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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Nov. 9 

ABDUCTION Sure, it's easy to pick on the Twilight guy. Because who's gonna rush to his defense other than smitten Team Jacob fans? Make no mistake about it: Abduction, in which Taylor Lautner is handed his first starring role in a motion picture, will never, ever, ever be mistaken for a good movie. But the declarations (from critics and Twilight bashers alike) that it's the worst picture of the year strike me as armchair grandstanding — hey, it may star a wooden werewolf, but at least it's thankfully free of any zoo animals who talk like Sylvester Stallone and Adam Sandler. John Singleton, whose Boyz N The Hood remains continents removed from most of his subsequent work, slides further into irrelevance with a Junior G-Men-type tale that features a stellar supporting cast, some decent action sequences, and a leading man who reacts to every dire situation as if he's just been asked to clean his room. Lautner plays Nathan, a high school kid who has Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) for a psychiatrist and Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs) and the Coyote Ugly bar owner (Mario Bello) for parents. When he and his classmate Karen (Lily Collins, whose performance is about as monotonous as most of daddy Phil's music) embark on a school assignment that inexplicably leads them to do research on a missing persons web page, they discover an old photo of a little boy who looks like a pre-Taylor Lautner Taylor Lautner. IMs are swapped, Euro-trash baddies arrive to blow up the house, and suddenly Nathan and Karen find themselves on the run. As these crazy kids try to discover why Nathan is being pursued by grown men who are clearly not Stephenie Meyer devotees, they must also decide whether or not to trust Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), the CIA agent assigned to the case. Fifteen years later, I still fondly recall the priceless Siskel & Ebert moment when Roger Ebert dismisses the action flick Fled by stating, "I guess it sort of holds your attention while it's happening. I mean, something is moving on the screen, so you look to see what it is." (To which a laughing Gene Siskel retorts, "What a compliment!") Abduction inspires the same level of commitment: You look at the screen mainly because it beats staring at the auditorium walls. *1/2

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

THE DEBT Don't be turned off by the worrisome facts that its release date has kept changing, it's already made the global rounds since last September, and it's being buried with an end-of-summer release date. An English-language remake of a 2007 Israeli film of the same name, The Debt is actually a compelling thriller that features a topnotch cast and able direction by Shakespeare in Love helmer John Madden. In 1966, Mossad agents Stephan (Marton Csokas), Rachel (Jessica Chastain) and David (Sam Worthington) are tasked with locating and bringing to justice Dieter Vogel (a chilling Jesper Christensen), a Nazi madman who, like Josef Mengele, conducted gruesome experiments on Jews during the war. Thirty years later, the Israeli agents (now played by, respectively, Tom Wilkinson, Helen Mirren and Ciaran Hinds) are still celebrated for their heroic achievements in East Berlin back in the day. But something is clearly troubling two members of the team, and as the film smoothly moves back and forth between eras, it becomes clear that there's more to the saga than what the world knows. For the first hour, The Debt delivers on its growing mystery and its punchy suspense, with Madden further wringing a real sense of stifling confinement as the young agents are forced to shack up in a grubby apartment with their bound captive. Once all questions have been addressed, the story's third-act shenanigans become increasingly fanciful and aren't as gripping as what preceded them, although they still bring the story to a reasonably acceptable conclusion. The entire cast is excellent — even the usually vanilla Worthington — although the MVP is clearly Chastain. Already the breakout star of the summer thanks to The Help and The Tree of Life, she's the vital center of this picture. Not just anybody can convincingly play the great Helen Mirren as a young woman, but Jessica Chastain pulls it off without breaking stride. ***

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  • On Saturday, Oct. 21, hundreds gathered at Camp North End on Statesville Avenue for Charlotte's first black alternative music festival. We captured some of the bands in action on stage, but mostly we surveyed the grounds as fans, families, vendors and more lounged around the sprawling, colorful Camp North End site. It was a great day of music, food, fun, and sweet, autumn sunshine. (Photos by Mark Kemp)
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