Remember the H1N1 “outbreak” that happened in 2009?  Wasn’t that stupid?  I sure thought so.  While everyone else was passing around hand sanitizer and avoiding public places I was the one ranting about how the whole thing was a paranoid fantasy created by the media.  My stump speech was that this was SARS, Bird Flu, West Nile, Mad Cow, Monkey Pox, Anthrax, and killer bees all over again and that this would turn out to be every bit as non-apocalyptic as all those “outbreaks.”  As it turned out I was completely right about this, H1N1 passed and seemed like just another case of the media crying wolf.  Or was it?  Maybe the relatively sedate effects of the H1N1 virus was simply the result of CDC doing its job effectively.  Maybe my “don’t panic over this nonsense” attitude would have proven less constructive if the wolf ever did arrive to hunt for Peter.  The new Steven Soderbergh film, Contagion, is about a situation where a metaphorical wolf really has indeed arrived and the portrait it paints is frightening enough to make the staunchest skeptic consider buying some survival supplies.

The film begins with a businesswoman named Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returning home to her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) after a business trip to Hong Kong feeling feverish. A day later she collapses, seizes and dies.  It soon becomes apparent that this death was connected to a handful of other deaths among people who had recently been in Hong Kong of a strange flu-like disease that is spreading rapidly.  We see the spread of this epidemic from multiple perspectives.  We stick with Mitch and his family in order to see the events from the perspective of the average citizen who must struggle to keep his surviving family members healthy through the disaster and the hysteria that follows it.  We also see it from the perspective of a conpirocy minded (and perhaps corrupt) blogger named Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) who to some extent represents both the media and the private sector’s response to the disaster.  Finally we see how the CDC and the upper echelons of the government respond to the disaster through the eyes Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), a leading scientist who’s spearheading the efforts to contain the outbreak.

In case you haven’t noticed, Contagion has a tremendous number of star actors in it.  Over the course of the film we get appearances by Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Bryan Cranston, Elliott Gould, John Hawkes, and Dr. Sanjay Gupta (as himself).  That’s a murderer’s row on Ocean’s 11 levels; the ten people I listed above have a combined fifteen Oscar nominations to their credit (sixteen if you want to include Damon’s screenwriting exploits) and three wins.  The ability to assemble star studded casts has become so consistent in the filmmaking of Steven Soderbergh that it can almost be considered a stylistic trait, after all there are certainly other directors with reputations that could allow for similar casting coups, but such ensembles do not show up as consistently in the filmographies of many other directors.  I should be noted that none of this feels like stunt casting, nor do any of these actors seem to have been shoehorned into the film just to help the film’s opening weekend.  Almost all of them do feel like they’ve been chosen wisely for their parts. What’s more they conduct themselves as actors in the movie and not movie stars, they feel like people doing their jobs or surviving a tough situation, not like handsome and glitzy millionaires.

Though the film has a large ensemble and doesn’t focus on any central character, this is not really an example of “hyperlink” cinema; the stories do not intersect through some sort of cosmic coincidence and the multiple storylines do not feel like a film construction.  The film also isn’t really a Hollywood thriller like the 1995 Wolfgang Peterson film Outbreak was.  At its heart Contagion is simply a procedural.  It shows in vivid detail what kind of havoc an outbreak like this could wreak, and how institutions and society would respond and it depicts both with what appears to be immense realism.  Of course I can’t fully vogue for the film’s accuracy, I don’t work for the CDC after all, but it certainly seemed convincing in its depiction of flawed but functioning institutions run by flawed but competent and well intentioned people.  This sense of realism is bolstered by the film’s set and costume design, which seem cheap and earthly compared to the expensively décored hospitals and government offices that you’d see in lesser Hollywood movies and TV series.  The film’s setting is also remarkably timely and topical; a lot of these movies might have started with a perfunctory “in a not too distant future” card in order fudge reality a little, but this movie seems to take place right now, and there are a number of very current references to our modern technological and media environment.

If I had any complaint about the movie it would probably be the Jude Law character.  I understand why Soderbergh would want to highlight some of the less savory elements that would arise in a crisis like this, but this character seemed a little bit on the nose to me.  What’s more I’m not exactly sure how I feel about the film’s negative stance on blogging, which one character proudly describes as “graffiti with punctuation.”  I don’t know of any bloggers who are popular enough to act as a rabble rouser on the level of this character and it would seem to me that people in the traditional media like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh would be far more likely to behave like that.  That said, I did like the way Jude Law portrayed the character and I do respect that somebody had to fill this role, I just wish they’d added a little nuance to the proceedings.

It’s not particularly easy to sum up my feelings about Contagion.  It’s a movie that I have a lot of respect for and few complaints about.  I certainly recommended it as a film worth seeing and generally enjoyed watching it.  However, in spite of the movie’s many strengths it lacked a certain spark of excellence that would have put it above the ranks of “very respectable” and into the ranks of true greatness that other Soderbergh dramas like Traffic and Che inhabit.  I suppose the problem is that it is such a procedural at its core that it feels more like a simulation than a moving story.  Still, coming off a particularly mind-numbing summer movie season I’m glad to finally be seeing well thought out and down to earth films from major filmmakers coming to theaters and Contagion fits that bill.

