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Column Fri Sep 28 2012
There are times when you watch a film, and you can feel the brain power working in conjunction with the heart and soul of the filmmaker. It's that feeling that washes over you, when the movie is working in every way because its creator cares deeply and has worked over the material so carefully and with such a detailed eye that the film has no choice but to be damn-near perfect.
And then it's time to consider the performances. In a perfect world, great source material stays great no matter who the actors are, but we know we don't live in a perfect world. And what happens in writer-director Rian Johnson's Looper is that the performances serve to magnify the finest qualities of the screenplay and sweeping visual style. Johnson has made a modern classic in the science fiction genre, but he's also made a wonderful work that combines elements of westerns, family dramas and gangster pictures where some of the bad guys are actually the good guys. In most other films, the character of Joe (played as a younger man by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and older by Bruce Willis) is the villain. He's a heartless assassin (known as a Looper) working in the near future who has been assigned the task of killing hooded men transported from the future at an exact time and place and disposing of their bodies clean and easy.
Part of the deal in being a Looper is that your last kill will feature a bigger payday, and you'll actually be killing your future self. At that point, your job is done, but since Loopers have spent years of their lives training to do this, when they go out in the world, they aren't really qualified to do anything beyond criminal activity. Looper indeed. Naturally "old Joe" shows up with a hood and manages to escape from his younger self, setting off a world of chaos for Joe's boss, Abe (Jeff Daniels), a man from the future who organizes the hits and has become the criminal kingpin of this future version of Kansas City. Turns out old Joe is in the present for a reason — a reason I will not tell you. But young Joe ends up hiding on the farm of a woman (Emily Blunt) and her perpetually sad child (Pierce Gagnon), while Abe's posse (led by Noah Segan's perpetual fuck-up of a goon Kid Blue) seek him and old Joe out.
Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) certainly doesn't dismiss the idea that having a man from the future on the loose could potentially screw up the future. But he also doesn't allow the plot to get lost in discussions of alternate time lines or exactly how the future's time machine works (time travel won't have been invented for 30 years), but he offers us something even more interesting — the idea that anything young Joe does in the present impact the mind and memories of old Joe. So Willis is basically running around with a fuzzy brain ache for most of the movie.
One of the more satisfying elements of Looper is its dedication to character. As the film goes on, we learn bits and pieces about Joe's past, future, and the set of values he carries with him to make it through life. He's a junkie, on top of being a killer, and he's dating a stripper (Piper Perabo) who he thinks loves him. So his life is looking good. But we also learn about Abe and Blunt's Sara and her sad and sometimes terrible connection to the boy. And every single actor in this film just nails it.
Gordon-Levitt (in light makeup to look slightly more like Willis) plays such a horribly dark character that we have a hard time believing he ever ages enough to live to have his loop closed properly. There's a scene with him and Willis in diner that almost makes the earth move it's so good. This might be the best work in Gordon-Levitt's career. Willis hasn't seemed to care as much about a role in years. And we see him do things in this movie that we've never seen before — horrible things that may not sit right with some of his biggest fans.
I want to spend a second talking about Noah Segan's work here. Many of you probably don't know the name (although he is in both of Johnson's other films, as well as films like Deadgirl, Cabin Fever 2 and the great Undocumented), but when you see him as Kid Blue, you'll understand what it means when critics call a performance a "star-making turn." That's what he brings to this part. Kid Blue is a mess who wants to impress his boss, but he's also a child ("I just wanted you to be proud of me."), and the father-and-son parallels he and Abe share with the two Joes are absolutely clear and perfect.
I don't want to talk too much about the scenes on Sara's farm, but it's wonderful that a fairly violent science-fiction action movie settles down for long stretches and offers up beautifully realized introspection and vast amounts of character development. It's like Johnson hates genre films with flat characters as much as the rest of us. It seems almost too good to be true.
