CONTAGION

September 10, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Fellow germophobes beware: the first few minutes of this movie will have you reaching for disinfectant and a surgical mask. Just remember – it’s only a movie. The scary part is that we have already experienced much of the terror that the film presents. We have seen first hand the effects of Swine Flu and Asian Bird Flu. We understand the fear of uncertainty and helplessness. It’s important to note that a virus is a living element capable of mutating and spreading … it looks for a way to get stronger and survive.

 The movie goes for the gut punch in the first few minutes. We see Gwyneth Paltrow returning home to hubby Matt Damon after an overseas business trip. We immediately know she is sick, but we aren’t sure of the source … though the film provides many source possibilities. Simultaneously we are shown numerous people with the Paltrow symptoms all over the world, and quickly understand that these are related and the “monster” is spreading quickly.

 Cut to Dr. Cheeve (Laurence Fishbourne) and his team at CDC. He partners with Dr. Orantes (Marion Cotillard) of the World Health Organization and Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet) from the Epidemic Intelligence Services. We are left to fill in the blanks on how these organizations work together to study and interpret the source and danger of an outbreak.

 The true heroes of science are those in the labs. Here we have Dr. Hextall (Jennifer Ehle, from The King’s Speech) and Dr. Sussman (Elliott Gould). We understand that these are highly talented people with the very specific skills needed to save the planet.

From a movie making perspective, the film is technically fine. The camera work and acting are all excellent. Director Steven Soderbergh is a superstar director and well-respected. Writer Scott Z Burns has quite an impressive resume. The cast is as deep and spectacular as any you will see this year. Then why am I in such a funk about this film? It disappoints me to say that the film plays like a disjointed mess. We get bits and pieces of numerous stories throughout, but never do we really connect with a single character. Matt Damon and Lawrence Fishbourne have the most screen time, but neither are accessible or give us any reason to believe we know them … only their desperation. Jude Law plays a super-blogger who teeters between exposing governmental conspiracies and his own insider trading for personal gain. There are subplots with Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle and Laurence Fishbourne that all could have been intriguing, but we get the glossy outline version, rather than an actual story.

 The film focuses not on the personal side of the outbreak, but rather the process of damage control, scientific research and lab work for a vaccine. But we only get scattered bits of any of this. Same with the political side. We see a “world” teleconference with the CDC and leaders from many countries, but never an explanation on why they are all looking to the U.S. for a miracle cure. It would have been fascinating to see how or if the experts from Japan, China, India and the U.S. work together in times of a global epidemic. Instead, we get thoughtful poses from Mr. Fishbourne. What a waste.

Despite the potential for greatness, this film is neither thrilling or dramatic or informative. Mostly I wondered how much time the endless stream of movie stars actually spent on set. It appears Mr. Soderbergh now enjoys hanging with an all-star cast more than really making a statement with a movie. Additionally, I found the quasi-Techno soundtrack to be distracting and annoying. There are numerous virus outbreak movies that are superior to this one.

Whether you see this movie or not … remember to wash your hands!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to play “spot the movie star” OR world epidemic movies are your guilty pleasure

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe a thriller should be thrilling OR you agree that an endless checklist of partial subplots can be annoying

watch the trailer:


THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU

March 6, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Philip K Dick was one of the more prolific sci-fi writers and his works include Blade Runner, Minority Report and Total Recall. He also wrote The Adjustment Team, the short story upon which this film is based. The premise is fascinating: the “bureau” is a team who influence/adjust the timing of simple events so as to lead mankind toward a predetermined future.

Matt Damon plays David Norris, the rising young star in New York politics … that is until a college prank is exposed and scandal ensues. On election night, prior to his concession speech, he meets Elise (Emily Blunt), the girl of his dreams.  It struck me how rare the occasion that one meet’s the girl of their dreams in a men’s restroom. Their charming banter and immediate connection lead Norris to make a heartfelt speech that thrusts him right back into the hearts of the voters.  Turns out this meeting was a planned adjustment.

 When David and Elise meet again, this time by chance on a bus, a mysterious force begins to reveal itself. David is exposed to The Adjustment Bureau and told to stay away from Elise, lest he ruin both his dreams and hers. Of course, this isn’t really a sci-fi thriller in the traditional sense. It’s much more a love story … a love story for two people who seem pre-destined to be together. And therein is the conflict.

The story is really a debate between fate and free will. Does destiny lead us down the path or do we make our own way? Can we have it all … the life we want, with the partner we want? The Chairman of the Bureau is clearly a reference to a God-like power, but his “angels” have powers limited to shortcut door portals, slight adjustments to thinking patterns, and looking good in hats.

 While writer/director George Nolfi creates an interesting-to-look-at cityscape and an usually smart romantic film, it actually falls a bit short on overall effectiveness when it devotes so much running time to the explanation of how the bureau works. I would have much preferred more debate and examples of how adjustments affect free will and maintain the path to destiny. Instead we get a crash course on the inner-workings of this odd team. That said, there aren’t very many better faces and voices than that of Terence Stamp, who plays The Hammer for the bureau. He is a fixer who uses less than forthright tactics in his moments of influencing David.

I am probably being a bit harsh on this one considering that it is quite a bit more clever than the average studio release, but I can’t help but believe it was capable of so much more.  And I so wish the clash of sci-fi and love story had not spun off on such a silly and cringe-worthy path.  It doesn’t ruin the good parts of the movie, but it certainly prevented the film from reaching its potential.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you long for that rare film genre – a Romantic Thriller

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for the cool shortcuts through NYC – sorry, but the whole hat and door knob thing doesn’t really work.


TRUE GRIT (2010)

December 17, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Just back from a Dallas screening of the Coen Brothers latest, and once again I am in awe of their filmmaking proficiency. For those concerned about a remake of the John Wayne classic, fear not! Joel and Ethan instead remain true to the Charles Portis novel. In fact, the Portis prose is what adds the uniqueness to this story of revenge.

One may assume that Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn would dominate the movie, but I suggest to you that relative newcomer Hailee Steinfeld (as Mattie Ross) more than holds her own, and in fact, often carries the story. We never once doubt her commitment to the cause … hunting down the man who shot her father. That man, Tom Chaney, is played in a most peculiar manner by Josh Brolin. Brolin’s dim-witted Chaney borders on a cartoon character, except he has a real mean streak.

There are so many wonderful touches in this film that I am not sure where to start. Obviously, the Portis dialogue jumps out immediately. Watching the grizzled, grungy cowpokes and this 14 year-old farm girl spout off such beautiful prose forces a smile to your face. It is an enjoyable challenge just to keep up with the banter between Cogburn, Mattie and LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who also happens to be hunting Chaney. There are also hilarious exchanges between Mattie and a local horse trader, and later Barry Pepper (as Ned Pepper) joins in with some top notch verbal sparring.

 DP Roger Deakins does his thing with the camera and landscape. We feel we are right there on the dusty trail or on a snowy ride. The wardrobe, guns and town all come across as totally authentic and add to the richness of the film. There are no hokey vista shots without purpose. Everything in the film has a reason and contributes to the cause of presenting a terrific western story of revenge and retribution. Watching the bond develop between the main characters is quite moving, and though I wasn’t ready for it to end, I found the ending quite satisfying.

The trailer for this film is one of my favorites of the year. Johnny Cash singing “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” is not in the film, but it certainly set the mood. So, no real surprise here, but another fantastic film from the Coen Brothers. You don’t have to be a lover of westerns to enjoy this one and, please, no worries about Jeff Bridges facing off against John Wayne. There is room for both!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can appreciate the blend of sparse landscape, gruff cowboys and beautifully written dialogue OR you just want to see Matt Damon uphold the Coen Brothers tradition of one atrocious haircut per film.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe no one can top John Wayne, by golly OR you prefer your westerns to be only dark and bleak in the vein of Unforgiven.


HEREAFTER (2010)

October 24, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. One of the advantages to not being dependent upon movie reviews for food and shelter is that there is no concern for a superstar holding a grudge against me and my opinions. Make no mistake, director Clint Eastwood is a Hollywood powerhouse and also one of the most consistently fine filmmakers working today. Still, no one bats a thousand … this is a miss, with barely a swing.

