Thriller

American Hustle

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The best scene in the spazzy, long-winded, 1970s-set shaggy-dog story American Hustle is the opening one, in which the paunch-bellied grifter Irving Rosenfeld gets gussied up in a hotel room ahead of a crucial con job. Writer-director David O. Russell lingers over the details of his dressing process, his clothing and accessories, leading to the coup de grâce: the toupee and combover. Irving’s fussing over his hair-do is emblematic of everything right and wrong with Russell’s confidence-game comedy-thriller. First, there’s the hair itself: luxurious on the back and sides where it still grows naturally but, on the top where it doesn’t are lanks of hair layered under and over the tribble-like hairpiece that Irving oh-so-carefully cements into place square atop his crown. This shot holds for quite a while as Christian Bale, in a terrific tragicomic performance, arranges and adjusts his precious combover, perfecting this sad illusion offset by his beard and his use of ’70s-style aviator sunglasses.

As an exercise in constructing a comic character, this is wonderful stuff. We’re awed, appalled yet somehow drawn to Irving, as detailed by Russell and played by Bale. The dynamic of period details and performance is what works so well in Hustle, but the film’s comic virtuosity is surrounded by an unrelenting tornado of visual style that eventually serves as a smokescreen to cover up the fact that there isn’t much of a story here.

When FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) blows the lid off the fraudulent lending operation run by Irving and his mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, who gamely commands the film’s dramatic and comedic tones), he gives them an ultimatum: Do time or help him stage an elaborate sting to bring down corrupt New Jersey politicians, including Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the effusive mayor of Camden. Irving and Sydney take Richie up on it, developing a scheme they know will reel in Polito: They tell the mayor that a Middle Eastern sheik is ready to invest hundreds of millions into revamping the down-in-the-dumps Atlantic City into a modern gambling mecca. They dupe Polito, but soon Irving and Sydney finds themselves in over their heads when the mafia also wants in on the action. This all makes the cocky, career-driven Richie giddy with delusions of his own greatness, especially after several politicians take bribes to help speed up what they believe to be a huge windfall for their state.

Irving and Sydney, meanwhile, find their relationship under strain. This is really the story struggling for breath at the heart of the film’s smothering style and con-game theatrics: A love triangle in which the plucky survivalist Sydney leverages her sex appeal vis-à-vis the horny, crazy-for-love Richie to gain the loyalty of the sad-sack Irving, really the love of her life but who’s married (unhappily) to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), his crackpot Jersey-wife who’s in turn using her son as leverage to keep Irving from divorcing her. The chemistry that this triangle sparks among all the above makes it fun to sift through their tacit deceptions and ulterior loyalties, and it’s where Russell approximates most successfully his gift for depicting how love and sex can trigger comedic anarchy.

On balance, the con game in Hustle, the real-life, so-called Abscam scandal, is a non-starter. A cameo by Robert De Niro as a seasoned mafioso is meant to instill suspense and fear, but it registers only as a gimmick of an aging star riffing on his on-screen legacy. And the actual sting in which Congressmen consent to take the bribes from Irving and company doesn’t read as a clever ruse to bring down bad guys; in legal terms, it’s only entrapment, a play that only a dunderhead like Richie would think is ingenious, but, in reality, is just pressuring people to make a bad choice for what they believe to be a good cause. The only legitimate sting in Hustle takes place over a couple of minutes toward the end, when Irving and Sydney attempt to pull out the rug from under Richie. But now it’s too little, too late.

By the end, more successful than any of the cons on-screen is the con Hustle plays on its audience, which has now sat through two hours of every ’70s hair and wardrobe cliche, an enjoyable but predictable 70s pop soundtrack and a camera that refuses to sit the hell still. There’s hardly a shot in this film that doesn’t involve the camera flying into or away from a character’s face, presumably to accentuate their drug-addled, anxiety-ridden vortex; the style becomes so repetitious that it soon becomes a lampoon of Scorsese’s Goodfellas and After Hours (both better films by a long shot). Once you’ve untangled the film’s style, which over-wraps the story–exactly as Irving’s combover shrouds the lie underneath–you’ve got a hollow shell of an enterprise, filled only by the hot air of homage, gimmicks and throwbacks. As the end credits roll, you’ll be wondering what all the fuss was about.

