Future Yesterday
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2013)

Though Marvel describes Captain America: The Winter Soldier as a spy thriller, the film stays true to Captain America’s World War II roots and also works as a kind of urban war movie. Still readjusting to the present, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a soldier who finds a new war on his home turf, an underground war in the intelligence community that. Weaponry and technology have become much more dangerous, and Cap finds himself working with new allies against old enemies. Winter Soldier continues to raise the bar of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, telling an interesting, personal story while still taking audiences on a thrill ride.

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Directors Joe and Anthony Russo do a great job of balancing the movie, mixing incredibly well-shot action sequences with emotional beats and lighthearted comedy. While a lot of exposition is necessary to set up new status quos, the film never felt rushed or boring. It helps that the Russos worked with the most charismatic cast this side of American Hustle, and the script finds ways to showcase them all. Evans basically is Captain America, handling both fight scenes and his character’s confidence with professionalism and energy. However, though Cap’s name is in the title, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) owns the film. Jackson gets to be the action movie hero, and his choices are central to the plot.

Winter Soldier also introduces Anthony Mackie as Sam Jones, an ex-military paratrooper otherwise known as The Falcon. Mackie is a great addition to the franchise, adding humor and heart, and I’d definitely like to see a spin-off about him. Though he’s technically a sidekick, he’s more of the second superhero in a real team-up, and his flight sequences are unique without being a repeat of Iron Man’s. Scarlett Johansson returns as the Black Widow, and she has some strong emotional material that ties into the film’s themes of secrets and moral corruption. In smaller roles, Robert Redford is perfectly smarmy as a member of the World Security Council, and Cobie Smulders retroactively shows why she was cast in The Avengers. If there’s a weak link, it may be Sebastian Stan as the Winter Soldier, but his limited performance is more a symptom of his character’s arc than anything else.

Even if Winter Soldier didn’t feature superheroes running around in colorful costumes, it would still be a great action movie. Some very creative cinematography, along with brutal fight choreography, makes you feel the impact of every punch. Though it sometimes gets over-the-top; the amount of creative kills rivals The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’s river battle, and redshirts get shot left and right. I also enjoyed seeing an action blockbuster at this level take place in Washington, D.C., and even though most of the film was shot in Cleveland or on soundstages, the production design did a good job recreating the look of the city. I can only hope this film inspires more projects to come to D.C.

In the grand scheme of superhero movies, Marvel’s been killing it lately. Winter Soldier rivals Iron Man 3, naturally bringing its characters to a new status quo while setting up the future. It feels like a complete, not like an in-between chapter, due to its great ensemble and willingness to go to new places. Now, on to something completely different with Guardians of the Galaxy!

Check out more of my movie reviews here, and look out for reviews of The Grand Budapest Hotel and Muppets Most Wanted soon.

28 Movies to Look Out For in 2014

No matter how much the internet will argue over which film should win which award, everybody can admit that it’s been a good year for film . 2014 looks to be just as packed with potential.

To be fair, most of these are big studio films- it’s harder to find information on indies, though I’m sure there are many out there I’m overlooking. Oftentimes, I’ll include a movie just because I like its cast or tagline. There’s no real way to predict the future, but here we go.

The Lego Movie (February 7)

My brother and I were raised on Legos. The coolest thing about them was the ability to take whatever pieces you want and mash them up- ninjas vs. pirates, rock monsters vs. medieval knights, and so on. Combine the comedy skills of writer/directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord with every franchise in Lego’s history, an A-list cast, and a cool, stop-motion influenced animation style, and this looks like a great movie. Plus, Will Arnett as Batman.

Robocop (February 12)

The anticipation for this one has been mixed, mostly due to the disinterest in a remake. However, I still have hope, due to the cast including Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson, and Joel Kinnaman, who was one of the only good parts of the awful The Killing. The remake has the potential to examine the current state of military/surveillance technology, much like Her did for consumer/personal computing and relationships. It’s hard to tell.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (March 7)

Wasn’t a big Moonrise Kingdom fan, but Wes Anderson’s next looks really good. I love how each shot looks flat like a diorama, but the depth is used to great effect. 

