Contagion: This movie is interesting as a factual look at an epidemic and the measures taken against it, the consequences of the disease and the measures, and the moral ambiguities involved. It’s pretty standard stuff- disease starts infecting people, people die, people react badly, society begins to crumble- but I found it as more than just a disaster movie. For one, director Steven Soderbergh treats his subject with documentary-like storytelling. He wants us to get exactly how this disease spreads, to understand what precautions and reactions our government would actually have. He wants it to seem real. What’s brilliant though is Contagion‘s flashes of emotion. Soderbergh’s main focus is the facts, but he allows his characters’ humanity, both moral and immoral, to peek through. Maybe what he’s trying to say is that even with something as amoral as a virus, we humans still have to make moral sense of it.
The performances are solid, especially Matt Damon’s and Jennifer Ehle’s. Damon is the key everyman figure here, our anchor to the overarching story. His concern for his daughter and conflicting emotions over his wife’s death are easy to relate to- the scene when he is told his wife is dead is perfect. Jennifer Ehle plays a scientist working on a vaccine for the virus. Her performance is subtle, and its full power doesn’t become apparent till near the end in a scene with her dad.
Very good movie- would have been great except for Jude Law’s poorly written character and the distracting storyline he inhabits.
Magnolia: I’ve never seen a movie quite like Magnolia, a movie about coincidences. Most movies that employ coincidences as devices to link a lot of characters together are usually making the point that everyone’s connected, or something like that, but Magnolia seems to be saying more that sometimes strange things just happen. It follows a bunch of different storylines and characters who are connected together by coincidence- a misogynistic motivational speaker (Tom Cruise) avoids his dying father (Jason Robards), attended to by his nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his trophy wife (Julianne Moore). The dying father happens to be the producer of a kids’ quiz show hosted by Philip Baker Hall. The movie follows a current contestant and his overbearing father, as well as a former contestant (William H. Macy) in love with a bartender who doesn’t see him. John C. Reilly plays a cop who tries to help a cocaine addict who happens to be the daughter of the quiz show host. I promise you I haven’t even broken the surface of this plot yet.
Roger Ebert wrote a fantastic review on Magnolia, and you can find it here. In it, he claims that Magnolia is about the sins we inflict on children and the consequences that manifest later in life. He argues that Paul Thomas Anderson, the director, shows us that the majority of people are hurting, in pain from others’ mistakes or their own. Some people are meant to be the helpers to the hurting, showing them compassion when they need it most. This does seem to be how life works, doesn’t it? Some people have a lot of awful things happen to them, and rarely do they escape the awful cycles of sin in their lives. And then there are those more fortunate individuals who are gifted with compassion, doing what they can to help them. Often the change they effect is minimal, too little to be appreciated. But still, their compassion drives them to keep trying.
There are two such characters in Magnolia, the nurse played by Hoffman and the cop played by Reilly. Their performances are the most intriguing- they don’t seem to be conflicted in their motives, they just want to help the people around them. The best performance among a heap of great performances is Tom Cruise’s. It’s the best performance of his I’ve seen. He’s wildly varied, but always true to his character. Subtle isn’t the first word that comes to mind, but there’s a moment where his chauvinist is discovered as a liar and Cruise quietly conveys judgmental anger. Later, Cruise collapses in manic rage and desperation at his character’s father’s deathbed.
Great movie- even after this long-ish review, I still haven’t conveyed to you what all this movie contains. I haven’t even gotten to the cast singalong and the raining frogs.
Albums I Liked:
Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer by Jon Foreman: Switchfoot is a great rock band, but Jon Foreman shines creatively in these four EPs. Simple but creative, Foreman’s songs here address more complicated themes than Switchfoot. His themes seem more personal, and the music reflects that. It feels like he was bursting to express these ideas, but Switchfoot just wasn’t the right venue. Foreman has created his own venue, a distinct sound all his own. We can relate to this conflicted faith that Foreman brings to the forefront of his lyrics, as well as the genuine efforts to praise God with that flawed faith. Favorite songs: “Your Love Is Strong” “House of God, Forever”
Devils & Dust by Bruce Springsteen: Soft and understated, the Boss owns the traditional folk song on this album. He’s been here before on albums like Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad, but while those albums feel dark and dangerous, Devils & Dust feels more hopeful, more ready to believe in the good in people. Favorite songs: “Devils & Dust” “Maria’s Bed”
Songs I Loved:
“Southbound Train” by Jon Foreman: I’m a sucker for harmonica, and when the harmonica came in halfway through this song, I was sold. Foreman sings about a journey (life, maybe?), but he eschews the cliches inherent in songs about journeys by constructing his song around a personal relationship with a woman. His home isn’t the same as it once was, but the presence of his girl is enough to keep him hopeful. Like many of the songs on his Seasons EPs, “Southbound Train” feels real and lived-in.
“All I’m Thinkin’ About” by Bruce Springsteen: Springsteen has written bigger and better songs, but few of his songs are this content. Interestingly, he tackles simple themes as Foreman’s “Southbound Train”- his girl keeps him going, his life isn’t the same as it used to be. He keeps the volume down, but the background singers give the song weight, and Springsteen’s finger-pickin’ guitar sound makes it sound old, wise, carefree. A perfect song for a stressful weekend.