A make-up free week at the movies! Contagion tracks the ruinous global progress of a new virus from a vampire bat communing with a pig in China to a billion humans dead in two years. It has a grim, purposeful look. Setting the film initially in North America during Thanksgiving, director Steven Soderbergh gives the visual impression of something both horribly supernatural and horribly straight. The images are lethal: tyre-blackened slush, wind-lashed cheeks, Kate Winslet (playing a medical examiner) stomping through grim car parks with her lacrosse-captain’s calves stuffed into flesh-coloured tights. Jude Law (playing a radical blogger) turns up increasingly lean, watchful as a meerkat, but with a pair of strange dentures that make you feel he is always about to pull his spittle-covered teeth irritatedly out of his own head, like Jeff Goldblum in The Fly.
In one terrific, penny-dreadful scene, Gwyneth Paltrow (as a faithless wife and hapless carrier of the bug) grips the breakfast bar in her home, sweat congealing into lines previously not seen on that immaculately flat face, then gives a shrieking, warning cry before falling to the floor spewing a puce foam. To her rescue leaps Matt Damon (wronged husband) who is two stone heavier than usual, – less Jason Bourne, more Yogi Bear – his charisma tamped down to almost nothing (but then Damon has such a helpless rapport with the camera that even when he isn’t looking or doing anything special, we are tracking him like a hawk). All of this Soderbergh presents to us so thrillingly unflatteringly it begins to feel almost anarchist. Soderberg does dada? Whatever he’s up to it’s a hoot.
And just in case we didn’t quite register the moral queasiness of everything he washes certain areas of the screen in greens and yellows: the colours of CCTV and bile. The film has tremendous pace – a very formal pace. Scenes of personal loss are punctuated with little motionless tableaus of people watching TV screens in horror, set to pacing thriller music.
This is a director with a gift for bringing out a sense of harsh inevitability, of maudlin hysteria: it’s a frowning film, although not at all furiously – at world health organisations, governments and pharmaceutical companies – and one that has you firmly by the scruff of the neck until ... it just kind of doesn’t. Subtly you become aware – just as you become aware you’re on the mend from a bug, or come to after a mad night on the town – that it’s not quite as all-consuming as you had thought. The film simply releases you. It never quite takes off, never dynamites the castle, settling by the end into a mood of soft regret. We could do without the U2 on the soundtrack too. Dying to Bono? I’d rather have the virus. Still the movie fights for something important: the right of stars to look worse than we do.
We Need to Talk about Kevin caused ripples at Cannes, not least for Tilda Swinton’s pointedly unpretty performance as the mother of the young mass-murdering Kevin, trying to construct a life from what scraps are left to her after his show trial and imprisonment. Which makes the film sound more narrative-driven than it is – but it’s a peculiar, liquid film. Dreamy as all hell. Where Lionel Shriver’s book was constructed entirely of frank letters, here there is no voice-over (good call) and little dialogue. The whole movie seems to take place less on screen than on Swinton’s face on screen: she is the screen, the canvas. Sickly, apprehensive, Swinton has a face that’s always looking for grievances, a face, one feels, used to rather grandly and patiently examining those of shamefaced men.
Meanwhile a far braver performance is quietly being given by the then 17-year-old Ezra Miller as the congenitally evil (or is he?) Kevin. Rumour has it that one of the actors in the Twilight series was keen to play Kevin but was heavily dissuaded: Americans tend to avoid playing murderers. Remember that Anthony Hopkins only won the part as Hannibal Lector because every famous American actor turned it down (Robert Duvall, Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro were all considered) Play a murderer in America and expect abuse in the street (Aaron Eckhart was physically attacked so many times for playing a man who merely teases a handicapped girl in In the Company of Men that he put on three stone and grew a beard).
And yet Miller – so young, so still – turns his prematurely wise visage (he looks more Mongolian or even Hawaiian than his native New Jersey: a hyper-intelligent Keanu Reeves) to the unrelenting camera and his eyes give you the willies. They more than suggest both the book’s and film’s great subject: the horrible misunderstanding between all parents and children. The raw nerves that get pinched. The things we press and press down on. When Miller ever-so-subtly pulls in his cheek muscles, battling with an ineffable somethingness, it really is as good as acting gets. He has the look of someone possibly about to cry but then with a glance makes you know in your boots he’s a psycho. He’s fantastically funny.
Restless follows the last few months of a song-bird-loving teenager dying from a brain tumour, and the lot of her troubled lover, already grieving after the death of his parents in a freak accident. A minor film from director Gus Van Sant, whose crafty humour and existentialism (see the devastating My Own Private Idaho) boils down to what feels like kookiness here.
Monte Carlo stars Gossip Girl ingénue Leighton Meester and the beautifully plump-faced Selena Gomez as Texan teens on the loose in Europe. Clichéd and glitzy, it throws its lots in entirely with the romantic ideal of love and Monaco, but has a bubbling spirit and Meester drives a scooter in Grecian sandals impeccably.
Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer – about a summer vac at home in sweet American suburbia – ought to go down fine with the 10-year-olds it’s aimed at. But accompanying adults will whoop to see that the now 41-year old Heather Graham (playing Judy’s luscious Aunt Opal) is still coming over much as she did in her finest moments of Bowfinger and Boogie Nights: a woman liable to get her boobs out at any moment, laughing like a maniac. Graham – who works far less than she ought to – truly is Hollywood’s great libertine. Her oh-well-what-the-hellness feels like someone passing you a hip-flask of welcome dirty laughs.