Double Feature

Let's Do The Time Warp Again

The best time travel movie ever is Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Think about it for a second. Everything fits together perfectly without any paradoxes, and many plot points caused by time travel are clearly foreshadowed earlier in the movie. Admittedly, the dynamics of time travel only work if it takes place in a human universe where time is unalterable and free will doesn't exist, but the internal logic is solid and consistent, which is more than you can say for most other time travel movies...

Looper (2012)

Looper

Starring the kid from 3rd Rock from the Sun and Bruce Motherf'ing Willis

You are probably familiar with the premise of Looper. Mobsters called "loopers" are hired to kill people sent back in time from the future. At some point they'll be forced to kill their future selves, and then they'll get a huge payday and live like kings. Until they're sent back in time to die. And then one day Joseph Gordon-Levitt has to kill Bruce Willis and it all goes to hell.

For the most part Looper avoids dealing with the mechanics of time travel. The time machine that sends Bruce Willis into the past is an appalling low-tech affair that seems to be made of spark pluigs and chicken wire, and he refuses to even discuss specifics with his past self because they'll "be here all day talking about it making diagrams with straws." But it does establish that the people sent back from the future are only potentialities. Bruce's memories are fuzzy at best, because now he's intruding on his own past, and they only become clear whenver his past self makes a decision that solidifies one timeline over another. It's a clever conceit that prevents Bruce Willis from having perfect recall of the past but creates dramatic tension because he knows everything Joseph Gordon-Levitt knows a second after the fact.

And it doesn't make a lick of sense when you think about it.

There's a scene at the beginning of the movie where a fellow looper (Paul Dano) recognizes his future self and can't bring himself to shoot. His future self escapes, but as he tries to run he discovers a message branded on his body — the mob has captured his present-day counterpart and are torturing him. So future man runs around trying to rescue himself, but bits and pieces of him keep disappearing, first some fingers, then his nose, then feet, then limbs... It's a very tense and dramatic scene.

But how in the world did future Paul Dano even manage to pull off his escape if all of his arms and legs were cut off thirty years ago and he's a comatose vegetable? I understand that the changes are only manifesting now because the timeline hasn't been closed until now — but these changes are so extreme that this timeline shouldn't even exist any more because the past has made it impossible. Unless you think the mob is so forward-thinking that they'd stitch Paul Dano's bits back on, give him cosmetic surgery... Ugh. My head hurts just thinking about it.

Really, the appeal of this movie is watching Willis and Gordon-Levitt face off in a battle of the generations. Willis claims that he's the mature, level-headed one, but then again he's the one so motivated by revenge that he's shooting people everywhere in a way that's going to ruin his entire timeline. Joseph Gordon-Levitt claims he's cool and has his life under control, but clearly doesn't because without Willis's intervention his life goes to shit. Eventually, Bruce does manage to impart some future wisdom to his past self in a rather unexpected climax that I didn't see coming.

So yeah, well-acted, some nifty scenes, worth seeing but don't pick at it or everything falls apart.

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

Safety Not Guaranteed

Starring that snarky chick from Parks and Recreation and that asshole from The League1

This was one of the best-reviewed movies of last year so I was really looking forward to seeing it.

The plot is pretty simple. Darius Britt (Aubrey Plaza) is a magazine intern working on a feature about an odd personal ad taken out by someone looking for a partner to travel back in time with him. That man turns out to be Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass).

Remember that guy from school who was full of shit and everyone knew it? You know. He was a twelfth-dan black belt in ninjitsu but kept getting beat up because his strict code of ethics meant he couldn't use it on anyone he wasn't going to kill. He had to come over to your house to play video games because you didn't have the security clearance to go over to his house. That guy. Kenneth is obviously that guy.

But he might also be a brilliant physicist. And he might also be being followed by government agents.

Darius falls for Kenneth, because she sees a shy guy who just wants to be loved under the thick patina of bullshit. Kenneth falls for Darius, because one gets the impression this is the first time a woman has actually talked to him without being totally condescending, but he doesn't know she's writing an article about him. And then things get weird, as their webs of lies unravel and leaves their relations. Also, there's some subplots about Darius's boss trying to recapture his glory days and a fellow intern breaking out of his shell.

The movie is a horrible mess. It's meandering and slow, not in a deliberate way but in a ponderous one, and plot developments seem to be happening because of some externally imposed structure instead of organically. Plaza and Duplass have some chemistry together, but neither character is interesting enough to build an entire movie around, and the other actors are just wasted in their roles. At times the screenwriter seems to be ticking off boxes on some indy film checklist — "Extraneous subplots that explore the movie's central theme in a way that says nothing or adds anything to the core plot? Check." The ending is wonderfully ambiguous but is also packed full of groan-worthy clichés and depends on twists that the movie hasn't quite earned and which feel tacked on so everyone can have a happy ending.

Actually, more than anything else Safety Not Guaranteed reminds me of Bottle Rocket. Bottle Rocket is not a very good movie. The plot is a mess, the pacing off, the performances are a bit too mannered and don't mesh right. And yet when you saw the movie you knew that Wes Anderson and the Wilson boys were going to go on to do great things. There was just some chemistry there, something intangible, you knew they hadn't quite worked things out yet but they were getting close, and you couldn't wait to see what they came up with next.

But that still doesn't make Bottle Rocket (or Safety Not Guaranteed) worth seeing.

  1. Yes, I realize this is insufficiently specific.

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