Tag: jake gyllenhaal

Wildlife


Wildlife (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Upon meeting the Brinsons, we cannot help but to get the impression they are the typical happy, middle-class American family: there is warm food on the table; every member is laughing or smiling; sports announcements are being broadcasted on the radio. But by the end of this story, based upon the novel of the same by Richard Ford and adapted to the screen by Paul Dano (who directs) and Zoe Kazan, the Brinsons as a unit have all but collapsed. Although the story takes place in 1960, echoes from the past reverberate to our modern times with stunning puissance because the work’s strength lies in specificity and details. I think those who have experienced divorce—as adults who were once married or as children whose parents decided to separate—will find a number of honesty and truths in “Wildlife,” a terrific debut film about change.

The fulcrum of the story is seen through the eyes of the son. He has an ordinary name, Joe, and he is portrayed with quiet power by Ed Oxenbould. Joe does not say much, but his actions communicate that he loves his mother, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), and father, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), that he is gentle, observant, and gears in his brain are always rotating. He seems innocent, but we know precisely what he is thinking and/or feeling when there is sudden silence between arguing parents, when father is fired from a job he excels at and enjoys, the implications that come when mother suggests that maybe it would help the family if she took on a part-time job. Oxenbould emotes in an inward manner—precisely the correct approach in a heavy drama like this one. Not once does Joe cry, but we can hear him screaming on the inside.

Like Joe, the remaining three important characters are never defined by one thing that they say or do. When Jerry decides to take on a menial and low-paying job involving putting out forest fires, we are forced to wonder why. The director, coupled with Gyllenhaal’s thoughtful performance, ensures we know enough about the character to be able to put the pieces together. In my eyes, Jerry has an idea of what it is like to be a man: the breadwinner, the provider, the one who sacrifices every bit of himself for his family. When one aspect of his definition is taken from him, he feels a part of himself has been ripped away. He has no purpose and so he goes up to the burning mountains to find it. To him, this is a sacrifice that must be done.

But for Jeanette, to leave is an act of selfishness. Mulligan’s face is so expressive, she wears at least three emotions in every scene she’s in: what her character wants others to see, what she really feels, and her subconscious wants and needs. Here is a woman who feels she has done all that she could to be supportive of her husband whose nature is to run when life becomes challenging. Although we see the story unfold from Joe’s perspective, an argument can be made Jeanette is the most complex out of everybody.

It is reductive to say that Jeanette is tired of being poor. Yes, on some level, she is. After all, she eventually goes after a man who is wealthy even though he is twice her age (Bill Camp). But I take it a bit further. I think Jeanette is tired of being disappointed; that no matter what she does, she cannot change the very nature of the man she married. In her mind, she is a fighter in important ways that he is not. She regrets to have overlooked this fact prior to marriage. Or it’s possible she thought she could fix him somehow. And so when her husband leaves, she seizes the opportunity to break free from the shackles of having to be let down yet again.

Intensely character-driven, “Wildlife” is a film for intelligent and thoughtful viewers. You get what you put into it; it is required that you look characters in the eye and consider how they think or feel given a set of details that the screenwriters provide. No blame is placed; it is not necessary. There are no easy solutions. There are, however, repercussions for actions taken. The ending works as a litmus test on whether you see the glass as half-full or half-empty.

Zodiac


Zodiac (2007)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A deliberate sidestepping of overt action is the strategy director David Fincher employs in “Zodiac,” a true crime thriller surrounding the hunt for the Zodiac killer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area from 1969 to 1971. Highly intelligent, meticulous, and efficient, at times the picture embodies the texture of a documentary in the way it dares to break away from the expected plot and dramatic parabola. What matters is information, how it is presented, and what conclusions, if any, can be drawn from them. What results is a film for a select audience: those who are tickled by the act of looking through a microscope and noting the beautiful, horrifying, surprising details of a specimen. It is not for viewers who wish to be entertained by ostentatious shootouts and car crashes where the bad guy drops dead in the final act. In fact, the climax consists simply of two people looking at each other in the eye, denoting common understanding.

Observe its use of violence. It is rapid, matter-of-fact, making a point to show how excruciating it is to get stabbed and shot. Notice how slow motion is used. Attention is not at the point of contact between weapon and flesh—as horror films tend to do—but on facial expressions of the victims. There is no score playing in the background when a person is being assaulted or murdered which makes the whimpering, the crying, the begging for help all the more deafening. Take note, too, how the victims’ desperation can be felt even after killing ends. The violence is meant to be ugly, traumatizing, and sad. Our sympathy is always with the injured or dying person, never the killer. These are designed precisely so that we wish for the Zodiac to get caught—even though we already know he never was.

