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Reviews for September 9th, 2011

Burke & Hare

Directed by Steven Soderbergh.

      William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis) struggle to make a living in 19th century Edinburgh. Upon realizing that they could make lots of money from selling corpses for medical research, starting with the dead body of one of their tenants, they now have a new albeit highly immoral business venture. Medical professor Dr. Knox (Tom Wilkinson) has a supply shortage of corpses because he can’t get enough of them from the gallows, so it’s no surprise when he turns to Burke and Hare for more corpses. Dr. Monro (Tim Curry) also becomes one of Burke and Hare’s clients as he and his rival, Dr. Knox, try to win the Royal Seal and a hefty cash prize which, according to the King, will be awarded to whomever makes greatest advance in the medical profession. Burke develops a romance with Ginny (Isla Fisher), an actress who persuades him to produce her all-female Macbeth play.

      The screenplay co-written by Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft aims for dark comedy and, mostly, succeeds in generating tongue-in-cheek laughs with iconic British wit. What distinguishes British humor from American humor is that it’s more irreverent and less mean-spirited at its core. It may seem mean-spirited on the surface, if you take the carnage on display here at face value, but it’s all performed with a wink and plenty of wit. Every actor onscreen has fun with their role whether its Tom Wilkinson, who’s known for more serious roles, or Simon Pegg who’s more used to darkly comedic roles---case in point: Shaun of the Dead. If there were less talented actors here, the comedy and one-liners especially wouldn’t work. Burke & Hare doesn’t have nearly as many laughs as the classic dark British comedy also about piled-up corpses, Arsenic and Old Lace, but at least it’s mildly funny and amusing, and will please fans of the genre.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Opens at the IFC Center.
Released by IFC Films.


Directed by Steven Soderbergh.

      After Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) loses his wife, Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) to a mysterious, infectious virus, he does everything he can do to protect himself and teenage daughter, Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron), from the fatal disease. He even forbids her for coming in contact with a teenage boy that she likes. The Deputy Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), learns that the virus has no vaccine or treatments, and sends Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) report to him about the pandemic and to set up places to quarantine the infected people. An independent doctor, Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould), claims to have been able to find a way to isolate the virus, and continuous his work despite that the government shuts him down. There’s also Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) who tries to create the vaccine in a laboratory. Meanwhile, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), a representative from the WHO, must investigate all of Beth’s steps that she took before dying of the disease in order to figure out where and from whom she contracted it. Finally, there’s Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a freelance journalist blogger who goes public with the theory that the government and pharmaceutical industry have colluded to maximize profits while withholding crucial information about a current homeopathic cure, Forsythia, from the public.

      For a film that jumps around from one perspective to another every few minutes, it’s a testament to the focused screenplay by Scott Z. Burns that it never feels convoluted, confusing or headache-inducing. You’ll feel palpable tension from the very first scene when Beth returns from a Tokyo business trip and succumbs to the disease. That tension doesn’t arise from any shaky camera movements or intense action sequences; it comes from the taut, sensitive screenplay itself and from the solid, convincing performances. Director Steven Soderbergh should be commended for making every scene look visually and aurally rich through the stylish cinematography, lighting, set designs and music score. The plot strand of Mitch’s desperate struggles is quite heart-wrenching and relatable because you can easily imagine yourself in his shoes as he tries to protect his remaining loved one. It’s fascinating and provocative to observe the pandemic from many different perspectives because, after all, there are more than two sides to every coin.

      What causes the disease? Who initially contracted it? How fast will it spread? How should the government deal with the pandemic without causing a false alarm like during the H1N1 pandemic? Those are just some of the questions on Contagion’s mind, so the difficultly and complexity of the answers, at least for the first half of the film, make for an intriguing ride that opens a lot of possibilities while concurrently frightening you. Once Alan, the British freelance journalist, shows up, it’s easy to see which sides of the coin director Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns lean on because they give Alan bad teeth (a cliché for British people) and make him seem nutty than most concerned, critically-thinking, well-informed activists/journalists out there in the real word who dare to speak out against vaccines. Dr. Ian Sussman, when approached by Alan, complains that blogs are nothing more than “graffiti with punctuation marks,” a generalization that might be true some of the time, but certainly not always. Burns should have let the audience decide for themselves who’s reasonable and who’s nutty while leaving the answer open-ended so that there’s some room for interpretation like in any truly great thriller. The filmmakers don’t trust the audience’s intelligence when they go to the extent of showing exactly how nature itself caused the disease. Why not leave that open-ended as well? Perhaps Soderbergh intended on creating propaganda rather than art by making our government look like pretty much like angels and anyone who dares to question them and speak out are simply wrong and crazy.

      At a running time of 1 hour 43 minutes, Contagion manages to be a very entertaining, well-acted and palpably taut piece of propaganda that leaves too little room for interpretation.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Opens nationwide.
Released by Warner Bros. Pictures.

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