Contagion

Gwyneth Paltrow not feeling too good in Contation

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

23 February

 

 

Mass inoculation using the Salk vaccine, 1954

On this day in 1954, Jonas Salk started the first mass trial of his polio vaccine in Pittsburgh. At the time polio was killing more children in the USA than any other communicable disease and it seemed to be getting worse – there were 58,000 cases in the USA in 1952, of which just over 3,000 died and just over 21 thousand were left with some disability, including muscle weakness, paralysis. Salk’s approach differed from that of other researchers – he used a dead polio vaccine, rather than a live one. And though most scientists thought his approach was wrong, several deaths of children treated with a live vaccine gave him enough room to operate. The trial saw 1.8 million children vaccinated. Ten months later the results were announced, on the tenth anniversary of the death of President FD Roosevelt, who had died of complications caused by polio. The vaccine was declared safe and effective. Vaccination on a large scale started immediately. By 1957 the number of cases had fallen to 5,600. By 1964 it was 121. Polio has been considered eradicated in the US since 1979. Currently there are only three countries where polio is still endemic – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

 

 

 

Contagion (2011, dir: Steven Soderbergh)

Of Steven Soderbergh’s three human health jeopardy films – Erin Brockovich, Side Effects and Contagion (four, if we include the Spalding Gray monologue movie Gray’s Anatomy) – Contagion plays most purely to the health scares of recent years, Sars, bird flu, H1N1 and so on. It is an expert piece of scaremongering which demonstrates JUST HOW SERIOUSLY we need to take this threat by sacrificing a big star right off the bat. It’s Gwyneth Paltrow, and any film that kills off Gwynie in its opening moments is obviously going to have its audience, who will also be salivating gruesomely as we see a flap of skin from her skull being pulled over her eyes as an autopsy is carried out. This is about five/ten minutes in, so I’m not spoiling much, honestly. It’s all part of a highly procedural film which, starting with the sound of someone coughing before any visuals have arrived on the screen, tracks a deadly disease around the world. More than that, it tracks the social ramifications of the disease’s progress – mass panic, martial law, crazy alternative therapies, social breakdown, the hegemony of rumour. It’s a disaster movie without any asteroid or iceberg to drive it forward. Instead we get the gigantic breadth of human reaction – from Jennifer Ehle’s wonkish scientist trying to figure out a cure, to Jude Law’s evangelist making money out of bogus alternative therapies and spreading the idea that the disease is caused by government conspiracy. Soderbergh excels at procedurals – see Ocean’s 11 – and also at keeping a whole load of plot plates spinning, and he’s totally in his element here. Adding a quasi-documentary feel to his portrayal of globe-spanning events, he switches the action from Atlanta to London, to Hong Kong, to Casablanca and back, bathing everything in that clinical matt sheen he’s so good at. If you’re looking for a big heartfelt film with a Shelley Winters moment (Poseidon Adventure fans) then you will be disappointed. Contagion is a slightly pitiless drama with a brainiac quality that observes human beings as a scientist might observe a bacillus down a microscope. Which is appropriate. And it does, let’s face it, make a change.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • An alternative disaster movie
  • A big name cast including Matt Damon, Bryan Cranston, Marion Cotillard
  • An expert techno-thriller written by Bourne Ultimatum’s Scott Z Burns
  • Soderbergh’s beautiful clean cinematography (credited as Peter Andrews)

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Contagion – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

A Perfect Murder

Gwyneth Paltrow and Viggo Mortensen in A Perfect Murder

 

 

 

 

Andrew Davis has made something of a specialty of directing thrillers. He made Steven Seagal’s best film, Under Siege, and Chuck Norris’s best film too, Code of Silence. He’s also responsible for the breathless chase of The Fugitive and for this remake of Frederick Knott’s play Dial M for Murder, on which Hitchcock based his 1954 movie. The “perfect murder”, beloved of films of a certain vintage, now seems almost as dated a concept as that of the criminal mind. However Davis and adapter Patrick Smith Kelly squeeze a little more mileage out of it by playing up what you might call the Gordon Gecko aspects – cash and deceit. Which brings us to the cast – Michael Douglas plays the powerful husband of an heiress wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) who discovers she’s been having an affair with a fairly broke artist (Viggo Mortensen). What then follows includes a little bit of a murder and an awful lot of chicanery. We’re in the world of the fork-tongued dialogue, something Douglas is a proven talent at, and both Paltrow (here auditioning for the Grace Kelly memorial ice queen show) and Mortensen show they’re not bad at either. There’s no point pretending this isn’t a hugely stagy film. But it doesn’t seem to bother Davis, who realises that the “action” in this film comes entirely from the verbal jousting. The ending – it’s a bit thin – but by then the enjoyment has been had.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

A Perfect Murder – at Amazon

 

 

 

Shakespeare in Love

Gwyneth Paltrow in drag in Shakespeare in Love

 

 

Judi Dench won an Oscar for an eight-minute on-screen performance, which in her acceptance speech even she admitted was slightly pushing it, but her Elizabeth R was the icing on a very lavish cake that reminded a lot of people that there were other ways to do romantic comedy than the prevailing models – ie Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan doing it the adult Nora Ephron way or Freddie Prinze Jr/Julia Stiles doing the high school equivalent. On second viewing the richness is even more apparent, yet what’s also clear is that the romantic element is handled with a featherlight touch, as “blocked” Bill Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) gets all Romeo and Juliet with a heavily disguised Gwyneth Paltrow (then on her big run of success which included Emma, Sliding Doors and The Talented Mr Ripley). So you can either watch this as a charming if fairly bimbo-brained love story, or engage the mind and drink in the allusions and deliberate anachronisms dropped in by adapter Tom Stoppard. There’s also the fact of playful casting conceits (Ben Affleck pops up), counterpointing what is for the most part a heavy-hitting cast of British stage regulars. Worth every one of its seven Oscars.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Shakespeare in Love – at Amazon