Wednesday, April 27, 2011


If you approach Duncan Jones’ new film as a conventional ticking clock thriller, either you will be disappointed or, like me, pleasantly surprised by the existential preoccupations of the director and screenwriter Ben Ripley.  On a Chicago-bound commuter train we meet a disoriented Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) perplexed that a pretty woman sitting across from him named Christina (Michelle Monaghan) keeps flirting and calling him “Sean”, because he knows himself as a helicopter pilot stationed in Afghanistan.  But before Stevens can orient himself the train explodes and he awakes in a capsule to questions via video remote from military officer Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright).  Stevens gradually learns that he has been reassigned to the “Source Code” project in which he is projected via quantum mechanics into the mind/memory/body of Sean, one of the victims of a terrorist attack earlier in the day.  His mission is not to stop the bomb (since the explosion already occurred) but to identify the bomber so that a future dirty bomb attack in Chicago may be prevented.  The catch is that in each trip back Stevens only has an eight-minute window before the bomb explodes again, sending him back to base with whatever information he was able to obtain.  Call it GROUNDHOG DAY meets TV’s Quantum Leap.  Upon close examination the science behind the movie’s premise is nonsense.  But the filmmakers have little interest in it, using the premise as a modern day MacGuffin.  Instead they focus on Stevens and his growing realization of his true part in this military project and in the world at large.  Gyllenhaal, with his soulful eyes and hangdog expression, makes a compelling protagonist in this unconventional action movie.  Monaghan, on whom I’ve had a crush since the underrated KISS KISS BANG BANG, is endlessly appealing and deserves to carry a movie on her own.  Farmiga is marvelous and understated, and Wright nicely embodies the single-minded scientist.  Fans of Jones’ previous feature MOON can feel vindicated.  I, meanwhile, intend to rent that movie the next time I visit my local video store to confirm what I now suspect:  that Jones is a talent worth following.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

WIN WIN (2011)

What Paul Giamatti may lack in range (see THE ILLUSIONIST, however, for the best example of an exception) he makes up for with rich, humanistic shadings.  In director/screenwriter Tom McCarthy’s latest offbeat dramatic comedy, Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a New Jersey lawyer with a thinning practice who moonlights as a high school wrestling coach.  To help pay bills Flaherty becomes guardian to Leo Poplar (Burt Young), an elderly client declared legally incompetent.  But rather than maintain Poplar’s household as stipulated by the court, the overstretched Flaherty puts his client in a retirement home and collects the monthly guardian stipend.  Kyle (Alex Shaffer), the teenage son of Poplar’s estranged daughter, turns up hoping to live with his grandfather.  Flaherty and his no-nonsense wife Jackie (the wonderful Amy Ryan) take Kyle in to their home until they track down the boy’s mother.  Flaherty discovers that Kyle has exceptional skill as a wrestler and enlists him on his ragtag wrestling squad.  Kyle begins to thrive and Flaherty starts to feel his life turning around.  And then Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), Poplar’s ne’er-do-well daughter and Kyle’s mother, arrives hoping to reconcile with her son and take over her father’s guardianship and its monthly stipend.  Director McCarthy never overplays a scene nor goes for easy resolution, and he has a gifted cast that makes the most of this directorial strength.  Like filmmaking peer Alexander Payne, McCarthy chronicles the trials and tribulations of the middle class but with more warmth and less bite.  And the muted tone of the film rings true.  The underused Jeffrey Tambor and overused Bobby Cannavale round out the strong supporting cast.  Giamatti and Ryan are pitch-perfect, and Lynskey does much with an underwritten role.  However, the real find here is Shaffer, whose performance as the monosyllabic Kyle is unaffected, at times opaque, and always recognizable as a teenager.