Movie reviews

Nightcrawler, steady hands

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Meet Lou Bloom, an unemployed thirty-something with a penchant for stealing shiny things, and enough charisma and self-belief to power the whole of Los Angeles.

After stumbling across a late night crime scene he becomes enthralled by the excitement and immediacy of watching the Nightcrawlers at work — seeing them get in, get the shot, and get out.

It becomes obvious that in order to be great at this job you need to park your emotion at the door and stop looking at victims of crime as real people but instead as a meal ticket, which we soon learn is no big deal for our wide-eyed sociopath. He was made for this job — and so, off he goes into the night on his quest for breaking news with his home-movie camcorder, and a hapless intern…

In this age of austerity, recession, and job losses you can’t help but empathise with Gyllenhaal’s Bloom — infact, you can’t help but admire him, his resilience, his determination, and his bravery. He is a man willing to do whatever it takes to find his foothold in a world that has, until now, stretched and worn useless thin around him.

Speaking of Gyllenhaal, he is exquisite as cinema’s latest (and greatest) anti-hero. A midnight misfit with misinformed motives, He’s unrelenting, unhinged and unstable and the feeling that he may switch into something quite dark and sinister is always there, bleeding through the screen. But his witty salesman-esque approach to dialogue balances out that creepy edge endearing him to us more with every scene.

Sharp writing made for an interesting character base but the spellbinding performance from Jake Gyllenhaal provides the layers to rival the Travis Bickles, the Alex DeLarges and the D-Fens of the movie world. Lou Bloom is discomfort personified, haunting the screen with his giant blue eyes suspended on a gaunt face that is both alluring and terrifying. This movie belongs to him, he is the beating heart, and pumping blood of this diamond in the rough.

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Nightcrawler, quite fittingly, is a visual feast serving up plenty of wide-angle sweeps of the LA skyline to sink your teeth into, as well as uncomfortable up-close-and-personal shots of the saturated underbelly of the crime world. In short, the cinematography is stunning. And the direction is just as good, with one scene in particular that details the technical breakdowns of constructing and presenting live news using Bloom’s explosive, and morally questionable, footage that would be worthy of wearing out the tape for rewinding it so much — it gives us a no holds barred insight into the seedy world of breaking news that leaves you not knowing whether to shudder or applause.

Originality is almost an impossible feat to achieve in the seen-it-all-before age of cinema, but Nightcrawler might have just achieved it. It has the leading man, the production, and the screenplay to rival any Hollywood blockbuster but it is it’s charm, modesty, and the ‘je ne sais quoi’ quality that will lifts it into a category of it’s very own.

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I just wish I could watch it with fresh eyes all over again…

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Cormac McCarthy’s The Counselor

‘If your definition of a friend is someone who is willing to die for you, then you’ve got no friends.’

It’s been a little over a year since The Counselor was out in theatres, and after a lot of less-than-forgiving reviews I ended up missing it altogether — despite being drawn in by the trailer, the cast, and of course the genius, mouth-watering writing skills of Mr McCarthy.

Never one to worry about a critic’s opinion, or a bad rating, I finally followed my gut and waded in on The Counselor last night.

The Counselor, played by the exquisite Michael Fassbender, represents big-time drug dealers and other corrupt clients all around the world, and after popping the question to Laura (Penelope Cruz), he gets lured in by a one-time deal to set him and his fiancé up for life. He schemes with old buddies (or former clients?) the larger-than-life Reiner (Javier Bardem) and rootin’ tootin’ Westray (Brad Pitt) to make a quick buck by slingin’ drugs across the border. Sounds easy enough right? Wrong. Cue the Mexican cartel and other nasties, and you’ve got yourself a seriously sticky situation.

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From the moment it started, I was mesmerised by the beautiful, bleached-out setting of the Mexican plains — and the cinematography was divine. But it wasn’t just the exterior that was breath-taking, all the interiors — and the clothes — were in a class of their own. From opulent to eccentric, the art department went over and above on this movie. And it paid off, because it really gave us a sense that we were dealing with a different breed of human being. We were watching lavish lifestyles paid for with murky morals.

