U.S.: Steven Soderbergh, 2011, Warner Home Video
Steven Soderbergh's Contagion begins with a cough in the dark -- something mundane, and ordinary, if irritating, that soon grows into something else: an explosion of fear, death, lawlessness and hysteria. As the movie proper begins, a title soon informs us that it's Day Two of the epidemic, or pandemic. Whatever happened on Day One? Eventually -- but not for a while -- they'll tell us.
Horror movies often deal with the supernatural, the irrational, something menacing that can't be explained -- or can be explained, but just as another horror movie cliché. Contagion, a genuinely scary movie from director Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum and Soderbergh's The Informant) is about a threat that seems far more real and contemporary: a pandemic erupting out of a new virus called MEV-1 that apparently starts in Hong Kong, with the first known victim, or Patient Zero (Gwyneth Paltrow), spreads quickly to Minneapolis, Tokyo, San Francisco and much of the rest of the world, and before long, has claimed millions of victims and reduced the U.S. to chaos -- while plunging medical agencies into a desperate hunt for something, anything, that will stem the tide.
Movies about epidemics, from Panic in the Streets to Outbreak, usually focus on one strong character battling, and winning, against the malignant sickness. Contagion, instead, gives us a kaleidoscopic look at a number of people, doctors, media, government figures, or ordinary citizens, fighting against a plague that seems unbeatable. It comes out of nowhere and kills its victims within days. What can stop it? Quarantine? Vaccines? Flight? Homeopathic cure-alls peddled by Internet charlatans? A race to the border?
Soderbergh and Burns throw out the options, and then leave their characters swimming in a rising sea of social collapse. Contagion, a bit like Soderbergh's drug trade ensemble picture, Traffic (based on the excellent British miniseries Traffik, by director Alistair Reid and writer Simon Moore), doesn't try to peddle conventional movie heroism, though some of the characters are certainly heroic. Instead, it tries to convince us that what we're seeing could actually happen.
How did it happen? More troubling, could it happen in real life? It has before, of course. There have been plagues and epidemics throughout history, from the spread of AIDS, to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, to the numerous epidemics of smallpox, cholera and syphilis, all the way back to the Black Death, which, peaking in 1348-1350, killed 75 to 100 million people and wiped out much of Europe.
The most horrifying element of the picture is how plausible Soderbergh, Burns and company make it all seem, as the movie races from city to city, scene to scene, character to character. The ensemble here is a large and varied gallery drawn from a largely all-star cast that includes Paltrow as Beth Emhoff (Patient Zero from Minneapolis), Matt Damon as Beth's immune husband Mitch, and Jude Law as an opportunistic San Francisco blogger named Alan Krumweide, plus a medical corps that includes Laurence Fishburne as Dr. Ellis Cheever of the CDC, Kate Winslet as his troubleshooter Erin Mears, Jennifer Ehle as vaccine-creator Ally Hexel, Elliott Gould as medical brain Ian Sussman, Marion Cotillard as another plague-battler, Dr. Leonora Orantes.
None of these characters is drawn very deeply, but they're memorable because of star quality, because of the pungency of their scenes, and the gravity of the medical disaster into which the movie throws them. Damon gives the story some narrative glue, because we're so used to his impersonations of common men in dangerous circumstances, Winslet wrenches your heartstrings once again, and Fishburne gives Cheevers lots of stature in minimal screen time.
The performance already anointed by many critics of the movie -- and I think they're right -- is Dr. Hexel by Jennifer Ehle -- who played Elizabeth to Colin Firth's Darcy in the BBC-TV adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and recently popped up as Geoffrey Bush's wife, in Firth's Oscar-winner The King's Speech. She's certainly due. But Contagion is an ensemble picture, which depends on strength from everyone.
Soderbergh has always been good at handling big casts, in the Oceans thrillers as well as Traffic, and here, he's able to give everyone a shining moment or two, even if, in the story, they're mostly flailing around in darkness. He's also good at creating the impression of a multi-track events on multiple strands. As the story keeps building, moving inexorably to that all-important flashback to Day One, the tension keeps building too. The movie works on our nerves, our sense of dreadful possibility. Yes, this could happen, we tend to feel. The world might fall apart just like this, And, throughout the picture, Soderbergh and his crew (cinematographer Soderbergh, editor Stephen Mirrione, production designer Howard Cummings, composer Cliff Martinez and the others) keep cranking up the pace, piling on the chaos, showing us streets littered with the detritus of mass plague and death, hospitals overtaxed, and at one point, the skin seemingly peeled back from one Hollywood star's vulnerable skull. Horror? This time, yes: a different, more disturbing, shockingly plausible horror movie than we usually get. (Extras: featurettes.)
The Adjustment Bureau (B-)
U.S.: George Nolfi, 2011, Universal
A rising young liberal congressman named David Norris (Matt Damon), running for the U.S. Senate and on a fast track to the White House, blows his chance when The New York Post publishes photos of his butt-bearing college high jinks days. At the concession, irrepressible David goes to the posh men's restroom and runs into a sexy ballerina, Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), who's hiding in a stall. Soon he's making out with her, in fact, falling in love with her. But "others" don't want them together.
This sounds like the beginning of a fairly entertaining political romantic comedy about a left-wing phenom, prime presidential timber, who can't keep his pants zipped, and who is either going to ignore his handlers and marry the girl. (Yay!) Or give her up for the good of the country. (Sob.)
Unfortunately, the "others" who are messing with David's life aren't just the usual political buttinskys. They're a group of seemingly supernatural beings called "adjustors" (from the Adjustment Bureau, natch) in matching '50s suits and fedoras who basically run the world, who can travel all over New York City at lightning speeds through dimensional wormholes, whom David sees "readjusting" one of his co-workers when they think he isn't looking, and who are bent on reorganizing David's life, and keeping him away from Elise, precisely because he is prime presidential timber and his eventual election and successful presidency is fervently desired by someone (God?) who is running this shebang.
There's a double catch, all explained to David by friendly adjustors Richardson (John Slattery of Mad Men) and Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie). One: David has to give up Elise, who apparently will ruin his chances somehow. And if he ever tells anybody about the Adjustment Bureau, his memory will be scrubbed.
To guarantee his cooperation, high-ranking Adjustment Bureau exec Mr. Thompson (Terence Stamp) will soon take over.
All this has been scripted and directed, with considerable craft and movie-making intelligence, by newcomer George Nolfi, the scenarist of two other Matt Damon movies, Oceans Twelve and The Bourne Ultimatum. And it is based on a story by the great science fiction writer and chronicler of paranoia-gone-real Philip K. Dick.
Jane Eyre (B)
U.K.-U.S.: Cary Fukunaga, 2011, Universal
In college, as an English major, roaming happily among the great green fields of the literary Gods, I made some questionable choices. For example, I tended to ignore the more successful and popular Bronte sister (in her day), hard-working Charlotte, of Jane Eyre, in favor of Wild Emily, author of that sacred, romantic text of so many lovers of 19th-century British novels, Wuthering Heights. I adored Emily, but Charlotte deserved better of me.
Jane Eyre was almost as famous as Wuthering Heights, and revered too (if not quite as much). And, important for a movie-lover, it has been filmed almost as often as Emily's stormy tale -- which boasts in its filmography the classic 1939 William Wyler-Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur Wuthering Heights with Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as Cathy, and a 1953 Mexican adaptation by Luis Bunuel called Abismos de Pasión. Most notable of the screen Eyres, of course, is the classy 1944 film, with Joan Fontaine as Jane, and Orson Welles, brooding his best, as Rochester -- and the beautiful child Elizabeth Taylor as the little girl who dies at school.
The story is a classic one, a model for dozens of Gothic-influenced novels about threatened ladies, teachers, guests, young wives or whatever, come to huge mysterious houses -- stories of which the most famous is Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, in which Joan Fontaine played Olivier's nameless young wife for Alfred Hitchcock, four years before her Jane Eyre. In the plot that would become a paradigm, Jane, badly treated at her nasty aunt's (Sally Hawkins) house, goes to boarding school, suffers there and eventually becomes a governess to the children of Mr. Edward Rochester, a strange man with a strange unspoken history -- and a secret that will burst explosively into the light at the least appropriate moment. The novel Jane Eyre is a romance, but one with a heroine with brains: a novel that treasures feeling and intellect a bit more than beauty.
Now comes this new British adaptation by director Cary Fukunaga (who made the fine immigration drama, Sin Nombre) and scenarist Moira Buffni, with Mia Wasikowska (Alice) as Jane and Michael Fassbender (Hunger) as Rochester. Of course, that throws Bronte's main idea out the window, since Charlotte wanted to write a romantic novel about lovers who were physically plain (Jane) or unattractive (Rochester), and Wasikowska and Fassbender are a couple of knockouts.
It's in many ways a faithful movie, one that at least respects its source. But how can you really sympathize in the ways Charlotte wanted us to sympathize with Jane -- to admire not her looks, but her brains, her pluck, her persistence, her bravery -- when she's played by a stunner like Wasikowksa, however disguised, however made "mousey?" Poetic license, I guess.