Bruce Willis seems to have a thing for meeting up with younger versions of himself. In 2000’s The Kid, his looming mid-life crisis gets postponed, or perhaps resolved, when he meets a kid who turns out to be himself as a 9-year old. In that saccharine Disney movie, the kid looks at his future and gets disappointed by what he sees — he grows up to be cranky, lonely and lost. Things are pretty much the same in Looper. When a time-travelling assassination attempt gets horribly awry, he meets himself as a twentysomething and the person looking back is terribly confounded at who he has become. As it turns out, no one really wants to grow up to become Bruce Willis.

Looper is a sci-fi thriller set in 2044 about killers called “loopers” who execute people sent to them from the future by a criminal organization with access to illegal time travel technology. Joseph Gordon Levitt plays the young Willis, a looper named Joe who goes through the motions of dispatching whomever the future zaps back to him. He whiles the time away by doing drugs, which in this dystopic universe come in the form of eye drops, and going to clubs with other loopers as a sort of fraternity of mercenaries. But he also dreams of escape: he studies French and saves half of the silver paid to him to prepare for a life beyond being just an assassin.

But breaking free from this job comes at a cost. They will never know when the exact day is, but inevitably a looper would kill a victim and open the sack containing their payment to find that instead of silver, they were rewarded with bars of gold. This means that the loop has been closed: the lifeless corpse in front of them is themselves, three decades older. They are free to retire comfortably and live out the remainder of their life in relative peace, until the time comes when they get abducted and sent back to the past to get killed by their younger selves. This first happens to Joe’s best buddy Seth (Paul Dano), and it soon happens to him as well, but the Joe from the 2070s has something different in mind. He evades Young Joe and warns him of a future ran by a terrorist named The Rainmaker who causes universal havoc, and he is hell-bent to do whatever he can to stop his rise to power even if it means killing the tyrant as a child.

While the main plot may remind you of The Terminator 2, writer and director Rian Johnson has done just enough to make it a distinct, memorable sci-fi movie, the kind that basks in its own cleverness and asks it audience to join in its self-worship, no questions asked. It dabbles in moral philosophy 101 and the never-ending nature versus nurture debate, but Johnson eschews exposition: when Joe asks his future self to explain how time travel works, all he says is “Time travel shit fries your brain like an egg.” There is no need to explain the logic that guides how this alternate universe operates, Johnson just expects you to accept it and enjoy the ride. On one hand, this has led the film to be unburdened by what could have been a cumbersome explanation of the nitty gritties of time travel, which despite his best efforts could still have produced holes that will be nitpicked by legions of sci-fi geeks. But on the other hand, some unanswered questions that linger throughout your head can get distracting, such as “Why does it have to be the looper who has to kill his future self?” or “Why exactly was time travel declared illegal?” or “Why does Joseph Gordon Levitt look like a wax figure?” Alas, only the latter question has a definite but unsatisfying answer. The decision to apply make-up on Levitt to make him look more like Willis was an unnecessary, laughable device that was put in to make the movie seem more realistic, but really Johnson should’ve trusted his audience’s ability to tell that they are both playing the same character.

Clumsy prosthetics aside, both Levitt and Willis turn in a pair of commendable performances made fascinating by the way they incorporated qualities of each other into their acting. Despite the high stakes for each of their characters, Johnson was able to insert slices of clever humor into the script’s crisp dialogue, and their relationship that is both strangely paternal and often times adversarial plays out with a sophistication that escapes most modern sci-fi movies (In Time, anyone?). The entire movie is a testament to Johnson’s skill of crafting together a refined narrative with satisfying twists, something he displayed to a lesser extent in his earlier feature Brick. But what’s most impressive about his latest feature is how cathartic the ending is and how beautifully pieced together the final product was, like an elegant jigsaw puzzle with every part in its right place. You might not be satisfied with the science but it’s hard to ignore the fact that Looper is a wonderfully imagined movie.

