Prisoners Of A Genre

Detective Loki and Keller Dover are both prisoners of narratives that won't let them succeed.

Detective Loki and Keller Dover are both prisoners of narratives that won’t let them succeed.

Prisoners is the sort of movie I’d expect to find out it was based on a novel by some fairly prominent author, one which probably tells a well-worn story but has enough style and ideas in it to mark its independence from others in the genre. As a movie it does the first of these right, telling the story of two kidnapped girls and the struggle of a police officer and one of the girl’s fathers to locate them in the face of worsening odds (Sound familiar, Gone Baby Gone?). But I said that I expected it to be based on a novel, and when I read the credits I found that it was in fact an original script by first timer Aaron Guzikowski, I realized that what I’d taken for a slightly unconventional mystery was in fact a wondrously obtuse script that can’t distinguish the events of the plot with the actions of the characters.

These characters are so evasive that it’s like each of them has had one important scene of theirs cut, and the audience gets nearly zero background on them other then their job and place in the story. This technique can be successful when the characters interact with a number of people and scenarios, but Prisoners largely limits these and makes each of them feel one-dimensional. Take the detective assigned to the case, Loki (Bizarre mythological name meaning precisely zilch in this scenario) is a hard cop who we are told has “Never left a case unsolved,” but he has no personal life, no relationships, and the only clue to his upbringing is a neck tattoo and a series of zodiac signs on his knuckles.

Jake Gyllenhaal considers whether he's in a mystery thriller, or an allegory for religious extremism.

Jake Gyllenhaal considers whether he’s in a mystery thriller, or an allegory for religious extremism.

As played by Jake Gyllenhal he is alternately fierce and soft-spoken, but any sense of his growing obsession and desperation is limited because we really lack evidence of what his normal state of mind is. Even a single scene of Loki trying to sleep, or going home and trying to medicate with liqueur would bring understanding to his tension, but all we get is a notable eye tick that none of his supervisors seem to notice, which makes all his behavior and emotions appear out of the blue instead of making sense for his character.

Keller Dover is what Wolverine would be if he lacked claws, the healing factor, humor, and common sense.

Keller Dover is what Wolverine would be if he lacked claws, the healing factor, humor, and common sense.

Hugh Jackman’s character Keller Dover is even more frustrating, because while his relationship with his son and daughter mark him as a religious family man, he’s also a survivalist with a basement full of guns, generators, and canned food that don’t appear to bother his family in the slightest. Keller is the type of figure who should be interesting because of his contradictions in worldviews, but the story makes him fixated on the idea that a mentally handicapped man named Alex Jones (Paul Dano) is responsible for his and his neighbor Franklin’s daughter’s disappearance because they were last seen playing around his RV. This turns Keller into an unsympathetic character that hounds Alex even after he’s been exonerated thanks to both his mental state, as well as the circumstances for his suspicion.

Not that Loki has any more patience for Alex...

Not that Loki has any more patience for Alex…

The idea that the lengths Keller goes to in the name of saving his daughter should be a compelling one, but because the narrative suggest his evidence of Alex’s guilt is the product of his desperation, his morality and justifications seem increasingly unbelievable and grating. His motivations make sense, but his target just doesn’t, especially not when Loki is following up leads on another creepy person who appears at a neighborhood candlelight vigil like only creepy red herrings in these thrillers do. It’s the meta-problem of the viewer knowing more then the characters, and when the narrative is split like Prisoners is, it’s like reading a mystery that you’ve already solved, and are getting impatient with the characters for not figuring it out.

Franklin and his wife (Viola Davis) are overcome with grief, but it's mostly offscreen.

Franklin and his wife (Viola Davis) are overcome with grief, but it’s mostly offscreen.

You might notice a little confusion in my summary of characters and events, like the other father Franklin (Terrance Howard) who’s daughter Joy is missing, but this actually best stimulates how the movie seems less interested in exploring the characters and more interested in directing them around in patterns dictated by their role in the story. As such, Franklin’s daughter Joy barely seems to register as a fellow captive when Keller yells at Loki to stop wasting time and find my daughter, and his wife Eliza (Zoe Borde) spends nearly the entire movie crying in bed while he pretends to go out and get drunk.

More then just the characters though is a question of what exactly is the narrative we are supposed to be following, and what it is trying to say. Prisoners meanders on both sides of the law, with Loki’s only being more compelling because of the elaborateness of the red herrings he happens upon in this seemingly idyllic community. If the movie has a strong point it is the strangeness of the events that are uncovered, and how they appear to be hinting at some very disturbing activities in the past.

However, the bizarre thing about Prisoners is how almost all of these events are merely referenced almost like throwaway explanations for people’s behavior. For instance, we eventually learn why a character has been sneaking into people’s houses, but the motive is so interesting that the fact that the movie doesn’t focus on it feels strange. Prisoners seems like it’s trying to be less about the investigation and more about themes of obsession and faith, but it doesn’t highlight these in a way that feel integral to the rest of the plot, except when they are invoked as explanations which are too brief to feel significant.

When your biggest motif is largely a mcguffin, you might want to re-examine your screenplay...

When your biggest motif is largely a mcguffin, you might want to re-examine your screenplay…

The movie attempts to present these events as pieces in a puzzle, linked only by a strange maze-like pattern, discovered in the first act by Loki, but it takes him so long to piece this together that you’re left wondering why the movie is wasting your time with more pointless false leads when it’s already telegraphed how important the pattern are to understanding the case. It’s this quality that makes Prisoners feel like it’s an amateur work, all the Chekov guns go off arbitrarily rather then logically so that instead of feeling like a cohesive mystery, it feels like a series of coincidences whose connection to each other is due more to the story then to logic.

If the focus is supposed to be on the significance of the maze, why does a whole sub-plot follow Keller who never learns of it, yet he’s given information about it that is only viewers will understand? If the focus is supposed to be about Keller using extreme measures to locate his daughter, why do the circumstance leave so much open? And if the focus is supposed to be on how all these characters are somehow “prisoners” to an idea of emotion, why doesn’t it have these characters reflect on these in some way that is not internal?

Alex and his mother (Marissa Leo) suffer the investigation, but only Alex is a target for Keller.

Alex and his mother (Marissa Leo) suffer the investigation, but only Alex is a target for Keller.

(SPOILERS)
But the most unforgivable part of Prisoners is that when all the pieces are laid bare, you realize that neither Keller nor Loki actually figured out the mystery. Keller receives his break in the case thanks to luck, and Loki virtually stumbles onto his while doing separate police work. As viewers, characters figuring things out and making breakthroughs are the important to making them feel compelling, and seeing them basically handed the solution by the narrative is just unsatisfying.

Keller along with his wife, Grace, son, Ralph, and soon-to-be-missing daughter Anna.

Keller along with his wife, Grace, son, Ralph, and soon-to-be-missing daughter Anna. Perhaps the only time they are together and happy in the narrative.

Prisoners actually has a pretty twisted story at its core, but it’s a story whose clues are not so much eluded to, as merely suggested as a possible explanation for what has happened. We don’t learn exactly WHY one of the characters did what they did, only that they were a certain kind of character who might do something like that. This lack of understanding ultimately lends a hollow quality to everything, and robs events of the impression they would otherwise make on the viewer.

Prisoners also conclude with an ending that I can only describe as “brilliantly stupid,” or “stupidly brilliant” depending on whether you agree with the possible interpretation mechanism for the movie’s plot. There really isn’t anything ambiguous about what its final shot is suggesting, but it ends before the needle falls as though it’s aware of its own foregone conclusion and wants to leave us with something other then closure. Perhaps we as the audience are the final prisoners to the film’s eclectic motivations in this way, or maybe it’s the directors attempt to remind us that not all mysteries in real life end on a dime.

Giant Robots For Adults

The Gipsy Danger pulls back a fist, ready to know the audience's eyeballs for a loop.

The Gipsy Danger pulls back a fist, ready to knock the audience’s eyeballs for a loop.

The expression “turn your brain off” is a bit unfair in the realm of movies, because it implies  the only way to enjoy certain things is to not think to deeply into what they mean. There is a difference however between a movie that asks you to turn off your brain because that meaning is shallow, and a movie that asks you to turn off your brain because it really has no other meaning other than what it is happening onscreen. As kids this is a simple exercise perhaps due to the fact that we lack a wealth of experiences, but as adults who often seek something deeper from life’s experiences this can be like trying not to notice you are breathing manually.

Pictured: Giant Robot. Not pictured, its full amount of awesome

Pictured: Giant Robot. Not pictured, its full amount of awesome.

Pacific Rim is the cure we didn’t know we needed for this affliction of adulthood, and represents filmmaking in perhaps its purest form of engagement through visual media. It is a rip-roaring action fest that takes its cues from childhood cartoons and anime and shows them bigger and more extravagant then we ever dared to believe. It is at every moment a movie-movie, and not a meaning-movie, and takes such delight in displaying this that you cannot help but see it as singularly unique rebuttal to all the self-serious superhero and “End of the world” film of recent years.

The Sydney opera house finally gets its due, curtousy of a transdimensional monster.

The Sydney opera house finally gets its due, courtesy of a trans-dimensional monster.

Its story is classic giant monster-invasion fare, beginning with an intro like a science fiction serial from the 50s that lays the ground for the ludicrously enjoyable premise. Gargantuan monsters known as Kaiju have begun to emerge from a crack in our dimension at the bottom of the Pacific ocean, and mankind has pooled it’s planetary resources and developed humongous robots, called Jaegers, to take them down. Cue the obligatory title card.

The washed up hero in his natural habitat, and outfit.

The washed up hero in his natural habitat, and outfit.

Our story follows has-been Jaeger pilot Raileigh Antrobus (Charlie Hunnam) and newbie trainee Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) as they are called in by commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) in a desperate mission to take the fight to the kaiju’s home turf. Since the Jaeger system is such a strain on the mind, each one requires two pilots to work together in a kind of neural merge that lays bare each pilots memories to the other. Both Raleigh and Mako have their share of emotional baggage to work through, but their issues are small potatoes compared to dealing with monsters that spit acid and can go through a Jaeger with their teeth alone.

Rinko Kikuchi suits up, and for once finds the female suits don't cut off at the hips.

Rinko Kikuchi suits up, and for once finds the female suits don’t cut off at the hips.

Luckily they have a self-proclaimed “Kaiju groupie” Newton “Newt” Geiszler (Charlie Day) and fellow scientist Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) who have been studying the monsters and the portal they emerge from in hopes of ending the Kaiju threat for good. Assisting in their efforts are several other Jaeger teams airing from different nationalities, including a set of Chinese triplets with a three-armed fighting style, a Russian couple whose Jaeger looks like it’s sporting a nuclear smokestack for a head, and a father-son Australian team (Robert Kazinsky and Max Martini) who butts heads with Raleigh in that special “Hero needs a rival” way.

Pentecost and his team look on in awe as their childhood fantasies come to life before their eyes.

Pentecost and his team look on in awe as their childhood fantasies come to life before their eyes.

On the actor’s end of things, each performer embraces their role in a serious/but not too serious way that allows for levity in the midst of all the destruction. No one is trying to turn this into a movie about the human condition, but the characters are still allowed enough humanity that you want to root for them, even if that humanity is exercised through well-worn tropes of vengeance and redemption. The standouts include Idris Elba who takes the calm under pressure leader trope and imbues it with unrelenting hope and determination, and Charlie Day who plays his manic scientist with just enough enthusiasm that he is endearing rather then annoying.

Newt isn't afraid to get up close and personal with a kaiju, as his tattoos make clear.

Newt isn’t afraid to get up close and personal with a kaiju, as his tattoos make clear.

Director Guillermo Del Toro even throws in a bit for veteran anti-hero character actor Ron Perlman as a swanky, and scene-stealing Kaiju organ dealer deliciously named “Hannibal Chau.” Dressed like a pimp with a fondness for clashing colors, and sporting a ridiculous pair of shoes with gold scale platting that chings with every step, Hannibal is a larger-then-life human in a world where giant monsters routinely destroy cities and even dwarfs his massive ego.

Hannibal Chau chews more scenery then the kaiju, much to Newt's chagrin.

Hannibal Chau chews more scenery then the kaiju, much to Newt’s amazement.

But all these human chess pieces are but the icing on the cake compared with the Jaeger VS Kaiju battles that make up the film. Though the Jaegers featured come equipped with fancy plasma cannons and spinning blades to presumably slice and dice the Kaiju into sushi, their opponents are so monstrous and resilient that every encounter quickly escalates into an all-out brawl. Pacific Rim therefore delivers what its premise has promised and more; giant robots piloted by humans slugging it out with monsters who make Godzilla look like a gecko.

The kaiju designs and abilities are all unique, making each fight a new experience.

The kaiju designs and abilities are all unique, making each fight a new experience.

To watch a giant robot rocket punch a grotesque yet mesmerizing monster in the face is one thing, but to see one do this half a dozen times, followed by them picking up an oil tanker and laying onto them as though it were a baseball bat is something transcendent. It’s like being transported back in time to when you first saw Power Rangers and watched them punch each other into buildings. Seeing it in a movie theater is visually cathartic, as though we are at last acknowledging a cultural childhood that has been hidden away under adulthood.

That's a boat, being dragged like a an axe, by a giant robot, to beat a monster into paste. Nuff said.

That’s a boat. Being dragged by a giant robot. To beat a monster into paste. ‘Nuff said.

Each time the Jaeger stands, or the Kaiju reveals a secret weapon, we experience a thrill  we felt when we were kids and first learned to identify with characters and were drawn into their battles. When a Kaiju finally shudders to the ground in defeat, we cheer, and when their savage force overwhelms our heroes we wince as though part of ourselves is under attack as well. There is no metaphor, no symbolism; we feel the action because the battles are on the screen and in our heads with nothing in between.

Chuck Hanson (Robert Kazinsky teams up with Stacker when the odds against Raleigh and Mako intensify.

Chuck Hanson (Robert Kazinsky) teams up with Stacker when the odds against Raleigh and Mako intensify.

Pacific Rim pulls out all the stops in its final phases, amping up the odds with increasingly creative Kaiju, and more jaw dropping fights that push our heroes past the breaking point, while an utterly enthralled audience watches with bated breath. While other more “serious” action movies would squander their suspense by devoting unnecessary dialogue to humanizing their characters or trying to impart some message, Guillermo Del Toro knows that truly being a kid again means we have to stop looking for meaning, and embrace the fantasy. And what better way to do that then having a giant robot suplex a creature with glowing eyes and toss it into San Francisco bay as if it were an annoying little brother?

A Clockwork Solution

James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) and his Wife Mary (Lena Headey) and son try to survive a night of Freudian release.

James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) and his Wife Mary (Lena Headey) and son try to survive a night of Freudian release.

Western civilization has an extensive history of repression of things we deem “taboo,” yet it’s odd that violence is rarely seen of as one of these. Despite its destructive nature, media and news seem both all too eager to report it, and then move on from it as though violent acts were nothing more then a human tornado whose inevitability we must accept and grow stronger as we rebuild our shattered human nerves. There are some who would argue that as long as we continue to treat violence like necessary evil of the world, we will never achieve a truly enlightened sense of harmony with our fellow man.

But what if we could limit that violence to only one day a year? One day to live as savages in exchange for 364 days of peace and prosperity?  Could channeling violence stop it from ruling our lives, and in this “Purge” of primal lust would we become more or less human?

We repress our hidden desires behind masks of normalcy, but on Purge night we mock the need for such thing.

We repress our hidden desires behind masks of normalcy, but on Purge night we mock the need for such thing.

Billed as a “Speculative thriller,” The Purge takes this scenario and applies it to the familiar “home invasion” movie set in a dystopia that really isn’t any different from our own. In this theoretical future of America, our new “Governing Fathers” enacted The Purge ten years ago as a measure to combat our massive economic distress and poverty by unifying the nation. While it is in effect, all emergency services are disconnected and all violent crimes are permissible, with the somewhat cheeky exception being the government itself. It’s an idea Sigmund Freud might have dreamed up, only to dismiss it as too radical despite the various talking heads on TV that repeatedly mention how it has improved the average quality of life in the country.

All across America the streets empty as the social order mutates into something unthinkable.

All across America the streets empty as the social order mutates into something unthinkable.

While some of the high class purchase comprehensive security systems like the one designed by James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) that turn the annual Purge into a 12 hour lockdown, others take the opportunity to hold “parties” where they re-enact the pig scene from The Lord Of The Flies and hunt the lower class with radical Darwinism as their calling. These two worlds come to a head for James and his wife Mary (Lena Headey) and their two children when a moment of compassion for a torn and bloodied outsider (Edwin Hodge) results in group of masked strangers marking him and his family as new targets in this night of bloody release.

No good deed goes unpunished, not when the government sanctions the "extermination" of the lower class like this bloody stranger.

No good deed goes unpunished, not when the government sanctions the “extermination” of the lower class like this bloody stranger.

Despite the terrifying “Home as violated space” trope that feeds the horror on the outside, The Purge exists more in the realm of movies like Dredd 3D that enhance their plots through the surrounding ideas and themes that permeate the world. James’ place as a man who has profited from The Purge makes his decisions and interactions more meaningful then if he were just a victim of it, and his rationalizations provide the moral gray area that forces us to consider whether there is a difference between participating in The Purge, and standing by idly to watch it behind barred windows.

James Sandin is forced to confront the true horror of the night he has built his career on.

James Sandin is forced to confront the true horror of the night he has built his families’ livelihood on.

As characters, the Sandin family are not groundbreaking, yet strangely old-fashioned. Ethan Hawke initially shows us James’ ego-driven personality that could lead him to treat the event as just another challenge in the business world, yet the instant he and his family are under lock and key the facade begins to weaken as he is confronted by the sudden change in the world outside their doors.

Hawke summons determination to his sallow features that quickly becomes sweaty and shaking like a man in with a sniper trained on his head. Though he seems an odd choice for a leading man, Hawke’s recent stints in fellow horror films Sinister and Daybreakers illustrate that his performance is largely linked to the character’s range, and as such James Sandin is a serviceable if not memorable role for him.

Lena Headey finally plays a mother who doesn't dote on a psychotic boy king.

Lena Headey finally plays a mother who doesn’t dote on a psychotic boy king.

If James’ must be the traditional masculine protector, then Mary Sandin is the character that experiences the most emotional and character growth. Lena Headey, known for playing cruel and manipulative she-wolfs (Cercei Lannister of Game of Thrones and Madeline Madrigal of the aforementioned Dredd) underplays her domestic side to show a woman who knows deep down how wrong The Purge is, but has no other resource like her husband does to protect herself and her children.

These housewives are only "Desperate" to kill each other.

These housewives are only “Desperate” to kill each other.

In this way, while most of James’ best scenes involve him tackling the problem head-on, Mary’s are when she is dealing with an overenthusiastic neighbor with an I’m-going-to-kill-you expression, or when confronting the home invaders with the righteous fury that has been dwelling in her eyes. In the end, she is a character first and a mother second, showing depth beyond just wanting her children to be safe.

Max Burkholder is timid, yet questioning, which leads him to reach out with compassion when a stranger stumbled into their security feed.

Max Burkholder is timid, yet questioning, which leads him to reach out with compassion when a stranger stumbled into their security feed.

Their kids, Charlie, and Zoey, are slightly more interesting then the usual “innocent child” and “vulnerable young girl” archetypes. Charlie has long black tech geek hair that differentiates him from the blond crewcut that would mark his “childhood” status, and spends most of the movie utilizing a bizarrely archaic remote controlled robot to view the house. He’s the one most disturbed by The Purge, checking his vitals like a hypochondriac even when his father tries to rationalize the purpose of the event, and there is subtle symbolism in the way he tries to put the outside world behind a screen, until reality intrudes.

Zoey Sandin, wearing what the movie clearly thinks is standard schoolgirl attire.

Zoey Sandin, wearing what the movie clearly thinks is standard schoolgirl attire.

In contrast to her brother, the first shot of Zoey is a barely restrained glimpse of thigh under a movie-length schoolgirl skirt, not so subtly showing Adelaide Kane’s youthful charms. She’s probably the closest character to a trope, with a vague anger at her father and the fact that she is dating an older guy who thinks it’s fine because she’s “mature for her age.”  Being the teenage daughter, she is also the first to be threatened by the mixed sex party of delinquents, yet the movie shows admirable restraint in not making her safety a major cause for concern, with only two remarks hinting at such uncomfortable subject matter.

Hiding under the bed is the oldest cliche in the book, but Zoey doesn't have any other choice.

Hiding under the bed is the oldest cliche in the book, but Zoey doesn’t have any other choice.

Her room suggests a diligent student who is both smart enough to call bullshit on The Purge, but her character is so mired in unspecified teenage angst that the potential for an intellectual opposite of James is neutralized.  Strangely enough though, it’s through her character that The Purge throws its first narrative curve-ball, even though that ball seems to vanish out of frame and remain unexplained for the duration of the movie.

The “Purgers” who invade are led by a sophisticated sociopath in a business suit with the twisted aura of Patrick Bateman and the unsettling grin of The Joker. This “Polite Stranger” (Ryhs Wakefield) approaches the night with the passion of a delusional zealot mixed with the indignant privilege of an Ivy League grad so that he is both instantly hateable and instantly watchable in equal parts.

Rhys Wakefield is all smiles especially on a night where he doesn't need to worry about expressing the true evil behind that smile.

Rhys Wakefield is all smiles, especially on a night where he doesn’t need to worry about hiding the true evil behind that smile.

His homicidal collaborators all appear to have come from the same economic bracket, alternatively weird and disturbing in grinning masks like a drama class from hell. In their glee for The Purge they reveal the true intent of it as hidden call to class slaughter, the worst sort of evil that breeds whenever someone can justify the inferiority of another group in their own minds.

Ethan Hawke takes up arms to protect his family from the monsters who have invaded the night.

Ethan Hawke takes up arms to protect his family from the monsters who have invaded the night.

One of the unique touches of The Purge is how it portrays this free-for-all of violence and the horror that accompanies it. The invaders are not supernatural maniacs (Though they do tend to pop up when the Sandin’s are looking the other direction a lot) instead they are vandals who dress up to give themselves an aura of the uncanny to frighten their prey. Armed with dangerous looking knives and lyncher’s shotguns, they initially reside on the outside of the house, content to freak out the Sandins with creepy laughter and threatening poses on their security cameras. In one uniquely sadistic scene, they even tickle a person while restraining them, clearly drunk on the power of the night.

The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street...

The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street…

The Purge shows an abruptly practical sense of the Sandin’s struggle against them, opting for short bursts of action rather then elaborately choreographed take downs. It makes sense that a good number of encounters begin with both parties entering the room at the same time without noticing the other, while the winner turns out to be the one who brought the most useful weapon to the fight.

This realistic take on the scenes also underlines the ironic nature of being able to get away with anything violent, in that though lots might like to, they probably have so little experience that they don’t know how to.

After all the sneaking around and woefully inadequate flashlights in dark corners, The Purge initially seems to be heading towards a deus ex machina style ending, only to twist itself into a horrible knot combining so many themes and buzz words it feels in danger of going of the rails into ridiculously overbearing allegory. It’s saved however by a denouement that is powered by human fragility instead of ideology, one which is unrealistic yet still feels thematically resonant in light of all evil that has supposedly been “Purged” that night.

The social commentary in The Purge is not subtle, but it is highly resonant with many of our current problems.

The social commentary in The Purge is not subtle, but it is highly resonant with many of our current problems.

By the film’s conclusion it’s hard to say if The Purge really exercises anyone of his or her violent impulses, but we are reminded that there is another way of dealing with the beast within us. And that is to tame it rather then letting it consume us.

Into The New Dark Age

Kirk's first face-to-face confrontation with the other, a man who appears human, but is eerily off.

Kirk’s first face-to-face confrontation with the other, a man who appears human, but is eerily off.

It’s said that the best way to reintroduce a story from the past is to do so in a way that makes it relevant to the public and the issues that they are presently facing. Though people might disagree on the exact specifics of what made Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek so topical, one of the most notable things it attempted was to build a picture of the future as a time of unity, broadcasted to a world which was anything but. Fast forward to the new series of Star Trek films by director J. J Abrams and we notice a distinct change from this to a world where humanity seems in perpetual danger from something outside itself.

Luckily for the males at least, there will always be exotic alien girls to kibitz with.

Luckily for the males at least, there will always be exotic alien girls to kibitz with.

As a sequel to the 2009 reboot, Star Trek Into Darkness (never forget the verb) at first appears to merely be going through the same, albeit entertaining motions. Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is still sleeping with whatever species has a female member, while remaining a determined leader who will flaunt Star Fleet’s rules and regulations if his crews’ safety is at sake. His ideological opposite, Spock (Zachary Quinto), is of course butting heads with him while he also struggles with his feelings for intergalactic language officer Uhura (Zoe Saldana). And Doctor “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban) is of course still bemoaning the fact that he is woefully under qualified for doing anything other then his medical duties at anyone who will listen.

Bones is THRILLED at finally having some actual doctor's work to do, rather then just dealing with ungrateful captains with swelling limbs.

Bones is THRILLED at finally having some actual doctor’s work to do, rather then just dealing with ungrateful captains with swelling limbs.

All this changes however with the emergence of a mysterious ex-starfleet officer named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), who attacks Starfleet command in a dangerous display of cunning and ruthlessness that affects Kirk personally and snaps him out of his previous devil-may-care mindset. Acting on orders from commander Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller), Kirk and his crew depart on a mission to bring Harrison to justice, not knowing the true forces at work behind the mission.

The team is all assembled, including the obligatory "Red Shirt"

The team is all assembled, including the obligatory “Red Shirt”

While Star Trek has dealt with the concept of the “Other” before, never has it been so apparent as in Kirk’s mission to capture, or kill Harrison. It’s easy to draw parallels with the hunt for the perpetrators of the world trade center attacks because both bring up a question of what justice really means when faced with a mission that boils down to being a legal assassin. Not only this, but command explicitly authorizes Kirk to use a new kind of weapon to do the job, one which the ship’s faithful engineer, Scotty (Simon Pegg), is loath to even have on the ship due to its destructive potential.

Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg) receives some unwelcome news about some late additions to the ship's weapon stores.

Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg) receives some unwelcome news about some late additions to the ship’s weapon stores.

Since Harrison has retreated to an uninhabited area, Kirk is reassured that there will be no collateral damage, but he still struggles with the morality of killing him instead of returning him to Earth to stand trial. When we have technology to solve our problems with merely a button press, what does our responsibility become for that button? If we can kill a suspected terrorist with a remote drone strike with low chance of casualties, how do we decide when it’s justified?

Kirk, Uhura, and Spock come under heavy fire by hostile forces, and dark screen filters by the marketing department.

Kirk, Uhura, and Spock come under heavy fire by hostile forces, and dark screen filters by the marketing department.

This rather dark turn into uncharted territory drives both the story and the characters as what appears to be the correct and moral path flips without warning, particularly when John Harrison is so convincing when it comes to playing both the vengeance-driven ubermensch, and the wronged outsider who still believes in honor. One of the greatest moments of this occurs when a new crew member discovers a deeper reason for why the Enterprise has been tasked with carrying the new weapons.

James Tiberius Kirk, still the leading cause of penis envy among male viewers.

James Tiberius Kirk, still the leading cause of penis envy among male viewers.

Luckily, all of the movie’s actors are game for such weighty subject matter. Chris Pine continues to play his playboy hotshot like a cross between Van Wilder and Han Solo, an interstellar frat boy whose greatest challenge is guiding his crew when he can’t always be sure they’ll be able to escape unscathed. Playing off Zachary Quinto gives him a chance to show a desire for connection that is closer to camaraderie then his interactions with any of the other crew, while also showing how Spock is the one character who can really pierce his macho armor.

Zachary Quinto as Spock finds a way to look approaching death in the face in way that is both logical, and compelling.

Zachary Quinto as Spock finds a way to look approaching death in the face in way which is both logical, and badass.

As Spock, Zachary Quinto continues to evolve his relationship with his human half, partially out of his affection for lieutenant Uhura, and partially out of a desire to understand the sometimes illogical behavior of the humans he accompanies. It’s still a treat to watch him display everything from curiosity to confusion with only his eyebrows and Beatles bowl-cut, and when desperation breaks out across those features it feels well earned.

Nyota Uhura blazes a trail as she fights SKYNET to prevent a apocalyptic future. And chastises Kirk in her spare time.

Nyota Uhura blazes a trail as she fights SKYNET to prevent an apocalyptic future. And chastises Kirk in her spare time.

Uhura’s love for Spock is only the tip of her character however, and Zoe Saldana shows just as much determination as Pine when it comes to both fighting the physical battles, and the mental battles of ideological warfare. She is never boring, never underused, and can always be counted to bring a certain gravity to her scenes, even when they are something as ridiculous as a couples’ fight in the middle of a chase scene.

"You just sat that man down at a high stakes poker game with no cards and told him to bluff."

“You just sat that man down at a high stakes poker game with no cards and told him to bluff.”

The rest of the crew form a strong backbone of determination and bravery, beginning with Helmsman Sulu’s (John Cho) stare down of a dangerous criminal with nothing but his dangerously calm voice. Bones is still the lone voice of reason that Kirk listens to, and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) continues to amuse with a Russian accent that sounds like he has a kid Dracula up his nose. Joining is Carol Wallace (Alice Eve) who gets not only to casually show her well-toned stomach, but also demonstrate nerves of steel and a hyper-fast mind when it comes to disarming planet-obliterating bombs.

Alice Eve gets between Kirk and Spock, but not in the way you'd think.

Alice Eve gets between Kirk and Spock, but not in the way you’d think.

Playing an anti-villain is no new thing to Benedict Cumberbatch as his much talked of turn on the BBC’s Sherlock as a so-called “High functioning sociopath” will attest to, and he embraces this side as the enigmatic “John Harrison”. Possessing a moon-white face more like any alien then the actual aliens featured, Benedict mesmerizes both Kirk and the audience with a tactile grace and eerie calm that make his more-than-human nature apparent in every scene he’s in. He is “The Other,” cold and remote, and yet we want to feel for him because we can still see that outline of humanity that deceives our eyes.

With a face like the right side of the uncanny valley, and eyes like twin lasers, Benedict Cumberbatch comes out with all guns blazing and fells every fangirl in the house.

With a face like the right side of the uncanny valley, and eyes like twin lasers, Benedict Cumberbatch comes out with all guns blazing and fells every fangirl in the house.

It’s through these eyes that the viewers are drawn into the murky politics and real danger of Kirk’s mission. There are fantastic scenes of space combat, and thrilling rescues aplenty, but once the true stakes of it are known, the film heads for its dire descent and isn’t afraid to put it’s characters in potentially life-ending situations. It’s a shame that the final moments are handled so flimsily then, preferring to wrap up loose ends and return to status quo with a feeling of empty optimism rather then the dark unknown that the title promises.

Kirk suits up and prepares to launch himself into the dark unknown.

Kirk suits up and prepares to launch himself into the new future.

Perhaps it’s fitting though, since, like the dark ages which were a harrowing period of history where the unknown seemed all around us, this new Star Trek enters it’s own Darkness, only to emerge not unscathed, but more aware of ourselves and the importance of not losing to the darkness that threatens from within our own hearts. This above all else is a message our modern audience needs right now in our uncertain trek to the future, where our only solace is that we do not travel alone, but journey together on the infinite mission of The Starship Earth.

(Slight spoiler below)

"We have met the enemy, and he is us."

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”

A Cold-Blooded Family Man

Richard Kuklinski's family thought he was a skilled businessman, not knowing how bloody his business truly was...

Richard Kuklinski’s family thought he was a skilled businessman, not knowing how bloody his business truly was…

Violence in cinema inherently fascinates audiences because it represents an imitation of an irreversible act in real life; but even more then this, violent characters have an almost innate ability to captivate moviegoers. Once more, it seems as though we are able to “forgive” the gut churning violence through a combination of cognitive dissonance and identification with a character. How a film manages this is very significant, since the most extreme the violence, the further away we tend to shy from rooting for or sympathizing with the people in it.

All this is highly relevant because the main character of Ariel Vromen’s new film The Iceman is based on a factual cut and dried psychopath who was a real mob hit man with no conscience to speak of. A man who, as the film will remind us as almost an afterthought; is believed to have killed over one hundred individuals. The Richard Kuklinski that Michael Shannon portrays is this man, but he must also show us something in him that is admirably human as well. That Shannon succeeds to the degree he does is a testament not only to the spell of the film’s narrative but to his remarkable physical prowess.

"The only God I believe in is a loaded pistol with a hair trigger.”

“The only God I believe in is a loaded pistol with a hair trigger.”

From the first gravely syllable that rolls of his tongue, Michael Shannon is unrecognizable as the heavyset, square jawed man whose eyes hold a cold indifference that will prove his namesake. He’s adept at socializing only to the extent that it is expected of him, and even then an isolating distance is always present in those grey eyes. Kuklinski is a man of few words not because he lacks them, or because he chooses them carefully, but because they mean as little to him as the lives of the people they come from. Looming in almost every frame, Shannon dominates the film with his impassive; yet moldable features that time and time again fool us into forgetting about his cold-hearted nature.

Who does Kuklinski see when he looks in the mirror? The mafia killer, or the doting father?

Who does Kuklinski see when he looks in the mirror? The mafia killer, or the doting father?

When he meets gangster Roy Demeo (Ray Liota) who offers him a job as a disposer of human liabilities, it’s nothing but a means of making money to support his wife Deborah (Winona Ryder) and his families’ lifestyle. His tenderness with his two daughters shows an attachment that is utterly absent from his face while on the job, and the juxtaposition between the family man and the mob killer is the film’s primary point of interest.

Spanning a period of twenty years, the film mostly depicts the brutal aftermath of his crimes, preferring instead to chart the slow dissolution of Kuklinski’s employment and its effect on his family life. During the latter he meets a fellow murder-for-hire named Robert Prongay (Chris Evans) who turns him onto the ghoulish practice of storing bodies in the freezer of his ice cream van in order to disguise the time of death. These scenes of them storing bodies in a freezer while discussing their lives are perhaps the most disturbing, since both the characters and the film treat this as though it were just another day at the office.

Kuklinski and Prongay store bodies in a walk in freezer that's as cold as their consciences

Kuklinski and Prongay store bodies in a walk in freezer that’s as cold as their consciences

All of his co-stars are allowed just enough time to build a convincing relationship so that Kuklinski’s eventual fall has weight behind it. As his wife, Winona Ryder captures a woman who has just enough insecurity to shrug off her husband’s mood swings from aloofness to textbook psychopathic outbursts. Ray Liota also does well and doesn’t phone in his performance for once in a long time, but infuses his mafia boss with frustration that illustrates his more human side.

If there is any stand out it would have to be Chris Evan’s mercilessly deranged hitman for his casual display of amorality that feels arresting even in comparison to Kuklinski’s sociopathy. Known as “Mister Freezey” to the neighborhood children, Evans looks like the Unabomber on holiday with wild Charles Mason hair and a dark pair of aviators—the sort of person you’d forbid your kids getting a Creamsicle from.

"I tracked her down and force-fed her a puffer fish, I'm keeping her in back for a month then I am going to dump her up near the coast" Chills.

“I tracked her down and force-fed her a puffer fish. I’m keeping her in back for a month then I’m gonna dump her up near the coast”  Chills.

Where Kuklinski has a strangely old testament code—no women or children—Prongay has no such qualms about killing witnesses in ways ranging from bombs, to poison administered in truly unsettling manner. Kuklinski’s relationship to him is one of simple convenience, but it’s still perhaps the most damning evidence of Kuklinski’s separation from the rest of the human race.

The Iceman works because Shannon is able to make Kuklinski’s love for his family a redeeming side, rather then using them as a barrier to mask his true self. By surrounding him with even worse killers and gangsters, his motivation to protect and provide for his family feel justified and, in a word, sympathetic. Kuklinski is a killer, but unlike say, Patrick Bateman, this is only his job.

Roses are red/ violets are blue/my Annabel is golden/as the light of the moon

Roses are red/ violets are blue/my Annabel is golden/as the light of the moon. The poetic soul of a father, and a killer.

In everyday life he was an iceman, a cold, blocky giant thawed from some patch in the remote wilderness, who never truly desired anything in this world he entered into, and so had no reason to care for anyone in it; until perhaps in a strange twist of fate, he found he was suddenly responsible for life himself. We do not ultimately know if this love he maintained for his family was reciprocated, but the last words Shannon says in the film are taken from the man directly;

“I’ve never felt sorry for anything I’ve done except hurting my family. That’s the only thing I feel sorry for.”

Your willingness to believe this hinges on whether you believe Michael Shannon truly captures the dichotomous essence of the man, or if it is merely an idealized portrait of a twisted father, husband, and ultimately serial killer; who was so alien and mystifying to regular people that we could never hope to know the truth of him.

Secrets of the Father, Sins of the Daughter

No two people grieve in the exact same fashion, but India seem unreadable in hers.

No two people grieve in the exact same fashion, but India is utterly unreadable in hers.

The coming-of-age drama is a popular staple of both cinema and literature, most likely because the experience of growing up is universal and it speaks to a deep need we have to understand who we are and how we should live our lives. One of the most essential traits in this narrative is vulnerability, and conveying this through a character is often tougher then you might think; because a character’s vulnerabilities so often are used to define them rather then strengthen them. Moments of uncertainty and weakness are the ideal times for character growth, and the provocative family drama that plays out in the refreshingly vampire-free Stoker uses them in such a low key manner that you’re never quite sure what the source of that weakness is until it all comes together in the end.

India plays in the garden of Eden, unaware of the snakes under her feet...

India plays in the garden of Eden, unaware of the snakes under her feet…

While the protagonist of Chan-Wook Park’s elegantly twisted new thriller is uncertain about who she is, she is also very good at hiding this under a guise of normalcy. She is India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) and you would forgive her for being a little emotionally detached given that her father Richard was recently killed in an unexpected car accident, on her 18th birthday no less. Her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) is soothing her widow’s grief with a steady supply of red wine, and all her attempts at getting India out of her seemingly sullen shell are unsuccessful.

Uncle Charlie offers India an umbrella, and finds her response rather stormy

Uncle Charlie offers India an umbrella, and finds her response rather stormy

However, the arrival of her never before seen Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) under the pretense of helping Evie through her emotional turmoil has a strange effect on India’s life. At first she resents Charlie’s claim that he simply want to be friends with her, but as he continues to pursue her with a strange mix of paternal care and mentoring advice, India gradually finds herself attracted to him for reasons that even she doesn’t understand.

The need for order in the wake of her father's death leads to India creating some out of whatever is available

The need for order in the wake of her father’s death leads to India creating some out of whatever is available

Stoker thrives the way it does by telling the story not through its actor’s dialogue, but with their performances and interactions with the environment around them. From the opening images of blowing grass and crimson flowers, to unusual framing shots that place characters in the same scene without sharing the physical space, the film achieves a haunting sense of other world-ness that highlights a number it’s themes. It is helped along by the light but mesmerizing score of Clint Mansell (Requiem For a Dream) which adds an aura of dark whimsey to to the otherwise sinister tone of the events.

India doesn't take kindly to Charlie trying to muscle in on her family OR her piano playing skills.

India doesn’t take kindly to Charlie trying to muscle in on her family OR her piano.

Each actor’s performances carries an undercurrent of mystery, which escalates from a question of intentions to a wider notion of just who they really are. Mia Wasikowska keeps India’s expressions neutral throughout the film, but allows us to see her curiosity about her Uncle and how it motivates her actions. She’s introverted, yet doesn’t appear shy and rather seems to resent the attention of people, so her attraction to Charlie becomes all the more telling. This attraction is best conveyed during a piano duet between them that starts as a battle of wills and quickly twists into a type of lust that is not all it appears on the surface. This incident comes full circle during a shower scene that at first seems to be showcasing a genuine moment of weakness, until it becomes something else entirely.

Even though Evelyn and India are close together while brushing hair, there remains a strange distance between them...

Even though Evelyn and and her daughter are close together while brushing her hair, there remains a strange distance between them.

Initially, Evelyn’s infatuation with Charlie seems like her sole defining characteristic, making her a deserved source of scorn for India. But while Evelyn Stoker’s treatment of her daughter appears on the surface to be neglectful, Nicole Kidman slowly deepens our understanding of their relationship until we understand the truth. By wearing a tacked on smile of gaiety, and expressing uncertainty over why her daughter was so close to her father, it grows clearer that she has been hiding emotions that could not be expressed when her late husband was alive.

Evelyn and Charlie Stoker complete play the part of Gertrude and Claudius respectively, while India as Hamlet watches from behind the curtain...

Evelyn and Charlie Stoker play the part of Gertrude and Claudius respectively, while India as Hamlet watches from behind the curtain…

As the the enigmatic Uncle Charlie, Matthew Goode is tasked with portraying a man who can blend into fine company with his sophistication and worldly charm, yet is distinctly off in a way that only India takes notice of. His name an homage to the similarly mysterious uncle from Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Charlie makes no secret of his pursuit of India, but does so in a way that intrigues her instead of repulsing her. Goode is versatile enough to summon a smile that is charming to Evie, and then display an almost child-like care for India that turns his obsession with her into something more tender. His true characterization of Charlie is not in what he says to her, but how he seems to understand her better then anyone, and this is made especially notable in the scenes they share which play out entirely without dialogue.

The film is worth watching for these visual metaphors alone, which are sometimes simply clever, and other times gloriously evocative.

The film is worth watching for these visual metaphors alone, which are sometimes simply clever, and other times gloriously evocative.

It’s this last thing that characterizes Stoker’s subtlety, and demonstrates how a simple story can be much more provocative if the pieces to it are alluded to rather then made explicit. The attraction India has to Charlie as well as her apparent jealousy of her mother lends the film a palpable theme of sexual tension, only for it to be blurred and turned on it’s head as we realize that not all seductions are lustful. Likewise, numerous hints about India’s background feel as though they are leading towards a damaging reveal, only for it to become apparent that the truth is far more meaningful to India’s character and our interpretation of her.

India takes aim at her destiny

                              India takes careful aim at her destiny

Stoker is a film about dangerous secrets, about the reasons they are kept and the consequences for knowing the truth; and yet the the answers are not as important as what each means to the person who discovers them. While any film could use violence to illustrate these, few films do in a way which feels as integral to the characters as to the audience. Compared with the violence of his previous revenge thriller Oldboy, Park uses it sparingly but effectively, all the more to unnerve us when it breaks through the docile surface of the family. In keeping with this theme, Charlie may be family, but India learns though the course of the film that not all family is related by blood. Some are related by what’s in the blood.

Oz The Gweat And Tewwible

"Quick! Take my hand and we'll escape from this thinly veiled Alice In Wonderland imagery!"

“Quick! Take my hand and we’ll escape from this thinly veiled Alice In Wonderland imagery!”

Who is Oz? While not the central question (That would be “How do I get back to Kansas?”) of the classic 1939 film which ushered in color to the film industry, this was nonetheless the inquiry which drove young Dorothy Gale and her compatriots to the doors of the Emerald City, each hoping to acquire a symbolic character attribute. What they found was not an all-powerful wizard as they expected, but a weak and rather timid figure (Frank Morgan) who taught perhaps the most recognizable lesson to many young children regarding the appearance of something in juxtaposition to the truth behind it. Oz ruled through the sheer force of his legend, and now that Oz The Great And Powerful has finally opted to fill in the the history of this enigmatic figure, and though what we learn is intriguing, it’s presented in a somewhat perfunctory yet needlessly twisty fashion.

In his earlier, older incarnation, Oz proved that once again, men would always leave Dorothy behind. Her shoes on the other hand would always be there for her.

In his earlier, older incarnation, Oscar proved that once again, men would always leave Dorothy behind. Her shoes on the other hand would always get her where she needed to go.

The film begins with a pleasantly old-fashioned prologue featuring our anti-hero Oscar Diggs (James Franco) showcasing his equal talents at wowing an audience of yokels with a parade of cheap illusions and wooing the various ladies of the traveling circus he reluctantly accompanies. He’s not quite a true sleaze though, as he shows a genuine compassionate heart for the suffering of others. It just seems that he thinks with his ego, which makes him still well overdue for a test of character, coming in the form of a nearby tornado which whisks him and his hot air balloon to the other side of the rainbow. Once there he meets a parade of characters starting with the wide-eyed witch Theodora (Milla Kunis) and her sister Evanora (Rachael Weisz) who harbors more reservations then her sister about a supposed “Wizard” who will descend from the sky and save the land from the Wicked Witch who has killed the king and plunged the land into chaos.

It’s worth noting that though the acting from all the cast is rather stiff, this may in part be due to trying to capture the slightly campy style the original film. Unfortunately this does not extend to Franco, who does an okay job when it comes to playing a slightly ego-driven charlatan, but rarely gets a chance to express genuine emotion. He’s simultaneously too cartoonishly scheming and too soft hearted (Imagine George Clooney from Oh Brother Where Art thou?, but without the flair of humility) Knowing that the part was first offered to Robert Downey Jr, and then Johnny Depp it’s obvious that the part called for charisma, but the con-man grin Oscar sports throughout much of the film feels too fake to charm Theodora’s heart, let alone the audiences’.

Hey guys, I just smoked some Pineapple Express and now I think I'm in a 1930s movie about wizards and flying monkeys...

Hey guys, I just smoked some Pineapple Express and now I think I’m in a 1930s movie about wizards and flying monkeys…

With a not entirely convincing leading man at the helm, what Oz really needs is for the witches to be both compelling and interesting, but again the film falters due to the nature of the story not allowing this sort of complex characterization. Though we learn little more about the politics or demographics of Oz, the witches seem to be key players in the land, yet their relationship to it remains nebulous. Oscar meeting Theodora would seem to give a perfect opportunity to provide exposition on who she and her sister are and what their purpose in Oz is, but its gimicky narrative actually restricts this from happening in favor of setting up a somewhat loaded storyline that sends Oscar away from them and prevents them from interacting for much of the rest of the movie. This is a real shame, because Oscar’s relationship with Theodora and her’s with her sister is without a doubt the most interesting part of their characters, and it seems a crying shame that it is put aside so casually after focusing on it so much.

However, Milla Kunis makes up for her wooden performance with a hat which would make Carmen Sandiego jealous.

However, she makes up for her wooden performance with a hat which would make Carmen Sandiego jealous.

As it is, Milla Kunis as Theodora plays tragic naivete well for the first part, but her later scenes try too hard to invoke the original movie and wind up coming off as pale imitations. Rachael Weisz adds an air of the debonair to her shifty sorceress, but her actions start to feel forced rather than organic, making her ultimately lackluster. We can see the reason she might do some of the things, but we lack enough background on her to believe that she would, especially when these actions appear to result in her only believable source of emotion which is sadly not dwelled upon. The inclusion of Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams) also fails to provide any more meaningful material to get invested in, as forced close-ups between Franco and her feel strange and unmoving, as is her continual faith in a man who freely admits to her that he has no powers and has also curiously forgotten the affections of a by now volatile Ms. Kunis.

"When you said you wanted to "Blow me a bubble," I thought you were just playing coy!"

“When you said you wanted to “Blow me a bubble,” I thought you were just playing coy!”

Where Oz shines the brightest is in everything that is not the characters or the script sadly. Sam Raimi of Spider-Man and Evil Dead infamy crafts some truly breathtaking scenes of splendor that Franco feels strangely indifferent to, while showcasing additional ingenuity in several scenes whenever the action takes a darker turn. Tenderness is not his strong point, but a moment involving a little girl made of fragile china shows an affection for these characters that just can’t be evoked from the sight of a dozen little munchkins breaking into song. The climax is a fantastic example of thrilling set piece that still feels hollow because the conflict fueling it has been relegated to exposition and hidden in plot twists rather then put out in the open. And once you see the reason for complicating everything, it feels like a magician explaining a trick and makes you wish you could take the explanation back so you could preserve the magic for yourself.

Rachael Weisz proves that the color green runs in the family, as well as Raimi's other flying characters...

Rachael Weisz proves that the color green runs in the family, as well as Raimi’s other flying characters…

There are times when Raimi seems somewhat reluctantly dialing back what could be a potentially creepy yet mesmerizing movie, opting to smooth over the edges of real danger and preventing Oscar from truly coming across as the silver-tongued womanizer which would damage the audience’s belief in him. In many ways his character is most similar to the devilishly charming yet selfish Tony (As played by the late Heath Ledger) from Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus. Only where Raimi tried to outline the character’s darkness, Gillian wasn’t afraid to let it bleed through and show us that even though he was the main character, he was still a slimebag. Missing the tone and scaring the kiddies? Perhaps, but as we should all remember “We’re not in Kansas anymore…”