Friday, August 28, 2015


Opening this weekend:

Grandma Lily Tomlin plays Elle, a widowed poet, sort of famous by poet standards several decades ago, now eking out a meager L.A. existence with lecturing and writer-in-residence gigs. Elle’s granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up one morning in a jam and needing a few hundred bucks, but Grandma’s broke at the moment.

Like last year’s Obvious Child, this comedy-drama from Paul Weitz concerns a young woman who, unlike Diablo Cody’s Juno, is in no serious doubt about her desire for an abortion. Elle and her granddaughter are both reluctant to face the wrath of her high-powered daughter (Marcia Gay Harden) so they set off in Elle’s 1955 Dodge Royal in search of anyone else they can hit up.

It’s a simple, poignant story, but the great Tomlin gives it comic force. Or she did for me, anyway. I’ve never been able to resist Tomlin, not since I was a small child. I interviewed her once, and she cracked me up to a professionally unseemly degree. While most of her lines in Grandma aren’t laugh lines, on paper, her blunt, declarative delivery makes the cantankerous yet kind Elle a potently mirthful figure.

But this enhances her authority rather than undermining it. When she says, in that Detroit accent, that they should stop and buy a couple of dollars worth of gas—“stahp and buy a couple of dahllers wirth of gahss”—it somehow has the quality of a Biblical pronouncement.

Garner, wistful beneath a Jean Harlow-like blond halo, wisely does little more than hang back and serve as Tomlin’s foil. Most of the other cast members that pop up in the episodic storyline—including the late lamented Elizabeth Pena—do the same, but one actor is allowed to shine: Sam Elliot, as Grandma’s distant ex.

Over the last couple of decades Elliot has sometimes been on the borderline of a joke—a piece of prime ‘70s beefcake that aged uncommonly well, an endearing, easygoing hunk emeritus. In his brief scene in Grandma, however, he reveals a painful bit of Elle’s backstory, and in the process gives maybe the most startlingly intense performance of his career.

No EscapeOwen Wilson has taken a job with an American firm operating in an unnamed Southeast Asian country, and has moved there with his wife (Lake Bell) and two daughters. They aren’t even there a day, however, before the government is overthrown and the revolutionaries are massacring people in the streets, including Americans. They have a special resentment for Wilson’s company.

So for the rest of the movie, Wilson and his wife frantically try to elude the murderous mobs and get their kids to safety. They’re eventually helped by Pierce Brosnan as a skirt-chasing Brit expat who [spoiler!] turns out to be with British Intelligence.

Directed by John Erick Dowdle from a script he wrote with his brother Drew Dowdle, No Escape is undeniably gripping, especially in its first half. As it progresses, the hairbreadth escapes and turns of good fortune grow harder and harder to accept, and the dialogue grows more sanctimonious, but the situation keeps us invested until the end credits.

The stars are well-cast, too. Beautiful, strapping Lake Bell has the right physicality for this brave and capable Mom, and Wilson, with his boyishly openhearted American-idiot persona, is a perfect fit for the clueless hero. You think, really? You took this job and dragged your family to this distant country without so much as spending ten minutes reading up on Wikipedia about the potential problems there?  But then you look at Wilson and think, yeah, it’s possible.

No Escape isn’t boring, but it is distasteful. It was hard for me to shake the sense that we’re meant to see what happens to this family as extra-special horrible because it happens to middle-class white Americans. It’s true that Brosnan’s deus ex machina character is given a heavy-handed little speech in which he says all the right things about how western influence in repressive regimes leads to this sort of horror. This seems intended to preempt charges of xenophobia, but it’s cosmetic. The visceral impact of the film is Yellow Peril, all the way.

Playing this week at FilmBar Phoenix:

Turbo KidThis actioner is set in the post-apocalyptic year of…1997. The conceit is that we’re seeing a cheesy sci-fi flick of the ‘80s, a low-budget Road Warrior knockoff in the vein of Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone or Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared Syn or World Gone Wild or Crime Zone. It even has Michael Ironside, all but reprising his Spacehunter role as an evil warlord.

The title character, played by the sympathetic Munro Chambers, is a bicycle-borne scavenger of the wastes who models himself on a comic-book superhero called Turbo Rider. A sweet, daffy blonde pixie called Apple (Laurence LeBoeuf) befriends him, and when she’s abducted by the despicable Zeus (Ironside), who presides over gladiatorial games a la Thunderdome and has found a way to turn dead bodies into precious water, The Kid comes to her rescue. Somewhere in there he and Apple are also befriended by a Down-Under-Accented cowboy-type tough guy (Aaron Jeffery).

It certainly can’t be said that Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell, the writing-directing team that created this insane Canada-New Zealand co-production, don’t know their source material. Everything rings on-the-money ‘80s: the editing, the costumes, the hair, the stunts, the special effects and especially the music, including Stan Bush's marvelous pump-up anthem, “Thunder in Your Heart.” Apart from Ironside’s gray hair, about the only giveaway we’re not watching a genuine artifact is the extreme level of slapstick gore, which in those days, if memory serves, was more the province of stuff like the Evil Dead flicks and, later, Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive than of the wasteland-warrior genre.

If this kind of splatter, mostly played for laughs, doesn’t bother you—I wouldn’t recommend the film for younger kids—Turbo Kid is nostalgic fun. I spent many hours in front of movies like this, often with some poor long-suffering girlfriend I’d dragged along, and I can attest to its authenticity.