It will come as no great surprise that the screenplay was delicious — and in typical Cormac McCarthy style it was loaded with the obscurity, and sentimentality we’ve come to know and love. Using his seen-it-all-before tone he carved out what, on the surface, is a simple storyline but made it extraordinary and terrifying by playing on our emotions. Some of the dialogue is spine-tinglingly good and partly responsible for the wearing-down of the rewind button.

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But in the originality and ambiguity of McCarthy’s screenplay lies the movie’s biggest obstacle — and more than likely one the contributing factors as to why it wasn’t the smash hit it should have been.

The screenplay doesn’t spoon-feed us. A.k.a it doesn’t sluggishly lay out the plot for us in the first fifteen minutes, and then unleash all merry hell. In fact, it slowly lulls us into a false sense of security with its tantalising dialogue and interesting characters — which isn’t a bad thing, but in The Counselor’s case it doesn’t help to make clear exactly what is going on. So much so, that if it wasn’t for my brother’s excited running commentary at times I would be completely lost wading through a puddle of Sunny D tans and blinged out Cheetahs. Yes, really.

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But once shit hit the fan, the intensity and terror escalated and The Counselor once again became the high-octane thriller that I expected. There were plenty of you’ve-never-seen-anything-like-this-before moments, and enough twists and turns to keep us enticed — but I was still a bit confused. And, that is never a good thing.

It was around about this point that I thought perhaps The Counselor would have been better off as a book. But then that book would have been transformed into a screenplay, no doubt, because it is undeniably an absorbing story. So, should it have had a different director? But Ridley Scott did a great job of setting the scene, and capturing the intensity. It went astray somewhere, and I’m not sure how or where exactly, but it’s definitely the reason why this wasn’t a box office smash.

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Aside from the tantalising cinematography, my favorite thing about this movie was Cameron Diaz as Malkina. She was the icy, hard bitch in heels delivering wicked one liners and chilling the bones of every path she crossed. It was refreshing to see her in a grittier role, and even more refreshing to see a female role getting to shine without playing second fiddle to a man.

Michael Fassbender, who portrays pain and anxiety like no other, was triumphant as The Counselor — a man who was driven, and destroyed, by his own greed.

Now that I’ve seen the film, (eventually) followed the plot, and seen the ending I’m going to watch it all over again. Purely because the second time around you can relax into it, and enjoy the ride without grappling to understand the directions.

Cormac McCarthy, you’re still the best.

Philadelphia on the silver screen

Growing up with an Eagles fan for a dad meant somewhere behind Hello, Mom, and see-at (who knows?!) Philadelphia was one of my first words. Alright so I couldn’t say it properly, but it goes to show I’ve been raised with a strong love and passion for The City of Brotherly Love. It’s ingrained in me.

But once my strong love of film kicked in, it was all about New York though. I started drooling over the Big Apple and begged my mom to let me rent every movie from the video store that was set in NYC.  Ghostbusters, Three Men and a Baby, Sleepless in Seattle (a lot of it is set in New York, don’t let the name confuse ya!), Home Alone 2, The Usual Suspects, and of course Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were a few of my favorite showcases of the city as a little one.

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But fast-forward a few years to The Sixth Sense, and suddenly the iconic and unmissable skyline of Manhattan faded away and the slightly more interesting and certainly more unassuming streets of Philly became immediately fascinating to me. My new mission was to dig out movies set in Philadelphia — which, was surely going to be so simple seeing as there were already two in my mom’s collection at home, ‘Philadelphia’ and ‘The Philadelphia Story’. These filmmakers were making it so easy for me to live vicariously in this exciting place through my new favorite movies.

Now, I can’t claim to have seen them all but I can say I have given it a good go. And as a celebration of one of my favorite cities in the world, and my favorite film location, I’ve picked the best of the bunch. A love letter to Philly, on the silver screen…

Philadelphia. Well, we might as well start with the obvious one — Absolutely no prizes for guessing where this movie is set, but the film itself gets top marks for being the only movie to this day that has made my dad cry (or so he claims!). When I set out on my quest to watch every film ever made that showcased Philly in some way or another, this was the first one I picked out — I was sure I was in safe hands. It’s a beautifully tragic tale that is acted intricately and to perfection and the city’s backdrop is really just that, this film is all about the story.

Rocky. Is there a man, woman, child or dog alive that hasn’t seen Rocky? Or, in fact, is there anyone out there who hasn’t gone for a run, listened to Eye of the Tiger and pretended they were Rocky Balboa? Didn’t think so! Those famous steps Rocky climbs in that unforgettable training montage? They lead right up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art — and a bronze statue of Stallone’s Rocky now sits at the bottom of those very steps.

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Witness. My Mom’s favorite movie of all time, which all kicks off in Philly’s 30th Street Station. It’s not long before Harrison Ford’s tough-as-old-boots cop John Book ends up living in an Amish community in deepest darkest Pennsylvania in order to protect a little boy who witnesses a murder in said station.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Twin Peaks might be (one of) my favorite thing of all time, and what makes it so incredible is the eccentric and original characters of the small town of Twin Peaks. But for the movie, David Lynch switched things up a bit and got the FBI headquarters in Philadelphia involved. And if you asked me, it worked.

The Sixth Sense. M Night Shyamalan was raised in Philadelphia so it makes sense that he’s chosen it to be the location for many of his films. This was the one that kicked it all off for me when as a ten-year-old I assumed I was watching yet another movie set in New York, I discovered I was dealing with a whole different kettle of fish — and if you ask me a whole lot tastier. Although, funnily enough, now watching it as an adult it’s actually completely impossible to tell where this movie is set as Shyamalan purposefully avoided any of the city’s iconic landmarks to create an ambiguous setting for this movie. The only clue is in the restaurant scene, which is a real-life eatery called ‘Striped Bass’ on Walnut Street right in the heart of Philly.

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In Her Shoes. If Cameron Diaz is in a film, I’ll watch it. There’s something electrifying and sassy about her performances that I just can’t resist making her my ultimate girl crush. So as you can imagine I was doubly excited to watch this film when it ticked two of the boxes on my hit list. Cameron and Philly. Winner. Plus, this is actually a sweet and funny flick that is a little more original and refreshing that most Rom Com types. And there’s even a nice little reference to Philadelphia’s most famous movie, Rocky, when Rose climbs those same steps — but this time there’s no boxing gloves, just lots and lots of dogs. Also, Philly’s famous and funky South Street is showcased again and again, and there really is no place quite like it.

Twelve Monkeys. What a freaking awesome film, that is both scary and alluring. Unlike some on this list that showcase exciting, cultural areas of my fave city Twelve Monkeys gives us a glimpse of the bleaker side. Eastern State Penitentiary, where Bruce Willis’s James Cole is locked up. In real life it’s a crumbling ruin, but if you like to take a walk of the weird side you can go on a tour and see exactly where Al Capone spent a large portion of his prison life. It’s only five blocks from those Rocky steps!

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The Master. Set mainly in California, this is one of the most exquisite and thought-provoking films I’ve seen in a long while and I was especially excited to see my beloved Philly crop up halfway through. Again, it’s really just a backdrop but it still gives me a warm, fuzzy glow just to know it’s getting its own nod of recognition. This, like Fire Walk With Me, is definitely cheating but I can’t resist.

