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This Week's Film Reviews (Sep 16, 2011)

17 Sep 2011

Opening this week are DRIVE and STRAW DOGS as well as GAINSBOURG and THE LION KING in 3D.

The Toronto International Film Festival carries on till Sunday!

CONTAGION (USA 2011) ****
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

CONTAGION follows the rapid progress of a lethal airborne virus that kills within days. The film begins at Day 2 of the virus and ends with Day 1 showing how (fictitiously) the virus really originated.  The film is a dead serious documentary style fictionalised piece following the epidemic as it grows worldwide with the medical community racing to find a cure and control the panic that spreads faster than the virus itself.

The subject is still hot-off the press as people have still not forgotten the deadly impact of SARS and other infectious diseased such as West Nile and the swine and bird flues.  The script by Scott Z. Burns likely follows the headlines and documentation of SARs.  All this makes the film work like a time bomb thriller with many subplots.

The main plot concerns the start and spread and containment of the epidemic here named the bird flu.  The story includes the discovery of the vaccine and how it is distributed not leaving out the problems of who is entitled to receive it first.  The film also takes the pandemonium one step further by allowing the flu and deaths to spread across all the continents with rioting that results from insufficient vaccine production.                    To humanize the story, the script adds several real life characters.  The main one is the Center for Disease Control’s Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) asked by a deputy from the Department of Homeland Security (Enrico Colantoni) to contain he problem.  He is no angel and makes mistakes by evacuating his loved one thus leaking out confidential information.  Another involves Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) who develops a slight cough as she waits in a Chicago airport to go home to Minneapolis and be with her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) and son Clark (Griffin Kane).  By the following afternoon, she is dead from an unknown cause.  Then there is the CDC investigator Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) investigating Emhoff’s death and the city’s growing virus cluster while World Health Organization investigator Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) heads to China to track the virus’ origin.  Meanwhile, at the CDC, doctors Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) and David Eisenberg (Demitri Martin) attempt to grow the virus in a lab so they can begin testing vaccines.  Finally, freelance blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) seizes the opportunity to report the story and then seizes a far more villainous opportunity as he preys upon fear and paranoia to feed his messiah complex.

To his credit, Soderbergh balances the characters quite well with his intercutting of the stories so that it does not feel as if he is a traffic cop directing traffic.  It helps that the plot is so strong that the subplots flow conveniently into each other.  Soderbergh moves his film fast, especially during the second half and the film works like a thriller with a time bomb waiting to explode.  With the revelation of how the flu originated, the climax ends like the solution of a whodunit.  The poor Chinese look like the villains in the film though they get tricked into given false vaccines by the Americans.

CONTAGION is an ambitious piece that can clearly look silly and fall apart in the hands of an inexperienced director.  Fortunately, we have Steven Soderbergh at the helm, and he has done a film like this before with TRAFFIC where he tackled the topic of drugs on a wide scale.

DRIVE (USA 2011) ****
Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn


DRIVE, based on the novel of the same name by James Sallis is a sexy, stylish, ultra-violent action pic that won its director, Danish Nicholas Winding Refn the Best Director award at Cannes this year.  Judging from his style, this Fane should be a regular hit with Hollywood studios.

DRIVE follows Ryan Gosling, looking his sexiest as a stunt car driver coerced into working as a getaway car driver for a robbery that ends up totally botched.  Observing that there was a second car, Driver realises a set-up by mobsters played with menacing aplomb by Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks.  His calm and cool nature gives way to uncontrolled violence (kicking the head of an assailant to a mashed pulp in an elevator) as he tries to protect the neighbour (Carey Mulligan) he is falling in love with.

A lot of the film hinges on Gosling’s performance.  He succeeds well in the role of talent pushed to the limit evil people and forced to show his true nasty colours.  It is the same kind of role he will be seen in soon in George Clooney’s THE IDES OF MARCH.

Despite the film being an action flick, Refn (the PUSHER trilogy; BRONSON)

dishes out credible romance that works better than most Hollywood romantic comedies.  Effective, fast-paced, credible and entertaining, DRIVE marks an exciting outing at TIFF where it premiered.  The car chases and stunts, needless to say are more than impressive.

GAINSBOURG (France 2010) **
Directed by Joann Sfar

The Gainsbourg of the film title refers to the late French singer songwriter who created quite a stir with his sexual escapades and varied music styles.  He is still regarded as the world’s most popular influential musicians.

If the name Charlotte Gainsbourg rings a bell, she the actress of films like ANTI CHRIST, MELANCHALIA and the recent THE TREE is his daughter from then younger wife, Britsh actress and singer Jane Birkin.

Born Lucien Ginsburg, in Paris, the son of Russian Jews, Sfar’s film follows Gainsbourg as a boy who is completely different.  He smoked cigarettes vicariously, had adult dates with girls and was first to line up and wear David’s star during Nazi occupied France.  He is tailed by huge heads and one ugly pointed nose character.  Sfar’s film is interesting so far as the artist is a boy.  The use of animation and musical numbers enlivens the film.

When he grows up, his antics grow (to the audience) annoying and childish.  Sfar selected Eric Elmosnino to play the man.  The actor is not charismatic nor a goodlooker making the film difficult to enjoy.  To Sfar’s credit, an actor who was picked has an uncanny resemblance to Gainsbourg.  Lucy Gordon also looks so much like Brigitte Bardot whom Gainsbourg had an affair with.

For a biography, one wonders how much truth there lies in the film.  Sfar takes liberties with weird imagined objects.  For example, an imagined fire destroyed all his paintings thus convincing him to become a musician instead.

The atmosphere of period Paris through the decades is effectively created aided by the change of music styles and wardrobe.  Sfar assumes the audience familiar with Gainsbourg music as no attempt is made to thrill new converts.

But the end result is that GAINSBOURG is still a very much detached moring affair unless one is a great follower of the musician.

THE LION KING (USA 1994/2011) ****
Directed by Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers

The 1994 hit that spawned a musical has already been re-released in 2002 in IMAX format and now again now gets a 3-D release.  Is it because the film is King?  The favourite animated musical enjoyed by both young and old is no doubt royal entertainment but one must cringe at Disney for another money grabbing opportunity.         But as the film opens pre-credits to the familiar song “Circle of Life”, wonderful memories are returned back to the days of 2002 when we were younger and fuller of life.  THE LION KING presents the story of a lion cub''s journey to adulthood and acceptance of his royal destiny. Simba (voiced first by Jonathan Taylor Thomas, then by Matthew Broderick) begins life as an honoured prince, the son of the powerful King Mufasa (James Earl Jones). The cub''s happy childhood turns tragic when his evil uncle, Scar (Jeremy Irons), murders Mufasa and drives Simba away from the kingdom. Simba believes himself responsible for his father’s death and remains in exile.  For comic relief, the young lion befriends the comically bumbling pair of Pumbaa the warthog (Ernie Sabella) and Timon the meerkat (Nathan Lane), he and lives a carefree jungle life. As he approaches adulthood, however, he is visited by the spirit of his father, who instructs him to defeat the nefarious Scar and reclaim his rightful throne.  The film borrows elements from Hamlet, classical mythology, and African folk tales which give the film a grandeur not seen in other Disney outings.  LION KING is also one of Disney’s more serious affairs.  Score is by Oscar award winning Hans Zimmer and there is the unforgettable tune “Can You Feel the Love Tonight, sung by Elton John.                                        Animation is best for 3D though the 3D effects are hardly noticeable after 15 minutes or so into the movie.  The film is just as enjoyable in 2D but if one wants to be able to see water and the stars in the sky in another dimension, and then all is well.               THE LION KING opens for a special 2-week 3D run September the 16th.

STRAW DOGS (USA 2011) ***
Directed by Rod Lurie


A remake of the Sam Peckinpah classic of the same name that starred Dustin Hoffman and Susan George, the new 2011 version retains most of the violence of the original.

The story involves a new couple David (James Marsden) and Amy Sumner (Kate Bosworth) relocating to the wife’s hometown in the Deep South. There, while tensions build between them, a brewing conflict with locals becomes a threat to them both.  Why the relocation is never mentioned neither much of the couple’s history prior to the move. The film concentrates and moves at a high pace of tension to the climax where the locals surround the Sumner’s house with intention of killing them, thus forcing them to defend themselves the best they can.

The old version had Dustin Hoffman relocating his British wife to rural England.  It makes sense for a Hollywood remake to make changes to a move to the Deep South, where hidden prejudices lie.  In fact the best part involves the ambiguity and misinterpretation of the Bible to suit the locals’ needs.

But Peckinpah was a Master of violent movies and his STRAW DOGS in which Susan George was raped and Hoffman killing the guilty was a controversial classic.  One thing characteristic about a Peckinpah movie was that there was never any audience anticipation.  Each scene worked well on his own, and after a Peckinpah scene, one would sit back and say: “Wow!”  To Lurie’s credit, his version has lots of audience anticipation.  He uses the fact that Amy never mentioning the rape to her husband as a point to keep the audience at edge.  When the black sheriff admonishes the locals, one can also foresee him getting into deep trouble with them later on in the film.

But Lurie uses a lot of similar sequences from the original.  The throwing of hot boiling water at the intruders, the burning of the house, and dialogue as “You are a coward!” are taken right out of the 1971 movie.  But one crucial line that Hoffman uttered; “There shall never be violence against this house!” was not and should have been used.  Things added include the bear trap and a nail gun to heighten the violence.  The climatic fight between David and Charlie (Alexander Skardgard) works well with David just being hammered to a pulp.  This makes sense as Charlie is 6 inches taller and bigger built than him.

Lurie stages the confrontation set-ups very well.  The saloon, hunting and climatic segments should get the audience at the edge of their seats.  The tension is well maintained throughout the film without much slack.

Everyone loves to watch a man pushed to the limit and coming out winning.  STRAW DOGS hits the mark pretty well with regard to this respect!  At times, the film works more like a good horror movie than a thriller and succeeds on both accounts.  But one wonders how good this STRAW DOGS would have been if the original was never made!

BEST BETS OF THE WEEK:

Best Film Opening This Week:  Drive
Best Film Playing: Attack the Block
Best Comedy: Bridesmaids
Best Family: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Best Documentary: Chasing Madoff

Best Foreign: Sarah’s Key (Elle S’appelait Sarah)
Avoid: Creature

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