Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Contagion (2011)

Shocking, grotesque, claustrophobic, paranoid, terrifying. A must-see.


My eyes twitch. My throat tightens. I feel a cough coming on. I fight the impulse to rub, cough or blink. Is this the byproduct of my hypochondria, or the paranoia of the film I’m watching? Maybe both? All I know is that I dare not touch my face, my body or the package of M&M’s sitting on my lap. Disease is everywhere. The knob of a door, the rail in a bus, the armrest of a chair, the kitchen counter, the human hand, and don’t even get me started on airplanes.

This is a horror film like no other. I shudder as a man touches a handrail, a waitress hands a patron a cocktail glass, a mother feeds her child a cookie. These everyday actions become menacing, dangerous, deadly.

But that’s how it starts. “The average person touches their face three to five times every waking minute. In between that we're touching door knobs, water fountains, and each other.” These “fomites” (objects capable of transferring infection between individuals) are all potentially festering with viral plague, waiting to mutate and start an epidemic.


People contract fevers, have seizures and die. Within 48 hours, cases of the virus all over the world are reported. Panic runs rampant. The CDC and the World Health Organization scramble for answers, desperate to identify the virus and find a cure. But this takes time. Weeks pass and the dogged determination of medicine’s best minds can’t keep up with the rising death toll. One in twelve will die; the whole world is infected.

But against this epic backdrop of worldwide panic and devastation come several stories, stories of people we grow to love and loathe. The father (Matt Damon) desperately trying to keep his daughter safe, devastated by the loss of his wife and son. The CDC director (Laurence Fishburne) attempting to control the publicity, manage panic, find a cure, and protect his loved ones. The rogue blogger (Jude Law) intent on perpetuating frenzy and making a buck. The doctor (Jennifer Ehle) working tirelessly to find a cure. The field agent (Kate Winslet) risking infection daily to save lives. The WHO operative (Marion Cotillard) taken hostage by townspeople hoping to be the first to receive the vaccine.

Steven Soderbergh deftly handles his ensemble cast, drawing out significant emotion and character from each despite limited screen time. Ehle, Fishburne and Winslet stand out amongst a stellar cast, bringing the best performances of the film. Only Cotillard’s story seemed ancillary—there was little development and the ending was dissatisfying. The plot takes risks, killing off big name actors without thought. No character is safe and several plot twists added to the feeling of unstoppable terror.

The score is a pulsating mix of synthesizers. The constant pounding enhanced the feeling of panic and terror. The camera shakes and zooms, giving the claustrophobic feeling that you’re actually in the movie. These techniques are incredibly effective in ratcheting up the suspense.

Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t touch anyone. Stay away from other people. Contagion is not a fun film-going experience. It’s intensely disturbing and grotesque. This is a horrifying film, a frighteningly plausible look at what could happen if such events actually took place. The results are grim. Yet through the grimness there is hope. A cure can be found, relationships can thrive, forgiveness can be granted. The plot, cast and direction elevate this above the normal thriller. An effective and outstanding film.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Midnight in Paris (2011)

Enamors with glimpses of Paris past and present but otherwise falls flat. 

I’ve never been much of a Woody Allen fan. I enjoy watching him act—his personality and witticisms crack me up—but his films have never grabbed me. He’s a critical darling (Annie Hall for Best Picture? Really?), so the 92% on the “Tomatometer” shouldn’t have elevated my expectations as much as it did. But as one of the highest rated movies of the summer—and set in one of my favorite cities—I thought I’d give it a shot.

Gil (Owen Wilson) is looking for inspiration. He’s bored churning out screenplays and instead yearns to complete his first novel. He’s almost finished but it lacks…something. Seeking inspiration, Gil accompanies his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents to Paris. Immediately Gil is enamored by the city’s charm and fantasizes about a future there. Walking the streets at midnight, he is magically transported back to the Paris of the 1920s where he fraternizes with musical, artistic and literary luminaries such as Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. He also falls for the glamorous and mysterious Adriana (Marion Cotillard). His new friends give him perspective and insight into his novel, and Gil wonders if he might stay with them forever.

Owen Wilson ruined this movie for me. His attempt to channel the quirky and hilarious persona of Woody Allen fails miserably and instead he comes off as whiny and annoying. His nonstop talking grated my ears. He cannot carry a movie as the leading man and should stick to comedies and cameos. The supporting cast, however, boasts some outstanding performances. Marion Cotillard is cute and charming as Adriana, and Adrien Brody is spot-on as the surrealist Dali. In one hilarious scene, a confused Gil attempts to explain his midnight teleportations to Dali and his friends, but is frustrated when the artist is unperturbed and paints Gil as a rhinoceros, sad in spirit, lips melting off his face.

