While the uncertainty of the pandemic continued to impact box office, with all but the biggest of franchise properties struggling to draw the numbers that they might have expected in a pre-Covid world, 2021 was none the less somewhat of a bounce back year for the movies. We saw the release of a number of the higher profile properties that had been held back from last year, the festival circuit offered up some interesting works, the big streamers continued to make their mark as an avenue for smaller dramas, comedies and genre pieces that find it increasingly difficult to find space in the multiplex, and the late year box office performances of No Time to Die and, in particular, Spider-Man: No Way Home suggested that perhaps it wasn’t all doom and gloom for theatrical distribution.
On a personal front, while writing reviews was put on the back burner relatively early in the year, I continued to watch stuff and ended up seeing 57 2021 releases (plus a whole heap of older films). Here are my picks of the bunch…Continue reading
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Robin Wright, Sylvia Hoeks, Jared Leto
The last few years have seen a number of sequels to long dormant film series: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Creed, Jurassic World. Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is something quite different. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, was not a franchise movie. It was not even a box office success. Blade Runner is a cult classic which earned more mainstream recognition over a period of decades, thanks to various re-cuts and re-releases in the ancillary market (specifically the 1992 Director’s Cut and the 2004 Final Cut). While the film had a very cool neo-noir aesthetic and unique sound thanks to Vangelis’ score, the appeal of Blade Runner is largely the ideas it explores. All of this makes returning to the property 35 years down the track a far more interesting challenge than simply rebooting or reviving a proven franchise. Continue reading
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
While the sci-fi films that dominate the box office and attract the most attention tend to be rollicking space adventures like Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy, at its heart science fiction is a genre about ideas. At its best, science fiction uses fantastic, unfamiliar scenarios to discuss relevant issues and relatable ideas. Up and coming Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve’s latest film, Arrival – based on Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life” – uses the story of aliens arriving on Earth to explore notions of communication, memory and time.
Twelve 1,500 foot tall spacecrafts shaped like giant coffee beans have settled at seemingly random locations around the globe. Every 18 hours a door at the bottom opens enabling us to go in and make contact. Continue reading
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Mario Bello, Viola Davis, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano
The compelling, morally complex mystery film Prisoners tells a story of child abduction in suburban Pennsylvania. Two families, the Kellers and the Birchs, come together for Thanksgiving lunch and are enjoying a lovely day until they realise that both of their youngest daughters are missing. When their search proves fruitless, the abrasive Detective Loki, a specialist in finding missing persons, is put on the case. However, the kidnapped girls are not the only prisoners the film’s title alludes to. While Detective Loki continues his investigation, Dover Keller takes things into his own hands. In his desperation he abducts an intellectually challenged man who he believes was involved in his daughter’s abduction and knows her whereabouts, and sets about trying to persuade him to speak by any means necessary. It is at this point that Prisoners ventures beyond the realms of a standard abduction mystery movie and becomes a statement on America in the post-9/11, war-on-terror era.
As America continued its search for Osama bin Laden in the latter part of last decade, details started to leak about the extreme persuasion tactics being employed at Abu Ghraib (tactics confronted on screen last year in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty) and American society was struck with a moral question. How far is it acceptable to go to get information if you believe it will save lives? In Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski confront that same question but put it on a smaller scale, personalising it. How far is it acceptable to go to get information if you believe it can save your daughter’s life?
It is this central moral question that makes Prisoners so painful and so compelling. Simultaneously we want Keller to stop because he might be wrong, but we want him to keep going because he might be right. What is the worse scenario in his mind: that he be wrong and as a result has tortured an innocent man, or that he be right and miss possibly the only opportunity to save his daughter’s life? As such Keller is at the same time the protagonist of the film and one of its chief antagonists. As we struggle to settle on our moral response to the actions being depicted, we are presented with another possible response by Nancy Birch, the mother of the other missing girl, who upon discovering what Keller is doing tells her husband, “We’re not going to help Keller, but we won’t stop him either. Let him do what he needs to.” Her reaction appears to be Villeneuve and Guzikowski’s indictment of an American administration and society that would turn a blind eye to things it could not stomach so long as the ends justified the means.
The first Hollywood film from French-Canadian director Villeneuve, Prisoners is a well-structured and executed mystery with strong performances from its principal cast, a number of whom are playing against their usual character types. For a savvy audience that is programmed to expect plot twists, Prisoners still manages to surprise you. There are some moments at which you feel like plot and character elements are missing –for example Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki is quite an interesting character in terms of his mannerisms and presentation and you expect a backstory that is never forthcoming to explain why he is the way he is – but the film is none the less a gripping, intense mystery.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean