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A Ghost Story (2017)

Ever wanted to see Oscar-nominated actress Rooney Mara eat a pie? Odd question, I realize, but apparently one that writer/director David Lowery felt compelled to answer. With the success of last year’s utterly heart-warming Disney remake of Pete’s Dragon, Lowery secretly made a low-budget movie with Casey Affleck and Mara, reuniting two of his actors from Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. The end result, A Ghost Story, literally involves a deceased Affleck stalking the screen in a long white sheet with two eyeholes. Lowery’s tone poem of metaphysical grief will likely alienate just as many people as it dazzles, and I fall squarely in the former camp. This movie is arthouse bluster.

This is a twenty-minute short stretched beyond a breaking point to fit a feature-length running time. It’s an impressionistic movie in the guise of the works of Terrence Malick, small and earnest and far more concerned about mood than story. That’s fine but if you’re going the impressionistic route I need scenes that aren’t self-indulgently laborious and constantly striking the same note. The majority of this movie is beautifully composed shots that eventually reveal the ghost standing in the background. It becomes a game of guessing when the camera will reveal the ghost’s presence. I understand that grief and loneliness is going to naturally deserve a slower pace to get a sense of the melancholic loss, but a slow movie that keeps delivering the same imagery is monotonous. The metaphors get old. The only thing holding the audience together is the time-traveling quest for the ghost to retrieve the note Mara’s character slipped into a door jam. It’s a long mystery that will ultimately prove an unworthy payoff. If Lowery is intending for the audience to feel the same sense of boredom and isolation as the ghost, that’s fine, but the movie dwells in this same emotional space with too little variance or further insight.

And this is where I have to come back to the pie as a symbol of the film’s self-indulgence. I have felt the urge to walk out of other movies but never acted upon them. I was minutes away from walking out on A Ghost Story, and it was the pie-eating scene that almost pushed me to bail. The idea of binge eating your feelings is a suitable metaphor for grief, and it works on its own initially, as she sniffles and holds back tears with every bite. And then she keeps eating. And then she keeps eating. The scene goes on for like ten minutes, uninterrupted, and with no further commentary. You are literally watching Mara eat a pie in real time and then throw up. After the sixth or so minute of pie consumption, I started laughing out loud, and then other people around me joined in. What can you do? Just as Mara’s character overindulges to the point of sickness, this scene pushes the beleaguered audience to the point of running out of the room gagging.

This would be different if the movie gave Mara anything really to do besides swallow her feelings. She has a few more scenes of the humdrum of moving on, painting the house she shared with her loved one, and then leaving. It seems like an awful waste of Mara’s talents but I would say the same thing for Affleck. I’m sure not having to memorize any lines after the ten-minute mark and getting to emote entirely through physical expression could be fun for an actor. It’s practically a throwback to silent film thespians. However, he’s just kind of there, like living furniture. I understand that part of grief is feeling like you’re a forgotten being and that time is infinite and punishing. I understand that sadness can feel numbing and cut to the bone. I get the mood; I even get the central metaphor of the de-contextualized ghost in a sheet just hanging around old haunts, unable to do much else, disconnected from the world and unable to move on or make sense of things. My issue is that this approach relegates the actors to stand-ins, squeezing the characters into intentionally bland ciphers for audience relatability. They are not allowed to be characters because somehow this would detract from the artistic appeal or message.

It’s frustrating because A Ghost Story has ideas, images, and moments that intrigue, beguile, and have a poignant power. It’s when the film expands beyond its limited parameters that it becomes its more interesting shape. As the ghost attempts to keep watch over Mara’s character, time moves much faster, to the point that a mere walk from one room to another can be the expanse of months. The triptych sequence of being unmoored through time, as everything speeds by so quickly, accentuates the helplessness of the ghost as well as the isolation. It’s like the world and life itself is outgrowing them, forgetting them, and leaving them further and further behind. There are also other ghosts and our ghost has a subtitled dialogue with them. It sounds silly but it’s actually one of the most sublimely affecting moments in the film, an idea that actually hits its intended mark. Take this exchange: “I’m waiting for someone,” “Who?” “I don’t remember.” Then the other ghost goes back to waiting, forever hopeful, forever clinging onto something that has long since evaporated, where even the memory, the concept of the idea of why has also vanished. Late into the movie the ghost starts going backwards and forwards in time, to a distant future of Bladerunner-like neon high-rises, to the nineteenth century to track a family of westward settlers. The abrupt careening through time says more about the ghost’s existence and it keeps things fresh. If this movie was a total wash, I could write off Lowery’s curio as self-important navel-gazing, but there are kernels of ideas, or moments, that stand out and demand a better presentation for better effect

A Ghost Story will definitely strike different people differently. It’s a deeply personal, poetic, and, if you’re not properly attuned to its metaphysical funeral procession, pretentious and pondersome film that wears out its welcome long before the end credits. I found the substance to be spread too thin over such a longer running time than this execution deserved. If you’re going for an impressionistic evocation, then the scenes need to be paced better. If you’re going for a mood of loneliness, then latch onto the character better and let’s follow Mara’s character as she rebounds and grows old. If you’re going for an existential horror movie, then present more confusion and terror and less of the same visual metaphors on constant repeat. If you’re going for Rooney Mara eating an entire pie in real time, then, well, actually you’ve succeeded. Congratulations. A Ghost Story is going to be one of those movies that critics fawn over that leaves me shrugging.

Nate’s Grade: C

Terminator: Genisys (2015)

If you’re a fan of James Cameron’s iconic Terminator franchise, you’ll probably want to hold onto something as you watch Terminator: Genisys, which hits “delete” on the franchise and starts from scratch with, we’ll call them, “mixed results.”

In the future, man and machine are at war with one another. Skynet went sentient and launched an arsenal of nuclear weapons to obliterate mankind. The human resistance is lead by John Connor (Jason Clarke) and his lieutenant Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney). The machines send back a T-800 Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to kill John’s mother, Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) and wipe out the human resistance. This part you know. Reese is sent back in time but during the process, John is attacked by a new Terminator and the world as we know it, past, present, and future is altered. When Reese arrives in 1984 L.A., he’s being chased by a T-1000 and Sarah is the one saving him. She’s been preparing for his arrival and training with her own aging T-800 model who saved her from a childhood attack (she calls him “Pops”). With new memories, Reese is determined that Skynet is now Genisys and Judgment Day is now in 2017. He and Sarah travel to 2017, meet back up with “Pops,” and are surprised to find a familiar face waiting for them with sinister intentions.

