At what point can you tell an onscreen pairing just isn’t working? Chemistry is one of those elusive and ineffable qualities that can make or break a film, especially one that relies upon sexual tension and romantic yearning. If the actors don’t feel like they want to be with one another, it’s all going to fall apart. This is what I kept thinking as I watched The Mountain Between Us and was dumbstruck by the powerful lack of chemistry between its leads, each an accomplished actor in their own right. I don’t thin the movie could have been saved given its script but it certainly could have been at least better. If you’re going into The Mountain Between Us expecting a thrilling survival tale or a stirring romantic pairing, then you’ll be sorely disappointed.
Ben (Idris Elba) and Alex (Kate Winslet) are strangers who have the same problem. Their flights have been canceled and they have important places to be. He’s a surgeon. She’s a journalism photographer who is getting married. They share a single engine propeller plane to fly over the mountains and into the Denver airport. Unfortunately, the pilot suffers a stroke and the plane goes down, stranding Ben, Kate, and the pilot’s helpful labrador in the mountains. They’ll have to rely upon one another to survive in a hostile wilderness and seek rescue when nobody knows where they may be.
Watching pretty people endure hardships and persevere is as old a story as Hollywood, and The Mountain Between Us fails on so many levels, but none more so than chemistry. Elba and Winslet are meant to fall in love with one another over the course of their struggles and it is that love, we are told, that was the real key to their survival. If that sounds like Nicholas Sparks dribble, you’re on the right track, as the source material was very much a romance story. I’m sure the characters had to be better established and the romance felt more organic than what we get in the movie. I think the setup is an interesting place to start: two strangers who rely upon each other for survival and that co-dependence transforms into something they deem to be love. However, we don’t really get much in the way of the consequences of this except for an extended coda that doesn’t feel like nearly enough. Other than a spur-of-the-moment sex scene the movie doesn’t dwell on this looming romantic relationship in any way other than glances of gratitude. We hardly know anything about these characters before they are in a plane crash, and from there the survival against the elements takes precedence. Winslet spends most of the movie laying down and needing to be taken care of. If this movie needs to survive on their romance then it was doomed at casting. Granted, there is nil in the way of characterization and plot development for them to work with as well. At no point do you feel any emotional connection or even any sort of sensual heat between them. They seem far more irritated and put-upon by one another, but that’s supposed to melt away into something deeper and meaningful, though it never does. These are two talented actors but whoa do they not work together (other pairings were going to be Michael Fassbender and Margot Robbie, Charlie Hunnam and Rosamund Pike). Let this film be a lesson to everyone about the importance of hiring the right actors.
Given the life-and-death survival, it seems shocking that the film has such low or non-existent stakes. You never once feel like these characters are in real jeopardy. They always seem to luck out, whether it’s a perfectly placed flare gun to ward off a bobcat, a cabin that’s none too far from their crash site, or that same dead bobcat that can provide some nourishment. There doesn’t seem to be much of a struggle on screen other than walking through the snow. It’s missing the visceral realism that survival stories offer audiences as entertainment. Ever since watching Wind River, stories about characters running long distances in sub-zero climates is ruined for me. I keep thinking, “Why aren’t their lungs exploding now?” I was surprisingly bored through much of their survival outdoors because none of it felt that serious or memorable (this isn’t Kate Winslet’s personal Revenant). This is less a survival story than a sudsy romance. Apparently, how they survive is less important than their eventual acknowledgement of love. It removes all sense of danger. The inclusion of the dog is the single greatest antidote to realism. Ben and Alex have a cute pet this whole time. This makes The Mountain Between Us feel like a “movie” rather than a “story,” and so we just wait and wait for precious moments that will successfully entertain, few and far between they are.
Director Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now, Omar) makes fine use of the Canadian Rockies to provide breathtakingly picturesque landscapes. Even if you’re relatively bored with the characters there’s always the scenery to take in and enjoy. Abu-Assad does have one memorably effective sequence and that’s the plane crash itself. His camera bobs and weaves inside the tiny cabin as long unbroken shot, reminiscent of the famous sequence inside the car in Children of Men. It’s an effort level that isn’t really matched, or at least evident, for the rest of the movie. It peaks at the crash. The human drama seems more interested in the human drama than the survival thrills, which is fine, but if that was the case then we should have gotten better characters and the room for them to develop so that whatever romantic connections form feel and believable and desirable.
I have a solution to all of these issues except the chemistry one. This movie needed a radical rehaul at the structural level to be a better-developed and more interesting story. The movie needed to be told primarily AFTER Ben and Kate are rescued (spoilers, I guess, but I doubt many thought this was going to end in Greek tragedy). It’s during this fifteen-minute coda where the movie becomes its most interesting, and that’s because our characters have to readjust to the outside world but are forever changed. Starting from that point allows the characters to open up so much more and we see a different array of challenges, ones that are more relatable but also with an undetermined outcome. We know these actors are going to live by the film’s end without question. We don’t know if they’ll still be psychologically stable or whole though re-acclimating to their lives. This needed to be more like the second half of Room. This approach would give substantially more for these great actors to dig into. You could also use flashbacks to fill in notable experiences during their time stranded in the mountains. This would provide contrasts but it would also smartly allow us to skip all the dull stuff we know is just filler. This would also allow more genuine surprises and chances for narrative irony. At one point Alex develops the film roll she took during her time in the mountains, and at this point we already know she snapped a picture while Ben was asleep post-coitus. What if seeing these pictures was our first clue that some romantic intimacy happened? These two people bonded over the course of a couple weeks and no two other people may fully understand what they’ve gone through. Explore that with their difficulty to reconnect to the “outside world” and how much they have come to rely on one another after their rescue. That way it’s a character-piece about relationships with worthy material.
The Mountain Between Us is a mediocre romantic drama hindered by terrible chemistry, half-formed characterization, and a poorly developed story. When the life-and-death survival after a plane crash in the mountain feels lacking in stakes and peril, then you have a problem. When the romantic union between its mega-watt stars feels perfunctory, you have an additional problem, especially when it seems to be the point of the exercise. The Mountain Between Us plays, as one other astute critic wrote, as “Idris Elba fan fiction,” with the injured lead being tended to by the handsome and capable protector who can’t help but fall in love with this woman. It’s not an offensively bad movie but a fatally flawed disappointment that had potential given its premise. There needed to be a dramatic restructuring of the screenplay to emphasize their recovery, which would have better served the talents of these actors. Still, there are worse people to be stranded with.
Nate’s Grade: C
Trauma and grief are common colors in the palette of screenwriting. Wounded men and women overcoming loss and sorrow allow us all an opportunity to learn and heal through someone else’s personal pain and suffering. It’s the movie theater as therapist’s office with art serving as catalyzing event to help those in need. When 2006’s United 93 was released many critics thought it was too soon for a dramatic recreation of the events of 9/11. First, there’s never a right estimation for how long the world of art should wait to respond to shared tragedy, but I argued that United 93 could function as a facilitator for healing for select moviegoers. It helps to be able to live vicariously through fictional characters on screen, and it makes us smile when they overcome those obstacles and give hope to the rest of us. Two new movies have taken very different paths to explore responses to trauma onscreen. Collateral Beauty is a star-studded affair built from a screenplay that sold for an estimated three million dollars. Manchester by the Sea premiered at the Sundance film Festival and blew away audiences with its understated and unsentimental portrait of loss. One of these movies goes big and miscalculates badly and the other delivers one of the better, more emotionally involving films of the year. I think once you hear the premises it’ll be clear which is which.
In Collateral Beauty, Howard (Will Smith) is an advertising guru still reeling two years later from the unexpected death of his six-year-old daughter. He’s become a hermit who furiously rides his bicycle into traffic to tempt fate. He shuns his old friends and minority partners, Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Pena). He also writes angry letters to the concepts of Death, Time, and Love to note his general displeasure. Major accounts are lost because of Howard’s seclusion and now it looks like the whole company might go under unless they accept a stock buyout. Howard refuses to sign off on the purchase, which forces his trio of friends to hire struggling actors to play “Death” (Helen Mirren), “Time” (Jacob Latimore), and “Love” (Keria Knightley). These three personified concepts will converse with Howard to provide an unorthodox therapeutic breakthrough. The actors will be paid handsomely and they relish the challenge. If that doesn’t work, they will record his public feuds with the actors, digitally erase the actors, and make it seem like he’s gone crazy with grief. Along the way, Howard gets closer and closer to talking about his loss in a support group run by the saintly Madeleine (Naomie Harris), a woman also suffering the loss of her child. If the universe is all about making connections, Howard is on a collision course with the fates.
Few films have dropped in estimation so precipitously in my mind as Collateral Beauty. To its credit, while you’re watching the movie you don’t notice as many of the misguided manipulations from prolific screenwriter Allan Loeb (Things We Lost in the Fire, Just Go with It). You’re aware of their presence but they don’t remove you from the movie, that is, until you extend further thought on the full implications. Allow me to simply vocalize in print the Christmas Carol-esque premise of this “feel good” holiday movie.
“A group of wealthy advertising executives scheme to get their grieving mentor and friend declared mentally incompetent so they can sell their company. They hire duplicitous actors to pose as metaphysical concepts, engage with Howard in public, and then they will digitally erase the presence of the actors, making it look like Howard fits the lazy man’s definition of crazy. And these people are the heroes.”
The characters give plenty of rationalizations for why they’re forced to set up their supposed friend, mostly about saving the company and saving jobs. Simon especially needs the money and medical insurance with where he’s headed. Howard is spiraling and they worry that he will take down everyone with him. That’s fine, but why do they resort to the outlandish and ethically dubious practices that they do? The hiring of actors seems like a helpful therapeutic exercise on the surface, unless you stop and think about a grieving man badgered by an antagonistic universe. Howard is already exemplifying mentally unsound behavior so I don’t know why the public spats are required. The digital erasure constitutes explicit fraud and it feels so much grosser. It’s an expensive step to provide visual evidence of a man having a nervous breakdown. They could have simply recorded Howard in his office for a week while he builds elaborate domino structures just to watch them topple (symbolism!). Even the characters call-out one another for this gaslighting trick. On another note, won’t Howard eventually find out? What if some enterprising digital effects editor has a moral crisis and confesses? This is the equivalent of false documents forged to push the rich old lady into the booby hatch so her scheming relatives could abscond with her vast fortune. It’s even more egregious when Collateral Beauty presents these characters as the heroes. Yes they have different degrees of guilt but that is tamped down by their moral relativism justifications. It makes it a little harder to swallow all that outpouring of cloying sentiment later. These murky and misguided manipulations will symbolize much that is wrong with the movie.
I hope the audience is prepared for Smith to be sidelined for much of the movie because Howard is more a supporting character in someone else’s story. Howard is really more a catalyst than a fully developed character. He grieves, he suffers, but his point is how his grief and suffering affect others, which is a strange tact to take. His journey is quite similar to Casey Affleck’s in Manchester by the Sea. He must come to terms with loss, accepting the cruelty of that reality in order to move forward and let others in. Moving on doesn’t mean we forget, especially when that trauma is a loved one’s loss, and Howard holds onto that pain for so long as a means to still feel his daughter’s presence. It’s an acceptable character conceit but it flounders in the movie because EVERYONE simply talks at Howard. Smith’s asked to be teary-eyed and mute for most of the picture. Any significant breakthroughs, developments, or even passing of information occurs from others applying meaning to this sad silent man who must not remain sad.
As a result, the movie pumps up the supporting characters and pairs them with one of the actors. “Death” relates with Simon for him to accept his declining health and to allow his family to know. “Time” relates with Claire over her worry that she’s sacrificed starting a family by prioritizing her career (this is another film world where nobody puts serious consideration into adoption). I need to stop and question this particular storyline. Doesn’t it feel a bit tacky and outdated? It’s also, by far, the storyline with the least attention; we literally see Claire glance at a sperm donor brochure and website for a scant few seconds and that’s it. Then there’s “Love” who relates with Whit to try and get him to repair his relationship with his rightfully angry young daughter after Whit cheated and broke up his marriage. “Love” literally just goads Whit to actually try being a parent and accept some responsibility for his failings. That’s it, and she has to use the incentive of a date to convince him to try and be a better father (Whit sloppily hitting on “Love” definitely lays a plausible peak into why exactly he’s divorced). “Death” and Simon play out the best mostly because Mirren is impishly amusing, and also benefits from naturally being Helen Mirren, and Pena’s character is given the most sincerity. He has the most at stake personally and setting things right for his family is taking a toll. Loeb has given each actor something to do, and the talents of the actors are enough that I was distracted from the overall machinations at least until the very end.
