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movies / September 11, 2011
By Eileen Jones

Well, shoulda gone to see Warrior.

It was a toss-up between Contagion and Warrior this weekend. Warrior‘s about the mixed martial-arts fighter with father issues—they say it has grown men sobbing into their popcorn. So, y’know, it might be good. But if not, at least good for a laugh, on accounta I’m not a man, so therefore I scorn your weak tears!

Nah, just kidding. Go ahead, cry your heads off.

But Contagion, on the other hand, was made by the team of screenwriter Scott Z. Burns and director Steven Soderbergh, the guys who did The Informant! And I admired The Informant!, so that decided it.

Mistake. Contagion is one of the many swing-and-a-miss Soderbergh films. Respectful reviews, though—he gets a lot of those. Reviewers suspect that he’s smart, and that makes them nervous. He wears those big glasses and all.

Contagion‘s premise is that a terrible new virus ravages the world’s population. Shouldn’t this make us all yawn collectively, since we’ve been hearing about this imminent possibility, and reading books about it, and seeing films about it, to the point that we almost wish we’d get the damn epidemic and have it over with, just so we wouldn’t have to get pompously warned about it all the time? No, I guess not. The movie’s doing well so far. Maybe it’s a 9/11 Remembrance Weekend thing—everyone wants to get into disaster mode, nostalgic for that we’re-all-gonna-die feeling.

Burns and Soderbergh opted to make Contagion one of those the multi-strand, multi-cultural narratives that’ve also been done a lot lately. (Soderbergh already tried it out himself with Traffic.) These generally wow reviewers, who just can’t get over how film can overcome space and time and be in Hong Kong one second and Chicago the next. Yeah, it’s 1910 forever for some critics, with the constant thrill of discovery of the basics of cinema.

Anyway, Contagion opens on a black screen, and over it we hear an ostentatious flu-like cough. It sounded like the Dickensian orphan on The Simpsons who always breaks out coughing like a tuberculosis ward in the middle of uttering some sentimental piety. I felt unhappy instantly with this corny cinematic poke in the ribs, or whatever the hell it was. Then the shot opens up on Gwyneth Paltrow, the cougher, so I figured she’d die early on, and I felt happier. She takes a cell phone call and talks to her boyfriend and pretty soon it’s revealed she’s an unfaithful wife, cheating on that nice Matt Damon—you always know he’s playing someone nice and heartlandish when he looks kind of chubby—so according to the logic of commercial cinema, she deserves to die horribly. Both Typhoid Mary AND a hussy, I mean.

The other plot strands kick in showing the spread of the contagion and the various characters racing to combat it or manage the public reaction to it, played by famous actors like Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard and Jude Law and Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle and Elliot Gould and all like that. Lots of instant-travel to far-flung international locales to look at infected people staggering around sweating and touching things that’ll quickly infect somebody else.

Some are saying that watching this film will make you afraid to touch doorknobs and elevator buttons and other people’s grimy mitts the way Jaws made people afraid to swim in the ocean, but don’t buy it. That’s just idiots reading the film’s promo line, “Don’t talk to anyone, don’t touch anyone…” The film’s not visceral enough to have any such impact.

Okay, the autopsy on Gwyneth Paltrow was delightful, I admit that. When that big flap of blond-haired scalp came flopping down into the camera showing its bloody underside, I sighed for the career Soderbergh might have had if only he’d gone for the gut more consistently.

But unfortunately this movie represents Steven Soderbergh in his snooty “cool” mode, when he shows us things that are, perhaps, worthy of consideration, points to ponder, if you will. A serious Soderberghian pall is cast over the whole world, which looks depleted even before the disease is widespread, all somber faces and drab institutional settings. Soderbergh operates his own camera, and his cinematography achieves a permanent queasy-cam effect, everything leeched of wholesome color. Except for the flashback footage of Gwyneth Paltrow at the Hong Kong casino where she gets infected, which has a hectic red flush, anticipating the raging fever she’ll die from.

Soderbergh conveys the sense that it’s been Game Over for the human race for some time now, but at least it’ll be formally interesting to watch the spread of the virus, and then in the end, to track back and see where the virus originated. He treats this as the big reveal of the film, the virus’ origins, deserving of the main narrative arc, as if we were solving a mystery, a Whodunnit, and can’t wait to find out whether it was the Duchess in the library with the sawed-off shotgun. But it’s not really a reveal, because we already know We Dunnit, we foul humans. The whole movie is dedicated to regarding how rotten people are, how ugly and sick our so-called civilization, so that even the rare noble human gesture serves only as a tiny point of contrast to vileness on a vast scale.


Well, all righty then; we concur. Except that in this case, the eye regarding all this rottenness is the Soderberghian camera-eye, and it’s one of those jaded, self-satisfied, indifferent eyes that is in itself repulsive and part of the problem. It makes you appreciate yet again George Romero’s wild, pop-eyed fury and hilarity and despair when regarding our apocalyptic end.

It’s too bad about Soderbergh, now that we hear he’s retiring. It got a lot of press recently, when Matt Damon blabbed that Soderbergh was intending leave filmmaking for art—real Art, that is, as in painting. It was such an obnoxious report that you couldn’t help wanting to say, “Don’t let the door hit you on your way out, you little sod.” No doubt aware of how much of a putz it made him seem, Soderbergh softened it up by saying he’d only be taking a “sabbatical” in order to “recalibrate” and “discover something new.” That made it worse.

Nobody in the press seems to remember that this isn’t the first time he’s made noises about leaving the industry. He actually bolted Hollywood once, back around 1995-’96, to create uncompromised art films. Schizopolis was the name of the film he made—one of those mildly clever grad-student-type experiments you steel yourself to sit through once, and then forget immediately, because our God is occasionally a merciful God.

Soderbergh wanted a little informal collective of filmmakers who would join with him in making equally uncompromised films. He recruited some filmmakers I was working with way back when, urging them to submit a script that he’d help them finance.

They knocked themselves out writing something clotted up and twee and reflexive and sickening. But he rejected the script, saying disparagingly, “It’s still such a moooovie.”

And it was a movie, still, in spite of their best efforts to create something unwatchable. Because then,  some of us really wanted to make mooooovies—we couldn’t help it, that was the whole point.

Soderbergh’s noble experiment didn’t last long, and pretty soon he was back in Hollywood, where they love his guts, anyway. A great schmoozer, Soderbergh. Either he knows where the bodies are buried, or he speaks fluent Studio Executive-ese, or both. Plus movie stars always want to work with him, and that’s like money in the bank. Even when he chalks up a number of flops in a row, Soderbergh always has big offers. After his breakout festival smash, the super-annoying sex, lies and videotape, he’s tended to oscillate among the fat commercial hits that keep him on the A-list (Erin Brockovich, Traffic, the Ocean’s 11 films), the vaguely “interesting” films that are a low-wattage duty to watch, (King of the Hill, The Underneath), and a surprising lot of fuck-you-I’ll-do-what-I-want experiments (Schizopolis, Full Frontal, Bubble, Che, The Girlfriend Experience, the HBO series K Street).

We’re all for this kind of brave risk-taking, in theory. If only the results turned out to be, uh, what’s the word…better.

Still, Soderbergh did come up with those visceral chunks of The Limey and Out of Sight and The Informant! that showed he had the right stuff in him and could’ve punched way above his weight if he’d wanted to. He just didn’t want to.

And for this, we curse him!









Add your own

  • 1. Zog  |  September 11th, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    Oh Eileen, another fantastic film review! You brighten my life. i wonder what you look like. You must be beautiful.

  • 2. my talkative ringpiece  |  September 11th, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    (whispering) She’s War Nerd.

  • 3. Punjabi From Karachi  |  September 11th, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    I loved the idea Eileeen had of Tarantino reviving the Southern. That sounds awesome because it is. Tarantino would be the guy who could do something like that. And I have to mention revive, cause I thought, weren’t Slave Rebellion films done in the sixties and seventies, but died out? And didn’t Oprah Winfrey do something large and forgettable like “The Colour Purple”.

    Thanks to the internet, we now know that there were many grotesquely graphic movies made about slavery in the Seventies and Sixties, but look around us. Do any of them or their intellectual ideas survive in the cultural landscape? No, they were killed off by ignoring them, or intellectually repressing or twisting their message. For this, we need a revival.

    So if there’s any man who can make revive an old genre (the way he entertainingly killed off WWII in Basterds), make South bashing acceptable and get away with it like a bank robber skipping the country, it has to be Quentin Tarantino.

  • 4. Punjabi from Karachi  |  September 11th, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    showed he had the right stuff in him and could’ve punched way above his weight if he’d wanted to. He just didn’t want to.

    Hahaha! you sound like some teachers I had.

    I shall work harder, faster and smarter.

    And for this, we curse him!

    LoL; The Informant was unwatchable on DVD. I couldn’t watch it in cinema with friends (I think we watched Zombieland; I remember it was the summer of Inglourious Basterds). I downloaded that somnolent pile of anaesthesia around the same time as A Serious Man. Ripped through A Serious Man; The Informant laid around my hard drive as I built a career over eighteen months, until I steeled myself and watched the whole thing through just this March.

    Lesson of the story; the Coens (and Tarantino – he’ll redeem himself To Exiled commentators if he recreates the genre of the Southern) are good; Soderbergh is unreliable, and thus simply ugh.

  • 5. Adam  |  September 11th, 2011 at 8:10 pm

    I don’t usually find myself quoting Nazi war leaders, but I must adapt the words of Hermann Goering:

    “When I hear the word ‘Soderbergh’, that’s when I reach for my revolver”

    and if you happen to hear the words “Gray’s Anatomy” – not the medical drama – find the big red button, quick!

  • 6. Nolan  |  September 11th, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    Soderbergh lost whatever ounce of respectability he could have had when he butchered Solaris.

  • 7. tam  |  September 11th, 2011 at 11:43 pm


    Actually I think he gained creditability when he remade Solaris by getting rid of all that tedious ‘man standing outside in his garden being ponderous in the rain’ crap that got in the way of a good story. One of the the few remakes that improves on the original…

  • 8. El Hombre Malo  |  September 12th, 2011 at 4:17 am

    I think the quote is not from Goering but from Millan Astray (the one eye, one leg, one arm founder of the Spanish Legion) who said “Whenever I hear the word “culture” I reach for my pistol”. He also shouted “Death to intelligence” to Unamuno.

    The two Solaris movies are adaptations of Stanislav Lem superb book. The first one might have bored you but it was a fairly decent adaptation, and a beloved piece of cinema for many people. Soderbergh’s isn’t. It’s not good as an adaptation of the polish novel and it’s not a good commercial movie. It is irrelevant

  • 9. Flatulissimo  |  September 12th, 2011 at 8:20 am

    Wait, Jones liked Fright Night, but pans this? Were there not enough buff hunks in it?

    Readers of the eXiled should find Contagion passably entertaining just because it is going to piss off all the libertards and tea-tards. It shows the Federal government actually getting things done, in fact the CDC people are the only characters that pass for heroes in the whole movie. It also shows that there are some problems that are so big only a federal agency can handle them. It shows a blogger who could be an Alex Jones/Matt Drudge stand-in making money off of spreading fear and lies to idiots on his blog. Science is shown in a positive light, and as pretty much mankind’s only hope (I don’t remember anybody being seen praying for the entire movie). So all that shit is good. Added bonus was the Paltrow autopsy.

    Despite all that, I admit, it was pretty mediocre overall. But just like I’ll sit through every crappy zombie movie, I’ll sit through every crappy virus outbreak movie. The only difference, there have actually been a few classic zombie movies, but nobody has really made THE classic virus movie yet. I keep waiting. Was hoping this was it, but it wasn’t. Not horrible, just… mediocre. Being better than Outbreak isn’t really setting the bar too high.

    Oh, and The Informant was awesome, and Jones’ review of it was also great. It was why I had some hope for this film.

  • 10. kallipugos  |  September 12th, 2011 at 9:10 am

    take out the 5 second skinning of Gwyneth and there was no guts, no gore, and no boobs. He made a taut thriller without sex or lurid violence. Soderbergh’s Hitchcock tribute.But for what? No passion and no ideas. Shoulda let Chin Han bang Marion Cotillard. And the whole subtext of the cheatin wife being the source of the bug was pretty creepy in a repressed Hitchcockian kind of way.

  • 11. Trevor  |  September 12th, 2011 at 11:49 am

    I saw the trailer for this stinker just last week when I went to see Apollo 18. I remember thinking, “Isn’t this film about six years late with the whole superflu thing?”

  • 12. Punjabi From Karachi  |  September 12th, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    #9 How about this:

    Disregard the word “Orange County” and if you minus Contagion, this is a good flick.

    Also from the Exile’s hated competitor wired

    28 Days Later, Zombieland, Outbreak, the later Resident Evils (disregard Quarantine), maybe not I Am Legend, the Andromeda Strain, Cabin Fever seems dumb, but Children of Men was depressingly good. I also liked watching the old 70’s “The Crazies”, cause it was fun in its own campy way. I should watch the latest version of Crazies, but w/e, we’ll see about it.

    Here’s another list, less good, but with pickings to while away a lazy afternoon:

  • 13. Flatulissimo  |  September 12th, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    @12 – yeah, I’ve seen all of those. Hell, I’ve even slogged through The Stand so I guess that shows I am a fool for the basic premise.

    I was kinda separating the “virus” movies from “zombie” movies in my mind, though of course there is some overlap. There hasn’t been a virus flick that’s as good at what it is as Dawn of the Dead is as a zombie flick, unfortunately. Outbreak and Andromeda Strain are pretty terrible, and make Contagion look like a masterpiece by comparison. Basically the same premise in all three but nobody has hit it outta the park with the idea yet.

    I did completely forget about 12 Monkeys, though. The virus angle is just a part of that film, and it also has a time travel angle (and Terry Gilliam) so it is a bit of a different animal than the others. But, guess that’s as good as it is likely to get.

  • 14. iSockpuppet  |  September 12th, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    I like that movie Deliverance. The south is awesome. Those people are so stupid, it’s funny. And who doesn’t love Lynyrd Skynyrd?

  • 15. Cernunnos  |  September 12th, 2011 at 5:23 pm


    That was a terrible list. First of all, just because three different movies are based on the same source material doesn’t make them equally as good…. I haven’t seen the Vincent Price one or Omega Man, but the Will Smith I Am Legend SUCKED.

    Second of all, why the fuck would they recommend the lackluster American remake of the actually scary REC? Do you think your readers are too stupid to read subtitles?

  • 16. Cernunnos  |  September 12th, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    The other list from Wire was a lot better. Kudos for including the early Cronenberg body horror classic Rabid.

  • 17. MarxDog  |  September 12th, 2011 at 9:15 pm

    “Well, all righty then; we concur. Except that in this case, the eye regarding all this rottenness is the Soderberghian camera-eye, and it’s one of those jaded, self-satisfied, indifferent eyes that is in itself repulsive and part of the problem. It makes you appreciate yet again George Romero’s wild, pop-eyed fury and hilarity and despair when regarding our apocalyptic end.”

    Agh, thank you. Nail on the head! Soderbergh has that weird instinct to go for passive casual-observer takes on things. You would think he’d have been one of those obnoxious glassy-eyed art/film/lit grad students that sit around in bookstore/cafes and constantly one-up each other in that autopilot monotone, those types always seem to share that same drive. And the only real thing those types seem to be interested in are the sex lives of upper-middle class urbane types (them) and especially their infidelities, another trait he shares. If you’re gonna have a sleazy casino infidelity be the epicenter of the virus, why make it an eroticized cuckold voyeur thing? Get balls out Taliban righteous or something!

    But he can’t because he’s of the same mindset as those incestuous secret-trust-fund artiste types who constantly cheat on each other and are just so darn fascinated by infidelity. The only reason Che was ok is that Del Toro’s Che’s divine convinction overtook Soderbergh’s droll NPR dissection table POV during the talky parts and the battle scenes were fun and relaxing like watching the history channel. Completely by accident. Just look at Soderbergh’s mealymouth tapdance when he gets shouted down by some Miami Republican types:

  • 18. Wox  |  September 12th, 2011 at 9:45 pm

    @2: I am pretty sure (not certain, but I’d put money on it) that Eileen Jones is not War Nerd/Dolan.

    However, Eileen Jones is the best fucking movie reviewer on the Internet and it’s not even close.

  • 19. korman643  |  September 12th, 2011 at 10:18 pm

    @17 If you’re gonna have a sleazy casino infidelity be the epicenter of the virus, why make it an eroticized cuckold voyeur thing?

    Because at the heart he’s a fucking, grim Calvinist who hates sex and think we’re all gonna burn in hell because people have sex outside marriage and (the horror!) is enjoying it, the oldest reason why people gets killed in horror movie (and this is a failed horror movie). I laughed so hard when the whole “who was the culprit” thing enrolled at the end, withour spoiling it too much, it was a catalogue of Grim Calvinist prejudices (including “don’t be friendly with gooks”). What a fucking disgrace!

    Only good Soderbergh movie was Limey, and maybe Informant. Solaris was god awful, the one by Tarkovsky was not good as the book, but still better.

  • 20. my talkative ringpiece  |  September 13th, 2011 at 11:24 am

    #18 – It was a poke at the first comment, Eileen’s probably a hotty all right, but I thought it was funny to make the first commenter think for a moment of WN in a (rather large) dress.

    That “…. reach for my revolver” comment seems to have been a somewhat common one around the early-mid 20th century, and so one can find all sorts of people quoted as saying it, from Goebbels to various art/literary figures.

  • 21. casino implosion  |  September 13th, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    If you read all the Eileen Jones movie reviews back to back in one sitting, as I did a month or so ago, the impression that they were written by the same person who writes War Nerd is pretty hard to get away from.

  • 22. mad props  |  September 13th, 2011 at 9:07 pm

    it’s disturbing[ly appropriate] that one of the best places to get good movie reviews is a politics site

    i wonder what jones thinks of pauline kael

  • 23. JoJoJo  |  September 14th, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    #21 – The exiled group share a lot of opinions on things. Ames has dropped some poo logs on the British Empire as Dolan had done but Ames isn’t Dolan.

    Dr. Dolan was too busy in the Middle East desperately clinging to the English teaching job before he was ousted as a being human by the Rethuglican bipedal slime molds and vanquished back to Ames’ loving (and sweaty, and hairy) bosom.

    During that time the site was basically Eileen’s review corner for a while. It’s simply not possible he could have done both.

  • 24. Jose  |  September 14th, 2011 at 11:22 pm

    Ms Dolan. Would explain similar vocabulary and writing styles. We need Joel B Pollak on the case.

  • 25. Vassily  |  September 15th, 2011 at 7:07 am

    Went to see this movie on an impulse the other day, and left before it ended. What a waste of time and money! Just a sequence of platitudes and cliches, hastily cobbled together with the usual Hollywood slickness.

  • 26. franc black  |  September 21st, 2011 at 9:58 am

    I do not share Eileen’s negative assessment of this film.

    I thought it was rather well done. Some of the casting choices were weak (Damon’s daughter, Paltrow’s secret fling) but these were minor glitches. Good to see Elliot Gould is still around.
    Great scoring, good calm tempo to the plot, seemed very credible, and was educational.

    I’m taking the kids, though it might turn them off from pork products for a bit.

  • 27. Sissy  |  October 1st, 2011 at 10:34 am

    Eileen, where did you come from? You show no mercy. And I love it. You make me want to see the movie. Your observations are hilarious.

  • 28. jyp  |  September 10th, 2012 at 12:31 pm

    Oh for gods’ sake.. doesn’t anybody fact check anymore before they write something down?

    “When the Nazis achieved power in 1933, (Hanns) Johst wrote the play Schlageter, an expression of Nazi ideology performed on Hitler’s 44th birthday, April 20, 1933 to celebrate his victory. It was a heroic biography of the proto-Nazi martyr Albert Leo Schlageter. The famous line “when I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun”, often associated with Nazi leaders, derives from this play. The actual original line from the play is slightly different: “Wenn ich Kultur höre … entsichere ich meinen Browning!” “Whenever I hear of culture… I release the safety catch of my Browning!” (Act 1, Scene 1). It is spoken by another character in conversation with the young Schlageter. In the scene Schlageter and his wartime comrade Friedrich Thiemann are studying for a college examination, but then start disputing whether it is worthwhile doing so when the nation is not free. Thiemann argues he would prefer to fight than to study.”

    Hanns Johst.. professional Jew-hater and sometime playwrite.

    Know your enemies!

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