“Looper”

'Looper'

‘THIS TIME TRAVEL shit fries your brain like an egg,’ muses Abe, the cordial crime boss of Rian Johnson’s time-travelling science-fiction thriller Looper, and you get the sense this ever-so eloquently expressed opinion reflects the writer and director’s own. Johnson introduces sci-fi staples like time travel and telekinesis with something approaching disdain in his third film. Time-travel, for instance, is nothing more than a convenient method of body disposal. Telekinesis––now a household word thanks to the endless exploits of the X-Men––is called “T.K.” in the Looper universe, and its use is reduced almost solely to tacky bar tricks. It’s this nonchalance which makes Looper feel less like a sci-fi and more like the hardboiled fiction on which Johnson draws so much. It isn’t quite The Big Sleep, but the elements are all there.

The film opens in rural Kansas, where Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) checks his watch and briefly practices his French before blowing a big bloody hole in the chest of a man who appears on the ground in front of him. Joe is a specialised hitman called a “looper”, who’s hired by gangsters to execute, no questions asked, whichever sorry soul happens to appear, bound and blindfolded, on the sheet in front of him. The film takes place in 2044, which we learn is around thirty years before the invention of time-travel. In that later time, time-travel is highly illegal but available to large criminal organisations on the black market. Due to advancements in tracking technologies, disposing of a body has become a little difficult, so these organisations slip a sack over the head of anyone they wish to get rid of, send them back in time, and have loopers kill them before they were even born. Voila.


Johnson introduces sci-fi staples like time travel and telekinesis with something approaching disdain. Time-travel, for instance, is nothing more than a convenient method of body disposal. Telekinesis––now a household word thanks to the endless exploits of the X-Men––is called “T.K.” in the Looper universe, and its use is reduced almost solely to tacky bar tricks.


This elegant cycle of time-travel and blasé murder is rudely interrupted by Joe’s older self (Bruce Willis), who arrives unbound and unblindfolded, and promptly escapes. A looper is expected to kill their future self when their employers finally decide to terminate their contract by sending them back in time, accept the handsome redundancy package and then sail off into the sunset to enjoy the next thirty years. Old Joe is on a mission to murder a child fated to become a fearsome underworld tyrant. But if Young Joe doesn’t stop his older self, and his employers catch up with him, they’ll chop him up into little pieces to slow his older self down so they can then take him out.

My primary problem with Looper is that it feels like two films stitched together: the first seems to be about Old Joe’s return from the future and Young Joe’s attempts to catch him while himself on the run from his former employers; the second is more about Old Joe’s own agenda, which really only gets underway about halfway through the film. The two plots are closely related but don’t fit together seamlessly. On the topic of two parts of one thing not quite fitting, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, despite capturing Bruce Willis’s manner and facial expressions well, still doesn’t look a thing like the older man, and having the pair in the same frame doesn’t help matters. (The eyebrows, for instance: What were they thinking?) This isn’t so much of a problem, however, and both Gordon-Levitt and Willis serve up solid performances, as does Emily Blunt, who plays shotgun-wielding, foul-mouthed farmer Sara. Her first words are ‘Listen up, fucker! I have shot and buried three vagrants in the past year!’

Looper’s plotting is partly redeemed by its stylistically and thematically noirish elements. The United States of 2044 is a filthy dystopia crippled by hyperinflation and ravaged by rampant drug use and roving bands of violent vagrants. In the corrupt Kansas city in which much of the film takes place, you can be killed out of caprice without consequence: it’s the sort of seedy underworld that would make James Ellroy proud, and one fitting for a cynical junkie antihero like Joe, whose childhood ended early when Abe put a gun in his hand, and who’s desperate to redeem his failure to kill his future self. And then there’s La Belle Aurore, the loopers’ favourite nightclub, which happens to share its name with the Parisian bistro in Casablanca.


The United States of 2044 is a filthy dystopia crippled by hyperinflation and ravaged by rampant drug use and roving bands of violent vagrants. In the corrupt Kansas city in which much of the film takes place, you can be killed out of caprice without consequence: it’s the sort of seedy underworld that would make James Ellroy proud, and one fitting for a cynical junkie antihero like Joe.


For an hour or so, Looper is at once moody and exciting and interesting and then, all of a sudden, it gets dull. The last portion of the film is interminably slow and tedious, ending with a rushed and predictable conclusion that wraps up all the loose ends. It’s partly this quality that creates the impression that Looper is two films trying to be one. It seems as if Johnson, who for most of the film was happy to leave discussions about the philosophical implications of jumping through time to more traditional science-fiction films like Primer, suddenly felt the urge to give over twenty-five minutes to airing questions about free will and utilitarianism.

Looper represents an unlikely marriage of films like The Terminator and the detective films of the late Forties, and at this ambitious undertaking it’s largely successful. Its second act lets it down quite dramatically, which makes Looper something of a frustrating film. It could have been a science-fiction classic. As it is, it’s unsatisfying.

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“Bobby Fischer Against the World”

Bobby Fischer Against the World

IT’S BECOMING SOMETHING of a tired saying to note that people exceptional in their professional lives are exceptional in other areas of life, too, in part because it’s cliché and tends to be lazily ascribed, and in part because often its use subtly excuses any number of antisocial or immoral acts, so long as they’re committed by someone who happens to be a dab hand at playing guitar or kicking a football or painting. But that isn’t, I hasten to add, to say that the saying doesn’t contain a grain or two of truth–only, that truly exceptional people are rare.

Bobby Fischer, the American chess grandmaster, might just be one of those people, and Bobby Fischer Against the World, directed by What Happened, Miss Simone? director Liz Garbus, is as good an examination of his tragic and bizarre life as you’re likely to find. Like Miss Simone, Garbus’ film proceeds linearly through the life of its subject, beginning with his birth to Regina, a “homeless” Jewish Communist activist with no intention of letting her son interfere with her goals and Hans-Gerhardt Fischer, a German biophysicist who, it later transpired, wasn’t his father at all. From here, and with the contributions of prominent figures from the world of chess such as Garry Kasparov, Larry Evans, Asa Hoffman and others, Garbus patiently and sympathetically leads us through the events that prematurely ended Fischer’s career.

Garbus draws on a wealth of television interviews and game footage to create a narrative that runs, if not exactly seamlessly, then smoothly enough, and is bolstered by talking heads who collectively play the role of narrator without, so to speak, giving the game away for those unfamiliar with Fischer’s life. The time Garbus devotes to Fischer’s early life is an investment that pays off in the later parts of the film, and the slightly exploitative, hard-to-avoid armchair psychologising in which, consciously or unconsciously, she tempts you to engage is softened a little by the decidedly sympathetic tone she maintains throughout the film, and the kind accounts given by the diverse figures from Fischer’s life that she interviews.


Garbus draws on a wealth of television interviews and game footage to create a narrative that runs, if not exactly seamlessly, then smoothly enough, and is bolstered by talking heads who collectively play the role of narrator without, so to speak, giving the game away for those unfamiliar with Fischer’s life.


Chess is an extraordinary game. Richard Reti called it “the triumph of the intellect and genius over lack of imagination; the triumph of personality over materialism”. It is, if I can put it this way, the most purely intellectual sport, and so there’s the implication that its most accomplished players are particularly gifted in this respect. Even among these grandmasters, Fischer was exceptional, and Garbus captures this well. In an era when the Soviet Union, in an effort to show their perceived intellectual superiority, invested heavily in the promotion of chess and chess-players, Fischer, a lonely child from an unremarkable and unstable Brooklyn family, developed an interest and then a passion and then an obsession which led one commentator to say that he had dedicated more time to playing chess than all of his counterparts on the Soviet team combined. Malcolm Gladwell, who makes a welcome if brief appearance as a talking head, discusses his now-famous 10,000-hour rule, which states that in order to achieve mastery at any given pursuit, you must dedicate 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to that activity. It doesn’t take much mental arithmetic to get a sense of how much time Fischer must have dedicated to his art.

Despite their many differences, I was reminded, as I watched Bobby Fischer Against the World, of Christine, the Antonio Campos film about Christine Chubbuck, a TV reporter who shot herself live on air. Both directors treat their subjects with not only empathy but something approaching affection, and this makes any accusation of exploitation a weak one. Garbus’ film is, first and foremost, a fair and fairly thorough examination of the life of what might have been the best chess player ever to play the game.

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“Exit Through the Gift Shop”

'Exit Through the Gift Shop'

‘I DON’T REALLY know what the moral is,’ says the reclusive, elusive street artist Banksy at the end of his entertaining and cheerful documentary debut film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, which tells the bizarre story of how a voyeuristic Frenchman armed with a video camera became the multimillionaire artist Mister Brainwash almost overnight.

The film opens to the tones of Richard Hawley’s ‘Tonight the Streets Are Ours’ and a montage of various street artists at work in cities around the world. Banksy, his face and voice obscured, explains how the film is a sort of counter-documentary before saying, with typical self-deprecation, that ‘it’s not Gone with the Wind.’ The subject of the film is an energetic and obsessive Frenchman called Thierry Guetta, who passes off old clothes as expensive vintage items to gullible Angelinos. Thierry is obsessed with his video camera, and says as much. In fact he says the thrill filming gives him is ‘more than drugs’. His daily routine of marching around L.A. hassling celebrities like Jay Leno and Noel Gallagher is interrupted by a visit from his cousin, the urban artist Invader, who leads him into the emerging and counter-cultural world of street art.


Banksy has Guetta come across like a voyeur and fantasist––always watching and never participating, like a sort of Tom Ripley––whose constant presence seems simultaneously to amuse and alarm various street artists such as Shepherd Fairey, Zeus and Monsieur André, all of whom he somehow ends up filming.


The mood for this bizarre story is markedly light-hearted and mocking, and this is reflected in the derisive narration of Rhys Ifans, whose casting is something of a masterstroke. Underpinning this, however, is something slightly sinister. Banksy has Guetta come across like a voyeur and fantasist––always watching and never participating, like a sort of Tom Ripley––whose constant presence seems simultaneously to amuse and alarm various street artists such as Shepherd Fairey, Zeus and Monsieur André, all of whom he somehow ends up filming. The Dickie Greenleaf to Guetta’s Ripley is of course Banksy himself, the most famous and elusive of all street artists, and in an ironic twist, it’s Banksy who extends his hand. Guetta had been telling people that he was making a documentary about street art; he wasn’t, but it got him access to the biggest names in the movement, and the anonymous Banksy was convinced that Guetta’s filming might have some value.

Banksy pushes Guetta to make his film and the shambolic result (‘It was at this point that I realised that he maybe wasn’t a filmmaker. That he was maybe just someone with mental problems who happened to have a camera.’) makes him decide to re-edit the footage himself, the result of which is Exit Through the Gift Shop. Guetta, meanwhile, is sent back to Los Angeles to immerse himself in the art scene and try to put on a show and weeks later, and now calling himself ‘Mister Brainwash’, unveils ‘Life is Beautiful’. MBW’s ‘unique’ creations are a confused mixture of the signature styles of the artists he filmed, and Banksy seems to have been his main source of ‘inspiration’. And, in part thanks to the apparent misuse of endorsements from Banksy and Fairey, this hilariously unoriginal display is a wild success.


MBW’s ‘unique’ creations are a confused mixture of the signature styles of the artists he filmed, and thanks to the apparent misuse of endorsements from Banksy and Fairey, this hilariously unoriginal display is a wild success.


Banksy pitches what he perceives as Guetta’s cynicism and commercialism against the undoubtedly mischievous and playful but largely idealistic world of street art, which, despite its polarising, is-it-art-or-vandalism? character, involves mainly serious artists who have spent their lives developing their own unique style. But Banksy stops short of moralising, opting instead, in his characteristic style, to approach the subject with humour and irony. The documentary also offers an interesting insider’s look into the world of street art with all its midnight outings and building-scaling and thrills of hiding in plain sight. But it isn’t so much about street art as it is about Thierry Guetta.

Since its release in 2010, Exit Through the Gift Shop and its subject have been accused of being an elaborate Banksy prank. The best argument for this that I can see is that Guetta’s wife is impossibly tolerant of his peculiar, eight-year obsession. Overall it seems unlikely that Exit is a hoax, but people more interested than I am have done their own investigating, and it doesn’t really matter. It’s funny, occasionally sinister and an illuminating glimpse at the world of street art. And if there is something approaching the ‘moral’ that eluded Banksy, it seems to be the statement ‘I am not for sale’.

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