Pablo Larrain’s Pinochet Trilogy Loses Substance
Gael Garcia Bernal’s television adman-turned-political-commercial-creator Rene Saavedra is such an ethically ambiguous and passive protagonist that “No” falls flat as a piece of wannabe agitprop cinema. Director Pablo Larrain continues his ongoing study of Pinochet-ruled '70s-era Chile — behind “Tony Manero” (2008) and “Post Mortem” (2010) with an airy statement about the power of the television commercial formula. This lackluster film is based on a stage play, “Referendum” by Antonio Skarmeta.
Rene is the fence-sitting son of a famous Chilean dissident exiled after the C.I.A. assassinates democratically elected President Salvador Allende in a coup, leading to the rise of Augusto Pinochet, a brutal despot. The terrible treatment his father endured has cowed Rene into utter submission under a corrupt system he can barely begin to fathom.
Dictatorial governance begets dictatorial interpersonal relations. After leaving his job making television soft drink commercials, Rene takes on the personality of mini-tyrant over his creative team, which is assigned to design and produce a 15-minute political segment capable of convincing the public to vote “no” against Pinochet in an upcoming referendum.
Pinochet's goons deploy various intimidation tactics against Rene and his staff. Even Rene’s separated wife and son come under attack from the dictator's relentless crew of thugs. Still, nothing polarizes the cowardly Rene into any action beyond the immediate demands of his job. He’s a corporate shill married more to keeping his weekly paycheck than to standing up and fighting when the situation demands it.
While the film’s production standards are high, the narrative is as unsatisfying as they come. It’s impossible to empathize with a protagonist who lacks balls. Rene Saavedra is one of the most impotent examples of a freedom fighter you'll find anywhere in cinema. With friends like this, leftists don’t need more enemies.
Rated R. 110 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
"Contagion's" PG-13 rating predicts the film's less than horrific nature (following an overpromising opening sequence). Director Steven Soderbergh inflects his beautifully photographed compositions with a slick techno pop score yet can't compensate for a script splintered into too many subplots.
Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns ("The Informant!") ignores fundamental rules about providing the audience with a clear protagonist. Laurence Fishburne, Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, and Kate Winslet each play intriguing characters who could conceivably lead the story; sadly, all get lost in the shuffle. Kate Winslet's Dr. Erin Mears is excellent. However, her part is cut woefully short. Most damning is the film’s refusal to meditate upon the gruesome reality of a widespread global pandemic that leaves millions of rotting corpses in its wake.
Hopscotching between the cities of Chicago, San Francisco, and Hong Kong, the fragmented movie follows the outbreak of a virus called MEV-1 like a felon attempting to avoid the scene of a crime. Jude Law's activist blogger Alan Krumwiede posts a homeopathic cure for the quick-spreading disease on his increasingly busy website. Family man Mitch Emhoff finds that he is immune to the virus after losing two family members to its insidious clutches. Damon's character is perhaps the film's most criminally squandered role, next to a blink-and-you'll-miss-it performance from the enormously talented Elliot Gould. Gould graciously fills a minor role as a research scientist whose subplot gets abandoned more so than every other.
“Contagion” does have its moments, however few and far between they are. An especially dramatic death and subsequent scalp-slicing autopsy bring the movie to a proper pitch of cringe-worthy fear. Another episode involving an infected man coughing and touching handrails on a public bus elicits the level of revulsion mass transit riders experience on a daily basis.
If there’s a stand-out moment in the movie it comes during a televised interview with Laurence Fishburne’s head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Ellis Cheever, and Jude Law’s dentally-challenged blogger. Law’s Krumwiede performs the kind of catty public take-down on Dr. Cheever that Bill O’Reilly gets wet dreams about carrying out against his guests. Irony comes later when Krumwiede’s own missteps catch up with him. Still, the screenwriter draws Law’s blogger character with such cartoonish brushstrokes that he borders on the comical. When Elliot Gould describes blogging as “graffiti with punctuation,” you have to chuckle at the screenwriter’s ham-fisted attempt at editorializing. There’s a certain kitchen-sink thing going on. Witness the stupefying miscasting of comedian Demetri Martin in a supporting role as a lab assistant trusted with handling the MEV-1 virus. Talk about sapping credibility from your movie. Soderbergh did a doozy with this one.
“Contagion” is an odd film for its vast supply of untapped potential. It’s surprising that a seasoned filmmaker like Steven Soderbergh would choose to work with such a poorly realized script. The ensemble performances are strong, and the film’s atmosphere is appropriately glum, but there’s nothing here to make you feel like you’ve had a meaningful cinematic experience. What a waste.
Rated PG-13. 105 mins.
Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.
The illicit sex-trafficking actions of NATO peacekeepers -- both privatized and not -- is the subject of this incendiary film that falls prey to predictable dramatic conventions. It comes as no surprise that "The Whistleblower" is based on actual events. Financial opportunity in '90s era postwar Bosnia entices Lincoln, Nebraska police officer Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) to go there on a one-year assignment that pays $100,000. Kathryn hopes to finance moving nearer to her displaced daughter, whose father won custody of the girl. Insufficient backstory is provided about the reasons Kathryn lost the custody battle, save for an allusion to police work taking priority over her parental duties.
On the ground in Sarajevo, Kathryn gets a crash course in the way local justice favors male oppression over its female populace. Abuse of women is an ingrained part of the culture. Legal justice is just another business transaction conducted by a cabal of smirking indigenous men who make no attempt to hide their contempt for anything beyond their black-market boys' club lifestyle. Sudden violence goes with the territory.
Private peacekeeping employees of companies ala Blackwater are presented as opportunistic war tourists. The diplomatically-immune foreign capitalists show little intention of doing anything to actually help the desperate local populace, whose women suffer considerably more than its men.
Surprisingly, Kathryn wins a precedent-setting court case for a domestically abused wife in Sarajevo court. No small feat, her accomplishment earns her a superior title overseeing the United Nation's Gender Office under Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave), the head of the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Redgrave's signature credibility is in fine form. Her character comes to represent a singular thread of integrity that Kathryn Bolkovac holds onto for all she's worth.
Wiesz's nimble character slips into a necessary romantic liaison with fellow foreign aid agent Jan Van Der Velde (Nikolaj Lie Kaas). Their sexual union provides her with a much-needed ally even if his potential for tangible results are less than either imagine.
Sarajevo bars serve a multitude of purposes, not the least of which is supplying a steady stream of nubile Eastern European sex slaves for locals and NATO agents alike to feast on with reckless abandon. Damning photographic evidence reveals to Kathryn the complicity of her diplomatically-immune co-workers in the area's rampant sex trafficking trade. As she investigates further, Kathryn discovers the greater extent of NATO/U.N./United States Government involvement in the trafficking of underage girls into Bosnia where they work as sex slaves to by back a freedom that will never be granted.
The movie goes astray in attempting to personalize the story of its female victims. Ukrainian teen Raya (Roxana Condurache) takes the brunt of a torture scene that contributes more as a planted piece of exploitation cinema than it does in moving the story toward an emotionally grounded place for the audience.
Debut co-writer/director Larysa Kondracki is ill-equipped to handle the story's most delicate and important aspect. You get the sense that had she worked with a more experienced script collaborator than newcomer Eilis Kirwan, Kondracki might have been able to craft the film into the call-to-arms she aspires to create.
Most distracting is David Strathairn's turn as U.N. agent Jan Van Der Velde who Madeleine Rees advises Kathryn to place her complete trust in after Kathryn discloses her findings. The filmmakers go several plot-twists too far in a protracted suspense sequence that has Kathryn sneaking into her evidence-loaded office to extract materials that logically would have already been removed by officials who fired her after being alerted to her whistle-blowing activities.
It's difficult to escape Rachel Wiesz's connection to the far more effective social activist movie "The Constant Gardener" in which the gifted actress played an equally daring agent of exposing systematic corruption on an epic level. Activist social dramas such as these remind us the limitations of laws and policies to thwart the dastardly deeds of greedy nihilistic men who hide in plain sight and in the twisting florescent-lit corridors of power. Such corruption is rampant. No amount of "whistle-blowing" will do anything to change it. The big lesson for the audience here is, no matter how cynical you think you are, you still have a long way to go.
Rated R. 105 mins.
Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.
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