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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 Aviator – Review

5 Jan

Making a movie about the life of Howard Hughes, one of the most eccentric and brilliant figures in American history, wouldn’t be an easy task because of how much he actually did. Leave it to Martin Scorsese to, not only attempt, but succeed and bringing this larger than life figure to silver screen with The Aviator. Combining a story about film and aviation history and mental disease, this is an epic and hugely impressive biopic that captures the essence of film almost perfectly.

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As the sole heir to the Hughes Tool Company, Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) has a lot of extra cash to throw around, and ends up using it to create on of the first truly epic films, Hell’s Angels, after years of production. While living a life in Hollywood and beginning a relationship with the likes of Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), Hughes isn’t one to forget his true passion: aviation. Soon, Hughes becomes involved with government plans to build many different types of aircraft that will become essential in World War II. Meanwhile, Hughes has his own plan to create the Hercules (aka the Spruce Goose), the largest plane ever created, but only after he can control his deepening paranoia and OCD.

The Aviator begins with what can only be described as a film buff’s dream come true. The first part of the movie shows Howard Hughes almost killing himself and going bankrupt in order to complete Hell’s Angels. Along the way, though, we get to see him interact with some major stars of the time. We get to see Jude Law as Errol Flynn, Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow, and later on Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner. This isn’t my favorite part of the movie, but it’s easy to see how much fun Martin Scorsese is having with the material, the likes of which he would prove his loyalty to in Hugo some years later. It was a wild time in Hollywood and it’s done so well in this movie. Cate Blanchett especially is note perfect as Katharine Hepburn.

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After the story moves past Hughes’ work in Hollywood, it moves onto his career in engineering airplanes for the military. While this is still a very interesting part, it begins to get a little confusing. One of the big problems is that there’s a point in the movie where it doesn’t say what year it is. This is all happening during the days of World War II, so depending on what year it is is important to what Howard the government are doing. Since I didn’t know what year it was, it got a little tricky to follow along at some points. Still, I had an understanding of what he was doing and it was still awesome to see the genius at work, building up an empire, even while his world seemed to be crumbling all around him.

The most interesting part of The Aviator to me was the depiction of mental illness. Mental illnesses and genius together is a huge interest of mine, seeing how one affects the other, so it was really interesting seeing a depiction of Hughes’ paranoia and obsessive compulsive disorder take a toll on his life. This is OCD in a way that I’ve never seen depicted before, a dangerous, life altering OCD. It’s almost hard to watch scenes when Hughes forces himself to say certain sentences over and over again or even struggle to get out of a bathroom in the most germ free way he can. It puts that entire disorder in perspective and how damaging it can really be.

It’s not surprising that The Aviator turned out as great as it did. With Scorsese and his cast of actors along with an amazing human being as the subject, it has all of the ingredients for an interesting and entertaining movie, even clocking in at 3 hours. There’s a lot of history in this movie, and it may not be told in the most coherent of ways at times, but most of this ride is really something memorable. It celebrates history, achievement, and Howard Hughes himself.

Underworld: Awakening – Review

21 Jun

Well, this is it for the Underworld films for now. Here we are at number 4, with the medieval time period gone and returning to the modern day/near future metropolis that was the setting in the first film. But, unlike the other installments in this series, I have major problems with this one that almost ruined the entire movie for me.

Six months after the events of Underworld: Evolution, the vampire and lycans are discovered by humanity and a Great Purge begins to rid the world of their species. Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is captured by Antigen, and evil corporation with mysterious intentions run by Dr. Jacob Lane (Stephen Rea). She is soon freed by Subject 1 (India Eisley), a found hybrid who is being chased by the lycans. Selene joins forces with another vampire, David (Theo James), and a human detective, Sebastian (Michael Ealy), to protect Subect 1 from the lycans and Antigen.

Now tell me, how different does this sound than all of the other plot lines of the Underworld films. The fantastic lore that surrounded the three previous films are pretty much gone. We get brief mentions of Alexander Corvinus and the other mythology that we’ve all come to really appreciate. Instead, there is pretty much beginning to end action scenes that are broken up with very short scenes of dialogue. Personally, I care more about the story, but I can’t say that I wasn’t entertained by the action in this film.

I was also pretty disappointed with the setting of this movie. The metropolis in the first Underworld was dark, rainy, and gothic. Instead of that, I was “treated” to visually bland city that had nothing special going for it. New York City in the first Spider-Man film looked more exciting than this fictional city where anything could have been done to make it cooler. The Underworld films have a great way of setting the mood with its settings and how they look, but the locations here are just bland and unoriginal.

Don’t get me wrong. This is an entertaining film. As I said before, the action really is exhilarating and might be the best of the whole series. The acting is typical for this series. Kate Beckinsale is perfect for Selene, giving off the right amount of coldness and emotion. Seeing Selene jump, shoot, hit, and all around kick ass is still as satisfying as ever. India Eisley gives a surprisingly good performance as Subject 1, and the scenes where she transforms into her hybrid state is really cool.

I really enjoy the Underworld movies, and despite all of my complaints, I liked this one to a point. I was just disappointed that the mythology was pushed to the back burner, Scott Speedman didn’t return as Michael, and that the setting was a little boring. That being said, I never lost interest. Underworld: Awakening was entertaining, but certainly didn’t blow me away. Fans of this series may be disappointed by this entry, but it was still a good way to spend my afternoon.

Underworld: Evolution – Review

17 Jun

I’ve been waiting years to watch this movie. Since I first saw Underworld , I’ve been left with that ending and so many questions unanswered. It isn’t like I didn’t have any access to this movie. I just never watched it for some reason. Now, finally, I have seen it and the story can continue.

Picking up exactly where the first Underworld left off, we have the vampire Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and the hybrid Michael (Scott Speedman) on the run. Back at the mansion, Markus (Tony Curran), the other vampire elder, is awakened and finds out what Selene and Michael have done, but this isn’t his primary concern. Markus wants to find and rescue his werewolf brother, William, who was the first werewolf and unable to change back, from his prison. This would cause havoc in the world with werewolves not being able to control their transformations. Now, Selene and Michael, along with some unexpected help, must stop Markus before he can do this.

This movie is an all around improvement over the first film. The action is cooler, the story and the lore is explained more, and Markus is a great villain who gets a lot of awesome screen time. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the occasional overacting that is sometimes distracting.

A lot of what I’m going to say  may sound familiar because I said it in my other review. The story, that was above average in the first film, is only improved in the second one thanks to flashbacks that explain more in depth how the war between the vampires and the lycans started. The audience is also treated to some major key players telling their side of the story. There are also interesting flashbacks that better explain Selene’s tragic and brutal past.

There are loads of action scenes here that aren’t just more cooler, but better shot. There were times in the first Underworld that had the potential to be cool action scenes, but unfortunately the techniques used to shoot it kind of dulled the intensity. Underworld: Evolution never has a dull action sequence, and I’d go so far as to say most, if not all, of them pushed me to the edge of my seat, which is the best place to watch a movie.

This film does a great job, once again, in creating an atmosphere that you will not forget. The gothic metropolis is changed to a wintry, sometimes desolate, countryside filled with mysterious architecture from centuries past. The lack of defining color not only adds to the gothic mood, but also to the feeling of coldness. This just goes to show how important non-diagetic methods are to producing a specific type of tone or feeling.

A small problem that this film suffers from is cheesy writing that the actors do their best in delivering. All of the actors here are competent actors who are able to deliver fine performances, but if the writing is weak than the acting will be weak. The writing here is not what I’d call weak, but corny and derivative. It’s a small complaint that hardly detracts from the movie.

Underworld: Evolution isn’t just a step above the original, but also beats out a lot of the action films nowadays. It isn’t destined to be a classic, but it is definitely an entertaining escape that is memorable and completely worthwhile. Fans of the first one will love this one, but it isn’t going to impress people who didn’t like the original.

Underworld – Review

14 Jun

I remember long ago going to a fantastic store called PrePlayed almost every Saturday to pick up a cheap movie. One of these movies that I got was Underworld. I remember being a kid and wanting to show this movie to everyone because I though it was just the absolute coolest movie. I haven’t watched it, until yesterday, for about four years, maybe even longer. I was worried that it wouldn’t be as good now that it was then.

There is a war raging between the Vampires and the Lycans (werewolves) for centuries. Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is a Vampire death dealer whose main task is to find and kill surviving Lycans, who are now almost extinct to the Vampires’ knowledge. The Lycans are actually thriving and Lucian (Michael Sheen), their leader has a plan to create a Lycan/Vampire hybrid using the human Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman). Against orders from Kraven (Shane Brolly), the acting head of the Vampires, Selene rescues Michael and brings him back to their mansion and awakens Viktor (Bill Nighy), a Vampire elder. This only ignites further the violence between the two species, and consequent betrayal for both Vampires and Lycans.

Richard Roeper called this film a “Shakespearean werewolf/vampire movie.” That is a very accurate description of Underworld because of it’s language, attention to aesthetic details, and the conflict and violence that erupt between the two clans and even amongst members of the same clan. The movie has unfortunately lost a bit of its luster since the days of my youth, but it’s still a cool action/horror film that is guaranteed to entertain.

The look of Underworld is absolutely phenomenal with its gothic architecture, costume and creature design, and use of underexposed color. Everything in the film seems to be a in the color range of black, white, or a shade of light blue. Along with the color comes an a city that would make the citizens of Gotham comfortable. As a viewer, the city was almost the strange part, whereas, I felt more comfortable in the Vampire mansion or underground with the Lycans. The costumes look equally gothic with the Vampires dressed elegantly and the Lycans in old ragged clothes. Finally, the creatures. Vampires look appropriately deathly, but the real standouts are the Lycans. The only CGI used was for their transformation, everything else was a costume and animatronic mask. This limited use of CGI gives the film a bit more magic because they had to physically create these werewolves instead of just designing them on a computer.

Unfortunately, the acting is where the movie shines the least. Kate Beckinsale, Michael Sheen, and Bill Nighy all perform well, but a certain Shane Brolly gives a cringeworthy performance. Everything he did either felt flat or way too overacted. He had an interesting and developed character, but he was awfully played. Scott Speedman falls into a kind of weird category in the middle. Most of his acting was ok, but there were a few times where he lost his footing and fell into the cheese.

I was more into the lore of the film than I was the action that took place. The backstories and histories of all of the characters and how the war began is incredibly interesting and above average for this genre. The action is still pretty cool. In the opening scene, there is a subway firefight that I could rank in my favorite intros of all time.This action is greatly aided by the sound design which does an incredible job at making the gun fire explode and even go so far as to accentuate running foot steps to heighten the mood.

Underworld is a strange breed a movie. It has great lore, mood, and action to make it cool. But the acting and development of some characters is sort of weak. A lot may disagree, but I still recommend this movie because, hell, I have a great time watching it. So if all the intellectuals can forget for two hours that a movie can purely just entertain you, then I guarantee that Underworld will deliver.