The buildup: Sylvester Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a security expert who breaks out of prisons for a living. But when he is set up by someone in the CIA to be incarcerated in a secret facility permanently, he teams up with fellow inmate Emil Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to find a way out and catch the person who sold him out.
The breakdown: They may be in their 60s, but these two action icons still pack a good wallop and trade barbs with style. The reveal of the prison location will genuinely surprise you, and the scenery chewing Jim Caviezel as the sinister warden ups the emotional ante. Escape Plan manages to entertain in spite of mining familiar territory. One bonus feature documents how the crew actually turned a large air hangar into their massive prison set. Impressive.
The buildup: In this Oscar-nominated drama, two con artists (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) get roped into a political sting operation by a cocky FBI agent (Bradley Cooper). One of their marks is the likable Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, who was based on former mayor Angelo Errichetti, a man known both for compassion and corruption. Romantic, political, and mafia entanglements ensue, enlivened by ’70s fashion and music.
The breakdown: A smart, funny caper movie, American Hustle luxuriates in the art of the con. Its multiple Oscar nominations were excessive (it ultimately did not win any), but director/co-writer David O. Russell keeps the pace brisk and the banter quick while making us second guess who is conning who. The ’70s music selection is pretty lively as well.
12 YEARS A SLAVE
The buildup: In this pre-Civil War, mid-1800s period piece, educated Northern musician Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is kidnapped into slavery in the Deep South, stripped of his name, garments, and dignity. Now called Platt, he strives to find a way out of his hellish circumstances to regain his freedom and be reunited with his wife and two children who have no idea what has become of him.
The breakdown: An unflinching look at the realities of slavery down to the whip-scarred backs of its victims, director Steve McQueen’s latest film finds poignancy and poetry amid the brutality even as it reminds us of how grim Solomon’s reality is. Michael Fassbender willfully plays the sadistic slave owner who tries to break his spirit. After experiencing 12 Years A Slave, you’ll be less likely to complain about how rough your life is. Lupita Amondi Nyong’o’s heartbreaking portrayal of an abused slave earned her that Oscar, although Ejiofor also should have won. Given the horrifying tragedy of sexual trafficking today, this story is still very relevant.
THE LAST DAYS ON MARS
The buildup: On the last day of a six-month mission to explore the Martian surface for signs of life, a squabbling international crew finds it…and it isn’t friendly.
The breakdown: Liev Schrieber and Olivia Williams lead the cast through this Alien-like story of a viral infection that turns humans into Martian undead. The premise certainly isn’t original, but the sets and digital effects are fantastic. (This Irish-British co-production was shot in the Jordanian desert.) And the ending might surprise you. If this film had come out five years ago, it probably would have made a stronger impact, but sci-fi fans will find it a guilty pleasure.
HERE COMES THE DEVIL
The buildup: After their two children get stranded in a cave overnight, their worried mother (Laura Caro) begins to notice their now unusual and potentially supernatural behavior. Their clueless father (Francisco Barreiro) stays in denial even as things start to get weird.
The breakdown: Writer-director Adrian Garcia Bogliano looks to the theological thrillers of the ’70s for inspiration (right down to the camera zoom-ins) without overdoing the religious aspects as he portrays mounting familial tension in creepy terms. He claimed the sex isn’t gratuitous but at times it really is, although the sensual scenes are genuinely interesting in nature. Still, he manages to keep Satan creepy, and the tongue-in-cheek final shot is charming.
The buildup: While most people know the late Paul Walker from the Fast & Furious franchise, this film gives him the chance to show he can do more. Here he plays a New Orleans father whose beloved wife (Genesis Rodriguez) dies giving birth prematurely to their daughter. Even worse is the fact that Hurricane Katrina has made landfall. Once the hospital is abandoned and the power cut off, with his daughter attached to a ventilator machine powered by a hand-cranked generator, he must do what he can to keep her alive, including fending off looters.
The breakdown: Walker was never the most dynamic actor, but his understated style works here as he digs deeper to portray an anguished father who must rescue the life of the baby his wife died for. Watching him repeatedly crank the generator to sustain the ventilator as he fights sleep might not sound exciting, but it creates plenty of tension and shows the dedication he doubted he could have as a father.
The buildup: This liberal modern retelling of a famous saga from Japanese feudal history—in which 47 ronin plot to reclaim their honor after their warlord is killed and his village seized—finds Keanu Reeves playing a “half-breed” who must help the heroes win the day.
The breakdown: While it did not earn rave reviews or fare well at the box office, 47 Ronin is a pretty decent fantasy epic with some imaginative set pieces and an unusual detour into pirate land for one sequence. Many people have derided its historical inaccuracies—and obviously there were no shapeshifting magicians back then—so you have to take this fictional recreation with a huge grain of salt. (It flopped big time in Japan.) The Wolverine‘s Hiroyuki Sanada delivers a strong performance as the leader of the clan who must learn to accept the combat talents of Reeves’ outsider, who was never a part of their real-life travails.
THE HIDDEN FORTRESS
The buildup: A crafty, highly skilled general (the irrepressible Toshiro Mifune) manipulates two greedy peasants into helping him sneak the princess of a defeated clan and her royal gold across enemy lines.
The breakdown: This epic 1958 film from legendary director Akira Kurosawa features stunning landscapes and sets captured by the incredible cinematography of Kazuo Yamasaki (using the name Ichio Yamazeki) that vividly brings to life this tale of treacherous travel through a mountainous, war-torn land. It is all the more extraordinary in that it was done without the benefit of digital set design or effects. This black-and-white film was a big influence on George Lucas as he wrote the original Star Wars, and a 2001 interview is included on this disc in which he discusses this and the overall genius of Kurosawa. Criterion’s beautiful restoration of The Hidden Fortress is flawless.