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Knives Out (2019)

Rian Johnson is a filmmaker who likes to dabble across genres and put his high-concept stamp on them. His debut film, 2006’s Brick, was a moody noir-flavored mystery set in a modern high school. His next film, 2009’s The Brothers Bloom, was a whimsical con artist movie with cons-within-cons, and then Looper took time travel and twisted it into knots. From there the man was tapped to not only direct a new Star Wars movie but write one, and 2017’s The Last Jedi proved so divisive that Russia literally created robotic accounts to exploit raw feelings to better sow discord among Americans and undermine democracy. Johnson must have needed a detox from that galaxy far far away, and Knives Out is his version of an Agatha Christie-styled parlor mystery. Once again Johnson has taken an older genre, subverted its form, and made it his own in a way that feels reverent while also fresh, fun, and thoroughly entertaining.

Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is a world-renowned mystery writer with a publishing empire in the millions. Then on the night of his birthday party, Harlan is found dead and every family member is a suspect. Could it be Marta Cabreara (Ana de Armas), the nurse who was last seen taking care of the old man? Could it be the daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), eager to get out of her marriage to a cheating husband (Don Johnson, having a moment this fall)? Could it be the son Walt (Michael Shannon) who was going to lose his position of power in control of the family publishing empire? Could it be grandson Ransom (Chris Evans) who didn’t show up on time for the party but showed up early for the will reading? The local police detective (Lakeith Stanfield) is doing his best to navigate the many suspects. And then there’s the famed private eye, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), hired by an unknown benefactor to discover foul play, who interrogates each family member, investigates the corners of the estate, and uncovers the truth.

Knives Out is an incredibly fun movie to watch fly by for its extended 130-minute running time. The guessing game is enjoyable and there is a plethora of suspects and red herrings. Johnson is clearly a fan of the genre and doing his best to send it up in his own way while still staying true to its roots. Just look at the silly, Dickensian names and you can tell Johnson is enjoying himself (there’s a character named “Ransom”). The mystery is clever but it becomes something more than a whodunnit (more on that below) and that’s when Knives Out becomes special. Johnson has been repeatedly accused of being too clever by half, looking to produce some meta gymnastics to subvert audience expectations but to what end? This was an issue with the very end of Brothers Bloom and many had this same complaint with The Last Jedi. It’s not enough to subvert expectations if the alternative isn’t as compelling. Still, the choices that Johnson makes with Knives Out best serve to improve the emotional involvement in the story. That quality seems like a rarity when it comes to murder mysteries, because it’s all about solving the crime and not necessarily how it affects the people on a more human level. It’s a problem to be solved, an equation on the board, and the process eliminates the variables systematically. Except with Knives Out, Johnson opens up the central figure of Marta in such a way that she becomes a symbolic figure for the immigrant experience in this country, fighting for dignity and recognition. The political commentary isn’t deep, and some of the shots feel a little cheap, but where Johnson succeeds is treating Marta as an empathetic stand-in for an often-invisible class.

A half-hour or so into the proceedings, Johnson makes a very conscious choice that changes how we understand the mystery and especially how we’re involved. I’ll be careful about spoilers but suffice to say we get some very crucial information that makes us look at the murder differently. For the first act it feels like it’s heading into a whodunnit with our clan of suspicious relatives, but it does something else, and I would argue something better. The problem with an Agatha Christie-style whodunnit is that the film is structured toward solving one central mystery and other important dramatic elements can fall by the wayside. Once you know who the killer is, was the journey to unmask them worth the twists and turns? Johnson instead lets the audience in on crucial information so that Knives Out alters, and the “who” is less important than how this information affects our relationship with a set of characters. It becomes less who is the killer and more will this culprit get caught and how will they beat the encroaching investigation. It transforms the entire structure, where instead of everything leading to one reveal, now it becomes a series of mini-panics and scrambles to stay ahead of a trap. This made me that much more personally involved and Johnson doubled the dramatic irony and tension of scenes. It becomes more a series of obfuscation where we’re involved, remembering what clues might be the ones that ultimately prove too inescapable. There is a downside to this approach, letting out some big reveals early also serves to downplay the vast majority of the supporting players. These people are all given motives and suspicions early on, but once Johnson unloads his twists too many of these same characters just fade into the background, their story use extinguished.

Another cheerful aspect of Knives Out is simply how much fun its cast is having, none more so than Craig (Spectre). I never really gave much thought to Craig as a comedic actor until 2017’s Logan Lucky, where he seemed to be unleashed, digging full bore into a charming and kooky supporting character, and it was downright joyful to watch him cut it up onscreen. He’s given such serious, macho roles but he really excels in the right comedic role, and he just has the time of his life playing Blanc. His southern-fried accent, penchant for theatricality, and garrulous nature all contribute to both tweak the idea of the clever inspector while playing into those clichés as well, steering into the fun we have with them. There were several moments I was left breathlessly cackling because of how Craig was delivering his lines with such relish. His explanation of the mystery being “a donut hole inside a donut hole” might be one of the best film scenes of the year. It also helps that Blanc has an affectionate working relationship with Marta, the heart of our movie, which makes this eccentric even more endearing to the audience. Just as Kenneth Branagh is continuing the adventures of his mustachioed private eye, I would happily watch another murder mystery featuring Blanc if Rian Johnson felt so inclined (pretty please).

The other actors do fine work even if many of them end up being underwritten figures either meant to be threatening suspects or cartoonish buffoons. Armas (Blade Runner 2047) is the lead actress and often the contrast for our rich elites and their out-of-touch perspectives; she’s the sounding board for their pettiness, acrimony, entitlement, and thinly-veiled racism. Armas just shines in the role as this figure who routinely makes the right choice even when it costs her. She’s a relatable, hard-working, kind character trying to keep her moral bearing in this high-stakes contest. Evans (Avengers: Endgame) is enjoyably smug and a welcome force to antagonize and puncture the egos of his fellow family members. Shannon (The Current War) has his effective moments of conveying menace and being laughably impotent. Every other actor does good work but too many of them barely make a blip. I forgot Riki Lindhome (Garfunkel and Oates) was in this movie from scene to scene. It’s a big cast so the goal is to make the most of their moments, and there isn’t a bad performance in the bunch, though some are far more broad.

Knives Out is a fun experience and further proof that when Rian Johnson really sets his mind on a certain genre, good and clever entertainments sprout. I want this man to tell the stories that excite him because there are still many more genres that could use the Rian Johnson stamp.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

As I stated in my review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, “The first mission for Episode VII is to reset the course, to wash away the bad taste of the prequels that haunt many.” Mission accomplished, mostly, though the biggest criticism for J.J. Abrams’ resurgent sequel was how all too closely it hewed to the original plot beats of its own past. It was an overcorrection, a swing too far in the other direction and turned a reboot into “a loving homage that approaches facsimile.” I enjoyed the new characters, the next generation of Star Wars heroes, and wanted to see what would happen to them next. I just hoped the franchise could steer a course of its own. Having a talent as unique as Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) as the writer/director of Episode VIII certainly portends to that. The Last Jedi is a better movie, structurally and even emotionally than Force Awakens, but it’s flawed and definitely less fun and is driving so many fans to the dark side.

The First Order is crushing the last vestiges of the puny Resistance. General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is chasing the last ships of General Leia (Carrie Fisher) through the galaxy. Finn (John Boyega) is looking for Rey (Daisy Ridley) who is missing. He is teamed up with Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a plucky mechanic, to find a master code breaker to thwart the First Order’s tracking system so everyone can safely escape. Meanwhile, Rey has sought out the last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil), who agrees to train her just to teach her why the Jedi are wrong and he will not help the Resistance. She’s also been psychically linked to Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who is still struggling with his own identity as a pupil of the dark side. Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) has lost his faith in Kylo, who he feels is too weak to embrace his darkest impulses. Kylo believes he can convince Rey to join him, and Rey believes that Kylo can be saved and turned into an ally. The Resistance is looking to survive another day and rebuild their rebellion in the hearts and minds of the downtrodden.

I was hopeful Johnson would be able to tread safely away from the undertow that is the pull of Star Wars nostalgia, and he did so, both to the movie’s great benefit and oddly to its peril at different points. Episode VIII is not a repeat of the plot beats of Empire Strikes Back, though there are some thematic similarities that go along with a middle chapter in a trilogy, like separating the heroes, experiencing losses, etc. Clearly, once Johnson received the handover from Abrams, there were certain Star Wars storylines setup in Force Awakens that he had no interest in continuing. I won’t specify what they are for the sake of spoilers but Johnson definitely undercuts the expectations of extraordinary developments with ordinary, mildly indifferent responses. Certain characters fans may have thought would be more important are gone. It’s as if Johnson is saying to the audience, “Did that thing really matter to you? Who cares?” It’s not Johnson’s fault the fanbase spun off intense theories. He undercuts your expectations throughout. The characters are allowed to fail. The reported saviors don’t want the responsibility. By upsetting the balance of the force, if you will, Johnson has injected a sense of uncertainty into the Star Wars mix, a badly missing element ever since the original trilogy. When a major character looks ready to sacrifice his or herself, you start to believe that this genuinely may happen. When the characters finally fulfill their mission and track down their special contact, they’re denied their goal. You can tell Johnson is having fun with misdirection and, as one character says, “letting the past die.”

