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.

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.

Classic Review: The Silence Of The Lambs

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  The only horror film to win Best Picture, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is terrifying because it’s truthful.

Review:  There’s “theme park” scary movies and then there’s true horror. ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’, the only horror film to ever win Best Picture, defines the latter class. It originates from the same real-life story as Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’. Instead of establishing distance from the psychopath, however, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ takes us up close and personal with not one, but two dangerous and terrifyingly realistic villains.

The most famous is Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, a brilliant and seductive psychopathic psychologist played by Anthony Hopkins. He’s the most vile and convincing villain I have ever seen on film. FBI Agent Clarice Starling, excellently played by Jodie Foster, has to consult with the incarcerated monster to see if she can discover how to find a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. Their interactions are not only the highlight of the movie, but some of the few perfect moments in cinematic history.

This is a brutal experience.  It is a descent into the darkest dungeons in the human spirit, into Tartarus.  It is a challenging picture that requires viewers of strong constitutions.  By not flinching, the filmmakers are putting us in absolute sympathy with Clarice; she’s vulnerable, naïve, and though she has an idea of where her journey will take her, it’s a horrifying ride that leaves her shaken.  Director Jonathan Demme takes the Hitchcockian ideal to its absolute limit, lets us chew through our nails and grind our teeth until the last logical moment, which results in a fantastic catharsis.  This isn’t a film for the faint of heart, and the weight of the thing goes beyond simple thrills.  Psychologically and philosophically, it sticks with you.  Every major religion has a theme of the descent into darkness and pain.  Consider the challenge of Christianity, as made by St. Paul, for believers to “crucify their flesh” — to endure the greatest suffering for the greatest reward.  ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is a filmic exploration of that challenge, both as a narrative (Clarice’s pursuit of Buffalo Bill) and as an experience.  Provided that viewers know what they’re after, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is a uniquely rewarding film.

The philosophical theme of ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is that yes, indeed, monsters do exist, and to our horror, they’re people like us.  There’s something convenient about supernatural horror that separates the man from the monster, allows us the comfort given a victim, that when all’s said and done, history takes pity on the innocent.  Here, there’s no such comfort.  Instead, Clarice Starling discovers the bitter truth of how similar Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill really are to “normal” people.  Being human is a dangerous idea.  Within each of us, there’s a devilish potential that we only think we’ve successfully sublimated.  Inside our private hells, we keep monsters locked away, but what about the ones that seem so attractive that they can lure us in to their homes for some fava beans and a bottle of nice Chianti?

In an interesting contrast, let’s compare Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ with Jonathan Demme’s ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’.  ‘2001’ is a film about, literally, heaven, space, evolution and the divine potential of humankind.  It’s a hopeful journey through time with a strangely (for Kubrick) optimistic point-of-view.   ‘Silence’, however, is about Earth and things underneath it, like basements and pits and darkened rooms.  It’s about devolution, complex, civilized man’s disintegration into a cannibalistic hunter, the diabolical potential of humankind.  Perhaps this Halloween, for a unique double feature, you ought to watch both.

Classic Review: Halloween (1978)

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: The film that jumpstarted the “slasher” pictures also happens to be the best.

Review:  There’s some argument about what the first “slasher” movie was. Some point all the way back to Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ in 1960, others believe it was 1974’s ‘Black Christmas’, and some, like myself, say it was John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ in 1978. The surprising success of this low-budget film was certainly what propelled the genre into mainstream popularity. And in all the years since, it remains the best and most frightening of the “slasher” genre.

There’s something wonderfully terrifying about being hunted. It’s a primal fear, deeply rooted in our ancient, primitive past that stays with us to this day. ‘Halloween’ works because of how it plays on this fear. At first our killer, the deranged masked murderer Michael Myers, is but a shadow out in the distance, and his prey, teenager Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), can’t figure out if he’s real or just her imagination. But then, like some predator, Myers weaves his way back and forth, hiding in the shadows, getting ever so closer to his victims. And finally, in the last act of the film is when he at last gives chase in a murderous killing spree.

It’s this pacing that makes this film work. Unlike later “slasher” pictures, which fill to the brim with gruesome murders from start to finish, ‘Halloween’ takes its time, builds tension, and then delivers satisfyingly. The faceless, soulless, and seemingly unstoppable Michael Myers and his eerie presence in the film also instill much fear. A revolutionary character in his day, he is one of the great modern movie villains.

In the years since ‘Halloween’, many a “slasher” has been released. Some have been decent, others bad, and some downright awful. Certainly none have come close to the effectiveness of ‘Halloween’ though. I suggest future filmmakers in this genre look back to it to learn how to make their movies good.

