1/1/13: Looper, Killer Joe, The Words, Liberal Arts, Cosmopolis

Looper (R, 2012, Sony Pictures)
Roughly halfway through “Looper,” there’s a sit-down between Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and a little kid named Cid (Pierce Gagnon), and their chat is a testament to how splendidly efficiency and poignance can play off one another. Cid asks Joe some unapologetically direct questions about why Joe kills people, Joe answers honestly, and the kid volunteers answers about his own life just as plainly. The significance of the exchange is, for unspoiled reasons, truly felt later on. But even in the moment, it’s a sharp reminder of what this movie continually does so well. “Looper” very easily could and maybe should have been a mess. It’s a story hinging around not only time travel, but its criminal applications and what happens when a hired gun’s older self (Bruce Willis) tries to escape his fate — which, because organized crime is organized crime, means murder by way of his younger self’s gun. In case that isn’t enough, there’s also memory distortion and telekinesis, which plays a growing role as “Looper” attempts to reconcile itself. Remarkably, it does reconcile itself, and even more remarkably, there’s never a moment when it feels like reconciliation is in doubt. “Looper” doesn’t shirk from the complicated logic of its parts, but it contains the blaze by keeping its scope modest and answering questions with answers instead of more questions. That leaves it plenty of time to dote on its characters. And dote “Looper” does, weaving thrilling sci-fi and rich character drama into a single thread with an ease that puts countless other movies to complete shame. Emily Blunt also stars.
Extras: Director/Gordon-Levitt/Blunt commentary, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features, animated trailer.

Killer Joe (R/NR, 2011, Lions Gate)
From the instant Gina Gershon enters the frame as Sharla — wife to Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), stepmom to Chris (Emile Hirsch) and Dottie (Juno Temple), and witness to a plan to off Ansel’s first wife, collect her life insurance and settle Chris’s debt with some dangerous people — it is clear “Killer Joe” has no wish to do anything but dare viewers, at their own peril, to take it at face value. Once Matthew McConaughey waltzes in as Killer Joe Cooper, who pulls double duty as a cop and a hit man, the dare elevates to double dog status. Skeletally, what happens next is customary: We meet the characters, we see the stakes via the scary people who haunt Chris, and a bad idea disguised as a plan begins its downhill descent. But inside those lines, “Joe” — like its namesake — just makes up the rules and does whatever it wants. Exploitative for nearly no reason? Absolutely and almost immediately. Violent in a manner that’s gruesome and slapstick at once? Yep. Willfully, proudly self-indulgent in terms of everything from the shaming of its own characters to the amazing things they do when pushed too far? All day long, and spectacularly so during a closing scene you’ll be hard-pressed to forget. “Joe” has enough straight-faced and conventionally exciting scenes to present the mirage of a serious thriller, and those who buy into the mirage may — may — invest so heavily as to think the crazy that happens in between and beyond isn’t “Joe’s” desired result. But Sharla’s introduction all but makes it clear that none of what follows is undesirable, and “Joe’s” wild third act forcefully validates why.
Extras: Director commentary, behind-the-scenes feature, SXSW director interview and cast Q&A.

The Words (PG-13/NR, 2012, Sony Pictures)
“The Words” is, on its shell, a story about an author (Dennis Quaid as Clay) giving a reading of his newest book, which shares its title with the movie. That book is the story of Rory (Bradley Cooper), a struggling wannabe author whose work is good but unmarketable until a lucky twist of fate changes his fortune. That twist itself hinges on its own story involving a man (Jeremy Irons) whose role is best left unspoiled. When “The Words” hits the unspoiled core of its story within a story within a story, what it finds there is simple but compelling because of context. And when that core doubles back to Rory’s story — and, in turn, brings “The Words” to a sort of halftime in Clay’s story — it sets the table for an engrossing second half on all three levels. And then, somehow, and despite being a movie about the gift of moving storytelling, “The Words” takes a faceplant and tumbles down all three flights of stairs en route to a ending that’s staggeringly flat. Satisfactorily ending a story is no trivial challenge, and properly resolving three stacked stories is exponentially harder. But “The Words” seems almost not to try, and as it crumbles with such a resounding whimper, it’s enough to wonder what the point even was of spinning this fable in the first place. It’s a beautiful movie that’s crawling with great performances and excellent writing, but the brick wall it hits is a killer. Zoe Saldana and Olivia Wilde also star.
Extras: Extended cut of the movie (adds six minutes), two behind-the-scenes features, character profiles.

Liberal Arts (PG-13, 2012, IFC Films)
A funny realization sinks in roughly halfway through “Liberal Arts.” Jesse (Josh Radnor), a 35-year-old writer from New York, receives an invitation from an old professor to speak at his retirement ceremony. While there, he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a 19-year-old student who’s bored with her fellow classmates. She takes an immediate liking to him. So does Dean (John Magaro), another random student whom Jesse meets by commenting on the book he’s reading, and Nat (Zac Efron), who is just sitting on a bench one night when he takes an immediate and nearly spiritual liking to Jesse for no reason whatsoever. “Arts” frequently serves up people who take special interest in Jesse despite presenting Jesse himself as a decent but unremarkable guy who makes unremarkable introductions. Eventually, the realization kicks in that nothing past “Arts’s” opening scene — wherein Jesse’s former girlfriend completes the process of leaving him while he meekly watches — feels like a scene Jesse actually earns. With that observation attained, perhaps it’s no surprise Radnor also wrote and directed the story in which he stars. In fairness to “Arts,” it excels as much as it doesn’t: It’s occasionally funny, and it at least uses these undeserved opportunities to assemble some engaging exchanges between Jesse and whomever is presently admiring him. But while it’s possible to use “Arts’s” upside to ignore how out of alignment its honesty is at its most base level, actually doing so isn’t easy. And should it prove impossible, the consequences — up to and including a festering resentment of the star and brain trust of the entire movie — can be dire.
Extras: Radnor commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Cosmopolis (R, 2012, Entertainment One)
“Why are they called airports?” “I know I can’t answer these questions without losing your respect.” Dialogue volleys like this run rampant across “Cosmopolis,” and its cast often rattles them off with all the romance of an early-morning table reading in which half the cast has a hangover. “Cosmopolis” is ostensibly the story of Eric (Robert Pattinson), a billionaire asset manager whose most pressing goal is to take his limo across town and get a haircut. Unfortunately for him, the limo is a hot zone for visitors who step inside by methods unknown from origins unknown for reasons unknown to unleash a torrent of oppressively pretentious allegories that are indefensibly ridiculous. Those who strain to discern meaning from it all — and, with less difficulty, weave together a story about a financial gamble that could upend Eric’s wealth, to say nothing of his hair — can certainly do so. Despite what a possible “Cosmopolis” advocate might profess, doing so isn’t difficult. Nor, let’s be clear, is rejecting this spectacle of emptiness a sign of a dull mind. Movies that don’t hold viewers’ hands are revered for good reason, but all “Cosmopolis’s” opacity does is grab people by the arm and pull them into a joyless well of good actors reciting bad work, with perhaps only unintentional laughter topping complete, alienated revulsion in terms of emotional output on its audience’s behalf. There are another 364 days left in 2013 during which a more laughably pretentious movie may appear for home theater consumption. But a warning to all comers: The gauntlet is down, and it’s fierce.
Extras: Director commentary, interviews, behind-the-scenes feature.