Sunday, October 07, 2012

the Bonefish Grill and "Looper": two reviews

Tonight, I was in celebration mode. I'm not ready to reveal why quite yet (though I will in good time), but let's just say that I'm now, after two long years, experiencing the return of legal breathing room.

So I decided to treat myself to dinner and a movie. Since the very nice parent of a very nice student had given me a $25 gift card for the Outback Steakhouse and its affiliates, I decided to buy a movie ticket for the 7:50PM showing of "Looper," then trundle over to the Bonefish Grill (here's its website), which is close to where I work.

Aside from having perused its website, I had no idea what to expect from a place called "Bonefish Grill." The restaurant's name had a vaguely erotic/thanatotic resonance (boning = fucking; bones = death), which was intriguing in itself. I can imagine the marketing teams having a cow about the name.

But the resto's interior was all business. The raised booths and open spaces were arranged in a tasteful, design-savvy way that strongly reminded me of another chain: the ever-awesome Maggiano's. And at the very early time of 5:30PM, the place was packed. The staff were all smooth, well-trained operators. The table at which I was seated was a square four-top with plenty of room for a big guy like me; it was tastefully covered with brown packing paper, which dialed down any sense of formality and made me wonder whether the staff would offer me crayons to do a bit of drawing. Although my server wasn't that big on eye contact, she was brisk and polite. Since I basically wanted to be left alone, her behavior suited me just fine. She kept the refills coming at a steady pace, which meant she was watchful as well.

I ordered everything off the specialties menu this evening. The appetizer was a surf-and-turf California roll, which came out looking like lightly breaded kimbap. The meat was a two-fer of high-grade beef and shrimp (though I suspect the "surf" component was actually Krab, which was a bit disappointing); it wasn't too bad. The sauces that came with it were quite good. The main course was shrimp-and-chicken pad thai, which was surprisingly enjoyable. Before I ordered, I noticed B-Grill's menu was actually rather heavy on Asian and Asian-fusion food-- bravo to them for their courage! (A container of round, bamboo chopsticks sits at every table-- another indicator of the likelihood that you'll be ordering Asian.) And while I'm no pad thai expert, I'd say the main course was more than edible. Dessert was Bananas Foster. Alas, it didn't come out flambéed, but I have to give credit to the chef for the rum-butterscotch sauce, which was shamelessly rummy. They ain't foolin' around. The total charge for this feast was about $32; thanks to my gift card, I paid only $7 plus a $6.40 tip for the meal's original cost. (Out of solidarity with my brother David, who's worked in the food industry and knows first-hand how hard life can be for servers, I tip 20%.)

The miracle is that I didn't feel overstuffed at the end of the meal. I worried that I'd have to make a pit stop at a toilet somewhere before the movie, but this turned out not to be necessary. I drove a couple hundred yards over to the multiplex, parked and napped for a bit, then went into the cinema.

"Looper" is a time-travel action flick that stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt. It puts Willis firmly back in "Twelve Monkeys" trans-temporal territory, even though he's absent from the film for most of its first reel. Gordon-Levitt and Willis play, respectively, younger and older versions of Joe, a "looper," i.e., an assassin who kills victims shunted back from the future-- 2074-- to a dystopian 2044.

We don't learn much about 2044-era American society except that it's "Blade Runner" without all the acid rain and punk clothing styles. Wheel-less motorcycles exist, including ones that break down with a sound reminiscent of the Millennium Falcon's faltering hyperdrive from "The Empire Strikes Back." Street violence is common; we witness, in matter-of-fact style, a robbery that leads to a shooting. Everyone, it seems, has a gun-- or more than one. Cars have unsightly external fuel hoses attached to their exhaust pipes, and rickety solar panels poorly fastened to their hoods. Everything looks run-down.

Loopers work in dialogue with the mob-controlled future; mobsters are the only ones using time travel. Their victims pop into existence in isolated places-- like a cornfield in Joe's case-- and as soon as they appear, tied and hooded and on their knees, in the center of a sacrificial tarp, they're blasted by the looper's "blunderbuss," a heavy weapon of limited range and precision. Time travel, we learn from young Joe's opening voiceover, has been outlawed, so only outlaws use it.

The philosophy of time travel isn't much discussed in "Looper." It is, in fact, a subject that Bruce Willis's Old Joe deliberately avoids when he sits across the table from his younger self in his favorite diner. But the rules of the game seem clear enough, being part "Terminator" and part "Back to the Future." You see, if something happens to one's younger self, and one's older self exists in the same time frame-- as happens to Joe's friend Seth (Paul Dano), whose older self escapes "the closing of the loop," i.e., the younger looper's murder of the older version of the looper-- the older self is immediately affected. Seth's older self tries to escape his fate, but his younger self is found and surgically mutilated, each successive mutilation affecting the older Seth, who gradually loses his fingers, his nose, his legs, and his arms. This works for the two Joes as well: when younger Joe has an epiphany, Old Joe immediately recollects it because it has become part of his own history.

The other big trope in the film is telekinesis. I felt, at first, that this had been awkwardly shoehorned into the plot: the fact that 10% of the future population were born "tee-kays" (i.e., telekinetics) didn't seem directly relevant to the goings-on. But I was mistaken: the existence of TKs fed into the mystery of who the Rainmaker was-- an extremely powerful TK who had begun taking over Mafia turf in several cities by 2074 (think: the Mule in Asimov's Foundation universe), and who was closing every loop-- i.e., killing every looper-- he could find. Old Joe has a suspicion, when he appears back in 2044, about who the Rainmaker is, and in true "Terminator" fashion, he wants to kill the child before he can grow into the Rainmaker.

