Has Duncan Jones already sold out? It's hard to say, but Source Code, his sophomore effort as director, can only be considered a disappointment given his knock-it-out-of-the-park debut. 2009's Moon, which missed my 10 Best list that year by one spot, was a dazzling achievement, the sort of heady sci-fi extravaganza one would expect from the son of David Bowie. Source Code is far more mainstream -- a thriller designed to give cheer to the weekend multiplex crowds.
That's not meant as a knock -- after all, Inception was a big-budget project from a major studio, and we see how that one turned out -- and Jones shows that he can handle A-list actors and big-screen action without breaking a sweat. Still, Moon proved that his skills might be better suited to less traditional fare, and he should leave stuff like Source Code to such filmmakers as Joe Carnahan or the brothers Scott.
Or perhaps I'm just overly bitter because Source Code, overall a highly entertaining movie, concludes with what will doubtless remain one of the worst endings of the year. (No spoilers here.) Before we get to this boneheaded section of the film, we're thrust from the start into the gimmicky setup.
Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a soldier who had been stationed in Afghanistan, finds that he's now being utilized in an experiment that allows him to occupy the body of one Sean Fentress, who's about to be killed, along with all the other passengers, by a bomb planted on a Chicago commuter train. Colter's mission is to use those last eight minutes in Sean's body to ferret out the killer's identity and thereby prevent any future attacks. As explained by his military contact (Vera Farmiga) and the experiment's creator (Jeffrey Wright), he will keep being sent back to those eight minutes until he acquires the knowledge being sought.
It's a Groundhog Day scenario mined for tension rather than laughs, and while it's not that difficult to ID the assassin, the fun comes in watching Colter repeatedly interact with the other commuters, which include Sean's sweet friend Christina (Michelle Monaghan), and use knowledge from previous "trips" to inform the decisions he makes on subsequent jumps.
There's really only one way for all this to end, but scripter Ben Ripley, believe it or not, jerry-rigs his own storyline by coming up with an conclusion that's illogical, infuriating and impossible to defend. It provides Source Code with a sour coda that cripples an otherwise sweet ride.
It's not as if the world really needed yet another exorcist tale when The Last Exorcism hit theaters late last summer, but that masterfully constructed faux-documentary unexpectedly proved to be a welcome addition to the horror canon. Likewise, while it's probably time to call for a moratorium on both haunted-house thrillers and creepy-child sagas, Insidious milks a bit of innovativeness from both these sub-genres before self-destructing.
Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne make for a natural and believable coupling as Josh and Renai Lambert, who move into an old mansion with their three kids in tow. An accident in the attic leaves son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) in a comatose state, and soon afterwards, all sorts of supernatural shenanigans begin occuring. No problem; the Lamberts simply pack up and move out. But when strange things start happening at their new abode, they suspect that it wasn't the former house itself that was haunted ...
Director James Wan and scripter Leigh Whannell (the duo behind Saw) don't allow a PG-13 rating to temper their work: Rather than relying on gore, they manage to conjure some genuine tension by keeping both the characters and the audience off-kilter for much of the running time. But the film slips drastically with the introduction of two paranormal investigators whose painfully unfunny comic relief (we're not talking Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd) disrupts the unsettling mood. Late arrival Lin Shaye (a grotesque foil in Farrelly movies) is excellent as the two clods' all-knowing boss, but her elaborate -- and exceedingly daft -- explanations regarding the otherworldly occurrences further deflate the project, and the frantic finale is simply overkill. And the less said about the awful last-minute twist, the better.
THE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED
The music never stops in The Music Never Stopped, and that would be a problem if the tunes on parade were on the order of, say, Phil Collins' execrable "Sussudio" or Rebecca Black's splinter-in-the-tongue Web hit "Friday." But with a soundtrack lined with the likes of The Beatles and Bob Dylan (even Buffalo Springfield's superb "For What It's Worth" makes an appearance), there's no chance of anybody finding themselves bleeding from the ears. Bleeding from the heart, though, might be another matter.
