PRISONERS



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For the 2011 Oscars, Canadian director Denis Villenvue’s film Incendies (a puzzle film about twin brother and sister who find out they are closer to their unknown father and brother than they thought) was nominated for best foreign language film.  In punishment for his sins, Villenvue was given the movie Prisoners to make.  
Actually, I don’t know if this is accurate or not.  As far as I really know, this was Villenvue’s pet project from beginning to end.  But it sure feels like proof of that anecdote by Michael Haneke who came to the U.S. and was presented with a screenplay so outside his purview, he asked (and I paraphrase), “Is this what Hollywood is?  You come here and they just give you whatever screenplay they have lying around in a drawer” (a viewpoint that seemed proven as far as I was concerned when the dynamic Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park was given the embarrassing screenplay of Stoker to make). 
There is one good scene in Prisoners, a routine thriller about child abduction written by relatively newcomer Aaron Guzikowski.  It comes early on with Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki (Loki?  Okay, sure, why not) interacting with a waitress at a Chinese restaurant.  They talk about animal signs and fortune cookies and it has nothing to do with anything, but it is witty and fun.  But after that (and before that as well), everything goes downhill rather quickly.  It plays with religious imagery, but that all feels clichéd and under dramatized.  And the movie brings nothing new to the genre, seeming to have no real purpose for existence, even the purpose of a movie that does nothing, but does it very, very well.
Prisoners is a one note film.  It starts at a relatively high point of tension (even before anything happens) and pretty much stays there the whole time.  Everyone seems so angry in the film.  Hugh Jackman, trying a bit too hard to play against type as everyman working class father Dover, feels angry from the opening shot (both literally and figuratively, but you’ll have to see the movie to get the pun).   And the scenes with Loki at the police station are so filled with furious confrontation, it feels like an episode of Law & Order: SVU (I never knew how anyone could stand working with anyone in that show, they were all so unprofessionally mean to each other).  Even the weather is angry; it’s always overcast, raining or snowing.  And when there’s no place for anyone to go, when they do go there, it tends to become camp, over the top and unintentionally funny.
There’s only one really effective performance in the move and that is Wayne Duvall as the Captain at Loki’s precinct.  He’s one of those, I know I’ve seen him a million times before, though I can’t quite place where, actor.  And he is spot on.  But everyone else, Jackman, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, the unrecognizable Melissa Leo and Len Cariou (or maybe I just didn’t want to recognize them), and the unfortunately recognizable Paul Dano, just can’t do much with what they’re given.  At least Mario Bello, as Dover’s wife, is lucky enough to have a character so traumatized she takes sleeping pills and is out for most of the film.
Because I and my friends could never become emotionally involved in the movie (though our eyebrows got plenty of exercise as we rolled them over and over again), all that was left for us was to wait, and wait…and wait, until we find out who did it.  And because we could never become emotionally involved, all we did afterwards was pick apart the plot (a highly convoluted one by the time it’s over, a bit too clever perhaps than was necessary, but it did seem to hold together).  If we had been riveted by what was going on and so involved with the characters and what they were going through, we probably wouldn’t have cared about the details so much (especially a particularly hysterical one at the end where Loki has the choice of calling 911 for help or speeding to get a little girl to a hospital down a crowded freeway during a deluge of a rainstorm while in danger of blacking out from being shot—guess which one he chooses?).   
I do hope that as far as Villenvue is concerned, this was a take the money and run movie and that he’ll next return to his roots and make something that means something to him and not to some producer’s profit sheet.  We can only hope.

BEAUTIFUL CREATURES



Beautiful Creatures, the new slough of despair, riddled with angst teenage film written and directed by Richard LaGravenese, is one of those movies that preaches against intolerance and bigotry and then makes cartoons out of every Christian in town, except for the one who’s black and therefore a true believer (stereotype much?).   It’s also a teenage version of Bewitched in which a mortal falls in love with a witch (oh, all right, Christine O’Donnell, they are not witches, they are casters—happy now?), but with more adolescent ennui and existential dread.  Finally, it’s also one of the myriad of films that we’re going to be plagued with (and I mean plagued) as various producers desperately try to fill the void that has been formed by the absence of the Twilight franchise.   
I think it’s safe to say that Beautiful Creatures didn’t do a lot for me (I only went because I finally decided it had a better chance of working than that new Die Hard film—unfortunately, from what I’m hearing, I made the right choice).
To be fair, there is one marvelous scene near the beginning of Beautiful Creatures that did suggest the movie might actually go somewhere.  Not anywhere great, mind you, I wasn’t that optimistic; but, you know, somewhere.  In this scene, our hapless hero Ethan (played by Alden Ehrenreich, who has such an unnerving resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio, he could play his younger brother) is put under a spell by caster Macon (Jeremy Irons—yes, that Jeremy Irons) and asked what he’s going to do with his life.  It’s already been readily established that he is applying to every college more than a thousand miles away in order to get out of his podunk, one-horse town.  But instead of going there, he instead finds himself spouting out that he’s going to college locally so he can take care of his father and end up teaching in town, making a disastrous marriage and cheating on his wife and drinking heavily and having a heart attack at age 52, etc., etc., until he dies at age 62 by hanging himself (but with the rather brilliant coup de grace that his body won’t be found for a few days).  
But alas and alack, this going somewhere twas not to be, for a few scenes later, Macon and another character, Sarafine, who has taken over the body of the local religious bigot Mrs. Lincoln (played by Emma Thompson—yes, that Emma Thompson), have a lengthy pax de duex  in a church that goes on and on…and on.  And at this point, this very point, the movie crashes and burns and, to mix metaphors, gets buried so deep, not even George Romero could resurrect it.
And speaking of Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson, not to mention Viola Davis and Eileen Atkins and Margo Martindale (yes, that David, Atkins and Martindale), why is it in England when they use their great actors and award winners for escapist fare, they give them movies like The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and the James Bond films, but in the U.S. they give them stuff like…like…well, like this? 
But you have to hand it to them.  All the actors are game and they play it all as if it were written by the bard himself (one doesn’t know whether to give them credit where credit is due for that, or just sit down and weep tears of Dido).  At any rate, it hardly matters.  Most of the time one just sits there not entranced by their performances, but just trying to figure out why they would make a movie like this.   
Yeah, I don’t think Beautiful Creatures did a lot for me.