REVIEW: Prisoners

19 09 2015

Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” possesses a remarkable precision in nearly every aspect of its execution.  It is palpable in the mood, the performances, the script from Aaron Guzikowski, and especially the photography by Roger Deakins.  As the abduction of two children forces a father (Hugh Jackman) to extreme measures of extracting vengeance, the film patiently and methodically follows his descent into an inhumanity on par with his daughter’s abductor.

At times, Villeneuve’s realization of this unraveling feels so airtight that it comes across almost as stifling and constrictive.  Somehow, the film feels like it needs to breathe.  Yet on further inspection, that is not the case.  Villeneuve knows exactly how much oxygen “Prisoners” needs to survive and refuses to dole out any more of it than is necessary to give each scene a pulse.  This makes his film burn not only slowly but also consistently, illuminating the depravity of cruelty to children with its steadfast flame.

His exactitude directly counters the nature of the narrative, a complicated ethical story with neither an easy outlet for sympathy nor a character that lends his or herself to identification.  The closest figure offered for a connection is Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki, whose adherence to rationality and order makes him the most level-headed presence in “Prisoners.”  He retains a rather detached perspective on the case of the missing girls rather than allowing himself to succumb to the levels of hysteria from the grieving families.  If everyone else in the film yells, Loki speaks in a whisper.

In a way, that soft-spoken approach makes for the only major flaw of “Prisoners” that I could find.  The film’s audio mix is all over the board; the sound goes in and out, then up and down.  I watched it twice at home on two different television sets, but the problem persisted.  I often had to rewind and jack up the volume to catch a line of dialogue muttered under someone’s breath.  This sotto voce technique makes the film chillingly clinical – so make sure you can hear it in all of its complexities.  B+ / 3stars

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REVIEW: St. Vincent

19 11 2014

St. VincentAs Bill Murray’s zany candor becomes the ultimate cult of personality, it seems that plenty of people are completely entertained by just watching him be – whether in character or in real life.  “St. Vincent” thus assumes the position of a holy text in Murray’s civil religion. Writer/director Theodore Melfi essentially gives Murray an entire film where he can just exemplify his effortlessly authentic mix of odd and cool.

It really does not even matter that the mechanics of his performance are quite rusty, as most egregiously evinced by his seriously spotty Brooklyn accent.  As the harmlessly grouchy titular character, he gets the chance to spout plenty of memorable maxims (or Bill Murrayisms, as they are often called).  “St. Vincent” provides an hour and a half to spend basking in his wisdom for those not lucky enough to run into him at a hotel.

Murray does not just show up, though; he adjusts his acting style as necessary in order to mesh with Melfi’s sentimental but nonetheless winning story.  “St. Vincent” operates from a big, sympathetic heart that it wears on its sleeve.  Melfi could have done without so many mellow music montages to convey that emotion, however, since it comes so naturally from the actors.

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REVIEW: The Butler

17 08 2013

ButlerBased on the trailer for Lee Daniels’ “The Butler,” I had prepared myself for “Forrest Gump: Civil Rights Edition.”  It looked to be in a filmmaking tradition of heavy-handed, cloying, and over the top shenanigans designed to easily trigger emotion.  As it turns out, I didn’t even have to resist because the film was not any of these things.

It was just a plain, bad movie.  “The Butler” is poorly written, unevenly directed, and meagerly acted.  It vastly oversimplifies history, both that of our nation’s struggle for civil rights and also the remarkable life of one man who served many Presidents with honor and dignity.  And in spite of its golden hues and stirring score stressing the importance of every moment, the film just fell flat the entire time.

Screenwriter Danny Strong writes the story of Cecil Gaines, Forest Whitaker’s titular character, into a parade of presidential caricatures – leaving out Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter since they apparently never grappled with civil rights.  (I’m ok with a narrowed portrait of history, just not a narrowed portrait of the people who made that history.)  Each man is a waxwork figure, a set of immediately recognizable traits tied up in a bow by a crucial civil rights decision, that happens to be served tea by the same man.

