Contagion & The Magic of Better Call Saul

Contagion – A movie rarely gets better with age. When Contagion, first came out, it was easy to dismiss. This could not happen here, right? I mean Steven Soderbergh is off his rocker.

I finally got around to watching Contagion and not only it is excellent, it is extremely harrowing. The movie does give the worst version of this virus and the worst version of people’s reactions to the virus. IT is certainly not as bad as COVID-19. It is the similarities and the understanding of how globalization can make this disease possible that help this movie shine.

Contagion Trailer

The first twenty minutes are some of the best and most moving film I have seen this year. Soderbergh does such a good job of showing and cutting. He manages to tell a story of the outbreak and the players involved without it feeling overwhelming. He assumes his viewers are smart but not in need of a lecture. Soderbergh also fills his world with fascinating characters who respond differently to the situation. One reporter who lies about a cure and profits off of people’s pity. Another government official breaks protocol to keep his family safe. These are all very human and understandable, and makes you think about what is important in a crisis.

Many will want to avoid this movie as much as possible. If you can stomach it, this is a must watch. Even if you are unsure, there is something to be gained for everyone. Sometimes we watch things like Top Chef that make us feel comfortable and easy. Sometimes we have to watch things that force us to expand our comfort zone. This is one of those movies, and I am imploring you now to watch it. A

You’ve heard of the Cayman Islands right? Jesus!

Kim Wexler, S5 E9

I did not start watching Breaking Bad until this year. I loved the show, but something felt a bit off. It was just more basic than I was expecting. I expected the show to be exceptionally subversive, instead what I got was bringing the anti-hero to its logical conclusion. It is an excellent show, but I left wanting more.

Spoiler Alert! Do not watch the video if you do not want to have spoilers.

As a result, I went into Better Call Saul with low expectations. Breaking Bad left me a bit unsatisfied, so I did not that a prequel would be any better. I had heard good things, but just did not think the show could be any different or any better than Breaking Bad. As a character, I was not that attached to Saul Goodman to begin with. I just found him to be lacking at times, especially for a comic relief character. I assumed the prequel would be a bad attempt at a spinoff at best. By some miracle, Better Call Saul managed to not just avoid that, but become one of the best TV shows ever. It turned Jimmy/Saul/Gene into one of the most tragic figures on Television. It created new characters that are more captivating than some of the best from the original show, and added depth to characters from the old show in ways that help you understand them better. The show is a miracle, and in its fifth season, it became better than its predecessor.

The show has to not only defy expectations but truly revolutionize the idea of the antihero. Walter White became incredibly hard to root for, especially after the second season. The other characters were excellent, but Walter was never hard for me to root against. Jimmy/Saul is so much harder to root against. He is so charming and funny, and his anger become understandable early on. It also becomes hard to root against other characters. The show suggests that everyone in Walter’s orbit breaks bad, and it makes their fate that much harder to watch.

It also manages to weave in new characters who are just as if not more compelling than there older counterparts. Lalo, Nacho, and Kim Wexler add new twists and excitement to a show that should be spoiler-proof. What happens to these characters become a reason to watch and become the most thrilling parts of the show. Kim especially, as she becomes Jimmy/Saul’s equal. I have never cared for a fictional character more than I care for Kim. It is easy to understand why she acts the way she does, and the inevitable downfall that is coming makes it all the more painful.

Many will still not want to watch a show about a lawyer, no matter how much they loved Breaking Bad. Regardless of how much you liked Breaking Bad, you owe it to yourself to watch Better Call Saul. It has taken the blueprint of Breaking Bad and turned it into a masterpiece of television.

Frances Ha, The Laundromat, High Flying Bird, & The Edge of Democracy

Frances Ha – Frances Ha is a really fascinating movie, that manages to tell so much story in such little time. It is certainly fun, but it just lacks the emotional resonance that I expect from Baumbach at this point. It is very good at points, and Greta Gerwig does a great job. It just lacks the emotional resonance to really make it interesting. B-

The Laundromat – The Laundromat is The Big Short but for the Panama Papers. One of the two Netflix films directed by Steven Soderbergh, it is incredibly fun and entertaining. While many characters and performers get lost in the fast plot (Meryl Streep among them), this film belongs to Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas. Thankfully, they deliver as Mossack and Fonseca. They manage to be clever and break the fourth wall without it being distracting from the plot. It all just works so well, and while I can understand why people are not as high on this film as me, everything worked for me in this film. This is an important film, as the Panama Papers were not given nearly the attention that they deserved in the media. It is fun and fast, and one of my favorite films to come out this year. A-

High Flying Bird – The second Soderbergh Netflix film is a bit slow for my tastes, and even though it is about basketball, it bored me. I enjoyed the interviews interspersed with basketball players, but this film, on the whole, did not work for me. C+

The Edge of Democracy – This Netflix documentary was directed by Petra Costa, an activist in Brazil with sleek film making. It chronicles the Car Wash scandal in Brazil, and how it threatens to upend the Brazilian political system. It is very melodramatic at points, and I would have appreciated a more Frontline style approach to the material. The film also could have been a half-hour shorter and tends to drag at points. At the same time, the personal connection made the film a fascinating project, even if I did not always agree with the filmmaker’s point of view. I also think the length and dread was an artistic choice, and one that I disagree with but also respect. It is a worthwhile watch and a great introduction to a political nightmare in Latin America, even if some of its sensibilities do not always agree with mine. B