Prisoners by Denis Villeneuve

Prisoners by Denis Villeneuve

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

Prisoners has the strongest ensemble cast of 2013 and everybody brings their A game. Keller Dover is Hugh Jackman’s most raw and complex role yet, as Jackman plays Dover’s wavering belief of the justice system and descending morality to a realistic precision. Things get murky as Dover takes matters in his own hands on an unconfirmed suspect Alex Jones (Paul Dano) and traps himself between being desperate, angry and helpless.

Jake Gyllenhaal, sporting a neck tattoo and facial tics, creates the realistically compelling Detective Loki. The character is a fascinating inward look to how police detectives conduct their investigations, interrogate suspects and how the job centers on being emotionally removed from the crime itself. Loki is even darkly funny at times because he is so distanced from the crime and committed to procedures that normal things seem outlandish to him.

Roger Deakins’s cinematography brings layers of shades into the perpetually cloudy and otherwise flat-looking suburbia. The moody atmosphere embodies a sinister undertone; whether the location is a forest, a kitchen or a washroom, it feels like someone is lurking behind the corner. Mirroring its main characters, the cinematography impressively supports the story with a growing sense of insecurity.

Denis Villeneuve directs ambitiously, as Prisoners juggles between being a character study of two families dealing with a kidnapping, a crime mystery plot and the theme of the institution versus the individual. Retrospectively, in total Alfred Hitchcock-coined  “refrigerator logic” terms, the film does not entirely deliver on all three. Maria Bello, Viola Davis and Terrence Howard’s characters do get sidetracked. The story thematically switches between whatever is the most interesting in the given moment, which in the moment is powerfully engaging.

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by Ben Stiller

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by Ben Stiller

 

Walter Mitty is a daydreamer who escapes his anonymous life by disappearing into a world of fantasies filled with heroism, romance and action. But when his job is threatened, he takes action in the real world embarking on a global journey that turns into an adventure more extraordinary than anything he could have ever imagined.

I am typically not a fan of Ben Stiller’s comedy – whenever he dons a wig and plays a crazy character, it is one-note and awkward. Stiller fares best when he is a normal person reacting to an awkward situation, instead of being the source of awkwardness and the nebbish Walter Mitty character certainly plays to those strengths. Stiller’s other brand of ‘costume play’ comedy in the fantasy sequences is fortunately reduced to a minimal. Here he is at his most naturally charming and while Zoolander fans may disagree, but this is now officially my favorite thing Ben Stiller has directed and acted in.

Kristin Wiig is also naturally charming as Mitty’s love interest and gets to shine in a musical sequence where she does a cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Sean Penn has a funny supporting role as artsy photographer Sean O’Connell, a role that smartly sources Penn’s trademark intensity for laughs.

The production design is impressive, with its visual compositions practically lifted from hardcover graphic design books and nifty editing transitions accompanied by cool looking fonts, which to some extent owes itself to Stranger Than Fiction. Stuart Dryburgh’s photography delivers a true sense of awe for New York’s urban cityscape and Greenland’s natural landscapes. The story reason is to make Walter Mitty look like an ant in a big world, but that overwhelming sense of the environment towering over man seeps over onto the audience.

The reality of the film’s own world is suspect, like the logistics of how an employee is able to leave work and fly off to a foreign country, or how big of a jerk the new corporate supervisor played by Adam Scott is being. None of this matters because the story is a fable after all. The viewer may feel in moments that they need to give the story the benefit of the doubt, and if that moment should occur, go along with it. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is imaginative and humorously made, and even in its weaker illogical moments is ultimately compensated by its charm. The lesson of someone who realizes he is missing out on life by daydreaming is just darn compelling, and it is emotionally cathartic watching Mitty wake up.

The Internship by Shawn Levy

The Internship by Shawn Levy

Two salesmen whose careers have been torpedoed by the digital age find their way into a coveted internship at Google, where they must compete with a group of young, tech-savvy geniuses for a shot at employment.

The Internship has the misfortune of being wrongfully marketed by its trailer, which sells one of the film’s throwaway jokes about the X-men movies as if it was the best kneeslapping joke in a cheap goofy comedy. I scoffed when I saw the trailer, but The Internship isn’t entirely what its trailer represents to be. What is hidden from everybody is that it’s also partly a drama delivering a positive message about striving forward and taking risks in life.

For the most part, it’s a charming comedy drama. Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson play to their own strengths. Vaughn always had a natural salesman type quality and here he really sells that.

The stark contrast between Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson’s characters, who are old school salesmen, and the young tech-savvy geek kids is overly exaggerated. The film acts as though being an face-to-face type salesman means never coming into any contact with the internet, smart phones and have no knowledge of contemporary popular culture. This is primarily where the comedy is drawn from and it all varies from a laugh to a chuckle to no laughs. The comedy fares better when it doesn’t draw from that character contrast. One noteworthy gag was the Google team building event where they all played a faux Quidditch match. That was knee slapping hilarious. Are team building activities at Google really that much fun?

In the end, the sincerity of The Internship‘s life affirming message is somewhat tainted by the fact that the film plays like a Google recruitment ad. For a viewer that may be taken back by the big blatant advertisement will probably not enjoy the film very much. It didn’t bother me much because there was just enough sincerity and laughs to pull me through the commercialisms. That is the dividing line between audiences who will be charmed by The Internship or be turned off by it, because strictly speaking it is a bit of a mixed bag.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug by Peter Jackson

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug by Peter Jackson

The dwarves, along with Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey, continue their quest to reclaim Erebor, their homeland, from Smaug the Dragon.

To start off, I am not a Lord of the Rings fan. I haven’t read any of Tolkien’s works and only have seen the Peter Jackson’s film trilogy once. I am, however, a Sherlock fan and originally elected not to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in silent protest of it delaying the third season of Sherlock for an entire year. A friend invited me to a free screening of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug two days before its premiere, so I quickly caught up with the previous installment and read up on the film’s production online to prepare for its sequel. So this is going to be a review of the first film too. Let’s crack on…

My biggest problem with An Unexpected Journey is it launched its story retrospectively from Lord of the Ringsstarting with an older Bilbo Baggins telling the story to Frodo Baggins just before the events of The Fellowship of the RingThe Hobbit is not a prequel, it was written first before Lord of the Rings. It’s the true “part one” and yet it’s being framed as if it was a prequel to a great trilogy. This effectively echoes throughout the two Hobbit films as I am constantly being reminded about what’s to come. It’s distracting and by association makes The Hobbit seem less important.

Whether it’s Peter Jackson’s completist approach to expand the story or a corporate decision from the financiers to cash in on the success of the LOTR trilogy, The Hobbit is too long.  Often the story takes big steps backwards before being able to move forwards. It took forty minutes in the first film to start the journey and for someone who is not coming in sheer excited fandom, the slow pace is a lot of work on the audience’s part.

This is the typical pattern of one story movement in The Hobbit series thus far: 1) An imminent crisis or problem faces our heroes  2) Backstory is given in context to our heroes to the crisis. 3) The group tries to persevere and just as they fail or are about to give up, Bilbo does something that solves the problem  4) The group rejoice about the pure spirit of Hobbits and how impressive it is, cue flute music 5) A new problem comes along. Repeat.

Throughout both films, I had an internal monologue that kept screaming, “Let’s go! Hurry up!”, as if I was watching someone play a video game at snail’s pace. Die-hard LOTR fans will say that I am wrong about this but it’s why those DVD extended editions exist. Even though we’ll never know, Guillermo Del Toro’s original idea of directing the The Hobbit as two films sounds better. But this is just something I’ll have to accept. That’s the extent of my issues because when The Desolation of Smaug is good, it is very good.

Martin Freeman is a great Bilbo Baggins. The role requires exactly what Freeman plays best: acting quizzical from being one mental step ahead of everybody but always feels socially awkward about pointing out the obvious. Freeman’s reactions are entertaining and overall I find Bilbo a much more engaging protagonist than Frodo; he gets things done.

Smaug the dragon is frightening. Benedict Cumberbatch injects an immense sense of threat and power into Smaug’s voice, combined with its gigantic size, creates a memorable movie villain for the ages. It was bone-chilling watching the dragon slither around in the dark, with the imminent feeling he can squash Bilbo at any moment. Hands down, the Smaug scene is the best scene in all five films so far.

The beautiful Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel is a welcome addition to the series. Despite of being Jackson’s creation, she is a well-rounded strong female character that adds a love story. Orlando Bloom returning as Legolas is neither her or there for me. He isn’t an interesting character and seems to exist for his fighting abilities. Both elf characters are unnecessary filler material, but make entertaining filler no less. The dwarves are more fleshed out in this installment, which is an improvement because there was nothing to distinct them apart from each other in the first film.

Another minor quibble I had was the decision of using CGI in the action scenes. The orcs are computer-generated and the action sequences look digitally layered and video game-like. They’re well designed and are well-paced action scenes. But the LOTR trilogy previously established a real world look with its use of  New Zealand landscapes and creature make-up, and I wonder why Peter Jackson decided to go with more CGI as it doesn’t match with the previous films.

Peter Jackson’s deep love for the material is felt throughout both films and this perhaps is the film’s most winning quality. After all, Jackson’s completist approach isn’t self-indulgent or obnoxious, but out of a genuine love, awe and wonder for Middle Earth and its mythology. It’s infectious and is probably the primary reason I was able to sit through the long running time.

Overall, I enjoyed The Desolation of Smaug more than An Unexpected Journey. There is less setup to be done, hence the story moves along much faster. And for that reason alone, I think I will enjoy There and Back Again even more when things begin to wrap up.

Captain Phillips by Paul Greengrass

Captain Phillips by Paul Greengrass

 

Captain Phillips tells the real life story of merchant mariner Captain Richard Phillips, who was taken hostage by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean during the Maersk Alabama hijacking in 2009 led by Abduwali Muse.

The most noteworthy aspect of Paul Greengrass’ canon is his ability to create immediacy, which is the key ingredient in Captain Phillips. The surface explanation behind Greengrass’s crackling visual style is simply that he shoots handheld. The truth is much more complicated than that. What’s behind Greengrass’ method is not merely the shaky cam, but his ability to create reality and punctuate immediate tension in his dramatic filmmaking. He understands that people receive information in fragments all the time and has found a way to incorporate that human reflex into a cinematic experience. So even with the fast cuts and shaky photography, the audience is able to follow what’s going on. It is emotionally connective.

The set pieces in the first half of the film are visceral and tense. They feel like they’re happening right before us and we are immersed into the crew’s helpless dilemma. There’s a significant genre shift in the second act, as the film becomes a rescue mission procedural. It goes on a bit long by the end. The first half is definitely more fun than the second half, if only because the crew members become less active in the latter portions.

Tom Hanks plunges into the title role in a way I haven’t seen in years. The trademark Tom Hanks movie star charm is removed and what remains is Hank’s everyman quality. Captain Richard Phillips comparatively is a relatively colder character compared to Hank’s past roles, which frees him up to embody the role. The last few moments of Hanks’ Captain Phillips in shock dealing with the aftermath is breathtaking. It’s a great human moment, though overall the entire performance is probably not Oscar worthy.

The Somali pirates are well casted. It’s baffling how the filmmakers found these actors in a cating session in North Carolina. They rise above their skinny appearances and rough-hewn looks and each individually play dimensional characters. Greengrass builds an interesting group dynamic between them and gives them a backstory that suggests that they are not intentionally evil people.

Something noteworthy is how Greengrass depicts the military in a cold neutral fashion that doesn’t take political sides. They aren’t glorified like they are in Michael Bay films. The military here is functional and follows procedures to get the job done. There’s a lot of room for audiences to bring in their own views about the response time of the coast guard, the military’s handling of the rescue or the harsh circumstances of the Somali pirates. Although interested in world issues in a journalistic fashion, Greengrass isn’t overbearingly preachy in any sense. His focus is the drama and fully delivers on that.

