Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Plague on ALL Your Houses: Films, Two Finished, Three Un- (as well as a TV series—and some shorts, too!)

Contagion (2011; Steven Soderbergh)
What if someone remade one of those Irwin Allen all-star disaster movie epics, but played it very straight, very serious, very high-stakes? Contagion is one possible answer to that question.

Starting like the best kind of science-fictional techno-thriller, the film is dense and compact—running roughly 90 minutes, Soderbergh squeezes in an much info as it takes others three hours to do, covering complicated info-dumps across several continents, mixing a multitude of styles and stylistic choices, especially in color schemes: Asia is feverishly orange; Minnesota, an austere blue-white; San Francisco, gray. The frame is often filled with images from video monitors, surveillance cams, computer screens, cell phones and so on.

The initial pace is so relentless, however, that it works against the flick during some later, more somber moments: your body has been manipulated by Soderbergh & Co. into a sort of frenzy—and then you’re supposed to slow down and get all weepy boo-hoo, or “concerned citizen.”
Uncle Steve is enough of a showman to keep all the plates spinning—and there’s a lot!—so he deserves heaps of praise.
Maybe 90 minutes actually wasn’t enough? At 100 minutes, maybe the entire film could’ve had enough breathing room so that a pace could be set, and then maintained.

Personally, I felt the flick was not as Apocalyptical as it needed to be: Only 26 million dead? Not enough.
That’s only 0.4% out of 6 billion! Less than 1% of Earth’s population? Pshaw!
Around 1618, a smallpox plague (that the white man had brought unintentionally) started that would wipe out 90% (!!!) of the Native American population in North America.
Contagion’s bat-pig virus needs to try harder. Step up, young’un!

And I wanted greater societal breakdown (or more evidence of a totalitarian takeover post-plague) as well as the special effects that would accompany them—something a la the first 10 minutes of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead—or certain sections of Children of Men—heck, even the simple matte-painting emptiness of 1958’s The World, The Flesh and The Devil would be perfect.

Because despite a deliciously gruesome shot of Gwyneth Paltrow getting scalped during her autopsy (oops! Spoiler! snicker…),
the flick doesn’t show enough pustule-popping, infectiously oozing staggering-around-looking-gross pre-corpses,
nor enough scenes of cops vs. rioters and/or infected civilians, and the gore that would result from such confrontations (for example, either version of The Crazies—or, contra-positively, go the total “hard” science route, like 1971’s The Andromeda Strain).
I mean, how the fuck does a low-budget flick like 28 Days Later create a grander scale of destruction than this megabuck production?

But maybe I’m asking too much, because I really enjoyed the film’s B-movie tenacity for attempting to bring current societal issues into the discussions, in this case, the collusion between Big Pharma and governmental agencies to line each others’ pockets, as well as further crush societal freedoms (if you’re not inoculated, you can’t enter any stores—or anywhere, really).
The film’s ambiguity regarding the government’s ultimate intentions was also a nice touch: the guys on the ground mean well, but their higher-ups may have a very different agenda.

I am annoyed by the flick’s standard bourgeois bias (necessary, I suppose, because it’s a US-produced film) that the plague will start in “dirty, sweaty, inscrutable” Asia—why wouldn’t it start in some Alabama trailer park, or a Belfast ghetto? (Perhaps Soderbergh proactively responded to this potential gripe by casting a cool, WASPy blonde right out of a Hitchcock flick as Patient Zero.)

There’s a happy ending that almost made me sick, but thankfully Contagion is saved—literally at the last minute!—by a John Carpenter-esque coda that not only tells us how the plague started, but by resetting the clock to “Day One,” lets us know that it’s going to happen again, like right now.

Soderbergh’s made a flick that’s a synthesis of both Kubrick’s fastidiousness and bleak view of “men in power,” and Roger Corman’s “shoot fast/political messages are okay as long as the exploitation elements are forefront” styles. Which is a schizoid combo for sure, but excellent pacing and a panicked mood generally hides that, or points out the black humor in the situation.

The film is structured very much like Soderbergh’s earlier Oscar-winner Traffic or 2005’s very good Syriana, directed by Traffic’s screenwriter Stephen Gaghan.
I’d really like to read Scott Z. Burns’ script to Contagion—a compare-and-contrast would be interesting. (And congratz to Mr. Burns—release the hounds—for scoring the gig to script the sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes. With his plague background, I’m sure he’ll do the End Times For Humans quite right—and I hope he sets it up for telepathic mutants to appear in the inevitable third Apes retcon.)

Usually, I kind of despise the type of “all-star” casting that disaster movies truck in, but in Contagion’s case, it is necessary as
so much shit is going down that you need recognizable, public-friendly faces so the audience can keep up with instant visual cues: Matt Damon! That means Minnesota! Larry Fishburne! Government stuff! Titanic babe! Front lines of the plague! Uhhh… Who’s this one? French chick, right? Oscar-winner? No shit. Well I don’t recognize her, and that plotline was forgotten—honestly, the story-thread about the WHO official being kidnapped was one of the weaker ones, like an attempt to apologize to Asia for being blamed for the plague in the first place.

That said, Contagion is a grand entry into that broad dystopic film subgenre I like to call “Apocalypse Right Fuckin’ This Very Minute!” (And, like, how many disaster movies make you compulsively wash your hands about 50 times after seeing them? Jeez, I’m glad I didn’t see this in a theater, I might’ve freaked!)

And now for some films only partially screened…

Shark Night (2011; David R. Ellis) Not enough gore, terrible shark effects—what the hell happened to the promise director Ellis showed with Final Destination 2?!? That flick still holds up!
Shark Night was so bad, that even despite the attractive babes of the fox brigade (above and left, for example), I couldn’t finish watching it.
Honestly, Sharktopus was so much, much better.
(Listed as Shark Night on the Nflicks streaming site, but on the film’s intro credits, it’s still listed as Shark Night 3-D—but it was broadcast in 2-D! They couldn’t even afford to change the credits, wow…)

Jackboots on Whitehall (2010; Edward McHenry & Rory McHenry) A brilliant idea executed so poorly, I had to turn it off after about 10 minutes. Maybe that’s not fair, but I had no other choice.
Because I really wanted to see an alternate universe story about Nazi Germany’s victory and occupation of Great Britain—as performed by semi-articulated puppets resembling either G.I. Joes or Barbies!
But the script was awful, just really, really dull stuff—puerile humor that thinks it’s sophisticated—or spoofing old-timey stuff only because it’s old.
This would’ve been so much better if they spent less time with the puppets and more on the script.

Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man (1976; Ruggero Deodato) Live like a cop, die like an asshole, is more like it.
Before he made the infamous classic Cannibal Holocaust (much loved in Ivanlandia), Ruggero Deodato helmed this Starsky & Hutch rip-off, pouring on more violence and cynicism—and subtracting brains.

The male chauvinist asshole cop protagonists are smug and vile—at first I liked this realistic depiction of the police, but bad dialog, repetitive “gags” and failed attempts at humor, and a pointlessly convoluted “plot” soured me by the halfway mark.

The scenes of violence and action are still pretty darn good; it’s just that I can’t even recommend fast-forwarding to them.

I become so uninterested with Live Like a Cop, Die Like Bacon, I went in the kitchen and listened to the rest of the movie in the background as I cooked dinner. I made clam pizza with pesto and fresh basil and it was delicious!
I’m not sure how the movie ends— and I don’t care—something blows up, and I hope our two so-called heroes were on top of it…

Trailer Park Boys: Season Seven (2007; Mike Clattenburg) Still funny if you’re a fan, but this season actually smelled a little of “contractual obligation”—a little tired, too—but it would be tough to top the near-perfect previous season, which ended in such an absolutely heartwarming—but utterly in character—conclusion that also indicated that this was it, the show’s over.
But if the TPBs were tempted back in front of the cameras by the lure of filthy $$$, I can’t blame them.
Laughing often, I watched all of Season Seven anyway!

The National Film Board of Ivanlandia only recommends short films that you should (MUST) watch—my doing this isn’t some sort of space-filling tactic that the daily sites need to do to keep their corporate sponsors happy, oh no. I do this out of love.
And in case you were not aware of this,
items highlighted in bold are usually links to something else;
in the case of the next batch of films,
the movies themselves.
Thank you! Enjoy!

The Eagleman Stag (2010; Mikey Please) Fascinating, stylized and angular animation, in an almost monochrome color scheme, that works as a counterpoint to enhance the film’s narration, which gets very convoluted and often bizarre, as a scientist discovers a new breed of beetle, with a secretion that can “enhance” human brain cells.

The Raid (2012; Lee Hardcastle) Lee Hardcastle rules, and his claymation cat version of The Raid—a film, you might recall, I had some problems with—is infinitely better than the original.
He doesn’t slavishly imitate the original flicks,
he re-envisions them—of course, the basic story tropes must be adhered to. I’m a big fan of Hardcastle’s version of The Thing, as well. Vastly enjoyable stuff! SPLAT!

Disassembled (2012; Junaid Chundriga) Fun short, spoofing the recently-released The Avengers (for some reason—
maybe loyalty to either Emma Peel or Penelope Houston,
I kinda prefer the UK title, “Avengers Assemble!”).
However, this animated short seems more aimed at spoofing the actual Marvel Comics universe, and not just the film.
Even Ivanlandia fave Galactus shows up—Excelsior!

And my fave music “video”these days is fIREHOSE live in Chicago in 1989, covering Public Enemy’s “Sophisticated Bitch.” Great stuff!

TELEGRAPHS (the Ivanlandia equivalent of notes scribbled on a cocktail napkin)
on a recently screened film that could be best described as “Cult”—

Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979; Russ Meyer) Every once in a while, I like to revisit Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens.
I love Meyer’s disjointed but logical editing scheme, it’s quite trippy.
Love the narration/Greek chorus by Mr. Small Town (Meyer stock player Stuart Lancaster): “Small Town—cradle to the nation!
Was this ever sexy? Hardly erotic—although I want to look up Ulli Supersoul on-line
Perhaps not surreal, but definitely off in its own world—not our universe
Crazy, nonsensical—dopey humor
Insanely multilayered soundtrack, beautiful cinematography
A world of bright colors
Live action cartoon

This is one of my favorite Russ Meyer films because it’s so good natured, yet also so overloaded with nudity and sex and stupidity. (Yes, he’s made films that are better, like Faster Pussycat Etc Etc and Beyond the Valley Etc., but Beneath the Etc of the Ultra-Etc. is a favorite—and personal favorites trump “taste” and “quality” every time—and that’s what RM’s about, right? Right!)

With Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens,
it’s like Meyer finally banished his internal hellfire-and-brimstone preacher, the guy that ruined Lorna and Supervixen and made those flicks bummers, and RM loosened up and began to enjoy the company of women.
Maybe hanging out with Roger Ebert (who co-wrote Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens under a pseudonym) finally chilled the old square out.

And Coming Soon to Ivanlandia:
--Repeat the Question
--Hour of the Wolf
--and more, like:
June Rhymes With Moon! (I’ve got this crackpot idea that June will be Sci-Fi month here in Ivanlandia—I’m going to try to watch a sci-fi movie per day (or related genre, or combo-genre: horror sci-fi; comedic sci-fi, you get the idea), and I’m gonna try and post every day, or every other day, something like that… Big plans! Stay tuned!)

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