While tussling with the flu (see You Give Me Fever a few blogs back), I had time for some views and reads. Pocket reviews of four of them follow.
No Escape (2015)
Filmed in Thailand but set in an unnamed Southeast Asian country that borders Vietnam (which narrows the choice to two if we are to accept – as we shouldn’t – real-world geography), No Escape is an adventure/suspense/thriller that is competently, produced, directed, and acted. Nonetheless, it causes unintentional discomfort for reasons to which I’ll return shortly.
The business run by Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson) in Austin, Texas, failed. Out of financial necessity he accepts a job from a multinational corporation that is building a waterworks in a third world (“fourth world” he says at one point) autocracy. We first meet Jack, his wife Annie (Lake Bell), and their two young daughters aboard an airliner en route to his new job. Also on the plane is Hammond (Pierce Brosnan) who represents himself as a grizzled voluptuary seeking only the country’s low-life pleasures, though we later learn he is some kind of British intelligence agent. They all arrive and settle into their hotel just in time for the country’s autocrat to be assassinated and for a violent popular uprising; the revolutionaries ruthlessly and murderously target all foreigners along with anyone associated with the old regime. The rest of the movie is filled by narrow escapes, desperate chases, and violent acts of self-defense as the Dwyers try to survive and get over the border with a bit of timely help from Hammond. Once again, so far as the action goes, the film is competently done.
The problem arises in the script’s bizarre attempt to be PC all the while that the film itself is anything but. Uprisings against autocrats don’t really need an explanation. Hammond, however, conflates private foreign investment with old-fashioned jack-booted imperialism in his explanation of how the murder of foreigners was simply self-defense by the locals. While this view long has been fashionable in some circles, that doesn’t make it any less silly whether we are talking about Chinese investors buying hotel chains in the US or Westerners building waterworks projects in an unnamed third world country. Sovereign governments, not private investors, have a legal monopoly of force; investors (even evil multinational corporations) and their investments exist at governments’ sufferance, not the other way around. However, the politics of the movie don’t really matter; they rarely by themselves are enough to harm a film and they don’t harm this one. What does harm it is that – despite their insertion of self-deprecatingly anti-Western dialogue – the filmmakers apparently failed to realize just how single-mindedly Western was their own perspective and just how offensive were their racial potrayals. It’s all about the Dwyers, their culture shock, and their struggle to escape. The local Asians in the film have no character development and have no other role than to kill each other or (more often) to try to kill the Dwyers. The irony is palpable.
Thumbs Down: rousing, but disturbing in a bad way
Ricki and the Flash (2015)
It’s hard not to be impressed by Meryl Streep as an actress. It’s not so hard to find the bulk of her movies unappealing – or so I’ve found them. Don’t misunderstand: most of her films are critically well-received (a few ecstatically so) and, if tasked with pointing a thumb for them, I’d have to join the mainstream critics and turn mine up, too. Yet, I’d have to add that I’m not really the right audience for them. Whether in drama, comedy, or even science fiction (The Giver), Ms. Streep almost unfailing chooses to act in films that, however objectively praiseworthy, for one reason or another (often just a matter of tone) just aren’t enjoyable for me personally. Call it an idiosyncrasy.
So, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter an exception. The key difference was the script written by Diablo Cody, who has a special talent for capturing the look and voices of the off-beat characters who populate this strange country of ours. Meryl plays Ricki, lead singer for an aging barroom rock band. Though its forte is classic and country rock, in order to appeal to the bar’s younger customers the band (somewhat awkwardly) mixes in contemporary numbers by the likes of Pink and Lady Gaga. I don’t know for certain on whom Streep (and Cody) patterned the character, but I think a fair guess would be Lucinda Williams. The look and sound of Ricki and Lucinda are very close, and a Lucinda lyric plays in the background at one point and later plays a small role in the plot.
Ricki lives on the edge financially. Her romantic relationship with her guitarist/boyfriend is strained because her own insecurities. We learn that, decades earlier, Ricki had left her family in Indianapolis to pursue her dreams of rock’n’roll. Although she never became a star she never gave up. Yet, she does make a living (barely) in rock music, which in its own way is still dream-worthy. A family crisis occurs when her ex calls to tell her that Ricki’s daughter attempted suicide after a bad breakup. Ricki flies to Indianapolis. She discovers that her ex has become very well-to-do in her absence. While in Indiana she interacts with her kids, her ex-husband, and his very accomplished current wife who did most of the work of raising Ricki’s kids. Ricki is forced to face her past and, incidentally, her present and future.
Ultimately, the film doesn’t really make moral judgments about the choices made by the characters – nor did Diablo Cody’s Young Adult, one may note. It does let us understand them even as it notes the consequences. We might even conclude (I did, anyway) that, for herself if not for her family, Ricki made the right choice.
Thumbs Up: Sentimental in a good way with low-key dark humor
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
It seems that whenever Hollywood is at a loss for ideas (even stale ones) someone proposes making a movie based on a 60s TV show: Get Smart, The Addams Family, The Beverly Hillbillies, Lost in Space, Bewitched, et al. I suppose the studios’ hope is that Boomers will buy tickets out of nostalgia while young folks will find the material fresh. (There is probably something to this: a Millennial friend of mine not only was unaware that Get Smart had been a TV show [1965-70] but was baffled by the cameos in the movie 21 Jump Street because she was unaware that it too had been a TV show [1987-1991].) The latest reboot to be out on DVD is The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The TV series ran 1964-68. The movie is set a year earlier in 1963, and so constitutes an origin story for U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement).
At the height of the Cold War former thief and current American spy Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) clashes with KGB agent Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) while on a mission in East Germany. Soon afterward the two are forced to team up as frenemies to help a supposed auto mechanic named Gaby (Alicia Vikander) find her father. He is a scientist who has been coerced into helping a bunch of rich neo-Nazi criminals build a nuclear bomb, something not in the interest of either the West or the Soviet Bloc. There is more to Gaby than meets the eye, and under the guidance of Waverly (Hugh Grant) U.N.C.L.E. is founded.
A serious and largely successful effort was made by the director Guy Ritchie to recreate 1963 in sight and sound. The action sequences are well choreographed and there is the sort of dry humor one expects in ‘60s spy movies. Yet, there is something missing. It’s not enough to derail the movie completely, but it’s enough to make one say “that could have been better” at the end of it. Perhaps the problem is precisely that it is an origin story: it clearly is intended to have a sequel, whether or not it in fact gets one. Constructing the framework for sequels often disrupts the flow of a first installment.
Thumbs very modestly up: good action, adequate character development, tired plot
Heroes and Villains (1969) by Angela Carter
Another post-apocalyptic tale? Yes, but don’t let that put you off. There is room for this one amid all the others. Heroes and Villains was Angela Carter’s fourth novel and her gratifying facility with the English language is fully realized in it.
The novel is set in a distant future when global civilization is a distant memory. The surviving human race – at least in the unnamed region in which the action occurs – is split among Professors, Barbarians, and Out People. The Professors live in isolated fortified settlements and try to preserve humanity’s cultural and scientific heritage. Barbarians move with the seasons and raid Professorial settlements for fun and profit. The Out People are diseased, deformed, and dangerous – presumably damaged by whatever catastrophe overcame mankind.
Marianne is a Professor’s daughter who is both attracted to and appalled by the Barbarian raiders. She leaves her settlement and seeks them out. The results are not at all what she anticipates. The Barbarians are at one and the same time more civilized and more savage than she expected. She is feted, fettered, and brutalized; she is forced to marry a Barbarian who once had killed her brother. Marianne finds that the difference between heroes and villains is often a matter of perspective. She also comes to understand that Barbarians and Professors lack what the other has. Without reason, spirit, and creativity together, the future belongs to the Out People whose devolution points back to the beasts.
Thumbs up: well-written, thoughtful, and intriguing