After sitting out most of Underworld: Rise of the Lycans the 2009 “prequel” to the Underworld saga Kate Beckinsale returns to her trademark role as the face of the blockbuster action-horror franchise in Underworld: Awakening. The film finds Beckinsale’s vampire heroine Selene waking up in a research facility after a dozen years in hibernation whereupon she discovers that both vampires and lycans the traditional adversaries of the Underworld universe are now nearly extinct – “cleansed ” as it were by us good-old humans – and that her 12-year-old daughter Eve (India Eisley) is imperiled. It seems that both the dreaded lycans and a mad scientist named Dr. Jacob Lane (poor Stephen Rea) are after the girl on account of her special DNA.
All of which is meant to provide a serviceable backdrop for a good 85 minutes or so of relentless carnage orchestrated with relish by the Swedish directing tandem of Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein and meted out dutifully by Beckinsale. Nine years after she first portrayed Selene the actress appears as comfortable as ever in her familiar black leather as she carves through waves of monstrous creatures and hapless henchmen performing the odd acrobatic feat to better position herself for the killing blow. The bloodlust occasionally pauses to allow Beckinsale a moment to emote over lost love or seek a fleeting bond with her offspring but soon more CGI beasts arrive on hand and the soulless slaughter hastily recommences. Gorehounds hungry for splatter will delight at the myriad ways Underworld: Awakening finds to depict an exploding skull (in fabulous brain-bursting IMAX 3D!) but in the end they’re likely the only ones who’ll leave the theater sated.
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.
In a movie that is nothing if not ambiguous it’s only fitting that the title is misleading: The “ex” is only a former friend/fling. At least something’s mildly amusing. It starts out straightforward enough with slacker Tom (Zach Braff) being fired from his job as a chef after a food fight with his boss (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Paul Rudd). But with his wife Sofia (Amanda Peet) about to give birth poverty just won’t do. So they move from Manhattan to more economical Ohio where Tom takes up his father-in-law (Charles Grodin) on a standing offer to work for him in a job that Tom expects to be a regular nine-to-fiver. But as Tom immediately discovers this is no normal desk job and these are not normal coworkers. He gets off to a rough start with his supervisor wheelchair-bound Chip (Jason Bateman) after eating his yogurt. Further complicating matters it turns out Chip had a crush on and one-night-stand with Sofia back in high school—even though he’s the “ex” the title refers to—and is apparently now jealous. So he makes Tom’s life miserable and some off-the-wall variation of the standard formula ensues: Everyone believes Chip over Tom Tom loses Sofia and her father loses his job. Now he has to win back his father-in-law’s job and his wife while proving to everyone that Chip isn’t the saint he appears to be. It’s a television junkie’s dream to have this trio of small-screen leads together on the big screen—well it’s really a nightmare. Come to think of it maybe plucking the bulk of the cast from TV series (Scrubs for Braff; Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip for Peet; Arrested Development for Bateman) isn’t the best way to pinch millions from the budget. When Braff does his silly-sensitive Scrubs shtick in the movie it’s as funny as it is on the show but it’s totally not right for his character which is when he switches to serious mode a la his recent Last Kiss. Yeah he’s as confused as we are. Peet is uncharacteristically a non-entity in the movie whereas she is usually more vocal in her movies even if in a supporting role. And Bateman comes close a few times to successfully replicating Michael Bluth’s sardonic wit but then he hangs a sharp turn and delivers an inane unfunny line or physical outburst. The constant flux of bad-to-horrific acting can be as difficult to articulate as it is to comprehend. On the other hand veteran actor Grodin’s performance is very easily explained: It’s not only bad it’s irritating to the ear! And the miscasts go on with Mia Farrow an acting legend in a bit part as Grodin’s wife and near cameos from Donal Logue (Grounded for Life) SNL-ers Amy Poehler and Fred Armisen and Amy Adams (Junebug). Let’s revisit that title for a moment. As if the current misnomer wasn’t enough The Ex was formerly called Fast Track. Coincidentally once the movie was pushed back several times—which makes you think how bad this one must’ve been without whatever 11th-hour edits and reshoots were made—the title was changed perhaps in an attempt to dissuade a review from mentioning the irony in the title. But the Weinstein brothers should’ve known long before the title conundrum that this one was doomed. The script from first-timers Michael Handelman and David Guion must have undergone major overhauls as well because no script as bad as The Ex’s would have ever been greenlit. In fact it was probably originally something akin to a Cable Guy/Meet the Parents/Flirting with Disaster/Farrelly brothers hybrid but director Jesse Peretz’s movie is nowhere near those. The tone is just so unclear that it makes the actors look like they don’t even know their places—and yet it’s so damn transparent. And when the director is kind enough to carve out what is supposed to be a comedic scene it's Zach Braff taking a tumble on his bike or that good old wheelchair humor. Usually when a movie is called a “dramedy” there is drama and comedy; thus The Ex starts a new genre: “The attempted dramedy.”