Movies – Looper

Though it’s not as whooshingly exciting as “Spiderman” and “The Bourne Legacy” or as darkly majestic as “The Dark Knight Rises”, “Looper” is by far the coolest movie of the year. It’s “Terminator” meets “Damien”. Set thirty years from now, loopers are people who are paid (huge amounts – the indifferent youthful hedge fund managers of the future) to kill and eradiate criminals who have been sent back into the past thirty years hence, where time travel has been banned.

Don’t ask.

Our protagonist – Joseph Gordon Levitt – is a looper who does his job with numbing efficiency. That he’s a drug addict (In thirty year’ time, they use eye drops. Optrex with benefits) suggests that he’s drowning out his good side to earn pots of conscience-free money. Did I mention hedge fund manager? Anyway, one day he’s called upon to eliminate… himself. Himself in the future is smarter than himself in the present (that’s what thirty years does for you) and himself future (John McClaine… ooops I mean Bruce Willis channeling his “Die Hard” character) manages to escape himself present. Which basically means that shit has hit the fan for himself present in the likes of Jeff Daniels and a team of Matrix looking bad guys with large guns.

Are you following this?

Seems that in the future, a bad man has decided to close down the looper program and is killing them all out by sending them to the present. Unfortunately in so doing he kills Bruce’s wife. Bruce therefore escapes from the future to the present to kill him before he has time to grow up and kill Bruce’s wife … and thereby changing history (see what I mean by “Terminator). This kid is (spoiler alert coming) Emily Blunt’s kid – a good/evil child beautifully played by Pierce Gagnon, who we’ll be hearing more from in the future. (But hopefully in less than thirty years time.)

Clearly Joseph has to stop this happening. And, you know, change the future before himself in the future can change it.

It doesn’t mater, just go with the flow. It’s a fun flow!

So you might wonder, how does Joseph Gordon Levitt convincingly pass for Bruce Willis? Prosthetics. Joseph really does look like a young Bruce. He just doesn’t have a lot of facial expression. But maybe that’s part of his acting.

“Loopers” also boasts a great tag line: “Hunted by the future; haunted by the past”. That’s almost as good as the tag line for “Back to the Future, Part 2”: “It’s about time”.

Anyway, if you need some cool escapist fare, with a couple of stunning moments when evil child, Cid, gets into full blown frenzy, go see “Looper”


Movie Review: Killing Them Softly

Andrew Dominik’s “Killing Them Softly” is a grittily realistic thug movie featuring the biggest collection of low life scumbags probably ever assembled. It’s the real world version of “The Expendables” … with some outstanding performances involved. This is a movie that’s won a lot of plaudits, but certainly won’t be to everybody’s taste, as it’s so violent and the people so universally unattractive.

Ray Liotta is Markie Trattman, the resident patsy and punch bag who runs an illegal gambling den that’s knocked over by two down and out low rent hired thieves – Scott McNairy and Ben Mendelshon – tremendous as a drugged out, greasy looser. You can almost smell his unwashed, stringy hair. To have had your gambling den knocked off once is bad enough, especially when you did it the first time, and were foolish enough to boast about it. But when those two knock it off again, it spells, well, death. Just so that it – robbing yourself – doesn’t set a precedent.

And this is where the rest of the thugs come in. Driver (Richard Jenkins) is the businessman – the spokesman for the consortium that has hired, initially Jacky Cogan (Brad Pitt) and then Mickey (James Gandolfini). He grumbles and complains about the indecisiveness of the people who want the hit – they want Trattman injured, but not too much and then killed, but they don’t like murder. It’s 2008; the markets have just crashed and these are hard times all around. The (overly insistent) audio track cues us in on Bush explaining the crash and Obama, still a senator, promising change and a bright future. For these guys, it just means that the price of a hit has to be lowered (Mickey is offered $15,000 – “not bad for three days’ work” – but has to fly economy).

Cogan is the expert brought in to do the job. Brad plays him as a low-keyed, almost invisible presence who has emotionally removed himself from the distastefulness of the job (hence the title – he just wants to kill them quickly and softly without having them suffer or, as he notes, “beg and cry and call for their mothers”).

Gandolfini plays killer number two – Mickey – as a rattier, disheveled version of Tony Soprano. He’s a fat, chipped toothed alcoholic, tortured by his wife’s serial infidelities and trying to get his own back by banging every whore he can rent.

So this is the cast of characters (pretty much all men, but for a passing hooker) that come together in some unnamed town (New Orleans) to rob, shoot up heroine and eventually die nasty bloody deaths.

Dominik channels Tarantino in the engaging meaninglessness of the dialog and keeps the camera so nastily close to the sweaty, grubby characters that you feel you need a bath when you leave the cinema. I can see why the movie has been so well received. It’s a refreshing dash of reality in a genre that inevitably glamorizes the male bonding machismo of hired killers. And his paralleling of the failing market economy with this underground economy is, though too overt, quite clever.

