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It Comes at Night (2017)

Like an earlier harbinger of the potential pitfalls of mother! marketing as something it’s not, the vaguely apocalyptic drama It Comes at Night is a paranoid thriller that is so bleak and absent resolution that you’ll wonder why anyone bothered. It’s not a bad film, and actually writer/director Trey Edward Shults has a knowing command on how to raise and develop tension with very precise camerawork and visual composition. The slow inspection of offscreen noise is still ready to build tension. The story has promise. Joel Edgerton is the father of a family trying to eek out an existence after the spreading of a deadly plague. He has a strict series of guidelines to protect his family members and keep them secure. This is put into jeopardy when he meets another family and invites them into his home. The rest of the film follows the slow dismantling of trust and the rise in suspicion and how it ruins both families. That’s essentially the movie. There is no “it” of the It Comes at Night. The post-apocalyptic element is at best tertiary to the plot, and the titular warning seems odd considering sickness can arrive at all hours. I think the reason audiences seemed to froth wildly at the mouth over this movie is due to its grossly misleading marketing. I re-watched the trailer and all of the supernatural imagery, which is extensively highlighted, is from dream sequences, and one dream sequence within a dream sequence. There’s a moment where the grandfather’s dog runs off into the woods at barks at an unseen force. You hear strange sounds but you never see anything, and this becomes just another unresolved, underdeveloped element. This is more a Twilight Zone parable about the destructive nature of man. The look of the film is moody, the performances are good, but I felt underwhelmed by the end and questioned the point of it all. It Comes at Night is okay. I can’t see what people loved and I can’t see what people hated, though I can see more of the aversion.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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Contagion (2011)

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

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

I owe the makers behind Rise of the Planet of the Apes a huge apology. I have been vocally dismissive of a new Apes film from the first moments I heard about the project. I just thought rehashing this material was a stupid move. Then I heard James Franco (127 Hours) was going to be the lead, and I sighed. Then I saw the trailers and verbally impugned them in my theaters. Upon the conclusion of the trailer I yelled, “You can still shoot them!” and my criticism drew applause from those around me. The concept that we suddenly made apes smarter and they could now enter the Bronze Age, brandishing spears, didn’t overwhelm me. Just because the apes suddenly had tools didn’t seem like enough to topple mankind from the top of the evolutionary ladder. So in the months and weeks ahead I sneer, jeered, and overall dismissed Rise of the Planet of the Apes. And then the reviews came out and they weren’t just good, they were ecstatic. I went begrudgingly into the theater, waiting to hurl my own feces at the screen (figuratively, of course). Then I was completely taken aback by how much I unabashedly loved it.

Will Rodman (Franco) is a young scientists working hard at create a miracle cure for Alzheimer’s. His corporate company has been testing their drugs on chimps to mixed results. One day a promising ape, made smarter by a dose of ALZ 112, goes bananas and is put down by security. The lady ape left behind a baby ape that has taken on traits from the ALZ 112. Will takes the little chimp home to care for the “company property.” But then he ends up adopting the chimp, which his ailing father (John Lithgow) names Caesar. Due to the super drug, Caesar shows remarkable intelligence and looks to be getting even stronger. It looks like Will might have found his cure, and his boss (David Oyelowo) will make billions. But then complications ensue, as they always do, and Caesar is taken to an animal preserve facility run by a crooked father/son team (Brian Cox and Harry Potter’s Tom Felton). Caesar is mistreated and distraught to adjust to a life in pens. He makes plans to escape but then decides to rally his fellow imprisoned apes to a greater cause with the help of some of the ALZ 112.

Even through Franco is the headliner he’s really nothing more than a supporting character, a catalyst. The real star of the movie is undoubtedly Caesar the chimp. After about he 45-minute mark, Franco is reduced to making frowny faces while he scowls, trying to ascertain where his favorite monkey is. His dialogue is mostly reduced to different iterations of yelling Caesar’s name in different locations (the guy even manages to smirk in his sleep in one scene). But the major surprise is that Caesar is not only a compelling leading character but also a well-developed one at that. This is a living, breathing character brought to life thanks to top-notch computer wizardry and the talents of Andy Serkis, the leading authority for soulful motion-capture performances. Caesar may be the greatest single special effect of all time, not because of its life-like quality (it’s close, but again the creature’s features seem too waxy). But the reason Caesar is so impressive is because of the depth of emotion that can be read onscreen. This is a textured performance where you can read varying emotions through the looks of eyes, the twitching of facial muscles, the biting of lips. The emotions are genuinely recognizable; he flashes guilt, anger, frustration, heartache, disbelief, betrayal, fear, shame, just about everything in the book. From a DNA standpoint, chimps and humans share 96 percent of the same genes, so it’s understandable that we can relate to the plight of our distant relatives. Serkis is responsible for providing the groundwork for CGI creations like Gollum and King Kong, so he’s the world’s go-to guy when it comes to providing a framework for animators (Robert Zemeckis, why have you never called this guy?). It’s an amazing special effect accomplishment and works side-by-side with the storytelling to make Caesar a complicated, interesting, and deeply empathetic hero. He’s a terrific center for the movie and a figure that you root for, even with the tacit understanding that cheering on the apes’ escape is also tantamount to cheering the decline of the human race. But by God, during the apes-run-amok climactic sequences you are cheering for mankind’s downfall hardcore.

The Planet of the Apes saga (six films) is, let’s be honest here, rather abysmal. Everybody loves the first movie but the quality sharply drops from there, with four sequels in four years each managing to answer the depressing question, “Can this thing really get any worse?” The 2001 Tim Burton “re-imagining” was just embarrassing and filled with loopy logic (how can the apes take over Earth’s past when Marky Mark crashes on a DIFFERENT planet in the FUTURE?). Given that, the filmmakers behind Rise of the Planet of the Apes did not have to achieve much to separate themselves from the monkey-stank of the sci-fi franchise. The film serves as a prequel to the series but it’s easily the best film since the original. Easily. For one, the storytelling is not overwhelmed by the allegory of sci-fi packaging. The world is decidedly our own and the problems the characters grapple with are fairly relatable. Will may be responsible for the annihilation of the human race but his motivation is pure – he wants to save his ailing father. That’s a believable motivating force that would push the character to action over caution, testing his special serum without fully examining all the side effects. You know what they say about the road to Hell (my friend Eric Muller always suspected Franco would be linked to the end of civilization)? But in a Planet of the Apes movie there is a wealth of thoughtful human drama. Animal rights are one of the more obvious messages the movie deals with, but the film takes a character-driven approach following the animal himself. You care about these characters and when one CGI ape was cradling a dying CGI ape, I swear I was getting choked up over those computer pixels. That’s how emotionally involving this new Apes film can be. It’s refreshing to have a Hollywood action film that has more on its mind than blowing stuff up all good like.

But when the action shapes up, mostly during a stirring man vs. apes climax, the film easily delivers. The nimble screenplay by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (their first film since 1997’s Relic!) is a terrific example of economical big-budget pacing. Every scene moves the story forward and doesn’t waste a frame. The final running time is only 105 brisk minutes but it squeezes in so much entertainment and emotion. Director Rupert Wyatt keeps the thrills coming on a human-scale, never letting the enormity of the events getting too out of hand. Sure suddenly there are like 500 apes all of a sudden and all of them are super smart, but I can roll with that. The stakes are always clear and the action is easy to follow and easier to get swept up in. There are a few shout-outs to the original film’s iconic lines, which will either come across as fun or ham-handed. And thankfully a plausible scenario is put forth to explain why the humans would be overtaken by the apes. That’s not to say that everything is smartly woven into the narrative. Several of the side characters are but crude renderings. Frieda Pinto’s (Slumdog Millionaire) underdeveloped love interest could be completely taken out with minimal effect on the plot. Likewise the Evil Business Head seems to have nothing but speeches that remind you his sole interest is making lots of moolah.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a Hollywood movie with a soul. Finally late in the summer a major studio movie emerges that has the right balance of brains, brawn, and thrills. It’s an exciting action movie, a poignant drama from an animal’s point of view, a tour de force of special effects that manage to make the film more emotionally involving, and a sci-fi prequel that’s actually worthy of its name. Serkis’ gifts for physical performance are invaluable to the emotional core of the movie. By going back to its DNA, Rise of the Planet of the Apes has given new life to a franchise whose best days were 40 years ago. I don’t see where the series can go from here. A prequel to the prequel seems superfluous. A sequel would only really showcase the waning days of humanity and also seem superfluous. Then again, until the moment I was watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes I would have said this very movie was superfluous too. Instead this is the finest summer spectacle of the year and destined to make my top ten list for the year. If you can’t beat them, join them, damn dirty apes and all.

Nate’s Grade: A

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