According to official Haywire lore director Steven Soderbergh chanced upon the woman who would become the star of his breakneck action-thriller one night while watching television. Which isn’t entirely unusual except that Soderbergh wasn’t watching some obscure indie film or BBC miniseries but a bout of women’s mixed martial arts fighting. So impressed was he at the sight of Gina Carano an American Gladiators alum turned cage fighter that he had the Haywire script from The Limey writer Lem Dobbs reworked to accommodate her casting.
In the film a conventional spy-gone-rogue tale made unconventional by its director and star Carano plays Mallory Kane a black-ops freelancer who seeks vengeance against her betrayers upon being double-crossed. Watching her in action it’s easy to see why Soderbergh was so enamored. Carano is a physical marvel: strong and agile a skilled fighter and grappler with the face of a model and the shoulders of a linebacker. Having grown accustomed to waif-like action heroines played unconvincingly by the likes of Beckinsale Jovovich and Jolie it’s refreshing to witness an actress who can deliver a knockout blow – and take one – with some credulity.
And Carano kicks a staggering amount of ass in Haywire. In the film’s many fight scenes Soderbergh prefers wide angles and long takes the better to showcase his star’s talent for violence. There are no shaky-cam close-ups to cheat the action and the sound is almost strictly diegetic lending each of Carano’s brawls (and they are brawls messy and destructive) a brutal verisimilitude.
It’s when the action stops in Haywire that Carano’s deficiencies as an actress become apparent – she’s wooden and flat well beyond the requirements of her coldly efficient character – and so Soderbergh labors conspicuously to ensure it hardly ever does. When Mallory Kane isn’t fighting she’s running a fugitive agent scrambling to find out who engineered her downfall even as threats amass against her. Each lengthy pursuit is stylishly photographed from a variety of exotic angles (my favorite being an extended tracking shot of Carano facing the
camera in the center of the frame as if to say “Jesus would you look at her?”) Hitchcockian chase sequences to cleanse our palate in between the film's bloody skirmishes.
Carano’s dialogue is wisely kept spare her expressions limited exclusively to icy stares and Mona Lisa smiles. Most of the talking is done by her co-stars an impressive lot that includes Ewan McGregor as her boss and former lover Channing Tatum as a fellow freelancer and Michael Fassbender as a British agent with whom she partners on a dubious mission. All three eventually end up in combat with her and it’s hardly a spoiler to say they don’t fare well. Against a figure as formidable as Carano Obi-wan Kenobi G.I. Joe and Magneto don’t stand a chance.
Contagion a sharp thriller from writer/director/cinematographer/editor/do-all Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s 11 The Informant!) is like an adaptation of a Michael Crichton novel that never was. The movie quickly sets up its pawns in order to engage you in a game of pandemic chess where the terror comes from science and the humanity comes from your own empathy. Instead of relying on a sci-fi backstory outlandish deaths or large-scale set pieces Soderbergh lets the facts do the talking—and it's scary as hell.
Much like his Oscar-winning film Traffic Soderbergh unfolds the story by weaving in and out between a series of character perspectives: Matt Damon's Mitch who loses his wife to a mysterious virus and strives to protect the rest of his family; Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle members of the Center for Disease Control racing against the clock to find a cure; Kate Winslet's Erin a field agent tracking down the source of the American outbreak; Jude Law's Alan a high-profile blogger searching for the truth behind the disease; and Marion Cotillard's Dr. Orantes another agent hunting for Patient Zero in Hong Kong. While the drama spans globally each characters' quarrels are playing out in a claustrophobic scenario a world in which any person they meet any object they touch can infect them with the life-threatening disease.
Soderbergh doesn't have much time to dive into his characters' backstories but the film's screenwriter Scott Z. Burns carefully constructs each scene to deliver just the right balance of terrifying scientific babble and revealing personal drama. When the virus starts massacring the world population and vandalism riots and societal unrest emerge the thing that makes Contagion click is our interest in the personal stories. Damon as seems to be the case with everything he touches elevates the material being the perfect everyman and our surrogate for the too-plausible-for-comfort scenario. Fishburne too turns what's normally a plot-forwarding government agent role into a man dealing with the weight of his decisions watching citizens of the country drop like flies from his ivory tower. It's heavy stuff but Burns' playful dialogue helps the cast lighten the harrowing mood—only so the movie can pull the carpet from underneath you over and over again.
But in the end Contagion is Soderbergh's show. The director uses every ounce of cinematic artistry to leave us squirming in our seats with a fetishistic approach to shooting the most mundane of objects. The close-up is Soderbergh's weapon of choice honing in on common day objects that we realize are infested with germs (with the effect amplified by a thousand if you catch the movie in IMAX). A door handle a bathroom drier button the human face—Soderbergh lingers as a reminder of his invisible villain: the virus. That's a compliment: the design and photography is striking the purposefully pristine picture quality fills the characters' quest to stay healthy with tension. Composer Cliff Martinez's electronic score compliments the icky scenario germinating over the picture like audible infection. The world of the film is rich with detail. Just the icky kind.
Contagion isn't flawless. With so much going on things fall to the wayside—Cotillard's plotline specifically gets lost in the shuffle—but the reality keeps us engrossed. The movie plays like an oral history of a horrific event with each detail frighteningly exposed. Except in the case of Contagion it's not an event that has happened so much as one that could happen.
And at any moment.
December 03, 2002 10:14am EST
Psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is asked to investigate the strange behavior of a small group of scientists aboard a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. The expedition has stopped all communication with Earth and mission captain Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) has committed suicide. Once on board the space station Kelvin discovers two surviving crewmembers who are suffering from extreme stress and paranoia brought on by studying the planetary body. He learns that Solaris can create physical personifications known as "visitors " which are drawn from the crew's subconscious memories. For Kelvin a "visitor" comes in the form of his wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone) who committed suicide years earlier. Soon enough he finds himself in the same nutty predicament as the crew and becomes fixated on the possibility he can change the events that lead to Rheya's death. The film based on Stanislaw Lem's 1961 novel of the same name is not so much a sci-fi pic as it is a futuristic romance. It's a slow-building story that raises many questions without ever answering them including the planet's motives.
While Clooney delivers a soulful performance as the worrisome Chris Kelvin it might have been more interesting to establish his character without spelling out his past. Kelvin's wife Rheya is supposed to be a character so dark that flowers practically die when she walks into a room. While McElhone's portrayal of Rheya is not bad her morbidity comes more from the character's back story than the actress's performance; Rheya is suicidal and has an abortion hence she is a sinister being. Viola Davis plays Helen Gordon one of the two surviving crewmembers on the space station. Good performance but her character is too inconsistent. At the start of the film for example she is holed up in her quarters and refuses to come out. In the next scene however she divulges everything she knows to Kelvin in a very logical and calm manner. What happened to the paranoia the extreme stress? Jeremy Davies is the second crewmember Snow (perhaps aptly named because he seems almost as though he's actually on coke). Doing his best Crispin Glover Davies is the most irritating thing about the movie.
Solaris was first adapted as a feature film by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972 in a much longer and truer version of the book. Director/screenwriter Steven Soderbergh decided to delve deeper into Kelvin's relationship with his wife Rheya than necessary. Not a sci-fi director at heart Soderbergh whitewashes many of the book's technical details such as what constellation the space station is orbiting or anything pertinent about Solaris itself. He chooses instead to focus on Kelvin's troubled relationship with Rheya which is established through sappy flashbacks. But what goes on between the couple on the space station is much more compelling than their overly sentimentalized past. Because the new Rheya is created from Kelvin's mind her own memories are actually his; if he remembers they met on a train for example so will she. Eventually she begins to question her own existence and demands answers from Kelvin that he cannot provide. Soderbergh examines religious philosophical and spiritual issues in a not-so-subtle manner but leaves the film open to interpretation. Completely devoid of splashy special effects Soderbergh's Solaris is beautifully shot with a minimalist effect.