Classic Review: Psycho (1960)

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: One of the best horror pictures ever made, Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ is a perfect use of story and suspense to remind us of our nightmares.

Review: ‘Psycho’ is perhaps the definitive example of the horror genre, and what else would we expect from Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense?  ‘Psycho’ succeeds in the areas that postmodern horror tends to fail.  It’s focused and very intelligent in its approach.  Hitchcock clearly understood that horror is only effective when it corresponds to plausible fears.  That’s not to say that supernatural horror is by nature ineffective; rather, it is only effective so long as it reminds us of the darkness in our dreams.  ‘Psycho’ is scary realistic and evokes our nightmares with the deft usage of cinematography and Bernard Herrmann’s unmatched musical score.

A critical flaw in postmodern horror is the use of stock characters that audiences find difficult to believe in.  Every character in ‘Psycho’ is in some way sympathetic.  This is because ‘Psycho’ is not about the sadistic satisfaction of extravagant kills, but examining real evil.  Unlike future slasher films that emphasize the killer’s otherworldly qualities, the villain of this piece, Norman Bates’ Mother, is what we suspect is lurking in the cracks of our civilized society, and too often it’s a justified fear.  Another shortcoming of recent horror is a lack of patience and suspense, which belies a lack of faith in the story’s substance.  Horror is about story; as exploitation, it has no value.   Hitchcock understood that a thousand shocking moments numb audiences, but a single moment coupled with suspense endures forever.  So it goes with the famous shower scene.

The saying is that “Sound is half the picture”.  Bernard Herrmann’s musical score is a masterpiece.  What horror films often lack in their soundscapes is a unique personality.  The composers often deliver harsh sounds and weighty orchestra without weaving their music into the story’s pattern.  The theme from ‘Psycho’, however, is its heartbeat.

‘Psycho’ is one of Hitch’s best and is certainly in the top-tier of the genre.  Our stay at the Bates Motel will remain in the cinematic consciousness forever.

Classic Review: Rear Window

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  A completely unusual and charming mystery classic.

This image speaks for itself.  Thats what was so cool about old ad campaigns.

This image speaks for itself. That's what was so cool about old ad campaigns.

Review:  What if your leg was broken, forcing you to be confined to a wheelchair for months with nothing to do but stare at the neighbors?  James Stewart’s character finds out just what it would be like in Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’.  Shot almost entirely in one room, Hitchcock defies the conventions of film for a seemingly pedestrian premise.  The result is dialog-heavy, but not unbearably so, and lacks the benefit of multiple locations to pique audience interest.

Hitchcock proves he doesn’t need them.

The filmmakers built a magnificent set for ‘Rear Window’, which comprises the protagonist’s apartment complex.  Every shot is either of the goings on inside the protagonist’s own apartment or the courtyard outside his rear window, hence the title.

Photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart), still recovering from a broken leg he received by getting too close to danger in his line of work, spends his days watching his neighbors.  He is criticized by both his nurse, Stella, and his socialite girlfriend Lisa Fremont for his habits.  Multiple stories are going on around the courtyard.  The denizens of the complex each have their own quirks, and everybody feels real.  This film’s pedestrian look at life in the complex is not dull.  Modern audiences might not appreciate the slow burn of the film, however.

Over a series of days, Jeff witnesses strange behavior by his neighbor, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr).  Jeff suspects him of killing his wife.  He soon wins both Stella and Lisa over to his side of the argument, but Lieutenant Doyle, his friend in the police, is unconvinced.  Evidence continues to mount for both sides.  Is Mr. Thorwald a murderer or isn’t he?

The big issue of the film is voyeurism.  Hitchcock is questioning the nature of film itself through the narrative.  Is it right for us to watch even fictional strangers experience pleasure and pain, for our own satisfaction?  Hitchcock doesn’t provide us with answers, but the film doesn’t feel empty because of this.  The questions are subdued enough not to distract or confront us.  Eventually, Jeff gets too close to danger once again, showing in a humorous way that watching people for a living- or for enjoyment- has its costs.

The musical score for the film is entirely diegetic. That is, every musical cue has a source within the film.  Most of the music is provided by the character of the songwriter who lives in the courtyard.  This serves to enhance the feeling of audience involvement in the story.  We are a lot like Jeff, watching fictional neighbors.  This film couldn’t be described as a purely suspenseful drama.  It is more a benign, intelligent mystery with a romantic undercurrent.  The suspenseful moments near the climax, of course, don’t disappoint.  The best moment is when Thorwald, angry with Jeff for being accused of murder, breaks the ‘fourth wall’ by looking directly at the camera, and thus the audience.  It’s creepy fun.

I like this film less than Hitchcock’s later work, ‘North by Northwest’, which I have also reviewed.  It is less thrilling and fun at face value than that film, but they both are perfect in their own manner.

“See it!  If your nerves can stand it after ‘Psycho’!”

Classic Review: Jaws

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  A mesmerizing, thrilling adventure that transcends the trappings of its genre.

I can almost guarantee youve seen this poster before.

I can almost guarantee you've seen this poster before.

Review:  Bah… dum.  Bah…. dum.  Bah-dum.  Bah-dum.  Bah-dum. Bah-DUM!  Almost anyone you ask will identify the theme to this film, a testimony to the brilliance of a young John Williams, in his first of many collaborations with director Steven Spielberg.

This first film was ‘Jaws’.

Based on a popular novel, Spielberg’s clever adaption has earned a reputation entirely detached from its source material.  It’s an amazing testament to the production crew’s resilience that this film was ever finished.  They were beset with numerous problems from the get-go, but as necessity is the mother of invention, they managed to turn these lemons into a pitcher of suspenseful lemonade.  Audiences in 1975 clearly agreed, and the film became the very first bona-fide summer blockbuster.  It is clear that ‘Jaws’, due to its broad appeal and lasting popularity, is more than a horror film; it is a suspense masterpiece on the level of Alfred Hitchcock himself.

The film opens with what is arguably the most horrific moment of its entire narrative.  The death of a young woman, going for a midnight skinny-dip, is the only time I felt truly disturbed.  Granted, it’s bloodless and simply ends with her being pulled underwater, but the sound effects, music, and especially the young actress’ convincing performance makes it unwatchable.  It also proves only an implication is necessary; the minds of the audience members are quite adequate in deducing the lurid details.

After this, it picks up. Amity’s Police Chief, Martin Brody, played by the late Roy Scheider, goes out to investigate the report of a body on the beach.  After discovering the woman’s remains, he immediately concludes that there is a killer shark on the loose, and sets out to close the beaches.  And now we are introduced to our first conflict, presented to Brody by the Mayor.  He warns that the July 4th weekend is coming up, and thus the beaches must stay open, for the sake of the town economy.  Amity’s biggest week can’t be shut down based on one isolated incident.  Brody, still skeptical, continues to lobby for closing the beaches, while the word gets out about the shark attack.

With the stage set, the filmmakers continue to up the threat- or possibly perceived threat- of the shark until it reaches a breaking point for Brody.  His own son is nearly killed by the shark, and he finally enlists the help of the eccentric fisherman Quint (played by Robert Shaw), and Matthew Hooper (Played by Richard Dreyfuss).  The three men get on Quint’s boat, the Orca, and head out into open sea in search of the monster.

To this point in the film, the shark, a Great White, is never fully seen.  One day on the boat, Brody is instructed by Quint to throw out chum (dead fish and the various trappings of dead fish), in order to draw the shark.  It sure does, giving the audience- and Brody- quite a shock.  Brody quickly retreats to the cabin, and famously warns Quint, “You’re going to need a bigger boat”.  The men then spring into action, spotting the shark again and estimating its size to be around 25 feet long.  Brilliantly, in this film it doesn’t really matter that the shark is huge, as intimidating as that is.  Since footage of the shark is sparse, due to issues with the animatronic model they used during filming, the shark is more a presence or character than a monster.  You really believe it is out to get those men on the boat.

There is no disputing the fact that the film is quite terrifying, especially if you don’t know anything about it.  Every frame, once they are on the water, is wrought with underlying tension.  The shark is a constant threat.  Nevertheless, there is something that distinguishes it, for me, from being a horror film.  The tone is much closer to one of Hitchcock’s man-on-the-run adventures, such as ‘North by Northwest’, than that other Hitchcock film, ‘Psycho’.  Some of the shark’s victims do bleed, and some are dismembered, but I never got a sense of violence any more extreme than Spielberg’s later work, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, with one exception, that being the opening scene.

All things considered, ‘Jaws’ is very well crafted.  It has stood the test of time.  It’s a shame that when filmmakers nowadays want to thrill moviegoers with a scary movie, they resort to sadistic, self-parodying schlock films in the vein of ‘Saw’ or ‘Friday the 13th’ as opposed to a genuine adventure like ‘Jaws’.  An adventure, if it is truly an adventure, should be scary.  There’s nothing wrong with having a film that respects human life whilst instilling genuine suspense.  I suppose that’s what truly separates ‘Jaws’ from horror… a filmmaker who knew the audience was there to have fun, not be disgusted.  Sort of like Hitchcock.