Rian Johnson

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The Brothers Bloom

If you’re not convinced more Star Wars movies is a good idea, then the news that Rian Johnson will be writing and directing Star Wars Episode VIII should win you over. Johnson knows structure, action, comedy and character, making him the ideal filmmaker to make Star Wars fresh and exciting again. Not only do his talents make him the right filmmaker for the job, but so does his thematic interests. Looper and Johnson’s second picture, The Brothers Bloom, are about how much control someone has over their own narrative. Bloom (Adrien Brody) feels like he’s living a story written by his brother Stepehen (Mark Ruffalo), while Old Joe (Bruce Willis) and Young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) battle over the course of their shared, separate life. In short, a franchise focused on creating your own destiny is right up Johnson’s alley. Out of Johnson’s three films so far, The Brothers Bloom is the one that’s probably talked about the least. It was met with a lukewarm response from critics, and it kind of got lost in the shuffle back in 2009, but it’s a richly structured flim flam movie full of heart. It’s as much about brothers as it is the con. The relationship between Bloom and Stephen lives beyond the movie; Brody and Ruffalo let us learn these characters so thoroughly that it’s easy to imagine other adventures they’d gone on. We revisited the film with the commentary track on. Here’s what we learned.

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Rian Johnson

When news broke that Rian Johnson would helm Star Wars: Episode VIII and write a treatment for Episode IX – adding to the numerous Star Wars properties scheduled for screens shortly behind J.J. Abrams’s mystery box – it was almost universally regarded as a solid, promising move to those cautiously optimistic about the rebooting of a galaxy far away. And no doubt, Johnson’s hiring is a very good move for Star Wars, lending the franchise not only the director’s subcultural clout, but also his precise sense of style, passionate knowledge of genre and careful approach to cinematic world-building. His skill should benefit greatly a franchise whose previous incarnation suffered from scant evidence of inspiration or vision. But before seeing a final product, we can only take this news as a gesture of goodwill, or even a reason to be happy for a talented director worthy of admiration and success. Unfortunately, a facet largely missing from conversations about this news is whether a Rian Johnson-led Star Wars will be good for Rian Johnson, especially in a Hollywood that loves courting indie directors but shows questionable regard for their autonomy upon arrival. Marc Webb. Gareth Edwards. Doug Liman. Bryan Singer. At various points during the ‘90s and ‘00s, this list of names would denote the creators behind film festival highlights and limited release word-of-mouth gems. But in 2014, these are the names of the men in the director’s chair for some of the summer’s biggest tentpole titles, the kinds of movies that make or break a fiscal year […]

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Rian Johnson

One of the things that made the original Star Wars trilogy so special was its hand-off of the second two installments to other filmmakers. Each of those first three movies was helmed by a different director, and that was a hope I had for the new trilogy, especially after George Lucas’s hogging of all the prequels. Well, according to news out of Deadline this afternoon, we’re going to at least have two people at the helm this time around. Rian Johnson is reportedly taking over the central run of the Star Wars franchise from Star Wars Episode VII helmer J.J. Abrams. He’ll write and direct Episode VIII, presumably due in late 2017, and he’s also going to deliver a treatment for Episode IX.* Apparently he’s to get started immediately, and obviously this will take up his attention for almost the rest of this decade. That means he’ll have to put aside a couple projects I’d heard were percolating in him since his acclaimed Looper hit theaters two years back. The news also means he won’t be doing the Star Wars project I’d originally wished for him: the young Han Solo adventure that would star Johnson’s buddy and regular collaborator Joseph Gordon-Levitt (perfect casting). Maybe there’s still a role for the guy somewhere, or maybe there can be some time travel thrown at the Star Wars galaxy where Harrison Ford meets his younger self. Wait, no, that’s more an Abrams thing to do, isn’t it?

