Friday, April 8, 2011

Capsule reviews: Source Code, Taxi Driver, I Saw the Devil (theatrical)

 Source Code (2011, Duncan Jones)

An American helicopter pilot (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds himself as the guinea pig for a new, complex national security project by which he is sent back to the scene of a terrorist attack… but only in his mind. Earlier that day a commuter train exploded just outside of Chicago, and it is highly suspected that another take will occur. The team of scientist and officials, led by an officer played by Vera Farmiga and a cranky scientist played by Jeffrey Wright, believe that by using Jake Gyllenhaal’s mind, even though it is against his will, they can succeed in identifying the perpetrator and avoid future attacks.

Duncan Jones’ sophomore effort can be taken as the sort of movie that is really quite an enjoyable ride, a perfectly serviceable way of spending 90 minutes or so despite whatever logical inconsistencies plague the script. The very idea that drives the movie, that a man can be sent back into a hyper-real version of the past on multiple occasions (with a time limit of 8 minutes for each attempt) is very interesting. The resulting episodes of Gyllenhaal’s character discovering who the train passengers are and what potential dark spots the bomb might be hidden, all the while growing increasingly attracted to a fellow female passenger played by Michelle Monaghan, are amusing and are propelled by a growing sense of tension whenever it seems as though Gyllenhaal is itching closer and closer to the truth. Gyllenhaal himself gives a strong performance. His character is, for all intents and purposes, being subjected to the crucial experiment against his will. I prefer not to reveal how that is so, but the dramatic weight that emerges from his situation is engaging and helps make him a compelling relatible character, one with whom the viewer can empathise.  

The movie is far from perfect however. While I gladly shed some praise for the overall idea behind the story, the actual execution, from the explanation as to how the system operates as provided by the Wright character, to how the movie’s world plays with the rules of how I at least understood what was going on, is lacking in some coherency. Where are the scientists sending Gyllenhaal to? They themselves explain that it is not time travel but some sort of artificial creation crafted from memory. Well, whose memory? Didn’t everyone immediately die in the train? Were the passengers not burned to a crisp in the explosion? Whose body is the Gyllenhaal character inhabiting during his missions on the train? What happened to that man’s memories? By the end, few, if any, of these questions were answered to my satisfaction, and yet the thrill of the ride was sufficiently enjoyable for to leave the theatre content.  If nothing else than for an decent character piece filled with excitement, Source Code delivers, although I can already here fans of Jones’s previous work, Moon, a far more serious, tightly constructed hard sci-fi film, bemoan what the director has given them.

Taxi Driver (1976, Martin Scorsese)

I hadn’t watched this in a couple of years and with a new Blu-ray released soon (at the time. It’s already out now) I thought it would be neat to revisit the film. Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro, is a Vietnam War veteran who, lonely as he is and unable to sleep at night, gets himself a job as a taxi cab driver in Manhattan. An inability to sleep at night is the least of his problems however. While in some respects he does want to be nice, one example being his desire to free a 12 year old prostitute (Jodie Foster) from the clutches of her pimp (Harvey Keitel), his social skills are equally terrible in other respects. In fact, when pushed, the man is pretty much mentally unstable. The repulsion which afflicts him from witnessing the dangerous and pathetic night time souls roam the streets of Manhattan pushes him over the edge…and into a pool of violent rage.

Taxi Driver is one of my favourite movies of all time. Here is a film about a man who truly is split right down the middle. Deep down inside, he is not ‘bad’. I mean, he wants a nice girlfriend (Cybil Shepherd), wants to see Jodie Foster’s prostitute lead a better life for a girl her age, but he is also blatantly racist, violent and unable to understand why some people might not find him appealing. The conflicting aspects of the Bickle character never cease to earn my interest. Other things I noticed this time around was the pacing of the movie, which feels just right for the descent into violent hell that Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader have in store for us. We see Travis in a more innocent mode, then in a socially inept mode, then in a frustrated mode and finally in his cathartic but oh so bloody rage mode. The viewer should not cheer him on because the methods he chooses to resolve conflict are terrible, but he can and most certainly does fascinate us. The movie also feels like a feverish dream, what with its dark cinematography that is lit up by rich colours (especially red), beautiful jazz music score, the contradictory aspects to how Travis approaches things, etc. The movie feels…abnormal, which is basically is strongest quality.

I Saw the Devil (2010, Kim Ji-woon)

Yes, a review for this very movie was written and published in early January of this year (read it here), but this week the editor in chief of Between the Seats finally, at long last, was given the opportunity to see the movie theatrically, which is how it almost any movie should be seen anyhow. The only two errors  committed in this lovely outing to the theatre were, first, unsuccessfully convincing anyone to see the film with me and, second, seeing an early matinee screening, which meant there was almost no one there. The real treat must be seeing this kind of movie with a large crowd.

Suffice to say, the movie holds up very well. To be honest, I enjoyed it even more the second time. Despite the fact that it runs well over 2 hours, I it ticked along briskly. The increasing stakes and outrageous suspense worked like a Swiss watch. Large theatre picture and sound also does this kind of movie a huge service, especially during the story’s more, well, icky moments.  Three other people were in the room with me. A young couple sitting a good 7 or 8 rows ahead of me and an old timer sitting just a couple of rows in front. The young couple clearly had the same taste as myself, for they chuckled when I chuckled, they went ‘oh shit!’ when I went ‘oh shit!’ while watching the movie the first time (although I have to say, even though I had already see the movie, I was still on the edge of my seat on a couple of occasions. That’s how intense it is!). The old timer, he sighed more than once during the first hour. By the time we got to the scene where Choi Min-sik’s friend is eating human flesh at the dinner table, the man up and left… I’m definitely glad I saw this on the silver screen. Now let’s make it a holy trinity when it comes out on Blu-ray!

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