Wait, what are you doing reading this? Why aren't you watching Looper, the best time-travel movie to come out of Hollywood in ages? Check out Lynn Rapoport's review below, go see the damn thing (it's gonna be huge, like Inception huge), and start planning your "Gat Man" Halloween costume this instant.
In this week's film column, I check out the Northern California Action/Sports Film Festival (a new venture from SF IndieFest, which, by the way: just another month or so until DocFest!), let's-talk-about-our-feelings indie Liberal Arts, and docs Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel and Peter Ford: A Little Prince.
Two more from H-wood open this week (3D animated monster comedy Hotel Transylvania and YA young-angst tale The Perks of Being a Wallflower), as yet unreviewed — but there's a bunch more short reviews, including Dennis Harvey's take on the Vortex Room's "Aerobicide" triple feature, after the jump.
"Aerobicide Sunday: A Marathon of Murder in Tights" Two things that made the 1980s taste great, slasher movies and aerobic exercise, were each too crassly, promiscuously commercial not to hook up a few times — even if the sub-sub-genre they created together is even less well remembered than the Lambada musical. Sun/30, however, it shall reign as king at the Vortex, where a triple bill of exer-psycho obscurities will really make you feel the burn. First up is 1987's Aerobicide a.k.a. Killer Workout, in which the fitness emporium owned by Rhonda (Marcia Karrof of 1984's Savage Streets) — as sour a grape as you'll find in pastel spandex and pouf-shouldered Valley Girl dresses — experiences a rash of hard bodies being reduced to bloody pulp by an unknown killer wielding a large killer safety pin. Totally gross! We get many close-ups of overexposed thighs and over assisted cleavage gyrating to heinous dance tracks with inexplicable lyrics like "Hey baby! I've got your number! Red and juicy, warm and sweet" — plus some feathered-hair beefcake too — before the culprit turns out to be exactly who you think it is.
This was but an early effort among 32 features to date by writer-director David A. Prior, and based on the evidence present there's a reason why you've never heard of any of them. Slightly slicker was 1990's Death Spa (a.k.a. Witch Bitch), in which a computer automated gym goes all HAL-slash-The Shining, to the mortal danger of its highly toned staff and clientele. We're talking death by blender, sauna paneling, and reanimated frozen fish products. The facility's bitchy programmer is played by Merrick Butrick, who'd portrayed Captain Kirk's son and a Square Peg earlier in the decade, and died of AIDS before this movie was released. Directed by Austrian Michael Fischa, it's comparatively glossy but definitely senseless nonsense with a Eurotrash-genre feel. Lastly, in the same vein, and even slicker, there's 1984's Murder Rock: Dancing Death a.k.a. Giallo a Disco a.k.a. Slashdance (one of, incredibly, no less than three movies with that third name), a lesser exercise by that occasionally great horror director Lucio Fulci. Rather than a health club, the setting here is a dance school where choreography seems less indebted to Balanchine and Martha Graham than Jane Fonda and Shabba Doo. For that crime the punishment is, of course ... death by hatpin? Whatever. If you survive this evening, you will be sore, winded, and desperate to sweat the toxins out of your system. Vortex Room. (Dennis Harvey)
Backwards Athletic disappointment is not a new feeling for Abi (Sarah Megan Thomas, who also wrote the script), who has just learned she's been named the alternate for the Olympic crew team — a bench warming role she was also relegated to in the last Olympics. But after she quits the team in a huff and moves home, it's not long before she realizes that her life off the water is pretty depressing, too. Enter former boyfriend Geoff (James Van Der Beek), now the athletic director at the high school where Abi honed her rowing talents, who gives her a job coaching the talented but undisciplined girls who make up the current team. Will this new venture help Abi finally grow up and regain her self-confidence? Will she re-ignite her spark with Geoff? Will there be a last-act conflict involving yet another chance at the Olympics? Will there be multiple training montages? As directed by Ben Hickernell, Backwards hits all of the expected themes about following one's heart and Doing the Right Thing. Thomas, a former rower herself, has an ordinary-girl appeal, but even Backwards' attention to authenticity can't elevate what's essentially a very predictable sports drama. (1:29) Sundance Kabuki. (Cheryl Eddy)
Looper It’s 2044 and, thanks to a lengthy bout of exposition by our protagonist, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), here’s what we know: time travel, an invention 30 years away, will be used by criminals to transport their soon-to-be homicide victims backward, where a class of gunmen called loopers, Joe among them, are employed to “do the necessaries.” More deftly revealed in Brick (2005) writer-director Rian Johnson’s new film is the joylessness of the world in which Joe amorally makes his way, where gangsters from the future control the present (under the supervision of Jeff Daniels), their hit men live large but badly (Joe is addicted to some eyeball-administered narcotic), and the remainder of the urban populace suffers below-subsistence-level poverty. The latest downside for guys like Joe is that a new crime boss has begun sending back a steady stream of aging loopers for termination, or “closing the loop”; soon enough, Joe is staring down a gun barrel at himself plus 30 years.
