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Film Review: Looper

January 30, 2013 3 comments

Looper (2012; Directed by Rian Johnson)

Hired killer Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) checks a golden pocketwatch while standing before a tarp on the edge of a cornfield, a clumsy shotgun-like sidearm called a blunderbuss in his ready hands. At the awaited time, a bound and hooded figure appears, seemingly out of thin air (or thin time), before him on its knees, the blunderbuss fires, and the figure falls dead. Joe stashes the silver bars strapped to the person’s back and discreetly disposes of the body. He returns to his city life, biding his time until he has to do it all again.

looper-posterSuch is the life of a looper, an underworld assassin in the American Midwest in the year 2044. In writer-director Rian Johnson’s rundown, rural-inflected speculative vision of the future three decades hence, time travel intrudes into the fringes of a dilapidated civilization from another three decades forward. For reasons that are not well-elaborated-upon by Joe’s spare narration, hits and corpse disposal are prohibitively difficult in the 2070s or so, but the criminal syndicates (always the consummate innovators) cannot be dissuaded from carrying them out. Their solution is to employ the apparently highly-illegal recent invention of time travel to send the people they wish to dispense with back to a place and time where they can be dispatched with relative ease, and have employed the order of loopers to facilitate the task, under the command of future-world ex-pat boss Abe (Jeff Daniels, looking like Slavoj Zizek in an uncharacteristic orientalist phase).

Loopers enjoy plenty of perks for their service, being well-compensated and kept soaked in drugs, women, and other hedonistic trappings of the underworld by their employers. The catch is that, one day, when they least suspect it, they will be asked “close the loop”: the target for execution will be their future self, and they will be given a literal golden handshake (bars of gold rather than of silver) and a 30-year retirement period to be concluded with their own looping back to the past, to be permanently “retired” by their younger selves. It all seems tidy enough, but there are always unforeseen issues with time travel in science-fiction flicks, and Johnson makes sure we’re ready for his wrinkles in time.

Shortly after a looper colleague (Paul Dano) fails to close his own loop and Joe gives his friend (in present and future iterations) up to an ingenuously cruel punishment at the hands of the syndicate in order to save his stashed silver, he comes face to face with his own future self (Bruce Willis) on the killing tarp. He repeats his betrayed friend’s mistake and “lets his loop run”, as the jargon of his profession goes, although the Old Joe’s stiff resistance doesn’t make it an easy job for the Young Joe, either. Both versions of Joe end up on the lam from Abe and his legions of black-clad goons, as well as from each other.

Young Joe wants to capture Old Joe, finish the job, and salvage his savings and his standing with the people who employ him. Old Joe has a more ambitious, time-spanning mission: track down the boy who will become the powerful, malevolent overlord of the future called the Rainmaker and kill him, thus changing what is, mind-bendingly, his own painful past in the future as well as Young Joe’s future in his own past. Got all that? Hitler’s murder paradox in a slick, peculiar nutshell. Anyway, Old Joe’s vendetta leads Young Joe to an isolated Kansan farm, where a hard-as-nails single mother (Emily Blunt) raises her precocious but unsettling son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) with a quiet desperation that conceals some dark secret. Both Abe’s minions and Old Joe are certain to follow, and Young Joe settles in with the bizarre, dichotomous family unit to await the inevitable siege.

I ordered a chocolate milkshake, NOT vanilla! And where’s my whipped cream?

Writer-director of the crackerjack indie Brick, which cast Gordon-Levitt in a hardboiled detective noir set incongruously in a California high school, Johnson returns to critical form after the mixed reception of his second film, the caper flick The Brothers Bloom. As in Brick, Johnson whittles away many of the common assumptions of his genre of choice in Looper, while defamiliarizing those elements he retains. The ever-versatile Gordon-Levitt is game for anything, and leaps into the challenge of embodying a younger Willis (aided by facial prosthetics that increased his resemblance to the iconic Die Hard action star). Unfortunately, the practice of approximating Willis’ laconic directness reduces Gordon-Levitt’s natural charm, which flows more effortlessly through varied verbosity than enforced linguistic simplicity. Willis has some anguished moments over the nature of his quest (he doesn’t know exactly which kid the Rainmaker is, and has to drop a few underaged candidates just to be sure), but is mostly a formidable action puppet in the John McClane mode, especially when unleashed on a full arsenal of automatic weapons.

But Looper is all arsenal with not nearly enough at its core worth defending with such firepower. As fantastically clever and promising as Johnson’s time-travel concept is, his payoff is all discharged firearms and not discharged ideas; he shoots his action from interesting angles and with a sharply edited geometry that renders all the murder and mayhem with excitement, but doesn’t provide nearly the intellectual backbone to earn all the violence.

As Cynthia Fuchs noted in her review for PopMatters, the most complex and interesting idea in Looper is also the one that is least satisfactorily explored: memory, and its centrality in Old Joe’s quest and his interactions with Young Joe, whose real-time experiences become Old Joe’s memories as soon as they happen. Having set up a complex set of spec-fic rules and possibilities, however, Johnson can’t think of a way to pay them off that challenges generic mainstays rather than simply ventriloquizing them, to adapt Fuchs’ observation. Nor does the sketchy future of obvious economic deprivations does not get mined for much social or cultural critique by Johnson (what we’re shown comes across as the boilerplate dystopian assumptions of a social context of economic anxiety), who seems more absorbed by the visual details of leather jackets, hoverbikes, and guns, guns, guns.

Like Johnson’s debut Brick, Looper is built on a solid foundation of stunted adolescence that is merely adorned with the referential crenelations of pop-cultural sophistication. This made plenty of sense in Brick, and indeed was sort of the point of that film; it was about adolescents, after all, teens who become enmeshed in the dangerous deceits of a very adult crime ring whose violent consequences reached well beyond their tender experience.

In Looper, this same metaphoric core seems like evidence of a low rate of artistic growth. These characters are adults but remain stuck fast in the quicksand of boyish power-fantasies. This, again, may be Johnson’s point; in his view, behind every violent thug is the careworn absence of a missing mother, and the assurance of feminine stability is what both Joes and the young Cid crave and appear to require in order to follow the moral path. But behind the time-travel theorizing and generic cross-referencing, Looper is about boys with toys beating each other at marbles. Johnson closes his movie’s loop instead of letting it run, and as an unfortunate result, his path is a circle.

Categories: Film, Reviews

PopMatters Best Films of 2012 Entries – #33 – The Hunger Games & #12 – Life of Pi

January 28, 2013 Leave a comment

Note: I write regular album, television, and film reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I will be contributing several short entries to the Best of 2012 lists for film, DVD and television over the next couple of weeks. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the titles to go to the list and each entry.

PopMatters Best Films of 2012 Entries:

 

#33 – The Hunger Games

 

#12 – Life of Pi

 

Decalogue: The Top 10 Films of 2012

Categories: Film, Reviews

Nail Yakupov: Joyful Rebellion and the Repressed Hockey Culture

January 26, 2013 5 comments

The lockout-shortened 2013 NHL season is but a week in, and the Edmonton Oilers play only their fourth game of that season against their arch-rivals the Calgary Flames tonight. But already the Oilers’ roster of galactic young talents (which still has considerable holes, of course) is making hockey headlines. They overcame perennial Northwest Division winners the Vancouver Canucks in a shootout in the season opener and allowed 6 first-period goals to be run out of their own building to in their second game. This was followed by a home date this past Thursday against the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Los Angeles Kings.

After a game full of head-scratching penalties and generally highly-questionable officiating, the Oilers had a late game-tying goal mysteriously waved off, and looked like they would fall to the champs by 1-0 scoreline. But then, with goaltender Devan Dubnyk on the bench for the extra attacker and in the midst of a furious assault for the equalizer, the Oilers’ latest high-touted #1 overall draft pick Nail Yakupov batted a rebound out of mid-air and past Conn Smythe-winning goalie Jonathan Quick to send the game to OT with 4.7 seconds remaining. A Sam Gagner tally in the extra frame would give the Oil the full share of points, but Yakupov’s dramatic goal (only the second of his NHL career) was the story, particularly due to how he celebrated it.

Soaking in the (quite literal) spotlight, the enthusiastic personality of Yakupov came out in a memorable, even iconic, way. The moment was something a step beyond being the key turning point in an early regular-season match-up against a league power for a youthful, raw club that hopes to turn a long run of futility into success for a hockey-mad community. Winning is great and all, but winning with style, winning and being cool, is a rarer thing, especially in the square world of pro hockey. Generally, as it is in most big-time sports, success in hockey is predicated on calculated, even ruthless, efficiency in the procurement of talent and application of strategic frameworks. The Detroit Red Wings have done a lot of winning over the last few decades, after all. So have the New York Yankees, the New England Patriots, the San Antonio Spurs, the Los Angeles Lakers. But are any of those teams, in whatever meaning we choose for the word, “cool”?

This was cool. Nail Yakupov, with his wacky Twitter and his giddy approach to the game and, yes, his passionate goal celebrations, is cool. He’s now surrounded in Edmonton by more personally-staid young stars who can accomplish similarly remarkable things on the ice: Taylor Hall, a constant potential offensive explosion; Jordan Eberle, a skilled sniper with the dextrous hands of a sculptor; Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a slight, consistently surprising wizard of a passer; Justin Schultz, who may not be Paul Coffey but may fill the role of blueline facilitator for this exhilirating forward core for some time to come. They may be young and a little brash (Yakupov’s slide was certainly that), but that’s a huge part of the appeal.

This is how Yakupov celebrated his first NHL goal. This kid is great.

The hope, for me, is that this group of players doesn’t only win, they win with a style and panache that the NHL game has not really seen in full measure since that legendary Gretzky-helmed Oilers dynasty of the 1980s. Hockey at the top level has changed too much in the interim to allow for the same sort of offensive flair to dominate the league; defensive systems and technical goaltending has pushed the onus for success from the forward zones to behind the blueline, where the Oilers are still not reliable enough to compete for a title. Indeed, like Yakupov’s spur-of-the-moment ice-sliding freak-out, the Oilers are spontaneous, unplanned (I don’t give GM Steve Tambellini too much credit for “building” through losing), and maybe a bit too naively delighted with their small successes to achieve larger ones.

But there can be glory and immortality in not quite taking the top prize, but approaching it while playing with aesthetic appeal and entertaining swagger. I hold out some hope that this young Oilers core can do for pro hockey culture what the Fab Five did for the basketball world, introducing a new edge and a less repressed attitude to the game and the impressions that surround it. Yakupov’s attention-snatching celebration runs counter to the conservative, proper behaviour that dominates the hockey culture and turns individuals with non-deferential attitudes into pariahs or “locker-room cancers”. The fact that these figures tend to be skilled Europeans (especially Russians like Yakupov or Alexander Ovechkin) or non-white North Americans (like goalie Ray Emery or current Montreal Canadiens hold-out P.K. Subban, who a TSN analyst once described, with a telling Freudian slip, as not playing or acting “the white way”) speaks also to a xenophobic (white supremacist, even) culture of heteronormativity in hockey culture that mistrusts difference and works with determination to marginalize and eradicate any hint of it.

The fact that something as seemingly innocuous as a rookie enthusiastically celebrating an important goal early in his pro career can challenge the established hockey order speaks to its rigidity. Greg Wyshynski’s piece on Yakupov’s celebration at Puck Daddy is one of the better reaction pieces I’ve come across, fully appreciating the NHL’s structure of “staid decorum” and holding up the spontaneous act as a joyful rebellion against the uptight dominant culture of the game (he also includes some ignorant jibes at soccer’s superior flair, which fails to acknowledge that sport’s theatrical celebrations as expressions of the released mass tension that such a low-scoring game encourages).

And yet Wyshynski’s closing sentence, which darkly hints at what can only be considered gangland-style violent retribution for Yakupov’s celebration when the Kings next meet the Oilers, demonstrates that the culture has a long way to go before style, flair, and “cool” are properly embraced as necessary components of hockey’s mass appeal rather than aberrations in behaviour that compel punishment. If moments like the one Nail Yakupov provided the other night can open wider cracks in this stiff facade, they might prove even more memorable, in the long run.

Sports Documentary Review: 30 For 30 #2 – Once Brothers and The Fab Five

January 25, 2013 3 comments

Although they were direct basketball contemporaries, there seems initially to be little that links the starting lineups of the Yugoslavian national team of the late 1980s and early 1990s with the University of Michigan Wolverines of 1991-1993. The one obvious point of intersection is that two of their principle figures (Vlade Divac and Chris Webber) were pro teammates with the Sacramento Kings near the peaks of their respective careers. Furthermore, both teams played a skillful, unselfish brand of basketball and mostly dominated opponents in their respective sub-NBA spheres of international and U.S. college ball.

But for all of their on-court commonality, the cores of these teams, as depicted in the ESPN 30 For 30 documentary films Once Brothers and The Fab Five, came from vastly different circumstances and were sundered (as great teams always are, one day) by vastly different forces. In Once Brothers, director Michael Tolajian allows his camera to follow narrator/guide Divac through memories of his youth in the communist Yugoslavia, his joyful basketball triumphs with the national team and in the NBA, and the sectarian upheavals and personal traumas of the break-up of the Yugoslav state and the bloody internecine wars between its constituent nations which tore great rents in the unity of the team.

