“The Escape Artist”–Thrilling Escapism

 

Escape Artist 2In this two-part mini-series aired on PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery Theater over the past two weeks, Will Burton (David Tennant of “Broadchurch”, “Dr. Who”, and “Harry Potter” fame) is  London’s top-ranked criminal defense barrister.   Maggie Gardner (Sophie Okonedo, 2014 Tony-award winner for “A Raisin in the Sun”), is equally brilliant but number two in trial victories.  Both Will Burton and Maggie Gardner are at the top of their game,  two intellects who are perfectly matched and relentlessly ambitious.

 

Burton believes “everyone deserves a defense,”  even for the despicable murderous psychopath, Liam Foyle (fearsomely played by Toby Kebbell). After Foyle’s acquittal,  Burton soon regrets his victory.  Winning at all costs becomes tragedy.

Foyle too, is more than the cliché image of ignominious evil.  He is a creepy bird lover who is handsome and deceptively charming to the vulnerable and lonely.  The triple cat-and-mouse games (between the two lawyers, between Burton and Foyle, and between Gardner and Foyle) are riveting and suspenseful but some of the sequence of events revealed at the end are not carefully connected and leave unanswered questions.  Nonetheless, “The Escape Artist”  succeeds, despite the occasional lapses in logic, to mesmerize and terrorize.

“The Escape Artist” is a thriller in which the viewer is drawn to the story and wishes to escape it simultaneously!  Brilliant performances and enough twists and turns to hold this viewer’s attention!

[NOT available online at the PBS website but only on Netflix.]

A Prophet–But Not in His Own Land

A PrisonerThis French film, winner of the 2009 Grand Prix at Cannes and France’s official entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, is a prison drama in the same league as “Shawshank Redemption” and secondarily “Goodfellas”:  raw, intense, and violent.  It works largely because  Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), a 19-year-old French youth of Algerian origins, finds himself in horrific circumstances far exceeding the crime of resisting arrest for which he was found guilty and sentenced to a harsh six-year prison sentence.  Having to face situations in which both choices will destroy his soul but save his life, he watches and listens, learning to read from a fellow Muslim prisoner,  and  eventually becoming all he thought he would never be.

As in most prison films, there are rival gangs who change allegiances and betray each other.  In “A Prophet” the majordomo is an Italian Corsican mobster, Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), who enforces a brutal rule in which the prison guards are part of his unquestioned power.  The major challenge to his authority is the Muslim faction, which is increasing in size.  The protagonist (Malik) hops back and forth between the world of the Corsicans and that of the Muslims. Malik comes from both cultures, but is not fully accepted by either the Italians or the Muslims.

This is a difficult film to review.  The gripping introduction  to the overpowering dilemma Malek finds himself in leaves the viewer breathless.  But the plot is convoluted and with a large cast of  actors,  a more tightly woven narrative is required for the movie to maximize its impact.    The portrayal of life in prison with the constant threat of intense bodily injury or death is realistic and convincing.  However,  the editing required to see how Malik evolves from a fragile, frightened teenager to a survivor is lacking.  This film suffers, unfortunately, from sloppy editing which lengthens the movie to two hours and thirty minutes.  At least one-half hour should have been cut out.

Malik may be a “prophet” but not in his own land for there is no place he can call home.  “A Prophet” is a difficult film to recommend, for the story’s pacing is  flawed and the plot moves forward in confusing side detours.   But, this movie is also intriguing for its portrayal of survival at all costs: a  betrayal of friends and, perhaps even more tragically, a betrayal of oneself.

 

“North Face” (Nordwand) (2008)–The Ogre of the Alps

 

North FaceBased on a true story, “North Face” is a suspenseful adventure film about a competition to climb the most dangerous rock face in the Alps. Set in 1936 as Nazi Germany  urges the nation’s mountain climbers to conquer the unclimbed north face – the Eiger (“Ogre” in German) – two reluctant German climbers begin their daring ascent despite knowing their exploits will be used as propaganda. After being refused leave from the German army, they volunteer to make the climb, disinterested   in Third Reich  politics.  (Nazi politics play only a historical role as the backdrop for the historic climb.)

The German climbers play into the Nazis’ superiority obsession as they  face off against a rival Austrian duo in an attempt to be the first team to scale the infamous Eiger. Although the movie starts a little slowly in initiating the ascent of Eiger, it really picks up pace about one third the way in as the challenges of the climb become evident.  The contrast between the plight of the mountain climbers and that of the rich bystanders who watch the life-threatening climb through telescopes while drinking champagne becomes increasingly  emotionally riveting.

The two mountain climbers and  female love interest are all solid actors, well directed, and well casted. The German director did a superb job capturing the climb. Everything was so convincingly shot, it makes you wonder if they actually filmed some of it on a real mountain. Convincing images that are both majestic and harrowing are actually achieved through CGI, but it was used sparingly and realistically for some frightening scenes.

A gripping story in which the  journey to the top is enough.

North Face

“Cold in July”–Left this viewer cold too

 

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“Cold in July”  is the first film that Michael C. Hall has starred in following his tremendous performance as “Dexter”.   In addition, Sam Shepard appears as a Texan out for revenge for his ex-con son who has disappeared.  But neither of these fine actors can save this movie.

The story is convoluted and the twists for  “film noir” are not easy to follow nor complete as the plot’s arc.  A husband and wife, sleeping at night in Texas in 1989, are disturbed by the noise of a burglar.  Soon after killing the culprit, Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) is hailed as  a hero, much to his discomfort.   Wracked with guilt, Richard travels to the cemetery of the man he shot,  where he runs into the deceased’s father, Ben Russell (Sam Shepard), who is not too happy someone shot his lowlife son in the face.  Richard’s  life soon spirals down as Ben seeks revenge for the death of his son Freddy.

Given that the story is based upon a novel by Joe R. Lansdale (of the Elmore Leonard genre), I thought the drama would be tightly wound with secrets and lies revealed with sufficient backstory for motivation.  Instead of the story unfolding between the two main characters, we are taken to a few violent series of actions, some of which are completely unconnected and unnecessary: sadomasochistic horrific scenes of young women.

I do not flinch at violence, if there is a  reason for it and if the story moves forward.  “Cold in July” is simply exposing the underbelly of violence towards women (as well as those committing that violence) with no narrative support to understand motive or reasons for the damages inflicted.  Worse yet, the unrealistic series of coincidences and leaps in logic left this viewer’s head spinning and hoping the movie would end soon.  But it didn’t end soon enough!   So, so disappointing with two major actors who did their best with very little to work with!

“Cold in July” is not rated, but features graphic violence, language and disturbing images. It may leave you cold as well.

 

“Palo Alto”–Typically “Shallow Alto”?

 

Palo AltoI really, really wanted to like this movie, filmed on the street where we lived for almost twenty years.  I gave it every hall pass I could, especially since I think James Franco is a gifted actor, writer and artist.  Still, this is not a movie worth seeing.

 

The narrative focuses on shy, bored April (Emma Roberts), who comes from a family in which her stepfather (Val Kilmer), appears to be a stoner although there is no backstory whatsoever on her connection to her stepfather nor her feelings towards him.   She gets involved in a sexual relationship with her soccer coach Mr. B (a smarmy and predatory character played by James Franco) when she babysits for his son.  Her classmate Teddy (Jack Kilmer, in a charming performance) has a strong attraction to April but has no ability to express his feelings for her and struggles to get her attention, but mostly fails miserably.

The city of Palo Alto is presented as one high school party of drugs, sex, and alcohol after another.  But the story goes nowhere.  No inciting incident to pull the viewer in.  Just one party after another, and one teenage tantrum after another. “Palo Alto” bounces us around from character to character, in a “coming of age” story that fails.

What doesn’t fit is the friendship between Teddy and his seriously disturbed friend, Fred, someone he hangs out with just because he needs a friend and Fred is just there.  So far, believable and sympathetic to a point: two teenagers hanging out together because they have few other options.

High school is often painful and disappointing.  So is this movie.  Without Coppola and Franco, I wonder if this film would have been financed, let alone filmed!

[“Palo Alto” is currently in theaters under limited distribution.  Another, lesser known film with the same title was produced in 2007.]