No Escape

For F*** Magazine

NO ESCAPE

Director : John Erick Dowdle
Cast : Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan, Sterling Jerins, Claire Geare
Genre : Drama/Thriller
Run Time : 103 mins
Opens : 27 August 2015
Rating : NC16 (Violence and Some Coarse Language)
A government will be overthrown. Chaos will reign. Kids will be flung across rooftops. In this action thriller, Owen Wilson plays Jack Dwyer, a water treatment engineer from Austin, Texas. Together with his wife Annie (Bell) and young daughters Lucy (Jerins) and Beeze (Geare), Jack travels to Southeast Asia, where they will live as expatriates. On the flight there, they meet Hammond (Brosnan), a friendly but enigmatic man who might know more than he’s letting on. As a violent coup breaks out and their hotel is under siege, the American family is caught in the thick of the bloodbath and it will take every ounce of determination, every stroke of luck and all the help they can get if they want to make it out alive.
            No Escape is directed by John Erick Dowdle, who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Drew. The Dowdle brothers are primarily known for found-footage horror films, including The Poughkeepsie Tapes, Quarantine and last year’s As Above, So Below. While this is a departure for them in that it’s a straight-ahead thriller, there’s still a very terrifying element to the story, which plays on the fears many of us have of being caught in a dangerous situation in an unfamiliar locale. The nation in which the story is set is never referred to by name and the characters nebulously say “Asia” pretty often. It’s intended to be ambiguous, with Thai-like script and Thai-sounding dialogue, plus the Vietnamese border being across a strait. To avoid offending any sensibilities, great pains are taken to not explicitly refer to the ostensibly fictional country by name, which reminded this reviewer of those seasons of 24where the terrorists are from “the Middle East” and nowhere more specific than that. We’ll refer to the country as “Not!Thailand”.

            While this tiptoeing does take one out of the movie a little, this is actually a largely effective thriller. Straightforward and nothing ground-breaking, but effective. Dowdle manages to create an authentic and frightening sense of chaos with uncompromisingly brutal violence and this reviewer found himself sucked into the plight of the family at the centre of the story. Of course, it’s not supposed to matter so much if everyone else dies, as long as our protagonist, his wife and daughters makes it out alive, but that’s an exigency of films of this type. The film was shot on location in Chiang Mai and other regions of Thailand, which does an excellent job of doubling as Not!Thailand. In the first scene in which Jack realises something has gone terribly wrong, he is stuck in the middle of a clash between the riot police and rebels, and it is appropriately disorienting and scary. The film mostly relies on the atmosphere of the location to do the work, but while the action set pieces are not spectacular, they get the job done.

            There are several traps that are very easy to fall into with “family tries to survive ordeal”-type films. One is convenient ways out where it seems like a guardian angel is working overtime – there are a few such moments here, but it doesn’t neutralise the overall feeling of danger. The other is putting kids in jeopardy as a way to manipulate the audience into feeling something. Lucy and Beeze are caught in some pretty hairy predicaments, but it really helps that the way Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare play them and in the way they’re written, these feel like regular kids and not “movie kids”. Then there’s the predictability of the “get trapped, just barely escape and get trapped again” structure, but things move along quickly enough so that the tension doesn’t fizzle out.
            Owen Wilson isn’t an actor you’d expect to be headlining an action thriller, and he hasn’t done a role of the type since 2001’s Behind Enemy Lines. He’s actually excellent in this, mostly because he’s convincing as an everyman way out of his element. If it were a Tom Cruise (as in War of the Worlds) or a Brad Pitt (as in World War Z) instead, it wouldn’t have as much impact when the character has to draw on everything he has and become a badass to protect his family, because it’s something that would come easier for a Tom Cruise or a Brad Pitt than for an Owen Wilson.

            Lake Bell, replacing the initially-cast Michelle Monaghan, is also believable as a mother who has to be strong for her children in spite of being terrified herself. Annie gets to pull off some impressive physical feats while trying to evade the rebels and Bell, Wilson, Jerins and Geare are quite easy to buy as a family unit. The scenes in which the parents try to comfort and reassure their kids are well-written, which helps to balance out the slightly more outlandish moments in the story. Pierce Brosnan as the helpful, secretly badass stranger is excellent casting. He even gets to tip his hat to the Bond role and when he explains what’s going on, as he eventually must, it doesn’t sound like tedious exposition. Thai actor Sahajak Boonthanakit adds some texture and much-needed levity to the proceedings as the requisite “friendly local”, a driver with an amusing Kenny Rogers obsession.

            No Escape often looks like it was shot for TV, but what it lacks in polish, it makes up for in harrowing, mostly credible scenarios that will have audiences asking themselves “what would I do in a situation like this?” With Owen Wilson doing a really good job as the “everyday hero” dad, a palpable sense of danger present throughout and clever use of the already-existing environments and locations, No Escape is adequately riveting.
Summary: It doesn’t break the mould, but No Escape is a solid thriller with some edge-of-your-seats moments and a central family that’s easy to root for.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5Stars
                                                                    
Jedd Jong 

Dark Places

For F*** Magazine

DARK PLACES

Director : Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Cast : Charlize Theron, Christina Hendricks, Nicholas Hoult, Sterling Jerins, Corey Stoll, Tye Sheridan, Chloë Grace Moretz
Genre : Drama/Mystery
Run Time : 113 mins
Opens : 2 July 2015
Rating : NC-16 (Some Coarse Language and Drug Use)
Old wounds are reopened and dark corners of the past are illuminated in this gloomy mystery thriller. Libby Day (Theron as an adult, Jerins as a child) is the sole survivor of a horrific, possibly cult-related killing in the small town of Kinnakee, Kansas that claimed the lives of her mother and sister. She testifies against her brother Ben (Stoll as an adult, Sheridan as a child), who has spent the last 28 years in prison. Strapped for cash, Libby agrees to entertain the request of amateur detective Lyle Wirth (Hoult), a member of the “Kill Club”, a collective of true crime enthusiasts. Lyle believes that Ben was innocent and drawing Libby into his investigation, terrible secrets and painful memories are brought into the light.




            Dark Places is based on the novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl. Adapting the dense, plot-heavy book into a two hour film is a daunting task that writer-director Gilles Paquet-Brenner gamely tackles, but he ultimately lacks the finesse that David Fincher displayed with his adaptation of Gone Girl. The two works share certain similar themes, chief of which is the role that the mass media and public fascination plays in criminal cases. Libby is shown cynically living off the goodwill of charitable donations made out of pity, attempting to milk her own tragedy for personal gain not because she’s a terrible person, but just because it’s a relatively easy way to support herself. There is also some commentary on the so-called “Satanic Panic” that swept the United States in the 80s.


            The central case in the film, with its “small town with big secrets” intrigue, teenagers enacting dark rituals, the protagonist’s withdrawn older brother and his unstable much younger girlfriend ends up being not quite as interesting as it sounds. At the end of the day, even given the twists and turns and the emotional impact of it all, the plot feels like it might be something seen in a procedural television series like Cold Case or Without a Trace. The structure, which unfolds via lengthy flashbacks, is sometimes clumsily handled, especially during the tense climactic confrontation which feels like it has its momentum undercut.


            Charlize Theron brings a haunted, world-weary quality to Libby, calling upon her own personal childhood trauma to play the role. Like Libby, Theron grew up on a farm, and she witnessed her alcoholic father attack her mother, Theron’s mother shooting and killing her father in self-defence. Here, she is low-key and serious but one can’t help but feel she’s miscast. As good an actress as Theron is, she cannot fully pass for someone who grew up in the American Midwest, lacking the earthiness the character needs. Amy Adams, who was originally set to play Libby but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts, seems like she would be a better choice. Christina Hendricks, who plays Libby’s mother Patty in the flashback sequences, is fine as a single mother at the end of her rope but her performance is ultimately somewhat unmemorable.


            Playing the earnest “kid detective” archetype, Nicholas Hoult is plenty likeable and Mad Max fans will get to see Furiosa and Nux reunite under some very unlikely circumstances. The younger actors are good but not great; they have to carry a considerable amount of emotional heft in the flashback sequences and the strain on them does show through. Chloë Grace Moretz, arguably the main star draw besides Theron, does have fun playing Diondra, a troubled, wayward “bad girl” who might or might not be pregnant with Ben’s child. Unfortunately, she does tend to go over the top, which is jarring even given that it’s not a subtle part.


            Dark Places is atmospheric and appropriately grim and its female protagonist is a multi-faceted character, but the end result is mostly mundane. Judging from the film posters and trailers, the main selling point here seems to be the association with Gone Girl, and while there are similarities, Dark Places is a far more straightforward affair and lacks the many gut-punching moments that made Gone Girl so spellbinding.
Summary: Dark Places is led by a capable but miscast Charlize Theron and ends up being a grim mystery thriller than doesn’t pack as many surprises as it promises to.
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong