CONTAGION (2011). 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!"
Extras in the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack (which also contains an UltraViolet digital copy) include a making-of featurette and a piece on the real science of global viruses.
THE EXPENDABLES (2010). The Truth In Advertising award for 2010 went to The Expendables, which employs (however unintentionally) its own title to push the fact that this is a disposable action film that will dissipate from memory almost immediately. Its primary — make that only — selling point is its large cast of macho action stars ... but the truth only goes as far as the DVD box cover. As the leader of a group of mercenaries hired to take down a South American dictator, Sylvester Stallone is almost always front and center, but those expecting him to share significant screen time with fellow Big Boys Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger will be disappointed that the other two are only in one scene. And really, is it that big a deal to have a cast that includes Steve Austin, Randy Couture and Terry Crews? These guys would line up for a straight-to-DVD American Pie sequel if asked. Nobody goes to this type of movie for the acting, but given the lack of excitement in most of the action scenes (more mano-a-mano skirmishes would have better served the film rather than the ceaseless gunfire and explosions), there's little else to discuss. Faring best are Jason Statham and Mickey Rourke; delivering the worst performance is Dolph Lundgren, who apparently hasn't learned a single thing after 25 years in the business.
The Expendables is being re-released in an Extended Director's Cut that runs 11 minutes longer than the original version. Blu-ray extras include an introduction by Stallone; a feature-length making-of documentary; the featurette Sylvester Stallone: A Director in Action; and the music video for Sully Erna's "Sinner's Prayer."
THE GUARD (2011). Nobody can curse like the Irish, and that's proven again in The Guard, in which the various characters turn profanity into an art form. But this delightful endeavor, written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, doesn't just provide an amusing workout for the R-rating; instead, it's a savagely clever yarn that manages to tweak genre staples before burying them completely. In Sergeant Gerry Boyle, Brendan Gleeson (recently earning a Golden Globe nomination for this performance) finds a great character to inhabit, and he's dynamic as the rural cop who doesn't let much ruffle his feathers — not even murder. When FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) appears on the scene to investigate drug smuggling, the two engage in a testy relationship made strenuous by Boyle's mock-racist cracks ("Did you grow up in the projects?") and Everett's big-city-superiority routine. Meanwhile, the villains (Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong and David Wilmot) conduct their business as usual, taking time out to philosophize, criticize, and grow exasperated at the weaker minds surrounding them. Naturally, it all leads to a final showdown, but most viewers won't be prepared for the capper. The Guard is terrific entertainment — in fact, look for it on my 10 Best Films of 2011 list in next week's issue of Creative Loafing.