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Posts Tagged ‘Owen Wilson’

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.

no-escape

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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Have you ever had that experience when someone or something gives you such a moment of concentrated rapture that it puts you in their power forever after? It doesn’t matter how frustratingly non-rapturous subsequent encounters with said subject is, you are always inclined to cut them some slack simply because, well, you can’t escape that one moment when everything was utterly, obliteratingly perfect.

I’m really starting to feel that way about Paul Thomas Anderson. My big shiny moment with this guy came fifteen years ago, with the release of the extraordinary Magnolia, a film which instantly rocketed onto my list of all-time favourites. (Truth be told, I don’t think I’ve watched it in over a decade: perhaps I’ve just been afraid to discover time has not been kind to it.) That film was enough to make me turn up to practically every Anderson movie since – Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master, I’ve been there for all of them, and found myself having to contend with my own bemusement: for all of these films are clearly the work of a master, but a master who seems to be deliberately underperforming.

Nevertheless, I’ll keep coming as long as he keeps filming, because none of these films have actually been anything less than striking and memorable. So it was that I turned up to his latest offering, Inherent Vice, an adaptation of a novel by reclusive American novelist Thomas Pynchon.

inherent vice

Set in Los Angeles in 1970, the story is that of hippy private detective Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (nicknamed thus presumably because he meets clients in the back of a doctor’s surgery), who is played by Joaquin Phoenix. The film opens with him taking on a number of apparently disparate cases: his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) believes her new beau may be in danger of kidnap by his own wife and her lover, a Black Panther hires him to track down a Nazi skinhead who owes him money, and a young widow (Jena Malone) wants him to help confirm her belief that her husband (Owen Wilson) may not be as dead as has been widely advertised. Despite being medicated to the point of semi-consciousness much of the time, Doc sets to work, and discovers strange connections between all three enquiries: namely, a secretive organisation known as the Golden Fang. Between the perils of the cases and the hostility of the local detective (Josh Brolin), will Doc be able to uncover the truth?

Well, normally spoilers would dictate me giving away the ending, but in this case I’m not entirely sure what the ending is. You know how most people don’t remember anything about their lives prior to the age of four or five? I’ve always thought this is because when you’re really young, you’re not aware of what anything around you actually means, so you can’t store it in your memory – in the same way it’s much easier to remember a sentence in English than one in a language which is completely alien to you. Well, in the same way, sort of, my memory of much of the latter stages of Inherent Vice is deeply confuzzled, because past a certain point I had absolutely no clue what was going on. The basic connections of the plot just weren’t there, and I was left with a sequence of scenes in which various characters appeared and had conversations which I almost understood, but which had only tenuous links with the scenes preceding and following them.

A wise friend observed to me that this narrative incoherence is all part of Anderson’s intention for the film, which is to recreate the experience of being deeply stoned without the actual need for pharmaceutical ingestion. I’m not so sure, but it is true that Inherent Vice remains a crazy, distinctive trip. Anderson has assembled his usual excellent cast, including people like Benicio del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short, and (cameoing) an on-form Eric Roberts, and it’s never actually boring to watch. Phoenix gives another charismatic, hugely likeable performance as Doc, and it’s just a shame that the actual narrative doesn’t live up to those of some other films in the LA private detective genre.

I’m thinking of things like Chinatown and even The Rockford Files (which features an equally amiable anti-hero), but the stoner-on-a-mission plot most recalls The Big Lebowski. This type of story has a noble history, going all the way back to Raymond Chandler, of using the detective genre to say things about the nature of wider society. Much of Inherent Vice is so bizarre and disjointed that it’s hard to tell if it’s attempting to make such a comment: but I suspect the title may be significant. It refers to the extent to which many things are fragile and perishable by their very nature: nearly everything turns to rubbish in the end. It’s a downbeat message for a film which is about characters who mainly seem to be trying to live in the moment. I suppose a further theme is that Doc and his stoner friends, who are despised by ‘respectable’ society, actually have more decency and integrity than the police, businessmen, dentists, and so on. But I am hesitant to claim too many insights, for obvious reasons.

It’s never actually dull to watch, and Anderson displays his usual technical mastery: here he shows a great fondness for the occasional very long take, usually in a two-handed scene. The film is full of wit and incident, and in its early stages is frequently very funny, though it darkens considerably as it goes on, and the ending, to the extent that I understood it at all, seemed rather ambiguous.

Inherent Vice has had some glowing reviews from respectable critics, which means one of three things: a) the press pack contains a detailed synopsis allowing them to follow the plot while watching the film, b) their refined sensibilities allow them to enjoy the cinematography, direction, and so on, without having to worry too much about the story making sense, or c) proper critics are just really, really clever. My money’s on b), to be honest. In any case, I’m reluctant to dismiss this movie out of hand: it has that aura of class about it, for all that the actual narrative is maddeningly obscure, to the point of virtually seeming incoherent. But then again, I’m inherently biased where Paul Thomas Anderson is concerned.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 18th March 2004:

Old-fashioned hi-jinks of a distinctly different tenor are on offer in Todd Phillips’ Starsky & Hutch, based – as if it needed to be said – on the seventies TV show of the same name. I am only just barely old enough to dimly recall the series on its original UK transmission, but it seemed to re-run constantly in the eighties – and in case, surely everyone has the bare essentials branded into their brains by now: WASPish cop, Polish cop, more-than-a-bit-racist informant, the most iconic car in television history, a relationship with undertones that inspired a thousand slash fanfics, running around, groovy theme music…

The new movie is sort of grimly impressive in the way it takes all the recognisable elements of the Starsky & Hutch TV show and then relentlessly guts them in order to provide a generic vehicle for two popular contemporary comedians. Ben Stiller is Starsky! Owen Wilson is Hutch! And Awix is getting a bit sick of all these sneeringly ironic remakes of classic TV shows…

That’s not to say that Starsky & Hutch isn’t an amusing and well-made film on its own terms. Set in 1975 California, the plot sees the neurotic Starsky and the more-than-slightly-corrupt Hutch teamed up and put on the trail of millionaire drug dealer Reese Feldman (Vince Vaughn in an impressively tacky perm and ‘tache). Snoop Dogg plays Huggy Bear, not especially well. What follows is basically a series of comedy sketches poking fun at various police-procedural cliches and seventies fads. Some of these work better than others – in particular, an Easy Rider parody made me chuckle rather a lot, as did a couple of gags at the expense of famous bits from the TV show’s title sequence.

But these moments are pretty much all the movie has to do with the TV show. There’s no attempt to recreate the characters from the series, the two leads basically recycle their established comic personae – Stiller is twitchy and a bit straight-laced, but at least he at times bears a striking resemblence to Paul Michael Glaser. This is more than can be said for Wilson, who, as ever, resembles a boy-band version of Jimmy Stewart following a botched rhinoplasty. Glaser and David Soul are wheeled on at the end, you may be interested to hear, for a crushingly knowing encounter with their replacements – but they have the decency to look properly embarrassed. Antonio Fargas is nowhere to be seen – always a cool customer, that boy…

I sort of enjoyed this film but I still came out feeling a bit cheated. If you changed the character names and got rid of the Ford Gran Torino this could be Bad Boys 3 or something completely new and you’d never know. It’s really just an extremely cynical attempt to cash in on the value of the Starsky & Hutch brand, more brazen even than previous attempts like Charlie’s Angels or Lost In Space. The film-makers seem rather contemptuous both of the original series, thinking it has nothing material to offer a contemporary film, and also the audience, thinking we’ll stumble along to any old thing with a famous name. (Although they may be right – this film has taken over $40 million at the American box office alone at the time of writing.)

Anyway, surely I faintly hear the sound of the bottom of the barrel being scraped (unless the long-threatened film version of The Six Million Dollar Man is finally on its way) – there can’t be that many more classic TV shows to mess up, and they certainly can’t make a film adaptation less true to the spirit of the original than this. That’s the strange anomaly at the centre of this film: as a knockabout comedy, it’s pretty good – but as a Starsky & Hutch movie, it’s a bit disappointing.

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