Tag Archives: Ben Stiller

ESCAPE AT DANNEMORA (2018) – SHOWTIME REVIEW – Cinematic TV drama of the highest quality!

ESCAPE AT DANNEMORA (2018) – SHOWTIME TV REVIEW

Created by: Brett Johnson, Michael Tolkin

Directed by: Ben Stiller

Writers: Brett Johnson, Jerry Stahl, Michael Tolkin

Starring: Patrica Arquette, Benicio del Toro, Paul Dano, Bonnie Hunt, Eric Lange, David Morse etc.

Episodes: 8

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

Patricia Arquette as Tilly in Escape at Dannemora (Episode 1)

“Based on a true story” is a sentence we often find before many television dramas and feature films. It goes without saying that some are truer to their source events than others. The recent Oscar winner Green Book (2018), is a case in point, with the family of Dr Shirley quite rightly up in arms about the incorrect representations of family history on screen. Having said that, and despite the rather simplistic political rendition of race relations in said film, if I enjoy something I’m not bothered too much about historical accuracy. What one is after is a flavour and authenticity of truth. I accept that the truth should not get in the way of good drama and lets be honest Hollywood has never been frightened of downright fabrication to tell its tall tales. Obviously, one refutes ridiculous or incredible lies but ultimately, if you don’t like the bending of reality then stop watching films and television.

Based on the “true story” of a prison escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility, New York, during 2015, this superior genre serial is gritty and authentic and feels so real in the direction and performances it hurts. Whether it’s the truth is another story, yet what the writers and director Ben Stiller have delivered are eight episodes of cinematic television of the highest order. It begins and moves at a very slow pace establishing the aftermath of the main events, before flashing back and setting the scenes month-by-month of the personalities and their respective actions.

The first character we meet is Patricia Arquette’s brassy machine room supervisor, Tilly Mitchell. She’s bold and ballsy and dominates her relationship with husband, Lyle. Lyle himself, is portrayed effectively by Eric Lange as a tragic and loyal simpleton. Both of them are bad hair, big teeth and strangled accents, trapped by their class, work and lack of finance. While Lyle simply accepts his lot, Tilly is drawn to the prisoners she is meant to be supervising and ventures into illegal and inappropriate behaviour with the inmates. Arquette absolutely nails the humanity of a character who, in her fifties stuck in a dead-end job, desperately seeks attention and excitement. This makes her a hard target in such a masculine and testosteronic environment. However, she is more than happy to encourage and collude with said prisoners.

Prison dramas have always presented a fascinating way of analysing human nature and behaviour. The individuals are trapped in enclosed spaces and given many inmates’ proclivity to violence, they soon become a powder keg of fizzing egos and surging tension. Casting superb actors such as Benicio Del Toro and Paul Dano in the leads was a masterstroke. Both are expert at playing complex human beings and one of the challenges for a writer can be to get empathy for characters that are imprisoned for violent crimes. Yet, the actors, writers and director all manage to balance the tension between representing antagonistic characters in a sympathetic light. Indeed, even though we know Del Toro’s Richard Matt and Dano’s David Sweat are dangerous criminals, the story really drags us into their painstakingly patient escape work. Each episode builds obstacles they must overcome, almost until the suspense becomes unbearable. Lastly, while Dano’s tunnel-vision determination moves them toward the light, Del Toro’s manipulative hard man controls both Tilly and David Morse’s prison guard, Gene Palmer.

Overall, this is a superior prison genre serial; virtually cinematic in its casting, direction, locations, setting and performance. It takes a familiar narrative of a prison escape but transcends the genre with Arquette’s, Del Toro’s and Dano’s incredibly human and believable performances. These are not likable characters and they are not even anti-heroes to root for. Undoubtedly, though the Showtime production delivers as compelling a character drama as you’re likely to see all year. Director Ben Stiller deserves credit too for delivering a consistently balanced body of work here. Known more for his comedic film output there’s a maturity to Escape at Dannemara which offers authenticity in character and setting. If Stiller and his writers have bent the truth in any way then it does not offend my sensibilities; in fact I openly welcome it when the outcome is as absorbing as this.

Mark: 9.5 out of 11

UNDER-RATED FILM CLASSICS #2

UNDER-RATED FILM CLASSICS #2

Six years ago I wrote some articles for a nifty little website called Obsessed with Film.  The site was independent and would have some geeky and interesting articles on film and television.  Years later the site became the click-bait-pop-ups-from-hell-advertising-led-but-still-not-too-bad:  www.whatculture.com

Anyway, one of the articles was about some “forgotten” films or, as I shall refer to them, under-rated film classics. Basically, I listed films which I felt were deserving of further praise. The list included: Bad Santa (2003), Dog Soldiers (2002), Chopper (2000), Midnight Run (1988) and Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) among others. My rules were simple. An under-rated classic can be a film I love plus not be one of the following:

  • Must not have won an Oscar.
  • Must not have won a BAFTA.
  • Must not appear in the AFI Top 100 list.
  • Must not appear in the IMDB Top 250 list.
  • Must not appear in the BFI 100 Great British films.
  • Must not appear in the all-time highest grossing movies of list.

So, with these criteria in mind I present a sequel to my previous article – some six years later – with another set of under-rated film classics. If you have any suggestions that fit the criteria please do let me know and I will include them on my next list.

3:10 TO YUMA (2007)

James Mangold’s directed Western is a rare beast: it’s a remake that’s as much a classic as the original.  Russell Crowe and Christian Bale perform brilliantly as the charismatic outlaw and proud farmer who clash on the way to the eponymous prison locomotive. Ben Foster, Logan Lerman and Peter Fonda provide excellent support too in a fantastic character-led drama full of action.


ANOTHER YEAR (2010)

While Mike Leigh was NOMINATED for a best screenplay Oscar, this wonderful character piece is not always given the praise I think it deserves. Containing Leigh’s usual group of deftly observed human eccentrics, the story concentrates on a year in the life of middle-class couple – the Hepples. Superbly portrayed by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen this lovely couple are a familial magnet to various strays including the scatty and neurotic Mary (Lesley Manville) and depressed Ken (Peter Wright). It’s an affectionate and gentle dramedy with uniformly brilliant performances from Leigh’s wonderful cast.

BIRTH (2004)

Jonathan Glazer’s sophomore movie is often over-looked due to the coruscating power of his debut Sexy Beast (2000) and his most recent cinematic classic Under the Skin (2013). In this haunting drama a potentially disturbed ten-year-old boy (Cameron Bright) informs Nicole Kidman’s New Yorker Anna he is the reincarnated soul of her deceased husband. This fantastic curveball sends Anna’s life into an emotional spin as past and present events collide in a beautifully moving drama.

BRONSON (2008)

Let’s be honest there’s no way career criminal Michael Peterson deserves any real attention for his anti-social and violent behaviour, however, between them Tom Hardy and Nicolas Winding Refn have created an incredible character study of a genuine nutter. It’s brave, brutal, sick, theatrical, daring, Brechtian and an occasionally hilarious profile of one of Britain’s most notorious prisoners.

BUFFALO 66 (1998)

Vincent Gallo is either a genuine nut-job or a misunderstood genius maverick. His directorial effort The Brown Bunny (2003) was panned and on the main his acting career has remained patchy at best. However, he did write, direct and star in Buffalo 66 which is an absolutely blinding dark comedy about an ex-con who “kidnaps” Christina Ricci and forces her to be his wife so he can aspire to some sense of familial normality. It’s quirky and laugh-out-loud funny with Gallo weirdness throughout.

DARK CITY (1998)

This imaginative sci-fi noir had the misfortune of being released around the same time as The Matrix (1999). Yet while the Wachowski’s mind-bending-effects-heavy-actioner caught the eyes of the public, Alex Proyas’ more cerebral vision of the future kind of fell through the cracks of time and space. Rufus Sewell portrays an amnesiac that has no idea where he is before finding himself at the mercy of a group of people called The Strangers.  It’s a brilliant melding of film noir and science fiction and remains a rarely seen gem from the 1990s.


GALAXY QUEST (1999)

While I enjoy the new Star Trek reboots as blockbusting if ephemeral popcorn entertainment, the best recent Trek adaptation/homage is the wonderful science-fiction comedy: Galaxy Quest.  The inventive story delights with a cracking tale of former TV stars boldly propelled into space when proper aliens, Thermians – believing they are real space heroes – ask them to defeat their vicious nemesis. With a delightful ensemble cast including:  Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver, Tim Allen, Tony Shalhoub and irrepressible Sam Rockwell, this is a wonderfully funny and clever film which shines an affectionate light on the Trek canon and geek fan base.

LOCKE (2014)

So, the story is about a bloke on his phone driving up the motorway?  Not a pitch that would grab Hollywood in-a-hurry, but a story that is delivered with such hypnotic power it feels epic despite the limited setting. Ivan Locke is portrayed as a confident and determined man whose life decisions, family and work-life have triangulated simultaneously to crisis point. Tom Hardy plays Locke with incredible restraint and brooding anxiety while Steven Knight’s script is crisply written and full of suspense.

TREMORS (1990)

I love this film. It’s a real B-movie guilty pleasure with seismic underground monsters attacking a small back water town ironically named Perfection.  The action bolts along and it wears its Jaws-in-the-dirt influences hilariously. Most of all I love the characters, notably Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward’s handyman buddies trying desperately to escape their dead end jobs. It’s a fun script with loads of action and great one-liners with Bacon himself having loads of fun without hamming it up.

Image result for TREMORS


TROPIC THUNDER (2008)

Films about filmmaking aren’t always the most interesting yet Ben Stiller’s riotous satire on Hollywood and its over-inflated egos is an absolute joy. Vulgar, over-the-top, stupid, childish and loud it  delivers some incredible belly laughs from:  the hilarious trailer parodies, to Robert Downey Juniors method acting madness and unrecognizable Tom Cruise as a ludicrously crass studio boss.  The daft plot about actors getting kidnapped by a ruthless Vietnamese drug gangs provides an excellent framework for all manner of stupidity, on-the-money punchlines and explosive action.