The movie also poses an interesting question – do you have to feel some, or any empathy for a character in a movie to ‘like’ the movie? For “Killing Them Softly” offers moviegoers a line up of entirely credible, but thoroughly repellant characters…so repellant that in the end you simply just don’t care.

And this I thought was its essential failing. For despite Dominik’s craft and seriousness and the stellar acting of everyone in the cast, the movie though intellectually interesting never engages. You just never get invested emotionally in anyone. And I for one expect more of my movies than this academic exercise in grubby reality

Art Exhibition: Art of Change. New Directions From China

To me, one of the on-going strengths of post-modern art is the way it manages to break down the divide between the work of art and the viewing public. It’s as though art has been unleashed from the distancing decorum of the wall hanging to something far more viscerally and disturbingly close. And this is very much what we get at the Hayward Gallery’s exhibition of Chinese performance and installation art, “Art of Change. New Directions from China”. This exhibition boasts of being, “the first major exhibition to focus solely on contemporary and performance art from China… featur[ing] works that deal in transformation, instability and impermanence”

Certainly, the intent of capturing the impermanence of performance, the throw away gesture, is at the heart of the exhibition. Throughout the gallery, you’ll find multiple computer screens where images and videos of past performance pieces have been recorded… the poor curator’s academic intent of preserving the ephemeral.

The exhibition’s first exhibit maps out what’s to come as you wander the gallery. As you enter, you’re confronted by the Madein Company’s large installation, “Revolutionary Castings” (The Madein Company is a creative collective established by the artist Xu Zhen). This is a series of stone plinths that look like gravestones. You walk among them as you would in a graveyard. But far from being gravestones, these are concrete casts, which feature the impressions of stones that were hurled – in anger, revolutionary fervor, vandalism. The audience has been asked to submit their own stones to have them also integrated into the on-going, on-hand, process of cast making. Here are gestures that have been solidified into permanence. Madein Company seeks to point out the ontological shift in signification from the stone as inanimate object to the stone as weapon, as expression of dissent. As an audience we’re invited to walk among and participate in both the idea and presence of revolution.

It’s a well chosen introduction to the exhibition as it brings together the multiple themes of anti-establishment art (we’re told that much of the art was done in a context of the need to evade and avoid state censorship even as it spoke out against it) and the conversation between the transience of the performance and the permanence of its record (the embedded ghost image of the thrown stones)

“Revolutionary Castings” also seems to nicely introduce and emphasize one of the ideas of the exhibition – the removal of the divide between ‘art’ and ‘life’. Indeed, many of the exhibits highlight the presence – or deliberate absence – of life, as an integral factor in the work: Yingmel Duan’s “Patience” features a simple suspended white shelf on one wall. It’s like one of those bookshelves that cleverly seem to have no visible means of support. But it’s not a bookshelf. At one end of the shelf, seemingly bursting through its neat order, stands a –real- person, her head resting on the shelf, like a vase. Take a simple shelf and fuse it with a simple standing person and you’ve transformed reality. Transformed it to what? A statement of entrapment? Is the standing person imprisoned by the shelf, with maybe its memory of books/rules/restrictions? Or is it a statement that suggests that even if the body is in stasis, the mind can float free?

The beauty of works, or rather ideas like this is that they present the viewer with the duality of an object that exists as a temporal, ephemeral thing (the human will die, the shelf will rot, will be removed from the wall of the Hayward etc) and the fact of art, which exists outside of history; in a sort of abstract permanence.

This magical combination of life within art or rather art that’s art because of life is Liang Shaoji’s vast silk-worm installation. Here he’s installed hundreds of silk worms forever spinning their gossamer cocoons on solid objects – such as hanging chains, where the web of silk that has enfolded – and continues to enfold – them transform them into alien forms, seemingly lighter than air; on wooden frames, like the frames of paintings where the image is constantly evolving and changing; on miniature faery-like beds where the spinning silk covers them like a skein of dreams. In an adjoining room, you can, through headphones hanging from the ceiling, listen to the actual sound of the worms spinning their silken wonder. Liang Shoji has dragooned the real world – actual living creatures – into both fashioning the raw material of art (the results of which are hanging on a wall) and into being an ever-changing artwork in the process of being made.

In the image featured, Chen Zhen’s Purification Room, we see an entire room covered in a sort of muddy ash, like a modern Pompeii. It’s an image that shoves the viewer into a weird time zone as if he/she’s looking back in time from some distant future. You wonder at the name, “Purification Room”. Purified of what? Human presence? History?

Some of the works seem, to me, overly constructed installations springing from small ideas – like Wang Jinawei’s “Making do with Fakes”, where you’re invited to hit a ping pong ball on a concertina-ed tennis table and, are requested by the artist, to let it stay wherever it landed, suggesting a sort of existential randomness to art’s influence. Huh?

As an exhibition of China’s art of dissent, I’m reminded of Malraux who wrote in “The Voices of Silence”, “history aims merely at transposing destiny on to the plane of consciousness, art transmutes it into freedom”

So, be free to experience this marvelous exhibition