This is typically the time of year when studios are all out of big-budget blockbusters to parade around, but aren't quite ready to cast out their award bait either. The result is a cinematically sterile autumn every year, which is a little sad since this is my favorite time of year. To my surprise, Prisoners proved a welcome break from the nothing interesting going on.
The movie is about two families whose daughters mysteriously disappear. Time goes by and the police investigation looks increasingly unpromising, so one father (Jackman) decides to take matters into his own hands and track down the person he feels is responsible.
This movie is a nice little chiller put on a slow burn. Everything is carefully measured and restrained. This, I think, is its biggest strength. Without it, the movie would have been merely a variation on Taken, only without the fun of having no shame. The movie is relentlessly rainy, and I think cinematographer Roger Deakins goes to town with it. The whole thing looks beautiful (but really, like rainy shots in autumn ever don't) and immediately has a constant mood. This has everything to do with the power of the images created, and is commendable.
The plot, for the most part, matches the control exhibited in the movie's craft. It is all intentional, from its formulaic setup to its almost immediate turnaround. It keeps twisting and descending into this macabre little maze you want to find your way out of. It is certainly enveloping and immersive.
That said, I think the major weakness of the movie was the characters. The acting is good, even at times commendable, but the material the actors were given wasn't completely realized. It feels like writer Aaron Guzikowski got started on a lot of cool things but didn't finish them in time. For as well as everything comes off, having characters as depthless as these was a little disappointing.
By the end, though, it turns out to be pretty satisfying. There is enough thematic material and plot turns going on to outweigh the underbaked character or two. At any rate it beats the pants off of anything else you will find out there this week. Its subtlety of storytelling is something that is hard to find these days, and makes it at least a pretty unique, if not a special, movie experience.
Prisoners features Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Paul Dano and Melissa Leo, and is rated R for swears but not as much violence as you might expect.
Writer: Aaron Guzikowski
Director: Denis Villeneuve
For the sake of something different, I'll be including two movies together in the same post. This isn't necessarily because they are similar; it has more to do with how little time has passed between my seeing them. They are The Spectacular Now and The Way, Way Back. Both are fine movies, and good ways to start off the new school year.
First is The Spectacular Now. It is the story of Sutter, an hard-living high school senior recovering from a brutal breakup. He meets Aimee, a quiet girl he falls for in spite of himself. Their complicated relationship and differing perspectives on life end up teaching them both some important lessons.
Of the two, I think this is the better movie. Despite this synopsis, the movie doesn't really adhere to all of the hallowed tenets of the coming-of-age genre you might think it to. For starters, it is considerably more adult than the typical offering, leading me to think that it isn't necessarily about teenagers. It is about their families as well, and the world they end up coming into. Director James Ponsoldt has a very delicate touch throughout--he balances teenage romance with darker themes in a beautifully intimate palette.
The whole movie, in fact, feels like an intimate close-up. The writing and its interpretation is incredibly realistic (almost to the point of irritation, I must confess), and much of it happens in these wonderfully long takes. We aren't watching a movie, we are watching a relationship of people we know, and it is beautifully executed. By the end, everybody is not the same person as at the beginning, but it is no concrete resolution. Like any change of perspective, it is raw and untested, but full of hope.
The more general audience-friendly of the two is The Way, Way Back, which tells of The Most Awkward Summer Ever. Duncan is spending the summer with his mom and would-be step dad Trent (Steve Carell) at an out-of-the-way resort town. He doesn't get along with Trent, other growups, girls, and is trying to make his way around in a world full of dysfunction and confusion.
The Way, Way Back feels very familiar in a lot of ways. And, if left in the hands of lesser filmmakers would be nothing more than a Disney Channel Friday night movie. But it makes its mark in two ways. First, the adult characters are very well-realized. They are not the caricatures that so often plague movies like this; they are emotive and confused and as emotionally bruised as much as anybody else. Of note are the two men in Duncan's life, Trent and Owen (Sam Rockwell). Theirs are the strongest performances, and the most meaningful to the movie.
The movie is certainly enjoyable, and lighter fare than Spectacular. It is consistently funny, though it is also empowering and honest as well. That is its other strength: where convention demands that everything wrap up with misunderstandings now understood and everything happening for the best, The Way, Way Back offers something a little more true. Love is only accomplished when understanding is not a pre-requisite, and you need to choose to go there.
The Spectacular Now features Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, and is rated R for swears and teenagers doing lots of things they shouldn't.
The Way, Way Back features Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, and Liam James, and is rated PG-13 for some swears.
1938 saw Frank Capra win his second Best Picture in four years with the screwball comedy You Can't Take It With You. It is a light-hearted venture certainly well-suited for Depression-weary America, but it doesn't carry over as well as some of his other work.
The movie is about two families: the rich, stuck-up Kirby's, and the humble and eccentric Sycamore's. Tony, the Kirby heir, (Stewart) falls in love with young Alice Sycamore (Arthur), which results in a culture clash between the two families.
The film fits well in Capra's brand. It is very strongly family-centric, and appeals to that class of 20th century American eager to live out the clean, moral, American dream. Organizations like big business are criminalized, while activities such as making fireworks in your basement are seen as quaint. Those things certainly would have appealed to a country still looking for a way out of the Great Depression. Most of the film's humor comes from exploiting the "otherness" of the wealthy: they are comically detached from humanity and out-of-touch with real life. Capra takes up this theme again in It's A Wonderful Life, but for dramatic rather than comedic purposes.
Despite this, I felt that the movie didn't translate very strongly compared with some of his other movies. There are lots of Capra-esque cultural embellishments (a group of rag-tag kids teaches Tony and Jane a new dance in the park, for example) that add to the stylized vision of America he adopts, but that also take away somewhat from the overall film experience. I felt like I had to try harder to be a part of it than other movies, even poor ones, from this time period.
That's not to say I didn't enjoy it. Stewart and Arthur are particularly enjoyable together. The movie's best moments are with them, when it at its ease and isn't trying to moralize. But overall I feel that this is a case of enormous-but-waning popularity defining a movie, rather than its inherent quality.
You Can't Take It With You features Jimmy Stuart, Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, and Edward Arnold, and is not rated.
by Chase Harrison