[REC] 2 (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
“[REC]²,” written and directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, began a few minutes after a reporter (Manuela Velasco) was dragged by a zombie-like creature into darkness. This time, a SWAT team (Óscar Zafra, Ariel Casas, Alejandro Casaseca, Pablo Rosso) and a health minister (Pep Molina) made their way inside the quarantined building to get a specific blood sample. They hoped to make an antidote just in case the biological infection touched the general population. But the Ministry of Health wasn’t telling the truth about his identity. He was actually a priest and there was something in the blood that the Church was determined to have. “[REC]²” was enjoyable because the dark atmosphere, which made its predecessor so chilling, remained foreboding. The hand-held camera remained the picture’s conceit but it still worked. When a character turned a corner, I anticipated that a zombie was right there waiting for its next victim. What I liked most about the the film was it didn’t rely on the atmosphere to keep us interested. Instead of giving us the same concept and the only disparity consisting of different characters running around the apartment complex, it tried to answer questions about what the reporter saw at the end of the first film. That is, the specific reason why the other priest experimented on a little girl and possibly other children. However, “[REC]²” became less interesting when we stopped seeing the events through the SWAT team’s perspective. Three idiotic teenagers (Andrea Ros, Pau Poch, Àlex Batllori) decided to sneak inside from the sewers with, of course, a video camera. There was a sudden shift in tone. Since they argued so much, their situation just felt silly. When they were on screen, I felt like I was watching a banal slasher flick instead of a horror movie with a solid concept. “Let’s get out of here!” insisted one of the doomed teens. But she didn’t have the courage to leave her friends. Why? If I was convinced something was a really bad idea, I won’t do it. I have a brain and a will of my own. It had gotten so irritating, I actually wanted them to get bitten and turn into zombies so there would be no more whining. The movie had a couple of wonderful scares. My favorite, although requiring a leap of faith, was when our protagonists discovered that there was a place within a room invisible to the naked eye. The camera became a necessary tool, not just a conceit, to see the place of interest. While one holding the camera was able to see in darkness, the rest of them were blind. The monster could be right next to them and they would have had no idea. Our hearts beat a little faster for them. It had moments of creativity but the multiple perspectives was executed with a lack of focus. Nevertheless, I give the writer-directors credit for turning “[REC]” upside down. Unlike most sequels of the genre, “[REC]²” felt necessary.
★ / ★★★★
Martin (Cillian Murphy) and Kate (Thandie Newton) opted to spend ten days in the remote Blackholme Island in hopes of curing whatever was vitiating their marriage from the inside. With the help of Doug (Jimmy Yuill), the owner of the island and Martin’s longtime friend, the couple was able to settle in. A couple of days later, bloodied Jack (Jamie Bell) was spotted collapsing in the field across their cottage. Martin and Kate took him inside with reservations. When Jack woke up, he informed Martin that there was an airborne virus that originated from South America which had infected the rest of the planet. Not only was it extremely contagious, it was also lethal for it aggressively attacked people’s respiratory systems. They had to do whatever it took to seal themselves from inside the cottage. “Retreat,” written by Janice Hallett and Carl Tibbetts, drew many wrinkles on my forehead. While I had no qualm in accepting its premise, Martin and Kate’s decisions forced me to mutter many frustrations under my breath. If you were told by someone that everyone was dead or dying in a specific part of the world, would you readily accept such a statement? Martin did. For an architect, requiring to have a certain level of logic for a living, there was something odd about the way he allowed Jack to take over, physically and psychologically, the household. In the least, I expected him to perform a bit of investigation. Given that cellphones, the internet, and the CB radio didn’t work, why didn’t Martin or his wife take it upon themselves to be more creative in asking the same questions in a different way to in order to coax out the wrinkles in Jack’s claims? Instead, much of the picture was dedicated to characters yelling at each other, pointing the gun at one another, and, yes, fighting for weapons that slid across the floor. It just wasn’t interesting. The scenes that were supposed to be thrilling were greatly lacking in tension. For instance, when Kate and Martin finally decided to work together, they made their way to the kitchen to prepare a hearty breakfast. Martin boiled water in a pan while Kate prepared the bread. Jack sat on a chair in a vulnerable angle. We knew exactly was going to happen, but with the right direction, it could have been effective. But it wasn’t. The scene–and many that adopted a similar approach–wasn’t given enough time to simmer. When the husband and wife entered the kitchen, they went directly for the necessary tools-turned-weapons. Two seconds later, Martin took the pan, the water magically hot after being put on the stove just a second before, and splashed it all over the stranger. As a result, it became more about the violence than the suspense when it shouldn’t have been because they didn’t have proof that Jack was lying to them. With a more focused screenplay in terms of delivering thrills and a true understanding of human psychology and behavior, “Retreat,” directed by Carl Tibbets, could have been far more engaging. Although Martin and Kate were supposedly so desperate to get out of the house, the plot was cemented in its increasingly thick contrivances. We sit in our chairs passively, wishing it offered so much more.
Mission: Impossible II (2000)
★ / ★★★★
Dr. Nekhorvich (Rade Serbedzija) was on the plane to the United States after he discovered a virus named Chimera, fatal to its host within twenty hours of contact. However, the only way to transport the virus safely was to inject it inside a living person. The plane never made it to its destination. Meanwhile, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) was assigned by his superior (Anthony Hopkins) to recruit Nyah (Thandie Newton), a professional thief, so that she could reconnect with Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), former beau and rising international terrorist. Incidentally, Ambrose used to double for Hunt during missions back when he was still an IMF agent. He’d gone rogue and he planned to profit from the virus by forcing a pharmaceutical company CEO (Brendan Gleeson) to surrender his company. Based on the screenplay by Robert Towne and directed by John Woo, “Mission: Impossible II” was everything Brian De Palma’s “Mission: Impossible” was not: gone were the atmospheric paranoia that kept the characters from fully trusting each other, the heart-pounding scenes in which silence was successfully executed to attain the highest levels of suspense, and the thrilling possibility that anyone could drop dead at any time. Instead, we were subjected to more hand-to-hand combat, slow motions that featured Cruise’ well-shampooed and well-conditioned hair, and forceful, supposedly meaningful, glances between Hunt and Nyah, both of whom shared no chemistry. I wouldn’t have a problem with the direction the filmmakers wanted to take if more thought was put into it. The elements of great drama, a bridge to a solid action movie with a heart, were certainly there. Nyah was trapped between two men, obviously attracted to her, who used to work for the same team. But how were Ethan, not as Hunt the IMF agent, and Sean, not as Ambrose the criminal, different and similar to each other? The closest we got to getting to know them was toward the end when they tried to kill each other from their motorcycles. Ambrose knew how Ethan worked and processed information given that they went through the same training. There should have been more scenes when Ambrose took advantage of the fact that he knew who he was up against. Ethan, on the other hand, didn’t know much about Ambrose. He saw the man as just his double. It would make sense if he took a while to get accustomed to his adversary. Furthermore, there was a duality involving Greek mythology: Chimera, a monster with a head of a lion and a tail of a serpent’s head, and Bellerophon, a hero most famous for slaying Chimera. Incidentally, Chimera was the name of the virus and Bellerophon was the name of the cure. But how was Chimera and Bellerophon related to Ambrose and Hunt, respectively? The film missed another opportunity to further explore its characters independent of blazing guns and egregious slow motion montages. What bothered me most was the script seemed desperate to turn Ethan Hunt into James Bond. Doing something different for a sequel does not mean it’s acceptable to be disloyal to the original character. It means giving us something unexpected but still hanging onto his core, the reason why we rooted for him in the first place.
★★★ / ★★★★
Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), while on a business trip to Macau, became sick. She returned home thinking that what she had was a common case of cold. Within two days, she died. So did her son. This left Mitch (Matt Damon), Beth’s husband, shaken with disbelief–that a few coughs and sniffles could destroy his family. But what Beth had wasn’t typical. Within a couple of days, health organizations from all over the world realized that what caused Beth’s death was a virulent virus that had the capability to invade its host’s respiratory and central nervous systems. And it was spreading at an exponential rate. “Contagion,” written by Scott Z. Burns and directed by Steven Soderbergh, was at its best when it was coldly calculating. Such a tone was prevalent in the first half and it was appropriate because viruses don’t discern between good and bad people. It was simple: we observed a human being develop the symptoms of the fatal disease and he or she died within a couple of minutes after we met them. Then it was onto the next victim. It was scary, mysterious, and real. The director juggled different characters, scientists and civilians, with relative ease. There was Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) who worked for the CDC whose confidence relied on a plan of attack that worked in the past. But this was a different breed of disease and it was mutating at such a rapid pace. We observed this man’s confidence crumble which happened to be parallel to society’s laws and regulations slowly being thrown out the window. With people not getting enough answers and becoming more terrified each day, they had to lie, steal, and kill to survive. And such actions were not limited to civilians. On the opposite side of the spectrum, there was Mr. Krumwiede (Jude Law), a sort-of journalist/blogger who led a popular website, who claimed that the government didn’t want people to know the truth. In some ways, he was right despite his fear mongering. For me, while watching the film, the main source of drama wasn’t in the fact that I became more paranoid of germs as it went on. I know that there are “good” germs that protect us from “bad” germs; that our bodies rely on select foreign organisms to function well. What piqued my curiosity was the struggle between figures who wanted to keep things hush-hush, like Dr. Cheever, and those who wanted to reveal information, even without proper scientific research, like Mr. Krumwiede. I was left in the middle and, as it turned out, I found myself caring most about people who ended up confused but tried their best to make it through just one more day, like Mitch and his daughter. Despite the film using a lot of foreign-sounding words like “pleomorphic,” “encephalitis,” and “immunoglobulin domains,” which not everyone had to understand to realize that something bad was happening, the picture had a heart. Notice that the director always reverted to Mitch and his struggle to keep his daughter safe from the virus. Although still interesting, “Contagion” lost a bit of momentum in its second half. But all is forgiven because no one turned into a zombie.
★★ / ★★★★
A deadly virus ravages the world in Àlex Pastor and David Pastor’s thriller starring Chris Pine, Lou Taylor Pucci, Emily VanCamp and Piper Perabo. The four struggling survivors of the pandemic agreed to adhere to several rules that they thought would ensure or at least maximize their chances of survival. However, when they ran into a man (Christopher Meloni) and his infected daughter (Kiernan Shipka) in the middle of the road, it seemed that nothing would go according to plan. From reading several synopses, I got the impression that this was going to be a zombie flick. It actually wasn’t because even though there was an infection (thanks to “28 Days Later”), the people who died did not rise from the dead and start chasing people. It was simple: you get the virus, you die. I was really into the first half of this picture because of the chemistry of the four main characters. They were all very different and I liked them because they weren’t afraid to have fun even though death was all around. I even thought to myself that I wouldn’t mind being stuck with them if there was a pandemic of such calamity in real life. However, the second half became a little too serious and the pacing began to slow down considerably. For instance, the extended scenes in the fancy hotel was completely unnecessary. I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to deliver the creepy atmosphere and maybe some disgusting rotting flesh because the place was huge. Unfortunately, the movie did not use that setting in its favor. The moral conundrums the characters were put into were interesting in the first half but they became heavy-handed during the second half. The decisions the characters had to make did not affect me in the slightest. They seemed like completely different people compared to the beginning. I felt like the Pastor brothers’ writing became preachy (pardon the pun) and it got stuck. It would have been nice if none of the four got infected because right from the very beginning, I just knew that some (or possibly all) of them would die. I could tell that the directors wanted to do something different so I didn’t understand why they didn’t risk it all. Nevertheless, I say “Carriers” is a decent Friday night rental considering the level of thought that was put into the material, the charismatic actors and the limited budget. One should not expect the movie to be a horror film (as I did). There were a couple of shocking scenes but that was about it so it really was more like a thriller.
★★★ / ★★★★
Having seen and being impressed with the remake called “Quarantine,” I just had to see the original. I think both are very effective even though they pretty much had the same scenes. In “[REC],” astutely directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, it had less exposition but the audiences quickly cared about the reporter (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman. The reporter had a certain spunk and enthusiasm and what the cameraman saw, we saw so there was an automatic connection there. Everything starts off pretty light as the reporter interviewed the firemen about their every day happenings. Things quickly went for a darker turn when the firefighters got a call from an old apartment complex. At first, they thought it was just an old woman that fell and needed help. But when she started attacking and biting people, everyone pretty much knew that something more sinister was going on. People started dying in gruesome ways in the hands of zombie-like infected people and they get quarantined by city officials without an ounce of explanation. What I love about this film was its natural ability to build tension after each scene. There were moments when I thought that if I was stuck in the building with them, the exact same thing could happen so I was definitely more than engaged. “The Blair Witch Project” was undoubtedly this picture’s biggest inspiration but it managed to tilt just enough to have an identity of its own. The best part of the movie for me was the last fifteen to twenty minutes when they finally made it inside the apartment on the top floor. Such scenes revealed to us that it had more to it than “28 Days Later”-like zombies. The disease had a history and I wanted to know more about it. (Maybe a sequel?) But, of course, the scares did not end there. I felt like I was in that dark room with them as they tried to use the night vision option on the camera. I tried not to blink because I was expecting those “shock”/”jumpy” moments. But even then I was surprised and things popped out of nowhere. If one is a horror film fan, this is a must-see. However, this is definitely not for those who dislike shaky cameras in order to add some type of realism to its craft.
The Witnesses (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Director André Téchiné’s “Les témoins” tells the story of how four French people (Johan Libéreau, Sami Bouajila, Emmanuelle Béart and Michel Blanc) deal with a newly-discovered unknown virus back in 1984, currently known as AIDS. Libéreau moves to Paris to live with his sister (Julie Depardieu) but eventually becomes Blanc’s younger non-physical lover. Blanc then introduces Libéreau to a married couple Bouajila and Béart, a cop and children’s books writer, respectively. While the couple allow each other to sleep with whoever they want, the wife has no idea that her husband’s new lover is a man and a much younger guy. This could easily have been a stupid movie about homosexuals getting AIDS if it weren’t for Téchiné’s direction. The topic was dealt with such sensitivity to the point where it’s really about people, regardless of sexual orientation, who happen to get infected by the disease. The film also tackles the idea of that initial fear when the scientific community doesn’t have any idea why people are dying except for the fact that it is a virus and there’s no cure for it. I wasn’t yet alive in 1984 so I don’t really know how it was like when AIDS first became an epidemic. So to see news reels about people avoiding certain foods, certain people (homosexuals, drug addicts and Haitians) and even people who work in the morgue actively staying away from dead bodies were interesting to me. I could definitely relate with this picture, especially with the recent scare regarding swine flu. I was so paranoid about getting a cold because of this thought that I won’t be able to live for very long once I get it. There was a certain sensitivity and respect about the issue but it’s not too light or flowery; it’s just enough to tell a story from a specific point of view. Lastly, I liked the fact that the characters’ sexualities weren’t really a big deal. Unlike most American films that touch upon the subject of homosexuality/bisexuality, this picture did not have any I’m-gay-so-I’m-alienated-and-I’m-self-hating moment. I admired this movie’s focus because it never waivers from the message it wanted to get across even though it had to juggle four very different personalities.