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Entries in Thriller (24)

Friday
Sep092011

Contagion

Disease is a universal fear. Everybody knows what it’s like to be sick and no matter how hard one might try, sickness can’t always be avoided. The thought of a deadly pandemic is scarier than any boogeyman one can think up and it’s here that the latest Steven Soderbergh film, Contagion, finds its inspiration. It takes the fear many have felt in recent years thanks to viruses like SARS and the bird flu and uses it in a mostly effective way, depicting a strain of infection that spreads like wildfire throughout the world and kills millions of people. If you aren’t a germaphobe now, you will be after watching this movie.

Contagion is a film that is guaranteed to freak you out mainly because events like this could actually happen, and have. Consider, if you will, the Black Death, which is alone responsible for upwards of 100 million deaths, and it’s only one example of pandemics throughout history. A new virus, unstudied and untested, can have a devastating effect and, though this is a work of fiction, a voice in the back of your head will be sure to remind you that we are at all times only a few steps away from a similar reality. That’s the strength of the film. It sets out to scare and it succeeds.

However, as with any scary movie, there must be strong central characters to care about. Otherwise, the looming threat means little. Unfortunately, Contagion has none. There’s Mitch (Matt Damon), whose wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) and stepson have just died from the virus, Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), the head of the CDC who is trying to control the panic that seems to be spreading faster than the virus, Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), the person who is determined to find a cure, even if it means testing on herself, Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), an Internet blogger trying to uncover a government conspiracy that may or may not be real, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), a member of the World Health Organization who is about to find herself in a precarious situation, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), who is also doing her part to help, and more. There’s even a cameo by Sanjay Gupta.

I don’t mean to suggest these actors aren’t doing their part; the acting is all around fantastic. I only wish to point out how crammed this movie is. Despite good performances, too little time is spent with any random character to create a connection between them and the viewer. Think of it like a news report detailing a shooting (an unfortunate event that occurred just the other day). It’s sad, but it’s a general sadness. What we feel is a different feeling than what we would have felt had we personally known someone harmed in the event. That’s what happens here and we fail to care about any one person. The film jumps back and forth between characters far too much, to the point where some are left missing for large chunks of the picture. Dr. Orantes, for example, is kidnapped relatively early on and forced to help the last of a dying village in Hong Kong. By the time it got back to her after spending extensive time elsewhere, I had forgotten she was even in that predicament.

It’s a poor juggling act—the majority of characters should have been written out of the script in favor of a select few—but Soderbergh does what he can and, as one would expect, Contagion is well shot, if a bit safe. Soderbergh doesn’t break any rules here the way he does in his more experimental low budget films like Bubble or The Girlfriend Experience and instead cranks out a conventional thriller, but his usual verve for filmmaking is nevertheless apparent. Most of the film’s problems stem from too much ambition—its attempt to pack so much into such a short amount of time was unwise—but it’s hard to fault ambition. At least Contagion has some, which is a quality lacking in most movies these days.

Contagion receives 3/5

Friday
Apr012011

Source Code

Director Duncan Jones is a talented filmmaker. Last year’s Moon was a terrific little science fiction film that deviated from your standard genre fare. It actually had ideas and wasn’t about endless gunfights with random alien creatures (although those can be fun too, as seen with the recent Battle: Los Angeles). It was a very good movie, but stumbled just enough to fall shy of greatness. His follow-up, Source Code is analytically identical. It comes so close, but thanks in large part to a miscalculated ending, Jones again finds himself just out of reach of achieving something special.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Captain Colter Stevens, a helicopter pilot for the US Army. One day, he inexplicably wakes up on a train sitting across from Christina, played by Michelle Monaghan. He doesn’t know how he got there and is confused that this woman sitting across from him, whom he has never met, is addressing him as Sean. As he attempts to explain to her that he isn’t who she thinks he is, a bomb goes off on the train. Suddenly, he wakes up in a capsule with a video monitor of Sergeant Carol Goodwin, played by Vera Farmiga, who begins to talk to him about the events on the train. Although he doesn’t know how he became involved, he learns that he is a participant in the government’s newest technology, dubbed the Source Code, which allows him to relive through somebody else’s eyes the last eight minutes of their life. His actions in the Source Code don’t change the course of time or the outcome of the event, but if Stevens can find the bomb and figure out who planted it, he may be able to stop further disasters from happening.

Source Code is a movie with its pieces scattered everywhere and intentionally so. Things are purposely vague at first, but as the movie begins to repeat itself, changing little things each time, the puzzle starts to come together. Stevens lives through the same eight minutes each time and as he does, so do you. Like him, you’ll memorize how events will play out in different scenarios and, rather than simply watch him solve the mystery, you’ll become an active sleuth yourself. It almost becomes a game of who can figure it out first, the viewer or the character in the movie?

In these ways, Source Code works the brain, but it doesn’t forget the more visceral senses either and delivers a healthy dose of excitement and action amidst the thought provoking subject matter. Although you eventually become numb to the explosion that inevitably occurs every time you’re on-board that train, it’s the events leading up to it that manage to keep your adrenaline rushing. Because he is told he cannot manipulate the space time continuum and nothing he does to these already deceased people has any consequence, it allows him to do and act as he pleases, which includes holding passengers up at gunpoint and breaking into areas he otherwise wouldn’t go.

Unfortunately, Source Code shoots itself in the foot as the conclusion rolls around. Without giving anything away, it should have ended five minutes sooner, but it instead opts to give audiences the easy ending rather than the tough one. This epilogue goes against the very essence of the film and effectively ruins its chances of garnering any end of the year awards.

Other problems persist, like the underdeveloped romance between Stevens and Christina, but Source Code is nevertheless intricate, tight and, most importantly, not confusing (as long as you’re paying attention, that is). It delivers everything you could ask for in a thriller and refuses to dumb down its subject matter for an audience that would rather be spoon-fed everything. And for that, I commend it.

Source Code receives 4/5

Thursday
Mar312011

Red State

I don’t know a single person who doesn’t loathe Fred Phelps, his family and the so-called “church” he runs over in Topeka, Kansas. Democrats and Republicans, Christians and atheists, and everyone in between, they all look at the people who preside at the Westboro Baptist Church and want to puke. It’s an understandable feeling. With protest signs preaching intense hatred (“God Hates Fags”) and praising the deaths of our soldiers fighting overseas (“Thank God For IED’s”), one can’t help but look at them and feel some type of overwhelming emotion; sadness, anger or even a mix of the two. These horrible people are the inspiration for Kevin Smith’s new non-comedy film, Red State, and despite struggling in certain areas, it’s guaranteed to be a cathartic experience for anybody who despises the Phelps family as much as I do.

The movie follows a family by the name of Cooper, a family not unlike the Phelps clan that thinks homosexuals are the bane of society. However, rather than simply picket with outrageous signs (which are meant to be funny, like “Anal Penetration=Eternal Damnation”), they go one step further. They actually kill those who they find impure. After luring a trio of kids, played by Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun and Kyle Gallner, to their area with the promise of sex, the family begins a ritualistic sacrifice, but things go wrong and they find themselves in the middle of a battle with ATF forces, led by agent Joseph Kennan (John Goodman).

Kevin Smith is one of those filmmakers that has never impressed behind the camera, but what he lacked in that area, he always made up for with his sharp writing and quick witted dialogue. Despite being his most technically proficient accomplishment to date, his strengths and weaknesses remain the same in Red State. Similar to last year’s Cop Out, this film features a big action scene late in its runtime and Smith struggles to make it exciting. Aside from the fact that it goes on for far too long, its main problem is that nothing really happens. Most characters simply stand around, occasionally pop their head out to take a shot, then retreat back to cover. The franticness of what a cinematic gunfight should entail is all but missing. For much of its length, Smith rests on a shot reverse shot filming pattern, which isn’t exactly the best way to ramp up the thrills.

However, when the film is quiet, Kevin Smith is at his best. It’s only natural for one to wonder if his knack for writing engrossing dialogue would translate over into more serious movies, but I’m happy to report that it does. Though some jokes still linger, Red State is serious in tone. From an early scene where the head of the Cooper family, played marvelously by Michael Parks, gives a hate filled sermon to the closing scene where Kennan justifies his actions in the aftermath of the conflict in front of a government board, the film oozes stylish dialogue. Smith has announced many times that this is his next to last film as a director (his last being Hit Somebody) and many are upset by the news, but I could care less. It’s when he stops writing that we’ve truly lost a talent.

Now, as much as I love seeing the Phelps-esque family in the film get their comeuppance (though I by no means advocate that happening in real life), it can’t help but feel like they’re an easy target. It sometimes feels like Smith is using them to set-up a greater message, but one never really comes around. For instance, the film may be called Red State, but it lacks a political message, aside from the fact that people who associate themselves with right wing politics tend to be more religious, which is hardly a revelation. The only true point it makes is that religious fundamentalism can be dangerous, which is true, but if you really want to see a scary story about religion run rampant, you need look no further than the terrific documentary, Jesus Camp, or even the maddening exposé on the actual Phelps family, Fall From Grace. Both of those offer more substance and insight into the same topic, but as a twisted, sick companion piece, Red State will do.

Red State receives 3/5

Friday
Mar182011

The Lincoln Lawyer

Throughout the years, Matthew McConaughey has made a name for himself, though the name isn't one he should be proud of. He has become “the romantic comedy guy,” starring in such films as Failure to Launch, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Fool’s Gold and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, all of which, for all intents and purposes, are awful (yes, even the last one). He has become the laughing stock of critics around the country, to the point where my colleagues and I, before each of his movies, make a bet as to how many times he will take his shirt off. But if he keeps doing movies like The Lincoln Lawyer, he may turn that around. It’s his first legal thriller since 1996’s A Time to Kill, which, coincidentally, is the last time he made a good movie and while this isn’t quite as good as that film, it’s definitely worth seeing.

McConaughey plays Mick Haller, a smooth talking lawyer who seemingly always finds a way to win. He’s generally disliked among the law community for representing scumbags who probably shouldn’t be on the street, but he doesn’t care as long as he gets paid. His next client, wealthy playboy Louis Roulet, played by Ryan Phillippe, who personally asked for his assistance, is now under investigation for attempted murder and the brutal beating of a prostitute. However, he claims he was set up and that she’s only after a chunk of his change. Along with his investigator, Frank, played by William H. Macy, Mick begins to put his case together and discovers that somebody isn’t telling the truth.

As is to be expected, The Lincoln Lawyer, for much of its runtime, speaks in legal mumbo jumbo. It’s a language I don’t fully understand, but the film never bogs itself down in it and manages to be easily understandable even to those without law degrees. It uses those words because it has to due to the nature of the story and, even though the direct meaning of some of them flew over my head, the context of the sentence defined them for me. Not once was I lost watching the movie. Conversely, I was intrigued until the very end. Once you’ve invested yourself in this story, it’s impossible not to be.

Unfortunately, the path to that end is a bit bumpy. While not excessive, The Lincoln Lawyer is plagued with awkward cuts and a number of dramatic miscues. From a random post sex explosion of anger from his ex-wife and colleague to an abrupt and sudden cut where Mick goes from pinning a character against a wall to sitting at a bar with a drink, the movie repeatedly makes questionable decisions.

This is most evident in the back half of the picture when the actual trial takes place. While I’m no lawyer and can’t speak from experience, the court proceedings seem uncouth and exaggerated for dramatic effect, full of sustained stares and long, exhaustive monologues from characters at the stand. Although much of it is intentional, these scenes become comedic, a stark contrast to the preceding hour that highlighted murder, alcoholism and more. In a courtroom drama, you expect the courtroom scenes to be the most gripping parts of the movie, but because of these problems, they are instead the most inauthentic.

Nevertheless, The Lincoln Lawyer is a solid movie and it’s carried by a powerhouse performance from Matthew McConaughey. He hasn’t put this much vigor and passion into a role in quite some time and he has proven himself as more than the joke many have made him out to be.

The Lincoln Lawyer receives 3.5/5

Friday
Mar182011

Limitless

Limitless is a film that merely exists. It doesn’t impress. It doesn’t offend. It’s just there. It spends an hour and 45 minutes moving neither forward nor backward. It creates a feeling of apathy among its viewers, disconnected from what’s happening onscreen and ready to depart from the theater and experience something more exciting. It’s a movie that has an interesting idea, but never does anything interesting with it. It’s not a waste of time, but it’s also not worth it. The strange crossroads Limitless finds itself in is one of equal mix hatred and admiration. If that’s the best it can do, despite some positive aspects, I’m going to have to advise you to skip it.

Bradley Cooper plays Eddie, a struggling writer who is in the middle of a block, unable to find anything in his mind that is worth putting on the page. After months of producing nothing, he runs into his ex brother-in-law, Vernon, played by Johnny Whitworth, who gives him a drug that allows him to use all of his brain rather than the small percentage humankind has been limited to. The drug is called NZT-48 and, rather than use it to further pursue a literary career, he makes a name for himself in the finance world, catching the eye of big business mogul, Carl Van Loon, played by Robert De Niro. Unfortunately, there are side effects that Vernon didn’t mention and Eddie quickly finds himself wondering if it was all worth it.

Limitless is a film that reminds one of The Social Network, only to a lesser degree. Its comparative dialogue, which is fast moving and quick witted, makes it seem like it’s aiming for something smart, but that aim seems to be in the wrong direction. It may use big words, but without proper implementation of them, they are nothing more than psychobabble. And its script relies on ridiculous scenarios and contrived happenstances to move the plot along, like an early scene when Eddie is looking for the drug in his now dead brother-in-law’s apartment. After an unsuccessful search, he says that without the drug, he’s “cooked,” which naturally leads him to finding a secret compartment inside the oven.

Essentially, Limitless is a story about a drug addict. Eddie takes the drug, becomes addicted to its intoxicating, feel good effects and then finds himself in dire straits as it begins to take his life. Given the subject matter and the path Eddie goes down after taking the drug, it would be easy to assume that there is some type of anti-drug message, but that’s not the case. In fact, the end result of the film, which will not be revealed, shows that prolonged drug usage can have a positive effect, as long as you can work through the initial negative side effects. It’s an ending of questionable morals and it comes off as more than a little irresponsible.

But when it all comes down to it, it’s not the contrivances or the problematic message that kills Limitless. It’s that it’s just kind of boring. While a technically solid film, it fails to capitalize on its intriguing premise. Surely if we could use our brains to their full extent, it would be more interesting than this. An idea ripe for the picking is wasted on a screenplay that has no idea what to do with it. It’s ironic really. The characters in Limitless are brilliant, but the story they are forced to trudge through is dumb as a rock.

Limitless receives 2/5