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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Review: Beldar & kids see "Contagion"

My son Adam, his college roommate Erik, and my daughters Sarah and Molly joined me today for a Saturday movie matinee.

We saw "Contagion," described in its promotional materials as a "thriller centered on the threat posed by a deadly disease and an international team of doctors contracted by the CDC to deal with the outbreak." Its marketing tag-lines: "Don't talk to anyone. Don't touch anyone." And "Nothing spreads like fear." So I basically expected this to be another variation on previous Hollywood movies about fictional pandemics like "The Andromeda Strain" and "28 Days Later ...." Adam predicted, from the movie poster: "This will be a movie about people being scared and talking on cell phones."

I was wrong, and Adam was only partly right. This was one of the oddest and most peculiar films I've ever watched, actually, precisely because it violated most of Hollywood's most cherished plot conventions. But nevertheless — and, very likely, because of those breaks with tradition — it is a very good movie. My kids, Erik, and I all gave it a solid "thumbs up."

ContagionI don't mean to suggest that "Contagion" is lacking all of Hollywood's usual arts. The cinematography is excellent, and the musical score is unobtrusive yet effective. It has a bunch of big-name actors — including Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, and a deliciously despicable Jude Law (as "the Internet and all that's wrong with it"). They all give very tight, controlled, and quiet performances, and several actors play roles that are utterly contrary to those in which we're accustomed to seeing them. I have had a crush on Gwyneth Paltrow since "Shakespeare in Love," for instance, but no one's crush on her is likely to be enhanced by this movie.

"Contagion" does have heroes and villains, and tiny bits of romantic and familial love, along with small portions of suspense and violence. But the heroes are very, very life-sized, not Hollywood-style larger than life. The villains are ordinary people making selfish, petty choices, only a few of which could be described as "evil." Many of the most important plot developments take place offscreen or are only hinted at. There are no chase scenes, no miraculous escapes, no improbable coincidences revealed through the hero's cunning. The cars don't explode and the airplanes don't crash.

In fact [mild SPOILER ALERT: left-click & drag your cursor from here to the following paragraph to read this text]: It is a movie in which there are many, many deaths, and they begin sooner than you'd expect — but we only see a few of them onscreen. Those few onscreen deaths are powerful; and it was obviously the deliberate and artful choice of the filmmakers to make those many, many offscreen deaths seem remote and unreal in comparison.

Indeed, the plot doesn't rely on the typical Hollywood dramatic arc at all. Without employing the "mock documentary" or "reality TV" devices that Hollywood often uses, "Contagion" absolutely succeeds in seeming more real than most movies due to its relentless suppression of typical Hollywood gimmicks and clichés — and that is the key to its entire impact on the viewer, I think.

"Contagion" is grim, but not relentlessly so, and without ever being gruesome. The closest thing to snappy dialog was this epithet flung at Jude Law's character: "Blogging is not writing. It's just graffiti with punctuation." (Some of us bloggers are better at punctuation than others, but I suppose that doesn't undercut the gist of that assertion.)

Yet "Contagion" manages to speak to the human condition. It highlights our interdependency; if anything, it may overstate our resiliency. No one will ever mistake "Contagion" for the "feel-good summer movie of 2011," so don't go see it if you need cheering up or even if you're just looking for light entertainment. But we liked it, and I'm frankly amazed that Hollywood can turn a profit on a film that runs this strongly against type.

Posted by Beldar at 05:06 PM in Family, Film/TV/Stage | Permalink


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(1) Paul_In_Houston made the following comment | Sep 17, 2011 7:50:32 PM | Permalink

Matt Damon!

When that man opens his mouth politically (or, often to say anything off screen), I usually want to throw something at him. He seems constitutionally incapable of talking for more than a few minutes without taking a cheap shot at someone (Palin and Bush being his favorite targets).

But, when he's on the screen, practicing his craft, he is something else (in the best meaning of that phrase).

I'm thinking particularly of his role in "Hereafter".

He doesn't seem to go for splashy spectacular roles, but more for the quiet introspective type, and he manages that without being boring.

You've just put "Contagion" on my "must see" list.

(2) Donquo made the following comment | Sep 17, 2011 7:56:39 PM | Permalink

My wife and I enjoyed it as well. I wasn't expecting much but was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the movie...oops I mean film. I especially enjoyed the actors (male and female) playing non-glamorous roles. Sadly, I am not certain that I will enjoy shaking hands with people any longer.

(3) Beldar made the following comment | Sep 17, 2011 8:18:33 PM | Permalink

Thanks for the comments!

Paul, I agree with both of your views of Matt Damon, who I fully expect to be Obama's vice presidential nominee (replacing Joe Biden) in 2012.

That's a weak joke, and so is the notion that Matt Damon's political views or judgment ought to be taken seriously. But I think this is the best performance I've ever seen him give, even though it was incredibly restrained.

This movie has a big ensemble cast, and there are some really strong performances in what amount to extended cameos. Elliot Gould, of all people, surprised me onscreen for the first time in many years. John Hawkes, most familiar to me as "Sol Star" from HBO's great "Deadwood" series, has another memorable but very short performance.

Editing note: I've just added to the original post the new paragraph containing the spoiler alert. I hope the white-print-on-white stratagem works to prevent unintended spoilage. I've also corrected the line about blogging, which I'd muffed slightly when I was relying on memory instead of imdb.com, and I've done some other miscellaneous editing to the last couple of paragraphs to improve clarity.

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