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Mystery

Bad Times at the El Royale

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Bad Times at the El Royale

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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A Simple Favor

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A Simple Favor

It isn’t easy getting close to Emily. Even her own husband, Sean, sometimes feels like an outsider in his own marriage. The mercurial Emily is a high-powered public relations director for a premier fashion company, and her take-no-bullshit attitude allows her to tell her own boss to get lost on occasion. You have to be willing to treat powerful people like dirt, she says, because sometimes that’s the only way to get through to them. The only thing that can compete with Emily’s job is her devotion to her son, Nicky.

When Emily allows Stephanie – whose son Miles attends the same elementary school as Nicky – into her orbit, Stephanie feels both elated and intimidated. She runs a somewhat successful mommy vlog where she posts about things like making friendship bracelets. Stephanie doesn’t quite know how to handle Emily’s sophistication and no-nonsense demeanor. One day Emily asks Stephanie to pick up Nicky from school and watch him for a few hours while she deals with a minor emergency. Five days later, Emily has vanished. Determined to find her new friend, Stephanie plays detective and uncovers dark secrets from Emily’s past. What she finds will change her life forever.

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You Were Never Really Here

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You Were Never Really Here

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.

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Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

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Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

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.

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Loving Vincent

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Loving Vincent

What’s more important to know about Vincent van Gogh ­– the man art historians consider the father of modern painting – how he lived, or the circumstances of his death? That’s the question the visually stunning new film Loving Vincent tries to answer. If that’s all you’re thinking about after seeing the film, though, you’ve missed the point. That’s why it’s forgivable that the movie’s story is the weakest thing about it. The way the story is told, though, is unforgettable. Every frame of Loving Vincent was oil-painted by hand. It took a team of 125 painters two years to complete. The movie is a beautiful exception to the rule “form follows function.”

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mother!

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mother!

If you want to find the most polarizing film of 2017, look no further than Darren Aronofsky’s baroque experiment in psychological horror, mother! (which after this point, I’ll refer to simply as Mother). This is a movie that’s impact I suspect will diminish on a second viewing. Unlocking the secret at Mother’s core, which will probably come at a slightly different point for just about everyone seeing it, robs it of some of its power. Aronofsky has made pure allegory here, using an extreme dream-logic aesthetic that is nothing if not simultaneously hypnotic and terrifying.

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The Girl on the Train

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The Girl on the Train

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.

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Spectre

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Spectre

Spectre is a Bond fan’s Bond movie. This is the 24th film in a series spanning over 50 years, and after a talk with an expert in the field (my own editor), I was given a breakdown of the myriad homages the movie makes to its own legacy. If you have only a basic working knowledge of the Bond mythos (like me), or even if you know next to nothing about agent 007, Spectre still works as a thrilling spy-actioner. The film is certainly not without its flaws, but on the whole it delivers on several levels, and if nothing else is two and half hours of spy-movie fun.

Daniel Craig is the sixth actor to portray British MI6 secret agent James Bond and he begins his fourth outing in Mexico City, during a huge Día de Muertos celebration. The skeleton motif – think giant skeleton parade balloons and participants decked out in skull masks and make-up – is a direct callback to another Bond film, specifically the tops-and-tails sporting henchman Baron Samedi from Live and Let Die. It’s a great signal right at the start to let the initiated know that this is a Bond film steeped in its franchise’s lore.

For audiences who don’t know or care about any of that, this virtuoso sequence directed by Sam Mendes is still amazing on a purely technical level. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s camera magnificently swirls around the parade and up several floors of a hotel in a tracking shot that remains unbroken for almost five minutes. The tension that is created in the shot doesn’t just remain intact after the first cut, but actually ramps up with a fist-fight on a flying helicopter that is dazzling. Even if the rest of the movie was a disappointment (it’s not), the opening would be enough to redeem the whole film.

The Daniel Craig Bond films resurrected an aspect of the franchise that has been long dormant. From the early 1980s through 2002’s Die Another Day, each film has been a self-contained unit. Each villain and plot is disconnected from the others. With this latest series, the writers and producers have revived the oldest foe MI6 and Bond have ever faced: the shadowy criminal cabal known as Spectre. It’s a throwback that links the very first 007 adventure with the latest one, and fans of old-school spy craft movies, especially the Bond series, should love it. Simply put, Spectre is the Bondiest Bond film to come along in forty years.

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The Third Man

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The Third Man

Holly Martins has the worst luck. The broke writer travels to Vienna shortly after the end of World War II because his best friend, Harry Lime, offers him a job. Within the opening minutes of director Carol Reed’s classic noir thriller The Third Man, Martins walks under a ladder – a harbinger of bad luck – and soon learns that a car struck and killed Lime a few days earlier. Martins is now adrift in a foreign land with no money and no prospects, but things are about to get much worse. Major Calloway, a British officer who is part of the post-war occupying force in Vienna, tells Martins that his childhood friend was a criminal, a profiteer within the city’s thriving black market. Martins decides to clear his friend’s good name and, as a result, he’s pulled into intrigue that challenges his belief in the decency of humanity. Along the way he meets Anna, Lime’s lover, who is ferociously loyal and is devastated by his death.

Because we’re travelling through noir country in The Third Man, the worldview is bleak, practically nihilistic. Made in 1949, the film explores the existential crisis experienced after the most deadly war in history ended. Life is cheap, take all you can while you can, and don’t look out for anybody but yourself.

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