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The Bad Batch (2017)

Days after viewing writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch, I’m still contemplating what I just saw. That can be the sign of a good, thought-provoking movie, or it could be further proof that The Bad Batch is really an empty experience.

In a not-too-distant future, the United States has found a unique solution to crime. Those deemed irredeemable are tattooed with “bad batch” and abandoned into the American Southwest. It’s a dusty land of outlaws that the U.S. doesn’t even recognize. Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is deposited into the wastes of the Southwest and she is abducted by cannibals who make a meal out of her right arm and leg. She escapes and finds Comfort, a small outpost where she can heal and find community. The makeshift leader of Comfort is The Dream (Keanu Reeves), a messianic figure who doles out free drugs to the townspeople. He also has a harem of pregnant women. Miami Man (Jason Momoa), one of the hunkier cannibals, loses his daughter and forces Arlen to help him.

I’m going to summarize the sparse two-hour plot, dear reader, to share with you just how little there is to this film (will keep spoilers mild). Arlen gets kidnapped. She escapes. Months later she kills one of the cannibals. She quasi-adopts a little girl. Her father goes searching for her. Arlen loses the little girl. The father finds Arlen. They find the little girl who was unharmed. They eat a bunny. The end. Now admittedly any movie can sound rather flimsy when boiled down to its essential story elements (Star Wars: “Space farmer accepts call to adventure. Rescues princess.”) but the counterbalance is substance. Characters, world building, arcs, plot structure, setups and payoffs, all of it opens up the film’s story beats into a larger and transformative work. That’s simply not there with The Bad Batch. It’s a vapid film that has too much free time to fill, so you get several shots that are simply people riding motorcycles up to the camera. I grew restless waiting for something of merit to happen. Arlen simply just walks out into the desert like three different times, and this is after she was captured by roving cannibals that are still out there in healthy numbers. If you went to a store and the owner captured you and cut off your arm, would you venture back in that direction? Maybe there’s a commentary about victimhood and the cycle of abuse and exploitation, or maybe I’m left to intuit some kind of grander implication out of a filmmaker’s lack of effort. There’s just not enough here to justify its running time. It feels stretched beyond the breaking point.

If the film is meant to be about immersion, something that holds together via hypnotic Lynchian dream logic, then it better work hard to hold my attention since plot has already been abandoned. This is where The Bad Batch also lost me. It’s just not weird enough, though even weird-for-weird’s-sake can be insufferable, like Harmony Korine’s Gummo. Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home at Night) has an innate feel for visual arrangements and little quirky touches that can burn into your memory, like the sight of Arlen sidling next to a magazine clipping of a model’s arm she taped to a mirror or a well-armed pregnant militia. The most interesting elements of the story are left unattended though. This is a vague dystopia where the government has decided to let the “bad batch” fend for themselves in a desert. It screams neo-Western with a lawless land populated with criminals and killers. There are only ever two locations we visit: the cannibal’s junkyard and the outpost of Comfort. Do we know anything about these locations? Are they at war? Is there some kind of understanding between them wherein Comfort offers sacrifices for protection? Is there an uneasy peace that could be spoiled thanks to Arlen’s vengeance? It’s all just vast wasteland, but even when they get to actual places, it still feels like empty space. How can you make something about dystopian cannibals be this singularly boring?

The characters just aren’t worth your attention and ultimately don’t matter in service of story or even a potential message. Arlen is much more of a figurehead than a person, and perhaps that’s why the director chose Waterhouse (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) as her lead. The former model certainly makes a visually striking figure and knows how to arc her body in non-verbal ways to communicate feelings. However, I don’t know if there’s a good actress here. There’s no real reason to take away her arm and leg except that it looks cool and edgy. Initially it presents a visceral vulnerability for her and a disadvantage of escape, but after she arrives in Comfort, it’s as if she’s just any other able-bodied character. It feels like the director just liked the look and thought it would grab attention or say something meaningful. Momoa (Justice League) has a natural intimidating screen presence but he’s given so little to do. He’s just on glower autopilot. Miami Man is a killer and we watch him cook people’s limbs for some good eats. It’s almost like the movie wants you to forget this stuff when his paternal instincts kick in. Rather than embracing the light-and-dark contradictions, the movie just has him shift personality modes. There’s no confrontation or introspection. Reeves (John Wick 2) gets an idea of a potentially menacing character but even he isn’t presented as an antagonist. The Dream is living large thanks to the cooperation of those in Comfort. He has a harem of willing ladies for breeding but he doesn’t seem dastardly. He’s like the grown-up rich kid throwing the party that everyone attends. Then there are near cameos by Giovanni Ribisi, Jim Carrey, and Diego Luna, which make you wonder why they ever showed up.

The depressing part is that The Bad Batch starts off with a bang and had such potential. Amirpour is so assured early on and draws out the terror of Arlen’s plight in a gripping and satisfying manner. Her drifting is then met by a futile escape, and then we witness the relatively tasteful dismembering of our heroine. It’s disorienting but establishes the conflicts of the scene in a clear and concise fashion. The odds are against her and Arlen uses her captors underestimating her to supreme advantage. The opening twenty minutes are thrilling and well developed, presenting a capable protagonist and a dire threat. And then the movie just drops off the face of the Earth. I haven’t seen a movie self-sabotage an interesting start like this since perhaps Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. The first twenty minutes offer the audience a vantage point and set of goals. We’re learning about Arlen through her desperate and clever acts of survival. The rest of the movie is just bland wandering without any sense or urgency or purpose exhibited in that marvelous opening (hey, the amputated limbs special effects look nice).

Vacuous and increasingly monotonous, The Bad Batch valiantly tries to create an arty mood piece where it re-purposes genre pastiche into some kind of statement on the broken human condition. Or something. The story is so thinly written and the characters are too blank to register. They’re archetypes at best, walking accessories, pristine action figures given life and camera direction. It’s flash and surface-level quirks with distressed art direction. It feels like it’s trying so hard to be a cult movie at every turn. I’m certain that, not counting Keanu’s cult leader, there might only be 100 words spoken in the entire film. I feel like The Bad Batch is going to be a favorite for plenty of young teenagers that respond to its style and general sense of rebellion. Until, that is, they discover movies can have both style and substance.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Rogue One (2016)

rogueone_onesheetaIn the opening text crawl for Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, it says, “During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star.” Disney, in its infinite wisdom to cash in on every potential resource of its lucrative cash cow, has decided to devote a whole movie to that one sentence in that initial crawl. I can’t wait for each sentence to get its movie. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (in case you’d forget) is the first film outside of any of the trilogies and much is at stake. Not just for the rebels but for Disney shareholders. If a wild success, expect future tales coming from every undiscovered corner of the Star Wars universe. And if Rogue One is any indication, that’s exactly the kind of artistic freedom needed to blossom.

Not actually in the finished film.

Not actually in the finished film.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) has plenty to rebel against. Her father (Mads Mikkelsen) was forced against his will by Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to work on a fiendish death machine for the Empire. Jyn’s father is responsible for designing the Death Star. Jyn is broken out of imperial prison by Cassian (Diego Luna) for the Rebellion. They want her to track down her father, find out whatever she can about this new fangled Death Star, and if possible, retrieve the plans on how it might be stopped. Her mission will take her to the ends of the galaxy to reunite with her father and to provide hope to the Rebellion.

Finally after many films we finally get a war movie in a franchise called Star Wars, and it’s pretty much what I wanted: a Star Wars Dirty Dozen mission. It’s thrilling to go back to the height of the resistance against the Evil Empire and see things from a ground perspective with a skeleton crew working behind the scenes. We may know the future events of those Death Star plans but we don’t know what will befall all of these new characters. Who will make it out alive? The open-and-shut nature of this side story in the Star Wars universe brings a bit more satisfaction by telling a complete story. This film will not have to wait for two eventual sequels years down the road in order for an audience to form a comprehensive opinion. I welcome more side stories like Rogue One that expand upon the fringes of the established universe and timelines, that establish colorful new characters and tell their own stories and come to their own endings, and hopefully don’t feature any more Death Stars (more on this below). It seems like it was ages ago that major studio tentpoles just attempted to tell a single, focused story rather than set up an extended universe of other titles to nudge along their respective paths. Director Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla) is less slavishly loyal to the mythos of the series than J.J. Abrams. His movie doesn’t feel like flattering imitation but its own artistic entry. The cinematography is often beautiful and the natural landscapes and sets provide so much tangible authenticity to this world. Edwards has a terrific big-screen feel for his shot compositions and achieving different moods with lighting. He knows how to make the big moments feel bigger without sacrificing the requisite popcorn thrills we desire.

star-wars-rogue-one-teaserRogue One has to walk a fine line between fan service and its own needs. While it’s fun to see Darth Vader on screen again voiced by the irreplaceable James Earl Jones, it’s also a bit extraneous other than some admittedly cool fan service. We don’t need to see Vader clear out a hallway of Rebel soldiers but then again why not? It’s the same when it comes to the inclusion of cameos from the original trilogy. Some are minor and some are major, achieved through the uncanny valley of CGI reconstruction. Gene Kelly may have danced with a vacuum cleaner and Sir Lawrence Oliver and Marlon Brando both appeared as big floating heads after their deaths, but this feels like the next step beyond the grave. There’s a somewhat ghastly feel for watching a dead actor reanimated, so your sense of overall wonder may vary. The cameos are better integrated than the Ghosbusters ones.

There’s a great cinematic pleasure in putting together a team of rogues and rebels. The characters on board this mission have interesting aspects to them. Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) is a blind warrior and aspiring Jedi. He feels like he stepped out of a great samurai movie. He uses his connection with the Force to make up for his lack of visual awareness, and Chirrut demonstrates these abilities in several memorably fun instances. There’s a world of back-story with Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a dotty wheezing warrior who is more machine than man at this point. Whitaker gives an unusual performance that reminded me of a kindlier version of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. The reprogrammed robot K-250 (vocal and motion-capture performance by Alan Tudyk) is a reliable source of catty comic relief and I looked forward to what he was going to say next. The first 40-minutes is mostly the formation of this group, and it’s after that where the movie starts to get hazy. We know how it’s all got to end but the ensuing action in Act Two feels a bit lost. This may have to due with the reportedly extensive reshoots that were done last summer to spice up the movie (much of the earliest teaser footage isn’t in the finished film). I’d be fascinated to discover what the original story was from Chris Weitz (Cinderella) and just what rewrites Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) performed so late into its life. For much of the second act, the characters feel a bit too subdued for the life-or-death stakes involved, and that translates over to the audience. We travel to different locations throughout the first two acts but I can’t tell you much about them other than some intriguing mountainous architecture. The plot is a bit too undercooked and still obtuse for far too long, requiring our team to bounce around locations to acquire this person or that piece of information. Rarely do the characters get chances to open up.

getIt all comes together in the final act for a 30-minute assault that makes everything matter. It’s a thrilling conclusion and the movie finds a way to keep escalating the stakes, bringing in powerful reinforcements that force our Rogue One crew to alter their plans and placement, while still clearly communicating the needs of each group and the geography as a whole of the multiple points on the battlefield. It’s what you want a climactic battle to be and feel like where each player matters. It’s also a welcome addition to the Star Wars cannon, as we’ve never seen a beach assault before. It feels like a new level that was unlocked in some video game, and that’s no detriment. The ending battle has different checkpoints and mini-goals, which allows for the audience to be involved from the get-go and for the film to jump around locations while still maintaining an effective level of suspense. Many of these characters make something of a last stand, and you feel the extent of their sacrifice. I read in another review that the reason Jyn and her rogues win is because they accept that they are replaceable, and Orson Krennic fails because he made the mistake of believing himself irreplaceable. I think that’s a nice summation about the nobility of sacrifice. I won’t get into specific spoilers but I was very pleased with the ending of the film even though it’s not exactly the happiest. It feels like a fitting ending for the darker, grittier Star Wars tale and it provides earned emotional resonance for the setup of A New Hope, which this movie literally rolls right into.

With as many fun and potentially interesting characters aboard for this suicide mission, it’s somewhat surprising that they are also the film’s weak point. Beyond simple plot machinations like Character A gets Character B here, I can’t tell you much more about these rogue yet noble folks other than their superficial differences. Take for instance the Empire turncoat, pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) What personality does he have? What defines him? What is his arc? What about Cassian? He’s supposed to secretly assassinate Jyn’s father if given the chance, but do we see any struggle over this choice? Does it shape him? Does his outlook define his choice? Can you describe his personality at all whatsoever? What about the villain, Krennic? Can you tell me anything about him beyond his arrogance? What about Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), who carries a big gun and is close friends with our blind wannabe Jedi. Can you tell me anything about this guy beyond that? Even our fearless leader, Jyn Eros, feels lacking in significant development. She wants to find her father, get vengeance, but then changes her mind about sacrificing for the greater cause of hope. Many of the character relationships jump ahead without the needed moments to explain the growth and change. The original trilogy was defined by engaging characters. When you have a ragtag crew of six of seven rogues, you better make sure each brings something important to the movie from a narrative perspective, and not just from a pieces-on-the-board positioning for action. Look at Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy for tips. If this was going to be a powerful and emotionally involving war movie, the characters needed to be felt deeper. All too often they get lost amidst the Star Wars debris and then they become debris themselves. Ironically enough, Rogue One has the reverse problems of The Force Awakens, a movie that benefited from engaging characters but sapped from an overly familiar and cautious story. It’s telling when my favorite character, by far, is a sassy comic relief robot.

maxresdefaultLet’s talk about the Death Star in the room, namely the fact that over the course of eight Star Wars movies there have been Death Stars, or the construction thereof, in five of them (63% rate of Death Star sighting). We need a break. You can cal it a Star Killer Base whatever in Force Awakens but it’s still a Death Star in everything but name. I can’t even put a number to the amount of money it cost the Empire/First Order to build these things, plus the review process to try and correct design flaws that never seem to get corrected. At this point it feels like this model just isn’t cost-efficient for its killing needs. What about a more mobile set of multiple mini-Death Stars? I hope that the filmmakers for the new trilogy (Rian Johnson, Colin Trevorrow) refrain from putting another similar planet-killing space station-type weapon into their movies as we’ve had enough. However, the use of the Death Star in Rogue One was perfectly acceptable because it already fit into the timeline of the first film. I also greatly appreciated the clever retcon as to why the Death Star had its fatal flaw. It took a bothersome plot cheat from 1977 and found a gratifying and credible excuse. Now when Luke blows up that sucker it’ll have even more resonance.

Rogue One is a Star Wars adventure that feels like its own thing, and that’s the biggest part of its success. By being a standalone story relatively unencumbered by the canonical needs of hypothetical sequels, the movie opens up smaller stories worth exploring and characters deserving a spotlight. This is an exciting and entertaining war movie, and the kind of film I want to see more of in this multi-cultural universe. It’s not a faultless production as the lackluster character development definitely hampers some audience investment. I wish more could have been done with them before they started being permanently taken off the board. While Rogue One is looking to the past of Star Wars it still makes its own independence known. I hope this is the start of a continuation into exploring more of that galaxy far far away without the required additions of every Skywalker and Solo in existence. It’s a far bigger universe and it needs its close-up.

Nate’s Grade: B

Elysium (2013)

elysium-firstposter-full2With the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face, Elysium is a sci-fi action movie with more on its mind than pyrotechnics. It’s writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to 2009’s out-of-nowhere hit, District 9, a film so good that the Academy even nominated it for Best Picture that year, a rarity for a sci-fi flick. The apartheid allegory of District 9 was pretty straightforward, but Blomkamp and company found inspiring and fresh ways to tell a rousing story that worked in tandem with its social commentary. Elysium takes the haves and have nots to an admitted extreme.

IIn 2153, the rich have left Earth for a floating space station known as Elysium. It’s a luxurious paradise where technology can miraculously zap people to complete health. Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) is in charge of Homeland Security and protecting Elysium from the less desirables that want to break in. Those “less desirables” would be the inhabitants of Earth. The planet has become an overcrowded, dirty, impoverished slum; Earth as third world. Max (Matt Damon) is an excon working a factory line for a sneering corporate bigwig (William Fichtner) struggling to leave behind a life of crime. His childhood friend, Frey (Alice Braga), works as a nurse at a hospital, but she’s got her own worries, namely a terminally ill daughter. After an accident at work blasts Max with radiation, he has five days to live. If he can just make it to Elysium, he can be cured. The problem is that Delacourt is shooting down spaceships trying to land on Elysium, including ones filled with women and children. To get off planet, Max needs to help in a heist, but it’s prized codes that could lower the defenses of Elysium and make anyone (ANYONE!) a citizen, thus available for medical treatment. To make sure this doesn’t happen, Delacourt relies on a rogue mercenary, Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a crazed madman who leaps at the chance to do dirty work. The hunt is on for Max.

94576_galThe socio-political commentary isn’t terribly veiled here, and maybe that’s because now Blomkamp has bigger targets than South Africa’s governmental policy. I didn’t have a problem with the fact that the inhabitants of luxury are portrayed as all white and that the denizens of the impoverished Earth are mostly non-white minorities (if minorities dominate a future Earth, when do they become majorities?). It’s clear that Blomkamp intends for Elysium to represent the United States. The poor who break through into the Promised Land, many to give their children a better life, or a life at all, only to be deported back to a slum, are clear stand-ins for contemporary immigration, notably Latin America. This is all fine by my book, though I can already hear the persecuted cries of some conservative commentators. It’s not as refined a commentary and that’s fine, not every message needs to be subtle, but I want more with my message than a simple rich vs. poor allusion. We never get to see what the people of Elysium are like, nor what most of that world is like beyond wide idyllic imagery. Fichtner’s character does a good job of symbolizing the callousness of an elite, but then he’s just one guy. The difficulty of maintaining a working wage is given the most care in the film, but much of the higher thinking takes a backseat for the third act movie heroics. The shift is acceptable but it makes a thin development of socio-economic commentary that much thinner.

When it comes to action, Blomkamp certainly knows how to stage a scene to get your pulse racing. The only problem is that there isn’t terribly much action to Elysium, or at least methodically sustained action to satisfy. You always feel like you’re getting a taste of something cooler down the road but it never fully materializes, much like the exoskeleton suit. It looks cool, it provides some progression, but it doesn’t lead to much. What does it accomplish? It allows him a port into downloading the Elyisum codes, but so could anything else. If anything, the metal exoskeleton seems like more of a hindrance, dragging Max down with extra weight and bulk. It pains me to say that the cool exoskeleton, such a prominent marketing feature, could have easily been eliminated as well. The best action in the movie is a heist in the middle that manages to juggle a team of good guys, a team of bad guys, a mark, and a deep sense of urgency for the score. It’s terrific and makes fun use of Blomkamp’s inventive future weapons. The rest of the film is mostly a series of chases, many of which are well orchestrated but only flirt with long-lasting action satisfaction.

The third act on Elysium is an entertaining and noisy conclusion, except Blomkamp sets himself up for limitation. Some spoilers to follow so tread carefully, reader. Elysium gets taken over by Kruger and his team as a defacto coup… except, well there are only three of them. We don’t even get to see them train the robot sentries on enemies or the populace of Elysium. I really don’t know how far-reaching their hastily staged coup is going. We want Kruger to be the big baddie that Max has to fight right before the cusp of the climax, but when there are only two other dudes who aren’t making great use of their fancy resources, it feels too boxed in and restrained. The action is fun while it lasts.

101212_galAnother niggling concern is the glut of side characters and their side stories that don’t feel organically integrated into the hero’s story. The flashbacks to Max as a kid could have been completely wiped out. They don’t add more information to the story and feel a tad too hokey for the movie. Sister Saintly Nun espouses wisdom and promises Max will be destined for one great thing in the future (could I settle for two “kinda good” things?).  The bigger distraction is Frey and her sick kid, a.k.a. the Angelic Sick Child, you know, the type that feels so at peace with things and with no worry. This is a staple of the movies. Her only purpose in the narrative is to goad Max into making a bigger sacrifice, to think of others, not that beforehand the guy was displayed as being particularly selfish. Then there’s Max’s friend Julio (Diego Luna) who serves little purpose other than to carry him out of the occasional scene and to, of course, be sacrificed to drive the hero forward to achieve his goal. There’s a middleman who arranges for people to get identities that will be read on Elysium, if they get on there safely first. The villains are also pretty one-dimensional in their stock villainy: Kruger a sociopathic killing machine and Delacourt a tyrant. None of these characters leave much of an impression to make you want to take time away from the main story arc. Worse, many of them feel vaguely characterized and are clear plot beat generators rather than people. Maybe Max would be better off as a loner.

The acting is also all over the place. The worst offender is Foster (Carnage), who weirdly over enunciates every syllable in an affected future accent. She also seems to bob and swivel her head a lot as she talks, as if the Oscar-winning actress really had to go to the bathroom but was holding it at bay to complete her takes. Damon (Promised Land) is a reliable action hero but realistically, it’s a little curious that the main character would be, by all accounts, white. It makes much more sense for the savior of planet Earth to be like those left behind, but then I don’t really want to wade into deeper racial subtext than necessary. The real treat of the movie is Copley (The A-Team) who is having a ball playing a sword-wielding psycho killer. He provides a notable spark whenever onscreen, bringing a menace that makes you tale notice. Again, I just wish there was more to the character than his vague back-story and bunt motivations.

Despite what has seemed like a fairly negative review from the start, Elysium still a good movie but beware higher expectations forged from District 9’s unique alchemy. There are a lot of familiar plot beats here and everything from the characters, to the action, to the world building feels like it could have been pushed further. It feels like they took the freshness of District 9 and applied it to a more tired-and-true blockbuster formula. Blomkamp drops us into an intriguing world but I wanted more of just about everything. More with the characters, more with the plot, more with the socio-political commentary, more with the ins and outs of this future world and its inhabitants. The ending is also a bit jubilantly naïve given the powers of the Powers That Be. Really, a keystroke sets everything back to scratch. Again, I’m being more critical than I intend to be. Elysium is quite an entertaining movie with great visuals and Blompkamp is certainly a visionary auteur to praise, but it’s hard not to feel a smidge of disappointment with the man when you know what he’s capable of, even with a perfectly fine movie.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Contraband (2012)

January at the movies has long been a time for two kinds of releases: 1) award-worthy films expanding into wider release, and, 2) crap. That’s about it. I’ll let you figure out which category the action thriller Contraband belongs in.

Paul (Mark Wahlberg) was once the best smuggler in the business. He’s since gone legit, starting a family and his own private security business. His brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) gets into trouble with some bad men. He tosses a load of smuggled drugs to elude Customs ships, but now Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi) wants the value of the drugs or else. Paul knows he has no choice but to put together one last job to save Kate’s (Kate Beckinsale) brother. Paul leaves his family in the hands of Sebastian (Ben Foster), a trusted accomplish on many missions. John puts together a team and plans to board a ship headed for Panama City. While there, the team will load large sums of confederate money. The sale of the fake currency should square things between John and Briggs. However, little goes according to plan.

Contraband is a lousy heist picture that feels like it’s making it up as it goes. First off, the premise of John having to go back into his art of smuggling to settle a debt has been overdone, and the fact that John’s idiotic brother-in-law is as fault makes it hard to care that something might happen to the idiot. But why God do they bring this screw-up, the brother-in-law, along with them? He’s already proven to be a poor decision maker and a moron, and, surprise surprise, when in Panama the guy gets them into more danger. So irritating is this character, always foolishly making things worse for John, that you wish they had thrown this dolt overboard. This is a movie structured with a small beginning, a small end, and a great big fat middle, and it’s that middle that involves our destination to Panama. With heist movies, as well as most thrillers, we don’t want things to go according to plan. We want to see organic complications and watch our team of characters adjust. With Contraband, the complications don’t feel natural so much as like careening plot elements from other movies. John’s quick visit goes out of control, with the team losing their payment money for the confederate loot (guess who’s responsible for that? Guess?), and they have to go find a budding crime lord, Gonzalo (Milk’s Diego Luna), and then this crime lord just happens to be plotting a heist at THAT EXACT MOMENT and John and his team should come along and then the heist goes bad, as always, and the team ahs to get away, but Gonzalo demands to be taken to a hospital by gunpoint, and then the cargo ship is going to leave port, and, and, and, and, etc. There are so many breakneck plot turns thrown in that it feels like a broken blender spewing half-formed plot residue everywhere. It’s the film equivalent of the If You Give a Mouse a Cookie story (“If you give a smuggler a deadline, he’ll need a contact. If you give him a contact, he’ll need to do the contact a favor. If he does the contact a favor, he’ll have to do this one job for him. If he does this one job for him, he’ll need a crew. If he needs a crew, he’ll need… etc.).

Let’s take a moment to analyze the peculiar masks Gonzalo and his team choose to utilize. They literally wrap duct tape around their faces. That’s got to be the dumbest mask in the history of cinema, and there have been some stinkers. They couldn’t afford pantyhose? Anything? They had to use tape? First off, you can’t conceal key features, like your eyes and mouth, and lastly, isn’t it going to be something of a bitch to rip those things off? The only person who could properly wear a duct tape mask would be someone suffering from alopecia (condition that leaves a person hairless). Otherwise you’re sacrificing your eyebrows. Maybe this is just how things are done in Panama.

So much of this movie feels like it’s on autopilot, just drifting like that cargo ship. At this point, I don’t even think Wahlberg is trying to hide his indifference to the material. He’s a man with a shady past who went legit and has a family now, but in order to protect that family he is drawn back to his shady past. How many times has this plot device just been used in the last few years? The rest of the characters fill out the crime thriller cheat sheet: young screw-up who serves as plot catalyst, parent in prison to provide cautionary tale, best trusted pal that ultimately proves to be untrustworthy, and the harried, often victimized wife. Poor Beckinsale (Underworld) who gets beaten, threatened with a gun in her face, and victimized to a degree that it feels like exploitation. This woman can never catch a break. She gets few moments in the film where she is free from being terrorized with violence. I have no idea what would attract an actress like Beckinsale to this part other than the allure of a paycheck. Contraband stalls when it comes to thrills, and part of this is because the villains seem so lame. Briggs just comes across as an inept criminal, like somebody’s own screw-up brother-in-law that tagged along to play with the big boys. He’s routinely beaten and bossed around. It’s hard to take his threats seriously, so the movie cuts its losses and just has him threaten Kate some more. It becomes old quick. The only thing that keeps Contraband going is the great distance between Paula and his family, a divide that keeps Paul vulnerable. Too bad that the movie can’t think of anything thrilling to do with this scenario and settles, all too frequently, on scaring the wife. Wouldn’t the film have been more engrossing if Paul’s wife had been kidnapped this whole time? Would that not cause a better sense of urgency than the vague threat that a character we don’t care about might get offed for being stupid?

From an action standpoint, the thrills rarely materialize, relying on a contingent of blunders and coincidences to provide the thrills. There wasn’t a moment where I worried for a character on screen. This may be because I didn’t care for a person on screen, thanks to workmanlike characterization, but it’s also got to fall on the feet of Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur (who starred in Wahlberg’s role in the original Icleandic version of this flick) and his nascent camerawork. There will be moments where his camera does stutter-step zooms, mimicking the docu-drama camerawork that’s been en vogue with action cinema. And then he’ll never repeat it. There’s a shot of Gonzalo blowing the armored car up and it’s filmed in a high-speed, stylized shot to distill the strange beauty of the force, and then this never happens again. It’s like Kormakur is sampling all 31 flavors of action movie styles and can’t decide on a visual tone. The action is too dependent on arbitrary coincidences for it to be satisfying of thrilling; we’re just waiting for the next out-of-nowhere plot turn to move things along. The ending attempts to tie up things nicely but feels asinine and laughable in how John can take out three villains in one well-orchestrated, tidy swoop. Don’t even get me started on the impracticalities of John hearing a lone cell phone ringing to be able to trace his wife in an entire construction site. The resolution feels ludicrous and a stroke of dumb luck.

Contraband is a convoluted, knuckleheaded thriller that drags because of arbitrary maneuverings, poor characterization, a fat middle section plot-wise, and pedestrian action. The movie feels like it’s being made up on the spot. As a result of all this tiresome lateral plotting, Contraband feels like it’s going nowhere and spinning into oblivion. I found myself nodding off at various points, my brain bored by all the generic goings-on. The constant victimization of Paul’s wife is a rather ugly development for a movie that confuses salty language and furrowed brows for toughness. The movie is devoid of any sense of fun. It just becomes an empty enterprise of actors going through the motions to work of genre pap. Even by the dirt-low standards of January cinematic offerings, Contraband isn’t worth a cent of your hard-earned money.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Milk (2008)

The biopic of America’s first openly gay elected official is stirring, thoughtful, and occasionally limited. Sean Penn gives a wonderful performance as the captivating and tragic Harvey Milk, assassinated in 1978 by fellow San Francisco councilman Dan White (Josh Brolin). He changes his look, his voice, how he carries his shoulders and moves his arms; it’s a terrific and transformative performance that only sometimes hits a few fey stereotypes. The movie mostly follows Milk’s path as a community organizer who successfully mobilized the gay rights movement. You’ll witness local politics in depth, and that’s my one reservation with this fine film – it focuses too heavily on the political formation of a movement and less on the man that kick-started it. You get little glimpses of Milk the man, and most of those glimpses happen to be his romantic relationships with annoying men. That said, director Gus Van Sant orchestrates real archival footage from the time including protestors and homophobic spokespeople, and it gives the movie an authentic relevancy. The deadly confrontation between Milk and White is played in a painful, very un-Hollywood approach that made me wince hard. It’s amazing to watch Milk and realize how far the American public has come since the 1970s and how much further we, as a nation, have to go.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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