O Brother, Where Art Thou?


O Brother, Where Art Thou?(2000) Comedy (Touchstone) George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman, Charles Durning, Holly Hunter, Michael Badalucco, Del Pentecost, Chris Thomas King, Stephen Root, Daniel von Bargen, Frank Collison, Wayne Duvall, Musetta Vander, Mia Tate, Christy Taylor. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Joel and Ethan Coen have become one of America’s finest filmmaking combos, and for good reason. Looking at their portfolio, you see a common theme of understanding the cadences, rhythms and twangs of American speech, and seeing the cracked side of American life. In films such as Fargo, Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy and Blood Simple, the characters are basically good but not particularly moral — there’s a criminal side to the heroes (with the exception of the Frances McDormand police chief in Fargo) that makes them charming, flawed but still in a realm to which the audience can relate.

Loosely (make that very loosely) based on Homer’s Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou?  begins with convict Ulysses Everett McGill (Clooney) escaping a Mississippi prison farm with his dim cohorts Pete (Turturro) and Delmar (Nelson). They are off to find the loot hidden by McGill from an armored car job before the valley it resides in is flooded by a WPA project. They almost immediately run into a blind seer (Duvall) who predicts that they will find great treasure, albeit not the one they are seeking.

Along the way, they run into a variety of characters, from a one-eyed Bible salesman (Goodman), to a corrupt Mississippi governor running for re-election (Durning) to a blind radio station owner (Root) who records the three convicts singing “Man of Constant Sorrow” which, unbeknownst to the three Soggy Bottom Boys (so dubbed because Delmar and Pete elect to be baptized, to the amusement of McGill) has become a huge hit.

Heck, you even get to meet the manic/depressive Baby Face Nelson (Badalucco). They also run into three larcenous sirens and McGill’s wife, who is preparing to marry a man she considers “bona fide,” which McGill is not. When McGill objects to his wife remarrying and takes issue with her new suitor, he gets soundly thrashed and tossed out of a Woolworth’s, to his humiliation. Indeed, the three Soggy Bottom Boys do find a treasure beyond price, although they don’t realize it at the time.

The Coens capture the period perfectly, and give all the characters enough eccentricities to make them interesting, without making them overbearing. Clooney, in particular — with his obsession about his hair — commands attention. He is not “bona fide,” but that’s mostly bad luck. We root for him throughout and for his two dim-witted sidekicks. This is ostensibly a comedy, but it is a dry wit despite the occasional soggy bottom. The Coens lavish the characters here with interesting eccentricities and the actors repay him with excellent performances.

Refreshingly original, O Brother, Where Art Thou? remains quintessential Coen and those who love their movies, as I do, will love this one. Da Queen and I were laughing till our faces were beet red, particularly during an early train sequence, and at the final performance of the Soggy Bottom Boys near the end of the film. Clooney won a Golden Globe for his performance here, and I think it’s basically from this point he got taken seriously as an actor, as well as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

The humor isn’t for everyone – some find it a bit too quirky. Still, there are some pretty wonderful country-fried performances from Durning, Badalucco and Root and especially from Goodman, Hunter, Turturro and Nelson and of course Clooney steals the show. I’d never thought of him as a comic actor before this, but he is quite good at it as he has proven in several films since which you can always check out later. In the meantime, enjoy O Brother, Where Art Thou? and anticipate future celluloid from the Coen Brothers

WHY RENT THIS: Hysterically funny in places. Great performance from Clooney. Among the best the Coens have ever done.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If the Coens’ quirkiness isn’t you’re style you won’t like this.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a little bit of violence and a few cursin’ words here and there.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a music video and a featurette that shows how the filmmakers obtained the golden hue that tones the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $71.9M on a $26M production budget; the movie was profitable although given the success of the soundtrack, probably more so than the box office receipts would indicate.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Raising Arizona

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Rashomon

Men in Black 3


Men in Black 3

Will Smith: 21st Century cool even in the 60s.

