Category Archives: Armageddon

Blu-ray reissue: The Quiet Earth ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 10, 2016)

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The Quiet Earth Film Movement Classics Blu-ray

In the realm of “end of the world” movies, there are two genre entries in particular, both from the mid-80s, that I have become emotionally attached to (for whatever reason). One of them is Miracle Mile (my review), and the other is this 1985 New Zealand import, which has garnered a huge cult following.

Bruno Lawrence (Smash Palace) delivers a tour de force performance, playing a scientist who may (or may not) have had a hand in a government research project mishap that has apparently wiped out everyone on Earth except him. The plot thickens when he discovers that there are at least two other survivors-a man and a woman. The three-character dynamic is reminiscent of a 1959 nuclear holocaust tale called The World, the Flesh and the Devil, but it’s safe to say that the similarities end there. By the time you reach the mind-blowing finale, you’ll find yourself closer to Andrei Tarkovsky’s territory (Solaris).

Director Geoff Murphy never topped this effort; although his 1992 film Freejack, with Mick Jagger as a time-traveling bounty hunter, is worth a peek. Film Movement’s Blu-ray features a gorgeous 2k transfer, and a commentary track by critic Odie Henderson and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (although-even Tyson can’t explain that ending!).

Blu-ray reissue: Miracle Mile ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 5, 2015)

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Miracle Mile – Kino Lorber Blu-ray

“Someone” (in this case, Kino Lorber) finally has seen fit to release a properly formatted HD edition of this 1988 sleeper (previously available only as MGM’s dismal “pan and scan” DVD). Depending on your worldview, this is either an “end of the world” film for romantics, or the perfect date movie for fatalists.

Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham give winning performances as a musician and a waitress who Meet Cute at L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits museum. But before they can hook up for their first date, Edwards stumbles onto a reliable tip that L.A. is about to get hosed…in a major way.

The resulting “countdown” scenario is a genuine, edge-of-your seat nail-biter. In fact, this modestly budgeted 90-minute thriller offers more heart-pounding excitement (and more believable characters) than any bloated Hollywood disaster epic from the likes of a Michael Bay or a Roland Emmerich.

Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt stopped doing feature films after this one (his only other credit is the guilty pleasure sci-fi adventure Cherry 2000, which also made its Blu-ray debut this year courtesy of Kino Lorber). Extras include a commentary track by film critic Walter Chaw, along with the director.

One froggy evening: Yakuza Apocalypse **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 10, 2015)

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If you were to put Van Helsing, Highlander, Forbidden Zone, Godzilla and Youth of the Beast into a blender, and then splash the puree onto a blank movie screen Jackson Pollack style, you would end up with something resembling Takeshi Miike’s Yakuza Apocalypse.

Near as I could figure, the “story” centers on a yakuza boss who is magnanimous toward, and beloved by, the “civilians” of the (Neighborhood? City?) he lords over; as for his rivals in the criminal underworld…not so much. Oh, did I mention that he’s also a vampire? As this can give one an enormous advantage over one’s enemies (being already dead tends to make you immune to assassination), he’s been the top dog for a long time.

However, this dog’s about to have his day. I mean, any vampire yakuza boss with half a brain will tell you that you’re in deep shit when a guy who dresses like a pilgrim blows into town with a mini-coffin strapped to his back and a blunderbuss in his sash, announcing himself as an emissary of the actual underworld and cryptically warning anyone who will listen that “he” is coming. And so the boss finally meets his doom (don’t ask), but not before biting his most trusted lieutenant on the neck, thereby passing on his awesome vampire powers. The freshly anointed boss has his work cut out for him; according to a “kappa goblin” (a guy with a beak, chronic halitosis, and a turtle shell growing out of his back), his town is about to have a visitation from the “world’s toughest terrorist”, a badass dude with an agenda that is “…so chilling, you gotta laugh.”

Are you following all of this so far? Shall I go on?

Fret not; for I shan’t, because from this point onward, it gets sort of hazy. There’s something about the end of the world, and a magic ring, but otherwise it’s just yelling, shape-shifting and martial arts shenanigans. There’s also too many superfluous characters jamming up an already needlessly busy storyline. I’ll admit that I got a few chuckles watching the “world’s toughest terrorist” deliver roundhouse kicks in his Teletubbie suit (that can’t be easy), and “Gander all you want at my kappa-ness,” may turn out to be my favorite movie line of the year. And someday, some way, I will fully understand the significance of the knitting class in the basement, with all the students in leg irons. And on that glorious day, I will know that I have finally found the path to true enlightenment.

