Contagion

Contagion was directed by Steven Soderberg and written by Scott  Burns.  The film has an A-list cast that includes Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Coutillard, Laurence Fishburne, and Bryan Cranston.  The plot of the film involves a virus or plague that spreads throughout the entire population and how normal people and governed health agencies react to the problem when portions of the population start dying.  The center for disease control is trying to find a cure for the virus and people in general are looting and stealing.  In short, the world descends into complete and utter chaos.  There is also a blogger tracking the effects of the virus on the world population.

The problem with Contagion is that there are too many storylines to juggle in this two hour film.  Characters in the film really don’t have any story arc.  Essentially the film is boring because the characters only purpose is to panic in the face of this viral attack.  Nothing about the film feels remotely honest or believable except for the relationship between Mitch Emhoff and his Jory played by Matt Damon and Anna Jacoby-Heron respectively.  Contagion had way too many characters interacting with one another trying to either solve this crisis or survive it.  I never had a moment in the film where I believed the level of panic people were supposedly in.  Other than the two actors I highlighted earlier, no one else in the film showed any emotional range or growth.  It’s as if the actors made their characters as bland as possible with no other motivation than to see the story to its natural conclusion.  The film is a weak drama that happens to be shot well.

Film:

Replay Value:

 

The Debt

The Debt is an espionage thriller about three Mosad secret agents who were assigned to capture a Nazi war criminal.  Decades later as elderly adults the three spies recall the mission that caused them to rise to fame.  There are still ghosts from the past that haunt these spies in the present which for them is 1997.  The film was directed by John Madden with a screenplay written by Mathew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan.

The three agents are played by six different actors.  Three in the past and three in the present.  Sadly, none of them make a memorable impression on screen.  Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain portray the only female in the spy ensemble named Rachel Singer.  Martin Csoaks and Tom Wikinson play Stephan Gold.  Finally, Ciran Hinds and Sam Worthington portray David Peretz.  The character who comes closest to being believable for me is Rachel Singer.  Both in the past and the present Rachel works incredibly hard to not only complete her assigned mission but also to search for any shred of humanity left in herself and her enemy.  Rachel in 1997 will stop at nothing to make sure that she lives her life honestly and with pride.  Neither actresses give Rachel a very distinct personality but I was able to see shades of individuality within that character.  Sadly, the same cannot be said for the male actors of this picture.  Both sets of actors seem to follow the same personality type of the gruff misunderstood violent spy.  Action occurs seldomly in this film which is fine with me but the scenes with action were too quick for my tastes.

The story of the film held my attention for two hours but I did not find myself emotionally invested in the espionage mission or the spies as characters.  The film as a whole felt bland.  I think something that would have helped the film succeed more would have been more background on each individual spy both in the past and the present.  I think the director spent too much time building up to the film’s twist when he should have been giving the audience a slightly deeper understanding of why this mission was important to these people.

The Debt is a solid espionage film but not one that will be remembered as a work that defined the genre of spy movies.  The Debt left a small impression but it entertained where it should have been more thought provoking.

Film:

Replay Value:

 

Drive

Drive is a film that works to gain your attention by keeping your focus on the thoughts and emotions of its protagonist Driver.  Drive was directed extremely well by Nicolas Winding Refn and capably adapted by Hossein Amini from a book by James Sallis.  Drive tells the story of a man who meets a woman and her son and becomes invested in their lives once the woman’s husband comes home from prison.  The husband asks eventually ask Driver for a favor and the events that unfold as a result of doing that favor carry most of the films last hour.

Drive is one of those films that I was excited about after it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this year.  I liked it because it didn’t feel like a thriller or a drama or a story of a man set on getting revenge.  Drive is a story of a man with no name who does a favor for someone and then has to react to the consequences of performing that favor.  Storytelling doesn’t get more straightforward than that.  The beauty of how brilliant this film is lies in its point of view and perspective.  Driver emotes emotions rather than directly stating how he feels or what he might need.  Mr. Refn works hard to show almost everything Driver experience from the point of us looking either up at the character or in two shots.  The chase scenes that occur in the film are few and far between but an extension of Driver’s personality as a character.  Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman both have memorable turns as villains in this film, neither is more sadistic or cruel in nature than the other.  Ryan Gosling is perfect as Driver.  Driver is a loner and everything he feels or even thinks is written all of over his face.  The relationship between Driver and Carey Mulligan’s Irene is all about how one person looks at the other.  Almost anyone who watches their relationship will see more looking at their glances than hearing the dialogue they speak.  Drive also features some rather intense violence in its second half but all of it is justifiable considering what the character experiences and emotes to the audience.

Drive is one of those rare films that allows the action only to occur when it is necessary in terms of the story.  The connection the Driver makes with Irene and her son shows a level of warmth I wasn’t sure we would ever see in the character.  The only flaw this film has is that it exists alone as one of its kind in cinema of this decade.  Maybe that’s a good thing though.

 Film:

Replay Value:

 

The Help

The Help is the kind of film I find unsettling because it speaks about an unfortunate and uncomfortable time in US History, the South and racism and segregation in the 1960’s.  The Help focuses on a young woman named Skeeter Phelen who desperately wants to become a journalist.  She decides that the best thing to do is write about what she has experienced.  Skeeter notices that the housemaids and cooks are not treated with respect and she decides to interview these African-American maids about their occupation and the duties those women perform which she wants to turn into a published book about the work The Help performs.

Emma Stone embodies the character of Skeeter Phelen and while she’s headstrong, genuine, and kind it upset me greatly that the film took so long to explain where those personality traits came from.  Skeeter was parented by a maid named Constantine Jefferson played by the legendary Cicely Tyson.  This surrogate mother serves as the inspiration for her book.  The beauty of Constantine is that she teaches Skeeter to value her own self worth.  Abeline and another housekeeper Minnie replicate the idea of white young women knowing their own self worth by telling children that they are kind, they are smart, and they are important.  Abeline works for a trophy wife and completely nonexistent mother named Jolene French and Minnie works for a racist woman named Hilly Holbrook.  Both Abeline and Minnie experience problems with their employers that showcase the theme that they can’t change the social status they have. Skeeter wants racial equality for The Help but she also is keenly aware of the fact that the housemaids she wants to interview don’t feel seen, heard, or understood because of the racism they experience on a daily basis. 

The Help works because it tackles prejudice and racism as it occurred in the South without dramatizing the experience to a degree that would offend moviegoers.  The strongest players in this film are Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.  The friendship of those two characters is the glue that holds the entire film together.  The performanccter’s issue is revealed it makes the story more realistic and believable.  There is no doubt in my mind that racism and segregation are tough subjects to tackle and this film works hard not to emotionally move us but to inform us of how society has and hasn’t changed since then.  The Help tells a story that is heartbreaking and original and it left me asking where and how we gained the level of humanity we have today.

Film:

Replay Value:

 

Up in the Air

Ryan Bingham is the best at what he does.  He fires people, from different companies all across the United States because the bosses in those companies know that things can happen when people get fired.  Ryan is a guy who travels some odd 230 plus days of the year to fire people from their jobs.  He spends at least two months at home each year in Omaha, Nebraska and absolutely hates it because he longs to be up in the air traveling to do his job because that is all he knows.  Ryan gets called in by his boss and he is introduced to a new woman named Natalie Keener who has revolutionized a new way to fire people in the United States.  Natalie’s genius idea is to fire employees through video conferencing.  Ryan hates this idea because it means he would have to be at home a lot more often and he also believes getting fired is the most personal thing that can happen to a person and that someone needs to be there for the employee being fired because it is the toughest day of their life.  Ryan in an attempt to prove he’s right tells his boss that she must learn our business before he can completely be sold by her idea.  Ryan around the same time meets a fellow traveler named Alex and they quickly fall for each other and embark on a relationship.  This movie is essentially about a man who has spent a large portion of his life up in the air away from the world and immune to its harsh realities and how coming back down for a visit both changes him and allows him to stay the same.

Up in the Air is a great film because it focuses on a small group of characters and a central idea that is universal to those who view the film.  The film’s main theme is human connection and how valuable that is in our lives.  This movie points out that there are those of us who in this world who tend to forget the bigger picture in life because we are so invested in our careers.  George Clooney plans a man who has no connections to the world outside of work and his sister’s.  When Ryan Bingham finally does make a connection with someone he doesn’t know how to handle it.  Clooney is essentially the teenager who spent his entire life home schooled and then gets thrown into the world of college and eventually work.  He has no idea what to do with the one genuine relationship he has formed and it’s a joy to watch him learn and struggle with his relationship with Alex.  The character of Natalie Keener played by Anna Kendrick is also an interesting one because she did something most people spend their lives trying to do; she followed her heart to be with the one person she loved.  She has an exemplary college record and is fighting to survive in the world of work and to a large part succeeding but like Ryan it takes her most of the film to learn the importance of human connection.  While both Clooney and Kendrick excel in helping director Jason Reitman tell this story of human connection the real stars of the film are the random everyday people they shot the “you’re being let go” scenes with.  The scenes in that small room with those people expressing the hardship they were soon about to face made the film especially poignant and at times heartbreaking.  For those who have a love affair with all movies George Clooney see it.  For this reviewer, human connection is my world and I’m just someone made a movie about how tenuous that is in our lives.

Film:

Replay Value:

 

The Karate Kid

The Karate Kid is a film that at its core teaches us the value of relationships with our neighbors.  The relationship between Daniel and Mr. Miyagi are what gave the film the majority of its heart.  The story of this movie is Daniel (Ralph Macchio) moves from Newark, New Jersey to  Raccida, California and is constantly getting into fights with the jocks who are fluent in karate.  Daniel has a crush on Alli (Elizabeth Shue) and her ex boyfriend  Johnny (William Zabka) doesn’t like it.  Daniel feels alone for the first half of the movie until one night during a particularly vicious beating by Jonny and his gang, Daniel discovers Mr. Miyagi knows the art of karate.  Mr. Miyagi agrees to teach Daniel karate if he uses what he learns as a force for good.  Mr. Miyagi also has Daniel confront his tormentors in their dojo and promises Daniel will fight Jonny, but only if he is left alone to prepare for the fight which Mr. Miyagi decides will take place at the local Karate Championship.  Daniel, wins the karate championship and proves to the bullies that once hounded him that he is not a person to be trifled with.

The Karate Kid is a story essentially about the metamorphosis of Daniel  and his transition from being the kid the jocks picked on to gaining acceptance from his peers.  The  scenes where Daniel spends time with Mr. Miyagi are bench marks in Daniel’s metamorphisis.  Mr. Miyagi serves as a grandfather figure for Daniel.  As an audience member it is very easy to infer that Mr. Miyagi is a bit of a loner at the beginning of the film.  Once Mr. Miyagi realizes Daniel’s ambitions and gets to know Daniel as a person Mr. Miyagi opens up.  The two characters of the film need each other to become better people overall.  Daniel needs Mr. Miyagi to teach him patience and how Karate is the art of defense.  Mr. Miyagi needs Daniel because he needs to relearn the beauty of friendship and how it can enhance your life as well as help you deal with loss.

I strongly believe that this movie plays into Asian stereotypes rather than allowing the relationship between Daniel and Mr. Miyagi to take a more organic form.  The fact that Mr. Miyagi happens to know karate and was also a war veteran seems rather convenient.  I  think the movie is at its weakest when Mr. Miyagi is imparting advice on Daniel Larusso.  I think the dialogue at that particular point in the film plays into every Asian stereotype I have seen.  The idea that the old man is wise and is incapable of making any mistakes is something I find incredibly unrealistic.  In the second half of the film, Mr. Miyagi is drunk because he is trying to literally drown out the memory of the death of his wife and child.  I find this also to be unrealistic and the opposite of how someone would react in regards to such a very heavy loss.  I would argue the stereotypes the writers and director had Pat Morita play into represented the idea of the good Asian.  I believe that not only was Mr. Miyagi old and wise but the character also was a very vulnerable person in general.  This argument can be proven by the fact that Mr. Miyagi was a bit of a loner at the beginning of the film and by the beginning of the credits Mr. Miyagi and Daniel Larusso both had someone who they believed in.

The  references to Asian-American culture are not plentiful in this film.  The only mention to Japanese culture is the bonsai tree.  Mr. Miyagi tells Daniel to imagine how the tree is supposed to look and then build the tree off of what he imagines.  The other reference made in the Karate Kid is made in reference to something that was usually shown heavily in 70’s Japanese cinema.  The reference is the idea of the samurai.  This is skillfully portrayed when Daniel is being saved from Jonny and his goons after the Halloween dance.  Mr. Miyagi serves as the father figure to Daniel and helps him gain confidence against bullies.  The Karate Kid is a superb film that teaches moviegoers about self-confidence.

Film:

Replay Value:

 

Avatar

Avatar is a remarkable film from the mind of the man who brought us such blockbusters as Titanic and Terminator 2: Judgment Day.   James Cameron has returned to directing films on the silver screen and oh what a return it is.  James Cameron returns to us after a sizable 12 year absence from the world that is Hollywood filmmaking.  He brings us a film about an injured soldier named Jake Sully who is recruited by the Military to gain intel on an indigenous alien race known as the Na’vi.  Jake Sully is sent to Pandora where the Na’vi live so that he can figure out how to mine an energy mineral known as unobtainium from the planet.  The reason he needs to gain intelligence from the Na’vi instead of just asking for the mineral is that the Na’vi do not trust humans.  Jake Sully has to let his mind enter an avatar so that he can pass for an actual Na’vi member and convince them to allow humans to use unobtainium.  Over the course of his time on Pandora, Jake Sully learns to respect and even embrace the culture of the Na’vi.  The movie hits its climax when Jake’s betrayal is revealed and the military decide to get the unobtainium by force.

Avatar is a film that when I first heard about it I was as skeptical as anyone.  The first thing I thought was that Avatar was Ferngully: The Last Rainforest with guns.  I can say that now having seen the film that James Cameron was out to give us a cinematic experience that allowed us not only to be thankful for the nature that our planet does have but to respect and preserve its beauty as well.  James Cameron is one of those rare directors who does not have a target audience because all he really seeks to do is educate us through the cinematic art pieces he puts foth.  If more directors thought along these lines the race for which film would get the Oscar for Best Picture would become extremely competitive because the audience would hopefully be moved by so many different films.  What makes Avatar work is that it is essentially about a man on a journey to find himself and how he changes or evolves throughout his time on Pandora.  I personally cannot say any one performance in particular stood out for me but it was a film that by its ending had me questioning how I lived my life and what was important to me.  James Cameron has made a colossal amount of money with this film and I hope that it is making money because of the questions it puts forth about our society and not just its eye catching visuals.   One can only hope.

Film:

Replay: