Drive. A laboratory distillation, but a fairly ravishing one. To the clever Scandinavian stylist Nicolas Winding Refn, the Big American City is a continuous sprawl of pavement and neon, hard and phosphorescent; the hero walks into a supermarket, and the junk on the shelves fills the frame like a galaxy of colors. "I drive," the stuntman-cum-getaway wheelman (Ryan Gosling) says, barely parting his lips. Equipped with toothpick, leather gloves and silver jacket (complete with a giant scorpion sewn on the back), heís meant as an abstraction of the McQueen-Delon-Eastwood line of taciturn urban knights, as much of a genre facsimile as everybody else here (as his limping mechanic partner, Bryan Cranston is doing Walter Brennanís Stumpy, while Carey Mulligan as the single-mom paramour is offered as a sparrowish tribute to John Hughes). Refn maintains a pale-flame intensity throughout, moments of brutality (shotguns, shower rods, claw hammers and boots figure in the inventive grisliness) like steam suddenly released from a valve, Albert Brooks luxuriating in the opportunity to be lethal: "I used to make movies in the Ď80s... Some critics called them European. I call them shit." Jean-Pierre Melville, Walter Hill and Michael Mann have been repeatedly evoked, but the impeccable stylization of the San Fernando Valley filtered through a heroic psychopath brings the whole thing far closer to the P.T. Anderson of Punch-Drunk Love. Steel-cold, sexless, and at times frankly Camp (pink credits like lipstick on a mirror, Gosling zipping around the L.A. River concrete canals while some intolerably retro song drones on and on about being "a real human being"), and yet itís hard not to fall for a movie that places its most breathtakingly romantic moment a mere second away from its most stomach-churningly gruesome one.
In contrast to Refnís snake-hipped visual exactitude, Steven Soderbergh in Contagion works with a quick and limber image, a globe-trotting flurry that hits its first exclamation point when one of the sallow, coughing, stumbling figures in the pre-credits sequence is run over by a truck. Shallow focus and digital jaundice are the main ingredients, amply evident in the introductory close-up of a stringy and jet-lagged Gwyneth Paltrow, an early victim of a worldwide epidemic; a few scenes later and sheís on an autopsy slab, getting oh so tastefully scalped. (The mirror image is the close-up of Jennifer Ehleís Mona Lisa smile viewed through her hazmat suit; the following shot reveals a bare thigh promptly pricked by a syringe.) The dialogue ("The President has been moved... When did we run out of body bags?") hasnít changed since The Cassandra Crossing, except for a line or two about blogging ("graffiti with punctuation"). Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Kate Winslet and a distractingly lovely Marion Cotillard are some of the vaccine-seekers in what plays like a humorless send-up of all-star disaster pictures; Matt Damonís lingering look of numbed grief and John Hawkesí sideways glance of suspicion are the solitary pouches of human emotion. The intruder who unbalances existing relationships is a recurring theme in much of Soderberghís finest work (Sex Lies and Videotape, The Underneath, The Limey), but, since none of the characters becomes more than a dot on a canvas, the virus and the ensuing breakdown carry no weight or threat. Whatís left are striking visions amid the gloss (a deserted San Francisco street, filled with rubbish and sloping like a bent horizon), and the reminder that this mercurial filmmaker is talking retirement when weíre still trying to figure him out.
Soderbergh was a couple of years back originally set to direct Moneyball, a project that has since accumulated quite a few auteurist fingerprints. Thereís a portrait of old-school athleticism making way for game-changing, Information Age nerdism courtesy of The Social Network scribe Aaron Sorkin, traces of Searching for Bobby Fisherís anxious sports prodigy from Steven Zaillian, and, in the pairing of Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, a sneaky (if safely bromanticized) reprise of the queer coupling of sinewy impulse and egghead blobbiness in Capote, director Bennett Millerís previous film. Mostly, thereís the experiment of crafting a baseball saga around statistics and spreadsheets, budgets and salaries -- like Zodiac or Che or Carlos, the film is a quizzical thesis about process and getting a job done, wrapped in the skin of a biopic. The Oakland Aís Coliseum sets the stage for the climactic match, but the trajectory takes place in meeting chambers, shabby offices and locker rooms following a particularly crushing loss. The team circa 2001 is getting its players cherry-picked by more famous and prosperous teams, so it falls to the general manager (Pitt, deftly combining avid thrust with fraying boyishness) and his number-crunching Sancho Panza (Hill, nice and furtive) to play "card counters at the blackjack table" and bring sabermetrics into the plan. The giddy peak is a scout competition played via laptops and speaker phones, the wry aftertaste is a little Zen joke involving a tubby player scrambling for first base after unknowingly hitting a home run. A bit forlorn, as befits a tale of solitude, but bracingly brainy. The biggest compliment might be that, when Pitt sits back and says that "itís hard not to be romantic about baseball," a non-fan like myself can concur.
October 17, 2011.