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Digi@themovies: Looper, Hotel Transylvania, Won't Back Down, Wallflower

Digitaria Staff Photo | Digitaria
By Digitaria Staff , Co-authored Post | @digithoughts
Sep 27, 2012

Time-travel movies aren't really my favorite. Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge sci-fi fan, it's just that "time travel ala Hollywood" is almost always an adventure in hocus-pocus. I can suspend my disbelief with the best of them (hell, I've been married for nearly 17 years) but, most writers just don't have the imagination  (talent, maybe?) to tackle time travel. Terry Gilliam (12 Monkeys), James Cameron (Terminator 1 & 2), Robert Zemekis (Back to the Future) all handle the subject matter about as well as you can, but even those films suffer from overlapping paradoxes, plot holes, and confusing (and confused) characters all because of the time travel mechanism. 

Rian Johnson, writer and director of Looper, borrows from all these films, but in an artful and respectful way.

So, I'll cut to the chase and just say it here - Looper is a really fun, very well constructed movie about time travel - which makes it a bit of a paradox in and of itself. 

Plot: Time travel is invented in the 2070's but quickly outlawed. Why? Who knows. It's dangerous. Why? Who knows, whatever. So, naturally, super powerful and sophisticated criminal syndicates have co-opted the technology to kill people. They did?! Why? Because you can't get away with anything in the future so the only way to kill someone is to send them back in time and find the person at an earlier age and ... oh, never mind. See what I mean? This thing could have sucked hard.  

It does not suck. 

In fact, Looper succeeds as a time/mind bending tear through the "not so far flung" future by throwing the time travel plot in the dumper as soon as possible. It's always there and drives the story, but Looper is not what you think it's about. If you've seen the trailers, you know Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon are assassins separated by 30 years, but not much else. They are the same person - one the time-shifted reflection of the other.

His (the collective "his") name is Joe. In the year 2044 Joe is a young man hired by a gangster from the future named Abe (Jeff Daniels). In 2074, Joe is a hardened soul, who has discovers life isn't really about the things he held dear for 30 years... namely killing, drugs and sex. Eventually Joe meets Joe and all hell breaks loose in and around the cornfields of Nebraska.

So, I'm sure you're expecting me to tell you how Joe and Joe work together to avert certain disaster - the classic buddy movie... us against the world. Or maybe how Looper works as a cat and mouse manhunt thriller. I'm not going to do that. Looper is something altogether weirder, more complex and way, way better. That's about all I want to say about the story. My advice is to go into this movie blind.

What I can add is that the characters and story are the real stars of Looper. That sounds like a "duh" statement but it's not. In most time travel films, the plot gimmick is the star. Rian Johnson never takes too much time harping on the minutia of time travel.  The picture crystallizes its emphasis on characters over plot gimmick in a key moment between the Joes. Young Joe starts asking old Joe too many questions about how time travel works... at which point, Bruce Willis goes full John McClane quickly yelling Gordon into submission. Rian's message is simple: let's not sweat this time travel thing too hard. PAY ATTENTION TO THE STORY PEOPLE!

Looper is a special movie that I will surely see again. A lot has been made of Gordon's prosthetics (used to make him look like Willis) - and for good reason. But even more impressive is the young actor’s emulating mannerisms and vocal tics, which mirror Willis’s well-known big screen tough guy shtick. And that’s what you get from the man himself in this movie, but at the high end of his typecast roles. He brings some of the Die Hard sassy resilience, a little of the burdened woe in Unbreakable, some of the desperate 12 Monkeys, the mordant humor of Last Boy Scout. Sometimes Willis coasts, but for prestige products he brings the A game, and this is one of his best career efforts.  Jeff Daniels is malevolent as the ringleader mobster, while Emily Blunt does an unexpectedly convincing Sarah Connor pastiche. Gordon is magnetic: cool but emotive, he owns young Joe as much as Willis owns old Joe.  And Pierce Gagnon  is one of the best things in the movie. I loved him. LOVED. Do not look into this - just trust me. It'll make sense after you see it.

Looper is a complicated and nuanced look at our future and though it's not perfect - if you hang in there, it hangs together. Johnson understands the history of the time-travel genre, and he makes sure there’s plenty of heart as well as enough high-minded sci-fi to keep your geek glands juicing. Looper is this year's Source Code, a rare action movie that rewards viewers who pay attention. ***1/2 --Jim McArthur

Before we discuss the merits of Won't Back Down, I must offer an abashed admission: I went to this movie with the mistaken impression that it was a documentary somehow involving Tom Petty. I have no idea how I came upon that impression, or why I seem not to be in the demo for the film's advertisements. I am a big fan of Tom and his Heartbreakers, and the phrase "Won't Back Down" has only one evocation for me. Whatever the cause of my ignorance, I was not relieved of my false impression until five minutes into the movie.

The film opens with and eight year old (played convincingly by Emily Alyn Lind) struggling to read a sentence from the chalkboard, under the scrutiny of malicious classmates and lazy attention of a distracted teacher who is more concerned with texting and online shopping than she is for the girl's apparent difficulties with dyslexia. Filled with both empathy and disgust, I thought, "okay, this isn't what I was expecting. But I'm already caught up in this."

“This” turns out to be an entertaining mulitplex treatise about America’s failing school system and what to do about it, featuring a pair of struggling but proud citizens who take on an entrenched bureaucracy to improve conditions for their children and community.

The girl’s mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal), struggling to make ends meet working two jobs, is desperately trying to provide a better education and life for her daughter. She enlists a reluctant teacher (Viola Davis) to help her try and change the school for the better, but the teacher has ample problems with her own both on the home front and professionally. The film bounces back and forth between conflicts both micro and macro, and we grow fond of the characters and root for their cause.

Won't Back Down hits all the right buttons. It's touching but not treacly. It's thought-provoking without being heavy handed, and fairly presents the complexity of the issues at stake, then takes a clear stance within them. As a co-worker at the school, Oscar Isaac embodies this dynamic balance, a peer of the teacher and emerging romantic interest of the mom. It was nice to see him play against villainous type (Drive, Robin Hood).

Won’t Back Down doesn't disappoint as a timely David vs. Goliath story, a genre picture with surprises and emotional turns along the way. And Tom Petty does make an appearance. (***) -- Sebastian Roberts

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is written and directed by Stephen Chbosky adapting his best-selling novel. Like the book, the film chronicles the first year in high school of a likeable misfit (played compellingly by Logan Lerman).

Anybody’s high school years are fraught with challenges, and the film’s hero faces some particularly haunting ones. Lerman’s emotional, endearing performance is the picture’s core and its primary triumph, drawing empathy without ever evoking pity and delivering the emotional nuances that make this film absolutely magnetic.

Coming alongside Lerman is a perfectly imperfect band of friends (comprised mainly of Ezra Miller, Mae Whitman and Emma Watson), each with separate subplots and histories, who notice him and draw him out into the world. It took me the first 30 minutes stop seeing Watson as Hermione, but the rest of the film points to a blindly bright acting future for her, of which Harry Potter is only the starting point. The entire supporting cast is seductive and natural; every scene immerses into the beautifully free and sometimes explosive world of youthful indiscretion, heartbreak and bravery. The soundtrack, cinematography and direction capture it all masterfully.

As Charlie becomes increasingly tied to this new life, you feel and feel and feel again, the rush of high school and how hard and rare it is to be young -- and equally reminded of all the fun and fear, having no idea what you’re doing and yet feeling like everything you do is the most important thing you’ll ever do. Never rushed or slow, the story draws you in and enchants you to the end – like that perfect mix tape that you want to hear over and over again.  (****) - Nattida Samanukorn

“Dad, that was one of the best movies I’ve ever seen!” enthused my 10-year old son as we left Hotel Transylvania, the new 3D animated comedy with an unrecognizable Adam Sandler voicing an overprotective Count Dracula and Selena Gomez as his daughter, ready to spread her bat wings and get out in the world.

I share this enthusiastic tween opinion because it’s always good to keep a kid’s perspective when reviewing a kids’ flick. Personally, I found Hotel Transylvania funny enough but nothing special after the first half-hour, which creates an enveloping sense of place and creepy, comic atmosphere -- a massive castle hotel deep in the Eastern European woods, where monsters can take refuge from the hateful humans who fear and want to destroy them -- but the final hour falls into a safe, predictable, comic teen romance between star-crossed human and monster, before the typical big, loud, action-packed race-against-time finish.

Dad was disappointed, but son says he got a big kick out of seeing all the different monsters together -- Drac, plus Frankenstein, Mummy, Werewolf, aliens, etc., etc. -- while parents may enjoy trying to identify all the celebrity voices -- Kevin James, Fran Drescher, Steve Buscemi, Jon Lovitz, Molly Shannon, Andy Samberg, etc., etc. -- behind them. The boy also said the movie was “really funny....[and] spooky, but not scary,” which is the sweet spot for moviegoers of a certain age.

I’m not of that certain age, so my favorite things about the movie are the animation and overall look. Dark, rich colors, great use of 3D, several segments of the film are visually luscious. Plus I laughed a bunch of times. Without kids, this is an agreeably formula flick, lightweight but not a waste. If you’ve got a tween boy, though, all bats are off. (***) -- Tom Siebert