Looper: Rian Johnson (the excellent Brick and the decidedly not excellent Brothers Bloom) writes and directs this time travel/crime thriller about a assassin (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) of those sent back in time by the mafia of the future who’s life falls apart when his older self (Bruce Willis) is sent back and escapes execution. Normally, directors who are batting .500 don’t receive a lot of positive attention for their latest works but with Gordon-Levitt and Willis in a grimy looking science fiction film with existential and film noir overtones; this movie looks to be the antidote for a safe and bloated film season with more disappointments than successes. Looper looks to be a film of ambition, calculation and originality in year where the highest grossing film is a hallow superhero team up movie. This kind of filmmaking should be paid attention to so the major studios can still be argued into green lighting the occasional smart film. If not, it’s time we all come to terms with the fact that American cinema is a dead art. Also starring Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels and Paul Dano.
Fun fact: Shane Carruth, writer and director of Primer, the most realistic time travel movie ever made, was hired as a consultant for this film. Again, this film had a time travel consultant.
Won’t Back Down: Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal star as a veteran school teacher and struggling mother respectively who decide to take on their crumbling and corrupt public school system. In politicized twist, the film defines “crumbling and corrupt system” as “teacher’s union.” Not a lack of adequate funding, racial segregation and the disproportion treatment that always follows that kind of segregation, teaching to the test, a depressed economy and the effect that has on the success of school levy’s nationwide, the increasing commoditization of the public school system or the pervasive disinterest in teaching given the deplorable conditions and pay that accompany the position but rather teacher’s unions. Those people who hand out leaflets in the rain for hours on end trying to argue for a living wage for the unimportant job of caring for our nation’s greatest resource. There’s some real inspiring stuff going on here. Also Holly Hunter, Ving Rhames and Rosie Perez.
Fun fact: The film has taken in only $2.7 million against a $19 million budget.
Hotel Transylvania: Genndy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack) directs this animated comedy about a hotel/sanctuary for monsters run by Dracula (Adam Sandler). Being the sixth person to fill the director’s chair for this film since its inception back in 2008, it’s hard to say how much of the film is idiomatically Tartakovskian. Given its less than thrilling visual style, hoary plotting and soundtrack of original Adam Sandler songs one would be forgiven for thinking not a whole lot. Left to his own devices, Tartakovsky produces wonders (including the only thing worthwhile attached to the Star Wars franchise that was produced this century) but this film feels too much like a five star chef being forced to make his approximation of a Big Mac. Also featuring the voices of Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez and Kevin James.
Fun fact: The film features a parody of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.”
Trouble with the Curve: Clint Eastwood grunts and snarls his way through this family/baseball drama as a scout who’s losing his sight but regaining his relationship with his estranged daughter (Amy Adams) as she accompanies him on his latest hunt for a hot prospect. Eastwood is too charismatic an actor to ever be boring (unless he’s rambling at an empty chair) but low calorie soft serve like this isn’t going to be anybody’s idea of a good movie. It’s a movie your parents watch and enjoy because they don’t understand how iPhones work or the depth of their encroaching uselessness. Also Justin Timberlake as the young upstart that Eastwood sees a little bit of himself in and Adams takes romantic interest in? There’s no point in the former pop star’s career where playing a part like that will ever be acceptable. Also starring John Goodman, Matthew Lilard and Scott Eastwood.
Fun fact: Curve is the first film Eastwood has acted in that he hasn’t directed since 1993’s In the Line of Fire.
House at the End of the Street: Jennifer Lawrence stars in this low rent horror movie about a family (Lawrence and her mother Elisabeth Shue) that has the extreme misfortune of moving into a home that’s right next to house where a brutal double murder was committed years before. Excepting that such contrivances are de rigueur for the genre; did Shue not think to do any background checking into the neighborhood where she was going to bring her young blonde daughter? Even in this economic climate people aren’t running toward places like Detroit. Movies like this guarantee only two things, an ending that will be futile gesture toward profundity and lots of lurid shots of the protagonist and various states of sexualized vulnerability. That is to say they offer nothing in particular. Also starring Gil Bellows, Max Thieriot and Eva Link.
Fun fact: The film completed principle photography in July 2010.
End of Watch: From Training Day scripter David Ayer comes this gritty police drama that follows two uniformed officers (Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena) as they patrol their South Central Los Angeles beat. Excepting his heavily criticized work on the War World II submarine drama U-571, Ayer has focused exclusively on the thin blue line that operates in America’s greatest city. If he demonstrated any real growth as a dramatist in the last 11 years you might be able to call Ayer the L.A. Woody Allen but as opposed to his fellow obsessively narrowly focused urban chronicler, Ayer seems to only have one lesson and one tone in which to impart that lesson; the (multicultural) city is crazy and only a lone white man has the righteousness to tame it. It’s great to see Gyllenhaal playing to his wild eyed strengths and not a unbelievable romantic lead and Pena’s always a dependably stoic and dead pan presence but Tarzan needs to hurry up and die already.
Fun fact: Ayer wrote the film’s script in six days, which is really not a surprise.
Dredd: The legendary British comic book character Judge Dredd get a second shot at cinematic glory with this 3D film directed by Vantage Point helmer Pete Travis. Eschewing the irritatingly goofy tone and concept upending casting of a major star, Dredd avoids the pratfalls of its 1995 predecessor but struggles with a new set of problems such as apparent over reliance on hyper stylized slo-mo photography (think 300) and a credibility straining $45 million budget. Karl Urban as the titular merciless lawgiver his received positive notices as has Lena Headly as the film’s villain but at the end of the day Travis is such weak director it impossible to realistically expect anything more than adequacy from this film especially in year when we’ve been graced with the similarly themed and damn near perfect The Raid Redemption. Also starring Olivia Thrilby, Wood Harris and Domhall Gleeson.
Fun fact: In keeping with its origins, accomplished comic book artist Jock was hired to do the film’s concept art.
Resident Evil – Retribution: Mila Jovovich returns to the role that made her one the most famous action heroines of day with the fifth installment of the high grossing video game adaptation series. This film has a vague Fast Five feel in that in features the stars of earlier Resident Evil films (Michelle Rodriguez, Oded Fehr) irrespective of their previous on screen deaths. The franchise, mostly directed by bad movie auteur Paul W.S. Anderson, has always has a strange relationship with continuity; successive films always follow up from their predecessors but the condition of the world in which series is set is variable. Sometimes it’s a desert wasteland completely devastated by the after effects of the fall of humankind, sometimes it’s a futuristic monoculture that is barely holding onto a fraying shred of corporatist oligarchy. Jovovich is sometimes wildly powerful, sometimes only action movie tough. Jovovich’s character’s quest is the only constant, pursuing the quixotic goal of dismantling the apocalypse-causing Umbrella Corporation and saving the lives of whatever non-describe types she’s stuck with at the time. The Resident Evil movies are never particularly good or thoughtful – the movies are sort of anti-corporation but could just as easily be called anti-zombie – but there are competently made and rarely boring which is the definition of entertaining in the America of 2012. Also starring Lili Bingbing, Sienna Guillory and Shawn Roberts.
Fun fact: After producing the biggest international opening ever for a Resident Evil movie, Retribution has gone on to become the second highest grossing film in the franchise.
Finding Nemo 3D: Pixar’s 2003 animated familial odyssey returns to theaters in a new converted 3D format. The rerelease of the film finds the once unstoppable Pixar a studio in transition. Co-director Andrew Stanton, who has seen his share of stunning successes (directing 2008’s Oscar winning WALL-E ) and crushing failures (the $200 million write off that was this year’s John Carter) while the film’s other director Lee Unkrich saw a billion dollar return and an Academy Award for his directorial efforts on Toy Story 3. The studio itself has seen dizzying highs with the critical lauded and commercially dominating release of The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille and Up has seen a decline in recent years with the uninspiring Cars 2 and the underperforming Brave. The shine wearing off Pixar was far from unexpected as there had to some end to its seemingly endless string of hits but the general drop in quality of its last two films coupled with the obvious cash grab of a 3D revival suggest that something more profound than growing pains is effecting the animation giant. Only time will tell if this is a temporary phase of the beginning of the end. Featuring the voices of Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres and Alexander Gould.
Fun Fact: The 3D conversion process cost Disney $5 million but the new edition of the film opened to $16.7 million.
Mario McKellop irregularly blogs at A Polemic Killer Room.