Archive for September 2012


September 30, 2012

A word to the wise: Don’t think too much about the time-travel element of Looper. For that matter, don’t think too much about the plot, which kind of amounts to the same thing. Looper’s being sold as a slam-bang sci-fi actioner, but that’s not the story that writer-director Rian Johnson is interested in. It’s a bit like 12 Monkeys stood on its head: In both, Bruce Willis travels back in time to stop something bad from happening. But 12 Monkeys wasn’t only about how the past affects the future and how the future can change the past, and neither is Looper. It’s more of a melancholy drama about people having touching faith in the notion that changing one small thing can change everything for the better, even if it means killing innocent people. The movie is morally murky, to put it lightly, and that’s a bit refreshing; we’re made to think about why we want the protagonists to achieve their goals — because they’re at the center of the movie?

There are two protagonists, who are the same person at different stages of his life. Younger Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) kills people for the mob; his victims are sent back in time from thirty years in his future, and he kills them and disposes of their bodies (the body disposal isn’t as easy in the future, where everyone is “tagged”). Assassins like Joe are known as “loopers,” and sometimes the future mob sends a thirty-years-older version of the looper himself, so that he has to kill his future self (“closing the loop”). This is what happens, apparently, when Joe finds himself pointing his blunderbuss at older Joe (Bruce Willis), who escapes and takes off on a mission to make his (and younger Joe’s) life better.

All of the futuristic stuff is window dressing — especially since the “now” scenes, younger Joe’s scenes, are set in 2044, though I’m not sure why. There is another major character, Sara (Emily Blunt), who lives on a farm and looks after a little boy whose continued survival and stable upbringing are important for a lot of reasons. The plotting gets a little “wait a minute.” But the centerpiece of Looper finds younger and older Joe sitting across from each other in younger Joe’s favorite diner, and that scene — quiet, skillfully acted, bringing out Gordon-Levitt’s itchy impatience and Willis’ wounded soulfulness — is really the whole movie, the reason, I think, that Rian Johnson (as well as Gordon-Levitt, reuniting with Johnson after the superb Brick) wanted to make the film.

Neither younger Joe nor older Joe is entirely good or bad; they have heavy shadings of gray. Each is responsible for the deaths of innocents; younger Joe never asks what his victims did to be sent to him for execution, and we never find out. But the movie successfully expands on an intriguing concept introduced earlier in the film, when a hapless looper (Paul Dano) is expected to kill his older self and can’t do it. The difference between the two Joes is something like the difference between Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name and Eastwood’s Will Munny in Unforgiven. Younger Joe is cold, nihilistic, drugging himself away from awareness of what he does for a living; older Joe has passed through the flames and, improbably, in later life, found love. There’s real weight in older Joe’s passionate defense of the life he’s managed to build; younger Joe’s dismissal of that life seems inhumanly offensive to us.

There’s a lot of other window dressing, or “world-building” if you will, and some of it adds texture and some doesn’t. Jeff Daniels is amusing as Abe, a guy from the future who runs the looper organization. Younger Joe tells Abe about his plan to retire eventually and move to France; “Move to China,” Abe insists, “I’m a guy from the future — trust me, move to China.” Abe is interesting, and an idiotic looper (Noah Segan) who puts too much trust in his long-barreled “gat” affords some comic relief. Other stuff wasn’t terribly clear to me: If, in the future, you can’t hide the body of someone you’ve killed, why can’t you just kill someone and ship the corpse back in time, instead of shipping a living victim and running the risk that he escapes or the looper chokes?¹ But like I said (and like Abe says), don’t dwell too much on the window dressing. Look through the window and into the diner; that’s where the real movie is.

¹According to Rian Johnson, this is because people have trackers implanted in them, and if they die, the authorities immediately know. The movie doesn’t bend over backwards to clarify this, though. 

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns – Part 1

September 21, 2012

Ever since it debuted in 1986, some of us have been eagerly awaiting a film version of Frank Miller’s seminal comics series Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Set in a hellish near-future where a 55-year-old Batman has been retired for ten years, the series redefined the character not only for its generation but for every generation thereafter. Taking Batman back to his grim, dark roots, Miller wiped away any traces of the campy ’60s TV show. Almost every Batman movie, from Tim Burton’s 1989 effort right up to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises last summer, found inspiration in Miller’s interpretation. It’s almost as if we’ve gotten a Dark Knight Returns adaptation piecemeal over the years; to cite just one example, an older and weaker Batman’s emerging from an eight-year retirement to blunder over-confidently into a fight with a physically more powerful foe in Dark Knight Rises comes right from the Miller playbook. So at this point, an actual adaptation seems redundant, and yet here we are with the first of a two-part animated take on Miller’s material (the DVD and Blu-ray hit stores next week; part 2 is promised next spring).

Director Jay Oliva and screenwriter Bob Goodman stick very close to Miller’s narrative, in which Batman comes out of retirement first to deal with a resurgent Two-Face (plastic surgery to fix his acid-scarred face hasn’t helped his psyche), then to fight the gigantic, razor-toothed leader of the large and remorseless “Mutant Gang.” Miller’s series ran for four 48-page issues — the third and fourth issues pit Batman against the Joker and Superman, respectively — so this first half is essentially throat-clearing before the operatic finale. The pacing seems abrupt and rapid (the film crosses the finish line at just 77 minutes, including end credits), so that Batman’s conflict with Two-Face — which is supposed to emphasize that Batman can no more escape the demons that drive him than Two-Face can escape his own — seems like almost a prologue.

Whenever possible, the animators have stayed true to Miller’s sometimes idiosyncratic character design, though the figures in motion have an unavoidable rushed, Saturday-morning-cartoon cheesiness at times. The opening scene, which introduces Batman’s daytime persona Bruce Wayne in the middle of a stock-car race, doesn’t inspire confidence: the animators clearly saved money on the stiff movement of the cars. Elsewhere, more money and time obviously go into Batman’s various fight scenes, particularly his final showdown with the Mutant Leader. In general, though, Miller’s linework and compositions were so cinematic that they unfolded before our eyes as a breathless yet epic action movie, something the animation here can’t hope to duplicate.

The voicework is uneven; Peter Weller makes an imposing if monotonous Batman, while Ariel Winter adds some much-needed snark as Carrie Kelley, a bored teenage girl who becomes Batman’s new Robin. The filmmakers give Robin a much more active presence in this first half than she had in the corresponding Miller issues, and there’s even an added scene in which she saves a couple from a mugger. The other major female character is Ellen Yindel, who’s taking over the job of police commissioner from the retiring James Gordon. Carrie gets the importance of Batman, Yindel doesn’t, but she’ll learn.

Since the filmmakers also include all of the debate that raged around Batman in Miller’s story, it lays bare Miller’s mildly fascist leaning (for which some members of the comics press took him to task). Everyone pro-Batman is smart and brave, everyone anti-Batman weak and hypocritical; the film even includes the guy in the man-on-the-street interview who says we must be patient with criminals, then adds that of course he would never live in the city. For Miller, city life — constant co-existing with the violent underclass — equals a sort of bitter conservative pragmatism. In the comic, this could be enjoyed on the level of satiric caricature, and the different viewpoints could be argued, but in the movie a pro-Batman commentator’s views are toned down to be less offensive (“Hope he goes after the homos next” becomes “Hope he goes after my landlord next”). Miller at least acknowledged that some people could support Batman for the wrong reasons.

The comic could be admired as one medium striving to be another — a summer-blockbuster thriller (something like Nolan’s films). The film reduces the comic to, well, a cartoon. Yet I’m interested in what they do with the second half, which is even darker and more ambiguous in its politics. Maybe they’ll stick the landing, but they’re off to a bumpy start.

Resident Evil: Retribution

September 16, 2012

It’s a good thing Resident Evil: Retribution recaps the previous four movies at the beginning, because I didn’t remember a goddamn thing about any of them. And a couple years from now, when Resident Evil: Tintinnabulation (or whatever they end up calling it) comes out, I won’t remember a goddamn thing about this one. Not that it matters much; as long as they’re blathering and exploding directly in front of your face, these movies are cheesy fun, if you allow them to be what they are, which is to say, stylized action-apocalypse nonsense with a formidable heroine. With this film, Milla Jovovich beats Sigourney Weaver’s record by one and Kate Beckinsale’s by two — she now boasts the longest-running major franchise anchored by a woman. Scattered golf claps for this, I guess.

Jovovich is her usual surly self as Alice, who must escape from an underwater base used for simulations. She also gets to be maternally protective towards a deaf little girl (Aryana Engineer) who may be a clone of Alice’s daughter in an alternate reality. At one point, the little girl is captured by an enormous creature that deposits her in an egg-like pod. I’d like to give writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s paying homage to Aliens instead of outright ripping it off, though the distinction is so often subtle.

In any event, Alice and the little girl and the rescue team that’s come to help them must get the fuck out of Dodge in two hours, before explosives go off. A lot of creatures, zombies, and agents working for the evil Umbrella Corporation get in their way. The agents include Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory, awful as ever), who’s being controlled by Umbrella’s “Red Queen” computer, and Rain (Michelle Rodriguez), who’s been cloned into two different characters, a merciless assassin and a kinder, gentler woman who seems to know Alice from the alternate reality where she had a daughter. The movie also throws in two characters familiar from the videogames, Ada Wong (Li Bingbing) and Leon Kennedy (Johann Urb). All of these complications seem pointless, because these movies are just delivery systems for action set pieces, some of which are slickly entertaining.

At the climax, the superpowered Rain (who’s injected herself with some sort of parasite) takes on two large men hand to hand, breaking their bones while we get to see it in X-ray-vision, and Alice faces off against Jill. The fighting isn’t bad. It never is, in these movies. And as I’ve said before, there are worse ways to spend 90 minutes than watching Milla Jovovich punch and kick and shoot and spin upside down and generally laugh at the laws of physics, though she doesn’t laugh much in these films. It’s a funny thing about Jovovich as Alice: she gives the character just enough personality, but not enough to break the somber apocalyptic mood; she knows her function is to kick ass and look cool doing it, but isn’t afraid to look dorky taking heavy hits in slow motion. Audiences seem to like her, or at least accept her, as an action heroine in a way they won’t accept almost any other woman. At the same time, Alice is seldom if ever sexualized — she gives off more of a look-but-don’t-touch vibe. I could’ve done without the maternal stuff, which was old even when James Cameron did it 26 years ago, but Jovovich is possibly the affectless action heroine we deserve.

2016: Obama’s America

September 8, 2012

In 2016: Obama’s America, the conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza tells us that America is being run not by Barack Obama II, but by Barack Obama Sr. Our current president barely knew his father, but, D’Souza argues, Obama carries out his absentee dad’s anti-colonial ideals anyway. All of this was found in D’Souza’s 2010 book The Roots of Obama’s Rage, which followed a Forbes article called “How Obama Thinks.” In response to that article, a writer opined, “Dinesh D’Souza has authored what may possibly be the most ridiculous piece of Obama analysis yet written.” Who wrote that? Michael Moore? Howard Zinn? No, Daniel Larison in The American Conservative. Other conservatives have been scarcely more kind to D’Souza’s blend of conspiracy theory and pop psychology. So it isn’t just liberals who might have trouble swallowing 2016: Obama’s America.

The first reel or so is almost The Dinesh D’Souza Story. D’Souza talks about his upbringing in Mumbai and his escape to the embrace of America. To hear him tell it, D’Souza and Obama are doppelgangers: both were born in 1961, both graduated from Ivy League colleges in 1983, both even got married in 1992. We do not hear, alas, whether D’Souza and his wife attended Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing on their first date, as Barack and Michelle reportedly did. In any event, D’Souza feels emboldened by his life’s parallel track to Obama’s, and he feels he is uniquely qualified to outline the ways in which Obama is a shadow radical bent on reducing America’s power on the global stage. He understands Obama, you see.

To make his case, D’Souza bends reality in small, weird ways (a baffling dramatization of a black man entering a bar, leading to two white men walking away, only, it turns out, to return with a birthday cake for their black friend — awww!) and in large, disingenuous ways. He lies about Obama’s stance on Iran; he lies about Obama wanting to give the Falkland Islands back to Argentina; he lies about Obama’s supposed blocking of American oil drilling and support for Brazilian oil drilling; he even lies about the Churchill bust Obama allegedly removed from the Oval Office (it was on loan and was slated to be returned before Obama had any say in it). And the timing of D’Souza’s attempted slam-dunk on Obama’s supposed gutting of NASA in favor of “reaching out to Muslims” is hilarious, given what’s trucking around on the surface of Mars as you read this.

How is it as a movie? I had the same problem with it that I had with Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, to which 2016 is clearly intended as an heir apparent: it preaches to the converted. Moore, however, produced convincing documentation regarding the Bush family’s ties with the bin Laden family, and he had a star witness in Lila Lipscomb, the former war supporter whose son died in Iraq. D’Souza has nobody comparable, though he tries to pull a gotcha with Obama’s half-brother George, who seems, inconveniently for D’Souza, rather blasé about the president’s alleged neglect of him. Why hasn’t the richer, more powerful Obama pulled his kin out of Nairobi squalor? Well, because George is an activist and chooses to live as he does.

2016: Obama’s America comes to seem like clownish alarmist speculation (the Middle East will become “the United States of Islam”!) taking place in an echo chamber of talking heads who, like D’Souza himself, have never spent time with Barack Obama. It ends with D’Souza’s boyhood avatar staring out into the audience as D’Souza intones “The future is in your hands.” At the end of all this, I was no more persuaded of Obama’s anti-colonial agenda than I was before. The film moves fast, so that, while we’re saying “Wait a minute,” it’s already on to the next theory, the next guilt-by-association fallacy, the next pearl of pop-psych wisdom. According to the film, Barack Obama is president because the American people wanted to feel good about finally electing a black man, even though he’s half-white and that very half-whiteness made America comfortable with him. But, D’Souza is very sneakily saying, it’s not Obama’s white half you have to worry about. D’Souza, I recall, is the same man who in The Enemy at Home held liberals responsible for 9/11. Christ, even Michael Moore said it was al-Qaeda.

The Possession

September 1, 2012

The Possession adds something to the long list of horror-movie rules: Never buy an old, weird-looking box at a yard sale. Said box has Hebrew carvings on the outside and no obvious way to open it — no lid, no seams. Inside the box is a dybbuk — a Jewish demon seeking an innocent as a host body. This may be an interesting take on the well-worn exorcism subgenre, but the movie doesn’t have much to say about Jewish mysticism or demonology. Apparently all you have to do is go to a young, compassionate Hasidic Jew and he’ll clear it up for you, reading loudly from scripture. It helps if your guy is played by the reggae/hip-hop artist Matisyahu, who at one point during the exorcism calls out “Everybodeeee put your hands on her!” and for a second it sounds like “Everybodeeee put your hands in the air and wave ‘em like you don’t care!

Yet another mid-budget spook show produced by Sam Raimi’s Ghost House imprint, The Possession spends a lot of time setting up the family targeted by the dybbuk. Basketball coach Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his wife Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) are getting a divorce; this is hard on their two daughters, Em (Natasha Calis) and Hannah (Madison Davenport). Stephanie is going out with a dentist who makes everyone take their shoes off in the house and wants to put braces on Hannah’s teeth. It’s not her teeth that anyone has to worry about, though. Em finds the dybbuk box at the aforementioned yard sale and Clyde buys it for her. Soon enough, Em is acting strangely and violently, craving the box like an addict. For too long, everyone thinks Em is just acting out; obviously all these post-Exorcist movies unfold in a universe where The Exorcist doesn’t exist and people waste valuable time looking for psychological and medical explanations for the supernatural.

Eventually Clyde goes to Matisyahu, who, unlike all the other Jews Clyde begs for help, has a conscience and is willing to risk his life to save Em. I doubt this is meant to be anti-semetic; it’s just a chance for Matisyahu to play heroic and rebellious. By the time Em is wolfing down raw meat from the fridge and an MRI shows the dybbuk living inside her chest, The Possession has defaulted to the generic demonic thrills its title promises. A few moments are effective, though, courtesy of the noted Danish director Ole Bornedal (Nightwatch), who holds himself to clean, classical filmmaking and prefers creepiness to shocks. The movie is well-appointed if not terribly well thought-out. If you wanted to get rid of a dybbuk box, would you put it in a yard sale? What if nobody buys it? And are we to believe that nobody in a hospital would hear loud exorcism-type goings-on in a deserted physical-therapy room? And what, if anything, do the doctors say when the dybbuk shows up on the MRI?

Like The Exorcist, The Possession seems to imply that a broken home opens the gates of hell; divorce will leave your daughter vulnerable to demons. Even as a metaphor, it rings no bells of truth: parents staying miserably together “for the sake of the kids” apparently cause no harm to the kids whatsoever. (Poltergeist was refreshing because the parents were happily married and the phantasms still came.) In any event, unlike The Exorcist, the nuclear family is restored here, with the cowardly dentist peeling off down the street, never to be seen again. Clyde will pass up his dream job in North Carolina the movie brings up several million times, and he and Stephanie, who in Clyde’s words “forgot how to get along,” will presumably forget how to not get along. Really, the dybbuk was the best thing that could’ve happened to them.