Red State (2011)

Red StateReleased: September 29, 2011. Directed by: Kevin Smith. Starring: Michael Parks, Melissa Leo, John Goodman. Runtime: 88 min.

I must give respect writer/director Kevin Smith for giving us something we haven’t seen from him before. There’s only one laugh in the entire movie. It’s a nice change of pace for him, but not a great film.

Set in Middle America, Jarod (Kyle Gallner) invites two of his best friends, Randy (Ronnie Connell) and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) to have a foursome with an older woman he met through a dating site. Instead of having a good time, they fall onto the family church of Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), a religious zealot who has a much more sinister agenda.

I also respect that this is a movie I wasn’t really expecting – because it’s certainly not one’s run-of-the-mill action-horror flick. It also realistically portrays religious fantacism, in a particularly shocking way in one scene – but when Cooper simply preaches his beliefs down his family’s throats (and our throats, too, in turn) it’s the same familiar Bible quoting. I have my own religious beliefs – but I’m not one to stand on the lawn of a church during a funeral to protest homosexuality.

Things take a turn halfway through when intelligent cops actually show up (a rarity for horror flicks, no less) on a lead of the compound holding weapons that violate the National Firearms Act. These occurrences change the film’s tone from subtle horror to a bit of full-out action, and that isn’t the worst thing in the world because with that we get another intense performance from John Goodman. Viewers also get to see Michael Parks act nucking futs, and Nicholas Braun’s fear of the situation in one scene is particularly impressive.

There’s some analysis of repercussions of taking orders and not taking orders from higher powers (I’m talking about one’s boss in this case!), as well as some thoughts on terrorism. The religious fanatics are a little cuckoo and some of the occurrences are disappointing; leading me to not really care about the characters any more, but at least there’s some humanity within the religious family. It’s cool that some of the focus is taken away from the young teens who were the stars at the beginning, but surprising. But that’s what we look for in films – surprises. That’s what makes “Red State” only a decent watch. An unpleasant surprise is that this feels much more like an action film than a horror film, but it’s still not a waste of time; and one thing is certain: It makes me a bit more cautious of Craigslist, at least if there are any religious fanatics in my area.

Score63/100

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Prisoners (2013)

PrisonersReleased: September 20, 2013. Directed by: Denis Villeneuve. Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard. Runtime: 153 min.

Thought-provoking and engaging, “Prisoners” represents a type of film that I I love. It asks the question: What would you do if your child was kidnapped? What lengths would you go to get them back?

Thanksgiving for the Dover and Birch families start out like any other, but takes a horrifying turn after dinner. When a young daughter is taken from each family (Anna from the Dover clan, Eliza from the Birches), it is hell on earth. They call the police and, later, the RV their children were playing by is found. After a suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), is released by police because he has the IQ of a ten year-old, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) must take matters into his own hands. He is convinced this man has kidnapped his daughter and her friend.

Meanwhile, the lead detective, Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is following leads and attempting to find the girls before time runs out. Dover is doing the same, but with a different form of vigilante justice.

As an ethical exploration, “Prisoners” is fascinating. As a kidnapper-revenge crime story, it’s dark and complex; if predictable at times. There are plot twists upon plot twists, but many are “Ooooh, I shoulda known.” It is an enthralling ride, either way.

The ethical questions raised throughout are how far would you go to get your kids back? It’s a story about parental instincts, but the mothers take backseat roles in the film. Viola Davis portays Nancy Birch, who learns of the drastic plan Keller has hatched later on. Maria Bello, who plays Grace Dover, has the smallest amount of screen time out of the primary cast, as she is popping insomnia pills like they are M&M’s throughout the movie.

So, to many, it might seem as if the film is predominantly about fatherly instincts. Hugh Jackman’s character (Keller Dover) represents the desperation of fathers who will be the backbone behind a drastic plan, and wish to see it through to the end as to see his baby girl again. Terrence Howard (Franklin Birch) is the father who is a bit more reluctant to going to these illegal heights at seeing his child again. Most fathers will go through this plan, but he just represents the fathers who will be a bit more heartbroken about it… But won’t stop it. Personally, my fatherly instincts might be a bit more akin towards Howard’s.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s Loki is the only main male character who doesn’t have a child. He represents the rational law-man, who’s fighting for what’s right. His heart goes into this case, as well. This situation is intense for him, but it’d be much scarier if he had children. His contribution to the story is leading the case; but Keller thinks he could be doing his job a helluva lot better.

Those of us in the audience without children, can understand the lengths Keller and Franklin would go through to get their children back. It’s unsettling and heartbreakingly shocking. What is a heartbreaking aspect to it is that, even though we might not be the one doing the beating, all humans with a heart will go to these lengths to see their child again. This is what makes these characters so real. The only unrealistic part of the film is the recurring cop cliché of who the hell needs back-up or partners?

The Controversial Oscar Nominee Squad Beating On A Villain (that’s what I like to call them) aspect of the film makes us sympathize with a potential villain. Paul Dano plays the softly-spoken Alex Jones, a suspect in the case – and a character who will keep you guessing on how much he knows about the girls’ disappearance. Another memorable performance is from Alex Jones’ aunt, Holly Jones, portrayed by Melissa Leo in a nearly unrecognisable role.

Writer Aaron Guzikowski knows what solid storytelling is all about, and director Denis Villeneuve knows how to create a intricate and dark atmosphere, coupled with great imagery. It seems as if he’s been taking a tip or two from David Fincher; as this feels as intense as “Zodiac” in more than a few scenes; making me think of this as one of the more suspenseful films of recent memory. Villeneuve also knows how to get incredible performances out of his talented cast.

No matter how small the performances of those involved, they are emotionally involving and, most importantly, believable. Gyllenhaal is great as Detective Loki, relentless and powerful in his pursuit of the girls. He continues to play a believable detective. Jackman’s emotions are believable because many fathers will react the way he does. His mind is focused on seeing his daughter again, and the way he remains strong under this extraordinary pressure, and how he breaks down under his desperation is heartbreaking. He is one of the only people staying strong when others are crumbling. Jackman is phenomenal because he pours his heart and soul into this film. There might just be another Oscar nomination for Jackman on the way.

What is impressive about the movie is its truly emotional impactful story. It’s engaging in so many ways. There’s a lot of power when a movie can be simultaneously terrifying and heartbreaking. It’s phenomenal at 153 minutes, but I wonder how much better it would be if it were about ten minutes shorter. It’s a really fascinating puzzle to piece together, that’s certain. Unforgettable and hard to watch; the ethical debates people will have about this film is what cinema is all about.

Score95/100

White House Down (2013)

White House DownRelease Date: June 28, 2013. Director: Roland Emmerich. Stars: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal. Runtime: 131 min.

Apparently infiltrating the White House is so easy, everyone’s doing it! (And they just finished re-building it, too!) All you have to do is rally up a bunch of people who are angry at the government, spend a day planning, synchronize your watches, and go to town. But be careful, there’s going to be a highly-decorated police officer of some kind standing in your way.

John Cale (Channing Tatum) is a Capitol police officer on tour of the White House with his daughter Emily (Joey King). He is also interviewing for a spot on the Secret Service, protecting President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx). On that very day, because the President issued an international Peace Treaty, a paramilitary group invades the White House; now John must save his daughter, the President, and the country.

Whether it be Channing Tatum vs. a 25-person paramilitary group or Gerard Butler vs. North Korea’s entire 300 person army, both action guys are forces to be reckoned with. “Olympus Has Fallen” had to face comparisons to “Die Hard” back in March, so compared to this, it is living on easy street. Now, this has to face comparisons to both “Die Hard” and “Olympus.” Will it stand strong through all of it? Probably not.

“White House Down” is the better movie in some ways – but “Olympus” has the benefit of being released first. The former is superior to the latter in the CGI-effects department, the higher-profile director, and the cast. Even against the likes of Gerard Butler, Morgan Freeman, Aaron Eckhart and Melissa Leo; once you have Tatum, Foxx and Maggie Gyllenhaal and then add the extra oomph of James Woods, Richard Jenkins and Jason Clarke; there’s no competition. But “Olympus” wins in many other aspects.

“Olympus” embraces its over-the-top brutality and the insane premise of a terrorist group taking down the most heavily protected house on Earth in a matter of minutes. That movie is a lot of fun. This is only mildly fun. It has fun with the premise, but its aspirations of becoming a great buddy action comedy feel forced. This feels too serious at times, which doesn’t work to the film’s benefit with so many frustrating “Okay, that’ll never happen!” moments. Granted, this premise will never happen – but if it does ever happen, we should all hope that the actual John McClane is taking a tour of the White House that day.

The antagonists’ motives are explained well for the most part. Cale’s motivations to stay at the White House to save his daughter are evident as well, even if those motivations are cookie-cutter. But that isn’t bad for this type of movie, because audiences are there for the action. There just isn’t enough of it.

The build-up takes too long, and this type of movie needs to have tension building that doesn’t take forever. There’s a lot of drama there, and we just want the action. And the bits of humour. Thankfully, there’s quite a lot of that, too. One of the members of the paramilitary group (the amusing hacker, Jimmi Simpson) has a lot of charisma, so he is the best antagonist in the movie – even better than the boss man (who I won’t reveal, even if (s)he’ll be blatantly obvious). There’s a prominent buddy comedy aspect, and even if the jokes aren’t so memorable, they provide big laughs at the time.

“White House Down” is familiar and forgettable, but it’s not a horrible way to pass 131 minutes. It just doesn’t bring enough to the table to be noteworthy. Since it’s so familiar, there are few surprises hiding away, and the antagonists are obvious from the get go. Apparently, if you’ve seen one Die Hard in the White House movie; you’ve seen them all.

Score: 58/100

Oblivion (2013)

OblivionOblivion

Release Date: April 19, 2013

Director: Joseph Kosinski

Stars: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko

Runtime: 126 min

Tagline: Earth Is a Memory Worth Fighting For

Jack (Tom Cruise) is one of the last drone repairmen remaining on Earth. All other survivors have evacuated, after a decades-long war with an alien race, where now the only threat are the Scavs remaining on Earth. After a disturbing find, Jack begins to question what he knows about his mission and himself.

At the end of it all, it remains a moderate disappointment and there’s much to be desired, especially in the story department.

The movie has a lot of good going for it. The characters are intriguing, where they make us ask who some of them really are. The characters of Julia and also Beech, portrayed by Olga Kurylenko and Morgan Freeman, respectively, are the charcters wrapped in the most mystery. Sally (Melissa Leo) is the head honcho up in space at the station, the Tet, who basically delivers and authenticates orders. Victoria (Andrea Risenborough) is on the mission with Jack, and she monitors him while he’s on missions to fix drones. Her philosophy is strictly business during the day, and fun in the evening. Jack often maintains that business mindset while on missions, even though he tends to go off monitor and do his own thing because he is very curious and is searching for meaning. He still believes Earth is his home, while Victoria cannot wait to go to the Tet and join the others. Jack’s search for meaning gives the film a solid narrative and makes it an effective character sci-fi drama, where all the dots are connected in the end. He has to find his way through basic man vs. man conflicts, man vs. technology conflicts, and most of all, man vs. self conflicts, as he is haunted by his own memories. The cast that portrays these characters is also top-notch.

The other highlight of the movie are the solid action sequences, the breathtaking landscapes and fantastic cinematography. This will be one of the most beautiful science fiction films to hit theatres this year, and is the nicest sci-fi to look at since last year’s Prometheus. It’s stunning when the camera is sailing over Iceland or when Cruise is just flying about; and that magnificent cinematography is the film’s strongest aspect. It’s one of the most gorgeous post-apocalyptic films you might ever see. The film also has a great score, and the technological gadgets are sh-weet.

The concept of Jack not really knowing his true self is portrayed well because sometimes we all lose our real sense of identity. It’s very frustrating when we really don’t know, so it’s realistic because he really has no idea of it, and it’s made even harder as he’s trying to hang onto any of his own humanity that remains.

The movie’s main problem is the storyline. The narrative all makes an admirable U-turn by the end of it all, but its road there can be hard to follow. Especially if you over-think it during. (You’d be thinking about the previous scene when a new, sometimes more complex scene is going on.) It’s also one of those sci-fi flicks that’ll be easier to understand on second or third viewing. The story also makes us question who the true villains are: Those on Earth (the Scavs, who look a bit too much like the antagonists from Predator), or whoever else is keeping secrets?

The story is intriguing but it loses its pacing and its initial great spark in the middle act. It aspires to be something grandiose in scale with its complex storyline, but comes out to be not as original as it could be and quite familiar because of all of its homages. The writers’ ambitions get in the film’s own way. The thing is, with all of its plot twists and turns, it feels like it’s striving to be something out of an M. Night Shyamalan or Christopher Nolan handbook. The twists aren’t as magnificent as something Nolan or Shyamalan could think of, because it feels like it’s striving to find the next new masterful twist that will never be forgotten. You might not be able to see them coming from the beginning of the movie, but many times during, you might be able to predict the basics of what will happen next a minute in advance.

This disappointing sci-fi feature will only receive a half-hearted recommendation; there’s just too much to be desired. There are effectively thrilling action sequences, breathtakingly beautiful cinematography, intriguing characters; but because of the highly ambitious storyline, the end product is an entertaining action movie, an intriguing sci-fi character drama, but a thinly-written mystery.

67/100