December 25, 2012
I had the chance to rewatch Looper the other day. My first viewing was less than ideal as it was just on my small computer screen, and this viewing was at the dollar show so not much bigger of screen. Still, it’s a pleasure to pick apart what makes this film so enjoyable. Watching a film for a second time always gives you a few gems, and here the shiniest are: love, visions, and entitlement. Note that I’ll be referring to JGL’s character as Joe and Bruce Willis’ as the Loop.
This whole film hinges on love, as explained in the outro voiceover, “I saw a man willing to kill to protect the woman he loves. I saw a mother willing to die for the child she loved.” Starting with the loop’s love for his wife, we see that this is all that drives him. His desire to save her drives him to risk everything because he feels that he has nothing left to lose having lost her. So he goes back in time and murders children, a task that clearly disgusts him. This incredibly morally repellent act is motivated by love, which makes for a fitting paradox. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and we are led to believe that the loop’s murder of the mom is exactly what leads to the future hell.
More important is mother’s love, and the film offers Joe and his absent mom and Cid and Sara as our two examples. Young Joe was sold by his mother at such a young age that he cannot remember her face. To try to recapture lost love, he asks his favorite whore to run her fingers through his hair, as that is all he can remember of her. Interestingly, the closing shot shows Sara, Cid’s mom, running her fingers through his hair, as if Joe in death finally has found the closure he sought. Just moments earlier, we saw how Sara used the words, “Mommy loves you,” to calm Cid from his murderous rage. This calming effect coupled with Cid’s remorse at frightening Sara earlier leads us to believe that Sara’s love will be enough to prevent the horrible Rainmaker future.
However, how likely is that future to occur? Joe’s vision of Cid brooding over the murder of his mother while nursing his wound on the train is shown to us to convince us that that is exactly what will happen. It’s like when you watch a crime drama, and they reconstruct just how the crime occurred. However, as with all reconstructions, the interpretation of the reconstructor twists the truth. Joe’s vision is more of a projection than anything else. While hiding in the tunnel, Joe reveals to Cid that after his mother sold him, he rode the train and plotted his revenge. Joe’s foresight is more of a projection of his past self than a prophetic vision. Nevertheless, Joe’s certainty that his ‘vision’ will come to pass is what makes him turn his blunderbuss on himself.
Similarly, you have to wonder if this is the same quality of ‘vision’ that Abe had of Joe going down the bad road before Abe cleaned him up and put a gun in his hand. Did a future gangster save Abe just as he saved Joe? In the dialog where Joe is persuaded to give up Seth, we sense how Abe is a father figure. Joe gives Seth up partly to avoid disappointing Abe, but he more importantly to keep his silver.
Which brings us to selfishness. In the best dialog of the film, the Loop chews out his younger self for being so selfish and entitled. Playing Judas to his friend, having no qualms murdering men, and the alternate reality where Joe kills his loop show us just how shallow Joe is. Yet in the end, Joe decides to sacrifice himself. Why the sudden change of heart? We’re led to believe that Joe sees a way to prevent the horrible Rainmaker future, but Joe couldn’t care less about saving lives. Rather, it is Joe’s desire to prevent Cid from being deprived of his mother’s love that leads him to turn his gun on himself.
Other than those three thoughts, I had time to take apart how this movie improves on Rian Johnson’s first film Brick (2005). The dialog of Brick was far too stylized for me to ever get into the film. However, Johnson was good about embracing the premise and just rolling through with it, giving enough touches to make us accept the premise. Thus, in Brick we have the wonderful incongruity of a high school drug kingpin operating out of a dumpy suburban home. Here we have time travel with its thorny mechanics being dismissed by the characters to make us just focus on the big picture and accept that time travel happens.
One touch I found particularly effective is the introduction of TK early on and then exploiting it at the very end. Joe’s friend Seth floats the quarter and specifically talks about how chicks dig it, while Sara mentions that she would keep guy’s quarters down. It’s this confidence in the viewer’s ability to make this connection that makes this “intelligent sci-fi”, but really we should simply demand that our films expect us to watch them. I’m glad this director trusted his audience enough to not bore us with a flashback and similarly trusted that we wouldn’t get too bogged down in the problems of time travel to simply sit back and enjoy a story well told.
October 24, 2012
Sitting in the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, watching “Argo” next to a visiting scholar from Norway, the thought occurred to me that this film is about as American as you can get. From the subject matter to the actors to the editing style, you would be hard pressed to see a more American recent film (though “Lincoln” will soon give it a run for the money). “Argo” concerns itself with the exfiltration of six Americans who escaped from the Iranian embassy at the beginnings of the Iranian hostage crisis. CIA operative Tony Mendez (Affleck) goes to Iran to extract them using the ruse of being on a location scout for the Canadian sci-fi fantasy film “Argo”. In order to make the ruse pass Iranian scrutiny, Tony asks a Hollywood friend (Goodman) to help him. I don’t care to dwell on the plot anymore as you can read much more pithy summaries elsewhere; rather, I want to talk about the film’s editing, cinematography, and major shortcoming.
The editing is adroit, and makes the film goes down smoothly. It is well paced, and the cuts are as seamless as possible holding to Hollywood tradition. I had to keep reminding myself to cycle through my critical thinking questions because the film does such a nice job of sucking you. The only editing technique that stood out to me is the final chase montage. This montage harkens all the way back to D. W. Griffith who pioneered the chase sequence cutting technique. Shots of the quarry and the pursuer are intercut more and more rapidly to build tension, until it is resolved. It’s interesting how commonplace this ancient technique is, but it makes sense as it is so effective. And I guess that is what I am fumbling towards in this post. This film does nothing new, but what it chooses to do it does well. I’d be willing to watch it again to tease apart how it nicely interweaves the three plot lines of Tony, the six, and the home front.
