No-tell Motel

Bad Times at the El Royale

by George Wolf

A priest and a vacuum salesman walk into a bar…

Well, one may not be a priest, the other might not be a salesman and the bar is really part of a nearly abandoned motel, but the point is all hell breaks loose in writer/director Drew Goddard’s stylish thriller, Bad Times at the El Royale.

Lake’s Tahoe’s El Royale sits straddling the Nevada/California border in the late 1960s. Before the East side lost its gambling license, the El Royale had been a hot spot and Rat Pack hangout, but lately bellboy/desk clerk and bartender Miles (Lewis Pullman) is pretty lonely.

Then the priest (Jeff Bridges), the salesman (Jon Hamm) and a singer (Cynthia Erivo) check in, followed by a hippie (Dakota Johnson) who’s got an F-you attitude and someone in her trunk (Cailee Spaeney). Their respective reasons for stopping at the El Royale are separate and shady, but as the characters reveal dark pasts and true intentions, the quiet hotel quickly becomes a battleground for survival.

Goddard’s follow-up to 2012’s ingenious The Cabin in the Woods is anchored with the same inventive zest, and built with time-jumping back stories and placards that bring Tarentino to mind. And while El Royale can’t completely deliver on its promise, it offers a gorgeous blast of color, sound and plot twists that are pretty fun to watch unravel.

The entire ensemble is splendid, each digging into their characters with a relish that only elevates the impact when our feelings about them change, and change again. Who’s a villain? Who’s a patsy? Who’s being framed and who’s just looking for redemption? Though Goddard’s pace gets bogged down at times, his visual style and careful placement of 60s pop hits make sure chasing those answers is always a retro hoot.

The film’s biggest disappointment stems from the arrival of the sinister Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), a violent charmer who’s come to settle a score with someone in the El Royale’s guestbook. As past histories and current events collide, the film reveals a late-stage moralistic vein as hopes for a type of Cabin in the Woods-style showstopping finale slowly fade away.

Those final fifteen minutes are fine for any typical noir crime thriller, but not quite worthy of El Royale‘s previous deliciously indulgent two hours.

We Won’t Tell You Who Dies

Avengers: Infinity War

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Let’s say you recently penned Captain America: Civil War, an exceedingly successful comic book franchise effort weighed down by the mushrooming of heroes. So. Many. Heroes.

And let’s say it went so well that you are now tasked with the new Avengers movie—the film that takes very nearly every hero from your last effort and tacks on, say, 7 or 8 more. You would almost have to immediately think about thinning the herd, right?

Yes.

Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who’ve penned all three Captain America films) weave a Marvel Universe-spanning tale that asks whether or not things would work out better if we had about half as many people to deal with. That seems like writerly self-reflection right there.

Thanos (Josh Brolin, who villains it up for Deadpool 2 next) believes in balance. He’s been collecting Infinity Stones across all the different Marvel movies so he can create this Justice Friends adventure and rid the universe of half its inhabitants.

Wait, Thanos is a Guardians of the Galaxy villain, right? Does that mean Starlord’s entire rag-tag crew will join the Avengers (and Dr. Strange and Black Panther and Spiderman and on and on)? So, Chris Pratt, Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth?

Correct.

All we need to defeat Thanos is Chris Pine. No way six Infinity Stones can outshine the wattage of all the Chrisses!

The screenplay offers smart comic moments that suit individual characters (Drax! Teenaged Groot!) and never undermine the drama, of which there is plenty. And balance is clearly on the minds of the writers as well as directors Anthony and Joe Russo (who helmed the last two Captain American films and love Cleveland). The storyline divides up nicely to allow the plethora of personalities to shine, each in their own way.

Though the film runs a full 2 ½ hours with the end-of-credits stinger, it never drags. Plenty happens, all of it rooted in character and held together by Brolin, who gives the film a layered epicenter through his memorable CGI/voice performance.

The Thanos facial effects rank somewhere between Planet of the Apes and Superman’s mustache, while the outlying worlds and creatures sport satisfactory shine.

But we cannot get behind what they’re doing with Hulk. Not digging it.

The very best films in the Marvel universe excel in nuanced big thinking (Black Panther, Winter Soldier) or bullseye tonality (Spider-Man: Homecoming). Infinity War gets close on both battlegrounds, but lays up to bet on its own long game.

