The Golem (2018)


The Golem gets a star turn.

(2018) Horror (Epic) Hani Furstenberg, Ishai Golan, Brynie Furstenberg, Lenny Ravitz, Alexey Tritenko, Adi Kvetner, Konstantin Anikienko, Olga Safronova. Directed by Doron Paz and Yoav Paz

 

The Golem is a mythological figure of Eastern European Jewish folklore that goes back at least as far as the middle ages. It may even have directly or indirectly influenced Mary Shelley in the creation of Frankenstein’s monster. It is a creature that is created to protect but often its definition of protection can stretch a little bit.

Hannah (H. Furstenberg) is a woman living in a Lithuanian Jewish settlement in the 17th century. She is married to Benjamin (Golan), an upstanding man in the community. The two are childless; well, not always – they did have a son named Josef but he had died seven years previously and Hannah wasn’t eager to have another one, surreptitiously taking contraceptives from the village healer (B. Furstenberg).

Hannah isn’t like most village women who essentially do the lion’s share of the work and submit to their husband’s wishes in all things. For one thing, Hannah wants to learn and she attends the rabbi’s lessons – hiding under the floor of the temple while the men were discussing the Torah (and occasionally the Kabballah) and reading her husband’s sacred texts by night.

The village regards her with suspicion and scorn but they have bigger fish to fry. The gentile village nearest them has been stricken with the plague; because the Jews have learned to essentially be self-sufficient and have little contact with anyone else, they have been spared. Naturally, the Christians believe the Jews responsible for the plague. One of them, an anti-Semitic named Vladimir (Tritenko) has been driven to near-madness as his darling daughter has been afflicted and is on the verge of death. He brings the girl to their village along with some of his like-minded cohorts and threatens the villagers and the healer – cure the girl or die.

Some of the Christians don’t wait for an outcome, embarking on a spree of rape and murder. The unarmed Jews determine to wait out the ordeal, hoping that God will save them. Hannah doesn’t believe as they do – she wants direct intervention and so using the forbidden knowledge she obtained from the Kabballah she brings to life a Golem – a being made out of clay, blood and a scrap of paper with the secret name of God.

Rather than a hulking giant, the Golem (Anikienko) turns out to be a young boy about the age Josef would have been had he lived. However, the Golem is as deadly despite his innocent appearance, ripping victims limb from limb, tearing out their still-beating hearts and literally making their heads explode psychically. The Golem and Hannah develop a mother-son relationship and when the villagers discover what Hannah has done, they urge her to destroy it but how can a mother destroy her own son? When the Golem begins to destroy other villagers, Hannah is faced with a horrible choice.

This Israeli horror film was shot mostly in the Ukraine as well as in Israel with a multinational cast most of whom are not well-known in the States. The cast actually does a solid job with few exceptions. Furstenberg brings the headstrong and individualistic Hannah to life making her a sympathetic but flawed lead. Golan is a ruggedly handsome but somewhat dithering husband and as the monster, Anikienko with coal black irises in dead eyes is creepy as all get out.

The atmosphere is somewhat Gothic without the obvious Gothic trappings of most horror films, which merits kudos. Yes, there is a good deal of gore, enough to sate even the most bloodthirsty of horror fans but the pace might not be to their liking – the film develops at a very leisurely pace and allows the horror to build to a rip-roaring third act.

This is a very solid, very atmospheric horror film which has essentially flown under the radar. Now widely available on VOD, this is one you should check out if you’re one of those horror fans who doesn’t mind going out of the box once in a while. As an extra added bonus, the movie was shot in English so there are no pesky subtitles you have to read. Fans of Jewish mysticism might also get a kick out of this as well.

REASONS TO GO: The cast is rock solid for the most part. The filmmakers achieve a Gothic tone without resorting to Gothic clichés.
REASONS TO STAY: The pace may be too slow for modern American horror fans.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content as well as a goodly amount of violence and bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Brynie Furstenberg, who plays Hannah’s mentor, is her mom in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/6/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Dybbuk
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Song of Parkland

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Inferno (2016)


Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones at least got their exercise regimens in.

Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones at least got their exercise regimens in.

(2016) Thriller (Columbia) Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Omar Sy, Irrfan Khan, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Ben Foster, Ana Ularu, Ida Darvish, Paolo Antonio Simioni, Fausto Maria Sciarappa, Alessandro Grimaldi, Robin Mugnaini, Paul Ritter, Vincenzo Tanassi, Alessandro Fabrizi, Simone Mariani, Gabor Urmai, Jon Donahue, Fortunato Cerlino, Attila Arpa, Kata Sorbo. Directed by Ron Howard

 

I don’t know if it’s fair to characterize the novels of Dan Brown as an acquired taste. After all, he’s sold millions of copies of his Robert Langdon novels starting with The DaVinci Code. His plots tend to be complicated and sometimes overly so. Still, they can be an entertaining read. Now, his fourth novel in the series has become the third filmed version of the franchise

Professor Robert Langdon (Hanks), one of the world’s leading minds, wakes up in an Italian hospital with no memory of how he got there. Dr. Sienna Brooks (Jones) is trying to establish how he was shot; there is a head wound where a bullet apparently grazed his skull which might account for his amnesia. Just then a remorseless assassin (Ularu) comes for him, forcing the professor and doctor to flee.

In fact, it turns out a lot of people are after Langdon. The World Health Organization, with Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey (Knudsen) and .investigator Christoph Bouchard (Sy) are chasing Langdon with an unknown agenda. The Italian police are after him after surveillance footage reveals that he stole the death mask of Dante Alighieri  whose Inferno holds clues to a mad billionaire’s (Foster) plan to “cull the human herd” by releasing a plague that will kill half the world’s population and immediately ease overpopulation concerns. A bit of a drastic cure, that.

In any case as Langdon’s memories begin to slowly return, he finds he is in a race against time to find the killer virus and stop this mass murder on a demonic scale. In order to do that he has to follow a chain of clues left behind by the billionaire who killed himself rather than reveal the location of the virus’s delivery system to the WHO. Who can Langdon trust? As it turns out, not the people he thinks.

I have to admit I found the first film in the series, The DaVinci Code, to be genuinely entertaining – the follow-up, Angels and Demons, less so but still acceptable. The third in the series is by far the least entertaining so far; the preposterous nature of the plot has become far too glaring to ignore and the payoff not enough to be worth the ride. Hanks looks a bit tired here; I suspect he’s given Langdon about all he can give him as an actor. There were rumors that both Howard and Hanks were leaving the series after Angels and Demons but apparently they were prevailed upon to do the third film after pre-production on a proposed film version of the third book in the series, The Lost Symbol, stalled.

Again, Howard utilizes an international cast that is largely better known in Europe than in the United States with the exception of the Oscar-nominated Jones who shines here, reinforcing my opinion that she is one of the best young actresses out there who is likely to be one of the most honored actresses of her generation when all is said and done. Khan, who plays the nefarious head of a shadowy security agency, also has some meat on the bones of his character that he can work with but his part is all too brief alas.

Seeing the sights of Florence, Cambridge and Istanbul (among other places) is pleasing, particularly to me personally as I was in Florence just this past May and can attest to the beauty of the city having seen the Ponte Vecchio and the Uffizi with my own eyes. It certainly ignited the tourist in my soul to see some of the sights that the movie highlights. If you have that tourist gene inside you, you’ll likely be pleased by this as much as I was, but it’s not really enough to recommend a movie just for the setting. It’s rough when every ten minutes or so you’re rolling your eyes at yet another plot turn that defies logic. Even Dan Brown’s most loyal fans will be shaking their heads at this one.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of lovely tourist opportunities for places like Florence and Istanbul.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is absolutely preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES:  Action and violence in plenty here, as well as a few disturbing images, brief sexuality, some disturbing thematic elements and brief foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first Robert Langdon film not to be written by Akiva Goldsman.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Outbreak
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Be My Cat: A Film for Anne

The 5th Wave


You can run but you can't hide from the critics.

You can run but you can’t hide from the critics.

(2016) Science Fiction (Columbia) Chloë Grace Moretz, Zackary Arthur, Alex Roe, Nick Robinson, Liev Schreiber, Maria Bello, Ron Livingston, Maggie Siff, Maika Monroe, Tony Revolori, Nadji Jeter, Flynn McHugh, Cade Canon Ball,  Alex MacNicoll, Michael Beasley, Justin Smith, Geoffrey Kennedy, Adora Dei, Parker Wierling, Terry Serpico, Charmin Lee, Gabriela Lopez, Bailey Ann Borders . Directed by J Blakeson

Sometimes you wonder why a film gets made. You look at the various reasons; a hit comic book franchise, a remake of a beloved classic, a box office star is attached, an Oscar-winning director is attached. Or maybe it’s part of a young adult fantasy series.

Once upon a time, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Harry Potter series, after all, smashed box office records but not only that, was well-written, meticulously crafted and the films that were made of the books were gorgeous and entertaining for audiences both young and old. But then came Twilight and it was basically a Harlequin romance aimed at tweens and their moms, and frankly wasn’t nearly as well-written as they were.

After that, a series of attempts to cash in on those two enormously popular franchises came with varying degrees of results, mostly bad. The formula that seemed to work best involved the Twilight tropes; a plucky young heroine, check. Forces supernatural or extraterrestrial arrayed against her, check. Foxy young hottie from home she has a mad crush on, check. Mysterious young hunk takes a hand in her life as protector and/or mentor, check. The heroine develops feelings for both young studs, check. Young tweens and teens and their moms take sides as to who would be the best man for the plucky young heroine, check.

Essentially, this is an alien invasion movie for tween girls, which isn’t of itself a bad thing, but the movie is so completely derivative of much better movies (and a few that are genuinely awful) that it’s impossible to really take it seriously. I haven’t read the Ben Yancey book (the first of a trilogy) that the film is based on, but I certainly hope that it is less hokey, less full of incredible lapses of logic, as this one is.

The premise is that young Cassie (Moretz), a resident of Dayton, Ohio, witnesses the arrival of a gigantic alien spacecraft. An electromagnetic pulse is sent out, rendering all electric devices inert. That was the first wave. The second wave was a series of natural disasters – earthquakes and tidal waves – that destroyed the coastal cities. The third wave was a biological plague that took out a number of the survivors, including Cassie’s mom (Siff). The fourth wave is the infiltration of the parasitical aliens on human hosts, putting the aliens among us in forms indistinguishable from our own. The fifth wave…well, that’s something you’ll find out if you watch this turkey.

Actually, the premise isn’t a bad one and the special effects are pretty nifty. Moretz is a fine actress and to her credit she puts in a solid performance in a role that essentially requires her to feel sorry for herself a third of the time, be paranoid a third of the time, and be mulishly determined to find her little brother (Arthur) who got separated from her at about the time their father (Livingston) is taken from them.

I don’t have a problem of cobbling elements from other stories and films together to make something new, but what’s here is so much like other films in the young adult genre that there seems to have been little creativity put in to making this something different or special; instead the focus seems to be on hitting all the notes that will supposedly bring tweens and their moms into the theaters in numbers that have made the Hunger Games, Twilight and Divergent series successful. That this hasn’t happened may be a sign that that audience which has been of late rather notoriously undiscerning about the movies they’ve chosen to throw their obsession to, may be a welcome sign that this demographic is starting to require a little more thought to bring them into the theaters.

REASONS TO GO: Moretz gives a game effort.
REASONS TO STAY: Derivative and hokey. Predictable young adult sci-fi pabulum. Gigantic holes in logic and reason.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence and sci-fi destruction, along with some adult themes and a brief scene of teen partying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Reznik was male in the book; she is played by a nearly unrecognizable Maria Bello here.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/5/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 33/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle: Los Angeles
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Children of Men


Clive Owen isn't a swinger anymore.

Clive Owen isn’t a swinger anymore.

(2006) Science Fiction (Universal) Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Danny Huston, Charlie Hunnam, Maria McErlane, Michael Haughey, Paul Sharma, Philippa Urquhart, Tehmina Sunny, Michael Klesic, Martina Messing, Peter Mullan, Pam Ferris, Clare-Hope Ashitey, Gary Hoptrough, Maurice Lee, Dhafer L’Abidine, Bruno Ouvard, Denise Mack, Jacek Koman, Joy Richardson. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

]If the world is indeed going to hell in a handbasket, it follows that it will end with a whimper rather than a bang. Worse than everything ending in a moment is the thought that humanity will die a slow, lingering death.

In 2027, that seems to be the case. It has been 19 years since a human baby has been born and the world teeters on the edge of anarchy and chaos. Only England has a functioning government and it is barely holding on with its fingernails, resorting to a brutal totalitarian government that has banned any immigrants from entering the country, a chilling thought that resonates even more in 2015 than it did when this was made.

Theo (Owen) works at the Ministry of Energy in a London that is beset by terrorist attacks and open revolt. Immigrants are captured by draconian police, put in cages and forcibly deported. Plagues and famine have made things even worse. One morning he barely escapes a bombing in a cafe that shakes him to the core. He is then kidnapped by the Fishes, a radical Immigrant’s rights group that is led by Julian (Moore), Theo’s ex-wife from whom he separated when their child died 20 years previously.

She offers him a large sum of money to use his connections to get transit papers for Kee (Ashitey), a refugee. He obtains these from his cousin Nigel (Huston) but the papers require someone to accompany her, so Theo is paid to do this. Accompanied by Kee, Julian and her right hand man Luke (Ejiofor), they head for the coast but are attacked. In the chaos, Theo gets Kee to the home of his old friend Jasper (Caine), a former political cartoonist living out his days in isolation, caring for his wife who was left catatonic by government torture.

Pursued by both terrorist forces and the government, Theo and Kee must make their way to the coast and meet a ship from a group of scientists calling themselves the Human Project who would take Kee to safety. Getting there, they must run a gauntlet of hatred as armed conflict breaks out between the government and the refugees with Kee and Theo both caught in the crossfire. Kee however carries a secret that may mean the revival of hope, something that has been thought completely lost.

While the movie was an unabashed critical success (many ranking it on their ten best lists that year), it only received three Oscar nominations mainly for the technical end. That’s a shame, because Owen gave what is to date the best performance of his career. Far from being a typical action hero, he careens from situation to situation, often frightened by what was happening to him, trying to survive by his wits in a situation that was rapidly disintegrating. It is to be noted that while bullets fly in the movie, Owen never even touches a gun.

Moore, a perennial contender for Oscar gold, showed why she continually is in the mix for Best Actress or Supporting Actress. Julian is a strong leader with an iron will, not above manipulating someone she once cared about for the greater good of her cause. Still, the movie does reveal a softer side to the character and Moore plays both well. Caine gets a meaty role as a hippie-like character who smokes a lot of strawberry-flavored pot and has removed himself from society, yet brims with wisdom. It’s as charming a role as Caine has ever played and he’s played some good ones.

The tone here is almost uniformly grim, although the movie really is about hope. Its absence is what plunged the world into chaos; the merest glimmer that it might reappear leads people to sacrifice everything. The ending is open-ended and leaves the viewers to decide whether the ending is bleak or the opposite; I suppose that how you interpret it will largely depend on whether your outlook tends towards optimism or pessimism.

The production design is one of decay, crumbling buildings and streets of fear. There isn’t a lot of gleaming, futuristic set design here; this is a world that is falling apart and the sets show it. The fact that it looks real and familiar is a testament to the production design team and Cuaron. Also, some of the action sequences here are absolutely scintillating, particular the attack on the car alluded to earlier and a final battle between the government and the rebels. They are realistic and for the most part shot with a single camera, lending even more of a “you are there” feel to the film, which many have described as a documentary of things that have yet to happen. There is definitely that kind of feel here.

This is not a masterpiece in my opinion; the mood can get oppressive and considering the state of the world, it can truly make you question whether humanity is worth saving. But questions like that are important to ask, even if we all agree the answer is “yes” (which most of us, I would hope, do). This is a truly impressive movie that may not necessarily be the sort of thing you’ll want to watch as light entertainment, but it’s one that will give you pause. Movies like this are what make science fiction a compelling genre, particularly when it rises above space battles and monsters. Here, the only monster is ourselves.

WHY RENT THIS: Smart and chilling. Fine performances by Owen, Moore and Caine. Extraordinary action sequences.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too dark and dystopian for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, brief nudity, some drug use and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: P.D. James, author of the book the movie is based on, makes a cameo as the old woman in the cafe with Theo in the opening scene.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an interview with Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek on the questions raised by the movie, some of which also appears in the featurette The Possibility of Hope which examines how the current global situation (circa 2007) was leading to the future of Children of Men.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $70.0M on a $76M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Chaperone

Stake Land


Some sizzle for this stake.

Some sizzle for this stake.

(2010) Horror (IFC) Connor Paolo, Nick Damici, Danielle Harris, Kelly McGillis, Marianne Hagan, Stuart Radin, Adam Scarimbolo, Michael Cerveris, Sean Nelson, Larry Fessenden, Chance Kelly, Jean Brassard, Phyllis Bash, Bonnie Dennison, Ellis Cahill, James Godwin, Heather Robb, Vonia Arslanian, Gregory Jones, Traci Hovel. Directed by Jim Mickle

One of the things about a good movie is that it will often take things that work in one genre and transfer it into another and create if not necessarily a hybrid, then at least a new take on an old form. Movies like that can occasional inspire entire new genres but more often than not end up as being inspired entries in an old one.

Stake Land takes elements of post-apocalyptic Westerns and zombie apocalypse films and fuses them into the vampire film, adding a big dollop of Cormac McCarthy to the mix. Here young and somewhat naive teen Martin (Paolo) whose name is a tip o’ the hat to George A. Romero’s sole vampire film to date is taken under the wing a vampire killer known only as Mister (Damici, who co-wrote the film with Mickle). You see, a plague that turns people into mindless ravening vampires who are as much zombie as vampire has ravaged the United States. There are a few safety zones but mostly those who can move around are headed for Canada for a community called New Eden which is, as rumor has it, vampire-free. Stories like that can lend hope to the hopeless as the Resident Evil films have shown.

The humans that remain aren’t always any better than the hordes of vampires. Hardcore cults that seem to be somewhat like conservative Christian metaphors seem eager to help the apocalypse along in hopes of scoring brownie points with God, dropping planeloads of the undead into towns in maybe the ultimate terrorism dick move.

 

As Mister teaches Martin how to survive in this world which is often harsh and cruel, they pick up a few strays including a pregnant teen (Harris) that Martin takes a shine to, an ex-Marine (Nelson) and a nun (McGillis). In a movie with an attitude like this one, don’t expect a happy ending although you can be sure it won’t be so bleak that you want to take the disc and smash it against the wall.

Mickle is an adept filmmaker who takes his visual cues from Terrance Malick. This is as good-looking a horror film cinematically speaking as you’re likely to ever see. Filmed in real life industrial wastelands that are essentially abandoned and empty, the look of the film is authentic, of a society that is dying slowly but inevitably and those who remain are desperate to escape, so much so that they’re willing to take rumor to heart.

The cast is largely unknown although some might remember McGillis from some pretty decent films in the 80s including Top Gun, Witness and The Accused, Nelson from Fresh and Harris from Rob Zombie’s Halloween reboots. The acting is essentially solid and the effects mainly practical. In some ways you’ll be reminded of The Walking Dead although that TV series isn’t as dark if you can believe that.

While the movie is for the most part familiar, with elements taken from things as disparate as the Mad Max movies and Near Dark to the aforementioned Walking Dead and McCarthy’s The Road, there is enough here that works to make it worth seeking out, particularly if you’re into post-apocalyptic horror. Hidden gems like this are why guys like me start blogs like this.

WHY RENT THIS: Atmospheric with an appealing post-Apocalyptic aesthetic that trades zombies for vampires.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Nothing particularly innovative here; feels like a bunch of things were cobbled from a bunch of films albeit a bunch of good films.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violent bloodsucking gore and goodness as well as a cornucopia of foul language and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming a fire scene on a studio set, the flames got out of control and burned not only the set down but the studio stage as well. While nobody was hurt and production resumed the next day, equipment was flown in from all over the world to replace that which was lost in the fire.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are production video diaries which also include a Q&A from the Toronto Film Festival screening of the film, as well as a feature called Prequels in which seven actors from the film give some brief insights into their lives just before shooting on the production started.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33,245 on a $625,000 production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Stream/DVD rental/Blu-Ray Rental), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Daybreakers
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Penguins of Madagascar

I Am Legend


I Am Legend

Will Smith is tired of taking career advice from zombies.

(2007) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Will Smith, Alice Braga, Salli Richardson, Willow Smith, Charlie Tahan, Darrell Foster, April Grace, Dash Mihok, Joanna Numata, Samuel Glen, James McCauley, Marin Ireland, Pedro Mojica, Caitlin McHugh. Directed by Francis Lawrence

 

How does the world end? With a mighty cataclysmic event, a catastrophe natural or man-made such as an asteroid, a nuclear holocaust? Or will it be with the sounds of illness, a disease that wipes us out and leaves the planet to reclaim its cities until every trace we ever existed is gone?

Robert Neville (Smith) lives in Manhattan. He’s a scientist – or was. You see, Manhattan isn’t exactly the center of the world anymore. It’s deserted, inhabited by beasts escaped from the Central Park Zoo, Neville and his German Shepherd Sam.

The population of the world has been wiped out. They were trying to cure cancer and instead unleashed a virus that turned most of the population into mindless, hairless albinos with fangs and an insatiable hunger for human flesh. His home is like a fortress with a portable generator, steel doors on the windows and bright lamps that keep the zombies away (like vampires, they are allergic to sunlight that burns them into ashes when exposed).

He also has a lab in his basement complete with captured zombies to experiment on, trying to create an anti-virus that might cure the virus that came from the cure to…oh it makes my head spin. However one wonders if he’s the last man on earth and he’s already immune what he needs a cure for.

Into his life comes Anna (Braga) and young Ethan (Tahan), two survivors drawn to him by his regular radio broadcasts. At first he is happy to see any human beings at all but soon his situation is complicated, particularly since he’s getting close to a cure – but so too are the zombies getting close to finding a way into his fortress.

This is based on the classic Richard Matheson novel of the same name which has also spawned two other movie versions – The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price in the 50s and The Omega Man with Charlton Heston in the 70s. In both cases the plague victims turned into vampire-like creatures which is what the book had originally (in the book Neville armed himself with garlic cloves and Holy Water and did battle with crosses and stakes), but I think the fast-moving hairless zombies are a bit of an improvement.

Some critics have given the movie lumps for the zombies which are a mixture of CGI and make-up effects. In all honesty I have to disagree; the monsters are scary enough to give me the shudders even though I’ve seen the movie several times.

If you ever doubted that Will Smith is one of the most charismatic movie stars of our generation, look no further than here. Even in a dark, serious role he is still immensely likable and commands your attention. The flashback scenes with his wife (Richardson) and daughter (Willow Smith, his real life daughter) are extremely affecting. This is really his show; it’s just him and the dog for a large amount of the film and so a bankable star is absolutely crucial to making this movie work. That it does is all about The Fresh Prince.

It’s not just him of course; the special effects are pretty cool and the scenes in which Manhattan is evacuated is about as spectacular as it gets. Those scenes work so much better on the big theater screen but hopefully you can see it on something a bit larger than your iPhone.

There are some pretty serious lapses in logic here. For example, they clearly show the bridges and entrances to Manhattan being blown up but yet Anna and Ethan somehow make their way there. A single line of dialogue – “one of the tunnels was still open” could have resolved it, or “We found a boat that was still floating” but just having them appear is an insult to the intelligence of the audience.

I wasn’t overly fond of the ending which was somewhat more hopeful than the book was but making a great ending for a movie seems to be a lost art these days. Truly I dislike happy endings for their own sake; some movies really demand something bleaker and this one is one of those. On the extended cuts of the film, there is an alternate ending that is I think better than the one they used but it still could have used some work.

The movie is pretty solid and doesn’t really pull off the novel as well as it could have. Those who don’t find Will Smith their cup of tea should be advised that you are going to get an excess of him onscreen, although not in his wisecracking Fresh Prince persona which he’s used in a lot of movies over the years. For those who are his fans, this is a must-see. For those who like sci-fi spectaculars, this is also something that should be on your radar. For those who loved the Matheson book…well, it’s closer than the other two movies but still not nearly as effective. Everyone else, check it out if you think it might appeal to you but it’s probably not worth going out of your way to find.

WHY RENT THIS: Much more intense than the previous versions of the film. Stark and well-made, the sight of New York being reclaimed by nature is pretty sweet. Smith is as always an engaging hero.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending is unsatisfying, there are some incredible gaps in logic and the first part of the movie drags.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is violence and the action can be intense; the plague victims are pretty scary.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In various parts of the film, billboards and DVD packages for proposed Warner Brothers/DC Comics films can be seen, most of which never got made (at least to date).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The 2-Disc DVD Special Edition includes an extended version of the film (along with the theatrical release version), four animated comics and DVD-ROM material including a 21-minute long featurette on real-life deadly diseases. There is a 3-Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition which takes the DVD-ROM material and makes it accessible. There are also deleted scenes and an audio commentary available on the 3-Disc edition that isn’t on the 2-Disc version. For those who just want the original movie, you can probably find the single disc release out there dirt cheap.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $585.4M on a $150M production budget; this was a definite hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: On the Beach

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Flight

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