By BRUCE DENNILL
No Escape / Directed by John Erick Dowdle / 16V 7
War Room / Directed by Alex Kendrick / PG 5.5
Murder Of A Cat / Directed by Gillian Green / PG13 5
Elsa & Fred / Directed by Michael Radford (PG) 7
No Escape started under the radar and stayed there on its release, and its non-descript title and positioning of Owen Wilson as its hero – the actor has had a wonky record as a leading man, and is much better suited to comedy than serious action projects like this – couldn’t have helped. Once you get past all of that, though, it’s a script that surprises with its forcefulness and effectiveness. Wilson plays Jack, a husband and father who accepts a posting in a Southeast Asian company (unnamed, but it could feasibly be Thailand or Myanmar) from the manufacturing company he works for. It seems like an opportunity for a new start after some tough times at home in the States and though Jack, his wife (Lake Bell) and their two young children are aware that settling in to their new existence will be challenging, they’re looking forward to the what is to come. That all goes to pot when a violent revolution rolls through the city they’ve just arrived in and they are caught up in brutal, apparently senseless violence perpetuated by rebels whose language and concerns are equally foreign to them. The complete lack of understanding of their situation is almost as frightening as the physical danger they’re in, and it’s only the family’s commitment to each other and the desperate courage that comes with extreme stress that keeps them alive. A jocular stranger (Pierce Brosnan) they met on the plane seems willing to help them, but his motives are unclear. Modern travel, sadly, includes the possibility of terrorist action and political instability and No Escape captures the initial shock and then spreading dread of a family that realises that they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time with little or no chance of making it to safety. Director John Erick Dowdle, who also co-wrote the script, pulls no punches, and from around ten minutes in until the end of the piece, tension is constant. The film is low on Hollywood gloss and many of the formulaic touch-points that viewers of only mainstream fodder will be relying on to tell them where they are in the narrative. That may be why it didn’t ignite the box office, but it is also why it feels credible, and thus more disquieting.
Films that uphold or aim to support institutions like marriage are, sadly, few and far between – it’s more or less par for the course to embrace affairs, greed, murder and all the rest in the name of entertainment. War Room is a piece with a Christian message, built around a very conventional plot: apparently perfect family develops cracks thanks to busyness, sexual temptation and emotional distance and it takes an extraordinary character to give them a new perspective and push them in the direction of redemption. The kick here is that the mechanism that will turn things around is prayer, and more specifically developing the discipline to include it in a life filled with all the rest of the issues mentioned above. Writing, producing and directing brothers Stephen and Alex Kendrick bring exceptional production values to the project, but their script and the performances it extracts from the cast are too predictably blocked out and simplistic to encourage the audience to properly connect with the characters. It’s a fault common to many films in this genre, which is a pity, as if they were more realistically presented, the important messages they’re designed to deliver would find their targets more readily.
Murder Of A Cat is an odd little film, the sort of thing that wouldn’t usually get made and yet somehow did. It’s quirkiness may have worked in its favour, as there are included in the cast such high-profile stars as Greg Kinnear, Blythe Danner and JK Simmons. The plot involves a young man who is beyond geeky – living in his mother’s basement and designing action figures that he tries to sell, while knowing that the likelihood of that happening is very low indeed. He is yanked out of his meaningless morass in a strange, brutal way, when his beloved cat is killed by an arrow – a clearly deliberate act. His mission to uncover the meaning and motive behind the murder is the main thread of the rest of the film, but quite what the writer and director were going for in terms of the tone and pacing of the project is unclear. There is comedy, but it stutters, lightening a scene here and there but not driving anything forward. And there is a sort of old-fashioned noir mood, but it doesn’t carry through to the other conventions of that genre, so as a crime drama, it falls intermittently flat on that score as well. It’s still worth watching, though, purely for being “other” than the standard Hollywood formula.
There’s an awkward feeling at times during Elsa & Fred as you realise that its two leads, Christopher Plummer and Shirley MacLaine, represent an ever-shrinking remnant of Hollywood’s Golden Age and, as such stars are cast in vehicles like this – about people in the twilight of their lives – filmmakers are effectively conceding that the projects that accommodate these experienced talents should also be dialled down in terms of intensity and scope. One of the great things about La La Land is its whole-hearted homage to the industry’s glory days, but that film’s director Damien Chazelle is a special case, and his attitude may not be replicated widely enough to keep the filmmaking values he treasures front and centre. Elsa & Fred is a story about a second coming of age, made with understated class. Elsa (MacLaine) is a feisty older woman not at all willing to go gently into this good night, while Fred (Plummer) is, initially, the opposite, a man who feels his advanced years and the loss of his wife keenly. There is a nod to film history and the medium’s power to inspire in a dream of Elsa’s to recreate the famous Trevi Fountain scene from La Dolce Vita, and it the very capacity to indulge such fantasies that both is a major difference between the two protagonists for much of the piece. This is a gentle love story with moments of the knowing humour that can only be delivered by characters with great life experience and a measure of wisdom.