Thursday, January 31, 2013

Culture Shock 01.31.13: 'Looper' is cinematic sleight of hand

Trying to wrap your head around time travel can give you a headache.

If you're Marty McFly, you have Doc Brown to explain it to you. If you're Bruce Willis' character in "Looper," you down handfuls of aspirin because time travel literally gives you a headache.

One must forgive any time travel movie its occasional plot holes or lapses in logic. The thing about time travel, by its very nature, is it creates plot holes. In the language of the genre, they're called "temporal anomalies." If you've seen any "Star Trek" after the original series, you've likely heard of them. But good filmmakers are clever enough to disguise them or make them part of the story or at least divert your attention from them.

With "Looper," writer/director Rian Johnson ("Brick") tries a little of all three and delivers one of the smartest, most entertaining science-fiction films in years — and one of the best films of the past year. Add another to the list of Oscar snubs.

"Looper" (Blu-ray and DVD) is set in the near future, around 2044. A few decades later, in 2074, our narrator tells us, time travel will be invented — and immediately outlawed. This works about as well outlawing liquor in the 1920s or marijuana today. When the mob wants to off someone, it sends them back in time to the 2040s, where paid assassins await the easy, untraceable kill.

The ubiquitous Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("The Dark Knight Rises") plays Joe, one of the mob's hired guns in 2044. These hired guns are called "loopers" because when the mob of the future decides to cancel their contracts, it sends the loopers' older counterparts back in time to be killed by their younger selves, completing the loop and leaving no loose ends. In return, the younger version earns a windfall retirement package.

That may seem like a bad deal, but as Joe says, the job doesn't exactly attract forward-thinking people. It attracts reckless young punks who doubt they'll even live another 30 years.

So, Joe lives the good life, while he can, bumping off people from the future and stockpiling silver until he suddenly finds his future self (Willis) on the other end of the gun.

And Old Joe does the unthinkable. He escapes.

Old Joe is trying to change the future, Young Joe is trying to kill Old Joe, and the mob — led by a charmingly droll Jeff Daniels ("The Newsroom") — is trying to eliminate both Joes. But that's not the half of it.

The bigger mystery comes into play when Young Joe, on the run, hides out with a young mother (Emily Blunt) and her brilliant but unsettling son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon).

Johnson pulls a few fast ones on us. First, he violates H.G. Wells' rule of science fiction: Change one thing and see what follows from it. Johnson changes two things. He introduces time travel, but he also posits humans who develop low-level telekinetic powers — an idea worth its own movie. It seems like a throwaway plot point at first, but it ends up being crucial.

Second, he covers up his biggest time-travel plot hole with a cinematic sleight of hand. If Old Joe escapes in 2044, how does Young Joe live out his life normally so he can he sent back in 2074? Johnson dodges the question by shifting the perspective. It goes from Young Joe to Old Joe remembering his days as Young Joe. It's a bit of a cheat, but all time travel stories are, and Johnson carries off his bait-and-switch so deftly you'd have to be a real curmudgeon to complain.

On the surface, "Looper" is a time-travel movie, but it's really about how we view the passage of time. Are we in it only for the short run? Can we sacrifice in the now for the sake of the future?

These are the sort of questions we ask ourselves all the time. We just don't have the future literally staring us in the face.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Culture Shock: 01.24.13: 'Dredd' lays down the letter of the law

In the near future, Mega-City One stretches across the Eastern Seaboard. Within its concrete and steel canyons, hundreds of millions of people live, walled off from the war-ravaged wastelands to the west. Outside is desolation. Inside is a vast, crowded, chaotic city-state beset by warring gangs.

The only thing keeping law and order are the judges. Each one is judge, jury and, if the punishment fits the crime, executioner. They are the law. And the most feared judge of all is Judge Dredd.

"Dredd" is the second attempt to bring the long-running British comic-book character to the screen. The first, 1995's "Judge Dredd" starring Sylvester Stallone, set new standards for bad decisions and bad acting. The new "Dredd" (Blu-ray and DVD) is at least respectful of its source material, but it never embraces the comic's black humor and subversive critique of authority. It has less ambitious goals in mind.

Take "The Rookie" starring Clint Eastwood and Charlie Sheen, cross it with the first "Die Hard," set it in the future, and you pretty much have "Dredd."

After taking down a van full of gang members high on a new drug called "slo-mo," which makes time appear to move in slow motion, Dredd (Karl Urban of the rebooted "Star Trek") is assigned to give a final pass/fail field test to a trainee judge, Anderson, played by Olivia Thirlby of "Juno."

Anderson is a borderline case who shouldn't even have made it to the field-test stage, but she has a quality that makes giving her a final shot worthwhile: She is a mutant with psychic abilities, the result of her having grown up near the wall separating Mega-City One from the radioactive wastes.

But because this is a movie, it's not going to be a typical training exercise.

Investigating a triple-homicide call leads to Dredd and Anderson becoming trapped in Peach Trees, a 200-story skyscraper slum ruled by Ma-Ma (Lena Headey of "Game of Thrones"), a former prostitute who has built a criminal empire, including control of Mega-City One's slo-mo trade.

With limited ammunition and no backup, Dredd and Anderson must blast their way up and out of Ma-Ma's locked-down fortress, with her army on their heels and hundreds of civilians in the crossfire.

Headey is very good in her stereotypically male role as the ruthless, disfigured villain, and Thirlby gets the movie's best set piece when she goes inside the mind of Ma-Ma's top lieutenant. But most of the credit goes to Urban, who stays true to his character by never removing his helmet, even though it means he can act only with his chin. Urban's enigmatic Dredd, keeping his thoughts and expressions to himself, is a marked improvement on Stallone's screaming buffoon.

Director Pete Travis and his team, with a relatively modest budget, deliver a convincing post-apocalyptic setting and a few first-rate action scenes. In the end, "Dredd" is a perfectly competent and enjoyable action film.

The only problem is it could have been much more, and at no extra cost.

Since its inception in 1977, the "Judge Dredd" comic, appearing in the British magazine 2000 A.D., has been filled with political and social satire. It has attracted some of the British comics industry's top talent, and it helped inspire the politically aware comic books that took America by storm in the 1980s, from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' "Watchmen" and Howard Chaykin's "American Flagg" to Mike Baron and Steve Rude's "Nexus" and Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns." But you'd never get that impression from the movie "Dredd," which plays the absurd, madcap universe Dredd inhabits almost totally straight.

"Judge Dredd" co-creator Carlos Ezquerra says that when he created Dredd's costume, with its hints of fascist iconography, he intended it to be futuristic, but now some police actually dress the same way.

So, maybe "Dredd" the movie doesn't bother with satire because it's beside the point?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Culture Shock 01.17.13: 'Cosmopolis' is a ride that goes nowhere

In "Cosmopolis," Robert Pattinson, fresh off portraying bland vampire Edward Cullen in the "Twilight" movies, plays bland corporate CEO Eric Packer.

Packer has made a gazillion dollars doing something — what, exactly, I'm not sure — and now heads a company run by T-shirted computer geniuses and senior executives who double as philosophers.

I suspect Packer, a man bored by everything, is supposed to be bland. But it's difficult to say where Packer's characterization stops and Pattinson's own lack of screen presence starts. Plotwise, the entire movie involves Packer riding in a stretch limo from one side of Manhattan to the other to get a haircut. Seriously, that's the plot, but it is complicated by a presidential visit that has traffic backed up all across town, vast throngs of protesters clogging the street in opposition to capitalism or globalization or the bogeyman du jour, and a "credible threat" against Packer's life.

From his backseat, Packer holds forth while getting a prostate exam, which, given the "Twilight" movies, is not the most awkward thing Pattinson has ever done onscreen.

The consensus before director David Cronenberg ("A Dangerous Method") came along to direct this adaptation of Don DeLillo's 2003 novel was that the novel was unfilmmable.

Cronenberg has proven the consensus correct. "Cosmopolis" (DVD and Blu-ray) isn't so much a film as it is a Socratic dialogue in which a buzzword-infected, TED-talk version of what left-leaning intellectuals think capitalism is collides with DeLillo's existentialist meanderings about the world's meaning or lack thereof.

DeLillo is a writer who sees himself challenging the Establishment, yet he is entirely a creature of the Literary Establishment and speaks its language fluently.

