There comes a point in every villainous actor’s career where someone asks them to play the devil himself (or herself in a few cases). It’s just par for the course. I want to take a look at ten of them, but I want to specifically look at films featuring the classic “deal with the devil” plot in one way or another.
Faust was a character in German mythology who sold his soul to Mephistopheles for years of power. This story has been interpreted time and time again, from episodes of The Twilight Zone to country songs, and there are a whole slew of films dealing with the topic. As with time travel movies, these span across genres, including mystery (Angel Heart, The Ninth Gate), comedy (Bedazzled and the remake), semi-biographical drama (Crossroads), fantasy (Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Imagniarium of Doctor Parnassus) and even legal drama (The Devil’s Advocate).
I’ll be scoring as follows:
Story: 20 Points
Faust: 20 Points
Devil: 20 Points
Supporting Cast: 20 Points
Experience: 20 Points
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This month marks the 20 year anniversary of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, a film that has since been hailed as one of the best films of the ’90s, and has also spawned two incredible seasons of television. So… What Makes It Great? As always, there will be spoilers.
The Tragedy of Jerry Lundegaard
The entire plot of Fargo is set in motion by the idiocy of Jerry Lundegaard, a used car salesman in Minnesota. His life falls apart around him like a Shakespearean tragedy, but he was never a king or well-respected man. There was never much of a rise at all, just a fall. From the beginning, we already know he owes some money and is at his last straw.
For just $40,000, Jerry is willing to let his own wife be kidnapped so her father will pay up the bail. It is such a ridiculous plan that even the kidnappers Carl Showalter (a scene-stealing Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (an ice cold Peter Stormare) are confused by it. It gets set in motion, but of course it’s messy.
Jerry starts the movie as a professional, slimy used car salesman who tricks customers into paying more than they agreed to. There’s that famous scene near the beginning when he argues with a married couple about paying for true coat. The man goes on and on about having a deal, but Jerry talks circles around him and gets his way in the end. Jerry keeps up his professional facade perfectly, and he is in control the whole time.
As the scheme begins to fall apart, and Jerry is under investigation for the stolen car he gave to Carl and Gaear, his professionalism starts to fall apart. His “Minnesota Nice” facade gradually crumbles like the kingdom of Macbeth. In early scenes, like so many other Minnesotans, Jerry has gone out of his way not to swear, intentionally using other words. This is of course contrasted to the constant swearing of Carl Showalter, clearly showing him as an outsider. It is not until the second investigation scene with Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) that Jerry swears, saying “Damn” twice. It’s mild, but for a man like Jerry, at this point his transformation is complete. This is the point in a tragedy where the villain knows he has been defeated and does something incredibly pathetic. In Jerry’s case, this is driving away and hoping not to get caught.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Jerry’s tragedy is that there was a way for him to get the money he needed without committing a crime. His father-in-law Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell) is also his boss. Jerry tries to convince Wade to lend him $750,000 for some real estate that he found, but Wade won’t do it, saying he’s not a bank. Wade assumed Jerry was giving him the opportunity, and he does offer him a finder’s fee. Here’s the thing—the finder’s fee Jerry assumes he’ll get is 10%. That’s $35,000 more than he needs to pay off what he owes, but he’s both 1) Too insulted by this to notice and 2) Too caught up in his villainous scheme to think straight. He could have taken the money, and it would have all been taken care of.
William H. Macy’s performance is incredible. He is the perfect actor to portray the fall of an everyday guy. It’s such a shame he didn’t win the Oscar here, but if it makes you feel better, he did lose to Edward Norton in Primal Fear. That’s such a great performance too… Oh wait, what? Edward Norton didn’t win either? Who did?
Oh yeah. Well, if we’re being fair, William H. Macy really should have been nominated in the Best Actor in a Leading Role category anyway.
That One Scene
You know the scene in Fargo that’s the most memorable and meaningful part of the movie? The one everyone was talking about after the movie ended? No, I’m actually not talking about the wood chipper scene, but a short, wordless scene that tells us everything we need to know about Jerry Lundegaard. Wade has just rejected Jerry’s request for a loan, and Jerry walks out into the parking lot where his windshield has frozen over. He tries to scrape it off, but there’s always another layer. Just like his scheme, he can never wipe it all away. Layers are always going to fall on top before he peel back the ones that already exist.
This is the first time we see Jerry letting out all of his frustration, taking it out on something that didn’t do him any harm. The scene also shows that Jerry is completely alone. It starts with a bird’s eye view of the parking lot, with only his car in view. Later, he looks around, but there is no one there. Jerry has isolated himself and driven off everyone close to him.
Pure Good vs. Pure Evil
Sure, there are all shades of characters throughout Fargo—Jerry and Carl are bad, but their motivation is money. Wade is a decent guy, but he goes about things in a prideful way. At its heart, though, Fargo concerns the conflict of absolute good (Marge Gunderson) and absolute evil (Gaear Grimsrud).
Gaear doesn’t seem all that motivated by money. Sure, he wants to divvy up things 50/50 with Carl, but that’s just being fair. Gaear is in it for a mere $20,000 and however much the car will be split up for. This is simply living money, enough to let him go on and do more evil. Carl, on the other hand, makes Wade pay up $1,000,000, unbeknownst to Gaear. Carl is doing it for a fortune.
Gaear doesn’t say much, doesn’t seem to get joy out of much (except perhaps pancakes), and his decision making is processed evil. He shoots both the officer who pulls him over and the couple who drives by, simply because he knows a track will be left. When he feeds Carl to the wood chipper, it’s because he fears Carl will run his mouth to the police. It’s not an emotional struggle for Gaear. He’s a sociopath and he’ll do what he thinks needs to be done.
Gaear’s evil is contrasted with policewoman Marge Gunderson, who represents pure good. Every decision she makes is to help solve the case, helping goodness and order be restored. She doesn’t solve the case right away, because she is such a good person that she’s too trusting. It takes an awkward encounter with an old classmate (Steve Park) for Marge to realize how well people can lie when they really want something.
What Goes Around
Fargo also seems to have a subtle theme of karma. In the aforementioned scene where a customer insists to Jerry that “We had a deal,” Jerry is indifferent, knowing exactly what he is doing. However, this is later thrown back in Jerry’s face with Carl. Carl had originally promised Jerry $40,000, but he is now insisting on keeping all the money because “Blood has been shed.” Jerry responds with, “Now he had a deal here. A deal’s a deal.” Suddenly, Jerry is stuck in the same position of his customer from earlier, screwed out of a deal.
In the parking garage shoot-out where Wade shows up to pay the ransom instead of Jerry (Carl’s now screwed on a deal, hmmm), both Wade and Carl are shot. Carl is shot once in the mouth. If there’s one defining trait about Carl, it’s that he talks too much. Wade is shot multiple times in the heart, the part of him he has been using too much. Wade has been insistent on delivering the ransom money, because Jean is his daughter, not just Jerry’s wife. It’s ultimately pride, sure, that makes him deliver the ransom money instead of Jerry, but he would say he’s using his heart.
The leads in Fargo are all spectacular, and Frances McDormand won an Oscar for her brilliant work. However, Fargo is also populated by side characters who may only appear in a scene or two, but all manage to not only be memorable, but help solve the case. Through these characters, the Coens glorify the neighbors of these tight knit communities. Sure, they talk funny and may not be the most exciting people, but they’re good people nonetheless.
Take for example Mr. Mohra (Bain Boehlke). Sure, his scene is funny in the way he tells the story about Carl Showalter, but he also delivers the key clue as to Carl and Gaear’s location. John Carroll Lynch is only in a few scenes as Marge’s husband, Norm, but we immediately know what kind of marriage they have. When she is woken up to report to a crime scene, he immediately gets up to make her breakfast. When Marge says “You know Norm, we’re doing pretty good” at the end, we believe it. Their baby will grow up in a world with some terrible people, but will be raised by incredibly loving ones.
The reason a television show was created from Fargo is that it exists in such a rich world. The communities and the people all feel real, and while it may not be a place you want to live, you can at least sympathize with the locals. It’s an incredibly colorful film, as are all the Coen Brothers’ films, and it’s a great one to start with if you have never seen one.
Well we’ve been through ten time travel movies, and now it’s time to declare a winner. Unlike the Christmas Carol match-up, there will not be too many categories for worst, as most films were overall pretty good, even with their flaws. There are one or two horrible things I need to re-visit, but not in every category. Let’s start off with…
COOLEST TIME MACHINE
Most cinematic time travelers aren’t just happy with just traveling in a pedestrian box (the characters of Primer aside), so they create something truly unique. As Doc Brown said, “Why not do it with some style?” I’m fascinated by the mental time travel of Somewhere in Time, as it opens up a whole other realm of questions and ideas. We don’t see much of the technology in 12 Monkeys, but it seems to be a bizarre re-birth thing. Of course, there’s the Delorean in Back to the Future, but nothing beats the original time machine from The Time Machine 1960.
It’s one of the things that has made George Pal’s film iconic. He paid attention to little things like this, creating a look that is still remembered today.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR (NON-VILLAINOUS)
Many of these films have large ensembles filled with talented actors, so I’ve separated villains from other supporting characters. On the supporting actor side, there’s Paul Dano’s short but memorable screen-time in Looper, Brad Pitt’s ultimately non-villainous role in 12 Monkeys and Christopher Plummer’s in the same, Paul Winfield’s antithesis of every action movie cop trope in The Terminator, and Alan Young’s charming turn as Filby in The Time Machine 1960. In spite of all of these, how can I not give it to Crispin Glover as George McFly in Back to the Future? He shows that we all have parts of ourselves that even we aren’t aware of, and he plays both the nebbish and confident sides wonderfully. It really is an amazing performance.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS (NON-VILLAINOUS)
In some cases it’s hard to judge what’s supporting and what’s lead, but I’ll be generous. Jane Seymour makes the most of her time in Somewhere in Time, but unfortunately it’s more about Richard’s obsession with her than it is about her. Claudia Wells has a few great scenes as Jennifer in Back to the Future, but she’s only in the first third and then the final scene. Yvette Mimieux does well as the naive Weena in The Time Machine 1960, but I prefer Samantha Mumba’s Mara in the 2002 remake.
In her short screen-time, she creates a strong and well-rounded character. She’s not naive, but rather a leader of her tribe. Her chemistry with Guy Pearce is spot-on, and I kind of wish the whole movie had just been about that.
Wow, there are so many good ones here. Miklós Rózsa goes out in style with his swan song score of Time After Time. The organ grinder theme in 12 Monkeys captures the madness of the film perfectly, and you’ll get nervous chills just listening to it. The Time Machine 1960 and Back to the Future both have sweeping scores that will make you want to drop everything and go on an epic adventure, and they both rank among the greatest film scores ever. There is still one better, though, and that’s John Barry’s breathtakingly gorgeous score for Somewhere in Time.
As I said in my review for that film, John Barry’s score tells a better love story than the screenplay. Heck, you don’t even need the movie. Just listen to that music box theme. It’s nothing short of perfect.
BEST AND WORST VILLAIN
Most categories don’t really have a bad entry, but we need to talk about bad villains. Ok, one bad villain. While I don’t really care for Christopher Plummer’s villain-ish performance in Somewhere in Time, nothing compares to the Uber Morlock from The Time Machine 2002.
Who thought that design was scary? Everything from the name to the hair to Jeremy Iron’s campy performance to the purely expositional dialogue is all wrong.
Now for the best, and there are a lot. Neither Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure or Primer really has a villain, although you could argue that the leads in the latter are pretty awful people, Aaron in particular. In Looper, there’s both Jeff Daniels as mob leader Abe and Bruce Willis as Old Joe, who both deliver stellar performances. Biff (Thomas J. Wilson) in Back to the Future starts off a dumb bully stereotype and eventually shows to be more, and Dr. Peters (David Morse) is definitely the most evil villain in any of these films. There are classics like Arnold as the T-800 in The Terminator, but none even come close to matching The Great One.
David Warner’s performance as Jack the Ripper in Time After Time is charismatic, chilling, and by far the best thing about the movie. Without it, Time After Time would probably be pretty forgettable. The way he looks at the violence of the 20th century and says “I’m home” wins him this category alone.
Unfortunately, some time travel movies don’t really write female characters very well. On the good side, though, Emily Blunt gives a strong performance as Sarah in Looper, and Mary Steenburgen works with what she’s given in Time After Time. Lea Thompson shows the inner depths of Lorraine in Back to the Future, and Linda Hamilton makes Sarah Connor a likable and tough every-woman in The Terminator. The most interesting character and best performance though is Madeline Stowe as Dr. Kathryn Railly in 12 Monkeys.
Every character in 12 Monkeys is fascinating, but Madeline Stowe’s Dr. Railly coming to terms with Cole not actually being crazy is the most interesting arc. There are so many ways this could have been handled poorly, but they are all avoided.
Both versions of The Time Machine give us leads who aren’t really complex characters but are played by great actors (Rod Taylor and Guy Pearce, respectively). Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fine in Looper, but he’s limited by the facial prosthetics. Michael Biehn gives Kyle Reese a lot of heart in The Terminator, and he makes you believe a romance that could have been uninteresting. Bruce Wills nails every aspect of James Cole, from the wonder to the determination to the romance, and 12 Monkeys features one of his best performances. It’s a touch choice, but I’m going to have to call a tie on the dual leads of Doc and Marty in Back to the Future.
Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd make you believe that these two unlikely friends have been close for a long time, and it’s great how quickly Marty befriends the ’50s Doc as well. Marty is such a likable character, and his subtle character development here is so much better than the forced one of the sequels. Doc has to get over his own obsession with everything being perfect, and finally accepts that changing the future isn’t all bad.
There’s some tight competition in this category, because even some of the weaker movies have some amazing moments. The cell phone scene in Primer is a fascinating puzzle, and any scene in Somewhere in Time that lets you just soak up the atmosphere is enjoyable. The talking rings of The Time Machine 1960, as well as the final scene with George and Filby, are a big part of what makes the movie special. There are some great dialogue scenes, like Old Joe and Young Joe’s diner conversation in Looper, the aforementioned “I’m home” scene from Time After Time, and the taxicab scene from 12 Monkeys where we get a brief moment of hope. I’m really close to giving it to the Eloi village scene from The Time Machine 2002, because the directing, the scenery, the performances and the music are transcendental, but I’ve got to go with the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance from Back to the Future.
George and Lorraine finally earn their romance here, followed by Marty finally overcoming his doubts and rocking the house with “Johnny B. Goode.” When “Earth Angel” fades and Alan Silvestri’s score takes over, it’s a heroic moment.
This is a tough one. If you read the previous reviews, you’ll see that I gave Back to the Future and 12 Monkeys a perfect score in this category. Both The Terminator and Looper deserve mention, but they won’t beat these two. Future is a great study in character and everything is tightly wound. Nothing is wasted. 12 Monkeys, on the other hand, is complex and has some things you won’t notice until the second or third viewing. It also has very possibly my favorite movie twist, so I do have to give it the point.
Let’s see where that puts us.
BEST OVERALL FILM
Obviously, this does not say everything as the scoreless Looper and The Terminator are much better movies than Somewhere in Time or The Time Machine 2002. The lesser ones just happen to have a few things that really stand out. Although I would consider 12 Monkeys the most thrilling time travel movie,I have to call Back to the Future the best.
Almost every film in this match-up has redeeming values, but Back to the Future is a perfect film. It’s stood the test of time and will continue to.
Next week, I’ll be starting the next match-up. Thanks for reading!
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt
See if this sounds familiar. Bruce Willis goes back in time to prevent a disaster from happening, and at the end he dies in front of another Bruce Willis. That brings us to today’s film, 13 Monkeys, or Looper, as it’s known by, well everyone.
While there are comparisons to be made to 12 Monkeys, Looper is actually incredibly innovative and original. Writer and director Rian Johnson clearly took a lot of time creating the world that our story takes place in, and you get the feeling that there are endless interesting stories that take place there.
In 2044, time travel has still not been invented, although this hovering motorcycle has, so it’s good to know science has its priorities in order.
By 2074 however, time travel has already been invented and banned, leading to only criminals using it to dispose of enemies. Loopers are people in the present, hired to kill these enemies and do away with their bodies. The only hitch is that you will one day have to kill your future self, at which point you have “closed your loop” and get to enjoy the next thirty years, until the mafia comes and leads you to your inevitable death.
It’s fascinating to see a movie where time travel is commonplace like this, even part of someone’s daily job. The Terminator and 12 Monkeys explored this a bit, but this amps it up even more. Most time travel movies deal with the discovery of time travel, and while this one sort of does (I’ll talk about that too), there are no actual issues with the technology.
Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one of these loopers, and is a complete hedonist to boot. He does some weird eye-drugs, maintains a close relationship with a stripper at his favorite club, and has no real focus or goals in life except to make money. Of course, he soon comes into contact with his future self, played by Bruce Willis. Now, Joseph Gordon-Levitt looks nothing like Bruce Willis, but they’re both good enough actors that it shouldn’t be an issue… except that the production team disagreed and gave Gordon-Levitt facial prosthetics that allegedly made him look more like Willis.
Hmm, he looks like someone, but I just can’t place it. It’s definitely not Willis, but it’s ringing a bell…
There it is. That would make a more interesting ending to The People vs. OJ Simpson, though. It unfortunately limits Gordon-Levitt’s facial expressions, and it’s ultimately unnecessary.
Instead of accepting his fate, Old Joe has come back to destroy The Rainmaker, a gangster who rules 2074 with an iron fist and is closing all the loops. In 2044 though, this gangster is just a boy who will be greatly affected when he sees his own mother die. Much like The Terminator, Old Joe will stop at nothing to kill the boy. If the Rainmaker never rises to power, Old Joe’s wife will never be killed. As even Old Joe points out, don’t think too hard about the time travel logic.
When Old Joe escapes, Abe (Jeff Daniels), a mafia emissary from the future, and his henchmen (Noah Segan and Garret Dillahunt) are immediately after the older and younger Joe. The Joes meet in a diner where Old tells Young everything that happened to him in the last thirty years. Looper has a great balance of tense, exciting scenes and quiet, dramatic ones, and this is the best of the quiet ones. It reminds us once again how truly great of an actor Bruce Willis is.
Young Joe hides out on a farm where the potential Rainmaker, a boy named Cid (Pierce Gagnon), and his mother Sarah (Emily Blunt) live. Joe has an adversarial relationship with Sarah at first, but they grow to respect each other, and he softens a bit from his ways as he spends time with the boy.
There’s an interesting split that forms between the two Joes as the movie progresses. As Young Joe bonds with the family and grows to care about others beyond himself, Old Joe kills one of the potential Rainmakers and literally everyone standing in his way. He says he’s doing it for his wife, but it’s really for himself. If he cared about his wife as much as he says, he would go back and tell Young Joe to never meet her, as Young Joe points out in the diner scene. At the mob headquarters, Old Joe slaughters Abe and all of his henchmen, with the exception of Kid Blue (Segan) who is out of the office.
Young Joe and Sarah pause the movie for a sex intermission…
…after which Joe discovers Sarah is telekinetic. Joe has explained that a telekinetic mutation appeared a while ago, but it never really led to anything beyond parlor tricks with hovering coins. However, Sarah can spin her cigarette lighter in a loop.
This is a slight advancement, but Cid can do a heck of a lot more. When Abe’s henchman Jesse (Dillahunt) stops by to investigate the whereabouts of the Joes, Cid lifts up the furniture around him, and eventually Jesse himself, killing him. It is also revealed that Cid killed his aunt the same way, although it may not have been intentional. These are the powers that may one day, fueled by rage, lead Cid to take over the country.
But what leads to time travel being invented? We’re not told… except we totally are.
Understand that the following is just a theory of mine, but it’s totally plausible.
Part of Cid’s rise to power involves his invention of time travel. Sarah has advanced telekinetic powers and can spin things in a loop, controlling where they land. Cid has even greater telekinetic powers and can spin people in a loop, controlling where they land. How long will it take for him to use these powers to control when they land? If the science of Primer is being used (and Rian Johnson did list Primer as an influence), it shouldn’t take all that long.
To me, it seems odd for a movie about time travel to have a minor subplot people being telekinetic all of a sudden. Yeah, Cid uses it in his rise to power, but there’s got to be more. Plus, this would give the title Looper another meaning, with Cid actually looping people around through time.
While we’re expecting Abe to be the true villain of the film, it’s actually Old Joe. Abe is a fine antagonist, and Jeff Daniels is coldly threatening, but Bruce Willis’ Old Joe is a much more complex character. We sympathize with him at first (before, you know, the child murder), and even as he commits horrible crimes, his motivation is still understandable. It does eventually point to a selfishness in himself, but it’s still not crime for the sake of crime.
Young Joe vows to kill his future self, knowing the ramifications of such an act. Kid Blue tries to capture Old Joe, but being a nearly unstoppable force, he kills Blue. When Old Joe is ready to kill Sarah to get to Cid, Young Joe realizes that his older self will create the Rainmaker he comes back to stop. He could kill Old Joe, but he knows that is still the man he would turn into. Instead, he turns the gun around, killing himself and erasing Old Joe from existence.
The ending leaves it ambiguous as to whether Cid will go on to become the Rainmaker, but if his mother’s death was what made that happen, his odds are better. Some, however, have argued that Cid is a sociopath who would become the Rainmaker no matter what. It’s a pretty dark theory, but he has already killed twice. Looper definitely leaves a lot open to interpretation, but I like that. It’s not black-and-white, but what were you expecting in a movie where the protagonist is a drug-addicted hit man? He gets better, but still, he’s no saint. Let’s check out the final score.
Story (26/30 Points)
Looper cares more about its characters more than its action sequences, although it has plenty of both. The world of 2044 that Rian Johnson creates feels complete, and he clearly worked through the details. The ending is a tad predictable (how much you wanna bet Joe’s last name starts with C?), but it’s done well enough that it doesn’t matter.
Cast (25/30 Points)
Everyone gives a solid performance, with Willis being the stand-out. I can’t help but think Gordon-Levitt would have been even better without those silly prosthetics. Paul Dano is only in a couple of scenes as Seth, but being Paul Dano, he steals them.
Experience (21/25 Points)
The score jumps around with all kinds of music, some big and some subtle, but it’s all good. The levitating effects of the telekinesis are better than you might expect, and the contrast of the city and country scenes is done wonderfully. I’ve said enough about the Bruce Willis mask.
Originality (13/15 Points)
It borrows from other films, and it’s particularly reminiscent of The Terminator and 12 Monkeys, but the idea of a looper and the way everything plays out is incredibly fresh. I love that time travel is just part of a 9-to-5. It’s a job only a few would take, but it makes for quite the interesting story.
FINAL SCORE: 85%
Looper is a unique time travel narrative, and it definitely brings a lot to the genre. It has great re-watch value, and it really cares about its characters. There’s something for everyone, and a lot for those who are tired of the same time travel story.
Next week, I’ll be doing my final thoughts on the Time Travel Movie Match-Up.
Starring: Shane Carruth, David Sullivan, Casey Gooden
Primer is one of those movies where the director, screenwriter, producer, and lead actor are all the same person. Now, sometimes when this happens (well one time), we get Citizen Kane. Other times, we get the disasterpiece that is Tommy Wiseau’s The Room or the films of Ed Wood.
Made on just a budget of $7,000, Primer is a short independent film that attempts to tackle the possibility of time travel in the real world. Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) are two scientists who work in their garage in their free time, completely ignoring their obligations to their significant others. In one of their experiments, they discover the possibility of time travel by accident and work to make it feasible.
*Disclaimer: Primer is a very short film (77 Minutes), so don’t expect my longest review.
Look, I love that they’re trying to show how this could happen in real life. Nothing about this world is contrived or cinematic, but there’s just too much science talk. There’s displaying scientists realistically, and then there’s flat out boring an audience. It’s cool that Shane Carruth was an engineer and wanted authenticity, but unless you too are a science whiz, you’re going to zone out, and these are the first ten minutes of the film. There’s a little thing filmmakers and authors try to do called ENGAGING THE VIEWER. There are interesting things that happen eventually, but when you fill scenes with tenuous science talk, you’ve convinced the audience otherwise. It’s not like these scenes gain anything on repeat viewing either.
So they eventually create a coffin-esque time machine that will fit a person, but you can only go back to a time when the machine existed, and the machine travels in real time. If you want to go back six hours, you’ll be inside for six hours. When you go back, it creates a double of you in that time period, which becomes the real you after the original inevitably enters the machine. Of course, the doubles aren’t perfect as Abe and Aaron lose some use of their hands, and Aaron’s ear starts bleeding. Think Multplicity, but deadly serious… and if you haven’t seen Multiplicity, there are two hours of your life you’ve made better use of than I have. (Seriously, I love Michael Keaton, but what was he thinking?)
Abe and Aaron mainly use their time machine to day trade stocks and bet on March Madness games. This was the movie deemed the most original sci-fi movie since 2001: A Space Odyssey by one critic, yet it features the same Get Rich Quick scheme used by Biff Tannen in Back to the Future Part II.
I’m being too harsh, though, because there are some really good things here. At one point, Aaron’s cell phone goes off and Abe freaks out, but Aaron shrugs it off. Abe is the more methodical one, caring about every detail and making sure nothing goes wrong. Aaron, on the other hand, is more free-spirited and looks at the big picture. These are fairly subtle characterizations, as the story is more about time travel than the time travelers, but they are done well.
The cell phone puzzle is one of the most fascinating things in the whole film. Aaron and Abe wonder if Aaron’s phone and Aaron’s double’s phone are simultaneously going off, or if only one phone will be reached.
This is actually something Carruth researched, and it actually would depend on the cell phone carrier, so there’s no definitive answer. Most time travel movies focus on the big picture and how timelines will be affected, so seeing the little things be affected is pretty interesting.
The time machine traveling in real time is also different, and it adds a layer of risk. Are you willing to give up a day of your life to go back a day? Aaron makes an offhand comment about living 36 hour day (going back six hours and living another six). We don’t see the long term effects, but it would most likely lead to a shorter lifespan, which is surely something they have considered.
Of course, both Aaron and Abe have created back-up boxes, just in case something goes wrong. In addition to their own extra travels, they find out that Abe’s girlfriend’s father has also used one to presumably stop Abe’s girlfriend Rachel from getting shot at a party. Abe tries to go back in time and stop himself from ever discovering time travel, but he discovers that Aaron too has already gone back.
It honestly gets kind of silly how many different things are going on at once. Everyone has gone into the past multiple times, and it’s complex, but not in a way that enhances the movie once you figure it out. Heck, people have even drawn up charts and graphs to explain both the timeline and the science of the movie, but by the end, Primer can’t decide if it wants to tie everything together or leave it philosophically ambiguous.
With a small budget, obviously the camera work isn’t going to be spectacular, but it’s usually fine… except at night. The night scenes just look awful. If they couldn’t afford a better filter, they should have just changed the nighttime outside scenes to daytime.
Even with the bit of interesting characterization they get, both lead characters are pretty awful people, only using a world changing invention to make money. They don’t even experiment with how far they can push the limits—they just immediately settle into cheating the stock market and sports betting. Aaron completely ignores his wife and family, which honestly he didn’t seem to care about much before anyway, and Abe’s girlfriend only exists to be a plot device.
Clearly this is a film that did blow a lot of people’s minds. For me, Primer is just so left-brained in its methods that I really can’t get into it. There were points here and there like the cell phone that were intriguing, but it’s more of a puzzle than a story or experience. While a great movie like The Usual Suspects is also a puzzle, it’s a fascinating story first. Primer is a puzzle first. Make of that you will.
Story (11/30 Points)
I’m sorry, but this isn’t really much of a story. I was actually less interested in what was happening the second time through. There are some great ideas at play, but the character arcs are tired, while trying to be complex to throw you off.
Cast (17/30 Points)
David Sullivan does a good job as Abe, bringing a few good character moments, and director Shane Carruth carries his scenes just fine. The supporting cast is really dull and no one even makes an attempt to stand out.
Experience (10/25 Points)
Like I said, the daytime scenes are fine, but the night scenes look awful. Since it’s a film about mainly two characters, the personal feel of the direction is just fine. I know it’s made on a minuscule budget, but the background music has no melody or flourishes at all. Even the score is left-brained.
Originality (12/15 Points)
It looks at time travel in the real world, which at least has potential. Things not brought up in other time travel movies are looked at in detail, and whether or not the execution is great, it’s still a different look at things.
FINAL SCORE: 50%
Primer is a niche film, and I’m definitely not a member of the niche it’s playing to. Like I explained in earlier reviews, I’m not really big on the science of time travel movies. It’s honestly better that movies like Back to the Future kind of brush over the science in favor of a good story. If Primer sounds like something you’ll love, there’s a good chance it will be.
Next week, I’ll be taking at the final film on the list, Looper from 2011.
Sometimes, a final scene says all it needs to with little or no music. Other times, its greatness is lifted even higher with a perfectly placed song. This edition of The Seven is dedicated to those. This is probably a given, but since we’re talking about closing scenes, there will be spoilers. Also, don’t expect to see A) songs that appear elsewhere in the film (Sorry Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) or B) songs from musicals, simply because I have to draw the line somewhere.
7. The Shining
Song: “Midnight, the Stars and You” by Ray Noble and his orchestra
A lot of the horror in The Shining comes of the isolation of just three people living in the enormous Overlook Hotel, with only their thoughts and the ghosts that may or may not (but come on, probably do) exist. Honestly, this final scene is perhaps the creepiest scene in the whole film, not just because Jack is shown to be in the 1921 photograph, but the way it’s shot. It’s more than just a standard zoom-in of the photo—the camera bounces up and down as if someone is walking towards the wall. No living person remains in the hotel, yet someone is approaching the photograph. Meanwhile, this 1930s number comes into the foreground and plays over the closing credits.
The contrast between the jaunty nature of the song and the horror we’ve just viewed for two-and-a-half hours is jarring. The acoustics of the recording just make the scene even more chilling, and it’s of note that there is still more once the song ends. If you watch until the end of the credits, there is talking and chatter after the song. We are now at the Overlook July 4th Ball, perhaps like Jack now is… there are a lot of interpretations of the ending. Either way, though, this song is creepy.
6. Fight Club
Song: “Where is My Mind?” by The Pixies
What exactly is the ending of Fight Club? Happy? Tragic? Romantic? It’s kind of all three. The unnamed narrator (Edward Norton) has finally killed his split personality Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) and is watching with Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) as the city begins to fall down around him. The loud guitars of The Pixies come in with the most appropriately titled song—”Where is My Mind?”
The answer to the Pixies titular question seems to be a positive one though. Finally, the narrator’s mind is somewhat clear, telling Marla, “You met me at a very strange time in my life.” Without this line, I could understand the ending suggesting that he has gone completely mad or is even dying, but its clarity suggests otherwise. Director David Fincher even called Fight Club a coming-of-age story, comparing it to The Graduate of all things. Well, if Fight Club is 1999’s The Graduate, I suppose the folk rock sounds of Simon and Garfunkel have been updated to the alternative rock of the Pixies, and there’s no better way either film could have ended.
5. Breaking Bad
Song: “Baby Blue” by Badfinger
From his cancer diagnosis and turn to evil in the first hour of Breaking Bad, most viewers were expecting Walter White to die in the finale. It was more a question of how than if. Taken out by his own devices (literally) and gradually dying of wounds, Walt admires his lab equipment one last time. It’s a poignant scene already, but “Baby Blue” by Badfinger just knocks it out of the park.
There are other songs that would have worked well, like Marty Robbins’ “El Paso,” which plays at the beginning and is referenced in the episode title “Felina,” or Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” However, the opening lyric of “Guess I got what I deserved” sums up Walter White better than any Dylan lyric could. The baby blue is of course the blue crystal meth he has been manufacturing for two years. Ironically, he is with his love, his lab, admiring it like a lover he has been reunited with one last time.
4. Donnie Darko
Song: “Mad World” by Gary Jules
One of the most enigmatic films of the 21st century, people will probably never stop debating what Donnie Darko is actually about. That aside, I think we can all agree that the film’s final scene is depressing, haunting, and even a little beautiful.
The only cover on the list, “Mad World” was originally a Tears for Fears song, and that version is fine but dated. Gary Jules’ version is stripped-down and slowed-down, giving a dreamlike feel to the Donnie Darko‘s final moments. The original song felt like a slip into insanity, but this one feels like a dirge. Is the line “The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had” a key to unlocking the film’s meaning? Perhaps, but it definitely will stick with you long after the movie has ended.
3. The Matador
Song: “All These Things That I’ve Done” by The Killers
Most people probably aren’t even aware that The Matador exists, but it is a really enjoyable comedy. Relying on some incredible buddy chemistry between Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear, it’s both hilarious and, by the end, surprisingly heartwarming. When the movie is a dark comedy about a hit man, you probably aren’t expecting a touching ending, but there is one, and it is one incredible scene.
As Brosnan’s Julian finally moves on retirement (that’s not hit man code… he’s actually retiring), he watches as Danny (Kinnear) and Carolyn (Hope Davis) put flowers at their son’s grave. “All These Things That I’ve Done” is such a beautiful song, and it amplifies the already emotional scene. Like the singer in the song, Julian is forgetting the past and looking into the future. He lays a Greece brochure on their car, looks at himself in the side view mirror, finally somewhat content with who he is, and walks away.
2. The Sopranos
Song: “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey
Alright, so you probably knew this one was coming. I’m not going into interpretations of the final scene here—I of course have my own, but that’s a different article for a different time. I’ll leave it at this being one of the tensest scenes in the history of entertainment.
Is “Don’t Stop Believin” overused? Of course, but really only since this aired. It was in movies and TV before, but this really boosted its popularity. It’s a song about perseverance and the American Dream, a theme The Sopranos constantly dealt with. Beyond that, “Don’t Stop Believin” is a song that is constantly building, starting with some clear piano chords and eventually increasing to the huge chorus. The scene seems to be building to something, a final shot (perhaps a final gunshot) that will give us some closure, but then we get the exact opposite—silence and a black screen right after the lyrics “Don’t stop.”
Fans weren’t too thrilled in 2007 when it aired, but it has since gained a reputation as one of the finest series finales of all time. Regardless of your interpretation, you have to admit it’s a purely Sopranos way to go out, and you will never hear “Don’t Stop Believin” without thinking of this scene.
Well, we’ve talked about the sad, the heartwarming, and the downright horrifying, but there’s one kind of final song we haven’t touched on yet—the hilarious. “We’ll Meet Again” at the end of Dr. Strangelove is a close contender, and “Prisoners of Love” from the original The Producers is underrated, but at the end of the day, there was only one choice.
1. Life of Brian
Song: “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” by Eric Idle
Monty Python needed a solid ending for Life of Brian, although nearly anything would have been better than the one in Holy Grail. Life of Brian is not a parody of the life of Jesus, but it does still end in crucifixion, which is pretty hard to make funny. So what do we get? A parody of Disney songs about the inevitability of death.
It is one of Python’s greatest moments, and Idle’s lyrics will make you laugh over and over. I’ve always enjoyed how happily he sings “Always look on the bright side of death/Just before you draw your terminal breath.” You can just imagine the Roman soldiers off screen, furious at how lightly these guys are taking their own executions.
The message of not taking anything in life, even death, too seriously has really had an impact in the years since, particularly on Britons. When asked what song Brits would like to have played at their funeral, “Bright Side of Life” came in third. Appropriately, the song was played at Graham Chapman’s funeral as well. It’s one you can turn on any place any time and you’ll smile, but its place at the end of Life of Brian is untouchable. Facing the curtain with a bow indeed.
Starring: Guy Pearce, Samantha Mumba, Jeremy Irons
Sure, George Pal’s 1960 The Time Machine is a lot of fun, but it isn’t a classic in the sense that another film adaptation would be heresy. Literary adaptations like Gone with the Wind or To Kill a Mockingbird are so beloved that there will probably never be another film, but The Time Machine still had a lot of ideas to be explored. Plus, the director was Simon Wells, H.G. Wells’ great-grandson.
So what happened? Many times this movie will follow a moment of brilliance or at least competency with something that belongs in the cheesiest of bad movies. The decisions made in this movie are just so strange, but I will try my best to understand them.
Let’s get it out of the way right now—even though it’s directed by Simon Wells, this is not an accurate adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel. I broke down in my review of the 1960 film why a direct adaptation probably wouldn’t work too well, so obviously that’s not an issue in and of itself. Like that film, this one begins in 1899, but this time it’s set in New York City.
The change from London to New York isn’t really necessary as the city doesn’t really have an effect on the story, but it seems odd that all of the primary Americans are played by British actors. I’m not saying British actors shouldn’t play Americans or vice versa, but I don’t understand why they would change the location to New York seemingly on a whim and make all the British actors speak in halfway-American accents.
Guy Pearce plays Alexander Hartdegen, an engineering professor at Columbia University. When he’s not teaching, he works hard at scientific research and is often late for dates with his girlfriend, Emma (Sienna Guillroy). Movies like this and Flubber seem to think that if a scientist is doing some important research, he gets a free pass at this kind of thing. Alexander isn’t all that compelling of a character, but Guy Pearce gives such a great performance that you forget that. The story is weak, but Pearce treats it like it’s Shakespeare.
While in previous versions the lead merely invented a time machine because he felt like it, Alexander does it to save Emma. She’s killed by a mugger when she and Alexander refuse to hand over her engagement ring, and a heartbroken Alexander spends the next four years researching time travel.
Ugh this story’s been done so many times… without time travel, but still. You know the one where the leading man’s girlfriend or wife is killed and that gives him his motivation to challenge something. Sure, this plot can be done well, but it’s already the plot of basically every Mel Gibson drama ever (seriously, think about it), and it all too often gives us a female character who’s just a plot device and not a person.
Alexander travels four years into the past and goes into the city with Emma instead, but while he’s buying her flowers, she gets hit by a carriage and dies. Accepting the fact that he will not find a way to save her in the past, he travels into the future to find answers. Instead, all he finds is the 7-Up guy.
Actually, Orlando Jones is playing a hologram loaded with all of mankind’s knowledge. He stands in a museum and answers any questions of the people who walk by. Alexander asks him about time travel, which he is told is impossible. In the process though, the hologram strangely mentions H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, George Pal’s film, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical. Wait, there’s a musical version? I wasn’t aware of this, but we even get to hear a portion of one of the songs… It’s a joke. If a movie has a one-off joke about a fictional movie, it should be a bad one and not something I’d actually want to see. There would definitely be great songs, like “(Weena Almost Drowned in) Old Man River” and “Oh What a Beautiful Morlock.” Moving on…
Alexander stops seven years later, where a failed attempt at colonizing the moon has caused the moon to break up, screwing up earth’s orbit or something… because we didn’t want to do the nuclear war thing again in 2002. He then goes way into the future, ending up inevitably in 802,701.
The Eloi of this film are less childlike than the book and 1960 film, which is good, because Alexander does fall in love with one of them. It was always a little uncomfortable in the 1960 film seeing the much older George have a sort-of thing with Weena, but here Mara (Samantha Mumba) is one of the wiser Eloi and a leader. She has even learned English from the ancient artifacts.
Just like Pearce’s, Samantha Mumba’s performance is wonderful. The chemistry between Mara and Alexander is subtle and completely believable. It doesn’t just happen right away, but they grow to care about each other. I also love how Mara accepts the fact that Alexander is from the past. He tells her straight-up, she gives a look of “really?”, but he explains himself and she believes him. We don’t get any of the stupid “But I’m telling you, I’m from the past” scenes.
Before this week, the only time I ever saw this movie was a few years ago on a cable channel late at night. By this point then, I had lost interest and was really only half-watching. I have to admit, though, that this time I really got caught up in these scenes with the Eloi. The scenery, the music, and the performances all really suck you into this world. Just look at the dwellings they live in…
Or these maypole-esque creations with which they honor their dead.
For a short fifteen-minute period, The Time Machine is brilliant, beautiful film making. I was starting to question my previous issues with the film altogether. Maybe this was a film about not blaming yourself for the past and moving on, no matter how many years it takes.
This is all ruined by two words: Spitball Arrows.
Yes, the Morlocks come into the picture and herd up the Eloi with multiple weapons, the dumbest of which is an arrow they shoot with their mouth. I really hate that this needs to be an “action” scene in a movie that is in no other sense an action movie. It was so much more haunting in the 1960 film when they were literally rounded up like cattle and marched into the Morlock lair.
Perhaps this movie was just trying to please everyone, with a little romance here, some action there, all wrapped in a sci-fi shell, but it ruins the rest of the movie. The movie never again nears the greatness it had going for a few moments, but it does get more and more laughably stupid. There is in fact something worse than spitball arrows.
So you know the drill, some of the Eloi are taken underground, including Mara, and Alexander has to go and save them. He goes with Kalen (Omero Mumba), Mara’s younger brother and runs into Orlando Jones again, because it was better than straight-up putting 7-Up product placement in the movie.
Jones spouts a little exposition about the Eloi and Morlocks, because why would the audience want this done in a creative way? It’s not like the spinning rings in the 1960 version taught us anything. As Alexander goes deeper, he finds Mara’s clothes… and then a clothed Mara, which makes no sense. She is caged up in the throne room of… and I can’t make this up… The Uber Morlock.
Ever wonder what it would be like if Scar from The Lion King played The Emperor in Star Wars? Observe as Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons devours the scenery in a movie that up until this point relied on subtle, realistic acting. And I hope you loved the exposition spouting from earlier, because that’s all the Super Uber Morlock does. He gives Alexander a summary of how everything in society works. It’s not enough to have Eloi and Morlocks—there has to be a caste system within the Morlocks, where some are bred to be the hunter-gatherers while the Super Duper Uber Morlocks do the thinking.
Alexander has been searching for an answer to his question about Emma, and he gets one—a ridiculously definite one, one that wraps it up in a bow, attaches a card to it, and puts it under a Christmas tree. The Uber Driver Morlock simply tells him that since he invented the machine because of Emma’s death, he can’t save her with it. See, it’s that simple.
Is this a scene out of a parody film? If the entire plot of a movie revolves around our protagonist trying to answer one question, you don’t just have him meet someone who flat out tells him the answer. The movie gives its audience absolutely no credit whatsoever and just spells it out for us, word for word.
Ubie encourages Alexander to leave in his machine, because the past cannot be changed. Alexander gets into the machine and pulls Edgar Winter in with him for a free ride, getting into a ridiculously fake fist fight and eventually throwing him through the time bubble created by the machine. As Alexander saw earlier, this causes his enemy to rapidly age, killing him.
Millions of years in the future, Alexander realizes the Morlocks have won, so he goes back to 802,701 and saves Mara. This is great and all, but it would have meant a lot more if he tried to do it before. We get the feeling that if he could have had a life with Emma, he would have said “Screw the Eloi” and gone back to his own time. He causes his own machine to jam up and draws the Morlocks to it, killing them and destroying the machine. Permanently stuck in 802,701, Alexander begins a new life with Mara.
Thankfully, we do get a nice final image—a scene of Alexander, Mara, and Kalen blended with Alexander’s housekeeper and friend Fillby accepting he is gone. It’s a nice little shout-out to time being the fourth dimension, showing that these two events are happening at the exact same place, just during different years.
I pose the question again—what happened? For one, director Simon Wells couldn’t finish the film, letting Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski direct the final 18 days of production. I’m not blaming one over the other for the faults, but maybe it explains some of the film’s dual vision. I think there’s a bigger issue at play, though, and it may or may not be connected to the director swap. I found a copy of John Logan’s script online, and a lot of the scenes play out differently and more intelligently. After all, this is the John Logan who wrote Gladiator, Skyfall, and two Scorsese films (The Aviator and Hugo).
In the original script, the Uber Morlock is still called that, but he’s far less of an intentional villain. He basically tells Alexander that this is how society works—living like animals. There is no additional traveling into the future, there is no outright answering of questions, and Alexander goes out of his way to save Mara, finally forgiving himself for what happened to Emma. There is also a dean character at Columbia University who the Uber Morlock intentionally resembles. It wouldn’t have been a perfect film, but I sure would have liked to see it.
Well, I have to grade the film for what it is and not what it could have been, so let’s go to the final score.
Story (12/30 Points)
The motivations are less interesting than in the book, and the random stop-offs in the early 21st century don’t really do much good. The third act is basically an exposition dump, and that is just plain lazy.
Cast (23/30 Points)
Guy Pearce and Samantha Mumba do wonders with what they’re given, and you really believe their chemistry. Even Omero Mumba is good as the obligatory cute kid. I’m not a big fan of Orlando Jones, but it’s Jeremy Irons’ ridiculously over-the-top performance that brings this film to a screeching halt. Who let this happen?
Experience (18/25 Points)
The music and scenery are just gorgeous, especially when the Eloi are honoring their dead. It’s one of those scenes that just takes you to a different place, like something out of Lord of the Rings. The time travel effects are pretty nice, but the Morlocks are really tacky with both their costumes and weapons, and the CGI when they run is painfully obvious.
Originality (6/15 Points)
There’s that fifteen minute run of sheer brilliance, but everything else has been done and has been done better.
FINAL SCORE: 59%
Is it a decent film with a lot of bad things or a bad film with a few good things? You could make an argument for either. Oddly enough, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I would recommend it. It’s an interesting exercise in good actors trying to save a mediocre story—a mediocre story that was at one point a good one. After you watch it, take a look at the original script and dream of what this movie could have been.