The spectre of the 2008 financial meltdown is haunting us once again, this time cinematically with this year’s Arbitrage and Cosmopolis and 2011’s Margin Call and Wall Street 2 ushering in the post-American age by way of well-tailored, greedy bankers getting their comeuppance, in one way or another. But the way we projected them onto the screen reflects a sort of ambivalence in the way we think of them. They have been vilified in mainstream media and have been the collective scapegoat for all our economic woes, but we used to fall at the feet of these people whom we used to worship as the very embodiment of the American Dream. As such, Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko or Richard Gere’s Robert Miller were portrayed not as magnates who were inherently, purely evil, but as once great men who fell from grace. The investment banker has become such a layered, enigmatic character in light of the financial brouhaha that it is hard to pin down his (he has always been a masculine character) place in our cultural consciousness. They have, in turns, been portrayed as heroes, villains, anti-heroes, anti-villains.

In Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, he teams up once again with Brad Pitt and transplants George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade onto 2008, right at the peak of America’s denouement, using the shady underground world of mobsters as a cruel metaphor to American capitalism. And this is in some ways an appropriate analogy: gangsters, just like the hacks from Wall Street of today, were also treated with a mixture, in equal parts, of admiration and fear in 50’s style noir films. Pitt’s James Cogan walks down the streets of Boston with his slick-back and his shotgun, treating every hit as a financial transaction. This is America, after all, where everything is a business and what matters most is that he gets paid.

This isn’t a completely perfect metaphor, but this movie is able to rise above it because of the elegantly constructed crime story that Dominik delivers. It harkens back to classic American gangster movies, such as Goodfellas or Mean Streets, and the visual panache extends to the dry, dusty atmosphere that envelopes these movies, a pervading gloom and weariness that weighs down on the shoulders of these men as they constantly look behind them to see if they have a tail or if their cover has been blownIt also helps that Dominik cast Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini in pivotal roles, achieving a sort of intertextual unity as they brought with them traces of Henry Hill and Tony Soprano. Gandolfini, in particular, brings with him a compelling humanness as he plays a mobster in the middle of a divorce and his monologues provide some of the most tender scenes in the entire movie.

Cogan gets called onto the scene because of a burglary of a poker game. Mobster Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) hires two hapless guns-for-hire Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to rob an underground card joint ran by a rival mobster, Markie Trattman (Liotta). The shadowy, faceless “mob” hires hitman Cogan to dispense of these folks who threw a wrench in their operations. He acts like the mob’s very own law enforcement agent, except that their laws make sure that crime does pay by establishing honor among this motley cabal of ex-convicts and gangsters. Dominik then teases out the movie’s plot through a series of fast-paced dialogue, where names get tossed around like a hot potato that at times, it’s hard to catch up with who’s supposed to be killing who. But the script is undeniably clever and absorbing, and all you have to do is go along with it.

A lot of what makes this film captivating rests on Dominik’s crisp editing and direction, which were also the elements that made his other feature The Assassination of Jesse James work. While the violent scenes are quite few and far between, each of them is given a raw, emotive power through the stylish camerawork that he does. In one particular scene, he uses slow motion to make an assassination seem like a well-choreographed, fluid dance, and in another, he shows a character getting beat up mercilessly without any frills, the minimalist direction giving it an almost unbearable brutality. This movie rises and falls with every gunshot and executed body; the pacing is almost immaculate.

Killing Them Softly, like its characters, is a bit disheveled but completely robust. Barack Obama’s presence lingers in the background, whether through a billboard or a televised speech, as his promise of change is juxtaposed with the breaking down of the American spirit. It is up to one’s political inclination how to read this movie, either as a reminder of a president’s failure or a potent future. But for James Cogan and the rest of the movie’s hitmen, all that matters is the here and the now, and that is a chillingly terrifying place.

We are a less than four months away from the announcement of this year’s Oscar nominees, with the Academy recently announcing that it would do so on Jan. 10, 2013. And with the conclusion of this year’s Telluride, Venice and Toronto festivals, the awards season is definitely in high gear. Here is my final batch of predictions in some of the top categories for the month of September. I am also updating this list in real time in the Oscar Tracker page.

BEST PICTURE

Les Miserables

The Master

Argo

Silver Linings Playbook

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Django Unchained

Lincoln

Zero Dark Thirty

BEST ACTOR

Joaquin Phoenix (The Master)

John Hawkes (The Sessions)

Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)

Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook)

Richard Gere (Arbitrage)

BEST ACTRESS

Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild)

Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook)

Keira Knightley (Anna Karenina)

Emanuelle Riva (Amour)

Marion Cotillard (Rust and Bone)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Leonardo DiCaprio (Django Unchained)

Dwight Henry (Beasts of the Southern Wild)

Matthew McConaughey (Magic Mike)

William H. Macy (The Sessions)

Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables)

Amy Adams (The Master)

Sally Field (Lincoln)

Helen Hunt (The Sessions)

Samantha Banks (Les Miserables)

BEST DIRECTOR

Tom Hooper (Les Miserables)

Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master)

Ben Affleck (Argo)

David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook)

Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild)

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

The Master

Moonrise Kingdom

Zero Dark Thirty

Django Unchained

The Sessions

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Les Miserables

Silver Linings Playbook

Lincoln

Argo

Cloud Atlas

Brakes are death. This is one of the mantras of Wilee, the kinetic bike messenger played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Premium Rush, that encapsulates his philosophy when it comes to cycling, and to life itself. Much like the movie, he never slows down his exhilarating pace when he’s on his bicycle, preferring to take the risk of cutting between two speeding cabs rather than to stop and wait for the traffic light to turn green. For him, to stop would be to surrender to the stagnation of immobility and stasis, and this guiding principle has led him to become one of the best messengers in the entire city. But because of one mysterious envelope that he is tasked to deliver one day, to stop would also mean to lose a chase where his life is potentially on the line.

This satisfying action thriller races through the streets of New York City as it follows Wilee on his mission to drop this MacGuffin to its intended back-alley destination. Hot on his tracks is Detective Monday, a disturbed officer with a gambling addiction and money problems hell-bent on acquiring Wilee’s valuable load, played by Michael Shannon. Director David Koepp turns New York into an urban labyrinthe, where the dizzying streets plays host to their well-choreographed cat-and-mouse pursuit. Through an interesting visual device where Koepp lays out the map of the city to illustrate Wilee’s ever-changing routes, he reminds us of how we are slowly changing our understanding of urban landscapes as we begin to view and conceptualize them digitally through the lens of Google Maps and other technological cartographies.

The nature of the package in question is skillfully unwrapped through a series of flashbacks and chronological leaps in the narrative. In trying to figure out what the parcel really is, Wilee and Det. Monday are taken on a crash course with the Chinese mafia. Surprisingly, a seemingly cookie-cutter story about Chinese immigrants is able to sustain enough intrigue to last a movie, but it is mostly thanks to the performances of Levitt and Shannon. Levitt gives his character a vitality and energy that counterbalances the psychological darkness of Shannon, a typical trait among his roles. In some ways, these are characters that both actors are familiar with and they can sometimes feel a little too unoriginal, but for the purposes of an undemanding end-of-summer movie, it doesn’t detract from the film’s overall entertainment value. What further makes this taut screenplay impressive is the way it builds and uses the relationships Wilee has with his girlfriend Vanessa (Danna Ramirez), who is also a bike messenger, and his main cycling rival Manny (Wole Parks) as they too get embroiled in his messy, nightmarish predicament. For Wilee, the stakes become personal as well.

There are times when one may get desensitized to the bursts of speed that never seem to end, but there is a pleasure to be derived in seeing these messengers gamble with death as they zip through the city avoiding different kinds of obstacles that come in all shapes and sizes littered throughout the streets of New York. If anything, this movie is a public service to bikers of all stripes, as it shows how dickish other vehicles and pedestrians treat them. But at the same time, some of your worst stereotypes about them are confirmed as they treat the city like a playground, without adhering to any set of rules. This movie has the strange effect of making you, in turns, sympathetic and loathsome of bikers. But in any case, it is one enjoyable ride.

Set in Prohibition-era Virginia, Lawless tells the story of the Bondurant brothers, three moonshiners who operate in Franklin County where they are a law unto themselves. The pristine pine trees of the lush Virginian forests serve as the backdrop and cover to their well-oiled illegal operations, but they really have nothing to hide as the alcohol they produce serves as the lifeblood of their decrepit community during the tough economic times. The brothers fill up the bars of Virginia with their home-brewed concoctions, achieving a mythical reputation and becoming local legends themselves known for their invincibility and steely grit. But where there’s money to be had, the people who want a slice of the pie emerge from the woodworks and try to insert themselves into the supply chain. The Bondurants are forced to decide just how much thicker blood is compared to their moonshined whiskey.

Lawless is an exquisite movie that effortlessly features the beauty of the American frontier. Director John Hillcoat has a talent for juxtaposing violence and waste with the magnificence of nature, highlighting the pointless brutality of the former and the infinite breadth of the latter. He trades the whites and grays of the post-apocalyptic, barren world of The Road for a much more fertile palette of greens and browns for this film, but the same effect is achieved. Against the wide stretch of their untouched surroundings, the harshness of the Bondurants’ lives seem unnatural and out of place, but we quickly realize that it is necessary for them to survive.

As in the book The Wettest County in the World  from which the movie is based off of, the youngest brother Jack (Shia Labeouf) is the most interesting of the three. In some sense, the movie is a coming-of-age story for him, as he steps out of his older brothers’ shadows and transforms himself from a timid, helpless boy dependent on his brothers’ protection to a capable young man who proves to be more ambitious and in some ways darker compared to the elder Bordurants. He has his eyes set on the preacher’s daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), providing another source of inspiration for his drive towards backwater success. He has the most to prove, just like Labeouf who has been, as of late,  typecasted into trivial roles of no consequence such as in the Transformers series. Here Labeouf straps on a midwestern accent and uses his earnestness to make his character possess a wide-eyed, sincere look at the world that draws you in and makes you want to root for him. Needless to say, he is excellent in the role. The other two Bordurant brothers were not given the same fullness of character as Jack, but manage to be interesting in their own tiny ways. Howard (Jason Clarke) spent some time during the war and serves as the muscle behind their business. He’s a bit hollowed out by his experience, but he maintains the sense to know when to fight. Forrest (Tom Hardy) is more pensive and detached, and acts as the mastermind and leader to his brothers. He hardly talks, and when he does so, its usually punctuated by grunts that can be taken to mean anything, but underneath his stoic exterior is a good old-fashioned family man.

The villain they face is the eyebrow-shaven Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a newly appointed deputy determined to put an end to the brothers’ exploits. Their heated confrontations lead to scenes of shocking violence that eviscerates and jolts. Hillcoat is not afraid to show with heedless candor the blood that is spilt that lets the Bondurants keep on making alcohol, but the movie’s pace is always constantly set at a slow, meditative crawl. This isn’t a problem, in fact it is a testament to the restraint and care that Hillcoat has taken to arrive at an almost flawlessly composed film. Where he takes some missteps is in the handling of the entire cabal of characters, some of which feel like they needed to be given more time in order for us to fully appreciate the roles they play in the lives of the Bordurants. This includes Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a vixen with an ambiguous past who Forrest falls in love with, and Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), a notorious gangster whom Jack aspires to be like. Hillcoat shows us a beautiful natural world indeed, but the social world he paints feels incomplete and wastes the superior talents of Chastain and Oldman. He may have gotten the view and the smells right, but it is best to go read the book if you’re looking for a better story.

