Traveller (****) is a deceptive lead for Paxton

Traveller-1997

Traveller – 1997

Director Jack N. Green
Screenplay Jim McGlynn
Starring Bill Paxton, Mark Wahlberg, Julianna Margulies, James Gammon, Luke Eskew, Nikki DeLoach

There is a strong desire to turn away from Traveller for fear of having seen it all before. For the type of film that is very much low budget, one is tempted to think there would be something less formulaic. It’s a presentation of the Irish descendant Travellers of the deep south who keep to themselves except when they go to towns and take advantage of the local populace. One of these con men is Paxton’s Bokky, who has things working just fine until he is obliged to take on the son of a prodigal cousin, Pat (Wahlberg) as a partner.

The film has moments of gravity and some wackiness thrown in to the point where it’s hard to take it seriously at certain points. James Gammon’s Double D is a particularly tough character to take seriously. His character is played to such a comic degree, it brings the film to hi jink territory.

Wahlberg doesn’t have much to offer at this point in his career, but he’s not a detriment. This is the same year he was in Boogie Nights, and he’s essentially the same character here. He’s got a certain amount of verve which plays well, if muted.

Juliana Margulies is played against type as, Jean, a desperate single mother who loses her job due to one of Bokky and Pat’s scams. Bokky takes more than just pity on her. Very quickly, Bokky and Jean become a thing. Their chemistry works well enough. Paxton’s skill is such that he is definitely as capable of lifting your wallet as he is to add money to it without you knowing.

Paxton’s portrayal is the very biggest selling point of the film. He has a way of grabbing a lead character and making him real, instead of large. His Bokky has a certain amount of charm and ability, but he never lets it get in the way of his dedication and obligation to others. One can’t help but wonder how good this film could have been if they had dedicated to creating supporting characters that actually challenged him in the way that fed into his abilities of self-deprecation and courage.

As for antagonists, he is worthy of intelligent counterparts and he gets these in this film. Unfortunately, Green’s directing style takes away from the power of the more dangerous elements. Only in the last few minutes of the film does it all come together. Once it does, everything moves up a tick, when you realize there’s been a secret, malevolent force only hinted at before.

That it shows up when it did gives the story a significant jolt and makes us the whole journey much more worthwhile. It also gives us another example of how effective Paxton was as a lead actor. A lesser force would have insisted on being the focus of the answer, rather than someone who is at the complete mercy of others. Very few would allow themselves to be put in this position, and it makes the film much better because of it.

Another strong selling point for the movie is the soundtrack. Several traditional movies that were hits in another form are covered quite effectively by the likes of Randy Travis, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Mandy Barnett and The Cox Family. Several of the artists make memorable takes on these classic songs, adding character to the film that gives it a definite time and place.

If you have no patience, this film is not for you. Honestly, the first 3/4 of the film is almost a complete throwaway. The thing about that ending, though, is it brings you to the point where its all worth watching over again to see what it is you missed watching the first time.

One thing’s for sure, though, if you like Paxton, this one is a must. And you’ll miss him every time.

(**** out of *****)

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Sorry, I just can’t hate Transformers: The Last Knight (***)

Transformers-The-Last-Knight-Poster

Transformers: The Last Knight – 2017

Director Michael Bay
Screenplay  Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, Ken Nolan
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Josh Duhamel, Stanley Tucci, Anthony Hopkins, Laura Haddock, John Turturro (with the voices of Peter Cullen, John Goodman, Erik Aadahl, Ken Watanabe, Jim Carter, Frank Welker, Steve Buscemi, Gemma Chan)

There was a point a decade or so ago when Anthony Hopkins still had a sterling reputation. He decided to retire, presumably to avoid having to reduce himself to less impactful roles. Stanley Tucci has never had the height of critical stature from which to be reduced. It is almost certain Michael Bay is sitting there, behind the camera, saying something like “just put more Tucci into it!” John Turturro, my Lord, he can be in anything good or bad. There will always be something along the lines of The Night Of for him to look forward.

There is a feeling of hanging around the savanna’s watering hole as it begins the process of drying when seeing the likes of these three in a Michael Bay film. With nothing to do but keep feeding on the animals approaching the ever decreasing water, they don’t need to lie in wait or put any skill into the hiunt. Instead, they just pick off the distracted animals, one by one, like moviegoers heading into a googleplex. Meanwhile the smell about the swamp attracts all sorts of pestilence.  It is hard to smell, much less respect.

Is this trash?  Yes. Is it congruent in any way with how humans (much less award winning thespians) act? Well, no.  But look!  They’re destroying the Pyramids again! And Sir Anthony is looking cool shooting Megatron with a cane!

That said, despite every column inch of negative press regarding this film and how uselessly complicated (and just plain useless) it is, I still can’t bring myself to dislike it. The film is the same as each of the others in terms of plot devices, MacGuffins and General Sharp / Morshower. This time though, they actually took the time to build on the half-ass ending they had in Age of Extinction with a somewhat decent first half of the film.

The biggest advantage the film has early on is the general absence of Optimus Prime, who is back on the Cybertron being bitch slapped by a floating sorceress (Chan) and then charmed with stories of their home planet’s once and future greatness. Not slowly and without subtlety, Prime is won over to the side of whatever causes humans the most damage.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, we have a chance to actually get to know some of the other Transformers. This is a great opportunity that has largely been wasted in previous films. We are usually stuck listening to the boring leader of the Autobots opine about virtue and never again losing trust in humans while Megatron plans and schemes to be that one extra bad guy in the end who gets destroyed as a prelude to the big finish.

The point this time is to see, hear and feel the interaction with the other characters who have not had opportunities for forming anything more than thumbnail generalities previously. Bumblebee is the big winner here. Likewise, Carter’s Cogman, who exhibits a feeling of dedicated servant coupled with unhinged sociopath that is warily fun.

Less fun is the precocious little girl who acts as though she is a protector of Autobots. The little kid was focused in an ill advised early round of commercials which I think significantly diminished this film’s already waning appeal. No one liked Scooby Doo once they added Scrappy.

If one can get past the historical hogwash of King Arthur’s court, the Nazis and other points that directly contradict at least the first two films.  And if you can look past the fact that yet another large mass is coming to our orbit and trying to destroy us without affecting things like, say, our gravitational field. And if you can just accept that character A has to get to point B in the first act, then character C is the only person that can help with situation D. And if you get around the idea that for all but the first one of these films, Bay has not bothered with concepts like gravity, space or coherent editing…you should be just fine.

Do I understand if someone hates this film? Sure. It’s not that good at all. But is it too complicated and silly at the same time as it has been accused? If anything, this plot has been the most straightforward of them all.

The bots benefit from more screentime, and become more like-able, just like the film itself. I never disliked Optimus Prime, but in no way did I realize that boring Peter Cullen would have 90% of the dialogue for all of the Transformers up to now. I don’t mind looking at Prime. I just want to hear someone, anyone, else.

Here’s a general rule when evaluating this film: if you didn’t enjoy any of the previous movies, then move along. This one won’t change your mind. If you think that somehow Bay took a dip in skill, energy or just plain continuity this time around, you picked the wrong reviewer to follow. I have a hard time writing reviews on films as if they should suck and just saying they are just too complicated to explain. When it gets down to it, there are plenty of nonsense reviewers out there that just took this film off. Bay has not gotten any better in these 5 films, but he certainly hasn’t gotten any worse.

(*** out of *****)

Daddy’s Home (***1/2) two are better than none

daddys-home-poster CPE

Daddy’s Home – 2015

Director Sean Anders
Screenplay by Brian Burns, Sean Anders, John Morris
Starring Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Linda Cardellini, Thomas Hayden Church, Hannibal Burress, Bobby Canavale

The recipe for a successful comedy is kind of like the recipe for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. If all of the ingredients work, the experience immediately delicious is reliably forgettable. Indeed, the things I remember most about the previous effort The Other Guys of the two leads is Samuel L. Jackson and a Prius in a car chase. I own that movie and wanted to watch this effort. If someone throws a little too much honey instead of jam it’s sappy. If the peanut butter is not broken down enough, it feels choppy.

This time, we get enough laughs and few enough wincing moments to make this feel like a an above average comedy. I am pretty sure there are some laugh out loud moments that I will remember when it comes time to review the next Ferrell / Wahlberg effort.

This time around, Ferrell is Brad Whitaker. He’s a nice guy smooth-jazz radio station executive that loves children in the best way possible. His inability to have them is assuaged by the fact that his beautiful wife (Cardillini) came with two of her own. Just about the time the kids start to accept him as a father figure, their birth father Dusty (Wahlberg) comes back to town from who knows where to make things…complicated.

That the premise of the film seems dated before we’ve even seen it matters little. We know that Ferrell and Wahlberg are not going for originality here and there is absolutely nothing in Anders previous directing or writing work (That’s My Boy, We’re The Millers, Horrible Bosses 2)  screaming creativity. The work is surprisingly adept, despite some obvious choices. Ferrell and Wahlberg are in good form. The best moments are mostly Ferrell on a downturn, but it’s not a monopoly. There are some of his funniest moments since he first played Ron Burgundy.

One of the better aspects of the film is the undercard of Burress and Hayden Church. Hannibal is Griff, a handyman who has issues with Brad, but doesn’t let that stop him from moving in and making himself comfortable in his and Dusty’s new residence. His performance is anything but obvious and constantly a welcome surprise. Annoying part timers like T.J. Miller and  Nick Swardson could learn a lot from Burress’ work? Who’s kidding?  They won’t.

Thomas Hayden Church hits some excellent shots from the weeds in the thankless job of obvious comic foil. His stories are great, his horrible timing is perfect and his brashness works as a great counter to Brad’s sensitivity. He allows Ferrell to mine unfamiliar territory for him and it works really well.

My teenage daughter and I spent much of the last 20 minutes laughing. Sometimes for the same reason. This is rare. If you like comedies, this will stand out. If you are suspicious of them, this will not win any awards, but it just might make you smile a time or two. You might even laugh.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Ted 2 (***1/2) shines for a while…

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Ted 2 – 2015

Director Seth MacFarlane
Starring  Seth MacFarlane, Mark Wahlberg, Amanda Seyfried, Morgan Freeman, Jessica Barth, Giovanni Ribisi,
John Slattery, Patrick Warburton, Michael Dorn, John Carroll Lynch
Screenplay MacFarlane, Wellesley Wild and Alec Sulkin

Wherever there are 2 guys who decide to spend a day off together, there is Ted. Where ever there is the friend that will tell you truths no one else will, Ted is there too. When ever there is a friend that will risk jail time with you because it makes the event  funnier, and hence more memorable, that’s Ted, as well. The uncomfortable truth that most reviewers of the phenomenon that is this series is that everything about these films rings true to anyone who has ever had that buddy. Well, everything except for the stupid Ribisi subplots.

Starting out with an improbable but workable premise that Ted gets married to Tami-Lynn, while Wahlberg gets divorced from Kunis’ character, Lori. It works in a few ways. First, it gives Wahlberg’s character something to do in the movie. 2nd, it gives rise to a host of potential plots and scenes, the first being a recreation of a fight scene between DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta and Catherine Moriarity’s Vicki from Scorsese’s Raging Bull. So, yeah, he’s still doing the Family Guy routine of referential humor.

But it works, remarkably. As Mr. and Mrs.’ domestic bliss starts to wane and the bad advice comes in. They decide that having a baby will save the marriage. This turns into a well-orchestrated set of ordeals that lead the state into declaring a) Ted is not a citizen, he is property and b) the marriage is void. This leads to John and Ted hiring Seyfried’s “Sam L. Jackson” as their attorney pro-bono.

The film starts to slow around this time, almost grinding to a halt as Ribisi’s Donny shows up again, this time as a Janitor at Hasbro. In a plotline that is too stupid to repeat, he works with the guy in charge (Lynch, whose talent is completely wasted) there on a plan to…kidnap Ted. After all the stuff that was going right, they have to go back there.

They could have done a road trip movie and come up with more original stuff.

They do hit the road, for a short trip down to New York to meet up with a better lawyer than Jackson, played by Freeman with a voice that is so wonderful, Ted wants to sleep on it. It makes more sense when you watch it.

Ted 2 is a successful film, mostly, when we see Wahlberg and Ted wander through, looking for stuff to do. The ideas they come up with and the insults they hurl are sublime to those who appreciate bad decision-making. It slows when they have anything resembling a plot that involves hurting the stuffed bear, and, to be honest, who really needs another court scene in a comedy. You’d figure that they would have learned this years ago, but apparently I am the only one that saw Judd Nelson’s career die with From the Hip. In fact, the last time I recall a half-way decent courtroom comedy working was My Cousin Vinny. And much of that film is outside of the courtroom.

These issues are enough to take the film down a point, but not enough to cancel out what works. Hopefully next time we see more innocent nerds hurt at Comic Con, if for no other reason than because Worf and The Tick are in love.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Transformers: The Age of Extinction: Remember Chicago?

transformers-age-extinction-trailer

Transformers: Age of  Extinction – 2014

Director Michael Bay
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Kelsey Grammer, Sophia Myles, Li Bingbing, Titus Welliver, T. J. Miller, John Goodman, Ken Watanabe
Screenplay by Ehren Kruger

Alright, let’s get this thing over with.  It’s bad, yes.  There are the customary Michael Bay touches here.  The slightly unhinged brilliant guy (Tucci), the slightly unhinged hippie buddy (Miller), there is an everyman (Wahlberg) and his hot, barely pubescent daughter (Peltz).  There is a stud foreigner (Reynor) who is after her body, but only in the “good guy” way.  There is a guvment big wig (Grammer) who is keeping his agenda secret from the kind wonderful president who would never go after the kindly autobots.  Oh, and he has a henchman (Welliver) who is really slumming it based on what he is really capable of (LOST and Deadwood).  We haven’t even gotten to the Transformers, yet.

This is because the Robots in disguise have less personality than normal.  Optimus has added vengeance to his vanilla repertoire.  He is very angry early on, because the Autobots, like their nemeses The Decepticons, are being sought by the guvment.   The man (Grammer) leading the round up has, quite strangely, struck up a deal with another Transformer, intergalactic bounty hunter Lockdown (Mark Ryan) to pick up all extra robots and do varying things with them. Some will become hostages, some will become experiments and some will become whatever else Bay needs at the time in the story.

We do get John Goodman Autobot.  He seems like he might have a personality, being large and violent.  Kind of like Sully meets Walter Sobchak  Then there is the Samurai Warrior (Watanabe).  Then there is Bumblebee.  Oh, and then the Dinobots.  They, don’t talk much, but this is alright.  The original cartoon was low on personality and Bay is even lower with dialogue.  Gotta save money where you can.

So there is action that looks pretty good, even if it is hyperkinetic and not based on any sort of logic.  Filmmaking like this is a series of  “wouldn’t it look cool” moments in which the screenplay is shaped around the scenes.  Any resemblance to a coherent story is as coincidental as the roomful of monkey’s replicating Shakespeare. The other thing driving many blockbuster stories these days is the custom scene taking place in another big demographic.  In this case, as well as Iron Man 3, we have China.  The former film just made an extra scene for the film which it later excised from the U.S. version of the film.  Michael Bay did that one better, but having the Autobots hijack part of the bounty hunter ship and flying it to China with Dinobots in tow.  Having the last battle of the film take place in Beijing works in many ways. For Joe six-pack in middle America, its nice to see some other country’s cities being destroyed for once.  The Asian marketplace is nothing to mock.  This movie will likely be the biggest one of the summer.

Bay does not think his lack of logic or interesting characters is a flaw. When in the midst of another action scene, one character (Myles) all of a sudden needs to tell the strange and stupidly valiant Tucci that she is proud of him, no one in the world even has an inkling of why this should matter.  Sure, he is his assistant.  Sure, she had been disappointed in him.  There was no call for this fact to change at any point in the film. It makes no sense to resolve this right in the middle of an action scene, but that doesn’t matter to Bay.  He loves this scene as much as any explosion, it’s safe to say.

There have been many cities destroyed in the midst of this series.  This one asks us to remember Chicago.  Okay, how about the Pyramids?  Maybe the Hoover dam?  Maybe the many military bases and ships destroyed, or even that unnamed town in the first movie? We don’t remember them, and why should we?  What I remember about the Transformers movies is stuff gets blown up.  Yay.

Wahlberg is not effective here, unless you count that he is NOT LaBeouf.  That seems to help a lot these days.  Tucci is weird as Tuturro was, and Miller only brings smiles upon his exit stage left.  Peltz is not the victim of leering that critics would have you believe.  She caught a break when she caught Bay’s eye and now she has the option to be seen by more eyes than any other film this year.  Grammer could be in every movie and it would not move me.  Overall, I am thankful for the cast turnover.  It makes the rest of the movie seem a bit different.

Red Letter Media recently released a video in which its staff watched the first three Transformers films simultaneously.  The result was astonishing in the way that – almost scene for scene – Bay made the same loud mess of a film three straight times.  It is brilliant in much the same way that a C-student decides that the best way to improve the same stale paper he keeps writing is by adding special effects to accentuate its flaws.  Not to hide the flaws, per se.  But to bring the party to the flaws, and loosen up around them.  The effect is not good film making, but it sure is effective, by God.

(*** out of *****)

2 Guns: Not enough bullets

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2 Guns – 2013

Director Baltasar Kormákur
Starring Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg, Paula Patton, Bill Paxton, Fred Ward, James Marsden, Edward James Olmos, Robert John Burke
Screenplay Blake Masters based on the book by Steven Grant

There is a lot of star power in this film.  Personality just jumps off the screen at every turn.  We have Wahlberg somewhere between the knowing novice of his early films (Boogie Nights and the underrated Traveller) and the humorless quick study of his later work (The Italian Job, Contraband and Broken City).  Denzel, well, he’s Denzel.  There is not any real variance in his performances, but the subtleties are like no others.  One can always find time for Paula Patton.  Edward James Olmos is not in nearly enough.  He should work 24/7.  Paxton had me at “We just got our assess kicked, Pal!”

Even with all of this, 2 Guns is just so so.  That two undercover operatives from 2 different organizations can get so deep without figuring each other out is a stretch. Then they steal 43 million from another organization?  Suspension of disbelief can only be pushed so far.  Then there is the deception.  Everyone is double-crossing everyone, and somehow the ones they are deceiving get together to double cross our heroes.  It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World of guns and money.

It’s an entertaining film.  It’s not really memorable.  That one can be a fan of the two principal actors and still be nonplussed should tell you something.  Clint Eastwood, John Wayne and Toshiro Mifune made films like this and no one thinks any less of their careers in retrospect.  You probably won’t regret seeing it.  You probably won’t remember it after.

(*** out of *****)

Pain & Gain: Meat

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Pain & Gain – 2013

Director Michael Bay
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris
Screenplay Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely based on the book by Pete Collins

Let’s not get down to the nitty-gritty on this.  No one will benefit from knowing whether the events in the movie are true or not.  What is remarkable is the type of narrative that would stop in the middle of absurd action to tell you that everything you have seen to that point is, believe it or not, true.  Whether it is true or not, what a great line.

As Daniel Lugo and Paul Doyle, Wahlberg and Johnson are a couple of sides of beef directed by Bay, another side of beef.  Bay has gotten a free pass for some crappy movies (Bad Boys, Armageddon), gotten slammed for crappy movies (Bad Boys II, Pearl Harbor) and has been bypassed for credit for some not so crappy movies (The Rock, Transformers).  To his immense credit, he understands his role in life, even if he never shoots any higher than that.

 “I make movies for teenage boys.” he once said, “Oh, dear, what a crime.”

This movie details another crime, or a couple of them.  The lengths that the duo goes to avoid common sense is what makes the movie work.  It’s not great, by any stretch.  It is certainly better than most of the work Bay’s been involved with.  Normally, Bay follows a plotline like a cat follows a red laser.  It does not matter if it goes in a straight line, it’s just bright, red and shiny that counts.  He jumps around, chasing the elusive common sense, and it works within the framework of the plot.

Wahlberg is a known commodity.  His efforts, in films good (ted) or bad (Date Night) are consistently entertaining.  He knows what the audience wants, and he injects acting into that quotient.  The Rock is less reliable, but here he does a commendable job.  I am not sure any other actor could be as believably funny with a wound to his foot.  Anthony Mackie and the consistently excellent Shalhoub are equally effective.

There are moments that will be unsettling, especially if you are queasy about holes in feet, some torture and a loose association of body parts.

If you like Bay, you will like this film.  If you like Wahlberg, you will like this film.  If you like Dwayne Johnson, yeah, you know it.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Broken City welcome to the home of underachievement

Broken-City-Movie

Broken City – 2013

Director Allen Hughes
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jeffrey Wright, Barry Pepper, Alona Tal, Natalie Martinez, Kyle Chandler, Griffin Dunne, James Ransone
Screenplay Brian Tucker

All that acting talent.  What I wouldn’t give to see Jeffrey Wright win an Oscar one day.  Russell Crowe with a politician’s haircut.  Barry Pepper with a mullet.  Catherine Zeta-Jones playing a woman who marries well.  Kyle Chandler once more not playing a leading man.  Griffin Dunne at his most violent since An American Werewolf in London.  Mark Wahlberg taking the reins on a film and pushing the budget from anticipated $60 million to a scant $35 million.  They spent too much.  If you have seen the trailer for this movie, you have seen the entire film.  And it’s not because the folks who cut the trailer gave away any secrets.  There are no secrets.

So, for those who want to save time, here it is:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9lDV8FQp28

(** out of  *****)

ted has the stroke of genius for those not immersed in Family Guy

ted – 2012

Directed by Seth MacFarlane
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, MacFarlane (voice), Giovanni Ribisi, Joel McHale, Patrick Warburton, Matt Walsh
Screenplay MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, Wellsley Wild

I have seen, perhaps, 2 episodes of The Family Guy.  When it came out, I was caught up in The Simpsons and the humor seemed derivative.  Then I got married, had 2 girls and from that point, even though the show gained in popularity, it was never going to happen in my home.  Of the friends I have who watched the show and then watched the movie, half loved the movie and half felt like it was another episode.  Thankfully, given my relative lack of exposure I found the ted to be one of the best comedies I have ever seen.

The reasons for this are mainly two: Wahlberg and MacFarlane.  A third, Mila Kunis, has made a career for herself as the love interest.  It is one thing to stare incredulously at bad behavior.  It is a bit harder to present oneself as more than a two-dimensional being in the context of the annoyed girlfriend.  Kunis has the ability.  She makes herself accessible by giving the appearance to enjoy herself in the moment.  Her interactions with ted’s girlfriend at the double date as well as the “brewski” scene (below) are great examples of this.

Her investment is kindness and a reluctance to play anything close to shrill.  Too often, we find people in the girlfriend role to be someone we wouldn’t want to even know in the first place.  She seems reasonable, and that is important when playing straight in comedies.

Mark Wahlberg has made a career making us believe preposterous situations in his movies.  This is, plainly, due to the fact that he looks like he believes the situations himself.  As John, he has this child like notion of innocence that allows the average viewer to completely suspend disbelief.  This is most prominently shown in the following scene, which, like the movie, is not intended (even in the slightest) for children to see or hear:

His total commitment to being pals with an animated bear is astounding and feels real and fun.  I have never been into drugs, but if that’s what it takes to enjoy the Cheers box set extras, maybe I should reconsider.

Seth MacFarlane as ted is one of the great animated pleasures in movie history.  His manner is lewd and his education is limited to whatever was on television for the entirety of his life.  There is a moment during a wild car chase where ted jumps onto the hood of another car.  In the midst of this, he takes a moment to recognize the brilliance of T.J. Hooker.  His one liners are incomparable.  The discussions he has with his boss at the grocery store, the line he has about the child of his girlfriend and his ideas (with Wahlberg) about the restaurant they want to open are as fresh in my mind as if I saw it today.

There are some drawbacks to the film, but each one of them are tied directly to one source: Giovanni Ribisi.  I have given it some thought, and I think it’s time that we put Ribisi out of work.  His work is mundane and routine in every film.  Let me give you a breakdown:  he always plays a morally ambiguous freak.  That is it.  Except, of course, Avatar, where he played a morally ambiguous weenie.  I can’t remember a movie he has been in that has been made in anything but worse with his presence.  Here he plays a sleaze who wants to own ted.  This leads to one of the biggest contradictions of the film.  There is a great scene where John and ted get into a fight in a motel.  This last for a good long time with much wonderful violence, showing the teddy bear can really hold his own.  Not ten minutes later, there is Ribisi, all 98 pounds of weakness, grabbing ted and throwing him in a bag, as if he is a rag doll.  Great, now we get to see Ribisi through most of the rest of the movie.

Were it not for Ribisi, this film would be in my top 5 on my comedy list.  Even with his stain, the movie plays kind of like Stripes, where everything is perfect until they go to Austria.

(****1/2 out of *****)

Contraband: A paycheck film for Wahlberg, not much more.

Contraband – 2012

Directed by Baltasar Kormákur
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Kate Beckinsdale, Giovinni Ribisi, Caleb Landry Jones, Lukas Haas, JK Simmons, David O’Hara, Diego Luna, Robert Wahlberg, William Lucking
Screenplay Aaron Guzikowski, based on Reykjavík-Rotterdam by Arnaldur Indriðason and Óskar Jónasson

It plays so much like a Bruckheimer film, I am surprised to find the origins are Icelandic.  All that male bonding.  All the women and families in trouble.  Double crossings.  Honor.  The old crook being forced into one last heist.  At least, with Wahlberg in control, we have that moment where the protagonist admits that he is enjoying the ride.

The movie starts off with a kid (Jones) getting in too deep.  The kid is the brother-in-law of Chris Farraday (Wahlberg), who is thrust into the job of saving the day by alternately being threatened, threatening and paying back a sleazeball named Briggs (Ribisi, of course).  This leads to using a bunch of money that they seemingly did not have, going on a ship and heading to Panama to round-up some illegal stuff.  Many more people die, things get stowed, muscles flexed, insults tossed and obvious things missed.  All in the name of good fun.

There is never a point in the story where there is any doubt who will succeed and who will fail.  If you’ve seen Foster and Ribisi in any other film, you have seen them here.  The movie has the feeling of a mini-epic, only without the grandiosity of The Godfather or the depths of The Departed.  This is your working class crook’s film.

It’s nice to see Beckinsdale in something other than a vampire/werewolf flick.  She gives the aggrieved woman role a good run, until she get’s wrapped in improbability.  Wahlberg’s on board staff is eclectic enough to be entertaining, even if JK Simmon’s Captain Camp is played about 40 points below his real IQ.  The film needed more of the element provided by O’Hara’s Church to give it some heft, but overall, it is a passable evening’s entertainment.

As for Wahlberg, what is to say, other than this is one of those movies he makes to pay for the other ones.  Famed screenwriter / director John Sayles used to moonlight under a pseudonym in moneymaking movie ventures to pay for the films that he really wanted to make.  Wahlberg puts his name on everything he does.  For every film like Travelers and The Fighter, we see films like this, The Other Guys or sadly, Max Payne.  He knows how to make entertaining films,  and he rarely misses.

(***1/2 out of *****)