Silver Linings Playbook. There’s not a lot I don’t love about this movie, and it’s being set in Philadelphia — and the continuous references to the Eagles — only add to it. In the opening scenes the audience is treated to a condensed guided tour of the city as Pat’s mom Dolores drives from Maryland back to Philadelphia. We get to see so many of those iconic, and glorious, Philly landmarks and there is no better way to open up a movie than that, if you ask me. So much of this film is set outside, from pounding the pavement and running in a bin liner (a strong look for Bradley), to getting into punch ups at the Lincoln Financial Field, so you really get a flavour of Pennsylvania’s biggest city! Gorgeous!

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While I love seeing the blue skies and the palm trees of Los Angeles, the crowded streets and the eccentric characters of London, the vibrant atmosphere and the diversity of New York City I want to see more of the City of Brotherly Love on the cinema screen. It’s got it all, a beautiful skyline that adds drama and depth, culture and arts that make for interesting backdrops and a rich history that deserves attention again and again.

Philadelphia, I love ya.

 

Blue Valentine, nobody baby but you and me

Like most females I know, if Ryan Gosling is credited to a film I’m drawn to it. Moth to a flame, red rag to a bull etc etc. But, unlike most of the other films he’s starred in over the past five years, I did have my reservations about Blue Valentine. Purely because it looked like an advert for the ‘all style and no substance’ movie movement. Even like something an art student has conjured up that’s designed to look pretty but not pack much punch besides that.

My initial reaction was, I don’t want anything to do with this. And stubbornly I  stuck with this stance for a good two years after it was first in cinemas.

Well trust me kids as important as it is to go with your gut instinct, but when it comes to movies it’s equally important to let your friends persuade you. After getting sick to death of my best mate harping on and on about Blue Valentine — and everyone reblogging stills and gifs from the movie on tumblr, I caved in. I caved in and loved every second of it.

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I felt such a fool — this wasn’t a pretentious attempt at creating a kooky movie about love, this was a no-frills story about emotion. Being the voyeur that I am, the opportunity to have an uncensored and unguarded glimpse into the lives of every day people is too good to pass up.

The film follows the evolution of Dean and Cindy’s relationship by cross-cutting from how they meet to them coping with the breakdown of their marriage. The cross-cutting is seamless and quite beautiful in how it weaves through their lives before and after they meet — especially when it effortlessly overlaps between the two time periods and they almost start to melt into one. This is something I appreciated even more the second (and third) time I watched it.

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My favourite thing about this movie is the direction — the way Cianfrance uses extreme close ups, often from awkward and unusual angles, at the most tense moments is what gives it its intense and claustrophobic feel. Which, of course, emphasises the stress in their fractured relationship. It makes for quite uncomfortable viewing, but in this context works well.

Their stay in the Future Room, with its sterile decor and blue hue, embodied the tension in their relationship  — and, it’s touches like this in a film that excite me. This part of the story was definitely hard to watch because you’ve got yourself front row tickets to the crumbling of what was once a beautiful and exciting relationship.

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The script is a dream — and trust me, it’s not your typical love story. It’s intelligent with warm moments, depressing scenes and genuine surprises. It will stay with you for a while, and give you plenty to gnaw over.

And as for my worry that it was going to be (a lot of) style over (little) substance, I was completely wrong. There is a lot of attention and focus over the overall image — and as a result it is a beautiful film, sometimes shot with soft focus and lighting that take away some of the hard edges of the story, that captivated me from the beginning.

And as for Ryan Gosling… Well, he was just an added bonus!

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Oh, Wes. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you — not just for your beautiful body of work, which in my opinion is faultless from beginning to end, BUT because your latest funfair of gorgeousness and gorgeousity has given me the chance to use my favourite word in the most appropriate context… E X Q U I S I T E.

Yep, that’s right. The Grand Budapest Hotel is just that, exquisite. The whole viewing experience is like bathing in a tropical waterfall of tinted pink water. I mean, it’s straight up luxury. But, also, like getting down and dirty in the shower it’s not prissy or pretentious.

The thing is, I’m such a compulsive, sloppy person — and terribly unorganised and messy, so on paper Wes Anderson is everything I stand against. I like gritty, gory and grimy. His films are precise, delicate and divine. Each frame is created with intricate detail and staging. And The Grand Budapest Hotel is the most incredible endorsement of his unique and beautiful style. But, for some reason I cannot get enough.

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His films are bulging at the seams with oddballs and bursting with visual delights. I lose count at the number of times I want to slam on the pause button and soak up a scene for a little while longer, and The Grand Budapest is no different. In fact, if it’s possible it’s ramped up the quirky factor by a few notches.

Anderson offsets his labyrinth of intricate cinematography with truly gritty, neurotic and unhinged characters. It’s such a beautiful juxtaposition and a masterclass in characterisation — and keeping the audiences attention. With an enormous ensemble cast to work with, you’d forgive him for slacking on some of them but everyone who walks onto screen is even more fantastic and bizarre than the one before. Genius!

This film is genuinely hilarious, too. I watched this movie in a packed-out cinema really late at night — which, by the way, is my favorite way to watch a film! — and all of us were cracking up and spluttering on our drinks the whole way through. But, with the laughs, there are a few jump-out-of-your-seat-and-spill-your-popcorn moments. But, I won’t spoil those for you by pointing them out here.

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And while The Grand Budapest’s cup runneth over with acting royalty, this film belongs to Ralph Fiennes, who plays the vivid, larger-than-life potty-mouthed concierge Monsieur Gustave. Goddamn, he was a force of nature. There were three or four times during the film when I wanted to stand on my seat and applaud his performance.

He gave a balls-out batty character depth and charm as well as giving us belly laughs. Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel and Willem Dafoe also give seriously kick-ass performances — and not forgetting my main man Bill Murray who steps in, steals the show and leaves again. I must also mention Tony Revolori who, like his name (sort of) suggests, is a total freaking revelation. He’s sweet and funny but also his character’s story is quite hard-hitting at times and amongst the frivolity and fun certainly brings you back down to earth with a bump a couple of times.

So, if you like Wes Anderson you will love The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s like a beautifully decorated assault course for the eyes and the emotions. Get behind it, it’s exquisite.

Reflecting on what makes a Maniac

The horror genre has been, excuse the pun, butchered so much lately. As a self-confessed Horror nut I’ve been left feeling frustrated so many times over the past few years when directors have heavily relied on over-the-top gore for cheap thrills instead of crafting terror through twists you don’t see coming, characters loaded with depth and mystery, and chilling cinematography.

Maniac, is a remake of the 1980 slasher movie by William Lustig, starring Elijah Wood as a troubled and creepy mannequin store owner by day who gets his kicks by mutilating girls on the street by night. He kills and scalps girls before attaching their scalps to his own private collection of mannequins, which he then interacts with as if they were alive. So, on the surface it sounds like your average freaky, gore fest but at its core it’s so much more than that.

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Considering how much of a mad crush I’ve got on Elijah Wood, I was surprised by how much I dig him in a role where he is playing such a disturbing and unnerving character. The dialogue was stilted and eerie which certainly carved a sense of terror in me from the moment the film started and reinforced the idea that this guy was off the freakin’ rails. Big time.

Filming it almost entirely from his point of view was a genius move, as we only get to see his face as a reflection in mirrors, windows, and car doors, which ramps up the creepy factor by a few notches. Plus, as Elijah Wood is, let’s face it, totally beautiful it makes sense not to let us indulge in his beauty too much purely because it’s distracting and the last thing we want is to be attracted to him. And mirrors are a really powerful tool because they open up and explore that idea of self image and how we see ourselves compared with the facade we’re putting on for the world. So, that element of the film just rocks and I loved it. It’s not the first time I’ve ever seen this technique but it’s certainly one of the better uses of it, for sure.

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During and after watching this film I felt myself wanting to know more about Frank as I was super intrigued by his character and some of the suggestions that he was maybe dealing with a multiple personality disorder as well as clearly being traumatised by his childhood — and in particular, his relationship with his mom. He has flashbacks of some of the most pivotal moments of his upbringing that could have triggered his bloodlust and psychotic behaviour as an adult.

What I loved so much were the obvious references to Silence of the Lambs, one of the greatest Horror stories of all time, especially with its choice of music —THAT Goodbye Horses song, eurgh! — which completely transcended the film because what Silence of the Lambs does so well is lulls you with suspense and draws you in to a dark, and sinister place and that is exactly what Maniac needs. It needs for you to be captivated and terrified from the beginning so it can pummel you with fear to create that overwhelming sense of distress and anxiety, and nothing does that better than a not-so-friendly reminder of another sick lunatic who also gets his kicks from skinning his victims — albeit it for totally different reasons, but hey let’s not split hairs here.

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I won’t pretend I didn’t watch this movie purely because of Elijah Wood, but after a few seconds I completely forgot about him and was absorbed into a new, frightening world that was almost too much at times. It’s so intense, partly down to the direction, but mainly because it is gruesome and unrelenting. It’s access all areas as far as the violence goes, so if you’re squeamish this is not the movie for you. Sorry.

In the end, it is quite a tried and tested structure and without wrecking the plot I’ll just say I wasn’t satisfied or blown away with the ending but I did enjoy (if that’s the right word to use when watching a man scalp innocent women in the street) the path it took to get there. For originality and creativity I can’t fault this movie, and that’s good enough for me. It’s engrossing, and has a lot more lurking beneath the surface for you to sink your teeth into — if you can move past the (enormous amount of) blood.

Go watch it, and keep a sick bucket close by just in case!

Prisoners, pray for the best but prepare for the worst

With only one day to go until The Academy Awards 2014, there’s only a few movies getting talked about. I do love the Oscars, but I try not to take them too seriously — It’s an exciting night of glitz and glamour, ego stroking, and talent spotting but it’s a fact that time and again some of the best performances and films of that past year get snubbed. And for me, one of the biggest snubs at this year’s Oscars is Prisoners.

Jake Gyllenhaal is an actor that I’ve always liked. But that’s about it. He was great in Brokeback Mountain, and fantastic in Zodiac but after watching him as Detective Loki in Prisoners, I couldn’t stop thinking about his acting. I went back and re-watched some of his old performances and appreciated them even more. In Prisoners he was jaw-droppingly good — I can’t even tell you how many times I wished I could rewind his scenes just to see them again, but that’s just not an option in the cinema. His performance achieved the rare feat of being transparent and hard-hitting yet subtle.

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I was absolutely captivated by him each time he appeared on screen and was always left wanting more. The way he delivered his lines was understated and, most importantly, believable. He was workin’.

His performance wouldn’t have been half as good had he not had such a delicious script to work with. The writing was spot-on from the word go. One thing I love is when writers respect their audience enough to give us room to let our own imaginations run wild — and for us to use our brains to piece the puzzle together. We’re all grown ups, we don’t need spoon feeding and Prisoners certainly gives us our own creative freedom.

An obviously tortured and troubled character, I was desperate to know more about his history but we never got it — sometimes this might be frustrating, or come of as lazy writing but in this case it was just right. In fact it was perfect. Just knowing that there was more lurking beneath the surface was enough. And Jake Gyllenhaal was truly tantalising and real.

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Not only do I think his performance in this movie has been snubbed, but the screenplay should also be recognised. It’s a real slow burner of a film, but at it’s core it’s explosive and terrifying and the writers gave us something dark and gritty to sink our teeth into. I felt every emotion that was being carved out on screen as if it was happening inside me — I came away from the cinema feeling a total wreck but still desperate to go back and watch it all over again. How morbid, I know!

The thing is if a film is great it will still be great and fit into DVD collections around the world in years to come whether it cleaned up at the Oscars or didn’t receive a single nomination. It’s just a shame that Prisoners didn’t get the credit it deserved from the critics. But don’t let that put you off. Go watch it, and get ready for a white knuckle ride of tension and despair.