I'm presuming, and hoping, that a bunch of you spent your weekend's cineplex allowances on Contagion, director Steven Soderbergh's bleak, elegant, deeply disturbing thriller about the planet's decimation by a new strain of flu-like virus. I'm also praying that none of you saw it while on a date, because I can barely imagine how awkward the drive home must've been. One cough or casual touch from your movie-going companion and you'd be frantically ransacking the car for hand sanitizer and a surgeon's mask.
In the film's devastating opening sequence, and in a later, surveillance-camera flashback, we watch as the disease's first victim - an American (Gwyneth Paltrow) on business in Hong Kong - unwittingly transmits the virus to residents of Japan, London, Chicago, and her native Minneapolis. Propelled by Cliff Martinez's subtly insistent score, these blandly horrific montages are masterworks of editing and composition, revealing how simply and unassumingly everyday objects such as cash machines and subway poles, when touched by carrier after carrier, can turn lethal. Yet the more penetrating nightmare of the movie, with its briskly efficient script by Scott Z. Burns, lies in how quickly everything goes to hell. (By the end of the first month in Contagion, 25 million people are dead.) With inspiring dramatic economy and absolute realism, Soderbergh visualizes the means by which fear, paranoia, misinformation, and public panic lead to worldwide chaos; the director's control is so assured that while you barely have time to catch your breath, you never feel the narrative rushing past you. And for a movie without a single "Boo!" shock effect, Contagion is sensationally scary. (It was intensely shrewd of Soderbergh and Burns to kill off Paltrow in the film's first 10 minutes, and another major star in the first 40; if they're not safe, no one is.)
A few detours here feel somewhat underdeveloped, such as the one involving the kidnapping of a World Health Organization doctor (Marion Cotillard, blessedly), and the film's barely veiled attacks on the blogosphere - personified by a snaggle-toothed, charmless Jude Law - come thisclose to ruinously heavy-handed. But Contagion is still a strong, serious, exceptionally well-crafted freak-out, with wonderfully effective turns by Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, John Hawkes, and (nabbing best-in-show honors) Jennifer Ehle, and enough chilling, haunting imagery for a year's worth of fright films. You think a big-city highway or metropolitan-airport terminal packed with grumpy travelers is off-putting? Try a big-city highway or metropolitan-airport terminal with no travelers at all.
Is there a Guinness record for the world's longest cliché? Because at 140 minutes, I think director/co-writer Gavin O'Connor's Warrior has the title in the bag.
An inspirational sports drama that finds two estranged brothers - Joel Edgerton's former UFC contender (and current physics teacher) Brendan and Tom Hardy's Iraq-war vet Tommy - going head-to-head at the world's mixed-martial-arts championship, this is a movie that never met a hackneyed character or plot device it didn't like. You've got your financially strapped siblings and the secrets from their pasts, and the brothers' overbearing, Irish-American pop (Nick Nolte), now seeking reconciliation after years of drunken abuse. You've got your training montages and preliminary bouts, and your behemoth-sized - and Russian! - bad-ass gearing up to clean the boys' clocks. You've got your eccentric-yet-sensible trainers and enthusiastic support groups cheering from the sidelines, and your put-upon wife (Jennifer Morrison) who gives the speech telling hubby that if he fights again, she won't be there to watch. (In the history of movies, has any spouse actually carried out this threat?) And, of course, you've got your climactic battle royale. The confluence of events leading to Brendan and Tommy squaring off in the ring - without the public being aware of their familial relationship - is almost believable, yet are we really expected to buy that, while pummeling the crap out of each other, they're also engaging in conversation?
I'm here to tell you that absolutely none of this matters; Warrior is a gloriously shameless audience-pleaser, and as spectacularly powerful and affecting as any of the countless Rocky wannabes over the years - including O'Connor's 2004 Miracle - has ever been. Their material may be shopworn, but the soulful and intimidatingly brawny Edgerton and Hardy deliver beautifully specific, layered portrayals, and Nolte - with that raspy growl that makes you shudder and giggle in equal measure - is fearless and heartbreaking; small though the role is, it features some of the finest, most emotionally naked work of the actor's career. The three men feel like (long-separated) family, and O'Connor delicately ensures that every figure and exchange in Warrior matches their levels of sincerity and truthfulness. Warrior is designed to get you cheering and weeping, and you likely will. (In one of its few breaks from genre tradition, the film leaves you rooting for both competitors to emerge victorious.) But beyond its viscerally exhilarating fight sequences, O'Connor's latest, in a joyous surprise, is just as exhilarating dramatically. It's a knockout. It packs a huge punch. It's a total kick. And look who's being a cliché now.