"Prisoners" (2013)

Prisoners (2013)
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Running time: 153 minutes

I must say, I REALLY love going into a film having almost no knowledge of what I am about to watch. There is a strange thrill that I get when watching a film when I don’t have any thoughts as to when “that moment I saw in the trailer” is going to happen, or when the initial conflict will occur etc. There was a film I saw about ten years ago called Matchstick Men, and I had literally heard nothing about it in the lead up to watching it. The result was a fantastic mystery film that I was completely enthralled by, with no preconceptions to influence my experience in the cinema. I feel I can say that had I known what the film was about prior to watching it, I would not have enjoyed it as much as the complete mysteriousness of it was the best thing about it! It is a moment in my cinema going history that is very special for me, as these viewings are so SO rare in this day and age of internet trailers and cinematic journalism. It also makes me a huge hypocrite, as I am among the many people who like to read and write about films and to do so without stating a single thing about the particular film is basically impossible. The bottom line, I suppose, is that any of you who are willing to take a chance on a random film should go check out this week’s film Prisoners (and Matchstick Men while you’re at it!) as I would recommend it. But for those of you who would like a little more reassurance as to what you’re walking into, please read on!

Now Showing this week is Prisoners, directed by Denis Villeneuve. Please don’t panic, I’m going to stop my premise synopsis before anything too revealing comes to light. One dreary Thanksgiving, Keller Dover’s (Hugh Jackman) six year old daughter and the daughter of his best friend go missing after going outside to play. The only lead they can give to head investigator Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is that there was an RV parked on the street that has not been seen since the girls disappeared. Police locate an RV matching the description fairly quickly, and the only suspect apprehended is Alex Jones (Paul Dano) a twenty-something man with the IQ of a ten year old. With no way of properly interrogating the suspect due to his disability, Detective Loki must release him and pursue other leads. But Dover is convinced that Jones is somehow involved and decides to take matters into his own hands…

The more astute of readers will have noticed that I did indeed recommend Prisoners in my opening paragraph. I would now like to add a little side note to that recommendation: if you’ve had a bad day, or are just having a rough time of it in your life generally, do not go watch Prisoners! The film weighs incredibly heavy on the soul and is completely humourless. It is harsh, it is brutal and it is crushing in its portrayal of a father’s desperation to rescue his little girl from whatever horror the world is exposing her to. This is not a criticism of the film, in fact I would phrase it as a commendation! While I couldn’t watch one everyday, bleak and heavy films like Prisoners or The Road are such compelling experiences due to the ways in which they tap into the raw emotions and complexities of the human condition. They challenge our perceptions of right and wrong, of what truly matters in life and of who we really are when our perfect worlds are shattered.

It is this tone that is perfect for a film like Prisoners and what makes it truly different to the film it has been compared to which is Liam Neeson’s Taken. While Taken dealt with similar subject matter (a daughter disappearing, her father going to horrible lengths to track her down), the fact that Neeson’s character was an ex-CIA special ops agent who was constantly dealing action movie style beat-downs on his aggressors and engaging in crazy car chases really took the edge off the real reality of the situation. Taken became an enjoyable frat-boy “action hero” movie, which is exactly what Prisoners is not. Jackman’s Dover is not a soldier, he’s a builder and a catholic. While some of his actions in the film are violent and torturous like Neeson’s, he is never chasing bad guys through apartment complexes and engaging in shootouts. And while pre-daughter disappearance Dover is certainly no cowardly wimp, he is definitely not a trained killer. To see how this tragedy pulls him down into the muck to get his hands dirty is truly heartbreaking and mortifying. I personally found Jackman to be very compelling in Prisoners, it was fascinating to see his aggressive side coming from a man who isn’t an adamantium enhanced super-human!

On the subject of the acting, Jake Gyllenhaal deserves an honourable mention. While nothing to rave about, his world weary portrayal of Detective Loki made for an excellent parallel to Jackman’s Dover. Where Dover is fueled by rage and vengeance, Loki is driven by the desire to save an innocent from the cruel world he has to deal with every day. Yes it is a bit cliche, but Gyllenhaal owns the role and makes for an excellent secondary protagonist. But the big shout out I would like to give would be to Paul Dano as the disabled Alex Jones. I’ve been really enjoying seeing Dano pop up in a variety of different roles in recent years, from the geeky weirdo ten years ago in The Girl Next Door, the mysterious homeless patient in House, a paranoid Looper in Looper and now to this harrowing husk of a man in Prisoners. Suffice to say, the guy has range! The highlight of Dano’s performance as Alex Jones is just how well he played the role in terms of realism, yet was still able to manipulate the part to lead the audience to feel Dover’s frustration with his inability to understand.

Or does he understand? Well, that would be telling. If there is one thing I loved about Prisoners, it’s that it kept me guessing up to the end…

Speaking of “up to the end”, the only major criticism I would have for the film is that it was far too long. Clocking in at around two and a half hours, when you couple it with pre-movie trailers and ads, you’re in for a solid three hour trip to the movies. And to endure such dark material for that length of time is taxing. Don’t get me wrong, I was never bored during the long run time, but it was just very exhausting by the end. There are a lot of red herrings that they squeeze into the film, and I wouldn’t remove any of them, but the script surrounding them just needed to be a bit punchier. Points of dialogue fell a little flat, moments dragged on occasionally and when you add them all up I reckon you could shrink about twenty minutes off the film. I suppose this isn’t a huge issue as the film was still great regardless, but I feel we need to encourage filmmakers to not just let their films run for a long time without good reason.

Then again, I can’t talk as this has been quite a long review! Time to wrap up. Prisoners was quite the experience, a brutal, harrowing but above all compelling tale of a father being confronted by the many lines he must cross to find his daughter. The acting was good, script pretty good aside from some dragging moments, and visually the film looked excellent. Some great cinematography choices, and they were integral to nailing the bleak tone of the film. If you feel you aren’t one depressing story away from a mental break down, then I recommend you check it out! But if you aren’t in the best place right now, maybe wait for DVD, sort yourself out first.

See you next time!

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"Gravity" (2013)

247813id1h_Ver1_Gravity_2ndLook_27x40_1Sheet.inddGravity (2013)
Directed by: Alfonso Cuaron
Running time: 90 minutes

Have any of you ever seen the movie Sunshine? It’s a Danny Boyle film released back in 2007 about a bunch of scientists from various fields who have been tasked with the mission to restart the Sun with a nuclear bomb designed to create a fusion reaction at its core. It is one of my favourite films, and while many criticised the scientific accuracy of the film, I was personally okay with it, as I am not an astrophysicist and the film also presents all of it as entirely theoretical. The characters themselves are not even positive that the bomb is going to work, but they have run out of options. Anyway, the science here is not the point, what is the point is how the film managed to portray the environment in which it is set (that is, space) as the villain of the film. Sunshine made the very fact of being in space terrifying, and that was something I found so refreshing at the time. You see films like Star Trek, Star Wars or TV shows like FireFly and they are all so flippant about space travel as they are set in the future. Everyone travels through space in these stories, it’s just what people do. They hop on their spaceships and travel around without a care in the ‘verse. But in Sunshine, things were very different. The slightest miscalculation, the most minute mistake, would spell doom for every person on board the spacecraft. The environment, or the lack thereof, was a formidable and terrifying opponent. It is a film that is in my top ten, and I have never seen a film since that has captured that same portrayal of the infinite emptiness constantly hanging above our heads. That is, until I saw Gravity

Now Showing this week is Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her very first space mission to update a satellite orbiting the Earth. Accompanied by a team of astronauts lead by veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), Stone and her team soon find themselves in serious danger when reports come from Houston that the Russian government have destroyed one of their own satellites and the resulting debris is now orbiting the planet at high speeds. Once the debris hits, Stone and Kowalski find themselves stranded above the Earth, with no shuttle to return them home and air running out. Perhaps they can make it to the International Space Station and get a shuttle back to Earth? Well, that would be telling!

As one can probably gather, narrative is not the strong suit of Gravity. And it isn’t supposed to be; the narrative is there to simply give us context and character within the much more important aspect of the film: to feel the experience of being in space. If there is one phrase I would use to describe Gravity, it would be “an experience”. Director Alfonso Cuaron has nailed the empty, claustrophobic yet vast, dangerous feel of space walking; and he did so through amazing attention to detail within the film’s presentation. People often seem to forget that there is no sound in space! So in sci-fi action movies like Star Trek where there are loud explosions, scraping metal and lasers zapping all over the place, they have always struck me as incredibly false. Thrilling yes, but also false. Gravity, on the other hand, stays true to astrophysics by having almost no diegetic sound other than human voices through radios and what vibrations or thumps would be heard by the astronauts within their suits as they interact with the environment. The result is an amazingly serene experience, that can also suddenly turn into an intense rush of fear when the chaos really starts to settle in. I spent majority of the second and third acts of the film just gripping the edges of my seat! The idea of a suit and a pane of glass being the only thing separating a person from nothing has always terrified me, and Gravity tapped into that fear in a way that I have never felt before.

Visually, Gravity is also a thing to behold. The quality of the visual effects are top notch, with the behaviour of objects in zero gravity being authentic, the Earth in the background looking incredibly realistic and the fact that all the astronauts were completely digital aside from their faces! I had absolutely no idea that their bodies weren’t real, and that is a testament as to how amazing they looked. I saw the film in its 2D format, and I believe for the first time EVER I am regretting not seeing it in 3D. I know! I have heard from other sources that the 3D version is spectacular, and I got the impression from watching the film that having that sense of depth in such a bleak environment would have been an improvement to the film (something that 3D has never been known for!). I simply cannot overstate it, Gravity looks ridiculously good!

The actual script to the film is sadly nothing special. I liked the two main protagonists, they each had a good sense of character to them and that character motivated their actions and behaviours; and the dialogue certainly wasn’t terrible. The script wasn’t bad, there just wasn’t anything amazing about it either, it just worked for what it needed to do. The only point in which I felt the script suffered tremendously was towards the end when it got a little cheesy and cliched. I get the feeling the studio may have gotten involved to brighten up the conclusion a little, which is disappointing. I do wish they would stop doing that! But Bullock and Clooney play their parts very well, especially Bullock being the main character. She carries a lot of the film, and she does so wonderfully. I’ve been really starting to respect her as an actor in recent years, and this film has shown me that my respect is well placed.

Bottom line, Gravity is definitely worth your time! It is an experience rarely captured on film, one heck of a ride and also has some thematic depth to it that was ponderous but not forceful. It may not be a perfect ten film; however it is one of the best films I have seen this year, definitely within the top five! Regardless of whether or not you think it is your kind of film, give it a chance. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

See you next time!