DVD/Blu-ray Reviews of "I Don't Know How She Does It" and "Contagion"

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This just in, women with children and a husband can have careers, too! Based on Allison Pearson’s British bestseller and adapted by Aline Brosh (you got it, the writer of “The Devil Wears Prada” and “27 Dresses”), “I Don’t Know How She Does It” isn’t a bogus he-man woman hater nor is it nearly as insightful or timely as it thinks it is, just outdated. The “she” in question is Kate Reddy (Sarah Jessica Parker), a harried, multitasking working mother who busts her butt at a Boston investment banking firm. There’s rarely time to have sex with her handsome architect husband (Greg Kinnear) or spend time with her two children, who get more attention from their 19-year-old nanny (Jessica Szohr). Barely getting a full night’s sleep, she makes to-do lists in her head. As we’re told…face to face…from her best friend Allison (Christina Hendricks), a working single mom, Kate makes juggling work and family look easy. But when she’s chosen to pitch a new project, there’s no spontaneity, or free time to go to the movies or go bowling, just business trips back and forth from Boston to New York City to work with head office boss Jack Abelhammer (Pierce Brosnan) on a fund presentation. As Kate is left balancing holidays, her kids’ birthday parties, and yet missing out on her youngest’s first haircut, she struggles to juggle it all.

With the voice-over musings and talking-head confessional device, “I Don’t Know How She Does It” is a “Sex and the City” episode if Carrie Bradshaw was married and lost her edge (and sex drive) for motherhood and kindergarten bake sales. Director Douglas McGrath (2006’s “Infamous”) intersperses the characters’ testimonials almost consistently, nearly everyone in the cast talking to the camera, except for Kinnear and Brosnan, as Kate’s cheerleaders or experts on juggling. There are even times (though employed more sparingly) where Parker freezes time and the people around her, like a tableau for an aside in a play, and by breaking the fourth wall, addresses the camera. This cutesy approach adds a sitcommish sensibility, as does that same jaunty, bumbling music score we get time and time again in chick-lit comedies like this.

Kate is a feminist workhorse, to the point that she has to hide her vibrating cell phone, but Parker gratefully gives the role a relatability with none of Bradshaw’s navel-gazing or lavish “What Not To Wear” wardrobe. Fixing her bunched-up undies to scratching her toddler’s lice out of her hair to stumbling into an elevator with a bouquet of balloons, Parker flounces about with charm. Red-haired beauty Hendricks is likable but underused as Kate’s Cynthia Nixon/Miranda-type bestie, but Olivia Munn gets all the tartly funny, Emily Blunt-ish moments as Kate’s emotionless, anti-children-and-marriage assistant Momo (“Lots of people have babies as mistakes. Maybe my baby will turn into Justin Bieber. He started out as a mistake, now he’s a billionaire.”). Kinnear is his appealing self but his Richard has no other defining traits than “successful” and “devoted,” and Brosnan could play the role of charming cad in his sleep, here as Mr. Abelhammer. Busy Phillips is game in bitchy caricature mode as a stay-at-home “momster” perpetually living on the stairmaster, and Seth Meyers (SNL’s “Weekend Update”) plays “full-of-himself prick” well as an office brown-noser.

It’s at least nice to know that not every female-empowerment tale has to betray its leading lady by having her betray her man. Kate is merely faced with the temptation of getting busy with Jack, but never acts upon it. Instead of racing across the city to get to her Mr. Big, Kate runs under Christmas trees and through crowds, but stopping to donate to a bell-ringing greeter, because she has to go make a snowman. As little as it knows about real workaholic women, “I Don’t Know How She Does It” is still benign and watchable but as bland as a loaf of Wonderbread.

89 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C

Have you ever thought about what you touch daily? Door knobs. Bar peanuts. Hotel phones. Bus railings. Elevator buttons. Credit cards. Did you realize that a movie theater is the dirtiest of public places? And yet, that’s where you’ll be seeing “Contagion,” a cautionary tale about widespread disease and social distancing. As Steven Spielberg used a mechanical great white for “Jaws” that forced moviegoers to steer clear of the water, director Steven Soderbergh uses mundane daily life to make us want to build up our immune system in “Contagion.” It all starts with a cough. “Day 2” is when we first meet Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), looking sick as a dog and talking to her lover over the phone before her flight back home to Chicago from a business retreat in Hong Kong. She claims to just have “jet lag,” but after flu symptoms, a seizure, and her hospital death, Beth becomes Patient Zero of an epidemic.

Somehow, she has passed the contagion onto an Ukranian model, an Asian casino server, and so on and so forth. Sent to Beth’s home Minneapolis by Atlanta’s Centers for Disease Control’s Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) intends to why how the disease was spread before more die. She tells skeptical medical administrators a statistic that will make you think twice: We touch our face 2 to 3,000 times a day. Her big challenge is setting up quarantine shelters and treating everyone, including Beth’s husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), who must put his wife and step-son to rest. Of the World Health Organization, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) is sent to Hong Kong to pinpoint the origin of the virus. Immune to the disease, Mitch becomes overprotective of his teenage daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) from coming in contact with her boyfriend. In San Francisco, skeezy, rabble-rousing blogger Alan (Jude Law with bad teeth) tries stealing the spotlight when posting the first web video of the infected dying. He hypes up a cure and blames Cheever and the CDC for keeping an antidote from the public. As infected clusters continue spreading to Tokyo, Chicago, and London, lab researcher Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) tests for a vaccine, which will take months to get approved.

For an ensemble piece overspread with a top-notch cast, “Contagion” is the upcoming “New Year’s Eve” of viral outbreak movies. Scott Z. Burns’ screenplay weighs the importance of certain characters, which sometimes means losing sight of cast members, and never turns anyone into a movie hero, which might turn away the rarest Michael Bay fan. It’s hard to jump right in and connect with all of the characters, which are mostly kept at arm’s length, but the epidemic takes precedence over all the human drama anyway. Paltrow is a good sport to show her unglamorous side, act out a seizure, and have her head undergo a post-mortem exam. Being the contagion’s entry point, her presence lingers over the film even after she’s gone. Damon’s Mitch receives the most emotional investment and sharpest arc. Nearing the breaking point of his grief, Mitch will never know for sure if Beth was faithful or not as he flips through pictures of his wife on her camera. Winslet is excellent as the selfless humanitarian Mears, whose thread compels right to the sobering end. Fishburne is solid as the compassionate Cheever, who tells his girlfriend (Sanaa Lathan) to get out of Chicago before the city is quarantined. Cotillard is strong as always, but once her character gets thrown for a surprise loop that stresses a queasy feeling, there is no real resolution. Ehle is a standout, confidently eloquent and super-smart as the doc that puts it all together (“The wrong pig met up with the wrong bat”). Character actors Elliott Gould, John Hawkes, and Brian Cranston also turn up in small turns but hit their mark.

Eerily realistic, tensely riveting, and intelligently written, “Contagion” is a docudrama that exists in a reality once threatened by SARS and the H1N1 swine flu. It never becomes the fully fledged, hysteria-filled apocalyptic horror film that it lazily could have been. Soderbergh acts as his own cinematographer, each scene precisely crafted with a cool efficiency that complements his clinical tone and pathological exposition. Cliff Martinez’s thumping, electronic music score keeps the tension taut. By the last reel, “Contagion” circle-backs to “Day 1” to solve the mystery, and it should make one gasp. Now wash your hands!

105 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: A –

 

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