Powerful ‘Prisoners,’ no ‘Thanks,’ insipid ‘Insidious’

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FS, Contributing Writer

“Prisoners”

-Photo courtesy of Beyond Hollywood
-Photo courtesy of Beyond Hollywood

The kidnapping of two little girls is the catalyst for “Prisoners” (wide release), but Denis Villeneuve’s extraordinary film is as much a searing domestic drama and lacerating character study as it is a whodunit – though it’s a top-notch thriller, too.

When the kids are snatched, the father of one of them (Hugh Jackman) becomes a one-man vigilante squad, taking matters into his own hands when the detective in charge of the case (Jake Gyllenhaal) has to release the chief suspect (Paul Dano) for lack of evidence. He takes the man prisoner and tortures him to extract information about the girls’ location. He also compels the other child’s father (Terrence Howard) to help.

Meanwhile the two families – wives (Maria Bello and Viola Davis) and older siblings, along with the men – are imploding as the hours turn into days and hope that the victims are still alive fades. The fact that the detective tracks down other suspects brings no resolution, and Jackman’s character, a recovering alcoholic with a short fuse, hits the bottle as he veers into ever more ferocious behavior.

“Prisoners” works as a bleak “Se7en”-like study of the dark side of humanity, but what elevates it beyond mere cynicism is the perceptiveness with which it portrays the characters, who are brought to life by a brilliant ensemble. And, unlike David Fincher’s film, the ending is actually rather upbeat, in a grim sort of way.

Fall is the season when films vying for end-of-the-year awards are released, and this one will merit serious consideration for top honors across the board.

“Thanks for Sharing”

Earnestness gets in the way of dramatic truth in “Thanks for Sharing” (wide release), an uneasy mixture of high-strung histrionics and crude comedy about men trying to overcome their addictions in a twelve-step program.

The picture is strongly cast, with Tim Robbins, Mark Ruffalo and Josh Gad all turning in solid performances as three struggling guys who serve as the focus of interlocking stories. Gwyneth Paltrow is also fine as the hard-driving woman Ruffalo starts dating after many months of self-restraint.

But the script opts for easy laughs and melodramatic flourishes rather than treating the men’s condition seriously, and the picture ends up feeling like an after-school special for a more mature audience.

“Insidious: The Second Chapter”

-Photo courtesy of the Courier Journal
-Photo courtesy of the Courier Journal

The first “Insidious” was a solid haunted-house picture until it went off the rails into special-effects land in the final reel, but “Insidious: The Second Chapter” (wide release) proves a misfire from the very start.

This time, it’s the father of the boy victimized by evil spirits in the initial installment who’s targeted for possession by the ghost of a serial killer. As in its predecessor, the final act is set in some sort of netherworld inhabited by the not-so-dearly departed.

For a low-budget movie, this one has some impressive visuals. But the narrative is chaotic and silly, and the concluding teaser pointing to yet another sequel is the scariest thing in it.

Luc Besson, the French filmmaker whose specialty is brainless action movies like “The Transporter” and “Taken”, adds comedy to the mix with “The Family” (wide release), and the result is disastrous.

Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer play the parents of a mob family relocated to France as part of the Federal Witness Protection Program. But neither they nor their two children can give up their nasty, old habits of dispute resolution, much to the chagrin of their sad-faced controller (Tommy Lee Jones), and their enemies are determined to find them and wipe them all out.

The most unsettling thing about “The Family” is its juxtaposition of extreme violence with coarse comedy. The abrupt shifts of tone are jarring, and the result is more likely to make you cringe than laugh.

“Salinger”

Shane Salerno spent a decade assembling “Salinger” (Angelika), a documentary about the author of “The Catcher in the Rye” who avoided the public eye from the 1950s until his death in 2010.

The picture feels like the work of a man as obsessed with the writer as the devotees who camped outside his isolated New Hampshire house to catch a glimpse of him. It apparently includes every still photo and film clip of the man ever shot (using them repeatedly because there are so few), and covers his war experiences, his relationships with women (most much younger than he) and his interest in Hinduism. Excerpts from interviews with friends, relatives, former lovers, fans, writers and celebrities anxious to talk about the effect “Catcher” had on them are interspersed with reams of narration.

The big revelation at the close – that Salinger left a heap of manuscripts in his safe with instructions for publication in 2015 – is presented as though it were apocalyptic. The works themselves, unhappily, don’t sound terribly interesting.

This is a film that longtime fans of the late author will inevitably want to see, but it’s not likely to win him any new ones.

“The Family”

Luc Besson, the French filmmaker whose specialty is brainless action movies like “The Transporter” and “Taken,” adds comedy to the mix with “The Family” (wide release), and the result is disastrous.

Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer play the parents of a mob family relocated to France as part of the Federal Witness Protection Program.

But neither they nor their two children can give up their nasty, old habits of dispute resolution, much to the chagrin of their sad-faced controller (Tommy Lee Jones), and their enemies are determined to find them and wipe them all out.

The most unsettling thing about “The Family” is its juxtaposition of extreme violence with coarse comedy. The abrupt shifts of tone are jarring, and the result is more likely to make you cringe than laugh.

 

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