Tuesday, October 23, 2018

American Crime Story Hotel: Good Times to Be Had at “Bad Times at the El Royale”

“Bad Times at the El Royale” is one of the more original films to come out in a while. But it has more than its fair share of debt to pay to the noirish crime films that have come out before it. I’m thinking basically everything Quentin Tarantino has done in the past twenty five years. Maybe it’s not one of the most original films to come out in a while. Ok I’m not being fair. It’s a highly entertaining and engaging film. But I’m not sure if it’s quite as hip and cool as it thinks it is. The same goes for writer/director Drew Goddard’s previous effort “The Cabin in the Woods” which was more of an insult to horror fans than the tribute it thought it was. “Bad Times at the El Royale” is a stylish and weird neo-noir crime thriller with a killer 60s soundtrack, some standout performances, and a wacky script. But you won’t leave the film overly moved and you probably won’t be thinking about it days later. The film certainly knows how to entertain though.

Seven strangers at a hotel. That’s the premise. The El Royale used to be a swinging hot spot, sitting right on the line between Nevada and California. There’s a priest (Jeff Bridges), a lounge singer (Cynthia Erivo), a traveling salesman (Jon Hamm), a young woman (Dakota Johnson) with a girl tied up in her trunk (Cailee Spaeny), the concierge (Lewis Pullman), and the charismatic and perennially shirtless Chris Hemsworth. They all have reasons to be at this hotel at this particular moment, and while that feels forced and contrived, you really just have to go with it.

How much more can be said plot-wise without getting into spoiler territory? Pretty much nothing. Money is involved, two-way mirrors, and lots of great Motown songs. And that brings me to the standout here (don’t worry, Chris Hemsworth’s writhing abs who appear to be audition for Magic Mike 3 come in second) which is stage actress Cynthia Erivo in one of her first major film appearances. The only crime she commits is stealing the entire film with her performance and her amazing voice. She’s simply mesmerizing. If it were December we’d be talking Oscar. Everyone gets their moment actually. Johnson is miles away from that bland “Fifty Shades of Grey” nonsense and Lewis Pullman (son of Bill) is definitely a rising star. Veterans Hamm and Bridges do fine work as well.

Oh Drew Goddard why must we have such a difficult love-hate relationship? You’ve made a fun, fascinating film. But, like Frankenstein’s monster (hey it’s almost Halloween), it sort of feels cobbled together from bits and pieces of other great movies. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is actually pretty sensational and the clever editing and twists and turns keep me fully engaged. But you can help but a feel a slight sense of, we’ve sort of seen all of this before. Picture a "best of" Quentin Tarantino. It’s still leaps and bounds better than “The Cabin in the Woods.” While that movie attempted to deconstruct horror films it ended up insulting them instead; “Bad Times at the El Royale” feels way more of a tribute than a ripoff even if it doesn’t exactly break the mold. It’s at least worth checking in.  GRADE: B

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Moonlight: Damien Chazelle Makes Movie Magic Again With the Dazzling “First Man”

Americans are just as fascinated with space movies as they are with space itself. “The Right Stuff” told the story of the first men in space, “Apollo 13” was about the disastrous 1970s moon mission, “Hidden Figures” was about the unseen geniuses behind some of NASA’s successes, and “Gravity” turned space into an intense thriller with nary an alien in sight. And now we orbit around to the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong in “First Man.” The moving and intense film seems like an odd choice for director Damien Chazelle hot off his Oscar win for scrappy musical “La La Land;” so now we have a scrappy space drama. Featuring likable performances from its leads and a surprisingly gritty sense of realism, “First Man” is a fascinating look at the events leading up to Armstrong’s historic moon landing and just how grueling the journey truly was. And to think it was done fifty years ago is simply astonishing.