However, that same sense can also get Johnson into trouble. From a narrative standpoint, we’re not much further by the end then where we began. From an emotional standpoint, I don’t know if we’re that much farther either. There are elements you can clearly tell that excited Johnson, namely the Rey/Luke/Kylo moments. That relationship, dynamic, and hidden history is easily the best part of The Last Jedi. The decision to psychically link Rey and Kylo seems cheesy at first but works out beautifully, synching up the two force wunderkinds forces them closer and each one looks at the other as a potential kindred spirit. They each think they can save the other, and so it becomes a far more concrete battle over the soul of our characters rather than just a philosophical exercise. It opens up more of a literal dialogue between these opposites and deepens their chemistry. Luke might be following a typical hero’s journey/acceptance of the call, but it’s still an interesting path because he’s bitter and lost his faith in the moral primacy of the Jedi.

On the flip side, there are also elements where you can clearly tell Johnson had less excitement. The middle section involves a side mission onto an alien casino, and it feels like filler, especially with where it eventually goes and what it opens up about the world. I think it’s meant to showcase the exploitation of the underclass, the rich getting richer off war profiteering and the subjugation of civilizations. It doesn’t land and detracts from the other, more interesting storylines. The cutsey comic relief characters inserted to sell toys are not overpowering but they clearly feel like a studio requirement. At least I’m giving Johnson the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t decide that his Star Wars movie needed winged, big-eyed guinea pig creatures. The concluding half hour also could have been eliminated considering the second act break feels like a more climactic ending. The premise of an elongated chase through space that exhausts fuel supplies and where an enemy ship can track light speed jumps is oddly reminiscent of the first episode in the Battlestar Galactica reboot series (maybe Johnson was a fan). There are things the Force is able to do that we’ve never seen before. It begs questions over what exactly are the parameters of this invisible made-up zen power. Also, if you just solve things by saying “new Force powers” then it becomes a Star Wars cheat. There are also nobodies that could have been, and should have been, replaced by other higher-profile characters. There’s a moment of pure unchecked badassery that should have been someone else taking the sacrifice. By cramming in all of this other material, Johnson is trying to find things for his various characters and storylines to do, and not everything is on the same plane. Finn and Poe (Oscar Isaac) recede into the background all too easily. This is the longest Star Wars movie in franchise history and it could have easily been cut down by 20 minutes.

Fortunately for us, Johnson’s eye for striking visuals and strong, punctuated character moments is still alive and well, and The Last Jedi has moments that left me awed. There are a handful of visuals that are burned into my memory. A multi-dimensional shot of action that pans over to a frantic eyeball. A blast of light that cuts through space like a razor, with the sound dropping out for that extra degree of awe. Speeding ships kicking up red plumes. A slow-motion team-up that all but dares you not to pump your fist. Johnson’s unique sense of visual composition is still present an accounted for. He also reveals a strong handle over the coordination of action sequences, an unknown quantity for him until he landed on this biggest stage. The opening sequence is a great showcase for Johnson with multiple points of action both macro and micro. The X-wing fights are snazzy but the simple struggle of pilot trying to reach a detonator is terrific tension. Abrams, and now Johnson, have brought the feel of Star Wars back, where the alien settings are real and not just a green screen warehouse like the prequels. The light saber battles (all two of them) are given personal stakes. The fights matter. Unlike the prequels, we have people that behave and fight like human beings and not cartoons that leap off walls, do thirty flips in the air, and take leaps off 100-foot canopies. The characters and their conflicts don’t get lost among all the special effects wizardry and explosions.

The characters with the best material are also the ones who give the best performances. Hamil (Sushi Girl) is fantastic as the old curmudgeon, the bitter man who’s lost his faith. There are later moments where all of his acting is performed through his eyes and little twitches over his face, and he communicates so many emotions. Ridley (Murder on the Orient Express) continues her flinty determination while being somebody who isn’t as instantly adept at every new challenge. Her one-on-one sessions with Luke and Kylo are made better from her charisma. She’s a star. Driver (Logan Lucky) is still compelling as a villain struggling with being a villain. I enjoy having a bad guy who is sloppy, tempestuous, and not fully immersed in the dark side. It makes scene-to-scene more interesting and it plays better to the film’s theme of trying to save one’s soul from the power of influence. Driver has less “woe is me” moments than Force Awakens and feels more committed to his character’s ultimate journey. Kelly Marie Tran (XOXO) is the newest edition and makes quite a favorable impression as the crafty, thoughtful Rose. She’s got some key emotional moments and Tran nails them. She’s also an eager fan of the heroes of the Resistance, namely Finn, and when the reality doesn’t quite match her fantasy, she mimics the Star Wars fandom in her dejection. While the movie doesn’t find the most useful places for her inclusion, I was happy to watch Rose make her case as a new and valuable addition to the franchise. The actor I felt worst for is Gleeson (Goodbye, Christopher Robin). His character is simply an officious weasel we’re not really meant to take seriously, and this is further accomplished by Gleeson’s screeching voice. I worried the man was going to give himself an aneurysm.

This is also the last time we’ll see Carrie Fisher in the Star Wars universe, barring the misbegotten CGI version of her that resembled a chalky blow-up doll in Rogue One. Fisher died almost a year ago and that knowledge hangs over every one of her scenes. You wonder if there will be any sense of closure with her character in this universe. Johnson provides a scene between Luke and Leia that is so poignant and shot so tenderly that it feels like the perfect sendoff for Fisher. He even kisses her forehead before slowly departing, feeling the urge to stay, while a burst of light halos her face. If you were going to cry at any point in The Last Jedi it will probably be this moment to remind you of Fisher’s passing. Leia does have a couple other appearances after this moment but it’s really this scene that serves as her effective curtain call from this massive franchise.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is an exciting transitional chapter, and this movement seems to be chaffing many fans, bringing forth the question of whether the fanbase will allow there to be a different Star Wars. This is a movie that discards storylines and characters with the wave of a hand, that subverts expectations and plays with misdirection. This is Rian Johnson’s response to nostalgia in place of genuine emotional responses. As Kylo Ren says, “Let the past die.” It’s not the movie’s fault that people devoted countess hours to speculating about possible film theories that were deemed relatively inconsequential. Johnson refocuses on the characters that matter most, Rey and Kylo, by pairing them up as twin forces. While The Force Awakens definitely has more of a brash sense of fun, I find Last Jedi to be the better movie. It’s not quite up to par with the original trilogy. Johnson gets a little overburdened by trying to add too many things, including a casino subplot that feels like a unsatisfactory side mission in a video game. The new Star Wars films have lacked the bold unpredictability of the original trilogy. There’s nothing quite as seismic as Darth Vader being revealed as Luke’s father or even Han Solo captured and locked in carbonite. Even the major deaths in the new films feel anticipated, like in Episode VII, or less momentous, like in Episode VIII. There are some fake-outs with major deaths that many will deem cheap gambits, and I won’t disagree. I was entertained throughout The Last Jedi. I enjoyed the new characters. I enjoyed the action sequences. I even enjoyed the porgs. This is a movie that is looking for balance between the light and dark, and Johnson establishes a Star Wars that resets the table in exciting and frustrating ways. With J.J. Abrams now onboard of Episode IX, we’ll see how he brings home the characters that he brought into the universe a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I imagine the fans grousing this new direction might be more forgiving of nostalgia.

Nate’s Grade: B

Looper (2012)

I became a Rian Johnson disciple the second that 2006’s Brick ended. I was floored by the originality, the artistic vision, the intelligence, and the creative voice. This was a unique filmmaker and I instantly knew this writer/director would be a man worth following. His follow-up, 2009’s The Brothers Bloom, was three fourths of a great movie, but a bit of an overdose on whimsy. Then I read that Johnson was next going to try his hand at time travel, and I could not contain my excitement. One of my favorite film genres and one of my favorite up-and-coming indie filmmakers together. I was expecting Johnson to do for time travel what he did with film noir (Brick) and the con movie (Brothers Bloom). How could Looper disappoint? Well, sadly, the movie found a way. It feels like Johnson smashed two halves of two different movies together, one good and one not so good.

In 2072, time travel is invented but instantly made illegal. The only people who have access to time travel are the mob. They have a surplus of dead bodies that need to disappear, so the mob sends them back 30 years. In 2042, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is employed as a looper. He kills the guys the mob sends back in time and then disposes of the bodies. He’s paid well, and he and his fellow loopers live it up as privileged members of the Kansas City social sphere. Abe (Jeff Daniels) runs the show in town; he’s a mob guy from the future. There’s a catch to all the looper riches. The mob also wants to protect them in the future, so they send back the looper’s future self to be executed. It’s called closing the loop. And if you don’t kill your future self, bad things will definitely happen, just ask Seth (Paul Dano), a looper hacked apart to lure his future self back.

The day comes where Joe is tasked with executing his future self, Old Joe (Bruce Willis). Old Joe escapes and goes on the run. Younger Joe is now under extreme pressure to kill his guy, or else the mob might just find him and start slicing body appendages. Old Joe is looking for the Rainmaker, who in 30 years will become a criminal tyrant responsible for much death. But in 2042, he’s only a child. Old Joe’s mission is to kill the child before he becomes the Rainmaker, and before he murders Old Joe’s eventual wife. While fleeing the mob, Joe takes refuge on a farm outside of the city. Sara (Emily Blunt) and her young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) warily take in Joe but they’re also hiding a secret, that Cid has powerful telekinetic powers that can be put to great damage.

The film’s premise is compelling and allows for plenty of mind-bending possibilities, and Johnson has a fresh take on the sci-fi genre. Hunting down your future self is a grabber of a concept and I loved the scenes where Joe and Old Joe would sit down and converse. There’s the natural tension of Joe’s mission to eliminate his future self, but there’s also a flurry of ideas, ones that make the film better developed. Old Joe has an edge in foreknowledge but Joe has his own edge. He can change Old Joe’s memories by choosing different actions. He swears if he ever sees a picture of Old Joe’s wife that he’ll do everything in his path to alter fate, to make it so he never finds her. As a result, Old Joe is hobbled by headaches and fuzzy memories because the order of events is no longer concrete. “This time travel stuff fries my brain like an egg,” Old Joe admits. That, my friends, is a fascinating struggle for dominance and a refreshing take on time travel. Then you throw in the mob chasing after both Joes and you got an extra sense of urgency. Looper is playfully heady but easy enough to follow. It’s a thriller that doesn’t get bogged down in time travel logistics but it doesn’t pander to its audience either. If it did, I’m fairly certain Joe (addict, criminal, selfish) and Old Joe (eventual child slayer) would have taken turns to be more likeable. For a solid hour, Looper is alive with narrative jujitsu, a nice balance of action, drama, dark humor, intelligent plotting, stylish direction, the occasional startling visual, and strong acting from Gordon-Levitt and Willis.

And then the Looper becomes a completely different movie. Once the action shifts to Sara’s farm is where this movie completely unravels. I just couldn’t believe what was happening. The first half was so intriguing, intellectually stimulating, and thrilling, and then I got stuck on a farm and the movie turned into a lame version of Children of the Damned. I didn’t come for a telekinetic kid movie; I came for a time travel movie. The second half of this movie is practically wall-to-wall telekinetic kid stuff. The action slows down to a crawl and the flurry of ideas turns to a trickle as we introduce Strong Single Mom and Weird Son. I may have a cold heart but I didn’t care about these characters. I found the romance forced and Sara to be poorly developed. I found the kid annoying, and when he got mad and made his stupid mad face, it irritated me. Mostly I was irritated that the promise of the first half of the film had stalled out, and that this was where the movie was choosing to spend its dwindling time. It’s like the movie has been swallowed inside out by this stupid telekinetic subplot. The climax is fine but why did we have to travel through Dumb Farm Rest Stop to get there? Is it so that Joe can learn to be a better person? I didn’t buy that growth, especially with a kid as annoying and obviously dangerous as Cid. I suppose one night of sex with Emily Blunt (The Adjustment Bureau) could do the trick.

Besides the whole farm deal, there are other nagging questions I have that devalue Looper in my eyes.

1) So in the future the mob is the only entity with access to time travel, but all they use it for is to dispose of bodies? That’s it? Biff Tanner used a sports almanac from the future to become king of the world. Are you telling me an organization that has historically profited from gambling would make no use of foreknowledge for personal gain?

2) Why would the mob have the loopers kill their older versions of themselves? This seems like a natural conflict of interest that could readily be avoided. Instead of having that particular looper kill his future self, thus closing the loop, why not assign that future version to a different looper? That way you don’t have to run the risk of the past looper letting his future self go. Or you could just never tell them what happened. For that matter, why does the mob have to send the guys back alive? Could they not simply just kill them and send the dead bodies 30 years back in time? This seems like an easier solution that also minimizes risk.

3) If you’ve just uncovered the power of time travel, why are you even bothering to send back your dead bodies 30 years into the past? Why not send your dead bodies back BILLIONS of years where the Earth is still forming, hot, and uninhabitable? I find this to be a better solution (I also wrote this solution in my own time travel screenplay, so there’s that too). Why can’t the mob feed dead bodies to dinosaurs? I’d love to see that.

4) You have a mob guy from the future, and you do nothing with that? Abe has one wisecrack about being from the future, and it’s a good one, but otherwise this guy could have just been from the present. The movie does nothing with the juicy element of a mob boss from the future. Maybe he doesn’t do as he’s told and arranges for his own rule. Or maybe he utilizes a sports almanac and makes some prescient bets, huh?

5) The movie takes place almost entirely around the confines of Kansas City. I find it hard to believe that a criminal organization would be sending all its bodies to Kansas City. Perhaps the mob also sends people across space and time, otherwise this means that we’re only following the future evil masterwork of the Kansas City mob.

6) I suppose you have to ask at what point do you really start to nitpick the whole butterfly effect of cause and effect paradoxes. With all time travel movies, there’s going to be some degree of suspension of disbelief, because changing one action can have wide-ranging consequences. However, with Looper there are several instances that gave me pause. Firstly, there’s the central idea of killing the Rainmaker as a child, which would negate the killing of the loopers, which would negate Old Joe seeking out the Rainmaker to kill. I’ll look beyond that. So Old Seth, in the film’s most horrifying sequence, starts noticing his fingers are disappearing, then his nose, and then his legs, etc. The mob is torturing young Seth to lure back the missing target. It’s an amazing visual sequence, but are you telling me that cutting off young Seth’s body parts would not have altered his future to a greater degree? I’m fairly certain when you start removing fingers and legs that Old Seth’s timeline would have been dramatically altered and he would cease to exist or follow the exact path to wind up in the past again. For that matter, why even bother luring the older Seth back? Could they not just take care of him by killing young Seth? What are they going to do with young Seth? If they’re just going to kill him then they should have just done that to begin with.

Johnson has plenty of thought-provoking questions he’d like to address within the bounds of a sci-fi action thriller. Would you kill a child if that kid were going to grow up and be a monster? Is redemption possible after doing horrible things? Could you kill your future version of yourself? Would you sacrifice everything to prevent future misery? These are legitimate questions and Looper deserves credit for spending time to ponder them, but I just wish Johnson could have gone back in time and chosen a different path.

Coming off of the stupendous Brick and the perfectly enjoyable Brothers Bloom, my expectations for Johnson’s third film were astronomical, especially given this crafty man’s take on time travel. I love the premise, love the actors involved, and love the ideas toyed around with, but the movie completely falls apart at the halfway mark. The pacing gets slack, the story becomes forced, and Looper transforms into a different, unwelcome movie. I can’t help but feel disappointed, partly from my expectations but also from the knowledge that Johnson could do better. The story just isn’t as well developed as it carries on, and the telekinetic subplot feels like a dull leftover from another movie. After an invigorating first half, Looper crumbles under the weight of a weak subplot that consumes the movie. There’s a good amount of thrills and intellectual stimulation aboard, but it’s all concentrated in the first half of the movie. I can’t recommend one half of a movie. I’ll still eagerly anticipate Johnson’s next project, but Looper is a sci-fi thriller that unravels at an alarming rate, turning a possibly great movie into a mediocre one.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Brothers Bloom (2009)

Con movies work thanks to P.T. Barnum’s belief that the audience wants to be fooled. We all enjoy being conned to some degree. The excitement of con movies is being outsmarted and figuring out how it was accomplished. The Brothers Bloom, by writer/director Rian Johnson, one of the more exciting new filmmakers in Hollywood, is a con artist caper that understands the rules of the game and then aspires to transcend the game. Whether or not it succeeds depends on how much whimsy you can stomach in a two-hour duration.

Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody) are a pair of con artist brothers. Stephen has been drawing up elaborate schemes ever since childhood, and he always uses his brother as the face of the operations. The brothers have a third member to their team, the mysterious and mute Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), who, we’re told, just appeared out of thin air one day and they expect she’ll leave in the same style. Bloom is tired of playing characters and roles and wants out, but his big bro comes back with one last con in the works. Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz) is rich, peculiar, and lonely, ripe for the taking. Bloom snares her with the exciting prospect of being apart of an adventure. There’s a globetrotting plot to profit from selling a book to some shady characters (Robbie Coltrane, Maximilian Schell), and it’s just what Penelope needs to feel alive and leave the confines of her large cage-like home. Naturally, Bloom falls for the “mark” and feels conflicted, but was this part of Stephen’s plan all along? Is he setting up some form of a happy ending for his little brother? Is Penelope in on the con? Who’s conning whom?

The Brothers Bloom is steeped in whimsy and at times runs dangerously close to falling into the inescapable gravitational pull of “cutsey.” Some have compared the film’s quirky, precocious style to Wes Anderson, but the movie reminds me more of the style of Barry Sonnenfeld, a filmmaker who made outsized whimsy seem like everyday reality; Anderson’s movies seem to exist in their own impeccably handcrafted worlds. I loved the opening 10-minute prologue which explores the childhood history of Stephen and Bloom, examining their first con on local rich kids. It’s quick-witted, snappy, and even has Ricky Jay provide narration, reminiscent of Magnolia or the David Mamet con movies. The Brothers Bloom has a sunny disposition that doesn’t come across as smug. Stylistically, the movie never crosses the line into feeling overly mannered. The Brothers Bloom exists in some unknown time period. The cars are modern, the clothes are from the 1930s (everyone wears a bowler hat with such flourish), and the sets look like they’re from the 1960s. There is no dependence on technology, just good old-fashioned brains and charm.

And yet this is more than an exercise in style. Just as he did with the adroit, neo-noir movie Brick, Johnson takes a genre and subverts its expectations. The Brothers Bloom treats cons more as storytelling, and it positions the film and its characters in an interesting new light. Bloom yearns for an “unwritten life” because all he’s known have been roles in his older brother’s games and cons, and the poor sap doesn’t even know if he has an identity beyond fabrication. Stephen has also begun to blur the lines between reality and his cons, and his life’s ambition is to stage the perfect con where “everybody gets what they want.” Get that? The Brothers Bloom aims for deception that gives everyone, including the deceived, a happy ending. It almost sounds like a charitable goal. Johnson has injected the con artist genre with some pathos and self-reflection. Too many con artist movies are only good for one viewing; once you know the particulars of the con, do you feel invested in watching it play out again? Johnson puts some melancholy into the mix and it gives the film more weight than being the sum of its many quirky parts.

The acting across the board is superb. Ruffalo is his typically low-key yet engaging self, and he seems sincere even when you know he isn’t. His love and concern for his little brother is touching. His schemes are all for his brother to get out of his shell and experience some level of happiness. Brody embraces the weariness of his character. He is confused and tired and feels like he cannot trust human connections; he’s paranoid that all roads lead back to some machination from his brother. His affection for Penelope is like an awakening for his character, and yet he cannot fully give into it because is it genuine? This incredible level of uncertainty with every aspect of life casts a heavy toll, and Brody convinces you of that toll. Kikuchi (Babel) makes great use of physical comedy and has a lot of fun with her mysterious character. She’s mute for practically the entire film yet manages to communicate plenty. But it is Weisz (The Fountain) that steals the movie and steals your heart. Her screwy eccentric is deeply lonely but radiates a ditzy glow. She fully embraces the prospects of adventure and bounces in glee. This woman is powerfully adorable.

There are a handful of missteps in the narrative. The movie likely lasts twenty minutes longer than it needs to, with false endings and even a false third act. Audiences are used to con movies revealing the larger scope by the end after a bevy of last-minute twists. This is not the case with Bloom. The movie gets more muddled and introduces new conflict that isn’t ever really resolved. Audiences expect clarity by the end of the third act, not confusion. I feel like I’m missing something with the duplicitous Diamond Dog character (Schell), and maybe that’s the point; perhaps I’m supposed to be in the dark about his connection to the brothers Bloom. I won’t get into spoilers, but I was expecting more reveals at the end of the movie, perhaps Stephen showing one last final box, and the movie gives you nothing. I suppose the purpose is to play against con movie conventions and the surprise is that there is no real surprise by the end, no “I was in on it” or “It was all part of the plan” a-ha moments of ironic revelation. That’s nice but it doesn’t always make a movie more satisfying. The ending would be more moving if the audience didn’t already feel spent by the time they have to process something more emotional.

Johnson’s follow-up to his immensely entertaining debut is a solid winner, though it leaves you hanging and wanting at the end. The movie is quirky and heavy on the whimsy, and yet it also squeezes in some pathos. Yet the movie falls short of its ambitions and the talent of Johnson. The Brothers Bloom will seem enchanting to some and insufferable to others; it defies expectations and genre conventions, and sometimes would be better off adhering to them. It’s an amusing caper comedy but it could have been something even more special. It just needed a little less narrative sleight-of-hand.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Brick (2006)

I appreciate movies that try something different. That isn’t to say I love all movies that try, like Gus van Sant’s latest collection of watch-grass-grow cinema. More often than not I appreciate stabs at originality even if it results in colossal failure. That’s why I can never beat too much on M. Night Shyamalan. When Brick came out last spring it had my attention immediately. Writer/director Rian Johnson placed a hard-boiled detective story in the contemporary setting of a high school. And true to my promise on my podcasts, I bought it the day it came out on DVD. For fans of crime fiction and excitingly bold cinema, rent this movie.

Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a kid that knows the ins and outs of the high school scene. He’s currently looking into what happened to Emily (Emile de Ravin), his ex-girlfriend who was last seen trying to fit in with the popular types. She was in some form of danger and contacted Brendan for help. With the help of The Brain (Matt O’Leary), an old friend, Brendan must negotiate a web of unsavory characters, each with their own game. There’s Dode (Noah Fleiss), a burnout who was last seen crushing on Emily. There’s Laura (Nora Zehetner), a rich girl accustomed to hanging out with bad boys. It all leads to The Pin (Lukas Haas), the man controlling the area’s drug supply and who, we’re told, is “way old, like 26.” The Pin’s been volatile ever since a brick of heroin went missing. If Brendan’s head isn’t spinning piecing together all the clues, surely the audience’s will be.

Brick is a film that refuses to simply be an afternoon afterthought. This is a movie that demands you sit on edge, poised to decode its complicated detective jargon and twisty storyline. It takes a while to first get into the movie because of its stylized dialogue and how straight everyone plays it. Johnson has recycled the same hard-boiled talk you’d expect coming from the mouths of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. I heard that some theaters actually gave a glossary of terms and verbal exchanges for people who went to see Brick. Whether that’s true or not, your brain is working overtime to decipher what is being said, and I love that. I love that Brick doesn’t take time out to explain its terminology but expects you to keep up as best you can. I don?t want to scare readers off, because even if you don’t know any noir vernacular you’ll be able to know what’s going on, but it’s just cooler to be in on the fun. The snappy dialogue is only one part of Johnson’s extremely intelligent, very meaty script.

Brick relies on a gimmick, yes, but what an inventive and clever gimmick. There’s just an extra level of fun for film noir fans, spotting the same archetypes (mysterious damsel in over her head, femme fatales, goons, underworld boss) and locations (gin joints become house parties, detective offices become teen bedrooms). Brendan even gets chewed out by his superior who wants results… his assistant vice principal (Shaft‘s Richard Roundtree). There’s such a common language of film noir and its staples, and part of Brick‘s enjoyment is placing all of them. I’m fully aware that Brick will exist more as an artifact in a film class than as a film casual moviegoers will actively watch. The plot is blissfully twisty with many intriguing players, and once it’s all laid out it actually holds together. Brick is rewarding for those willing to stay attentive.

The movie succeeds because of how committed everyone is. The gimmick seems doomed to fail but the movie has creativity in spades. Of course it’s all highly unrealistic but it all works splendidly within the world it creates. Because the filmmakers play it all straight, you never look at the movie from an outside perspective. You’ll never laugh at it unless you’re giggling about how much fun it is. Unlike other recent brainteasers like Syriana, you do have an emotional connection to the movie and you do care about the characters and are interested to see where the story goes (and it’s not nearly as confounding as Syriana). I love that Brendan outsmarts everyone and sometimes he does it by taking a pounding. I love that he takes so many beatings that he actually gets sick from swallowing so much blood. It’s the attention to details like that where Brick shows its commitment to the world it has created. Brick is reveling instead of deconstructing the detective genre, like the audaciously cheeky Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

There are some humorous winks that remind you of Brick‘s gimmick, which is surprisingly easy to forget. The Pin’s mother serves juice to her son’s “friends;” The Pin walks along a beach discussing the details of his operations and then drops a peculiar non-sequitur, asking Brendan if he’s ever read J.R.R. Tolkien (“His descriptions of things is really good. He makes you want to be there.”) That moment has haunted me still months after I viewed Brick in a theater. The Pin is a scary bad guy but it’s that line that makes me go back and say, “Yeah, but they’re just kids.”

Johnson masterfully handles his actors. Gordon-Levitt is fast becoming one of the most versatile young actors. He’s the moral anchor of the movie and Levitt carries the film on his back. He’s great handling the dialogue but even better making Brendan seem human in a highly stylized tale. Zehetner leaves quite an impression as a smoky seductress who may be the biggest player in the film. Haas plays his villain role to eerie perfection.

Brick is an exciting, disarming, demanding, vibrantly different movie that is stone cold cool. This is not the easiest movie to get into, but once you open up to its freshly retro wavelength then Brick is one greatly rewarding movie. Johnson has built a movie around a gimmick but it all holds together so well thanks to his total commitment. The dialogue is heavy in noir slang and the story is crammed with twists and surprises. I loved this movie from the first frame to the last. Johnson has found a refreshingly original movie by going back in time. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

Nate’s Grade: A

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