Monday, September 23, 2013

"Prisoners" Review

It’s every parent’s worst nightmare.

You decide to let your children play outside, and the second your back is turned, they’re nowhere to be found.

Behold Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve’s haunting thriller about the weeklong search for two girls who go missing from their Pennsylvania neighborhood and the father (Hugh Jackman) and police detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) who will stop at nothing to find them.

There’s no telling if the girls are alive or dead as false leads and mysterious connections form an intricate web that keeps audiences guessing on the edges of their seats for just over two and a half hours.

That’s far too long a run time for a whodunit like this, even with the inclusion of some confusing edits that seemed to cut out essential parts of the story.

I thought things escalated a bit quickly when the families reacted initially, running around the streets and shouting the girls’ names immediately before Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) is seen on a stakeout of a potential suspect.

But despite some murky exposition that nearly put me to sleep, Prisoners shows us only the bare minimum of what we need to see in order to understand the conflict at hand and is easily one of the most terrifying movies never billed as a “horror” film.

This is because of its disturbingly realistic nature.

The angst-ridden father of Anna, Keller Dover (Jackman), is not your typical avenger.

He possesses no particular “set of skills” that allows him to go on a gun-slinging, Death Wish-style rampage.

He does not wear a cape or a suit of high-tech armor.

He’s just an honorable family man who finds himself with the right degree of conviction that allows him to contemplate torture and murder.

The grieving parents of Joy (Terence Howard, Viola Davis) do nothing to stop Keller’s heated actions, while his wife Grace Dover (Maria Bello) spends her days sulking in bed, ingesting a steady diet of anxiety pills.

If nothing else, Prisoners forces the audience to question not just how far the characters will go, but to what lengths we would go to find our own children under similar circumstances.

Jackman’s arresting performance as Keller is his best to date and never feels far from how a typical father might react to having his daughter taken.

Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki is skeptical and sensitive, refusing to take anything at face value and providing a welcome contrast to Jackman’s hotheaded character.

The rest of the film’s talented pedigree (Bello, Davis, Howard, Paul Dano) is convincing, even if they tend to fall by the wayside as Jackman and Gyllenhaal carry the show.

Prisoners is grueling, intense cinema in which every grey-hued frame seems to evoke a sense of dread.

I found myself easily taken by its rich story and fine performances.

I would gladly see it again.


Thursday, September 19, 2013

Fall 2013 Movie Preview


Apollo 13 director Ron Howard returns to form with Rush, the true story of the heated rivalry between Formula One racers Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth). It seems the gripping trailers haven't disappointed the critics or audiences overseas, where Rush has already opened. This is to be a sleek, exhilarating ride with breathtaking racing sequences and marvelous performances from Bruhl and Hemsworth. Renowned playwright Peter Morgan pens a screenplay that should make its rounds come awards season. In theaters September 27th.


From director Alfonso Cuarón (“Children of Men”) comes this highly-anticipated adventure featuring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts struggling for survival after a freak accident leaves them stranded in outer space. Buzz from last week’s screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival have Gravity slated as an early Oscar favorite and one that critics are touting as a landmark in 3-D visual effects technology. Titanic director James Cameron recently told Variety that it’s “the best space film ever done.” In theaters October 4th.

"12 Years a Slave”
Hunger director Steve McQueen brings to life the incredible true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man who is abducted and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War era. Ejiofor is already being lauded as this year’s Oscar favorite for Best Actor. He leads a fine ensemble cast consisting of Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Alfre Woodard and Paul Giamatti. In theaters October 18th.

“The Counselor”
Ridley Scott (Gladiator) directs an original screenplay from Cormac McCarthy, author of The Road and No Country for Old Men. It tells the story of a corrupt lawyer (Michael Fassbender) who finds himself in over his head when he gets involved in drug trafficking. McCarthy’s screenplay should be a heavy contender come Oscar time. The Counselor also stars Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz and Cameron Diaz. In theaters October 25th.

“The Wolf of Wall Street”

In the 1990s, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) was a stockbroker who hoodwinked his way to the top only to come tumbling down towards the end of the decade. Director Martin Scorsese brings Belfort's true story to the big screen this fall. DiCaprio plays a role reminiscent of his recent turn as Jay Gatsby in what looks to be a sure Oscar vehicle for him. Matthew McConaughey, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie and The Artist’s Jean Dujardin round out the cast. In theaters November 15th.

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”
The most highly-anticipated release of the fall picks up immediately after the first Hunger Games, in which Katniss Everdeen’s and Peeta Mellark’s victory spawns a rebellion against the fascist Capitol. The original cast returns along with Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, among other new faces. Catching Fire is sure to ignite a spark of its own when it hits theaters on November 22nd.


The next big adventure from Disney sees a young girl teaming up with a friend in order to save her sister, whose ice-cold powers have locked the kingdom in an eternal winter. With the creative minds behind Tangled and Wreck-it Ralph at the helm, hilarity is bound to ensue in Frozen. Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel and Jonathan Groff lend their voices. In theaters Novemeber 27th.

"Get a Horse!"
An all-new Mickey Mouse short titled Get a Horse! will play before Frozen. You won’t want to miss this because it’s the first feature to use a state-of-the-art animation technique. The creators were able to combine hand-drawn, two-dimensional imagery with slick, 3-D computer animation that’s made to look like one of Mickey’s original adventures, circa 1928’s “Steamboat Willie.” At the time, Walt Disney himself was the voice of Mickey, so with a little bit of Disney magic, the animators were able to render Walt’s voice for use in this new cartoon! In theaters November 27th.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

"The Family" Review

Growing up, I always considered my family “dysfunctional”.

Mom’s late picking me up from basketball practice, my sister needs someone to take her to violin lessons on Saturday, and no one wants to clean up the kitchen after dinner.

Though my family have never been the most effective communicators, I’ll take confusion over murder any day.

In director Luc Besson’s mafia-comedy The Family, the Manzonis give “dysfunctional” a whole new meaning.

After ratting out his entire crew, Brooklyn mafia boss Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro) and his family are relocated to Normandy, France under the Witness Protection Program.

Assimilating into the sleepy town proves difficult as new frustrations lead to the emergence of old habits.

When a plumber comes to evaluate the house’s ancient pipes, Gio beats him senseless for attempting to rip him off.

When Gio’s wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) goes grocery shopping and is rudely informed that the store doesn't sell peanut butter, she burns the place down.

When some creeps make an unrequited pass at 17-year-old Belle (Dianna Agron), she invokes her wrath with a tennis racket.

When some bullies give 14-year-old Warren (John D’Leo) a black eye, he gets back at them by establishing a syndicate, quickly becoming the most respected kid in school.

Some viewers may find these violent scenes to cause jarring shifts in tone, going from lighthearted to bloody at the drop of a hat.

But it’s these moments of unsuspected violence that expose a degree of depth for each character and also drive the film’s black sense of humor.

I liken The Family to another violent, dark comedy: Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges.

There are fine character development and loads of zippy jokes from start to finish, but the comedy never overshadows the violence nor does the violence get in the way of the laughs.

Nothing feels forced.

Though The Family is disappointingly bereft of the belly laughs that made In Bruges one of my all-time favorite movies, you can’t help but chuckle at the very least whenever Gio goes overboard.

The most priceless self-referential joke of recent memory involves his turn as a guest speaker at a local film society’s screening of a certain American classic.

I will not spoil the punch-line. You just have to see it.

It isn’t until the last twenty minutes, when the “goombas” finally catch up to the Manzonis, that the film sheds its playful exterior in favor of a gruesome, high-stakes showdown.

By losing its lightheartedness altogether, “The Family” isn’t as hard-hitting or memorable as it should be.

That being said, the film still boasts stellar performances from a nuanced De Niro and an ageless Pfeiffer, whose turn as Maggie feels like a welcome parody of her roles in “Scarface” and “Married to the Mob.”

Agron and D’Leo also fare well, in addition to a strong turn from Tommy Lee Jones as the Manzoni’s F.B.I. handler. Watching him trade gruff banter with De Niro is a treat.

It’s imperfect, it’s silly, it’s different, but whose “family” isn’t?

Strong acting performances and a subversive sense of humor prove enough to warrant a recommendation for “The Family” as an entertaining night at the movies.


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Decline of the Summer Blockbuster?

It all started back in the summer of 1975.

Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” chomped its way to box-office records and set in place a template for summer film releases that studios are still following to this day.

The “summer blockbuster” refers to a high-budget film production, which often constitutes a cultural phenomenon or fast-paced entertainment.

These releases often serve as the bases for a studio’s entire annual marketing strategy.
For years, there was never a problem with this template.

From Paramount to Warner Brothers to Disney to Universal, all the biggest studios have forked over upwards of $200 million annually in recent years to bring beloved characters to life and to maximize profits.

In the summer of 2000, Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” revolutionized the way stories were told about superheroes.

In 2008, there was the first “Iron Man,” but things changed again with the release of “The Dark Knight,” quite possibly the greatest case for the consideration of superhero blockbusters as viable works of cinematic art.

In the past five years, studios have tried to replicate the success of films like “Iron Man” and “The Dark Knight” by introducing darker tones in storytelling, humor, often through self-satire, and a heightened approach to realism in their summer releases.

More importantly, these films told compelling stories about fascinating, dynamic characters.
This worked in 2008, but does it hold up in 2013?

Last spring, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas conducted a symposium at the University of Southern California.

Spielberg predicted that “about a half-dozen or so mega-budgeted movies will go crashing into the ground,” causing the industry to “implode,” leading to an alteration of the “whole paradigm.”

The first part of that prophecy came true this past summer.

By and large, films like Disney’s “The Lone Ranger,” Universal’s “R.I.P.D.,” as well as Sony’s “After Earth” and “White House Down” all tanked because they valued bombastic action and visual spectacle over a compelling story or dynamic characters.

Even the films that found major financial success like Warner Brothers’ “Man of Steel,” Paramount’s “World War Z,” and Disney’s “Iron Man 3” turned out to be underwhelming.

Missteps in characterization, inconsistency with the narrative, and gratuitous levels of violence and destruction plagued these major releases, yet people still flocked to see them.

Therefore, it doesn’t look like studios have heeded enough warning to change their approach to the summer, even if the quality of the stories being told is declining.

The “paradigm shift,” as Spielberg suggested, may not come for a few years, seeing that most blockbusters for the summers of 2014 and 2015 are already in production.

But as the quality of television programming and online content continues to rise, we may see folks forgoing costly ticket prices altogether and just staying home.

The emergence of thoughtful, compelling programming like AMC’s “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead” will be what ultimately causes the shift in the way summer blockbuster films are presented.

Maybe studios will release directly to Netflix or for “on-demand” fees through cable.

Maybe we’ll see the serialization of big properties. ABC already has an “Avengers” spin-off in the works for this fall.

Either way, a change is looming as studios head back into the water in search of the success that “Jaws” found all those years ago.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

"Riddick" Review

I wonder what those kids in the AT&T commercials would say about this one…

What would you get if you had a film that claimed to be the first new representation of a character in nearly a decade and promised to bring the story back to the basics laid down by its predecessors, yet borrows its strongest moments from other, better, science-fiction franchises?

You’d get Riddick.

Writer/director David Twohy reunites with star Vin Diesel for the third film in the Pitch Black series.

This time around, the anti-hero, Riddick, finds himself stranded on a sun-scorched planet inhabited by violent predators. His only hope for rescue is to activate an emergency beacon, alerting two separate ships of the bounty on Riddick’s head. One ship carries a new breed of mercenary, while the other is captained by a man from Riddick’s past.

With the elements stacked against him, Riddick must fight to make good and get off the planet alive at all costs.

But why do we care?

With both his script and direction, Twohy fails to generate any sense of feeling for any of the characters. Even as Riddick spends the first twenty minutes figuring out how to survive the planet’s extreme conditions, I couldn’t help but care less about what happened to him.

The same can be said about the mercenaries.

Essentially, they are nothing more than disposable bad guys who serve no true purpose but to be creatively dispatched by our protagonist.

This drove me nuts because the film undergoes a major shift in focus once the “mercs” arrive, which I found completely unnecessary.

The film comes to hardly even be a story about the titular character.

It becomes a plodding feature about the conflicting guns-for-hire, filled with slow, padded dialogue that serves as a fine sleep aid for all but the most eager and least demanding of Riddick fans.

In addition to a confused storyline, the action is sparse and fails to pack much punch.

Some of the most exciting sequences are when Riddick takes on these massive, scorpion-like predators that look almost identical to the Xenomorphs from Aliens.

These scenes were fun but underwhelming, because all I could see were Aliens and a mediocre Diesel in place of the superior Sigourney Weaver.

Ensuing gunfights, fistfights, and swordplay are nothing that action junkies haven’t seen before, although there is a pretty gnarly stunt that Riddick pulls with a machete just before the film’s final act.

Consider it the long overdue wake-up call to the coma-inducing scenes with the “mercs” earlier.
As much as Riddick borrows from Aliens, it takes pages from I Am Legend and Old Yeller as well.

Towards the beginning, Riddick gets attacked by a pack of dingo-like creatures.

Somehow, he manages to capture one of their young and raise it as his companion.

As ridiculous as it sounds, watching Riddick train and play with an alien puppy actually makes for a fun, lighthearted first act.

It’s just a bummer the CGI wasn’t done better on him.

All of the creatures look corny, and the landscapes manufactured.

It looks like the same special effects technology they used on The Chronicles of Riddick back in 2004.

What should be a return to form for writer/director Twohy and star Diesel, Riddick manages to be nothing more than a forgettable hodgepodge of unoriginal stunts and ideas, despite a relatively lighthearted first act.

I think the kids would say to move along, and "'queen' my dishes, please". It's not complicated.