Gravity by Alfonso Cuaron

Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón

Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón

A medical engineer and an astronaut work together to survive after an accident leaves them adrift in space.

In my opinion, the key to making special effects convincing onscreen is designing the effect to look somewhere between real and unreal. When the audience can’t figure out what’s real and what’s not, they will believe it. This is what happened to me during Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity.

Since Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón takes his love of the long take and brings it to new levels. I couldn’t figure out how these long shots were accomplished.  The camera floats freely around the astronauts in space in long takes, occasionally shifting from third person perspective to first person. The camera loops, twirls, corkscrews around space, completely forgoing the human sense of up and down. It looked like the cameraman was really floating around with the actors. I knew that wasn’t possible. But eventually I tapped out and let the movie spectacle just wash over me.

As science fiction thematically explores the extreme potential of mankind, awe is an important component to every science fiction story. I was in sheer awe through the entirety of Gravity. Firstly, outer space and the beauty of Earth from a distance awed me. Then there was the solemn beauty of witnessing the space stations being decimated in space. I began to marvel at the destruction and momentarily thought deep thoughts. It was as if for a second I was watching waves wash ashore on a beach while reading J. Krishnamurti. Finally, I was awed by the fragility of human life. After all, all astronauts are just little fishes trying to survive out of their own habitat. The experience was otherworldly, self-reflective and dangerous all at the same time.

I walked into Gravity mistakenly thinking it was a George Clooney vehicle. To my surprise, it’s a Sandra Bullock movie. Sandra Bullock has always had a natural personable quality onscreen. Whether it was pining for her crush to awaken from a coma in While You Were Sleeping or driving a bus that’s primed to explode in Speed, she’s always able to draw the audience into her plight with vulnerability. Bullock’s characters never feel above the audience. Often this quality of hers get overlooked from having to play cheerful funny characters in romantic comedies.

In Gravity, that quality is used to its full extent. We watch as she struggles to survive a series of obstacles. Her performance is as immersive as the special effects. She draws you in completely into her plight. I wish more depth were given to her character. By the beginning of the third act, the film starts to run low on its spectacle and it came to the moment where more character was needed for a bigger statement. Gravity elected to stay with its spectacle and jetted for the finish line. It had a good ending, but it was missing that final thematic punch that answers, “What is this story ultimately about?” and “Why am I watching this?”

And for that, Gravity is a great gem and one exhilarating thrill ride. I am even happy that it was a great role for Sandra Bullock. I just do not know if the thrills will be as compelling on subsequent viewings. So in the end, it is not a masterpiece, but very awesome nonetheless.

Don Jon by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Don Jon by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Jon “Don Jon ”Martello is dedicated to his family, friends, his apartment, church and one night stands with women. But none of these compare to the transcendent bliss he achieves with pornography. Dissatisfied, he embarks on a journey to find a more gratifying sex life, but ends up learning larger lessons of life and love from two very different women.

Don Jon marks as the debut film of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is the writer, director and star of the film. What’s most praiseworthy about JGL’s direction is how he puts the audience into the world view of his lead character Don Jon. It makes a good cinematic explanation of how Don Jon prefers pornography over bedding real women, a character trait that can easily be viewed as unlikeable or disgusting if mishandled. We never really venture outside his world, but yet Don Jon’s views seem logical enough to keep the audience invested in what happens to him.

Directing duties aside, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s ability to transform himself amazes me. Having seen him in Inception, (500) Days of Summer and The Dark Knight Rises have familiarized me with the sound of his real voice, but I was still astounded by Don Jon’s macho New Jersey-accented voice. I was carefully listening to Don Jon’s dialogue and couldn’t detect any hints of Gordon-Levitt’s real voice underneath. It is artfully consistent and was the core element that sold me on the Don Jon character.

