REVIEW: “No Escape” (2015)

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No this isn’t Martin Campbell’s grungy 1994 sci-fi survival flick starring Ray Liotta. You remember, the one with the prison island and the two warring prisoner factions? Okay you probably don’t and it’s completely irrelevant anyway. This is the serious and stunningly intense “No Escape” starring (of all people) Owen Wilson and Lake Bell. I know, which idea sounds more outlandish, right?

Well actually this “No Escape” is quite the surprise – a tense and effective action thriller featuring two unexpectedly solid dramatic lead performances. It’s having to endure an almost fashionable smearing from some critics armed with absurd accusations of xenophobia and exploitation. But the movie is far from that. It doesn’t connect all of its dots and there are a couple of narrative hiccups, but to call this movie “xenophobic” is doing it a disservice.

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Wilson and Bell play Jack and Annie Dwyer, a loving and committed couple (somewhat of a rarity in modern movie depictions) and parents of two lovely young daughters. Jack’s new corporate position has him moving his family to Southeast Asia. The move comes with its share of concern especially from Annie. But Jack remains optimistic, feeling this is the best way to provide for his family. The first person they meet is a crusty and scar-faced Pierce Brosnan. He plays Hammonds, a lush of the fellow who we immediately suspect isn’t who he says he is.

Things quickly go south when a violent coup erupts in the city. A Khmer Rouge-like army of rebels begin tearing the intentionally unnamed city apart killing innocent citizens and targeting foreigners. Jack sets out on a frantic and desperate attempt to keep his family safe and get them out of the bloody and chaotic political pressure cooker.

The film is written and directed by brothers John Erick and Drew Dowdle. John Erick is known for dabbling in the horror genre and we get subtle reflections of that in “No Escape”. He spends a lot of time playing with tension and finding ways to move his audience to the edges of their seats. And that’s essentially what this movie is – a terrified family moving from one harrowing situation to another. This linear approach does leave you wanting at times especially when the film tries to cram so much contextual and moral meaning into brief conversations. But in terms of exciting escapist entertainment, the approach works nicely.

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Now to the controversy. Labeling the Dowdle’s movie as “xenophobic”, “morally repugnant”, “reprehensible”, or any of the other similar adjectives I’ve read doesn’t accurately represent this film. Neither the Dowdle’s vision nor their approach is that simplistic. In fact, the film’s greater message touches on spoiled and privileged Western perspectives as well as Western political intervention. You could easily argue that the handling of this messaging is clunky, but at the same time the messages are there and they are very clear.

To go a bit further, the filmmakers took their inspirations from an actual uprising and the movie attempts to maintain a sensitivity to that. This isn’t a film about international meanness towards wholesome, white, middle-class Americans. The murder and brutality is mostly carried out against the people of the city. It’s true, none of citizens are fleshed-out, personal characters, but that doesn’t automatically relegate them to window dressing either and it doesn’t automatically equal exploitation. Instead they serve to highlight the indiscriminate brutality of the uprising while also clearly distinguishing the innocent victims from the perpetrators.

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And I have to go back to Owen Wilson and Lake Bell, two solid performers who aren’t normally associated with this kind of emotionally and physically demanding material. They both give intensely committed performances and you never doubt their characters despite the situations they are in.  They each highlight a much greater range than I knew they possessed.

“No Escape” could have done a better job of giving context and defining the setting behind the violent turmoil that rages through most of the film. And it does spend more time showing Owen Wilson running than developing any character outside of the central family. But it sets its sights on being tightly focused thriller and it sticks to it. Thankfully it does what it does very well. It is a film loaded with thrilling moments and sequences sure to get your heart pounding and frazzle your nerves. “No Escape” makes it easy to overlook its shortcomings because you’ll be so fiercely absorbed in the next stressful encounter. That’s certainly how it was for me.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

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When Wes Anderson releases a movie it’s almost like an event for me. I’m such a fan of his work and I enjoy each visit I make to his unique and eccentric world. Finally his latest film “The Grand Budapest Hotel” made its way to my area. After a grueling wait the film finally cured my impatience but did it meet my ridiculously high expectations? I’ve come to expect so much from Anderson’s movies and my lofty expectations seem almost unfair. And perhaps those same expectations contributed to my somewhat cold and indifferent reaction to this film.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” features so many signature trademarks of other Wes Anderson films. We get the quirky period design, an assortment of offbeat characters, a host of stylistic visual flourishes, and a level of expected absurdity. All of those things are present here and they all work to the film’s advantage. These are some of the fingerprints I want to see all over a Wes Anderson movie. But there were other signatures that injects his movies with their own personality and vibrancy that I found missing in this film.

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The story is told in a fractured style but the vast majority of it takes place within a fictitious Eastern European country during 1932. We are introduced to Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel during its glory days of luxury and prominence. Gustave is meticulous in his running of the hotel and his love for extravagance is only outdone by his adoration for strong cologne and for his elderly clientele. The story becomes a murder mystery after one of his close acquaintances Madame D (Tilda Swinton) is found dead and Gustave becomes the key suspect. It also becomes a heist film and of course a comedy.

The film is also loaded with a massive number of side characters. Some are like Fiennes and new to Wes Anderson’s world while others are old faithful stalwarts who find their way into nearly every one of his movies. Toni Revolori plays a young lobby boy named Zero who becomes Gustave’s protĂ©gĂ© and faithful sidekick. Adrien Brody plays Dmitri, the son of the murdered Madame D. Willem Dafoe plays a grunting snaggletoothed hitman. I could go on and on listing small characters who service the story (some better than others). They are all sprinkled onto stylistic canvases that include an alpine village, a prison, and of course The Grand Budapest itself. There is truly an artistry to the entire visual presentation and all of that worked for me.

But what was it about the film that at first held me at arm’s length? Why didn’t I have the same wonderful experience as I usually have with Wes Anderson pictures during a first viewing? First off I just didn’t find it as funny as I had hoped. Certainly there were moments where I laughed but as a whole the dry humor wasn’t that effective. Even the crowd I watched with had their giggles held to a minimum. This film was also coarse and crasser than most of Anderson’s other pictures. Much of it is played for laughs but I found it to be distracting and it felt as though Anderson, normally known for his creative freedom, was really stretching.

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Another missing component for me was the deeper emotional thread that every Anderson film has had. For example in “The Royal Tenenbaums” you have the destructive results that a father’s behavior has had on his family. In “The Darjeeling Limited” you have three separated brothers each carrying the baggage of their father’s death. “Moonrise Kingdom” features two kids with no stable adult presence in their lives. They find their refuge by running away together. The same thing applies to “Rushmore” and “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”. Anderson has always had a knack for presenting a deeper and more piercing subject and effectively surrounding it with humor. Every sense of that is vague and almost absent from this entire film. He does tinker with a few themes via the impending war that lingers in the background, the desires for the nostalgic “better days”, etc. But none of these stood out to me at all.

This is the first screenplay that Anderson has written by himself. Does that play into the things I found lacking? I don’t know, perhaps. Anderson is also often accused of going overboard with his eccentric style. I’ve never found any merit to that accusation but this is the first film where there just might be. Could that be linked to Anderson’s solo screenplay? Again, I don’t know. What I do know is that there were parts of this film that really worked and after a second viewing I definitely began to appreciate the film more. At first “The Grand Budapest Hotel” didn’t fully work for me. It definitely comes more into focus the more times you see it.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Royal Tenenbaums”

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Filmmaker Wes Anderson has always loved making movies that deal with family, family dynamics, and family struggles. They often focus on flawed relationships between brothers, children and their parents, or in the case of the 2001 film “The Royal Tenenbaums” an entire family. This was Anderson’s third movie and the first to incorporate one of his big and unique ensemble casts. It’s also the first film of his to fully utilize his peculiar comedic and visual style. You’ll notice it from the opening frame all the way to the end credits.

The story is about the Tenenbaum family. Royal (Gene Hackman) and Etheline (Anjelica Huston) Tenenbaum had three children who were geniuses at a young age. Chas was a business and financial wizard even before high school. Margot was their adopted daughter who was also a young playwright. Richie was a child tennis prodigy and aspiring artist. Eccentricities aside, the three Tenenbaum children had excelled beyond measure in their particular passions. But all of their promise of future success was dashed upon hearing the news that Royal and Etheline were separating.

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The film then bolts ahead several years. The kids have all faced their share of disappointment and heartache. Chas (Ben Stiller) lost his wife in a plane crash and is now obsessed with the safety of his two young sons. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is unhappily married to a neurologist and author (Bill Murray) and she spends six hours a day locked in the bathroom. Richie (Luke Wilson) shocked the world by retiring from tennis at the age of 26 after a meltdown during an important match. Etheline is a successful archaeologist who is being courted by her accountant Henry (Danny Glover). Royal on the other hand hasn’t spoken with this family in several years. He’s lost his law practice and has just been thrown out of the hotel he has lived in for years. To top it off he has found out that he is dying and he decides that it’s time to make amends with his family.

A variety of circumstances brings the Tenenbaum family back together under one roof. All sorts of complicated and strained family dynamics surface. None of the family is happy to see Royal other than Richie who was always the object of his father’s favoritism. Chas hates his father. Margot and Richie have a tension that also involves childhood friend Eli (Owen Wilson). Etheline and Royal have friction particularly over Henry. I could go on and on but you get the point. This is a highly dysfunctional family that was damaged when Royal first left and is now in chaos since he has returned.

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On the surface nothing about what I have described sounds funny does it? But remember, this is a Wes Anderson film. Sprinkled in between the various disagreements and peculiarities are the signature bits of dry and often absurd humor that he brings to his pictures. It’s often times seen in a bit of dialogue or some quirky visual flair. Sometimes Anderson slips his humor into the backdrop or in a particular prop or detail. Little quirks like the matching bushy hair and Adidas jumpsuits that Chas and his sons wear. The reappearing beat up cabs from Gypsy Taxi. Every small line from family friend and servant Pagoda (Kumar Pallana). There are so many bits of Anderson flavor and you’ll probably find something new with each viewing.

But as usual, Anderson mixes his humor with a darker side of the story. Royal is truly a despicable man and father. You can’t help but laugh at some of his antics. On the flipside, his character and the consequences of his actions are much darker realities. The film touches on several other gloomier themes such as depression, alienation, suicide, and drug abuse. And then of course there is the aforementioned examination of family. The film takes a look at numerous facets of family life and difficulties which I believe gives the story more weight. As funny as “The Royal Tenenbaums” is, there are layers upon layers of thematic inflections.

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And a brief word about the performances. Gene Hackman is fantastic which shouldn’t come as a surprise. He dives right into the role, hamming it up and pulling it back when required. He was a bit reluctant to take the role at first but he is a perfect fit. Everyone else also falls perfectly onto Wes Anderson’s canvas. Whether it’s his reliable favorites such as Murray and the Wilsons, or others such as Paltrow, Glover and Stiller, the characters are a key component to the film and the casting of each role is spot on. Even Alec Baldwin pops up as the unseen narrator.

As you can expect there is an overload of visual style in this picture. If you aren’t keen on Anderson’s odd period style setting and unique camera quirks then you may have a hard time embracing this film. Personally I love the looks of his work. “The Royal Tenenbaums” is a little slow out of the gate but it doesn’t take long before it hits its stride. Things do tidy up a tad too much at the end, but the final scene is priceless and it leaves the movie on just the right note. I couldn’t help but laugh and think to myself that Wes Anderson had done it again.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Darjeeling Limited”

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I’m a huge Wes Anderson fan so whenever he makes a film I take notice. But oddly enough his 2007 comedy/drama “The Darjeeling Limited” is one I still needed to see. In true Anderson style “The Darjeeling Limited” has a quirky sense of humor and it dabbles in several of the filmmaker’s familiar themes. It also features some of Anderson’s acting staples including his old college buddy Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody, and Bill Murray. And while some people consider this some of Anderson’s lesser work, I think it’s a movie that captures what I like about his films while carving out its own unique path.

In this offbeat concoction the opening scene is important. In India a businessman (Murray) tries unsuccessfully to catch his train as it departs the station. While he fails another man, encumbered by heavy luggage, just manages to board the train as it heads down the tracks. This short sequence is a microcosm of the entire film. It’s strange, funny, well shot, and filled with meaning.

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The man who made the train is Peter (Brody). He is onboard the Darjeeling Limited passenger train to meet his two brothers, the controlling and downright anal Francis (Wilson) and the brokenhearted and obsessive Jack (Schwartzman). The three haven’t seen each other since their father’s funeral and Francis sets up the reunion in hopes of bringing them closer together. The train trip across India is framed as being a spiritual awakening of sorts but Francis may have something else as his motivation.

The movie pulls many laughs from these odd personalities, but that shouldn’t come as any surprise. Wes Anderson’s wacky cinematic worlds routinely feature idiosyncratic people with an assortment of troubles and in various states of despair and melancholy. His humor can be a bit prickly. By that I mean it isn’t easy for some viewers to cozy up to. Personally I love his unique brand and we get plenty of it in this film. But there is also a strong dramatic thread that runs throughout the film and really shows itself in the last act. This mix of well executed comedy and heartfelt, meaningful drama is what drives the picture.

Considering the amounts of dry kooky humor, it may surprise some people to find this much heart. But Anderson has always had a knack for that. He’s always dealing with family troubles as well as feelings of isolation and despondency. We certainly get that in this film. There is symbolism scattered throughout the film that deals on more emotional levels once they are realized. For example, take the aforementioned luggage. Anderson takes something simple like luggage, weaves it throughout the narrative, and uses it to make one of the movie’s more effective points. These treats are clever and satisfying.

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I also must give credit to Wilson, Brody, and Shwartzman. These guys work so well within Anderson’s narrative style which probably explains why he keeps going back to them. The three offer great subtlety in their humor and watching them play off each other is a lot of fun. But they also dial it back when the story calls for it which is vital. Theres some good supporting work from Amara Karan as a train stewardess, Wallace Wolodarsky as Francis’ “assistant, and Waris Ahluwalia as the Darjeeling’s chief steward. Bill Murray has a brief but fun role and Anjelica Huston has a small yet important appearance. There are also some nice cameos from Natalie Portman (remember Hotel Chevalier?) and Irrfan Khan.

“The Darjeeling Limited” is soaked with Wes Anderson’s style. Whether it’s the humor and storytelling or his visual methods which include panning cameras, use of colors, or his particular use of music. There are a few lulls that the film experiences particularly in the second half. They never last long but they are noticeable and maybe they do keep this from being some of Anderson’s best work. Regardless I’m still a big fan of this film. I laughed a lot and I really responded to the emotional tugs we get later on. In the end it’s yet another example of why I love Wes Anderson movies.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Midnight in Paris”

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Without a doubt the romantic comedy is one of the weaker movie genres and has been for years. But sometimes we get a special gem that reminds us of just how fun these types of movies can be. “Midnight in Paris”, written and directed by Woody Allen, is a crash course in the art of making a romantic comedy. It is loaded with heart and feeling and doesn’t trudge down the same path as so many failed films of this genre. It’s a movie that captures the magic of it’s location and the inner workings of it’s characters. It’s clever and unique while maintaining a true romantic feel and sense of humor.

“Midnight in Paris” opens with a picturesque three-minute montage focusing on the beauty of Paris, France. It gracefully moves from one exquisitely framed shot to another, showing us historical landmarks, museums, cafes, and more all set to the lovely “Si Tu Vois Ma Mere”. It elegantly sets up the city of Paris as not only a central character in the film, but an enchanting and magical force whose influence is seen throughout the picture. In many ways Woody Allen is celebrating Paris. He wants us to love the city and appreciate the mystique of it’s rich history just as much as his main character does. Allen’s desire works. I was instantly grabbed and found myself totally lost in what I was seeing on the screen.

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While Paris is at the heart of the story, the main character is Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), a hack Hollywood screenwriter who is visiting the city with his fiancée and her parents. Gil loves everything about Paris and to this day regrets his decision not to move there when he had a chance several years ago. He feels he was meant for more than writing screenplays but he struggles with confidence. He doesn’t feel comfortable in today’s world and believes he would be a better fit in the 1920s. His fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) is a spoiled momma’s girl who spends more time insulting Gil than supporting him. There is clearly a disconnect between the two. He loves Paris and she doesn’t. He’s working on a novel that he thinks will change his career and she thinks he’s wasting his time. He enjoys the small details in life while she would rather milk it for it’s benefits.

While in Paris they run into Paul (Michael Sheen), Inez’s old friend and self-proclaimed expert on everything from art to French culture to fine wines. Inez seems infatuated with Paul’s knowledge regardless of how many facts he gets wrong in his efforts to impress everyone. Needing to get away, Gil takes off on a late night walk. After getting lost, he is picked up by a group of partiers in an old classic car who magically transport him back to 1920s Paris. Here he meets many of his literary and artistic heroes such as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso, and Stein. He also meets the lovely Adriana (played wonderfully by Marion Cotillard) who he grows more attracted to with each midnight visit.

The fantasy turn of Allen’s story did feel a bit out of the blue at first but it didn’t take long before I was enthralled with what I was seeing. Gil’s golden age is recreated flawlessly from the music and atmosphere to the careful attention to detail. I loved seeing these authors, painters, composers, and filmmakers of old fleshed out through some fantastic performances. Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill are absolutely brilliant as F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. I also loved Marcial Di Fonzo Bo as Picasso and Adrien Brody as Dali, both in smaller but fun roles. And then there’s Corey Stoll as Hemingway who steals many of the scenes he’s in. The supporting cast is such a wonderful ingredient to the film’s charm.

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But in terms of acting it’s Owen Wilson that really blew me away. In many ways he plays a character that really fits him. We’ve seen elements of this performance in other roles of his but here everything is perfectly measured and controlled. Even though Woody Allen has stated he gave Wilson a lot of room to work, it’s clear that Allen has a solid influence on his performance. I’ve been really lukewarm concerning most of Wilson’s past work but he really, really impressed me here. He dials it back a bit and never allows his performance to drown out the material.

“Midnight in Paris” does call for the audience to just buy into it’s fantasy angle and if you struggle with that you may struggle with this picture. It also turns out to be fairly predictable in places. But these small gripes do nothing to kill the magic of this picture for me. This is certainly a love letter to Paris, but it’s also a lesson on living in the present. Allen reminds us that the golden age so many long for isn’t that different from where we are now. It’s a beautiful film both visually and structurally and it moves along at an almost poetic pace. Better yet, “Midnight in Paris” is a film that gives us hope for a struggling genre. I love this movie.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5 STARSs

5STAR K&M

“RUSHMORE” – 4.5 STARS

Whenever you’re watching a Wes Anderson movie, there’s no denying that you’re watching a Wes Anderson movie. The writer and director has made a number of films that feature profound uniqueness that set them apart. His quirky humor is unique in itself but Anderson is also known for his own visual style and presentation, his clever use of music, and familiar reoccurring themes that you can’t help but notice. In 1998, Anderson released “Rushmore”, his second feature film and one of his many collaborations with old friend and co-writer Owen Wilson. “Rushmore” is a perfect introduction to Anderson and his special brand of humor. And while the movie – just like all of Anderson’s pictures – won’t appeal to everyone, I found it to be an infectious comedy from start to finish.

“Rushmore” was the film that launched Wes Anderson’s career. He and Wilson began working on the story a few years prior to the release of his first film “Bottle Rocket”. The two took memories and experiences from their childhoods to form the foundation of this truly hilarious story which also flirts with some darker underlying themes. The movie also launched the career of Jason Schwartzman who plays Max Fischer, an eccentric and egocentric 15 year-old student at Rushmore Academy. Max is a underachiever in the classroom but is by far the most extracurricular student in the school. He’s the leader of school groups ranging from the French Club and the Debate Team to the Calligraphy Club, the Rushmore Beekeepers, and a goofy dodgeball club called Bombardment Society. It turns out Rushmore is his life but he finds himself in jeopardy of expulsion due to his horrible grades.

Max develops an unusual friendship with a wealthy but disenchanted business man named Herman Blume played by Bill Murray. Murray is fantastic and he delivers some of the story’s more straightforward laughs but he also adds lots of humor through his straight-faced, deadpan performance. Blume is a miserable fellow not at all happy with his life. But despite his troubles, particularly with his whacked out kids, he’s drawn to Max, so much so that he offers him a job and funds some of Max’s outlandish school “projects”.

But Max and Herman’s friendship takes a hit when they both end up falling in love with the same woman, Ms. Cross (Olivia Williams), a 1st grade teacher at Rushmore. Ms. Cross becomes aware of Max’s infatuation with her and tries to head it off. But Max is impervious to the truth that she is too old for him. It’s here that the movie is really intriguing. Their “relationship” leads to some really funny moments in the picture. But on the flip side, it’s here that we do get hints of a darker more troubling component to the story. There were several scenes where the internal struggle within Max felt real and in turn made him into a really sympathetic character. But Anderson would then draw out a good laugh from the most unexpected place. So it’s safe to say that “Rushmore” had the uncanny ability to make me laugh out loud in one scene and then feel uncomfortable in the very next one. In other words, there’s much more going on underneath the surface.

Anderson also employs several visual gimmicks that I’ve noticed in the handful of his other films that I’ve seen. Some people don’t really respond to his approach but I thoroughly enjoy it. He never frames an ugly shot and while some of “Rushmore” quick snippets may seem jarring to some, I think they brand the film with a quirkiness that I love. Helping out “Rushmore’s” presentation is the interesting choices of music including a selection of 60’s pop songs that feel surprisingly at home even though there doesn’t seem to be a single connection to the story. But again (at the risk of sounding like a broken record), this is typical for a Wes Anderson picture.

True comedy is subjective and that is never more obvious than with “Rushmore”. Many people wrestle with Anderson’s unique sense of humor and visual flair. But I found myself laughing all through this movie and the style of storytelling really helped the quirky humor. The cast is superb and it’s easy to see why Schwartzman took off from here and why this helped rejuvenate Bill Murray’s career. “Rushmore” is a genuinely funny movie laced with some darker undertones that will cause you to laugh and squirm during the same scene. Considering the majority of modern comedies, that’s something I can really appreciate.