Rob Harmon’s Picks 03/04/14

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksThe final award may have been presented and the film industry done patting itself on the back – at least until next year – but let’s not close the book on 2013 just yet: one of the best movies of last year has generally escaped the acclaim that it deserves.

PRISONERS takes place in a rural, working class portion of Pennsylvania (though filmed in Georgia) and begins with an idyllic but creepy image: a man, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), whispers the Lord’s Prayer in voiceover while a doe wanders through the chilly woods. The camera pulls back until it reveals that the animal has stepped into the crosshairs of a young hunter, Keller’s teenaged son. Later, driving home with their quarry, Keller lectures his son on the idea of being prepared for disaster—any kind of disaster—and tells him that he is proud of him for felling the deer. This vaguely unsettling opening gives way to a small suburban neighborhood where two families, the Dovers (Jackman and Maria Bello) and their neighbors and friends, the Birchs (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), have gathered together for a Thanksgiving repast. The families’ two young girls play together, at times watched by the teenage children and at other times not. Unbeknownst to the families, though, there is a stranger in the neighborhood that day and, when the girls disappear, it sets off a frantic search for their whereabouts.

Police Det. David Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the first on the scene of a suspicious-looking RV which was spotted in the neighborhood earlier that day but it only turns up a mentally disabled young man Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who provides no further leads. However, when the police later release Alex and he is picked up by his aunt Holly (Melissa Leo), Keller attacks him and hears—or thinks that he hears—Alex whisper a cryptic message which may betray some guilt on his part. With time running out Keller must decide how far he will go to meet the needs of the coming disaster, and whether he would even go as far as torture to get his answers.

Prisoners is unique partly for its sense of creeping dread, a tone which is sustained over the course of two-and-a-half hours. The beautifully spare score is provided by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhansson while the meticulous, mesmerizing camera work comes courtesy of famed British cinematographer Roger Deakins (SID & NANCY, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and innumerable Coen Bros. films) who proves himself capable of wringing every imaginable shade of grey from the color palette. The camera seems to glide through Prisoners. At times the film seems like one slow, continuously probing tracking shot, endlessly zooming in on something too large to comprehend, a sort of omnipotent viewpoint which still, somehow, comes up frustratingly short. The movie looks as though it were filmed in some land permanently overcast and raining When undiluted light appears it is almost startling. Had Bergman been somehow coaxed into making SILENCE OF THE LAMBS it might have looked a little like Prisoners.

The acting in Prisoners is superb but special mention should be made of Melissa Leo, Maria Bello, Paul Dano, and Hugh Jackman, who is all pent-up rage and action, a tightly-strung bow on the verge of—and sometimes actually—exploding. Much has been made of Matthew McConaughey’s recent transformation in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB but not nearly enough of Jake Gyllenhaal’s into the tattooed, blue collar, potbellied Det. Loki. Loki is a strangely quiet, hulking, and ponderous sort of a creature, one whose uncanny instincts and occasional insights keep him just a half-step from cracking the case, yet whose bumbling humanity also drags him back, a mere half-step out of trouble’s way.

Prisoners is written by a relative newcomer, Aaron Guzikowski, and directed by Quebec native Villeneuve, who was responsible for 2010’s exceptional INCENDIES. With his assured direction of Prisoners, Villeneuve instantly places himself at the forefront of directors working today. The film provides many questions and no easy or pat answers.

Prisoners is an ideally brooding thriller for our present day. It can be a grueling affair: its central plot involving young children in peril as well as its scenes depicting torture can be difficult for anyone to stomach. However, there are moments of serene beauty to be found here, as well, and a taut plot full of well-thought-out, twisty, hairpin turns. Prisoners manages to be both sensitive and tough, depicting an array of characters in extreme moral crises—indeed, no one in this world seems capable of escaping them—but still hits the viewer like a punch in the gut.

New Releases 12/17/13

Top Hits
Elysium (sci-fi action, Matt Damon. Rotten Tomatoes: 69%. Metacritic: 61. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “Not since Charlton Heston struggled to save humanity from itself have movies looked this grimly, resolutely fatalistic. The man who was Moses began fighting the fantasy good fight in 1968, battling damn dirty apes in Planet of the Apes, before going on to face zombie hordes in Omega Man and an overpopulated nightmare in Soylent Green. [Psst: It’s people!] Heston may be gone, but the zombie hordes have kept coming, along with other new and unusual annihilating threats, and now it’s back to the dystopian future with Elysium, a cautionary shocker from the director Neill Blomkamp about a Hobbesian war of all against all from which only Matt Damon can save us.” Read more…)

Kick-Ass 2 (comic book action, Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Rotten Tomatoes: 29%. Metacritic: 41. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “There isn’t anything good to say about Kick-Ass 2, the even more witless, mirthless follow-up to Kick-Ass. Like the first movie, this one involves nerds who dress up as superheroes to fight crime. This setup once could have been read as an allegory for the tribulations endured by the presumptive audience for the comic-book series from which the movies sprang.” Read more…)

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (fantasy, Logan Lerman. Rotten Tomatoes: 39%. Metacritic: 39. From Andy Webster’s New York Times review: “Regrettably absent here is Catherine Keener [as Percy’s mother], though Nathan Fillion [another ‘Buffy’ alum], as Hermes, has amusing moments. Sea of Monsters is diverting enough — the director, Thor Freudenthal [Diary of a Wimpy Kid], is savvy with effects and keeps his young cast on point — but it doesn’t begin to approach the biting adolescent tension of the Harry Potter movies.” Read more…)

The Lone Ranger (Disney western, Johnny Depp. Rotten Tomatoes: 31%. Metacritic: 37. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “Someone in the Disney-Jerry Bruckheimer corporate suites has decided that today’s kids need their own version of the white-hat western hero with his laconic Indian sidekick, and so now we have The Lone Ranger, a very long, very busy movie that will unite the generations in bafflement, stupefaction and occasional delight. Directed by Gore Verbinski from a script credited to Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, the movie tries to do for the post-Civil-War frontier what the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise did for the high seas in the Age of Sail, turning history [including the history of movies] into a hyperactive, multipurpose amusement machine.” Read more…)

The Family (action comedy, Robert De Niro. Rotten Tomatoes: 29%. Metacritic: 44. From Stephen Holden’s New York Times review: “The style of the movie — directed by [Luc] Besson from a screenplay he wrote with Michael Caleo and adapted from Tonino Benacquista’s novel, Malavita — might be described as screwball noir. If there aren’t a lot of belly laughs, The Family stirs up an appalled amusement at its gleeful amorality.” Read more…)

Angels Sing (holiday drama, Harry Connick Jr. Rotten Tomatoes: 20%. Metacritic: 41. From Neil Genzlinger’s New York Times review: “Angels Sing is a music video disguised as a holiday movie, populated by musicians disguised as actors. It’s as thinly written and unoriginal as made-for-television seasonal filler, and why it isn’t on the Hallmark Channel or Lifetime is a mystery, but fans of the singers in it might get a kick out of seeing them.” Read more…)

Drinking Buddies (rom-com, Anna Kendrick. Rotten Tomatoes: 82%. Metacritic: 71. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From A.O. Scott’s Times review: “In a different kind of movie — or rather, in the same old kind of movie the Hollywood studios have been churning out, usually in February, for the past decade or so — the Michigan high jinks would commence a crescendo of complications leading to a predictable happy ending. But Drinking Buddies, Joe Swanberg’s nimble, knowing and altogether excellent new film, refuses to dance to the usual tune. Drinking Buddies is funny and sweet enough to qualify as a romantic comedy, except that the phrase implies a structure as well as an attitude. The genre depends on tidy mathematics, a calculus of desire that produces the same result every time. Mr. Swanberg, a prolific investigator of the makeshift mores of the young, prefers a kind of fractal geometry, leaving room for contingency, confusion and randomness in his search for emotional and behavioral truth.” Read more…)

Prisoners (thriller, Jake Gyllenhaal. Rotten Tomatoes: 81%. Metacritic: 74. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “But if Prisoners, written by Aaron Guzikowski, upholds some of the conventions of the angry-dad revenge drama, it also subverts them in surprising, at times devastating ways. The easy catharsis of righteous payback is complicated at every turn, and pain and uncertainty spread like spilled oil on an asphalt road.” Read more…)

Sightseers (comedy, Alice Lowe. Rotten Tomatoes: 85%. Metacritic: 69. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “Nasty, brutish and mercifully short, the woozy comedy Sightseers tells the tale of two ordinary British eccentrics who initially bring to mind the gargoyles, both amusing and alarming, that populate Mike Leigh movies. A droopy, passive-aggressive frowner, Tina [Alice Lowe], lives with her hectoring mother, Carol [Eileen Davies], in a house crammed with kitsch and collectibles, many dog-themed and portraying a beloved, recently deceased terrier. It’s the kind of domestic horror show that certain British filmmakers either mock or sentimentalize, and which the British director Ben Wheatley [Down Terrace] takes to with a very heavy, very unforgiving ax.” Read more…)

Man of Tai Chi (martial arts action, Keanu Reeves. Rotten Tomatoes: 71%. Metacritic: 53.)
Night Train to Lisbon (thriller, Jeremy Irons. Rotten Tomatoes: 33%. Metacritic: 30.)
The Secret Village (horror/thriller, Jonathan Bennett)

New Blu-Ray
The Lone Ranger
Kick-Ass 2
Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters
The Family

New Foreign
Chicken with Plums (France, comedy/drama, Mathieu Amalric. Rotten Tomatoes: 73%. Metacritic: 70. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “Graphic novels, at their best, do whatever they want; movies, all too often, do what they think they are supposed to do. No artist is freer than one with a good story and a sufficient supply of paper and ink, and the graphic-novel form, as it has evolved over the last two decades — to encompass memoir, history and eyewitness journalism — is bracingly unconstrained by visual or narrative convention. It is not surprising that some of the most interesting films in recent years have tried to capture that freedom. Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s brilliant 2007 adaptation of Ms. Satrapi’s two-volume autobiographical work, certainly fits into that category. And so does their new movie, Chicken With Plums, based on Ms. Satrapi’s book of the same title.” Read more…)

New Television
Shameless: Season 3
Justified: Season 4

New Documentaries
Red Obsession (wine market, economics, Russell Crowe. Rotten Tomatoes: 95%. Metacritic: 68. From Nicole Herrington’s New York Times review: “With the fierce purchasing power of its elite class, China has become the biggest importer of wines from the Bordeaux region of France. The tension generated by these new kids on the clubby French wine scene — who were driving up prices and clearing out cellars just a few years ago — is the subject of Warwick Ross and David Roach’s fast-paced, ripped-from-the-headlines documentary, Red Obsession.” Read more…)