Contagion

Chaos descends onto the world when a deadly, and highly contagious, illness descends worldwide, seemingly beginning with Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), who has just returned from a business trip to Hong Kong. The CDC are soon brought in to deal with the situation, but things rapidly spiral out of their control as the illness spreads across the country. We follow the outbreak from the points of view of those desperate to stop it, members of the public affected by the crisis, and the few who see it as an opportunity for personal gain.
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Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen continues his obsession with Europe (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the upcoming To Rome With Love) and adds a little time travel into the mix with this delightful slice of whimsy. Owen Wilson picks up the Allen role as Gil, a writer tagging along with his fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams) visiting her parents as they embark on a business merger in Paris. Gil has made a name for himself writing not terribly good films for Hollywood, but has aspirations for writing novels, and dreams of moving back to Paris, whereas Inez and her disapproving parents seem far more level headed. On a late night drunken stroll Gil finds himself in the 1920s world he so wishes to live in, and gets to meet his idols from a time long passed.

It all sounds a little bit ridiculous – a Woody Allen time travel film – and my parents and girlfriend, with whom I watched the film, were expecting something quite different and tuned out quite early on – but I thought it was wonderful. Wilson is a perfect fit as the neurotic Gil, refusing to tolerate Inez’s pedantic know-it-all friend Paul (Michael Sheen, brilliantly punchable) and forever wishing he’d been born in a different time.
Many films would dumb down the references to the past, and I’ll admit there were many I didn’t get, but the characters portrayed are so rich and interesting that I’m encouraged to discover more about them on my own. I’m ashamed to say that I’m unfamiliar with the likes of F. Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, and have only a passing knowledge of Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso and T. S. Eliot, though I think I got most of the Bunuel and Dali references (I’ve even seen The Exterminating Angel, the film Gil proposes to Bunuel, and it’s not even on the List), and as for the others I’m now making an effort to better myself by looking into their works. This is exactly what a film should do, not work out what its audience already knows and repeat that to them, but provide an opportunity to further their own knowledge.
The supporting cast is incredible. Kathy Bates is Stein, Tom Hiddleston and Scott Pilgrim‘s drummer Alison Pill are the Fitzgeralds and Marion Cotillard is delightful as Gil’s 1920s love interest Adriana, but it is the brief appearance of Adrien Brody as a flamboyantly insane Dali that steals the show (“I see rhinoceroses!”). Rachel McAdams plays a fairly thin character in the almost-bitchy, not understanding fiance, and her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) begin to grate after a while as their characters refuse to develop throughout the film.
All the typical Parisian tourist attractions are acknowedged, and got out the way, early on in a brief montage. This is nice, as it’d be a shame to ignore them, for they aren’t part of the story, but they show perhaps the draw of the city to Inez and her family, whereas Gil prefers the layers of life and history underneath. The present day scenes are shot crisply, everything looking bright and new, whereas those set in the past are softer, slightly fuzzy around the edges, and with such a warm palette it’s no wonder Gil wants to live there. It has a more mysterious atmosphere full of soirees and flapper dresses.
 It’s not for everyone, and many may find it just too odd to come to grips with, but if you are a Woody Allen fan (and you should be), and have either a good knowledge of the 1920s or want a place to build yours from, check this out.
Choose film 8/10

La Vie en Rose

Marion Cotillard gives the role of her life in this biopic of French singer Edith Piaf, depicting her tragic existence from growing up in a brothel with her grandmother after her parents abandon her, through being discovered by Gerard Depardieu’s club owner singing on the streets, up until her death of liver cancer aged 47. Her meteoric rise to fame – she is widely regarded as France’s most popular singer – was filled with tragedy and setbacks, from going blind for several months at a young age to her partner dying in a plane crash when she demands him to fly out and see her. The plot is largely confusing, flitting backwards and forwards in time and with many people entering, exiting and re-entering her life, yet throughout the set design, costumes, make-up and performances are excellent, as of course is the music. Cotillard was rightly thrown onto the Hollywood A-list after this role, being snapped up by the likes of Chris Nolan, Michael Mann and Woody Allen, and the cinematography – particularly one extended shot around a multi-room set in her villa – is also spectacular. Some elements – Piaf’s child, for instance – seem hastily tacked on, but for the most part this is a riveting story about a first-rate musician.
Choose film 7/10

Inception

Apparently the concept of Inception began when director Chris Nolan, he of the Dark Knight, Batman Begins, Memento and the upcoming Dark Knight Rises, the most anticipated film of 2012 (tied with the Avengers and the Hobbit), wanted to make a film in which several climaxes are all occurring simultaneously. Most directors would then structure a plot in such a way as to have different characters in different locations, all partaking in various climactic events and cutting between them, but Nolan, in what I’m going to assume was an evening rife with alcohol, narcotics and some rare kinds of cheese, opted instead to make a film predominantly set within the world of dreams.

Taking an already interesting, fantastical premise – secrets can be obtained by stealing them from people’s dreams via extraction and spinning it on its head, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s master extractor Cobb and his team – Joseph Gordon Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy and Dileep Rao, are enlisted for one last job, to plant an idea in Cillian Murphy’s dream by business rival Ken Watanabe. By using this world of dreams, Nolan has released literally all limitations as to where the plot can go, and opened up the door for some thoroughly original set pieces, the standout of which is Gordon Levitt’s taciturn Arthur fighting armed goons in a corridor with an ever-changing, and disappearing, centre of gravity. This, combined with a rain-lashed chase through busy city streets and a Bond-inspired snowbound explosive finale adds up to one of the most thought provoking action movies in recent years.

The plot is sometimes lost amid the spectacle of the dream worlds and the new logic required to understand it – in a dream, time travels 12 times slower with each level you go down, your subconscious can flare up against you but you can bend the environment around your will – so at times you forget just what they are fighting to achieve. Nolan also appears to have paid attention to the naysayer accusers who believe, not unfairly, that his films lack a required heart and emotional depth, as the addition of Cobb’s deceased wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) appears in his subconscious, eager to turn the dream worlds against him, and the entire plot takes place just so Cobb can be reunited with his kids. Both these points seem tacked on and superfluous to the overall plot, other than adding a motive and antagonist that, although not asked for, do not overly deter.

Under close scrutiny some of the dream logic is inconsistent and doesn’t quite hold up, with some questions remaining unanswered – how exactly does Tom Hardy’s scene-stealing Eames transform into other people as the teams forger? – but the performance, cast (also including Michael Caine, Tom Berenger and Pete Postlethwaite), effects and sheer scale of the project make this unmissable, and my best film of 2010, although it makes my dreams look utterly pathetic in comparison.

Choose film 9/10

Public Enemies

Michael Mann likes the central plot of Heat – expert cop and master thief and their teams on a destructive path towards one another with disregard for their personal lives – that this is the third time he’s made it, after the TV-movie L.A. Takedown, the DeNiro/Pacino classic and now this depression-era take, pitting Johnny Depp’s public enemy number one John Dillinger against Christian Bale’s FBI man Melvin Purvis (whose name is almost an anagram of Mr Evil Penis, but is one for vermin pelvis). (For all I know this is also the plot of Miami Vice and the Last of the Mohicans, I haven’t got round to watching them yet but it seems unlikely.)
The parallels with Heat run deep – the first criminal act, an opening prison break, is almost botched by a trigger happy accomplice soon removed from the group – but the key difference is the pivotal central scene where our two leads meet. In Heat, DeNiro’s thief McCauley and Pacino’s cop Hanna share a mutual respect, that they are dealing here with the other side of their own coin, a talented man with opposite morals. Here, Dillinger and Pervis despise one another, disgusted that they are within the other’s presence or mentioned in the same breath. This complex central relationship was key to the layered texture of Heat, and its absence is felt.
Depp has always been better at characters (Scissorhands, Sparrow) than he has emotions, and Dillinger is bland and lifeless in his hands, yet still more likeable than Bale’s cold, business-like Pervis. DiCaprio would probably have been a better fit for Dillinger, but as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover appears here as Billy Crudup this would have made DiCaprio and Clint Eastwood’s current biopic of the man problematic.
All this in account, this is still an entertaining action/crime movie, with plenty of period gun porn for those that way inclined. Mann’s attention to detail is perfect, and there is some of the best comedy ever seen in a 1930s set cop movie – see Dillinger wondering around the offices of the FBI department out to catch him, casually asking the score of a sports game. Smarter and more thought provoking than most gun-happy movies, this is definitely worth a watch.
Choose film 7/10