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Contagion (2011)

September 8, 2011 1 comment

Consider the following list of names: Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Elliott Gould and numerous others you will recognise on sight — and all directed by Steven Soderbergh. Now here come two separate questions: how do you define retirement? how do you define entertainment?

 

Some months ago, Steven Soderbergh announced he was retiring from filmmaking. Various reasons were suggested, the most recent being that he would like to become a painter. Yet these noises, repeated while he was directing Contagion (2011) (which first appeared at the Venice Film Festival), seem to have meant little or nothing since he’s also mentioned other films he wants to direct and is currently filming Magic Mike.

Gwyneth Paltrow blowing for good luck

 

An entertainment is an activity or event designed to amuse or provide enjoyment. On the face of it, a film with a stellar cast directed by a top name should provide enough fireworks to keep us interested. Yet, it seems retirement is too strong a lure for Soderbergh. All he’s done is give us a documentary drama and, to be honest, I’ve seen better made for television. There have also been a number of epidemic/pandemic films where we’re given the chance to admire the scientist as hero. It’s an unsubtle form of propaganda designed to lull us into a sufficient sense of security so we can sleep well at nights. When a real world threat like SARS comes around the next time, we’re supposed to feel reasonably safe, stronger in the belief there are protocols in place to keep as many alive as possible. Except this film doesn’t seem intended to serve that purpose. Its too flat and factual to have any kind of inspiring or reassuring effect. It’s a mostly dry step-by-step investigation into how the virus gets started with one or two more dramatic bits thrown in.

Matt Damon as a stoical survivor with a daughter in his wake

 

I hesitate to start with a spoiler but, to save you waiting for the last frame of the film, I’ll tell you it was the bat wot done it. I hate to spoil murder mysteries by crassly giving away the ending but, in this case, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be long past caring. I suppose you know that, if an epidemic is suspected, the World Health Organization and local medical authorities invest a remarkable amount of effort in trying to identify exactly where the outbreak began. Well, this is no exception and, as the body count rises, we follow the attempts of the WHO and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as they try to work out who first passed the disease to whom. This is more than useful information because, if there are several possible vaccines, knowing how the virus came to infect the first human can swing the decision. Except this is really boring. Worse, the fact we do learn that a bat infected a pig shows the futility of the entire tracking exercise. No-one would ever find out how this virus got started. Soderbergh does his best by casting Gwyneth Paltrow and Matt Damon as the couple of interest but she’s mostly in flashback before she dies, and he’s just stoical. As an aside, it’s not at all clear how this couple could ever have met each other let alone married. They are completely mismatched. The plot is also unclear as to why Matt Damon survives when looters are rampaging through his neighbourhood shooting everyone who might have food.

Jude Law making absolutely sure he does not fall ill

 

So here goes with a summary which I will do by actor names rather than characters because who everyone is is not very relevant. Gwyneth Paltrow is at ground zero and brings the virus back to the US. She infects her son and both die in short order. Husband Matt Damon proves to have natural immunity. He therefore represents our Everyman who must survive with his daughter until the crisis is over. Laurence Fishburne is still channelling CSI and running the CDC effort to contain the outbreak. Marion Cotillard goes to Hong Kong from the WHO to investigate ground zero. Kate Winslet goes from the CDC to Minneapolis to investigate contacts where Gwyneth landed.

 

In all this, the only really lively thread is provided by Jude Law who beautifully captures a conspiracy nut with a heart of greed. This is a wonderfully judged performance showing a blogger determined to become a millionaire by promoting a homeopathic cure for the virus. Then, of course, a couple of researchers break the rules and come up with solutions. Strange just how clichéd that’s become. Oh, yes, and Lawrence Fishburne tells his fiancée to get out of Dodge before the National Guard shuts it down. Good to see he has human failings. And not too many millions die.

Steven Soderbergh with a health warning

 

Don’t get me wrong. This is an impeccably made film but it’s almost completely uninvolving. I really didn’t give a damn about any of the people portrayed in this dry sequence of events. It’s a documentary drama without the drama. It’s a tragedy to see so many talented actors wheeled out in front of the cameras in an episodic narrative sequence that doesn’t require any character development. More or less anyone competent could have done as well. Indeed, it’s probably slightly distracting to keep seeing all these memorable people wander into and out of shots. It would have been better to have a cast of unknowns. So Contagion (2011) is a bit like a real-world disease. You fear its arrival, suffer while you have it, and are profoundly relieved when it goes away.

 

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

March 3, 2011 1 comment

When you watch The Adjustment Bureau, there’s a big elephant in the room (particularly at the end) so we might as well get it out into the open from the beginning. Let’s think about the set-up. We have these “immortal” beings on Earth to keep us to the Plan. What Plan, you ask, noting the capital P? Well, the Chairman (who had another name in years gone by) has a Plan for everyone in the world. From time to time, we were allowed completely free will and we messed up. First there were the Dark Ages, so God took us back under His wing, and then, from 1910 onwards, we managed two world wars, a depression and. . . well, let’s just say the Cuban missile crisis was going to blow up the world, so the renamed Chairman decided enough was enough and put us back on the Plan.

Now, the good news is that we do still have free will. We can either go with the Plan or opt out knowing the dire consequences likely to follow from that choice. Think of it in explicitly Christian terms for a moment. There’s always a Final Judgment. It’s unavoidable when we die. If we stay with God’s Plan, we get Heaven. The Other Place is waiting for those who decided they would rather go their own way.

I confess to despairing of Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader because it took a very simple Christian message and overelaborated to the point where the message was confused, if not, lost. This has a more straightforward approach and, without putting up a signboard saying, “Here be the Christian message” manages to speak to those of a Christian persuasion. For those of you like me who are atheists, it’s still a good film. Everyone can take heart from the idea that, if you fight hard enough for the things that are important to you, you will often force others to bend and allow you to realise your dreams and ambitions.

Matt Damon and Emily Blunt's first meeting

The Adjustment Bureau is a delightful romance framed as a fantasy. For once, I am going to stand up and applaud the leading actors. In the majority of films, you get two randomly matched stars thrown together on screen and told they must have chemistry. In some cases, it’s obvious they don’t even like each other. In the remainder, you can see them acting smouldering passion with the enthusiasm of a guttering candle. Here Matt Damon is remarkably likeable and engaging from the first moment he appears. You really could see him as a successful politician with a charisma the size of New York. Emily Blunt is also wonderfully quirky in a distinctly British way. I’m hopeful the American audience will appreciate quite how nuanced the performance is. The result is instant chemistry. The script calls for them to feel attracted to each other from first sight and everyone will get that. In fact, I would go so far as to say that their performances as a couple lift this film from the ordinary to a very different level.

The Team tries an appeal to reason

The rest of the cast are all pleasingly competent with Anthony Mackie troubled by his conscience, John Slattery feeling frustrated and out of his depth, and Terence Stamp cleverly underplaying the role of Thomson, The Hammer. It’s also amusing to play catch the walk-ons with Michael Bloomberg and one or two others allowed fleeting moments on screen.

But my biggest round of applause goes to George Nolfi who is credited with both the direction and the screenplay (based on the short story “Adjustment Team” by Philip K. Dick). From Bladerunner in 1982 onwards, there’s been a gold rush to P. K. Dick for script ideas. One or two have been remarkably successful. The majority have varied between the interesting and the dire. In a sense, this mirrors Dick’s work. I confess to being a completist, having managed to get firsts of everything he wrote. I therefore come to this film carrying the heavy burden of encyclopaedic knowledge. Dick was badly affected by his drug-taking habit and, at times, suffered paranoid delusions, many of which inform his writing. Thus, the “Adjustment Team” is rooted firmly in the paranoia of the Cold War with a realtor whose arrival at work is not delayed, so he gets to see the Team at work. He’s then whisked upstairs to meet with the Old Man who explains the grander political purpose behind the adjustments. Nolfi’s decision to restructure the whole story into a modern parable about free will and determinism is immensely satisfying. The original is, to put it mildly, slight. This film is not only genuinely entertaining as a romance, but also pleasingly provocative in persuading even hard-bitten cynics like me to consider the possibility that good things may come to those who struggle against Fate.

Although I might nitpick one or two scenes and say they went on too long or there were problems, this would miss the point. It’s wisdom with the benefit of hindsight. As it stands, the film picks you up and carries you along to the end without time to think. It follows its own logic, particularly as to ripple effects when the Team are monitoring probabilities in realtime. I unhesitatingly recommend this to everyone who enjoys quietly thoughtful drama. There are no car chases or explosions — although people do run around a little — with everything being resolved with a great sense of style and rationality. The only other comment I would make is that I was reminded of a greatly underrated science fiction drama series called The Lost Room where doors can take you to where you want to go. On television, you use a key. On the big screen, you need a trilby for the same trick. As a final thought, don’t be taken in by the marketing hype claiming this is, “Bourne meets Inception”. In fact, The Adjustment Bureau is not a thriller with people shooting each other, nor is it set as a dream. See the film for what it is and not because of some hack sloganeering.

This film has been shortlisted for the Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation 2011.

 

True Grit (2010)

With the impeccable sense of timing for which I am rightly famous around the world, I chose to see True Grit on the day that, despite its ten nominations, it failed to win a single Oscar. This unfortunate coincidence does, however, give me the chance to think about why there should have been so much expectation and then so much disappointment.

 

Well, I start with the admission that I paid to see the original version with John Wayne when it first came out back in 1969. Despite being an avid reader, I never have bothered opening the novel on which both film versions are based. I guess Charles Portis did a good job since it not only rode high on the best-seller lists, but also paid off in the cinemas. But reading Westerns has never been my thing (although I do confess to ploughing through several — as a Will F Jenkins completist when I was younger, I did try one or two just to see how awful they were). The one thing you will always remember from the original film version is John Wayne’s star quality. He was unbeatable as the old, optically challenged and overweight marshal (notice how they changed the eye when Jeff Bridges stepped into the role). That said, the film itself wallows in sentimentality. Here’s this fourteen year old girl out for vengeance who not only get the chance to draw a bead on the man who done for her father, but also gets bit by a rattler and has to be rescued by the curmudgeon with a heart of gold, John Wayne. For the record I never liked Kim Darby’s performance and was less than impressed by Glen Campbell, a singer moonlighting as an actor.

 

All of which leads to the question: what in tarnation was those Cohen boys thinking, remaking True Grit? Of all the films seen in all the towns, in all the world, they have to pick a classic John Wayne film. My first reaction when hearing the news was that this was another unnecessary film. It was never the greatest film in the world and saved from oblivion only by Wayne’s performance — nominated the last time only so that the Academy could give a final recognition to Wayne for all his years of service. But curiosity got the better of me so I paid out my money to see “it” again. I suppose I was daring it to be as good.

Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld

 

Well, I will give credit where credit is due. The cast is a mile better than in the original. Jeff Bridges manages not to be John Wayne in a positive way and Hailee Steinfeld is a real find as Mattie Ross. The frontier would always have thrown up precocious children like her and the chance to see her at the end is wonderful confirmation of how she will come out of the mould when turning into an adult. Matt Damon does well in the thankless role of LaBoeuf and Josh Brolin’s cameo as Tom Chaney is as good as they get. This rebalances the film. The original is a star vehicle for John Wayne with the others tagging along in his wake. In some senses, this is Mattie Ross taking the lead. She frames the beginning with her horse-trading and at the end. . . Instead of Wayne making that final victory jump over the fence, we have the self-righteous spinster walking off into the sunset. And, in a sense, that’s the key difference between the new and the old. This is significantly less sentimental. We see the girl’s burning desire for revenge with Cogburn nothing more than a marauder with a badge. The change is signalled early on. The first version is full of sun-dappled landscapes. This has snow falling and bitter temperatures. This is the difference between a slight feeling of romanticised fantasy in the original, and a more unforgiving and threatening landscape where people who do not pay attention find death waiting for them.

Matt Damon and Josh Brolin

 

Having taken a moment to think about the new, I offer reasons for its failure to secure any Oscars to go with the nominations. Firstly, this always was a rather slight story. In both cases, it’s the acting that lifts the plodding plot. Except, without the feel-good sentimentality of John Wayne’s final performance to inspire the voters, we are left with the same old problems. LaBoeuf remains a convenient deus ex machina who looks to be leaving only to magically reappear when the time comes to save the other two. And why the natural survivor, Ned Pepper played by Barry Pepper, must be a villain who has a sense of honour when it comes to Cogburn and the girl has always baffled me. Any self-respecting outlaw, shoots the girl and rides away as fast as possible in the opposite direction. This four-on-one shoot-out always was pure hokum for the set-piece at the end. Seeing it stripped down with the snow falling takes the romantic edge away from the original meadow scene with the camera getting elevation to show the showdown at its most inspiring angles. In the real Wild West, it would all have come down to who could bushwhack whom first. Cogburn was always Quantrill’s man and would never have acted with such reckless disregard for his own safety unless he had read the script first.

 

Finally, the character of Mattie Ross is redefined as an almost totally unsympathetic vigilante. She’s as wantonly vicious and cruel as those she chases, being prepared to shoot to kill when given half the chance. It’s slightly ironic the Cohens show her at the end. This frames her as a cold-blooded killer walking away into an empty future. Despite her smug self-righteousness, I hope she punishes herself. Not everyone can live comfortably with the lie of self-defence when they have chased so hard after their victims. In their defence, Cogburn and LaBoeuf want to save her from herself and send her back. But, with her horse’s help, she’s able to demonstrate her absolute determination to be in at the kill. What can they do but shrug and let her become a killer like them?

 

So I was less than impressed by the remake. It was a good try and stripping away all that sentimentality makes a big improvement. But it remains an unnecessary film about murder. With all their talent, it’s a tragedy the Cohens, Ethan and Joel decided to forget everything that has made their films so consistently watchable over the years. Hopefully, they will go back to what they are good at with an original story that fits their inimitable style. I wish them better luck with the Oscars of the future.

 

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