The picture is an excellent procedural that brings to mind Alan J. Pakula’s “All the President’s Men.” We follow three men who dare to stare into the eyes of evil: San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), and SF police inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo). We experience their day-to-day interactions with colleagues; following—sometimes overstepping—rules and regulations; wrestling with bureaucracy. There is excitement in the rhythm of their workspaces. Downey Jr., Gyllenhaal, and Ruffalo deliver terrific, naturalistic performances. They have a habit of inviting us to question what it is they are thinking at any given moment.

Evil stares right back at these figures, however, and we watch their lives unravel throughout the course of twenty-two years: erosion of one’s physical and mental health, deteriorating relationships with family, coming to terms with one’s limitations as an investigator. There is a sense of surrender during the last third in particular. So many years have passed, people who were most enthusiastic to catch the killer then now just want to move on. Even the person who chooses to carry on the torch is forced to wonder at times whether his actions are still worth it. These are characters worth following not only because they are good at their jobs, getting to the truth is who they are.

Despite numerous details surrounding each murder (especially intriguing are scenes that allow us to walk a crime scene), handwritten letters that the Zodiac sent to newspapers, a dozen witness accounts, and endless paper trails, the labyrinthine mystery is told with urgency and clarity. For example, the screenplay by James Vanderbilt does not simply tell us that a partial set of fingerprints from an otherwise extremely cautious murderer is important. It shows how it is important and why. When a piece of evidence is presented, the astute and patience writing makes a point of relating the information to the bigger picture and so we always have an appreciation of the investigation. Does a seemingly reliable evidence make sense? How so? The film wishes to engage rather than spoon-feed us.

The picture is not without a sense of humor. In between gruesome deaths and barrage of possible case-breaking information are moments of exhalation: a date gone wrong (or gone right—depending on how one looks at it), police stations not having fax machines yet and so urgent files must be sent via snail mail, a character’s obsession with animal crackers, among many others. These did not need to be in the movie—and yet they are. Fincher wishes for us to be so invested into this world that he is able to find humor amidst terrifying events. Nearly every single change in tone is pulled off beautifully.

Spider-Man: Far from Home


Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

If there was a “Spider-Man” picture that befits an overwhelming amount of special and visual effects, “Spider-Man: Far from Home” is it considering the fact that the main antagonist, Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), specializes in creating the most convincing illusions. But those searching for a compelling and mature narrative should look elsewhere, especially since this chapter is right on the heels of a certain character’s death who was particularly close to Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland). Instead, the material focuses on a more convenient route: Peter’s numerous struggles during a science trip across Europe to find the courage to tell MJ (Zendaya) he is interested in her romantically. An argument can be made that this installment, directed by Jon Watts, is a romantic comedy down to its marrow. Missed opportunities abound.

The school trip is forced and unfunny, interminable, a chore to sit through because the actors themselves look bored with what they’ve been handed. While Holland’s boyish charm is consistently on an eleven, matched by Zendaya’s effortless allure as the sarcastic romantic interest, even he is unable to save a tired screenplay from feeling fresh. There are two or three instances when Peter, finally, acknowledges the untimely death of the man he looked up to on several levels and these are the shining moments of the film because the emotions are raw, immediate. It feels right that the mourning must be purged somehow. On top of this, it shows that Holland is a dramatic performer first and foremost—that once he retires the Spider-Man suit, he can have a career with longevity. The writing is not equal to its lead’s obvious potential.

It is a shame, too, because the villain is still interesting this time around. In “Homecoming,” the audience is made to understand and empathize with the man behind the Vulture persona. Here, Mysterio has an excellent point when he claims that a person can be the smartest man or woman in the room but without flair or theatrics he or she is likely to be ignored. Qualifications and experience don’t matter next to someone else who is simply loud or obnoxious. If that isn’t a critique of our society in this day and age, I don’t know what is. This is a fascinating character because he desires what most people desire: to be seen, to be recognized, to be regarded as important. Gyllenhaal knows that he must ground a character whose actions may across as narcissistic and megalomaniacal.

The action sequences bored me. There is not a single one that pushed me to lean a little closer to the screen. Particularly uninspired is final showdown in London. Spider-Man finds himself attempting to destroy countless drones before any one of them gets a chance to shoot him. It is extremely frustrating to sit through because one gets the feeling that the screenwriters, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, have forgotten to show the viewers why the protagonist having to sift through hordes of small robots is actually interesting. There is fifteen to twenty minutes worth of acrobatics and every second feels empty. It is obvious, too, which shots are CGI. One isn’t required to try to be able to recognize them; maybe it’s because the filmmakers didn’t try either. I felt no weight or real danger during the action scenes. I looked at my watch twice.

Although not without its charms, it is clear “Spider-Man: Far from Home” is an inferior sequel. Just because Peter Parker is still a teenager does not mean that his story should remain light and silly. It can still offer funny moments of awkward teenagers simply trying to find themselves. And it should; it is highly appropriate in this version of Spider-Man. But the more daring and wiser choice would have been to tackle head-on the sadness our hero feels for losing a father-figure, a colleague, a mentor with whom he deeply respected. Learning to deal with loved ones who passed is a part of growing up, too.

Velvet Buzzsaw


Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Dan Gilroy’s “Velvet Buzzsaw” is a frustrating mix of satire and supernatural horror—riotously funny at its best, soporific and pedestrian at its worst. The reason is because the screenplay’s connective tissue between comedy and terror is, for the most part, malnourished. As it vacillates from one end to the other, like staring at a metronome, the longer we look at the images, a sense of surrender can be detected—the antithesis of an experience that is meant to grab you. The film suffers from a lack of urgency which is the very element that the smartest, wittiest, and most creative comedies and horror films possess. It is a misfire of a black comedy.

Personas to be skewered have found a career in the art world, from receptionists, gallery owners, representatives of buyers, the artist themselves, down to the punctilious critics whose reviews can not only make or break a show, they can determine the artists’ future. The story revolves around three central figures: Morf the critic (Jake Gyllenhaal), Josephina the receptionist (Zawe Ashton), and Rhodora (Rene Russo) the gallery owner. Each has a unique perspective about what art is, the perception surrounding the art, and the art business. These figures are not meant to be liked but they must be interesting throughout. But I saw nothing else to their deadpan shallowness. Perhaps a director of Robert Altman’s caliber, for instance, might have done something more interesting.

Although the performers prove they are willing to try anything to get a reaction from the audience (Gyllenhaal and Toni Collette are standouts), at times I found myself turning out from the histrionics and wondered, for example, about the costume and wardrobe department’s inspiration regarding the type of clothing each character wears—the colors, the patterns, the instructions on how they must be worn or carried. When the clothes have more intrigue than the characters, there is a problem. It should not be this way when watching a first-rate satire since the sub-genre is a critique of ourselves. The story may take place in the art world, but it must say something about us, especially those who may not be a part of the sphere being examined.

Scenes that are supposed to be creepy or scary are neither. CGI involving paint dripping off the canvas and attacking people is ludicrous and laughable. (For some reason, the paint cannot be felt as it moves up one’s body.) Figures depicted on sketches or paintings suddenly moving their eyes or facial expressions are generic. Cue the sinister score and jump scares like clockwork. At times I felt like I was watching a horror film made in the early 2000s when just about every horror movie wants to try to use computers in order to create convincing visual effects. The irony is that although these effects are meant to create life-like illusions, in actuality, the more they are utilized the less convincing the overall experience becomes. As is the case here. Notice that as the writing wanes, characters exploring dark corners becomes more prevalent.

I get it: “Velvet Buzzsaw” wishes to comment on the soullessness of the art world. Still, the film itself should create an experience that is neither bland nor blasé. Just because the art world is shallow and pretentious does not mean that the work should render itself blind to the humanity of its subjects. It takes the easy way out one too many times.

There is a point in the film when a woman is brutally murdered in a gallery. Her body is found by people who open the building—and they do not know much about art. It is assumed that the corpse, the puddles blood on the floor, and blood spatters on walls are all part of the exhibit. Visitors come in and out of the gallery. They, too, assume it is all for show. It isn’t until hours later when someone who is actually familiar with the pieces immediately realizes that something is terribly wrong. If only the picture functioned on this level throughout the near interminable two-hour running time.

Nocturnal Animals


Nocturnal Animals (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

Tom Ford’s second feature commands the necessary control and excellent timing to create a dramatic crime-thriller that is enigmatic but engaging, entertaining yet can also function as a metaphor for what it means to experience a loss. For a good stretch of “Nocturnal Animals,” based on the novel “Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright, it is like standing on a precipice and in front us are portals to different realities. For about three to five minutes, we get a chance to peer into these portals and most impressive is that every one of them is compelling despite each one commanding a different feel or tone.

It is a most exciting work that might have benefited from having a running time of three hours—or perhaps longer. Notice that the third act feels somewhat rushed, despite a perfect-pitch final scene, and the characters we have come to know—whether he or she be a person from the past, a protagonist from a book, or the character with whom we define the story with—reach resolutions that feel forced rather than the material taking its time to present to us a more fluid next step or fate. Some movies deserve to be told in a slow, particular way. This film belongs in that category.

