“Prisoners” is challenging but gripping

PrisonersA film that has gone mostly unnoticed from the public except for a few under-the-breath praises from the critical scene, Prisoners is high minded mystery-thriller that challenges our own sense of morality. Other lower films that aim to scare with the use of paranormal and possessions don’t do anything to the degree that Prisoners does. It really attacks the heart of our fear: having one of our loved and defenseless ones taken away. How would we react? And how far would we go to see them back?

The action begins on Thanksgiving Day as two families come together for dinner. Keller Dover’s (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin Birch’s (Terrance Howard) families mirror each other with similar aged children. When the two small girls leave the safety of the house, they disappear with only the clue of a stray RV spotted earlier. Rightfully so, Keller is dead determined to rescue his daughter at all costs and by all means. The RV and its owner, Alex Jones (Paul Dano) are found by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) leading into an extensive investigation that hits numerous roadblocks. Partly at fault is Alex’s lower IQ which makes him less capable of understanding questions.

This is where the two styles of the movies meet and intermingle effectively in the middle third. Keller keeps pursuing his instinct that Alex has the two girls in captive even if Alex isn’t giving any way to his supposed knowledge. His highly-questionable methods are coupled with Loki’s investigation which creates very thrilling dynamics. And for my money, this was  great.

But that’s as far as it goes. The last third-ish is straight up mystery and who-dun-it story that just gets lost in its own mess. It’s like it was trying to be too clever for its own good that the complexity at least lost me with its own smarts. From a good mystery, everything should culminate into one huge revelation. Although it was trying to do that, it still left many loose threads that just furthered my confusion.

The mark of  truly good movie is how it can make the viewer feel. Whether if it’s an over-load of laughter or gut-wrenching pain, what happens on the screen should effect you. And boy, does Prisoners do that. From the first few scenes I was genuinely frightened. And this is coming from someone who doesn’t have any children. You can feel Jackman’s agony as his pursuits hit walls at every path.

That being said, if it had been more focused on what it was trying to be, either a strong character study or a coherent mystery, it would have been outstanding. I just wish they focused on the former, as Jackman was mildly short changed  by not homing strictly on his struggle.

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is a Political Forrest Gump

Forrest Whitaker in Lee Daniels' The Butler

Forrest Whitaker in Lee Daniels’ The Butler

To brush up on my history and acquire a viewing for my “Race, Class and Gender in American Cinema” class, I ventured to a late viewing of Lee Daniels’ The Butler expecting to be carried away by the Oscar-hype train. Sadly, I was rejected at the station.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler follows Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker), a black man from the south, who was adopted into a house servitude after his father was killed in cold blood. A few years pass until he find his way to Washington DC, gets a job at a luxurious hotel then hired onto the butler staff at the White House when President Eisenhower is in office. We follow him and his family through the Civil Rights movement happening throughout the country. Cecil’s wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), is a somewhat unstable drinker dealing with her two boys. The eldest, Louis (David Oyelowo), gets involved early in his adulthood in the Civil Rights sit-in protests headed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. while in college. Cecil struggles in maintaining his fly-on-the-wall approach of servitude while in the White House while being concerned for the well-being of Louis. Along with an all-star cast who plays the Presidents like Robin Williams, John Cusack, and Alan Rickman truly bring refreshing portrayals.

As you maybe can tell from my short summary, it’s a quick flight through a specific time period in American history. Can you think of another recent film that sounds like? Well, I though of Forrest Gump. It’s easy to see that Cecil played the part of Forrest, an innocent subjective viewpoint for the audience. While his son Louis plays the part of Jenny, someone who got caught up by the times and social movements. It’s similar in structure even if the relationship between the two aren’t identical. The Butler isn’t as funny, entertaining or as comedic black as Forrest Gump, it’s very comparable in structure and sometimes tone. Also, both paint this section of history in a rose-colored and cartoonish fashion.

Now, even though the premise and execution is passable, I’m not sure about a few things that the script and production delivered. I think Forrest Whitaker and Oprah did excellent in their respective roles. Even though Oprah’s character didn’t have much to do in the script as she was just played the woman behind the man, she at least played it believable. I enjoyed the aforementioned cameos of the Presidents by their actors but I never could get past the actors who were playing them. Not that I was looking for them to match Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln, but something close would have been nice.

Also, the first half really mad me hate white people. A lot. Rightfully they showed the awful atrocities that the major mindset that the country held at the time, but no one was there to speak up for the few white people that were in support of the Civil Rights. There might have been one or two and President Kennedy. Also, for the most part, it was a one-sided Democratic party commercial; at least what I found from the depictions of the Commander-In-Chief. Eisenhower, a Republican President, might have been the only Republican President given proper respect. Maybe the other Republican Presidents deserved the wrong side of their face pictured (like Nixon) but it showed a strong bias against other Conservatives.

I wouldn’t be surprised if The Butler were up for many awards during awards season. It hits that sweet spot that the Oscar voters love as the last few winners had. And the A-list cast doesn’t hurt its chances either. For me, it was too littered with political biases and a too fictional look at a turning point of our country that deserved more realism.