Contagion. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Last week I saw (and absolutely loved) Out of Sight, so I was eager to see another Soderbergh film. The problem with Contagion is that it’s got more star power than it knows what to do with. 1) Marion Cotillard’s arc in the film was totally unnecessary. 2) Honestly, Matt Damon deserves better. His character was clearly the most sympathetic in the film but has to endure so much heartache. 3) John Hawkes, my favorite actor of 2011 at the moment, is wasted in his three short scenes. And how were the affected cities featured in the movie chosen? I thought it was interesting that New York was not a factor. On the plus side, the score is effective in a minimalist, Social Network kind of way. The editing was notable, especially since the freeze frames reminded me of Out of Sight. Yes, Contagion made me think twice about what it means to live in a big city and take public transportation. It’s too bad that the film couldn’t be more than a mildly unsettling pile of what-ifs.
George Harrison: Living in the Material World. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Spirituality was the dominant element of George’s life, so the fact that Scorsese’s documentary focused most of its energy on it makes sense. I can’t tell if it helped or hurt that I watched the film in two parts (about a week and a half apart) on HBO. I had wanted to watch the film on back-to-back nights, but that didn’t work out so I had to wait and maybe it would have been better to see it all as close together as possible. I had the same issues with this film that I have had with the other Scorsese films I’ve seen: not enough emotional connection. I love George, but something was missing. The lack of a narrator wasn’t that big of a deal; Project Nim, the last 2011 documentary I saw, didn’t have a narrator either. And it wasn’t the interviews either since all of the subjects had important things to say (although I would have liked to hear more from George’s older brothers and his first wife, Pattie). It is always clear when Scorsese is working with a topic he has reverence for, but it’s not enough to be inspired. You have to connect with the audience and give them something they weren’t expecting.
Jane Eyre. Directed by Cary Fukunaga. What a disappointment. I have to get a bunch of things off my chest. First of all: what was with all the sunlight?! Jane Eyre is all about moody Gothic atmosphere (like in the 1943 movie) and bad weather (at least for the most of the book). The opening page of the book describes the “drear November day,” hence her not being able to take a walk. It doesn’t work to have Jane reading at the window with super-bright sunbeams streaming in. (Thornfield was also way too sunny.) Judi Dench was obviously the best actor in the film. She gave Mrs. Fairfax a real voice in the film. Mia Wasikowska, whom I quite liked in Restless, was well-suited to play Jane but her acting was a little too heavy and sad at times. (By comparison, Amelia Clarkson, who plays young Jane, is excellent.) She had no chemistry with Michael Fassbender, who is almost certainly the most lackluster Rochester ever committed to film. Sally Hawkins was miscast as Mrs. Reed. A number of the male actors looked too young for their roles; the performances of Rochester, St. John and Richard Mason didn’t have as much credibility because of that. I think I would have preferred a blonde Benedict Cumberbatch instead of Jamie Bell for St. John. At any rate I liked Craig Roberts (the lead in British indie hit Submarine) in his limited screen time as John Reed. Speaking of youth in the movie: Helen was given the bare minimum for the film and Adele’s back story was not explained at all. (And it doesn’t even show what happens to Adele at the end! The character simply vanishes from the narrative.) Bessie didn’t get much time either, which is unfortunate since one of my favorite parts of the novel is the scene when ten-year-old Jane is leaving Thornfield and Bessie admits her fondness for her charge. There is also no mention made of the special connection that St. John, Diana and Mary have with Jane. The ending, like the other love scenes, felt rushed (not benefited at all by Fassbender’s incessant blinking). If Fukunaga really wanted to make the fans happy, he’d have included everything that happens in the book’s final chapter.
Martha Marcy May Marlene. Directed by Sean Durkin. Elizabeth Olsen and John Hawkes deserve Oscar nominations for their work in Durkin’s first feature-length film. Hawkes, whom I had previously enjoyed as Lennon in the last season of “Lost,” is chilling as Patrick, the alternately charming and creepy leader of the cult. (One audience member at the screening I attended called Hawkes’ character a “seductive villain.”) The scene with his rendition of Jackson C. Frank’s “Marcy’s Song” should go down in history as one of the most memorable and haunting musical moments in film. Elizabeth Olsen’s career-making performance carries the film and she has proved herself to be a great new talent. Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy were good as Martha’s sister and brother-in-law, although the roles were basically unrewarding until a big confrontation scene near the end. I was lucky enough to see a preview MMMM last week at the Museum of the Moving Image, after which there was a Q&A with Olsen and Hawkes. They both seemed smart and funny. When the aforementioned audience member asked Hawkes if he would now be typecast as a seductive villain, Hawkes replied, “Well, you know, the best part of ‘typecast’ is ‘cast’…” I don’t mind who he plays, though. He’s an actor who’s at home portraying both good guys and bad guys. My best recommendation for his film work is Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) – not everyone’s taste, perhaps, but well worth a try.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Directed by Rupert Wyatt. The true star is Andy Serkis, whose motion-capture depiction of Caesar speaks volumes. Somewhat surprisingly, James Franco wasn’t nearly as silly as I’d been afraid he’d be. Of course, I loved him in “Freaks and Geeks” and Milk, so it’s not like I’m not a fan. (On the other hand, his short story collection, Palo Alto, left a lot to be desired.) Franco continues to impress me with his dedication to all aspects of the arts. My old favorite John Lithgow is his usual dependable self as Franco’s father. Freida Pinto had a throwaway role, so I’m glad the movie didn’t lose time exploring her relationship with Franco. And then there’s Tom Felton, whose character’s name (“Dodge Landon”) I never heard at all so in my head I just referred to him as “Tom Felton-not Draco.” As for technical achievements, the special effects were top-notch and the cinematography by Andrew Lesnie (all three Lord of the Rings films and King Kong) provides some superb visuals. Rise isn’t the best movie of 2011 but it’s definitely a solid, fun time at the movies.