Archive for the John Harvey Reviews Category


Posted in 2013, Action Movies, Based on a True Story, Compelling Cinema, Espionage, Intense Movies, John Harvey Reviews, War Movies with tags , , , , , on January 15, 2013 by knifefighter

ZERO DARK THIRTY Provides a Taut, Heavy Military/Spy Drama
Review by John Harvey


ZERO DARK THIRTY is on many levels not your average military/spy drama. Let’s start with the fact that we rarely see movies examining such complex, controversial, and historic events in such a short span of time after the event itself—Osama bin Laden’s death occurred on May 2, 2011. Normally, it takes many years, even decades, before we view history through the lens of filmmaking (at least with anything resembling accuracy). At that point, the specifics (and the key players) have aged enough for us to look at how events unfolded with a kind of clinical detachment. If we see things we don’t like, then it’s easy to say, “Well, that was another time.”

ZERO DARK THIRTY, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, doesn’t provide that luxury. Just a hair over 1 ½ years have passed since the United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), more commonly known as Seal Team Six, choppered into Abbottabad, Pakistan, to kill Osama bin Laden. It can be assumed that many of the key players in that top secret operation are still in their jobs and the morally-questionable practices used during the hunt for bin Laden remain … well … morally questionable.

But we’ve apparently entered a time when details of top secret operations get leaked to the major news networks and published in books (written by DEVGRU operators) almost moments after the events themselves have transpired. Like it or not, ZERO DARK THIRTY is likely the start of a trend and not a one-off event.

The movie itself details the journey of a CIA analyst named Maya (Jessica Chastain), a green recruit stationed in Afghanistan who dedicates herself to finding bin Laden with what eventually becomes monomaniacal fervor. The very first scene is Maya shadowing a CIA interrogator named Dan (Jason Clarke … an amazing performance) as he waterboards and humiliates an al Qaeda money handler named Ammar (Reda Kateb). Scenes like this, and others in the film, pull no punches. The torture is brutal, visceral, and hard to watch. Within the narrative of the film, it’s also made clear that while torture didn’t provide US intelligence agencies with the magic key to finding bin Laden, it did provide helpful information.

And here is where you locate the core of the controversy surrounding the film. It’s well known that Mark Boal based his script on first-hand interviews with military and intelligence officials who took part in the search for bin Laden. While the film is still intended to be entertainment and consumed as a work of fiction, it’s a brand of fiction that likely hews close to the truth in areas. Which areas? Well, that’s unknown and that’s why a lot of people are upset.

I have seen news commentaries stating that ZERO DARK THIRTY seeks to capture a “red state” audience by endorsing torture as a means to gather good intelligence. I have seen news commentaries stating ZERO DARK THIRTY seeks to capture a “blue state” audience by portraying torture so graphically that it’s a testimonial against the practice. I have even read a news story stating that Bigelow and Boal cynically steered straight down the middle in a crass effort to capture both liberal hand-wringing moviegoers and fist-pumping conservative moviegoers.

Personally, I think they’re all wrong.

For me, these scenes pose a moral dilemma / question to each audience member.  The question boils down to whether or not you, the person sitting in the movie seat, want to be a citizen in a country that tortures … even if it works … especially if it works. One of the smartest yet frustrating aspects of ZERO DARK THIRTY is that it doesn’t try to spoon feed you an answer to that question. You’re on your own to sort it out during your drive home.

Looking past the torture scenes, ZERO DARK THIRTY provides a taut (though longish … 157 minutes) CIA tradecraft procedural that manages to be suspenseful even though you know how the movie ends. Without being boring, the movie makes you feel the tedium and the drag of time as Maya and her peers sift through data, follow leads, bluff, struggle against bureaucracy and politics, lose friends (sometimes tragically), and do it all to the occasional historic exclamation point of a building, bus, or market being bombed and innocent lives being lost. That’s the first two hours of the film. Roughly, the final 30 minutes details the DEVGRU raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. Again, we know for the most part what happened there (assuming you watched the news anywhere), but via Bigelow’s direction and Boal’s writing, the climax remains tense, suspenseful, and a little unsettling.

