Monthly Archives: September 2011
This sci-fi comedy by the guys behind Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, though absent director Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim came a callin’), is an irreverently fun flick that lovingly sends up just about everyone in its sights. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost play a pair of British sci-fi geeks road tripping through the American southwest when they come across Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), an alien on the run. Together they outrun various pursuers, from government agents to angry rednecks, and Paul transforms into a delightful road comedy with the different characters ping-ponging back and forth, narrowly missing but still in the hunt. It’s a cheeky even rollicking action comedy in the vein of a Midnight Run, though with way more stoner jokes. The plot nicely weaves these various elements and characters together, creating a satisfying escalation in suspense and comedy. The characters are pretty familiar and some of the gags are below the caliber of talent onscreen (really, more “people think we’re gay” jokes?), but the final product is unabashedly fun and it’s easy to feel Pegg and Frost’s enthusiasm. Paul is a light-hearted, funny, even tender sci-fi comedy that borrows from better movies but still manages to charm.
Nate’s Grade: B+
With a dream premise for a pill-popping culture, Limitless is a visually fervent thriller that manages to stay a step ahead of the pack. Bradley Cooper takes a pill and can unlock full potential of his brain, which involves, obviously, scoring big paydays and women. It’s a silly fantasy but a universal curiosity of what we could do if given full access to our noodle. Director Neil Burger (The Illusionist) uses every visual trick in the book to represent the new brainpowers, as we watch words, numbers, and memories drift through a colorful explosion of imagery. It’s all very pretty to look at. Burger’s visual prowess elevates the more pedestrian moments of Limitless, but the film has a way of surprising you. The Mob takes an interest in this wonder pill, operating at a new peak of production. A woman being hunted down takes the magic pill and is able to quickly formulate an escape. So what if the profound existential questions regarding human capacity and possibility are thrown aside, we got some nifty visual flourishes and foot chases here people. The pacing is relentless and the plot manages to find intriguing ways to keep a superbrainiac in danger. Limitless is a perfectly enjoyable movie with enough juice to forgive its lamer moments and contrived ending.
Nate’s Grade: B
In 2001, the New York Yankees (team payroll: $125 million) have just knocked the Oakland As (team payroll: $41 million) out of the playoffs. Oakland General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) also has to suffer a summer where his biggest players leave the team to sign hefty free-agent contracts with bigger teams. He’s left with sizeable holes, a meager payroll, and the expectations to carry on winning. Beane is convinced that his group of paid scouts will be of no help. They’re men of an older era, sticking to the old ways of selecting talent (why the hell do these guys even calculate stuff like “good face” and “ugly girlfriend”?). Beane finds a kindred spirit in Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale grad with a degree in Economics. Brand’s mathematical data focuses on one all-important stat – on-base percentage. Without getting on base a player can’t score runs, and no runs make it hard to win a game. Brand and Beane calculate a series of players undervalued by other teams. Their more cost-efficient model for success becomes known as “moneyball.” Together they put together a team of castoffs and misfits to contend for a championship against teams that have three times the Oakland As’ payroll.
Moneyball could be described as a baseball movie for people who don’t like baseball, but that’s a little too glib by half. It’s very much a sports film but it takes the underdog approach in a new, sleekly modernized manner. It’s about a guy bucking the traditional mode of thinking, the established order, and the chaffing and nay saying of those entrenched in the traditional, outmoded, establishment. There’s always something inherently entertaining about an innovator fighting the system and eventually being proven right after all the trials and tribulations. And with Pitt, a major movie star, giving a movie star-caliber performance, self-effacingly charming with a twinkle and a swagger, Moneyball just seems to fly by like a spirited caper. We’re watching a smooth operator work the room, playing other general managers off one another and secretly accruing his talent while duping his peers. At its best moments, Moneyball feels almost like a breathless con game. The intelligent, stats-heavy dialogue doesn’t stoop for much exposition. The stats and acronyms whiz by, with Social Network-style crispness thanks to Oscar-winning screenwriters Steven Zallian and Aaron Sorkin. It’s a pleasure listening to top actors savoring the smart dialogue. You just want to kick up your heels and relax like you’re watching a game at home, rooting for your team to pull out an unlikely coup. Moneyball plays best for baseball fans who won’t bat an eye at the stat-heavy chat. For non-fans of the game, well, you can watch Pitt spit chewing tobacco into a cup a lot.
Beane chooses not to get to close to his players so that eventual roster cuts and trades will be all the easier without emotional involvement. The movie kind of follows suit. The characters are kept at a surprising distance. The movie seems practically ambivalent about people. Moneyball seems to lack an emotional center; and people thought The Social Network was cold. Beane is given flashes of back-story about his flameout in the majors, which supposedly provides the guy a motivation to prove himself against his legion of detractors. But these flashes are not enough. Director Bennet Miller (his first film since 2005’s Capote) incorporates way too many scenes where we watch Beane driving, silently contemplating his life-changes. The feud between Beane and his curmudgeon manager, Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman with the unkindest of haircuts), never comes to a head. Howe is upset at the thankless job of corralling a team of misfits and cast-offs into a competitive team. But like many other conflicts, the movie ducks from finding a real purpose for its integration. Howe just seems to be another naysayer who shakes his head at Billy. Surely the relationship between GM and manager should be more complicated than as presented. The Beane family flashbacks and his scenes with his daughter (the adorable Kerris Dorsey) are attempts to further humanize a man who has abandoned the advice of people for spreadsheets.
It’s easy to get caught up in the romanticism of the nation’s oldest sporting games, but Moneyball’s tone seems to toggle between reality and romanticism. For Beane, there are no small victories. Even success is deemed failure under the metrics of championship-or-nothing. “People only remember your last out,” he says despondently. So when the Oakland As fail to make a run into the playoffs (is a 2002 playoff series considered a spoiler?) the movie is left with a listless conclusion. Brand tries to prove to his boss the significance of what they have accomplished on their meager payroll, at one point winning a record 20 games in a row. But a winning streak of 20 games is not the same as a championship. Moneyball rightly proclaims the game of baseball as a rigged sport, where the divide between “haves” and “have nots” is vast. It is the only major league sport without a salary cap. The teams with the big pockets can afford the marquee talent. There’s a reason Lewis’ book has the subtitle “The Art of Winning and Unfair Game.” The implications of Beane’s accomplishments are unclear. His cost-efficient, stat-heavy approach was co-opted by the Boston Red Sox and turned into championships in 2004 and 2007. Is that a real vindication for Beane? It seems to me that the game’s issue of wealth disparity is still in full effect. Even if teams follow Bean’s approach, it still means that the bigger city, wealthier teams like the Red Sox or the Yankees can still outspend their competition. So it seems like to me that Bean’s moneyball approach simply meant that the focus changed on less costly talent. It did nothing to alter who could outbid their peers for the now-cheaper talent. It’s hard to squeeze a happy ending out of a story that concludes with the rich getting richer.
The movie is pretty much a buddy comedy, granted Beane is a much more dominate personality. Pitt feels like he’s coasting on charisma, though the actor gives a greatly entertaining performance. It’s not so much nuanced but he’s enjoying himself. The man looks eerily to be aging into Robert Redford, which begs the question about the nature of time travel. Hill (Superbad, Get Him to the Greek) gives a surprisingly adept dramatic performance. The comedic actor seems subdued next to the charisma of Pitt, like the character is continually awed by Billy. The Oscar-talk for the comedian seems a tad premature. He’s good but just because Hill delivers a good dramatic performance does not mean people should automatically start fielding his name as an award contender. That’s like saying let’s give an award to Paris Hilton because she could remember her lines. It’s also fun watching actors like Chris Pratt (TV’s Parks and Recreation) portray players that are still recognizable.