The screenplay is efficient with its characters. Most surprising to me is in how Ford handles the introduction of Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a gallery owner who, at first glance, seems to have everything one could possibly want: excessive wealth, expensive clothes, a palatial home, a career in which she is in power, a good-looking partner (Armie Hammer). But notice how the director underlines the emptiness of luxury. Susan does not interact with her clothes nor does she seem to enjoy wearing them. She looks good in them, but a closer inspection reveals she is more like a mannequin than someone who appreciates or loves what she has on. When she walks around her living space, silence is deafening. There is no laughter or silly conversations heard from a few feet away. Shadows dominate every corner. It is like being in a museum. No one speaks above more than a few decibels. Even her husband seems annoyed with her, certainly neglectful of her needs.

There is a sadness to Susan that is fascinating and we wonder if she will be able to claw her way out of her silent desperation. I already know Adams is a supremely skillful performer, capable to communicating paragraphs with silence. Here, I was impressed with how she relishes every scene she is in. We can feel her character always thinking, evaluating—even when Susan is lost in her thoughts. It is an intelligent, calculated performance and without such a strong core, the picture might have fallen over its own ambitions. The story after all, takes place in the present, the past, and a fictional (or is it?) universes. Susan receives the manuscript for a novel her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) had written. She finds it to be such a page-turner, she doesn’t get any sleep. I was right there with her; I craved to know what would happen next. Will justice be served cold in West Texas?

“Nocturnal Animals,” I think, is about grieving people. Notice that each fleshed out character is unhappy about his or her life, that the life she now has is the life he never wanted to have. The common theme is that life has a cruel sense of humor sometimes. And that bitter ending may not work for a lot of people but it is loyal to the film’s central ideas. Clearly, the film is made by an artist who values making a point over making the audience feel good. But I feel good when an artist delivers what is necessary to leave a lasting impression.

Life


Life (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

As someone who works with microorganisms, the sci-fi horror movie “Life,” directed by Daniel Espinosa, is an expected but most welcome surprise. Think about it: there is something innately creepy or unsettling about dealing with something alive, potentially harmful, that we cannot see with a naked eye. This picture takes advantage of that concept for as long as it is able. Clearly inspired by Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic “Alien,” similarly crew members with a sense of humor who share a certain camaraderie being forced to face unimaginable horrors in space following a discovery of alien life, it manages to hit the right notes consistently enough to overcome some of the clichés within the sub-genre, particularly in how just about each astronaut eventually undergoes a most gruesome demise.

Initially, I was unimpressed. For a sci-fi picture set in a space station with an ambition to create as realistic an environment as possible, I found it to be annoyingly loud and ostentatious. Compare this to greats of the genre, especially alongside Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The harder it tries to engage the audience through visuals and sounds, an the air of detachment is all the more amplified. “Odyssey” works because it simply shows what is while this film tries to appeal to what we imagine science fiction should be like rather than a set, settled reality. Further, the former relishes the quiet but the latter is afraid of it at times. As a result, I felt as though I were peering into a snow globe—curious but in the back of my mind a part of me wasn’t entirely convinced.

Equally bothersome during the first quarter is its inappropriate use and number of closeups. When there is a fascinating organism on screen, most of the attention should be on that creature. We already have an idea how everyone in the room must feel like—because we feel those similar emotions, too. There is no need to cut to the performers’ facial expressions every other two seconds (Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya). Doing so takes away some of the excitement and breeds frustration. We want to see what is on that petri dish and learn what it is capable of.

Eventually, however, the film proves capable of first-rate entertainment. The first attack by the extraterrestrial made me question my own safety, despite wearing personal protective equipment, when handling minuscule organisms. I admired how efficiently the camera traps us into an increasingly impossible situation as the biologist (Bakare) handles the life form in a containment cube. The editing commands a certain rhythm to it that makes us want to look away because it is built up in such a way that some thing is about to occur soon… yet we cannot help but stare wide-eyed since we crave to see what happens next. The early deaths are appropriately horrifying and creative. The camera lingers on their lifeless faces.

The look of the alien is inspired. I enjoyed how it reminded me of deep-sea jellyfish. It does not appear particularly solid but has convincing strength when it pounces on its prey. It looks translucent, but it is highly agile and versatile. Credit goes to the writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick for putting to life a creature that is intelligent, a real threat to the increasingly desperate characters. And credit goes to the special and visual effects team for creating a convincing monster, not just another uninspired CGI monster-of-the-week with tentacles.

Nightcrawler


Nightcrawler (2014)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Standing out almost immediately in “Nightcrawler,” written and directed by Dan Gilroy, is the way nighttime hovers like a thick gloom in downtown Los Angeles—beautiful, curious, eerie, and dangerous all rolled into one vivid dream of a filmmaker with a keen eye for not only what looks good on screen but also how certain images, framed just right, can allow the audience to feel or think a certain way. In this sense, the picture is an achievement in presentation and execution. It is made for people who crave looking closely at things, just like the main character played exceedingly well by Jake Gyllenhaal.

