Prisoners

Prisoners is intense. To maintain energy and interest for two and a half hours, a film needs to keep moving. This detective story with a vengeance twist doesn’t stop throwing new plot developments until the screen goes black.

Hugh Jackman, in a non-singing role, is the more bankable star of Prisoners. But Jake Gyllenhaal delivers the stronger performance as a police detective charged with solving the disappearance of two young girls.

The Dovers (Jackman and Maria Bello) and the Birchs (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) are suburban neighbors who get together for Thanksgiving. After the meal, their two young daughters go outside but soon disappear. Their older siblings recall seeing an old RV. When it is found, suspect Alex Jones (Paul Dano) is brought in and questioned by detective Loki (Gyllenhaal). But Jones has an apparent learning disability and can barely talk. With no solid evidence, he is released.

Dover, however, is convinced that Jones is the perp. Shortly after Jones is turned loose, Dover imprisons Jones inside an abandoned apartment building where he beats and tortures him. He enlists the aid of the Birchs (first Mr., later Mrs.) in the effort to get Alex to tell where the girls are.

Loki meanwhile pursues other leads, which take him to a couple of creeps including a priest on his sex offender list (Len Cariou) and a slimy guy who buys kids clothing but has no kids (David Dastmalchian). Loki finds weird things in each of their homes. He stops by Alex Jones’ home and talks to his mom (Melissa Leo) in his search for solid evidence.

Loki’s frustration increases until the Birch girl is found. In the wake of that occurrence, almost everything gets resolved.

Jackman is not the first male actor to express extreme anger about a daughter being abducted, but he carries it off well. Bello, Howard and Davis, sadly, have little opportunity to show their acting chops. Dano plays the simpleton perfectly. Leo is initially unrecognizable as the dowdy middle-aged mom. And Dastmalchian has a look that should get him as many decent “creep” roles as he can handle.

The reason to see Prisoners (along with trying to figure it all out) is Gyllenhaal. He maintains a level of intensity that hovers just below the boiling point through most of the film. He does blow his top a time or two.

Jake owes a debt to writer Aaron Guzikowski for handing him a great character and to director Denis Villenueve for delivering the story in a straightforward way, without any tricky stuff.

Prisoners has the grim look of rainy winters down south. (It was filmed in Georgia, a state that actually does have sunny days, though not in this movie.) It has no real comic relief. Prisoners is intense.

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Blue Jasmine

How much money did Woody Allen lose to Bernie Madoff? If he was not among the many who were defrauded (Madoff’s ripoff total was some 65 billion dollars), Allen probably has friends in New York city who were losers in the gigantic Ponzi scheme.

Blue Jasmine is ostensibly the story of Jeanette “Jasmine” French (Cate Blanchett) whose husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) went to jail for investment fraud a la Madoff. After the feds have seized all their belongings, Jasmine goes from Park Avenue to San Francisco to stay with a poorer relation, her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Both were adopted and have never been particularly close.

Blue Jasmine also illustrates the damage done to people by investment scandals like the Madoff affair. Not just to Jasmine, but also to Ginger and her ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) and to Hal’s son Danny (Alden Ehrenreich), among others. Cate Blanchett’s performance may be the main reason to see Blue Jasmine, but Allen’s script (based on repercussions of the real-life fraud) is flawless and is the framework for this excellent movie.

Other memorable characters populate Blue Jasmine. Ginger’s boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) is a volatile, tactless greaser who nonetheless accurately pegs Jasmine. Al (Louis C.K.) is a flirty charmer who momentarily woos Ginger away from Chili. Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) is the classy guy who appears to be Jasmine’s ticket back to wealth and respectability.

Jasmine is, at various times during the film, a woman to be pitied and a woman to be scorned. She has no apparent misgivings about her behavior when she was a woman of leisure, the wife of a man with limitless wealth. She has difficulty adjusting to her new personal economy and lifestyle and, like many working women, has to fight off the advances of her boss. Her crises have left her dependent on booze and pills to maintain a semblance of sanity. When she meets a wealthy man who is impressed by her style and grace, she is ready to shove off from Ginger’s generous charity in a heartbeat. Can she handle reality or is she a big phony?

A favorite scene is the one that finds Jasmine in an eatery booth with Ginger and Augie’s two sons. She shares with them some memories of the unraveling of her charmed life in NYC. The boys stare back with blank expressions, but she tells the tale anyway, perhaps because she knows that they don’t perceive the ramifications as their mom might.

Cate Blanchett is a likely Oscar nominee for best actress. Woody Allen has given her a timely, memorable character and she has delivered a performance that may be her best. Blue Jasmine is a “must see” movie. Not just for Cate’s work, but also for Woody’s.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

The look, the sound, the mood, the time and the place of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints are classic. The cast is brilliant. The story, though somewhat predictable, has enough layers to keep moviegoers entranced from start to finish.

Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck) are young lovers in a small Texas town. They steal. They are chased. In a shootout, Ruth shoots a deputy in the shoulder but Bob takes the fall and goes to jail. The scene where Ruth and Bob are being led away from the shootout is one of the year’s best as they hold hands, whisper to one another, then are pulled apart.

Four years later, after Ruth has given birth to their child, Bob escapes. Deputy Wheeler (Ben Foster) breaks the news to Ruth and we see that he has feelings for her. (The deputy does not know that Ruth was the shooter who took him down.) Foster embellishes his performance with a distinctive cop swagger.

Keith Carradine plays a local shopkeeper whose son was an accomplice to the robbery and was killed in the shootout. While he befriends Ruth, he maintains a grudge against Bob. Escapee Bob visits his store and he tells Bob to stay away from Ruth and the girl. Fat chance.

Nate Parker is a local bar owner who provides a place for his old friend Bob to crash while he is on the lam. When deputy Wheeler comes looking for Bob, Parker’s character diverts attention while Bob jumps out a window.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is set sometime in mid-twentieth century. The gas guzzler sheriff’s cars appear to be mid-60’s vintage. The film recalls the 1973 movie Badlands with a young Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as violent heartland killers. But Ruth and Bob are not so heartless.

Director David Lowery (who also wrote the script) has crafted a film with muted colors, frequent use of sepia tones and many almost monochromatic shots. The toned-down color, combined with some of the wardrobes, gives Ain’t Them Bodies Saints the feel of a Western movie in many of its scenes.

Though set in Texas (and filmed in Louisiana), ATBS looks like it could be anywhere in flyover country. Despite its chases and gunplay, much of the film has a relaxed pace. With its classic feel and strong acting performances, expect Ain’t Them Bodies Saints to show up on a few Top Ten lists at year’s end. Festival prizes already scored may be echoed in a few months by other awards groups.

Top cast members are Rooney Mara as the seemingly weak young woman who manages to gain strength and raise her daughter and Ben Porter as the deputy who finally gets the courage to express his feelings for Ruth. Casey Affleck’s mumbling may play against his chances for awards noms. Keith Carradine’s performance as a man with many motivations could also earn some awards love.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. It has a good story told well and good characters acted well.