Thursday, 3 November 2011

Contagion; catchy title

About a third of the way through Contagion, Elliott Gould dismisses blogging as "graffiti with punctuation", which left me wondering if I should say anything at all about the movie.

It's a weird movie, even for Stephen Soderbergh. Hollywood goes through binges of end of the world movies, and right thinking people always rip into them for showing us the end of the world through the eyes of a couple of far-from-typical scrappy protagonists who survive the whole thing. Contagion is the antidote to that. The world doesn't actually end, but a celebrity cast gets randomly picked off - or spared - by the titular disease until the movie finally comes to an end without having really made any point I could see. Other than that people are kind of dickish under pressure, but most of us don't need to go to the movies to figure that out.

While Soderbergh is determined to mess with the standard formulae of disaster movies, he sticks to the Hollywood baseline in two very noticeable ways. Firstly, he makes sure that as long as he's got Jude Law on contract, his character will be a complete douchebag. Secondly, he uses his movie to highlight the appalling discrimination which still applies against ordinary looking women when it comes to getting jobs in places like the Centres for Disease Control and the World Health Organisation. Neither body seems to have any trouble at all hiring pudgy looking male schlubs, but apparently if you want to get a job as a female epidemiologist, you need a headshot. And perfectly plucked eyebrows. I should never complain about any policy which results in Marion Cotillard getting work, but when the male side of the CDC consists of Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston and Enrico Colantoni…. (it drove me nuts trying to figure out who he was until I saw the name in the credits and realized he was Keith Mars - but then I didn't recognize Cranston at all with hair on his head and no meth lab in the background).

The movie tries to get its credentials in order bright and early by killing Gwynneth Paltrow briskly and efficiently in the first ten minutes (a policy which most movies could usefully emulate), and going on to schwack anyone who's been on screen for more than a few minutes. The problem is that once you've shown that anyone can die at any time, the audience sort of tunes out. When you've every reason to expect that the latest person on screen is going to be spark out within a few minutes, you withhold your empathy; that's just common sense. It's why horror movies work; it's also why horror movies put so much care and attention into the shock and gore surrounding each death; it's the only way to break through the conscious lack of emotional connection we all adopt to deal with horror movies. The characters don't matter, so it doesn't matter that they're going to get killed. And vice versa. When you have a grown up movie trying to do the same thing, it just tends to backfire.

So Contagion is a chilly little number, all buzzkill and unclear agendas. Some people live, for no readily apparent reason; some die, for just as little reason. Society falters, and the garbage doesn't get collected, but civilization somehow motors on. It's all somehow lacking in drama. In setting out to make an unconventional movie, Soderbergh demonstrates perfectly why the conventional approach is the better one.

Tower Heist; works better than I expected

Which may have been the mission statement for the whole movie, or just for the titular heist. Caper movies generally have two acts and a coda. In the first act, you set up the motivation for the caper, in the second act the careful plan goes wrong, and in the coda, whoever's been established as the villain of the piece gets suitably punished. Until recently you could never get away with the money. If the robbers were career villains, they had to get caught; if they were some variation on lovable scamps, they'd avoid prison but lose the money. Because crime wasn't supposed to pay.

That was before financial deregulation and "greed is good" of course. I don't pretend to be keeping track of the shifting moral dynamic of caper movies, but sometime around the 90s, the lovable scamps at least were allowed to start getting away with their misdemeanors. Which actually changes the experience of watching the movies, because for a long time you were just watching to see how it would all go wrong, but now you're half hoping that this is one of those movies where the robbery works out and everyone gets away with it.

Tower Heist stacks the deck on this one by making the quarry so detestable. Alan Alda is working overtime these days to put behind him his M*A*S*H* persona, and his billionaire investment fraudster character is a nicely judged portrait of charm laid thinly over despicable selfishness. You want to see the scrappy underdogs get away with what they're doing; but even more important than seeing them win, you want to see Alan Alda lose. The other weapon in the armory is a back-to-form Eddie Murphy. Somehow, Eddie Murphy has finally made a film where he isn't in a fat suit, isn't playing a woman and isn't playing every character in the movie. He isn't even a dominant presence in the movie; he's just there, hitting his marks and being consistently funny. Which makes a pleasant change, even if all he's doing is riffing on the character he played in 48 Hours, or rather on what that character might have been like if he'd spent the next twenty years getting into trouble and narrowly back out again. Joining him for nostalgia week, Matthew Broderick may be playing the ultimate working out of Ferris Bueller, but it's hard to see any trace of Ferris' exuberance in the worn out, pouchy, mid-life pummeled Mr FitzHugh. Time is cruel to us all, but there's something about missing cheekbones which always makes me wince in empathy.

The movie is efficiently slung together by veteran safe pair of hands Bret Ratner. Studios love him because everything comes in on time and under budget, and that lean efficiency is hard at work in Tower Heist, where literally nothing is wasted. Every single expensive shot in the movie comes in handy for something relevant to the plot. It's like a vast Chekhov's gun, although the impressive bit is that Bret keeps things on the move efficiently enough that it's only afterwards you realize how mechanical it's all been.

That the movie works at all as a movie is down to the pacing; the set up of the first act is slow and deliberate, with everyone's motivations sketched in very solidly so that you can see how a bunch of glorified waiters would try to steal from the world's second or third richest swindler. The second act is quick and clean; the heist isn't absurdly complicated, and each step of it going wrong seems unforced and natural.

All in all, it's more fun than you have any right to expect from a Bret Ratner movie. Though the much vaunted efficiency does take a holiday near the end. Eddie Murphy barricades Judd Hirsch into a closet and turns up the workmen's radio to drown out his cries for help; five minutes later most of the principal cast is in the same unfinished apartment and yet there's no sound from the radio, and nothing at all to indicate that there's anyone stuck in a closet. Ratner might have got away with it, except that he cuts back to Hirsch afterward and he's still in the closet, and the radio is still on.

Finally, Casey Affleck is, I think, one of the most unassuming actors of his generation. I can't get over his willingness to play idiots when he's good-looking enough to insist on getting the character rewritten to something less remedial.