Louis Bloom comes across a traffic accident after being told that he is not a person worth hiring long-term because he is a thief. What catches his eye is not the accident itself but the man holding a camera at the scene, filming every bit of detail that might be considered profitable. Louis learns that such footages can be sold to news stations. The more intense or important a footage, the higher the pay. Louis hopes to cash in.

The film is about a man driven by an obsession. However, it does not mean that Louis can easily be classified as a Freak-of-the-Week just because we can almost always guess correctly which course of action he intends to take given a high-risk, high-yield opportunity. One might argue that he is driven by money while others might claim he craves fame. Some might say he has found a passion but the need to sustain it has gone to an extreme that we wonder if it is unhealthy. There is evidence supporting all of these hypotheses.

What is so interesting is how Gyllenhaal monitors his character’s responses like clockwork that it is almost Hitchcockian. Louis appears very calm most of the time that even the more intense events do not invoke a reaction out of him. I wondered if he had SPD—schizoid personality disorder—and, if so, to what extent the disorder has taken over throughout the course of the picture. Or maybe from the moment we meet him, the condition is already established and no true character arc is ever truly captured. When his character does react, it is more like watching an implosion—so quiet but deafening in its power.

One is likely to read statements that watching the film requires a lot of patience. I’m not entirely certain if such a disclaimer is accurate. While the writer-director is confident enough to take the time and allow the scenes to unfold, there is great entertainment in the escalation of tension.

Particularly suspenseful is when Louis creeps up the driveway of an affluent family, enters the mansion, then comes across a crime scene that is dangerous and disturbing. I caught myself shuffling in my seat because it felt like at any second, everything could go terribly wrong. Louis may be unlikable or downright detestable, his actions may be morally gray or lacking morals completely, but one thing is certain: I did not want him to get punished or, worse, “learn a lesson”—a tired avenue that has been traversed so many times, it’s worse than stale.

“Nightcrawler” is well-acted, paced in such a way that we cannot help but be curious at what is happening and what is going to happen, and photographed with a confidence that we feel we are experiencing the filmmaker’s vision raw. It takes a lot of risks with its character, subject, and scope but just about every decision feels right for the material. I am always on the lookout for movies that will or should be remembered decades from now. “Nightcrawler” may belong in one or both categories.

Enemy


Enemy (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Sitting in the faculty lounge, a colleague (Joshua Peace) asks Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal), a history professor, if he likes going to the movies. The question leads to gloomy Adam being given a recommendation, a film called “Where There’s a Will There’s a Way,” and he later goes to rent it, hoping that a light movie will cheer him up. After having seen it, he goes to bed. There is something about it that he found intriguing. So he turns on the laptop, jumps to a particular scene, and watches it closely. He hits the pause button. There is a man there, playing a bellhop, who looks exactly like him.

Based on the novel by José Saramago and adapted to the screen by Javier Gullón, “Enemy” is an ambitious picture about a man who finds his double but it is a big disappointment because it has very little output. Its laziest attribute is relying on enigmatic images—a giant spider hovering over the city, visions or memories bleeding into one another, an underground sex show—to try to keep our attention. It promises but never delivers on an intellectual, emotional, or psychological level. Thus, despite its short running time of ninety minutes, it is an experience to be endured.

What is the first thing you do when you find evidence that there is another you out there? You tell other people—your friends, your family, your partner. But not Adam. He continues to sulk in his dark apartment and tries to convince himself that what is happening is really not. This makes him boring and difficult to relate with. He is supposed to be our compass throughout the increasingly surreal and bizarre experience, but the material fails to make him accessible. This is a critical miscalculation.

The contrast between Adam and his double offers nothing new. We expect them to have opposite personalities. Indeed, they do. We expect them to lead completely different lifestyles. That they do, too. One tends to hunch, the other stands up straight. The problem is, aside from the occasional surrealistic imagery, the screenplay offers nothing surprising in terms of human element. Must they be complete opposites? There is no anchor to keep the story attached to something we can believe in without question. As a result, the material becomes increasingly dull, dry, and predictable.

There is some form of web that is supposed to keep the picture together. Right from the beginning, I knew exactly what it was doing: planting the seeds for that big, mental “Oh!” once the screen cuts to black and the credits start rolling. How do I know? When the camera goes for a close-up and remains still, you can bet that what is being said is important. Director Denis Villeneuve needs to learn a thing or two about how to treat subtlety like silk, not a sledgehammer. Experienced and intelligent viewers will not—or should not—fall for the typical trappings of the genre. That is what angers me most—it is painfully ordinary in its execution that it ends up not giving the material justice.

