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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Movie Review: LOOPER


"The only rule is: never let your target escape."
-- Joe

Looper is a 2012 sci-fi action film written and directed by Rian Johnson that serves as his third directorial effort, and his first since 2008's The Brothers Bloom. The story tells the tale of a futuristic world in which time travel exists but is outlawed, used only by major crime syndicates for purposes of disposal. These syndicates will send victims back in time where men known as "loopers" wait for them only to execute them on sight. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is such a man, and he maintains an extravagant lifestyle as a result of his career. One day, as Joe waits for his victim, or "loop," he finds an older version of himself (Bruce Willis) kneeling before him. After a moment's hesitation, Young Joe allows Old Joe to escape, sparking a massive manhunt by Young Joe's company to find the older man. As Young Joe and Old Joe start to interact through their meetings, light is shed on the elder Joe's current agenda for transforming his future into something much more desirable.

I apologize if the above synopsis seems a little bit shoddy, but I don't want to give away too much information about the plot and the storyline. What I wrote, along with the trailer posted below, really gives away the first half of the film. It's the second act that proves to be a little bit astonishing, and I'd rather not be the one to give it all away.

I've been anxiously awaiting this film for quite a while. Many of my readers will know that I have a bit of a man-crush on Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and that might have played a part in me seeing this film as soon as I did. The real selling point for me, however, is the return of a collaboration between Gordon-Levitt and director Johnson, who first joined forces for 2005's Brick. I'm sure that fact has probably been mentioned in every single review for Looper thus far, but I figured I'd reiterate it. Because I loved that film so much, the idea of another film from the two seemed like a gift-wrapped present at Christmas. What I'm here to tell you is that Looper does not disappoint. It's opened to some fantastic reviews - it currently holds a ninety-three percent approval rating on - and that only fueled the fire for me to get to a theater and see it as soon as I possibly could.

Let's start with the screenplay, shall we? In the past, a number of successful film franchises, such as Back to the Future and those little Terminator films, have dealt with the concept of time travel. For whatever reason, the plot device has remained a viable option for filmmakers in today's society as well, but I don't think I've ever seen it quite done like this. Johnson manages to create a cinematic world where the idea of time travel can understandably exist, and yet, he never takes the time to spell out the precise details for such an existence. Instead, he gives us just enough information for the audience to understand and believe the capability, and it's this tactic that sets Looper apart from the some of the other great time travel flicks. Rather than trying to bash the viewer over the head with drawn-out explanations, Johnson allows the explanation to be this simple: it exists, and it works. For the most part, that's all we need to know.

From there, the film plays out in a relatively straight-forward manner. Anytime you involve time travel, there are going to be a few moments where things can get a little confusing, but the screenplay does well to keep things from getting too convoluted. At the end of the day, I couldn't see any major issues with logic and continuity within the constructs of the story, but some nitpickers will surely find a few minor details here and there. The screenplay does go on to excel in the second half of the film, blending action sequences with a number of thrills and some fantastic plot twists towards film's end. While some of the storyline becomes a tad bit predictable, I can honestly say that I was not expecting the film's ultimately finale, one that just might blow your mind.

To bring this screenplay together, we'd need a pretty good cast, and that's just what we're getting. Gordon-Levitt is fantastic as Young Joe, and with a fantastic bit of make-up, he does his best Bruce Willis impression. In the early going, it's uncanny just how much the young actor mimics the likeness of the veteran, and I have to say I was thoroughly impressed. Willis himself also brings a strong performance to the screen. Always one of my favorite actors, I can honestly say that I don't think I've seen him bring forth this strong a character since his turn in 2005's Sin City. I might even go as far back as The Sixth Sense in 1999, if I think about it. Kudos to these two leading men for crafting engaging on-screen characters.

