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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

A good day to die hard poster

The Die Hard franchise, like the James Bond films that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, comprise a record of Hollywood’s search for the new enemy that would confront the free world or at least provide fear fodder for the moviegoing public.  A product of the years that witnessed the Cold War’s ragged, anticlimactic end, Die Hard points to terrorism and asymmetric conflict as the coming trend, with ostensibly idealistic but actually greedy German terrorists taking hostages in an L.A. high-rise.  Inspired by the Iran-Contra controversy, Die Hard 2 finds a threat in the Cold War residue of the mercenary anticommunist armies created to aid dictators in America’s proxy wars in the Third World, and Die Hard with a Vengeance also features directionless mercenaries as a terrorist danger.  With the rise of the internet, 9/11, the War on Terror, and the domestic police state having intervened in the decade separating the third film from the next installment in the series, the superlative Live Free or Die Hard milks suspenseful chaos from the double-edged sword of the omnipresent cyber-surveillance state, but (like the more recent Skyfall) targets hackers rather than statists as the biggest threat to America.

Now, with its latest entry, A Good Day to Die Hard, the venerable action franchise finally appears to be out of compelling ideas and steam.  Set in Russia, where John McClane (Bruce Willis) hopes to reconcile with his CIA assassin son (Jai Courtney, an uninteresting actor with an unappealing face, inexplicably being pushed in high-profile films), A Good Day to Die Hard is an undisciplined, moody, murky, disorienting, and sometimes boring whirl of mostly meaningless action sequences that sweep McClane into an international espionage imbroglio that neither he nor the audience completely understands.  Apart from the familial drama, this story lacks the immediate stakes of the previous Die Hard films, which find McClane reluctantly playing the hero to protect his fellow citizens; now the character appears content to machine-gun foreigners in their own country and wreak massive havoc on their freeways for a lark and without any insight into what he is doing apart from his hope that it will somehow impress his rogue son and restore their damaged rapport.  Astronomical destruction of property, a genocidal body count, and forced sentimentality ensue, much of it filmed with a shaky, erratic pseudodocumentary headache-inducement approach, with the result that A Good Day to Die Hard is easily the most obnoxious and least worthy of the films to bear the prestigious Die Hard banner – and, if anything, perhaps an unfortunate indicator that it is at last a good day for this series of films to just die.

3 out of 5 stars.  Ideological Content Analysis indicates that A Good Day to Die Hard is:

3. Xenophobic and specifically anti-Russian.  Slavs are secretive, dishonest, violent, eccentric, treacherous, and lust after their parents.

2. Family-ambivalent.  The film celebrates the father-son bond, with McClane regretful of not having played a greater role in his children’s lives.  His marriage to their mother, however, was apparently unsalvageable.

1. Statist and specifically neoconservative.  The Die Hard franchise becomes progressively more accepting of the federal government over the years.  In the first film, representative NYPD and LAPD officers are subject to human frailty and poor judgment, but are also admirable in their toughness and obvious concern for the public.  Their bureaucratic superiors are mostly worthless, however, and the FBI is depicted as incompetent and counterproductive, with one of their snipers a Vietnam veteran and death enthusiast who remembers Saigon fondly.  Bureaucrats and elements of the military are still antagonistic in Die Hard 2, and law enforcement at the local level is the most trustworthy.  This is also the case in Die Hard with a Vengeance, with federal agents depicted as conspiratorial and dopey.

Live Free or Die Hard accepts the posited benevolence of the FBI, but harbors reservations about the competence of newer federal rackets like the Department of Homeland Security.  The principal villain is a former government cyber-security expert run amuck, and the Pentagon is censured as clumsy for underestimating the vulnerability of America’s cyber-infrastructure, but the implication is that more and not less federal might is required.  At the end of that film, McClane is shown wearing an FBI jacket, signifying the oneness of his mission as a police officer with theirs at the national level.

Though the original Die Hard is distinctly Jewish in its perspective, the series has not until now embraced outright neoconservatism.  In A Good Day to Die Hard, McClane at first appears to be skeptical about the usefulness of the spy business, but is quickly persuaded to join the game when he sees what fun it offers with its license to ravage foreign lands with impunity.  The villains here are America’s old enemies, the Russians, still totalitarians at heart (as indicated by the Aeroflot airline’s hammer-and-sickle logo and the “CCCP” tattoo on one brutish thug’s back) and more dangerous than ever since criminal elements among them are peddling those dreaded and demonic “WMDs”, including the material for nuclear bombs.  (The prospective buyers, presumably, are Iran or the highest Islamic jihadist bidder.)  The home defense of previous films is no longer sufficient, and proactive overseas CIA adventurism is now the order of the day.  Early in A Good Day to Die Hard, a framed photograph of Barack Hussein Obama seems to smile on McClane from the wall behind him, bestowing on the loose cannon officer and the film itself a sort of enigmatic blessing (?).

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