Grand Piano (March 7)

Elijah Wood plays a pianist forced to keep playing without making any wrong notes by an assassin. Looks like it has a very Hitchcockian flair for the theatrical.

Muppets Most Wanted (March 21)

Though I had mixed feelings about the first movie, the trailer for the sequel looks to be much funnier, taking the gang back to the more action-packed mode of The Great Muppet Caper.

Noah (March 28)

Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and Black Swan have cemented that I’ll always be in for whatever Darren Aronofsky wants to do. I’ve been staying away from spoilers on this one, but I’m excited.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (April 4)

While I’m a bit biased on this one, I have a feeling it’s going to be something cool. Even though only a bit was shot in Washington, D.C., it’s very D.C. centric, and from the trailer, it looks like the action from the first one continues to be awesome while giving the Captain a new status quo as a man out of time.

Oculus (April 18)

Indie horror about an evil mirror starring Karen Gillen of Doctor Who fame. Mostly just included for Karen Gillen, but the premise sounds cool too. 

Neighbors (May 9)

The trailer for this one was surprisingly funny, and I’m a fan of director Nicholas Stoller’s Get Him to the Greek and Fun with Dick and Jane (I’m pinning my disappointment with The Muppets mostly on Disney). Plus, it features a Robert DeNiro-themed frat party.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (May 23)

More excited for the combined cast from the original movies and First Class on this one than the movie itself. Is that weird?

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (July 11)

The sequel to 2011’s prequel, Dawn trades in James Franco for Gary Oldman and Jason Clarke, while featuring a suitably apocalyptic director in Cloverfield’s Matt Reeves. The fact that the studio has faith for Reeves in hiring him for the next one bodes well.

 Jupiter Ascending (July 18- hey, my birthday!)

Mixed feelings about the trailer/stills released so far, but Cloud Atlas was amazing (my favorite movie of 2012), so I’ll give the Wachowskis the benefit of the doubt. Their new Netflix show sounds really cool, though. 

Guardians of the Galaxy (August 1)

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Marvel takes a chance on a weirder property, featuring Andy from Parks and Recreation, a green-skinned female assassin, a talking Scottish raccoon, and a living tree. Definitely not the Avengers, and if the footage during the end credits of Thor: The Dark World is any indication, James Gunn is going to make this as weird as he can.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (August 22)

I’m always up for a Robert Rodriguez film, even if his latest films- Machete Kills and Spy Kids 4- haven’t exactly pushed the bar. Hey, did you see that Rodriguez is directing and producing a television series based on From Dusk Til Dawn? That sounds fun, as does a “Latin James Bond” series also in development for his new television network.

The Green Inferno (September 5)

“A group of student activists travel from New York City to the Amazon to save a dying tribe but crash in the jungle and are taken hostage by the very natives they protected.” Sound fun.

The Boxtrolls (September 25)

If you haven’t seen 2012’s Paranorman, go out and see it now. Animation studio LAIKA’s last film tempered the creepy vibe of Coraline with plenty of humor, and their next looks to continue the trend of beautifully animated stop-motion flicks.

Gone Girl (October 3)

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Fincher’s been on a roll lately with The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and directing/producing House of Cards (though I’m a bit biased on that last one). Looking forward to his next.

The Interview (October 10)

A talk show host (James Franco) and his producer (Seth Rogen) find themselves in over their heads when they get involved in a plot to assassinate the leader of North Korea.

The Judge (October 10)

A successful lawyer (Robert Downey Jr.) returns to his hometown for his mother’s funeral only to discover that his estranged father (Robert Duvall), the town’s judge, is suspected of murder. Interested to see how Downey does in a drama outside of the superhero sphere. 

The Hobbit: There and Back Again (December 17)

The second part of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy improved on the first by adding more danger, a dragon, and a darker tone. Here’s hoping the final film will continue the trend.

Into the Woods (December 25)

Back when I was a kid, I did a lot of musical theater camps, including playing “Sleeping Beauty’s Prince” in “Into the Woods, Jr.” However, I eventually learned that Into the Woods is extremely dark, a Sondheim musical mashing up fairy tales and throwing characters into existential crises of aging, death, and betrayal. The cast, including Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, and James Corden, should be interesting to watch, though director Rob Marshall has a shaky track record lately (Nine, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides). If Disney is faithful to the musical, it could either be good, but the alternative could be a hell of a mess.

Sometime in 2014

St. Sebastian

Danny DeVito directs an “apocalyptic thriller about three people trapped in a hospital,” starring William Fitchner, Lance Reddick (who is awesome), Constance Zimmer (Janine on HOC), and Lawrence Gilliard, Jr. (D’Angelo on The Wire). Read DeVito talk about the movie here and just try not to get excited.

Ripped!

Last but not least, here’s the trailer for a movie I worked on two summers ago by Penn State’s own Rod Bingaman and Maura Shea. It’s a musical about a 1960’s band (think The Beatles or Herman’s Hermits) accidentally sent into space, where they land on a planet in the midst of a war between the men and women. It’s in post production now, and I can’t wait to see how it comes out!

Update: Inherent Vice

I forgot about this one because no release date has been set yet, but it will most certainly be on my list to see. Paul Thomas Anderson directs an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel about a stoner private eye navigating the seedy Los Angeles of the late 70’s. Anderson reunites with The Master’s Joaquin Phoenix and composer Jonny Greenwood, as well as longtime cinematographer Robert Elswit, in what is sure to be a visually amazing, sprawling epic.

Update: Boyhood (working title)

Richard Linklater’s been working on this one for twelve years, and for good reason- the story follows the relationship between a boy and his parents from ages 6 to 18, using the same actors as they age through natural time. It’s sure to be an interesting experiment.

Update: The Zero Theorem

I’m not sure when Terry Gilliam’s next movie will be released, but I’m always excited for his films. This one sounds like Brazil for a new age- a computer hacker (Christoph Waltz) attempts to discover the reason for human existence while dealing with interruptions from the bureaucracy.

Update: Mood Indigo

Continuing the trend of filmmakers I like with films in release limbo, Michel Gondry’s next looks like a return to his imaginative roots.

Update: Bad Words (March 28)

Jason Bateman directs and stars in a very R-rated comedy about an adult who decides to hijack a national spelling bee. NSFW trailer here.

For a look back at my favorite movies of 2013, click here. You can find a complete list of all my reviews here.

Top 10 Movies of 2013

Besides the top 3, order doesn’t matter that much. Overall, I saw around 54 new films, not counting documentaries, which is around the same as I did last year. 2013 was a year full of movies about technology, what it means to be human, wealth, loss, and as far as the theatrical experience goes, spectacle.

Click each title to read my review.

1. Inside Llewyn Davis

2. American Hustle

3. Prisoners

4. Twelve Years a Slave

5. You’re Next

6. Gravity

7. The Place Beyond the Pines

8. Saving Mr. Banks

9. Blue Jasmine

10. Only God Forgives

Honorable Mentions:

Note: Some of these aren’t exactly the “best” movies of the year, but I enjoyed them for what they were.

Ender’s Game, Escape From Tomorrow, Spring Breakers, Side Effects, Oz the Great and Powerful, The Great Gatsby, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Pacific Rim, Philomena, Short Term 12, Dallas Buyer’s Club

Movies I didn’t get a chance to see this year, but would like to:

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska, Oldboy remake, Grand Piano, Mud, Prince Avalanche, Blue is the Warmest Color, the “Before” trilogy

Click here for a list of all my reviews. Thanks for reading!

American Hustle (2013)

Before becoming embroiled in an FBI plot to take down government corruption, con artists Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) meet at a party and bond over a shared love of Duke Ellington. They love the music’s energy, the sweeping romance of it. Similarly, writer/director David O. Russell works a kind of visual and storytelling jazz in American Hustle, drawing viewers into a morally gray world, throwing in twists and turns, while still keeping that underlying emotion strong. It’s slightly messy around the edges, but completely charming.