That the movie is solidly constructed is not surprising. Boal and Bigelow were the writing/directing team for THE HURT LOCKER (2008), an amazing Iraq war drama that won the Oscar for Best Director. Even if you don’t like ZERO DARK THIRTY for its controversial elements, you can’t deny that Bigelow and Boal have established themselves as a rock-solid presence in filmmaking and storytelling.

All around, the acting is terrific. Chastain’s Maya gives us an obsessive character with a single-minded focus that borders on a mania, but at the moment where you start to think of her as a robot, she reveals a human side that is convincing and genuine. It’s worth noting that Maya is based on a real person (referred to as “Miss 100%” in the book NO EASY DAY by DEVGRU operative Mark Own (pseudonym)).

Another notable performer is Jennifer Ehle as Jessica, a fellow CIA analyst and Maya’s closest friend during the hunt for bin laden. It is in scenes with Ehle’s Jessica and Clark’s Dan that Maya shows her more human and sympathetic side. Without these two characters, Maya’s character would come off as entirely unlikable and inhuman.

And in a movie that is quite nearly bereft of humor, the scant few scenes that provide a welcome chuckle feature James Gandolfini as Leon Panetta (he’s credited as “CIA Director” … but yeah, it’s Leon Panetta). It’s not goofy fun and the movie’s tone remains intact, but Gandolfini’s subtly-played scenes come at a time when the audience needs someone to open the pressure-release valve on all the heavy serious stuff.

ZERO DARK THIRTY is not your typical military/spy drama. There’s no sentimentality and nobody tries to pound a socio-political message into your head. The final mission is not portrayed with a sense of jingoist triumph so much as stark, detached ambivalence. Bigelow and Boal don’t tell us whether or not torture, American policy, or the war on terror is right or wrong. They leave it to us to walk out of the theater and think critically about bin Laden’s assassination and decide if it was worth it in terms of means and ends.

It’s a very good movie, but you know how when you leave a crowded movie theater everyone is laughing and chatting lightly. Yeah, I didn’t see a lot of that as I exited ZERO DARK THIRTY.

I give it four out of five knives.

Rated: R
Runtime: 2 hours & 37 minutes
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writer: Mark Boal
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, and Kyle Chandler
(Editor’s Note: while ZERO DARK THIRTY was released in a few cities in late 2012 to be eligible for Oscar Nominations, it was not released to the majority of the country’s theaters until 2013.)

— END —

© Copyright 2013 by John D. Harvey

John Harvey gives ZERO DARK THIRTY~four knives.



Posted in 2012, Action Movies, Cop Movies, Crime Films, Detectives, John Harvey Reviews, Just Plain Bad, Murder!, Prequels with tags , , , , , , on October 23, 2012 by knifefighter

“Alex Cross” … It’s Utterly Unwatchable
Movie Review by John D. Harvey

Sigh …

Honestly, I like movies. I have in the past written positive movie reviews, though I wouldn’t blame you for thinking otherwise based on the skewering that I gave TAKEN II a couple of weeks ago, and now ALEX CROSS in the following paragraphs.

I’ll say this, though. As much as I disliked TAKEN II, it’s practically a masterpiece compared to ALEX CROSS. With that in mind, if you don’t feel like reading any further than this paragraph, then that’s fine. I won’t be hurt. Just because I lost 90 minutes of my life watching ALEX CROSS, it doesn’t mean you need to lose the next several minutes of your life reading about how much I hated it.

So anyway, ALEX CROSS attempts to reboot a neglected franchise based on thriller/mystery author James Patterson’s novels featuring the brilliant Detroit  police detective/psychologist, Alex Cross (now played by Tyler Perry). Previously, Morgan Freeman occupied this role in ALONG CAME A SPIDER (2001) and KISS THE GIRLS (1997). Directed by Rob Cohen (better known for his THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS franchise films), ALEX CROSS is sort of origin story. But it’s also a police procedural, and a serial killer thriller, and a buddy cop movie, and it even tries its hand at a bit of comedy. Who cares? It is essentially a failure regardless of genre or marketing category.

This time, Cross tracks an artistically-inclined killer nicknamed Picasso (Matthew Fox), who is one of many dimensionless stock characters in this film. There’s also Cross’ loyal, wise-cracking partner, Thomas (Edward Burns); a slick but untrustworthy foreign businessman (Jean Reno); and an oafish police chief (John C. McGinley), who of course, at one point, dismisses Cross from the case at the most critical moment (because we’ve never seen *that* in a cop movie before).