The story is shallow yet enchanting. The plot seemed unfocused and the moral tacked on: try and make the best of the time that you live in. But while the film falls short as a drama, it shines as a fun look at the historical City of Light. The scenery is beautiful and the mood of Paris’ streets and sights is captured so well on film, it is perhaps the best cinematic depiction I’ve seen. The glimpses of what the city must have been like in the ’20s were delightful, the energy electric and the glamour undeniable. The accordion score channeled Parisian but the constant repetition of the sole theme irritated. It’s a soundtrack I never wish to revisit.

There is little profanity and the sexual content is mild compared to Allen’s other films. Yet there are still some descriptions and discussions of sex, prostitution and homosexuality. An amoral attitude towards sex permeates the screenplay—Gil is encouraged in his romancing of Adriana in the 1920s, even while he continues his relationship with Inez in 2010.

Midnight in Paris could have been great. It was fanciful and sweet, perfectly capturing the allure of Paris, both present and past. But Owen Wilson’s ridiculous acting, the shallow plot, and the blasé attitude towards morals nearly cripple the film. It’s an average movie, neither good nor great. Enjoy it for the setting alone, or not at all.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Help (2011)

This is not a comedy. It is a serious but realistic look at the devastating effects of racism.

When I first saw the trailer for The Help, I had absolutely no desire to ever see the film. It was marketed as a comedy, a light and airy romp about a young girl’s quest to fight bigotry. It looked trite, schmaltzy and saccharine. But a friend convinced me I shouldn’t miss it so, still skeptical, I dragged family and friend to the theater. We all loved it.

The Help is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. Racism is prevalent and colored people are still treated almost as slaves. They live difficult lives and can find work only as maids, cooks and factory workers, for which they are paid almost nothing. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, disgusted by her friends’ ignorant prejudice, seeks to effect a change by writing a book told from the perspective of “the help.” Barely able to survive on their piddling incomes, the maids fear the repercussions of getting involved. But as racial unfairness burgeons, the help decides that it is time for people to hear their story.

This film is not a comedy. Sure, some comedic moments had me roaring, but it is definitely a drama—a serious, disheartening and sometimes disturbing film about the destructiveness of racial prejudice. Tears came more readily than laughs as I shared in the characters’ trials and heartaches. It’s moving and sentimental, and it deals head-on with bigotry, unfairness and physical abuse.

The film ran over two hours but never felt overlong. Flashbacks and back stories made the characters more real. In one especially heartbreaking scene, the maid Aibileen recalls the death of her son after brutal mistreatment by his white employer. The dialogue is mostly good, often great, but sometimes tacky. The film was occasionally cliché and “sweet,” but these moments were brief and sparse. The ending made no attempt to be happy; I was given the impression that the worst was yet to come.

Viola Davis gives an award-worthy performance as Aibileen, the film’s narrator and the first maid willing to come forward with her stories. Emma Stone does a fine job in the role of Skeeter but I felt the casting wasn’t a perfect fit. Bryce Dallas Howard portrays the hateful Hilly, a crusader with a shocking animosity towards blacks and their “strange diseases.” Octavia Spencer is hilariously sassy as Minny and provides great laughs while supporting an emotional subplot.

Bad language is sporadic but sticks out like a sore thumb. While some of it fits within the context of the story, especially in a highly comedic running gag about human waste, mostly it feels out of character and unnecessary. There are a few discussions of sexual activity. One bloody scene shows the aftermath of a miscarriage, but nothing graphic. There is some brutal violence which, while never shown, made me sick to my stomach.

The cinematography is bright and colorful, in stark juxtaposition to the dark undertones of
the film. The costume was authentic and the locations made me feel like I was in ‘60s Mississippi. Newman’s score was gorgeous, often light and sweet, driven by high notes of the piano. This was accompanied by an eclectic assortment of songs appropriate to the era. Cash’s Jackson appears in an early scene, a nod to the film’s setting.

The Help is my kind of film. It had an outstanding plot that delved into deep and serious themes, boasted an outstanding cast, had great character development and humor, and educated its audience about the horrors of racial intolerance. This film does an excellent job portraying one of the darkest times in American history, and I was disturbed to realize that all this happened so recently. The film is already generating much-deserved Oscar buzz. Put it at the top of your to-see list.