Escape Plan (Movie Review, R)

I had a coupon for a free rental from Redbox. I’d been wanting to see Escape Plan and figured I’d pick it up…But I didn’t use my coupon. It would have taken ten minutes last night and ten minutes today to pick up and drop off the DVD. Instead I booted up HitBliss and watched slightly over 10 minutes of commercials – then I rented the movie using my credits from watching the commercials. Shorter time, no late fees, no need to leave the house.

The poster for the movie, Escape Plan.
The poster for the movie, Escape Plan.

The story is that Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone) is a private contractor who is hired to test prison security systems. Some people don’t like Breslin so much and arrange for him to be put into an escape-proof prison. Here he meets Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character – a rough “thieve from the rich, give to the poor” criminal and they make an awkward alliance to escape the prison.

Escape Plane is a fairly straightforward action flick with a few small twists and turns at various junctures. I’d complain that the storyline is unbelievable – the good guys dodge way too many bullets but then I remembered the biography of Chesty Puller I’d read when I was younger – a story which seems improbable, implausible – and yet is historical – a man who moved through wars as if invincible. I’d complain that the escape plans are too complicated, too ridiculous, that the chances of everything coming together are too mathematically improbable but then I remembered the book I read about about the Nazi prison camp for Allied officers called Colditz and the many ingenious and implausible escapes (and attempts) that took place there.

An action film telling a prison escape must take some liberties with how the individuals escape – an actual escape takes place over an extended period of time (as it does in the film) and requires numerous components to all fall into place through agonizingly painful and detailed work. Remember when watching the film that the film director decided not to force us to watch in agonizing detail how various components were scavenged or how certain items were built or compromised.

But even if the movie was implausible – I still wanted to see it. Why? Because it has two actors who’ve been in a lot of corny and a few good movies – who are feeling their age and yet still put on an enjoyable show (yes, I’m talking about Schwarzenegger and Stallone). Honestly, Schwarzenegger alone will usually attract my attention. I get a kick out of watching the Governor of California play a gun toting good guy.

I was pleasantly surprised, however, by a really robust cast – not necessarily your A-liners – but just some actors I really, really enjoy…you know, mainly the ones you can’t remember their names. There was Jim Caviezel (Passion of the Christ), the sadistic warden. Amy Ryan (The Office) plays a supporting role to Breslin in his contracting business. Sam Neill (Jurassic Park) is a morally conflicted prison doctor serving in the prison. Vincent D’Onofrio (Law & Order: Criminal Intent) plays Breslin’s business partner. Vinnie Jones plays his usual tough bad guy role…ohh, and don’t forget 50 Cent. I don’t listen to his music – is it permissible for me to like him as an actor?

There is plenty of hand-to-hand combat, lots of gunfire, some explosions, no sex, but a whole boatload of profanity and some crude humor. Watching this film with Clearplay would clean things up significantly.

The film clocks in at almost two hours – this is long for an action film – and you feel it with this one. Yet, the film is still enjoyable – and includes some laugh-out-loud humor primarily provided by Stallone and Schwarzenegger. If you are looking for some brainless fun – Escape Plan isn’t a bad bet.

For those who want more information on the objectionable content, I recommend checking out Common Sense Media’s review here.

Ohh, and did I mention it raises some interesting ethical questions, as well? The film presents the question, “How far are we willing to go to keep those who are dangerous away from the rest of us?” It then proposes that doing so requires us to effectively sweep up with the bad guys some innocents…and is this an acceptable cost? The film portrays our heroes taking questionable actions to gain their freedom (including acting provocatively to provoke race riots within the prison) and at the end of the film the question of whether there is cruel and unusual punishment that should be avoided even for the abominably wicked is raised…mind you, the film is no intellectual piece of art – but it does offer several entry points for thought provoking discussion.

Margin Call (R): Movie Review.

[Okay, this is really only like 25% movie review, 75% my hypothesizing about systemic ills that cause significantly societal dysfunction]

Margin Call is a 2011 film with an a great ensemble cast that includes Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, and Aasif Mandvi amongst others. It provides an “inside look” at a Wall Street finances firm during the 2008 financial crisis – albeit a fictional one.

Margin Call - a movie about the 2008 financial crisis.
Margin Call – a movie about the 2008 financial crisis.

The film contains no violence or nudity[1], it does, however, include a boatload of profanity – including religious…and I mean pervasive profanity.

If you are looking for a film that helps explain what happened in 2008 and perhaps one that will rile you up a bit, this is a good film to select – though it is too nuanced to be the sort of rage flick that allows us to direct all our hatred towards abominably evil characters – for that you’ll have to look to  Uwe Boll’s controversial and simplistic film Assault on Wall Street (2013, R).

Margin Call does demonstrate the greed and dishonesty which allowed the collapse to occur. It also highlights the way in which extremely intelligent individuals have been leaving jobs which are highly productive for society (e.g. engineering space craft and bridges) to these financial trading careers which have questionable value for society. It manages to enrage us with the “golden parachutes” many of the “higher-ups” secure for themselves even as they cut their employees off at the knees and leave the common man holding the bag and towards the end John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) characters highlights that the 2008 crash is not a one-time occurrence, but something which has been occurring with great regularity throughout history – and yet has not been stopped and is not being stopped now.

At the same time, it calls us, the common people, to account for our complicity in what occurred. In a powerful scene where Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) and Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) are driving together, Seth notes how devastating the crash will be for “real people” – to which Will explains why Seth should not feel sympathy for the “real people” who essentially pay the financial traders to abstract their dirty work – so they can feel better about themselves. Here is the relevant dialogue (you’ll see what I mean about pervasive profanity):

Seth: “—-, this is going to really affect people.”

Will: “Yeah, it’s gonna affect people like me.”

Seth: “No, Will, real people.”

Will: “—–, Seth. Listen, if you really want to do this with your life, you have to believe you are necessary, and you are. People want to live like this–in their cars and big ——- houses they can’t even pay for, then you’re necessary. The only reason that they all get to continue living like kings is because we’ve got out fingers on the scales in their favor.”

“I take my hand off, then the whole world gets really ——- fair really ——- quickly and nobody actually wants that. They say they do, but they don’t. They want what we have to give them, but they also want to, you know, play innocent and pretend they have no idea where it came from.”

“Well, that’s more hypocrisy than I’m willing to swallow. So —- ’em. —- normal people.”

“You know the funny thing is, tomorrow if all of this goes —- up? They’re going to crucify us for being too reckless. But if we’re wrong, and everything gets back on track, well then, the same people are going to laugh till they piss their pants ‘case we’re gonna look like the biggest ——- God ever let through the door.”

In other words, we desire a certain standard of living, so we engage in questionable practices in order to sustain that level of living – but we remove ourselves from conscious involvement in this unethical behavior by “handing off” the dirty work to the financial traders. We praise them when they do well for us and are horrified when they fail us and/or act unethically.

I have a developing hypothesis about evil. In my experience I find fewer evil people than I expect and more systems which propagate evil. I do not mean to excuse the financial traders for their unethical actions, but only note that removing the unethical (or evil) individuals will not rectify the problem – why? Because the system still exists and the system points incalculable pressure upon the individual to act unethically – thus creating more unethical individuals, which will, naturally, result in more unethical behavior.

I need to read up more on economics and specifically on the stock market – but I tentatively hypothesize that we’d need a fundamental change in the way the stock market operates in order to rectify (at least significantly) this system. This could perhaps be achieved by making investments in stocks somehow (I don’t know how) primarily about deriving profits from profit sharing dividends, rather than the current scenario in which much of what is bought/sold is done so under the philosophy of buy low, sell high – which creates an unsustainable pressure upon companies to continually increase profits (or risk the rage of the stockholder).

The ironic thing is, if I’m right, we are cutting each other off at the knees. Company X lays off 5,000 employees to increase its profits so stockholders don’t sell…the employees are righteously angry. Who are those stockholders? Well, many of them are from Company Y which just cut 5,000 employees to keep their profits increasing (and who are their stockholders? Why people from Company X!). Obviously this is a vast oversimplification…but it seems to me we are demanding increased profits from those we invest in yet at the same time demanding that the companies act in more generous, considerate ways – and in so doing we ask the impossible.

I’d love to hear your thoughts? As I said, I’m no expert on economics or the stock market.

  1. [1]Though two of the characters are briefly at a strip joint, the film (amazingly) chooses not to throw in nudity to attract additional viewers

Movie Review: Cinco de May La Batalla (R).

My ADD makes it hard for me to watch longer, slower epics – but when I’m riding my stationary bike at the same time – I can do it. Yesterday I watched Cinco De Mayo La Batalla (Cinco De Mayo: The Battle) (it is currently available via Netflix). Didn’t know there was a historical battle behind the Cinco De Mayo holiday? Me either.

Cover of Cinco de Mayo: La Batalla film (2013, R).
Cover of Cinco de Mayo: La Batalla film (2013, R).

It tells the story of The Battle of Puebla on May 5th 1862 when disciplined French forces (yup!) attacked a rabble of Mexican soldiers and civilian volunteers. Amazingly, the Mexicans came out victorious, and the battle was an encouragement to the Mexican people regarding their ability to withstand a seemingly superior enemy (in arms, experience, and financial backing).

The film itself is an interesting – perhaps strange – collage. Early on it introduces two characters who seem comedic in nature (which is strange for a historical element), but as the tale progresses they lose their comedic elements. A romance between one of these characters and a third character adds another strange twist as we swap back and forth between scenes featuring military commanders strategizing and diplomats negotiating to these two lovebirds interacting.

From a humorous perspective, my favorite part is the captioning. It is evident that the individual who translated the Spanish into English (almost the entire film is in Spanish, there is a very small spattering of English and French) was not a native English speaker – creating a number of awkward constructions.

This said, it might sound like the film is a no-go. And the film has yet more against it – the shaky camera work (I think done in large part to hide the fact that while it is supposed to be pouring during portions of the battle, the sky is in fact clear and blue), cuts from and to scenes that seem nonsensical and too short to carry any meaning, and so on…but, actually, I really liked the film.

I’m always a sucker for an underdog story – but I think it is the extended time spent on the actual battle that won me over. Unlike many modern movies which insist on insane camera work that makes me feel sick to give us a “hey, you are actually here” feel – this film uses a more traditional style reminiscent of 13 Days to Glory and John Wayne’s The Alamo.

The film clearly portrays the absolute insanity of Napoleonic tactics at this juncture in history. At points I could barely stand to watch as lines of men walked towards each other, stood still, and then took turns firing into each others ranks, playing a form of roulette – lets see whose lines disappear first.

The film is also quite violent. Just about every manner in which film technicians have developed to demonstrate the bloody horrors of wars is represented here. Many deaths are fairly bloodless (ala John Wayne) but others are horribly graphic. No, it isn’t that I like the gore…I do think that bloodless epics that glorify war are more detrimental to viewers than ones that portray war with its horrors.

What really struck me – in a way few other movies have conveyed – is the hopeless plight of the common man in these situations. Napoleon III decides from across the oceans to collect on a debt owed France by Mexico…and this battle is only the beginning of many in which hundreds and thousands will die – the common man – while lofty politicians move men around like so many chess pieces.

I’m not a pacifist. I understand the need for the use of force, even deadly force, in the maintenance of peace – but the film did make me think deeply about the wars we have been, are, and will be involved with…It struck me that perhaps for me, there will be a more active role to play in activism in the future – not to dissuade from conflict when necessary – but to ensure that the causes of conflict are actually those who force war, and not simply pompous men’s blustering or conniving thieves contriving sales.