0037e99bfc78cd1c7a0f6a706700b830_c0-126-3000-1874_s561x327For a while there it seems like Genisys is going to become the Back to the Future II of the Terminator franchise, which could have been fun watching a different team of actors hiding on the peripheral while 80s Linda Hamilton was going about her day as a café waitress. In many ways, Genisys is akin to Jurassic World in the sense that it holds such nostalgic reverence for the source films. It repurposes the familiar catch phrases and even visually recreates several scenes that fans should recognize. However, that reverence has a limit because it isn’t too long before Genisys just chucks out the entire franchise canon and starts anew. Remember Judgment Day with Skynet? Now it’s… Judgment Day with Genisys. Okay, some things aren’t all that different. Discarding the established timeline of four movies, Genisys takes a path similar to the J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek films where it creates an alternate timeline that is not beholden to canon. One way of looking at this approach is that it frees you creatively. Another way of looking at it is that is abandons the stories that the fans enjoyed for decades. Neither approach is wrong; it just depends upon your personal perspective. The larger plot points of the Terminator franchise never captivated me; it’s all about preventing one very bad day that just keeps getting delayed. We’ve never had a story that takes place after Reese is set back in time. Genisys certainly has more surprises because of the new timeline; however, many of those surprises were spoiled by a cowardly marketing campaign that must have feared fan uproar. It’s not a bad idea if it didn’t casually destroy all the logic of the franchise.

Let’s just dive face-forward into the convoluted and troubling nature of the Genisys script. Needless to say, numerous spoilers of both the large and small variety follow.

There are certain storylines that are just never cleared up, the first amongst them is who is sending all these other Terminators back in time? We watch the T-800 model go to 1984, along with Reese, but Sarah informs us later that when she was a child a different T-1000 model attacked her family. Apparently Plan Kill John’s Mom was replaced with Kill John’s Grandmother and will likely soon be replaced with the even more surefire Kill John’s Great Grandmother. If we’re already sending Terminators even further back then why stop? Also, why can’t Skynet send more than one Terminator to the same time? Upon the point that Reese travels back in time, John is attacked by a Terminator Matt Smith (Doctor Who) and transformed into the human-machine villainous hybrid. We’re told this is a nexus point of time that is such a turning point that it’s altered the timeline. But why? It happens AFTER Reese is sent back in time, so why does it affect anything in the preceding past? How does this even, which happens again after Reese is propelled back in time, eliminate the entire established Terminator canon? Likewise, this Reese has a separate timeline so why would he have new memories? He never existed in this new timeline so the fact that he remembers new things doesn’t make sense.

Terminator-Genesys-tiene-nuevo-trailer-703x345This brings us to the centerpiece of logical fallacy, which is killer robot John Connor. I was never really that invested in his character to care that much that he was turned into the film’s bad guy. What I do care about is that Genisys just completely gives up in this moment. If he was just trying to stop Sarah and Reese from stopping Skynet/Genisys, that would be one thing, but John 2.0 is actively trying to kill his parents … before he is conceived. When it comes to time travel, we can accept some degree of suspension of disbelief with plot holes (more of those to come in just a bit), but John wiping out the reason for his existence is just too much. He half-heartedly explains his theory that they’re holdovers from another timeline, so they can just do as they like with no greater repercussions to their own pasts. Maybe, but there’s not two Sarah Connors in this timeline, so killing your mom is still going to negate all your evil robot business, son. With that the very drive of the main antagonist is compromised. With every new attempt to kill mommy and daddy, the film reminds you how this cannot work.

There are other less egregious plot holes but they still can be irksome. How about the fact that Sarah and Reese jump forward to 2017 to thwart Genisys, failing to give birth to John in 1984? He won’t be born yet to lead the human resistance against the machines, which kind of means just by jumping forward in time and delaying Johns birth, the machines have sort of won. When Sarah and Reese travel to 2017 in order to stop the launch of Genisys, why do they travel to within 24 hours of its launch? That’s pretty poor time management. And why hasn’t “Pops” been doing more to prepare for Sarah’s return. He spends thirty years working construction and building the offices of Cyberdine, but couldn’t he also have been sabotaging the company or at least the building? And if John Connor knew his parents were coming to 2017, why didn’t he do more to set up Genisys to withstand their counter attacks? Couldn’t he have had Genisys go online like the day before they arrived in 2017? If you know when they’re going to show up then you have no excuse to fall victim to people you otherwise could be trapping. Also, Skynet realizes that their real problem for never besting the humans is a branding issue? Did changing the name to Genisys really need to be part of the masterstroke? Why is everyone so excited for what is a glorified app that connects people’s electronic devices?

Much can be forgiven in action and comedy movies if they just go about doing their job and entertaining you, but Genisys can only do so much in that department. The action sequences are fairly mundane with the occasional impressive stunt. The problem is we’ve seen these sequences too many times and in other movies and Genisys brings precious little of its own action invention to the big screen. Until the third act, the movie is a series of chases and escapes. The best sequence is likely the hospital brawl between the T-800 and Robo-John as they wantonly destroy every wall within prime smashing distance. I know many in the fan community do not look favorably upon Terminator 3, and it admittedly has the lamest villain of the entire franchise, but the action sequences were memorable and developed organically and were nicely conceived. With Genisys, the action is too rote and familiar. It is competent but for me I found the action sequences to be too underwhelming in design and execution to forgive the film’s other sins.

I also can’t help but think that all three of the main actors were miscast for their parts. Emilia Clarke can do great things and showcases her range as a strong authority figure on HBO’s Game of Thrones. With the role of Sarah Connor, Clarke does a lot of running and barking but she can’t shake our memories of Hamilton. The part doesn’t play to Emilia’s strengths as an actress. Courtney can be a good actor (as seen in the first season of Starz’s Spartacus) but rarely does he prove this to be the case in films. I enjoyed his cavalier bully in Divergent, but he’s mostly a vacant presence in Genisys, gaping at all the changes. Then there’s the other Clarke who too has proven himself a capable and intimidating actor in films like Zero Dark Thirty. When he’s menacing he comes across as, dare I say it, too sincere, and when he’s meant to be inspiring he comes across as too phony. Are the performances the fault of the actors, the director (Alan Taylor), or the screenwriters (Laeta Kalogridis, Patrick Lussier) who gave them such little to do?

landscape-1436118757-terminator-time-travel-theoriesThe film’s MVP is Schwarzenegger. I wasn’t expecting the 68-year-old former Governor of California to contribute this much to the film. I figured Arnie would be a small player and played for comic relief. He keeps asking if Sarah and Reese have “mated” since it’s their destiny. He is certainly played for welcomed comic relief but he’s also the fourth most important character in this reboot. He has a father/daughter bond with Sarah and it produces the closest thing to an emotion in the movie. There’s an ongoing joke that he’s “old but not obsolete” and it could be the tagline for the next Expendables film. With all the time travel tomfoolery, it was easier for me to believe the reason they throw out to explain why the Terminator is aging: it’s living tissue so it ages. Done. I’m fine with that. The older Arnold vs. younger Arnold fight is the major highlight of Genisys and a testament to how much better the de-aging CGI has gotten since the waxy young Professor X and Magneto in 2006’s The Last Stand.

Much like its ongoing star, the Terminator franchise is old but not obsolete, and even a disappointing movie reminds us just how much life can come from this series. It’s got a sense of fun that entertained me enough for one viewing. The characters and action sequences and iconic in our pop-culture, which makes erasing them from a new movie plot problematic. If you strip everyone’s fond memories of the first two Terminators and start over, what’s left? You can repeat some of the more memorable scenes (the Hollywood adage of “same but different”) but this does little other than make you remember how much you preferred it the first time (see: Star Trek Into Darkness). I wish Genisys had been more risky because so much of it feels far too safe, from the average action sequences, to the boring characters, to the ho-hum conclusion meant to set up a new trilogy of movies in this brave new non-Skynet world. I haven’t watched Terminator: Salvation in many years but I’m curious to see it again if for no other purpose than to determine which is the least of the Terminator films.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Project Almanac (2015)

projectalmanac-posterI’m going to take a stand right now and declare that Hollywood should simply stop making found footage movies. I don’t hate the subgenre itself, and in fact a found footage approach can be rather interesting if given proper attention and care, but that is just not happening nearly enough. Too often Hollywood execs view found footage as a hook and slap it onto a story that does not need to be told in this limited style. There’s no reason that a perfectly fine buddy cop movie like End of Watch needed a found footage angle, except that’s probably how it was sold. If you’re going to do found footage you better have a god reason why your characters are recording every moment, and most do not. You better stick to the principle that the only viewpoint is from the camera, and most do not. And you better stick to the limitations of this viewpoint, meaning who is editing these things after the fact and adding popular music to make montages? Found footage is too often underdeveloped in approach, a lazy selling point because “the kids” today like documenting themselves doing everything. But really, can you name the last found footage hit? The Paranormal Activity franchise is on the downturn and the last critically lauded one was 2012’s Chronicle. Don’t just stop making found footage movies because they’re too often lackluster; stop making them because the public has grown indifferent. Now, with all that being said, the time travel flick Project Almanac proves once again to be a film that never needed to be found footage to work. As far as January releases go (usually a dumping ground for studio bombs) it’s better than most, but the poorly titled sci-fi drama wastes its premise on the myopic doldrums of youth.

PROJECT ALMANACDavid Raskin (Johnny Weston) wants to get into M.I.T. but his hard-working mother doesn’t have the money to make this happen. He discovers an old video of his seventh birthday party and is shocked to see an image in the background that resembles him as a teenager. He and his friends, Quinn and Adam, investigate the video. They enter the basement lab that used to belong to David’s father, until he died in a car accident shortly after that birthday recording. There they find plans for a time machine and the boys busily go to work assembling it, perfecting it, and charging it. Jessie (Sophia Black-D’Elia), a popular girl at school, stumbles into their first experiment and becomes part of the group. They have to keep this a secret and they must only travel back as a group. The freedom and possibilities are exhilarating, but soon enough David discovers a spiral of consequences that are difficult to correct without scrapping everything.

From a structural standpoint, this movie gets pretty lopsided and completely misuses the possibilities it established even as it arbitrarily throws its own rules out the window. Project Almanac takes far too long to get the time machine working. The teens discover the manual but it takes almost the complete first act before they successfully travel in time. Why do we have to wait a full 30 minutes and watch trial after trial? It’s not exactly like the audience demands a sense of scientific accuracy. Once the teens do travel through time, they set their sights very low: pass a test, get revenge on a bully, win the local lottery, and go to Lolapalooza. There is the limitation of only going back three weeks into the past, which eventually disappears, but could these kids not aim higher in their goals? When they do go to Lolapalooza, the movie drags and drags, and it’s here where I started to theorize what became of this film (more on that below). Once we come back from the festival, David decides to jump back alone to stop himself from blowing his opening with his crush, Jessie. However, there are disastrous consequences stemming from this and he has to debate whether to undo his good fortune with Jessie. Want to know what those consequences include? Seventy-seven people dying in a plane crash. Our main character seriously agonizes about keeping his new girl or the lives of seventy-seven people. And what would he lose? It’s not like he can’t be suave around Jessie ANY OTHER TIME. All he has to do is say something and kiss her. The hesitation and struggle over this is comically absurd, but the struggle illuminates where Almanac could have gone. These teens could have used time travel to save lives, but I guess that’s not as fun as seeing Imagine Dragons backstage and dancing.

Another problem is that, from a time travel standpoint, this stuff doesn’t really follow its own rules. The gang goes back at several points to repeat the same goal, but at no point do they run into different iterations of themselves. If they keep going back to fix things, and fail, and then go back again, that’s a continuation of one ongoing timeline, not a do-over. Time doesn’t reset. With every time travel story there’s the nagging nature of paradoxes but Project Almanac just ignores them, hence the lack of doppelgangers. At one point, Quinn even seeks out his past self to pull a prank, which sounds really stupidly dangerous from a space-time continuum standpoint to me. The movie ignores paradoxes… until it doesn’t. The entire third act is about the consequences of paradoxes, and now all of a sudden it matters. That doesn’t work. The main third act conflict is David not wanting to lose his girlfriend. He keeps jumping back to fix this and fix that but it’s all to save his girlfriend, which is pretty dumb, as I‘ve pointed out already that Jessie could still decide on her own at any point in the future to be his gal. Then there’s the conclusion, as we all know that we have to get back to that birthday party at some point. I consider myself a smart man but the end doesn’t make any sense because (spoilers to follow) it invalidates the timeline that we witnessed. David makes it so the events will not happen and the machine will not be constructed. But why is there evidence? Why is there still a tape detailing this whole process? It should be wiped.

Requisite found footage griping: why do they record every damn thing in this movie? The gang even breaks into their high school to steal hydrogen canisters from a locked science lab. Why would you record your crime spree? Why would you record people just driving in cars or walking up to school? Why would you record any of this? How do you clearly pick up audio from two people at a distance, mind you, at a freaking outdoor concert with lots of noise to cancel out any discernible dialogue?

maxresdefaultThere are moments that I really liked, flashes that show how much fun or even clever Almanac could have been under other circumstances. One of these moments involves Quinn going back to save his grade. Originally he failed his chemistry presentation, so he thinks he’ll easily pass thanks to the foreknowledge that time travel offers. He goes back, lists the first ten elements on the periodic table, and then his teacher asks him another question he wasn’t prepared for. He goes back, prepared for the two, and then the teacher asks another he wasn’t prepared for. Over the course of going back, he is actually forced to study to prepare for this presentation, and so even though he thought he would use time travel to be lazy, it forced him into doing what he should have done in the first place. When they go back to win the lottery, they accidentally write down one wrong number, so their first jackpot prize isn’t the full amount. They bicker about going back, whose fault it was, and then the film cuts immediately to them holding the full amount in a novelty check. All the characters are devoid of excitement, because that excited moment of revelry already happened, and now this is just an exercise to get over. The photographer chides them to be more excited. That is a fun moment. The characters are rather likeable. There’s another moment where Jessie realizes that David went back to fix a slip-up so they would end up together. And she reacts exactly how she should, wounded and mistrusting. How can she trust what he says now? How can she not doubt every moment being carefully pre-programmed for a desired result? She was manipulated. This confrontation was missing from About Time where Rachel McAdams would have learned that her charming husband traveled back in time dozens of times to perfect his courtship, thus manipulating her own sense of choice. Poor Rachel McAdams never finds out, which seems like a completely blown dramatic development, and lives in cherished ignorance instead. At least Jessie gets to know the truth and behaves naturally. There are other little moments that are fun but they are distractions from what could have been.

