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Looper Makes Time Travel Thrilling Again

Early on in Rian Johnson’s time-travel thriller Looper, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) sits at a diner and chats with his self from 30 years in the future (Bruce Willis). When the younger Joe asks the older one about the specifics of temporal displacement, the latter dismisses the question, telling his interlocutor what a waste of time it would be to sit there all day drawing “diagrams with straws.”

Johnson would agree. His is a mind-fuck movie less interested in geeking out on the details of how exactly past and future intermingle than in investigating the moral implications of a charged situation grounded in character. No sooner does the film lay out the ground rules of its time-travel setup in almost didactically precise voiceovers than it turns its characters loose to make their own life-altering choices.

In short, for all its affectionate pastiche, Looper is a humanist movie, and is all the better for it. Taking place in the year 2042, it establishes a new type of underworld figure, the eponymous practitioner of dirty deeds, among whose number is Joe as played by Gordon-Levitt, heavily made up to resemble a younger Willis. Joe tells us, “Time travel has not yet been invented, but 30 years from now, it will have been”; as such, the gangsters who run the world in 2072 use the quickly outlawed practice to send people they wish to assassinate back in time to 2042, at which point loopers are poised to drop them the moment they appear and then dispose of the bodies.

But because time travel is illegal in the future, the loopers themselves must be eliminated, and so the criminals ultimately send these hired assassins back in time to be offed, oftentimes by their older selves. Such is the case when “future” Joe (Willis) appears in the crosshairs of his younger counterpart’s gun, before the latter botches the hit and allows his older incarnation to run wild. Old Joe searches for the child who will become the future mob boss in order to kill him before he takes power and institutes his system of eliminating loopers, while his younger self hides out on a farm owned by a tough-talking single mother, Sara (Emily Blunt), who is raising a kid whose tantrums and telekinetic powers seem to indicate that he might grow up into that very kingpin. Meanwhile, the organization sends out its men to track down both versions of Joe.

Johnson first made his name with 2005’s Brick, which transported the plotting, mood, and speech patterns of a classic noir to a contemporary high school. The director followed that with 2008’s The Brothers Bloom, which wore its Wes Anderson–derived quirk on its perfectly manicured sleeve. With Looper, the borrowings are no less obvious, whether in the plotting (recent sci-fi mind-fuckers like Primer and Timecrimes vie with elements of noir and Bad Seed–style bad toddler behavior), the settings (the dystopian city of the future is drawn from countless cinematic models), or specific touches (the hired thugs in 2072 dress like spaghetti western bandits). But Looper isn’t about its references. Instead, they’re firmly woven into the fabric of the work. As Joe’s boss (Jeff Daniels) explains to his style-conscious hireling, dismissing the latter’s emphasis on superficial image-making, the movies he’s copying in shaping his physical appearance are themselves copies of other movies.

Does this amount to self-critique? If so, it’s a gentle one. But as Gordon-Levitt ages into Willis, he trades his youthful obsession with flash for a more satisfying relationship to the adult world. As the film evolves into an ethical quandary, it raises questions about what people will do to protect both their loved ones and their own happiness and wonders what value individual happiness merits when placed against the fate of the world.

If the ending seems a little too hedge-betting, Looper nonetheless satisfies wholly on the level of dramatic necessity. Thrilling in its deft juggling of complex narrative elements, utterly clear in its presentation, and unfolding with what feels like serious moral purpose, Looper still can’t help but suggest that its larger ambitions are something of a put-on, a nice thematic polish to set off its interpersonal drama. But there’s no shame in a film that favors the human scale over abstract philosophizing or meta-cinematic frippery. For Johnson, the inveterate pasticheur, it qualifies as a significant step forward.

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Jason Segel Struggles with Weather, Relationship in The Five-Year Engagement

There is exactly one unexpected moment in the otherwise drearily predictable The Five-Year Engagement that, though little more than a throwaway line, at least adds a bit of political reality to puncture Nicholas Stoller’s limp, hermetic comedy of deferred nuptials. Tom (Jason Segel, who co-scripted with Stoller), a sous-chef at an upscale eatery in San Francisco, tells his butch boss (Lauren Weedman) that he’s quitting to move to Ann Arbor, where his fiancée, Violet (Emily Blunt), has just been accepted to do postdoc research at the University of Michigan. The head chef snorts at what a bad decision Tom is making in the name of coupled commitment before dropping the bomb: “This is why I voted against gay marriage. Please don’t tell anyone I said so.”

A gay person’s (or any person’s) anti-knot-tying stance—as an actual principle, not commitment-phobic skittishness invariably cured in the final act—tied up with the wish to keep that belief closeted would make for a great romantic comedy. But those complicated emotions have no place in The Five-Year Engagement, a film as comfy as the bunny costume Tom wears at the New Year’s Eve party where he first meets Violet. The movie opens on their one-year anniversary, the night Tom proposes. They postpone the wedding so that they can get settled in Michigan, an adjustment period that involves lame gags with snow and ice and the lack of classy restos worthy of Tom’s skills . While he makes Reubens at Zingerman’s deli, Violet thrives under the academic mentorship of Welsh charmer Winton (Rhys Ifans). When her postdoc is extended, Tom’s deepening misery at being stuck in the Wolverine State takes the form of extravagant facial hair and an obsession with deer meat; the downward spiral continues, culminating in extracurricular drunken kisses, an amputated big toe, and the couple’s decision to call it quits.

With about 45 minutes to fill before the preordained conclusion, The Five-Year Engagement introduces one amusing minor character, Audrey (Dakota Johnson), a decade-younger hostess whom Tom starts dating—and who erupts into ageist invective when he delivers news that she doesn’t want to hear. Some of that fire might have made dully cheerful Violet a more memorable creation; her most outlandish act is to quietly suggest to Tom, “Maybe it’s OK for me to be selfish.” She’s an improvement over the vindictive shrew Kristen Bell played in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), Segel and Stoller’s first collaboration—which, like this film, was also produced by Judd Apatow—but Violet remains a strenuously anodyne character, one that not even a performer as gracefully instinctual as Blunt can do much with.

The loutish or regressed guy behavior that typifies Apatow productions has also calcified into the innocuous. Tom’s male friends, with their pillowy, carbed-out bodies, are devoted, doofus dads who giggle over naughty wordplay.

Occasionally, the dialogue in The Five-Year Engagement might sound like something an adult audience member has once thought or uttered. “I wanna be alone with you here,” Tom pouts to Violet after they’ve had a fight, and she gets out of bed to respect his request for momentary solitude. This fleeting acknowledgment of the come-here-go-away dynamic of most romantic relationships serves as the film’s most insightful look at attachment at any cost. The rest is much like the doughnuts that Violet uses in a research experiment: stale and not good for you.

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Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

The kind of benign, swooningly humanist crowd-pleaser Lasse Hallström (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat) could make in his sleep (and by this point, possibly does), Salmon Fishing in the Yemen mostly sacrifices the political satire and epistolary structure of Paul Torday’s source novel in favor of cute, if strained, rom-com shenanigans. If you’re not getting enough of that from network TV, this movie is for you. Salmon Fishing, which sets up its premise and expectations in the title, concerns London fisheries specialist Fred Jones (Ewan McGregor), who’s tasked by the prime minister’s flack (Kristin Scott Thomas) to export British salmon to a Yemeni river at the request of a sheikh (Amr Waked) with a jones for fly-fishing. The sheikh’s real estate assistant (Emily Blunt) tags along to help and, in the process, entices the unhappily married Jones into romance and Hallström-ian self-actualization. The first section of the film deploys chipper barbs at the expense of career bureaucrats, which is funny and effective—Scott Thomas, who brings the raunch, is particularly good—but once McGregor and Blunt start dissecting their complicated feelings for each other, things turn unexpectedly dire. They’re a ridiculously attractive and likable couple, but Hallström overwhelms them (and the lush Scottish and Moroccan locations, and us) with his customary brand of lightweight heavy-handedness.

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Matt Damon Wades Through Cosmic Slop in The Adjustment Bureau

Written, directed, and co-produced by George Nolfi (a neophyte helmer whose writing credits include The Bourne Ultimatum and Ocean’s Twelve), The Adjustment Bureau inflates an early Philip K. Dick story with a typically paranoid conceit—our lives are secretly micromanaged by a supernatural bureaucracy of “adjustors”—into a cosmological white-collar-thriller-cum-steroidal-rom-com, with Matt Damon as an idealistic young pol fated to someday be president and save the world.

Defeated in his bid to become New York’s senator, Damon has a men’s-room meet-cute with Emily Blunt’s sassy modern dancer that inspires him to go rogue on his own concession speech and thus emerge positioned as a future candidate. But destiny takes a tumble when an overworked adjustor (Anthony Mackie) dozes and allows Damon to re-encounter Blunt. The so-called Plan is derailed! Worse, the gaffe permits the future messiah to glimpse destiny’s inner workings: “You saw behind a curtain you didn’t know existed,” explains the most acerbic adjustor (Mad Men’s John Slattery).

Closer in spirit to Wings of Desire than Men in Black, The Adjustment Bureau is not without ambition or dorm-room ruminations on free will and predestination. Humans, we learn, blew their chance; twice let off the leash, they blundered into the Dark Ages, the Holocaust, and the Cuban Missile Crisis (while, it may be deduced, the period of well-adjusted determinism, a/k/a the Enlightenment, produced colonization and the slave trade). Now, per St. Augustine, everything must follow the Plan—including its arbitrary regulations.

To that end, the not-quite-omnipotent adjustors can access a network of secret tunnels—open a door at MOMA, pop out in Yankee Stadium—allowing them to travel faster than the mind can think. Hoping to suspend disbelief, Nolfi enlists his own band of authenticators. Damon’s candidacy is endorsed by Mayor Bloomberg and parsed on TV by James Carville and Mary Matalin; it’s more natural for this movie to invoke the presence of Jon Stewart than the name of God.

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Gnomeo & Juliet: Garden Variety Charm

One bard’s timeless tragedy becomes a multiplex’s frivolous romantic comedy in Disney’s CGI-animated filching of Shakespearean plot points, the secret anthropomorphized world of Toy Story (garden gnomes are the new toys), and the culture-referencing humor of Shrek. In fact, this cash-in enterprise is directed by Shrek 2‘s Kelly Asbury, who shares a co-writer credit with eight others, making it tough to sort out the blame for witless, outdated allusions to Footloose, American Beauty, Forrest Gump, and David Hasselhoff. Separated by a wooden fence in the English suburbs, two warring clans of magical lawn ornaments—the Montagues and Capulets are now addressed only by the color of their pointy hats: Red versus Blue—can’t stop star-cross’d love between bearded Blue hero Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) and Team Red’s adorable stone maiden Juliet (Emily Blunt). Adding to the crackpot conceit, the soundtrack and score have inexplicably repurposed classic tunes by executive producer Elton John, which still doesn’t explain the Latino pink flamingo. The script feels workshopped to death yet still hits only a single broad note of irony-drenched whimsy, but the voice-work sparkles and the action-heavy animation clips along fluidly. There’s charm in the backyard, but it’s still of a garden variety.

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How to Explain the Thing That Is Wild Target

The whole time I was watching Wild Target, I was trying to figure out just how to explain its weirdly old-fashioned comedic tone. I could talk about its absurd plot, which has fastidious assassin Victor Maynard—played by Bill Nighy with a center part, silly mustache, and exasperated air—inexplicably protecting his latest target, the wild ’n’ wacky con artist Rose (Emily Blunt). I could mention how Rupert Grint plays a pot-smoking dunderhead wrapped up in the whole mess. I figured I’d mention that it’s directed by British legend Jonathan Lynn, best known for the BBC’s Yes, Minister, but last seen in movie theaters with, er, Nuns on the Run. (Before that, he directed Clue, for which—respect.) How else to get across how haphazard this whole enterprise is? Describe its incompetent action choreography? Mention the lame cameos by Rupert Everett, Eileen Atkins, and Martin Freeman? Post an Mp3 of the score, all honking saxophones and wheezing accordions? And then, near the end of the movie, there it was: Emily Blunt pushed a suitcase out the window of a country house. (Because she saw Victor pull the stuffed parrot—it doesn’t matter why!) Off-screen, I heard the suitcase crash to the patio, and then, after a beat, the yowl of an angry cat. Wild Target is the kind of movie that actually uses that angry-cat-yowl sound. That is the kind of movie that Wild Target is.

