Written and directed by Rian Johnson
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano
Time travel in movies is a tricky business. Done right, it can inject suspense and humor into the narrative, raise fascinating questions about individual identity, fate and free will, and add some visual pizzazz, whether by recreating a past era or imagining a (usually grim, dystopian) future. But it’s also a logical minefield, from which few, if any, time travel-centered films escape unscathed. Some manage to avoid the more obvious fallacies; others ignore or even embrace them. “Looper” falls into the latter category, with mixed results.
In the “Looper” universe, time travel has been invented but outlawed by 2072, used only by criminal syndicates to rub out people without leaving any traces. When the syndicate wants someone dead, the target is captured, tied up, and sent back in time (with his or head in a bag) 30 years, where a pre-appointed assassin, known as a “looper,” shoots the target dead and disposes of the body. Loopers are handsomely rewarded for their services, but they pay a hefty price of their own: at some point, their future selves are sent back for them to kill. This is known as “closing the loop.”
At the outset, a viewer might wonder how likely a criminal syndicate that had the power of time travel would use it solely for body disposal purposes—or if that’s the objective, why they don’t kill the victims immediately and just send the corpses back for burial rather than risk a looper bungling the job. (Particularly when the job is killing his older self.) But these aren’t logical or continuity errors so much as large orders for suspension of disbelief, which any time travel movie, by its very nature, is going to require anyway.
No, the real logical difficulties come later, when certain loopers start having problems closing their loops—leading to their younger and older selves coexisting, at least temporarily, in the same time period. There’s obviously something that’s equal parts intriguing and headache-inducing about this setup, and it’s fair to say that writer-director Rian Johnson (no stranger to baroque plotting, as evidenced by his previous films – the twisty, super-stylized high school noir “Brick” and con man caper “The Brothers Bloom”) revels in the complications without really trying to resolve them. In a funny moment about midway through the film, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, who play younger and older versions of the main looper protagonist, Joe, start to discuss the existential implications of their interaction—only for Older Joe to cut the palaver short with an imperious “don’t think about it!” That pretty much sums up “Looper”’s attitude towards the paradoxes it raises, right up to the end, where…well, let’s just say that title is apt for more reasons than one.
That’s not to say the movie is lazy or carelessly crafted; far from it. As futuristic noir with a dash of sci-fi horror (including one hard-to-shake scene, involving a brutal vivisection, that manages to be utterly terrifying without ever actually showing the surgery), it’s largely successful, paying obvious homage to classics like “Blade Runner” and the original “Terminator” while adding some original, rather charmingly retro touches of its own. When, for instance, was the last time you saw a movie set in 2046 in which assassins wield blunderbusses and are paid in silver bars, and a huge chunk of the action takes place on a sugar cane farm?
The film also benefits from the believably tense dynamic between Willis and JGL (who does a pretty good Willis impression, from which the elaborate makeup and prosthetic job only distracts) and an unexpectedly compelling performance by Emily Blunt as the woman who comes in between Younger Joe and Older Joe, though not in the way you might think. Young Pierce Gagnon, who plays her son, also delivers a memorable turn as a child who can shift from cute to creepy on the turn of a dime, and Jeff Daniels supplies some welcome moments of sly levity as Younger Joe’s jaded boss. All in all, “Looper” is a solid piece of entertainment that’s smarter and more thought-provoking than most. But its strength is also weakness: it’s a movie that makes you think, which inevitably leads to the conclusion that its story doesn’t really add up.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
Whether you think he’s a genius or a crock, or simply a talented but uneven director, you have to credit Paul Thomas Anderson for ambition. He does things on a grand scale, from the sprawling human tapestries of “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” to the outsize passions of “There Will Be Blood.” Now he’s directed a film entirely in 65mm, set in the 1950’s—a callback to the sweeping epics of a bygone era—that’s been whispered about for months as being a thinly veiled takedown of Scientology.
Except that it isn’t really. The core of “The Master” is not about a movement but about two men, one hopelessly displaced and out of control of his own nature, the other seeking to tame that very nature through a tightly controlled methodology. That the methodology echoes many aspects of Scientology and that its founder bears more than a passing resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard is, more or less, beside the point. But what is
that point? That’s the bigger question, and the more difficult one to answer.
