Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Film Review: Brick, Looper, and Rian Johnson

Back in 2005, a genre-bending independent film titled Brick, written and directed by Rian Johnson, was released. The film was more or less ignored by film-goers, although it did earn itself a modest cult following. On my older brother's recommendation, I watched Brick. And then I watched it again, and again, and yet again. It provided one of those magical film fanatic moments where I truly felt like I was watching something original. Skip ahead 7 years, and Johnson's third film, Looper, has just been released, finding immediate success in its opening weekend. Now, I suspect that a lot of people will be going back to watch, and likely enjoy, Brick. I'd love to include Johnson's second film, The Brothers Bloom, in this review, but I haven't had the chance to see it yet. So I'll stick to Brick, Looper, and the two episodes of Breaking Bad that Johnson directed.

Brick, which stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, takes all the mystery, style, and edginess of an old-school film noir flick and sticks it into a modern day high school. JGL plays an outcast with a violent streak who embarks on an investigation into his ex-girlfriend's murder. On the way, he meets all the usual suspects: dangerous thugs, a femme fatale, and of course, the criminal kingpin. All of this would be entertaining enough, but the fact that Johnson opted to have teenagers/young adults play these roles adds a fresh twist to an old genre. Walking the line between darkly humourous satire and a dreadfully dramatic atmosphere, Brick still stands out as one of the most unique mystery movies I've seen.

One of the most outstanding aspects of the film is the way in which the characters speak, using old-time mobster slang and translating it into modern day, fast-talking, stylish dialogue. I guarantee that you won't catch everything that's said on the first go-around, but chances are you'll want to rewatch the movie as soon as it ends anyways. This was the film that began my actor-crush for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and marked Rian Johnson as a director that I knew I should keep an eye on. I highly recommend Brick, especially for those craving a new take on an old story. Note: This seems to be a theme with the movies I review on here, but this really isn't a date movie, a sunny day movie, or anything to put on and casually watch. While it never felt like a chore, Brick is definitely a film that you have to dedicate attention and mind-power to.

About half a year ago, a science fiction film titled Looper found its way onto my radar. I saw a trailer and was immediately excited about the cast, which includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Paul Dano, and Jeff Daniels, all actors that have impressed the hell out of me in one way or another in the past. I also took note that Rian Johnson, who I had all but forgotten about since Brick, was the film-maker behind this sci-fi time travel mind-screw. I'm not usually super excited about anything from the science film genre, I tend to like my entertainment grounded in the world I know, but I figured that if Rian Johnson could do for the time travel genre what he did for the film-noir genre, it was worth a shot. Over the weekend, my wait ended, and I finally had a chance to seeLooper.

The basic premise of the film: In the year 2072, time travel has been invented, and quickly outlawed, thus the technology is being exclusively used by criminal organizations. And since human-tracking technology has made it impossible to hide or dispose of a body, these criminal organizations have found a neat solution, sending their targets back 30 years to be murdered on the spot by low-level hitmen known as Loopers. Gordon-Levitt plays one of these Loopers, Joe, and things get awful messy when he shows up for a kill, only to find that he's meant to kill his older self, played by Bruce Willis. (known as 'closing your loop'). He hesitates, Willis gets away, and the game is on. It's a huge mistake to let your intended target escape, so Joe desperately tries to find his older self and finish the job. For anyone who is familiar with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the first thing you'll notice about his role in this film is that his face has been prosthetically mutated. The reason for this is that he's essentially playing a younger Bruce Willis, and I assume that Johnson decided that it was easier to make JGL look like a younger Willis, rather than to make Willis look like an older JGL.

Now, the description that I've included above isn't anything that you wouldn't be able to put together from commercials or trailers. However, due to what I found to be a very clever marketing campaign, the plotline I've described is really only half the story. What the trailers don't tell you is that humans have not only developed time travel, but a number of them have also developed telekinesis. And it's no coincedence that Joe's future self was sent back to be executed, because a future crimelord known as the Rainmaker has taken control and is hell-bent on closing every Looper's loop. So Old Joe, having witnessed the murder of his one true love, has fought his way back in time to find the Rainmaker as a child and kill him, thus preventing this whole situation. As Jeff Daniels' character, a mob boss named Abe, says, 'All this time travel stuff can fry your brain like an egg.'

Now that you know the story, I'll share my thoughts on the film. I liked it. End of review. Just kidding. Often, when I'm dealing with science fiction films, I find they can be too gimmicky, too preach, too confusing, or too overwhelming. I respect that most sci-fi is about making a statement about humanity and the dangers of technology, but I'll always be a fan of character-based plot, which is why I found myself quite impressed with Looper. For a future-based film that involves corrupt crime organizations, time travel, and telekinesis, it really does feel like a small film. Actually, half of it simply takes place on a farm. We don't see any epic revolutions, or cities collapsing, or the threat of the apocalypse, the scope stays on the core group of characters and really revolves around Joe trying to decide between his own short-sighted and selfish ways, or taking a leap of faith and saving his future self. That's a dilemma I can sink my teeth into.

As with any sort of time travel narrative, logic becomes a very slippery thing to hold on to. You want to just sit back and enjoy what's being presented, but there are naturally so many loopholes and possibly plotholes that only get more complex and troubling the more you think about it. Thankfully, Old Joe has a solution for that, let me paraphrase: 'I don't want to talk about this time travel shit!', and 'We could talk about it all day, but here's what you need to know'. So, in a way, the movie itself gives the audience a pass, asking us to accept the premise and not to think too hard about it. Essentially, this isn't a film about time travel, that's only the set-up to get the characters where they need to be. This is a film about morality and doing what it takes to be a hero.

A few notes about the lead performances: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in my opinion, doesn't really have anything else to prove as an actor. He's done it all and done it well, so mimicking Bruce Willis's mannerisms and taking on his facial features may have been a challenge, but I never doubted that he could do it. If you're a fan of Bruce Willis, you'll like him as Old Joe, no big surprises there. And if you aren't, well, there's other actors here to enjoy. Emily Blunt, who plays Sara, the mother of young Rainmaker, does her job well, portraying the right amount of emotion and strength, when necessary. Then there's Cid, the young Rainmaker, played by Pierce Gagnon. At only 5 years old, this boy steals the show, acting more realistically and impressively than I've seen a lot of adult actors be able to pull off. His performance really is unbelievable and is probably the best reason to see this film. Trust me, if this kid sticks to acting, he'll be a huge star. Jeff Daniels takes a nice turn as one of the main villains of the film, and only convinced me more that he's an actor worth watching. And a quick note about Paul Dano, who has a small role as Seth, a fellow Looper, this guy is an amazing dramatic actor and I highly recommend checking out his other roles, notably Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood.

Finally, I want to speak a bit about Rian Johnson's portrayal of the future, which is one of my favourite aspects in the film. Rather than stick to the old formula of huge skyscrapers, flying cars, and floating holograms, the film-maker chose to take a more realistic route to get us from the world we know to the future world that he presents. Sure, there are some huge steps in technology, but, as it would be in real life, only the super rich or super corrupt have access to these. Poor people are poorer than ever, and the city that Looper is set isn't anywhere close to a futuristic paradise. Johnson offers one of the best representations of the future that I've ever seen on film, because I can actually imagine the world looking this way, with floating motorcycles flashing through the ruins of lower-class surburbia. And as I mentioned, a large portion of the film takes place on a farm, which looks like any old farm, just aged by 30 years. The effect that this has is important, because we aren't constantly questioning how this future world came to be, and instead, we're focused on what's important here, the characters and their stories.

And, for those that don't know, how cool is it that he's directed two episodes of Breaking Bad? The first was 'Fly', the 'bottle-episode' from Season 3 which polarized die-hard fans, some calling it pointless and boring, and others calling it a dramatic masterpiece. The other episode was from the recent 8-episode run, titled 'Fifty-One', which also divided fans, due to it's lack of action and very small scope on Walter and Skyler White. The scene where Skyler walks into the pool and Walt jumps in after her, oh man, chills. Both these episodes are two of my favourite from the entire series, and I hope to see Johnson bring his unique vision to both the big and the small screen in coming years.

Overall, it's amazing to see Rian Johnson go from a nickel-and-dimes film like Brick to a Hollywood blockbuster like Looper, and it's very refreshing to see that even on a grand stage, he still cares about an engaging story and interesting characters. He doesn't have enough material to warrant my favourite director's list, but he's definitely a film-maker that I'll be keeping a close eye on in the future. Your homework assignment: Go watch Brick, and go see Looper.

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