So whom do we root for? "Looper" is an emotionally complex film. We see the future that Old Joe enjoys-- a blissful life in Shanghai with a gorgeous Chinese wife who reforms and domesticates him. Old Joe knows what's at stake once he's thrust back into the past, but his motivations center on the killing of a child-- a child with only the potential to take an evil path through life. Do we root for Old Joe? Or should we root for Young Joe, who gets to know the boy who will eventually grow up to become the Rainmaker? Should we root for Cid, the kid in question, despite the fact that he can't control his dangerous telekinetic abilities? Should we root for Cid's farm-bound mother (Emily Blunt with a passable country accent), who believes she can raise Cid right and thereby steer him away from an evil future?

"Looper" poses many questions, and even though the philosophy of time travel is never explicitly discussed, the film does an admirable job of "show, don't tell": those weighty intellectual issues linger like ambient specters, ever in the background of the viewer's mind. The film plays with our minds in several ways, not least of which is the way it encourages the viewer to guess the film's conclusion. So much of the film is devoted to an exploration of alternate future possibilities that, during the film's final sequence, I found myself jumping from prediction to prediction, trying to divine the film's dénouement.

"Looper" could also be viewed as a perverse sort of Oedpial conflict. Old Joe and Young Joe could easily be father and son, with the son wishing Old Joe ill. "Why don't you do what old men do, and die?" grates Young Joe to Old Joe at one point. But the paradox here is that Old Joe, despite having lived longer, is arguably the more "recent" version of Joe out there. The child is the father of the man, after all. It's hard to determine which side of the Oedipal coin is heads and which is tails.

The film was directed by Rian Johnson, whom I'd never heard of before now. Johnson's visual style isn't as in-your-face as, say, Zach Snyder's ("300"), but he cleaves to Spielbergian notions of kinetic camera work and clean editing for his action sequences: in any given fight scene, you know who's where and what's going on. I was surprised at how much action took place on farmland: Johnson subverted some action tropes by going full-on bucolic, especially at the film's climax. Cities are generally more interesting places in which to stage fights and chases, but Johnson boldly defies this notion and gives us an apotheosis in a cornfield.

And now might be a good time to talk about Joseph Gordon-Levitt's facial prosthesis-- the one that gives him the trademark Bruce Willis nose. The effect is a bit disconcerting: in profile, Gordon-Levitt looks convincingly like a younger Bruce Willis, even though Gordon-Levitt is of a much slighter build than Willis was in his 1980s "Die Hard" days. From the front, Gordon-Levitt's new nose makes him look more like Keanu Reeves than Bruce Willis, especially during those party/druggie scenes. And the two actors have very different earlobes: Bruce Willis has been blessed with pendulous, "mark of the Buddha" earlobes, whereas Gordon-Levitt's lobes veer straight into his head. But overall, I was able to suspend disbelief and just go with the idea that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was a young Bruce Willis. This had less to do with the younger man's facial prosthetic than with his acting ability. He's got Willis's subtle head movements and facial expressions down pat.

One last comment about the film's bad guys. Jeff Daniels plays Abe, a mobster sent back in time to keep watch over the loopers of 2044. With his basset-hound face and his shaggy beard, Daniels doesn't make for a very convincing baddie, despite the ball-peen hammer scene. He's great comic relief, though, right until he gets his comeuppance (no, that's not really a spoiler; the main conflict lies elsewhere).

"Looper" was, all in all, a very entertaining ride. It had plenty of action and not a little philosophical gristle to chew on during those post-viewing discussions. I'd see it again if movie tickets didn't cost $10.50. More likely, I'll wait for it to appear on iTunes, and then I'll rent it.



Charles said...

"The staff were all smooth, well-trained operators."

Thank you. Now I will have Michael Jackson stuck in my head for the rest of the evening (well, a song of his, at least, not MJ himself).

I skipped the Looper review part of the post because I didn't want any spoilers--I plan to go see it sometime soon. Just give a thumbs down or a thumbs up (or a thumbs sideways, if appropriate).

Hmm... why do we say "thumbs down" or "thumbs up" when we're usually only talking about one thumb?

Kevin Kim said...

I would have picked Sade's "Smooth Operator."

As for my review of "Looper": I don't think I gave away anything major in my review. Feel free to read it, unless you'd rather not prejudice your own viewing of the flick. As for a rating: thumbs up. It was a smart film, and it may have done the right thing by not overtly concentrating on the paradoxes of time travel.

John from Daejeon said...

While I enjoyed the film, I found it extremely difficult to watch because even with extreme global warming, I just can't picture sugar cane ever growing in Kansas as the tropical grass has just a very small foothold in the U.S. (Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and Hawaii). It not only can't survive harsh winters, but needs a lot of water to be productive.

The high point of the movie was the young boy played by Pierce Gagnon. A truly remarkable young actor and the director definitely knows how to find them, but I guess you wouldn't know that since you haven't seen Brick. Joseph Gordon-Levitt owes a lot of his success Rian Johnson as he was still mostly considered a TV actor ("Dark Shadows" remake and "3rd Rock") up until "Brick" made him a bona fide film actor as well.

If you get a chance, check out the final season's episodes of One Tree Hill featuring this great young actor. Rian is telling the truth when he says Pierce will be even a bigger star than his good buddy Joseph.