BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018) – Uneven Opening Gives Way To Intense Second Half

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So, are there bad times at the El Royale?

You don’t know the half of it.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018), the latest film by writer/director Drew Goddard, takes place at a run down hotel, the El Royale, which sits on the border between California and Nevada, and follows the stories of several guests who all arrive there one night, each with dark secrets. When their lives intersect, all hell breaks loose.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE is uneven at times, especially early on, when the stories told are somewhat disjointed, but it’s one of those movies where your patience will be rewarded. It gets better as it goes along, and it finishes strong. Still, it doesn’t entirely work as a complete package. It’s more a series of moments, and it does have some powerful moments, scenes that pack a wallop. You just have to wait for them.

The film is also helped by an excellent cast, with several players delivering outstanding performances. Jeff Bridges, for example, carries the film whenever he’s onscreen, which is a lot, and Chris Hemsworth, who shows up towards the end, steals the scenes he’s in.

It’s 1968, and struggling singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) arrives at the El Royale to find a priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) standing out front looking lost. They strike up a friendly conversation and enter the hotel together to find the lobby empty except for one other person who’s helping himself to the bar, and that’s salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) who tells them he can’t seem to find any hotel staff.

This opening scene, in which the three have an extended conversation, plays like something out of a dream. The hotel seems to be deserted, yet they’re talking like that’s not so strange. It’s a weird and slow scene, not the strongest sequence in which to open a movie, but like I said, things get better.

The hotel clerk, a young man named Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) eventually shows up and apologizes for not hearing the bell, and as he does so, another guest arrives, a woman named Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). Needless to say, none of these folks are simple hotel guests. They have all arrived with an agenda, a story, and through a creative series of flashbacks, we learn what they are all doing there. Yet, the flashbacks are only a small part of the story, as most of the film takes place at the hotel when these characters’ stories intersect, and the less said about their stories, the better. I wouldn’t want to ruin the fun.

And BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE is a lot of fun, in a dark violent sort of way.

Drew Goddard has written a very creative script, which is no surprise, because he’s done this before.  Goddard wrote the screenplays for such films as THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2012), which he also directed, THE MARTIAN (2015), and one of my all time favorites, CLOVERFIELD (2008). He’s also written a lot for television, lending his writing talents to such shows as BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (2002-2003), LOST (2005-2008), and Marvel’s DAREDEVIL (2015-2018), a show in which he also serves as the series creator.

With BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE, as both the writer and director, Goddard has created an enjoyable puzzle of a movie. The characters’ stories intertwine seamlessly, helped along by Goddard’s effective use of flashbacks, both from years past and just minutes before. The film shows several events more than once, as seen through different characters’ eyes.

There’s even a Hitchcock MacGuffin, a roll of film containing footage of an unnamed prominent figure, now dead, in a compromising situation. It’s an item everyone wants because of its value.

As I said, the cast is at the top of their game.

The two characters who get the most screen time are singer Darlene Sweet and Father Flynn. Cynthia Erivo is very good as Sweet, and of all the characters in the story, she’s the most straightforward. Her past isn’t so much about a secret, but about a decision to buck the system, to reject the sexual advances of her producer who promised he could make her a star. She decides to make it on her own. Her story really resonates today.

Jeff Bridges is superb as Father Flynn, who does have a secret to hide. Now, since Bridges has had a long and remarkable career, I hesitate to say that this is one of his best performances, because he’s had a lot of those, but let’s put it this way: he’s really, really good. For me, even more than the story, Bridges’ performance is the best part of this movie, and is what I enjoyed most. Bridges’ best scenes are when he talks about and deals with his bout with Alzheimer’s.

Jon Hamm is also very good as Laramie Seymour Sullivan, although his character ultimately has less of an impact than Bridges’ or Erivo’s. For me, the best part of Hamm’s performance was he was playing someone very different from Don Draper on MAD MEN (2007-2015).

Dakota Johnson is fine as Emily Summerspring, but even better is Cailee Spaeny who plays her younger sister Rose, and Lewis Pullman as hotel clerk Miles Miller.  There’s something almost hypnotic about Spaeny’s performance as Rose, a sort of flower child who becomes obsessed with Chris Hemsworth’s Billy Lee, a relationship that leads her to violence and murder. And Pullman starts off as a meek hotel clerk, but his secrets are painful and deep, and his performance gets better as the film goes along.

Speaking of Chris Hemsworth, he has a field day as Billy Lee, this 1960s anti-establishment leader who sees himself as a cross between Abbie Hoffman and Jesus Christ. Throw in a little Charles Manson and you get the idea. Hemsworth fills the character with creepy charisma.

It’s on full display in the scene where he uses an allegory to share his views on war, having Rose fight another young girl while he stands back and watches, asking his followers to observe how he has made them fight while he remains far away from the scuffle and profits from it.

Hemsworth and Bridges are the two best parts of this movie, and their confrontation during the film’s climax is a major highlight.

That climactic scene where Billy Lee holds the characters hostage and uses a Roulette board to play a deadly execution game is a nail-biter and by far the most intense sequence in the film.

However, one major knock against the script, as fun as it was, and as much as I liked it, is it’s not all that believable.  Other than the Alzheimer’s subplot and Darlene Sweet’s plight with her sexual predator producer, there’s not a lot of realism here, and for the most part, I didn’t believe what was going on. For me, this usually spells doom for a movie, but that’s not the case here. I enjoyed all the clever touches used to tell this story, and combined with the phenomenal acting, it made up for the lack of believability.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE begins slowly, but it gets better, providing some potent moments while it builds to a satisfying and intense final act.

These are some bad times you don’t really want to miss.

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TAG (2018) – Uneven Comedy Actually Based on True Story

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The craziest thing about the new comedy TAG (2018) is that it’s actually based on a true story.

So, as much as I want to say that the plot point of a group of adults still playing tag is rather ridiculous, it actually happened. There really were a group of childhood friends who continued to play tag well into adulthood.

As a famous sports announcer used to say, how about that!

And that’s exactly the story that TAG has to tell.

Hogan (Ed Helms), Bob (Jon Hamm), Kevin (Hannibal Buress), Chilli (Jake Johnson), and Jerry (Jeremy Renner) have been friends since childhood, and now as adults, they continue to play the game of tag which they used to play as kids. It’s their way of both keeping young and keeping in touch, literally. Once a year, during the month of May, regardless of where they are, they find each other and play tag, and no one wants to be stuck being “it” for a year once the month ends.

And the one friend who has never been “it” is Jerry. He’s so good at the game that he’s never been tagged. Not once. And so the other four friends gang up on him with the plan of finally making Jerry “it.”

I have to admit, watching adult males doing whatever it takes to tag their friend and make him “it,” whether it be by taking fake jobs to get close to their target, wearing an old lady disguise, breaking into homes, and even crashing AA meetings, is fairly amusing. Up to a point.

I judge comedies by how much I laugh, and watching TAG, I laughed fairly often, but most of these laughs came during the first half of the movie. For the most part it’s a likable enough comedy, but it never becomes a laugh-to-you-cry type of experience. And that’s because even though this is based on a true story, the novelty of watching adult males playing tag only goes so far.

The jokes and situations needed to be sharper. The screenplay by Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen is okay.  It does a nice job showing the lengths these guys go to in order to win the game, but during the film’s second half it’s just begging for things to get over the top and completely out of control, but this doesn’t happen, as the story goes for some sentimentality instead.

The recent comedy GAME NIGHT (2018), another “friends” comedy with a different contrivance -friends playing a murder/mystery game that unknown to them was in fact real— I thought had a stronger screenplay, with more jokes that worked and much funnier situations.  TAG has its moments, but it doesn’t stay consistently funny throughout.

The cast is fine. Ed Helms sort of has the lead role, as his character Hogan seems to try the hardest to win the game. Helms can do this sort of thing in his sleep, which is part of the problem. It’s nothing we haven’t seen Helms do before. I enjoyed him much more cast against type in a dramatic role in CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2017).

I’m a big Jon Hamm fan, and he kinda plays it straight here. He spends most of the time reacting to what his other friends are doing.  I would have preferred to have seen Hamm stretch his acting chops and go for some comedic timing.

The guy who is really funny is Hannibal Buress as Kevin.  He gets some of the best lines in the movie.

Jake Johnson is okay as Chilli, but the character is rather annoying and is certainly the least likable of the friends, which is saying a lot since Jeremy Renner’s character Jerry isn’t likable either.  I enjoyed Johnson much more on the TV show NEW GIRL (2011-18).

I can’t say that I enjoyed Jeremy Renner all that much either. His character Jerry spends most of the film talking down to his friends and acting superior to them. I get that he’s supposed to the tag champion, but the writing here does the character and the story no favors by making him a very unlikable guy.

