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Mental Ward Thriller “Unsane” Is So Tense, Our Critic Wanted to Flee the Theater

Steven Soderbergh petitioned the Directors Guild of America to let him make his new low-budget, high-concept stalker thriller Unsane under a pseudonym, and I can imagine why. The pulpy thriller is shot on an iPhone, but not in the way Sean Baker’s bright and funny Tangerine was, where the director did everything he could to minimize that fisheye iPhone look. Instead, Soderbergh embraces the technology and its limitations, giving us flat compositions and the sense that his camera is surveilling the characters rather than carefully photographing them.

That’s thematically appropriate. The film tells the story of a terrorized woman in a mental hospital who’s trying to convince the staff and patients that she shouldn’t be there and is being held against her will. Her phone has been taken from her, and the movie has the look of having been smuggled out itself. Simple and well acted, Unsane has tension enough to knot the stomach. But it’s wildly different from Soderbergh’s previous film, the star-studded and critically acclaimed country caper Logan Lucky, which was set in a cartoonishly jubilant reality. Unsane comes closer to the spirit of his first feature, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, not in subject matter or genre but in experimentation of form. And it’s totally possible that critics and audiences wouldn’t know what to think about that — shouldn’t a director be expanding on his oeuvre, not going backward?

In Sex, Soderbergh experimented with video and the distance that medium created between audience and character. Here, he’s eliminating distance almost completely, as Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) appears on the screen like any of your FaceTime contacts might. And while the director obsessively employed tracking shots in Sex, he’s patient with static shots in Unsane, allowing the blocking of his actors’ movements to create dynamism. It’s not necessarily with the kind of careful choreography of a Steven Spielberg take, but with a kinetic energy that had me questioning how and where the characters would go next, as I might in a tense stage play.

We first see Sawyer in a cookie-cutter cubicle office, backtalking to a banking client for being stupid. She doesn’t roll her eyes at her coworkers; she drills through them with a stare. Just a few minutes in, Soderbergh sets up Sawyer as an unreliable narrator, as she eats her lunch alone outside, telling her mom, Angela (Amy Irving), that she’s made tons of friends in this new town, and absolutely loves her job. Not a bit of this is true. Sawyer takes a guy home from a bar but then has a sudden, visceral, violent reaction to him being in her apartment; concerned, she looks up therapy clinics and sets off on her lunch hour the next day for her first session. Unbeknown to Sawyer, a 24-hour commitment form has been included in all the boilerplate paperwork she signs, and she soon gets carted off to spend the night in a ward with a group of other patients, some of whom seem perfectly well-adjusted, like Nate (Jay Pharoah). Sawyer can get through a bumpy 24 hours inside, but then she believes that she sees, working as an orderly, her stalker, David (Joshua Leonard), who’d driven her from multiple homes and jobs. She loses it, and the hospital has reason to keep her in the tank for another seven days. Or until her insurance runs out.

The tagline for this film — “Is she or isn’t she?” — refers to whether Sawyer is imagining her stalker, but the script, penned by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, isn’t clever enough to keep us really guessing. That guessing game is well-trodden fare anyway, and Unsane’s strengths lie in the how, not the what. When Angela comes to rescue Sawyer from the hospital’s clutches, for instance, I sat forward in my seat, wondering how the writers would manipulate Angela into returning home empty-handed without her daughter. What I got was a seemingly pragmatic, and convincingly frustrating, interaction between Angela and the hospital administrator, with the admin employing the kinds of terrifying language anyone, including Angela, fears and wants to run from: “litigation,” “reputation.” The story may seem outlandish, but Bernstein and Greer ground it in real life, so the horror is both bureaucratic (from the hospital) and psychopathic (from the stalker).

The best thing I can say about Unsane is that I wanted to get away from it, just pack up my notepad and walk out of the screening room, because it made me that uncomfortable. Like Sawyer, I felt trapped, which last happened to me at the movies during Karyn Kusama’s cult horror film The Invitation. Perhaps more scary genre films should swing their pendulums back toward the hyper-real and away from the stylized escapism of something like The Conjuring franchise?

Costume designer Susan Lyall dresses Foy and the other actors in believably style-less mall clothing. And if Lisa Forst weren’t listed as makeup department head and JT Franchuk as hair department head, it would seem entirely plausible that each actor simply did their own, using drugstore products — though Juno Temple definitely went elsewhere to get her long, blonde cornrows for Violet, an aggressive, shiv-carrying patient. All of this is a compliment to the crew members, who are tasked with the job of recreating reality, not beauty.

With both Unsane and his choose-your-own-adventure series Mosaic on HBO and online, it’s exciting to watch what Soderbergh does next, even if the stories aren’t as groundbreaking as their forms.

Unsane
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Fingerprint Releasing/Bleecker Street
Opens March 23

 

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On Both Page and Screen, Polish Master Stanislaw Lem Makes You Question Reality

Like a lot of kids, I was hipped to Stanislaw Lem, the Polish master of genre fiction, by a bespectacled, pony-tailed fellow-traveler among the self-segregated literary geeks who congregated at one end of my high school’s third floor By then, I was already heavy into Neuromancer and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Dune, but reading Stanislaw Lem for the first time was like discovering a secret treasure chest hoarding everything I loved. Here was where Terry Gilliam got the mixture of laughter and terror that makes Brazil so vital; here was Philip K. Dick’s paranoia stripped of its psychedelic wallpaper and painted over with a droll half-smile. Whether reading about The Cyberiad’s Trurl and Klapaucius, hapless robot inventors traveling the universe solving problems that they usually had caused in the first place, or Eden, in which a Star Trek–like interstellar mission discovers a planet with a domineering and invisible totalitarian government, each successive Lem work felt like it was expanding the idea of the possible.

Lem is probably best known in the United States for his novel Solaris, which inspired films of the same name by directors on the order of Andrei Tarkovsky and Steven Soderbergh. Had he only done that, dayenu, but Lem’s dozens of novels and short stories have proven massively influential — an influence that’s now on full view at “Stanisław Lem on Film,” a series of screen adaptations of the author’s work running through November 11 at Anthology.

