prisoners-posterReligious symbolism clashes with the harsh brutalities of a world bent in two by purely evil forces in the drama Prisoners which seeks to frighten, disturb, and wring us out emotionally. The redeeming qualities, however, unleash some terrific acting performances and unsettling suspense throughout a 2 1/2 hour runtime that manages to fly.

Two missing six-year-old girls from two different suburban families (Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello) – (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis) are the center of an investigation led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal).  There is only one clear suspect to Keller Dover (Jackman), and that is a mentally challenged, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), whom Keller believes abducted the girls in his RV.  Loki, however, can’t find any substantial evidence to support Jones as his man.

A spiraling investigation leads Loki and Keller to desperation in their own ways.  As each day passes, the girls are certainly closer to death if they aren’t already.

Directed with a great deal of feeling by Denis Villeneuve, Prisoners resists the route of typical revenge actioners and actually heads up the drama in very realistic, albeit overwrought, fashion.  The premise manages to carry the film for quite a while leading to a satisfying and physically draining conclusion that answers nearly every question the audience can throw at it.  While the film lends itself to being picked apart due to the nature of an unfolding mystery, the picture is held together so well by alarmingly good performances for thinly drawn characters that have little range on paper, yet bloom onscreen.

Jackman is the angry autocratic father.  Gyllenhaal is the determined investigator.  Bello is the weeping wife.  None of the characters have lives outside of their predicament.  Yet the acting is so very good that I failed to notice it much until further reflection.

This is obviously the kind of film gunning for awards attention, and for the most part it deserves it.  Jackman and Gyllenhaal especially deliver strong performances worthy of consideration.  The film as a whole could be a little tighter, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that I was glued to the screen the entire time, even when I wanted to look away.  Prisoners is a mostly fascinating drama that delivers a strong hit to the gut.

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Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

I love a good time-travel story.  From the Terminator films, Back to the Future series, and ripping yarns like the 2000  film Frequency, there is something alluring and exciting about the past and future colliding.  Even the recent Star Trek reboot found a few wormholes.  Time travel will always come across in film as a tricky contradicting device full of paradoxes.  In Prince of Persia, the film bases its premise on the possibility that time travel and its power may fall into the wrong hands (as all films of this sort do), but it presents time travel in a limited arrangement.

The plot introduces the Persian empire at the height of its power.  Its king is paraded through the streets where he comes across a defiant young boy who seeks to protect another young man from punishment as a result of thievery.  In fact, it feels very similar to a live-action version of Disney’s Aladdin.  This protective boy, Dastan, stirs up the king’s heart, and the orphaned boy is taken into the royal family as a young prince.  Later on he grows up to become the adult Jake Gyllenhaal, bulked up with flowing dark hair and bronzed skin attributed to multiple trips to the tanning salon.  He is a trained warrior, and trusted commander in the nation’s army.  Dastan’s royal brothers are set to capture the peaceful city of  Almut.  Though Dastan’s skills as a fighter are commendable among his siblings, they feel he is not ready for such a massive attack.  To prove himself worthy, Dastan scaffolds the wall of Almut and lays siege to the city, leading a small band of soldiers to victory before the royal brothers arrive.  Dastan becomes a hero, and as such, takes a handsome dagger from Almut—one with mystical powers. 

During a celebration, the ceremony is interrupted when a prestigious cloak, laced with an acidic poison, is offered to the king and kills him very quickly.  Dastan, having been asked to offer the cloak before the ceremony, appears to be the traitor with the intent of taking the throne.  Quickly afoot from his own people, Dastan escapes with a princess of Almut, Tamina (Gemma Arterton) captured shortly following the attack.  Tamina’s sole interest is in protecting the dagger Dastan carries and returning it, as it has the power to rewind a minute (or roughly so) in time.  It soon becomes apparent to Dastan that someone, most likely his eldest brother, must have been after the dagger for its power.  The story eventually expands the power of the dagger in revealing an underground stone ruled by the gods that can ultimately lead to a total reversal of history and mankind’s complete destruction.  What else is new?

Caught in this storm of chaos, Dastan seeks out his uncle (Ben Kingsley), the only man he can trust to clear his name and restore order in the kingdom, as well as return the dagger to safety.

Regarding the dagger and its power, I love how the story has found a way to eliminate the paradox of time travel.  The dagger holds a button on it, that if pressed with the proper sand in it (dopey, I know), simply rewinds time back about a minute.  Only the holder of the dagger knows that any change has taken place.  So in essence, there really isn’t any traveling in time—time is simply rewinding itself, and this is the limit of the dagger.  I like the premise, and the limited power there.  But of course the premise takes things to a new level once man’s history is revealed.  The gods apparently had wiped out all of humanity but one young girl who pleaded to live and was granted her survival.  She was given this dagger of power and it has been kept in secret… blah, blah, blah.  The narrative makes a huge leap to potential world annihalation, and once this happens, the story gets incredibly sloppy and stitched together, when it could have stuck to this dagger’s original limit of power.  I’m sure that would have been more enjoyable.

Prince of Persia is based on a video game series I haven’t played, nor ever will I’m sure.  And of course, this coulda-shoulda-woulda blockbuster film from Producer Jerry Bruckheimer (hoping so desperately to turn this into a Pirates of the Caribbean franchise) delivers a very expensive product.  You can see it onscreen, even if a few of the digital shots look a little hammy.  With a lot opportunity here, the film turns to silliness to try and exact the charm of that Johnny Depp adventure.  The problem is that Gyllenhaal is no Depp.  And as much leaping and jumping around as Gyllenhaal’s stuntmen do, as muscle-bound as the actor has become, it doesn’t bring natural charisma or wit to his performance as a side effect. 

The story doesn’t help Gyllenhaal’s cause.  Pirates was silly, yes, but the characters carried the plot.  Once Prince of Persia evolves into a history lesson on the gods’ wiping out humanity, and their intent on doing so again if the dagger is misused, I felt the story crumbling in on itself, as if I could see the writers in the background trying to staple ideas together.  Ultimately, the film gets too big, too silly, and too careless for any of its original ambitions to prevail, and the filmmakers should have realized that a mammoth production wouldn’t sell itself.  Pirates of the Caribbean certainly didn’t.  Bruckheimer had his ace in the hole after all was said and done—Johnny Depp making an icon out of Jack Sparrow.  Unfortunately he failed to repeat that process.  While Persia still isn’t quite the mess that the third Pirates film became, it’s still about as silly and unpolished.  As a marginally enjoyable big-budget diversion, I found this film to be watchable, but I can’t heartily recommend it.

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Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In America) directs one of the finest acting ensembles of the year in “Brothers,” an isolating and tense drama featuring a standout performance from Tobey Maguire.

Maguire plays Sam Cahill, a family man marine called back into combat shortly after his brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), returns home on parole.  Natalie Portman plays Grace, Sam’s wife.  During a helicopter mission in Afghanistan, Sam’s chopper is shot down, and he and another private are taken as POWs.  The two are assumed dead.  Grace, her two daughters and the rest of the family quickly hear of this news.  Tommy takes it upon himself to turn his life around and be there for Grace and the kids.

“Brothers” actually surprised me with how low-key the movie plays out (for the most part).  The scenes with Maguire and the torture he endures while taken hostage by the enemy are less intense and sadistic than I was anticipating.  Not to say they aren’t impacting and intense, but Sheridan often cuts away from some of the more disturbing shots.  The film’s greatest strength and source of intensity comes from its many talented actors.   The young actresses that play the daughters are some of the best child actors I’ve witnessed.  10-year-old Bailee Madison, especially, has some remarkable delivery here.  Among the adult actors, Jake Gyllenhaal has a fine understated performance as the distant drunk brother who slowly turns himself into a family man.  Sam Shepherd makes the most of his cliched angry Vietnam vet father spouting off the infamous “the wrong kid died” anger towards Tommy.  Natalie Portman should earn some attention as the confused grieving wife, who in some respects, takes the reigns of the movie.

But above all, perhaps the biggest surprise is Tobey Maguire, showing a side of his acting abilities we haven’t yet seen as we’ve become accustomed to “Spider-Man” and “Seabiscuit.”  Upon his character’s return home following his mind-altering abuse and captivity, Maguire sends “Brothers” soaring with a few select, memorable scenes that ratchet up the tension immensely.  Whether his performance qualifies him for a leading actor role (the Golden Globes thought so) or a supporting actor, it’s disappointing that so many critics’ circles and reviewers are dismissing his performance.  I’ve read phrases like “you either buy his performance or you don’t,” and I can say that I did.  Maguire is finely tuned here, showcasing the dark side of his capabilities.

Overall, “Brothers” often times feels like talented actors and a handful of tense scenes piled on an average “been there, done that” story mixed in with a big anti-war message.  We’ve seen many ‘coming home’ films about the impact of combat and the destructive power it has on its soldiers.  Some of these movies hit (The Hurt Locker, Born on the 4th of July), some miss (Stop Loss), and this one definitely works very well when it works very well.  If for no other reason, the film should be seen for Maguire’s performance and those moments here that are effective.  Otherwise, I found a lot of this to be standard procedure, even if it’s done adequately by a talented cast.

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