And even though this is based on a true story, I doubt the game included the intricately choreographed stunts and fight moves that Jerry uses to elude his friends. Strangely, these CGI enhanced scenes, which reminded me a lot of the action scenes in the movie KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2014) were among the least funny scenes in the film.

On the other hand, some of the earlier scenes of physical comedy, scenes where Chilli tries to leap from a fire escape and where Jon Hamm’s Bob tries to smash through some unbreakable glass, for example, are funny.  Much of the film relies on the use of heavy slapstick rather than verbal jokes, but with mixed results, as a lot of those polished staged action scenes just don’t tickle the funny bone.

The women in the cast actually score a bit higher than the men.  Isla Fisher is hilarious as Hogan’s wife Anna. She makes Anna an over the top intense character, and it’s the type of thing that’s missing from her male co-stars’ performances. As such, it’s my favorite performance in the movie

I’m also a fan of Annabelle Wallis, a talented actress who is still waiting for her break-out film role.  She’s been in such movies as ANNABELLE (2014), KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD (2017), and, ugh, THE MUMMY (2017), and she was also on the TV show PEAKY BLINDERS (2013-2016). She plays it straight here as the newspaper reporter who decides to tell the guys’ story, but she’s very good in what otherwise could have been a forgettable role. She’s someone to watch going forward.

Director Jeff Tomsic gets mixed results with this one. I thought the plot was a good one. It was fun to watch how far these guys would go to play tag, and early on the physical comedy was pretty uproarious, but the film actually becomes less funny as it goes along because the concept of adults playing tag gets old quick without a strong script to add depth and keep things going.

I also never got the feel for how close these guys were. They said they were friends, but we don’t really see it other than in the context of the silly game of tag.

And I didn’t really like the Jeremy Renner “action” scenes at all. I thought they were the most phony and unfunny parts of the film.

TAG has its moments, and these moments were good enough to make me laugh here and there, but taken as a whole, it’s not quite the solid comedy it starts out to be. Like most games of tag, it kinda fizzles out after a while.

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BEIRUT (2018) – Complex Thriller Driven by Strong Performances

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BEIRUT (2018) is a complex thriller about a hostage negotiation in 1982 Beirut. Driven by strong performances by Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike, the film does a lot of things well and more than makes up for its lack of supporting character development and peripheral plot.

The movie opens in 1972 Beirut with American diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) hosting a dinner party with his wife for a group of dignitaries, including a United States Congressman, where Mason explains the current intricate political situation inside Lebanon. When Mason’s best friend Cal (Mark Pellegrino) arrives with the shocking news that the thirteen year-old boy Mason and his wife have taken into their home and consider a part of their family is the younger brother of the world’s most wanted terrorist, and the U.S. authorities want to extract the boy that very night. Mason refuses, and in the middle of his argument with Cal, gunmen open fire on the party and whisk the boy away before the U.S. agents can take him.  In the process, Mason’s wife is shot and killed.

The story picks up ten years later and finds Mason back in the U.S. working as a mediator and negotiator for local labor disputes. He has left his former life behind him, having walked away from both Beirut and his friend Cal immediately after the shooting, and he hasn’t spoken to his former friend since he left.

But all that changes when he is approached by a group of federal agents who want his help.  It seems that an American was taken hostage in Beirut, and the kidnappers demanded that Mason handle the negotiation.  Mason balks at the idea and says that the kidnappers simply pulled his name out of a hat. The agents then inform Mason that the hostage is his friend Cal.

Against his better judgement but not wanting to abandon Cal a second time, Mason returns to Beirut to negotiate the release of his best friend.

BEIRUT tells a compelling enough story and for the most part keeps its intricate tale from becoming too confusing. It’s a decent screenplay by Tony Gilroy, as one would expect as Gilroy also penned screenplays for the BOURNE movies and more recently he was one of the writers involved with ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016).

BEIRUT reminded me a little bit of ARGO (2012), the Ben Affleck movie which won Best Picture in 2012. Both films share suspenseful hostage stories and international intrigue, although ARGO told the better story by far.

The story BEIRUT tells is not as memorable, nor is it as riveting since one of the weaknesses of the screenplay is the supporting characters aren’t really developed. In ARGO, the audience gets to know the hostages. In BEIRUT, very little is known about hostage Cal, and so even though the proceedings are very interesting, they don’t always resonate as well as they should on an emotional level.

The best part of BEIRUT are the performances by the two leads, Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike. Hamm is terrific as Mason Skiles, although this smooth talking alcoholic character is clearly reminiscent of Don Draper, the character Hamm played so well on the TV series MAD MEN (2007-2015). Fans of the show might have fun imagining that this is what happened next to Mr. Draper. And while Hamm isn’t exactly out of his comfort zone here, he still delivers an enjoyable performance.

Rosamund Pike is also excellent as Sandy Crowder, one of the government operatives who helps Mason when he’s on the ground in Beirut. It’s a solid understated performance by Pike, whose character has her own reasons for wanting to extract Cal. The other dynamic I enjoyed between Mason and Sandy is that unlike most movies where the male and female leads are involved romantically, this time they are not, which I found refreshing.

I like Pike a lot and have enjoyed her recent roles in such films as HOSTILES (2017), GONE GIRL (2014), and JACK REACHER (2012) to name a few.

BEIRUT also has a strong supporting cast.  Mark Pellegrino is very good as Cal, Mason’s shadowy friend, even if the character isn’t developed all that well. For most of the film we don’t really know if Cal is a good guy or not, which hurts the story somewhat.

Dean Norris, Hank on TV’s BREAKING BAD (20080-2013) is nearly unrecognizable with a full head of hair and glasses as Donald Gaines, one of the government agents who recruits Mason. And Shea Whigham is memorable as another of these agents, Gary Ruzak.

BEIRUT was directed by Brad Anderson, who’s directed a lot of movies and TV shows, including the horror movie SESSION 9 (2001).  Anderson certainly does a good job of capturing war-ravaged Lebanon circa 1982, and the film’s location alone is enough to make this one a nail biter.

The story is certainly engrossing as we follow Mason’s efforts to find his friend Cal and navigate the negotiations needed to release him. There are some decent scenes, like when Mason first meets the group claiming to have Cal, as there is a rather unexpected execution right in the middle of it.  And the film heats up every time Mason slips away from his handlers, driving them crazy while he’s off the grid.

That being said, there really isn’t any centerpiece scene in this movie, either in artistic design or in its plot, no part of the film where it kicks into high gear and really becomes something special.

And I would imagine this one is not making a whole lot of money. I saw it with a very small audience. There were fewer than ten people in the theater.

Nonetheless, it’s a solid movie driven by two potent performances by Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike, and it’s certainly worth a trip to the theater.

BEIRUT is also a nice reminder of the value of diplomacy and negotiation over violence, even though when all is said and done, there is certainly lots of bloodshed, which is what you would expect in 1982 Beirut.

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BABY DRIVER (2017) – A Stylish Ride to Nowhere

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The word is out.  Critics and fans alike love BABY DRIVER (2017), the new action movie by writer/director Edgar Wright.

I did not.

And now I have the arduous task of telling you why.

First of all, I should have loved this one, and I went into the theater fully expecting to like it.  After all, it’s got a fantastic cast.  While youngster Ansel Elgort is fine in the lead role as Baby, the best getaway driver on the planet, I’m talking about the supporting cast, which includes Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and Jon Bernthal.

It’s got an out-of-this-world soundtrack, and it’s full of stylish high-speed chase scenes meticulously crafted by director Wright.  What’s not to love?

I’ll get to that in a moment, but first, here’s what BABY DRIVER is about.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a young man who works as a getaway driver for the mysterious Doc (Kevin Spacey).  Baby owes Doc a debt, and so he continually works these jobs to pay off that debt, and he’s in high demand because he’s the best at what he does. His secret is his music, which he is locked into when he drives. Baby had been in a car accident as a kid, which left him with permanent ringing in his ears. Hence, the nonstop music playing through his ear buds, which not only helps him to concentrate, but blocks out all distractions when he drives.

And drive he does.  Doc is constantly organizing heists, and he never uses the same team twice, but he does continually use Baby.  So, depending on the team, Baby drives for the likes of Griff (Jon Bernthal), Buddy (Jon Hamm) and his lover/partner in crime Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and the unhinged and very dangerous Bats (Jamie Foxx).

But along the way Baby meets the girl of his dreams, Debora (Lily James), a young waitress at the diner he frequents, who shares his passion for music and life.  They fall in love, and suddenly all Baby can think about is working that one last job for Doc, and then getting out completely to live his life with Debora.

If only things were that simple.

BABY DRIVER is the type of movie where the sum of its parts simply doesn’t equal a whole, and I say this, because there were a lot of parts to this movie I liked.  But for everything I liked, there were also issues.

Let’s start with the soundtrack.  Yup, it’s fun and absolutely electrifying, the most satisfying soundtrack since the Awesome Mix from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014). And it plays throughout BABY DRIVER pretty much nonstop.  So much so that it actually drowned out the dialogue at times.  No, I don’t mean it was too loud so that you couldn’t hear the dialogue, but that it was so prevalent it often took the place of the dialogue.  At times, I felt I was watching a feature-length music video, which is not what I’m looking for in a movie.  I wanted more story.  I wanted more characterization.  I got a lot of music.

Then there’s the awesome cast.

As I said, Ansel Elgort is fine in the lead as Baby.   Although there’s not a whole lot for him to do other than exude charm and perform some nifty dance moves.  But he does it all well here. I liked Baby, and of all the characters in the movie, he was the one who was defined the best, and so overall nothing much to complain about here.  Elgort has starred in the DIVERGENT series, and I liked him as Tommy, the young man who becomes Carrie’s prom date in the remake of CARRIE (2013).

Lily James is cute and cuddly as Debora, Baby’s girl, who looks like she walked off the set of a 1950s James Dean movie.

Of the heavy hitters in the supporting cast, Jon Hamm probably fares the best as Buddy. Hamm has that ability to play characters with a dark past and be quite believable at it. He did it with the character Don Draper on the television series MAD MEN (2007-2015), and he does it again here.  He brings an icy coldness to his performance that lets you know that Buddy is not someone you want to cross.

Eiza Gonzalez is beautiful and sexy as Buddy’s partner and lover Darling, but at the end of the day, I wanted to know more about her.

Similarly, while Kevin Spacey is very good as Doc, the man who puts all these operations together, the character is begging for more back story.   Who exactly is this guy?  What are his motives?  Why is he such a father figure to Baby?  Sadly, none of these questions are answered.

Jamie Foxx’s role as Bats, while explosive, and while giving Foxx plenty of opportunities to chew up the scenery, is probably the most traditional of the supporting roles here. Simply put, he’s a hot head whose answer to any problem is killing.

I like Jon Bernthal a lot, and so I was majorly disappointed when his screen time in this one was practically nil.

A much more notable performance belongs to CJ Jones, who plays Baby’s deaf wheelchair bound stepfather, Joseph.  The two care a lot for each other, and Jones and Elgort share some of the more poignant scenes in the movie together.

It was also fun to see Paul Williams on the big screen again in a small bit (no pun intended) as a weapons dealer.

But for most of these characters, with the exception of Baby, I just wanted to know more about them, and the fault here is with the screenplay by Edgar Wright.  This isn’t the first time I’ve had an issue with a Wright screenplay.  While I’ve enjoyed most of his movies, including SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) and SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010), I was not a fan of THE WORLD’S END (2013), as I wasn’t particularly fond of the script in that one.

Ditto here.

As I said, the majority of the characters here are begging for better development.  Also, the main love story between Baby and Debora was a major letdown.  They fall in love pretty quick, but for most of the movie, their relationship is pushed into the background. Debora doesn’t become endangered by Baby’s criminal contacts and dealings until the end, and by that point, it was too late for me.  I expected their relationship to be in danger throughout, but that’s not the case.

And as flashy and as stylish as car chase sequences are here, directed with near perfect precision by Edgar Wright, I wasn’t won over by those either.  There was something lacking.  I never really got the feel of being in the car with these people.

That was something I definitely felt in the similarly themed and plotted movie DRIVE (2011) by director Nicholas Winding Refn and starring Ryan Gosling.  I enjoyed DRIVE more than BABY DRIVER.  DRIVE had a stronger plot, I felt that the characters played by Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan were in constant danger from the very deadly villain play by Albert Brooks, and the car chase scenes really worked for me.  I really felt as if I were in the cars with the characters at ground level.  I didn’t feel that way here about the car chase scenes in BABY DRIVER.

Also, BABY DRIVER is rated R, but for me, it felt like it was rated PG-13.  I never felt the sense of dread I expected when dealing with the types of characters Baby found himself dealing with.

I just didn’t find BABY DRIVER that rough of a movie.  Instead, it’s light and airy, like a chase scene in a TV commercial rather than in an R-rated action movie.  And that’s because at the end of the day, BABY DRIVER is all style, and no substance.

People are raving about BABY DRIVER.

But for the reasons outlined above, I’m not one of them.

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