Prisoners (2013)

PrisonersWhile at the home of Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis) for Thanksgiving dinner, Anna Dover (Erin Gerasimovich) asks to take Joy Birch (Kyla Drew Simmons) back to her own parent’s house to look for her missing whistle. When her father Keller (Hugh Jackman) goes to check up on them later that evening, however, they are nowhere to be seen. Brother Ralph (Dylan Minnette) remembers the girls playing on an old campervan, and the police — lead by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) — soon manage to track the vehicle down to a nearby gas station, from which the driver attempts to escape. Unconvinced that he is the man they are looking for, Loki decides to pursue new leads; Keller, on the other hand, takes the law into his own hands, kidnapping Alex Jones (Paul Dano) upon his release from custody and torturing him for answers.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve, Prisoners is a lot more than just your average revenge thriller. An exploration of faith, forgiveness and the judicial system, the film uses its considerable 153-minute running-time to torment its characters and test its audience, forcing everyone to question the proportionality and justifiability of everyone’s actions. Unlike other such films, Aaron Guzikowski’s screenplay doesn’t just concern itself with the central mystery: the girls barely feature, leaving the audience to fear not so much for their physical well-being but for the psychological and even spiritual toll their absence is having on the two respective families.

While Guzikowski touches on these topics, it’s testament to the talents of all involved that Prisoners is as potent and powerful as it is. Jackman’s performance blends the vulnerability of Jean Valjean with the haunted physicality of Wolverine. The film opens with Keller reciting The Lord’s Prayer while teaching his teenage son to kill a deer – at this point in the narrative he is a man prepared for any eventuality, with a basement stockpiled with supplies and a worldview that prepares him for the worst. When genuine hardship befalls his family, however, his DIY attitude isn’t quite the Godsend he expected it to be. In one of the film’s most gut-wrenching scenes, Keller tries to repeat the prayer, only this time struggling over the verses preaching forgiveness.

While Jackman may have the most attention-grabbing role in the film, however, he is by no means its only asset. Howard and Maria Bello are just as heartbreaking as grieving parents, while Minnette shines every time he’s on screen as the Dover’s shell-shocked son. Gyllenhaal too impresses as Detective Loki, overcoming the clunkiness of his Asguardian surname with an incredibly nuanced performance that belies real depth. He blinks with the same voracity with which he fights crime. For me, however, the clear stand-out was Viola Davis, who wears her desperation and helplessness for all to see. She gets slightly more to do than Bello, and steals every scene that she’s in.

Prisoners isn’t perfect, however, and as strong as the performances, the subtext and Roger Deakins’ cinematography may be there are issues with the final act that can’t really be ignored. For a film that has fought for realism and pursued morality over mystery, the denouement feels jarringly generic and like something of a missed opportunity. It is here that religion stops being theme and becomes plot, with snakes and priests and mazes overwhelming the narrative. There is a sense of gimmickry about the revelations, and what was originally bleak and brave is no longer quite as believable. This diversion into Movieland is not quite as disastrous as it proved in The Call, and certainly doesn’t derail the narrative, but it’s a needless gear-change that does disappoints regardless.

A gripping film that is nicely acted and beautifully shot, Prisoners is for the most part a provocative and pulse-pounding thriller that will hopefully be rewarded come awards season. Unfortunately, the film somewhat loses its resolve towards the end, and what started out as an innocent fence-jumping chase sequence soon deteriorates into every other murder mystery, ever.

4-Stars

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Dead Man Down (2013)

Dead Man DownSeeking revenge for the death of his wife and daughter, Lazlo Kerick (Colin Farrell) — now going by the name Victor — infiltrates the crime empire of the man responsible, a ruthless kingpin called Alphonse Hoyt (Terrence Howard). Lazlo is forced to accelerate his plans when Darcy (Dominic Cooper), a friend from within Hoyt’s outfit, perceives a threat and begins to investigate. Meanwhile, Victor’s motivations are tested when he strikes up a romance with French neighbour Beatrice (Noomi Rapace). Read more of this post

Red Tails (2012)

It’s 1944, and pervasive racism is jeopardising the future of America’s first (and at this point only) regiment of African-American fighter pilots. Under the tutelage of Major Emanuel Stance (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), the Tuskegee Airmen are left to fly second-hand planes and carry out the missions that nobody else wants to do. When Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) comes through with a mission worthy of their abilities, then, namely to escort a squadron of bombers until they can deliver their payload, Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo), Martin “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker), Samuel “Joker” George (Elijah Kelley) and Ray “Junior” Gannon (Tristan Wilds) lead their fellow pilots in rising to the challenge. Read more of this post

Iron Man (2008)

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.): inventor, playboy, a bit of a dick, is living the high-life in his Miami mansion with his articulate supercomputer (Paul Bettany) and dedicated personal assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Badly injured during a weapon demonstration in Afghanistan, Stark is taken prisoner by a terrorist cell with access to a Stark Industries arsenal. When he narrowly escapes by building himself an armoured suit modified with electromagnets to keep a wayward piece of shrapnel from entering his heart, the inventor perfects the suit back at his laboratory, creating the Mark II. When his original schematic winds up in the hands of a rival (Jeff Bridges), however, Stark must put this new Iron Man to the test.

It’s difficult to appreciate just how much was riding on John Favreau’s Iron Man, but without it there would be no Marvel Studio’s, and, by extension, no The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger or, indeed, The Avengers. Before Iron Man, Marvel had leased the rights to its properties out to other companies, leaving the likes of the comparatively better known Spider-man and X-Men in the hands of Sony and 20th Century Fox respectively. For a shared universe to be possible and future cross-overs to take place, however, Marvel needed all of its heroes under one roof. Good thing, then, that it was such a hit.

Paramount to Iron Man‘s success was Marvel’s trust in Favreau. With more established superhero movies slated for release that same year – 2008 also saw Hellboy II: The Golden Army and The Dark Knight arrive in cinemas – Iron Man had to set itself apart from the competition if it was to find an audience of its own. Favreau, who also appears in the movie as bodyguard Happy Hogan, embraced the comic’s humorous side, creating a Tony Stark that was as funny as he was inventive. However integral the director might have been to the film’s success, it was to be the actor cast in the film’s lead role that was to be its biggest asset: Robert Downey Jr.

Returning to the big screen after a period of recovery, Downey Jr. was yet another wild card that any other studio would have most likely vetoed long before filming started. As Stark, however, Downey Jr. is charismatic, charming and utterly compelling, his progression from shallow, self-centred womaniser to a shallow, self-centred womaniser who saves the world proving consistently engaging.  In fact, the actor is so effective in the role that it’s almost a shame he has to don a giant metal suit for most of the film’s biggest set pieces. That said, Iron Man himself is a wonder to behold in his own right, the flight sequences in particular impressing entirely – even today.

This is no one man show, however, and behind every superhero is an ensemble vying for screen time. It is during Stark’s exchanges with Paltrow’s Pepper Potts that the film really comes to life, their effortless rapport and crackling chemistry outshining any number of effects shots and individual character moments. In addition, what was once just an Easter egg for fans is with hindsight the first move of a much larger game, with Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) lingering in the background, tasked with putting together a team. When Samuel L. Jackson finally appears during the post-credit scene, the “Avenger Initiative” is put irreversibly in motion.

A highpoint of the current spate of superheroics, Iron Man was an enormous achievement for Marvel and just a taster of things to come for fans. Funnier than The Dark Knight and more commercial than Hellboy II, this remains one of the greatest comic-book movies ever made.