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 Conjuring by James Wan

The Conjuring by James Wan

The Conjuring by James Wan

Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren work to help a family terrorized by a dark presence in their farmhouse.

The fact that The Conjuring is based on a true story is competently incorporated into the film’s design. James Wan takes his time with his world creation and properly sets up a believable reality. These characters act like real people. Most people wouldn’t be quick to jump to the conclusion that their house is haunted and it would realistically take a while for a family to seek help. I couldn’t spot anybody making stupid horror movie mistakes. The initial scares did not scare me, but step-by-step the scares put me into the world. As I understood the science and how these ghosts worked, my mental defenses begun to weaken and I began dreading the scares.

Wan uses every trick in the book for the scares, but they are effectively scary. Judging it from a pure horror film fan’s view, the design of the scares by themselves are probably not that fresh. But it’s genetically encoded together with the story in such a way that if you were to show one of the film’s scary sequences on Youtube to a friend, the actual scare will be dampened without the context of the story.

The best thing The Conjuring achieves is that it properly balances the horror movie genre elements with its dramatic portions. It does so by focusing on Ed and Lorraine Warren, who are fascinating larger-than-life characters and are the heart of the story. Watching the paranormal investigators set up their ghost hunting equipment and explaining how ghosts behave was equally entertaining as any of the film’s fright sequences. Where in a typical horror movie that will rely on its scares to entertain the audience, The Conjuring has an interesting real-life story and characters that we can not only be scared by, but also speculate and ponder long after the scares are over. The Warrens are the X factor what will unite horror film fans and a typical movie go-er to enjoying this movie on multiple levels. I immediately Googled the Warrens afterwards and read about their other real-life paranormal investigations. I am glad the studio has decided to make a sequel with Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga playing these characters again.

Pacific Rim by Guillermo del Toro – 100th post!

Pacific Rim by Guillermo Del Toro

As a war between humankind and monstrous sea creatures wages on, a former pilot and a trainee are paired up to drive a seemingly obsolete special weapon in a desperate effort to save the world from the apocalypse.

The fights are the main attraction. You either go along with that premise or not, there’s no two ways about it. In reality, it’s probably more resourceful to bomb these giant monsters or shoot them with a very big cannon, instead of making giant robots to punch them to death. But where’s the fun in that? Suffice to say, the fights are a tense visceral experience and the scale of everything delivers an epic sense of awe. They do everything to up the ante and surprise the audience. Special moves are only used in climatic moments and there’s just something about a giant robot using a boat as a bat that’s just hilarious and jaw-dropping. These fights run very dangerously to the cinematic equivalent of watching somebody play a video game. That’s why I like the drifting mind meld concept, because it solves that problem by it properly adding both physical and emotional conflict to the pilots controlling the Jaegars as well. It focuses to how well these pilots are controlling the Jaegars as opposed to how the Jaegars are fighting the Kaijus.

The fights are shot somewhat tightly but for a very good reason. Shooting the fights close holds the tension and injects the sense of jeopardy and stake into every exchange in the fight choreography. I imagine if the fights were covered entirely in long wide shots, it would lose that sense of scale and the fights would look silly. That said, I had no problem following what’s going on because emotionally it felt right to be watching them that way. And personally, it was doubly fun that the film was set in Hong Kong.

There’s been a common complaint that the characters lacked development, I disagree.  Basically these people all have baggage and they have to band together as a team or fall apart. The film spends time building arcs for its ensemble cast, and it’s sufficient to justify the epic robot monster fights. That’s it, so I don’t understand that complaint. Adding neat little quirks or oddball idiosyncrasies to these characters would have been overkill.

The dialogue is one of the film’s weaker portions. However, depending on how well each actor was able to milk the lines, I was still able to have fun with it. I couldn’t stop cackling at Charlie Day’s fast-paced high-pitched deliveries, who rises above being “Dr. Exposition” and balances the film with comic relief. Day’s exchange with the rival math-based scientist played by Burn Gorman is essentially a cartoon-level quarrel equivalent to Daffy Duck arguing with Bugs Bunny. The math Gorman’s scientist applies is is grade-school at best. Ron Perlman facetiously entertains in flying colors as the Kaiju body parts black marketer Hannibal Chau, the most asshole character name ever created. Idris Elba also adds significant weight as the team leader. So for me, the side characters take the cake from the Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi storyline, which was played very straight for story purposes.

