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Contagion

Steven Soderbergh directs an ensemble cast including Laurence Fishburne (cool, calm, and collected), Matt Damon (heartbroken and desperate!), Gwyneth Paltrow (autopsied!), Kate Winslett (who, sorry to say, does not appear nude), Jennifer Ehle (scientific!), Bryan Cranston (insignificant!), Jude Law (slimy and limey), and Elliott Gould (Elliott Gould!) in this frightening film in the tradition of 1995’s Outbreak. A planet goes literally batshit crazy when a virulent new virus ravages its way from China to the U.S.A., causing a panic and the potential for societal collapse. If nothing else, the flawlessly paced Contagion demonstrates that the inevitable breakdown of civil order, whatever its cause, will not be fun. (Naturally, the disorder also provides an irresistible opportunity to depict ravenous white men rioting and robbing blacks.) A neat and polished product with an effective electronic score to match, this respectable but gruesome (and ideologically servile) entry on Soderbergh’s resume may suffer only from slight dearth of soul.

[WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS]

4 out of 5 stars. Ideological Content Analysis indicates that Contagion is:

9. Pro-gay. The virus at one point mutates into some funky kind of variation on AIDS, reminding viewers of how urgently the world needs a cure for gay cancer.

8. Anti-miscegenation. Unusual interspecies contact has brought the new disease into existence. “Somewhere in the world the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat.”

7. Black supremacist. The juxtaposition of a black doctor (Fishburne) and a white janitor (John Hawkes) says it all.

6. Egalitarian. Pesky “socio-economic factors” affect people’s susceptibility to the plague. When a vaccine finally becomes available, it is rationed by lottery so as to democratize the suffering.

5. Anti-slut. An adulteress (Gwyneth Paltrow) is Patient Zero.

4. Pro-family. Contagion features two touching father-daughter relationships.

3. Green and anti-capitalistic. An American corporation’s blundering program of deforestation displaces a population of oriental bats and so sets off a chain reaction that ironically takes the life of one of the company’s own executives. Black Friday crowds and confusion exacerbate the epidemic. Consumer culture must be regulated or Nature will have its vengeance! Undercutting Contagion’s environmentalist credibility, however, is its illustration of how convenient expendable laboratory monkeys can be during a catastrophic pickle.

2. Conformist. Alternative media receive a condescending send-up and a thrashing from Contagion. Decidedly de-glammed Jude Law portrays Alan Krumwiede (the name speaks for itself), a fringe blogger and crackpot conspiracy theory peddler who accuses the CDC of colluding with pharmaceuticals manufacturers, only to be exposed himself for profiteering on the crisis by stoking fears of the end of the world and defrauding the public by hyping an ineffective wonder drug called Forsythia. The lesson, one assumes, is that dissenters and those who promote distrust of government officials are not to be tolerated. Contagion is thus cronyism-tolerant in seeking to discredit those who would point out the distasteful symbioses between privileged corporations and grasping government.

1. Statist and pro-military. Self-sacrificing agents of the CDC, DHS, CIA, and other agencies contribute to the effort of saving humanity. Great pains seem to have been taken to show that the federal government has learned from the mistakes of Katrina. Laurence Fishburne’s wise technocrat even implies that the central government might do well to subsume all regional autonomies when he frets, “There are fifty different states in this country, which means there are fifty different health departments, followed by fifty different protocols.” In other words, why not just have one gigantic bureaucratized managerial leviathan to handle everything? End credits offer “special thanks” to the U.S. Department of Defense. Kate Winslet leaves the audience with the memorable image of woman-government-agent-as-Christ.

Rainer Chlodwig von Kook

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Red Tails poster

Exactly the trite, pedestrian, chest-swelling exercise one would expect it to be, this George Lucas production is just another entry in the unending cycle of films spotlighting Congoid-American achievement. These movies are always the same: mighty blacks encounter and overcome race-based adversity . . . sweeping, inspiring music soars . . . The End. This time the Hollywoodized achievers are the Tuskegee airmen, the first black aviators allowed to participate in combat – in this case, appropriately enough, against those immortal bogeybots and inhuman emblems of racism, the Nazis, who, of course, are in for a “good ol’ Georgia ass-whoopin’” when they encounter the Red Tails. These valiant warriors have not only to defeat the Germans, however, but must also vanquish racism on their own side.

Bryan Cranston, slumming in a thankless cameo, plays the military bureaucrat unwilling to give the brothers a chance. Cuba Gooding turns in a puzzlingly deadpan and colorless performance as Major Stance, and Terrence Howard is safely poker-faced as Colonel Bullard. Whether the other actors in the film are capable of much is hard to say, considering the humdrum (nonde)script with which they have to work. “War is Hell. What we’re doin’ is just boring as Hell,” one of the pilots remarks with candor. Red Tails is the sort of movie that will have viewers glancing at the clock fifty minutes in and groaning that the film, far from winding down for a landing, is flabbergastingly not even half-over yet!

There are, of course, the obligatory scenes in which black romantic prowess receives its due and in which central character Lightning (David Oyelowo) enters an officers’ club, the piano abruptly falls silent, and one of the evil bigots tells him, “This is a whites only officers club. You’re off the reservation, pal.” Most obnoxious, however, is the constant glorification of war and particularly of “killin’ Jerries”. Only genocidal blacks and the most self-loathing whites will exult in the flippant depiction of so much joy in human desolation. There is, too, an indication that the Red Tails take special delight in shooting down white fighters when one alludes to a German’s “bright yellow nose”, a suggestive reference not only to his plane’s paint job but also his lack of melanin. After so many computer-generated explosions and social triumphs, however, the viewer may not find himself stirred to multicultural pride by this cinematic backfire, so much as grumpily in tune with the unwelcoming white officer in the club who dismisses Lightning, saying, “Hey. Go home,” and throws in a racial slur for good measure.

2 stars. Ideological Content Analysis points Red Tails toward the hatefully segregated Crap Only facilities and indicates that this film is:

7. Pro-miscegenation. An Italian ditz (Daniela Ruah) blows a kiss to Lightning, who then woos her for the remainder of the film.

6. Ostensibly Christian. Smokey (Ne-Yo) carries a picture of “Black Jesus.” Whether this is simply to indicate that the historical Jesus was black or is instead a satirical jab at segregation, under which blacks require not only separate facilities, but also a deity of their own, only Black Jesus can say for certain. Not all of the pilots believe in the supernatural, however. (cf. no. 1)

5. Drug-ambivalent. Easy (Nate Parker) has a drinking problem. Smoking, however, gets a free pass, with Cuba Gooding working a pipe in picture 1940s style. Lightning smokes a cigar and Smokey appears to chew tobacco.

4. Statist. “You signed up to follow orders.”

3. Anti-racist and egalitarian. Skeptical whites are repeatedly forced to come to terms with the ability of blacks and say things like, “I guess there’s more to you coloreds than I thought.” The separate but equal doctrine extends to the military and receives a critique from Colonel Bullard, who, lobbying for more expensive equipment, says, “No more hand-me-downs. If you get us new planes, we can help your boys.”

2. Pro-war. The mutual mass murder politely termed war is as usual a noble enterprise, particularly when directed against unprogressive white men and when it serves as a vehicle for civil rights at home. The war effort even receives a spiritual endorsement: “Black Jesus, we thank you for bringing Red Squadron back home to us.”

1. Black supremacist. “We are on the side of God Almighty,” Red Tails boasts. “Hallelujah, the saints are marchin’ in,” proclaims one Red Tail as he enters the fray.

With a structurally challenged script that never should have gotten the green light, Leave is a tedious exercise in cleverness for its own sake, pulling an eleventh-hour Identity-style plot twist that renders pointless every bit of preceding action and (living up to its title) leaves a sour aftertaste of having been conned. A writer (Rick Gomez) heads into seclusion to do some work and think through a recurring nightmare. Along the way he has a tense Duel-style encounter on a desert highway and soon thereafter meets a man (Frank John Hughes) who claims to be his long-dead brother.

If only Leave had focused on ripping off Duel, it at least might have had some entertainment value; but writer-actors Gomez and Hughes would prefer to subject viewers to their reflections on the meaning of stomach cancer and the powerful therapeutic functions of memory. Gomez, with his furry, somnambulant face and staring eyes, does nothing to enliven Leave, nor does antagonist (?) Hughes, his facial resemblance here to a young Jack Nicholson notwithstanding. Conspicuously billed Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame has only a throwaway cameo as a flamboyantly dressed Brit at a cocktail party.

2 of 5 possible stars. Ideological Content Analysis indicates that Leave is best left alone and that it is also:

3. Prejudiced! A hoodie is as always the cloak of evil intentions, so that Leave perpetuates the insensitive stereotype that would take innocent Trayvon Martin’s life.

2. Anti-redneck. A Hank Williams song playing in a rustic diner might just as well be a satanic chant in the ears of city folks. Also, the service is bad.

1. Anti-religion/anti-Christian. The writer recalls losing his faith after being beaten in a Catholic school.

You know when a film begins with a busload of strangers joining in a corny rendition of “Sister Christian” that you’re in for a high-camp moviegoing experience, and Rock of Ages certainly doesn’t disappoint in that department.  The tale of an innocent Tulsa bimbo who casts caution to the wind to try to become a singing sensation in picturesquely sleazy L.A., Rock of Ages is definitely true to the 80s at least in its willingness to plunge into the over-the-top outbursts of feeling at any moment, and is never ashamed of being what it is: essentially a feature-length narrative music video version of a Broadway musical and a love letter to the long-gone but not forgotten hard rock and power ballads of the time.

Full of energetic visual orchestration in scenes lit with wonderfully period-faithful pinks and blues, it achieves a greater emotional impact by setting itself in the late 80s, when hard hair rock was still at the top but about to go into eclipse as the 90s loomed, like a snapshot of a great civilization on the verge of collapse.  What sounds on paper like an utter waste of celluloid – and I’ll confess to having gone into this one expecting a shamelessly cutesy mercenary rock wreck – actually ends up being flawless and instantly classic.  The songs, with obvious affection, have been selected and utilized thoughtfully, contributing integrally to the storytelling and character development.  Visually as well as sonically sharp, Rock of Ages is fine-tuned cinema, so that the unsung stars of Rock of Ages are the choreography, art direction, and especially the editing, which weaves the meaningful singing, dancing, and involving melodrama into a beat-perfect winner.

The emotional centerpiece of the film may be Tom Cruise and Malin Akerman’s duet rendition of “I Want to Know What Love Is”, which manages not only to be rousing musical moment, but also a genuinely touching, sexy, and humorous lovemaking scene.  Watch it and you, too, may find yourself wanting to know what love is.  Verging on absolute crudity but simultaneously heart-stabbingly sweet, this is romance as it ought to be filmed: creatively, dangerously, and with a true sense of supernatural abandon and harmonious wonder.

So much is right with Rock of Ages that I’m willing to forgive and even embrace its various eccentricities.  For one thing, the cast down to the last man is made up of people I never would have imagined I wanted to see in a tribute to 80s rock.  A special “What Am I Doing in This Movie?” Award goes to Mary J. Blige, who  nonetheless lends vocal heft and an air of experience in her role as the manager of a strip club where Julianne Hough lands a gig.  Cruise, at least, is an iconic 80s actor, and thus would seem to be only vaguely relevant to the material; but the casting of Cruise turns out to have been the perfect choice as he channels just the right mix of cocky success and sexiness gone to seed with untapped human depth, so that his performance ends up being one of the film’s major endearments.

Catherine Zeta-Jones and Paul Giamatti offer high-caliber ham antagonism of the Tipper Gore sanctimoniousness and soulless corporate parasite varieties, respectively, with Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston rounding out the villainy as L.A.’s crooked mayor determined to kill the strip at the bidding of his prudish wife.  Fresh-faced Diego Boneta, meanwhile, is cute and compelling as a bar band  singer longing for rock godhood as “Wolfgang von Colt”.  Julianne Hough’s singing may be slightly too faux-soulful and Britney-bratty to be exactly faithful to the 80s, but she’s touchingly sweet and plays a naive Oklahoma girl convincingly.

Harmless but also anachronistic and not really relevant to 80s rock as its fans would probably prefer to remember it is the wholly superfluous gay romance at the movie’s margin, inserted for nothing but cheap chuckles and propaganda apparently.  If you ever wanted to see an adorably slovenly, in-need-of-a-shave Alec Baldwin kiss a man, though, Rock of Ages is definitely your fix, with adorable Russell Brand being the lucky guy in this case.  (Oddly enough, Rock of Ages isn’t Baldwin’s first man-man mouth action, since he did the same, albeit with different motivation, in 1992’s Prelude to a Kiss.)

More dark and satanic content in this film, along the lines of Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny, would have been nice, but since Rock of Ages is primarily a film about love and rock’s redemptive power, it might have been a distraction. I also would like to have seen even more and bigger big hair on the women, but that is a somewhat minor complaint.  I’ve watched Rock of Ages eight times so far and I always discover something new.  An enthusiastic 5 stars.  See it and remember: don’t stop believing!

Ideological Content Analysis indicates that Rock of Ages is:

6. Drug-ambivalent

5. Proudly gay

4. Anti-state

3. Anti-Christian

2. Pro-liberty

1. Pro-rock (though the argument could be made that, by transforming heavy metal into a song-and-dance show, the film has actually neutered rock by (almost) rendering it safe for the family).

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