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Tagline: Don't talk to anyone. Don't touch anyone.



"Our end may someday begin not with a blast of light - but a single cough."

It's about time someone made an outbreak movie better than OUTBREAK, or the made-for-cable bio-terror movie WW3 (also titled WINDS OF TERROR) with Timothy Hutton (that's where the quotation above comes from), or every other episode of 24. CONTAGION (2011), directed by Steven Soderbergh, is so much better than I had planned for it to be. These end-of-civilization movies rarely work. I think it's because if the whole world ends, who is left for us to care about? And if there are people left to care about, they better be likable. But this medical thriller (that's the genre, don't blame me, I'd just call it a thriller) works. One of the reasons is because it never insults us. Sure, maybe the science isn't 100% right, but I'm thinking maybe it is...because it sure sounds plausible (take that, 2012!). And here, people talk like people. They act like people. They react like people. So to sum up, this is not a film about a virus, this is film about people. People in trouble. And the timeclock? The longer it takes to find the cure, the more people die. It's an invisible terrorist, and we don't negotiate with terrorists. We annihilate them.

Black screen. A cough is heard. It's not a good one, though we've heard worse. Open on Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) looking wan. She shouldn't be going out with this godawful coldplay, I mean, awful cold, but she is. She's in an airport. On the screen - "Day Two". That...is a pretty great opening. Cough - Sick Gwyneth - "Day 2" (why not "Day 1"?). I'm curious. I'm in.

Listen and look, we all know it's called CONTAGION and perhaps have seen the trailer, so we're pretty sure pallid Paltrow's in trouble. And she's not alone. There's a guy in Hong Kong, one in Tokyo, a girl in London...and those are just the ones Soderbergh found for us with his camera. There's probably more. But let's stick with Gwyneth for the moment, since they paid her more for the role. She makes it back to her home in Minneapolis, reuniting with her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) and teenaged step-daughter Jory (Amy Jacoby-Heron). And then, things go bad. It comes so fast and so unexpectedly that we feel bad for Beth. And Mitch? It takes a while for it to register, even after the doctor tells him she died (a moment nicely played by Damon). Don't worry Gwyneth-heads, she returns in flashbacks.

As reports of cases come in, and fearing it may be a terrorist attack (Hey! I was being metaphoric earlier!) since this occurs right before Thanksgiving, the Center for Disease Control becomes involved. Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) dispatches Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to gather data. Erin has one of my favorite lines in the movie: "Plastic shark in the ocean will stop everybody from getting in the water, but you put a warning on the side of a pack of cigarettes..." Meanwhile, they're quarantining (is that a word?) a few infected areas and isolating people with symptoms. Soon, we're in Day 7. That's when things get really serious. This deadly thing is spreading around the globe faster than a kitty on YouTube.

winslet-contagion by Random Movie Club
So here we are, observers to the steps taken to stop this thing, which may become an epidemic, which may become a pandemic. That's what I love about this movie. They take the time to explain just what this virus is (and isn't), and what they are doing (or not doing) to thwart it. They didn't say "We need to do X!" and in the next scene, X is done. Here, everyone's scrambling to find the cure. Everyone's frustrated and trying hard - the CDC, World Health Organization, Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliot Gould, great to see him in this), and, if that's not enough, Sanjay Gupta, who plays himself.

There are other things going on in CONTAGION besides the contagion. Paranoia, for one. How scared are Beth's co-workers? Pretty damn. There's also Fight or Flight, where some people (in eerie echoes of the World Trade Center) will kill themselves rather than become ill, while others turn primitive in their attempts to survive in these desperate times. Looting, kidnapping, riots, even murder begin to surface, committed by people who were ordinary citizens just weeks ago. This behavior, though instinctive, seems also a bit...contagious. Yes, CONTAGION shows the bad in people, but what it does better is, it shows the good in people. People like:

Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle)

Dr. Ally Hextall, which rhymes with Rexall, played by Jennifer Ehle. Hextall is an honest, call-it-as-she-sees-it researcher whose heroism is off the charts. There's also Bryan Cranston and Enrico Colatoni as government people and Marion Cotillard as Dr. Orantas, because as we all know, what movie can be complete without an epidemiologist?

Dr. Orantas (Marion Cotillard

Of course, there are people we don't root for. I wouldn't call them antagonists (the virus does a good job there). They're more like opportunists. Though there are some small ones, like the people who don't want to let the word out for fear of closing the malls on Thanksgiving, the guy we follow is blogger/scare-monger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law). He's like all those e-mail scammers that hit after Katrina and 9/11, claiming government cover-ups and peddling untested homeopathic cures. It sure seems as if he is out for his own interests, but is he? Or has he really found the cure that no one else has?


CONTAGION hops all over the world like an action-free Bond movie, and the virus is Blofeld. Even the set pieces aren't big action scenes. There's a couple in an indoor hanger now used as a holding area for the sick, an evacuation scene, and an eerie scene of a mass grave in the middle of a city. Many of the segues are montages with Cliff Martinez' repetitive Glass-like music over them, giving the movie a vibrancy reminiscent of KOYANNISQATSI. Personally, this type of music tends to grate on me, but it was a really nice fit here. Soderbergh has used Martinez off and on since his first movie in 1989, SEX LIES AND VIDEOTAPE which they'll probably rename SEX LIES AND CLOUD STORAGE now. Speaking of music, the last minutes of the movie feature a U2 song with lyrics written and sung by Bono, a man who, like him or not, is doing his part to save what he can of the world. "From the cradle to the grave, all I want is you."

