Beat Breakdown #3: 12 Years a Slave

In this installment of the Beat Breakdown we’ll take a look at the 2013 biographical drama 12 Years a Slave, written by John Ridley and directed by Steve McQueen. The film won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay at the 86th Academy Awards.

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To view a .pdf of the screenplay, click here.

PLOT SYNOPSIS

In the antebellum US, a free black man is kidnapped from his home in New York and sold into slavery. What follows is a harrowing odyssey through the American south as our brave protagonist, Solomon Northup, is stripped of his dignity and is forced to survive at the mercy of a sadistic slave master. Throughout his ordeal, Solomon experiences both incredible suffering and unexpected compassion as he seeks a way to reunite with his wife and children.

INCITING INCIDENT

(Pages 13-16) After some brief exposition during which we’re introduced to Solomon and his family, we move quickly to the inciting incident; that is, of course, Solomon’s kidnapping. As his wife and children travel, Solomon is propositioned by two seemingly trustworthy men who suggest that he accompany them to Washington, so that he may exhibit his skill as a violinist. It soon transpires that this prospective business venture is only a pretense, however, and Solomon, in his revelry, is poisoned and rendered unconscious. He awakes in chains, and in short order is subjected to the first of many instances of physical and psychological abuse.

PLOT POINT ONE

(Pages 38-40) After Solomon’s imprisonment, he makes the acquaintance of other erstwhile freemen who, like him, have been ignominiously kidnapped. Together, the prisoners are transported via steamboat from Washington to Norfolk, where they are to be sold at auction. After being forced to wash and dress, Solomon is presented to prospective buyers, not as a man, but a product. Presently, a slave master named William Ford makes a bid for Solomon, purchasing him for one thousand dollars.

MIDPOINT

(Pages 55-57) While on the Ford plantation, Solomon and his fellow slaves are tormented by one of Ford’s malevolent overseers, John Tibeats. Tibeats delights in exercising petty authority over the slaves and especially resents Solomon for winning Ford’s favor. When Tibeats’s long-standing hatred boils over, it soon comes to blows between the two. Tibeats, momentarily defeated, vows revenge against Solomon. Ford intervenes in an attempt to save Solomon’s life, selling him to a new plantation with a new master, and likely saving his life in the bargain. It soon becomes clear, however, that Solomon’s new master does not share Ford’s benevolent sensibilities.

PLOT POINT TWO

(Pages 111-116) What follows is an emotionally distressing descent into the maelstrom, as it were, as Solomon endures the savage cruelty of his new master, Edwin Epps. Solomon witnesses others slaves being whipped and beaten within an inch of their lives, and is even asked to mercifully end the life of a fellow slave who is frequently sexually abused by Epps. The second major plot point, however, coincides with the arrival of Canadian abolitionist Samuel Bass. Bass confronts Epps about the treatment of his slaves, prompting Solomon to ask Bass to secretly deliver a letter to his home in Saratoga Springs. Bass, considering it his duty to help the disenfranchised Solomon, vows to aid him.

CRISIS AND CLIMAX

(Pages 118-121) The climax occurs shortly afterwards. While Solomon works in the fields one day, a carriage pulls to a stop outside of Epps’s estate. A sheriff and a certain Mr. Parker, whom Solomon was acquainted with in Saratoga, dismount and address Solomon, who doesn’t immediately recognize him after such a long period of separation. After the sheriff positively identifies Solomon, the two men hustle him into the carriage amid Epps’s impotent protestations. Immediately before departing, Patsy, the same slave who once begged Solomon for death, embraces him in an emotional gesture of finality. Solomon rides away from Epps’s plantation, still trying coming to grips with the fact that his tortuous ordeal is finally over.

DENOUEMENT

(Pages 121-123) The climax is followed by an extremely short period of falling action, which is in turn followed by a few brief expository title cards. Solomon arrives home, visibly aged and hesitant to enter a home that now seems almost alien to him. The film has such a beautifully understated ending, which consists of perhaps three our four line of dialogue from Solomon. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted, Solomon finds himself unable to maintain his façade of strength and stoicism any longer. On the verge of breaking down, he says simply: “I apologize for my appearance. I have had a difficult time of things these last few years.” With his family surrounding him, Solomon finally sees the end of the twelve long years of suffering that had separated him from his loved ones as we fade to black.

Andrew’s Top Ten Movies of 2013

While at times I did feel like this was a weak year for movies, I found it surprisingly difficult to put this top ten list together, simply because there were so many films I wanted to include. After giving it some thought I was finally able to whittle my list down to ten, but for those of you interested in the movies that didn’t quite make the cut, here are the honorable mentions in no particular order: Stoker, Saving Mr. Banks, Mud, The Bling Ring, Captain Phillips, Kings of Summer, Blue is the Warmest Color and Nebraska.

10. The Wolverine

While this may seem like a somewhat weird way to start off the list, I actually enjoyed this movie immensely. For me, it satisfied everything I was looking for in a nice self-contained action/superhero movie. The Japanese setting actually added a lot of character to the movie, and the film still showed some restraint in not completely drowning the movie in typical Japanese action film clichés. While the climax is, admittedly, somewhat problematic, it was still satisfied with the film as a whole.

9. Much Ado About Nothing

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While this movie does suffer from being a bit too cutesy at times, but I can pretty safely say it is one of, if not the best Shakespeare film ever made. Joss Whedon’s sense of humor matches perfectly with the play, and he is able to make a Shakespeare movie which doesn’t feel forced or clichéd, and is genuinely funny, something that has been tried and failed more than a few times. It is easy to blow this film off as cute and inconsequential, which it is, but it has more than enough charm to earn a spot on the list.

8. Blackfish

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It is rare that I am blown away by a documentary, but I have to give credit to Blackfish for doing just that. While there has been some controversy surrounding this movie, as it clearly takes aim at the beloved and well established company Sea World in a way that does seem very biased, I think the evidence in the movie speaks for itself. More than a film about the mistreatment of Killer Whales kept in captivity, Blackfish is an interesting look at the danger these animals present to their trainers, and the extremely preventable deaths and injuries caused by the animals that until now have been ignored by the public. It is powerful, and sometimes hard to watch, but is a documentary I feel like everyone should see.

7. Rush

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The only reason this movie didn’t end up higher on my list is that nothing about it was particularly unique or interesting. However, giving credit where credit is due, Rush is still a fantastic film.  It captures an intimate conflict between two larger than life figures risking their lives to claim superiority in a way that felt genuine and believable. Rush is an airtight movie, expertly handling climactic beats throughout the film and ending up as perhaps one of the most well rounded films of the year.

6. The Way Way Back

I am usually not one for feel good movies, but I have to say I was quite taken with The Way Way Back. It has a great cast and is a genuinely sweet and funny coming of age story. It is nice to see Steve Carell out of his comfort zone, playing the antagonistic boyfriend of the protagonist’s mother; however the real stand out for me was Sam Rockwell who once again proves he is a force to be reckoned with as a top comedic actor. Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the Oscar winning duo behind the script for The Descendants, this film was definitely a stand out in a year saturated with coming of age films.

5. American Hustle

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While in a lot of ways I felt like this should be my number one movie this year, there were a few glaring details that kept it lower. The way the film was put together felt awkward in a few places, and some of the scenes in the movie just didn’t seem to work well within the film as a whole, not to mention the ending which I thought was a little weak and very rushed. That being said, the performances in this movie are easily some of the best of the year. With an actor nominated in each of the four major acting categories for the Golden Globes, and likely for the Oscars when those nominations are released, American Hustle definitely has a lot to bring to the table. It’s stylish and fun, but it’s the characters and their relationships that really solidify this movie as one of the best of the year.

4. Wolf of Wall Street

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A manic story of riches, corporate corruption, and missed chances for redemption, Wolf of Wall Street manages to be far from the typical cautionary tale about wealth. It is raunchy, perverse, even sickening at times, but boy is it a fun movie to watch. Leonardo DiCaprio is fantastic as Jordan Belfort, a man on a drug fueled rampage up the corporate Wall Street ladder. The film has a great sense of humor, and is one of the best “truth is stranger than fiction” movies I have seen in a long time. It’s an unbelievable story, and even manages to keep the viewer engaged throughout the monstrous 3 hour run time.

3. 12 Years a Slave

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My bet for Best Picture this year, 12 Years a Slave is nothing short of an incredible movie. What really makes this movie stand out is that it’s not just the movie about the horrors of slavery that seems to get made every few years, but also an incredible character driven story. All of the acting in the film is fantastic, the conflict between Michael Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofer was extremely tense, and every single character in the film was well fleshed out and distinct, which is a nice change from the typical flat slave owner characters in similar movies. Expertly directed by Steve McQueen, I look forward to seeing his work in the future now that he is gaining mainstream recognition and success.

2. Place Beyond the Pines

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I knew this movie would end up high on my top ten list immediately after I walked out of the theater. Place Beyond the Pine comes in a close second for my favorite films this year, as I loved nearly everything about this movie. The setting, powerful performances and distinct three part narrative gives a profound amount of weight and importance to an intimate tale about family, father-son relationships, and consequences. The movie shifts effortlessly between protagonists and still manages to make the viewer care about all of them, as the film almost feels like three shorter films tied together by themes and shared characters. The third act of this film received some criticism as it is a bit bizarre, but I thought it fit perfectly and Dane DeHaan’s performance is in many ways what made the movie for me.

1. Inside Llewyn Davis

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Calling this movie a dark comedy would be an understatement, as it would be one of the most cynical movies I have seen if it wasn’t so damn funny. It is an interesting character study of Llewyn, a fledgling folk musician and a bit of a jerk, whose life starts out bad and gets progressively worse as the film goes on through a serious of misfortunes that befall Llewyn.  Despite its melancholy outlook, Inside Llewyn Davis offers a lot in terms of personality, style, and memorable moments and is my favorite film of 2013.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Review

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If there’s one thing that I’ve learned this year, it’s that trailers cannot be trusted. This summer, I was overly excited for Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, thanks to its expertly directed first trailer. The same was true for Ben Stiller’s sixth directorial effort, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Like the former, Walter Mitty generated a lot of positive buzz prior to its release, which ultimately left a lot of critics disappointed because the actual film is kind of a mess.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a very loosely based adaptation of a short story of the same name written in 1939 by James Thurber. In the story, the eponymous Walter frequently daydreams as a means to spice up a mundane shopping trip with his wife. Throughout its tortuously long development process, a myriad of directors and lead actors accepted- and then dropped- their various positions. Ultimately, Ben Stiller was billed as both the director and the lead in 2011, and production began shortly thereafter. It seems like Stiller had no clear vision for the film, and subsequently attempts to span a number of genres and ends up executing none of them particularly well. As is so often the case, a whole bunch of little bits and pieces stitched together from other genres amounts to a whole bunch of nothing at all.

The film stars Ben Stiller as Mitty and Kristen Wiig as stereotypical love interest Cheryl Melhoff. Sean Penn also makes an appearance as the globe-trotting, Hemingway-esque photojournalist Sean O’Connell, whom Walter is tasked with tracking down. Stiller and Wiig have this weird chemistry between them which relies upon really awkward, hard to watch interactions. I’m not sure who decided that it would be engaging to watch the world’s two most awkward people play off one another, but it does little in the way of making us relate to Walter’s character and his desire to woo her.

According to Wikipedia, Walter Mitty is a “romantic adventure fantasy comedy-drama.” With such a broad ‘vision,’ the film feels unfocused and a little schizophrenic as comedy bits are interspersed with soul-searching sentimentality and sweeping, panoramic shots of epic landscape with little transition in between. Just as the tone of the movie is a bit scattered, the plotting has some pretty serious problems as well. Walter Mitty employs a narrative technique that another critic once called ‘fashionably-late syndrome,’ which relies on the objective having moved on to a different location once the protagonist has caught up with it. Aside from being a really shitty way to get the audience to become engaged- there’s usually not enough payoff for us to keep our interest- it’s a great way to showcase as many exotic locations and set pieces in a relatively small amount of time, which is probably what Stiller was trying to accomplish in lieu of a more substantive story.

Making matters worse is the fact that the film is incredibly gimmicky. Stiller no doubt knew that he had an interesting idea in the form of the day dreaming sequences, but it’s clear that he had no idea how to implement them. It’s weird, because those sequences- which are presumably supposed to be the selling point of the movie- occur only within the first thirty minutes, and do nothing to progress the plot or teach us anything new about the characters. They could have been taken out entirely and Walter Mitty would have been essentially the same movie. I’d ask why they were put in the film at all, but the cynic in me would say that they needed some action sequences to flash on the screen for the trailers.

On a different note, the amount of product placement in this movie is just absurd. Product placement doesn’t even bother me as much as it does other people, so just know that it had to be really noticeable for me to comment on it at all. Throughout the entire film, the audience is bombarded with everything from Papa John’s and Chase Bank to eHarmony and Cinnabon. It’s a little worrying, to be frank. It even makes me wonder if so many high-profile sponsors contributed to the film being as inoffensively bland as possible.

That being said, I did have higher hopes for  The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but I guess I’ve learned my lesson. If it’s any consolation though, the film actually looks really pretty, with a bright, visually engaging palate and some jaw-dropping nature shots. Some great cinematography does not a good film make, however, and Walter Mitty is no exception.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Albert’s 2013 Anti-Awards

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I’m a firm believer in the idea that one can learn something from any movie, no matter how bad- even if it’s a single camera angle or a lightning technique or a clever use of color scheme. Sometimes, though, it’s more worthwhile to use a particularly bad movie as an example of ‘how not to do it.’ This list is dedicated to those films. I’ve got five awards to give out this year, and they’ll go to five movies that deserve a little recognition for being the worst of the worst. At the very least though, they’ll serve as great examples of what to avoid in the future, and as long as we learn a little something, are they ever really a waste? With that being said, let’s get to it!

The Barrel-Biter Award for Most Vigorous Suicide of a Franchise

This award is given to a movie that effectively ends my interest in a franchise due to its utter awfulness. We had a lot of strong contenders this year from Iron Man 3 to Fast & Furious 6 to Star Trek: Into Darkness. One film, however, rose to the occasion and practically ensured that nothing less than the infinite power of Christ could get me back into theaters for the next installment. I’m speaking of none other than the fifth entry in the Die Hard series, A Good Day to Die Hard. An uninspired slog from beginning to end, this film rightfully deserves its spot on this list.

The Cyanide Flavored Lollipop Award for Surprisingly Terrible Film

This award was a little more difficult for me to give out. The fact of the matter is that once you become familiar with the directors, actors, and writers in the industry, it’s not too difficult to guess which movies will end up being big messes. Basically, this award goes to a film that runs contrary to my finely-tuned expectations and surprises me in a bad way. The final decision came down to three films- those being You’re Next, The Fifth Estate, and Carrie. Ultimately, I decided on the latter, as Chloë Grace Mortez’s impressive filmography and director Kimberly Pierce’s own experience and past work concerning gender politics and sexual orientation (Boys Don’t Cry, 1999) might have yielded better results under different circumstances. The 2013 adaptation of Carrie is altogether too safe, uninspired, and really just dull.

The Cyanide Flavored Cyanide Award for Unsurprisingly Terrible Film

Now, this award almost had too many contenders to deal with. Where to start, really? I could name any one of about a hundred sequels that came out this year, each one more unnecessary and insipid than the last. When I first began to consider possible recipients for this award, movies like Grown Ups 2, Thor: The Dark World, The Smurfs 2, The Hangover: Part III, and a host of other samey titles immediately came to mind. Then, I started to remember some of the more truly awful films that were released this year that weren’t part of a larger franchise. The relatively recent Paranoia and Getaway were particularly fresh and unpleasant memories. But then I remembered the big one. I soon decided that the only film that I could possibly give this award to was the spiritual successor to the Twilight Saga, Stephanie Meyer’s The Host. I knew- we all knew, really- what to expect from dark recesses of Meyer’s mind, and, suffice it to say, The Host entirely met those expectations.

The Albert Cantu Lifetime Achievement Award for Biggest Disappointment

I was a little excited to give out this award, not only because it bears my name, but also because its recipient was one of the few movies that evoked real anger from me over the past year. Now I’d like to see it put in its place. This award goes to a film that succeeded in building up my expectations with great trailers and positive buzz, only to smash them back down to the ground when the actual movie was released. We’re all probably thinking the same thing here, so I’ll go ahead and say it: I feel a little betrayed by Zack Snyder at this point. The trailers for his summer blockbuster, Man of Steel, were nothing short of astounding, so to have the final product end up being pretty lame was kind of a rude awakening. Once again, we’ve learned that Hollywood is a cruel mistress who is never to be trusted.

The Haemolacria Award for Worst Film of 2013

And now, the big one. This award goes to a movie released during the past year that was so bad, so appallingly terrible, that it’s a wonder I didn’t start weeping blood during my screening. This award’s recipient stands as an example of everything that’s wrong with the film industry. It surpasses Evil Dead’s mediocre kind of bad as well as The Host’s more humorous kind of bad. It shoots past the aggressively bad Paranoia and zooms straight on towards the downright offensive. The recipient of this award managed to turn an epic thrill-ride into a tortuous three hour journey into tedium and failure. Likewise, the frenetic, unfocused action and the inane plot contributed to the film being almost physically painful to sit through. I’ll never get those three hours of my life back, and for that reason, I’ll never forgive The Lone Ranger.

Dallas Buyers Club Review

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2013 has been a year abnormally bloated with biopics. Jobs, 42, Rush, Kill Your Darlings and a host of others having already been released, and the highly anticipated Saving Mr. Banks slated for release in late December- Dallas Buyers Club proves to be yet another late addition. Astoundingly little press has been generated in support of the film (the first trailers having been released in August) which makes one wonder if word of mouth alone will catapult it to commercial success. In any case, let me get on with this poor excuse for consumer advice and do my part as a cog in the promotional machine.

Canadian filmmaker Jean-Mark Vallée directs this production, centering on the struggle of one Ron Woodroof as he struggles to remedy his HIV and subsequent AIDS infection through the use of non-FDA approved drugs. Interestingly, Vallée seems to have a bit of a penchant for exploring homophobic intolerance in overwhelmingly conservative environments- see his 2005 film C.R.A.Z.Y as a prime example- so the story contained within Dallas Buyers Club seems to be a natural fit in retrospect. The film likewise incorporates some impressive camerawork from cinematographer Yves Bélanger which serves to emphasize Woodroof’s increasingly deteriorating mental and physical health to some degree.

The film stars Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof and Jared Leto as the drug addled transvestite Rayon, both of whom were charged with losing massive amounts of weight for their respective roles. Many have praised McConaughey for giving the performance of his career, which isn’t particularly saying all that much, though I admit that his talent and physique are both ideal fits for the broken wreck of a man that is Woodroof. McConaughey takes us, with impressive verisimilitude (if you’ll excuse the pretension), through the various stages of coping with his disease, from denial to depression to defiance, and finally to resignation as he wages his war, motivated both by humanistic compassion and the pursuit of a little cash, with the FDA.

The plot, as deceptively simple as it is, does deserve a bit more attention. The film takes place in 1985 at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in America. Ron Woodroof, our homophobic, druggie protagonist is diagnosed with HIV and is given 30 days to live. As his disease develops, he becomes increasingly ostracized by his friends and relations due to the stigma attached to AIDS, at that time, as a “gay” disease. But old Woodroof is a defiant kind of fellow, and travels around the world searching for drugs to ease the symptoms of his illness. Eventually, Woodroof forms what’s known as a buyers club in order to sell his drugs to other victims of HIV/AIDS. Essentially, a buyers club allows and individual to pay a certain amount of money in membership dues to be a part of a club. In exchange, that individual can receive the drugs that they need for free- because selling the drugs is illegal, but giving them away for free is merely frowned upon.

So I’m five paragraphs in and I haven’t really stated whether the film is good or not. Here’s the thing- Dallas Buyers Club is a solid, emotionally compelling movie, but it’s ultimately forgettable. I have a suspicion that the majority of moviegoers will enjoy the film as they sit in the theater, but at the same time it won’t make it on anyone’s ‘top five’ list. Apart from some mild pacing problems (things tend to drag on in parts), there’s nothing that’s really glaringly wrong here, but on the other hand, I can’t really point to Dallas Buyers Club as a paragon of contemporary filmmaking either. If this film is to be remembered years from now, it will be for bringing into interesting relief a particularly dark time in the history of the US, and not for its acting, plot, or technical execution. And perhaps that might be enough, but only time will tell.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Insidious: Chapter 2 Review

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Well, I suppose that the beginning of October is as good a time as any to take an in-depth look at Insidious: Chapter 2, although at this point it might as well be a retrospective. With the original Insidious (2011) still firmly maintaining its position in my top horror movie superstar tag-team, expectations were understandably high for the sequel. ‘Prolific’  might be a good word to describe James Wan’s career in 2013, with The Conjuring having been released in July and now Insidious 2 not even a few weeks later. The former, by all accounts being generally decent, may be the superior of the two films, as Wan takes another earnest stab at his hugely popular franchise.

Wan teams up once again with Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne, who reprise their roles as the world’s unluckiest suburbanites Josh Lambert and Renai Lambert, respectively. As far as the acting is concerned, we’ve got quite a case of “second verse- same as the first.” If you saw either Insidious or The Conjuring, not a whole lot can really be added apart from the fact that there’s just more of the old “white people acting scared.” I will say that Wilson takes a slightly transformative role in Chapter 2, in that he evolves from the somewhat soft spoken, mild mannered suburban father to a bloodthirsty killer on account of his being possessed- which isn’t really as big a spoiler as it sounds. Strangely, the transformation doesn’t really become him, especially as far as his physique is concerned, and a lot of his possessed posturing and subdued antagonism comes across as more humorous than frightening; granted, it’s possible that Wan might have wanted to play this whole sequence for laughs in order to aid in a little juxtaposition, but it seems like such a jarring shift of the established tone to be of any real value.

The thing about Insidious: Chapter 2 is that I’m not entirely sure it needs to exist at all. I was under the impression that The Conjuring was essentially the spiritual successor to Insidious’s legacy, especially because Insidious had a strong ending the wrapped protagonist’s respective stories. Clever folks might remember that the very end of Insidious had a certain amount of ambiguity to it, which added mightily to the unnerving quality of the narrative and the film’s overall effectiveness. The audience was free to come to their own conclusions as to what became of the individual characters, although the overarching plot of that film had decidedly been wrapped up. Insidious 2, therefore, stumbles at the first hurdle by necessarily having to contrive a new reason for the story to continue. Furthermore, and this is really just the due to the nature of the genre rather than an attempt to discredit the writing, the characters simply aren’t interesting or dynamic enough to cary two distinct movies, and I think the sequel suffers for it.

The other main issue I have with the film is the overall concept of the antagonist. Here’s a screenwriting master class for you: the antagonist always remains more mysterious and dangerous the less you see of it. That, in large part, is what made the original Insidious so successful. Throughout the film, it wasn’t entirely clear what kind of hell-spawn was pursuing the protagonist, and indeed, all the audience really sees of the antagonist are two extremely brief glimpses- both of which are obscured. You see, the audience will always, always be more successful at scaring itself than the filmmaker will ever hope to be, for the simple reason that no one knows what scares the viewer better than the viewer himself. Now, in Insidious 2, instead of allowing the audience to imagine what satanic malevolence has clawed its way out of the blackest recesses of the stygian pit to devour every mortal soul, the writer explains precisely who and what the baddie is, while Wan fills the screen with copious lingering shots of the aforementioned baddie, to allay any vestige of interest or engagement we may have managed to retain.

So, with an uninteresting antagonist and a contrived story, I guess the real question that we have to ask of a horror movie is “does it scare me?” Sadly, the answer is no. I really wanted Insidious 2 to be great, and while it has it’s moments here and there, I kind of feel like James Wan has lost his way a little. Wan’s directorial style, while usually very effective, is nothing if not formulaic. As a fan of nearly all of his movies to date, including Saw, Dead Silence (controversially), Insidious, and The Conjuring, I’ve certainly started to pick up some patters. I suppose that when you get right down to it, Insidious 2 is just kind of predictable, which is really a first for Wan.

As far as horror movies go, Wan remains a master of the craft, despite Insidious 2 being a bit of a miss. However, I, personally speaking, will be waiting with baited breath for Wan’s next film… Fast & Furious 7. I kid you not. FAST & FURIOUS 7. What a time to be alive.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

 

Prisoners Review

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Prisoners is a movie that surprised a lot of people, myself included, mainly because it managed to refrain from giving away 90 percent of the plot in its trailer. With it’s clever marketing and big-name cast, Prisoners might very well be one of the murder mystery movies to be released in a very long time. The film is unique in that it manages to mix ultra-realistic, incredibly dark and gritty drama with sensationalized murder mystery intrigue without causing either element to feel out of place, and indeed highlighting the respective strengths of both.

Directed by the relatively unknown Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, who’s other films are almost exclusively foreign language pieces, Prisoners as well its predecessor, Incindies, make for a stunning debut. Written by Aaron Guzikowski, the film is rock solid from a thematic sense and almost reminds me of something Paul Thomas Anderson might make if he had run out of anti-depressants in the dead of winter. To say the film is bleak is a phenomenal understatement. Every shot, every angle, and virtually every character is designed to evoke a feeling of desolation and decay, even perhaps disgust, as events unfold amidst possibly the most depressing backdrop of small town America ever conceived, and frankly, I couldn’t be more pleased. It’s this kind of thematic and visual cohesion that tends to take immersion to the next level, and creates a fitting parallel between the inner turmoil of the characters and the aesthetic of the setting.

Starring Hugh “Why Don’t I Have An Oscar Yet?” Jackman as the reactionary, ultra-conservative, hyper-religious father figure and Jake Gyllenhaal as the over-stressed, over-worked Detective Loki, the film seems to take a perverse pleasure to pushing the limits of what a human being can take in times of extreme stress and grief. I heard another critic suggest that, in any other mystery movie, either the father or the officer would either rise to the occasion and become the hero of the hour, but in Prisoners, that hero is nowhere to be found. Instead, the film shows us exactly how low a man wracked with grief and obsessed with vengeance is capable of sinking. Therein lies most of the film’s seer brutality and pitch black tone, which for the most part is pulled off extremely successfully. Now, although Jackman admittedly has the flashier and more dramatic part, special recognition should be given in this instance to Gyllenhaal, who performs marvelously as a lone combatant in a terrifying and incomprehensible world. Be that as it may, Prisoners is not without it’s flaws, most of which concern the story which it so carefully kept under wraps prior to its release.

The problem I face when examining issues with the plot is that I may spoil some important twists. Therefore, in order to preserve some of the mystique and intrigue, I’ll maintain a measure of ambiguity. First, there is a massive portion of the storyline, and I’m talking about 30 to 45 minutes, that deals with a red herring that proves to be ludicrously convoluted a built up to a largely unnecessary degree, but is later revealed to have almost no connectivity to the overarching plot. The connection is extremely subtle, and I’d honestly forgive anyone who thought that an hour and a half of a completely different movie had been spliced into the middle of Prisoners. I understand that the intended purpose of such a maneuver was to keep the tension high by removing the payoff until a point further into the story, but the degree to which this little tangent was played up was a bit overkill. Secondly, there’s one specific point in the story when Jackman’s character, who is presumably possessed of enough bloodlust and murder frenzy at this point to shame the Golden Horde, is held hostage essentially by someone’s grandma. The dissonance between what we had come to expect from Jackman’s character up to this point and how he acts during this specific altercation was enough to seriously take me out of the moment enough for me to question what must have been going through the screenwriter’s mind, which is never a good sign. Jackman literally marches up to this woman’s house carrying a set of tools for the explicit purpose of torturing this individual for information, and when he’s confronted, he basically surrenders like a little lost lamb. In what context is that supposed to make any kind of sense whatsoever?

Despite these few, albeit significant, flaws, Prisoners is a very satisfying, very engaging mystery that is a testament to the ability of both the cast and the director. Personally, I’m very much looking forward to what else Villeneuve has in store for us. For those seeking some thematically satisfying fare after this drought of a summer we’ve had, you could most certainly do worse than Prisoners.

Rating: 4 out of 5