Friday, May 27, 2011

We Agree (Kinda): Source Code

Duncan Jones (of whom writers always seem to make some reference to the fact that he's David Bowie's son like it's relevant somehow, kind of like I'm doing now) entered the cinematic community with a big splash(down) with a deliciously retro sci-fi drama called Moon. Cinephiles everywhere seemed to embrace the movie, and I'm sure many, like me, were crying foul that star Sam Rockwell didn't get an Oscar nomination in 2010. Jones, likewise, established himself as a strong storyteller, negotiating Moon's tricky plot with relative ease, expertly conveying it's themes of identity and trust, and handling the science-fiction elements naturally, in a manner that would've made Kubrick proud. Jones was on the radar.

When Source Code's trailer appeared at the multiplex late last year it took me by surprise. A sci-fi/time-travelling mystery/suspense starring Jake Gyllenhaal that at once piqued my interest but also looked relatively generic. As curious as I was about the plot, it seemed the type of mid-budget genre movie Hollywood likes to greenlight, then, during production, water down the heavier sci-fi elements so as not to put off the "general audience", and introduce a love-interest sub-plot so that girls will watch it too. There was no mention in the trailer that this came from the director of Moon, all of which leads me to believe that it's more a work-for-hire effort/learning experience for Jones rather than a creatively fulfilling one. This isn't to say that Source Code is a bad movie, but rather, a bit of a let-down when compared to Moon.

There's not a lot of discernable style on display here, unlike Moon, which seemed to succeed because of limitations of budget rather than in spite of them. Being forced to shoot in confined sets led Jones to some really creative framing and the production design made it seem a much more expensive vehicle than it truly was. Source Code is a bigger budget movie and Jones isn't really forced into any kind of visual constraint, so while the movie is told well, stylistically it's not all that compelling.

(a bit of SPOILERAGE ahead)

This film, like Moon, is generally set in confined spaces. Its lead character, Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal)is an army helicopter pilot who finds himself inhabiting the body of a teacher, Sean Fentress, on his commuter train into Chicago. Stevens surveys his surroundings despite his disorientation and strives to come to grips with where he is. Then the train blows up. He awakes inside of a pod where his only communication with the outside world is a small monitor where he engages Air Force Captain Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) while Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) putters around in the background. Stevens is advised that he's entering the "source code", vaguely described as not a simulation, but a sort of digital construct of an 8-minute span of time which only certain individuals can enter, Stevens being one of them. As a soldier he's sent on a mission to determine who planted the bomb on the commuter train, as a second bomb has been warned to detonate within central Chicago. Time is of the essence, and Stevens is sent back into the same 8-minute span, in a sort of post-9-11 Groundhog Day until he figures it out. At the same time Stevens is trying to figure out exactly where he is outside of the source code and how he got there, as well, in the least believable or necessary aspect of the film, as he lives repeatedly through this loop, he begins to fall for the woman who sits across from Sean Fentress every day on the commute.

With multiple mysteries at play (who is the bomber, what happened in Afghanistan, where is Stevens really, can the source code actually change the future, who is Dr. Rutledge) the film is never at a loss for intrigue, and it moves through its story at an exceptionally brisque pace, which is why I find the romance angle to feel so forced. With all the other things going on in Steven's mind, all the thoughts he's having to process, I would think the last thing he would be thinking is how Michelle Monaghan would make a suitable girlfriend... and how he comes to this decision is written so matter of factly, so calculated that it's like a robot's understanding of attraction. If you string together all the times Stevens ventures into the code, it adds up to about an hour, two at best. Hardly enough time to develop a full blown crush on someone, all the while looking for a bomb, a bomber, thinking about who you are, where you are, and getting in touch with your dad.

I liked Source Code, I like the themes it plays with and it has a working logic to it. Gyllenhaal holds the movie almost completely (though, again, it seems like even he was trying to work through the necessity of romance amidst all else). The supporting cast, Monaghan, Farmiga, Wright are just that, supporting. They have little demands of them beyond "be cute", "emote sympathy", and "act a bit kooky", respectively. They all pulled their weight to build the reality of the plot and react to Gyllenhaal's restrained frenzy. If anything threatened to pop Source Code's suspension-of-disbelief bubble, though, it was the presence of Canadian comedy icon Russell Peters (yes, really) as a passenger on the train, that is until it was make clear he was playing a moderately well known comedian (essentially himself), at which point it kind of made sense.

David and I had a hearty debate about the meaning of the end of the film, about whether Stevens' changing of the source code changed history or spawned a new timeline. In fact our discussion was perhaps my favourite part of the film. Next time we get into something like that, I'll try to record it for a G&DSD podcast.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Fast Five

Vin Diesel versus the Rock.
That was really all it took to get my ass into the theater for this one. Were it just Vin Diesel or just The Rock, then I wouldn't have been so keen, but the two of them clashing on screen, man that is the definition of cinematic event. I can't really explain it outside of that. Either you get the appeal or you don't.

I've never seen a "The Fast and The Furious" movie before, and, what's more, had no interest in the previous installments of this franchise. From what I've heard, they're car porn, in the literal sense that the story is ridiculous, that acting is terrible, and all its audience really wants is to get to the cars, tricked out and ridden hard.

Fast Five is, perhaps (as I don't have enough experience with the series to truly attest), a change up from this formula as it skews more in the vein of an Oceans 11 gettin'-the-gang-together heist movie than a street racing, evade-the-cops movie. There are cars in here, but street racing and the culture seems a distant background element.

The film opens with recently convicted Dominic Toretto (Diesel) fleeing from justice after his prison bus is overrun, meeting up with his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) and her ex FBI lover Brian (Paul Walker) in Rio at the shanty of an old friend. They're hired to help a local gang recover some vintage sport cars from federal custody on a train, but Dom senses something is amiss and they break off on their own. Nothing goes as planned. Soon, the FaFfies have both the kingpin of Rio (Hernan Reyes) and the Feds number one tracker, Luke Hobbs (a very sweaty Dwayne Johnson) on their tail. But, after discovering one of the stolen cars contains info on the kingpin's money laundering routes, instead of running, the FaFfies plan ye olde one last heist and call in the posse, consisting of various characters from the previous movies.

The three-way chess game (with muscle cars and humvees) is pretty well orchestrated, even if one has to wonder frequently how an entire police force can be bought off and how feds from the US get so much clearance to kill and destroy as they do. There are aspects of personal drama to some of the characters, such as Mia is pregnant, and the betrayal of an old friend. All of the drama in the film is hokey, and neither Diesel nor Walker seem capable of emoting with any suggestion at all of investment in their characters. They're figurative chess pieces made to move about on screen and make things happen in the overall game.

Much of the posse are amusing caricatures (Tyrese and Ludacris amongst others) and the film seems to excel at these one-note figures. But if there's anything approaching good acting, it's Dwayne Johnson as he absolutely owns every second of screen time he's in. He makes crappy dialogue sound exciting, even humorous and his charisma is as profuse as the sweat he emits perpetually throughout the film.

It's a rarity for a franchise to get bigger with each successive outing, especially by the time it hits its fifth sequel, but this one goes over the top, and often. The action sequences are all unbelievable. There's not a lot of superhuman stuff happening to the stars of the film (unlike say latter Indiana Jones or Die Hard sequels), but the cars are definitely granted god-like powers. All the action pieces are cleanly shot... not a whole lot of quick-cuts and shaky cam here, you always know what's going on. There's a chase sequence early on through the shantytown of Rio that's pretty good (as is almost any decently shot chase sequence in Rio's shantytown), but doesn't quite measure up to the parkour-infused chase throughout the same area in The Incredible Hulk. Oh, and then there's that Diesel vs. Rock fight sequence... perhaps not as grandiose as I was expecting, but they still bring it (but of course, like every superhero team-up, it has to wind up a stalemate and ultimately they work together, begrudgingly).

Look, let's be blunt, as far as big, dumb blockbuster action movies go, they don't get much meatheadier than this. But then that is what makes it so damn entertaining. It makes no pretense of being believable, it just tries hard at being entertaining while challenging your suspension of disbelief at every turn.

I'm not sure I'll remember much of it three months down the road, but, in spite of myself, I liked this, quite a bit.

Friday, May 6, 2011

City Theatres: The Humber (preliminary)

(Warning: Toronto centric post)

Half a decade ago I was living on Roncesvalles Ave, less than a block away from the Revue repertory cinema. Being just a hop, skip and a jump away from home, it was a home-away-from-home. I would catch a film whenever the mood struck me, the specific film playing not really mattering, but the convenience certainly did. It was splendid, running out at 8:55 to catch a 9:00 show, or spending a lazy Saturday afternoon catching a matinee. For a film enthusiast like me it was a bit of a dream, and the Revue was a palace. Unfortunately I moved away (and in the time since the Revue closed down and since reopened).

I miss that experience of having a neighbourhood cinema. So when I heard last year that the abandoned Odeon, the Humber, was going to reopen, I was excited beyond belief as it's about a 15 minute walk form home. My wife, a west-end girl much of her life, said "I'll believe it when it happens" because apparently there has been talk of reviving the Humber before. But it did open, after much anticipation, last week. I wanted to be there opening night, but I was out of town, but I took the first opportunity I could to get in there on Tuesday.

To my surprise, the Humber's opening film was Fast Five... I wasn't expecting the Humber to be a first run film joint, running the same new film for weeks on end. I think I was more expecting the higher turnaround of films like a rep theatre, more variety more often, but this is okay too. I'm really not fussed either way.

My wife had informed me that the Humber was a split theatre - or "twinned" - one that took the balcony section and made a second theatre out of it. We had one like that in Thunder Bay where I grew up, the Capitol, which I didn't really go to very often, recalling only being in the balcony theatre twice when Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade came out and for a midnight screening of Clockwork Orange many years later.

The new Humber has had some work put into it, naturally, since it had been languishing for many years, gutted when it was shut down originally and water damage having crept in since. The front lobby is now a vast, freshly recarpeted space devoid of any clutter aside from a few leftover plaster buckets likely on their way to the recycling bin and a rope-stand cordoning off the far-right theatre entrance. The Deco aesthetic visible in the original theatre (see the Humber's Facebook for photos of old) is gone. The concession stand is a work-in progress, mainly a counter with a popcorn maker and soda fridge deep in the back. It's not incredibly inspiring as of yet, and certainly nothing like what it once was. With such a long bar counter, I have to wonder if the Humber will seek a liquor license or if even having such a beverage counter in a theatre is even possible in Toronto.

The first thing I noticed though, was not the vastness, but the smell, the scent of plaster still quite fresh in the air. The idea of "work-in-progress" is something inescapable for the Humber for the foreseeable future. I took a peek downstairs (where the bathrooms are, cleanly re-tiled, with new stalls put in, but the old urinal bank clearly dominating the space) to see the downstairs auditorium seatless, with lots of repair tools and scaffolding scattered about. It will be a while before the showcase theatre is in place for sure.

The upper theatre itself was a blast from the past mainly the gaudy 70's yellow velvet curtain that surrounded the screen. This is only the second "twinned" theatre I've been in (the aforementioned Capitol), and I forgot the actuality of the setup, a very broad seating arrangement but with little depth from the screen. The screen was another shock to the theatre-goer used to stadium seating and epic IMAX screens. It's tiny. Not too tiny for the space, but a definite adjustment to the screen size we're used to in most modern theatres, or even compared to most rep houses. The theatre has a brand-new sound system which does sound great, and does make up somewhat for the lack of big-ness of the screen.

The seats are brand new, low backed, but quite comfortable, though people will immediately recall (or for some, encounter for the first time) the narrow leg room of classic cinemas. The most surprising is the retention of the middle aisle, which is a loss of the prime seats in the house, though on the favourable side it does make for unencumbered movement from other good seats.

As for the day-of experience, well, the popcorn wasn't ready when I entered the theatre (about 15 minutes before showtime), the film itself was projected too broadly for the screen (so foreheads were cut off at the top) and the air conditioners seemed in overdrive. It was cold in there. Tickets are $12, so not much different from the big chains, popcorn prices ranged from $4 - $7 so again not much difference there, unlike the somewhat cheaper Rep houses. But like the rep theatres it is a cash-only operation for now.

Is it a sub-par or a premium experience? Well, it's neither. There are obvious plusses and minuses to the old school film house. I know it's not a good sign, and perhaps I shouldn't celebrate it, but I would prefer to see any big movie with a small crowd than waiting in line and going elbow to elbow with other patrons. There were about 30 - 40 other people at the showing of Fast Five I went to, and I can say it seemed we all had as good of a time as we were going to have with that movie, regardless of the situation. On the one hand seeing a blockbuster on a mid-sized screen may feel like an inauthentic experience, but at the same time, I would prefer it to being forced into 3-D goggles or having the back of my seat kicked repeatedly by inconsiderate film goers. Its almost a damnable situation... if the Humber gets tremendously successful, then I'll enjoy the experience less, but if it's not successful the possibility of it staying alive is lessened. Hopefully it finds the middle ground staying viable without overcrowding.

Ultimately, I'm going to go to the Humber, and frequently, because it's my local. Walking home after Fast Five - no buses, no subways - was as much a part of the experience as watching the film. It's my new default home theatre. Being first run and carrying the big blockbusters for longer periods means it's not going to be as cool or have as much cache as a rep house, but I will embrace it just the same. And when the lower bowl opens up (as well as planned private 60-seat screening rooms) it's going to be the destination place that it's not yet in its current state.

more on the Humber from the Globe and Mail

Preliminary Ratings:
Style: **1/2
Atmosphere: ***1/2
Comfort: ****
Screen: *1/2
Audio: ****1/2
Concessions: **
Facilities: ***
Area: ****
Ticket value: **

Thursday, May 5, 2011

DOWNLOAD: Troll Hunter

Norway, 2010. Supposedly in US & Canada cinemas this summer.

In Dungeons & Dragons, the Troll has always been a skinny creature with green bumpy skin and a grassy knoll as a head – think the green hag Meg in Tom Cruise’s Legend. But in fairy tales they are normally large, lumbering creatures with big warty noses, baritone voices and a fondness for sitting under bridges eating billy goats or passersby who will not pay a toll. They have a strong allergy to sunlight. They are often inter-changeable with giants. They all emerge from Nordic and Scandinavian legends but have spread to most of Europe. In Norway the creatures have been cutified, essentially turned into cuddly little hairy creatures akin to garden gnomes. I won’t bring up the multi-colored troll doll of collecting infamy.

I prefer the large, lumpy sun-to-stone version of a troll. He’s scary, hates Christians and will probably eat you even if you pay the toll. And in the movie Troll Hunter, a Norwegian mockumentary out this year, they are even scarier. It’s your familiar found-footage film (wee alliteration!) about a documentary crew who uncover something they shouldn’t and we get to follow along to the inevitable outcome.

Our local university film crew wants to make a small controversial documentary on bear poaching in rural Norway. They have been told by a contact about a potential poacher and follow him, seeking a put-on-the-spot interview. He just tells them to go away. Of course, they follow him and end up meeting his real prey – the not so legendary trolls of Norway. It seems the government has an agency that keeps an eye on the various races of trolls, watching them for out of character behavior and even killing them if they become dangerous to the people of the countryside. Frustrated with some of the agency’s actions when dealing with some naughty monsters, the troll hunter invites the documentary crew along with him. And the footage they get !! But alas, for the footage to be found, things have to go wrong.

The plot is thin but the thing here is that we want to see great CGI trolls. And of course, a detail guy like me wants to hear the background behind the agencies and the particulars of the trolls. There are forest trolls and mountain trolls, some with multiple vestigial heads and some that live in caves. And then there are some that bring whole new meaning to the word giant.

What disappointed me was that the names given to the races of trolls were probably made up for the movie, as I can find no evidence of the names Raglefant, Tussealadd, Rimtusse or Dovregubben in any folk-lore sites. But it could just be the English translation.

The movie was satisfying enough to be enjoyable but like all mockumentaries it has its hands tied in the chosen format. There is limited characterization and one character has to be essentially invisible. The deus ex machine they use to fix the format, when things go terribly wrong for the crew, is laughable. In the end up I just wanted to see more Trolls on camera, to be given slow detailed plodding footage like you might get on animal planet. They didn’t need a subplot of a corrupt government agency & the disillusioned hunter but it was the vehicle to get the hunter and crew together. I would have been satisfied if the hunter dragged along the crew just because he wanted someone to see how good he was at what he did. And we could have wandered along with everyone to see how fascinating a 400’ monster can be.