Miguel Penabella | 19 October 2012


Dir. Rian Johnson, 2012

Rian Johnson’s Looper isn’t “the Blade Runner of this generation” as numerous Internet forums will have you believe. It isn’t even on the same level as Neill Blomkamp (District 9) or Duncan Jones (Moon). Instead, what Johnson has to offer is nothing short of cinematic schizophrenia, a mildly high concept sci-fi flick with no fixed, unifying identity. Joseph Gordon-Levitt ushers in the movie’s fundamental premise with an introductory monologue infused with a sense of world-weariness in his vacant tone, not unlike last year’s pre-movie audience address from Ryan Gosling in Drive. “Time travel has not yet been invented. But thirty years from now, it will have been.” Relegating the subject of time travel as the main driving force behind the film conjures up a flood of distant ancestors, from 12 Monkeys (there’s no coincidence that Bruce Willis stars in both films) to Primer. A ton of influences abound throughout the film – both stylistically and thematically – but no matter how much Johnson expertly interweaves his inspirations into an original standalone narrative, Looper simply fails to replicate the ambition and creativity of both its inspirations and Johnson’s previous efforts. Though the film doesn’t come without its bright and shining moments of occasional brilliance, Looper never rises to its full potential, instead finding itself in disarray with its underwhelming revelations and Johnson’s fractured storytelling. 

Gordon-Levitt continues, “I work as a specialized assassin, in an outfit called the Loopers. When my organization from the future wants someone to die, they zap them back to me and I eliminate the target from the future.” The film boasts a delicious premise, and there are indeed many pleasures to be found in Looper. Rian Johnson’s previous two films bled stylistic elegance, whether dealing with hard-boiled noir relocated in a high school environment as in 2005’s Brick or reflexive, postmodern heist cinema self-critical of itself as in 2008’s The Brothers Bloom. In Looper, Johnson’s primary narrative twist concerns a future self being sent back for a Looper to kill – in essence, dooming yourself to live out a life meant to arrive at a predetermined death under your own hand. Surely enough, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays this younger Looper named Joe while a gruff Bruce Willis plays the older Joe, sent back for execution only to slip past the hands of his dumbfounded younger self. Thus, the crux of the film’s main conflict begins, but not before Johnson has a chance to deliver genuinely harmonious moments of stylistic panache. In Looper’s first half, Rian Johnson presents a fairly unadorned (in contemporary sci-fi standards) but convincing future city of Omaha, a dilapidated and occasionally noir-infused urban hellhole of organized crime and poverty. But it’s when Johnson enters into the realm of montage that Looper truly delivers its most gratifying moments of filmmaking, one sequence centering on Young Joe and a later sequence on Old Joe.

A montage that weaves together Omaha’s featureless concrete wasteland and the surrounding agrarian flatland chronicles Young Joe’s repetitious vicious cycle of drugs, clubbing, killing, and sex. Rian Johnson employs various cinematic tricks to make this segment all the more frenetic, from faster and faster cuts (especially in Young Joe’s unthinking executions) and distorting lenses that blur, wobble, and even overturn the images onscreen into a hazy glimpse at Joe’s fast-paced young life. When Old Joe enters the picture, Johnson sneakily entwines his timeline overtop what once was Young Joe’s singular narrative. Returning to the familiar image of Joe waiting for his target, blunderbuss in hand, Johnson introduces the montage that chronicles the entire life of Old Joe leading up to the present moment with temporal trickery. Sidestepping the main plot, Johnson spends a good deal of time presenting backstory for Old Joe while laying the foundations and problems of his vision of a sci-fi future world: the prevalence of organized crime, the rise of industrial China, the presence of telekinesis in everyday life, the outlaw of time travel and the blatant disregard for that law, and the imminent authority of the so-called Rainmaker, a high profile gangster who all but runs the future. This entire montage highlights the diversified stylistic palette the film has to offer: gorgeous typography on the big screen, sprawling widescreen cinematography of future China, sweeping camera movements, skilled make-up work on Gordon-Levitt to mimic the look of Bruce Willis, and so on. Furthermore, another earlier scene featuring a wonderfully hysterical Paul Dano playing a fellow Looper who has failed to kill his own future self exemplifies the darkly imaginative nature of the film, documenting the paradoxes of time travel and its effects on existence in the most unnerving moment of the movie (think: the disappearing image on the photograph from Back to the Future made physical). 

Nevertheless, such craftsmanship only lasts so long, because after the first half, the film sputters into a crawl as if Looper has simply run out of clever stylistic and narrative ideas. During a tense conversation between Young and Old Joe over a table (recalling Heat’s diner scene) in which the philosophical conflict of the self as other is made literal – they’re not just like each other they are each other – the film shifts gears into a fairly formulaic game of cat and mouse. Even still, Johnson and company take great pains in promoting the narrative as a mind-bending journey, with characters declaring, “This time travel crap… just fries your brain like a egg” and “We’ll be sitting here all day making diagrams with straws.” Such a conceit betrays the sweeping claims of the film’s alleged intellectualism, as it doesn’t take a lot of effort to work out the basic narrative of Looper. The film is no La Jetée despite its shared subject matter of time travel and its existential effects on killing others. Instead, Looper unfolds more like The Terminator, with Old Joe in a destructive manhunt to eliminate the young Rainmaker before he can wreak havoc on his future life while Young Joe is drawn to a farmhouse owned by Sara (Emily Blunt) and her son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) while he (and the audience) awaits the inevitable reckoning between present and future.

Swapping city for country, the second half of the film’s abrupt tonal and stylistic shift never intertwines into the overarching narrative fluidly enough to justify such transference. Blunt does her damned best to imbue personality and character into a waning film as Young Joe recedes into the background as little more than scenery. Even Gagnon performs well as a child actor, sharing scenes with both Blunt and Gordon-Levitt for moments of mundane humor. All the while, Willis reveals the primary reason why he was cast for the film, channeling his best Schwarzenegger as he leaves a warpath after running into Young Joe’s mob company and eventually confronting Young Joe as he protects Sara (Connor?) and her son. The second half remains a disorganized, poorly paced affair and despite the refreshing North by Northwest cinematography that distances the film from generic sci-fi cyberpunk tropes, Johnson cannot resuscitate the liveliness of the first half. Instead, he presents a late-game plot twist with extremely clunky results, suddenly rousing the mutation and telekinesis background details as a significant narrative device. The finale ultimately unveils the truth behind the consistently amiss background of Cid, but resolving the conflict via a tacked-on piece of background information comes off as lazy writing given the talents of Johnson and his crew. 

Overall, the film never left me breathless, but Looper does end strongly – not in its resolution of conflict but in terms of its ethical ambiguity. Its concluding standoff finds both Young and Old Joe alike in terms of their motivations; both compete to preserve lives they care for even if Old Joe is clearly positioned to the viewer as the antagonist. The film ends rather abruptly, never presenting a clear-cut moral ending. It’s in these last few seconds of film that Rian Johnson raises the true discussion questions of his narrative, no matter how fractured and untidy it may be: Which Joe is in the right? Should the future tyrant be killed? Is it right to leave his emotional instability to chance lest he lapse into evil? Looper doesn’t succeed as a truly groundbreaking sci-fi film based on its previous two hours of running time, but Johnson’s morally open-ended dénouement sticks out. Looper has its moments, but despite all that, the film veers too far off course from thematic and stylistic coherency to truly capture a holistically worthwhile experience. And it’s a true shame, because no matter how hard Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Rian Johnson try in proving their worth here, Looper will always be half-good.

Notes 4

20 Essential TIFF Films

Miguel Penabella | 9 August 2012

With the Cannes Film Festival already come and gone, the film world now turns its eyes elsewhere: Venice and Toronto. The former venue boasts some prominent titles in competition, namely Paul Thomas Anderson’s hotly anticipated The Master, Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, and so on. The news coming out of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), however, demands even greater excitement for the sheer number of films to be screened. Running from September 6-16, the festival has already nabbed hundreds of movies, looking to overshadow Sundance and even Cannes as this year’s most prestigious celebration of the cinema. There are returning festival films from Cannes/Sundance including Reality, The Hunt, The We and the I, Sightseers, etc., but the sheer number of announced works to be screened is truly staggering. I’ve included some films whose releases double dip with other festivals, such as To the Wonder (again, also screening in Venice) and Gangs of Wasseypur (premiered in Cannes), but these following twenty films are only a slight taste of the hundreds of independent and international films, documentaries, shorts, and blockbusters that call Toronto their home and the place for cinema.

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Notes 16

The Column – Money Never Sleeps: On Fixing the Global Financial Crisis

Miguel Penabella | 27 June 2012

The Column is a Free Tea segment that serves as a forum with which to discuss random topics on cinema and topics outside of it in a pseudo-opinionated manner, much like your weekend newspaper column. A little more informal and more concise than your regular Free Tea feature, these pieces are meant to both inform and express personal thoughts on various issues.


I once took an economics course, but most of that time sitting in lectures either witnessed me browsing Reddit or reading music reviews off Pitchfork. Naturally, I suppose I’m more than qualified to speak on the global financial crisis and potential approaches with which to solve such a quandary. I have to admit, I’m completely oblivious to the various G-20 summits held around the world and I have no idea what the term “hedge fund” means, but I do enjoy reading Bloomberg Businessweek and I did actually pay close attention in my Asian studies class, the syllabus of which focused on late 20th century and 21st century contemporary global issues ranging from glocalisation to critical media theory. By no means am I supposing that what I have to offer to economic discussion carries a profoundly intellectual, even mildly thoughtful weightiness. What I do hope is for an amusing spiel of a column that may or may not instigate some kind of appreciative consideration, or even an amused grin on one’s face.

Ever since the major turning point in 2007 when the global financial crisis and recession became an immediate thing within our society, global think tanks and politicians have been squabbling on how the bloody hell to go about solving the problem. I for one oppose austerity measures in Europe and champion the tried-and-true rules of elementary economics concerning expansionary fiscal policy. An increase in government expenditures and a cut in taxes will increase aggregate expenditures and real GDP growth, thus gradually lowering the rate of unemployment and balancing the budget. That’s the old route taken directly from economics’ fundamental level, and that tends to work in 20th century politics. Unfortunately, the 21st century has complicated the issue, what with the Eurozone, more recent changes in the Glass–Steagall Act, globalization, so on and so on. The truth is, people will hesitate in investing in such an unstable economic atmosphere no matter how safe it may seem; political mudslinging in the upcoming election and media spin will likely exacerbate already build-in anxieties for the future. On the other hand, people will also doubt the integrity of the banking system, especially considering how interconnected the world’s economies have become due to our incessant championing of the virtues of globalization. With vital countries on the brink of economic collapse (specifically Greece, Italy, and Spain), the thought of their failures causing a catastrophic domino effect on a majority of the European Union, and unavoidably, on the United States warrants uncertainty and anticipation lest people’s savings and pensions disappear should Greece ever implode from all the chaos. 

Even more distressing is how flawed our banking system operates, because if people decide to begin taking out their savings in a nice about-face to the global financial sector, then the entire industry would crumble. No matter how much we loathe the overpaid, underhanded Wall Street money machine, they’re here to stay simply because they’ve written themselves into the global financial system in such a way that their removal would sink economic conditions even further. And because unmitigated economic globalization has now become central to economic thought, the complex interactions within the market and its contribution to gross domestic product becomes a bit fuzzy. We’d like to spend more money in an effort to appease our government’s push for investment and consumption to stimulate the economy once again, but that’s not taking into account the actual goods produced. Because the manufacturing sector of developed countries like the United States and the United Kingdom have been outsourced to areas of cheaper industrial labor, namely developing countries China and India, buying imported goods only stimulates their GDP. Truth is, a majority of the goods we purchase are produced overseas, and this factor confounds the conversation on how to stimulate the economy once again.

So what does the cinema have to say about the global financial crisis? As history tells us, no other industry during the Great Depression in America prospered quite like the film industry. Granted, there were a number of theater closures and flops, but the classic, monopolistic studio system of RKO, MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros., and 20th Century Fox continued to make money all throughout the Depression to the point where the Supreme Court allowed these monopolies to exist because they were so vital to the economy. Hell, even a company as significant as 20th Century Fox emerged in the midst of the Depression in 1935. Clearly, if an industry that produces nonessential goods/services can subsist and even flourish in an era where entire populations waited in soup kitchen lines, the film industry can thrive in this era’s recession, right? For the most part, the 21st century has shown that cinema is recession resistant, but not necessarily recession-proof. MGM tanked in 2010 when it declared bankruptcy, but in the context of the modern movie industry spectrum where dozens and dozens of growing companies exist (and not just the five major studios back in the 1930s), MGM’s failure comes as no surprise. Even as one monolith lays low in a slow recovery process, numerous other studios are rising to take its place: Lionsgate (The Hunger Games), The Weinstein Company (The Artist, The King’s Speech), etc. People will always turn to the cinema as one of the cheapest sources of escapist entertainment because of the medium’s role as mass entertainment. An increasing number of films are being released with each passing year, and the top earners are already surpassing the billion dollar worldwide gross mark, regardless if the numbers are adjusted for inflation or not.

The widely successful Harry Potter series has earned $7,706,147,978 in the course of a decade, which is still greater than the total grosses for 24 James Bond films or 7 Star Wars films (including that animated one that nobody remembers), proving that even in the midst of the worst part of the economic crisis, the cinema will prosper. And let’s not forget the flourishing newcomer that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whose six films have entered into the pop culture consciousness as one of the surefire moneymakers at the box office. People go to the movies even when food needs to be put on the table and mortgages need to be paid because these troubles simply vanish in the dark, air-conditioned palaces where recession woes cannot enter. Movie theaters are the purest form of bread and circus to appease unruly masses – the junk food of the lobby paired with the bright, Orwellian screens looming over passive audiences. There are a number of exceptions to the rule, however, as some films also reflect social realities to comment on modern times. The critical and commercial results that come out of these films reveal significant insights on how many Americans feel about the political/economic topics implied within, and these results speak a lot about our current social atmosphere.

One recent example is Oliver Stone’s flop back in 2010 with Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, a film that features the iconic Gordon “Greed is Good” Gekko (Michael Douglas) returning to the screen. While the film may be a sequel to a high profile title, box office returns have resulted in a much talked about failure amongst the film community. What Stone failed to anticipate was the worsening financial crisis and the tarnished image of Wall Street, and the film’s depiction of moneyed figures representing the corporations/financial institutions that played a major role in our current economic malaise simply alienated audiences. In contrast, 2010’s surprise hit The Town won over critics and audiences with its premise of populist everymen from a working class background combating the forces who’ve plagued the economy in the first place. Director Ben Affleck portrays his characters as bank robbers on surface level, but in the context of the financial crisis, a heist film as this pretty much serves as a middle finger to the banking system itself. Then there’s the Occupy-tinged Coriolanus and the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises, and you can see for yourself the vast majority of America sympathizing with working class woes and shunning the corrupted institutions that brought down the economy to begin with.

The populist-minded mood of filmgoing audiences couldn’t be farther away than the current American government, which many critics have derided as a “Wall Street government.” Indeed, such big names as Federal Reserve chairmen Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke (the latter of which is our current one) have been plagued with controversy over their support for Wall Street names. And let’s not forget Treasury Secretaries Henry Paulson and Timothy Geithner (the latter of which is also our current one), both of whom have worked in Wall Street and thus, to many Americans’ populist eyes, view them simply as out of touch with everyman misfortunes. What the government needs to recognize is its constituents’ disproval of Wall Street and major corporations – having them onboard may perpetuate our continuing financial crisis. Instead, as Mr. Smith reminded us back in 1939, even an earnest common man can make it to Washington. Added to this prospect the current “We are the 99%” movement of Occupy, the masses are beginning to reawaken to more direct action against less than stellar government policies.

One last consideration on the global financial crisis: world markets. I’ve brought it up numerous times before, and I’ll bring it up again. Globalization has changed the face of international relations, and if developed countries are to pull through an economic downturn, leaders absolutely must turn to developing countries. These emergent powers drive economic growth, specifically the much talked about BRIC – Brazil, Russia, India, China. In the realm of the cinema, the popcorn blockbusters of the summer have proved time and time again that overseas box office grosses are vital for considerable ticket sales – especially China. Men In Black 3 grossed over $75 million in the country, a considerable return that exceeds any other national audience besides the United States. Just like in the economic realm, reception from overseas markets remains absolutely vital if consumers in America are reluctant to spend money. As a result, many films have received international financial backing such as the upcoming Iron Man 3 and Looper (both from DMG Entertainment, a Chinese studio) and even production company Legendary Pictures have created a Chinese offshoot studio Legendary East and partnered with Huayi Brothers Media Corp. to release The Dark Knight Rises.

In conclusion, the most straightforward way to help the American economy would be to cater to China’s whims. After all, refusing to admit that the country isn’t a credible superpower would be a step towards doom, and of course, we want to avoid a Cold War-esque manufacturing race because we’ll surely suffer for it. So then, I suggest taking a step away from Wall Street and looking across the ocean to brighter prospects that lie beyond the horizon: for the greatest good of economic recovery, we should all probably watch The Dark Knight Rises then.

Notes 1