Thursday 26 April 2012


(Joss Whedon, 2012)

I've long wondered how they could possibly make an Avengers movie work. How to contain all those big, mythic icons? How to give each character enough room and time to do them justice? How could any blockbuster possibly be Epic enough, huge enough to replicate the storylines the Avengers characters feature in in their Marvel comics adventures? And beyond that, how to stop it looking just a little bit silly when Thor, Captain America, the Hulk and Iron Man are all onscreen at the same time?
Joss Whedon has found answers to all those questions, and in doing so, he's fashioned one of the best summer blockbusters of the last few years, a massive spectacle shot through with wit, lots of action and the fun that should be present in any good Super-Hero film.
Part of the miracle of The Avengers is that it exists at all. Marvel Studios' ambitious long-range planning - using the Iron Man films, Thor, the Incredible Hulk and Captain America as prequels, each containing elements that linked in to the overall tapestry of the Marvel Universe - looked like folly from a distance, but it pays off handsomely here, as fans of those films will find deeper resonances in this one, with character arcs maintaining consistency with each of the stories of these heroes.
The plot involves Loki (Tom Hiddleston), vengeful brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his plan to use the Tesseract (last seen in Captain America) an ancient energy source, to bring an Alien Army to Earth in order to take over the planet. Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) Director of Super Intelligence-Espionage organisation SHIELD, reactivates an old plan to gather together various super-powered "freaks" to form a Strike Force in defence. Only these heroes are a volatile mixture; from the tension between man-out-of-time Captain America (Chris Evans) and flippant playboy Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) to the very existence of Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Thor's links with Loki, they are, as Hulks human form Banner puts it, "A time bomb".
A film this big, with so many important characters and plot elements to line-up, needs a strong hand orchestrating it, and Whedon proves to be just that. He keeps the exposition short and snappy, sprinkles the first hour with solid action beats which also function as character development - the first meeting between Thor, Captain America and Iron Man establishes their differing approaches nicely - and gives everybody something to do. Nobody is lost in this ensemble. Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye and Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow may be the only two Avengers without powers, but they each get big scenes and moments to shine.
Hiddleston has a great time as Loki, playing him as a ripe old pantomime villain, fond of the sound of his own voice, in love with his own arrogance and so blinded by a vividly-suggested hatred he will stop at nothing to get what he thinks he wants. His explosions of brattish temper are nicely played.
Evans, Hemsworth and Downey Jr all have confident handles on their characters, giving their scenes - especially together - a pleasingly natural spark. Downey Jr gets most of the gags, and delivers them with aplomb, while Evans' Captain America is all about principal and old-fashioned heroism. He has one action beat at the climax which is beautifully done, giving some sense of what his character is meant to mean. Hemsworth's scenes play a little like scenes from Thor, but he communicates his character's bemused affection for humans and his horror at his brothers actions. Ruffalo is the only newcomer, and his Banner is subtly wary of everything, especially himself, but also dryly funny and fearful of nothing.
Team dynamics has long been a Whedon specialty, present in his work for tv on Buffy and Firefly, and that means that the scenes of all these characters standing around together, bickering and wise-cracking are justnas entertaining as the big action sequences. This may be the funniest action film vie seen in a while, with some beautifully timed one-liners to alleviate the mounting tension as the colossal finale looms.
And it is colossal; the final half hour or so shows alien army invading and their fight with the Avengers in the streets and skies and on the rooftops of Manhattan. This is everything a little boy or girl reading super-hero comics wants from a super-hero film. It is Epic, absolutely immense in scale and yet filled with character detail and brilliantly satisfying action beats. Super-hero films often struggle with endings, many devolving into vague, incoherent lightshows, others resorting to simple, brutal fisticuffs. Whedon seems to understand this, and his approach - treating this like a War film - really works. Seamus McGarvey's cinematography is key here; visceral and immersive, it ensures that this story is grittily human throughout, no matter how fantastic its treatment of gods and monsters may be. The sense of peril and involvement makes it more rousing than the climax of any other Marvel movie, and it contains so many rich geekbait moments it's dizzying. This is the Hulk done right, cutting loose in some awesome scenes of destruction while all the other heroes do too. The mix of tremendous spectacle and comedy - those gags never stop - is exhilarating.
There are weaknesses here; it is too long, the first hour slightly disjointed, the soundtrack is utterly forgettable, the cosmic stuff rings badly against the rest, and its all patently ludicrous. And yet, against all odds, it works. It really works.

Tuesday 24 April 2012


(Drew Goddard, 2012)

How do you judge a horror film that is not really scary? For The Cabin in the Woods depicts some horrific moments, has a few instances of suspense and a couple of sudden shocks; but it is never scary.
Instead it is clever. Filled with witty asides and sight-gags, aware of the ludicrous nature of both its own conceit and the genre it teases mercilessly, it skims along in a blur of post-modern references and strong one-liners.
Five college students straight from central casting - typically the film acknowledges even this - head to the cabin of the title for a weekend of partying. You know what happens next. And so does the film. But it has already presented a different, more interesting reality, and the way in which the two storylines intersect is what makes it so enjoyable. Just when it begins to grate, it shifts up a gear, launching into an epic, partly silly, partly brilliant final act full of laughter and gore.
Goddard directs with efficiency rather than inspiration, and the strong character dynamics in the script bear the pleasing stamp of producer Joss Whedon. The cast are playing nicely written types, and they mostly do well within that.
It's diverting fun with a good, surprisingly cynical ending, and no more than that.


(Mateo Gil, 2011)

It seems that at some point in the 1990s or 2000s we entered an era when the revisionist Western was assimilated comfortably by the genre. We all know, now, that the reassuring certainties of the films from the genres golden age - up through the 1950s, say - are bunk. The Westerns of the 1960s and 1970s made by Italian Directors and Americans like Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood told us so, and their influence has been pervasive. But in recent years that influence seems to have acquired a slightly different character; its there in the production design, in the costumes and casting, in the music and photography, the attention to the physical realities of life on the American frontier. But it's not there in the narrative, in the stories these modern westerns tell. The stories seem almost to have devolved back a few decades; they are largely much simpler and less ambitious thematically.
Blackthorn is a fine example. It seems like it should be revisionist, telling a story of an ageing Butch Cassidy (Sam Shepherd), still alive and in Bolivia, and his encounter with a young Spaniard (Eduardo Noriega) on the run after stealing from a mine. It flirts with a few themes - ageing, exile, loneliness, the need for and contrast between friendship and family - but embraces none with any depth. Instead it settles for being a decent and old-fashioned Western with some poetry in it's ageing bones, but without any tension or real narrative interest.
Shepherd is effortlessly convincing and his soulful work gives it more feeling than it really deserves (flashbacks to more youthful South American incidents with the Sundance Kid are slightly distracting) - he should have been playing leads in Westerns since the 1970s. Noriega is handsomely efficient and Stephen Rea steals a few scenes as a Pinkerton lost in Bolivia, but the films glory is it's visual beauty.
Capturing the stark, extraordinary contrasts of the Bolivian landscape, Gil presents some truly sublime shots and sequences here. He is best known as Alejandro Amenabar's co-writer, and his skill as a director seems solid. Perhaps next time he should recruit Amenabar to be his co-writer, for with a better script he might be capable of something special.

Monday 23 April 2012


(James Mather, Stephen St. Ledger, 2012)

In this era where the values and techniques of the old b-movie have become the values and techniques of the big blockbuster spectacle, only bigger, in this age when more or less every genre film is a b-movie, actual b-movies have more value. They retain some of the grit, some of the spirit of violence, sex and exploitation b-movies once meant in the face of the relentless money and polish you see on screen in the big studio blockbusters rolled out every summer.
Director Luc Besson has long enjoyed a sideline as a producer of such movies; generally corralling an International star (Jason Statham, Liam Neeson, John Travolta) as a maverick hero, shooting relatively cheaply somewhere in Europe and building around a single simple high concept, all directed by a young European director seasoned in advertising or pop videos, his action factory has produced a series of genre hits which owe a little to his own early work; pacy, visually stylish and slick, narratively simple, they only eliminate the odd poetry always present in Besson's work as director.
Lockout is more of the same. Directed by the Irish duo of Mather and St. Ledger on Serbian locations that all have the look of a disused power station and generic steel-corridor-and-airlock sets that could have come from any of a dozen sci-fi tv shows or movies from the last three decades, it stars Guy Pearce as Snow, an agent framed for murder and espionage who is given a last chance before he spends the rest of his life in "stasis" on an orbiting satellite-cum-prison. That prison is in the hands of the violent inmates (led by a pair of colourful, psychotic Glaswegian brothers, nicely capitalising on that cities uniquely aggressive accent and played with menace and wit by Joseph Gilgun and Vincent Regan) who unknowingly have the presidents daughter (Maggie Grace) as one of a group of hostages. Snow has to get onboard, rescue the daughter, and get off. Along the way he obviously has to clear his name, too, all of this against the clock as the prison drifts towards earth and oblivion.
The premise may be derivative and even hoary - Snow bears a strong resemblance to Korben Dallas, Bruce Willis' hero from Besson's The Fifth Element, and the story has an awful lot of John Carpenter in it's DNA - but the treatment is pacy, funny and grubbily stylish. The script is filled with zingy one-liners which Pearce utters with obvious relish and superbly world-weary timing. At times it reaches a near Shane Black level of fatalistic verbal comedy, even while the rest of the dialogue - the exposition and some clumsy character development - is dull and perfunctory.
The action is mixed; some solidly suspenseful sequences (Snow is appealingly physically vulnerable for a modern action hero) jostle with messily edited fight scenes, all visceral impact and little visual coherence, but Pearce carries it throughout, and the pace never let's you consider its flaws too deeply.
A proper, down and dirty b-movie then, fast, furious, frenetic, and tremendous fun throughout, even if it won't linger long in the mind afterwards.

Sunday 22 April 2012


(Wayne Kramer, 2009)

Based on his early work, Kramer seemed a promising young genre director. Those films - The Cooler and Running Scared - while never particularly original or interesting, were full of pulp energy, good work from actors and solid storytelling. It may be telling that the only truly compelling scene in Crossing Over, his ambitious attempt to make a panoramic, multi-strand real world epic, is the closest to genre material the entire film ever comes. An immigration cop finds himself in a gas station convenience store as it is held up by a bunch of Korean gang-bangers, and once he draws his gun, Kramer pulls out a terrifically gripping scene of thrilling action which is brilliantly put together.
Aside from that, too much here feels like dull tv movie material.
That's a shame, because this is a laudably serious, worthy subject; the varying experiences of illegal immigrants and the government workers who deal with them in modern California. Kramer runs about six separate strands in parallel, allowing them to intersect as the film progresses, contrasting the struggles of a Muslim Pakistani family who stray into the crosshairs of the FBI, with the story of a young Australian Actress sleeping with an Immigration clerk to get a green card, with a young Mexican mother deported and trying to cross back into America and more. Then there are the agents; Harrison Ford's conscience-stricken immigration cop, Ashley Judd's clucky attorney and Cliff Curtis as Ford's partner, battling with his wild younger sister.
It's ambition is part of the problem; none of the stories really gets enough time or weight, meaning that when it reaches the big emotional climax stage, little of it really stings the way it should. That may be partly down to the fact that it was butchered in editing - Sean Penn famously had an entire storyline cut out, meaning he's no longer even in the film - and it was controversially altered to avoid explicit reference to "honour killings" in one narrative strand, but it doesn't explain everything. It's also distractingly contrived, many of the narrative links annoyingly tenuous, filled with easy stereotypes instead of fully-formed characters (the kindly rabbi, the racist classmates, the cocky lawyer etc) and it lacks the vitality and style of Kramer's early work; it looks and sounds a little boring.
There are good things; a few of the scenes have the cheap, undeniable potency of a good pop song in their emotional peaks and troughs, and some of the performances - mainly from the lesser-known cast-members - are terrific, even in the little time devoted to some of these characters.
But generally, this is a missed opportunity, and one that seems to have damaged Kramer's career; he hasn't directed a film since.

Wednesday 18 April 2012


(Paolo Sorrentino, 2011)

When you examine his work scene by scene, Paolo Sorrentino is among the World's best directors. His technical proficiency and ability to mould imagery through shotmaking, editing and use of music is quite spectacular and yields fitfully dazzling results. This Must Be The Place is no different in this, featuring many scenes which are beautifully shot, cut and scored. Sorrentino's eye is fantastic, consistently picking out interesting compositions and colour contrasts, isolating Sean Penn as protagonist Cheyenne in wide frames and distinctive landscapes.
But there are other problems here; the tone and pacing and story all feel off at different points, and the whole thing hangs together too awkwardly to really work. It follows an 80s Goth pop star (Penn), living in bored tax exile in Dublin with his firefighter wife Jane (Frances McDormand) and his search for an old Nazi War Criminal spurred on by the recent death of his Holocaust survivor father. He drives across America, meeting a series of typical Sorrentino eccentrics before a strange final confrontation.
Penn is terrific throughout; funny and even moving, with Sorrentino's camera trained tight to him, his hair a mop of black dye, eyes ringed with make up, mouth red with lipstick. He finds the perfect voice for his damaged, childlike character, a fey and high-pitched whine, matched by his halting shuffle of a walk. But the film lets him down somewhat, keeping his character opaque and a tad enigmatic but for a couple of slightly pat emotional explosions. Sorrentino seems as interested in the gallery of people he meets on the road and his small network of friends in Dublin, all of whom are given nice little speeches and vivid quirks.
That makes the film overly-episodic, halting to introduce new characters and settings every few minutes, and all Sorrentino's talent and Penn's skill cannot balance that particular weakness.

Tuesday 10 April 2012


(Cameron Crowe, 2011)

Cameron Crowe specialises in likeable films. Even the single unmitigated disaster in his career - Elizabethtown - flirts with a sort of cheery likableness many directors would struggle for. All of his work is set in a warm, pretty version of the real world, filled with interesting, witty, quirky people (often helpfully played by beautiful movie stars) and soundtracked to classic rock and alternative music.
We Bought A Zoo is no different. What makes it, and the best of Crowe's work, so interesting is the dissonances and tensions created by his tackling of bigger, darker themes than his world can really cope with. Almost Famous was about innocence and adulthood, Jerry Maguire about integrity, personal and corporate, and this film is about grief and loss.
It follows Benjamin Dee (Matt Damon) as he tries to help his 14 year old son and 7 year old daughter through the aftermath of their mothers death by relocating them and purchasing an ailing zoo, which requires maintenance and renovation if it is to reopen in time for the lucrative summer season, the profits from which will enable it to survive. The Zoo is staffed by an appealing bunch of eccentrics headed by the driven Kelly (Scarlett Johansson).
That's a pretty classically generic set-up, providing a stage upon which everybody can learn and grow and change in an appallingly touchy-feely way; and We Bought A Zoo certainly contains more than it's fair share of that sort of material. There are many cute animal scenes, an over-extended metaphor involving a tiger, unlikely bonding, and against-the- odds triumph over adversity scenes aplenty. It's all a bit too long, and not quite funny enough with all it's schmaltz and sentiment.
But it works.
Crowe ensures it charms, aided by a relaxed Damon and Johansson in her most girl-next-door role in an age. Then there is Thomas Haden Church, given all of the best lines as Damon's worried brother, and a nice soundtrack which mixes the usual Tom Petty, Neil Young and Pearl Jam with a new Jonsi score to good effect. Crowe still has no appreciable visual style, but he's not afraid of big emotional scenes; here are multiple conversations about mourning a loved one and coping with loss, children dealing with grief and adults trying not to. If that comes across mostly as a slightly pat, easy sentimentality, then the few scenes where it becomes touching just about make up for that.

