CONTAGION. I have been an admirer of director Steven Soderbergh since his first feature film, 1989's Sex, Lies and Videotape, which provided a somewhat different take on the cheating-husband theme. It wasn’t just that the husband cheats with his wife’s sister but also that the whole thing comes unraveled because the character played by James Spader likes to videotape women.
I was therefore primed to see what Soderbergh would do with the global-killer-virus-that-threatens-to-wipe-out-most-of-humankind genre. I wasn’t disappointed. While producing a very tight, effective thriller that is also intelligent, he managed to personalize the story rather than focus on the sensational aspects, as many in the genre have done. Along the way, the film nicely illustrates how thin the patina of civilization is, even in “developed” countries that presume to have structures in place to protect their citizens. Soderbergh also takes a major potshot at blogging that people take as news, showing how easily people's fears can be exploited for the blogger’s gain.
Even when showing social breakdown in the face of an unknown, rapidly exploding virus, the tone of the film remains low-key and sensible. Beginning with Day Two, for reasons that will become clear in the final sequence, the narrative explores the gradual realization by scientists that not only are they unable to identify the virus, it is infecting people by the merest touch.
As states close their borders and food distribution falters, the resulting riots are predictable. But the viewer sees only glimpses of this social breakdown. Rather, the story focuses on Thomas Emhoff (a quietly effective Matt Damon), whose wife Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) becomes the first victim, and his daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) as they try to survive in their home until a vaccine is found. Also central are various scientists seeking a cure, and a truly nasty British blogger named Alan Krumwiede (played with brio by Jude Law).
Laurence Fishburne plays Dr. Ellis Cheever of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He faces a moral decision: His wife lives in infected Chicago, and he sends Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) into the field amidst the infected. Contributing to the investigation is World Health Organization doctor Leonora Orantes (a low-key and effective Marion Cotillard), who is kidnapped by surviving members of a small village in Asia so they can get the first available serum.
Contagion is all the more scary because Soderbergh doesn’t try to artificially raise the ante. Instead, the viewer watches as the country falls apart: Scientists in bright, protective space-travel gear kill off monkeys while attempting to find a vaccine that works. Meanwhile, smug blogger Krumwiede gains millions of followers by claiming a government conspiracy and by asserting he has a cure. Perhaps the scariest aspect of the narrative is how easily people are duped by messages posted on Facebook and by an unscrupulous, self-promoting “journalist” whose story is turned down by a print paper.
With an excellent cast and a well-told story, Contagion is the second effective commercial film in as many weeks. As the film-barren summer fades into autumn, things may actually be looking up for film fans. PG-13. 106m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek, Minor and Fortuna.
-- Charlie Myers
CREATURE. There was a faint glimmer of hope that Creature could swoop in and fill the gore/horror/gratuitous nudity void left by Shark Night. Sure enough, the opening scene contains full frontal and a partial dismemberment! But things go downhill from there. The initial setup is actually -- depressingly -- similar to the shark show of last week. That is, a bunch of attractive young people wander into the backwoods of Louisiana and run afoul of the locals. Only this time one of the locals is an old-timey half-alligator cannibal. And all of them have a penchant for incest. I guess I have to give Creature some credit for really going for it, grindhouse style, but it isn’t quite campy, or scary, or funny. Just a cheap, uneven and predictable swamp-monster throwaway. R. 93m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.
BUCKY LARSON: BORN TO BE A STAR. As we free-fall even further down the matinee food chain, we pause to take note of the latest offering from Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison imprint. Sandler has attached his name to more than a few cinematic crimes against humanity over the years, but I’ve got a soft spot for him. On one hand, 15-year-old me thought Happy Gilmore was the funniest thing in the world, so there’s nostalgia at work. On the other hand, I have to give the guy credit for amassing himself a fortune by making silly, inexpensive comedies with his buddies. So I was ready to like Bucky Larson. Lowbrow humor’s fine as long as it’s funny. This is not funny, and it is far from fine. R. 97m. At the Broadway.
WARRIOR. I had no expectations for Warrior, having been emotionally devastated by sitting through Bucky and Creature in one stultifying afternoon. But I could have gone into it with high hopes and not been disappointed. While the premise certainly doesn’t break any new ground -- the tried-and-true sports underdog formula with a brother-versus-brother twist -- it’s nice to see it executed so deftly. The drama is genuine and heartfelt, with a cast of characters who ring true and are integral to the story. The fight scenes are raw and visceral; they’re shot and cut to heighten their impact without cheap tricks. This is the first movie about mixed martial arts I’ve seen that highlights the intensity of the combat without showcasing the dubious culture surrounding it.
But the performances of the three leads (Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as the brothers and Nick Nolte as their father) are the true center of Warrior. Every one of them is compelling, and Hardy (Bronson, Inception) is revelatory. He is a powerhouse, and his Tommy Conlon seethes with emotional turmoil seeking an outlet. He moves like a fighter, with subtle, malevolent grace and explosive force. His work could carry a lesser film, but here he excels among excellence. PG-13. 139m. At the Broadway.
--John J. Bennett
MAGIC TRIP. "Trip" being the key word here. In 1964, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest author Ken Kesey took an LSD-fueled cross-country road trip with The Merry Band of Pranksters to the New York World's Fair. Somehow they managed to get 16mm footage. Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney made it into a documentary. Rated R for drugs. 107m. At the Minor.
STRAW DOGS. A remake of Sam Peckinpah's controversial 1971 film famous for its central rape scene. In it, a screenwriter and his wife relocate to the deep south where tensions with locals threaten their lives. Rated R for all the stuff you can rate a movie R for. 110m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.
SARAH'S KEY. A 10-year-old Jewish girl and her parents are taken by French police during World War II, but not before she locks her little brother in their secret hiding place to protect him. She recounts the story 67 years later to an American journalist. In French, German, English and Italian. Rated PG-13. 103m. At the Minor.
THE LION KING. Disney is re-rolling out its beloved 1994 film starring Simba, Pumbaa and Timon in a new digital 3D format. This will blow your mind: Did you know that in 1994 animated movies were hand-drawn? Think about that. So nuts. Rated G. 89m. At the Broadway and Fortuna.
DRIVE. Ryan Gosling stars as a Hollywood stunt driver who acts as a heist getaway driver by night. Life is good. Then he falls for a young, vulnerable mother who has herself been dragged into the underworld, and he has to battle gangsters to protect her. What a badass! Rated R. 100m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.
I DON'T KNOW HOW SHE DOES IT. Sarah Jessica Parker stars as a wife and mother working for a Boston-based financial firm who finds herself tempted by a charming new associate when she starts making frequent trips to New York. What ever will she do? Rated PG-13. 90m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek.
SEVEN DAYS IN UTOPIA. Sports-y movie in which a talented young golfer with hopes of making the pro tour suffers a career setback and escapes to Utopia, Texas, where he meets an eccentric rancher played by Robert Duvall. The rancher becomes the golfer's Yoda. Rated G. 98m. At the Broadway.
The Arcata Theater Lounge has a packed week ahead. Thursday, La Dolce Video and Missing Link Records present screenings of rare films about little-known Northern African musicians by Hisham Mayet, founding member of the Sublime Frequencies Collective. Friday, witness the ex-Governator's acting breakthrough in the original Conan the Barbarian (1982). Saturday, learn which smoker category you fall into in Half Baked (1998). Sunday, join the Humboldt Browncoats -- an actual club of Joss Whedon enthusiasts -- for a showing of Serenity (2005). Wednesday's weekly Pint and Pizza Night will be "Prehistoric Monsters"-themed and features Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965) and The Crater Lake Monster (1977).
APOLLO 18. You thought there were only 17? You were dead wrong. Rated PG-13. 90m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek.
COLUMBIANA. A girl witnesses her parents' murder and, naturally, become an assassin. Wouldn't you? Rated PG-13. 107m. At the Broadway.
THE DEBT. Three former Mossad agents discover that their most celebrated mission may be unfinished. Rated R. 113m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 2. The boy-wizard becomes a man-wizard in the final installment. PG-13. At the Broadway.
THE HELP. A racially diverse group of women form an unlikely friendship around a secret writing project in segregated 1960s Mississippi. Rated PG-13. 146m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek.
OUR IDIOT BROTHER. Everybody's got that one family member who will allow you to empathize with this movie. Rated R. 95m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek.
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. This is when it all went bad for us humans. Thanks a lot, James Franco. Rated PG-13. 110m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.
SHARK NIGHT. Youth. Water. Death. Rated PG-13. 91m. At the Broadway.