Ruby Sparks

The plot: Calvin (Paul Dano) is a 29-year novelist who wrote a hit novel 10 years ago and has since been struggling from writer’s block. He isolates himself in his apartment, and his only friend is his brother Harry (Chris Messina). On occasion, he visits his psychiatrist (Elliot Gould); he barely speaks to his mother (Annette Bening) or her boyfriend (Antonio Banderas). Calvin’s life changes when he wakes up from a dream in which he encounters a beautiful woman in a park. This gives him in the inspiration to start another story about the girl who he names ‘Ruby Sparks’. He finds himself falling in love with his own creation. One day, she is in his apartment as a flesh and blood woman who sees herself as his girlfriend.

This is a concept you just have to accept, there is no explanation. “Its love, its magic!” shouts Calvin. ‘Ruby Sparks’ deviates from the formulae of its rom-com trappings and raises some interesting philosophical questions. The first half of the picture about romantic fulfillment is light, fluffy, and delightful. The second half is very bleak – one scene in particular caused me physical pain to watch. The tonal shift from gentle to dark is seamless, and doesn’t suffer from a cinematic case of multi-personality disorder like most films do. We do know these two characters fall in love, but what happens after that? He created her – is it morally acceptable to tweak her according to how he sees fit? Or at the point when it becomes clear that she is an individual, should he stop writing and see how things pan out? At what point does nurturing become smothering? What exactly are his responsibilities – is this similar to that of a parent of a child? If I had this magical ability, how would I respond to these situations? How would I react to my psychological flaws in a relationship that I had been previously blinded to in creating this girl? Does this situation translate to the online world – do we create personas of who we want to be rather than who we are?

Few films this year engaged my brain as much as this one did. The premise may require a big leap of faith for some – I admit, I rolled my eyes initially, but quickly became involved in the lives of these characters. It isn’t completely far-fetched – authors become attached and form relationships with their fictional constructs. This picture reminded me of vintage Woody Allen, and Paul Dano is a good conduit for the Allen persona with his neurotic tics, and low-key style. His struggle as a writer is identifiable, especially in regards to the weight of success. Following up on a hugely successful project is no easy feat. Audiences have expectations which are always benchmarked by the quality of the artist’s previous work. Parallels can be drawn between the Paul Dano character and the directors (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris) of this film. This is a follow-up to their first film, ‘Little Miss Sunshine’, which was well received by audiences and critics, and was a Best Picture nominee for the Motion Picture Academy in 2006.

The script was written by Zoe Kazan, the same person who plays the title character in the movie. This is a screenplay to savor, one whose subject matter is approached with a sensitive eye about the way men perceive women. Calvin’s brother states “You can do anything with her” – this includes making Ruby’s boobs bigger, and having her give him blow jobs. But, Calvin’s isolated character seems more interested in female companionship.

The last high-quality unconventional rom-com I saw was ‘500 Days of Summer’. I love that these two films challenge the mechanical aspects of their genres, but it is a shame that audience members have to wait every three years for such a film to appear. I would like to thank all of those involved in this project – both in front of and behind the camera. I can’t wait to see they do next. I’d consider *this* spark to be about 100,000 volts, which is substantial enough to resurrect a very tired genre.

– Jerry Nadarajah

Beasts Of The Southern Wild

‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’, directed by Benh Zeitlin, was the surprise winner of the Camera d’Or Award at Cannes, and the Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic) at Sundance. A surprise to me because I don’t think the movie is very good. The plot: Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a six-year-old girl who lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry) in “The Bathtub”, a southern Delta community at the edge of the world. Wink is an abrasive, physically abusive alcoholic dying of some vague illness. Tough love – he’s got to prepare her for a time when he no longer can protect her. After this, I’m not sure I know what the movie is really about, but I’ll attempt a basic flow-chart: Temperatures rise —> Ice caps melt —>The Bathtub gets flooded —> Prehistoric creatures arise and roam the tub —> Hushpuppy searches for mom. The film is also narrated by Hushpuppy in a “Kids Say The Darndest Things” fashion.

