Category Archives: 2011

Save Me (2011, Lena Waithe)

Save Me is the story of a kid (Jaheem Toombs) whose house burned down and the rest of his family died and he goes to ask the man who saved him (Sam Bologna) why he saved him and the man doesn’t tell him so the kid lies about it to his new best friend. There are some ostensible layers to it—Toombs’s Black, Bologna’s an old White man—they’re artificial. Waithe’s giving the impression of raising questions, ones she can’t bother even imagining the answers for.

The photography—by Matthew H. Sanders—is about the only solid part of the short. Waithe’s direction is hyper-focused on the actors, who—at best—aren’t very good and are often worse. Save Me occasionally feels like Waithe’s out to embarrass Toombs, who’s been living in foster care since his family burned to death and he’s got a kindly social worker (Stacy Lutz). They have this game where he gives her a quote and she tells him who said it. The gimmick becomes important later on.

Shame Toombs doesn’t seem to have any idea why he’s saying the quote or who and why he’s quoting the person, other than Waithe thinks it’ll be a good detail.

When people use “workshop” as a pejorative, they’re talking about the script to Save Me. Cultural references are more important than the flow of the dialogue, which is fine because the musical accompaniment is more important than the scenes. Despite being in every scene, Toombs’s the film’s least defined character. Waithe’s doing a character study where she’s avoiding character as much as possible. So what should be a great showcase for Toombs is instead a series of opportunities for him to fail.

Then there’s the cloying finale, which has Toombs forgetting how to skateboard; though I suppose that plot hole is a great metaphor for the short itself.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Lena Waithe; director of photography, Matthew H. Sanders; edited by Justin Simien; music by Darnell Levine; produced by Nikki Love.

Starring Jaheem Toombs (Kenya), Stacy Lutz (social worker), Malcolm Williams (shop owner), and Sam Bologna (Mr. Wilkey).


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.

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).


Haywire (2011, Steven Soderbergh)

Haywire’s plotting is meticulous and exquisite. And entirely a budgetary constraint. It’s a globe trotting, action-packed spy thriller with lots of name stars. The action in the globe trotted areas, for instance, is more chase scenes than explosions. Haywire doesn’t blow up Barcelona, lead Gina Carano chases someone down the streets. She doesn’t land a 747 in Dublin, she has a chase scene on the rooftops. And director Soderbergh does phenomenally with those sequences. While Carano’s in real danger and Soderbergh’s shooting realistic DV, David Holmes’s music riffs back to sixties spy movie music and contextualizes things. You still get to have fun watching the spy movie. You’re supposed to have fun. It’s just a different kind of spy movie.

One where the action set pieces are what Carano does, whether it’s stunts or fight scenes, she’s the action. Soderbergh and writer Lem Dobbs space out the action sequences, sometimes not actually going with a big Carano sequence in the situation. Sometimes the film focuses on her adversaries or allies. Soderbergh and Dobbs do a lot of action thriller without a lot of money.

The film starts with Carano–former Marine and spy-mercenary–is on the run. We don’t know from who, because when Channing Tatum shows up to bring her in, they don’t say the character’s name. It becomes obvious pretty soon, but Soderbergh and Dobbs go through all the motions to give Haywire a conspiracy thriller foundation. They don’t have time to engage with it–or, presumably, money–but it’s part of the film’s texture. Some creative decisions in Haywire just plump up the film. Soderbergh’s not trying to make a low budget spy thriller, he’s making a spy thriller with a low budget. He’s not… chintzing.

So after the first Carano action sequence, the film gets into flashback and explains Barcelona and Dublin, which keep coming up in dialogue. They seem less destinations for major spy intrigue and more stops on a tour group’s European vacation. Nicely, both sequences really pay off. They live up to the hype, even if the hype was really nonspecific so Dobbs and Soderbergh could up the mysteriousness.

Then it’s the flashback catching up to present and the film resolving. Ninety-three minutes of not entirely lean–though subplot-free–narrative. Carano works her way through various other spies and government officials. They’re sort of in glorified cameos, but it never feels like it. The magic of the pacing. Bill Paxton, for example, is in a cameo role. He’s in two scenes. One on the phone. But Dobbs and Soderbergh pace it where Paxton feels like an active supporting player. It’s impressive to see executed. Paxton’s fine–it’s a cameo, he’s got nothing to do–but the feat is how the filmmakers pull it off.

Paxton’s Carano’s dad. Ewan McGregor is her spies for hire boss, Tatum is a fellow spy for hire, Michael Fassbender is a fellow (but British) spy for hire. Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas as government guys who hire spies for hire. Anthony Brandon Wong and Mathieu Kassovitz are the guys the spies for hire go after. No one trusts anyone else. Something Dobbs and Soderbergh take their time addressing, which shifts the film from spy action to spy thriller, both for the film itself and Carano’s understanding of her situation.

So Carano.

As dubbed by Laura San Giacomo.

Yes, really.

Physically she’s great. The stunts, the fighting. It’s all nearly silent–trained killers don’t exchange banter in the seedy international spy ring underbelly of Dublin–so it’s just the fight, just the choreographer, just Carano and the actors and the stunt fighters. The fights are excellent. Soderbergh’s editing and photography, the fighters, Carano–great.

Carano dramatically? She’s really likable. Sympathetic. But the performance is hinky; the dubbing explains it. Carano’s dialogue is already terse so San Giacomo doesn’t really build a character. And the comedy moments are a little off. But it’s fine. Carano does well. The physicality of her performance is spot on. Soderbergh builds the movie–tone-wise–around her action sequences. The chase in middle flashback informs how something in the first act present was done. Exquisite. Always exquisite.

The cameos are all good. Bandares and Douglas have the most fun, though different kinds of fun. Tatum’s good. McGregor’s good. Fassbender’s more just effective. He’s a glorified cameo too. The movie’s Carano, Tatum, and McGregor.

Under pseudonym, Soderbergh also shot and edited Haywire. Technically it’s great. There’s great editing, there’s great photography, seperate sometimes, together sometimes. He does some excellent work in Haywire. With Holmes’s music an essential support. Holmes gets to foreshadow the slight change in tone for Haywire; how the filmmaking, narrative, and music shift gears–the music goes first.

There’s a lot of awesome to Haywire. It’s just an action movie on a budget with a problematic lead performance. The film does well not drawing attention–or even acknowledging–its constraints. But they’re there nonetheless.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Edited, photographed, and directed by Steven Soderbergh; written by Lem Dobbs; music by David Holmes; production designer, Howard Cummings; produced by Gregory Jacobs; released by Relativity Media.

Starring Gina Carano (Mallory Kane), Ewan McGregor (Kenneth), Channing Tatum (Aaron), Michael Fassbender (Paul), Michael Douglas (Alex Coblenz), Antonio Banderas (Rodrigo), Anthony Brandon Wong (Jiang), Mathieu Kassovitz (Studer), and Bill Paxton (John Kane).


THIS POST IS PART OF GIRL WEEK 2018 HOSTED BY WENDELL OF DELL ON MOVIES.


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Super 8 (2011, J.J. Abrams)

Sometimes special effects are just a little too much, especially with CGI composites letting director Abrams set so much of Super 8 in gigantic action sequences. The film’s about a bunch of tweens in 1979 Ohio making a Super 8 zombie movie when they witness a train crash. The train crash, with train cars flying through the air and the kids running through showering debris, is the first time it seems like Abrams might have a little too much confidence in CGI composites. Especially when cinematographer Larry Fong can’t match the kids in the foreground. Actually, other way around, the CGI compositers can’t match Fong’s lighting of the kids pre-composite.

Then Abrams takes a little break from it and concentrates on the story. He’s already got most of the ground situation done. Abrams’s script is real good at brevity when it needs to be (which makes all of Noah Emmerich’s evil Air Force colonel a little much). By the train crash sequence, Abrams has established lead Joel Courtney (his mom has just died), his sidekick Riley Griffiths, the girl they both think is cute (Elle Fanning), and their second tier pals (Ryan Lee is the pyromaniac in training, Gabriel Basso is the scared one, Zach Mills is the one you forget is in the movie). Kyle Chandler plays Courtney’s dad; he’s a sheriff’s deputy who eventually has to take charge in a crisis situation. Abrams spends some time establishing the strain between Chandler and Courtney because the mom died. It’s effective stuff without ever being particularly… good. Both Chandler and Courtney give good man tears.

Fanning’s dad is town drunk Ron Eldard, who Chandler hates. Eldard doesn’t want Courtney around his daughter. Fanning’s outstanding and Courtney’s likable, so their gentle tween friendship stuff is nice. It’s not so deep it should take over the plot, which Abrams lets it for a while, but it’s nice. Abrams and Fong know how to go for emotional gut shots and they deliver, lens flares and all. And the emotional gut shot music from Michael Giacchino is a lot better than his eventual action and thriller music. Giacchino’s score by the third act is like a TV movie version of John Williams. Oh, right–Steven Spielberg is one of Super 8’s producers. The movie plays like an homage to some of his seventies and eighties films, most often Close Encounters.

The homage, while unnecessary, is kind of cute.

Turns out the Air Force is shipping something top secret and monstrous on the train and they come to town trying to reclaim it. Enter evil colonel Emmerich. None of the Air Force guys are good, however. They’re variations of evil.

For a while, the movie’s about Griffiths trying to integrate the train crash into his Super 8 project while Chandler deals with Emmerich. Then dogs start running away and people’s electronics are getting stolen. Then there’s a quarantine–sorry, not a quarantine, an evacuation. Abrams checks way too many homage boxes on his list, letting Super 8 get away from its stronger elements.

The kid stuff is good. Besides Fanning, not of the performances are great–Courtney’s good, but he’s got fairly predicable narrative tropes to work through–and Abrams’s banter material is what makes Griffiths and Lee’s performances.

Chandler’s investigation stuff is okay, not great, but it mostly runs concurrent to the better kid stuff. Their Super 8 movie, which runs over the end credits, is awesome.

When the evacuation hits, however, is when Super 8 slips. Abrams’s direction is all right just never quite good enough to get the action stuff done. Especially not with all the composited action nonsense going on around the kids. Everyone has a somewhat chill reaction to misfiring tanks, broken legs, and giant monsters, kids, adults, and soldiers alike. There’s this tedious crashed bus sequence at the beginning of the third act; it ought to be excellent, instead it’s artless. There’s no choreography to the frantic action, just CG tying everything together.

Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey’s editing, seemingly to keep things as PG–13 as possible, doesn’t help in that one bus sequence. They’re choppy instead of frantic. Otherwise the editing is undistinguished, sort of like Fong’s photography, or–at its best–Giacchino’s score. The film’s technically competent without ever excelling at anything. Abrams doesn’t need anyone to excel to get Super 8 done.

The finale is a little long, with Abrams going from set piece to set piece to set piece–not forgetting to tug at the heartstrings when he can. The heartstring tugging is the most effective–next to the humor–because the cast is so strong. Super 8’s biggest problem is Abrams not being able to balance between the characters and the plot. It’s too bad.

But Super 8’s still pretty good. It’s just nothing special… which Abrams seems to understand. His enthusiasm, for something he’s writing, directing, and co-producing, is a tad too muted.

Artificial lens flares aren’t enough.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by J.J. Abrams; director of photography, Larry Fong; edited by Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Martin Whist; produced by Abrams, Bryan Burk, and Steven Spielberg; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Joel Courtney (Joe Lamb), Kyle Chandler (Deputy Jackson Lamb), Elle Fanning (Alice Dainard), Noah Emmerich (Colonel Nelec), Ron Eldard (Louis Dainard), Riley Griffiths (Charles Kaznyk), Ryan Lee (Cary), Gabriel Basso (Martin), Zach Mills (Preston), David Gallagher (Donny), and Glynn Turman (Dr. Woodward).


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