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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of March 7

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CONTRABAND A remake of a 2008 Icelandic thriller, Contraband is yet another in a long line of ignoble duds tossed out to help open a new movie year while the previous year's films are still busy collecting all the accolades. As far as January releases go, it's far from the worst — 18 years later, I still have nightmares surrounding the Chris Elliott comedy Cabin Boy — but it's nevertheless poor enough to securely earn its opening-month berth. Its foreign antecedent bore the moniker Reykjavik-Rotterdam, but perhaps mindful that many Americans would mistake these two major European cities for brands of beer, the action has been switched to New Orleans-Panama. But perhaps mindful that many Americans would mistake a movie called New Orleans-Panama for a travelogue, the title ended up being Contraband, which is so generic that it only reveals that the characters must be up to something naughty. The narrative wrongdoing begins with young punk Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), who foolishly agrees to transport drugs for the hair-trigger Tim Briggs (perpetually annoying Giovani Ribisi, whose entire career seems like one long epileptic seizure) and then finds himself in hot water when he's forced to dump the entire load. Luckily for Andy, his sister Kate (a miscast Kate Beckinsale) happens to be married to Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg), who used to be The Greatest Smuggler Of All Time. Now making an honest living, Chris reluctantly returns to the criminal fold, relying on the help of his best buds Sebastian (Ben Foster) and Danny (Lukas Haas) as he travels from New Orleans to Panama and back again as part of a plan to save his brother-in-law. Director Baltasar Kormakur actually played the Mark Wahlberg role in the Icelandic version, but whatever special insight he must have felt he could bring to this project was apparently lost in translation. There's nothing in Contraband that rises above the flagrantly mediocre, from its doorknob-dull characters to its rote storytelling. Even the casting exudes laziness: Seasoned filmgoers need only glance at the cast list to figure out which of Chris' allies will end up double-crossing him. Still, the script's betrayals pale next to the one perpetrated by filmmakers eager to dupe audiences into thinking they're paying for quality entertainment. *1/2

THE DESCENDANTS The must-see George Clooney vehicle of 2011 — The Ides of March sure wasn't it — The Descendants might be set in Hawaii, but it's hardly a film defined by its postcard prettiness. Right at the start, director and co-writer Alexander Payne (adapting Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel) shows us a downtown as gritty as that of any sprawling metropolis, while George Clooney's character, Matt King, informs us that Hawaiians have the same miserable problems as those of us living in the contiguous United States. With all romantic notions dispelled, the movie gets down to business. Matt's having a rough time of it, with life coming at him hard from all directions. His wife has had a boating accident and now rests in a coma; to make matters worse, he later learns that she had been having an affair with a realtor (Matthew Lillard) and was possibly going to leave him. His daughters, rebellious teenager Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and socially awkward Scottie (Amara Miller), don't respect his authority. And as the family member legally entrusted with prime acreage that has belonged to the clan for generations, he must decide between selling it to capitalist opportunists and making himself and his relatives millionaires or holding onto it and winning the approval of those who would hate to see this beautiful land razed. Payne, who also was a guiding force behind Sideways, About Schmidt and Election, has made another terrific movie about recognizably flawed people and the decisions they make that either improve or irrevocably damage their lives. No situation is ever easily digestible in his complex films: Here, Matt doesn't know whether or not he should forgive his wife since she's in a coma, and his children, his father-in-law (Robert Forster) and Alexandra's boyfriend (Nick Krause) alternate between infuriating us and earning our sympathies. Marked by stellar performances (particularly by Clooney, Woodley and Judy Greer as the realtor's wife) and an incisive screenplay, The Descendants packs a real Hawaiian punch. ***1/2


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