***1/2 out of Four


DVD Catch-Up: Win Win(8/31/2011)


Though I had heard some positive buzz about the film Win Win, I resisted it for a while largely because it hadn’t been very adequately described to me.  What little I knew about it made it look like one of the unremarkable “sundancey” movies that I’m frankly pretty sick of.  I suppose the poster, which featured the young actor Alex Shaffer staring forward with a stupid Michael Cera look on his face, was what really turned me off to the whole thing and frankly I had trouble distinguishing it from the other Sundancey movies coming out around the same time like Submarine and The Art of Getting By.  What had eluded me was that this film was being made by one of the few people who are actually good at making “sundancey” indies: Todd McCarthy.  Realizing that it was the director of The Station Agent and The Vistor that was helming this project, I decided that I did need to catch up with Win Win and I’m glad I did.

Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a lawyer who advocates for the elderly by trade and also serves as the assistant wrestling coach at a local high school.  He takes pride in the fact that he helps people with his trade but it isn’t overly lucrative and he increasingly has to struggle to provide his wife (Amy Ryan) and two young children the lifestyle they’re accustomed to.  To bolster his accounts he hatches a scheme to act as the legal guardian of an old man (Burt Young) who can no longer care for himself, placing the man in a nursing home, and then pocketing the guardianship fee that he’ll earn from the state.  It seems like a harmless plan a win win both for himself and for the old man who would have ended up in a nursing home either way.  However, the scheme is complicated when the old man’s estranged sixteen year old grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) suddenly appears, having essentially run away from his drug addicted mother and abusive step father.  Flaherty offers to take the boy in for the time being, only to learn that Kyle is a champion wrestler who could be just what Flaherty’s team needs to get out of a losing streak.

Win Win is like Todd McCarthy’s previous films in that it centers on a mild mannered male protagonist who’s in a bit of  a rut until he meets someone that allows him to open up for the first time in a while.  The difference is that Mike Flaherty isn’t really a loner in the same way that The Station Agent’s Finbar McBride or The Visitor’s Walter Vale were.  He’s married, has two children, has a functional relationship with an old high school friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale), and works well with fellow coach Stephen (Jeffrey Tambor).  There is however a great sense that he is unsatisfied with his accomplishments and ashamed of his inability to provide for his family to the extent he’d like to.  In this sense he has a lot of the same problems that those earlier characters had except that it hasn’t driven him into isolation so much as it has driven him into a secret and seemingly harmless bit of fraud.

One thing that’s changed between McCarthy’s first two films and Win Win is that he’s now working with much trendier actors.  Peter Dinklage was virtually unknown before McCarthy made The Station Agent and while Richard Jenkins was a respected actor with a long career long before he was in The Visitor he was decidedly a character actor who had mostly shined in small supporting roles.  Paul Giamatti on the other hand is a pretty big name.  He’s maybe not a full fledged movie star in the eyes of the average movie goer, but within the world of movies released by the “independent” divisions of large studios he is.  Similarly, Amy Ryan is an actress who’s on a pretty big roll right now having earned an Oscar nomination for her role in Gone Baby Gone and also having popped in on some trendy T.V. shows like “The Wire” and “The Office.”  Jeffrey Tambor has also become a pretty regular supporting character within the world of quirk-dom ever since he was on “Arrested Development” (a show that seems to have greatly risen the coolness factor of anyone attached to it aside from Ron Howard).

All this (along with the film’s distribution by Fox Searchlight) gives one the sense at first glance that McCarthy has chosen to pander to some of the less pleasant trends in low-budget-but-populist comedies, and while this isn’t really the case there are elements of the film which do feel that way.  The film is generally more jokey than either of McCarthy’s previous films though I wouldn’t really call it funny.  Most of this material is delivered by a generally superfluous character played by Bobby Cannavale who is easily the film’s weakest link, but otherwise the film does manage to navigate away from much of the more irksome territory that I was afraid it would plow right into.  For example, I was really worried about the wrestling angle of the film’s story; firstly because Greco-Roman wrestling is a bizarre and not overly cinematic sport, but mainly because I was afraid it would turn Win Win into a clichéd sports movie, The Bad News Bears in reverse if you will.  Fortunately these fears turned out to be unfounded; whenever I thought it would finally turn sour it pivoted and placed the focus right back on the characters and on the main story.  The wrestling material serves to illustrate certain aspects of the Schaffer and Giamatti characters rather than to have those characters shape the wrestling.

Win Win is not a film that inspired me to shout its praises from a mountain and I also wouldn’t call it better than McCarthy’s previous films.  That said, the film definitely rose above my expectations and while this is at the end of the day a pretty typical example of a “Sundance-film” I do feel that it is worthy of rising above the masses forgettable movies that are of a similar type.  I’m not sure that the film will stay with me a particularly long time but I definitely enjoyed the movie while I watched it and feel that it is certainly worthy of a rental or of a viewing on cable.

*** out of Four