I’ve just said “The Master” is about two men, but it’s really the story of one man, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a Navy grunt we first meet at the end of World War II. Freddie ashore is a lost, damaged creature, a bundle of nervous tics and unrestrained animal instincts that accelerate his ejection from a short series of post-war jobs. His main talent appears to be concocting literally lethal cocktails, the ingredients of which vary but which always include at least one substance not designed for human ingestion. Eventually he stumbles across the path of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the founder of a mysterious quasi-spiritual movement called the Cause, which induces its acolytes to recover memories of past lives through a set of techniques known as “processing.” Dodd, known to his followers as Master, takes an interest in Freddie (and Freddie’s hooch); Freddie, in turn, willingly offers himself up for processing and embraces the Cause—but only up to a point. Despite the best efforts of the Master and his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams, looking angelic as always, but displaying the soul of Lady Macbeth), to bring him in line, Freddie never subdues his wayward, violent impulses or submits fully to Dodd’s authority. This dynamic, always unstable, can’t last. It doesn’t.
And really, that’s about the sum and substance of it. “The Master” features plenty of enigmatic scenes and images—many of startling beauty or strangeness (or both), heightened by another tense, jagged score by Jonny Greenwood—that any critic could mull over for days. But these only have impact to the extent that they illuminate or complicate our view of Freddie’s psyche or, specifically, his relationship with Dodd. In that respect, the film is reminiscent of its immediate predecessor, “There Will Be Blood,” which was similarly focused on the destructive id of Daniel Plainview and, in particular, his intense hatred of the unctuous preacher Eli Sunday. (PTA seems to have an ongoing fascination with false prophets and charlatans, though in both this movie and TWBB, he seems to be less interested in their motivations than their effect on others.)
Here, Freddie’s relationship with Dodd is more complex than pure antagonism. There’s an element of devotion, maybe even of love—or if not these things, the desire for them. Yet the fundamental nature of their attachment remains frustratingly elusive. This isn’t so much a fault of the actors, who are individually impressive, but something about the juxtaposition of them: somehow, these two larger-than-life performers don’t quite connect even when they’re gazing intently into one another’s eyes. In one memorable scene, Freddie and Dodd are shown in side-by-side jail cells, the former howling and rampaging like a wolf while the latter castigates him in sonorous tones, to no avail. Perhaps that disjunction is, precisely, the point. Perhaps PTA is trying to say something more expansive about the alienation of post-WWII Americans struggling to find their spiritual footing in a changed and changing world. But if he is, the insight he’s searching for doesn’t quite come through, and “The Master” remains a collection of arresting moments that don’t really cohere into a larger whole.
Directed by Jason Moore
Starring Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow, Anna Camp, Rebel Wilson, Adam DeVine, Skylar Astin, Elizabeth Banks
“Pitch Perfect” isn’t exactly a good movie, but its charm is irresistible. Irresistible, that is, if you enjoy watching fresh-faced, fresh-voiced young singers performing perfectly harmonized a cappella versions of pop songs and snarking at or flirting with each other in between numbers. It’s “Glee” goes to college, but without the wildly incoherent character shifts, zany authority figures, or over-the-top plotting to bring down the underdog glee club. (Disclosure: former Gleek here who gave up on the show for good midway through last season.)
The movie turns on two axes that eventually merge into one. First, we have a rivalry between two a cappella groups at fictional Barden College—a rivalry that threatens to become lopsided after the all-female Bellas tank spectacularly in the finals of the national championship and the all-male Trebletones take home the trophy. As the new school year begins, the Bellas’ uptight captain, Aubrey (Anna Camp), and her more reasonable but less assertive second in command, Chloe (Brittany Snow), are hungry for redemption and desperate to prevent the complete dissolution of the group. They’re so desperate, in fact, that they’re ready to consider anyone with a double-X chromosome who can belt a tune, rather than the picture-perfect lookers they’re accustomed to recruiting.
Enter Becca (Anna Kendrick, sporting her best non-threatening alterna-chick look), a Barden freshman who’s unhappy to be matriculating because what she really wants to do is go to L.A. and mix some beats—or, uh, do something in the music industry that doesn’t involve being a pop star. Through a series of somewhat improbable circumstances she’s induced to join the Bellas and to her surprise discovers she likes it. Unfortunately, she’s also constantly butting up against Aubrey, who doesn’t like Becca’s attempts to shake up and modernize the group’s repertoire, and fellow freshman Jesse (Skylar Austin, better known on Broadway, but hugely appealing here), a cutie-pie who’s clearly smitten with Bella but who also just happens to be a hated Trebletone.
Needless to say, all of these complications work themselves out, and along the way we’re treated to a whole lot of perfectly delightful, occasionally inspired singing, as well as a number of scene-stealing comedic turns by the supporting players—among them, a pair of hilarious a cappella judges played by Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins, Jesse’s weird but sweet roommate Benji (Ben Platt), an Asian Kewpie doll (Hana Mae Lee) who speaks so softly no one can hear the crazy shit she’s actually saying, and, best of all, the glorious Fat Amy (rising comic star Rebel Wilson), who’s fat, loud, and proud of it. Not all of the lines and gags land, but enough to do to keep the laughs rolling and prevent the time between songs from dragging. Ultimately, though, the music is where it’s at: the movie’s never better than when it lets its stars jam, most memorably in an underground “riff off” in which various groups try to one-up each other by, well, riffing a cappella off a set theme. There’s so much energy and sheer joy in that sequence, it’s no wonder that we finally see a smile break through on Becca’s face. If you’ve any love of good performance, you’ll be smiling, too.
ROBOT & FRANK
Directed by Jake Schreir
Starring Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Jeremy Sisto
“Robot & Frank” is a small gem of a movie that manages to be at once an odd-couple buddy comedy, a heist film, a gentle satire of man’s relationship with technology, and a poignant meditation on aging and the impermanence of memory. There are so many ways this combination could have failed; the fact that it works as well as it does is a testament to the delicate touch of first-time director Jake Schrier and the surefooted lead performance of the great Frank Langella. Both of them tread lightly and draw a lot of laughs, yet somehow leave a lasting impression of melancholy sweetness.
Set in the “near future,” Langella plays an aging man, also named Frank, who’s retired to an idyllic little town in rural-ish New York. Though he lives alone, he doesn’t lack family attention: his son Hunter (James Marsden) drives several hours every weekend to see him, while his daughter Madison (Liv Tyler), who appears to be some kind of globe-trotting do-gooder, calls him frequently from various far-flung locations. Frank seems content enough with his quiet existence, whether he’s puttering around at home or venturing into town to flirt with the local librarian (Susan Sarandon) or pinch a tchotchke under the hostile eye of a shopkeeper (an amusing cameo by Ana Gasteyer) who correctly suspects he’s up to no good. But because Frank’s memory is becoming increasingly unreliable and his cluttered home increasingly squalid, Hunter decides that what dear old dad needs is his very own personal robot to look after both him and the house. Although Frank resists at first, he becomes grudgingly accustomed to the presence of his new companion (voiced with buttery-smooth aplomb by Peter Sarsgaard). Robot, despite his curiously retro design (he looks like a cousin of R2D2), proves a capable cook, impeccable housekeeper, and attentive yet unfailingly polite caretaker.
Then Frank discovers that Robot, while quite strict about regulating his master’s dietary and exercise regimen, is not
programmed to regulate Frank’s moral or ethical conduct. In fact, Robot provides a handy assist to Frank’s shoplifting habit, which sets off a light bulb in the old man’s head. Because, as it turns out, Frank isn’t just some idle kleptomaniac—he’s a former cat burglar and master jewel thief whose time in prison hasn’t killed his appetite for a good sting. Before long, Frank is training Robot to help him pull off a major burglary at the multi-million dollar home of a young tech tycoon (Jeremy Strong) whom Frank despises for his efforts to replace the local library’s collection of books with electronic media. Complications ensue, though not the ones you might expect.
On the surface, “Robot & Frank” is a feather-light diversion, yet it carries more weight on reflection. It’s rare for a movie to be such breezy fun while at the same time underscoring fairly sobering, even disheartening truths: That we grow old. That our memories deteriorate with age, and sometimes abandon us altogether. That we can develop unreasoning attachments to inanimate technological devices—because they provide us a surrogate for company and connection to the outside world. “Robot & Frank” sounds these themes without beating them to death, so that they somehow become a counterpoint, rather than a discordant note, to the delightfully comic interactions between Frank and his robot. It’s a tricky balancing act that somehow works, even if the denouement and resolution feel just a little too pat. This is a film that aims primarily to entertain, while reminding us that life plays tricks—and not always funny ones—on us all. It succeeds on both counts.