Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Movie Review: The Guilty

The Guilty **** / *****
Directed by: Gustav Möller.
Written by: Gustav Möller & Emil Nygaard Albertsen.
Starring: Jakob Cedergren (Asger Holm), Jessica Dinnage (Iben), Omar Shargawi (Rashid), Johan Olsen (Michael), Jacob Lohmann (Bo), Katinka Evers-Jahnsen (Mathilde).
In The Guilty, we spend the entire movie in an enclosed space, mainly looking at the fact of one actor talking on the phone, and yet the film is one of the intense thrillers of the year. It is a simple film in many ways – and it makes sense that it is director Gustav Moller’s debut film – it could not have cost all that much money to make. But Moller knows how to build tension, and how to misdirect the audience in subtle ways, in order to pull the rug out from under them later – but to do so in a way that doesn’t feel like a cheat. It represents one of the most promising debut films of the year – and one of the best thrillers.
The entire film takes place in an Emergency call center in Denmark. Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) is a cop, who normally doesn’t work in the call center, but we learn early on he has been assigned there because of some sort of incident – there will be a hearing the next day, and then he’ll be back on the streets. He gets a strange call from a woman who says that she has been kidnapped, and is being driven in a white van – and while he gets her name, he doesn’t get a lot of other information – she is pretending to talk to her 6-year-old daughter at home when she’s on the line with him. Instead of doing what is really his job – taking down the information, and passing it along to the cops on the street to figure out, he keeps on digging, finding out more and more information – and soon, he is toggling back and forth on phone calls to the woman, her daughter, her kidnapper, his partner and various police dispatchers in the areas the van is travelling. Everything he does, he does with the best of intentions – which is perhaps why everything goes so horribly wrong.
The film presents a directing challenge for Moller – who has to figure out a way to make a film that takes place entirely over phone calls in one room cinematic. The earlier scenes – when Asger is just trying to get through the shift, and is doing everything by the book – take place in a large, brightly lit room – where there are multiple people talking, and interacting. Sensing, not incorrectly, that he’s about to go further than he should, later in the film Asger will move himself into a darker room, where it’s just him, his phone and the computer screen. The effect is the more the film moves along, the more intently it is focused on Asger himself. When he moves, he’s off in his own world – forgotten by everyone else in the call center, as this is over a shift change.
Moller makes a lot of smart decisions throughout The Guilty – perhaps the biggest one being the runtime is not quite 90 minutes – any longer, and I think this setup starts to wear thin. He twists the story enough to keep you on your toes, but not nearly enough to make everything seem implausible. With Asger himself, there is something a little darker with him right from the start – but it’s a darkness that Cedergren finds a way to portray, while also making it clear that he doesn’t seem aware of it. He is a character who is morally lost at the beginning of the film – and subconsciously, could be trying to atone for that in his actions. By the end, the swagger and confidence has been drained from him.
The Guilty is a reminder that sometimes the simplest of setups can yield the best results. This isn’t an overly ambitious movie – it touches on some issues, but mainly exists as a straight ahead thriller, with a character study layered in as well – but it’s mainly focused on tightening the screws, and then lowering the boom. And it’s almost impossibly intense. A great debut film, from a very promising filmmaker – one who knows precisely what they are doing, right from the start.

Movie Review: Shirkers

Shirkers **** / *****
Directed by: Sandi Tan.
Written by: Sandi Tan.
The history of film is more than just the films that did get made – it’s also the history of films that never got made, or will forever remain unfinished. We’ll never know what Orson Welles’ complete Magnificent Ambersons would be, nor Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon – and there are many silent films that are lost forever, perhaps robbing future generations of some geniuses we never got to know. The new Netflix documentary Shirkers (which debuts a week before the streaming service is going to release Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, a long uncompleted film, that became legendary) tells the story of one such film whose place in Singapore film history will never be completely realized, because the film was stolen for the young women who worked so hard to make it – and though they now have the footage back, they don’t have the sound, so no real resurrection can ever truly be completed. It is, in many ways, a sad story – and one that makes you angry. But in its ways, Sandi Tan’s documentary about her experience all those years ago is her way of taking back the narrative – which is the happiest ending this story can possibly have now.
The documentary was directed by Sandi Tan, looking back at a period at her life in the early 1990s. She was a movie mad teenager in Singapore – which wasn’t the most receptive place for movies at that time, which had no real indie movie scene to speak of, and made it very hard to get all the movies she wanted to see that she read about in Film Comment. She was close with two other similarly movie mad girls – Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique – and together they wrote for magazines, interacted with film critics, and did everything possible to express their love. Their “mentor” was Georges Cardona, a white man, from America who was decades older than them, and of course knew all about movies. Eventually, he will convince Sandi to write and star in an indie movie – which he will direct – and of course, she enlists Jasmine and Sophie. They will shoot for months; he will convince them to put in their own money to finish the film. When the shooting is over, the three women go back to their lives – at that point, all outside of Singapore – and wait for Georges to tell them how the film is looking. All they received were a few cryptic recordings, and then nothing. Georges was gone – and with him, Shirkers, the movie they made is gone too. Years later, Georges ex-wife will contact Sandi again with the news that Georges has died – but there are can and cans of films all labelled Shirkers. He carted those cans of films around the world with him – but somewhere along the way got rid of the sound recordings. As Sandi says, Shirkers was returned to her a mute.
As a personal documentary, Shirkers is quite remarkable. In it, Tan looks back at the person she once was – and doesn’t always like what she finds. She is embarrassed that she allowed herself to be taken in by Cardona, his stories, his faux-genius. The signs he was a con artist were there – from telling everyone he was the inspiration for James Spader’s character in sex, lies and videotape, to his inexperience in directing – where at times, there wasn’t even film in the camera. While she has remained friends with Jasmine and Sophie – it’s clear that when the subject of Shirkers comes up, they still argue about it – they saw in Cardona what Sandi could not, or did not want to. Jasmine goes as far as to say that Sandi was an asshole when they were working.
And yet, she is proud of the film they almost made. Watching the footage again, the Singapore film critics she talks to laments that Shirkers was never finished – that this film could have been the missing link for the national cinema to push itself in a new, more daring direction. When Sandi, who went onto become a film critic before becoming a novelist, says she felt shivers of Shirkers while watching Wes Anderson’s Rushmore or Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, the claim isn’t as outlandish at it first appears based on the footage we see.
And the footage is a treasure trove of interesting things. Of course, now its faded a little, and is always silent – and this contrasts against the modern footage shot for this documentary, giving that footage an eerie feel to it – the lost remnants of a bygone era.
Tan travels around America, following the steps Cardona took after he left Singapore with their film – talks to others, who had similar experiences with him, and feel similarly taken advantage of, with little to show for it. People who put their careers on hold to help Cardona, who never seems to actually have finished anything. He had a habit of taken in people, and becoming their mentor – but seem to resent it if they showed too much promise, and may achieve what he never did.
Who really knows what Shirkers would have been had Cardona not absconded with the footage, and had it been able to be finished. Maybe it would be little more than a footnote – a film that played a few festivals and then disappeared. Or maybe, it would have been something much more important. We can never really know, because of course, that isn’t what happened. But in making this Shirkers, this documentary, Tan seems to want to claim her place in cinema history – while being unsure what that is. This documentary is in many ways so tiny and personal – and yet it others it feels big and important. One of the things we have talked about in the #MeToo era is never knowing the work that could have been done by the women either driven out of the industry altogether, or who were blacklisted. There is an alternate history where their careers were not derailed, and who knows what it would look like. Shirkers isn’t a #MeToo story, but it brings up the same haunting What If?

Movie Review: Beautiful Boy

Beautiful Boy *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Felix Van Groeningen.
Written by: Luke Davies and Felix Van Groeningen based on the books by David Sheff and Nic Sheff.
Starring: Steve Carell (David Sheff), Timothée Chalamet (Nic Sheff), Maura Tierney (Karen Barbour), Christian Convery (Jasper Sheff), Oakley Bull (Daisy Sheff), Kaitlyn Dever (Lauren), Amy Ryan (Vicki Sheff), Stefanie Scott (Julia), Kue Lawrence (4 & 6-Year-Old Nic Sheff), Jack Dylan Grazer (12-Year-Old NicSheff), Timothy Hutton (Dr. Brown), LisaGay Hamilton (Rose), Zachary Rifkin (8-Year-Old Nic Sheff).
At this point, we have seen countless addiction – and overcoming addiction stories. The new film, Beautiful Boy tries to sidestep many of the clichés of the genre, and tell the story of addiction in a more honest way – that it isn’t a matter of having a breakthrough, realizing some deep psychological reason for your addiction, have a good cry about it, and then get sober. That it is an ongoing problem – that people can want to get sober, and just are never able to do it – and that even with a supportive, affluent family thing can go off the rails, even after months or years of sobriety. That, at least, is the goal of Beautiful Boy – and I think had it been able to fully pull it off, perhaps we would have one of the year’s best films. As it stands though, Beautiful Boy seems pulled apart more than a little between trying to be something more raw, and a more standard, sentimental Hollywood story. By jumping around in time, the movie is more formless than I otherwise would be – perhaps this is the point, but it’s also a distraction. The performances in the film ground it – make it feel more real than perhaps it really should.
The film stars Steve Carell as David Sheff and Timothee Chalamet as his teenage son Nic – and is based on the pair of memoirs each of them wrote about Nic’s years as a drug addict. David is a journalist – a single dad living in San Francisco, who later marries a second wife, Karen (Maura Tierney), who has primary custody of his son Nic. We do, eventually, see Nic’s mother – Vicki (Amy Ryan) – who lives in L.A. – but by virtue of the fact the film is based on a book by David, she is a secondary character at best. David is the kind of liberal, touchy feely dad who likes to think he has an open, honest relationship with his son. They kind where they can tell each other everything. He knows Nic is smoking pot – but he doesn’t see it as that big of a deal. Who doesn’t smoke pot when they’re a teenager. It’s only after it’s too late that he realizes that Nic does a lot more than pot – crystal meth mostly – and he tries to spring into action. Over the years, Nic tries again and again to get sober – lasts a while, and then relapses. There seems to be almost no rhyme or reason why he relapses – he just does. And for years, David is there to help him – pick up the pieces and try again. Until, one day, he decides he can longer try – that this is going to be something Nic either does or does not on his own.
The film was directed by Felix Van Groeningen – the Belgian director best known for the Oscar nominated The Broken Circle Breakdown – about a married couple whose love is tested when their daughter gets seriously ill. That was a really good film – I wasn’t surprised to see it nominated for the Foreign Language Film Oscar – I was surprised it didn’t become a bigger art house hit when it was released, as it seems tailor made for that. Like Beautiful Boy, that film was also told in a kind of fractured, non-chronological structure – but it worked better there then it does here. That is because the story of Beautiful Boy by its nature repeats itself again and again – Nic is high on drugs, wants to get sober, gets sober, relapses, has a crisis, and the cycle begins fresh. While that very well may be the right cycle here – it’s also the same scene again and again.
What saves Beautiful Boy really is the performances by Carrel and Chalamet. It takes a few scenes to get past Carell – known so much for those comedic roles (although he’s been doing quite well in dramatic roles the past few years) to find his footing here as a kind of sympathetic, yet clueless, dad. He means well, but doesn’t really know what he is going – but knows enough that he doesn’t know, and tries to research it. Chalamet – coming off his breakthrough year last year with Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird – is great here at depicting the shame spiral that Nic goes through every time he relapses. He truly does love his family – but he cannot help himself. The film really is a two hander between these two performances, and they do elevate it. I do wish that they had given talented actresses like Amy Ryan and Maura Tierney – more to do in their roles (and that doesn’t even mention Kaitlyn Dever, who shows up out of nowhere late in the film, and then is jettisoned).
Beautiful Boy is an undeniably flawed film – the more I think back on it, the more flaws I do see. I wish that the affluence of the Sheff family had been mentioned – at least once – during the course of the film, because that clearly makes a difference in terms of getting help and getting sober. As well, the movie just kind of ends, apparently midstream, with no real sense of how Nic was able to get and stay sober this last time (the end title card tells us he’s been sober for 8 years – in the last scene of the film, he’s still on drugs). This, I think, points to the films ambitions – and how it doesn’t quite live up to them. It’s clear here that no one wanted to make a film like 28 Days – that Sandra Bullock vehicle from years ago, which goes through the recovery clichés mentioned above. They want to make something more akin to how addiction works. But while I think they succeed in not making the film they didn’t want to make, I’m not sure they ended up making the film they did want to make.

Movie Review: Mid90s

Mid90s *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Jonah Hill.
Written by: Jonah Hill.
Starring: Sunny Suljic (Stevie), Katherine Waterston (Dabney), Lucas Hedges (Ian), Na-kel Smith (Ray), Olan Prenatt (Fuckshit), Gio Galicia (Ruben), Ryder McLaughlin (Fourth Grade), Alexa Demie (Estee), Fig Camila Abner (Angela), Liana Perlich (Teresa), Ama Elsesser (Zoe), Judah Estrella Borunda (Sam), Mecca Allen (Sara), Del (Homeless man #1), Harmony Korine (Todd).
Jonah Hill’s debut film as a director, Mid90s, feels very much like a debut film by a promising filmmaker – the type of film someone makes before they go onto do something better. Because Mid90s is a bundle of influences that Hill has cribbed for his favorite filmmakers, a bundle of needle drops on the soundtrack full of songs he clearly loved from his childhood. It’s a film that for the first hour of its slim runtime feels like it wants to avoid any semblance of a plot or phony dramatics – and then crams three movies worth of them in the last half hour, ending on a confusing note. And yet, at its best, Mid90s feels like the work of a natural filmmaker. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hill really does go on to direct a great film one day.
In Mid90s, the story focuses on Stevie (Sunny Suljic) a 13-year-old kid from California somewhere. He gets beat up and picked on by his older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges), and has a single mother, Dabney (Katherine Waterson) who cares about her son, but doesn’t entirely pay attention to him. Stevie is drifting in his life – no real friends, no real interests, etc. – until he sees a quartet of teenagers on skateboards, mouthing off to a store owner who doesn’t want them in front of his shop. To Stevie, these are the coolest kids in the world – and he sets out to become one of them, despite the fact he has no idea how to skateboard.
Stevie will eventually learn that – kind of, he’s still no very good at the end of the film, but he’s working on it. This closed group of four accepts Stevie in as one of their own – for reasons the film never makes entirely clear, but may just because he won’t go away, and they’re fairly easygoing. The coolest of the older kids is Ray (Na-kel Smith), who is the best at skateboarding, and wants to go pro. His best friend is Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) – whose nickname is apt – who once was like Ray, but now seems to be drifting into a life of one, long endless party. Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) is constantly filming everything on his camera – he says he wants to make a movie one day, and the other mock him for that, but he does it anyway. Then there is Ruben (Gio Galicia), who until Stevie showed up was the youngest of the group – and the one who accepts Stevie first – and will get angry at him first as well.
The first hour of the film drifts from one scene to another, where this group drifts from one skate park to another, one party to another, etc. The dynamics in the group come clearer the more we watch them – and we sense, even if the characters don’t, that this group won’t be together for that much longer. That Stevie, as much as he wants to belong, never quite will. It’s a portrait of this insular group, who can say horrible things to each other and get away with it. The language here is strong and offensive – but true to what teenage boys say to each other when there’s no one else around. The film is at its strongest when it’s just on this group – a portrait of toxic masculinity in its early stages (as one of the few girls says to Stevie, he’s at that age right before guys become assholes).
The movie is at its weakest when it seems to try and force things. There is a blowup when Stevie’s mother snaps into parenting action for the first time, and yells at his new friends, that doesn’t really go anyway. Stevie’s first sexual encounter is documented – not graphically – but in enough detail to make you extremely uncomfortable (not least of which is that Suljic doesn’t even look 13, which would still be very young) – and feels like Hill’s attempt to recreated Larry Clark’s Kids (a clear influence throughout). When the dynamics that we sense underlying everything come to a head in the last scenes of the film, it feels forced – not the way these characters would handle things. The ill-advised montage that ends the film, puts a romantic angle on the film that doesn’t really make sense given what we just saw.
At its best though, Mid90s does feel like the work of a natural filmmaker. Yes, right now, Hill is too reliant on his influences – and his soundtrack, which is filled with great songs from the era, as well as fine work by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on the score – but his instincts are good. He doesn’t over explain everything – he lets it take its time. Mid90s isn’t a great film – but it shows Hill may well have one in him.

Movie Review: Hunter Killer

Hunter Killer ** / *****
Directed by: Donovan Marsh.
Written by: Arne Schmidt and Jamie Moss based on the novel by George Wallace and Don Keith.
Starring: Gerard Butler (Captain Joe Glass), Gary Oldman (CJCS Charles Donnegan), Common (RA John Fisk), Linda Cardellini (Jayne Norquist), Alexander Diachenko (President Zakarin), Michael Gor (Admiral Dmitri Durov), Michael Nyqvist (Captain Andropov),Carter MacIntyre (XO Brian Edwards), Shane Taylor (TMC Turner), Kola Bokinni (McCaw), Mikey Collins (Brickowski), Will Attenborough (Kaplan), Kieron Bimpson (Nichols), David Gyasi (Cob Wallach), Michael Jibson (Reed), Christopher Goh (Park), Sarah Middleton (Liddy), Taylor John Smith  (Belford), Gabriel Chavarria (Jimenez), Toby Stephens (Bill Beaman), Michael Trucco (Devin Hall), Ryan McPartlin (Matt Johnstone), Zane Holtz (Paul Martinelli), Caroline Goodall (President Dover).
Hunter Killer is an action movie where essentially the Americans and the Russians have to work together to prevent WWIII from breaking out when the Russian Defense Minister goes rogue, kidnaps the Russian President, and starts a deadly game under the ice by first sabotaging a Russian sub to make it look like the Americans attacked, and then torpedoing an American sub to ensure an all-out war. In order to prevent this, American sends in a stealth sub, captained by Joe Glass (Gerard Butler) and a team of four highly trained marines in order to re-kidnap the Russian President, so he can stop the war. In order to do this, Glass rescues a Russian sub captain from that downed boat (Michael Nyqvist) to help him navigate through the dangerous Russian waters.
So yes, this is a movie in which the Americans and the Russians work together – and it’s been made at a time where in real life, the American President is under investigation for colluding with the Russians to win an election, and who has been constantly criticized for going too easy on Putin and Russia. And yet, Hunter Killer doesn’t really have anything at all to say about geopolitics – you cannot really criticize its politics, no matter what your thoughts on Russia are, because the film has no politics to speak of. It is more interested in once again watching Gerard Butler being stoic and emotionless, because of course, that’s how real men are. And he is a real man – someone who became a captain on a Nuclear submarine by working his way up through the ranks – not one of those guys who got there by going to Annapolis. He’s a manly man – and everyone else in the movie is a manly man as well – except for Linda Cardellini, who plays a NSA adviser, although for all I know she was written as a man and they decided to cast a woman instead so the entire cast wasn’t men (the same can be said for the only other two female characters in the movie – a Communications operator on the sub, and the President of the USA, who furrows her brow before saying her couple of lines at the midpoint of the movie.
The problem with Hunter Killer lays somewhere in there – not because I need a cheesy action movie on board a submarine to reflect my politics, or the men involved to be more in touch with their emotions, or anything like that – but because this movie tries to be as bland and down the middle as possible, robbing the film of any real personality. Butler isn’t the actor you cast for personality anyway – his career seems to be made up of movies Jason Statham was too busy to do, and other than Den of Thieves – in which he tries to be the bad guy – most of his recent work has him looking constipated – emotionally and physically – betraying no emotion, no personality, no anything really. At least the team of four Marines, who head in by land, have a kind of personality – yes, it the annoying “bro” personality that these films are filled with, but it’s something. The actors on land don’t have much to work with either – not the talented Cardellini, who I always like, but here doesn’t do much, no Common, who really should play a character who isn’t so outwardly good all the time (the best moment of his acting career is probably in the recent The Hate U Give, where he plays a cop who admits, with shame, that he’d treat a white suspect different than a black suspect), not even Gary Oldman, who has his Oscar now, so he can go back to doing this sort of supporting turn where he does nothing except yell at everyone around him.
But even with all of that, I don’t think I can really call Hunter Killer a bad movie – it doesn’t even have enough personality to warrant being called truly bad. It’s just kind of there – and seems to be tailored made for Sunday afternoon showings on TBS, where you half watch as your folder laundry, or drift in and out of a nap. If you watch it that way, don’t worry, you didn’t miss anything when you dozed off.

Movie Review: Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween ** / *****
Directed by: Ari Sandel.
Written by: Rob Lieber and Darren Lemke based on the books by R.L. Stine.
Starring: Wendi McLendon-Covey (Kathy), Madison Iseman (Sarah), Jeremy Ray Taylor (Sonny), Caleel Harris (Sam), Ken Jeong (Mr. Chu), Chris Parnell (Walter), Bryce Cass (Tyler), Peyton Wich (Tommy Madigan), Shari Headley (Mrs. Carter), Christian Finlayson (Cooper), Matthew J. Vasquez (Derek), Sydney Bullock (Vanessa), Deja Dee (Mrs. Hoover), Hallie Jackson (Nana), Mick Wingert (Slappy).
It’s never a good sign when almost no one involved in the original film shows up for the sequel – but in the case of Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween, it’s probably a blessing in disguise, because the major thrust of the plot is pretty much exactly the same. In the surprisingly fun 2015 original, an unwitting teenager accidentally unleashes all the monsters that were in the R.L. Stine Goosebumps books, and then teams up with the author himself (Jack Black) and his daughter to get them all back safely stowed in the books. In the sequel, instead of unleashing monsters from all the books, an unwitting teenager accidentally releases the monsters from just one Goosebumps books – it just so happens that the book in question contained all the same monsters. We’re in a new town, which means new teenagers – and although Jack Black does show up in the film, it’s really far into the third act when he shows up, and basically amounts to a cameo appearance. He does inject some life into the proceedings though – and made me laugh out loud at his comment when he saw a red balloon floating by a sewer.
Until then, though, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween pretty much functions on autopilot. This time, it’s nerdy Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and his friend Sam (Caleel Harris), who find an old manuscript for Goosebumps in a dilapidated house, and unwitting release Slappy – the maniac puppet who was the most popular character in the first film (in a show of just how little time Jack Black had for this movie, he didn’t even do the voice of Slappy this time, which he did last time). Once the pair realizes that Slappy isn’t just a fun toy – or a way to get things done quicker – they have to loop in Sonny’s older sister, Sarah (Madison Iseman) to help contain Slappy – who only wants a family, especially a mother, and is willing to unleash all the monsters to get it. Their mother is played by the delightful Wendi McLendon-Covey from The Goldbergs, although neither she nor Chris Parnell nor Ken Jeong – who show up in small roles – can really inject much life into things.
Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween is the very definition of a sequel that was only made because the first one made money. There is not more story here – which is why it’s pretty much a repeat of the first film, nor do the filmmakers really find much of a reason for the film to exist. I will say that as introductory horror movie for kids, the Goosebumps films both work quite well – I watched the original with my seven-year-old a few weeks ago, and she quite liked it, so we ventured to the theater to see this one. It scared her, but not terrified her – and there were no nightmares. Along with The House with a Clock in Its Walls, this fall season has given two decent enough movies to scare children, without scarring them. And for that, I guess, Goosebumps 2L Haunted Halloween works.
But for the rest of you? The ones who don’t have kids, there really isn’t a reason to see this film – and little more to see the original Goosebumps if I’m being honest. I have limited nostalgia for the series – I remember reading the books in the years before I worked up the nerve to start reading Stephen King (the fictional R.L. Stine’s arch nemesis), but I barely remember anything beyond the covers. The first film was an entertaining time waster – the second film more of the same, with diminished results. The third film, which they setup in the final moments here, will be completely unnecessary, if and when it’s made – but at least seems to be something a touch different. We can hope anyway.

Movie Review: The Night Comes for Us

The Night Comes for Us ** / *****
Directed by: Timo Tjahjanto.
Written by: Timo Tjahjanto.
Starring: Iko Uwais (Arian), Joe Taslim (Ito), Julie Estelle (The Operator), Shareefa Daanish (Triad's Sniper), Sunny Pang (Chien Wu), Zack Lee (Bobby), Hannah Al Rashid (Elena), Dian Sastrowardoyo (Alma), Salvita Decorte (Shinta), Epy Kusnandar (Night Handler), Dimas Anggara (Wisnu), Abimana Aryasatya (Fatih), Morgan Oey (Arian's Assistant), Asha Kenyeri Bermudez (Reina), Ronny P. Tjandra (Aliong), Revaldo (Yohan).
The Night Comes for Us is essentially two straight hours of people kicking, stabbing, shooting and otherwise killing each other in the bloodiest way imaginable, in one extended fight sequence after another, intercut with scenes of exposition, which are both needlessly complicated and utterly boring. The story essentially comes down to one assassin being sent to kill another assassin who has decided he wants to stop being an assassin and after several hundred people (I don’t think I’m exaggerating) get brutally killed, and gallons of fake blood is spilled on every surface, the two – who, oh yes, were once friends – finally do face off against each other. No bonus points for guessing it is an abandoned warehouse, because it’s always in an abandoned warehouse, unless it’s in a parking garage, that looks like an abandoned warehouse – but since they get that location out of the way in the first hour, you know what’s coming.
There is nothing inherently wrong with movies that almost all action, and very little of anything else. Asian action cinema has certainly always had films like that – and they reached their peak with the John Woo films of the later 1980 and early 1990s. But even in films like The Killer and Hardboiled, there was some plot, some characters to care about, and the storytelling was as operatic as the gun battles were. Director Timo Tjahjanto clearly knows how to direct a bloody action sequence – the action is what worked best in last year’s Headshot, which he co-directed – and he gets points for just all the ways he comes up with killing people in this film. He would have to, considering hundreds of people die, in all sorts of ways.
And yet, like Headshot, Tjahjanto doesn’t quite realize that he either needs a plot that makes you care about the characters being killed or doing the killing, or else stripped to the bone so it doesn’t matter. Both films are needlessly long – The Night Comes for Us goes on for more than two hours, and Headshot is nearly as long – when at 80-85 minutes, you may have a kickass action, at that length, you have a slog. His best work as a director was co-directing a segment of VHS 2 – where he still went on longer than everyone else – but had a limit of just how indulgent he could be. Here, there is no such limit.
The result is a film that eventually gives you a headache, because it’s just straight ahead blood for huge, long stretches, followed by needless exposition. What we really need to know is that “good guy”, Ito (Joe Taslim) has a job working for the top smugglers in the area that gives him license to kill without consequences, as long as the good keep flowing, but even he has his limits. After slaughtering pretty much an entire town, he cannot bring himself to kill a little girl – and decides to run off with her instead. This makes his bosses angry, so they send his best friend Arian (Iko Uwais – because of course it is) to kill him. This is perhaps what counts for stretching for Iko Uwais, who most of the time would be the “hero” of the film – and he shows us why, because he is completely unable to pull off the dramatic side of this role. But don’t worry, he still knows how to kill people real good.
And the killing is why most will see the film. And make no mistake, the killing is done with skill – whether it’s in the apartment scene or the parking garage scene or the butcher shop scene (that one’s probably the best – because they use parts of animal’s carcasses to kill each other) and a half dozen other ones. Taken individually, all of these scenes may well be good unto themselves – even if they all undeniably go on too long. Stacked on top of each other, they grow dull.
There is skill to Tjahjanto to be sure – but I think if he’s going to make a truly good movie at some point, he needs to work with someone else’s screenplay – a tight, 90 minute films, with several action sequences not wall to wall bloodletting. That may well be what he needs – because right now, no matter how much skill is on display, it all feels like one long, bloody slog.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Movie Review: Burning

Burning ***** / *****
Directed by: Chang-dong Lee   
Written by: Jungmi Oh & Chang-dong Lee based on the short story Barn Burning by Haruki Murakami.
Starring: Ah-In Yoo (Lee Jong-su), Steven Yeun (Ben), Jong-seo Jeon (Shin Hae-mi), Soo-Kyung Kim (Yeon-ju), Seung-ho Choi (Lee Yong-seok), Seong-kun Mun (Lawyer), Bok-gi Min (Judge), Soo-Jeong Lee (Prosecutor), Hye-ra Ban (Jong-su's Mom), Mi-Kyung Cha (Hae-mi's Mom), Bong-ryeon Lee (Hae-mi's Sister), Wonhyeong Jang (Won-hyeong), Seok-Chan Jeon (Seok-chan), Ja-Yeon Ok (Ja-yeon). 
The great South Korean director Lee Chang-dong makes his long awaited follow-up to a pair of subtle masterworks – Secret Sunshine (2007) and Poetry (2010) – and delivers his best film to date. Burning adapts and expands a short story by Haruki Murakami, and turns it into a two-and-a-half-hour slow burn thriller that so gradually, expertly shifts gears from one thing to another that you don’t quite realize it’s switched until it’s over. It is a masterful film – and a haunting one, that lingers in your mind long after the end credits role.
The film focuses on Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo), an aspiring writer, working part time as a delivery man in Seoul – when he isn’t his family’s rundown family farm not far from the North Korean border, as his father faces (yet another) criminal charge. The movie starts when he runs into Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon), a young woman from his hometown, and immediately falls for her. They don’t have much time together before she’s going on a trip to Africa – but she asks him to watch over her cat while she is away. He never sees the cat, but it must be there – the food is always gone, and the litter box needs to be cleaned. When Hae-mi returns, it’s in the company of Ben (Steven Yeun), one of those young men of affluence that no one ever sees working, and no one quite knows what he does (Jong-su calls him Gatsby). What follows isn’t much of a love triangle – Hae-mi is quite clearly with Ben, even if she and Jong-su never have a conversation about it. But she still wants to be friends – and so does Ben. But there is something about Ben that doesn’t sit well with Jong-su. And in the audience, we understand why – while Ben is outwardly friendly, there is an air of superiority and condensation in his every interaction with Jong-su. But is it really just jealousy, or is there something deeper there? Does Jong-su read too much in his every interaction with Ben – and how Ben treats Hae-mi? A scene about half way through the film, with the two men sharing a joint at Jong-su family farm, where Ben confesses his secret to Jong-su – that every couple of months, he burns down a greenhouse – and he has another one picked out, quite close by – is the one the whole film hinges on. That sequence ends with a surreal dance sequence by Hae-mi in the fading sunlight to Miles Davis. From that point on, the movie becomes a different animal.
While the film concentrates on Jong-su throughout – the film never really leaves his side – it’s almost as if each of the three acts has us trying to figure out one of the three major characters. In the first act, we are alongside Jong-su, as he tries to decipher what exactly Hae-mi wants from him. Their relationship is sweet in the way that teenage relationships are sweet, as Jong-su seems very naïve and inexperienced, although Hae-mi does not. There is a note of sadness to their interactions as well – and Jong-su never quite figures her out. When Ben arrives in the second act, the focuses switches to Jing-su trying to figure him out – who he is, what he does, why he does it. Ben is one of those infuriating people who everyone loves because he’s so nice, so charming – and yet you cannot stand him for some reason (in one scene Jong-su struggles to explain to Hae-mi what seems off about Ben, and all he can come up with “Look at him – cooking, while listening to music”). As Jong-su admits at another point, to him the whole world is a mystery – Hae-mi and Ben are to him. The final act, which plays like a thriller, is also a more meticulous study of Jong-su – as now, we in the audience are examining him, and what he does, and his actions, to try and figure him out. By the end of the film, stripped bare and childlike, Jong-su may understand more than he did, but he still doesn’t have his answer.
Burning, like Secret Sunshine and Poetry before it, rewards viewers who have patience, and watch the films closely. Both of those films were longer as well – not quite as long as Burning, but close – that takes its time revealing the mystery at its core. In Burning, class is never explicitly referenced – never really talked about, but really is at the core of the whole movie – and what it all means. It’s there in Chang-dong’s other movies as well. This is the best work yet by a filmmaker I’ve thought is one of the best in the world since walking into Secret Sunshine completely cold at TIFF back in 2007 – and still doesn’t quite have the reputation in North America he deserves. Burning will hopefully change that. It is nothing less than a masterpiece.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Movie Review: Halloween (2018)

Halloween **** / *****
Directed by: David Gordon Green.
Written by: David Gordon Green & Danny McBride & Jeff Fradley based on characters created by John Carpenter & Debra Hill.
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis (Laurie Strode), Judy Greer (Karen), Andi Matichak (Allyson), James Jude Courtney (The Shape), Nick Castle (The Shape), Haluk Bilginer (Dr. Sartain), Will Patton (Officer Hawkins), Rhian Rees (Dana Haines), Jefferson Hall (Aaron Korey), Toby Huss (Ray), Virginia Gardner (Vicky), Dylan Arnold (Cameron Elam), Miles Robbins (Dave), Drew Scheid (Oscar), Jibrail Nantambu (Julian), P.J. Soles (Teacher).
There have now been 11 Halloween films over the last 40 years – 10 of them featuring Michael Myers – and it continues to be the best horror franchise of its type. This has been a series that has tried, with varying degrees of success, to reinvent itself over and over again throughout its run – from the strange third installment, which omitted Myers altogether, to H20 which brought the franchise into the Scream era, to the two Rob Zombie movies, in which he attempted to make two movies about trauma – the first, about Michael’s trauma, and the second about Laurie’s. You may not like all of these attempts, but you have to admire the franchise for attempting them – especially since its closest contemporaries – Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street – mainly seem content to keep repeating themselves over and over again (even if, Jason goes to space, he’s still Jason). This newest version, which jettisons everything in the mythology that didn’t come from the 1978 original – gets exactly what has set this franchise apart from the others – mainly, “final girl” Laurie Strode herself – the survivor of the original massacre, who has become as iconic a character as the killer himself – something completely unheard of elsewhere in the genre. The movie takes seriously the trauma that Laurie suffered that night 40 years ago, and how it has affected her entire life. It is also just a really, really entertaining horror movie. So while it still doesn’t come close to the level of perfection the 1978 version is, it’s about as good of a sequel as anyone could expect 40 years later.
The premise of the new film is that ever since that night 40 years ago, Myers has been institutionalized, where once again he doesn’t say anything or do anything – he simply sits and bides his time, waiting for his chance to escape and kill again (the movie doesn’t explain how he got captured, since of course the finale of the original is him getting away – but no matter). Once again, Myers is due to be transferred – this time to a maximum security prison, on October 30th again (they should have at least delayed it until November 1st). And of course, once again the transfer goes wrong – and Michael comes back to Haddonfield – determined to finish what he started all those years ago.
The movie introduces us to a pair of podcasters as a way to give us the information we need – where Michael has been, and what happened to Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) in the years since. She has essentially become a survivalist, living in her remote home, which she has fortified and booby trapped and filled with weapons. Her paranoia has cost her two marriages – and her daughter, Karen (Judy Greer) who she lost custody of when she as 12, and the relationship is still strained. Now, Karen has a daughter herself – Allyson (Andi Matichak) – who is, of course, the same age Laurie was 40 years ago. This gives the movie a chance to give us a lot more teens lined up for slaughter (also, thankfully, the film seems to know the podcasters are kind of annoying – and dispatches them when they are no longer needed). The world’s worst psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis is of course long dead, but he has been replaced by his protégé, Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer) – and I’ll leave it to you to discover if he’s as bad at his job as Loomis clearly was.
The director this time is David Gordon Green – who isn’t the first name you’d think of to do a horror movie. His days as one of the most promising indie filmmakers in the world (George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow, Snow Angels) is far back in the past – and although he has become somewhat of a journeyman director in the years since, he knows how to make a movie – and this is one of his best. While the film is more violent – with a higher body count, and more blood – than Carpenter’s original film, for the most part he follows Carpenter’s lead in that the violence isn’t as brutal as you may expect it to be – and for the most part, he allows the victims to be people first, before they are killed. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising since Danny McBride is one of the screenwriters, but the film is also quite funny at times – best of all is a little kid named Julian, one of my favorite additions.
Green and company’s reverence for the original film is evident throughout – there are a lot of references to the original film – in dialogue, in visual gags and setups, etc. – but this isn’t here just as fan service. It works here, and Green and company use them to upend our expectations. And the filmmakers also are smart enough to know where the emotional core of this film will be – in the three generations of Strode women, all of whom are smart, strong and resourceful – even as their family bond has been tested and strained over the years (or perhaps because of it). By now, Curtis could do this role in her sleep – but she doesn’t. She brings real pathos to her role here – as we see the price of the trauma her – and how it has been passed down to future generations.
The one thing that I think could have made this Halloween even better is had it been a little bit scarier. The film is fun and entertaining, emotionally resonant, and tense – and yet, I don’t know if I ever felt the true, bone deep terror, that the best horror movies make you feel – including the original, that still does it to me, despite the fact that I’ve seen it about 10 times now. But the movie does pretty much every other thing right, so I guess we cannot have it all.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Movie Review: The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give **** / *****
Directed by: George Tillman Jr.
Written by: Audrey Wells based upon the novel by Angie Thomas.
Starring: Amandla Stenberg (Starr Carter), Regina Hall (Lisa Carter), Russell Hornsby (Maverick 'Mav' Carter), Anthony Mackie (King), Issa Rae (April Ofrah), Common (Carlos), Algee Smith (Khalil), Sabrina Carpenter (Hailey), K.J. Apa (Chris), Dominique Fishback (Kenya), Lamar Johnson (Seven Carter), TJ Wright (Sekani), Megan Lawless (Maya), Rhonda Johnson Dents (Miss Rosalie).
The Hate U Give has to try and accomplish so much in its 135-minute runtime, that its amazing it pulls off as much as it does – and its inevitable, that some of it will play more like an afterthought. It’s based on a Young Adult novel by Angie Thomas – and you can tell the movies roots in some its broadest elements, the way the screenplay gives everyone a monologue in which they make explicit how they feel, and how the story chooses to wrap everything up in the end. You could easily dismiss the film as being a Black Lives Matter for teens primer, if you want to, and perhaps that’s even fair. But someone, more often than not, The Hate U Give works – at its most basic level, it is the story a young, black girls’ political coming of age – how she becomes radicalized, because that seems like the only choice. If it’s all wrapped up in too simple a package – so be it. I think teenagers need to hear this message – and I know a lot of adults who need to as well.
The story focuses on Starr (Amandla Stenberg), a young black girl who lives in the crime ridden inner city, but who goes to the affluent, white suburbs to attend high school. She makes it clear in the beginning that she torn between two worlds – she cannot be too much school Starr in her neighborhood, because it would make her look weak, but she cannot be too much home Starr at school, as it may make her look “ghetto”. Almost all her classmates are white – and they embrace black culture, like slang and music, but Starr is smart enough to know they can do that, and still shrug it off when they want to – that’s called white privilege, and she doesn’t have it. The story really gets started at a party in her neighborhood one weekend – a party she flees with Khalil (Algee Smith) after an argument leads to a gun being drawn. She has known Khalil since they were kids, but they’ve drifted apart in recent years – her because she goes to that white school, and him because his grandma has gotten sick, and the only way to make money is to sell drugs. And if you sell drugs in that neighborhood, you work for King (Anthony Mackie). A cop, of course, will pull Khalil and Starr over on the way home from the party, and of course, confusion over a hair brush, will end with Khalii dead in the street. The moral question at the core is whether Starr will stand up for her friend and testify. Will it make a difference, or will it be yet another cop getting away with murder? Will telling what she knows about King, make him angry and come after her? Her father, Maverick (Russell Hornsby) used to work for King – but got out years ago after a stint in prison – he now runs a convenience store.
There are more subplots – a lot more subplots. About her white boyfriend, Chris (K.J. Apa), or her white friends in school – who when confronted with the reality will not take it well. About her mother Lisa (Regina Hall), her half-brother Seven (Lamar Johnson), fathered by Maverick during a brief breakup with Lisa, whose mother now lives with King. Of her younger brother Sekani (TJ Wright), always smiling. About April Ofrah (Issa Rae), an activity for an organization called Just Us for Justice, which is a way of bringing up Black Lives Matter, without saying the words. About her uncle Carlos (Common), a cop himself, who believes in the system, although in a powerful moment recognizes that he might have acted the same way with Khalil – but not a white man in the same situation. And on, and on and on. You can cram all of these plots into a book – or a TV show – it’s hard to do so in a movie and not make it feel overstuffed. Director George Tillman Jr. does an admirable job of doing just that.
It’s perhaps even more admirable that Tillman and company find a way to portray systematic racism, instead of individual racism. Movies, most often, excel at being stories about people, not systems, which is why it seems like other recent movies that try and cover similar ground (be it Detroit or Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri) tend to look more at bad apples, than a system wide failure. Here, culminating in a riot, the film gets the balance right.
It’s everything after that riot – where Starr yells back at the police through a bullhorn, and throws the teargas back at them, that doesn’t really work. That scene is a powerful climax – that shows the violence, yet shows how inevitable it is when people are systematically oppressed, and shoved into a corner, that works wonderfully. After, there are scenes at her father convenience store, and then a wrap-up montage, that feel false and forced. It feels designed to make the audience feel better rather than a natural end of the movie.
Still, so much of the movie works – even the monologues – that the ending is a blip instead of a fatal flaw. You will leave remembering Common’s scene, admitting his own bias, or the scene where Hall explains why she stayed with Maverick, or when Hornsby explains his worldview. And you will remember the remarkable performance by the young Stenberg. Sure, the movie is too long and overstuffed, and has a cluttered, inauthentic ending. But what it does well is more than enough to overcome what it doesn’t.

Movie Review: Galveston

Galveston *** / *****
Directed by: Mélanie Laurent.
Written by: Jim Hammett based on the novel by Nic Pizzolatto.
Starring: Ben Foster (Roy Cady), Elle Fanning (Raquel Arceneaux), Lili Reinhart (Tiffany), María Valverde (Carmen), Beau Bridges (Stan), Robert Aramayo (Tray), Adepero Oduye (Loraine), Tinsley Price/Anniston Price (Young Tiffany), C.K. McFarland (Nancy Covington).
The story being told in Mélanie Laurent’s Galveston is pretty much predictable from beginning to end – it’s another crime drama about a low rent criminal, who appears to be brutal and violent, but has a sensitive soul underneath that exterior, and the much younger woman he falls in love with – even as we know this is all going to lead to tragedy. In its outline and outlook, it’s not surprising to learn it’s based on a novel by Nic Pizzolatto, the creator or True Detective, which had one great, if overwritten, season, and one that was wildly all over the map (I hold out hope for the upcoming Season 3). And yet, the film is worth seeing for a few reasons – two of them being Ben Foster and Elle Fanning, who individually make almost anything worth seeing, so having them together is great, but perhaps more importantly because director Mélanie Laurent seems to intuitively understand that the story in her movie is on rails, so she allows herself to take some chances in its telling.
The film stars Foster as Roy Cady, a low level enforcer in New Orleans, working for a bad man named Stan (Beau Bridges), who is given a job that is pretty much nothing except a setup to get him – and a few others killed – so Stan can cover his own tracks. It doesn’t work for Roy, who flees New Orleans, and heads back to his home town of Galveston, Texas – believing that he has terminal cancer anyway, he doesn’t much care if he dies, but he doesn’t really want to let Stan be the one who kills him. Along the way, he picks up Rocky (Fanning), a 19-year-old girl working as a prostitute, but too naïve to really understand that is what she is doing. He keeps thinking he’s going to throw her out of the car, but never does. She even convinces him to swing by her house in Orange, Texas – and as he waits in the car, he hears a gunshot, and Rocky emerges with her three-year old sister, Tiffany. They end up in a low rent motel in Galveston, run by Nancy (C.K. McFarland) – and become a de facto family of three – even if there is no sex between Roy and Rocky, mainly because he doesn’t see her that way. They even have separate rooms. But no sex doesn’t mean no love.
Perhaps the biggest surprise about Galveston – given its origins as a Pizzolatto novel – is how little dialogue there is (in True Detective, he LOVED his overwrought, explanatory dialogue). The movie seems to sense it’s not necessary to tell the story, and Laurent has faith in her actors to be able to express themselves without much in the way of constant chatter – and she even avoids the clichéd close-ups here as well. Roy, feeling he is at the end of his life, is trying to set some things right – he goes to see an ex-girlfriend for example, although the pain he feels when it becomes clear they view their past relationship in radically different ways, is palpable. The whole middle section of the film is given to their life at that motel – an interlude from the real forces outside that are going to descend on them – as their bond deepens. Foster is gifted at going over the top, but this year, he has no delivered two impressive, under stated performances (he is better in Leave No Trace, but he’s really good here). Fanning isn’t really playing a Manic Pixie Dream Girl – a bad habit these movies often fall into – but someone who has already experienced too much pain and suffering for someone so young.
The ending, when it comes, has a feeling of inevitability to it – you don’t get to walk away from people like Stan. The violence on display in that ending is sickening – but mainly because Laurent decides not to show it in graphic detail. She sticks with Roy during this time (perhaps a leftover from the novel – which was told from his point-of-view) but that doesn’t mean the ending doesn’t really pack a wallop. The films closing sequence – set 20 years in the future –perhaps tries too hard for emotional catharsis – something not needed because what happens before then works better (although, it does tie up loose ends audiences would ask about).
Ultimately, Galveston is not a great movie – the story remains too clichéd, and although Laurent’s telling of it is surprising, she doesn’t upend those clichés the way someone like Lynne Ramsay did in this year’s You Were Never Really Here. What she does do though is take a movie that could have been made on autopilot, and finds a different, more unique way of telling it. Give her a better script, and she’s ready to make a great movie – especially if she brings Foster and Fanning with her.

Movie Review: Apostle

Apostle *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Gareth Evans.
Written by: Gareth Evans.
Starring: Dan Stevens (Thomas Richardson), Kristine Froseth (Ffion), Lucy Boynton (Andrea), Michael Sheen (Prophet Malcolm), Bill Milner (Jeremy), Mark Lewis Jones (Quinn), Elen Rhys (Jennifer), Paul Higgins (Frank), Annes Elwy (Sinead), Ross O'Hennessy (John the suspicious one), Ioan Hefin (Bell ringer), Richard Elfyn (Charles), Sebastian McCheyne (The Grinder).
Gareth Evans’ Apostle is one of the strangest horror films of the year – a film that starts out unsettling, and then moves into full on carnage in its second hour. That the film is too long is a given – so was Evans’ last feature, The Raid 2 – his ambitious sequel to his straight forward cops invading office building debut The Raid – but your kind of have to admire Evans for sticking to his vision so intently. The film doesn’t always work, but it always feels like an original, daring piece of work.
It’s 1905, and Thomas (Dan Stevens) has returned to his father for the first time in years, only to discover that his sister, Jennifer (Elen Rhys) has been kidnapped, and is being held hostage on a remote island, populated entirely by a religious cult run by Prophet Malcolm (Martin Sheen). The cult has demanded money for Thomas’ wealthy father, but the old man has been broken by this news – and wants to ensure he will actually get his daughter back. Thomas travels to the island undercover, with a bunch of new recruits, to try and figure out what is going on – and to save his sister. Over the course of the movie, we’ll find out a lot of surprising things about not only the cult, but about Thomas himself.
The first hour of the movie is a slow burn, as Thomas tries to get the lay of the land, and figure out just what exactly is going on. The cult has become desperate – their crops are failing, and they will soon starve if they cannot figure out what is going wrong right now – or at least get that money for Jennifer, to sustain them. The cult has started to eat each other from the inside out – the three most senior members, Malcolm, Frank (Paul Higgins) and Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones) – are barely holding it together. Each of them have a child on the island with them – and they too are holding onto secrets that could explode the whole thing. Thomas is able to sense this uneasiness, and take advantage of it – but that’s before the true nature of the cult becomes apparent, and it’s not quite like other cults.
It’s clear here what Evans’ inspiration for this film is – mainly The Wicker Man, another film about an outsider who gets inside of a cult, and gets more than he bargained for. Evans draws this out more than – the first half slowly revealing how perverse everything is, the second half falling into blood and viscera, as everything comes crashing down. Evans draws some good performances out of his cast – Stevens perhaps gives the game away a little too early, as he seems crazed from the start, but he does this sort of thing well. Sheen is quite good as the smiling cult leader, betraying something darker – although nowhere near as dark as what Mark Lewis Jones’ Quinn is hiding. This helps as the films second half keeps going deeper and deeper into depravity.
Is Apostle too long? Sure – there is a reason most horror movies top out around the 90-minute mark, and this one goes on for 130 minutes. And yet, Evans uses that time wisely – to build the tension more, to drop us deeper into the decay of it all. Yes, he goes on too long, but I think a 90 minute films wouldn’t quite get to the depths he’s aiming for. And more importantly, the extra length makes the film feel more authentic – less a product of a machine designed to churn out horror films, and more the work of an individual. Yes, its overindulgent, but here at least, that’s better than not being indulgent enough.
I was also impressed at how completely Evans seems to be want to make something different than what he has done before. Yes, The Raid, The Raid 2 and now Apostle are all brutally violent – but they are violent in a different way. If Evans’ real goal here was to show he wasn’t a one trick pony, then mission accomplished.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Movie Review: Bad Times at the El Royale

Bad Times at the El Royale *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Drew Goddard.
Written by: Drew Goddard.
Starring: Jeff Bridges (Father Daniel Flynn/Dock O’Kelly), Cynthia Erivo (Darlene Sweet), Dakota Johnson (Emily Summerspring), Jon Hamm (Laramie Seymour Sullivan/Dwight Broadbeck), Chris Hemsworth (Billy Lee), Cailee Spaeny (Rose Summerspring), Lewis Pullman (Miles Miller), Nick Offerman (Felix O’Kelly), Xavier Dolan (Buddy Sunday), Shea Whigham (Dr. Woodbury Laurence), Manny Jacinto (Wade), Katharine Isabelle (Auntie Ruth).
Drew Goddard’s first film as a director was the wonder The Cabin in the Woods (2012), which pulled back the veil on horror movies, and reveled in exposing all the tropes of the genre in a clever way. In doing so, Goddard wanted to make the audience wrestle with the genre itself – why it works, how it works, and how we watch it. He is trying for something similar in Bad Times at the El Royale with the Tarantino-esque crime movie – and the result is decidedly more mixed. The film is WAY too long for one thing (at two hours and twenty minutes, it feels a good 45 minutes too long, especially in the middle part of the film that sags mightily). I’m also not quite sure Goddard fully nails what makes us watch these films – nor is he fully able to implicate the genres lack of morality and cheap bloodlust in a way that makes sense in the same way The Cabin in the Woods did. Yet, I will say, that Bad Times at the El Royale is still a mightily entertaining movie – and I feel myself liking it more the more I think about it. Perhaps a second viewing would snap everything into focus for me.
The film takes place at the title hotel, which has a giant red line down the middle of it, separating the part of the hotel that lays in California for the part that lays in Nevada (for all the talk this line generates, I still have no idea why Goddard did this – but oh well). It’s sometimes in the late 1960s/early 1970s, and the once thriving hotel is on its last legs. It has one employee – Miles (Lewis Pullman), a nervous young man who disappears for long stretches of time. A few guests start showing up, and milling about the lobby waiting to be checked in. There is Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a kindly old priest, Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a travelling salesman, Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) a singer down on her luck, and the mysterious Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) who shows up in a fast car, and wants to talk to no one. If you wanted to break the film up into three acts, you could say the first act has all the characters lying to each other, the second act has those lies come unraveled for the audience, and the third act throws a grenade at the proceedings in the form of Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), a Charles Manson-type leader who talks. A lot.
For me, I enjoyed the setup of the movie. As a writer, Goddard is deliberately overwriting the dialogue here to sound like movie dialogue, but also for it to all sound like an act (because it is). This sort of meta-writing can go wrong – really wrong – but it’s here where he is aided by his terrific cast who deliver the dialogue precisely as it should be delivered (no one is better at it here than Hamm – having a blast as the overcompensating salesman). The setup probably runs too long – but it’s at least an enjoyable too long. The second act is the weakest – it has everyone split up into their various rooms, or as groups of two, and either through long flashbacks or dialogue heavy exposition reveals their real stories. By the time Hemsworth swaggers into the hotel – shirtless, coming out of the rain, he is sorely needed, as the film has ground to a halt.
I don’t want to spoil any more about the film. What I will say is that this kind of genre deconstruction is not an easy thing to pull off – especially when you are disguising your film as one of that genre, and want to wrap it up in an entertaining package. Even in The Cabin in the Woods – as brilliant as that film is – has its issues (the biggest being that the film never manages to be scary, as its so wrapped up in being clever, it just never gets there). Here, you just want to goose the story along a little bit – I know Tarantino’s last film The Hateful Eight, was both three hours long and in a single location, but that combination is a hard one to pull off, and Goddard doesn’t quite do it here (he would have been better using the 90-minute Reservoir Dogs as his guide).
Still, I admired a lot about Bad Times at the El Royale – if for no other reason than I have no idea when the last time I saw a film like this go in wide release, and I appreciate the effort. But more than that, I think this is the type of film that will grow over time – it didn’t do particularly well in theaters this past weekend, but I think cult status is likely here. And I want to revisit it myself – I think there’s more going on in this flawed movie than I took in the first viewing.