In Duncan Jones’s sci-fi thriller Source Code Jake Gyllenhaal plays Captain Colter Stevens a U.S. Army helicopter pilot who awakens after an enemy ambush to find himself sitting on a Chicago-bound commuter train surrounded by strangers with absolutely no idea how he got there. As he struggles to process his strange new milieu he’s pestered with small-talk by a perky fellow-passenger (Michelle Monaghan) whom he doesn’t recognize but who clearly seems to know him. When he looks into a mirror staring back at him is the image of a man who while handsome is certainly no Jake Gyllenhaal. What Hitchcockian hell has Captain Stevens wandered into? Could it all be a dream?
Before Colter can ponder matters further a massive explosion sends him hurtling into oblivion from which he emerges intact strapped to a chair inside a dark capsule-like enclosure. A woman Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) pops up on a video screen and tersely informs him that he is now part of a new high-tech front in the War on Terror: Source Code an experimental program that allows a person to assume the identity of someone else during the last eight minutes of his or her life. Whoever planted the bomb on the train is said to be readying another far deadlier attack to unleash on Chicago in a matter of hours. The only hope for preventing it is for Colter to repeatedly scour the memory of one of the train's deceased passengers in the hopes of finding clues that might help them determine the identity of the bomber.
Soon Colter finds himself in an existence not unlike that of Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day revisiting the same eight-minute scenario over and over again. As a soldier his first instinct is to try and prevent the explosion from happening and save the lives of the innocents on board. But doing so is futile Source Code’s creepy and condescending inventor Dr. Walter Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) glibly explains. Source Code is not a time-travel machine but rather a “time-reassignment” device built on principles of quantum mechanics and parabolic calculus that Colter's feeble mind couldn’t possibly comprehend. The train bombing is a part of the past which is unalterable; Stevens’ actions to prevent its occurrence however heroic have no real-world ramifications. He is simply a detective whose crime scene is the residual consciousness – the “after-image” – of a dead man’s brain.
But if that were true Colter wouldn’t be able to exit the train make cell phone calls strike a romantic chord with Monaghan’s character or engage in various other activities that we see him perform in the film activities that lie well beyond the experiential purview of the dead man’s final memories. Could it be that the Source Code program is actually something more profound perhaps a kind of portal to a parallel universe? (Jones’s usage of Scott Bakula star of TV’s Quantum Leap in a clever cameo as the Colter's father provides a strong hint.) Colter's own experiences seem to confirm as much: Each time the train-bombing scenario unfolds he notices subtle differences in seemingly trivial details like the timing of a coffee spill. No two universes after all can ever be exactly alike.
This little twist exposes some potential issues with Source Code’s underlying logic chief among them being questions about the reliability of any “evidence” uncovered by Colter in his quantum adventures. The narrative asks us to take a few logical leaps of faith and I humbly suggest you comply. Source Code is more than strong enough as a film – an intelligent probing sci-fi thriller that packs a surprisingly strong emotional punch – to withstand any nitpicking about its theoretical veracity. Director Jones’s ambitions are grander his aim more mainstream his tone more hopeful this time around than in his haunting 2009 breakout hit Moon but the result is just as resonant.
There comes a time in every filmmaker’s career when it suddenly feels like they’re coasting. They’ve made a name for themselves had some success and challenged themselves in one way or another so now it’s time to take it easy do what they do best and give the people what they want. Perhaps they’re taking a break before they try to do something big again or maybe they’re paying off the debt of a previous flop but the one thing they’re not doing is taking any risks. It’s the same-old same-old and while it might please the fans the real admirers probably won’t be pleased. It happens more often than we’d like to admit but unfortunately it does happen.
This is the case with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs the latest from the director who gave us Amelie Delicatessen and City of Lost Children (the latter two co-directed with Marc Caro). Those films earned him comparisons to Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton but Jeunet proved he had a unique and witty cinematic style that he could call his own and with the international popularity of Amelie audiences everywhere took notice granting this very talented director a lot of leeway to make films in his own style. With his next film 2004’s A Very Long Engagement he decided to stray from the style of his previous films and attempt something more dramatic and though the film was generally well-received Jeunet decided to go back to the well of whimsy with Micmacs with very mixed results. While casual fans should be pleased anyone interested in watching a filmmaker grow artistically (as Jeunet had been) will shrug and leave disappointed.