Joe Wright, who is known for turning beloved British romance novels into movies, has stepped out of his comfort zone, fleeing the sun-kissed, pastoral English countryside for the gilded halls of the Russian aristocracy in his adaptation of Anna Karenina. The result is a visually distinctive movie that is a stab at aesthetic audacity: this is a play-within-a-film where sets change within a single shot as backgrounds get deconstructed and built anew; in a matter of seconds, a cafe becomes a powder room. The spatial geography follows no logic as palace doors suddenly open to desolate winter wastelands, and what was in one scene a ballroom becomes a stadium a few moments later. This directorial flourish is in turns baffling and captivating, and certainly original. Whether it is meant to underscore the fluctuating temperament of Anna Karenina, played by his muse Keira Knightley, or as a device to condense Leo Tolstoy’s sprawling classic, the film feels more like an exercise in cinematic style rather than a compelling period drama.

Despite the change of scenery, the thematic undercurrent that runs throughout the movie is something Wright is familiar with — forbidden love, illicit affairs, the romantic imbroglios of the wealthy. At the center of it all is Anna, the wife of the popular Russian statesman Aleksei Karenin played by Jude Law. When she meets a dashing cavalry officer named Count Vronsky, played by Aaron Johnson, she is torn between leaving her husband and protecting their public stature from the vulturous gossipmongers otherwise known as the members of the Moscovite high society. The unique contours of Knightley’s face lets her switch between blithe, girly naiveté when she’s with Vronsky, and the embodiment of elite, lady-like propriety when she’s in the company of dukes and duchesses and other people of note. Everything is a charade, much like the movie itself where the gaudy artifice belies a hollow emotional core. Knightley, however, deserves a measure of praise. She has the uncanny talent of using furtive glances and making use of the muscles in her cheeks and jaw to display a nascent yet perceptible expressiveness, a subdued quality fitting for a time when women were expected to perform roles thrusted upon them.

For Vronsky and Anna, what follows is a stripping down, sometimes literally, of the regalia and trimmings of the upper class, thus defying the social mores that govern them. Jonhson seems to have the brute sexual physicality of a 70s porn star with a mustache appropriate for the job. He is settling into a niche as the passionate, fiery lover one should lust for with caution after performing a similar role in last year’s Albert Nobbs. Here, he exudes a desirability coupled with danger and the risk of biting off more than one could chew. In contrast, Law’s Aleksei is a measured man who always rationalizes and makes moral justifications for himself to guide his actions. This causes him to be more tolerant than he should be after setting such a high bar: if one can reasonably give an explanation to justify one’s behavior, then it is permissible. This includes marital infidelity. Law here is a bit dull and lacks a necessary vitality and cogency, like their artificial marriage that needed to be injected with much-needed life.

Other than the central love triangle is a host of characters each embroiled in their own marital difficulties and intrigues. Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson provide the requisite secondary subplot and perform admirably in their small roles. The other people that populate Wright’s world move with a choreography that is befitting for a musical, and you almost expect characters to instantly break into song with their well-timed, precise movements. This does nothing more than to distract, to give a semblance of artistic innovation that calls on the viewer’s attention on itself. And ultimately, this is what undoes the movie and what will prevent audiences from being completely absorbed in it. The smoke, theatricality and spotlights all come at the expense of establishing the emotional gravitas that made the source material alluring. To call Wright bold and visionary would be misguided, because that implies a degree of success in his experiment. Garish might be a more appropriate adjective.

Hi everyone. I just wanted to give a quick explanation as to why I haven’t been as active with the blog in the past weeks. I just moved to London and I’m still settling in, and it’s throwing a wrench in my writing schedule. In any case, I’ll continue to be more active once I’m more or less adjusted here, and I’ll probably start writing reviews this weekend, after I’ve seen Anna Karenina and Lawless. Also, I’ll try to grab tickets for the films for the London Film Festival. Hopefully I can manage to sneak into a few premieres. At the top of my list are Beasts of the Southern Wild, Argo and Amour. Check out the full program at the BFI website.

Anyway, that’s it for now. The other writers will also continue to post reviews and other pieces this coming month, so just check in once in a while. Thank you, and keep watching movies!

Vinny