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The horror genre tends to have only the most tenuous connections to reality. Scares generally take root in the supernatural hijinks or supremely twisted individuals acting on the darkest elements of their nature. Such fare is the stuff of nightmares, to be sure, but there's a comfort to be had in how unreal it all is. Walking down a dark stairwell or an empty alley is an easier affair when you can remind yourself that the cinematic monster haunting your thoughts is the stuff of imagination and therefore not any sort of actual threat.
The same can't be said for Stephen Soderbergh's riveting real-world horror story, Contagion. There's little disconnect between the horrors of the film and the possibilities of our world, where everyone is far more closely connected than we might (want to) realize. There are no cheap scares to be had here. Contagion finds its chills in the very real threat of a deadly epidemic that finds its genesis in a simple - and brilliantly presented - way. From the film's intensely edited opening moments, the danger of a world where everything we touch has been touched a million times before is a heavy, inescapable presence. The awareness wrought by the film is perhaps even more ironically effective seeing the film in a theater full of strangers who may or may not have washed their hands after taking a pre-movie dump and brazenly opening the theater door.
Tackling a worldwide epidemic, Contagion obviously has a lot of (literal) ground to cover. Storylines unfold in various cities and villages all over the world, with some characters dying within minutes of being introduced. It's an epic undertaking, the kind that often feels unfocused, thin, or too coincidental to maintain any narrative heft or momentum, but thankfully, such is not the case here. Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns performs a marvelous tight-rope walk, managing to create characters we come to know and care about, while also managing to keep all of the many plates spinning along at a healthy pace. It's an impressive feat of storytelling in a movie where you wouldn't expect to find an involving story. It's refreshing for a horror tale to involve actual human beings in situations we can theoretically relate to instead of pretty bags of meat being sliced and diced for the thrill of seeing their pretty blood all over the place.
Lots of characters means lots of actors, and this is the sort of star-studded affair that usually spells doom by distraction. Of course, this is an obscenely talented ensemble rather than the weird grab bag other movies brag about (seriously, who the fuck cares that Bon Jovi is in New Year's Eve?). Having so many powerhouse actors sharing the screen is perhaps even more precarious than a bunch of B-list TV stars and singers, but Contagion makes the most of its cast, with Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, and Jude Law making the biggest impressions.
It's great to see Winslet onscreen again, Contagion marking her first appearance on the big screen since 2008 (though she wowed the TV world with her likely-Emmy-winning turn in HBO's Mildred Pierce). Winslet's Dr. Erin Mears is a warrior against the virus, working in the field at the risk of catching it herself, and her tough courage and genuine concern make for another great - if less flashy - character for one of the world's most talented actresses.
Law plays a crusader of a different sort as the film's most ambiguous and entertaining character, a renegade blogger trying to expose the government's inner workings while also turning a profit for himself. Law's character is a divisive self-appointed Messiah, as demonstrated by the posters that litter the apocalyptic landscape featuring his face in double above the words "PROPHET" and "PROFIT," a brilliant bit of set decoration.
Damon is the movie's emotional epicenter as the husband of the virus's first victim (Gwyneth Paltrow). Damon delivers a stirring and touching performance similar to his turn in the under-rated Hereafter. He's at his best in roles like this. I'll take concerned father Damon over highly-trained super spy Damon anytime.
The rest of the cast performs admirably and features some surprising names that didn't get the advertising boost of the more "prestigious" stars. I was delighted to see Demetri Martin and Bryan Cranston, specifically, though neither has too hefty a role, and Martin is decidedly serious.
Not that one would expect Contagion to feature moments of levity. Despite its relentlessly somber tone and many moments of horror, Contagion never feels like a drag or too long a sit. Soderbergh, with such direction and a firm grip on the story he's telling, makes every moment count. While the virus is the impetus for the events of the film, Contagion is - through and through - a human story. It is ultimately about the lengths we'll go to to protect the people we love. It's a sad kind of hope peeking through the gloom and doom of a diseased world, but it's also a beautiful hope.
Comedy is often funniest when taking a risk and tackling taboo subject matter that will make audiences squirm. In recent years, movies like Religulous, In the Loop, and Four Lions have done just this, mining usually untapped sources of comedy gold - religion, the war in the Middle East, and terrorism, respectively - and thereby emerging as some of the most memorable and outright funniest movies in recent memory. In Jonathan Levine's (The Wackness) 50/50, the delicate subject of cancer is examined comically but carefully. Levine manages to get audiences laughing at situations that, in and of themselves, are far from funny, but he never crosses the line into undo levity. Instead, he crafts a film that finely balances comedy and poignancy, finding laughs in tragedy without glossing over the inherent hardship of a shitty situation.
It would be all too easy for a film like 50/50 to veer into apparent disrespect or - even worse - melodrama, but thankfully neither is the case here. Nearly every scene in the film has moments of joy and despair intermingled and ever unfolding concurrently; it's a rare treasure when a film can make you laugh and cry at the same time, and to such a degree.
The intermingling of pain and humor is consistent and never once rings false. Will Reiser's brilliant screenplay is utterly sincere, refusing to dilute a complicated plight to cardboard relationships, glossy characterizations, and overdone inspirational moments. Instead, Reiser finds the spectrum of reaction in each character and thus develops a network of believable, selfish, imperfect people relating to, disappointing, and surprising each other in ways that are refreshingly honest, sometimes to a startling degree. Throughout the film, I found shades of myself and people I know in the characters as they try their best to deal with the possibility of loss. It's beautiful in the messiness of its truth.
The well-written script provides plenty of room for the impressive ensemble to flex its collective acting muscle. Joseph Gordon-Levitt ((500) Days of Summer, Inception) plays Adam, a 27 year-old radio worker whose cancer diagnosis comes completely out of the blue. Gordon-Levitt, indie heartthrob and - thanks to Christopher Nolan - blossoming blockbuster star, gives one of his finest performances to date. Throughout much of the film, Adam is solemn and detached to the point of stoicism, keeping his loved ones at arm's length and refusing to search for solace. As his condition worsens, however, Gordon-Levitt gets the chance to unleash all of Adam's frustration, anger, and fear. Screaming, crying, wishing, Gordon-Levitt's nuanced work doesn't simply pluck at the old heartstrings - it tears them to shreds.
The eclectic supporting cast thoroughly impresses, as well. Seth Rogen (Knocked Up, The Green Hornet) colors his typical bawdy teddy bear persona with a warmth and tender loyalty that he hasn't gotten to display in much of his other work. Rogen's got a knack for nailing the quiet, dramatic moments, though he still shines most when providing loud, colorful comic relief. Bryce Dallas Howard (The Village, The Help) nails the lovely bitch role as Adam's wavering girlfriend, while Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World) brings her typical cute spunk, as well as surprising strength, to the role of Adam's inexperienced but earnest therapist.
Anjelica Huston deserves special mention as Adam's doting mother. Huston's screentime is limited, but she owns ever scene she's in, capturing just the right mixture of overbearing worrier and fiercely protective caretaker. Her delivery is flawless, and she brought tears to my eyes every time she appeared onscreen.
Tackling such tough subject matter in an effective but realistic way is difficult enough to do in a strict drama, but that Jonathan Levine and his cast and crew manage to do so with broad comedic strokes is truly impressive. 50/50 is a tearjerker like few movies I've ever seen, but unlike so many others, I never felt manipulated. Instead of laying the emotion on thick with a swelling musical score, slow-motion farewells, and uncharacteristically penetrating speeches, 50/50 is content to present Adam's situation in as realistic a way as possible. The ups and downs are accounted for and unfold as they likely would in real life, even if they're uncomfortable (even uncomfortably - seemingly inappropriately - funny). 50/50 isn't making light of cancer, not in the slightest. It's a celebration of life, love, and the people that make it all worthwhile, even when they let you down and make your plight a bit harder to bear. It's not an easy task to pull off, but 50/50 makes it seem effortless, even inevitable, to find such rapturous joy and biting comedy in one of the worst imaginable situations.
Color me surprised. As a general non-fan of Jim Carrey (who is great but generally chooses bad projects) and animal movies (at least they don't talk!), I expected Mr. Popper's Penguins to be a disaster of the most grating kind. Thankfully, Carrey turns out one of his most lovable performances, even if it isn't one of his best, as he makes Mr. Popper someone you can care about and root for, despite his failure to be an ideal father. The penguins provide some great moments, too, ranging from simple toilet humor to Charlie Chaplin fandom. There's nothing especially great about Mr. Popper's Penguins, but as a wholesome family comedy, it's certainly something to celebrate.
Bad Teacher has few big laughs, but thanks to its strong supporting cast, there's still a bit of worthwhile comedy to be found. Cameron Diaz is serviceable as the foul-mouthed, boob-obsessed protagonist, though your opinion of her performance will likely mirror your opinion of Diaz in general (thus, my general indifference). It's her supporting cast that gets most of the laughs, especially Justin Timberlake, Jason Segel, Lucy Punch, and Phyllis Smith. The movie is unfortunately predictable, even by comedy standards, but it's possible to enjoy the ride if you can turn your mind off (except the dirty part, of course).
I recently heard it posed that Larry Crowne might be this year's The Tourist, both for its star-powered shittiness and the likely bounty of Golden Globes attention it will receive. I have to say that this comparison is spot on. Larry Crowne is a dull, plodding, and overall stupid "romance" that fails to provide a single truly funny or interesting moment. Tom Hanks and Julia Robert's considerable talents are wasted, and the story goes nowhere (except to one of the most gratingly cheesy credits sequences I've ever beheld). Avoid Larry like the plague.