Jake Gyllenhaal

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).


Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019, Jon Watts)

Spider-Man: Far From Home spends so much of its runtime being a constant delight, the first sign of trouble passes. Something where director Watts needs to connect doesn’t connect, only it doesn’t really matter because it doesn’t seem like it needs to connect too hard. Then the third act is this massive, impersonal action sequence where the sidekicks get a better action finale than the hero and the mid-credits sequence entirely changes the stakes of the film. And then the post-credits sequence entirely changes how the film plays. It’s like there’s a surprise ending then there’s a twist ending but the twist should’ve come in the regular ending… It’s also too bad because neither of the additional endings let lead Tom Holland act.

And Far From Home is usually really good about letting Holland act. He’s great, even when he’s going through the same hero arc he went through in his last solo outing. Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers’s script has a lot of good jokes and nice moments for Holland (his romance arc is at least different this time) and his costars—as well as an almost great scenery chewing part for Jake Gyllenhaal—but it’s fairly thin. The film’s able to deliver some real emotion, not just from the film’s events but also from all the weight hanging over the world post Avengers 4, which seems kind of light actually but it’s set at least nine months after that film so maybe people are just emotionally fast healers and whatnot. Plus Holland and romantic interest Zendaya have oodles of chemistry so their high school romance but with overachievers on a school trip to Europe arc is wonderful. Lovely even, which is why its treatment in the additional endings is such a boondoggle.

Enough about the endings. I think.

The film has Holland and his high school classmates touring Europe while Samuel L. Jackson (in a shockingly humorless turn; not bad, just shockingly humorless) tries to get him to help save the world. Jackson’s got a new hero—Gyllenhaal, who’s from an alternate Earth and has ill-defined magical powers—but he wants Holland along for some reason. It makes even less sense once the film gets through the main plot twists, not to mention the additional end ones. See, I’m still on the endings. Sorry.

The reasons don’t matter because Gyllenhaal is really good. He’s earnest but mysterious. He and Holland have a good rapport, though it might be nice to see Holland not desperately needing a mentor. Or at least getting a funny one; Martin Starr and J.B. Smoove are comic relief as the high school teachers. Might not have hurt to give them something more to do. Far From Home has an excess of talent and doesn’t utilize enough of it. But, again, it doesn’t matter during the smooth sailing period of the film because just so long as nothing goes too wrong, nothing can screw it up. Cue ginormous third act action finale. The bad guys in the movie are these giant weather monsters (sans Flint Marko) so all the action is big. Great combination of action and landmark destruction (the monsters go after all the big European cities). There’s no way the film can top it for the finale and instead just puts more people in imminent danger. The film closes on iffy ground and then the additional endings—even if the post-credits sequence is inessential (it isn’t), the mid-credits one is the whole show—just cement the problems.

It’s a bummer because Holland, Gyllenhaal, Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, and Jon Favreau are all great. Watts does a fine job directing. Europe looks great. Fun soundtrack. Competent if impersonal score from Michael Giacchino. Matthew J. Lloyd’s photography seems a little rushed on composite shots but whatever. Dan Lebental and Leigh Folsom Boyd’s is a little rushed though, especially during the exterior night sequences, which are already problem spots for Lloyd and Watts.

Speaking of Watts, despite that fine directing he does, he’s got no interest in the special effects visuals. He’s got no time for them. It’s okay for the giant weather monster fights because it keeps the focus on Holland. But when the film’s got this lengthy hallucination sequence? It’s okay. It gets the character from point A to point B, but the character doesn’t have any reaction to what they’ve seen. It’s a terribly missed opportunity. In so many ways. Including a great Empire Strikes Back reference.

Oh. Marisa Tomei.

The movie completely wastes her, while still managing to celebrate her awesomeness in the role and her chemistry with Holland.

For a while, Far From Home is such a grand European (superhero action) adventure with a wonderful—and likable—cast and fun attitude, it seems like there’s nothing it can’t get away with. The movie’s self-assured and justifiably so for most of the runtime, but those two additional endings just make it seem like… it was all bravado and not actual confidence. Hence a bummer. A weird one, wonderfully acted one.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jon Watts; screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; director of photography, Matthew J. Lloyd; edited by Dan Lebental and Leigh Folsom Boyd; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Claude Paré; produced by Amy Pascal and Kevin Feige; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Tom Holland (Peter Parker), Zendaya (MJ), Jacob Batalon (Ned), Jake Gyllenhaal (Beck), Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan), Tony Revolori (Flash), Angourie Rice (Betty), Remy Hii (Brad Davis), Martin Starr (Mr. Harrington), J.B. Smoove (Mr. Dell), Marisa Tomei (May), Cobie Smulders (Hill), and Samuel L. Jackson (Fury).


Enemy (2013, Denis Villeneuve)

Enemy opens with an incredibly cruel and unpleasant scene. It's almost like a dare to the viewer to keep going. The film only runs ninety minutes and the first thirty or so minutes is summary. Sort of. Director Villeneuve and screenwriter Javier Gullón spend this first third encouraging the viewer to guess where Enemy is going. As it turns out, that invitation is the film's only red herring–amid the litany of implied ones.

The film concerns an unhappy college lecturer (Jake Gyllenhaal), who happens to find he has a doppelgänger in an actor. Gyllenhaal's discontent has already driven his girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent) away; he fixates on this doppelgänger. The investigation is both Hitchcockian and not. Describing Villeneuve's style, which has as much to do with the sterile Toronto setting as it does anything else, is difficult and probably not particularly useful. It's exceptional filmmaking, but Enemy moves so fast, Villeneuve doesn't want the viewer to linger. Not because there are problems, but because lingering distracts from the film's purpose.

Once Gyllenhaal confronts the doppelgänger, the film's focus flips. Not to Gyllenhaal in the other role, but to Sarah Gadon as the doppelgänger's wife.

While Gyllenhaal is fantastic, Gadon is even better. The film never explains itself, but all of Gadon's thoughts and suspicions are discernible. Her expressiveness guides the viewer through the film.

The music from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, Nicolas Bolduc's photography, Matthew Hannam's editing, it's all great.

Villeneuve, Gyllenhaal, Gadon, Gullón–they make something very special here.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Denis Villeneuve; screenplay by Javier Gullón, based on a novel by José Saramago; director of photography, Nicolas Bolduc; edited by Matthew Hannam; music by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans; production designer, Patrice Vermette; produced by M.A. Faura and Niv Fichman; released by Entertainment One.

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Adam + Anthony), Mélanie Laurent (Mary), Sarah Gadon (Helen) and Isabella Rossellini (Mother).


Donnie Darko (2001, Richard Kelly)

Donnie Darko has one of those discussion begging conclusions. So I’ll skip that aspect entirely and concentrate what director Kelly does so well. There’s a meticulous design to Darko but it’s mostly unimportant; once you get past the MacGuffin, it’s just this story about a teenage schizophrenic’s life coming apart.

Jake Gyllenhaal is outstanding in the lead. Kelly’s script will occasionally give him some really difficult moments, sometimes he succeeds, sometimes he doesn’t. One example is the therapy sessions–it’s unclear if Katharine Ross’s psychiatrist is supposed to be awful at her job–Gyllenhaal has some really rough dialogue at times.

Another odd spot is when Gyllenhaal is hanging out with sidekicks Stuart Stone and Gary Lundy. Kelly writes Gyllenhaal’s character as an unaware genius, so he’ll race past his friends in conversation–one of the beautiful things is how his girlfriend, played by Jena Malone, also isn’t as smart but somehow they pace each other.

But Kelly doesn’t just focus on Gyllenhaal. Mary McDonnell has a lot to do as his mother; she’s fantastic. Holmes Osborne is great as the dad too, but Kelly spreads his attention to odd characters. There’re Beth Grant’s nutty Christian lady (she’s appropriately terrifying) and Drew Barrymore’s driven English high school teacher. Barrymore’s awful. She put up some of the money for the movie, which explains her regrettable presence.

The soundtrack’s occasionally way too precious during montages, but Kelly keeps going until it works. He, Gyllenhaal, McDonnell and Malone make Darko a distinguished success.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Richard Kelly; director of photography, Steven Poster; edited by Sam Bauer and Eric Strand; music by Michael Andrews; production designer, Alec Hammond; produced by Adam Fields and Sean McKittrick; released by Newmarket Films.

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko), Jena Malone (Gretchen Ross), Mary McDonnell (Rose Darko), Holmes Osborne (Eddie Darko), Stuart Stone (Ronald Fisher), Gary Lundy (Sean Smith), Katharine Ross (Dr. Lilian Thurman), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Elizabeth Darko), Daveigh Chase (Sam Darko), Drew Barrymore (Karen Pomeroy), Noah Wyle (Dr. Kenneth Monnitoff), Beth Grant (Kitty Farmer), Alex Greenwald (Seth Devlin), Jolene Purdy (Cherita Chen) and Patrick Swayze (Jim Cunningham).


Prisoners (2013, Denis Villeneuve)

Director Villeneuve takes a very interesting approach to how a thriller works with Prisoners. He ignores it. During the first act, there are quite a few flirtations with thriller standards. But the film almost always immediately dismisses them–like Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski are holding up a standard, tossing it away. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music helps them through these quick examinations, as does Roger Deakins’s photography. Villeneuve gets some truly astounding shots with Deakins. Many are so good one wonders how Villeneuve resisted showing off. He never does.

That restraint carries over to the performances as well. Prisoners is constantly difficult. In theory, the four primary actors should be Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello, Viola Davis and Terrence Howard. They play two couples who have had their daughters abducted, they should be the leads. Well, them and Jake Gyllenhaal as the primary detective.

But no. And there’s another break–Gyllenhaal doesn’t have a partner. When’s the last time a movie cop didn’t have a partner. But Jackman takes matters into his own hands and the film juxtapositions his pursuit against Gyllenhaal’s. They aren’t alter egos; Guzikowski wouldn’t never be so simplistic. The script’s phenomenal.

Both Jackman and Gyllenhaal are amazing. Gyllenhaal wins out. He has a more complicated role and more screen time.

Great supporting work from Davis and Wayne Duvall. Bello and Howard have the least to do in the film, another of Villeneuve and Guzikowski’s plays on expectations. They’re both good. There’s no weak performances.

Prisoners is truly exceptional.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Denis Villeneuve; written by Aaron Guzikowski; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Joel Cox and Gary Roach; music by Jóhann Jóhannsson; production designer, Patrice Vermette; produced by Kira Davis, Broderick Johnson, Adam Kolbrenner and Andrew A. Kosove; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Hugh Jackman (Keller Dover), Jake Gyllenhaal (Detective Loki), Viola Davis (Nancy Birch), Maria Bello (Grace Dover), Terrence Howard (Franklin Birch), Melissa Leo (Holly Jones), Paul Dano (Alex Jones), Dylan Minnette (Ralph Dover), Zoe Borde (Eliza Birch), Erin Gerasimovich (Anna Dover), Kyla Drew Simmons (Joy Birch), Wayne Duvall (Captain Richard O’Malley), David Dastmalchian (Bob Taylor) and Len Cariou (Father Patrick Dunn).


Zodiac (2007, David Fincher)

If Steven Spielberg used to be “the kid who’d never grow up,” I always figured David Fincher would always be “the disaffected teen who never grew up,” which is why Zodiac is so surprising. It’s a mature, thoughtful work, one I wouldn’t have even associated with Fincher if I hadn’t known. It’s calm and thoughtful, opening with the old Paramount and Warner Bros. logos, with a score from David Shire–the goal doesn’t seem to be to emulate a 1970s movie (the hit-heavy soundtrack wouldn’t have happened yet), but to reorient the viewer into that time period. When Fincher gets to the early eighties, he’s got this establishing shot at an airport and a plane takes off and there’s something really beautiful about it. Planes take off, whatever, three a minute and on sunny days, like this day in the film, it probably looks really nice… but I’d spent two and a half hours with the Zodiac killer, so it really jarred me. Made me appreciate Fincher not as an aesthetically pleasing director, which he’d always (ideally) been, but as one who could find the extraordinary in the everyday, which he’d never been.

Zodiac shifts its attention between the crimes, the reporters, and the police. For a while, it’s all the crimes and the reporters and for a while it’s all the crimes and the police. It seems like, at the beginning, it’s going to follow Jake Gyllenhaal–he’ll lead the viewer through the story–but then he disappears and, even before he does, it becomes clear Zodiac‘s not following a character-centered narrative. It’s not even about the effects of obsession on the characters. It shows the effects, but it’s really just a very straightforward narrative–first of the Zodiac killings from the San Francisco Chronicle‘s point of view, then from the investigating inspectors (I love how San Francisco calls them inspectors), then from the book writer (Gyllenhaal) as he does he research. It ought to not work, since that narrative model is mostly gone these days. In some ways, the roving narrative and the music, it reminded me of Summer of Sam while watching it, then I had to correct my interior dialogue not to defame Zodiac with such a comparison.

Of the actors, Ruffalo is the best. He’s first billed, but his character remains the most–not enigmatic or sketchy, but off-center–then he has a little scene towards the end and I realized his story throughout the film occupied a whole layer of the narrative and it was great and he was doing some amazing work. Amazing Ruffalo work is, probably, the best acting there is to be seen anymore. As the Chronicle lacky then book author, Gyllenhaal’s good, maybe even excellent, since the film makes no bones about his character not exactly being relatable. He’s supposed to be a little lame. It’s the closest the film comes to making any judgment on its characters. Robert Downey Jr. really doesn’t have an above the title role, but he’s great when he’s in it, which is no surprise. It’s Anthony Edwards who gives the most surprisingly good performance, just because it’d never occurred to me he could be so good, which has more to do with me… well, no it doesn’t. It has to do with “ER,” but whatever.

I kept having to remind myself during the film, it’s not a good example of modern cinema. I was ready to skip down the street and sing the praises of American filmmaking like it was 1999 or something, then reality kept knocking, so I had to accept I’d just have to get Zodiac on DVD… It’s rather indulgent, I just realized; Fincher submerges the viewer and holds him or her down in that bathtub, not letting them loose until the final epilogue card fades. It’s an unbelievable achievement for him, a significant one for twenty-first century American cinema, and just a lovely experience.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by David Fincher; written by James Vanderbilt, based on books by Robert Graysmith; director of photography, Harris Savides; edited by Angus Wall; music by David Shire; production designer, Donald Graham Burt; produced by Vanderbilt, Mike Medavoy, Arnold W. Messer, Bradley J. Fischer and Cean Chaffin; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Robert Graysmith), Mark Ruffalo (Inspector Dave Toschi), Robert Downey Jr. (Paul Avery), Anthony Edwards (Inspector Bill Armstrong), Brian Cox (Melvin Belli), Elias Koteas (Sgt. Jack Mulanax) and Chloë Sevigny (Melanie).


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