Toronto International Film Festival, Day-One Screenings:
Rian Johnson's sci-fi thriller "Looper" launched this year's Toronto film festival and it was a great choice. The movie has the singularity of vision and the integrity of an indie or art house movie but it's on an epic scale with Hollywood actors; exactly the sort of movies that Toronto loves to showcase. It's also just about impossible to talk about without spoiling it. So if you're remotely concerned about learning too much about this flick, do yourself a favor and skip down to "Thale."
[Full Coverage: Yahoo! Movies at the Toronto International Film Festival]
The film is set in Middle America in 2044, when the nation is divided between the wealthy and the utterly destitute; and the preferred currency is the Chinese Yuan. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a "looper"; a hired gun whose job it is to kill people who become inconvenient to the mob. Of course, these are folks from thirty years in the future when time travel has been invented. They appear as if by magic; bound and gagged in the middle of a cornfield. Joe's job is essentially to pull the trigger and dump the body. Ethical and metaphysical issues aside, it isn't the hardest gig the world. But things get much stranger when Joe is confronted with the task of whacking a middle-aged version of himself (played by Bruce Willis). The existential weirdness of the situation causes him to hesitate and his older self makes a run for it. From there, things get ugly.
It's a movie that recalls the best dystopic sci-fi flicks around; from" Blade Runner" to "12 Monkeys," to "Akira"; while retaining its own unique feel. But when I sat down with Rian Johnson on Friday, he told me the biggest influence on "Looper" was not any of these flicks. It was instead a 30-year-old movie about the Amish.
"Out of all the films you mentioned, 'Witness' was the biggest influence on 'Looper,'" Johnson told me. While at first blush, the 1985 classic, which stars Harrison Ford as a marked man hiding out among the Amish, might not have much in common with a movie about time travel, Johnson pointed out that the second half of the flick takes place on a farm that looks like it's straight out of a Andrew Wyeth painting. "Witness" and the last hour of "Looper" have a remarkably similar bucolic feel. "I love the tension in that movie," said Johnson.
I'll release the full interview in a few weeks when we talk about time-travel, Bruce Willis and the joys of making sci-fi.
"Thale": This is a low budget Norwegian horror movie about a feral, frequently naked blonde, born with a tail like a cow. Too bad there aren't more movies out there that fit this description. Leo and Elvis are employees of "No Sh*T Cleaning Service." When you hear stories of a shut-in who was discovered several weeks after dying, it's people like Leo Elvis who come to clean up the mess. Leo is so medicated that nothing seems to faze him. Elvis, on the other hand, is completely unsuited for the gig. When the movie opens we see Elvis spending more time hurling into a bucket than cleaning up gore. He is also someone who does not seem to know when to leave well enough alone. Case in point: When they discover a creepy underground laboratory beneath a remote wooden shack, Elvis spends much of the first twenty minutes poking around where no sane person would. There he discovers the aforementioned blonde woman hiding in the bathtub like Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction." Though there are interesting bits in the flick, it felt like the director Aleksander Nordaas was struggling to fill the time. The eye-candy, however, wasn't all bad.
"No": Straight off, "No" is an ugly movie. Shot on lo-fi video with a muddy grey-and-brown color palate, it's not a movie that's going to win over audiences with pretty pictures. Of course, the movie takes place in a very ugly period in history: Chile during the Augusto Pinochet regime. The time is 1988. Bowing to international pressure, Pinochet grudgingly allows a referendum on his reign to go forward. A "yes" would give the mustached generalissimo another eight years in power. A "no," in theory, would not. Gael Garcia Bernal plays Gene Saavedra, a shaggy advertising wunderkind -- think a shaggy Don Draper in an ugly sweater -- who is tasked with winning over a scared and demoralized populace to vote "no." The first thing he needs to do is convince the nation's dissident community that his brand of youthful, feel-good ad campaigns will work. Saavedra quickly finds that pitching a "Morning in America" style campaign to a crowd of leftists who've endured fifteen years of torture, repression and "disappearances" proves to be no easy feat. But that is nothing compared to going up against the regime's power structure and its armed thugs. In spite of the grim setting, the movie is remarkably buoyant and funny. Garcia Bernal gives the right amount of pathos and humor to the part. Who would have thought that a movie about advertising would be so uplifting?
Stay tuned for my look at "Seven Psychopaths" and "Berberian Sound Studio" from TIFF 2012.