Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Contagion

My alternative canon #6: The Limey

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Terence Stamp in The Limey

Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. For the rest of the week, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here

The Limey, like many of the films of Steven Soderbergh, works brilliantly despite its best intentions. Not much happens, at least not by the standards of the average crime movie: it’s ninety minutes of scrambled footage spun from little more than style, atmosphere, clever locations, canny music choices, and the electric charge of a willing and able cast. Yet every frame pulses with life. It’s impossible to believe any of it, any more than we can believe in the plot of, say, Haywire, but what’s real enough is the obvious pleasure of everybody involved. Terence Stamp is sensational, of course, but so are Peter Fonda, Luis Guzmán, Nicky Katt, Barry Newman, and the rest. And for all its ravishing tricks with editing and time—as when Fonda is introduced with what amounts to a miniature trailer for his character, or how the film uses archival footage from the vintage Stamp vehicle Poor Cow to show the protagonist in flashback—it isn’t afraid to deliver juicy set pieces, including the single best scene in Soderbergh’s work. I’ll go even further: I don’t think there’s a more exhilarating moment in all of movies than when Stamp, beaten up by goons and dumped on the sidewalk, staggers to his feet and totters back inside to wreak an unseen revenge. (It’s a sequence that turns, crucially, on Stamp’s age: you can almost feel his bones creaking as he straightens up.)

What’s funny about the scene, of course, is that it’s an immensely satisfying moment in a movie that seems otherwise determined to frustrate our expectations. It’s as if Soderbergh inserts it here just to prove that he can, in much the same way that he tosses off a genre piece like Contagion every few years simply to remind us that he’s better at it than pretty much anyone else. As a matter of narrative strategy, though, it’s a shrewd, even essential choice: once the scene is over, we’re willing to follow the movie wherever it wants to go, no matter how much misdirection and digression it throws at us in the meantime. As it stands, we barely even notice that this is a revenge movie without the revenge, or that its stylistic innovations, as delightful as they are, don’t have much to do with the bones of the story. (The writer Lem Dobbs wasn’t pleased with the result, and he airs his grievances in a famously combative commentary track with Soderbergh, which hasn’t stopped the two men from working together again.) Yet that’s also Soderbergh’s greatest strength. He knows how to use star power and conventional narrative payoffs to enable his loonier experiments, and he’s constantly looking to see how much or how little he can get away with using. When it misfires, it’s usually because the proportions are wrong, which is often in the eye of the beholder: Ocean’s 12, for instance, strikes me as a fascinating effort to spin a feature film out of as little substance as possible. If you make twenty movies like this in a row, eventually, you’ll end up with one in which the balance is perfect. Viewers probably won’t agree on which one it is. But for my money, it’s here.

Written by nevalalee

June 13, 2016 at 9:00 am

The Best Movies of 2011, Part 1

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10. Contagion. Steven Soderbergh’s intimate epic of paranoia, which was inexplicably overlooked throughout the recent awards season, benefits from one of the year’s richest original screenplays, by Scott Z. Burns, and fine contributions from editor Stephen Mirrione and a remarkably restrained cast. As we recently saw in Haywire, Soderbergh can be an erratic storyteller, but here, he delivers a big commercial entertainment that is also, surprisingly, the most effective example to date of the film of global intersection, a genre that includes Babel and Soderbergh’s own Traffic, but finds its most organic expression here, in a movie that demonstrates that we really are all connected, in the least reassuring way possible.

9. The Artist. For a movie that is routinely described as a crowd-pleaser, Michel Hazanavicius’s inspired homage to silent cinema has turned out to be surprisingly divisive, mostly among those who resist its blatant sentimentality and cheerful layers of artifice. It’s shallow, yes, but then, so is Citizen Kane, and Hazanavicius displays some of the same Wellesian willingness to try everything once—an instinct that one finds in all great con artists, parodists, and showmen. I’m still not sure whether its ruthlessly schematic story is intentional or not, but I can’t deny its ingenuity and relentless charm, and I’ll be perfectly happy if it takes home top honors on Sunday night.

8. Kung Fu Panda 2. The year’s best family film is a masterpiece of story and production design, from a franchise that could have gone utterly wrong, in the usual DreamWorks mode of easy gags and pop culture references, but instead gets almost everything right. First-time director Jennifer Yuh Nelson—with able contributions from story consultant Guillermo Del Toro and uncredited script doctor Charlie Kaufman—gracefully walks a fine narrative line, arriving at a tone that gently mocks its own pretensions while still delivering genuine thrills and emotion. The result is a movie that stands on its own as pure storytelling, with nothing that will grow stale over time.

7. Drive. The coolest main titles of the year, and perhaps of the decade, are only the opening salvo from this suspenseful, violent, and strangely tender ode to the great action films of the ’80s. Nicholas Winding Refn delivers the year’s most fanatically designed movie, from Hossein Amini’s spare, almost abstract screenplay to the gorgeous cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel, which sets out to make a pop icon of Ryan Gosling and brilliantly succeeds. The ending doesn’t quite live up to what comes before—as I’ve noted earlier, what it really needs is a closing rhapsody of violence on the level of Michael Mann’s Thief—but for most of its length, it’s a work of almost uncanny assurance, and the best argument imaginable for the complete elimination of backstory.

6. A Separation. The more I think about Asghar Farhadi’s powerful, understated melodrama, the more impressive it becomes: its control, its mastery of tone, its ability to evoke entire lives and relationships with a few perfect details, and its combination of intimacy and social expansiveness would be notable in any country, but are especially extraordinary given the constraints of film production in Iran. Details first seen in passing gradually gain in significance, and situations that initially seem remote feel more and more like our own, until, like all great works of art, it succeeds both as a document of a particular time and place and as a universal story.

Tomorrow: My top five movies of the year.

Written by nevalalee

February 23, 2012 at 9:30 am

Contagion and the triumph of the screenwriter

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If you want to understand how hard it can be for original ideas to thrive in Hollywood, just find a list of any recent year’s highest grossing films, and count how many movies are based on original screenplays. From this past year, the only movie in the top ten not based on an existing franchise or property is Bridesmaids, while a year earlier we had Inception and Despicable Me. And while a sequel, adaptation, or reboot can sometimes be a great movie—as Toy Story 3 proved last year and Kung Fu Panda 2 and Rise of the Planet of the Apes did more recently—we’re still left with a system that seems increasingly unwilling to take risks on a property that isn’t based on a toy or video game.

Which brings us to Contagion. Steven Soderbergh’s paranoid epic, which opened strongly at the top of last weekend’s box office, is newsworthy for any number of reasons: it’s a thriller for adults, involving and expertly crafted, that manages to be smart, scary, and exceptionally restrained. Most remarkable of all is the fact that it was based on a truly fine original screenplay by Scott Z. Burns, whose most notable credits until now have been The Informant! and The Bourne Ultimatum. Burns clearly benefited from initially pitching the story to Soderbergh, who protected the movie from studio interference and executed it with his usual level of skill. But it remains Burns’s story, a major original screenplay from a lone writer who isn’t a famous director or movie star, and as such, it deserves to be celebrated.

Reading about the writing process for Contagion can feel like a dispatch from another level of Hollywood reality, in which films are allowed to grow organically from an idea, rather than being forced to incorporate as many commercial elements as possible. In an excellent interview with CinemaBlend, Burns talks about how he began by researching his subject deeply, reading books on epidemiology and talking with experts in the field, then developed characters and storylines inspired by his discoveries. This is pretty much what a novelist does all the time, but something that screenwriters are rarely allowed, since they’re either working from a prepackaged premise or replaced long before they have a chance to put their own stamp on the project. And the fact that Burns was able to see it through counts as something of a miracle.

Of course, any movie is really about collaboration, so it can be hard to assign credit to one artist or another. In a valuable essay in the Wall Street Journal, Burns makes this point himself, taking pains to acknowledge the contributions of the director and actors—although editor Stephen Mirrione also deserves high praise. Burns writes:

The first draft of a screenplay is printed on white pages. Each time a page is revised, it’s given another color so that the cast and crew can track the changes. And so it goes from white to blue to pink to yellow to green to gold to salmon, cherry and tan. Then back to white again. The script for Contagion was a rainbow by the time we finished. The white pages gave way to what we learned along the way from scouting and research and actors—and finally from director Steven Soderbergh, as he assembled the “dailies” every night and contemplated the next day.

Elsewhere, Burns notes that thirty to forty minutes of material was cut, with Soderbergh and Mirrone streamlining the movie considerably in the editing room, and that new material was frequently written on the set. In the end, though, it was Burns who took the first pass, and the result should give hope to screenwriters everywhere. It can be a rough way of life, but Burns beautifully sums up its purpose: “It’s easier to collaborate once you’ve got something down on paper and it’s my job to go first. That’s what I do.”

Written by nevalalee

September 12, 2011 at 9:27 am

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