While no technique used is novel, there are a couple that are worth mentioning. The first is the intercutting of documentary footage for the storming of the embassy. This is very powerful, and it’s place in the opening sequence makes you inclined to judge the rest of the movie as more true. A similar trick is done while the end credits role, where the actor is compared to file photos. By bookending the movie in this manner, you are more inclined to think that everything in between was also so true. The second is using exclusively medium shots to make you share the claustrophobia felt by the six in hiding. The whole time the six in the Canadian’s home, we rarely see a whole room. The continuity of space is totally destroyed, and so you are forced to make guesses about how large the home is. There’s the living room, and then twenty minutes later a dining table, and then a kitchen. It’s impossible to piece together, until Tony arrives. Then the shots start to take in the whole room, and we start to realize all the space available. This change in shots eases the tension, and we feel relief at Tony’s arrival just as the six did. When we finally see an exterior shot, we realize just how large the house is. Using these two techniques, the film has a much more visceral punch and keeps you engaged even though you know the six are bound to escape.
After all this praise, I have to point out the glaring shortcoming in character development. Sadly, this also makes the ending maudlin. We have all these characters: the six in hiding, Tony, his boss, the two Hollywood businessmen, the Canadian ambassador and his wife and their housekeeper. Oh, and don’t forget the Tony’s wife and kid! Understandably, there must be minor characters in a film of this scope, however those minor characters should not include the six. At the end of the film, the only characters I knew well were Tony and the two Hollywood men. The six never had much of a backstory, and so I never really cared for them. Ditto for the Canadian ambassador and his wife. To have all these essential characters and leave them inanimate is a shame. There was so much drama left unexplored. I asked myself what I would do if I were the ambassador. Would I hide the six Americans and risk my life and my wife’s? What if she was against it, would I overrule her? Then, you have to think of the more than a month spent in hiding. “The Diary of Anne Frank” as well as Sartre’s “No Exit” or the actual sci-fi Canadian film “Cube” do a good job exploiting the drama of group dynamics in a claustrophobic and stressful situation. In this film, there is only one indication of group friction, which I feel is not true to life. Lastly, the worst way these flat characters spoil the film is the ending. Obviously, I’m about to spoil the ending so I’d skip to the end here if I were not wanting it spoiled. In the end, (last chance) Tony goes home to his wife and kid. Awwww, isn’t that great! The wife and kid are mentioned just often enough to tug at your heart strings, and as we have absolutely no idea why Tony and his wife are separated, the ending feels like such a cop out.
In short, “Argo” is worth watching for telling a good story well, but it leaves many good opportunities for drama unexplored. It’ll be interesting to compare this historical drama to “Lincoln” when it comes out. If you agree or disagree with my take on this film, leave a comment below to let me know.
December 19, 2011
I love films. Just like I love reading. By love, I mean rarely do I get a chance to do them. However, I am working on doing both more (currently in the middle of Lady Vengeance and Borges on those fronts). Anyway, I went to visit some friends in Houston a few weeks ago, and we watched the movie Limitless. What a disappointment. They had such a great premise and then they frittered it away on trivial things. It’s like they couldn’t really follow through on their thoughts to a good conclusion. If only they had that damn pill.
For those of you who have not seen the movie, the premise is that this loser gets a magic pill that allows him to use all of his brain. I want to state that this guy really is a loser. He’s a slob who is a struggling writer, by which I mean drinker. He gets dumped by his girlfriend that he has been mooching off of in the first few minutes to show just what a shmuck he is. Anyway, he gets this magic pill, and he immediately changes. He cleans his pig sty apartment and writes his novel in two days. The novel is amazing and everything is totally rosy. Then there’s this whole intrigue about the drug maker and drug user and yadda-yadda-yadda.
The whole time we were watching the film my friends and I were yelling at the guy to take the drug to a chemist and get it synthesized. The film goes to great lengths to make the scarcity of the pills a big plot point, but using the pills our loser makes oodles of money. To their credit, he eventually gets a chemist to start making the pills. Anyway, I don’t want to keep summarizing the plot as it just fails miserably.
Let’s go back to their excellent premise. A pill that allows you to recall everything you have ever been exposed to and makes you super observant and able to instantly recall everything relevant. Imagine a Google search for your brain where everything you have every even glance at or overheard has been neatly tagged and indexed. Amazing! Absolutely incredible! And what does the director, Neil Burger who did The Illusionist, do with this? He churns out a lame action flick that raises so many questions that it fails to answer. I’ll point out the holes in the plot.
First off, why does this loser become the top dog? The pill enhances your innate ability, so why does this guy manage to outcompete everyone else on it? Furthermore, if all the users were so damn smart why didn’t they just do what our protagonist ends up doing and fix the pill? Why didn’t the pill makers (who are never identified despite our protagonist’s near omniscience) fix the pill themselves?
Second off, what does our loser decide to dedicate his life too? He junks writing and replaces his drinking with copious sex. He murders someone, and it is never addressed. Seriously, you kill a person for the first time and you have no worries about it aside from getting caught? It seems like the only logical explanation is that the pill does not just enhance innate ability, but it also alters what is inside of you. Our wannabe writer sets his sights on presidency, but we are never told why he wants to do that. The movie makes it a point that he has found a mission, and then totally fails to explore this. Wouldn’t you want to know what the world’s smartest man wants to do? I know I do, and this is why this movie so disappoints.