Hitchcockian thriller ‘Prisoners’ calls for multiple viewings

Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman star in "Prisoners."

Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman star in “Prisoners.”

Prisoners/2013/Warner Bros./153 min.

Tense and absorbing, “Prisoners” ranks as a solid three-star flick. When two 6-year-old girls go missing, one of the fathers – a carpenter and hunter named Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) – quickly reveals himself to be a brutal vigilante, intent on beating information out of a mentally disabled man brought in for questioning and then released (Paul Dano).

Jake Gyllenhaal, as the obsessive cop assigned to the case, pursues another suspect and eventually Jackman chases yet another – all of the suspects, we learn, share a shattering connection. Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Maria Bello and Melissa Leo round out the cast. Aaron Guzikowski wrote the screenplay.

Québec-born director Denis Villeneuve thoughtfully tells a complex, Hitchcockian tale and elicits memorable performances from the cast, especially from Gyllenhaal (perhaps his best work since “Zodiac.”)

On the downside, there are some rather drafty plot holes, the pacing is slightly off and, while Jackman is very watchable, the script’s characterization of Keller Dover proves more facile than fascinating. Still, it’s engrossing enough that you might feel like watching it twice to catch all the clues. And the ending is superb.

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On the big screen: Style doc ‘Mademoiselle C’ and three neo-noir titles: ‘A Single Shot,’ ‘Prisoners, ‘The Family’

Mademoiselle CMademoiselle C/90 min.

In defense of full-on glamour, Joan Crawford once said, “If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.”

Fashion insider Carine Roitfeld, the subject of a new documentary called “Mademoiselle C,” echoes that view and takes it up a notch. Running French Vogue for 10 years, Roitfeld became known for her edgy “porno-chic” aesthetic.

After her Vogue gig ended, Roitfeld decided to launch her own mag in New York, CR Fashion Book, and the film chronicles this experience. Interestingly, unlike Crawford, Roitfeld has a tranquil home life, complete with adoring husband and two gorgeous, grown-up children.

Fashionistas will likely enjoy watching Roitfeld at work and seeing her rub elbows with celebs such as Tom Ford, Karl Lagerfeld and Diane Von Furstenberg. And Roitfeld exemplifies Parisian chic style, stateside. Director Fabien Constant’s touch is light and lively, though overall it feels quite superficial – a bit like browsing through Vogue, glancing at all the glossy pictures and skipping the stories.

“Mademoiselle C” opened Sept. 11 in New York and opens Sept. 20 in LA at Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

A Single Shot posterA Single Shot/116 min.

John (Sam Rockwell) is backwoods/country guy trying to make ends meet and looking to patch things up with his estranged wife and son. It’s when he resorts to poaching that his troubles begin and he’s quickly caught in a noirish trap – there’s a big pile of cash, sleazy lowlifes aplenty and a dead body, natch.

Director David M. Rosenthal’s haunting visuals help create a moody atmosphere but the film is undercut by its draggy pace and characters who feel less than authentic, particularly John and his blasé reaction to his own pivotal act of violence. Matthew F. Jones wrote the novel and screenplay. William H. Macy, master of the unctuous interloper, wears a scary toupee and preposterous plaid to great effect. Opens Sept. 20 in New York and in LA at Laemmle’s NoHo 7 in North Hollywood.

Prisoners movie posterPrisoners/153 min.

“Prisoners” looks set to be one of the fall’s best offerings, especially with such a stellar cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Melissa Leo, Maria Bello and Paul Dano. Québec-born Denis Villeneuve directs. Am seeing it this weekend and will come back soon to update. Opens Sept. 20.

The Family/111 min.

In case it’s not clear from the cloying ads and previews, “The Family,” should do everyone a favor and stay at home. Despite a strong cast (Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones) who manage to eke out good performances, the film is weighed down by a weak script and a story that is both illogical and predictable.

This is a crime comedy? Really? Sadly, it’s just not funny. Snazzy camerawork eventually became distracting as did the trying-too-hard-to-be-cool score. I expected more from director Luc Besson. Opened Sept. 13.

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‘Mildred Pierce’ by Haynes savors subtext of Cain’s novel

Crawford and Blyth

HBO’s “Mildred Pierce” mini-series, directed by Todd Haynes and based on James M. Cain’s 1941 novel, starts this Sunday.

In director Michael Curtiz’s 1945 movie version of the book, Joan Crawford won the Oscar for her portrayal of the title role in the ultimate story of a self-sacrificing mother and her ungrateful child, Veda (Ann Blyth). Mildred’s hard-earned success as a restaurateur allows her to support not only her family but also her aristocratic and cash-poor love interest Monty Beragon (Zachary Scott).

In Haynes’ mini-series, Kate Winslet stars as Mildred, Guy Pearce plays Monty and two actresses share the Veda role: Morgan Turner as the girl and Evan Rachel Wood as the young woman. Haynes and Jon Raymond wrote the teleplay.

In many ways, the series, which follows the book more faithfully than the 1945 movie and covers nearly 10 ten years in the characters’ lives, is a delight to watch. Depression-era Southern California is beautifully recreated and shot by Edward Lachman. Carter Burwell’s original music is spot-on as is Ann Roth’s costume design. And the acting is excellent, particularly the leads.

Whereas Crawford’s Mildred is stoic and dignified, Winslet’s is sensitive, wistful, often tentative and unsure of herself. Her expressive features suggest her mounting anger, guilt and desperation as her business grows but her relationships deteriorate.

Early on in the series, Winslet’s Mildred identifies in her daughter a “pride or nobility I thought I had” and we glimpse the complexity and closeness of her bond with Veda. The mother-daughter relationship in Haynes’ five-hour version is perhaps more nuanced than in Curtiz’s film.

Pearce easily inhabits the playboy scoundrel Monty and Wood sizzles as the junior miss femme fatale. As the story unfolds, we learn that Mildred and Veda also have very similar taste in men. This year’s supporting actress Oscar winner Melissa Leo and Mare Winningham are quite good as Mildred’s friends.

A disappointment, however, is James LeGros’ insipid performance as Pierce family “friend” Wally Burgan. In Curtiz’s version, the role as played by Jack Carson – conniving and sly, but charming – was one of the movie’s many strengths.

Another downside is the pacing, which is far too slow. It would have benefited from shaving about an hour, especially in the beginning. But then if Haynes’ aim was to be true to every page of the book, he has succeeded.

I prefer Curtiz’s original because it is canonical film noir, in tone, look and story. Granted, Cain’s book was altered because in 1940s Hollywood, immorality was never allowed to triumph. Instead of the evil-doers leaving California to begin a new life in New York, one is fatally shot and the other eventually is punished. The murder sets the story, told via flashback, in motion and lends an edgy suspense.

Still, Haynes did not set out to make a noir; apparently his aim is to explore the subtext and subtleties in Cain’s novel. Cain was, arguably, sympathetic toward his feisty protagonist (what choice does she have but to establish independence and security, given the weak and deceitful men she has to choose from?). But she pays a dreadful price for doing so and the book decries materialism, the class system and social climbing. As for Cain’s ultimate take on Mildred’s power, in Hayne’s work, there is fodder for both sides of the argument.

Warner Bros. image of 1945 “Mildred Pierce”

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Oscar picks courtesy of the happy chappies at Ladbrokes

Happy Oscar Sunday! Getting my hair blown-out (goodbye mop-top) and heading to an Oscar party. Don’t have to debate over my ballot because I’m lifting the favorites from U.K. oddsmaker Ladbrokes, as listed by Joe Morgenstern in Friday’s Wall Street Journal. Cheers, Joe.

I will be tweeting throughout the show.  Meanwhile, here are “my” picks:

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Melissa Leo, “The Fighter”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Christian Bale, “The Fighter”

BEST ACTRESS: Natalie Portman, “Black Swan”

BEST ACTOR: Colin Firth, “The King’s Speech”

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: “The King’s Speech”

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: “The Social Network”

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Roger Deakins, “True Grit”

BEST DIRECTOR: David Fincher, “The Social Network”

BEST PICTURE: “The King’s Speech”

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