, already bound and hooded, sent from thirty years hence. In 2074, nano-technology has rendered body disposal nigh-impossible, leading crime syndicates to use a highly illegal one-way time machine that escorts their victims backward to an untraceable destruction. Complications arise when Joe is overpowered by one of his targets. To compound the problem, the target is his older self (Bruce Willis). With both versions of Joe on the run from the mob, and each-other, who will  or should — be the one left standing?

Despite there being nothing in our understanding of science that outright denies time travel as a possibility, narrative fiction always sacrifices some logic at its altar. Even films that adopt a hermetic ‘closed-loop’ approach (12 Monkeys, Los Cronocrímenes) still leave themselves vulnerable to bootstrap paradoxes. As with the majority of stories, the best approach is to establish your parameters early, as coherently as you can, and don’t break your own rules unless you have a good enough reason. Looper succeeds in spades, partly as the characters have such clearly identifiable motivations and aren’t simply arbiters of contrived metaphysics. Similar to the thematically-fraternal Inception, these mercenary attitudes help anchor the audience among the compelling absurdity. For example, a couple of scenes may handwave the brain-frying chrono-mechanics as too complex, or unimportant to the task at hand. It avoids any sense of smug fourth-walling, as the characters have either an emotional imperative or decidedly bigger fish to fry.

Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe Simmons

Looper acts for the most part as a pulpy future-noir (simpatico with Gordon-Levitt’s somewhat theatrical make-up effects), where its mid-21st century backdrop wheezes at the strain of contemporary mammon. Obsolete, ugly vehicles are augmented by belated technology, while a bloated population of destitutes contrast the loopers’ perennial party and mischief. It’s a future chillingly recogniseable in its mundanity, without tipping over into Children of Men-style outright despair. None of this dystopia is dwelt on thoroughly in the film, serving more as casual signifiers of our characters’ ethical bankruptcy. Young Joe  our resolute protagonist, despite the one-on-one marketing  is a bastard, and not merely a pretend bastard one sometimes finds in these sort of movies. You know the type; he probably drinks coffee from a styrofoam cup, gets slapped by ‘hussies’, then shoots a bunch of people who were ‘bad’ anyway. Young Joe is a cold-blooded, avaricious junkie, but likeable in his upwardly-mobile aspiration. The film does an excellent job of balancing sympathy between him and the more repentant Old Joe, causing audience allegiance to vacillate. However, largely to its credit, the film never quite embraces this simple ‘Him vs Him’ trajectory, choosing instead to give flesh to its mythology, without overcomplicating the already pretty complex. It’s a swerve that will alienate those who would prefer a more sinewy approach to the material than the psychodrama it becomes. Particularly as that subtle transition leads to a slightly sagging mid-section,  notable only in contrast to the high watermark of its surroundings.

The great strength of Looper is in its commitment to genre filmmaking without using it to justify bad storytelling or production. A tremendous litany of popular influences spring to mind during the runtime, yet it effortlessly manages to recontextualise these notes to a unique whole. There’s no pseudo-Kubrickian yearning beyond its grasp, or petulant wallowing in sci-fi ghettoisation. The script is smart, the performances are sharp (child actor Pierce Gagnon is uncannily good, to the point where his performance seems like an elaborate visual effect), and it looks fantastic for a thirty million dollar picture. Even without the attractive premise, it’s a stylistic breath of fresh air from someone with a small nudge from karma  destined for big Hollywood-shaped things. Director Rian Johnson is best known for the similarly genre-savvy Brick, also starring Gordon-Levitt, which memorably adapted noir sensibilities to a high school setting. Looper is much larger in scope, but uses its modest budget to a liberating benefit. One stand-out sequence is so astonishingly macabre that tonally it’s almost too upsetting to fit with the rest of the film, but far too good for the cutting room floor.

Emily Blunt as Sara

Much hay can be  made of the fact the time-travel machinations appear less and less intuitive upon subsequent mulling, in spite of the attention to detail that is woven. But that particular hay only makes for a comfy pedant. The real fact is that Looper sticks to its premise and, most importantly, doesn’t taunt the viewer with reductive trickery (in contrast, a recent Doctor Who episode involved our hero strictly adhering to the whim of a dimestore novel, written in the future and transported to the past, under fear of paradox). Unbefitting such a hokey title and premise, there’s a pleasingly mature social commentary, not just in terms of haves and have-nots or fate-related gubbins. Both overt and implicit, it’s about recursion. For all our attempts at reinvention, we still leave ourselves vulnerable to the same old mistakes. Violence begets violence, and more harm than good can come from the imposition of a well-meaning man with a gun. The latter moral is not easy to pull off within an action story, but Looper, as with much of its high-conception, is well-judged enough to pull it off.

Looper on IMDB
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