Thursday, 11 October 2018

300 Words on "Bad Times at the El Royale" (2018)

It’s cliché to say that a movie is like a rollercoaster ride. But there are few descriptions which would be more fitting for Drew Goddard’s darkly comedic noir thriller. Few times in recent memory have I been pushed to the literal edge of my seat while watching a film, and even when I have been, being pushed there has never been so exciting.

Bad Times at the El Royale begins intimately but grows ever bigger and grander. What may have on the surface appeared to be a tautly-wound, claustrophobic thriller quickly turned into something else entirely. Some have called the film derivative of Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, or Wes Anderson, but Bad Times at the El Royale is its own breed entirely. And it is confident in that.

Aside from contributing one of the most original screenplays I have seen in a long time, Goddard directs an ensemble cast with no weak links. Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Ervio, Jon Hamm, Lewis Pullman, Dakota Johnson, and Chris Hemsworth turn in absolutely stunning performances, and each is given an opportunity to shine. Their collective screen presence lends weight to some truly phenomenal sequences. The ones which still leap to mind play out almost entirely without dialogue, each ratcheting up the film’s tension until the El Royale seems less like a picturesque, swanky ‘60s hotel and more like a pressure cooker about to burst.

Bad Times at the El Royale is an extremely clever, riveting movie experience. I found myself immediately swept up in each surprising twist and bending turn, gasping as each new revelation was dropped on us, and at the end of the film’s epic 140-minute runtime, I admit to feeling a little breathless. Perhaps not too unlike a rollercoaster ride after all. 

Thursday, 4 October 2018

300 Words on "A Star is Born" (2018)

It isn’t hard to forget that this marks the fourth time that A Star is Born has gone before the cameras and going into it, I confess to wondering whether another go-round was necessary.

I was proven that it absolutely was.

The movie firmly grasped the general ideas of its previous iterations and impeccably updated them to the modern day. Never once while watching was I looking for the seams; the story woven by screenwriters Bradley Cooper, Eric Roth, and Will Fetters never felt like it was tired or overdone, leaning on the prestige of its predecessors to survive.

Watching A Star is Born felt like attending a concert. The precise camerawork and choreography of cinematographer Matthew Libatique and first-time director Cooper devised for the film’s rock concert centerpieces placed the viewer directly on the stage in a way which made the music resonate more loudly and the stage lights flash more brightly than one could imagine them on a projector screen.

But for all the glitz and glamor of A Star is Born, it never lost sight of its focus: the relationship between boozing musician Jack (Cooper), and his protégé-turned-love-interest, Ally (Lady Gaga). In their central performances, Cooper and Gaga were simply stellar, assuming their parts fully and totally disappearing into them. I can heap much praise on A Star is Born, but perhaps the greatest testament to its sheer power as a film is in its central performances. Cooper and Gaga may be internationally-known superstars but there were times while watching when I totally forget their existence as performers.

A Star is Born is a poignant look behind the shiny veneer of the music industry and it was absolutely engaging throughout. To put it simply, the film is honestly one of the most powerful movie-going experiences I have had in quite some time. 

Saturday, 18 August 2018

300 Words on "The Meg" (2018)

Every modern shark movie – good, bad, or ugly – is compared to Jaws. Well, The Meg is no Jaws. While Jaws is a tense thriller directed with style and engaging, real characters, The Meg is two very silly hours of adrenaline-pumping action and adventure.

However, I expected little else and wanted nothing more.

Based on the novel by Steve Alten, The Meg is the very definition of popcorn entertainment. This is, after all, a movie in which a prehistoric, 75-foot-long great white shark terrorizes the scientists working at a state-of-the-art underwater research center and their only hope for survival is Jason Statham. And it delivers on the goods.

The Meg is a fast-paced two hours – its plot is relentless as it charges from one set-piece into the next; never seeing the need to come up from its shark-infested waters for air. Packed between scenes of ultra-modern submarines racing through the depths in pursuit of the Meg, there are actually a few genuine thrills to be had as well. The Meg uses the vast expanse of the ocean to its advantage, and I admit to finding myself on the edge of my seat in scenes where Statham and the rest of the cast found themselves adrift in the open ocean at the megalodon’s mercy. It is also worth noting that for a CGI-filled blockbuster extravaganza, the computer-generated graphics are pretty decent; certainly some of the best for a recent shark movie.

As other reviewers have pointed out, if you are looking to find fault in The Meg it is there. But if you are willing to simply check your brain at the door and appreciate the film for the fun B-movie that it is, then you will be in for a good time. The Meg may not rival Jaws for its spot on the food chain, but then again, it probably never swam out of the depths to do so. 

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

300 Words on "The Mummy" (2017)

Over a year ago, I wrote a piece which acknowledged my excitement for 2017’s The Mummy, and wishing my best to Universal’s proposed Dark Universe – their answer to the overwhelmingly popular Marvel Cinematic Universe – The Mummy being the first chapter in this new saga. Well, I never ended up seeing The Mummy; dissuaded from doing so by the scores of negative reviews which greeted the film’s opening and now, more than a year after its premiere, I can finally offer my own take on the film which sunk the Dark Universe before it even began.

The hatred which greeted The Mummy was probably not warranted. The film isn’t that bad. In places it is a fun, cheesy B-movie. But as the spectacular, prestigious start to a franchise that Universal wanted it to be, The Mummy proves to be even more lifeless than its titular risen-from-the-dead monster. There is some artful cinematography, but The Mummy is the prime example of a film designed by committee, showcasing very little art and simply reeking of corporate greed.

In the midst of all of this is the always-welcome Tom Cruise who seems to spend the majority of the movie looking straight down the barrel of the camera in disbelieving confusion (probably unable to believe that he was actually cast in this film), and even his presence – alongside Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, Russell Crowe, and Courtney B. Vance – cannot entirely salvage the film. And if the stunts which Cruise et al. perform were to be the jaw-dropping highpoints in the movie (and perhaps rival Cruise’s other death-defying spectacles of the Mission: Impossible franchise) than they surely underwhelm.

The Mummy just feels sloppy and rushed; the product of a studio desperate to throw their hat into the ring when it was obvious they were not ready. There are some decent moments to make you chuckle or jump in your seat, but they ultimately do not do enough. And just as quickly as it was born, so died Universal’s Dark Universe. 

Saturday, 11 August 2018

300 Words on "The Fog" (1980)

In the late 1970s, John Carpenter was put in an unenviable position. His previous film, Halloween (1978) was a terrific success and was already beginning to redefine the American horror genre. How, then, could he possibly follow up such a revolutionary and genuinely scary film? Carpenter chose to do so with The Fog.

The Fog – it is easy to say – does not match Halloween as a cornerstone of the genre, however there is much to applaud all-the-same. Carpenter’s decision to portray an old-fashioned ghost story on screen was a bold one; the kind of story which raises goosebumps on the skin while sitting around the campfire. Indeed, the film begins with John Houseman’s old seadog telling just such a tale to a group of kids around a fire, and the scene sets the tone for the exact type of film we are about to see.

And though the old-fashioned sensibility of The Fog feels worlds away from the modernity of Halloween’s horror, the shadow of Carpenter’s masterpiece can still be felt. Much of the cast of Halloween turns up in The Fog (Jamie Lee Curtis, Charles Cyphers, and Nancy Loomis) and cinematographer Dean Cundy photographs scenes in the same foreboding manner, lending the creeping fog the same menacing presence as Halloween’s stalking Shape. Additionally, Carpenter returns to compose the film’s score in his traditional understated, electronic style. Carpenter’s eerie soundtrack underscores the film’s tense moments brilliantly, and his choice of employing a classical piano underlines The Fog’s Gothic roots.

The Fog will probably not keep you up at nights, but it is nevertheless an entertaining and engaging foray into Gothic horror from one of the greatest filmmakers to dabble in the genre. It may not be regarded with the same reverence as Carpenter’s other films, but it remains an overlooked minor gem in his catalogue of undisputed classics. 

Monday, 11 June 2018

300 Words on "Hereditary" (2018)

(Possible, Mild Spoilers)

I don’t get scared at horror movies. I am able to watch them, enjoy the thrill, and then move on. The best horror films, for me, are the ones which can actually frighten me; the ones which can genuinely unnerve me, and which prove difficult to leave behind. Hereditary, the debut film of director Ari Aster, is one of those movies. Indeed, Hereditary is chock full of ideas which are nothing short of terrifying.

It’s a word I do not use lightly.

From the start, Hereditary sets out to create an atmosphere of unrelenting dread, and that palpable sense of foreboding is simply unrelenting throughout the film’s two-hour running time. Not since the Australian horror film, The Babadook (2014) have I seen a film which is so convincing and so real in its portrayal of grief, loss, and its devastating repercussions. However, Hereditary separates itself from its Aussie predecessor in that it boasts a labyrinth-like plot, which manages to at once invoke other genre classics as diverse as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist, and The Wicker Man (both 1973).

This most unique of plots – which builds upon the tropes used ad nauseam in countless other horror movies but which undercuts or subverts them to tremendous affect – is also brilliantly acted. The centerpiece of the film is the poignant performance by Toni Collette as a grieving mother, but she is complimented by Alex Wolff as her son, and Gabriel Byrne as her uncomprehending husband.

Director Ari Aster proves himself incredibly adept at pulling audience’s puppet strings with Hereditary. Overflowing with spine-chilling images and gruesome set pieces, it’s a formidable film to say the least. Critics have already called the film a modern classic, and the praise is certainly not hyperbolic.

For my part, it’s a horror film which genuinely scared me. And that is praise enough. 

Friday, 18 May 2018

Thoughts on the Marvel Cinematic Universe and "Avengers: Infinity War" (2018)

(Potential Mild Spoilers)

More than once as I caught up on the previous 18 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in preparation for the latest installment – Avengers: Infinity War – I found myself thinking the same thought: I am becoming just a face in the crowd.

To simply call the Marvel films successful would be a great understatement. Collectively, they have grossed more than Star Wars, Harry Potter, and the 24 installments in the James Bond series, and they are adored the world over. The Marvel movies have become a staple of popular culture; t-shirts bearing the insignia of Captain America’s shield are just as common now as vinyl recordings of Guardian of the Galaxy’s “Awesome Mix.” And now it’s not difficult to see why. Marvel has cornered the market when it comes to entertainment which combines adventure and laughs and – perhaps most importantly – spectacle. While the action in these action/adventure sagas may not match that of the Bond or Mission: Impossible films, Marvel compensates with the sheer scale and scope of each of their movies.

The latest – Infinity War – is no exception. In fact, it may very well be the height of spectacle for the series as it assembles as many of the diverse threads of their epic tapestry bringing together all of their heroes in one film. One needs only look at the film’s poster which is simply overflowing with star’s names (Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlet Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Chris Pratt, and Josh Brolin to name only a few) to know that this is not your typical ensemble action flick. And though unlike the previous two Avengers films, the heroes may not congregate to do battle together, their separation into smaller groups allows for multiple storylines to carry on simultaneously and never allows for a dull moment.

What Infinity War does best of all, though, is give its scenario emotional depth and weight, and I think that it cannot be a coincidence that the directors of this film, Anthony and Joseph Russo, also directed my other favorite installments in the MCU, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Captain America: Civil War (2016) both of which never let their epic stories overshadow their emotional core. Indeed, there were moments in Infinity War when it was almost heart wrenching to see what happens to the characters we have come to know and love throughout the rest of the series.

Avengers: Infinity War leaves the story open to be concluded in further installments of the MCU proving that the comic juggernaut will not be relinquishing its grip on the movie market anytime soon. Until recently I may have rolled my eyes at the notion of a lengthy future for Marvel, but now I don’t mind too much. The studio is releasing consistently good content, and if they continue to entertain millions – myself included – that’s not so bad, is it?

To be convinced, it was worth acquiring my anonymity.


For Marvel fans who may be reading this and wish to know where I stand on the other 18 films in the MCU (with the exception of The Incredible Hulk) which I have not seen, I have ranked the Marvel movies below from favorite to least favorite:

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Avengers: Infinity War
Captain America: Civil War
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
The Avengers
Spider-Man: Homecoming
Thor: Ragnarok
Iron Man 3
Doctor Strange
Captain America: The First Avenger
Iron Man
Guardians of the Galaxy
Black Panther
Thor: The Dark World
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Iron Man 2