Monday, December 31, 2012

JACK REACHER

For bad films, writing the review can become a bit of an endurance test. For example, right now I'm wondering how many effective words can be written about a film as dull and hollow as Jack Reacher, the new paint-by-numbers thriller starring Tom Cruse and directed by Christopher McQuarrie (Way of the Gun) before I give up out of boredom. 60 words aren't really enough, so I'll go on.

In Pittsburgh a sniper guns down five innocent bystanders. In the aftermath cops arive on the scene, collect evidence and soon arrest mentally unstable Iraq veteran James Barr (Josheph Sikora). Faced with a mountain of evidence Barr tells the overzealous D.A. (Richard Jankins) to simply find Jack Reacher.

Reacher is a retired MP. He's one of those Man-With-No-Name types. He lives off the grid. No address, no phone number, no Twitter. You don't find him unless he finds you, or he magically appears to save the film 20 minutes. Soon Reacher starts to suspect that Barr might have been framed and goes about proving it by beating up people, stealing a series of progressively nicer muscle cars and being just witty enough to not seem like a total asshole. Rinse. Repeat.

When brutal, yet strangely dull violence doesn't work, he enlists the help of Barr's defense attorney Helen (Rosamund Pike) who happens to be the D.A.'s daughter (a conflict of interest if ever I saw one) and the great Robert Duvall as "Elderly Gun Nut" eventually exposing a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top, yet has some of the lowest stakes imaginable. When the Master Plan is finally explained, it doesn't escalate tension so much as it lets all the air out of its balloon.

Cruise is adequate, but clearly on autopilot, as is pretty much everyone else, but it's especially disappointing to see Cruse phone it in as it's his go-for-broke gusto that usually makes him such a great screen presence. The only one who seems to be enjoying his part is Werner Herzog (Director of Aguiree: The Wrath Of God, and Grizzly Man) who has been inexplicably cast as the main villain, a man who's name translates to the delightfully existential "Human Prisoner," and insists that a henchmen proves his loyalty by chewing off his own fingers. Given Herzog's dark eccentricities, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he threw out the script and wrote all of his scenes himself. I wish he had done the same for the entire film.

McQuarrie and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff, Being There) shoot the film competently. Everything looks good and there's a great deal of technical skill on display in the action scenes. It's refreshing to see someone direct fight scenes so that that the camera is the proper distance from the proceedings and not shaking as if the operator is struggling to support the camera's weight. I really wish more action films looked like Reacher. But McQuarries direction, no matter how skilled, cant make this film interesting. You'll either predict every twist or you'll be too bored to care.

After 513 words there's not much more to say about Jack Reacher. It want's to be a gritty 70's style thriller, but its attempts to provoke the audience (the shooting, a montage showing us all the lives of the victims) feel half heated and lack and real conviction and we're left with this nothing of a film. Last year, Tom Cruse effectively relaunched his carrier with Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, a fun, effective action distraction from the December Oscar bait. This year, he's made Jack Reacher, which just succeeds at being a big, wet noodle of a film.

Grade: C

Friday, December 28, 2012

LIFE OF PI

Watching Ang Lee's new film Life of Pi, I kept wishing over and over again that I had read the book. Half of that wish could be attributed to personal guilt, Yann Martel's much acclaimed novel has long sat on my shelf waiting for me to get around to it. The other half has to do with the perception that it's just one of those unfulfillable stories.

But Lee gives it his all, and does a mostly excellent job, telling the story of Pi (newcomer Suraj Sharma), a zookeepers son with a somewhat porous sense of faith. He's born Hindu, but eventually incorporates Catholic, Islamic and Jewish aspects into his own personal religion.

One day Pi's father decides to sell the zoo and move the family and the animals to Canada. But the ship encounters a heavy storm and sinks. Pi ends up alone on a lifeboat with several animal refugees including a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Most of the animals are dispatched quickly, leaving just Pi and Parker in the boat. The idea that Pi could manage to find any sort of bond with Parker is potentially the stories least believable element, but Lee handles it expertly by never forgetting that Parker is a wild animal. Pi is constantly fighting the elements, starvation, dehydration and the tiger. Furthermore Pi knows that the only thing keeping Parker from turning on him is his ability to feed the beast. It's a very complex, carefully built relationship.

Lee's filming of the story is absolutely dazzling. The sinking ship is easily one of the best action set peaces you'll see this year. Many of the digital editing tricks Lee experimented with in Hulk return here, we get transitions were one scene is composited over the next, shifting aspect ratios, animated book illustrations, you name it. But were those gimmicks grew tiresome in Hulk, here they are always invigorating and Lee has learned to keep these tricks at the service of the story. (it also looks fantastic in 3D). The film also uses some of the best CGI ever rendered to bring Richard Parker and the other animals to life.

The thing that doesn't work is the framing device were the author, a clear stand-in for the books author, seeks out the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) to tell his story, which is advertized as "a story to make you believe in God." The movie is a powerful adventure story, but it's not that powerful. I guess it doesn't help that I already believe in God, but the film's final moments, which are the ones designed to affirm or re-affirm spirituality which probably played as much bigger revelations in the book, just don't work as well as they should. As visual and cinematic as Lee makes his adaptation, it's just something that feels more suited to the page because spiritual experiences work better when induced my a more internalized medium. Still, that Lee took on this film at all is commendable. The idea that only 90% of it works, hardly seems like a detriment when the resulting film is as rich and ambitious as this.

Grade: A-

Monday, December 24, 2012

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

The best thing I can say about Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, part one of a promised 3-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings prelude novel The Hobbit, is that it has much of the technical brilliance of it's predecessors. The sweeping vista's of New Zealand are as jaw-dropping as we remember, Howard Shore's score is one of his best in years, and the performances are mostly excellent. However it's lacking in one critical respect—editing.

The titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), is a completely average hobbit, he likes tea, food and sitting around. One day he meets a wizard named Gandalf (Ian McKellen) who insists on inviting 13 dwarves, lead by Thorin (Richard Armitage), to Bilbo's house. After an endless dinner party Gandalf asks Bilbo to come along with them to a far away land to kill the dragon that took the dwarves homeland.

Bilbo is not the type to go on adventures, but he goes anyway. Apart from some allusion to recklessness in his family tree, his decision to go is never satisfactorily explained. If I recall, the book glossed over this issue with its brisk pace. The film on the other hand, never stops wondering, in a vain attempt to squeeze some complexity (not to mention extra running time) out of this children's story.

A typical exchange goes something like this:
Bilbo: Why am I here Gandalf?
Thorin: Why is he here Gandalf?
Gandalf winks knowingly
Bilbo and Thorin: That doesn't tell us anything!!!

In another attempt to add complexity, Jackson adds some material from the appendices of Lord of the Rings. Some of this material explains where Gandalf goes on his frequent disappearances. Too much features Sylvester McCoy as an insufferable, hippy-dippy, tree hugging wizard named Radagast who is one of the least important characters in Tolkien's mythos. Yet Jackson has beefed up his part so that instead of Gandalf, it's Radagast and his sled of super fast rabbits who stumble onto signs that Rings villain Sauron may be about to return. If you're wondering what any of that has to do with Bilbo, the dwarves and their quest to kill the dragon, the answer is nothing. Nothing at all. But we get so much of it that an audience member could almost be forgiven for forgetting about the main plot.

If that weren't irritating enough, the film goes to great length to extend material that should have been told more efficiently. Compare the film's seemingly endless prologue to the one in Fellowship of The Ring which took less time to set up a lot more. I imagine some hardcore fans will enjoy all the book centric details Jackson has squeezed in here, but the thing that made Jackson's earlier film's work was his ability to balance the nuance of Tolkien's prose while still making efficient, accessible films. Those older films were long, but even Jackson's truly epic extended cuts justified their running times with a sense of momentum and rich, compelling characters.

If Jackson wanted to make this film longer, why didn't he do it by developing the characters more deeply. We have a company of 13 characters in this film and at the end of it I know almost nothing about them. Apart from maybe Thorin, the dwarves are completely interchangeable, distinguishable almost exclusively by beard style. Let's also not start with Gandalf who in this film alternates between incompetence and walking deus ex machina.

Some of these problems are there in the source material, but they're just exacerbated and underlined by this film's epic 169 minute running time. I was frequently reminded of the running gag from Monty Python and the Holy Grail were the film would frequently cut to a large crowd or God yelling at the film to "Get on with it!"

That's not to say it's a total wash. Some of the light comedy is effective, and once the Dwarves leave Rivendel, the momentum really picks up with a rip-roaring action sequence where the company is kidnapped by Goblins. The elaborate razzle-dazzle of it all almost makes all the set up worth it. It's so good that I caught myself thinking that maybe Jackson knew what he was doing after all, and settled in for a good time, but then the movie ended. Maybe the next two films will be better. Maybe Jackson will remember how to tell stories economically and deliver something that will make all this set up worth it, but this film is 169 minutes and covers only the first 120 pages of it's source material and that is unforgivable. The fact that it only feels 40 minutes too long is a strange but dubious victory.

Grade: C+

Note: The film was shot in a new process called HFR. Basically it means that the film was shot at twice the usual frame rate. This theoretically creates more natural motion and improves the quality and clarity of the image, particularly in 3D. A lot of people have disliked it, it's an odd effect. Until my eyes adjusted it seemed almost as if the film was on fast forward. But once I became accustomed, I really dug it, particularly in the night scenes (a notorious problem spot with 3D). When HFR works, the image looks almost disconcertingly real, as if you're watching history's most expensive play. What's more, the frame rate is easy on the eyes. After 2 1/2 hours of constant, intense 3D, I had no eye-strain whatsoever. It's not for everyone, many people just can't stand the look. If you plan on seeing the film in 3D, I'd give it a shot. Otherwise just stick with traditional 2D.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

WRECK-IT RALPH

Wreck-It Ralph, Disney's latest animated feature, might be the best videogame movie ever made. The film takes place inside the various games at an arcade. After the arcade closes down for the night the game characters are free to visit each other. The film features many cameo's from famous game characters like Pac-Man and Sonic, but the film follows the much putt upon Ralph (John C. Reilly).

Ralph is the "villain" of a popular Donkey Kong-esque arcade game in he which smashes up an apartment building, only to be thwarted by the games hero Fix-It Felix Jr. (30 Rock's Jack McBrayer). They've been doing this dozens of times a day for the past 30 years. At the end of every day Felix retires to a digital penthouse with a few more achievement medals and Ralph is forced to sleep in a nearby dump, a second class citizen everywhere he goes. One day Ralph decides he's not gonna take it anymore and abandons his game (this is called game-jumping) to find acceptance by winning a medal of his own.

At times, the film feels like a spiritual sequel to Toy Story with a healthy infusion of Tron. Indeed Toy Story director John Lasseter is a producer here. But there's enough personality for Ralph to stand on it's own. Part of that has to do with the work of writer/director Rich Moore. Moore, an animation veteran, has directed some of the better Simpsons episodes and the lions share of Futurama and injects a lot of that sensibility. For instance, part of Ralph's journey takes him to a gritty first person shooter, were he meets Calhoun (Jane Lynch), a brooding space marine who was "programed with the most traumatic back story imaginable."

Eventually Ralph's trek brings him to brightly a colored kid's racing game where the bulk of the film takes place. Here he meets Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a spunky underdog, who's also mistreated by her fellow game characters, particularly by the games overlord King Candy (Alan Tudyk).

That world is amazingly designed. Vanellope's racing game is constructed entirely of perfectly rendered candy and pastries. Willy Wonka wishes his factory looked this delicious. But it's the variety of the different game's we see that help bring the film's world to life. The doesn't create one gorgeous world, it creates 3 or 4. My favorite was Ralph's game and all the little touches that go into selling it as a retro game. Like how the secondary characters all have choppy 16-bit style animations or how things always break in to pixel friendly shapes.

Beyond the visual razzal dazzle, the film has some nice twists (I really liked how the film handles the consequences of mixing games) and closes with an impressively complex action sequence, but despite all the cleverness on display, the film just cant shake an overwhelming feeling of familiarity. Also, I'm not sure how I feel about the film's ultimately conformist message. It's a very good videogame movie, I hope it spawns a franchise, but it's not a quite top-tier children's film.

The film is preceded by a wonderful little short film called Paperman, a silent rom-com about a man and woman who find love via paper airplanes. In addition to being a delightful piece of whimsy, the film is important on a technical level. It's rendered using new software that captures the look of traditional 2D artwork. The illusion is so convincing that you can often see individual brush strokes. It's a great example of how the traditional feel can live on in an industry dominated by new school methods.

