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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

Two from IFC

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

The Escapist

The Escapist
2008 (2010) - IFC Films

Brian Cox is the consummate character actor, instantly recognizable from dozens and dozens of memorable roles. He brings a flinty authority to every part he plays, from Manhunter to Braveheart, The Bourne Identity, X2 and many, many more. But despite key roles in some of the biggest movies of recent years, Cox isn't exactly a box-office draw. The major studios are more than happy to cast him in as many supporting parts as his schedule will allow but aren't going to be offering him a lead any time soon. But Hollywood's loss is the independent film world's gain. In recent years, Cox has taken on meaty starring roles in challenging low-budget fare like Red and Rupert Wyatt's British prison drama, The Escapist.


Cox plays Frank Perry, an elder-statesman-type convict in a rundown prison just outside of London. For years, he has been attempting to keep up a correspondence with his young daughter but all his letters have been returned. One day, the girl's mother writes with the distressing news that their daughter has become a junkie. Desperate to see her again, Frank comes up with an ingenious, dangerous escape plan. To complete the plan, he recruits Liam Cunningham, Joseph Fiennes, Seu Jorge, and his new cellmate, Dominic Cooper.

Wyatt gives his film a fractured narrative, cutting back and forth between the escape in progress and the weeks of planning that lead up to it. It's a useful technique, helping to both build suspense and mask a third-act twist that isn't entirely original but works better here than in some other films I could mention (but won't, because then you'd know exactly how the movie ends). Wyatt is a confident, stylish director but this isn't a glossy but empty Guy Ritchie style crime drama. I enjoy a lot of Ritchie's work but they often seem needlessly showy. The Escapist is more reminiscent of 60s British noir like The Criminal, directed by Joseph Losey. It's tight, controlled and thoroughly compelling. IFC's DVD presentation of The Escapist looks and sounds quite nice and includes a handful of OK deleted scenes, a rough but interesting "making-of" featurette, and the trailer.

While it's no classic, The Escapist is a very fine entry in the long, distinguished tradition of gritty British crime films. It establishes Rupert Wyatt as a filmmaker to keep a close eye on and offers Brian Cox a plum role to show off the remarkable breadth of his talent. Cox truly anchors the picture and he confidently leads the terrific supporting ensemble. If they're smart, independent filmmakers will continue to craft intelligent stories around Brian Cox. With a little luck, Cox may yet nab the role of a lifetime that will earn him a much-deserved Best Actor nomination at the Oscars.

Film Rating: B
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B+/C+

Dr. Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com



Pontypool

Pontypool
2008 (2010) - IFC Films

Tales From The Queue, my regular feature spotlighting underrated films suggested to me by you fine folks, usually appears only in my Electric Theatre corner of the cyberverse. But as I was putting this review together, I received an email from reader Chris Castro recommending this very film. Strictly speaking, this isn't exactly a TFTQ entry but even so, thanks to Chris for his recommendation. I agree with him entirely. Pontypool is a unique, highly suspenseful horror movie that deserves a much wider audience.

Stephen McHattie stars as Grant Mazzy, morning DJ in the small Canadian town of Pontypool. Mazzy and his team start to receive reports of a riot breaking out at a doctor's office.


The news is horrifying and brutally violent. At first, no one is sure if it's real or just an elaborate hoax. But soon enough, it becomes impossible to deny that something very strange and frightening is happening in Pontypool.

Director Bruce McDonald and screenwriter Tony Burgess (who also wrote the book upon which the film is based) have devised a challenging, novel twist on a genre that was rapidly beginning to wear out its welcome. Pontypool is being marketed as a zombie movie and it kind of is one, but it's certainly unlike any zombie movie I've seen. McDonald and Burgess keep their focus tightly on the radio station and the fear and uncertainty in the air is palpable. McHattie is absolutely mesmerizing, entirely command of the screen with his intense glare and a voice that demands attention. It's the best role I've seen him in since the cult comedy Salvation! way back in 1987. On my first viewing of Pontypool, the premise fell apart a bit toward the end. It started to feel muddled and somewhat confused, but the first half was so powerful that I wanted to figure out exactly what went wrong. Watching it a second time was more rewarding. The movie still stumbles a bit midway through but the final scenes make a bit more sense upon a repeat viewing.

Again, IFC's DVD is more than sufficient in the audio/visual department, particularly the robust 5.1 sound mix. While watching the film, I thought the story would make an excellent radio show. I was surprised and delighted to see that the CBC agreed with me and their complete hour-long radio adaptation is included as an extra. You also get three short films: Eve and Dada Dum, both directed by Britt Randle, and The Deaths of Chet Baker, directed by Robert Budreau. Their connection to Pontypool is tenuous at best: they're Canadian and McHattie stars as Chet Baker in Budreau's film. But all three are interesting and worth checking out. You also get two trailers (U.S. and international) and an engaging commentary by McDonald and Burgess, who go into great detail about their plans for the next two films in the proposed Pontypool trilogy.

Believe me, when Pontypool arrived on my door, the last thing I wanted to see was another zombie movie. I'm sick to death of the shambling brain-eaters but McDonald had impressed me with movies like Highway 61 and Hard Core Logo, so I decided to take a chance. I'm glad I did. Pontypool is a gripping, clever, one-of-a-kind horror thriller willing to take a risk. Not all of those risks pay off but those that do, pay handsomely.

Film Rating: B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/A/B+

Dr. Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com


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