Contagion (2011), and my thoughts on the Coronavirus/COVID-19

Contagion (2011), and my thoughts on the Coronavirus/COVID-19

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh. Starring: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law. Runtime: 1h 46 min. Released: September 9, 2011.

Some spoilers follow.

During our Coronavirus pandemic, it seems like everyone is watching Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. Last week I think this was at No. 35 on the Most Popular Movies IMDb chart and as of this writing (very early morning, March 21) it sits at No. 4 on that popular movie chart. This makes sense, because there’s no better way to make yourself more paranoid right now than watching Contagion.

The film itself is about a fast-spreading virus, the MEV-1, that escalates into a pandemic as the CDC works to find a cure. The spread of the disease is the most fascinating aspect in Contagion, originating in Hong Kong with Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) and escalating quickly from there when she returns home to Minnesota.

The way the virus spreads feels realistic and it’s interesting as it’s established what the “basic reproduction number” is and how quickly it will spread. It’s engaging to watch because of Soderbergh’s apt direction and I love his aesthetic in his own cinematography, as well.

Contagion, Winslet, math
Kate Winslet in Contagion taking us through the “basic reproduction number.” (IMDb)

I’ve always found this a realistic, engaging drama/thriller. I haven’t watched this since 2015, but watching this during a pandemic, the paranoia hits differently. The mortality rate depicted in the film is 25-30 per cent, where 1 in 4 people will die from it, and according to an article on Business Insider and, I’m copying and pasting this part, “according to Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, COVID-19’s mortality rate is probably around 1%, which is still about 10 times the flu’s.”

The pandemic depicted in Contagion is obviously more aggressive, but there are some eerie parallels to our real-life. It’s also impossible to watch this film and not spot the parallels to our life and this film. Even in the film’s tagline, “Don’t talk to anyone, don’t touch anyone,” feels like our world right now with social distancing.

In the film, the disease starts in a populous place like Hong Kong (Wuhan for Coronavirus), where tourists fly home, infect people at the airport, and then infect people back home as they go about their everyday life. The other big thing is the looting of supermarkets and stores. We’re not at the “looting” stage yet, but I think that all relates back to the panic buying of toilet paper of all things, and the bulk-buying of essentials that others need, too. And I’m sure if someone in real-life suggested there were a cure like in the movie (“forsythia” in Contagion), it could get a little crazy out there with people trying to get it.

Personally, I haven’t seen any of the “looting” but I’ve seen a lot of pictures online about empty grocery store shelves and the lineups getting into COSTCO, or people fighting over toilet paper. I mean, when I went to the grocery store around March 10, there was still toilet paper but less than there usually would be. I also haven’t been outside since March 15, before my province of Ontario declared a state of emergency, so I’m not sure what my local grocery store would look like right now.

Contagion, Jude Law, hazmat
Jude Law wears a Hazmat suit going outside in Contagion. (IMDb)

As of this writing, Canada only has 1,087 cases, and I can only assume it will only get worse here. With some of what I’ve seen, especially the amount of new deaths everyday in Italy and the images of military trucks transporting coffins out of the area feels like it’s straight out of a horror movie. The aggressive way that’s spreading in Italy feels like Contagion, and the most unsettling scene in the film because of that is when a city runs out of body bags.

In our world right now, I think it’s the fear of the unknown of how long this virus will look a week from now or a month from now. When will be able to return to regular living? I go to the movie theatre once or twice a week, but how long will they be closed for? This is turning into a review of Contagion and my thoughts on the Coronavirus/COVID-19, but this is therapeutic sharing my thoughts on it, and also relating it back to Contagion, since I see the world through film.

Contagion could easily be an exaggerated docudrama. There are things here that feel “apocalyptic” that I don’t think COVID-19 will lead us into, but the fact that NHL, NBA and MLB have suspended their seasons and Las Vegas is shut down for 30 days is crazy. It feels different than anything I’ve lived through during my lifetime, especially H1N1 in 2009/2010. I was in high school then and surely did not miss any school because of it. I don’t know if the media is blowing it out of proportion – but when I see tweets of people losing their loved ones to it yet others are still out on spring break, it feels like this should really be taken seriously to “flatten the curve.”

Okay. I just have bad anxiety, depression and I can be a hypochondriac at times, so it’s just a freaky time. I’ll just talk Contagion now. I think it is at its most fascinating when it shows the spread of the disease. There’s one especially great scene when Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer, is trying to find out who Paltrow’s character has come in contact with and she calls someone who is sick on a city bus and tells him to get away from people. The shot of him touching everything is just effective.

The film is interesting when it brings Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) into play, a blogger/journalist and conspiracy theorist who thinks that the virus is manufactured as a profiting scheme for drug companies, using his large platform to stir this fear.

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Matt Damon in Contagion. (IMDb)

At times this isn’t the best with creating well-rounded characters, and some feel more-so identifiable by the actor playing them than the character themselves, and this is very much the case with Laurence Fishburne as Dr. Ellis Cheever, who works for the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). His development is the flattest of the ensemble. Other characters get sidelined, like Marion Cotillard as Dr. Leonora Orantes who is investigating how the disease started in Hong Kong and then totally gets sidelined for half the film for reasons that would spoil it.

Everyone plays their characters very well and the ensemble is impressive. The film is engaging throughout because it’s a fast-paced analysis of a viral outbreak, but for the human side it only shines in a couple moments. One such scene is between Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), who is one of the players working to find a cure, and her father in a very sweet moment. I also liked Matt Damon’s character here, who is the husband of Beth Emhoff, who might as well as be Patient Zero. I think the first time I saw this film (in April 2012), the most surprising thing was Gwyneth Paltrow dying by the 8-minute mark. Once we see how aggressively this virus spreads, it isn’t that surprising, but as an audience member I felt the same way Damon’s Mitch Emhoff feels when he’s told his wife is dead because of the virus. “Right. I mean, so can I go talk to her?” he asks.

I think this is one of the best scenes in the film to show just how quickly it escalates. The fact that he loses his wife and then his stepson in a matter of 24 hours from this virus is so traumatic. There are ways his character could be fit into the story more – since he is immune, I think using his blood as a base for the cure would have given him more purpose – but the way his character plays out is believable. This is especially the case of how protective of he is of his daughter, Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron), and not letting her interact with other people because she’s the only thing he has left. There’s a heartbreaking moment near the end of the film when Mitch processes what’s happened.

The film’s ending is anti-climactic as it shows the origins of the virus in a fascinating scene, to where it all started. It’s anti-climactic in the way that the virus shows up, it gets cured, and life gets back to normal. Hopefully, that will be the case sooner than later with our Coronavirus.

Score: 75/100

29 Days of Romance, Review #10: Midnight in Paris (2011)

29 Days of Romance, Review #10: Midnight in Paris (2011)
Midnight in Paris poster
IMDb

Directed by: Woody Allen. Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard. Runtime: 1h 36 min. Released: May 20, 2011.

I have some Woody Allen films on my watchlist and I thought I’d start with Midnight in Paris because it seems the most interesting. This is only my second Woody Allen film after watching the mediocre, but well-acted Irrational Man in theatres in 2014. My expectations were higher for Midnight in Paris because it’s well-reviewed, but apparently that doesn’t matter for me when it comes to my enjoyment.

Gil (Owen Wilson), an American screenwriter obsessed with Paris and nostalgia, is on vacation with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her family (Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy) and is trying to write his first novel. For inspiration, he takes walks and is transported to 1920’s Paris every night at midnight.

There’s a charm and whimsy to Midnight, a lot of which is thanks to the 1920’s inspired score (there are no ‘music by’ credits on Woody Allen films for some reason, which seems weird). The concept of the film is good even if the “rules” of the time travel aren’t explained. Gil just has to go to one certain corner in Paris and hop in a car that will drive into that era. It’s not as much about the “time travel” side of it but the fact that it’s escapism to a golden age.

The film’s a love letter to the city of Paris and it’s evident Woody Allen loves the city. Owen Wilson’s performance is why I liked parts of this, but Allen inserts himself into the character a bit too much and his occasional prose would be easier to read than watch. His dialogue gives this life in the scenes of the 1920’s, which is where I found some entertainment. Tom Hiddleston as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Corey Stoll as Louis Hemingway are highlights, as is Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein. The rhinoceros bit with Adrien Brody as Salvador Dalí is hysterical. Allen captures the author personas and artists well even if half of what Hemingway went on about felt repetitive.

Midnight in Paris article
Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams in Midnight in Paris. (IMDb)

There are some obscure references to Parisian figures that I just didn’t know but are funny if you’re familiar with them. The writing in just sometimes not all that accessible because Allen just flexes how much he knows about the era and that gets to a point where it’s obnoxious, but Gil himself never feels obnoxious. Gil was the only character I cared for and even the literary figures became gimmicky after a couple nights. The best character is an amalgamation of Picasso’s lovers, Adriana (Marion Cotillard). She brings charm and strong chemistry with Wilson.

Rachel McAdams plays bitchy well but I hate her character. I’d assumed McAdams would be the love interest here and not the anchor holding Gil down. Kurt Fuller is solid as her father John. There’s a character here called Paul who is very obnoxious, and he’s only saved by Michael Sheen’s screen presence. He makes you want to listen even if his dialogue is dull. For the most part, the scenes in the present were insufferable for me. That’s the point because the present day is shown as pedestrian and unsatisfying, but still.

Wilson is the highlight for me as an average, rich guy who we live vicariously through as he goes back to the ‘20s. His passion for Paris is sweet – as this is a romance is man and woman, but also man and city – but it didn’t make me passionate about Paris. It just made me think it would be cool to revisit ancient Rome. I like nostalgia as much as the next guy, but the charm of this simplistic story turned to boredom quickly. It just left no impression on me and I don’t think strong dialogue and one good character is enough for a great film.

Score: 50/100

Assassin’s Creed (2016)

Assassin’s Creed (2016)
assassins-creed
Source

Released: December 21, 2016. Directed by: Justin Kurzel. Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons. Runtime: 1hr., 55 min.

I haven’t played any of the Assassin’s Creed video games, so I’m not sure if I would have been able to follow the Apple of Eden storyline better. But since I hadn’t played the games, I was pretty damn confused throughout.

Marion Cotillard’s psychologist character Sophia Rikkin tells us throughout that if they could acquire the Apple of Eden, they could rid the world of violence – because whoever has it controls free will. I didn’t really get the reasoning that if you have the apple, you would control free will, and it seemed like the writers assumed viewers would know that the Apple has mind-control abilities (which is fair, because most people who see this have likely played the games). I thought the explanation was murky, and the story suffered from a lack of clarity.

The story also suffered from just being generally uninteresting. Callum “Cal” Lynch (Michael Fassbender) is sentenced to death by lethal injection for murder – they never elaborate much past that – and since he’s legally dead, he’s taken in by Abstergo Industries (led by Jeremy Irons, father to Marion Cotillard’s character) for an experiment. Turns out, he’s the descendant of a Knights of the Templar member, Aguilar de Nerha (also Fassbender), and is taken through his movements and memories in 1492 Spain to see what happened to the Apple of Eden.

The most compelling parts of the story are definitely the scenes during the Spanish Inquisition that writhe with style, and you know when they’re in 1492 because of a transitioning crow flying through the air. The scenes are action-oriented, and are the most exciting parts of a largely boring feature. The costumes of the time are pretty awesome, too.

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Michael Fassbender in Assassin’s Creed (Source)

Michael Fassbender is good in a dual performance. It’s an athletic one and the fact that he kept a straight face during a manic and rather hilarious (I’m unsure if the hilarity was intentional) rendition of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” was impressive. That’s where the good of the movie starts and ends.

The character of Cal, or any other characters, aren’t interesting. Michael K. Williams made an appearance as another descendant within the Order and his characterization was slack, to say the least. His dialogue was rather cryptic. Cal’s characterization was alright – his mother was killed and it made him an angry person – but he was boring. Irons and Cotillard’s characters who were searching for the Apple were also nothing memorable, and were simply driven by the prospect of eradicating violence.

The whole screenplay just felt like the writers spent more care on the action sequences and fight choreography than crafting a competent story of any kind, with any characters you might even want to slightly root for.

I found the editing annoying when Lynch was plugged into Animus, the device that let him see his ancestor’s memories, since the scene alternated between Aguilar in 1492 back to Lynch in 2016. Perhaps it was trying to remind us that it had happened and now he was just living through the DNA memory, learning assassin skills as he went.

Whatever Aguilar does, Lynch does in 2016 – and the edits of him in Spain actually fighting real people was more interesting than Lynch in a huge room fighting ghostly holograms. It felt unnecessary to switch back and forth so many times, just because Fassbender’s playing both people and we know they’re doing the same exact thing but in different settings.

Cinematography-wise, everything was either too bright or really dark (at least when seen in 3-D). Fight and chase scenes were hectic, making things harder to follow at certain points on who was killing who. The frantic editing also helped avoid showing basically any blood whatsoever, which was ridiculous at one point when there definitely should have been blood. It apparently comes in the territory of adapting an M-for-Mature rated game franchise into a tame PG-13 movie that’s not nearly gritty or interesting enough to be good.

Score: 30/100

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The Dark Knight Rises

Release Date: July 20, 2012

Director: Christopher Nolan

Stars: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway

Runtime: 165 min

Tagline: A fire will rise.

This one was quite impressive.

   Eight years after Batman took the fall for Harvey Dent’s crimes, a new terrorist leader has come to the surface in Gotham. There hasn’t been a spotting of Batman for eight years, and Bruce Wayne has become a recluse around the same time. Wayne must overcome his own personal turmoil and once again protect the city that has branded him an enemy.

It’s a great summer blockbuster that offers many incredible thrills great plot execution, some great twists and turns, and great direction and writing from Christopher Nolan.

The character of Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) wasn’t all that great. She offered a nice presence, but she wasn’t developed well enough as the other characters. The other new characters, like Bane or Officer John Blake or Miranda, are really good, and got solid character development. Although, other new characters like Daggett or Stryver, weren’t very interesting at all and weren’t extremely well-developed. The old characters are, as expected, as great as always.

The usual great Nolan atmosphere is offered, and it is one heck of a super-hero film. Its only possessive flaw is the sometimes slow build-up, and the plot feels a little too overused. Of course, what can you expect from a super-hero film? It will obviously have the whole hero vs. villain play-out, and this one has an extremely memorable climax. Its length may also feel like a flaw to some, but really and truly it doesn’t feel nearly as long as it actually is. Also, some of the realism of the whole thing feels off in areas.

This was obviously highly anticipated, and it really does live up to its hype. The cast is stellar, and Tom Hardy delivers a great performance – considering all he must act with are his eyes, voice, and gestures. His British drone and sometimes barely-audible dialogue make his character cringe-worthy, but the majority of his dialogue was understandable – if you listen very well. The subtitles should be helpful to those who will watch it on home media.

Now, here come the inevitable comparisons to the first two films, and the villains before Bane. The Dark Knight Rises isn’t nearly as great as The Dark Knight, but it is much better than Batman Begins. The atmospheric action was greater in D.K., and it had more memorable scenes. Though, this was still amazing. In this Nolan trilogy, Bane is better than Ra’s Al Ghul (as Ken Watanabe), but not Cillian Murphy’s The Scarecrow, Two-Face or especially not The Joker. All Bane has really is a frightening stature, strength, and the whole mystery of why he’s wearing that freaking eerie inhaler thingy-ma-bobber. That isn’t very scary, right…? He’s probably not the best villain because he doesn’t use a whole lot of psychological warfare. Heath Ledger’s The Joker used that all-too-well, and he was downright terrifying with his extreme psychopathic nature. The Scarecrow was just really cool, and he obviously used psychology as a weapon as he poisoned his victims with that gas to make them hallucinate like crazy.

This flick stars Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Gary Oldman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, with Liam Neeson and Juno Temple.

The Dark Knight Rises is an extremely impressive piece of cinema that may be flawed, but still awesome. The length may threaten some, but it is an experience that should be had, and even people who don’t like super-heroes can enjoy this. It isn’t as great as The Dark Knight, as [it was] expected, but this is still quite must-see. This is a summer blockbuster at its finest which should snatch up an extremely respectable amount of awards.

90/100