For most of its relatively brief running time, Collateral Beauty has kept to its own form of internal logic and avoided blatantly manipulative calculations for heightened drama. Sure Pena’s first instance of movie cough is an obvious telegraph to more astute members of the audience, but it makes some sense since this is less our real world and more the well-sculpted Movie World. Then the final ten minutes play out and the movie doesn’t just skid, it steers into this skid of counterfeit sentiment. I’ll refrain from spoiling both of the major reveals but they both serve to make you rethink everything. It’s not one of those eye-opening twists but more something my pal Eric and I were dreading in our seats, mumbling to ourselves, “Please please don’t.” These final two reveals are completely unnecessary. They disrupt the tenuous reality of the movie and the balance of tones becomes a mess. It also divulges how overly constructed the screenplay really was, designed to lead an audience to these chosen end points that don’t engender catharsis. It’s about pointing out how clever the screenplay was rather than the emotional journey, a movie in service of its twists. Neither twist serves strong narrative purpose other than to be out-of-the-blue surprises.
Let’s get to that ungainly and clunky title. It’s a nonsense pairing of words that’s meant to sound profound but is really just confusing and remains so even though the characters repeat this clumsy phrase like eight times. There’s a conversation where it appears in every sentence, as if repetition alone can make this phrase/idea successfully stick. It doesn’t. I think I understand what it means, or at least what Loeb was going for, but I’m not sure. Madeleine talks about making sure to see all the collateral beauty in the universe, but is this merely a more obtuse way of restating Wes Bentley’s floating plastic bag declaration in American Beauty? Is it a more pretentious way of saying to stop and smell the roses? Here’s where I thought it was going with its meaning: “collateral” in this sense means accompanying and instead of accompanying damages we’re focused on the accompanying beauty, therefore a contemplation of the possible unintended helpful ramifications. This was going to make sense for Madeline since she uses her personal tragic experience to reach out and help others heal through their own tragedies. It’s the long ripples of human kindness reaching out far beyond our initial actions. And maybe, juts maybe, Howard and Madeleine would become romantically linked through coping with their similar heartache and find one another. However, the movie’s real ending torpedoes this interpretation. What we’re left with is a clunky pairing of words that still makes little sense by film’s end.
Collateral Beauty is probably the best-looking Hallmark movie you’ll see at the theaters this holiday season. It’s a gauzy and manipulative endeavor packed with movie stars doing their sad and redemptive best before hopefully cheering you up. There’s nothing that can’t be overcome with a good group of friends who only want what’s best for you while they take part in a criminal conspiracy to defraud you of your business stakes. That’s because even the most nefarious of behaviors can be forgiven with the right actor to provide a twinkle of the eye, a little swooning musical score to tell the audience how and when to feel, and the backdrop of lightly swirling snowfall. It’s a universe that refuses to allow Will Smith to stay sad and so it intervenes. Collateral Beauty has its draws, namely its core of great actors who each find some point of emotional grounding to their character’s plight. The finest actor in the movie is Harris (Moonlight) who radiates tremendous empathy and a bittersweet serenity. I’d watch the movie from her perspective. To Loeb’s credit, the movie is more grounded and less fanciful than its premise could have lead. It doesn’t sink to the depths of a Seven Pounds (“Do not touch the jellyfish”). Waterworks are shed all around, hugs are evenly distributed, and I’d be lying if I didn’t feel a lump or two in my throat by film’s end. However, its emotional journey doesn’t feel anywhere as revelatory as Manchester by the Sea.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is living out an ordinary existence as a Boston apartment complex maintenance man. His routine is rudely interrupted when he receives news that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has fallen deathly ill. On the car ride north to Manchester, Joe passes away. Guardianship of Joe’s 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is entrusted to Lee much to his shock. “I was just supposed to be the back-up,” he says to himself to little avail. Lee wants to move back to Boston with his new ward but Patrick refuses, pleading that he already has a life in town he enjoys. Lee is itchy to leave because of his painful associations with his hometown, tracing back several years to a fateful night of tragedy he shared with his current ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams). Lee takes on the mantle of parent while trying to ignore the trauma he’s doing his very best to ignore with every fiber of his working-class Bostonian being.
The first impression from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s movie is just how achingly authentic it feels. We drop in on the lives of these hardscrabble folks and glean important details as we progress, better forming a clear picture as to why they carry such pain with them as penance. In simplistic terms, it’s a two hour-plus journey to reach a point where the main character can openly cry. It’s also much more than that. It’s an incisive character piece on grief and tragedy, a surprisingly funny movie, and an effortlessly engaging movie that swallows you whole with its familiar rhythms of life. There is no formula here for Lonergan. Each fifteen-minute sequence opens the movie up again for further re-examination, especially a middle passage that is truly devastating. It provides compelling evidence why Lee has decided to become a recluse drifting through life. It’s not that Lee is lonely; he’s actively disengaged from all communities and connections. There are three different potential openings with women who seemed flirty and interested that Lee could have capitalized upon, or at least pursued, but he does not. A woman spills a beer on his shirt and squeezes closer to apologize, pleading to buy him a drink. He coolly looks away, ignoring her, and instead chooses to wait until closing time so he can get into a drunken fight instead. Lee would rather feel pain than momentary pleasure.
The movie is also a poignant father/son relationship told in waves, with as much humor as emotional breakdowns. Lee is trying to fix the situation the best way he can as if it was another clogged drain. He’s thrust into a parental position that he doesn’t feel fits. It’s not that he’s actively evading responsibility as he does try to accommodate his nephew, even driving him back and forth and covering for one of his two girlfriends to sleep over. Lee cannot work in his hometown because of his own lingering pain and also because nobody will give him a job thanks to the reputation he carries. For a long while it feels like Patrick isn’t even registering the death of his father except for his distress at the thought of his father’s body remaining in a freezer until the ground thaws for a burial. He’s trying to live a normal teenage life filled with activity like band practice, hockey practice, and juggling some alone time with his two girlfriends. He seems like a normal teenager with a normal teenage attitude, and that flies in the face of our expectations. Hedges (Kill the Messenger) provides a nice dose of awkward comedy to keep the movie from drowning in sadness. The burgeoning relationship between Lee and Patrick takes on new familial elements and dynamics and each is feeling out that new role. This movie is more than an elegant bummer.
Lonergan has only directed two movies prior to Manchester, both of them insightful, complex character studies with meaty parts for game actors. 2000’s You Can Count on Me cemented the wide appeal and remarkable talents of Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo. Then his follow-up, the criminally underseen Margaret, ran afoul with producers who wanted to trim its near three-hour running time. It was kept in limbo for five long years until 2011 where it met with a degree of fervent critical fandom, including yours truly. Manchester began as a starring vehicle for producer Matt Damon, but when scheduling conflicts got in the way, the project was reworked with Affleck in the lead and Lonergan told the story his creative impulses desired without studio interference. As a big fan of his previous directorial outings, I’m not surprised by the gripping results. He lets an audience draw conclusions from the impressions and pieces he offers, notably with Patrick’s mother (Gretchen Mol) who he refers to as “not an alcoholic anymore.” There isn’t one big obvious scene but we’re given enough pointed clues about Patrick’s history with his mother and why Lee is adamant that his nephew does not live with his mother. The history of characters and their relationships follow this model, layering in further meaning as we continue at a safe distance in our seats. Things aren’t spelled out as they are allowed to breathe, the furtive connections becoming perceptible in time like a message written in the fog of a window. Lonergan has great affection for his characters and their flaws, insecurities, and struggles. This was evident in Margaret where the title character (vividly played by a pre-True Blood Anna Paquin) was a teenager exploding with emotions, opinions, and thoughts and Lonergan celebrated her for this fact. I appreciate Lonergan’s refusal to paint in broad strokes with all of his characters.
This is Affleck’s (The Finest Hours) movie and while good the more extroverted performers around him overshadow him. Affleck can be a gifted actor as evidenced with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He has a quiet intensity and a habit of burrowing inside himself to discover something raw and different. His performance feels like he’s trapped in a PTSD shield that saps the life from him. He’s drifting through his life and waiting to die, simply put. Because of his taciturn nature he doesn’t garner any sizeable monologues to spill out all his feelings. He has to use little moments and the nuances of choosing his words carefully. When he tells Patrick “I can’t beat it” those words are loaded with meaning that he can only convey in subtext. When he stops to process that Randi has gotten pregnant from another man we notice the subtle registration of pain and regret, a twinge of memories he’s trying to hold back. Affleck’s performance is very subdued for most of the movie but it’s in the final act where he cannot maintain his well-manicured bubble of resistance to the outside world. When Lee does start to cry, it will earn every ounce of your sympathy.
Williams (My Week with Marilyn) is more presence than character in the movie, but when she does stay long enough she leaves an emotionally gut-wrenching impression. I understand that “gut-wrenching” is a pejorative term but it’s really one of the more uplifting moments in the movie. That’s because her character’s reunion with Lee isn’t one of enmity but reconciliation, allowing her to make amends and say plenty of things that she’s been holding back for years. It’s an unburdening and once Williams starts it’s hard not to feel the flow of tears coming from your own eyes. She is a one-scene wonder, reminiscent of Viola Daivs in 2008 for Doubt, nominated for Best Supporting Actress and well deserving a win for one brilliantly acted scene. Fitting then that Davis looks to be Williams’ chief competition for Supporting Actress this year. I invested even more in this scene because the power of Randi’s emotional honesty almost pulls Lee out. He’s shaking, his voice cracking, and trying to stick to saying the customary conversational tokens that have gotten him through to this point. He’s avoiding confronting reality but the sheer emotive force of Randi almost pushes him to that genuine breakthrough.
If there is one noticeable drawback to such an exquisitely rendered film, it’s that it follows the narrative structure of real life perhaps a bit too faithfully. Life doesn’t normally follow a three-act structure with clearly defined character arcs and a carefully orchestrated system of measured payoffs. While Manchester by the Sea isn’t exactly an automatic entry in mumblecore paint drying, it’s certainly less indebted to familiar story structure, which does affect the overall motor of the story. You don’t have a strong sense of its overall direction, an end point, and while the pacing isn’t glacial it can start to feel bogged down in those wonderful New England details of everyday mundane life (how many times do we need to see Lee driving?). There are also probably more flashbacks than necessary to flesh out the characters in an implicit manner. If the movie wasn’t 137 minutes I might accuse it of padding its running time. It doesn’t take away from the overall enjoyment of the film but you feel a certain loss of structure and payoff. In contrast, Collateral Beauty is entirely reliant upon plot machinations and a formula serving a very Hollywood-styled ending. Sometimes maybe an audience would prefer a little more of a driving force and a little more oomph for an ending. While certainly lacking in just about every factor, I’d say that Collateral Beauty does feel more climactic with its conclusion than Manchester, which sort of rolls to a close that makes you say, “Oh, I guess that’s it then.” Sometimes realism can profit from a judicious nudging. Then again with Manchester it’s more the journey and Collateral Beauty is all about the destination.
While ostensibly being about two men overcoming the loss of someone close to them to function in everyday society once more with meaningful personal relationships, there’s quite a wide divide between Collateral Beauty and Manchester by the Sea. One represents a more calculated and morally dubious reflection of trauma as a theatrical game leading to Big Twists that are meant to leave an audience swooning from the magic of reconciliation. While fairly grounded on its own terms for a far majority of its time, Collateral Beauty can’t help itself and steers into a ditch of bad plotting, made even worse by the fact that it puts so much significance on its preposterous final destination. It manages to cheapen the movie as a whole in retrospect as an elaborate parlor trick that rivaled what the ethically challenged heroes of the tale were perpetrating. On the other side, Manchester by the Sea is a carefully observed and intimate portrait of grief and the consequences of self-destructive detachment from a larger world of compassion. The acting is terrific and lived in, authentic to its core and stuffed with meaningful details that Lonergan leaves to his audience to formulate. However, some of its indie auteur sensibilities do have a somewhat negative impact on the pacing and ultimate conclusive nature of the movie. It’s not that the film is open-ended; it’s just a “life goes on” kind of ending that doesn’t exactly inspire the strongest feelings of satisfaction. Grief will always be a topic that attracts filmmakers and especially actors because of its inescapable drama, stakes, and general relatabilty. I only implore any readers that if you’re trusting filmmakers with two hours of your emotion, make sure they earn that privilege.
Collateral Beauty: C
Manchester by the Sea: A-
Sometimes the most upsetting movies are the ones that have a glimmer of promise and then never take advantage of that promise, instead falling upon staid genre clichés and predictable plotting that makes you wonder how a good idea was smashed into a boring and formulaic product. Triple 9 falls into this category of film disappointment. It has a great premise: a group of corrupt cops (Chiwetel Ejiofer, Anthony Mackie) are in debt to an Israeli mob matriarch (Kate Winslet) and owe her one last score, and their solution to ensure they can get away with their crime is to arrange for a new cop on the beat (Casey Affleck) to be killed, thus providing a major distraction. The problem here is that none of these characters are at all interesting. They all have conflicts and the movie does a fine job of providing each one with some kind of pressure and general motivation, but outside of the forces against them, you can summarize them in a scant few words apiece (drug addict, war vet, single dad, etc.). The plot events also just seem to coast around until a pile-up of climaxes, all of which lack satisfying closure as the body count mounts. It’s hard to care, and the only character that seems worth following is Affleck’s newcomer sniffing out the dangers that are closing in on him. Woody Harrelson feels like he’s making a special guest appearance from a separate movie from Oren Moverman as a drug-addled and angry detective. Too often the characters feel out of orbit from one another, the storylines rarely coalescing. It feels like everyone was given the same acting note of being dour and harried. Winslet’s hammy turn as an Israeli mob boss allows her to reuse her accent from Steve Jobs. Director John Hillcoat (Lawless) provides a certain charge with how he stages the robbery sequences but it’s not enough. Triple 9 is a movie that wastes a great cast, a fine premise, and a talented director. It’s not terrible by most accounts but it’s resoundingly mediocre, and sometimes that can be even worse than bad.
Nate’s Grade: C
Dizzying with its dialogue, Steve Jobs tells the story of its titular man through three Apple product launches, 1985’s Macintosh computer, 1988’s Apple rival and failure, Next, and 1998’s iMac, the beginning of the re-emergence of Apple into ubiquity. It’s really an Aaron Sorkin movie above all else, which means we get absurdly intelligent characters walking and talking at rapid-fire with brilliant one-liners and snappy dialogue that bristles with musicality to it, the kind that your ears perk up for. It’s a feast for the ears; however, Steve Jobs is really an emotionally cold stage play on film. Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) is the director but the staginess of the conceit is too much for the visually nimble filmmaker to overcome. There are a few small visual flourishes as inserts but the star is Sorkin’s verbose screenplay. We get a glimpse into the prickly, egotistical, bullying, visionary, and curious man that was Steve Jobs. His continual denial of being the father to his daughter is a source of great contrarian insight. The structure of the script lends itself to repetition and artificiality. All these characters keep turning up and having these important conversations at these moments? After a while it feels like the characters are talking in circles and waiting for catharsis, and the concluding ten minutes is a detour into unearned sentiment. The movie and its major themes just do not come together with the clarity or force that the filmmakers believe. Michael Fassbender is superb as Jobs and there isn’t a bad performance in the bunch. It’s an engaging movie in the moment but I don’t feel like I know Jobs any better than before. In attempting to tell the life of one influential man, Sorkin has made the movie about himself, but The Social Network this is not.
Nate’s Grade: B
A return to the world of Divergent yields little forward momentum, in fact just enough to end on the point that I thought where a sequel would naturally begin. Turns out we needed a whole other movie, Insurgent, to arrive at this obvious narrative next step. Insurgent picks up with Tris (Shailene Woodley) and company on the run following the coup of two of the five social factions. Tris is a Divergent, able to apply herself to multiple factions, and she and her kind are the only ones who can open a secret box left behind by the founders of this post-apocalyptic civilization. The film does enough to hold your attention and we get to visit the other two factions we missed the first time, providing further shape to what is still a confusing world. I think the Divergent series will always fall short of the YA pacesetter, The Hunger Games, but they offer their escapist moments of entertainment. The second film is a bigger, louder, and more heavily coated CGI affair, especially the magic box’s mental trials that amount to a repeat of the first movie’s psychological trials of fear. Woodley is the strong center of the film and she processes her own PTSD over being forced to kill friends in order to survive; you do start to sense that Woodley is growing restless with the franchise. The third book is, as required by the mandate of milking YA franchises, being split into two movies, and while it served little to the Hunger Games, I hope better for the Divergent series, a group of movies inferior and somewhat mystifying but still interesting enough. For now.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Labor Day, based upon the novel by Joyce Maynard, is the kind of sappy material that you never would have expected director Jason Reitman to attach his name to. Reitman has been accumulating an enviable career of top-shelf dark comedies (Thank You for Smoking, Up in the Air, Young Adult), yet his touch with characters and actors, as well as his delicacy with tone, reminded several of a young Billy Wilder. The stuff of Labor Day felt more like a Lifetime channel original movie. This is just one artistic miscalculation from the start and it doesn’t get better as it goes.
Back over Labor Day weekend in 1987, young Henry (Gattlin Griffith) is living with his grieving mother Adele (Kate Winslet) and performing many of the duties of a husband (don’t get gross). It’s been some time since Henry’s parents divorced but Adele has become a shell-shocked recluse who can barely talk or look others in the eye. While visiting a grocery store, Henry runs into a dangerous man named Frank (Josh Brolin). He’s bleeding from the abdomen and intimidates Adele to give him a ride. Frank is an escaped prisoner and he takes to hiding at Adele’s home. After the initial hostage period, Frank allows Henry and Adele to walk around freely, as long as they don’t tell anyone where he is. As the days pass, Frank helps out around the house, helps Adele get out of her funk, and becomes a surrogate father figure for Henry. The unconventional family must evade the police and skeptical townsfolk to make a run for it.
The very premise and its tone are just not a good fit for Reitman. First off, the movie plays out far more like a hostage thriller than any sort of romance. If you were to look deep inside, the romance can be explained as one very emotionally needy woman and her child going through Stockholm syndrome. The entire movie takes place over the titular Labor Day holiday, which means that all these changing feelings have to morph over the time period of three days. I don’t know if I’d call that love, even in Movie Land. Hey, Frank didn’t kill everyone and he helps around the house, isn’t he great? These people should be far more afraid for far longer. It is almost comical how saintly Frank becomes and how many surrogate father activities he squeezes into the abbreviated window of time. He performs handyman jobs all around the house, teaches young Henry how to change a tire, tosses a baseball with the kid, teaches everyone the finer points on pie making, and other such helpful activities. I understand that these two lonely people finally see a replacement man; for Henry a father, for Adele a lover. Again, the three-day time window makes everything appear like the manifestation of Stockholm syndrome. How many of those abducted have uttered, “He’s not that bad. You just don’t know him like I do”? Frank’s back-story is tragic but he is a wanted felon and he has no problem threatening both of these people’s lives in the beginning. Yeah he doesn’t resort to violence or yell in their faces, but why would he against an adolescent boy and his easily cajoled mother? No matter how long Reitman spends showing us the softer side of Frank, especially while preparing delectable dishes of food, he’s no more developed than the common Misunderstood Bad Boy.
Then there are the dawdling coming-of-age moments clinging to young Henry, a boy growing up quickly in a tumultuous holiday weekend. It strikes me as tonally odd to already take a tricky balancing act with the film’s plot and then tossing on a coming-of-age addition. The story is told from Henry’s perspective, and that’s a major problem as well. He’s the least interesting person in this dramatic setup. Being confined to his viewpoint often keeps us distant from the deeper drama going on. I’d rather spend time with Adele and Frank bonding so that the romance can find some traction, but no. Al we hear are the thumps from the other side of the wall and the gentle whisperings between them in stolen glances. It’s a frustrating perspective because quite frankly nobody really cares about this kid’s sexual awakening and his daydreams about the cute girl’s bra. His dad (Clark Gregg) wants to talk to him about the birds and the bees. His mom talks about the same. It’s a somewhat uncomfortable position for the audience with both parents wanting to cover the sex talk. There’s a wanted man hiding in his home! Henry’s personal growing up drama has no equivalency to this. Of the three main characters, doesn’t Henry seem like the worst participant to tell the story? It doesn’t help that Tobey Maguire narrates as older Henry. Have we not learned from The Great Gatsby: Maguire’s voice does not suit narration.
It’s the film’s more tense moments where you get glimpses of the real movie here, the thriller that’s been gussied up and disguised as some strange romance. Whenever someone gets close to discovering what’s really going on in that house, the movie picks up and grabs your interest once more, albeit fleeting. The fear of getting caught is potent but it should have been more omnipresent. The film, through Henry’s perspective, is treated like this nostalgic chestnut of that one summer a convicted killer held us hostage. The police are canvassing for an escaped prisoner but the neighborhood doesn’t seem to be that alarmed, still going about their business bringing desserts and fresh produce to one another’s doorstep. Too much of the film implies the threat, like with a short glimpse of a police checkpoint, but places it on the back-burner so that the romance can take shape. Again, this is a byproduct of being stuck in Henry’s perspective whereas the kid might not have the best understanding of how serious everything is (he’s worried his mom will abandon him and run off with Frank). But in those brief moments of dread and tension, this is where Labor Day works, and Reitman does a great job of turning the screws and building that suspense. It makes you wish the whole thing were a thriller.
No one is going to question that Winslet (Divergent) and Brolin (Gangster Squad) are great actors, but boy do these characters underachieve. There is one very effective and moving monologue Winslet has about her pregnancy problems that have turned her away from the world, but it’s not enough. For much of the movie, she plays such an anxious and internalized character, so it’s hard to really follow her emotional development. That monologue does the most heavy lifting but it’s pretty wan before and after. Winslet is too good an actress to play essentially a catatonic woman that’s fairly mute. Brolin can play a soulful brute in his sleep. There’s so little to challenge him and so he seems on autopilot. It also hurts that both Frank and Adele have very limited conversations. It’s a romance told in gestures and handclasps (and the rhythmic thumping of walls at night). It’s not their fault that their characters are underwritten and unsatisfying. Griffith (Green Lantern) is a nice young actor but he too is forced to communicate much with little and comes up short. James Van Der Beek (TV’s Dawson’s Creek) is a local cop who appears for one scene, and afterwards you wish he would stick around longer. Look for Reitman good luck charm J.K. Simmons (Dark Skies) as a helpful neighbor.
Reitman is such a talented director that he can almost pull off sequences in Labor Day despite all of its inherent structural, tonal, and perspective flaws. From a technical standpoint, the movie is a gauzy, amber-accented tale with plenty of strong alluring visuals to set you at ease. There are these trembling moments where you almost see what attracted Reitman to the film, but the finished product is just a mushy misfire. It’s earnest without having earned our emotions, and the thriller elements and the romance elements are in constant conflict. We all remember our grandparents telling us that magical moment they knew they had met the one when he tied her up and held her hostage. Much of the drama that comes from the premise is handicapped from the mistake of having Henry as the chief storyteller and point of view. His limited involvement means we’re kept at the peripheral for too many important moments. I have no doubt Reitman will rebound and quickly (he’s already filming his next movie and has optioned a book for his next next movie). Get ready to have Labor Day play every subsequent Labor Day weekend on the Lifetime channel, its true home.
Nate’s Grade: C
High school for many was a personal version of hell, with its class system and pressure to conform. Divergent built a whole future dystopia around this relatable concept. The problem with the movie is that the source material doesn’t think that much further.
In the future, 100 years after a great war that scarred the world, the survivors have holed up in the remains of Chicago with a large fence as their protection. The government decided to split off into five different factions, each with their important purpose. The five factions (Abnegation, Candor, Erudite, Amity, and Dauntless) work in harmony. Tris (Shailene Woodley) comes from a family of Abnegation, the selfless ones who run the government, though Jeanine (Kate Winslet), the head of Erudite, would like her faction to be on top. At the choosing ceremony, a candidate can select which faction they wish to live within. However, if rejected, that person will be factionless and on the outskirts of society. Rather than choose the comfort of her boring life, Tris decides to join Dauntless, the faction in charge of the security of the city. Before she can say goodbye to her family, she’s off joining a new one, but Dauntless has many tests to weed out the weak. Paramount in her mind is the fact that Tris is told she’s a divergent, one who doesn’t fit neatly into any one of the factions. Divergents are being singled out and executed because they are feared; they can’t be so easily controlled. Tris has to prove herself against tough competition in Dauntless while hiding her true divergent nature.
Having not read the best-selling Young Adult books, I went into Divergent and walked away entertained enough though questioning the larger appeal. My movie partner told me that the adaptation hews closely to the book, fitting in all the major plot beats; she even said it was a better adaptation than the first Hunger Games, so fans should be relieved. What the movie came down to was one long plot about Tris getting through the Dauntless tests. It’s like a post-apocalyptic Full Metal Jacket, just minus the war half. With this tight focus, the film actually plays better and is easier to digest. The stakes are made clear and the hurdles are easy to understand. In a way it reminded me of the Ender’s Game film where we watch a recruit move up the ranks of their sci-fi training, though Ender’s was better at establishing dimension to its world. I did like the small touch that the Abnegation people won’t allow themselves to see their reflection because they see it as vain. I could have used more touches like that.
There are simple pleasures watching Tris, the plucky underdog, rising to the challenge and besting her snobby peers. The games get more intense and Tris learns from trial to trial, eventually learning how to hide her divergent nature by blending in against her nature. There’s also an intensity to this world that’s appreciated; people will die if they can’t keep up (there is one shocking sequence where a batch of jealous recruits literally try and kill Tris). The physical trials are fun but the mental ones are even more entertaining because they function around the candidate’s fears. It’s a tad lazy to simply broadcast a character’s fear for them to confront in a dream, but it provides some creepy imagery and new wrinkle for Tris to master. Even the requisite romance that every YA property has to have is handled respectfully without overdoing it. The mentor/teacher relationship with Tris and Four is a natural conduit for their budding romantic feelings, though James (Underworld: Awakening) looks way older than Woodley (The Descendants). In reality, he’s 30 and she’s 22, though she’s supposed to be… 17? 18 years old? I don’t know but it just didn’t sit right.
Where the movie gets into problems is the larger world outside those Dauntless camps. It feels too ill defined and purposely vague. What’s on the other side of the giant electrified fence (hopefully dinosaurs)? I suppose that’s what sequels are for (they’re already filming the second Divergent for March 2015). The world just feels too small even for one city, and the history doesn’t feel integrated into the cultivations of this society. In a sense, the movie doesn’t give you enough to go on with its world building and spends far too much time dragging out its story. At a hefty 142 minutes, a time frame becoming de rigueur with YA adaptations, the film feels laboriously padded. I kept thinking the movie was going to check out at any moment, robbing me of some semblance of a complete ending. Fear not, there is an ending, though one that feels far too definite to continue a franchise. The bad guys are so obviously guilty, that even while still being at large, it’s hard to fathom a scenario that doesn’t unite everyone against the common threat. Does every YA post-apocalyptic mold eventually lead to unlikely heroes becoming the focal points of revolutions? I’m being facetious, but also highlighting just how derivative this movie is. Divergent borrows from its larger influences liberally, having enough story sense to know how to construct a satisfying tale of heroes and villains. It’s a well-polished film thanks to director Neil Burger (Limitless) but it’s also lacking necessary elements to distinguish it from the glut of dystopian imitators and predecessors.
I just can’t wrap my head around the world of Divergent. It lacks the clean clarity of, say, The Hunger Games, where the game is kill-or-be-killed and it’s very much a class warfare allegory. In Veronica Roth’s novel, the post-apocalyptic Chicago is divided into five factions but this isn’t a caste system. The different factions are looked at as equals, meant to cooperate harmoniously. So there goes any sort of class conflict when the factions are presented more as lifelong clubs. The design is that branching people off into five groups will somehow prevent the strife that lead to the unnamed war of the past. This doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me. Why would limiting people’s options for careers and lifestyles eliminate conflict? I understand the not so subtle message about conformity and the strength in controlling others, but it still doesn’t hold. Then there’s the notion that a divergent is a dangerous rogue, but it’s not like the divergent are mutants or genetically different. These are just people who don’t fit neatly into one of the five faction options. If you eliminate the conformity obsession, who cares? It’s only an aptitude test in the end, like what you take in middle school that say, “Hey, you like drawing, maybe you’d like to be a police sketch artist” (true personal anecdote of mine). It’s not something that looks deep into the souls of boys and girls and presages their future. It’s an aptitude test for crying out loud. The world of Divergent also feels strangely unfulfilled, with too many lingering questions about the logistics of how this future Chicago is able to function. There’s a confusing aura around this world and it doesn’t get explained because we spend so much time in Dauntless boot camp.
There was a weird motif I kept noticing throughout the film and that’s the future’s unsafe disregard for medical safety. The Dauntless kids are all about the running, jumping, punching each other in the face, but it all begins at their choosing ceremony. The candidates walk to the front of an auditorium, slice their palm with a ceremonial knife, and then squeeze blood into a bowl representing the faction they select. Of course they reiterate “faction before blood” so it’s a little strange that the ritual involves their blood. Anyway, what I picked up was that every candidate was using the same knife, only with he most perfunctory of wiping the blade. That is just unclean and a way for blood-based disease to spread. Then later during the mental round of testing, Four injects Tris and himself with the same needle. Clearly these post-apocalyptic people have forgotten all about AIDS and other deadly diseases. Why else would Jeanine be so calm as her hand is covered in someone else’s blood? I’m surprised she just didn’t lick it for effect.
The actors are all well cast for their parts, with Woodley again proving herself as one of the best young actresses today in Hollywood. Her part isn’t anywhere as complex or demanding as her terrific turn in The Spectacular Now, but she’s able to slide in emotion where possible, expressing much through the power of her eyes. She’s a heroine you want to root for, and when she goes into badass mode it feels earned. James is suitably hunky while still being mysterious and broody. Interestingly enough, Miles Teller, Woodley’s onscreen beau in Spectacular Now, is here as a bully and Ansel Elgort, who plays Tris’ older brother, will soon play Woodley’s onscreen beau in The Fault in Our Stars. It’s like this weird cross-section of Woodley’s film history of boyfriends. The adults do fine jobs with their limited time, with Winslet (Labor Day) being a better realized version of what Jodie Foster was possibly going for in Elysium. My favorite adult actor was Jai Courtney (A Good Day to Die Hard, Jack Reacher) who hasn’t found the right fit for his talents, until now (he was great on Starz’s Spartacus TV show). As a no-nonsense Dauntless captain, he’s imposing in many respects and also intriguingly devious. He’s a grade-A heavy and adds a jolt to the scenes he’s in.
Poised to be the next YA breakout franchise, Divergent will likely be a hit with its target audience and reap the rewards at the box-office, though I think its flaws will hold it back from being embraced by a wider audience with no affiliation with the books. It’s an entertaining story with good actors and enough well constructed payoffs, but it’s also confusing, vague, and lacking enough urgency, class conflict, and developments to parlay into a more interesting story once Tris graduates from the Dauntless ranks. As a standalone film, Divergent works enough and duly entertains, thanks again to Burger’s visual sensibilities and the strength of Woodley. I’m just not invested at all in this world or its larger characters to compel myself to find out what happens next. I ravenously tore through the Hunger Games books, but to each their own. As a big screen sci-fi film, it’s strange that Divergent would work best in its smaller moments and settings. It’s too bad the movie doesn’t diverge enough from the pack of YA-modeled adventures. Well there is one thing to look forward to: I’ll see if I get my wish for dinosaurs in March 2015.
Nate’s Grade: B-
There were two driving reasons why I chose to go see Movie 43, the collection of 13 comedy sketches from different writers and directors. First, the red band trailer made me laugh, so I figured it was worth a shot. If one sketch didn’t work, there was always another ready to cleanse my comedic palate. The other reason is that I have been compiling sketches written by myself and my friends with the intent to make my own sketch comedy movie in 2013. Part of me was also concerned that something so high-profile might extinguish my own project; maybe we came up with similar material with sketches. After watching Movie 43, a tasteless, disconnected, and ultimately unfunny collective, I have renewed hope for my own project’s success.
Like most sketch comedy collections, Movie 43 is extremely hit or miss. This ain’t no Kentucky Fried Movie or even the Kids in the Hall flick. Rating this worth viewing depends on which side racks up the most. Unfortunately, there’s more terribleness than greatness on display, but allow me to briefly call out the film’s true highlights. The best segment in the movie, the one that had me laughing the longest, was a bizarre fake commercial that does nothing more than presuppose that machines, as we know them, are really filled with small children to do the labor. Seeing little urchins inside a copy machine or an ATM, looking so sad, with the faux serious music welling up, it made me double over in laughter.
With the actual vignettes, “Homeschooled” and “Truth or Dare” where the standouts that drew genuine laughter. “Homeschooled” is about a mother and father (real-life couple Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber) giving their son the total high school experience, which amounts to degrading humiliation. Dad makes fun of his son’s penis in the shower. Mom and Dad throw a party with the cool kids but don’t invite their son. Dad tapes his son to a flagpole. The kid gets his first awkward kiss thanks to his mom. It’s outrageous without falling victim into being crass for the sake of crass, a common sin amongst many of the vignettes. “Truth or Dare” starts off innocuously enough with Halle Berry (Cloud Atlas) and Stephen Merchant (Hall Pass) on a blind date. As the date progresses, they get into an escalating game of truth or dare that each has them doing offensive acts, like blowing out the candles on a blind kid’s birthday cake. This segment knows when to go for broke with it silliness and it doesn’t wear out its welcome, another cardinal sin amidst the other vignettes.
But lo, the unfunny sketches, or more accurately the disappointing sketches, outnumber the enjoyable. Far too often the sketches are of the one joke variety and the comedy rarely leaves those limited parameters. So a sketch about a blind date with a guy who has testicles hanging from his chin (Hugh Jackman) is… pretty much just that. There’s no real variation or complications or sense of build. It’s just that. A commercial about an iPod built to model a naked lady is… exactly that and nothing more. A speed dating session with famous DC superheroes like Batman (Jason Sudeikis), Robin (Justin Long), Supergirl (Kristen Bell) and others should be far cleverer than what we get. While I laughed at the sports sketch “Victory’s Glory,” it really all boils down to one joke: black people are better than white people at basketball. That’s it. “Middleschool Date” starts off interesting with a teen girl (Chloe Grace Moritz) getting her period on a date and the clueless men around her freaking out that she is dying. However, this is the one sketch that doesn’t go far enough. It really needed to increase the absurdity of the situation but it ends all too quickly and with little incident. “Happy Birthday” involves two roommates (Johnny Knoxville, Sean William Scott) interrogating an angry leprechaun (Gerard Butler) for his gold. It pretty much just sticks to slapstick and vulgar name-calling. That’s the more tiresome aspect of Movie 43, the collective feeling that it’s trying so desperately to be shocking rather than, you know, funny.
The worst offenders of comedy are the scathingly unfunny “Veronica” and “The Proposition.” With “Veronica,” Kieran Culkin tries to woo his lady (Emma Stone) with a series of off-putting sexual remarks, delivered in an off-putting “bad poetry delivery” manner, while the film is off-puttingly shot with self-conscious angles that do nothing for the comedy. It’s a wreck. “The Proposition” is just one big poop joke. It’s far more gross than gross-out.
The frame story connecting the varied vignettes is completely unnecessary. Well, I suppose there is one point for its addition, namely to pad out the running time to a more feature-length 94 minutes. The wraparound storyline with Dennis Quaid pitching more and more desperate movie ideas never serves up any good jokes. Its only significance is to setup an ironic counterpoint that gets predictable and old fast. Example: Quaid says, “It’s a movie with a lot of heart and tenderness,” and we cut to a couple that plans on pooping on each other. See? You can figure out its setup formula pretty quick. I don’t understand why the people behind Movie 43 thought the perfect solution to pad out their running time was a dumb wraparound. These sketches don’t need a frame story; the audience is not looking for a logical link. For that matter why is the guy also pitching commercials? I would have preferred that the frame story was completely dropped and I got to have two or three more sketches, thus perhaps bettering the film’s ultimate funny/unfunny tally.
There will be a modicum of appeal watching very famous people getting a chance to cut loose, play dirty, and do some very outrageous and un-Oscar related hijinks. The big name actors do everything they can to elevate the material, but too many sketches are one joke stretched too thin. I suppose there may be contingents of people that will go into hysterical fits just seeing Hugh Jackman with chin testicles (I think the Goblin King in The Hobbit beat him to it), just like there will always people who bust a gut when a child or an old person says something inappropriate for their age, or when someone gets kicked in the nuts (the normal ones). I just found the majority of Movie 43 to be lacking. It settles far too easily on shocking sight gags and vulgarity without a truly witty send-up. It wants to be offensive, it gleefully revels in topics it believes would offend the delicate sensibilities of an audience, but being offensive and being funny are not automatically synonymous. You have to put real work into comedy. Movie 43 isn’t it.
Nate’s Grade: C-
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