As time-travel suspense thrillers go “Looper” is only a pinch better than mediocre. The make-up that Joseph Gordon-Levitt wears to make him look like a young Bruce Willis is such a distraction that it alienates the viewer. Our unreliable protagonist Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is a paid assassin whose job it is to execute hired killers sent 30-years back in time to the year 2072. Joe uses an unwieldy gun called a “blunderbuss” for the close range killings he frequently commits next to an abandoned cornfield. Joe dreams of using all the silver bars of payment he’s been stashing for a move to France. The aspirational sidebar allows Gordon-Levitt’s character to indulge in some less than academic French language study that hits the screen with a thud.
If writer-director Rian Johnson (“Brick”) has done any homework, he has spent the lion’s share of it on packaging a movie incapable of living up to it’s top heavy casting.
From the opening scene, Joe’s detrimental voice-over narration reduces the storyline to a remedial level. In the future, “time travel is illegal,” Joe tells us. Only a group of dimwitted mobsters are capable of using advanced time-travel technology to their own nefarious ends. Smart people don’t exist in Rian Johnson’s version of the future. The generic criminals do a bustling business burying the bodies of aging loopers in the past where young loopers enter the cycle of self-destruction by killing off their elders. It’s called “closing the loop.” Failing to off your elder version when the time comes is a big no-no for any self-respecting looper. Forget that the gangsters in charge could easily avoid such a polarizing event if they only sent victims back in time to be killed by discrete assassins rather than by their own doppelgängers. This glaring loophole is especially significant since a looper sent back in time could theoretically change the course of the future if they survive.
Detail oriented audiences will have a field day making lists of such narrative inconsistencies. The filmmakers tip their low-budget hand by never showing the much-referred-to future that so many assassins are sent back from. Rian Johnson is no Philip K. Dick. In a story ripe with capacity for some amount of searing social commentary, there is next to none.
Joe gets thrown a curveball when his 30-years-older model (played by Bruce Willis) shows up for assassination. Naturally, Joe does his best not to murder his older self in spite of his vicious boss Abe’s (Jeff Daniels) order to the contrary. Abe’s mob boys are hot on the trail of both Joes. Instead of teaming up to change the future for their life expectancies, the two Joes trade insults in a diner over coffee. The scene is notable for how inferior it is compared to what Hollywood hacks crank out on a weekly basis. Needless to say, Rian Johnson doesn’t make much of Quentin Tarantino knock-off either.
An unsatisfying subplot involving a single mother (well played by Emily Blunt) and her telepathically gifted but volatile young son unbalances the drama. Older Joe suspects the boy of being a child version of a 22nd century baddie called “the Rainmaker,” who may or may not be such a worrisome force of evil. He is also hung up on an Asian woman who saved his life, and wants young Joe to intercept her murderer when the time comes.
The narrative material doesn’t match “Looper’s” visual effects. From the start, Joe is introduced as a character we can never fully empathize with. He betrays a friend before shuffling off in the direction of a story that further impugns his character as anything other than a narcissist. Even the selfless act Joe commits during his crisis decision comes with a grain of martyrdom. If you can get past plot holes that pass by like highway mile markers, and you can put up with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s weird make-up, then you’re halfway to enjoying a generic genre B-movie. Bon chance.
Rated R. 118 mins. (C+) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Hobbled by a script that largely ignores its marginally implied protagonist, “Prometheus” is a cobbled-together sci-fi movie at odds with itself. It’s clear why director Ridley Scott has gone to great lengths to distance “Prometheus” from his far superior 1979 “Alien” film. With a dash of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and even a little “Rosemary’s Baby” tossed in for good measure, the story follows a trillion-dollar mission to meet up with the alien engineers of the human race on a faraway planet with a similar atmosphere to Earth.
Tacit central character Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) illogically wears a crucifix that flies in the face of her purely secular thesis for mankind’s origins. She explains her hypocrisy as what she “chooses to believe.” Elizabeth and her loving boyfriend Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green looking a lot like Tom Hardy) are an archeologist couple whose discovery of matching alien hieroglyphs from around the world put them on the spaceship Prometheus under the auspices of deceased trillionaire Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce). It’s the end of the 21st century. Weyland’s recorded hologram persona informs the ship’s crew of their mission upon their awakening from a two-year voyage. Once there, the team discovers a hollowed-out mountain full of munitions-styled pods and the corpses of alien astronauts. Hologramic images of the space-travelling predecessors allow for some static-riddled reanimation. From a production design standpoint, the movie is stunning. Sadly, it doesn’t have the narrative muscle to back it up. Where Scott dovetailed the suspense in “Alien” into a spine-tingling frenzy of outright panic, here the anticipation of terror ebbs and flows like water on the shore of a gentle lake. Although the designs are fascinating, the filigreed macabre details of artist H.R. Giger’s work on “Alien” are not as keenly exploited here.
Wayland’s corporate representatives are a robot called David (Michael Fassbender), and Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), an icy crew chief who only seems like an android. Edris Elba is sorely miscast as the ship’s aside-winking captain Janek who is every bit as unreliable as David or Meredith when it comes to possessing any purity of intention. The screenwriters (Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof) go so far in making David, Meredith, and Janek act as villains that it throws the movie into a tailspin even as the predictable alien danger arrives in the form of slithering snake creatures with a vagina dentata ax to grind against everyone they encounter. True to its slasher-movie underpinnings, many violent deaths occur.
For as much as “Prometheus” tilts at some indistinct message about man’s alien-executed origins, the clunky plot bubbles around automaton David’s arbitrarily imposed curiosity that compels him to screw up everything he touches in spite of his ostensibly higher intelligence. The movie seems to say that since man cannot create life, or even a sufficiently close proximity, then there must be a God. You have to extrapolate considerably to reach such an assumption, but the film’s sequel-promising conclusion means the audience isn’t compelled to fill in the blanks anyway.
Beyond the Black Rainbow
You won’t find a less cohesive low-budget sci-fi shit-show than newbie filmmaker Panos Cosmatos’s “Beyond the Black Rainbow.” Tedium sets in quickly as a poorly wigged Nile Rogers appears as Barry Nyle, a futuristic shrink intent on torturing his solitary patient, the near-catatonic Elena (Eva Allan). It’s the future — at least a 1983 version of a future that never panned out — but everything looks like it was lifted off a “Brady Bunch” set from the ‘70s. Everything about “Beyond the Black Rainbow” screams Eastern-European-student-film. Look at all the blurry images under different colored light filters. Listen to the junky electro-noise musical score. Marvel at some of the worst acting you’ve ever seen. “Beyond the Black Rainbow” is destined to become a cult movie for acid-tripping losers who need something to do while they trip balls. Yes, this movie is worse even than “Battlefield Earth.” "Beyond the Black Rainbow" sucks black ant dingleberries.
Rated R . 110 mins. (F) (Zero Stars - out of five/no halves)
Men In Black III
Some of the luster has worn off the once-promising “Men in Black” franchise, if for no reason other than its long absence since the second installment in 2002. Nonetheless, the return of Barry Sonnenfeld — the director on the previous two films — allows for the required visionary cohesion.
The tension-riddled relationship between Men-In-Black partners Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) is just as contentious as ever. Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement) escapes from a lunar prison built for the purpose of containing, well, him. Agent K should have killed Boris when he had the chance back in 1969 during a showdown at Cape Canaveral during the launch of Apollo 11. Now back on Earth, Boris poses no small threat to humanity in general, and to Agent K in particular. To put Boris in his proper place —a shallow grave — Will Smith’s Agent J must travel back in time to make sure Agent K kills Boris. The hokey plot device allows Josh Brolin to step up as a 40-year-younger version of Tommy Lee Jones. Sure enough, Brolin nails Jones’s laconic Texas drawl to a tee. The film’s unnecessary 3D effects are (spoiler alertà) less than impressive, but some choice comic episodes make the magic happen, as when Emma Thompson’s Agent O delivers a speech in an alien tongue. An interlude at Andy Warhol’s Factory gives Bill Hader some comic distance to run with as the wigged master of pop art.
“Men In Black III” might not have all the earmarks of a comic classic, yet Will Smith and Josh Brolin each give performances so polished you could shine your shoes from a block away in the reflection. The only thing missing from Tommy Lee Jones’s screen-time is that there isn’t enough of it. Go ahead and eat some popcorn. “Men In Black III” is a great excuse to do so.
Rated PG-13. 105 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
“Battleship” is yet another headache-inducing failure of a spectacle movie based on a video game — which, in this case, is based on a popular ‘70s board game. Slow out of the gate, and laced with awful clichés, the story involves an alien invasion that happens to coincide with an international series of oceanic war games. 26-year-old Alex Hopper (Taylor Kisch) is a screw-up younger brother to by-the-book-Navy-man Stone (Alexander Skarsgard). Stone forces Alex to join the Navy after Alex commits one fuck-up too many. Still, Alex has the leggy love of Samantha, daughter to his ship’s commander Admiral Shane (well-played by the ever reliable Liam Neeson).
The action takes place in the waters off Oahu, where five giant alien craft deliver more torpedoes and invincible soldiers than you can count. An especially effective weapon in the alien arsenal is a giant gyroscopic spinning razor-wheel machine of unfathomable destruction. A subplot involving an African American war vet with high-tech prosthetic legs adds a real-war shade to the cartoonishly overblown action that passes for a story. We never get any sense of the alien side of the equation. Everything is battle for battle sake. They never once utter the famous television commercial for the board game, “You sank my battleship.” The movie could have used the humor.
“Battleship” is a loud and booming-blow-‘em-up movie made for a 12-year-old target audience. Adults should sit this one out — that is, if you don’t want to be exposed to a two-hour long headache.
Rated PG-13. 130 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Blade Runner - Classic Film Pick
Blade Runner is one of the most enigmatic yet problematic science fiction films ever made. Ridley Scott's 1982 adaptation of Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" was marred by a ham-fisted narration track that ruined the overall effect of Scott's original vision due to editorial meddling from the production studio. It wasn't until 1991 that a "director-approved" version was released that deleted Harrison Ford's monotone voiceover commentary. Over the years, seven different versions of the film have been released. Ridley Scott's brilliant, digitally remastered, 25th anniversary "Final Cut" gets the last word as the representative version to judge it by.
Stylistically, "Blade Runner" is a baroque mélange of retro and futuristic industrial elements set in a dark and grungy atmosphere of permanent night. Scott employs a punk rock/new wave esthetic that is both glamorous and sexy. Although it's a science fiction film, "Blade Runner" incorporates a plethora of influences that include film noir, neo-noir, and cultural and political satire. The filmmaker establishes the human eye as an image system to convey layers of thematic subtext.
It's 2019 and Los Angeles is a dystopian nightmare. Fire and smoke billow from the tops of skyscrapers in a smog-covered city that looks more like Hong Kong than the City of Angels. Its trash-strewn streets are a literal melting pot where rising steam and smoke clouds your vision. Impoverished citizens of every nationality and rebel bent bustle under constant rain. Corporate logos of '80s-era companies illuminate with artificial neon and digital light. Cars called "spinners" fly vertically and horizontally like helicopters amid the crammed urban conditions.
Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a grizzled veteran "blade runner"--a career assassin of genetically-engineered organic robots called replicants. Deckard dresses like an ironic transplant from a Dashiell Hammett novel. Here, Harrison Ford's squeaky clean Star Wars character Han Solo turns into a cynical and corrupt anti-hero with a romantic side.
Manufactured by the Tyrell Corporation, replicants are humanoid slaves who work on "off-world" planet colonies inhabited by the very rich. Programmed for four-year life spans, these organic robots are forbidden by law to set foot on Earth. Hence Deckard's dubious task to distinguish the lifelike androids from humans and destroy them. The arrival of five rogue replicants, led by Rutger Hauer's Aryan-looking character Ray Batty, sends Deckard on a search-and-destroy mission that brings into relief discrepancies between the conscious and subconscious mind of humans and replicants alike. Even Deckard might not be the free-will human being he imagines himself to be. The artificial reasoning abilities of advanced Nexus 6 replicant models might just be more humane than their human creators.
Attack the Block
Inevitable comparisons with J.J. Abrams's similarly themed "Super 8" favors writer/director Joe Cornish's seemingly effortless ability to extract laughs and shocks from an alien invasion in urban London. Much of the movie's success derives from the crackle of comedy that rolls off the Cockney-accented teen anti-hero thugs who dare to take on an army of pitch black alien creatures attacking their estate housing tower. The endless spewing of twisted slang hits your ears as funny regardless of how much or little you actually understand of what's being said. A spirit of energetic rebellious teen spirit is the hook that all suspense and action hangs on. And hang it does, right up through the film's well-worn cliché ending.
The irrepressible Jodie Whittaker ("Venus") is a nursing student named Sam who gets mugged on her way home from work by a gang of neighborhood ruffians led by a cocky kid named Moses (played with steely aplomb by John Boyega--looking like a very young Denzel Washington). The mid-street hold-up is interrupted by a falling alien creature that crashes onto a parked car. The hoodlums capture and kill the creature as their prize. Sam escapes only to be reunited with her attackers under very different circumstances soon thereafter.
Joe Cornish made his name writing and directing for British television. Fluency with his craft and the story's British milieu provides a vibrancy to the endless riffing he does on things like marijuana culture. "Shaun of the Dead" actor Nick Frost brings his trademark comic presence as a pothead named Ron, whose apartment is a gathering place for a like-minded younger generation. Tone, spectacle, and comic dialogue conspire to elevate a deceptively simple storyline. "Attack the Block" is a textbook popcorn movie for a new generation that doesn't give a damn about fanboy culture.
Not Rated. 87 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Man Who Fell to Earth - Classic Film Pick
"The Man Who Fell to Earth" is a brilliantly stylized science fiction satire about an alien who comes to our big blue ball with a methodic plan to deliver water back to his home planet, Anthea. Director Nicolas Roeg expands on the success he enjoyed in his experimental film "Performance," in which he turned a British rock star into an imposing film actor overnight. Where Mick Jagger played an ironic character not unlike himself in "Performance," David Bowie transforms into his alien persona with a preternatural instinct that is purely seductive.
Bowie's humanoid alien recasts himself as Thomas Jerome Newton, an orange-haired genius with a stack of original technology patents that will enrich him with the billions of dollars he needs to execute his water transportation plan. After touching down in New Mexico Newton seeks out patent attorney Oliver V. Farnsworth (Buck Henry) in Manhattan to handle his newly minted business World Enterprises Corporation. Newton returns to New Mexico where he plans to construct a spacecraft to complete his mission.
Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), a helpful chambermaid at Newton's hotel, romantically attaches herself to the alien. The couple move in together and slip into a comfortable pattern of American married life. She introduces him to religion, addiction, and sex as he becomes obsessed with television. He tells her, “The strange thing about television is that it doesn’t tell you everything. It shows you everything about life for nothing, but the true mysteries remain. Perhaps it’s in the nature of television. Just waves in space.”
Rip Torn plays Nathan Bryce with his usual maniacal glee. The character is a sex-addicted college science professor whom Newton hires to create an energy system for his spacecraft. Nicolas Roeg's intercutting of analogous sex scenes with Bryce's different female partners establishes the era's attitudes. There's playful violence in the sex scenes that is jarring for their honesty and subtext.
Yet Bryce loses his proclivity for young women in the face of his enormous salary and the challenging nature of his work for Newton. But he also becomes excessively curious about his strange but trusting employer. Bryce's tendency toward exploitation will cost the alien his anonymity to government officials who co-opt his riches.
Based on Walter Tevis's 1963 novel, "The Man Who Fell to Earth" is a prescient story about the clash between consumerism and intimacy, and between capitalism and the ecology. Newton's alien planet represents a fading utopia that is as much a state of mind as it is an actual place. Newton's flagging sense of responsibility reflects the systematic culture of betrayal that consumes him body and soul.
Sure to inspire a new generation of youngsters to pick up video cameras and start making their own movies, "Super 8" is an intentionally restrained monster movie that plays the heartstrings of its young characters against a nostalgic brand of filmic suspense.
Dakota Fanning's more talented younger sister Elle steals the show as Alice Dainard, a young thespian called upon to act in a Super 8 movie being made by four preteen classmates in small-town Ohio circa 1979. Alice's "mint" performance, during a touching nighttime love scene with her adolescent private investigator "husband" on a train platform, is interrupted by the crashing of a train intended to add production value to the amateur movie. Charles (played with goofy aplomb by Riley Griffiths) is a child director with Hitchcock aspirations and an effective verbal command of the director's idiom. Charles's make-up assistant pal Joe (Joel Courtney) recently lost his mother in a factory accident. Joe's town-sheriff dad Jackson (Kyle Chandler) has his hands full dealing with the fallout of the train wreck, which attracts a team of Army and CIA officials for a top secret clean-up operation. Clue: there's an escaped alien creature on the loose. Writer/director J.J. Abrams is clearly having fun with playing two entertaining ends against the middle. On one side is the recreational zombie movie the kids are making to submit to a local film festival. Wait through the closing credits to watch the finished Super 8 product. On the other hand is the big budget sci-fi monster movie Abrams teases out as an homage to B-movies of the '50s. We don't even get a good look at the giant alien monster until the third act. The heart of the story lies in the budding romance between Alice and Joe in spite of the vociferous disapproval of their diametrically opposed fathers.
If J.J. Abrams errs on the side of producer Steven Spielberg's wide-eyed brand of cinematic cheese (think "E.T.") it comes as a forgivable flaw. Less forgivable is letting Elle Fanning's character slip out of the plot for two too many scenes.
Rated PG-13. 112 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)