Shame (2011, Steve McQueen) – Gorgeously shot by the always artistic McQueen and featuring a bracing lead performance from Michael Fassbender as a sex addict in New York City, Shame works well for the first two thirds of the film before devolving into a pretty standard and depressing melodrama by its conclusion.
Brandon (Fassbender) is an attractive executive who could previously have any woman he wanted in bed with a smile smirk and a kind word, but who is on the verge of a breakdown. His addictions are catching up to him and he can’t sexually perform at the level he used to. His boss suspects him of looking at porn constantly at work, and the arrival of his estranged, aloof sister (Carey Mulligan) adds an added cog into a life already in flux.
Fassbender walks the fine line between sexy and repugnant quite well, especially when McQueen goes a bit overblown with his directorial flourishes in the final third of the film. Mulligan also adds a bit of weight to essentially a two dimensional character, and her face offs with Fassbender give the film its real dramatic thrust. The city of New York also does its part thanks to McQueen’s acute visual skills that bring to life a culture of excess where an addict can find his fix anywhere and anytime. It’s a real shame, then, that the final sequences of the film go out of their way to shock and wallow in misery beyond a point where the film should have logically ended.
The Blu-ray/DVD combo pack comes with an insightful interview and Q&A with Fassbender and another interview with Mulligan. The picture quality also brings out the colours and dark corners of the city look amazing.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011, Brad Bird) – While it won’t look or sound nearly as awesome as it did on IMAX screens in all of its vertigo inducing glory, Pixar veteran Bird’s live action debut resurrects the Mission: Impossible franchise by putting his foot firmly on the gas pedal and not letting go for a single second.
Impossible Mission Force veteran Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) starts of this entry being broken out of a Russian gulag to help track down a terrorist, code named Cobalt (Michael Nyqvist, original star of the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series), who is hell-bent on acquiring Russian nuclear missile codes. After an effort by Hunt and his team (Paula Patton, Simon Pegg) to stop him turns out to be a setup, the IMF are disavowed by their government and forced to work off the grid with the help of a pencil pushing analyst (Jeremy Renner).
The story goes from points A to B in a refreshingly no bullshit manner for a franchise that has seemingly prided itself on being as needlessly complex as possible. The actors all do fine jobs despite playing second fiddle to the immense action set pieces that punctuate the movies and are starting to become spoken of in rightfully reverent tones. Cruise in particular seems to be getting the biggest kick out of playing the grizzled vet instead of the cock smartass from the past entries in the franchise, while Pegg gets a wisely increased role from the third film and Renner comes on board as the wounded tough guy with a secret.
The special 3-disc Future Shop exclusive set (which is available from Best Buy in the States for you American types, and comes with DVD and digital copies of the film) includes some of the best featurettes outside of a Criterion release. In the “Mission Accepted” segments, there’s an in depth and nearly exhaustive look at the film’s three biggest action set pieces (the filming of the Kremlin bombing and its aftermath in Prague, the pants shittingly tense hanging off the Burj in Dubai, and the dizzying car park finale on a fully built 65 foot high structure on a Vancouver soundstage). These featurettes not only give way more than just the basics, but they feel like actual documentaries that tell a full and personal story that’s rare to think about when watching a big budget blockbuster.
On top of that, there’s an hour’s worth of mini-featurettes dealing with everything from filming in IMAX to editing to composing. It’s a film nerd’s dream to get this much information. Which makes it a slight bummer that there’s no formal audio commentary from Bird and his crew outside of his optional remarks on 15 minutes of deleted and alternate takes (including an alternate opening and quite a bit more with Nyqvist). Still, this easily takes the prize for the best major studio/non-archival home entertainment release this year. The featurettes are so great that an audio commentary almost seems redundant.
The Divide (2012, Xavier Gens) – The Divide is a psychological thriller about post-apocalyptic survival that is often horrifying and all around nightmarish. From claustrophobia to torture, radiation sickness and murder, this movie is intentionally void of anything that makes an audience feel comfortable or at ease for longer than one or two brief moments. On this level it’s an achievement, but ultimately the story suffers from a shapeless script.
Nine lucky survivors in an apartment complex following a catastrophic event make it into a bomb shelter before the rest are shut out by the shelter’s keeper, Mickey (played by Michael Biehn). Things start to go horribly wrong, however, when Josh (Milo Ventimiglia) and Bobby (Michael Eklund), who start off looking like a couple guys from Jersey Shore, basically out-crazy Mickey and end up declaring themselves the resident alpha males.
Filled with disturbing and occasionally humorous performances from Biehn, Ventimiglia, Eklund, and a really dark Rosanna Arquette that are aided by some very effective hair and make-up touches, the film deals with themes of gender, power, trust, and survival of the fittest in this microcosm of society. The result makes Lord of the Flies look like Fantasy Island.
All in all, The Divide is a successful entry into a well-tread sub-genre of horror, but it is still essentially a B movie that suffers from some technical issues and a script that by most accounts (including the in DVD’s one special feature, a commentary with Gens and some of his cast) was rarely consulted while shooting. It’s far from unworthy, but don’t expect it to brighten your day either. (Noah Taylor)
Contraband (2012 Baltasar Kormakur) – If you’re looking for an inoffensive action movie that allows a handful of talented actors to fire guns, chase cars, and blow stuff up real good, then Contraband is a perfectly reasonable way to kill a couple of hours. It’s definitely nuts n’ bolts crime/thriller stuff with no real surprises, but nothing offensively out of place either (well, maybe Giovanni Ribisi’s ridiculous accent). The film is a remake of an Icelandic thriller that is oddly directed by the star of the original Baltasar Kormakur and concerns underground smuggling on freighter ships. Don’t worry about learning anything about the actual smuggling world though. Smugglers don’t tend look like Marky Mark, nor do they end up importing counterfeit cash and Jackson Pollack paintings on a whim. This is little more than a disposable Hollywood action fantasy, despite the constant shakey-cam cinematography struggling to suggest authenticity.
Wahlberg plays a former big time smuggler who now has gone legit and runs a security company to support his beautiful wife (Kate Beckinsale) and children. Of course his brother-in-law has taken up the ol’ family business and after a bungled mission, Walhberg is dragged back into his old ways for “one last job.” Yep, it’s one of those movies and shockingly the last job doesn’t go as planned. Essentially it’s all an excuse for Wahlberg to spin crosses n’ double crosses amongst a group of a recognizable actors playing seedy crime movie types. How well it works depends on the quality of actors in any given scene. If it’s Mark and Ben Foster playing best friends struggling to go straight, it can be interesting. If Ribisi is vamping it up with a growling voice as the baddie, it all feels more than a little silly (Diego Luna does much better in a small role as a gloriously insane side villain in a duct tape mask). It all plays out like an effective B-level thriller before weirdly turning into a sub-Oceans 11 heist comedy in the last act that delivers tonally inconsistent giggles as the credit roll.
It’s hard to heap much praise or criticism onto Contraband because it’s a very average action flick. Thankfully Kormakur’s set pieces are at least based in stunts and pyrotechnics and are pretty impressive when his camera holds still long enough to see what’s happening. The movie is slightly better than mediocre, so if you’re desperate to watch some guns n’ explosions this week you could do worse. Universal’s Blu-ray boats a strong technical presentation, a self-congratulatory director/producer audio commentary, a 17 minute documentary (discussing how talented the actors are and how “realistic” their pulp fantasy is), as well as a brief featurette on the stunt-packed movie magic. Like the film itself, the special features are can be summed up with a resounding “meh.” (Phil Brown)