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.”

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Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998)

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When you’re 7 films deep in a series, and know the bad guy is only dying if they stop making money, your mind has a tendency to wander. Just what was Michael doing for the last 20 years? Did he a have a job? That mask looks remarkably fresh considering every Halloween mask I ever bought fell to pieces after a day. Did he buy a stock of blue overalls?

Despite it being only 3 years since the last instalment, it feels like a heck of a lot more. “Scream” and “Scream 2” had been released in the meantime, and despite H20 pretty much ignoring their skewering of horror film rules – yes, someone dies after saying “I’ll be right back”, and the teenagers who have sex are goners – it feels a couple of decades more modern than “The Curse Of Michael Myers”. Also, the teen film was big business again, so this movie has a virtual A-list cast, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jodi Lyn O’Keefe in her first role, Michelle Williams and Josh Hartnett.

“Halloween H20” also follows the tradition of horror franchises which ignore previous movies in the series. In this universe, Halloween 4, 5 and 6 never happened, and Laurie Strode never had a daughter. She faked her own death in order to get away from Michael, then rather implausibly managed to get a job as the headmistress of an exclusive private school in California, having a son in the process who by 1998 is Josh Hartnett. Did they not do a background check? Michael, after…I don’t know, being a roadie for a metal band for 20 years?…decides that his sister is alive and pops back to Illinois to murder Dr. Loomis’ nurse on the off chance she has some information about Laurie. Joseph Gordon Levitt, as a local skateboard kid, doesn’t even make it as far as the opening credits.

Let’s get all the sad Pleasence information out of the way. He died in 1995, so his sole involvement in this is as a photograph and a map, showing all the different places he went looking for Michael – they do reuse one of his speeches from the first movie, but for reasons unknown get another actor to speak the lines. Given the last time we saw Michael in this universe was when the two of them got blown up at the end of part 2, and the camera lingered over his burning corpse while the credits played, both he and Loomis recovered remarkably well.

Halloween H20 Kenny

So, private school, most of the students and faculty are off on a camping trip, leaving four sexy teens, Curtis, her boyfriend Adam Arkin the guidance counsellor, and LL Cool J the security guard. He’s my favourite character, with his quirk being he’s a wannabe erotic fiction writer, spending most of his onscreen time reading his stories out to his wife. Ten years later and he could have been the next EL James! Michael makes his way from Illinois to California remarkably quickly (he’d need to drive the speed limit the entire way and never stop if he wanted to make it in under two days), uses some stealth-ninja powers to get into the school, and we’re on for some carnage.

This is by a comfortable distance the best of the series since the first one (although I do love how bonkers part 4 is). The cast is great, it’s had plenty of money spent on it and Jamie Lee Curtis is still the ultimate Final Girl, even if she’s no longer a girl. The fact it’s slickly made does tend to hide some of the problems it has, though. Michael doesn’t kill anyone between the opening credits and almost an hour into the movie, and that section – while not terrible – is a heck of a lot of setup for not a lot of payoff (the bodycount is at Halloween 1 levels). It feels like they were almost going to go a different way before bringing Michael back again, and I’d lay money on Adam Arkin being the killer in an early draft of the script, because Curtis mistakes him for Michael three times in the course of the movie – once I’ll buy as a red herring, but three times and you’re in different territory.

There’s plenty of that “people being dumb to ensure Michael has someone to kill” stuff going on, but that’s par for the course for slasher movies. It would have been nice to have someone ponder why he’s effectively indestructible, but the film just ignores all that stuff and expects you to know who everyone is and what they can do. Not a terrible idea, I suppose. The music is generic thriller-music, all soaring strings, and the only showing for the classic Halloween theme is as the credits roll – if you’re going to do a Halloween, have some decent music please.

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It shows its post-Scream creation by being thick with references to other horror films – before the opening credits, there are little nods to “Friday The 13th” and “Hellraiser”; producer Kevin Williamson had a hand in “Scream”; and director Steve Miner is a horror stalwart, getting his start on the original “Last House On The Left” and directing a few of the Friday 13th sequels. Janet Leigh, as the school secretary, drives the exact same make and model of car, with the same number plate, she was driving in “Psycho”.

All in all, it’s well done and fun to watch. Not perfect, but you’ll have a good time with it.

Rating: thumbs up

Premium Rush (2012)

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Directed by: David Koepp

I remember about six years ago I worked as a postman during the summer. My designated route required me to ride on a rickety bike. Given that I was a terrible cyclist and had somehow not ridden a bike for about eight years, I really did test the much repeated saying that you never forget how to ride a bike. The depot was situated just off the city’s busy Ring Road, and just getting to the start of your route was a nerve wrecking experience. A few times I almost swerved into oncoming traffic. I had to quit before I got killed.

‘Premium Rush’ is an innovative action movie that follows NYC bicycle courier Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he picks up an envelope late in his shift that ends up being more trouble than it’s worth. The delivery brings him into contact with a corrupt psychotic cop called Bobby Monday (played brilliantly by Michael Shannon) who is hell bent on getting his hands on the envelope.

Watching the nimble cyclists weaving in and out of New York traffic really does get the heart racing, but the film itself is very stop start, before grinding to a pathetically limp finish. The story is told in a skewed order, we begin with Wilee getting knocked off his bike, in slow motion his body cart wheels through the air. We then fast forward and rewind back and forth until we are back in the moment. To help us understand Wilee’s difficult delivery route we get to see Google Maps-like graphics, showing us where he is, and how far he’s got to travel. Wilee’s main strength as a courier is that he is able to anticipate where the best route is, he constantly looks for short cuts, which is just as well given he cannot stop at red lights because his bike has no breaks.
The frustrating thing about ‘Premium Rush’ is that after a promising first third, including a manically fun scene where we learn that Monday has a gambling problem, and owes thousands to a Chinese gang from losing several games of what looked like dominoes but is probably mah-jong. One of the gang leaders offers to square Monday’s debts if he is able to intercept a ticket worth fifty grand that is about to be delivered. Since Wilee has the ticket, Monday must chase the courier across New York.

The final two thirds of the film is far-fetched nonsense, completely and utterly cartoonish, tying in with Wilee seemingly being named after a Warner Bros. cartoon. Shannon is great as the unhinged cop, bringing his usual array of furious facial expressions. He has the best lines and is the star of the film. When Monday finally has Wilee where he wants him, trapped in the back of an ambulance, he is tricked one last time.

There’s plenty to hate about Wilee, the hero of the movie. He constantly refers to Monday as “douchebag”, when he in fact is the epitome of a douche. Here’s a cocky young man who rides a bike with no breaks. A true arsehat who doesn’t deserve to get the girl, but you know he will, because that’s how these movies tend to pan out. His rival for the girl, fellow courier Manny, challenges Wilee to a race through one of New York’s picturesque parks, the scene is the equivalent of an Attenborough slow motion shot of two alpha stags butting horns.

Of course when Wilee gets hit by a car, bruises some ribs, and can hardly move, he is somehow is able to recover, jump on a BMX bike and leap about all over the place, fleeing a group of hapless policeman. He grimaces but sucks it up. Wilee is doing his job for the adrenaline buzz, and the freedom. He doesn’t want to be an unhappy man in a suit who sits in an office cubicle from nine to five. He is willing to break the law in order to get the buzz. At times ‘Premium Rush’ feels like a ninety minute advert for an energy drink.

If I’m to pay this movie some compliments then I would say that the chase scenes are pretty innovative. You don’t see many bicycle chases in films, so ‘Premium Rush’ has a hint of originality. The cat and mouse game played by cop and courier is fun for a while, but then it gets a bit PG and predictable, and by the time the satisfying ending comes along you’re glad the ride is over.

– RJW
5/10

Premium Rush on IMDB
Buy Premium Rush (DVD + UV Copy) [2012]

Killshot (2009)

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Directed by John Madden (no, not that one)

When browsing through the fiction section of the Oxfam book store down Bedford Street I came across Elmore Leonard’s ‘Killshot’. I was on a real pulp kick and since I’d devoured several simple sentences whilst reading through tired eyes in the last few months it meant that the book was a must purchase. Leonard has had several of his books adapted into movies, such as ‘Rum Punch’ (which became Tarantino’s best film ‘Jackie Brown’), ‘Get Shorty’ and ‘Out of Sight’, so when almost serendipitously I was on the hunt for bargain DVD’s in Poundland a week or so later and happened to stumble upon ‘Killshot’, again I quickly parted with my cash.

‘Killshot’ is mostly centred on a Mafia hitman named Blackbird (Mickey Rourke) who angers the mob after bumping off a witness. Prior to the job he was reluctant to kill again after accidentally shooting his brother when he got in the way of a bullet destined for a Nurse. Blackbird retires to the wilderness, trying to reconnect with his Native American roots. He ends up meeting a wiry dumb petty crook called Richie Nix (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in a dive bar, and when Nix has the gall to try and rob him, he develops a protective bond over the younger Nix, seeing him as a little brother figure. The unlikely duo botch an attempt to extort an Estate Agency and end up getting humiliated and chased away by an estranged couple – Wayne and Carmen Colson. They then go after the couple hoping to exact bloody revenge.

In a different director’s hands this could’ve been a smarter, hipper film, but John Madden has gone all serious on us. Everything is blue-collar and bland. Around the midway point, when the Colson’s are put in a Witness Protection programme the film completely flags. Nix goes from a lovable rogue, to an ADD suffering goon and Rourke seems bored with it all, he loses his ice cold chill and becomes pacified.

Diane Lane and Thomas Jane play the Colson’s, a vanilla couple going through marriage difficulties, but jeez, where is the anger, the tension, why don’t these two hate each other? It is revealed that Carmen couldn’t have children and suggested that Wayne is getting too old for heavy manual labour, but these don’t seem to be the reasons why they are separating. The domestic subplot is weak, and the couple are hard to care about. We aren’t really fussed if they get back together and we don’t really care if Blackbird fills them full of lead.

This film was being developed back in 1997 by Miramax, evidently the Weinsteins saw something in Leonard’s original work, but it didn’t go into development until 2005 when Madden came aboard, shooting Hossein Amini’s script. Surprisingly ‘Killshot’ never made it to the cinema, despite the bankable names involved.

‘Killshot’ lacks vibrancy and edge; this got me wondering if maybe the source material isn’t all that great. I shall no doubt read the book with low expectations, but being familiar with previous Elmore Leonard adaptations I expected something hipper, chock full of complex twists and double crosses.

– RJW
5/10

Killshot on IMDB
Buy Killshot [DVD]
Read Killshot by Elmore Leonard

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
Buy Looper [DVD]