Prisoners


Hugh Jackman contemplates something truly awful.

Hugh Jackman contemplates something truly awful.

(2013) Thriller (Warner Brothers) Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette, Zoe Soul, Erin Gerasimovich, Kyla Drew Simmons, Wayne Duvall, Len Cariou, David Dastmalchian, Brad James, Anthony Reynolds, Robert C. Treveiler, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Todd Truley, Brian Daye, Jeff Pope, Victoria Staley, Alisa Harris. Directed by Denis Villeneuve

It is ingrained in us as men that our jobs are simple – to fix things that are broken, and to take care of our family. Our image of ourselves as men takes a hit when we fail at either one of those tasks. However, if someone in our family is taken, how far will we go to get them back?

Keller Dover (Jackman) is a blue collar man living in a Pennsylvania suburban neighborhood. Like most blue collar workers, money is tight but he takes comfort in that he can still afford to take his son Ralph (Minnette) hunting and take pride in his son’s first kill shot. When he gets home from the cold woods with his son, his lovely wife Grace (Bello) and cute-as-a-button young daughter Anna (Gerasimovich) are waiting.

He also has great friends – Franklin Birch (Howard) and his wife Nancy (Davis) who live just a few blocks away. Friends close enough to be virtually family, in fact – they spend Thanksgiving day together. Anna and the Birch’s youngest daughter Joy (Simmons) are thick as thieves and Ralph and the older Birch daughter Eliza (Soul) are pretty tight as well.

Joy and Anna go on a toy run to the Dover house but when they don’t return, concern sets in. When searches around the neighborhood yield no clue of their whereabouts, concern turns to fear. When it is discovered that the two girls were seen playing near a dilapidated RV in which someone was clearly inside, fear turns to panic.

Police Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) is on the case and he has never not solved a case he’s been given. The RV is spotted near the a service station and Loki finds the driver, young Alex Jones (Dano). He turns out to be mentally challenged and when a search of the RV turns up no evidence that the girls were ever inside it, Alex is released.

But that’s not good enough for the enraged Keller. When he confronts Alex at the police station, he is certain that the young man muttered “They only cried when I left them.” He is certain that Alex knows where the girls are so when the opportunity arises, he kidnaps young Alex from his Aunt Holly’s (Leo) house and takes him to a run-down apartment complex that Keller is renovating and tries to beat the answers out of him.

Grace has essentially fallen apart and is in a drug-induced haze, pretty much unaware of anything but her missing daughter. Franklin and Nancy are fully aware of what Keller is up to but refuse to act; if this is what it takes to get their daughter back, so be it. They won’t stop Keller despite their misgivings about his actions but they won’t aid him either.

In the meantime Detective Loki is getting nowhere despite some promising leads – including a drunken priest (Cariou) with a surprising secret in the church basement and a hooded stalker (Dastmalchian) who may or may not be involved with the kidnapping. In the meantime time is ticking away on the fate of the girls.

Villeneuve has previously directed the excellent Incendies and shows a real flair for the thriller genre. He utilizes cinematographer Roger Deakins – one of the best in the world – to create a grey and colorless environment, growing increasingly more so the longer the girls are away. The children bring color and life; when they are gone there is a growing despair.

Jackman, who was Oscar-nominated for Les Miserables surpasses even that performance here. He is a loving father but one with hints of paranoia even before the kidnappings. He follows a philosophy of being prepared for the worst but nothing could have possibly prepared him for this. As his desperation grows, so does his veneer of civilization begin to crumble. He is so sure that Alex knows something that he is unwilling to even entertain the suggestion that he may be innocent; he knows in his gut that Alex knows where the girls are and he’ll get that information out of him no matter what it takes and folks, it isn’t pretty. Some of the torture scenes are decidedly uncomfortable.

Gyllenhaal has a bit of a cipher on his hands. His Detective Loki is aptly named; not necessarily for the Norse trickster God but for the sound – low key, and the Detective is decidedly that. His people skills aren’t all that well-developed; he answers questions from the distraught parents with the same word-for-word phrase “I hear what you’re saying. We haven’t ruled anything out yet. We’ll certainly look into it” but there is nothing genuine behind it. Loki bears some odd tattoos and is far from perfect; when shadowing Keller whose actions have become suspicious Loki is easily spotted, for example.

The denouement has some unexpected twists to it which is a good thing, although there are some huge holes in logic – for example (SPOILER AHEAD) DNA is not found in a place where it later turns out the girls HAD been; even had it been wiped clean (and it doesn’t appear to have been), there would have been traces. Also, apparently, police cars in Pennsylvania have no sirens or radios.

Still, this is a gripping thriller that will make any parent who sees it twist inwardly as they watch their worst nightmare unfold onscreen. The ensemble cast is uniformly superb and Dano, the lone non-Oscar nominee among them, may well earn one for his work here. While I thought the movie was a bit long at two and a half hours, it still doesn’t feel like any time was wasted. This is one of the better movies to come out in wide release in recent months and is worth seeing just for Jackman’s performance alone.

REASONS TO GO: Wrenching and emotionally draining. Solid, realistic performances throughout.

REASONS TO STAY: Almost too hard to watch in places. A few lapses in logic. Runs a bit long.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some extremely disturbing violence with depictions of torture and child endangerment, as well as foul language throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie has been in development for nearly a decade, with Bryan Singer and Antoine Fuqua (among others) both attached at various times to direct and Mark Wahlberg and Leonardo di Caprio both attached at other times to star. Jackman was attached when Fuqua was set to direct but both dropped out; Jackman came back on board when Villeneuve was brought in to direct.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/28/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Silence of the Lambs

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Mr. Nice

Identity Thief


Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy see the critics approaching with torchs and pitchforks.

Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy see the critics approaching with torchs and pitchforks.

(2013) Comedy (Universal) Jason Bateman, Melissa McCarthy, Amanda Peet, Genesis Rodriguez, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Jon Favreau, Morris Chestnut, John Cho, Robert Patrick, Eric Stonestreet, Brett Baker, Ron Falcone, Matthew Burke, Angelyn Pass, Lori Beth Edgeman. Directed by Seth Gordon

Identity theft is a big problem in the digital age. When someone is able to get your personal information, they are literally able to steal your identity, getting into your bank accounts and credit cards, able to ruin your credit and sometimes your good name (by committing crimes under your “name”). They are very difficult to catch and often can go from one identity to the next, spreading chaos and destruction in their wake

Sandy Bigelow Patterson (Bateman) is finally seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. He’s been working for the most despicable boss (Favreau) in history, but a group of fed-up employees have defected taking their clients with them, opening up a new well-financed company and his friend Daniel Casey (Cho) who is the president of the new company, has offered him a VP position there.

That couldn’t have come at a better time. Sandy’s wife Trish (Peet) is expecting their third child, they’ve been just able to keep their head above water financially and the increase in salary is just what they need to get back on their feet.

But then Sandy’s credit card is declined at a gas station which is puzzling; he only uses the card for gas and coffee and there should have been plenty of credit available. Then he’s pulled over and arrested for failing to appear at a court date in Winter Park, Florida.

The problem is that Sandy lives in Denver, Colorado and has never been to Florida. A mug shot from the Winter Park police is enough to clear up the matter but then the last straw is when the cops show up again at Sandy’s new job looking for evidence of drugs, once again because of a charge in Winter Park, Florida.

With Sandy’s job teetering on the brink, he knows that this identity thief must be stopped. However, the Denver cops can’t go chasing off to Florida and the Winter Park police aren’t really looking for the culprit. So Sandy heads down to pick up his tormentor himself. Turns out that the identity thief is a woman, whose name may or may not be Diana (McCarthy) – it’s hard to say because she uses so many different names but we’ll call her Diana just to make things relatively easy.

Of course Sandy finds her right away (take that, WPPD!) and at first she’s understandably reluctant to go – in fact she downright refuses. But when a couple of thugs (Rodriguez and Harris) break in with the intent to do some serious bodily harm (read as kill) to Diana and anybody unfortunate enough to be in her company at the time, she changes her attitude real fast.

However, the thugs aren’t the only ones on her tail as a grizzled skip tracer (Patrick) and the cops are on their tails. While Sandy and Diana are initially wary of each other, they’ll need to rely on each other to make it to Denver in one piece if at all.

