Review: “Escape Plan”

THE TOMB

At the combined age of 133, it’s good to see that Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger can still put together a decent flick without involving 20 of their closest action buddies.

Prison security specialist Ray Breslin (Stallone) has made a career of breaking out of “secure” facilities in order to teach the prison system where to spot holes in their defenses. For his latest assignment he will be held in a CIA detention facility that claims to be the best of the best. Things go awry, however, when Breslin wakes up in a prison that has been perfected by his own reports, where neither the warden (Jim Caviezel) nor the guards are aware of his objective. Without any back-up or knowledge of where his prison is, Breslin must turn to the prisoner Emil Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to break out of the prison and discover who set him up.

When you see a movie poster that includes names like Stallone and Schwarzenegger, you can expect a certain amount of old-school masculinity and suspension of disbelief. Although both of those could be applied to this film, there’s nothing here much more ridiculous than your standard action film. What does get a little annoying is the large number of movie cliches found in the script. There are certain characters you meet once and immediately know what part they will play 45 minutes later. While the story never reaches mind-numbing stupidity, the inexperience of its 2 writers (who have written a combined 2 films prior to “Escape Plan”) is abundantly clear throughout its 115 minutes. I can honestly say there wasn’t a single surprise in the script. That being said, you should be aware of what you’re getting into when you buy a ticket for this type of film.

Although the script was unsurprising, the acting from Schwarzenegger here is some of his best work (whatever that’s worth to you). His character is far more interesting than Stallone’s one-note protagonist and he also gets to handle the big guns in the film’s finale. Jim Caviezel, who never gets as much work as he deserves, is satisfyingly evil as the warden of the top secret CIA prison.

It would make sense for “Escape Plan” to be the kind of action-fest expected of its stars but the film is, for the most part, a prison break film. Most of its running time is spent on strategizing and the characters feeling their way around the prison. It’s not until the ending that we get the kind of fight choreography and explosions that sell tickets.

“Escape Plan” is the typical action film you find around the Sept/Oct time of year: not good enough to hang out with the big summer blockbusters, but better than the trash bin months of the year (Jan/Feb). It’s not pretty, but if you’re looking for something to watch on a rainy afternoon, you could do much worse.

Grade: C+

Follow me on Twitter @VC_Reviews where I’m counting down my 10 favorite horror films for Halloween.

Happy viewing.

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Review: “Gravity”

GRAVITY

Who wouldn’t want to go into space with George Clooney?

While their team is on a routine mission, medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) find themselves the lone survivors of a collision in space. Without a ship and running low on oxygen, they must find a way back to earth before they personally experience just how deadly space can be.

Alfonso Cuaron is one of the most underrated directors working today, or at least he was before this film. Even with the film’s short running time of 91 minutes, a story set in space with only two actors can be a little hard to pull off (Granted, Duncan Jones pretty much just had Sam Rockwell for “Moon” and that turned out quite well). From the opening scene the audience is set up with an environment that is just mesmerizing to behold. Space has been covered by many science fiction and horror films over the years, but very few of those guys could begin to hold a candle to what Cuaron and his special effects crew create here.

Along with a competent director, “Gravity” requires two strong actors to make the film’s small focus work. George Clooney is at his most likeable as Matt Kowalski. Wise-cracking and loveable as ever, his character is the heart of the film. On the other hand, Kowalski is also a seasoned astronaut who calmly reacts to the extremely dangerous situation presented. Bullock’s Stone, however, is the opposite of calm. Having been rushed through the training for space (one of many small details the film makes you tilt your head at), she relatively loses her mind when the team’s shuttle is destroyed and continues to suck down as much oxygen as possible with every breath. As you can probably guess if you’ve seen your fair share of flicks, her character is the one the story centers on and, in turn, receives the most development.

Both actors are in great form here, but more personally speaking, Bullock makes up for the fact that she won on Oscar for this.

Aside from a few complaints from the science community, the only real problem with “Gravity” is that there is a very pedestrian script holding it up. The dialogue and plot points essentially get the characters from A to B, but there is never anything of particular interest to be found in it. Clooney and Bullock should get extra points for classing things up to where it doesn’t drag down the film. Again, not bad, but clearly the weakest link to an otherwise great film.

In my last review, I talked about the great intensity and suspense Paul Greengrass achieved in “Captain Phillips.” Nothing against that film, but “Gravity” cranks those up to 11 and nearly suffocates you. I found myself gripping the armrest or curling my toes more often than I care to admit. If you’re the kind of person who digs through a bucket of popcorn when film sequences get intense, go ahead and buy the large.

“Gravity” is an imaginative film with gripping visuals and strong acting that is another great addition to what is shaping up to be a memorable fall film season.

Grade: A-

Happy viewing.

Review: “Captain Phillips”

Captain Phillips

Between “Prisoners”, “Gravity”, and “Captain Phillips”, I think it’s safe to say we’re now entering awards season at the local theater. Like many other films that come out around this time of year, “Captain Phillips” is based on a true story. You may remember the American cargo ship that was hijacked back in 2009 and, although there are a few complaints here and there, the film does a good job capturing the tension that must’ve been felt through the ordeal.

As you could probably tell from the title, “Captain Phillips” follows the story of the hijacking primarily through the eyes of Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) with glimpses at the military response tacked on near the end of the film. Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the leader of the pirates, is also introduced early in the film as we get to see more of the what the daily life of these guys looks like.

While traveling around the horn of Africa, an American cargo ship and its crew are boarded by a small band of pirates intent on cashing in millions of dollars for their crime lord bosses back home. Their plan goes awry, however, when the crew of the Maersk Alabama uses their knowledge of the ship to fight back.

For all of his competencies as a director, Paul Greengrass will forever be known to me as “that guy who thought shaky cam was a good idea”. Previous films where Greengrass ruptured your eyeballs employed this technique would be the 2 Bourne sequels with Matt Damon and “Green Zone”. Now just imagine how crazily the camera moved in those films and then remind yourself that this film is set at sea. I don’t want this post to just be about shaky cam, but honestly, it’s a cheap effect that only looks good about 5% of the time. Let’s just buy a tripod and be done with it. End rant.

While I may not appreciate some of his techniques, what Greengrass does accomplish for almost the entire film is a constant state of tension. From the pirates’ original attack to the film’s conclusion, there aren’t a whole lot of opportunities to breathe. I suppose you could ruin some of that tension by reading the real-life story, but just save that for later. The internet will still be here when you get back from the theater.

Seeing how he’s the only known actor onscreen for about 95% of the film, a lot of the story’s success rides on Hanks’ performance. (Hey, if you’re going to have that problem, might as well have Tom Hanks in your corner.) Aside from a tricky little accent he never seems to master, the actor puts on the kind of phenomenal performance you’re used to seeing from him. The film’s final scenes give his character a lot to work with and it makes for a nice touch to go out on.

Speaking of nice touches, first-time actor Barkhad Abdi does very well as the leader of the Somali pirates. What could have easily been a one-dimensional role is given some layers by this Somali native. His character is able to speak into some of the troubles the men of Somalia face and the differences between life there and in America.

Although there’s a lot of suspense and some good performances, “Captain Phillips” never crosses the line from good to great. The writing is a little basic as it just progresses the story along without a whole lot of flavor. Certainly not a bad film, but by the end of the year it will be in the “Also Ran” category.

Grade: B

I’m hoping to have a review of “Gravity” posted by the end of the weekend, so feel free to come check it out.

Happy viewing.

Review: “In a World”

Lake Bell in In a World

Movies about “the movies” can often be a little annoying for the simple fact that it’s 2 hours of filmmakers patting themselves on the back and overestimating their importance. Fortunately, “In a World” is a movie about the industry that focuses on a much smaller aspect of the process: voice-over actors who narrate movie trailers.

The film title is, of course, a reference to the popular opening line for trailers over the years. Made famous by Don LaFontaine, it is essentially the name brand of voice-over work.

Written and directed by actress Lake Bell, the story follows voice coach Carol (Bell) who’s dream it is to be a voice-over artist like her father (Fred Melamed). After receiving her first gig by accident, Carol finds herself in contention for the very prestigious honor of resurrecting the iconic phrase “in a world” for a new film. Along with her career aspirations, Carol kicks off a new romance with a sound engineer (Demetri Martin) who desperately wants her to succeed.

My first exposure to Lake Bell was in the unbearably forgettable “Over Her Dead Body” in 2008. Despite the film being a waste of time, Bell’s comedic talents were at least noticeable. Since then she’s had more success on the bizarrely hilarious “Children’s Hospital” and with smaller roles in films like “No Strings Attached.” Although she’s well-equipped to be a comedic actress, “In a World” marks her first feature film in both writing and directing. You wouldn’t be able to tell it from watching the film, as her performances here are better than most newbies.

That being said, let’s get the negatives out of the way. The film is at it’s best when dealing with Carol’s work in “the industry.” Sadly, this part of the story is often brushed aside for a subplot where Carol’s sister (Michaela Watkins) crushes on a European hunk (Jason O’Mara) despite being married to Moe (Rob Corddry). All three of these actors make the storyline work, but this relationship drama takes up nearly a third of a film that is better suited to battling sexism and family dysfunction.

What is often the case for indie romantic comedies is that an original idea is presented in the trailer (like the voice-over industry in this film), but by the end of the film things feel a little too safe and predictable. Although this film makes the landing a lot softer than your typical rom-com, “In a World” does lose a little of its original edge by the end credits. The romantic relationship between Martin and Bell feels genuine, but it follows the typical trajectory of most films.

As previously stated, “In a World” is really at its best when dealing with the voice-over world and all of the sexism and backstabbing that goes along with it. While pushing for her right to voice trailers, Bell’s character avoids coming off as combative or a rule-breaker. She’s just a talented woman trying to achieve a goal, which really makes the message come across better. Other parts of her job, like teaching Eva Longoria (playing herself) to speak in a cockney accent, provide both insight and humor to the film. And speaking of the humor, it’s neither knee-slappingly funny nor a bore. Most of the jokes are pretty safe and comfortable, but they land a lot more often than they fail. How could a movie with Rob Corrdry, Demetri Martin and Nick Offerman not be at least a little funny?

“In a World” is far from award potential, but if you’re looking for a light-hearted date movie that’s better than most, check this one out.

Grade: B+

Next I’ll be taking on the Paul Greengrass film, “Captain Phillips,” so check back later this week. Happy viewing.