Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

bad1How I loved this. You know how, sometimes, just right from the very start you know that a film is just right for you, right from the very first shot you simply know it’s going to be great, right up your street? That’s how it was for me watching this- there’s a static shot, a long single scene shot from one fixed camera, of a hotel room. A figure walks past the window outside and opens the door, hurriedly steps inside, furtively carrying two bags of luggage. The room is sparsely furnished and has period decor, 1950s. Plays period music om the radio. moves bed and furniture, rolls up the carpet, lifts up a section of floorboards, hides one of the bags in the gap underneath, nails the boards back down, rolls back the carpet, restores the bed and furniture. Camera hasn’t moved. Its dark, stylish, there’s something noir about everything. Its raining hard outside. The man changes clothes, waits. There’s a knock at the door, he opens the door, recognises who stands there, turns his back on them and walks into the room, letting them in, relaxes. I won’t write what happens next- indeed, this is one of those posts where I really can’t say much of anything about the film. Its full of twists and turns and surprises and overlapping timelines and flashbacks and it’s all part of the fun of watching the film.

Now, I won’t attempt to suggest that this film is perfect. There’s certainly plenty of detractors online: its overlong, there’s too many twists, the last third doesn’t live up to the promise of the first, the film sags in the middle, Chris Hemsworth is terrible. Well, I’d have been happy with another half-hour, I can’t understand how the attention-span of some gets worn thin these days by anything north of two hours (I’d love to be able to soak in an extended cut, even). I thought the ending was fine, if the film kept on piling up the twists and turns it could have become a farce, really- it’s a fine line as any Tarantino film will suggest. Hemsworth does seem a particular item of contention but actually I think he has the charisma to pull it off, he’s an OTT nod to the nightmarish magnetism of a Charles Manson. The whole thing is bizarre-noir, it’s all part of the pulp-noir flavour of it all, but sure, I can understand how it doesn’t click with some. Its just that kind of divisive movie. But I love movies like that, marmite movies I guess you could call them.

bad2The cast- it’s a great cast. I don’t think Jeff Bridges has been quite this good in years (and Bridges in great form is a joy to behold), Jon Hamm is great (its funny how he just seems to physically ‘click’ in anything set in the 1960s, which reminds me, I really have to finish Mad Men), while Cynthia Erivo is just extraordinary, frankly, and no doubt destined for Great Things.  The film features a brilliant soundtrack of period songs complimented by a fine Michael Giacchino score (someone else who seems to thrive with 1960s-set movies). Its got some really jaw-dropping art direction… I fell so in love with the whole setting and the design work involved in bringing it all to life, the hotel is simply a wonder to behold, and the widescreen compositions really bring the best out of it.

I watched this on something of a whim as a £1.99 rental on Prime, and I’m really fighting the urge to just go out and buy the 4K UHD (the common-sense voice in my head is just reminding me to wait for a sale to drop). Yeah, I really, really liked this movie. I just can’t really go into the details about why, all the individual moments, the clever sleight of hand of the director or the surprises in the script or just the great turns by the cast, because it would possibly spoil the experience of watching it for the first time. So maybe I’ll come back to those details when I buy the disc and rewatch the film. I’m certain it will reward repeat viewing: I liked the gaps; there’s an awful lot alluded to or suggested that the film really doesn’t elaborate upon and it’ll be interesting to rewatch and ponder/examine them. Maybe people are irritated by those gaps- the film doesn’t explain everything and sections of the narrative are deliberately vague, and I know some hate that kind of thing. I think films can really benefit from being vague – afterall, the whole ‘is he/isn’t he a Replicant’ never hurt Blade Runner.

bad3.jpgIt isn’t for everyone, evidently (I was actually surprised, after watching the film, when I then went to see some reviews and saw just how negative many are). Its funny, really, as I wasn’t as impressed by director Drew Goddard’s previous film, The Cabin in the Woods, which did get all the critical/popular acclaim but to me didn’t really work, it seemed a bit too clever for its own good. But this one certainly did; maybe it was the style, the setting, the mood. Contender for one of the best films I’ll see this year, I think.

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Cold War (2018)

cold1Here’s a love story like few others I’ve seen in film- in the grandest tradition of Romeo and Juliet, or perhaps Casablanca (a film Cold War always seems to nod to with its 4:3 Academy-ratio, beautiful black and white photography) these two characters -Wiktor and Zula, star-crossed lovers caught in postwar Europe- are deeply in love but destined to repeatedly fall apart, the same chemistry that brings them together always pushing against them. In just the same way as La la Land told us that not even the greatest of love affairs always end well, so Cold War also casts a cautionary spell, and reminds movie lovers that maybe it’s the saddest love stories that are the best.

