Tag Archives: Hollywood

Review: Prisoners (2013)

Hearts of Darkness

Courtesy of aceshowbiz.com

Courtesy of aceshowbiz.com

 Review of Prisoners (2013)

by Adam Tawfik

At the turn of the twentieth century, a group of entrepreneurial men and women ingeniously concocted a simple but effective formula that have kept motion pictures as one of the more entertaining diversions for over 100 years. In film’s illustrious history, a vast majority of the products are imminently forgettable seconds after consumption. Every few years there’s one film that goes beyond rousing entertainment and worms its way into your psyche for its haunting provocativeness. In 2010, that film was Incendies, written and directed by French-Canadian Denis Villeneuve, a gut-wrenching account of a modern civil war.

While (unfortunately) it lost the Best Foreign Film Oscar to an inferior In a Better World, it put Villeneuve on Hollywood’s radar. In many cases, a Hollywood career tends to rob distinctive directors of their unique voice. While Prisoners, Villenvue’s debut Hollywood film is not standard assembly-line work it lacks the nuance, intelligence, and humanity of his prior Oscar-nominated effort.

Courtesy of mechodownloads.com

Courtesy of mechodownloads.com

His direction and the screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski are ambitious and clearly aimed for sophisticated audiences, even if its basic premise seems to resemble an action flick; on Thanksgiving, the youngest daughters of two friends the Dovers (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and the Birches (Terence Howard and Viola Davis) are kidnapped and Keller Dover sets out to rescue them, often resorting to vigilante tactics. But there’s not enough substance in terms of twists and turns or character developments to justify its 153 minute running time.

Firstly, it’s a structural mess. From the first act where Jackman and son are killing the deer, and we see Jackman’s (the Dovers) and Howard’s (the Birches) families enjoying Thanksgiving for about twenty minutes before the kidnapping of their two youngest daughters, it is apparent that this film is going to be overlong. The second act drags because it spends too much time focusing on Keller’s sadistic torturing of Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a retarded man whom Keller thinks is the kidnapper.

Courtesy of joblo.com

Courtesy of joblo.com

Many critics hail Hugh Jackman’s performance in Prisoners as his best. While he certainly has some stellar microcosmic moments – his delivery of the line “the moment he took our son he stopped being a human being” or his breakdown in the car when he’s yelling at Gyllenhaal about how it’s on him to find his daughter- he’s basically playing Wolverine again (complete with the rugged beard and animalistic rage) minus the supernatural powers and the CGI blades.

Guzikowski deserves part of the blame as the character as written is a one-note volatile lunatic from the opening scene. It’s impossible to have much empathy with him and as a result we’re not as invested in his plight, giving the overall film a repetitive tediousness.

Courtesy of vzmoviefree.blogspot.com

Courtesy of vzmoviefree.blogspot.com

The character of Det. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is too elusive for two thirds of the film, only making an impact in the final act. Gyllenhaal emerges as the best in show as he gets ample opportunity to emote the emotional weight of his inability to solve the case and haunted by the memory of the girls still missing. This gets undermined in the last few minutes by the script’s tendency to wrap things up too neatly and to grab at straws for plausibility.

As this is essentially a two-person drama, everyone else in the very talented ensemble is relegated to the background. Viola Davis and Terence Howard act with professional dignity but they are stuck with characters who are limited to protesting Jackman’s sadistic methods but not stopping them.

Courtesy of minority-review.com

Courtesy of minority-review.com

Maria Bello does some harrowing grieving, but she doesn’t get a chance to do anything more. Paul Dano is reduced to whimpering and screaming, mostly in a box as a tortured victim to Jackman’s wrath. Melissa Leo as Dano’s aunt nicely underplays her part in earlier segments, but her role veers towards the outlandish as the film progresses, especially in her final scenes.

The technical side isn’t much better. Roger Deakens, one of the more distinctive working cinematographers, delivers surprisingly uninspired work, casting the film with a monosyllabic shade of grey. The editing by Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach is sloppy. I particularly found that the long fade to blacks glaringly emphasized the film’s disjointedness.

Courtesy of reverseshot.com

Courtesy of reverseshot.com

A lot of the narrative conventions are recycled from Incendies, none of which here are as good as in the former film. We have two protagonists, Det. Loki and Keller, but neither is well defined enough as a character, so shifting between the two is usually more jarring than interesting.

Another thing borrowed is a certain object that becomes important for revealing the twist in the story, but sadly like everything else, it’s too singular. It’s such an obvious motif that I was surprised that Det. Loki didn’t figure it out sooner.

Prisoners is a harrowing journey that has moments of quality, but for a cinematic experience that leaves you with total emotional and intellectual shell shock, watch Incendies.

Review: The Conjuring (2013)

Conjuring up Mediocrity

Courtesy of crankfun.com.

Courtesy of crankfun.com.

 Review of The Conjuring (2013)

By Adam Tawfik

On paper, horror entrepreneur James Wan’s The Conjuring had many things working in its favor. The MPAA uncompromisingly issued it an R-rating (as opposed to the typical PG-13 rating given to summer horror films), not because of violence or gore (like Wan’s Saw franchise), but on the grounds that the overall film was too psychologically scary, and no cuts could be made to remedy that.

With heaps of critical praise and a leading cast that includes Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor, two of the most consistently unique actresses working in independent and off-beat films, plus solid actors Ron Livingston and Patrick Wilson, this seems like a perfect commercial and artistic union.

Courtesy of comicbookmovie.com

Courtesy of comicbookmovie.com

Once again, the censorship board makes an arbitrary and idiotic ruling and that elusive union is yet again unattained. Unfortunately Conjuring only (marginally) lived up to its potential in its first act. Following an atmospheric retro 1970’s horror opening sequence, we meet paranormal husband-and-wife team Ed and Lorraine Warren (Wilson and Farmiga) as they deliver a lecture about their dealings with an uberly demented porcelain Annabelle doll dominating the apartment of two kindly nursing students.

Then we cut to the Perrons (Livingston and Taylor), a salt-of-the-earth couple with five daughters who buy a suspiciously inexpensive house somewhere way out in booneyville Rhode Island.  From the get-go the insidious but unseen spirits terrorize the womenfolk (and kill their dog). After bearing abuse for thirty minutes or so, Mrs. Perron begs for the Warren’s help.

It is around this juncture that Conjuring loses its steam. Although the Warrens become more integral characters, Chad and Carey Hayes’ screenplay provides a most superficial overview of the methodology of their paranormal investigations further butchered by the fact that it is primarily conveyed through a series of unambiguously prosaic dialogue exchanges rather than allowing the mystery to uncover gradually through a visual lens.

Courtesy of villains.wikia.com

Courtesy of villains.wikia.com

Wan badly overcompensates the second half’s plot deficiency with ostentatiously grotesque CGI ghosts whose obviousness ruins the low-key ominousness established by unseen terrors. Added to the clutter are two superfluous stock characters: an initially skeptical, but kindly and slightly bumbling police officer (played by John Brotherton in an annoyingly Seth Rogian style) and the Warrens’ handsome but dull assistant (Shannon Kook).

Regrettably, most of the acting is on par with the rest of the film. Patrick Wilson gives a robotic performance as the protagonist while Ron Livingston and the daughters (played by five interchangeable actresses) are all monotonously bland.

Courtesy of virtualborderland.wordpress.com

Courtesy of virtualborderland.wordpress.com

But the biggest disappointment is Vera Farmiga, who normally excels at playing otherworldly characters. Here she is surprisingly glib and acts more like a B-movie scream queen than an accomplished expert of the supernatural.

In its favor Conjuring provides the inexplicably underutilized Lili Taylor with her most significant part in a long time. Delivering the sole three-dimensional performance, Taylor vividly captures the essence of a loving and protective mother progressively crumbling under the mental and physical strain of fighting demonic forces co-opting her body. Even at her most demented she infuses her character with humanity and vulnerability that singlehandedly rescues the third act from total banality.

Courtesy of collider.com

Courtesy of collider.com

Making matters worse, the sub-plots are more interesting than the main story. The Annabelle doll vignette has a bounce and energy that the rest of the film lacks, and its story could have inspired a quirky and enjoyably trashy flick.

A tragic séance that led a disturbed man to murder and suicide (and left Lorraine with PTSD) is the film’s most promising element, but its underdevelopment (the scene was thirty seconds tops) made it devoid of any meaningful impact. Had it been properly fleshed out, an engaging and taut cinematic experience with rich characterizations could have emerged.

Courtesy of screencrush.co.uk

Courtesy of screencrush.co.uk

Conjuring is indicative of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking in that it is a polished, competent, and perfectly generic product. That critics and audiences have so widely flocked to it enables blandness to fester in popular culture in favor of other creative filmmaking expressions enlivened with personality and dynamism that have made several seminal 70s horror films (most notably The Exorcist, The Omen, and Carrie) and tons of fantabulously campy exploitative ones by schlock auteurs such as Roger Corman, Eddie Romero, and Jack Hill enduring classics.

Courtesy of allzinfo.com

Courtesy of allzinfo.com

Before you settle for this lifeless, middle-of-the-road trite or the upcoming sure-to-be lackluster sequel imaginatively entitled The Conjuring 2, be sure to check out some contemporary Asian horror. Films such as The Isle (South Korea 2000), Audition (Japan 1999), and the definitive haunted house story A Tale of Two Sisters (S. Korea 2004) are foremost character studies around which a subtle but taut narrative is constructed that relentlessly keeps tension bubbling before reaching a chaotic psychological and visceral closing that offers closure while leaving us reverberating in shock. Better yet, many of these films are available on Netflix waiting for a widespread appreciation.