Movie Review: Looper – Sci-Fi with a Soul

Here is a low budget sci-fi film with an interesting premise, but doesn’t get gimmicky about it, and instead focuses on developing the characters.  The result is an immensely entertaining and interesting sci-fi film with a heart.

The dashing Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis star, as the same character but differ thirty years in age.  The character, Joe, is a Looper, an assassin that kills people sent back in time by gangsters in the future who wants to get rid of someone without a trace of evidence.  The actors play unique versions of Joe; distinctly different yet retaining a connection that establishes a relationship between the hot-head young version and the weary, experienced older version.

The first act of the film proceeds to unabashedly explain the mechanics and science part of the film, per Joe’s narration.  I appreciate that they did that, because a serious error that many sci-fi thrillers tend to commit is trying to explain the science amidst the storytelling, this often confuses the audience with too much information.  By getting all the explaining out of the way early on, director Rian Johnson is able to focus on developing the characters for the rest of the film, and this was the key to “Looper”‘s success.

Despite being character-driven, the film nevertheless retains the cool science that serves as the backbone of the film.  This gave way to a brilliant ending that is both thought-provoking and satisfying.  And because of the good job Johnson’s done with the characters, I found myself caring about them, and trying to figure out the meaning of the ending.  There are have been many films where they run out of steam in the third act and the audience feels detached and stop caring about the characters, that wasn’t the case in “Looper.”

I would also give special props to Emily Blunt. She provides such an emotional force in the recent two films that I’ve seen her, this film and “The Adjustment Bureau”.  In both films, she plays likable characters effortlessly; she is a humanizing presence whom when struck by love, is completely believable and engaging.

“Looper” isn’t a loud, guns-blazing sci-fi epic like “Inception;” it is the quiet type that takes us through a journey where worlds previously separated by time collide.  Its intriguing premise and strong character development makes this worthy film to check out.

Movie Review: Taken 2 gets more ridiculous

“Taken 2” sees Liam Neeson returns as Bryan Mills, the role that propelled Neeson to action superstar.  Its predecessor, “Taken”, was a surprise hit in 2008, making over 200 million dollars in the box office.  “Taken 2” though, is a disappointment compared to the success of its predecessor.

Principally, there are two directions in which a sequel like “Taken 2” can go, the first is try to find what made the first film so successful and try to recreate that experiences without introducing any new concepts or ideas (a rehash, so to speak); the second is to take what made the first film so successful and build upon it, take it to the next level and wow the audience with something even better.  “Taken 2” jumped right on the first option and went “let’s make a lot of money!”

The story is so simple that there’d be nothing left if I give anything away.  Suffice to say that if you’ve seen the trailer, you know exactly what goes on.  The dashing and sexy Maggie Grace returns to play Mills’ daughter, and Famke Janssen joins them as Mills’ ex-wife.

There were no shortages of action in this film.  Neeson runs and guns, displaying movie-hero firearm accuracy and lightening-fast hand to hand combat that was so choppily edited I barely made out what went on.  But it’s not the action that failed “Taken 2”.  It’s fine if the makers of this film set out to reuse the “Taken” formula and create the exact same scenario, but they failed to achieve what made “Taken” so successful, and that was to create a dark atmosphere where the main character is driven by rage and revenge, and an urgency where the audience felt that every second passed diminished the likelihood of Mills rescuing his daughter .  In “Taken 2”, that sense of desperation and urgency is missing, as we never feel that the family is ever in grave danger.  And as the film builds up Mills to be unbeatable, the audience only has to wait for the inevitable to happen.

Despite my criticisms, the third act of the movie, usually the weakest in action thrillers, turned out to be the best portion of the film.  The final few action sequences were better than the earlier ones, but the problem remained where it’s hard to believe that Neeson was in danger at any point because he can’t lose.  The ending made sense, and dutifully leaves potential for another sequel, and another.

If they make a “Taken 3” (and it seems like they are.  I’d go see it, as long as Neeson returns), I really hope the makers take a fresh approach to the material and don’t rehash the rehashed.  As co-writer Robert Mark Kamen says, “we’ve taken everyone we can take – it’s going to go in another direction.  Should be interesting.”

Movie Review: Ted

I like comedies, but for some reason, they are never on the top of my list when I want to see a film.  Having still not seen some of the recent comedy hits such as “The Hangover”, “Bridesmaids”, and “Horrible Bosses”, I went into “Ted” having heard nothing but good things about it.  And it didn’t disappoint.

The plot isn’t anything groundbreaking.  But the jokes are quite funny.  And thanks to writer / director Seth MacFarlane’s brilliant voice work for Ted, the movie by in large moves smoothly without dragging.

All of the acting performances are strong.  I always knew there was a comedic side to Mark Wahlberg, but here he was brilliant starring as John Bennett in a straight up comedy.  Mlia Kunis does a good job of playing Wahlberg’s love interest, and is a likable character even though she supposedly is Ted’s competition for John’s attention and affections. The supporting cast is also funny and lively, notably characters played by Joel McHale and Giovanni Ribisi.  I couldn’t help but wish that it would have been Tom Cruise playing Ribisi’s character instead, a creepy, middle-aged dad who is obsessed with Ted…

My only slight criticism of the film is that a lot of its jokes relies on a large number of cultural and movie references that perhaps only those who are familiar with the American culture, or have seen a lot of movies, would get.  Characters in the film allude to shows and movies such as “Family Guy”, “Flash Gordon,” and “Aliens”, and those who have not seen these will have no idea why some jokes are funny.  I sat in a theatre full of local Hong Kong Chinese and I was the only laughing on some of those jokes.

Most of the jokes were hits, and aren’t too raunchy for those who aren’t into the gross-out type jokes.  And as most comedies go, when it gets to the third act and the drama happens, the film ceases to be funny.  “Ted” does a decent job of keeping things light-hearted and avoids being melodramatic, thanks to a cheerful background score and a brisk pace.

All in all, I’m glad that I finally went to the theater to see a comedy.  “Ted” might not be the funniest movie I’ve ever seen, and the story might not be original, but it has enough laugh out loud moments to garner my recommendation for anyone looking for some laughs at the movies.