(Netflix Streaming, April 2016) There’s not really any way to say this nicely, so let’s get it out of the way first: No Escape may not necessarily be a xenophobic film by xenophobic people, but wow does it play the xenophobia card heavily. What is problematic here is not a film in which an innocent American family finds itself stuck in a popular uprising hours after arriving in an anonymous Southeast Asian country. It’s a film in which the family seems to be facing hordes of anonymous foreigners that are specifically targeting them for violent rape and death. Even worse: Help usually comes from other foreigners, or natives that are in service to foreigners in a film. It’s hard to avoid a bit of unease at the way the film makes its points—especially in recognizing that some sequences work well exactly because of the way the film uses faceless hordes of bloodthirsty opponents. Amusingly enough, part of it probably isn’t due to intentional racism as much as a genre tool mismatch. Writer/Director John Erick Dowdle has a few well-received horror films to his credit, so it’s worth noting that some of No Escape’s best moments (an escape from a hotel under siege, soon followed by an escape from a bombed-out office) are straight out of zombie horror filmmaking. The equivalence of foreigners to zombies is disturbing, but that it works at a basic level may be most disturbing of all. Elsewhere in the movie, Owen Wilson and Lake Bell’s performances are sympathetic enough to paper over thinly written character and gain them some sympathy as parents in a horrifying situation. (The kids are also very good and believable as kids.) Meanwhile, Pierce Brosnan shows up in a role that should be more substantial but somehow isn’t. No Escape does show a basic ability at presenting thrills and chills, but it would be so much better had it taken more care with its depiction of foreign characters. Then, at least, we’d stop feeling guilty for whatever qualities the film has.
(On TV, April 2015) A surprisingly common failing of romantic comedies is the way they can twist and turn a fresh premise into nothing more than an ultra-conventional third act. So it is that the best thing about What Happens in Vegas –two mismatched characters forced into matrimony due to a series of laughable contrivances, and then trying to break out of it- is almost completely undone by a third act that could have been appended to just any other romantic comedy ever filmed. (This misdirection also applies to the setting as, despite the title, most of What Happens in Vegas actually happens in New York.) Still, it’s hard to be entirely ill-willed toward a film that does have a number of laughs, energetic performances and pleasantly absurd situations. Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher are pleasant enough as the lead couple (neither of them stepping away from their usual persona), whereas Lake Bell and Rob Corddry both do the best they can with the ingrate task of playing the friends (and expositionary appendages) of the protagonists. What Happens in Vegas itself isn’t much more than a mainstream time-waster (it’s easy to imagine a much edgier film based more or less on the same premise), but it’s innocuous and watchable without too much effort, which isn’t a bad thing as far as romantic comedies are concerned. Even the ones with interchangeable third acts.
(On Cable TV, June 2014) The nice thing about being a cinephile is that movies often self-congratulate themselves and their viewers. I’m not being malicious here: if you’re a fan of movies, you will find the best validation for your obsession at the movies themselves rather than in novels, music or other competing entertainment media. (The same goes for the other media, naturally). In the case of In a World, knowing about Don Lafontaine’s voice and how it was used in major movie trailers until his death in 2008 is enough to prime you for an entire movie about movie trailer voiceovers. But never mind those high-flying considerations, especially when In a World proves to be a perfectly charming low-budget romantic comedy. It’s certainly has to do with Hollywood insider material, but it’s accessible enough to wider audiences, and universally successful in how it deals with its characters. Actress Lake Bell successfully marks a transition to writer/director status with her first film, and gets a great lead role as a likable vocal coach who ends up in the movie-trailer voiceover specialty. There are plenty of conflicts involving her family and a blooming romance with a co-worker on the way to major industry recognition. It’s not a particularly dense film, nor much of an outright laugh-getter, but it feels genuine and friendly in a way many bigger-budgeted productions often don’t. Bell is exactly who she should be as the protagonist, but she also lets other players such as Fred Melamed claim a big place within the movie. The opening sequence is brilliant (seamlessly going from explaining Lafontaine’s legacy to introducing many of the film’s characters) and there are a few good plot twists on the way to a more conventional underdog-triumphant story. While In a World is universally accessible enough to be worth watching by anyone, cinephiles will get a lot out of exploring one of the hidden corners of Hollywood.