“First Man” isn’t going to change your life. It has no real social message; it’s a historical document that is meant to engage and entertain. It’s about the theatrical experience and about the importance of the journey since we already know the destination. (I think this is also why his “La La Land” faced such intense backlash, when compared to the simplicity and beauty of “Moonlight” which told a story rarely seen onscreen that could change lives rather than just entertain). Chazelle wipes away the color-infused look of “ La La Land” in favor of a muted palette and really nails the look and feel of something from the 60s in which the film is set. It goes without saying that the space sequences are intense, thrilling, and claustrophobic. When the IMAX screen’s aspect ratio opens up as Armstrong exits his spacecraft on the moon it’s as if we’re Dorothy taking her first look at Oz.

Ryan Gosling is fantastic as Neil Armstrong and Claire Foy is wonderful as his wife Janet. Foy transcends the traditional “concerned wife” type performance and makes it something truly compelling to watch. Armstrong’s journey to the moon wasn’t without tragedy, including a tragic death in the family and the watching some of his fellow astronaut colleagues succumb to their own tragic fates. Oscar-winning screenwriter Josh Singer sort of takes the safe route with his script; there really isn’t that much here that hasn’t been seen or done before, but you have to admire a studio wanting to make a mid-budget spectacle about the race to the moon. This is an “adult drama” that feels like somewhat of a dying species.

Chazelle’s fascinating directorial choices is what really pushes “First Man” out into to orbit away from movie-of-the-week melodrama. His pal Justin Hurwitz’s music score is simply phenomenal and some pieces give the film an eerie quality that is catchy to the ear. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography nails the time period and is generally a technical wonder. Its no wonder all of these men walked away with Oscars for La La Land. And Chazelle’s amazing editor Tom Cross who won for his dizzying work on “Whiplash” works wonders here as well.

“First Man” is a wonderful technical achievement; it’s as close to actually landing on the moon as you or I will ever experience. The entire cast is fantastic and the film’s score, camerawork, and special effects are standouts. Chazelle, working in yet another new genre, makes something grand out of well-worn type of story. Will it change society or the world? Does it feel “important?” Not really. The film continues Hollywood’s obsessive fascination with exploring space and marks yet another marvelous technical achievement from Damien Chazelle who refuses to play things save in any of the gorgeous works of art he’s created. GRADE: A-

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Portrait of a Lady: The Electrifying “A Star is Born” Makes Lady Gaga a Movie Star

Does the world really need a fourth iteration of “A Star is Born?” Yes, because I watched clips of the three earlier films and they all looked god awful. Especially the one with Babs. Ok fine, the world doesn’t really need another cliched story about the hopes and dreams of an aspiring music star. But if you’re going to do it, at least do it right and Bradly Cooper’s brilliant directorial debut does just that. I sort of dreaded seeing Lady Gaga’s major feature film debut because even though I’m a fan, her acting on “American Horror Story” wasn’t great and her smaller film roles, like “Machete Kills,” gave her little room to make an actual impression. But she is simply sensational in “A Star is Born;” the film is an emotional roller coaster filled with fantastic performances, inspired music sequences, and an arresting sense of realism. The film's emotional pull is unobtrusive but relentless. 

Nothing in “A Star is Born” is truly groundbreaking. It’s sort of a well worn story about fame and stardom but it’s impeccably crafted. Lady Gaga is Ally who is a waitress by day and drag bar performer by night. Bradley Cooper is Jack, a drunken fictional rock star whose stardom appears to be fading fast. Fate bring him into Ally’s drag bar where he “discovers” her. They hang out, talk, sing a little and we witness the sparks of some of the most impressive onscreen chemistry I’ve ever seen in a film. The gruff Jack is smitten with the appealing young woman and before she knows it he’s dragging her onstage to sing a duet. This is one of the film’s most engaging scenes. I got extremely choked up watching Ally’s impressive debut and Gaga and Cooper’s rendition of the original song “Shallows” is emotionally fulfilling. You’re literally watching a star being born.

The film isn’t supposed to be the story of Lady Gaga’s life but it’s hard to not make comparisons to what we’ve seen and heard about the singer. The film’s script (by Eric Roth, Will Fetters and Cooper) takes the usual turns: Ally becomes a pop sensation while Jack continues to drown himself in booze. There’s not real shocking revelations or crazy turns but the film wins you over with its impressive performances from its leads and supporting players. Andrew Dice Clay has some really sweet moments as Ally’s single dad and Sam Elliott is affecting as Jack’s equally gruff older brother. The film’s original songs are also impressive and the leads' vocals are on point.

Cooper’s direction here is pretty astonishing (as is his introverted, grizzled performance). The handheld camerawork never feels forced, the chemistry between the cast is dynamite, and the actors have never been better. I’m always flabbergasted by the performances that come out of a film directed by someone who is also an actor. It’s no surprise that I was all in on the story of Jack and Ally and the wrenching drama they both go through. The film doesn’t exactly have the happiest of endings but the film is filled with enough heart and humor that we don’t feel bogged down but the darker elements. I’ll admit, I went a little gaga for this one.  GRADE: A

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Strode Games: David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” is a Glorious Return to Slasher Form

When has a horror movie heroine ever had to return from the grave? Laurie Strode just did. At ten films in, the "Halloween" franchise seemed to be buried and gone after the travesty that was the truly bizarre and terrible “Halloween II.” Rob Zombie we thank you for your service but please go away. This new “Halloween," with its non numerical title, is actually a direct sequel to John Carpenter’s 1978 classic. We’re supposed to pretend that parts 2-8 and 1 and 2 never existed, which I’m okay with because they DO still exist. I’m especially okay with it because this new Halloween, which marks the 40th anniversary of the original film, is a splendid return to form for this iconic if wacky horror franchise. Jamie Lee Curtis gives a fearless performance as final girl (final grandma?) Laurie Strode and director David Gordon Green imbues the film with a sense of dread and nostalgia that never distracts from the fact that we’re actually watching a fantastic story about how tragedy and loss has affected three generations of women. It’s the ultimate slasher flick of the #metoo era and it’s also pretty darned scary.

I promise not to spoil anything but the film begins with the idea that Michael Myers never escaped after his attack on Laurie and her friends and was actually captured and put away for forty years. And if these people have yet to learn anything it’s that transporting Michael Myers is always a terrible idea. A couple of podcast journalists (Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees) seek to understand the psychotic Myers’ silence. And a reclusive and borderline crazy Laurie Strode (Curtis), who was Myers original target after he escaped from a mental institution 40 years earlier, constantly warns her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) to be prepared for anything should Myers ever escape again. And he does. Would we even want to see a movie in which Michael Myers doesn’t escape from a mental institution?

“Halloween” is an impressive horror debut for Gordon Green who has a career filled will stoner comedies and indie dramas. His last film also featured themes of PTSD in his Boston bombing drama “Stronger.” In a way it almost makes sense. At least he’s made an atmospheric and scary film even if it can’t hold a candle to what Carpenter was able to accomplish in his original film. It is however, arguably the best film in the series since the 1978 film. Carpenter has returned to score the film giving a mix of new and returning themes. The script features strong characters though there may be too many characters to follow so sometimes it feels like some people are forgotten about. You’d almost expect Curtis’ role to be minor, almost cameo-like, but she really does carry most of the film. Her granddaughter Allyson and her friends give the film a sense of the teen vibe that these slasher films as known for. And lastly the film is way more graphic and the body count is way higher. That makes the film feel a tad disjointed from the 1978 film in terms of continuity since Michael Myers “only” killed five people back in the day but I guess 40 years of pent up rage will do that to a psychopath.

“Halloween” is a fun nostalgia trip (with plenty of fun nods and references to most of the other other films in the series) that is scary and atmospheric. The performances are very good considering the harsh criticisms this subgenre usually receives and it’s really difficult to find any major fault in the smart script (written by Gordon Green, Danny McBride, and Jeff Fradley). The folks at Blumhouse really know what they’re doing when it comes to producing quality horror films and it’s nice to know that Michael and Laurie have come home at last.  GRADE: A-