Contagion a sharp thriller from writer/director/cinematographer/editor/do-all Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s 11 The Informant!) is like an adaptation of a Michael Crichton novel that never was. The movie quickly sets up its pawns in order to engage you in a game of pandemic chess where the terror comes from science and the humanity comes from your own empathy. Instead of relying on a sci-fi backstory outlandish deaths or large-scale set pieces Soderbergh lets the facts do the talking—and it's scary as hell.
Much like his Oscar-winning film Traffic Soderbergh unfolds the story by weaving in and out between a series of character perspectives: Matt Damon's Mitch who loses his wife to a mysterious virus and strives to protect the rest of his family; Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle members of the Center for Disease Control racing against the clock to find a cure; Kate Winslet's Erin a field agent tracking down the source of the American outbreak; Jude Law's Alan a high-profile blogger searching for the truth behind the disease; and Marion Cotillard's Dr. Orantes another agent hunting for Patient Zero in Hong Kong. While the drama spans globally each characters' quarrels are playing out in a claustrophobic scenario a world in which any person they meet any object they touch can infect them with the life-threatening disease.
Soderbergh doesn't have much time to dive into his characters' backstories but the film's screenwriter Scott Z. Burns carefully constructs each scene to deliver just the right balance of terrifying scientific babble and revealing personal drama. When the virus starts massacring the world population and vandalism riots and societal unrest emerge the thing that makes Contagion click is our interest in the personal stories. Damon as seems to be the case with everything he touches elevates the material being the perfect everyman and our surrogate for the too-plausible-for-comfort scenario. Fishburne too turns what's normally a plot-forwarding government agent role into a man dealing with the weight of his decisions watching citizens of the country drop like flies from his ivory tower. It's heavy stuff but Burns' playful dialogue helps the cast lighten the harrowing mood—only so the movie can pull the carpet from underneath you over and over again.
But in the end Contagion is Soderbergh's show. The director uses every ounce of cinematic artistry to leave us squirming in our seats with a fetishistic approach to shooting the most mundane of objects. The close-up is Soderbergh's weapon of choice honing in on common day objects that we realize are infested with germs (with the effect amplified by a thousand if you catch the movie in IMAX). A door handle a bathroom drier button the human face—Soderbergh lingers as a reminder of his invisible villain: the virus. That's a compliment: the design and photography is striking the purposefully pristine picture quality fills the characters' quest to stay healthy with tension. Composer Cliff Martinez's electronic score compliments the icky scenario germinating over the picture like audible infection. The world of the film is rich with detail. Just the icky kind.
Contagion isn't flawless. With so much going on things fall to the wayside—Cotillard's plotline specifically gets lost in the shuffle—but the reality keeps us engrossed. The movie plays like an oral history of a horrific event with each detail frighteningly exposed. Except in the case of Contagion it's not an event that has happened so much as one that could happen.
And at any moment.
The story of Lust Caution begins in the midst of WWII in Asia as the Japanese have a stranglehold on key areas of China including Shanghai and Hong Kong. The iron-fisted Chinese who are collaborating with the invaders are led by Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) a cruel and ruthless man who delights in the torture and murder of his fellow countrymen who are fighting against the Japanese occupation. When a patriotic band of college students (made up of four men and two women all part of the drama school) decide to strike a blow for Chinese freedom by assassinating Mr. Yee it falls to Wang (the mesmerizingly beautiful Wei Tang) to infiltrate his home and heart to pave the way for the killing. But as her compatriots--including handsome Kuang played by American-born Chinese rock star Lee-Hom Wang who loves her from afar--bid their time waiting for the moment to strike Mr. Yee and Wang enter into a torrid affair that begins to consume them both. Think of the Hitchcock classic Suspicion shift from Europe to Asia add in intensely explicit sex scenes and a completely unexpected ending and you have Lust Caution--a film that is soon to be considered a classic as well. Veteran actors Tony Leung and Joan Chen lead a fine cast of actors who together create this completely believable glimpse into Chinese culture during the dark days of Japanese occupation. Both give intense performances--he as the powerful emotionless Mr. Yee and she as his vapid shopping and Mah Jong-obsessed wife. But the most amazing performance is that of newcomer Wei Tang the Miss Universe finalist who makes her film debut in Lust Caution. Her fantastic face slim body and almost ethereal presence seem to blot out everyone else when she is on the screen; you can’t help but look at only her. Her transformation in the four-year span of the story is masterful. As she goes from a naïve young student to a mature woman whose physical obsession with a man she despises begins to overwhelm her. The ingénue proves that she is much more than just a pretty face. In fact she deserves an Academy Award nomination for her often subtle always fearless performance that is at the heart of the film. Ang Lee has a unique cinematic ability to begin a story very specific to a time a place and a culture and end with a universal tale that resonates across all societies and peoples. He did it beautifully with Sense and Sensibility Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon as well as Brokeback Mountain and he’s done it again masterfully with Lust Caution. This newest film is an intense look at how war often causes an individual to make the ultimate sacrifice for the common good yet it also explores another underlying theme: the idea that there is a never-ending battle between the sexes for emotional dominance within a sexual relationship. Ang Lee’s deft hand is evident in every frame including the incredibly explicit (and often violent) sex scenes that have given the film its NC-17 rating. But this is not pornography; every scene is necessary to the story showing us that using sex as a means to an end (no matter how noble that end) is a very dangerous game to play especially during wartime. Look for Ang Lee’s name to come up on the Academy’s list again this year as awards season kicks into high gear. He deserves every honor for this emotionally disturbing masterpiece.
In true straightforward comic-book style TMNT starts with a brief backstory (without the laborious explanation on why four turtles and a rat become human-like in the first place) and then launches into the heart of the movie. After the defeat of their old arch nemesis The Shredder the Turtles—fun-lovin’ Michelangelo (Mikey Kelly) tech guru Donatello (Mitchell Whitfield) hotheaded Raphael (Nolan North) and pragmatic leader Leonardo (James Arnold Taylor)--have grown apart as a family. While Leo is off honing his craft the turtles no longer fight crime--except Raphael who still fights crime under the pseudonym Nightwatcher. Struggling to keep them together is their rat sensei Master Splinter (the late Mako). But strange things are brewing. Tech-industrialist Max Winters (Patrick Stewart) is amassing an army of ancient monsters to apparently take over the world. With the help of old allies April O'Neil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Casey Jones (Chris Evans) the Turtles finally come together as brothers to fight the good fight and once again face the mysterious Foot Clan who have put their own ninja skills behind Winters' endeavors. As opposed to hiring just A-list actors TMNT is a nice eclectic mix of veteran voice-over artists who give the Turtles their voices and regular actors such as Gellar Stewart and Evans. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’s Ziyi Zhang also gets in on the action providing the voice of the Foot Clan leader Karai who was once an enemy of the Turtles but now sees the value in what they do. Of course there isn’t a Robin Williams or Ben Stiller to laugh with but Kelly is pretty funny as Michelangelo who has had to resort to entertaining kids at birthday parties as “Cowabunga Carl ” a clown-for-hire in a “fake” turtle suit. It will all depend on whether those ninja-fightin’ pizza-eatin’ giant turtles still have a monetary appeal but methinks a new TMNT movie franchise has been born. The comic book was created in 1984 by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman as a spoof to the superhero stories and quickly took off into merchandising heaven with a toy license and then a television series. The original 1990 live-action movie used state-of-the-art animatronics but somehow felt static and fake. Since the last TMNT movie in 1993 the whole Turtle phenomenon has sort of fallen off the radar at least in the U.S. so the time was ripe for a renovation. Using the innovative CGI we know and love this new TMNT--created by a team of animators from California and Hong Kong under the watchful direction of Kevin Munroe--gives the Turtles not to mention all the otherworldly monsters they have to fight a realistic look and feel. With this kind of freedom the film can focus on the action which is the best part of the TMNT lore. Though the demographics may skew male ages 8-11 (as well as those 8-to-11-year-old boys who loved it back in the day and are now grown men) TMNT is just your basic supercharged animated fun.
We've all known nobodies like Joe Scheffer (Tim Allen)--a milquetoast fellow who works at his job while hardly anyone notices him. Even though he's a talented video specialist for a big company he is regularly passed over for a long-promised promotion. Only one of his co-workers "wellness coordinator" Meg Harper (Julie Bowen) pays attention to him--mostly because it's her job but she also genuinely likes him (he secretly likes her too). One day the straw breaks when he loses his hard earned parking spot to the office bully Mark McKinney (Patrick Warburton) and is then humiliated by Mark in front of his precocious 12-year-old daughter Natalie (Hayden Panettiere). Joe decides he is not going to roll over and play dead; he's going to challenge Mark. Suddenly his popularity grows at the office. He starts climbing the corporate ladder. He gets a makeover and takes martial arts instruction from a washed-up "B" action star (Jim Belushi). Life is good--that is until Joe notices how unimpressed Meg and Natalie have become; they want the old Joe back (and darn it so do we). As the big day approaches Joe must decide if he will play into the popular vote or show everyone that he is truly a "somebody" now.
You've got to admit that Tim Allen is a funny guy. He can be thrown into any comedy (and he's smart enough to keep making them instead of trying to do a "drama") and you know he's going to pull out a pretty good performance. Some of his efforts like the hysterical Galaxy Quest have been better than others. Unfortunately Joe falls into the "other" category but don't blame Allen too much since he still manages to make Joe an endearing character. Bowen is plucky and spirited without much substance while Panettiere is a standout as Joe's daughter Natalie. With a face like an angel she projects more real emotion than anyone else and if she plays her cards right she might turn into a good little actress. Best of all it was great to see Belushi again. Definitely a high point of the film he is hysterical as the has-been action star trying to teach Joe how to fight.
Joe provides just enough laughs to keep you in your seat but it isn't really going to surprise you. The formula is simple-wimpy guy stands up for himself learns invaluable lesson about being true to oneself and gets the girl. This isn't rocket science folks and the script lapses into pat answers a little too easily. Still it's one of those comedies that grows on you whether you want it to or not. The funniest moments in the film are between Allen and Belushi hands down with the comic veterans playing off one other expertly. It's also clear director John Pasquin and Allen have a long history together. They began their relationship on Allen's hit TV show Home Improvement and then went on to make a few successful films for Disney including The Santa Clause and Jungle2Jungle. Pasquin can bring out good stuff from Allen but somehow misses the great things Allen can do.
Cannes, after all, is not the Oscars. So it's no surprise when the big winners at the chi-chi film festival assume the largely unknown (to us) names of, uh, Lars von Trier and, er, Wong Kar-wai.
Danish director von Trier's modern-day musical "Dancer in the Dark" nabbed the top prize, the Palm D'Or, for best feature as the 53rd Cannes Film Festival closed out its 12-day run Sunday. The film's first-time actress, Icelandic pop diva Bjork, took home the award for best actress.
"Dancer in the Dark" is about a blind Czech immigrant (played by Bjork) who escapes to an imaginary world of musical fantasies.
Another big winner was Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai, whose "In the Mood for Love" won the best actor award for male lead Tony Leung. The film, set in mid-1960s Hong Kong, follows two neighbors who gradually discover that their spouses are having an affair.
Other winners included a best screenplay nod for Neil Labute's "Nurse Betty," starring Renee Zellweger. "Nurse Betty" was the only U.S. film to be singled out for a main Cannes honor.
Here's the complete list of this year's Cannes winners:
Palm d'Or: "Dancer in the Dark" (Denmark/France/Sweden), directed by Lars von Trier Grand prix: "Devils on the Doorstep" (China), directed by Jiang Wen Best actress: Bjork ("Dancer in the Dark") Best actor: Tony Leung ("In the Mood for Love") Special mention: Ensemble of actors in "The Wedding" Best director: Edward Yang ("A One and a Two ...") Best screenplay: John Richards, James Flamberg ("Nurse Betty") Prix du Jury (shared): "Blackboards" (Iran), directed by Samira Makhmalbaf, and "Songs From the Second Floor" (Sweden), directed by Roy Andersson Palm d'Or for short film: "Anino" (Phillippines), directed by Raymond Red Technical Award: Christopher Doyle, Mark Li Ping-bing, William Chang Suk-ping for "In the Mood for Love" Camera d'Or (best first feature): shared by "Djomeh" (Iran), directed by Hassan Yektapanah, and "A Time for Drunken Horses" (Iran), directed by Bahman Ghobadi International Critics' Association Awards: Best film in an Official Section: "Eureka" (Japan), directed by Shinji Aoyama; Best film in a Parallel Section: "A Time for Drunken Horses" Ecumenical Awards: Best Film: "Eureka"; Special prizes: "Fast Food, Fast Women" (U.S.), directed by Amos Kollek, and "Code Unknown" (France), directed by Michael Haneke Fondation Gan Award: (Best feature in Un Certain Regard): "Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her" (U.S.); Special mention: "Me, You, Them" (Brazil)