Grade: C
Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: Eric Singer, David O. Russell
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Peña, Alessandro Nivola

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World War Z

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For a zombie movie, the PG-13 rated World War Z is among the tamest in the genre. There are scenes of horror and hysteria, induced by mobs of undead going berserk as panicked citizens flee–some do escape, others are bitten and transformed into zombies themselves. The only sure way to kill them is a bullet in the head. In that sense, this follows the zombie playbook. Otherwise, there isn’t the level of gore to which we’ve become accustomed coming from this genre. Indeed, the focus isn’t on the subject’s goriness, but the human drama that unfolds around it. World War Z is less about zombies than it is a portrait of human despair and one man’s quest to rid the world of the plague, fueled only by his love for his family. This movie is really about a father and husband’s devotion and his willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Themes don’t get any more profound.

The world has been overrun by a terrifying virus that turns its victims into raving, run-amok zombies. Former UN investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family learn that firsthand when they find themselves in the midst of a zombie attack and a military crackdown in Philadelphia. Because of his UN status, Lane is able to secure safekeeping for his family aboard a U.S. Navy carrier, which serves as a kind of floating safe zone, before he embarks on a globe-trotting hunt for a way to stop the pandemic. Along the way, the film lingers on details of survival–on how a family that takes in the Lanes on the day of Philadelphia’s collapse clings close to their radio for news and on American soldiers in a remote South Korean military base and how they’ve barricaded themselves against the zombies waiting outside. And, of course, there’s the depiction of Jerusalem, sealed off the outside world by newly built steel walls, and housing a diaspora of Jews and Palestinians. Yes, it’s the zombie apocalypse but, because of its real-world geopolitical considerations, World War Z also feels like a convincing depiction of a humanitarian crisis.

The direction by Marc Forster, while never inspired, is dependably utilitarian. Forster follows the paces outlined in this adaptation, which only takes its cue from Max Brooks’ novel in its premise and global overview, and he lets Pitt anchor the material and deliver one of his sturdiest performances. Over 20 years, Pitt has become of Hollywood’s best and most compelling actors; there’s both conscience and conviction at play in his work. It was front-and-center in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, and it commands this film as the story tapers down from the large-scale chaos of its first half to a third-act stand-off set inside a WHO research lab. Sure, there are the alternately obligatory and frightening depictions of zombie carnage, civilian breakdown and military resistance, but they pale in comparison to Lane’s personal journey. Pitt’s soulful performance lends World War Z real heart and strength. When the end credits roll, you really wish that the movie were longer, extending and deepening its investigative mystery as Lane (and the rest of us) learns step-by-step the origins of the plague and its nature. The story’s premise, the seriousness and intelligence of this adaptation and Pitt’s performance towering over it all could’ve handily accommodated an epic of that scale. Were it so.

Grade: B

Directed by: Marc Forster
Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof
Cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, Matthew Fox, David Morse

White House Down

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The White House gets commandeered by a gang of anti-American conspirators and mercenaries, whose members include ex-soldiers and an elite computer hacker. They’re led by a zealous saboteur–who also happens to be chief of the President’s security detail. It’s a premise that seems tailored for a throwback ’80s or ’90s action bonanza. Indeed, White House Down plays a lot like Die Hard-lite, heavy on the artillery and the macho swagger but lacking the edge and creepiness that made us take baddies like Alan Rickman seriously. This is, after all, a Roland Emmerich affair, and–having avoided most of his output since Independence Day–I guess I’d forgotten just how schmaltzy the man’s films can be. There is an overload of cheese here, a fondue of it here dripping over the edges of this jingoistic B-movie hokum, and it makes for a very queasy combination with the sarcastic, even subversive comedy that peeps through at times from the lead’s performers.

