Monthly Archives: August 2015

Bad Trip

Owen Wilson and fam run into trouble on other side of the world

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No Escape

Starring Owen Wilson, Lake Bell and Pierce Brosnan

Directed by John Erick Dowdle

R

Less than 24 hours after relocating to take a new job in Southeast Asia, an American businessman and his family find themselves in the middle of a violent political revolt.

That’s really all there is to No Escape, but it’s enough to fill 103 minutes with a surge of raw, primal-survival adrenaline as Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson), his wife (Lake Bell) and their two young daughters (Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare) make a life-of-death dash along a terrifying gauntlet of madness, murder and mayhem.

The movie was filmed in Thailand, but the country in which the (fictional) No Escape takes place is never named—likely because the filmmakers hope no specific part of the world (like Thailand) takes it personally. The rioting “natives” are a nameless, voiceless, mostly faceless horde of marauding Asians, but they might as well be zombies—or mutants, demons or even the Devil himself. Director John Erick Dowdle, working from a script co-written with his collaborator/brother Drew, keeps pulses pounding with some of the same pulpy shocks and lurid sights he used in the schlock-horror flicks Quarantine (2008), Devil (2010) and So Below (2014).

Dowdle knows what makes an audience jump, jolt and squirm—like with a sequence in which Jack has to get his family, and himself, from one high rooftop onto another. But other parts of the movie are a mess: the editing is a jumble; action scenes downshift into slurry, blurry slow-mo for no good reason; in one scene, daylight abruptly turns into full nighttime; in another, it’s dry one second and pouring rain the next.

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Pierce Brosnan and Owen Wilson

Bodies pile up, buildings are bombed into rubble, Americans are slaughtered in the streets. The title tells us there’s “no escape,” and for much of the movie, it sure looks that way. (The movie was originally titled The Coup, but test audiences apparently found that “foreign” phrase unappealing.) Thank goodness for Pierce Brosnan, who keeps showing up at just the right time as a British expatriate who knows his way around town, and then some. His character also provides a mini-lesson in the politics, multinational colonialism and economics that have caused the roiling ruckus—and the mob’s seething hatred of Americans.

Wilson is best known for playing doofuses, and it’s interesting to see him in an out-of-his-element “everyman” role with more grit than goof-ery. Bell, currently starring in the Netflix comedy series Wet Hot American Summer, isn’t given much to do other than react to the horrific scenario.

Dowdle amps up the tension, in scene after scene, of the terror of a white man, his wife and their two young daughters under the constant threat of being beaten, raped or killed by an all-male horde of “fourth-world” monsters. You may wince at its less-than-noble notions of race and cultural relations, but you can’t say that No Escape isn’t well timed. With a leading U.S. presidential contender campaigning to put up a wall to keep immigrant “rapists” and “killers” at bay, it seems safe to say a good number of people won’t have much trouble relating to Jack Dwyer’s desperation to shield his wife and kids from people on the “other side” of the world practically salivating to make them suffer and bleed.

At one point, Brosnan’s character notes the situation’s blurred moral boundary lines—which give clarity to their situation. “There’s no good or bad here,” he says. “There’s just getting you and your family the hell out.” Once a lot of viewers get out of the muddled, nightmarish obstacle course that is No Escape, they might just see clearly enough to vow to never venture off the green, green grass of home ever again.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Dazed and Conspired

Wild stoner spy comedy is a mashed-up head trip

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American Ultra

Starring Jesse Eisenberg & Kristen Stewart

Directed by Nima Nourizadeh

R

Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) is an underachiever pothead, working the overnight shift at a mini-mart and doodling comics in his sketchbook. Mike doesn’t care much about anything, except Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), his his live-in girlfriend, who’s pining for the getaway trip to Hawaii that Mike’s airport panic attacks always seem to derail.

Nothing much happens in their sleepy little hamlet of Liman, W.Va. Nothing, that is, until Mike looks up into the sky one night and American Ultra kicks into to crazy high gear with deep government ops, lunatic hit men and two young lovers caught in the middle.

Everything revolves around Mike, who’s more complicated and skilled than he realizes—or remembers. And Phoebe turns out to have a surprise or two of her own, too.

Soon, we’re up to speed on what Mike pieces together slowly: He’s a high-level government “experiment” genetically programmed with deep, long-dormant classified intelligence and lethal self-defense abilities. And higher-ups in the program are worried that he might go rouge, or haywire—or, most problematic of all, expose their body-and-brain games.

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It’s a weird, wacked-out, sometimes wonderful mash-up of stoner comedy, spy-conspiracy spoof and hyper-violent teen-romance fantasy—think of Eisenberg and Stewart’s characters several years down the road from their 2009 collaboration Adventureland, caught between The Bourne Conspiracy and Pineapple Express, and spattered with Oliver Stone’s bloody overspray from Natural Born Killers.

Connie Britton from TV’s Nashville plays a government operative determined to help Mike evade the efforts of her devious counterpart (Topher Grace), who has marked him for elimination. Walter Goggins from Justified is a cackling killer, Laugher, sent—along with an army of other exterminators—to take him out. The versatile John Leguizamo trades his shirt for a torso swathed in fake tattoos as a local lowlife. Bill Pullman is a Washington suit none too happy that one of his “lab rats” is making such a big, noisy mess in the white-trash hills of West Virginia.

John Leguizamo

Director Nima Nourizadeh, whose only previous movie was the teen-debauchery flop Planet X (2012), sets up the crazy story, but has a hard time getting it out of the grindhouse. He stages some sock-o action pieces, however, and one of the coolest things is watching Eisenberg, typically cast as an obsessive-compulsive nerd, break out his license to kill. He’s deadly with a spoon, a cup of instant noodles or a package of frozen hamburgers, even if he doesn’t realize exactly how, or why. The humor is dark, the body count high and the blood abundant. But there’s a tenderness and a love story behind the mayhem, too, and one final surprise—when Mike and his relentless stalker, Laugher, finally come to blows—will hit you hard in a soft place, in a way you won’t see coming.

“Do you feel sick?” Phoebe asks Mike at one point. “No, I feel kind of amazing,” he says, reveling in his newfound abilities. In the way-out American Ultra, those two extremes—sick and amazing—somehow don’t seem so very far apart.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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The Gangsta Life

‘Straight Outta Compton’ tells the ‘real’ N.W.A. story

Straight Outta Compton

Aldis Hodge (MC Ren), Neil Brown Jr. (DJ Yella), Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre), Jason MItchell (Eazy-E) and O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Ice Cube) star in ‘Straight Outta Compton.’

 

Straight Outta Compton

Starring O’Shea Jackson, Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins & Paul Giamatti

Directed by F. Gary Grey

R

Spawned from the mean streets of Compton, Calif., in the late 1980s, the controversial original “gangsta rap” act N.W.A. sent shock waves across America and spawned a commercial empire.

Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella and MC Ren created tough, provocative, dangerous-sounding music that modeled and mirrored the harsh realities of their time and place: drugs, crime, violence, racial discrimination, police brutality. How dangerous-sounding? Well, even their name had to be muzzled (the letters stood for Niggaz With Attitude), and one of their most “popular” songs, “F— the Police,” caught the attention of the FBI.

Straight Outta Compton

Hassled by police outside a recording studio.

N.W.A.’s rags-to-riches rise from the “ghetto” of southern Los Angeles County to the top of the music world is a classic tale of ambition, vindication and escape. Their crash-and-burn breakup—into angry bits of bruised egos, bad decisions and broken, betrayed friendships—was the fractured flip side to a decade of high living, heavy partying and the huge sprawl of the musical juggernaut they’d built from scratch.

Straight Outta Compton captures that—much of it, anyway. The beats are fly, the story is nitty-gritty and the timing is spot-on, with the movie’s release coming at a moment in time when a growing movement in America pushes back, once again, against police violence against unarmed blacks.

A young cast of newcomers does a fine job portraying the group. O’Shea Jackson Jr., the son of real-life rapper Ice Cube, plays his own father, and he certainly looks the part—he’s almost a perfect clone. Jason Mitchell is electrifying as Eazy-E, the diminutive, street-hustling, dope-peddling “investor” who became the frontman of N.W.A. after hooking up with Cube and production wizard Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins).

The two other members, DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), are relegated to the sidelines, however. Maybe that’s because executive producers Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and the wife of the late Eazy-E were more interested in telling “their” story.

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Paul Giamatti

Paul Giamatti’s towering white swoop of a hairpiece competes for attention in his role as Jerry Heller, the manager who steered the group to stardom—and into a crooked contractual labyrinth that eventually split them apart.

The movie credits N.W.A. as the architects of hardcore, “real” street rap. But it doesn’t depict them as saints: They spew profanity, take drugs, sling guns and indulge in the orgiastic excesses that you might expect of cocky young rock gods. There are moments of humor to lighten some of the heavier moods. At two and a half hours, it gets a bit overloaded in the final stretch with plot offshoots and cameo appearances by characters playing rappers Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur and record producer “Suge” Knight, depicted by the film as a bullying, brutish thug.

But in its recreations of live performances or studio sessions, and in other moments when its explosive songs kick it, the movie really comes alive, reminding us of just how shocking, raw and impactive N.W.A.’s music was 25 years ago—and how powerfully it echoes even today.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Say ‘U.N.C.L.E.’

Fresh young cast revives Cold War themes of ’60s TV show

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The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Starring Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer and Alicia Vikander

Directed by Guy Ritchie

PG-13

He wasn’t James Bond, but he was close.

Napoleon Solo was a suave, cosmopolitan American secret agent played by actor Robert Vaughn on the hit NBC TV series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. from 1964 to 1968. Solo was in fact fashioned by writer consultant Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator, to be a small-screen version of his more famous British super-spy.

You don’t have to know that to enjoy this refreshingly retro-fied revival, which takes the name, characters and Cold War setting of the TV show and enhances them to modern-day Hollywood proportions.

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.

Armie Hammer (left) and Henry Cavill

Henry Cavill (who’ll reprise his 2013 role of Superman in next year’s Batman v Superman) plays Solo, and Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger, The Social Network) is his Russian partner Illya Kuryakin. Rather than just picking up and running with TV characters established half a century ago, the movie wisely starts fresh and anew. (We don’t even hear the code word “U.N.C.L.E” and learn how it spun off from the CIA, the KGB and other international organizations as a separate super-spook division on its own, until the end of the movie.)

We learn backstories and see how Solo and Kuryakin first meet—not as teammates but as enemies, with cloak-and-dagger orders to eliminate each other if necessary, on opposing sides of the ’60s high-stakes political and military standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Their fateful collaboration makes for the fun in writer/director Guy Ritchie’s witty, snappy, stylish yarn spiced and sprinkled with Nazi fascists, Italian playboys, atom bombs, speedboats, femme fatales, fast cars, double crosses, triple crosses, some snazzy old-school spy do-daddery, and gorgeous, eye-popping fashions. It sometimes looks like the cast of Mad Men left their Madison Avenue ad agency and went into dangerous, daring Euro undercover work.

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Alicia Vikander

Alicia Vikander (who drew raves as a sexy robot earlier this year in Ex Machina) portrays the daughter of a brilliant German rocket scientist who’s been abducted and forced to apply his skills toward nefarious ends. She joins Solo and Kuryakin in a race—an “arms race,” to use the Cold War term—to find him.

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Elizabeth Debicki

Elizabeth Debicki is wickedly smooth as Victoria, a svelte, blond “lethal combination of beauty, brains and ambition” whose soft, seductive purr and pouty smile mask a deadly bite. Veteran British actor Hugh Grant makes a welcome impression as Waverly, a character whose motives become clear later in the film.

But the movie belongs to Cavill and Hammer, who seem to really enjoy playing off each other in two very different roles: Solo, the ultra-cool, unflappable ladies’ man who can steal almost anything, and Kuryakin, a towering Slavic hunk whose twitchy temper makes his bare hands lethal weapons—and who has trouble stealing even a single kiss. Their banter, comic bickering and constant bouts of spy-vs-spy one-upmanship keep the movie moving along crisply.

There are certainly louder, flashier, bigger spy flicks. If you’re dying for Bond, you’ll get your fix in November with Spectre. But for a classy, sassy bit of cool, Kennedy-era espionage hijinks, this new, revived Man From U.N.C.L.E. certainly delivers plenty of fresh, fun spy kicks—and hints at more to come.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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