Summit Entertainment

Source Code (2011, Duncan Jones)

Source Code is very much MacGuffin as movie. Numerous plot details exist solely to justify (and qualify) certain creative decisions; the film takes a bunch of familiar and somewhat familiar—depending on the viewer’s preferences—sci-fi tropes, devices, and gimmicks, streamlines them, then combines them in those spared-down states. For example, a time traveller in the future “jumping” into the past to learn from it; someone jumping into the past while aided by someone in the present giving direction. The time traveller not having as much information… I mean, okay, basically Source Code functions like it’s “Quantum Leap,” just with different technology and rules.

The film avoids going too deep on those rules and—especially—the technology because director Jones only wants to keep the viewer engaged and engaged enough to forgive the various logic problems. And until the overwrought ending, Source Code does an excellent job of keeping one engaged. Jones is working against a lot of constraints—the ninety minute runtime, the budget, Ben Ripley’s script; most of the film’s cheaper creative decisions come from that script. Like lead Jake Gyllenhaal being a decorated but soulful soldier with a really macho name. The soldier bit doesn’t actually play into the movie besides lip service—including unironic uses of both “War on Terror” and “Thank You For Your Service”—which maybe is required in a movie about a terrorist attack on Chicago not involving giant robots or flying men post-9/11.

Or it’s just the script. It’s entirely possible Ripley’s script’s bad elements are just Ripley’s writing. There’s plenty of evidence of his other bad writing, why not give it all to him.

Jones does a fantastic job taking the mundane and making it incredible. It helps for the action, it helps with the comedy, it helps with the pseudo-hard sci-fi elements.

The film starts with a series of wonderful shots of Chicago, drilling down on to a single commuter train—even if Source Code isn’t your bag, if you’ve ever ridden the Metra in Chicago, you should see it. On this train is Jake Gyllenhaal. He wakes up sitting across from Michelle Monaghan and has no memory of how he got there. In fact, it’s impossible for him to be there—he’s an Army helicopter pilot and he was just on mission in Afghanistan. Monaghan’s calling him a different name, his face is different in the mirror, it’s a very strange situation. But it only lasts eight minutes because then the train explodes.

Gyllenhaal wakes up in a flight suit, strapped to some kind of machine, in a spherical cockpit thing with Vera Farmiga (in a military uniform) on a video monitor talking at him. Gyllenhaal can’t remember how he got there, which kicks off Farmiga trying to get him back in sync. It takes Source Code most of the first act to establish the rules of Gyllenhaal and the time travel, but there are some big secrets the film’s keeping for later reveals. Source Code always has something else to reveal, though usually only because Ripley can’t figure out a way to be honest with the viewer (or Gyllenhaal).

Gyllenhaal’s worried about his fellow soldiers, worried about his dad, but a very rude Farmiga doesn’t care—he’s got to get back in time to figure out where the bomb is located on the train, who placed the bomb. They’re trying to prevent the second attack, so back in time Gyllenhaal goes again for another try. Subsequent tries has Gyllenhaal making some progress with the investigation and getting to know Monaghan. Now, while Monaghan’s part is sort of romantic comedy lead, it’s still stunning how fast Gyllenhaal falls for her. She’s polite to one person and he’s hooked.

But then Gyllenhaal gets the idea to investigate himself during his time in the past, which causes some conflict with Farmiga, who has to bring in her boss, Jeffrey Wright. Jeffrey Wright is a standard slime ball civilian military scientist. He’s the Samuel Beckett of Source Code but it would never occur to him to try the machine himself. Why bother when you’ve got soldiers. A little Wright goes a long way; the point where he starts getting more screen time is when it’s clear the present day stuff is never going to be very good. And not just because Ripley didn’t even come up with a reason for Farmiga to be assigned to the unit. She’s in the Air Force, not the practical application of quantum mechanics and string theory department. It wouldn’t matter if the film gave the impression there’s an answer, but it’s pretty clear there isn’t one. Not a reasonable one anyway.

Source Code stays away from answers, what with its spaghetti on the wall approach to quantum mechanics and whatnot. It does not want to engage with its audience. Engagement means consideration. And since it’s all about a MacGuffin and a poorly developed MacGuffin… consideration’s out.

Gyllenhaal’s great in the lead, able to do the sci-fi, the drama, the action. Source Code, the script, doesn’t ask for much from him, but Gyllenhaal and Jones manage to turn it into a decent role. Monaghan’s really likable and she’s solid, even if her part manages to be an eighth of a real one; she does make an impression, which is something given she’s one of fifty possible suspects Gyllenhaal has to investigate in just ninety minutes.