Its 1949, and musicologists Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) roam the countryside of Poland recording folk songs as if trying to preserve a way of life before it is lost forever, but their efforts to maintain the music and culture of the common people through a showcase troupe of dancers and singers is increasingly pressed upon by the authorities to also sing the praises of Stalin and communist reforms. Wiktor is smitten by one of the ensemble- Zula (Joanna Kulig), a mysterious young woman who killed her own father  (“He mistook me for my mother”, she tells Wiktor, “so I used a knife to show him the difference”). While their secret affair continues the troupe becomes increasingly popular, culminating in an engagement in Berlin in 1952 that offers Wiktor a chance to defect to the West. He urges Zula to join him, but ultimately has to go alone. But of course, that’s not the end of the story, as the years pass and the two lovers inevitably meet again, and part again, and meet and part…

Kulig is pretty astonishing here- I’ve never seen her before and she is simply remarkable in this, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She has this magnetic charisma with the camera, its like watching a movie star of old. Her character is beautiful and talented, but restless and conflicted, a fascinating creation. You just don’t see performances/roles like this very often,

Of course part of the beauty of the film is its gorgeous photography and evocation of a postwar Europe increasingly fracturing between East and West, and the relentless sense that wherever the two lovers are, they never seem to be home, as if ‘home’, that old Poland and its folk songs of impossible loves doesn’t really exist anymore. Forever out of place, their solace together is always temporary.

The frustrations of this film is in this sense of truth- in its unattainable peace, thwarted desires, aching passions there is a feeling of reality and disaster. Its episodic format across the years leaves many questions unanswered, glimpses of the years between hinting at things we can only wonder about. The shades of grey in the exquisite photography is mirrored in the editing and the story, and it is distinctly European, failing to contain any of the platitudes and fairytales a Hollywood love story might have tried to fool us with.  Instead, it feels real, and is all the more painful because of it.

 

 

While She Was Out (2008)

kim1.jpegDowntrodden housewife Della (Kim Basinger, as if) is unable to keep her house tidy despite her two children being simply angelic, and has neglected both her appearance (Kim Basinger, wtf?) and her stressed-out arshole husband Kenneth. She’s also forgotten to buy the Christmas wrapping paper and its Christmas Eve (I only hope she hasn’t forgotten the presents, too) so after settling the kids for bedtime she leaves Kenneth sulking and drives off to the Mall.

Naturally of course the Mall is packed and there’s no spaces on the car park (only, well, there is, just a few metres away) and Della takes such an exception to one car lazily parked using two spaces (oh the injustice) that she leaves a note under the cars windscreen wipers. So she goes shopping and finds out her credit card is declined only adding to her woes (seems finance wizard Kenneth has a reason to be stressed). So she gets back to her car to be set upon by the bunch of four punks (Chuckie, Huey, Vingh, and Tomás) who own the car that she so called out for being jerks re: their inconsiderate parking. How exactly they knew she wrote the note or which car is hers is not made clear. Suddenly the car park is deserted (so many parking spaces, oh the irony!) so no-one can raise any alarm when the Mall security guard is shot dead by Chuckie (Lukas Haas, that kid from Witness) for trying to protect Della. Della jumps into her car and flees and the four punks after a debate give chase. Somehow Della ends up at an isolated  housing development site near a forest and crashes her car, and a game of cat and mouse ensues, the four punks knowing Della is the only witness to the security guard murder. Unfortunately for the four punks, Della is about to go through a rite of passage from downtrodden housewife to ruthless killing machine. They should be afraid. Very afraid.

As Christmas movies go, this one is that bad I might make it a seasonal staple. Its a blast from start to finish, from questionable casting (KIm Basinger as a plain, downtrodden, useless housewife?) to weird plot holes (I wouldn’t know where to start, frankly), but as champion siren call for housewife wish fulfillment/self-empowerment, this film is in a league all its own. Its frankly bizarre, especially the scene where Della seduces Chuckie suddenly using her sexuality as a weapon (fair play, all men are jerks and can only think with their —-) so that she can steal his, er, other gun and blow him away.  No doubt if this film was mentioned on tv’s Loose Women (I can’t believe I just referenced that programme on this blog)  it would be raised as some kind of cult classic, especially for the coda when she returns home with the wrapping paper and uses Chuckie’s gun to rid herself of her abusive husband. Merry Christmas kids, daddies gone away…

Voice from the Stone (2017)

voice2.jpgVoice from the Stone is a European-set mystery/ghost story… I think. Set in 1950s Italy, a nurse that specialises in helping children, Verena (Emilia Clarke, yeah, her with the dragons) is hired by moody sculptor Klaus (Marton Csokas, so brilliant in Kingdom of Heaven) to help his son Jakob (Edward Dring) who has not spoken since his classical pianist mother Malvina (Caterina Murino) died several months ago. They live on a remote beautiful estate with a grand old house, Malvina’s family being rich for centuries from the profits of working a quarry nearby that held a particularly fine stone. The quarry is now disused and flooded, and the house showing its age, the estate almost frozen in time as if unable to shake off the grand old days. Varena struggles to connect with the boy, who believes he hears his mother speaking to him from the walls. Is it possible that the house, and the boy, are indeed haunted by Malvina?

Its an intriguing premise for an old-fashioned ghost story, but I’m not sure this film really really wants to be a ghost story. Based on a book, I don’t know if this is a factor in the original work, but the film itself seems to be all over the place- not really helped by a lack of chemistry between Clarke and Csokas when a romance suddenly flares up between them, possibly engineered by Malvina who seems to be possessing the nurse. I say ‘seems’ because the film really feels like its in two minds- serious romantic drama or supernatural thriller, it can’t seem to decide which. By the end of the film. I wasn’t sure what was even going on. Was Varena herself going mad or was she really possessed? And was Malvina’s mother really a ghost or just some kind of projection of Varenas?  Maybe the film was trying to be sophisticated enough to have it both ways, leave it up for interpretation.

voice stoneIn anycase, it doesn’t pull it off, turning out to be a somewhat confusing mess. Which is frustrating because it looks ravishing and the cast is pretty good. I must confess to feeling a little ambivalent about Clarke, though- her range seems to consist of raised highbrows for confusion, frowned highbrows for intensity, and relaxed highbrows for mild amusement. LIke in Game of Thrones, I don’t think she’s really up to the material (something true of most of the younger thespians in that show, which is carried thankfully by all the older actors who elevate the material somewhat) – or maybe I’m just being unfair to her, maybe it’s just that I don’t ‘get’ what she’s doing.

Overall the film has a very fine sense of mood and atmosphere but this only carries it so far, and the confusing last half-hour really leaves a bit of a sour feeling of disappointment.  Perhaps it really wasn’t intended to be a horror film, but not for the first time of late, it feels like it was horror film made by film-makers who thought they were above such pulpish horror nonsense, and it just got away from them.

The Predator (2018)

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Gun-toting hot chick Botanist: “Schools out, Predator scum!”

Oh dear. It would be easier (and quicker) to write about what was right about this film… except actually, no, it might be a shorter post, but it’d be much harder to find something this film actually did right. This thing is a bloody mess, right from its effects-laden space dogfight start which dispels any mystery/tension regards the Predators themselves. I suppose, just like with the Alien franchise, we’ve travelled such a long road since the first film (which teased us with glimpses of the titular character until the pay-off at the end), that any awe/horror/mystery is long done, and it’s all now just the same old same old.

Which annoyed me right from the start, as it instantly put the film into comic-stip territory to me, a feeling that persisted throughout. Maybe it’s a tonal thing, but for me the first film was more a horror film than an action film (whatever the Arnie fans may argue), and the whole point of characters like the Predator (and indeed the Alien) to me is the respect they should demand, the sense of horror and dread and fear. Demoting them to just being standard CGI or prosthetic characters that are thrown onscreen whenever in increasingly graphic detail, that just diminishes them to me.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that the law of diminishing returns, evidenced by both this and the Alien franchise, should rear its ugly head again here, but I really did not expect this to be so crushingly ill-conceived and executed. The fact they could have a great actor like Thomas Jane wasted in a supporting role and such a bland lead in the form of Boyd Holbrook, just reinforces how ill-judged this whole thing was. They even have the nerve to throw a kid into the film – a ‘genius’ kid (and idiot adults) in the grand annoying genre tradition of Wesley Crusher of ST:TNG and Doctor Zee

zee
Be afraid. Be very afraid.

from Galactica 1980, an astonishing move that left me slack-jawed. This kid can translate alien language and figure out alien technology that seems to have befuddled scientists for years, it’s the kind of genre stupidity I thought we had grown out of-  “the next step in the evolutionary chain” they call him. To throw even more salt into the wound, they even throw in a ‘cute’ alien dog that follows our heroes playing ‘fetch’ at any opportunity. Frankly, I still can’t believe it. When at the end they get a nifty anti-Predator costume straight out of the Stark Industries CGI Iron Man line of toys, well, I was beyond numb.

I fell a little like Charlton Heston at the end of the 1968 Planet of the Apes“They did it, they finally goddam did it” (or thereabouts): they killed the Predator franchise, forever. Hopefully, anyway- I couldn’t bear to suffer through another one as bad as this.

Upgrade (2018)

upgradeSet in an undefined near-future city, Upgrade is a low-budget sci-fi action thriller that reminded me of the good old days of the (original) Robocop. Its a reminder that sci-fi films don’t have to be mega-budget/high-concept blockbusters to succeed, and indeed in many ways Upgrade is more successful than Alita, which I happened to have seen not long before.

The film seems to have been spun off the possibilities, for good or ill, of AI (Artificial Intelligence) – there are trashy settlements of disenfranchised and unemployed on the wrong side of the AI divide, while the rich live in high-tech homes that are controlled by AI and who are driven around by AI cars. Inevitably, while it reminded me (through its violence and corporate dystopia) of Robocop, it also reminded me of Black Mirror, in how it spun its story around the technology and how it impacted the characters and world.

Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), an analogue guy in a digital world, is a mechanic who prefers old-fashioned cars that are driven, over high-tech cars that drive people around. His wife, Asha, has no such issues, fully at ease with the AI world that serves her every whim and ensures her a promising career with a tech company. However one night their AI car is hacked and malfunctions whilst driving them home and crashes. Four assailants pull them from the car wreckage in what is apparently a high-tech robbery, but it escalates into something more and Asha is killed, and Grey left crippled by a shot though his spine.

One of Grey’s clients who he rebuilt a car for, approaches Grey in hospital where Grey, mourning his dead wife is also bitterly looking ahead at a life as a quadriplegic. This client, Eron Keen, is the head of a tech company that has a radical (albeit illegal) new tech that involves implanting a revolutionary computer chip named ‘Stem’ into his spine to fix his new disability and offer Grey a normal life again. Grey agrees to the experimental procedure and signs an NDA to ensure the technology remains secret.

The operation is a success, although Grey has to continue to pretend to be paralysed until the procedure can be analysed and proven safe.  It also has unexpected benefits- Stem is a self-aware AI that Grey can ‘hear’ in his head and while it ‘fixes’ his disability is also able to take control of Grey’s body giving him super-human reflexes and combat skills, and all sorts of high-tech connections through databases. Stem offers to help Grey investigate the robbery/murder that ripped his world apart and Grey accepts, frustrated by the police inability to solve the crime.

Logan Marshall-Green is pretty damn good as Grey, it’s a tricky role in that he’s often reacting to, and having conversations with, a voice in his head and it’s a pretty physical  part as well, with some considerable action scenes and stunts. He manages to elicit some sympathy for his condition and fight for justice and carries the film pretty much by himself.

Naturally there are plenty of twists involved and in the great tradition of both Robocop and Black Mirror nothing in the corporate world is as genuine as it seems and the AI tech has a few issues of its own. The low budget ensures the film has a few limitations but on the whole its very successful, with offerings of body-horror/manipulation that reminded me of Cronenberg’s Videodrome.  Ultimately what seems to be a pulpish sci-fi action flick transpires to be a rather cautionary tale and on the whole it’s a great little movie.

Hereditary (2018)

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Hype springs Eternal, especially with horror films, as the 2017 reboot of IT would testify, and it rings true with Hereditary, too, unfortunately. Thinking about it, I suppose it really depends upon what you want from a horror film. Scares, sure, they would seem a prerequisite, but anyone can do scares in movies (well, jumps anyway) – it’s mostly a question of manipulation, timing and throwing a loud ‘boo!’ on the soundtrack. Trickier, really, is establishing a sense of mood and dread, and here Hereditary scores pretty highly. This is a horror film that drips mood and the threat of scares, delivering plenty of creepiness and shocks, which is likely why it received all the hype and positive word of mouth it did.

