Thursday, October 04, 2012

Looper (Rian Johnson); Dr. Who: The Angels Take Manhattan (Nick Hurran)

Coming around again

Rian Johnson's Looper--about a hit man assigned to kill targets sent to him by the future who ends up face to face with an older version of himself--is pretty good fun, a clever mash-up of The Terminator and The Fury or to be more accurate, of "Jon's World" and Dr. Bloodmoney (Johnson is a self-admitted Philip K. Dick fan). 

He doesn't get it all perfect (warning: major details explicitly discussed); a subplot about TK (telekinesis, or the ability to manipulate small amounts of pocket change) seems to stick out like a sore thumb--you just know it's going to figure in a more crucial manner later on. All those people hanging about in mid-air with their legs hanging loose seem so, well, Chronicle (I thought De Palma did this effect best, in near-dark, where the sense of disorientation would be greatest). The guns--anachronistically called 'blunderbusses'--seem more tailored to the demands of the script than practical, with an effective range of at most fifteen feet we're told time and again (that extreme short range plays into a number of admittedly exciting and well-staged action sequences, not to mention the finale). Our hero (played alternately by Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Willis prostheses) manages to wipe out an entire building of gangsters with an armful of assault rifles and a beltful of grenades which leads to the question--isn't anyone else but him halfway competent? Not to mention everyone's aim when wielding a firearm while normally excellent starts to suffer precisely when the script calls for it to suffer (otherwise the movie would end much earlier). 

And oh, the Rainmaker; little is known about the Rainmaker except what's whispered furtively, sparingly, just enough to let you know he's basically a plot function meant to raise the dramatic stakes more than a little. 

The climactic killing has the protagonist vanish; nothing spectacular, just a digitized wipe. That says something to me when the same results could have been achieved with two or three cuts and some clever mis-en-scene--that the filmmaker isn't quite as confident about his abilities as he should be, a flaw I think he shares with one Christopher Nolan

The crucial difference, I think, is that Johnson with only his third feature reveals himself to be a more inventive, more sensual, more humorous and (thank goodness) more coherent genre filmmaker than Nolan so far. Gordon-Levitt and Willis play both ends of the same character brilliantly; someone pointed out that facing each other they remind you of the mirror sequence in Leo McCarey's Duck Soup. The twists as with Nolan are surprising; unlike Nolan Johnson is careful to populate the complex plot with human characters who crack wise and have goofy moments and actually exhibit something of a libido.

And Johnson has his oddball traits like the close-up of the cream swirling in a cup of coffee--what does a reference or three to 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle have to do with the plot? Who knows? Just happen to love it, is all.

Unlike with Dick Johnson gives the film a bittersweet but ultimately hopeful ending, which marks the difference between the two: Johnson has to work with a budget however modest, has to come up with an ending that would earn the necessary boxoffice to repay his backers. Dick worked alone; he may have tried to write for a pop audience, but couldn't help straying from the commercial path to follow his own darker more dangerous visions. 

"It's called marriage"

There's complicated (as in Looper), faux-complex (as in Memento and Inception) and then there's timey-wimey. Nick Hurran's realization of Steven Moffat's script "The Angels Take Manhattan" (Doctor Who Season 7, Episode 5) is about as dark and eerie a recent Doctor Who episode as I can think of. Not, perhaps, as unsettling as the Angels' first outing--can't think of a more frightening episode than "Blink" at least on television--but this time around Moffat and Hurran have managed to bring back some of the chills.

It helps to be unabashedly noir, from the handsomely lit ambiance of New York in the late '30s to the lush shadows that wrap the hallways and stairwells of the hotel Winter Quay (ominous name, that--like a frozen harbor or something as bleak).

I liked the Angels' two-part second outing well enough--stuff like "The image of an Angel is an Angel" helped expand their deadly capabilities--but I've always preferred this, their original modus operandi. Something about flinging a man backwards through time, away from friends and loved ones, always struck me as a horrible way to go, especially when you've just met the love of your life (thinking of you, Detective Inspector Billy Shipton).

Thirties' New York should have been our cue: this is a return to classicism of sorts. The Angels return to their former eeriness, the Ponds (you know I've got to talk about them at some point) to their former roles, with Amy as the strong heart and decision-maker of the relationship and Rory as the hapless yet faithful fall guy who not only accepts but exploits his dying routine as a way to defeat his adversaries--the ultimate punchline, this time the joke being on the Angels ("Rory, stop it. You'll die." "Yeah, twice, in the same building on the same night. Who else could do that?")

I like it that Moffat draws on all of Amy's episodes (which means practically all of the fifth, sixth and seventh seasons) for motifs, in-jokes, gratuitous references; I like it that River Song is present for their final adventure, and that Amy calls her "Melody"-- belatedly and briefly but no less authoritatively she's River's mother, giving her daughter the benefit of an instinctive but quick-witted wisdom. 

I love it that Smith's Doctor is casually, unthinkingly cruel ("No, you get your wrist out; you get your wrist out without breaking it"), and that River despite her brief if interestingly sequenced lifespan is the more mature of the two in marriage ("Never let him see the damage"); I love it that that though Rory makes the crucial decision that saves everyone's lives Amy makes the crucial decision that determines the rest of her (and Rory's) life. 

I love the lines: "You've changed the future!" "It's called marriage, honey." Moffat it seems to me has taken all the wit and feeling he developed writing scripts for the sex comedy series Coupling and poured it into those two lines, lines that sum up both the episode and the Ponds. Which could be thought two ways: that he's shallow for being able to summarize everything he stands for in two sentences, or that he's genius for being able to summarize everything he stands for in two sentences. River's glib reply is a feint, of course; when Amy repeats it later the words land with infinitely greater emotional force and resonance--no hiding, no deception, only change. 

As for the Ponds' ultimate fate--I don't buy into the complaint that Rory doesn't get to do anything or say goodbye; the very sting and poignancy of an Angel death is that it's a shock, you don't get to do anything or say goodbye. If Moffat has the Angels back to doing what they have always done, to kill with kindness, then Rory must go back to doing what he always does: die, this time taking fifty years to do so.

Amy writes to the Doctor, assuring him they lived happy lives. I don't know about that: the Angels are known for their take on kindness, and we only really have Pond's secondhand word they're happy (not that I really want to know; sometimes it's better not to). 

But even if they were happy, it's the kind of happy that comes at a cost: no more rides with a madman in a box, no more careening through all of space and time. The slow path, someone once said to the Doctor; having traveled with him, how can anyone stand it? Moffat may have dressed matters up best he could, put on a brave face and told us (through a disembodied voiceover) that they had had a happy life, but when all is said and done the Ponds are dead, the Doctor is once more left alone. 

Come to think of it Moffat might be a Weeping Angel himself--take your eye off him for a second, and he'll kill you with kindness.



dodo dayao said...

Didn't read the Looper piece for the spoilers but couldn't agree more on The Angels. The Ponds' fate was sort of a happy ending , the whole idea of them getting to grow old together is a sort of consolation prize, but the memory of the life they had, or could have had, and the people they leave behind, is a cruel, cruel fate.

And yeah, I think Moffat's both shallow and a genius. And I mean that as a compliment.

Noel Vera said...

lemme try interpret that--he has immediate appeal, but there's more to appreciate if you want to...

dodo dayao said...

Something like that. :)

Anonymous said...

liked looper very much, or maybe loved it.

but i agree on the loopholes you pointed out.

Noel Vera said...

Thanks. It's not like they matter all that much--I don't know of a time travel movie that has an airtight plot. We can enjoy the picture anyway.