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Posts Tagged ‘Jake Gyllenhaal’

I will not inflict upon you the heavily-vowelled utterance a friend of mine could not contain when he learned that the fourth Marvel superhero movie in five months was about to come amongst us; use your imaginations. Normally he and I are in different camps when it comes to this sort of thing – he would quite happily see the whole genre consigned to the waste-basket of history, whereas I, on the other hand, cheerfully organised the schedule of a recent trip to New York City so we could see Captain Marvel there on opening night. Nevertheless, I was more sympathetic than usual on this occasion – Avengers: Endgame was such a monumental piece of work, carrying such a significant emotional charge, that a lengthy pause in Marvel Studios’ operations in its aftermath would have felt logical and entirely appropriate. Knocking out another Spider-Man sequel to meet a contractual obligation… well, it almost feels like it’s too soon, doesn’t it?

Certainly the opening sequences of Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Far From Home give the impression this movie has been slipped an almighty hospital pass, for it is almost obliged to try and make sense of the rather confused state of the Marvel movie universe in the wake of Endgame. Half the world was dead for five years, before returning to existence not having aged a day – the film is obliged to acknowledge this, but also has sound dramatic reasons for wanting to handwave it away as quickly as possible and get on with telling a story set in a recognisable version of a world resembling our own. It’s a tricky conundrum the film never really manages to get to grips with, and the way it still seems to feel the need to stress its continuity with the non-Sony Marvel movies doesn’t help much – there are endless references to the other films, much more than you find in any of the ‘real’ Marvel Studios productions.

Still, once the plot gets properly going the film makes an impressive recovery from this dodgy opening section. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and his peers are all off on a tour of photogenic European capitals; Peter is hoping for a break from being Spider-Man and a chance to get a bit closer to the girl he likes, MJ (Zendaya Coleman). However, the various antics of Peter and his peers take a bit of a back-seat when the Grand Canal in Venice unexpectedly takes on semi-human form and becomes rather aggressive to everyone around it. A mighty tussle ensues, with the belligerent landmark on one side, and Spider-Man and an enigmatic new superhero on the other. Everyone is impressed with the new guy – ‘He’s kicking that water’s ass!’ cries one onlooker – who is soon christened Mysterio and turns out to be played by Jake Gyllenhaal.

Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) turns up to make the formal introductions. It turns out Mysterio hails from another dimension where Earth has been devastated by hostile elemental beings. Now these creatures are coming to Earth, and Fury wants Spider-Man – anointed, it would seem, as the chosen successor to Iron Man as the world’s foremost protector – to partner up with Mysterio and stop the elementals from trashing this planet too. It’s a big responsibility for a young man feeling the loss of his mentor, to say nothing of the disruption this could cause to Peter’s school trip…

As mentioned, it seems like the Sony-funded MCU movies really do go out of their way to tie themselves into the wider continuity of the series, and on this occasion that proves to be a bit of a mixed blessing. Like I said, it does force the film to address the odd state of affairs pertaining after Endgame, which was always going to be tricky, and I imagine the film’s repeated use of Robert Downey Jr’s image will ultimately prove a bit exasperating for viewers who get the message quite early on, thank you. On the other hand, this is hardly happening frivolously: the events of Endgame are crucial to the plot, and the film builds intelligently on them to provide motivation for the various characters.

Nevertheless, this is still obviously a Spider-Man film rather than an addendum to the Avengers series, for all that the European setting is a bit unusual for this particular character. Now, you may well be thinking that Spider-Man teaming up with a new superhero to fight monsters from another dimension is a bit of a departure plot-wise too – well, all I can reasonably say on this topic is that you certainly have a point. That said, the plot of Spider-Man: Far From Home is quite a clever one, making some amusingly jaded observations on the ubiquity of superheroes these days and how silly the plots of some of these films have become. It also reinterprets material from the original comics in a convincing and imaginative way. The only problem is that it is very easy to guess which way the story is going, even if you’re only passingly familiar with the characters involved.

Still, there is a lot to enjoy here: this is as much of a quirky comedy film as Homecoming was, and Samuel L Jackson throws himself into the funny lines and comic situations whole-heartedly. The film’s star turn performance-wise, however, is Jake Gyllenhaal, who makes the most of a part which really allows him to show his range as an actor. About fifteen years ago, Gyllenhaal was in the frame to replace Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man himself when Maguire’s bad back threatened to force him to withdraw from Spider-Man 2 – he was also apparently on the list of people considered for the part of Venom in Spider-Man 3. It’s gratifying to see that his arrival in the series (finally) is such an impressive one.