There’s not much of a plot beyond that. Picasso kills someone, and then Alex Cross and his team are on the case, and then they track him down via unlikely, and not clever or original, clues. Honestly, most of what you’ll see in ALEX CROSS is a litany of tropes and clichés that you won’t see in a modern thriller unless it’s an over-the-top comedic spoof. This is not an over-the-top comedic spoof.

As far as the acting is concerned, most of the performances are phoned in, lackluster, and predictable. Tyler Perry’s take on Alex Cross is ham-fisted and incongruous.  Matthew Fox (who had better be happy that he still has LOST checks showing up in the mail) overacts the serial killer role with a twitchy, kooky, psycho-eyed intensity. I mean, this guy couldn’t wait in line at the deli without everyone knowing that he’s got bodies buried in his basement.

ALEX CROSS‘s action sequences are equally abysmal. The fight scenes are particularly annoying because there is so much “shaky cam” (to conceal talentless fight choreography) that it looks more like it’s the cameraman that’s getting beat up.

And finally, there’s the ending, which I suspect was written up on the back of a cocktail napkin at the end of three-day whiskey binge by someone with massive head trauma. It makes no sense. It’s rife with plot holes large enough to accommodate an aircraft carrier. It’s … just … dumb.

In conclusion, don’t see ALEX CROSS. It’s dreadful.


RUN TIME: 1hr 41min‎‎
WRITERS: Marc Moss and Kerry Williamson
CAST: Tyler Perry, Matthew Fox, and Ed Burns

– END –

© Copyright 2012 by John D. Harvey

John Harvey gives ALEX CROSS ~ zero knives

TAKEN 2 (2012)

Posted in 2012, Action Movies, Complete Waste of Time, Doomed Tourists, Gangsters!, John Harvey Reviews, Just Plain Bad, Sequels, Unnecessary Sequels with tags , , on October 8, 2012 by knifefighter

TAKEN 2 Takes the Lazy Road to Sequel Money
Movie Review by John D. Harvey

When I posted to Facebook that I was going to review TAKEN 2, Rogan Russell Marshal (who wrote ATTIC EXPEDITIONS (2001) and FREEZER BURN (2005)) posted a comment reading (in part) “Harvey, don’t you think you can review TAKEN 2 just based on the previews and clips? (I’m not really kidding… it’s rare that I think a picture reveals itself so thoroughly, so quickly…).”

What is on its face a cynical, semi-snarky comment turned out to be painfully prophetic, except for the fact that the previews and trailers for TAKEN 2 give one at least a sliver of hope that the movie might be marginally enjoyable even if it’s entirely predictable. You know going into the theater that the first TAKEN (2008) established a formula for any sequel (someone gets kidnapped, Liam Neeson kicks ass, everyone lives happily ever after, roll credits). But, the hope is that along the way the writers and director will deliver some new fun in the form of great action, some smart comedy beats, or perhaps even some new character development that adds a fresh perspective or twist to the formula.

Yeah … so there’s none of that in TAKEN 2.

TAKEN 2 is a shining example of a movie sequel where everyone involved in its making felt solely obligated to filling a 90-minute bag with 90 minutes of lazy crap, collecting their paychecks, and then going home. It’s huge shame, because I (like many people) thoroughly enjoyed the original TAKEN.

The plot (such as it is…) goes like this. In the aftermath of the first movie, Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) goes to Istanbul, Turkey, to work a private security gig for a billionaire. Once finished, he invites his young daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) and his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) to fly over for a few days of sight-seeing. Lenore has recently separated from her husband, thus making it possible for Bryan to get his nuclear family put back together again.

Little do they know that the Albanian crime family/syndicate that Bryan shot to bits in the first movie has also come to Istanbul to seek revenge on both Bryan and his family. Beyond this point exists a series of low-octane, stock chase sequences, choppy fight scenes that look like the cameraman was having some sort of massive seizure during the filming, and plot turns that do not even try to maintain any form of credulity or sense even in the context of a pulpy action/adventure film.