Moneyball says that baseball is not a game about heart, sweat, or the love of the game. It’s about numbers. That’s something of a cold message but Billy Beane is not one for false comforts. At its best, the film is a breezy caper with crisp dialogue and slick editing, but it’s also hamstrung by an inconsistent tone, a methodical pacing (133 minutes!), and a dearth of strong characterization. Beane was destined to be a baseball star but it wasn’t to be. Baseball is the most mental of all national sports, and it’s hard to crack such an insular model of play. That’s why baseball movies resort so much to romantic staples about the lore of this game. This is not a romantic movie; it toys with romanticism but ultimately sides with the science and number crunching. The emotion seems to have been squeezed out of the story thanks to the statistics. Moneyball is a baseball movie that fantasy baseball nerds have been waiting for. I’m not particularly a baseball fan (too slow), but I still found the movie to be a rewarding night out sans crackerjacks.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a Hollywood stunt driver who has a lucrative side-project. For the right price, he can be hired as a personal driver. He gives the client a five-minute window. Whatever happens in that window, he’s their driver no matter what. Miss it and he’s gone. As you can imagine, this kind of job offer is mostly filled with getaway driving duties. Driver takes an interest in his apartment neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), a young mother. Her husband (Oscar Isaac) has just been released from prison and already feeling heat to pay his debts. He gets winds of a pawnshop holding a million in cash. Driver offers his services to square the guy’s debt and to keep Irene and her son safe. But of course things go wrong, as they tend to in these sorts of pictures, and Driver is left with a sack of money and two very angry gangsters. Nino (Ron Perlman) and Bernie (Albert Brooks) would like the money back and to eliminate the number of people that know about their involvement in this scheme.
Drive is being sold as one kind of movie, a high-octane action thriller with plenty of car chases, when it’s really a European art-thriller paying fawning homage to those kinds of movies. That means that Drive plays out much more placidly and contemplatively with sudden bursts of gruesome violence. My audience seemed to grow restless with the purposely plaintive pacing so when the violence exploded they would laugh or cheer, happy that something of conventional entertainment value was finally occurring. I was growing restless myself, not with the infrequent appearances of genre action or the artistic flourishes, but just with the prevalent pauses. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson) will have his camera hold onto a scene for several seconds longer than what feels necessary, or he’ll shoot dialogue between actors and Gosling will pause a full 20 seconds before answering. I understand that Refn is establishing a stoic loner akin to Clint Eastwood’s celebrated stable of strong silent types, a modern American cowboy. I’m sure that you could cut 10 minutes of out the film just from snipping these extended pauses and overlong shots, moments that seem to be filling time and giving the audience an opportunity to step outside the movie. I doubt that was ever the intent but it’s certainly the effect. When a scene or camera shot holds on longer than it should, we can feel it, and when it keeps going we start to wonder why, and when an answer is absent then we start to snicker or second-guess the artistic choices. I’m sure audiences that watched Drive will probably be scratching their heads wondering why there isn’t more, well, driving.
The action that does appear onscreen is extremely well choreographed. The car chases thrill and the edits allow for full audience orientation. You know what’s happening and you know what’s at stake. And we care. A car chase after a botched robbery is particularly exciting when Driver starts driving backwards to block his opponent’s view of the road. The opening chase sequence is notably almost an anti-car chase. Driver is listening to a police radio and choosing when to duck around side streets and wait out the patrolling cop cars. The tension isn’t watching one car chase another, it’s watching one car idly sneak away. What I’ve described, however, is about all the movie offers for car action, though Driver does ram one motorist off a ravine later.
You can tell Refn is a fan of Hollywood genre films, and Drive takes typical thriller tropes and puts them through an art-house prism, bringing a near Kubrickian level of beauty to the violence. Drive is a gorgeous movie to watch; the shot selections, the chiaroscuro lighting, the use of the 80s style Euro-synth score by Cliff Martinez (Traffic, Contagion), it all coalesces into a near hypnotic blend of visual and sound. It’s a beatific landscape even when horrible things are going on. There’s a sequence where Driver, Irene, and one of Nino’s thugs are in an elevator together. Driver notes the imminent danger and slowly motions Irene behind him. He then turns and kisses her, and while he does this the elevator lighting seems to brighten and darken, like it too is being charged through the power of a kiss. And then Driver sharply pivots, blocking the thug’s attack, knocks the guy to the ground and stomps on his head until it bursts. The looming violence is teased through slow motion, and then it hits with the power of a crescendo. The violence is always looming, always seeming to be just on the cusp of an explosion. But under Refn’s direction, the movie fulfills that audience bloodlust in unexpected ways. Instead of a big fight, Driver casually drowns one of the toughs in the surf of a beach. Instead of a brutal elimination, Bernie dispatches someone with what can almost be described as compassion, slitting a major artery and whispering, “It’s done. It’s all over. There’s no pain. Just let it happen.” Even the big showdown between Driver and Bernie plays out with flash-forward edits, giving the meeting an extra level of gravitas knowing what awaits when they leave the table.
Refn has created a beautiful movie, it’s just that it has so much empty space pretending to be nuance. And that’s the rub. I appreciate an art-house sensibilities elevating and celebrating classic American genre pictures. I though Joe Wright did an excellent job of this with Hanna earlier this year. However, Refn shortchanges his actors. The script by Hossein Amini (The Four Feathers) is light when it comes to character detail. Again, this might be because Refn wishes to make a statement on genre films by having his movie populated with genre types and sticking to this limited route of characterization. Whatever the rationale, it makes for some pretty elusive one-note characters. Irene is less a character than a symbol of innocence. It doesn’t help matters that Mulligan has little chemistry with Gosling. Nino and Bernie are interesting characters who have such unspoken histories. They’re mid-level criminals stationed out of a cheap pizza joint in a strip mall. Nino is tired of the criminal higher-ups always disrespecting him. Bernie used to be a movie producer in the 80s, and may have bankrolled something like Drive. He hates getting his hands dirty but he shows an eerie talent for violence. These small glimpses are hints at something more, but that is all Hossein and Refn leave us with.
Gosling (Crazy, Stupid, Love) has very little to say in the film. He probably only ever speaks 80 words, but brevity does not mean he’s just sitting around. Gosling goes for understated in a genre known for histrionics. He plays things very close, a taciturn mystery man. The existential drifter. Gosling sure knows how to hone his flinty stares. Mulligan (An Education) gets very little to do in the film, so it’s another round of her crinkling her pretty face and blinking those glassy eyes. Christina Hendricks (TV’s Mad Men) also appears as a third wheel on the pawnshop scam. The real surprise is Brooks (The Muse). The famous comedian is shockingly believable as somebody you don’t want to cross. Even when he’s trying to be cordial there’s a veil of menace. If only there was more to his role. I would have loved to see him regrettably step back into his past, taking care of business with ruthless yet disdainful efficiency.
Drive is an action thriller that’s more a Euro-infused commentary on the genre. Fans of Hollywood action will likely be put off by the elusive characters, the sluggish pacing with numerous pauses, and the overall art-house nature of the finished product. Refn’s movie is beautiful to watch, with intricate precision taken to making the imagery and sound design mesmerize. If only that same level of care was paid to character and plot. We’re dropped into this criminal scenario and left to flesh out the characters given the hints and nods we accumulate in 100 minutes. I don’t need to be spoon-fed but I’d like my movie to have better attention to character than ambiance. Drive is a beautiful looking vehicle that just doesn’t have any particular place to go.
Nate’s Grade: B
In risk-adverse Hollywood, everything old is new again, so why not remake classic fairy tales for a modern audience? After all, there’s no rights fee. While we’ll have to wait on the competing Snow White films until 2012, Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke unleashes her stylized retelling of the Red Riding Hood tale, titled easily enough, Red Riding Hood. This messy and incompetent movie may cause you to run away screaming into the woods all the way to grandmother’s house.
In a small village on the crest of the big bad words, Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) is betrothed to Henry (Max Irons), a hunky blacksmith that comes from a family of high standing. She’s rather run away with Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), the town’s resident moody guy who’s also her childhood friend. Valerie’s family is ostracized due to past indiscretions, so her grandmother (Julie Christie) lives in a cottage off in the woods. Valerie’s mother died when she was young and she’s been raised by her father (Billy Burke) and her step-mother (Virginia Madsen). This happy hamlet is gripped with fear after a series of violent wolf attacks. Father Solomon (Gary Oldman) ushers into town with a proclamation that he will find the wolf and slay it. But he clarifies that they are hunting for a werewolf among the townsfolk. During one attack, Valerie discovers that she has an odd telepathic link with the wolf, which makes her further question her identity. Naturally, this makes the town fear her and offer her as a red riding sacrifice. But who is the wolf and what is his or her plan with Valerie?
This is a disaster of epic fairy tale proportions. Red Riding Hood attempts to reshape the oft told tale into a palatable mix of sex and violence for today’s pre-teens (teenagers will surely be bored by this), somehow forgetting that the original tale is filled with macabre violence. The filmmakers have tried to make Red Riding Hood (RRH) hip to a younger generation; this ain’t your granny’s fairy tale, yo. But they’ve really turned the simple story into a lumbering, idiotic, grating, and nearly impenetrable movie. This youthful infusion of hollow artifice and misplaced attitude, as well as a fumbling attempt at ill-conceived edge, makes the movie a metaphorical bratty teenager. You get tired of its taxing nature and empty posturing. It’s trying to be cool with last year’s catalogue. Hardwicke is using every tool at her disposal to appeal to an easily bored teenage demographic, so the movie takes several sidesteps that are only justifiable because someone might think they are cool. The musical score includes grating, churning anachronistic electric guitars. It feels like your neighbors are throwing a party and the music occasionally drifts over. These visual and narrative flourishes only remind you how desperate and out-of-tune this whole lousy production is.
Screenwriter David Johnson (Orphan) takes the familiar woodland frolic and turns it into the world’s worst Agatha Christie-styled guessing game. The wolf is now a werewolf and then the town undergoes a witch-hunt that would make Arthur Miller wince (“I saw Goody Red with the wolf”). It’s here that the movie preposterously attempts to become some sort of important statement on, I kid you not, the war on terror. Solomon brings a metal elephant that he sticks prisoners in to soften them up. He also lights a fire below the belly of the elephant to expedite the process of getting the truth out of a suspect. Solomon’s status as a cleric has to serve as some sort of biting criticism of church authority, especially after he wants to get an inquisition going. I appreciate the wholly misguided attempt at topicality and commentary, but this was not the movie to make statements. Anyway, the plot is convoluted and every scene seems to just further dilute the clarity of the narrative. The movie just descends into a manic game of “Guess the Wolf.” We literally go through just about every speaking part at some point as a potential werewolf suspect. That means every bit part is given due consideration, including the mentally handicapped child. I actively wanted the wolf to be the mentally handicapped kid just for the awkward discussions of what to do next (“We can’t kill the wolf. He’s… special.”). Red Riding Hood works so hard to make like 8 characters look alternatingly guilty. The town seems to be populated by red herrings and not people.
Red Riding Hood is a neutered horror movie and a rather bloodless romance; there’s a lack of blood pumping with either. For a movie about a killer wolf there is precious little blood or wounds even considering some people are mauled to death. It seems the filmmakers had a choice of going with mild gore or mild sensuality to stick the PG-13 landing and erred on the side of hormones. The romantic elements are kept at a pre-teen simmer. For only they will blush at the more suggestive elements, including the table-dance-in-slow-mo shimmy dancing that the town seems to favor during their festivals. At one point Peter unties one of Valerie’s bodice strands. To be fair, in mythical land/mythical time setting, that’s probably like their equivalent of third base. The romantic triangle is desperate to ape the Twilight model, and the male characters are pinup pinheads. They occupy types, one being the brooding “darker” guy who Valerie really wants to be with, and the other is a nice guy from a proud family (sound familiar, Twi-hards?). The movie goes to shoddy lengths to keep these two at odds, when it appears that, like Bella Swan, our Valerie is one flower not worth the trouble of plucking. It’s hard to get involved in a romance when you’d rather watch every participant getting eaten by a wolf.
“What big eyes you have” is something of an understatement when speaking about the saucer-eyed Seyfried (Letters to Juliet). She gets to make good use of her ocular abilities, though who knows if it’s acting or just expressions of disbelief about what kind of movie she is trapped inside. Seyfried does her whole blasé shtick, which makes the character feel more like an annoying know-it-all even when she admittedly knows nothing. Oldman (The Dark Knight) inhales scenery at a dangerous pace, acting ferociously over-the-top and unrestrained. It’s like he’s trying to channel a wolf in his performance. At least he’s entertaining to watch, which cannot be said for the movie as a whole. Irons (Dorian Gray) is bland but Fernandez (Skateland) is laugh-out-loud awful at a few points. Clearly talking is not this guy’s strong suit. Neither is emoting. The weirdest part of Red Riding Hood is merely seeing Madsen’s face. Clearly this woman has undergone plastic surgery since her Oscar-nominated turn in 2004’s Sideways. She almost resembles a gentler looking Mickey Rourke at certain unkind angles. Another famous face goes to sad lengths to alter her looks to be seen as acceptably good-looking in ageist Hollywood.
