Theatrical Review: Contraband

Chris Farraday is a former smuggler who’s gotten out of his past life and now treads the straight and narrow path.  He now has his own private security company and devotes his life to his wife, Kate and their two sons.  Kate’s brother, Andy starts to follow in his brother-in-law’s path.  After a smuggling job goes awry, Andy now finds at the mercy of a ruthless low-level criminal named Briggs.  Chris now finds that he has to get back into his former life to save his brother-in-law and keep his family safe.  Chris and his best friend Sebastian come up with a plan for Chris to join a shipping crew and head to Panama, where he’ll make a big enough score to get Andy off the hook… or so he thinks.

That’s the basic premise to Contraband, the latest movie for star Mark Wahlberg.  Contraband is an adaptation of Icelandic film called Reykjavik-Rotterdam and is directed by the original film’s producer Baltasar Kormákur.  The original has never been released domestically, so I can’t say that I’ve seen it.  If Contraband is any indication though, I certainly would like to.  I had a pretty good time with Contraband though it’s not a perfect film by any means, with two particular points that get in the way of this being something even more special.  But before I get into those, let’s talk about the good stuff.

Baltasar Kormákur does a great job at building intensity through this.  What he shows us of the whole smuggling trade operation certainly seems believable and authentic.  Kormákur does a great job at engaging us in some simultaneous action at different locations and the entire film is very nicely shot.  In addition, this takes a few twists that I thought were surprising and one in particular really stunned me (this is a scene late in the film involving Sebastian and Kate).

Where this falls though is in the overall tone of the film.  As this is building, it just seems like there should be no pretty way out by the end and yet they find a pretty way out at the end.  This wraps the whole thing up in a conventional “happy ending” way (which especially quells the scene that I mentioned involving Sebastian and Kate) which just doesn’t jibe with the rest of the film.  It’s not a dealbreaker at all, but it does keep this from being more than what it is.  There was an opportunity here to turn this more along the lines like some recent hard-boiled films like Faster, The Mechanic and Drive and instead, this opts for the conventional and safe route.  It’s still entertaining, but more as a diversion than anything else.

The cast is terrific.  Mark Wahlberg excels at this sort of hard-edged part and he’s certainly highly watchable here.  Kate Beckinsale plays his wife does a nice job at playing a character who’s less glamourous than she’s normally been seen.  The always terrific Ben Foster plays Sebastian, and as expected from Foster, he puts a lot of nice nuance into this as he’s not only playing a facilitator for Chris, but also playing a recovering drug and alcohol addict.  There’s some nice supporting work from Lukas Haas and J.K. Simmons and a terrific little bit involving Diego Luna as an old Panamanian associate of Chris’.

But there’s another falling point with the cast as well and that’s with two members.  Giovanni Ribisi plays Briggs and Caleb Landry Jones plays Andy.  Ribisi’s Briggs looks like a cartoon character in comparison to the rest of the cast, it’s obvious from the first moment when he speaks.  Caleb Landry Jones’ (who you might remember as playing Banshee in X-Men: First Class) Andy just has “screw-up” written all over him without a clue as to how to do the right thing.  Though this wraps everything up in a happy way, you still get the idea that this character would be bound to screw up yet again if given the opportunity.  There’s nothing to care about with this guy other than the fact that he’s related to Chris and Kate.

But even with these qualms, I still had a pretty good time with Contraband. Though it’s not as special as it could’ve been, it’s still some nice diversionary entertainment, but not something that you have to run right out and see immediately.


Theatrical Review: The Devil Inside

In 1989, Maria Rossi murdered 3 people.  She did this while being the subject of an exorcism and since then, she’s been locked away by the Vatican.  It’s now 2009, and her daughter, Isabella, wants some answers.  Izabella has joined with a documentary filmmaker to travel to Italy and find out if her mother was truly possessed.

That’s the basic premise to The Devil Inside the newest horror film to follow the general style of “found footage” movies like Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project. The difference with The Devil Inside is that this presents  itself as a straight-up documentary from the start, complete with prologues using news footage, expert commentary and police video.  It’s a good idea to try something like this, but unfortunately the filmmakers never quite follow through with this as a straight-up documentary.

Basically, the start-up is sound, but then the follow-through goes back to the familiar with just found footage. Now I tend to like these sort of movies, but The Devil Inside makes a few key mistakes that shatters it’s illusion.  The most apparent of these is obvious “acting” by some of the principle players.  One scene in particular stands out for this and that’s a bit of business when Isabella, who’s now been joined by a couple of priests who are experts in exorcism, takes part in an their examination of her mother.  Up until this point, Isabella, has been cautious about getting involved with any of the proceedings.  But when her mother, in the midst of displaying multiple personalities in scattershot ways, starts to beckon her with a childhood memory, Isabella gives in too easily.  It’s just too obvious to the point of looking like it’s forced by the filmmakers as opposed to being something that naturally happens.

It doesn’t stop there.  It’s obviously apparent to the audience that Maria Rossi is the victim of demonic possession and later revealed that she’s possessed by multiple demons all ready to spread further.  This does indeed happen with one of the priests, who after his encounter with Maria, isn’t quite himself.  This priest, David, has to break from the documentary and go perform a baptism where he’s followed by the director of the film.  At this baptism, David performs a pretty heinous act, which one would figure would have him being stopped and subdued by the crowd immediately, but that isn’t what happens.  Instead the film breaks and David is able to make his escape back to the rest of the principle players.  It’s a contrivance that just doesn’t ring true with the set-up.

What would’ve been more inventive is if this movie had followed the initial idea of totally being created as a documentary, say somewhat along the lines that a movie like The Fourth Kind did.  It certainly would’ve been more difficult to do that and get the kind of scares that the filmmakers wanted to get, but it could be done (the earliest of these found footage movies, The Last Broadcast actually does this quite well).

Now, The Devil Inside certainly has it’s good moments as well, the scenes with Maria acting out are really nicely done (with the one exception) and real standout moments for actress Susan Crowley.  The main cast, for the most part, are characters that you want to follow, in particular the two priests Ben and David, played by Simon Quarterman and Evan Helmuth respectively, and that’s even taking into account the forced bit that the director, William Brent Bell, puts David through.  Fernanda Andrade plays Isabella, and again, except for the forced stuff she has to do, she does just fine (though she sort of comes off to me as Mila Kunis-lite).

Though I have these problems with The Devil Inside, I’m also willing to chalk up some of this to the environment that I saw this in.  This was a packed house with a lot of people there who’s main concern was entertaining themselves more than watching the movie.  If I see this again through home video, then I might come away from it a little bit differently down the road.  For now though, there are certainly better examples of this kind of film that I can more easily recommend.  If you must see The Devil Inside I’d suggest waiting another week or so for a less interactive audience.