Apr 28, 2011

Source Code

Grade: D

Finishing a film, or any form of story, is an art in and of itself. A knockout finale can sometimes redeem a mediocre film and a weak ending can sometimes make it impossible to enjoy an otherwise likeable film. Source Code is one example of a film that, despite never reaching the greatness of its ambitions, is perfectly fine until its overstretched and melodramatic ending comes along and ruins it all.

My experience with Duncan Jones’s first film Moon made me believe that the originality of his vision in giving a human side to a sci-fi story and his technical wizardry in creating awe-inspiring visual effects on a modest budget could be capitalized on if he was given a bigger kitty and studio power. I didn’t realize, in my naivete, that with this studio money would come Hollywood’s mandatory requirement that the film should be a marketable crowd pleaser, that the emotional punch of Moon should become a gratuitous love story, and that the impeccably designed details of the interior of the lunar base would be swapped with noisier, but far less fetching CGI explosions.

Source Code begins with Jake Gyllenhaal, as Captain Colter Stevens, sitting across a young woman (later revealed to be Christina, played by Michelle Monaghan) on a train to Chicago. He doesn’t know why he’s there or why the woman repeatedly calls her Sean. Before he can settle into his surroundings, the train explodes and he wakes up in a dark and cold room, chained to his seat. Then he hears and through a screen sees Goodwin, a female military agent played by Vera Farmiga, who asks him questions about the train and only vaguely informs him of his situation. Despite Stevens’ pleas to contact his father, he’s sent back onto the train to investigate the location of the bomb that caused the explosion.

The system is later revealed to be called Source Code – a platform that allows a person to go back in time for an eight minute period, not to alter the events but to simply observe and report. Goodwin and her supervising agent Rutledge (played by Jeffrey Wright) are hoping to prevent another bomb attack in downtown Chicago by sending Stevens back to the train enough times so he eventually finds who the bomber is.

The logic of this system may be dubious, and Rutledge’s haphazard scientific explanation of its inner workings doesn’t help one bit, but we can allow science fiction cinema that much dramatic license. It is fiction after all. In fact, the whole process of the investigation is kind of fun to watch. Jake Gyllenhaal lends such charisma and emotional authenticity to his character that makes him worth pursuing. His gradually increasing chemistry with Michelle Monaghan and his impulsive, if slightly overacted humour give Source Code a human soul that almost saves the film from its undercooked plot and its weak CGI effects. For most of the film, his presence has the strength of a true movie star, promising that if he didn’t trap himself in rubbish like Prince of Persia and Love and other Drugs and did more of Zodiac and Brokeback Mountain he’d be one of the strongest actors of this generation.

On par with Gyllenhaal’s star turn is Vera Farmiga, who can really make a film worth watching with her eyes only, but here does much more than that by adding layers to a role that didn’t require her to do so at all. Unlike Jeffrey Wright, whose mechanical line readings – meant to exaggerate his stubborn and tough attitude I assume – feel like they’re straight out of a bad 60s science fiction TV show, Farmiga adds a much needed depth to her parts of the film with her warm attitude and quietly strong performance. Michelle Monaghan, too, plays her part really well in creating the chemistry that would actually force Stevens to want to go back and save her. One of the strengths of the film is that unlike many other science fictions, the hero doesn’t arbitrarily just fall for a girl because he has to. Monaghan’s performance makes Christina worth the storyline.

But all the problems with the film would have been forgiven if it hadn’t drifted apart completely in its third act. Source Code spends a great deal of time focusing on finding the bomber and as a result never pays much attention to the logic of the source code, which is a good thing in my opinion, given that the logic doesn’t really give the filmmakers much to work with. The problem starts when they try to change the rules they’ve set for themselves at the end. When Stevens asks for the first time how he can go back on the train and save the lives of the passengers, Wright flatly refuses and tells him that the source code is not designed to allow that. Why then, would the filmmakers decide to bend their rules and carry on long after the resolution has come is beyond me? Wouldn’t the film have been much better off with an ending that complied with the source code logic? Even worse is the drastic shift from the pulsating action to the gratuitous romance at the end. Why does Hollywood always see the need to reward a romance with a union and a kiss? Even though the film ends almost right at the 90 minute mark, the ending still feels incredibly long, only because Stevens’ explanation of the actual capabilities of the source code, his email to Goodwin, and his/Sean’s walk with Christina are so unnecessary.

In the end, Source Code falls short of being a satisfying action film, only because so much happens after its climax and so unbelievable are the rationalizations that they don’t allow the film to go out with a bang. It falls short of a good romantic film too because despite the chemistry, this romance is much more suited to the background of the story. The anticlimactic ending also spoils the dramatic effect that a similar but more plausible finale could have had, and the ethical questions raised are never properly answered either. But the film’s biggest problem is that for all its clever plotting and original ideas, it still falls victim to all typical genre trappings, something that Jones had smartly avoided in Moon.

He’s obviously showed great potential to become an important voice in sci-fi cinema. He knows how to create tension and he knows how to bring a humanist identity to the sci-fi world. Now the word is that he’s in talks to direct Wolverine. Frankly, he could be a great replacement for Aronofsky, but I’d be much happier if he went back to doing another small project with a compelling, twisted and original story.

Apr 25, 2011

Monday's Words of Wisdom

“We thought of Un Chien andalou because of two dreams. He dreamt his hand was full of ants – he told me his dream. And I dreamt of a knife cutting an eye. He said we could make a film with that. Using those irrational elements, we wrote the script in seven days. [The rule was] refuse any image that could have a rational meaning or any memory or culture. That meant any image that appeared to us that we considered impressive or impressed us, was accepted. Veto wasn’t used at all. The veto was: “I don’t like that” and the other said: “Neither do I.”

- on the making of his classic silent short film Un chien andalou with Salvador Dali

Apr 19, 2011

Trailer Time: Circumstance

The trailer for Circumstance, Iranian director Maryam Keshavaraz’s first feature film debuted yesterday. The film is set in the Iranian capital Tehran (actually filmed in Beirut, Lebanon) and is about a family’s struggle with their daughter’s rebellious teenage life. Circumstance won the audience Dramatic prize at Sundance this year; a prize previously given to films like Lee Daniels’s Oscar-winning Precious and last year’s Happythankyoumoreplease.

The trailer’s actually not bad. It promises an interesting youthful perspective on the condition of teenagers in Iran, and having grown up there myself, much of the trailer ring so true. Also, filming in Beirut with unknown Iranian actors gives the filmmakers the freedom to take any turn they want with the story. Needless to say, depiction of the underground party, or even merely showing the girls without their scarves would have been impossible had the film been made in Iran. Making a film with homosexual undertones? Don’t even think about it! So overall, I’m a Yes, and I’ll definitely watch this film. However...

Unlike most of the Iranian community on the internet, I’m still gonna keep my expectations pretty low. For one thing, I can’t think of a single film that was made outside of Iran about Iranians that was praised by Iranians as much as it was by others. Most recently, Shirin Neshat’s Women without Men which also dealt with women’s issues in Iran, and also won awards at major film festivals (Best director at Venice) left me with an empty heart after I’d anticipated it for more than a year, mostly because it was much more directed toward foreign art film followers than someone who’s actually familiar with the context of the film. It will go unnoticed by those of you who read the subtitles but here, the lines, even in these short two minutes, sound like they’ve been translated from English rather than written in Farsi in the first place, something that reminds me of the monotonic and overbearingly mechanical dialogue of Neshat’s film. (And in her film, the script was actually translated!)

Also, it seems like Keshavarz is trying to cover A LOT of ground in this film – homosexuality, oppression, religion, politics, and women’s issues. I’ll be the first to admit that religion and politics have been woven into the fabric of Iranian living for so long, it’s virtually impossible to leave them aside no matter what the film’s about, but still, is it a good sign if the trailer is showing bits and pieces of everything, as if it’s trying to prove that the film is aware of ALL these issues? I’d be happier if the trailer focused on the central relationship. I think I’m being too cynical but to be honest, I’m mostly put off by the soundtrack and its repeated use of the word Zoor (Farsi for force, or in context, pressure) than I am with the actual film. The images and the dialogue already transfer the message, Thank you!

Anyway, as I said, I’ll certainly watch this film. Regardless of its quality, I don’t get that many chances to watch people speak Farsi on the big screen and even if the film discusses too many issues without dealing with any of them in depth, I still can’t deny my interest in any of those issues. One can never judge a film by its trailer anyway. It can always go both ways. Let’s hope this is more of a Precious than a Happythankyoumoreplease.

*No Canadian release date has been announced yet, but south of the border, the film opens in August.

Apr 18, 2011

Monday's Words of Wisdom

"To me, the glory of what I do is the fact that it starts with a blank piece of paper. You look at something like Inglourious Basterds. If my mother never met my father, that would not exist in any way, shape or form. If my mother hadn't met my father, there would be no Inglourious Basterds in any way. It started off with a pen and a piece of paper, and now I have a movie."

Apr 13, 2011

The Beast's Love of Architecture

Watching Disney films after a long while feels like catching up with a really good old friend. You always pick up where you left. It always feels like the last time was only yesterday. Nathaniel’s choice for this week’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot fills me with joy as it made me catch up with a film I boundlessly loved as a kid, but hadn’t seen in precisely eight years: Beauty and the Beast. The film is packed with some of the greatest music that Disney ever produced and with such a memorable array of characters, from the two protagonists all the way down to every supporting character. Beauty and the Beast is a staple of my childhood along with 101 Dalmatians. I used to watch them every day. EVERY SINGLE DAY! Needless to say, so many images from this film were etched in my mind so for the first time, I knew which shot I was going to write about the minute Nathaniel announced the film for this episode.

You see, as a civil engineer and (crossing my fingers) prospective architecture student, buildings are the only thing more prominent than film and food in my life. The signs of this interest in structures were probably evident from those early days, since the images I remembered most vividly are those of the beast’s castle. On the film’s part, there’s no shortage of direct or indirect references to architecture. I don’t think any other Disney film relies so heavily on the atmosphere it creates purely through architecture.

The first use of the castle in telling the story is the early juxtaposition of the dark and light sides in the shot above from the opening scene. Before we even get a glimpse of the prince as the beast, we already expect a drastic change of appearance based on what we’ve seen happen to the castle. But that shot is just the first of many, where the animators convey meaning and feeling through architecture.

Later in the film, when Maurice, Belle’s father, enters Beast’s castle for the first time, the filmmakers get so much mileage from the castle’s heightened gothic towers and the haunting figures in the interior to show his solitude and helplessness in this foreign house (just as they do when Belle walks into the forbidden west wing a few minutes later).

Or look at how masterfully they use the architecture of the lustrous library to intensify the Beast’s effort in stealing Belle’s heart. Or the famous dance scene to the enchanting tune of Beauty andthe Beast, with the (animated) camera pan across the ballroom. The majestic stairs, the impeccably decorated dining room, and the ballroom with its gold-hued walls and illustrious chandelier are no less exquisite than Belle’s gown.

This emphasis on the castle’s design isn’t even limited to the imagery. The filmmakers, who had an obvious knack for architecture, go one step further to openly talk about their creation. But without sounding too sophisticated or out-of-place for a children’s film, they play the scene so casually that it makes for one of the film’s funniest and most heart-warming moments. In the scene, as Cogsworth and Lumiere give Belle a tour of the castle, Cogsworth points out:

“As you can see, the pseudo-facade was stripped away to reveal a minimalist rococo design. Note the unusual inverted vaulted ceilings. This is yet another example of the neo-classic baroque period. And as I always say, if it’s not baroque, don’t fix it. Ahhaahaa haha.”

Finally, my favourite shot in the film – at which I remember cheering every time it played – comes in the finale, during Beast’s transformation into the prince charming. Obviously, a film that mingles with architecture throughout doesn’t restrict itself by showing only the beast and his servants, but gives us a beautiful shot of the castle’s transformation as well. Here, as the golden raindrops fall on the castle, the dark gothic grotesques change shape into the white innocent saints.

How charming...

Is there another Disney movie I don’t know of that so intimately concerns itself with architecture? Have you seen Beauty and the Beast recently? Do you think Disney has made a better film than this one? This one’s quite hard to top!