True, that sounds like cliched word salad, but we’re steering clear of planet spoiler.

Infinity War tackles some big ideas and makes some brave choices that may cause you to reassess the entire Marvel franchise.

Not everyone will be pleased.

But props to Markus, McFeely and the Russos, for being unmoved by the Last Jedi fanboy uproar and following an ambitious vision. And their film does entertain. There’s not a minute of bloat and there is plenty of thought-provoking story likely to make this a movie earning more respect through time and space.

Mission Control

12 Strong

by George Wolf

12 Strong tells a tale of extreme courage and heroism carried out by extremely courageous and heroic men. Like many films on a similar path, it sometimes struggles to navigate the overly familiar tropes that come with this territory.

In the weeks immediately after 9/11, the special forces team now known as the “Horse Soldiers” were the first deployed into Afghanistan. A dozen men, led by Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth, charismatic as usual), joined the soldiers under Afghan warlord General Dostum (Navid Negahban) in an attempt to take back a Taliban stronghold.

Director Nicolai Fuglsig, helming just his second feature, teams with experienced screenwriters Ted Tally (Silence of the Lambs) and Peter Craig (The Town) to adapt Doug Stanton’s book with alternating layers of nuance and shallow cliche.

The men are tough, stoic, and bound by the brotherhood of battle. Their women and children back home must stiffen their lips and hold heads high while they long for their husbands and fathers to return. These traits are not weaknesses in the real world, far from it, but incorporating them into a big screen narrative without the essence of checking off obligatory character-building boxes has become a common obstacle that 12 Strong can’t overcome.

But almost every time you’re ready to give up on it, the film rebounds with a surprise. While there’s far too much exposition dialog, with the characters explaining things to the audience rather than talking realistically, there are also quiet moments that resonate. Dostum’s reminder to Nelson that he may already have a life “better than the afterlife” underscores the film’s success in showcasing the effective teamwork and diplomacy that emerged in the mission, despite the culture clash.

The ensemble supporting cast is loaded with strength (Michael Shannon, Michael Pena, William Fichtner, Moonlight‘s Trevante Rhodes), and Fuglsig finds his footing after a by-the-numbers start, rolling out some tense, gritty, and well-plotted battle scenes for a rousing finale.

The Horse Soldiers earned their statue at the 9/11 Memorial site, and 12 Strong is a well-deserved salute. It’s always watchable but also muddled, and too often chooses broad strokes over finer, more memorable points.

What We Do on Asgard

Thor: Ragnarok

by Hope Madden

What if the next Avengers movie was a laugh riot? A full-blown comedy—would you be OK with that?

The answer to that question has serious implications for your appreciation of Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok.

You’re familiar with Thor, his brother, his buddies, his hair. But how well do you know Waititi? Because he’s made a handful of really great movies you should see, chief among them What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

Waititi’s films are charming and funny in that particularly New Zealand way, which is to say equal parts droll and silly. So a total goofus has made our latest superhero movie, is what I’m trying to tell you, and you’ll need to really embrace that to appreciate this film, because Thor: Ragnarok makes the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise seem dour and stiff.

There’s a real Thor movie in here somewhere. Thor (Chris Hemsworth and his abs) learns of his older sister Hela (Cate Blanchett—hela good casting!). Sure, Thor’s the God of Thunder, but Hela’s the Goddess of Death, so her return is not so welcome. But daaayumn, Cate Blanchett makes a kick-ass Goth chick.

Indeed, the film is lousy with female badasses. Tessa Thompson (Dear White People, Creed) proves her status by taking all comers, Thor and Hulk among them.

But can you get behind the idea of Hulk and dialog? Because he has dialog in this movie. Like whole conversations. Dude, I don’t know about that.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) returns, as does Idris Elba, so this is one bona fide handsome movie. Mark Ruffalo makes an appearance in a vintage Duran Duran tee shirt. It’s like Waititi thought to himself, how many of Hope’s crushes can we squeeze into one film?

One more! Jeff Goldblum (don’t judge me) joins as a charming and hysterical world leader. His banter with his second in command (Rachel House—so hilarious in Wilderpeople) is priceless.

Also very funny, Karl Urban (who brings a nice slap of comic timing to every bloated franchise he joins), Waititi himself (playing a creature made of rocks), and one outstanding cameo I won’t spoil.

Thor: Ragnarock lifts self-parody to goofy heights, and maybe that’s OK. There’s no question the film entertains. Does it add much to the canon? Well, let’s be honest, the Thor stand-alones are not the strongest in the Marvel universe.

You will laugh. You’ll want to hug this movie, it’s so adorable.

Unless you’re totally pissed about the whole thing, which is entirely possible.

Do You Want to Build a Sequel?

The Huntsman: Winter’s War

by George Wolf

A magical young princess leaves her sister’s side amid some heavy emotional trauma, taking her cold heart to a frozen environment and staking her claim as the Ice Queen. This one, though, has no interest in building a snowman.

Winter’s War is both prequel and sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman, the competent fantasy drama from 2012. You might wonder about the need for another film in this franchise, but it’s hard to argue with the cast.

Chris Hemsworth is back as Eric the Hunstman, along with Jessica Chastain as his beloved Sara and Charlize Theron’s evil Queen Ravenna. Theron was easily the best thing about the first film, and adding the great Emily Blunt as Ravenna’s chilly sister Freya seems like a pretty safe play.

Yeah, um, about that…

Blunt’s unbeaten streak of onscreen chemistry with every living human ends here, as she and Theron can’t get their considerable talents to gel. Instead, Blunt’s “love is evil” act and Theron’s power-mad malevolence wander into a curiously campy section of the castle.

How can you put two actors of this caliber side by side, and end up with scenes this dull?

Director Cedric Nicolas-Troyen is a visual effects veteran making his feature debut, and he seems much more confident presenting Eric and Sara’s woodland journey to recover the magical mirror, mirror no longer on the wall.

The film’s first act is nearly insufferable, ploddingly paced and weighted by exposition shared via the buttery (if uncredited) voice of Liam Neeson.

Things pick up midway as the adventure proper begins, but Nicolas-Troyden and cast stumble again as their tale comes to a close. Though it often looks fantastic, Winter’s War is uneven at best, with a mishmash of ideas that barely hold together, and cannot capture attention.

Worse still, it is an unforgivable waste of three of the most talented women working in film today.

If you harbor a mad desire to see the film, you may want to let it go.

Verdict-2-0-Stars

 

Ship Slidin’ Away

In the Heart of the Sea

by George Wolf

Proud, sturdy men head off to sea, promising their women they will return, only to be humbled by nature as they fight for their lives.

It wasn’t such well worn territory in 1851, when Herman Melville kept readers rapt with the tale of Moby Dick. In the Heart of the Sea gives us the actual ordeal behind Melville’s inspiration, but can never muster anything more worthwhile than some randomly impressive 3D visuals.

Director Ron Howard does himself no favors by setting his film as a storytelling flashback. A young Melville (Ben Whishaw) has ambitions of writing a book on the whale ship Essex and its legendary encounter with a massive white whale, but fears that “If I write it, it will not be as good.”

He seeks out the ship’s last living survivor, and after much cajoling and a wad of cash, Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleason) begins his tale, and we climb aboard the Essex with him as a young boy excited to join a whaling crew for the first time.

His captain (Benjamin Walker) and first mate (Chris Hemsworth) are at odds with each other, almost as much as they are with that tricky Boston accent, making lines such as “sailing to the edge of sanity” sound even more awkward.

The integrity in point of view also becomes troubling. Our window to events is young Tom, yet we regularly witness pivotal exchanges where he is nowhere close, erasing the chance he could be recalling them to Melville.

Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt adapt the best-selling book by shifting intermittently between Nickerson describing the events, and flashbacks bearing them out, giving neither approach the chance to build sufficient dramatic heft.

Quint’s first hand account of the U.S.S. Indianapolis in Jaws was entirely gripping without any dramatic flourish, and though that speech was only a few minutes, it’s hard not to remember it each time In the Heart of the Sea thinks the story needs a breather.

Howard is more successful at delivering smaller details about both the ship above and the whales below, as well as a few sequences worthy of an IMAX 3D spectacle. The search for an emotional anchor to this fabled story, though, remains fruitless, and Melville’s early fears finally come to fruition.

Verdict-2-5-Stars

 

 

Fright Club: Before They Were Stars

We spend a lot of time examining skeletons in the closets of major celebrities – the god-awful horror movies where they got their start. But today, we celebrate that handful of aspiring actors who get their start in really decent horror movies – some you’ve probably seen, some you may not have. Before these guys were stars, they lucked into a good one, so check them out!

5. My Little Eye (2002)

This quasi-found footage style gem is hardly flawless, but it creeps around dark ideas and delivers some nasty moments. Five youngsters volunteer to live Real World-style for a year, being filmed for an online channel contest. If they all stay for the full year, they win a million dollars. If anyone leaves, they all lose the cash.

Co-written by James Watkins, who appears again on this countdown, the story remains claustrophobic until the introduction of one handsome, lost hiker (Bradley Cooper) who’s not what he seems.

This is just Cooper’s second feature, releasing shortly after Wet Hot American Summer, and his onscreen presence breathes life to an intentionally drab atmosphere. His character is a catalyst for horrors aplenty, but his performance offers a glimpse of good things to come.

4. A Nightmare on Elm St. (1984)

Johnny Depp made his film debut in Wes Craven’s groundbreaking nightmare. Craven said in interviews that he almost didn’t cast the future heartthrob, thinking he was too pasty and weird for the role, but his daughter’s swooning convinced him.

Depp plays Glen, boyfriend to bossy Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), epicenter of Freddy Krueger’s revenge from beyond. Though his performance doesn’t necessarily predict an Oscar-nominated future, he delivers his lines more thoughtfully than most of the cast. Plus, what a death scene!

3. A Perfect Getaway (2009)

This is another underseen flick, boasting some solid performances that make the most of decent, twisty writing in a identity reversal horror story. In his second feature, Chris Hemsworth is half of one of the three couples traveling through Hawaii that get mixed up in a mystery surrounding serial killers. The ever-versatile Steve Zahn plays beautifully against type, while Timothy Olyphant offers another hard-edged but fun performance.

For the film to work, you need to always be guessing as to who may or may not be the killer. Hemsworth’s performance is one you revisit, is-he-or-isn’t-he style. He’s menacing from his first appearance, but shows some of the versatility that would help him climb quickly out of supporting roles.

2. Eden Lake (2008)

Again with James Watkins! He writes and directs this brutal and brilliant culture clash, but his real talent may be in casting. Michael Fassbender proves here what everyone knows by now – he is a brilliant, limitless actor. His Steve takes girlfriend Jenny (Kelly Reilly – also excellent) to an old quarry about to be revitalized as an upscale community – to the distaste of the low scale community currently roaming its beaches.

Fassbender plumbs his character’s depths. By turns smug and cowardly, superior and kind hearted, Steve is a real human being – the kind rarely seen in a horror film. And while Reilly’s strength is another uniqueness that makes the film stand out, the introduction to Jack O’Connell’s evicerating talent as alpha thug is no doubt what makes Eden Lake so painfully memorable.

1. American psycho (2000)

The star-studdedness just keeps growing! Jared Leto, Josh Lucas, Chloe Sevigny, Justin Theroux, Reese Witherspoon! But, of course, the main reason to remember the film is the lunatic genius of Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, soulless Wall Street psychopath.

He’s helped, of course, by director Mary Harron’s faultless direction – effortlessly balancing the blackest of comedy with inspired bloodletting. So many scenes are iconic by this point, all of them involving Bale as the beautiful shell of a human being, filled mostly with vacuous musical taste and a lust for blood.

Listen to the whole conversation over on FRIGHT CLUB!

Ass Hat Also Works

Blackhat

by Hope Madden

It’s early. Too early to get excited. Blackhat will face a lot of competition as 2015 journeys onward, but it is as strong a contender for worst film of the year as any movie could be. Jesus, is it bad.

Yes, it’s January and the film is about hackers – that’s two big strikes against any major studio film. Remind me, when was the last time a cybercrime film was interesting? You can squeeze only so much tension from shots of fingers on a keyboard and anxious expressions reflecting the blue light of a computer screen. Worse still are those self-indulgent shots of the digital journey inside the hardware – kind of the Tron’s eye view. Unfortunately, director Michael Mann has nothing fresher than these ideas up his sleeve.

Chris Hemsworth plays the world’s greatest hacker, because hackers generally look like Chris Hemsworth. So, right there, authenticity is clearly key to the once capable Mann. As it happens, the Chinese and US governments are working together to solve a convoluted – even asinine – cybercrime, and they need the help of this uncharacteristically fit computer nerd, so they furlough him from prison. If he helps them catch the baddies, he’s free; if not, it’s back to the pen, and something tells me he’s pretty popular on the inside.

Bonus: he’s an expert marksman. Who knew? Must be all those first-person shooter games.

Hemsworth affects some kind of diluted Bronx accent – is that it? Boy, it’s hard to tell just what he’s trying to do with it, and in another film that would be a real distraction. But Blackhat is so loaded with bewildering ridiculousness – from the needlessly overwrought visual style to the utterly incompetent sound editing to the laughable storyline to the astonishingly weak and wooden performances – that an awkwardly unrealistic accent goes almost unnoticed.

Thor isn’t outright terrible, and that’s a real feat. Even the great Viola Davis chokes on this screenplay, and the usually solid Wei Tang (Lust, Caution) struggles too mightily with English to deliver a professional performance. Still, all three are outshone by the listless to the point of parody work of Leehom Wang.

It has been ten long years since Michael Mann made a good movie. The real distinction of his newest effort is simply that it is his worst.

Verdict-1-0-Star

For Your Queue: Two that are…”Hemsworth” a look!

 

The needlessly underseen Rush – one of director Ron Howard’s very best films – gets a second chance at an audience today as it’s released to DVD and BluRay. So do yourself a favor and see it. Character driven without sacrificing sport spectacle, the film proves an engrossing drama and boasts an award-worthy performance by Daniel Bruhl. Plus you get to look at Chris Hemsworth, which is never a bad thing.

Speaking of non-Thor Hemsworth, we’d recommend pairing this with a fun and surprisingly well written if little seen 2009 thriller A Perfect Getaway. The film follows Steve Zahn and Milla Jovovich on their Hawaiian honeymoon, where tourists are being murdered. It’s a slick, well-paced and fun flick with great turns from Zahn,  Hemsworth, and the always reliable Timothy Olyphant.

Hammer Time!

 

by George Wolf

 

The very superhero nature of Thor presents a catch-22 for his standalone film installments. The medieval themes which anchor the character don’t really lend themselves to the fun we expect from Avengers films, yet leaving these themes behind would render any Thor adventure rather pointless.

The first film found a way to balance things quite nicely, establishing the blueprint that Thor:  The Dark World revises in even more impressive fashion.

The filmmakers made two smart moves right off the bat:  1) making Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) more than a bystander, and 2) bringing Loki (Tom Hiddleston) back for another round.

Well-rounded villains can make or break these films, and, in Hiddleston’s capable hands, Loki is the most interesting character on the screen. Sentenced to life in an Asgard prison by King Odin (Anthony Hopkins, finding just the right regal tone), Loki suddenly finds himself in high demand.

On Earth, Jane has stumbled into one the portals between worlds, and she becomes the keeper of something an ancient Dark Lord wants very badly. To save Jane and, a bit more importantly, the universe, Thor and Loki have to put aside old grudges and work together.

Director Alan Taylor comes with some serious medieval bonafides, directing several episodes of …pause for a moment of suitably reverential fanboy silence…Game of Thrones. His instincts for the pacing and framework needed to keep the Asgard scenes vital is spot on. While this may not be surprising, Taylor also shows himself to be more than capable of keeping the fun meter jumping as well.

The lively script, while a bit complicated in the early stages, settles into a very enjoyable rhythm that Taylor exploits well. Expect some nice surprises, of both the dark and light variety, as the film builds to an impressive final battle. Screenwriters Christopher Yost,  Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely even manage to land a few subtle jabs about the folly of war and how easily one army’s hero can resemble another’s zealot. Well played.

As Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth again displays a mix of charisma, physique and temperament that makes the role his own.  His scenes with Hiddleston are a mischievous hoot, both actors seemingly locked in to both their characters and the expectations of one another.

Aside from one curiously low-tech moment of Thor taking flight, much of the film’s 3D presentation looks fantastic, with a broader, more heroic gloss. In particular, an Asgard ceremony set amid candle lights and waterfalls is downright stunning.

The only thing keeping Thor:  The Dark World from superhero elite status is a first act that drags a bit. Once that is vanquished, acts two and three bring richer storytelling than we have seen from Thor. Yes, this film is darker, but it’s also more fun.

And, keep in your seat for two extra scenes.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars