joseph gordon levitt
Around the Bend: Looper
The main point that my English teacher has been making while we study Emily Bronte’s seminal novel Wuthering Heights is that choices and repercussions have a very cyclical nature. They are of the sort to affect us, whether in a microscopic way or not, and everyone else forever. The choices made, we are learning, even have the power to effect generations. While the generational aspect may not be exactly the same as in Wuthering Heights, the cycle of choices is indeed a common parallel and thesis in Rian Johnson’s new film Looper, one of the smartest, hippest, most emotionally wrenching neo-noirs to come along since… well, Johnson’s debut feature, Brick. Though, let us not ghettoize the film to simply neo-noir or even sci-fi; Rian Johnson’s third film is just good period.
About thirty-two years in the future, time travel has not been invented, as the gruff voice of Joe (Joseph=Gordon Levitt) will tell you. The only people who do use it are the ones living thirty years from that future, although it is strictly illegal. These people are gangsters and thugs, and when they use it, they use it to get rid of any trace of someone by sending them back in time to a hit man, who immediately shoots them and then collects their payment. These hit men are called “Loopers”, a name that gives way to theoretical concepts of time and space (e.g. the cyclical cycle of life being a loop). When the looper’s contract is up, the gangsters send back the older version of themselves, to be terminated upon arrival. When one person called the “Rain Man” begins cutting contracts short all around the country, Joe must face a difficult decision: killing his future self.
That is the general, trailer and hype version of the story, but the film has less to do with Present Joe (Gordon Levitt) and Future Joe (Bruce Willis) going at it for two hours then one might be led to believe. Instead, the film becomes an interesting exploration on the theme of choices. Both Present Joe and Future Joe must make decisions that will mark and affect their present and future forever. Instead of boiling it down to a reductive, silly Back to the Future thesis of decision making, the decisions in this film have a bigger impact and more relevance on the present. The choices the characters must make are about who they will become, in all seriousness, and what kind of future they will have. Johnson throws in another curveball by making it so the decisions to be made will essentially affect the futuristic society as a whole.
There is an extended conversation scene in a diner between Present Joe and Future Joe that is very reminiscent of an extended conversation scene between a philosopher and a tragic heroine played by Anna Karina in the film Vivre sa Vie. When breaking down and synthesizing theoretical and philosophical concepts, you essentially have three camps of exposition: Vivre sa Vie, which is a lecture in dialogue form; The Matrix, which is a lot of exposition in an effort to synthesize dense concepts in dialogue form; and Inception; which is, if not exactly the most fluid dialogue on earth, at least the most accessible. Looper, strangely enough, becomes a category all its own. Yes, the concepts of making choices and the consequences of those choices on the future and other people are made, but it is written with such breadth and clarity that it hardly seems like synthesis at all. Johnson is a whiz at dialogue, whether he’s recreating and copying a certain hardboiled style seen both in Brick as well as in Looper, or telling a heist story much like The Sting or Paper Moon in The Brothers Bloom. Johnson is able to get his ideas, styles, and themes across to the audience pretty effortlessly. The conversation, therefore, should be fairly accessible to anyone who maybe didn’t love or understand Inception.
Johnson’s style is not only written all over the dialogue, but in the style of the film itself. Its locales are a combination of rural Kansas and a futuristic Metropolis. Its technology transitions smoothly between the present (as in 2012) and the future (as in 2044).Apparently, Johnson’s sophomore effort The Brothers Bloom is described as a “post-modern heist movie”, and if that it is so, it is because of its quirky way of appropriating very classic settings and elements and appropriating them within a very modern context. It’s a layering of the old and the new. Looper does the same thing, making the future not so far away, combing the essences of contemporary technologies and the newness of futuristic tech. It makes it so that it does not feel like a sci-fi film as much as, say, Blade Runner. Its feet are rooted to the present in many ways, and this smooth transition and appropriation of style is fascinating.
Thrilling again stylistically, Johnson returns to neo-noir, with first person narration and all! Plenty of fascinating archetypes to go around, but what is different here is the optimistic quality of the film. Neo-noir is typically filled with a nihilistic state of mind, but, good or bad, the film seems to be filled with hope.
The performances are all around superb, with Gordon-Levitt, underneath layers of makeup to make him look more like Willis, getting that gritty, existential quality of the perfect noir anti-hero. Willis, of course, kicks ass, but with both of them playing the “same role”, there an interesting dynamism about the character that has one actor complement the other in terms of manifestations of vulnerability and masculinity. Gordon-Levitt is the boy; Willis is the man. The relationship dynamic of each trying to prove to the other that they’re better is a highlight of the film. Emily Blunt, meanwhile, slips into (and infrequently out of) a Southern drawl for a hardworking belle whose son holds the key to the Joes’ existences. (A note: the kid who plays Sara’s son gives one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from someone under the age of 21. It does not seem like a 7 year old trying to act alongside heavyweights, it feels like a 7 year old giving the heavyweights a run for their money. He is literally better than Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon and on par with Anna Paquin in The Piano.)
The film does have a sizable flaw: its pace. Its first hour, no matter how many gunshots are fired, is slow and drags on for a bit. The meat of the story and emotion is in the latter half, and while it’s fine getting there, the tone and pace fly around a bit, almost unsure of itself. It isn’t that the film keeps talking about things, but it just seems to take a long time to where it wanted to really begin. It feels as if the key moments in the first half are Present Joe explaining himself, Present Joe meeting Future Joe, and Present Joe meeting Emily Blunt’s Sarah. The moments in between those seem, while not totally unnecessary, not as well written. There’s more passion and pathos in scenes with Joe, which is the danger of balancing large concepts and several characters and using it as a framework around a few key characters. Luckily, it is not enough to mar the experience of seeing the film.
Rian Johnson has, with only three films under his belt, become one of the preeminent visionaries of independent filmmaking. Brick is his masterpiece, but Looper is an excellent film that drags the viewer in to examine choices, both theirs and the characters’. Its unique, post-modern style has now become a trademark for Johnson’s work, while its accessibility with regard to heady concepts and ability to retain all of the film’s intelligence will please audiences. Both Gordon-Levitt and Willis are awesome powerhouses, and while the pace can occasionally lag, the film is quite the thrilling experience. In terms of cycles, I can’t wait to experience all over again.
To Rise from Darkness: The Dark Knight Rises
I guess I might as well be honest while I am here: I miss indie-minded Christopher Nolan. I miss that stylized simplicity of Following, the complexity of simplicity of The Prestige, the non-linear emotional/cerebral rollercoaster of Memento, and the guilt laden suspense of Insomnia. That is not to say I don’t like his Batman films; in fact, I love them. All that independent, creative, and mind bending sensibility is definitely imbued in his Batman trilogy (to some extent, with a sledgehammer), but you can tell that both he, as well as some of his audience, cannot wait until he makes another small, non-humongous budgeted film. It is his desire to give his stories and characters layers that makes his Batman films so interesting. The fear and desire in Batman Begins and the internal conflict of vigilantism in The Dark Knight (with other political subtext, of course) are what make the films so compelling. Nolan’s grand finale to his Bat-Trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, is no different in its intentions, but, as I said, you can tell he’s ready to revisit his roots. Make no mistake, The Dark Knight Rises is incredible, but, perhaps to the fault of high expectations that could never be met, I left the theater a little let down.
Picking up eight years after The Dark Knight, the third film in the trilogy begins with Bruce Wayne having turned into a rich recluse, the kind that the public would be quick to make a snark allusion to Howard Hughes. However, he comes out of hiding when Gotham City faces a new threat in the form of the hulking monster that is Bane. Bane is ready to destroy the entire city, blowing it to smithereens. And while there are plenty of explosive action sequences, the focus here, as usual, is on the story and the characters. Sort of.
While Batman Begins and The Dark Knight both handled large action scenes and even larger, more powerful scenes of drama and suspense, The Dark Knight Rises seems to have trouble reconciling the two. You either get scenes of great emotion and contemplation followed by a somewhat lackluster action sequence, or you get something rather trite and heavy handed followed by “action poetry”. Is it the running time or is it something else? It takes a while for the film to focus properly, balancing the two perfectly, allowing both drama and action to occur very closely together and balance well. But the film seems hesitant to make up its mind about not what to focus on but how to do it. You have a stunning prologue in a similar fashion to The Dark Knight’s Kubrick inspired first six minutes, and then for the next half hour, it seems, it’s all Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne and Michael Caine’s Alfred discussing how much Gotham, and Wayne himself, needs “the Batman”.
While the trouble in focus is a problem, the presence of the weighty internal conflict is welcome. As heavy handed as it may be, the fact that it is there at all and the fact that Nolan gives us a protagonist, an iconic one at that, whom we can explore psychoanalytically is one of the blessings of the trilogy’s existence. If anything, it’s the realism and the psychoanalytic approach that make the films (greatly aided by Bale’s awesome performance), not the huge set pieces. Michael Caine also does quite well as the loyal and conflicted Alfred, trying desperately to motivate Bruce Wayne to do the right thing, which does not always necessarily mean become the Batman. Here, it’s all about the battle between hope and lost faith. But, what Bale does here, once again, is show that Batman is human and that every facet of desire and motivation is real. Bale’s realism and humanity in playing the character is stunning and one of the best things about this film in particular.
In The Dark Knight Rises, we are introduced to a new villain: Bane, a character who, in the past, was a steroid pumped demon, usually working under or with another villain. Here, embodied by Tom Hardy, he is like Bronson on steroids. Er, well, more steroids. The point being, he is more human than he has been in other iterations, yet still monstrous. As far symbolic representations go, you can draw comparisons between the maniacal and chaotic Joker and driven and deliberate Bane. The Joker likes to create chaos for the sake of chaos, both as a means of pure joy and pleasure as well as a way to turn Gotham’s finest into Gotham’s most twisted and evil. He is real world terrorism without motivation that the public can understand. The destruction he creates is as enigmatic and flamboyant as he is. Bane, however, has a very specific goal. His objective is socially oriented (which may or may not recall strains of the Tea Party movement and the Occupy movement), so that he can bring Gotham down from within. He is the terrorism with a driven ideology, and one for all to hear. However, as good as Tom Hardy is, simply because Heath Ledgers performance has been forever embedded into our minds, his villain is not as good. Maybe because Bane has a definite objective, he seems less interesting than a villain without reason. Maybe mystery is sometimes the best thing for a villain. Regardless, even if he is not the best, Hardy plays him to the hilt, and the deep, electronically manipulated voice is effective once you get used to it.
The police have a larger role in the film, with two characters taking the leads: Commissioner Gordon, riddled with guilt about Batman’s exile from society, and newbie John Blake, a dedicated cop with a broken past. It really is nice to see Gary Oldman have a larger role here. Much the same way that Jude Law has done with Dr. Watson in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, Gary Oldman brings intelligence and pathos to a character for whom layers did not exist in the films prior to Nolan’s. Oldman is skilled and plays Gordon fantastically. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who was in Inception, plays Blake with sensitivity and intelligence, though his character is often relegated to acting like a junior detective. However, once his character begins to take control, Gordon-Levitt’s performance is all the better and more interesting. He is able to side step some of the cheesiness that seems to be inherent in the script regarding his character’s past, but not so much that the audience would not be able to identify with him. In short, both actors do extremely well.
The women of Nolan’s Batman trilogy have faltered, mostly because there has only been one, and she did not seem that important in the grand scheme of things. The women of Batman’s world never really have, with few exceptions. Selina Kyle, however, is one of those exceptions. Played with verve, class, wit, and sex appeal by Anne Hathaway, Catwoman manages to be a rather compelling character in this finale. Given no real origin story, only alluded to as someone trying escape her past with a clean slate, the mystery surrounding he character, and the vulnerability that Hathaway is able to portray (without being too sappy or cliché) makes Catwoman even sexier. Her new suit is sleek, yet simple and minimal, as opposed to the dominatrix outfit Michelle Pfeiffer wore in Batman Returns. Once again, the tension between Batman and Catwoman is palpable. You could cut the sexual tension with a bat ranger. Anne Hathaway surprised me because, as much as I adore her, I was honestly not sure if she would be able to pull off playing Catwoman. She did pull it off, and very well. Marion Cotillard, who worked with Nolan on Inception, joins the cast as well, also vying for Bruce Wayne’s heart. Cotillard does fine, if not spectacularly. She’s enticing, but her character, Miranda Tate, a wealthy philanthropist, does not seem to be the kind of man that Bruce Wayne would legitimately fall for. She does not seem to fit with Wayne. Sure, she “stands” for something, but she never gives the impression that she would go out and do whatever it took to do what needs to be done, in the way that Rachel Dawes did, especially the way Maggie Gyllenhaal played her in The Dark Knight. For there to be a convincing love interest, he or she must be other’s equal, and Tate is not, even if the woman who plays her is one of the finest actresses around.
One of the film’s biggest flaws, aside its slightly plodding story and pace, is its setting. In the previous films, Gotham City, no matter how much it may have resembled Chicago or New York, always had a sense of anonymity about it. Gotham is supposed to be Any Metropolis, USA. Here, we are given New York City, plain and obvious. From sightings of specific bridges (Brooklyn, for instance) to Saks Fifth Avenue, the anonymity disappears from the setting and, in those moments, the films steps out of the limbo between Batman’s universe and reality and just sits in reality. It is extremely jarring to see locations that are supposed to exist generically and realize that not only do you recognize them, that you have probably been there. Here, Nolan’s focus again seems unbalanced. With the inclusion of a new, fun vehicle called the Bat, we are once again ripped form one realm and shoved into another. The Bat is like the Tumbler, but it flies. This, to me, seems silly. It reminded me of the invisible Aston Martin V12 Vanquish from the James Bond film Die Another Day, and they both don’t work for the same reason: for characters that are so rooted in reality (for their respective interpretations and approaches), the use of such a gadget seems counterintuitive. Obviously, things in the film would never happen, but even the carnage and destruction that goes on feels real because that is how Nolan has approached the films. All of a sudden adding what is essentially a flying Batmobile is a strange move. Here, in both cases, the biggest problem of the film is demonstrated, in that it does not know when to be real, when to be fantastical, or when to balance the two.
The Batman films have molded and conformed thematically to whatever the contemporary social and political atmosphere is. Here, we plainly see strains of various recent social movements, and again, it is the focus that trips up the pacing and the story. Nolan handles the socio-political material better than anyone else would have, but as clear as the extremism is in the film, it sometimes gets caught up in itself. Strains of the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party Movement stand out the most, with dialogue form characters that read out the conceits as obviously as the final speech in The Dark Knight. As soon as the lesson in political science is put on the back burner, but still present yet subtle, the representations that the characters become and their motivations stand for seem smoother and more easily digestible than some of the ham fisted and overt ideas.
The action, though, seems of a different flavor that one is used to. It still remains fairly coherent in its editing and execution style, but you get the sense that, once again, there’s difficulty in reconciling the action epic of Michael Bay proportions and the thrilling, almost poetic action to counterpose the emotional weight of the story. The final forty-five minutes, however, are very satisfying to watch on the big screen. Especially, in IMAX.
The film also seems to be more stylistically different than those from the rest of the series, but its ties to the universe make it so that the film would not be able to stand on its own very well. That is not inherently bad, but while the other two films can be their own entity, it is harder to compartmentalize and separate The Dark Knight Rises from its counterparts. The film, though, does nice tie some things together, and it ends up being a fairly satisfying ending.
As “disappointed” as I was, I will still contend to the fact that it is a pretty splendid film. Maybe it isn’t the masterpiece everyone wanted it to be, but with the sky high expectations, can you blame it? While the film is flawed in several ways, it is a pretty incredible and fantastic way to end a superb film trilogy. Though the film has trouble with its pacing and its ability to focus, its strengths in acting and pieces of its storytelling outweigh its weaknesses. Similarly, in the film, the light is able to makes its way through the darkness in Gotham, if barely.
Also, check out my essay comparing Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s approaches the Batman at VeryAware.com!
2012 in Film: #61 – 10 Things I Hate About You
2012 in Film: #61
10 Things I Hate About You (1999) | Directed by Gil Junger
Thoughts: Oh, how I love a good teen comedy. From Mean Girls to Easy A and of course the John Hughes of the 1980’s, they just have a certain wit about that that reminds me, strangely, of screwball comedies. The fast paced dialogue and merciless repartee between characters in this film is perfectly reminiscent of Bringing Up Baby or The Philadelphia Story. But this, here, is an update of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Julia Stiles, Heath Ledger, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are awesome, and it’s just a sheer delight to watch.