Excellent editing from Paul Hirsch helps a lot with Gyllenhaal’s Groundhog Days. Pretty good music from Chris Bacon. Perfectly serviceable photography from Don Burgess; I mean, it mixes well with the CG action sequences.

Farmiga’s fine. She’s got even less of a character than Monaghan but probably ought to have the most important part. Shame about that script.

Not allowing any subplots but encouraging the expectation of them is another of its problems; it hurts Farmiga.

There’s also a lengthy racial profiling scene where Gyllenhaal targets a Brown person for being Brown—which Monaghan calls him on—but the movie just goes ahead with it because threat of terrorism; sci-fi apparently allows for some meta-bigotry, which doesn’t seem out of place given the film’s jingoistic posturing.

Also the title is bad. It refers to the “Quantum Leap” machine Wright makes and Wright’s nowhere near good enough not to make “Source Code” sound stupid whenever he uses it as a proper noun.

Source Code’s a solid rollercoaster ride; who knows what they’d have been able to do with another twenty minutes, some good rewrites, and another ten million or so in the budget.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Duncan Jones; written by Ben Ripley; director of photography, Don Burgess; edited by Paul Hirsch; music by Chris Bacon; production designer, Barry Chusid; costume designer, Renée April; produced by Mark Gordon, Philippe Rousselet, and Jordan Wynn; released by Summit Entertainment.

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Colter Stevens), Michelle Monaghan (Christina Warren), Vera Farmiga (Colleen Goodwin), Jeffrey Wright (Dr. Rutledge), Michael Arden (Derek Frost), Cas Anvar (Hazmi), and Russell Peters (Max Denoff).


John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019, Chad Stahelski)

Even with conservative expectations, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum disappoints. Even with adjusted expectations as the film progresses; the first act seems like it’s going to be a two hour real-time action extravaganza with lead Keanu Reeves fighting his way through seventies and eighties New York City filming locations, only with twenty-first century fight choreography, special effects, and gorgeous high dynamic range photography. The film’s lighting is explicitly, intentionally exquisite and director Stahelski prioritizes those possibilities in the composition. It’s a great looking film.

Even after the first act, when Reeves is off on a quest to find the master assassin–there’s definitely a movie buff involved in making the Wick franchise; this time Reeves does a Tuco homage—Good, the Bad, and the Ugly—but it doesn’t seem like it can be screenwriter Derek Kolstad because the script sounds like no one involved with writing it (shouldn’t dump it all on Kolstad, he had three co-writers on this one) has ever seen a movie. Just video games. Yet someone knew Reeves on a horse versus ninjas on motorcycles would be great.

And a lot of Parabellum is great. Lots of really good supporting performances—Halle Berry’s action sidekick is outstanding and the film’s less once she leaves the story. And not just because Reeves ends up roaming a very artificial looking desert in hopes of the aforementioned master assassin giving him a last chance. No spoilers on the master assassin but… it’s a casting disappointment. Not just because the actor’s not a big enough name for a film very deliberate in its guest stars, but also because said actor’s performance is wanting. Parabellum is like if a video game were well-acted. Ian McShane is outstanding with absolutely nothing to do except act it up. Same goes for Anjelica Huston, who plays Reeves’s old teacher; she teaches mastery assassin classes to the boys, ballet to the girls. They never get into the gender split.

But pretty immediately Stahelski makes it clear the ballet is going to be a metaphor for the action sequences. And he delivers on them. The fight choreography is fantastic, the lengthy endurance fights are awesome, Evan Schiff’s editing doesn’t break anything (doesn’t really help either); Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard’s music is solid. They seem to be borrowing from a John Carpenter theme for this score. I think They Live but I’m guessing. Effective music. The film’s exceedingly well-produced, well-executed.

Oh, yeah, great cameo from Jerome Flynn. Don’t want to forget him.

Now for the negative adjectives.

The third act is a disaster. Not because it’s got this big double-cross and triple-cross or whatever cross, but because of how poorly the previously complimented creatives execute the crosses and crossing. Parabellum doesn’t sour right away, it starts by one thread not paying off, then another, then finally it becomes clear they’re just setting up the sequel. Only in a way you could never make a sequel but promise further adventures. No rest for the wicked type stuff.

Maybe if Larry Fishburne weren’t so eh in his role as an erstwhile Reeves ally. Or if Asia Kate Dillon’s emissary character (she works for the still unseen big crime bosses and assesses betrayals or something) weren’t blah. Dillon plays it better than the part deserves, especially since Stahelski ignores Dillon’s successful infusion of comedy into the role. But the most disappointing performance is Mark Dacascos, who’s an absurd (but deadly) assassin out for Reeves’s blood. Dacascos gets wackier and wackier as the film progresses, culminating in what could be a seriously funky homage (saying to what would spoil) but it doesn’t build to anything. He’s just runtime fodder to get Reeves to the sequel setup.

It’s a real bummer, considering the often excellent production. It’s a super-violent, extravagently silly action picture; good lead from Reeves (he doesn’t get too much dialogue this time), great fights, beautiful looking. The writing just catches up with it. The writing and the uneven distribution of good supporting players.

Parabellum could’ve been a contender. But isn’t, which is a bummer.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Chad Stahelski; screenplay by Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, and Marc Abrams, based on a story by Kolstad; director of photography, Dan Laustsen; edited by Evan Schiff; music by Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard; production designer, Kevin Kavanaugh; costume designer, Luca Mosca; produced by Basil Iwanyk and Erica Lee; released by Summit Entertainment.

Starring Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Halle Berry (Sofia), Mark Dacascos (Zero), Ian McShane (Winston), Asia Kate Dillon (The Adjudicator), Lance Reddick (Charon), Laurence Fishburne (Bowery King), Jerome Flynn (Berrada), and Anjelica Huston (The Director).


John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017, Chad Stahelski)

If—and it's a big if—there's anything interesting about John Wick: Chapter Two as a sequel, it's how poorly the original filmmakers execute the sequel. It feels like a contractually obligated affair, only with the original principals returning.

Well, save David Leitch who produced the first film and was the (uncredited) co-director. Guess we know who brought all the energy. Because Chapter Two’s direction and action scenes are exactly what you'd expect from a contractually obligated sequel. There are big set pieces but with the locations, not the fight choreography, not the direction, not the editing (Evan Schiff’s cuts are middling at best). There's not even good (or enthusiastic) soundtrack selections. There aren't any sequences with distinct accompanying songs. The score’s no better; Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard’s score does a minimalist Western theme for unstoppable assassin Keanu Reeves and it's a bad choice. It doesn't bring anything. John Wick: Chapter 2: it doesn't bring anything.

The movie starts shortly after the first one. In the first one they killed his dog and stole his car; Chapter 2 begins with him getting the car back from an exceptionally bad Peter Stormare. One cameo from John Leguizamo later (the film would’ve been immeasurably improved with more Leguizamo, who’s likable in a film without much likable) and Reeves is retired. Moments after re-burying his suitcase of guns and assassin credits (the criminal underworld, globally, operates on single gold coins in John Wick world), bad guy Riccardo Scamarcio shows up at Reeves’s door with a job he can’t refuse because in John Wick world, the plots don’t work if there aren’t jobs you can’t refuse. Being an assassin means following the rules; returning Ian McShane, who’s possibly the only consistently welcome frequent supporting player, can’t shut up about the rules. At least he’s amusing with it. Common, who plays Reeves’s target’s bodyguard, can’t shut up about the rules and he’s terrible at it. The film’s bereft of good villains. Common’s not good to start then gets worse the more the film asks of him. Scarmarcio doesn’t seem terrible when he arrives, then gets worse as things progress, but some of the problem for him is the stupid plot being, you know, stupid.

After getting his house burnt down for initially refusing the offer he can’t resist, Reeves meets up with McShane (to get McShane in the movie before he needs to be), then has his equipment prep sequence, which has him getting a bulletproof suit—like, tailored suit, not special outfit, suit suit, just bulletproof—and guns from Peter Serafinowicz (whose Q cameo is one of the film’s better ones). Reeves of course using all the guns he gets, including the AR-15 the film includes to show its love for gun culture, which never gets actually exciting because they’re not gadgets or even distinct weapons. The bulletproof suit comes in handy for Reeves walking around twisting and adjusting his suit jacket to block during gun fights. Handy for Reeves. It looks really stupid.

Also stupid-looking is the big finale with the amped up hall of mirrors shootout. For a second it seems like director Stahelski is including the hall of mirrors to do something fresh or innovative with the trope. Instead, he just adds some CGI to it and calls it good. Then it goes on forever. A lot of John Wick 2 is tedious. Especially the fight scenes, which are never well-choreographed enough to be interesting on their own; they don’t have much dramatic weight as it seems unlikely any of the goons Reeves fights are going to be able to take him.

Speaking of Reeves… he’s really bad here. It’s Derek Kolstad’s script, which seems unfamiliar with how Derek Kolstad’s script for the first film dialogued Reeves. Reeves has a lot of action hero one-liners. They’re all bad, with some being stupider than others.