Perhaps one of the silliest sequences (amongst a long list of such…) in the film involved Bryan and his daughter attempting to pinpoint a vital but unknown location within Istanbul via the use of a map, shoestring, the direction of the wind, and lobbing not one but SEVERAL live hand grenades within the confines of the densely-populated city. And, apparently one can set off a bunch of hand grenades in Istanbul without a massive reaction from the local police or military. There’s something you won’t find in a Frommer’s Travel Guide!

As far as the acting goes, across the board everyone dials in their performances. Both the written dialogue and delivery is ham-fisted and on the nose. And the bad guys are nothing to write home about. In the original TAKEN, the Albanians were portrayed as brutal, scary Eastern European thugs, whereas in TAKEN 2 the same enemy has become cartoonish and clumsy. Also, the Albanians’ Muslim faith suddenly gets inserted into the mix, bringing forth a subtle xenophobia that is both lazy and pandering.

The first TAKEN succeeded because it was smartly written, brutal, efficient, and gritty. Meanwhile, TAKEN 2 fails utterly because it is lazy, clumsy, outlandish, and (unintentionally) comedic. I can’t even recommend it as a rental.

Perhaps a good sign is that when Liam Neeson was asked by Jon Stewart on THE DAILY SHOW if there was going to be a TAKEN 3, the actor immediately slashed his hand at his throat in an obvious “no more” gesture. This suggests that even Neeson recognizes TAKEN 2 didn’t do any favors for fans of the original movie.


RUN TIME: 1hr 31min‎‎


DIRECTOR: Oliver Megaton

WRITERS: Luc Besson (screenplay) and Robert Mark Kamen (screenplay)

CAST: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen, Rade Serbedzija, and Leland Orser

© Copyright 2012 by John D. Harvey

John Harvey gives TAKEN 2 ~ NO knives!


Posted in 2012, Action Movies, Espionage, Heightened Abilities, Hit Men, John Harvey Reviews, Sequels, Spy Films, Suspense with tags , , , , , , on August 13, 2012 by knifefighter

THE BOURNE LEGACY Weaves Complexity with Great Action
Review by John Harvey

It takes a great deal of chutzpah to create and release a ‘Jason Bourne‘ franchise movie minus Jason Bourne.  The opportunities for failure greatly outnumber those for success, especially when essentially all of the key players (both talent and behind the scenes) who made the previous installments popular are now absent. This is the gamble undertaken by Universal’s THE BOURNE LEGACY a taut, high-octane, but often confusing spy thriller that seeks to (sort of) reboot the franchise in an alternate timeline to the previous ‘Jason Bourne‘ films.

Gone is Matt Damon’s stoic, intense Jason Bourne who drove THE BOURNE IDENTITY (2002), THE BOURNE SUPREMACY (2004), and THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM (2007). Also gone is Paul Greengrass, who directed the second two films (THE BOURNE IDENTITY was directed by Doug Liman).

While this loss of legacy talent is worrying, the replacements are far from being slouches.  Tony Gilroy, who wrote the screenplays for all three previous ‘Jason Bourne’ films, is now both screenwriter and director for THE BOURNE LEGACY. Gilroy has solid suspense/thriller credentials in directing or writing on such projects as STATE OF PLAY (2009), DUPLICITY (2009) and MICHAEL CLAYTON (2007). Meanwhile, stepping into the superspy slot is Jeremy Renner. Renner has been consistently good in films such as THE HURT LOCKER (2008), THE TOWN (2010) and THE AVENGERS (2012).

THE BOURNE LEGACY‘s storyline essentially runs parallel to that of THE BOURNE ULIMATUM, showing the ripple effect of Jason Bourne’s bad behavior in Manhattan. Powerful people in the United States intelligence community (including Stacy Keach and Ed Norton) have been thrown into a frenzied state of damage control as Bourne threatens to blow the lid on their clandestine superspy program. They coldly decide that the only way they can keep secrets and save themselves is to implement a ruthless, scorched-earth protocol. Translation … everyone dies. Well, everyone but them.

Which brings us to Aaron Cross, a member of Operation Outcome, one of the CIA’s other black ops superspy programs. Different from Jason Bourne’s Treadstone program, Outcome provides its agents with green pills that enhance physical abilities and blue pills that enhance mental abilities. The pills are the leash that keeps the agents under control. In LEGACY, they’re also the MacGuffin that drives most of the suspense and action.

