Contagion

Review:  This is a film about an oft-sensationalized subject — pandemics — that is justifiably sensational in more than one sense of the word.  It’s a highly tactile narrative, with the camera focusing tight and swooping down low to bring our attention to the moment when a virus transfers from person to surface and back again, reminding us how often we touch our faces and each other without a second thought, and making human existence seem fraught with peril.  There are no jump scares or unbearable scenes of gore and violence — not that it is without a bit of the latter two — but it’s terrifying in its implications, because it makes you believe.  ‘Contagion’ wants to convince you of two things: 1) A very nasty pandemic (probably) will happen, and 2) We will survive it.  Fear not; the story is actually quite buoyant, with nobility and self-sacrifice informing the characters’ actions more often than not, and it ends up being as heartwarming as it is frightening.  Each plotline has a subdued but worthy arc, fueled by straightforward performances that capture the human element and eschew traditional Hollywood posing.  There’s only one character that comes off like a caricature — Jude Law’s blogger stereotype that deliberately spreads misinformation about the plague.  It irritated me, and it’s arguably unfair to New Media in general.  Even the blogger threads, however, have some value in the greater tapestry of the film, and by no means do they spoil it.

Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns manage to render layer upon layer of significance that may not be clear on first viewing.  The overall theme is about what it means to be a fragile physical being in a world teeming with hostile invaders that exploit the most fundamental of human instincts — touch.  The first lines of the film are about sex, the ultimate manifestation of human physicality, and in this instance it is transgressive.  Here the screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns, implants the idea that drives the film: touch is sacred.  The first scenes also echo Alfred Hitchcock’s classic ‘Psycho’, where a woman’s sexual misdeeds are punished by its own titular evil — unlike Marion Crane, however, Gwyneth Paltrow’s character is a wife and mother, held up, again, as something central and sacred.  Her death means the death of humanity.  Arguably, the dramatic spindle of the film is her step-daughter, as she sweetly and desperately attempts to romance a neighborhood boy in the midst of the outbreak.  In this way, sex is restored to innocence, and there is hope.  Her father, played by Matt Damon, exists to support this symbol and represent the general human response to the pandemic.  He’s the straight-laced middle class American guy who’s in over his head, just trying to handle the fear and the grief brought on by a situation over which he can exercise no control.  He’s also the chief symbol of the masculine instinct in the story — the desire to fight for and secure one’s loves and property — and how it is so easily undermined by the invisible enemy, one that can’t be stopped by brawn or bullets.

The real glory of ‘Contagion’ is how the government scientists — U.N. and American — are spared the usual suspicion reserved for authority figures.  They make their mistakes and have their conflicts, but ultimately they manifest, in spades, all the heroic instincts that have enabled humans to survive thus far.  Science isn’t presented as esoteric, but as an intricate puzzle, and the filmmakers have enough respect for their audience to actually give us a few of the pieces — not enough to solve it, but to give us a reasonable idea of the challenges that face real scientists.  This is also an example of narrative innovation; meaning, the filmmakers find conflicts in reality that translate well into fiction.  Procedural stories are popular because we expect them to represent sequences of cause and effect that could easily occur in the real world — often, however, procedurals merely copy each other and don’t reflect the truth, but in ‘Contagion’s case, the nitty-gritty is exceptionally well-researched and feels fresh even when it evokes familiar imagery.  The fair portrayal of authority figures and the legitimately plausible challenges they face add up to a high level of believability.  It’s the filmmakers’ appeal to our common sense, and it works.

Not everything is effective, however. One could argue that Jude Law’s character (the Nasty Blogger) is the antagonist; he is, after all, the most despicable human being on display.  It’s better to identify him as the scapegoat, which is why he weakens the narrative.  ‘Contagion’s true antagonist (the virus, obviously) is effective precisely because it is beyond the audience’s thirst for justice.  It is essentially Death incarnate, and all the raging in the world won’t undo it.  ‘Contagion’ requires a reasoned response from its characters and its audience, and the scapegoat character undermines that.  I would not say that the Nasty Blogger is unnecessary or wrong in narrative principal, merely that the filmmakers overplay their hand.  I understand the point they’re trying to make about the viral (get it?) spread of misinformation; but it would have been far more prudent, in my view, to create a sympathetic character that serves this purpose, emphasizing the simple truth that lies are most often spread by people who believe in them.

Every great antagonist deserves a great presentation. The electronic score by Cliff Martinez (who, incidentally, also scored this year’s ‘Drive’) gives the viral menace a dreadful life — invisible, pulsing, insidious and ever-present.  It makes for an intriguing relationship between the visual touchstones that mark the virus’ presence and the sonic atmosphere that communicates its character.  Like the shark in ‘Jaws’, the antagonist floats through our mental space, heralded by music, but is still able to act independently of its herald, a technique that preserves surprise.

I’ve already mentioned the tactile nature of the cinematography, but what makes it so memorable is how well Soderbergh manages the relationship between color, editing, locations and story beats.  When you’re talking cinema, color is of supreme importance — it is not merely the surface sheen, it is where the story happens in cinematic terms.  I’m using the word “color” very broadly, mind, and of course the other elements of visual storytelling — lines, space, contrast, etc. — are equally important, but ‘Contagion’s use of color is particularly striking.  I would like to do a frame-by-frame analysis at some point, but for now suffice it to say that the way the filmmakers use color to indicate mood, place, and story progression is masterful.  It is one thing to use a warm color to mean, for instance, “Home”; it is another to expand that use across all sorts of spaces, times, and moments, constantly riffing on familiar emotions.

In summary, ‘Contagion’ is a crowd-pleaser that’s suspenseful enough for general audiences, smart enough for the high-minded, and deep enough for the most discerning of cinephiles.  I recommend it.

For more on ‘Contagion’, I would suggest a smattering of articles.  For instance, this take on the science behind it that appeared in Slate; this wonderfully academic look at the film from Discours du Cinema; and a slightly more in-depth look from Mr. Gilmore at Once Upon A Time In The Cinema.

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Classic Review: High Plains Drifter

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary:  A daring, somber film that employs Hitchcock-style storytelling and continues Clint Eastwood’s darker revision of the West.

Review:  For those of you who have seen the classic 1952 western ‘High Noon’, you will recall that its hero, a sheriff played by Gary Cooper, defeats four bandits in a small town but subsequently leaves it, presumably forever.  The reason for his departure was that the townspeople themselves did not support the sheriff in his efforts.  Though he pleaded with them for help to fight these men, they backed out of it, and left him to defend the town alone.  And so the Sheriff leaves in anger and disappointment at those who were not willing to help themselves.

The reason I mention this is because this is an early example of the de-glorification of the West.  The spirit of the pioneers, traditionally portrayed as courageous and humble, is instead shown as cowardly and, by extension, selfish.  By failing to stand up against the antagonists of the film, the town folk in ‘High Noon’ become quasi-antagonistic themselves.  It’s a more complex, albeit sadder spirit for westerns, and it must have been a surprise to people in 1952.  ‘High Plains Drifter’ in 1973, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, takes this vision one step further.

The opening of the film appears normal enough.  After the credits, accompanied by some notably eerie music, a stranger (Eastwood) wanders into the dusty western town of Lago and is immediately confronted by three loud-mouthed gunmen who threaten to kill him.  Of course this is a Clint Eastwood movie, and a quick shoot-out silences them forever.  The town then petitions the stranger to stay and defend them against three more outlaws who were arrested in the town some time earlier but are soon to be released from prison.  After much convincing, he agrees.

Much like ‘High Noon’, the people of Lago are spineless.  Even with guns in their hands, loaded and pointed at the outlaws as they ride into town, not one of them has the conviction to shoot.  Unlike the people of ‘High Noon’, however, the people of Lago are not just cowardly.  They also harbor a terrible secret, a gruesome murder for which the whole town, driven by greed, is guilty.

It is the total destruction of the Classic Western Spirit that Eastwood explores in this movie.  What was suggested two decades earlier as cowardliness is now realized in 1973 as spineless avarice.  Absent here are the hardworking, courageous, and noble people whom we’ve come to expect from the West.  Gone is the glorification of Manifest Destiny.  Gone is the belief that the settlers brought morality and true civilization to the wilderness.  Clint Eastwood dares to show the dark side of the pioneers: settlers too afraid to do what is right and selfish enough to break any law of God or Man.  Here is a world where the people themselves are their own worst enemies.

Clint Eastwood took his already-then fabled Man With No Name character to a new, dark depth in this film.  In addition to his gruff attitude and fast draw, there’s something strangely mysterious about him.  He has a ghost-like quality; something quasi-supernatural.  The climactic showdown at the end, in which only his silhouette is seen, only adds to this mystery.  He’s not simply a stranger anymore; He’s something more.  A force of nature itself; a roaring tempest guided only by the winds, exacting vengeance where he sees fit, be it on outlaws or the town folk.  Never before and never since have Eastwood’s nameless drifters held such power and wonder simultaneously.

Simply put this is an excellently executed film.  It feels truly original and, though somber, is wonderfully engrossing. The film’s inherent darkness and great mystery, as well as a key twist at the end, are evocative of Hitchcock’s work.  If Alfred Hitchcock had ever been in an ominous sort of mood, he might have made a film like ‘High Plains Drifter’.

In short, ‘High Plains Drifter’ is another great Western from a man who was famous for reinventing them.  At times is suffers from being a bit too intense, but overall it’s fine craftsmanship shines through to the end.  This is one of the grittiest, most somber Westerns ever made, but if you can handle it, it’s worth a watch.

Signs

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: A terrifying but hopeful film that suffers from a cultural divide but benefits from an incredible musical score.

Review:  There are some movies that stick with you.   Little bits of soundtrack, snippets of dialog, memorable images that excited or traumatized you.  Since before I can remember, I’ve had a bit of a problem with aliens; well, the pop culture conception of them as home-invading demons with psychosexual tendencies.  When I first saw Shyamalan’s ‘Signs’, it scared the hell out of me.  It was the sum of all my nightmares.   It didn’t end when the credits rolled; I kept seeing the monsters in my living room and in blank television screens, I heard their voices over my shoulder while that awful, brilliant music heralded their arrival.  ‘Signs’ was nightmare fuel unleaded.

It wasn’t until recently that I began to realize that, even though it has some peculiar flaws, ‘Signs’ is one of my favorite films.   It’s because of the way that M. Night skillfully turns a horror story into an uplifting parable of the divine hand.  It’s my greatest fear and my greatest hope combined.   It still chills me at the right moments, but my newfound affection for it has dimmed the alien monsters in my peripheral vision.

‘Signs’ has a major flaw, a storytelling hiccup that defines the latter half of Shyamalan’s career thus far.   That is, he doesn’t speak the same language as most filmgoers.   He has a distinctly Eastern worldview, one that remembers the power of folklore and allows, in a childlike fashion, for leaps of logic.  A filmmaker risks it all on an audience’s capacity to understand the story he or she tells.   Shyamalan tells stories from another time and place, and doesn’t bother to explain the philosophy; probably because he can’t.  It’s a communication breakdown.  I grew up in the Eastern Orthodox Church, where I breathed in Eastern philosophy along with the incense.   Shyamalan’s storytelling resonates with me.   He speaks a language I’m lucky enough to understand.   Most critics of his work, it seems to me, come from a Western, rationalist background, which values logic and clarity above all else.   The problem with ‘Signs’ is that it’s a Western movie with an Eastern soul, and that disconnect prevents the story from reaching everyone that it could.

The film’s cinematography is superb.   It feels like a Hitchcock film with a more dynamic camera.  The frame bleeds suspense.   But, of course, sound is half the picture; much like Bernard Herrmann’s score for ‘Psycho’ and John Williams’ score for ‘Jaws’, James Newton Howard’s jaw-dropping music is insanely good and exceeds the film’s own quality.  It is equally wonderful and twisted.   The mark of a good score, such as this one, is that it fires the imagination on all cylinders, even without the film.

M. Night Shyamalan has fallen out of vogue, but I’ll always think fondly of his distinct style, and I’ll continue to revisit this film again and again.

James’ Top Ten Directors (Without An Order)

Sorry about the long hiatus, folks, but I kind of lost my drive to write.  The good news is, I did regain my drive to screenwrite, and I’ve got a solid idea progressing nicely.

It occurred to me that a major obstacle to the success of this blog is the lack of variety in articles.  Sure, we’ve got reviews and the ‘Elements’ series, but what about top-tens and other die hard blog tropes?  Ain’t nothing wrong with a good trope.  So, here we go.  My top ten favorite directors.  Minus the numbers one expects from such things.

Steven Spielberg

Spielberg shades his eyes because they're too bright for you.  Hence the hat, even without the glasses.

Spielberg shades his eyes because they're too bright for you. Hence the hat, even without the glasses.

