Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Sept. 21 | Film Clips | Creative Loafing Charlotte

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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Sept. 21

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CONTAGION An entertaining if unwieldy cross between a PSA and one of those all-star idiocies from the 1970s — those disaster flicks involving hijacked planes, hurtling meteors or towering infernos — Steven Soderbergh's Contagion tracks the entire cycle of a disease that begins with one person and ends with the deaths of millions of people worldwide. Episodic in the extreme, the picture mostly follows the scientists and health officials tasked with finding a cure — considering that Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet and Jennifer Ehle are cast in these roles, one gets the impression that being a physical beauty is a requisite to landing these sorts of jobs. Representing Everyman, meanwhile, is Matt Damon, an ordinary joe whose wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) is the first victim of the disease (that's no spoiler, as she dies within the film's first 10 minutes and is sporadically seen in flashback thereafter). And then there's the online activist (Jude Law) who believes that it's all some government conspiracy and states that he possesses a tried and true antidote. While it's comforting to see all these fine actors gathered in one place (the cast also includes Laurence Fishburne, Elliott Gould and Winter's Bone Oscar nominee John Hawkes), the film simply doesn't have enough time to properly devote to each of these characters, meaning we only get broad strokes rather than emotional investment (one likable character dies off-screen without our knowing it, with his/her passing barely mentioned). Where the film works best is in its condemnation of the all-mighty power of the Internet and its self-proclaimed prophets, as repped by Law's opportunistic and misleading blogger. If nothing else, Contagion will at least be remembered for the great line uttered by one of its brainiac characters: "Blogging isn't writing; it's graffiti with punctuation!" **1/2

COWBOYS & ALIENS Cowboys & Aliens boasts a high-concept hook (and moniker) so obvious and promising that it's amazing this angle wasn't first tackled at least 30 years ago. Instead, this hybrid of two genres beloved by Old Hollywood (Westerns) and New Hollywood (science fiction) is based on a graphic novel that was released five years ago, and even at that, director Jon Favreau and his army of writers elected to toss out almost everything except the bare bones premise of, yes, cowboys and aliens mixing it up. The movie works best toward the beginning, before potential gives way to actual execution. In the rocky New Mexico Territory of 1875, Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up with no memory of his identity or what led him to this spot; all he knows is that there's an unusual metallic contraption wrapped around his left wrist. He stumbles into a nearby town, where he soon meets (among others) the powerful Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) and the mysterious Ella (Olivia Wilde) — and then the aliens show up to wreak havoc. Any movie teaming James Bond with Han Solo certainly sounds like a can't-miss, and the two stars ably fill their roles. But the picture rarely finds imaginative ways to merge its disparate trappings — this past spring's animated yarn Rango did a far superior job of placing fantastical characters in a Western setting — and it soon settles into a deadening, repetitive pattern of one protagonist about to be offed by an alien before being saved at the last millisecond by another of the heroes. By the time Jake and company are tangling with e.t.'s in cavernous surroundings (in scenes eerily similar to those in the more accomplished Super 8), it's apparent that the picture's authors have elected to merely plug in conventional story devices that would have worked just as well in movies named Cops & Barracudas or Doctors & Hornets or even Accountants & Amoebas. **


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