SOURCE CODE (2011, directed by Duncan Jones, 93 minutes, U.S.)
CERTIFIED COPY (2010, directed by Abbas Kiarostami, 106 minutes, France/Italy)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
I thought I knew who Duncan Jones was. His biography fit the story so well, of course the son of David Bowie, once known as “Zowie Bowie,” would reveal himself to be a science fiction director distracted by ideas of identity, much like his father who so famously shifted between personas. His 2009 debut Moon, was the quintessential “promising debut;” a low-budget throwback to a science fiction of ideas and not mere spectacle, telling the story of a lonely moon base worker who one day meets his twin out there on the satellite’s surface.
Now he’s back with another sci-fi film about morphing identity but unlike Moon, Jones didn’t write Source Code, he was brought in to helm this vehicle for Jake Gyllenhaal. As the film sets up its premise, his Groundhog’s Day-type thriller seems like Jones has found a perfect follow-up to Moon, a metaphysical “Who Am I?” drama set aboard a speeding time-bomb. It’s disappointing that before it is over, you won’t be able to tell this Duncan Jones film from the rest of the journeyman product coming out of Hollywood.
A confused guy named Sean (Gyllenhaal) wakes up in a state of bewilderment on a Chicago commuter train, not recognizing the woman named Christina (Michelle Monaghan) who is talking to him so familiarly. For eight minutes he tries to get his bearings but before he can, the train explodes on the tracks. From there, he is whisked to some sort laboratory of the future, and we find out that Sean’s body has been taken over by Captain Colter Stevens, a military man who has been dropped into Sean’s body to foil the terrorism plot. He has eight minutes inside the body with which to work , and just like a video game, each time his character dies he gets to reset the game for another try. Slowly he picks up clues to which passenger is the terrorist, at the same time as he is pressuring his controllers (played by Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright) to tell him how this whole sha-bang started and where is his soul headed when it’s done.
Jones’ Moon was so impressive for its tightly controlled narrative, the film so so martly laid out the question of Sam Rockwell’s astronaut’s identity and explored the possibilities, without being distracted by subplots or audience pandering. Source Code starts out with that kind of clarity of purpose but slowly loses its momentum before succumbing to cheap sentimentality and a shoe-horned romantic sub-plot. Should a hero who’s trying to stop a major terrorist plot really be splitting his time between detective work and hitting on passengers? Gyllenhaal has been too busy running around in a frantic froth for us to care very much about what body his soul ends up in, and Source Code‘s predictable tied-up-tight ending makes one a little less curious about where Duncan Jones’ career is careening off to as well.
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The characters in Abbas Kiarostami’s new film, just like the Iranian director himself, are far away from home. Juliet Binoche is an unnamed French antiques dealer living outside Tuscany who attends the book signing of an English author named James Miller (William Shimmel). He is discussing his book on the power of artistic reproductions and the mutability of authenticity. He opines that manufactured copies of art reinforce the power of the originals and perhaps equal them in the eye of individual beholders. She gives James’ translator her number and the film follows them on the afternoon and early evening they spend together.
Once this pair get together the film seems like a middle-aged version of Before Sunrise, an engaging, far-reaching discussion between two people who are obviously attracted to each other, while remaining a bit antagonistic. Age has only made Binoche more intriguing after nearly thirty years on screen, her girlish nervousness transformed into a sweet anxiousness of a still emotionally-alive woman. Kiarostami is known for his gift with non-actors, here he takes an unknown opera baritone (Shimmel) and turns him into a fitting match for one of the world’s great actresses. James’ self-actualized ease with the world only riles the under-lying stress on Binoche’s character and its great fun to see her bristle at his acceptance of all that is simple and unpredictable about life.
Yet just when you get to believing that Certified Copy is going to rest into being a sophisticated romance film that film takes an unexpected turn. Somewhere around the half-way mark Binoche’s character is alone at a restaurant, watching James talk on his cellphone outside. An old waitress comes by and mistakes James for her husband and Binoche’s character goes along with her mistake, telling the waitress that they’ve been married fifteen years. When James returns, he goes along with the charade, and before long we’re not sure which of their situations are authentic: are they a married couple pretending to be strangers or are they strangers pretending to be a married couple? Their attitudes towards the question of authenticity switch as well. By the end of the films you realize the seemingly casual details Kiarostami has given us have really been masterfully manipulated to suggest that identity is fluid, it is within our emotional responses where true authenticity lies.