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Kate Winslet

‘Contagion’ Doesn’t Want to Reach Out and Touch You

Kathleen Murphy’s review of Contagion was written for Movies/MSN at the time of the film’s original release.

Steven Soderbergh’s super-creepy Contagion does for pandemic what the Oscar-winning director did for drug Traffic back in 2000. Mimicking the insidious spread of coke-related ills, he tracks a lethal little virus—bat-borne, then transmitted to a piglet—as it metastasizes out of a friendly handshake to world-killer. A panic-worthy journey for sure, but no need to buckle up for fast-cutting, tension-building, apocalyptic action­­—or anything else that might significantly raise your blood pressure. Less hysterical than hushed, more numbing than terrifying, Contagion‘s closer to documentary—an imagined record of how global citizenry might realistically react to monumental crisis.

Says Soderbergh: “We were looking for something that was unsettling because of the banality of the transmission. In a weird way, the less you trump it up, the more unsettling it becomes.”

Accordingly, the director paints his plague canvas with a muted palette that leaches heat and color out of potential melodrama; sometimes the very air seems dimmed, weighted with invisible death. Chronicling the mundane, almost slow-motion process of coping with pandemic, the movie’s narrative engine runs cool rather than hot—in contrast to Outbreak (1995), in which mild-mannered scientists morph into action-heroes, questing for curative antibodies while fighting off trigger-happy generals.

Contagion has more in common with Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1971): Set underground in hyper-sterile laboratory environs, that chilly movie’s action was mostly of the cerebral kind, featuring a quartet of dispassionate experts glued to microscopes, computer screens and observation windows, looking to decode a deadly, alien virus.

Similarly, Contagion‘s way of picturing catastrophic events is three clicks removed, like peering into a microscope, watching cellular warfare under glass. The cast is overstocked with attractive A-listers—Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, et al.—but none stands out.

Soderbergh pulls a Hitchcock (Psycho) by offing a lead early on; during the autopsy, that actress’s iconic features are literally peeled away. He continues to subvert our pleasure in movie stars as warm, beautiful bodies, objects of subliminal desire: how can we fantasize about intimacy when human contact—an embrace, a kiss, a sigh—is fatal? Their charisma banked, the stars—potential Petri dishes of infection just like regular people—deliberately do not shine.

Quarantine puts the kibosh on those staples of the traditional disaster movie, loner heroics or Capra-esque communal activism. Emerging momentarily as a smart, no-nonsense healthcare organizer, the striking Winslet soon falls out of focus, another ravaged body in a gymnasium full of anonymous dead. Cotillard, as a World Health Organization doc, gets kidnapped in China, her ransom a supply of the curative vaccine. Distinctly unthrilling, this plotline peters out in anticlimax, an exercise in futility.

As End Times loom, Soderbergh spotlights, almost clinically, human selfishness and short-sightedness, the metabolism of everyday life. When a maverick researcher cracks the viral code, a rival scientist blurts, “Now he’ll publish!” Nurses strike, bureaucrats argue budget, funeral homes turn away the dead, the government (as usual) fiddles while Rome burns. Action-movie addicts will jones in vain for some bigger-than-life villainy to offer escape from Contagion‘s enervating realism. 

Reprising the structure if not the tempo of Traffic, Soderbergh deploys a network of narrative threads to catch the inexorable spread and impact of infection: from the globe-trotting Patient Zero, to global health organizations desperately trying to find a cure, to foodlines on the homefront. The Internet, potentially a secure lifeline for the world’s isolated souls, spreads another kind of lethal virus. A popular blogger, aptly named Krumwiede, unleashes a highly infectious meme about government–Big Pharma conspiracy and a cure called Forsythia. What’s this cross between Andrew Breitbart and Michael Moore after? A killing in hedge fund futures! (Krumwiede’s played by a snaggle-toothed Jude Law, recalling his rodent self in Road to Perdition.)

Soderbergh does provide some warm spots in his low-key vision of humanity in extremis. A father (Matt Damon), bereft of wife and little boy, guards his daughter from contagion, sealing her off from even gestures of love. A high-level staffer at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (Laurence Fishburne) gives a janitor’s kid his own allotted vaccine. And, of course, there’s one act of world-saving heroism—but hey, the lady’s hoping for a Nobel Prize. These moments don’t pack much emotional punch, seeming almost like afterthoughts in Soderbergh’s chilly laboratory of catastrophe.

Though far from a likeable movie, Contagion‘s admirable as a highly controlled, verging-on-Kubrickian exercise in directorial vision and style. What’s most disturbing about this low-energy disaster movie is how tellingly it taps into America’s current angst, the fear of a slow decline that can’t be cured, all our heroes having succumbed to a plague of Krumwiedes.

Review: Wonder Wheel

There are a handful of dialogue-free moments in Wonder Wheel, and they come as an enormous relief. Woody Allen’s talky drama—the 48th feature for the 82-year-old director—has a small group of characters yammering at each other for much of its 101 minutes. But there are a couple of times when the central figure, Ginny (Kate Winslet), is allowed to be alone with herself and her thoughts. Ginny frets, or flips through her movie magazines, or ponders doing something terrible in order to cling to the slim thread of pleasure she has recently had in her life. For a few seconds the movie breathes, partly because a terrific actress is allowed to bring her power into the space—and partly because these are among the only moments in the film when everybody isn’t trying way, way too hard to make something happen.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

‘Labor Day’

Gattlin Griffith, Josh Brolin, and Kate Winslet

It’s the end of summer in New England, and the heat hasn’t broken yet. This might account for the fever-dream mood of Labor Day, a new film with an implausible premise but a passionate commitment to its anxious, sidelined characters.

Adapted by director Jason Reitman from a novel by Joyce Maynard, this story has a hook that sounds like it came from an old film noir. Divorced and depressed Adele (Kate Winslet) is out for a rare shopping trip with her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith), who’s about to begin seventh grade. They are accosted by an injured man, Frank (Josh Brolin), who vaguely threatens them if they don’t shelter him until nightfall.

He’s an escaped prisoner. While recovering from an appendectomy, he jumped out of a hospital window and hobbled his way into the path of Adele and Henry. Now he has to heal up, and the single nightfall turns into a few days in a row in Adele’s dowdy house.

It probably won’t surprise you that Frank might fulfill a need in these two lonely people. So instead of trying to surprise you, Labor Day does nicely by creating a sweltering setting for a group of frail people and creating little moments of emotion from the situation.

Continue reading at The Herald

“Revolutionary Road” and “The Reader”: On the Oscar Run

Tis the season. Oscar bait season, that is, when the studios line up the major releases jockeying for spots on Top Ten lists and critics groups awards on the way to the Oscar nominations in January. Unlike the superhero movies and fantasy blockbusters and comedy vehicles that are crammed into thousands of theaters in a blanket release covering the entire country, these are often launched in a couple of theaters in New York and Los Angeles and slowly expanded into more theaters and more cities over the next couple of months (the way most movies were released, back before the era of the blockbuster changed releasing patterns forever). But to get on those lists, they are press screened to critics in major cities. Two of those films, Revolutionary Road and The Reader, have just gotten their Oscar-consideration releases (to the best of my understanding, they need to have at least a week-long theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles in the 2008 calendar to qualify for an Academy Award). These films have all the hallmarks for Oscar-bait: literary sources, “serious” themes, credentialed casts and the kinds of directors that value words over cinematic expression. While they have been racked up Golden Globe nominations, they have been conspicuously absent from major critics lists and critics groups’ awards. At their best, they are thoughtful and engaging. At their worst, they are self-important, self-conscious and stupefying.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in "Revolutionary Road"
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in "Revolutionary Road"

Revolutionary Road is at the top (or, more accurately, the bottom) of the list of offenders. Sam Mendes (American Beauty) directs the adaptation of Richard Yates’ novel with such exacting (and unimaginative) control that he sucks the air from the world, like vacuum sealing it in plastic and putting it on display. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet play Frank and April Wheeler, a middle class couple in the late fifties, with a carefulness that nudges out all possibility of the unexpected. These are performances – and lives – lived in quotation marks. Roger Deakins (arguably the most talented cinematographer working in American cinema today) shoots the film with a perfection that is, like the performances, too well groomed. And that I lay at the feet of Mendes, whose control smothers the film in weighty importance and foreshadows every narrative development with the cinematic equivalent of a brick through a window.

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