★★ / ★★★★
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 is 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.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★
After sharing a meal with two men who promised a well-paying job, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wakes up in a dark room with chains around his limbs. As he tries to piece together what happened the night prior, two men he has never seen before go through the door and one of them claims that Solomon is to be sold for the right price. Solomon insists he is not a slave, that he is in fact a free man who has a wife and two children waiting for him in Saratoga Springs, New York. The man chooses not to hear another word and soon Solomon, renamed Platt, is taken to New Orleans to work in a plantation.
Perhaps the most interesting and effective technique utilized in “12 Years a Slave,” directed by Steve McQueen and based on Solomon Northup’s autobiography, is a certain level of detachment when it comes to its treatment of the characters. Notice that there is barely a trace of a character arc with respect to the protagonist. Instead, emphasis is placed on the grueling circumstances that Solomon, as well as the other black men and women he comes across, is forced to endure for more than a decade while keeping in mind that there is a psychological complexity to white folks who deem themselves superior. A shameful time in American history is told through a microcosm.
The scenes involving humiliation make a lasting impression. It is most appropriate that the picture concerns itself with details, from naked black men and women standing side-by-side while being examined by potential buyers to being woken in the middle of the night just so their owners can watch them dance. We are encouraged to think about the mindset of a group of American people who once thought it was morally acceptable to treat their fellow human beings as objects or playthings.
To question whether the film’s level of violence is suitable to the story is to miss the point completely. The brutal lashings—which are very explicit, from the sharp snap of the whip to the droplets of blood in the air upon impact on the body—are not meant to be pretty as the subject is not meant to be digestible. It is supposed to make us uncomfortable; it is supposed to be upsetting; it is supposed to make us angry. The level of violence is never gratuitous because it functions as a symbol of the white man exercising his power over his property, the taming of what he considers to be his animal when it does not do what he wishes.
Ejiofor’s face is one I can study for days. His approach to the character is silent indignation. The script requires scenes in which he must emote in big ways that our complete attention is demanded but his performance is most interesting when he is subdued. The decision to compartmentalize Solomon’s suffering is one that feels loyal to an educated character with many thoughts, just waiting for the right opportunity to escape.
Songs and music being allowed to bleed from one scene to another is a stroke of genius. It is not simply done for the sake of flow, as a lesser film would have, but to remind us that the horrific occurrences from one moment in time is carried through the next—just as how the body may heal from physical wounds but the memory of how one gets that injury and how it feels afterwards, a psychic scar, is remembered with clarity. The events of the past are placed in a modern context: that slavery in America is one that should never be forgotten.
Every year, there are only but a few movies that ought to be remembered—despite whether it should win accolades or whether it ultimately did (or did not)—and “12 Years a Slave,” based on the screenplay by John Ridley, is deserving of that honor. It is admirable because it is uncompromising, unrelenting, and a rewarding piece of work.
Ruby Sparks (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
When Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), a high school dropout, was only nineteen years of age, his novel was published and topped The New York Times Best Sellers. Now that he’s twenty-nine, he feels the pressures of writing a highly anticipated follow-up but he’s experiencing a drought of inspiration. When his psychiatrist (Elliott Gould) encourages him to write–about anything, even if it is far from great–Calvin begins to put into words the ecstasy he feels when he’s with Ruby (Zoe Kazan), the girl in his recurring dream. One day, Calvin wakes up and discovers that not only has Ruby stepped out of his fantasy, she has the memory of them being a couple and living together for some time.
“Ruby Sparks” is successful in being an appealing love story with a twist not because of its quirks in the narrative or the idiosyncrasies of its the characters, but for the filmmakers taking the responsibility to embrace its premise and taking it all the way. The question goes beyond whether Calvin and Ruby are going to make it as a couple given that one of them is a real person and the other is, arguably, only sort-of real. There is a philosophical overcoat that the film explores: what responsibility does Calvin have toward his creation while at the same time wanting to be with her on a physical, emotional, and spiritual sense? It’s funny that the picture even acknowledges the awkwardness of this dilemma.