The film follows three basic stories. The first revolves around George Lonegan (Matt Damon), who seemingly has true psychic abilities. The problem is that George does not wish to have anything to do with his “powers”. The second involves twin brother, Marcus and Jason, who live with their druggie mom. Things change quickly when Jason is hit and killed by a truck and Marcus is taken away while his mom rehabs. The third story has Marie LeLay (Cecile De France) as an investigative reporter who gets caught in a tsunami while vacationing and has a “near death experience”.

I will not go into detail for any of the three stories other than to say Jay Mohr plays Damon’s money-grubbing brother who wants to take his talent to the big time; the sadness of the surviving twin is tough to take at times as he searches for a connection to his dead brother; and lastly, Marie’s near-death brings her closer to life than she ever was before.

What is most surprising, given the pedigree of Eastwood and writer Peter Morgan (The Queen, Last King of Scotland) is that this movie and each of these stories are, for lack of a better word, quite boring. We really get little insight into any of the characters – other than the overall sadness each shows regularly. The sub-story with the most interest involves a brief encounter with a secret research clinic sporting a Nobel Prize winner. The clinic evidently has much research and data on this topic.

As you have already guessed, these three stories intersect near the film’s end. This is a ploy that is all too common in Hollywood these days. I won’t give away how it all comes together, but it bordered on eye-rolling. The film does not depend upon the viewer’s beliefs or understanding, though I personally believe some people do have a heightened sense of awareness and connection. That’s not really what it’s about. It’s more about sadness, loneliness and the need for personal connection while alive.

As usual, Mr. Eastwood has put together a terrific score. And I will gladly admit that the first 7-10 minutes of the film, including the tsunami were captivating … and I loved the connection with Charles Dickens. That’s the best I can offer for the film, and here’s hoping Eastwood’s biopic on J Edgar Hoover brings significantly more interest and entertainment value.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you somehow enjoy watching sad, miserable people talk to other sad, miserable people OR you want to see a really cool CGI tsunami on screen.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you aren’t the president of the Clint Eastwood Fan Club OR you find connections between the present and afterlife to be full- baked baloney.


GREEN ZONE (2010)

March 13, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. The trailers and the involvement of director Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon gave me the initial impression this was to be little more than a “Bourne” rip-off. I am happy to report that’s not the case. This is a fantastic story that is a cross between an Iraqi War movie and political thriller.

Matt Damon plays an officer responsible for following the military intel for WMD locales in the early days of the invasion. He gets more frustrated and untrusting as each target comes up empty. When he questions the intel to his superiors, he is “politely” told to follow his orders. At the same time, he is approached by a grizzled CIA veteran played by Brendan Gleeson. The CIA happens to agree with Damon’s character … the intel is faulty and the belief is an ulterior motive is at play by the administration.

Of course, this is not a documentary. It is merely another step in the exploration of what the driving force was for invading Iraq in the first place. Were WMD’s a cover for the pursuit of Saadam? The script is based on a book, and leads us to believe the WMD intel was rigged because that was a great reason to present to our allies and citizens. The disconnect between the administration and the CIA appears evident. A smarmy Greg Kinnear plays an administration official who has much power … and a special forces team reporting directly to him.

The film highlights the blunders and poor decisions made early on in the invasion. Not really sure if they were blunders or if the mission was simply misguided. Either way, this makes for a great story and an intense one to follow. A real statement is made when one of the locals who has been assisting Damon, surprises him and states something along the lines of “You don’t get to decide the fate of my country”. That’s not the exact quote, but it is the key point the film is making.  We also get a replay of President Bush on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln proclaiming “Mission Accomplished”.  That gets more painful upon each viewing.

The bad news is that Paul Greengrass is at his shaky camera worst. The first 15 minutes of the film and the climax chase scene to, through and outside the safe house were so bad that I felt queasy. I love well placed hand-held camera work, but this was beyond extreme – it was quite simply over the top and distracts from what should have been a near-classic.