Given the two major film festival awards this film has received, I can only assume I’m in the minority on this one. But, it does have its charms. Quvenzhané Wallis is a very compelling force of nature, and the rest of this cast of non-professional actors is very good (even though Dwight Henry is doing a Samuel L Jackson impersonation, at least it’s a good impersonation). Much of the film looks very pretty, especially considering the constraints of its more than likely shoestring budget – the credit here goes to cinematographer Ben Richardson. Some of the film’s imagery has resonated in my psyche, the most memorable one being young Hushpuppy running through a field with sparklers during a festival (yes, I know this is the poster of the film, but the image still sticks). There is also Zeitlin’s fetish for the thighs of middle-aged women – or so the camera zooms in on her leg to show us a tattoo that we wouldn’t have seen as clearly from a distance.

I’ve praised the performances of the cast members above, but they’re all underdeveloped as characters. Hushpuppy encounters a number of people through the course of her journey including a captain of a fishing boat who collects fried chicken wrappers, a woman who dances with her at a brothel, FEMA operatives on a mission, etc. etc. With the exception of her father, these characters are without flaw (and even his character has such a quick turnaround that it isn’t believable). Surely, the aftermath of a natural disaster would leave at least some of its victims with feelings of disconcertment, and outrage. There is a sense of artificiality to this community – these characters exist to aid Hushpuppy in her journey without any hesitation.

The cloying score, composed by Dan Rohmer and Benh Zeitlin, smothers every inch of this picture. They try just a little too hard in trying to manipulate your emotions with it. The greater they tried, the more I was able to resist. Based on the reactions of the audience members at my test screening, I suppose I should recommend bringing a Kleenex. I don’t think that this movie deserves your tears though.

The biggest problem I had with ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ had to do with the decisions made by the characters. The residents of The Bathtub seem to believe that they are self-sufficient. If their community bands together, they will get by. They don’t need outside help. False! What makes this a fully functioning community? The fact that they like to get drunk, play with fireworks, and dance to folk music? Government aid workers evacuate The Bathtub and whilst they quarantine its populace (prior to relocation), Hushpuppy and crew escape the hospital, and return to The Bathtub. They see this as a victory. I do not. They have chosen to return without outside assistance. They have chosen poverty. Are they celebrating their freedom of choice? I think the film is celebrating desolation, and insubordination.

‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ is an overly optimistic fantasy about a natural disaster that revealed the good-heartedness of man as opposed to the formation of a chaotic, violent society. I admired Zeitlin’s attempt to create a unique viewing experience, but the film’s grating score, underdeveloped characters, and plot devices kept me at a distance. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend it.

Note: For those of you prone to bouncy camerawork, several audience members left this screening due to motion sickness. I didn’t find the rough visual style to be a distraction, but clearly others did. QED.

– Jerry Nadarajah

The Amazing Spider-Man


The summer opener of 2002 was Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’ and I remember walking out of the film feeling disappointment. According to Rotten Tomatotes, the critical aggregator states that I was in the 10% minority of critics who did not recommend the movie. But, given that 90% of the critical population endorsed it, was there a need for a reboot? As a critic, should I dock this latest version points for being a quick turnaround piece? Or should I view it on its singular merits? ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ is a significant improvement upon Sam Raimi’s original, and the second best of the four existing Spider-Man films (with Spider-Man 2 still being the best of the bunch).

The story – Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is a teenage outcast, raised by his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). He is bullied by Flash Thomspon (Chris Zylka) and has caught the eye of Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone). She is the head intern for Dr. Kurt Connors (Rhys Ifans) at a biotech firm called OsCorp. Peter is interested in Kurt’s findings since he worked with Peter’s late father and may have the answers to some of Peter’s questions. Cross has a missing arm, and his scientific interests relate to cross-species genetic splicing. Peter sneaks into Oscorp, finds himself in a lab and ends up being bitten by a genetically mutated spider. You can guess what he becomes as a result of this. Gwen’s father, Captain George Stacy (Dennis Leary) is on the hunt for this masked vigilante, known as Spider-Man. Hm, this could complicate matters between Peter and Gwen. But, there are even bigger things to worry about when Connors juices on an experimental serum which transforms him into a destructive lizard-man. Realizing his cross-species state, he decides to release a chemical cloud from the tower of his corporation which would turns all humans into human-lizards. It’s up to Spidey to save the day.

There is an emotional hook to ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ which made this picture a more resonating experience than I was anticipating. The origin story takes up the first half of the film and is presented much more clearly than the first time around – we understand exactly why Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man. The picture isn’t just wall-to-wall noise – there is a story and the film takes its time to develop its characters. Andrew Garfield has much more dramatic range than Tobey Maguire, and I enjoyed his rebellious spin on the character. Emma Stone, as always, is likeable here and the two have a very nice chemistry. My only minor complaint is that Garfield (at 29 years of age), and Stone (24) look too old to be playing high school students. “This” Peter Parker is a photographer, but I don’t think he’s employed by The Daily Bugle. Actually, I don’t think The Daily Bugle was even referenced here. This picture is directed by Marc Weber, whose previous directorial effort includes the romantic comedy ‘500 Days Of Summer’ (which made my Top 10 List of 2009). In that film, he proved he was a very good director of actors.

But, does he know how to construct action sequences? The exaggerated set pieces in the original Spider-Man prevented me from giving it a positive review. If you can reference a few scenes from the DVD/Blu-Ray, take a look back at the way Spidey swings between buildings in the streets of Manhattan, and you’ll notice they lack conviction – he looks like a cartoon character, he just moves too fast; there isn’t the weight of flesh and blood. Technology has come a long way in ten years, but Weber gets it right here. He understands that CGI action needs to be slowed down in order for the viewer to derive detail. This makes the fight scenes involving Spider-Man easy to follow. The film’s single best sequence involves Spider-Man rescuing a boy from a burning car – unlike most 21st century CGI-heavy films, you can explain in a step-by-step manner what the actions between the two characters are. The actions involving the lizard, however, are a little more chaotic and incomprehensible, but the clear framing and editing of Spidey’s actions compensate for this.

Despite my misgivings of its existence in the first place, I’m happy to report that ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ is a very enjoyable summer blockbuster. I look forward to what the cast and crew do with the sequel to this new installment. Truth be told, they have big shoes to fill, given what Raimi did with ‘Spider-Man 2’. But, for now, let’s celebrate this victory. Thanks to all involved. I had a blast!  

– Jerry Nadarajah

People Like Us

People Like Us

‘People Like Us’, the latest tearjerker to grace the multiplexes, is the directorial debut of Alex Kurtzman, whose previous screenwriting efforts include the first two Transformer films. Those giant chunks of talking metal felt more dimensional than the human characters of this picture. Kurtzman’s intentions are admirable. ‘People Like Us’ has its heart in the right place – though, that may be the only right thing about it.

We are introduced to a fast-talking corporate facilitator, Sam (Chris Pine) who hustles his customers by using inventory overages for bartering purposes. He refers to it as “being on the ground floor of money.” We sense that something is broken inside him. He flies home to Los Angeles for the funeral of his estranged record-producer father. His father’s will stipulates that Sam must deliver $150,000 in cash to Frankie (Elizabeth Banks). We then learn that Frankie is the illegitimate daughter of Sam’s hippie father. A simple genealogical tree structure would imply that Frankie is the sister Sam never knew he had. And she has a trouble-making 11 year-old son, Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario) which means Sam also has a nephew. But, Sam is buried in debt – is he going to hand the money over to Frankie? From here, you know where this story of redemption is headed:
1 – The two banterers have a rough start, but slowly begin to bond – Check!
2 – A teary monologue (or maybe two or three) about this now-deceased record producer – Check!
3 – Josh finds a much-needed father figure in Sam – Check!
4 – The best-day-ever montages begin to roll in, one after another – Check!

The plot I’ve described above seems plausible. So, why then does the film feel artificial? Much of it has to do with the characterization. Josh might just be a little too articulate for a kid his age – he has a witty response for any occasion. I could almost smell the workshopping as I was watching this: the intelligence in the characters, the script’s overuse of metaphors (including vinyl records to represent authenticity), the cloying score desperately trying to manipulate me into generating an emotional response at a particular moment, the reliance on several jump cuts to illustrate moments of chaos and character confusion. All it takes is one line of dialogue to clear up all the confusion – “We are bro and sis.” But, this secret serves as the motor that drives the film. Without it, ‘Films Like This’ would then be a 10-minute short instead of a full-scale dramedy.

There are some nice moments in ‘People Like Us’. It starts off well, and there is some intrigue in discovering how these characters are connected to each other (which I’ve spoiled for you above, oops!). Chris Pyne, and Elizabeth Banks are fine in their roles – they have the ability to act. However, I couldn’t help but feel they needed a better movie to showcase their talents. I think ‘People Like Us’ needed another run through the typewriter, and a less frantic filmmaker behind the camera to make it a satisfying whole. Even though it has the best of intentions, it is ultimately too calculated and artificial for me to recommend. This is Alex Kurtzman’s first film. I think he’ll get it right next time around. QED.

– Jerry Nadarajah

The Avengers

Currently playing around the country is a small-budget indie film called ‘The Avengers’. With a measly budget of only $220 million, I’m hoping this review will work its magic and create the word of mouth necessary to get audiences in the theatres to see this modestly scaled picture. Ah, I kid! Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and The Hulk all in one film! It’s a comic book lover’s wet dream!

‘The Avengers’, directed by Joss Whedon, is one of the best comic book blockbusters ever made, and is my favorite film of 2012 so far. It has a very good sense of humor about itself, and acknowledges the goofiness and giddiness of having all these superheroes together in the same room without disrespecting the fans of this source material. Robert Downey Jr. is terrific again as the brilliant, self-centered Tony Stark (a.k.a Iron Man), and he delivers most of the film’s memorable comedic lines. But, my personal favorite hero here is Steve Rogers (or Captain America) played by Chris Evans. He has the underdog attributes, and there is a sweetness and innocence in his character that makes him stand out, at least to yours truly. Mark Ruffalo’s self-deprecating spin on the Bruce Banner character is far more effective than the Eric Bana and Edward Norton versions. The other players – Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, and Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, are all effective, and no one gets lost in the shuffle – there’s enough screen time for each of them.

 Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s brother, has severe sibling rivalry issues. Like every major villain in a superhero film, Loki wants to take over the world, and he plans on doing this by using a cube-shaped futuristic energy device to unleash his powerful army on Earth. Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) assembles this group of superheroes to try to stop Loki, but they spend almost as much time battling each other as they do focusing on their enemy. I saw ‘The Avengers’ in 2-D and refused to pay the surcharge for a potentially inferior viewing experience, so I can’t comment on the effectiveness of the added dimension. But, I can state that ‘The Avengers’ is everything a summer blockbuster should be. The special effects are first-rate, the action sequences are amazing, the characters underneath these ridiculous costumers are very well-developed, the writing is spectacular, there are more laughs delivered by this film than any full-scale comedy I’ve seen all year, and everyone in this exceptionally talented cast is operating at the top of their game. This is the first summer release of 2012, and has already set the bar very high. A rare example of a film that fulfills its hype, ‘The Avengers’ earns my highest recommendation.

– Jerry Nadarajah



I’m often asked what my guilty pleasures are. And I respond by saying I don’t have any, since I don’t think I should feel guilty for enjoying a film, no matter how poorly it was received within the critical community. I feel no guilt for having enjoyed ‘Lockout’, the new sci-fi action film directed by James Mather, and Stephen St.Leger. Though I suppose for most people, this would qualify as a guilty pleasure. The plot – It’s the year 2079 and the world’s most violent criminals are now incarcerated in an outer space prison. Snow (Guy Pearce) plays a wrongly convicted government agent. His one chance at freedom is to rescue the President’s kidnapped daughter, Emilie Warnock (Maggie Grace) – her idiotic journey to a maximum security prison in space has resulted in her being held hostage by its prisoners. I’m glad I didn’t have to do a video review of ‘Lockout’ – I wouldn’t have been able to describe the plot with a straight face. The laugh ratio is high enough to warrant “Best Comedy of the Year” status. I laughed out loud throughout much of this cheesy throwback to the action films of the 80s and 90s. The action sequences are colorful, but cartoonish and scaled back to receive a PG-13 rating. Guy Pearce and Maggie Grace elevate the material even with its ridiculous plot, and the fact that there are as many clichés as bullets being fired in the picture. When a film is so bad it’s good, well, then it’s good, right? ‘Lockout’ has no delusions of grandeur. It aims to be a big dumb fun, and it succeeds. I doubt I’ll give ‘Lockout’ a moment’s thought once this review is posted, but for its 95 minute runtime, it makes for pretty good escapism.

– Jerry Nadarajah

Act of Valor


The controversial, but government-approved ‘Act of Valor’ is the latest film to tackle the subject on the war of terror. This time, however, we witness real-life SEALS playing fictitious SEALS. It’s as if the filmmakers are telling the audience that a war film with a Hollywood cast automatically strips the picture of its authenticity. I don’t think so – ‘The Thin Red Line’, ‘Platoon’, and ‘Apocalypse Now’ are just a few of the many great films in the war genre. ‘Act of Valor’ should have had “WE WANT YOU” as its tagline because the picture feels like a 2-hour recruitment video. The metric that will be used to determine the film’s success won’t be the tomatometer on Rotten Tomatoes, or the total dollar figure it rakes up at the box office. The key data point here will be the number of SEALS recruits. Did the number of British Secret Agent applicants increase significantly when ‘Casino Royale’ was in theatres?

A team of six Navy SEALS are sent to the Philippines to rescue a CIA agent who has been kidnapped. Prior to her kidnapping, she was investigating a connection between a terrorist, Shabal, and an international smuggler, Christo. In the process of the rescue mission, the SEALS discover that Shabal is plotting an attack against the United States with a new, horrific weapon. The SEALS are then tasked with the mission of locating Shabal, as well the 16 suicide bombers he is sneaking into the Mexican-US border. The suicide bombers are equipped with vests filled with gel explosives. Shabal’s plan is to have them detonate their vests at strategic points throughout the United States, causing media panic, and further plunging the American economy.

The real life Navy SEALS who are essentially playing themselves are unquestionably brave, honourable men. However, there is only about two sentences of back story for these characters. Of the two main characters, one is a family man who likes to surf, and the other has a pregnant wife at home. As believable as the SEALS are, they do often struggle with reciting lines of dialogue. I don’t know if I can blame them for this – they aren’t trained actors. But, what about the SEALS as characters? They collaborate perfectly, free of discord. They stick to the plan but are able to adapt when necessary. They don’t even seem to curse unless they’re under attack. Nor do they question the value of the cause. And this is why ‘Act of Valor’ feels like propaganda. The film doesn’t examine the complexities of war – there are no corrupt officials, nor are there any psychologically damaged soldiers.

What ‘Act of Valor’ does have is action, and lots of it. These cast members were involved in sensitive, high-stakes, real-life missions, and I think this gives the action sequences, which essentially consists of a series of rescue missions, an aura of authenticity. This goes for the level of detail involved in their planning, their methods of avoiding detection, and their frequent use of military jargon. That being said, I don’t know what the heck a “hot extract” is and I suppose most civilians will be as lost as I was during the moments of military speak. The characters in this film have access to a wide range of modern weaponry and while what’s present is credible, it also robs the film of some of its tension. The SEALS have the upper hand in terms of firepower and logistical support. It’s the equivalent of cheering for the house during a poker tournament.

‘Act of Valor’ is one of those movies that is easier to appreciate than enjoy. As we watch this film, we’re reminded of the men and women sacrificing their lives so we can enjoy the freedoms we take for granted. It’s an admirable attempt at providing an accurate depiction of who the SEALS are, and how they work. As a film, it has some pretty impressive mission sequences, but it also has underdeveloped characters, stilted dialogue, a cloying score, and simplistic view of the war. The most unsettling aspect to yours truly is how every frame of ‘the movie felt like it was trying to convince the audience to join the military. As you can probably tell, I can’t recommend ‘Act of Valor, so my recommendation is to skip it and rent the criminally underrated ‘Green Zone’ or the Academy Award-winning ‘The Hurt Locker’ instead.

– Jerry Nadarajah



Of the thousands of films I’ve seen in my lifetime, ‘Wanderlust’ has set some sort of record with me. I had mixed feelings walking out of the theatre, and initially posted a tweet-sized review which stated “’Wanderlust’ is 51% original comedy, and 49% stale comedy. On balance, I’m giving the film a marginal recommendation.” After exchanging a few tweets with a fellow follower (who also had mixed feelings about the picture), I decided I was being far too generous. My follow-up tweet to my review involved flipping the ratio to 51% stale / 49% original, thus revoking my initial recommendation. This has never happened before.

The film opens with George (Paul Rudd) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston) bickering about whether or not they should buy a micro-loft in Manhattan. They go through their list of pros and cons, whilst their real estate agent sits and watches impatiently, waiting for them to make a decision. But, George’s boss gets arrested by the FBI, and Linda has her documentary about penguins with testicular cancer turned down by HBO. This leaves them both unemployed, and they hit the road for Atlanta to stay with George’s brother, Rick (Ken Marino), a highly successful business owner. Along the way, they stay at a bed and breakfast hotel that turns out to be a hippie commune. After spending a night there, they head to Rick’s only to realize they can’t stand it and thus return to the commune. Trying to adapt to this unusual 60s era hippie lifestyle where free love reigns, George and Linda find their marriage challenged. There’s also an evil land developer who wants to turn the commune into a casino.

As you may have noticed from my description above, ‘Wanderlust’ doesn’t have much of a plot.  A film like this relies almost entirely on its cast to pull it off. Some of the actors are given the chance to shine. We meet the occupants of the commune, many with a handful of eccentricities. There is a nudist who is working on what he thinks will become a bestselling novel. He also stomps grapes, but thankfully covers his midsection with a thin cloth to avoid shedding pubes into them. We are also so introduced to a pregnant woman, well into her trimester, who then pops out her baby with an effortless squat. And there’s another lady who illustrates the commune’s philosophies of free love – fighting off your sexual urges with multiple partners supposedly invites disease and death, and who is a fan of either? The members of the commune do not clap their hands – they demonstrate appreciation by rubbing their fingers together. And there are no doors since privacy is not in their vocabulary.

I have to admit, I enjoyed meeting a few of the above-mentioned characters in the film and was laughing at parts of ‘Wanderlust’. Both Paul, and Justin Theroux are very good in their respective roles and they are almost good enough to make the film work. Justin Theroux’s character has been a member of the commune for so long, he mocks people and their obsessive reliance on modern technologies such as VCRs, fax machines, and floppy disks. I also have to give the movie points for being an R-rated comedy featuring lots of bad language, nudity, and drug use. Too many films these days play it safe by toning down the crude material in order to receive a PG-13 rating. The releasing studios believe such a rating will draw in a larger audience, thus yielding higher box office numbers.

‘Wanderlust’ as a cinematic experience is much like hanging with these drug-fuelled characters – the film lacks structure and cohesion. It is a series of set pieces, and while I’ve mentioned some of the comedic bits that work, there are also a number of jokes that get hammered into the ground well before the point of delivering laughs. Aniston’s character consumes a hallucinogenic substance and takes the lyrics of R.Kelly’s ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ literally. The presentation of her documentary about penguins with testicular cancer is also flat and unfunny. But the most cringe worthy scene that I found physically painful to watch involves Paul Rudd’s character talking to himself in a bathroom mirror. He rehearses what he is about to say to a woman who has offered herself to him, and lines such as “I’m going to get up in yo vag” are said repeatedly to the point of discomfort. This extended scene goes on for at least three minutes, and then when Rudd meets the lady for what could be the big moment, we hear it all over again, and the joke which was unfunny to begin with has now been milked for all it’s worth.

 ‘Wanderlust’ isn’t bad enough to make you wish all those involved in this project would depart from society and live on their own commune. It is a mixed bag, but unfortunately I don’t think this is a bag worth sorting through. I acknowledge that the cast does elevate what is otherwise paper thin material, but I’m fairly confident that most of us would rather see them in a better picture.  This is director David Wain’s second near miss in a row – his last project being ‘Role Models’, also starring Paul Rudd. I think the two of them will get it right the third time around.

– Jerry Nadarajah


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