MOVIE REVIEW: LOOPER

By Scott Tre

In the year 2074, organized crime has become much more sophisticated. This is due in large part to the invention of time travel, which is almost instantly outlawed due to its propensity for misuse. It proves quite a handy tool for carrying out hits and disposing of corpses. Various mafias employ it too just such nefarious ends. Intended targets are sent 30 years into the past, where a hitman known as a looper lies in wait. The looper than takes out the target and gets rid of the body. The loopers ask no questions, they simply follow orders and are paid handsomely in return.

Eventually, the day comes when each looper is expected to kill their future selves, thus “closing the loop.” One such looper is Joseph “Joe” Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). However, when the time comes to close his own loop, Joe hesitates, along his 55 year-old self (Bruce Willis) to escape. This not only voids Joe’s contract with the crime syndicate, but makes him a marked man. He hopes to save face by tracking down his older self, but this proves much easier said than done.

Looper is the third feature film from writer/director Rian Johnson. It’s a sci-fi actioner that involves the concept of time travel. That puts it squarely in the same genre as films such as The Terminator or 12 Monkeys. Though it shares some obvious similarities with those films, Looper is very much its own animal. It not only contemplates plot intricacies and paradoxes, but how such things affect the characters on a human level.

Looper takes place in a future world, but much of the production design suggests the American Old West. The story takes place in Kansas City, which has a suitably futuristic skyline. Take a closer look, and the details begin to emerge. The Mecca rests in the middle of a veritable no man’s land, like a frontier town hidden in the desert. Those who higher on the economic food chain can afford hover bikes that look like steampunk choppers. Professional criminals carry large, powerful six-shooters like cowboys. The loopers themselves carry a futuristic variation of the old blunderbuss flintlocks. This retro fantasy world is the kind of future that George Lucas has always championed. It looks and feels used.

As with any western, the plot of Looper facilitates an inevitable showdown between a good guy and a bad guy. The twist here is that both the antagonist and protagonist is actually the same person. The hero is fighting himself in the literal sense. That little conceit opens up a number of tantalizing possibilities that Looper is only too glad to explore. That kind of thematic brevity is a big part of its appeal, yet the film also has a sense of restraint. It leaves enough to the imagination to keep truly thoughtful viewers engaged.

The central conflict is allowed to evolve as the narrative progresses, as are the characters themselves. Unlike so many other films of its type, Looper isn’t just empty spectacle. The characters are allowed to have actual arcs that go beyond mere plot resolution. They are morally complex, occupying different ends of the moral spectrum at different times in the narrative. Even their most deplorable actions can be understood if not condoned. No matter how complex the plot or elaborate the set pieces, Looper never forgets what it’s actually about, and that is a blessing.

One of the many joys of the screenplay is how Rian Johnson subverts the tropes of various genres. Looper is equal parts time travel yarn, western, and superhero movie. Those hidden identities gradually, and are handled in a number of unusual ways.

The cast is simply great. Bruce Willis looks less like the scrappy action hero of his younger days, and more like a grizzled shell of his former self. He’s tougher, more world weary. His appearance, coupled with the story’s context, gives his screen persona added weight this time out. Levitt, with the help of some very subtle makeup, looks like the younger Bruce Willis that might’ve existed in some alternate reality. He successfully mimics the mannerisms of his costar, yet his performance is much more than an impersonation. Both versions of Joe seem like the same person, but at very different points in life. Child actor Pierce Gagnon is not the usual precocious type. As Sid, He turns in a performance so creepy and effective that he often seems like a grown man in a child’s body. As Sara, Emily Blunt is a more complex version of Sarah Conner as depicted in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Looper is a masterpiece, bar none. It represents a new level of sophistication for a sub-genre that already has its fair share of notable classics. It’s everything that the best kinds of blockbusters should be, straddling the line between pulpy fun and thought provoking art. It doesn’t achieve that feat through gimmickry, but through great writing, acting, and direction. I doubt that a better time travel flick will emerge for quite some time.

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MOVIE REVIEW: DREDD

By Scott Tre

In the not too distant future, the United States of America has been ravaged by nuclear war. A vast megalopolis known as Mega-City One now encompasses the entire east coast. Due to its immense size and population density, the massive city-stat is a veritable cesspool of crime. Instead of sitting on bench with a gavel, Judges are given heavy artillery and charged with policing city streets. The most notorious of these is Judge Joseph Dredd (Karl Urban), as relentless a lawman as has ever existed.

One day, Dredd is partnered with a young rookie named Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby). The two respond to a call in Peach Trees, a giant slum contained in a single 200 story high-rise. In the upper reaches of the building, a vicious gang lord named Ma-Ma Lena Headley) commands an ever expanding drug ring that distributes a narcotic known as “Slo-Mo.” She locks down Peach Trees and places a bounty on the heads of the judges. Suddenly, both Dredd and Anderson are in the fight of their lives.