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Escargots JGL

This is another edition of Short Starts, where we present a weekly short film(s) from the start of a filmmaker or actor’s career. This weekend sees the release of two major films directed by former child stars. There’s Rush by Ron Howard, who got his true start as a boy on TV shows like Dennis the Menace and The Andy Griffth Show, and Don Jon by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who got his true start as a boy on TV shows like Family Ties and Roseanne. So, given the link, I thought it would be worth it to double up on the latest column. Both actors eventually became directors (Howard made the full switch while Gordon-Levitt is actually still a rising screen star), and before the made features they directed a few shorts. Howard’s are more like home movies made with his brother Clint and friends. Gordon-Levitt’s are mostly animated collaborative works produced through his hitRECord company. Let’s look at Howard’s first. In 1969, he shot three amateur Westerns, which he also appears in. Maybe he directed others in those teen years, but we only know about Old Paint, Deed of Daring-Do and Cards, Cads, Guns, Gore and Death because they were included on the DVD of The Missing. Because of the genre. Cards, etc. is the only one I can find online, and man is it adorable. And very bloody. The plot is your basic cliche card game that get out of hand when someone is accused of cheatin’. Young Ronny […]

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Breaking Bad Ozymandias

“Ozymandias” has got to be some kind of epic meta-dare. Vince Gilligan evokes Percy Shelly’s famous poem, in which the titular “king of kings” commands future generations, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” In Shelly’s telling, though, Ozymandias was an accomplished fool. By his haughty, fearsome decree, “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.” In creating and crafting such an astounding episode of television (not to mention series), though, Gilligan has thrown down the gauntlet to TV critics, historians, audiences, and his peers: Breaking Bad is TV’s version of the Sistine Chapel. “Ozymandias” will likely be the scene in which God reaches out to Adam. Forget this at your own peril.   (Between “Ozymandias” and Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” Gilligan sure is rewarding all his viewers with English degrees.)

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The Newsroom

The best movie culture writing from around the internet-o-sphere. Just leave a tab open for us, will ya?

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Rian Johnson Toilet Short Film

Why Watch? The narrator of Rian Johnson‘s Ben Boyer and the Phenomenology of Automobile Branding (whose name is Ben Boyer) gets a lesson from a mysterious voice emanating from a bathroom grate who explains the deeply rooted psychology of car logos. Although it probably only teaches him to use a different toilet. The a/v quality is pretty bad — Johnson mentions that it’s a copy of a copy of a copy from the “$99 Special” program at Slamdance 2001 — but the idea is still firmly in place, and it’s a very cool relic to see in light of the director’s rise in the ranks from Brick to Looper. Plus, the idea is a wild one. Thick with narration and a kind of fury not often seen in movies that consist mostly of static imagery, the short is a bizarre intellectual pursuit given satirical fangs by its location. Simply put, the humor is so dry that you have to wash your hands afterward.

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FilmAid

It all kicks off at 9am Pacific. After raising $10,000 for FilmAid, David Chen and the /Filmcast family are making good on their offer to rock a 10-hour podcasting marathon, and since it’s done like a reverse-telethon, no one will be constantly promising you tote bags in return for your money. That leaves more time to talk with an excellent lineup of guests. The sad part? No tote bags. Rian Johnson is batting first, followed by the 10am segment with me and David Wain, followed by an 11am with Damon Lindelof. And then, 7 more hours of filmmaker guests and shenanigans. So bookmark this page and plan to camp out there all day today. If you need more incentive, here’s the full lineup:

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Rian Johnson

Writer/director Rian Johnson‘s Looper is an intricately told film. Nearly every scene in the movie is packed full of new information, from character development to world building. As Johnson explains finding that structure, it was like creating stepping stones across a pond for the audience, so they don’t fall into the pond of mind-numbing exposition. That wasn’t an easy path to make, either. Johnson spent many years developing the story from a two-page treatment to a feature length film, and much of that process was dedicated to handling all of the film’s information. After Looper‘s box office and critical success, it’s fair to say he managed with flying colors. With the movie out on Blu-ray, Johnson took some time to speak with us about the story’s mother/son dynamic, why the best science fiction has something we care deeply about at its core, and his desire to write more economically:

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commentary-looper

Rian Johnson‘s Looper is a rare film for many reasons. The only thing rarer than Hollywood committing to a mid-budget sci-fi film is one featuring an original idea not based on an existing property. Even better though, the film is unafraid to go to some very dark places with some wholly unexpected events, and the result is a rewarding experience for film goers. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis star as young and old versions of the same character who come face to face in a fight for their separate but clearly connected lives. It’s smart, exciting and challenging in the way no big budget blockbuster could ever hope to be. Three of its key players sat down to record a commentary track for next week’s Blu-ray/DVD release, and we gave it a listen. Come along won’t you, and read what we heard…

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Ben Affleck

We’re entering Awards Season, folks. For most of you, that usually means seeing your favorite films of the year lose to what you’d consider the “lesser” Weinstein picture. It’s always very frustrating, but one of those movies you may be cheering on — and has Oscar nominations written all over it — is Ben Affleck‘s Argo. The movie is a shoe-in for both the heavy hitter nods and countless spots on year-end top 10 lists. To GQ, this makes Affleck the director of the year, considering how he went from “loathed, frat boy Ben Affleck” to “esteemed filmmaker Ben Affleck.” It’s a transformation, for sure, and one to be proud of, but does continuing an epic comeback we all knew about really make him filmmaker of the year for 2012? Affleck proved himself as the director of the year in 2010 with The Town. That doesn’t mean he made the best movie of that year — and he certainly didn’t — but it was a big statement for Affleck the filmmaker. He proved Gone Baby Gone was no fluke — that he was the real deal. Although Argo is the best of these three films, it doesn’t say as much about his directorial career as his first two features do.

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Looper

Note: The following article assumes that you’ve seen Looper and contains massive spoilers. “I don’t want to talk about time travel,” says Bruce Willis to Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper. “If we start talking about it, then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws!” He’s speaking to his younger self at the time, so you’d think the details of how and why would be more important. He’s right, though. When you stop to break it down, there are a few paradoxes and logic gaps in Looper to go around, but director Rian Johnson seems less concerned with making hard sci-fi sense than making a statement. Looper isn’t a time travel movie as much as it’s a morality play that uses time travel as a tool for social commentary.

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Rian Johnson

Editor’s Introduction: Normally this feature is created by diving into the deep end of interviews, but when Rian Johnson agreed to write an entry himself, it was an opportunity impossible to pass up. With only three features under his belt, Johnson is already a force to be reckoned with. Emerging onto the scene with the inventive high school noir Brick in 2005, he pivoted off its dark tones for the lighter flair of The Brothers Bloom in 2008. He re-teamed with Joseph Gordon-Levitt for this year’s Looper, which has been blazing a trail through fans and sparking a metric ton of conversation. Part of that is his dialogue, part of it is the look he manages to achieve, but another big part is his personal style that shines through and seems impossible to mimic. So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) directly from a man who built his own time machine.

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Culture Warrior

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Looper. Several hours after seeing Rian Johnson’s Looper, I find the film still rattling in my head. Not because certain moments have resonated with me, nor because the möbius strip sci-fi structure has motivated any existential introspection. Instead, I felt surprisingly conflicted by Looper, perhaps more so than any other film this year. Looper is a film that consists of so many great parts, miles above what most studio genre fare has released this year, yet somehow even the success of these parts didn’t seem to cohere into a resonant whole on the drive home. What stands out the most about Looper is the emotional and thematic import of the film’s time travel plot device. In situating a young man confronting his aged (and changed) self, a middle-aged man attempting to change course in his life through any means possible, and several evident cycles of fate-determining actions shared between characters, Looper connects its investigation of predestination v. free will to a rumination on how our choices directly effect the lives of others in lasting ways. The logic of Looper lays out a vision of life that includes many potential options from which we choose or have chosen for us. Here there is no such thing as fate, only opened and closed opportunities, the implications of which we can’s possibly comprehend in the present moment.

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Now that Looper is a decent hit — especially in China — we can anticipate that people will be discussing the movie around the web, the water cooler and wherever else we talk about movies these days. Much of the conversation will be devoted to the usual with the time travel subgenre: paradoxes, the workings of the time machine, plot holes, why wasn’t Hitler killed, etc. But with this particular story there’s one major point of discussion I’m interested in, and of course it involves spoilers. So, if you’ve seen the movie or are just one of those who don’t care about stuff being ruined, join me after the break as I ask…

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Fantastic Fest: Looper

Joe (the conveniently similarly named Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a Looper, and no, sadly, that has nothing whatsoever to do with stunt piloting. What his profession actually entails is the assassination of targets sent back through time by an organized crime syndicate; the only entity to have access to the highly illegal, but totally existing time travel technology. These assassins will inevitably be one day sent the future versions of themselves in a retirement process known as “closing the loop.” Apparently the gold watch and the store-bought sheet cake was simply far too conventional. When Joe is put in a position to close his loop, he commits the fatal sin of hesitation; setting in motion a fight for his own survival as he seeks to kill himself. That sentence could only ever work in relation to Looper.

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Nathan Johnson

Out today, Looper tells the story of mafia hit-man Joe (Joesph Gordon-Levitt) who spends his days offing victims, but there’s a twist here: these victims are sent to him from the future. And when he comes face-to-face with his future self (Bruce Willis), things really start to unravel. Part sci-fi, part action, part drama, Looper flows between these different genres just as the story flows between different time periods and it is Nathan Johnson’s score that helps guide us from one place to the next. I spoke with Johnson about creating his completely original score, full of found sounds he then manipulated into actual instrumentation – no easy feat! But one that is fully achieved and gives this original story an equally original sound and feel, creating a new world that does not completely take us away from where we are now, but hints at where we may be going.

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Rian Johnson

Rian Johnson is a director you’re going to want to get to know, if you don’t already. He’s one of the more innovative filmmakers around and his previous films, Brick and Brothers Bloom have been triumphs of independent cinema. If nothing else, Brick showed us that there is still life remaining in the otherwise tired convention of film noir and that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was ready to be a leading man in something other than fluff comedy. Johnson’s latest film, Looper, re-teams him with JGL as well as giving him the chance to work with Bruce Willis on what is essentially the biggest movie of his burgeoning career. After seeing Looper at Fantastic Fest, we had a blunderbuss full of questions to fire at Johnson. We were so happy he was able to make time for us.

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Aural Fixation - Large

Unlike most films, Looper starts off with only ambient noise – the sound of the wind and the rustling of leaves fill the space, but as we look upon a stone faced man wielding a gun these every day sounds we rarely notice take on a new feeling and become almost as foreboding as the use of sorrowful strings or rumbling percussion. A single shot breaks this near silence and with it, Nathan Johnson’s futuristic and industrial score comes in. Johnson has been no stranger to giving audiences peeks at his process for creating Looper’s score and there is little question why – it’s pretty damn cool. Rather than simply turning to a full-bodied orchestra to expand on the various characters’ emotions and set the frenetic pace of the film, Johnson took found sounds (a car door slamming shut, an industrial fan, the vibration of a door stopper) and used these sounds as his instruments while still infusing and pairing them with more standard instrumentation, creating a score that is both familiar and inventive. He even went so far as to build new instruments by combining normal instruments (a marxophone) with unique sounding elements (an appropriately selected gat gun) making the score feel off-putting, but still grounded in the fabric of the narrative.

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published: 12.17.2014
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published: 12.15.2014
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published: 12.12.2014
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published: 12.05.2014
C+


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