SXSW 2011: Source Code

Duncan Jones was probably bombarded with a number of offers to direct a big studio movie following the release and cult success of his directorial debut, “Moon,” but there’s something about his decision to choose “Source Code” as his follow-up that tells you a lot about the kind of filmmaker he hopes to become. To some extent a companion piece to “Moon” in that they’re both morality tales about technology, Jones has succeeded in taking yet another high-concept premise and spinning it into a captivating thriller that’s both incredibly simple in execution and yet brain-teasingly complex the more you pick it apart. A thinking man’s sci-fi film with real mainstream appeal.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Cpt. Colter Stevens, a helicopter pilot stationed in Afghanistan who wakes up suddenly to discover he’s riding on a commuter train headed to Chicago. The twist? He’s in the body of a man named Sean Fentress, and before he can figure out what’s going on, the train explodes. But Stevens isn’t actually dead, and when he awakens in a strange capsule seconds later, he’s greeted by a woman named Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), who informs him that he’s part of a military experiment that’s trying to stop a terrorist attack in Chicago. Using a computer program called the Source Code, they can send Stevens’ consciousness into the body of Fentress for the last eight minutes of his life, granting him a unique opportunity to examine the scene of the crime before it even happens, in the hope that he can identify the bomber and prevent a second attack on the city. But as Stevens gets closer to tracking down the culprit with each new pass, he sets his mind on saving his fellow commuters (including Michelle Monaghan), despite the fact that the creator of the Source Code (Jeffrey Wright) tells him it isn’t possible.

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That might sound like an awful lot of information to process, but “Source Code” isn’t nearly as confusing as it lets on. With the exception of one exposition-heavy scene at the beginning of the film that tells you just about everything you need to know, the rest of the movie is split between Stevens’ investigation of the train’s passengers via a time loop that always ends with him dying, and communicating with the people running the mission. Of course, there are several twists and turns along the way, but Jones doesn’t hide his hand particularly well. Two of the film’s biggest revelations are not only predictable, but pretty obvious if you just pay attention, and though it would have ruined a lesser movie, “Source Code” is still engaging even when you know how it will end.

You wouldn’t think that a film about a guy experiencing the same eight minutes over and over again would be very interesting (even “Groundhog Day” took place over the course of a day), but Jones manages to prevent the loop from feeling monotonous by making every trip into the Source Code unique. He also relies greatly on star Jake Gyllenhaal to keep the audience invested, and it’s one of the actor’s best performances to date, providing the character with an Everyman quality that allows him to be serious without being humorless. The rest of the actors are just pawns in the story, but Vera Farmiga does add some depth to the thankless role of Stevens’ sympathetic handler. Not that the movie requires especially strong performances to work, because the real star is Jones himself, who proves here that he’s more than just a one-hit wonder. Your reaction to the movie will ultimately vary based on how you feel about its ending, but for fans of the sci-fi genre and time travel in particular, “Source Code” doesn’t disappoint.

  

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Another Easter weekend trailer: “Leaves of Grass”

We live in a climate where even a fairly action-packed stoner black comedy featuring an apparent comedic powerhouse performance by an A-lister can still be released almost as if it were a 4-hour meditation on the futility of existence from the Ukraine. Fortunately for said A-lister, Edward Norton, and actor-writer-director Tim Blake Nelson, “Leaves of Grass” — which has not much to do with Walt Whitman but utterly wowed Roger Ebert — apparently made audiences squeal with delight at SXSW, reportedly setting up a chain of events which saved that film from what Anne Thompson reported on Thursday would have been a mere $250,000 ad budget.

The movie, which really seems to have dramatically divided critics so far (occasionally a sign of a truly interesting film), continues a venerable tradition of great actors interacting with themselves as identical twins and more fanciful doppelgangers. Below, Norton swims quite nicely in the same waters that worked so well for Jeremy Irons (“Dead Ringers”), Nicolas Cage (“Adaptation”), and, more recently, Sam Rockwell (“Moon“).  All I can say is that with a supporting cast that features a menorah-wielding Richard Dreyfuss, Keri Russell, Susan Sarandon, and filmmaker Nelson, a strong comic actor whose previous indie films have all been on deadly serious topics,  this one may not turn out to be the masterpiece Ebert finds it to be, but it sure looks to me like way too much fun to be left just to us art-house denizens.

  

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No fooling, it’s Thor’s-day at the movies

I don’t usually do these kind of posts on Thursdays, and it’s April Fools’ Day. However, there’s simply too much apparently non-joking, actual movie news to leave for Friday. So, here we go.

* Of course, in Hollywood, it’s not always easy to spot the April Fool’s story from the real thing. That’s why IESB frontloads their big possible, eventual scoop today with all sorts of promises that they’re not joking. Anyhow, it appears that #1 cult creator Joss Whedon, most recently of “Dollhouse” and “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” fame, is supposedly on the short list to direct “The Avengers,” currently being penned by Zak Penn.

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If you’re skeptical about this, you’re far from alone. Just check out the slightly quizzical reaction from Whedon’s robotic and slavishly devoted cult — of which I am a known member — over at Whedonesque. (I’ve even forgiven Whedon for listening too much to Rahm Emmanuel and selling out to big pharma and not fighting hard enough to keep the public option in the health care bill….Oh, wait, wrong blog.) Still, Whedon’s known for staying in touch with his fans. I strongly suspect that, if the story were completely unfounded, he’d have posted something about it by now.

One creative point. Some fans seem skeptical that a collaboration between Penn and Whedon could work. Well, of course, Whedon has actually done any number of rewrites and polishes on other people’s scripts — a lot of folks give him credit for most of the wittier portions of “Speed” — and though Penn has been involved with some pretty conventionally dull flicks in his day, he’s not completely lacking imagination and humor. His little seen 2004 comedy-thriller mock-documentary, “Incident at Loch Ness,” has some remarkably hilarious moments,  most of them courtesy of Werner Herzog, playing himself and also taking a cowriting credit. If Penn’s good enough for Herr Herzog, he’s perhaps good enough for Joss Whedon.

* Speaking of “The Avengers,” the movie about the only actual deity in the group, “Thor,” is currently in production and director Kenneth Branagh talked about the film and his affection for the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby/et al comic books in today’s L.A. Times. This was not some random publicity glad-handing but a deliberate effort to squelch some unpleasant — and, to my ear, unlikely — rumors being reported in the tabloid press which allege open on-set criticism/anger directed at newcomer-lead Chris Hemsworth from venerable master thespian Anthony Hopkins, presumably relating to the 26 year-old star’s relative lack of experience, at least compared to Hopkins.  Hopkins, who’ll be playing Thor’s even more venerable dad, Odin, and Branagh have strongly denied the rumors and painted a picture of a happy set.

I was fairly impressed with Hemsworth’s work in the opening of “Star Trek,” so I tend to lean towards the official story here. He’s also a veteran of an Aussie soap, “Home and Away,” and history teaches us that soap vets tend to become pretty good actors when actually allowed time to learn their lines properly and develop characters. I don’t know much about Hopkins on a personal level except that he’s gotten this far in his career without these kind of incidents being an issue that I can think of. I suspect it would take a titanic lack of talent/ability to visibly annoy him at this point.

Read the rest of this entry »

  

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Another awards non-shocker: “The Hurt Locker” takes BAFTAs

Jeremy Renner in Really, the headline here tells the tale about last night’s awards from the English equivalent of our Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “The Hurt Locker” won six awards from the Orange British Academy Film Awards (which makes me wonder what other colours British film awards are available in). As described by Indiewire’s Peter Knegt — who also kindly provides a complete list of the awards — they include Best Picture, a directing award for Kathryn Bigelow, as well as for Mark Boal’s screenplay, editing, photography, and sound —  the better part of the whole behind-the-camera British enchilada. And, no, I don’t think that sounds very appetizing, either. Not quite all of it, though. For example, “The Young Victoria” got the awards that usually go to period dramas, costumes and make-up.

Perhaps almost as predictably, the main acting awards, however, did go to more local talent. Specifically Colin Firth won for his performance as a man in mourning in “A Single Man” and Carey Mulligan for her teen learning some hard, yet kind of fun, life lessons in “An Education.” Still, the BAFTAs bowed to standard practice by giving the supporting actor awards to Mo’Nique of “Precious” and Christoph Waltz of “Inglourious Basterds,” yet again. (Also truish-to-form, Mo’Nique wasn’t there.)

Best British film went to the highly praised “Fish Tank,” which happens to feature “Basterd” secret weapon Michael Fassbender opposite Kierston Wareing and newcomer Katie Jarvis. As for the lastest from the onetime Mr. Kathryn Bigelow, “Avatar,” it met the once traditional fate of well-regarded science fiction movies at the Oscars, and only got a Best Visual Effects and Production Design awards but, of course, is only making a double gazillion dollars. Aaah. Geeks may be take some solace, however, in learning that “Outstanding Debut By A British Writer, Director Or Producer” went to Duncan Jones for his intriguing feature debut, “Moon,” a small-scale space tale like they used to make.

Sam Rockwell in

  

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BAFTA nominations

The British equivalent of the Oscars has announced its choices. Since the BAFTAs include American films, it’s often somewhat similar to the Oscars though with a bit of an edge, not surprisingly, for UK fare. You can see the complete list at the BAFTA site.

This year’s Best Film list looks very much like the lists we’ve been seeing all along, with one major difference. The spot usually reserved for “Inglourious Basterds” has been taken up by the highly regarded coming-of-age/relationship dramedy, “An Education,” which makes it the token British nominee in a field that includes usual suspects “The Hurt Locker,” “Precious,” “Up in the Air,” and “Avatar.” As if to make sure no Hollywood feelings were hurt too hard, Quentin Tarantino was nominated for Best Director while Lee Daniels — whose direction has, in fact, taken its share of criticism from some critics and film bloggers — went un-nominated for his work on “Precious.”

“An Education” is also nominated in the “Outstanding British Film” category against “In the Loop,” “Moon,” the currently in limited U.S. release “Fish Tank,” and the upcoming John Lennon biopic, “Nowhere Boy.”

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In other tidbits of interest, the terrific Andy Serkis of LOTR fame was nominated for Best Actor for his work in the musical biopic, “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll” which hasn’t been released here yet. There’s hope for a possible upset win for Serkis to defeat the seemingly unstoppable Jeff Bridges here, if the BAFTAs go by the usual acting award tendencies.Not only does Serkis transform himself into a fairly well-known entertainment figure as oddball rocker Ian Dury (that nailed Oscars for Martin Landau in “Ed Wood” and Jamie Foxx in “Ray“) but Dury was partially disabled by polio, so there’s that whole actors-playing disabled-characters-win-awards thing to deal with.

Some of you will also note that Sandra Bullock was not nominated for Best Actress. “The Blind Side” has not been released in the U.K. yet and therefore won’t be eligible until next year’s awards. Release patterns may also explain why the artful vampire tale, “Let the Right One In,” one of 2008’s biggest arthouse films in the U.S., was nominated for in the foreign language category this year.

  

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