Grades:
Paperman: A
Wreck-It Ralph: B+

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

LINCOLN

There is exactly one battle sequence of consequence in Steven Spielberg's Civil War drama Lincoln, and it comes right at the beginning. The short, ugly scene features soldiers fighting in the rain, waist deep in mud, using rifles, bayonets, and bare knuckles. The battle is somewhat futile because, as the film reminds us, by the fall of 1864 the Civil War was basically over, but the battles went on regardless.

Today we generally accept that the end of the Civil War would naturally involve the end of slavery but, as the film documents, it wasn't always certain. President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) want's to pass a constitutional amendment outlawing slavery but faces an uphill slog. His own party isn't enthusiastic about it, and the opposing Democrats are dead set against it. But Lincoln knows that without the amendment all those endless battles would mean nothing.

On paper, the prospect of a two and half hour period film about the complications of passing legislation sounds dull as paste, but it's those colossally high stakes and the lengths that is Lincoln willing to go to that help make the film compelling. In order to get any Democratic support, he must essentially start handing out bribes. If that weren't enough of a potential scandal, Lincoln knows that if the South surrenders before the vote, it will guarantee the amendments failure and so he must find a way to delay the end of the war.

Spielberg delivers all these complex plot points with the help of a very sharp script by Tony Kushner (who won the Pulitzer for Angels in America), partially based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals, which delivers line after line of crackling dialogue. Many of the best lines are spoken by Tommy Lee Jones as Republican firebrand Thaddeus Stevens who has some of the best flippant putdowns this side of The Social Network.

Ironically if there's anyone who gets a pass it's Lincoln himself. Day-Lewis is as amazing as we expect him to be, but the film keeps the character at a distance. Apart from a passionate argument with his wife (Sally Field who's every bit as good as Day-Lewis) and a series of affable, home-spun ramblings, there's precious little insight into Lincoln the person. It's strange that showing us his thought-process and the anxiety consuming him doesn't translate into a more complete portrait of the man. This would be less of a problem if the film weren't called Lincoln. This is a film more about the moment that defined his legacy than it is about the man himself.

On the one hand, Spielberg's reluctance to deconstruct Lincoln too much is understandable, the man is the closest thing America has to a bona fide Christ figure. But there is something that just doesn't gel about watching the man talk about all the moral compromises he's had to make, order bribes, suspend habeas corpus, etc, and then slowly put on that famous hat and walk into a beam of light as John Williams's score swells. It's not that the film causes one to lose respect for the man, on the contrary, it's obvious how righteous his goals are, it's just that the film's iconography is simper than the its depiction of the man.

To call Lincoln a bio-pic is a bit disingenuous as it denotes a greater level of introspection then we get here. But what Spielberg has given us instead is equally valuable – an accurate, historical procedural documenting one of the most important moments in American history. It may try too hard for those Oscar moments at times, but on the whole the craftsmanship is strong and delivers a very entertaining film about what could have been a very dry subject.

Grade: B+

Monday, November 12, 2012

BONDATHON: SKYFALL

In a strange way Goldfinger ruined James Bond. That 3rd entry in the series is a great film unto itself, but it also codified a rigid formula that the series has been slavish to ever since, rendering many of the subsequent films dull and repetitive. It seems that the best Bond's since then, paricularly Danial Craig's debut Casino Royale, have worked by getting away from the formula. But now comes Skyfall, a film that feels like the best of both worlds. Conscious of the present, respectful of the past, the film treats the format not as a crutch or something to be avoided, but as a springboard to tell a more resonant, ambitious story than the franchise has ever attempted, let alone pulled off.

At the center of the film is a question of loyalty. Why be loyal to a country that isn't loyal to you? This is brought up in the film's opening action sequence, where Bond and his partner Eve (Naomie Harris) pursue a high value target through Istanbul. At the end of the chase, Bond finds himself being used as a human shield. M (Judi Dench) makes a tough choice and orders Eve to take them both down. But it goes wrong. The target gets away and it appears that Bond is dead.

The consequences of that failed op become painfully public. The target is working for a man named Silva (Javier Bardem), a cyber-terrorist with a personal vendetta against M that leads him to blow up MI6 and reveal the identity of foreign agents. M survives the attack, but now faces public hearings as to her ability to protect the country.

So what of Bond? Obviously he isn't dead, but he's reluctant to return. He's not sure if he can trust M or if the service has anything left to offer him. When he does come back, it's clear that not all of him has survived. He still looks great in his Tom Ford suits, but he's more haggard. Bullet fragments in his shoulder make it hard for him to shoot straight and years of alcoholism have taken their toll on 007 (yes, this film acknowledges that Bond is a functioning alcoholic). It's clear that Bond isn't ready for the field when he goes after Silva. It's a safe bet that he'll survive, but it's possible that there will be even less of him left by the end.

That's not to say that the film is all gloom, doom and meditations. As unorthodox as the film feels, it's still a Bond movie. There are chases through exotic lands, ridiculous stunts, casinos with deadly Komodo dragons and a series of pretty women for Bond to seduce. Then there is the villain. It's hard to discuss Silva without spoiling things (this is the rare Bond film that can be spoiled), but he's one of the most entertaining Bond villains we've ever had. Bardem's smart performance reminds us of the "evil laugh" baddies from 60's Bond without ever falling too far into camp or seeming derivative.

All of this is directed with great skill by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition). Mendes isn't the first prestigious director to be given the keys to the franchise, but its never paid off quite like this. The Oscar winner pulls nuanced performances out of everyone. Bond and M have never felt more like real people, and Ben Whinshaw is great as a much younger, slightly Doctor Who-ish version of Q.

Mendes also shows off his skill as an image-maker. He and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (Fargo, No Country For Old Men) have created not only one of the prettiest films of the year, but one of the best looking films ever to be shot digitally. There are probably huge plot holes that I didn't see because I was just staring at the amazing visuals and production design. Of particular beauty, are the film's neon bathed Shanghai sequence and the final showdown with Silva on the foggy moors of Scotland.

That ending is very interesting. Throughout the film, there is this constant balancing act between old and new, both with the plot and with the characters. So not only is there this playfulness with the formula, but we get Bond and Co. dealing with how the world has changed. With the ending, the old vs. new balance turns decidedly retro as Mendes has Bond seemingly retreating into the past for a Straw Dogs like sequence that might as well take place in 1962.

In many ways Skyfall feels like the film the franchise has been working towards for the last 50 years, a natural evolution that learns from past pitfalls. Proof that in the right hands, this formula can be used artistically. Like Goldfinger before it, Skyfall feels like a definitive dissertation on what it means to be Bond, James Bond. Obviously this won't be the last Bond, but I'd be perfectly fine if it were. It strikes a high and somber note that seems perfectly appropriate for a farewell. At any rate, I don't see them topping this anytime soon.

Grade: A

If I get enough requests I might put together a best/worst list for people looking to dive into the franchise, but barring that, this marks the end of the Bondathon. Thanks to all the viewers out there who made the series such a rousing success. I'll be doing more series like this in the relatively near future. Until then, I'll be working to bring you theatrical reviews of the years remaining Oscar bait, and major redesign of the site (no more bland beige!). If you like, you can find us on Facebook and feel free to check out other Bondathon entries:

You Only Live Twice
On Her Majesty's Secret Service 
Diamonds Are Forever
Live and Let Die
The Man With The Golden Gun 
The Spy Who Loved Me 
Moonraker
For Your Eyes Only
Octopussy  
A View To A Kill
The Living Daylights
Licence To Kill
Goldeneye
Tomorrow Never Dies
The World is Not Enough
Die Another Day
Casino Royale 
Quantum of Solace  
Skyfall

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

BONDATHON: QUANTUM OF SOLACE

Casino Royale was the best thing to happen to the franchise in years. It had a more nuanced story that took itself seriously and immediately established Daniel Craig as one of the best Bonds in the franchise's now 50 year history. But the problem with making a more sophisticated Bond is that we now expect the sequel to continue in the same vein, but the franchise hasn't managed two good ones in a row since Johnson was in the White House.

That sad trend continues with Quantum of Solace. The film is a direct sequel (a franchise first), and starts up five minutes after Royale with Bond (Craig) searching for revenge on the people who killed Vesper, who turn out to be part of a mysterious criminal organization called Quantum (which explains half the title I guess) who are engineering a coup in Bolivia. I want to pretend that there's more to this film, but there isn't.

There's a girl (Olga Kurylenko) and some half-hearted attempts to show Bond working through his grief, but it's pretty thin gruel. The arc with Bond and Vesper was pretty well covered in the last film, and as a result there isn't much room for Bond to grow here, which wouldn't be a problem if Casino didn't just get done saying that this is now a franchise where people have arcs. So all that's left is to watch Bond rampage through exotic location after exotic location, killing potential leads left and right and annoying M (Judi Dench). The only interesting character is Bond's CIA counterpart Felix Lieter (Jeffery Wright), who has to find a way to covertly help Bond when he realizes that the CIA is in bed with Quantum. The filmmakers aren't entirely to blame, the screenwriting process was interrupted by the 07-08 Writers Strike and it seems that they were forced to shoot a first draft.

But the weak script does not excuse the action sequences, all of which have have been filmed in Confuse-O-Vision, that trendy process where the editor cuts quickly between shots of the camera shaking, turning everything into an abstract, indistinct blur. When used well, this technique can create tension, giving the audience a visceral you-are-there feeling. Here it just gets tiring. It's strange that the set pieces feel like bad copies of Jason Bourne films as the Bond producers poached some of their talent to shoot the action sequences.

It's a shame, because whenever the camera stops shaking it's quite a pretty film. It's wonderfully photographed by Roberto Schaefer to look like an enormously expensive perfume ad. A lot of this is due to stylized title cards and amazing sets by production designer Dennis Grassner who gorgeously  updates the Ken Adams look. The best set is the Andean Grand Hotel, a completely black & white hotel that looks like it was designed by CoCo Chanel. I also liked some of director Marc Foster's visual flourishes, such as the shot in the prologue where we first see the car shooting at Bond reflected in the door of his Aston Martin.

With the film being so striking, I really want to call this film a triumph of style over substance, but unfortunately editing counts as part of the style. Despite some good sets and a kick ass title song by Jack White and Alicia Keys, this is a dull, muddled film, that barely gets the audience from point A to B. It's reassuring to know that for Skyfall, the producers have kept the production designer and fired the editor.

Grade: C

If you liked this review you can check us out on Facebook and enjoy these other Bondathon entries:
You Only Live Twice
On Her Majesty's Secret Service 
Diamonds Are Forever
Live and Let Die
The Man With The Golden Gun 
The Spy Who Loved Me 
Moonraker
For Your Eyes Only
Octopussy  
A View To A Kill
The Living Daylights
Licence To Kill
Goldeneye
Tomorrow Never Dies
The World is Not Enough
Die Another Day
Casino Royale
Quantum of Solace
Skyfall

Sunday, November 4, 2012

BONDATHON: CASINO ROYALE

It's easy to forget that Die Another Day did very well financially. So well that corporate logic would dictate that the next installment should be exactly the same and come out as fast as possible. But public perception of the film cooled very quickly. Add to this the general darkening of action cinema post 9/11, and The Bourne Identity completely reinvigorating the espionage genre it was clear that a change was necessary. Producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson would need a new, darker, more relevant Bond if the franchise was going to survive.

That new direction ultimately came from a very old source, the very first James Bond novel Casino Royale. The book had been adapted twice before (once as a TV movie, and once as a spoof), but never faithfully, and never as part of the official franchise. The timing was perfect, as this most recent adaptation landed near the start of the reboot craze that swept mainstream cinema and TV in the mid-2000's.

As a reboot, Casino likes to play a bit with series conventions. The film doesn't start with Maurice Binders's famous gun barrel or an outrageous stunt sequence. Instead we are introduced to Daniel Craig's James Bond in a stark, brutal black & white sequence where he earns his Double O status by killing a traitorous section chief and his contact. The construction of the scene with Bond waiting in the dark for his target mirrors a similar scene in Dr. No where Bond ambushes and guns down an unarmed assassin.

This reference to 60's era Bond isn't accidental, the film works to evoke the 50's and 60's while still remaining modern. This ethos is exemplified by Danial Kleinman's credit sequence. The sequence was inspired by the card suit images that adorned the novels 1st edition cover and features fighting Saul Bass-esque silhouettes that would all look very 60's if the animation wasn't so clearly computer aided. The theme song itself by Chris Cornell and composer David Arnold is an updated version of the instrumental theme from On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

After the credits we meet Bond (now officially 007), slowly uncovering a banking plot. There is a man named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelson) who serves as a banker for dictators and international terrorists. Bond foils one of his side plots leaving Chiffre's cash supply dangerously low. In order to keep his clients from murdering him he sets up a massive, high stakes poker game at the titular casino in Montenegro. M (Judi Dench) orders Bond to infiltrate the game and make sure Le Chiffre loses. To help out, Bond is joined by a skeptical accountant Vesper Lynd (Eva Green).