Channing Tatum picks up where he left off in 21 Jump Street, playing an oafish yet confident security officer aspiring to the ranks of the Presidential Secret Service. As Cale, he marshals the same combination of befuddled machismo that created comic sparks opposite Jonah Hill’s nerdy buffoonery in 21 Jump Street, and it’s almost as effective here opposite Jamie Foxx, playing the President with about as stately and dignified an air as he can muster. Had director Emmerich allowed the chain reaction of comic chemistry sparked by these leads to carry the film, there’s no telling how good White House Down could’ve been. What we have instead is a sporadically amusing, ridiculously corny “thrill ride” contrived for maximum, infantile patriotism.

It so happens that, on the same day as Cale shows up for a bungling interview with Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhall), a top White House staffer, the aforementioned gang infiltrates the White House and promptly begins to raise hell. It also happens to be that Cale’s daughter, a budding political junkie and pint-sized, all-American hero, is part of a White House tour. When Cale learns his daughter is among the terrorists’ hostages, he goes into overdrive, partnering up with the Foxx’s equally beleaguered President Sawyer–who finds himself the target of traitors in his own ranks–to save the day.

While its set-up and initial action set pieces have a breathable and involving-enough style, the movie completely unravels the deeper Emmerich goes into the takeover conspiracy and the more over-the-top its theatrics get. Top quality actors like Woods, Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins and Jason Clarke do the best they can with a ludicrous screenplay by James Vanderbilt. They hit all the notes that Emmerich’s direction, which tries to squeeze as much melodrama out of the script’s parental, presidential and patriotic themes, demands. His direction is otherwise nondescript–this is shot and edited as a straight-ahead, generic action movie of outsize scale and the hysterics to match. Emmerich’s depiction of the American media types, the jingoistic citizenry and the nefarious bad guys is so riddled with cliches and hammered home with such brain-deadening obviousness that White House Down is eventually a joyless enterprise in calculated mall-crowd moviemaking of the dumbest order.

The silver lining is the occasional spark of comedy seen in the team-up of Tatum and Foxx. They have a few moments that have a sense of slapstick and genre subversion that go about halfway to making White House Down a watchable experience. The best among these might be a frenetic moment when Cale and Sawyer, under fire, hustle into the White House’s garage and climb inside the presidential limo. But, even in the heat of battle, the President ducks into the back seat of the limo while Cale takes the wheel before taking off on a rockets-and-bullets addled tear around the White House lawn. “Why the hell did you get in the back?” Cale shouts. “Force of habit,” Sawyer answers. That’s a genuinely funny moment in a movie that should’ve had tons of them instead of the wall to wall of silly, self-serious melodrama punctuated by forgettable action scenes.

Grade: C

Directed by: Roland Emmerich
Written by: James Vanderbilt
Cast: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, Joey King, James Woods

Flight

The first 40 minutes of Flight feature perhaps the boldest filmmaking in the career of director Robert Zemeckis. Not only does it further prove his mastery of suspense, his complete command over the physical elements of action, but we find him pushing his characters to the brink of emotional disaster, far-gone into abusive behavior, and he keeps them there, teetering on the precipice between salvation and certain doom. The fact that we care as much as we do about his protagonist, an alcoholic commercial airline pilot named Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), means that his struggle to face his demons becomes every bit as harrowing an experience as enduring the terror-filled mid-air incident that triggers the entire narrative. After the dust from that expertly directed opening episode settles, though, Flight becomes an awfully familiar melodrama redeemed thankfully by a bracing performance by the world-class Washington.

Whitaker is a powerhouse drunk, the kind of drunk who chugs gallons of vodka like it’s water while behind the wheel. And he’ll snort a few lines to bounce back out of his stupor. When we find him taking the cockpit of his fully loaded plane, Whitaker is coming off a bruising drug and booze-fueled bender. But what should’ve been a short hop from Florida to Georgia ends up being a descent into Hell as Whittaker’s plane loses hydraulics and nosedives. In the ensuing vortex of panic and confusion, Whittaker miraculously lands the plane, saving most of the lives on-board. This entire sequence is worth the price of admission and should be filed among the movies’ greatest air disasters.

