Friday, September 30, 2011

Contagion

It's the most common complaint people make about movies.

"Why couldn't it have been more realistic?"

Well, you sorry bastards, you've finally gotten your wish. You've gotten all the realism that could possibly be crammed into a 102 minute film.

I hope you're happy.


That's Gwyneth Paltrow, playing the first victim of a pandemic that shoots around the globe in Steven Soderbergh's new medical thriller.

It's a brave performance. It must have gone against the grain of every movie star instinct for Paltrow to allow herself to be portrayed, albeit briefly, as a sick, vulnerable, vomiting woman of questionable moral fiber, and then finally as a slab of meat on an autopsy table.

But she did it. And she wasn't alone. Contagion boasts a cast of all-stars, and they each seem willing to play real human beings caught in very plausible situations. From Matt Damon's luckily immune father desperate to protect a not-so-immune daughter; to Jude Law's opportunistic video blogger peddling a fake cure; to Kate Winslet's energetic front-line CDC researcher who gets infected while trying to rescue others.

There are even subplots that have no bearing on the plot -- just like in real life! One such is Marion Cotillard's strange abduction by Hong Kong medical colleagues who want to ransom her for early doses of the cure.

That cure, incidentally, is discovered by Jennifer Ehle, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Meryl Streep -- I figured she was Streep's daughter till I looked her up -- and only differs from Streep in one way I can determine. Unlike Streep, Jennifer Ehle can't act.


Not on film, anyway. She's won a pair of Tony awards, and that's the source of her problem. She hams up every line of dialogue and overplays every facial expression like she's still on the stage. She has a lot of scenes with Laurence Fishburne, and his relaxed, natural delivery makes Ehle's performance seem doubly-forced.

Hers is the only weak performance of the film. Overall, I never disbelieved what I was seeing on screen. It all felt real.

But that doesn't mean I liked it.

Okay, maybe I did like it, but that doesn't mean I loved it. And it doesn't mean my pulse rate ever got above eighty beats a minute.

Contagion is a smart movie that concerns itself with intellectual themes. It explores ethics, not morals. It considers society, not individuals. It deals in issues, not truths.

Ultimately, the movie is about a very bad virus, like SARS or the bird flu, that got out of hand, killed many millions of people, then got cured and life went on like normal.

And... well...

...that's fine.

But this is a movie, isn't it? I paid fourteen dollars to see this, didn't I? Can't I expect more from a movie than a level-headed look at how society might plausibly endure a major health crisis? Can't I expect larger-than-life heroes and villains? Can't I expect absurdly dramatic events I will never experience within the cruelly narrow confines of reality? Can't I expect more?

Well, that's the big question. And the way I see it: realism gives, and realism takes away.

What you gain with realism is superficial credibility. What you lose, potentially, is a stirring metaphor that can invoke deep emotional responses and make us look at the world through a different emotional lens for the rest of our lives.

The Godfather is about the mob, sort of. Really it's about families. And it doesn't have anything to say about families except that the ties that unite us can also strangle us. Is this profound? Is this original? Not really. But oh how deeply the movie feels this observation. And through the movie, we feel the observation with equal power.

By contrast, Contagion has no underlying emotional life. It's a movie about a pandemic that is really a movie about... a pandemic.

So there you go.

You got your realism at long last.

And I can already hear your reaction:

Why couldn't it have been more exciting?

SCORE

How Accomplished: 74/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 71/100

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Help

I would not see this movie in a million years.

Why? Because its marketing campaign did a great job.

It showed exactly what kind of movie The Help is: it's the dreaded historical Message Movie.

Present are all the tropes of that abhorrent genre: the noble and downtrodden black woman, the spunky white protagonist whose virtue lies in extraordinary empathy (and a downright suspicious sense of where history is going), and of course the gallery of sneering villains and villainesses just waiting to be exposed for the shallow-hearted snobs they are.

It's the kind of movie where characters say "Pshaw!" a lot more than seems conversationally plausible.

But I saw the movie anyway, because it was number one at the box office an astonishing four weeks in a row. This is the movie that dominated the month of August.

It follows the inhabitants of the town of Jackson, Mississippi, around the time of Medgar Evers' assassination.

Prodigal daughter Emma Stone returns to Jackson, after a few years spent in New York, to discover her old stomping grounds unacceptably racist. Tellingly, the movie never explores any possible racist feelings or actions in Emma Stone's own childhood. Instead, flashbacks reveal a young "Skeeter" -- yeah, her name's Skeeter; I don't know what to tell you -- who was extremely kind to, and well-loved by, her own black family maid. The decision not to reveal any defects in the protagonist's own character, or any guilt on her part, is an act of authorial condescension that permeates the entire ridiculously judgmental and simple-minded film.

Not only is Skeeter without the slightest hint of blame, neither are Viola Davis' pillar-of-the-housemaid-community, Abilene, or fellow maid Minny, or anyone else whose skin color is black. But if you're white and your name isn't Skeeter, God help you, you awful bastard.

It's largely because of this "easy choices" plot -- should I root for the racists or the non-racists? -- that the acting performances are unavoidably phony. Viola Davis is phony as Abilene, Emma Stone is phony as anyone not born in the late 1980's, and most dreadfully of all, Bryce Dallas Howard, an actress I love, is the phoniest of all phonies as frosty socialite and anti-civil rights crusader Hilly Holbrook.

Hilly wants to befriend the newly-returned Skeeter, so she tries to recruit her to the local chapter of Smug Jerks Against Civil Rights.

Skeeter wants to fit in with the local high society, so she does not spurn Hilly outright. Instead she secretly works on a scathing expose of southern racism by conducting covert interviews with Abilene, Minny and eventually all the black maids in Jackson.

The book goes on to become a runaway bestseller -- which is odd because it plays out like the book takes two weeks to write, one week to publish and a fourth week to become the talk of the whole country. The plot rests on these developments, so their inauthenticity -- both the ease of publication and the speed of it -- is jarring.

But then again, the wretched Help, the novel on which the movie is based, got published, became a best seller, and even got made into a terrible movie!

So I guess anything is possible.

Obviously I didn't respond well to this flick, but lots of people did. The movie has racked up a hundred and fifty million dollars so far. Obviously someone out there likes it.

And I can't fault them. The Help is a bad movie, but it's really not as bad as I'm making it out to be. It's just that I personally prefer my trashy movies to come right out and embrace their trashiness. If their plots revolve around spaceships found mysteriously adrift, or a pair of cops who are complete opposites but discover a mutual respect when they are both framed by a common enemy, so much the frickin' better.

But that's just me.

If self-important melodramas about beautiful social outsiders undoing hundreds of years of prejudice and humbling little miss perfect Hilly Holbrook by scribbling a bestseller on college-ruled notebooks are your cup of tea, then you'll probably enjoy The Help.

Your tastes could not possibly be more different from mine.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 43/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 04/100

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Apollo 18

Some movies just hit you where you're weak.

Such a movie is Apollo 18.

It imagines a 1973 mission to the moon that was not scrapped due to budget constraints and a fuzzy sense of purpose. It imagines an Apollo mission that was, instead, covertly launched and secretly conducted to avoid revealing its frightening, almost nefarious agenda.

Said agenda is to investigate mysterious signals detected near the moon's south pole in previous missions. Signals that are almost certainly of alien origin.

It's nefarious because the astronauts have no idea what they're doing. The transmitters they're setting up outside their lander are designed to summon the hostile alien lifeforms, and they don't even know it. Those bastards in the Department of Defense are using our brave astronauts as guinea pigs in some twisted experiment.

How am I supposed to resist a premise like that?

It's got mystery. It's got danger. It's got space travel.

I am in.



The movie is assembled just like the recent Paranormal Activity movies, which is to say, pretend-edited out of supposedly non-narrative film footage. Therefore some sections are almost willfully boring, to create a sense of verisimilitude and hopefully growing tension.

This worked really well in the Paranormal Activity flicks, and it works okay here too, though you have to get used to the jumpy cuts and slower pacing.

Once you do, you spend most of your time with square-jawed hero-type astronauts Nathan Walker and Benjamin Anderson, who perch their lander near a vast shadow-filled crater they can't go into, since it's too cold inside. This doesn't mean they can't ride their rover around it, and it doesn't mean they can't find another spacecraft on the far side. A Soviet lander, it turns out.

Plenty happens in Apollo 18, and the story is fairly conventional in structure. So much so, it might have been better served with the full studio treatment: a couple movie stars in the leads and a hundred million-dollar budget.

That might have forced upon the filmmakers a more rigorous consideration of what exactly the aliens are, and more importantly, who exactly the human characters are. Creative constraints arise from the fact that the protagonists are going to be 70's-era astronauts no matter what you do, but come on, you've got evil aliens living in a crater on the moon, you can take a little license.

And while they were at it, the writers might have given thought to what the movie's really about, under the surface. Theme is not a filthy word. It's okay to use it when coming up with your story.

As it stands, A18 is less idiosyncratic than PA 1 & 2, and ultimately less effective. Its scares are a little predictable, its characters a little bland, its underlying energy a little manufactured rather than inspired.

Thus, the movie resembles the Apollo lander, which was so historic and so iconic, less than it does the space shuttle, which finally got mothballed this year after two explosions and a mixed bag of accomplishments.

Nothing spectacular, but hey...

...it's STILL a spaceship.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 58/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 71/100