Contraband


Contraband

Kate Beckinsale won't bring up The Happening if Mark Wahlberg won't bring up Underworld

(2012) Action (Universal) Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale, Ben Foster, Giovanni Ribisi, Caleb Landry Jones, Lukas Haas, Diego Luna, .J.K. Simmons, William Lucking, Kevin “Lucky” Johnson, J. Omar Castro, Olafur Darri Olafsson, David O’Hara. Directed by Baltazar Kormakur

 

Heist films can be a diamond in the rough when they’re done right or a dime a dozen when they’re not. It isn’t easy getting them right. By their definition they need to be complex and light, a snowflake of a film that doesn’t overwhelm the viewer with too many details but yet must have those details worked out in order to retain its own internal logic.

Chris Farraday (Wahlberg) is a family man who owns a home security installation company. He used to be a smuggler but got out of the business (which is dad (Lucking) is in jail for) to raise his sons and provide a stable existence for his gorgeous wife Kate (Beckinsale).

Then Kate’s screw-up of a brother Andy (Jones) does a drug smuggling run, even though he promised Chris he wouldn’t and has to dump the cargo, which leaves him $750,000 in debt to a ruthless drug dealer named Tim Briggs (Ribisi). Drug dealers are not known for being compassionate, understanding sorts and Andy is hospitalized after Briggs tries to run him down.

Chris immediately realizes that Andy’s life expectancy has decreased dramatically and tries to make amends with Briggs. However Briggs is not a man to be reasoned with and Chris realizes that he has no choice. He has to make another run. Just when he thought he was out…

The problem here is that the plot is only superficially complex. There are some scenes in Panama that include a crazed drug dealer (Luna) that seem to come from another movie. There’s no cleverness here; it’s got the touch of a blacksmith where it needs the sure hand of a surgeon. None of the characters have much dimension to them. The big plot twists are telegraphed and Da Queen guessed it about 10 minutes into the movie, which even for her is pretty early.

Wahlberg is a capable lead. He’s got an innate decency that makes him a great everyman hero. He also is capable of action hero snarkyness  – witness his line “Did you think you’re the only guy with a gun?” which is perhaps the best moment in the movie. He isn’t particularly impressive here but he isn’t a disgrace either. Beckinsale is essentially a designated victim, a far cry from the Underworld movies.

While Foster has a great deal of potential, this is essentially the same role he played in The Mechanic and he’s way better there than here. He is still fascinating, but his performance here doesn’t continue his forward movement in his career. This is an Oscar nominee who deserve better than second banana.

There are a lot of inconsistencies from the casting  – Caleb Landry Jones is to Kate Beckinsale as Lyle Lovett is to Julia Roberts – to the cinematography, which is wonderful in Panama but kind of dreary in New Orleans. The action sequences are pretty nice, when they do come but they often feel like something added on rather than something germane to the plot.

It’s innocent enough entertainment mind you – you will not feel cheated of your ten bucks admission. However, it isn’t much more so you won’t feel like you got a bargain.

REASONS TO GO: Some nice action sequences and Wahlberg is now a more than capable lead.

REASONS TO STAY: Really predictable plot and characters. Telegraphs plot points, shows signs of lazy writing.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, a whole lot of cursing and a little bit of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on the Icelandic movie Reykjavik-Rotterdam which director Kormakur starred in, the same role that Wahlberg plays here.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/16/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100. The reviews are mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gone in 60 Seconds

PANAMA CANAL LOVERS: Some very nice overhead shots of the canal are on view.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Soul Surfer

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Fast Five


Fast Five

If you don't go see Vin Diesel's new movie, Paul Walker will shoot you.

(2011) Action (Universal) Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster, Dwayne Johnson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Tyrese Gibson, Sung Kang, Joaquin de Almeida, Gal Gadot, Matt Schulze, Tego Calderon, Don Omar. Elsa Pataky, Michael Irby. Directed by Justin Lin

I’ve never been a particular fan of the Fast and Furious series. Street car racing doesn’t appeal to me much and the scene behind it really doesn’t do anything for me either. While I’ve always liked Vinnie D, Walker is a bit on the wooden side for my tastes.

So I really didn’t expect to want to go see Fast Five – I waited until the previous entries in the series were on home video in most cases before seeing them (Tokyo Drift I never saw at all). So when I found out that Dwayne Johnson was in the new one, my curiosity was piqued – Johnson is to my way of thinking the future of the action hero.

The movie takes a sharp left turn from the previous entries in the series. As it begins, Dominic Toretto (Diesel) is broken out of the prison he was being sent to at the end of the last movie. The escape is a daring one and involves his sister Mia (Brewster) and her boyfriend (and Dom’s best friend) Brian O’Conner  (Walker) – the former federal agent from the first movie – driving muscle cars recklessly to the sound of pulsating rock/rap music going to extravagant lengths to get the bus carrying Dom to crash.

Mia and Brian flee to Rio de Janeiro to meet up with Vince (Schulze), one of Dom’s crew from the first movie. Wait – ‘scuse me, he’s more than that. He’s family (as everyone who works with Dom apparently is). They’re running low on funds and on the run from the law. Vince has a job for them – stealing some cars from a moving train. Child’s play, right?

Wrong. The cars were apparently impounded by the DEA and one of them has a chip in it that contains all the secrets of the operation of Reyes (de Almeida), the drug kingpin of Rio and he’s kinda anxious to get it back – so much so that he sends out head thug Zizi (Irby) to kill everyone who gets in the way. That includes the federal agents on the train, who are murdered by Zizi and his men, although Reyes – through his control of the police and the media – makes sure that Dom, Mia and Brian are blamed.

The death of the agents is enough to make the U.S. Government sit up and take notice, so they send their most ruthless, dedicated manhunter, Hobbs (Johnson) after the trio. Hobbs is like a pit bull; he doesn’t care about guilt or innocence, he just cares about getting his man. He enlists the help of patrol officer Elena (Pataky) whose husband was gunned down in front of her doorstep (slum), prompting her to enlist in the police force. She is at least for the moment non-corrupted, her motivations to carry on in her husband’s memory. At least, I kinda think so.

Being chased from every direction makes Dom realize that in order to get out of this he’s going to need to attack the corrupt Reyes directly – and the best way to hurt him was to take his money. Thankfully, the chip tells him where it all is – sitting in a vault at Rio’s main police station. They realize they’re going to need a team in order to pull it off.

They pull friends they’ve worked with from the previous films, including Tej (Ludacris), Roman (Tyrese), Han (Kang) – who died in one of the earlier films if memory serves – Gisele (Gadot), Leo (Calderon) and Santos (Omar). They will need to be at their best to take on the corrupt Rio cops as well as Reyes’ thugs and the best protection money can buy to get at the cash – not to mention having a very angry Hobbs, whose team was killed off by Reyes, on their tail.

Those who loved the street racing element to the first four movies are going to be very disappointed with this installment. There’s only brief mention of street racing and only one scene essentially set at one. No, this is more of a heist flick, all about the car chases, the beat downs and Vin Diesel in a wifebeater.

The action sequences are beautifully choreographed and executed. There’s a chase sequence on the rooftops of Rio’s favelas (slums) that is kind of nifty, not to mention a car sequence involving two cars working in tandem dragging a bank vault through the streets of Rio. The movie has a fluid tempo that only rarely lets up. While the other F&F films were equally action-packed, they were mostly with car racing scenes but quite frankly, you can only do so many of them before they start to look the same to the untrained eye, which is what most of us have.

Diesel is solid as ever as Toretto, a role that seems perfect for Diesel’s skill sets; lots of glowering, a strong moral core and a good deal of swagger. Adding Johnson – the Rock – to the mix is a masterstroke. He and Diesel have a good deal of chemistry even in adversarial roles. The two have a big fight scene in third real that just frankly rocks; I wonder if Diesel was hoping he might get a people’s elbow at some point.

Walker is an actor who has never resonated with me, at least to this point. I’ve always found him wooden, although there’s a certain charisma that he displays from time to time. Here, I didn’t see it at all to be honest; he didn’t really add anything to a role that was pretty much has no color to it as written anyway.

While having all these extra characters from the previous films might have some nostalgia value, it rapidly becomes a “too many cooks spoil the broth” with too many characters taking too much screen time. Still, many of them (particularly Kang and Ludacris) make the most of their time onscreen.

This isn’t particularly smart filmmaking but it is solid and quite frankly, in a very disappointing first quarter of the year this is a glimmer of hope that Hollywood was looking for. The box office was the biggest so far this year, the biggest ever in the month of April and the biggest opening weekend in Universal history.  The American public seems to be waiting desperately for a movie that just blows stuff up and in that respect Fast Five delivers. It’s not a great movie but it’s a solid movie and the box office seems to be more of a commentary on the desire of the moviegoing public to see a decent action movie than an endorsement on what is an above average – but not great – movie.

REASONS TO GO: Great action sequences and Diesel vs. the Rock makes a great battle. This is by far the best movie of the series to date.

REASONS TO STAY: More of the same; muscle cars, cliché dialogue and barely-clothed women with nice butts.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and some fairly big action sequences, a bit of sexuality and plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the end credits, each of the main actors is shown with footage from their previous appearances in the series.

HOME OR THEATER: Oh, definitely the theater. It’s big, it’s brainless and it needs to be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Saw IV

Flawless (2007)


Flawless

Michael Caine and Demi Moore make their plans.

(2007) Period Crime Drama (Magnolia) Demi Moore, Michael Caine, Lambert Wilson, Nathaniel Parker, Joss Ackland, Shaughan Seymour, Nicholas Jones, David Barras. Directed by Michael Radford

Corporate stuffed shirts have always been with us, and the movies have always used them as villains; greedy, heartless and amoral. Heist films have always been a means for audiences to vicariously thrill to these individuals getting their comeuppance, although in real life they almost never do.

Then again, this isn’t real life although to the filmmaker’s credit, it sure feels that way. Laura Quinn (Moore) is a bit of a rarity; a female executive at a London diamond exchange circa 1960. While she is clearly capable and even, in many ways, superior to her peers, she continues to knock her stiff raven-shaded bouffant against the glass ceiling. She wants nothing more than to get ahead to prove to herself that she is capable and in many ways superior, but all her long nights of chain-smoking, fretting over reports and bantering with Hobbs (Caine), a friendly night janitor, have gotten her nowhere.

To add insult to injury, she discovers that she is about to be fired by the very people who stole her ideas and then took credit for them. At first, when Hobbs – who is much more than he seems – comes to her to propose a quiet little robbery of just a few gems (which the exchange would hardly miss but would set up the both of them for life), she is appalled but as she realizes that she has no future at the exchange, she finally relents.

What follows is pretty much a standard caper film. Radford, who directed the far superior Il Postino, is certainly a capable hand at the game but to be honest, the movie suffers from the same petrifaction that permeates the London diamond exchange depicted here.

Most of that is due to Moore, who operates as if a wax figure from Tussaud’s. Rarely does she betray any emotion, some of which could be attributed to the stiff upper lip mentality of the Britain of that time, but even when she is displaying emotion it rings false. Perhaps it’s her truly atrocious accent that brings that feel along.

Fortunately, the movie also has Caine, who has fun with the grandfatherly cockney who hides a brilliant strategist with an axe to grind. Caine seems to be having more fun than everyone else in the movie combined, and for my money the movie could have used a good deal more of that sense. Far too much of the movie comes off as stodgy.

While the scenes of the actual heist build credible suspense, it is the first reel and the last where the movie falls a bit. While the movie succeeds in creating the era and brings the sexual discrimination card into play, it never really captured my imagination nor grabbed the heart the way better heist films like The Bank Job and 11 Harrowhouse did. Fans of movies like The Sting and the Oceans trilogy will find this lifeless, but that’s somewhat unfair of a comparison. The movie is solid but unspectacular, and lacks the kind of twist that these types of films really call for.

WHY RENT THIS: A capably executed jewelry heist film that brings to mind The Bank Job albeit in a stuffier vein. Michael Caine is, as always, impeccable. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: No new ground is broken here. Moore never really gives me a sense of who her character is.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is a bit foul in places but otherwise this is suitable for all teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michael Caine’s grandfather had a similar job to Hobbs.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.8M on an unreported production budget; My guess is that the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Objective

Ladron Que Roba a Ladron


Ladron Que Roba a Ladron

Danny Ocean ain't got nothin' on us.

(Lionsgate) Fernando Colunga, Miguel Varoni, Julio Gonzalo, Oscar Torre, Gabriel Soto, Ivonne Montero, Saul Lisazo, Ruben Garifias, Sonya Smith. Directed by Joe Menendez

The best way to get away with something is to escape notice. The least likely suspects are the perfect cover for the perfect heist.

Alejandro Toledo (Colunga) and Emilio Lopez (Varoni) are con artists, and they’re pretty damn good. They’ve snuck into the United States to take on a target that has some particular meaning to them – Moctesuma Valdez (Lisazo), a Latino infomercial king who preys on his own community, advertising ludicrous products that purport to reverse hair loss, relieve arthritis and even cure cancer. None of them work, of course. He’s made millions but because he distrusts banks, has it all stored in a vault deep in his Los Angeles mansion. Toledo and Lopez want it all.

Part of their zeal is personal – Valdez used to be a member of their crew. However, the current members of their crew don’t want anything to do with this caper; it’s far too risky and their ploy of having the crew pose as day laborers doesn’t appeal to the professional villains. So, rather than throwing in the towel, they recruit actual day laborers with a particular set of skills; an unemployed actor and master of disguise (Torre), a sexy mechanic (Montero) and her valet father (Garifias), and a ditch digger and tunneling expert (Soto).

The two masterminds come up with a brilliant plan, but they need people who have never before committed a criminal act in their lives to be cool as cucumbers under pressure. The stakes are high, but the payoff is worth the risk.

Menendez is mostly known for his television work, both in the young adult and Latin genres but he shows a surprisingly deft touch here. The movie balances the heist elements with a light comedic touch and even a bit of social commentary, as the status of illegals and day workers as non-people in this country are aired.

This is a bit of Oceans 11 lite, albeit on a less ambitious scale – which I guess is what lite implies anyway. While Danny Ocean robbed casinos to open his ex-wife’s eyes about the man she was with (which I suppose is a cause), there is a kind of Robin Hood feel to this one as the crew are fighting to protect the exploitation of desperate Latinos.

The cast are mostly veterans of Latin American television, both here in the States and south of the border as well. Some of them are extremely well-known in the Latin community but are for the most part largely unknown to mainstream audiences. However, they acquit themselves well and several of them – particularly Montero and Colunga – could cross over to more mainstream movies very easily without missing a beat and find a lot of success in doing it.

I knew very little about the movie other than the translation of the title which is loosely “It takes a thief to steal from a thief” so I was pleasantly surprised by this one. It’s not a game-changer mind you – it’s a little bit too much of a niche film for that, but still in all it’s entertaining, packs a great deal of charm, is smartly written and well-acted. That’s the recipe for a good movie whatever the language.

WHY RENT THIS: Surprisingly charming and well-written, you find yourself drawn into the story and the characters.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie suffers a little bit from Oceans 11 envy.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of sexuality here and some course language but otherwise pretty well acceptable for almost every audience.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the crew was largely English-speaking, the movie is shot entirely in Spanish and no translated scripts were provided to the crew, so they were unaware what the plot and story points were; they were also unaware of how popular the cast, largely stars from Mexican telenovelas were and they would be dumbfounded when the shoot would have large crowds of Mexican housewives trying to get glimpses of the cast.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.9M on an unreported production budget; judging on the way the movie looked, I’d guess it made some money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Mister Foe