A smart movie about time travel tops the weekend's new releases.
“Looper” is a sharp, cleverly plotted and richly detailed time-travel thriller from writer-director Rian Johnson (whose previous films include the high-school noir “Brick” and the con-game caper “The Brothers Bloom”). Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe, a mob assassin in the near future who takes care of victims sent his way from 30 years further in the future. It's a well-paying gig, but there's a catch: At some point, the victim sent to be killed is the assassin's older self. When that happens, and Joe is confronted by Old Joe (Bruce Willis), the movie really kicks into high gear. Johnson conjures up some masterful set pieces, and keeps the pacing tight all the way through. Gordon-Levitt is great, employing Willis' trademark mannerisms to amazing effect.
This week's other Hollywood releases are disappointing.
“Hotel Transylvania” is a computer-animated monster mash-up, in which Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler) creates a monsters-only hotel as a haven for his teen daughter Mavis (voiced by Selena Gomez). Drac has to move fast when a stray human (voiced by Andy Samberg) shows up. The premise is kinda cool (if derivative of “Monsters, Inc.”), but Sandler's lazy approach to comedy – and his penchant for surrounding himself with his cronies (Kevin James, David Spade, Jon Lovitz and Steve Buscemi are in the voice cast) – stifle what few good jokes the movie carries.
“Pitch Perfect” is set in the world of college a cappella singing groups, centering on a spunky freshman (Anna Kendrick) who joins an all-girl troupe and tries to shake up the musical status quo. The storyline is hackneyed stuff, and the humor is disjointed. But the cast, which includes “Bridesmaids'” Rebel Wilson and “Workaholics'” Adam DeVine, is game and the musical numbers are cool.
The schools-in-trouble drama “Won't Back Down” is heavy-handed propaganda at its worst. The “inspired by actual events” story tells of a Pittsburgh single mom (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who becomes a crusader to save her daughter's failing elementary school, and enlisting a dejected teacher (Viola Davis) to help her establish a parent-teacher charter school. Director Daniel Barnz (“Beastly”) stacks the deck here, creating straw-man villains out of bureaucrats and teachers' unions, while turning Gyllenhaal and Davis into educational saints.
The best of the indies this week is “Compliance,” a tough-to-take drama based on a real incident – in which a fast-food manager (brilliantly played here by Ann Dowd) gets a call from a policeman, claiming that an employee (Dreama Walker) has stolen from a customer. What follows is a disturbing lesson in answering authority, as the manager follows the cop's orders in spite of her better judgment. Writer-director Craig Zobel gives viewers plenty to think about, though the lurid tone is a definite turn-off.
“Liberal Arts” lets actor Josh Radnor (“How I Met Your Mother”), who wrote and directed, indulge in a bit of college nostalgia. He plays Jesse, a 35-year-old New Yorker who goes back to his Ohio college to see off a retiring professor (Richard Jenkins). He then gets in a sort-of relationship with a 19-year-old student (Elizabeth Olsen). Radnor's script gets a little precious at times, but the characters are solid.
Two more movies opening today were not screened for local critics: “Easy Money,” a Swedish gangster thriller; and “10 Years,” a high-school reunion comedy starring Channing Tatum.
To see clips from this week's films, watch The Cricket's “Means on Movies” online – just click on the icon at the top of this page.