Thursday, October 11, 2012

Review: "Looper" shows a promising future

Joseph Gordon-Levitt
The following review for Looper was originally published on CinemaBeach last Friday. The website covers mostly independent movies, but also occasionally covers movies with an indie mindset (i.e. Rian Johnson's latest). I am a regular critic there and post on a weekly basis. Please feel free to check out the website, where you can see more of my reviews. Not covered in this review is my opinions on if this film can earn a Best Picture nomination. Short response: it is good, but I don't think it's going to get nominated in fields outside of technical.

If anyone has deserved a breakout hit in the past ten years, it would be director Rian Johnson. From his phenomenal debut in 2005 with Brick to being responsible for two of the best episodes of Breaking Bad, he has come a long way and only gotten better. His work reflects a director with something to say and a style all his own. His genre-mashing films manage to push boundaries without feeling contrived. With Looper, Johnson gets his chance at becoming a household name with a tale about time travel. Does he succeed on a bigger budget, or is it best to leave Bruce Willis and time travel to Terry Gilliam?

The story follows Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is a Looper. This means that he is responsible for assassinating people who the mob sends him from the future. One day, he comes face to face with Old Joe (Bruce Willis), a 30 year older version of himself. The journey continues from there into a chase between the Joes, conflict with Joe’s boss Abe (Jeff Daniels), and dives into deeper subjects that involve Sara (Emily Blunt) and her son Cid (Pierce Gagnon). Like all good sci-fi stories, it is best to be vague about the rest of the story.

This is a film that lives by each reveal. Fortunately, Johnson manages to craft an engaging story that explores the existence of multiple timelines and the concept of fate in general. The film is an elaborate puzzle that is tediously built upon the previous scenes. By choosing to explore deep existential themes, the movie almost becomes philosophical and raises the characters above the familiar. It challenges the audience morally to determine who is the real hero and if the end justifies the means. In the grand scheme of things, time travel serves more as a McGuffin. The real story lies in psychoanalysis and intimate character conversations.

There are as many quiet moments as there are big action set pieces. This is fortunate because the intensity of this movie is hit and miss. What really saves this aspect is Johnson’s ability to film the scene with spectacle and fancy camera angles that almost creates a dizzy sensation. However, the action is more traditional and features a lot of foot chases and gun shots. Alone, these elements are boring. Add in composer Nathan Johnson’s music and you begin to get the nuance and thrills. If there is any weak concept in the movie, it is the action. However, Rian Johnson’s control over story overshadows many of the film’s flaws.

Left to right: Jeff Daniels and Noah Segan
The universe is also a brilliant blend of modernism with future constructs. There are interactive billboards, everyone has telekinesis, and currency comes in the shape of metal oval bricks. This movie is best viewed as a mob story to fully comprehend how cool Johnson’s vision is. The tale shares as much with 12 Monkeys as it does Goodfellas, and that is where the authenticity comes from. While the concept of time travel has long been a complicated aspect, the casual disregard for it here is a refreshing commentary on the genre. It also just helps to make the characters, who seem very disaffected, cooler than their mundane job actually is.

The personas of these characters are familiar mob tropes, but spliced in interesting ways here. Even though Paul Dano is playing another paranoid character, it serves the narration and eventually sets up the conflict. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is great as the rebellious Looper who dresses to impress. His cocky attitude and expensive drug habit almost gets him killed, but he is still a thrilling protagonist. The real star of the film is Pierce Gagnon, whose story is one of the most ingenious twists in a blockbuster film this year. While he comes across as a rebellious ten-year-old version of Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, he is a more troubled individual that gives the finale a much-needed dramatic boost. Noah Segan as a scrappy young Looper named Kid Blue is another standout performance, as he provides wit and menace that keeps Gordon-Levitt on his toes at all time. Jeff Daniels is also excellent as the head Looper, who isn’t afraid to take drastic measures when necessary.

While Looper may have numerous flaws in narration and action sequences, it succeeds as an overall entertaining tale. It sees a director confident with his vision and through his genre-bending narration, creates a universe that is accessible to the viewer. Lead by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the acting is excellent, though it is Johnson’s camera technique that makes this movie a thrill ride. It may not be as great as Brick, but what Looper shows is something that sci-fi movies are lacking nowadays: creativity, philosophical themes, and a sense of intelligence. It may not be as accessible and fun as 12 Monkeys, but it shows a director who has something to say, which in the long run is more important.

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