Friday, October 26, 2012

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 Has a Few New Tricks n' Treats


It's hard to objectively review the Paranormal Activity films these days, if only because so much of the experience involves the funhouse effect of being spooked in a theater full of jumping and shrieking audience members. In terms of movies-as-haunted-attraction, the PA films still have some seriously scary mojo going - and Paranormal Activity 4 is proof of that. In the theater, people cringed, gasped, jumped, and screamed - and it made seeing the movie an incredibly fun experience, even if the PA formula is, by this point, a well-worn one. Now, talking about this one as a movie ... there's still gas in the tank, but it does feel like we're inching ever-closer to self-parody territory here. There's a lot of cutesiness in the movie, and less hardcore scares than in the previous films. And the attempts to further the expanding mythology of the franchise don't add much to the storytelling. But hey, there are still some great moments, some innovative gimmicks, and some good fun to be had.

After flashing back to the 80's with Paranormal Activity 3, Part 4 picks back up in the present. We're introduced to a new family living in suburban California. As it turns out their creepy neighbor is none other than series star Katie Featherston, who was last seen abducting babies while seemingly possessed by evil demon spirits. Katie's got a creepy son, Robbie, and seems to have sinister designs on the neighbor's similarly-aged kid, Wyatt. But - our main POV character is Wyatt's older sister, teenaged Alex. Through Alex, and her tech-savvy boyfriend Ben, PA 4 gets some of its best visual gimmicks.

Now, I'm not sure if there's anything quite as creepy-awesome as PA3's use of a rotating fan-mounted camera to create crazy amounts of tension. But there are some good little tricks used by directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who are back for their second PA outing. The most prominent tactic is the use of webcams / videochat. The directors make clever use of the fact that the rectangular screen of Alex's laptop is almost entirely filled with her head while chatting with her boyfriend. This lends itself to big scares when Alex moves and we realize what's been lurking behind her. But PA4's coolest idea is to use the XBOX Kinect, of all things, as a scare tactic. Ben suggests turning off the lights and using the Kinect in its laser mode, where all of its tiny green laser-lights - used to detect movement- are visible. This works great, because it turns out that the Kinect is a perfect mechanism for ghost-detecting. Seeing the neon-green laser lights reveal a previously unseen apparition is pretty badass indeed.

But like I said, there's too much here that feels cutesy rather than scary. Too many scares turn out to be fake-outs, and there just isn't quite the same great sense of escalating horror that the early films - particularly the first - utilized so effectively. It doesn't help that the story isn't quite sure what it wants to be. On one hand,  PA4 has heavy ties to the previous films, given the large presence of Katie Featherston. It even has a short prologue that recaps the ending of PA2 to set the stage for this one. On the other hand, there's very little plot here, and a lot is kept ambiguous. There's really not much meat to the "mythology" in the film, except as a tie to the previous films. It makes things feel a bit muddled, and it feels like a lot of stuff is thrown at us without much underlying purpose. We've got ghost kids, angry spirits, a coven of witch-women, demon-possessed Katie ... it doesn't really add up to much. The end result is that ... even though there is a lot going on on the surface of PA4, it ends up feeling like an oddly plotless movie.

The film also is harmed a bit by the escalation of Katie to Big Bad. What made the actress work so well in the original was her everywoman quality - and that doesn't translate as well to the role of fearsome femme fatale. That said, what helps the film work as well as it does is the likability of some of its other main actors. Kathryn Newton is endearing as terrified teen Alex, and Matt Shively is amusingly dorky as boyfriend Ben. Those two give the movie a lot of its charm, and creepy kid Robbie, meanwhile, is appropriately eerie thanks to young actor Brady Allen.

Overall, I had a lot of fun with PA4, even if there was plenty of evidence that the series, as a whole, is losing some steam. But I still love how these films are a triumph of the most fundamental principles of horror. You've got to admire that, even as budgets have inched up and box-office grosses have soared, the PA movies have remained low-frills, bare bones affairs - always sticking to the basics, never getting caught up in crazy CGI or overblown f/x. The soul of the series is still intact, even if the scares aren't quite as scary as in year's past. But I hate to be too cynical about these films - seeing them in a packed theater is, still, a frightfully good time.

My Grade: B

Monday, October 22, 2012



- I loved In Bruges. It was one of those movies that I snagged a free DVD of and watched on a whim one night, and then thought ... "wow, that ... kicked ... ass." Written and directed by playwright Martin McDonagh, In Bruges was a funny, stylish, gritty crime drama that felt like Tarantino, but with a serious infusion of Irish-Catholic pathos. In any case, I was very curious to see what McDonagh could do next, especially with the kind of all-star cast he'd lined up for Seven Psychopaths. Featuring a veritable cult-cinema  dream team, this is one of those films where you could seriously just watch the leads exchange oddball dialogue for two hours and go home happy. And luckily, the playwright McDonagh infuses his film with enough quirky and witty banter to give the likes of Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, and Tom Waits all manner of great lines. Where the film falters though is in its narrative. Instead of a straightforward plotline, McDonagh attempts a meta-narrative - a movie-within-the-movie sort of thing, that is either over or under-ambitious, depending on how you look at it. Mostly, it feels like he's struggling to find a framework in which to place all of these quirky actors. And so Seven Psychopath ends up being a bit of a mixed bag. It contains numerous awesome scenes, and some fantastic performances. But it doesn't really ever come together with the punch that it needs to match the greatness of In Bruges.

Seven Psychopaths stars Colin Farrell as Marty, a Hollywood screenwriter struggling to write his next script, which he's on deadline to complete. Marty is sort of a sketchy dude - a borderline-alcoholic who hangs with shady folks like Billy (Sam Rockwell), a wannabe writer, part-time scam-artist, and possible psychopath. Billy works with another associate, Hans (Christopher Walken), on an ongoing enterprise that involves "borrowing" the dogs of rich people, and then "finding" them and returning them so as to cash in on the reward money. The problem is that Billy and Hans have just unwittingly stolen the dog of a crazy-ass criminal named Charlie, who figures out the scheme and puts a hit out on Billy and Hans. Marty gets caught up in their situation, even as he unintentionally sets himself up to get a whole truckload of inspiration for his in-stasis script. You see, Marty's script is called "Seven Psychopaths," and it's about seven psychos who get caught up in a caper. As the film progresses, we find that some of Marty's seemingly imaginary characters are actually, unknowingly, drawn from his real-life associates. We learn that some of Marty's friends are themselves psycho-killers. And ultimately, as the line between Marty's life and his screenplay become increasingly blurred, Marty realizes that he can't count on real-life events to play out in screenplay-friendly sequence or structure.

So there are essentially three "layers" to the film: 1.) the events actually happening to Marty and his cohorts, 2.) a parallel story dreamed up for Marty's "Seven Psycopaths" screenplay (often with elements drawn from actual events, or with elements that somehow manifest in reality), and 3.) the "meta" layer of all of this being a reflection of McDonagh's process in writing *his* Seven Psychopaths movie, and *his* struggle to come up with its characters and plotline. There is a really cool idea at work here - something that's been done to great effect in movies like Adaptation. But the implementation feels messy and random. McDonagh has a lot of fun playing with the idea of where truth and fiction intersect. But a lot of it boils down to "oh yeah, this guy ... is actually *this* guy!" sorts of reveals, that don't necessarily even make narrative sense. Christopher Walken's character, for example ... it feels like something is missing there. Same with Sam Rockwell - it feels like we're only seeing about half of the picture with him. What happens is that McDonagh sacrifices some narrative cohesiveness in the interest of giving us any number of individual scenes that are *really frackin' badass.*

That's the thing: Seven Psychopaths has dozens of moments that are flat-out awesome, but that make little sense in the bigger picture. But awesome they be. For one, one of the best conceits of the film is Marty's little asides where we are told the "origin" stories of his various psychopaths, as he imagines them in his screenplay. These are by and large fantastic. I loved the story of the badass Quaker who is followed into hell by his nemesis. The story of the once-tranquil Vietnamese priest, who travels to America after the war hellbent on bloody revenge - badass as all hell. And then there's the story of Tom Waits' character, Zachariah - a psycho who went on a killing spree with his wife, taking out America's worst serial killers with a dose of their own medicine. Waits sells it, and it's a great little side-story for the movie.

On that note, the movie often hits a sweet spot of delightful madness when it's just letting all these slightly-insane actors go at it. Colin Farell, I think, would be regarded as one of the greats if he only appeared in McDonagh movies. He's a natural with the hard-bitten dark humor of McDonagh's scripts. Let me put it this way: a phrase like "seven psychopaths" could be said in a lot of different ways ... but in Farell's hands, the phrase itself becomes a darkly hilarious running joke. Farell is great in this movie, and I'd be happy if he only ever again appeared in darkly funny, dialogue-driven crime capers for the rest of his career. Speaking of which, Sam Rockwell is also on his game here. As preposterous as his character is, you believe in him only because Rockwell is so good at playing off-kilter and unpredictable. And Christopher Walken is endlessly entertaining in this movie. His line readings are characteristically bizarre, but in a movie like this, that weirdness fits like a glove. But Walken also brings some genuine emotion to Hans - Hans' relationship with his wife, for example (beautifully played by Linda Bright Clay in a scene-stealing role), is handled quite well, and brings some real weightiness to the film. Woody Harrelson could probably play the role of loose-cannon gangster Charlie in his sleep, but there's also no one better you'd want for the role. And the movie is just littered with great actors, even in small roles. In addition to Tom Waits, there's appearances by Kevin Corrigan, Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg (in a little Boardwalk Empire reunion), Harry Dean Stanton, Gabourey Sidibe, and Zeljko Ivanek (seemingly in everything these days).

Still, one odd thing about the film is that its main female characters - with the exception of Bright Clay's - are so undercooked ... despite being played by able actresses like Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko. Both characters are just sort of window dressing, despite seeming as if their roles in the film should be larger. Things get stranger, as McDonagh actually meta-comments on this, with it being mentioned that the female characters in Marty's script are paper-thin and relegated to background players. It's an attempt at cleverness, but it just seems like a roundabout way of apologizing for not letting Cornish or Kurylenko kick more ass. There are other parts of the film that seem lazy in this same manner. For example, a good deal of the script's characters are just casually racist and/or bigoted for no apparent reason. I'm not saying the movie itself is bigoted, but I just didn't see much of a point to some of the dialogue. Like, okay, Harrelson's Charlie is supposed to be dangerous and easy-to-hate ... but beyond that, some of the language used just felt awkward.

It's too bad, because most of the dialogue sings. I love great, stylized movie dialogue, and McDonagh is perhaps just a step below that rare class with guys like Tarantino and the Coens in this regard ... Like I said, mostly, it's a pleasure just to listen to the movie's great, often hilarious banter.

All in all, I'm left with some mixed feelings about Seven Psychopaths. There are some fantastic moments in it, and a knockout cast that is perfectly matched to the material. But I also couldn't help but feel that there wasn't enough here to justify the central, movie-within-a-movie conceit. In fact, it's a conceit that ultimately just serves to muddy the potentially strong characters and plotline. Think about In Bruges - part of why it worked so well was the focus on a main character who went through a very simple story of damnation/redemption, with lots of crazy and quirky stuff going on around him. Seven Psychopaths feels like idea overkill. It feels like because the central storyline wasn't strong enough, a whole other movie - about the making of this movie - was layered on top of it as a sort of band-aid. What we're left with is a movie chock full of badass moments and awesome-but-disconnected scenes, but one that never 100% clicks as a cohesive whole. On the other hand, you've got to admire a film with such lofty ambitions, that so freely dares to be weird and different and dark. I eagerly look forward to more movies from McDonagh, even if this one feels like a slight step back from In Bruges.

My Grade: B

Friday, October 19, 2012

THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER: A Beautiful Teenage Wasteland


- I only had a mild familiarity with the source material on which THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is based, but I had a feeling I might be in good hands with this one, given that the film is actually written and directed by Steven Chbosky, the author of the original book. It's rare that we see this happen, but what we get here is something pretty cool - a film that feels both literary and cinematic - a work that uses music, imagery, and nonlinearity to encapsulate Chbosky's themes into a moving and evocative experience. This movie portrays the heightened reality of being a teenager to perfection. And while the melodrama can feel cheesy at first, eventually, the movie won me over by taking me back to the way things seem and feel during those awkward and formative high school years. What's more, a great cast brings this story to life in a way that makes this movie feel real and lived-in.

PERKS centers around Charlie (Logan Lerman), entering high school as a delayed freshman after having been "sick" and away from school for a while. We slowly learn more about some of the tragedies that have befallen Charlie, that have kept him out of school and sort of isolated and alone. We also learn that he's got some mental health issues that he's been trying his best to put behind him. But his social isolation has left him pretty depressed, and made him very nervous for his first day of high school. Luckily, Charlie quickly falls in with a group of outcasts and misfits, and for the first time has a group to which he belongs. Of course, each member of the group is dealing with their own issue. Patrick (a fantastic Ezra Miller) has been keeping the fact that he's gay a secret from all but a few of his friends. His step-sister, Sam (Emma Watson, also fantastic), has a troubled past - drinking too much and sleeping with too many guys - but now wants to get her life in order and get into a good college. Of course, for Charlie, it's love at first sight. But even as Sam keeps falling into the arms of not-so-nice guys, her friend Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman) - a tortured intellectual - develops a crush on Charlie. Charlie also begins forming a friendship with his English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), who mentors Charlie and turns him on to the books and authors that will shape his worldview.

There's a lot of humor in Perks, a lot of hilariously awkward coming-of-age moments. And the cast handles it all beautifully. But all of the quirk and slice-of-life hijinks are given a weighty undertone because of the serious issues that Charlie is grappling with. For any of us, high school is a time of heightened emotion and experience, and Charlie's mental instability is sort of an even more heightened version of what we all go through. But Chbosky balances all the teen angst with a real feel for the little moments that can be transcendent, memorable, funny, and weird. I think of Charlie and his friends attending a live performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, of Mary Elizabeth's ultra-awkward seduction of Charlie, of a recurring joke that all the characters keep making mixtapes for each other ... as moments in the film that are at once funny and poignant.

The cast in this one is just fantastic as well. Lerman does a nice job of expressing bottled-up emotion, making it all the more hard-hitting when he does let loose. Watson is stellar - whereas you could say that Harry Potter's Hermione was sort of the whip-smart girl-next-door, Sam is the other end of the spectrum - the proto manic-pixie-dream-girl who is essentially a walking high-school crush for the outsiders and outcasts set. If the movie has a breakout performance though, it may well be Ezra Miller as Patrick. He does a brilliant job of slowly but surely peeling away the layers of the character. At first, he's the class-clown - an eccentric goof-off. But as time goes by we see the torment this guy goes through, and how his friends aren't so much an audience as they are a support-system. There are all sorts of other great little performances in the film - Rudd is spot-on, Whitman is fantastic, Dylan McDermot is strong as Charlie's dad, Nina Dobrev has some nice scenes and his sister, and there's a great little role for Tom Savini as the put-upon shop teacher who's often the butt of Patrick's pranks. But there's barely a moment of falseness in the film - certainly not on the part of the actors. These guys nail it.

Chbosky uses a lot of cinematic tools to make a world he once wrote about in prose become fully realized on film. One of the biggest things is music. The soundtrack overflows with music that will stick with you, especially given how big of a role music plays in the lives of the characters, and in the story as a whole. The Smiths, Bowie, The Beatles, 90's one-hit-wonders like Cracker ... all evoke one one hand the era the movie takes place in (hello, 90's), but also the semi-timeless sort of songs that makeup the soundtrack of teenagedom. The movie takes on an MTV music video feel, in some ways, but in a good way. It wanders, it goes quiet, gets loud, jumps in time, and creates a tapestry of moments that shape Charlie's young adulthood.

If I have any complaint, it's that a major reveal at the end of the film - about Charlie's past - felt a bit off to me. And this revelation sends the movie into a final-act spiral that feels rushed. Without spoiling anything, the movie seems to keep building towards being a semi-triumphant story for Charlie. Sure, he had a pretty terrible childhood up to now, but now he's found friends, found confidence, loved and lost, lived life. That, I thought, was the note that the movie would go out on, and it would have worked for me. But at a fast clip, we instead get a new low for Charlie, followed by a coda that is sort of a band-aid to make sure we go home at least semi-happy. I think the message is that life is messy, and that there's no pat happy endings. I just thought the movie didn't go out on quite the high note it could have.

Still, THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is one of the nice cinematic surprises of 2012. A quintessential coming-of-age movie, it will take you back, and evoke those same feelings of life-as-great-drama that every teenager feels. Sometimes in adulthood, it's valuable to remember a time when you were less numb and more vulnerable - and this is a film that washes over you and takes you back to that teenaged wasteland.

My Grade: A-

Monday, October 15, 2012

ARGO Is a Riveting Real-Life Thriller

ARGO Review:

- Ben Affleck has come a long way. After reinventing himself with gritty, Boston-based dramas Gone Baby, Gone and The Town, Affleck has now taken the next step towards becoming not just a legitimate filmmaker, but a great one. His latest, ARGO, is a fantastic film. It's a gripping thriller that's also funny, and even educational. This is one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction real life tales. But the interesting thing with the story of Argo is that it isn't just a "can you believe this really happened" sort of narrative. There's some fascinating political context here, recent history that still very much informs where we're at today with Iran and the Middle East region. Argo is an intriguing look at one of the major foreign policy challenges of the Carter administration, but it's also a rip-roaring spy story. The cast here is top-of-the-line. And again, Affleck makes it all sing. Despite its true-life trappings, ARGO zips along with the urgency and sheer entertainment value of a classic, 70's-era, big-screen thriller. This is one of the finest films of the year so far.

Argo's story is the kind of thing that you'd imagine could only be dreamed up for the movies. But this story - declassified by President Clinton in 1997 - is all too real. In 1980, Iranian revolutionaries took over the US Embassy in Tehran, holding all of the workers there hostage for a prolonged period that extended for months, as President Cater attempted to work out a solution that would result in minimal loss of life. But during the initial Iranian raid on the embassy, six American diplomats escaped the building, and eventually found refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador to Iran. He kept them hidden in his home, even as the Iranians desperately searched for them. The US needed a plan to extract them from Iran, but had to figure out a way to keep the identities of the six diplomats hidden. Enter Tony Mendez, a CIA "exfiltration" expert, who specializes in out-of-the-box escape plans. Mendez devises a plan to get the Six out of Iran by having them pose as a film crew. Mendez reaches out to contacts in Hollywood, including a major producer, and the special f/x guy behind the Planet of the Apes films. They get a hold of an unproduced sci-fi screenplay called Argo, and go to every effort to make it seem like this movie - a cheesy Star Wars ripoff - is actually going to get made. Eventually, Mendez, posing as the film's producer, goes to Iran to "location scout," picking up the Six on the way and briefing them on their new, assumed identities. All the while, the Iranians are increasingly hot on their trail.

Part of what makes the film so fun is how Affleck-as-Mendez must weave between the worlds of international espionage and Hollywood. At the CIA, he's answerable to Bryan Cranston's exasperated Jack O'Donnell and O'Donnell's even more world-weary superiors. In Hollywood, he works with old-school producer Lester Siegal (Alan Arkin) and veteran makeup and f/x guy John Chambers (John Goodman). In their own way, these guys are as cagey and hardened as the higher-ups at the CIA - and the movie illustrates how the movie business can be as much about rumors, info leaks, false statements, and insider secrets as the CIA. At the same time, it's funny to see how the movies really do serve as America's most beloved export. Whereas other covers might have raised more Iranian eyebrows, the thought of a big Star Wars-esque movie shot in Iran never fails to impress even the most American-hating Iranians.

Now, from some of the description above, you can probably tell ... the cast of ARGO is phenomenal. Arkin and Goodman are always great, always scene stealers - and the same holds true here. They bring some needed levity to the film, and Arkin in particular just kills it with some of his quips. What I like though is that there is some real dimension to these characters. Sure, Arkin and Goodman play Hollywood old-hands, but you also see a gleem in their eyes as they realize they get to use their talents to serve their country in a meaningful way. Meanwhile, Cranston gets one of his meatiest film roles to date since breaking out on Breaking Bad. Mostly, he plays the part of the by-the-book good soldier, but when he has to go out on a limb to support Affleck, we get to see Cranston really let loose. As for Affleck himself ... he's quite good here. It's a somewhat understated role, but Affleck does a great job of giving the part of Mendez some nuance. The film doesn't dwell, for example, on Mendez's strained relationship with his ex-wife and young son - but what bits we do get shade Mendez's character and his motivations throughout the film. Otherwise, the cast is just filled, top-to-bottom, with fantastic players. Victor Garber, Zeljko Ivanek, Kyle Chandler, Tate Donovan, and many others all do solid work. There are cameos from the ever-reliable likes of Richard Kind and Titus Welliver. Suffice it to say, a huge part of what makes the film so successful is the cast just playing off of each other, and lending an old-school sort of feel to the film. It's an all-star cast, but no one is really competing for top-billing. Everyone chips in and makes the most of their screentime.

What's more, the film does a great job of giving us all sorts of interesting details of the CIA's unusual mission. We see the storyboards that were created to help sell the fake film (drawn by no less than Jack Kirby - the co-creator of The X-Men, the Hulk, etc. - himself!). We see how an ad for the film was taken out in Variety, and how a poster was hung up on Siegal's office wall for posterity. We see how the diplomats were explained away to the Canadian Ambassador's Iranian maid as being houseguests - but we wonder if she might suspect something. We also get some insight into the diplomats themselves. They too are fully-formed characters - each with a backstory that makes watching their own debates - on whether to trust Mendez, and on whether to go along with his escape plan - all the more riveting. Affleck skillfully covers a lot of ground here, zipping from Washington to Los Angeles to Iran. He keeps things moving at a nice clip, but he gives us all the details that flesh out the story, that make you realize all of the meticulous planning that went into this caper.

Affleck perfectly captures the vibe of the late 70's / early 80's. Not just in terms of the period details, which are spot-on, but in the way the movie itself almost feels like some lost classic of the era. The packing, the acting, the sense of intrigue and humming intensity - it brings to mind classic thrillers like All The President's Men. Still, Affleck isn't afraid to bring some of the bombast of The Town and other modern action flicks to the movie. There are some epic scenes in this one - from the initial raid on the US Embassy, which is absolutely breathtaking - to the nail-biting finale in which the six diplomats attempt their ultimate escape. Meanwhile, little touches - like Jimmy Carter giving a sort of spoken epilogue prior to the end credits, or side-by-side photos of the principle actors next to their real-life counterparts, provide a nice sense of context to the film.

What we have here is one of the year's most entertaining, well-acted, and sharpest dramas - a film that seems to perfectly encapsulate a certain era, even as it feels uber-relevant to today's headlines. With ARGO, Ben Affleck has, in my estimation, just catapulted himself into the upper-echelon of working directors, and I will now actively look forward to what he does next. Argo stands as a top-notch example of the kind of film we need more of: it's a big, fun, engaging drama that nonetheless actually says something about the way things were and the way things are. This is one of the year's best.

My Grade: A-

Monday, October 08, 2012

TAKEN 2 Is Entertainingly Pulpy Sequel

TAKEN 2 Review:

- Many critics have taken aim at TAKEN 2 ... but then again, many also dismissed the original TAKEN. I'm not sure why. The first Taken had everything you could want in an action movie. It was badass, Liam Neeson owned in it, and it just worked wonderfully as over-the-top pulp. There's really nothing better than watching a dude who looks like he could be your dad whooping ass like nobody's business. And Neeson plays that sort of part to perfection. Since Taken became a box-office hit, we've seen Neeson reprise the role of grizzled-yet-cerebral asskicker many times. Some of these films have been duds, some have been awesome (this year's THE GREY being a huge highlight). But Taken - while a relatively simple and no-frills film, stands the test of time as eminently rewatchable and endlessly satisfying for its bare-knuckle pleasures. And now ... Taken 2. Some seem annoyed that this film even exists. I don't know why. I too get annoyed wit hunnecessary sequels, but Taken is less about a particular narrative, and more about the crowd-pleasing aesthetic I described above - watching a guy morph from frumpy Dad to ruthless weapon of mass destruction whenever his loved ones are in danger. And you know what? As far as sticking to that fundamental premise goes, Taken 2 delivers the goods. The movie has some notable faults, but like its predecessor, it's ridiculously entertaining and a great bit of action-flick escapism.

TAKEN 2 picks up a short time after the events of the first movie. Bryan Mills (Neeson) has moved to LA to be closer to his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and their daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace). Mills is still an overprotective, hyper-paranoid dude, but he's also been a loving and involved father. As in, sure, he tracks down the home of Kim's new boyfriend and interrupts them mid-hook up to check in ... but still, he's just looking out for his daughter. And his ex-wife seems to appreciate that. She's now separated from her second husband, and there are some hints at a rekindled romance with Bryan. To that end, Bryan invites Lenore and Kim to join him on a trip to Istanbul. He's going there to work some security detail, but figures that, afterwords, there may be an opportunity for some quality father-daughter and husband-ex-wife time. Meanwhile, however, a bunch of sinister Albanians are plotting ways to wreak unholy vengeance on Mr. Mills. Seems they're still upset about all of the random redshirts that Mills killed in Taken 1. As it turns out, those faceless kidnappers weren't just identity-less thugs, but people's husbands, brothers, and sons. So the patriarch of the group has rounded up a gang to take out Mills and family while in Istanbul. Of course, they don't just want to kill him - they want to steal away his family and put him through emotional torture. And so Taken 2 revs up, and Liam Neeson is forced to kick ass once again.

The biggest dynamic-shift in Taken 2 is that Neeson is only solo for part of the film. For stretches, either his daughter or wife tags along - depending on who is or isn't being held against their will at a given moment. This could have seriously derailed the film, but mostly, it works pretty well. In particular, there are some strong moments between Grace and Neeson, and there's a fun arc that develops between them - basically seeing Bryan have to do away with his overprotective tendencies, and allow his daughter to embrace her inner Mills-family badass gene. After not doing much of note in Taken 1, and having had a pretty thankless action role in the mediocre Lockout, I wasn't sure if Maggie Grace could bring anything to the table here. But you know what? She's pretty good. And Janssen is also good, and it's too bad she doesn't get to unleash a little hell of her own, Phoenix-style. Oh well, maybe in Part 3.

But here's the thing overall with Luc Besson-produced films like this one: they have a Euro sensibility that is different than the usual American action movie. There aren't a lot of quips, and there's almost zero sense of irony or winking at the audience. Everything is played straight - and while there's a knowing pulpiness in the film, the tone is not in any way jokey. To some, it's hard to process that - when things get crazy, shouldn't there be some funny one-liner to diffuse the tension? That's not how Besson  (who co-wrote the film) and co. roll. They take their pulpy action very seriously, and it's been that way since the days of La Femme Nikita and Leon: The Professional. What I like about this is that I find it easier to get caught up in the action when there's nothing that's overtly eye-roll worthy. Even when there's logic-gaps (and there are some obvious moments of absurdity here), it doesn't feel like as big a deal, because this type of Euro action flick doesn't feel as desperate to please as many of the big American blockbusters. If you can't handle your action relatively humorless, then perhaps stay away. But if you yearn for the sort of deadly serious yet brazenly cheesy action that's been largely missing from pop-culture since Jack Bauer hung up his CTU vest, then all I can say is: here ya' go.

That being said, to me the biggest glaring flaw in the film is the lack of great villains. Taken 1 also didn't have truly memorable badguys, but that was besides the point. Here, you notice it a little more because of how the film is structured. The old Albanian patriarch I mentioned earlier is set up as the Big Bad, but he's an old chubby guy so he's not really a physical threat. This makes his ultimate encounter with Neeson a bit anticlimactic. I would also then liked to have seen some of the main henchmen built up better as badasses - again, to give their face-offs with Neeson a little more gravitas. I mean, the movie's biggest mano e mano fight scene is Neeson against some short, stocky guy with a bad haircut and garish tracksuit. There's never any question that the jabroni in a tracksuit is in for a grade-A beatdown.

I also think that the movie touches on a very interesting idea, but never 100% follows through in a satisfying manner. That being the notion that all of the nameless thugs you see gunned down by the hero in a typical action movie ... that they actually have friends and family who are pissed that their loved one was a casualty of one man's vigilante justice. I felt like there was some real potential here, but when Neeson comes back at the Albanians with "true, but your sons and brothers kidnapped innocent girls and sold them into slavery, so screw you." ... and that's sort of that. I mean, I don't want or need Taken 2 to be a deep philosophical meditation on the cycle of violence and how it's self-perpetuating, but -- it would have been cool to at least see it more fully integrated as a key theme in the movie's plot, and not just as an excuse to send a bunch of badguys after Neeson and his family.

But really, when you get down to it, what I look for in a movie like this is: how many moments of worthy badassery were there? And the answer is: plenty. I won't give away some of the best bits, but the movie pretty effortlessly kept me smiling and entertained throughout. The build-up to the kidnapping was fairly methodical, sure - but that made Neeson being forced back into action all the sweeter. Director (and holder of an incredible name) Olivier Megaton delivers the goods, crafting some excellent car chases, shoot-outs, foot-chases, and brawls. I enjoyed the Istanbul location as well, and found it a refreshing setting for a movie of this type. I will list one final complaint - that being the relatively limp ending of the film. I was sure that there'd be one final moment of badassery, or a final twist leading into a Part 3, to make sure we all left the theater properly pumped-up. But really, nothing all that awesome to send 'em home happy.

All in all, Taken 2 was fun as hell and delivered some gripping action. Is this a classic? No - it loses some of the laser-focus of Part 1, and struggles a bit to come up with a compelling plot to convincingly drive the action. But I will say ... the level of rewatchability is still there. This is one of those great Sunday afternoon films that you'll stop and watch if ever you come across it on cable. And hell, why not - bring on a Part 3.

My Grade: B+

FRANKENWEENIE is a Halloween Treat from Tim Burton


- Tim Burton gets a lot of undue flack from the peanut gallery. People complain about how his movies tend to have similar themes and aesthetics. And yes, Tim Burton has a distinct style, a number of pet themes, and a go-to troupe of actors that he uses often. But the idea that a filmmaker or artist must change his or her style in order to be taken seriously sort of irks me. Many great directors - from Hitchcock to Wes Anderson - have instantly-identifiable aesthetics and go-to themes. Sure, other notable filmmakers are more adaptable. But there's also nothing wrong with someone sticking to what they do best. To that end, FRANKENWEENIE is quintessential Tim Burton. It's got recurring themes that have appeared in Burton films like Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice, and it's got the trademark, stop-motion animated style that was made famous by Nightmare Before Christmas (a style I happen to love). But don't knock the movie just because it treads on some familiar ground (not least of which is the Frankenweenie live-action short that Burton made for Disney back in the 80's). Because really, after a couple of creative misfires in the last few years - Alice In Wonderland and Dark Shadows come to mind - Frankenweenie is a great return to form for Burton. For me, it felt like a return to a passion project with minimal studio interference or corporate concerns behind it. It also felt like - not a shift in style for Burton - but a reminder of why we liked him so much in the first place. I'm glad there's a guy out there making these weird, dark, creepy, offbeat movies for a big audience. And Frankenweenie is a film that reminds you that Burton still has it in him to do a Tim Burton film that is as creatively strong as it is stylistically distinctive.

I don't want to spoil too much, but Frankenweenie's plot structure reminded me a bit of one of my favorite movies of the year so far - Cabin in the Woods. By that I mean ... Frankenweenie starts off operating on a very small, very personal storytelling scale, but then launches into a totally insane third act that really escalates the action. Not only that, but the surprising third act transforms Frankenweenie from a simple boy-and-his-undead-dog sort of story into something more: a loving, madcap homage to classic monster movies. In the same way that Cabin references any number of horror flicks from the 70's, 80's, and 90's, to too does Frankenweenie play dark tribute to Universal Horror, 1950's creature-features, old Hammer horror films, Japanese monster movies, and everything in between. If you have an affection for that stuff, it's just a ton of fun.

At the heart of the film though is the story about a boy (Victor Frankenstein) who uses mad-science methods to bring his dearly-departed pet, Sparky, back from the dead. One thing I like about the film though is that Victor is, yes, a goth-y oddball very much in the Burton mold. But the twist here is that so are ALL of the kids in Victor's class at school. The kids, along with their grimm-but-well-meaning science teacher - Mr. Rzykruski (awesomely voiced by the great Martin Landau), are all outsiders - and its the adults of their sleepy suburban berg that are the uptight squares. To be sure, Victor's mom and dad (voiced by Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara) are perfectly loving parents. But Victor's dad also gives his son a whole speech about how he should be playing baseball instead of working on his science experiments. Meanwhile, the town's shady Mayor leads a campaign against Mr. Rzykruski, even as his droll daughter Elsa (Winona Ryder) quietly rebels against him. But Burton brilliantly spins things differently than most kid-friendly animated flicks. He posits that *all* kids have an inner outsider, and that even as the town's kids embrace Victor's mad-science, it's the adults who get freaked out by anything that's out-of-the-ordinary and boundary-pushing. The moral lesson here - and it's a good one - is that the passion of one's inner-kid is what can drive great discovery and change, whereas the drollness of adulthood can stifle it.

With that said, the great fun of the film is seeing all of Victor's classmates - many themselves homages to classic horror icons - race to emulate Victor's mad-science experiments. They're all trying to one-up each other in the upcoming Science Fair, and each kid is determined to have their own version of dead-pet-reanimation on display. Victor's friend and rival, Edgar E. Gore, is the future fan-favorite here, and the funniest and generally most awesome character in the movie. Hilariously voiced by Atticus Shaffer from the TV show The Middle, E. Gore's high-pitched Igor voice is fantastic, as is the character's pint-sized mix of cuteness and would-be evil. Take any kid to this one, and I guarantee they'll be talking like E. Gore for days to come (as will I).

As far as the animation goes - it's pretty gorgeous, as you'd expect. The black and white may be a turn-off for some, but it's so perfect for this film that you can't really argue with it. But there are some incredible, evocative shots captured in this stop-motion world (including many great little easter-egg tributes to horror classics). And the character design is awesome, from the human characters, to the reanimated Sparky, to the crazy monsters that wreak havoc towards the end of the film. Great work from Burton and his crew of stop-motion animators.

What I love about Frankenweenie is that it is a perfect movie for kids, but also doesn't pay any lip-service to a kid audience. That's what bothered me a bit about Paranorman - the weirder and subtler humor was offset by too many lame and obvious gross-out gags and the like. But Frankenweenie is a classic story that is, in many ways, about childhood - but also works on a number of levels that kids and adults will enjoy. There's some great humor, there's some genuine creepiness, and there's a nice message at the movie's core that seems to come from the heart (there's even a poignant and somewhat biting monologue about the importance of science from Martin Landau's character, that I was pleasantly surprised to hear). The film can be a bit slow and methodical at times - especially in its first half. You can argue that the story is a bit thin and needed a bit more meat to make it not feel padded. But overall, this is vintage Tim Burton. It's a movie that does reinforce a lot of his favorite themes, but when done well, these are themes that I never really tire of: embrace the weird, embrace the strange, and from that passion, great things can arise.

My Grade: A-

Friday, October 05, 2012

PITCH PERFECT Has Some Legit Comedy Lurking Beneath Teen Movie Facade


- Somewhere deep within Pitch Perfect lies a pretty crazy, funny, subversive comedy flick dying to get out. You can tell that the filmmakers knew they were tasked with making a relatively safe, by-the-numbers teen comedy, but that they tried their best to sneak in some of the good stuff. Witness the Christopher Guest-esque roles of Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins, the self-aware schtick of Workaholic's Adam DeVine, and the punk-rock hurricane that is Rebel Wilson. There are ingredients here for great comedy, and there are moments that hint at what could have been. But all of that edgier comedy is buried under an extremely thick layer of would-be Glee, teen-pop movie-making 101.

Pitch Perfect tells the story of Anna Kendrick's Becca, a slightly dark, sort of edgy-ish girl who finds herself as a freshman at Barden University, even though she'd rather be out of school trying to work on her music. Despite her initial reluctance, Becca gets coerced into joining the Bellas, an all-girl a capella group, led by the peppy, preppy, sorority girl-esque duo of Chloe (Brittany Snow) and Aubrey (Anna Camp). However, the rest of the group is a mix of outcasts and oddballs. There's emo Becca, the outrageously sassy personality who's dubbed herself "Fat Amy" (Rebel Wilson), and several other unique characters from the stock teen-comedy playbook. In the previous year's accapella tournament, the Bellas blew it after an embarrassing mid-song upchuck from Aubrey, so this year, she and Chloe are more determined than ever to go all the way. In addition to their intercollegiate rivalries, the Bellas also have a love/hate relationship with their male counterparts in the Treblemakers. Led by goofy Bumper (Adam Devine), the would-be cool-kids of the Treblemakers are looked at wearily by the Bellas, and there's a strict no-comingling policy between the two groups. Of course, the Treblemakers have their own version of Becca - a semi-geeky movie buff named Jesse (Skylar Astin), who works at the college radio station with Becca. The two have the classic will-they-or-won't-they thing going, with tensions formed primarily over the shield that Becca puts up around herself, reluctant to give herself any emotional attachments.

Pretty much, you can predict every beat of Pitch Perfect before it happens. There's little here that deviates from the standard teen movie template. But what elevates things are the great cast and little doses of random humor. Given the subject matter, it's unbelievable how stacked this movie is. Kendrick is a fantastic actress, and she brings much more depth and subtlety to Becca than most others would have. You've got to think the movie cheats a little in casting Kendrick - I mean, hasn't she already played parts much older than college freshman? - but the upside is a great actress who helps to elevate the movie and carry it on her back. I love Anna Camp from True Blood, and she's good here despite her role calling for her to play a pretty annoying character. Brittany Snow is good. Rebel Wilson has "comedy superstar" written all over her, and makes a lot of lines funnier just by virtue of her expert delivery and dry sense of humor. Adam Devine is one of those guys who can say the stupidest things ever and still make it funny by taking it to that extra level. And the scenes with Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins are show-stealers, inserting some hilarious, Best In Show-style humor into the preceedings, and really mocking the absurdity of a capella (because let's face it, is there anything worse than college a cappella groups?) - even as the rest of the film celebrates it.

But ... for those who watch Glee for the songs and who love spirited a capella renditions of everything from Rihanna to Salt n' Peppa, Cyndi Lauper to Ace of Base ... you'll probably love this. Some of the songs grated on me, but I'll admit that I was at times won over by all the 80's classics that play a big part in the movie. The movie's got a huge soft-spot for the movies and music of John Hughes, and The Breakfast Club and Simple Minds' "Don't You Forget About Me" play a critical part in the film. So that's kind of cool. Overall, the movie does a nice job of mixing and editing the musical numbers and making them fun to watch. And if you're a guy (though let's face it, many dudes will be staying far away from this), you've got many minutes of Brittany Snow, Anna Camp, and Anna Kendrick dancing semi-provocatively to look forward to. So there's that. If you're a girl (let me clarify - the kind of girl who eats up all things Glee and loves Bring It On) well, you'll probably love this movie.

Again though, for every bit of surprisingly good acting, for every moment of random humor that sneaks through the cracks ... there is a lot of fluff. A lot of eye-roll-inducing cheesiness. A lot of lame schtick. And a lot of so-schmaltzy-it-hurts teen romance that makes little attempt to be anything other than cookie-cutter. I touched on this earlier, but there's something that Christopher Guest does in movies like A Mighty Wind, where he both honors and satirizes a particular subculture in funny and clever ways. It's frustrating, because Pitch Perfect has some of those Guestian moments. But by and large, the movie is only barely winking at the audience. It's a fine line, but in the end, this is one of those movies where the magic of accapella brings everyone together and the emo girl learns to play nice and make friends and gets the guy. And even though certain jokes sing, too much of the humor is way too obvious, cheap, or just plain cheesy. Like all the "a ca ___" wordplay. Or the weaksauce attempts to ape Bridesmaids' grossout gags that feel thrown in to the mix because hey, now girls can be gross too (haven't you heard).

All in all though, this is a fairly inoffensive, surprisingly fun flick that does cover up many of its flaws with a game cast and some moments of inspired humor. If you're already predisposed to love this stuff, Pitch Perfect might be your new favorite movie. For everyone else, there's enough here that ... take it from me ... it's not too painful of a pill to swallow. And if that doesn't convince you - hey, it's got the Breakfast Club freeze frame.

My Grade: B-

Monday, October 01, 2012

LOOPER Assaults With a Barrage of High-Concept Sci-Fi

LOOPER Review:

- Those going into Looper expecting a generic sci-fi shoot-'em-up are going to be pretty surprised by what they find. While LOOPER has its share of kickass action scenes, this movie is legit, thought-provoking science fiction. It's a mind-bender of epic proportions - a film that many will compare to classics like Blade Runner and 12 Monkeys, as well as modern favorites like District 9 and Inception. There's a little bit of all of those movies in Looper - and some similarities to this year's Chronicle as well. But it feels like it's own, distinct thing in large part because writer/director Rian Johnson is such a distinct filmmaker. When I saw his debut film,  Brick, several years back ... I knew that this was someone to keep an eye on - a guy who played with the trappings of genre filmmaking, but a guy who was also determined to make films that defied easy categorization. In Looper, you've got some of Blade Runner's darkly-tinged sci-fi noir. You've got some of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly's Spaghetti Western, gunslinger-on-a-mission aesthetic. You've got some Nolan-esque twists, and some comic-book style secret origins. But the key thing is ... every time you think you've got Looper pegged, it surprises you. The result: a sci-fi film that is unique and rewarding, that will spur geeky discussions for years to come, and that creates an atmosphere of utter intensity, awe, and wonder. Looper has its flaws, but it's also one of those movies that you can't help but admire. Because it seems to mark the emergence of a cinematic voice that, while influenced by the past and by his peers, has now leapfrogged into the big leagues. Rian Johnson, with Looper, has just made a major statement.

The premise of Looper is one of those sci-fi contraptions that provokes a thousand questions. Luckily, the film is pretty good about giving us context and some basic rules that help the story to make sense. Fifty years or so in the future, America has devolved into a state of chaos and poverty. Unchecked crime is rampant, the streets are dangerous, and the average person is struggling not just with money, but for survival. It is under these harsh conditions that the criminals known as Loopers come to be. As it turns out, time-travel hasn't been invented yet, but in thirty years from the film's present, it will be. In that future-future world, time travel is outlawed, but it's used on-the-sly by savvy mob-bosses to stealthily dispose of their victims. In the totalitarian-ish state of eighty-years-from-now, it seems forensics and tracking tech have made murder all but impossible to get away with. The solution is: employ "Loopers" in the more chaotic past to do the future-mob's dirty work. The Loopers are rewarded with money, drugs, and women. The one twist is that their job comes with a thirty-year expiration date. In thirty years' time, the Loopers are rounded up and sent back in time with a pile of cash strapped to their back. They are then executed by their younger selves - "closing the loop." Sure, in thirty years', the Loopers are liabilities. But until then, the young men recruited for the job get to live large.

The film follows a Looper named Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) - the youngest Looper ever recruited. Problems arise for Joe when it comes time for him to execute his older self (Bruce Willis). I won't spoil anything ... I'll just say that Old Joe comes back determined not to get killed by Young Joe. He has to see through his mission - a mission to drastically change the past in order to prevent tragedies - both personal and global - that will befall him in the future. But Old Joe's escape poses major problems for his younger self, as Levitt now has his angry employers in pursuit of both him and Willis. But as Young Joe learns more about Old Joe's mission, the question becomes ... will Young Joe come around to his older self's way of thinking, or will he determine that this older version someone who's gone off the reservation, and who has to be stopped?

What LOOPER deftly sets up is a three-way showdown between Young Joe, Old Joe, and the organization that's after them both - led by sent-back-from-the-future Abe (a fantastic Jeff Daniels), and his right-hand man/lackey, the trigger-happy Kid Blue (Noah Segan, in a part destined for cult-favorite status).

At first, the movie plays things fairly straight. Levitt vs. Willis vs. Daniels. There are shoot-outs, narrow escapes, and questioned loyalties. But somewhere towards the middle of the film, Rian Johnson throws us a giant curveball. Young Joe, attempting to intercept his older self, finds himself away from the grimy, gritty city streets where much of the film had heretofore taken place. Suddenly - in a jarring twist - we're at a desolate farm. There, Levitt meets a mysterious woman, Sara (Emily Blunt - also great, rocking a Southern accent and a shotgun) and her even more mysterious son, Cid. And suddenly, the tone of the film shifts, the pace slows, and we realize that Looper is not quite the movie we thought it was.

Rian Johnson takes some major risks here. As I alluded to, he brings the movie to a jarring halt midway through, slowing things down and beginning to build towards a surprising third act. After the rollicking introduction of Willis' badass Old Joe, it's weird to see him suddenly relegated to the background of the movie, as the film shifts the focal point of the action to Sara's farm. During some of the extended farm scenes, you could feel the audience in the theater squirming a bit. And some of that, I get. Johnson almost seems to pack a 12-part HBO miniseries into one movie. If given more time to breathe, certain aspects of the film might have felt even more meaningful and powerful. Johnson is creating a world - and I mean a *world* here, with a mythology that takes on a fairly giant scope over the course of two hours. What this means is that Looper leaves you with a ton of questions. Some of that is intentional by Johnson, I think - I think he likes dropping little hints that make you raise an eyebrow and say "wait, what?!". But I also think that it's partly because there is just *so much* going on here ... it couldn't all be contained in a two-hour movie. I'm sure Johnson will take great pleasure in knowing that film fans will long ask questions like "how *did* Sara know about Loopers?" and "what *is* the nature of the relationship between Abe and Kid Blue?" But I'm a little back-and-forth about all of the ambiguity. Okay, movies like Blade Runner did it. But Blade Runner's ambiguity was mostly centered around one, central question - is or isn't Deckard a Replicant? LOOPER, on the other hand, seems to take almost sadistic pleasure in dropping all kinds of "hmm, well, what do *you* think happened?" questions at its audience. Let me put it this way: either there will be sequels, spin-offs, comics, etc. that explain more of the backstory, or else there is *a lot* in this film that will be perpetually debated.

By that same token though ... Johnson does a nice job of shading in a lot of the "rules" of his universe. Not in a strict "here are the five rules of time-travel" sense, but in a "here's what time travel is like in this world" sense. In short, time-travel in Looper is messy, cloudy, and can be used in very sadistic ways in order to %$#& with someone. Johnson has some very, very effective and memorable time-travel moments. Some are emotional, as with Old Joe desperately trying to hold on to memories of his wife, even as those memories are retroactively dissolved by Young Joe's future-changing actions. Some are physical, as in a horrifying scene in which a young version of a Looper is tortured and mutilated, and we see, in real-time, the grotesque effects on the older version materialize. Disturbing as hell. That's the thing about Looper though - it keeps throwing crazy moments at you. It ensures that you're in a constant state of wondering what the hell is going to happen next.

Earlier, I mentioned how Rian Johnson's tendency to be a bit ... arty ... with aspects of the plot can ocassionally be a bit frustrating. But Johnson's determination to try things that are unique and different is also one of the movie's greatest strengths. Especially from a visual standpoint. From the first scene, where a man from the future is zapped into the past, only to be suddenly and brutally dispatched by a Looper, you know that this is not your ordinary sci-fi blockbuster. Johnson also visually plays with the looping nature of time-travel. When we see Old and Young Joe's first encounter originally, it's shot in a standard action-movie style that makes Bruce Willis seem like a badass. When we see it a second time later in the film, it's shot from afar, plainly, in a way that highlights the absurdity of the whole encounter. To that end, there's also a streak of dark gallows humor that runs through the film. To be sure, this is a bleak, gritty, hard-R flick ... but it also has some fun with its over-the-top premise. I'll say it again though - Johnson's relentless experimentation with story and style is both the movie's greatest strength and weakness. It can be frustrating that the pace is inconsistent, and that the script asks you to fill in so many gaps. But it's also totally thrilling to see a movie that zips from a chase scene, to a shoot-out, to a sensory-overload flash-forward through thirty years of Young Joe's transition into Old Joe, to quiet-but-ominous scenes on a remote farm, to an apocalyptic climax worthy of the most ambitious superhero comic books.

While LOOPER is in many ways a showcase piece for Rian Johnson, it's also one of the most memorable roles to date for Joseph Gordon Levitt. Levitt has been in a ton of movies this year, but this is the role in which he really ups his game. Going in, I had no idea how Levitt would convincingly play a young version of Bruce Willis. As it turns out, he nails it. Some skillfully-crafted prosthetics help to give him more similar facial features. But ultimately, the character is sold by Levitt's facial expressions, his body language, the way he talks, and the way he transforms himself into a young Bruce, without ever feeling like he's doing a mere imitation or gimmick. Pretty remarkable stuff. Levitt carries the movie in a way that we've rarely seen from him before (perhaps not since Johnson last cast him, in Brick). For his part, Willis is also exceptional in this one. He gets to kick ass and be awesome, but he's also got a character with real depth. Old Joe goes to some very, very dark places, so it's not a cut-and-dried case of rooting for or against him. That said, you've got to enjoy Willis' performance, because he seems more invested and alive in this role than he's been in a long time. And also, Jeff Daniels is a scene-stealer. He makes Abe both funny and menacing. Emily Blunt - wow. I knew she could play a certain type of part very well, but I never expected her to own it as a tough-as-nails farmgirl.Color me impressed. Pierce Gagnon also almost steals the movie as her creepy son Cid. This is one of the most striking young-kid performances in a movie I've seen. Without spoiling anything, I'll just say that Twilight Zone fans will instantly draw a connection between Cid and one of that show's most famous characters. Except that Cid may be even more disturbing, in his way. Noah Segan as Kid Blue ... he is sort of the Bobba Fett of the movie. On the perimeter of the plot, but kind of awesome because he is a bit mysterious. You get the sense that there's a whole other movie that could have been made about Kid Blue and Abe - his father figure from the future. Paul Dano pops up as a Looper, and he's very good - his usual manic energy is perfect for the role. Another nice surprise is Garret Dillahunt (Deadwood, Raising Hope) as Jesse - a dangerous employee of Abe's. His quiet menace is perfect for the part.

Looper is a movie that *can* be picked apart. Johnson leaves it open to a lot of scrutiny, and a lot of questions. But he does something interesting here and says that, look, we don't know how time-travel works - here are some basic rules, the rest is messy and malleable. But ultimately, this is less a movie of science and more a movie of ideas. Is it possible for one man to change so much over 30 years that he'd fundamentally be at odds with his younger self? How far would / should one go to protect their loved ones, and when is the line that is crossed simply going too far? What forces shape someone into a good person versus an evil one, and can one man or woman's influence be enough to stem the tide? Looper puts all of these big ideas front and center, and leaves it up to us to fill in some of the details. But it gives us just enough plot to latch onto, and it poses the big questions so vividly, that you can't help but think about them long after the movie is over. I do think that the messiness keeps this from being quite on the level of some of the classics that inspired it. But by the same token, that barrage of ideas, of experimentation, and of originality is what places it, easily, above so many of the generic sci-fi blockbusters we're used to seeing these days.

My Grade: A-