But for me it lacked any logic, any sense, and the increasing hysterics of the family started to descend into farce long before the film reached its rather Pythonesque conclusion. I think any horror film works best if it can establish some sense of normalcy and then raise the stakes as things go wrong but right from the start the main characters are over the edge, nothing really seems normal and it just goes wilder as it goes on. Okay, here be Spoilers, so here’s a warning, although I’m one of the last few to get around to having seen Hereditary:

A text card states that Annie’s mother has died and the film opens on her family at the funeral. Annie (Toni Colette) is really rather unhinged from the off, and while Colette’s performance has been widely praised it just seemed too crazed for me, leaving her nowhere to go but further Out There. Gabriel Byrne is cast as her husband Steve and he’s utterly wasted here, and fails to have any discernible chemistry at all with Colette, not the only casting crisis of the film (which I’ll turn to later). Events get increasingly nuts (sic) around Steve and he just does nothing in particular, really. The couple’s two kids are frankly peculiar- ten year old Charlie (Milly Shapiro) behaves very oddly cutting off dead birds heads (foreshadowing there, I think) and making odd clucking sounds with her tongue, while teenage Peter (Alex Woolf) mopes around looking permanently terrified, stares forlornly at a girl he fancies and gets high on pot. Normal?

Would any mother insist on sending a ten year old girl with a deadly food allergy to an unsupervised high school party with Peter, and would Peter, intending to smoke pot and hook up with girls at said party, so easily agree to his sister going along? How many high school parties take place in huge luxurious mansions and how many teenage hosts bake fresh cakes in the kitchen (loaded with nuts, naturally)? So without Annie insisting that they take an Epi Pen along with them, when his sister eats the wrong kind of cake and starts to react badly, instead of calling for an ambulance Peter, having already smoked some pot, decides to put his sister Charlie in his car and race through the night to hospital.

So Peter has an accident on route, decapitating, no less, his sister. He then calmly drives home, and goes to bed, leaving his sisters headless corpse on the backseat and her head at the roadside. So next morning whilst he is still in bed Annie goes out to the car and finds her daughters corpse (well part of it) and screams her head off (sic).

Where are the cops in all this? Surely someone finds poor Charlie’s head on the roadside? Surely Annie and Steve have to explain to the police, or even more likely, demand an explanation from the police, regards how Charlie lost her head and died? Manslaughter charges anyone? Driving under the influence? Poor parenting taken to task? Peter’s punishment seems to be that he has to bike to school in future. Indeed, he returns to school soon enough, has a seizure and is sent home having nearly smashed his head to a pulp on his desk. Hello? Hospital anyone? Counselling? Maybe the cops would be interested?  Do they do Social Workers in America, are they a thing over there?

What really sent the film off the rails for me was the frankly bizarre casting of Ann Dowd as Joan, a woman who befriends Annie and sets her on the course of amateur seances and chatting with the dead. I mean, after stints in The Leftovers and The Handmaids Tale as crazy women with dark deeds in their minds, it’s like putting up a red warning light as soon as she appears. Terrible casting- I like Dowd and she was excellent in The Leftovers as a leading figure in a dangerous cult, but this is taking typecasting to some other level. Its lazy and its predictable- is anybody in the audience remotely surprised when it transpires that Joan is up to no good? Its getting so that everytime I see Dowd in something I audibly groan. She’s great at that kind of role but come on, she’s gone to the well too often, its run dry, it’s getting boring now.

It later transpires that Annie’s mother was a Satanist and she spent her life trying (and failing) to bring a demon to the world. It would seem that her Satanist colleagues dug up her body (when Steve is informed of the grave desecration, he decides not to tell Annie- I mean come on, someone’s dug up her mom for goodness sake) and somehow put that body in the family attic without anyone in the family twigging that strange Satanists have been in the house (other than somebody at one point wonder about a bad smell in the house).

Now, I may have it wrong, the film is obtuse to the point of making no sense at all, but it appears that said Demon is inside Charlie and this is why she behaves oddly and she has to die so that the Demon can escape her body, and that Peter has to die so that the Demon can enter his. One person has to die to lose the Demon, another die to be possessed by it? Did Charlie have to die before the Demon could enter her body in the first place, and was it a Satanist that put the nuts in the cake? When you really think about it, nothing in Hereditary really makes much sense. Annie’s mothers decomposing body up in the attic (for whatever reason) is apparently headless and for some reason Annie starts crawling on ceilings acting really unusual after begging Steve to burn one of Charlie’s notebooks and set himself alight in the process. He burns like a Human Torch but doesn’t singe the wooden floor much less burn the house down.

hered2DId I mention that the family also just happen to have a big treehouse across the drive that doubles as a ritual meeting room for the Satanists? DId I see Annie decapitate her own head with cheesewire and then her headless body float through the air into said treehouse?Is that her mom’s also-headless body kneeling alongside her own before the now Demonic Peter?

People took this film seriously.