Monthly Archives: October 2011

Review – Contagion (12a) [2011]

Star Rating: 2/5

In the Middle Ages, pestilence and plague were semi-regular occurrences. Every fifteen years or so, the grim reaper would appear in the form of the Black Death and scythe down a not insignificant percentage of populations across Europe. Again, in 1918, after World War I (WWI), the world was struck by another form of pestilence: the ‘Spanish Flu’, which killed one percent of the then-world population. Despite being over-all quite poor, Contagion shows us once more that mankind is still not immune to new diseases and viruses.

Mitch (Matt Damon) in shock after suddenly losing his wife to the epidemic.

Contagion is a medical thriller about a virus that rapidly spreads across the world. The first known death in America is that of Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow – Se7en, Shakespeare In Love, The Avengers Assemble), who returns home to her family and husband, Mitch (Matt Damon – True Grit, The Adjustment Bureau, Elysium), from a trip to Hong Kong only to have a seizure and die soon afterwards. Rapidly, more people become infected. There is no cure for the virus either, and around one in four people are expected to become infected. (Although, one in three people who become infected are expected to survive.)

Scientists, from across the world, led by Atalanta-based Dr. Ellis Cheevers (Laurence Fishburne – Apocalypse Now, The Matrix I-III, Man of Steel) and his team, work hard to find an antidote. Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet – Titanic, The Reader, Steve Jobs) uses her knowledge to try and slow down the spread of the virus, whilst working in the field. Dr. Leonara Orantes (Marion Cotillard – Public Enemies, Midnight In Paris, The Dark Knight Rises) works with a team in Hong Kong to establish where the virus came from in order to facilitate the creation of an antidote.

But until an antidote has been tested sufficiently and is safe, nothing can be distributed. In the meantime, indirectly egged-on by a conspiratorially-inclined blogger called Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law – Enemy At The Gates, The Holiday, Side Effects), social order breaks down.

Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), a scientist under Dr. Ellis Cheevers, working hard in the laboratory to try and create an antidote.

The plot for Contagion has been done in a documentary style, similar to Cloverfield (albeit, without the camera wobbling). This entails that one watches the effects of the virus upon people and societies over a series of days. One images that the director, Steven Soderburgh (Erin Brockovich, Ocean’s Eleven & Ocean’s Twelve, Side Effects), did this to give the film a more realistic feel. If so, he succeeds. As a corollary of the realism, the speed at which the virus transmits and kills people has the impact of frightening the audience (in probably the same way that bubonic plague used to terrify people in Medieval times). Also, the timing of the chaos that subsequently unfolds, as a result of panic by those who have not yet been infected, seems quite natural. It is quite conceivable for law and order to collapse under the pressures that Contagion puts forward.

However, many aspects of the storyline are either left unexplained or fall by the wayside, which undermines the film considerably. Moreover, as the movie has no central protagonist, one cannot build any sympathy or empathy (or care) for any of the characters. Worse, the dialogue, at times, sounds contrived (if not risible) and none of the actors play particularly well. Even the normally excellent Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne and Matt Damon do not do themselves justice here.

Allan Krumwiede (Jude Law), wearing a ridiculous ‘wannabe’ Buzz Lightyear outfit so he doesn’t contract the virus, spreading his new-found insight about why the government has not distributed the cure as yet onto a random car.

Due to the lack of a dominant performer, the audience may struggle to maintain interest in the film. At 106 minutes, Contagion is an average length for a movie; yet, viewers may find themselves yawning or looking at their watches (long) before it is over, which is never a good sign for a film. Not even the music, which adopts a standard fast beat for much of the movie, has the ability to keep the audience’s eyes concentrated on the screen for long.

On the whole, Contagion has many deficient features, as several of the sub-stories are forgotten about and there is a distinct lack of a central and well-defined character. Nevertheless, Contagion appears scarily realistic and shows us that, irrespective of how advanced medical treatment may be, humanity is still potentially defenceless against new and ever-mutating epidemics.

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Review – Midnight In Paris (12a) [2011]

Star Rating: 3/5

<<guest review by KJF>>

Woody Allen’s popularity at the Box Office has waned of late; some of his recent films didn’t even get a UK distribution. The glory days of Annie Hall and Manhattan seem a long time ago. This, however, is set to change with his delightful romantic fantasy, Midnight In Paris. Owen Wilson (The Royal Tennenbaums, The Wedding Crashers, Little Fockers) plays Gil, a screenwriter who has given up the day-job to write The Big Novel. He’s spending time in Paris with his high-maintenance fiancé, Inez (Rachel McAdams – Mean Girls, The Notebook, State of Play), and her parents, all the while looking for inspiration. Wandering the streets late at night, Gil finds himself transported back to the Parisian world of the 1920s .

Gil (Owen Wilson), Inez (Rachel McAdams) and friends getting a drawn-out talk by Paul (Michael Sheen) in ‘modern day’ Paris.

Allen’s film is a loving homage to Paris. The opening scenes are wordless shots of the city’s famous sites, accompanied by a jazz soundtrack. It also has gentle digs at the tourist culture it has spawned, particularly the behaviour of Americans in Paris: the brash types who just want to shop, eat and don’t bother attempting to learn the language, or know-alls who like to preen around celebrated cultural artefacts and spout off all they know. The latter is wonderfully encapsulated in Michael Sheen’s (The Deal, The Queen, Frost/Nixon) performance as the pompous academic, Paul.

When Gil finds himself in the 1920s, almost everyone he encounters is a famous face from the time. In fact, Allen unleashes a whole parade of illustrious writers and artists from the period, along with a series of knowing in-jokes as they interact with Gil. There’s, for instance, a brooding Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll – Law & Order:LA),  a youthful F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston – ArchipelagoThor, The Avengers Assemble). Gil even gets the majestic Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates – Misery, Titanic, Alice) to read a draft of his novel. This is overall a wonderful set-up, and Wilson travels through it with engagingly wide-eyed delight. It does occasionally feel a bit schematic as we are introduced from one artistic type to the next, without finding out that much about them. The 1920s scenes, though, are joyously shot whether we’re led through the wonderfully nourish streets or experiencing the lovingly realised parties, full of dancing and Cole Porter songs.

Gil also comes across the beautiful Adriana. She’s played by Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose, Inception, Contagion) playing another variant on the ‘dream woman’ as seen in Inception. Naturally he falls in love with her, and finds himself conflicted between the ironically ‘old world’ of 2010 and the beautiful ‘golden age’ of the 1920s.

Adriana (Marion Cotillard), one of the wonders of Paris in the 1920s.

As if just to dazzle us with famous names of the past wasn’t enough, Allen drops into a film a living famous name, in the shape of Carla Bruni, wife of the current French President, Nicholas Sarkozy. She cameos as a rather restrained museum guide. A little casting quirk, which is delightful to spot, but doesn’t add much to the story.

Are Gil’s time-travel exploits just occurring in his head as he seeks to find himself a direction in life? Is the theme of the film that we are all seeking our own personal ‘golden ages’? We are left to ponder these questions. Yet, the journey Allen conjures up is so infectiously entertaining that in the end they don’t really matter.

KJF

Review – The Debt (15) [2011]

Star Rating: 4/5

When it comes to films about Mossad operations, such as Munich or Raid On Entebbi, they have a unique appeal that the average spy/secret agent movie doesn’t have. Undoubtedly, this is due to Mossad’s exceptional stealth and ruthlessness to find and deal with Israel’s most dangerous enemies. The highly enjoyable The Debt, once again, gives credence to the capabilities of the Israeli secret services.

Young Rachel, Stefan and David in their leaky apartment in East Berlin. Their expressions indicate that the pressure might be getting to them.

The Debt is not a true story and is a remake of the 2007 Israeli film with the same title. The movie is based in mid-1960s East Berlin, and the latter 1990s in Israel. The plot is about three Israeli secret agents, David (when young, played by Sam Worthington – Avatar IIII, Clash of the Titans, Wrath of the Titans; when old, played by Ciarán Hinds – The Rite, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Woman In Black), Rachel (when young, played by Jessica Chastain – Jolene, The Tree of Life, The Help; when old, played by Helen Mirren – The Queen, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, Eye In The Sky)  and Stefan (when young, played by Marton Csokas – The Bourne Supremacy, Kingdom of Heaven, Dream House; when old, played by Tom Wilkinson – Batman Begins, Michael Clayton, Mission: Impossible IV – Ghost Protocol), who are sent to Soviet-controlled Berlin to find Dr. Berhhadt/Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen – Casino Royale, The Quantum of Solace, Spectre). Vogel was a Nazi doctor at the concentration camp, Birkanau, who experimented on Jews, deliberately deforming them in the name of ‘science’ and ‘medicine.’

David, Rachel and Stefan draw up a clever plan to capture Vogel, get him out of East Berlin, and onto a plane to Israel, so he can face justice. But the plan goes awry, leaving the three Mossad agents to decide how best to deal with the potential consequences.

The Debt’s storyline is realistic and adopts a non-linear timeframe, in a similar vein to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Skin I Live In, since it ventures back and forth between the 1960s and the 1990s. But in contrast to the other two films, viewers are unlikely to find The Debt difficult to follow or overly confusing. This is because the movie has an absorbing plot, filled with suspense. With the music (although nothing noteworthy) pumping the adrenaline, it is doubtful that one will become bored throughout the 113 minutes of the film. In some ways though, The Debt should not have been so long because the last twenty to thirty minutes goes off on a tangent. This is highly injurious to the movie, as it takes away some of its realism.

Vogel (Jesper Christensen) toying with David’s mind, whilst being bounded to a pole in captivity.

The Debt may not be factual; nevertheless, it has many truthful and realistic elements. The film has echoes of the successful Mossad operation to capture Adolf Eichmann, a high-ranking Nazi who was involved in the planning of the Final Solution of the Jews, and the failed one to find the infamous Nazi doctor of Auschwitz, Joseph Mengele. Furthermore, the movie subtly hints at the police-state that was East Germany. Yet, there is no mention of the Stasi, the East German secret police, or the nature of Communist rule in post-1945 Eastern Europe. If one has no knowledge of the era, one will come out of the movie no more informed, which is again to the film’s detriment.

Whether one becomes more knowledgeable about Soviet-ruled Europe is dubious, but from The Debt viewers can appreciate some very real moral and ethical conundrums. The issue of when justice must trump truth, and vice versa, is a messy and complex one. The film illustrates this in a mature way. The same can be said for the problems and stresses that the three secret agents endure, and how they handle it (which they do differently to the agents in Munich); and for the psychological warfare that Vogel plays on young Rachel, Stefan and David. The way Vogel plays on their minds is done brilliantly. Yet, at the same time, it is sickeningly realistic because he always twists facts to ensure that there are elements of truth to his arguments.

David and Rachel, thirty years later, discussing the past with pride and shame.

Indeed, the actor playing Vogel, Jesper Christensen, is the star of the film, even if his role is relatively small. That he makes Vogel sound plausible and, perhaps, not even the villain adds credence to this. (And considering that Vogel conducted unspeakable experiments on humans, that is no small feat.) Unlike Christensen’s performance, those of the rest of the cast may not stand out, but no-one plays badly. Their characters may not all be explained well, but they all have some depth, which is revealed at various times during the film (although, all of the agents are too young for their supposed ages). With the exception of Sam Worthington (who sounds remarkably Australian for a German-born Israeli), their Israeli accents are believable. Ciarán Hinds, in particular, also looks very Israeli, as do his mannerisms.

Over-all, The Debt is another worthwhile Mossad movie that is gripping and tense, despite not being true. It may not increase viewers’ knowledge of 1960s East Berlin or the Cold War, but one is likely to leave the cinema with a greater understanding for some profound dilemmas that heads of state and secret service agencies, including Mossad, have to deal with. (Now we look forward to the film about the assassination of Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh, the Hamas military operative, who was killed in Dubai, allegedly by Mossad, in January 2010).

PG’s Tips

Review – The Lion King 3D (U) [2011; originally released in 1994]

Star Rating: 5/5

Many argue (and not without justification) that the re-release of old Disney films in 3D is simply a scam to make more money. Well, whether true or not, the magnificent 1994 The Lion King is fully worth paying to see again. (Warning, this review contains spoilers.)

Rafiki holding Simba at the latter’s birth presentation to the kingdom. Sarabi (voiced by Madge Sinclair) and Mufasa, Simba’s mother and father, respectively, watch on proudly.

The movie starts with the presentation of the birth of Simba, the future King of Pride Rock. From early on, cheeky young Simba (voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas) learns from his father, King Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones – Star Wars IV-VI, Criminal Intent, The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride), about the circle of life and how to become a responsible king. Simultaneously, Scar (voiced by Jeremy Irons – The Man In The Iron Mask, The Borgias, The Words), Mufasa’s younger brother and Simba’s uncle, secretly plots to kill both Mufasa and Simba. Using his three main hyena henchmen, Shenzi (voiced by Whoopi Goldberg – Sister Act I & II, For Coloured Girls, The Muppets), Banzai (voiced by Cheech Marin – From Dusk Til Dawn, Cars I & II, Machete) and Ed (voiced Jim Cummings – Aladdin I-III, Hercules, Zambezio), Scar intends to usurp the throne.

He half succeeds. Scar kills Mufasa, but Simba escapes, fleeing into exile. There, Simba meets a Meerkat, called Timon (voiced by Nathan Lane – The Producers, Stuart Little I & II, The English Teacher), and a Warthog, called Pumba (voiced by Ernie Sabella – The Lion King II & III, Listen To Your Heart). Simba grows up with them and enjoys life, forgetting that he is meant to be ruling the now-ravaged plains of Pride Rock. It is only when Nala (when young, voiced by Niketa Calame; when adult, voiced by Moira Kelly – The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, Dangerous Beauty, One Tree Hill), Simba’s childhood friend, and Rafiki (Robert Guillaume – The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride), a wise baboon and an old family friend, find him that Simba realises that he must return to the Pride Lands and fight his uncle for the kingdom.

The Lion King’s storyline is easy to follow and gripping. Ostensibly for children, adults can like the movie just as much. (If not even more!) Whilst children may enjoy the sing-along-songs and the funny Timon and Pumba; adults can appreciate the intelligent, wry humour (not to mention how appalling some of Timon’s jokes are), as well as the satire in the film, such as Scar’s Hitler-like moment when he’s standing on a podium addressing his army of goose-step marching hyenas.

The silver-tongued, smiling Scar convincing his young, naive nephew, Simba, to stay and wait in gorge for his father, who has a ‘marvellous surprise’ for him. It’s apparently so good it’s ‘to die for.’ For once, Scar might even be telling the truth.

Adults and children may get pleasure from different aspects of the film; yet, everyone can equally be enamoured with the movie’s beautiful music, composed by Hans Zimmer (Gladiator, Pirates of the Caribbean I-IV, The Dark Knight Rises). Much of the film adopts Zulu-style music, which is not only apt for the setting (after-all, The Lion King is based in South Africa), it enriches every scene wonderfully.

The music, though, would not have the same impact if the characters and the dialogue were not so well defined, written and articulated. All the characters have great depth, from the cunning, forked-tongued, yet cowardly Scar (that he is such an offhandedly sinister villain, rather than a pantomime one gives him an added chilling dimension); to the mischievous-cum-deferent-cum-bold Simba; to the stupid, moaning hyenas; to the funny but sensitive Pumba, to mention four of many.

The fine brilliance of the music and the dialogue is epitomised in the scene following Mufasa’s death. Seldom in Disney films (where death is surprisingly common) have audiences, in general, been reduced to tears. The empathy one has for Simba at that point is heart-breaking. That this is followed by Scar wickedly manipulating the situation to his advantage (as intelligent, psychopathic leaders always do) makes the dosage so much more potent. Since this scene, perhaps only the ending to the excellent Toy Story 3 has come close to making viewers feel the same way again, and for very different reasons.

The music and the dialogue in The Lion King has rightly been praised. Likewise, although it’s easily missed, should the expressions of the characters. Since the majority of the characters are not human-like, since they don’t have arms and legs, the producers/artists had to rely on the characters’ body-language and body-movements to make up for it. Indeed, the way each character moves is indicative of his/her personality and circumstance at any given point. For instance, mischievous little Simba walks (struts) very differently to when he is guilt-riddled in exile. The producers/artists should justifiably take credit for this, as it gives the characters greater subtlety and complexity.

Simba, all grown up now, happily singing, with Timon and Pumba, the joyful ‘Hakuna Matata.’ It means ‘no worries,’ which is exactly how Simba has been living in exile.

Similarly, the hard work that the producers/artists put into the graphics should also be recognised. 2011 viewers may find the graphics antiquated or unsatisfactory. If this is the case, it is most unfair. One has to remember that this film was initially released in the pre-Pixar era, at the time of Beauty & The Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992), meaning one cannot compare the results of today’s technology with those of the early 1990s. And irrespective of the relative backwardness of the graphics, The Lion King has been converted magnificently into 3D. Unlike recent animations like Rio or The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, the 3D here makes a difference to the extent of making The Lion King spell-binding; especially, during the fight between Simba and Scar at the end.

All-in-all, The Lion King is a Disney classic for many reasons. Bringing it back to the cinemas in 3D may be a ploy to make more money, but one should see it anyway and treasure this encapsulating masterpiece once again.

PG’s Tips

Review – Red State (18) [2011]

Star Rating: 3/5

When one arranges a one night stand with someone they have not met in person via the internet (especially from a dodgy website), one is never certain if he/she is going to be a victim of a scam or something worse. Red State, whilst not about the pros and cons of adult-dating websites, illustrates the potential risks involved.

Travis, Jarod and Billy-Ray reading a message from Jarod's phone. The thee of them are so happy that they are (finally) going to end their 'loser status' by breaking their virginities.

Red State is loosely-based on the Westboro Baptist Church, which Louis Theroux has done two documentaries on. Set in the ‘bible-belt’ of America, three social misfits – Travis (Michael Angarano – Almost Famous, 24: Day 6, Noah’s Ark: The New Beginning), Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun – Love At First Hiccup, Chalet Girl, Neighbourhood Watch) and Jarod (Kyle Gallner – The Haunting in Connecticut, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Jennifer’s Body) – have organised, via an internet chat-room, for the three of them to enjoy, together, the pleasures of Sara (Melissa Leo – Frozen River, The Fighter, Predisposed). Little do they know, though, that Sara is a part of the Five Point Church, a cultist Christian sect. After driving to her caravan, Sara uses this as an opportunity to capture the three teenagers and bring them to the church to be ‘tried’ for homosexuality, a crime punishable by death for this sect.

The cops soon learn that the church has the boys. Led by Joseph Keenan (John Goodman – The Big Lebowski, Monsters, Inc., The Artist), the cops intend to take the compound by storm, leading to a bloody confrontation.

Red State is a strangely gripping, highly unpredictable film, and has some surprisingly intelligent humour (which would have been so much funnier had not all of the jokes been used in the trailer). At 88 minutes, the movie is short, so audiences are unlikely to lose focus; especially, since the last half an hour is virtually a shoot out.

Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) addressing his congregation, who hang on to his every word as if he is Jesus's modern day reincarnation.

Whilst gunfire and explosions uphold (or regain) the attention of the viewers, it is the acting of two members of the supporting cast, Melissa Leo and Michael Parks (From Dusk Till Dawn, Kill Bill I & II, Argo), that make Red State worth watching. After her Oscar-winning performance in The Fighter, Leo gives another fantastic performance as one of the mad members of the church. As Sara, the fanaticism in Leo’s eyes is frightening, as is her belief in the cult. Parks, playing Pastor Abin Cooper, also plays very well, even if he is not spectacular. The passion he shows for the ideals of the church (without bursting into laughter) could easily make one believe that he is crazy in real life.

The rest of the cast are pathetic. The acting from the three social oddballs is atrocious, and the dialogue between them is just as bad. The amount of swearing, before and during captivity, is disgraceful. That the dialogue between them may reflect the language used by teenagers in ‘middle America’ or elsewhere is not the point. As a consequence of this, and their general performances throughout the film, viewers are unlikely to feel any empathy towards their characters.

Indeed, audiences are unlikely to come away feeling empathy for any of the characters, regardless of what they may think of the acting. In Red State, no-one is portrayed as a ‘good guy’, even the cops that are sent in to deal with the hostage situation. As one watches the melee unfold, one is likely to wonder if events like this actually take place in America, or if this is just a gross and gory exaggeration of the truth; for this film does not shy away from graphic bloodshed.

A man (Cooper Thornton) given a 'fair trial' for the 'crime' of homosexuality before the members of the church.

Although one may find the amount of violence a trifle unnecessary (not that that is grounds for criticism), one will almost certainly feel that the film needs better production. The choreography is appalling to the point of amateur, since many of the scenes jerk into place rather than smoothly link. Just as sloppy are the special effects, which appear painted in as an afterthought by the director, Kevin Smith (Dogma, Clerks II, Zack & Miri Make A Porno). The music may not be awful, but it is certainly nothing noteworthy either.

Over-all, Red State is an oddly enjoyable movie. Many aspects of the film are pitiable, but the performances of Melissa Leo and Michael Parks save the movie from near disaster. That there are people in real life who believe in similar ideals as zealously as members of the Five Point Church gives Red State some chilling realism. Moreover, the film may even have a (strong) message: don’t arrange a one night stand on the internet without knowing who you’re getting into bed with.

PG’s Tips