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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Knight and Day

If “Knight and Day” does anything particularly well, it proves that star-power is absolutely crucial in elevating haphazard writing.  Any hack writer can jot down “Action sequence. Car chase.” and proceed with details regarding grandiose explosion after explosion without one shred of an idea on how to pen stretches of dialogue or convincing human interaction.  Sometimes actors have to fill in the gaps, and their natural talent and improvisation can jack up a lazy script.  Such is the case with the overly-amplified vehicle starring the aging Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, two veterans in a movie about ten years too late for them, and still looking pretty good for their age.  Heck, who am I kidding?  We have ‘The Expendables’ ready to wreak havoc in a few months, so maybe Cruise and Diaz are shining in their prime.  Either way, their seniority is only one of many winks at the audience throughout “Knight and Day.”

I’ve heard all the rumors surrounding the pain and sweat (and multiple writers) that went into getting this movie to the screen.  While I’m sorry to say the final product isn’t a masterpiece for anyone involved, it does what it can.  I wonder how many writers it actually takes to deliver next to nothing as far as the plot goes.  Seriously, the plot seems to be recycled out of Cruise’s own ‘Mission: Impossible III.’  The punchline of a star turns the punchline on the audience, playing an eccentric and wildfire secret agent, Roy Miller, involving an unsuspecting mechanic, June (Cameron Diaz), in the middle of a one-man war against the F.B.I. (or so they claim they are).  Why is Roy on the run and bagging a bunch of other agents with machine guns?  Well, because they are after a new scientific breakthrough that can antiquate the world’s primary energy sources, and Miller may be out to protect it–or steal it.  For better or worse, June is Miller’s captive, and no matter where she runs, she can’t escape trouble.  To her own dismay and hesitation, she bargains for Miller’s ‘protection’ as he sends her into firestorm of one-man army battles involving warehouse shootouts, freeway chase shootouts, and jumping out of airliners probably involving shootouts.  If you want action, you have action and then some.

Saving this mess of a script is primarily Cruise, whose charisma and self-parody adds a necessary charm and hilarity to the proceedings.  The man knows his current public image, and the only way to absolve it is to acknowledge it and play it up for all it’s worth.  There’s little to no depth to the character of Miller, only a lunatic surface that could be real or fake. Let’s face it, he’s a secret agent and everything he does is for a reason.  Maybe he’s not crazy, but he spends most of his time killing off enemies in the most outrageously dangerous fashion at his disposal.  In fact, I think many audiences will be surprised how violent the film is.  Cruise acts like he’s finished a load of laundry after killing off 30 assassins.  Diaz starts out shocked by all the chaos early on in the film’s opening sequence where Cruise single-handedly takes out a plane full of killers and proceeds to land the airliner.  Gradually she becomes engulfed in her secret agent boy toy and eventually finds herself taking part in the mayhem.  Comedy holds it all together, as Cruise and Diaz riff off each other quite nicely.  They don’t so much create characters as much as exchange banter and crooked looks.  Surprisingly, that’s enough to keep “Knight and Day” in check.  The romance goes out the window–there’s no wild passionate love scenes or heated chemistry between the two–they simply coexist in this whacked out adventure.

James Mangold directed the movie, and to my surprise you would have no idea.  The man has “Walk the Line” and “3:10 to Yuma (2007)” to his credit.   Why he decided to jump into a loosely-plotted action-extravaganza is beyond me.  He may have had a heck of a time divulging in sugar-filled summer filmmaking.  The stars couldn’t be of higher-caliber or more glamorous, the worldwide locations for filming probably made for quite the treat, and the action sequences allow him to go as big as he possibly can.  He pulls it off surprisingly well.  I really have no complaints as generic summer action-pictures go.  This one is for laughs, audacious stunts, and two veteran actors taking ten years off their age or more.  It’s no ‘True Lies,’ but it’s about on par with ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith.’

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