Now, the rest of the cast fills out incredibly well, and you're going to see quite a few familiar faces. Emily Blunt offers a great performance as our leading lady. She continues to impress me with her acting prowess. Also be on the lookout for the likes of Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano and Garret Dillahunt, each of whom brings a great bit to the screen. Where I was truly impressed, however, was with the performance of young actor Pierce Gagnon, appearing in only his third feature film. Even for such a young age, he brought quite a presence and power to the screen, which was definitely a necessity for his particular character. To stand toe-to-toe with the likes of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt is quite a feat, but the young Gagnon manages to do just that.

At the end of the day, Looper is a fantastic film, as well as an incredible addition to the science-fiction canon. Sure, it has a few minor flaws here and there, but with any film involving time travel, a bit of disbelief is a bit necessary. If you can let yourself get lost in this world and this story, I don't think there's any reason you won't enjoy the film. Rian Johnson strikes yet again, and I can't wait for his net endeavor.


Movie Review Summary
Grade: A
Status: Should See

Wednesday, September 26, 2012



"Hold my hand. Close your eyes."
-- Justine

Melancholia is a 2011 dramatic arthouse film directed by Lars von Trier that delves into the concepts of depression and disaster. In the midst of her wedding celebration, new bride Justine (Kirsten Dunst) unwittingly falls victim to a number of outside circumstances that keep her from enjoying what should be the happiest day of her life. Her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) continually pester her about her mood, and she withstands a number of confrontations from her employer (Stellan Skarsgård) about work-related issues. Her mood swings affect her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), and at the end of the night, Justine finds herself without a husband and without a job. The film then transitions to its main story: Justine has fallen into a deep depression, and the world watches as a rogue planet called Melancholia heads on a course for a fly-by of Earth. Justine comes to stay with Claire and her family, and she slowly gets back on her feet. Around the same time, Claire begins to worry that Melancholia might, in fact, collide with Earth, causing the end of the world as she knows it.

I first heard about Melancholia as it made its way through the film festival circuits back in early 2011. Dunst managed to nab the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival, a feat which sparked early Oscar buzz for her performance. The film itself would go on to be selected as the best film of 2011 by the U.S. National Society of Film Critics, and it managed to score a number of nominations and wins at ceremonies around the world. But it was the performance of Dunst, whom has been both good and bad over the years, that truly drew my personal interest in the film. Little did I know that von Trier had something truly special hidden up his sleeve.

I think I need to start with this disclaimer before I get into my overall review: Melancholia is an arthouse film, and it's not going to appeal to all viewers and audiences. Fortunately, the film's opening sequence will set the stage for whether or not you are personally going to make it through the over two-hour venture. The film opens in true arthouse fashion with a number of seemingly random sequences that are sure to confuse many. I myself was scratching my head at the very outset, wondering what exactly I was getting myself into. If you're already turned off by the opening sequence, then Melancholia might not be the flick for you, but if it offers you a sense of intrigue, I implore you to keep watching.

As I previously stated, the film delves into the deepest realms of depression and disaster. It's not the easiest film to watch, and it certainly doesn't offer any real happy ending. It's going to leave a bit of a sour taste in your mouth, but I think that's the point. The storyline itself is relatively rudimentary, but it's the subtle nuances about the screenplay that bring this film to life. The events taking place in the world outside of the film's characters are merely the pieces that keep time moving forward. Melancholia is more about investing yourself in the characters and the emotions they convey. The brilliance in the screenplay stems from the wonderfully-written characters. Even the characters we only see for a moment seem perfectly-placed, and it gives the film a true sense of reality and validity.

The best part of the screenplay, in my opinion, is von Trier's look at the world of depression. Having had my own issues with mental illness, I'd be lying if I said I didn't take a personal emotional interest in the cinematic look at this world so familiar to me. Von Trier himself has had his own issues with depression, and it was these circumstances that led him to craft this particular film. What he creates is one of the most honest and heartbreaking looks at a person with depression, and for that alone, I have to applaud the filmmaker and writer.

This character-driven creation would have never come to life were it not for the stellar cast that von Trier was able to bring together. Dunst is a revelation as one of our principal leads, and I'm left scratching my head, wondering how she was left off last year's Oscar ballot. This is a role unlike any she has ever taken before, and she knocks it out of the park. I laughed with her Justine, I cried with her, I fell to the very depths of sanity with her. When an actor is capable of bringing the viewer on that kind of emotional ride, you know they're doing something right. What's incredible is that Gainsbourg is just as good as Dunst, and it's almost unfair to think that this film managed to snag two fantastic performances. Between the two, it's easily one of the best pairs of performances I've seen together in one film in the last few years. Dunst may take the cake, but Gainsbourg is definitely having a slice or two. The rest of the cast fills out quite nicely, with both the elder and younger Skarsgård offering solid, albeit small, performances. Sutherland also does well with his bit, but he's overshadowed by his female counterparts. Also be on the watch for a great bit piece from John Hurt.

As I said before, Melancholia is not going to be a film that everyone will enjoy. If you've watched other arthouse fare and had trouble remaining engaged, then you might want to pass this one by. However, I personally found it to be an incredible cinematic feat, and Dunst's performance alone is enough to give it recommendation. If you have the patience for it, I'm sure Melancholia will deliver for you in the way it delivered for me.

Movie Review Summary
Grade: A-
Status: Should See

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Top 10: Films I Need to Re-Watch

Have you ever watched a movie based on someone else's recommendation, only to find that it didn't quite live up to the bar they set? I can't begin to tell you just how many times this has happened to me. This becomes most frustrating when I watch an allegedly "great" film that has achieved a certain stature in cinematic history, but I simply can't find a way to like it or enjoy it. Because I want to have that intimate knowledge of the better films released through the course of history, I can say that I've had my share of disappointments. However, I think I may have a bit of a problem with my logic.

I usually only give most of those films a single viewing, and because I'm so put off by them the first time around, I simply don't take the time to give them another shot. There could very well be a chance that I'll enjoy the flick more the second time around, but I'm always just a tad bit wary of undertaking a film I didn't necessarily enjoy for a second time. However, sometimes it yields fantastic results. For example, I strongly disliked Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction when I first gave it a view, but after a second watch, I managed to see its incredible merit. Perhaps there are more such films out there.

So what I've done is create a list of films I've seen in the past that I didn't particularly enjoy for whatever reason of another. These are films that have stood out to me as ones that, for whatever reason, I think I might like after a second go-around. I could be completely wrong, but here goes nothing.

(Note: Of all the films on this list, I did not hate any of them on my first viewing. I simply think I didn't like them quite as much as I expected, and subsequent viewings seem to be in order.)

10. Kill Bill Vol. 1 / Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2003 / 2004)

Fitting that the film should start with another Tarantino venture, isn't it? When I saw the two Kill Bill films, I was in a place where I didn't really like Tarantino's style. Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs were good flicks, but I didn't really think they were all that brilliant. It wasn't until 2009's Inglourious Basterds that I started to come around on his filmmaking process, and I've since come to respect and enjoy Tarantino's vision. The Kill Bill flicks are the only ones I haven't managed to re-watch just yet, but I'm thinking I might like them a bit more than I did last time.

9. Rocky (1976)

My dislike for Rocky stems from two particular sentiments. First, I thought the film was a little bit too slow, and all that build up didn't really make for a terribly strong finish, in my opinion. Second, I'm really not much of a Sylvester Stallone fan, so it was difficult for me to relate to his character. Still, I understand the merit and achievement of the film, but as a pure entertainment factor, I think a re-watch might do me a little bit of good.

8. The Exorcist (1973)

Cited as one of the scariest films of all time, The Exorcist simply managed to spark a rise out of me the first time I watched it. Maybe it's been a bit dated since it was released in 1973, but I wasn't even left sitting on the edge of my seat, let alone be scared out of my wits. The problem I saw was that it felt like two different movies. The scenes with Linda Blair were fantastic, but everything else seemed like a melodrama that was a bit too talky.

7. Vertigo (1958)

Now, I did not dislike Vertigo the first time I watched it, but after a bit of studying, I realize I may not have entirely understood its meaning and message. It was recently voted by Sight & Sound as the greatest film of all time, and that alone makes me want to give it another watch, if only to remember just how great it is.

6. Blade Runner (1982)

Another film that I found to be a bit boring on its first viewing, I think I may have been a little too young for Blade Runner when I first saw it as a teenager. Having grown accustomed to seeing Harrison Ford in over-the-top action flicks, this dialed-down thinker didn't do quite enough to keep my adolescent mind engaged. Now, I think I have a little more patience with films, and this one might be right up my alley.

5. The Birds (1963)

Growing up, I was unable to watch The Birds because the concept utterly terrified me. I finally watched the film in a high school film class, and the ending left a sour taste in my mouth. I was extremely put off, and for a while, I was arguably quite angry with Alfred Hitchcock for ending the movie in such a way. The more I've thought about it though, the more I think it might be the right one, but I want to watch the movie again to give myself a little peace of mind.

4. Apocalypse Now (1979)

My problem with Apocalypse Now is that my only introduction to it was the Redux version, which runs fifty minutes longer than the original piece, which is lengthy itself at 153 minutes. Any film that lasts over three hours has to do a lot to keep the viewer engaged, but the Redux version couldn't quite do that for me. I think seeing the film in its original incarnation might give me a stronger appreciation for it.

3. The Shining (1980)

Can one actor ruin a film? In the case of The Shining, I'd argue yes. Shelley Duvall is so off-putting in the film that I was completely taken out of the storyline. It's even sadder to imagine because Jack Nicholson is so damn good in the film, ya know? Watching the film again knowing about Duvall's character should alleviate some of the strain, allowing me to focus on the story at hand.

2. The Matrix (1999)

I'm a little embarrassed about this one, but the reason I think I didn't like it the first time around is because literally everyone was enjoying it. I was in a stage of my life where I wanted to go against the grain, so disliking The Matrix was my big source of rebellion. Now that we're thirteen years later, I think another viewing is in order, if only to know that I've given it a proper chance.

1. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

The first time I saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I hated it. I didn't get the humor, and I didn't find even one bit of it to be funny. To be fair, I was much younger than I am today, but I'm not quite sure that makes up for it. In the time since I've seen the film, I have seen - and thoroughly loved - a stage production of Spamalot, which is "lovingly ripped off from" the film itself. I think it was a matter of understanding the humor, and my positive reaction to Spamalot might mean that I'll have an equally positive reaction to the film.

Well, there you have it. The ten films I need to re-watch. Tune in next week for another top ten list!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Top 10: Films My Girlfriend Thinks I Should See

It's another Tuesday, and so I'm bringing you another "Top 10" list. This one, however, proves to be a tad bit different. In past weeks, I've offered up some of my own lists, delving into particular genres and sub-genres. But for this week's list, I thought we could go in a different direction. Now, I've mentioned here on a post here or there before, but my girlfriend Chloé wanted to help me with one of these particular posts, and I figured, "Why not?" It's a good change of pace, and it proves to be a very interesting list, I think.

What we have is a list of the ten films that Chloé thinks I need to see. Although I am quite the avid movie watcher, there are still plenty of flicks I've never had an opportunity to view. Luckily for me, Chloé is also a bit of a movie fan, and although our tastes match up quite a bit, there are plenty of flicks she's seen that I haven't. Ergo, the creation of this list. It's an eclectic selection, but I hope it can both engage you as well as give you ideas for new films you might like to see.

And so, without any further delay, here's the top ten films my girlfriend thinks I should see:

10. Velvet Goldmine (1998)

I've heard about this film from time to time, and I think I've seen it sitting on Netflix Instant Watch now and again, but I've never taken the time to sit down and watch it. With a now high-profile cast that includes Ewan McGregor, Christian Bale and Jonathan Rhys Myers, this venture into the glam rock of the 1970s has always sparked an interest. Says Chloé:
I was initially interested in Velvet Goldmine based off its title. Being a huge fan of David Bowie, I can say that I was extremely happy with the parallels between Bowie and the Brian Slade character on-screen. This film did not disappoint.

9. Kirikou et la sorcière (1998)
(Kirikous and the Sorceress)

I can honestly say that I've never heard of this animated film until Chloé offered me her list. She said that the film follows the story of a young boy named Kirikou, who tries to bring water back to his village after the evil sorceress Karaba kills all the men in the village and dries up the spring. Says Chloé:
I have fond memories of my grandmother playing this animated movie for my sisters and I after dinner, but it wasn't until I re-watched it last year that I realized just how brilliant it actually is.

8. Howl (2010)

I do have to say that I had every intention of seeing Howl when it first hit theaters. I'm a bit of a James Franco apologist, enjoying him in nearly all of his endeavors, and it was that reason alone that I had originally wanted to see this film. I knew a little bit about Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl" on which the story is based, but I guess I didn't know enough to warrant going to see this one in the theaters. Says Chloé:
I truthfully didn't know what I was going to be getting as I sat down in the theater to watch Howl. A friend had told me about the film, but the only introduction I was offered was that the film featured Franco starring as Allen Ginsberg. What she didn't say was just how strong of a movie Howl proved to be.

7. Les demoiselles de Rochefort (1967)
(The Young Girls of Rochefort)

Another flick I don't really know anything about. I know that Chloé has mentioned this film on a few occasions in the past, but it's never been much of an in-depth conversation. The movie tells the story of two twins as they begin their adult lives and start to look for love. Says Chloé:
Les demoiselles de Rochefort is another film that links me back to my French roots. It's possibly my favorite film musical of all time. I just can't find any words that will do this movie justice, so I think you should just give it a chance. It even stars Gene Kelly, which I personally think is a huge plus.

6. Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)

I know what you're thinking: how haven't I seen a film as iconic as Breakfast at Tiffany's? To be fair, I'm sure Chloé has also asked that question on a number of occasions, and I don't think I've ever really had an answer for her. Says Chloé:
The fact that my boyfriend has not seen this movie is an insult to me, the resident Audrey Hepburn fanatic. I know that I want him to see all the films on this list, but the fact that he hasn't seen this one is probably the biggest tragedy.

5. Grey Gardens (1975)

In 2009, a made-for-TV movie called Grey Gardens was released and was met with critical acclaim. I knew that the film was a type of remake, but I didn't know that the original 1975 venture was actually a documentary. It took a look at the real lives of two of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy's cousins. Says Chloé:
One of the weirdest documentaries I've ever seen, Grey Gardens still manages to be my favorite. Our two central women have such enormous personalities that the film becomes utterly entertaining, documentary or not.

4. Never Let Me Go (2010)

Another film I had every intention of seeing during its initial theatrical release, Never Let Me Go simply managed to slip through my fingers. Based on Kazuo Ishiguro's novel of the same name, the film features the acting talents of Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield. The cast alone would have led me to the theater, but the overly emotional trailer also caught my eye. Says Chloé:
This movie is definitely a sad one. So sad, in fact, that when I tried with watch it with my mom, she literally refused to watch it through to the end. However, you shouldn't let that keep you from giving it a view. It's a near-perfect dystopian film with a beautiful love story. It's just a beautiful film, but be warned: it may leave you feeling sick to your stomach.

3. Withnail and I (1987)

The final film on the list of which I had never truly heard. Withnail and I is comedy that, according to Chloé, has a huge following in England. It tells the story of two struggling actors who decide to take a vacation together to get away from their mundane lives. Says Chloé:
Withnail and I is one of my favorite black comedies, and I just wish more people had heard of this brilliant film. It manages to keep you laughing all the way from start to finish.

2. Best in Show (2000)

Of all the films on this list, I think Chloé has been driving me to see this one the most in recent months. She even went as far as to buy me a copy of the film so that I could give it a view. I will eventually, I promise. Best in Show is a mockumentary that tells of five dogs and their owners as they train and prepare for the famed "Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show." Says Chloé:
Best in Show is my very favorite comedy and mockumentary. It's the cast that truly makes the film, featuring performers like Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey, Christopher Guest, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch and their dogs.

1. The Ice Storm (1997)

I wish I could count how many times Chloé has mentioned The Ice Storm to me, but I've simply lost count. This Ang Lee production features an ensemble cast that includes Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Christina Ricci, Tobey Maguire, Elijah Wood and Sigourney Weaver, and it tells the story of two dysfunctional families as they deal with affairs, drugs and sex. Says Chloé:
The Ice Storm is my favorite film of all time. There are really no words for it. I just love this movie.

And so, that concludes the list of the ten films my girlfriend thinks I need to see. I hope it gave you a few ideas of films you'd like to watch as well. Tune in next week for the next top ten list!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Movie Review: LAWLESS


"I'm a Bondurant. We don't lay down for nobody."
-- Forrest Bondurant

Lawless is a 2012 crime drama directed by John Hillcoat that is adapted from Matt Bondurant's 2008 novel, The Wettest County in the World. The story follows the Bondurants, a family of three brothers led by the eldest Forrest (Tom Hardy), who run an illegal moonshine business in Franklin County, Virginia in the midst of the Prohibition era. With the help of his brothers Jack (Shia LaBeouf) and Howard (Jason Clarke), Forrest has become one of the biggest suppliers of moonshine in the county. One day, a special deputy from Chicago named Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is brought into the county in order to destroy the bootlegging businesses, and he immediately clashes with the Bondurant clan. He starts to rid the county of its numerous illegal distilleries, and he soon starts a personal vendetta against Forrest Bondurant. Youngest brother Jack finds a way to keep the business afloat, only increasing the tension between the brothers and the ever-present Rakes.

I first heard about this film about a year ago when it was still to be titled The Wettest County in the World. At the time, I took a passing glance, noticing it merely for its casting star power, but it didn't necessarily ring a bell as a must-see. When the film's trailer was released, however, something about the stylistic grittiness compelled me to at least give it a view. The film has opened to moderately positive reviews, but I can't quite say they've been entirely stellar thus far.

One of the biggest issues most critics - including myself - have had with Lawless is its screenplay. While there's definitely a strong and emotional story of family bonds and revenge hidden beneath it all, there seems to be a little too much extra storyline given to the film. At its core, the story should be about the three brothers and their loyalty to one another, regardless of how much they drive one another crazy. There were a few ancillary characters that turned out to be more important than they should have been, and it ultimately helps to bog down the story a little bit. Despite this, the film's climax and finale still prove to be quite strong, even with the obstacles along the way.

Where this film's strength truly lies is in its cast. Now, I have to start by saying that I have never been much of a fan of Shia LaBeouf. I'm sure I've mentioned this before, but there have been times where I have downright hated his presence on-screen. However, I think Lawless will ultimately be the film where we as the audience see LaBeouf mature into a legitimate actor right before our very eyes. At the start of the film, he almost seems a little bit of touch, as he often does, but by film's end, there's a power and a grace to his acting ability that I haven't seen him convey before. I have to tip my hat to the young actor for breaking out of his acting shell and transforming (pun intended) himself into something entirely different.

The rest of the cast fills out quite nicely as well. Tom Hardy continues to prove to me that he is one of the better actors working in Hollywood today. You can place his performance in Lawless right next to his noteworthy turns in 2009's Bronson and 2011's Warrior. Pearce is also great as the film's central villain, and I thought he brought the film's second-best character (behind Hardy's Forrest) to the screen. Also worth mention for their smaller, albeit not entirely necessary, roles are Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska, who all manage to bring strong performances to the film.

At the end of the day, Lawless manages to bring together a very strong ensemble cast that ultimately falls prey to a less-than-stellar screenplay. Still, the strength of the performances helps to keep this film afloat, and an emotional second act gives the audience an opportunity to stay engaged and involved with the events on-screen. See it for Hardy and Pearce's performances, and be surprised by the growth of Shia LaBeouf into a legitimate actor.

Movie Review Summary
Grade: B+
Status: Should See