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Anthony Hopkins Can’t Save The Wolfman

The Wolfman has it all: mist drifting over moonlit moors; Geraldine Chaplin as a gypsy fortune-teller; a dark, gloomy castle full of cobwebs and family secrets; effective fake-out scares complete with crisply jarring sound; a bombastic score and a soundtrack overstuffed with creepy whispers. Benicio Del Toro stars in this lushly art-designed 19th century period film but his beefcake-gone-bad magnetism is not enough to justify sitting through a movie that’s full of sound, fury and unintentional camp–and is still bafflingly inert. After acclaimed actor Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro) receives a letter from his brother’s fiancŽe (Emily Blunt) informing him of his sibling’s disappearance, he hightails it from the New York stage to the sprawling home of his estranged family, only to be greeted with the news that his brother’s badly mutilated body has been recovered. A bonehead move that the script passes off as heroism (lots of those) soon results in Talbot being bitten by the creature who killed his brother. Blood, gore and a laughably bad insane asylum sequence ensue. Some father-son conflict (papa Talbot is played by Anthony Hopkins, alternately hammy and sleepwalking through the part) juices the film a bit, but not enough to save it.

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Jean-Marc Vallée’s Plodding Young Victoria

Man, British heritage cinema can be dull when assembly-lined for the export market. Laboring under lampshade millinery, hair that looks like cake, and more sumptuous banqueting than we should ever have to sit through, Emily Blunt is cute, sassy, and wildly improbable as the titular Majesty-in-waiting, who, in life, was a short, dumpy policy wonk and energetic social reformer. Biding her time to get out from under her vixen mother (Miranda Richardson, as always) and manipulative adviser, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany, a perpetually raised eyebrow), who wages war with other pols over her head, the willful young minx makes eyes across the water at hubby-to-be Albert (Rupert Friend, a total stiff well cast for once as the earnest Teuton who would sire nine children with Victoria). Sagging beneath reams of expository dialogue by Julian Fellowes, who also wrote the far naughtier Gosford Park, The Young Victoria reproduces the premise of The Queen (she outsmarts her worldlier advisers) with none of that movie’s cheek or verve. Plodding from one brocaded talkathon to the next, director Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y.) makes an unannounced left turn into action with a slow-mo assassination attempt that looks like a commercial for something, then proceeds, as planned, to the inevitable nuptial hour.

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Sunshine Cleaning Has Makings of a Great Showtime Series

More than a year after its first twirl at Sundance, this Amy Adams–Emily Blunt dramedy finally shrugs its way into theaters, and it feels almost like an afterthought. A film about sisters who go into the crime-scene clean-up business, it’s a muddled mess: terrific performances (from Adams, especially, as the ex–high school cheerleader now at the bottom of the pile) buried beneath contrivances and clichés, not to mention Alan Arkin cast yet again as the foul-mouthed gramps dispensing four-lettered advice to a troubled youngster (Jason Spevack, as Adams’s son, who’ll lick anything and anyone). Director Christine Jeffs, working with Megan Holley’s screenplay, renders the light and dark as a muddy shade of sitcom-pilot gray. This has the makings of a great Showtime series—feels a bit like Weeds, but with cleaning fluid instead of bong water. Too bad what’s intended to play as funny (girls and gore) stumbles into slapstick; what’s meant to play as profound (girls and dead-mommy issues) sinks into the overwrought—yet another willful, comically tortured “indie” coated with Hollywood’s happy-ending sheen. Or perhaps, at this point, it’s simply hard to buy the perky Adams and pretty Blunt as schlumpy losers trapped in the bland flyover with an Oscar-winner stuck in rerun mode.

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The Jane Austen Book Club

If you can’t get enough of the Mutually Supportive Sisterhood narrative, there’s every chance you’ll go for this perfectly pleasant, perfectly undistinguished adaptation of a market-driven novel about six Sacramento lovelies trying to mend their stalled or broken lives while massaging each other’s feet. Like most MSS stories these drearily formulaic days, this one comes accessorized with life lessons from Jane Austen, whose novels offer pregnant parallels to the dilemmas of these neurotic but nice exurban book-clubbers, plus one pretty male nerd in the inoffensive form of Hugh Dancy. You can’t outright hate a movie that stars Maria Bello (even as the capable singleton who can’t commit) or the excellent Emily Blunt (even as the nervous Nellie unable to see the good stuff right under her upturned nose) or Kathy Baker, predictably cast as the much-married port in a storm. But it’s hard to tell who’s panting more eagerly in pursuit of all possible chick demographics: Karen Joy Fowler, who wrote the giddily commercial novel; Robin Swicord, who wrote and directed capably enough; or the product placements that pop their merry little heads into practically every frame of this stolidly suburban romance. As for me, I eagerly await the mad bitches of Nicole Holofcener’s next movie.