Cross is stationed at a deeply remote training facility in Alaska when the powers-that-be send an airborne drone to blow him up with a hellfire missile, having already killed off the other Outcome agents. Cross (obviously) outwits them, but then finds himself running dangerously low on the power pills that keep him going. His desperation to escape death and get a new supply of drugs brings him in contact with Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a virologist/geneticist who works in a top secret medical lab that monitors Outcome agents. Shearing, having barely survived an assassination attempt at the hands of the previously-mentioned powers-that-be, has no other option but to throw in with Cross and help him score a fix.

Ultimately, the established storylines of the previous ‘Jason Bourne‘ films weigh heavily on THE BOURNE LEGACY, sometimes to its benefit and sometimes not so much. While the filmmakers would have you believe that you don’t need to see the previous films for this one to make sense, don’t buy it. So much of the terminology, code names, characters, and other devices get carried over (or at least referenced) from previous films to this one that, if you’re not up to speed with (at least) THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM, then you’ll have several “Huh? What? Hey, who’s that guy?” moments in LEGACY. Also, while it’s pretty easy to tell the bad guys from the good, it’s not always easy to keep track of who comes from what agency or their ultimate motives. With THE BOURNE LEGACY, Gilroy shoots for a dense, complex plot, but in reality the movie is often just plain confusing and a bit frustrating.

On the plus side, the action sequences in THE BOURNE LEGACY are a real treat, with the final set piece being breathless and completely captivating. Unlike goofier, pulp action films (ahem … THE EXPENDABLES), the ‘Jason Bourne‘ aesthetic hews closer to a version of reality where the gun battles, fights, and chase scenes could perhaps be real (…if you squint and smear a lot of Vaseline on the lens). In these films, the action tends to be more suspenseful and have more consequences. Also, with Gilroy at the helm, we get a smoother, polished shooting style (via cinematographer Robert Elswit), rather than Greengrass’ shaky camera style.

In terms of acting, I found Renner’s Aaron Cross to be more engaging than Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne. Where Bourne was almost constantly laconic and mechanical, Aaron Cross is more expressive, affable, and vulnerable. But, when the action starts, his training and chemical-induced enhancements kick in to produce a complete killing machine. As an action hero, Renner provides more texture and nuance than Matt Damon. In addition, while Weisz could have been given the role of obligatory “female in need of saving,” she provides a much more dynamic and dramatic performance.

The bad guy side of the equation is more disappointing. Stacy Keach, Ed Norton, and Dennis Boutsikaris literally fill suits and provide serviceable, if entirely predictable, performances as heartless spymasters from shady government agencies. Renner’s Aaron Cross deserves a strong nemesis. Perhaps he’ll get one in the inevitable sequel.

Ultimately, THE BOURNE LEGACY is a good, but not great, fork from the core ‘Jason Bourne‘ franchise. With a less convoluted structure and better villains, it would have been far more enjoyable. Still, the action is worth seeing on the big screen and I look forward to Jeremy Renner continuing to perform as Aaron Cross.

Official Website:

Directed by Tony Gilroy
Screenplay by Tony Gilroy and Dan Gilroy
Starring Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, and Stacy Keach
Running time: 135 minutes

– END –

© Copyright 2012 by John D. Harvey

John Harvey gives THE BOURNE LEGACY~three and a half knives.


Posted in 2011, Action Movies, Cars!, Fast Cars, John Harvey Reviews, Sequels with tags , , , , , , on May 3, 2011 by knifefighter

FAST FIVE Is Good for Cheap Thrills and Not Much Else
Movie Review by John Harvey

When I told people that I was going to review the fifth installment in the THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS franchise, FAST FIVE, a friend emailed me a video clip from The Onion website titled “Today Now! Interviews The 5-Year-Old Screenwriter Of FAST FIVE.’”

If you’re not in the mood to read this review, then watch that 2.5 minute clip (link at the bottom of this review). Though satirical, it’s also 100% spot-on regarding the level of film craft in FAST FIVE.

Starting in 2001, this franchise never aspired to be anything more than eye-candy for teenage boys (hence the PG-13 rating). It is utterly without art, but perfectly crafted for its target demographic. Every installment (including FAST FIVE) focuses almost entirely on car chases, over-the-top fights, and girls in tight clothes. All this tenuously held together by the most fragile gossamer wisps of something that only resembles storytelling if you drink half a bottle of whiskey and squint really hard.

