Nuts!


Does this man look completely nuts to you?

Does this man look completely nuts to you?

(2016) Documentary (mTuckman) Gene Tognacci, Andy Boswell, John Causby, Kelly Mizell, Jeff Pillars, Thom Stylinski, Fran Taylor, Pope Brok, Gene Fowler, Dr. James Reardon, Megan Seaholm, Dr. John R. Brinkley, John R. Brinkley, Jr. Directed by Penny Lane

 

Our need to believe can sometimes push us beyond the bounds of reason. We often feed our own belief systems with that which makes no logical sense, but because it jives with what we want to believe, we accept it as fact. That’s nothing new, as the story of Dr. John Romulus Brinkley will attest.

John R. Brinkley arose from the tiny town of Milford, Kansas (a town which ironically no longer exists as it sits at the bottom of a reservoir today) when a local farmer complained that his sexuality was something of a “flat tire.” Brinkley suggested that he, as the town’s local doctor, transplant goat testicles into the farmer and voila! Nine months later the formerly flat tire was, as they say, fully inflated and no longer shooting blanks.

The good doctor quickly became a wealthy man as people from all over the country began to flock to his Milford hospital for the transplantation of their own. Results were, to say the least, startling. Dr. Brinkley also became one of the first to use mass media to his advantage, establishing a 5,000 watt radio station in Milford which not only broadcast the doctor’s health-related screeds but also became the first station in the country to broadcast country music.

Brinkley had it all back then, in the 1910s and 1920s; wealth, a wife who adored him, a bright-eyed son he called Johnny-Boy, a palatial manor, private airplanes and yachts and as the 1930s rolled in, the attention of a crusading journalist for the Journal of the American Medical Association. Morris Fishbein went after Brinkley with a vengeance, claiming that the good doctor was a quack. He would see to it that Brinkley’s license to practice medicine was revoked as well as his license to operate a radio station.

Undeterred, the gadfly of a doctor ran for the governor of Kansas and might have won but for ballots that had been voided under shady circumstances. Eventually, Dr. Brinkley discovered a pharmaceutical solution to impotence and men were once again lining up to recapture the virility they once had. It was Viagra before Viagra was Viagra. And not content with reaching a portion of the country, Dr. Brinkley constructed a million watt radio station in Mexico that would beam his message to the entire country. Once again, Dr. Brinkley was riding high…and we all know what happens to people who ride high.

Director Penny Lane, who previously gave us Our Nixon, a look at the former president through the home videos of those around him, has done a masterful job here. In a short 79 minutes she deftly weaves the tale of Dr. Brinkley through archival footage, animated recreations and a very limited use of talking heads. However, she makes the most of the interview footage as she uses historians with specific specialties – James Reardon for the history of Kansas, Megan Seaholm for the history of medicine and the AMA and Gene Fowler for the history of radio. All contribute important background for the story.

The animation is done by several different studios and starts out in black and white as the early days of Brinkley’s rise are illustrated and gradually shifts to color as we enter the 1930s and beyond. The graphics are generally simple and sometimes crudely drawn but they suit the subject nicely and are a welcome addition to the narrative, although some of the animations are occasionally not as powerful in illustrating the story as they might be.

The interesting thing here is that Lane credits the self-aggrandizing biography of Brinkley written by Clement Wood in 1934 and commissioned by Brinkley himself. In that sense, we see Brinkley through Brinkley’s own eyes and there’s a peculiar fascination there; it really is in car wreck territory in a lot of ways. And we eventually learn that we are not hearing the absolute truth from Brinkley and as the story unravels, our perceptions are forced to change radically, showing Lane to be a masterful storyteller and illustrating vividly that the need to believe rests in us as well.

The tone of the film has a bit of a cornpone edge to it and those documentary purists who want their true stories set to a serious tone, this might be a bit vulgar. Believers in alternative medicine may shudder at some of the things that are illustrated here and might take offense if they choose to believe that the film is an indictment of alternative medicine in general (it’s not).

This is a story as American as apple pie and while it was big news back in the day, it is barely a blip on our historical radar. Few today remember Brinkley and if they do, it’s more for his pioneering use of radio than for his various treatments of impotence. His is also a cautionary tale; as the narrative changes and we realize what is really going on, we are given graphic evidence of how easily manipulated we all are. In an age where anyone can say anything on the Internet and present it as fact and be believed by millions, we are far more vulnerable to the John R. Brinkleys of the world than we were even back then and that’s a frightening thought.

REASONS TO GO: An American tale in every sense of the word. A pervasive sense of humor that is almost subversive. The change in tone near the end is unexpected and welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little too goofy for purists. Alternative medicine practitioners may cringe a little. Some of the images are ineffective.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual dialogue and suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won the special jury award at Sundance for documentary editing.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Informant (2012)
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: X-Men: Apocalypse

Advertisements

Infamous (2006)


Capote's flamboyant tastes are reflected in his sumptuous Manhattan apartment.

Capote’s flamboyant tastes are reflected in his sumptuous Manhattan apartment.

(2006) Biographical Drama (Warner Independent) Toby Jones, Sandra Bullock, Daniel Craig, Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, Lee Pace, Sigourney Weaver, Gwyneth Paltrow, Isabella Rossellini, Juliet Stevenson, John Benjamin Hickey, Peter Bogdanovich, Michael Panes, Frank Curcio, Terri Bennett, Marco Perella, Libby Vellari, Terri Zee. Directed by Douglas McGrath

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” but sometimes the truth is the good story. In the hands of a master storyteller, the truth can be the most powerful weapon of all.

Novelist and raconteur Truman Capote (Jones) is the toast of New York. Effeminate, flamboyant and the man everyone wanted at their parties,  he lived and moved effortlessly among the social elite of Manhattan in the 1950s,, counting Babe Paley (Weaver), wife of CBS chairman William and fashion icon Diana Vreeland (Stevenson) among his very best friends and confidantes. It was an endless parade of cocktail parties, power lunches and acclaim for his essays and novels. He was one of the few openly homosexual men able to live pretty much as he chose, with a lover (Hickey) who essentially allowed him to have sex with whomever he chose. He lived at the center of the world and knew it.

One morning a story nearly buried in the newspaper caught his attention; Family of Four Slain in Home. The Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas had been brutally murdered, apparently without struggle and without anything taken from the home. The police were baffled and the town was deeply disturbed by so horrible a crime occurring in their midst. On impulse, Capote decides to go to Kansas to cover the murder but moreover its effect on the town. To aid him, he brings his childhood friend Harper Lee (Bullock) whose own novel To Kill a Mockingbird had just been published.

Once he gets there, the outrageous Capote fits in like a clown at a funeral. The dour district attorney Dewey (Daniels) isn’t inclined to grant the diminutive Capote special access and most of the other reporters make him the butt of their jokes. To his chagrin, Capote is mistaken for a woman on more than one occasion. Finally, with the charm of Southern belle Lee, he begins to make some headway among the suspicious Midwesterners, with tales of his dealings with Hollywood celebrities. That’s when the murderers are caught.

At first, they seem an odd pair. Richard Hickock (Pace) is loud and boisterous, young and terribly over his head. Perry Smith (Craig) is taciturn and sullen, almost paranoid. He knows what the future holds for him, and it is not rosy. The only control he has is whether or not he is exploited for the ends of others, and he thinks Capote smells of it. Capote, on the other hand, has astutely seen that the focus of the book has to change; from the effect of the murders on the townspeople, to something completely new and revolutionary; a true crime story told with the tools of a novel. In order to make it work, he needs the co-operation of the accused killers. While Hickock, with the promise of money, is eager to oblige, Smith refuses. Capote tries to woo them with porn and later, with literature. Slowly, grudgingly, Capote gets Smith to soften. Eventually the two are confiding in each other, but with the gallows looming over the two killers, Capote finds himself in an awful position as he writes what will be a classic novel – In Cold Blood.

Jones, who at the time was best known as the voice of Dobby the House Elf in Harry Potter series is truly a revelation here. He doesn’t just portray Capote, he inhabits the role as closely as an actor can. He is utterly believable from the moment he steps on-camera, and while Phillip Seymour Hoffman may have gotten the Oscar for essentially the same part, Jones may have actually delivered the superior performance. It doesn’t hurt that he physically resembles the late author.

