Monday, April 18, 2011

The Next Three Days (2010)

He’s a good guy. He treats his wife to an elegant dinner, spends time with their son at the playground, teaches at the community college. A nice guy. An ordinary guy. Not awesome. Not always quick on the uptake, a few pounds overweight, sometimes naïve.

But now he’s at the visiting room at the county jail. The woman in the red scrub top—that’s his wife. She’s in jail for murder. Her face is hard, her jaw tight. Her eyes bore into his. She leans forward. Listen to her.

“You know, you never even asked me if I did it. If I killed her.”

He stares at the table top before him for a second, then looks at her.

“Because I knew you didn’t.”

Her attorney has told him that he needs to just look at the evidence. His parents feel sorry that he won’t accept the truth. She’ll be locked up for the next twenty years. But now, she—his wife—is here, in front of him. Speaking to him.

“Then you’d be wrong,” she says. “I did it.”

He’s a good guy. He treated his wife to an elegant dinner, spent time with their son at the playground, taught at the community college. A nice guy. An ordinary guy. Not awesome.

But he’s going to break his wife out of jail.

The film’s “hero” is hardly that. He buys a gun, but doesn’t know where the bullets go. He cruises through dark alleys and rubs shoulders with other social strata in seedy bars, but stands out like the middle-class white guy he is. A stressful interrogation by a suspicious prison official makes him violently sick. Unlike the Hollywood heroes who can shoot, fight, track and lie with proficiency, this one learns from library books and YouTube videos.

But despite his naïve hopefulness and combed incompetence, his is a dogged perseverance and fidelity. He exhausts every legal avenue, earning his attorney’s ire. His face perpetually sports the cuts and scars of backstreet battles, but eventually makes it to the front of a false passport. His search for the key to releasing his wife is abruptly broken off, but he finds that even locked doors can be opened. Challenged to abandon everything, he remains faithful to what he most holds dear.

His ordinariness, his ignorance of how to load a gun, his uncool car, his aggravating short-sightedness in discarding incriminating papers—all these do not obscure who he is. He may know nothing about jailbreaks, but at his core is an unrestrainable loyalty. He may be betrayed, ambushed, attacked, threatened; people may die. But his devotion does not.

He never tells his wife he loves her, but he does. There is some passionate, physical face-to-face in the film, but if anything this seems fleeting and shallow. Instead it is the little things, strung together in long, unbroken chains—the way he throws out playful, tongue-in-cheek comments to make her smile; the way he keeps coming back, month over month, to visit her in jail; the way he looks at and cares for their son; the way he rebuffs that pretty brunette, Nicole, at the playground (her daughter is just about Luke’s age); and the shaky, but unshakable, way he repeatedly works to free her, regardless of all who oppose it. He loves her. He’ll do anything for her.

So he goes back to the jail. He takes a seat, waiting in front of the glass, the phone to his ear. She picks up the other end, and starts to speak, but he cuts her off.

“Shut up. I don’t care what you say or how you say it. I don’t believe you did it and I never will. I know who you are.”

Is the movie a romance? Sure—in every sense of the word. But in another way, it is very real. The people are always imperfect, often prone to failure, sometimes profane. But the film is like its hero: unremarkable…yet remarkably so. It is about an ordinary guy.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Source Code (2011)

Stevens: What would you do if you knew you had less than eight minutes to live?
Christina: I don't know . . . I would make those seconds count.

And that’s exactly what Captain Colter Stevens attempts to do. Make his final eight minutes count. Over and over and over again.

Welcome to the Source Code. Captain Stevens awakens, finding himself in the body of Sean Fentress on a train that is set to explode in eight minutes. But the bombing has already happened and Sean has already died. Through the wonder of science, it is now possible for a soldier to inhabit the body of a deceased person for the last eight minutes of their life. Each time Stevens returns to the train he finds new clues which will help him identify the bomber who now threatens to destroy all of Chicago. During this quest, Stevens develops feelings for a beautiful passenger whom he then sets out to save.

While marketed as an action thriller, this film is, at its core, a character drama. And it excels on both levels. Edge-of-your-seat suspense captivates and never bores. I was able to call some of the plot twists, but others were completely unexpected and shocking. It’s also a solid who-done-it that provides some interesting ethical themes to contemplate.

The characters were rich and deep, a difficult task since many of them had only eight minutes in which to develop. Jake Gyllenhaal convincingly portrays Captain Stevens, the flawed hero who must save the world, get the girl, and sort out his past. His performance is earnest and often touching. Michelle Monaghan and Vera Farmiga, while not given a whole lot of screen time, do a good job portraying their characters: Monaghan as the girl the captain must save, and Farmiga as the sympathetic mission commander.

There is always the danger that a film that features repeating scenes and identical sets can become tedious and boring. However, director Duncan Jones clearly anticipated these moments, making sure that this was never the case. I was enthralled to the end.

The film would have been near-perfect if it had ended five minutes earlier, at the height of emotional impact and tear-jerking redemption.The ending we’re given isn’t bad, but it detracts from the beauty of the film and feels very Hollywood-esque. But don’t get me wrong, it is still plenty satisfying and heartwarming.

On the technical end, this film is a wonder. The film quality was astounding. Each shot was chosen with such brilliant precision that the director did not need to rely on the cheap trick of shaky cam to increase suspense. Editing was top notch, and the special effects were realistic and impressive. The soundtrack by newcomer Chris Bacon was a bit too bombastic for my tastes, but it worked well in the film and brought a sense of urgency to an already suspenseful story.

Love, forgiveness, heroism, and seizing the time we are given are the main themes presented. Captain Colter Stevens continually put his life on the line as a helicopter pilot and now puts his life on the line repeatedly in order to try and save the world from mass destruction and chaos. His character provides a great moral backbone to the story and these themes provide good fodder for consideration as you enjoy this roller-coaster of a ride.

So take a journey into the Source Code; you’re guaranteed a great time.

Caution: The film was marred by some infrequent strong profanity and a few mild innuendos.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Sucker Punch (2011)

Sucker Punch (noun): a blow made without warning, allowing no time for preparation or defense on the part of the recipient. It is usually delivered from close range or from behind.

“You will be unprepared.”

In the movie, our protagonist, Baby Doll, is sent to a mental institution after her abusive stepfather falsely accuses her of attacking him and killing her sister. Locked in a physical and mental prison, Baby Doll seeks freedom. She must escape into her imagination to obtain the tools she needs to escape. Helped by four friends and their guardian angel, she begins her journey towards survival.

The opening sequence felt like a sucker punch as I witnessed two deaths, attempted rape, brutal murder, and child abuse. Brutal yet brilliant, I felt immediately sympathetic for the protagonist and disgusted by all the evil. I was engrossed. Unfortunately, this level of suspense and character development was not sustainable. The rest of the movie played out like a poor recollection of a dream: “Um...and then this happened. And I’m not sure why, but he was there. And so anyway, we did this. And then....” And on and on it goes. The muddled plot annoyed rather than engaged. The story, which desperately tried to be clever, flipped back and forth between three different realities with no explanation or reason. I was left with the insurmountable task of figuring out what exactly was going on. Finally, in the third act, the filmmakers attempted to sucker punch the viewers with an unexpected twist. While the twist was interesting, the characters had so little depth or development that it was hard to care about their stories.

Thus, this attempt felt more like a sucker poke.

The dialogue was sub-par—and unintentionally chuckle-producing—as the screenwriter attempted to set the record for most cliches/platitudes in one movie. The acting was adequate, with no stand-out performances, either good or bad. The soundtrack was loud and bombastic, and score was almost entirely replaced by remixes of pop songs. This detracted from the movie, especially during the action scenes.

But let’s face it, it’s clear that nobody is going to see this movie for its plot, dialogue, soundtrack, or acting. It’s all about the action. And, boy, is the action a treat for the eyes. Zack Snyder is no stranger to action sequences, and working within the limitless possibilities of a “dream world” allowed him to shine. Ninjas, Nazis, robots, zombies, orcs and dragons are the enemies the protagonist must defeat. Each battle is beautifully choreographed, each one featuring more slow-motion destruction than the last. The colors are brilliant and the sets fantastical. The stunts are impressive and “wow” inducing. You will not be disappointed with the array of weaponry, creature animation or constant explosions. Action saves this movie from obscurity making it worth seeing for these scenes alone...almost.

What I was unprepared for was the content that fills the gaps between action scenes. While never graphic, the audience witnesses three attempted rapes, brothel living (and some discussion about the profession), loads of immodest attire, and infrequent profanity. The violence outside the dream world is brutal and leaves the viewer sick and disturbed, detracting from the wonder of the choreographed fight scenes.

The action sequences look great but the rest of the movie can and should be missed. I was amazed by the action but underwhelmed by the story, which left me with an overall distaste of what I had just seen. It’s occasionally fun, but more often shallow and bad.

Don’t be suckered into thinking this movie packs much of a punch.