Scarlett Johansson has been said to be a wooden actress in the past. I think this was probably one of her better performances. This character felt like a real person to me. I have met and dated girls like Barbara. Furthermore, the allure of Scarlett Johansson is cinematically ramped up to eleven. She hasn’t been filmed to this level of sexiness since Match Point. For fans of the Black Widow, I’d even argue that this tops that. This is probably more to the credit of the direction. We feel Don Jon’s hunger for her. And like Don Jon, she too mesmerized me. And not just cause of her looks. She seemed like the ideal girlfriend at first and couldn’t really see her character flaws till late in the film. When I realized her character flaws, I was surprised I didn’t see them before. That was a very compelling moment for me in the theater. Honestly, Johansson’s character distracted me so much, I would need a second viewing to tell you anything about the Julianne Moore character.

Seeing Tony Danza as Don Jon’s father Jon Sr. takes me back to my childhood. He was the only man on TV who can make my dad cackle like a fiend in the English language. Danza’s presence adds warmth and makes for a convincing father. Brie Larson gets to do a Silent Bob type gag that is quite amusing.

The film’s brutally truthful display about the realities of men and women as a source for comedy, while handled tastefully with charm by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, hits a little too close to home. I have had discussions like this with a girlfriend similar to the Scarlett Johansson character. It accurately captures why it’s hard for men to explain the joys of pornography to the opposite sex. As Louis C.K. once put it, men just need to release so they don’t go out and murder somebody. That’s really it, but it’s not a pleasing satisfying statement to convince a girlfriend with. I’d argue that any girl that needs an explanation wouldn’t be convinced anyways because they probably have double standards. The film seems to take the same stance. All that said, the film managed to end on a poignant tender note.

In the end, Don Jon is somewhat of an odd animal. I wouldn’t personally recommend it as a date movie with your girlfriend, for the very fact that it might just open the awkward discussion of “How much pornography do you watch?” with your girlfriend. I still think people should see it as it is a competent debut film.

So on a more politically neutral note, I’d say guys would have more fun with it watching it with their guy friends and likewise with girls and their girlfriends. It’s probably better to be charmed by it separately than leaving the theater together primed for an awkward argument.

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Trance by Danny Boyle

Trance by Danny Boyle

Trance by Danny Boyle

An art auctioneer who has become mixed up with a group of criminals partners with a hypnotherapist in order to recover a lost painting.

Danny Boyle’s new film Trance is an cinematic assault on the senses, and unapologetically so. The premise behind Trance is inherently silly. This is a world in which where hypnosis is magic and accomplishes everything. I doubt any real gangster in the world would ever incorporate a doctor of any kind to assist them with crime.  Audiences just have to go along with it. With trippy cinematography and an awesome soundtrack that I want on my mp3 playlist, Boyle crafts a colorful thrill ride of a film.In the past, Danny Boyle has experimented with genre to varying degrees of success. 28 Days Later worked for me, Sunshine did not. For Trance, the genre-shifting nature works mostly because of its three stars giving it the proper balance. All three lead actors are given dimensional characters to play. Vincent Cassell and James McAvoy seem to be enjoying their roles as they get to play out not only their own characters’ complexities, but their fantasies and projections as well. The standout, surprisingly, is Rosario Dawson.

This is the best Rosario Dawson role I have seen thus far. In her past roles, her sex appeal has been used too blatantly and it has taken away from her performances. The more you intentionally portray someone as sexy on film, the less sexy it is. I am too aware that I am supposed to be aroused by something that I am not totally immersed in. It’s more the idea of sex and the building of sexual tension that creates onscreen sexiness. Danny Boyle sets up the proper atmosphere and films her in a way that forwards the story. Boyle creates an allure to Rosario Dawson’s hypnotherapist character, who’s just sitting down in plain office attire hypnotizing the male characters with words. Her presence adds an entire genre, the erotic thriller, and it sets the film off on a corkscrew spiral mixing film genres, reality and dream states. Nobody is who they seem to be and the film delivers some nice twists and turns.

There’s a trashiness that the film revels in, as if the film is fine with the audience being aroused and indulging into its stimulus. It never gets serious enough for the audience to ever truly take it seriously. So for that, Trance is a fun naughty little piece of pop art, that’s not to be taken seriously and I was comfortably lost in it.