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SCREEN SCENE: SODERBERGH'S 'CONTAGION' GRIPPING, TERRIFYING THRILLER

By Michael Calleri

At first thought, "Contagion" offers the possibility of its being similar to those epic disaster movies from the 1970s, features such as "Earthquake," "The Towering Inferno," "The Poseidon Adventure" and "Meteor. Cheesy and melodramatic as these pictures are, they are wonderfully entertaining.

Since the mid-1990s, there have been a number of films with dangerous viruses at their center. The best grand old Hollywood-style edition is the more-traditional "Outbreak," and the best wildly off-the-wall effort is the terrific "28 Days Later."

"Contagion," which walks us through the horrific days of a deadly epidemic, begins on day 2. Immediately we are in close on Gwyneth Paltrow, who has a cough, is sweating, and overall looks terrible, all of which foreshadow impending doom. She's in Chicago talking on the telephone with her lover, having just been on a business trip in Hong Kong for her company. The Chicago jaunt is a pit-stop before she returns home to Minneapolis and her husband (Matt Damon) and two children. She assumes she caught a bug, perhaps the flu. Maybe it was something she ate.

Whatever it is she has is spreading around the world. It's a nightmare illness that begins like the common cold with mild respiratory symptoms and a low-grade fever. Once the virus takes hold in a human, it advances quickly. Soon the victim has convulsions, seizures and begins foaming at the mouth. It's a rapidly spiraling journey into doom.

"Contagion" is directed by Steven Soderbergh, who isn't very interested in linear storytelling. He wants to give us the big picture, a panoramic view of the world, which he does, expertly. In short, jam-packed scenes that tell the movie's gripping and intelligent story, we see the medical community, the major health organizations, security specialists, criminals, politicians, journalists, researchers, pharmaceutical corporation go-betweens, and the sick-and-dying of the world desperately trying to come to terms with a crisis that makes the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic look like child's play.

The movie leaps around the planet, and we stay with it, because not once do Soderbergh and his team talk down to the audience. There are no cheap thrills, no obvious digital silliness. It's the dialogue and solid acting and a sense of terror that hold our attention.

At the beginning of the epidemic, nobody knows anything. The Internet spreads rumors, not facts. Look out your window and see civilization fragment. The moviegoer might as well be one of the characters. Will you ever again eat those complimentary peanuts or pretzels placed in a bowl at a bar? Not likely. Can you catch a virus merely from the passing of a credit card between two people? Choose your answer, and then go see the movie.

Soderbergh, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, cinematographer Peter Andrews, and film editor Stephen Mirrione brilliantly make the unknown the star of the movie. The director has an impressive cast, but not one of them is the absolute focal point of the film. They each have their moment. This is ensemble moviemaking of the highest order. Yes, the picture has stars, big names indeed, but the real star is the virus. In addition to Paltrow and Damon, the cast includes Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle, Laurence Fishburne, Enrico Colantino, Saana Lathan, Elliott Gould, Bryan Cranston and Demetri Martin.

Although "Contagion" is about a serious subject, it entertains in the way all good dramas do. It's about conflict, from which gripping drama arises. There is also a keen-eyed and keen-eared glimpse of how people talk and of how people would react. There are fascinating insights into how governments would martial their forces and of how society would work together or fall apart. There are myriad eye-opening statistics and a lot of very clever lines of dialogue. But there is one sentence of dialogue that may go down in history as one of the all-time classic movie lines. Confronting Jude Law's creepy and possibly corrupt online journalist, independent medical researcher Elliott Gould sneers when Law says he's a blogger. Says Gould, "Blogging is just graffiti with punctuation."

Even as they sat in rapt attention, sometimes gasping at the risks the world faces when a virus finds its way into the population, the audience with whom I saw "Contagion" found Gould's line hilarious, but it was the kind of laughter that greets small truths.

As the movie progresses, heroes take their chances and the more stoic citizens face their demise with grace under pressure. We eventually find ourselves at day 1. Soderbergh has taken us full circle. Day 1 manages to be even more terrifying and more of a possibility than we might have imagined. Day 1 could really happen.


It seems that almost every character in the new Irish black comedy "The Guard" is discontent. Their dissatisfaction could be about their home life, their workplace, their miserable past, or lack of a future. I rarely have seen so large a group of people for whom the grass on the other side of the fence really might be greener.

The focus of the very entertaining movie is a burly police officer who enjoys sleeping with hookers. His idea of good police work is to smack an arrestee in the head and then tell him to stop whining. Planting evidence is a thing of beauty. During the course of the gritty little film, you'll also meet a drug trafficker who'd rather discuss existential philosophy and complain about how dumb everyone else is.

The corrupt cop is Gerry Boyle, a sergeant who bellows most of what he says. He doesn't want a partner, but he gets one and isn't too happy about it. Thanks to the murderous drug dealer, Boyle also has to contend with Wendell Everett, an African-American FBI agent from the United States who's investigating the dealer. He flies to Ireland, hoping to find some common police bonding, as well as some common sense.

Instead, what he finds is that Boyle is a bad rural policeman and incredibly naive about race. The cop asks a lot of silly questions about blacks gleaned from years of watching American television. He thinks he's just being curious and doesn't realize that his questions about minorities in America are insensitive at best and racist at worst.

Not much happens in "The Guard" that will surprise you, but it draws you in nonetheless. This is a comedic fish-out-of-water tale about blackmail, murder and drugs.

Boyle the maverick is played by Brendon Gleeson and the straitlaced Everett is played by Dob Cheadle. Both actors are superb. The mismatched partners have to find an understanding, which means they have to talk things through.

This is difficult because Boyle has vested interests, and corruption exists at every level in rural County Galway. The dialogue is loaded with vulgarity and swearing, but this is a foulmouthed comedy that roars with intelligence. We may be watching dumb people, but they have that sense of street smarts that audiences tend to enjoy

"The Guard" was beautifully written and nicely directed by John Michael McDonagh, the brother of Martin McDonagh, himself the creator of moody plays and the energetic feature film "In Bruges." This is John McDonagh's first feature film.

The crass, confrontational Boyle is the perfect opposite for the dour, humorless Everett. You relish every little dig, every petty annoyance, every clash of personalities.

Boyle knows the world is nuts, and he delights in thinking that there's not much anyone can do about it, not even a well-dressed, FBI agent with the best training and plenty of pocket money. The audience gets treated to a completely believable experience.


"The Debt" is a fictional thriller about the capture of a Nazi doctor who worked at the Birkenau concentration camp. It's based on a 2007 Israeli movie called "Ha-Hov," and for much of its running time "The Debt" has some interesting thriller elements.

It's 1997, and a book has been published in Israel about the exploits of a team of secret agents who snuck into East Berlin in the mid-1960s because there was credible evidence that a former Nazi doctor, who conducted medical experiments on Jews during World War II, was making a living practicing gynecology in the city, or as good a living as a doctor could make in Soviet-controlled East Berlin.

The author of the book is the daughter of the female agent in the trio of agents. What she doesn't know is that the events in East Berlin about which she has written are incomplete, perhaps even a total lie. Everything is not as it seems. Secrets are being kept.

The two surviving agents suddenly become quite worried. They have to do something about the possible unraveling of the past.

The film goes back and forth between 1960s East Berlin and contemporary Tel Aviv, mostly concentrating on the plot to seize the Nazi and bring him to Israel to face trial. The spy material is good and generally believable. The city looks decrepit and the dangers seem real. The trio of young agents are played by Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Martin Csokas.

It's the modern-day events in Tel Aviv and the Ukraine that put the movie on shaky ground. We are supposed to believe that the characters played by Chastain, Worthington and Csokas grow up to look and sound like Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds and Tom Worthington. This doesn't quite wash, but you go with it.

Where the picture really falters is when it replaces the dangerous caper material from the past with a series of contemporary scenes straight out of a bad horror movie. These scenes are set in an insane asylum and promise blood and gore.

Jesper Christensen is the doctor who, in the movie, is called the "surgeon of Birkenau." Christensen delivers the best acting in the movie because he has all the best lines. The╩young and old spies speak in mysterious patterns because the audience has to be kept in the dark.

John Madden directs and three screenwriters -- Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Staughan -- share credit for what seems like two different movies. It doesn't help that because of the use of flashbacks, the film cheats the audience by showing something happening, but then showing that what moviegoers previously saw╩didn't actually happen. Fragmenting the story line was a mistake. If Madden and his writing team had told their adventure in a straightforward manner, it would have had more credibility. The back and forth dampens the suspense a bit, especially because the 1960s team doesn't look anything like the 1997 team.

It's difficult to write about what goes on, because I want to be fair to potential moviegoers and not give too much away, but I have to ask this: Why didn't Madden and the screenwriters believe that the unraveling of what the spies originally told people when they were welcomed home as heroes wouldn't have been an engrossing development? Why not treat the audience to a spy thriller that goes from point A to point B? Why the jigsaw puzzle?

Most assuredly, lying╩can create its own suspense.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Sept. 12, 2011