Although known first and foremost as a science-fiction writer, Lem dabbled in a variety of modes: horror, detective procedurals, semi-autobiographical realism. But there are certain hallmarks that recur throughout his novels and the films inspired by them. In a typical Lem story, an everyman confronts the limits of rationality and empiricism, whether he’s butting heads with a scheming artificial intelligence, a faceless bureaucracy, or a truly alien being. Through these close encounters, Lem asks confounding — and often hilarious — questions about the nature of intelligence, humanity, and the self.

The premise of Solaris, for instance, is explosively personal: The characters, scientists seeking — and failing — to understand a planet covered in a mysterious sentient ocean of goo, are visited by avatars of people they’ve wronged in the past. The visitations appear to be the planet’s method of communicating with the scientists, but what is being communicated, and why, is never determined. The avatars, formed out of the memories of the scientists, don’t know they aren’t real, and don’t understand the hostility and fear they’ve provoked. Just as Solaris the planet presents each of the visitors with a different companion, Solaris the novel presents each reader with a different facet of itself. Is it a horror novel? A philosophical treatise? An autopsy of grief, regret, and obsession? A slamming-door farce of scientific bumbling? It’s somehow all of these, and more.

It’s no surprise, then, that the three feature-length adaptations of Solaris presented in “Stanisław Lem on Film” are so thoroughly distinct from one another. If you’re a Solaris completist, you’ll want to check out the earliest and most faithful of the trio, Lidiya Ishimbaeva and Boris Nirenburg’s Solyaris (1968), which is rarely screened in the United States. A television movie originally produced by Soviet Central Television, Solyaris adapts the novel like a filmed play, giving us a series of extended two- and three-person scenes as the crew of the Prometheus tries to understand what is happening to them. Andrei Tarkovsky’s legendary 1972 version takes the opposite strategy, using nonlinear storytelling, inventive visuals, and mysterious longueurs that ache with meaning (or, if you’re one of its detractors, lull you to sleep). Either way, on the big screen it is an experience one submits to, rather than a film one watches. Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002), the best of the three, balances the sense of sci-fi mystery with a humane and affecting examination of survivor’s guilt. Despite its outerspace setting, Solaris feels like one of Soderbergh’s most personal films. Anchored by one of George Clooney’s best performances, it also features a then-underappreciated Viola Davis and a manic Jeremy Davies, who adds some much-needed humor to the proceedings.

A sense of humor is what’s missing from the series’ biggest disappointment, Ari Folman’s The Congress (2013), an adaptation of Lem’s greatest novel, The Futurological Congress (1971). The novel is Lem’s take on Candide, a wild, mordantly satiric romp through a fauxtopian future where every problem has been solved by psychopharmacology and the government drops “Love Thy Neighbor” bombs that disperse mind-altering, romance-inspiring chemicals on dissidents. Folman’s film takes some of the basic world-building of Lem’s novel and bogs it down with meditations on the nature of celebrity and a nearly incoherent tragic plotline starring Robin Wright as a fictionalized — and eventually animated — version of herself. Despite a recurring visual motif showing a box kite hovering in the air, The Congress remains resolutely earthbound. As an adaptation, it’s the worst of both worlds: incomprehensible if you haven’t read the book, but deeply unsatisfying if you have.

The set-up for “Roly Poly,” for which Lem wrote the screenplay, suggests “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”

Humor, after all, is Lem’s secret weapon. There’s a delightful haplessness to his characters: They’re often very normal people trying to make sense out of the absurd and menacing worlds into which they’ve been thrust, and through them, Lem slyly suggests all the ways we’ve made unquestioning peace with our own absurd and menacing lives. Take Andrzej Wajda’s daffy short film Roly Poly (1968), for which Lem wrote the screenplay. Roly Poly explores the basic philosophical question of what makes us who we are through a set-up straight out of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In it, brothers Richard and Thomas Fox are rally car drivers, but when an accident leaves Thomas dead and Richard in possession of nearly half of his brother’s organs, their family lawyer finds himself in a madcap world of piecemeal people and soul transference. The brothers’ life insurance company refuses to pay out, ruling that Thomas is 48 percent alive. Richard, hard up for cash, keeps entering races, crashing into crowds of people, and receiving the organs of his victims until he becomes equal parts man, woman, and dog, with the personalities of all three.

Anchored by a delightful comic turn from Bogumil Kobiela as Richard, and propelled by a jaunty space-jazz score, Roly Poly is reason enough to check out the “Shorts Program” (on November 11). It’s paired with two films by Marek Nowicki and Jerzy Stawicki featuring Piotr Kurowski as Ijon Tichy. Ijon, who narrates many of Lem’s stories and novels, is a Lem hero in a nutshell: a straightforward, optimistic, accident-prone scientist who can’t help but find himself in situations as bemusing as they are dangerous. You can watch him run afoul of a mad scientist in Professor Zazul (1962), and a malevolent artificial intelligence in The Friend (1965). The somewhat-dated look of midcentury black-and-white sci-fi in those films is a perfect match for Lem, who didn’t transcend genre so much as revel in it. At its best, Lem’s fiction, and the films in this series, use the familiar mechanics and disarming goofiness of genre storytelling to leave us feeling like his protagonists: seeing the world, and the limits of our understanding of it, in a whole new way.

“Stanisław Lem on Film”
Anthology Film Archives
Through November 11

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Sip on a Singani Sour, Infused With Bolivian Spirit

Sometimes, it takes a little outside-the-bar thinking to bring an under-the-radar spirit to life. For filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, that spirit happened to be Bolivia’s beloved singani. What started with a sip has now become a mission to enlighten Americans about this undiscovered nectar of the Andes.

Soderbergh, a self-described former vodka drinker, was in Bolivia filming Che when he first came across the spirit, whose origins trace back to the 1500s. After ingratiating himself with the local community and getting a better understanding of the product’s distillation process, Soderbergh decided that a movie starring Benicio Del Toro wasn’t the only thing he wanted to bring back through customs.

“I just keep going back to the fact that I really liked it,” Soderbergh tells the Voice. “All these people around me that I think have literally good taste really liked it.” After purchasing the international distribution rights and renaming the product Singani 63 (to honor his birth year), Soderbergh began the arduous process of getting his product in the hands of a new type of critic: New York bartenders.

