Jeffrey Wright

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).


A Single Shot (2013, David M. Rosenthal)

A Single Shot is the best film noir I’ve seen in a long time. Director Rosenthal eschews trying to make a neo-noir and just sets a film noir in some backwoods region. It’s never specified and it doesn’t really matter. It’s beautiful and dangerous. From the first hunting sequence, there’s always danger in Shot.

Sam Rockwell plays a ne’er do well who finds himself in more trouble than usual when he crosses paths with some dangerous ex-cons. Of course, it doesn’t help they somehow know his best friend (Jeffrey Wright), his estranged wife (Kelly Reilly) and even his lawyer (William H. Macy). It’s when all these connections become clear–Macy repeatedly talks about what a small town everyone is living in–Shot’s noir status becomes clear.

Sure, Rosenthal and writer Matthew F. Jones make Rockwell’s character far more sympathetic than the traditional noir protagonist, which initially makes Shot feel a little more like a strange Kentucky Hitchcock picture, but it’s noir. When it the whole picture unravels and reveals all its strange connections through time… it’s noir.

Rockwell’s lead performance is amazing. If it were just him doing a one man show, it’d probably still be an excellent film. But Shot has an unbelievably good supporting cast. Wright’s fantastic–like he and Rockwell were competing for who could be more devastating in slurred monologue. Ted Levine’s got a great scene, Ophelia Lovibond is awesome. Joe Anderson and Jason Isaacs are terrifying as the villains.

Shot is great.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by David M. Rosenthal; screenplay by Matthew F. Jones, based on his novel; director of photography, Eduard Grau; edited by Dan Robinson; music by Atli Örvarsson; production designer, David Brisbin; produced by Chris Coen, Aaron L. Gilbert, Keith Kjarval and Jeff Rice; released by Tribeca Film.

Starring Sam Rockwell (John Moon), Jeffrey Wright (Simon), Kelly Reilly (Moira), Jason Isaacs (Waylon), Joe Anderson (Obadiah), Ophelia Lovibond (Abbie), Ted Levine (Cecile) and William H. Macy (Pitt).


D-Tox (2002, Jim Gillespie)

D-Tox is a messy film with way too high a concept. Sylvester Stallone–who’s good when he’s actually in the film, which isn’t much–is a FBI agent who becomes a drunk following a bad result in a big case. He ends up in a rehab for cops. It’s in an old missile silo (or something along those lines) in the middle of nowhere. And guess what… there’s a serial killer on the loose.

The supporting cast is full of people who have seen better roles yet still manage to turn in good performances. Charles S. Dutton, Polly Walker, Courtney B. Vance, Robert Patrick, Robert Prosky, Dina Meyer, Tom Berenger. All of them are fine. Some of them are great–Patrick in particular. Yet D-Tox doesn’t have anything for them to do because it’s Ten Little Indians, but it only runs ninety-some minutes and there’s a bulky opening to turn Stallone into a drunk.

Like I said, messy.

There are some bad performances too. Christopher Fulford, Stephen Lang, Jeffrey Wright. Kris Kristofferson might be better if his character weren’t a complete idiot (he hires incompetent repairmen for his isolated missile silo for starters).

There’s some actual suspense involving the bad guy’s identity, but director Gillespie can’t figure out how to pace it. When he gets to the finish, the big action scene, he flops. He can’t even direct a couple guys punching. Stallone should’ve stepped in.

Decent photography from Dean Semler helps.

It’s bad, but still watchable.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jim Gillespie; screenplay by Ron L. Brinkerhoff, based on a novel by Howard Swindle; director of photography, Dean Semler; edited by Timothy Alverson and Steve Mirkovich; music by John Powell; production designer, Gary Wissner; produced by Karen Kehela Sherwood and Ric Kidney; released by DEJ Productions.

Starring Sylvester Stallone (Jake Malloy), Charles S. Dutton (Hendricks), Polly Walker (Jenny), Kris Kristofferson (Doc), Mif (Brandon), Christopher Fulford (Slater), Jeffrey Wright (Jaworski), Tom Berenger (Hank), Stephen Lang (Jack Bennett), Alan C. Peterson (Gilbert), Hrothgar Mathews (Manny), Angela Alvarado (Lopez), Robert Prosky (McKenzie), Robert Patrick (Noah), Courtney B. Vance (Reverend Jones), Sean Patrick Flanery (Conner), Tim Henry (Weeks), Dina Meyer (Mary), Rance Howard (Geezer), Frank Pellegrino (Jimmy) and James Kidnie (Red).


Critical Care (1997, Sidney Lumet)

Critical Care opens on its main set–sets are important in Critical Care–with Helen Mirren (as a nurse) checking up on ICU patients. The ICU is a circle, Mirren rounding it by the end of the titles, returning to the station at the center, where James Spader (as a resident) naps during a thirty-six hour shift. The two have a conversation about medical school, Spader’s dating habits and mundanities. It’s a strange opening–technically superior thanks to Lumet–with the ICU an all white environment (it’s like 2001, actually). When the film moves into a world of color, Critical Care maintains the same tone–which is incredibly difficult, or should be, given Albert Brooks is in old age make-up (with Spader as his disinclined protégé). It’s slightly off. Lumet’s got a specific visual style for the film, but even taking it into account, it’s still slightly off.

And then–just before the Blow Up homage–I realized what makes Critical Care so particular. It’s the finest adaptation of a stage play where the source material is not a stage play. Lumet’s approach to the film is to present the action–in the ICU, the material outside that setting is a lot more filmic–like it’s playing out on stage. This approach doesn’t affect Lumet’s composition, which is excellent and cinematic, and I can’t even tell if it’s in Steven Schwartz’s script. But the time Lumet gives to his actors–Spader and Mirren–is stunning. They have scenes together throughout the film, but they both have their own story arcs (Spader’s being the major one) and when they reunite at the end… it’s almost like the film’s been holding its breath and no one noticed. It’s fantastic.

Lumet also makes a lot of time for Brooks, but it’d be criminal if he hadn’t. Not only is Brooks constantly hilarious–and frightening, given he’s talking about healthcare–but it’s the one time (in recent cinema) where someone playing aged works perfectly. The logic mazes–Brooks’s character suffers from short term memory losses–in the scenes are hysterical.

Spader’s got a very leading man role here and he plays it well. It’s probably the finest film performance I’ve seen him give. Mirren’s excellent as well–her scenes with Jeffrey Wright, where he doesn’t talk, are great. Wright’s scenes with Wallace Shawn, where he does talk, are also great. One of the greatest things about Critical Care is its fearlessness. The film doesn’t have a big hook at the beginning, it doesn’t have any reason to expect a lot of involvement from its viewers; it just goes ahead without concerning itself with them.

The supporting cast–Kyra Sedgwick, Anne Bancroft, Philip Bosco, especially Colm Feore–is superior.

I’ve known about this film for eleven years–I remember seeing a picture of Brooks in make-up–but I never got around to seeing it until now. Through its running time, it just gets better and better. Near the end, as the film shifted into its final stage, I worried about it forgetting itself. It doesn’t. The end has all the right ingredients, mixed wonderfully.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sidney Lumet; screenplay by Steven Schwartz, based on the novel by Richard Dooling; director of photography, David Watkin; edited by Tom Swartwout; production designer, Philip Rosenberg; produced by Schwartz and Lumet; released by Live Entertainment.

Starring James Spader (Dr. Werner Ernst), Kyra Sedgwick (Felicia Potter), Helen Mirren (Stella), Anne Bancroft (Nun), Albert Brooks (Dr. Butz), Jeffrey Wright (Bed Two), Margo Martindale (Connie Potter), Wallace Shawn (Furnaceman), Philip Bosco (Dr. Hofstader), Colm Feore (Richard Wilson), Edward Herrmann (Robert Payne), James Lally (Poindexter) and Harvey Atkin (Judge Fatale).


Casino Royale (2006, Martin Campbell)

I had read somewhere Casino Royale wasn’t going to be chock-full of CG like the recent Bond films, but maybe I misread it. As a series, the Bond films are supposed to be about stunt work and explosions. Casino Royale is actually light on explosions and practically absent of stunts. There’s lots of stunt-looking stuff, but it appears to be CG composites. Terrible CG composites, much like director Martin Campbell’s previous Bond film, Goldeneye, which at least had the excuse of being an early CG-adopter. I can find one nice thing to say about Casino Royale–maybe two. Daniel Craig is not bad. He’s fine, actually. He’s not playing James Bond–because after so many actors, Bond is a shell of a character. He’s made by certain trivialities, which make an amusing couple hours in exotic locales filled with foreign actors speaking English and explosions and stunts. Casino Royale, I’m sure it’s more pretentious supporters would say, serves to deconstruct said trivialities, which leaves the film empty. I sat and waited for one exciting scene and it never came. The other good thing was Giancarlo Giannini. He’s amusing in a self-aware performance. A lot of Casino Royale’s performances feel as though Campbell has just called “action.” The performances are all very stagy. But I’ll get to them in a second. First I need to say something about Campbell’s direction. It’s not just uninteresting or boring or predictable–adjectives to describe David Arnold’s atrocious score–Campbell’s direction is actually a new step in DVD-market mediocrity. I sat and watched scenes composed for people’s HDTV’s. Sony HDTV’s, of course, since Casino Royale is a two and a half hour advertisement for Sony productions. Campbell actually repeats certain scenes–ones to humanize Bond–from Goldeneye, lifts them straight out. Except Goldeneye was technically competent.

I guess I can’t escape the performances. Eva Green is awful, Mads Mikkelsen is amusingly awful, and Jeffrey Wright is unspeakably bad. It’s a new level of terrible from Wright, who manages to give the same performance over and over again, but worse each time.

The writing is something special. It manages to bore to new heights. James Bond isn’t the film’s central character for much of the film, he’s the subject, which is not a working arrangement for something known as a… James Bond film. This distance serves to introduce the audience to a fifty-year old character. It’s quite useful in wasting time. I kept wondering if I could say the film has twenty endings, but instead it has no ending for quite a while. Casino Royale breaks the traditional three act structure and replaces it with nonsense. Campbell doesn’t have the directorial chops to work it, Craig’s fine but he’s not a miracle worker–he just keeps his head above water in a drowning pool–so it goes on and on and on. At least if it had been a trick ending, it would have been bad and funny, instead it’s just bad.

James Bond films have always been well-reviewed, at least since I’ve known about movie reviews. The distaste for them comes later–I remember Dalton being well-reviewed for example and there were astoundingly positive reviews for the worst of the Brosnan films. I didn’t to go Casino Royale hoping it would suck so I could be bemused at the state of artistic appreciation in the world today. I went to be amused by stunts and explosions and I didn’t even get those.

Something needs to be said about the terrible song, but hopefully someone else can say it. I’m bored with thinking about Casino Royale already.

Wait, one last thing. Sony appears–from the trailers I saw for their new films, from this film–to be making the worst mainstream films today, which is quite a thing to be able to say.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Martin Campbell; written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis, based on the novel by Ian Fleming; director of photography, Phil Méheux; edited by Stuart Baird; music by David Arnold; production designer, Peter Lamont; produced by Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Daniel Craig (James Bond), Eva Green (Vesper Lynd), Mads Mikkelsen (Le Chiffre), Judi Dench (M), Jeffrey Wright (Felix Leiter) and Giancarlo Giannini (Mathis).


Syriana (2005, Stephen Gaghan)

What a sprawling and ambitious film… oh, wait, it’s actually neither. Syriana has a bunch of good performances (Matt Damon being the stand-out lead and Amanda Peet or Alexander Siddig being the supporting, with William Hurt turning in a really nice extended cameo), but with the exception of the Muslim suicide bomber, it’s emotionally empty… soulless. I did have one problem with the suicide bomber–he strikes at target whose destruction would immediately improve the world. That’s not how suicide bombers actually act (the world situation would be a lot different if they did).

Describing the three main, failed plotlines–man has to come to terms with his son’s death, man has to come to terms with his career ending, man has to come to terms with racism–makes Syriana sound rather promising. But Gaghan displays even more disinterest in the human condition than his script for Traffic did. He’s not writing about people brought together by coincidence or passion, these people are all brought together by the situation. Syriana is dramatic fiction. Trying to present it as a multiple camera, pseudo-documentary does disservice to all the good work the actors put in to the film.

The politics Syriana discusses are probably not common knowledge, but a common American isn’t well-informed (or interested). There’s nothing in this film that has been documented, nothing that five minutes of a Noam Chomsky interview wouldn’t elucidate further. It’s political science for people who watch “Friends.” I really didn’t expect much more from the film (or Gaghan), so I’m not disappointed. Seeing the good acting (though Jeffrey Wright was so passive he disappeared and it’s the first bad Christopher Plummer performance I’ve ever seen), particularly Hurt and Peet, was a treat and the film’s only a couple hours long. I just wish I hadn’t had to pee for the second hour.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Stephen Gaghan; screenplay by Gaghan, suggested by a book by Robert Baer; director of photography, Robert Elswit; edited by Tim Squyres; music by Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Dan Weil; produced by Jennifer Fox, Michael Nozik and Georgia Kacandes; released by Warner Bros.

Starring George Clooney (Bob Barnes), Matt Damon (Bryan Woodman), Jeffrey Wright (Bennett Holiday), Chris Cooper (Jimmy Pope), William Hurt (Stan Goff), Mazhar Munir (Wasim Ahmed Khan), Tim Blake Nelson (Danny Dalton), Amanda Peet (Julie Woodman), Christopher Plummer (Dean Whiting), William C. Mitchell (Bennett Holiday Sr.), Shahid Ahmed (Saleem Ahmed Khan) and Alexander Siddig (Prince Nasir Al-Subaai).


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