By rights “Warrior” (wide release) should be a disaster. A mixture of “Rocky” and “The Fighter” set in the world of mixed martial arts, with a dysfunctional family drama added to the mix, it seems doomed to fail.
But against all odds, the picture works. Joel Edgerton and Tommy Hardy are both first-rate as the long-estranged siblings who eventually meet in the championship match of a MMA tournament with a purse of five million bucks. And Nick Nolte brings depth to the part of their father, a recovering alcoholic whom both of them despise.
The chain of coincidences makes the narrative hard to swallow. And the hour’s worth of bone-crunching bouts leading up to the final face-off can be even harder to take.
But the writing is sharper than one would expect, and the three stars deliver it with aplomb. The filmmakers give an unrealistic tale a veneer of realism with their gritty take on the family’s native Pittsburgh, and they capture the seediness of Atlantic City, where the tournament’s set, as well.
You know where “Warrior” is going from the first reel, but it’s so cannily made that you’re happy to let it take you there. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a sucker punch, but still carries considerable emotional force.
Quite the opposite is true of “Contagion” (wide release). Steven Soderbergh’s film, which follows the course of a flu pandemic from its origin in China through its eventual conquest by vaccine – after it’s ravaged the world’s population for months – is beautifully crafted in technical terms but seriously deficient in human ones.
That’s the case despite an exceptional cast. Gwynth Paltrow plays the first victim of the plague, and Matt Damon, the Minneapolis husband she returns home to after a business trip, only to die in agony. Marion Cotillard is a WHO inspector sent to China to locate the source of the outbreak, and Laurence Fishburne is the head of the CDC. A gallery of other stars, including Kate Winslet as the CDC investigator sent to Minnesota to track down potential victims and Jude Law as a conspiracy-theory blogger, add to the star wattage on hand.
But though the actors all work hard, they fail to bring much emotional depth to their characters, who are shuffled around like pawns on a chessboard while Soderbergh indulges his talent for intertwining narrative threads and twisting his way to a revelation about the disease’s origin that, to be frank, isn’t all that surprising.
As pure cinematic exercise, “Contagion” is impressive. But as a drama it’s not.
The inanities of cheesy monster movies can be fun, but “Creature” (wide release) stretches your tolerance past the breaking point.
Employing virtually every cliché in the book, the picture follows six 20-somethings as they make a stop at a run-down store in backwoods Louisiana. There they learn about a local legend, a half-man, half-alligator beast called Lockjaw and, rather than jumping back into their van and continuing to New Orleans, stupidly decide to visit the thing’s supposed lair.
What happens from there is pretty much preordained, though the script does throw one supposedly shocking twist. But all that does is take the movie into even more hackneyed territory, telegraphed by the presence of scenery-gnashing Sid Haig (“The Devil’s Rejects”) as the proprietor of the store, a guy named Chopper, no less.
Add to that a monster that looks like exactly what it is – a guy running around in a rubber suit – and excessive use of slow motion (as well as the girls stripping at every conceivable opportunity), and you get a would-be B-movie that never makes it beyond grade Z.
Everybody knows about the Bernie Madoff scandal, but “Chasing Madoff” (Angelika) isn’t really about the Wall Street swindler. It focuses on Harry Markopolos, an investment analyst who saw through Madoff’s Ponzi scheme years before anyone else, but whose obsessive efforts to warn investors, government agencies and the media came to naught.
It’s intriguing simply because Markopolos comes across as such a strange, driven fellow, who comes to think he’s a marked man because of what he knows and goes to extraordinary lengths to protect himself. As a result it’s a documentary account of paranoia more than a financial expose.
“Chasing Madoff” does sometimes go off the rails, as when it offers up flashy recreations of attempts on Markopolos’ life that never happened but he imagined as possibilities. Though flawed, it’s still fascinating.