Friday, November 4, 2011

Capsule reviews: Drive, Contagion, Andromeda Strain

Apart from the recent Festival du nouveau cinema, Between the Seats has not been to the movies since September, believe it or not. Here is a small sample of what little we did go see in theatres, as well as what we caught on our favourite television channel, MPix.

Drive (2011, Nicholas Winding Refn)

An unnamed man (Ryan Gosling) works during the daytime as a stunt driver for movies as well as in a car repair garage for the kind man who employed him, Shannon (Bryan Cranston). By night, however, he comes to the assistance of robbers who require a getaway driver. Eventually, paying these two roles proves far too dangerous, as they come crashing into one another, putting not only himself in danger, but the pretty mother who lives down the hall, Irene (Carey Mulligan).

Danish director Refn has garnered considerable praise for his previous work, most notably the famous Pusher trilogy. Unfortunately, we didn’t see said trilogy, but did review Valhalla Rising earlier this year. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I could detect the similarities between those two films, Drive and Valhalla. The pacing is deliberately slow, very much so in fact. He definitely likes to test his audience in that sense, which is a crying shame to write because I think that 20 or 30 years ago a film like Drive would have been considered by huge amounts of people as a rollicking good time. It most certainly is, but for other reasons than merely the sporadic action scenes. The emotional core of the film is remarkably strong, with Gosling and Mulligan sharing memorable, if decidedly quiet chemistry on screen. There is a bond between the two, but the return of Mulligan’s husband character halfway through creates a significant barrier. However, the Gosling character, realizing that the family may be in danger, chooses to help all of them, including the husband. It’s a nice touch, indicating that Gosling’s character is a force for good, period, regardless of the complications involved. It simplifies things, him being just ‘good’ and all, but also complicates them when he begins to display some of his more violent tendencies when coming to the defence of the family. It’s all played creatively and with the right amount of style. He’s the cute blond guy who will tear you freaking face off if you make the wrong move. Lest we forget, the score/soundtrack is terrific. It is a slow burn whose fire burns brightest. Well played, Refn, well played.

Contagion (2011, Steven Soderbergh)

A mysterious and fatal flu virus which may or may not have originated in China is spreading rapidly across the globe, killing hundreds of people every day in several countries. The film follows the tribulations of the doctors, health experts and ordinary citizens who must live with this stark new reality in one way or another. Starring, get this, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, John Hawkes, Jude Law and even more people (like Bryan Cranston again)!

Oh, this is pretty darn good. Contagion turned out to be almost exactly how I hoped it would. The movie is cold, both from an emotional and cinematography standpoint. It is strictly concerned with how all sorts of people are confronted with the propagation of a virus whose origins and structure are currently unknown, but is spreading like wild fire would in a dry field. That in of itself is terrifying because of its realistic nature. The fear of catching the disease is far worse than the fear of having caught it, because in the latter situation one knows they are already dead and done for. This fear of contagion is played on in devilishly effective manner by, who else, Steven Soderbergh, who demonstrates yet again his ability to bounce from genre to genre in near effortless manner. This movie is so cold that is cares little about the fact that big name stars are playing important characters. The virus doesn’t care either. If it attaches itself to a given big name star, well, they’re dead. I love big name actors, so it wasn’t as if I wanted to see them die, but it was refreshing to watch a film that played things in as honest a manner as possible. Another thing I liked about the picture was how there was not much in the way of a plot. The ‘plot’ really is how the world is working on a cure and how regular folk are surviving, if at all. It’s a very simple premise, but the intricacies of the situation are complicated enough to actually make a compelling feature-length film. It was filmed in IMAX too, which was how I saw, and God is it ever brilliant when directors use IMAX properly. I saw this on opening weekend, which was way back in early September, and it has stayed with me vividly. Definitely one of the year’s best.

The Andromeda Strain (1971, Robert Wise)

In the same vein as Contagion, although on a smaller scale, a mysterious virus is claiming lives in the United States. Those unfortunate enough to contact it have their blood turned to sand. Eww! Four of that country’s best doctors and scientists are brought together at a secret, ultra-sophisticated underground laboratory codenamed Wildfire to study the virus and find a cure. The film stars Arthur Hill, Kate Reid, James Olsen and David Wayne.

I was really with this film for the first half hour or so. The nature of virus, when it was more unknown, was truly scary, as were some scenes in which some doctors are exploring the region where they assume, for time being, it originated. The awkward silence indicating death in a town which was once always an effective storytelling device. Scenes also transition from one to the next with the help of a very strange synthetic score which sounds gave me the creeps as well. I think the film started to lose points when the scientists enter the underground laboratory, Not that it becomes a bad film, for it was still interesting enough, but the pace starts to drag significantly. As the research and tests on the virus continue, there are some exciting moments of discovery, and I would wager that the performances are okay, maybe with the exception of Kate Reid, who gets into a very ‘sassy’ mood all the way through, which got annoying by the end. And yet, there was something about how it all played out which did not sit as well with me as I would have liked. Strange that I would consider Contagion to be thrilling (and it is most definitely not and thrill-a-minute movie) but find The Andromeda Strain pretty boring at times. The film simply decides to make odd choices, like the near 10 minute sequence when the four doctors must be cleaned (via tremendously sophisticated technology) as they travel to each successively lower underground level. Did we have to spend so much time seeing them go through that process? There is a semi-twist near the end, although anyone who has seen films in the same spirit as Andromeda can arguably guess it a long time before it is even revealed.  It’s alright, although I can’t say I’m terribly enthusiastic about it.


Adam Kuhn said...

Glad to see your praise of Contagion. It is one of those films that I feel got skimmed over by the film world for some reason, but it is a top notch film. Really effective as you say. Also glad to see you liked Drive so much. It is one of my favorite from the year so far, especially thanks to its style.

edgarchaput said...

@Adam: Interesting to note is that 'Contagion' is still playing on the same IMAX screen on which it opened two months ago in my city. Evidently enough, there are at least some people seeing it.
I'd like to check out its end of the year gross. I wonder if the movie will have earned more money than we suspect, only that it did so in the slow and steady manner rather than what we are accustomed to reading about these days: an impressive opening weekend followed by a quick exit.