Directed by Justin Lin, FAST FIVE kicks off with former FBI agent Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) rescuing Dominic “Dom” Toretto (Vin Diesel) from a prison bus in a three-car, one-bus action sequence that is entirely devoid of common sense and respect for basic physics, and also sets the tone for all of the action that will follow. They split up and meet in Rio de Janeiro, where they quickly take a job stealing three DEA-confiscated cars from a moving train. Predictably, the job goes horribly wrong, DEA agents die, and our heroes find themselves on the #$%& list of drug dealer and corrupt businessman Hernan Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida). How could this possibly get worse?  Well, the DEA is none too happy about their dead agents, so they send hulking DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and his team of uber spec-ops soldiers to apprehend Dom and O’Connor.

So, the most logical and sensible thing for Dom and O’Connor to do is get the hell out of Brazil while the getting is good. Oh wait, this is FAST FIVE. Hence, what they actually do is invite all of their friends from the previous four films to Rio to carry out a wildly elaborate heist and steal $100 million of Reyes’s drug money from a massive vault housed in a police station. Wackiness ensues …

I’ll admit that some of the chase and fight scenes had fun elements. And it was a kick watching Diesel and Johnson face off as a bald immovable force versus a bald unstoppable object. Also, to be perfectly honest … I’ve got nothing against hot women in tight clothes. But the plot holes in this film are large enough to accommodate a fleet of 1970 Dodge Chargers. Even worse, whenever our heroes are in “trouble,” the filmmaker resorts to cheap tricks and shell games to accomplish miraculous escapes that are really just lazy cheats. And the acting? Cardboard and undercooked all around. Though, I will point out that you can hand Dwayne Johnson the most corny, clunky line of dialogue and he’ll at least make its delivery entertaining. But these are predictable flaws that I knew would be present just by watching FAST FIVE‘s film trailer.

Ultimately, the thing that made this film essentially unpleasant for me was its complete lack of morality. FAST FIVE is set in a video-game world where both the good guys and the bad guys fire automatic weapons in densely packed neighborhoods, drive cars through throngs of pedestrians, and wipe out dozens of everyday drivers in the course of wild car chases. You ultimately realize that EVERYONE in this film is self-centered to the core and a slave to naked greed and brute force. Despite the occasional ham-handed soliloquy by Dom about family and freedom, the truth about this film is that it contains no actual heroes or “good guys.”

Yeah, I get it. It’s a visceral action flick and not a David Mamet drama. But I have the same problem with FAST FIVE as I do with several horror franchises where violence is framed as the only protagonist worth rooting for. It’s shoddy, lazy, and distasteful film craft.

All that said, once you get to the end of FAST FIVE, the average audience member will assume that this is Dom and O’Connor’s last caper and we will never be bothered again by another effortlessly vapid attempt at filmmaking (at least in this series).

Depressingly, there’s a post-credits scene that indicates that this franchise is far from dead. For me, this was the unhappiest of endings.

Directed By: Justin Lin
Written By: Chris Morgan
Starring: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Matt Schulze, Sung Kang, and Dwayne Johnson
Run Time: 130 minutes
Rating: PG-13

The Onion’s “Today Now! Interviews The 5-Year-Old Screenwriter Of ‘Fast Five:”,20188/

– END –

© Copyright 2011 by John D. Harvey


Posted in 2011, Action Movies, John Harvey Reviews, Quantam Physics, Science Fiction, Time Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 5, 2011 by knifefighter

SOURCE CODE: A Cunning, Intelligent, Science Fiction Thriller
By John Harvey

Director Duncan Jones seems to have found his niche in science fiction films that eschew massive spaceships, menacing aliens and  huge special effects budgets, in favor of character and story development. His only previous feature film credit is the thoroughly enjoyable MOON (2009 starring Sam Rockwell), which provided a more cerebral breed of science fiction.

The difference between SOURCE CODE and MOON, is that SOURCE CODE provides a warmer, more personable tone that is more inviting to the average viewer. Though a wonderful film, MOON’s mood and environment is much more emotionally distant and cold (an intentional effect).

In SOURCE CODE, Air Force Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up on a train approaching Chicago. Across from him sits Christina Warren (Michele Monaghan), a fellow commuter in mid-conversation who obviously knows him well. But Stevens has more pressing problems than nodding off mid-chat with a pretty woman; he doesn’t know who she is or how he got there. His last memory is flying combat missions in Afghanistan. In a panic, he dashes to the bathroom compartment and the mirror reveals a face that is not his own. Stevens’ efforts to discover what has happened to him are cut short when a massive bomb explodes, killing him and everyone on the train.

But not really.

He regains consciousness again in something resembling a cross between a cockpit and a sensory deprivation chamber. Via a small monitor, Air Force officer Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and an emotionally-distant scientist (Jeffrey Wright) ask questions about the train and the people on it. From here, the film slowly reveals that he is part of an ambitious government science project called “Source Code.” Combining quantum physics and time travel, this technology puts his consciousness into the body of a man who died on that commuter train, but only during the last eight minutes of his life. His mission is to relive those eight minutes over and over until he figures out the bomber’s identity, which will allow authorities to stop a much more devastating attack later that day.

So, let’s get one thing straight here. The “science” in SOURCE CODE is a big steamy pile of horse poo. It’s a blatant MacGuffin that exists solely to allow the filmmakers to explore ideas, move the plot forward and focus on the characters. If you’re prone towards hand wringing when filmmakers don’t display an adequate knowledge of string theory, then this movie will drive you out of your skull. On the other hand, if you can ignore bad or even silly science in a film, then you’ll be fine here.

More accurately, SOURCE CODE resembles what would happen if Philip K. Dick sat down with Rod Serling and said, “Smoke this and then let’s talk story.” It’s mind-bending and taut, while having a distinct sense-of-wonder inherent to old time sci-fi.

But at its core, SOURCE CODE is a thriller with a dash of mystery whodunnit. Every time Stevens repeats those last eight minutes, he competes against the clock to shake clues out of his environment and the other passengers in order to avert disaster. Each trip also forces him form stronger attachments to his fellow passengers (Christina in particular) and ask questions about the nature of his own existence and how he got there. Though the scientists insist that what he experiences is not time travel, but rather shadows from alternate universes, Stevens develops stronger doubts each time he repeats the cycle. Add to that the growing tension as he begins to suspect that his Source Code handlers aren’t telling him everything about his own situation. It’s a deft balance between the mission’s twists and turns and Steven’s own internal struggle.

While concept and plot in this movie work very nicely, it is perhaps at the detriment to character depth (though the acting all around is fine). This is a trade-off to the fact that there’s a lot going on in this film and at a very frenetic pace. Even with these minor flaws, SOURCE CODE provides an original and intelligent story that provides both action and psychological thrills.

And, in the end, SOURCE CODE delivers the goods and wraps up nicely. Though perhaps the ending veers even more sharply away from science into pure fantasy, which may put off some viewers. I got over it and would recommend this film.

– END –

© Copyright 2011 by John D. Harvey

AUTHOR’S NOTE: If you want to hear an interview with SOURCE CODE screenwriter Ben Ripley, then check out the Slice of SciFi’s podcast #309: .

Directed By:
Duncan Jones
Written By:
Ben Ripley
Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, and Jeffrey Wright
Run Time:
1hr 34min

(Editor’s Note: If you’re a fan of John’s columns, do yourself a favor and check out his amazing novel, THE CLEANSING, published by Arkham House Press. I can’t praise this one highly enough).


Posted in 2011, Extreme Movies, John Harvey Reviews, VIOLENCE! with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2011 by knifefighter

THE WOMAN Is Not for the Faint of Heart
Movie review by John Harvey

THE WOMAN is an extremely disturbing, emotionally-draining film that you should not recommend to friends lightly, or without a great deal of preparation. Even if a particular friend boasts casual ease at viewing franchise extreme horror (think SAW and HOSTEL), you still need to explain to them “Oh no … this is something else entirely.”

On that note, though you probably have not seen THE WOMAN, you might be familiar with the controversy surrounding the film’s premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. In a nutshell, at the tail end of the showing, a man in the audience was so entirely offended by the film’s subject matter that he went a bit nuts and had to be escorted out of the theater. You can see the videos (which went spectacularly viral) here and here

Aside from handing the film a massive amount of free publicity, it’s also obvious that this man didn’t get the film at all. THE WOMAN, written by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee (who also directed), tells the story about a brutal, sadistic psychopath of the most terrifying sort (one who blends into our society) and the women he abuses and oppresses at home. Outwardly, Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers) is a successful and well-liked elder care and estate lawyer in northern New England, but it becomes clear pretty early on that he’s not wired like your average upper-middle class husband and father.

Cleek goes hunting near his home one day and encounters a feral Woman (Pollyanna McIntosh in an amazing and savage performance) washing herself in the river.  He’s aroused in all the wrong ways, and quickly forms a plan. Once back home, he “remodels” the root cellar near his barn and cheerily tells his family he’s got a surprise for them. His family also gives off a strong whiff of being completely broken, but hiding it for appearance’s sake. The wife, Belle (Angela Bettis who also starred in McKee’s MAY (2002)), and daughter Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter) exist essentially as cowed and helpless prisoners. Both actresses give great performances. I’m not sure if this is a compliment, but nobody gives you twitchy and train wrecked like Bettis. Cleek’s son, Brian (Zach Rand), on the other hand is … well … definitely his father’s son.

Once Chris and his family complete modifying the root cellar, Cleek pulls the cover back on his surprise: he traps the feral Woman and manacles her in the basement. Why? The family has a new project. They’re going to “fix her.” Of course, Chris Cleek’s concept of “fixing” has little to do with rehabilitation in any rational sense.

At this turn of events, the film begins to pick up a tone that verges on the absurd. Though not in a winking-at-the-audience, pandering sense. Ultimately, this movie frames the real horror of abuse by magnifying the scale and outcomes by a factor of a thousand. Though, one could point to multiple news stories about men who’ve trapped women and kept them locked up for weeks, months, or even years of torture, and argue that perhaps it isn’t absurd so much as it’s that rare horror movie that actually portrays abuse as stomach-turning and emotionally sickening. As opposed to most franchise extreme horror, where elaborate violence has become light entertainment.

And this is the point in the film where McKee really starts to gradually ratchet up the tension and discomfort levels. And though Chris Cleek is already revealed as a monster and a sociopath, McKee continues to show more and more about his (and his son’s) depravity to the point where it becomes oppressive. Also, it becomes obvious to the more thoughtful viewer that McKee and Ketchum have a feminist streak a mile wide. Though men in the film do horrible things to the women almost continuously, it’s not done with the titillating (and in some cases, just plain dirty) sensibility of the old sexploitation films of the 1970s. Rather, McKee and Ketchum exponentially exaggerate the disparity of power between men and women in this movie, and therefore the crime and horror that sources from that disparity.

The amazing thing is that throughout most of the film, there’s very little gore and flying buckets of blood. Now, be forewarned that this changes drastically in the film’s last half hour. But up until that point, McKee and Ketchum manage to disturb on the most profound level without resorting to the gross-out shots. This may sound odd with regards to a movie that is so profoundly brutal, but it’s an elegant way to make a horror film. Another elegant touch is that the movie manages, in a few strategically-placed scenes, to be distressingly funny. Distressing because, in most films, humor is used to diffuse tension, while in THE WOMAN the humor makes the film that much darker.

It should be noted that if you see THE WOMAN, you may come under the impression that you’ve missed some plot points. The fact is that THE WOMAN is a sequel to OFFSPRING (2009), a film that was also based on Jack Ketchum’s book of the same name. If you haven’t seen or read OFFSPRING, then you won’t have any problems following THE WOMAN, but there’s a few scenes in THE WOMAN that make a little more sense if you’re aware of the story that preceded it.

THE WOMAN is a film that will polarize both reviewers and rank-and-file audience members alike. I’d argue that THE WOMAN is not suitable for wide, general audiences. The fact is that most moviegoers don’t want to be profoundly disturbed and uncomfortable when they leave the cinema. They want to be entertained. And this is why McKee is the first person to admit that he’s got no future in commercial films with major studios. But if you are the sort of person who likes their horror films to adhere to the literal definition of the word “horror,” then THE WOMAN was made for you.

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© Copyright 2011 by John D. Harvey