Contraband | Baltasar Kormakur | 2012
We all know that aside from expansions of Oscar hopefuls, January and February are dumping grounds for some of the worst films a studio will release all year. There are a few exceptions every once in a while (like Haywire, which I’ll talk about in a bit), but Contraband is not one of them.
Contraband is your stock January action film, and no one really tries to make it something better. It has a predictable script with terrible dialogue, and a relatively unknown director trying to stand out by copying the style of superior directors like Tony Scott, Paul Greengrass, and Michael Bay (hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a bit of the Duplass brothers in here). And with this mishmash of styles, the result is an artless, dizzying, and downright ugly film. And the performances don’t help as everyone is on autopilot, with Giovanni Ribisi giving a cringe-worthy and over-the-top performance. I’d say this will end up being in the 10 worst films I’ll see this year, but I’ll probably forget it by then
Immortals | Tarsem Singh | 2011
Had this same story been developed by better writters, or if the script had been developed and re-shaped a bit more, this would have been a completely different movie. There is a strong story of religion in the time of the Greek Gods that can easily be a parable for our own times, but the writers either shove the message in our face from time to time, or they hide it somewhere in a layer of bad dialogue and clichés. The script is a mess, and under any other director it would have made for a terrible movie. But Tarsem is not just any other director, and he saved it.
With Immortals, Tarsem is not preoccupied with telling us an important story for our times. Much like with his debut feature, The Cell, he uses what he has to create a visually outstanding film unlike any other you have ever seen. He used the script as a guide to have his set designer stretch his creative muscle. He used the script as basic instructions for the late great Eiko Ishioka to let her imagination run wild and create some of the most beautiful and crazy costumes of any year. On that front, it is a huge success. It really is nothing more than a simple exercise in style, and what more could you ask for?
Haywire is another film that doesn’t care much for narrative and is more of an experiment for its director, but it’s not quite the same as in Tarsem’s film. This film was an experiment for Steven Soderbergh (and writer Lem Dobbs) for two things: to see if he could make MMA fighter Gina Carano into an action star, and to see how he could change the aesthetic of the modern action film. And in both of his experiments, he succeded.
Despite some flat line-reading (which she actually didn’t do since she was over-dubbed for whatever reason), Carano actually gives a pretty great performance. A lot of that has to do with her physicality and that she actually did her own stunts, so we feel her there all the time, not like movies like Salt or the Bourne films. And this realism that she brings to the film actually helps the action scenes a lot since Soderberg shot them unlike any others. During the fight scenes he just kept the camera steady and allowed Carano and the other stunt doubles to do their thing. Also, these action scenes could very well be some of the most realistic ever because unlike most in Hollywood films, here every punch and every kick has a consequence on the character’s body. When they get hit it looks as if they are in pain and have a to struggle to continue the fight. It’s a really good movie, and I had a lot of fun with it. Whenever I make my write-up for the best films of 2012 I’ll be sure to mention it.
Rating: ★★★ 1/2