Monday, September 23, 2013

Amazing Acting and Cinematography Propels Prisoners to Greatness

     Prisoners is a film that is disturbing the best possible fashion. It also raises an interesting question (and one that's been raised in cinema hundreds of times before, but rarely this good): if your young daughter was kidnapped, how far would you go to bring the abductor to justice? Torture? Murder? This question permeates throughout the entire run time of Prisoners--It's dark, and there is never an easy answer. It helps that the film is incredibly beautiful in the bleakest way. In my crowd, we have a little joke about crappy movies: you can almost always say, "Well, the cinematography is so beautiful!"--basically looking on the bright side of a boring film or poorly-written script. But Prisoners is visually stunning in the best sense: masterfully directed by French Canadian director Dennis Villeneuve, every shot and every scene is perfectly filmed (it helps having cinematographer Roger Deakins, one of the best around). And though it tries a bit too hard to surprise near the end, the two wonderful performances by Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal buoy the film enough so it never sinks under its own heavy weight.
     At a length of nearly 2 hours and 40 minutes, Prisoners really puts you through the wringer in terms of emotional depth. And like most films that involve a crime investigation with exciting reveals and shocking acts of rage, it's best to know as little as possible. So here are just the basics: Hugh Jackman portrays Keller Dover, a man of exceptional Christian values who would be right at home on an episode of Doomsday Preppers--his basement is stocked full of supplies--food, ammunition, propane, batteries--one would need in an economic collapse. His family (wife, teenage son, young daughter) goes to a friend's family (wife, teenage daughter, young daughter) for Thanksgiving, and the two younger girls go out to play after the meal. Hours later, they are nowhere to be seen.
     A phone rings. A detective pauses his lonesome Thanksgiving meal at a Chinese restaurant (typical movie detective, obsessed with his job) and answers. He gets the lead in the investigation of the missing girls. It's Jake Gyllenhaal, and he portrays Detective Loki, a young and determined policeman with a perfect record of solving cases. He's obsessed with his job, and constantly looks determined due to a nervous blinking-of-the-eyes tic. His first tip takes him to an RV that was seen near the scene of the crime. The driver turns out to be Alex (Paul Dano, who was great in There Will be Blood), a young man with the IQ of a 10-year-old (but somehow has a driver's license). After intentionally ramming the car into a tree, Alex gets arrested as a key player in the investigation.
     Don't worry: this all happens early on in Prisoners, a film that firmly plants you on the edge of your seat for over two hours. The acting is incredibly top-notch, particularly the two male leads in Jackman and Gyllenhaal. Jackman's Keller is a man that has always been prepared for everything, so when his daughter is taken, he has a powerless feeling that has (so-far) been unheard of in his life. Jackman has some incredible scenes: it's a testament to his acting ability that he can portray anger and not remind you of Wolverine. But Gyllenhaal is even better: he's in a bit of a thankless role--these types of detectives always get pigeon-holed into specific character traits. But Jake G. rises above the cliched norm, surprising the viewer with his intensity and tenacious smarts about the nature of man. And to a lesser extent, Paul Dano is great in his limited time.
     The stars behind the scenes are just as impressive. Dennis Villeneuve (who directed the Oscar-nominated foreign film, Incendies) makes his English-language debut with Prisoners, and it's a complex work that leaves you thinking long after the lights flash on once the credits roll. There are plenty of surprises to be found--some subtle and some a tad too convenient. But they all have lasting power due to the direction that doesn't allow you to look away. And Deakins (who has worked on some of the better cinematic experiences of the last 25 years) saturates every camera shot with a wet darkness and incredible lighting choices that are each little works of art. A rainy parking lot dimly-lit by gas station lights, a candlelight vigil with flashes of flame, a collage of red and blue police lights mixed with snow--this is a master at the top of his game.
     Prisoners is a scary film. Not like a horror movie, where the scares are meant to jump you out of your seat. But scary because it puts you in the position of a father who will go to any extreme to find his daughter alive. Keller realizes (and the viewer does too, considering all of the true-crime television shows plastered across the cable networks) that with every hour that passes, the chances of finding the young girls alive dwindle and shrink. This isn't a normal revenge film, where the father goes on a killing spree the entire time to save his offspring. It's slower and more subtle, and because of that, Prisoners focuses much more on ambiguity and doubt than on bloodshed.     (A)

Sunday, September 8, 2013

You're Next: A Scary Good End to Summer

     I'm a bit of a sucker for home invasion horror movies. There's something about the sanctity and safety of one's home being molested by an outside force that ups the tension and horribleness of normal horror films. It also provides a great set-up, as the people living in the home usually can gain advantage by having memorized the secret topography of the different rooms, stairways and hidden weapons. It's one of the reasons why I enjoyed The Purge (out earlier this year), a film that threw some interesting ideas into the sub-genre but ultimately failed to live up to its own expectations. But You're Next, a new low-budget film that made lots of noise at last year's Tornoto International Film Festival, doesn't step into the same traps: blending family tension with intense intruder horror, You're Next is a great way to end the summer movie season--in a brutal, funny and stylistic way.
     Twenty minutes into the film, it feels a little bit been-there-done-that. A couple has sex. The woman (topless, of course), goes into the kitchen and grabs a drink. The man is lathering up in the shower. Soon she notices something outside the window. You know what happens next. But flash to some new characters, and it becomes more intriguing: Paul and Aubrey are a middle-aged couple that are traveling to their massive mansion out in the Missouri woods to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary. The first evening, their son Crispian arrives, who recently began dating an Australian former student of his named Mary who is meeting the parents for the first time. And by the next day, the rest of the fam has returned (two more sons and a daughter), and it's soon very clear to see that tension, bickering and condescension is this family's language. Lots of brotherly dick-measuring (not literally, that would be strange) occurs, and when the entire family (and their significant others) sit down at the gigantic dinner table, the nervousness reaches a fever pitch. Then a crossbow arrow shatters through the dining room window.
     From that moment on, You're Next is a fast-paced blending of style, plot twists, ultra-violence, and a horror-movie character that is incredibly fun to root for. These intruders--nobody knows how many at the start--wear freaky masks of farm animals that add an odd surrealistic nature to the proceedings. But that doesn't stop you from being horrified when they start taking out the bickering brood one-by-one. It actually helps. The nice thing about You're Next is that in injects plenty of humor between the Thwacks of an axe: it's not straight-up horror parody or overly meta, like the Scream films or Cabin in the Woods, but it's self aware enough to know where not to misstep into too familiar territory.
     You're Next is not without problems. But what horror movie isn't? Much of the acting, except for a select few of the less-disposable characters, leaves something to be desired. But the filmmakers definitely made a sound decision to cast essential nobodies in most of the roles. The ending was also one plot twist too many. But this is a minor complaint, because the 85 minutes of film that proceeded it was so good at slicing through expectations that it doesn't particularly matter. You're Next isn't for audiences that shy away from gore--many of the killings are twisted and sick. But they provide satisfaction for viewers in various ways, instead of just existing to sicken people (I'm looking at you, Saw). The film's a jolt of electricity for a getting-tired genre, and because of its short run time, You're Next packs so much excitement into its 95 minutes to become one of the more entertaining films of 2013.     (A-)

Monday, September 2, 2013

A Written Word Review: Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See

     Juliann Garey's debut novel, Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See, is one of those books that sometimes painful to read. Not painful because it's poorly written (because it definitely isn't) or painful because the plot isn't good (because it definitely is), but painful because of the all-encompassing and unflinching look at mental illness (in particular, bi-polar disorder) and the ramifications of letting it go unchecked for far too long. There have been plenty of popular stories in Hollywood and in books lately about different mental illnesses, but Garey's novel is sad, surprising, and super.
      The book's star is Greyson Todd, a Hollywood studio agent that has managed to barely hide his disorder from friends--and to a lesser extent, family--until one day when he just decides to leave his wife and daughter and go on a world-spanning pilgrimage in search of something. What that something is is the main part of Greyson's journey. But like bi-polar disorder itself, the novel moves and switches gears at breakneck speeds, zooming between decades, memories, the present day and electro-shock treatments in connecting ways.
     It can be a bit jarring at first: the beginning of most chapters is a new time and place in Greyson's life. But after only a paragraph or two, Garey sucks you into the new location with expert description and Greyson's troubled personality. Obviously, the real star of Too Bright to Hear is the incredibly realistic depictions of mental illness and how that illness can completely encompass a human being through mood swings, depression, panic attacks and manic episodes. But the key is Garey's expertise in making the subject matter completely relatable: now matter how far Greyson falls off of the deep end, you feel for him, and it's impossible to not imagine yourself in his position, with an illness that completely envelops him like a storm cloud.
     It's such a strong debut novel, but that makes sense because Garey herself has dealt with bi-polar disorder along with numerous members of blood relatives. She was quoted in Los Angeles Magazine as saying that she's had "five suicides in two generations" of her family. The depictions of some of the more manic episodes in the book are incredibly well-done, delving deep inside Greyson's brain, experiencing every heightened sense and nonsensical thought right alongside him. And that's the true accomplishment of Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See: it makes an illness that is mainly misunderstood become something fully experienced instead of frowned upon.