Dead Pigs


Old Wang comes charging to the rescue!

(2018) Dramedy (China Lion) Vivian Wu, Haoyu Yang, Mason Lee, Zazie Beetz, David Rysdahl, Meng Li, McColl Cowan. Directed by Cathy Yan

 

In the “that’s something you don’t see every day” department, thousands of dead pigs were discovered floating in the waterways near Shanghai back in 2013. That was enough to give Chinese-American director Cathy Yan plenty of inspiration.

Old Wang (Yang) is a pig farmer who lives well beyond his means. While he happily supplies the insatiable need for pork in the city, he discovers all the money which he has invested in the stock market has been absconded with by his broker. Suddenly broke and in debt to loan sharks, he first visits his sister Candy Wang (Wu), the successful owner of a beauty salon for the dough. She’s having issues of her own however; a big development company is putting together a new multi-use complex and her property is the last one not to sell. All the others have been bulldozed so there is no neighborhood left but Candy stubbornly clings to the old, creaking and falling-apart house. Her brother begs her to sell so they can split the proceeds but Candy refuses.

Next Old Wang heads to his son Zhen (Lee) who he believes is a successful businessman. However, Zhen has been hiding the truth from his father; he’s merely a waiter at a suckling pig restaurant. He has also developed a crush on poor little rich girl Xia Xia (Li) who is diffidently going through life from one party to the next, sure her friends love her and shocked when she finds out that they don’t really care. Sean Landry (Rysdahl) is the ex-pat American architect for Golden Happiness which is heading the development threatening Candy’s home – ironically it is to be a recreation of a Spanish village. Sean has some skeletons in his closet of his own – he might have overstated his qualifications on his resume just a tad. He’s hoping this project will leapfrog him to the wealth, power and happiness he’s been chasing. Chasing Sean is Angie (Beetz) who runs a kind of dating service for affluent foreigners in Shanghai.

All will come to a head as the five entwined stories come together. The story ends on kind of a Hollywood-type ending that most film buffs will sniff out a mile away but that doesn’t take away from the pleasantly quirky debut that Yan has concocted with her feature debut. Veteran actress Wu steals the show, being the conscience of the film and despite her sometimes acerbic and grumpy persona, she has genuine reasons for taking the hopeless stand she does. Young Mason Lee, son of director Ang, shows some promise as the young besotted waiter and fills the screen with a kind of quiet decency that bodes well for a leading man future. Beetz who has begun a pretty solid climb to stardom herself is solid in little more than a cameo.

The film is nicely photographed by Federico Cesca and utilizes its Shanghai location nicely from the futuristic but largely sterile cityscapes to the much of the rural pig farms to the stark landscape of the bulldozed development-to-be. Antiseptic office spaces, kinetic nightclubs and fashionable restaurants also look dazzling under the watchful eye of Cesca.

This is what I would consider a twisted comedy with black accents but with enough heart to allow the flaws to be overlooked. It is certainly apropos and a parable of modern Chinese life – socioeconomic gaps, the loss of tradition in the rush to modernize, and the importance of family. This is definitely a solid debut and Yan a talent to keep an eye on.

REASONS TO SEE: It’s a very quirky film in all the right places. The cinematography is very nice.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a little bit on the Hollywood side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zhangke Jia, who directed Ash is Purest White which is also playing the Miami Film Festival, executive produced this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/6/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kung Fu Hustle
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Nightingale

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Maineland


This is a different kind of education.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama) Stella Xinyi Zhu, Harry Junru He, Christopher Hibbard. Directed by Miao Wang

 

I have long been fascinated by China and her ancient culture; a 2010 visit to the country merely whetted my appetite for more. Documentaries like this therefore pique my interest perhaps more than the average filmgoer.

There has been a massive influx of Chinese students attending American schools. Since 2008, the number has increased dramatically and as Chinese affluence has grown, private high schools and universities have found Chinese tuition fees to be in some cases vital to the survival of some of these schools.