(2012) Science Fiction (Columbia) Will Smith, Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Emma Thompson, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, Alice Eve, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mike Colter, Bill Hader, David Rasche, Michael Chernus, Keone Young, Cayen Martin, Lanny Flaherty. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld

 

Men in Black is an iconic film from the 90s, one which helped establish Will Smith as the superstar he is today. It has been 15 years since that film came out and ten since its sequel. Does the world need a third, or care about it?

Judging from the early numbers, it does. Agents J (Smith) and K (Jones) are doing what they do best, taking care of aliens violating the law in and around the Manhattan area, but they are both getting too old for this sh….stuff. The two are like a couple that has been married so long that there’s no longer any passion; and J is frustrated that he doesn’t know the close-mouthed K any better than he did when they first met.

On the moon, one of the most dangerous and nastiest aliens to ever be arrested by the MIB organization – Boris the Animal (Clement) – has been imprisoned for forty years, his arm shot off by Agent K at the time of his arrest. He has his first visitor in 40 years – a pen-pal girlfriend (Scherzinger) who brings him a cake that appears to be mostly organic. Not that a file baked into it would do any good – his cell is solid steel. However, there’s a nasty little surprise in the cake that helps him get out of the lunar hoosegow.

Back on Earth, the MIB are mourning the late Zed who is eulogized by O (Thompson), the new leader of MIB, in an alien language that sounds something like seals mating. J and K are continuing to be catty to one another like that previously mentioned old married couple. The next morning J comes to work – and K has been dead for 40 years. He’s also got an insatiable craving for chocolate milk, which according to O is a sure sign of temporal displacement.

But that’s the least of their worries now. The Earth is under attack by the Boglodites, the race of Boris the Animal which should have been impossible because his race died off 40 years early when K had captured Boris and enacted the ArcNet shield around the Earth, preventing the Boglodites from invading back then and causing them to starve to death as a species.

O and J deduce that Boris the Animal must have gone back in time and killed K, leading to the events that were now transpiring. It’s up to J to go back to 1969, rescue K, allow him to put the ArcNet shield up and restore the space-time continuum to where it belongs.

Once in 1969, J discovers that it’s not that easy. Trying to ambush Boris at Coney Island (where J knows he’ll be, owing to the file on the killer stating that he would murder an alien named Roman the Fabulist), unfortunately, J is too late and winds up being captured by the younger K (Brolin) and the 1969 MIB team. It takes a little bit of convincing but J manages to get K to understand that he’s from the future trying to prevent an invasion of Earth – although J leaves out the part that he is also there to prevent K’s death. They are aided by Griffin (Stuhlbarg), a gentle alien who lives five-dimensionally and is able to see every possible future. Now that’s a big help, although it would be, as Griffin himself puts it, a pain in the ass.

However, that is easier said than done. K has no idea what an ArcNet shield is, or how to erect it. There are two Boris the Animals out to murder K, who to J’s astonishment, has a romantic link with the young O (Eve). Plus in order to save the world, J and K are going to have to get through one of the tightest security nets in the history of the United States.

It’s nice to see Smith back on screen again (it’s been three and a half years since he’s been in a movie) and especially in a role that is so identified with him and let’s be frank – a role he does better than anybody else. His chemistry with Jones is scintillating but what’s surprising is that Brolin steps right into the role as the young K and not only mimics Jones perfectly, but also in terms of the chemistry with Smith – it’s almost indistinguishable between the actors. That’s part of what makes the movie worth seeing.

The movie holds up pretty well with the second (although not as well with the first). Rick Baker returns to make plenty of oddball aliens, including Boris the Animal (who has a little spider-like thing that resides in his remaining arm which is able to shoot out fang like darts that can be lethal). I can’t help think about what’s missing from the other films – notably Frank the Pug (who only shows up as a painting in J’s living room), the worm aliens (who make a brief cameo) and Rip Torn as Zed, whose funeral is near the beginning of the film. These were part of the indelible charm of the first two movies and their absence is noticeable.

