There are some stunning visual images and bold directing flourishes evident throughout Looper that hearken back to writer-director Rian Johnson's first effort, Brick. But this, his third film, is a much bigger, more ambitious, and better movie. The sci-fi action film follows the story of Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a looper. His job is essentially to act as a cleaner for the mob, using time travel to clear any trace of crimes committed in the future by performing executions on people sent back through time. The "present" in the film is 2040, a cleverly-designed future that resembles our present, though grimier and seemingly more violent. The wealthy can get around on hovering vehicles while the rest drive 2012 model cars retrofitted to run on solar technology. It is a stylish crime thriller reminiscent of Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive in the trail of violence that follows its protagonist. Part of Joe's contract as a looper is the inevitability that he will someday have to "close the loop,' by killing his own future self. But when that day comes, the elder Joe (Bruce Willis) escapes, leaving his younger self caught between his contract and his unforgiving employers. Though Gordon-Levitt and Willis do not closely resemble each other, the film makes impressive use of subtle makeup tricks to change Gordon-Levitt's facial structure and make the mental transition more believable. In particular, the scene in which the two sit across from each other in a diner is striking and captivating, both in how well it establishes the two men as versions of the same person, but also in how it measures the differences between them. Johnson makes cheeky references to other time travel films, throwing out the tropes and making it clear that the sci-fi here is merely a frame in which to hang the ideas. "If we start talking about time travel, we'll be here all day making diagrams out of straws," Willis says. Johnson is not interested time travel as an end, but as a means. It is possible that all of the narrative logic might not hold up to close scrutiny, but that is a problem whenever time travel is concerned. Furthermore, does that even matter? The film is so much more than just this science fiction premise. It takes a surprising second act twist into territory that delves into complex moral questions about responsibility,identity, and fate. It is a tightly-woven narrative bolstered by strong performances from the two leads, who convincingly play versions of the same character, and especially from Emily Blunt, whose nuanced performance as Sarah, a single mother with whom the younger Joe takes refuge, is arguably the backbone of the entire film.
I look forward eagerly to what Johnson comes up with next, as his career seems early on to be headed on an upward trajectory.
The most immediate comparison I can make to Beasts of the Southern Wild, the stunning debut film from writer/director Benh Zeitlin, is Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are. Both films feature a powerful lead performance by a child and explore themes of the wild, untempered roiling emotions of childhood and the dangerous world of growing up. In "Beasts," that lead is Hushpuppy, a fiercely intrepid six-year old girl living with her harsh father in "The Bathtub," a southern delta town in what is ostensibly Katrina-era Louisiana. Hushpuppy is played by first-time performer Quevenzhane Wallis, whose performance is so powerfully confident it not only eschews the common criticisms leveled at child acting, but it succeeds as the lynch pin on which the entire film rests. No doubt Zeitlin worked closely to bring out the nuance in Wallis' performance (and those of the other non-actors in the film), but the relationship between the actor and director feels organic in a way not often seen in a first film, especially featuring such a young talent. Zeitlin crafts a masterfully moving tone poem, a magic realist fable of profound humanity, plumbing the depths of pain and poverty to bring out the wonder and defiance of the human spirit. Even the score, which Zeitlin himself co-wrote, is one of the most unique and rousing I have heard in recent memory. The movie does not, as some critics have suggested, glorify poverty. Rather, it celebrates community and strength of will. Hushpuppy is undeniably living a tortured life, and maybe one that is ultimately without much hope. But the point is that hope is so ingrained in our humanity, that through the eyes of a child the loss of it is impossible.
One of the best films of 2012.
Amy Adams and Clint Eastwood do their best to try to elevate this sports drama above its sentimentality and cliche-ridden script, Eastwood as an aged curmudgeon of a baseball scout and Adams as an up-and-coming law executive and his half-estranged daughter. And while the two are undeniably gifted actors, the film gives them little to work with, adding subplots that go nowhere and inserting a superfluous character played by Justin Timberlake, who is only there to provide the possibility of a love interest for Adams. Unlike, say, Moneyball, which strikes a delicate balance between sports picture and family drama, this film suffers from indecision, and its eventual conclusion feels tacked on, undeserved, and out of left field -- no pun intended. It is maybe worth a watch for its two lead actors, but is far from either of their best works.
With The Invisible War, acclaimed documentarian Kirby Dick continues the tradition he begain in Twist of Faith, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, and Outrage, namely, exposing secretive sexual hypocrisies and challenging abusive power structures. Here, he savagely critiques the US Military for its history of turning a blind eye to sexual abuse within its ranks. He speaks to both women and men whose experiences in the Forces have victimized them to unspeakable horrors at the hands of their comrades and superior officers. The film reveals an undercurrent of misogyny and homophobia that lies beneath common attitudes inherent in military training, and the sinister ways in which abusers rely on tight-knit community nature of the military to protect themselves and instill fear in their victims to prevent their speaking out. Dick cuts to the heart of sexual assault victimhood and the nefariousness of victimhood at the hands of those who are valorized. One scene in particular, in which a military father is forced to confront his soldier daughter's heinous experiences in the place he promised she would be safe, will almost certainly move you to tears.
This is a wrenching, heartbreaking, infuriating film. And an important one. Perhaps the most important documentary of the year. The Invisible War is one of those rare films that will require a few moments to collect yourself when the credits come up.
In many ways, The Bourne Legacy employs the tools and tricks of its earlier Matt Damon-led predecessors to a somewhat less effective degree. There is little here we haven't seen before and seen Jason Bourne to better. But this fourth film, starring Jeremy Renner as Agent Aaron Cross, is so tonally consistent with the previous entries that it is easy to get lost in it. Tony Gilroy, the writer of the Bourne Trilogy, directs this time, and strikes something of a balance between the measured style of Doug Liman and the erratic style of Paul Greengrass. There are some cool visual elements here, and some tense scenes that Gilroy is very skilled at staging. He interestingly has written this film not as a prequel or even a sequel to the Bourne trilogy, but rather as a parallel narrative that takes place largely during the events of The Bourne Ultimatum. So while Jason Bourne himself never appears in the film (except in photographs), his fingerprints are all over it, an Legacy lives up to its title by expanding this universe and the depth of government secrets: it's "black ops all the way down." Aaron Cross' story feels smaller and less urgent than Bourne's, as it is largely just about his own survival, but I found Renner, and Rachael Weisz as a scientist whose help he enlists, compelling enough.