Although the spirit has a long history in Bolivia, its global presence outside of its home nation was pretty much nonexistent. So Soderbergh followed his instincts and and did what any good brand ambassador would do: He got the movers and shakers of the cocktail world to taste the product. One such person? Bodega Negra’s (355 West 16th Street, 212-229-2336) beverage director Drew Sweeney, who recognized that Singani 63 was completely different from other familiar South American spirits.

“It really does have a very unique flavor profile and bouquet. It speaks for a place a little more than the things that I’ve tried,” Sweeney says. “I wouldn’t really compare it to a brandy or a pisco.”

The spirit is distilled from grapes, and that flavor is one of the drink’s main characteristics. Deciding to let the unique spirit’s taste shine (instead of masking it with heavy juices), Sweeney turned to a classic sour recipe that would allow the singani to make an impact. Sweeney also muddled grapes to reinforce the notes created through the distillation process.

“For vodka drinkers, it’s an easy transition. It’s a clear spirit; it’s not overwhelming” notes Sweeney. “With this singani, it’s still subtle, a lot more complex.”

As for the challenges of Soderbergh’s newfound career, the highs and lows of the spirits industry have only made him more enthusiastic about his product’s potential: “Nobody solved anything ever in the history of this planet by panicking, so just keep going.”

For those of us who just want to quench our thirst, the recipe for Sweeney’s Singani Sour is right here.

Singani Sour by Drew Sweeney of Bodega Negra

2 oz. Singani 63
.75 oz. fresh lemon juice
A handful of grapes
.75 oz. simple syrup
1 egg white
2 dashes of angostura bitters

Muddle grapes in a glass. Add all ingredients, including grapes, into a shaker sans ice and shake vigorously. Add ice, shake again. Strain mix into a glass. Top with bitters and grapes for garnish.

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Scott Z. Burns and Steven Soderbergh Team Up For Post-Colombine Psychological Mystery The Library

Audiences today need little urging to accept age- and color-blind casting on the stage, but Steven Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns’s life-in-the-aftermath drama The Library perhaps pushes viewers to accept one thing too much: poise-blind casting.

Big-screen ass-kicker Chloë Grace Moretz, who proved indisputably together even before her prom makeover in that new Hollywood Carrie, here stars as a high school sophomore shattered in every way that she can be by one of those school shootings so common in America that whatever most recent one I’m thinking of while writing will almost certainly be superseded by another by the time you’re reading this. Moretz’s Caitlin witnessed the murder of her best friend and several other students in the school library at the hands of the kind of furious, frustrated, neglected young man who perpetrates such atrocities. Though shot, Caitlin survives, just not in a life resembling her old one. A schoolmate (Daryl Sabara, believably Christ-driven) has told the cops and the press that Caitlin gave up her peers when the shooter asked where other students were hiding, which led to the deaths of several more kids. The community compares her example (an act “of fear”) with that of the young woman who is said to have led students in prayer as the bullets rained down (an act “of faith”).

Of course, Caitlin, questioned by the cops and her parents, insists that she didn’t tip the killer off and that the snitch actually had been the prayer-leader, whose mom (Lili Taylor) was already pursuing a book deal. But the details of her story shift, and she doesn’t sail through the polygraph, and suddenly her mother is mentioning magazine articles about false memories.

The trick, though: In this slippery drama of truth and trauma, Moretz’s striking Caitlin is preternaturally confident, a sparkling young woman with an almost regal bearing even when slumped in a sling and hoodie as detectives quiz her. The Caitlin we see never squares with the squirrelly, confused, not-quite-popular girl who admits under questioning that nobody asked her to homecoming — or who would be accused by her classmates of complicity. Also never clear is whether she ever doubts her own story or, until the climactic revelations, how much we should credit it.

Rich with the reportorial detail that has distinguished the author’s previous collaborations with director Soderbergh, including the films Side Effects and Contagion, Burns’s script honors the procedures of a crime’s aftermath more than it does the emotions of the participants. The best scenes concern Caitlin and family, considering a financial windfall to come if she admits to tipping off the killer.

Of the adult performers, the redoubtable Taylor is the standout as a mother whose grief, agitated by showy religiosity, pearls up into a monstrous — yet always calm — self-righteousness. The show benefits from the sleek, antiseptic look Soderbergh has applied to much of his filmwork. All white at first, the lightbox of a set resembles the inside of a spic-and-span microwave oven; Soderbergh and lighting designer David Lander do exquisite work with silhouettes and spots, the latter of which seem to radiate up and out of the troubled souls onstage rather than from some guiding hand above.

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LITTLE LIES

Taking on gun violence in schools, Scott Z. Burns’s new drama, The Library, concerns a girl who struggles to explain what she saw during a deadly shooting at her high school. Said Burns in a release: “I wanted to write a play about the stories we tell each other in the face of calamity — the pretty lies and the brutal truths.” Steven Soderbergh, who has directed Burns’s screenplays for The Bourne Ultimatum, Contagion, and The Informant!, among others, directs a stellar cast that includes Chloë Grace Moretz and Lili Taylor.

Tuesdays-Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays, Sundays, 2 p.m. Starts: March 25. Continues through April 27, 2014

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Side Effects May Induce Queasy Pleasure Well Worth Risking

If Side Effects, an immensely pleasurable thriller centering around psychotropic drugs, really is Steven Soderbergh’s final big-screen film, as the director claims it will be, then he has peaked in the Valley of the Dolls.

Scripted by Scott Z. Burns, who also wrote the screenplay for Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011), Side Effects shares, at least at first, the earlier movie’s icy fury over the corruption of the medical profession. Psychiatrists dispense SSRIs and SNRIs like Pez candies and are wooed by Big Pharma reps over lunch at Le Cirque. Yet when this initially pointed critique of our quick-fix, highly medicated era becomes, in its final third, a twisty genre exercise—filled with double-crosses, blouses ripped in the heat of passion, and hidden microphones—it doesn’t lessen the movie’s punch. Side Effects is not, in the words of one uncharitable viewer I overheard after a press screening, “a Lifetime movie.” This plot-packed last act further highlights our venal age and is performed by actors who, as in the best of Soderbergh’s films, revel in playing characters that, even in their villainy and hypocrisy, are never cartoonish.

See Also: Steven Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burn on Side Effects, Their Latest Collaboration

Side Effects begins with the scene of a crime: a trail of blood on the hardwood floors of a modest Manhattan apartment. The film then cuts to three months earlier as 28-year-old Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) applies lipstick the same sanguine hue as the gore in the prologue. Skeletal, morose, and vacant-eyed, she is prettying herself up for a prison visit with her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), who is nearing the end of a four-year sentence for insider trading. Yet Martin’s release, rather than revitalizing her, seems to send Emily into deeper despair. A suicide attempt lands her in the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), an overextended shrink who supplements his income from his upscale midtown private practice with hospital work and pharmaceutical consulting, all to keep his family in Soho-loft luxury.

Prone to uttering mental-health platitudes—SSRIs, Banks explains to Emily, “help stop telling the brain you’re sad”—the clinician soon learns more about his patient’s history after meeting with her previous therapist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). “I think seeing a man will help her,” conjectures this steely shrink, her hair arranged into a severe middle part and perfectly shellacked bun. Those words will have special piquancy in one of the Side Effects‘ sweaty closing scenes, typifying Burns’s skill at exposing the banalities that dominate popular mental-health discourse. (Another spot-on example: Siebert’s practice in Greenwich, Connecticut, is called the Village Wellness Center.)

As Bates puts Emily on one med after another, each with deleterious results—nausea, no libido, anxiety—he finally prescribes Ablixa, the only fictitious pill in a movie that name-checks a pharmacy’s worth of real ones. (Its subway ads broadcast the sunny imperative “Take Back Tomorrow”—words that also greet those who log on to the real website created for this fake drug, tryablixa.com.) Emily’s depression seems to be lifting under this drug, though soon one of its unintended effects—episodes of “acute parasomnia”—leads her to commit a very gruesome sleep crime.

“If she goes away, it makes the whole system look bad,” one of Emily’s lawyers tells Banks as the film transitions from psych critique to procedural. Like Contagion and Magic Mike, Soderbergh’s funky, for-adults movie about the flesh trade and the great recession, Side Effects points out, but never didactically, just how broken our systems have become, whether medical, governmental, or economic. The meds that everyone seems to be gobbling—from Emily’s boss at the boutique graphic-design firm where she works (“I had better luck with Celexa”) to Banks himself, who demands that a colleague write him a prescription for Adderall—may alleviate psychological ailments of varying severity, if only temporarily. But this mood-altered reality, Side Effects sharply suggests, can lead only to a further detached, numbed citizenry, all too willing, as the film later shows, to renounce responsibility, to think of themselves as the “victim[s] of circumstance and biology.”

Doing typical triple-duty as both editor and cinematographer (using pseudonyms for each title), Soderbergh expertly shoots this narcotic haze differently depending on location: The posher Manhattan spots, populated by those who go running for mother’s little helper, are filtered through flattening golds and ambers; emergency rooms and the massive psychiatric center on Wards Island, in the East River, are imbued with sickly greens and grays.

Color palette isn’t the only indicator of class consciousness. “You can go back to talking to rich white people about their problems,” Siebert hisses at Banks as the plot strands begin to braid, unravel, then plait again. The insult is a bit rich coming from a shrink who’s set up shop in a town teeming with hedge-fund managers. But this scene between Zeta-Jones, perfect in her third film with Soderbergh, and Law, even better here than he was as the fear-mongering blogger in Contagion, reminds us what we’ll really be missing if Soderbergh never makes another film: someone to diagnose our national malaise as coolly and seductively as he has.

See Also: Steven Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burn on Side Effects, Their Latest Collaboration

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Steven Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burn on Side Effects, Their Latest Collaboration

“I’ve been lucky in that I’ve always worked with writers whose voices are so specific that there really isn’t any way to recalibrate things without them being intimately involved,” says Steven Soderbergh as he swivels in a chair in the happily cluttered Flatiron district loft space that doubles as his office and painting studio. On this particular morning, one of those writers, Scott Z. Burns, is seated to Soderbergh’s left, ready to join in the discussion of Side Effects, the devilish thriller that marks Burns’s third collaboration with the director, following the corporate whistle-blower farce The Informant! (2009) and the all-star virus drama Contagion (2011), in which prominent billing was no guarantee of any cast member’s survival. It is also the film Soderbergh has announced will be his last for the big screen, as he embarks on his “retirement,” which is really just a shifting of creative gears (into painting, theater, and possibly long-form television).

In Side Effects, a tattoo-free Rooney Mara plays Emily Taylor, a young bride whose joy over the imminent parole of her insider-trading husband (Channing Tatum) is offset by the return of her crippling clinical depression. Enter a shrink (Jude Law) who takes Emily as a patient, setting into motion one of the more deliciously knotty series of twists this side of Body Heat. Inspired by research Burns did at Bellevue while working as a writer on the short-lived ABC series Wonderland, as well as by his love of classic film noirs like Double Indemnity, the script was originally intended to be Burns’s own feature directing debut (following the HBO film Pu-239). It passed into Soderbergh’s hands after another planned Burns/Soderbergh project—the long-gestating film version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.—got nixed by the studio at the eleventh hour. And like their previous films together, this one was a true creative partnership, in which Burns remained a key part of the filmmaking process long after he had finished the script.

THE VILLAGE VOICE: So, you’re on set every day during the shooting?

SCOTT Z. BURNS: Yes.

STEVEN SODERBERGH: And he sees every cut, every iteration, any idea that I have. And he’s always got his own ideas. The problem becomes when you have somebody on set who’s basically functioning as a security force to protect every little thing they wrote. That’s a problem, because when stuff’s in front of you, you need to respond and sort of tweak things. But I’ve never had that. Paul Attanasio and I had a great experience working on the script of The Good German, but then he made it clear, “I’m never coming to the set. It bores the shit out of me. I have no interest in hearing people say what I wrote.” And he never came, but that was his call.

BURNS: Early on during The Informant!, I remember Matt [Damon] and I were having a conversation about some scene—it was the second or third day of shooting—when all of a sudden I thought, “Oh, this is probably not cool that I’m doing this.” I got to set and I said to [producer Gregory Jacobs], “I hope I didn’t overstep my bounds, but Matt had a question . . .” I think I blamed it on Matt. And either Greg or Steven said to me, “Well, that’s why you’re here. You’re here because you know the story better than any of us, and you’re here to help keep track of it.” The other options are not having the writer there at all, or having the writer there but muted, and I don’t know why that would be helpful.

VOICE: Steven, you’ve said that for Contagion you established certain ground rules (e.g., no helicopter shots) to avoid falling into certain traps of the disaster-movie genre. Were there any similar rules for Side Effects vis-à-vis the thriller genre?

SODERBERGH: I don’t feel like there were as many, because I guess I looked at Contagion as a horror film more than a disaster film. So I wanted to avoid the tropes of disaster movies that I always felt made them generic. We wanted it to be really intimate. We wanted you to be inside the experience, to never leave this handful of characters. So in post we did a lot of rethinking to maintain that kind of focus.

BURNS: I feel like you had some rules about how you treated New York in Side Effects.

SODERBERGH: It’s true, mostly because what are you going to do that hasn’t been done by Sidney Lumet or Alan Pakula or Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee? What I decided was: I’m not going to do a New York montage. The only time I’m going to show an establishing shot is when, if I didn’t show it, you wouldn’t know where you are and would be confused. And if I had to do an establishing shot, I’d make it really simple and brief. We also wanted the movie to be as lean as possible. My attitude was: if you took one shot out, the movie would be diminished; if you added one shot, it would be fat. During post, Scott would send me e-mails saying, “I don’t think we need those two lines at the beginning of that scene.” We really tried to be ruthless about it.

[

VOICE: That reminds me of something I heard Walter Hill say recently: “I believe in brevity of statement.” He was referring to the great studio directors like John Ford and Raoul Walsh, who felt that each shot in a movie should somehow advance the story, but most movies today are full of fat and much too long. Who’s to blame for that?

SODERBERGH: The bottom line is that, on most movies, nobody in the chain is thinking in those terms. They’re thinking only in terms of immediate effect. I wonder sometimes: Is this fallout from electronic editing, which allows you to try everything, and can result, I think, in movies being very fine-tuned on a micro level, but very shoddy on a macro level? One of the things that I do when we’re editing is, three or four times a week I watch the whole film from beginning to end. Nothing will cure you faster of being in love with your own stuff than having to watch it three or four times a week. You can’t just sit there polishing individual scenes for weeks on end.

BURNS: I think it also happens in production. Since digital technology allows you to do more setups, people are more willing to say, “Oh, let’s put the camera here” or “I saw a movie where they whip-panned like this.” I think once those possibilities exist, then the question becomes: Does the person making the movie have the discipline not to use them? As the camera gets easier to wave around and put in different places, people don’t have to make as many decisions.

SODERBERGH: I’m a big believer that every time you use a close-up, for example, you potentially diminish the power of the next one you’re going to use. So I try to be very careful about when we start moving in. And then when you go in, there are choices to be made about how you go in. You’ll notice in terms of Rooney and how her face is, I like to be above her a lot, because she’s got a very interesting angularity. Also, psychologically, it works, because there are issues in terms of how she’s putting information out there, so to continually have the camera right at eye level wouldn’t be serving her character very well.

I don’t know: we may just be clowns who are stuck in some idea of classicism that doesn’t have a place in movies anymore. I think you see more of what we’re talking about in certain TV shows now than in movies. The kind of stuff we’re talking about is exactly what they’re doing on Mad Men and Breaking Bad. They don’t cut a lot. They don’t do a lot of coverage. In the opening season of Breaking Bad, one episode started with this shot across the street of two guys on a bench—it went on for like six minutes, and it was the first shot of the episode! And there was a reason—something happened at the end of that. I remember watching that and thinking, “I haven’t seen a movie with a shot that long in 10 years that wasn’t made by Béla Tarr.”

VOICE: Side Effects engages with Big Pharma’s highly effective grip on the American popular imagination.

SODERBERGH: I think there’s always been a variation in every culture, but particularly in America, of what in the world of physics would be called the unified field theory. Here’s this thing—it used to be valium—that can get us all on the same page. What we’re seeing, obviously, as these companies become bigger and have more resources, is that there are more opportunities for somebody to come up with the magic pill. The question on the table is: To what extent are they creating a sense for all of us that there is this huge problem to begin with? Are they the arsonists and the firemen? I mean, if you’ve got a company that’s based on the premise of getting a lot of people to take a pill, I would think you’d spend a lot of time trying to convince people that there’s a problem that will be solved by this pill.

[

BURNS: Depression is a thing that really exists, and so is sadness. But those are two different things, and sadness can be a very well-reasoned response to a set of circumstances around you. Depression is a debilitating syndrome that is persistent. But if you’re sad, you certainly don’t want to stay there, and you don’t want to get depressed, so why not take the pill that seems to solve the even bigger problem? When the people watching those commercials aren’t all that educated about those things, and you see someone who looks like you staring out a window or sitting on a park bench being sad and everyone else is running around with a balloon, you want to be with the balloons.

VOICE: How much access were you able to get to people in that world when you were doing your research?

BURNS: I had a really great drug rep who talked to me. I’ve always been fascinated when I go to the doctor that there are these samples, and there are these women dressed to the nines trailing roller bags filled with more samples. [Former Bellevue staffer] Dr. Sasha Bardey would talk about how they come and ask you out to lunch, or golf weekends in Hilton Head. They’ve passed laws against it, but the drug reps that I spoke to said it’s still going on in different ways, like payola in radio. The New York Times ran a piece a couple of years ago about how drug companies recruit drug reps from college cheerleading squads. I think that sort of says it all.

VOICE: So, what becomes of this great collaboration now that Steven is retiring from movies?

SODERBERGH: Theater. We’re going to do a play.

VOICE: And maybe something for TV?

SODERBERGH: There’s always that possibility.

BURNS: I’d love to do that.

VOICE: Do you see any signs of hope in the fact that the studios seem to be re-embracing the mid-budget drama not based on a comic book or YA novel, as evidenced by movies like Argo, Lincoln, and Flight?

SODERBERGH: Contagion was that. Contagion was, in theory, in that dead zone where you don’t want to be in terms of its cost and its lack of awareness. I think Warner Brothers is pretty good about dedicating a slot or two to things like that, and then they’re very good at selling them.

BURNS: There’s a project I’m working on right now at Fox, and the executives who I met were saying they were all really excited that there was an actual story, as if there was a new genre called “the story,” and how they want to make more movies that are stories as opposed to comic books or sequels.

SODERBERGH: Part of this is probably driven by the state of flux that the movie-star world is in. In the last few years, there have been some indications that certain people or combinations of people aren’t the box-office slam dunks that they used to be. And what people are beginning to realize, which used to be the case in the golden age of the American New Wave of the 1970s, is that stories and subjects can be as compelling as casts. So it would be great if there was a little bit of a shift to people going back to that thing of like, “The story is the star of this.” There is a way to sell that.

The reason I’ve been thinking more about TV is that the narrow-and-deep approach that seems to be paying off in long-form TV is something that really interests me. Scott and I are both people who like digressions, and TV is built for that. You can do whole episodes about some little thing that’s tangential to the larger story, but absolutely is relevant if you’re doing eight or 10 hours. But if you’re doing a two-hour movie, that doesn’t make the cut. I mean, Contagion . . . boy, that would have been a great eight hours.

BURNS: And if you look at Breaking Bad or Homeland or Mad Men, you see that TV audiences actually want characters who are conflicted and contradictory and complicated, which doesn’t always work with studio movies.

SODERBERGH: I think there are a lot of factors—it could be a post-9/11 thing—but I think what people go to the movies for has shifted in the last 10 years. I have a real sense, having gone through the preview process and gotten very direct feedback, that when it comes to movies people are looking for an experience that is generally more positive and more sewn-up than they used to. I think there are probably a couple of different factors, but if my theory is correct that, as a country, we are still experiencing a form of PTSD over 9/11, that it has still not been entirely processed because of the activities that have gone on since, which haven’t really provided us with any sense of closure or any real answers, then getting up and leaving the house and going somewhere and putting your money down has resulted in a feeling of “I get enough of this shit at home. I want to see something that’s not going to make me feel bad when I leave the theater.” Not that we ever set out to make people feel bad, but if the role of art is to alter you in some small way and have you feel different when you come out the other end of the experience, certainly provoking people or suggesting an idea that’s unsettling should be within your toolkit. The good news is, with all this great television, that distinction people used to make in terms of quality or respect between those two mediums is completely gone. For people like us, this is great, because it means we can just go back and forth. It’s another opportunity.

[

BURNS: I can imagine at some point there’s going to be a Girls movie, and I’ll be there.

SODERBERGH: Oh yeah, I think there’s a whole synergy going the other way that hasn’t been exploited yet. Let’s take a Mad Men or a Breaking Bad or a Homeland, and the show’s been designed to run X number of seasons and you know when it’s going to end. I think it’d be super cool to shoot the last two hours to be released theatrically the week after the penultimate episode. It doesn’t have to be on 3,000 screens, but you’d be setting that up all year with these ads: the two-hour finale is going to be in theaters! You could run it for two weeks as an exclusive and then pull it.

BURNS: You’d have the community experience of going to a movie. It’s like you’ve been watching Girls for two years alone with one other person, and then you go to a theater with 500 other people for the conclusion. I think the energy in that room would be amazing.

SODERBERGH: Somebody’s going to do that. It seems obvious to me. That’s a great way to combine the two mediums, but there’s also . . . what David Fincher’s doing with Netflix [the original series House of Cards] is going to be really interesting. I had a conversation with the two people running Netflix, who were saying, “There’s no paradigm here. We can do anything. You can have a show where one episode is 30 minutes and another is 80. We’re not bound by any rules. So give us the crazy shit.” And I said, “Well, that’s good to know. I wasn’t even thinking that way.” So it may take a while for people to sort of unwind the assumptions that you make in dealing with the traditional version of this business and realize that this is a new thing.

BURNS: I kind of feel at this point that, for me, in writing, it’s this weird Venn diagram where here’s everything that Hollywood will make and here’s everything that I feel like I can do a good job writing, and the two barely kiss. I’m not sure that there isn’t a bigger intersection somewhere else.

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Girl Fight: Soderbergh and His MMA Star Make Impact With Haywire

There’s a point in Haywire when the film’s protagonist, ex-Marine Mallory Kane (Gina Carano), gone rogue from her job as hired muscle for a private government subcontractor, takes a fall while scaling down a drainpipe and hits the ground with a crunch that knocks the wind out of you.

It’s a short drop, but that landing hurts. As cartoonish live-action and photorealistic cartoons reign at the multiplex, all but obsoleting the laws of gravity, Haywire puts the impact back into screen violence, brings it back to earth.

Haywire‘s plot is boilerplate triple-cross, cloak-and-dagger stuff, written in pulpy blank verse by The Limey screenwriter Lem Dobbs, picking up with his old collaborator, director Steven Soderbergh, who evinces a second-sense ability to frame every shot for maximal effect. Mallory is introduced evading her old employer’s attempt to corral her, in a scene that establishes the film’s tendency to ambush assault. After half-kidnapping a teenage escape driver, she flashes back to the hectic last week that has put her on the lam: two jobs that shuttled her between Barcelona and Dublin and ended in a setup.

Mallory looks for answers from her boss and former lover, Kenneth, played by Ewan McGregor; the rest of his network is played by famous faces, including shadowy operative Antonio Banderas; Channing Tatum as Mallory’s sometimes partner, Aaron; Michael Douglas as Kenneth’s liaison to Washington; and Michael Fassbender as a freelance agent, Paul, with whom Mallory is reluctantly partnered. Haywire is, however, very much a vehicle for Carano, the retired MMA fighter and former American Gladiator regular, now appearing in her first film. The casting is more than a stunt, for Haywire makes full use of Carano’s particular physical capabilities (something decidedly not true of porn star Sasha Grey’s casting in Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience). There are several long, unbroken shots of Carano hustling along city streets in foot chases and bounding across rooftops like a muscular Irma Vep, and, of course, there are fights. Soderbergh makes ingenious use of confined spaces—corridors, hotel rooms, the narrow aisle of a boxcar diner—with combatants using walls for leverage and as ready bludgeons. The music of fist on face, the punting kicks, all have a rib-cracking resonance that recalls the days when Phil Karlson (Walking Tall) was directing actioners.

