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Column Fri Apr 01 2011

Source Code, Insidious, Hop, Trust & The Music Never Stopped

Source Code

Simply put, director Duncan (Moon) Jones' latest dip into the science-fiction pool succeeds because it doesn't rely on a single trick or reveal to give it strength. Instead, it relies on great acting, a carefully plotting story and some adventurous directing to propel it through one of the most ambitious stories since Inception, although the two films share almost nothing in common besides a marketing campaign.

I think the less you know about Source Code, the better, but I'm going to tell you as much as I can without giving away too much. Pilot Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up on a train, which isn't so bad except that the last thing he remembers is crashing his plane in Afghanistan. In the eight minutes that follow, he discovers that he's on a commuter train heading into Chicago, and that he's inside the body of a man named Sean Fentriss. Across from him is Christina (Michelle Monaghan), clearly someone he knows from sharing this same train ride every morning, but they aren't exactly friends. The train is fairly full, and by the end of the eight minutes, a bomb goes off and everyone on the train dies.

Then Colter wakes up again, only this time he's in a dark pod-like structure looking at a monitor with the face of a superior officer (Vera Farmiga), explaining to him that he's part of a government experiment used to stop terrorism. Through a process called "Source Code," Colter can go back to the moment just before the bomb went off, find out where the bomb is and who set it, in an effort to stop another, far greater attack by the same person/people in downtown Chicago (nobody wants that). Colter can't stop what has happened; his mission is to locate the bomber so that people in the real world can prevent another bombing. Got it? Now explain it to me...

The fun of Source Code-- which is pretty much 90 minutes of non-stop forward motion, despite all of its backward jumping-- is watching Colter relive the same eight minutes but in a different way each time. And with each new Source Code, he gets a little closer to his objective. Jones and writer Ben Ripley are smart enough not to give us a stupid twist by making Fentriss or Christina the bomber (as many cynics who haven't seen the film have speculated). No, this is a proper mystery, loaded with a very human center. As we get closer to discovering the bomber, we also peel away the layers of how Colter got in this position in the first place, what Farmiga's role in things are, and how the great Jeffrey Wright (playing a nutty professor working with Farmiga) figures into everything.

Amid all this tension and action is a great deal of humor and the sweet beginnings of a love story between Colter and Christina, and how he copes with the idea that there's nothing he can do to save her, since she's already dead. There's also an unexpected urge on Colter's part to reconnect with his estranged father before the need for Source Codes runs out once his mission is complete. And wouldn't you agree that Monaghan is a woman worth trying to save, even if it doesn't count in the real world?

Source Code brings up an array of questions concerning logic, ethics and time travel (although these Source Codes aren't technically time travel), and I had a great time replaying the film in my head to test its theories of creating parallel time lines. And much like Moon, this film never forgets that living breathing characters are at the center of this work, and it is their essential humanity that drives the story in the end. But both films also share the question of what it is to be human, and on that level, Source Code operates on a haunting plain of existence. I truly loved this movie, but more than that I was impressed by how it never forgets to let its driving force be its characters. I cannot wait to see this one again, and I'm desperate to see what Duncan Jones has in store for us with the next in what will clearly be a long line of expertly realized works.

To read my exclusive interviews with Source Code director, Duncan Jones, and stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, and Vera Farmiga, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Insidious

If I've learned anything after my decades of watching thousands of horror films, it's that the lineage of a horror film (who directed it, produced it, wrote it, stars in it) doesn't mean shit. Sometimes it does, but most times it doesn't. So when I see the guy who directed Paranormal Activity (a film I love deeply) listed as a producer on Insidious, I shrug and say, "Show me the damn movie." When I see director James Wan or writer Leigh Whannell (who made the original Saw) listed as the director-writer team on Insidious, I say, "Show me the damn movie." So, I saw the damn movie, and guess what: it scared the crap out of me. It also made me laugh, and it impressed me that stars (and fine actors) Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne sold me on the heightened drama of this story of a child who is in danger of people possessed by a nasty demon.

Insidious starts out as a haunted house film. Josh and Renai Lambert move into a new home, and immediately ghostly things start happening -- doors open and close, things get knocked over, and noises come from every dark corner. Things get so bad that the Lamberts decide to move. I can't remember another film where a family actually moves out of what they believe to be a haunted house in the first 40 minutes or so. But in the new house, the same things start happening, and before long their son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) is attacked by something in the house. He seems OK, until he lands up in the hospital in something that is coma-like, but not actually a coma. The family eventually moves Dalton back home, where he lays in bed while all hell breaks loose around him.

Eventually Josh's mother (Barbara Hershey) calls on old friend Elise (the great Lin Shaye), who tells the rattled couple that it isn't the house that is haunted, it's their son, around whom a red-faced demon is swarming, preparing to take over the boy's soul. Before I dive into the film's last big set piece, I want to say that Insidious has more scares than any movie I can think of in recent memory. Yes, it borrows heavily from Poltergeist, but it's films like that that Wan and Whannell were influenced by growing up, so that doesn't surprise me.

