Monday, April 25, 2011

Source Code

Colter Steven (Jake Gylllenhaal) wakes up on a train across from a woman (Michelle Monaghan) he doesn’t know. She calls him Sean. He doesn’t know what she’s talking about but she seems to know him. He tells her he isn’t who she thinks he is. He gets up, marches around, unsure of where he is or how he got there. He goes to the bathroom and sees someone else’s expression in the mirror. Outside the door waits Christina, that woman. They bicker a bit and then the train blows up, killing everyone on board.

That’s the set up for Source Code, the newest film from Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie) who also helmed the popular Moon a couple years ago. There’s a lot of ways to read into a film like Source Code. You could read it in terms of God or religion or science or evolution or quantum physics or even psychology. I’d like to read it as entertainment. That is, after all, what it is. That it has more depth and intelligence than most blockbusters these days is a little added bonus and is, in truth, what makes it all the more entertaining.

Stevens wakes up in what looks like the cockpit of a crashed fighter jet. He doesn’t immediately know where he is but is quickly greeted over a monitor by Goodwin (Vera Farmiga, the lovely actress from Up in the Air) who jogs his memory and isn’t quite willing to explain to him what is going on. As a solider, he’s wondering where his men are, if he can speak to his father, and why he is stuck here instead of off in battle. There isn’t much time and so he’s jolted back onto the train to live it all over again.

Stevens is eventually briefed by Dr. Rutledge (invaluable character actor Jeffry Wright) that he is involved in an experiment called Source Code, which is based on a quantum theory that there is roughly 8 minutes that exist in the mind after death or something like that. Therefore, because Stevens is so close a match to this Sean fellow, they can blast him back 8 minutes before the man’s death in order to see just what happened. It’s not time travel, as Colter can’t change anything, but he can figure out who the bomber is and let them know so he can be stopped before another, even bigger attack is staged.

That’s as far as I’ll go with plot. You can discover the rest of the nuances and twists on your own. Is Source Code possible? Maybe, especially if you're one of those few who were spoken to by that narrative documentary What the Bleep do we Know? in which quantum mechanics are attempted to be broken down in such a way that the everyday mind could understand. But now that doesn’t much matter. What’s important is that it makes for intriguing suspense.

The preposterousness (and all science fiction must rightfully come with some degree of preposterousness) of Source Code works because the film rightly defines its science. It thus lays down a ground work for something that is given rules and definition and works in creating some sort of believable story. Some sci-fi tends to allow the science to run off with itself and just makes it up as it goes along. Discipline is the key here.

The film’s enjoyableness is in no small part due to the presence of its star Gyllenhaal who is becoming, one film at a time, a star amidst the likes of Brad Pitt or George Clooney: pretty faces who can fit comfortably into a wide assortment of roles. Find me an actor with the versatility to play in such widely different films as Prince of Persia, Love and Other Drugs, Brothers and Jarhead and you'll find talent.

The intrigue of Source Code, from a structural point of view is that, by breaking itself down into repeating 8 minute intervals, it creates the kind of gnawing suspense that is created from the frustration of playing an impossible level of a video game. You keep using up your continues, trying it a little different each time, yelling, screaming, cursing the game the yet never putting it down or finding satisfaction until you prove to it that not only can it be beat, but that it can be beat by you.

Source Code thus exits in what appears to be a string of recent sci-fi films that approach their intriguing subject matter with intelligence and a knack for storytelling. This arguably began last year with Inception which, despite all of it’s flaws, to be fair, exists on a level all unto itself, and has been followed with the Adjustment Bureau, this one and Rian Johnsons upcoming Looper with Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It’s not a major work, and it ends about 4 or 5 shots later than it justifiably should, but, it’s a smart and thrilling ride of the variety that seem to be becoming rarer and rarer on the big screen.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Celebrity Connection: Kate Beckinsale

So I watched 30 Days of Night: Dark Days today. I normally wouldn't watch direct to video sequels, especially of movies I didn't like the first time around, but I covered the script to this one almost a year ago and you can just about guarantee that if I've read the script, I'll check out the finished product regardless. Watching it though I noticed something:

Could Mia Kirshner actually be Kate Beckinsale in disguise? You decide.

Monday, April 11, 2011

In Memory of Sidney Lumet

I don't often write these posts over fallen heroes because it's a challenge to make a meaningful one when it seems like half the internet has already idolized the deceased before their last breath has even sounded. Regardless, Sidney Lumet is an exception.

In this case, it's special because Lumet is not some tragic case and his death doesn't sound out any sorrow in me (he was 86 at the time of his death and was responsible for more great films than some whole careers even get to make). Instead it's a way to look back and bask in the memories of one man who dedicated his life to making so many amazing movies.

What makes Lumet even more special for me is that, believe it or not, no one single person changed the way I view movies more than Sidney Lumet did. It all stems from his book simply titled Making Movies. Roger Ebert said that if you only read one book on filmmaking, make it that one and I second this.

This is a book as quotable as any great critic such as Kael, Farber, Bazin or even Ebert himself and is an intimate, loving and thoroughly technical analysis of film as seen through the eyes of the artist creating it.

Maybe most valuable is Lumet's chapter on style which is, to me, the single greatest piece ever written on the subject. Lumet dissects style (the most misused word in film as he calls it) in a way that is profound and makes sense. It made me realize that filmmakers like Burton and Gilliam are not stylists but decorators and that, most importantly, as the French also used to say, you cannot separate style from substance nor substance from style. The two create each other and together make something wonderful.

The example Lumet gives is of his debut masterpiece 12 Angry Men, taking place entirely in one room, starting by filming in close up and gradually pulling the camera back and moving it down so that you can begin to see the ceiling; feeling as though the room is closing in as the tension mounts. The final shot, outside the room, is thus placed high and filmed with a wide lense to allow the sense of relief. You don't notice it, but you feel it, because it makes sense to the story. That's film style.

That was the birth of a career that produced the big names like Serpico, Running on Empty, The Pawnbroker, Prince of the City, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Verdict, A Long Day's Journey into Night and most recently Before the Devil Knows Your Dead. These come alongside the titles that are not considered as major but still bear the worth to warrant the accolades: Murder on the Orient Express, The Wiz, Equus, Family Business, Q&A, Night Falls on Manhattan, Critical Care and Find Me Guilty, which featured Vin Diesel's best performance.

I think what characterised Lumet's body of work was not some consistent visual style (he gave the movie what it needed like a natural technician) but that he was drawn to intelligent works about intelligent people: often men torn between doing what they believe to be right and doing what's actually best. His movies were not about action and weren’t flashy just for the sake of it; (save The Wiz, which is one of the odd one's out in his oeuvre) but are built upon the suspense of human interaction, of internal drama and of real danger.

Lumet openly admits in his book that some projects he took on just for the money. That's fine, it's not too hard to guess which films fall under that banner, but regardless Lumet always brought style and smarts to them. Lumet made bad films but he didn't often make boring ones.

Thus, I can't shed a tear for Lumet even though I'm sad to see him go. I'm too busy smiling while looking back and remembering everything he left us. America may have lost one of it's last remaining greats but the movies will live on forever.