When Canadian director Denis Villeneuve was nominated for a best foreign-language Oscar for 2010's excellent Incendies, it was obvious he had no problem bringing dark and difficult moral drama to the big screen. Prisoners sees him chart similar choppy waters under the noble tradition of the big-budget crime thriller, and the results are similarly spectacular.
A wintry, small-town Canada of crows, dirty windows and dead vegetation is the backdrop as two young girls go missing on a Thanksgiving afternoon. Fathers Keller and Franklin (Hugh Jackman and Terence Howard) grow increasingly worried as it emerges the girls were playing near a mysterious camper van parked in the estate. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is assigned to the case and soon the RV is tracked down. Its driver, however, is a mentally ill young man (an unsettling Paul Dano) who claims to have never seen the girls.
This is not good enough for the fiercely survivalist Keller, who decides to imprison the suspect in an abandoned tenement and use grisly torture to extract info. As Keller's moral compass malfunctions, Loki is following a scent that could lead to the girls' real whereabouts.
Pale of complexion but dark and twisted of heart and with a gritty sense of foreboding, Prisoners is arguably the best police-procedural thriller in a year that has been lacking in that department. It meanders moodily over two and a half hours as Loki and Keller's stories run in tandem before conjoining memorably. Jackman is manly desperation itself while Gyllenhaal's twitchy, tattooed detective is an unassuming hero. Dano, Howard and Melissa Leo complete a robust cast.
Irish Londoner Gerry (Aiden Gillen) flies out to Singapore following the sudden death of his brother and comes to find out much about both his sibling's dodgy business interests and family life. With his own life back in the UK falling to tatters amid his wife's infidelity, Gerry looks upon the hostess bar his brother owned and his beautiful wife Kim (Zoe Tay) as a chance to perhaps start out again.
With an almost creeping lack of consciousness, Gerry finds himself out of his depth, wearing his brother's clothes, drinking in his bar and attempting to strong-arm a business associate who owes the family money. All the while he is getting closer to Kim while the skeletons of some unresolved trauma back in London rattle around his sun-scorched brain.
Irish husband-and-wife team Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor (Helen) direct with an eye for intrigue that is oftentimes hypnotic. This is 'tropical noir' where snakebites and nightmares hide by the water's edge and an ambient dread is carried aloft on moody orchestration, cut only by the odd slap of absurdist humour.
Gillen – a man in demand since the advent of The Wire and Game of Thrones but who still finds time for indie fare such as this – is typically smouldering. But the problem with Mister John, is Gerry himself. We tune into the exotic weirdness only for the film to ground to a halt after 90 minutes without finishing what it starts. There isn't enough sense of a full stop to Gerry's arc, and like the recent and comparable Only God Forgives, a feeling that auteurism has been at the expense of a bigger narrative opportunity.
With a regional box-office take of an estimated $10.5bn and a whole universe of investors, talent and narratives to exploit, it's unsurprising that many European directors are now making films in various corners of Asia. One example was Welshman Gareth Evans last year, who despite a budget of $1m, managed a box-office return of $15m from his slick Indonesian beat-em-up The Raid.
English filmmaker Sean Ellis is attempting something similar you feel with Metro Manila where he makes excellent use of the tools to hand in the hot, bustling sprawl of the Filipino capital. Oscar (Jake Macapagal) is a rice farmer and young father in the rural provinces forced to up sticks and relocate his family to Manila when the price of rice drops. Initially buzzing over the possibilities, luck evades them and they quickly find themselves hungry, penniless and running out of options.
Through a stroke of luck, Oscar manages to get a job with an armoured-car company after he is taken under the wing of security chief Ong (John Arcilla, excellent). As Ong's partner, Oscar settles into his first week making high-security deliveries around the city. But it becomes apparent that Oscar is not there for the reasons he thinks and any desperation he may have felt on arrival in Manila is suddenly ratcheted up intensely.
Ellis's crime drama is told with sense-tingling style and moxie, but what gives Metro Manila so much personality and freshness is the unfamiliarity of its setting, a new jungle with different laws and stakes. Oscar is 'us', essentially, a stranger in a new land on training day, and Macapagal conveys that sweaty cocktail of terror and determination capably. Sturdy work by all involved.
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Justin Timberlake made the not frequently successful transition from child star to grown-up star and followed it with the even less frequently successful transition from singer to actor. He's still churning out the falsetto dance tunes but has managed to bag good roles in good movies. In Runner Runner he plays Richie, a Princeton post grad online gambling to win his tuition fees. When he loses once too often he works out it can only be a glitch or a cheat and decides, rather than go public, to go to see the site-owner Ivan (Ben Affleck) in Costa Rica.
Ivan, although not initially thrilled is later nothing but nice, and offers this young whippersnapper image of himself a job. It could not be more golden, there's even a lovely colleague in the sumptuous form of Gemma Arterton. So what does the FBI want?
Brad Furman made the highly regarded thrillers The Lincoln Lawyer and The Take, co-writer Brian Koppelman has some excellent credits to his name, like Michael Clayton. Before the Batman glitch Affleck had regained kudos from Argo, Arterton is on the up and Timberlake, if not taken entirely seriously, has proven annoyingly not bad to his critics. And Runner Runner shames none of them.
It's a self-contained, compact and entertaining thriller, the plot demands attention, the cast do a good job and it looks lovely. But it's so self-contained it's almost ephemeral, once it's over nothing lingers. There's lots of swearing, some violence and no nudity or loose ends, an enjoyable and unchallenging hour and a half.
The spirit of Bridesmaids is relocated to the Regency era in director Jerusha Hess's comedy caper, Austenland. That would seem to be the intention, at any rate, behind this hit-and-miss affair starring Keri Russell and JJ Field. Russell takes the central role as Jane Hayes, a Jane Austen junkie who finds the world outside of her literary heroine's novels an inhospitable place. Unlucky in love and with her biological clock ticking, this American-based thirty-something has made her home a shrine to Austen, to the extent that it resembles an explosion in a petticoat factory. Her hopeless addiction to Austen is such that when she sees a TV ad for Austenland, a high-end theme park where "Austen aficionados" can let their wildest romantic fantasies run riot, her bosom heaves in exact correlation to the extent her bank balance contracts. Jane has to have it, of course, so it's a case of next stop Blighty and a week in Austenland, the stately pile run by Mrs Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour). It doesn't disappoint, at least initially. Jane's budget only extends to the "copper package," as opposed to the "platinum package" enjoyed by more well-heeled visitors, but no stone is left unturned or silver unpolished in the attempt at creating the ultimate retro experience. Toffs in top-hats abound and naturally there's no shortage of breeches.
Soon Jane or "Miss Erstwhile" to use her Austenland name has succumbed to the charms of a farm labourer, Martin (Bret McKenzie), despite the attentions of the dashing Henry Nobley (JJ Field). But what's real and who is to be trusted? Be still my unbeat..., sorry, my beating heart.
US critics were mostly underwhelmed but I felt this enjoyable piece had more good moments than bad. It lacks definition and struggles to build on the good idea that drives the narrative but Russell delivers a tongue-in-cheek tour de force in the central role and if you maintain the bar of expectation at a reasonable elevation, you just might find it right on the funny.
Cursory knowledge of the writings of Dostoyevsky or Descartes is sufficient to know themes surrounding "the evil that men do" have consistently inspired great minds to great thoughts. Director Margarethe Von Trotta's absorbing biopic, Hannah Arendt, tells the tale of another brilliant mind compelled to confront similar subject matter.
Having narrowly escaped extermination by the Nazis after fleeing to the US, the Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) we encounter during the opening scenes is already a celebrated political theorist and philosopher. A former student of Heidegger, "the man who taught her to think", it's 1961 in New York and Arendt runs with a highly cerebral crowd of fellow intellectuals. It appears that "everything is simple for a genius", but the arrest of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and his subsequent trial in Jerusalem precipitates a return to her "dark times".
Having published a work titled The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt is understandably fascinated by the Eichmann trial and is commissioned by The New Yorker to travel to Israel and report on its passage. The resulting articles provoked a dramatic backlash against Arendt as her conclusions were considered an indictment of the behaviour of certain Jewish leaders during the war while her thoughts on Eichmann's "mediocrity" and "the banality of evil" were interpreted as a betrayal of both her Jewish identity and the memory of Holocaust victims. Cue a Braveheart for brainy people scenario as Arendt is heroically obliged to sacrifice almost everything in the defence of her iconoclastic conclusions.
The highly cerebral nature of the subject matter results in the spectacle succumbing to stage-bound tendencies at different times but this remains stirring stuff. The inclusion of authentic archive footage of the Eichmann trial adds a fascinating historical dimension to the experience while the timeless relevance of the themes considered and the cut and thrust of the various positions held will thrill those moviegoers who fancy an excursion to what Flann O'Brien called "the kingdom of the mind".
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