Move over, Smaug: Ragnarok **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 23, 2014)

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According to my exhaustive research on Norse mythology (OK…one-clicking to Wikipedia), “Ragnarok” was the Viking version of Armageddon; warning of an apocalypse that culminates in a worldwide flood, after which all begins anew (not to be confused with “Raga-rock”, which was a sub-genre of wild, far-out hippie music that Grandpa used to zone out to after a hit of Windowpane).

In the context of Norwegian director Mikkel Braenne Sandemose’s eponymous new film, it’s a major concern to a harried, recently defunded archaeologist widower (Pal Sverre Hagen) who specializes in Viking artifacts. He’s been attempting to translate mysterious runes found amongst remains of an ancient shipwreck.

When he and a fellow researcher (Nicolai Cleve Broch) become convinced that Ragnarok may 1) not in fact be a myth, and 2) be imminent, he grabs his teen daughter and young son and heads north to an uninhabited part of Finnmark, where he and his colleague hope to find the missing pieces of the puzzle. After adding a sexy-tough love interest…I mean, assistant researcher (Sofia Helin) and a crusty yet benign guide to the team, the expedition is afoot.

While what ensues in Sandemose’s film can be called out as a shamelessly derivative mash-up of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park, it’s still kind of fun, in a contentedly mindless way. Actually, amid all of the typically big, dumb, loud and over-produced action-adventure summer fare currently flooding the multiplexes, it stands out as a refreshingly old-fashioned yarn. The story clips along without unnecessary padding, most of the violence is (thankfully) off-screen, and it says everything it needs to say in 94 minutes.

Blu-ray reissue: The Day the Earth Caught Fire ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 6, 2014)

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The Day the Earth Caught Fire – BFI Blu-ray (Region “B” )

Written and directed by Val Guest, this cerebral mix of conspiracy a-go-go and sci-fi (from 1961) has always been a personal favorite of mine. Simultaneous nuclear testing by the U.S. and Soviets triggers an alarmingly rapid shift in the Earth’s climate. As London’s weather turns more tropical by the hour, a Daily Express reporter (Peter Stenning) begins to suspect that the British government is not being 100% forthcoming on the possible fate of the world. Along the way, Stenning has some steamy scenes with his love interest (sexy Janet Munro). The film is more noteworthy for its smart, snappy patter than its run-of-the-mill f/x, but still delivers a compelling narrative. Co-starring the great Leo McKern (who steals every scene he’s in). The releasing studio is BFI, a UK-based reissue outfit that employs the same grade of high standards that Criterion has become known for here in the U.S., with meticulously restored prints and extras geared toward the film buff. Please note that this review is based on the region “B” release, so it requires a region-free Blu-ray player.

Viral videos: 10 movies you never want to catch

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 19, 2013)

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According to a disconcerting report that aired on ABC earlier this week, in spite of the fact that the U.S. is in the midst of a particularly virulent flu season, an estimated 69 million Americans remain unmoved by strident advisories from public health officials and medical professionals that everybody should get vaccinated ASAP.

Apparently the predominant excuse is a surprisingly common misconception that getting a shot will literally give you  flu (it would be fun to find out what percentage of these refuseniks  see flu shots as another form of government tyranny…you know, Obama’s secret collusion with the CDC to slip them a Mickey and seize their guns). Whatever the excuse, I have one question for these folks: Are you nuts? Have you ever had the flu? It’s not exactly a romp in the fields. Anyway, I was vaccinated in October, and so far, so good.

With that in mind, here’s some of Hollywood’s catchiest titles; my “Top 10 Viral Videos” (the theory being, if I can’t convince you to practice preventive medicine, maybe watching one of these flicks will?) As per usual, in alphabetical order…

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The Andromeda Strain– What’s the scariest monster of them all? It’s the one you cannot see. I’ve always considered this 1971 Robert Wise film to be the most faithful Michael Crichton book-to-screen adaptation. A team of scientists race the clock to save the world from a deadly virus from outer space that reproduces itself at an alarming speed. With its atmosphere of claustrophobic urgency (the scientists are essentially trapped in a sealed environment until they can find a way to destroy the microbial intruder) it could be seen as a precursor to Alien. It’s a nail-biter from start to finish. Nelson Gidding adapted the script from Crichton’s novel.

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Black Death– It is a time of pestilence, monarchs, serfs, and sociopolitical turmoil, ruled by widespread ignorance and superstition. No, I’m not referring to America in 2013…but 1348, when the first wave of bubonic plague swept across Europe. That’s the cheery backdrop for this dark period piece from UK director Christopher Smith. Visceral, moody and atmospheric, it plays like a medieval mash-up of Apocalypse Now and The Wicker Man.

Eddie Redmayne stars as a young monk who, at the behest of his bishop, throws in with a “religious” knight (Sean Bean) and his dubious band of mercenaries on an a quest to investigate why all the residents of a particular village seem  immune to the “black death” (the Church suspects “witchcraft”).

Screenwriter Dario Poloni blurs the line between Christian dogma and the tenets of paganism, demonstrating that charlatanism and sleight of hand are no strangers to either camp. Whether one places their faith and hope into an omnipotent super-being or a bundle of twigs, perhaps it is the most simplest of single-celled organisms, the lowly bacteria, that wields the greatest power of them all.

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Contagion– Steven Soderbergh takesthe network narrative formula that propelled Traffic and applies it to similar effect in this cautionary vision of sociopolitical upheaval in the wake of a major killer pandemic. Patient Zero is an American (Gwyneth Paltrow) returning to the U.S. from a Hong Kong business trip, who at first appears to be only developing a slight cold as she kills time at an airport lounge.

However, Soderbergh’s camera begins to linger on seemingly inconsequential items. A dish of peanuts. A door knob. Paltrow’s hand, as she pays her tab. Ominous cuts to a succession of individuals in Hong Kong, Tokyo and London, who have all suddenly taken deathly ill, deliver a creeping sense of dread, which only warms you up for the harrowing, all-too plausible globe-spanning nightmare scenario that ensues.

By reining in his powerhouse cast, and working from a screenplay (by Scott Z. Burns) that largely eschews melodrama, Soderbergh keeps it real (if clinical at times), resulting in a sobering and thought-provoking exercise.

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The Killer That Stalked New York-Despite dated trappings, Earl McEvoy’s low-budget 1951 film noir (based on a  NYC smallpox outbreak in 1947 thwarted by fast-acting city health officials and a cooperative public) still makes for a gripping disease thriller.

Patient Zero is a diamond smuggler (Evelyn Keyes) who has just returned from Cuba. Unbeknownst to her, there’s a Fed hot on her trail; unbeknownst to both of them (initially), she is also carrying the smallpox virus. With its pseudo-documentary approach and heavy use of location filming, the movie recalls The Naked City.

A montage depicting how city officials administer the “Big Scratch” to every New Yorker proves how some things will never change (when a  health department worker offers a vaccination to one distrustful fellow, he says “Ain’t nobody stickin’ a joim in my arm!”).

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The Omega Man-This 1971 Boris Sagal film was the second screen adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend (the 1964 Vincent Price vehicle The Last Man on Earth was the first, book-ended by I Am Legend in 2007). While all three adaptations have their strengths and weaknesses, I have a soft spot for this one, with the ever-hammy Charlton Heston as a military scientist battling mutated albino plague victims in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles (the locale was switched to New York City in the 2007 version).

In the wake of a deadly pandemic attributed to biological warfare fallout from a Sino-Soviet war, Heston injects himself with an experimental vaccine that appears to work. However, the main threat to his health is not so much the virus, but the rabid lynch mob of pissed-off albino freaks who storm his heavily fortified apartment building every night, led by a messianic ex-TV news anchor (Anthony Zerbe, chewing the scenery like a zombie Howard Beale). Rosalind Cash is a hoot as a bad ass mama in the Pam Grier mold.

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Panic in the Streets– While this is yet another film noir mixing documentary-style police procedural with disease thriller tropes (released in August of 1950, it actually precedes The Killer That Stalked New York by 5 months), it does differ in a few significant ways. For one, the locale is New Orleans. This is also a much slicker production, with a prestige director at the helm (Elia Kazan, who made another New Orleans based story the following year-little film you may have heard of called A Streetcar Named Desire).

Noir icon Richard Widmark is the “good guy” in this one-a Navy doctor working for the health department, who has 48 hours to track down the killers of a murder victim who is  carrying the Pneumonic Plague. This puts him at loggerheads with the police, who aren’t crazy about the deadline pressure. The deadly virus, of course, won’t wait, which gives the narrative its tension. This is one of Kazan’s most stylistically accomplished films, full of Wellesian tracking shots (and great cinematography by Joseph McDonald). Look for Zero Mostel in an early role (and Jack Palance in his debut).

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Perfect Sense– David Mackenzie’s post-apocalyptic drama tackles that age-old question: Can a chef and an epidemiologist find meaningful, lasting love in the wake of a pandemic that is insidiously and systematically robbing every human on Earth of their five senses? This is a malady with a relatively leisurely incubation period. The afflicted have a certain (if indeterminate) amount of time to adjust to each progressive sensory deficit, so it isn’t necessarily what one would consider as being a “death sentence”.

The outbreak brings an epidemiologist (Eva Green) to a Glasgow lab to analyze data as cases escalate. Fate and circumstance conspire to place her and a local chef (Ewan McGregor) together on the particular evening wherein they both suffer the first warning sign: a sudden, inexplicable emotional breakdown. As they have both “taken leave” of their senses, they begin (naturally) to fall in love (plenty of room for metaphor in this narrative).

That’s what makes Mackenzie’s film unique in an overcrowded genre; while there’s still a sense of urgency to find a “cure”, the question is not  “can the human race be saved?”- but rather “can the human race make lemonade out of this lemon it’s been handed?”

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Restoration- Robert Downey Jr. gives one of his most underrated performances in Michael Hoffman’s lusty, richly textured and visually sumptuous recreation of 17th-Century England during the reign of Charles II. Downey plays a physician whose burgeoning medical career is put on hold after he “saves the life” of the King’s beloved spaniel. The grateful Charles invites him into his inner circle, encouraging the doctor to avail himself of the perks at his disposal.

Court politics eventually put the doc in the King’s disfavor, and his life takes twists and turns, ultimately bringing him back in London during the Great Plague, where he finds his mojo as a dedicated physician. The verisimilitude regarding the recreation of London during the era really gives the viewer a sense of what it must have been like living with the horror and heartbreak of the Plague.

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Twelve Monkeys-Another wild ride from the vivid imagination of Terry Gilliam, this 1995 sci-fi thriller (inspired by Chris Marker’s classic 1962 short film, La Jetee) has become a cult favorite.

Set in the year 2035, it’s the story of a prison inmate (Bruce Willis) who is “volunteered” to be sent back to the year 1996 to detect the origin of a mystery virus that wiped out 99% of the human race. Fate and circumstance land Willis in a psych ward for observation, where he meets two people who may be instrumental in helping him solve the mystery-a psychiatrist (Madeline Stowe) and a fellow mental patient (Brad Pitt, in an entertainingly demented performance).

I like the way the film plays with “reality” and perception. Is Willis really a time traveler from 2035…or is he what the psychiatrist is telling him-a delusional schizophrenic actually living in 1996? There are many more surprises up Gilliam’s sleeve here.

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28 Days Later-Director Danny Boyle’s speed freak-in-a-telephone booth style of film making has rarely been so perfectly matched up with subject matter than it is in this unsettling 2002 shocker.

In a memorable opening sequence reminiscent of The Omega Man (see above), a man (Cillian Murphy) wanders alone through the streets of a  deserted metropolis (London). He finds out soon enough that he is actually far from “alone”, and that the folks he runs into are far from human (although they started that way).

The malady is a highly contagious “rage virus”; unleashed by rampaging lab monkeys that have been liberated by unsuspecting animal rights activists. Murphy bands together with others who have managed to avoid contact with the affected, and they head out of the city in desperate search of sanctuary.

Somehow, Boyle’s disparate mishmash of disease thriller, popcorn zombie chiller and “conspiracy a-go-go” coalesces. At once gross and engrossing, it is not for the squeamish.

VHS only: One Night Stand ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 14, 2012)

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An early effort from eclectic filmmaker John Duigan (Winter of Our Dreams, The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting, Sirens, etc.). This 1984 sleeper is a worthwhile entry amidst the flurry of nuclear paranoia-themed movies that proliferated throughout the Reagan era. Through circumstance, four young people (three Australians and an American sailor who has jumped ship) get holed up in an otherwise empty Sydney Opera House on the eve of escalating nuclear tension between the superpowers in Eastern Europe. In a concerted effort to deflect their collective anxiety over increasingly ominous news bulletins droning on from the radio, they find creative ways to keep their spirits up.

The film is uneven at times, but for the most part Duigan capably juggles the busy mashup of romantic comedy, apocalyptic thriller and anti-war statement. There are several striking set pieces; particularly an eerily affecting scene where the quartet watch Fritz Langs’s Metropolis as the Easybeats hit “Friday on My Mind” is juxtaposed over its orchestral score. Midnight Oil performs in a scene where the two women attend a concert. The bittersweet denouement (in an underground tube station) is quite powerful.

 

Facebookopalypse now: Summer Wars ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 5, 2011)

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Don’t be misled by the title of Mamoru Hosoda’s Summer Wars-this could be the Gone with the Wind of Japanese anime. OK…that’s a tad hyperbolic. But it has drama, romance, comedy, and war-centering around a bucolic family estate. Maybe- Tokyo Story meets War Games? At any rate, it’s one of the better animes of recent years.

The film opens with echoes of Weird Science, as we are introduced to a couple of nerdy teenagers, geeking out in the virtual world of “Oz”, a global cyber network where all users (from individuals to governments) communicate and conduct business via avatars. Kenji (voiced by Michael Sinterniklass) and his pal have part time jobs working for the network (something techie…it’s all big magic to me).

Anyway, the boys are pretty sharp at what they do; Kenji is also a math whiz. When it comes to relating to the opposite sex, however, they are relatively clueless. Kenji has a crush on of their classmates, Natsuki (Brina Palencia), but has no idea as to where to take it from there. Imagine his surprise when Natsuki invites him along on a visit to see grandma out at her family’s sprawling country estate, where the clan is gathering to celebrate the spry matriarch’s 90th birthday.

Kenji is hit with an even bigger surprise when Natsuki introduces him to her family as her “fiancee”. Flustered at first, Kenji decides (correctly) that he should probably play along. After apologizing for springing this on him, Naksuki begs Kenji to go along with the ruse for the duration of their visit; she just wants to avoid getting hounded by nosy relatives on the subject of matrimony. This actually gives the socially awkward Kenji an instant entree with the eccentric but loving clan. He has some consternation when Natsuki’s “first crush” suddenly shows up-her brooding, James Dean-ish uncle (J. Michael Tatum), who is the long-estranged black sheep of the family.

Late one evening, Kenji receives a cryptic text message, challenging him to crack a complex equation (which is like catnip to a math nerd). After pulling an all-niter, he solves it. Unfortunately, he soon discovers that he has been duped; by solving the math problem, he has unwittingly enabled a malicious AI program to hack into the Oz network-and sees his photo plastered all over the TV news as a wanted cyber-criminal (much to his newly adopted family’s chagrin).

As the virus begins to methodically assimilate the avatars belonging to millions of users, it exponentially gains more control over the grid, wreaking increasingly insidious infrastructural havoc worldwide as its power grows. Soon the stakes become even higher-and in true anime tradition, the mantle of saving the earth falls on upon the diminutive shoulders of our geeky hero and his friends (with unexpected help from grandma, who proves that in times of crisis, it’s those old school social networking skills that really count).

Although a number of the narrative devices in Satoko Ohuder’s script will feel  familiar to anime fans, it’s the humanistic touches and subtle social observations (reminiscent of the films by the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu) that make this such a worthwhile and satisfying entertainment. Director Hosoda began his career in the genre back in the early 90s, working at Japan’s highly respected Toei Animation studio as an animator. This is only the second feature-length anime he has overseen; his first was the outstanding 2007 fantasy-adventure, The Girl Who Leapt through Time. Judging by these two films, he has a very promising career ahead of him.

Ah-CHOO! Oh, crap: Contagion ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  September 17, 2011)

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So you say you don’t have enough nightmarish fodder for those racing thoughts that keep you tossing and turning on sweat-soaked sheets every night…what with the economy, the Teabaggers, the pending demise of entitlement programs, the Teabaggers, the rising costs of healthcare, and the Teabaggers? Are you prone to health anxiety? Do you spend hours on wrongdiagnosis.com in a dogged search to confirm your worst fears that your hangnail is surely a symptom of some horrible wasting disease? And there’s no way in hell I can convince you the glass is half-full, not half-empty?

Bubbeleh, have I got a movie for you.

Steven Soderbergh has taken the network narrative formula that drove Traffic, his 2000 Oscar winner about the ‘war’ on drugs, and used it to similar effect in Contagion, a cautionary tale envisioning socio-political upheaval in the wake of a killer pandemic (which epidemiological experts concur is not a matter of “if”, but of “when”).

In an opening montage (entitled “Day 2”), the camera tails the person we assume to be Patient Zero, an American businesswoman (Gwyneth Paltrow) returning from an overseas trip, as she kills time at a Chicago airport lounge. She appears to be developing a slight cold. Soderbergh’s camera begins to focus on benign items. A dish of peanuts. A door knob. Paltrow’s hand as she pays her tab. A creeping sense of dread arises. The scenario becomes more troubling when Soderbergh ominously cuts to a succession of individuals in Hong Kong, Tokyo and London who have all suddenly taken extremely ill.

Whatever they have, it works fast. By the time Paltrow is reunited with her kids and her husband (Matt Damon, as the Everyman of the piece), we’ve watched several of the overseas victims collapse and die horribly; in the meantime her sniffles and sore throat escalates to fever, weakness and ultimately a grand mal seizure. Within moments of her arrival at the ER, it’s Mystery Virus 1, Doctors 0. It’s only the beginning of the nightmare. An exponential increase in deaths quickly catches the attention of the authorities, which in turn saddles us with a bevy of new characters to keep track of.

There are the CDC investigators in the U.S. (Kate Winslet is in the field, while her boss Laurence Fishburne holds meddlesome politicos at bay) and Marion Cotillard as a doctor enlisted by the W.H.O. to look into Hong Kong as  possible ground zero. There are the front line researchers doing the lab work to isolate the virus and develop a vaccine (Jennifer Ehle, Demetri Martin and Elliott Gould).

Even Homeland Security gets into the act; Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston is a liaison who suggests possible terrorist scenarios (could this be a “weaponized” virus?). Jude Law portrays a popular activist blogger who claims there is an existing vaccine that works, but that the CDC is withholding distribution for nefarious reasons (something to do with Big Pharma; certainly feasible). Law is also the recipient of a zinger print journalists will be falling over each other to quote : “A blog isn’t writing. It’s graffiti with punctuation.”

There are many threads to keep track of; fortunately, Soderbergh brings all the ingredients to a gently rolling boil by the film’s denouement without overcooking the ham, as it were. By reining in his powerhouse cast, and working from a screenplay (by Scott Z. Burns) that eschews melodrama, Soderbergh keeps it real (if a tad clinical), resulting in an effective and thought-provoking ensemble piece (by contrast, Wolfgang Peterson’s star-studded, similarly-themed 1995 thriller Outbreak plays more like a live action cartoon).

In fact, I can’t help but wonder how many of the  folks who flocked to theaters last weekend (and helped make Contagion #1 at the box office ) were disappointed by Soderbergh’s unadorned approach . Historically, Soderbergh tends to deliver either sure-fire populist ‘product’ (Out of Sight, Erin Brokovich, Oceans 11 and its sequels), or obscure experiments aimed squarely at the art house hipster crowd (Schizopolis, Full Frontal, Bubble). On occasion, he finds the sweet spot (Sex, Lies and Videotape, The Limey, Traffic, and now…Contagion).

Conceptually, Contagion is actually a closer cousin to The War Game, the 1965 film from director Peter Watkins that depicted, in a very stark and realistic manner, what might happen in a ‘typical’ medium-sized British city immediately following a nuclear strike. While the root cause of the respective civic crises in the two films differs, the resulting impact on the everyday populace is quite similar, and serves as a grim reminder that no matter how “civilized” we fancy ourselves to be, we are but one such catastrophic event away from complete societal breakdown.

Soderbergh’s film raises interesting questions, like, are we prepared for an event like this? If the virus is a new strain, how long would it take  to develop a vaccine? How much longer to manufacture 300 million doses? Surely, not in time to save millions of lives. And speaking of piles of corpses, how do you dispose of them, with one eye on public safety? Who’s first in line to receive the first batch of vaccine? Who decides? And, outside of Soderbergh’s narrative), the CDC isn’t one of those government agencies currently targeted for budget cuts by our Republican and Teabagger buds in Congress…is it? I wish I could reassure fellow hypochondriacs with “It’s only a movie.”  But the best I can do for now is: A gezunt Dir in Pupik!

Oh, mama…can this really be the end? – Top 10 End of the World Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 25, 2009)

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Sometimes, you see a little kicker on the evening news that puts everything into perspective. Such was the discovery this past Monday that an “object” has recently bombarded the planet Jupiter. As of this writing, experts are not sure if it was a comet, an asteroid, or whatever-but it was a doozey. By initial accounts, the impact area is nearly the size of the Earth. I’m no astronomer, but that is one big-ass event. It just makes our silly little concerns about religion, politics, war and commerce all seem so…silly, dunnit?