So much credit for CONTAGION must go to Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns. They've assembled a tight movie with real characters and one helluva consequence. But it's what they didn't do that makes me happy - they didn't go for the cliches. When someone alone in the lab has one of those "I got it!" movie moments, you know the ones, where they die before they get to tell anyone? Well, that doesn't happen here. He doesn't spill the virus in the office or get into an accident on the way to tell someone. And when the research crew puts on their Hazmat suits with the attached oxygen coil wire, there's built-in suspense. Why? Because in every movie, somehow the suit gets breached and someone dies in a cool way, usually gurgling into the mask. Not here. These are scientists doing their jobs, as they do every day. It's routine for them, suspenseful for us, though now that you read this, perhaps a little less suspenseful. Sorry. Maybe you'll forget about it by the time you see the movie. Though now that I made such a big deal about it, it's probably firmed up in your brain more than if I hadn't gone on about it. "Raccoon! Spackle!!" That was odd, no? Yes. But maybe it distracted you enough to help you forget that no one's suit gets ripped, and no one performs a death gasp into their mask.


Another thing they didn't do was get on a soapbox. In other hands, this would be a movie about how we did this to ourselves. That it was our fault. The cautionary tales here are buried deeper in the story; for example, Beth and her lover both learn their lessons for infidelity (pretty sure they'll never do that again). And the reason for the virus? Well, that's more of an O. Henry moment, an unforeseeable freak chain of events. But again, we're never hit over the head with anything, so big subjects like 9/11, anti-vaccinationists, (okay, maybe that's not a word) and mad cow and bird flu (but I'm pretty sure that's a song by Cream) are all merely alluded to.

I learned a lot of things from CONTAGION. Like what an R0 (pronounced "R - naught") is and what Gwyneth Paltrow looks like when she's convulsing, but it never frightened me. Sure, it had some gnarly moments (not gonna spoil them for you), but the movie itself didn't throw a germ-scare into me. Even though I have a cold as I sit and write this. Even though I lost 2 months last summer (with 4 days in the hospital) trying to get rid of an ailment that seven doctors said "We don't know what you have." Even though "We don't always know" is exactly what the doctor says in the movie when Mitch asks what Beth had.

CONTAGION is a well made thriller that sucks you in and and has its way with you. These movies don't come around too often anymore, so I say make some popcorn, fire up the big screen, and settle in on the couch. Just don't expect Howie Mandel to watch it with you. Although I suppose you can say that about every movie you see.


We watched a few things, all from around 1984, off of an old VHS tape. First up, two ads, one for STARMAN ("Starts tomorrow!") and the other for Jonathan Demme's Talking Heads concert film STOP MAKING SENSE. Then, a SPINAL TAP-y Deep Purple video of the song PERFECT STRANGERS, where it seemed they were in a studio in the countryside and used its outdoor grounds for improvisational shots. Geez, if this is what these guys looked like in 1984, I'd hate to see them now. The BAND AID video for DO THEY KNOW IT'S CHRISTMAS was next. Sting, Duran Duran, U2, George Michael, Culture Club, and other (mostly UK) top acts were there. Bananarama looked scared shit and out of their depth, probably because they were. And I'm still, after all these years, troubled by the line Bono (Really? Two Bono sightings in one evening?) sings, referring to starving children - "Well tonight thank God it's them instead of you." That was over 27 years ago. We should have figured out this hunger thing by now.

joe franklin
Next was an episode of THE JOE FRANKLIN SHOW. I taped this because my boss was on it, pushing his video store's Thanksgiving Rent-A-Turkey bad movie promotion. He showed clips from lots of Ed Wood movies, largely unknown at the time. (Hey! How come no one told me Criswell is buried 4 miles from my house!) There was also an author, Doug Hornig, who had written a book called FOUL SHOT. Rounding out the panel, Pensacola City Manager Steve Gramm, who was the winner of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, where you had to write the worst opening line to a book. They compiled the winners and published a book of the entries. The contest is still run each year. So, three unknowns and Joe Franklin asking questions of them. A lot of people, especially in the Northeast, know who Joe is. If you don't, he's the guy that Billy Crystal used to parody on SNL ("Our sponsors Martin Paint! And Matzohs by Streit's!"). He also had a small, yet important part in THE ARISTOCRATS. And if you still don't know who he is, go YouTube-ing. You'll be happy you did.

Finally, a segment, perhaps from the show HOUR MAGAZINE, on the making of WHEN THE RAIN BEGINS TO FALL, a rock video duet featuring my favorite screen couple - Jermaine Jackson and Pia Zadora. Introduced by Cheryl Tiegs, this was a video directed by the late tyrant Bob Giraldi, a NYC commercial director who was hot as hell for helming BEAT IT. RAIN was 80s sparkle at its best. Taking place in the year 2000? Really?? If it took place in the year 20,000, let's face it, it looked like the 80s. Interviewed, Pia tells us that there's no heat or hot water in the hotel. She "had to rough it. I've been sleeping under my fur coat at night."

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