February 2012

ContagionReal SteelMoneyballWings

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DVD reviews by Loey Lockerby and Dan Lybarger




Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion has many things in common with movies like Outbreak and The Andromeda Strain, with one notable exception — it feels utterly, terrifyingly genuine. It also inspires serious respect for the doctors and scientists who fight deadly diseases, a battle that often seems unwinnable.


Contagion is a multi-character epic, following everyone from epidemiologists to regular citizens dealing with a fast-moving virus that comes into the U.S. via a businesswoman (Gwyneth Paltrow) who has recently returned from Hong Kong. Her husband (Matt Damon) struggles to hold the family together while everything falls apart around them, while the CDC and WHO (led by Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne and Marion Cotillard) investigate and try to contain the illness. They’re hampered by a blogger (Jude Law) who is pushing conspiracy theories and quack “cures” on a desperate public.


Soderbergh covers nearly every possible angle of such a crisis, much as he did in the drug-problem saga Traffic. While Contagion has its predecessor’s great cast and thought-provoking scope, it also has weak spots that keep it from reaching the same level of brilliance. Cotillard’s storyline goes berserk about halfway through, and although Law’s character is fascinating, he gets short shrift while Soderbergh focuses on Damon and the scientists. This probably would have made a better mini-series than it does a feature film — it’s certainly interesting enough to warrant that kind of commitment.


What does work is the sense Soderbergh creates that this could easily happen in the near future. It’s an ultimately optimistic film, and it gives due credit to the people whose efforts would most likely save lives, but it’s definitely rooted in reality. You won’t want to touch any doorknobs for a few days after seeing it. Or breathe on anyone. Or go out in public without a HazMat suit ….


Extras: Two featurettes on the film’s verisimilitude and the research that went into it; a PSA on how pandemics spread and how to prevent them. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 —LL


Real Steel

When you have fighting robots, does it really matter if the story gets sappy?

If you have Hugh Jackman as your leading human, the answer is a firm no. In this loose reworking of a grim Richard Matheson (I Am Legend) short story, the former Wolverine star plays an ex-boxer named Charlie Kenton who operates fighting bots now that the sport is banned. Actually, he might be better off if he were swinging his fists himself. He’s heavily in debt, and his expensive bots quickly turn into scrap metal.

When Charlie is forced to spend “quality time” with his estranged son Max (Dakota Goyo), the two discover a dilapidated sparring bot who becomes a potent contender thanks to Max’s ability to turn spare parts into essential components and Charlie’s knowledge of the sweet science.

Of course, the two become the family they should have been a long time ago. Jackman, to his credit, can make this schmaltz work beautifully. From his lungs, “Yeah, right” dialogue sounds almost poetic.

He also does the impossible by not getting upstaged by the robots. One of the marvels of the film is that not only do the cyborgs look convincing playing off the people but also they each have distinct personalities as they go into the ring. If they didn’t, it would be impossible to put any emotional investment in the outcome of the matches. Oh, and because they’re bots, it’s not as guilt inducing when they lose limbs or even their heads.

Director Shawn Levy (Date Night) may have recently made the ranks of AVClub.com’s “10 Directors You Didn’t Know You Hated.” Because he turned Matheson’s sad tale (which was adapted into a terrific Twilight Zone episode starring Lee Marvin) into a feel good movie and didn’t hit the canvas, maybe we should lay off the Hate-or-Ade.

Extras: Depending on whether you get the Blu-Ray or the DVD, there’s a ton of featurettes. One reveals how Sugar Ray Leonard taught Jackman and the bots how to pull off convincing boxing moves. There’s also a commentary by Levy, deleted scenes and bloopers. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 —DL



Gee, a movie about baseball and math. How exciting.


If that’s your sarcastic response to the plot of Moneyball, you are not alone. Give it a chance, though, because it’s actually quite engaging. Based on Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book about Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, Moneyball has a crackling script and energetic pace that belie its less-than-intriguing subject matter.


Oscar nominee Brad Pitt gives one of his best performances as Beane, whose team gets hammered endlessly by wealthy opponents who can afford hotshot players (including some of Beane’s, who leave for higher paychecks). A chance meeting with young stats whiz Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, also Oscar-nominated) changes the way Beane chooses players, and shakes up decades of accepted talent-scouting wisdom.


Aside from the performances, the film’s greatest asset is the screenplay by masters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian. They also wrote the script for The Social Network, another great movie about a seemingly boring subject (guys sitting at computers!), and their rapid-fire style is everywhere. Director Bennett Miller slows it down just enough to let the narrative unfold properly. This is, quite literally, “inside baseball” material, and it needs to be handled carefully for popular consumption.


Moneyball will still find its most appreciative audience among baseball geeks, who either love or hate Beane’s muckraking reforms. It won’t make fans or statisticians out of anyone else, but it will be a very pleasant surprise.


Extras: Deleted and extended scenes; a blooper reel; features on Beane’s accomplishments and the efforts to give the film authenticity; the Blu-Ray also has features on casting and the challenges of adapting Lewis’ book. (PG-13) Rating: 4 —LL


Wings (1927)


Considering it was the first movie to ever win an Academy Award for Best Picture, it’s been a travesty that Wings has been unavailable on Blu-Ray, much less DVD, until now. Thankfully, Paramount has finally corrected that problem. It was the last silent film to take Best Picture at the Oscars. We’ll have to see if The Artist will be so fortunate when the little gold men are handed out later this month.


The new edition has been spruced up and has a new orchestra score. There’s color tinting, but thankfully none of this detracts from the wonder that is the film itself. Olathe native Charles “Buddy” Rogers, who later married Mary Pickford, and Richard Arlen play a couple of daring pilots who take on the Germans in World War I. They also wind up endangering their close friendship when they both fall in love with the same woman (Clara Bow).


The love triangle is adequate, but the main reason to see Wings is some of the most jaw dropping areal footage ever shot. Keep in mind, these folks didn’t have CGIs.


Rogers and Arlen actually had to learn to fly the fragile, rickety biplanes. Instead of having the actors on a set with a backdrop of painted clouds behind them, you can tell that Rogers is in the sky with the wind hammering his face. He was often in the air for hours and vomited from airsickness and stress. It’s a miracle this guy lived to be in his 90s.


I’m not sure of what to make of a scene where Rogers gets loaded on Champagne and stumbles through a room full of bubbles, but Clara Bow is mesmerizing in what could have been a throwaway role. It’s also fun to see a young Gary Cooper in a tiny cameo. He’s only on for a few seconds, but he manages to steal the film just by looking somber.


Extras: Two making of featurettes and one look at the restoration process. As an added bonus, make sure to watch Rogers’ lips. He got to cuss out the Germans because it was a silent movie. (N/R) Rating: 4 —DL





Loey Lockerby can be contacted at lrl94@aol.com.
Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com.