Red Riding Hood is a tragic misjudgment on the part of just about everyone involved. The screenwriter thought he must have been making a serious allegory, Hardwicke thought she was making a wild and witchy cousin to Twilight, and the producers thought they were making a film that had genuine appeal. They were all categorically wrong. The reworking of the fairy tale elements is mostly mundane. She gets a red cloak from her granny but otherwise this story might as well just be about a girl and a werewolf. It’s not an imaginative update or a clever reworking, this is just a dumb werewolf story with extra dashes of Twilight for seasoning. The key to unlocking the Red Riding Hood story is not by introducing a sterile love triangle. This hyperactive hodgepodge mistakes setting for atmosphere and a high number of characters for mystery. I was astounded as I sat and watched this movie; turn after turn it veers wildly in tone and execution. I haven’t even talked about the special effects for the wolf, and there’s a reason I am leaving that unsaid. Red Riding Hood is a movie 12-year-old girls might fawn over. If you find yourself outside that marginal demographic, then you’ll likely find this movie to be an irritating, nonsensical, dopey, pitiful bore. You can stuff that in your picnic basket, Red.
Nate’s Grade: D
For fans of Brendan Gleeson, one of the best character actors around, a starring role in the profane dark Irish comedy, The Guard, is a starring role long overdue. The man plays an eccentric, self-destructive lawman that follows his own sets of rules and decorum: “Racist? I’m Irish. Racism is part of our culture.” Gleeson’s character gets teamed up with Don Cheadle’s Yankee FBI agent, and for a while it looks like the film might drown in fish-out-of-water gags. Writer/director John Michael McDonagh has a gifted wordsmith’s flourish with words. It may take some concentration to decipher through the thick Irish brogues, but there is a love of language and the witty, looping dialogue is almost musical in its sublime composition. His characters are pretty interesting too. The villains, a band of drug-runners, are introduced arguing philosophy, proving to be the most cultured big screen tough guys since Pulp Fiction. The hyper-literate stock roles trade plenty of insults, which had me regularly laughing. The characters do have a habit of feeling like they know they exist in a movie, so everything, even a man’s final moments, never seems to be that pressing. I just wish these richly drawn characters had a better movie plot to work with. There are too many subplots that don’t seem to reconnect to the main storyline. The Guard seems to lose its way in the middle of too many comic vignettes before going all serious action in climax, much like the similarly flavored In Bruges (written and directed by McDonagh’s brother). The movie feels like a first draft instead of a finished product, though for Gleeson fans, this will be worthy enough.
Nate’s Grade: B-
A tense and mature spy thriller that’s as well written as it is acted, The Debt is a thriller that even stops to ponder some serious moral ambiguities along the way. Back in 1965, a group of Israel agents (Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas) were sent to Berlin to capture a notorious ex-Nazi doctor (Jasper Christensen) and bring him back for justice. When things don’t go according to plan, the group must decide what is justifiable in the name of moral cost. In 1997, the aged former agents (Helen Mirren, Cirian Hinds, Tom Wilkinson) have to deal with the full consequences of their actions. A far majority of the film takes place in the 60s, and it’s for the best considering that’s where most of the tension and interest reside. As a thriller, drama, and non-linear mystery, there’s always something going on. The film is not without its genre clichés, but the sequences of holding Christensen (Quantum of Solace) hostage rise beyond genre mucking. He is a true monster and his dialogues with the various agents are chilling, reminiscent of Hannibal Lector’s tête-à-têtes. The cast is uniformly good, even Worthington, but the real star is Chastain (The Help, Tree of Life). She is magnetic. It’s a shame that The Debt felt it needed to tie up its loose ends in a conventional ending that discards the film’s more ambitious moral quandary. I suppose the toll of false identities and moral relativism just doesn’t make audiences happy like good old-fashioned vengeance. I guess that’s a debt everyone would rather have paid.
Nate’s Grade: B+
For the germophobes amongst us, you probably want to skip seeing the new thriller, Contagion. Like for life. Never see this film if you’re the type that needs a paper toilet seat cover before sitting down to do their business. Contagion is a movie that makes you reevaluate basic human interaction. You may not leave the house again without covering yourself in plastic and a year’s worth of Purel. Director Stephen Soderbergh (Che, Ocean’s Thirteen) has assembled an all-star cast to drop like flies like only Hollywood’s most talented can do. Contagion is an intelligent, unnerving, technically authentic thriller that will make you cringe just watching people cough.
Contagion’s main character is a virus that begins its origin in a Hong Kong casino and quickly spreads from there. A British model takes it to the UK, a Chinese waiter goes home infected, a Japanese businessman keels over dead on a return trip home, and Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) comes home from her business tripe back to Minneapolis and goes into seizures. The next day, she’s dead and soon after having her brain dug out for an autopsy. The spooked docs alert the Centers for Disease Control immediately; something is definitely wrong with Paltrow’s brain (insert Coldplay joke here). The head of the CDC, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), and his specialists track the expansion of the virus. He dispatches Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), to Minnesota to coordinate inter-agency action and interview Beth’s husband (Matt Damon), who appears to be immune to the virus. He’s in shock and isolated from his remaining daughter. He’s still trying to make sense of how quickly everything fell apart for his family. Capitalizing on fear, anti-establishment medical blogger Alan Krumweid (Jude Law) steers a panicked public toward a homeopathic medical alternative that he just so happens to have a financial stake with. The World Health Organization sends Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) to investigate the Hong Kong casino and overview hours of security footage to glean the origins of the virus. But she, like others, soon find themselves in ever-increasing danger as the world races against time to beat this new threat.
For those expecting an action-thriller with plenty of doctors barking moral quandaries and racing against time to escape government agents… you will be sorely disappointed. Contagion is much more cerebral, cool, like a scientific procedural that plays the premise out in a realistic fashion, which means it’s often short the fireworks that mainstream audiences have come to expect from disaster movies. The CDC is really the main setting as they try and determine the origin of the virus, breaking down the virus, and projecting its rate on infection and contamination. Soderbergh has onscreen titles indicating how large the population centers are for the plot settings, reminding us simply with text how vulnerable to danger all those people are. The real pleasure of the film is watching A-level Oscar actors puzzle out how to solve this multi-faceted crisis. The movie does a minimal amount of explanation and expects an audience to be able to keep up with its scientific analysis. Soderbergh’s film is much more in keeping with The Andromeda Strain than Outbreak (find that monkey and all will be happy again!). You witness smart people doing smart things and still making little traction. This isn’t necessarily Irwin Allen territory of disaster. It’s a disaster that seems all too reasonably possible rather than being trapped in the belly of a ship that has turned upside down. Getting sick is a lot harder to avoid especially in our modern world. Globalization has done many wonders for the world, but by making the world a smaller place it also means that we’re all much more susceptible to the spreads of pandemics. No longer can geography be held as a total defense. We’re all one flight away from the spread of the next great illness (as the end credits to Rise of the Planet of the Apes also remind).
Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Informant!) cast a wide net all over the world to see the ramifications of crisis. Things go rather quickly. By the end of the first week, the CDC is coordinating its resources and media strategy to not inflame panic. Easier said than done when ignorance and fear are in large quantities. The reaction to the news, the intra-government squabbles over resources and money, the exploitation of fear by opportune business types, the rising resentment of those left out of the loop, and even the kidnapping schemes for those known to have access to medicine. Contagion works because it gets the details right without losing track of the big picture. The film feels eerily plausible at every beat. Nurses are on strike refusing to be near the sick until uniform safety protocols are established. Funeral homes refuse to handle infected bodies out of health concerns. These are absorbing details that feel completely authentic yet would easily have been overlooked in other disaster pictures. The movie even addresses recent pandemic fears related to H1N1, SARS, and the perceived “overreaction” when these potential worldwide disasters turned out to be milder bugs. A government agent asks the head of the CDC if some terror organization could have weaponized the bird flu. “They don’t have to. The birds are already doing it,” the CDC head replies.
While Burns lies out a host of characters and scenarios with increasing tension as stakes mount and the death toll rises, Contagion just kind of drifts into an ending for the last 20 minutes. I was expecting another big wallop, some kind of sudden plot turn that reestablished an ongoing threat, but it wasn’t to be. The tension just sorts of lets out slowly like a balloon, playing against movie laws. That means that Contagion, wile tense, eschews a dramatic buildup for a climax. Burns and Soderbergh instead to play out their realistic “what if” experiment to its conclusion, which makes for a realistic if somewhat inert final act. There’s no chasing monkeys or butting with government agents willing to sacrifice infected town for “the good of mankind”; it’s just government employees doing good work and trying to minimize damages. It’s exciting to watch smart characters break down a nasty new virus and try to understand it and get ahead of it, but once they succeed, it’s not as exciting to watch the aftereffects of people getting better and returning to a normal existence (minus 30 million people on the planet – the solution to fixing unemployment?).
Because the emphasis is on the cross-sections of plot and scientific breakdown, the emotional connection to the characters is limited. There are a lot of famous faces that appear in this movie; even bit parts are taken up by the likes of Bryan Cranston (TV’s Breaking Bad), John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), Demetri Martin (Taking Woodstock), Enrico Colatoni (TV’s Veronica Mars). Damon (The Adjustment Bureau) is probably the closest thing the film has to an emotional center. He’s immune to the virus but he has to watch his family fall apart with the knowledge that his wife was Patient Zero. On top of that, he has to deal with the fact that she was cheating on him. That’s a healthy brew of emotions to confront in such a heightened situation, and Damon does a nice job of putting a human face to the mass tragedy. Winslet (The Reader) is superb as a CDC investigator, so duty-bound that even when she awakes to discover she has become infected she goes through protocol trying to investigate who serviced her room so that others will not share her fate. Law (Sherlock Holmes) is suitably sleazy as a moral relativist trying that uses his army of Internet followers to discredit the government’s response. Fishburne (Predators) has terrific poise as the man in charge of scrambling the response forces, keeping his cool, and being the public face of the government response until an all too human scandal tarnishes him. But perhaps the best performer is Jennifer Ehle (Pride and Glory, The King’s Speech). She plays one of the chief CDC scientists studying the virus and takes some extreme measures to test a potential vaccine. She has a scene with her sick father that is likely the most emotionally affecting moment in the film. Her sturdy determination even when most vulnerable is selfless.
Contagion is a smart by-the-book procedural thriller that may not be dramatic enough for audiences fed by Hollywood disaster films. The film is far more analytical and detail-oriented to its benefit and sometimes detraction. It’s got stars galore and some plenty of rising tension, but the film also follows a realistic blueprint toward a rapid world response to a new pandemic, which means that well-developed characterization is spared amidst all that fraught scientific lingo. As a result, Contagion feels more like a docu-drama than an amped-up Hollywood thriller with its finger firmly pressed upon American anxieties. Contagion is a bit overextended and data-heavy. It’s a stripped down indie in studio clothing. Soderbergh’s movie is a bit too lean and clinical to be fully satisfying and emotionally engaging, especially with its somewhat inert ending. It’ll sure make you look at free bowls of peanuts differently. And Gwyneth Paltrow’s skull.
Nate’s Grade: B
Legendary documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War) has always had a knack for telling quirky stories involving quirky real-life interview subjects. From people who taxidermy their dead pets to a capital punishment engineer/Holocaust denier, Morris has a gift for making his subjects comfortably candid, and then the man gets out of the way of a good story. And if nothing else, Tabloid is a juicy story that seems too good to be true. As one journalist says, “It had everything.” In 1977, Joyce McKinney, former Miss Wyoming beauty queen, was charged with kidnapping a Mormon man, who she claimed was her boyfriend and had been brainwashed by church leaders. This kidnapping included handcuffing the man to a bed and “three days of food, fun, and sex.” Taking place in Britain, the sensational “Case of the Manicaled Mormon” fascinated the U.K. and turned McKinney into a prized media figure. When she escaped back to the U.S. posing as a deaf mute with a suitcase full of wigs and disguises, it made her even more famous. British tabloids were in a McKinney arms race, trying to out-scoop the other, unearthing secret lusty bondage pictures. Amazingly, McKinney agreed to appear on camera and tell her story, and boy does this woman speak her mind. Morris does not present McKinney up for easy ridicule. She presents a perky version of events, and it’s easy to feel the pull of this woman who is a natural storyteller. Whether her version of the “truth” is real is another matter. I wish Tabloid had dug a little deeper and had more ambition to it. The nature of tabloid journalism, sensationalism, and the ambiguous nature of truth gets ultimately swept aside by the bizarre twists and turns of the story and the outsized personality of McKinney. Tabloid certainly isn’t close to the best documentaries Morris has fashioned, but it’s a fascinating story that sells itself.
Nate’s Grade: B