Can’t forget the Larry Fishburne cameo. He’s really bad. Obviously he’s a Matrix stunt cast but you’d think they’d make sure he and Reeves would at least be fun together. They’re not

I guess Ruby Rose, who plays a deaf (or possibly just mute, it’s unclear) assassin, gets away somewhat unscathed. She’s not good, but she’s also not bad. Not being bad is a rarity in John Wick: Chapter 2. It’s a great example of sequel as pejorative.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Chad Stahelski; written by Derek Kolstad; director of photography, Dan Laustsen; edited by Evan Schiff; music by Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard; production designer, Kevin Kavanaugh; costume designer, Luca Mosca; produced by Basil Iwanyk and Erica Lee; released by Summit Entertainment.

Starring Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Riccardo Scamarcio (Santino D’Antonio), Ian McShane (Winston), Ruby Rose (Ares), Common (Cassian), Claudia Gerini (Gianna D’Antonio), Lance Reddick (Charon), Laurence Fishburne (Bowery King), and John Leguizamo (Aurelio).


Escape Plan (2013, Mikael Håfström)

Given how much fun the actors have in Escape Plan, there are a couple big unfortunates. First is director Håfström; he isn’t able to direct the actors through the poorly scripted parts and he also can’t direct the one-liners. Plan is the first time Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger have ever done a buddy picture together. For a ten minute stretch, it’s like there’s nothing but one-liners.

The second problem is the script. It flounders when setting up Stallone’s character. He works with Curtis Jackson, Amy Ryan and Vincent D’Onofrio. D’Onofrio has a lot of fun in a tiny part–these three characters only show up for maybe five or six minutes of runtime–but he completely overshadows Ryan and Jackson. They’re just doing the script, D’Onofrio turns the weak script into loads of entertainment.

Another person having fun in an underwritten role is Jim Caviezel as the warden. The film concerns Stallone (as a prison break specialist) and Schwarzenegger (as a lackey for a Julian Assange type) breaking out of a prison. Caviezel turns the part into a whirlwind of overcompensation, meanness and pure fun. He’s like Willy Wonka at times.

Of the two leads, Schwarzenegger’s better. He didn’t suffer through the lame setup with Ryan and Jackson.

Faran Tahir is really good as another inmate.

Plan is really entertaining for the bulk of it, just not the beginning or the end. It needed a better script doctor.

It also needed better music. Alex Heffes’s score’s atrocious.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Mikael Håfström; screenplay by Miles Chapman and Jason Keller, based on a story by Chapman; director of photography, Brendan Galvin; edited by Elliot Greenberg; music by Alex Heffes; production designer, Barry Chusid; produced by Robbie Brenner, Mark Canton, Randall Emmett, George Furla and Kevin King Templeton; released by Summit Entertainment.

Starring Sylvester Stallone (Breslin), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Rottmayer), Jim Caviezel (Hobbes), Faran Tahir (Javed), Sam Neill (Dr. Kyrie), Vincent D’Onofrio (Lester Clark), Vinnie Jones (Drake), Matt Gerald (Roag), Curtis Jackson (Hush), Caitriona Balfe (Jessica Miller), Christian Stokes (Babcock), Graham Beckel (Brims) and Amy Ryan (Abigail).


Push (2009, Paul McGuigan)

It’s understandable Push bombed at the box office. It’s hard to find a film so with much intelligence in the filmmaking, casting and acting applied to such a subpar script. Strangely, David Bourla’s script isn’t bad in regard to dialogue—there are some great exchanges between Dakota Fanning and Chris Evans—or in how it’s plotted—the narrative twists and turns resemble those in a heist movie. Where it fails is in creating an engaging setting—Push is a superhero movie where everyone has boring superpowers (it sort of feels like Summit wanted a teen superhero franchise to go along with Twilight).

Director McGuigan picked the film’s Hong Kong setting because he wanted something exotic a la Casablanca… and it does work. Fanning and Evans are basically Bogart and Rains here—a mildly abrasive, endearing chemistry. But maybe McGuigan worrying about bringing that sensibility to a superpowers movie just can’t truly work with the silly concept. In fact, McGuigan constantly works against the superpowers element.

I’d never seen Fanning in anything; I was shocked how good her performance is in this film. She and Evans are fantastic together. It’s distressing Bourla could write this great relationship between them, but couldn’t not be goofy when writing the script in general. Push shows why an established mythology is easier to adapt than to create.

Push might be better if you’re a fifteen year-old, albeit one who wants to see a superhero movie more like Casablanca than Iron Man.

Still, it’s okay.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Paul McGuigan; written by David Bourla; director of photography, Peter Sova; edited by Nicolas Trembasiewicz; music by Neil Davidge; production designer, François Séguin; produced by Bruce Davey, William Vince and Glenn Williamson; released by Summit Entertainment.

Starring Chris Evans (Nick Gant), Dakota Fanning (Cassie Holmes), Camilla Belle (Kira Hudson), Djimon Hounsou (Henry Carver), Ming-Na (Emily Hu) and Cliff Curtis (Hook Waters).


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