And every president is somehow swayed by the mere presence of Cecil, who will make a passing remark to each.  He’s apparently the perpetual Greek chorus of the White House or even the nation’s most influential civil rights adviser.  It’s a little ridiculous to infer causality here, even with a generous suspension of disbelief.  This trick worked in Robert Zemeckis’ “Forrest Gump” because it was done with a wink and a sense of humor.  It fails in “The Butler” because no one can seriously believe Cecil was an actual policy influencer.

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REVIEW: The Company You Keep

27 04 2013

There are all sorts of cinematic experiences you can have these days when going to the movies.  Sometimes, as was the case with Robert Redford’s “The Company You Keep,” I felt like I was mostly just following the events unfold as opposed to actively watching the film.  Sure, I was taking it in, but it reminds me of the experience of reading SparkNotes or a Wikipedia summary – not exactly engaging or satisfying, in other words.

Redford appears to be angling to win the SAG ensemble award on paper with this cast of Oscar winners, nominees, and Shia LaBeouf.  Though with this A(ARP)vengers of ’70s and ’80s greats assembled, you’d think the drama would not be so turgid and lifeless.  It’s stiff and uninteresting as both a journalistic crusade as well as a fugitive thriller.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized this had all the potential to be “All The President’s Men” meets “The Fugitive.”  Both those movies had tension, though, and Redford can’t even manufacture it synthetically with a Cliff Martinez (“Drive,” “Contagion“) score.  The characters also lacked depth, both in terms of emotional development as well as decent dialogue for them to say.  Everyone speaks in self-righteous platitudes in “The Company You Keep,” making for some rather excruciating confrontations.

With all that’s going on these days, an old home-grown terrorist and a young maverick journalist in the era of print media’s growing obsolescence should be a no-brainer for fascinating conflict and thought-provoking meditations on the world we live in.  But it just goes to show the even with the company Redford keeps – Julie Christie, Sam Elliott, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Brit Marling, Stanley Tucci, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, and Susan Sarandon – you can’t just throw acclaimed actors and actresses in a pot and expect it to boil.  C+2stars





REVIEW: The Princess and the Frog

26 12 2009

2009 has been a great year for animation, particularly in the advances that were made in leaps and bounds this year.  Wes Anderson used stop-motion animation to bring “Fantastic Mr. Fox” to life.  Although they hesitate to call it animation, James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis continued to perfect the motion capture technology, the former practically reinventing it.  To top it all off, our good friend Pixar, faithfully churning out magnificent movies year after year, had perhaps their finest moment yet with “Up,” and the Academy may just reward it with only the second Best Picture nomination for an animated film.

But what about old-fashioned, hand-drawn animation?

The Princess and the Frog” is one of the best movies of the year not because it sets out to revolutionize its craft or because it tries to impress us with its bravura; in fact, it’s such a joy because it does just the opposite.  It sticks rather simply to the way animation was done in the good old days, and it has the beautiful charm to make you feel like you did as a child watching the Disney animated classics.

“The Princess and the Frog” is able to channel the rapture of the golden age of animation while combining it with a more contemporary ethic.  It doesn’t entirely belittle the power of wishes and dreams, which movies like “Cinderella” and “Snow White” trained us to believe was all you needed.  But the movie’s main lesson is to teach the value of working hard to achieve your dreams, which is just what Tiana (voice of Anika Noni Rose, “Dreamgirls”) does.  She works two jobs in New Orleans so she can open the restaurant that she and her father (Terrence Howard) dreamed about when she was a child.  He is the main voice echoing in her head, always saying that you cannot rely on the cosmos to give you what you want.  However, in a moment of desperation, she kisses a frog who claims to be a prince in hopes that she will get the fairy tale ending of “The Frog Prince.”  But the frog doesn’t become a prince; Tiana becomes a frog thanks to a voodoo priest (Keith David) that is creepy on a level I reserve for villains like Jafar and Scar.  The two must travel through the bayou to reach Mama Odie, a voodoo priestess that can set things back to the way they are.  To navigate the perilous terrain, they enlist a trumpet-tooting alligator named Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) and a thickly accented, love-struck firefly named Ray (Jim Cummings).  The journey is filled with plenty of spirited musical numbers and enough fun to make your smile as wide as the Mississippi.

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