Contagion


Contagion

How is it that Marion Cotillard can still look so hot while trying to appear concerned?

(2011) Medical Drama (Warner Brothers) Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Elliott Gould, Bryan Cranston, Sanaa Lathan, Jennifer Ehle, John Hawkes, Anna Jacoby-Heron, Demitri Martin, Brian J. O’Connor, Chin Han. Directed by Steven Soderbergh

From time to time, the human population of this planet has been culled from everything from the Black Death to the Spanish Flu. It has been almost a century since our last plague; we’re about due for the next.

It takes just one person to start a plague. In this case, it’s Beth Emhoff (Paltrow). She has just returned home to Minneapolis after a trip to Hong Kong with a case of the flu. At first it’s just chalked up to jet lag, but she suddenly has a violent seizure and is rushed to the hospital. Within hours she is dead. On his way home from the hospital, her husband Mitch (Damon) is told his son is having a seizure. By the time he gets home, his son is already gone.

In the meantime, cases of the disease are sprouting up all over the place, from a bus in Tokyo to a small village in China to a home in Chicago. It seems that a pandemic is about to break out.

The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, personified by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne) are mobilizing their forces, sending Dr. Erin Mears (Winslet) to Minneapolis to co-ordinate with Minnesota health officials while the World Health Organization sends Dr. Leonora Orantes (Cotillard) to Hong Kong which is apparently ground zero. Both women soon find themselves in unexpected situations with potentially deadly consequences.

As more and more people get sick, things begin to break down. There is looting and riots as people demand answers and a cure. Doctors Ally Hextall (Ehle), David Eisenberg (Martin) and Ian Sussman (Gould) work feverishly to find the cure for this insidious disease which is so far resisting all known treatment. Meanwhile blogger Alan Krumwiede (Law) seeks to manipulate the crisis to his own advantage, fueling the panic that is already just below the surface. Mitch Emhoff is holed up in his home with his daughter Jory (Jacoby-Heron), watching supplies dwindle and terrified that he will lose his only surviving family member to the disease as her persistent boyfriend Andrew (O’Connor) repeatedly tries to get together with her physically. Will a cure be found before civilization completely collapses?

Soderbergh has shown a deft hand with ensemble casts in the Oceans trilogy but here he winds up with too many characters. Too many plotlines to really keep straight, so some his stars (not all of whom survive the movie by the way) are given extremely short shrift while other plotlines seem to go nowhere.

What he does do well is capture the realism of the situation. The movie was made with the co-operation of the CDC and while I’m not sure what, if any, of the film was actually filmed in CDC facilities, you get the sense that if they weren’t the filmmakers at least were granted access so they could find reasonable facsimiles.

You also get a sense that this is the way things would really go down, with lots of conflicting information going out, political in-fighting and finger-pointing as well as heroics by front line personnel who are trying to care for the sick and protect the healthy, not to mention a shady few who stand to profit by the misery of millions (I’m sure insurance companies will make out like bandits and the right will blame it all on Obamacare).

The stars deliver for the most part, particularly Damon who has to run through a gauntlet of emotions from disbelief to grief to anger to fear throughout the course of this movie. He rarely gets the kudos he deserves, but he’s a much better actor than he is often given credit for and for those who need proof of that, they need go no farther than his performance here.

Cotillard is given little to do but look concerned and beautiful and does both beautifully. Winslet does well in her role as a field representative of the CDC who is well and truly over her head to a crazy extent. Law is nefarious and snake-smooth as the blogger with ulterior motives.

The plot here follows standard medical thriller format; the difference here is that there is more emphasis placed on the procedures than on the patients. That’s a double-edged sword in that it gives us a unique viewpoint, but we rarely get to connect to the suffering of those affected by the disease in one way or another.

The scenes that show the rapid breakdown of society are the ones that held my attention the most. Sure, the scenes of scientific research had their fascination as well but I tend to swing my attention more towards the human than the technological or the bureaucratic. Unfortunately, there aren’t as many of those sorts of scenes as I would have liked so the movie scored fewer points than it might have, but still plenty to recommend it to most audiences.

REASONS TO GO: All-star cast and a good sense of realism. Fascinating look at the breakdown of society as social services become impossible.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many characters and not enough plot.

FAMILY VALUES: The content is rather disturbing and there are a few choice words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Damon, Paltrow and Law last worked in the same film together in 1999 for The Talented Mr. Ripley. Law has no scenes with either Damon or Paltrow this time, however.

HOME OR THEATER: You’ll want to see this at home; trust me, once you see this you won’t want to be within miles of another human being.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: I Don’t Know How She Does It

Quarantine


Quarantine

Jennifer Carpenter is just glad it's not Dexter who's stalking her.

(2008) Found Footage Horror (Screen Gems) Jennifer Carpenter, Jay Hernandez, Columbus Short, Greg Germann, Steve Harris, Dania Ramirez, Rade Sherbedgia, Jonathon Schaech. Directed by John Erick Dowdle

There is a certain horror of being trapped in an enclosed, locked space with flesh-eating lunatics. However, the possibility of becoming one yourself only heightens the terror.

Cub television reporter Angela Vidal (Carpenter) has a relatively soft assignment; to spend a shift with the night crew of a Los Angeles fire station. She flirts with the handsome paramedics Jake (Hernandez) and George (Schaech) and banters with her cameraman Scott (Harris). She goes with them on what appears to be a routine call; an elderly resident of an apartment complex has been injured and is acting erratically.

They go on the call only to find something extraordinary. The elderly resident is far from a helpless old lady; she attacks them with nails and teeth, seriously injuring one of the firefighters and killing a police officer. When they call for help, things get even weirder – the house is locked down by the CDC and anyone who tries to leave is shot, as in dead.

It turns out that there are more infected than just the old lady and soon the residents, including the landlord (Sherbedgia), a vet (White) and a badass (Short), are fighting for their lives and trying to find a way out – if there is one.

This is the remake of a Spanish film called [REC] and is similar to films like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield in that it is filmed with a single hand-held camera and purports to be “found footage,” raw footage of an actual event. The appeal of these to audiences is that they create a certain buzz and people are fascinated with the concept of footage of events that have been kept secret from them; the appeal to studios is that they’re incredibly cheap to produce and can be extremely profitable.

Dowdle, who did a similarly-themed film in The Poughkeepsie Journal, does a great job in making the tension high throughout the film, basically from the time they arrive at the apartment complex. The issue is that if you watch [REC] as I did you will see that the movie is virtually a shot by shot remake in most of the important aspects. Many of the best parts of Quarantine were lifted whole cloth from [REC]. I would have liked to have seen a little more creativity on that score.

Of course, it can be argued that this just shows the good taste of the filmmaker and I can’t argue that. I will also grant you that the changes that Dowdle did make were all improvements, without exception. The main problem with the film is that other than Schaech and Hernandez, the cast is pretty bland. Carpenter, who was excellent as the sister in “Dexter,” is miscast as the reporter. She doesn’t have the vanity or the look of a local television reporter; she is more tomboyish. The role requires her to become terrified to the point of panic and she’s never really convincing in that light. That may be a little bit of “Dexter” holdover; I will willingly cop to that.

Still, this is a nice example of a found footage horror film. It’s a little more slickly made than [REC] but to be honest, I liked the Spanish film better (the cast was far more convincing although the explanation in that film for the events bordered on the ridiculous) and would recommend that above this one; however it’s a given that it’s much more difficult to find so if all you can locate is this one, you won’t be disappointed.

WHY RENT THIS: Tension is nicely executed here. Horrific images are over-the-top and well done.   

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A nearly shot-for-shot remake of [REC]. Although Schaech and Hernandez make fine firefighters, the rest of the cast is mostly forgettable.

FAMILY VALUES: Extreme violence and gore, along with a good deal of profanity. There’s also an extremely tense and terrifying atmosphere that may be too intense for the impressionable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There is no musical score in the movie, highly unusual for a Hollywood film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $41.3M on a $12M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Treeless Mountain