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

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Take Me Home Tonight


Take Me Home Tonight

Topher Grace is disconcerted that Teresa Palmer has never heard of "That 70s Show."

(2011) Comedy (Rogue) Topher Grace, Teresa Palmer, Dan Fogler, Anna Faris, Chris Pratt, Michelle Trachtenberg, Lucy Punch, Michael Ian Black, Demitri Martin, Michael Biehn, Bob Odenkirk, Angie Everhart, Jay Jablonski, Edwin Hodge. Directed by Michael Dowse 

Honesty is the best policy; it has been said time and time again but few of us really regard it as true. Most of us will lie about how successful we are, how old we are, what we did during the day – even who we are – to impress someone else. In an age where lies are commonplace and Internet identities are meaningless, we sometimes forget we used to have to tell our lies face-to-face.

In a sense, Matt Franklin has been lying to himself. He is an MIT grad who doesn’t really want to be an engineer, but kinda does. He’s not sure. He’s really not sure about anything. So he lives at home with his policeman dad (Biehn) and housewife mom and twin sister Wendy (Faris) and works at Suncoast Video (are there any of those left?) in the local Mall. Oh, did I mention its 1988?

Into his mall walks Tori Frederking (Palmer), the high school crush he never had the guts to ask out because he never had an “in” and about whom he was just coincidentally talking about with his best friend Barry Nathan (Fogler), a Mercedes salesman who’s about to get fired, although he doesn’t really know it (but he kinda does). Matt nervously strikes up a conversation with his unrequited love, trying to act nonchalant but getting flustered when she mentions her successes – graduation (with honors) from Duke, a job at a high-end investment banking firm.

That’s why Matt blurts out that he’s working at Goldman Sachs, which is a bit weird because apparently they don’t have an L.A. office (which is really weird because of course they do – even in the 80s, all of the big financial firms had L.A. offices). She asks if he’s going to a party that evening, and even though he wasn’t planning to; it’s at the home of Kyle Masterson (Pratt), the smarmy preppy boyfriend of Wendy who doesn’t even know that she applied to Cambridge (which I suppose is supposed to be Oxford but who am I kidding?) or that she would move to England if she was accepted.  The letter detailing whether she got in or not sits unopened in her purse.

So yes, this is one of those “life changing party” movies that had their genesis in the ‘80s and there are plenty of nods here to the era from a decidedly John Hughes-like tone to the big hair to the cocaine use. As someone who lived in Los Angeles in the 80s, I can tell you that they did get the mall culture right, and if the movie is a bit smug in its nod to the wealthy – both of the parties depicted here are in the homes of rich people, even if Matt and Wendy live in the burbs as the children of a cop who put most of his retirement money into Matt’s education, only to see him take a job at the mall. Money well spent, eh dad?

There are a few laughs here although not nearly as many as in the similarly-themed Hot Tub Time Machine which was a much better movie than this one. Then again it’s something of a miracle we’re seeing this movie at all; it was actually filmed four years ago, but Universal, which then owned the distribution rights through their Rogue imprint didn’t feel confident about releasing it and it sat on the shelf until the Starz-owned Overture distributors bought Rogue. Overture was in turn purchased by new distributors Relativity who then added it to the release schedule.

Grace can be truly charming (as he showed in “That 70s Show”) but he looks a bit lost here. His character is so wishy-washy that it’s difficult to get behind him fully and it gets frustrating to watch him flounder, which he does for much of the movie. Fogler, who hasn’t always been impressive in his film roles, does actually manage some of his best work here – a scene where he is lured into a threesome (of sorts) in a Beverly Hills bathroom with a Cougar who turns out to be “Law & Order” hottie Angie Everhart (shockingly unrecognizable here) is one of the movie’s highlights.

Unfortunately much of the movie relies on unfunny gags and uninspired bits. The movie relies far too much on the ‘80s gimmick and poking fun at a decade which is too much like shooting fish in a barrel. I liked the Goldman Sachs reference until I realized that it was inserted in well before the financial meltdown that Goldman Sachs had such a hand in so the reference was kind of accidental.

This is one of those movies that has enough good moments so that it’s not an utter waste of time, but is frustrating because it does waste its potential. I liked the tone of the movie; it just could have used a few more laughs to keep the pace moving along.

REASONS TO GO: There are a few funny moments, particularly between Grace and Fogler. Palmer is awfully pretty and Faris has a role that is completely out of her comfort zone but she still nails it anyway.

REASONS TO STAY: Not enough laughs to sustain the movie. There is a little bit of heart and warmth and while the film nails the “look” of the era, doesn’t really capture its essence, preferring to focus on the excesses of the time.

FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of bad words, lots of drug use, plenty of sex and nudity but hey, it’s the 80s!

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: It took four years for the movie to see the light of day, mainly over studio reluctance to show all the drug use; during the down time the title changed from “Young Americans” to “Kids in America” to the present one, taken from an Eddie Money song that while played in the trailer never appears in the film.

HOME OR THEATER: Chances are this will be gone from theaters before you can get out to see it anyway, so I’d make this a rental.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Looking for Eric

The Rocker


The Rocker

Rainn Wilson forgot his earplugs.

(20th Century Fox) Rainn Wilson, Christina Appelgate, Josh Gad, Teddy Geiger, Jane Lynch, Emma Stone, Jason Sudeikis, Howard Hesseman, Jeff Garlin, Bradley Cooper, Will Arnett, Fred Armison. Directed by Peter Cattaneo

Dreams can carry us through our worst moments, but they can also be responsible for those worst moments, turning on us savagely and striking with the lethal efficiency of a cobra. That’s particularly true of rock and roll dreams.

Robert “Fish” Fishman (Wilson) had the ultimate rock and roll dream in his fingertips. His band, Vesuvius, was about to be signed by Matchbox Records midway through the ‘80s heyday of heavy metal, with all the AquaNet, headbands and spandex that implies. There was an unfortunate caveat to the deal, however – the nephew of a record company executive was to be inserted in the drum kit and Fish was left high and dry.

He never really recovered from it. Unable to maintain a relationship, barely able to retain a job for very long, he is reduced to living in his sister Lisa’s (Lynch) attic. Let us just say Lisa isn’t terribly sympathetic to her brother’s plight.

Her son Matt (Gad) is, however; he has a garage band with high school friends Curtis (Geiger) and Amelia (Stone) and they need a drummer for their gig at the high school prom. Fish is recruited and being a bit of a nitwit, resumes his role as a hard-drinking, rebellious rock and roller, arriving at the prom gig minutes before they’re to go onstage (“Headliners go on at 11,” he explains while Amelia replies laconically “It’s a prom; it’s over by 11”).

Fish is his own worst enemy, bringing the prom to a screeching halt with an ill-advised drum solo. He vows to make it up to his bandmates by getting them a real club gig which he does, in Indiana (the band lives in Cleveland) but neglects to ask his sister if he can borrow her van, ending up getting pulled over by the cops before they reach the state line.

A video of Fish practicing naked, however, surfaces on the Internet, leading to a buzz about “the Naked Drummer” which in turn gets the garage band (who is charmingly known as A.D.D.) noticed by none other than Matchbox Records, the same label as Vesuvius. A.D.D goes on the road, which after Fish gets them arrested for trashing a hotel room, includes Curtis’ mom Kim (Applegate) as chaperone. Is there a romance budding within the band? Will they finally get the rock stardom Fish has been waiting for two decades for? Will they blow Fish’s old band Vesuvius off the stage?

Cattaneo (The Full Monty) doesn’t seem to know whether he’s making a broad satire or a gentle sitcom-like comedy. At times, the humor is out there (as when an enraged Fish chases down his old bandmates in a moving van) and at times it’s somewhat pedantic. Even Wilson, who is best known for his work in “The Office,” doesn’t seem to know at all times who his character is.

It’s a shame because there certainly was a good movie to be had here. The music is surprisingly good, and Geiger, a real-life pop star who previously had some exposure on the short-lived NBC series “Love Monkey,” is an engaging presence who is given some pretty good material to sing. Stone, who recently gained some positive attention for her work in Easy A is sweet and acid at the same time in her role of Amelia, making her a cross between a schoolgirl and a confident rocker. Gad channels Jonah Hill somewhat, albeit on a lower key, is solid as a socially challenged overweight keyboardist.

The supporting cast is surprisingly strong, with Garlin as Fish’s hero-worshipping brother-in-law, Cooper, Armison and Arnette as his ex-bandmates in Vesuvius, Hesseman as a drug-addled bus driver and Sudeikis as a slimy record label exec. There are also cameos from Demitri Martin, Aziz Ansari and Jane Krakowski. In other words, there was plenty of talent in front of the camera.

Unfortunately the movie never really lives up to its potential, with the jokes being of the hit-or-miss variety. What The Rocker ends up being is an odd cross between This is Spinal Tap and School of Rock minus the biting satire and Jack Black (who in my estimation would have been a better choice of leads than Wilson). It is essentially harmless entertainment, which would seem to be the antithesis of what rock and roll is supposed to be.

WHY RENT THIS: Truthfully there is some heart here. The music and Teddy Geiger’s singing is faultless.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The filmmakers were a bit schizophrenic in what kind of movie they wanted to make. Much of the humor falls flat.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some male rear end nudity (not for the squeamish), a little bit of language and a few drug and sexual references, mostly pretty mild. In other words, probably safe for most teens and mature tweens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Former Beatle Pete Best, who’s story this is loosely based on, makes a cameo early on in the movie reading a Rolling Stone with Vesuvius on the cover; true to form, most of his work ended up on the cutting room floor.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: For a movie that did poorly at the box office, there are plenty of extras on the Born to Rock special editions of both the DVD and Blu-Ray variety. There is a VH-1 Behind the Music-style documentary on Vesuvius, a music video for “I’m Not Bitter,” two separate gag reels, a featurette on the cast and crew members talking about their favorite concerts, and a kind of a one-joke clip in which most of the cast members ask if they can be in “The Office.”

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8.8M on a $15M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Six Days of Darkness begins with Let Me In

Paper Heart


Paper Heart

Love means never having to say you're too freaking twee.

(Overture) Charlyne Yi, Michael Cera, Jake M. Johnson, Seth Rogen, Demetri Martin, Martin Starr, Bill Hase, Gill Summers. Directed by Nicholas Jasenovec

Love is elusive and difficult to pin down; it’s often difficult to tell if we are truly in it or just feeling surface infatuation and many times we don’t realize we’ve had it until we’ve lost it. It’s a confusing emotion that turns us upside down and inside out, and there are those who simply don’t want to deal with it at all.

Actress/Comedian/Performance Artist/Musician Charlyne Yi isn’t one of those. She is very skeptical about love; she’s never felt it and is fairly certain she never will. Still, she’s curious about it and wonders what all the fuss is about. She takes a camera crew out and interviews a variety of people both known and unknown on the subject.

That’s the movie in a nutshell but there are some things you need to know about the movie otherwise you’ll be hopelessly lost. First, while the interviews themselves are real, the film crew you see on-camera is not. While the director of Paper Heart is in fact Nicholas Jasenovec, the man you see onscreen is not – he’s actor Jake M. Johnson playing Nicholas Jasenovec.

Also, the romance between Yi and actor Michael Cera is also for the most part staged. The two were actually already a couple by the time filming commenced, although the relationship ended while the two were doing a publicity tour (seems kind of cold time to dump your girlfriend but there you have it).

The movie is punctuated by paper and pipe cleaner “animations” put together by Yi and her dad after the shooting had been completed. This is supposed to look artistic and trendy and cute and is in all honesty rather pointless; while something like pathos or warm fuzzies are supposed to be enticed from the audience all I felt was irritated.

The best part about the movie is the actual interviews. While they run the gamut from sincere to silly, they are at least authentic and some of them are quite insightful. There was no pretense in any of the responses and that was quite refreshing after the staged portions which got so twee and so self-consciously cute that I thought the studio should have handed out free insulin to everyone who bought a ticket to see this.

Now, I’m usually not one to pass judgment on the life choices of others, but I have to tell you that I found all the people in the “non-fiction” portions to be a little too condescendingly hip; I felt like I was being laughed at more than anything. Still, the interviews more than make up for the flaws of the rest of the film; if they had stuck to that documentary instead, they might have had a really good movie instead of just a mediocre one.

WHY RENT THIS: The “serious” documentary interviews with ordinary people are actually pretty good.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: OHMYGAWD by the end of the movie you want to kill these pretentious, overbearing, obnoxiously cute people.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words but otherwise this is fine for every audience.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bobcat Goldthwait and Bill Hader were also interviewed for the movie, but their sequences were left on the cutting room floor.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Jonah Hex