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Column Fri Sep 09 2011

Warrior, Contagion, The Hedgehog & Circumstance

Warrior

Although this tale of two brothers that both fight in the same Mixed Martial Arts tournament contains many familiar moments and emotions featured in other sports films (including Miracle, which director Gavin O'Connor also helmed), I think I'm safe in saying that you have never seen a film quite like Warrior, a work that represents powerful, brutal, thunderous, intimate filmmaking at its very best. This is due to two of the most sweat-and-blood masculine performances I've seen since Stallone first entered the ring as Rocky and changed the world.

Some of you might know Joel Edgerton from his recent roles in the Australian crime dramas The Square and Animal Kingdom, but he's probably best known (for better or worse) for playing the young Uncle Owen in the second Star Wars trilogy. He's going to be hugely famous very soon (he has the lead role in The Alien prequel and about 20 other things lined up after that), but Warrior is something entirely different for him. It's a chance for him to use his full physical being playing Brendan Conlon, a Philadelphia-area high school teacher, former MMA fighter, husband to Tess (Jennifer Morrison) and father to two young girls. He's strapped for cash and decides to drive to a local strip club to take part in an amateur MMA competition in the club's parking lot. He absolutely decimates the reigning champion, takes home his money, and is promptly suspended without pay when the fight hits YouTube. His only course of action is to throw himself back into MMA fighting and training full time and get good enough to enter a big competition in Atlantic City. Without that money, he loses his house, so his motivation is clear.

But the film also tells us the story of Tommy Riordan (using his mother's maiden name and played by Bronson and Inception star Tom Hardy), who seems to emerge from thin Pittsburgh air at the front door of his father Paddy (Nick Nolte), a three-year-sober old man who has spent much of his sobriety trying to win back the love and forgiveness of his two sons. Tommy has clearly suffered a lifetime of neglect and anguish because of this man, but he needs something from his father — a trainer to help him get ready for the same contest. He has no interest in letting this or any person get under his skin emotionally, and when you experience Hardy's raw, naturalistic performance, you will immediately begin to fear him.

If any or all of this sounds formulaic, trust me when I saw it doesn't come across that way. Director O'Connor (who also made 1999's splendid Tumbleweeds and the more recent Pride and Glory) has this unyielding passion to keep this movie as much about the characters and the deep-seeded pain Tommy and Brendan feel that has led them to this fight and this place in their respective lives. Warrior is a film that is designed to drain you emotionally as well as physically. In all the best ways, it will leave you a crumbling husk of a human being when it's done with you. And the details about their history and animosity toward each other are revealed slowly, like an agonizing breached birth. There's something about taking sides when their parents split up, a mother with cancer, and Tommy's going to war in the Middle East.

Both men have very real reasons for wanting that prize money, to the point where we're not exactly sure who to root for when their inevitable in-the-ring clash happens. There are so many layers and intricacies and psychological depths to plumb with Warrior that the temptation is to talk to much about it here. I'll try to avoid doing that, but I will say that perhaps the biggest shock about the film is how a full half of it is devoted strictly to full-length MMA battles. I was genuinely impressed with how O'Connor and his actors school us on the strategies of preparing and fighting. I've never seen competitive MMA before, but watching all of the competitors in this contest go against each other, I have a newfound respect for the sport.

And the way the brothers fight could not be more different. Brendan is more thoughtful, he paces himself, he allows his enemy to almost beat himself before going in for the win. Tommy is a wrecking ball: he enters the ring with no music or hoopla, commits unspeakable acts of violence, and then leaves the ring before the ref even officially declares him the winner. He's a force of nature meshed with an rabid animal that only cares about tearing your face off. He's not evil, but if he were, you'd never leave the house without wearing a suit of armor. I'm so glad between the both of them, these great actors have about a billion movies coming out in the next year or so.

I don't mean to leave out poor Nick Nolte, who is absolutely fantastic in this return-to-form role as a pathetic old man just trying to salvage what he can of his family. He shows up on Brendan's doorstep desperate to see his granddaughters and has the door slammed in his face. There is exactly zero percent sentimentality in Warrior, and I should have said in the first sentence that O'Connor and his team are not interested in wrapping things up neatly with everyone friends again. Don't expect that, but also don't assume you won't cry just because the film refuses to play the role of tearjerker. And the first person to say this movie sounds like The Fighter gets a knee to the gut. The two films could not be more different.

In the end, this is a film about family and fighting, and it succeeds on both levels to absolute pull us in and not let go until we're left bruised and bloody. The fight scenes are truly epic (as is the running time at about two hours, 20 minutes), and they are shot and executed so convincingly, you can smell the sweat, feel the heat of each punch, and start to choke out when one fighter puts a death grip on another. I think I saw stars more than once. What I've told you about Warrior has only scratched the surface of why it's so thoroughly soul-enriching in its worthiness and impressiveness. This is truly one of the best films I've seen all year, and to think otherwise means you deserve as ass-whooping of apocalyptic proportions. I know just the guys to give it to you.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Warrior star Jennifer Morrison.

