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Vera Farmiga

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Groundhog Train.


If Hanna was Run Lola Run meets Bourne meets True Grit, then Duncan Jones’ enjoyable B-movie Source Code — another film that has sat in both the viewing and reviewing queues for several weeks — is Groundhog Day meets Deja Vu meets Quantum Leap. Jones’ second film is nowhere near as great or gripping as his heady sci-fi debut, Moon, but it doesn’t really aspire to be either. Instead we have an amiable and breezy popcorn flick that hits at about the level of a quality episode of Amazing Stories, and I mean that as a compliment.

The agreeable, low-key feel of Source Code matches not only its two leads, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan — both of whom have their usual affable guy/girl-next-door appeal about them here — but also the patron saint of the reliving-the-past-so-we-can-make-it-right genre: Scott Bakula, formerly of Quantum Leap. (He’s here not just in spirit — Bakula also has a voice cameo late in the film. Well-played, Mr. Jones.) And if you enjoyed the time-traveling do-gooderism of Dr. Sam Beckett at all back in the day, you basically know what you’re getting here — A slightly longer and more high-budge episode of the show (alas with no Dean Stockwell — although Vera Farmiga is here, doing a lot of talking to a television screen, and Jeffrey Wright has fun muttering and puttering around in the background as a mad scientist of sorts.)

If for some weird reason you’ve never seen Quantum Leap, the conceit of Source Code is this: Captain Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) — a helicopter pilot who thought he was on duty in Afghanistan — wakes up on a train bound for Chicago, sitting across from a comely brunette (Monaghan) who seems to think he’s a teacher named Sean Fentress. Eight minutes later, before he can disentangle what’s happened to him or what’s going on, that train goes boom, killing all aboard. Then Capt. Stevens wakes again to find himself strapped within a futuristic-looking metallic pod, a la Jodie Foster at the end of Contact, with a military handler (Farmiga) trying to ping him over the radio. Most expensive training simulation evar?

Sort of. As the disoriented captain soon discovers, Stevens is actually the Army-donated guinea pig for a new time-traveling technology called (wait for it, wait for it) Source Code, which allows him to relive the last eight minutes of a dead man’s life — but only for informational purposes. In this case, his charge is, a la pretty much every season of 24, to figure out who the bomber of the train is before, in real time, he or she can strike again in downtown Chicago. And so Stevens dives back in, and in again, until he knows exactly when the coffee get spilled and where the gun on board is, all the while developing a closer rappaport with Monaghan. Is it possible he could use Source Code to change the past, rather than just learn from it, and save her life? Be a whole lot cooler if he could…

So, like I said, Quantum Leap — although there’s a lot of Groundhog Day here as well, particularly as Stevens gradually hones his eight-minute runs through trial and error (and learns how to get on the good side of some of his crustier travelmates.) More than anything, tho’, Source Code feels like an exercise in video game logic. Replace the train blowing up with “you have been eaten by a grue,” and for all intent and purposes Stevens is just playing an Infocom game here (or, for the unplugged, reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book.) And so there’s not much sense of danger here in Source Code — The pleasures to be had are less of the will-he-beat-the-ticking-time-bomb variety than of watching someone work out a “Bombing on the Orient Express”-style text-adventure puzzle.

Still, the movie is good fun, not the least since Gyllenhall (who’s already done time as [spoiler] an already-dead time traveler in Donnie Darko) moves along the story at about the pace of the audience: The script is a smart one — Once Stevens understands the ground rules, he runs with it, trying the things that you or I might try to sort his way through the situation.

Now, that being said, the movie’s ending doesn’t make much sense when you think about it. (It’s also unwittingly creepy, in a Being John Malkovich kind of way, if you take time to remember that somewhere before all this started there existed a teacher named Sean Fentriss.) But, hey, it’s a time-travel flick. More often than not, the logic is going to break down at some point regardless. Take it for its B-movie worth and Source Code is a fun, smooth, and involving ride, and a perfectly fine way to spend 90 minutes on a spring or summer day. And if you really like it, you can go ahead and relive it again — just watch out for the grues.

Groundhog Train.

In the trailer bin of late, Amtrak rider Jake Gyllenhaal is stuck in a moment he can’t get out of in our first look at Duncan Jones’ Source Code, also with Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, and Jeffrey Wright. Looks a bit too much like Tony Scott’s Deja Vu for my taste, but Jones has already earned the price of admission for this one with Moon.

Na’vi vs. the IEDs.

Y’all are probably on top of this by now, but the 2010 Oscar nominations were announced this morning, and the big fight of the evening looks to be blue cats versus bombs: Avatar and The Hurt Locker led the pack with nine nominations each. (Before the meme sets in, it should be noted that former married couple James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow have been very supportive of each other’s films from the start.) Anyway, some quick thoughts:

  • Best Picture: Avatar. Out of the ten nominees, it’s a two-movie race, and this particular picture didn’t even make my personal top 20 for last year. There might even be a King of the World backlash after Titanic running the table in 1998. But I’m guessing, given its box office, that Dances With Thundersmurfs (in 3D) will win this pretty easily. Still, it’s nice to see A Serious Man and District 9 get their due. The biggest WTF here is The Blind Side. C’mon now, really?

  • Best Actor: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart. Oscar got four out of five right (Jeff Bridges, Colin Firth, George Clooney, Jeremy Renner), and of those, I’d probably go with both Firth and Renner over Bridges. But, if I had my druthers, Sam Rockwell would have been nominated and won for Moon. (He should’ve taken Morgan Freeman’s Invictus spot.) Anyway, I’m guessing Bridges is a lock.

  • Best Actress: Carey Mulligan, An Education. Unless voters factor in her youth against her, I’m going with Sally Sparrow. I haven’t seen any of the other films in contention in this category, but I’m guessing Helen Mirren (The Last Station) and particularly Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia) will be considered already amply rewarded, and Gabourey Sidibe (Precious) will lose votes on account of…

  • Best Supporting Actress: Mo’Nique, Precious. I haven’t seen the film, but from what I can gather, this is a lockity-lock. Given that the Up in the Air vote will split between Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, the only real competition is Maggie Gyllenhaal for Crazy Heart. (Consensus seems to be Penelope Cruz (Nine) has been nominated for the wrong film, and she should be here for Broken Embraces.)

  • Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Inglorious Basterds. Like the rest of the categories above, this seems pretty set to me already. With the possible exception of Woody Harrelson for The Messenger, it’s hard to imagine any of the others getting close.

  • Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker. The consolation prize to losing Best Picture to Avatar, this Oscar will be richly deserved.

  • Best Animated Film: Up. Again, seems like a lock, given that it’s the only nominee also listed in the Best Picture category. Still, I’d rather see this go to Coraline or The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

  • Writing (Adapted Screenplay): This one’s more of a toss-up, and I get the sense it will probably end up being my bracket-buster. I kinda feel like I have to pick In the Loop, my favorite movie of 2009. But I could also see this being where District 9 or Up in the Air get their recognition for the evening. (Precious too might be a contender, but, again, will likely lose some votes on account of the Mo’Nique lock.)

  • Writing (Original Screenplay): Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker. I’m glad to see the Coens on here, but they’ve won this before, as has Quentin Tarantino.

  • Documentary Feature: The Cove. I want to see several of these, particularly Daniel Ellsberg: The Most Dangerous Man in America. But all word seems to point to dolphins in peril.

  • Foreign Language Film: The White Ribbon. Haven’t seen it yet, but I haven’t heard any other contender mentioned as often.

  • Music (Original Song): “The Weary Kind,” Crazy Heart. Take it to the bank.

  • Music (Original Score): Probably Up. It won the Globe, and it’s the only one of these films whose score I can even vaguely remember.

  • Costumes: It sounds like a two-movie race between Coco Before Chanel and Bright Star, although I personally wouldn’t mind seeing this go to Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.

  • Make-up: Really weird category this year. Of these three, I’ll guess The Young Victoria edges out Star Trek.

  • Technical Stuff: With the possible exception of Editing and maybe Cinematography (The Hurt Locker), I’m thinking all of this goes to Avatar.

Stuck Inside of Mobile.

“You wake up at Seatac, SFO, LAX. You wake up at O’Hare, Dallas-Fort Worth, BWI. Pacific, mountain, central. Lose an hour, gain an hour. This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time. You wake up at Air Harbor International. If you wake up at a different time, in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?”

Sure, constant work-related jetsetting may have hastened Tyler Durden’s descent into borderline psychosis in Fight Club. But, if you need a second opinion, airports are the sea in which George Clooney thrives in Jason Reitman’s well-made but disappointing Up in the Air. I found it hard to pin down exactly why this movie bugged me at first, until I thought more about that memorable rant from Fight Club: “Everywhere I travel, tiny life. Single-serving sugar, single-serving cream, single pat of butter. The microwave Cordon Bleu hobby kit. Shampoo-conditioner combos, sample-packaged mouthwash, tiny bars of soap. The people I meet on each flight? They’re single-serving friends.

And Up in the Air? It’s a single-serving movie, albeit one you might get in business class — glib, pre-packaged, wrapped in plastic, and, alas, not as tasty, nutritious, or filling as it looks. (After coming to this realization, I discovered Stephanie Zacharek felt much the same: “The picture is brushed with a fine glaze of slickness, a product sealed in a blister pack. It’s like airplane air — it has a packaged freshness that isn’t really fresh at all.“) Sure, from moment-to-moment Up in the Air is engaging enough, but sadly it all adds up to the less than the sum of its parts. (And I have a sinking feeling the Oscar of Crash, Million Dollar Baby, and Slumdog Millionaire will love it.)

Even notwithstanding an 11th hour jag that makes for a more satisfying landing than I originally suspected, there’s a lot of rote here: the obligatory wedding scene, the standard-issue epiphany in the middle of a public speech, the in vino veritas, letting-the-hair-down night among co-workers (set to not-so-Young-anymore MC); the Elliott Smith-scored nostalgic reminiscences of those days gone by, etc. etc. Up in the Air is impressively made and a Quality Production™ through-and-through, but it’s also over-stylized and curiously hollow, and it too often feels like a movie conceived by a marketing department. Imho, it needed more of that ragged, hand-crafted, DIY flair that marked the other two recent Clooney flicks this year, The Men Who Stare at Goats.

To give credit where it’s due, Up in the Air does boast one of the more memorable credit sequences I’ve seen in recent years — lovely aerial shots of the American landscape, set to a funked-up version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” (by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.) But things get gloomy pretty quickly thereafter, with — ripped from the headlines! — a lot of people like you and me finding out that they’ve been given the axe. (Reitman apparently put out ads in Detroit and St. Louis looking for recently laid-off folks — It’s as close to home-spun as Up gets.)

Anyway, holding the handle is Ryan Bingham (Clooney): A professional firer by trade (when he’s not giving motivational speeches on the side), Bingham spends his days breaking employees the bad news so their bosses don’t have to. This job keeps him on the road pretty much constantly…which is fine by Bingham — he’s an Airportman, never happier than when he’s lounging at the American Airways VIP club, or checking into a hotel for a layover, or cruising at 50,000 feet above the heartland. (In his defense, he does live in Omaha — would you want to go home? Also, his travel experiences generally seem a lot less shoddy than almost all of the ones I can remember, but perhaps that’s a function of the miles.) In short, for Bingham transition is bliss: He’s a ship always at sea, never reaching port, and being a million miles from home only means he’s got nine million more to go.

But, naturally, new forces threaten Bingham’s airline Eden. Perhaps most importantly, his squirrelly boss (Jason Bateman) has recently made a hire out of Cornell — Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) — and she has the bright idea to start firing people over the Internets — Thus, no more endless junket. (To which I say, good idea! If I were getting fired either way, I don’t see how having smug-ole-George Clooney hand me a packet in person is going to improve my mood about it.) For another, his little sister (Melanie Lynskey) is getting married (Danny McBride), and their honeymoon plans (and the nagging family responsibilities they confer) make it harder for Bingham to pack light, as is his wont. And confusing the situation further, Bingham meets his female counterpart in Alex (Vera Farmiga), an eye-catching gal who shares a fondness for traveling constantly and in luxury. Does all of this mean it’s time for Ryan to put down some roots and live like the rest of us, or has he had the right idea all along?

In my Best of 2006 list, I said of Reitman’s amiable but botched take on Thank You for Smoking that “[w]hat Smoking needed was the misanthropic jolt and sense of purpose of 2005’s Lord of War, a much more successful muckraking satire…But Smoking, like its protagonist, just wants to be liked, and never truly commits to its agenda.” Well, Up in the Air has the same sense about it. I haven’t read the Walter Kirn novel this is based on, but I’m willing to bet Bingham probably comes across as more of a jerk therein. It sometimes seems that the sharp edges of this tale — “fly the unfriendly skies” and whatnot — have been filed off here. Similarly, I don’t want to give away the ending, which you deserve to experience unspoiled after sitting through the interminable high-school-nostalgia and wedding scenes. But it also feels a bit like Reitman flinched from the material in the end, or even that the finish we get isn’t the one he’d have liked to be building to.

I’m probably being harder on this film than it deserves, but if I was complaining about Cormac McCarthy’s relentless misanthropy just the other day, Up in the Air veered too far for me in the other direction. As in Reitman’s Juno, everyone’s likable and well-meaning perhaps to a fault, even when they’re acting horribly. And, when things go south, well there’s always some sugary-sweet, anesthetizing indie ballad that can soothe the pain and take you to commercial. It’s a sales job Bingham would be proud of.

Bumpy Departure.


As far as remakes go, The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s sprawling, overstuffed Boston-area reinterpretation of Andy Lau and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs, is by no means an embarrassment. Packed with likable actors delivering quality performances (another hambone turn by Jack Nicholson notwithstanding), it’s a breezy and enjoyable two and a half hours of cinema, and it hits most of the beats of the original decently well. (Maybe too well. A little more deviation from IA might’ve helped in the suspense department.) Still, I left the theater somewhat disappointed, and am a bit surprised by the critical acclaim Departed is getting. For all the sleek direction, actorly firepower, and Mamet-ish wit on display here can’t disguise the fact that Infernal Affairs was a clearly better film — leaner and more nuanced, more elegiac and resonant. Lacking the emotional power of the original, The Departed basically just feels like a well-crafted but hollow genre exercise (that is, when it doesn’t feel like a Nicholson stunt.) And, as far as well-crafted genre exercises go, I think I might’ve preferred Inside Man.

The central plot of both films is at once delightfully simple — cop plays robber, robber plays cop — and devilishly complicated. Here, two Southie graduates of the Massachusetts State Police Academy go to work for opposite sides of the law: Bright young overachiever Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) takes a gig in a top police investigation unit aimed at taking down nefarious crime kingpin Frank Costello (a.k.a. Whitey Bulger a.k.a. The Joker), while troubled screw-up Billy Costigan (Leonardo di Caprio) finds himself, after a stint in the joint, hired muscle in Costello’s organization. But all is not as it seems: As it turns out, Sullivan the cop — bought off by a bag of groceries a few decades earlier — actually works for Costello as a mole on the force, while Costigan the robber has gone deep undercover at the behest of BPD detectives Queenan (Martin Sheen, avuncular and presidential) and Dignam (Mark Wahlberg, aggro and amusing). As it becomes patently clear to both sides of the game that each has a rat in the house, Sullivan and Costello work to flush out their opposite before they get busted (or, in Costello’s case, dismembered.) And, complicating the situation even further (and in a departure from Infernal Affairs), these two nemeses also unknowingly share the love of the same woman, an alluring police shrink (Vera Farmiga) who tends to make really poor life decisions.

All of this is executed competently enough. Scorsese keeps the wheels turning and the tension up throughout, and The Departed benefits from many excellent performances around the margins: Both Wahlberg (easily the most comfortable with the Boston accent, for obvious reasons) and particularly Alec Baldwin (as a grizzled police detective, one-half his character in Glengarry Glen Ross, one-half Sgt. Jay Landsman) are laugh-out loud funny at times, while David O’Hara and Sexy Beast‘s Ray Winstone add sinister depths to Costello’s criminal outfit. And, while most of Mystic River felt more plausible to me, the Boston locale gives The Departed some strong local color that feels fresh and different from the Hong Kong of Internal Affairs. (I particularly liked some of the Irish witticisms. I’d never heard the Freud quote: “This is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever.” And I enjoyed Sullivan’s warning to his psychiatrist girlfriend late in the film, something along the lines of “If this isn’t working, you need to get out. I’m Irish. Something could be wrong, and I’d spend the rest of my life just dealing with it.“)

Both Leonardo di Caprio and Matt Damon do high-quality work too, but here some of my issues with the film emerge. As played by the charismatic Tony Leung of Hero, In the Mood for Love, and 2046, the undercover cop character in Internal Affairs is a resigned, world-weary sort, a guy who seems to carry reservoirs of inexpressible sorrow with him everywhere he goes. But, here, di Caprio is basically a pill-popping panic attack for two hours, cringing and sweating his way through every scene. Fine, that’s a stylistic choice: More problematic is Damon’s character, who’s become considerably less interesting than the conflicted cop played by Andy Lau (of House of Flying Daggers) in the original. For some reason, he’s been stripped down and rendered a much more conventional villain. Damon does what he can, but I preferred the subtler, more pained motivations of Lau’s mole than I do the unctuous, take-no-prisoners careerism they’ve saddled Damon with here.

And then there’s Jack. Nicholson has put in some extraordinary performances in his time, but, as someone put it in another comment thread, he’s been coasting like Pacino for a couple of decades now. And, for some ungodly reason, Scorsese gave Nicholson free rein here to act as crazy as he wants. (Yep, the dildo idea was his.) As a result, Nicholson can’t stop leering and preening to the point of distraction. Whether it be making rat faces, covering his arms in splatterhouse gore, coking out with two prostitutes in the Red Room from Twin Peaks, or generally just acting like he’s seated courtside at the Staples Center rather than running a crime operation, Nicholson just doesn’t work here. Wildly over the top throughout, he’s like a refugee from a sillier, stupider film, and he too often makes The Departed feel little more than a Marty-directs-Jack! casting stunt.

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