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 Call by Brad Anderson

The Call by Brad Anderson

The Call by Brad Anderson

When a veteran 911 operator takes a life-altering call from a teenage girl who has just been abducted, she realizes that she must confront a killer from her past in order to save the girl’s life.

The Call is a tense thriller that fully explores and delivers on its premise. Everything feels like it’s happening before us. Solving one problem creates another and time always seems to be running out. I watched this with my family and it was so gripping that they became totally responsive to it. They were covering their eyes, flinching and screaming at the television at different points.

Thriller movie elements aside, director Brad Anderson brings the audience inside the world of police procedures and emergency call centers. It is well researched and minute with its real world details. The things that we don’t like to know or look at in real life crimes and murders are drawn as a source of tension. The stress and emotional detachment that is required in being an emergency operator is incorporated dramatically into the story. Together this washes away the genre conventions of a typical cop film and instead feels like we are looking into the lives of real-life police officers handling crime.

This is not Halle Berry’s most demanding performance but she does effectively transport the audience into her plight. Berry plays a lot of emotions despite being confined at a desk for a majority of the film. It’s a very pronounced performance. Morris Chestnut seems too aware of himself to really convince me of his character. It seems like he’s always detached from his own environment. There’s a bit of a sick pleasure in watching Abigail Breslin being kidnapped because she was so profoundly annoying in Definitely Maybe. That’s probably me being mean. But here, Breslin plays the situation very real. Michael Eklund is convincingly creepy as the scene-stealing villain. The scariest thing about serial killers or murderers in real life is that nobody ever looks like a serial killer. They all appear as normal people and are protected by the benefit of the doubt. Eklund’s character practically shifts the film into horror film territory.

As it moved toward to the finale, even on the very edge of my seat, I was still secretly wishing for something to really wow me at the end. I don’t know if it was because I liked The Machinist and developed an expectation from Brad Anderson. There were about two three ways the story could have finished that would have been fine, but nothing mind-bending. But it did deliver. My secret wish was fulfilled. The finale to The Call is a gutsy, left-turn ending that pulled the rug right under me. As it went to black, my mouth went agape pondering about what the fates of all the characters.

With the current trend of long running two-hour films, any film that has the discipline to wrap up around 90 minutes is praiseworthy. There is no fat to be trimmed here. The Call might be a film that goes unnoticed under the radar with its lower budget and hype. I saw it on DVD myself. It is the tensest movie I’ve seen this year. Hopefully there’s less lag time from now till Brad Anderson’s next project.

Only God Forgives by Nicolas Winding Refn

Only God Forgives by Nicolas Winding
Refn

Julian, a drug-smuggler thriving in Bangkok’s criminal underworld, sees his life get complicated when his mother
compels him to find and kill whoever is responsible for his brother’s recent death. Chang, a Thai police lieutenant, is exacting his own brand of vigilante justice and punishing everybody involved.

Only God Forgives is the classic case of a director doing a continuation of his authorial style. An aesthetic that was recognized in a previously successful film is further explored in a more extreme fashion in a follow-up piece. Very often it’s focused on using the established cinematic style to carry the entire movie. Wong Kar Wai made Fallen Angels after the success of Chungking Express. David Lynch made Inland Empire after the success of Muholland Drive. Terrence Malick made To the Wonder after Tree of Life.

Only God Forgives is Nicolas Winding Refn’s stylistic continuation of Drive. What’s stripped away is the frequent plot turns, traditional character development and character likability. These are probably the most quiet cinematic gangsters I’ve ever seen in my life. Characters are posed like empty vessels. They don’t talk much. Sometimes when they do, the director mutes their dialogue. Ryan Gosling plays a still taciturn character in a similar way he did in Drive. Kristin Scott Thomas is an effective threatening presence as Julian’s stern mother Crystal. There’s very little to draw from Gosling’s Julian, but it is there. Even within it’s morally ambiguous world, there is a clear character arc. Julian is an active character trying to find redemption but also wants to please his mother. Which leads to me to the Chang character…

Nicolas Winding Refn has said the Lieutenant Chang character represents the Old Testament God, exacting judgment and punishment on all the sinners in the story. I am not sure how clear that is in the film unless the audience read the press notes beforehand. Does the God theme really matter? In a way, yes. The film is so stoic with its characters posed like figurines, you cannot help but inject symbolism into the film’s empty canvas to derive meaning out of it. Trying to watch this film as a genre crime thriller, which is what it is on the surface, would be relatively more frustrating. Luckily I caught on to it.

The Chang character, in a perpetual black shirt with a white collar, is dressed like a priest. He is a violent enforcer of poetic justice, and all his actions are ritual-like. In a more traditional movie, Chang would have been the protagonist. Here, he’s the antagonist. From the story’s perspective, where all the characters are varyingly degrees of bad, it’s as if Chang is the Grim Reaper coming to collect souls even though he in fact is a force for good. That’s a really interesting left-field story choice and I dug that. Lieutenant Chang is the most fascinating character and a great antagonist.

There is an indulgent aspect to Only God Forgives, any director taking on big questions will naturally come off that way. Refn could have easily written a theology thesis but he’s chosen to express his thoughts with narrative film. I have no problem with that but it automatically sets up qualifiers for audiences to enjoy the film. While it is not necessary, I think having viewed Drive first will help one familiarize with Refn’s film language before seeing this movie. As for the God themes, it can go either which way. Some may find it pretentious, but I found images from the film stuck with me long after and I am still pondering the film’s themes. I found the Julian and Chang characters compelling. So for that, Only God Forgives is neither the masterpiece nor disaster that all the Cannes hype is suggesting, but more of a hyper-stylized personal statement. It will surely divide audiences, and your enjoyment will depend on how you deal with abstractions.

Jack Reacher by Christopher McQuarrie

Jack Reacher by Christopher McQuarrie

A homicide investigator digs deeper into a case involving a trained military sniper who shot five random victims.

So on the height debate, I have never read the Jack Reacher books, so I do not have an impression of the character in my mind. However, it’s irrelevant that Tom Cruise is not 6″5. Hugh Jackman is technically much taller than Wolverine in the comics. And even though they make everybody taller than him in the movies (imagine the budget of apple boxes on every X-men movie), nobody’s arguing that his height ruins his performance as Wolverine. At the end of the day, it’s a question of medium. Lee Child stated that he wrote Jack Reacher to be 6″5 because he wanted Reacher to feel like an enormous presence in the reader’s mind. As film is a visual medium, one can build a person’s presence by adjusting how you film an actor and the actor can perform a larger-than-life personality in his performance.

That’s exactly what Tom Cruise brings to the table. Not since Collateral has Tom Cruise created such a powerful onscreen character. The Jack Reacher character embodies a lot of qualities that we enjoy seeing Tom Cruise play: a savvy maverick (pun intended) who can handle any situation and deliver funny zingers as he’s doing them. The biggest thing going against Cruise is his own stardom. With the amount of information we know about his personal life and his star power, some people may not buy Tom Cruise playing a “Man with No Name” archetype who is shrouded in mystery. It’s a legitimate argument, however, Cruise plays against his stardom as much as he can. I understand that Jack Reacher in the novel is a womanizer and they downplay that here, probably as a way to help shape Tom Cruise into more of a normal person for the movie. He does not grin his way through this role, and in the sum of it all it made a huge difference for me.

The film has an all round great cast. I’m a Werner Herzog fan and he was actually the initial reason why I wanted to see this movie. Herzog brings a chilling presence to his villain role that pushed me into nervous hysterical laughter every scene he was in. Knowing the funny stories behind Herzog, I would say it was 40% scared by his character, 60% laughing giddy because it’s Werner Herzog. Technically that means I’m taken out of the movie by having this pre-existing knowledge, but for me personally it engaged me even more.

Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel is a story conscious cinematographer. He is aware that he’s making a crime thriller and uses cinematography to punctuate thriller conventions. He frames the shots in a way that maximizes the tension for each scene, keeping the viewer unnerved and agitated throughout the film. Deschanel understands that visual spectacle is most effectively earned when people believe what they are seeing. A noteworthy example is a car chase sequence in the film that is covered in a series of long shots designed to ensure the audience that Tom Cruise is indeed driving the car performing all the stunts. It was one of the best car chases I’ve seen in a long time.

Christopher McQuarrie is a competent director and I look forward to his work as a director. It’s nice to see a screenwriter make his way into a director and earn their visions. It shows in the film. The best part I enjoyed about Jack Reacher was that it reigns itself in. It understands set-up and payoff and plays like an old fashioned suspenseful thriller where the mystery patiently unfolds itself before the audience. Much of the fun factor comes from the fact that Jack Reacher is ahead of the film’s characters and the audience in figuring out what’s going on. It engaged me and I found myself shifting forward on my seat anticipating what was going to happen next.

I wish there was more I can say about how much I enjoyed it, but that’s about it. Tom Cruise, forget your beloved Mission:Impossible franchise

Nightfall by Roy Chow

Nightfall by Roy Chow

The setup: When the horrible disfigured corpse of popular classical singer Han Tsui (played by Michael Wong) is found washing on a shore, Inspector Lam (played by Simon Yam) is called to investigate. The investigation leads to Eugene Wong (played by Nick Cheung), a recently-released ex-con who was responsible for the death of Tsui’s daughter, Eva (played by Janice Man). And basically, Inspector Lam investigates and more things happen.

Nick Cheung, after a long journey through of supporting and comedic roles, is now  praised for his acting since he won Best Actor in the Hong Kong Film Awards for The Beast Stalker, where he played a one-eyed criminal. His best performance is actually On The Edge, where he played an undercover agent recovering back to a normal life, but is ostracized by both the police force and the triads. In Nightfall, he genuinely brings some creepy moments as Yeung, the muted criminal.

Simon Yam is very watchable in anything. Playing a disheveled drunk cop does not play to his strengths. He is always better placed in roles where he can underact using the context of the scene. He doesn’t get to chew as much as scenery as he just brought in for a very normal unchallenging role. Janice Man is a very pretty girl, she brings a fine graceful presence and does a competent job. I hope to see more of her and watch her improve.

Now comes to the finale of this post, I must talk about the black hole, charisma vacuum of this movie, Michael Wong (Russell Wong’s dumber less talented brother) He is, for the lack of a better word, atrocious. He switches between English and heavily-accented Cantonese and it is sad to watch. I do not know how he is been able to sustain this for his entire career.

A mentor of mine had a theory on why Caucasian actors always seem to overact in Chinese films (i.e. the police chief in Ip Man 2). Language is not only a way of speaking, it also embodies a world view and its own set of emotions. Why English-speaking Caucasian actors overact is because a Chinese-speaking director lacks the ability adjust the emotionality of their performances because they are not familiar with the emotions of the language itself. It’s just merely a theory, but I’m bringing it up because it allows me to say that Michael Wong has proved that one can be a horrible actor bilingually. He is completely devoid of any emotionality and in every scene he proceeds to chew up the scenery by shouting his lines.

The set piece at the Lantau Island feels forced and stagey. I don’t see why a policeman would take a suspect on a scenic cable car ride to interrogate him. It ends up being a commercial for the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car ride. It’s a fun scenic ride and all. I do recommend it if you are visiting Hong Kong, but it took me out of the film.

Story wise, the film makes a choice of putting the finale sequence before the reveal and it loses it wad. Part of the craft of telling a story is determining the order in how the events are revealed. After the grand finale, there is no dramatic weight to what’s happened before once the conflict is already resolved. It takes the audience out because we do not know the significance of the climax while it is happening. Telling the audience afterwards is just flatulent. Yes, they “M. Night Shyamalan-ed” it. I’m going to use that as a verb from now on.

It’s a passable thriller but I can see how a few more script meetings and hiring Russell Wong instead of Michael Wong would have improved the movie immensely.