What should be a cause for celebration for Whitaker is the beginning of a nightmare as evidence of his blood-alcohol content soon comes to light. And the lawyer representing the pilot’s union (Don Cheedle), along with the union rep (Bruce Greenwood), struggle to keep Whittaker on the straight-and-narrow as they seek to deflect liability away from his drunkenness in preparation for an upcoming NTSB hearing. Hounded by shame, guilt, and anger, however, Whittaker can’t stay away from the bottle. The alcohol is both the source all his anguish — he feels he’s betrayed and abandoned his son and ex-wife due to his drinking — and his only comfort. The comfort, of course, is only an illusion, and it’s that journey towards dispelling the illusion and towards openly admitting (and repenting) his alcoholism that Zemeckis’s movie explores.

Anyone familiar with movie-of-the-week tropes about alcoholism knows the scenes: The drinking binges followed by chastened periods of going clean followed by guilt-fueled relapses followed by the protagonist reluctantly attending AA meetings and so on and so forth until the moment of truth, the moment of utter humility when the alcoholic sees the light. And, yes, we have a fellow traveler on Whittaker’s path too — a heroin addict, Nicole (Kelly Reilly), who’s farther along on the path than Whittaker and who tries to stand him up when he’s down. Anyone who’s seen Days of Wine and Roses (1962), and countless similar dramas, knows their fairly worn-out dynamic.

A shame about Flight is that what’s truly a spectacular (in every sense of the word) first act serves merely as a pretext to a far less interesting and cliche-ridden story about one man’s struggle to find himself. This isn’t to say that the movie isn’t compelling and absorbing: Washington is so wrenching, so heartbreaking — the kind of performance that’s both repulsive and appealing at once — that we forgive most of screenwriter John Gatins and Zemeckis’s lingerings in the familiar. There are some grievous errors that almost sink the whole movie as when John Goodman, playing Whitaker’s Dr. Feelgood, shows up at a critical point and throws the tone of the entire film out of whack. For the duration of his appearance and purpose in the scene, Flight goes from a deadly serious personal drama to some kind of perverse spring-break comedy. How Zemeckis could have miscalculated the nature and tone of his own drama, as evidenced by this scene, is baffling, and it points to a certain disconnect with the material as if he were out of his depth, and he needed to swim to the shallows to liven things up.

The performances are top-drawer across the board, especially Washington’s. He’s an actor supremely adept at playing men puffed up by a misguided sense of themselves only to be humbled by circumstance and deep introspection. Reilly is sweet and committed in a performance that’s largely redundant, while Greenwood and Cheedle hold up the sober end of the ensemble solidly. After Cast Away (2000), Flight is exactly the kind of product you’d by now expect from Zemeckis: Brilliantly crafted and loaded with high-end potential at the outset but which quickly falls into a rather pedestrian tour of monumental themes. As A-list substance-abuse melodramas go, this one lands safely enough.

Grade: B-

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by: John Gatins
Starring: Denzel Washington, Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheedle, Nadine Valazquez, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman

Skyfall

The James Bond franchise celebrates its 50th anniversary with not the most celebratory of Bond movies. Director Sam Mendes and writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan fall back on the heavy-duty psycho-drama and origin-story psychoanalysis — elements better and more suitably employed in Casino Royale (2006) — to fuel the latest Bond go-around, Skyfall. What ends up happening, though, is that Mendes and company get so lost in the murk of the drama, in the leaden themes of betrayal, guilt, and vindication and in the theatrics involved with all the above that they completely miss the point that Bond is supposed to be fun.

The plot concerns the theft of top-secret computer files that contained the names of all MI6 agents working undercover in terrorist organizations around the world. By exposing their names, the culprit not only puts the agents’ lives in danger, but also the credibility of MI6, the super-secret spy organization headed up by M (Judi Dench). Bond’s pursuit of the criminal mastermind ends at the headquarters of an embittered former MI6 agent, Silva (Javier Bardem), who was once betrayed by M and who now harbors a smoldering desire for revenge against her and her organization. Bond’s capture of Silva is only the beginning in the latter’s ploy to find satisfaction, leading to an explosion-filled showdown at Bond’s titular childhood estate where he and M are holed up.

Daniel Craig is among the more captivating Bonds ever to be cast. He’s up there with Connery in his no-nonsense and amoral pursuit of mission objectives. But the dire mistake that the current crop of Bond producers, writers, and directors make is to overplay Craig’s penchant for brooding self-absorption. At one point in the story, when Bond is given up for dead, he spends his time getting drunk and chugging pain pills, and we see in him a vulnerability we rarely glimpse. Later, in a face-to-face with Silva, as the latter is running down a checklist of Bond’s flaws (including his substance abuse and childhood trauma), and, again, in a third-act revelation about his parents’ deaths when he was child, we get occasions for digging into Bond’s past and for understanding his state of mind. But all this, especially because Casino Royale went over this ground already, is just redundant character-building. It’s as if Mendes couldn’t be bothered with crafting an exciting, fast-paced spy thriller — or didn’t know how to make one — and so retreated into the territory in which he felt comfortable.

One evidence of this can be found in the chase sequence at the movie’s outset. Everything’s rolling along fine until the writers find themselves stuck on a train, with Bond ducking a hail of gunfire from his opponent. Rather than keep things elemental and physical (as Casino Royale did in its smart, riveting, vertiginous opening), the writers get the idea of putting a shovel tractor on the bed of the train. Its presence on the train is baffling, but it’s convenient and provides a clever device for a “sensational” moment that Bond gets to impress his audience with as he goes to work manipulating the tractor. For me, it’s a clunky, graceless moment in a film filled with unremarkable action set pieces — all of which are loud, expensive, and arbitrary. The two worst include a subterranean chase that involves a train careering through a blown-apart hole, and straight into Bond’s path: It all looks neat but does nothing but make noise. The other set piece, the movie’s capper, involves the siege that Silva lays to Bond’s estate — a setting that bafflingly recalls the moors in dreary Victorian gothic novels. Crass with explosions, firepower, and machine-gun bullets traded back and forth, this finale is a disappointing dog; again, it’s as if Mendes and company are more interested in the thematic and symbolic underpinnings of the action than the pace, wit, and originality of the action itself.

Who pays the price for Skyfall? Bond fans do, of course. But so does Daniel Craig. He’s not going to be around forever — not in this shape, anyway — so it’s this reviewer’s hope that, next time around, they give Craig an opportunity to be Fleming’s Bond, the Bond of Connery, instead of this neo-Victorian creation, a broken-down Heathcliff whose past bereavements must be continually paraded out every time he confronts a new mission. Craig gets almost no opportunity, apart from a few scenes, to be Bond — self-reliant, hyper-competent, and resourceful in spite of the odds. M is also wasted. In fact, this is the first time I grew truly annoyed by Judi Dench, not exactly the actress but her character: principled, yes, and headstrong, but here she commandeers an entire Bond film through her sheer ineptitudes, past and present. Lastly, what a waste of a potentially superb Bond villain. Bardem has two terrific scenes: His first, opposite Craig, sends chills as he fops and capers, trying to tease and belittle Bond with a just-right homoerotic edge; here, I thought, is a Bond villain who creeps people out but also seduces us. The other, opposite M, in which Silva is in his transparent holding cell, is a showstopper. Bardem makes Silva’s damaged humanity, deranged mind, and thirst for vengeance fully palpable and relatable. But, ultimately, the actor’s brilliant portrayal is squandered in a series of standard-issue chases, fights, and a couple of cliché-ridden moments that recall the dullest of action-movie conventions: The villain getting cold feet before he can finish the job. Yes, that happens.

Apart from select moments of character interplay, Skyfall is more or less a bust as a Bond movie. In fact, this isn’t a Bond movie, except in name. This is an approximation, a posturing of a Bond movie. The movie you get when the director and the writers — really, anyone in any prime creative or executive role on the project — have zero grasp of what has made Bond such a magnetic draw for 50 years. Gone is the man of action, replaced by a vexed and agitated neurotic. Gone is the pure sense of fun, adventure, the unexpected. Bond movies only come around every few years, and we can hope Craig’s Bond finds again the script and director he deserves. As for Skyfall, it’s a wasted opportunity.

If you’ve read this far: One final carp. Except for Adele’s excellent title song, the score in Skyfall by Thomas Newman is a dreadful bore. The lack of memorable Bond music since John Barry is a cause for concern as is the near-absence of Bond’s signature theme in these latest offerings. Why have the franchise executives turned their backs on the classic Bond template, its classic sense of style and attitude? The fact that the opening gun-barrel sequence is now relegated to the pre end-credit roll is also troubling and shows a baffling disregard for form; for decades, Bond movies opened with the gun-barrel sequence at the beginning — it’s Bond’s signature, a graphic choice that sets the brand apart from a crowded field of pretenders and competitors. This desperate desire to re-shuffle the template, to ditch elements that helped define the brand, is a worrisome trend. Perhaps what Bond needs is less of a re-boot and more of a celebration of what made the brand great to begin with.

Grade: C+

Directed by: Sam Mendes
Written by: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan
Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, Bérénice Marlohe, Albert Finney

Looper

Looper is among the cleverest, most skillfully crafted and entertaining sci-fi thrillers of the past 20 years. Writer-director Rian Johnson, who made the smart, savvy high-school-set noir Brick in 2005, opts for a cat-and-mouse action-movie with not the easiest gimmicks driving it: Time travel. Often raising more questions of narrative logic than the filmmakers’ originally intended — and which detract from the movie’s ultimate enjoyment — the time-travel gimmick can become more trouble than is worth for all concerned. But with its swift, sure-footed pacing, Johnson’s shrewd staging and framing, and pitch-perfect performances, Looper is so winning and absorbing that any plot holes and time-travel gaffes are easily overlooked.

It’s 2044, and there’s a new breed of criminal thriving in the mercenary underground: Loopers. These are killers hired to assassinate individuals from the future, sent back 30 years — from a time when time-travel has been invented and immediately banned — by a criminal syndicate commissioned to eliminate them. Apparently, disposing of dead bodies in the future is a tricky ordeal, so it’s a better bet to ship those you want to kill back in time and have the loopers do it for you.

Enter Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a looper who’s made a killing — pun intended — at his profession who works for Abe (Jeff Daniels), a kingpin in the time-travel assassination business. Business is brisk, but a wrinkle appears when the loopers discover that more and more of their targets are older versions of themselves, shunted back 30 years from the future. It turns out that a nefarious figure, dubbed The Rainmaker, is tyrannizing the future, bringing governments to their knees, and one of The Rainmaker’s decrees is to eliminate every ex-looper still living.

It’s not long before Joe finds himself face-to-face with his future self, played by Bruce Willis — at his chiseled action-hero best. Unlike his previous targets, Willis isn’t going to go so easily; he escapes his assassination and sets off on a mission to hunt down and kill The Rainmaker — the sole cause of all his grievances, including the death of his future wife. Willis narrows down his targets to one of three possible suspects — all young boys — and, it’s at the home of one of them that Gordon-Levitt arrives, anticipating that Willis will soon show up. Watched over by a tough-as-nails, protective mother — played by the always-captivating Emily Blunt — the young boy (Pierce Gagnon) is alert, observant, and he possesses seismic telekinetic powers, enough to tip anyone off that he’s the boy Willis is after. The dramatic tension between Gordon-Levitt and Blunt earn the romantic sparks that ensue while the former’s growing bond with Blunt’s son is also richly layered with close scenes of the two. With Gordon-Levitt, determined to save his charge, and Willis, bent on erasing the evils of his past, on a collision course, the final third of Looper becomes a riveting example of how shrewd storytelling can hold audience sympathies with both its lead characters, despite their being in direct opposition with each other.

Gordon-Levitt and Willis play two versions of the same character, that is to say, Gordon-Levitt does an impression of Willis. And, as impressions go, it’s an incredible one, channeling Willis’s tics and mannerisms to a tee. But it’s also performance that stands on its own — Joe is a tough, business-as-usual killer with a deference to his employers and with a cocky, assured sense of his future. All of that comes crashing to pieces when he slowly, surely falls for Blunt and vows to protect her son at all costs. Willis is commanding as always but now, showing his age and his wear-and-tear, he’s becoming our next Eastwood, especially since his on-screen persona — laconic, morally clear, and purposeful — is in line with Eastwood’s Man with No Name and Dirty Harry.

If Looper has a fault, it’s that it has too many moving parts, too many plot lines weaving together motives and counter-motives to keep track of. For plot-driven sci-fi thrillers, this is an occupational hazard and as clean as Johnson’s script is, it’s too busy — especially once Daniels and his minions go hunting for both Gordon-Levitt and Willis — to allow for a full immersion into the story’s wonderfully drawn characters. That frenetic quality also rules out any chance for Looper to achieve its potential for exploring those themes it openly invites — the meaning and purpose of life, the ethics of altering the future, and of sacrificing oneself for the good of humanity. It’s all there, touched upon, but Johnson could’ve slowed or simplified his plot for these themes to breathe and permeate our experience of his otherwise excellent storytelling.

Grade: A

Directed by: Rian Johnson
Written by: Rian Johnson
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, Pierce Gagnon, Quing Xu, Tracie Thomas, Garret Dillahunt

Argo

Ben Affleck stars in and directs Argo, a tense, absorbing true-life espionage yarn about a CIA operative who embarks on a daring, borderline foolhardy, mission to extract six members of the American embassy in Tehran during the most heated days of the 1980 Iran hostage crisis. Facing a diplomatic stalemate and smoldering anti-American sentiment among Iran’s Islamic hardliners, the State Department finds itself with no options as it tries to orchestrate a plan to lift the American men and women who fled the embassy just as the protestors were storming the building and who are now holed up at the residence of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). Affleck plays agent Tony Mendez who comes up with a scheme to cobble together a fake Hollywood production company readying to start production on a fake science-fiction movie set in the exotic Middle East. With the help of a pair of hard-nosed Hollywood old-timers, played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin, Mendez manages to create a convincing enough facade. Undercover as a Hollywood producer, Mendez sneaks himself into Tehran and manages to persuade the six hideaways into posing as his film crew in Tehran on a location scout and attempting a risky exit across the city and through Tehran’s airport — a minefield of suspicious government hardliners on the lookout for the fugitive Americans — and out of Iran.

From the retro Warner Bros. logo that appears at the beginning, riddled with faux scratch marks and film grain, to the camerawork, screenplay and editing, Argo is an uncanny evocation of the best political thrillers of the 1970s. It was Affleck’s intention to recall the works of Alan J. Pakula, particularly All the President’s Men, and he succeeds brilliantly. Much to his credit, Affleck manages to fashion a Pakula-esque vibe and style without tipping over into the no-man’s-land of indulgent homage; Argo is in itself a riveting and fascinating drama, not only for its genuinely tense spy-game elements, but the very real fears, doubts, loyalties, and bonds among this tight-knit group of escapees that get tested as Mendez hatches his escape plan. The acting across the board is crackling in the grand 1970’s tradition, with Affleck effectively channeling Pacino, Redford or Hoffman, while Bryan Cranston plays Mendez’s superior with an intensity and moral certitude that would make Jack Lemmon or Jason Robards proud. Argo is among the worthiest spy thrillers to come out of Hollywood in years, and it puts to rest (at least for this reviewer) any doubts over Affleck’s chops as a smart, shrewd director of consistently topnotch fare. Not only is the movie one of the year’s best, it could also usher Affleck into the short list of directors to watch (and root for) this awards season.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Ben Affleck
Written by: Chris Terrio
Cast: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clean Duvall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane