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Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Susan Granger at the Movies: ‘No Escape,’ ‘Meru,’ ‘War Room’

By Susan Granger

The taut thriller “No Escape” focuses on an American family accidentally caught in geopolitical crossfire, just after the prime minister of an unnamed Southeast Asian country is assassinated.

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Exhausted after flying from Austin, Texas, to take a new corporate job, jet-lagged Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson), his wife Annie (Lake Bell) and their two young daughters (Sterling Jerins, Claire Grace) cannot find their assigned driver at the airport.

That’s where they’re befriended by Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), a garrulous British ex-pat who’s also staying at the posh Imperial Lotus Hotel. Several hours after Hammond and his genial taxi-driver buddy deliver them to their rooms, armed rebels begin a violent rampage through the city, determined to kill all Americans.

Trying to survive amid a parent’s worst nightmare, Jack, Annie and the girls run to the hotel’s rooftop, where they’re trapped. Desperate, Jack convinces Annie to jump to an adjoining roof and, literally, throws their daughters across a gap for her to catch.

Then they’re forced to flee through the crowded streets, where machete-wielding protesters are battling government forces, searching in these strange surroundings for the U.S. Embassy.

Directed by John Erick Dowdle (“Quarantine,” “As Above/So Below”) from a script co-written with his brother/producer Drew, it’s a dramatic departure for Owen Wilson (“Wedding Crashers,” “Midnight in Paris”).

What makes this effective is the way the Dowdles and cinematographer Leo Hinstin depict the gritty, visceral terror of ordinary people being lost, hunted and pursued in a strange land. The intense concept was allegedly inspired by a military coup that John witnessed in Thailand in 2006.

FYI: The film’s fictional nation borders Vietnam by a river and was initially meant to be Cambodia. It was actually shot in northern Thailand, just months before the country’s 12th coup d’etat in 2014.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “No Escape” is an action-packed, exciting 8, filled with escapist suspense.

The aptly named Shark’s Fin of “Meru” in the Himalayas pierces the sky, culminating in a slick, vertical 1,500-foot wall with a tip so tiny it barely accommodates one climber.

At 20,700 feet, Meru Peak is considered the anti-Everest, towering high above the Ganges River in Northern India. There are no Sherpas setting ropes, carrying gear and escorting thrill-seeking tourists.

Three courageous American mountaineers met Meru’s challenge not once but twice. In October 2008, Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk embarked on a seven-day trek that disintegrated into a harrowing, 20-day ordeal. Within sight of the summit, they were forced to turn back.

In September 2011, they reassembled to tackle arduous Meru again, lugging 200 pounds of equipment, including digital cameras, encountering blizzards and avalanches, enduring frostbite and trench foot, and camping in a small tent clinging to the side of the mountain.

To say they suffer a number of frights while scaling the heights is an understatement.

Reminiscent of Kevin Macdonald’s “Touching the Void,” Jimmy Chin and his wife E. Chai Vasarhelyi’s 90-minute documentary, edited by Bob Eisenhardt, features interviews with the climbers and their loved ones.

Plus there’s insightful commentary by “Into Thin Air” author Jon Krakauer, who describes Meru’s location as “the point where heaven and earth and hell all come together,” adding, “The rewards of climbing are huge - if you survive.”

But it’s the harrowing journey that inspires, not necessary the destination, particularly when visuals of the ascent are enhanced with J. Ralph’s score and Philip Sheppard’s songs.

On the Granger Gauge, “Meru” is a spectacular 7, a peak experience.

Seeing “War Room” reminds me of the Ladies Home Journal’s trademark feature “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” Troubled couples related their problems and a marriage counselor would suggest solutions.

But I certainly don’t remember any therapist suggesting that a psychologically abused wife pray in a closet. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy good spiritually-based movies like “Field of Dreams,” etc. Indeed, my brother, Stephen Simon, started the Spiritual Cinema Circle. But not this kind of simplistic drivel.

Set in middle-class suburb, the story revolves around busy Elizabeth “Liz” Jordan (Priscilla Shirer), wife of Tony (T.C. Stallings), mother to 10-year-old Danielle (Alena Pitts) and part-time realtor.

As a pharmaceuticals rep, Tony is often on the road. When he returns home, he has control issues, criticizing Danielle for jumping role instead of playing baseball, refusing to help Liz’s sister out financially, and escaping to the gym whenever he can.

When Liz meets a prospective client, Miss Clara (Karen Abercrombie), a friendship develops, as elderly Clara questions bitterly unhappy Liz about her religious beliefs, urging her to make a commitment to Jesus and cast Satan out of her home.

Pious Clara, who was influenced by her late Vietnam battle-strategist husband, shows Liz her “war room,” an empty closet she uses for praying, referring to Matthew 6:6, which is often translated, “When you pray, go into your inner room”…but the King James Bible substitutes the word “closet.”

Somewhat skeptical at first, Liz nevertheless creates her “war room” when she becomes aware that thieving Tony is on the brink of betraying her with a co-worker.

Evangelical filmmakers Alex and Stephen Kendrick fared better with “Courageous,” “Facing the Giants” and “Fireproof.” This time, the pacing lags and the soundtrack blares with Christian rock anthems, even as Liz and Tony experience a heavy-handed Mary Magdalene moment.

FYI: if you’re curious about prayer regimen, check out the Battle Plan Prayer Cards and Sticky Notes, available for purchase on the entrepreneurial Kendricks’ website: https://kendrickbrothers.com

On the Granger Gauge, “War Room” is a proselytizing 3, aimed at a church-going audience.


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( Editor’s Note: Westport resident Susan Granger grew up in Hollywood, studied journalism with Pierre Salinger at Mills College, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism. In addition to writing for newspapers and magazines, she has been on radio/television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic for many years. See her reviews at www.susangranger.com.)

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Posted 09/02/15 at 09:29 PM  Permalink



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