Dredd is an adaptation of the 2000 AD comic strip Judge Dredd. It is the second such attempt to bring that property to the screen, the first being the execrable Stallone vehicle Judge Dredd. Thankfully, Dredd has no connection whatsoever to that debacle other than the source material itself. It takes a different approach to the material, offering something grittier and more stripped-down. It manages to be better and more entertaining than expected, though nonetheless routine.

If the 1995 version of Judge Dredd had two saving graces: The production and costume design. Mega-City One looked like Mega-City One, and the judges looked like judges. Dredd is no slouch in this department either, though the budgetary constraints are visible. The scope is much smaller, as the bulk of the action is confined to a single location. Mega-City One looks similar like any other modern city aside from the expected architectural exaggerations. Skyscrapers stand unrealistically tall. The aesthetic is also a bit grungier. Much of the activity inside Peach Trees takes place underneath minimal lighting, but it is still discernible.

In terms of plot and setting, Dredd bares some striking similarities to The Raid: Redemption. However, quite unlike The Raid, Dredd does not seek to raise the bar for action choreography. Good guys and bad guys alike wield some really cool hardware, but the execution is fairly standard. The slow motion photography echoes the “Bullet-time” technique popularized by The Matrix, though a bit more stylized. There’s not a stitch of martial arts-style fisticuffs to be found. What the film lacks in fancy pugilism, it makes up for in brutality. As gruesome as some of the bloodletting is, it never quiet reaches the “survival horror” grandeur of The Raid, but it still works.

The original Robocop took more than a bit of inspiration from the Judge Dredd comic strip, particularly it’s ultra-violent and satirical tone. Dredd is more than a bit reminiscent of Robocop. It’s surprising, then, that the satirical elements of both properties somehow got lost in the mix. There are the requisite jokes and puns peppered throughout the dialogue, but that’s about it. There’s nothing in the way of actual commentary, despite there being ample opportunities around every corner. That missing element could have added a few much needed layers to this film. From a story perspective, Dredd often feels very episodic. It plays like the pilot for a futuristic cop show. This is in keeping with the adventure serial format of the weekly strip, but it also makes the film feel a bit trite.

Karl Urban is a good a Judge Dredd as one can hope for. He’s one note and strictly business. His mouth and chin remain in a furrowed sneer throughout the entire film, and his eyes remain hidden by the helmet. Just as in the strip, the audience never really gets to “know” him. He represents the ideals of the system he serves, nothing more. Olivia Thirlby does a lot with the bare bones of a character she’s given. Her compassion contrasts well with Dredd’s merciless nature, yet she never seems less than capable in a firefight. The character of Ma-Ma is perhaps the only real let down. Her ruthlessness is treated casually. She’s merely a figurehead.

Dredd is very much like its main character: stoic, unflinching, and all about the job at hand. Its focus is narrow, and it’s single-minded in its purpose. Had it aimed just a bit higher, such qualities would play more as strengths than limitations. Missed opportunities aside, the film mostly fulfills its agenda, which is more than can be said for many of the blockbusters released so far this year.

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MOVIE REVIEW: THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN

By Scott Tre

Peter Parker, a promising young student at Midtown Science High School, is about to undergo a drastic life change. A discovery in his Aunt and Uncle’s basement prompts him to seek out one of his father’s old colleagues, Dr. Curt Conners. After infiltrating the OsCorp facility under false pretenses, Peter is bitten by a genetically altered spider. The bite endows him the proportionate powers of the tiny creature.

In light of his newfound abilities, Peter again seeks out Conners. The two form a bond, and Peter aids Conners experiments in limb regeneration. Shortly thereafter, Peter’s uncle is accidentally killed by a petty thief. Peter takes to the streets to find his Uncles killer, eventually becoming a masked vigilante named “Spider-Man.” Spider-Man soon becomes an overnight media sensation. Meanwhile, Conners experiments result in him becoming a giant human/lizard hybrid. When the creature begins rampaging through the streets and sewers of New York City, It ultimately falls to Spider-Man to stop him.

The Amazing Spider-Man is the much anticipated reboot of the Sony Pictures franchise. It boasts a different cast than the previous three films, as well as new director. In certain regards, it’s more faithful the source material. In others, it’s wildly divergent. While it admittedly finds a happy medium between the two, it ultimately fails to embody the true spirit of its title character.
The world of The Amazing Spider-Man feels more superficially realistic than that of the Raimi films. The film’s vision of New York is a neo-noir throwback to 70’s revenge classics such as Death Wish. While this works to modernize the film to an extent, it also renders it generic.

While Spider-Man has never been a dark character per se, there has always been a dark undercurrent running through his mythos. Both he and his rogues gallery are the direct result of science experiments gone awry, often with tragic results. The filmmakers choose to bring such elements to the surface, and wind up pushing a bit too far in that direction. Certain moments evoke David Cronenberg style body horror. It gets to the point where even Spidey himself comes off as somewhat creepy.

The action scenes are bit more grounded in reality this time out, and as such not quite as dependent on CG as previous Spider-Man films. Stunt Coordinator Andy Armstrong incorporates elements of parkour and MMA. The difference is noticeable, as Spider-Man is more fearsome in combat than ever before. Strangely, this doesn’t result in more exciting action scenes. The set pieces, like much of the rest of the film, feel strangely indistinct.

