Prisoners

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Release: Friday, September 20, 2013

[Theater]

Some will call it a movie. Others are going to call it psychological and emotional hell. It would be an insult to consider this merely the former, and one of the highest praises to call it the latter. Canadian director Denis Villenueve cranks up the tension like you’ve never seen before in a film that strikes extremely close to home for most of us.

When the children of Keller and Gracie Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello, respectively) and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) disappear at Thanksgiving in broad daylight, we are hereby thrust into a gauntlet of deeply personal fear, anxiety and despair as police and parents alike attempt to forge their own ways of getting to the bottom of one of the most baffling and chilling child abduction cases created in recent memory.

Not only is the fundamental concept disturbing — the very idea of young, innocent kids becoming victims a contributor to the dread and horror that this film so convincingly stirs up in us — but an incredibly well-directed story and first-rate acting are likely to leave considerable splashes in the pond of early Oscar contenders. While it may not win anything or even get nominated (it should), Prisoners for sure marks a change of seasons with regards to the kinds of releases we’re going to be accustomed to seeing in the upcoming months.

Breathe a sigh of relief. Fall is here.

Hugh Jackman puts on the performance of a lifetime as a blue-collar working, family man with perhaps one of the most macho names in recent movie history — Keller Dover, who’s likely to mess with a guy named that? His Keller is undoubtedly the devoted paternal figure, as well as he is a survivalist — “pray for the best but prepare for the worst;” and, it may also bear worth mentioning that he becomes central to the film’s complex morality play.

The reliably gritty role as a father on the verge of a complete mental breakdown plays to Jackman’s strengths as his character is forced to abduct the man he thinks is responsible for the disappearance of the girls, and to torture him accordingly. The entire ensemble is top-notch in Prisoners, but it is really Jackman who’s most haunting and takes us to some emotional lows we hadn’t quite experienced thus far in 2013. As time becomes more and more precious with every passing hour, Dover is forced to take actions that may taint his reputation as a decent man; is he just desperate or perhaps something more? At what point does a person sacrifice their dignity for the sake of finding out the truth?

The movie is able to handle such controversy and complexity as it features a range of reactions from each of its central characters who put on breathtaking performances. Terrence Howard is again excellent as a man who’s clearly devastated by the events but somehow cannot find it within himself to go to the lengths Dover does to try and find resolution. The wives — a distraught Maria Bello will break your heart, while Viola Davis shines in a couple of key scenes — are realistic, equally important to the story (though not as front-and-center as Keller and Franklin, clearly), and compelling to watch. No family member is unaccounted for and this is perhaps what makes Keller Dover’s cracking composure so interesting, and most of all, devastating to experience: he represents something of an extreme. (If Wolverine/Logan was a 9 out of 10, Keller is an 11 or 12.)

When we get saddled up with the oddball Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), the situation jumps up a notch with the intrigue factor. The detective is a hard-working, thorough criminal investigator who stops at nothing to seek out justice — though his job may be viewed more-or-less as an impossibility. He doesn’t have enough information (supposedly the RV they detain and sweep over reveals no evidence of any kind that would be useful); he’s also slightly overwhelmed by the emotional outrages of Keller in particular (“I want you to look for my daughter!!!” — right, got it. He wasn’t doing this before you yelled this in his face), and his boss isn’t entirely convinced there is anything anyone can do in this case. Despite the bleak outlook, Loki is thoroughly committed to his duties; Gyllenhall committed to this commitment.

Undoubtedly, this review is all about some cast appraisal. There’s no way around it: each actor and actress herein sells the emotions — highlighted by Jackman’s rage and Bello’s descent into deep depression — as though these events were truly happening to them. To continue in this trend, Paul Dano and Melissa Leo (who plays Dano’s adoptive mother, Holly) cannot be overlooked either. Dano is back again in another shady role as a lead suspect in the abduction case, and as he falls victim to the emotional fury of one of the fathers, his Alex becomes quite the complex character in itself. In fact, he is proof that no character in Prisoners is free from the burden of doubt and disbelief.

Barring the third act which arguably overstays its welcome, this movie is a stroke of genius. It is unrelentingly emotional and in that regard, quite exhausting. Running at nearly two-and-a-half hours long, Prisoners requires endurance. It also assumes the average moviegoer is able to keep up with a relatively involved crime investigation. There’s a lot going on here, and it will pay dividends if you’re meticulously paying attention to detail, perhaps as much as Detective Loki is.

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4-5Recommendation: Imagine your children are all of a sudden removed from your life. You’re not sure where they are or how they are doing; you don’t even know if they are alive after a week of being missing. What would you do to get them back, and to what lengths would you go to ensure that that happens? It’s not exactly an easy watch, no. . . but these dire circumstances make for extremely engrossing viewing. Even if you’re not the head of a household, you’re going to find this an involving and sprawling story that’s difficult to believe is not BOATS.

Rated: R

Running Time: 153 mins.  

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Iceman

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Release: Friday, May 3, 2013 (limited)

[Redbox]

General Zod ain’t got nothin’ on this dude’s ‘tude. . .

The great Michael Shannon assumes the role of a paradoxical contract killer/family man, Richard Kuklinski — a man who proves that possessing two faces is only gonna get ya twice as hurt. And twice the jail time, in all likelihood — the real-life serial killer ended up with a double-life sentence for his murders of more than 100 people. Yes, you read that correctly.

The place: northern New Jersey. The time: circa 1954, when Kuklinski first got involved in the New York mafia, and over the next 30 years he would go on to murder dozens and dozens of men — only men — most of which were simply next on his list and some of whom had irritated him in some way. Using a variety of weapons which included guns, knives, tire irons and cyanide, Kuklinski was successful in evading the authorities for so long since his methods would often change and his tracks were constantly covered up. His nickname ‘The Iceman’ was earned due to both his incredible lack of emotion or concern about what he was doing beyond the fact he was only “doing his job,” and because he often froze corpses in freezers to eliminate any chance of the police being able to determine time of death.

While it may not be the best compliment one could pay Shannon, the guy’s got the perfect mean mug to really pull off a role like this. Unsurprisingly, he’s electrifying. Terrifying. He gives Ray Liotta a great run for his money in this movie — a man I’d be willing to name-drop in the same conversation with Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci as best gangster/mafia personalities ever to grace the screen. It’s also a great treat getting to see Shannon carry a lead role for once.

Shannon does a spectacular job portraying the apparent bipolarity that the real killer suffered from: in one moment Kuklinski is a doting, loving husband and father of two perfect girls; the next, he’s dismembering his victims and disposing of their bodies into the river. The ease with which he slips in and out of his professional and personal lives is quite chilling. Unfortunately, one can’t exactly say that the events contained herein are unpredictable. The Iceman does fall into formula quickly, and deeply. (There’s only one way a film like this can end.) Still, it’s all about style points here.

In the earlygoing we see Kuklinski trying to pay back the money he’s just recently lost after miscounting the number of boxes of pirated pornographic films he’s meant to deliver. His boss, the greatly-feared Roy DeMeo (Liotta), is at first rather annoyed with Kuklinski’s mishandling; then, once he gets to know the guy a bit better, he learns that “the Polack” — as he so refers to him from here on out — has an unusual ability to stay calm, cool and collected during murders. Having passed the “first test,” DeMeo enlists Kuklinski’s services. Kuklinski never looks back.

What unfolds is a grisly story of a man working to feed his family and provide a roof over their head, by whatever means necessary. However, it proves impossible to maintain this precarious balancing act forever. One afternoon after ditching his plans to tick off his next target on his hit list — opting to take his wife who had recently fallen ill to the doctor’s office — police swarm his home and he  is arrested on-sight. The movie portrays this as quite the epic struggle, and at the moment, it’s quite an emotional event. You nearly feel sorry for the man. That’s all attributable to an astonishing performance from a consistently brilliant actor.

There’s a number of riveting performances here as well. Ray Liotta as the mob boss DeMeo is reliably threatening — no disappointment there. Captain America (a.k.a. Chris Evans) reveals his darker side, stepping into the role of fellow contract killer/psycopath Robert ‘Mr. Freezy’ Pronge, who disguises his true profession by driving around in an ice cream truck. Few things are more unsettling than seeing a twelve-year-old corpse frozen in the same freezer as the ice cream treats. Evans all but disappears inside the role (and the make-up). Even James Franco shows up for a brief bit and pours his heart out.

Though it’s not the most inventive story you’ve ever seen, the film is performance-based and ends up benefitting quite a lot from the leads and its contributing cast. The methodology of and the circumstances surrounding its titular character are more than compelling enough to justify an immediate search on Wikipedia for some more background information on the guy. The real story is almost too shocking to be true.

This is a crazy world we inhabit.

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3-5Recommendaton: If you are a fan of Michael Shannon, you’ll find The Iceman to be perfectly acceptable viewing, even if it contains more than enough murders to warrant the ‘R’ rating alone — never mind the blood and language. For those who are a bit squeamish and/or not the largest fans of grisly crime-dramas, this might not be your movie. However, there is a more general appeal to this movie in that it provides a rare treatment of the mentality of a serial killer. How The Iceman manages to simultaneously paint the man as a decent father and as an efficient contract killer should be motivation enough for a wider audience to seek this out.

Rated: R

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “Do you see the Iceman crying?”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Killing Them Softly

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Release: Friday, November 30, 2012

[Theater]

Brad Pitt does not smile once in this movie.

And for that matter, the sun does not come out to shine in Killing Them Softly, either. Bring it on — the rain, the darkness, the bloodsplattering, and the poetic justice behind it all. Some won’t be as willing as I am to stand behind this film and support the violence that it portrays, and while that is understandable, it is sort of a problem for this film because there is a steady breeze of genius that drifts in and out of every major scene. The moments where there’s action, though, are likely to turn people’s stomachs if they’re not prepared.

With that in mind, I’d like to review Aussie director Andrew Dominik‘s adaptation of famed crime writer George V. Higgins‘ 1974 novel, Cogan’s Trade.

It was mostly a success, but there have been more than a fair share of the criminal-as-protagonist type storylines where we really don’t have any fresh air from other points of view, i.e. the “innocent person’s” perspective. Instead we have the viewpoint of thug going after other equally unlikeable guys. Martin Scorsese has done a few like that (great ones); Tarantino is known for them (he’s especially associated since all the blood and gore that go into his films seem to be done with a labor of love), and a host of other films across multiple directors share at least a few elements in common. They’re tough. They’re gritty. Mean-spirited. Difficult to justify at times. And those are but a few of the main trademarks of the criminal/gangster plot synopsis.

If we’re talking Softly, there’s not a whole lot of laughter — the pure and healthy-happy sort — in the realm of a bankrupted criminal world, during a time when the nation as a whole was in financial straits. Set in 2008 right before the economic collapse and during a fierce presidential race, the story is not a happy one. The script is very vulgar and at times pretty disturbing and disgusting; at least, when put into context with who’s saying what.

Two greedy thieves — Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) and Frankie (Scoot McNairy) — are set up by a mobster fronting as a laundromat manager (Vincent Curatola) to rob a mob-protected card game. The game is being hosted by Markie Trattman (another stalwart performance by Ray Liotta), a kind-faced slouch who’s already let a robbery happen at one of his games before. When Russell and Frankie somehow pull the stunt off successfully, Trattman finds himself in hot water with the rest of his “friends,” who at the same time have been bankrupted.

Cue Brad Pitt’s murdering hit man, Jackie Cogan. Jackie is called in to set things straight within the local organization, and time and again reiterates that it’s not what he really likes doing — killing people — but if it’s gotta be done, he’ll do it from a distance. Softly, and with an automatic shotgun. Hired out by an inconspicuous agent played by Richard Jenkins, Cogan’s mission is to track down the money and the low-level thieves responsible. Yes, make no mistake. People do pay dearly for their actions.

The beating scene and when Trattman finally is tracked down and killed in a slow-motion drive-by, are some of the most brutal and difficult to watch scenes I’ve come across since sitting through American History X. Indeed, I was not quite convinced all those times Jackie lamented the whole “having to kill people” part of his job, saying that that aspect is a result of push coming to shove. He doesn’t like getting all touchy-feely. But then when it came to doing it, there was relentless passion in the act. It was as though Tarantino had stolen the director’s chair. The cutting room floor would be a mess, in no time, I’m sure.

Bloody as they are, the scenes don’t reach the point of being gratuitously violent. Restraining much of the activities and unpleasantries that are part of the fabric of criminal life but for a few moments meant the plot would need to rely on substantial dialogue and other audio, such as the political commentary. That’s impressive. And must have been difficult to do.

Unfortunately, Dominik ended up delivering the political feed a bit too heavy handed, since there were more than a few moments when all other dialogue and audio had dropped out, leaving an isolated soundtrack of Obama or then-President Bush dangling in space. Statements on the health of the national economy penetrated like stray bullets when no one was talking in a scene. And the movie began on one as well; a message from Barack.

At times the political overtones became so loud and drove more of the issues down our throat that it seemed the entire criminal storyline had taken a backseat. When there was no one talking in a given scene, the speeches and campaigning between Obama and McCain, of Bush on the health of the national economy, became the pathos of the film. This is while Jackie Cogan just sat around looking pissed about what he gets paid.

There’s no doubt, though, that Pitt ensures the attention is never taken off him when he’s on screen. Jackie Cogan is both enigmatic and terrifying. The acting in general is very, very solid and combines to form a dark, strangely funny and colorful conversation. We may not enjoy listening to everything these lowlives have to say, but we get a very good portrait of that lifestyle. And we want to stay well clear of that neighborhood, too.

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3-5Recommendation: If you’ve seen Dominik’s last release, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, you’ll be well-acclimated to the melodrama and violent undercurrents. I wasn’t, so I was taken by surprise. A thoroughly enjoyable film for 50 minutes or so, then turns into a lecture.

Rated: R

Running Time: 97 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com