Escape Plan is the culmination of a big idea that has been simmering, along with their testosterone levels, for a couple of decades. Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger have finally made a movie together. The quintessential '80s action icons have trail-blazed their way into Hollywood history and pop culture with long and impressive careers. Now they're making Dennis Rodman and Jean-Claude van Damme look like amateur hour by teaming up.
After Stallone created the homage to '80s action heroes in The Expendables, the two got a small taste of what it would be like to work opposite one another. The cheesy in-house grimaces proved it could be done, the public wouldn't revolt and their massive egos could be housed in the same film without causing the apocalypse. When the Governator's term ended, Escape Plan became a reality under the direction of Mikael Håfström.
Stallone stars in this old school actioner about Ray Breslin, a professional jail breaker, who gets contained in a prison built on his know-how. What starts as a lucrative and slightly dangerous prison break turns into a full-blown do-or-die mission as the escape artist finds he's on his own... or is he?
While Escape Plan has an intriguing story and the makings of an action classic, it pales in comparison to John Woo's Face/Off with Nicolas Cage and John Travolta. The two films have a number of similarities with the exception that Escape Plan leans almost entirely on its major action stars.
"If only breaking out of jail was as easy as breaking the fourth wall."
The action is typical for a prison movie and it's great to see Sly and Arnie have still got it. Their performances aren't quite tongue-in-cheek, but there's a knowing look behind all the prison drama. The actors do have a healthy chemistry and that propels the buddy movie aspect of Escape Plan.
Without the stars or their innate chemistry and mutual respect, there wouldn't be much of a movie. Jim Caviezel does add to the film as the cold warden, with the ever-present Vinnie Jones as his second-in-command over an infantry of masked prison guards. However, besides some futuristic production design and big name action stars, the film is quite indistinguishable.
Things do improve when Stallone and Schwarzenegger meet up. Up to that point, Escape Plan has a TV action movie quality, despite the solid opening sequence with Stallone. We've seen both of them in a number of old school action revivals over the last few years, which have been most welcome. Escape Plan is largely underwhelming, based on expectations, but isn't bad enough to upset the bullet-riddled apple cart.
Unfortunately, beyond an intriguing premise, two big names and some reasonable bookends - the movie gets bogged down by the stagnant prison scenario. It's entertaining for the most part, but drags through over-familiar and uninspired scenes. The film isn't strong enough as a drama and just gets by as an action movie, making the whole affair enjoyable yet somewhat bland like a wrestler-turned-actor vehicle.
Stallone and Schwarzenegger have enough fun doing their thing to make Escape Plan enjoyable and there are one or two clever little twists here and there to spice things up. It's not going to resurrect the Uzi, it's not going to force these action legends into retirement (just yet) - it just gives you new found respect for movies like Face/Off.
Detachment is a depressing yet inspiring commentary and indictment on society's propensity to tune out of life. Spiraling debt, unemployment, threats to national and personal safety... we're probably a lot closer to the vision of The Matrix than we would have imagined. As we expend our energy keeping up in the rat race, we're confronted with harsh realities, ones that are easier to forget by switching off and retreating within ourselves by means of temporary distraction. This "tuning out" and continual distraction keeps us from feeling or thinking to the point that life has become a series of routine, insulated occurrences.
American History X director, Tony Kaye, has delivered a film that taps into this dire state of disrepair society finds itself in. Instead of simply contributing to the glut, Kaye is trying to puncture the membrane using the idea of the school system as his proving ground. It's where we learn how to cope on the outside, where we're taught to conform, given a chance to find "our place"... this is a beautiful microcosm of life.
Kaye's story follows the interactions of a substitute teacher as he bounces off teachers and students. His calm, cool and collected demeanor makes him somewhat aloof, harking back to a defining incident in his childhood. He reaches out like The Good Samaritan, trying to connect with those around him, trying to break through the noise of life. Yet, each of his attempts are stifled by his inability to cope as he retreats to the comfortably numb sense of detachment.
Adrien Brody is a consistent actor, one with an earnest and honest manner that make him magnetic. We're drawn to his performance and repulsed by his predicament as Henry Barthes, making him an overflowing fascination. Brody delivers an impassioned performance that sets the bar for the whole ensemble, who contribute to an exuberant sense of dysfunction.
It's good to see Marcia Gay Harden again, this time on the verge of a breakdown as the school principal. James Caan plays that "seen-it-all-before" staff member, whose unconventional fire-with-fire methods are both assertive and disarming, in a quirky and memorable role that deserved more screen time. Christina Hendricks plays a slightly less experienced, yet equally fearless teacher and distraction for Barthes, while Tim Blake Nelson's performance jitters bittersweet tones.
"Who has experienced a spirit of insufferable gloom?"
Kaye's film has echoes of American History X in the way it projects a hostile environment for its characters, who seem to thrive on the unrest. There's very little respite in the world of Detachment, keeping the atmosphere taut with intensity and angst.
There are even aspects of Dead Poet's Society as Barthes tries to inspire and enlighten his pupils on an intellectual and emotional level. The difference being this is a school where teachers toughen up or drop out altogether. It's a government school without traditions or uniforms. This is trench warfare for teachers, perpetually being caught in no-man's land as mutual respect and self-motivation are a rare combination.
Detachment's bombardment of disillusionment is depressing, much like Requiem for a Dream, yet necessary to get through to a passive audience, who may well be in their own cycle of detachment. The relentless and powerful succession of deeply human scenes make it easy to mistake for melodrama. However, these impassioned performances are there to help inspire us to think and feel with the characters rather than cave into manipulated emotion.
The close ups and depth of material scream TV series, yet it's the reflective, meditative state and artistic chalkboard drawings that give Detachment a poetic, independent and very unHollywood spirit. This is a timely drama from Tony Kaye, one that tries to reflect society's disenfranchised and fractured state of mind. As Barthes states it's easy to be callous, but it takes courage to care. He's so busy doling out goodwill that he becomes trapped by his own need for a real connection.
Detachment is a powerful and timely drama, etched on a chalkboard by Tony Kaye and brought to life by soulful performances from an underdog cast. This "ubiquitous assimilation" may not be for everyone, however moving and thought-provoking the content. It serves as a wonderful shake up, one that makes you want to experience life more fully without the strangleholds of societal conditioning and condemnation.
Mud is a slow-boiling mystery drama. In much the same way as Chinatown, this film slowly immerses us in a sticky, intriguing and unpredictable atmosphere. Instead of a gumshoe detective hunting down an ever-widening conspiracy, we have a young curious boy and his friend, who befriend a fugitive.
The boys would have been right at home in Stand By Me, except this is really Mud's movie. Matthew McConnaughey is Mud, a charming and resourceful man, whose small town upbringing and tempestuous nature give him a fractious relationship with the love of his life and the law.
This character-driven film from Take Shelter writer-director Jeff Nichols has an independent spirit. We're tracking with Ellis, a restless young boy who wants to be at the heart of every adventure. Tye Sheridan captures an innocent and "invincible" ruffian, a rebel with a cause. Sheridan's performance is beyond his years and doesn't seem out of place opposite the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Michael Shannon and Sam Shepard.
Mud is like The Way, Way Back. The young boy at the centre of the story finds a friend in an older man, using his Summer vacation to get away from domestic strife, learning a thing or two about life and finding fulfillment in being a wing man to his new found role model.
Mud is like Deliverance. The gritty survival adventure, the impervious adventurers and the rising tide of consequence are all set against the seemingly lawless undercurrents of the riverside town. It's not as violent or shocking, but it does seem as though the characters are being slowly submerged until they find themselves out of their depth.
"No son, just coz I'm a drifter doesn't make this driftwood."
While the mysterious circumstances of Mud's discovery hold our attention, the film moves at the speed of mud. The pacing is sluggish, probably deliberately so, immersing us in the ebb-and-flow of this festering world. Jeff Nichols is in no hurry to reveal his hand, conjuring up naturally beautiful moments in time.
The cast are first-rate, gathering around Sheridan and McConnaughey's stalwart performance to contribute to a strong team effort. Shannon starred in Take Shelter and brings his usual best to a smaller supporting role, Witherspoon adds complexity to her hot-and-cold character and Sam Shepard delivers a tarnished gem of a turn as the roughhewn Tom.
Mud is almost refreshingly slow, investing in its characters, giving its story the time to gradually unfold from within the confines of a slow-boiling plot about a community that seems real enough to exist behind the screen. The performances are collectively strong, the writing resonates with life and the storytelling is just intriguing enough to keep us rooting for the complex protagonists.
At the heart of the story is a man wrestling with his past, trying to get it together before jettisoning on to the next adventure. This contrasts with the young impressionable boy whose future lies ahead of him. Will the fugitive escape his past and will his protege learn from his mistakes?
Ender's Game is based on Orson Scott Card's classic science fiction novel. South African writer-director, Gavin Hood, best known for X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Rendition and Tsotsi, was entrusted with bringing the book to life and for the most part, he's succeeded. It's not an entirely faithful adaptation with a number of casting and story compromises for the sake of the cinematic experience, yet it retains the essence of Card's original vision.
The story follows young Ender Wiggin, played by Hugo's Asa Butterfield, who is recruited by the International Military to lead a war on the Formics, an alien race that almost destroyed humankind in a previous encounter.
Ender's Game won the Nebular award in 1985 and the Hugo award in 1986. The award-winning military sci-fi novel's '80s prominence is reflected in Hood's adaptation, which leans on aspects from a number of '80s films. There's an interesting parallel with Biloxi Blues as Ender bunks with new recruits, facing a number of social challenges, struggles for leadership and calls for respect.
Then, while probably inspired by Ender's Game, which was later adapted to harness similar themes in 1991, the film has a number of tie-ins with WarGames. Matthew Broderick's hacker skills became critical to unlocking the threat of mutually assured destruction in the '80s just as Asa Butterfield is trained to use his strategic genius to aid the military in the future.
Ender's Game features a number of battle training scenarios with futuristic gear, which are not unlike the gladiatorial games that form part of the digital world in TRON. The formations, team work, age of the contenders and bravado of the skirmishes have some similarities with the ice hockey in The Mighty Ducks and quidditch in the Harry Potter series.
The intense airborne rivalry between the Formics and humankind, echoes some The Macross Saga, in which Robotech fighter pilots battle Zentraedi forces. The alien kind are not humanoid, falling more into the category of the enemy in Starship Troopers, drawing further parallels when it comes to military service and interplanetary warfare.
"When I say "hyper jump", you say "how far"?!"
Instead of portraying Ender as a six-year-old, the film-makers have opted to represent Asa Butterfield as a boy who hasn't hit puberty. This was done in order to give Hood more time to focus on character and greater flexibility when it comes to filming and wire work. Butterfield is reminiscent of John "Spud" Milton in physique and in terms of his character's rocky attempts to fit into the military "school". However, his mental resilience, hard-and-fast bargaining and leadership skills give him the upper hand when it comes to integration.
Butterfield is a solid young actor, whose performance as Ender is strong, consistent and captivating. He seemed much younger in the title role of Hugo, essentially playing a self-assured adult trapped in a 10 year old's body. The strong supporting ensemble includes: Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin and Sir Ben Kingsley. While the ensemble is more of an insurance policy than a necessity, the stand out performances come from Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley.
Harrison Ford doesn't have to earn our respect and trust, giving him instant authority as a tough, incisive and likable Colonel Graff. Ben Kingsley continues his return to form with a mysterious character, delivering a shadowy and reverent performance with little screen time.
Ender's Game is a spectacular science fiction film that is enhanced by the quality of the cinema you choose to experience it in. The futuristic visuals, battle training and dazzling display sequences blend light and colour with similar effect to TRON: Legacy using sound to steep the film in a deeply visceral, suspended reality. The special effects give the characters the illusion of weightlessness allowing us to float with them.
The film has a similar tone to The Hunger Games, where adult "games" are played by children. While the psychological angle has deeper hooks, the content seems somewhat padded, softening Ender's Game's hard edges. This placates some of the raw energy of the story and diminishes the overall impact of Ender's journey. Perhaps the PG-13 rating was a key point going in.
While Ender's Game is probably not as hard-hitting as it could have been, Gavin Hood still manages to land this military sci-fi adaptation safely, not discrediting the source material and providing an often gripping and entertaining film in the process. It's a worthy film adaptation, benefiting from a strong cast with some solid performances, a thought-provoking and universal story, sensible direction, top production values and awe-inspiring visuals.