A surprising number of people like to defend movies like this. They say things like, “If you look more into it after it’s over, it’s all going to make sense” or “You have to see it multiple times to look for clues!” Stop right there.

A successful movie, one that has reached its full potential, speaks for itself. It does not require to be researched or to be seen a hundred times so that the viewer can get a complete comprehension of what he or she had just seen. Watching a movie is not a homework assignment. When filmmakers treat it as such, they need to go back to film school and learn the basics.

Prisoners


Prisoners (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

The Dovers and the Birchs hold a little get-together over Thanksgiving, but what should have been a peaceful and enjoyable holiday turns into a nightmare when the two young girls from each family go missing. The prime suspect is a teenager named Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who is later discovered to have an IQ of a ten-year-old, because the girls are seen climbing on his RV a few hours prior to their disappearance. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) interviews the suspect but since no viable information can be extracted out of him, he is released after two days. This does not sit well with Keller (Hugh Jackman). He is convinced that Alex is involved somehow and if the police are unable to do their job, he is more than happy to take action.

“Prisoners,” written by Aaron Guzikowski and directed by Denis Villeneuve, has the right texture and atmosphere to tell a grim dramatic thriller, but it is bogged down by an overlong running time—clocking in at around two hours and thirty minutes—and it has very few reasons to do so. Instead of being a lean and mean piece of work, we are made to sit through repetitive scenes involving torture. As a result, the middle part sags and drags. It might have been more effective if there was an extended torture scene that took place in one room and allowed us to absorb the horror of watching someone get beaten until he was black and blue, broken bones and all—at once.

Some might argue that one hundred and fifty minutes is justified to tell the story because it allows us to feel the exhaustion and frustration of the characters. I am not convinced. If this were a more efficient picture with smarts and gusto, it would have found alternative avenues to communicate the psychological breakdown of its main players sans jumping back and forth to Keller forcing Alex to give up information that he may or may not have.

For example, I would not have minded if the material if had spent more time exploring the other parents’ states of mind. The matriarchs (Viola Davis, Maria Bello) are underused. Davis is given more to do by allowing Nancy to react to certain discoveries, but Bello’s character, Grace, does nothing but cry. Franklin (Terrence Howard), Nancy’s husband, would have been a great supporting foil for Keller but his role is greatly diminished about halfway through. I felt the screenplay struggling to juggle its characters—all deserving of complexity and attention given its fascinating subject matter.

Although Jackman has the more ostentatious role as an increasingly angry father (and he is very good at it), it is Gyllenhaal that shines in my eyes. I enjoyed watching the little ticks the actor has chosen to incorporate to his performance. Detective Loki looks very tired, almost unhappy, but I believed it when he is said to have solved every case he has ever been assigned. The man may take a while to connect the dots but he is very determined and willing to look into all logical possibilities of the case. Because Keller and Loki have opposite temperaments, their consistent clashing is interesting and I wondered to what degree their relationship will change over the course of the film.

We get many remakes of foreign films these days—a significant percentage of them not very impressive. However, I am most interested to see how this story can be interpreted by a French, German, Iranian, or Japanese cast and director. I want to see an interpretation that is less in-your-face and more contemplative. Here, the majority of the emotions are handled with an exclamation point. Subtlety is not the picture’s strength despite a memorable final shot.

End of Watch


End of Watch (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Officer Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) is attending a film class as an elective so he chooses to document the every day happenings as an LAPD cop even though some of his fellow officers and superior do not like the idea. They think it is a liability waiting to happen as well as a distraction from the job. Unaware that a cartel is forming in South Central, when Officer Taylor and his partner, Officer Zavala (Michael Peña), end up arresting a man carrying multiple wads of cash hidden in soup and a golden firearm underneath the seat of a truck, it is an act similar to shaking a hornet’s nest. The drug cartel’s kingpin puts a price on their heads.

What makes “End of Watch,” written and directed by David Ayer, stand out from yet another film that chooses a hand-held camera style as a conceit to tell its story is its keen attention on the partnership between two characters. And although it has shootings that are expected in cop dramas, they hold an excitement every time because we learn and come to understand what it is at stake for the duo. While they do embody certain stereotypes, mainly cops relishing to command a level of power, they are neither defined nor limited by our expectations.

The chemistry between Peña and Gyllenhaal is a very necessary element that must be done just right in order to be believable. During down times, the two officers share a partnership that is more brotherly than professional. Their conversations in the patrol car quickly come to mind, ranging from the clichés of dating a white woman versus a Mexican woman to seeking each other’s advice about romantic relationships. Conversely, when the they find themselves in the middle of the action, their focus is on the job and yet there is an active attempt to maintain their connection. They keep each other in check just in case one gets too caught up in the moment or his own thoughts. It is expertly communicated that being a cop is as much as an internal battle as it is an external one.

The film put me through a roller coaster of emotions. It is admirable how the funny exchanges are intercut with scenes that hold genuine suspense, sadness, and horror. It is a scary reminder of the reality with which some people live. The image of an infant and a toddler with duct tape around their mouths and limbs because their drug-addicted parents cannot tolerate the crying shook me to the core. This scene, and others similar to it that are best left to be discovered and experienced, is allowed to unravel in a slow and calculated manner until the inevitable horror is reached.

A hindrance is the generous jumping of perspective. There is a noticeable disruption in momentum when a prior scene is through a cop’s eyes and the next that of a gangster’s. While the latter’s world is also very interesting, it might have been better off if the writer-director had not employed the hand-held camera style when they are front and center. There is much talk about needing “respect,” but we do not get to know them as much as Officers Taylor and Zavala.

“End of Watch” scrubs the glamour off policing. It may not have introduced situations I have not already seen but it creates a level of excitement tiers above similar pictures that are louder, badder, and ultimately emptier.

Source Code


Source Code (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a soldier assigned in Afghanistan, woke up in a stranger’s body in a Chicago commuter train in front of Christina (Michelle Monaghan), a woman he never met but who seemed to know him. Later, he found out that he was a part of a military experimental technology, led by Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), and his assignment was to find the identity of the man or woman who triggered the bomb on the doomed train earlier that day. Everyone on the train was already dead and it included the body Colter inhabited. Each time he failed, his day started all over again as if he was imprisoned in a “Twilight Zone” episode. Written by Ben Ripley and directed by Duncan Jones, “Source Code” was relatively small in scope but its ambitions were grand. It had a plethora of exciting ideas about what it meant to be in a specific reality: Is the reality what was outside our bodies or was it within? Metaphysics aside, Gyllenhaal was very convincing as a conflicted soldier who didn’t sign up for the mission he was given. Initially, I found it bothersome that he was reluctant in performing his mission. He let his emotions get in way too often instead of focusing to come up with ways to narrow down his suspects. Inevitably, he failed multiple times and we found ourselves back in square one. Eventually, I realized that his defiance of authority was the point. His neglect in following orders allowed us to see his humanity and what was really important to him Ultimately, he went through with the mission not because he was simply told to do it but because he cared about the many more lives that might be in danger due to the high possibility that the bomber will strike again. There was a difference between a mindless drone and a good soldier. Moreover, I was surprised that the film relied heavily on romance. Even though the scenes of Colter and Christina were pretty much the same, as the picture went on, there was a clear change in the protagonist and it was more than enough for us to be convinced that the feelings they had for each other was real. It was also interesting to see Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), Colter’s guide between the real and computerized world, weigh the pros and cons of the program she was given the chance to control. There was no doubt that the program was genius, even revolutionary, but that brilliance required serious ethical and moral sacrifices. Fast-paced and full of twists and turns, “Source Code” had creative ideas but it never felt insular. Combined with Jones’ confident direction and given that we’re willing to take a leap of faith with regards to the advanced technology, it almost felt grounded in reality.

Love and Other Drugs


Love and Other Drugs (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

Charming sales representative Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) was fired from his job because his manager caught him having sex with a woman, who happened to be the manager’s girlfriend, at their work place. Belonging in a family with connections, Jamie didn’t stay unemployed for long. Jamie’s brother (Josh Gad) almost immediately snagged him a job as a pharmaceutical representative for Pfizer. While Jamie was busy handing out drug samples to various clinics, he met Maggie (Anne Hathaway), a woman inflicted with Parkinson’s disease. At first, it seemed like what Jamie and Maggie had was like any other one-night stand both of them were accustomed to. Eventually, they had to face the fact that maybe their relationship was heading somewhere deeper than they had expected. Based on a book by Jamie Reidy and directed by Edward Zwick, “Love and Other Drugs” was borderline unlikable because I almost found it pretentious yet eager to please. Let’s take the scenes that involved nudity. First and foremost, it felt nothing but a gimmick to attract younger people to go see the movie. The movie showed breasts and buttocks. Everything else was strategically hidden either by another body part or a nicely placed camera angle. It was distracting. Instead of being in the moment, I ended up thinking about its techniques’ false progressiveness. I have no problem with nudity, so if the filmmakers were to have a dozen scenes that ranged from meaningless sex to making love, they should be fearless in going all the way and leaving commercial reservations out the door. Instead, there was an awkward feel to the film. I had a feeling that it wanted to be a mix of an art house drama and a very commercial romantic comedy and it was neither. To a lesser degree, there were some scenes that I thought needed to be reshot because there were times when the acting felt disingenuous, especially by Hathaway. I’m not sure if she felt uncomfortable or she was just trying too hard. Either way, it didn’t feel natural. But the picture had bright spots. I appreciated the smaller and quieter moments like when Maggie asked Jamie to name four positive things about him. He couldn’t do it and there was a sadness that permeated from the screen. Some people just don’t know what they offer the world and that’s unfortunate. Another standout was when the film showed us how Maggie was really like without the drugs that masked her condition. It was a true turning point for the two lovers. “Love and Other Drugs” was like all pills: It had positive qualities but it also had pesky side effects. If it had trimmed its running time by getting rid of most scenes that involved the annoying brother and Jamie sweet-talking his way into women’s panties (we get it–he’s a stud), its heart would have been more defined.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time


Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

Three Persian princes (Jake Gyllenhaal, Richard Coyle, Toby Kebbell) invaded a holy city protected by a princess named Tamina (Gemma Arterton) because their royal intelligence led them to believe that the city provided weapons to Persia’s enemies. In truth, the false information was created and spread because someone wanted a special dagger that had the ability to turn back time. Based on the video game of the same name, “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” directed by Mike Newell, plays out like a typical video game: the main character Dastan (Gyllenhaal) was heroic and had a heart of gold, he met villains-turned-friends (Alfred Molina, Steve Toussaint) along the way, and the identity of the big bad was eventually dramatically revealed even though we could see it coming from a mile away. But prior to watching the film, I decided to have an open mind and not take it too seriously. Surprisingly enough, I quite enjoyed it because its energy reminded me of Stephen Sommers’ action-adventure “The Mummy” although not as funny and creative with the action sequences. I thought the film worked best when it showcased the fighting scenes such as when Dastan would try to evade the enemies by jumping from one roof to another à la Jason Bourne in Paul Greengrass’ “The Bourne Ultimatum” only with more sweat and sand. However, I have to admit that the bickering between Dastan and Tamina did get under my last nerves. I knew that they were going to end up in each others’ arms eventually so I kept wondering when they would actually be useful together in order to finally drive the story forward. Perhaps Arterton was to blame because although she was beautiful on the outside, the way she played her character lacked charm. I thought she could have played her character with more cheekiness and far less self-righteousness. I didn’t understand why Dastan would fall in love with her because she acted like a spoiled brat for the majority of the time. When she wasn’t, she acted like a common damsel-in-distress. “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” ticks all the boxes in terms of what makes a good and entertaining action flick. I especially liked the visual effects toward the end when Dastan and the princess went under the holy city and danger was literally found in each step. However, I wish the filmmakers would’ve challenged themselves more (or, more importantly, challenged us more) by toning down certain evil looks by characters that had murky allegiances so that it would have been less predictable.

Brothers


Brothers (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

Adapted from Susanne Bier’s “Brødre,” “Brothers,” directed by Jim Sheridan, was about two brothers: a Marine (Tobey Maguire) who loves his family and kids (Natalie Portman, Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare) and an ex-con (Jake Gyllenhaal) who recently got out of jail. The (very intense) final forty-five minutes shook me to the core when Maguire’s character finally returned to his family after being captured and tortured by the enemy for months. But as great as the last third was, I was also impressed with the way the film tackled subjects such as redemption in Gyllenhaal’s character wanting to do good for his brother’s family by playing with the kids, fixing up the kitchen, and helping them move on from a death in the family. During the first few minutes, it also established the fact that even though the brothers were so different from one another (highlighted in scenes where the father expressed pride in one and disappointment in another), there was a strong bond between them and nothing could change their love for one another. I was moved especially when their relationship was challenged in the last forty-five minutes; I felt like the two actors were really brothers when they conversed because there was a sort of intimacy between them. I also liked the way it showed the ugliness of returning from war and being traumatized by the events that happened there. Although it tackled the issue with sensitivity, it wasn’t afraid to be honest regarding what could potentially happen to someone who had a severe form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the symptoms that came with it such as paranoia, rage and disorientation. It was heartbreaking to watch the children become afraid of their own father, the wife not knowing how to respond to her husband’s physical return (but not mentally and emotionally), and the way Gyllenhaal’s character dealt with his brother’s suspicions and anger. The only problem I had with the film were the scenes which involved Maguire being kidnapped by the enemy. I think if all those scenes were left out and the audiences were left to wonder what really happened to Maguire’s character, it would have been that much more haunting (such as using a title card stating “a few months later” and the like). A sudden shift from a warm, loving person to a cold person who was on a verge of a psychotic breakdown would have had a far more impact on me. Nevertheless, “Brothers” is a strong movie that relies on the characters and subtle (sometimes explosive) acting instead of soldiers trying to survive in war zones. It felt personal so I couldn’t help but think about it after a while.