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

My Sister’s Keeper


My Sister's Keeper

It's an awkward moment as Cameron Diaz asks Alec Baldwin about any openings on 30 Rock.

(New Line) Cameron Diaz, Abigail Breslin, Alec Baldwin, Jason Patric, Joan Cusack, Sofia Vassilieva, Evan Ellingson, Emily Deschanel, Thomas Dekker. Directed by Nick Cassavetes

As parents, part of our job is to protect our children. It is a given that we will do anything – absolutely, positively anything – to keep our child safe from harm. When we are helpless to do so – as in the case of a terrible disease for example – our fight takes on a different tone.

At first glance the Fitzgerald family seems nearly perfect. Dad Brian (Patric) is a fire chief, while mom Sara (Diaz) is a top-notch lawyer. They have three great kids; Kate (Vassilieva), Jesse (Ellingson) and Anna (Breslin).

“Nearly” can be a very important word, however. Kate is suffering from a particularly dreadful and aggressive strain of leukemia. As a matter of fact, most kids who have it don’t live past the age of five. However, Sara is willing to do anything to keep her daughter alive. That includes having another child, fertilized in vitro, to supply Kate with bone marrow, blood and other spare parts to keep her alive.

The plan works, although it’s far from perfect; Anna (the test tube baby) is subjected to frequent and often painful hospital procedures in order to procure whatever it is that Kate needs to continue to live. She’s a teenager now, and the disease has reared its ugly head again and this time it’s going to take more than a blood transfusion or bone marrow; Kate’s kidney has shut down and she needs a new one to survive.

Normally she’d go to the spare parts store that is her sister, but Anna has had enough. She realizes the consequences of having only one functioning kidney and it means the end to any sort of normal life that she might want to lead. She engages the services of a lawyer, the kind that advertises on bus benches and late night TV. His name is Campbell Alexander (Baldwin) and after some deliberation, decides to accept her suit for medical emancipation from her parents.

Sara is no slouch as a lawyer and prepares her own defense, but as the case drags on, Kate grows weaker and weaker and the case tears the family apart. Is Anna turning her back on her sister or is she just reaching for the only chance at a normal life she may ever have?

This is a movie that raises some interesting, fundamental questions and to its credit, gives the viewer much room for thought. The unfortunate part is that it wraps the compelling concepts in so many tearjerker clichés that after awhile what might have been a fresh take on a difficult subject seems very formula and rote.

There is some fine acting going on here. Breslin is in my opinion the best child actor in Hollywood at the moment, having dethroned Dakota Fanning who is in the teen actress realm now. She plays Anna as terribly conflicted but intensely driven. Her Anna is much more like her mother than her mother would care to admit, and rather than showing the common traits in the same way that Cameron Diaz shows them instead gives them her own take.

Baldwin, who is as hot as anyone in Hollywood at the moment, is also superb as the quirky lawyer who has a bit of a prima donna in him. He’s self-deprecating and the part is so solidly in Baldwin’s wheelhouse that you can’t imagine any other actor in the role.

Diaz is not normally someone I’d turn to for her acting chops, but she delivers here. She does chew the scenery a little bit but just a little bit. The mother is a bit of a shrew and more than a little of a control freak, but there is a fierce love for her child that is so consuming that it nearly blocks her other children out entirely. It’s not an unusual situation in families, and it’s played out here quite naturally.

There are some nice turns. The hospital romance between Kate and another cancer patient (Dekker) provides the movie with some of its sweetest moments, although the outcome is somewhat predictable. Joan Cusack plays the judge who has some empathy for Kate, but much more wisdom than the tunnel visionary mom.

There is also an unnecessary third child who I guess is in the movie to illustrate Sara’s complete focus on her one sick daughter at the expense of her other children. He is usually onscreen accompanied by melancholy folk music; it gets a bit distracting, to be honest.

Still, the movie is strong enough for me to recommend. I know that it is fashionable for critics to snipe about movies that manipulate emotionally, but I find that hypocritical; all movies are manipulative in one form or another; these tearjerkers are just upfront about it. If the manipulation is done well and brings me a bit of catharsis, I consider it a job well done and so I can recommend My Sister’s Keeper on that basis. If you are in need of a good cry, by all means your ship has arrived.

WHY RENT THIS: For those in need of a cathartic release, this is the movie to see. Breslin again shows she is the best child actor in Hollywood.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: At times, the movie sinks unnecessarily into maudlin cliché.

FAMILY VALUES: The topic is very mature and certainly will upset children who may not understand the dynamics of what’s going on; the frank depiction of the disease and its consequences will also be difficult for the sensitive. Parents should also be aware there are some scenes of teen drinking and sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Kate was originally offered to Dakota Fanning, with her sister Elle to be cast as Anna; however, Dakota reportedly balked at shaving her head for the role, so both sisters bowed out of the production.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Valkyrie

Extraordinary Measures


Extraordinary Measures

Harrison Ford is getting tired of Brendan Fraser's claims that Rick O'Connell was a better archaeologist than Indiana Jones.

(CBS Films) Brendan Fraser, Harrison Ford, Keri Russell, Courtney B. Vance, Meredith Droeger, Diego Velazquez, Jared Harris, Alan Ruck, Patrick Bauchau, David Clennon, Dee Wallace, Ayanna Berkshire, P.J. Byrne. Directed by Tom Vaughan

There are no limits to what a parent will do for their children. Once in awhile, there are situations that call for parents to demonstrate that, to risk everything for the sake of their children – particularly when everything is precisely what’s at stake.

John Crowley (Fraser) is a successful marketing executive at a pharmaceutical firm. He has reason to be in that particular business; his daughter Megan (Droeger) and son Patrick (Velazquez) suffer from Pompe disease, a genetic disorder in which the muscles are unable to break down sugars due to the lack of a critical enzyme. The disease is incurable and fatal. Megan has just celebrated her eighth birthday and is showing signs of entering the disease’s final stage. A respiratory failure nearly finishes her off, but she shows surprising fight. Most of the doctors involved in Megan’s treatment are advising Crowley to enjoy what little time he has left with his two sick kids.

He and his wife Aileen (Russell) are on the edge of despair but Crowley has found a lone researcher at the University of Nebraska, Dr. Robert Stonehill (Ford) who has formulated some radical solutions for a possible treatment. It is the closest thing to hope that Crowley has found, but repeated calls to the good doctor have gone unanswered. Taking the bull by the horns, the desperate father goes to Lincoln to meet with Stonehill, only to be stonewalled. Crowley chases him out of the university parking lot and finally corners him in a bar. Stonehill is gruff, but sympathetic. He is nowhere near producing a working drug, and the money it would take just to set up testing for the drug – half a million dollars to start – is prohibitive. Without batting an eyelash, Crowley tells Stonehill that he has started up a foundation that is in the process of initial fundraising and that he could raise the necessary cash. Stonehill gives him a month to do it, but is skeptical that Crowley will raise anything at all.

Instead, Stonehill and his wife roll up their sleeves and get to work. They run fundraising events and call friends, colleagues and parents of children with Pompe like Markus (Vance). They don’t quite make the goal, but they raise $91,000, enough to at least keep Stonehill involved. Instead of doing research at the University, which Stonehill believes doesn’t value his work, he decides to start a new biotech company with Crowley as his business partner. This will mean that Crowley will have to quit his job, which his boss (Ruck) pleads with him not to do; Crowley is on track to get a promotion and a significant upgrade in salary. Crowley however is not swayed; if there is even a shot of saving his kids he has to take it.

The new startup needs to raise some venture capital in order to get off the ground. They approach the Renzler Group in Chicago, headed by Dr. Renzler (Clennon), an old friend of Stonehill’s. The meeting goes disastrously however when Dr. Stonehill has a meltdown when he is questioned about the new start-ups plans to get the drug to market. Stonehill, a career academic and scientist, has never done this before, and the group is understandably nervous about the prospects of investing money in a company whose principals are woefully inexperienced.

In order to get Renzler on board, which Crowley knows is critical for the start-up company’s very existence; he has to give Renzler far more concessions than Stonehill is willing to give. He manages to broker an agreement with Dr. Renzler, but Stonehill is furious at the terms and wants no part of the deal. Crowley responds that he can continue his career of curing diseases in theory but not helping a single patient in reality. Mollified somewhat, Stonehill signs the agreement.

They set up a lab in the middle of Nowheresville, Nebraska and things aren’t going well. They are running through their funds at an alarming rate and their investors are demanding that clinical trials begin on Stonehill’s enzymes or they will pull the plug. Crowley is aware that there is a large biotech firm that has been working on a Pompe treatment as well; better funded and better equipped, they might well reach the market before Stonehill’s group with some sort of treatment. Aware that Stonehill’s theories and scientific genius are salable assets, he convinces Stonehill that in order for their small company to survive they will have to sell themselves to the larger company. Stonehill blows yet another gasket but once again gets on board with the program.

Crowley and Stonehill don’t fit in well initially. Stonehill hates being bogged down with protocols and procedures, while Crowley is constantly butting heads with Dr. Webber (Harris), an executive who is more of a bureaucrat. Time is ticking down on Crowley’s children and he is becoming desperate. Can they come up with a treatment in time to save the Crowley children?

This is the first release by the new film arm of the CBS Network, and some have snickered that it has a bit of a TV movie-of-the-week smell to it, but that’s not completely true. I thought there were a lot of positives to be sure.

This movie is based on a true story, albeit very loosely. While John Crowley and his children are real, Dr. Stonehill is not. He is an amalgam of several scientists, in particular Dr. Yuan-Tsong Chen at Duke University. In reality, Pompe kills most children before their second birthday; Megan and Patrick are eight and six, respectively, in the film,. In perhaps forgivable license, Megan is aged so that she may display spunk and wisdom beyond her years to evoke more symathy from the audience and to be sure Droeger does a credible job in the role.

Ford is an actor who knows his own limitations, but he is also conversely well aware of his strengths and this role is right in his wheelhouse. Stonehill is grumpy, cranky, narcissistic and just plain ornery. Ford imbues him with all the gruffness that he can give him, which is considerable. Nobody does gruff quite as well as Harrison Ford. And while critics have been picking on Brendan Fraser, I think he did a credible job as the desperate father. Sure, there were some maudlin moments but I think that was a function of the script more than a reflection of Fraser’s abilities as an actor (check out Gods and Monsters if you want to see him at his best). What’s criminal here is that Keri Russell, an actress who is wonderful whenever she is given something to work with, is once again shuffled off into the background without much to work with. As anyone who saw her in Waitress will tell you, she is absolutely capable of carrying a movie, so it’s a shame she is reduced to mainly playing a doting/grieving mom. There is a scene in which she and her husband are interrupted in the course of having a rare intimate moment by a nurse coming to their home for her shift; it was one of the few moments when you got a sense of the relationship between John and Aileen Crowley.

Where the movie excels is in its portrayal of the pitfalls, obstacles and long odds that face the development of an orphan drug, and the road it must take to make it into the pharmacies. I found some of the boardroom scenes more provocative than the medical ones, which is fine by me.

It also has to be said that the movie is a little soft on the pharmaceutical industry in general. It should be noted that the drug that was actually developed for Pompe patients, Myozyme, costs about $300,000 a year and must be taken for the entirety of the patient’s life. There have been instances in which American insurance companies have refused to pay for the treatment, which is a death sentence for the patient and yet another talking point on why health care reform is so badly needed in this country (for the record, most other developed countries provide Myozyme for those who need it).

There are some very powerful moments, particularly when the Crowleys are in despair. Once in awhile there is a touch of the maudlin in the brush but the canvas isn’t affected by the unwelcome addition as much as you might think. Still, the film might have benefitted from less dramatic license and more of the struggle not only to find the cure but in getting it funded. Less would have definitely been more in this case.

FOR MORE ON THE CROWLEYS FOLLOW THIS LINK: The Crowley Family Website

REASONS TO GO: An intriguing glimpse at how orphan drugs are brought to the market. Very powerful in places from an emotional standpoint.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally veers from emotionally powerful to maudlin. Russell, a fine actress in her own right, is given very little to do. Many liberties are taken with the facts of both the disease and the Crowleys’ story.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of foul language, but some children may find the frank treatment of the Crowley children’s condition a bit disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: P.J. Byrne, the actor playing the Crowley children’s physician, has a cousin who is actually treating the real-life Crowley children.

HOME OR THEATER: Nothing here screams big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Book of Eli