About Time

About-Time-poster-303x450When I first heard about the film About Time, it’s biggest selling point was that it was by the writer of Notting Hill and Love Actually – both of which I love, the latter is pretty much a staple come Christmastime. The trailer painted it as a quirky romance with a time travel element. Some people became confused because it stars Rachel McAdams, who also stars in the Time Traveler’s Wife, another romance involving time travel. It also throws back a little to The Notebook – lovey doveyness in the pouring rain, anyone?

So when I came across a used copy of the film for $5, I figured, what the heck. Worst case it would be a palatable romance and good for a little throw-away entertainment. (After all, that’s cheaper than two matinee tickets for my wife and I at a theatre.) However, Richard Curtis (the writer), delivers again, with a film which has serious heart, lovable characters, and an emotional climax that left both my wife and I in tears.

About Time

Sappy? Sure. But this scene with the Underground (or as we Americans call it – the subway) musicians is a beautiful piece of editing to show the passage of time.

In brief, the premise is that on his 21st birthday, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson – soon to be seen in Star Wars Episode VII), is told by his father (the brilliant Bill Nighy) that the men in their family can travel back in time to points in their own lives. Never forward, simply back in order to change or redo events in their lives. Tim decides he will use his gift to find true love. (This is that romance element that had me cringing for a predictable and relatively uneventful conclusion.) Of course, he does the amusingly expected revisits – avoiding awkward social faux pas, using information he learned to later sweet talk his way into a lady’s good graces (ala Groundhog Day), and, of course, better performance in the bedroom. But in trying to write a perfect love story, he realizes that love is anything but perfect, and when you try to change too much, there are consequences.

about-time3

They were a shoe in for the international father/son imaginary weight lifting finals.

I won’t go into all the storyline elements, as I don’t want to spoil the film. However, I will say, that this film does an excellent job of utilizing a time travel element, without getting too mired in all the logistics and temporal shenanigans. To travel in time, they simply stand in a dark place, clench their fists, close their eyes, and they’re back in time – which is punctuated by a simple sound effect for continuity purposes. No fancy contraptions, no special effects, it just happens. They replace their former self, so no risk of Back to the Future-style self run-ins destroying the space/time continuum, and when they’re finished, dark place/fists/eyes and back to the present with the changes in place. They bring up the “Butterfly Effect” briefly, and Bill Nighy quickly sweeps it under the rug with basically a “well, we haven’t destroyed the world yet.” Are there times you find yourself briefly saying “Yeah, but that would change so many other things!”? Sure. But it’s forgivable because you really want it to work out for the characters. Not to say there aren’t some less-than-happy outcomes to some of their decisions.

This film really did catch me off guard. I went in expecting to find at least some entertainment value, and walked away with a strong emotional response. Great performances all around, humor, romance, a little sci-fi fantasy, and a life-affirming message we can all learn from. If you want to share a quality viewing experience with someone, be sure to check out About Time.

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Gravity

gravity-bullockposter-fullGravity is the thrilling adventure to beat this year, and by my forecast, I think the skies are clear for this thriller from Alfonso Cuaron.  Known for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Children of Men, Cuaron has spent the last few years piecing Gravity together, a film that features only two actors and a whole lot of outer space.

Sandra Bullock, in what will likely turn out to be the performance of the year and possibly her career, tackles the challenge of portraying astronaut Ryan Stone who attempts to make adjustments to a satellite alongside fellow spaceman, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney).   Soon enough a whirlwind storm of debris dices through their ship and sends Stone spinning wildly out of control into space.  Her only communication with NASA will soon dissipate once she floats too far out and her oxygen tank levels are already low.

This is about where the theatrical trailer for the movie leaves you hanging. The synopsis and trailer both left me wondering, what story could be left to tell?  Where can the movie possibly go after that point?

Cuaron is no dummy and he quickly turns Gravity into an eye-popping 3D adventure that not only fails to overstay its welcome at a quick 90 minutes, but gives us a taste of what space may actually be like.  How will Stone survive her impossible situation?  That is the question.  The movie takes us through her journey which essentially amounts to a one woman show that Bullock handles unflinchingly.

But let’s not forget Clooney who actually pours a great deal of humor into an extremely tense film and gives the weightlessness some grounding when it can really use it.  Make no mistake, this is Bullock’s ‘Cast Away’ and she nails it.  So does Cuaron who keeps the events, which had the potential to come off as repetitive, in check and moving at all times.  This is a theatrical experience if ever there was one, and the amount of time and effort that had to go into a visual movie like this is staggering.  It’s so technically precise from top to bottom.  The 3D is especially utilized well and enhances the film.

But at the core of this odyssey, and beyond all of the production values and whiz-bang “I’ve never quite seen this before” marveling, is a story of survival and a very strong actress that carries the entire movie.  Look for all this year’s award accolades to fall to Gravity, and watch Miss Bullock accept her second Oscar in a few months time.  Gravity is a movie to experience (in the theater, in 3D).

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Man of Steel

man-of-steel-poster-600x886Warner Bros. really wants Superman to turn into the next Dark Knight franchise and Zack Snyder’s mega opus Man of Steel makes a serious run for your money.  It’s a gargantuan exercise in Transformer-sized destruction masquerading as a modernized take on the most popular superhero of all time.  Can the caped do-gooder savior survive a dead-on serious interpretation courtesy of the 300, Watchmen-helmer with the guiding hand of producer Christopher Nolan?

As a matter of fact—he can, but not without a few scars and lacerations.  Man of Steel is admittedly somewhat of a choppy mess missing much of the beating heart a Superman film desperately needs more than an alien super-punch.  Snyder attempts to restructure Kal-El and his battle against the alienation of being, well, an alien.  The film lifts off immediately in a big way—Superman’s father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his mother are introduced on planet Krypton (very Avatar-esque) in the middle of a planetary Armageddon.  Krptonians haven’t been able to deliver a natural born child for many years until Jor-El’s wife delivers a baby that is immediately shuttled off to Earth in the hopes of giving him a chance to survive before military leader/lunatic Zod (Michael Shannon) can find the child and turn him to mush.

Fast forward.  Kal-El (renamed Clark Kent on Earth) is a 33-year-old man-alien in hiding as a savior-to-be.  Through flashbacks, Snyder introduces Clark’s restrained hostility and his heroic efforts to save others in need despite his father’s disapproval.  Kevin Costner, superb yet limited in the film as Pa Kent, instructs Clark that the world isn’t ready for the unveiling of Clark’s identity and incredible abilities.  The film bounces around important highlights from Clark’s life before plunging into the efforts of Lois Lane (Amy Adams), the willful reporter who stumbles upon Kent in the Fortress of Solitude.  Kent discovers his past.  Lane discovers the story of her career.  Bring out the cape and the romance.

Kent dons the infamous suit just in time to do battle with Zod who manages to find Earth with his evil cohorts in an attempt to reclaim that last artifact of Krypton following its destruction: Clark/Kal-El.  In the process, Zod wants to also level all of Earth and rebuild Krypton.  With no earthly measures able to stop Zod and his troops, Superman locks fists with beings just as powerful as he in the hopes of saving the third rock from the sun before it is wiped out.

I have to give Snyder credit for taking a full bludgeoning swing at the infamous DC universe character and despite a few strikes, he manages a base hit—one that nearly shatters the ball.  You couldn’t pack any more action and mayhem into the final hour of this movie.  If there is anyone left alive in the massive destruction of Metropolis by the time the film is over, consider Superman back for another go-around as the world’s alien savior.  Fans looking for action will feast on this film.  Fans looking for a little more character development will find a lot to be desired with Snyder’s film.

Granted, another origin story for Superman in 2013 wasn’t going to be an easy task.  Most viewers know the story, the beats, and what must be included.  To retread so much information already committed to film over the course of five previous feature Superman films *not to mention ten seasons of Smallville and however many seasons of Lois and Clark), would have the blind taste of Novocaine.  After a while the filmmakers wouldn’t have realized they were chewing off their own tongues.

ManofSteel-ZodWith flashback sequences utilized for Man of Steel, the required information regarding Kent’s past makes it to audiences, albeit in disjointed fashion that hinders the narrative from ever finding the proper fluidity.  The romance spark between Lois and Clark never fully develops, and everything that must occur feels like a falling gavel.  The filmmakers have sentenced the film ‘that this must take place!’  However, Snyder still captures the parallels of Christ and Kent’s battle against vengeful (sinful) temptation when ultimately he must be the burdened savior of the world that his father sent him to be.

The battle of give-and-take for audience expectation hits the film hard in the gut without bringing it to its knees.  When the film isn’t showcasing the highlight reel, some great moments and performances sneak through.  Most notably of course is Henry Cavill as the latest actor to adorn the costume.  He fits it well.  The actor comes across as charming, powerful, and certainly human.  For my money he is a great Superman in a not-so-great movie.  Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, and Russell Crowe are also especially good here.  Even when they all have less to do, they provide the necessary supporting talent the film really needs.

The film’s greatest disappointment arrives in the form of Michael Shannon whose one-note expression gives the villain Zod little to do.  Perhaps the script shortchanged him, but for whatever reason I found Shannon lacking in terms of a death-blow adversary.  Was he too serious that the performance came off campy?  I don’t know.  A second viewing might sort that out for me.

Another critical factor in lessening the film’s impact has to be enormous action that meanders more in silliness than importance.  The fighting feels ongoing, but never immediate.  Honestly.  The destruction in the film morphs into the Octomom-love-children of Roland Emmerich, Michael Bay, and well, Zack Snyder.  Visually, yes, this is a mammoth spectacle to behold and I have to say that the special effects will likely drown out any other film this year.  Or next year.  But Snyder’s movie endeavor, at 2 1/2 hours, had no limits in the action department.

Yet Man of Steel still manages to fly.  I walked away satisfied, but without the butterflies.  The film is flawed for sure, but this team can take flight with a clear-cut adventure  for the sequel now that the dust has settled on the choppy origin story.  I’m guessing the film will take place ten years in the future when the rebuilding of Metropolis has a chance to finish.

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Star Trek Into Darkness

star-trekinto-darkness-posterSo much hoopla has been made over king-of-nerds J.J. Abrams directing the next chapter of the Star Wars saga that his latest sequel Star Trek Into Darkness has played second fiddle to the wave of news circling that other sci-fi universe.  For casual Trek fans, such as myself, Abrams will likely do for Star Wars what he has done for Captain Kirk and crew.

Abrams brought Trek out of the depths of cult obscurity and hammered down the door of nerdom to allow mainstream audiences access to an otherwise closed-off franchise.  With the use of punk wit, a young cast of immense talent, rousing action sequences, and the gravitational pull of dead-on comedy, the Star Trek reboot was one of very few films to not bring further slander to the term ‘reboot.’  The more times I’ve viewed the 2009 entry, the more I enjoy it as all-around grade-A entertainment.

Thus Mr. Abrams’ sequel Into Darkness gets a little more serious and has slightly less fun toying around with the strict mechanics of series expectations.  Slightly less.  The Abrams magic is still intact and he manages to deliver a satisfying action-sequel that simply hasn’t the fresh air of the previous film especially when the story relies on previously-mined material.

For round two Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), having just been suspended from active duty, is  driven to revenge after a terrorist named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) stages multiple attacks on the Federation that results in the untimely death of one of Kirk’s most endearing mentors.  The appointed captain reenlists Spock (Zachary Quinto) as his first officer and sets out with his crew aboard the Enterprise on a Starfleet mission to target the fugitive Harrison in hiding on a Klingon planet.  Relations are tense between the Federation and the Klingons, and Kirk has been ordered to target Harrison with highly powerful torpedoes whilst trying avoid the start of a planetary war.

star-trek-into-darkness-stillKirk must also grapple with his own thirst for blood and his rocky rapport with his crew members.  The story further digs into Trek lore, Spock’s and Uhura’s (Zoe Saldana) unlikely romantic relationship, and springs about as many laughs as the previous entry.  I honestly wasn’t quite as engulfed in this Trek, but only by a slim margin.  The film is still visually brilliant and action-packed, but the more sinister tones have set in as is to be expected for a second installment.

Most noteworthy in this chapter is the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as the villain Harrison.  He’s a brilliant, deep-voiced menace full of mystery and intrigue.  The performance is the stuff of terrific acting and he’s certainly a much more memorable foe than Eric Bana as the bald Romulan from ’09 Trek.  The rest of the cast is exceptionally good just as they were last time, but Cumberbatch is a standout and helps elevate this sequel above its few shortcomings in originality and suspense.

The themes at play revolve around the true meaning of leadership, friendship and heroism.  It is here that the writers and Director Abrams pave the way for a strong emotional journey for the leading characters.  Set against the backdrop of grand set pieces—Spock caught on a small bed of rock in the middle of an erupting volcano; Kirk suited up and soaring through space between two Federation spaceships; Harrison’s attack on the Federation tower—the emotional undercurrent allows the action to actually have some stake.  But then occasionally, and all too abruptly, Abrams hooks back into familiar territory that the franchise has previously explored rather than leap over new hurdles.

As much as I think J.J. Abrams has delivered Star Trek out of darkness, I assume he will be moving on from the franchise to become engulfed in Star Wars.  Even though I would still welcome him back to Trek, perhaps that will be for the best?  Abrams has relied upon alternate takes of previous adventures for Trek thus far and I think it’s time for a new director to expropriate Abrams’ discovered fountain of youth for this franchise and hasten the current Enterprise crew to a new infinite frontier from a storytelling perspective.   Please don’t misunderstand, however.  Into Darkness is a rock-solid film and likely light years ahead of what’s to come this season.  But with such a previously accomplished entry, Abrams has not managed to top himself, and I can’t exactly fault him for that since he already brought Star Trek into greatness.

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Oblivion

OblivionMovie-Critics are calling Oblivion a mixed bag of sparse sci-fi plot threads strung together loosely and liberally.  They’re right.  I expected as much.  After all, what ground could the post-apocalyptic thriller have left to cover?  A future decades ahead.  Earth laid to waste.  Little to no survivors.  Futuristic machinery patrolling a ravaged globe.  Human technicians assigned to operate and repair the machines.

That’s the premise of Oblivion, which I suspect will mirror the upcoming thrillers After Earth and Elysium to some degree.  From The Matrix to 2001 to Moon to Wall-E to I, Robot and on and on, I could compare Director Joseph Kosinski’s film to many a science-fiction pictures of past.  That doesn’t hinder his film at all.  I anticipated I would spot similarities.  The film’s title even suggests where the story is headed.  Yet Kosinski’s canvas opens with mystery and intrigue that leads to grand places and ideas, even if they’ve all been mined before.

Tom Cruise plays Jack Reacher Harper, a pilot in the futuristic Earth, and one of the few survivors from an alien invasion led by Scavengers.  The Scavengers took out half of the moon causing vast planetary natural disasters, and humanity responded with nuclear warfare.  In the end, the aliens left, but Earth became a devastated habitat full of nuclear radiation.  Humans moved to a space station while Earth regenerates its ability to sustain life for a large population.

Huddled clans of Scavengers still roam the grounds.  Thus an army of government-produced drones monitor and control enemy activity.  But sometimes the drones are shot down or malfunction.  Harper, a drone repairman, keeps the drones up and running.  Outside of his job, he lives above the clouds in a technically advanced floating home base with his girlfriend and assistant, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who monitors his movement on the ground level.  She also communicates with the command base from which she receives orders including Harper’s daily itinerary.

During a routine maintenance scout, Harper finds a radio beacon activated by Scavengers.  Questions abound.  What or who are they calling?  When they attempt to capture the leery pilot, Harper must investigate what little he knows about the Scavengers, what they might be planning, and how they might be tied to his dreams about a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko) whom he does not know but seems to remember.

oblivion-searchFurther developments lead the narrative into even bigger territory, and most of what is offered has been recycled but not necessarily for the worse.  Kosinski’s film is set apart from its film-brethren by its visual landscape.  This is an amazing movie to look at.  I’m shocked this film wasn’t converted and released in 3D.  I admire a director and studio not following the herd for an extra buck.  Lush nature is contrasted with the decay of nuked civilization, and giant hydrocopter versus computerized war drone battles couldn’t be composed any better.

The story eventually introduces a colony of humans led by the great Morgan Freeman, but unfortunately, much of the supporting human characters are underused.  Cruise leads the show, and proves ever-capable, but if Oblivion falls under the weight of its grand ambition, it’s because the script misses the underlying human factor.  The film focuses less on humanity’s impact, and more on the impact to the Harper character who must come to terms with the painful reality of his place and identity in a devastated world.

The plot doesn’t exactly move at a fast clip either.  Oblvion, while featuring some stellar visuals and action, meanders more often than drives.  Harper investigates location after location.  He returns to home base and discusses his findings with Victoria again and again.  The movie reaches the halfway-marker before really diving into some meaty ‘events.’  There’s a lot of eye candy throughout the film’s entirety, but this movie needed to pick a destination and operate via a concrete route.  This is where the film borrows heavily from other films and that’s okay.  But choose some key check points in the story along the way.

Kosinski’s Oblivion is still a film to admire in many respects.  Despite insanely good visuals, I really felt like the film didn’t have the feel of a studio product.  It felt like the objective of a filmmaker brought up under some great sci-fi movies who set out to pave his own from used parts.  He doesn’t deliver slam-bang-pow-wow entertainment.  He gives us a thoughtful action film supported by a magnificent production design and visuals that will last long after the story fades from memory.

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

HobbitPosterMy affinity for J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit goes back a long way. In elementary school I purchased a copy of White Fang from one of those Scholastic book order flyers that got sent home once a month, and thought it was the best book I had ever read. It was a gripping tale of adventure set amid a fantastic backdrop of otherworldly (to my midwestern self) locations with a main character for whom I could root wholeheartedly.  White Fang, as far as I knew at the time, was the epitome of literature.  That was, until my friend Joe showed me one of his favorite books-a 300-page tale with a funny-looking green cover about a three-foot-tall munchkin. I was skeptical about The Hobbit at first, but soon found that it had everything I adored about White Fang, but so much more. I became lost in the adventures of Bilbo Baggins and his traveling troupe of 13 tawdry dwarves. I wondered at the wisdom of the wizard Gandalf, and marveled at the beauty of Imladris. I began daydreaming of journeying through the black overgrowth of Mirkwood, exploring the halls of the Elven kingdom, and sneaking around inside Erebor, the lonely mountain which was home to the malevolent dragon Smaug.

I quickly devoured Tolkien’s other tales in the Lord of the Rings series, and though I never made it all the way through his other works like The Silmarillion, I remain an enthusiastic fan of his tales of Middle-Earth to this day. When Fellowship of the Ring came out in 2001, I saw it twice on opening night clutching my copy of the book tight while trying to ward off an ill stomach after eating movie theater popcorn and Coke for dinner.  Peter Jackson’s interpretation of the fantasy realms Tolkien dreamed up while fighting in the trenches of World War I had me hooked, and to this day I don’t think I have seen another movie that has so thoroughly captivated me while engrossing me into an entirely different world.

It was, then, with a bit of nervousness that I went into the theater last weekend to see the first in The Hobbit trilogy, An Unexpected Journey. The trailers were amazing, but early reviews suggested some problems with run time and creative licenses taken by Peter Jackson and his film crew. Would The Hobbit live up to my expectations? Would it crumple under the weight of all the extra material from Tolkien’s other books that were appended to the storyline? Would it be anywhere near as good as its forebears released over a decade ago?

Soon I realized my fears were unfounded. Bilbo Baggins and his adventure were in fine hands, and after ten minutes of cautious trepidation I settled down and let myself become immersed once again in the beauty and majesty of Middle-Earth.

Thorin Woodenbow...I mean, Oakenshield

Thorin Woodenbow…I mean, Oakenshield

The Hobbit is not a perfect movie. It might not even be a great movie. But it is a thoroughly captivating fantasy tale, the likes of which you have probably not seen onscreen since Return of the King. The pacing is a bit off, with the first half burdened by a great deal of exposition and backstory, often told through flashback, that seems somewhat extraneous but is critically important for understanding the larger context in which Bilbo’s tale of mischief and burglary is set.  For a Lord of the Rings geek, these deviations do not serve as a distraction and in fact enhance an already familiar tale with nice flourishes that others might find extraneous.  I can understand why casual theater patrons might be somewhat put off by the many inclusions in this film that seem to have little bearing on the story at hand, but I say bring ’em on. Tolkien crafted a beautifully complicated world, and if showing a bit more of it means an extra ten minutes in a theater seat then I’m all for it.  Rest assured all the core elements from the book are present and accounted for, if altered slightly for the cinematic presentation.  The troll campfire, the visit to the Last Homely House, the passage through the mountains, the riddle scene…they’re all here and all very well done. While some might take issue with the changes Jackson made to some of these, particularly when Bilbo and Gollum (who looks even better and more expressive than he did in the previous trilogy) match wits to determine Bilbo’s fate, I mostly just sat there with a stupid grin on my face enjoying the fact that I was getting to watch all of this on the big screen.  Picking nits about changes from the source material here is kind of irrelevant for me, when the resulting film is so engrossing.

Even Frodo shows up, though his character wasn't born yet. Don't worry, it all makes sense when you see the movie.

Even Frodo shows up, though his character wasn’t born yet. Don’t worry, it all makes sense when you see the movie.

However, there are a few structural issues that did bother me and detract from the film as a whole.  There are essentially two main characters in the film, even though the book focuses almost entirely on Bilbo.  The titular hobbit is the one with whom we spend the most time, as is to be expected. But Thorin, the leader of the company of dwarves, receive almost equal billing.  He is essentially this film’s Aragorn, and a somewhat obscure enemy named Azog is brought out from the depths of Tolkien’s extended materials in order to give Thorin a mortal enemy with whom to do battle. His inclusion is somewhat of a dumbing down of the main storyline, and his pursuit of the band of treasure-seekers is rather unnecessary given the many perils the company encounters along their journey already.  I can understand this from a storytelling perspective, as the Thorin/Azog battle helps propel Jackson’s version of Tolkien’s story and leads to a climax absolutely dripping with gratuitous cinematic clichés that probably appeal to the casual moviegoing types or significant others dragged to the theater against their will, but it’s something that this film could have done without.

I have read more than a few complaints about the length of The Hobbit, and I must admit that this type of criticism puzzles me. I tend to doubt that few moviegoers who are even remotely familiar with Jackson’s previous Lord of the Rings movies would go in to The Hobbit expecting a 90-minute cartoon. This is heady stuff, and Jackson’s vision of Tolkien’s world is one that I enjoy letting wash over me and consume my senses. I enjoyed the almost three-hour run time, and it was filled with such fantastic scenery and interesting characters that I almost wish it were longer (and will no doubt be when it is released on Blu-Ray).  As far as I’m concerned, the longer run time simply meant more movie to enjoy.

The Hobbit is not the epitome of literature, and the movie is not the apex of film. But it is a good book, and this is a genuinely good adaptation. For anyone even remotely interested in fantasy movies, this is certainly one to see.  For those on the fence, it’s worth a shot and you might find yourself pleasantly surprised.

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Looper

Looper Science fiction movies like this don’t come along very often.  Though Looper has all the hallmarks of the genre, such as time travel, futuristic weapons, and head-scratching plot twists, it offers something rather unique among its peers of late: a unique and compelling story with enough grounding in a familiar reality to keep even casual moviegoers interested.  This smartly directed actioner-slash-head-scratcher does not dwell on the ins and outs of its central conceit too long, and instead focuses on keeping the pace solid and the action tight.  Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) works as a Looper, whose job it is to dispose of the scum of the earth…from the future.  30 years from now, when targets are captured by criminal organizations they aren’t just offed and dumped in a river like in The Godfather.  Instead they are sent back in time where Loopers blow ’em away and burn the bodies.  No fuss, no muss.  What could possibly go wrong?

All is well and dandy for a while, and Joe goes on living his shallow life of partying, doping, and hooking up with women at the local strip joint until he finds himself staring down the barrel of his blunderbuss at a particularly troublesome target: himself.  This, in Looper parlance, is known as “closing the loop.”  It’s the point at which a looper paradoxically ends his own life, thus resigning himself to three decades to live, until he is captured by the criminal organization in the future which sends him back in time to the present, at which point he shoots himself in the chest.

Confused?  Try this trick: just don’t think about it.  This sentiment, trite as it may be, is actually recommended to us by Joe as he converses with his future self in a diner.  Older Joe (Bruce Willis) urges his younger self to not dwell on the whole past/present/future thing too long, and soon afterwards the two of them are firing weapons, breaking windows, and dodging bullets like one would expect in any action movie.

Instead of dwelling on the nuts and bolts of temporal displacement and other quantum conundra, it’s best to just enjoy Looper for what it is: a smart, well-paced above-average popcorn flick with a healthy dollop of cerebral icing on the cake.  Think of it as this summer’s version of Inception, but a bit more dark and a lot more violent.

Following Joe’s failure to close his loop, he finds himself on the run from his boss Abe (Jeff Daniels, chewing through scenery worse than Willem Dafoe in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. But gosh, it sure is good to see him in a grumpy-old-man role like this.) who simply will not tolerate this sort of failure from anyone in his organization.  Joe escapes to a remote farmhouse where he encounters someone who may, or may not, hold the answers to some of the questions that have plagued his future self for years.  The resulting shootouts and climax are taut and emotional, with a particularly poignant performance from child actor Pierce Gagnon that is certain to have some parents in the audience squirming in their seats.  Topping things off is Gordon-Levitt’s pitch-perfect imitation of Bruce Willis, which is so nuanced it ought to earn him an Academy Award for Impersonating a Co-star.

Looper doesn’t have the weight-of-the-world heaviness of Terminator 2, the flat-out action of Aliens, or the suspense of Predator.  But its tight narrative and thought-provoking questions almost earn it a presence among its cinematic counterparts.

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The Amazing Spider-Man

Everyone seems to agree that a reboot of the Spider-Man series after a mere five years since the final installment of Sam Raimi’s big-budget trilogy is entirely unnecessary.  It is.  The revamped incarnation swinging into theaters exists only because of a failed attempt from Sam Raimi and his collaborators to lift Spider-Man 4 and 5 beyond the pre-production stages.  Tobey Maguire was back for the two-picture lock and everything seemed to be in place even though Spider-Man 3 left a sour taste in the mouths of fans.  Raimi refused to compromise on the story he wanted to tell which hurt Part 3 immensely, and eventually the director walked away entirely.  What was the studio to do?  Risk losing the rights to a multi-billion dollar franchise?  I think not.  Next stop: reboot train.

All joking aside, even though Amazing Spider-Man is a pure cash grab, the studio has given the reigns to a talented filmmaker who actually handles this $220 million opus with a deft grip on the material.  Marc Webb gave audiences 500 Days of Summer, one of my favorite films from 2009 and a highly entertaining and fresh romantic-dramedy.  My hope was that Webb would incorporate the richly drawn characters of that film and allow the same amount of emotional weight to encompass the story of Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone).

This Spider-Man origin story treads much of the same waters as Raimi’s original film.  Peter Parker, an outcast high school brainiac/photographer, gets bitten by a genetically-altered spider in the Ocscorp lab only to be transformed into a crawling human arachnid with elevated senses and superhuman strength.  His Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) gets gunned down by a corner store thug that Parker fails to stop ahead of time.  Guilt permeates Parker and drives him to hunt down criminals on the New York city streets hoping to find the man responsible for his uncle’s murder.  In his spare time, the vengeful superhero investigates the disappearance of his parents involving Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a one-armed geneticist at Oscorp working on human and animal gene splicing.

When he’s not tracking criminals and delving deeper into Connors’ secrets, Peter romances Gwen Stacey, a spunky intellectual classmate and intern working for Connors who also is the daughter of the city’s captain of police (Denis Leary).  Unfortunately for Parker, Capt. Stacey seems more interested in capturing the menacing masked vigilante, Spider-Man and bringing him to justice than he is finding other criminals.  Peter must prove to the father of his newfound love that Spider-Man is a hero, not a villain.

I don’t think much could be done in the way of making a new Spider-Man feel ‘fresh,’ but the best thing about this reboot is the casting of Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone in the lead roles.  They bring a certain gravity to the characters that Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst never managed to in the previous films.  Maguire’s Parker was a textbook Hollywood-engineered nerd.  Garfield plays him as less a nerd and more of a brilliant outcast that would rather delve into research and his parents’ mysterious disappearance than run around a football field.  His transformation into Spider-Man makes him far more believable as he swings around the city fighting crime—out of a more personal vendetta.

The sparks fly between Garfield and Stone as well.  I wasn’t surprised to find that the romance between the two was much more layered and interesting than what Maguire and Dunst previously brought to the table.  Stone’s Gwen Stacey is resourceful, brilliant, and immediately caught up in her beau’s alter-ego.  She and Garfield’s characters operate on the same wavelength, making their romance the highlight of the film.

The web-slinging action never disappoints either.  When much of the hero-villain dueling reduces to standard brawling, as Rhys Ifans’ transformation into the giant crawling Lizard is completely standard-issue, the 3D action is nevertheless alarmingly good.  Forget about the questionable first-person viewpoints that looked like a tired video-game shown throughout some of the trailers.  These instances come briefly and effectively.  For the most part, Marc Webb knows what he’s doing with his characters, the big special effects, and the 3D usage.  The adversary and suspense may be lacking, but this Amazing Spider-Man is at least fully competent and ready for a bigger, better sequel as long as Garfield and Stone stick with the franchise.  Where does this one rank among other Spider-Mans?  Close to—but not quite as good as—Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, however, more enjoyable than Spider-Man and the ultra-lazy Spider-Man 3.

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