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Contraband – Review

14 Feb

In 2008, an Icelandic film was released titled Reykjavik-Rotterdam and it became something of an international hit in some circles. It was one of the most expensive Icelandic films when it was made and received plenty of awards in its home country. As America likes to do with foreign hits, we made a version of our own in 2012 and called it Contraband. What made this remake unique was that it was directed by Baltasar Kormákur, who starred in the original 2008 film. While this is an interesting directing choice and the cast has a couple of my favorite actors, the end result is nothing too memorable at all, or at least memorable for the wrong reasons.

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Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) was one of the most brilliant smugglers to ever work in the business, but has long since left his life of crime to settle down with his wife, Kate (Kate Beckinsale), and their two kids. While Farrady is content with living a quiet life, her brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) is not, and soon gets mixed up with a dangerous criminal named Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi). Briggs is after Andy for $700,000 after he screwed up a job, and is even going so far as to threaten Chris and the rest of his family. This forces Chris to go back to his old ways for one last job to pay back Briggs. With a little help from his best friend Sebastian (Ben Foster), Farraday heads to Panama to bring back $10 million in fake bills, but what Farraday fails to realize is that there is a higher power than Briggs pulling the strings.

So the first thing I have to say about this movie is that it isn’t very original, and that’s ok. I didn’t really go into Contraband expecting it to break new ground or anything. All I wanted was to be entertained for a couple of hours. That being said, this is a pretty entertaining movie with a great deal of suspense and some cool action sequences. But honestly, it isn’t really enough to keep it all afloat. One of my more minor complaints is part of the cast. Giovanni Ribisi and Ben Foster completely own their roles and reminded me why they are two of my favorite actors. Unfortunately, Wahlberg doesn’t really have much of a personality and all and delivers a lot of his lines with the same awkward enthusiasm that he did in The Happening. As for the rest of the cast like Kate Beckinsale, Caleb Landry Jones, Lukas Haas, and even J.K. Simmons, well, they just didn’t really have too much to do.

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I’m not sure if the intended goal of Contraband was for it to be an action movie or a heist movie, because it sort of does both, but not entirely too well. There’s not enough action for this to be called an action movie and there isn’t enough planning or fake outs for this to be a heist movie. Instead it’s this weird mash up of cliches from both genres. There’s one real all out action scene and it hardly even fits into the movie. In fact, the whole middle part where Farraday gets mixed up with some random Panamanian gangster really didn’t need to be in the movie at all, which brings me to my main beef with this mess of a movie.

This movie goes all sorts of places that it has no business going to. For a while the plot goes on pretty normally, and I was into it, but then it redefined the term “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.” There are far too many plot twists and contrivances that get in the way of a narrative that had all the opportunity in the world to go smoothly and painlessly for close to two hours. Instead I ended up watching a movie that is packed to the brim with stupid twists all for the sake of shocking the audience, instead of being put in to try and tell a good story. The major twist was pretty cool, but all of the other minor ones just frustrated me and made the movie feel completely broken into pieces.

Contraband tries really hard to be a highly intelligent, complex heist thriller that turns out to be nothing more than convoluted and overdone. The only real redeeming qualities this movie has are the performances given by Giovanni Ribisi and Ben Foster. They can really do a lot with shoddy material. Contraband is an unoriginal mess that isn’t really an awful movie, but it’s hardly one I can recommend to anybody.

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The Tenant – Review

17 Apr

Roman Polanski. How many times have I talked about him on this blog? While he has dabbled in a lot of different genres, I’ll always remember him for his psychological horror/thriller films. Starting with Repulsion in 1965, Polanski started a trilogy of horror films that dealt with psychological torture in urban environments, especially in apartments. He continued this work with his 1968 film Rosemary’s Baby, which is the most memorable of the three and is considered a horror classic. Finally, in 1978, Polanski ended the trilogy with the most enigmatic entry, The Tenant. I didn’t really expect a whole lot from this movie, considering the other two, but this proved to be the most difficult movie for me in the entire trilogy.

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Trelkovsky (Roman Polanski) is a timid file clerk who defines the term “pushover” who is need of an apartment. As luck would have it, he finds a cheap one that has become vacant after the previous tenant committed suicide. After winning over the miserable landlord Monsieur Zy (Melvyn Douglas), Trelkovsky moves into the apartment and begins getting constantly hassled by his neighbors from all sides for his being too loud, dirty, or having people over. The hassling becomes so persistent and obscene that Trelkovsky begins to suspect that the other tenants are trying to drive him to suicide by slowly turning him into the deceased tenant. As the paranoia begins to mount and Trelkovsky’s sanity slips further and further, he soon finds himself becoming lost in the character that he fears is being created for him, and the line between reality and fearful hallucinations become less and less noticeable.

Let’s get it out of the way from the start. The Tenant is a super weird movie that made me question what I was looking at more than once. That’s not to say that the other two entries in the trilogy aren’t weird, but this one just goes off the walls bat shit insane. There’s plenty of positives to that which I’ll get to later, but I want to get passed the not so great stuff first. For one thing, the movie has no clear way to tell what is real and what is in Trelkovsky’s head, and that’s fine. What isn’t fine is that the ending neither reaffirms or denies anything that has been seen or heard. It simply doesn’t make sense, and only seems to be in the movie to make the viewer scratch their head in utter confusion. The movie also spends a lot of time not really doing anything, making it feel a lot slower and longer than it wants to be. But that’s really where my negatives end.

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I’ve spent a lot of time complaining about the state of so called horror movies these days, and its really hard to get away from that mindset after seeing a movie like this. This movie does exactly what a horror movie should do, and that is to create genuine fear, this time by using our fear of shit neighbors, letting other people bully you, and paranoia in the purest form. Where this movie succeeds is in its ability to frighten an audience without being loud. Delirious hallucinations in a run down bathroom and finding yourself spying on yourself is so twisted and weird that it succeeds in scaring more than any jump scare or spooky ghost. It’s a mental state that no one wants to live through, but how do you know you aren’t paranoid already? Confusion is more terrifying than something you can see.

There’s a lot of things that I should probably say about this movie, but after everything I’ve already said about, I don’t know how much more I can add. All I can say is that this movie is really, really weird and there’s plenty of scenes that really stick out in my head. That may actually be the strongest part of this movie, just how many memorable scenes there are and how original they seemed. The hieroglyphics in the bathroom and the tooth in the wall are just a few, not to mention a group of sadists playing with a human head in the courtyard.

While The Tenant certainly isn’t Roman Polanski’s masterpiece, it is still a film that shows how much he should be respected as a film maker. My only real gripe with the movie is the overly complicated ending and the amount of time spent doing nothing. Still, there are so many memorable and freaky scenes that it should be enough to create at least one restless night and things possibly hiding in the shadows. If you like horror films, this is a must see.

The Bridge on the River Kwai – Review

9 Mar

World War II is a topic that no one can really stay away from, which is fair enough because there’s so much to do with it. There’s been a huge amount of movies, games, and books dedicated to certain moments throughout the war, be it real or fictional. There are some, however, that really stand out and one of them is David Lean’s 1957 war epic, The Bridge on the River Kwai. While it is a work of fiction, it’s based off of a true event, but nonetheless, it stands as one of the greatest war films ever made but also one of the most complex.

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Lt. Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness) and his British troops find themselves in a bind when they end up in a Japanese labor camp commanded by Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). Nicholson and Saito soon butt heads when Saito orders everyone, including the officers, to start work on constructing a bridge over the River Kwai. Nicholson soon finds himself watching over the construction and believes it to be an accomplishment for the British, but also a way of raising the morale of his men. Meanwhile, escaped American prisoner, Commander Shears (William Holden) is put in charge of a mission to destroy the bridge and the first train scheduled to cross it. As Shears’ team gets closer, it becomes clearer that Nicholson will do whatever it takes to complete and protect the bridge, even if it means betraying the Allied forces that he is a part of.

What’s so impressive and difficult about this film, especially considering the time it was made, is that there are no real good guys or bad guys. The Japanese Saito runs the camp with an iron fist and mistreats certain prisoners, but deep down he’s a man who appears weak facing the code of honor and winning the war for his country. Nicholson appears to betray his own country to protect the bridge even though he’s doing it for reasons he thinks are for the long running good of Britain and his troops, making it easy to sympathize with him. Meanwhile, Shears is a liar, lazy, and cold towards other people making him more of an anti hero, despite him being an American soldier fighting for the Allies. It’s incredibly interesting seeing these morally ambiguous characters clash throughout the movie, and it makes them seem like real people.

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While it is ultimately the actor’s job at making the characters seem real, it would all be for nothing if nothing else had the air of realism about it. This movie feels very grounded in reality and part of what makes it feel that way is how huge it is, and I’m not just talking about the close to three hour run time. What I mean is that the jungle seems vast, the bridge looks gigantic, and everything just pretty much feels epic. This makes sense since Lean would go on to do his masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia just a few years later. That’s one thing that I just couldn’t get enough of in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Lean’s sense of space translates so well to the screen, especially with this being the first film that he shot in Cinemascope.

I look at this movie like it’s a two part type of deal. The first part is pretty much just in the Japanese labor camp with Nicholson and Saito trying to outdo one another. The second part deals mostly with Shears and the other British troops making their way to the bridge to destroy it. While the second part definitely has more action, I prefer the first part more because I loved Alec Guinness’ performance and his character. The second part had a lot of meetings and walking through the jungle that made me kind of fidget during. It all still comes together really well in one of the most memorable and intense climaxes in film history.

Simply put, The Bridge on the River Kwai deserves its place in just about every film textbook you can find. It’s a triumph as a character study, an adventure story, and a war epic. While the second half seemed to drag a little bit and got a tad derivative, the movie as a whole took a lot of chances in its viewpoint of soldiers from around the world during World War II. It’s a fantastic film that deserves to be watched way more than once.

Once Upon a Time in the West – Review

22 Jan

I’m not a huge fan of the Western genre, especially American made westerns of the 1950s and the early 1960s. There are a few exceptions, like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and some modern films, but westerns in the 1950s and 1960s don’t really hold my attention. But let’s talk about Spaghetti Westerns, a sub-genre that can only be described as the graphic novel western. These are a different story altogether, and hold my attention way more than their American counterparts. When one thinks of this genre, the first name that should come to mind is Sergio Leone, and today I want to take a look at his hyper-stylized 1969 film, Once Upon a Time in the West.

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The story of this film follows different characters each with different goals which all intersect throughout the film. A man nicknamed Harmonica (Charles Bronson) arrives in the town of Flagstone looking for another man named Frank (Henry Fonda). Harmonica’s intentions are mysterious and his gunslinging is vicious. Jill (Claudia Cardinale) is a former prostitute from New Orleans who’s come to Flagstone to be with her husband, who she doesn’t know has just been murdered by Frank, along with the rest of his family. Cheyenne (Jason Robards) is a bandit who’s been framed for the murders of Jill’s husband and his family. He soon meets Jill and begins helping her, along with Harmonica, to save the land that is rightfully hers and get revenge on Frank and his employer.

I said earlier that Spaghetti Westerns are the graphic novel equivalents of the John Wayne/John Ford type of Western. Right from the get go, it’s clear that Once Upon a Time in the West is all about style, style, style. The beginning of this movie can objectively go down as one of the best beginnings in the history of film. The only soundtrack is the sounds of a train station as three hired guns wait for a train to arrive so they can finish off their target. How long does this last? A few minutes? No, it lasts about 15 minutes and not one of those minutes is boring. It’s an auditory sensation of hyper realism and gets you in the mood to go into this twisted old west. The cool doesn’t stop there, either.

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There’s a great story that Henry Fonda told about Sergio Leone that I just have to include in this review. Apparently, the main reason that Leone wanted Fonda to play the villain was because he was always casted as the good guy in movies, and Leone wanted people to lose it when Fonda’s character is first revealed murdering a family. Well that’s ridiculous, but it works great because Henry Fonda plays it cool and deadly as the hired gunman Frank. Still, the rest of the cast is awesome. Jason Robards has excellent chemistry with Italian actress, Claudia Cardinale who light up the screen whenever she’s onscreen. Also, Charles Bronson. Need I say more? Seeing Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson square up in duel is just fantastic.

I guess what I’m really trying to say about Once Upon a Time in the West is that it’s just so immersive. The colors that Leone uses combined with Ennio Morricone’s sweeping (as usual) score is just fantastic, and there were times where I really just wanted to listen to the music. The editing is also absolutely extraordinary. For example, there’s a great scene where Henry Fonda fires his gun, but the scene jump cuts to the underside of a train. It’s the kind of jarring juxtaposition that reminds me of the jump cut in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The music, the cinematography, and the editing are some of the finest examples of immersive film making which makes what I’m about to say hopefully seem justified.

I’ve heard it from professors, critics, and movie buffs alike so I’m going to add myself to the long list of people who have said this. Despite being super cool and highly stylistic, Once Upon a Time in the West is honestly, and almost objectively, one of the greatest films ever made. Like Peckinpah did with The Wild Bunch, Sergio Leone breathed some fresh air into a dying genre with this film. He made a name for himself with the Dollars Trilogy, and this film started a thematic trilogy all its own, but as a stand alone film, it succeeds as a revisionist western, an artistic achievement, and just a really cool movie.

13 – Review

17 May

There are times when a foreign film maker shoots a film in their own language and injecting their culture into the plot, only to remake it for another country. Being an American, I notice quite a few foreign films and television shows get “Americanized” by either a production company or the original film maker. A notable example for me is Michael Haneke’s American version of Funny Games, which is a personal favorite of mine. In the instance of 13, Géla Babluani remade his 2005 Georgian-French film 13 Tzameti. How well the transfer goes is pretty up in the air, and in this case, it’s really iffy.

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Vince Ferro’s (Sam Riley) family is in some financial trouble. While all of the family works really hard to make ends meet, things just don’t seem to be looking any better in the near future. After overhearing a conversation about a quick way to make a lot of money, Vince jumps at the chance and winds up at a mysterious mansion in the middle of the forest. There are plenty of other people there, most of them wealthy. Among these people are Patrick Jefferson (Mickey Rourke), a convict who is forced into this game; Jimmy (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), Jefferson’s escort to the game; Jasper Bagges (Jason Statham) and his psychotic brother Ronald (Ray Winstone), who is competing. The game is simple, yet deadly. A group match of Russian Roulette. The last person left standing is the winner.

When I first heard of this movie, I began thinking of Deer Hunter, which is a movie about Vietnam and its psychological effects, but a main portion of the story involves games of Russian Roulette. 13 is very different, because the game is done in a more stylized and unrealistic manner. Deer Hunter, on the other hand, makes it as real as possible. The idea behind this movie is certainly intriguing, as one can observe with the praise the original 13 Tzameti received on the festival circuit. Now, just because I like the concept doesn’t mean that 13 is a good movie. In fact, it’s a pretty objectively bad movie with sloppy storytelling that really brings the entire film down.

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The biggest problem for me is its complete lack of any real character development, even though there are times where the film really does seem to be trying. The whole point of the film is for the viewer to root for Sam Riley’s character. Too bad I didn’t really get enough information on him to really care. On top of that, there are so many side characters thrown your way that you’d like to learn more about but never do. The whole section concerning Rourke’s character is completely pointless and the movie would have been better off if it wasn’t even in there. Then maybe more time could’ve been spent on Statham’s character and Riley’s character.

13 was just way too short to be effective. A film involving an underground crime ring that hold Russian Roulette tournaments is such a great vehicle for a ridiculous amount of suspense. Too bad the whole plot flies by before you even have a chance to get acclimated. On top of all that, the last 25ish minutes of the movie could have been used for more character development. Instead, we get a subplot that has such little relevance to what’s going on that I’m completely surprised it’s in the movie at all. The person who looked over this screenplay and approved it without revising it in a major way should be fired. Seriously, some of the worst character development, narrative structure, and plot points I have ever seen.

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I do have to give the movie some credit though. All of the performances were at the least solid. Sam Riley was acceptable, even though he was pretty uninteresting. Statham gives a nice performance alongside Winstone, both sharing good on screen chemistry. Michael Shannon has a small, but excellent part that, if I were to be casted, would want to play. Finally, Rourke and 50 Cent were ok, but seriously, they did NOT need to be in this movie. The suspense was also good when the actual roulette game was being played, and the very end was pretty awesome. If anything, I was mildly entertained, and it was a pretty easy movie to watch and shut down for an hour and a half.

Even though there is some good to be said about this movie, it is still not very good at all. In fact, it’s pretty bad. The unfortunate thing is that there was so much potential, and Babluani already proved himself with the original version of the story. If you need some background noise while you fold laundry, 13 may do the trick, especially since you hardly need to pay attention. Anything more than that, don’t waster your time.