Contagion * * *

Genre: Thriller

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Writer: Scott Z. Burns

Cast: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Jennifer Ehle, Kate Winslet

Running Length: 105 minutes

Synopsis: Contagion follows the rapid progress of a lethal airborne virus that kills within days. As the fast moving epidemic grows, the worldwide medical community races to find a cure and control the panic that spreads faster than the virus itself. At the same time, ordinary people struggle to survive in a society coming apart.

Review: if not for the multitude of A-list stars that populate this movie, it would be easy to mistake Contagion to be a documentary of a real virus outbreak. The trailer may lead one to believe that this is a melodramatic, high-octane thriller, but the truth is quite far removed from that. This is a controlled, meticulously filmed movie that almost feels like a reality program, and the extent to which it potentially mirrors real life is rather disturbing to say the least.

Soderbergh is one of the most versatile directors of our time, and although the multi-prong structure is something that he had already explored (with great success) in Traffic, the complex narrative in Contagion is still a welcome change from the current norm. The screenplay by Scott Z. Burns runs the gamut, covering personal, familial life to much broader national and global perspectives, and yet manages to marry most of them together pretty well. There are almost no melodramatic moments in Contagion, but the film cuts so close to home that it is more gripping and disconcerting than any action-thriller that I have seen in a long while.       

With the amount of talent on hand, it’s not difficult to find at least a couple of great performances in Contagion. Matt Damon is quietly effective as the grieving husband and overprotective father, and both Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard are highly memorable in the handful of scenes they feature in. The standout, however, is Jennifer Ehle, whose portrayal of the fearless Dr Ally Haskell is one of the most dimensional, and easily becomes one of the emotional centres of the film that many audience members would identify with.

This isn’t a perfect film by any measure – it does begin to lose steam in its final reel, and with the many varied storylines and characters it was only natural that a few of the subplots feel unfinished even when the credits roll. It may probably have been better to have left some parts out – the Jude Law component to me felt particularly superfluous – but as a whole this is a very absorbing movie, and one that will definitely leave you with much food for thought (and reaching for the hand sanitizer).

Rating: *** (out of four stars)

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Crazy Stupid Love * * *

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Directors: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa

Writer: Dan Fogelman

Cast: Steve Carrell, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone

Running Length: 118 minutes

Synopsis: Fortysomething, straight-laced Cal Weaver (Steve Carell) is living the dream – good job, nice house, great kids and marriage to his high school sweetheart. But when Cal learns that his wife, Emily (Julianne Moore), has cheated on him and wants a divorce, his “perfect” life quickly unravels. Worse, in today’s single world, Cal, who hasn’t dated in decades, stands out as the epitome of un-smooth. Now spending his free evenings sulking alone at a local bar, the hapless Cal is taken on as wingman and protégé to handsome, thirtysomething player Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling). In an effort to help Cal get over his wife and start living his life, Jacob opens Cal’s eyes to the many options before him: flirty women, manly drinks and a sense of style that can’t be found at Supercuts or The Gap. Despite Cal’s makeover and his many new conquests, the one thing that can’t be made over is his heart, which seems to keep leading him back to where he began.  

Review: It’s very difficult to find a fresh romantic comedy these days, as this is one of the genres that have literally been done to death. This is why Crazy Stupid Love comes across as a surprise – it’s funny and touching at the same time, and whilst not all its attempts at breaking out of the confines of the romantic comedy are successful, it’s different enough to set it apart from many similar films.

Crazy Stupid Love is essentially an ensemble movie much like Love, Actually and its ilk, but the film has a smaller cast with stronger associations to each other. However, the film also suffers from character bias, with some characters getting much more screen time than the rest. This isn’t necessarily a flaw, but all the characters in Crazy Stupid Love are so interesting that the imbalance may leave some audiences craving for more. It is to the cast’s credit that almost the entire ensemble is engaging, with even the younger actors putting in a relatively good effort.

The standout is Ryan Gosling, who has proven repeatedly that he is a great actor, and in Crazy Stupid Love he brings the right mix of smarminess and vulnerability, and although he has relatively less screen time compared to Steve Carrell, Gosling’s scenes (especially those with Emma Stone) are very memorable. Julianne Moore has even less face time, but her nuanced portrayal of a middle-aged woman in a quandary about her love and married life is one of the best I’ve seen in years. There’s also great chemistry between the main leads, and in a romantic comedy this is what ultimately makes or breaks the film.

One of the other little pleasures of Crazy Stupid Love lies in its excellent soundtrack, which features an eclectic mix of music ranging from Thievery Corporation to Nina Simone. Music can add a lot of texture to a film, and this is definitely the case in Crazy Stupid Love. (A side note, Late Night Alumni’s You Can Be the One is featured in the film but not on the soundtrack album – definitely a song to check out)

Interestingly, it’s the smaller scenes in Crazy Stupid Love that work well – some truly standout sequences include a phone conversation between Steve Carrell and Julianne Moore, and another scene in which Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone make drunken small talk. In contrast, the big, plot-resolving set pieces near the end of the film feel farcical and artificial, and is one of the reasons why the film doesn’t rank higher on my list of romantic comedies. However, it manages to hit a good number of right notes as a romantic comedy, and is definitely one of the better films released of late.

Rating: *** (out of four stars)

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