Seth Gordon has directed some pretty good films up to now, including the wonderful documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters and the terrific comedy Horrible Bosses. He’s actually been associated with a lot of decent movies up to now; unfortunately this one isn’t up to their standards.

Part of my issue with it is that it’s not very funny – it’s one of those comedies whose best moments can be found in the trailer. It’s also not the way I’d have gone with a topical subject like identity theft. It’s a road buddy movie that really could have used any sort of circumstance; unfortunately the writers tended to throw logic and reality out the window. So much of the character’s actions don’t make sense but serve as plot contrivances. There is some lazy writing going on here.

Bateman is one of my favorite comic actors working right now. He is such a likable guy that you root for him in every picture he’s in. Yeah, I know that his characters tend to be pretty similar but then that’s true of nearly every actor – few go bouncing around into disparate roles. Hollywood likes to keep its stars compartmentalized. Still, Bateman does what he does (the annoyed and put-upon nice guy) better than anyone. He’s more of a straight man.

McCarthy is taking a lead role for the first time in a feature film and she acquits herself pretty well. She’s a fearless comedienne, allowing herself to look like a cartoon character if it’s for the good of the project. She’s given a lot of physical humor to do and she does it pretty well (she’s hit by a car at one point and pops up like a bobblehead from hell) and she has a couple of dramatic scenes which she hits out of the park, to quote Lisa Schwarzbaum in Entertainment Weekly.

I think that the slapstick is a miscalculation. Diana is portrayed as being street-smart more than clever and that’s a mistake as well. She’s so flamboyant and foolish that you can’t see her not getting caught in ten minutes flat. Her character would have benefitted from being a little bit smarter than those around her and you never get that sense.

Diana was originally written to be a male part but Bateman insisted on rewriting it for McCarthy which was a brilliant move on his part – she and he are the best things about the movie and their chemistry is undeniable. I’d love to see them work together with some better material to work with. This could easily have been a bad film but it’s just on this side of recommendable thanks to the talents and likability of its stars.

An aside to Rex Reed and those criticizing Ms. McCarthy because of her size; while there are a couple of jokes that refer to it and I’m sure she is well able to defend herself, taking shots at an actor for their looks is unprofessional and pathetic. They may be public figures but they’re people too.

REASONS TO GO: Bateman is always worth seeing. McCarthy is endearing in places.

REASONS TO STAY: A case of talented comic actors not given a whole lot to work with.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some pretty sexual humor, a big bad dose of bad language and obscene gestures as well as a bit of violence, mostly of the slapstick variety.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the road trip every car after the original rental had a crushed can of Red Bull on the dashboard.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 24% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100; the reviews are awfully putrid.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Midnight Run

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Side Effects

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade


Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Just a couple of hotties.

(1989) Adventure (Paramount) Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Denholm Elliott, Allison Doody, John Rhys-Davies, Julian Glover, River Phoenix, Kevork Malikyan, Robert Eddison, Richard Young, Alexei Sayle, Alex Hyde-White, Paul Maxwell, Isla Blair. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

In the third film in the series Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Spielberg and producer George Lucas wisely returned to the elements that made the first movie great. The movie opens with a prologue that shows Indy as a teenager (Phoenix) trying to foil grave robbers from stealing Coronado’s Cross. Much of his backstory is explained, including how he got the scar on his chin, where he acquired his fedora and the genesis of his phobia of snakes. We also see some of the dynamics of the relationship between Indy and his father, Dr. Henry Jones (Connery) who is obsessed by the legend of the Holy Grail, which he believes to be a real artifact.

After retrieving the Cross as an adult, Indy (Ford) receives a strange package at his office in the University from his father . He is then summoned by wealthy industrialist Walter Donovan (Julian Glover), Indy learns there is an expedition underway to retrieve the Holy Grail itself. That expedition’s leader has disappeared; and the leader turns out to be Indy’s father. Indy and Brody go to Venice, to meet up with his father’s colleague on the team Dr. Schneider (Doody), who turns out to be a she, and together they find the missing information needed to locate the resting place of the Grail.

First, however, Indy is determined to rescue his father, whom he discovers is being held in a castle in Austria. Indy arrives there only to discover that not everyone he has been trusting should be trusted and that some of them are in league with the Nazis (them again). Once again, with Brody and now Sallah (Rhys-Davies), Indy and his father set out to rescue the Grail in a race against the Nazis.

The chemistry between Connery and Ford is absolutely awesome; the two often communicate with merely a glance or a stern look. Their relationship becomes so well defined because of the natural qualities of their by-play. The two spar with each other verbally, with Ford as the son trying to please his father who may well be unpleasable. Screenwriter Jeffrey Boam (who to that point had done Innerspace and The Lost Boys) gives Ford and Connery a slambang story to work with, and the two run with it. Spielberg provides some stunning visuals, and John Williams provided one of his best scores in any film ever.

Doody is an appealing blonde who may well be the prettiest of Indy’s love interests; she is his intellectual equal and is stronger a character than either Karen Allen’s Marion or Kate Capshaw’s Willie from the first two movies. Rhys-Davis and Elliott turn in strong performances and prove why they were so instrumental to the success of the first movie.

The third installment of the Indiana Jones films is almost as good as the first, and in some ways, better. There are some wonderful action sequences (such as a fight in the canals of Venice, a rescue from an Austrian castle and subsequent motorcycle chase and a daring desert rescue from a tank. At the center of the movie however is the relationship between father and son and Connery and Ford, two of the best in the business, make it believable; touching at times, funny at others but authentic in every moment. It is a little ironic that the measure of success for a big summer blockbuster lay in the details of the relationship between father and son, but it is true here. Hollywood could learn a lesson there in how to make a summer film timeless, as this one is.

WHY RENT THIS: Great chemistry between Ford and Connery. Excellent action sequences. A slambang story that has familiarity to the legend. A lighter touch than the last.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The villains are a little less vicious in some ways than the first film.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some sensuality as well as a bit of action violence. There are a couple of disturbing images as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The character of Fedora (Young), the character who chases the teenaged Indy through the Utah desert, was originally meant to be Abner Ravenwood, the father of Marion and Indy’s mentor.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: All of the special features on the DVD are on the fourth disc of the four-disc collection and include a massive Making of the Trilogy featurette that is more than two hours long and includes much behind the scenes footage. There are also featurettes on the stunt work, the music, the special effects and Ben Burtt’s amazing sound work. There is also a promo for the new (at the time) Indiana Jones video game.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $474.2M on a $48M production budget; by any standards the movie was yet another blockbuster in the trilogy.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Raiders of the Lost Ark

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: The Strangers

Raiders of the Lost Ark


Raiders of the Lost Ark

Harrison Ford is having a ball.

(1981) Adventure (Paramount) Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, Wolf Kahler, Alfred Molina, Vic Tablian, Don Fellows, William Hootkins, Fred Sorenson, Anthony Chinn. Directed by Steven Spielberg

When news came that Spielberg and George Lucas were joining forces back in 1980, movie fans couldn’t help but rub their hands together in anticipation. After all, these guys were two of the brightest flames in Hollywood; Lucas with two Star Wars movies (to that point), Spielberg with Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

What nobody anticipated was that these two men, along with star Harrison Ford, would rewrite the book on adventure movies. An homage to the great serial movies of the ’30s and ’40s, Indiana Jones, trusty whip on the hip and battered fedora on his head, took the world by storm. The first Indiana Jones movie was the box office champ of 1981 and spawned numerous imitators, clones and wanna-bes which persist to this day (Tomb Raider for instance).

But nobody has even come close to the entertainment delivered by the Indiana Jones series. The first movie of the series, set in the 1930s, introduces Indiana Jones, professor of archaeology and “how should I put it? — obtainer of rare antiquities.” An expedition to South America to retrieve a golden idol puts the tattered archaeologist through fiendish traps and less-than-loyal associates (Molina, in one of his first movie roles, meets a particularly gruesome end) to emerge from the cursed temple, idol in hand – only to have it snatched away by his nemesis, Rene Belloq (Freeman), a French archaeologist with fewer scruples than Indy.

Jones returns home to find Army intelligence waiting for him; they’ve intercepted a Nazi communiqué that is puzzling to them, but makes sense to Jones and his sponsor, museum curator Marcus Brody (Elliot); they realize that Hitler’s minions may be close to finding the resting place of the Lost Ark of the Covenant, which held the actual Ten Commandments Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. Realizing that this was something they had to prevent Hitler from obtaining, the Army sends Jones to go retrieve it.

In order to find the actual location of the Ark itself, Jones needs a staff headpiece that former flame Marion Ravenswood (Allen) has. After going to her bar in Tibet to try to retrieve it, he foils a Nazi attempt to take it by force.

The two head down to Egypt, where they are aided by Indy’s close friend Sallah (Rhys-Davies), who helps Indy divine the correct location. However, Belloq (who is working with the Nazis), manages to steal the Ark that Indy found and takes it and the girl to a remote island, with Indy close behind. There he will learn the secret of the Lost Ark, one that is beautiful and terrifying at once.

Raiders sets the tone as a virtual roller-coaster ride, putting Indy in one perilous situation after another, with little let-up. Spielberg proves himself to be an absolute master of pacing — editors Michael Kahn and George Lucas deserve a lot of credit here as well — knowing when to ratchet up the thrills and knowing when to give the audience a chance to catch its breath. Using devices common to serials and adventure movies from the ’30s and ’40s, Spielberg creates a wonderful sense of the era without forgetting the modern sensibilities of his audience.

The result is a movie that can legitimately be called a classic, one that has lost none of its luster in the 30 years since its release. While Star Wars made a star out of Ford, Raiders cemented him as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. His screen charisma is never put to as good use as it is here; Jones is both a traditional adventure hero but also a fallible one – he hates snakes and he has a penchant for getting beaten up. Unlike the heroes of past serials, Indy rarely fights fair – the scene of him shooting an expert swordsman who tries to intimidate him with a series of elaborate moves was both improvised and classic. The ability of the film and its actors to poke fun at traditional adventure movie clichés is part of what makes the movie great.

Personally, I was never a big fan of Karen Allen’s performance although I understand why people adore her. She was supposed to be a strong, bold woman of her era, able to drink big ol’ Nepalese under the table and a woman willing to stand up to the Nazis but at the end of the day she was just a heroine in jeopardy, waiting to be rescued by the hero while whining “Indyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy” as she does. The part was a little too schizophrenic for my liking, although it did set the tone for heroines for the rest of the series, for good or for ill.

Freeman made Belloq smooth, suave and pretty much forgettable. He was the more “reasonable” of the heroes, the dark side of Indiana Jones who allowed his own greed to become his driving force. It was the money that motivated Belloq, not the actual artifacts that he was after. Jones wanted the items that he found to be displayed in museums for everyone to enjoy; Belloq only wanted the payday. He makes an interesting contrast to Jones, but Freeman doesn’t have the charisma to really compete against Ford.

It is Lacey who is the villain most everyone remembers. As the eager Gestapo agent, he is both dangerous and disarming. He can torture a young woman with a red-hot poker, or lead a group of thugs to beat up a single aging archaeologist.

This remains to this day one of my favorite movies and I’m not alone in that regard – Raiders has everything that makes going to the movies fun. Even 30 years after the fact, it remains as fresh and fun as it did the day it came out. It is currently only available as part of a four-disc DVD set of the original trilogy which is kind of a shame because this deserves to be part of everyone’s home video collection and the prohibitive price of the multi-movie set may be out of reach for some. I don’t think Indiana Jones would approve of that kind of thinking, although Belloq might.

WHY RENT THIS: The perfect adventure movie. Harrison Ford shows why he’s one of the world’s biggest stars. A roller coaster ride from beginning to end, brilliantly paced.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenswood is a bit whiney.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some fairly scary images and a bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The name of the lead character was originally Indiana Smith, which was an homage to the Steve McQueen character Nevada Smith. The surname was changed to Jones on the first day of production.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: All of the special features on the DVD are on the fourth disc of the four-disc collection and include a massive Making of the Trilogy featurette that is more than two hours long and includes much behind the scenes footage. There are also featurettes on the stunt work, the music, the special effects and Ben Burtt’s amazing sound work. There is also a promo for the new (at the time) Indiana Jones video game.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $384M on an $18M production budget; the movie was a massive global blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Footnote