Bad Times at the El Royale

RATING: [A-|🍅]

Drew Goddard brings a fantastic thriller to life in Bad Times at the El Royale that captures the zeitgeist of the ’60s amongst dwindling McCarthyism and the burgeoning sexual revolution. Some of the films greatest influences can be observed within the plotting that is reminiscent of Tarantino, and the deceptive and symmetric camera work that is a mix of Kubrick and Anderson. Even with the incredible backdrop of retro-stylings of the titular motel, there was an intimacy in the presentation that draws the audience in similar to a stage production.

The whole cast—veritable veterans of the art like Jeff Bridges, type-casted actors like Chris Hemsworth, and relative newcomers like Cailee Spaeny—present characters with depth and secrets that are shrouded in mystery. The result is an awesome character driven plot that keep the audience guessing and wondering how any of the characters will escape the hell that they’ve either been drawn into, or created for themselves. The portrayals present man-made evil, damnation, and redemption while leaving viewers with a glimmer of hope through the bond of mutual trauma.

As the film starts to show what led the individual characters to come to the El Royale, the overarching mystery begins to unravel while giving audiences a chance to sympathize with most of the personalities on display, even to the loathsome Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth). Two characters stand out in particular: the lost and talented singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), and the haunted escapist Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman). Both characters are relateable in their search for their own way and to find solace with the hand life has dealt them.

While this is a glowing review of the film, that does not mean it has escaped a few minor nit-picks. A few segments of the stock footage used to ground the film in the time setting give the impression of ham-handedly inserting political views that seem inescapable. While they do serve their purpose in grounding the story as a whole, they seem to be almost pleading with the audience to hear the characters out. Past that, there is a moment in the final act that comes across as a dues ex machina when one character suddenly reveals their past and seemingly flips a switch to a whole new version of themselves.

Nit-picks aside, I don’t think I could recommend this film enough. If I had to summarize the film for someone in a succinct manner without giving too many spoilers: “This is The Hateful Eight done right!” All the characters are given their chance to tell their story without any one of them being overshadowed by the others.

RATING: A-

Venom

RATING: [D+|👎]

There seems to be an unspoken rule about “superhero” films and other comic-to-film adaptations that the main character(s) cannot be upstaged. This makes sense in the regard that those characters are the reason audiences are excited to watch the films in the first place, but sometimes the concept limits the overall film. This is sadly the case with Venom as Tom Hardy gives an excellent performance as Eddie Brock, as well as providing an excellent voice to the titular symbiote.

For those who aren’t familiar with the anti-hero and the subsequent host, Eddie Brock is an investigative journalist who will do just about anything to get a lead that justifies his gut feelings of a story. This makes him the quintessential “that guy” who’s pretty much just out for himself. Hardy’s presentation of the character is understandably self-loathing, yet oddly endearing as most audience members can at least recognize someone who can’t seem to get out of their own way to personal development. Then as Venom merges with Brock, those character traits are magnified as both characters find themselves wrestling with similar issues and insecurities.

The film seems to adopt this same characteristic, though. Hardy’s performance is the only one that seems to carry any weight and depth as all the other characters are as two-dimensional as the comics that spawned the story. The showing from the supporting cast was so weak that it would seem insulting to include them in this critique. I sincerely hope that Todd McFarlane wasn’t using this film as a test run for how to make a passable film adaptation of Spawn, as so many of his stories are driven by a host of characters; not just one (or would it be “two” in this case?). Sadly, this wasn’t the only draw-back to the film.

One thing that is inherent with Venom’s character is violence that’s just shy of the likes of Deadpool. Venom seems like the victim of last-minute cutting floor edits to make it fit in with a PG-13 rating. This is baffling in an industry that already knows an R-rated anti-hero film can be successful. It seems that McFarlane is already frustrated with creative differences over his creations, so perhaps there’s a chance for future iterations of his tales. Some potential saving graces for Venom include the rumour that an R-rated cut will be available in some edition of the BluRay release, and that there is plenty of room for a sequel with more unhinged characters in the Symbiote story-line.

All that said, I think fans of the character will ultimately be disappointed with this first stand-alone appearance of Venom, even though it is a vast improvement on the last time the character was on-screen. It’s exciting to see the character get a chance to establish himself on his own merits, but this only shows potential for what a Venom film could be outside of Spiderman. Die-hard fans of the character are understandably excited about this, but that lustre will likely tarnish over time if this is his only solo film outing.

RATING: D+

Hold the Dark

RATING: [C-|👎]

You like to think you’re devoted to your child. And you tell people this, “I’d do anything for ’em, anything.” And…it feels correct in your mouth when you say it, and you just go ahead with your life.

Russell Core

Hold the Dark is an interesting film, to say the least. It touches on profound topics such as grief and mourning, justice, and “closure.” The film attempts to deal with these topics, but they tend to get lost in the theme. The primary theme has to deal with wolves, both literal and metaphorical. Both the “wolves in sheep’s clothing” and the “sheepdog metaphor” can be seen at play in their contrasting juxtaposition.

Since this page is more focused on the technical aspects of film making and not the nuances of story telling and thematic arches, I’ll digress from the latter point. That in mind, please forgive me if I mention distinctions between the two metaphors from this point forward. The reason for that is simply because so much of the sordid story has those elements finely engrained.

Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) is an author who has dedicated his work to the study of wolves, and has been asked to investigate the death of a young boy in a rural Yup’ik village by the boy’s mother, Medora Slone (Riley Keough). Medora believes her son was taken and killed by a pack of wolves, and wants Russell to find evidence of this as well as cull one of the suspected animals before her husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), returns from his deployment. Vernon is sent home due to a battlefield injury, and finds his wife missing and his son deceased.

From that summary alone, know that antidepressants will compliment your viewing snacks. Russell figures out his real part to play in the story in the beginning of the second act, stating that he thinks he needs to “tell her story.” In that sense, and without giving spoilers, that’s where the concept of “closure” comes in to play.

As expected from Wright, he delivers the same quality of performance that audiences have come to expect from him. Keough performs her role in a manner that is jarring yet oddly convincing, whereas Skarsgård plays a rigid role that is quite telling of his character’s overly controlled nature.

There’s a clear line between people who fall in the category of sheepdogs, and those that more closely resemble a wolf in sheep’s clothing (and sometimes in sheepdog’s clothing). This is visually presented to great effect in the film! While this is used for foreshadowing, it’s more frequently used for distinguishing the proper archetypes of the characters.

As a whole, Hold the Dark is a decent film with a story that is reminiscent of Eastern European classics, that is to say simple and melancholy. However, this doesn’t tend to bode well in film, and is sparsely delivered to give the audience a point of reflection. For example, The Brothers Bloom excelled with this style of ending in the fact that is delivered a clear happiness wrapped in the more depressing aspects. Hold the Dark on the other hand only presents a slimmer of happiness that is so vague it’s lost in the darker elements.

I’ve voiced my concerns about Netflix Originals before, and this is an improvement. But only just. Quality actors, quality directing, and a good story are all great elements of a film, but they don’t mean much if the whole of the story leaves the audience confused and conflicted.

RATING: C-

The Predator

RATING: [C-|👎]

Let me start by stating that “The Predator” was a fun film.  I rather enjoyed the first two films, and much of what made them so enjoyable was the visceral nature of 80’s and 90’s action films.  Shane Black did a fantastic job at capturing that imagery while showing more of the mythos of the Predators.  With that in mind, there are some blatant short-falls that significantly weigh this latest instalment only just above the “AVP” cross-overs.

Considering the pedigree of this film comes from one of the original actors, one would be right to assume that the director would have keen insight to what the Predators are capable of. While the film does dig further into the way that the alien race operates and just how advanced they are, that’s one of the only real accolades to the story. The biggest detractor to this particular instalment is that there are so many inside jokes and references from the first couple of films that it makes the audience wonder if it’s a continuation of the story or a parody. While some of the references are genuinely comical and somewhat help the series as a whole (i.e. debating the accuracy of the name given to the species), many elements of the script over-emphasize some of the worst aspects of the original. I suppose that would be because Shane is reminiscing his role as the character that randomly forced poorly conceived jokes and quips.

While it’s generally understood that Hawkins was intentionally written to be “that one guy” who just wants to be liked, it seems that this film was told by Hawkins. It desperately wants to be liked by the audience, even going so far as to add blatant hints to at least one sequel. If I only reviewed films for how “likeable” or “enjoyable” a film was, The Predator would score much better.

To close this on a good note, it’s good to see that many of the special effects and creatures were still practical rather than computer graphics added in post. That’s really one thing that many films should learn from this. It’s not that “The Predator” wasn’t an enjoyable film, it just seems like it was trying to be too faithful to spirit of the originals. Again, there are some merits to that — being that light-hearted action movies are few-and-far-between these days — but this film just seems . . . out of place.

RATING: C-

Zoe

RATING [C|👎]

Zoe was essentially the complete reverse of Her with just a touch of Bicentennial Man to keep the moralistic aspects relatively grounded. Actually, saying it was “essentially” a complete reversal would be putting it lightly. Zoe explores the pathos argument surrounding artificial intelligence (AI) in a similar manner that one would expect a Freudian psychotherapist to badger their patients about how a particular event “made them feel.” The film teetered a little too close to being pretentiously “art-house,” all the while keeping the attention of the audience . . . even with the constant shaky cam.

Zoe (Léa Seydoux) works for a matchmaking firm that helps couples identify the chances of their relationship being successful, and helps its single clients find close to perfect matches. As Zoe guides clients through the survey that feeds Cole’s (Ewan McGregor) algorithm, she begins to long for the type of companionship she sees everyday. While this synopsis doesn’t seem all that intriguing, adding a couple of AI characters actually makes the story down-right appealing. In fact, Theo James makes another showing as a character that gains your respect and admiration through the duration of the film.

The acting from all three of the aforementioned talents does an admirable job of portraying the confusion of love, and the script does a wonderful job of drawing a line between the “finding the one” trope and the more realistic “for better or for worse” mentality that would help healthy relationships endure. Both of these factors kept my attention throughout the film, which is not an easy thing for the great majority of romantic dramas.

While the actors did an astonishing job at portraying their respective internal conflicts, the camera work gives the audience a sense of being a sort of voyeur rather than mere spectators. If the shaky camera is meant to make a scene (or in this case, film) feel tense or more personal, then Drake Doremus’ directing leads the audience to feel uncomfortable in their involvement with the budding romances on-screen. From stumbling through a first date, to struggling with one’s own emotions about the future of a relationship, every shot implies that most of what is seen is far too personal for the audience to be a part of. It’s one thing to give a personal aire, but it’s wholly different to bring outsiders in to what is presented as being private.

As far as romance stories go, this was actually an enjoyable and slightly uplifting example. The biggest detractor was the awkward and uncomfortable camera work. The soundtrack blended in almost too well, as it served only as ambiance to fill a scene to keep absolute silence away. Zoe is enjoyable as a film, but it doesn’t really approach any new facets of relationships or what it means to be “conscious.” For those reasons, the film is respectably average.

RATING: C

How It Ends

RATING: [D-|👎]

Begin with the end in mind.

[Stephen Covey]

You might be wondering why a film review would start off with a mantra often given to business majors, but I assure you the answer is quite simple: it seems that the writers had never heard of this concept before. This is especially ironic as the main character, Will (Theo James), is asked multiple times within the first fifteen minutes if he has a plan! It might have seemed a good idea at the time of the script’s initial writing, but it still begs the question of how no solid ending was dreamed up through the rest of production. An excuse of an explanation for the whole premise of the film would have been more satisfying than having the main characters trying to outrun a cloud of what could be just about anything to fit the two main theories pitched to Will throughout the course of the story.

This really is a perfect example of how important an ending is. I started watching this with exceptionally low expectations, thinking that this was an attempt to relive the “better” days of disaster movies. Instead, the film opens with a wholly unlikable professional millennial dead-set on marrying his now pregnant girlfriend, Sam (Kat Graham) . . . despite the fact that her father, Tom (Forest Whitaker), can’t stand Will. Even though that premise is as generic as corn flakes, the story progresses in such a manner that you actually come to respect and somewhat admire Will through his growth, and the same can be said for Tom. The characters in this film actually had a vague semblance of personal depth, and the acting of both characters was exceptionally well done considering the material.

Since the film is in essence a disaster movie, it would be expected that the “disaster” in question would have some sort of concrete explanation, especially since the disaster is what puts the whole plot in motion. Of course, as alluded to at the beginning of this review, the speculative “explanations” of the overarching disaster vary from a super volcano erupting, to the start of WWIII and a thousand years of nuclear winter. The plot itself is interesting since the whole story takes place over the course of a week, where somehow all of civilization breaks down to resemble The Purge by the end of the film. The cynic in me thought it could be quite likely, but perhaps nobody really knows how civilization would “realistically” dissolve in the event of an impending apocalypse.

To summarize, don’t waste your time with How It Ends. Sure, it comes with your Netflix subscription, and it does have at least one good actor (two, if you count Theo James), but those two facts don’t excuse Netflix’s acquisition strategy of throwing cash at whatever seems new and “edgy” at the film festivals. The frequency of bad films going straight to Netflix is starting to give “Netflix Originals” the same clout as “Direct to Home Video” releases, and I can’t help but wonder what Netflix as a company is thinking by investing in so many bad films…speaking of “beginning with the end in mind”.

RATING: D-

 

Cargo

RATING: [A-|🍅]

With the current deluge of zombie stories, it’s rare to see the zombie archetype used anywhere near as effectively as George Romero did in the original Night of the Living Dead. The concept of using some form of “zombie” was originally intended to highlight a growing “all consuming” pastime or behavior that (at least in the writing team’s view) has ingrained itself in the current zeitgeist. For the original Living Dead series, that was consumerism and the pursuit of material comforts; for Cargo, the behavior echoes Romero’s intent while also hinting that people have forgotten how to communicate effectively. But Ben Holwing and Yolanda Ramke add a surprisingly effective and uplifting bit to the archetype: a parent’s undying love for their child. Past these facts, Cargo stands strong as a film in its own right. While this is rare for a genre piece, it’s even rarer for a film that’s distributed almost exclusively through Netflix.

While Cargo is an expanded version of a short film of the same name, the additional time is largely well spent. The story is changed fairly significantly, as would be expected when expanding seven minutes to fill a feature-length time. The addition of Martin Freeman was an odd choice, but one that also added to the impact, as we see his character struggle to adapt to the surrounding reality of apocalyptic Australia. One of the few gripes I have with the film is actually with Freeman’s presentation of mixed emotions. While believable enough and understandable for the circumstances, his acting in particular can come across as somewhat forced. Nitpicks aside, the acting of the cast is still impressive, especially from newcomer, Simone Landers.

Not only does the film accurately tell its story while drawing the audience in, but even avoids many of the all-too-common pitfalls of more recent zombie tales; chief among those, the over embellished focus on the grotesque. Mr. Howling and Ms. Ramke manage to use the violence and gore that is necessary for this type of story in a measured manner and focus more on the actual plot in a way that implies innocence and struggle, rather than comfort and complacency. So much so that it almost gives the film a “feel good” air, which tends to be a running theme with Cargo: keeping hope alive, even in the darkest of circumstances.

Even if you’re one who is growing weary of all the zombie tales that are releasing now, I would encourage you to at least watch the short film for a taste of what zombie films have to offer.

RATING: A-