Source Code is Miles Better than Tenet



Directed by Duncan Jones

Summit Entertainment, 93 minutes, PG-13





On February 15, I slammed Tenet as both junk science and a rotten movie. Lots of movies engage in junk—or if we wish to be polite, speculative—science and it’s possible to make a decent flick using it. I recently came across Source Code, a 2011 science fiction//action/thriller offering that does so very well.


If, like me, this film simply slipped off your radar screen, here’s a brief synopsis. Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) has been given a mission whose mechanics he can’t understand. He is inside of something that he presumes to be an experimental machine and is told by Captain Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) he is being sent into to an unfolding event in which there is a bomber aboard a commuter train bound for Chicago. In order to avoid a major catastrophe, he will have 8 minutes to identify and neutralize an on-board bomber. He barely has time to sputter before he is spun and jolted out of his capsule and finds himself sitting across from an attractive young woman, Christina Warren (Michelle Montaghan) who knows him as Sean Fentress. He’s confused and who wouldn’t be? Who is this woman and how does one find a bomber amidst a car filled with commuters?  How do you do process gazing into a bathroom mirror at a face that isn’t yours? In 8 minutes, not much. The train blows up in a fiery ball that kills everyone aboard.


Suddenly, Stevens is again in the capsule. Goodwin tells Stevens his mission has failed and she is sending him back again. Before he can sputter, “Wait!” he’s thrust back and the same scenario unfolds. This occurs several times and in each trip back he picks up clues and is drawn closer to Christina. But it doesn’t take long before the befuddled Stevens knows that something very weird is happening and demands answers. He is given just information from Goodwin’s superior, Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), and is sent back to avert a crisis, though he does learn it’s not necessarily the one he thinks. Stevens also has reasons to think he is actually dead and is only “alive” inside a computer program.


This beat-the-clock thriller works because it uses some actual science to mask its pseudo-science. We know that in some individuals, brain waves can be detected as long as 10 minutes after clinical death has occurred. What this actually means is anyone’s guess, but brief postmortem delta waves do exist. The junk science part of the equation is that no one has actually built any sort of time machine and even if they had, the principle of uniformatarianism would make it impossible to alter an event that has already occurred. But here is where Source Code succeeds and Tenet failed. The latter film’s unending volleys of jargonistic nonsense call attention to its contrivances, whereas Source Code uses science­­-–delta waves—to divert attention from not actually explaining how anyone can be sent back in time numerous times. To put it glibly, our deus ex machina protagonist makes us not “see” the machine.


Source Code sometimes slides from thriller to sentimental fluff, but this too is a matter that is easily overlooked because, well, Gyllenhaal and Monaghan make a wicked cute couple. Wright’s Rutledge probably could have benefitted from being more nuanced and less Dr. Frankenstein. He stands in marked contrast to Farmiga as Goodwin. In many ways, hers is the most difficult role in the film, as she is called upon to decide between her orders and her moral center.


Source Code is sci-fi and if that’s not your genre, it won’t be the film to make you reconsider. If you do like sci-fi, though, I’d say that this 93-minute $32 million film beats the plutonium out of Christopher Nolan’s bloated 150-minute $200 million Tenet.


Rob Weir


Luster Doesn't Shine


LUSTER (2020)

By Raven Leilani

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 229 pages

★ ★



Luster is Raven Leilani’s debut novel. Let me say from the outset that one day Leilani is going to be a major writer. She has an enormous vocabulary and crafts beautiful sentences. Luster, though, is not the work that will cement her place in the world of literature. It violates one of literature’s unspoken rules in that it has no sympathetic characters.


Leilani’s protagonist, Edie­—a name that is hardly ever mentioned—is young, gifted, and Black. She’s also annoying, unreflective, reckless, and prone to blaming everybody and everything for her circumstances. She’s the sort who acts as if the world is going to end if she’s not had sex in a week, which presumably justifies why she’s slept with most of the staff at the New York children’s book publishing firm at which she’s toiling at a low-level job she’s about to lose. That’s what she does instead of building actual relationships or actually trying to improve the skills necessary for the job rather than fancying herself an artist, a calling for which she has demonstrated minimal talent.


Put another way, Edie is a Generation Z mess. She lives in a crummy apartment infested with rats and roaches, has a mountain of student debt, and is lousy at conversation. Hers is not a life filled with Black rage, rather one of delayed social development and bad decision-making. The latter includes forays into soft porn and kinky sex. The novel is sometimes identified as a bildungsroman–one dealing with one’s formative years–but we don’t really get much of a sense of anything being formed. What would compel the 23-year-old Edie to have an affair with Eric, an often-distant white dude twice her age who has a wife and a daughter?


Because she has no boundaries, she crashes a party at Eric’s house in suburban New Jersey and insinuates herself into their household. As it transpires, Eric, an archivist, and Rebecca, a medical examiner, have an adopted black daughter named Akila. Rebecca cares less about Eric’s affair than expected and the two of them are willing to try Edie as a live-in nanny and teach Akila about being Black. The flaw in this is, as you might expect, triads are not so easy to sustain. Plus, Akila is savvier about life than Edie. She’s been fostered several times and has grown into her upper middle-class existence and the privileges that go with it. 


Some have remarked about the humor embedded in Luster. I’m not convinced about that. Leilani’s book touches upon too many serious topics for us to chuckle our way through. These include race, but it would too simple to identify it as the novel’s core. It’s also about the gaps between suburban and urban life, desire versus just sex, having money and doing without, art and artifice, and responsibility juxtaposed with immaturity. The key phrase, though, is that Leilani “touches upon” these subjects, which is all she can do in such a short book. At a key moment in the book Edie protests, “This isn’t my fault.” When Rebecca retorts, “The slogan of your generation,” I couldn’t but think, “Exactly!”


Luster is an ironic title. There simply isn’t much sheen or glow to Edie and an attempt near the end to give her luster is contrived and unconvincing. Were it not for those gorgeous sentences and Leilani’s obvious promise, this would be the sort of book one would read, shrug, and toss aside. Okay, I also liked Akila a lot and think a bildungsroman about her would have been a lot more interesting. In my view, Leilani’s next step is to pay more attention to characterizations and narrative arc.


Rob Weir




Altan Local Ground March 2021 Album of the Month



Local Ground

Compass Records



Here’s an early St. Patrick’s Day present. If you are a Celtic music fan, chances are you need no introduction to Altan, a veritable Irish supergroup that has been around since 1987. Nor do I need to sing the glories of Altan cofounder Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh (roughly ma-RAYd nee WEEnie for the Irish-impaired), she of the delicate bird-like voice that enraptures listeners.


Altan’s newest release is an old one, a statement in need of illumination. Altan has 21 recordings to its credit, of which Local Ground was its 10th—if you could lay hands on it. It was recorded in 2005, but was available only in Japan except for a brief reprint on Virgin Music’s Narada label. That’s how I originally came across it back in the days in which SingOut Magazine had a global reach. Nashville-based Compass Records has gained redistribution rights so that more North Americans can have access to this wonderful release.


Again, for those less familiar with the band, Altan’s signature sound is its combination of Donegal-influenced instrumentals and Ní Mhaonaigh vocals. Donegal music is distinctive in that it generally features two lead fiddles, those of Ní Mhaonaigh and Ciaran Tourish. These give the ensemble a strong melodic base, and fretted instruments (Dáithí Sproule and Mark Kelly on guitars) act as rhythm and percussive supplements. Back then, Dermont Byrne’s accordion acted as a third melody instrument, though he has since left the band. Most Altan instrumental sets are of the step-lively variety and Ní Mhaonaigh’s vocals are slower and more fragile grab-a-breather interludes that are often sung in Irish. “Éirigh’s cuir ort do chuid éadaigh” is an example of this. It’s a song about a man trying to convince a lass to elope with him. You can take my word for that and hear for yourself what’s going on in English-language offerings such as the well-known immigration ballad “Adieu, My Lovely Nancy;” “As I Roved Out,” a variant of   “Blackwaterside;” and “TheWind and Rain,” an Irish take on a Scottish song. There are several other songs in Irish as well, including the lullaby “Dūn do Shuil” (“Close Your Eyes”). Somehow, Ní Mhaonaigh and lullabies seem made for one another.


As noted, Altan mixes things up via up-tempo sets such as “Tommy Peoples,” four tunes bookended by reels, and “Is the Big Red Man Within?” a jig and reel combo. Sproule penned “The Roseville” when he lived in Minnesota, and it has a suitably barn dance vibe. The “B Mhín na Toitean” combo of a march, a Highland, and jig is a bit like “The Roseville,” though more distinctly Irish in structure. There’s also Altan’s take on a classic slip jig and jig originally performed by the legendary John Doherty. (Slip jigs are generally in 9/8 timing and straight jigs in 12/8.) For the re-release, Compass has added a bonus track, the breakneck “Andy Dixon’s” set that’s a dynamic addition to an already superb album.


If, like me, you’ve collected the entire Altan oeuvre, Local Ground is a must-have recording. But, I also envy those who are just now discovering Altan; Local Ground will delight and make you want to hear more. Me too, though there’s no comparable rush to the one that first makes your jaw drop to your ankles.


Rob Weir


Note: Most of these links are slightly different from those on from Local Ground