Saturday, September 29, 2012


"Looper" starts as an arresting, hilarious, intense, brainy, and disturbing look at a futuristic killing profession, but then is unable to muster the imagination and/or courage to follow through on the level it started at. It buckles under its own weight and feels all too rote as it reaches its conclusion. If you are to suspend your disbelief, the first half of this film is some of the most all-around appealing filmmaking to be had this year. Starting with a bang of a first shot, we are thrust (with a great deal of exposition) into 2044, where drug-addicted hitmen (the main one being a strangely mime-looking Joseph Gordon-Levitt) kill targets sent back in time from 30 years into the future. It's a profitable trade, but also one that's bound to do you in. People have been avoiding spoiling why, so I'll continue the trend, but its a profound and very unsettling conundrum. Moral stakes help flesh the film out from its high concept roots.

Barring the very problematic second half, where things slow basically to a crawl and everything gets pretty boring and nothing comes of anything ultimately, writer/director Rian Johnson's script is a joy. The small details he embeds in the environment of the future make a huge difference in endearing/intriguing the audience. And the dialogue that he gives to his actors (Paul Dano, Jeff Daniels, and Bruce Wills especially, all great and all squandered to some degree) works to the same degree, at least until his uber-conventional characterizations of a mother (Emily Blunt) and son on a farm.

Ultimately, it seems like Johnson expertly faked his way through a lot of the movie (a 2-minute montage of 30 years being the prime example), since he seems at a loss to back things up when the time comes for it. And, while a scene of Willis escaping from confines and blowing a bunch of people away is appropriately badass for such a celebrated action star, Johnson uses it also to avoid going down certain paths. While I can excuse not everything making sense, a lack of ambition for a filmmaker who wants to transcend his current crowd is disappointing. B-

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Capsules: Arbitrage and The Master

"Arbitrage" is a little more interesting than you would have expected from the trailer. But ultimately Nicholas Jarecki doesn't do too much out of the ordinary, only letting in little bursts of interest and letting his hand get weaker and weaker as the film goes on. Richard Gere's billionaire honcho Robert Miller is ostensibly the film's center, running from the scene of his own car crash and thoroughly screwing up his already frantic lifestyle. Yet he fades into the background for much of the middle, while the moral stakes between a teenager seen as an accomplice (Nate Parker) and a detective who's trying to get to the bottom of things (Tim Roth) take up large amounts of the film. Supposedly peripheral characters (Susan Sarandon and Brit Marling as Miller's wife and daughter, respectively) get more screen time than they should, and nothing in the plot feels developed enough. Parker and Roth make the film watchable, but Jarecki's gaze wanders too much to give them what they deserve. The issue of race crops up way too much too, and between the African-American Jimmy and Miller's Asian butler Jarecki definitely seems to be laying it on thick that Miller is a hardcore exploiter. When it all comes to a head, it's hard to really care about anything. C

Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" combines his previous two films, the sublime "Punch-Drunk Love" and the shrill and unbearable "There Will Be Blood" into an excessively handsome package. Freddie Quell is another example of PTA's favorite character type, the self-destructive charmer. Joaquin Phoenix plays him scarily, and it's for the most part a remarkable performance, to match the exceptional work of Philip Seymour Hoffman and a strong but mis/underused Amy Adams. Though Quell seems to be so off-kilter due to a mishandled romance with a girl back in Massachusetts, it's really hard to say what drives him to bizarre behaviors and an inability to fit in on the sea, in the city, in the fields, or ultimately in Hoffman's Master's Scientology-esque cult. Quell succeeds most prominently in the final place, becoming the group's enforcer and a specimen of its success, but he soon falls apart and can't take it too much longer. The film's central idea (how can you live without a master?) is extremely interesting, and many scenes are brilliantly executed (including a stare-down, a prison shouting match, and a montage of religious conditioning). The film is also often strikingly composed (by Francis Ford Coppola regular Mihai Malaimare Jr.), with a couple of indelible shots and camera placements. But everything feels a little too studied, and though I think I'll need to see it again, I don't think there's enough blood here to make this the masterpiece that many have heralded it as. B

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


Here's a movie that upset me. That was trying to upset me, but more enraged me due to its poor handling of the material at hand than due to what it was going for. "Compliance" by Craig Zobel, a man making a career based around films about lying to and humiliating people, is a misfire, a film that's way too quick to vilify and build up disturbing incident. It makes many problematic decisions that derail it from being a meaningful provocation.

Even if events like the one portrayed here have taken place, Zobel nonetheless crudely fashions the situation in an implausible way and hammers hard at his message with contemptuously drawn, stereotyped characters and setting. He removes the audience from sympathizing with the characters (either mistakenly or because he wants us really to hate humanity) by making all the details of the situation, most importantly ones unknown to the central players, known to us from early on. And, with a crappy film-school aesthetic designed to try to dramatize a scenario lacking in cinematic appeal and a score that tries to force you into anger, "Compliance" seethes.

There's nothing wrong with a filmmaker being angry at people. Lars von Trier, most prominently with "Dogville," does this sort of thing all the time, but he knows how and picks his subjects well. Zobel clearly has ire towards the myriad of sexually abusive fast-food prank calls that have sprouted up recently. That these things happened is terrible. But you or I know that just by reading about them. Making a whole film whose core thesis is "strip-searching dehumanizes" or "fast-food working conditions suck" is a waste of time. There has to be more. Zobel scores few points for essentially documenting an inherently appalling spectacle. It's how he treats it, and earns it (or, in this case, doesn't), that really proves what he's all about. And he's done a shitty job of validating it, much like Ben Wheatley ("Kill List") and Lynne Ramsay ("We Need to Talk About Kevin") have recently. The emotions shown by the actors I guess are worth something, but even they seem somewhat calculated and slapdash. I admit that I was held by "Compliance" for much of its running time. But I would have been whatever way this story had been told, and I wish it had been under the control of someone much more capable, someone who could have seen the potential depths. D