Fryeburg Academy in Maine is one of the oldest high schools in the country having been founded in 1790. More than 160 students from China attend the school, living in a boarding facility on-campus. While the bulk of students are local, the school relies on the tuition and boarding fees to keep its doors open. Admissions director Christopher Hibbard goes on a recruiting drive in a variety of cities on the Chinese mainland. Chinese parents are eager to have their kids educated in the United States not only for prestige reasons but so that they can learn America culture, make contacts in America and one day hopefully do business in the United States. For their part, the students are eager for a different kind of education; Chinese schools tend to focus on rote memorization and on sometimes brutally hard examinations.

This documentary by Chinese émigré Miao Wang (Beijing Taxi) follows two students attending Fryeburg over their three-year academic career there. Stella is a vivacious, outgoing young lady from Shanghai who makes friends easily, has a brilliant movie star smile and had yearned to go to school in America ever since she’d seen High School Musical.

Harry, on the other hand, is more introverted. He comes from another large Chinese city – Guangzhou – which is like many Chinese cities full of gleaming skyscrapers and high-tech public transportation. He has a more introspective bent and doesn’t really socialize well. He prefers to retreat into the world of video games and when stressed, sits down to play the piano. If left to his own devices, he would want to be a music composer.

However, both of these kids have heavy expectations laid on them by their parents. They are not only expected to do well academically but their lives are pointed towards expanding the family financial fortunes, prestige and power. Everything else is secondary. Studying hard is second nature to them and the critical thinking that most decent American schools try to instill in their students is as foreign to them as hot dogs and county fairs.

It’s not just a cultural change the two encounter; that’s difficult enough but both are going from a cosmopolitan urban life to a slower-paced small town life. Fryeburg students are used to hiking, fishing and swimming as things to do; the many distractions of a big city just aren’t available to them.

What do the kids think about all this? It’s hard to say. Want doesn’t really do what you would call probing interviews with her subjects. She seems more content to be a fly on the wall and let them comment as they will. Like most Asian people, politeness is a way of life and it is decidedly impolite to criticize one’s hosts and so any negative feelings that the two visitors might have about their host country (and their native land for that matter) are largely held back. They do comment on some of the cultural differences between China and America but by and large, we really don’t know what the kids are thinking.

All right, but what about their fellow students and their teachers? The same problem exists there too. From what the film shows the Chinese students largely stick together and if they develop friendships with American students or students from other countries, it’s not shown here. It is understandable that the students in a foreign land would want to stick together with those from their own country – at least they have something in common – but we never get a sense as to whether the American students are urged to make the visitors feel at home, or whether they even want to. An extra five or ten minutes exploring the thoughts of those who are being visited would have been very welcome.

And in fact because of Wang’s style, we really don’t do much more than surface exploration of the situation. It’s all very superficial which doesn’t make for a great documentary. There’s some lovely cinematography of the beautiful Maine countryside as well as the futuristic Chinese cities but as much time as we spend with Stella and Harry we end up not knowing them all that well which is a bit unsettling. We do see that their attitudes towards their home country do undergo a change but we never get to see much about why that attitude changed and what their parents and siblings think about it. There’s certainly a lot of meat to be had in a documentary like this but sadly we are mostly served bone.

REASONS TO GO: It’s interesting to see American small town life through the eyes of a different culture.
REASONS TO STAY: We don’t really get to hear much about what people think about the various circumstances being presented.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to the US Department of Commerce, there were nearly 370,000 Chinese students in American high schools and universities in 2015, more than six times as many as were here in 2005 and bringing in roughly $11.4 billion into the US economy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: School Life
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sollers Point

Now You See Me 2


The rain falls on the just, the unjust and Jesse Eisenberg.

The rain falls on the just, the unjust and Jesse Eisenberg.

(2016) Action (Summit) Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Daniel Radcliffe, Lizzy Caplan, Jay Chou, Sanaa Lathan, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, David Warshofsky, Tsai Chin, William Henderson, Richard Laing, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Brick Patrick, Zach Gregory, Ben Lamb, Fenfen Huang, Aaron Ly, James Richard Marshall, Alexa Brown. Directed by Jon M. Chu

 

We are fascinated by the concept of magic, of someone performing unexplainable feats of prestidigitation. Magicians are almost like real-life superheroes. All they lack is the spandex and the inclination to fight crime.

At the end of Now You See Me the Four Horsemen – the Vegas magic act that was a kind of Robin Hood, taking money from a rich insurance company and giving it back to the thousands of people it defrauded – are on the lam. J. Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg), the arrogant onstage leader of the Horsemen, is busy trying to investigate The Eye, the mysterious organization that controls them. Merritt McKinney (Harrelson) is trying to stay under the radar, Henley Reeves has left the group and Jack Wilder (Franco) has the world convinced that he’s dead. Their nemesis Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman) rots in jail and FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Ruffalo) is trying to steer his boss Natalie Austin (Lathan) away from the Horsemen since he is their behind-the-scenes handler. Dylan also has his late father Lionel Shrike (Laing) very much on his mind, particularly the stunt that killed him.

The Horsemen need a fourth and into the group comes Lula (Caplan), a street magician like Henley Reeves was although Lula is much more into the Grand Guignol than her predecessor. They’re going to need the whole lot of them because they are up against Walter Mabry (Radcliffe), a tech billionaire whom the world also thinks is dead (the world has a terrible track record when it comes to dead guys) who wants them to steal a super secret microchip that will give him access to every computer on the planet.

The chip is held in a super-safe location in Shanghai, so it’s off to China for the Horsemen, but Mabry has a couple of tricks of his own; for one, Merritt’s identical twin brother is helping him stay one step ahead of the horsemen and Mabry is the bastard son of none other than Arthur Tressler (Caine), the insurance magnate whom the Horsemen exposed and nearly ruined in the first movie. Mabry also has sprung Thaddeus Bradley from jail and he has nothing but revenge on his mind. It will take a whole lot more than a few magic tricks for this group to escape Mabry; it will take a genuine miracle.

The first movie was a frothy affair that was light on the credibility but heavy on the entertainment. If anything, the sequel is even lighter on the credibility but as far as the entertainment value is concerned…not so much, I’m afraid. It seems a lot less lively than the first both in tone and in pacing. This sucker chugs along with tons of exposition then an elaborate magic trick before continuing to…you guessed it, more exposition.

Caplan is actually a delight here. Her character is witty, sassy and very capable as a magician. More importantly, Caplan inserts some badly needed fun into a script that should have been loaded with it. I mean, magicians who are crime fighters? Come on! That should be a slam dunk. Instead it’s more like a three-point shot…..from beyond half court.

Ruffalo is still, as ever, a bona fide Hollywood star but his role, outed in the first film, is less mysterious here and therefore less interesting. We know who he is and what role he plays and moreover, so do the Horsemen (although there’s a bit of a pissing contest between Daniel and Dylan about halfway through the film). The unnecessary introduction of a twin brother gives Harrelson double the screen time and the film an extraneous character who not only wasn’t necessary to the plot but also provides an unwanted distraction. A good 15 minutes of screen time could have been erased from this too-long movie just by removing the twin.

This is quite a disappointment. I was entertained by the first but found myself yawning my way through the second. The stunts pulled by the Horsemen are, as the first, almost all CGI which again wounds the film terribly. I think as I did with the first one that doing the magic with practical effects instead of digital would only have made the movie better. I mean, rain falling upwards? In London? Maybe on a stage somewhere but not out in the middle of the street. Movie magic is one thing, but that would have been better served in a different movie, like one with a kid with a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. Now, the makers of those movies understood what magic is all about better than the filmmakers of this one do.

REASONS TO GO: Caplan is a welcome addition to the cast. The premise is rock solid.
REASONS TO STAY: Lacks the vitality of the first film. Makes an art form of the preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of violence and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Isla Fisher had to drop out of the film due to her pregnancy; Lizzy Caplan took over as an entirely new character.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Italian Job
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Central Intelligence

The Search for General Tso


A documentary that will make you hungry to see it again an hour later.

A documentary that will make you hungry to see it again an hour later.

(2014) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Cecilia Chiang, Peter Kwong, Bonnie Tsui, Liang Xiao Jin, Philip Chiang, Andrew Coe, Chef Peng Chang-Kuei, Harley Spiller, Tammy Fong, Sue Lee, David Leong, Cyrstyl Mo, Wing Wah Leong, Don Siegel, Ed Schoenfeld, Wing Yee Leong, Renqiu Yu, Fuschia Dunlop, Wang Pinduan, Robert G. Lee, Fred Wong, Susan Carter, Ella Lee, Lily Han. Directed by Ian Cheney

Florida Film Festival 2015

There probably isn’t an American above the age of five who hasn’t had Chinese food of one sort or another during their lives and for a good percentage of Americans above that age, Chinese is a regular cuisine on the menus of our lives. And of all of those, most have at least tried if not fallen in love with General Tso’s Chicken, the most popular dish in Chinese cuisine in the United States, and other than pizza and maybe tacos, the most popular ethnic dish in America.

But how did it get to be that way? Who is General Tso exactly and why did this chicken dish get named for him? Was it General Tso himself who invented the dish or did someone else do that? And how do you make it?

Good questions all and each one is answered in this lively documentary which has a very compact one hour and thirteen minute run time. Cheney interviews a wide variety of subjects from historians and authors on Chinese-American culture to restaurant owners and chefs. Here he paints a vivid picture of a race that came to America’s gold fields in the 19th century and stayed on as laborers. Racial prejudices on the West Coast, which were extreme when it came to Chinese workers, led to the enactment of the Exclusion Act which made it nearly impossible for new workers to immigrate to the United States and made life intolerable for those who were already here, who then spread throughout the country with essentially only two careers available to them; launderers and restaurant owners.

This is much cultural anthropology as it is foodie doc, and while there are some nifty animations that help keep things light, the undercurrent has some surprising depth to it as we see how difficult to achieve the American dream was for Asians even in recent times, as one Missouri restaurant owner calmly explains how his father’s restaurant was dynamited shortly before it was to open and even once it did, there were picketers exhorting him to return to China since the local white population didn’t want Asian business owners, and this was less than 50 years ago.

It also raises the question of authenticity. General Tso’s chicken, which has a sweet and spicy taste to it, is expressly for American tastes; you won’t find the dish in this form in China, particularly in the Hunan province where the real General Tso (yes, there was one) once lived. We also discover that a chef from Taipei claims to have invented the dish, although it was adapted by a more famous New York chef after visits to Taipei and took off in the ’70s to become one of those ubiquitous menu items you find in nearly every Chinese restaurant, take-out place or bistro.

While many purists decry the dish as inauthentic, one has to wonder what authentic really means in a cuisine that varies greatly from province to province in China and has evolved a great deal over the years. Maybe you won’t find this when you visit China but what matters more is whether or not you yourself like it and crave it. It may not be the kind of Chinese food you get in, say, Shanghai, but if you can’t go to Shanghai and check out the real McCoy you can at least taste what you get in Springfield, Missouri and enjoy it just as much.

REASONS TO GO: Informative. Lively. Doesn’t take itself too seriously.
REASONS TO STAY: Lots and lots of talking heads. WILL make you hungry for Chinese food whether you like it or not.
FAMILY VALUES: Nothing that would worry all but the most overly fussy parents.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally to have been released in early 2014 by Warner Brothers, when Legendary’s distribution contract with that studio expired and a new one signed with Universal, this was one of the movies whose release date was delayed as Universal took over distribution.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: McFarland USA

Skyfall


Skyfall

As classic Bond as it gets.

(2012) Spy Action (MGM/Columbia) Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Berenice Marlohe, Ben Whishaw, Albert Finney, Helen McCrory, Ola Rapace, Rory Kinnear, Nicolas Woodeson, Bill Buckhurst, Elize du Toit, Tonia Sotiropoulou. Directed by Sam Mendes

 

James Bond is not just a classic; it’s a brand name for many of us. When we attend a Bond movie, we have certain expectations – incredible, jaw-dropping stunts, a charismatic villain, gorgeous women for Bond to seduce and exotic locations.

Within those expectations there are also others; gadgets of some sort or another, nifty cars, a haughty M, a title sequence with beautiful  women writhing about apparently naked, martinis shaken not stirred and so on and so forth. Mess with them and you are likely to have the purists come to your door with pitchforks and torches.

The filmmakers have no need to fear a mob after the latest Bond flick. As the film begins, a hard drive is stolen containing the names of every MI6 agent undercover in terrorist organizations. Bond (Craig) chases the perpetrator, a smooth hitman named Patrice (Rapace) over the rooftops of Istanbul and on the top of a moving train, followed by an inexperienced field agent named Eve (Harris) and monitored by M (Dench) and her chief-of-staff Tanner (Kinnear). It soon becomes apparent that Eve can no longer continue to chase the train and she gets herself to a vantage point where she can get  clear shot at the combatants but as the train approaches, she doesn’t have a clear shot. M orders her to take it anyway and Bond falls down and goes boom, off of a speeding train over a bridge and into a river.

Of course he survived. He’s James Bond. You could drop the Empire State Building on his head and he’d pick himself up, dust himself off, let loose a choice witticism and head for the nearest bar for a martini (shaken, not stirred). However, in his absence MI6 has come under siege. A bomb is planted in their headquarters. M is now answerable to a new Minister of Defense, Gareth Mallory (Fiennes) who is gently urging her to retire. The ever-prickly M refuses. She needs to find out who is behind this before she can go.

Bond is much the worse for wear when he returns. The gunshot wounds have played havoc with his shoulder, making aiming a gun a bit more problematic. He has become dependent on alcohol and has unresolved issues of rage aimed at M for not trusting him to finish off Patrice himself. Even though he’s clearly not ready to go back in the field she sends him there anyway and he follows Patrice back to his employer, a former MI6 agent named Silva (Bardem) with a grudge against M that goes beyond fury and reason. He is a computer whiz who was able to hack the MI6 mainframe and in doing so, set up a plan that ends with the destruction of MI6 and the death of M. But with James Bond on the job, England can rest easy. Can’t she?

This is simply put one of the best Bond movies ever; when Craig debuted in Casino Royale there was a sense that he was going to do great things in the franchise. After a misstep in the poorly conceived Quantum of Solace this is a gigantic leap forward. Sam Mendes, director of American Beauty clearly knows his Bond. The pacing here isn’t breakneck but it’s fast enough to keep us breathless but not so fast that we can’t enjoy the ride.

There are nods here to the Bond movies of yesterday with old friends making their reappearances including Q (Whishaw) and other people and things who I will leave nameless so as to not spoil the surprise of their appearances which in every case were met with spontaneous “Ahhhhhh” sounds from the audience.  

Craig is perhaps the most battered Bond in history; he gets shot more than once and is riddled with scars physical and psychological. Craig plays Bond with the cool of Sean Connery and the physicality of Jason Statham. The movie goes into Bond’s backstory more than any other has before it (the climactic fight takes place in Bond’s childhood home) in which much that is past is made to be left there, leaving the film’s final scenes to pave the way for the franchise’s future.

Dench is a revelation here; while Bond has never been what you would call an actor’s franchise Dench shines as M in a way Bernard Lee never would have been allowed to and turns the character into a force of nature. Makes you wish Dench would be given the vacant slot at the CIA.

Bardem, an amazing villain in No Country For Old Men, shows that he might very well be the best screen villain since Anthony Hopkins. He is scary and psychotic with a particular axe to grind; he’s not after world domination but merely to rid himself of his demons so that he may live the life he chooses, a life uniquely suited to him. It’s a believable villain which is made the more layered with his apparent bisexual impulses and a pretty strong knowledge of psychological warfare. Silva is brilliant, physically capable and remorseless; he makes a fitting adversary for Bond, one in which we’re not always certain Bond can triumph over.

This is definitely a must-see movie this holiday season. It has the epic scope that marks many of the best Bond films but a lot of the human elements that make it a great film period. Even if you aren’t fond of the Bond franchise you may well find something to love here and if you are, you will undoubtedly find that the movie treats the 50 years of the franchise with respect even as it reinvents it for the next 50 years, a neat trick that requires remarkable skill to pull off. Reason enough to celebrate.

REASONS TO GO: Destined to take its place as a Bond classic. Shows proper reverence but modernizes the series at the same time.

REASONS TO STAY: A few logical lapses and a bit too much product placement gets distracting.

FAMILY VALUES:  Like all Bond movies, there’s plenty of violence, sex and smoking. There are also a few mildly bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Skyfall is the first Daniel Craig-era Bond film to use a title that didn’t come from Ian Fleming. Currently there are only four titles left from Ian Fleming-written James Bond stories that have not been used for the films; The Property of a Lady, The Hildebrand Rarity, Risico and 007 in New York City

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/24/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100. The reviews agree that this is one of the best Bonds ever.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goldeneye

KOMODO DRAGON LOVERS: .A pair of these gigantic lizards can be seen in a pit at the Golden Dragon Casino during a fight scene.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Rise of the Guardians

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

Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life


Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life

Get your motor running?

(2003) Action (Paramount) Angelina Jolie, Gerard Butler, Ciaran Hinds, Til Schweiger, Djimon Hounsou, Noah Taylor, Christopher Barrie, Simon Yam, Terence Yin, Daniel Caltagirone, Fabiano Martell, Jonathan Coyne. Directed by Jan de Bont

 

Video games have had a terrible time translating into movies. Maybe because they lack that interactive factor that hooks gamers so thoroughly, or maybe it is because Hollywood doesn’t understand the gamer market. I think the most important factor is that most of the movies based on video games have been pretty bad.

The second installment of the video game franchise turned movie adaptation is pretty basic. An earthquake on Santorini, the remains of the legendary Thera volcano in Greece, unearths a temple that brings all sorts of treasure hunters eager to check it out, including Lara Croft (Jolie). After Lara discovers a mysterious golden orb in the ruin, it is immediately stolen by Chen Lo (Yam), a high-ranking Chinese triad leader who is working for bioterror merchant Jonathan Reiss (Hinds) who believes it to be a map to the location of the legendary Pandora’s Box.

Except that the Pandora’s Box is actually a terrible weapon, one capable of destroying all life on earth, yadda yadda yadda. Lara is approached by MI-6 to enlist her aid in getting back the trinket, and to do so, she needs the help of someone who has worked for the bad guy. Conveniently, Terry Sheridan (Butler), a former lover of hers who is rotting in a jail in Kazakhstan fits the bill. The two travel to Asia to retrieve the orb, which Croft cronies Bryce (Taylor) and Hillary (Barrie) discover is activated by musical notes.

Lara and Terry must infiltrate the rural hideout of Chen Lo and retrieve the Orb – but when they do, they discover it’s not there. They then have to head to Shanghai where they are too late to interrupt the exchange between Chen Lo’s flunkies and Reiss. Lara must steal it from the heart of the dragon, so to speak and this leads her to a break-up with Terry, whom she doesn’t fully trust. It also leads her to Africa, where her friend Kosa (Hounsou) will lead her to an ancient tribe of guardians. They warn of shadow guardians, creatures who live in the darkness that will pluck out of existence the unwary and those who would enter the Cradle of Life, where the Box rests. Unfortunately, it is there that Reiss will catch up with her and the fight for the future of the world will truly begin.

To this point, Angelina Jolie had always left me flat. While I would come to appreciate her in later films, when I saw this I not a member of her fan club. Re-watching the movie recently didn’t change my opinion – you don’t get a sense that she really cared much about this film or this character. I felt this was more of a paycheck than a performance and maybe it’s a good thing that the film franchise died here, although a reboot of it is currently in the works.

Of course there are the special effects, which are considerable. The Shadow Guardians scene is particularly well-executed, and the Cradle of Life environment is vertigo-inducing in a good way. And, the rest of the cast is pretty nifty. Hinds makes an outstanding bad guy, and Butler is a riveting romantic lead, a bad guy with a heart of slightly tarnished gold. Hounsou is fine as an African guide, and holdovers  Barrie and Taylor from the first film are woefully under-utilized as Lara’s violent butler and resident computer genius.

I want to like this movie more than I do. When I watched it I was suitably entertained, and will probably wind up purchasing it. There are flaws, but director Jan De Bont overcomes a lot of them by keeping the action non-stop, something the man who gave us Speed understands very well. Although I find Jolie not my personal cup of tea, I have to admit she looks the part and she handles her stunts rather well. However, there’s a difference between expressing self-confidence and smirking and the latter is very unattractive.

WHY RENT THIS: Nifty special effects and action sequences. Butler, in his first major role, is roguishly charming.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Jolie may look the part but lacks heart. The plot is a bit banal.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is a goodly amount of violence, a few mildly bad words here and there and some fairly intense making out.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Jolie is the only actor in the film who was American-born.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are a couple of music videos and Gerard Butler’s screen test.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $156.5M on a $95 production budget; the film lost money during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING:King Solomon’s Mines

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Brave