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Knight at the Movies: Contagion; Circumstance
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2011-09-07

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In the dark we hear a woman cough twice and the words "Day 2" appear on the screen in blood red letters. Then we see Gwyneth Paltrow as the woman coughing. She's sitting in a VIP lounge at O'Hare International Airport and looking feverish. The camera focuses on everything she's touching—peanuts in a crystal bowl in front of her, a credit card she hands to a bartender, her cell phone. On the soundtrack, threatening electronic music throbs, heightening the tension.

We're barely two minutes into director Steven Soderberg's riveting movie Contagion, which tracks the course of a deadly virus a la SARS or H1N1 as it quickly morphs into a worldwide pandemic. Already he's stripped the focus down to the basics and you're filled with dread and delight at what's about to happen.

We're off and running in what is essentially a modern-day version of the old Irwin Allen disaster flicks playing the game of "Who will Survive?" with a name cast, each of whom will try his or her hardest to make it across the finish line before fate catches him or her. The participants include Paltrow, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law and Demetri Martin, et al.

The difference between Allen's cheesy but beloved spectacles like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno (which were tense as hell upon release—I know, I was there) is that instead of a microcosm of humanity banding together in order to survive against the threat, disease-related movies separate folks—safety in numbers in the face of a virus is potentially deadly in such cases. So, within five minutes of screen time Paltrow—as the unexpected Patient Zero, a corporate executive from Minneapolis with a troubled marriage—has spread the virus with her incidental contact in Hong Kong to London, Tokyo, Chicago. Within 12 days, 8 million are infected.

Scott Z. Burns' script is methodical and ultrarealistic—we don't have the usual grandstanding, the heroic leader, the hooker with the heart of gold, the monologues about "what might have been" and how things will change once the disaster has passed. Oh, no. Soderbergh doesn't waste much time on these hoary old devices although the film—which feels as cool and lethal as the deadly killer itself—has plenty of heart and it's populated with recognizable characters rather than stereotypes. Burns' script gives us scientists, politicians and military personnel going about their jobs while doing their best to stay two steps ahead and quickly lagging behind.

It's a very unglamorous, almost clinical approach that makes the frightening intensity of the subject matter that much more effective. The real time approach is the antithesis of bland and there's not a wasted shot or moment in the film (which runs a crisp 100 minutes). The documentary style of the script, direction, and acting—all which simply want you to watch in horror this "so real it scares the hell out of you" scenario and grab the edge of your seat—is that much more effective because of Soderbergh's level headed approach. You're filled with terror from beginning to end and even when good news comes (and there is some), suspicion lingers and it's hard to believe in a world that operates on absolutes that any such thing exists.

The parallels to the AIDS virus are striking and brought back so many painful memories—time wasted as scientists squabbled over naming and discovery rights, the slow-as-molasses process involving drug trials, etc. Then, of course, there are the paranoia and ignorance that seem to infect the healthy, who, in turn, go after the very people who need them the most—those stricken with the virus. For AIDS, there was a quasi-happy ending that, while stemming the death toll, also had the side effect of slowing the urgency to find a cure and convincing a lot of people that dealing with AIDS would be a walk in the park. No. No. No. No.

There is a certainly lust inherent in actively watching disaster porn—of which this virus genre is a difficult-to-film subset (no way to show folks catching on fire, being tossed into pits as the earth opens up during earthquakes, etc.). Odorless, colorless, tasteless—but it's all the scarier because of its invisibility and the gigantic impact it can possibly wreak on humanity. By the time we reach another of those blood-red title cards, this one reading "Day 18"—a long time after Paltrow's character has died and passed the virus on to millions—pretty much everything we take for granted has broken down and splintered and humanity is shown resorting to primitive, survival instincts. No one becomes a zombie as in 28 Days Later but the trajectory in Contagion is about the same and 10 times more frightening because of its true-to-life, very probable scenario.

Best friends Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) are typical teenage girls from upper middle-class backgrounds who love testing the boundaries of their adolescence by indulging in all manner of typical teenage stuff that would horrify their families. However, it's not only their families that these two young women have to consider. In bisexual writer-director Maryam Keshavarz's Circumstance, set in Iran, with its Draconian rules for women (not to mention its incredibly harsh treatment of gays) the world that these two inhabit is filled with danger (and spy cameras), it seems, around every corner.

Keshavarz's feature, her first, is a moving but familiar coming-of-age story in which the gorgeous devil-may-care Shireen emboldens the emotionally timid Atafeh. It's enlivened by the additional complexities the ladies face as they try to carve out independence for themselves within their strict confines. However, it's first and foremost an emotionally dense lesbian love story—a love that not only dare not speak its name but one that is tested by, yes, incredibly trying circumstances.

Despite warnings from the state-run morality police and family members (Atafeh's brother, a reformed drug addict, turns to religion, becomes an informant for the morality police and has a yen for Shireen), Atafeh and Shireen continue to fearlessly test the limits of their cultural prison. Everywhere they go in public, the security cameras track them and it's no surprise to learn that the real lives of these characters are behind closed doors. At one point, they work on dubbing an illegal copy of Sex and the City and Gus Van Sant's Milk, which they plan to sell underground to eager buyers. The instigator of the project is a young gay activist whom the others assail because of his idealism. "Don't you want to change your circumstances?" he insists, but Atafeh and Shireen know better.

The only possible way for these young women to continue their love affair will be in secret or by escaping the country and its unrelenting conservatism. By the time Keshavarz's movie brings Atafeh and Shireen to this momentous point, Circumstance has achieved a level of poignancy that is deeply moving—all the more so because in making this bold lesbian love story, Keshavarz (who is Iranian-American) has had to make the choice in real life. She has admitted in several interviews that she will never be able to return to Iran. Both her film and real-life circumstances will resonate with mainstream and queer audiences alike—and no doubt, via the illegal underground, in Iran as well.

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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