I'm not much of a card shark so the films poker scenes are all Greek to me, but there is a local agent named Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) who exists to explain such things to us. But even then, the poker would probably get really tiresome if it weren't peppered with violent attempts on Bond's life and intrigue as to whether Bond is a sufficiently skilled gambler to defeat Le Chiffre. Also the Casino sequence is a fairly brief. Just as we think the film is over, there is a pretty massive shift and the film re-centers on Bond and Vesper's relationship as they float about Venice leading to the most effective tragic moment in the entire series.

By 2006, the public was still getting used to the idea of the reboot, and while the buzzword has gotten a bit tiresome in the intervening years, it still holds power for skilful filmmakers. Its fun to see Bond get his Double O number, acquire his first Aston Martin DB5, drink his first martini, etc. It was fun for me in '06 when it was my first Bond film, and it's fun in '12 after marathoning the entire series. In lesser hands all of these moments would play as distracting fan service, but director Martin Campbell earns the vast majority of them.

It helps that we've never seen a James Bond quite like Daniel Craig. The other actors were playing fantasies, Craig play's a person, more specifically he play's the Bond of the novels. The Bond of the novels is ultimately a very fragile man and Craig latches on to that aspect. From the fragility comes the paranoia and the coldness and the suave front. "The armor" as Vesper calls it. Timothy Dalton got close in the 80's, but Craig is the man who finally brings Fleming's Bond to the screen. 

The film really puts this more fragile Bond through the ringer. The action in this film would be good on it's own (every scene is excellently constructed and executed), but is heightened by the knowledge that Bond might not be able to hold it together. If the last few films felt overly cartoonish, this one goes the other way. Bond is a violent man in a violent world and the film doesn't apologize for it. In the 2000's action films seemed to become more and more sanitized. The ability to digitally darken blood to a less visceral brown seems to have made the PG-13 rating more restrictive, it's refreshing to see Royale going the other way with it. It's a bit shocking that the film's famous torture sequence snuck past the MPAA in any form considering it's conception.

If we've never met a Bond like Craig, we've certainly never seen a Bond girl quite like Vesper Lynd. We've seen similar ones, there's a tragic angle that mirrors On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but the difference here is that the film treats Vesper like a real person. Bond and Vesper don't fall in love via convenient musical montages, but by actually talking to each other and developing a relationship that we can believe and invest in. It also helps that Eva Green is a hell of an actress who pull off even the cheesiest lines of dialogue.

The film is pretty true to the novel. There are plenty of superficial changes to update it (terrorists instead of Soviets, poker instead of baccarat). The first hour of the film is new material to compensate for the relative shortness of the novel (my audio version clocked in at 2 hours shorter than most of the books). Still, the film gets so much right from the book, I wonder if there's any reason to read the novel at all. Sure it contains copious amounts of information about gambling, but it also features more 50's sexism than you can shake a stick at. In the book, Bond doesn't much care for Vesper. Even after he falls in love with her, she's just a silly child to him. It doesn't help that book-Vesper is given to wild unexplained mood swings that give the impression that Fleming just doesn't know shit about women. The film is much better than the book, while we're at it, it's much better than the majority of the other Bond films. If you've never seen a Bond movie, this is definitely the place to start. I don't want to say that it's the best of the series as Skyfall has been getting such excellent advance notices, but its certainly close.

Grade: A

Enjoy these other Bondathon entries:
You Only Live Twice
On Her Majesty's Secret Service 
Diamonds Are Forever
Live and Let Die
The Man With The Golden Gun 
The Spy Who Loved Me 
Moonraker
For Your Eyes Only
Octopussy  
A View To A Kill
The Living Daylights
Licence To Kill
Goldeneye
Tomorrow Never Dies
The World is Not Enough
Die Another Day
Casino Royale
Quantum of Solace
Skyfall

 

Monday, October 29, 2012

BONDATHON: DIE ANOTHER DAY

In 2002, the Bond franchise celebrated it's 40th anniversary with its 20th film, Die Another Day. The film isn't terribly well remembered, in fact it's considered a low point of the franchise that almost destroyed 007 forever. This hate fly's in the face of the fact that it got not terrible reviews and made a boat load of money, begging the question, is Die Another Day really that bad?

The short answer is no. The film is not good. Not good by any means, but it's hardly as unwatchable as say The Man With The Golden Gun and as much as it tries, and good Lord it does try, it's not nearly as outrageous as Moonraker.

Before descending completely into camp, we have an admirably hardcore opening where Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is captured and spends the next fourteen months being tortured in a North Korean prison camp. The torture continues through the opening credits meaning Bond's ultimate punishment is having to listen to Madonna's awful title track. Eventually Bond is traded back only to face suspicion from M (Judi Dench) over what Bond did or did not divulge during his internment. M strips Bond of his Double O status and detains him for further questioning. Backed against the wall, Bond has no choice but to break out and go rogue to clear his name.

Up till here everything is fine. The action is heightened, but not out of line with series norms. Brosnan is a bit hammy when playing dark, but generally okay. The film has adequately set the stage for a darker, more personal adventure. Unfortunately that's not what it delivers and things take a turn around the 50 minute mark as the film decides that it wants to be a goofy, sci-fi cartoon and never looks back.

On the one hand I admire separating the dark and whimsical elements of the franchise into separate segments as they have never played well together. On the other hand the series has never been good at whimsy so having the entire second half of the film be all whimsy turns out to be a pretty fatal move.

Some of it works. The ice palace fortress of super-villain/Richard Branson analogue Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens) is a tremendously silly idea, but a visually striking one none the less. Also, I liked that when the bad guys capture Bond late in the film, they figure out that they have to take his laser watch too. Also Halley Barry is fun as Bond's NSA agent sidekick Jinx. Jinx is another one of those female James Bonds from foreign agencies. She has her own gadgets, her own car, and like Bond she can only speak in groan inducing double entendres.

But then there is nearly every other element of the film. For every moment that works, there are entire sequences that fall flat. Let's start with the villain. I wanted to like Graves. He's partially based on everyone's favorite billionaire Richard Branson and partially on Ian Fleming's version of Moonraker baddie Hugo Drax, a character who certainly didn't get his due in the official adaptation and doesn't do much better here.