Contagion

I almost got into fisticuffs with a fellow critic the other day who made the oh-so original statement that Contagion was "just like Outbreak." Anyone who walks out of the Steven Soderbergh-directed Contagion is anything like like Outbreak beyond the disease premise either didn't see one or both movies, or that person is an idiot. You decide. Outbreak is about a bunch of researchers who race against the clock to contain a virus and keep it from spreading like wildfire... like 10,000 wildfires.

But Contagion isn't about containment. By the time the scientists, doctors, the military, and government agencies around the globe realize there is a world health crisis, it's already too late. Contagion attempts nothing short of showing us what would happen when a catastrophic disease essentially runs its course. The race isn't to contain; it's to find a vaccine and mass produce it in time to keep one-quarter to one-third of the earth's population from being wiped out in a year.

Soderbergh devotes a good portion of the beginning of his film to tracking people's hands. Sure we meet ordinary citizens played by well-known actors like Gwyneth Paltrow and Matt Damon as a suburban Minneapolis couple, but what we're really doing is watching where they put their hands — on their face, on their computers, their luggage (she has just returned from a business trip in Tokyo), on door knobs. Because when Paltrow starts shows flu-like symptoms, we start to think of everything we saw her touch, every hand she shook, every button she pushed, and her tryst with an old flame while on a layover in Chicago. She is thought to be Patient Zero, and her illness sets the world health community on fire.

With the exception of a few heartfelt moments courtesy of characters played by Damon, John Hawkes and a handful of other folks, Contagion is a cold movie, and I mean that in the best possible way. Much of it takes place is hospitals, laboratories, government conference rooms, which are exactly the places where an infectious disease breakout would be dealt with. But then Soderbergh packs these environments with some of the greatest actors working today, as well as a few choice oddball players. My personal favorite choice is Kate Winslet as a renowned doctor intent on developing a protocol for behavior amongst the populace to stop the spread of the disease. A close second is Jude Law as the despicable blogger who challenges the science behind the outbreak, and offers up his own vaccine. He may be a messiah or snaggletoothed satan. It's a tough character to hate, if only because he may be right.

Other nice turns come from Lawrence Fishburne, Elliott Gould, Bryan Cranston, Sanaa Lathan, Dimitri Martin(!) and especially Jennifer Ehle, as a researcher who may be forced to make the ultimate sacrifice to save humanity. She's the perfect combination of heroic and reckless. The only parts of Contagion that don't work involve a subplot with Marion Cotillard, playing a doctor who is kidnapped by people living in a small Chinese village in exchange for the vaccine. As much as events like this would probably happen in times of health-related crises, these segments could have been removed from the film, and no one would have missed them.

Aside from these few moments, Scott Z. Burns' (The Informant!, The Bourne Ultimatum) screenplay is airtight, and I had no difficulty believing that the world's governments would react exactly how they do in this film. The film isn't going after big scares or high levels of tension, but there is still plenty of fear and low-level anxiety that permeates every scene. Soderbergh never gets enough credit as a guy who knows how to shoot and edit slow-burn elements, but he's kind of great at it, and Contagion proves it. But in order to keep the proceedings feel realistic, he wisely foregoes big emotional moments (usually) in favor of science and procedure. Some people may think that runs counter to having us care about these characters, but I'd rather have a doctor character put the masses before his/her own interests for once. And know this: no one's life is sacred, no matter many Oscars or nominations you have. That's all I'm saying.

Contagion isn't really a thriller; it certainly isn't fast-paced or edge-of-your-seat kind of stuff. It's a globe-hopping, jargon-heavy medical drama that delivers one stellar performance after another. It's a film that finds it more important to let us know what city a person lives in (and what that city's population is) than what their name is. There's a reason for that. Soderbergh isn't showing you those figures because he's just purchased a new almanac; he wants you to start adding the numbers up. Where would a city of 8 million put all of those bodies if they started to pile up like so much firewood? Who would collect the survivors' garbage? Who would stop the looting of grocery stores? Now you understand the stakes that comprise Contagion. This one will stay with you for months.

The Hedgehog

Despite its title, this beautifully realized French production is not about a middle-aged building concierge/janitor, who lives on the ground floor of a building filled with rich tenants who barely look at her when they knock on her door at all hours needing her service. Although Josiance Balasko's beautiful performance as the perpetually grumpy Reneé is certainly a big part of The Hedgehog (based on the novel The Elegance of The Hedgehog) of the movie, this is actually the story of the slow mental disintegration of Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic), a young girl determined to end her life on her 12th birthday. But before she does that, she films those around her (her family, the building's other tenants) in an effort to document hypocrisy and the not-so-discreet charm of the bourgeoisie.

With her first feature as a director, Mona Achache captures some wonderful details about both being young and growing old. Reneé keeps to herself, reading in a secret room in her apartment, with her cats and her dark chocolate to keep her company. Around the time she and Paloma become friendly, and the girl proceeds to interview Reneé about her sad life, Reneé also begins being courted by a new tenant, Kakuro Ozu (played by the renowned Japanese actor Togo Igawa), a refined older gentleman with similar tastes in fine literature and film. The two begin to spend time together, and the experience actually begins to have an effect on Reneé's long-buried self esteem.

In many ways, the film is torn between its two stories. There were times when Paloma's words struck me quite deep; other times, she comes across as a snotty pre-teen who gets her kicks off making others uncomfortable. But later in the film, she opens up somewhat, and we get a better sense of why she finds the world so troublesome. Ultimately, The Hedgehog reveals itself to be a film about both long-buried and as-yet-undiscovered passions, and when it focuses on those theme, it truly thrives and becomes something unexpected and more sophisticated than it might seem on the surface. There's also a great deal of humor in this work that works nicely as a counter to a charming mean streak that runs down the center of the movie. I think the film works best when Reneé is our focal point, but the entire piece is something perfectly human. The Hedgehog opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Circumstance

Winner of the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, first-time feature director Maryam Keshavarz's Circumstance is an uneven story of two Iranian teen girls, who live a life that I wasn't even aware existed in this still restrictive culture. Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) comes from a family of means; her best friend Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) comes from a broken home and ends up spending most of the time in Atafeh's home, much to the delight of Atafeh's brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), who has an creepy obsession with the strikingly beautiful Shireen. The two girls are dedicated students by day, turned party animals at night, slamming down drinks, popping pills, and engaging is sexually adventurous encounters on an almost nightly basis.

But this world isn't just dangerous for them because of their age. The "morality police" is a constant threat, and a ruined reputation could mean the difference between getting married or earning the label of "whore." The talk is explicit and the behavior is pure rebellion, but when the two girls are alone, they dream out loud about running away to Dubai and living together as lovers. After living much of his youth as a junkie, Mehran cleans up his act and becomes something of a conservative religious man, who not only berates his sister for her activities but has a lesser opinion about women in general.

While Circumstance doesn't pull any punches in terms of the depravity these kids get into (and it doesn't hurt that the two actresses are easy on the eyes) or the obstacles and restrictions women confront every day in Iran, the film also feels like its covering ground I've seen in similar works, perhaps done with a bit more subtlety and style. Having said that, being a bit more explicit does certainly drive home the points the director is trying to make about the hidden culture of modern-day Iran and how many of its citizens are living double lives.

I think Circumstance might have been a better experience without the overtly sinister tone added by the brother character, but he's not quite enough to tank this movie entirely. Certainly a story worth telling, this film shines when it focuses on the relationship between the two girls, and that tips the scales in favor of recommending it. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

 

Kindle Reader / September 9, 2011 10:36 AM

There's also a novel Against Nature from a small independent press that is similar to Contagion.

The U.S. is ground-zero for a mysterious global pandemic. The disease is highly infectious and kills it’s victims within two weeks of exposure. It’s neither bacteria nor a virus and all traditional treatment regimens have failed.
Serena Salus, a radical scientist, discovers the organism is an extraterrestrial dust mite brought to earth by a shuttle astronaut. The government contends it’s a genetically-engineered organism created on earth by enemies of freedom.
Dr. Salus uncovers a vile plan for distributing her experimental vaccine and finds herself in a deadly confrontation with powerful forces that’ll stop at nothing to control the distribution of her vaccine.
Against Nature is edgy and frightening. Inspired by the sins of the recent past (torture, secret prisons, extraordinary rendition, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, domestic spying etc....), I superimposed those misdeeds on to a new crisis. What came out the other end is a scary and all too plausible dystopia.

carlos / September 9, 2011 2:52 PM

I'm with you on Warrior. I was so pleasantly surprised how engrossed and moved I was at the end. Had to wait a bit to compose myself before getting up. That's my standard for a movie: how I feel afterwards. This one left me totally satiated and SATISFIED. Can't wait to see it again.

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Theater Wed Aug 13 2014

An Epic, Tragic Win: All Our Tragic

By Benjamin Cannon & Mike Ewing

What then is to be made of the Hypocrites' new stage production, All Our Tragic? This massive opus, comprising all 32 surviving Greek tragedy plays re-written and directed by Sean Graney, lasts a staggering 12 hours, including intermissions and meal breaks. Ben and Mike go the distance.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Aug 15 2014

The Expendables 3, Let's Be Cops, The Giver, Venus in Fur, Dinosaur 13 & The German Doctor

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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