Film Roundup: The Not-Too-Distant Past

’09 to ’12

No real order to the movies I’m dishing up; these just happen to be some of the films I’ve seen within the last year, and since they’re close in proximity to one another it seemed like a good way to group them. Could have also thrown in There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, both of which I re-watched recently, but I figure I’ll save those for a later date, especially since I think there’s a full-length essay about NCfOM sitting in me.

contagion_ver8_xlgContagion (dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2011): Of all the epidemic disaster flicks available, this is probably the most realistic. The scientists do their best to trace the virus to its origin, have various breakthroughs and setbacks in their development of a vaccine, and ultimately provide a solution although the human cost is tremendous. There’s tension without action. There’s drama without cheap sentimentality. Yet of all the intertwining storylines, the only one that bears any resemblance to modern day anxieties come to out-of-control fruition is snake oil salesman Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a blogger/conspiracy theorist given too much public credit who intentionally leads millions down the wrong path. Ultimately, though, Soderbergh is able to connect all these loose string plotlines into something easily comprehensible, more than I can say for overrated duds like Crash.

dredd_ver2Dredd (dir. Pete Travis, 2012): The only video game films I’ve seen that spring to mind are the Resident Evil series and the first Silent Hill, the former entertaining in a campy sort of way while the latter had great visuals but a boring story. I doubt Dredd follows any story from its comic or video game (and I’m too lazy to look), but far as I can tell, it does what video game films ought to do—get protagonist from Point A to Point B, achieve Objectives 1, 2, and 3. Its action sequences are visually stimulating and serve to move the characters forward and insert new challenges rather than fill time. Karl Urban’s stolid portrayal never gets tiring nor does it seem overly unrealistic. Behind that visor is a tough cop trying to come to grips with his situation, one that’s pretty fucking dire. Director Pete Travis has only had one other major theatrical release, the repetitive and predictable Vantage Point, though here’s hoping Hollywood execs slide him a few more projects with this much bravado.

im_still_hereI’m Still Here (dir. Casey Affleck, 2010): A mockumentary documenting the mental deterioration of actor-turned-rapper Joaquin Phoenix captures a compelling ruse executed by the film’s main man, a sort of extended character piece that amounts to little more than a series of purposefully cringe-inducing exchanges between Phoenix’s druggy alter-ego and others who may or may not have been in on the joke. And so I guess for the morbidly curious it could be entertaining, but those who recall that it was released in a cloud of mystery (is it genuine? performance art?) will still face problems figuring out just what to take away from this. Was it a joke? Was it commentary on our dumb fascination with the famous? A critique on our preference for the glam and glitz but not the banal minutiae of celebrities’ lives? Or just a showcase for Phoenix to flaunt his talent?

informant_ver2The Informant! (dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2009): Matt Damon stars as Mark Whitacre, a high-ranking officer within a corn company whose division is suffering setbacks. Whitacre decides to simultaneously create stories and reveal the truth to the FBI about extortion and an international price-fixing conspiracy, only to get caught up in his own web of lies and criminal activity. Billed as a comedy of sorts, this doesn’t have so many laugh-out-loud moments, though Whitacre’s ineptitude is the source of many facepalms. Soderbergh delicately rolls out a dual narrative with an all-star cast: Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, and Tony Hale make excellent appearances.

jack_goes_boatingJack Goes Boating (dir. Philip Seymour Hoffman, 2010): Directorial debut of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman based on the play of the same name by Robert Glaudini, who adapted his own work for the screen. Hoffman plays Jack, a soft-spoken limousine driver with an affinity for marijuana and reggae. His friends decide to set him up with Connie (Amy Ryan), a similarly shy person with intimacy issues. As Jack takes up swimming and cooking to impress Connie, he finds the marriage of his friends Clyde and Lucy (John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega) is dissolving. The awkward bits of dialogue make it clear this was intended for the stage and not the screen, but the four principals give heartfelt performances, and the chemistry between Hoffman and Ryan creates the most awkward sexual tension I’ve ever seen. Which is how it should be.

master_ver2The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012): Loosely based on Scientology figurehead L. Ron Hubbard, Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic pseudoscientist/intellectual and leader of the cultish “Cause,” a movement based around Dodd’s work that asserts one can access previous lives by undergoing “Processing.” Perfectly balancing Hoffman’s performance is the even better Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, an alcoholic WWII veteran prone to erratic bouts of violence who happens upon Dodd’s boat one night. The story here isn’t as important as the performances themselves, as both Phoenix and Hoffman create characters so vivid, so perfectly complementary of each other (Quell is figuratively the ugly underbelly of Dodd’s faux-philosophy, and Dodd’s seemingly respectable façade echoes a self-deception Quell would like to employ for himself but is too handicapped to do so) that watching the evolution of their relationship is captivating all its own.


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