Friday, September 09, 2011

My coverage of "Contagion"

A movie that will make you jump for cover
By Raymond de Asis Lo, L.A. Correspondent (The Philippine Star) Updated September 10, 2011 12:00 AM Comments (0) View comments

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Contagion director Steven Soderbergh (right) with Matt Damon, who’s part of the film’s powerhouse ensemble cast.
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MANILA, Philippines - Midway through the press screening of Warner Bros.’ new movie Contagion, Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh’s taut and intense thriller about an unknown virus that’s spiraling out of control, the lady sitting next to me suddenly coughed and my instant reaction was rather embarrassing: I nearly jumped in surprise then I cautiously moved away from her afterwards.

Such was the power of Contagion that moviegoers are definitely going to step out of the cinemas more aware of how diseases are formed and how quickly and easily they can be transmitted — and the only hope of the filmmakers is that people don’t react in the way that this writer reacted.

“There was a responsibility in taking a subject matter like this — to do it realistically,” Steven said during the Los Angeles junket for the movie last week. The director indicated that what he hoped to achieve was for moviegoers to not just gain awareness of the possibilities of another global pandemic (similar to the havoc brought by SARS several years ago and H1N1 a couple of years ago) but be mindful of how to react responsibly and rationally should a scenario similar to what was depicted in the movie occurs in real-life. “If all you get out of it was that, when this happens, you don’t immediately panic; that you count to 11 before you do something stupid, then that would be great.”

“I was aware of the difference between a subject matter like this and something like Traffic,” he added, referring to his landmark film on illegal drugs that won four Oscars in 2000. And he wants to set off the same conversation on the potential threats of diseases in Contagion that Traffic did on drugs. “When you start talking about drugs, there’s an immediate political aspect to it because some people have very strong feelings about drugs in both directions. So right out of the gate, you are polarizing the audience potentially.”

The film stars Oscar Best Actress winners, including Gwyneth Paltrow
But just because the movie is about a deadly virus, it doesn’t mean that the movie lacks the social and political commentary that Steven regularly hints in his movies. “You can avoid drugs but you can’t avoid germs,” he quipped when asked about it. “There was certainly an idea at the back of our minds that this movie could do for elevator buttons what Jaws did for the beach.”

If you find yourself not immediately shaking hands with other people after seeing the movie, then the movie did its part — but moviegoers need to remind themselves that events presented in the movie, though based on intensive research, constitute one big “what if” scenario — a plausible scenario, that is.

Contagion begins with a seemingly routine medical situation: An international traveler, exhibiting flu-like symptoms, reaches into a snack bowl at an airport. She hands her credit card to a waiter before boarding her plane. She gets home, signs something then hands the pen to her chauffeur, and she dies the next day. Soon, others start to exhibit the same mysterious symptoms then, like her, they all quickly die.

The origin of the outbreak is so simple that it will be totally understandable for people to really get scared — and be a little bit paranoid. Matt Damon, who portrays one of the central characters in the movie, shared that when he received a copy of the script, there was a note attached to it that read: “Read this and then go wash your hands.”

But Matt, who lives in New York City with his family, said that being exposed to germs is not entirely a bad thing. “Definitely, we do a lot of hand washing. When kids come back from the park we wash our hands but on a day-to-day basis, germs is a good thing and I want my kids to build their immunity.” The actor, whose head was completely bald during our interview, portrays a man whose wife and son fall victim to the disease.

In addition to Matt, the director also tapped an array of award-winning actors and actresses to portray essential characters in the movie. The stellar cast includes Oscar Best Actress winners Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard. Oscar nominees Laurence Fishburne and Jude Law are also in the cast together with Emmy-winner Bryan Cranston and Tony-winner Jennifer Ehle who was still reeling from excitement at being in the same movie with such a formidable ensemble of Hollywood superstars.

“It was amazing!” the British actress exclaimed. She revealed that she was so honored to be in the movie only to be cut short by Matt who teasingly added, “You are honored to be in a movie with me, I know, I know.” Matt’s unexpected attempt at humor was met with laughter in the room.

“I was so honored to be asked to be a part of it,” Jennifer continued after recovering from Matt’s playful antic. “I assumed that she (her character in the movie) would be cut because people are usually not fascinated with the science in the movie and I also assumed that there would be no time for the story of somebody who wasn’t one of the stellar members of the cast,” she humbly stated.

Jennifer most recently appeared in last year’s Oscar Best Picture winner The King’s Speech. She’s a two-time Tony winner and was a BAFTA award recipient for her performance as Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice. She portrays one of the crucial epidemiology experts in Contagion.

Matt’s jokes and Jennifer’s earnestness are what saved the 40-minute cast interview from turning into a monotonous Q&A on the specifics of the disease highlighted in the movie, the relationship of the movie to real events that took place in Mexico during last year’s H1N1 scare, and whether the cast had altered anything in the way they interact with people after doing this movie.

Oscar-nominee Laurence Fishburne, who was also at the junket, disclosed that he didn’t do anything different after doing the movie. “I’d take a flu shot but other than that, I am not really that much different from most people who’d go and say, ‘Oh yeah, there’s something going around? I hope I don’t get it.’”

Matt, Jennifer and Laurence were the only cast members present at the junket but the bigger celebrity at the event was the film’s director, Steven, who is considered as one of the finest American directors working today.
Sometime last year, reports surfaced that Steven was retiring from making movies and the source of the story was no less than Matt himself. Interestingly, that story spread just like a contagious disease and left many film fans disappointed. At the junket, Matt and Steven decided to set the record straight: Both were drunk when said quote was uttered.

“You know, I was really drunk and so was Matt and I thought that there’s this sort of tacit agreement that exists in most advanced societies that, when you are both drunk, your conversation won’t be in USA Today,” Steven lightheartedly explained how the erroneous story started. “Clearly, Matt didn’t share that philosophy and is about as discreet as a 14-year-old girl.”

Matt, all red, but still laughing very hard, responded by saying, “Yeah, yeah, perhaps I shouldn’t have been so liberal with my spreading of that information.” He also added that he now ”acknowledge that things said in that state will be kept in confidence in the future.”

Contagion, hailed by many critics as one of the best movies of the year, is now showing in theaters nationwide.

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