Like Moon, his previous film, director Duncan Jones brings an all-too-welcome level of thought and intelligence to the sci-fi thriller Source Code. It´s rare to find a genre film that doesn´t just introduce interesting ideas but faithfully explore them without resorting to formula trappings (I´m looking at you, Deja Vu). But that´s exactly what Jones has delivered. Again.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Colter Stevens, a military helicopter pilot who wakes up on a commuter train bound for Chicago – in another man´s body. Across from him is Christina (Michelle Monaghan), a woman who seems to know him, or know the body he´s in. Colter doesn´t have much time to examine his situation, however: in eight minutes, a bomb detonates and destroys the train and everyone on it.
But Colter doesn´t die – he wakes up, again. Now he´s strapped to a seat in some kind of chamber (shades of the time travel device in 12 Monkeys) and communicating with Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) on a television monitor. “What is this? Where am I?” He asks. Goodwin doesn´t seem to be too keen on providing answers. “We don´t have much time,” she tells him. “Find the bomber.” And, like Groundhog Day, he´s back on the train for another eight minutes.
Colter is in the “Source Code,” we learn, a device used to trace the brain activity of a recently deceased person, match that to a living person, and send that person on a living journey through the last eight minutes of the deceased´s life. The bomb on the train was the first in a suspected series of terrorist attacks; Colter must find the bomber within the Source Code and relay that information to prevent a future attack.
How can Colter do things in these eight minutes that the deceased man never experienced? “The Source Code is a gift,” inventor and supervisor Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) tells him. “Don´t squander it by thinking.” Apt advice for audiences, too.
We experience most of the film from Colter´s perspective, and Gyllenhaal is the perfect conduit for the audience as a perplexed everyman hero trying to cope with a situation he cannot fully comprehend. He wants to save the passengers on the train, even though they´re already dead. And hey, so do we. The supporting cast has less room to breathe, but Farmiga and Wright are fun in roles that are more complex than they initially appear.
In the span of two films, director Jones (born Zowie Bowie, the son of David Bowie) has already made a name for himself; in a world where science fiction is either too self-referential to appeal to mass audiences, or too sanitized to appeal to sci-fi fans, he´s hit the perfect notes in succession.
Under 90 minutes without credits, Source Code is a lean, tight, and most importantly, brainy thriller; there are holes here, sure, but the pacing is so swift we´re never given the opportunity to question them as the film is unfolding. The film is bound to inspire debate and discussion on multiverse theory, time travel paradoxes, and the feasibility of devices like those presented in the film. Compelling and thought-provoking without breaking a sweat, Source Code is a rare film indeed.
The titular eagle is a golden statue, lost along with 5,000 Roman soldiers of the Ninth Legion during an ill-advised mission past Hadrian´s Wall into Northern Britannia (modern-day Scotland). Twenty years later, Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum), the son of the general who led that expedition, finds himself defending an outpost south of the wall; his leadership against a Celtic tribe earns him military decoration, but injuries from the battle also earn him an honorable discharge.
Recuperating at a villa owned by his uncle (Donald Sutherland), Aquila decides to resume his career and restore his family name by travelling to the north and reclaiming the eagle. His only companion for this perilous journey through vast wilderness and warring tribes is the slave Esca (Jamie Bell), who Marcus saved from gladiatorial execution.
Based on Rosemary Sutcliff´s bestselling novel The Eagle of the Ninth (previously made into a 1977 BBC miniseries), Jeremy Brock´s screenplay struggles with scope at first but finds its footing with the introduction of the Esca character, who provides a nice balance to Aquila; their growing – but wary – relationship lies at the heart of the film.
Despite a PG-13 rating in the US, the film rarely shies away from graphic violence; the battle scenes are so hyper that we rarely catch more than a glimpse of bloodshed at a time, but there´s also an onscreen decapitation (effectively conveyed via a wide shot) and the execution of a small child. The latter feels gratuitous and unnecessary; the film has not earned this scene, nor does it need it.
While there´s really only two of them, those battle scenes are the one real detriment here, an incoherent mix of handheld camerawork and rapid-fire editing; something happens during these scenes, but we don´t find out what, exactly, until they´re over (we don´t even realize a major character has died until we spot his corpse amongst the dead). Unfortunately, that´s to be expected these days.
Director MacDonald was a renowned documentarian (One Day in September won him an Oscar, and Touching the Void remains one of the most thrilling adventure films in recent memory) before finding critical success in the fiction features The Last King of Scotland and State of Play. The Eagle feels like something of a departure for him – no awards await this one – but MacDonald fully understands the material and faithfully delivers it to the screen.
Location cinematography in Scotland (by Oscar-winner Anthony Dod Mantle) is among The Eagle´s chief strengths; lush greens and luminous blues help provide the film with a memorable landscape. The mentality may be old-fashioned low-budget, but this is still an A-list production; for the true B-movie experience, see Neil Marshall´s similar Centurion.
Bernard Rose´s Mr. Nice celebrates Howard Marks, the Welsh cannabis smuggler who was said to have controlled, at one point, 10% of the world´s hashish trade (“I´ve imported enough marijuana to get every inhabitant of the British Isles stoned,” he claims at one point). Marks evaded authorities for years before being extradited to the US and serving time for trafficking. Today, he lives as a free man in the UK, campaigning for the legalization of marijuana.
Mr. Nice is a well-intentioned and nicely produced film that I have just one issue with (and I had the same issue with Ted Demme´s Blow, a similar film): I´m not so sure we should be celebrating Mr. Marks. And if we are, he isn´t quite interesting enough, at least as evidenced by the film. Interesting things happen to him and because of him, sure, but he lacks the internal complexities that would make him a compelling character.
Rhys Ifans stars as Marks, at the outset of the film an Oxford University student (seeing 40-year-old Ifans as a college student here is rather amusing). He´s a good student who is introduced into the world of drugs but maintains high grades and gives up the narcotics when he lands a teaching job. But when busted friend Graham (Jack Huston) asks him to drive a car loaded with hashish into the UK – and his wife announces that she´s fallen in love with another man – Howard is quick to switch professions.
Mr. Nice is a glossy, encompassing look at Marks´ life in drugs, from a connection in Afghanistan that brings him high-grade hashish, to the IRA man (David Thewlis) who helps him smuggle it into the UK, the accountant (Jamie Harris) who helps him launder the money, the MI6 friend who recruits him, and a connection in the US (Crispin Glover). Also in the mix: his second wife Judy (Chloë Sevigny) and three kids.
In detailing all of the intricacies of drug-smuggling exploits, however, writer-director Rose (and possibly Marks himself, whose autobiography the film is based on) fails to bring the same level of detail to the lead character: Marks here is a surprisingly bland hero. He doesn´t use violence, he never dabbles in anything more serious than hashish, he won´t rat out anyone – but the motives behind all these decisions is absent; he´s an arbitrary opportunist who takes what he can get. Climatic scenes ask us to care about Marks and his family, but he was smart enough to see this coming.
Director Rose has been an unsung auteur, tackling a diverse range of subjects: Candyman (one of the creepiest – and best – horror films of the past 30 years) won him acclaim, as did his Beethoven biopic Immortal Beloved; his recent Tolstoy adaptations have received less attention (ivansetc, however, is highly recommended). Rose wrote, directed, shot, and edited Mr. Nice, and his inventiveness as a filmmaker keeps our attention even when his script doesn´t; the use of period stock footage is particularly imaginative. He also provides the film with an aloof – but agreeable – comedy-drama tone, a notable departure from his previous films.
Original music is by Philip Glass, who also provided the unforgettable score to Rose´s Candyman. Mixed in amongst period hits, the Glass pieces intermittently grab our attention but are ultimately feel underused (even a by-the-numbers thriller like Taking Lives can be overtaken and elevated by a persuasive Glass score).
***Also opening: Eighty Letters (showtimes | IMDb), an autobiographical drama from director Václav Kadrnka. Screening in Czech, but you can catch it with English subtitles at Kino Světozor.
And: Čertova nevěsta (showtimes | IMDb), a fairy tale from director Zdeněk Troška (Kameňák) which is having limited matinee screenings at most of the major chains before officially bowing next week. Screening in Czech.