Movie Review ~ Prisoners

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When Keller Dover’s daughter and her friend go missing, he takes matters into his own hands as the police pursue multiple leads and the pressure mounts. But just how far will this desperate father go to protect his family?

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Terrance Howard, Viola Davis, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, David Dastmalchian

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Rated: R

Running Length: 146 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: When I reviewed the first trailer for Prisoners back in June I was mad.  I had reached my breaking point for trailers pushing the three minute mark that seemed to show the entire film, freely giving away plot twists and turns that I so enjoy discovering when I’m watching the entire film.  Seeing the trailer often before films these last few months I would always turn to my seat mate and say “They showed the ENTIRE movie!”…even when I was seeing a film solo.

Then I started reading more about the movie as it started to be screened at various film festivals and heard that there was more to this crime drama than the trailer was letting on.  As the film gathered steam (and award recognition) I began to hope that the buzz was true and Prisoners, with its impressive cast and dark plot details, was more than met the eye.  Could there be any secrets left unturned?

The answer was a resounding yes and Prisoners has now hurdled to the top of my Best of 2013 List (don’t worry, The Way Way Back…you are still going strong as my favorite film but you’re a different movie than Prisoners).  It’s not only one of the best, most satisfyingly intense films of the year but one of best crime dramas of the last decade…taking a place on the shelf next to L.A. Confidential and Zodiac.

The set-up of the film is exactly how the trailer opens, two young girls go missing on a drizzly Thanksgiving day in a modest suburban development.  While their families are lounging around suffering the effects of a filling turkey feast, someone has infiltrated this quiet neighborhood and now the girls have vanished.  These early scenes are played by the actors so casually and unassuming that we instantly know the relationship these neighbors have formed.  As the realization that the girls are missing grows, the film begins its vice grip on the audience, applying only light pressure as we watch Hugh Jackman (Les Misérables, The Wolverine), Maria Bello (Abduction), Viola Davis (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and Terrance Howard (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) begin their search as concerned parents before giving way to frantically tearing through the neighborhood to find their children.

The next character to be introduced is Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal, End of Watch) as he’s brought in to investigate a Winnebago that was seen in the vicinity, now ominously parked at a rest stop.  Inside is Alex Jones (Paul Dano, Looper, Being Flynn), who looks like the perfect suspect with his slightly off personality and big “I’m a creep” glasses.  Trouble is, with no girls found and no evidence in the Winnebago Alex is soon released back into the custody of his aunt (Melissa Leo, Oblivion, Olympus Has Fallen) only to be taken himself by Jackman’s survivalist father that isn’t satisfied with what the police have done to find the girls.

Now that’s about as much as the trailer shows you and it’s as much of the plot that I’m going to give away…because all of this happens in the first 40 minutes of the 2 ½ hour film…I know because I checked my watch wondering what would take up the remainder of the film.  Well, the turns the film takes and the secrets that are slowly revealed are explored fully, making Prisoners one of the rare films that gets more interesting the more you know about what’s going on.

More than anything, the film raises some questions about justice and how far we’ll go to get the answers that we want…which could make us no better than the criminals that are out there.  It’s not the most revolutionary question to ask an audience but the delivery is so skilled, detailed, and profound that it’s a punch to the gut when you consider the very real situation on hand in Prisoners.

The vice that keeps applying more pressure to the audience is given greater strength by a full battery of actors that push off any pre-conceived notions we have of them and let true characters shine through.  Jackman is always a dependable presence but he goes deeper with his tormented father than he ever has before, showing the blood and pain that hides below his exterior.  Davis and Howard work well both in tandem and solo as their characters have a moral bridge to cross that they may regret going over.  Bello is probably the least successful in her draft of the character, not ever being fully convincing as Jackman’s suddenly fragile wife.  Her performance has guts, true, but it left me wanting more.

For my money, the film belongs to Gyllenhaal.  After End of Watch, I wasn’t sure I could me more impressed with his work but he raises the bar on his own career with a nuanced and deeply etched detective that hates to be wrong and beats himself up for missing obvious clues.  Gyllenhaal fills his character with quirks and ticks that aren’t ever really explained and never go into “performance” mode.  He’s an actor that builds his character from the ground up and he’s made the wise choice to put a back-story in that only he knows and lets the audience try to figure out what makes him tick.  It’s a brilliant, haunting performance.

The whole film is a haunting experience, actually, and that’s thanks to not only the cast but director Denis Villeneuve excellent pace in handling Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) dense script.  Guzikowski has only written three scripts and is clearly someone to pay attention to.  Making maybe even more of an impact that the direction or script is the brilliant cinematography of Roger Deakins (Skyfall), giving the film even more complexity.  Though the film is largely shot in the grey gloom of winter, Deakins comes up with some incredibly vivid images that highlight the terror and the hidden darkness that plagues these two families, the detective that is desperate for clues, and an evil that’s not revealed in full until the final moments.

I know films of this nature can be hard for some people to take and if you’re one of those people I’m sure you’ll make the decision on your own if putting yourself through this intense experience is worth it.  I found the film to be practically flawless, achieving success on every level without making sacrifices.  There were genuine surprises that made me gasp and a denouement that felt justly earned…it’s not the punishing experience that so many of these films tend to drift toward but instead it emerges as a rewarding piece of filmmaking that will easily land the movie in prime awards consideration.

Movie Review ~ The Family

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The Manzoni family, a notorious mafia clan, is relocated to Normandy, France under the witness protection program, where fitting in soon becomes challenging as their old habits die hard.

Stars: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo, Domenick Lombardozzi

Director: Luc Besson

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going in to see The Family.  As a fan of Michelle Pfeiffer, I knew that my seeing this was an inevitable event but based on the trailer and seriously boring title I just didn’t know how the whole thing was going to turn out.  Would it be another in a long line of Robert De Niro films that seemed to get made only because he signed on the dotted line?  Or would it be the kind of daring European action film that director Luc Besson first rose to fame for?

Well, it turns out that the movie can’t ever really decide what genre it wants to fit into so it instead just lays down and rolls around several different themes all at the same time.  That may not work for most movie audiences and it’s not surprising that people are coming away from the film feeling a little empty, but I found the film to be an interesting potpourri of tones that worked more often than not – even if it’s more than a little odd.

Moving into a new European town after an incident necessitated their hasty retreat; a family in the witness protection program find themselves in the quaint/quiet town of Normandy in France.  Taking up residence in a money pit-esque dwelling, the Manzoni’s clearly are getting old hat at the process of moving from one town to another.  Dad (a more low-key than usual De Niro, Being Flynn, Silver Linings Playbook) just wants to settle in and write his memoirs, to the horror of the long-suffering FBI agent (Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln, Hope Springs) assigned to their case.  Michelle Pfeiffer (Dark Shadows, People Like Us) is De Niro’s wife with anger issues of her own, eventually turning to the church for help, spilling her secrets in confession that leads to a moderately nice payoff.  The kids (Diana Agron and John D’Leo) are fashioned as doppelgangers of their parents and both give off a playful vibe, even as they find themselves in hot water at school.

As the family is getting acclimated to their new town, we also follow a creepy crime henchman (Jon Freda) that continues his hunt for De Niro and his brood after De Niro became a turncoat to his Mafia family.  It’s in these scenes that wind up leading to an out of left field tension filled finale that the film may confuse some people.  The passages with the family are given a light touch that belies the darker tone brought on by Freda’s intense chase.

For me, it worked.  I enjoyed that the film feels different than what it would have been were it produced in your typical Hollywood fashion.  That it was made in Europe by a European crew and director has given the film a golden hue and the chance to take risks with its twists and turns.  By the time the film reached its finale I wasn’t sure how it was all going to work out for everyone involved.

Sure, the film has several extraneous storylines that could have been trimmed to keep the running length to 90 or so minutes but the actors play these moments so well that it’s forgivable.  It may be harder to forgive one of the most laughably contrived cases of coincidence since, well, ever, but by that point the movie had won me over enough to just brush it off.  There’s also a wonderfully weird bit where De Niro is feted by a local film society who has asked him to come and speak to the finer points of the classic film…no…no…I won’t spoil that moment for you.

Returning after several years of being absent from the director’s chair, Luc Besson (Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element) brings his trademark cinematic flair to The Family and navigates it’s up and down and crisscrossed tones with ease.  I’ve always enjoyed Besson’s creative way of cutting from one scene to the next and he keeps the pace going, even when his screenplay based on the novel Malavita doesn’t fully support itself.

The Family isn’t a movie that you’ll need to see in the theaters but would make for an interesting watch when it finds its way into the home viewing market.

Movie Review ~ Riddick

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Left for dead on a sun-scorched planet, Riddick finds himself up against an alien race of predators. Activating an emergency beacon alerts two ships: one carrying a new breed of mercenary, the other captained by a man from Riddick’s past.

Stars: Vin Diesel, Karl Urban, Jordi Molla, Matt Nable, Katee Sackhoff, Bokeem Woodbine, Dave Bautista, Conrad Pla, Raoul Trujillo, Nolan Funk, Keri Hilson

Director: David Twohy

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:

You just can’t keep a good (bad) guy down…and this third outing for Vin Diesel’s muddled anti-hero proves that  point over and over (and over and over).

I was a fan of the 2000 low budget sci-fi thriller Pitch Black which introduced the Riddick character, finding it to be a schlocky B-Film with more than the usual dose of character development, setting itself apart from its contemporaries.  Seeing an opportunity to capitalize on Diesel’s rising star, Universal threw a lot of money into the 2004 follow-up The Chronicles of Riddick, only to see the film not make good on its prospects with its misguided attempt to give its central character a ton of back-story.  By doing this, they took a character that was interesting because we knew little about him and made him toothless, virtually indistinguishable from any countless other sci-fi heroes.

Now, with Diesel riding high after returning to the Fast and the Furious series (the summer 2013 installment, Fast & Furious 6 did crazy good business…and was pretty fun too) Universal is taking another chance on Diesel/Riddick with this modestly budgeted film that has the good elements from Pitch Black and some of the bad elements of The Chronicles of Riddick.

Abandoned on a barren planet, Riddick spends its first thirty minutes or so with nearly no dialogue as our light-averse ex-con struggles to survive the climate, his own inner torment, and a handful of icky creatures rendered with decent success to be a few notches above something you’d see in the SyFy channel.  Comparisons to 2000’s Cast Away are inevitable and not too far off the mark as Riddick learns how to survive and makes nice with a feral dog-like creature (which looks like the offspring of a zebra that mated with a Doberman), eventually winding up at a deserted outpost which could be his way to freedom.

Riddick uses the outpost to initiate a beacon that will alert bounty hunters to his whereabouts, figuring he’ll be able to overthrow any crew that comes-a-callin’ and steal their ship to do a little planet hopping.  That’s when the movie has to switch things up and introduce a crew of new characters that only serve as distractions rather than make their own contributions to advance the plot.

Two crews find their way down, battling not only the one man wrecking crew of Riddick but each other as well. These characters are drawn so broadly that I wondered if they themselves were CGI animated …because only that could excuse the inexcusably awful performance of head bad guy Jordi Molla.  Every line he says, every breath he takes, every desperate mug he makes renders Molla almost unwatchable…made worse by the film being projected on IMAX screens.  Matt Nable is the captain of a rival crew of mercenaries and it seems like the role was meant for a bigger name…while Nable is just fine in the part it just seems like he was the 25th choice for the role.

As for any female presence in the film, I counted about four women in the movie and three of them take their clothes off at one point, including Katee Sackhoff’s hilariously out of place topless scene.  Though Sackhoff’s character is supposedly a tough lesbian, that doesn’t stop the film from making her as weak a presence as the other females…seen either as a sex object or at the mercy of their male counterparts.

Diesel, for his part, seems to be achieving what he wanted by providing his character some good moments of growth…but it’s really time to hang up the night vision goggles.  As it stretches to nearly two hours, the film isn’t ever boring but you begin to feel the time creeping by before the conclusion arrives.

Best left for a watch in the comfort of your own home, Riddick should be the end of the series given its middling box office returns and a general consensus that the character has gone as far as he needs to go.  Vin, take my advice, focus on your other franchise series that miraculously still has legs after six outings.

The Silver Bullet ~ We Are What We Are

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Synopsis: The Parkers, a reclusive family who follow ancient customs, find their secret existence threatened as a torrential downpour moves into their area, forcing daughters Iris and Rose to assume responsibilities beyond those of a typical family.

Release Date:  September 27, 2013

Thoughts: It’s always nice when a trailer for a film doesn’t give away every nook and cranny of its plot.  One could probably discern what the true secret at the heart of this gothic mystery will turn out to be but I’m intrigued to see the path it takes to this reveal.  Boasting no major stars and having been completed in 2010, the odds are against the film becoming a sleeper hit…but it’s something I’m going to keep my eye out for (and you should too) based solely on its carefully constructed trailer.