Writer and director Drew Goddard’s latest picture, the pulpy, ultraviolent Bad Times at the El Royale, entertains even as it loses its way with countless subplots and narrative red herrings. The movie’s flabby runtime of two hours and twenty-one minutes engenders a sense of interminability rather than rapturous suspense, the latter undoubtedly being Goddard’s goal. Royale’s bleak worldview – the movie’s happy ending feels like it’s going through the motions and rings a little hollow considering the nihilistic killing and suffering in its climax – makes me hesitate to call it fun. But in more than a few ways, it’s just that. Royale’s phenomenal production value, stellar cast, and creation of a heroic rooting interest (once it finally comes) make it more enjoyable than it otherwise would be.
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It’s a well-worn cliché that bad times make for good art. We’re at the front end of some undeniably rotten times, with a commander-in-chief who traffics in white supremacist language and policies, and a large segment of the population who feel more comfortable expressing bigotry because of him. Hate and ignorance are ascendant. It’s the coldest of comfort, but the first great piece of art in response to these bad times (at least as far as movies go) is here. It’s called BlacKkKlansman. It’s incendiary, powerful, hilarious, chilling. Master filmmaker Spike Lee called upon every skill he has as an artist to make this movie pulse in defiance of our current political and existential crisis. He also included his trademark sense of humor and his unique visual style and inventiveness. No other director could have made this movie. BlacKkKlansman is, and could only be, a Spike Lee joint.
Early in You Were Never Really Here, Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Joe, takes a violent blow to the back of the head. Movie convention has programmed us to expect one single hit like this to knock a character out cold. You Were Never Really Here is no conventional movie. Joe stumbles for a second, then he turns and gives it right back to his assailant. Joe punches the man in the face and he goes down but is also not out. It’s a quick and brutal exchange that sets the tone for the next 90 minutes. Director Lynne Ramsay’s new film is a rescue/action movie like Taken, by way of the avant-garde experimentalism of Maya Deren. It’s by turns vicious, stomach-churning, elliptical, ethereal, and staggeringly beautiful. It’s a movie that will haunt me for a long time.
The best movies about poker are often about more than the game itself. A great example is Rounders. That movie isn’t so much about turning a losing hand into a winner through the power of bluffing as it is loyalty and the limits of friendship. So, too, is screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s work rarely just about what can be covered in a plot synopsis. The 30-year veteran of stage, TV, and film writing crafted two of the best biopics of this decade with 2010’s The Social Network and 2015’s Steve Jobs. Those films are character studies that seek answers to questions concerning true genius and the uglier traits of driven and brilliant men.
Critics and audiences have often lamented Sorkin’s less deft skill at writing female characters. The women he writes are sometimes two dimensional; they serve to add overwrought hysterics or a love interest to the story. With Molly’s Game, Sorkin has challenged himself to confront this weakness. His protagonist, Molly Bloom, is as driven as the subjects in The Social Network or Steve Jobs. Her story is also as complex, fascinating, and as rewarding of a character study as anything Sorkin has ever written.
The critical consensus to the newest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s whodunit is that it’s style over substance. That seems a little odd, considering the source material for Murder on the Orient Express is one of the most well regarded murder mysteries of all time, by arguably the greatest mystery writer of all time. There is, to be sure, plenty of style. The film’s director, Kenneth Branagh – who also portrays the story’s world-famous detective, Hercule Poirot – went out of his way to stage a lavish production. The movie, which takes place on the eponymous first-class passenger train, revels in its aristocratic decadence.
At the same time, the substance of Orient Express – Poirot’s sifting of clues to find a killer among the passengers – is engaging, especially for someone unfamiliar with the story, as I was.
Good Time is as much about its setting, New York City, as it is its characters or plot. As someone who’s never been, I still have a relationship with it, albeit one forged through the images and aesthetics of the movies. In my mind, it’s a city that is constantly in motion. As a child, I took the slogan “The City That Never Sleeps” quite literally. Good Time brings that (perhaps fictional) place, and its frenetic characters, to crackling life. It’s evokes films from a bygone era of Big Apple movie making. Images from titles as disparate as Taxi Driver, After Hours, Tootsie, and even My Dinner with Andre swirled in my head as the gritty expanse of Good Time’s version of New York opened up before me.
To the people in charge: please, please, please let Edgar Wright direct the next installment of the Fast and Furious series. Let him write it, too. With Baby Driver, he’s proven he is up to the task. He might not have any interest, though. Wright thrives on challenging himself with a different genre for each new film he makes. He dismantles them, and rebuilds them in his own quirky, original image. He did it with horror in Shaun of the Dead, and the buddy-cop movie in Hot Fuzz. He did it with the romantic comedy in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and science fiction in The World’s End. Now he’s done it with the heist/car chase genre in Baby Driver. It’s exhilarating, funny, and a damn good time at the movies.
Free Fire is an outrageous little movie. It shouldn’t be as entertaining as it is. This hilarious gun-deal-turned-shoot-out is provocative and cathartic, with cartoonish violence aimed mostly for laughs. It’s Tarantino, but straight-slapstick.
It would be reasonable to think a movie that consists almost completely of people shooting each other would become tedious, not to mention a little hard to watch considering the unimaginable spate of mass shootings constantly featured in the news. Director Ben Wheatley and writer Amy Jump – who co-wrote the script together – pull it off, though. Set in 1978, the movie begins with two factions traveling to a Boston warehouse to complete an illegal weapons deal. An intermediary, Justine, represents the buyers: a group of IRA members, led by Chris, who want firearms for use against their enemies in The Troubles. Justine’s colleague, Ord, is bringing the seller, a South African gun runner named Vernon, who is accompanied by his own group of associates. An uneasy tension hangs in the air as all the interested parties, ten people total, attempt to exchange cash for guns.
Any discussion about The Girl on the Train should begin and end with the movie’s star, Emily Blunt. The actress delivers the most searing depiction of alcoholism on the big screen since Nicolas Cage’s Oscar-winning performance in Leaving Las Vegas. From her ruddy face, to her slightly slurred speech and wobbly motion, Blunt inhabits wholly the character of Rachel Watson. She’s an incredibly damaged woman, keeping her drinking barely under enough control to believably be a functioning member of society. If she were in a better movie, Blunt would be a shoo-in for her own Oscar nomination next year.
Unfortunately, the rest of The Girl on the Train lets Blunt down.
There’s a falseness to Hell or High Water that distracts from the quite potent visceral punch the movie delivers in its last act. The disingenuous vibe the movie gives off comes mostly from writer Taylor Sheridan’s heavily clichéd dialog and obnoxious character dynamics. The way Sheridan handles those attributes left me with the impression that Hell or High Water is his version of a Coen brothers movie, essentially a stripped down No Country for Old Men. But where No Country is full of delicate, nuanced character studies punctuated with nerve-shredding tension and bursts of violence, Hell or High Water eschews the rich character turns for a tired machismo that left me feeling bored.
When the credits suddenly rolled at the end of Dangerous Men, my response was to yell “Yes! YES!” at the top of my lungs. No one else in the theater noticed, they were all too busy having their own ecstatic reactions, laughing and applauding in equal measure. Simply put, Dangerous Men is one of the most indecipherable, comically bad movies ever committed to celluloid.
The movie’s plot – what little there is – concerns a woman, Mira, and her fiancé being attacked on a beach by two bikers. The fiancé is killed, and the bikers plan to rape Mira. She cunningly escapes being violated and goes on a mission to get revenge on every man with nefarious intentions she comes across. To describe what happens next as “incomprehensible” is like suggesting that reading The Canterbury Tales in Chaucer’s original Middle English is a bit tough to get through.
There’s no story in Dangerous Men, so much as there are several story threads that are tenuously tied at best. The movie cuts between each one at break-neck speed until the final scene ends in the most abrupt way possible: freeze-framing on three characters we’ve only just been introduced to. It’s as if the idea of dramatic resolution was a physical entity that committed such a heinous crime against the filmmaker, he had no choice but to get his revenge with a bad enough ending that storytelling itself would be mortally wounded.
The auteur responsible for Dangerous Men, Iranian born architect John S. Rad, spent 26 years making his movie, and ultimately self-financed its initial disastrous theatrical run. Rad – born Jahangir Yeganehrad – began filming his trash opus in the early ‘80s, giving the whole film its grungy neon aesthetic. He refused to be buried in debt, so filming became a start-and-stop endeavor, depending on when he had the cash on hand to afford it. Rad completed filming in the mid-90s, and he had to pay out-of-pocket to get the finished product into a few L.A. theaters in 2005. The filmmaker died of a heart attack in 2007, just a few years after Dangerous Men started earning a reputation on the cult, so-bad-it’s-good midnight movie circuit.