Take his villainy. In addition to having a derivative super weapon (another laser satellite) Graves also has a terribly unimaginative plan to (spoiler alert) destroy the mine field separating North and South Korea so that the North can invade. This brings up some important questions, 1) Why is he using a super-laser with more destructive power than an atomic bomb to clear a mine field when he can just destroy Seoul, forcing the South to surrender? 2) Are there any satellites in this universe that don't double as giant lasers, and if not, why doesn't the world just outlaw satellites? (end spoiler alert)

That laser leads to the films most infamous scene where Graves, who is controlling the weapon via a robot suit, has the laser chase Bond so that he must kite surf down a melting glacier. Until now the only reason the franchise has sort of gotten away with nutty ideas like this is that we've gotten to see talented stunt men pulling them off. This film robs us of even that pleasure by executing the scene with terrible CGI, with close-ups of Brosnan serving as the only photographic element. It's not that CGI can't produce nail-bitters (just look at the fantastic set-pieces that Pixar has done over the years), but you have to convince the audience that there is a real person in real danger. Even a wacky, cartoon universe should be able to ground it's audience somewhat.

Ultimately though, Die isn't interested in grounding us. It just piles on gimmick after shallow gimmick. DNA treatment centers, dancing lasers and the aforementioned robot suit. Heck, the most plausible element in the film is Bond's invisible car! Yeah, that invisible car that uses tiny camera's to project images onto the other side is actually, theoretically sound. Still, it doesn't matter because watching 007 slowly sneak around Graves's lair in a 4,000lb invisible Aston Martin is one of the most laughable images in the entire film.

The film's laughability isn't helped by the stylistic flourishes imposed by director Lee Tamahori (XXX: State of the Union). The man seems obsessed with step-printing and mock fast motion that hit at seemingly random moments and fly in the face of the formalism that the rest of the film is shot with and just help underline that these films had gone right back to being cartoon parodies of themselves. In a way, this is the cinematic equivalent of a mid-life crisis, artificially big, gaudy and over the top, the film keeps trying to convince us how young this franchise is and fools no one.

Grade: C-

Enjoy these other Bondathon entries:
You Only Live Twice
On Her Majesty's Secret Service 
Diamonds Are Forever
Live and Let Die
The Man With The Golden Gun 
The Spy Who Loved Me 
Moonraker
For Your Eyes Only
Octopussy  
A View To A Kill
The Living Daylights
Licence To Kill
Goldeneye
Tomorrow Never Dies
The World is Not Enough
Die Another Day
Casino Royale
Quantum of Solace
Skyfall

 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

BONDATHON: THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH

There is a moment in The World is Not Enough, Pierce Brosnan's third outing as venerable superspy 007, where he stumbles onto a nuclear facility. As he takes the elevator down into one of Peter Lamont's huge sets, I figured that this must be the villains lair meaning we were entering the films last act. I then glanced down at the counter on my DVD player and realized with mounting dread that I wasn't even halfway through the film yet.

Let's go back to the beginning. It's customary for these films to have a pre-credit action sequence to help introduce the plot and maybe remind us of how cool Bond is with a spectacular stunt. This one has nice stunts, but damned if I know what was happening in it. Bond is trying to get some money back for reasons never really made clear, it all goes wrong, MI6 headquarters gets blown up and Bond ends up chasing a sniper down the Thames in a rocket boat he borrowed from Batman.

These prologues are often the best part of the film (even Moonraker had a decent one), but this one makes the pivotal mistake of not playing like a prologue, but like a sequence from the middle of a film. It's not just in that it starts out at such a high level of action that the film has to go to Toon Town to top it (we'll get to that), but that it's paced in a way that sub-consciously tricked my brain into thinking it was much later in the film. That said I do like the touch of having it end with Bond falling from a hot air balloon only to have his fall broken by the Danial Kleinman's outrageously 90's opening credit sequence.

Don't get any ideas Mad Men!
Before we move on, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the credits are set to one of the two or three best songs in the Bond cannon. The titular track by Garbage is a fantastic at subtly pointing out all of the shallow, soul eating ambition that it takes to be a Bond villain: "The world is not enough, but it's a very good place to start... If you're strong enough, together we can take tear this world apart." The irony is that the title inspiring that song isn't what the villain says before launching an atomic bomb but rather, the Bond family motto.

Anyway, Bond emerges from the credits mostly unharmed (he has a broken arm, sorta), and we start to learn about the convoluted plot involving former kidnapping victim/recent orphan/oil heiress Electra King (Sophie Marceau), the pipeline she's building and Renard (Robert Carlyle), the pain immune terrorist Bond must protect her from. After a brief visit with Q (Desmond Llewellyn in his final performance) to pick up some gadgets (X-Ray glasses, BMW, and a jacket that transforms into a dome for some reason) Bond jets off to Azerbaijan.

Normally Bond would try and seduce King immediately but this time he waits a whole ten minutes out of respect for her dead father or something nonsense. So while we wait we get predictable character development punctuated by a scene where the pair are attacked by flying snowmobiles (not as cool as it sounds). Bond later abandons his role as bodyguard so he can stumble around and find that aforementioned nuclear facility.

It's here that he meets the film's other Bond girl, Christmas Jones (Denise Richards), who lives up to her reputation as one of the worst recent Bond girls. It's not that Richards is miscast as a nuclear physicist (she is), it's that the film is incapable of making us believe that she's a professional of any sort. I'm sorry, but nuclear physicists, even the sexy ones, don't wear crop tops and booty shorts to work. It doesn't help that "nuclear physicist" is her only discernible attribute so there's no reason to care about her even a little bit even though she's the one Bond ends up with at the end. She's also completely useless for most of the film, making her the only damsel in distress in Brosnon's entire run. Furthermore, Jones's underwritten and lacking role is only underlined by all of the character development that Electra gets.

