“I can only see the world as it should be.” Murder On The Orient Express (2017) AND Daddy’s Home 2

Hollywood gets a lot of flak, much of it deserved, but the crime perpetrated by Tinseltown that may bother me the most is when a talented cast is completely squandered in servitude to a lame script and lousy direction.

The Thanksgiving movie offerings this year all have left something to be desired, but we were misfortunate enough to see two of the worst offenders back to back last night. Murder on the Orient Express and Daddy’s Home 2. Yes, you read that sentence correctly. We paid money to see these two movies in sequence. Maybe the problem is with us.

The first is an unnecessary remake of a far superior Sydney Lumet film, based on the original Hercule Poirot mystery by Agatha Christie. It is yet another self-serious, self-satisfied confectionery indulgence from director/star Kenneth Branagh, who fancies himself the poor man’s Laurence Olivier, when he, in reality, may be the poor man’s Benny Hill.

The second is an unnecessary sequel to an unnecessary broad farce, holding a far too indulgent and yuppified mirror to the mixed up sociopolitical and familial dynamics in modern middle-class America. It stars Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell as an ex-husband/father and new husband/stepfather, respectively, whose own fathers John Lithgow and Mel Gibson, also respectively, crash Christmas and demonstrate that they are as boneheaded and as consumed with unflattering male ego as their sires.

NOTE: the movie isn’t smart enough to actually do anything with that premise, and it’s too frightened of its Trump-triggered audience demographic to actually skewer these idiotic men.

Both films favor set decoration and bleak whimsy over script and character development. Orient Express pursues arch tedium over anything resembling flesh and blood characterization, fetishizing starched linens and glistening martini glasses and anthropomorphizing its titular train to the point one wonders if Branagh is simply trying to capture the imaginations of too many young adults weened on the also creepy and tedious Polar Express.

Daddy’s Home conversely, is the kind of film that seems to hold National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation as a kind of high art that could only be improved if the “Nancy Meyers’ school of filmmaking” (middle-class characters living amidst-Better Homes and Gardens residential-porn they couldn’t actually afford in real life) had installed a Sub Zero fridge in Randy Quaid’s “the-sh*tter’s-full” Winnebago. Daddy’s Home is the kind of movie where a character cuts down a cell phone tower, thinking it is a Christmas tree, and gets charged $20,000, and everyone just laughs and shrugs and says, “Now, who is going to pay for that?” This inane, unrelatable incident occurs after the cast has engaged in an interminable sequence where they decorate – top-to-bottom, inside-and-out – a vacation home they are RENTING for the holidays. Who does that? In real life, this family would be trying to figure out how to pay the credit card bills they ran up to buy presents nobody actually wants and would end up in both divorce and bankruptcy courts when slapped with a $20,000 bill for destruction of public property. Or maybe they would be in jail. Fa la la la.

Orient Express is the kind of film where all of the characters have less depth than those found in a Clue board game, but lounge around all casual-cool-dramatic in beautifully appointed train cars (which seem much larger than humanly possible) as if they are posing for a Vanity Fair cover. It is the kind of film where people spout portentous philosophy (“I can only see the world as it should be.” – Poirot) and glower at each other across petits fours. Whodunnit? Who cares?

When one film (Orient Express) offers the best Johnny Depp performance in years (not saying much … and, by the way, spoiler alert, he is the titular murder) and the other (Daddy’s Home) makes John Cena as its final act complication seem practically Oscar-worthy, something ain’t right in the mix.

NOTE: Kenneth, a mustache that covers half your face and renders your speech incomprehensible is not character development. You are no Wes Anderson. And I don’t like Wes Anderson.

NOTE: Mel, swaggering around like an aging muscle man whose tummy has become a beach ball and who believes FOXNews offers great lessons in parenting and social graces is not character development. That is just you. And we don’t like you.

To the rest of the luminaries who collected a paycheck to appear in these movies – John Lithgow, Linda Cardellini, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Willem DaFoe, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom, Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, I’m looking at you – you all know better. Next time an easy payday comes along, please just say no.

Finally, I want to correct the statement with which I began this piece. The worst crime Hollywood commits is hypocrisy. Women are not disposable commodities. Violence is not comedy. Respect for each other, for our individuality, for our unique spirit is essential.

Daddy’s Home 2 is by far the bigger offender because jokes about kissing/spanking little girls or about men “just being men” in Las Vegas or about fathers hitting on the mothers of their sons’ classmates are not funny. They are gross.

Hollywood, if you want us to buy the rhetoric that you are rejecting the worst offenders in your midst, make better movies. More responsible movies. Movies that don’t joke out of both sides of their mouths where animal rights or gun control or human equality are concerned. Stop trying to cater to every demographic. That lack of moral compass is the antithesis of what these holidays are truly about.

Rant over.

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

My wonderful mom the exceptional author 

Love this coverage of my talented mom Susie Duncan Sexton at the recent Whitley County Historical Museum’s Author fair! Thanks to Linda Thomson and The Post & Mail. Find out more about my mom and her wonderful books at www.susieduncansexton.com

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

You’ve got a friend in me: Captain Kangaroo, blogging buddies, and movies

Captain Kangaroo

Captain Kangaroo

Facebook is fun! As some of my colleagues might tell you, I fought social media tooth and nail about five years ago, but now I can’t imagine a world without it. It breaks down barriers, opens minds, and disseminates interesting information like no other channel.

My pal Nick Sweet, a crime novelist born in England and now living in Spain, tagged me in a blog chain and asked me to answer the following questions. You can read his original post here.

But me being me … I can’t just do what I’m told. So I’m going to intersperse my answers with pages from another one of the “reviews” I wrote in my toddler years – this time about an episode of my beloved Captain Kangaroo. In fact, I adored the show so much I have my own autographed photo of Bob Keeshan as the Captain. (And you can check out Baby Roy’s take on The Bullfighter and the Lady here – thanks to my mom for saving these whimsical pages from my youth.)

Captain 1

Part of my task as assigned by Nick is also to “pay it forward” and acknowledge some bloggers that I love – please check out their work …

  • My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s fabulous free-thinking blog about animals, culture, empathy, and understanding here.
  • Beth Kennedy’s charming musings about yesterday and today at I Didn’t Have My Glasses On.
  • Lovely Kat Kelly Heinzelman’s thoughts on family, friends, and baseball at RedSoxLady35.
  • Gabriel Diego Valdez’ careful analysis of film, culture, and social politics at Basil Mariner Chase.
  • And my fellow thespian JP Hitesman’s energetic romp through local theatre offerings at Theatrical Buddha Man.

All five blogs are engaging and challenging and informative and rich – written by kind and thoughtful souls, hoping for a better, kinder world.

Captain 2

And here are my answers to Nick’s questions …

What am I working on?

What am I not working on? Between my daily life as a legal marketer, communicator, and strategic planner and my “free time” writing this blog, getting the word out about the Reel Roy Reviews book, proudly promoting my mom’s marvelous output as an author and a columnist and an animal rights activist, trying to be a good friend and family member, sharing a loving home and minding two nutty mutts, keeping up with my weekly comic book addiction, acting in and supporting local theatrical efforts, going to concerts and movies and plays, buying an ungodly amount of cds and dvds, and on and on, I’m not sure which end is up most days!

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Stealing this from the press release about the book … “I try to respect that (for the most part) these are show business professionals putting (ideally) their best feet forward and that they are human beings with hearts and souls and feelings. I hope I never seem cruel. I don’t mean to be. These writings are off-the-cuff and journal-style and come from as positive a place as I can muster….Approach everything and everyone honestly and with positive intent and offer candid feedback with an open heart and as much kindness as possible.”

Captain 3

Why do I write what I do?

Also stealing from the release (lord, I’m lazy today) … “Film is an encapsulated medium. Whether 90 minutes or three hours, a movie tells one story-beginning, middle, and end-introducing you to new friends, enemies, and locales in an efficiently designed delivery mechanism. With a good film, I feel you get the experience of reading a novel (whether or not the film is in fact based on any work of literature) in a highly compressed fashion. … In the best movie-going experience, your brain leaves your body for a bit, you take a mini-vacation to places you might not otherwise ever see, and you return to your regularly scheduled life a bit changed, perhaps enlightened, and hopefully re-energized.”

How does your writing process work?

John laughs that he thinks I write my reviews as we’re still in the parking lot of the theatre. There is some truth to that. I’ve always been annoyingly analytical while watching a movie or a play or a concert – what choices were made, why, what do they say about the artist or about our culture? So all of that stuff is swirling in my head, and I quite literally have to purge it when I get home, or I lose track of the ideas and find myself on the cranky side. So, the minute we walk in the house, I grab the laptop, head upstairs, plunk myself on the bed, and exorcise these crazy thoughts.

Captain 4

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Animals, the environment, nature or wildlife: Dearborn’s Big Read Wrap-Up Event

Roy and Susie and John and Terry

Roy and Susie and John and Terry

What a wonderful day! Thanks to Henry Ford Centennial Library’s Henry Fischer for organizing the Big Read Wrap-Up author event. I was (and am) so proud that my mom Susie Duncan Sexton was among so many great writers, that she has an essay included in their book Animal Tales, and that my canine “siblings” Jack and Zelda are featured on the front cover.

Animal Tales book cover

Animal Tales book cover

 

Me reading my mom's essay

Me reading my mom’s essay

Here’s the book description: “Call of the Wild Dearborn: Animal Tales is a community anthology featuring short stories, poems, and essays about animals, the environment, nature or wildlife.” It will be available to purchase online at the library’s site soon. [All photos in this blog entry by Don Sexton.]

Authors

Authors

My mom emailed, “What I would add is the ‘moment in time’ that Selfridge [Jeremy Piven tv series] identified in his final installment for this season last night seated around a Thanksgiving table with his entire family … because you, Roy, so poised on that stage reading about Jack and Zelda with that magnificent slide of the book cover was incredibly moving for me! Like nothing ever before! Loved every moment of this event. Super concept! Pleased to have been included … I am delighted to have a story in the book and that my Jack & Zelda are a part of the cover! I once taught the works of Jack London, so I enjoyed the Call of the Wild theme of the presentations at the Saturday afternoon event.”

Rosalie's in Jonesville

Rosalie’s in Jonesville

My parents had a marvelous lunch at adorable Rosalie’s in Jonesville, Michigan, on the way to the event, and John and I had such a nice dinner with them and with Terry Branoff at La Pita in Dearborn following – with a quick stop at beloved Dearborn Music. And then Terry and I were off to see Lady Gaga. Here’s my mom’s website: www.susieduncansexton.com – enjoy!

Susie at Rosalie's

Susie at Rosalie’s

Henry Fischer

Henry Fischer

More about my mom and her work…

Roy and Susie and John and Don

Roy and Susie and John and Don

Read about movies and nostalgia, animal issues and sociopolitical concerns all discussed in her book Secrets of an Old Typewriter and its follow-up Misunderstood Gargoyles and Overrated Angels – print and ebook versions of both are available on Amazon (click the title). You can find her fun and free-wheeling blog here.

Her books are also carried by these fine retailers: Ann Arbor’s Bookbound and Common Language; Columbia City’s North Side Grille and Whitley County Historical Museum; and Fort Wayne’s The Bookmark. And you can download from iTunes.

Meet other like-minded souls at her facebook fan page. Or join a great group of animal advocates Squawk Back: Helping animals when others can’t … Or Won’t

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La Pita

La Pita

Giggle and Laugh

Giggle and Laugh

Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Countdown: August – Osage County

Susie Duncan Sexton

Susie Duncan Sexton

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Just 7 days left until the official release of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Don Sexton

Don Sexton

Here’s a snippet from Roy’s review of AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY: “Whether you have survived a combative Thanksgiving family get-together, navigated the treacherous waters of a matriarch playing ‘who’s in the will/who’s out of the will’ games, or discovered relatives colluding with perfect strangers to undermine some special accomplishment of yours, you will find something to which you can relate in this caustic, fractious, anarchic dramedy. (Hey, I’m not saying the terrible things detailed above have happened to me and mine … oh, wait, who am I kidding? Of course they have.)”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

Countdown: Frozen

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

The countdown continues! Just 9 days left until the official launch of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Reviews from Roy’s proud parents…

  • Susie Duncan Sexton: “I got my book today and I not only LOVE IT…I ABSOLUTELY KNOW THIS IS MY FAVORITE BOOK OF ALL TIME…and I am not biased…I am candid as can be. Ask anybody! Why do I love and enthusiastically recommend this exquisite, easily digested book of clever and meaningful words and phrases? Because Roy covers the waterfront of moviedom…equal opportunity tastes satisfied without a doubt. A breezy yet informative trip! Films are adored, fairly critiqued, and as a bonus this author’s tributes include the human condition–who we are as we sit and gaze at the screen. Films remind us and advance us and chronicle US! Thanks for this collection of true stories of the human race’s 150% love affair with cinema whether we admit that fact or not. Each essay equals a mini-movie…even the concert, CD, and book reviews! Gene Siskel is back! At last!”
  • Don Sexton: “This is timeless writing that will not only enlighten you concerning movies and theater – it will also give you food for thought concerning our ability to take ourselves too seriously – our ability to get hung up on the trivial – and the overall silliness of life in the 21st century. Grab this book and enjoy – as Mr. Sexton writes – ‘I approach everything and everyone honestly and with a positive intent and offer candid feedback with an open heart and as much kindness as possible.’ This book is highly recommended.”

Here is a snippet from Roy’s review of Frozen: “Everything has to be postmodern, postfeminist, postmillennial, postfun … and titles we used to know and love need to be replaced by edgy (and meaningless) adjectives. For example, Rapunzel is now Tangled. Today, Snow White would be Pale or Cinderella would be Shoeless or Sleeping Beauty would be Snoozy. Hence, now The Snow Queen is called Frozen. And it’s a bore.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

Countdown: The Guilt Trip

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Just 17 days until the release date of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Here’s what Roy thought about The Guilt Trip: “The film blessedly avoids slapstick predictability and deftly sidesteps Freudian mama-bashing. The dynamic between the two actors is that of mother and son, a delicate spider web of love and generosity and aggravation and pride, and they deliver it with aplomb. I really loved this movie, and I hope, with time, people will discover and enjoy it for the kind-hearted enterprise that it is.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

Mama’s Family redux … August: Osage County

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

No one can turn the knife quite like family. That seems to be the central premise of the film adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play August: Osage County.

Whether you have survived a combative Thanksgiving family get-together, navigated the treacherous waters of a matriarch playing “who’s in the will/who’s out of the will” games, or discovered relatives colluding with perfect strangers to undermine some special accomplishment of yours, you will find something to which you can relate in this caustic, fractious, anarchic dramedy.

(Hey, I’m not saying the terrible things detailed above have happened to me and mine … oh, wait, who am I kidding? Of course they have.)

The film is like an episode of Carol Burnett’s/Vicki Lawrence’s old sitcom Mama’s Family … if it had been co-written by Eugene O’Neill, David Mamet and Tennessee Williams … with directorial consultation by Ryan Murphy and David Fincher. The story is a bleak one with Sam Shepard, playing an alcoholic Sooner poet whose sell-by date has long expired, committing suicide and setting off a whole raft of fireworks as his drug-addled, cancer-stricken, chain-smoking widow (portrayed by Meryl Streep) tears through her assembled family of grieving ingrates and dopes.

Streep is a hoot, throwing vanity to the wind and not once making the critical error of having contempt for her spiky character Violet. She is authentic through and through, calcified by years of disappointment, betrayals, and brutality (both genuine and mythologized).

Julia Roberts as bossypants daughter Barb is Streep’s match, their scenes together crackling with sympathetic ugliness. I lost any affinity for Roberts ages ago, but it came back in spades while watching this entry in her illustrious career. She wrings comic gold from the sympathy/revulsion/love/hate she feels for her family, which also includes the very good Julianne Nicholson and the disappointingly so-so Juliette Lewis as her two sisters Ivy and Karen as well as a heartbreaking Benedict Cumberbatch as their cousin Little Charlie.

Rounding out this star-studded cast are Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale as Charlie’s parents and the three sisters’ uncle and aunt. Martindale plays Streep’s wry, equally embattled sister Mattie Fae. These two are so good and so believable, beautifully centering the proceedings which often threaten to spin off into absurd melodrama.

Less effective are Ewan McGregor as Roberts’ yuppified, simpering husband or Dermot Mulroney as Lewis’ yuppified, slime-bucket fiance. Their respective performances are phoned in and dull, lost in the nigh-operatic ACTING! cacophony generated by their fellow cast members.

Little Miss Sunshine‘s Abigail Breslin is rather pedestrian as the daughter of Roberts and McGregor, rising to the fore only once when she delivers a deeply-felt monologue about the “fear we eat” when we consume animals. Her character is a vegetarian, and the monologue, imparted to her family at the post-funeral dinner table, clearly is a metaphor for the vicious consumption her relatives do of each others’ souls. And the fact that they all behave like jackals, immediately ridiculing the young girl’s beliefs, compounds the imagery.

I haven’t seen the stage version upon which this film is based, nor have I read it, so I can’t play the pretentious “I saw it on Broadway and I know how it is supposed to be performed so the movie sucks” card. I do suspect, however, that the film struggles, as so many adaptations do, expanding upon the insular, claustrophobic, sweaty envelope that the stage experience can so brilliantly create for an audience. Do you keep these characters trapped around the dinner table, or do you have them cavorting all about Oklahoma?

Director John Wells, who has worked primarily in television, has a workmanlike approach that doesn’t do much to open up the material, but wisely he just gets the heck out of the actors’ way and lets them do their scenery-chomping thing.

I will also suggest – and this is a criticism of the script and its source material (both written by Letts) – that the third act suffers from some over-baked, soap opera twists that I found rather silly. These plot points do set up a zinger of a scene with Roberts and Streep and some ill-fated plates of catfish, but overall they left me scratching my head a bit. Ah well.

As relentlessly dark as this material is, the film is fun and mostly moves at a brisk pace. I don’t know how well the years will treat it. I suspect it won’t age well and eventually will seem like a quirky exercise in pulpy camp. However, in its moment with most of its cast at the peak of their powers, it’s worth checking out … and probably cheaper than two hours of therapy.

Why are we ashamed of our fairy tales? Disney’s Frozen

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In this post-Wicked era, we seem to be ashamed of our fairy tales. Everything has to be postmodern, postfeminist, postmillennial, postfun … and titles we used to know and love need to be replaced by edgy (and meaningless) adjectives.

For example, Rapunzel is now Tangled. Today, Snow White would be Pale or Cinderella would be Shoeless or Sleeping Beauty would be Snoozy. Hence, now The Snow Queen is called Frozen. And it’s a bore.

I really wanted to like this. I love Disney animated movies, and I love musicals … and I adore Disney animated musicals. But not this one.

With the pedigree that this film has – from the creators of The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q (which I admit does seem like a bit of a stretch for Disney) providing the music and Pixar’s John Lasseter producing – I had high hopes. I also think The Snow Queen is a fascinating (and weird) story to adapt. Plus, you have voice work from Broadway’s Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, and Josh Gad as well as TV star Kristen Bell.

Sadly, the film is dead on arrival. The musical numbers are forgettable – completely. And the storyline is so far afield from the familiar narrative, bolting on, yes, a Wicked-esque sisterly rivalry that adds little. And, I will admit it, I still miss hand-drawn animation. I know 2D is basically gone forever, but this computer-generated business where everyone looks like a glassy-eyed Bratz doll is for the birds.

There are folks out there who loved Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame with its singing and dancing gargoyles and creepy, oversexed, misogynistic clergy villain. I’m not one of them. And I kept thinking of that misfire while watching Frozen. The plot is similarly disjointed, and I just couldn’t get too geeked about musical numbers featuring rastafarian rock trolls and goony snowmen.

I wish I had more to say. I’m fresh out of clever. There’s an interesting twist in the film’s final act that helped me engage a bit, but at that point the movie had already lost me. There will be people who – on their Thanksgiving holiday high – will adore this, and they will likely tell me “you just didn’t get it” and “you are thinking about it too much.”

Well, I like thinking. And the Disney classics of old weren’t devoid of thought. In fact, they were rich with it. Frozen left me uninspired and bored to icy tears.

“Pray for the best; prepare for the worst” – Prisoners

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In post-9/11 America, paranoia and violence, xenophobia and religion have become a toxic brew. It is in these murky waters that the new film Prisoners trucks.

The movie is directed by Canadian Denis Villeneuve who shows a surprising level of fair-mindedness for our nation’s current warts-and-all rugged surburban survivalism. The atmosphere is overcast and thick, defined smartly by the bleak Midwestern weather that typically blankets the Thanksgiving holiday.

Even that choice is symbolic – for what are we truly thankful anymore when real (or imagined) bogeymen lurk around every corner … and we are armed to the teeth to shoot them (as well as any neighbors who get caught in the crossfire)?

I can’t even begin to summarize the mobius strip of a plot in the limited space here. (That’s what Wikipedia is for, after all!) The long and the short of it is that two families  – one deer-hunting, Jesus-loving, stranger-phobic and the other yuppified, highly-educated, inclusive – venture across their tract home lawns to break bread on Thanksgiving only to find the young daughters of each brood seemingly vanish into thin air.

The prime suspect is RV-driving, greasy-haired, 80s-glasses-wearing Boo Radley-in-training Paul Dano (a mumble-mouthed marvel). And, as you have no doubt gathered from the trailers, hot-headed Hugh Jackman, for whose character violence is a deep-seated expression of his faith, abducts the supposed kidnapper and brutally tries to “Gitmo” the truth out of him.

The sad reality – and the film’s ultimate revelation – is that there is no black and white “truth,” in even the most horrific of circumstances, and violence only begets … well … more violence. I won’t spoil the “fun” as it were, but there are surprises (but blessedly not M. Night Shyamalan-style SHOCKS!) aplenty. The twists are all logical and integral to the plot, leaving the viewer with the perspective that if only the characters, in their rush-to-CNN/Fox-News-judgment, had slowed down for just one minute, they would have seen the real picture much sooner.

The film is a series of muted grays – visually and emotionally. Just when you feel certain in your philosophical alignment with one character (say, Jackman’s righteously raging papa) or another (say, Jake Gyllenhaal’s “facts will set you free” police detective), the story – like life – ebbs and flows and leaves you questioning your … faith.

At times, the film is a bit obviously symbolic in the way early Hitchcock could be: rain = sadness and torment, frost and snow = frustration, children = innocence lost, plaid = middle class. Yet, there is also extraordinarily complex thematic work here that I will be mulling for days.

Most notably, at the heart of the film, there is a jigsaw puzzle of faith and disillusionment and self-determination. The mantra “pray for the best; prepare for the worst” gets repeated at least a half dozen times by Jackman and occasionally by Gyllenhaal. The irony is (without ruining the film) that all of Jackman’s prayer and preparations actually make things worse while Gyllenhaal’s agnostic “slow and steady wins the race” approach proves (arguably) best in the end.

This is a mightily powerful film, extremely well acted. The powerhouse cast also includes Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard (who brought me to tears for some reason nearly every time he was onscreen), Len Cariou, and an especially crackerjack Melissa Leo (about whom I potentially could write another entire entry but only by completely spoiling the intricate plot).

I don’t know how I will feel about this film tomorrow or next week or next month (my parents who viewed it Friday warned me about that) but I am so glad I saw it. I suspect this film will become a dark and unsettling touchstone for our era, and I hope one that will cause those brave few among us to question their deeply ingrained assumptions/prejudices about their fellow man.