If you can't understand what the characters in "Cosmopolis" are talking about, you'll be baffled and probably irritated. If you can, either you'll nod your head knowingly at their alleged profundities, or you'll yell at the screen in a futile attempt to tell the film just how stupid it is. (I yelled. A lot.)

"Cosmopolis" is a critique of what some leftists like to call "late capitalism," the idea that we're living in capitalism's last days and something new is just around the next corner. But we're stuck in traffic, remember?

In his limo, which Cronenberg's camera treats with an antiseptic fetishism, Packer sits in the eye of a financial storm. All around him, there are protests, assassinations and the "creative destruction" of the market. Turning the Marxist slogan on its head, protesters holding dead rats shout, "There is a specter haunting the world!" Only now capitalism rather than communism is the specter, and it haunts Packer, too. He has bet against the Chinese yuan and is rapidly losing his and his company's net worth. (In the novel, it was the Japanese yen, but the focus of the West's "yellow peril" worries has since shifted.)

Yet Packer doesn't care. It's the most exciting thing that has happened to him in ages.

It's the elitist critique of capitalist society — capitalism leads to consumerism leads to nihilism — told by people who haven't bothered to acknowledge the worldwide improvement in living standards over the last several decades.

There is a brief moment early in the film, as Packer is having sex with a character played by the always luminous Juliette Binoche, when it looks like this might not be such a bad trip. Alas, Binoche soon disappears, never to appear again, just like the rest of Packer's disposable traveling companions.

Everything comes back to Packer trapped in his car, with a security guard watching over him, a prisoner of his own success.

At least the whole thing is beautifully shot by cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, who has worked with Cronenberg before, including "Crash." If nothing else, Cronenberg and Suschitzky know how to shoot a car. They could make awesome car commercials together.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Culture Shock: 01.10.13: Tarantino's 'Unchained' melody is pitch perfect

There is a pivotal scene in "Django Unchained" in which Dr. King Schultz, the charming, dapper German bounty hunter played by Christoph Waltz, explains the ways of bounty hunting to the title character.

Yet as callous and cold-blooded as it may seem to gun down a man in front of his child — even when the man is a murderer who has it coming — it still pales compared to the random, everyday brutality of slavery in the plantation South before the Civil War. When confronted with that, it's Dr. Schultz who is a little "green around the gills," and Django (Jamie Foxx) who remains detached and focused on his mission. Besides, it's nothing the ex-slave hasn't seen — and lived — before.

In his followup to 2009's "Inglourious Basterds," Quentin Tarantino again uses the formula of an old-fashioned revenge movie to address one of humanity's darkest periods. And again he shows that while his skill and ingenuity as a director and screenwriter may transcend the talents of most filmmakers who populated drive-ins with exploitation fare in the 1970s, he remains fluent in their language, including their ability to cloak social commentary in blood and bullets.

But just so there's no mistake, Tarantino opens with retro-style opening titles and the theme song to the original "Django," the 1966 spaghetti Western directed by Sergio Corbucci and starring Franco Nero, who shows up here for a cameo.

"Django Unchained" is a rousing exploitation film through and through. And I mean that as a compliment. Dress it up or deconstruct it however you like, it's a blaxploitation Western, like the ones the seemingly immortal Fred Williamson starred in 40 years ago, only far more ambitious. Much like Williamson's characters, Django scandalizes Southern whites by doing such things as riding a horse. But that's only the beginning, and like "Inglourious Basterds," it can only end in fire.

When he has a contemporary setting, Tarantino litters his scripts with pop-culture references. With a story set two years before the Civil War, he relies on mythology. Django's wife (Kerry Washington) is improbably named Broomhilda, a corruption of Brunhilde from Germanic legend.

Like the hero Siegfried, Django will have to walk through fire to save her. At least Django doesn't have to face a dragon, merely a snake in the form of reptilian plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a smooth-talking fraud who subjects his strongest slaves to blood sport and likes to be referred to as "monsieur" but can't speak French.

The bigger threat, however, is Candie's house slave and confidant Stephen, played as a literal Uncle Tom by Samuel L. Jackson, who reminds us what a great actor he is when he's not just playing himself with an eye patch or a lightsaber. Jackson's Stephen is as complex as he is despicable, and Jackson doesn't hold back.

Surrounded by flamboyant performances by DiCaprio, Jackson and especially Waltz, who again steals the movie just like he did with his Oscar-winning turn in "Inglourious Basterds," Foxx has a hard time standing out. Yet over the film's nearly three-hour running time, his Django evolves from skittish slave to bewildered freeman to confident avenger, each convincing and all accompanied by simmering rage that subsides only with thoughts of his wife. It's not flashy, but it's the hardest role to pull off.

Tarantino, meanwhile, is trying to top himself. "Pulp Fiction" is still his masterpiece, and the "Kill Bill" films are still the ones that deliver the most pop-art enjoyment, but with "Django Unchained," Tarantino splits the difference between the extremes. That may make it the most Tarantino of all of Tarantino's films.

This could be the one he's remembered for.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Culture Shock 01.03.13: The making of a modern Marvel

In 2009, Disney purchased Marvel Entertainment for roughly $4 billion. In 2012, the top grossing movie in North America was Marvel's "The Avengers," which took in more than $1.5 billion worldwide. Marvel is an entertainment giant, and its characters — Iron Man, Hulk, Spider-Man and the rest — are modern myths, as well as valuable intellectual properties.

That's a long way from where Marvel Comics began, with a magazine publisher looking to cash in on the latest gimmick, a frustrated novelist who happened to be related to the publisher's wife and a team of eccentric freelancers, two of whom would prove indispensable.

I've been reading Marvel Comics for as long as I can recall. But Sean Howe's recent book "Marvel Comics: The Untold Story" (HarperCollins, $26.00, hardcover) lives up to its subtitle. It tells stories about the so-called House of Ideas even I didn't know.

The publisher, Martin Goodman, pinched pennies, demanded layoffs and shamelessly followed trends until the fateful day his editor-in-chief decided he had nothing to lose by trying something new. That frustrated editor/writer was Stan Lee, who at 90 years old is still the face of Marvel, making cameo appearances in most of the company's films. The freelancers, especially Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, co-created most of the Marvel characters Disney paid $4 billion to possess. Then they both fell out with Lee and the company they helped build. Kirby subsequently spent years trying to get back his original artwork from Marvel.

Ditko, a recluse who prefers to let his work speak for itself, expresses himself today mostly through increasingly didactic, philosophical comics inspired by Ayn Rand.

They are figures as large as their creations, but their story is well known. What came before and after Marvel's Camelot period of 1961 to 1970 is less well publicized, but no less dramatic.

Last year, Disney purchased the Star Wars franchise from George Lucas, bringing Star Wars and Marvel under the same corporate umbrella. But the two franchises already had history. In 1977, Marvel's sales were in free fall, Howe writes, when Lee's successor, Roy Thomas, went after the "Star Wars" license. That decision's payoff helped keep the company going until its next big hit.

That hit was "Uncanny X-Men," which came into its own under the guidance of writer Chris Claremont and writer/artist John Byrne.

Through the '70s and '80s and into the '90s, Marvel was home to many talented artists and even more volatile personalities, even if they weren't as flamboyant as Lee and his bullpen of the '60s. Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter's regime set the stage for the industry's next two, transformative decades. The "Secret Wars" miniseries he scripted ushered in mega-crossovers, sprawling tales that invaded every other comic the company published and required readers to buy them all or risk missing out on a sense-shattering conclusion that would change everything.

Never lost in Howe's tale, however, are the bit players: the writers, artists and editors who met the deadlines and kept Marvel going in good times and bad, often sacrificing their health and better pay to stay in the medium they loved. Those cast aside included Don Heck, who drew most of the early "Iron Man" comics. Older artists lost work to hotshot youngsters like Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane, who later left to start Image Comics. Company loyalty goes both ways.

From there, it's a story of corporate raiders, bankruptcy, restructuring and revival. And some of the players are still with Marvel today, as the company settles into its role as intellectual property resource for Disney, while still publishing comics in an environment where paper is giving way to digital.

The form itself, sadly, is as disposable as so many of the people who created it. But its story, as Howe tells it, is as gripping as any of Lee and Kirby's cosmic epics.