Being played by Bruce Willis, old Joe is not one to peaceably abide by a death warrant, and young Joe must set off in search of himself so that — with the help of a woman named Sara (Emily Blunt) and her creepy-cute son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) — he can blow his own (future) head off. Having seen the evocatively horrific fate of another escaped looper, we can’t totally blame him. Parsing the daft mechanics of time travel as envisioned here is rough going, but the film’s brisk pacing and talented cast distract, and as one Joe tersely explains to another, if they start talking about it, “we’re gonna be here all day making diagrams with straws” — in other words, some loops just weren’t meant to be closed. (1:58) (Lynn Rapoport)
Pitch Perfect As an all-female college a cappella group known as the Barden Bellas launches into Ace of Base’s “The Sign” during the prologue of Pitch Perfect, you can hear the Glee-meets-Bring It On elevator pitch. Which is fine, since Bring It On-meets-anything is clearly worth a shot. In this attempt, Anna Kendrick stars as withdrawn and disaffected college freshman Beca, who dreams of producing music in L.A. but is begrudgingly getting a free ride at Barden University via her comp lit professor father. Clearly his goal is not making sure she receives a liberal arts education, as Barden’s academic jungle extends to the edges of the campus’s competitive a cappella scene, and the closest thing to an intellectual challenge occurs during a “riff-off” between a cappella gangs at the bottom of a mysteriously drained swimming pool. When Beca reluctantly joins the Bellas, she finds herself caring enough about the group’s fate to push for an Ace of Base moratorium and radical steps like performing mashups. Much as 2000’s Bring It On coined terms like “cheerocracy” and “having cheer-sex,” Pitch Perfect gives us the infinitely applicable prefix “a ca-” and descriptives like “getting Treble-boned,” a reference to forbidden sexual relations with the Bellas’ cocky rivals, the Treblemakers. The gags get funnier, dirtier, and weirder, arguably reaching their climax in projectile-vomit snow angels, with Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins as grin-panning competition commentators offering a string of loopily inappropriate observations. (1:52) (Lynn Rapoport)
Solomon Kane Conceived by Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard, this 16th-century hero is cut from the same sword-and-sorcery cloth, being a brawny brute of slippery but generally sorta-kinda upright morals. Solomon (James Purefoy) is slaughtering his way to a North African treasure trove when demons swallow up his likewise greedy, conscience-free cohorts and damn his soul for a lifetime of bad deeds. Suddenly committed to the greater good, he returns homeward to cold gray England, where Jason Flemyng's evil sorcerer soon imperils both our protagonist and the Puritan family (complete with love interest) he's befriended. This movie has been around a while — since 2009, to be exact, yet barely beating director Michael J. Bassett's new Silent Hill: Revelation 3D to U.S. theaters — and is a good illustration of what can happen when you make a fairly expensive ($45 million) fantasy-action adventure without major stars nor any marketable novelty. Which is to say: not much. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the good-looking, watchable but generic-feeling Solomon Kane, save that nothing about it feels remotely original or inspired. It's the perfectly okay, like-a-thousand-others mall flick you'll forget you saw by Thanksgiving, despite being peopled with such normally interesting actors as Max Von Sydow, Alice Krige, and the late Pete Postlethwaite. (1:54) (Dennis Harvey)
"Stars In Shorts" Outside of the festival circuit, it’s an uncommon feat for shorts to make it to the big screen, so it can’t hurt to make name recognition a prerequisite for selection. In writer-director Rupert Friend’s Steve, Keira Knightley plays an embattled Londoner under siege by her lonely, pathologically odd neighbor (Colin Firth). Written by Neil LaBute, Jacob Chase’s After School Special sets up a semi-flirtation between two strangers (Sarah Paulson and Wes Bentley) at a playground, only to deliver the kind of gut-level punch you might expect from the writer-director of 1998's Your Friends and Neighbors. LaBute’s own Sexting is an entertaining exercise in stream-of-consciousness monologuing by Julia Stiles. As with most shorts programs, “Stars” is a mixed bag. Robert Festinger’s The Procession, in which Lily Tomlin and Modern Family’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson play reluctant participants in a funeral procession, sounds promising, but the conversation palls during the 10-plus minutes we’re stuck in the car with them. Benjamin Grayson’s sci-fi thriller Prodigal, starring Kenneth Branagh, reaches its predictable crisis points several minutes after the viewer has arrived. More successful are Jay Kamen’s musical comedy Not Your Time, starring Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander as an old Hollywood hand whose writing career has stalled out, and Chris Foggin’s Friend Request Pending, which treats viewers to the sight of Dame Judi Dench gamely wading into the social network in search of a date. (1:53) (Lynn Rapoport)
Won't Back Down If talk of introducing charter schools into the public education mix tends to give you collective-bargaining-related hives, Daniel Barnz’s Won’t Back Down is unlikely to appeal, unless perhaps as the object of a boycott or a picket line. Two embattled mothers, Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), both with children at a failing Pittsburgh elementary school and the latter a teacher there, join forces to change the institutional culture by leading a parent-teacher takeover, with the goal of creating a charter school. As the bureaucratic process for doing so is described by a school district employee, it should take them three to five years to discover that they’ve been hurling themselves at a brick wall; Jamie, an efficient combination of fireball and pit bull, is determined to pulverize the wall in about two months.
Watching her and Nona try to secure more than a third-rate, treading-water education for their kids, it’s hard not to root for the possibility of a transformation, and even an upper-level teachers’ union staffer played by Holly Hunter finds herself climbing the fence. The details of what lies on the other side (and inside Jamie and Nona’s 400-page proposal) stay fairly fuzzy, though. And while Barnz lets his warring factions — desperate mothers and educators, a union boss (Ned Eisenberg) watching the deterioration of the labor movement, a pro-union teacher (Oscar Isaac) ambivalently engaged in the chartering project — impassionedly debate their way through the film, a little more wonkiness might have clarified the arguments of those done waiting for Superman. (2:00) (Lynn Rapoport)