X-Men: First Class


I think I have a decent working knowledge of recent cinema, but I admit that I had no idea director Danny Boyle (127 Hours) was such a prolific filmmaker.  His name wasn’t on my radar until 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, which was amazing. I looked at his filmography and realized that there are a few more of his movies that I’d seen, including 28 Days Later and The Beach.  I enjoy his work because he has no discernible niche, and his repertoire reflects a unique versatility.

His latest offering is Trance, a reality-bending thriller starring James McAvoy (X-Men: First Class), Vincent Cassel (Black Swan), and Rosario Dawson (Unstoppable). McAvoy leads as Simon, a young auctioneer who sells valuable paintings off for a Sotheby’s-like company. The movie begins with Simon as narrator, describing his duties as auctioneer, including a detailed description of their robbery protocol.  Robberies used to happen with greater frequency in decades past, as thugs would simply storm into the auction with guns drawn, taking the precious art by force. When Vincent Cassel’s character Frank and his cohorts conspire to steal a valuable Goya painting, they display an intimate knowledge of the robbery protocol that could have only resulted from inside information, which implicates Simon.  When their brilliant heist goes awry, Simon is the only one who can provide answers. The stolen Goya has been lost, and only he knows its whereabouts.  Unfortunately, during the botched heist he suffered an amnesia-causing injury.

Complicating matters is Dr. Elizabeth Lamb (Dawson), a hypno-therapist who believes she can unlock Simon’s memory through co-operative therapy.  She places him in a trance, a mental state where he is highly susceptible to suggestion.  Elizabeth helps Simon navigate the deepest recesses of his mind and he begins to recall certain events.  But are these memories real or false? The lines between doctor and patient and reality and fantasy all become blurred, giving the film a surreal, moody quality.  There was foreshadowing throughout, which only added to the mystery and atmospheric intrigue that Boyle so deftly created.

Vincent Cassel was very effective as Frank, giving the character an unexpected depth.  One minute he seems like Simon’s tormentor; the next minute he is a concerned friend.  Rosario Dawson literally bared it all, boldly appearing nude from head to toe more than once.  I couldn’t believe she showed everything…even the “honeypot!”  I respect her dedication to the role, because although a close up of her hoo-haa may seem gratuitous, it actually made sense for her character to expose herself in such fashion.  James McAvoy ably exhibited Simon’s downward spiral, beginning the film upbeat and confident and ending it in a very dark place as he questions all around him.

The camera angles and cinematography were superb, as some scenes resembled the famous paintings that were featured in the movie.  Boyle’s use of color and overhead camera shots elevated the film to another level.  The writing and performances were nearly flawless, and the script was so cleverly written that Trance bears repeated viewings to be fully understood.  I found it confusing at times, but I attribute this muddling to my own lack of understanding rather than a flaw in Boyle’s writing.  Again, a second viewing is advisable.  If you appreciate suspense, you will not be disappointed. Grade: A-

Silver Linings Playbook

Bradley Cooper burst on the scene in 2009’s The Hangover and has been pretty busy ever since. He went on to star alongside Robert De Niro in Limitless, which gave me the opportunity to witness him in a more dramatic role.  He continued to expand his more serious repertoire with last summer’s The Words, giving an authentic performance wrought with emotion.  I disagree with those I’ve heard question Cooper’s range and talents.  His latest Oscar-nominated feature may convince some that he has what it takes to stick around for a while, as he teams with talented director David O. Russell (The Fighter) for Silver Linings Playbook.

Cooper stars as Pat, a man trying to rebuild his life after an emotional betrayal sends him into a psychological tailspin.  His marriage is on the flimsiest ground, a fact that is apparent to everyone but Pat.  We are introduced to him on the day of his release from a mental health facility in Baltimore, where he was sentenced to a brief stint after the aforementioned wifely betrayal left another man in intensive care.  Cooper reunites with his Limitless co-star Robert De Niro in the movie, as the veteran actor stars alongside Jacki Weaver (The Five Year Engagement) as Pat’s parents Dolores and Pat Sr. They are loving towards Pat and his older brother Jake (Shea Whigham, Boardwalk Empire), though Pat’s recent troubles and attendant mental state have given them cause for concern.  During his hospitalization Pat was diagnosed as bipolar, which clarifies some of the turmoil he’s experienced in his life up to that point.  He learned some coping mechanisms while there, and he tries to apply his new positive philosophy to life by looking for the “silver lining” whenever possible.