(And if we’re talking about the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, how’s about this for a genuine visitor from another plane of the multiverse – Far From Home includes a cameo from JK Simmons, reprising his role as J Jonah Jameson from those films. Very nice to see him back, of course, and one wonders about the extent to which this opens the door for other stars of non-MCU Marvel movies to cross over into this series. Let’s have Alfred Molina back as Doctor Octopus, for a start, and Nicolas Cage as Ghost Rider, and how about Wesley Snipes as Blade? Apparently Snipes and Marvel have had meetings…)

Once the film gets going, it is pacey and consistently amusing, even if it is also knowingly absurd in a number of places. The special effects are as good as you’d expect, and the film concludes with the best set-piece sequence around Tower Bridge from any fantasy film since Gorgo. I’m pretty sure this isn’t the greatest Spider-Man film ever, and it would be foolish to try and deconstruct it in the hope of deciphering what Marvel will be up to next (for the first time in years, they’ve released a movie without revealing what the next one is going to be), but this is still a fun, clever, and solidly entertaining blockbuster.

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From a British perspective you can’t fault John C Reilly’s approach to the year so far: having befouled cinemas with Holmes and Watson right at the beginning of January, he has apparently been doing his very best to make amends, giving an excellent performance in the very good Stan & Ollie, and now doing much the same in The Sisters Brothers, which he also produced. On the other hand, this is sort of a trick of the light, given that The Sisters Brothers was actually released in the States well over six months ago and is only now reaching screens in the UK (and not many of them at that).

In our world of day and date releasing, with films usually coming out more or less simultaneously across the anglophone world, what can we infer from this delay? Well, it’s usually a sign that a studio doesn’t have much faith in a movie and isn’t in a hurry to capitalise on the buzz it has generated, often because there isn’t any. Certainly The Sisters Brothers has been released into the world at a fairly quiet time (at least, as quiet as it gets with everyone gearing up for the first really big releases of the year in only a few weeks), without much in the way of publicity, and much of that rather odd (we shall return to this). How come? Well, here we come to the nub of the issue. Money has nothing to do with artistic achievement – well, less than you might think – but in a spirit of full disclosure I feel obliged to mention that The Sisters Brothers was a bomb on its American release, making back only about a quarter of its budget.

The film is the work of the acclaimed French director Jacques Audiard, who won the top prize at Cannes with Dheepan in 2015 and before that made the very impressive Rust and Bone. The Sisters Brothers finds him working in that most American of genres and idioms, the western, with Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix playing the title characters, who are a pair of ne’er-do-wells – basically hired killers – in the service of a wealthy but unprincipled man known as the Commodore (Rutger Hauer, in what proves to be a startling instance of stunt casting). Reilly plays Eli, the elder and more thoughtful of the pair, who is beginning to have reservations about their lifestyle; Phoenix plays Charlie, who is more of a loose cannon and thinks everything is fine just as it is.

As the film opens, the brothers are dispatched in support of a private detective, Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is also working for the Commodore. Morris is on the trail of mild-mannered chemist Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has developed a new process vastly facilitating the acquisition of gold – as this is 1851, with the California gold rush still a going concern, there is potentially very big money to be made here. Morris is to find Warm and restrain him, at which point the brothers will forcibly extract the secret of the process from him and then dispose of his remains. It’s very simple, if not exactly virtuous – but then Morris finds himself warming to Warm and his idealistic notions as to what to spend the gold on, and the two men strike up a tentative partnership of their own. Meanwhile, the pursuing Sisters have issues of their own, with Eli increasingly coming to the conclusion that this is not how he wants to spend the rest of his days…

I was fairly indifferent about the prospect of seeing The Sisters Brothers when it first started popping up in the ‘coming soon’ sections of my preferred media outlets – I’ve nothing against a good western, but this is a genre which feels like it’s been on life-support for decades. Whenever they do make a western now, it’s usually an opportunity for an art-house director to do something radical and revisionist to it, or it’s a clumsy attempt by a big studio to revive the genre which normally ends up bland and annoying. This is certainly from the former camp, and my tolerance for this sort of thing really depends on exactly what the director’s take on the form is: extra grit, misery and gore is neither inspired not particularly impressive. The trailer that eventually turned up for The Sisters Brothers promised something rather different: it was fast, funny, and was soundtracked by (I am assuming) Gloria Jones singing ‘Tainted Love’, which is not the kind of tune you would associate with the American west. The idea of a western with a northern soul soundtrack struck me as an interesting and witty one, and did the job of making me interested in seeing the film.

Well, I have to report that this is practically a case of false advertising, for while this film’s soundtrack is certainly quirky, it is almost wholly orchestral. Should I feel cheated? Well, maybe: but the rest of the film is certainly interesting and generally speaking a worthwhile watch. To begin with it looks very much like a classic western tale, dealing with issues of morality and self-realisation on the open range, but kept lively and very watchable by great performances from the four leads – but especially Reilly, who brings real depth and warmth to someone who could easily have had neither. Audiard isn’t one of those people who tries to ‘fix’ the western by turning it into something else – there is all the magnificent scenery one could hope for (I should point out that this film was made in the land of the Spaghetti western, i.e. Spain), and frequent shoot-outs along the way – for all of their tendency to bicker with each other, the Sisters brothers are alarmingly proficient killers. The story builds up to the encounter between the brothers and Warm and Morris very satisfyingly.

And then something very odd happens, which may be at the root of the troubles that The Sisters Brothers has had at the box office. The film takes an odd turn, with what feels undeniably like a allegory about greed and its effects on the environment briefly appearing, and then… Well, we’re into the final act of the film by this point, so I can’t really go into detail, but the film-makers essentially rip up the rule-book as to how a story should develop and do something radically different instead. It’s the kind of thing that could happen in real life, but never happens in movies, the sort of plot twist that film critics tend to love (85% on a well-known solanaceous review aggregation website) but general audiences respond very poorly to (only $3.1 million at the US box office). I can kind of admire Audiard’s audacity in playing with expectations and dispensing with traditional ideas of closure, but I have to say that something with a bit more rootin’ tootin’ would have felt more emotionally satisfying.

Still, one gets a definite sense that Audiard has made exactly the film he wanted to make, and it is still a pretty good one: the setting is well realised, the performances strong, and there are moments both amusing and emotional in the course of the film. But at the same time I can see exactly why it has struggled commercially: the strange shifts in tone and the lack of a conventional ending feel like an attempt to deliberately wrong-foot audiences, and this happens to late to really win them back again before the film is over. It’s hard to criticise the film for this, but I think this is certainly the source of its problems. Worth seeing, but I couldn’t give this an unqualified recommendation.

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I am increasingly aware that I am, in many important ways, a man out of time – not to the extent of wearing double-breasted pyjamas or being hailed as a possible future Tory Prime Minister, but I’m fully aware that many of my views are, well, rather old-fashioned. One of these is that the best place for watching a new film is the cinema. This may just be dyed-in-the-wool traditionalism, or possibly simply the fact that going to the pictures a couple of times a week often makes up most of my social life (there are other people there, after all, even if I don’t speak to them or actually know their names).

Nevertheless, the world moves on, and new films are starting to show up in places you might not have expected a few years ago. Investing heavily in films, along with much else, is a video streaming site which is not paying me for advertising and so which I will not name. (Suffice to say it rhymes with Get Clicks.) One thing you can say about these guys is that they do not skimp when it comes to things like actors or production values: they show every sign of making proper big movies which would be quite at home getting a (proper) traditional theatrical release.

For example, let us consider Okja, directed by Bong Joon Ho, a movie which appeared on the site in question. There are some extremely odd things about this film and the manner in which it has been presented, but it is no more extravagantly weird than many other films which I’ve seen recently.

Tilda Swinton plays Lucy Mirando, newly-installed boss of a major corporation, who as the film starts reveals her plan to start a ten-year programme of raising a litter of unusual ‘super pigs’ in different locations around the world. The new breed of pig offers hope of an end to the problem of global food shortages forever!

Hmm, well. Ten years pass and we meet Mija (An Seo Hyun), a young girl living in the remote mountains of South Korea with her lazy and skinflint grandfather – and Okja, one of the Mirando super pigs they have been entrusted with. Okja is an impressive beast, having grown from cute piglethood into something resembling an endearing hybrid of a particularly big hippo and Lockjaw from The Inhumans. Needless to say, Mija and Okja have a very strong bond, and as they have purchased Okja from the corporation, their rustic idyll can continue forever.

