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While I can’t speak from firsthand experience, I imagine the greatest fear anyone can have is the potential loss of a child. Nothing must be scarier than knowing that your kid is somewhere out there, perhaps kidnapped by some lunatic, not knowing if he or she is alive or dead. It’s with this notion that we come to this logical conclusion: movies about child abduction are extremely difficult to watch. They emotionally drain you and make you feel a certain kind of despair that is unrivaled in movies with differing stories. This week’s “Prisoners” is no different. It’s not fun, but it’s gripping and, despite some stumbles here and there, it tackles interesting themes that deviate from your typical abduction story. This is definitely one to see.

Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Grace (Maria Bello) are a happily married couple who have two beautiful children, Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and Anna (Erin Gerasimovich). They’re also best friends with a couple who lives nearby, Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis), who also have a couple of children, Eliza (Zoe Borde) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons). While together one day, Joy and Anna wander off. When the parents realize they’re not around, they desperately search and try to find them, to no avail. They quickly enlist the help of Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to help them find their child. But Keller has his own agenda. Convinced they were abducted by local oddity Alex Jones (Paul Dano), he kidnaps him and tortures him with the hopes that he’ll reveal where the two girls may be.

With that set up, “Prisoners” blurs morality, that line between doing what is necessary and doing what is right. It never necessarily asks the viewer to pick a side, but it makes them understand the desperation in Keller’s actions while also showing them the ugliness that such actions entail. What is morally correct is never in question—clearly he should not be torturing this man—but whether or not his actions are justified will surely split viewers. And that’s the beauty of “Prisoners.” It tackles the complexity of morality while also encompassing a number of other heavy themes, including coping with grief, vigilantism, acting on emotions in the face of doubt and condemning those with absence of proof. When Keller jumps in his truck early in the movie and the man on the radio quotes scripture about how all men are “born of sin,” you’ll quickly realize that “Prisoners” is not going to be an easy watch; it will indeed make you wonder what you would do in the same situation.

Those are the most interesting aspects of the movie, as, unfortunately, the mystery behind who has the children isn’t the most compelling. Too often, objects are focused on so blatantly that their importance is too transparent and given the film’s thematic complexities, the obvious narrative direction was certainly not going to be the one the movie took. Thus, it’s fairly easy to figure out who has the kids. If you’re unable to figure it out, the motive behind this mystery villain is so utterly ridiculous, so ruthlessly absurd, so hilariously asinine that it comes dangerously close to turning an otherwise believable and tense film into a joke, so you may find yourself not caring anyway. Without ruining anything, the finale is such an obvious promotion of religion that if you took the curse words and some of the more egregious violence out of the rest of the film, you could pass it off as Christian. While religious movies are not inherently a bad thing, the angle feels out-of-place, almost like it was plopped in by a writer who wanted to say something about it, but had no idea how.

But while the whole reasoning behind the mystery is laughable, the film is nonetheless exceptionally well made. The understated score brilliantly builds ample amounts of suspense, the direction and cinematography are solid, with establishing shots that, deliberate or not, feel eerily like POV shots, and the majority of the performances are fantastic. While Gyllenhaal’s character is oddly written and portrayed with rapid, violent blinks, Hugh Jackman knocks it out of the park. This is the rawest, most powerful performance he’s ever given, to the point where it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him nominated for an Oscar come awards season.

With that said, and despite the good performances, many of the characters are throwaway. Maria Bello’s character is mostly useless after having a nervous breakdown early on, sleeping away the rest of the movie and never doing anything substantial until the end, while the older kids are more or less the same. And even with a runtime of over two and a half hours, certain ideas aren’t fleshed out, though that’s not entirely surprising given the large amount of them on display. What ultimately makes the film work, however, is that the characters, when not sidelined at least, feel like real people. These families are beautifully established very early on, so you’ll care about what happens to those kids not simply because they’re kids, but because you’ve invested yourself in them. “Prisoners” is not the most solid movie in the world, nor is it subtle, but what it lacks in those areas, it makes up for with enough punches to the gut and haunting moments to last a lifetime.

Prisoners receives 4/5


The Help

Most stories aren’t original. While the locations, era and characters may be different, the core of most stories never evolve beyond what has already been told. In many cases, it’s a detriment to the film because we, the movie going public, want more. But sometimes, a story is so important, so significant, so thoughtful that we don’t mind seeing and hearing it again. This week’s touching film, The Help, explores racism and hatred towards African Americans in the 60’s south and though its message is no different than many that have come before, it remains a good one and works as a reminder that we should love and respect everybody regardless of their differences.

The film takes place in Mississippi where friends Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) work for a couple of white families as their housemaids. They are bossed around and treated like lesser beings simply because of their skin color, despite the love and care they put into raising those neglectful families’ kids. In their neighborhood, whites and blacks are expected not to mix. Public places are segregated and a bill is about to pass that will require all homes to have a “colored” bathroom just for the help. It’s an unhappy place for Aibileen and Minny, until they meet Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), who recognizes what they go through. She has just graduated from college and aspires to be a journalist, so she offers to write a story from the perspective of the help. It’s a dangerous venture for the housemaids, but they’ve put up with abuse all their lives and decide they aren’t going to stand for it anymore.

The Help, as familiar as it can be at times, is an important film to watch. It’s not always pleasant and is certain to bring tears to many who view it, but we need to keep these past events close in our thoughts. As philosopher George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” A more truthful sentiment has never been uttered, especially given the state of dogmatism we face even today. While certainly not to the same extent, the condemnation of groups in the past parallels certain cases today, especially with the rampant intolerance for homosexuals (a parallel The Help seems to recognize, taking the time to quickly mock those who ignorantly think there’s a cure for homosexuality). Though set in the 60’s, it’s relevant to our times and works as a duality: as a reminder and as a cry for change.

Still, I’d be lying if I said The Help was anything more than a piece of fluff. It’s a crowd pleaser, unconcerned with crafting a tight, smooth flowing story or any critical backlash. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t make for the most structured movie. It’s a long film, well over two hours, but real drama doesn’t begin to build until its back half. It attempts to mash it all together at one time, which isn’t an effective substitute for a thoughtful, slow build throughout. The parts that do work, however, are weakened by unnecessary (and sometimes sickening) scenes, like when one of the maids bakes her feces into a pie and watches her old boss eat it. If in a gross-out comedy, this moment would be lambasted by critics everywhere (as it should be); it’s only fair for it to happen here too. But at least in those movies, it’s a one-time affair. In The Help, numerous plot turns actually stem from the poo pie scene. While watching, you can’t help but wonder why the filmmakers couldn’t come up with something less childish to keep their story moving.

That thought comes to mind because the movie is anchored by an impressive cast; such a scene seems desperate. They do what they can, though, and what they can do is deliver performances that rank among the best of the year. While Octavia Spencer is delightful and Emma Stone skillfully breaks away from her comedic typecasting while retaining her charm and innocence, it’s Viola Davis who impresses the most. Even with a dramatically uneven screenplay, she manages to bring forth feeling with ease. Every quiver of the lip and tear that rolls down her cheek hits hard; it might make you forget how inconsequential her sadness sometimes is to the story. The movie she’s in might not be great, but she is and deserves an Oscar nomination come awards season.

The biggest problem with The Help is that its subject matter is so heavy, but its handling is a little too light. It’s peppered with humor throughout, some of which admittedly works, but it rarely feels imperative, hitting a strange middle ground opposite the drama without ever hitting a good balance. The underdeveloped romance for Stone only makes matters worse; you’ll forget she’s even in a relationship before it comes to an end.

The Help suffers from all these things and more, including what I like to call “Lord of the Rings syndrome,” coming to a seeming conclusion multiple times before moving ahead another 20 minutes. It may be an ordinary movie, but it nevertheless tells an extraordinary story. That’s why, in spite of its faults, it’s still well worth checking out.

The Help receives 3.5/5