January sucks for movies. There, I said it. Traditionally speaking, multiplexes are playing one of two kinds of films around this time of year. There are the high-quality award contenders. And there are stale leftovers held back from the previous year. Yes, there are a few good January releases – ‘The Book of Eli’, ‘Taken’, and ‘Coach Carter’, but these are rare anomalies. We can now add ‘Contraband’ to this prestigious list.  

It seems like every criminal in movie history who decides to put an end to their wicked ways can’t. At least until they pull that one last job. After that, they’re able to reap the benefits of a crime-free life. Such is the case with ‘Contraband’. Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) is an ex-smuggler now installing security alarms and living a quiet life with his wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and two young sons. His brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) sets the plot in motion by botching a drug deal for ruthless crime boss Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi). To settle Andy’s debt, Chris is pulled into one last job. At the council of his friend Sebastian (Ben Foster), and jailed father, Bud (William Lucking), Chris assembles a crew to sail to Panama and return to Louisiana with $10 million in counterfeit money.  

There’s a lot going on in ‘Contraband’ – more than I’m giving credit for with my plot description above (Note: I probably described about half the picture – it’s hard to go into any further detail without getting into spoilers). I think we, as viewers, have a good idea of what’s happening, even when some of the details around the heist get complicated. The fine points of counterfeiting (using starch-free paper), the maze-like streets of Panama, the counterfeiter’s hideout, a ship going out of control due a loss in hydraulic fluid, shots of the container parts and giant cranes – all of these showcase director Balastar Kormakur’s impressive eye for detail. He makes the ship container a terrific place to shoot a significant portion of this picture. The casting is also very good – the actors, most of them appearing as if they need a shave and shower, have such a commanding presence on screen. I’m glad that Mark Wahlberg doesn’t even attempt a New Orleans accent. Giovanni Ribisi is great fun as the hyperkinetic drug dealer with a chillingly pitched voice. Equally fun is another loony villain, played by Diego Luna. But the show stealer here is Ben Foster. He’s an excellent actor who has appeared in ‘The Messenger’, ‘Rampart’, ‘3:10 To Yuma’, etc. Mr. Foster crafts a three-dimensional character who is difficult to read, but intriguingly so. Kormakur is great at creating this criminal world, and has made the occupants of this world equally fascinating. In other words, I believe he’s given the actors the flexibility to build out their characters, and Ben Foster has taken full advantage of this.

‘Contraband’ is a superbly crafted caper with a very good sense of pace – the only thing that seems to slow down in the film is the ship containing a cargo of counterfeit bills. There’s never a dull moment. That isn’t to say the picture is wall-to-wall action. There is a fair amount of exposition around the details of the heist. The film takes its time to establish its characters and their relationships with each other and such scenes give the material weight. The most memorable scenes are those held within the ship, and in Panama City when a job within a job goes terribly wrong.

 Is ‘Contraband’ great art? Absolutely not. But in a season of lowered expectations, it is a pleasant surprise. And as an example of its genre, I think it’s very good. Thanks to a great cast, a very talented director, and a strong script. ‘Contraband’ receives an unusually enthusiastic recommendation for a January release from me.

– Jerry Nadarajah

The Devil Inside

Dear readers, Happy New Year! It turns out the first major release of 2012 might just end up being my pick for the worst movie of the year. ‘The Devil Inside’, directed by William Brent Bell, opens with a disclaimer stating that “the Vatican did not endorse this film nor aid in its completion.” I can’t think anyone who would endorse this film. ‘The Devil Inside’ follows what now seems to be the overused “found documentary” footage format. It’s 1989 and Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley) murdered two priests and a nun when an exorcism was performed on her. Fast forward to twenty years later, and we see Maria’s daughter, Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade). She’s working on a documentary about exorcisms and decides to travel to Rome to see if her locked-away mother is mentally ill, or demonically possessed. She manages to get two priests, Ben (Simon Quarterman) and David (Evan Helmuth) to help her out. They operate outside the Church, trying to help people that the Church won’t. And, of course, Isabella and Michael capture all this with multiple video cameras.

Where do I begin with what went wrong here? ‘The Devil Inside’ doesn’t even feel like it was directed. The camera is unnecessarily shaky during its entire runtime. I understand the “Bourne-effect”, but is this technique necessary for scenes where characters are sitting down to have a conversation? Was the camera held by someone suffering from Delirium Tremens? Also, if you’re an exorcist and your test subject has the strength of superwoman, would you impose minimal restraints on her for comfort’s sake? Similarly, would you place a (potential) test subject in the backseat of a moving car? And if so, would you actually perform an exorcism in the backseat?

Back in 1973, there was a great movie on exorcism called ‘The Exorcist’. You may have heard of it. Many films since have replicated the formulae of this picture to scare viewers out of their wits (ok, more importantly, capitalize on its success at the box office). Many have failed, and this is no exception. There isn’t an ounce of originality to be found within ‘The Devil Inside’. Let’s take a look at the Exorcism subgenre film handbook. The demon knows the darkest secrets of those in the room – check! Painfully contorted bodies during the exorcism – check! Foul language spewing out of innocent mouths – check!

After an incredibly dull 85 minutes, the film picks up in its last two minutes, before providing us with the worst ending in the histories du cinema. Ben and Michael are in a moving car with an unconscious Isabella in the backseat (oh shush about spoilers, I don’t want you to see this movie). She regains consciousness and appears possessed via transference. This leads to a struggle between the three in the vehicle and the film ends with the car speeding into oncoming traffic, headlong into another car. The camera cuts to black, and we hear the impact of the vehicular entanglement. We’re then told to visit a website (, and read that “The Rossi case not yet been solved.” The End. There is no resolution, no closure to the story. Never before has a film felt more like a cop-out.

And now I tell a tale out of school. Press screenings, at least the ones I’ve attended, work as follows: Most of us watch the movie with a critical eye since we’ll have to write about it afterwards. Some take notes. The audience leaves in silence at the end of the film. There is very little dialogue about the experience between individuals – we don’t want to steal our colleagues’ ideas. Not the case with this screening. ‘The Devil Inside’ is a perfect example of a uniter. The audience collectively booed out lout at the close of the picture. People congregated in the lobby and openly shared their thoughts on the film. Everyone was in full agreement. I can’t recall a single positive remark. The “at least it was in focus” defence doesn’t even hold here.

But, of course, I have to say something favourable about ‘The Devil Inside’. The marketing behind this film was brilliant. Kudos to the individuals who assembled this trailer – they managed to find about sixty seconds of effective material consisting of creepy blind nuns, demonic screams, and sliced lips. In doing so, they were able to lure horror fans in for what they were expecting to be a real slice of heavenly hell. Prior to the screening, I skimmed over a few related tweets – mostly about users’ high level of anticipation and excitement for the film. My favourite one came from my friend, Mel Ward (@busychyld), who was seated next to next to me in the theatre. “I have a feeling that I’m about to see one of the scariest movies ever!” she said. Sorry, Mel. Not this time. ‘The Devil Inside’ is the sort of the film that would play in an infinite loop in Cinematic Hell. Exorcise your right to skip it!

– Jerry Nadarajah