Other than the time travel element, this is really business as usual for the franchise. Strangely, the filmmakers opt not to use the 60s as much more than a background for the movie (other than a scene set in the Factory of Andy Warhol (Hader) who turns out to be an MIB agent) which is a wasted opportunity; the setting could have enhanced the film a lot more than it did. In some ways, they could have easily set the past sequences in any decade from that standpoint. I would have liked to have seen a bit more use of the time period as a part of the movie.

Don’t get me wrong; this is fine summer entertainment and anyone who chooses to go see it is not going to leave disappointed unless they’re incredibly anal about time travel continuity and the franchise in general. Of course, if you didn’t like the first two films in the franchise, chances are you aren’t going to like this one either since it pretty much is more of the same. Which, to my mind, is a good thing.

REASONS TO GO: Brolin does a great job of channeling Jones. Will Smith is, well, Will Smith. Touching coda.

REASONS TO STAY: Not quite as memorable as the first MIB.  

FAMILY VALUES: There’s just a little bit of sci-fi violence and a smidgeon of sensuality – mostly implied.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The mother and daughter in K’s apartment (after he disappears from the timeline) that J gets chocolate milk from are an actual mother and daughter.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100. The film got decent reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: X-Files: Fight the Future

CHRYSLER BUILDING LOVERS: Will Smith makes his leap into the ’60s from one of the gargoyles at the top of the Chrysler Building.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: A Town Called Panic

Man on a Ledge


Man on a Ledge

Sam Worthington hopes that Elizabeth Banks isn't watching his career plummet over the precipice.

(2012) Thriller (Summit) Sam Worthington, Elizabeth Banks, Jamie Bell, Ed Harris, Anthony Mackie, Edward Burns, Titus Welliver, Genesis Rodriguez, Kyra Sedgwick, Felix Solis, Bill Sadler, Robert Clohessy, Afton Williamson, Pooja Kumar, Frank Pando. Directed by Asger Leth

 

There are a lot of reasons why people climb out on the ledge of a tall building. It could be financial ruin, or a failed love affair. It could be a result of clinical depression, or drug use. Sometimes, the reasons aren’t all that obvious.

Nick Cassidy (Worthington) is standing out on the ledge of the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan. Traffic has been diverted and the cops are everywhere. A police negotiator named Jack Dougherty (Burns) is assigned the case but Nick wants a woman – Lydia Mercer (Banks) to be exact. She’s been under a cloud recently ever since she lost a jumper on the Brooklyn Bridge who happened to be a cop.

He’s not just any guy; he’s an ex-cop who escaped from prison only a week prior. He had been accused of stealing (and selling) a $40 million diamond belonging to David Englander (Harris), a cutthroat Wall Street sort who has all sorts of people on his payroll. Nick is being aided by his brother Joey (Bell) and Joey’s girlfriend Angie (Rodriguez) in proving that Nick is innocent and that David still has the diamond – by stealing it.

The plot is pretty simple and straightforward, and Leth tries to keep it that way. While there are several feints and twists as befits any heist movie (and the heist is a central part of the film) for the most part it doesn’t veer too much from the main concept and that’s a plus that many more veteran filmmakers sometimes miss.

Worthington has had great success in the fantasy and science fiction action realms, although he hasn’t quite achieved the stardom you’d expect with movies like Avatar and Clash of the Titans under his belt. He won’t move much farther in that direction with his performance here; he’s a bit wooden and the charisma he showed in those two movies isn’t as much in evidence although to be fair he spends most of the movie standing on a ledge talking to Elizabeth Banks. Nothing wrong with that mind you – just not a lot to work with there.

Rodriguez who plays the sassy girlfriend of his brother adds much needed sparkle, not only visually (she’s quite gorgeous) but also in providing an emotional boost. She provides comic relief but seems to be having the most fun of anyone here and she lights up the screen whenever she’s on it. She has stardom written all over her.

The problem here is that there are a lot of logical missteps. For example one of the stunts has someone leaping off of a 21-story-building and landing safely on one of those air-inflatable stunt mattresses which in real life would have a person-sized hole in it if someone were to do that. Also the brother is supposed to be working class but he has all these sophisticated devices to help him get into the vault. Doesn’t make sense.

Also the film misses out on capitalizing on its location. New York is one of the world’s most recognizable and photogenic cities but the movie could just as well be taking place in Pittsburgh or Toledo, anywhere where there’s a suitable high rise. You never get a sense that they’re in New York – and they freaking’ filmed there! That’s a big no-no in my book.

The movie isn’t all that bad but it isn’t particularly good either. You get a sense that you’ve seen it before and done better throughout. It makes for a decent enough diversion but if you’re going to spend your hard-earned dollars at the box office there are plenty of much better films in theaters right now than this, even at this time of the year.

REASONS TO GO: Solid jobs by most of the cast. Rodriguez is nice eye candy.

REASONS TO STAY: Premise is a bit “been there done that” and there are some logical holes that subvert the plot here and there. Misses on capturing the essence of New York.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence and a few choice words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Asger Leth is best known for Ghosts of Cite Soleil.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100. The reviews are on the low side of mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Phone Booth

HEIST LOVERS: The heist sequences are pretty well thought-out and while not super-original, were enjoyable to watch.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Gothika

The Way Back


The Way Back

Jim Sturgess wonders if there's anybody behind him. Unfortunately, nobody is.

(2011) Adventure (Newmarket) Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Saoise Ronan, Mark Strong, Dragos Bucur, Alexandru Potocean, Sally Edwards, Gustaf Skarsgard, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Zahary Baharov. Directed by Peter Weir

It’s not the destination, I’ve been known to opine, but the journey. Never has that been more true than in this movie.

Janusz is a Polish cavalry office in occupied Poland. Part of the country is run by the Nazis, the other by Soviet Russia. Janusz is in the latter portion. He is accused of criticizing the Stalinist regime. His wife (Edwards) is forced to testify against him and he is sent to a Siberian gulag.

Here he meets Khabarov (Strong), an actor thrown in the Gulag for portraying a Russian aristocrat too well. He claims to have an escape plan, but later turns out to be a fraud that preys on the hopes of others. However, his information sets in motion a daring escape.

Participating are Kazhik (Urzendowsky), Tomasz (Potocean) and Voss (Skarsgard), fellow Poles as well as Valka (Farrell), a Russian mobster and Mr. Smith (Harris), a taciturn American. The lot of them travels into the harsh Siberian wilderness, picking up an orphan named Irena (Ronan) along the route.

They are pushed to the limits, often without food or water as they pass into Mongolia, cross the Gobi desert into Tibet and then at last must cross the Himalayas into India to finally find freedom. It is an amazing journey that not all of them will survive.

This is inspired by a book by a Polish soldier that is reputedly a true story, although the veracity of it has been called into question recently. While some claim that the author took events that happened to other people and claimed them for his own, there is also a fairly sizable contingent who believe he made up events out of whole cloth. It is nearly certain that Slavomir Rawicz did not make the journey he depicted in the book; recent documents unearthed in Russia confirm this, including some authored by Rawicz himself.

Still, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. There is certainly an epic sweep to the story, a grandeur that populates most grand adventures, and the sort that are rarely undertaken anymore. These men (and one lady) are pushed to walk 4,000 km because they have to. Could it have happened? Yes.

Director Peter Weir has some movies on his resume that will withstand the test of time (The Year of Living Dangerously, Picnic at Hanging Rock) but this is his first movie in seven years (Master and Commandeer: The Far Side of the World was the last movie that saw him in the director’s chair) which is nothing new; he only made three movies during the ‘90s and only one in the decade that followed. He may not be prolific but the quality is usually there.

 He undertakes to make a movie that is both epic in scope and personal in nature, but only succeeds in the former aspect.  The cinematography from landscapes in Bulgaria, Morocco and India is nothing short of breathtaking thanks to cinematographer Russell Boyd. They travel through extremes of heat and cold, with issues of hunger and thirst thrown in; and even a wolf attack to boot. This isn’t a stroll through meadows.

Sturgess makes an appealing hero. His optimism and determination fuels the entire journey. He is in many ways the most human but he is also the most distant. That determination which is in him isn’t fully explained until near the end, and even then he never seems to connect emotionally to anyone. That makes it harder for the audience to connect to him.

Farrell does an impressive job as Valka, the Russian criminal with the knife he calls Wolf but who turns out to be a bit of a blowhard. Janusz is often warned that Valka is the devil and he can’t be trusted but you never get a sense that he’s untrustworthy. It’s an interesting performance that captures a very complex man.

The character that stayed with me the most is Mr. Smith, Harris’ American. He is a bit of a loner, suffering from guilt and loss. He tries to keep the world at bay but his own inner humanity keeps getting in the way. Harris is the kind of actor that brings a certain human touch to his every performance, makin his characters accessible and relatable. Smith begins to display fatherly tendencies towards both Janusz and Irena; the character really blossoms then. Ronan has such ethereal features she looks almost other-worldly. This is a difficult role but she makes it look easy – I get the sense that she is about to break into major stardom.

However, we have to keep in mind that this is essentially a movie about a long walk. There’s only so much you can do with that. Yes, they are walking through desolate places that have their own beauty in their emptiness, but after awhile even beautiful images aren’t enough. They’re supposed to be chased by the Soviets and are trying to avoid contact with the villagers because they know there’s a bounty on their heads, but you never get a sense of danger of imminent re-capture.

No, the danger is that starvation and exposure will do them in and Weir concentrates on that. The imagery is pretty stark and graphic, and not for the squeamish. The exposure to sunstroke is portrayed in a very direct manner, and some may find this unsettling. Still, without the tension of being hunted the movie is harrowing, but not exciting. It’s well made, well acted (despite having a cast of interchangeable bearded Poles) and good looking but ultimately it didn’t move me the way it should have. When you consider this is supposed to be a movie about the triumph of the human spirit, you would think I would feel uplifted but rather, I just felt like I’d endured a long, grueling walk.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully photographed, excellent work by Sturgess, Harris and Farrell. Ronan is ethereal and looks ready to break out career-wise.

REASONS TO STAY: Movie drags and could have been shortened a good 15-20 minutes.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, images of hardship and ordeal, other disturbing images of death and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ronan turned 16 during filming. 

HOME OR THEATER: The big vistas of desert, mountain and forest should be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Edge of Darkness

The Next Three Days


The Next Three Days

Elizabeth Banks and Russell Crowe discover that this is anything but the Great Escape.

(2010) Crime Thriller (Lionsgate) Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Neeson, Brian Dennehy, RZA, Olivia Wilde, Daniel Stern, Ty Simpkins, Jason Beghe, Aisha Hinds, Lennie James, Trudie Styler, Allan Steele, Helen Carey. Directed by Paul Haggis

Desperate men will do desperate things, all in the name of love. When we are backed up against the wall with nowhere left to turn, we can become capable of things both amazing and terrifying.

John Brennan (Crowe) and his wife Lara (Banks) live a decent life. John is an English teacher at a community college, and Lara has a more upscale job with a boss she detests. The two go out with John’s brother and his wife and have a spirited conversation about female bosses (which Lara’s boss is) and their ability to work with female employees.

The two go home and the next day share breakfast. All seems to be normal – until the police arrive to arrest Lara. It seems she’s been fingered as a suspect in the brutal murder of her boss, bludgeoned to death with a fire extinguisher. The evidence is highly circumstantial at best; Lara was observed driving away from the scene of the crime (the parking lot at the office where she works), her fingerprints were on the murder weapon, she and her boss argued rather loudly earlier in the day and to seal the deal, some of the victim’s blood made its way to the back of her overcoat.

Lara claims that she didn’t see the body, and that she had bumped into another woman who was leaving the parking lot on foot, although nobody else saw her but Lara. Despite her protestations of innocence, she is convicted and sentenced to prison. Three years pass; appeal after appeal is denied and their lawyer (Stern) informs John that basically her options have been exhausted – she’ll have to do the time. Lara, who has grown increasingly more depressed, her relationship with their son Luke (Simpkins) deteriorating to the point of non-existence, attempts suicide.

John knows she’ll never last the full length of her sentence. He also is completely sure she is incapable of murdering another human being, no matter how angry she was at them or what the provocation. With no further legal recourse, he determines that the only other option is to break her out of prison.

Of course, he knows nothing of prison breaks other than watching them on TV. He meets with an ex-con (Neeson in what is essentially an extended cameo) who achieved notoriety by breaking out of seven different prisons and lived to write a book about it. The author informs him that he needs a plan and a timetable. Being that she’s languishing in Allegheny County Prison in central Pittsburgh, he needs to know that 15 minutes after the escape is detected the police will have the center of the city locked down, the bridges closed and all of the subway and train stations as well as the airports manned with officers. 35 minutes after the escape is detected, the city will be on lockdown with toll booths manned by police officers and roadblocks on every major road out of the city.

John begins to spend a heck of a lot of time studying the prison and trying to figure out a foolproof plan. He is also going to need a weapon and a whole lot of money. Then he gets even more devastating news – his wife is going to be transferred to a prison far away from where they live in three days. If he doesn’t break her out in three days, their window of opportunity will be gone.

Haggis is one of the most honored writers in the business and he based this motion picture on a French film called Pour Elle (Anything for Her) which I haven’t seen yet. Haggis is a meticulous screenwriter and tends to fill his stories with an amazing amount of detail and research. Much of the first two thirds of the movie is kind of a how-to, setting up the story in the first 15 minutes of the two hour plus movie, then spending the next hour or so showing John doing research for the break-out. Fortunately, it doesn’t involve tunneling under the fence, putting mannequins in the beds to fool the guards or masquerading as day workers.

Few actors can resonate as an everyman as Russell Crowe can. He is quiet and strong, a perfect husband and father. Yet there is a core of steel to him, one which glimmers from time to time through the sweaters and the tweed jackets. Several critics have complained that they never quite catch the transformation from bookish teacher to efficient criminal, but I disagree. He is driven by desperation; desperate people have lifted automobiles off of other people. You never know what you’re capable of until you’re put into an untenable situation with no other options available to you but to achieve the impossible.

Banks has become one of Hollywood’s more reliable leading ladies. She doesn’t get the due of a Katherine Heigl or a Cameron Diaz but she is nonetheless just as competent and in many ways a better actress. We literally watch her fall apart before our very eyes and it is a compelling and believable performance in every way.

The movie really picks up during the final third when the actual escape is taking place. That is handled with edge-of-the-seat thrills and more than its share of gotchas. If the movie had been able to sustain that pace throughout, this would have been one of the year’s best.

Instead, we get kind of a how-to of prison breaks for the first two thirds that often stops dead in its tracks, particularly as we watch John stumble around Pittsburgh’s underbelly looking for falsified documents. The movie might still have gotten a decent audience, but stacked up against Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 it was essentially doomed to underperforming at the box office. This is a pretty solid movie that may not necessarily fit into your holiday movie plans, but is certainly worth a look on DVD/Blu-Ray if you can’t make it out to the multiplex.

REASONS TO GO: The last third of the movie when the escape takes place is tense, fun and energetic. Crowe is one of the best in the business.

REASONS TO STAY: The first two thirds of the movie about the planning stages drags a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence as well as some drug references and a bit of foul language. There is also some implied sexuality; basically this is fine for any teen and/or mature older children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Haggis remains the only screenwriter to date to win the Best Screenplay Oscar in back-to-back years (for Million Dollar Baby in 2004 and Crash in 2005).

HOME OR THEATER: With all the holiday offerings coming out thick and fast, chances are you won’t be able to fit this into your movie going schedule which is okay – it will work just as well at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Painted Veil

The Escapist


The Escapist

No cage will hold Frank Perry.

(IFC) Brian Cox, Joseph Fiennes, Liam Cunningham, Dominic Cooper, Seu Jorge, Damian Lewis, Steven Mackintosh, Ned Dennehy. Directed by Rupert Wyatt

Those who are imprisoned for life at some point become resigned to their lot in life, finding a way to come to terms with their situation. It becomes necessary to find a way to fit into the vicious prison society, making no waves and calling as little attention to themselves as possible. It is a means of survival for those who can find no other way.

Frank Perry (Cox) is such a man, in a British prison for the rest of his life. He exists day to day within his own routine, allying himself neither with the Screws nor with the Cons, a prison gang led by the reptilian Rizza (Lewis) whose brother Tony (Mackintosh) is a despicable, heartless monster who takes an unhealthy interest in Lacey (Cooper), a newly arrived inmate convicted of a white collar crime who becomes Frank’s new cellmate.

Frank has bigger problems than that however. He receives a letter from his wife informing him that his daughter has overdosed and is in critical condition. He rises from the fog he lives in, his instincts as a father driving him to be by his stricken daughter’s side. The only way he can do that is to escape.

He gathers with him a crew of the silent and violent Lenny (Fiennes), the drug concoctor Viv Batista (Jorge), the smart and brutally efficient Brodie (Cunningham) and somewhat accidentally, Lacey. However, the machinations of Rizza and Tony put Frank’s plans at risk, leading to an act of violence which will change the entire outcome of the prison break.

It’s a very simple concept and really, this little bit gives you all the plot you need to know. The mark of a good movie is that it makes the most use of a very little. The result is neither boring nor standard.

First-time director (and co-writer) Wyatt tells the back story and the escape concurrently as parallel arcs, letting them weave through each other in such a way that the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts. It’s very effectively done, increasing the dramatic power of the ending nicely.

Cox is perfect for the role of the cynical con, keeping his head down in an environment that is without pity or morality. It is Darwin taken to its logical but remorseless extreme and Cox’s Frank Perry fits in like a chameleon, surviving under the radar. Frank has the instincts of a survivor; it’s not that he isn’t tough when he needs to be but he’s smart enough to realize that his toughness isn’t going to get him through. All that changes when his daughter’s life is on the brink and his instincts as a father take over. It’s a powerful transformation and Cox pulls it off nicely.

In fact, the supporting roles are nicely drawn up and are somewhat more complete than usual, a refreshing and admirable movie experience. Fiennes is particularly a revelation, having very little dialogue but pulling off a persona very different than his most prominent role as William Shakespeare.

The prison environment depicted is realistic; less the high-tech environments depicted in television shows like “Prison Break” and “Oz” and more along the lines of the kind of slammer you’d find in The Shawshank Redemption. It isn’t pretty, but then you wouldn’t expect it would be.

This isn’t a movie for the faint of heart, nor is it one for those who like having their stories spoon fed to them. It requires a little adventurousness from the viewer and a little bit of faith that the payoff will be worth the ride, and so it is. The Escapist doesn’t reinvent the prison break movie but it certainly delivers a new take on it, and on that basis alone is worth checking out.

WHY RENT THIS: Cox delivers a powerful performance as a man moved to desperate acts. The parallel storytelling lends dramatic punch to the climax.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The depiction of prison life may be too realistic for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of prison brutality, violence, and sexual assault, enough to make this for mature audiences only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Frank Perry was written specifically for Brian Cox.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Shrek Forever After