23 Witnesses of the Outbreak


One of my New Year’s Resolutions for 2007 was to catch up on all those films I’ve been meaning to see for years, but for one reason or another I’ve never actually gotten around to. Today, it’s Outbreak‘s turn. And even before the opening credits were over, I couldn’t understand why I’d put it off for so long. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen? With Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, J.T. Walsh and Donald Sutherland in key supporting roles? I must be crazy to have stayed away for so long.

And I’m happy to say that I liked it, even if it was not an easy viewing experience. I’ve read Stephen King’s The Stand twice (and own the DVD of the TV miniseries), and I find the concept of this sort of unstoppable viral epidemic to be one of the scariest things imaginable. (I can’t think of a more frightening line of dialogue in any film than “You didn’t check your suit… there’s a tear in it.”)

This may be Kevin Spacey’s funniest performance ever, standing in stark contrast to the bleak subject matter. (“Motaba… it sounds like a perfume. One drop, and you’ll feel totally different. Your lover will melt in your arms!”) There’s a great ensemble performance at the heart of this movie; even Rene Russo somehow managed to not annoy me, which is a near-miracle.

The cynic in me agrees that the government would behave in exactly this way, preferring to employ the “let’s stick our heads in the sand and pretend the problem doesn’t exist” strategy, coupled with a bit of “let’s preserve this deadly adversary as a possible biological weapon,” an attitude that also turns up in the Alien series.. Harrowing, frightening, and utterly engrossing, Outbreak is well worth a look.


A favorite film from my teen years, I haven’t actually looked at Witness in close to a decade and a half. I put off rewatching it primarily because experience has shown me that films I feel nostalgic about often don’t hold up as well as I expect on repeat viewings, and I end up feeling disappointed and let down. So I wanted to preserve the experience of Witness in my mind, in case the movie failed to live up to my memories of it.

I was both right and wrong in my fears. Many aspects of the story have aged well, with the lovely Amish country of my adopted state of Pennsylvania looking beautiful in every scene. Harrison Ford’s portrayal of a tough Philadelphia cop charged with protecting a little Amish boy who witnesses the murder of a police officer is some of the finest acting he’s ever done, forever breaking him out of the tough-talking action-star mold he’d been trapped in for years. And Peter Weir’s direction and photography are strikingly original, with innovative compositions and subdued performances from the large supporting cast conveying the humility of the Amish without beating us over the head with it.

But the film itself fell a little flat for me in certain areas. The score is full of ’80s synthesizer music, sounding a lot like early John Carpenter, but without his gift for melody. The pacing is slightly off as well, with the second act feeling rushed and unfocused. And Danny Glover’s villain never seems to be anything more than a rough caricature, with insubstantial motives for his behavior.

Far more interesting is the relationship between Ford and the boy’s mother. It’s awkward, sweet, and unencumbered by the physical lust depicted in most movie relationships, despite their clear attraction to each other. Kudos to the film for never allowing them to fall into bed together.

On balance, Witness is still a good little tale, even if I’d like to re-edit the Philadelphia sequences — they move a tad too quickly to cover all the exposition Peter Weir tries to introduce. But as a visual love letter to Pennsylvania Amish country, and as a story of an unconsummated love affair between two people from different worlds, Witness has my respect.

The Number 23

It’s Da Vinci Code for Dummies, as Jim Carrey and director Joel Schumacher try to convince us that the prevalence of the number 23 in our daily lives is somehow frightening beyond belief. It’s not, of course. What’s truly frightening is how Schumacher continues to find work.

God, where to start with this movie. How many sinister voice-overs do we need to hear from Carrey, as he solemnly intones dramatic phrases like “If only it hadn’t happened… if only I hadn’t been late to meet my wife…” etc. It becomes comical after a while, especially since the movie takes a freakin’ eternity to get moving. But Carrey continues to promise a payoff via his annoying, repetitive voice-overs long after the story should have, well, started. And the goods are never delivered.

Carrey is a disenchanted animal control worker who becomes obsessed with the mystical significance of the number 23 after receiving a book on the subject for his birthday. So immediately the film violates the first rule of storytelling, which is to allow your hero to identify and solve a problem. Everything is laid out for him in the book. How very exciting to watch our hero boldly reading for huge chunks of the movie to unravel the nefarious details of the plot. My heart races just thinking about it.

And the bizarre logic of the movie is intriguing. Carrey is a few minutes late meeting his wife at the bookstore. When he finds her, she is leafing through the book in question. She buys it for him as a birthday gift. He then spends hours devouring it. When he asks his wife if she’s read it, she replies, “Most of it.” Huh… so she read “most of it” while browsing for a few minutes in the bookstore, but after several hours of reading, he’s managed to finish two chapters? Is she a speed reader, or is he a nincompoop?

And the most unintentionally funny line of dialogue all year has to be: “Would the number live to kill another day?” It’s even funnier when the line is delivered in Carrey’s ultra-serious monotone. (Potential runners-up: “Ned isn’t just a dog… he’s the guardian of the dead,” and “Look around at all the beautiful 23s! You don’t want to disappoint them, do you?”)

Ultimately, the film fails because WHO FREAKIN’ CARES if the number 23 pops up a lot in our daily lives? So does any other number, if you’re actively looking for it. And ho boy, the less said about the ludicrous third-act revelations, the better.



One response to “23 Witnesses of the Outbreak

  1. Hey, you’ve shattered my hopes for number 23 and 300 grr, though it won’t stop me being the first in que for 300 when it gets here next friday. Outbreak was on here a few weeks ago, and although it was fun i didn’t really have the same affinity in my views as you. And i’ll have to check out Witness, sounds like alot of fun.

    Waiting for the next show eagerly
    P.S I thought ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’ was frickin’ awesome like you said.

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