Here’s the why. He made ‘Raiders’, ‘Close Encounters’, ‘Saving Private Ryan’, ‘Jaws’, and your mother’s amazing plasticine face.

Christopher Nolan

I think he's an accomplshed actor, too.  Didn't he play a James Bond villain at one point...?  No?

I think he's an accomplished actor, too. Didn't he play a James Bond villain at one point...? No?

Here’s the why.  He saved Batman’s batfilm batexistence batfrom bathell.  He’s really good at screwing with your mind, even in relatively straightforward movies like ‘The Dark Knight’.  On the extreme end of intentional mindscrews, of course, is ‘Memento’, which is referenced in way too many screenwriting books. C’mon, people, we’re novices, if we’re reading your book looking for advice, don’t mock us with a challenge to repaint the Mona Lisa.  Also, Christopher Nolan is the only fellow I would trust to remake ‘Blade Runner’.

Quentin Tarantino

That's the German three.

That's the German three.

Here’s the why. Quentin cares enough about his stories that he lets them gestate for ridiculous periods of time.  That way, he doesn’t rely on formula, but delivers a compelling and original story that breaks a lot of “rules” and yet somehow still works.

Peter Jackson

Before

Before

After.

After.

Here’s the why. He directed ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, which kicked everybody’s ass, except J.R.R. Tolkien himself, who was on the moon fighting vampires when it was released. Mr. Jackson has since lost a lot of girth and become a Hollywood heavyweight, shepherding up-and-coming directors and projects, like Neill Blomkamps’ ‘District 9’, which was like the ’80s sci-fi craze had come back to life with a blood transfusion from Jason Bourne. So he’s got that going for him.

J.J. Abrams

He is not clueless.  Merely geeked the heck out.

He is not clueless. Merely geeked the heck out.

Here’s the why. He’s great at fusing genre films with solid, emotional stories.  Sometimes too good.  I didn’t expect the opening of ‘Mission: Impossible III’ to be nearly as traumatizing as it was, but that’s okay.

Alfred Hitchcock

Nobody does it better...

Nobody does it better...

Here’s the why. Hitchcock represents the majority of exposure pretty much anyone has to the silent era and its powerful ‘show, don’t tell’ ethos. Thanks to this training as a silent film director, Hitch kicks lots of ass in the suspense department, and his stuff is really memorable.  Every suspense movie, ever, is compared to Hitch.  Not to his movies, no, to the man himself.  Why is he laughing in that photo?  Why?  Why!?

Brad Bird

Let's see... Bird pun... Bird pun...

Let's see... Bird pun... Bird pun...

Here’s the why. Brad Bird is another fellow who can blend genre with emotional, original story. So far, his works have been fantastic animated movies, such as ‘The Iron Giant’, and Pixar’s ‘The Incredibles’ and ‘Ratatouille’, but he may be making his first foray into live action soon. Whatever the case, Brad Bird’s imagination is sure to soar.  Ha.  Ha.

Sergio Leone

OVIEIf he looks fazed it's only because he spent all his energy making THE BEST MOVIES EVER.

If he looks fazed it's only because he spent all his energy making THE BEST MOVIES EVER

Here’s the why. Sergio Leone is the godfather of the Spaghetti Western subgenre.   Since he’s passed away, there’s no point in making Spaghetti Westerns anymore.  Unless you’re Quentin Tarantino or something.

Duncan Jones

This is what happens when you put out the fire with gasoline.

This is what happens when you put out the fire with gasoline.

Here’s the why. He directed ‘Moon’, the best sci-fi film of 2009.  Strangely, he’s David Bowie’s son.  Sure, this guy’s new, but he’s awesome and he looks to be building a sweet sci-fi series.

Tim Burton

How dare you, Tim.  I used to hate your movies.  Who do you think you are?  Get out.  You misfit, you.

How dare you, Tim. I used to hate your movies. Who do you think you are? Get out. You misfit, you.

Here’s the why. He’s quirky.   He’s got scissors for hands.  He was not permitted to eat sweets as a child — because his father was (not) Christopher Lee.  His movies are bizzare.   I don’t like the ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’.   I do love ‘Batman’.  Why, Tim?  Why do I admire you, so?

And, that’s my top ten.  Patrick should be coming out with his soon.  Very soon.  You hear that, Patrick?  WRITE THE DAMN LIST.

What?  Oh, okay.  Bye for now.