MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Looper; Cosmopolis



LOOPER (Three  Stars)

U.S.: Rian Johnson, 2012 (Sony)

The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.

Fredric Brown (The shortest short story ever written: Knock)

Rian Johnson’s Looper is a classy time-travel alternate-universe science fiction movie,  tricky as a con man, smart as a whip,  and bristling with paradoxes. Johnson’s show has also got a lot of violence, but the violence doesn’t swallow up the movie. On the contrary, the characters, and the story, get more sensitized and more human as they go along.  Looper  is set in the future and in the future’s future, and it’s about trying to change the past — and it stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a hit man, Bruce Willis as the hit man he will become, Jeff Daniels as the mob boss chasing them both, and Emily Blunt as the mother of a boy who may grow up into the killer who will maybe destroy everybody.

One of my favorite classic s.f. time-hopping tales is Robert Heinlein’s twisty and astonishing “All You Zombies,” in which a man

SPOILER ALERT (roll over)

….manages to become his own father and mother,


But, to tell the truth, Looper has a plot almost as tricky and paradoxical enjoyable as Zombies — or as Heinlein’s earlier classic “By His Bootstraps,” or as Alfred Bester’s amazing “5,271,009,” or as Philip Dick’s (alternate universe) “Eye in the Sky,“ or as Fredric Brown’s well-named “Paradox Lost,“ or as Chris Marker’s melancholy French film-poem La Jetee, and the nightmarishly weird  American movie it inspired, Terry Gilliam‘s Twelve Monkeys (which, to complete this loop, also starred Bruce Willis).

Writer-director Looper takes us on such a wild, looping Moebius Strip of a ride, and his show has such a vaguely familiar but complex and ingenious story-line, that it might be better to skip any further synopses. (Though it’s a fun piece to synopsize.) Traversing Looper’s Nolanesque multi-express ride and its M. C. Escherian staircases and doorways of intricate narrative, and trying to figure out exactly what the hell is going on, is one of the show‘s main pleasures. Everyone who likes it should probably watch it twice, and everyone who doesn’t (and I had problems myself at first) might  consider a reboot too. (Of course, the latter moviegoers could also travel back in time and kill the projectionist before Looper starts in the first place.) (Just kidding.)

Pay attention though. Writer-director Johnson — in the high school film noir Brick and now in Looper — is a classic double-shuffler and movie genre-bender. He likes to seemingly fulfill our expectations, and then upset them, to head down a familiar trail and then blow it up, to palm the ace and deal us a joker (or vice versa). In Looper, he’s imagined a world where time travel exists, but has been outlawed, and is therefore controlled by outlaws (which was the violent result of  both America‘s alcohol and drug Prohibitions). Organized crime uses time-hopping for mob executions: Victims are kidnapped in the present, and sent back to the past, where they will be executed by hit men, called “loopers,” who also destroy the bodies — and will eventually be kidnapped and executed themselves (called “closing the loop”) by other loopers.

The movie mostly takes place in 2044 and 2074, and Gordon-Levitt plays Young Joe the looper/hitman (in 2044), and Willis plays Old Joe, who is Young Joe thirty years later (in 2074), and who time-travels back to 2044, where Young Joe, who has a contract, tries to execute him in a stunningly fast scene near a canefield. No dice: Young Joe recognizes himself and hesitates. (Gordon -Levitt has cleverly integrated Willis’ speech patterns and mannerisms into his own performance, including the now oft-cited moment where Gordon-Levitt-who-will-become-Willis worriedly examines his possibly receding hairline.) So, capitalizing on his younger self’s moment of weakness or empathy,  Old Joe escapes and embarks on a lethal manhunt to find and kill the boy, Cid (Pierre Gagnon), whom he thinks  will grow up into the man, the mysterious Rainmaker, who will later murder  Joe‘s wife (Qing Xu) and many others in 2074, and who is now the little son of the sturdy woman Sara (Emily Blunt), who farms the canefield where Young Joe botched the hit. (Since she’s Emily Blunt, she may inspire paradoxes even knottier.)

Meanwhile, mob boss Abe  — Jeff Daniels, in the best performance of a generally very well-acted movie — is after everybody. And you never know when another looper will pop up, Paul Dano maybe, and maybe close another plot loop.

Looper is a melancholy movie, partly because time travel itself is often a melancholy proposition — a fantasy about changing what can’t be changed, reclaiming what can’t be recovered, retreating into a past that’s gone, or maybe retreating into a psychotic fantasy of the past in order to escape the pain of the present. (That was the secret subtext of many a Twilight Zone.) Johnson, at any rate, takes us into a world of bloody violence that resembles a lot of the movies a lot of us see, and he tells a sometimes familiar but twisted tale that plays with the idea of the violent, over-mechanized, undesirable  futures in those movies. (There are hints of The Terminator all the way through.) Then he turns the movie into something else, stranger and more human and more sad.

It’s sometimes crazily convoluted, and Steve Yedlin’s cinematography is sometimes a little too insistently misty and bleak. But it’s fun, and finally, it‘s moving. Many of the current action movies have gotten so trigger-happy, trying to cover up their clichés with near constant gunfire, carnage and cuss words, that a movie like Looper, which requires a little more attention and thought, may strike some aficionados as too dense and unnecessarily complicated a story — which is why I suggested seeing it twice. (In the good old days, you could sit through a movie twice any time you wanted to, and many did, and some movie-watchers saw them over and over, all day long.)

Viewed as a typical picture, which of course it isn’t, Looper does sometimes seem a little tortuous and over-packed, especially since some characters occupy different time-strings, or alternate universes, which are sometimes destroyed if somebody is killed. (Remember that.) As  a twice-told tale though, it works much better — and it might also have helped if there was even more narration by Gordon-Levitt as Young Joe. But then, nobody ever claimed that life, much less a movie, much less a time-travel movie, were always supposed to be easily comprehensible. On the contrary, life is a riddle, and so is Looper.

Special Features: Commentary with Johnson, Gordon-Levitt and Blunt; “Making of” documentary; Deleted scenes; Featurettes; Trailer.


COSMOPOLIS (Three Stars)

U. S.: David Cronenberg, 2012

What are the lives of the One Percent like? Are they sexy and hedonistic? Indulgent and selfish? Brilliant and complex? Banal and half-witted? Are the billionaires among us really a bunch of dauntless job-creators plagued by class warfare and government regulations? Or are the freeloaders living off trust funds, grave dancing on dying companies, and buying and selling politicians? Do they look like Robert Pattinson, or like the Siegel family in The Queen of Versailles? Would we be the same way if we were them, if we had theirs, if the one percent were the ninety-nine?

Cosmopolis, adapted by David Cronenberg from the 2003 novel by Don DeLillo,  suggests a  bit of all of the above. But most cogently and completely, Cronenberg’s movie suggests that if we were in the uppermost echelon, it might be a nightmare. If we were young billionaire asset managers like Eric Packer, played by Pattinson, we could set out one morning, in a white stretch limousine with our driver, lounge lazily in a luxurious back seat area (all black and blue and silver-chrome trim), relaxing in a limo seat that resembles a small room, and set out, in the middle of a vast midtown Manhattan traffic jam (worsened by the presence of a presidential motorcade, the funeral of a beloved rap star and Occupy-style riots in the street), to get a haircut from our favorite barber.

Traffic is heavy, so it takes a while. (Doesn’t this guy have a helicopter?) And along the way, so slow is the limo’s progress, we have time for numerous encounters — sexual, business and even medical — involving an art dealer/lover (Juliette Binoche), financial advisors (Jay Baruchel and Emily Hampshire), our cynical driver Torval (Kevin Durand), a rebellious cream-pie thrower (Mathieu Amalric),  and even a billionaire wife, Elisa (Sarah Gadon), who keeps popping up for meals along the route. All the while this is happening, we are being wiped out financially, losing millions, billions, zillions  in a deal involving the Chinese currency, the yuan. And, somewhere along the way, an assassin lurks, and also Paul Giamatti as an old Packer employee Benno Levin — or maybe they’re one and the same.

Thus goes the day for the wealthiest 1%, at least in Cosmopolis — a defiantly literary, unabashedly arty, unashamedly political  and often stunning movie, trying strenuously to say something important, and confront a world that in movies, is usually just used as a backdrop for another action or crime or sex plot. (I guess, in a way it is here, too.) Here, it’s also used though for a serious saga of the moneyed class, with Packer as a portrait of the Financier as a Young Man, in a desperate crisis, surrounded by the denizens of Wall Street and beyond. As such, it has received some pretty nasty reviews — and some kind ones, some deserved, some not.

But it’s not as if we were deluged with movies like this, up to out necks in American films that try to examine or comment on (or satirize) the real problems of the real world. It’s not as if filmmakers were lining up around the block frantically trying to outbid each other on the next DeLillo novel.  No one need worry that the movie industry will soon fall into the hands of lots of people who want to make films out of nothing but Roberto Bolano or William T. Vollmann or Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Martin Amis or Jonathan Franzen novels. Or conquered by artsy job creators anxious to further class warfare though their movies, although “class warfare,” by now, has simply become a cliché Commie/bogeyman word for use by lazy Republicans, who probably wouldn’t know class warfare from a knish with hot mustard.

Why did Cosmopolis, arty and thoughtful and ambitious to a fault, get some critical tongue-lashing at the Cannes Film Festival?  I didn’t read the objections. But it’s a difficult film (Cronenberg wrote the adaptation) and a fairly unpleasant one. It’s a movie that traps us in interiors and long takes (maybe partly for budgetary reasons), a movie that badly needs to be ventilated. Translation: It needs to have a few more outdoor scenes of some kind or Manhattan exteriors. Just a few. So we don’t feel we’re trapped on sets, in artifice. It needs ventilation, and that can consist of just one scene or three, or maybe just an overhead shot of the traffic jam. Ventilation. Most crappy or mediocre action movies have too much of it. Cosmopolis has too little.

The best part of Cosmopolis is the last 20 minutes or so, when Packer goes outside (on what may be a set) for a while, gets shot at, and then joins Giamatti’s Levin for a tense closing scene: a psychological duel in Levin‘s digs. Giamatti is terrific and he gives this confrontation burning presence and an edge. But that’s not the only reason the scene is so good. Pattinson rises to the occasion too, and the clash brings out the best in both of them.

Pattinson has presence of course, though most of  the time he doesn’t show the intellectual heft you’d expect in the alleged financial genius he’s playing. (Maybe that’s the point.) But he does have those looks and that camera-catching quality,  and there are a lot of good actors for him to react to inside the limousine (especially Binoche, Durand, Morton and Amalric.) The movie is an actors show, but it doesn’t get the actor it needs to dominate the show, until Giamatti shows up at the end.

Packer is more a Leonardo DiCaprio sort of role, or maybe Christian Bale, or Colin Farrell, who was originally cast in the part. There’s a certain narcissistic sense of entitlement that Pattinson brings to Packer (and of course, his star credentials insure a budget), and it makes for some compelling moments. But it’s not until the Levin scene starts, that the movie really takes off.

David Cronenberg started out as  a low-budget Canadian horror movie maker, who gave his movies (Rabid, They Came from Within) surprising psychological and sociological depth. Videodrome, The Fly and Dead Ringers, three great horror films, show him at his peak. Since Naked Lunch though, he’s been  a maker of more literary art films (like Crash, from a J. G. Ballard novel), with strong casts and lots to say and trips to Cannes, though he’s had to pay for it with charges of pretentiousness and diminished returns. (Crash needed more ventilation too.)

Cronenberg, the master of anatomical horror, tends to pull us into a nightmare movie state, and his best recent films, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, are genre movies with something extra. Cosmopolis is maybe too extra, too obviously serious. But it’s smart and well-done and worth a trip.

When he makes films like Cosmopolis and A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg is sometimes attacked for lacking humanity — as if his earlier horror shors Rabid and They Came from Within weren’t cold as well. But that’s the type of story he tells, or does best. Cosmopolis, at its best, is an audacious show. But it works, though the movie needed a stronger script, a stronger or more versatile lead and some darker humor.  And, of course, a little ventilation.


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Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon