Review- Contraband

Mark Wahlberg and Ben Foster in Contraband (Universal)

In the first incarnation of the Best Foreign Film Awards for the BAMs one of the winners was The Sea, a film from Iceland. While I try to keep tabs on former winners it does get harder as the years go on and the new winners accumulate. Combine that with the fact that Baltasar Kormákur, the director of the aforementioned film, continued to work in Iceland, a country that doesn’t always achieve international recognition and distribution, one could see how I lost track of him but that one film with its sharp direction, palpable drama and believable performances stayed with me. So when I saw his name on the opening credits of Contraband, which is itself an American remake of an Icelandic film, I was perhaps a little more hopeful than I otherwise would’ve been and I was not disappointed.

Contraband indeed does take a lot of familiar elements: an ex-con turned legit doing “one last job” (until the potential sequel) to protect his family because his brother-in-law got in over his head. The set-up is one we’ve seen but the film language and interpretation is a bit more artistic than one might expect. The precise relationship of the characters does not reveal itself right away, concepts that might be unknown to the audience are introduced then explained later, certain continuity is assumed therefore less-than-essential elements might be omitted and bother completists. It is this kind of telling that is almost required of a story that otherwise doesn’t offer much in the way of innovation.

One of the places wherein this film really does excel is in the portrayal of its villain both in the scripting of the film and in his interpretation. Briggs is not only ruthless and reckless but very well realized by Giovanni Ribisi. In this modern era there seem to be fewer black-and-white characters than before and a lot of navigating in the gray areas of humanity, which can be fine but it’s a lot more nebulous and difficult to get through it. Therefore to have a character who has no obvious redeeming qualities or seemingly no complexity is practically verboten but a good actor relishes this challenge. It can allow the actor to do a lot of work on the character’s story that could lead to his mannerisms and so on. I’m not saying Ribisi is method, I can’t confirm or deny but that what I am saying is a character so seemingly simple free of being judged can be a liberating experience and allow an actor to bring more than expected to a part. One way or another Ribisi goes above and beyond here and is a big reason this film works.

It seems every so often some way or somehow I’m reminded that Mark Wahlberg started in music and I do need to be reminded. Not only am I now accustomed to seeing him as an actor but have liked quite a few things he’s done. I think the key is creating a screen persona. He has one and usually he finds himself in films not too different than this and he also helps makes this film happen. Some action films need to work to have you believe the star fits in the milieu or builds up the world of the character and then the character but Wahlberg due to his persona and the types of characters he plays naturally fits therefore the film’s world and character can be discovered simultaneously. He always makes his characters identifiable and likable in spite of their flaws.

The supporting cast highlighted by Kate Beckinsale as the knowing yet vulnerable and worried wife, then there’s Ben Foster who’s very nuanced and Caleb Landry Jones who seems to be carving out his own niche as the engaging yet troubled youth.

Two other things that are a boon to this film are: it has a very good twist that propels it to a dramatic conclusion and it depicts an interesting and oft unexplored world of smuggling on ocean faring vessels. The conclusion gets quite dramatic and actually does leave you wondering how things will work out in the end.

The end did make me wonder how things turn out in the Icelandic version, however, that didn’t really adversely affect this film. What did was in the Panamanian episode there’s really the only pacing issue of the film and our leads are forced into a situation where they become passive observers, which makes that section quite tedious. That and a few other willful suspensions of disbelief are all that hold it back.

Despite its second act stumbles Contraband is a slightly elevated genre film with some good surprises in store and a nicely appointed denouement that should be a crowd pleaser.

7/10

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Film Thought: Sorry, No Refunds For Bad Movies

Sign at the Avon Theater Warning People about The Tree of Life and the no refund policy


Attention to All and Sundry:

After hearing about people seeking refunds for disliking The Tree of Life because it was too artsy and a woman suing the makers of Drive because it’s not an action flick and now people in the UK are unaware that The Artist is (mostly) silent.

I’ve recently had cause to go on a few Twitter rants about all too frequent substandard filmgoing experiences but this is one where I have to defend exhibitors.

Essentially we as filmgoers have to grow up and take some responsibility and think about what it means to buy a movie ticket:

1. The film you watch may, in fact, be bad and that’s OK.

To be truthful watching some movies I hated has been just as memorable as one I thought was great, maybe you really just have to love the form but the bottom line is that money you pay may be for something you dislike. It’s a mystery, that’s part of the fun. The theatre does not guarantee your enjoyment of the film, what it should guarantee is a clean, quiet auditorium, a properly projected image and crisp, clear sound. In short, they should guarantee you enjoy the experience of watching the film not the product itself.

2. Make Sure You Want to See The Film

If you are one who shows up looks at the showtimes and picks something at random, live with that. The same goes for something you think will be stupid or that you can’t wait to see. Also, if you are seeing a film because you think it will be stupid normal codes of conduct still apply to you. Your snarky disposition is not a license to speak or be otherwise disruptive.

3. Forewarned is Forearmed

This goes for things as basic as sound/silent (a rare conundrum), color/black & white (nearly as rare), synopses and parental information, some who are defending the audience members make it seem like finding out The Artist is a silent film is a chore. If all you knew is it won awards you can find out. As an experiment I just searched “The Artist Movie” on Google and results came up in the usual split-second and then it took me just a few seconds to scan down and find the Wikipedia entry that in the abstract starts by stating the film is silent. Such a chore.

4. A Movie Is Not That Different From…

Perhaps the best comparison (the most apples to apples) I can think of is books. Everyone has likely read a bad book and in all likelihood you owned it. I never once thought of reading something and then taking it back to the store. What does the store have to do with it? They only made it available to me. I chose to buy it.

Movies are similar. The difference is it’s a scheduled artistic presentation not unlike a concert. You are buying a ticket that guarantees you admission, not fulfillment. Has anyone ever seriously sought a refund because they didn’t know who the opening acts are or because Guns N’ Roses didn’t play “Pretty Tied Up”?

In both books and concerts there’s an accepted level of the unexpected and we’re fine with that. Why not films?

5. Trailers Aren’t Accurate

Things will make trailers and not the final cut, tone will be mangled and you will be manipulated. A trailer is a commercial. They are meant to make you want to see a film. Some are bad and some are good and they rarely are an accurate representation of the film’s quality.

6. Knowledgeable Complaining & Spending

If you truly dislike some film trend like remakes or a given franchise then you’d be best served by not giving those things your money. Otherwise, your complaints fall on deaf ears as the studios cash their checks. If you are curious to see those things that’s fine but know they will still exist if you contribute to their box office. If you just want to be informed as you besmirch them that’s fine but don’t delude yourself into thinking you can wish them away.

The box office is really all that decision-makers will listen to 99 times out of 100.

7. When I Should Complain/Seek a Refund

The theatre’s responsibilities are limited to presenting the films it has. Therefore, issues such as sound, projection or anything else that adversely affects your viewing are grounds to complain and/or seek a refund. I’ve read that being compelled to walk out can get you one but I wouldn’t bet on it hence the above stipulations.

I could probably get further bogged down in the minutiae but the above seems to be the minimum that needs to be stated in light of the recent silliness that seems to have occurred at the movies perpetrated by patrons.