At any rate, the entertainment value of Armageddon (hey-there’s an upside to everything) certainly has not been lost on film makers over the years, whether it is precipitated by vengeful deities, comets, meteors, aliens, plagues or mankind’s curious propensity for continuing to seek new and improved ways of ensuring its own mass destruction. With that joyful thought in mind, I’ve assembled my Top 10 End of the World Movies, each with a suggested co-feature (make it a Theme Night!). As per usual, I am presenting the list alphabetically, in no particular preferential order. So enjoy, er…while you still can.

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The Book of Life

The WMD: An angry God

Hal Hartley’s stylish, post-modernist re-imagining of Armageddon as an existential boardroom soap may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I find it compelling. Set on New Year’s Eve, 1999, the story joins a Yuppified Jesus (Martin Donovan) as he jets in to New York with his personal assistant, Magdalena (British alt-rocker P.J. Harvey) in tow (they check in to their hotel as “Mr. and Mrs. DW Griffith”).

This is anything but your typical business trip, as J.C. is in town to do Dad’s bidding re: the Day of Judgment. The kid has his doubts, however about all this “divine vengeance crap”. His corporate rival, Satan (Thomas Jay Ryan) is also on hand to do hostile takeovers of as many souls as he can during the world’s final few hours.

Although it is not a “comedy” per se, I found the idea of Jesus carrying the Book of Life around on his laptop pretty goddam funny (“Do you want to open the 5th Seal? Yes or Cancel”). Clocking in at 63 minutes, it may be more akin to a one-act play than a full feature film narrative, but it’s deep in its own way.

Double bill: w/ The Rapture

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The Day the Earth Caught Fire

The WMD: Nuclear mishap

Written and directed by Val Guest, this cerebral mix of conspiracy a-go-go and sci-fi has always been a personal favorite. Simultaneous nuclear testing by the U.S. and Soviets triggers an alarmingly rapid shift in the Earth’s climate. As London’s weather turns more tropical by the hour, a Daily Express reporter (Peter Stenning) begins to suspect that the British government is not being 100% forthcoming on the possibly imminent fate of the world. Along the way, Stenning has some steamy scenes with his love interest (sexy Janet Munro). The film is more noteworthy for its smart, snappy patter than its run-of-the-mill f/x, but still delivers a compelling story. Co-starring master scene-stealer Leo McKern.

Double bill: w/ Until the End of the World

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Dr. Strangelove

The WMD: The Doomsday Machine

“Mein fuhrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet (knock on wood) to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic masterpiece about the propensity for those in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that you wonder why they bothered to make this shit up.

In case you are one of the three people reading this who have never seen the film, it’s about an American military base commander who goes a little funny in the head (you know…“funny”) and sort of launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Hilarity (and oblivion) ensues. You will never see a cast like this again: Peter Sellers (playing three major characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull (who can be seen breaking character as the Russian ambassador and cracking up during the scene where Strangelove’s prosthetic arm goes awry).

There are so many quotable lines, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks. I never tire of this film.

Double bill: w/ Fail Safe

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The WMD: Alien “highway” crew

The belated 2005 adaptation of satirist Douglas Adams’ classic sci-fi radio-to-book-to TV series made a few old school fans (like me) a little twitchy at first, but director Garth Jennings does an admirable job of condensing the story down to an entertaining feature length film. It’s the only “end of the world” scenario I know of where the human race buys it as the result of bureaucratic oversight (the Earth is to be “demolished” for construction of a hyperspace highway bypass; unfortunately, the requisite public notice is posted in an obscure basement-on a different planet).

Adams (who died in 2001) was credited as co-screenwriter (with Karey Kirkpatrick); but I wonder if he had final approval, as the wry “Britishness” of some of the key one liners from the original series have been dumbed down. Still, it’s a quite watchable affair, thanks to the enthusiastic cast, the imaginative special effects and (mostly) faithful adherence to the original ethos.

Double bill: w/ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Original 1981 BBC-TV series)

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Last Night

The WMD: Nebulous cosmic event

A profoundly moving low-budget wonder from writer/director/star Don McKellar. The story intimately focuses on several Toronto residents and how they choose to spend (what they know to be) their final 6 hours. You may recognize McKellar from his work with director Atom Egoyan. He must have been taking notes, because as a director, McKellar has inherited Egoyan’s quiet, deliberate way of drawing you straight into the emotional core of his characters.

Although generally somber in tone, there are some laugh-out-loud moments, funny in a wry, gallows-humor way. The powerful final scene packs an almost indescribably emotional wallop. You know you’re watching a Canadian version of the Apocalypse when the #4 song on the “Top 500 of All Time” is by… Burton Cummings!

Fantastic ensemble work from Sandra Oh, Genevieve Bujold, Callum Keith Rennie and Tracy Wright.  McKellar also throws fellow Canadian director David Cronenberg into the mix in a small role.

Double bill: w/ Night of the Comet

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Miracle Mile

The WMD: Nuclear exchange

Depending on your worldview, this is either an “end of the world” film for romantics, or the perfect date movie for fatalists. Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham give winning performances as a musician and a waitress who Meet Cute at L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits museum. But before they can hook up for their first date, Edwards stumbles onto a reliable tip that L.A. is about to get hosed…in a major way.

The resulting “countdown” scenario is a genuine, edge-of-your seat nail-biter. In fact, this modestly budgeted 90-minute thriller offers more heart-pounding excitement (and more believable characters) than any bloated Hollywood disaster epic from the likes of a Michael Bay or a Roland Emmerich. Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt stopped doing feature films after this one (his only other credit is the guilty pleasure sci-fi adventure Cherry 2000).

Double Bill: w/ One Night Stand (1984)

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Testament

The WMD: Nuclear fallout

Originally an American Playhouse presentation, this film was released to theatres and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander. Director Lynne Littman takes a low key, deliberate approach, but pulls no punches. Alexander, her husband (William DeVane) and three kids live in sleepy Hamlin, California, where afternoon cartoons are interrupted by a news flash that nuclear explosions have occurred in New York. Then there is a flash of a different kind when nearby San Francisco (where DeVane has gone on a business trip) receives a direct strike.

There is no exposition on the political climate that precipitates the attacks; this is a wise decision, as it puts the focus on the humanistic message of the film. All of the post-nuke horrors ensue, but they are presented sans the histrionics and melodrama that informs many entries in the genre. The fact that the nightmarish scenario unfolds so deliberately, and amidst such everyday suburban banality, is what makes it very difficult to shake off.

Double bill: w/ On the Beach

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The Quiet Earth

The WMD: Science gone awry (whoopsie!)

Bruno Lawrence (Smash Palace) delivers a tour de force performance in this 1985 New Zealand import, which has garnered a cult following. He plays a scientist who may (or may not) have had a hand in a government research project mishap that has apparently wiped out everyone on Earth except him. The plot thickens when he discovers that there are at least two other survivors-a man and a woman.

The three-character dynamic is reminiscent of a 1959 nuclear holocaust tale called The World, the Flesh and the Devil, but it’s safe to say that the similarities end there. By the time you reach the mind-blowing finale, you’ll find yourself closer to Andrei Tarkovsky’s territory (Solaris). Director Geoff Murphy never topped this effort; although his 1992 film Freejack, with Mick Jagger as a time-traveling bounty hunter, is worth a peek.

Double Bill: w/ The Omega Man

…or one from column “B”: The Last Man on Earth, I Am Legend

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The Andromeda Strain

The WMD: Bacteriological scourge

What’s the scariest monster of them all? It’s the one you cannot see. I’ve always considered this 1971 Robert Wise film to be the most faithful Michael Crichton book-to-screen adaptation. A team of scientists race the clock to save the world from a deadly virus from outer space that reproduces itself at an alarming speed. With its atmosphere of claustrophobic urgency (all the scientists are essentially trapped in a sealed underground laboratory until they can find a way to destroy the microbial “intruder”) it could be seen as a precursor to Alien. It’s a nail-biter from start to finish. Nelson Gidding adapted the script from Crichton’s novel. The 2008 TV movie version was a real snoozer, by the way.

Double bill: w/ 28 Days Later

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When Worlds Collide

The WMD: Another celestial body

There’s a brand new star in the sky, with its own orbiting planet. There’s good news and bad news regarding this exciting discovery. The good news: You don’t need a telescope in order to examine them in exquisite detail. The bad news: See “the good news”.

That’s the premise of this involving 1951 sci-fi yarn about an imminent collision between said rogue sun and the Earth. The scientist who makes the discovery makes an earnest attempt to warn world leaders, but is ultimately dismissed as a Chicken Little. Undaunted, he undertakes a privately-funded project to build an escape craft that can only carry several dozen of the best and the brightest to safety.

Recalling Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, the film examines the dichotomous conflict of human nature in extreme survival situations, which helps this one rise above the cheese of many other 1950s sci-fi flicks (with the possible exception of a clunky Noah’s Ark allusion). It sports pretty decent special effects for its time; especially depicting a flooded NYC (it was produced by the legendary George Pal).

Double Bill: w/ Deep Impact