Friday, September 20, 2013


PRISONERS: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Maria Bello, Viola Davis, Paul Dano, directed by Denis Villeneuve (146 min.)

Welcome to the fall movie season, where films for grown ups happen.

Prisoners is the first in a long and seriously credible line of fall films for people who have graduated high school.  There are no explosions, no fart jokes, no capes or superheroes.  Well, no superheroes in the traditional sense.  But there is a great deal of tension, of drama, of thrills and tears and grit and moments where you will often forget to breathe.  Prisoners is a phenomenal thriller with a group of actors who I could watch stand in an elevator together for two hours.  Lucky for us, though, they have some meaty roles to embody, full of conflict and humanity, and a screenplay full of twists and turns that keep the momentum pushing forward.

Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a hardworking husband and father to a teenage son and younger daughter, Anna.  We open on a subtle but telling scene of Keller and his son hunting deer in the woods on Thanksfgiving Day.  We find out through conversation that Keller is a man of great faith, dedicated to God and always staying prepared for whatever natural disaster might end civilization.  His preparedness is one of the great ironies early in the picture.  Keller, his wife Grace (Maria Bello), and their kids walk down to their friends’ house for Thanksgiving dinner.  Their friends are Franklin and Nancy, played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, and they have a young daughter the same age as Anna.  That afternoon the girls go outside to play and before long the adults realize they have disappeared.

The panic starts slowly, as I imagine it would, with curiosity transforming into a rushed walk, darting eyes, and once all grown ups find themselves back in the same room without results, the panic reaches a higher level.  Until the police are called.  And hours turn into days, and desperation and sadness travel into anger and frustration.  The range of emotions in such a short period of time must be unbearable, and on the faces of these characters it is displayed with great passion and earnestness.

The detective on the scene is Loki, played by Jake Gyllenhaal in what I think is the role of the film.  Jackman has the showy role, the easier one because he is given all liberties to flip out, to scream and cry and search wildly in the night for his daughter.  But Gyllenhaal’s role requires more nuances, and nuance is what he brings.  We are never shown anything about Loki’s personal life as he searches tirelessly for the missing children.  There are small details in his character – tattoos, a blinking twitch, the long hair – that suggest a past unlike most detectives in these stories.  While these parents are slowly going mad, it is Loki’s resolve and his calmness that keeps the picture on track.  He is the perfect guide for an audience.  The creation of Loki for this story is one of the film’s deft touches of brilliance, and the performance of Gyllenhaal is paramount.

The first lead in the case is a shabby RV, driven by a strange young man named Alex Jones (Paul Dano).  He is arrested, questioned, but with the mind of a ten-year old the police see him as an innocent and let him go.  This decision does not sit well with Keller, who accosts Alex outside the police station.  Alex says something to him that suggests he knows where the missing girls may be, and this eats away at Keller.  His pleas to Loki go unheard by the police Captain.  Keller makes a desperate decision; he kidnaps Alex and holds him, torturing him to try and get answers.  This is one of the many turns Prisoners takes, a morality conundrum which becomes front and center.  I am sure some fathers, like Terrence Howard’s Franklin, do not agree with the abduction even though they desperately want their daughter back.  But I am certain there are more fathers siding with Keller given the circumstances.

The abduction of Alex is only the tip of the iceberg regarding the twists and turns and the mystery of what happened to these girls.  I won’t go into any more details for fear of inadvertently spoiling the story.  I will go on about my admiration for this film, a bold and unnerving thriller from top to bottom.  Running nearly two and a half hours, nothing about Prisoners feels long; there are endings stacked up upon endings, and none of them are gratuitous or forced.  Even the true ending itself is left open.  As I said before, Hugh Jackman has the easier role, but that is no slight on his performance.  He is magnificent as a man trying to keep himself together and correct what he feels to be a mistake by allowing someone to harm his family.  Gyllenhaal is a revelation, and the reset of the cast fills in the gaps with their own powerful turns.  While Howard, Davis, and Bello have limited scree time, their desperation is felt through various moments on screen.

Credit director Denis Villeneuve for balancing Prisoners perfectly between these large actors delivering large performances, and the very intimate, very human nature of the story.  These homes and this neighborhood rang true, and when he decided to embellish in certain scenes, the embellishments paid off by ramping up the tension.  This may be a tough film for parents to see.  As I will be a parent early next year I wonder how I will receive this film this same time in 2014.  But either way, Prisoners is a wonderful scream from the hilltops, announcing the fall movie season.


Monday, September 2, 2013

My Most Anticipated Films of a Loaded Fall Season

I cannot remember a fall movie season this jam packed with compelling films from top to bottom.  Every year, autumn brings promise of quality cinema just in time, just as our brains and eyes have grown tired of summer blockbuster bonanzas.  It seems there are usually five or six hotly anticipated films each fall, at least for me.  But this year appears to be the makings of something special.  So many films with so much potential are on their way, and for the most part these are decidedly "adult" pictures.  There might be an astronaut or two out there, but for the most part these films are all grown up, loaded with great actors, directed by quality directors, and they definitely have me excited for the next few months.  Instead of trying to arbitrarily count these films down, let's just start with September and work our way through the next few months...

PRISONERS (Sept. 20) - Director Denis Villeneuve hasn't broken through into the mainstream in the States so far, but I imagine Prisoners is going to change that shortly.  The film has a cast that is undeniable, including Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, and Viola Davis as parents of abducted children and Jake Gyllenhaal as the detective in charge of finding them.  But things aren't that simple as the trailer shows us.  Add Paul Dano and Melissa Leo as some shady cohorts along the way, and the stage is set for what might be a powerful thriller (and judging by early festival reactions, that is exactly the case).

GRAVITY (Oct. 4) - Of all the films I'm going to list here, Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity has to be the most widely anticipated, high-toned film on its way to the big screen.  Early indications are that this one is a stunner.  It has been seven years since Cuaron's last film, the masterful Children of Men, and his follow up returns to the realm of science fiction.  Or perhaps this is more science and less fiction, that is yet to be seen.  Despite the cavalcade of trailers, we see but one major moment in the film between superstars George Clooney and Sandra Bullock as stranded astronauts.

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (Oct. 11) - If you need any more evidence that this fall is for the adults, consider the one two punch of Clooney/Bullock in Gravity followed just one week later by Tom Hanks in Paul Greengrass's "based on a true story" action thriller, Captain Phillips.  Three of the biggest stars out there, three of the most reliable actors, squeezed into two straight weeks.  In Captain Phillips Hanks stars in the title role as his cargo ship is hijacked by Somali pirates.  The story is harrowing enough, and I can assure you the frenetic camera work from Greengrass will up the tension even more.

THE COUNSELOR (Oct. 25) - Now this one could go either way, but for now I am fully on board with Ridley Scott's star-studded thriller.  With Michael Fassbender in the title role as a lawyer who dips his toes into the drug trade and gets in deeper than he wanted to, therein threatening his life and the life of his fiancé (Penelope Cruz), the benefit of the doubt is most certainly in play here.  With Javier Bardem throwing down another crazy look, Brad Pitt chiming in, Cameron Diaz as a vixen, and, well, a cheetah, things are ripe for a good time.  Not to mention the fact that The Counselor was written by the great Cormac McCarthy.  And is it just me, or is Ridley Scott channeling his late brother, action auteur Tony, with some of the wild antics?

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (Nov. 1) - Originally slated for a late December limited release followed by a January wide push, this Matthew McConaughey drama has been bumped up to early November, which is nothing but positive news for the film.  I have been singing his praises for a year or two now, and sang them many years ago before he fell into romantic comedy purgatory, but let me say it once again:  Matthew McConaughey is a fine actor, and the amazing quality of work he is producing these days is nothing short of amazing considering where he was for a while.  But I always knew he had it in him.

THE WOLF OF WALL ST. (Nov. 15) - Scorsese.  DiCaprio.  Nothing more needs to be said, just enjoy the trailer of the year...

OUT OF THE FURNACE (Dec. 6) - Another crime thriller with another compelling cast, and a completely different vibe than Ridley Scott's The Counselor.  This one is aiming for grit and grime, and takes placed in more impoverished avenues of the country.  Christian Bale plays the lead role as a brother trying to rescue his younger sibling (Casey Affleck) from some ruffians, led by a slimy-looking Woody Harrelson.  Out of the Furnace is director Scott Cooper's follow up to Crazy Heart, and he looks as if he can handle this heavy subject matter, and a much larger cast which also includes Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldanda, Sam Shepherd, and Forrest Whitaker.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (Dec. 20) - As the official calendar date of Winter would be the day after this Coen Brothers release, we will stop here.  Any Coen Brothers film is a special occasion, regardless of type or size or cast.  Inside Llewyn Davis once again looks like a film they have never made before, but one that still somehow manages to have a firm grasp on the essence of Coen Brothers pictures.  And I must say I am ready for Oscar Isaac to have a breakout role; he is a true talent and this should be the moment where his name begins to sound more familiar in years to come.

***Of course there are a handful of other films that are both adult and appear to be strong pictures, but for the sake of time, length, and sanity I wanted to hit some of my most anticipated.  I am looking forward to Steve McQueen's attempt at a bigger, broader film with 12 YEARS A SLAVE (Oct. 10).  I am also looking forward to Spike Lee's rendition of OLDBOY (Nov. 27) and a late Fall entry, George Clooney's THE MONUMENTS MEN (Dec. 18).  All in all, I can't think of a previous fall lineup that even comes close to what we are about to enjoy.