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LOOPER
(***½)
Reviewer:   Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Director/Writer:   Rian Johnson
Starring:
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt
Length:   118 minutes
Released:   092812
Rating:
R for strong violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and drug content
“Snow White and the Huntsman is a credit to the visual imagination of Sanders and cinematographer Greig Fraser." 

There’s a sequence in “Looper” where a character warns that thinking about time travel can fry one’s brain like an egg. This warning might as well be meant for viewers, and heeding it is the key to allowing the film to work. Writer/director Rian Johnson realizes that dwelling on the inevitable paradoxes is a brain-melting exercise, and “Looper” is really no different since it hinges on similar mind-bending mechanics that don’t withstand logical scrutiny. Fortunately, none of this stuff really matters since “Looper” is compelling, cool, and completely riveting--quite simply, it just works because it’s a fantastic story that’s well-told without getting caught up in the wash of its sci-fi minutiae. Instead, “Looper” is concerned with broad strokes of character, drama, and theme all of which find a perfect marriage in the film’s high concept: in the far-flung future (about sixty years from now), time-travel exists but has been outlawed, employed only by the criminal underground who use it for mob hits. When they need to rid themselves of someone, they zap them back thirty years into the past, where specialized assassins called loopers dispense of them. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one of these loopers and has been steadily building a nest egg of silver that he’ll eventually cash in towards his future. That future comes back to haunt him, though, when his older self (Bruce Willis) is sent back as his latest target, which is actually standard procedure in this business. By assassinating one’s older self, loopers “close their loop,” an act that essentially lets them off the hook to enjoy the next 30 years until they’re summoned for their own assassination. In this case, however, the older Joe refuses to go by the script, so his younger counterpart is forced to hunt himself down, all while avoiding his fellow assassins.

That’s the hook for “Looper,” but it’s just the first of many; time travel is an inherently fascinating concept, and Johnson dips below its surface intrigue to explore the ramifications of this scenario that only grows more captivating as the film moves ahead. While its momentum is relentless, the film’s story is methodical and thoughtful, expertly and economically sketched by Johnson. With so much plotting and mechanisms at work, “Looper” could easily spin its wheels, but Johnson doesn’t employ the gift of gab. Instead, he manages to expertly convey everything--from the “rules” of time-travel to thirty years’ worth of story--with a blistering visual brevity that reveals the touch of a natural storyteller. While the film’s setup is a mouthful, it’s actually just an appetizer--I’ve described perhaps a third of the plot, which eventually twists and turns into something that’s been completely hidden by the marketing. Rather than chronicling a manhunt, it settles into something a little more intimate and ruminative when younger Joe encounters a local farm girl (Emily Blunt) and her son (Pierce Gagnon), a meeting that’s hardly a chance encounter since the older Joe has come back in time with specific intentions to alter the future.

At its heart, “Looper” is ultimately “The Terminator” tilted on its head a bit; that film represents the grandfather of all time paradoxes, and “Looper” certainly can’t escape that, but, again, it’s hardly a concern as the film unfolds. The story is undeniably clever, but it’s not terribly cute about it; it tricks not by pulling the rug out from under viewers, but by simply staying a few steps ahead and allowing them to delight in its various directions and modes, none of which feel forced.

Instead, “Looper” is a remarkably organic experience, from the narrative to Johnson’s vision of the future, which is about two steps removed from our present. Situated in Kansas, this dystopia is somewhere between the urban grunge of “Blade Runner” and the eerie desolation of “Children of the Corn.” There are still cornfields and Midwest twang, with the futurist aspects (weaponry, drugs, etc.) acting mostly as flourishes. Like much of “Looper,” this production design is unassuming but effective, perhaps because it results in a world that is so reminiscent of our own--it’s filled not with gaudy technology or put-upon futurism but with compelling, resonant human beings whose motivations are wholly believable and fuel the film.
At the forefront is Gordon-Levitt, who gives a performance that sees him stop just short of wearing Bruce Willis’s skin in an attempt to become the elder actor. Refusing to allow the makeup and prosthetics carry the load ( and the makeup is a tad overdone. Sometimes to the point of distraction ), Gordon-Levitt adopts Willis’s vocal inflections and mannerisms to uncannily transform himself. The performance is no mere pantomime, though, as the younger Joe is a complicated, conflicted character, a junkie who seeks comfort in strippers and drugs. He’s also aware of his failings and is investing in his future because it’ll be his chance to hit the reset button on what has been a tumultuous life thus far.

Thanks to the time travel conceit, we’re privy to how it turns out for Joe, so the stakes are thoroughly grounded by the time the older Joe arrives on the scene. Since Gordon-Levitt completely gives himself over to the Willis persona, Willis himself can give a soft-spoken, forlorn Bruce Willis performance, one that’s driven by an understandable sense of tragedy and longing. Watching the two interact is fascinating, sort of like watching two halves refusing to form a whole, and the film’s true drama emerges as each character continues to shift in esteem; initially, the older Joe earns our empathy, whereas his impetuous counterpart is driven by selfishness. Even as Willis’s motives come into focus, the film is still awash in shades of grey. Johnson’s best trick is his refusal to relent to one-dimension, and the philosophical and moral implications that eventually arise are more absorbing than the time-travel business. Very few of the characters are definitively in the wrong, with each being driven by a natural instinct.

Brought to life by an impressive ensemble, the supporting cast is colorful. Blunt is the girl but not the girl, a tough, achingly maternal woman who arguably faces the most horrible revelation in the film, while Gagnon delivers an utterly convincing and layered performance as the ten year old son, the lynchpin character upon whom the film hinges. The “bad guys” are Joe’s fellow thugs; however, as a looper, he’s actually on the low end of the totem pole, as the more experienced and efficient gat-men come in to clean up messes. Heading the organization is Abe (Jeff Daniels), a guy sent back in time to ensure things go smoothly for his employer in the future. Operating with a subtle menace that’s alarmingly diffused by Daniels’s typically charming persona, Abe sometimes feels like the ultimate shit-kicker who’s inexplicably assumed a position of power. In his employ is a lapdog named Kid Blue (Noah Segan), a put-upon wannabe gangster whose attachment to his absurdly sized handgun speaks volumes.

There are other fine, small performances. Paul Dano is Joe’s cohort, and his inability to close his own loop is one of those perfect, economical storytelling choices that efficiently establishes how Johnson’s world works. Joe frequents a diner where he engages a waitress (Tracie Thoms) in small talk, while the film’s events also bring him into conflict with yet another looper (Garret Dillahunt) with a conflicted sense of honor and duty. Johnson’s attentiveness is most apparent when he finds so many humane, affecting moments--both verbal and nonverbal--between all of these characters; that “Looper” is so unbelievably cool isn’t much of a surprise, but it also manages resonate and absorb with emotional and intellectual depth, as Johnson arranges a rich menagerie of characters, most of them in pursuit of purely instinctual and individual pursuits in a dystopic world that seemingly thrives on such dissent and division.

As such, time travel is a natural fit to reveal how these individuals are unwittingly interlocking into a much larger sequence, and, for all of the future’s advances, the film comes down to good old fashioned empathy, sacrifice, regret, motherhood, nature, and nurture. The latter three are connected, naturally, and “Looper” has some thoughtful things to say about human nature and its psychology. Fittingly, the film provides a cyclical loop that examines tortured childhoods and their ability to impact the future on a small and large scale.

Don’t let me sell “Looper’s” cool factor short--it’s slick and stylish with well-cut, unique action sequences that solidify Johnson’s chops in that arena, and Willis does get a chance to channel John McClane here and there, but this is subversive action cinema that intentionally slows itself down to consider its characters. It’s also another knowing genre riff from Johnson; like “Brick” and “The Brothers Bloom” before it, it’s operating in a familiar realm and subtly reconfiguring it with a couple of unobtrusive nods--Blunt’s character is named Sara and is every bit as fierce as Linda Hamilton in “The Terminator”, and, at one point, Daniels complains that the entertainment of the time period is nothing but affectations of twentieth century fare.

The same can be said of Johnson’s output so far, but it’s hardly a criticism since he’s found a way to reinvigorate every genre he’s explored without reinventing their wheels. “Looper” is his most accomplished work to date: daring, engrossing, and impeccably crafted, it's a triumph that transcends genre.

LOOPER © 2013 TriStar Pictures
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2013 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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AT THE MOVIES

THE THREE STOOGES
(**½)
Reviewer:   Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Director:   Bobby & Peter Farrelly
Writers:
Screenplay by Mike Cerrone, Bobby Farrelly & Peter Farrelly
Starring:
Sean Hayes, Will Sasso, Chris Diamantopoulos
Length:   92 minutes
Released:   041312
Rating:
PG for for slapstick action violence, some rude and suggestive humor including language
“The Three Stooges is not particularly great, though it is possibly brilliant, a picture that goes beyond homage to become its own rambunctious invention" 

In 1930, a film called “Soup to Nuts” was released. Though it didn’t break box office records it is best remembered for one great achievement: introducing the world to The Three Stooges. Consisting of brothers Moe and Shemp Howard (Shemp would be replaced by Curly shortly afterwards) and violinist Larry Fine, the trio poked, kicked and nyuk-nyuk-nyuked their way through almost 200 shorts and feature films. Their popularity was so great that their studio, Columbia, would refuse to rent them to theatre owners unless they promised to play a poorly performing Columbia feature. The Stooges continued on in various forms (after Curly died, Shemp returned – following Shemp’s death both Joe Besser and Joe DeRita followed). In the 1960s, as television took off, the Stooges were introduced to a new generation, including me. Parents began to complain that their children were poking each other in the eyes and I’ve heard of several cases of one sibling hitting another one in the head with a hammer just because it looked funny on TV. Now, almost four decades after the last Stooges, Moe and Larry, passed away, comes a film that tries to recapture the magic of good, old fashioned slapstick comedy.

Presented in a series of faux-shorts (the first one titled “More Orphan Then Not”), “The Three Stooges” begins with three boys being dropped off at an orphanage. As they grow up they seem to attract any mishap that might be in the area. Moe (Skyler Gisondo) is the bossy one of the bunch. Larry (Lance Chantiles-Wertz) is the quiet one. His silence, along with his very unusual head of hair, make prospective parents wonder if he is undergoing chemotherapy. Curly (Robert Capron) is the million-miles-a-minute hyper one. But they are a team. Years later, now adults, the boys learn the orphanage is in threat of being closed due to funding. Determined to save their home, the Stooges make their way out into the world.

Full of the classic timing and slapstick humor that have made the Stooges fan favorites for almost a century, “The Three Stooges” could have been a horrible disappointment. It would have been difficult to create a bio pic about the boys because their personalities are so engrained in our memories. But to actually emulate all that made the Stooges popular, and do it well, is a miracle. All three leads are superb comedians in their own right, with Emmy award winner Hayes (Larry) being the most recognizable. Sasso (Curly) is a comedy vet with a long stint on “Mad TV” while Diamantoupoulos (Moe) is known more for his serious work on shows like “24.” They all succeed in bringing the Stooges to life with Diamantoupoulos seeming to be channeling Moe Howard. To learn that Howard died less than a week before Diamantoupoulis was born makes that last sentence eerie!

The comedy is pretty toned down by Farrelly brother standards. The majority of the laughs come from the onscreen shenanigans. When the script calls for the inclusion of peeing babies and a testicle joke or two, these modern comedy attempts seem startlingly out of place. But old fans and new fans should rejoice as the Stooges are introduced to a new generation.

Bobby and Peter Farrelly’s The Three Stooges is not particularly great, though it is possibly brilliant, a picture that goes beyond homage to become its own rambunctious invention — it’s one big eye-poke, with footnotes. Maybe the world doesn’t need a meticulously observed re-creation of the Three Stooges’ artistry, a brand of cartoonishly violent slapstick that for decades horrified moms and other upstanding individuals. Or maybe the world needs it now more than ever. Either way, the Farrellys’ reimagining of the Stooges oeuvre — which includes a back-story set in an orphanage run by nuns — is packed with so much affection, and pays so much attention to detail, that I think it’s possible to love The Three Stooges even if you never loved the Three Stooges. The picture is confident in its ridiculousness — any movie that puts Larry David in a nun’s habit has to be.

Peter and Bobby Farrelly — who, with Mike Cerrone, also wrote the script — lift that particular bit wholesale from one of the old Stooges’ shorts. In fact, all of the movie’s physical gags are meticulous re-creations of standard Stoogery: Heads being conked with hammers, complete with clanging metallic sound effects; standard-issue eye-pokes; limbs being twisted and intertwined in ways that defy human anatomy. All the old chestnuts are here, rendered with such loving specificity that they merge into a kind of highly perfumed Zen garden — call it Essence du Stooge. This is physical comedy in its purest form — it’s crude as hell, but there’s precision in its crudeness, and that’s not lost on the Farrellys or their actors.

The Farrellys have structured their movie as three shorts that connect into a narrative, involving the Stooges’ efforts to save the beleaguered orphanage that gave them their start — their hearts are in the right place, even when their noses have been dislocated. Sofia Vergara appears as a scheming bad gal; Stephen Collins plays an adoptive dad who isn’t quite what he seems. And then there are the nuns, two of whom are played by Jane Lynch and Jennifer Hudson. But it’s Larry David’s Sister Mary-Mengele who steals the show, nun wise. She berates the boys in a shrewish rasp. When the orphans join together in angelic song — the words assert that everybody is special — Sister Mary cuts them off with a foghorn “Shaddap!” She’s every former Catholic school kid's nightmare in one cranky, knobby package.

She’s also the kind of character at which the Farrellys excel, which suggests that even if they haven’t fully returned to form, at least they’ve returned to some form. The duo’s recent pictures have been dismal — their 2007 remake of Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid, in particular, showed an uncharacteristic mean-spiritedness. But at their best, the Farrellys' stock-in-trade is balancing the coarsest, dumbest humor imaginable with a bracing affection for the weirdoes and misfits of humankind. And what were the original Three Stooges, if not the ultimate weirdoes and misfits, bullying and bumbling their way through the world? With The Three Stooges, the Farrellys have poured a great deal of heart into a subject many people feel they can do without: For every past-middle-aged guy in a rumpled T-shirt who professes love for the Three Stooges, there are at least three women, most likely members of book groups, who see them as the downfall of civilization.

But for the Farrellys, the Three Stooges are simply a product of civilization, a source of the disreputable joy and pleasure that sometimes, particularly on a really bad day, make life worth living. That’s not to say their movie is exactly a model of subtlety. Yet it’s telling that the Farrellys stage one of the movie’s more emotional moments to a spare, unvarnished recording of Charlie Rich’s “Feel Like Going Home,” a country-gospel number of transcendent power and beauty. What’s a great song like that doing in a movie like this? That’s the eternal riddle of the Farrellys, at least when they’re at their best. Even when they’re catering to our baser impulses, they find a way to appeal to our higher instincts. Sometimes even without using a mallet.

THE THREE STOOGES © 2013 20th Century Fox Distribution
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2013 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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