Monday, April 11, 2011

"Source Code" beats "Adjustment Bureau" for Hollywood's existential excursion of the month; Belated R.I.P. Elizabeth Taylor


directed by Duncan Jones
starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright


directed by George Nolfi
starring Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery (I almost wrote "Roger Sterling"), Terence Stamp

What is real? How do we know it's real? Is everything we see, hear, feel, and remember no more than an elaborate illusion? Are we merely puppets of a superior being—god, alien, or machine—or are we free to forge our own destiny?

These questions have been knocking around in our collective consciousness since time out of mind, but they tend to have more visceral power in the form of science fiction novels and movies. Certainly the profoundly unsettling idea that one’s entire existence is a lie, constructed and controlled by unknown forces, has driven dystopian classics from “Blade Runner” to “The Matrix.” The last couple of years have seen a new resurgence of films that tackle this premise—“Moon,” “Inception,” and most recently, “The Adjustment Bureau” and “Source Code.” These last two stand out in that they dial back the dystopic elements and punch up the romantic ones—in particular, the age-old fantasy that love conquers all. Both movies celebrate, with strikingly less ambivalence than some of their predecessors, the human will to defy, in the name of love, those mysterious, implacable, seemingly omnipotent forces that have something else in mind for you.

“The Adjustment Bureau” is the simpler of the two films, a quality that works both to its advantage and to its disadvantage. Loosely based on a Philip K. Dick short story, it follows the star-crossed paths of two very different individuals—rising political star David Norris (Matt Damon), a charismatic Congressman with his eye on a Senate seat, and free-spirited contemporary dancer Elise (Emily Blunt)—who meet by improbable accident and immediately fall hard for each other. Fate, however, conspires to keep them apart: fate, or the Adjustment Bureau, a mysterious task force of gray-suited, bowler-hatted men with the ability to manipulate time, space, and events to ensure that everything in the world happens according to a predetermined capital-P Plan. But even the Adjustment Bureau makes mistakes occasionally, which is how David stumbles upon its existence one day and makes the unnerving discovery that the Bureau apparently runs the world; his world; his life. He also discovers that Bureau has no intention of ever letting him be together with Elise, because it’s not part of the Plan, and because it’s for their own good, and the good of the world!

Like any self-respecting romantic hero, David reacts by, in essence, saying fuck the world and doing everything in his power to reconnect with his true love and stay one step ahead of the Bureau. The bowler hats, led first by a coolly insouciant fellow named Richardson (John Slattery, dapper-looking as always) and, later, the higher-ranking and correspondingly more ruthless Thompson (Terence Stamp), continue to frustrate David’s efforts—but never enough to keep him down, or away from Elise, for long. Aided by a more sympathetic Bureau man, Harry (Anthony Mackie), whose quietly soulful, slightly melancholy demeanor is just intriguing enough to keep him this side of “magical Negro” territory, David and Elise ultimately find themselves confronting the very deepest mystery of all: what (or who) is the Bureau, and what control does it really have over us mere mortals?

That answer, for some viewers, may be a bit of a letdown, or at best a bunt, and certainly incomplete. For others it may call to mind Milton’s problems in Paradise Lost. Not that “The Adjustment Bureau”’s goals are so lofty, though it does gesture towards one of Christianity’s central tensions—that between human will and the presumably benevolent, omnipotent will of God. That it doesn’t really attempt to resolve the million dollar question betrays not so much intellectual failure as the fact that it’s fundamentally much more of a romance than it is a philosophical excursion. (I doubt very much this was Philip K. Dick’s intention, but Hollywood has a long tradition of using Dick’s stories as little more than a jumping-off point for more conventional entertainment.) As such, the film would have been more effective, I think, if it had done more to develop the rather thin characters of David and Elise, particularly the latter. But then I tend to be deeply skeptical of “love at first sight” scenarios, even when they involve people as attractive as Damon and Blunt.

“Source Code” doesn’t do much better than “The Adjustment Bureau” in its treatment of the love interest (here played by the equally attractive Michelle Monaghan), whom we barely get to know at all. Nevertheless, it ends up being far the more compelling of the two films, probably because for most of its duration it’s focused with laser-like intensity not on the romance but on the disorientation of its male protagonist, Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), an Army helicopter pilot who wakes up one day to find himself in the body of another man on a commuter train to Chicago, mere minutes before it’s blown up by a bomb. After the explosion, Colter “wakes up” again in what appears to be his own body, trapped in a dark, creaky, pod-like space, with a video screen as his only link to the outside world. In due course a female officer named Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) appears on the screen and explains that by some scientific mumbo-jumbo, Colter’s consciousness was transplanted into that of one of the victims, just eight minutes before the explosion, and that he will be sent back there, as many times as it takes, until he figures out who set off the bomb. All this puzzles Colter mightily, as he has no recollection of ever consenting to such an assignment, and his last memory is of being in combat in Afghanistan. Goodwin refuses to answer most of his frantic questions and eventually persuades him to embrace his new mission. On each return to the doomed train, Colter both notices and does something different, and even though he’s repeatedly told that he can’t change what’s already happened, he becomes convinced that he can—no doubt at least partly influenced by the blue eyes of the pretty girl sitting across from him.

Crisply directed by Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie and director of the superior though tonally very different “Moon”), “Source Code” has been described as a cross between the early ’90s TV series “Quantum Leap,” and the movie “Groundhog Day.” That may be (I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never seen either), and it’s surely no coincidence that Scott Bakula, the star of “Quantum Leap,” has a voice cameo here as Colter’s father. But however recycled the movie’s elements and improbable its premise, the combination feels bracingly fresh and original—the immediate urgency of each eight-minute span deftly interpolated with the unfolding mystery of how Colter came to be in his current situation, and nicely leavened by humorous touches involving a cast of morning commuters in all shades of bored, shifty, obnoxious, and (in Monaghan’s case) inexplicably perky. Alas, the already precarious logic of the plot goes completely off the rails (sorry, couldn’t resist) at the end with an unnecessary final twist that isn’t worth trying to puzzle out. Still, the narrative preposterousness doesn’t take away from the impact of the revelation of where Colter really is or the unexpected poignancy of the relationship he builds with Goodwin, whose cool composure gives way just enough to offer hints at the truth. Both Gyllenhaal and Farmiga are excellent in roles that could easily have been flattened out by lesser actors. Rather less effective is the underutilized Jeffrey Wright as Dr. Rutledge, the scientific mind behind the project, who’s mostly seen shuffling distractedly behind Goodwin, only occasionally coming forward to engage directly with Colter. He’s supposed to be a shadowy, somewhat sinister figure, but instead comes across as faintly absurd, and as such ends up embodying the film’s weaknesses. Luckily, the weaknesses are largely outweighed by its strengths, making “Source Code” one of the more enjoyable head trips to hit movie theaters this year.

GRADES: "The Adjustment Bureau," B; "Source Code," B+

Also saw:


directed by Cary Fukunaga
starring Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Judi Dench, Jamie Bell

There’s something missing in Cary Fukanaga’s new adaptation of that war horse of British literature, Jane Eyre, though it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what. The film is beautifully shot, sensitively acted, and appropriately but not slavishly respectful of its source material. It captures the desolate beauty of the natural setting, the shifts in terrain mirroring the novel’s psychological landscapes, and handles the Gothic elements with a delicate touch—perhaps a tad too delicate. Jane Eyre, after all, is melodrama at its finest: all its subtlety is in the layering of the characters, not the plot, which spans a childhood marked by horrific abuse and privation, a forbidden romance between a poor governess and a wealthy man with a dark secret, haphazard wanderings that lead to highly improbable reunions and unexpected inheritances, spookily prescient dreams and telepathic communications, destructive conflagrations, blindings, maimings, and violent insanity. It’s amazing that for all its faithfulness to the text (apart from some judicious excisions), the film ends up being as quiet as it is.

Ironically, though, it’s the portrayal of the characters that feels most in need of a little more melodramatic flair. That may seem an odd criticism to make with regard to Jane (Mia Wasikowska), who’s supposed to be a plain, inconspicuous little thing, watchful and still, an old soul in a young girl’s body. But appearances, as the novel teaches, are misleading, and Jane’s calm demeanor conceals a remarkably complex and passionate nature: a woman of great intelligence, strong will, and rigid moral integrity, but possessing a volcanic inner fire that only time and adverse circumstances have taught her to control. In short, she’s an extraordinary character, and requires an extraordinary actress to play her. Wasikowska, an undeniably talented performer (she was wonderful in the HBO series “In Treatment,” and quite good in “The Kids Are All Right”), doesn’t quite pull it off. She exudes the necessary gravity and lucidity, but not Jane’s passion or her fierce hunger for love. And though Michael “sex on a stick” Fassbender does his best as Jane’s soulmate, the troubled Mr. Rochester, he’s only able to strike fleeting sparks against the cool flint of Wasikowksa’s gaze. Even in what should be the most charged scenes, one feels too little of the physical electricity and, later, the deep anguish that animate so much of the Jane-Rochester relationship. (In the electricity department, the 2006 BBC miniseries adaptation starring Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens, which is still my favorite—though perhaps unfair to compare to a two-hour movie—is far superior.) Their whole affair ends up feeling rather mannerly, and their final meeting oddly muted and anticlimactic. I hesitate to say this, but this “Jane Eyre” could have used a touch of Orson Welles.



directed by Joe Wright
starring Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett, Olivia Williams, Tom Hollander

I’ll admit that the concept of a movie about an icy-eyed, scarily efficient child assassin made me feel slightly queasy. But I’ll also admit to being pleasantly surprised by the actual movie. A 90-minute shot of cinematic adrenaline, “Hanna” proves a riveting, if shallow, piece of entertainment that skates lightly over its more disturbing moral implications and the thin patches of its plot. The latter turns on the unleashing of its heroine (a well-cast Saoirse Ronan), who’s been raised in utter isolation and single-mindedly trained by her father, Erik (Eric Bana), to be a ruthless killing machine. Her target: an equally ruthless CIA agent named Marissa (Cate Blanchett), who murdered Hanna’s mother and, Hanna’s father explains in no uncertain terms, will do everything in her power to murder Hanna as well. And so she does, the result being a globetrotting chase in which the cat and mouse roles continually shift back and forth between Hanna, Marissa, Erik, and various goons dispatched by Marissa to hunt down Hanna.

"Hanna" may be somewhat of a departure from director Joe Wright's previous work ("Atonement," "Pride and Prejudice"), but shows his trademark fluid camerawork accelerated into overdrive. The film has something of the feel of “Run Lola Run” and the Bourne movies, threaded through with a Grimms Brothers-esque fairy tale motif that’s laid on a bit thick—especially towards the end—but adds a touch of whimsy (albeit a melancholy one) that tempers the essential bleakness of Hanna’s story. Saoirse Ronan is terrific as Hanna, conveying both the otherworldly, almost unearthly strangeness that sets her apart from everyone she encounters in her entry into modern civilization, and the animal ferocity that can descend on unsuspecting victims at any moment; she’s like a cross between a wildcat and an avenging angel. At the same time, she’s not entirely divested of more recognizable impulses and emotions, and it’s that balance between the human and inhuman that makes her an unexpectedly compelling protagonist. Next to her, the adult actors pall by comparison, though Tom Hollander is amusingly creepy as the lead goon in Marissa’s employ, while Bana earns some sympathy points as Hanna’s guilt-ridden, ass-kicking dad. (He also has a delightfully memorable and utterly gratuitous scene in which he’s basically naked, which should please all Banamaniacs.) Still, this is Hanna’s show, and Hanna, appropriately, makes it worth watching.



During her lifetime, I never understood the appeal of Elizabeth Taylor. It's not that I only saw her late in life, when she became almost a caricature of herself. No, I saw her at quite an early age in the film "Giant," when she was at the height of her beauty, and I knew from my parents that she was commonly considered the most beautiful actress of her time, if not all time. Not a flaw in her face, my mom used to say. I disagreed. I saw plenty of flaws, and I didn't really see the allure. To me she was pretty but common, not distinctive, and lacking in elegance. She was no Ava, or Grace, or Audrey, or even Marilyn. And I was undoubtedly prejudiced by that well-known story about her stealing her friend's husband; never mind that Debbie Reynolds proved more generous than I (and probably 99% of women) ever could be.

And yet, ever since she passed, I can't stop reading tributes about her and poring over the accompanying photos. True, a large part of this obsessiveness is my attempt to understand the fascination she exercised over others. But isn't that a kind of fascination in itself? If nothing else, it's an acknowledgment that at some level, she "mattered."

She was the personification of glamour, a woman of large and unashamed appetites, a homewrecker, a collector of husbands, and a humanitarian who carried the banner against AIDS long before it became fashionable to do so. She was a fiercely loyal friend who saved the life of one (Montgomery Clift) and championed the innocence of another (Michael Jackson) in the face of withering ridicule. She was one of the last reigning goddesses of old Hollywood, though in some sense she left that title behind her long ago: "La Liz," celebrity, always seemed to me like a separate being from Elizabeth Taylor, screen star. She'll be remembered, however, for both, and deservedly so.