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.
Having inherited the mantle of the serial killer known as Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) Detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) tries to cover his tracks while executing yet another elaborate torture scheme and staying one step ahead of FBI agent Peter Strahm (Scott Patterson) who survived his previous encounter with Jigsaw but may not be so lucky this time around. Like so many horror franchises of recent (and not-so-recent) vintage -- Halloween Friday the 13th A Nightmare on Elm Street -- the latest Saw doesn’t deviate from the formula. Endlessly repeating the same rudimentary elements may spell big bucks at the box-office forked over by the Saw faithful but even die-hard fans will be hard-pressed to find something even remotely new or inventive here. In what must be an effort to mix things up screenwriters Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan revise (i.e. screw around with) some of the earlier film’s plot twists with “new” flashbacks that offer different perspectives than was first depicted. If this is intended to provide surprise to the well-worn storyline it isn’t successful. It only makes a murky story even murkier. Jigsaw may have met his end at the conclusion of Saw IV but Tobin Bell is all over the place this time around seen either in flashback or on television screens. With his menacing whispery delivery Bell can hardly be accused of sleepwalking through his role but one suspects that the basic enticements for him here were top billing -- and the paycheck that goes along with it. The beefy Mandylor skulks his way through the one-dimensional role of Hoffman while Patterson brings a bit of intensity to his role as the dogged Strahm. Betsy Russell fondly remembered as a teen B-movie queen of the 1980s (Private School Avenging Angel) plays Jigsaw’s ex-wife while Meagan Good and Julie Benz (in an ill-fitting black wig) portray two of the latest “players” in the latest Jigsaw puzzle. Shawnee Smith Angus MacFadyen and Danny Glover who all met their onscreen ends in previous installments make token flashback appearances here -- to no discernible effect. Mark Hackl the production designer of Saw II – IV who was originally tapped to direct the fourth installment now makes his directorial debut. As one might expect he retains the decayed urban design of the previous films (which he of course designed) and there are the requisite gallons of gore and guts for those who enjoy that sort of thing. What would the Saw films be without such visceral pleasantries? But for all the technical ingenuity of some of the lethal booby traps there’s a distinct dullness to the proceedings. Saw V is appropriately gruesome but it’s not particularly exciting or suspenseful. As a Halloween scare-fest it’s all trick and no treat … and yes the door is left wide open for another installment. Enough’s enough already.
Set in the turbulent ‘60s each character in Across the Universe represents a different aspect to the unstable times. There’s naïve Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) whose eyes are opened to the possibilities of life beyond her WASPy sheltered upbringing; adventurous Jude (Jim Sturgess) who breaks away from his Liverpool working-class roots to make it as an artist in New York; and Lucy’s brother Max (Joe Anderson) a college dropout who eventually gets drafted and sent to Vietnam. There’s also Sadie (Dana Fuchs) a Janis Joplin-esque rock singer; her guitar-playing lover Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy) who hails from the riot-torn streets of Detroit; and even a burgeoning lesbian named Prudence (T.V. Carpio). They are all soon swept up into the '60s' emerging psychedelic anti-war and counterculture movements while Across the Universe lets the songs from one of the era’s most influential bands tell the story. But what drives the film is Jude and Lucy’s love for each other—and all you need is love right? You know you are in for something different when indie darling Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen) is the most recognizable star. Luckily for Across the Universe the cast of unknowns delivers--and then some. Making his film debut newcomer Sturgess is a particular standout looking very much like one of the Beatles boys in their heyday. His earnest performance as the love-struck Jude immediately hits a chord (pun intended) and he makes breaking out into a Beatles tune seem entirely natural. Wood doesn’t seem as comfortable with the vocals but the actress has a lovely voice--and of course handles Lucy’s emotional ups and downs with aplomb. All the rest of the supporting cast does a wonderful job adding their own unique reinterpretations to the songs (and yes both “Hey Jude” and “Dear Prudence” pop up). The big fun with Across the Universe however are the cameo appearances: Eddie Izzard sings “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” as a surreal circus ringleader; Joe Cocker sings “Come Together” alternating between a pimp bum and hippie; Salma Hayek takes nursing to a new level in a “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” number; and finally U2’s Bono sings “I Am the Walrus” as the Beat poet/counterculturist Dr. Robert. You haven’t experienced life until you've heard Bono sing “Goo goo g'joob.” In any original musical there is always something a little disconcerting when a character just breaks out into song even if it’s Julie Andrews standing on top of a mountain. But as with Moulin Rouge a character singing a song we all recognize--well that’s a little different. And honestly who doesn’t love Beatles music? Still director Julie Taymor (Frida) took a big chance creating a musical around the legacy that is Beatlemania. It must have been a daunting task searching through the annals of Beatles music to find just the right tunes for just the right moment--but her extremely inventive ways truly pay off. From Uncle Sam screaming “I Want You!” from a poster hanging in an Army recruiting office to Max and his college buddies running around campus belting out “With a Little Help from My Friends ” everything fits taking us on this journey of life love and self-enlightenment. Although Taymor’s forte clearly lies with the very wild and artistic most evident in Across the Universe’s psychedelic acid trips she also expertly highlights the stark reality of a turbulent time. Taymor is a romantic at heart though—a romantic who adores the Beatles. John Lennon would be proud.
Date Movie doesn’t have a story as much as it does a series of miss-or-really-miss spoofs of date movies and cultural hodgepodge; the thin “story” is just enough to keep the film from being a series of vignettes. Julia (Alyson Hannigan) who makes Big Momma look little is determined to find her Prince Charming instead of wasting away in her lonely apartment. She briefly finds him in Grant Fonckyerdoder (Adam Campbell) before losing him (so ends any originality). So she visits a date doctor named Hitch (Tony Cox)—yes that movie—who takes her to get barbaric liposuction. Then she meets Grant again they fall in love and she meets his parents Mr. and Mrs. Fonckyerdoder (Fred Willard and Jennifer Coolidge) making for a Meet the Fockers spoof (the biggest spoof-ee). Julia has competition from Grant’s ex (Sophie Monk) allowing for more film references but ultimately they live clumsily ever after.
It’s hard to see through the utter mess that is Date Movie enough to evaluate its acting but Hannigan seems to be at least serviceable. Although it seems like “acting” here means merely nauseating the audience enough so they can taste the vomit but manage to hold it in. Like when she licks Tony Cox’s face for 15 or so seconds—in slow motion… It’s more Fear Factor than Inside the Actor’s Studio. As for Campbell Date Movie is his first. There’s no frame of reference whatsoever and yet it’s still clear that he’s above this. He almost seems like a classically trained actor who’s forced to stretch his comfort zone by performing horrendous impressions such as the orgasm scene from When Harry Met Sally. The lone semblance of a bright spot comes from Coolidge impersonating Barbra Streisand’s Roz Focker. Again way too classy for this Movie.
Date Movie's trailer brags “From two of the six writers of Scary Movie...” After seeing it you can’t help but muse “It took two writers for that movie?!” The writers in question are Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer who also co-directed. The film should at the very least be an appetizer for Scary Movie 4’s upcoming entrée (to which they did not contribute) but with no hint of continuity or a passable storyline it even fails that menial task—and where the Scary Movies have succeeded is in the satisfactory stories that surround the film references. The biggest problem though lies in the spoofs: While the rules mandate that only chick flicks/date movies can be parodied the writer/directors abandon their target audience by referencing movies like When Harry Met Sally. Luckily there’s always an audience member who feels the need to solve the conundrum aloud.
We meet the two very unlikely sisters while each are having sex. Rose Feller (Toni Collette) is a successful lawyer who is sleeping with her boss and thinking of ways it can improve her career. Maggie Feller (Cameron Diaz) is a party girl and at her 10-year high school reunion--after trying to have a fling in a bathroom stall--she ends up puking instead. Inevitably Maggie gets kicked out of her dad and stepmother's house and winds up on the doorstep of her sister. The Feller girls were close once when they were young girls especially after their mentally unstable mother died. But now their grown-up personalities clash rather dramatically. And when Maggie seriously crosses the line by seducing Rose's new boyfriend the straw is broken. Forced out Maggie stumbles upon some birthday cards from a long-lost grandmother and decides to go hit her up for cash. Turns out Grandma Ella (Shirley MacLaine) lives in a senior citizen's community in Florida that gets its humor from Golden Girls re-runs. Maggie may ingratiate herself within this new environment but isn't any more redeemed by reconnecting with Ella. She still acts like a petulant child. But rather than throwing her out Ella along with the gang of old folk forces Maggie to take some responsibility.
Collette (The Sixth Sense) is fantastic as the frumpy pudgy Philadelphia lawyer who gives up everything so she can walk dogs and lead a simpler life. But she's done this many times before--and honestly is so much better than Muriel's Wedding. Diaz (my personal favorite Charlie's Angel) doesn't need to stretch too far to play a conniving ditz with a heart. This is her There's Something About Mary role albeit a tad more screwed-up with a sister and lost grandma. So that leaves MacLaine as the saving grace for any worthwhile acting in this movie. Despite the obvious shuffleboard clichés--and the occasional leers at Diaz by the old guys around the pool--when the old folk are around the film gets lively and tolerable believe it or not. MacLaine leads the way with the quips and barbs but in a more subtle way than we are used to from this usually eccentric actress. The supporting cast of cranky cronies have some great moments especially veteran actor Norman Lloyd as the blind professor who teaches Maggie a thing or two about manners trust and family.
If this were Nora Ephron directing that would have been one thing but coming from Curtis Hanson the Oscar-winner who gave us L.A. Confidential it just doesn't mesh. Hanson can do quirky (Wonder Boys) he can do adventure (The River Wild) he can do hard-hittin' rap stories (8 Mile) and he can even do scary (Hand That Rocks the Cradle) but why in the world would he attempt a saccharine-soaked female family story that threatens to be a Crimes of the Heart tear-jerker? Screenwriter Susannah Grant who adapted In Her Shoes from Jennifer Weiner's popular bestseller of the same name also wrote Erin Brockovich and 28 Days. She understands strong female characters but there's still a major layer of sugar coating that Hanson can't scrape off. He doesn't tone anything down from Grant's script--not the overly cute dogs nor the embarrassing bridal shower nor the expected moments of guilt-tripping between the ladies. Instead he plods through the paint-by-number script and wraps it all up nicely into a crowd-pleasing film that is ultimately forgettable.
February 18, 2003 10:38am EST
At the tender age of 12 Matt Murdock (Ben Affleck) was splashed in the eyes with radioactive waste and lost his sight--but his other four senses developed with superhuman sharpness. He grew up to become a bleeding-heart lawyer running a law practice with his best friend Foggy Nelson (Jon Favreau) and chasing beautiful women including the bright and fearless Elektra Natchios (Jennifer Garner). By night he is the masked vigilante Daredevil using his incredible senses and abilities to defend the downtrodden in New York City's Hell's Kitchen. Daredevil the movie stays true to all the elements that are pervasive in the Marvel Universe: drama love action violence revenge a spiteful police department and best of all the probing reporter on a quest for the truth. Here moviegoers will become familiar with events that become catalysts in Daredevil's crime-fighting career including the death of his father (David Keith) at the hands of the mob and the victimization of those close to him. The villainous underworld figure Wilson Fisk a.k.a. Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan) and his hired hand the psychotic killer Bullseye (Colin Farrell) are also introduced as Daredevil's foes--and the battle between good and evil is born in this gritty urban borough.
Daredevil's appeal is that he does not possess any superpowers which made Affleck (Sum of All Fears) a good choice to portray this rather vulnerable crime fighter. While he beefed up for the role Affleck still retains that guy-next-door quality that makes both Murdock and Daredevil so relatable. His love interest in the film Elektra is played by Garner better known as Sydney Bristow on ABC's Alias. Elecktra is as brawny as she is brainy and Garner is the perfect fit for the character: she's gorgeous in a non-Hollywood kind of way and convincing as skilled fighter. Playing Murdock's lifelong friend and partner Foggy Favreau's (Made) role here is the most low-key of the bunch but he delivers some comic relief with some really funny lines. As far as villains go no one could be better suited for the role of Kingpin than the larger-than-life Duncan (The Scorpion King). This massively muscled character had to be played by someone with a powerful presence and sophisticated intellect making Duncan the ideal candidate. Rounding out the malefactors is Farrell (The Recruit) who churns out a powerful performance as the psychotic killer Bullseye complete with the nervous twitches and shifty eyes.
The decision to place Mark Steven Johnson at the helm of Daredevil was a little surprising. His 1998 directorial debut Simon Birch and his screenwriting credits Grumpy Old Men and the astoundingly bad Jack Frost hardly seemed on a par with an action adventure feature like this. The fact that Johnson hasn't worked extensively with digital effects becomes apparent in some of the film's action sequences that include a CGI Daredevil running upside walls and taking giant leaps from rooftop to rooftop. The completely animated version of Daredevil doesn't behave naturally and lacks details such as muscles texture highlights and shadows. But Daredevil didn't have a huge budget (compared to Spider-Man at least) and what it lacked in f/x it made up for with a gripping and gritty story line. Daredevil's mission is to rid Hell's Kitchen--not the universe--of as much crime as he can and his vendettas are personal--and grotesquely violent. More importantly Johnson's screenplay stays true to the comic book characters and their attributes. Fans of the comic book will appreciate his truthful touches such Bullseye's maniacal talents which include being able to turn a paperclip into a deadly weapon and Kingpin's ritualistic removal of his blazer before pounding the snot out of adversaries.
After 20 years with the LAPD Det. Mitch Preston (Robert De Niro) just wants to catch the crooks finish the paperwork and retreat to his mundane life at home where he eats TV dinners and pursues his hobby of making bad pottery. Patrolman Trey Sellars (Eddie Murphy) really wants to be an actor--he's only a cop because he made a lousy waiter. When Sellars bungles Preston's undercover case and media hounds catch it all on tape the irate Preston shoots up a news camera that gets in his face. Over-caffeinated network exec Chase Renzi (Rene Russo) upon seeing the damning evidence that could have killed her cameraman is captivated by Preston's complete lack of charm and convinces her superior she can save his crappy network by pairing Preston and Sellars up on a reality show. As expected Preston is reluctant--and even more so when he's forced to take the mugging Sellars as his partner. The two take impromptu acting lessons from iconic actor/director William Shatner (playing himself) and set off to attract an audience boost the ratings become celebrities and get the bad guys in a televised reality christened Showtime. Meanwhile the evil Cesar Vargas (Pedro Damian)--whom we know is evil 'cause he hides in the shadows he's flashy and well groomed and he mumbles in an unfathomable Third World/ European accent--is stockpiling guns powerful enough to knock down houses and blow the doors off a Brinks truck.
The movie offers a few good yuks--a coke-sniffing dog an unprecedented cameo by jive-rhyming lawyer Johnnie Cochran and William Shatner satirizing William Shatner (who does this better than anybody else satirizing William Shatner). Unfortunately we've seen a lot of his funniest stuff like the scene in which he demonstrates how to roll over a car hood cop-style in the previews. Rene Russo gives an effective souped-up Lethal Weapon-type performance with her hyper pushy fast-talking network exec desperate to make her name in the industry. De Niro's straight-man comedy is in his facial expressions--or lack thereof--and Murphy is…well Murphy. It's their first outing together and they play off each other like a foul-mouthed version of Abbott and Costello (guess who plays who?). We've seen De Niro play grumpy (Midnight Run) and Murphy play obnoxious (almost everything) before. But as you may suspect it's their grade-A chemistry that holds this badly stitched predictable though occasionally funny flick together--especially in regards to the jokes on Hollywood and the current bounty of reality TV.
You can smell the gags and The Odd Couple-versus-Goldfinger plot unfolding a million miles away. You just know Preston is hiding a gun inside that Big Gulp when he goes undercover to investigate a pawn shop and you know Vargas will make bad-guy errors in judgment like staging a robbery in downtown L.A. the day after he's confronted by our star cops in a populated disco. But that may lead you to wonder why the police--who are likewise not presented as being particularly bright in this movie--weren't trailing him as Vargas is the prime suspect in the gun-trafficking subplot. Some of the comedy borders on satire but isn't played up enough for you to tell if it was meant that way or not. The action scenes are so badly edited it's hard to tell who's chasing whom until the camera cuts back to Murphy's toothy grin and a cement-faced De Niro shooting out his car window. And speaking of commercial-laden reality TV the product placement in this movie is shameless--we get a full-length commercial for Apple Computers played not once but twice.