Friday, October 5, 2012

LOUIE Season 3 "The Late Show" Arc - better than most films this year(?)

Are you watching Louis CK's 'Louie' on TV?  If you don't catch it when it airs do you have the wherewithal to watch it on FX on Demand?  Or do you have one of those TiVo boxes to DVR it and save it for later (or whatever those things are, I don't have em)?  Well... I'm waiting.

Louis CK is one of the only geniuses in television.  I mean just, like, ever really.  I know the praise keeps pouring all over the show like chocolate sauce on a fat Roman emperor's face, but the show really is a marvel: an independently made effort (Louie, afforded the kind of freedom Woody Allen's had for much if not almost all of his career, doesn't answer to studio execs - they only see his work when it's in finished form), Louis works also with the spirit of a filmmaker more than making a sitcom.  In fact, there are stretches (far more in season 3 as I can gather than the first two seasons) where you won't laugh at all - and if you do, um, what the hell's wrong with you?  Jerk.

Sorry, I gotta stop this sarcasm bullshit.  What affects me so much about what Louis does is that he's not out for laughs.  He does have stories to tell, but often he won't really go a whole episode to tell just one.  In fact, he's more like a short filmmaker who mostly churns out five to ten maybe at most twenty minute shorts where  he can build upon his persona.  But it's not always about getting a laugh, though that certainly isn't out of the question, and he won't spare himself at any expense (or his body - check out earlier in the season where he buys a motorcycle on a whim for that). The comedy is cringe-like, sort of along the lines of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but he's not out to always make a completely airtight plot and make you cringe and howl with laughter (which is Larry David's genius, but I digress).  Louis wants pathos, tons of it.  If Charlie Chaplin made you happy to see his Tramp and feel for him when he was down, 'Louie' is and isn't like that: he's not a natural clown, he's just us, or me, or any of you.  I don't think I've seen myself more in a person, and this is a guy with two kids and a comedy career, things I certainly don't have.

But where am I going with this?  Every so often, Louis CK, who gives less than a shit about continuity (with some BIG exceptions, i.e. Parker Posey in the show - when it comes to certain actors or parts, they'll pop on and that's it), he will do a story arc.  Last season he went to Afghanistan and that made for a moving story involving a duck.  This time, Louis goes for a big one: three episodes (with the season finale a bittersweet coda) where Louis is offered a very unlikely chance that his twenty some-odd years of being a stand-up comedian has been leading to: the chance to take over David Letterman and host the Late Show.  He's offered this chance by a very stern, 'Who are you kidding?' Garry Marshall, who I don't think I've ever seen this way.  He usually comes off in movies and TV I've seen him in as the kindly old grandfather ready to give you a quarter from behind his ear.  Here, he's fucking scary in the attitude he gives this unique and awesome opportunity.  But, that's show-biz, I guess.

Louis doesn't know how to take it.  Neither does his manager, who looks like he's all of fifteen years old (that joke never gets old, especially as the actor plays it totally straight), but he tells Louis it would be a mistake to pass it up.  He goes to see his (ex) wife - one of the strange pieces of casting (I digress again, sorta) being played by Susana Kelichi Watson (this wouldn't be puzzling except that their kids on the show are completely white, but... fuck it, whatever, let's move on, she's still good and sassy in the role) - and, of course, it's awfully funny to see her confront Louis with the uncomfortable feeling that it might be on her, cause of if he'll see the kids as much if he takes it and so on.  This scene, in the second part at a diner, is shot so simply, but directly, that it just cuts to the crazy humor but earnestness of this all.

Already, this was shaping up to be a fascinating little story for Louis, the 'Big Break' that only comes for maybe a handful of people in the world (depending how late-late night you go).  And then comes Jack Dahl... played by Mr. David Lynch.  It was around this point in the second part that things got strange.  And awesome.  And epic.  And fucking OMG THAT IS DAVID LYNCH ON THE SHOW!  If I can take myself out of being objective of his acting, which is powerful anyway as a tough-as-nails-no-bullshit trainer for prospective talk-show hosts, just seeing Lynch in this part and how he plays *so* straight off Louie, suddenly made him the funniest goddamn thing I've seen all year.  Lynch has a presence and image he's had for quite some time, as the Grandaddy of modern American surreal films, and he has a kind of Cult-Hitchcock vibe when he appears in interviews and Q&A's and segments on DVD's (see him make Quinoa some time and you may just be blown away like in a Maxell commercial).

What is so striking here, and what makes things so uproarious in terms of uncomfortable, hands-clasped-at-your-cheeks comedy, is that Lynch isn't really *as* weird as he usually is.  His character, if anything, fairly quickly reveals what this whole arc actually is: Rocky.  And he's Burgess Meredith, goddamnit!  He doesn't do the same Lynchian things with his hands he always does, and he doesn't have the high-odd voice like in Dumbland or his bit on Twin Peaks.  He's like the perfect underling for Garry Marshall's character: an old-school pro of the 'business' who wants to see "The Funny" as he calls it to Louis, who is just so awkward and doesn't know what the fuck he's doing at first, that it's naturally terrific stuff between them.  You can cut the tension with an olive fork.

Yet for all of the comedy, what makes this arc of Louis, which also features (speaking of Rocky) actual boxing as part of Louie's training, so endearing is that CK films himself as an unsure, am-I-even-a-hero sort of story.  Does he want this job?  Does he need it?  Can he see himself doing it?  We've been with Louis so often on this show, through the good (having a friendship with Pamela - that is until she left, which is the greatest romantic-comedy part of any episode, in the second season finale 'Airport'), the bad (well, any time he has to interact with any of his family outside of his kids), and the weird (um... where the fuck is he going when he is running around Boston and gets on that boat out in the middle of nowhere? Antonioni called and wants his mis-en-scene back, hehe).  But here he is the true underdog, up against a network that wants him mostly as an "option" since their other pick, Jerry Seinfeld, wants too much money.

But in a way it's almost more endearing than something like Rocky because of the time we've had with Louis, and here it kinda bubbles up to a certain point: can he do it?  Will the inspirational jogging through the streets of NY work in his favor?  Can he tell a joke and be funny on the spot?  This particular moment for Louis is a staggering bit of acting for both Louis and Lynch where the latter pushes the star to his point.  How he brings the funny... that'd be spoiling it, wouldn't it?  What happens eventually, and keeps the slightly absurdist tinge to this storyline, is that Louis sees his potential glory in the big gestures when Lynch genuflects as 'Jack Dahl, Host' on the camera, and it's a bit of a King of Comedy moment.  I mean, hey, better to be king for a day than a shmuck for a lifetime?  Isn't that what Louie, in its Big Picture, is kind of about?

The climax of this all in episode 3 is riveting, and funny, and when pushed against the wall our down-and-out hero can fight back!  The ending may not come as too much of a surprise, but it's the journey that counts.  And in this arc of the Late Show, I see Louis CK so totally in command here in the best way, as a director (how he paces shots, gets the other actors involved, even bit parts like his friends at a bar), as writer (every touch of what he does, just looking at a building is important), and actor (forget about the Emmy for writing, actually, "You're father is dead" says it all, but I digress one last time).  It is funny, and sad, and all sentiment is earned but never pushed - when his kids have the 'what's gonna happen with us?' moment its stripped down to the essentials, but emotionally it goes far and not too far over in being a genuine point for the characters - while the 'powers that be' (Lynch, Marshall, Jay Leno, an OUTSTANDING bit part for Louis buddy Chris Rock) stay elusive, cold, demanding, helpful, and weird.  That its shot with soul by DP Paul Koestner is icing on the cake.

If a 60+ TV arc could be counted as a 'film', then the Late Show is among the finest produced.

(Oh, one more praise: when Louis does his first "test" interview with a Mexican maid working in the studio... if you can stop laughing for five minutes after that, you're a stronger/more serious man than I.)

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Rian Johnson's LOOPER

A 'Looper' is someone who, in the near future - about three decades from now, and then three decades after those three decades - works for the mob.  There is time travel in the future, but it's outlawed (why exactly? who cares - well, then again, maybe it's too much power to wield, which has its own can of worms you can consider, but I digress).  So the mob has it and uses it to kill people, since also, in the future, you can't really get a good killing when forensics is super-ahead of the curve.  So, throw the guy in a time machine with a sack over his head, and the Looper is right there with a shotgun (here called a 'blunderbuss', which I think was the name of Jack White's last album, but I digress again), and will blow the guy away.  Simple, easy, and on the way.  Oh, and the guy being killed has a shitload of silver attached.

A Looper gets paid well, as we see with Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is given a character named just for him by writer/director Rian Johnson), who does drugs with eye-droppers and drives fast cars and screws hookers.  It's a life, of course.  But then the rub: a Looper has to know his time will only go so long as a killer, as the mob doesn't want loose ends: their future self will be sent back, and the Looper will kill his future self (they know it cause gold is attached instead of silver, clever touch), and then sent away to spend his days in a life of luxury... for thirty years, until the 'loop is closed' as it were.  But that doesn't always happen, we also learn from our steely-eyed and hmm-he-looks-like-a-famous-movie-star Joe, and in that case a Looper is fucked if he lets his older self go.  Early on we see what happens when Paul Dano does such a thing, a little moment of (self) humanity that curses him right away.  When your younger self goes, little by little, the older self goes too.  It's like a much more graphic version of the picture "erasing from existence" in Back to the Future.

Some days you just can't get rid of a - oh wait, here's the blunderbuss BOOM

Johnson's genius is the have little tips of the cinematic-trope hat to some past time travel movies - the two most prevalent ones for me have always been 'Future' and The Terminator, and they're both referenced to one degree or another, just not *too* explicitly - but making this world of the 'Looperverse' all his own, as a cinematic and emotional ride.  Hell, it even owes more, gleefully I'd note, to dark-shaded (hard-R rated) film-noir and gangster pictures, only this time without that noir-ish dialog Johnson had his characters speak in Brick (then again there is an edge to it anyway, maybe closer to a super hard-boiled noir like Fritz Lang's The Big Heat - no bullshit killers and fringe folk).  Jeff Daniels, yes Jeff Daniels in a full beard and quiet demeanor, is the closest to a real villain in the film as Abe, in the back-room of a night-cum-strip-club and a fellow actually from the future who basically runs the city (we're not told more than that - frankly, I didn't need it), and is very imposing almost because he doesn't look to be.  He could be the good and bad cop, the good father or the one who takes a hammer and bashes your hand in.  So it goes.

Once Johnson gets the plot rolling - and you know from the trailer this bit, where young Joe sees Old Joe, and Old Joe (Bruce Willis, that's the guy) isn't having it - he does something very fascinating, and that I'm more than glad, almost ecstatic to see: honest to goodness storytelling.  Suddenly we see what is an 'alternate' time-line, yet one that still is really *the* story of the film.  It's hard to explain, but you just see it being told, and by then the narration from Joe has subsided, and we see Joe over the course of thirty years, go through his motions of being a 'retired' bad-ass as a killer, and then settling down with a Chinese woman he has found love, and actual peace and security and a connection, with.  That's the kind of thing that can't be broken - that is until the 'powers that be' do just that.  This sets Old Joe on a mission to kill a certain little boy that will set things in motion that will muck up the whole Looper program called 'The Rainmaker'.

So, yeah, in short, don't fuck with Jeff Daniels.
 To say much more than that would require a big fat spoiler at the top.  I won't say much more, or try to, except that it's around this time, right after a hefty dialog between young/old Joe at a coffee shop that may be the most memorable of its kind since De Niro and Pacino faced off in Heat (for its simplicity in compositions, yet so much said by just letting the actors tell themselves and the story at the same time), that we meet Emily Blunt's character.  She would appear to be the 'dame' of the story, though that might diminish her somewhat formidable stature with a shotgun.  Yet she reminded me of something I had taken for granted: aside from the natural-beauty part of her, Blunt is a terribly good actress, especially here where she has to juggle a lot of different thoughts and feelings with her character, and especially with another character she has to protect.

Johnson may even have her character do things that don't make sense once, or twice (and to say them more would further complicate this review), but she still carries it and makes it so her own, and so heartfelt, that it elevates the material further.  She has one scene, even just a moment, an exchange, in a very other-worldly, high-suspense/drama bit, where she made an underlying ideal in the film clearer than before: in this cold world of killers and fate, what happens to humanity?  Can you do anything about how you were raised, if it was by vagrants or not, and what can change actually mean in the scope of shit?


Okay, getting deep?  Looper is very smart in its script, very wise in ways of just the simple but very appreciative things in good storytelling like a plant and pay-off - one in particular done early on that would appear to not even be a plant at all, but just a little detail to add texture and a little wonder to this futuristic world.  And I appreciated that the connotations of class were not jammed down the viewer's throat (i.e. In Time last year), but were given enough of a showing to let the audience know what this world is, and why you need a tough-but-not-impenetrable figure like Joe to navigate it.

And that brings me to Joe himself.  I'm still not sure if Joe entirely *looks* like young Bruce Willis, but Gordon-Levitt's fun and cunning is to make himself believe he's Willis, and so after the first several minutes I bought into it as well.  And Willis gives himself some room to breath as an actor too; he brings to Old Joe a wisdom and bitterness that gives the character dimension, and that his actions in the second half of the film, while brutal, super-violent and morally questionable, are never so simple as to make one hate the character.  It's just a terrible situation, but there's a gray area that makes Johnson's material further complex.  When he blows people away with big fucking guns, it's not the Land-of-Inconsequential as we saw several weeks ago with The Expendables 2.  When Old Joe gets on his mission, there's pain and resentment, even if what must be done is to be done.

And the moral of the story is - don't fuck with Emily Blunt and an axe.  That tree's gonna get it.

There's also the little kid... but that would be going too far, wouldn't it?  Looper, aside from what I've mentioned already, is ingenious with not just time travel, and what effects it has (or what happens when a man's memory is 'clouded' and he tries to remember the first time he saw a person very important, a series of cut-aways and edits that makes this character for me), is a fantastic story of the future itself.  We know it's the future due to things with technology like flying motorcycles (but no flying cars, damn!), and other little touches, but it's still the same poverty, the same dread for humanity, the same fear of death, and the same farming life that Blunt's character has to deal with.  A lot has changed in the world of Looper, but the big things still stay the same.

So... I'm from the future, go see Looper, in theaters if you can to soak up that cinematography and Nathan Johnson's mix of edgy rock and symphonic orchestra.