There's a sequence in which Josh must pass into a kind of altered state to save his son, and without giving too much away, these scenes -- for whatever reason -- have divided people's response to the film pretty much down the middle. When I first saw the movies, without knowing anything about it, I saw these scenes as an homage to the old Hammer Films movies -- most of which didn't have big budgets, but they had heart and dry-ice machines for days. You might laugh at this sequence -- I probably did -- but for a movie that goes to such great lengths to look so good, I doubt the filmmakers decided to switch over to a slightly cheaper version of their movie without cause. The setting is supposed to look stripped down and bare; I think the "cheapness" of the look is intentional.

A big part of the reason Insidious works so well is its actors. Byrne and Wilson sold me on the terror. They are quality actors, and in lesser hands, I don't think the movie works -- no offense to the filmmakers. I also happen to be a big Lin Shaye fan, and to see her get a role this juicy and see her play it straight just warms my heart. There's a sequence in which she stares into a black pool on the ceiling and whispers a description to one of her research assistants (played by Whannell) what she sees. It's an absolutely terrifying sequence, made all the more effective just because of the look on Shaye's face. Wan is in top form here. Saw was about creativity and gore, and it worked on both levels. But Insidious is about good, old-fashioned fear, and try as I might to avoid jumping and screaming like an 8-year-old, I was tense for nearly the entire movie. I actually couldn't believe how anxious I was watching this film. And it's a largely bloodless affair to boot, so it's the perfect date movie. And yes, it's PG-13, but don't let that scare you away. Insidious truly surprised me, and I was glad to see that this talented group of folks got together and made a scare movie that actually matters, at a time when such films are getting increasingly lazy when it comes to being actually scary. Well done.

To read my exclusive interview with Insidious director James Wan and writer/co-star Leigh Whannell, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Hop

I'm just putting this out there, so stop me if I'm crazy. Do kids really care if people like Chelsea Handler or David Hasselhoff make cameos in a movie about the Easter Bunny? Yeah, I didn't think so. From Tim Hill, director of such family favorites as Muppets In Space, Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties and Alvin and the Chipmunks, comes Hop about a slacker rabbit named E.B. (voiced effectively enough by Russell Brand), who decides that he doesn't want to follow in his father's (voiced by Hugh Laurie) back paws to take over the reigns as the new Easter Bunny. He'd rather be a rock drummer, which gives the film the chance to line of a series of embarrassing sing-alongs featuring E.B. on drums and occasionally singing.

E.B. enlists the help of Fred O'Hare (James Marsden, one of the few actors talented enough to play a role like this and appear to be enjoying it), a slacker in his own right, who is always falling short in the expectations department with his own dad (Gary Cole). So Fred and E.B. have father issues in common, but that's not all. Turns out, when he was a kid, Fred saw E.B.'s dad making his rounds on Easter Eve, and has ever since been looking for proof that Easter Bunny exists. How fortuitous for us all.

While those two have adventures such as job interviews and talent show auditions, things are not looking to great back on Easter Island (oh, did I not mention that the Easter Bunny's equivalent to the North Pole is...never mind). A devious fluffy chick (as in chicken, not a dame) named Carlos (voiced like a Mexican by Hank Azaria) is plotting to become the new king of Easter with his army of cute chicks. E.B.'s dad does his best to stave off being overthrown, but without E.B. on hand to claim his rightful place, there's little he can do.

Hop is harmless enough, I suppose, and even slightly subversive at times (jelly beans are apparently E.B.'s poop), I didn't get much out of the film beyond the bright colors and catchy, dated tunes. I wasn't kidding when I say Marsden is exceptional at selling this stuff. He just puts on that big, idiot grin, and he's got me hooked. I do applaud the film for sparing us by not giving Fred a love interest. In light of how the film ends, it wouldn't have made sense to have one anyway. (That's right, kids. Everyone dies!) Brand is always fun to listen to, although he does lose a lot of his comic charm when you can't actually see his lanky self (thank goodness Arthur's release solves that problem next week). I wasn't expecting much from Hop, so on that level I guess technically it didn't disappoint. But the things I liked about it were few and far between, and as a result I forgot most of the film 30 minutes after walking out of the theater. I'm not even sure how I'm able to write about it now. Oh, wait. I'm not...

Trust

I'll admit, when I popped in the screener for the new film Trust and read that it was directed by actor David Schwimmer, I was thinking this was the same Schwimmer who made Run Fatboy Run a few years back. Turns out it is the same guy, but directing a film that could not be more different, starting with the fact that Trust is a really good film that deals with the unnerving and downright icky topic of internet-based child predators.

Clive Owen and Catherine Keener play Will and Lynn Cameron, who live under the misguided belief that as long as their 14-year-old daughter Annie (newcomer Liana Liberato) is in the house, she is safe from the harm that strangers would do her. But when Annie becomes friendly with a 16-year-old boy named Charlie that she meets online, she is slowly drawn into circumstances that lead to her agreeing to meet Charlie outside her home. Annie's vulnerability is a product of her age, and she becomes fascinated with her unseen new friend, even when she finds out he's older than he said he was.

You can guess where this all leads, and the outcome devastates the family. But what's harder to come to grips with is that even after Annie meets this grown man and is taken advantage of by him, she still claims she's in love with him and gets mad at her parents for keep them apart. What's fascinating about Trust is that Schwimmer and writers Andy Bellin and Robert Festinger never demonize Charlie; they don't have to. They let his actions speak for him. He isn't especially creepy in his appearance and demeanor, and we can understand why a young girl would find him appealing. It's frightening because it seems utterly believable.

Owen and Keener are outstanding as parents outraged both at their daughter's behavior and at the police who seem incapable of finding Charlie -- an expert in covering his tracks. Owen, in particular, is devastating. It's startling to watch this usually pulled together actor come apart at the seams. To say the entire affair is unsettling would be an understatement. Schwimmer keeps everything about Trust tightly wound, with a grip on the emotions so strong that when emotions finally erupt between the family members in the final act, the impact is massive. This is a solid drama in every sense of the word. Will the film skeeve you out? You bet. Is it exploitative? To a certain degree. I was genuinely surprised how much of Charlie's seduction we actually are forced to witness, but the result is a sickening feeling I believe is wholly intentional. If you think you can stomach the subject matter, you may find Trust an impressive work.

The Music Never Stopped

One of the more talked about films at this year's Sundance Film Festival, director Jim Kohlberg's The Music Never Stopped is based on a story from Dr. Oliver Sacks, who also wrote Awakenings, and it's also a tale about a character whose mind is deeply defective and those around him who are trying to figure out a way for him to function. The mind in this case study belongs to Gabriel Sawyer (Lou Taylor Pucci, who runs away from home in 1967 after his father Henry (J.K. Simmons) refuses to let him go to see the Grateful Dead perform. As a teen, Gabriel was a music freak, collecting stacks of classic vinyl that would make any young hippie envious. But his parents, including mom Helen (Cara Seymour) are more buttoned up and don't get their kid's musical tastes.

After more than 20 years missing, Gabriel shows up living on the street and disoriented from a sizeable brain tumor, which is removed along with the part of his brain that forms new memories. Gabriel is permanently stuck thinking he's living in the era where his music is still new and the Vietnam anti-war movement remains a unifying force. His parents find it impossible to communicate with him, so they enlist the help of a music therapist Dr. Daly (Julia Ormond), who discovers that Gabriel comes to life when listening to his favorite music and can recall moments from that part of his life like they happened yesterday.

OK yes, The Music Never Stopped sounds a lot like a gimmick film, and sometimes that's what it feels like. The thing that keeps the sentimentality at bay is, not surprisingly, Simmons -- who grounds this movie in some version of reality. Pucci isn't bad either as he drifts from zombie-like shuffling to fully living being with just the drop of a needle on vinyl. It's clear that Henry and Gabriel were estranged around the time of the son running away from home, and through Gabriel's waking flashbacks, he's able to convey just how close the two were when he was a kid and how far they drafted as he became a man. While mom and the good doctor are certainly an important part of this story, the heart and soul of this movie rests with the men.

The other thing this film has going for it the music itself. The music-licensing budget on this movie had to be enormous, but it makes a world of difference to hear real Beatles songs, real Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan recordings, and seemingly dozens of others. It's kind of staggering how much great music is contained in this one above-average film, and not just in the background. The songs are being listened to actively, discussed and, in many cases, discovered for the first time by Henry. Hell, Gabriel waxing poetic about the worth of the Grateful Dead made me want to try them on again and see if I can hear what he does.

There's also a sweet, though unnecessary, love story tucked away in The Music Never Stopped between Gabriel and a woman who works in the hospital cafeteria, but its inclusion in this movie doesn't really make sense because Gabriel can't form new memories, and even the few he's able to hold onto seem pointless when the woman leaves the story. Still, she's cute even in her hairnet, so we'll forgive the filmmakers for keeping her in.

The Music Never Stopped is unashamedly a crowd-pleaser, but there's just enough meat on the bones for a film snob like me to recommend as well. Simmons deserves a bonus on top of whatever he got paid to be in this movie, because he single-handedly saves it from taking a long and agonizing trip to Sap Island. If you even want to see a note-perfect example of a single actor saving the life of a movie, look no further. I don't want to put down what the other actors are doing -- Ormond, in particular, is also doing fine work here -- but no one is coming close to performing cinematic CPR the way Simmons is. I realize this is backhanded praise for the film, and this one will certainly not be for everyone, but since this is from the same doctor that wrote Awakenings, I'd say that's the benchmark. If you like that film, you'll probably dig this one equally.

 
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