Friday, August 12, 2011

Quick Takes: Source Code, Insidious, Barney's Version

When I was watching Source Code (2011), I was reminded of Inception. Both films dealt with trippy realities and a hero trying to change things within alternate worlds. I enjoyed Inception; it was marvelously complex and gorgeously filmed. But I'm going to come right out and say it: I thought Source Code was even better.

Source Code may not have had half the budget of last year's Best Picture contender but I think it has a bigger heart. The foundation of the film is rooted in sci-fi: the government has created a program that allows a trained professional to travel back to an event in the near past in an effort to alter the future. It's a bit murky (come to think of it, everything that has to do with time travel, or "time remembrance" as they call it here, is always murky), but Source Code wisely avoids too much exposition. At a brisk 90 minutes, the film moves along furiously as our war hero tries to prevent a potentially catastrophic disaster 8 minutes at a time. What makes this really work is the tone of the film -- it's light-footed, humorous and good-hearted. There is very little cynicism here. The Adjustment Bureau (another sci-fi adventure with a very humanistic approach - more fi than sci) struck me with the same positive vibe, though Source Code goes further by packing an amazing visceral punch. Instead of spending too much time trying to figure out the implications of our hero's actions, I was completely wrapped up in the story.

As usual, Jake Gyllenhaal is effortlessly charming and uses his comic timing to great effect. Michelle Monaghan is as good as she can be in a throwaway role but I really dug Vera Farmiga as the communications officer who struggles with the morally questionable task of sending Colton back to die over and over again. Farmiga says so much with her facial expressions that she doesn't need much dialogue to convey the complexity of the situation.

Director Duncan Jones also made Moon, another high-minded thriller about a man unsure of his surroundings. Source Code is no sophomore slump; it's a near-masterpiece of its genre, proving Jones to be the real thing. This is one of the year's best. 4.5/5

Now, comparing Source Code to Inception did not diminish my feelings towards either film. They both worked for me. However, watching James Wan's Insidious (2011), I couldn't help but compare it to many other horror films that preceded it, most especially the great classic Poltergeist. Unfortunately, this seriously hindered my enjoyment of Insidious. I gotta slap on a *spoiler alert* here for those who didn't see it - I can't air my frustration for the film without revealing pivotal plot points.

It's one thing to be watching a remake of Poltergeist, but it's another thing entirely when you're watching a movie that doesn't acknowledge the previous film and blatantly rips it off beat by beat. It's not so obvious in the beginning, which builds up as a story of a family being terrorized by demons in the house. During the opening act, Insidious was pretty run of the mill, ripping off almost every other haunted house cliche in the playbook, most notably Paranormal Activity. But when the spiritual advisers showed up to test the "energy" of the house, I began to arouse suspicion. After the forces seemed alarmingly present, the advisers then called in their all-knowing boss lady, Tang-- er, I mean Elise. Elise then "listens" to the voices of the haunted and begins to spill the beans. In a nutshell, the demons want the kid so they can cross over to a different spiritual plane. Now wait a minute. That sounds awfully familiar, eh? Of course, it doesn't end there. How do they end up getting the kid back, you ask? Why, they send one of his parents through the dark side! Oh, that just ticked me off. Why not have Dalton covered in slime when he wakes up?

End spoiler alert. Insidious looks good and James Wan knows how to set up a scare or two. But unfortunately, the story is stale. I was bored, quite frankly, because it had nothing new to offer. And when you rip off Poltergeist without even acknowledging it, well, that just adds insult to injury. 1.5/5

Thankfully, Barney's Version (2010) did not remind me of any other film while I was watching it. It's a sweeping drama about a man who is shaped by his three wives. Paul Giamatti won an Golden Globe for his searing performance and should have gotten at least an Oscar nod. But I digress -- Giamatti is such a good actor that I'm more than certain he'll eventually get his due.

Giamatti is Barney Panofsky, an arrogant little bastard who goes through two miserable marriages (first with Rachelle Lafevre, then with Minnie Driver) before building a life with a third woman (a saintly Rosamund Pike, as Miriam) who easily deserves much better. What does Miriam see in him anyway? Endearing determination, perhaps? We see what great lengths Barney is willing to go through in order to make their marriage work. In the immortal words of Nicholson: she makes him want to be a better man.

This is a terrific movie. Barney's Version is well-cast (in addition to the wives, we have Dustin Hoffman warmly portraying his cop father and Scott Speedman as his manic best buddy) and deeply engaging. While most of the characters are one- or two-dimensional at best, Barney is a fully fleshed-out character. He's a sad sack, really. Not a loser or a schlub, but a successful businessman who acts irrationally when it comes to love. In hindsight, Barney Panofsky led a charmed life, but he could have had it so much better. 4/5

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