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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Oblivion by Joseph Kosinski

Oblivion by Joseph Kosinski

A veteran assigned to extract Earth’s remaining resources begins to question what he knows about his mission and himself.

Unlike a lot of science fiction films that often have busy mechanical designs and crowded backgrounds, there is a very distinct simplicity to Oblivion’s production designs. The empty barren Icelandic landscapes, machines and buildings built in straight clean lines and the bright daylight all help create an effective atmosphere. The film is beautifully shot and finds a natural beauty in post-apocalyptic destruction. Often I found myself just gazing upon the landscapes and felt awe watching huge robotic monolithic ships harvesting the Earth’s water. Oblivion should definitely print a production art book.

The best performance in the film is Andrea Riseborough’s. A lot of the intrigue and mystery of what’s really going on behind this world is built from Riseborough’s performance. The intrigue is built so well that the beginning section with her and Tom Cruise makes up for the more interesting portion. She plays a very fine line between someone who is concealing a secret or not wanting to know the truth. As the audience, we cannot tell which one it is.

There are little Americanisms in the film that are problematic. At the beginning, Tom Cruise’s character lands an aircraft on Earth. As he gathers his gear, he puts on a New York Yankees baseball cap. Why? Even if it were a blue-collar habitual daily routine, why wouldn’t he have put it on before flying the aircraft? Wouldn’t there be more sun in the sky than in the ground? It’s not a big deal, and it took me out of the movie a bit.

Oblivion draws upon a lot of science fiction films in the past. Example? Let’s just say Tom Cruise jogs on a treadmill that is not rectangular. For that, science fiction fans may have a harder time enjoying Oblivion as they may fall into an accidental game of ‘spot the reference’. I personally didn’t have a problem with that. It doesn’t bring anything new to the science fiction genre but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Red State by Kevin Smith

Red State by Kevin Smith

A group of teens receive an online invitation for sex, though they soon encounter fundamentalists with a much more sinister agenda.

I used to be a Kevin Smith fan. I liked all his work up till Clerks 2. I would look up funny clips of his speeches and occasionally read his blog. Zack and Miri Make A Porno made me laugh but it was not something I could recommend to somebody else. I thought Cop Out was one big juicy raspberry but it was not the reason why I do not care for his work anymore. The real reason is because he’s gotten so whiny these couple of years it’s just a turn-off listening to him talk about anything these days. As someone who wants to work in the film in industry, I could not empathize with his view of film critics and/or Hollywood politics. I purely see those as good problems to have at this point. I totally understand and respect that he is probably in a different stage in life than me but I just cannot help it. Sorry.  On with the review…

Michael Parks is really good and brings a muted creepiness as Reverend Abin Cooper, but he needs subtitles. I understood Jeff Bridges in True Grit word for word and still found Parks’ drawl scratchy delivery difficult at times. Melissa Leo goes over-the-top. That’s all I have to say about the acting.

Red State titters between being a satire, a horror film and a late night B action movie. All three genres end up competing against each other. The horror was not horrific enough; it’s watered down once the action kicks in. That’s a problem because it’s satiric metaphors are never fully physicalized and they end up being stated through dialogue. The violence is meant to be taken seriously but there’s a scene involving a cop receiving a head shot outside Abin Cooper’s house that looked  too funny to be shocking. At the final dialogue set piece with Agent Joseph Keenan (played by John Goodman), it seems like the film is giving you permission to laugh at what’s going on, but I was not sure if I was supposed to. What floats to the surface after all this genre clashing is the message of the film, which seems too on-the-nose. After watching Red State, I could not recall a specific scene or any characters (besides Michael Parks) that were memorable. What I can tell you is what Smith thinks is wrong with America.

It’s nice to see Kevin Smith write in a different voice and it’s too bad he claims to have only one more movie in him before quitting as a filmmaker (I do not believe this at all). I assume his cinematographer Dave Klein must be thrilled to finally be able to pan the camera, do handheld and use a crane shot. As he admits, he’s not the strongest director in the world. Horror is a visual medium and he would probably benefit in a genre that is more based on writing. But you know what? It’s a new direction! It’s something new from him. So again, I must go back to … I don’t know what the hell he is being so whiny about!