Like his fellow fantasists Gilliam and Burton Jeunet’s detractors have often described him as a stylist first and storyteller second. I’ve never subscribed to that theory until now — I always felt a connection to his offbeat characters and stories — but with Micmacs he either has failed to help us make that connection or he simply doesn’t care enough himself. Part of the problem is that the film hangs on the flimsiest of plotlines: Homeless man Dany Boon seeks revenge on the feuding weapons manufacturers responsible for the landmine that killed his parents and the bullet in his head (a result a drive-by shooting) by teaming up with a rag-tag group of other homeless people all of them with their own set of special skills. A picture like this should hook us in from the very start or it’s never going to get off the ground and Micmacs’ opening already suggests that Jeunet isn’t breaking any new ground here; whimsy for whimsy’s sake will only yield limited results especially without a real story in place. Although it’s filled with a number of the filmmaker’s patented set pieces Micmacs is never as engaging as it would like to be. Numerous sequences that resemble Rube Goldberg meets Warner Brothers cartoons are definitely amusing to watch and offer some trademark Jeunet imagery but there’s no reason to care about what we’re seeing. Boon’s plight should be a moving one but for Jeunet it feels more like an excuse to shoot his regular co-star Dominique Pinon out of a giant cannon.
Pinon’s presence represents another problem with Micmacs: although the film is very well cast almost none of these characters register with the audience. Boon’s homeless “family” is filled with faces out of the Jeunet central casting book but we never really learn who they are nor do we understand why they follow Boon’s character through the lengths that they do. Just because they’re “characters” doesn’t really give them character to portray and though the film is energetically performed by all (with special recognition going to the charming Marie-Julie Baup) they’re just figures for Jeunet’s giant Parisian play set. There’s no question that there are certain pleasures to be found in Micmacs; it looks wonderful with some great production design and cinematography by Tetsuo Nagata and Jeunet’s use of classic Max Steiner music definitely adds to the fun. But these enjoyments are really surface-level only and the film doesn’t have enough weight to hold them up. I certainly wanted to like this one more than I did and I’m sure many of you will disagree with my assessment and enjoy yourselves anyway but Micmacs ultimately isn’t the best example of what Jean-Pierre Jeunet is capable of.
From Paris With Love is a volatile hybrid half Hong Kong action flick half American spy thriller fused together in the Dr. Moreau-like laboratory of French filmmakers Luc Besson (The Fifth Element) and Pierre Morel (Taken). As a result of the violent process some parts emerge oddly distorted: Bruce Willis becomes John Travolta Matt Damon becomes Jonathan Rhys Meyers believability becomes an afterthought and plotting becomes irrelevant.
Made up like Ming the Merciless and channeling the hep-cat spirit of Vincent Vega Travolta stars as CIA Agent Charlie Wax a brusque trigger-happy bundle of Yankee hubris summoned to Paris to prevent a potential terrorist plot on a U.N. peace conference. Rhys Meyers plays James Reese an uptight entry-level operative tasked with ferrying Wax around the city to gather the intelligence needed to thwart the conspiracy.
Predictably the two agents quickly settle into the standard buddy cop relationship: Button-down rookie Reese is appalled by coke-snorting hooker-banging Wax’s unorthodox tactics which usually land them in the middle of one huge stunningly choreographed shootout or another; Wax in turn belittles his young sidekick’s naivety and stubborn adherence to protocol.
At times Travolta’s action-hero routine borders on embarrassing — like watching your grandmother try to rap — but his exaggerated bravado is not entirely without its charms. He’s by far the most enjoyable part of the movie skipping merrily through the bullet-strewn Parisian underground spewing politically incorrect aphorisms in between explosions reveling in his role as the obnoxious American. Virtually every line he delivers earns laughs — and often on purpose.
If only he had a more capable sparring partner than Rhys Meyers whose range From Paris With Love sadly reveals extends little beyond his petulant amorous act as young Henry VIII in Showtime’s The Tudors. As much as Travolta enlivens the action the unutterably bland Rhys Meyers deflates it — and he gets the lion’s share of the screen time unfortunately.
Director Morel who cut his teeth as a cinematographer on such kinetic action fare as The Transporter does some virtuoso work with the camera incorporating everyday locales into his exquisitely frenzied set pieces. Dinner at a nondescript Chinese restaurant ends in a massive gunfight; an intimate dinner party launches an extended chase; a routine brothel visit gives way to ... another massive gunfight.
If only he'd put as much care into his casting decisions. After each of From Paris With Love’s violent skirmishes when Reese questions why things went so suddenly — and disastrously — awry Wax angrily shouts “Don’t you get it yet?” to his hopelessly obtuse partner. At times I think Travolta is actually pleading with his fellow castmember to wake up get his act together and stop ruining the movie. It's a doomed effort.
Built from comic book auteur Frank Miller’s (Sin City) rock solid foundations 300 is based on his vision on the 1962 film The 300 Spartans filtered through the same tough-as-nails pulp sensibility that populates most of his comics work. Leaving such leaden wannabe sword-and-sandal epics like Troy and Alexander in the historical dust 300 reworks the real-life legendary tale of the Battle of Thermopylae in which a battalion of 300 elite Spartan soldiers heroically hold the line to protect ancient Greece from the invading Persian hordes. The story focuses on the Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) who must not only lead his small cadre of troops--each one honored since childhood into a razor-sharp battle-relishing warrior—into a battle they are unlikely to survive but he must also fight for the fate of Greece and its democratic ideals. As the bizarre seemingly endless marauding legions of the tyrant Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) descend upon the Hot Gates—a narrow passageway into Greece that Leonidas’ miniscule band can most ably defend—the soldiers take up arms without the usual post-modern anti-war hand-wringing that most war epics indulge in. These soldiers are both bred for battle and fighting a good fight and the film focuses squarely on the highly charged action. Meanwhile in a new plotline created specifically for the movie his equally noble and faithful queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) takes up arms in a more symbolic way as she also tries to keep democracy alive by taking on the political warlords of Sparta to secure relief for her husband’s troops. Butler has become a familiar and welcome on-screen presence in such films as The Phantom of the Opera and Reign of Fire but there has been little on his mainstream movie resume to suggest the kind of bravura fire he brings to the role of Leonidas. This is the stuff of an actor announcing himself to the audience in a major way akin to Daniel Craig’s star-making turn as James Bond. In a big bold performance that could have gone awry in any number of ways Butler plays even the highest pitched notes like a concerto perfectly capturing the king’s bravado bombast cunning compassion and passion each step of the way. Headey is his ideal match imbuing the queen with more steel and nobility in a handful of scenes than most actresses can summon to carry entire films. Fans of Lost and Brazilian cinema will be hard-pressed to even recognize Santoro whose earnest pretty handsomeness is radically transformed into Xerxes’ exotic borderline freakish form personifying a terrifying yet seductive force of corruption and evil that spreads like a cancer across the earth. And don’t forget to add in the most impressive array of rock-hard abs on cinematic display since well ever (think Brad Pitt in Troy times 300). Even bolstered by canny casting choices and their washboard stomachs helmer Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) is the true undisputable star of 300 establishing himself firmly as a director whose work demands to be watched. With a kinetic sensibility that’s akin to Quentin Tarantino and John Woo and using CGI technology to its utmost effects both subtle and dynamic Snyder creates a compelling fully formed world that the audience is eager to explore. Snyder doesn’t literally match Miller’s signature artwork as meticulously as director Robert Rodriguez did with Sin City. Instead Snyder captures Miller’s essence be it raw brutality majestic size and scope the exotic and otherworldly carnal physicality or hideous deformity--even seemingly antiquated and potentially off-putting techniques like the repeated use of slow-motion are put to fresh effect making every blow and cut seem crucial. Yet even in the visual glorification of some of the most bloody and violent conflicts ever put to film Snyder infuses the tale—which ultimately is one big glorious testosterone-soaked fight sequence—with the sense of honor and sacrifice which characterizes the most noble of war efforts. Yes war can be hell but this is a case where some like it hot.