Monthly Archives: September 2011

Review: Contagion

contagion one sheetThere are specific genres of films, certain themes, that I find highly appealing, and one of those is apocolyptic events. From the daft The Happening to the cheesy The Day After Tomorrow, if the world’s ending, if we’re all facing extinction as a species, if something really terrible is going to happen, I’m interested. I think this started with classic old sci-fi like The Day of the Triffids and The Day the Earth Caught Fire, but that’s another story.

One of the most powerful – and frightening – of these film themes is global pandemics. Diseases already seem to spread without us fully understanding or being able to control them, and given that they rapidly evolve to become resistant to our defenses, it’s not much of a leap to see a very bad future or to imagine that they might be bioweapons or even alien life forms. My favorite film in this genre is the original 1971 thriller The Andromeda Strain, a film that’s still anxiety-provoking 40 years later.

That’s why I was perfectly primed for Contagion, though was a bit disappointed how cerebral and unthrilling it was for a film marketed as a tense action thriller. Filmed in a documentary style (think District 9) and with an interesting, if occasionally complicated timeline that jumps back and forth, the film is a fascinating primer on how an illness can spread rapidly and how difficult it is to identify, contain and cure.

The film initially focuses on international traveler Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) who returns from a trip overseas to her home in Minneapolis and then, in front of her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) collapses and soon dies. Who did she interact with? What did she touch? How is the as-yet unidentified disease transmitted?

Contagion then moves to the Centers for Disease Control, as represented by Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) and the World Health Organization and its field specialist Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard). Their job: figure out the transmission vector, slow down the spread of the disease and ultimately come up with both a cure and a vaccine. To do that, however, they need to be able to replicate the disease (shades of The Andromeda Strain), which proves very difficult to accomplish.

Meanwhile, people are dying and Alan Krumweide (Jude Law) is causing trouble and creating even more paranoia with his wild conspiracy theories about drug company schemes to make millions, even as he double-deals and insists a homeopathic treatment is the only cure for the H1N1-like disease.

It’s not a thrill ride with amazing special effects, but I found Contagion to be a tense and alarming medical mystery with great verisimilitude and a style well matched for its cool presentation of the spread and consequences of a pandemic that rapidly spreads around the globe. And yes, I thoroughly washed my hands afterwards.
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Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

cabinet dr caligari one sheetA silent film from the beginning of cinematic history? We don’t even have a good quality print – the best digital restoration available is flawed and has frequent glitches, lines running through the image and more. I’ll also admit that I’m not much of a fan of silent films and without focused study my attention wanders and I find something else to do.

But there’s something oddly compelling about the nightmarish vision of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with its weird, skewed sets and mythic story of charlatan Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his enslaved somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) who exhibit at the Holstenwall town fair.
At the heart of things is a surprisingly modern triangle of best friends Francis (Friedrich Feher) and Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) and their mutual love Jane (Lil Dagover). When Alan is mysteriously murdered after Cesare eerily predicts his death while at the fair, Francis is suspicious and investigates, even as the town constable arrests another man for this and another murder, a man who swears his innocence but is locked up nonetheless.
Cinematically, director Robert Wiene offers one of the first examples of a film narrative where the viewer knows things that the characters in the story do not. We see the crimes and the perpetrator even as Francis cannot. Indeed, there’s a complex temporal facet to the film too, where it opens with Francis explaining to a stranger what’s happened to Jane, his fiancee, which then switches back to the story as it unfolds. Complex elements that we appreciate almost 100 years later demonstrated for perhaps the first time.
Does the criminal meet his moral comeuppance? For that matter, who is the criminal in this story, the somnambulist Cesare who is bewitched by Caligari, or Dr. Caligari himself? In the film world of 1920 there’s never a question that crime does not pay, and there’s something satisfying about the unambiguous ending.
Silent films with their slow pacing, hand-lettered dialog cards and rough, jumpy prints can be difficult for modern audiences to watch. This is a perfect film to DVR when it shows up again on Turner Classic Movies (that’s what I did). Look for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and enjoy a brilliant film from the beginning of cinematic history.
Oh, and if you recognize the name Conrad Veidt, it’s because he appears in dozens of films subsequent to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, most notably as Major Heinrich Strasser in Casablanca…