Wednesday, September 21, 2011

In The Theater Old and New

A couple weeks of viewing... some interesting films here, though nothing to measure up to the old timer of the bunch. (I should add - there's an undue number of action/suspense films here - I have made no effort to avoid giving away plot points... so perhaps, if you are planning to see some of these and don't want them spoiled - have a care. I don't think there are many mysteries revealed, but...)

Contagion - 10/15 - Steven Soderbergh's latest, an disaster movie about and epidemic, treated with a mixture of excitement and matter of fact. Starts with Gwyneth Paltrow coughing in an airport where she is waiting for a plane after a quickie with a man - she has just come from Hong Kong, and Soderbergh takes us there, to another sick man, then a man dying on a bus in Tokyo, then - a string of sickness and death and then - characters: a sleazy blogger, a doctors at the Center for Disease Control, GP's family (Matt Damon), etc. - they figure out what is happening and the story is on its way. The opening sequence might be the best - the quick cutting from runny noses to hands to doorknobs and credit cards and bus and subway poles to terrible painful death.... Once everyone figures out what is going on, they try to control it - Kate Winslet in MInnesota, Elliot Gould in San Francisco - and as it gets worse, the control becomes more desperate - panic in the streets of Chicago, Minneapolis, Hong Kong - society threatens to collapse, violence, disorder, kidnappings, careless use of social media, etc. - cures are promised, conspiracies mooted, money is made, experiments are performed, press conferences and TV shows go awry - and in the end? a doctor finds a vaccine, tries it on herself, it works, and the world begins to emerge again from this disaster.

Soderbergh takes an interesting approach - he uses horror and science fiction tropes, building tension, then sliding away from them - suggesting - is it a zombie picture? is it science fiction? is it terrorism? is it a government conspiracy? The evil blogger (Jude Law) plays an interesting part in this - the paranoid outsider - and Soderbergh plays with the character - is he right? does forsythia cure this? he seems to cure himself - but did he? did he just have a mild case? did he have something else? did he fake it all for the publicity? - Soderbergh holds off letting us know until the end. He knows this is a major archtype in disaster films - he knows government conspiracies are a major theme of these films - he knows science vs. money vs. power are fundamental conflicts in these films, and he keeps them all active as long as he can. Choosing among all the options only when he has to... This happens over and over - suggestions of terrorism raised and dropped; Gould's experiments, in an unsafe environment - that could make things worse, or better, and which it is we have to wait for... It's a fascinating exercise in film construction, really - a very nice film, overall.

The Guard - 10/15 - highly amusing if inconsequential cop buddy picture. Brendan Gleeson plays Boyle, a bad cop in Galway, who finds a man murdered in a holiday house - then at a meeting about a shipment of drugs coming in, sees the man as one of the gang. So he and Don Cheadle, playing an FBI agent, head back to the coast to work on the case - sort of. Cheadle gets hung out to dry for most of the film, since it's Gleeson's day off - alas, he spends the day getting his rocks off with a pair of whores - who turn out to be working for the drug smugglers and are bound on blackmail... etc. The crooks, inevitably, come to kill our man, but in the meanwhile he's found a stash of IRA guns, which prove useful when the time comes. It's all very neatly plotted, down to the convenience of the three guns he steals (a derringer, a glock and an AK-47) - sometimes, maybe, it's a bit too neat. The real pleasure is in the performances, and the material given tot he actors - Gleeson is glorious, Cheadle plays more of a straight man, but gets his moments - and the bad guys (Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong, David Wilmot) get to chew through some highly amusing, if improbable, dialogue. Like so many films, it plays halfway between an homage to Pulp Fiction and a parody - though here, it pushes the metafiction to 11, and makes no bones about its plain joy in the words and the way the men say them - the crooks arguing aboiut their favorite philosopher and quoting Nietzsche, that kind of thing. It's a load of fun.

World on a Wire - 13/15 - A wonderful science fiction film - actually a 2-part TV show - from Rainer Werner Fassbinder, in 1973. Virtual reality, with a strong PK Dick vibe... There is, apparently, a huge VR computer - the Simulacron - overseen by the government.... the film starts with its programmer going a bit crazy ont he government people, then, after making some obscure comments to the head of security - dying.... His replacement is Stiller - the security chief (Lause) tells him about Vollmer - but then - disappears, in the middle of a party. And then? Stiller sets out to run the project while worrying about these two mysteries (Vollmer's death and Lause's disappearance) - made worse by the fact that no one else can remember Lause at all. Uh oh. He is not the last person to disappear - or reappear, inside the simulacron. It is not too much a spoiler, I think, to say that by the end of part one, a character from the Simulacron tells Stiller that he is also part of a simulation program - another, bigger one. In Part 2, Stiller sets out to find out if this is true, and what you might do with the information if it was.

It's all handled quite well - the is-it-real-or-is-it-Simulacron business stays interesting - we may have a pretty clear idea what is going on, and by the middle of the film, so do the characters - but they still have to prove it, to themselves or anyone else, and how this goes remains interesting. But the plot is less thrilling than the filmmaking - Fassbinder is working his most Sirkean mode - gorgeous compositions, mirrors and balls and flowers and doors and screens, complex and gorgeous. The sound design, also typical for Fassbinder, is magnificent. And the lead - Klaus Lowitsch - is just great - giving a wild, athletic performance, like a mix of Mike Hammer and Jackie Chan. The film too draws on cinematic history - Sirk plus Alphaville plus Kiss Me Deadly plus god knows what - a brilliant piece of work.

Rapt - 11/15 - Strong french thriller, that reminds me, oddly, of Contagion - in the way it deals with genre conventions, it's way of slipping around obvious points, obvious emotions, and so on - its matter of fact depiction of a disaster. In this case - Yvan Attal plays a very rich businessman who we see working, meeting high government officials, fucking a mistress, playing poker, interacting with his wife and children, then getting kidnapped. He's hauled off to god knows where - abused - has a finger cut off and mailed to his family with a ransom note for 50 million Euros Is he worth it? will they pay? Well - they only have 20 million Euros to spare - his company surely isn't going to pay (though they could offer a loan) - then all his sins and misdemeanors start to be revealed and - well, the wife still wants to pay.... So - the crooks try different tactics, try to work with different parts of his family and entourage - his lawyer tries to pay, for example, thought he cops get wind of it and follow, queering that deal. And so it goes - and after another failure to get the money - the crooks turn him loose.... and now things get really difficult. Everyone distrusts everyone else - all his sins are in the open; he's a bit chuffed that no one bothers to ask him how he is doing, how he is holding up. He loses it all in the end, everything except the money - but the crooks send him a letter.... Throughout, the film maintains a great sense of multiple perspectives, and pays it off especially well at the end. The way he and his wife both seem to be right - and wrong; the way we don't really learn whether he is indispensable to his firm or just a figurehead; the way we see hints of deeper plots - who organized all this? is it just a bunch of smart crooks, or is there a conspiracy? These things aren't resolved - like Soderbergh, Lucas Belvaux plays with genre expectations, plays with possible plots and interpretations, but doesn't settle them. Another very fine film.

Drive - 10/15 - existential crime film, that taciturn 70s style, with an 80s look and feel - about a driver, who obviously never gets a name, who does stunts, works in a garage, and drives getaway cars.... Inevitably, after one job, he moves into a new building and meets a pretty girl with a cute kid - the kind of woman and kid who play games and cutesy jokes at the supermarket... her car breaks down and he helps and etc. He doesn't seem to fuck her though! Steve McQueen would have fucked her. Anyway - he has an old coot as a mentor, the mentor is trying to get him into the race car circuit, he's dealing with crooks to do it, the crooks are played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman, which seems important. (The diriver is Ryan Gosling, girl is Carey Mulligan, coot is Bryan Cranston).) The girl's husband gets out of jail, but he owes people money, so the driver offers to help, but alas - crosses are doubled and doubled again and before long the driver is on the warpath. This is, I'm afraid, one of those films where there are only about 12 people in the city of LA - so obviously the driver's own gangster friends are involved... Anyway. It's hard to describe the plot without getting a bit glib - to say it's been done before... it has moments - it builds to a certain amount of tension - the crooks, especially, are given scenery to chew, lines to linger over and such - there are a couple very nicely shot action sequences. But you know - it's nothing new, it's not all that interesting an old thing - at least - it something I have seen before, and don't feel any particular need to see it again. It's kind of the opposite of Contagion and Rapt - where they raise genre conventions then complicate or confound them, this one just ticks them off and delivers them, on cue. Without any sense of just how silly and sentimental it all is... It's still a fairly effective film - I mean - 10 is a good rating - there are parts of it I would watch any chance I got - I wish Albert Brooks could get a spinoff as this character - but.... it's the least interesting of this run of theatrical viewings, by a fair margin.


Joseph B. said...

"Drive" and "Contagion" have quickly jumped up as two of my very favorite films of the year. You're right.... the first hour or so of "Contagion" is the best- cold, gripping and propulsive.

I desperately wanna see the Fassbinder. Hope it makes it here soon.

weepingsam said...

It seems to be touring - hopefully it reaches you. Or turns up on DVD and Blu Ray in the US.

Contagion really does start great - the rest has something of an anti-climactic tone, but even that Soderbergh makes interesting - the way he plays with the genre elements makes it interesting when he drops them - I mean, the possibilities he raises but then discards highlights the choices he makes in what to show. I suppose his films all have something like that in them - they all seem to have an essay on form embedded in them. Which I can't pretend not to like, being the kind of film geek I am...