Pat settles in back home in Philadelphia, reconnecting with friends.  He has dinner with his old buddy Ronnie (John Ortiz, Pride and Glory) and his overbearing wife Veronica (Julia Stiles, The Bourne Ultimatum), where he is reintroduced to her sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence, X-Men: First Class).  She is detached yet alluring, her grip on mental stability just as tenuous as Pat’s.  As Pat lives in denial about the possibility of reconciliation with his estranged wife Nikki, Tiffany continues her recovery from sex addiction in the aftermath of her husband’s recent death.  At Tiffany’s insistence, the pair form a friendship that initially begins as a quid pro quo where she will deliver a message to Nikki (who has a restraining order against Pat) if Pat will be her dance partner in a local ballroom competition.

Cooper’s performance was honest, and his chemistry with Jennifer Lawrence was effortless.  They both gave unguarded, nuanced performances, as their characters struggled for acceptance and affirmation in one another.  Lawrence shows incredible versatility, proving that she can shine in virtually any role: from popcorn fare like X-Men or The Hunger Games to grim material like Winter’s Bone.  I can’t recall the last movie I’ve seen that had so many standout roles.  The film has been nominated for eight Academy Awards, a whopping four of which are in acting categories.  De Niro put on a brilliantly understated display that began with subtlety but ended with layered complexity, revealing where Cooper’s character may have inherited some of his idiosyncratic and manic behavior.  Every performance was noteworthy, including Chris Tucker’s (Rush Hour) turn as Pat’s quirky pal Danny.  I don’t usually get caught up in the Oscar buzz, but in this case the hype is justified.  Grade: A


This ain’t gonna be my best review, cuz I wasn’t feelin’ it. Glad to have that disclaimer outta the way.

I don’t care about the backstory of Prometheus.  I know it’s the latest effort by the acclaimed Ridley Scott (American Gangster), but other than that I know nothing about it.  I later discovered that it was intended as a prequel to the Alien franchise, Scott’s hit science fiction offering starring Sigourney Weaver as a space traveler who becomes infected/possessed by an alien.  I wasn’t particularly intrigued by the trailer, but the buzz around Prometheus began to swell, so I thought – why not check it out? The cast looked good, if nothing else.  I’m a fan of Noomi Rapace (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), Charlize Theron (Hancock), and Idris Elba (Thor).  Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class) was another noteworthy addition.

Rapace stars as Elizabeth Shaw, one of a cadre of intergalactic space travelers who are heading across the galaxy in a quest to uncover the secrets of the universe.  She is joined by Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green, Devil), who shares her rabid curiosity.  In total there are about seven or eight crew members, and their ship is piloted by Elba’s character Janek.  After landing on a foreign planet, two members of the crew discover a mysterious black goo.  They also learn that the human race descended from some early alien species bearing slight resemblance to humans now, only much larger.  Elizabeth is fascinated by the idea of learning about the inception of humanity and wants badly to know who or what created the human race and why.  They think the key to learning this will be instrumental in helping their home planet.  Elizabeth’s curiosity is premised on the idea that we were created by benevolent beings for a meaningful purpose.  This reminded me of the tenets of Christianity, as Christians believe that they were created with love by God in His own image.  However, the crew soon learns that our distant intergalactic ancestors were not so magnanimous in their creation of mankind.  When they encounter one in their exploration, he seems like he doesn’t appreciate being disturbed.  Meanwhile, the two members of the crew that discovered the black substance have been infected by it.  One is dead and the other barely alive.  Charlize Theron’s character is the leader of the crew, and she refuses to let the infected member return to their ship.  Unbeknownst to her, Elizabeth has also been infected, much like Sigourney Weaver was in the previous Aliens movie.  Elizabeth manages to oust the creature from her body, but it is still contained on the ship.

That was a very basic plot synopsis.  I really don’t know what else to say about Prometheus, other than I didn’t care for it.  It was not a bad movie, but it just didn’t do anything for me.  I probably got some of the finer points of the plot incorrect; but it doesn’t really matter, it’s close enough.  I was drawn in the by cast, and I did find them capable – but that was about it.  I asked others what they enjoyed about the film and they mentioned Noomi Rapace’s resilience.  I agree that her character was a strong one, and I do think she is a wonderful actress.  However, it wasn’t enough to say that the movie was ‘good.’  Charlize Theron’s role was almost entirely inconsequential.  No big deal.  Neither was Idris Elba.  His American accent was horrible.  I should have listened to my first instinct and avoided this movie, mainly because Sci-Fi movies are not my preferred genre.  I don’t like the average Sci-Fi movie; I only enjoy the very high concept ones like Inception or Avatar.  I usually give letter grades for movies, but I think I should abstain in this case, because it wasn’t a bad movie; I just didn’t care for it.  Remember those pass/fail classes you took in college, where no letter grade was given, you simply just pass or fail?  Prometheus gets a pass.

The Hunger Games

I didn’t read the book, ok? Hopefully you still find my thoughts on The Hunger Games relevant.  I’m not one of those people that must read the book before I see the movie. Movies are my passion, and I haven’t been a voracious reader since adolescence. I think all of this higher education dulled my ability to read for pleasure, and I’m working on getting that desire back.  But who cares, let’s talk about The Hunger Games.  When I was a kid I read a short story called “The Most Dangerous Game,” about a man who was hunted like an animal by another man.  It was a fascinating look into man’s most sadistic urges.  The Hunger Games promised to touch on a similar theme of self-preservation, and it presented an interesting portrait of a bleak future – a striking cultural dichotomy.

In a fictional future, the country has been fractured by civil war.  The rebellion was quelled, but now instead of states, American territory is divided into twelve districts.  As penalty for their uprising, the citizenry must offer a periodic sacrifice, or “tribute.”  Each district must randomly select one boy and one girl between the ages of 12-18 to compete in The Hunger Games, a televised battle pitting the 24 contestants against each other in a fight to the death. Katniss Everdeen (Jessica Lawrence, X-Men: First Class) lives in District 12, and here’s the dichotomy I was talking about.  Although the movie depicts a futuristic world, District 12 looks like it’s straight out of The Great Depression.  Known for coal mining, the residents of District 12 are covered in soot, both downtrodden and hungry.  Food is a precious commodity, doled out in parsimonious fashion.  People barter for food by agreeing to submit their name into The Hunger Games lottery.  If you’re starving and don’t have any currency, you bargain with your livelihood.  At least that’s what I managed to glean from the cinematic version.  If you literary enthusiasts need to correct me on that point, feel free.  Katniss has an adorable little sister named Primrose, who at the age of 12 is newly eligible for the Games.  She’s understandably petrified at the prospect of the competition, but Katniss reassures her that the chances of her being selected the first time are slim.  Turns out the odds are not in young Primrose’s favor, and her name is pulled for The Hunger Games.  Fiercely protective of her sibling, Katniss offers herself as tribute in Primrose’s place.  The male contestant randomly selected is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, The Kids Are All Right), Katniss’ childhood friend.

That’s the basic gist of the plot, which you probably already knew. Most of the movie takes place in a faux wilderness of sorts, the setting for The Hunger Games.  The contestants compete in a controlled environment, manipulated by the producers of the show.  Katniss is a skilled huntress, deft with a bow and arrow.  She uses this to her advantage in the savage game, one that allows for the possibility of a twelve year old girl fighting an eighteen year old boy to the death.  Talk about the deck being stacked against you.  Recently the movie has come under fire from the omnipresent vocal minority of racist idiots that call the internet home.  Again, I haven’t read the book, but one of the characters named Rue (Amandla Stenberg, Colombiana), has been criticized for not living up to the lily white image some viewers were expecting.  I thought she was adorable, and I’m not going to entertain any criticism of her performance, which was flawless.  The nubile Ms. Lawrence was equally impressive in her role, both stoic and compassionate as the reluctant warrior.

The film was a provocative exploration of the human desire for bloodlust.  It’s just a movie though, right? We’d never have something like The Hunger Games in real life…or would we?  I think the idea of a random drawing goes against the very cornerstone of American freedom, but don’t tell me there isn’t a deep dark part of human beings that loves blood sport.  Gladiators used to battle in a Coliseum while people laughed and pointed and had a grand old time.  And how many people love MMA fighting?  Oh sure, it’s not quite the same, but you get my point.  Google Faces of Death.  People got quite a kick out of that.  The Hunger Games was rather intense for the average little kid, and I wouldn’t take my first grader (if I had one).  Otherwise, I thought it was a treat, and a definite must-see movie.  Grade: A-.


When I saw the trailer for Haywire I was instantly hooked.  This was my kind of movie.  I love watching a believable female lead do damage, a la The Bride in Kill Bill.  No weak “chick” fights, I wanna see something real.  To that end, Haywire seemed like it would deliver.  It stars Gina Carano, a real-life world champion MMA fighter.  If nothing else, the scenes promised to be authentic.  When I saw Michael Fassbender drop her with a sucker punch, I was sold.

The man behind the lens is acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s Thirteen, Out of Sight), and his imprint is clear.  Haywire was slick and stylish, even when the action turned nasty.  The non-linear storytelling is another common feature of Soderbergh’s movies.  Haywire opens with our heroine outlining a mission gone wrong.  Carano is Mallory Kane, a covert operative who does freelance work for the government.  I think.  She was sent on a rescue mission to recover a hostage, a Chinese journalist.  When he winds up dead, Mallory learns that her superiors have attempted to frame her for his murder.  The storyline wasn’t too complicated, but there were little things that didn’t add up here and there.  One minute it appears that everyone is in on the betrayal, the next minute it seems as if key people are unaware.  Also perplexing was the fact that no reason for the betrayal was ever presented.  Mallory hadn’t acquired any new enemies and was admittedly an asset to her employer.  So why was she set up?  I guess I can just go along with the idea that she was expendable, but there were a couple of problems in the details for this flick.

Despite its flaws, I found Haywire to be enjoyable largely because of Carano.  It’s still odd to see a man and woman fight on screen as equals, and I couldn’t help rooting for Mallory to prevail.  For an inexperienced actress, I thought Carano gave a capable performance, and it wouldn’t surprise me if she reprised the role in the future.  It looks like this movie died relatively quickly at the box office, despite its noteworthy cast.   Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class), Michael Douglas (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), Antonio Banderas (Puss in Boots), and Channing Tatum (The Eagle) round out the cast nicely, though they aren’t given great material to work with.  Usually Soderbergh’s movies are better than this, but fortunately Carano’s deft fighting ability was enough to sustain the film, for the most part.  Less talking, more fighting please.  The format of the movie was intriguing in the beginning, but as the movie progressed, more implausible things started to happen with the plot development.  Mallory’s ability to fight her way out of any situation was actually more plausible than the whole frame-up scenario.

I liked Haywire, but there are too many other choices in theaters right now for me to give it a strong recommendation.  Wait for the DVD.


Mark Wahlberg (The Fighter) has got to be one of the coolest actors around.  His career has only gotten better over the years, and I’ve always been a fan.  I think the first movie I remember seeing him in was Fear, and he showed flashes of greatness even back then.  He’s been nominated for an Academy Award, and I hope one day he’ll take one home.  He’s demonstrated that he can do more than play the tough guy, but that’s one of the roles in which he excels.

In Contraband he portrays a tough guy but a family man, a reluctant hero thrust into a situation beyond his control.  He stars as Chris Farraday, a reformed smuggler of illegal contraband.  Chris has gone straight, and is now the owner of a small home security company.  With his wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale, Underworld: Awakening) and two sons, he has carved out a nice normal existence.  That safe haven is threatened when his wife’s little brother Andy (Caleb Jones, X-Men: First Class) gets himself in trouble with local drug dealer and scumbag Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi, The Rum Diary).  He was transporting cocaine on a cargo ship when it was busted by border patrol and he had to dump the product in the water.  Instead of chalking up the loss to the cost of doing business, Briggs will extract his debt in blood.  In an effort to save Andy’s life, Chris assumes the debt.  The only way he can repay what Andy owes is by agreeing to do a smuggling job for Briggs.  His best friend Sebastien (Ben Foster, The Mechanic) helps arrange the job and also keeps an eye on Kate and the boys while Chris is gone.

Contraband was successful because of its straightforward plot and relatable performances.  Even though the average person will never find themselves thrust into such a dangerous situation, there are few forces more powerful than self-preservation and the need to protect one’s family.  Initially Chris is focused on saving the life of his brother-in-law, but eventually his wife and children become the object of Briggs’ vengeful rage.  As a viewer, I never doubted Wahlberg’s resolve.  Maybe it was his blue-collar Boston roots shining through that made the performance so believable.  Additionally, he and Kate Beckinsale had great chemistry and their performances were delivered with remarkable realism, particularly Kate’s frustration with her brother.  Sometimes your family puts you in the worst position, but you never turn your back on them.  Beckinsale, Jones, and Wahlberg captured the unconditional love that characterizes the bond between family.

It looks like the movie will end up being #1 at the box office, and I think it’s a worthy entrant at that position, though it will probably be a short-lived stay at the top.  It wasn’t a terribly original movie, but that’s ok.  I mean, we’ve seen the overall plot of man saving his family about a million times, but Contraband was exciting and intense and kept me on the edge of my seat. You really can’t ask for much more from a thriller.  I particularly enjoyed the clever way Chris managed to evade authorities while loading the contraband on the boat.  A lot of movies falter at the halfway point, but writer Aaron Guzikowski crafted a storyline that started strong and maintained its intensity throughout.  Contraband had a throwback B-movie vibe that ultimately proved successful, and it’s definitely worth checking out.

This article first appeared at Poptimal at http://poptimal.com/2012/01/contraband-review-wahlberg-brings-it-in-his-latest/ on Contraband’s opening weekend, and was reprinted with permission.