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Cinema Signal: Taut, character-driven thriller crisply done with three exceptional actors. Go!

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton, Ben Kingsley
(Discounted Blu-ray/DVD combo from Amazon)
. "The Disappearance of Alice Creed" 8/17/10

Every so often, once or twice a year, a film shows up that is a gem of intense character and tight, near perfect dramatic construction. For these factors, one would look back to "A Simple Plan," "The Lookout" and "Hard Candy" (which this most resembles) as examples. Rarely do these films with knockout writing do that well at the boxoffice. Given superb casts and ample production budgets, the appreciation for such craftsmanship, history tells us, is underwhelming.

If distinguished craftsmanship in screenwriting and acting isn't what pays off in artistic or revenue terms then what is it, the kiss of death? Could be. The same fate may be in the cards for writer-director J Blakeson's ("The Descent: Part 2" screenplay) effort here, but let me assure you, the artistry of it is worth experiencing.

Let me suggest why by saying that the real meaning of the title doesn't come until the last few frames of the movie. Every thread of the story, every motive and action is aimed at that moment. It's such a virtuosic feat of storytelling that any annoyance at a flaw here and there dissipates as you sit there watching the credits and digesting the journey the auteur just took you on.

To say anything more about how the last shot defines the title and the realization that the entire plot is intended to serve that moment would be saying too much. But, if you're reading this after having seen the movie and would like to see what's meant, click the spoiler button below.

It begins with a sequence detailing two men's conversion of a room in an apartment to a prison, complete with soundproofing, rubber sheets for a bed, holding anchors for manacles secured to the building framework. As the work proceeds it becomes clear that a well thought out ransom plan is in operation and that Vic (Eddie Marsan) is the design engineer and Danny (Martin Compston) is the help and equal beneficiary of the proceeds.

Their victim, Alice Creed, is carried into her prison struggling in protest and screaming against her mouth muzzle, her head covered with a full hood. The kidnappers are masked as they subdue her enough to hold her down with handcuffs and foot ropes. They remove the hood and introduce her to her situation. She's terrified. She demands then pleads for release and becomes as uncooperative as her rage dictates. But Vic has planned for this, too.

Once he gets her calmed down his first order of business is to serve her a bottle of water to keep her properly hydrated after the shock of being captured. What a prince. But, the needs of nature must be observed and keeping her healthy and alive could be worth two million bucks in unmarked bills from her rich father.

While we may see Alice as a quite good looking, probably spoiled babe, to Vic she's nothing more than a ticket to the good life. In a reflective moment, he allows to Danny that this girl was a good choice, a sidewise compliment to Danny, who suggested her. But in one of the off-plan developments that arise in a continuing spiral of twists, we learn that Danny knew Alice personally before targetting her and, though vic succeeds in the ransom department, the outcome is anything but predictable.

Arterton shows that her range comprises a good deal more than her benign, ethereal quality of Io in "Clash of the Titans," a role that would, alone, ensure her a major career--something that is well under way after appearances in "Pirate Radio," "Quantum of Solace" and the more recent "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time." She is one hot, diverse chamelion of an actor.

Scotland-born Compston made his mark as a teenage mobster in Ken Loach's 2002 drug drama, "Sweet Sixteen." Sweet Sixteen then, but a brittle conspirator with vulnerabilities and a moral streak here. Dependable, sometimes frightening, sometimes humiliatingly funny Eddie Marsan of "Happy-Go-Lucky" does great service here in an edgy, distrustful criminal character, threatening, frightening, with a firm code of conduct and a sense of justice he can't reveal until he's pushed to the bitter end.

This is one marvelous little ensemble of acting talent from Britain.

Blakeson, who was named as one of Variety's 10 directors to watch in 2010, proves to be ingenious in stagecraft, intricate plotting and irony. He takes a presumably 100% controlled situation through a series of power shifts, involving an impressive opportunity for the interplay of human wilyness, greed, betrayal, opportunism and desperation. Blakeson's spectrum of survival gambits with three actors, a room and a couple of other locations never releases its grip on tension and your gut--even with a splash here and there with humor. This is a tour d'force of minimal elements producing maximum dramatic payoff. The U.S. GDP should have it so good.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Under the masks and hoods:
Martin Compston, Eddie Marsan, Gemma Arterton
A blurry bonding.

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