Film reviews: Jackman's excellent 'Prisoners,' Gandolfini's farewell
"Prisoners," the masterful suspense thriller that will send Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve to Hollywood's upper ranks, is proof positive that genre filmmaking can tackle the unlikeliest, most unpalatable subjects.
And that Hugh Jackman has been frittering away too much time in Wolverine drag.
Jackman and co-star Jake Gyllenhaal lead a superb cast -- and score career bests -- in this provocative tale of abducted children and parents pushed beyond limits.
Written by Aaron Guzikowski ("Contraband") and gorgeously photographed in leafless autumn shades by Roger Deakins, "Prisoners" begins on a drizzly Thanksgiving in suburban Pennsylvania.
Two families are sharing the holiday when their youngest kids -- six-year-old Anna and seven-year-old Joy -- wander outside to look for a missing toy.
"Prisoners" wastes little time in the set-up: The families (and the audience) grasp the gravity immediately, educated all too well in the depressingly familiar routines that follow this particular headline.
Candlelight vigils arrive on cue.
But what begins as a well-observed look from inside the nightmare takes a strange, singular turn when distraught father Keller Dover (Jackman) becomes convinced -- for good reason -- that a young, mentally challenged neighbor (Paul Dano) is the kidnapper.
The investigating detective (Gyllenhaal, soulful and obsessed) can't gather enough evidence to hold him.
Aware that each passing day lessens the likelihood of finding the girls alive, Dover kidnaps and tortures the suspected kidnapper.
Assisting the father are the other grieving parents, beautifully played by Terrence Howard and, especially, Viola Davis. (The race issue -- one family is white, the other black -- is addressed only by the absence of discussion). Tellingly, Dover is a deer-hunting, food-hoarding survivalist, his basement fortified for every tragedy but the one that strikes.
Rounding out the impeccable cast is Maria Bello, whose Grace Dover upends our expectations of a mother's ferocity, and Melissa Leo, as the bedraggled, protective aunt who raised the suspect.
To reveal much more would rob "Prisoners" of its power, but the squeamish should be warned that Dover's desperate brutality is as graphically portrayed as anything in "Zero Dark Thirty."
In mood, tone and pacing, though, the two-and-a-half-hour "Prisoners" more closely recalls David Fincher's dark, under- appreciated serial killer epic "Zodiac." That one also starred Gyllenhaal and was, along with "Brokeback Mountain," the actor's high-water mark. Until now.
"Prisoners," from Warner Bros. Pictures, is playing across the U.S.
Rating: Five stars.
Though it sputters in its final laps, Ron Howard's race car drama "Rush" taps state-of-the-art digital razzle dazzle and the director's crowd-pleasing know-how.
Based on the 1970s rivalry between Formula 1 champs James Hunt and Niki Lauda, the film stars Chris Hemsworth ("The Avengers") as Hunt, the British playboy with a rock star's shaggy mane and live-fast lifestyle.
He introduces himself to awestruck women with a Bond-like "Hunt. James Hunt."
Daniel Bruhl is Lauda, an Austrian with blue blood, a Freddie Mercury overbite and the personality of a dipstick.
The film's women, Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara, are on hand mostly to adore, fret and chastise.
With "The Queen" and "Frost/Nixon" on his resume, screenwriter Peter Morgan knows how to render recent history with pathos and a light comic touch.
And Howard -- who began his directing career with the fast- car drive-in classic "Grand Theft Auto" -- has an aficionado's ear for revved engines and whooshing chassis.
Despite vivid performances, the drivers themselves remain little more than mouthpieces for their lifestyle philosophies.
"Rush," from Universal Studios, is playing in select theaters, and opens across the U.S. September 27. Rating: three and a half stars
Middle-aged dating is the kind of squirm-inducing subject that was made for Nicole Holofcener, a writer-director whose satirical comedies ("Friends With Money" and the very funny "Please Give" among them) are, typically, gentle eviscerations of affluent liberals.
In "Enough Said," Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini play Eva and Albert, divorced parents on the verge of becoming empty nesters (and bereft about it) who hit it off at a party.
At the same party, Eva, who's a masseuse, meets a swanning poet named Marianne (Holofcener's go-to neurotic, Catherine Keener, playing a wildly different kind of role this time). She soon becomes a client and a confidante. Only after a while does Eva figure out that Marianne is Albert's ex-wife.
This sitcom setup mars an otherwise sly and lovely film. The situation could easily be resolved with a word or two, but like all such theatrical contrivances, it's painfully extended in order to provide maximum humiliation when the truth emerges.
Still, Louis-Dreyfus is endearingly funny as a mess of insecurities, and the late, great Gandolfini was never more supremely tender. Eva asks herself how she can be falling in love with this fat, lummoxy slob. Nobody in the audience will wonder why.
"Enough Said," from Fox Searchlight Pictures, is playing in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: Three and a half stars
Chronicling the embattled lives of America's four remaining late-term abortion providers, the documentary "After Tiller" is an antidote to right-wing rhetoric and media demonization.
Directed by Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, "After Tiller" makes no show of abortion-debate balance. (The title refers to Dr. George Tiller, the third-trimester abortion provider murdered at his Kansas church in 2009).
The four physicians, all of whom participated with the filmmakers, are presented as the last hope of women in extreme circumstances.
Often (though certainly not always) the pregnant women have just received diagnoses of harrowing birth defects.
"After Tiller" occasionally overplays its hand, with mawkish music and tearful hugs, but its unflinching portrayal of what can only be called battle fatigue is indelible.
"After Tiller," from Oscilloscope Laboratories, is playing in New York. Rating: three stars