Craig plays a decidedly un-Bond-like character. His Perry Smith is prone to fits of rage but is full of genuine remorse. He is the kind of man that can slip a pillow under a frightened boy’s head to make him comfortable, then shoot him in the head with a shotgun at point blank range moments later. Craig brings the role to life, making the notorious convicted killer as human as someone capable of that kind of horror can be. Bullock, who has been doing some of the best acting of her career in recent years (Crash and The Blind Side for example) is again excellent here as the shy, reclusive Lee who is capable of warmth and charm but seems more comfortable in Capote’s shadow, even though she was certainly his equal as a writer. Daniels, Pace, Weaver and Stevenson deliver strong performances in small roles.

The bleakness of small-town Kansas in winter contrasts with the bright sophistication of New York City, and the production design team does an excellent job bringing both locations to life. Director McGrath doesn’t resort to gimmicks to tell his story as recent movies set in this time period often do, but rather prefers to allow the story to tell itself, feeling that the story is sufficient. That’s a wise choice.

The movie had the great misfortune to be released after Capote. It unfortunately suffers from the comparison and while in many ways it’s a better movie, in many ways it isn’t as good – the Hoffman film has a bit more depth to it as Infamous essentially concentrates on a short period in Capote’s life whereas Capote gives us more perspective of who the author was as a person.

The recreation of the murders is a bit intense and there is a sexual encounter between Capote and another man that may be a bit much for the impressionable. Otherwise, you should absolutely see this movie, I say. Yes, some will say it covers the same ground as Capote – and it does – but let’s face it, this takes a far different approach to the subject than Capote did, and Jones’ performance is so authentic that you should see the film just for that. This is one of those hidden gems that got almost no notice during its initial theatrical release, overshadowed by a bigger star and better promotion; I can’t recommend this enough.

WHY RENT THIS: A career-defining performance by Jones. Strong supporting cast. McGrath wisely allows the story to stand on its own.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks context.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is a fair amount of foul language, some violence and brief sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Sigourney Weaver’s first film role was in Annie Hall which also featured the real Truman Capote.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.6M on a $13M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Capote
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Into the Grizzly Maze

Man of Steel


I believe I can flyyyyyy...

I believe I can flyyyyyy…

(2013) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Antje Traue, Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff, Christopher Meloni, Ayelet Zurer, Dylan Sprayberry, Cooper Timberline, Richard Zetrone, Mackenzie Gray, Samantha Jo, Christina Wren. Directed by Zack Snyder 

 

Look! It’s a bird! No, it’s a plane! It’s a flying guy in blue tights! Superman is an iconic figure not only in pop culture but it can be argued in American literature as well. He represents the American ideal – powerful, invulnerable and unstoppable but just and fair as well. He was our self-image, America in the post-war years. One strong man against the world.

But times have changed and Supes has fallen out of style in favor of  the darker superheroes, particularly Batman. The optimism and idealism of Superman seemed to be something of an anachronism when the successful superheroes were brooding damaged men who faced demons who ravaged their souls. They may have superpowers but they have crappy lives just like us.

Resurrecting Superman in a film form was a daunting task. Superman Returns back in 2006 was considered a failure, unable to make back its pretty steep production and marketing costs at the box office. The studio assigned Zack Snyder, maker of 300 and Watchmen to take the reins of the property and hired Christopher Nolan who made the Batman franchise one of the most profitable for Warner Brothers as an executive producer (and co-writer of the script along with David Goyer). The execs at DC Comics and Warner Brothers were fully aware that while they’d had success with Batman, none of their other comic book properties had taken off yet and with Marvel essentially printing money with every film release, DC knew that they need to get in on that action and have a superhero hit that doesn’t have Batman in it.

Krypton is dying. Jor-El (Crowe) knows it as does his friend Zod (Shannon), general of Krypton’s military. The dithering High Council of Krypton doesn’t seem to understand the gravity of their situation so Zod acts by attempting a coup. In the chaos, Jor-El steals the Codex, a genetic directory of Krypton and downloads it, sending his infant son – the first naturally born Kryptonian in centuries – in a rocket headed for an obscure system orbiting an unimportant star. Zod is sent to the Phantom Zone along with his followers, chief of whom is Faora (Traue), after the coup fails leaving Jor-El murdered by Zod. Lara (Zurer), Jor-El’s wife and mother of the infant Kal-El (now rocketing to Earth) can only wait helplessly for her world to end, which it does in spectacular fashion.

The infant lands in Kansas and is raised by farmers Jonathan (Costner) and Martha (Lane) Kent. Realizing quickly that this boy is not only from somewhere else, he is possessed of great powers – x-ray vision, super hearing, heat vision, super strength and the ability to fly. Pa counsels young Clark (which is what they renamed Kal-El) to hide his powers from a world that was clearly not ready for them and although it involves a lot of soul-searching, loneliness and turning the other cheek, Clark complies.

Now grown to manhood Clark (Cavill) wanders around, doing odd jobs and flying below the radar. His father, who passed away some years before, would definitely approve but Clark is haunted by questions of who he really is and where he comes from. The only clue he has is a black object, with a stylized “S” on it.

Clark’s wanderings take him to the arctic where the government has found an ancient craft buried under the ice that has been there about 20,000 years. Reporter Lois Lane (Adams) has successfully sued for access, much to the chagrin of Colonel Hardy (Meloni) who is the military commander on the project, and Dr. Hamilton (Schiff), the scientific chief. Lois spies Clark walking in the Arctic ice apparently in jeans and a t-shirt in the frigid weather. Intrigued, she follows him and finds a recently melted hole (heat vision comes in handy). A protective robot attacks Lois but Clark saves her and delivers her to a place near the base where she can be attended to. In the meantime Clark discovers a keyhole which his object fits into. This brings out a holographic projection of his father who tries to explain to him who he is and what his hopes are for him.

It also sets off a beacon which brings back Zod looking for the codex and revenge. Having escaped the Phantom Zone during the destruction of Krypton, they make a beeline for some of Krypton’s abandoned deep space military outposts and are well-armed with advanced weapons and ships, and have all the powers that Kal-El possesses. Can Superman save the day?

The movie has been (depending on the source) decried or embraced as dark, and that’s absolutely true. How you’re going to react to it depends entirely how tied in you are to the Superman mythology; this is certainly no cream puff Clark. He kicks ass (more on that later) but this isn’t your father’s Superman, or your grandfather’s. This is a reinvention of the character for modern sensibilities, for better or for worse. I suspect older audiences are going to have a harder time reconciling this Superman with the one they grew up with than younger audiences are.

Cavill is given the ball in this movie and he runs with it. Superman is by nature a polite, gentle soul who happens to have the ability to throw a tanker truck like you and I would toss a Frisbee. Cavill captures that side of him. Peter Parker in another film was told with great power comes great responsibility but what if you have the powers of a God? How much more responsible do you have to be? The answer is exponentially more. It is a difficult thing to determine what is just and what is not when you literally have unlimited powers and that’s really the crux of Man of Steel.

Of course, there’s a whole lot of stuff getting blowed up real good.  The last 45 minutes of this more than 2 1/2 hour film are of big battles in Smallville and Metropolis to the point that I wondered “Who’s going to clean this mess up?” as the skyline of the latter undergoes a radical transformation. While the battles are pretty thrilling, there isn’t a whole lot of variety to them and they get old fast. These are definitely scenes that could have been trimmed.

It’s very easy to get caught in the trap of comparing Man of Steel to those that preceded it. I was going to write that the chemistry between this Lois and Clark isn’t as profound as that between Margo Kidder and the late Christopher Reeve (which is true) until I realized that I’m not here to review Superman: The Movie; that’s a whole different film experience than this. It isn’t fair to either film to compare them, even though the story is pretty similar (more so to Superman 2). In any case, if you go to the multiplex expecting something like the 1978 classic, you’re going to leave the theater disappointed.

The filmmakers have gone on record that they hope to use this as a jumping off point to create a shared DC Universe in much the way Marvel has created a shared film universe. Already there is a sequel to Man of Steel on the way and talk is it will be followed soon after by a Justice League film. I hope so. The DC Comics tradition is rich and has some amazing stories to draw on. Man of Steel isn’t a groundbreaking film by any means but it is an entertaining one and the box office numbers indicate that there are a lot of other people who think so as well. I look forward to see what comes of it.

REASONS TO GO: Good performances top to bottom. Epic scope befitting an icon.

REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. Fight sequences repetitive.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is violence, destruction and mayhem on a mass scale as well as some brief language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cavill had become notorious for having other actors selected ahead of him for franchise roles, including Daniel Craig for Bond, Christian Bale for Batman, Robert Pattinson for Edward Cullen and Brandon Routh for Superman Returns before finally breaking through.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100; critics are very divided over this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Immortals

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Beneath the Darkness

Oz the Great and Powerful


James Franco tries to hitch a ride with his China Girl. Ooh baby, just you shut your mouth...

James Franco tries to hitch a ride with his China Girl. Ooh baby, just you shut your mouth…

(2013) Fantasy (Disney) James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Zach Braff, Joey King, Bill Cobbs, Tony Cox, Stephen R. Hart Abigail Spencer, Bruce Campbell, Ted Raimi, Tim Holmes, Toni Wynne, Rob Crites, William Dick, Gene Jones, Channing Pierce. Directed by Sam Raimi

Belief is a powerful thing. It can change the course of history, make the impossible possible. It can turn fear into strength. It can make leaders of the most unlikely of men.

Oscar – but his friends call him Oz (Franco) – is a somewhat adept carnie magician in sepia-toned Kansas in 1905. He yearns for greatness but is stuck in this Podunk circus that seems destined to kill all his hopes and dreams. His assistant Frank (Braff) is barely competent and the ladies he gets to sample his charms are shall we say less than discreet. The one girl he does want (Williams) has been asked to marry John Gale, a steadfast Kansas farmer. And to make things worse the Circus strongman (Holmes) has discovered that one of Oscar’s conquests is his own wife (Wynne) and so he wants to use Oz’s head as a squeeze box.

Oz gets away in a hot air balloon with only his top hat and satchel as possessions but unfortunately he gets sucked into a tornado and ends up in the brightly colored land of Oz. There he meets Theodora (Kunis), a beautiful young witch who develops quite the crush on Oz. Oz unleashes his usual bag of tricks on her, particular when he discovers the prophecy that someone with the same name as the land would descend from the sky, save the land from a wicked witch and become king of Oz. The two head back to the Emerald City where Oz meets Evanora (Weisz), who is Theodora’s sister and regent of Oz since their father was poisoned.

There is a wicked witch for Oz to kill however and he goes off to do just that with his trusted flying monkey valet Finley (voiced by Braff) at his side. Along the way they run into a porcelain village that has been decimated by the wicked witch’s flying baboons. The only survivor is a little china girl (King) whose legs have been shattered. Oz, with a trusty bottle of glue, puts her right as rain and the grateful girl accompanies the two on their quest.

When they meet Glinda (Williams) again who introduces them to the Quadlings, the Tinkers and the Munchkins, Oz realizes that the task at hand is much more complicated and dangerous than he first thought and that he has little more than pluck on his side. His entire life he has been searching for greatness but now it appears that he must die in order to achieve it.

A lot of people are going to make the mistake of comparing this to The Wizard of Oz, among them professional critics who should know better. If you go into this movie thinking that this is going to be just as magical and just as timeless, you’re going to walk out disappointed. Raimi wisely chooses to pay homage to the classic rather than aping it. Sure there are some similarities – the sepia-toned Kansas, the colorful Oz, the singing and dancing Munchkins, a cowardly lion (blink and you’ll miss him) and an Art Deco Emerald City.

The 1939 version of the film was always a woman’s movie – Dorothy versus the Wicked Witch. The men in the movie were really little more than comic relief and that was okay. In some ways that’s true here as well – while Oz is at the center of the action and is the erstwhile hero, this movie is all about the witches with a little help from a China Girl.

Franco as Oz is kind of an odd choice. Sure, Franco projects that con man cockiness with an aw shucks grin that has just the right touch of nasty to it. He is just smarmy enough to be in character but enough to get on my nerves from time to time. This is supposed to be a prequel to Wizard and for me, I had trouble connecting the dots from Franco’s Oscar to the grouchy old fraud that Frank Morgan played.

The witches are all three excellent actresses at or near the top of their game. Weisz makes a memorable Evanora, one whose depths are darker than you might imagine. A character like this gives Weisz a chance to really cut loose and she does, although never going over-the-top which a lesser actress might just do.

Kunis is turning into a star in her own right. I’m not sure this is the role to advance her career any but at least it doesn’t do her any harm. She has the widest range to cover and she does it pretty well although not notably. She neither distinguishes herself nor disgraces herself other than to remind us how gorgeous her face is in her early scenes with Franco.

Williams is often overlooked when discussions about Hollywood’s best actresses ensue but believe me, she is right up there among the very best. She has the least meaty role of the three sisters but  shines nevertheless. In many ways she had the most difficult task but she wound up shining, commendable considering who she was acting with in the movie.

There is a whole lot of eye candy here, most of it of the CGI variety. Most of it is pretty nifty but there are a few scenes in which the CGI green screen effect is a bit clunky, surprisingly so. The surprise is because they got the 3D down so well which is fairly rare. It actually enhances the movie. I know, notify the paramedics because there are gonna be coronaries over it – but facts are facts.

This is no Wizard of Oz, it’s true. This isn’t timeless, there’s no “Over the Rainbow” and the movie doesn’t have that same magic that the 1939 classic had. Nevertheless that doesn’t mean it can’t be solidly entertaining in its own right and in all truthfulness I’m a sucker for Oz and getting a chance to go back there again is an irresistible lure. It brings back the kid in me and at my advanced age that’s a welcome and impressive feat of prestidigitation of its own.

REASONS TO GO: Great performances throughout. Really good chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence.

REASONS TO STAY: Keeps you a little too off-balance in places. Too Hollywood an ending.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some images of flying baboons and witchery that may be too scary for the tiniest of tots. There is some mild cursing but unlikely that your children haven’t heard it before.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Baum Brothers circus that Oscar performs in, as well as the name of his assistant Frank were both tributes to L. Frank Baum, creator of Oz.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/11/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100; critics were all over the board with this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alice in Wonderland

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: 56 Up

Looper


Looper

Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt engage in a staring contest to determine who picks up the check.

(2012) Science Fiction (Tri-Star) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Jeff Daniels, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, Pierce Gagnon, Summer Qing, Tracie Thoms, Frank Brennan, Garret Dillahunt, Nick Gomez, Marcus Hester. Directed by Rian Johnson

 

They say time travel is impossible, that because of the nature of paradoxes travelling into the past would so change the future that you might cease to exist (at least in the way you did before you left the future) and because there are so many variables travelling into the future is likewise impossible. But if there were a way around it, human nature is such that we’d find a way to make it sordid and awful.

And that’s just what we do. In 2044, time travel hasn’t been invented yet but in 2074 it has – and has been outlawed. When something is outlawed, only outlaws then do it and that’s exactly the way it works. Because it is nearly impossible to get rid of bodies due to advances in tracking technology, crime syndicates who want to make someone disappear send them back to 2044 where there is an assassin waiting. These men are called Loopers; they put a shotgun blast into the chest of their assignments, then collect their payment in silver which has been draped over the back of the body. The corpse is incinerated and the Loopers have themselves a nice little party.

Considering that by 2044 the U.S. economy has pretty much tanked being a Looper is a pretty lucrative profession. Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is one and he’s a lot smarter than most. He hoards most of his silver, hiding it in a hidden compartment in his apartment. He spends time with Suzie (Perabo), a stripper who has a kid and a fairly practical attitude, while Joe wishes for something else.

What he gets is his best friend and fellow Looper Seth (Dano), terrified because he had botched his last hit. His target had turned out to be his future self from 30 years hence. All Loopers know that inevitably their last target will be themselves. It’s called “closing the loop” and is part of their contract. However, a lot of loops have been getting closed of late. It seems there’s a new boss in town in the future; he’s known only as the Rainmaker and his identity is a closely guarded secret. This much future Seth (Brennan) communicates to his younger self.

Joe reluctantly agrees to hide Seth and the big boss, Abe (Daniels) summons him to his office – at the point of a Gat (a powerful handgun that is useless in close range but a fearsome weapon farther away), wielded by Kid Blue (Segan), a young and unstable wanna-be gangsta. Abe himself is from the future and has used the Gats, as his Gat-wielding thugs are called, to take over the crime in the city. Abe convinces Joe to give up Seth, which he reluctantly does leaving both Seths to a gruesome fate.

This is all well and good until Joe gets a client to kill who turns out to be his own future self (Willis). Old Joe is wily and manages to use young Joe’s payment to protect himself from the shotgun blast and overpowers his younger self to get away.

Old Joe isn’t just motivated by self-preservation; the woman he married (Qing) in the future was accidentally murdered by the Rainmaker’s flunkies when they came to collect Old Joe. The wily old ex-Looper has discovered some information about when the Rainmaker was born and has figured out that he was born not far from the city in Kansas where Young Joe was based; and he has an idea of how to find him but he must go pretty far off the reservation beyond where his moral compass will send him.

In the meantime Young Joe is being stalked by Abe’s crew who are none too pleased that he failed to carry out his contract. Young Joe, having been injured in a gunfight takes refuge at the farm of Sara (Blunt), a comely young woman who is raising up the precocious young lad Cid (Gagnon) by herself. Still, the forces that are after Young Joe are implacable and there really isn’t a safe haven. He knows that he must find Old Joe before Old Joe finds him – and in the process stay out of the way of trigger-happy Kid Blue and all of Abe’s gang.

This is one of the smartest movies I’ve seen in quite awhile. Johnson wrote the film with Gordon-Levitt in mind and that’s a smart move in and of itself. Gordon-Levitt is the real deal; he’s a star in the making and he holds his own with Willis, who looks nothing like him in reality; Gordon-Levitt studied films of the young Bruce Willis and adopted his mannerisms and vocal patterns, not to mention wearing make-up prosthetics to make him appear a lot more like his co-star (there is one montage where we see the progression of Joe’s aging in which Gordon-Levitt and Willis have the same haircut and the resemblance is a little spooky).

Willis has always been a solid movie star, He’s always good in terms of being kind of a rumpled action hero. He doesn’t always play smart but he does play clever and that’s what he does here. Joe is more cunning than brilliant, more pragmatic than ruthless. He’s a character who is basically within the understanding of most of us – bad enough to do what he wants, good enough not to be a total jerk.

Blunt affects a fine Midwestern accent and is less the English rose that she usually is. Sara’s seen some hard times and has become hardened herself, but again, not so much that she’s a block of ice. She has some compassion and Joe helps her discover that – and, of course being a mom has a lot to do with it too.

The visuals are a mix of dilapidated 2012 and futuristic 2044 (some of the film was shot in Shanghai which looks like it’s been 2044 there for ten years) which makes it again relatable to the viewing audience. Yeah, there are cell phones in the movie that make it look like the iPhone 27.0 is worth camping out for but most of the vehicles and weapons are strictly early 21st century. There is an economic meltdown collapse going on, after all. Still, they do have hover-cycles so it’s not all bad. There is some gee-whiz stuff here.

Time travel flicks are generally among the hardest to make work simply because by their own nature they have complicated strictures. Rian Johnson, whose first film was the much-praised Brick has written a movie that succeeds both as a taut thriller and a sci-fi action film and does both while retaining a level of intelligence that is rare in American films.

REASONS TO GO: Intelligently written. Taut, well-made thriller and visually stunning.

REASONS TO STAY: Cid is a little too creepy in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence, a bit of sexuality and some drug use. Of course, there is a fair amount of foul language as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A set for the diner, built outside of Thibodaux, Louisiana was so realistic that locals were enquiring when the diner would be opening. The set withstood Hurricane Isaac which went through the area after production wrapped and is reportedly still there.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100. I think it’s safe to say the movie has been a ratings hit with the critics.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Timecop

SHANGHAI LOVERS: Some of the movie’s financing came from China so scenes that were initially written for Paris were moved to Shanghai not just because of cost-effectiveness but because Shanghai’s Pudong district already looks futuristic and relatively little CGI was required to add additional buildings and vehicles to make it look like 2074.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Butter