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American Hustle is a fictional story, but based on the ABSCAM sting operation of the late 1970’s and early 80’s. Rosenfeld and Prosser are blackmailed into helping FBI agent Richie DiMaso into a scheme which starts out catching art frauds, but soon grows to politicians, like New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), and even the mob. DiMaso’s unchecked ambition brings the group closer and closer to danger, especially as he falls for Sydney and Irving’s wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), gets involved in the case. 

There’s no weak link in the cast. Bale, Adams, Lawrence, Cooper, and Renner commit to their characters, all pulled in by the thrill of the game and the quest for power. No one is purely good or evil, and their character flaws threaten to bring them all down in the end. They’re all trying to figure out what part they want to play.

Everyone feels like they’re having fun, from Adams’ adopted cover personality, to Cooper’s naiveté and over-eagerness. Bale’s the soul of the film- while some may write off his weight gain as a stunt, his complete change of appearance is an essential part of the character. Irving’s a smart man who learned to survive on the streets, and just as he becomes comfortable with himself, has it all threatened to be taken away. If he was in a lineup with Dicky Eklund, Bale’s character from The Fighter, it would be hard to tell they were played by the same actor.

Lawrence does some of her best work here; one scene, featuring her cleaning her house while singing along to “Live and Let Die” will stick in many viewers’ heads. The soundtrack as a whole features songs from ELO to Elton John, and rivals Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson in capturing the sound of an era. Every needle drop hits just at the right time.

A fast-paced tale of lies, greed, and betrayal, with a unique cast of characters, a rocking soundtrack, and a committed cast, this may be Russell’s best work so far. It’s a con caper with a strong emotional center, and definitely one of the most fun films of the year.

Other Recent Reviews: Inside Llewyn Davis, Saving Mr. BanksThe Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. For a full list of my movie reviews, click here.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Even though Inside Llewyn Davis only takes place over the course of a week, you can feel the years weighing on Oscar Isaac’s shoulders. Isaac plays the titular musician, Llewyn Davis, who stumbles around the New York City folk scene of 1961 trying to make a living. While the Coen brothers’ films often focus on misanthropes, their latest is different. Despite alienating and mooching off of everyone in his life, he has true musical talent, but even that can’t bring him happiness. Davis doesn’t want to play the traditional folk songs, but can’t embrace the more popular music played by his fellow musicians. Though the film pushes plot aside for a series of picaresque encounters (finding a lost cat is one of the main running threads), Davis just might be able to find his way.

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Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, and John Goodman give their all as fellow musicians, but the supporting cast doesn’t make much of an impact, defined mostly by quirky personalities. The real work falls on Isaac, whose short, bundled up frame is almost reminiscent of Oscar the Grouch. Even when he’s being a dick to his friends, he carries an extraordinary amount of pathos. An excellent singing voice helps too.

The other real star of the film is the music. The Coens collaborate with T-Bone Burnett, who also produced the soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou, to create a mix of both traditional and original folk songs. This soundtrack is less bombastic, but the songs are both memorable and cut straight to the bone. This song, originally performed by one of the film’s inspirations, singer Dave Van Ronk, has been stuck in my head for weeks, and perfectly accompanies the film’s images.

Just like the death of his partner hangs constantly over Davis’ head, Bruno Dellbonnel’s frosty cinematography seems to make the winter air hang in place. The film authentically captures the spirit of the times without feeling like a period piece; Llewyn Davis’s continued attempts to push forward, despite a lack of any destination, could be any of us. He just needs to catch that cat first.

You can find a links to all of my movie reviews here.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

Contains spoilers from the first movie and book.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: the second movie in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy blows the first part, An Unexpected Journey, out of the water. Jackson succeeds at creating both big and small moments, but even still, it has its share of problems.

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The action set pieces are amazingly choreographed. No longer do we have Radagast the Brown being pulled around by giant rabbits as orcs chase him. Instead, we get the freakiness of the giant spiders, a thrilling river-barrel sequence, and a brilliantly paced extended climax. A small fight scene drops several orcs into a room with several characters, and I couldn’t help but feel like Jackson challenged himself to go back to his roots and use as little CGI as possible.

Smaug is worth the price of admission alone. Massive. Evil. Death incarnate. I’d say more, but this is something you should experience for yourself. 

Plus, some character beats in the midst of the chaos create an emotional subtext that just wasn’t there in AUJ. Bilbo and Thorin connect on an incredibly personal level over their respective quests, and though I didn’t feel very sympathetic to the dwarves quest from the two minutes of backstory they have in the first movie, their quest means so much more here.

The Necromancer, which seemed like a vague threat in AUJ, is terrifying once revealed. I didn’t think much of Azog the Defiler, but his new deputy Bolg is what a proper villain should be. As the wood elf Tauriel, Evangeline Lilly, who I will always remember as Kate from LOST, is incredibly badass and a great addition to the franchise, and Legolas makes a heroic return killing orcs in about a hundred different ways.

But then we have the unnecessary smaller bits, and most of the problems start here—Beorn, exploring the tombs of the Nazgul, the Master of Laketown. Even the meeting with Thranduil for the most part, which seems like a redux of the scenes in the goblin caverns from the first one. When there’s no action going on, Jackson can’t stop spinning the camera around, and the visual effects suffer. There’s an over-reliance on tropes and music cues from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Bilbo using the ring gets repetitive.

This chapter is very much the middle part of its own trilogy. Part 1 was mostly getting the gang from one location to another. In Part 2, the adventure really picks up, as the dwarves, Hobbit, and wizard face the growing tide of evil spreading across the land. However, the door’s still left open for a massive battle to come, and if the series continues to improve, this huge undertaking in storytelling will be worth it.

You can find a complete list of my movie reviews here.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

The inspiration behind the creation of Mary Poppins was more complex than you might think— far from dancing penguins or one-man bands. So how did Disney’s 1964 film become the classic it is? Saving Mr. Banks delves into author P.L. Travers’ (Emma Thompson) rough past and her rocky relationship with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), while also showing that a spoonful of imagination can help deal with tough times in the most delightful way.

Kelly Marcel’s screenplay focuses specifically on Travers’ trip from London to Los Angeles—moving ahead with the film version of Mary Poppins hinged upon Travers’ approval, and Disney was keen to do anything to get it. Travers, a proper and stubborn woman, refused to change elements of the story. As the conflict between the two deepens, she reexamines traumatic memories of her loving, yet alcoholic father, played in flashbacks by Colin Farrell.

Though the usually family-friendly Walt Disney Pictures is releasing Saving Mr. Banks, it’s surprisingly dark. Some scenes from Travers’ past are shot almost like horror movies. However, they don’t overwhelm the warmth and humor of the film, as Travers bickers with composers Robert and Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak) and screenwriter Don DeGradi (Bradley Whitford). Thompson does a great job showing multiple sides of Travers, the isolated, uptight British writer and the broken, imaginative child within. As Walt Disney, Hanks plays a fully formed character here, unlike his recent turn as an action movie star in Captain Phillips. His Walt Disney is ambitious to a fault, attempting to defuse tensions with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. When Disney and Travers clash and later unite over their similar pasts, their chemistry shines.

It’s a pleasure to have actors as talented at comedy as Whitford, Schwartzman, and Novak in one room, especially when they’re rushing to please Thompson’s critical eye. They throw everything into singing and showing their characters’ enthusiasm for the film. As a result, seeing parts of Mary Poppins come together, from “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” feels like being in the room with the original creators.

One of the other high points of the film is its production design. It’s very cool to see the actual buildings on the Disney lot where the film was made, as well as the Disneyland of the 60’s. Walt’s offices are filled with period toys, and the movie hints at the company’s future through decoration like a map of Florida on the wall. The attention to detail firmly places you in the time period without feeling like a nostalgic look back from the present.

If there’s one flaw that prevents the film from being great, it’s a tendency to lay on the sugar a little too much at parts. Scenes of young Travers and her father spending time together are shot like something from an overdramatic epic, and they get to be repetitive. Putting so much emphasis on their love for each other makes the subsequent events incredibly shocking. Much of the film deals with the idea that fantasy can be used as a way to mentally “rewrite” reality, but the tonal shifts in the film, while well intentioned, come across as trying to drive the drama home too much.

For any fans of Mary Poppins or Disney history, Saving Mr. Banks will make you want to go rewatch the original film right away. Banks pleases as both a behind-the-scenes look at the clashes of creativity in the filmmaking process and an homage to the themes of fatherhood, imagination, and family that make Poppins so lovable.

You can find a complete list of my movie reviews here.

Captain Phillips (2013)

Most stories about survival have two things at their core- the test of the human spirit to overcome significant odds, and the physical things needed to stay alive. Captain Phillips, based on the true story of an American ship hijacked by Somali pirates, shows what happens when two very different men face each other and try to survive in a quickly escalating confrontation at sea.

We first see Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) packing in his nicely-sized Vermont home. His wife drives him to the airport, and he soon arrives at the bridge of the Maersk Alabama ready for what should be a regular shipping trip around the Horn of Africa.

Cut to the coast of Africa, where Muse (excellent newcomer Barkhad Abdi) wakes up on the floor of his shack from the screams of a local crime boss demanding the village get to work. Muse is a fisherman, but wants to prove himself as part of the local pirating operation. Because what other choice does he have?

By showing more than just one side of the story, writer Billy Ray deepens what could’ve been a straightforward, documentary-style reenactment into an intense human drama. The dueling perspectives of the crew and the pirates clash; the human capacity for violence hovers malevolently over the precedings.

The final third of the film takes a different turn as the U.S. military becomes involved in the situation. In contrast to the manic desperation of both Phillips and the pirates, the cold face of the government chills in comparison. Director Paul Greengrass shows sympathy to both the pirates and Phillips, but asks if the military need to suppress emotion to take action makes our society too much of a machine.

The realistic messiness of the camerawork and the tension-filled writing create a growing sense of something bad to come. However, in its attention to historical detail, the movie sometimes feels like a slave to its intentions. The payoff is continually withheld in order to accurately recreate real-life events, which becomes repetetive. In order to keep Phillips calm, Muse continually assures him that everything will be fine. Each time, it feels less and less true. Instead of raising the stakes, this happens so much it comes off as manufactured drama. 

Tom Hanks does strong work as a man trying to keep control of his ship, but compared to the mostly unknown cast, his star profile seems out of place. Unlike a movie like Cloud Atlas, where Hanks disappears into several roles, his movie star persona sticks out here.

When Captain Phillips focuses on its unique characters thrown against each other in an intense situation, it succeeds. However, in adapting the events of the real life hijacking into a strong film, it leaves something to be desired.

You can find a complete list of my movie reviews here.

Prisoners (2013)

“Pray for the best. Prepare for the worst.”

In the tense mystery thriller Prisoners, Hugh Jackman’s Keller Dover lives by this phrase. He works hard to protect his family, even stocking the basement of his home like a bomb shelter in hopes to defeat anything bad that may harm them. However, when his daughter and the daughter of a friend are abducted, neither prayer nor preparation can save him as he attempts to take the police search for the kidnapper into his own hands. 

Dover’s path crosses with Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki, a quiet man bound to his job, who plans to conduct a slow, methodical investigation. Ironically, despite being named after the Norse “god of chaos,” Loki can only watch as he loses control and the case descends into madness.

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Everyone in the gray suburban world created by director Denis Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski is a prisoner- of their own responsibilities, actions, and subsequent guilt. The filmmakers not only present an intriguing mystery- what happened to the missing children- but show how emotion tops rational thought and morality in the face of shocking events.

Powerful performances help make the storyline believable. Though he’s played underdogs before, Jackman taps into an incredibly raw dimension of pain as a father forced to turn to desperate measures. Dover believes what he does will help him find his daughter, but it all hinges on self-preservation— he refuses to admit defeat because it would bring about his failure as a parent.

Meanwhile, Gyllenhaal fleshes out what could’ve been a very one-dimensional brooding character into a relatable audience surrogate, subtly cracking at the edges with a lack of sleep. Oddly, with his all-black wardrobe and slicked-back hair, I found myself thinking he would make a great Bruce Wayne. The supporting cast— Terrence Howard and Viola Davis as grieving parents and Melissa Leo and Paul Dano as a creepy mother/son combo— give it their all. Dano, especially, commits as an innocent forced to take the brunt of the universe’s punishment.

Prisoners is often hard to watch, but also beautiful to behold. Cinematographer Roger Deakins’ images alone are worth the price of admission- quiet, yet always suspect in their calmness. Colors are desaturated, almost black-and-white, and though the film is stylized, it still maintains a realism that’s unnerving. Deakins perfectly captures the moral decay underneath the cold Pennsylvania town.

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The film isn’t perfect, though. Its slow burn mystery builds to a fitting, terrifying climax, but the pieces of the jigsaw buckle. The pulpy feel works both ways. It covers some plot holes, but a few elements, like a recurring maze symbol and scenes of brutal violence, get repetitive. They stick in your head afterward, but feel derivative.

Prisoners bears similarities to other modern noir movies like David Fincher’s Se7en and Zodiac, but its commitment to its dark, twisted view of the world makes the others pale in comparison. It’s a maze of revenge and existential gloom anchored by stunning photography and excellent performances. Some of the ideas and images presented are almost scarier than most recent horror movies. So while it’s a great film to get lost in, be prepared for the darkness you might find.

Want to read some of my other movie reviews? Click over here.

Gravity (2013)

If there’s one thing wrong about Gravity, it’s that it’ll give moon landing conspiracy theorists the ammunition to say a realistic portrayal of space on film is possible. But for the rest of us, Alfonso Cuarón’s latest feature since 2006’s Children of Men offers a thrilling, often terrifyingly intense adventure through zero-g space.

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We first encounter astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and her more lighthearted partner, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), completing routine maintenance on the Hubble Space telescope. Kowalski jettisons around taking in the view, while Stone dutifully tries to complete her work. There isn’t much to connect to at first- bits of humor accompany a cinematic ballet orchestrated to disorient you and introduce you to the floating sensation of being in space. Only then does the camera reveal the wreckage of a Russian satellite speeding towards them in the distance.

Maybe, due to the trailers focusing almost exclusively on these opening scenes, the sense that anything can happen dawns only after Stone is disconnected from the space shuttle, spinning off into the darkness.

What I didn’t realize until after the movie was that the opening sequence, made with a single extended take, functions as a kind of primer or tutorial, teaching the audience how physics in zero gravity work as well as the systems keeping the astronauts alive.

Just like satellites hurtling around the Earth in orbit, everything comes back again. The intensity and mortal peril facing the characters increases at every turn—lack of air, no tether—and it’s hard to look away.

While the characters don’t appear to have much depth at first- Clooney seems like his general cheerful self and Bullock plays the straightforward, work-focused scientist- the epic journey they take reveals their strong humanity. Bullock in particular, as the audience’s point-of-view character, shrugs off any romantic comedy image and transforms into a heroine you want to see make it to the end, no matter the odds. Clooney was also an excellent casting choice, as a joking, confident mentor hiding the hard choices he has to make.

Finally, have you ever seen special effects so good you don’t want to know how they were made? The shooting process of the film involved robotic camera arms and a lot of computer generated trickery, but I almost don’t want to see any of that- the suspension of disbelief created by Cuarón and the effects artists is so strong, you really do feel like you’re watching a drama filmed in space. While I can’t compare the small screen experience to the IMAX 3D version I saw, I suspect the size and depth of the format added to the immersive feel of the movie.

Gravity is so much more than the fifteen minutes or so showcased in the trailer. To say anymore would be to give away too much, but I now have a much stronger appreciation for the force that keeps the clouds in the sky, our bodies upright on the ground, and enough oxygen in the atmosphere to breathe.

Check out the full list of my other movie reviews right here.