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Posts Tagged ‘Lake Bell’

I know they say that youth is wasted on the young, but you know what? Sometimes, old age is wasted on the elderly. There was I with a free afternoon, so I decided to go and see a movie (just for a change). Not wanting to see SPECTRE or HG3B again, I took the plunge and went along to the Thursday afternoon Silver Screen promotion, hoping under-60s were allowed in unaccompanied. And what did I find? Only that the bloomin’ ticket was only £3, and included as many free biscuits as I cared to stuff in my mouth (having just had a traditional Chinese beefburger I partook only moderately).

£3 a ticket for a relatively new movie? Friends, I haven’t seen the like in twenty years. And yet, in the theatre itself, only four of us settled down to enjoy the movie itself – your correspondent, a slightly doddery old gent and two foreign students. See what I mean? Some of these old folk don’t know a good thing when they’re onto it.

Then again, maybe that week’s choice of movie had something to do with it – said picture was John Erick Dowdle’s No Escape (NB: title may not be literally true), a suspense-filled excursion into family jeopardy, bloody slaughter, and occasionally iffy acting. It opens with one of my least favourite narrative devices – a brief sequence of something shocking and arresting happening, followed by a caption saying ‘X Hours Earlier’. This seems to me to denote a film primarily aimed at a TV or in-flight audience.

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Well, anyway. The… prologue? Recap? Let’s call it a precap… the precap introduces us a to a country which strongly resembles but is definitely not Thailand, where the Prime Minister is entertaining an important foreigner and important doings are afoot. ‘Here’s to your new waterworks!’ cries the foreigner, thus indicating to the audience that either modern utilities are being put in, or the Prime Minister has just had some sort of surgical procedure. We do not learn which at this point, for on returning from seeing his visitor off, the PM’s aide finds his boss has been shot by sinister, heavily armed attackers. The aide takes no chances and has a good go at cutting his own head off in order to escape them.

From this charming scene we join the Dwyer family, nice Americans from Texas with nice kids and a nice plan to relocate to not-Thailand following some economic troubles. Dad Jack (Owen Wilson) is nice, mum Annie (Lake Bell) is nice, and I suppose the kids are nice too if you like that kind of thing. They are presented as so nice that you are instantly aware horrible things are going to happen to them.

The first of these is not meeting Pierce Brosnan, though he is on the same flight to not-Thailand as them. Brosnan is playing Hammond, a slightly suspect and boozy expat, but you know he will turn out to be more significant than he appears (mainly because he’s being played by Pierce Brosnan). To begin with, all he does is be amusing and boozy, and even gets a scene where he sings karaoke in a hotel bar. As any fule kno, Pierce Brosnan singing is not something to be missed, although on this occasion the great man restrains his vocal stylings so the movie doesn’t peak too soon.

Email and TV in the family hotel are not working, and so the next day Jack pops out into not-downtown Bangkok to buy a paper, only to encounter what’s basically a full-scale native uprising coming the other way (we are informed they don’t like the late Prime Minister’s new waterworks). With hordes of vicious rebels on the warpath, he beats a hasty retreat back to the hotel, only to find it offers little sanctuary from the heavily armed belligerents outside. Can he get his family to safety before their niceness quotient drops to an unacceptably low level?

The first thing I must say about No Escape is that, for what’s very much a low-budget movie by modern standards (only about $5m), it does a very good job of not looking like a low-budget movie. (No doubt filming much of it in Bangkok helped the money go a bit further.) The next is that, in many ways, this is an undeniably effective movie, if what you’re looking for is a fairly gruelling piece of survival-horror with a slightly dubious ‘realistic’ premise: the Dwyers’ initial disbelief and growing panic as the situation rapidly deteriorates are well put across, and to begin with at least, the film exerts a solid grip.

Long before the end, though, everything has gone a little bit cartoony, as it’s become clear that the family are simply going to stumble from one potentially-disastrous situation to another, with occasional lulls for slightly mawkish family-based interactions. And with this realisation I found myself wondering exactly what this film was about – is it making some genuine political point about the modern world? Or is it just a scaremongering piece of schlock about what happens to nice American families in horrid foreign countries? (It’s entirely understandable that this film has been banned in some parts of south-east Asia.)

I’m really not sure. It may in fact be both. Certainly the images of masked, club- and machete-wielding fighters swarming through offices and hotels intent on slaughtering any westerner they can find taps very effectively into all manner of contemporary fears, but I’m not sure depicting insurgents as the equivalent of the undead from World War Z makes a helpful contribution to the debate on modern world problems. Even here, the movie backs off from the obvious rationale, by not making its murderous antagonists radical Wahabists or whatever we’re calling them at the moment, but instead locals who are grumpy about the waterworks and the globalisation they represent. I’m not sure they’re fooling anyone with that.

This little nugget of plot gold comes courtesy of Pierce Brosnan’s character, who turns out to be an operative for (wait for it) ‘the British CIA’, according to Wilson’s character. Perhaps due to his noted past association with a different, rather better known spy character, Brosnan takes Hammond off in a very odd direction – this is one of those performances where it’s quite hard to tell what accent Brosnan is trying to so. Is he meant to be Cockney? Australian? It’s honestly a bit hard to tell. Hammond is much rougher around the edges than you-know-who, but Brosnan’s star power remains undiminished and the whole film honestly perks up a bit and becomes rather more fun whenever he’s on the screen – but again, you have to ask yourself, is unadulterated popcorn fun really appropriate for a film so uncomfortably near the knuckle in its depiction of terrorist violence?

Mind you, it’s not as though a lot of the rest of it isn’t in slightly dodgy territory too, for there’s a good deal of Hollywood nonsense before everything is resolved – a sequence in which Wilson and Bell earnestly hurl their children from rooftop to rooftop in slow-motion is particularly absurd. For all that the film is effective in summoning up a few primal fears, it never succeeds in incorporating these into a plausible or satisfying narrative.

I don’t think anyone will ever be in serious danger of mistaking No Escape for anything close to a great movie, although I should say that Lake Bell’s performance has very little wrong with it at all. That’s pretty much the only element of the film I can praise without qualification – as a suspense thriller, or an odd ‘realistic’ horror film, it works well enough, but it doesn’t really have the guts or intelligence to engage with the issues it raises on any but the most simplistic and sentimental level. It’s a decent piece of entertainment, but I doubt it adds anything at all to the sum total of human wisdom and insight.

 

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Frequent visitors may have noticed that I routinely refer to romantic comedy films as belonging to ‘the world’s most predictable genre’, and I occasionally wonder if I’m not doing them a disservice there. Sure, the outcome is never in doubt, but the same is true of virtually every other genre: in fact, you could probably argue that the very notion of genre carries with it a certain degree of predictability.

It may be I’m just letting my own personal prejudices show. Still, I try to keep an open mind, so I went to see Ben Palmer’s new film Man Up, mainly on the strength of a good trailer and the presence of the usually-reliable Simon Pegg. Despite being top-billed in a film which has, shall we say, an androcentric idiom as its title, Pegg is not playing the lead here: that duty goes to Lake Bell. Why is a film about a woman called Man Up? Join me on a strange journey where not all words mean what you might expect them to.

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Bell plays Nancy, a thirtysomething whose disastrous relationship history has left her on the verge of giving up on romance entirely. However, a chance encounter on a train and a misplaced self-help book result in her accidentally purloining a total stranger’s blind date. He is Jack (Pegg), and the two of them hit it off so well that Nancy can’t quite bring herself to own up to the misunderstanding, even though she is technically supposed to be going to her parents’ wedding anniversary party.

Needless to say, all does not go to plan, and unfortunate encounters with obsessive old school friends and embittered ex-spouses lead to more than a few ups and downs in the course of their evening together. It transpires that neither Nancy nor Jack is quite whom they are presenting themselves to be, but should they let that get in the way of the connection they so obviously share?

That’s a rhetorical question, obviously. On paper Man Up does look very much like yet another crack at the same rom-com formula which British production companies have been diligently hammering out variations on for over twenty years now: an appealing, largely metropolitan setting, imported American female lead, supporting cast of well-known faces, many of them off TV (Rory Kinnear, Sharon Horgan, Ken Stott and Harriet Walter do most of the heavy lifting here), a climactic dash to deliver an impassioned emotional declaration, and so on.

This is by no means a perfect movie, but it has more about it than just a tick-list of required components. For one thing, Lake Bell may be American, but not least of her achievements in Man Up is the way she employs an immaculate English accent. I must confess I’d never heard of Bell before this movie, but she seems to be one of those annoyingly talented people who’s good at everything. We are, of course, required to believe that a stunning ex-model should have severe self-doubt and finding-a-boyfriend issues, but this is practically a genre trope, and Bell puts across Nancy’s vulnerability well. I expect Bell has the kind of looks which are routinely described as ‘striking’ or ‘strong’: quite what this is code for I’m not entirely sure, but she is an extremely beautiful woman by any rational standard.

Bell also manages to share the screen with Simon Pegg for most of the movie without finding herself being acted off it, which is also no mean feat. I would say Pegg is part of an honourable tradition of British performers who aren’t just great comedians, but great actors too: all of Pegg’s best roles address the emotional frailty and humanity of his characters, an element he plays absolutely straight, and Man Up continues this. One of the appealing things about the film is that both lead characters are pretty messed up, spending as much time squabbling as they do being, you know, actually romantic. Like all the best films of this kind, it doesn’t operate solely in terms of chocolate-box romance, but explores darker territory as well. As a result, it genuinely earns its climactic emotional pay-off between the two leads. I would say that Pegg hasn’t has such an effective foil since Jessica Stevenson in Spaced, but that might just make Nick Frost annoyed with me (not to mention Tom Cruise).

On the other hand, if Man Up is honestly a ‘romance’, that’s another word the meaning of which seems to have shifted a bit of late. Again, I expect the producers would describe it as ‘frank’ or ‘authentically contemporary’, but what this actually means is that various characters spend a slightly surprising amount of time discussing oral sex in a reasonably detailed way. I couldn’t help thinking back to Four Weddings and a Funeral, when Hugh Grant’s saturation F-bombing in the opening sequence felt genuinely shocking – it now feels like the product of a different and much more innocent world.

But hey ho. Such is the world in which we live. As well as the above, Man Up also has an undeniable ingenious and sharp script with some genuinely witty dialogue, and it manages to juggle all the required genre elements with sufficient skill that they at least feel relatively fresh. Parts of the plot do strain credulity a bit – Rory Kinnear’s character in particular has an absurd, cartoonish quality –  and there is at least one over-laboured sight gag, but I laughed a lot all the way through and found myself genuinely wanting the two leads to get together. That, if nothing else, is the sign of a successful film, in this genre at least.

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