I've now seen Looper twice, and the second time through was something of a revelation. When I didn't have to dedicate so much time to following the plot, I got a chance to enjoy the patterns, the visual cues, the recurring themes so much more. I could sit back and allow the gorgeous Midwestern landscapes to help me breathe in this great tale of redemption and ruthlessness in a future where people have effectively given up on each other. It's a recognizable version of our world, and Joe is the product of his environment. Time will tell (only three months left in the year), but I'm guessing Looper will easily land in my Best of 2012 list, right up near the top. This is the only movie you need to see this weekend... and then go back in time and see it again.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
So few writers get high school students right. I grew up in a time when John Hughes seemed to have a new film coming out every year, so it took me awhile to realize this simple fact. Teens are often written as mini-adults with fully formed personalities packed inside a trendy outfit. But the way I remember these formative years was as a bundle of raw emotion and nerves... inside a trendy outfit. At at the end of my miserable freshman year, I became friends with a group of upperclassmen/women in the drama department, and my whole outlook about high school turned around. I never read author Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but imagine my surprise watching the film he adapted and directed based on the wildly popular autobiographical novel.
The film follows the adventures of Charlie (Logan Lerman), who's having a tough time being a freshman. He largely just sits quietly, not participating in class, and doing as much work as is necessary to get good grades. For a while at least, his only friend is his English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), and that makes him even more depressed. But one day at a football game, Charlie meets step-siblings Patrick (Ezra Miller, We Need to Talk about Kevin) and Sam (Emma Watson, who shines brightly in her first post-Harry Potter role), and the three latch onto each other for dear life, along with a few other outcast classmates.
The various trials and tribulations of these misfits aren't important. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a celebration of friendship and good people, and if you're too jaded or cynical to still appreciate that, I'm sad for you. Sure, there is the occasional bully issue (Patrick is openly gay and secretly dating a ferociously closeted jock, which isn't good for anyone; Sam has a reputation for sleeping with a lot boys, probably because she did at one time), but for the most part, the movie is about taking care of one another, friends getting though tough times, and the group experience known as The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
But Charlie treads a darker path that keeps him from standing up for himself or simply saying no. For a brief time, he dates group member Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), who essentially declares herself his girlfriend, plans their relationship, and never stops talking. Charlie is a classic pushover, but he also responds strangely to the way Mary Elizabeth touches him, and it takes some painful looks into his memories to understand why. Of course, Mary Elizabeth may not be his cup of tea because he's hopelessly in love with Sam (as I'm sure most of you will be). There's a scene in the film where she realizes that Charlie has never kissed a girl before, and although she seems not to be interested in dating him, she wants his first kiss to be with someone he loves... so she plants one on him... you know, like friends do. It's the kind of perfect moment that I'm sure every teenager has had or wishes they had.
I'll admit, I was surprised at how much Wallflower moved me, but Chbosky's secret is so simple — he remains honest in his storytelling, keeps his characters expressive and vulnerable, and keeps enough ghosts around to give everyone something to fear and overcome — to varying degrees of success. Both Lerman and Miller are as good as I've ever seen them (especially Lerman, whose lead roles in Percy Jackson & the Olympians and The Three Musketeers were not inspiring in any way), but it's Watson who bring power and light to the film. She's a damaged young woman who hides this fact by simply acting like she's not, and it works for her somehow. As much as I liked the Harry Potter films, I would never have singled Watson out as the reason why. But here, she presents herself as a normal attractive girl who cares more for her friends than any boyfriend she could ever have, and that makes us wondering which we'd rather be.
The greatest compliment you could pay any writer or filmmaker is by telling them that you never wanted their story to end, and that's exactly how I felt about The Perks of Being a Wallflower. The performances, the way the filmmakers makes his native Pittsburgh look downright homey, and the staggeringly good '80s soundtrack all flooded my heart and made me want to know where all of these radiant souls are today. I'm slightly desperate to see what Chbosky has for us next as both a writer and director; he seems beautifully suited to both. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
This film offends me to my very soul. And if you cherish your movie monsters, prepare to have your balls kicked repeatedly by Adam Sandler and his shameless pack of pals as they raid the monster canon and come up with the animated feature Hotel Transylvania, in which Dracula (voiced by Sandler) is portrayed as an overprotective dad trying to shield his teen daughter Mavis (well, 118-year-old daughter, played by Selena Gomez) from the wicked ways of humans in the outside world. The one interesting concept in this movie is that the monsters see humans as monsters as well, since we're always trying to kill them.
Take a minute right now, and write down every dumb monster joke, pun, and situation you can think of. I can almost guarantee that what you just wrote down is better than the stale humor delivered by the likes of Kevin James (as Frankenstein), David Spade (The Invisible Man), Cee-Lo Green (The Mummy), and Jon Lovitz (Quasimodo). The one gag that sort-of works is having Steve Buscemi as a werewolf named Wayne, who can't ever get a moment to himself because he has seemingly dozens of cubs thanks to an especially large litter courtesy of his wife (Molly Shannon). He gets a couple of medium-sized laughs, and that's as much as I'm willing to give it.
Dracula builds an enormous hotel and resort just for monsters and has hidden its entrance so that random humans don't accidentally stumble upon it. Unfortunately, a backpacking human goofball named Jonathon (Andy Sanberg) still finds a way to get onto the property and into Mavis' heart. Yes, the one thing this stupid-ass monster movie was missing was a lame love story, and it's quick to correct that shortcoming.
The only mildly interesting aspect of Hotel Transylvania is that it was directed by Genndy Tartakovsky, director on the original "Star Wars: Clone Wars" series, as well as "Samurai Jack" and "Sym-Bionic Titan." The look of the film has its moments, but it's hardly worth spending the extra cash on the 3D just for that. The relationship between Drac and Mavis rings false, and apart from her mildly cute goth looks, she comes across as just another bratty teenager. When the only original idea you can come up with for a more family-oriented monster movie is a set piece involving floating tables, you know you're in trouble. I can't stand thinking about this unfunny mess anymore. Please, do yourself a favor and ignore Hotel Transylvania this weekend and forever.
Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel
There's a moment in the informative and sometimes very amusing documentary Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel when the late high priestess of fashion tells a childhood story about Charles Lindbergh flying over her childhood home on his way to cross the Atlantic. A red bullshit flag popped up in my head as I made a mental note to investigate that claim further, but I didn't need to because later in the film, someone does it for me. What is revealed in the telling of that story is not that the highly influential Vreeland was a liar; it was that she would exaggerate and manipulate the truth because in her mind, that's the way things should have happened in her exciting, glamorous life.
But I'm fairly certain most of what is presented in this film is true, including the details (relayed to us by Vreeland herself through extensive talk show appearances and in-depth interviews) of her 50 years as one of the true style makers in the world as the fashion editor for Harper's Bazaar and later Vogue. She had an unprecedented knack for selecting the best models, photographers, clothing and settings to display the latest styles. But the life that led up to that was a sad one, in which her mother would constantly refer to her as the ugly duckling when compared to her more traditionally cute sister. Perhaps in an act of overcompensation, she aligned herself with fashion experts in Paris (including Coco Chanel).
During this course of watching The Eye Has to Travel, I couldn't help but become mesmerized by Vreeland's raspy but soothing voice. I was a voice that carried with it an authority on all subjects. And her work backed her up. She wasn't a designer, but she understood the fundamentals of design, when to ahere to them, and when to destroy them. Her influence stretched from the roaring '20s until the early days of the early '60s, and director Lisa Immordino Vreeland (grandaughter-in-law to her subject, although the two never met) gives us plenty of examines of her impact on the fashion wold.
The Eye Has to Travel is a colorful, spirited movie filled with stories of a time when a fashion editor first became a celebrity. We are drawn into her world, fall in love with Vreeland's exaggerated personality, and are impressed with her many accomplishments — real and imagined. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.