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.
Origin Story: Prometheus
I am not sure whether it is because I am a cynic or because I am apathetic or because I spend most of my “deep thinking time” either analyzing films or sleeping, but the question of “Where do we come from?” and other “origin of life” and “meaning of life” questions has never really occurred to me longer than that of a piece of Trident gum. I am amongst the blithely unaware, and remain so. Even watching certain films and shows that prod at that very question, like Planet of the Apes, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or even TV’s Lost, aside from analyzing within the context of the given show, I never though more of it outside of that context or applied it to my own life. Even after reading Camus’ The Stranger and even after watching Being John Malkovich (which, for the record, helped me grasp existentialism), I never thought of the meaning of life personally. Prometheus is no different, but I appreciated its probing at such questions nevertheless. While its admiration for Big Ideas is commendable, it is one hell of a messy film. But I enjoyed it anyways. Ridley Scott’s return to the universe he helped create in 1979 with Alien is visually spectacular, but its storyline is about as coherent as the theatrical edition of David Fincher’s Alien3 .
Its big questions stick out in the dialogue much like the social criticisms that stick out like an eyesore in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, or the social commentary on race relations sticks out blatantly in Crash. Though, the fact that a mainstream blockbuster would even bother asking those kinds of questions in a world of film where deep thought is usually frowned upon is, to some extent, admirable. Its choppy form and presentation is something that is problematic, but it is nice to see something that asks its viewers to think of those things. Written by Jon Spaihts and Lost co-creator/executive producer/writer Damon Lindelof, it asks those questions repeatedly, but perhaps not in an incessant manner. A good thing about the film’s screenplay is that, while it asks those questions, and filly in the backgrounds of certain characters with various ideologies, it allows for the audience to consider the answers.When scientists find an “invitation” in the form of archeological digs and subsequent symbols across the world pointing to something shared yet mysterious, it prompts Elizabeth Shaw (the original Lisbeth Salander, Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) to go there. The invitation is a constellation, and with the help of Weyland Corp. (sound familiar?), they bring a crew aboard the expansive ship Prometheus to that very planet. You know, to go look for stuff. The speculation and main plot device is that the planet may hold the key to the origin of life and the creation of humans, even all life forms, something that has intrigued Shaw in particular since she was a little girl. Of course, once they get there, starting messing around a little bit, you know nothing good comes of it.
But its screenplay is the very root of the problem for Prometheus, no matter how “nice” it may be that something so mainstream would dare to make audiences think. The plot holes in the film and the unexplained questions and the abandoned subplots and the randomly inserted subplots… they are, to some, overwhelming and ruin the entire experience. Lindelof was called in for rewrites, and a new story may have developed, but it feels like fragments of the original are still apparent in the way that when you write a second draft of something, your friend will be quick to point out that something from the original is still there, but kind of not explained or even relevant. Some of this information and subplot is supposed to work in favor of the film’s suspense levels, but instead comes off as sloppy and unnecessary. Some of it may be a problem of logic. And while many complain about the issues, some of the questions are supposed to remain unanswered. Audiences hate a film where they are not spoon fed the answers, and while it may be a problem based both with the screenplay as well as the audience, the audience needs to grow up a little and work on its own for a bit. Certain things are supposed to remain unanswered, and intended to remain a mystery. There are certain parts where one could argue that the multiple sources of havoc in the film and not knowing which one is important is again intentional, to show that origins are chaotic in and of themselves. While some of these may be forgivable, the logic problems, as aforementioned, are sloppy and lazy.
Those problems aside, it was certainly a thrilling experience. Rooted in a very similar “haunted house” style of sci-fi horror (like Alien), it amps up the suspense by providing seedy characters, and cavernous set pieces which serve as perfection to haunt a viewer. Speaking as a matter of suspense work, director Ridley Scott is at the top of his game, and his return to the genre is a welcome one. His eye for visual style and his “Star Wars as a horror film” sensibility works well in contemporary film. It is a big film, shot in 3D, which I am pleased to report works in the film’s favor. Making its dark depths even deeper and more haunting and its immaculate rooms on Prometheus even more tantalizing, the 3D works well. Without the grand visual style of the film and its fantastic sense of thrill, the film’s weak points would end up outweighing its strengths.
Its cast, though, is also something to scream about. Noomi Rapace, and her harshly defined cheekbones, gives a very good performance in the film. Her idealistic Shaw, perhaps lost in search of something out there to believe in because of her father’s own faith, is smart, convincing, and yet also naïve. She also screams well, so that is also a plus. But it’s a performance that works very well for the film. Charlize Theron, who plays Meredith Vickers, an exec at Wayland Corp., brings in her full time bitch to the role, something that was sorely missed in Snow White and the Huntsman. Her cold and austere disposition is actually somewhat reminiscent of her bravura turn in Young Adult. But, this is a different kind of “bitch”. She is there to do her job and do it well, and she will have nothing less.
Though, the cast member that blows everyone out of the water is, of course, Michael Fassbender. Michael Fassbender does not merely play the android David. Michael Fassbender plays an Android playing Peter O’Toole playing Lawrence of Arabia. Yes, Fassbender’s sociopathic android David plays the David Lean epic on a loop, dyes his hair blonde, and models himself entirely on Peter O’Toole in said Lean epic. Needless to say, if they do not immediately call Fassbender to play O’Toole in a biopic, I, as well as many other people, will be very unhappy. Fassbender’s portrayal is perfect. It’s the right mix of dead emotion, wunderkind android curiosity, and devilish duplicity. Next to the visual style, Fassbender’s perfect performance is the best thing about the film. Though some of David’s actions have garnered questioning and complaint, the fact that David is so emotionless (despite his desire to feel emotion), it makes those unanswered motivations and action seem all the more eerie and frightening. Fassbender’s voice takes on a very smooth, emotionless tone, almost like HAL 9000 from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Fassbender is so intriguing and insanely good, one kind of hopes for a separate spin off. Fassbender’s is a standout, electrifying performance, and one of the best things about the film.
To really break things down, the enjoyment of the film Prometheus is directly proportional to a) your expectations regarding the film as a prequel to Alien, b) your tolerance for unanswered questions, and c) how much you appreciate grand visual design, excellent suspense, and Michael Fassbender. If you consider the three factors prior to seeing the film, notably the first two, they will probably dictate as to how much you will enjoy the film. I was personally able to overlook its (perhaps glaring) plot flaws in favor of appreciating it as an exercise in sci-fi tension, outstanding visual design, and the fact that the film does ask big questions, even if it does not answer them. Because, if anything, doesn’t it matter that the questions are being asked at all?
Mysterious “Skin”: The Skin I Live In
As they say, Beauty is only skin deep. Obsession, on the other hand, is a virus that infects the mind and deteriorates any sense of logic or ethical morality. Such is the case of the stunning, disturbing, eloquent, poetic, horrifying, and melodramatic film The Skin I Live In, written and directed by Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar. Loosely based on the story Mygale by Thierry Jonquet, the film is at once a return to Almodóvar’s familiar themes as well as an exploration into new ideas and a spin on old tropes.
Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas, reuniting with Almodóvar for the first time in over two decades) is a brilliant plastic surgeon who has created a new synthetic skin that is the closest to indestructible that we have ever come to knowing. After years of testing and experimentation, the doctor has reached a part of the scientific process that he is satisfied with enough to show it to his medical peers. What his colleagues in the scientific community are unaware of, however, is that not only is the skin made unethically (Banderas has a lengthy explanation on how the new skin has hybrid cells), it has been tested unethically.
Like any good mad man, especially one with a medical degree, he houses his human guinea pig in an enclosed area in his house. Vera (Elena Anaya, Almodóvar’s Talk to Her), a beautiful, frightened young woman is caged in a spacious, sterile environment, a woman who has the striking resemblance to the good doctor’s late wife. Underneath her skin hide many secrets of both her and the doctor’s pasts.
Almodóvar is well known for his domestic melodramas and films about the search for self and identity. Gender identity, sexual identity, etc. are explored here. However, while this is familiar ground for Almodóvar, there is a new element added to his list of themes: horror. Thematically and (somewhat) aesthetically inspired by Georges Franju’s French horror film Eyes without a Face, the plastic surgery aspect of the film is blatantly an homage to Franju. However, while the homage is overt, Almodóvar does not try to update it in a gratuitous way, at least not initially. The medical scenes themselves are fairly classical in their style, with steady camera work and sterile, monochromatic coloring. The allusions made to Franju’s film are one that are of clear admiration for Eyes without a Face, a film that also dealt with a similar kind of identity crisis, but via a B-movie environment.
Part horror film and also part erotic melodrama, the sexuality that is injected into every frame of the film is intoxicating, euphoric, and even sometimes horrific. But sexuality serves as symbolism here, as Almodóvar uses it to explore his favorite ideas of sexual identity and power. (Choice scene: The teenage orgy in the garden outside of the doctor’s house. Almost as if Almodóvar is recreating a dirtier version of the forests in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dreams, with the randy nymphs incarnated as horny teens.) The power divide between men and women is juxtaposed here between Vera’s simmering sensuality and the doctor’s initial reserve and respect. The erotica featured, though, is made with a sense of snarkiness as well, as if the director is teasing you with what he already knows. Not quite an example of dramatic irony, though; just the director being clever.
The film’s look is at times majestic and at others sterile and immaculate. There is a harsh juxtaposition of the synthetic and the natural in set design regarding even the spaces of the house that the doctor both lives and tests in. Blending natural stone and marble architecture and decoration, with elements of wood and foliage, the laboratory and the room where Vera is kept are both stark and naked of any real descriptive qualities. The room, despite having housed Vera for several years, is still not home to her. It is the same as a kennel, essentially, devoid of remarkable nuances that the rest of the house has. The laboratory has an artificial and frighteningly immaculate sheen to it. While this perfection may make sense on a realistic and scientific level, the sheer cleanliness and sterility, matched with the color palette that Almodóvar uses, offers something disconcerting about the area to the viewer. It has shades of blue and white around it, its walls not entirely of silver or chrome. It is, essentially, too clean. The cinematography, by José Luis Alcaine, is steady and beautiful. Vivid colors are employed and represent various moods and feelings in the film. The sterile feel to the ugly procedure is complimented by its sterile cinematography, with perfect tracking shots. And because of its roots being from Eyes without a Face, the camera lingers on the face of each actor for the perfect amount of time, capturing reactions and expressions flawlessly. The chiseled features of Banderas are contrasted, quite often, with the silky smooth features of Elena Anaya. To sum it up, the look of the film has been created with, ahem, surgical precision.
The performances are unsurprisingly top notch. Antonio Banderas plays Ledgard with precision and madness, fluctuating back and forth between the façade of sanity and their internal insanity like Dr. Hannibal Lecter, except without the Chianti. After having been exposed to Banderas only by his roles in English language films, it is pleasant to see him back in his environment. Banderas seems like he is more comfortable playing a role in a Spanish language film, one where he can much more easily play with the cadence and intonation of his character to achieve a specific effect. The moral ambiguity of the character constantly is brought to light, and one wonders how obsessed they would be if they were in his situation. His madness and passion for the project, though, is completely believable and riveting throughout the entire film.
Elena Anaya has a soft, sensual beauty that is completely intoxicating and maddening in the film. Artificially created or not, one becomes jealous of how beautiful she is and how fragile she is. Her fragility though, just like everything else in the film, is nothing but a façade. She can fight and survive like any female character, but the layers to her story are as fascinatingly synthetic as the skin she lives in. Her flawless beauty, though, may become oddly problematic by the end.
A note on the ending, sans spoiler: Did not care for it. It seemed to regress in style and tone by then.
By the end of the film, the title is obvious and fitting. The title, The Skin I Live In, seems to encompass all of the tees that Almodóvar has fun playing around with in this film. And what a film it is! Disturbing, complex, and beautiful, Almodóvar combines his favorite variations with new elements of horror and a little sci-fi, and reunites with Banderas. The Skin I Live in is a brilliantly twisted exercise in the horror of self-identity and obsession. As fashion designer Alexander McQueen once said, “There’s blood underneath every layer of skin.”