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Flick Clique: October 9-15

Contagion (2011). A modern update on the all-star disaster epics of the ’70s, this is. We saw Contagion in the theater last week, and every time an audience member coughed (which was often), I got chills. Steven Soderbergh’s film chronicles what might happen if a lethal virus capable of knocking out 25% of the world’s population broke out. Some viewers were disappointed that it wasn’t an actioner like the trailer promised, but I found it effective the way the tension gently escalates as the virus goes from clusters of the sick to worldwide epidemic. The film begins with Gwyneth Paltrow’s business woman coming down with a bug on a return trip from Hong Kong. Coming home to husband Matt Damon, she gets sick and expires so quickly that it barely registers with Damon. Their child soon gets the virus and dies, then Damon is put under quarantine. Meanwhile, other lethal cases are spreading in Hong Kong. Lawrence Fishburn at the CDC sends Kate Winslet to investigate the rash of infections in Minneapolis (where Paltrow and Damon live), while World Heath Organization official Marion Cotillard is sent to Hong Kong. As the sickness spreads into a panic, a crusading blogger (Jude Law) investigates whether the virus was planted by the government, or worse (this film is not very nice to bloggers, natch). Excellent atmosphere and performances, especially from Winslet and Jennifer Ehle as a CDC doctor attempting to decipher the rapidly mutating virus. If anything, the film is pro-government but anti-regulation. It seems to have faith in the good characters like Damon and Winslet keeping things sane for the hysteric masses. The only negative thing I found was the Cotillard storyline, which seemed a bit tacked-on and routine. She’s excellent, however. I also loved the tense, minimalist synth-based score by Cliff Martinez.
Sadko (1953). Whatta trip — the 1953 adventure Sadko was a colorful retelling of the Sinbad story with a grandiose, distinctively Russian visual style. We saw the dubbed U.S. version, titled The Magic Voyage of Sinbad. The movie plods a lot, and the print we saw was muddy. Strange and surreal, it reminded me of the MST3K episode Jack Frost (as it turns out, Sinbad was also given the MST3K treatment). The film details bearded do-gooder Sinbad as he attempts to help the comrades in his small Russian village by catching magic fish and the like. He gathers a motley band of men as they journey to India to find an ethereal creature with the body of a hawk and the head of a woman. On the way back, Sinbad has a sojourn in Neptune’s underwater kingdom, when he is forced into marriage with Neptune’s beautiful daughter. Eventually they get back to Russia and all is well. This has potential to be a camp riot — and it is, in spots — but mostly it’s strange, with outsized acting and inconsistent pacing. It does have some gorgeous visuals to recommend it, however (those shots of the Phoenix woman in her cave are unforgettable). I’d love to see a restored version of the Russian original. Criterion, are you listening?
The Wolf Man (1941) and Dead of Night (1945). We spent most of last week on the road, going to various spots in Northern Arizona. It didn’t leave much time for movie viewing, but we did manage to check out some good vintage stuff when Turner Classic Movies (which I still miss!) had a 1940s horror film fest on October 10. Amazingly, I’ve never seen The Wolf Man. It’s a short, tight, excellent example of Hollywood studio craft of that era. I could carp at Lon Chaney Jr.’s vagueness as the title character, but he’s given great support by Claude Rains, Maria Ouspenskaya, Ralph Bellamy and Warren William (really?). Universal really knew how to conjure up atmosphere with smoke, gnarled trees and a few old Euro-style sets. The only quibble I have is that it’s too brisk, leaving the film with a rushed feeling. We stepped out for dinner during the next film, The Uninvited, but got back in time to catch all of the crack British anthology Dead of Night. This was quite an interesting film, with a bunch of mini-stories connected by the character of a nervous architect (Mervyn Jones) who is certain that he’s already met all the residents at a country estate that he innocently stumbles into. The stories themselves are hit or miss, but I enjoyed checking out the more muted, creepy-crawly tone set forth in this very British take on the haunted house genre. Among the better segments is one with Googie Withers as a lady who buys an antique mirror for husband Michael Cortland, which turns out to be haunted. Another good one has Sally Ann Howes as a Christmas party guest who discovers a crying child in the attic of a mysterious house. The most memorable sequence concerns a creepy ventriloquist played by Michael Redgrave — which is a funny coincidence, since I’m reviewing a documentary on ventriloquists for DVD Talk. Thank you, Best Western, for having TCM in the rooms!