The Gift (2015)


Rebecca Hall investigates.

Rebecca Hall investigates.

(2015) Thriller (STX) Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Allison Tolman, Tim Griffin, Busy Phillipps, Adam Lazarre-White, Beau Knapp, Wendell Pierce, Mirrah Foulkes, Nash Edgerton, David Denman, Kate Aselton, David Joseph Craig, Susan May Pratt, P.J. Byrne, Felicity Price, Melinda Allen, Jyothsna Venkatesh, Laura Drake Mancini, DaNae West, Stacey Bender, Beth Crudele. Directed by Joel Edgerton

The past has a way of rearing its head, ugly or not, when we least expect it. Sometimes it can be a song or a scent that brings it flooding back, or a chance meeting in a retail store. We are tied to our past as surely as we are tired to our choices.

Things are looking good for Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Hall). They are happily married, Simon recently got a major promotion (and is closing in on another) and they’ve just purchased a beautiful home with amazing views from floor-to-ceiling glass windows. What those in thrillers fail to appreciate is that glass is two-way – you can look out of it sure, but so can others look in.

While shopping for furnishings the couple run into Gordo (Edgerton), a sad-sack sort that was a classmate of Simon’s in high school. Simon can barely remember him, and Robyn takes pity on him; he seems a nice enough guy if a bit socially awkward. She invites him to dinner.

When Gordo starts leaving little gifts; a bottle of wine, glass cleaner, Koi carp for their pond, at first it seems like a nice gesture but it begins to get a little creepy. Then there are intimations of some sort of incident in the past between Gordo and Simon that was less than savory. Robyn also has her own skeletons; a miscarriage sent her spiraling into depression and drug abuse. She has gotten better lately but Simon still worries about it.

Then again, Simon seems to have issues of his own. The more we get to know these people, the less we actually do, all of which descends to an inevitable confrontation which leads to a shocking revelation.

This is Edgerton’s first feature as a director and if this is any indication, he has a bright future ahead of him in that regard. The pacing here is damn near perfect, neither too hurried but definitely moves along at a good clip. The result is we’re constantly on the edge of our seats without feeling like we’re missing anything.

Edgerton as a writer is also amazing; all of the main characters are nicely developed and are allowed to be imperfect. The twist at the end is brilliant and shocking, a rare thing these days when we think we just can’t be shocked. This is proof that not only can we be, but we can be surprised as well. A good movie buff appreciates that more than you can imagine.

Bateman gets a rare serious role and plays it very nicely, never overplaying the dramatic aspects (which some comic actors tend to do) but not underplaying it either. He uses his nice guy persona as a bit of a tool, allowing us to settle in to a particular viewpoint of who the character is, then slowly tears down that viewpoint as the character turns out to be something different. It shows Bateman to be an actor of enormous range; I wouldn’t be surprised to see higher-profile dramatic roles coming his way because of his performance here.

Edgerton has long been someone that “everyone” knows can act, but hasn’t really ascended into the Hollywood elite yet. There’s a good chance he will now, showing himself to be a massive talent behind the camera, but a great one in front of the camera as well. Like Bateman, he uses his edgy persona to his advantage to create certain expectations for the audience and then slowly strips them away. I’ve always liked Edgerton as an actor; now I like him even more.

Hall’s character is more brittle and fragile, and in some ways more colorless. She is just beginning to get it together after essentially a breakdown but the goings on here put her back teetering on the edge. Hall doesn’t really hit it out of the park like her colleagues do, but she turns in a solid performance that is bound to get her some notice from casting agents.

The creepy factor is extra high here as we watch the events unfold. Certainly the tension through the last third of the movie is high, but this isn’t a roller coaster ride so much as a dark ride in a boat through some really terrible scenes. This movie has been pretty much universally praised and for good reason; don’t read that as being excessive however – this isn’t an essential movie, just a really well-crafted thriller that is well worth your while. And that is essential enough.

REASONS TO GO: Effectively creepy. Nice twist. Good casting.
REASONS TO STAY: The camera is a bit static. Hall’s character is a bit bland.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of foul language and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Because he wanted to focus on directing, Edgerton filmed all of his own scenes two weeks into shooting and had them completed in seven days.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oldboy
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Ricki and the Flash

Escape Plan


AARP action movie stars.

AARP action movie stars.

(2013) Action (Summit) Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Caviezel, Faran Tahir, Amy Ryan, Sam Neill, Vincent D’Onofrio, Vinnie Jones, Matt Gerald, 50 Cent, Caitriona Balfe, David Joseph Martinez, Alec Rayme, Christian Stokes, Graham Beckel, Rodney Feaster, David Leitch, Eric R. Salas, Brian Oerly, Jeff Chase, Lydia Hull. Directed by Mikael Hafstrom

There is a certain comfort in movies that recollect past eras. The action films of the 80s were one such. It can be said justifiably that the 80s were the golden age of the action film as stars like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, van Damme and a fairly large contingent from Hong Kong plied their trade in multiplexes across the country. Most of these actors are largely in their 60s now and while guys like Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson have picked up the slack, they haven’t equaled the popularity of those other men in their prime.

Ray Breslin (Stallone) breaks out of prisons for a living. He is a security specialist, finding the weak points in institutional security and pointing them out to their clients so that those weak points can be shored up. It’s a fairly lucrative business with Ray being the brains and his partner Lester Clark (D’Onofrio) the money man.

They get an unusual request from a representative from the CIA to see if a new Supermax facility, one which will hold people the government wants to see go away and never be found again – terrorists, domestic and foreign, that sort of thing. While Ray’s computer genius Hush (50 Cent) and his handler Abigail (Ryan) have misgivings, Ray thinks that the unusually high payday is worth the risk.

Then he is kidnapped off the streets of New Orleans and taken to a strange facility with glass cells and a massive central hub known as Babylon – all of which is clearly indoors but Ray has no idea where. He quickly realizes that things are awry when his contact doesn’t seem to exist and his evacuation code doesn’t work. Instead, he has the soft-spoken Warden Hobbes (Caviezel), a sadistic sort whose right hand man Drake (Jones) has plenty of muscle to enforce Hobbes’ wishes.

Ray gets an ally inside the prison in Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger) who appears to be the middle man for a financial terrorist who targets corporations. Hobbes wants to know where the terrorist is in the worst way and Emil so far isn’t talking. Ray realizes that he’s been set up and betrayed and he is not supposed to escape – ever. What happens when you have a prison that’s truly escape proof? Do you settle in and accept your fate or die trying to get your freedom?

This definitely harkens back to the golden age of action films I referred to earlier in tone and layout. The plot and writing aren’t going to be confused with Henrik Ibsen nor are Schwarzenegger and Stallone going to be confused with Barrymore and Olivier. However, both of the former have become iconic screen personalities and they don’t really need to act. They just need to show up and react.

This is definitely Stallone’s movie with Schwarzenegger playing little more than comic relief, although he gets his testosterone moment when he lifts a huge machine gun out of a helicopter and opens fire on the baddies. It’s as preposterous as any moment in the film yet one of the most gratifying. In fact, all those who grew up with the movies of the heyday of these two men will find this comfort food of the highest order, cinematically speaking.

The sets of the massive prison are pretty impressive, as are the black-masked prison guards. While Arnold and Sly do what they do so well, Caviezel – generally the Eastwood-ian hero of Person of Interest on CBS and quite possibly the softest-spoken actor in Hollywood – makes his character silky smooth and with all the delicious evil of a serpent. He makes for an excellent antagonist and given the Bond-like set and soldiers, might make for a Blofeld-like bad guy for the venerable British spy series if they’re looking for a villain to go up against Daniel Craig in the next movie.

While the leads labor through some of their action sequences (after all, they are both well past AARP age) and remind us that their prime has come and gone, they nonetheless have the experience and wisdom to simply rely on the images they’ve both carefully crafted over the years and use them to help push them over the top. Sure, there’s nothing here that is going to essentially stand out above other action movies in the year of our lord 2013 but this isn’t a disgrace either. It’s fine, mindless entertainment for a nation that desperately needs the same. Still though, you’d be better off renting Predator, Rambo, The Running Man and Cobra if you want to see the best work of these gentlemen.

REASONS TO GO: Nice set design and pacing. Caviezel makes an intimidating villain.

REASONS TO STAY: No surprises. The stars show just how long in the tooth they have become.

FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of action violence and bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stallone’s eldest son Sage passed away during filming, causing a brief break in shooting while he attended to family matters.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/3/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Escape From Alcatraz

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Counselor