While the fantasy is the alluring element, the way in which select characters react to and digest the bizarre situation is tethered in reality. Chris Messina as Harry, Calvin’s brother, has a tricky role but manages to hold his own as our protagonist’s voice of reason without coming off overconfident and jealous. When Harry offers Calvin a piece of advice by citing examples from his marriage, we can feel the genuine love he has for his brother and yet at times there is a sly twinkle in his eye which might suggest that if he were in Calvin’s situation, he would take full advantage of what was put on his plate. Harry is given a complexity that is uncommon from supporting roles in zany love stories. I wished, however, that Calvin’s mother (Annette Bening) and stepfather (Antonio Banderas) had not been painted as stereotypical hippies.
The film also shows its confidence by sometimes making Calvin downright unlikable. Like real person, he has a specific personality and viewpoint of the world. Watching him, I wasn’t certain that he would be the kind of person I would like to have as a friend. He has a proclivity for neediness and self-pity that I find somewhat repulsive. So when Lila (Deborah Ann Woll), an ex-girlfriend he despises for breaking up with him only days after his father died, criticizes him at a party, what she says has merit. If this had been a one-dimensional screenplay by Zoe Kazan, Lila would have come across as a villain and we would have been completely on Calvin’s side. Though we do not see Calvin and Lila’s relationship develop, we get a sense of their history and the feel the wounds they are still recovering from.
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, “Ruby Sparks” shows insight as to what makes its subjects tick. Because of its consistent awareness and ability to surprise without being showy, I am very disappointed with the ending. It is nothing but a convenient and superficial way of reminding us that it is ultimately a love story. Sometimes love is not about having a person next to you but about having the courage to accept the way things are and hoping not to make the same mistake when another opportunity presents itself.
Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) woke up in the middle of the desert unable to remember anything prior to his collapse, not even his name. In a state of confusion, he looked at his left arm and there was a bulky bracelet around it. Despite its imposing appearance, it seemed harmless enough. So, he made his way to Absolution, a mining town, its economy depended on Woodrow Dolarhyde’s cattle business (Harrison Ford). The residents feared him greatly so they allowed his son, Percy (Paul Dano), to act like a fool and bully others. But not Jake. When Percy pulled a gun on the amnesiac, the young man was greeted with a knee in the groin. Later, when Jake and Woodrow met to settle an old score, spaceships flew over Absolution, fired destructive laser beams, and kidnapped select citizens. Based on the graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, “Cowboys & Aliens,” was a somnolent lullaby despite the staccato of horses’ hooves, swooshing Indian arrows, and thundering explosions followed by beautiful hovering dust. When certain characters met their demise, usually induced by the aliens’ sharp claws, I felt no emotion toward the person struggling for his last breath. This was because the characters were not given enough depth. More time was dedicated to the characters riding horses, squinting at something from a distance, and arguing which was the best course of action in order to track down the extraterrestrial base. The script didn’t help the otherwise good actors who were very capable of embodying heroes we could root for despite forcefully convenient plot devices. Jake and Woodrow were motivated by very different things which was appropriate considering that each figure symbolized a different type of hero in the American Old West. The former wanted to know the truth about who he was while the latter hoped to rescue his only son, internal and external motivations. Yet when the two interacted, the dialogue was so egregious, it sounded like Jake and Woodrow were not really speaking to each other but through one another. Jake’s stoicism and Woodrow’s irascibility became exasperating. I wondered what else the material had to offer, if any, and when, or if, the sluggish pacing would eventually pick up and get the adventure going (or started). Furthermore, the aliens were not very interesting villains. They landed on Earth to look for gold and extract them. Did they need the metal for food, as fertilizer to sustain their dying planet, or was it some kind of a panacea for their diseased or dying comrades? We weren’t given the exact details. But why not? I don’t know if the original material offered a reason, but even if it did not, that was no excuse. Somewhere in the middle of the film, Jake began to have feelings for Ella (Olivia Wilde), a woman who seemed to know Jake’s history. Their feelings for each other poisoned the movie. Not only did their relationship not make any sense, their scenes together took away time from possible explanations about the aliens. This was another example of using romance to band-aid holes in the story that ought to be dealt with directly and astutely. “Cowboys and Aliens,” directed by Jon Favreau, was a failed mash-up of the western and science-fiction genres. It offered no magic nor a sense of adventure.
Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When my two friends who are very different from each other told me that they didn’t enjoy the film, I knew it wasn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. “Where the Wild Things Are,” directed by Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.”) and based on a children’s book by Maurice Sendak, tells the story of a boy named Max (Max Records) and where his mind goes after going through a very tough confrontation with his mother (Catherine Keener). But the frustration is deeper than it seems; his sister is growing up and he does not get the same kind of attention he used to, his mother has a new boyfriend and is very involved in her work, and he does not have many friends. He’s a sensitive little kid and even certain bits of information he learns from school (like the sun eventually stopping to give off light) gets to him. That loneliness and wanting to be noticed makes him very aggressive so the audiences get a lead character who is edgy but is someone who we can ultimately root for because we see the story from his perspective.
As a person who has taken courses on child psychology, I think the writing is exemplary. A lot of people may think that Max is just a kid who is self-absorbed and immature. But has anyone really met a nine-year-old who does not have any of those qualities? I can barely even name an adult who is not at times self-centered and lacking maturity. I think one of the main problems when audiences watch a movie from a child’s perspective is that they fail to consider that children think (and therefore act) very differently than adults. Children have yet to find their identities so they seem to be one thing one minute and be another completely different thing the next. That manic sense of energy should not be seen as being annoying but instead should be seen as a rite of passage. I mention this in my review because I think that all of these basic background infromation should be taken into consideration in order to (in the very least) understand Max’ situation and mindset. I found the lead character to be a very lovable person because he was strong enough to turn a very sad situation into an adventure. And to be honest, I could identify with him because I remember back when I was seven or eight years old when sometimes I wasn’t allowed to play with the other children outside so I turned to my toys and made up stories that reflected how I felt at the time. (I loved that scene when Records told Keener a story about a vampire who lost his teeth. It was a metaphor about infinite things and I was deeply touched.)
A friend of mine mentioned that the movie doesn’t really have a defined story. For me, there was: Max takes refuge into his imagination where he meets all these giant puppet-like creatures with very distinct personalities because he feels abandoned–that no one is even attempting to understand what he’s going through. Those creatures (Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Michael Berry Jr., Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano and James Gandolfini) represent all of the major personalities inside him which cannot yet be controlled because he hasn’t experienced life. I thought the varying ways the creatures interacted (and sometimes collided) was very insightful because, in psychology, there is a theory that our dominant personality is simply a combination of our many different (extreme) personalities. Sometimes, there happens to be an imbalance (also reflected in one of the creatures–bipolar disorder, perhaps?) which causes great conflict in how we think and ultimately view the world. And even if my interpretation is “wrong,” there are great movies out there that don’t really have set story that is easy to understand.
“Where the Wild Things Are” is the kind of film I’ll eventually really love with repeated viewings. Yes, it’s sometimes hard to sit through because it’s not the kind of children’s movie one would expect. While there definitely are cute images, Jonze took the material to the next level and it really delves into many emotions such as sadness, confusion, isolation, not being heard or considered an integral part of a group, anger, jealousy, and even depression. I loved the fact that it’s rough around the edges and far from a typical movie where everyone goes “Aww” and easily label it as a great movie. (In fact, we even saw the monsters’ dark sides… which was scary at times because they made it clear that they could eat people.) In “Where the Wild Things Are,” you would actually have to think a little bit, see what’s under the surface to truly realize its greatness. This is an intelligent person’s movie and if you don’t like to take the effort to see some parallels between Max’ reality and imagination, then this movie might not be right for you.