One more pick-and-roll, for old times’ sake?

Divac, a Serbian, focuses in particular on his broken friendship with the great sharpshooting Croatian Drazen Petrovic. Fond international teammates and close friends and confidants after both joined the NBA, the two men fell out over an unwise but non-politically-intentioned act by Divac, who tossed away a Croatian flag that was brought on the court by a zealous nationalist fan after a major tournament victory for the team. Petrovic, a proud and driven man, resented the slight on his fledgling nation bitterly and never forgave Divac for it, a lack of forgiveness that became permanent when Petrovic died in a car crash in Germany in 1993.

This denial of closure with his departed friend unsettles and haunts Divac, even as he travels to Petrovic’s hometown of Zagreb (where Divac is concerned that he remains persona non grata due to the flag incident of 20 years ago) to speak with his teammate’s family and visit his monumental gravestone. Though Divac claims that old lingering ghosts have been duly scattered by these canned acts of filmed repentance and conciliation, it doesn’t quite seem to ring true. As with the wounded nations of the former Yugoslavia which they once represented, the greatest players of the Yugoslav War generation cannot quite overcome their regret over a painful past.

A more distinctly American sense of regret hangs over The Fab Five, in which director Jason Hehir documents the 1991 recruiting class at the University of Michigan that became a sports and cultural phenomenon on their way to two National Championship game defeats. The regret in this case is the lack of a title, especially in the ignominious manner that it was lost the second time (with the infamous mistaken timeout call). In addition, there is the consideration of the historic taint on their record that came from a booster corruption scandal which voided the school’s wins and accomplishments in those seasons (Hehir begins and ends in the school archives, where the Final Four banner are filed away in a bin, never again to be hung from the rafters). In a very real and official-record sense, the swagger, the image, and the cultural influence of the Fab Five is their remaining legacy, as the others have been wiped out by NCAA sanctions.

That’s a clear goaltending call on Webber, if you ask me.

Featuring conversations with Jalen Rose (who exec produces), Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson but conspicuously not Fab Five centerpiece Chris Webber, the film displays a keen grasp of precisely what made the team special: they were the unmissable sunburst of edgy, streetwise African-American hip-hop culture into the mainstream sports (and popular) culture of their era. Racial and subcultural issues are paramount in the documentary, from clashes over on-court fashion (the baggy shorts of the Fab Five were not the first to be seen on a college court, but they were the most prominent and shifted the sartorial needle for good and all) to frustrations over the exploitative neo-slavery of American college sports (schools make millions off of players who are not paid a cent of the earnings their on-court exploits drive).

The ghetto-bred exuberance and attitude of these five young men has not faded as they have aged, and in the film, it sparks some of the amusing sound-bites that captured rapt media attention in their prime. Rose, in particular, provides some hilarious chatter, dismissing an off-season tour of Europe (“It ain’t Detroit!”) and revealing the off-colour nickname for conference rivals Ohio State (“Fuck-eyes!”). More controversially, he shared his youthful, chip-on-the-shoulder opinion of the African-American players (particularly Grant Hill) at powerhouse program Duke as being “Uncle Toms”. Without wading into the fraught debate over Rose’s comments, their valence of underclass authenticity as a prerequisite of African-American identity merges with the terms of the Fab Five’s image and cultural significance.

As different as Once Brothers and The Fab Five are in their contexts, then, they both crystallize operative social and cultural concerns in the journeys of sporting heroes.  The fall of communism and rise of divisive, destructive ethnic nationalism in the Balkans in one case and the struggle of young African-Americans to establish their unique identities and agency in a system that mistrusts and discourages such expressions in the other, both united in the game of basketball. This game, whose boundaries are among the least hermetic in the sports world, reflects, resists, drives, inspires, and contradicts that which surrounds it and trespasses into it. And, like a knifing dribble penetration move, basketball trespasses into that world in its turn, and these two documentary films examine the varied ways that it does so.

 

PopMatters Television Review – Wild Things with Dominic Monaghan

January 22, 2013 Leave a comment

Note: I write regular album, television, and film reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the title to go to the review.

Wild Things with Dominic Monaghan

 

Categories: Reviews, Science, Television, Travel

PopMatters Best Guilty Pleasure Films of 2012 Entry – #1 – Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

January 21, 2013 Leave a comment

Note: I write regular album, television, and film reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I will be contributing several short entries to the Best of 2012 lists for film, DVD and television over the next couple of weeks. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the titles to go to the list and each entry.

PopMatters Best Guilty Pleasure Films of 2012 Entry – #1 Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

 

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Stories We Tell

January 17, 2013 2 comments

Stories We Tell (2012; Directed by Sarah Polley)

A film about family connections and the ways that they are defined and forged and stretched and reordered, Sarah Polley’s engrossing self-origins documentary also meditates on how our images and impressions of others, even of those we love the most, are unreliable, in flux, and prone to misleading constructions in our own heads and in the heads of others. It also introduces a self-examining, destabilizing meta element to Polley’s established themes as a filmmaker of family intimacy being challenged by the vagaries of human will and pitiless tragedy.

The ostensible focus of Stories We Tell is Polley’s own family history, in particular that part of it that relates to her own conception, a full story which she has only recently learned. Raised with the impression that, like her older siblings, she had been born of her parents, Michael and Diane Polley, she learns through personal investigations into the past of her sometimes-actress mother that her biological father was actually Harry Gulkin, a film producer from Montreal who met Diane there while she was appearing in a play.

Different members of the Polley family have different perspectives and slightly-twisted versions of the same events, not to mention varying reactions to the revelation. Michael Polley, in particular, emerges as a complex character, as well as the focal point for the meta elements previous mentioned. He and the more freewheeling Diane met while both were actors, and he suspects that she fell for the more rakish and free-spirited character he was playing in that specific production than for the reserved and private man he is off the stage.

Though he had a creative, bohemian temperament in his youth and some talent at writing (which his daughter’s story re-energizes), Michael gave up the artistic realm and took a secure insurance job out of a sense of duty to support his wife and young, growing family, which the more personally liberated Diane seems to have taken amiss. Although her acting sojourn in Montreal rekindled her relationship with Michael, Diane also had affairs, not only with Gulkin (with whom her relationship was more long-lasting, if private) but with other members of the play’s cast as well (one of which is revealed in a tantalizing stinger which suggests that one never truly knows the whole of the story).

Michael, it turns out, was not hurt by this and even suspected her of being dissatisfied with him (personally, sexually, or otherwise) and encouraged her to pursue other relations if that made her happy. His own reaction to his daughter’s life-altering paternity news is that it didn’t really change anything between them, and their relationship remains essentially the same.

These intimate family details are unveiled with a sure narrative hand by Polley, who made the acclaimed dramas Away From Her and Take This Waltz. Although her mother died of cancer in 1990 and therefore cannot speak for herself, Michael Polley does have a lot to say, and acts as defacto narrator. In a fourth-wall-breaking move, he is filmed while recording his voiceover for the film, which he himself has written, while Sarah listens from the control room, directing, cajoling, and adjusting his “performance”.

It’s the core image in a film riven by the concept of life as performance, and performance intruding into life; it proceeds directly and obviously from her parents falling in love with stage versions of each other. It also speaks to Sarah Polley’s directorial control of the story, which various appearing figures note and sometimes chafe at (Gulkin, in particular, feels like the story of himself and Diane belongs to him alone). She hides behind the camera, letting others tell even her side of the story as much as possible, only occasionally speaking from behind it, saying what she herself thinks about it. She uses actors, costumes, and lens filters to re-create faux-archival footage of the older participants in their youth as well, including one thespian playing her dead mother.

It’s a bit odd, sure, but also undeniably apt for the type of story it is, and for the point Sarah Polley is making about storytelling. When we tell stories of our own lives, we are structuring and narrativizing them and therefore making them something other than the reality that we lived, a reality that now exists only in memory. Sarah Polley claims to be most interested in the way that memory fools us and can’t be counted on to be accurate when recalled, but that’s not really the way this particular story works, or how she choose to tell that story in this documentary.

Stories We Tell is about how we construct our memories as stories, stories in which we are the protagonist and are most deserving of our share of sympathy or recrimination, depending on our self-image or temperament or level of guilt about what happened. The other people in these stories are characters who are, if anything, more prone to fall victim to fictionalization and adjustment than we ourselves. By laying bare the trappings of her own storytelling and being sure to expose those of the people she’s telling the story about, this young Canadian filmmaker of great (fulfilled) promise demonstrates elegantly and eloquently that our lives are stories, and that we cannot always control them, even if we feel we should be able to.

Categories: Film, Reviews