The film’s conception of Spidey also proves to be misguided. It’s a complete 180 from the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire characterization. The fault lies not with Andrew Garfield’s performance, nor with his physical appearance. The problem lies with the film’s overall depiction of Parker, who’s shown to be a social outcast only in the most romantic sense of the phrase. He never seems particularly put upon, nor do his social inadequacies seem like anything that he won’t eventually outgrow. His transformation into Spider-Man never feels like an organic or even a necessary evolution.

As Conners, Rhys Ifans is much too mannered and distant to be a truly sympathetic villain. The Lizard’s creature design, while somewhat true to the original one by Steve Ditko, is too humanoid. The CGI used to bring the creature to life unintentionally evokes the stop motion creations of Ray Harryhausen.

The Amazing Spider-Man isn’t truly a bad film, but a frustratingly adequate one. Director Marc Webb has a vision for the character, but it consists of making him little more than a garden variety brooding loner. Raimi’s films were light as air, and never felt too tethered to modern expectations of what a superhero film should be. In that regard, they were very much like the title character. By contrast, The Amazing Spider-Man feels much too beholden to fan expectations. As a result, it never truly soars.

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MOVIE REVIEW: PROMETHEUS

By Scott Tre

In the year 2089, archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) make a startling discovery. The couple uncovers a star map which seems to lead to a mysterious Alien race on a far off moon. They believe the map to be an invitation, and become obsessed with the idea of making contact with these strange beings. Elizabeth suspects they may be the architects of life on earth. Multibillionaire Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) agrees to fund the expedition, which includes the construction of a scientific space vessel called the Prometheus.

Four years later, the Prometheus finally completes its two year journey across the galaxy. Its crew is awoken from stasis and given its mission. Upon touching down on the seemingly barren moon, they begin to explore a massive structure on its surface. Once inside, they encounter something wholly different than what expected, though no less amazing. Their awe soon turns into abject horror as the true intent of the Star map’s makers in revealed. Instead of unearthing the origins of mankind, the crew of the Prometheus may very well have sealed its fate.

As everyone surely knows by now, Prometheus is a prequel to Alien. It’s also a standalone science fiction epic meant to be the first of a trilogy. It tells its own story, and is not an Alien movie in the standard sense. While Xenomorphs and facehuggers are never shown, director Ridley Scott means to explore the origins of such creatures. He also means to probe a number of philosophical questions. Unfortunately, his reach ultimately exceeds his grasp.

Ridley Scott is first and foremost a visual stylist. Even his worst films are usually quite beautiful to look at. Prometheus is no exception. The images are startlingly crisp. The sight of the Prometheus penetrating the storm laden atmosphere of LV-223 is breathtaking. Billowing grey clouds roll in the background as though part of an animated matte painting. The production design of the “vase chamber” is neither as foreign nor as hypersexualized as that of Alien. It looks like a cross between an Alien civilization and an ancient earthbound one. That compromise helps ground the story in a certain reality. It’s clear that Ridley Scott has given considerable thought to the look of this film.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for its story. The screenplay, by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, fails to provide coherent explanations for much of what transpires onscreen. Things happen inexplicably, yet matter-of-factly. The characters are woefully underwritten. Some are initially cautious, yet suddenly become bold and overly adventurous. Others are miraculously able to interact with alien technology despite never having encountered it before. Meredith Vickers is clearly meant to be a stand in for Sigorney Weaver’s character. Two scenes featuring her echo similar moments from Alien. Unfortunately, like everything else in Prometheus, they function on a mostly superficial level.

Prometheus owes perhaps even more to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 than to Alien, though it lacks the ambition of either. The film raises a number of challenging questions that it can’t be bothered answer. Is it possible for science to debunk religion? If so, would mankind be foolish for maintaining religious faith in the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary? What if the God that so many humans worship is revealed to be both malevolent and wantonly destructive? What then? In a braver and more intelligently written film, such questions could provide the basis for a truly enthralling sci-fi epic. Here, they merely play like an arousing tease.

The film’s unfulfilled potential is doubly frustrating in light of its more tangible assets. The set pieces and sight gags elicit a visceral response despite the ineptitude of the storytelling. They provide both great visuals and palpable tension. The sight of living and animate engineers (formerly known as Space Jockeys) is a marvel to behold. This film has a Hell of a lot going for it, yet still manages to be surprisingly less than the sum of its parts.

Prometheus is all foreplay with no climax. Where Alien was deceptively complex, Prometheus is deceptively shallow. It’s also a much more problematic work than both Alien 3 or Alien Resurrection, either of which could be simply be written off as bad movies. Prometheus has too much going for it to dismiss it in such a way, yet it has too many problems to recommend it to anyone but the converted. Fans of the Alien films and ponderous sci-fi will find a lot to like. Everyone else will simply stare at the screen in a state of bemusement.

trailer

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