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Sunday 11 December 2016

Movie Reviews: Ricki and The Flash, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, No Escape

Ricki and The Flash
Ricki and The Flash
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
No Escape
No Escape

It's a good week for comedies with Ricki and the Flash, and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, but No Escape falls short

Ricki and  the Flash

Comedy/Drama. Starring Meryl Streep, Mamie Gummer, Kevin Kline, Rick Springfield, Nick Westrate, Sebastian Stan. Director: Jonathan Demme. CERT: 12A

Meryl Streep's many award nods have been divided into two categories: 'well deserved' and 'just because it's Meryl'.

Streep holds such an exalted place in Hollywood that accolades are pretty much a foregone conclusion. The truth is, Streep rarely gets it wrong.

She's not the only horsepower propelling this film, either: director Jonathan Demme (Rachel Getting Married, Silence of the Lambs) is one of the industry's genuine greats, able to move between stylish thriller and hyper-real arthouse with each passing project. Diablo Cody, Oscar-winning writer of Juno, a woman with many a wisecrack up her sleeve, is also on board.

Here, Streep plays Ricki Rendazzo, who decided to abandon her life as a suburban soccer mom to follow her real dream of becoming a musician. The plan sort of worked: Ricki has a small smattering of devoted fans, but real fame has thus remained at large.

Her life is pottering along fine until her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) calls to tell her that their daughter Julie (Gummer) has broken up with her husband. Leaving behind her bandmate and lover Greg (Rick Springfield) in sunny California, Ricki heads back to Indianapolis to reunite with her estranged family. Perhaps not surprisingly, she receives a cold front from Julie and her sons Adam (Nick Westrate) and Josh (Sebastian Stan), who have all moved on just fine. All in all, the makings of a richly observed family drama.

Despite Cody's rather firm script, which has plenty of finely observed moments, the action drops off-piste every so often. Julie's woes are sort of left hanging in mid-air as Ricki turns her attention to Greg. Still, Streep's physicality is always something to behold, whether she's playing a sangfroid editor in The Devil Wears Prada or a Southern matriarch in August: Osage County.

Here, Streep channels the swagger of Bruce Springsteen and the fragility of Dusty Springfield. Predictably, it's impressive… but Gummer, exacting her own neat balance of vulnerability and world-weariness, also proves herself one to watch.

Director Demme complements Cody's rich script with plenty of subtlety (even when the schmaltzy moments start coming down the pipe, Demme undercuts them with effortless simplicity).

Ricki & The Flash works perfectly well as a whole, which is something, given how great its individual parts are.
 

Rating ****

 

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Comedy/Drama. Starring Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon, Katherine C Hughes. Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. Cert: 12

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And from one filmmaking dream team to another: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is brought to you by the same studio that birthed both Juno and (500) Days Of Summer. A big hit at this year's Sundance Festival, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is brimful of charm and playfulness, albeit with a sucker punch lurking just below the surface.

The story follows Greg (Thomas Mann), a loner with a creative bent who has one pal in his high school: the equally quirky Earl (RJ Cycler). At the behest of his mum (Connie Britton), he has been forced to hang out with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a girl of around the same age who has been diagnosed with leukaemia. What starts as a pity date evolves into a tentative friendship.

"If this was a touching romantic story, our eyes would meet and suddenly we'd be making out with the fire of a thousand suns," explains Greg. "But this isn't a touching romantic story."

In reality, it is a film that hits the same tonal notes as several other teen-angst films, while still managing to remain organic and fresh. Greg, Earl and Rachel are as believable and layered as they are adorable; each of their friendships nicely textured.

Above all else, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is an ode to friendship, rather than a snapshot of awkward teenage romance. And if the ending doesn't leave you emotionally spent, you may well need to turn in your human being credentials on your way out.

Rating: ****

 

No Escape

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Action/Thriller. Starring Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Thanawut Kasro. Director: John Erick Dowdle. Cert: 15A

To the casual eye, No Escape looks like the type of overblown disaster flick we've been gorging on all summer. Likeable everyman type becomes a reluctant hero and will do absolutely anything to save his family. So far, so predictable… right?

Not really. Not least because in this instance, 'absolutely anything' means 'chucking your kid off a skyscraper rooftop'.

Owen Wilson has already proved himself time and time again as someone with decent comedic chops, so seeing the likeable slacker in an action flick is something of a novelty.

Anyway, his character Jack Dwyer is a do-gooder, as he decides to uproot his wife Annie (Lake Bell) and their two daughters (Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare) to Southeast Asia. Backed into a corner, the way life does sometimes, he hopes to start afresh in, um, a water manufacturing corporation. The family don't want to go, but Dwyer is a man on a mission.

Like most ex-pat families, they experience a few teething problems: the electricity is dodgy and the plumbing could do with a tweak. It's only then that Jack realises that the leccy is the least of their problems: not only do the locals not like an American running their waterworks, the president of the (unspecified) Asian country has been assassinated, and they're smack bang in the middle of a political coup in which the bad guys are taking no prisoners.

Rather, the dastardly footsoldiers been commanded to assassinate all foreigners. And once the family make chase from their hotel, it's hard for the audience to come up for air.

Credit where it's due, No Escape really is a high-octane slice of filmmaking. Every few minutes, the family find a safe place to draw breath, but they are thwarted at every turn. Slightly implausible, but it keeps the action pelting along.

John Erick Dowdle's direction is pacey and stylish, providing the right amount of gritty intensity.

The script was born of writer Drew Dowdle's real-life experience of finding himself in the middle of a coup in Thailand in 2006 (the geography of the country in the film remains vague). Critics have denounced the movie as xenophobic and offensive (in one line, a cabbie informs Dwyer that the local women are 'so eager to please!'). Make your own mind up about that one, I guess.

There is a sort of salve for the haters in the guise of a monologue by the enigmatic Brit Hammond (Pierce Brosanan) about Third World debt and the West's contribution to the developing world's ills. But shoehorned into an interminable chase, it's little to late.

In some ways, No Escape does depart from the common-or-garden Hollywood blockbuster.

Lake Bell is decent as the overwrought mother, and occasionally No Escape calls to mind The Impossible, JA Bayona's rather fine Oscar-nominated drama about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. When you think about it, there aren't too many action movies you can say that about.

Rating: **

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