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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Co-Pick of the Week: New. Contagion

Contagion (Blu-ray/DVD Combo, with UV Digital Copy) (Also Movie Only) (Two Discs) (Three and a Half Stars)
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 (from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to the World Health Organization, to the Epidemic Intelligence Service) 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 (or a room in Hong Kong) 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 lesser seen but 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 (with its 25 million victims to date), to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 (which claimed 50 million lives), 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, amd that includes fine performances by Demetri Martin, Bryan Cranston, Armin Rohde, John Hawkes and nearly a dozen others.
 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.
Soderbergh has dealt with sickness and drugs and, in a way, health matters, before, especially in Erin Brockovich, but also in films like Solaris, Gray’s Anatomy, Traffic and Night Watch (which he wrote). Even a noir remake like The Underneath (which Soderbergh derived from director Robert Siodmak’s and writer Daniel Fuchs’ Criss Cross) has a hospital scene. And then, of course, there’s the movie that made Soderbergh’s career: 1989’s sex, lies and videotape, whose main character, James Spader as Graham, seems to be living in a sex-free, germ-free bubble, observing sex and life on video, rather than experiencing it.
All that suggests that Soderbergh does have something of a germ or sickness fetish or mild obsession — nothing like Howard Hughes’ of course — and that this new movie might be scarier to him than it is to us. But here, anyway, is something special: a different, more disturbing, shockingly plausible horror movie than we usually get.
Extras: Featurettes; Streaming with Digital Copy
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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon