Friday, October 19, 2018

A great film about 'Bad Times at the El Royale'

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Jon Hamm, Lewis Pullman, Dakota Johnson, Chris Hemsworth, and Cailee Spaeny
Director: Drew Goddard
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Four people (Bridges, Erivo, Hamm, and Johnson) check into the El Royale, a motel built across the California/Nevada state line. Each one of them has secrets, including the motel... and before the night is over, all those secrets will be revealed and writ large in blood.

Some films are nearly impossible to review without spoiling them... and "Bad Times at the El Royale" is one such picture. While it's visually gorgeous and expertly filmed; while the set design is perfect; while every actor gives a great performance, surrounded and supported by perfectly designed sets, which combine to bring to life a tightly woven tale about the most consequential night in the lives of the main characters... while all those things make the film worth watching, the real excitement comes from seeing the secrets come to light and discovering who these people really are. And if I were to comment on those, I would rob you of the greatest pleasure this film has to offer.

The clearest evidence that it's the revealing of secrets that drives this film is the way the film seems to slow down when Chris Hemsworth's character (Billy Lee) arrives on the scene, during the final act. It's a character that's pivotal to the story, and closely tied to the secrets held by a couple other characters, but Billy Lee himself has no hidden aspects to show. Further, his role in the story as the final catalyst to bring everything to a head is plain even before he arrives at the motel, so, even though the action around him is tense and thrilling, I found myself wishing the movie would get going toward the conclusion that was already foregone at that point. (Yes... there could have been another twist or two--and there was a split-second where I thought writer/director/producer Drew Goddard was going to introduce one--but he didn't.)

Hemsworth and the sequence involving him were absolutely necessary--this is a movie where EVERY second of screen time matters and is used to its fullest extent--it just isn't as engaging as what's led up to it, because there isn't any "oh wow!" moments in it. In a movie where even a motel has multiple secrets to surrender, the guy who is completely transparent is just a little dull, no matter how dangerous the character is, nor how brilliantly he is brought to life the actor.

Although I just spent who paragraphs being negative, I want to stress that this is the only thing I can be negative about with this movie without engaging in some serious nitpicking. If you like the film noir genre, if you like well-done and creatively executed thrillers, then I think you absolutely must see "Bad Times at the El Royale". Heck, this is a movie where even the title is perfect... it refers not only to the night the main characters are about to have, but to the decline of the motel itself.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

'Hangman' is not worth your time

Hangman (2017)
Starring: Carl Urban, Brittany Snow, and Al Pacino
Director: Johnny Martin
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A retired police detective (Pacino), a criminal profiler (Urban), and an investigative journalist (Snow) are drawn into a twisted game by a serial killer with ties to the past of one or more of them.

"Hangman" is a lazily written movie that stands at the intersection between the thriller, the police procedural, and the horror movie, in that it has elements of all three genres and deploys them all in a mediocre fashion. The cast gives the weak script the performances it deserves, with no one being especially good or bad... although Pacino pretty much just walks through a role he's probably played a dozen times in his career, so I suppose he gets a point for consistency and predictability if you're watching because you're a fan of his.

Although purely mediocre for most of its running time, it's the last five seconds that push the movie down from the low-end of average to just bad due to a misguided attempt to tack on a shock ending, or maybe leave the door open for a sequel. Whatever the motivation for the truly stupid final moment, it wipes away what little "Hangman" had going for it.

Unless you come across this turkey late night on cable, or you've watched everything there is to see on Amazon Prime or Netflix, you should avoid "Hangman." It is not worth your time.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Gay porn + Hitler = Murder (and Hilarity)

Loose Cannons (1990) 
Starring: Gene Hackman, Dan Ackroyd, Dom DeLuise, Nancy Travis, and Ronnie Cox
Director: Bob Clark
Rating: Six of Ten Stars 

A hardboiled vice-squad detective (Hackman) is teamed with a not-quite-recovered-from-a-mental-breakdown homicide detective (Ackroyd) to solve a series of bizarre murders linked to the Washington DC porn industry.

 As their investigation unfolds, a plot involving neo-Nazi hitmen, Israeli spies, the German government, and overzealous FBI agents starts unfolding. Solving the case becomes even more complicated as one of the chief witnesses and target for the assassins (DeLuise) is still hoping to cash in on the secret item everyone is after--a hardcore gay porn home-movie featuring Adolf Hitler himself!

How can anyone not like a movie that revolves around the hunt for a vintage homemade gay porn film starring Adolf Hitler? Well, I suppose if you're offended by the idea of Hitler filming himself while romping with fellow Nazis you might not like it... but then you're a terrible human being who deserves to feel offended.

 "Loose Cannons" is a fun ride in the "buddy" picture mold, with some nice twists on the typical "hardboiled cop" character portrayed by Hackman. A worthwhile flick, despite several instances of characters behaving in a stupid fashion to make the plot work.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

'Rope' is one of Hitchcock's best

Rope (1948)
Starring: John Dall, Farley Granger, and James Stewart
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

In order to prove their intellectual superiority to themselves, Brandon and Philip (Dall and Granger) strangle  a former classmate. They then hold a party for his family, his girlfriend, and other mutual acquaintances where dinner is served over the place where the body and murder weapon are hidden. As the evening progresses, they drop hints about the deed they've committed, dangling particularly heavy clues in front of their old teacher, the man whose lectures inspired their twisted ideas (Stewart).

"Rope" was Hitchcock's attempt to make a thriller with as few cuts as possible, so it takes place mostly in real time and in two rooms of a New York City apartment. It was an interesting cinematic experiment that is also an excellent psychological thriller. It's also one of those rare movies that is engrossing despite the fact that the film's "heroes" are all extremely unlikable--from the psychopath and his weak-willed follower who murder an innocent man in the film's opening moments, through the arrogant professor who ultimately proves to the killers that they aren't as brilliant as they think they are.

In the hands of lesser director, in a film with less-tight pacing and control, or performances delivered by lesser actors, "Rope" would have been a disaster.

Friday, March 29, 2013

A quirky rom-com bookended by spy action

Treasure Hunt (1994)
Starring: Chow Yun Fat, Chien-lien Wu, Gordon Liu, Philip Kwok, Michael Wong, and Roy Chiao
Director: Jeffrey Lau
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A CIA agent (Yun Fat) is sent covertly to China to steal a mysterious device (a Chinese "national treasure") that is being hidden by the government at a monastery. Once there, he discovers the device is actually a lonely young woman (Wu) with extraordinary psychic powers. His mission is quickly threatened by his growing love for her and by double-agents within the CIA

."Treasure Hunt" is an unevenly paced romantic comedy crossed with a spy-themed action thriller. It starts and ends with gun-play and violence, but the middle section weaves its way through gags revolving around Chinese vs. American culture and romantic scenes that range from sappy to hilariously cute, as CIA agent Chang Ching rediscovers and land and traditions of his ancestors and doubts about his loyalties start to creep into his mind.

While I I think shaving about 10 minutes off the middle of the film with some careful trimming would have done all manner of good, this is the sort of film that shows why Yun Fat has been called China's Cary Grant by a number of critics. He's handsome and a talented, versatile actor who seems at home in just about any genre of picture he is called upon to appear in--and even in a picture that shifts gears and genres as it unfolds, he is perfect. He is charming, charismatic and likable, so it's perfectly believable that a young woman would fall quickly in love with him... but he can also come across as absolutely cold and ruthless as he does in the film's final scenes. And he is equally convincing as charmer or killer--and he never loses the viewer's affinity for his character.

In "Treasure Hunt," Yun Fat also benefits from the strong cast of co-stars and supporting actors he's working with here. Co-star Chien-lien Wu doesn't have much to do for much of the film except to seem demure, but once her character gets a little more active, she shines equally bright as Yun Fat and the pair of them make a quite-literally magical romantic chase scene in the film's too-long middle section a lot of fun.

I think ultimately, "Treasure Hunt" falls into the 'Chick Flick' category, but I think it's a Chick Flick that guys will be able to enjoy as well.

Friday, December 21, 2012

'The Expendables 2' is very much expendable

The Expendables 2 (2012)
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Nan Yu, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lliam Hemsworth, Jet Li, and Chuck Norris
Director: Simon West
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

When a CIA operative Church (Willis) forces The Expendables to escort a security expert (Yu) in a mission to recover stolen state secrets, they unexpectedly find themselves up against a Satanic group of mercenaries and their leader (Van Damme) who are persuing the same objective.

"The Expendables" was a decent homage to the action films of the 1980s and 1990s. It featured faces familiar from those days, in a story that made sense in an action-movie world kind of way.

"The Expendables 2" is a spoof of the action films of the 1980s and 1990s, and not even a good one. Its script is less of a story and more of  a string of catch-phrases and cameo appearances played more for the laughs than action and drama. Even the final showdown between the heroes and villains is played more for laughs than drama. In fact, it's such a spoof of action films that Chuck Norris's role in the film is basically a cinematic presentation of a few "Facts About Chuck Norris".

While every featured player gives the exact performance you'd expect them to give, and everyone is obviously in on the fact the movie is a spoof of action films, there's really little else here besides the aging stars that's note worthy. Average Willis, Average Schwartzenegger, Average Van Damme, Average Stallone, and Average Self-Mocking Post "Facts About Chuck Norris" Norris, all appearing in a disjointed and weakly written action comedy. Since I like all the featured actors, it's hard for me to hate this movie, but as it wore on the illogical of the story, the random way characters popped in and out of the plot, and ever-growing number of "wink-wink" moments started wearing on me.

The best thing I can say about "The Expandables 2" is that it's a far more effective spoof than anything that's ever come out of the creative team behind things like "Spyhard" and "Epic Movie"--but that's damning with faint praise, because I'm not sure it was intended to be quite as much a spoof as it turned out to be. I think it's just a badly conceived movie.

Monday, November 12, 2012

'Wild Target' is worth a shot

Wild Target (2009)
Starring: Bill Nighy, Emily Blunt, Rupert Grint, Martin Freeman, and Rupert Everett
Director: Jonathan Lynn
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Natty professional killer Victor Maynard (Nighy) finds himself questioning his dedication to the family business and his life in danger when a mid-life crisis is triggered when he takes on an apprentice (Grint) and develops romantic feelings for a con artist (Blunt) he has been hired to kill.

"Wild Target" is a quirky hit man movie/dark romantic comedy. It's a remake of a French film, but I didn't realize this until I did some research--it feels British through-and-through, so that might be a consideration as to whether you think it might be a film for you or not.

It's also a relatively low-key movie, given its subject matter. In some ways it probably mirrors the life that those who truly lead their lives killing select targets for lots of money probably lead -- quiet steady existences that are marked by sudden, explosive bursts. Although while there is murder and violence here, the explosive bursts in this film are probably far funnier than those that occur in the life of a real hit man.

I also imagine that the looks-and-acts-more-like-a-banker-than-a-murderer borderline obaessive-compulsive character portrayed by Bill Nighy than the flamboyant master assassins we get in so many movies and books. I would think it would be the only way someone like that could have a career in murder. Whether realistic or not, it is a character that works extremely well here, as he ends up being both the film's straight-man and one of the funniest characters in it. Blunt and Grint portray characters that are purely comedic figures, while Nighy's character performs many functions as the film unfolds and along the way he is funny, tragic, and even a little scary when we see exactly how little like a banker he really is.

But, more importantly, Nighy portrays a character who is very likely. As I get older, I find it increasingly hard to like characters who are contract killers and murderers. However, Victor Maynard was a sympathetic and likable character almost immediately, and he became only more appealing as the film unfolded and he began to question whether he could have more in his life than just killing.

"Wild Target" is perhaps a quieter film than most of those who are attracted to films featuring hit men or comedies about guys having mid-life crisis are used to. However, the snappy, well-paced script and exceptional performances by the entire cast will win everyone but the most ADD-plagued viewers over.