Monday, October 15, 2012

Iron Man 2 (2010)

This Iron Man seems to retract, to move the superhero off of the global stage and bring him back to a smaller one. Even though Tony Stark is now an international celebrity and acts more like a rockstar than business mogul, the story seems more local or, perhaps, more personal than Favreu's 2008 installment was.

Mickey Rourke's villain, Ivan Vanko, seems more intent on showing up and destroying Iron Man (to avenge his inventor father's legacy which, he feels, was stolen by Tony Stark's dad) than in controlling the world. Justin Hammer, Stark's business competitor, covets his faame and also wants to bring his rival down.

Ivan shows up at a racing event and uses electrified whips in an attempt to exterminate Stark. Ivan's captured but Hammer breaks him out of prison, hoping that Vanko can help him build his own iron man suit, dwarfing Stark's success. Ivan's brains and braun combine with Hammer's money to challenge Stark's omnipotence, but Stark has other concerns: he's dying.

The chest implants he uses to stay alive corrode quickly, poisoning his blood stream in the process. He can't live without them, but his blood toxicity is reaching lethal levels the longer he depends on them.

While the contrast between Iron Man's invincibility and Tony's human mortality might make the story more compelling, since Tony doesn't share his fragile fate with the person who is closest to him, assistant Pepper Potts, it's hard to take his impending death seriously. The writers seemed to have tamped down the global scope of action for this sequel, to focus on the individuals, but the relationships are handled so superficially that they hardly seem worth the effort.

Consumed with his health problems, Tony drinks and parties too hard, alienating Pepper, who takes over his company during his decline.

Ever jealous and suspicious of superheroes, the government demands that Tony hand over the iron man suits to Uncle Sam. Stark refuses and is supported by his Lieutenant friend, James Rhodes, but as Tony becomes increasingly reckless and irresponsible, Rhodes feels that his fear has been misplaced. He takes one of the iron man suits reluctantly feeling that it might be better off in government hands than in Tony's destructive ones, after all.

Meanwhile, Pepper hires an assistant for Tony, Natasha Romanoff, an undercover superhero herself. Romanoff is working for Nick Fury, scouting Tony Stark for a group assignment they're working on. Their main purpose in the film is to set up Paramount's next blockbuster, The Avengers. With all of this going on, Tony's dying seems somewhat inconsequential. If he could have shared his fear and vulnerability with Pepper, in exchanges where they did more than trade quips, the movie might have developed a pathos that could only have enhanced the action and special effects. That never happened and what you're left with is two hours of hollow charm and chaos.

Pepper's ignorance of his condition is somewhat suspect, since Natasha and Rhodes quickly surmise that he is terminally ill just by looking at the broken blood vessels spread across his neck and chest. It's unclear how he manages to conceal these from Pepper, who is with him a lot more than they are. She's either unobservant or unconcerned. We care most about the characters when they care for each other. Based on the first movie, the audience knows where Pepper's heart lies, but this script doesn't. She feels hurt and ostracized when, prior to handing the entire company over to her, he begins selling his art collection without first consulting her and begins courting even more danger than usual. However, since whatever is plaguing him obviously hasn't changed his feelings for her, when he finally tries to explain himself, you'd think she'd drop her defensive anger and hear him out.

When Stark comes to Pepper's(formerly his) office bearing strawberries as a peace offering, she shuts him out angrily. It's uncharacteristic. They never would have formed the bond that brought them to this point, if she'd always been that blind to his unspoken needs. She's kept out of the loop to further the plot, but the result is quite the opposite.

In an effort to recruit Stark for the Avengers mission, Fury gives him old tapes Tony's father made. Through the vintage video, Tony clichedly learns that his distant dad did love him after all, but the revelation hardly seems to make an impression on him. The footage does give him the clues he needs to design a new element that will keep him alive without destroying his body.

With death no longer looming over his head, Tony slowly begins to pull hismelf together. Rhodes regrets taking the suit, realizing that the military, guided by Justin Hammer, is actually in arch enemy Ivan Vanko's control. Finally united again, Rhodes and Tony spend the last 25 minutes of the movie defeating Vanko. The final fight is not spectacular and, despite the fact that it starts at a crowded event, it takes place largely in one building. Because whole populations, cities and nations are not involved, the effects almost seem low budget.

The film lacked heat and heart. Yes, there was humor and the cast was delightful enough to carry the movie on one liners alone, had the dialogue been sharp or quickfire enough. Alas, it was not.

The movie does ask if iron man's power is more dangerous in the narcissistic Tony's uncorrupt, but unstable hands than in the possession of a world power, but it never bothers to seriously explore the answer. Sure, Tony wrests back control in the end, but even then it seems that the lesser of two evils has prevailed, not justice. Of course, such a moral quandary might make an interesting plot, one which, while suggested, was never pursued in this film.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Joneses (2009)

I'm sure The Joneses writers were familiar with the Arcadia episode of The X-Files in which Mulder and Scully go undercover as a suburban couple in order to investigate mysterious disappearances in the neighborhood. Even the scene where Mulder snuggled onto Scully's bed and invited her to join him was replicated early in The Joneses. The difference is, by then we'd known Mulder and Scully for 6 years, we don't know Steve and Kate (The Joneses) at all except through the fake family roles they are playing when the film starts.

Steve, Kate and the younger Mick and Jen are high-powered sales people who pretend to be a family of four who move into an upper-class suburban neighborhood to get the area residents' covetous juices flowing, in envy of the expensive clothes, products and gadgets that the Joneses constantly parade. As a domestic quartet, The Joneses subtly promote the gear supplied by commercial clients to their neighbors, inspiring the envious to buy the same merchandise for themselves: cars, appliances, clothes, hair products, etc.

The fact that the Joneses aren't really family members is revealed slowly as we observe their professional and distant interactions when they're alone in contrast to the phony display of sunshiny affection they display when they're around others.

The problem is, we don't know the real people behind the facades when the movie starts and we haven't learned much more by the time it ends. We don't really care about the characters and the movie's humor is mild at best. Laughs alone don't make this a must see and there's not much else left to draw one in.

We learn that Kate (Demi Moore) is the most experienced sales person and she is in charge of the Jones' team. She has her hands full, because Steve is a novice and gets off to a shaky start. She put her career on the line by hiring him. Jen, is ruled by her libido, first climbing into "Dad" Steve's bed (after Kate rejects him) and then falling for a married man, a relationship that threatens to bring the entire sales ruse crumbling down, since Jen is supposed to be a teenager, selling goods to the youth set, rather than angering the middle-aged, would-be consumers around them, with her sexual contretemps.

Mick, the man who plays the Jones brother is a gay man forced to play a heterosexual teen. He's expected to acquire a hip girlfriend and enlist her help in selling products to their peers. He's too attracted to the girl's brother to concentrate on his job and when he throws a party for drunken teenagers, which results in an accident, The Joneses' sales scheme is, once again, nearly overturned.

We're supposed to be touched when the kids' close escapes help bring Kate and Steve together. Kate initially rebuffs Steve's romantic advances and rightly so. We didn't see these people train together. We don't see their work relationship evolve. All we know is that Steve is new on the job and immediately wants into Kate's bed. It doesn't make the beginnings of a great love affair. Kate is not immune to Steve's charms, but she wants to keep things strictly business between them. Alone at night, she re-watches his interview tape on which he reveals he is looking for the woman who will help him become a better man. She is touched by these words, but I think it's an odd thing for a job applicant to say on video and it doesn't humanize Steve for me or help me understand why Kate wants to reach out to him on a personal level.

When Mick's friend is involved in a drunk driving accident, after the party Mick threw at The Jones' house, career-driven Kate feels its her duty to report the incident to their boss (Lauren Hutton) and fears retribution. She sulks at the prospect and when Steve comes into her room to comfort her, they end up sleeping together. This minimal bonding is supposed to be enoough to convince the audience that the two have fallen in love. Without the two having shared much else, Steve is soon trying to convince Kate to give the sales life up and live in the "real" world for a change. Have a true family, instead of a fake one. Come home to meet his parents. She's reluctant and who can blame her. Steve is 45. This is the best job he's ever had and I'm not sure how they would support themselves if they give up the jobs they have.

The movie peaks when a neighbor goes into foreclosure trying "to keep up with the Joneses" and buy all the expensive toys that he sees them with. On the verge of losing his house and the material wife who depends on his money, the guy commits suicide. The neighbors gather in shock. A guilt-ridden Steve loudly confesses to everyone that he's not who they think he is. He's been playing a role, using them. They aren't his friends. They're his customers. During this speech which carries none of the emotional punch that the writers hoped it possessed, Kate is gathering up the rest of her sales team, abandoning the mission and leaving the mess Steve has created as fast as she can. They drive off, while he's still confessing.

Kate, Jen and Mick are soon set up in a new town as a new family, with a new "Dad" playing Steve's old role. Steve finds her and begs her to take off with him. She refuses, but as he is walking away, she catches up with him and they drive off together, into the sunset -- well dusk. The ending doesn't work because none of the relationships they tried to form leading up to it succeeded.

They should have spent 30 more minutes bonding the characters, instead of showing them in sales mode, if they wanted to pull off a finale we cared about. The characters moved through the script, rather than progressed as people. Cold Kate softened because she was supposed to, not because anything really happened that would realistically spark her change.

The fake family premise might have had promise, but it needed to be played for either sharper laughs or deeper feeling to pay off.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Looper (2012)

I love time travel stories and, since Inception, I've been enjoying Joseph Gordon-Levitt's emergence as a leading man, feeling as if I've "known" him since he was a boy on 3rd Rock from the Sun. Add Bruce Willis dying hard and the Looper cast easily makes you buy a movie ticket. While the film doesn't exactly disappoint, I guess the most I can say is that it was "pretty ok."

JG-L plays Joe, a man living in a future world (in 2044) who makes his living as a "looper" a person who kills people sent from an even more future world (2074). Time travel doesn't exist in Joe's present, but it will be invented in 30 years. It's illegalized, but criminals still use it to dispose of their victims. Decades from now, technology will make dead bodies impossible to dispose of, so bad guys tie their targets up, put a hood over their head, tape money (as payment to the looper assassin) to their backs and dispatch them 30 years into the past at an appointed time where loopers, like Joe, are waiting to kill them instantly, as soon as they are transported. Joe then dumps the body in his world and the victim, now corpse, is erased from the future, as if he never existed.

Looping pays well. The only draw back is that the bad guys in 2074 don't want to get caught, so they haunt old loopers down and send the loopers themselves back into the past, 2044, to be killed by . . . loopers. That's how you "close the loop." Joe realizes the irony of this arrangement and acknowledges that loopers don't think for the "long term." If you are a looper who lives 30 more years, then you know that you will be hunted down and murdered by your own kind or, worse, by yourself.

Joe's best friend Seth, another looper, gets a job assignment. He shows up at the appointed place to kill a man sent back from 2074 only to find out (by the song that the man is singing, a song Seth's mother sang to him, that the victim is Seth himself. Seth's job is to kill himself (albeit a 30 years older version). Seth can't do it. He lets himself run away and that is a no-no. Present day Seth must be killed for letting his victim from 2074 escape. From a plot perspective, one big problem with this set up is you have to wonder why the people from the future didn't make sure that the old loopers they send back to have murdered aren't scheduled to be murdered by themselves. If you didn't want the hit to go awry, you'd take pains to make sure the killer has no emotional ties to his victim, let alone ensure that the killer and victim were not one and the same person.

Joe has been saving up his money. He plans to retire early, leave the business and move to France. When Seth goes on the run and shows up at Joe's place begging his friend to hide him from the Looper boss, Abe, who needs him dead, Joe wishes that he had never been involved. He cares for his friend, but cares more about his self-preservation. He reluctantly hides Seth under a floor board at his apartment, then Abe's goons show up and take Joe in to be interrogated by the boss. Abe's manner is avuncular rather than threatening. He tells Joe he remembers recruiting him as a boy. Joe was a homeless kid who'd lost his mother. Abe found him, gave him a gun and taught him how to support himself by looping. Murdering. Because he's known him so long, Abe has a soft spot for Joe. He gives Joe a choice, either give up half the money he has saved for retirement OR give up Seth. Joe is torn. Abe finds that predictable. He says it's a question we all face: how much will we sacrifice to save what is ours? Joe decides to sacrifice Seth. To keep all of his money and to secure his own future, he tells Abe where Seth is.

Joe asks if Abe is going to murder Seth. One wonders if Joe's choice would have been different if the answer had been yes. If he'd known Seth's reckoning would be a violent one, would he have chosen to give up half his fortune instead? Abe casually answers that they won't kill Seth, because that would alter the future too much. Instead, Abe mutilates present day Seth, which debilitates Old Seth (from 2074 whom young Seth allowed to escape). As Old Seth is running away, he suddenly loses his hands, arms, feet, nose. All nubs, he can't keep running and Old Seth is, literally, stopped in his tracks and killed by Abe's men, while present day Seth lies whimpering, bloody and butchered on the mutilating surgeon's table.

To take the edge off of his guilt, Seth goes to his favorite prostitute. He doesn't want sex. He wants her to stroke his hair, the way his mother used to do before he lost her.

Square with Abe, Joe keeps working. He shows up for a job assignment and awaits, gun in hand, for his victim from 2074 to show up so he can kill him. The guy is late and doesn't appear at the appointed time. Joe starts to get suspicious. When the target finally materializes in the past, Joe's present, he is not wearing a hood. Instead unmasked, the victim is able to look Joe squarely in the eye. Peering into the man's eyes, Joe recognizes himself. He's not going to be like Seth. He plans to kill the future him, Old Joe. But Old Joe is tough. He moved to Shanghai (because in 2044 he was expected to move to France by everyone he knew. By doing the unexpected, he thinks that he can elude his inevitable death easier in China), became an even more accomplished murderer, blowing away present day human beings and not just strangers from an unknown future; and grew into 2074's grizzled Old Joe. Sharp, a bound Old Joe uses Young Joe's slight hesitation to get the jump on his younger self and escape.

As soon as Abe learns that another loop is on the run, he sends his goons after Joe. Abe needs to have both old Joe and young Joe eliminated. The twist is, Joe wants future Joe killed almost as much as Abe does.

So Old Joe is not only running from Abe, but from his own past. Old Joe has a plan. The man in 2074 who is having former loopers sent back in time to be killed is called The Rainmaker (the person who pays loopers salaries by giving them someone to kill). No one knows Rainmaker's true identity, but Old Joe feels that while he's back in time, if he can find The Rainmaker and dispose of him, then he can save his own life, because no one will be around to put a hit on him.

Joe meets up with Old Joe by cutting a waitress' name, Beatrix, into his own arm. When the resulting scar immediately shows up on Old Joe's body, Old Joe remembers where Beatrix worked and knows that's where the young Joe wants to meet up. He goes there and, in one of the few laughs in the movie, reminds young Joe that they know another waitress, Jen. Since her name was shorter, it would have been a lot less painful if Young Joe had carved that name into his skin, rather than Beatrix's.

Old Joe tells the Young one that they have a lot to live for. They will meet a beautiful woman who helps Old Joe clean up his life and finally find peace and happiness. When he is rounded up 30 years from now, to be sent back in the past to his death, his attackers kill his wife in the process. Old Joe pleads with Young Joe that he has to change the future in order to save his future wife, the woman who gives him so much. He tells Young Joe about the Rainmaker. If they find the Rainmaker, a merciless looper assassin in 2074, but still a kid in Young Joe's world, they can erase him before he ever grows up to kill loopers. If they vanquish the Rainmaker now, Old Joe and his wife can live and grow old together, unthreatened, in 2074.

Young Joe is apathetic. He has to live for himself. For the life he has NOW. Old Joe has already lived those 30 years and Young Joe hasn't enjoyed them yet. Young Joe feels that Old Joe should just die quietly, so that Young Joe doesn't lose everything he has. Maybe if Old Joe is killed now, Abe will forgive Young Joe for letting his target, his loop, run in the first place. If Young Joe could just make Old Joe disappear, his own life can be saved -- at least for 30 years.

Old Joe refuses to go easily into that good night. After a violent shoot 'em up in a restaurant that is suddenly empty (somehow Beatrix the waitress has completely disappeared), Old Joe runs off and Young Joe, pursued by Abe's goons, does too.

Since Young and Old Joe are one in the same, one might wonder why Old Joe doesn't know what Young Joe and everyone else in that world will do, minute by minute. He's from the future. It's all happened already and if Old Joe knows his history, then knowledge of everything that will happen should be laid out in his brain like a map. The writers circumvent this dilemma by having Old Joe explain that his memory is (conveniently) foggy. Alternate scenarios float by in his mind, versions of what could happen, and there are so many of them that they create a swirl of confusion. He only knows what Young Joe will do after it has been done. He can't remember what happened in the past independently, even though he's 30 years ahead of the present, but once it happens, then Old Joe will remember it. Clear as mud. This plot device not only creates a fog for Old Joe, but for the audience too. There are a couple of scenes in which events appear to occur but, apparently, didn't. For instance, Young Joe relives the hit on Old Joe and it goes off without a hitch. Old Joe shows up in the past with a hood on and Young Joe kills him sight unseen. It's not until after he's dead that Young Joe realizes he's just killed himself. It's not clear in what alternate universe this has happened.

In another scene Old Joe wakes up in bed with his wife and a baby seems to be crying in the background. The child they always wanted appears to have been born. Does this mean that Old Joe has succeeded in his mission to kill the Rainmaker and won't be hounded in 2074 after all? Who knows. While those 2 things are seen on screen, they don't actually occur in the movie's reality and we don't know why or how we are seeing them imagined as a parallel reality.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Young Joe follows a lead he received in a map from 2074 and goes to an isolated farm, inhabited by a single mother and her young son. Joe discovers that the boy, Cid, is one of three kids born on the same day at the same hospital. One of these 3 children is The Rainmaker, but Joe (neither old or young) doesn't know which one. So, Old Joe sets out to kill all 3 kids. He gets to the other two possible Rainmakers first. The children are barely more than toddlers. He kills the first. The second one belongs to someone he knows. The prostitute he cared about, the one he went to for comfort, whom he asked to run her fingers through his hair, like his mother did. He apologizes before killing her child.

At the farm, Young Joe somehow knows the progress Old Joe has made. Psychic connection? They have a bond sure, but the way Old Joe explained it, he knows what Young Joe will do after it's done, not the other way around. So, it's not clear how Young Joe knew when Old Joe had dispatched the first two potential rainmakers, but he does. Cid is a child prodigy, perfectly acted by Pierce Gagnon. Gagnon's true life age is fuzzy. IMDB lists him as 5-8 years old. But he's dimunitive and Cid seems to be about 4. He dissolves quickly from angry and defiant to a scared and needing little boy in a manner that is so natural and believable that an Oscar nomination for the child actor would not be at all amiss. With his preternatural intelligence and high voice, Cid could be mistaken as your typical creepy movie demon child, especially once we find that he has strong and deadly telekinectic powers that give him the mental strength to create a windy maelstrom, powerful enough to destroy everything around him when he gets angry.

This omnipotence feels like a plot cheat. Although, when narrating the story at the beginning, Young Joe mentions that 10% of the population mysteriously acquired kinectic powers, he says that they didn't live up to expectations. The only thing people could do with them was levitate coins. Then, the powers were never mentioned again, until Cid started psychically throwing things around. If this ability is going to be a chief story point, if it is what gives Cid the power to grow up and be a one-man army, The Rainmaker, then we should know the origins of the strange powers and be given a facile explanation of why Cid's are so much stronger than anyone else's.

Baby Cid can't control his powers yet, they flair up uncontrollably, but Young Joe realizes that when Cid grows older and learns how to guide them, the deadly Rainmaker will be realized. He wants to kill the child and save the world (at least the world of future loopers with a target on their heads), but when he looks at the innocent Cid before him, he realizes that whatever the child might do in the future does not justify violence against the frightened tot today.

Cid's mother Sara abandoned him. Went away for 2 years and let her sister raise him, while she partied on the streets. She tells Joe that she ran into a lot of aimless, lost men out there and it made her realize that if she raised Cid herself and didn't leave him motherless that he didn't have to grow up to be one of them. Needless to say, Joe sees himself in the boy. What would he have grown up to be, if he hadn't lost his own mother. Would he have grown into the man who killed for a living and sacrificed his best friend, Seth, for money? The same Seth who grew to middle-age still singing the song that his mother had sung before leaving him? Young Joe doesn't like who he is now. How will he feel about the man, the child killer, he'll be in 30 years? He helps Sara and Cid go on the run.

Old Joe comes after them. As Old Joe chases Cid, the Rainmaker, determined to kill him before he grows into a man that will threaten Old Joe's future, Young Joe knows (sees) how it will all play out. Sara will die at Old Joe's hands. Cid will escape, but having seen his mother murdered by a looper, he will grow up to be a vengeful looper killer. One motherless boy kills another. One motherless boy creates another. What's Young Joe's response to this alternate vision, this possible future? He changes it.

He turns the gun on himself. He kills Young Joe, so that Old Joe will never exist, which is truly closing the loop.

Why didn't he just kill Old Joe? That would have been enough to save the Rainmaker's life. But not enough to save all the lives Old Joe has taken in the preceding (um, succeeding? proceeding? intervening?) 30 years, from 2044-2074.

When they met in Beatrix's diner and Old Joe asked Young Joe to save his wife's life, to alter the future so that the woman who he will one day love so much can live, Young Joe answers by saying, "Show me her picture. Let me see what she looks like, so I will know to avoid her. That way, I'll never marry her and I WILL save her life." Old Joe won't go for it. He wants his wife to live, but not at the expense of losing her in another way. Rather than to give up his chance to be with her, he'd rather kill everyone who might be a threat to her over the next 30 years. He ends up doing just that, killing Abe, all the loopers, two potential Rainmakers. Everyone except Young Joe and Cid.

For Young Joe, it all came down to what Abe asked: how much are you willing to sacrifice to preserve what's yours? Young Joe had made murder a career for some time, but he wasn't plagued by guilt until he sacrificed Seth to keep the money he'd saved (not that I believe Abe would have let Seth go free, even if Young Joe had agreed to forfeit half of his money and relinquish his dreams of an early retirement in France). Finally, he looked at Old Joe, saw himself 30 years hence and realized that he'd extinguish a lot of other lives for his own selfish "happiness" every additional year that he lived. So, he made the choice to stop living.

I like the way the morality lesson unfolded through Seth's death and the string of motherless characters who all tie together. A string that Young Joe cuts. He decides to end the cycle. It's an interesting slant on guilt. Young Joe doesn't want Cid or Sara to die, but sentiment aside, he really kills himself to . . . save himself. He makes the choice to stop taking in order to keep, while he still can, because that's something he saw Old Joe would never do.