Sunday, October 14, 2018

Bad Times at the El Royale

Spoiler-free!

Drew Goddard is the man behind The Martian's screenplay and the director and co-writer of The Cabin in the Woods. He's also series creator of Netflix's best MCU show, Daredevil. All things I adore. And now, Bad Times at the El Royale. It's all his, and the things about those former movies that I suspected came from his mind has confirmation. I will officially watch anything that Goddard puts his pen on, because I love the way this guy writes.

We're on the same wavelength or something. ... I wish. 

This movie is the sort of movie that shouldn't be explained. It's also the sort of movie where if you watch the trailer and think you'll like it... well, I honestly would be shocked if you didn't. And while the style and tone are great indicators of what the viewing experience will be like, you'll walk away loving the undisclosed details if you walk away loving anything at all.

It starts out on a great foot and with an explosive bang, showing off visual storytelling, glee-inducing yet simple camerawork and drop-dead gorgeous colors and lighting. The opening scene is very much a miniature reflection of the entire movie. After that, things get going in a cool and leisurely pace with brisk undertones that serves as a reminder of what is promised to come. But the film doesn't get ahead of itself and carefully introduces each character, showing them interact and introducing intrigue in each. That introductory scene, and many after, felt almost theatrical, like an immaculately staged and well-rehearsed play. When it closed I felt the need to give applause.

Like in a play much of the interest comes from watching the actors interact with each other and the sets. There's a palpable energy between them.

It utilized chapters with old-timey title cards to mix up the perspective, one for each of the seven characters, and a fun side effect is that some events are witnessed multiple times, from differing perspectives, each one adding to the information and delving further into the mystery and intrigue. Also it's just plain a heck of a lot of fun for the audience. Every time a new title card is introduced it feels like a turning point, immediately dropping an info bomb about the corresponding character that shakes up the plot in magnificent ways.

All this fits inside a classic three-act structure, and helps with the building of tension and rise and fall of action, which turns out downright masterfully, but honestly what else would you expect from a writer who directs his own work? Goddard though, is perhaps exceptionally good at the job. He could've made this story about anyone with equally fascinating results. The mystery isn't even a mind-bender; it's merely crafted in a way that makes you eager to understand it. A perfect balance of revealing and withholding.

I like a movie with a slow burn. This one has firecrackers at intervals. And a hefty stick of dynamite for the end. 

I won't even bother to describe who the seven are. They are the movie's mystery. The El Royale is located on the California/Nevada state line, and guests must choose which side to stay on. There's a theme of false choices. For the hotel it's clear cut: California or Nevada. But with people it's more complex than that. "Good or bad? Right or wrong?" Well, what if a person's good but pretends to be bad? Or bad and pretends to be good? What if they think they're bad but they're good? Vice versa? Maybe they know if they're good or bad and own it. And maybe they don't know one side from the other or up from down. Is that seven options? Well, you get the idea.

Performance-wise, stand-outs will differ from viewer to viewer, but no one -- and I mean no one -- lacks in their performance at all. They're professionals, all, and each has significant moments to shine. Me, I particularly loved these three: Jeff Bridges, never not a standout, Cynthia Erivo, perfectly balanced with the voice of an angel, and Lewis Pullman, unexpected highlight of the whole film. I kid you not. And I exaggerate not. (Fun tidbit: he's Bill Pullman's son.) Dakota Johnson was way cooler than I thought she'd be, Cailee Spaeny was kind of brilliantly hilarious, Jon Hamm was a fun edgy/charm combo, and Chris Hemsworth was weird and very off-putting. Intentionally, of course.

My cynical side hopes that people who go solely to see him shirtless will be disappointed. My optimistic side hopes they'll instead be hit with the real magic of this movie. 

I figured they'd utilize music, but I had no idea of how far it would be taken, and how ingrained would be. There's almost always something playing, or someone singing, and all in-story. It bleeds into the style. There's a beautifully long and immaculately timed one-shot where a character is singing and another is sleuthing that I never wanted to end. The violence was all well and good -- no secret: the violence was my favorite parts every time -- but the intentional, calm pace in between is what keeps the movie thriving. Whether it lulls you into false comfort, or makes you aware of the impending doom, it's in that patience and restraint where the story is crafted.

Then the violence and the thrills come, and the prepared background makes them pop and startle with what seems like no effort at all. It's all in the prep work. This isn't an action movie, but those spurts of action put most action flicks to shame with how well-done and explosive they are. And this is my kind of film because in between those brief but generous spurts is character attention and exploration that is for me equally as exciting and fights and blood splatter; and it simultaneously works to enhance that action by putting stakes behind it all.

I didn't mention the dark humor. There's dark humor that I loved. Subtle. Unnecessary. And OH-so-fine. 

I'd love to have a deeper grasp on the themes explored here. I can't get into it here since I wanted to avoid spoilers, but the night I saw it I couldn't sleep for thinking about the themes and how they were portrayed. There was some wonderfully clever and impactful symbolism that struck me, and I've been pondering on it all ever since. It'll take a second viewing at least to strengthen and solidify my interpretation, and who knows how many more before all those lines and details even begin to get boring. If there's a threshold, I plan to find it.

Bad Times at the El Royale is a rich and silky-smooth thriller, pensive but not pedantic, intricate but never stale or tedious, sufficiently intense and mature, yet distinctly and determinedly fun -- and absolutely glowing in devious red neon. It may not be everyone's ideal vacation into the silver screen, but for those like me, who enjoy the... shall we say... less touristy locales... that perhaps feature the dangerous mark of a devoted artist... this incident may as well have been hidden away just for you to find.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Venom

Mild spoilers, I guess. TBH there's not much to spoil.

The sooner studios that aren't Marvel realize that when dealing with superhero movies, they're so far behind the game that it would be wiser and more productive to invent an entirely new game, the sooner the superhero genre can get the revitalization it so desperately needs. Sadly, I expect it won't happen until the genre has first died off completely. And Venom is just one more nail in a very, very large coffin.

Look: I gave it the best chance I possibly could. I tried. It didn't. You let me down, EDDIE.

It's not awful. No, okay, it is awful, but not any more so than your average by-the-book Marvel movie. And it does have a few things to it that Disney Marvel won't do -- like semi-horror scenes and tastefully biting people's heads off -- but in the grand scheme of things that amounts just about nil. It makes the movie stand out from the pack as much as Ant-Man and the Wasp stood out from the pack because people shrink in it. In other words, yes, there are some different details in the dressing, but it's all still the same stale formula.

Even worse for Venom than Ant-Man though, because Sony doesn't have Marvel's secret sauce recipe. Instead they copy and fudge their way through, but the template they're trying to recreate is all wrong for the character. Marvel origins are exclusively redemption arcs, but Eddie and Venom are supposed to be an anti-hero. And "he's an anti-hero because he kills people sometimes" doesn't cut it, okay? Eddie ends up a better person than he starts and is in perfect control and harmony with Venom. Even in The-Movie-We-Shall-Not-Mention (Spider-Man 3, shhhh) Venom offered a temptation to Eddie that was appealing -- an addiction. Here, they're just kinda... buddies.

"EDDIE, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

I guess it was meant to be funny, and it almost was, but at the sake of compelling character. They also could've gone the route of: Eddie is a determined good guy; Venom is a determined bad guy; but they're stuck together and have to make it work. They did a little, early on. I guess I'm fixating on the way everything concluded. But come on -- the movie stopped right as it was starting to get interesting, so of course I am! I just wanted the status quo to be balanced. At first Venom is in control, then Eddie is in control but allows Venom privileges. I wanted more like the part where they're arguing about whether they should put their hands up or not -- but without the cheesiness.

I'm sure there's any number of ways the dynamic could've been more compelling. As a start, maybe cast a different actor as Venom's voice. It's hard to banter with yourself, you know? The problem is just that they put in minimum effort all around. Not that they made the wrong choices; that they made no choices. The whole time it felt uncomfortable, like it was being forced into a shape that didn't fit it. They had their risk-less, badly-formed mold, and their unusual, kinda dark, little baby story -- and maybe they were scared to try anything crazy, or maybe they just wanted to appease an audience, but they neglected it, plain and simple.

OR, they could've had Eddie lose Venom for longer, and have him actually try to get him back.

Poor Tom Hardy. I genuinely thought, when the teaser trailer released, that I would enjoy the movie no matter what, just because he was the lead, and there wasn't much CGI in sight. They even said Venom would have only 5 mins of screen time. They were right. I counted. But he was still always present -- reaching out with his CGI arms and saying "EDDIE" over and over, and not allowing a single moment's peace. And then there's three other symbiotes to consider. All in all, the movie is teeming with them. Hardy does his best, but it really makes no difference. He merely seems at odds with the movie's tone and lack of depth to explore.

Everyone else -- Riz Ahmed, Michelle Williams, whoever played her doctor boyfriend -- I couldn't care less about, except Jenny Slate. I tried to like Eddie, but Jenny's character was the only one I felt anything for. She had a unique and important position in the story, she had a dilemma, conflict, threat... she should've been the main character, or at least the main supporting character. What a wasted opportunity. I didn't fall for the rumor it was going to be rated R (I did fall for the Spidey cameo one though, and that was a whopping BUST) but man, they should've gone for the R. They had to go out of their way to keep it PG-13.

Every time the camera does a "tasteful turn-away" you can feel the regret.

And the times you could feel the want of violence were the best -- when the tone edged on horror and the dark comedy got actually dark. They could've had something moody and strange -- like The Predator with it's I-do-what-I-want tone that audiences had to decide to take or leave. Or it might've been the blockbuster version of Upgrade, just with big action sequences and franchise-able characters.

It did remind me of both those films at times, but in ways that made me sigh and wish I were watching them instead. Venom isn't the worst superhero movie ever, but it is... it's just... it's... not even worth a wrap-up line.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Dogfight

Wow. Okay. Full disclosure: I'm probably going to end up underrating this.

First of all, diving into River Phoenix's filmography is probably the best decision I made this whole year. This movie is so sweet in such a non-sappy, real-world, almost gritty way. I hate to use the word "gritty." It's not really that. Let's just say, if this movie were a metal, it would have a soft bushed finish instead of a reflective, shiny one. In many ways it's more pleasant to touch because it feels real and natural, but still isn't coarse.

Written by a man (Bob Comfort) and directed by a woman (Nancy Savoca) which probably helped in creating the unconventional tonal balance.

Plot: The night before their unit is shipped off to Vietnam in 1963, some Marine buddies host a party called a Dogfight, where they pitch in money, rent a bar, and bring the ugliest date they can find. The ugliest wins the prize. Eddie (River Phoenix) happens upon the daughter of a coffee shop owner, Rose (Lili Taylor). She's certainly not conventionally attractive, so he invites her. But she's also sweet, genuine, and intelligent person, so when she agrees, Eddie quickly begins to regret the whole situation.

It's literally almost nothing but a developing dynamic between two very different but strangely compatible people; the surface attraction that brings them together for the night, their arguments, how they clash and conflict, their discussions, their differing mindsets, and the slow development of genuine affection between them. All shown through situations that expose their character; flaws along with the good stuff.

An engaging character study that doesn't feel like a chore to pay attention to.

River's character was of course very good. At this point I expected nothing less, but he still impresses me. Eddie's sharply defined with a great balance of positive and negative qualities and is engaging yet not too hard to understand. A great team effort of writing and performance. But I was really surprised with Lili Taylor and the character of Rose. I saw the trailer and was immediately like, "Yeah, okay she's definitely not that ugly" and thought I had the movie figured out.

Basically, she just has some unusual facial bone structure, and clearly they were going to try and make her less physically appealing. So, I went in expecting to not buy that someone who looks like River could fall in love with her, all done up that way; and that it would feel like a pity romance. Like, he feels bad for her, so he hangs out with her to make her feel better, and somewhere along there a romance gets shoehorned in.

But it's not like that at all. From the second she turned around, showing her face for the first time, I understood her appeal. She wasn't physically attractive, but she was instantly warm and open, and she drew me in. Then as she and River started to dialogue, honest-to-goodness chemistry existed between them, and she had this quiet but bold confidence to her that challenged his often brazen attitude -- and I quickly realized I needed to settle in for some real and serious romance. From that moment it had me, and didn't let go through the whole run time.

Serious romance. But there was comedy too; light, well-ingrained, and non-distracting. 

And I loved that at the start she seemed like she could take or leave him, while he was showing signs of being genuinely attracted. Especially when he's regretting bringing her to the dogfight and subtly trying to get out of it. He actually had to pursue her to win her over, and that's such a huge difference for the high school romance cliche where the ugly duckling is finally noticed by the handsome guy when she improves her appearance and shows him her winning personality.

Here, Rose does improve her appearance, and she most definitely has a winning personality, but she has an innate and immediate attractive quality too, and that's why it makes sense when Eddie latches on so fast. Also, he may look like River Phoenix sporting a high-and-tight, but he had hard edges and baggage that made him less of the classic romantic catch. Their flaws complemented each other, and they worked well together. They're unusual, but they make sense. And that's the sole reason this movie works.

Otherwise, the production around them doesn't let them down. Released in 1991 but set in the 60's and it feels every inch like the 60's. As far as I can tell anyway. The cinematography is simple, but made of that same bushed metal to match the tone of the movie. It takes place almost exclusively at night, so that helps. The music was the greatest supporting aspect by far though, with a wonderful and soulful era-appropriate soundtrack. Rose dreams of being a musician, so they put effort into picking the songs to back their relationship.

I expected it to crumble once the premise didn't hold it up, but it only got better. This movie is no flake.

There were some funny moments, some heartbreaking moments, and some honest and heartfelt moments. There were also a few things I wrinkled my nose at and could've done without in theory, (the movie earns its R-rating) but it all served to portray the appeal of finding a person to connect with on a personal level, as opposed to riding the surface attractions and momentary pleasures. And with an intent like that, I can't much fault the method of execution.

With all that, I think I've talked myself into giving it four stars, so maybe I'm not underrating it after all. It really is sweet, genuine, and honest; the kind of thing I look for in a romance. It may seem strange that a movie could be equally comfortable in being wide-eyed and open, and cynical and blunt, but that's exactly the dynamic between the two leads, so, strange, but appropriate.

It's called Dogfight so the natural assumption of its content may be misleading, but don't be fooled. There's a heart of pure gold here; not all shiny and alluring perhaps -- but this movie doesn't put much stock in appearances where true value is concerned.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Upcoming Movie Roundup - October

Last month I saw my one must-see-in-the-theater-movie, which was The Predator (review). It let a lot of people down apparently, but not me; it was exactly what I wanted and a ton of fun. And I saw Sierra Burgess is a Loser (review) off Netflix which I didn't know was getting released (oops), and I liked that one a ton more than the general audiences too. Oh Well.

I also played catch-up with The Meg (review), Crazy Rich Asians (review), and Upgrade (review). The latter two impressed my very much. Very, very much. And then I started a River Phoenix bender spurred by Running on Empty (review) a new favorite, and I now I'm stuck in the late 80's and very early 90's and feeling a little lackadaisical about all these new movies -- but there's one, maybe two must-sees for me this month, and several more that I'll be wanting to see eventually too. So it should be a good month!

How was your September? What looks good this month??


A Star is Born
Oct 5th; R
It's kinda funny because I've always liked Lady Gaga's voice but never cared for her music or her outlandish appearance. So seeing her like this is super cool, and I'm very interested to see the movie and how her acting talents are. (Pretty good by the look of it.) And Bradley Cooper is always a plus. I guess this is a remake of a remake of a remake or whatever but I've never seen any version, so I don't know what to expect but it looks like an involving music drama.




Venom
Oct 5th; PG-13
I'm tired of seeing this trailer so that's not a good sign, but I already had tickets to see it Thursday night. I want it to be good. Partially because I just want to enjoy it and I've been looking forward to it for a while -- but also partially because everyone else is so sure it's going to be awful and I want it to rise above that. But it keeps feeling more and more stale and I don't have much hope that it will be any more than anyone expects. Maybe, just maybe, it'll surprise me.




Await Further Instructions
Oct 5th(limited); NR
Intense, intimate, British, scifi horror. If this movie delivers on what the trailer promises, I think I'll enjoy it very much.




First Man
Oct 12th; PG-13
When your first feature movie is a movie as remarkable as Whiplash is, I guess it can be hard to find anywhere to go from there. So Damien Chazelle when to Hollywood, and now he's going to the moon. Honestly, I expect this will be my least favorite of his movies, but that doesn't mean I won't think it's great. My expectations are definitely up there. As it stands, Apollo 13 is my favorite real-life story movie and the only one I can think of that I even love, so if this can even come close that'll be an amazing accomplishment in itself.




Bad Times at the El Royale
Oct 12th; R
Now this is my jam! Drew Goddard has an impeccable record of screenwriting as they note here, and directed The Cabin in the Woods, and I'm feeling some of those vibes in this trailer. It's got a wonderfully large cast including Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, and Chris Hemsworth. I have no idea of the plot or what's happening, but I want to see it happen -- and if it has half the style of this trailer with that awesome music usage, then I'm going to have an absolute blast with it.




After Everything
Oct 12th(limited); NR
Rom-com-dram with Maika Monroe. The trailers has some promising wit and energy, but the guy has cancer, so that makes it tempting so fall into cancer-movie cliches. I don't think I'd enjoy it if it did, but I think I'd be willing to see and find out anyway.




Stella's Last Weekend
Oct 12th(limited); NR
Alex and Nat Wolff star in this as brothers, and it's directed by their mom who plays their mom as well, and if that isn't reason enough to see this then what is? The plot has something to do with the last weekend before they put down their sick and aging dong, and there's a girl there who both the brothers like.




Wildlife
Oct 19th(limited); PG-13
If I ever watch this it'll likely be because it's Paul Dano's first film as a director. It's looks like an excellent beginning for him. But I expect it's more of a kind of thing to admire than to love. Carey Mulligan always gives good performances. Jake Gyllenhaal has his moments. I bet Ed Oxenbould is good too.




Mid90's
Oct 19th(limited); NR
And this is Jonah Hill's directorial debut. I like the aspect ratio choice, it really sells the era of the movie. And I like coming-of-age movies so I expect I'll be watching this at some point. Unless there's more going on than appears it won't be a favorite, but I'd be pretty shocked if it isn't worth a look.