Monday 9 April 2012


(Aki Kaurismäki, 2011)

The odd, rather unique tone in Kaurismäki's work is well in evidence in Le Havre, basically a slight comic fairytale in the usual Kaurismäki register. I have a bit of a problem with that register; while I can see how accomplished this filmmaker is, recognise the craft and sensibility in his work, it does absolutely nothing for me on a personal level. Rather I find it dull and even off-putting; once Kaurismäki has gotten into his simple narrative groove, his films all proceed along predictable lines. Deadpan, cynical yet quietly romantic, and featuring an intriguing clash between grimy realism and a scrupulously designed retro style, his work usually presnts an assortment of oddball characters meeting and interacting in his odd little world.
Le Havre is no different; here an old shoeshine man in the titular port helps an African refugee escape the immigration authorities while his beloved wife lies stricken in hospital with a seemingly terminal disease. The community around him - the usual eccentric Kaurismäki group, including a Vietnamese man posing as Chinese, a retired rock star, the local baker & grocer, and a Jean-Pierre Melville referencing Police detective - all lend a hand, giving the film a decidedly optimistic outlook on human nature, underlined by its feelgood ending. That plays interestingly against the backdrop, which alludes to the real-life struggles of African immigrants in Europe with grim portrayals of a refugee camp and detention centre.
There are good things here; Kaurismäki knows how to film in master-shots, his use of colour, composition and music have been polished by the years, and he writes a few fine comic scenes for his characters. Fans of his work will be satisfied, but agnostics may remain unconvinced.

Friday 6 April 2012


(Michael Mann, 2006)

In many ways, Miami Vice is the ultimate Michael Mann film. Here he perfects the digital photography he experimented with in the earlier Ali and Collateral. Here he remakes some of his earlier work (the plot is based upon a couple of separate episodes of the Original series, but elements of it were also used in his Robbery Homicide Division series from a few years ago). Here he revisits some of his recurring themes - men defined by what they do, the impossibility of true human connection in the modern world, the relativity of good and evil in terms of law and order...Here he also returns to his favourite visual motifs, such as man pensive in a wash of blue by the ocean and the harsh beauty of the modern American city by night.
The film follows two Miami detectives as they head undercover into the twilight world of the international drug trade, posing as drug-runners in order to expose a mole within US Drug War intelligence. That brings them into the deadly orbit of a Colombian organisation and leads Crockett (Colin Farrell) into an affair with Isabella (Gong Li), a sort of financial advisor to Godfather Jesus Montoya (Luis Tosar, chilling in a few short scenes) while his partner Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) struggles to keep them focused and alive.
Mann has dealt with this world so often that now he is merely refining his ideas and sharpening his details. There is the sense in Miami Vice of an artist working almost in shorthand. Dialogue and exposition are minimal, spoken realistically and offhandedly. Cliched situations are elevated by the intensity of the writing, direction and playing - the undercover cop falling in love with one of his targets, a nocturnal shootout in a shipyard. The details are always telling and the soul of the film is in the tiniest moments. In a stylistic choice evoking Terrence Malick, Mann's camera occasionally drifts away from the obvious focus of a scene to dwell on something else entirely - Crockett gazing out a window at the ocean while his squad turn the screw on an underworld contact, or the feet of children racing past a car-wheel on the street outside a Havana Bar.
Mann is possibly the finest stylist working in modern cinema, and he puts sequences together better than just about anybody else. His camera moves elegantly and unostentatiously, and some of his compositions are extremely daring - he will often begin a scene with an abstraction rather than an establishing shot and loves to fill the foreground of a shot with the dark block of a shoulder. He is obsessed with surface - buildings, clothes, cars, weaponry - because he understands that in the modern world, surface often is substance, appearance is all, and that gives Miami Vice a tactile sense of the world too often missing from genre cinema. His action scenes are unparalleled, realistic, coherent and thrillingly visceral and his eye is just superb; there are countless moments of incredible visual beauty in this film, thrillingly captured by Dion Beebe's fluid digital photography.
Aside from the thematic and stylistic aspects, Miami Vice is his first film since The Last of the Mohicans to focus on a love story, and as such, its his most emotional film in some time. His decision to pull away from the procedural elements of his narrative and devote a large chunk of the film to the doomed romance between two characters is a bravura one, and it pays dividends at the climax, which has a hefty and adult sense of tragedy, loss and pain. The chemistry between Farrell and Li, both terrific, is crucial to that, and the rest of a strong cast - great players like Ciaran Hinds, Eddie Marsan and John Hawkes in even the smallest parts - gives it the feeling of an intimate glimpse at one small part of a wider, fully imagined world.
One of the great American films of the '00s.


(Brad Anderson, 2010)

There's a pleasing shade of John Carpenter to director Brad Anderson's work in the horror genre. It's there in his clever visual economy, and in his use of the edges of the frame, and in the sustained tone of creeping, quiet dread he establishes.
Vanishing on 7th Street even has the sort of premise Carpenter would surely appreciate; an apocalyptic darkness falls upon the world for an instant, and when it lifts, almost everybody is gone. Small piles of clothes litter the ground. The shadows seem alive as the days shrink in length and the few survivors, brandishing flares and flashlights and fleeing the steadily encroaching dark, desperately seek escape. In a touch straight from Carpenter's love of Hawks' Rio Bravo, a few survivors hole up in a bar powered by a stuttering back-up generator.
That is all set up with confidence and aplomb and a fair degree of creepy imagery in the first twenty or so minutes. After that, the film is less successful, a bit talkier than it needs to be as it's players discuss their situation and reveal various emotional backstories, and - a common flaw in apocalyptic movies - settling for a small drama when it's opening had suggested the endlessly epic possibilities of this altered world.
So we settle in for an act at the bar, with Hayden Christenson efficient as the hero and Thandie Newton and John Leguizamo emoting and gurning much more in the character roles.
This is a neat enough B-movie; short, generally well-paced and full of creepy set-pieces, it is another reminder (after the superior Session 9) of Anderson's superb craftsmanship. It admirably refuses explanations - a peek at Leguizamo's book and it's chapter on Dark Matter together with his talk of Croatoan and the Lost Colony are as close as we get - and finds just the right tone for an ending which is pessimistic, but with a single optimistic note and a lovely final image; two children on horseback, riding out of the city.
Hopefully at some point Anderson will get the backing of a big studio and a big budget to make the great movie of which he is evidently capable.

Wednesday 4 April 2012


(Jacques Demy, 1961)

The opening moments of Lola are a bold assertion of Jacques Demy's artistry. We see a blonde man wearing a Stetson, driving a huge American convertible through Northern France, Beethoven's 7th loud and inescapable on the soundtrack. Raoul Coutard's monochrome photography is glorious, almost luminous, Demy's framing and cutting lithe and powerful. Suddenly the music changes to almost tribal drums, and the rhythm of the editing alters with it; suddenly it is quicker and much more hectic.
Demy is perhaps the greatest, most natural stylist of all the Directors associated with the Nouvelle Vague, with a beautifully elegant appreciation of the way images and music can be used to tell a story, and that was obvious right from this, his first film.
Set in Nantes, his hometown, it centres on Cecile, a returned nightclub dancer (Anouk Amee) and a group of people circling her, from her childhood friend Roland, to an American sailor she sleeps with. There are also a Widow and her daughter both nursing crushes on men, and the women who work in Roland's local bar, all given typically vivid and colourful Demy characterisations. The opening titles dedicate the film to Max Ophuls, and it does play like a spin - of sorts - on La Ronde, circling a group of people connected not by sex, but instead by disappointed love. Everybody wants somebody they cannot have, until a climactic reunion gives the bitter-sweet tone of the film a lift with a jolt of euphoria like something from a fairytale.
Demy was a romantic, and this film was planned as a musical, but budgetary considerations demanded he cut out all of the songs (but one, Amee's unforgettable "It's Lola" number, performed in a basque). Instead, something of the joyous flourishes usually found within musical sequences survives in the way he shot the rest of the film (and would last throughout his career). He moves the camera with an unostentatious grace reminiscent of Ophuls, sliding it around rooms while his characters talk (his blocking is superb) and arrange themselves on furniture. There are also a couple of stunning moments of pure style: a slow motion interlude at a fairground, underlining the emotional high the moment represents for one of the characters, and a couple of marvellous travelling shots along the streets of the city.
That city is a presence throughout, gritty and beautiful and sensually evoked, and it provides a strong backdrop to the little dramas played out between these characters, which are often funny, but always hang over the abyss of torrid melodrama too.
Here are the sort of conversations - about destiny and choice and life - only really seen in the European art cinema of that era, but Demy was a sensitive, witty enough writer, and his cast good enough to make them all work. Cecile - known by most as Lola, her stage name - flirts with becoming a truly annoying lead, but Amee is so beautiful and so charming that instead she seems sad and trapped by her wait for an old love.
Not quite as sublime as some of Demy's later work (which he links back to this by using some of the same characters) Lola is still a lovely, rapturous film.

Tuesday 3 April 2012


(Baltasar Kormákur, 2012)

Mark Wahlberg's stock screen persona differs little from his offscreen persona; lying somewhere between Jason Statham and James Cagney, he generally plays an honest, blue collar tough guy who has to be driven to violence, but excels at it when that occurs.
Contraband is really no different. Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday, an expert smuggler gone straight who is dragged back into "the life" by the stupidity of his young brother-in-law, who finds himself in debt to some bad people after a run goes wrong. To pay the debt and get some lowlifes (led by Giovanni Ribisi) off his back, Farraday takes on one last run, bringing him to Panama and into contact with some dangerous Latin gangs, all while his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and two little boys are left at home in New Orleans, somewhat at the mercy of the criminal elements newly reinterested in his business.
All of that is terribly stale; familiar elements rearranged into a slightly different order. The plot is overly complex, with the Panamanian excursion in particular turning into an overstuffed - if entertaining - series of suspense and action beats one after another, including a Double-cross, a massive gun battle and a race against time, all of it presided over by Diego Luna chewing scenery as a deranged Gang chief.
The script has a few good lines and no interesting characters, but Baltasar Kormákur's direction enriches it somewhat; he keeps it grungey, gritty and grainy, thick with atmosphere and dense with texture. This is a portrayal of a New Orleans seldom seen in cinema, and Panama city registers vividly in that passage too, while life aboard a colossal cargo ship is pungently rendered, all cheap, scuffed carpets and oily corridors.
Contraband is best appreciated for its exemplary collection of shifty, distinctive character actors in the supporting and villain roles, modelling various brands of facial hair and sneer; from Ribisi and Luna to the ever-reliable Ben Foster and J.K Simmons, together with Lukas Haas and Caleb Landry Jones. They, far more than Wahlberg and Beckinsale, its star turns, mean that it's rarely boring, even at its most predictable and derivative.


(Tony Scott, 2010)

Unstoppable is probably Tony Scott's worst film since the risable The Fan, and yet, almost all of what is good about it is down to him.
Based on an actual incident, the film follows the efforts of various railroad workers to halt a driverless, runaway train before it reaches a large population centre where the chemicals amongst it's cargo are likely to cause a deadly accident. Chief amongst those workers are a predictably mismatched pair in the cab of another train on the same line, each with his own, not-all-that-interesting backstory (Denzel Washington and Chris Pine).
The acting is efficient enough, both leads displaying their different brands of starry charisma, but this is thin stuff, using characters as muscles to move the plot jerkily along, giving them the barest possible personality types, and massively over-reliant on tv news for exposition.
What makes it worthwhile is Scott's direction. He takes material which demands extremely repetitive imagery - trains, trains and more trains - and with his usual aggressive editing, he fills the frame with these powerful machines hurtling across beautifully desolate industrial landscapes, all rattling freight carriages and roaring engines. The people - and the story, even - seem almost irrelevant as he layers and builds his shots up into thrilling montages of locomotives crossing the earth, the sense of peril surrounding them never quite as arresting as it might be.