Except, of course, that her grandfather has been lying about buying the pig, and Mirando’s apparatchiks turn up, accompanied by their zoologist shill Dr Johnny (Jake Gyllenhaal), to take Okja off to Seoul and then New York for the final of the Giant Super Pig Contest. Okja is spirited away without Mija’s consent (spiriting away an animal the size of a small van is a neat trick, I have to admit), and she is outraged when she learns of her grandfather’s deception. Mija equips herself for an epic quest and sets off in search of her beloved animal…

Now – and I hope I’m not breaking any confidences here – my sister has a thing about pigs. Hmm, perhaps that didn’t come across quite the way it was intended to. I should clarify things and stress that she is just inordinately fond of our porcine friends. No, that’s not quite right either – well, look, she’s a pig person, all right, just not in any peculiar or unwholesome way. And so it occurred to me that I might end up recommending Okja as a film she would want to watch, perhaps with her kids. Certainly, the opening set-up has that slightly grotesque and outlandish quality of a Roald Dahl story, and the first movement of the story feels intentionally ‘classic’ in its elements and tone.

But I will not be suggesting Sister-of-Awix check this movie out, and especially not with her children around. This is indeed a film about a young girl’s quest to recover her giant, slightly magical pig, with a somewhat fantastical tone. But it is a fantastical film about a young girl and her giant magical pig with a monumental F-bomb count, some startlingly brutal violence, and also a no-holds-barred visit to an abattoir at one point. It’s all a bit more Tom-Yum-Goong than it is a Disney film.

General consensus seems to be that Get Clicks have dropped the ball when it comes to its handling of Okja, not least because it is still listed on its UK site as a ‘G’. This in itself is slightly confusing, as it’s not a standard British certification – I assumed it stood for ‘General’, but apparently it means ‘Guidance recommended’. The BBFC, by the way, appear to have given Okja a 15 certificate, which seems to me to be entirely appropriate.

But you can’t really blame Get Clicks, except in the most general way, for the fact that Okja is utterly bizarre in its tone – this is definitely not a children’s film. But it has the same kind of subject matter as a children’s film, and is largely made in the style of one. So, what exactly is going on here? I fear the worst, readers, specifically that this film has been made to appeal to the dreaded Ironic Sensibility. Many of the English-language scenes not concerning Mija and Okja have a very knowing, tongue-in-cheek quality, which after a while set my teeth to aching. The film seems to be inciting at least part of its audience to be complicit in its own weirdness, while assuring them that it is absolutely sound in terms of its politics and morality and so on. I know I am on the thinnest of thin ice here, but I have a very low tolerance for the whole phenomenon where adults sit down and have earnest conversations about (for example) the admirably progressive gender politics of a cartoon about talking kittens. It seems to me to represent a retreat from maturity and actual engagement with the serious issues of life – except where serious issues are handled only in the most simplistic way. The looming threat of right-on smugness is a constant danger.

So I found it with much of Okja. This is, obviously, a film with a message to deliver about animal rights and the practices of the food industry – you could quite probably label it as a piece of pro-vegetarian propaganda, to be honest. Fair enough – there are arguments to be made here. But the style of Okja means its sheer sentimentality grates with the graphic nature of many of its scenes. This is a shamelessly, brazenly manipulative film, so much so that it actually becomes irritating rather than affecting. My first instinct after it finished was to go and have a sausage baguette, just on principle.

This is not to say that there is not much to enjoy in Okja – the staging of the early scenes with Mija and Okja in the forest is honestly magical, and the depiction of Okja is genuinely stunning – CGI never ceases to improve, of course, but I have absolutely no clue how some of the shots in this movie were achieved. Then again, the film is almost wholly about Okja (hence the name), so I suppose getting the CGI right was a priority. There are also a raft of good performances from people like Swinton, Gyllenhaal, Shirley Henderson, and Paul Dano (who appears as an animal rights activist).

In the end, though, I couldn’t help thinking that Okja is only a few more script drafts away from being a really great children’s film – Babe, quite literally on steroids. But as it stands, there’s too much profanity and darkness in this film for it to be suitable for normal kids, while at the same time it’s too childish and eccentric to function as a piece of entertainment for mature audiences. Definite talent at work here, but in a very undisciplined way.

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I know I go on a lot about the various evils of predictable films, lack of new ideas in mainstream cinema, fear of innovation, and so on, and it does occur to me that perhaps I am making just a little bit too much fuss about this. Perhaps there is something to be said after all for movies which don’t set out to up-end expectations, mash genres beyond all recognition, or carve out a bold new niche for themselves. Familiarity isn’t always a necessarily ugly word.

I have been moved to this thought by Daniel Espinosa’s Life, which lends itself more readily than most recent films to the ‘it’s X meets Y’ game (one that I usually try not to play as a point of principle) and its numerous variations. Hey, let’s indulge ourselves for once: it’s The Quatermass Experiment meets Gravity, or The Thing set in low orbit – either of those capsule descriptions strikes me as largely accurate and highly informative as to the kind of movie this is.

Life is set in and around the International Space Station in a fairly near future (the film is intentionally vague about this). The six-person crew is very excited as the first sample of soil samples from Mars are about to arrive, and there are indications that the probe has located something truly exceptional on the Red Planet – preserved microbial life!

Well, work on the Martian cells gets under way, with appropriately strict precautions in place, and soon enough the chief boffin (Ariyon Bakare) has cultured himself a cute little Martian blobby thing. You can almost certainly guess what happens next, but anyway: there is a mishap, resulting in the organism turning aggressively hostile, and before you can say ‘Fendahl Core’ the crew are doing battle with a rapidly-growing lifeform (alien monsters, especially ones you get trapped in a confined space with, are always rapidly-growing, as any fule kno) that has already laid waste to Mars. Can they survive? And, more importantly, can they ensure that the Martian creature never reaches the planet below…?

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction suggests that at least half of all SF movies also fall into the horror category, and while I’m not sure Life contains quite enough grisliness to satisfy the most dedicated gorehounds, I suspect there’s quite enough unpleasantness here to make the average person go ‘Ewwww,’ and think about looking away. There’s a gripping sequence illustrating why you should never shake hands with an unknown alien, someone has a very unpleasant experience in a broken space-suit (this appears to have been inspired by a real-life incident from 2013), there are scenes involving flame-throwers and defibrillators (these strike me as being a knowing tip of the hat to some of Life‘s more celebrated progenitors), and so on.

The odd thing about Life is not the fact that, from the very beginning until the very end of the movie, you are never really in any doubt as to what’s going to happen next, because this is a well-worn tale, to say the least. The odd thing is that it really doesn’t matter, and in a strange way it may even add to the fun of the film – anyone with a working knowledge of how this kind of movie is structured, and why people get billed in the order they do on movie posters, probably has a very good chance of being able to work out exactly what order the various characters are going to get picked off in.

Quite apart from the gribbly alien horror elements of the story (the Martian ends up looking rather cephalopodic, which, all things considered, probably qualifies this film as being on some level Lovecraftian), the most obvious influence on Life is obviously Gravity. The new movie doesn’t have quite the same breath-taking technical virtuosity, but the fact remains that this is another film set almost entirely in zero-G, using (almost wholly) credible technology – the fact it’s so close to reality is one of the things that makes the film such fun. I’m pretty sure this film wasn’t shot on location on the ISS, but it nevertheless does a good job of first conning you into thinking that it could have been, and then making you take for granted that everyone’s casually floating around. Only at a few key moments does the film get ostentatious about its zero-G effects – at one point someone sheds a tear, and it bobbles off their face and floats away, but to be honest, most of these involve great clusters of globs of blood drifting about the place.

Lest you think this is just reheated splatter on a space station, some proper actors are participating and seem to be having fun doing so. Ryan Reynolds is the mission’s pilot and engineer, and you are reminded what an able and amiable screen presence Reynolds is; hopefully he’s not going to spend half his time playing Deadpool from now on. Rebecca Ferguson is the quarantine officer in charge of keeping the Martian from reaching Earth, although she is British, she is also part of the (US-based) Centre for Disease Control, which struck me as a little odd – alien monsters are admittedly outside the remit of Public Health England, but there’s always the WHO… Playing the station doctor is Jake Gyllenhaal, who gives a typically thought-through performance, although you can’t quite shake the impression he’s only here because his agent said ‘You know what, Jake, it’s time you did something a bit more fun for a change.’

There’s nothing tremendously exceptional about Life in any department, but it is a thoroughly competent and entertaining film. You could possibly argue that the climax of the story has rather more energy than elegance, but, once again, this hardly spoils the fun at all. If you don’t like space movies, or horror movies, or indeed horror movies set in space, then this is definitely not one for you. If this sort of thing is your cup of tea, on the other hand, this is a safe bet for a solid trip to the movies. A worthy addition to an honourable tradition.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January 23rd 2003:

[Continuing a lengthy and somewhat dubious account-stroke-metaphor from a previous review…]

I did my best to atone for the sticky toffee pudding by going for a long walk round the local marina where the family yacht, the Rampant Laddie, is currently having fresh barnacles applied. But how to do penance for The Transporter? Well, there was only one thing for it, make the trip out to the local (in the broadest possible sense of the word) art-house cinema and spend some time absorbing serious culture.

As luck would have it, this week’s film turned out to be Donnie Darko, which attentive masochists will recall was on last year’s list of films I was annoyed at having missed. (This week’s Senior Citizens pic, I noticed with interest, was the axe-murderer horror movie Frailty. Hmmm.) The debut picture from writer-director Richard Kelly, this really is one for the ‘how in hell did this ever get made?!?’ file as it’s certainly the most comprehensively weird movie to get a major release since Being John Malkovich.

It’s the tale of the eponymous teenager, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Donnie is a brilliant but disturbed young man living in the quiet suburban community of Middlesex with his parents and sisters. Already seeing medicated and seeing a psychiatrist (Katharine Ross) following an undetailed incidence of arson, Donnie’s life gets even more peculiar when he receives a visitation from the mysterious Frank, a seemingly-demonic presence in the shape of a man in a bunny-rabbit suit. Frank saves Donnie’s life when a jet engine falls out of an empty sky through his bedroom ceiling, and slowly begins to exert a strange influence over Donnie’s actions…

A simple synopsis can’t do justice to the sheer scope and range of Kelly’s incredibly eclectic script, which slides easily from John Hughes-style high school comedy-drama, to bizarre, unsettling fantasy. There are also echoes of Heathers in the film’s black humour and dark tone. Kelly runs the pop-culture gamut from the Smurfs to The Evil Dead to the work of Graham Greene, and quite happily shifts from a hilarious scenes such as Donnie’s haranguing a worthless motivational speaker (a surprisingly good Patrick Swayze) to mind bending discussions of destiny and the nature of the universe, and strange dream-like fantasy sequences.

This is a massively, deceptively complex story, and probably a film you need to see twice to even begin to fully understand. Is it about time travel, parallel universes, the nature of fate, or something else entirely? Personally I found the conclusion – where all is not quite made clear – to be bleakly romantic, but I think everyone seeing the film will come away from it with their own idea of what it actually means (and there are some very detailed explanations of some of the theories out there in cyberspace).

The cast do it full justice – as well as the previously mentioned performers, there are great turns from Jena Malone as Donnie’s girlfriend, Maggie Gyllenhaal as his sister, Drew Barrymore (who exec-produced and whom we therefore should probably thank for the film being made at all), Mary McDonnell, and Beth Grant, to name but a few. There’s a terrific 80s soundtrack, too.

Apart from the fact that it’s one of many current movies and TV shows that mention child abuse in such a way as to simply devalue the seriousness of the crime, there’s not much I can find wrong with Donnie Darko. It’s a film that entertains and amuses at the same time that it’s prying your subconscious open and inserting a lot of very strange material indeed. I saw the lunchtime showing and for the rest of the day images and concepts from the film kept erupting, seemingly at random, into my mind’s eye, a rather peculiar and distracting experience. Donnie Darko probably shouldn’t work at all, let alone as well as it does. But Kelly pulls it off, and has made one of the most distinctive and absorbing films of recent years. Recommended.

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‘A cross between Groundhog Day and Murder on the Orient Express.’
 
Oh, good grief. It’s enough to make you swear off CNN (the source of that particular critical gem) for life. Okay, folks, in the wake of all this ‘It’s Bourne meets Inception’ and Black Hawk Down meets Independence Day’ nonsense, that was the final straw. Henceforth if you ever catch me describing a film in such a lazy, mechanical and – honestly – inaccurate way, shout at me, because I’ve had enough.
 
Normally I try and steer clear of other peoples’ opinions when choosing what to see in my weekly trip to the cinema – I mean, if you have any ambition to write film reviews with something like integrity (don’t start) you have to leave your preconceptions and prejudices at the door (not that I’m actually aware of anyone who’s completely successful at this).
 
Here’s the deal. I was put off going to see Duncan Jones’ Source Code by the trailer, which doesn’t do the film any favours. I thought it came across looking like another high-concept middle-budget Phil Dick pastiche, with hefty dollops of stuff derived from other bits of TV and movie SF. And I’ve seen enough of those, ta. This week I was going to see… er… a certain other movie, which had the virtues of at least looking original, and being directed by someone whose previous movies I’ve all really enjoyed (well, I didn’t bother seeing the one about the owls, but…). However. The certain other movie has received unanimously toxic reviews, while everyone’s raving about Source Code. It was time for a change of plan.  

 

In the movie Jake Gyllenhaal plays Colter Stevens, a US serviceman who wakes up to find himself on a train in Illinois. But on the train Stevens is not Stevens: his wallet is that of a man named Fentress, and on looking in the mirror he sees a face he doesn’t recognise. It’s as if he’s been teleported into another man’s life without anyone noticing, not even Fentress’s closest friend on the train, Christina (Michelle Monaghan). Before he can even make sense of all this, a bomb blows the train apart and kills them both –

– and Stevens finds himself suspended in a dark, but oddly familiar space. A woman in military uniform (Vera Farmiga), under the command of a spiky boffin (Jeffrey Wright), is giving orders to him via a computer screen. Suddenly he find himself waking up on the train again, the events leading up to the bombing replaying inexorably…

And the film continues from there, filling in information about both the train bombing and Stevens’ own predicament as it goes (the latter turns out to be at least as grim as the former). One really shouldn’t say too much about the plot, for fear of spoiling the journey into understanding which is at the heart of this film.

As a piece of proper SF, Source Code’s credentials are dubious at best: as the main scientist on display, Wright’s character is clearly an expert in bafflegab and gobbledegook. The reason it’s called Source Code at all is an aesthetic one – in the context of the story it’s a punchy, slightly mysterious name for a ludicrous piece of pseudo-scientific invention. Retro-Cognitive Psycho-Projectron would probably be a more logical and honest title, but the studio wouldn’t allow them to put that on a poster.

However, as a thriller with a big fantastical high-concept at its heart, Source Code is exemplary. Jones’ control of time and space is excellent: it’s not until after the film that you realise most of the story occurs in only three or four locations, none of them particularly sizeable, and the repeated visits to the train in the minutes before the blast never actually seem repetitive. Were he still around, I think Hitchcock would have relished the challenge of operating within such strictures: and I think he would approve of Jones’ work here.

There are inevitably shades of Groundhog Day here, but only very faint ones. I was put rather more in mind of Jonathan Heap’s 1990 short film 12:01PM (the makers of this film decided not to sue the makers of the more famous movie for plagiarism, so I’m certainly not going to say Groundhog Day ripped it off), in which a man finds himself trapped in a short-period time-loop with no means of escape, and the tone is much harder and darker. Source Code has something of the same quality of an endlessly recurring nightmare, particularly in its middle section.

On the other hand, there are numerous clues in Source Code – some of them obvious, some quite deeply buried – which indicate that the makers consider themselves mainly in debt to the late-80s-early-90s-liberal-angst-a-thon TV series Quantum Leap, although this story is much darker than anything that show ever made.

Source Code’s sources are basically immaterial, anyway, as this film manages to transcend them and become something quite new and original. Comparisons with the likes of Inception strike me as overgenerous – this film isn’t quite so technically dazzling, and it’s not intended to be a puzzle or particularly ambiguous in its ending, and any debates on that subject will almost certainly be the result of people not properly paying attention to the climax.
 
In the end, I’m very happy to have seen Source Code, although it didn’t quite live up to the expectations all those glowing testimonials had given. Had I gone to see it cold, I expect I might be even more impressed than I am. As it is, I think it’s a brilliant exercise in storytelling, well-played and actually quite moving throughout. And I suspect it’s at least twice as smart as most of the films that’ll be released to cinemas this year. Recommended. 

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 10th June 2004: 

In any kind of extended artistic career, there is bound to come a moment when one runs the risk of repeating oneself. This is not to say that there isn’t merit in choosing to explore the same themes in slightly different ways: but when you’re the director of blockbuster science fiction films, this sort of behaviour is a bit more noticeable.

And so it proves the case with Roland Emmerich, whose personal antipathy towards New York seems to border on a psychotic vendetta. So much so, in fact, that he seems to be running out of ways of devastating the city. Having demolished it with an alien death ray in Independence Day, and inflicted a giant irradiated iguana on the population in Godzilla, he’s now reduced to basically just clobbering the city that never sleeps with really rotten weather.

Such is the core of Emmerich’s latest offering, The Day After Tomorrow, a slightly oddball event movie which mixes terribly earnest ecological didacticism with good old-fashioned Hollywood carnage and destruction. The importance of the former can be deduced from the fact that this is the only summer blockbuster – in fact the only film – I can think of where the plot is powered by desalinisation. Basically, western civilisation has caused global warming to the extent where great big chunks of Antarctica are falling off into the sea (says the film), and this vast influx of fresh water makes the Gulf Stream and other warm-water currents pack up. This in turn (told you it was didactic) deprives us here in the northern hemisphere of our lovely mild climate – and being an Emmerich movie, this is demonstrated by hail the size of grapefruit mowing down salarimen on the Tokyo ginza, downtown LA being wrecked by giant tornadoes, and the British Royal family freezing to death in Balmoral. But it’s not all good news, as it looks like the world is headed for a new ice age. As soon as the news breaks, Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck are launched into space – not because this will help avert the catastrophe, but at least it’ll cheer everyone up a bit. Seriously, though, folks, this is a film with the potential to be really rather bleak and depressing, no matter how cheering the sight of mass death and destruction is: the tone throughout is of futility and despair, with only the faintest (and implausible) glimmerings of hope near the end.

But, this being a studio movie, the film-makers break the glass on the ‘In case of emergency’ script box and pull out that trusty old plotline, the troubled father-son relationship. This is the human story going on in the foreground as millions meet agonising deaths somewhere off in the distance, and it’s all about Jack (played by Dennis ‘Like Harrison Ford only cheaper’ Quaid), a maverick palaeo-climatologist (yes, another movie about one of those), who predicts the whole disaster but is wilfully ignored by the wicked and greedy American government (any resemblance to the current administration is, of course, entirely amusing). But Jack has more important problems to worry about than the collapse of civilisation as we know it. He has to see about fixing up his relationship with his teenage son Sam (played, rather somnolently, by Jake Gyllenhaal from City Slickers). As this could prove tricky if Sam turns into a corpsicle, off Jack treks to the frozen wastes of New York, where Sam is trapped with his geeky friends, his girlfriend (Emily Rossum), and a few other appropriately socially-and-ethnically-diverse survivors. The film doesn’t really go into details about why Jack bothers going in person, as all he does on arrival is radio for help – something I doubt you need to be a maverick palaeo-climatologist to do.

Yes, sorry, I’ve sort of given the end away there, but this isn’t a deep or challenging narrative in any way. Not to put too fine a point on it, the script of this movie stinks in all sorts of ways. It is, for one thing, toe-curlingly sentimental in the most obvious and glutinous way: there’s even a little boy with leukaemia, included for no apparent reason except to try and coax an ‘Ahhhh’ out of the audience. Fine actors like Ian Holm and Adrian Lester (Mickey Bricks from Hustle) stumble unwittingly into this stuff, thrash around helplessly for a while, and then vanish despairingly out of sight. (The script also clearly can’t decide whether burning books in order to survive is justified or not.)

It’s very clear that this is a film with A Message About Global Warming but it’s caught between its desire to be ecologically aware and the requirements of a big summer movie. As a result its credibility suffers – the meteorology seems incredibly suspect to me, and I’m usually so oblivious to the weather I can’t even tell when to bring the washing in. And even then the film really struggles to provide the small-scale action and excitement that’s the meat of this sort of adventure, eventually reduced to contriving sequences where characters are chased down corridors by wolves or nasty low-pressure fronts. The special effects are undeniably spectacular, but nearly all the big moments happen in the first half of the movie, and even then they’re impressive rather than actually exciting. (And you can’t help but suspect that if only the writers could have thought of a way for global warming to cause volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, we’d have those in the movie too!)

But the film shows flashes of wit on occasion, and it’s novel to see a summer movie that so clearly wants to be socially aware, even if it goes about articulating this in such a stunningly crass and obvious way. I can’t honestly claim to have been swept off my feet by The Day After Tomorrow, it’s too stolid, clichéd and silly for that. But if you like watching catastrophes it will hold your attention. And, as I said, as blockbusters go this is something a bit different – but different isn’t necessarily better, as this movie proves.

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