Electra, in the meantime is one of the more interesting Bond girls in a while. Late into the film we discover that the aloof, independent King is (Spoiler Alert) the secret evil mastermind, and a good one at that. She kidnaps Bonds boss, M (Judi Dench), and plans on nuking Istanbul so she can have oil pipeline supremacy. The film ends with Bond facing the choice of killing a woman he cares about to protect the world. In a better film, this might be an important turning point in the franchises mythology, making her the most important woman in the Bond cannon since his wife Tracy, but it's not a better film. Just once I'd like Bond to have some baggage that meant anything. (/End Spoilers)

The main issue though is the action. On the one hand we have some fairly authentic feeling Geo-political scrambling, but then we have action scenes that are ridiculous and cartoony even for a Bond film. In addition to the boat sequence and the flying snowmobile scene we also have a sequence where Bond and co. are attacked by helicopters carrying two-story buzzsaws to cut the building he's in in half. The latter is so big and grandiose, you assume it's the climactic ending, but it's not, not by a long shot. These increasingly silly action scenes are a dangerous president. This film goes too far with them and our next film in the marathon will go so outrageously far with them that it'll cause a massive shift in the series.

This film was directed by Micheal Apted, who may be the most interesting director to ever be allowed a crack at the series. He's done such diverse films as Coal Miner's Daughter and Gorillas in the Mist, but he's arguably most known for the Up documentaries, which has been slowly documenting the lives of the same group of Londoners from childhood through retirement and beyond. They are among the most remarkable experiences cinema has to offer. It's unfair to criticize a Bond film on that level, but you should see those instead.

Grade: C-

Did you know you can now follow this blog on Facebook? Well, now you do.

Enjoy these other Bondathon entries:
You Only Live Twice
On Her Majesty's Secret Service 
Diamonds Are Forever
Live and Let Die
The Man With The Golden Gun 
The Spy Who Loved Me 
Moonraker
For Your Eyes Only
Octopussy  
A View To A Kill
The Living Daylights
Licence To Kill
Goldeneye
Tomorrow Never Dies
The World is Not Enough
Die Another Day
Casino Royale
Quantum of Solace
Skyfall

 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

BONDATHON: TOMORROW NEVER DIES


I often wonder about the minions in the Bond universe. I don't mean the 2nd tier muscle men that Bond often deals with, but the low level employees. Do the thousands of technicians working on those plots know why their boss wants to build a super-laser in a hollowed out volcano? Do they know he's evil? Do super-villains ever worry about their plans leaking?

The answer, according to Tomorrow Never Dies, is that everyone is indeed in on it, to some degree at least. It's villain, Eliot Carver (Johnathan Pryce) is a media mogul who want's to start a war between Britain and China by basically reenacting the Gulf of Tonkin incident but with different countries. Carver makes no bones about his evilness to his employees (as if the platinum crew cut wasn't a hint). Early in the film he holds a meeting with all his news editors where they manipulate and plant news stories to boost profits, with much evil cackling and hand ringing. Later, before he kills a very prominent socialite he has a lowly news anchor record the obituary in advance just so he can show it to his victim first. There's evil, and there's plain carelessness. I half expected Carver's janitor to be in on the evilness. It doesn't help that Pryce and director Robert Spottiswoode (Stop or My Mon Will Shoot!) insist that Carver be played as over the top as possible. Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers films is more down to earth than this guy.

With the evil scheme pretty well spelled out to us in the beginning, watching Bond (Pierce Brosnan) try and uncover it is pretty dull. The film tries to spice it up by revealing that Carvers wife Paris (Teri Hatcher), is Bonds former lover.  Upon learning this M (Judi Dench) orders 007 to "pump her for information."

Dropping in on a former Bond girl is kinda a neat idea. It offers an opportunity to show us a new side of the character and follow up on the post-modern aspirations of Goldeneye. Unfortunately the script (which was rushed into production to satisfy a studio stock-holder) isn't really interested in this idea and all we get is some sub-par banter before Paris is killed just to give Bond some cheep revenge motivation that is never mentioned again.

The second half of the film is better. Bond goes to China and teams up with local agent Wai Lin, played by Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) to stop Carver. The idea of Bond teaming up with a foreign, female version of himself isn't new. We got a similar version of the character in The Spy Who Loved Me. But this version can act and do all of her own stunts.

Those stunts are pretty spectacular at times. The best scene in the movie, the scene that makes up for all the dullness that came before, is a bravado stunt sequence where Bond and Lin are handcuffed together and slide down a building, get onto a motorcycle (they share the handle bars) and evade a helicopter that's using it's blades to mow down civilians. Credit for this bravado sequence goes to second unit director/legendary stunt man Vic Armstrong.

I liked the gadgets in this film. The best is Bond's BMW which can be controlled from his cell phone. This may have come off as too over the top in 1997, but in 2012 I'm surprised there isn't an app for that. But then again, in 2012, wikileaks would stop Carver long before Bond could.

In addition to the stunts and the gadgets there are a few nice performances. Vincent Schiaveli scores laughs as Dr. Kaufman, an assassin who dabbles in torture and specializes in celebrity overdoses. Bronson continues to be a great Bond, playing the character as a fun loving child rather than a sadist (Connery/Dalton) or a square (Moore). If the earlier Bonds felt like imperial relics keeping the world in check, Brosnan's Bond just wants to party. In Goldeneye, that glee served a clear thematic purpose, in Tomorrow Never Dies it just serves to cover up plot holes and an underwritten script. It's still fun, but the film is a huge step backwards.

Grade: C+

Enjoy these other Bondathon entries:
You Only Live Twice
On Her Majesty's Secret Service 
Diamonds Are Forever
Live and Let Die
The Man With The Golden Gun 
The Spy Who Loved Me 
Moonraker
For Your Eyes Only
Octopussy  
A View To A Kill
The Living Daylights
Licence To Kill
Goldeneye
Tomorrow Never Dies
The World is Not Enough
Die Another Day
Casino Royale
Quantum of Solace
Skyfall

Thursday, October 11, 2012

BONDATHON: LICENCE TO KILL


Timothy Dalton's second and final outing as James Bond, Licence To Kill deserves some credit, in that it strips away the vast majority of the Bond formula tropes. Unfortunately it simply trades one set of conventions for another. Instead of a Bond film, this is an 80’s cop movie with spies, Lethal Weapon 007 if you will.  

The film brings back CIA agent Felix Leiter (David Hedison). Bond’s friend and frequent partner. Felix is doing really well. He’s captured infamous drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi), and he’s getting married. There's a big party, dancing, presents. Felix is on top of the world.  It’d be a real shame if Sanchez where to escape, kill Leiter’s wife and feed him to a shark. Bond wouldn't like that. Why, he would swear revenge and go on an all out killing spree.

The cop cliché’s pile up as Bond meets an informant (Carey Lowell) in a strip club (the kind where the girls keep dancing through bar fights). Bond is shocked to discover that his contact is a woman. She scoffs at Bonds assertions that a woman can’t be a cop and makes fun of his Walter PPK. Of course, the cop movie transformation wouldn't be complete without a scene where Bond goes rogue after M (Robert Brown) essentially orders Bond to hand over his gun and his badge. "You're a loose cannon Bond!"

Licence want's you to think that it's darkest, grittiest film in the franchise. But quite frankly it's just as ridiculous as always. The only thing keeping it from the camp of the Roger Moore days is the relentless violence. Apart from the hot cheese of the 80's cop cliche's we have scenes where someone tries to stab Bond with a swordfish, a mack truck that does wheelies while Schwarzeneggerean explosions go off in the distance, and we haven't even gotten to the gadgets.


I half expected that truck to roar
After Bond quits/is fired from the service,  Q (Desmond Llewelyn) takes it upon himself to provide Bond with some gadgets that might help him out. They are not his best, the worst is a Polaroid camera that takes X-rays AND shoots lasers at the same time for some reason. I kept waiting to see how Bond would use this insane, ill-conceived gadget during the climax, but sadly he never does.

The idea of Bond going rogue could be an interesting idea. Taking away all of 007's tactical support, and forcing him to fend for himself could be dramatically fascinating. But the thing is that Bond is never on his own in this film. He has Q giving the same tactical support he always has.  Consequently I still don't believe that Bond can survive on wits. Sure he applies some Yojimbo like manipulations to Sanchez and his men, but none them are believable. The film asks us to buy that Sanchez doesn't know Bond is his enemy when Bond was there doing most of the work when he was apprehended in the first place.  Even if Sanchez never saw Bond (which is a stretch), it's firmly established that Sanchez has moles in Leiter unit who probably saw the whole thing.

The use of Felix Leiter in this film is a bit odd. Ostensibly his inclusion is a way to trade on the mythology of the series, but it can't get that right either. Hedison's casting makes little sense, he played Leiter once before way back in 1973's Live And Let Die where he was as forgettable as most of the actors playing Leiter. If you're trying to build a consistent universe and build the world, why not bring back John Terry who played the role briefly in the last film?

This is a film of lasts in the Bond franchise. Firstly it was the last film for screenwriter Richard Maibaum who wrote or co-wrote the lions share franchise. Secondly it was the last film for title designer Maurice Binder who had grown too ill to continue.  Most importantly, this is the last film for Timothy Dalton as Bond. Dalton was scheduled to do a third film but between the low performance of Licence, rights issues with the franchise and the end of the Cold War, it was decided to replace Bond yet again with the next film.

But Dalton would be fine. He’s that rare anomaly, the only actor who’s arguably more known for his post-Bond roles. People of my generation are likely to recognize Dalton for Hot Fuzz, Rocketeer, Toy Story 3, Flash Gordon, Doctor Who, Chuck, and having an awesome British voice long before James Bond. Still, he was a excellent Bond, who's darker energy would eventually provide an important template for the current incarnation. But that said, as dark as these films are, with all the murder and bloodshed, the last image we get in a Dalton Bond is of a giant stone fish winking at the audience.

Grade: C


Enjoy these other Bondathon entries:
You Only Live Twice
On Her Majesty's Secret Service 
Diamonds Are Forever
Live and Let Die
The Man With The Golden Gun 
The Spy Who Loved Me 
Moonraker
For Your Eyes Only
Octopussy  
A View To A Kill
The Living Daylights
Licence To Kill
Goldeneye
Tomorrow Never Dies
The World is Not Enough
Die Another Day
Casino Royale
Quantum of Solace
Skyfall

 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

LOOPER

It’s 2044. Joe (Joseph Gorden-Levitt) is standing in a cornfield, looking at a pocket watch with nonsensical symbols. At the appointed time a second man appears out of thin air with a bag over his head. Joe shoots the man dead and burns his body. Joe does this sort of thing all the time. He is a looper, a specialized assassin who kills people sent back from 30 years in the future, where time travel exists and is controlled by the mob.

His life is glamorous. The money is good, there are fast cars, women and drugs. This is fortunate for Joe as it seems that 2044 has suffered an economic apocalypse. One day, Joe gets a looping assignment but the man who appears is himself from 30 years in the future (Bruce Willis). This happens sometimes, it’s known as “closing the loop.”  Upon being confronted with his future self, he hesitates just long enough to let old Joe get away and the chase is on. In another movie, Joe would wrestle with the idea of having to kill his future self, but Joe knows what happens to people who fail to close their loops. 

To reveal anything more would be unfair. Also it would take too much time. There is a lot going on in this movie. Writer-director Rian Johnson (Brick, Brothers Bloom) has created one of the most intricate sci-fi universes to come along in a long time. There's something interesting going on around every corner. It’s also admirable that he has the confidence to not explain too much. Much like Star Wars or Blade Runner, a lot of the details and ideas are left for the audience to pick up on and fill in for themselves. Personally, I was fascinated by this idea of this future society using the past as something to exploit, as a dumping ground for its problems. It was as if 2044 was the subjugated colony of 2074. The future mobsters (I love saying that), even send a viceroy named Abe (Jeff Daniels in a hilarious performance) back in time to run the looper operation and keep them in line.

Another admirable thing about this film is its willingness to let its protagonist be an asshole. Both versions of Joe do reprehensible things to survive in this film, which is fine when it's justified, but though old Joe is given a pretty reasonable out, he would rather continue on a very violent path for the most selfish of reasons. It’s fun watching a film where your allegiance to the protagonist and antagonist switches back and forth, and even more fun knowing that they’re really the same person.

Both stars do wonderful jobs in their respective roles. Between this and Moonrise Kingdom, Willis seems to be on a bit of a roll. Levitt wears some light prosthetics to make him look more like a young Bruce Willis. From the side the resemblance is uncanny, but from the front it seems like he used too much filler on his eyebrows. Who knows, maybe that’s just how the kids wear their eyebrows in 2044. Anyway Levitt is excellent, he’s picked up a lot of Willis’s mannerisms, the sarcastic apathy, the lack of eye contact with authority figures, Levitt’s got the Bruce Willis thing down.

Ever since Rian Johnson broke out with his 2005 noir masterpiece Brick, he's been positioning himself as one of our most important young writer-directors. That he chose to do a sci-fi action thriller is commendable. His intricate world building and stylization suits the genre quite well, I hope he does more stuff like this. Lord knows the genre needs more auteurs as talented like Johnson.

Grade:A-