Carano is also photogenic: The symmetry of her sharp features has survived her fighting days, though she carries a scar on her jawline as a souvenir. This is important because Haywire is, after a fashion, a slapstick-violent, mercenary sex comedy, with Mallory romantically involved, however fleetingly, with each of her major opponents in turn: In addition to her history with Kenneth, she has an on-the-job FWB relationship with Aaron, while she’s attached to Paul as a decoy date. (“MI6 wants me to be eye candy?” she asks, incredulous.) The combat duets don’t have the weight of moral outrage behind Karlson’s punch, but, as Soderbergh jauntily outlines the combatant’s business/pleasure interactions, each fight takes on an individual chemistry, as any couple does. With Aaron, it’s a brutal spat. The prelude to their confrontation—him hungover, Mallory marked up—reads like an abusive boyfriend coming to collect his woman, an assumption that Soderbergh quickly upends. Mallory’s outing with Paul is a parody of a swank first date, complete with a consummation in which he gets more than he bargained for. (The only bit that doesn’t quite register is Mallory impersonally dispatching two Irish Gardaí officers, precisely because it’s impersonal.)

Where faux-empowering The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo confines sexual power play to the old rape-revenge matrix, Haywire is a real war-of-the-sexes tournament, briskly paced with a tickling sense of black humor. (One encounter concludes with a smothering thigh lock that leaves its victim with a priceless sated and insensate expression before his black-widow goodnight kiss.) In contrast to Rooney Mara’s overkill Hot Topic pout, Carano can play dom femme and express vulnerability, backed up by her physique.

How’d she get so tough? Bill Paxton shows up as Mallory’s ex-leatherneck father, teasing the pop-psych explanation that she has never found somebody who can measure up to Daddy—but Daddy’s expression when witnessing Mallory at work shows he knows he has been surpassed. Mallory might find her culprit, but she doesn’t find anyone on her level.

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She Fights Like a Guy, He Grooms Like a Girl: Gina Carano and Channing Tatum Talk Haywire

“Steven [Soderbergh] asked me, ‘Why is Angelina Jolie the only female action star in the world?’ I told him, ‘I don’t know,’ and he said, ‘Because someone made her that way, and I’m going to make Gina into one of the biggest action stars in the world.'”

That was Ryan Kavanaugh, head of Relativity Media, talking to Variety at the premiere of his company’s latest release, Haywire, which is also the latest exercise in genre fuckery from director Steven Soderbergh. The Gina he’s talking about is Gina Carano, a 29-year-old mixed martial artist with no real acting experience, who Soderbergh approached about starring in his film after seeing her cage fight another woman on TV.

The finished product, as reliant as it is on Soderbergh’s signature crutches of an all star cast (Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Michael Douglas) and non-linear narrative, offers an alternative to action cinema’s business as usual. There’s its notably lo-fi style (the run-and-gun videography is artifice-free, which is an artful way of saying the movie often looks like shit), its real-world trappings (the action sequences unspool without evident special effects, impossible leaps of logic, or the accompaniment of the otherwise omnipresent score), and, of course, a female lead who could not only do her own stunts, but actually help conceptualize them.

Though not a traditional “relationship movie”—Carano’s Mallory Kane, an operative for a private contractor who is framed for a murder she didn’t commit by her ex-boss/ex-boyfriend Kenneth (McGregor), is very intentionally positioned as both a loner and an inconvenience—the heart of the film is the on-screen relationship between Carano and Tatum, Hollywood’s hunk du jour. (Tatum’s in five 2012 releases, including Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, which Tatum co-wrote based on his own experiences as a male stripper.) Their dynamic is established in Haywire’s first scene, in which Mallory meets Tatum’s Aaron at a diner in frozen middle-of-nowhere upstate New York. He’s a former co-worker who says he’s been assigned by Kenneth to give Mallory a ride; she wasn’t expecting him, and refuses to get in the car. He smashes a glass in her face, then pulls a gun and shoots, but misses; she then kicks the shit out of him, steals his gun and gets away.

Last week I interviewed Carano and Tatum—separately, in suites at different Beverly Hills hotels on different days. Hers was covered in clothes and packed with assistants, and when I entered, she was “candidly” sprawled on the bed with a laptop, wearing an army green t-shirt and matching mini skirt. His was junket-tidy, and hanger-on-free; he ignored a fruit plate and chewed on a cinnamon-flavored toothpick.

She, a superstar athlete based in Vegas, plays up her movie-world ignorance. When her sports agent explained that Steven Soderbergh wanted to meet her, she says, “I was like, ‘I don’t know who that is.’” He, a self-described “down South, jock kid” turned Abercrombie model turned blockbuster It boy, whose abs may be more famous than his face, plays down his Hollywood currency. “I’m so insecure,” Tatum tells me. “I have a big year coming up and I’m, like, insanely scared. I didn’t intend for this many movies to be coming out…I’ve been doing this for eight years, and still, I’m in film school. I didn’t have any training, and every day on set I learn something.”

In Haywire, both benefit from Soderbergh’s uncanny ability to elicit believable performances from non-actors, as well as actors who aren’t often cast primarily for their craft. In addition to setting Carano up with acting coach Barry Primus, Soderbergh asked her to watch two of his most stripped-down, unconventional narratives, Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience. The latter, built around porn star Sasha Grey in the role of a high-priced call girl for whom the financial crisis portends professional and personal crisis, is perhaps Haywire’s most obvious casting precursor. (“It was good for me to watch,” admits Carano. “Like, somebody’s done this.”) But Bubble, the small-town noir Soderbergh shot digitally in an actual small-town and cast with local non-actors, is the more interesting reference point for a film engineered as a “realistic” entry into one of Hollywood’s most obviously artificial genres.

Soderbergh, Carano says, “wanted Haywire to be authentic. He didn’t want there to be wires, he wanted it to be something that could actually happen. He said, ‘It’s going to be really interesting to see who takes these roles, because it’s got to be an actor’s actor—someone who doesn’t mind getting physical with a woman, or losing to her in a fight.’”

Carano’s co-stars McGregor and Fassbender (playing a hit man whose neck nearly snaps between Carano’s thighs in Haywire’s best action scene, a hotel room tussle with both actors in evening wear) would seem to fit that bill. But Tatum is a less likely candidate for the label “actor’s actor.” The frisson between the pair on screen stems in part from the common subtext they bring: Both performers in large part owe their success to their bodies, and the kind of gender-role confusion those bodies inspire. Carano is the hot chick who kicks ass like a guy; Tatum is the self-aware himbo who “dude’s dudes” want to have a beer with. And yet both are at points in their careers in which they’ll have to transcend the physicality that made them famous if they want to become even more famous.

“I’ve gotten a lot more from having great genes than I’ve lost,” Tatum says. But, “no one calls me for stock brokers.” (No one except for Soderbergh, who cast Tatum as just that in the upcoming thriller Bitter Pill.) “I know what people want to see me in, but you don’t always want to do that, you wanna grow.”

That’s a yearning that Carano can relate to. While not quite fully installed in a new career (“I’m not like a Hollywood actress—I’m thicker, for one thing”), her dabbling in movie stardom has led to blowback from her former community. “The fighting world, they feel like they own you. They don’t want to share,” she says. “It’s almost like having an ex-boyfriend you’re still friends with. You’re like, ‘We can still hang out’—which never works.”

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Steven Soderbergh Says We’re Killing Ourselves in Contagion

Currently the fifth-to-last film on Steven Soderbergh’s ever-expanding pre-retirement slate, Contagion opens on day two of a global viral epidemic. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Beth Emhoff, an American employee for an ominously unspecific multinational corporation who returns from a business trip in Hong Kong to her wintry Midwestern home feeling like crap. Twenty-four hours after she’s written off her sickness as jet lag in a phone call to her never-seen lover, Beth starts convulsing and foaming at the mouth. She’s pronounced dead at the hospital, and before her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), can make it home to break the news to their young son, the kid follows suit. Soon jet-setters the world over are literally breaking into sweats simultaneously.

Beth is fingered as Patient Zero of a virus previously unseen on earth that kills its victims within hours of the onset of symptoms and defies cure, containment, or scientific understanding; as one researcher puts it, “It kills every cell we put it in.” Hospitals and streets fill with the zombie sick, and the social order breaks down almost instantly.

In fine Irwin “Master of Disaster” Allen style, Soderbergh deploys a cast of thousands to help sketch the epidemic as a global, class-blind, all-encompassing event. Marion Cotillard is the adorable WHO epidemiologist assigned to trace the origins of Beth’s illness by piecing together her last hours, as captured in multiple locations via apparently omnipresent surveillance cams. Laurence Fishburne is the CDC chief who sends deputy Kate Winslet to manage the crisis on the ground while he hunkers down at headquarters and tries to manage the message—a fight thwarted when conspiracy blogger Jude Law posts a video of a Japanese businessman collapsing on a city bus, which feeds a global panic that turns survivors like Mitch into hyper-paranoid shut-ins. Bryan Cranston, Elliott Gould, John Hawkes, and Demetri Martin appear in small but crucial roles; Jennifer Ehle has a career-making part as the quietly brilliant researcher whom Soderbergh frames like an ingénue as she reels off jargon at an impossibly fast and mellifluous rate.

Speed itself is both a key Contagion theme—the virus that multiplies faster than it can be tracked, the technology that allows not only the quick transport of data and people over vast distances but also the constant tracking of that travel—and the film’s defining aesthetic characteristic. Crafting staccato montages to a coolly insistent drum, bass, and piano score, Soderbergh transitions between his interwoven stories at a rapid-fire pace, allowing a couple of seemingly major characters to disappear for long stretches and one to die with a startling lack of sentimentality. That character’s burial is presented as a matter-of-fact marker of how bad things have become: The only ceremony over the mass grave in the center of a city is a dialogue exchange between bored workers about when the local government ran out of body bags.

Contagion is very much a Steven Soderbergh movie—as self-conscious a Hollywood entertainment as his Ocean’s trilogy, and as microscopically attuned to its moment as his 2009 experimental sketch of the economic crisis, The Girlfriend Experience. It is also part 1970s star-studded and story-bloated disaster movie and part 1870s satire-as-serialized-soap-opera, a pulp-pop confection with an unusually serious-minded social critique at its heart. Think The Towering Inferno, as done by Anthony Trollope.

Trollope’s 1875 doorstop novel, The Way We Live Now, is an apt point of reference not just because its title could sub for the one Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns chose—their film might take place in a bizarro-world present, but it’s all the more terrifying because of the methodic realism that makes it impossible to distinguish that bizarro world from life on earth circa now. But also, Trollope’s masterpiece turned a pop-culture craze—serialized novels that used real locomotive crashes as the starting point for ensemble soap operas—on its head. There’s no actual train crash in The Way We Live Now; instead, the “railway disaster” is perpetrated by a con artist who convinces all of London society, high on the 19th century’s ultimate symbol of “progress”—the steam engine—to invest in a railway that will never be built. Greed and hypocrisy spread, well, virally, in the wake of technological change, and before you know it, society has collapsed on itself. Soderbergh similarly takes on pop Hollywood forms specifically to make them his own, and like The Way We Live Now, Contagion exists to trace the chain reaction caused by isolated acts of selfishness, unchecked power, and a never-sated culture of newer, faster, better.

An act of promiscuity might cause the virus’s initial spread across continents, but Contagion implies that risky sex has nothing, long-term-consequences-wise, on the risky high-speed transfer of information. In a world in which grief is expressed via texted emoticon before the body is buried, and Web celebrities cause riot-panics as stocks spike with their blog hype, meme control becomes the official form of damage control. “Social distancing,” the name given to the CDC’s policy of virus containment via forced isolation of the healthy, is not just the literal opposite of “social networking,” but its potential endgame. At what point in the near future will we all stop leaving the house?

As prolific a worker as any in contemporary Hollywood, Soderbergh claims to be on the verge of packing in his own career, which gives his movie a pretty interesting subtextual twist: Work, in Contagion, is fraught with mortal peril. The first victims are business travelers, while Damon’s stay-at-home dad is spared and even turned into one of the film’s least ambiguous heroes. If Contagion truly is the first leg of Soderbergh’s retirement victory lap, this harrowing film is a potent reminder of what we stand to lose.