John Seven | Viewer's Discretion: "Escape at Dannamora' will draw you in

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'ESCAPE AT DANNAMORA' (SHOWTIME, HULU, AMAZON)

I'm not sure that I expected a series about the 2015 prison escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility that was such big news to be anything worth watching. If I expected anything at all, it would have registered somewhere between trashy and surface level. But director Ben Stiller's moody, claustrophobic adaptation of those events is the exact opposite of that. It's a brooding character study that is more focused on the depths of human need and betrayal than anything else. Plus, as ordinary people go through a period of confinement, there might be some empathy from watching it in our current situation that might not have been there before.

The story is well-known at this point: Prison worker Tilly Mitchell (Patricia Arquette) becomes embroiled in the scheme of two prisoners to escape from jail. One of them, David Sweat (Paul Dano), is a low-key guy who Tilly has an affair with. The other, Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro), is a would-be artist and unabashed swaggering rogue who also gets intimate with Tilly in order to manipulate her to help out. Matt uses Tilly's unhappiness at being trapped in a dead-end town and an emotionally stunted marriage to promise freedom, convincing her that her efforts to help them escape are key to her own escape from her unhappy life.

Stiller follows as the plan is devised and unfolds, exploring the relationships between Tilly and the prisoners, between Tilly and her clueless husband Lyle (Eric Lange), and between Sweat, Matt, and others around him, and how all these aspects affect the actual work of preparing to escape. But it's laid out in such a way that certain sympathies are built for the characters until Stiller interjects with frank revelations about their past behavior that shows you that you may have been conned just as they conned each other.

The series is filled with excellent performances, but Arquette and del Toro both excel in their roles. Rather than play Tilly like a victim, Arquette expresses the rage that boils underneath Tilly's exterior, which bursts out at people that don't necessarily deserve it and reveals a person so drowning in this emotion that she's incapable of crafting a way of pulling herself out. Meanwhile, del Toro fills Matt with confidence, authority, wisdom and magnetism that draws you in, in contrast to the person he really is and who unfolds more and more as the escape barrels forward. In this way, the series is also a presentation of dualities, and the way that they work in tandem to manipulate others to get what you want, and how that is a possible part of anyone, not just the worst of us.

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'THE FALL' (MUBI)

This beautiful short film from Jonathan Glazer, director of "Sexy Beast," was done under the radar last year and got a BBC broadcast, but little else, and perhaps that's because it's so hard to classify. But it's worth twice or three times the short amount of time you need to give it and perhaps that's the impetus to re-screen it while you have the chance.

At the center of the action is a mob of masked people who are on the hunt for a singular masked person, and the film concerns what they do with the object of their hunt. It's live-action, but it has the feeling of animation, partly due to the way Glazer portrays the figures in his film, and partly to the dark, but enchanting set, which includes a forest, a dilapidated building and a cave, all containing a make-believe quality like something out of a Grimm Brothers tale.

While this is not stuck in the same past as the Grimms — the masks actually give it a more modern dystopian feel — it does live in the same universe in emotional ways. Specifically, "The Fall" feels like a nightmare captured on film, but one that is filled with silent terror and foreboding rather than shocks and screams.

John Seven is a writer in North Adams who has never been satisfied by movies and television that are easy to come by. He likes to do some digging. Find him online at johnseven.me


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