Video Verdict: ‘Contagion,’ ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,’ ‘I Don’t Know How She Does It’

Matt Damon, right, and Anna Jacoby-Heron try to survive a deadly viral outbreak in “Contagion.”

This week’s home video releases range from a lightweight tribute to working mothers to a terrifying thriller about a fictionalized pandemic.

Contagion

3½ stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for disturbing content and some language
Warner Brothers
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray and digital download

Steven Soderbergh has a catalog of great movies, including “Traffic” (2000), “Erin Brockovich” (2000), “Ocean’s 11” (2001) and “The Informant!” (2009). Now, he can add “Contagion” to that list.

The film takes a multi-pronged look at the spread of a virus that kills within days and leaves international healthcare professionals baffled. Viewers first meet Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), a travelling businesswoman who returns to her Minneapolis home after a trip to Hong Kong. After suffering a seizure, she dies in the emergency room, leaving her husband (Matt Damon) baffled. In the meantime, people from around the globe begin succumbing to similar symptoms, convincing professionals from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization that a pandemic is imminent.

The movie follows its characters, including doctors played by Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard and Kate Winslet, as they try to grasp the severity of the situation. Soderbergh also considers the broad social consequences of an uncontrolled outbreak. Normally right-thinking people – even those who aren’t infected – begin to panic, and a crusading blogger (Jude Law) begins to command the respect that only medical professionals typically receive.

Soderbergh has always been good at taking expansive issues and filtering them through a personal lens, and he does that here. A number of the characters demonstrate how terrifying a global epidemic would actually be and how helpless a simple virus can make even the most educated and affluent individuals.

The cast, which also features John Hawkes, Elliott Gould and Bryan Cranston, is a fantastic group, which is important because no single character is central to the movie’s success. Despite the talent in every realm of production, it’s Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns who deserve the bulk of the credit. Without proper guidance, a film like “Contagion” could have easily bogged down in technical details or simply become irredeemably gloomy. Soderbergh and Burns avoid those trappings, delivering a film that is appropriately somber, yet never overbearing or dull.

DVD extras include a short on how viruses can change the world.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

2½ stars
Rated R for violence and terror
Sony
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray and digital download

The original “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” was a 1973 TV movie that became a cult favorite among horror fans, so it’s no surprise that Guillermo del Toro was compelled to bring it to the big screen. Del Toro, the director of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Mimic” and both “Hellboy” movies, is a horror guru, and he acknowledges that the original “Dark” was a childhood favorite. Fortunately, his remake is entertaining enough that it might, in turn, affect future generations of filmmakers.

This new version of “Dark” is imperfect, but it’s also creepy enough to merit a viewing, even though Del Toro served only as co-writer and producer. The directorial reigns were handed to Troy Nixey, a newcomer who does a reasonably good job with the fanciful material.

The story centers on Kim and Alex (Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce), a couple who renovate homes for a living. When Alex’s troubled daughter, Sally, comes to live with them, strange happenings plague the historic Rhode Island home they’re working on. Although Kim and Alex don’t initially realize it, viewers see that the house is full of tiny, malevolent creatures who want to steal Sally away.

Nixey does a reasonably good job setting the scene and an excellent job with special effects. The creatures in the movie are so small that they could be laughable, but Nixey makes them appropriately scary by demonstrating that they are eerily smart and stealthy.

The human characters, on the other hand, aren’t so sharp. Thinking viewers will find it frustrating that Kim, Alex and Sally make one silly decision after another, but it’s hard to beat a film up over something like that. It’s a tradition for the victims of a horror film to make dumb decisions. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be victims.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a three-part making-of documentary.

I Don’t Know How She Does It

2 stars
Rated PG-13 for sexual references throughout
Anchor Bay
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

Director Douglas McGrath’s “I Don’t Know How She Does It” is a respectable tribute to working mothers, but it is not particularly insightful or engaging. Based on the novel by Allison Pearson, the film spends most of its time reinforcing the fact that women who balance careers and child rearing have a lot on their plates. Although this is a worthy message, it’s hardly breaking news. It doesn’t help that this common-sense mantra is hammered home by a group of characters who seem more like cartoon figures than actual people.

At the heart of the action is Kate Reddy (Sarah Jessica Parker), a Boston finance executive trying to keep her husband (Greg Kinnear) and two children happy while pursuing a significant opportunity at work. This means balancing school bake sales and lice outbreaks with important business meetings led by a powerful New York associate (Pierce Brosnan).

All the actors are likable, and they prevent the film from becoming disastrous, but there’s no real depth. Brosnan’s character is a typical old-school charmer, willing to overlook an employee’s quirks in favor of his/her talents. Kinnear is the perfect husband, always ready to say the right thing at the right time while making sure his children are cared for. Parker’s reading of Kate comes closer to real life, but even she feels like the prototypical working mother.

Along with this, McGrath allows his tale to unspool with an unusual mix of linear storytelling, first-person voiceovers and documentary-style interviews. Why the audience receives so many viewpoints is never explained, and the result is a convoluted structure that feels inauthentic.

There’s little doubt that working women will identify with Kate’s dilemma. They may even laugh as they recognize bits of themselves in her struggle. What they may not appreciate is the neat and tidy conclusion that seems at home in the movies but isn’t easily achieved in real life.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a conversation with Pearson.

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“The Guard”: Irish comedy about a policeman (Brendan Gleeson) and FBI agent (Don Cheadle) who team up to bust a drug smuggling ring. Gleeson received a best comedic actor Golden Globe nomination for his performance in the film. Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh.

“Mildred Pierce”: HBO miniseries based on the 1941 novel by James M. Cain. The series, like the book, is focused on a single mother (Kate Winslet) struggling to survive and maintain the affection of her daughter in Depression-era Los Angeles. The series was nominated for 21 Emmys and won five, including best actress in a miniseries for Winslet and best supporting actor in a miniseries for Guy Pearce.

“Shark Night”: Horror film about a group of college students who discover that the Louisiana lake they are partying on is filled with man-eating sharks. Sara Paxton, Sinqua Walls and Katharine McPhee star. Directed by David R. Ellis (“Snakes on a Plane”).

“The Fat Boy Chronicles”: Inspirational drama about a teen boy who doesn’t allow bullying to prevent him from reaching his goals. Christopher Rivera stars. Directed by Jason Winn.

“Justified” – The Complete Second Season: More episodes of the FX series starring Timothy Olyphant as a modern U.S. Marshal with old-school sensibilities. Nick Searcy, Joelle Carter, Jacob Pitts and Erica Tazel also star. Based on a short story and two novels by Elmore Leonard.

Miramax romantic comedies on Blu-ray: With Valentine’s Day around the corner, Lionsgate is bringing two Miramax romance films to Blu-ray for the first time: “Serendipity” and “She’s All That.” “Serendipity”  stars John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale as a couple who share a special evening but leave their relationship to fate. “She’s All That” features Freddie Prinze Jr. as a popular teen who wagers that he can turn any classmate into the school prom queen.

— Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. E-mail him at forrest@forresthartman.com.

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