Bad Times At The El Royale

If in the coming weeks you are in a conversation where someone complains that there are no more original films being made by Hollywood, you have only 2 acceptable courses of action to choose from as a response. Option A, the fitting response would be to bash that person over the head with a shovel, as he or she has no idea what they are talking about, they just talk for love of the sound of their own voice, which is obnoxious. Option B, the socially acceptable one, is to ask them is they have seen Bat Times At The El Royale and subsequently invite them to shut the hell up. Because this movie is a 100% original story, executed flawlessly that went under the general audience’s radar. It is THE most underrated movie of this season and a poster perfect example why it is so difficult to make a solid, standalone movie nowadays. This is the first movie to come out under the hand of Drew Goddard in years, as despite a great number of projects he was attached to, the last film he directed was The Cabin In The Woods, way back in 2012. In the case of both movies, Goddard pulled double duty, as he was not only the director but the screenwriter as well.

The setup for the story is a classic. There is a remote hotel, some guests check in. Everybody is sketchy and tries to mind their own business, but inevitably, things go sideways, really quick and really bad. And there is a storm coming. As I said, a classic. But the execution of the story is masterful. After the initial meet of the characters, everybody goes on their merry way with the focus on the character portrayed by Jon Hamm. We get to see what he is up to and how his story unfolds, during which we also get some glimpses, previews in the stories of the other characters. Not enough to understand what is going on with them, but just enough to become curious about them. Once we are finished with Hamm’s character, we rewind the clock and we got to spend the same time interval with another character, witnessing things from their perspectives, seeing previews for other protagonists, and so on, like dancing the same song with different partners, one after the other. And once we are up to date with everybody, the story can move forward in time, and the dance floor gets smaller and smaller every time, until all story lines converge into one big finale. I really like this approach. For one thing, this allows the audience to really focus on the events. If all points of view would have been presented in parallel, jumping from one character to the other every 20 seconds, this movie would have been unwatchable. Many details would have been lost on the audience, no emotional bonds would have been created and would turn the entire story into one giant mess, which it actually is, at least for the characters. But as things are, you get to know every protagonist intimately. Their backstory is being told in the form of a brief flashback, inserted at the right moment for it to be relevant to present events. You get to understand how things got from A to B to Z, even if the events were not showed in that order, because you were given all the story elements in a most palatable way. There are no “blink and you miss” type of clues here. All you have to do is pay attention to what is happening on the screen and you will understand everything. After an appropriate time of tease, that is.

But beyond the great storytelling, this movie is a great vehicle for the actors to showcase their talents. Jeff Bridges and Jon Hamm are having a great time making this movie and it shows on screen. Cynthia Erivo is charming and steals nearly every scene she is in. Not to mention her singing… Lewis Pullman, son of Bill Pullman, pulls a breakout performance here (excuse the pun) that most likely will put him on the map, and Chris Hemsworth is just hypnotic. I don’t think I ever saw Hemsworth portraying a villain before, but he is one charming devil.

Overall, if you still have the chance to see Bad Times At The El Royal in theaters, do go and see it. It deserves, and needs, all the views it can get. So, go on, reward original movies when they do appear on the big screens. Otherwise we will end up in an era where the next Scorsese movie goes straight to Netflix… oh wait, that is already happening….

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A star is born

A Star Is Born is the 3rd remake of a movie released with the same title in 1937. The original had Janet Gaynor and Fredric March as headliners. The remake in 54 had Judy Garland and James Mason, and the one in 76 had Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. Apparently, all 3 previous incarnations of this movie had been winners, or the very least, contenders for the Oscars. This latest version stars Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, and what do you know, it too seems to be a contender for the Oscar race. In fact, it seems to be one of its front runners. This is quite remarkable since Bradley Cooper pulled double duty on this one, both as lead actor and director, the latter being his debut. The story itself is rather straightforward. An established but fading star (actor in the first 2 films, singer in the latter ones) finds a promising new talent which leads also to love. This love reinvigorates the fading star, but as the proteges star is on the rise, he falls back into the shadows and things start to go rather dark from there.

To be honest, I have not seen any of the previous incarnation of this story. I knew they exist, I even skimmed trough a lengthy account about the making of the 3rd film that the director has released much to Barbra Streisand’s displeasure. But not once was I considering watching any of the other 3 movies, let alone all of them, so that I have a basis for comparison for the current version. I have too many titles that I actually want to see in my free time to do this kind of optional homework, and besides, this kind of story just doesn’t do it for me. There are far too many tropes here that I have seen elsewhere, executed with various degree of success. In fact, I was pretty sure how the story will roll out, just based on the premise alone. So why did I go to see this movie in the first place? Because it is one of the happening movies right now, so I kind of felt like I have to see it. Plus, I was curious if the Oscar buzz that it is getting is for real or not. Well, the buzz it is real. And I would gladly buy this movie for my collection and watch it again. It is that GOOD.

Don’t get me wrong. My expectations regarding the general direction of the plot was met by the movie. But the key word here is “general”. When we get to the specifics, this script gets rather original with things, or at least compared with the other tropes used by rise to/fall from stardom movies. And even though I knew the “beat” of the film and saw the turnings in the story coming, it never felt boring. Authentic, heart breaking, yes. Boring? Never.

But the story here is nothing but an excuse for the actors to unleash their powers and to glue your eyes on the screen. Bradley Cooper is phenomenal as Jack, the jaded rock star. Whenever I hear Coopers name, I cannot help myself of thinking back to the tv series Alias, where he made his breakout performance, or to most of his roles so far, where he is a pretty face with a cocky attitude. But that dude is miles away from this movie. Cooper is looks legit worn out here, tired and disappointed from all that stardom has to offer. I mean he looks old. He feels old. And it is not just the make-up or the acting… There was something in his eyes, a form of quiet sadness, that sold me everything. His nomination for best leading actor at the Oscars is pretty much a given, and if the awards were given out tomorrow, he would get it too. But since most of his real competition will only roll out in December, we will have to wait to see. Sam Elliot is also in the movie, although with way less screen time as Cooper. Non the less, he works wonders with the little that he is given, even if half the time I could not understand a word that he was mumbling under that big mustache of his. But there is a scene in the 3rd act with him, where there are no words spoken, and that scene alone should get him a best supporting actor nomination. I don’t think that a win is a realistic goal for Elliot, but I would be rather upset no to see him on the nominee list. However, let us not kid ourselves. The true breakout performance here is given by Lady Gaga. Which is, again, super weird. Just as same with Cooper, whenever I think of Gaga, I have a specific image in mind. There was a meme a long time ago with Gaga and Eminem on stage at an award show that had a text similar to “you know you are fucked up when you are on stage with Eminem and he is the normal one”. All the while Gaga was in a full body red suit with some weird full face mask on, that made her look like something out of Guillermo del Toro film. And generally that what Gaga was for a really long time, a provocateur, in lack of a better word. But not here. Here she is down to earth, she is vulnerable, she is loving. And she is goddamn gorgeous without spending half the day behind the make-up mirror. Despite whatever image she was selling 10 years ago, she is a totally different person here and I had no problems in buying it. The fact how she managed to keep her love for Coopers character, despite the hard times he put her trough, and how she constantly needs to compromise in her singing carrier but managing to stay true to herself, all of these make her just as much a tragic character as Cooper, and she pulls it off effortlessly. Now, many have made the argument that the reason she is so good here is that she basically has to play herself, but I do not agree. She already built a successful acting career in the world of television, so her talent was not something “borrowed”. Also, the director and script writer knew exactly how to get the most out of Gaga acting in front of the camera. As for her singing… well, there is a reason why she was an international hit as a singer before turning to acting. Just like Cooper, Gaga is also a sure thing for getting an Oscar nomination for lead actress, and I am confident that she will taking it for home too. But as talented as Cooper and Gaga are individually, together they are a veritable powerhouse. They have great chemistry in front of the cameras, their interaction with each other is seamless, natural. You get why they care for each other, why they are disappointed by each other, why they are still together. When they share a scene, they do so as equals, there is no preferential focus on one specific person based on who is the biggest star, who has the better selling name.

There is one more player in this movie that needs to be mentioned, which is the music. And the music is great! All the songs written for the movie have the potential to stand their grounds on their own in today’s music charts. Gaga brings her A game in terms of singing, which is to be expected, but Cooper also performs his own singing and playing, and his performance is on par. In fact, all the singing in the movie is recorded live, in front of the camera, not in the studio as one might expect. Also, the concerts scenes are extraordinary. They were shot at Coachella and Glastonbury, during actual concerts with the actual concert going audience, and it feels. The crowd’s feedback, the lights, all the sounds, everything is authentic.

There are only 2 issues with this movie. The first would be its length, which being 2 hours and a quarter is a bit too long. This is the most telling sign that Cooper has never directed a movie before and is unable to let certain scenes go or trim down to improve the overall flow of the film. Fortunately, the film is good enough for this not to become a major issue. The second issue is that this movie is a sad one, as you might expect it from a tragedy. Now, the reason why this is an issue is that you will not watch this movie for a second or third time as easily as might do with other movies. This is by no way a complaint about the quality of the movie, on the contrary, but once the initial incentives for the watch are gone (the hype, the curiosity, the recommendations) and you are fully aware what this story is about and what it can deliver, you need to be in a specific mindset to watch it again. I have not reached that mindset since, which is a shame, since I am convinced that a second viewing would be tremendously rewarding.

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First Man

First Man is Damien Chazelle’s latest directorial effort. Just like his previous works, Whiplash and La La Land, this too is marked as an academy award contender. It has all the right ingredients for it. It is a biopic; it is also a period piece. It is heavy with the drama, both on a personal and on a historical scale, and it has plenty of the right actors in the right places for the critics to eat it up. Also, the fact that the director is the newest wunderkind in Hollywood just makes things easier. I mean Chazelle is only 33 at this point, but he already has an Oscar for directing and 2 other nominations for screenplay, one for original and on for adapted. This story could not have been made more for award consideration. It is also has annoyed the fuck out of me.

This is, yet again, an instance, where I and the critics walk away with totally different appreciation of the movie that we just saw. Based on the current Rotten Tomatoes score, 9 out 10 critics have liked this movie. I am the lonely 10th schmuck that doesn’t gets it. This movie just does not compile together as it should. I understand the idea behind it and why it has looked so promising on paper. You take one of the biggest human achievements ever, you find its main protagonist and you film his journey to reach that achievement, but you focus on his private struggles and tribulations instead of the grand story, all the small sacrifices he had to make to get where he was going. It is, without a doubt a great premise. But it just doesn’t work here, and the reason for it is remarkably simple. Neil Armstrong, despite of his multiple remarkable traits and merits, is a boring person. As far as I can tell, the filmmakers went to extraordinary lengths to make everything as authentic as possible. If they succeeded, that means that Armstrong had the charisma of a dried potato, which is bad if you want to build an entire movie on his shoulders, instead on the events. Because everything that was related in this movie to the Gemini and Apollo space programs was great. Those elements were really exciting. But they only account for about 40% of the movie. Everything else is an intimate look into the Armstrong household and the relationship between Neil and Janet. They live in a small housing community, filled with the families of the people working in the space program. So most of the talk is either shop talk, or shop related talk or just plain household drama. The men are pilots/engineers and the women are housewives. You can just imagine how diversified the talking points can be in an environment like that. Also, there are a lot of kids around and all they do is run around and scream and shout. I know that this is actually an accurate depiction of how things were back then, but still, it drove me up the frickin’ walls. Thank God for the occasional funeral every now and then. Basically, to focus on the man instead of the mission was a choice the result of which did not live up to expectations. Not with this execution, at least.

Speaking of execution, I also have an ax to grind with the way this movie was shot. There was a lot of talk on how during the lunar landing the camera is focusing on Ryan Goslings face instead of the actual landing and how the movie does not show how the flag was planted on the moon. I could not care less about any of this. BUT, when we are on the ground, on earth, which is 95% of the movie, for whatever reason, the film makers decided to go with hand held cameras. The cameramen are either unable to keep the cameras steady or they were going for some 60’s documentary film style of shooting, which sounds about right given the time period the story unfolds in, but it looks like something I shoot with my camera over the weekend. Watching a close-up always moving on the big screen, while the character was clearly still in its surroundings, was horrible. I almost got sea-sick.

As far as the acting goes, I cannot have complaints there. Ryan Goslings brings another one of his stoic performances as Neil Armstrong, which I am guessing is fitting. Claire Foy, as his wife Janet, is a powerhouse. I know this because she has annoyed me the most as a character, so she, as an actress, managed to punch through the weak script. Jason Clarke and Corey Stoll are also memorable in their roles. Kyle Chandler and Ciarán Hinds are in this movie too, but just long enough to recognize their faces, otherwise they are totally underused. I saw cameos longer than their screen time here.

Overall, First Man, is an ambitious project, that had an original concept and all the right ingredients to become an incredible, epic movie, a classic. Except, it didn’t. I choose Apollo 13 over this on any given day of the week.

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Try to imagine the movie Hitchcock would be able to do in today’s age of social media. All the new types of horrors he could unleash upon us thanks to this new playground called the internet. Searching provides a rather convincing picture of what that might have be like. This is a gripping thriller that will sneak up on you and catch you by surprise. I certainly was not prepared for it. The trailer didn’t do much for me and if it wasn’t for the excellent word of mouth this movie was getting, I would have never gone out to see it. But I am glad that I did, because this movie will definitely end up in my top 10 of this year.

The story, in itself, is rather simple. Margot, the young daughter of David Kim (John Cho) goes missing. Desperate to find his daughter, David deep dives into Margot’s emails, facebook profile and other parts of her digital life, only to discover that Margot is not the daughter he believed her to be.

So far there is nothing new, we have seen this movie a thousand times before. What is different here that everything is unfolding on a computer screen. We never get to see a traditional shot in this movie. We see texting, people talking on facetime, posts on different social media platforms, vlog-ing, youtube videos and countless other things we might witness on a computer screen. And despite my initial expectation, it is a super effective form of delivery for the story. It provides an intimate perspective; it is almost voyeuristic. Every one of us have moved a good portion of their social interaction and personality (sort to speak) online, and this is what the movie is exploring, the fact that we are more real in the digital space than in actual, day to day life. And because of this, watching how the events unfold on a computer screen feels more real than if we would have witnessed it first hand in real life. According to the movies producer, Timur Bekmambetov, this idea came to him after a skype call with a friend of his, where they used the then newly introduced feature of screen sharing. After they have concluded the call, the friend has forgot to disable the screen share and Timur got a few minutes glimpse of his friends actual digital self, the one we all display when nobody else is watching our screen. Naturally, he notified the friend that the share is still ongoing.

However, even the best concepts can fail if they are not executed well. Thankfully, this is not the case. The story is properly customized for this kind of delivery system. We establish an emotional bond with David and Margot in the first minutes of the movie by learning their story through pictures, home videos, emails and a calendar schedules. I know that it sounds rather dry, but trust me, it is anything but. It is one of the most effective exposition I have seen in years. Within a couple of minutes, we are up to date with everything, we care about the characters and are ready to go for the plot. And the plot unfolds beautifully. The pace is fast but even. We go from A to B to C and so on with a steady speed. None of the plot points overstay their welcome to become boring. And this is a good thing, because based on the trailer I was convinced that the filmmakers will insist upon the hypocrisy of social media, which they do point out but without over doing it. Instead, they concentrate on the tension, which, just like the view count of a viral video, just goes up, and up. And just like with any viral video or news, you get hooked in and you stay with it until the very end. And it is a great ride. The film makers are very clever in making connections through the story and you can understand how the characters reach certain conclusions, or in the case of big reveals, you can understand what they are based upon, despite the surprise. Also, the movie is filled with clues about what happened, but the misdirects employed by the script are damned good and kept me from guessing the actual ending of the story. Not until the final clue was I able to figure out what was going on, but even then I was short on the details. All in all, this is a mystery done right.

Unfortunately, there is a major flaw in this movie. It will not age well. One of the factors that really boosts the effectiveness of our connection to the story is the fact that we are familiar with most of the platforms and processes we witness. We use facebook, email, youtube and any other digital playground on a daily basis. So all the layouts, the sounds, actions are like second nature to us, we need no explanation of what is happening there because we know it in our sleep. However… The movie opens up with David making an account for (a then about 10 years old) Margot on the family PC, which ran Windows XP. Now, I am old enough to remember that operating system, I have used it for almost a decade, but I am no longer as familiar with it as I once used to. I am sure that most teenagers watching this movie understood the concept what was going on the screen, adding another user to a computer, but had no idea what they are looking at. And here in lies the problem. The movie is so rooted in today’s technology that it will automatically be outdated with it, regardless of the overall performance in storytelling. Yes, we know facebook, and we know Gmail, but what happens 5 years from now? During 5 years, all these platforms can perform design changes to which we get accustomed to and then this movie will not feel as much familiar and intimate as it does now. Now try the same thing 10 years from now, try 20… When I was a teenager, mIRC was a thing, now it is not. So was yahoo messenger, myspace… There were a bunch of platforms that we knew inside and out back then and which we barely remember today. The same is true for today’s platforms, with the passing of time, they too will become irrelevant, and together with them this movie will pass too into oblivion. Don’t believe me? In 2004 there was this movie called Cellular, with Chris Evans in the lead. One of its major plot twist was that the heroes cell phone could record video and the bad guys did not know that… Sounds silly? It is today, but back in the day that was a rare thing. And again, who remembers that movie today? Same in our case, 10-20 years from now, everything that looks interesting from a tech point of view will become laughable, or the very least cute. This is why good sci-fi films are never rooted into today’s tech. Even if their special effects no longer hold up, the movie itself is timeless, it doesn’t become irrelevant because the storytelling is still done the same way is it always has been. And great sci-fi films are never rooted into today’s tech either, but tomorrows tech is rooted into them. So this is one major pitfall Searching did not miss.

But, there is no time like now, and now this is one of the best movies 2018 has to offer. It is thrilling, it is exciting and it provides a great topic of conversation. I highly recommend it for everyone to see it, before it expires.

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I am at the point that I no longer look forward to seeing super hero movies. Honestly, if tomorrow we would get the news there would be no more super hero movies for the next ten years, I would be fine with it. Given that we got to a point that there are 6 such movies a year I would not mind the break. But, sure enough, whenever a new one comes out, I will be there to watch it, but mostly because of the same reason why I keep watching a tv series into its 13th season, when it has nothing left to offer, but I have invested so much time in it that cutting it off no longer seems viable. And they are also the happening movies. Every single one of them, every time. So, there you go, if you are into movies you got to see them, at least once. Now, regarding Venom, I had 0 expectations. I knew that it was in the works for years with quite some drama. I knew that the studio wanted for this to be a stepping stone for their own comic book movie universe. I could not care less about this movie. Then, the trailers came out, and I still could not care less. Finally, as we were just about a week before the premiere, the news just broke that the press screenings and the lift of review embargoes will be just a day or so before the movies wide release, which is a major alarm sign, and which means that the studio is not happy with their own product and are trying to do some damage control. Finally, the movie opened, and the first reviews came in, which were overwhelmingly bad. But, as I already mentioned, I will watch these movies at least once, so I went out to see Venom. It was the most fun Marvel comics based movie I saw this year.

Now, let me be clear. I am not saying that this movie is good. I am saying that out of all the Marvel movies this year, this was the most fun for me. From a quality point of view, this movie is garbage. I feel the same way as the comic book movies from the late 90s – early 2000s, and it doesn’t comes close to the level that we expect after the Nolan Batman trilogy or the 20 some MCU movies or 3 trilogies of X-men movies. The producers were clearly more focused on the brand power of Venom and the star power of its cast to achieve their goals instead of the actual final product they will be delivering. They do not understand the material they are working with and they do not care either, as long as they can make a buck, which they will. Even from an esthetic point of view, it is bad. The CGI looks outdated compared to current TV shows, never mind movies from the same genre. The action scenes are poorly conceived and even more poorly shot. You can barely make out what is happening on screen. There is a scene where Venom needs to fight an entire SWAT team in a lobby. The camera is more focused on how the SWAT guys are flying in the air and how terrified they are instead of showing us just how Venom is handling them. Venom is either too far away for a decent look or just not in the picture enough to actually see him in action. You get to see some of the action, but not the part that is interesting. Not to mention, there is some smoke involved and a somewhat dark lobby, so good luck on watching out for a huge thing all dressed in black that moves around on walls and stuff. Also, for a movie with Venom as its title, we do not get to see that much of Venom. Sure, Tom Hardy as Venom human host is in most of the scenes, but Venom, in all its glory, is rather absent.

However, the main problem of this movie is the script. Any technical shortcoming can be forgiven if the movie delivers on the story. This one doesn’t even knows that there is something to be delivered. The dialogue is ridiculous, the secondary characters are useless and the entire thing is riddled with plot holes. Whatever is established in one scene can easily be ignored in the next. Riz Ahmed is playing the main villain, but he is as interesting as a slice of toast. He has a nice speech of why he is doing what he is doing, but in the end it is clear that he just doesn’t care about any of it. I can never understand this thing about the big bad, all powerful, villain for which the ultimate goal is to free/resurrect someone or something just to become slaves to the very same thing. From king of the world to become a mere henchman. Michelle Williams is playing the love interest to Tom Hardy’s character, but she is just wasted. Honestly, she could have been cut out of the movie and nobody would notice it. She has no contribution to the story that cannot be erased. Some minor adjustments would be needed but they would be minimal. And she is a 4 time Oscar nominated actress, for crying out loud. A total waste of talent. That being said, there is one cool scene with her and Venom, that looked cool. But save for those 3-4 seconds, nothing about her is memorable.

But, there are some good stuff around too. Tom Hardy really gives everything he got to the role. He even speaks with an understandable accent this time around. The banter between him and Venom, which most of the time is just a voice in his head, is the saving grace of this film. That is just pure fun. And Hardy sells it. Also, the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously. You can find some joy in this film. There are some jokes and situations that will make you laugh, and despite of all the violence and stuff that is going down, you will never feel depressed because of them. If you will not consider the source material as holy scripture and you are not looking for this movie to be next The Dark Knight, you might just have a good time with Venom.

Basically, Venom is the kind of movie that you would put on when friends come over to hang out. Something to go on in the background while you guys chat and cheer for when it gets to the good parts, which you can enjoy even out of context. Again, it is not the best Marvel movie of the year, but it is the one I had the most fun with. It will be the best thing for a rainy Sunday afternoon when its on Netflix.

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