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Mark Steyn

Mark at the Movies

Outbreak

Now that Ebola has been loosed upon the land, I thought it would be jolly to have a killer-virus picture for our Saturday movie date. It seems as likely as any a way for the world to end, probably in a fortnight or so. Perhaps that's why recent remakes of franchises once based on more apocalyptic nuclear and space-alien scenarios now root their origins in viral pandemics - see the end of The Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes or the ghastly Nicole Kidman take on Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. I thought the 2011 Contagion was perfectly fine, but that was more SARS-like. The nearest to an Ebola movie is Wolfgang Petersen's 1995 hit Outbreak, whose eponymous Ebola-esque outbreak starts in the Congo - or Zaire, as it was back then. Shortly after the opening, a real-life Ebola outbreak broke out in Zaire. That's a hell of a promotional tie-in:

Outbreak's killer virus is called Lambada or Macarena or some such, and was discovered in the African jungle in 1967 by two duplicitous US Army officers Donald Sutherland (inevitably) and Morgan Freeman (rather less inevitably, but before his screen persona decayed into that picture-killing Godlier-than-God Godliness). They destroy the camp and cover the whole thing up. Twenty-eight years later, it's back - and this time it's headed for America. An employee at a holding facility gets infected and goes to California, where he infects someone else, and then flies to Boston, where he infects someone else... If that sounds boringly familiar, well, unlike the news bulletins, there's no Tom Frieden character popping up every 20 minutes to reassure you that none of this could ever happen because he's got these all-powerful "Protocols".

Anyway, within hours, this Macarena virus reduces its victims to gibbering wrecks, dripping sweat, splattered with lesions and oozing pustules, begging for a merciful release. But then what Dustin Hoffman performance doesn't have that effect? I've always found Hoffman almost impossible to watch: from Midnight Cowboy to Rain Man, all that business, all that making a meal over everything, all that acting. The director John Schlesinger once told me that the studio wanted Sammy Davis Jnr for Midnight Cowboy, as if this was self-evidently ridiculous. But, as actors go, I'd take Sam over Dustin any day. For all the show he puts on, a Hoffman performance only works when he's playing what the British would call a complete prat. It's famously said of Marathon Man that everyone who sees it is rooting for the Nazi dentist. But Hoffman was only marginally less unlikeable in The Graduate and, indeed, in Tootsie. He does unlikeable very well. Here he plays a military virologist working for Usamriid - that's a government acronym, not the sound you make as you're choking on your own infected vomit. In the first scene, he essays some comedy, desperate to get a non-running joke about his dogs off its knees. I think he was aiming for that goofily earnest Mel Gibson* auto-banter that was all the rage back then, but Hoffman doing comedy is, as they say, no laughing matter: he finds it hard to throw away lines; they come at you with weights attached. So wisely he abandons the comedy and gets back to being unlikeable.

As a virus troubleshooter for the US Army, he is, naturally, a maverick. So, whenever the script gets to anything of even moderate seriousness, Hoffman puts on his super-serious expression, jutting out his jaw and letting his mouth go lop-sided. Then he delivers the line, which is usually something along the lines of 'We got a f**kin' war on our hands' or 'Get your f**kin' ass in gear.'

The gear in which Hoffman's ass is ensconced for much of the picture is an orange anti-contamination suit. His ex-wife, a CDC scientist played by Rene Russo (Clint's chick from In The Line Of Fire), has a matching suit. They pass the film scowling and bickering at each other through visors. Is it, you wonder idly, some sort of metaphor for safe sex? Alas, no. Outbreak's killer virus lacks the symbolism of Aids. A behavioral epidemic preys on our weaknesses, seizing those moments when our need for sex or drugs overwhelms our judgment. The Macarena or Lambada virus is much weaker dramatically. There's no choice; in nothing flat, the fast-mutating virus is airborne; you just get it. It's as arbitrary as acne, although not as visually horrifying: there are some things even film stars won't do. Sportingly, Rene Russo contracts the virus, but it's hard to spot because, in striking contrast to the other victims, even in its throes she just gets a bit pasty faced — like the 'before' bit of a moisturizer ad for Vogue. Still, it's disturbing: this killer virus is so destructive it's reduced Miss Russo from movie star to, well, just a regular looking woman without her face on.

Hollywood isn't short of good ideas but it hems them in with the same old phoney-baloney: the maverick scientist, the broken marriage, the life expectancy of each character determined by casting, Donald Sutherland as the villain. Only the last ought to be mandatory. So the virus attacks Cedar Creek, a Californian community that looks as if it's straight out of the original Fifties Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. Sutherland, now a Machiavellian general, has come up with a brilliant wheeze to save the nation from being wiped out: he wants to bomb the town and all its townsfolk to kingdom come to stop the disease spreading, and, amazingly, he persuades the President to go along with it. Even in the Clinton era, never mind that of the golfer-in-chief, this executive decisiveness is pretty implausible. But in this picture, if you stop to think about anything too long, it's all implausible. For example, the virus is so lethal in its attack on your kidneys and pancreas that it leaves your insides "liquidized". So how then does the serum work? A couple of shots intravenously and suddenly these guys are back on their feet.

By now, though, the film is hitting its irresistible stride. Hoffman is pitched into a tense race against time to save the town of Cedar Creek and the life of his ex-wife. There's a glorious, exhilarating helicopter chase straight out of Top Gun, but with the added attraction of a white-headed capuchin monkey, whose bare pink bottom proves such an easy target for the stun dart. Perhaps that's the lesson of the film: the poor monkey didn't get his ass in any gear at all.

*Mel Gibson, in touch with his feminine side, makes an appearance in The [Un]documented Mark Steyn, now available at all good bookstores. In the US, you can pick it up from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million and other retailers. In Canada, it's available at Indigo-Chapters, Amazon, McNally-Robinson and major bookstores from Nanaimo to Nunavut.

from Mark at the Movies, October 18, 2014

 

Air Force One

After that White House security breach - and the attendant revelations that the money-no-object 40-car-motorcade reflector-shades-a-go-go school of presidential protection is even more risible than one suspected - I started thinking about take-the-White House thrillers for this week's Saturday movie date. There were a handful of them just last year - White House Down, Olympus Has Fallen. But the biggest breach of presidential security in recent years was airborne: Air Force One, from 1997 - or ...

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Mrs Brown

The reborn Kingdom of Scotland may be on hold for a year or two, but here at SteynOnline we're having a Scottish-themed weekend. For our Saturday date movie, here's a highland fling of a most unusual character: The girl is Scotland's Queen; the boy is her loyal servant. Mrs Brown, the story of Queen Victoria and John Brown, was made in 1997, and by a quirk of timing was released a week after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. But, even without a helping hand from fate, it seems designed to ...

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Triumph of the Will

Busby Berkeley goes to Nuremberg

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Like a Movie

For our Saturday movie feature, here's a film column from Mark's book The Face Of The Tiger that originally appeared in The Spectator a few days after September 11th 2001:

"It was like something out of a movie."

Not everyone said that, but enough people did, watching on television or from the streets of Lower Manhattan. At times it was even shot like a movie, the low crouch of an enterprising videographer capturing the startled "What the fuh…?" of a street-level New Yorker as high above him in the slit of sky between the buildings the second plane sailed across the blue and through the south tower. The "money shots" were eerily reminiscent - the towers falling to earth with the same instant, awesome symbolism as the atomisation of the White House in Independence Day. In Swordfish, just a few weeks ago, a plane clipped a skyscraper; I thought at the time how bored John Travolta's innocent hostages looked...

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Sir Dickie in the Shadowlands

Yesterday would have been Richard Attenborough's 91st birthday. He died five days short, at a grand old age, and as the grand old man of British film, garlanded with knighthoods, peerages, fellowships and life presidencies of worthy bodies. I met him when I was very young, in his capacity as chairman of Capital Radio in London, and he gave me what proved to be excellent advice, although I neglected to take it for several decades. It was an amazing seven-decade career stretching back through ...

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Good Will Hunting

We had many requests for a Robin Williams pic for our weekend movie feature, but I have to confess I was never the biggest fan...

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King Kong's Queen

We're having a mini-Canadian festival this weekend, and not just because it's a holiday weekend in the Great White North (Simcoe Day in Ontario, Natal Day in Nova Scotia, etc). Ten years ago this week, one of the great iconic Hollywood leading ladies died a few weeks shy of her 97th birthady - and a long way from her hometown of Cardston, Alberta: According to the "old Arabian proverb" that opens King Kong: And the Prophet said: And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed ...

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Fahrenheit 9/11

Steyn on the high water mark of Michael Moore's cultural moment

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Independence Day

For the post-holiday weekend in America, how about an Independence Day movie? We're not the most inspired chaps around here, so, from 18 Glorious Fourths ago, here's Roland Emmerich's Independence Day. The music for this film is by David Arnold, who went on to succeed John Barry as James Bond's house composer, in part because his score here reassured Barbara Broccoli that he could handle a big-budget blockbuster. You can hear David and other members of the 007 family paying tribute to John ...

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Grace of My Heart

Alison Anders' movie recreates the Brill Building pop sound of the early Sixties

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Mister Norm

Ronald Reagan died ten years ago - June 5th 2004. Here's what came before the politics - Reagan in Hollywood...

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The Rain Maker

Steyn celebrates Stanley Donen, the last surviving director of Hollywood's Golden Age

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Kill Bill, Volumes 1 and 2

Ten years ago this month Quentin Tarantino unveiled the second part of his Kill Bill double-bill. He wasn't making a lot of movies in those days. Kill Bill was his first picture since Jackie Brown six years earlier. I'm not the biggest fan of Tarantino, and I think he's almost incapable of engaging you in narrative drama rooted in real characters, but Kill Bill has moments that have stuck with me over the years...

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Vertigo

The role that ensured Kim Novak's name will last as long as movies do...

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Schindler's List

We're counting down to the Oscars with the 1994 Best Picture winner...

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On Tuesday Mark launches his new book The [Un]documented Mark Steyn live coast to coast on Bill Bennett's Morning in America at 7:30am Eastern Time followed by Kilmeade & Friends at 9:30am Eastern Time

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