Guillermo del Toro is aware of current big-budget blockbuster tropes and differentiates himself from those trends in Pacific Rim. There are no homage or geek references to distract or alienate the audience. Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako character is not sexualized or filmed through a salivating male gaze; she is a real human character with a story and treated as such. The film doesn’t play like a military recruitment advertisement nor has any blatant nationalistic or jingoistic intentions. Perhaps one of my favorite things about Pacific Rim is it tonally divorces itself from post-9/11 sentimentality. The world has its own distinct fictional reality, where destruction is not linked by evoking imagery, memories or emotions from September 11th. Civilians evacuate from buildings, hide in shelters and the streets are clear for the Jaegers to bash the Kaijus. Most importantly, del Toro never dwells heavily on despair or hopelessness and the audience can enjoy the city-wide destruction guilt-free. All those things counted together, Pacific Rim is truly a breath of fresh air amidst current blockbuster aesthetics and a film made with the most earnest intentions.

Without an A-list star, a love story or a recognizable established franchise (i.e. Godzilla or Transformers) , it’s not hard to see why Pacific Rim didn’t score at the box office. As Snakes On A Plane proved at its theatrical release, the geek fan base doesn’t represent much of the core population. The geeks merely are just the most vocal. Perhaps other parts of the demographic are alienated just by the material itself, despite that del Toro is aiming to entertain everybody. If there’s one underdog movie people should give a chance to this summer, let it be Pacific Rim. It’s a passionate earnest film made by a director that loves the material and wants to deliver good clean fun with a positive message for everybody. His attention to every little detail exudes his excitement for the material; that passion rubbed off on me and elevated my enjoyment.  It’s the most fun I’ve had watching a movie this summer. Guillermo del Toro, give me a hug!

The Artist by Michel Hazanavicius

A piece of art is always defined by it’s time, or more specifically, by it’s own context. For a piece of art to relate to its audience, it must be relevant. Shot in black and white in 4:3 with no recorded sound, The Artist exists as the perfect counter argument to the emergence of 3D. This is where The Artist draws a lot of it’s charm. If there wasn’t a current debate about whether 3D enhances one’s experience of a story, I don’t think people would have embraced The Artist as much as they have now.

Onto the film, the cast does a great job at rehashing silent movie acting. Bérénice Bejo looks like a silent film actress. Jean Dujardin reminds me of Gene Kelly with his killer smile. I particularly liked what he did with his eyebrows in a scene where he films a spy movie. The story is basically Singing in the Rain and story wise the third act does seep too long in sadness. It seeps to the point where we are just lingering on somebody’s pain and suffering (almost like in the film The Pursuit of Happyness). It gets a tad uncomfortable than you’d want in musical comedy where things should hop along, even in sad scenes they have sad musical/dance numbers, don’t they?

The Artist makes me think of what Quentin Tarantino’s goal with Kill Bill: it’s a postmodern throwback film that’s directly addresses its influences. Part of the joy is watching the film references its influences along with the story. This sets up a trap: a film that relies on the strength of previous films has a hard time rising above them. For example, most of Kill Bill: Volume 2 is a homage to spaghetti westerns. The Ennio Morricone music, the telephoto shots of Uma Thurman walking in the steamy desert all make me think of how The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly was a great film. Automatically this sets Kill Bill in an inferior position because my focus isn’t on Kill Bill. That was partly my experience with The Artist.

Unlike Kill Bill, there’s a precision in craft in The Artist that I admire and respect. Michel Hazanavicius loves cinema but is able to reign in his fanboy-isms to tell a proper story. For example, they perfected when and when not to show cards for dialogue. The nightmare sequence in which George Valetin dreams about the advent of sound films was one of the highlights. I can’t believe one dog (Uggie the dog as Jack the dog) did all those tricks!

The Artist succeeds in its goal, it’s a well-crafted, well-acted delight of a film. The film is made for film lovers and I smiled throughout it’s entirety. Smiling through a film is a different experience from laughing through a film. You leave the theater feeling warm and fuzzy. But ultimately, I don’t think the postmodern throwback film is something to be rewarded or applauded to this level. Its longevity is suspect, but I guess time will tell on that.