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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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.

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.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by Tomas Alfredson

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by Tomas Alfredson

In the bleak days of the Cold War, espionage veteran George Smiley is forced from semi-retirement to uncover a Soviet agent within MI6.

I cannot fault you for not liking Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It demands that you keep up with it wholeheartedly with 100% undivided attention. Once you put in all the work the film is demanding and fully immerse into its hypersensitive world of subtleties, it becomes a rewarding experience. A blink feels like a gunshot. A facial tick becomes a car chase. Everybody is looking behind their backs.

Director Tomas Alfredson does nothing to make it easy either. Let’s list the things: 1) The story has a non-linear plot structure that the audience needs to piece together. 2) There is no explanation for the spy lingo. 3) The audience must play detective along with George Smiley, tracking who said what to whom, matching it to what was said in a previous scene to deduce if they are lying. Lying is an art form in itself. Are they lying entirely? Or just omitting a detail? What motivates a lie?

The film completely functions on a thematic level. Gary Oldman said in an BBC5 interview that director Tomas Alfredson doesn’t even think he made a spy thriller, which confirms my point. This is not a story about espionage at all. No, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about mistrust. It’s about these men confined in tight spaces perpetually spying on each other and how it alienates them apart. Humanity is a weakness and compromises their survival as spies. Every character in the film battles with their own humanity to survive. There is a great scene where Gary Oldman’s George Smiley lies to another character with a perfect poker face. The bleak coldness that he exudes is intense and shocking. The subplot with Smiley’s wife artfully gives insight to the Smiley character. We never get a good look at the wife because she exists as an idea – she is the deal he has to make with the devil. Home is where Smiley is at his most vulnerable and we see the consequences of Smiley’s commitment to his cold-hearted profession.

Since I’m a Sherlock fan, I loved seeing Benedict Cumberbatch rise through the ranks into films now. He’s great as Gary Oldman’s younger sidekick who is still wet behind the ears. I look forward to seeing him in the next Star Trek movie. Please don’t make him play Khan. It would be a waste. Toby Jones’ face screams red herring. Alfredson films Jones in a way that makes him look like an evil leprechaun, similar to how Sergio Leone’s penchant for filming faces as if they were landscapes.

Speaking of which, this film has great cinematography in that it tells the story. The film is about discovering truth amongst a cloud of lies and the cinematography really serves that idea visually. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema has managed to find layers of shadow in places that I didn’t know exist, like the backseat of a car. The camera moves, like the pan shots, really give a sense of place that constructs the moody, smoky, morally ambiguous atmosphere. With the long lenses, the audience is looking into the lives of these spies seated in tight spaces, as if we are watching them suffocate.

Something really noteworthy is how they utilized is Gary Oldman’s glasses as a plot device. Yes, Hint! Notice George Smiley’s glasses in every scene. It’s used like Maggie Cheung’s dresses in In The Mood For Love. What’s genius about is it forces you to look at Gary Oldman’s eyes, which both guides your eyes to his performance and immerses you along with his investigation of what’s going on as he interviews each suspect.

Hands down, Gary Oldman should win the Oscar. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. How does an actor underplay a role to this degree and still manage to be this engaging? Due to the Academy’s usual taste of rewarding showy loud performances, it seems unlikely Oldman will win the gold statuette. It’s a subtle performance completely constructed around what he’s not showing and what he is not saying. But at least the Academy recognized the brilliance of his performance. It’s a step, right?