Allow me to do some serious speculation about Project Almanac’s own past. This film was originally supposed to come out a year prior hence why every date is referenced as 2014. MTV Films expressed some interest in the movie and it was shelved and likely retooled. Except with time travel films, retooling can be pretty monstrous with its carefully placed plot beats. Here’s what I think happened. Originally, the third act was all about David going back to save his father from dying in that car crash. He likely does but there are dire consequences, and so he keeps going back to try and mitigate the negative repercussions while still keeping his father. Doesn’t that sound like a much more emotionally involving storyline? He’s got far more personal stakes in this scenario than simply losing his girlfriend who he can regain. He can’t regain dear old dead dad. It seems preposterous to me from a screenwriting standpoint that they would introduce a deceased parent and not use time travel to save said parent. It’s the ultimate setup. Instead, with MTV attached, we got to keep things lighter and more appealing to the carefree fun of youth, and so the gang goes to Lolapalooza instead where they can watch rock bands. I think MTV came in and jettisoned the third act and the direction of the script, imposing the festival, and reminding people how music is essential to being young and free and alive. I can’t say whether it’s MTV’s influence or producer Michael Bay, but there’s a slew of product placement from start to finish as well. I have no proof of any of this but I think there’s something to my conspiracy theory.

If you needed any other example of how close Project Almanac would uphold to its own sci-fi rule system, a character asks a good question about how they can understand something, and David says, “I’ll tell you later.” Hey, you want to know something important, just wait, where it won’t be answered. The found footage aspect brings nothing to the film, is poorly integrated throughout, and just plain unnecessary. The plot is too underdeveloped and lacking ambition, using the miracle of time travel to party in such limited ways. The concluding half feels too low in stakes and obvious in conclusion. Time travel is all about the untold possibilities, and Project Almanac will ultimately fall in that territory, a somewhat amusing but mostly unfulfilled sci-fi film that should have gone back to the writing stage a few more times.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Big Hero 6 (2014)

Disney_BigHero6_Poster_BaymaxDisney’s first adaptation of a Marvel property, it’s essentially a superhero origin tale mixed in with the “boy and his robot” formula borrowed from The Iron Giant. The story is fairly predictable but charming and unafraid to deal with loss and grief. The real star, though, is the inflatable robot Betamax (voiced by Scott Adsit), whose unfailingly optimistic and helpful nature is a loveable addition to a genre plagued with doom and brooding. The action sequences are colorful and well developed and paced. It’s an agreeable pilot film for a new animated franchise, and the characters are likeable and fun while still having enough emotional resonance to make the hard choices of sacrifice hit you in the gut. It’s a welcome change of pace to have a character interested, first and foremost, in the mental health of others. You just want to hug Betamax (parents, your children will be begging for the toys). The plot does follow many similar plot beats of the superior Iron Giant but this film is still enjoyable enough on its own terms.

Nate’s Grade: B

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

117411_galI’ve always been one able to separate the art from the artist, so while Tom Cruise may annoy people in real life because he jumped on a couch one summer, that doesn’t halt my enjoyment of the man’s movies. It seems with every new Cruise vehicle that under-performs at the box-office that I must be in the minority. Cruise hasn’t had a hit to his name since 2011’s suitably awesome Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Both Oblivion and Jack Reacher, perfectly solid action movies, failed to make over $100 million domestically, further calling into question the drawing power of Tom Terrific. It seems that his latest, Edge of Tomorrow, is going to suffer a similar fate. This is a shame. As my critical colleague Ben Bailey said in his own review for the film: “Edge of Tomorrow might just be the most critically acclaimed box-office bomb of 2014.”

William Cage (Cruise) is chiefly an Armed Forces PR flak. He goes on TV to push the talking points of the United States military, which is in a heap of trouble. Aliens have landed in central Europe and spread quickly, proving to be nearly unstoppable. There was one soldier who was able to lead a successful counter attack. The “Angel of Verdun” is Rita (Emily Blunt), a soldier Cage proudly chirps only spent a day in her mechanical fighting suit beforehand yet proved to be so deadly. After vaguely threatening a high-ranking official rather than report for a doomed counter assault, Cage is shipped to the frontlines as a deserter. In hours he and a motley crew of ground forces are flown to the beaches of France, where the aliens will slaughter them. In the firefight, Cage is covered with alien blood and gains their special power. The reason the aliens have won every battle, save one, is because they have the power to reset time. They learn from their errors, which is why they always anticipate humanity’s attacks. Now Cage has this power. Every time he dies, the day resets and he starts over, trying once again to survive. The only person who understands him is Rita, who once had the same power. Together, with some extensive training, they may be able to thwart the alien invaders for good.

maxresdefaultEdge of Tomorrow is the ultimate video game movie, and while I would normally mean this in a pejorative sense, it is actually a compliment. With every death, Cage gets to start over, looking for a way to complete the next stage of the next level, learning from his costly mistakes and hoping to get to the boss battle that usually closes the level. From a structure standpoint, it’s a pure video game, albeit an older sidescroller (remember those, kids?). The visuals and mechanical battle suits also further support the video game comparisons. But really, Edge of Tomorrow is Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers but brilliantly executed. There is something deeply satisfying about the Groundhog Day formula, namely getting seemingly endless chances to fix one’s mistakes, to try out new paths. It’s also inherently satisfying as an audience member because you watch your hero fail time and after time but they’re still active, they’re still trying to achieve a goal, or a new goal, and thus when they do succeed it’s even more triumphant and gratifying. We get to learn alongside our protagonist. Also, it allows the narrative to explore new material without going stale. In most stories we have one set path, but in films like this one with a time loop, it’s like we get to see all the wheels-within-wheels, the stories just offscreen happening simultaneously. It opens up the world in more interesting and playful ways, providing more payoffs than just one set narrative destination. We get assorted answers to our “what if”’s. Plus we get more screen time with Bill Paxton (2 Guns) as a comically hardass master sergeant. Edge of Tomorrow mines all these areas expertly. This is a movie that embraces the possibility of its sci-fi premise. It’s constantly clever, fast-paced, lively, and expects its audience to keep up with the pace.

It’s great to see director Doug Liman flex his action-thriller abilities again, ineffective or dormant since 2005’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith. The man has an innate ability to orchestrate action without losing sight of character. The beach invasion sequences have plenty going on, enough so that you won’t be bored after multiple trips, and unlike last summer’s disappointing Elysium, this is one movie that knows how to make proper use of a mech suit. These suits don’t look that impressive but they pack some mighty firepower. It’s rather cool when Cage, after a litany of failed trips, has the beats of combat to memory, knowing to shoot in this direction at the right second. It’s like watching a man harness the omniscient power of God (“I said I was a god. Not THE God.”). Under Liman’s guidance, the action is big and exciting and fun, more so than any other Hollywood action movie I’ve seen this year (The Raid 2 is still in a class its own).

The action sequences and special effects are all relatively good, but it’s just the sheer fun of the movie that makes it special for a summer would-be blockbuster. It’s like you get multiple movies smattered together but the eye is always forward to the goal, taking out the alien brain/host. The structure is almost foolproof: by the end of Act 1 he gets the time-tripping powers, and by the end of Act 2, he loses them and the heroics to close the movie have to count for real. I wish the final boss battle didn’t happen to take place in the bowels of a famous landmark/destination, but I suppose Liman and company needed a change of pace from all the beach activity. While the movie covers plenty of ground repeatedly it never feels old or directionless; while it has its share of sticky exposition and silly plot mechanics, it never overwhelms the story or the entertainment factor. The basics of who the aliens are, how they attack, what their magic blood does, what the rules are for utilizing said alien time-repeating power, you would imagine that they would be too silly or bog things down, but they don’t. Except for the very end (the concluding two minutes), the movie plays within its own system of rules. That also means no unrealistic romantic entanglement. Sure we expect movie stars to fall for one another, especially in peril, but for Rita, every day is the first day she’s ever met Cage. He develops feelings for her but she credibly keeps thoughts of romance at bay.

emily-blunt-edge-tomorrow-pic3rfIt’s also a mordantly mirthful movie. Cage can only reset when he dies; if he is just wounded and passes out, he’ll lose his special reset power. So every insurmountable roadblock, wrong choice, or crippling injury must be met with one conclusion, namely Cage being snuffed out. Rita carries out most of the executions in the second half, with a blasé sense of routine duty, like a plumber fixing a clog. It doesn’t really get old and Liman utilizes montage well to give the comedy an extra punch. It lightens a movie more or less centered on human annihilation and mortality. And for the legions of Tom Cruise haters, there’s got to be some degree of entertainment value in watching the man die again and again and again and, well you get the point.

Cruise ably shows again that he is more than capable of carrying an action film (he’s over 50 now too). The man still has enough energy and physical stamina of an action hero in his 30s, and his charisma is still there in spades. It’s also interesting to watch Cruise play a cowardly character. I should have expected it considering that Cage’s arc has to start somewhere before he becomes the super soldier. However, the movie would never have been as good if Cruise didn’t have a strong leading lady, and the surprisingly buff Blunt (Looper) is an excellent match for her costar. She’s tough and can beat the snot out of you. Just her very walk exudes confidence and determination (is it too late for her to be Wonder Woman in the next Superman film?). Having walked in Cage’s shoes before with the time-replay power, she has an extra weariness to her, a certain devil-may-care attitude, especially in battle. The two actors make a winning team and Cage’s recruitment of Rita is another mission with another worthy payoff.

The original title was All You Need is Kill, based on a Japanese graphic novel, and I can’t help but think how much of a better, striking title that is to describe this movie. It’s a wonderfully entertaining movie, with its action spectacle tempered with an intelligence rare for a summer blockbuster that doesn’t have Christopher Nolan’s name attached as director. Here is a playful sci-fi movie that doesn’t downplay its sci-fi, doesn’t dumb down its plot, and explores the richness of its world one dead Cruise at a time. It’s clever and satisfying and brings all the visual fireworks you’d demand. It’s a rotten shame that Edge of Tomorrow appears destined for the cinematic scrapheap. We need more movies like this one. Reverse the tide people and see this movie on the big screen while you can. It’s everything we want in a summer blockbuster fully realized.

Nate’s Grade: A-

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

rs_634x939-140324091106-634.jennifer-lawrence-x-men.ls.32414Ever since Marvel’s Avengers destroyed the box-office in 2012, every studio with super hero franchises has been looking to follow suit. It’s not just about comic book franchises; it’s about building a comic book universe. It’s been a long dark period for the X-Men ever since the regrettable 2006 debacle The Last Stand, which callously killed characters, butchered others, and botched the most famous storyline in the history of the comic. In 2011, Matthew Vaughn proved there was still life to be found in the franchise with his terrific 60s-era prequel, X-Men: First Class. Now, post-Avengers, Fox is salivating at combining the past X-Men and the present X-Men into one colossal movie with a colossal budget. Back on board is director Bryan Singer, the director of the first two X-Men films and the man who helped kickstart the modern superhero era. If that wasn’t enough riding on the film, X-Men: Days of Future Past also follows the second most famous storyline in the history of the comic.

In the horrible future, killer robots known as Sentinels hunt down mutants. These are the invention of Dr. Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage), a military scientist who was killed back in 1973 by the vengeful shape-shifting mutant, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). The murder convinced humans to subsidize Trask’s killer robot plan of defense. Thanks to experiments replicating Mystique’s mutant ability, the Sentinels have the ability to adapt to any power, turning them practically indestructible. In the future, the Sentinels are eradicating all mutants, mutant sympathizers, and eventually human beings. Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) have teamed up with a small band of surviving mutants, including Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Thanks to the phasing powers of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), they can send Wolverine’s consciousness back to 1973 so that he can prevent the Trask assassination. The only ones who can help Wolverine is the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), former mentors to Mystique. Except Xavier is a recluse and strung-out on drugs to dull his powers and Magneto is locked away underneath the Pentagon.

eotca49rixfbkx8q5rf1The X-Men films have always had a topical advantage to them that provided a weightier sense of drama than your typical story about a reluctant soul blessed with amazing powers. The mutant allegory automatically applies to any sub-group facing oppression mostly through fear and ignorance. What other superhero franchise has two opening scenes in a German concentration camp? The stakes are even larger with this movie because of the Horrible Nightmare Future that must be prevented. Now we all assume said Nightmare Future will be avoided by film’s end, so the movie provides a proverbial reset button that the filmmakers can have fun with, and they do (look out future mutants). Excluding the Nightmare Future framing device that becomes an unnecessary parallel storyline, the majority of the film takes place in 1973. If X-Men: First Class tapped into the groovy optimism and “take me for what I am” sense of social justice of the time, then this film certainly taps into the disillusionment of the 1970s, where the promise of reform and hope morphed into anger and cynicism (hey, that’s like us today!). This loss of innocence is typified in Mystique, who becomes the central figure of the movie in many ways. Her seething desire for vengeance is what animates her, as well as the pain of betrayal from the men closest in her life, as well as the world who once held such promise. Also, Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) has become one of the biggest female stars on the planet, so it makes sense to bolster her role. The central conflict is stopping an assassination, one domino that leads to many others, but it’s emotionally about Mystique having to confront her feelings of hate. It’s another platform for the ongoing conflict of perspectives between Xavier (restraint, tolerance) and Magneto (strong defense, eye for an eye). But as I found in First Class, it’s hard not to agree with Magneto as human overreaction leads to rash and thoughtless actions, like Horrible Nightmare Future.

That’s not to say that X-Men: Days of Future Past fails to deliver when it comes to the popcorn thrills and action highs we crave in our finest summer blockbusters. The action set pieces are large without dwarfing the characters, playful and imaginative without losing a sense of edge and danger. I loved how the character Blink (Bingbing Fan) would utilize her mutant power of opening portals as a fighting strategy. It makes action sequences so much more inventive and visually exciting to throw a series of portals. The pacing is swift short of the second half of Act Two, gearing up for the climactic showdown in D.C. that dominates Act Three. The time travel story starts with a lot of exposition but it gets smoothed out as it goes, the rules of the story fall into place. Every action sequence hits, some admittedly better than others, but it’s the small touches that Singer injects that made me smile most. I enjoyed Magneto pointing a gun, being toppled, but still using his power to have the gun fire in midair. I enjoyed the animalistic nature of the Beast/Wolverine brawl. Jackman is looking even veinier than usual in his bulked out form. Thankfully the fish-out of-water timeline jokes are kept to a minimum. Wolverine is the perfect glue to hold both timelines together. And then there’s that standout Pentagon prison break sequence (more on that later). Singer might not have the most natural instincts developing and staging action, but the man is a surefire talent when it comes to staging eye-catching visuals (I would say the same about Christopher Nolan). Even his unfairly maligned Superman Returns is proof of the man’s cinematic gifts. As far as entertainment value, this is right up there with X-Men 2. I still view Vaughn’s savvy First Class as the best X-film of the bunch, which has only gotten better the more I’ve watched it.

o-X-MEN-DAYS-OF-FUTURE-PAST-TRAILER-facebookAnd if that wasn’t enough, Singer’s new film does what every fan has been hoping for: (spoilers) it erases all the crummy X-Men movies, namely 2006’s Last Stand and the first Wolverine solo effort, from the official timeline. It’s time to start anew, toss out the old stuff nobody liked, and forge ahead with a new unified timeline. There can be two parallel X-Men franchises, one present/future and one with the prequel casts, and they can go on forever as desired, or until the prequel cast prices itself out. In one fell swoop, Singer and company have reset the mother franchise and given fans new hope about the possibilities. Make sure to stick around to the very end of the credits for a scene that indicates directly who the next major villain will be in the 2016 sequel.

Let me take time to single out just how expertly Evan Peters (TV’s American Horror Story) steals the entire mutant-heavy movie. First, he’s the most comically attuned character, which is a nice break from how serious, and rightly so, every character is so often. Quicksilver provides a whole new jolt of entertainment, and when he checks out after the prison break sequence you’ll dearly miss him. The character is a rapscallion (as my late grandmother might have termed) that enjoys using his super speed powers to mess with people, to test his limits, to see what he can get away with, and a Pentagon jailbreak is right up his alley. Ignore the silly yet period appropriate outfit and ignore what initially seems like Peters’ smirking self-involvement from trailers and ads. When this character is onscreen the movie has a joyful sense of irreverence. He is instrumental to freeing Magneto and the onscreen depiction of his super speed is the best illustration of the power ever conceived in film and TV. There is a segment sent to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” and some wonderful special effects, which is just so playful, so giddy, and so cool that it very well might be my favorite moment in any superhero movie… ever. It is definitely an applause-worthy moment and my audience responded in kind. Quicksilver is a perfectly utilized supporting player in a movie stuffed to the gills with characters.

The time travel geek in me has a few quibbles with the parallel lines of action from past and present. Wolverine’s consciousness is sent back in time but he film plays out like it’s happening simultaneously to the events of the future. So if Wolverine is pulled out in the middle of the movie, he’ll have failed his mission to change the future, even though by going back in time he’s already, blah blah blah butterfly effect. Anyway, I understand how they want to make the future story have a sense of urgency but it’s not like waking Wolverine from a dream; the times are not happening concurrently. He’s in the past, meaning that the moment he goes back there, the future will already be altered due to the consequences of his actions, for better or worse. There is no race against time to keep his consciousness back in time until he complete his mission. I can see why they went this route for a summer blockbuster, but that doesn’t quell the quibbles.

video-undefined-1C88A9B800000578-163_636x358X-Men: Days of Future Past is a time-hopping, unabashedly fun time at the movies; well as fun as preventing nightmarish futures built from the consequences of oppression and prejudice can be. With Singer back in the saddle and the bridging of the two X-Men universes, the series is back on track and once again the promising font of stories and characters. The newest X-film is one of the most entertaining, funny while still being dramatic, and while burdened with the largest cast of any super franchise, finds notable moments for its characters big and small to remind us that these people matter. While less philosophical and funky than First Class, this is one of the best films in the franchise, on par with X2. The action sequences and visual eye-candy are great fun with some inventive and memorable touches. It’s also nerdy fun getting to watch the past and present interact, and for many this is their first return since 2006’s crappy Last Stand. It’s not a perfect movie; I wish there was more early Sentinel action, I wish Dinklage had much more to do, and I wish that the plot didn’t so transparently hinge on Xavier not having his powers. The slate is clean and all X-Men fans can breathe a sigh of relief. The future is once again rosy. The X-Men, and not just Wolverine, are relevant once again.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Mr. Peabody & Sherman (2014)

Mr_Peabody_&_Sherman_PosterSurprisingly adroit, Mr. Peabody & Sherman might just be more fun for adults, especially fans of the original 1960s cartoon, than for little kids. It’s under the “family film” banner, a dubious one historically, but I was laughing consistently and good, snorting laughs, long chuckles; the whole gamut. With The LEGO Movie, the wide release of The Wind Rises, and now this, 2014 is shaping up to be a stellar year for animation aficionados. The movie between a genius dog and his adopted son is given the right amount of reverence before all the cheeky irreverence through history. The hops through time, notably the French Revolution, ancient Egypt, and the Trojan War, are fast-paced and clever without stooping to provide much context for the jokes; you either get them or you don’t. Even the necessary character building components between father and son are treated smartly, coming together for an ending that approaches poignancy. The plot can get a little complicated toward the end, what with opening a space-time paradox, but I respect the movie for being complex and tricky and scientific and trusting its audience to play along. The animation looks a little scruffy compared to other big screen efforts, but the script just flat-out works. The comedy, the drama, the relationships, but especially the comedy. If you’re on the fence, please, do yourself a favor, and go see Mr. Peabody & Sherman, especially if you appreciate history and those who love it. I saw it with my father and we both laughed ourselves silly. Needless to say, this blows 2000’s Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle out of the water.

Nate’s Grade: A-

About Time (2013)

102718_galRichard Curtis is something equivalent to royalty in romantic comedy circles. The man wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, the screenplay for Bridget Jones’ Diary, and he wrote and directed Love, Actually. If you are a fan of those movies, then About Time is already at the top of your to-do list. Reportedly Curtis’ last movie he will direct (he’s only done three), this time-travel romance looks to be a break from a genre burdened by convention. If you like your British rom-coms to be mildly cheeky, hopelessly dewy-eyed romantic, filled with beautiful people, and loaded with hugs, then About Time with suffice. If you were expecting something grander from the premise you’ll walk away shaking your head at all the squandered potential.

Tim (Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan) is a normal upper class British student when his father (Bill Nighy) sits him down to have… The Talk. This one isn’t about birds and bees so much as it is the space-time continuum. It seems that the men in their family have the unique ability to travel through time, though only during their lifetimes. All Tim need do is find a somewhat secluded, dark corner, clench his fists, and think his way back to a particular memory. Tim is able to blink out embarrassing incidents and use his foreknowledge. He meets Mary (Rachel McAdams) and sets his sights on making her fall in love with him. He corrects their courtship until he gets everything “right.”

108505_galWhile eminently pleasant and suitably funny and emotional, About Time is a tale of wasted potential. I’m unsure why Curtis even brought in such an unconventional element like time travel if he was just going to play it safe. The standard, feel-good rom-com route feels the safe way through, and while it’s well done in that regard, I almost wish the film had pushed further with its concept. To begin with, the time travel restrictions are arbitrarily applied and will later be broken altogether as the film continues. When time travel is used it’s played out like Groundhog Day, with Tim immediately going back to fine-tune his actions, particularly his courting of Mary. That works, as we get used to the inertia of the edits, but that seems to be the lone focus. Once he gets the girl, Tim rarely uses his amazing gift. He’s content and so time travel is an afterthought when, as I suspect for any of us, it would be all we could think about. Tim lacks suitable ambition. I think the film would have been weightier had its lead been less idealistic. He’s a nice guy but imagine a Lothario having the power to travel back in time. He could physically cheat on his wife, go back and make sure it never happened, and live his life, having his cake and eating it too, except for the guilt. Is it cheating if it happened in an alternate timeline? Or what if he was a stockbroker committing insider trading with his past self. In fact, what if he just interacted with his older, more morally wanton self? There’s also the fact that Mary never finds out about any of this. At no point does Tim reveal his family’s incredible ability and have to atone for his actions. I’m fairly certain Mary would feel like her marital bliss could be the end product to manipulation. Alas, we’re stuck with our cute, acceptable, but mostly square rom-com.

While likeable, I didn’t think the characters themselves were sketched out well; I like McAdams and Gleeson, but I couldn’t really say much about them as people. He’s a lawyer. She works as a reader for a publisher. His family is kind of rich. And that’s about it. Even through their interactions we don’t learn much about Tim or Mary. They fall in love, and it’s nice, but the lack of characterization, besides the fact that they are cute together, kept me from fully investing in their love story. I doubt the target audience will have this same issue. I found them cute and their scenes are cute together but I need more about my main characters than a collection of cute scenes. Another nagging aspect of their courtship is that it seems too easy. Tim has the amazing power of time travel so he can fix any problem presented, but that shouldn’t stop the appearance of problems. Tim and Mary are nice people that seem to have no discernible differences, besides Tim’s leftover feelings for a first love. An audience may say they want a couple to be sweet together always. They don’t. It’s boring. We need conflict. With About Time, there just isn’t enough of it and Tim and Mary are too underdeveloped for me to pine for them.

There are loads of dangling storylines that feel like they are leftovers from past drafts. You would think wrapping up a peachy marriage early would lead to some sort of personal crossroads and sacrifice. Everything was coming far too easily for Tim, so I kept waiting for another shoe to drop late in the film, to give him the chance to undo his own personal happiness and marriage to, say, save a beloved family member. I kept waiting for some kind of greater personal stakes, but it never came. Then the movie has all sorts of dangling storylines that do not seem conceptualized. The doddy uncle who seems to be experiencing the ravaged effects of too much time travel? Not much there. They never explain him and so he is just the standard Brit com-com kooky family member to say weird things offhand. Seems like a waste of greater pathos. Tim’s troubled sister? She’s fixed in a pinch and of course it all has to do with the men she’s dating.

108504_galThen there are the rules, which in time travel need to be adhered to closely or else the butterfly effect ripples cascade. We’re told at first that Tim can only go backwards in time. This gives the impression that he has to live out all that extra time. So, say, if Tim traveled back two years, he’d have to live out all two years to get back to the presumed moment he began his journey backwards (writing about time travel does wonderful things with sentence tenses). So every jump back requires reliving your life. But then all of a sudden Tim can jump forward in time as well. No one comments about this. If the men in the family are reliving days and possibly years of time, then shouldn’t they be preternaturally aging, looking 70 at 50 and so on? Then there’s the fact that Tim introduces the ability to travel back in time WITH another person. This is never dealt with again, sadly, and it’s a big deal. You can bring other people with you through time. This is an amazing opportunity but it’s wasted like so many others.

However, with all that said, the movie won me over more as it transitioned into a greater emphasis on the father/son relationship, enough so that it feels like Curtis trying to get the sense of closure we so rarely get in life. I though a late trip backwards, as a young son skipping stones with his dad before he may never see him again, was quite beautiful. It got me wishing the film had given more time to explore the dynamics of father/son time travelers, a rich dramatic possibility that only reminds you how much more interesting About Time could have been.

About Time will be catnip to its target audience, namely female rom-com fans. I found it a fairly pleasant movie and its stars wholly likeable. I laughed at spots and even got teary-eyed a bit toward the end as the film’s emphasis shifted from a guy-gets-girl narrative to more of a father-son examination. The funny Brit characters do their thing, the lovely scenery remains lovely, and the declarations of love get a spit-shine. It is an effective romantic comedy that will charm and please and get its audience to swoon, but I was left feeling that its potential went untapped as it settled on a safer, more conventional story despite all the unconventional possibility. Why introduce time travel if you’re just going to take the safest route possible with your storytelling, never pitting Tim in a difficult decision he has to make, or jeopardizing his carefully manipulated happiness? There are so many possibilities Curtis had with a premise that opens up alternative histories, but it seems like he settled for another dash of more-of-the-same.

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+

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

A man puts a classified ad in the newspaper asking for an unusual companion. No, it’s not some weird sex thing. Kenneth (Mark Duplass) intends to travel back in time to correct a few regrets. He’s looking for a partner, though he specifies his traveling companion must bring his or her own weapons and that safety is not guaranteed. This quirky ad grabs the attention of Jeff (New Girl‘s Jake Johnson), an egotistical writer for a Seattle magazine. He takes along a pair of interns, the surly Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and the nerdy Arnau (Karan Soni). Together, the gang heads out of town to seek out Kenneth and determine whether or not he is for real. However, Jeff’s real intention for this “work vacation” was to travel back to his hometown and try and score with Liz (Jenica Bergere), an old high school flame he is horrified to discover has… aged. Darius is the only one who can get close to Kenneth, but what starts as an opportune assignment into investigating a weirdo becomes something more. The guy, sweet if a little off, may be on to something… big, and Darius may be falling for him despite her own misgivings.

Safety Not Guaranteed is a modest film but does it ever sneak up on you and deliver an emotional wallop. I’m a romantic at heart, and so I’m generally affected by seeing two lonely people find their special something in the world reserved for them, and it’s even more affecting when these people are oddballs, and thus it’s even more resonant and meaningful for them to find that connection so elusive before. At its heart, Safety Not Guaranteed is a quirky yet naturally developing love story, and those are my favorite kind. I found my heart melting every time Darius couldn’t help herself and smiled. Perhaps it’s because Darius is our outside heroine or that Plaza is best known for her stone-faced deadpans on TV’s Parks and Recreation, but every one of those smiles felt so richly earned and rewarding. These aren’t the typical rom-com characters that are going to lapse into great speeches about love at key clichéd moments; while dabbling in some fantastical elements, Safety Not Guaranteed exists in our own recognizable world. And with that established, the unguarded moments of genuine happiness for characters we care about translates into a surprisingly touching experience. My heart felt so full at different points, melting and swelling and doing other non-medically accurate things. I honestly had tears in my eyes at different points. By the perfect end, I was so hopeful and overjoyed and left the theater soaring on my good vibes. I can’t guarantee everyone will find the same level of engagement in the romantic relationship, but I believe that the movie is inspired, clever, and authentic enough to deliver a crowd-pleasing finish. It’s earnest without being hokey.

I’m trying to tiptoe around spoilers, though for those critical readers out there I’m sure you can infer a thing or two about the end of the film given my positive, beaming response. I’m sure my reaction would have been quite different if, say, Darius and Kenneth died in a horrible fireball because he was criminally insane from the start. All I’ll say is pay attention to certain discrepancies and see if they might prove to be a conversation-starter when you leave the theater.

Have I mentioned how truly funny this movie is? I’ve been talking all about the “rom” portion of the equation, but Safety not Guaranteed is a consistently funny movie, with a few big laughs. The movie’s sharp sense of comedy is more than everyone simply derisively laughing at the nutball. To be sure, Kenneth provides plenty of comedy in his super serious demeanor, and the movie doesn’t overplay the idea that he may be mentally unbalanced. The jokes come from the character interaction more than any contrived set piece, and the pleasure is in watching conflicting personalities bounce off one another. Every character contributes nicely to the comedic rhythms of this picture, adding a line here, a reaction there, to assemble one very funny movie. In movies where one character enters a relationship under initial false pretenses, usually you just keep waiting for that particular shoe to drop. You wait for the truth to come out and then deception reconciliation dominates the third act. Thankfully, the movie speeds over this narrative trap and gets us to the good stuff. We don’t need an entire act for people to be contrite and prove their love when what we see onscreen is obvious enough.

What elevated Safety Not Guaranteed for me was that beyond the oddball romance, there’s careful and compassionate attention paid to a slew of supporting characters. Now with a scant 80-minute running time, and the attention-grabber of a guy who thinks he can travel through time, naturally the supporting characters have minimized roles, but what I enjoyed was that they were not just relegated as stock players. The film has two stock roles, Nerd and Jerk, and fleshes them out further (though, to be assured, those are still defining characteristics). Arnau is a guy who is convinced any interaction with girls will ultimately lead to personal embarrassment. He’s only focused on the future and what he needs to get there, barely living in the present. It’s nice to watch him grow some confidence, albeit a small amount, and find some degree of enjoyment. And then there’s self-described asshole Jeff, who only submitted the story so he could come back and bang his old high school girlfriend. Some will find Jeff’s minimal personal growth to be disappointing and stagnate, but I thought anything substantial for this character over a three-day period of time would be unrealistic. Jeff is chasing his past memories, a faded time that had so much possibility when he was a stud in high school. The movie explores this notion of returning to a period of innocence as well. Going back to a time before overwrought cynicism, before settling, before compromising, before life became work, it’s something of a wish that the characters seem to be chasing. Jeff realizes how truly empty his life is, yet he’s probably too set in his ways to alter his path, which is a shame because Liz certainly seems like a lovely, caring, and capable romantic opportunity. Hey, she bakes, too (Bergere is great and easy to fall for). The unlikely friendship that emerges between Jeff and Arnau is also quite enjoyable and disarmingly sweet.

I also need to single out the score from first time composer Ryan Miller, the lead singer and guitarist for one of my favorite alternative rock bands, Guster. The music has a lilting, dreamy quality to it but then follows a steady melodic rock path, reminiscent of the melancholic score for Little Miss Sunshine. The strumming guitars, plinging pianos, and swelling violins come together in harmony with little sci-fi touches. The score gives the film another sense of enchantment. I’ve been listening to “Big Machine,” the song Kenneth plays for Darius, on a loop for over an hour, if that gives you any indication on how much I enjoyed the original tune. The fact that “Big Machine” plays over the end credits when the movie meets its perfect end has got to account for some of my positive association. I think Miller has a bright future in crafting film scores.

Plaza (Funny People) deserves to break out in a big way after this film. She’s the heart of the movie and deeply vulnerable, covering it up with nonchalant cynicism. Darius is well within her surly comfort range so it’s no surprise that she excels with the hipster character, but the moments of dramatic weight are not given flippant treatment. Duplass (TV’s The League), just about everywhere in 2012, delivers a committed performance, though it seems mostly committed to the goofiness of his character. Yet when Duplass is able to show you some of the edge to his character, that’s when the performance walks a line between dangerous and exciting. The movie hinges on the two actors working together and they have good chemistry; the goofball and the cynic.

It’s so nice to discover a movie that lifts your spirits, that touches your heart without reaching for the treacle, and delivers a funny experience without compromising its modest aims and modest tone. Safety Not Guaranteed obviously plays a deliberate dance with the audience, vacillating between moments that make Kenneth seem crazy and moments that make you question whether he’s legit. The movie reminded me in a lot of ways of the underrated 2000 flick Happy Accidents, which featured Vincent D’Onofrio as a romantic suitor who also might be a time traveler or just plain nuts. Safety Not Guaranteed is a charming movie that seems to work a spell on you while watching; you get so invested in watching lonely people find meaningful human connections that you are compelling the movie to end under some happy scenario. Director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly deserve to make waves in Hollywood with what they’re able to accomplish with a tidy budget and some clever yet earnest writing. This beguiling love story is all about stretching out of your comfort zone and taking a plunge into the unknown. Just like Kenneth, we’re all looking for a partner worthy of that plunge (not necessarily a romantic partner, mind you). Take the plunge and go see Safety Not Guaranteed, one of the best movies of the year. Not bad for a movie potentially based upon an Internet meme, huh?

Nate’s Grade: A

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