‘Looper’ Review (dir. Rian Johnson)

‘Looper’, the mind bending and smart new time-travel film by Rian Johnson is one of the most effective and balanced science fiction films to be released in the last few years. Its mix of realism and sci-fi elements bring a level of emotion and heart to its own unique and complex universe in a way that reminded me of classics such as ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Twelve Monkeys’.

The film takes place in a futuristic, though familiar, 2044 city where the buildings are bigger, poverty is more prevalent and organized crime seems to hold much of the power. The focus of the story is Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt) who is a “Looper”, a specialized assassin hired and trained to kill individuals from the future.

We are told early on through narration that time travel has not yet been invented in the story’s present but it will be in thirty years. In that time it will be outlawed; but criminal organizations who have to deal with increased technological advances in solving murders use “black market” time travel devices to send their living victims back to the present. There they are killed by assassins like Joe, who dispose of the bodies. This leaves no trace of the person’s death in the future, and the Looper is killing and disposing of a body that technically should not exist in his present.

Joe, like other Loopers, is paid well and lives a fairly extravagant lifestyle that includes lots of drinking, drugs, women and nice cars. The only down side of being a Looper is that a provision in their contract states that in the future their older selves will be sent back in time, to be disposed of, by their younger self. This is to “close the loop” as the film explains, a way of disposing of those individuals still around who are no longer needed but have knowledge of these criminal acts.

The main narrative of the story kicks off when Joe’s older self, played by Bruce Willis, is sent back in time to be killed. Joe hesitates when the time comes and ‘Old Joe’ escapes, causing Joe to be hunted by his bosses for this mistake. At the same time Joe tries to track down his older self in an attempt to “make things right”. The situation is made all the more complicated because Old Joe has plans of his own, turning what most going in expecting to simply be an action thriller into a much more complex and emotional story.

The thing that I loved most about Johnson’s “Looper” is how grounded it managed to feel while also still containing some very interesting fictional elements. There is a level of detail in the story to support a whole series of films; but Johnson smartly decided to focus more on the human element. Much of this comes in the second half, and some people will certainly begin to lose interest as the pace slows and the story takes a turn most wouldn’t expect. But for me, this is where the film really comes into its own. This is where they take all the exposition and style that came early in the film and use it to support that much more relatable, and honestly much more interesting, human element. Yes, Johnson could have easily copped-out and turned this into nothing more than a straight forward action thriller but instead he slows down enough to contemplate the themes of regret, sacrifice and loss that most time-travel films tend to ignore.

Of course, whenever anyone makes this sort of film there are continuity and logic issues that tend to pop up. With “Looper”, although one could try to nit-pick and question the logic of this FICTIONAL time-travel film (a rather pointless endeavor if you ask me), most of what occurs works within the narrative. Films such as this, no matter how absurd their stories may at times be, only need to work within the universe created by the writer and luckily it works brilliantly here. Johnson plays around with the ideas of paradoxes and time lines, but the film doesn’t take itself too seriously. Smartly even its own characters acknowledge the “over-complicatedness” of time travel logic.

What it does establish is that things are not fixed. Time, and life in general, is much more ‘cloudy’ and unclear than we might think. And yet, it also hints at the idea that changes in the present don’t have as big of an effect on the future as long as other timelines continue down the path they initially started. In this sense Johnson could make major changes to his character’s present and still promise them that their futures could still be the same. For some this prospect drives them to do unspeakable things. For others this loop that we are caught in, always heading towards the same future, might not be worth the effects it has on those they come in contact with. These questions and ideas, and how the characters choose to approach them, lead to what I felt was a very powerful ending.

Besides the intelligence and heart of the script, the other big surprise here is the wonderful acting across the board. Joseph Gordon Levitt, with the help of prosthesis, truly becomes his character and at times I forgot it was even him. Emily Blunt managed to help anchor much of the story’s heart and her performance truly sold the more emotional moments of the story, which was key to the film’s success.

The true stand out, in my opinion, was Bruce Willis. He brought so many layers to his character, something I haven’t seen him do this well in this sort of film in many years. (He did give another great performance this year in the much different ‘Moonrise Kingdom’). Willis managed to make it so you can not forgive but could at least empathize with his character’s terrible actions. He not only expressed the pains of what he has done, but also sells the ‘necessity’, at least from his perspective, of what is to come. Credit again must also be given to Johnson for providing just enough develop of these characters to support their emotion, motivations and decisions.

I could not end without mentioning the score by Nathan Johnson. A perfect mood setter and at times quite beautiful. I don’t think it gets nearly enough recognition and so I had to mention it. Other than that I’d have to say that ‘Looper’ not only lived up to my expectations, but surpassed them. It did it in a way that reminded me of ‘Drive’ last year. I had a lot of anticipation going in for both but really didn’t know what to expect. What I got from each was a lot of style, great performances, smart scripts and stories that deviated away from the norm; stories that took the risk of focusing on character more than anything and although the end results were totally different than what I expected going in, I could not be more happy with what I got. Because of that I’d say ‘Looper’ is one of the best films of its kind, a soon to be classic, and also one of the best films so far this year. I’d highly recommend this great movie going experience to all.

A Horror Quickie With Lisa Marie: 976-Evil II (dir. by Jim Wynorski)

(Before I left on my vacation, I made it a point to watch several horror films that were available for free on Fearnet.  In the case of many of the films, I suspect that I may have paid too much.  Regardless, since it is October and horror month here at the Shattered Lens, I am going to share my thoughts on some of these Fearnet films.)

Before I review 976-Evil II, I need to make a quick confession  The one time that I attempted to watch the first 976-Evil, I ended up falling asleep immediately after the opening credits.   I don’t know much about the film beyond the fact that it was directed by Robert Englund and, even by the standards of the majority of the films that are available on Fearnet, it looked to be cheap and unimpressive.