Based on a true story (recounted in Dr. Oliver Sacks' case study "The Last Hippie"), this details the journey of two parents, Henry and Helen Sawyer (J.K. Simmons and Cara Seymour), as they try to deal with the fact that their grown son Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci), who has re-entered their lives after running away from home approximately two decades earlier, has been diagnosed with a head trauma that leaves him unable to form any new memories.
As the parents attempt to communicate with their son, the conservative Henry is reminded of the conflicts that led his liberal son to split all those years ago. Progress in Gabriel's medical condition seems bleak until a therapist (Julia Ormond) realizes that music from Gabriel's youth -- the classic sounds of 60s rock (especially The Grateful Dead) -- can be used to trigger responses from him.
It's pleasing to see Simmons in a rare lead role -- he's more known for such supporting stints as Juno's dad or Peter Parker's editor -- and it's notable that director Jim Kohlberg allows the emotional material to speak for itself rather than bathe it in manipulative, audience-pushing strokes.
But perhaps his approach is a tad too muted: As it stands, the film plays like a slightly above-average television movie, the type that used to be described as a "TV weepie of the week." Some will collapse in tears over this story. Others will remain stone-cold. And still others, like me, will land somewhere in the middle of these extremes.
It wouldn't be quite accurate to call Sucker Punch the ultimate fan-boy film, but it's a designation that nevertheless offers a near-perfect fit. It only fails the fan-boy test in that its protagonists aren't chiseled macho men but rather five women, and as everyone knows, fan boys are too scared of modes of feminine expression, individuality and sexuality to accept ladies as anything more than arm-accessories for the taciturn heroes (it's no coincidence that the fan boy's favorite female character is probably Kick-Ass's Hit Girl, a young child still years away from true womanhood).
In virtually every other regard, though, Sucker Punch is a (wet) dream come true, an orgy full of Dolby sound and CGI fury. To finish the paraphrase by stating that it signifies nothing would be to drag Shakespeare into a world -- and a conversation -- that would baffle him. He wouldn't be the only one: As another critic noted after attempting to explain the plot, "What the fuck am I talking about?"
Front and center for most of the picture is Baby Doll (Emily Browning), who's thrown into an insane asylum by her despicable stepdad (Gerard Plunkett) and prepped for a lobotomy. She mentally escapes that reality by imagining herself in a bordello, where she's verbally and physically abused (the cerebral equivalent, I guess, of out of the frying pan and into the fire).
To escape from that scenario, she performs awesomely hypnotic dances (we never see them, alas, but images of Flashdance kept popping into my head for some reason) that allow her to visualize herself and her sisters-in-arms -- Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung) -- battling formidable opponents in fantasy worlds in an effort to secure certain items that will allow them to break out of the asylum way back on the first level.
Just call this Inception for Dummies, except instead of a spinning top for a totem, we get Scott Glenn as an elderly sage who advises the girls (in faux-female empowerment tales like this, the only decent males are the ones who are too old to pose any sort of sexual threat).
The only reason this escapes a one-star rating is because writer-director Zack Snyder's story is ambitious enough to allow for multiple interpretations, a plus in this age of lobotomized entertainment. But Snyder sacrifices any real desire for discussion by tricking this project up with every fetishist and/or pop-geek card up his sleeve.
Look, scantily clad dames with swords! Wow, Nazi zombies! Cool, a fire-breathing dragon! And hey, no point stopping with giant samurai warriors when you can have giant samurai warriors with machine guns! Even more than Battle: Los Angeles, it's an all-out assault on our senses -- not in the fun, roller coaster ride sort of way but in a manner that's exhausting rather than exhilarating.
"This is your story," Baby Doll tells Sweet Pea at one point, but I didn't care if it was Baby Doll's story or Sweet Pea's story or Zack Snyder's story or Muammar Gaddafi's story. I just wanted to see "The End" plastered on the screen, so I could retreat and live happily ever after.