Isn’t it helpful when reviews compare a new film to something you’ve previously seen? Lots of writers have something resembling a “if you liked that you’ll like this” feature. It’s impossible to keep constantly clued up so to find out Pirates of the Caribbean 4 is a lot like Pirates of the Caribbean 3 is a real time saver.
Seriously though what about when those comparisons are technically true but grossly misleading? It’s not really constructive to recommend Pixar’s Cars to someone who liked the revving, neon lighting and cheerleaders of The Fast and the Furious. Black Swan and Step Up are both about dancing but poles apart. Forced similarities are far from enlightening.
Bear that in mind when I tell you Winter’s Bone is like Hot Fuzz. It’s set in a close knit rural community. It’s about crime. It turns out that all the locals are part of a sinister conspiracy to protect the “greater good”, covering up murder most foul. The police are dodgy and probably in on it. A few characters have “great big bushy beards”.
Things happen in Hot Fuzz though. Apart from the above similarities, which made me long for Pegg and Frost blowing Wells to bits, Winter’s Bone is Hot Fuzz’s complete opposite in tone, style and substance. There is not a single laugh in it. Instead of explosions and comical supermarket shootouts, we get moody trudging through woods and a drug dealing lumberjack casually smashing in a windscreen with an axe. Instead of Nick Frost pretending to stab himself in the eye we get sombre, faultless acting.
Winter’s Bone is arty and managed to get enough critics gushing to earn Oscar nominations. It’s beautifully shot, showcasing one of the faces of America rarely given an outing at the multiplex; a bleak, rough and timber strewn existence. We follow Ree, convincingly played by Jennifer Lawrence, on her mostly far from fruitful quest to find her meth cooking Dad, who has skipped bail, jeopardising the family home. She stalks about a neighbourhood dependent on nature, trekking through the crunchy undergrowth to have uninformative conversations with an assortment of stripy shirted chaps playing earthy music. Her walking about the place is almost like a mind blowing and oh so subtle metaphor for her struggle through social convention for the truth and justice.
This is a film that will delight a certain audience, whilst sending others into a coma. I fell somewhere between the two views, partially numbed by the pedestrian pace but appreciative of the acting and cinematography. The drama is always of the dreary variety, except for one harrowing and emotional scene. I will try to avoid spoilers, but up until this point Ree appeared to be hardened beyond her years and unattached to her fugitive father. When she’s asked to carry out a gruesome task no daughter should ever have to do (relating to the film’s title) we see that she is merely a brave child underneath it all, scraping by.
Unfortunately Winter’s Bone doesn’t have enough of these genuinely moving moments to be engaging. It is atmospheric and pretty in its own way. Some will think sunbeams of quality shine from its every orifice. But I’d rather watch something less pretentious. Give me the silly satire of narrow minded communities in Hot Fuzz any day.
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Source Code is being compared to almost every film under the sun. It’s Groundhog Day meets Inception meets Final Destination meets Moon meets something totally awesome by Hitchcock. If you have a goldfish memory then you might appreciate being told that it’s a bit like this year’s The Adjustment Bureau, but better. It’s an unconventional and emotional sci-fi.
Duncan Jones, apparently the offspring of David Bowie no less (I actually do some minor research for my reviews!), has followed up his 2009 critically acclaimed debut Moon with another “certified fresh” hit. His direction in Source Code is assured and you wouldn’t guess this was Jones’ first big budget feature; there’s nothing tentative about his approach. The camerawork and characterisation for a film that constantly relives the same eight minutes needs to be intricate and skilled; it remains exemplary throughout, making Source Code an irresistibly stylish and satisfying watch.
For me though it’s Ben Ripley’s taught, clever and zippy script that’s the real masterpiece. It tantalisingly drip feeds the audience information on the central premise of the Source Code; technology that allows the military to send someone into the last eight minutes of a recently deceased person’s life. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Captain Colter Stevens must find the bomber of a Chicago commuter train before he strikes again, from inside the body of a teacher he’s never met, as he simultaneously tries to figure out what happened to him after his helicopter crashed in Afghanistan.
The genius of the script is that it brilliantly builds tension and fully formed characters on top of an ethically fascinating central idea, despite being predictable on a few occasions. I guessed fairly early on, for example, who the bomber was. I could pretty much work out where things were heading for Gyllenhaal’s character. But I was still hooked and I was still knocked sideways by the surprising emotional impact of the film’s conclusion.
For some the film’s life affirming and rather cliché ending might be a turn off given the originality and sharp execution of what went before. Perhaps it’s just that my emotions are in tatters and unusually receptive to sentimentality. But for me everything that made up the thrilling ride that was the first part of Source Code, added to the emotional effect of its climax. It didn’t feel fake and soppy, but raw and real.
Gyllenhaal convinces completely as confused everyman, then as determined hero and finally as grief stricken and resigned to his fate. The film would have fallen apart had his performance not matched the material and direction. Michelle Monaghan plays fellow passenger Christina as the sort of woman you could fall for in eight minutes. The chemistry between the leads is as convincing and addictively sexy as that between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in The Adjustment Bureau, but the writing and the story as a whole here is far superior, much more intense, despite similar themes of fate and free will.
If I could explode two myths about Source Code it would be these; that it’s the best action film of the year and that Jeffrey Wright gives an awful performance. Firstly Wright simply looks poor in comparison to the other actors, Vera Farmigan, Gyllenhaal and Monaghan, because he’s given the worst of the script’s dialogue; technical babble to explain the Source Code. He’s also the only two dimensional character in the whole thing, but with the exception of one particularly expositional passage his performance never spoiled things.
To its title as “action film of 2011” then. I would not describe Source Code as an action film. It is thrilling yes, it’s full of gripping drama yes, but these elements come from characters and the pacing of the plot. Fight scenes, gun fights and chases are minimal and restrained. This is not a film reliant on explosions (despite one devastating and recurring blast). If it’s stunts you’re after there will be better ones in cinemas this year. It enthrals without the set pieces.
But if sleek, modern and thought provoking storytelling is your thing then see Source Code. It will be the best sci-fi film of 2011. It might make you cry and in the warm afterglow of this film in the spring sunshine you’ll look at everything in your life more closely. It’s unlikely Source Code will change your life but for as long as it lingers fresh in the front of your mind, you’ll appreciate it more.
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