That said, as I watched Part 2, it quickly became apparent that it’s not really necessary to have seen the first film to follow the plot of the second.

A small town in California has a problem.  Mr. Grubeck (an enjoyably over-the-top performance from Rene Assa) is the dean of the local college (which, to be honest, looks a lot like a high school).  Grubeck is a courtly, middle-aged man who lives in a nice house and just happens to be a demented serial killer.  He’s been dialing a mysterious phone number and, with each call, he gains more and more supernatural powers. 

At that start of the film, however, a drunk janitor (played by George “Buck” Flower, of course) sees Grubeck killing a student.  The janitor goes to the police and Grubeck is promptly arrested and placed in jail.  Unfortunately, the police allow Grubeck his one phone call and Grubeck, of course, dials 976-Evil.  As a result, Grubeck is given the power to wander about in astral form while his physical body rests.  Grubeck uses his powers to start killing anyone who can link him to the murders, as well as to stalk a student named Robin (Debbie James).

However, Robin has another stalker.  Spike (Patrick O’Bryan), who was apparently the protaganist of the first film, comes rolling into town on his motorcycle and soon, he and Robin are searching for a way to defeat Grubeck once and for all. 

(As a sidenote, I think that the minute a baby is named Spike, the rest of his or her life is pretty much predestined.)

976-Evil II is the type of film that almost always gets universally negative (and snide) reviews but, when taken on its own terms, it’s actually a fun little movie.  This is the type of film where all of the actors speak their lines in the most dramatic way possible and authority figures react to bad news by defiantly slamming their hand on top of their desk.  In short, this is a film that is not meant to be taken seriously and its obvious that director Jim Wynorski understood that.  This is a film that winks at the audience even as it grows more and more implausible.  While the film’s scares are more likely to make you smile than jump, there is one very effective sequence where Robin’s friend Paula (played by Leslie Ryan) finds herself literally sucked into the TV.  At first, since she was watching It’s a Wonderful Life, everything’s okay.  But then, somebody changes the channel to Night of the Living Dead.  It’s this type of outrageous sequence that distinguishes 976-Evil II from other similar (but forgettable) horror films.

976-Evil II was released in 1992 and, wow, is it obvious.  Everyone has big hair, wears too much spandex, and uses a landline phone.  Even the villainous Mr. Grubeck wears a vest with a floral design.  That said, the film was so dated as to be oddly charming.

That’s actually how I would sum up 976-Evil II as a whole.

Oddly charming.

Horror Scenes I Love: Haute Tension

If there was ever a horror film in the last ten years or so that has garnered so much love/hate responses from those who watched it then I will say that Alexandre Aja’s debut film Haute Tension definitely reign on top. It’s also from this very controversial film (at least amongst genre fans) that my latest “Scenes I Love” comes from.

It’s actually fairly early in the film with a brutally, gruesome kill by the film’s serial killer that helps establish the tone Aja was going for. We have the scene of Cécile de France as Marie unable to go to sleep and hearing the house’s doorbell ring and her bet friend’s father going downstairs to answer. Unbeknownst to everyone in the house it’s a brutish figure played by Philippe Nahon who proceeds to brutalize and decapitate the father in a very ingenious and very bloody fashion.

This scene was quite shocking when it first appeared on the big-screen especially since it was from a French horror film that usually didn’t have such extreme violence. Well, this scene definitely helped establish the arrival of the so-called “New French Extremity” film movement of the 2000’s and which continues on to this day. One nice trivia about this establishing scene for this film is that the man responsible for the visual effects for the death is none other than Giannetto De Rossi who also happened to have done much of the effects work for noted Italian horror maestro Lucio Fulci.

October Music Series: Poropetra – Tunturikukka

October is a fine month for music. Everything from the cheesiest of black metal to the most ethereal of folk finds its home in a season which glorifies gore and the old gods together in a grand renunciation of conventional Christian values. I make an effort every year to present a sort of soundtrack to the season. Last year this amounted to a meager one post, but this go around I aim to do a song a day every day from now until the 31st.

The criteria will be two-fold: the song must be either dark, pagan, fantasy-oriented, or at least authentically folk; and I cannot have ever featured it on Shattered Lens before. It’s going to be an interesting ride. I feel at the moment completely out of touch with my music collection, and too hopelessly bereft of time to do anything about it. Musically, I spent the grand bulk of this year focusing on vgm. I must say the venture was eye-opening, and I have a much broader appreciation of video game music to show for it, but it’s a subject quite far from my typical focus. I will be putting my vgm series on hold for the month (it is incomplete anyway, and such a break will hopefully give me time to extend it), and focusing on music a bit more relevant to the season.

Today’s feature song is Tunturikukka by Finnish folk act Poropetra, taken from their self-titled 2004 demo release. While their full-length album features substantial rock influence, their demo is an outstanding example of uncompromised contemporary folk of the Finnish/Karelian variety. The band’s name is, according to Encyclopaedia Metallum, “the name of a mythological blue moose which travels through the sky”. Their founder, Juha Jyrkäs, has supposedly collaborated with folk metal legends Korpiklaani.

Tunturikukka is a track I’ve been keeping around for years now. I don’t recall when exactly I discovered the band, but I may have had it in my collection since the year of its release, and it still never fails to make an impression on me. I’ve always extracted a warm, sort of wintery vibe from the tune, and there’s something a bit reverent about it. From what I’ve read, I gather the lyrics pay ample homage to Finnish mythology, and on Tunturikukka most among the demo tracks I get a real sense of connection with the past.