Contraband

This is one of those movies that you don’t really have great expectations for, but that satisfies in the way a good hamburger does. When you want what you want, it fills the bill. There is progesterone fueled, tension filled capers and clever plot twists that are not always logical but work anyway. All of it is served up by a competent cast in a well paced couple of hours. I may not hold onto anything here for very long, but that may make the movie very re-watchable because it just meets our needs rather than our hopes.

I have not always been a Mark Walberg fan, but starting with “Boogie Nights” he has gotten better and better. He was overshadowed by the performance of his acting partner Christian Bale in last years “The Fighter”, but he was top notch and probably deserved a nomination like almost everyone else in the cast got. This is a part that he can do in his sleep now, the tough guy with a family and a heart of gold. He has more heart and common sense than the other characters in the movie and of course he is the luckiest criminal in the world. Every time something goes wrong, he is johnny on the spot with a solution and good timing. Like most caper films, a lot goes wrong here.   So we get to see him improvise and take advantage of his bad luck and turn it around.

J.K. Simmons is in the movie and while not the bad guy, he plays a pretty unlikable fellow pretty well. His story gets a bit of a nice resolution which satisfies a old family debt that you won’t remember was there from early in the movie. Giovanni Ribisi is playing a patented scumbag character that he can do so well. He does not get to do much more than glower though because in the long run there are other issues that the set up wants us to be looking for. There are a couple of unbelievable outcomes in the movie that may be tempered because the audience has a stake in some of these characters, and I guess it makes the resolution more palatable, but the film loses any real tough guy veneer as a consequence. It is Hollywood action that we are getting, not some indie that wants us to suffer for our entertainment. Ben Foster is getting to be a stereotype in this kind of movie and he should be careful because he may end up pigeonholed in this part for the rest of his career. I was surprised to see Lukas Haas from “Witness” as one of the crew and Walberg’s brother. He and Walberg  play off of each other pretty well in some intense scenes set in Panama City.

There are a couple of schools of thought about crime movies, one says that we should go ahead and accept the anti-hero as our character and use that as our passage through the story. The other sees these characters as a morality play that warns us of the consequences of living a bad life. I wish more people saw “Scarface” as the morality tail it is supposed to be rather than the hero worshiped scum bag that today’s “gangsta” culture has made it. This movie does make contact with the criminal world look unpleasant, but of course it gives a a resolution that is pure Hollywood wish fulfillment. It is not a big idea movie, it is a well made thriller with the requisite hard ass dialogue to sustain the modern audience. I had a giant Coke Zero and a box of Junior Mints to go with this Big Mac, you might like it better with something salty, but you will be satisfied if not really balanced with this movie meal.

Advertisements

The Grey

When I first saw the poster for the movie, and then the trailer, I thought “The Grey” referred to the wolf that is tracking Liam Neeson throughout the movie. Having seen the film, I now feel the title is a bit more ambiguous, just as the color is somewhere between black and white, the subject here is really the middle ground between having a life or giving up on life. This is a man versus nature story, but it is not just an action flick. There is some thoughtful mediation on what makes us human and what life is worth in the long run. It sometimes runs into cliche, but it is never boring and at least the film makers were trying to say something while entertaining us.

At the center of the movie is the great Liam Neeson, an actor I first noticed way back in “Excalibur” in 1981. He has been known as a dramatic actor primarily for films like “Schindler’s List” and “Michael Collins”, but I know that he was always an action guy since he is Darkman. Three years ago in the movie “Taken”, he laid claim to the mantle of action badass, and each January since then we have been rewarded with an action loaded film. This movie is solid and it also contains what may be Neeson’s best work on screen. It is a physical role to be sure, but he gets many chances to show us what is in a man’s heart and head as well as his hands. There is a scene early on, where he confronts a dying man, he does not coddle him, he does not lie to him, he tells the truth in a way that all people who respect life want us to feel. Later in the movie he gets a chance to back up his words with deeds, but that one quiet scene and his gentile and serious voice go a long way in showing us that the alpha is not necessarily the biggest bully but can be the one with the biggest heart.

In the 1970s, I saw Richard Harris as “A Man Called Horse” and as the “Man in the Wilderness”. He was the king of determination against the elements back then. Neeson takes over this role and lives it to it’s fullest. There are not huge surprises in the movie. Those of you who watch the trailer know that it basically pits a group of survivors of a plane crash, against a pack of wolves defending their territory. To complicate matters the battle takes place in the frozen wilderness of Alaska, so the threat of death does not come just from the lupine adversaries but the weather itself. Neeson’s character doesn’t know everything, but he has the common sense that others in the situation don’t always show. He also has a strange determination to continue to fight because as we see early in the film, he is ambivalent about continuing to simply exist. None of the guys who survive the crash is a sniveling coward, but some of them have given up and some feel so frustrated by their circumstances that they become a pain in the ass. We don’t get to know them as well as we could because the story keeps pushing us forward, and the small bits of character have to come from very brief moments.

The special effects are harrowing in the plane crash and creepy at night as the band is stalked by the pack. There are some pretty gruesome deaths, which make the story all the more frighting because they are rendered in a very realistic way. It almost makes you glad for those characters who are lost without the violence of having their throats ripped out by wolves. There are a couple of scenes in which man is pitted against man, but it never comes to a violent confrontation, just an emotional one. There is very little doubt that the stronger spirit here is the one that drives our involvement with the story. Each of the actors in the final group gets a chance to show what they are capable of as performers. I was impressed by the quiet work of Dallas Roberts and the more flamboyant performance of Frank Grillo. Both of these guys are supporting actors that should work more in more prominent roles.

I don’t know how everyone else will feel about the way the story goes. Looking back over the set up it seems the right resolution, but it may be confounding to many. The moral principles that crop up at times may seem like they are mocking the universe and God, but in the long run it is more complex than that. Each man’s spirit is freed in a manner that befits the situation. Neeson, being the main character gets the strongest spiritual journey, and in the long run it is the one that is most satisfying. There is nothing of cliche in his actions, and the dilemma of “the grey” is resolved very effectively. 

Haywire

Fridays in January are for action films. That is just a personal preference and it seems that Hollywood tends to agree. We get a lot of releases at this time of year that are geared to simple, mindless butt-kicking action. I am anticipating my annual Liam Neeson fix next week, and I am not a fan of the Underworld movies, so this was on the table. The director Steven Soderbergh, has made a lot of films that I have enjoyed. Most of them are character and dialogue driven. They have clever plots and lines to make the movie flow. This film is neither dialogue heavy or full of characterization. I think you can see some of the limitations of his work in this movie. It is a good film, and the story is intricate but as an action film it lacks the drive and rhythms that most of us crave.

Ever since Pulp Fiction, I have noticed that movies and TV shows have employed time shifting story development on a frequent basis. Sometimes it adds to the drama as we anticipate the situation we started in, sometimes it is a humorous device to reveal how foolish the characters have been and sometimes it is simply not necessary. This is one of those movies which employs this device but has no real reason to do so except that it seems a stylish choice. Nothing was added by the back and forth jumps in the story and it made a somewhat confusing spy betrayal story even more confusing. Dramas and comedies can probably make this technique work, but action films need a rhythm to them and this movie never seems to develop any rhythm.

The main feature of the film is the star, a woman who is apparently a Mixed Martial Arts fighter. She has a striking look but is definitely not the typical Hollywood beauty. It appears that instead of casting for a actress who can fight they cast  a fighter who can act a little. Gina Carano is clearly a badass, She handles the stunts and fight sequences really well. There are several really well staged fights in the film, including one that opens the film in a dinner and another one that takes place in a hotel room. The hand to hand combat is brutal and realistic with the exception that most action films have, the participants all stand up to a lot more physical abuse than is ever apparent five minutes after the scene is supposed  to be finished. The main problem with the story is that it really just consists of one chase after another and then a fight scene. Because it is hard to tell where the plot is headed and why, the sequences feel like time killers until the next point of exposition. There is a lot of exposition. People talk on in long sequences without always revealing what the audience needs to anticipate the next action scene.

It was an interesting choice to have all of the fight sequences and most of the chase sequences occur without a music score to increase the mood. There is a nice low key jazz type score in the sections where characters are setting up the next sequence, and there is  a little bit of emotional weirdness in the dissonant score. In the context of a film that is supposed to be all propulsive action, it feels like a failed experiment. The movie never takes off the way the fight scenes and at least two chase scenes do. Also, the betrayal requires a much stronger payoff than we get, at least with the main betrayer. I did think that the final shot worked effectively and does leave something to our imaginations that should be pretty hard. There are several good actors in the film, some of them are under used like Bill Paxton and Antonio Banderas. Michael Fassbender who is on the brink of becoming a major star, has a long sequence in the middle of the film but only take flight in his big fight scene and then a later flashback.

Nothing about the movie should discourage anyone from seeing it if you are interested. I enjoyed it quite well. I just wanted to love it much more than I did. Last year, “Hanna” covered some similar themes and action but with a much more focused story. The style of that movie was much more interesting than this one which feels like a film maker, trying out for the part of an action director. With the Bond films, action helmers like Martin Cambell and John Glen, while not artists by most standards, managed to make movies that feel like they are constantly headed somewhere. Marc Foster, the director of “Quantum of Solace” was not an action director and it showed. We have the same problem here. There is a serviceable plot, a strong central character but a weak execution of the pace and rhythm that most fans of these kinds of film want.  

‘We Bought A Zoo

Someone once decided that Christmas is the perfect time for a sentimental movie about family issues, redemption, or heartwarming comedy. It does seem to be a natural fit, and it is good counter-programing to the big blockbusters and Oscar bait that get released about the same time each year. Unfortunately for every, “Cast Away”, “Lemony Snicket”, or “It’s Complicated”, there are an equal if not greater number of misses. Films like, “Toys”, “Seven Pounds”, “How Do You Know?” have been big misses with film-makers that have proven track records but could not quite get it done. “We Bought A Zoo” seems to fall more on the side of a miss than a hit. There are a lot of things going for it; it stars Matt Damon and Scarlett Johanssen,  it is written and directed by Cameron Crowe, and it is based on a true story. Still it can’t quite work because it tries so hard to be in that niche, it feels inauthentic.

The problem as I see it is that there are just too many themes and issues stuffed into this movie. There are two love stories for the main character, one for a secondary character, a father-son redemption story, a comedy about the characters that populate a zoo, an allegory about an aging tiger, and the little zoo that can story that contains them all. It just feels like this movie is constantly hitting you over the head with the need to be charming and to be loved. As a result, the focus of the story is hardly on the zoo at all, it is on a lead character who can’t let go of the life that he has lost. It is a life that we are only given short flashbacks on, and we have to rely on the characters to tell us how wonderful it was, we never really get to see it (except for one bit at the very end of the movie).

One other problem I had was the casting of the lead. Matt Damon is a good actor and there is nothing he does here to hurt the film. The difficulty is that he is so good looking and accomplished that it is hard to buy into the self doubt he has in a lot of scenes. The one scene where he tells his children about meeting his wife, he says that the thing he said to her was “why would someone like you ever talk to someone like me?” I will put it to any women reading this right now, can you think of a reason you might talk to a guy who looks exactly like Matt Damon when he first approaches you? Oh and by the way, he is asking this while he smiles shyly and blinks those big blue eyes.

Things happen in the movie that only happen in movies, and they only happen the way they do in a movie. The story suddenly demands that Damon’s character come up with a extra $100,000, after he has been spending without consideration from the beginning. Guess what, that amount of money falls into his lap at exactly the right moment and we get one of the defining decisions that the character keeps making in the story. Will he buy the zoo?, Will he kiss the girl?, Will he decide to spend the money that he comes into in the right way?, Will he finally open the slideshow of his dead wife?, Will he have a defining moment with his son?, Will he step up for the animals in a tough situation?. There are so many set ups and payoffs that it feels like a tennis match at times, Serve and then return and then again.

Crowe also highlights all of this with his signature collection of song cues. Some work fine but others are cloying or repeat the same sad winsome moment over and over again. People accuse John Williams of being heavy handed with an original score, Crowe manages to do the same thing with bits and pieces of contemporary music and classic rock. This is not a bad movie. You will be entertained and charmed at times. It is simply not a great movie and the reasons it is not great are always too apparent. Years from now, someone will have a hard time remebering this film, just like you probably have no recall of “We’re No Angels”. Another holiday film that tried but was just not worth keeping in your head.

Beauty and the Beast 3D

As I have made abundantly clear on multiple posts, I am a sentimentalist and a marshmallow. If a film moves me, I can take it to heart and love it forever. I did just that 21 years ago with Beauty and the Beast. This was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture by the Academy Awards, and that was in the days that limited nominations to 5 and there was no animated category for  feature length films. “Silence of the Lambs” won that year, but “J.F.K.” and “Bugsy” were also up, imagine that for a collection of diverse films. I am not reducing any of my love for the great Johnathan Demme film, but I thought “Beauty and the Beast” was the Best Picture of 1991.

Today, it was re-released for probably the third time but for the first time in a 3-D format. I am really conflicted about 3-D, most of the time it is unnecessary and  it makes it difficult to enjoy a picture because projection lights just do not seem to be strong enough. Sometimes, the original use of 3-D in a movie, adds an element to the film that makes it really different and enjoyable. Films that are re-engineered as 3-D films raise my natural suspicions. That said, the Disney folks have found a way to keep marketing their films to theaters, despite availability on home video, and 3-D is boosting the reason to see some of those truly great films again. Last year we got “The Lion King” and now Beauty.

To be honest, the movies depth of color and beautiful painted backgrounds often made it seem like a 3-D film, even in 1991. The first shot of the castle through the trees as the image moves through a forest and over a brook was stunning in regular 2-D. It was even more amazing in the third dimension. As Belle wanders the castle and encounters statues and relief paintings, they make the eyes pop with dramatic image response. Gaston’s trophy room looks even more ridiculous with a third dimension to all of his antler decorating. That is the main benefit of the 3-D treatment here, the background impress even more than they originally did. The action and characters are not enhanced much by the converstion but that is quibbling, it is still a delight to sit through.

My kids were five and three when we first saw this film. My oldest cried out during the scene where the villagers were on their way to storm the Beast’s castle. She sobbed inconsolably in my lap and I was embarrassed but also proud that she could so freely respond to the emotions in the film. Today, just as 21 years ago, we went as a family and all of us had moist eyes at the end of the screening. I know this is a commercial for the video release of the film in just a couple of weeks, but I have been known to cry at commercials as well so I don’t feel too self conscious. When people complain that it is simply rehashing the past and that Hollywood has run out of creativity when it starts mutating older films for re-release, I have to ask if you have seen some of the dreck that has been foisted on us in the past five to ten years.

I was happy to plop down the extra price for the 3-D, even for a 10:30 a.m. showing, because what I was being sold was worth the price, even if it did not have a 3-D added element. Someday, when my lotto numbers come in, I will open a small four screen multiplex, and show movies that I want to see on the big screen again. Maybe I will be sitting there alone, but that will make it easier for me to shed a tear for how wonderful a movie can be and not be embarrassed in front of everyone else.