Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Bad Times at the El Royale” has more in common with independent cinema of the ‘90s, particularly Quentin Tarantino’s earlier works, than it does with empty, flashy, and impatient suspense-thrillers of today. It is written and directed by Drew Goddard with terrific energy, rousing creativity, and perspicuity in untangling the numerous and complex character motivations. What results is a highly entertaining non-linear picture in which the viewer is given the gift of possibilities. It is established early on that just about anything can happen—and it does—so we wonder whether right can prevail over wrong, if good can trump evil—or at least a semblance of these opposing categories.
A Catholic priest (Jeff Briges), a singer (Cynthia Erivo), a vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm), and a hippie (Dakota Johnson) check into the titular motel, situated between a literal state line of California and Nevada, run by the sole employee Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman). Over the course of the night, these individuals would reveal themselves to be something else other than how they wish to be perceived. Great care is put into each character. And just when we think we have them figured out, the propulsive film screeches to a halt and introduces extraneous but fascinating flashbacks.
I admired the picture’s willingness to take its time. Clocking in at almost two-and-a-half hours, there is never a dull moment. When characters speak, we are inspired to listen because he or she, one can argue, is a certain type of archetype. And yet it is not so obvious that the work becomes more of an academic exercise than a visceral experience. Like other great films, subtext is there should one wishes delve into the work further. When characters do become silent, it becomes a moment of rising apprehension. The tease of whether or not violence might occur at any moment is executed with glee and verve. It is clear that Goddard has an understanding of neo-noir thrillers, particularly in how to use every ticking second to keep viewers’ expectations up in the air. Imagine betting a large sum of money on a coin flip—and the coin flip being in slow motion.
Goddard gives his work a sense of freedom. I claim that the work could have been only eighty minutes in duration if it had undergone liposuction—wall-to-wall suspense and thrills from the first minute until the moment the end credits begins. Had this been the case, it would have been a significantly lesser experience because the beautiful details are actually embedded in the fat. I loved moments when characters simply sit down, share a drink, and converse—not because it furthers the plot but because it helps our understanding of the players. There are even moments when the camera remains still to capture how a woman sings in addition to how well she sings.
Performances are just about impeccable across the board. Bridges as an aging man with memory issues is equally compelling as Erivo who portrays a black soul singer who made a difficult but moral choice of taking the much longer route toward possible financial success. Notice how the camera’s movements match that of Bridges and Erivo’s styles of acting. It adapts when only one actor is on screen and then again when both of them must share a frame and connect. Also notice how the established rhythms are shattered when the dastardly Billy Lee, played with great fun by Chris Hemsworth, sashays into the frame nearly two-thirds of the way through the story. The mesmerizing, devilish dance would make Hitchcock proud.
Baby Driver (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Unabashedly an exercise of style over substance, Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” commands an uncanny ability to engage despite a plot with a familiar template. It does so, for the most part, through movement: the way the camera glides over well-choreographed action sequences featuring car smashes, how it switches between faces of people sharing an increasingly tense dialogue, the manner in which it jumps into and out of fantasies and memories. And supporting this technique is the ever-present soundtrack, a delicious stew of genres from artists like Queen, T. Rex, The Commodores, all the way to The Detroit Emeralds and Barry White.
Ansel Elgort has finally found a character that fits his rather limited acting style. He plays Baby, a getaway driver with tinnitus who must constantly listen to music in order to maintain focus on whatever is at hand. Baby does not say much which plays upon the strength of the performer; Elgort has presence even when simply standing in the background. Here, he has found a way to exude a cool aura that makes us want to get to know his character. However, when Elgort is required to speak, there are times when certain words and lines sound a bit mumbled which, I suppose, fits the character because of the relentless ringing in his ears.
Aside from “The Fast and the Furious” installments, modern action pictures involving heists and car crashes tend to look the same: grayish, wet, brooding, characters sporting miserable looks on their faces. But Wright’s picture is the opposite: it is colorful, the sun is shining, characters command their own personalities. Sometimes they end up surprising us. Particularly interesting to me is the revolving crew of robbers (Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González, Flea, Lanny Joon) led by a well-dressed man named Doc (Kevin Spacey). These big personalities being stuck in a room and having to endure one another’s presence because they have a common goal is like shaking a pop bottle. Keeping in mind that the work is inspired by classic and modern heist flicks, one of them has got to be the central villain. I had fun trying to guess which one it will be.
The picture could have used more heart—and I am not talking about Baby missing his deceased mother or even his romance with a cute waitress (Lily James). A fresh choice would have been to explore the relationship between Baby and his foster father who is mute (CJ Jones). While the two share a few scenes that are almost moving, the writing does not offer enough depth when it comes to this relationship. As a result, scenes meant to tug at the heartstrings later in the picture feel forced at times.
There is a certain swagger, rhythm, and wit to this picture that I wish other filmmakers would notice and draw inspiration from. The scene before the opening credits is so impressive, so jubilant, yet so precise in terms of what it wishes to show the viewers, we recognize right away the kind of picture it is going to be: an unceasing displays of look-what-I-can-do and look-what-I-can-get-away-with.
Keeping Up with the Joneses (2016)
★★ / ★★★★
The silly action-comedy “Keeping Up with the Joneses,” written by Michael LeSieur and directed by Greg Mottola, has a strategy all too apparent when it comes to comedies these days: It relies solely on the charisma of its four leads to carry the audience from beginning to end. It is a lazy approach, almost offensive, and I wished that more effort were put into the script because the leads try the best they can to work with subpar material. The picture offers a few chuckles—not because the material is funny but because the performers commit so much that at times they manage to elevate deadly dull lines toward something marginally amusing—but this is not enough to warrant a recommendation.
Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher play Jeff and Karen, a married couple living in the suburbs whose love life has lost its spark. Even when their kids are away in summer camp, they’d rather watch television than go out and experience something new for a change. When a worldly, highly attractive, polished couple, Tim and Natalie (Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot), move next door, expectedly, Jeff and Karen gravitate toward them since the new neighbors appear to be exciting people. The Joneses, as it turns out, are government operatives and their move to the sleepy suburbs is merely a cover to track and prevent an illicit exchange.
For an action-comedy, it is quite odd that there is only one extended action sequence. Predictably, it involves a car and flying bullets but I found some joy in a highly familiar template. The material works best when Fisher, Gadot, Hamm, and Galifianakis are in the same room—the more cramped, the better. There is an innately amusing element in putting four big personalities in a limited space. However, looking closely into this sequence, notice it is mostly composed of reaction shots done in a studio. Thus, we never fully believe that any of the characters are in danger despite the rain of bullets and the vehicle moving a hundred miles per hour—backwards.
There is one fresh idea that I thought the writers should have taken farther than they did. Within the first fifteen minutes, Karen suspects that there is something off about their new neighbors. For a while, the script gives the impression that the characters—or at least one character—will be smarter than those we’ve encountered in similar movies. Fisher stands out among the four because I believed that she can be both intelligent and silly—a challenging line to straddle that only a few performers can pull off convincingly. So, it is quite disappointing that once the Joneses’ true motivations are revealed, the most promising character proves to be ordinary. Notice she is much quieter post-reveal, almost fading into the background.
“Keeping Up with the Joneses” plays it too safe when it actually needs to take risks because successful action-comedies are all about taking chances, whether it be in terms of story, character development, the wild situations the protagonists end up finding themselves in. Clearly made for mass public consumption, perhaps a movie like this might have done well in the late 1990s, but these days it is substandard. It is too dilute to be palatable.
Friends with Kids (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt), best friends since college, the former a womanizer and the latter not having much luck in the dating scene, decided to have a kid even though they weren’t sexually attracted to one another. Julie wasn’t getting any younger and Jason always wanted to have a child so they thought it was the perfect opportunity to get what they wanted without marriage and a possible divorce if things didn’t quite work out. Written and directed by Jennifer Westfeldt, “Friends with Kids” occasionally featured very funny dialogue and realistic conversations about what it was like to be in a committed relationship, but it was not consistently sharp enough to avoid the trappings of the romantic comedy genre designed to make the audience swoon. Its sweetness, especially toward the end, didn’t feel real nor earned. The film’s small moments were highly enjoyable. I smiled from ear to ear whenever Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O’Dowd), friends of Jason and Julie who happened to have an age difference of six years, interacted. They could be yelling at each other from across the room but their love was so present, the bickering ended up rather adorable instead of annoying. The manner in which they expressed their frustrations, even though it wasn’t pretty, felt healthy instead of damaging and I wanted to stick around. I also was tickled when Jason and Julie decided to make a baby the traditional way. As I shuffled in my seat with unbearable awkwardness, admittedly, I wanted to keep watching because I could relate to it. I found it absolutely hilarious because my friends, whom I’ve known for at least ten years, and I have had to kiss each other on the lips due to a game we decided to play. I understood how the characters felt when they couldn’t help but laugh and make jokes as their lips moved closer to one another. Unfortunately, most of its middle section was packed with predictable situations so irritating, it almost lost its charm. In order to have some sort of conflict, the writing resulted to the feelings of jealousy Jason and Julie experienced when one went on a date or had sex with another person. As insecurities were revealed and uncertainties emerged in what they had, I began to question why they weren’t more details about Jason and Julie’s friends who also had kids. I was especially curious about Missy (Kristen Wiig) and Ben’s (Jon Hamm) crumbling marriage. While they were shown looking very unhappy whenever there was a special gathering designed so that the friends could catch up, we weren’t given the chance to see the evolution of their relationship. The lives of the married friends felt like footnotes at best which didn’t make sense because Jason and Julie valued them so much. If anything, the screenplay should’ve strived to make us value them, too. Moreover, the film would have been more focused and rewarding if the friends’ marriage functioned like mirrors to Jason and Julie’s partnership, highlighting trends along the way to support the idea that a marriage and a partnership without a certificate have similarities so striking, their differences, in a lot of ways, ought be negligible. Since “Friends with Kids” offered to give us a peek at an alternative lifestyle yet at times it ingratiated itself with the so-called norm, its messages didn’t quite ring true.
★★★★ / ★★★★
When Annie (Kristen Wiig) was informed by Lillian (Maya Rudolph), her BFF, that she was getting married, Annie was very happy for her friend yet she was reminded of her own failures. The list included her business venture involving a bakery that went under because of the recession and the fact that she was far from being in a stable romantic relationship. She thought the best she could do was to be in a no strings attached relationship with a womanizer (Jon Hamm) who drove a fancy car and was brazen enough to criticize her teeth. Upon hearing the news, the lingering moment when we noticed her genuine happiness change into critical self-evaluation was “Bridesmaids,” written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, at its best. It wasn’t just a comedy about a wedding but it was about the people that made the celebration stressful and special. When Lillian introduced Annie to little-miss-perfect Helen (Rose Byrne), Annie felt threatened. Helen was rich, men noticed her when she entered a room, and had a natural elegance in the way she carried herself. Annie was just none of those things. One of the most memorable scenes, gloriously awkward and laugh-out-loud funny, involved Annie and Helen attempting to deliver the best toast. The way they snatched the microphone out of each other’s iron grip defined their relationship. As audiences so used to seeing the maid of honor and her rival in more generic and spineless comedies, we expected Annie and Helen to eventually deliver a punch (or purposefully dig one’s stiletto in another’s foot) as the scene went on. But they never did. Part of the joy of watching them together was experiencing the uncomfortable and unbearable tension, their passive-aggressiveness, their willingness to prove that, for Annie, Lillian chose the right friend to be the maid of honor and, for Helen, that she was the more practical choice because she had a talent for micromanagement and the fact that she had connections. The other hilarious bridesmaids were Melissa McCarthy, unapologetically profane and we love her for it, Wendi McLendon-Covey, the extremely unhappy mother of three boys, and Ellie Kemper, bored of her life because everything was rooted in being safe. The unhappiness of these women were relatable, engaging, and ultimately touching. But “Bridesmaids” had its share of gross-out humor. I’m particularly difficult to impress with scenes involving bodily functions but I actually enjoyed those moments. It worked because the material was already very funny. The over-the-top gags were simply icing on the wedding cake (or should I say wedding dress?). Directed by Paul Feig, “Bridesmaids,” character-driven, calculated shots but effortless delivery, and appealing to both women and men, is a rarity in mainstream comedy.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, “Howl” explored Allen Ginsberg’s (James Franco) poem of the same name in three fronts: the public reading of “Howl” at San Francisco’s Six Gallery on October 7, 1955, the courtroom scenes in which a prosecutor (David Strathairn) wished to censor the poetry in question because of its obscene language, and an interview with Ginsberg in his home after his work had been published and gotten critical acclaim. Three of the strands were highlighted by freewheeling dream-like animation with excerpts of Ginsberg’s words heard in the background. I don’t have much passion for poetry but I found myself completely fascinated with this film because it bravely took the biopic formula upside down, inside out, and shuffled the familiar variables as if it was a deck of cards. The risks it took had great rewards because I thought it was refreshing without sacrificing insight and relevance to modern publications and aspiring writers. To be perfectly honest, if the film didn’t provide clues as to what Ginsberg could possibly be talking about or referencing to in his poem, I would have been at a loss as to how to nagivate myself through the barrage of images and words. But since the picture had elegantly constructed a bridge on how to possibly interpret the poem, I eventually found myself focusing on the rhythm and flow of Franco’s words, Franco’s odd but magnetic mannerisms, and the understated themes among the three strands. The poetry, like life, was about all things. It traced Ginsberg’s trauma of his mother being sent to a mental hospital and getting electroconvulsive therapy to no avail, the men he fell in love with, New York’s gargantuan buildings, its putrid scents and shrill sounds, as well as the homeless faceless faces as a source of his inspiration. He loved to talk about sexual acts and the more sensitive meanings behind giving a crucial part of oneself to another and how sometimes it could be a difficult and painful thing to do. I found “Howl” to be fully engrossing because it felt personal but was unafraid to embrace its experimental roots. The sudden color shifts felt exactly right because there was a big question, particularly in the courtroom scene, whether or not Ginsberg’s work would stand the test of time. The supporting actors’ performances, which included Jon Hamm (who gave an excellent delivery of the closing statement from the famous trial), Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, and Treat Williams, gave the material depth and meat that audiences could sink their teeth into. “Howl” was successful in asking and answering why counterculture is a necessary weapon against those who want to take away our rights. It made me want to learn more about its fascinating subject.
Town, The (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
An adaptation of Chuck Hogan’s book “Prince of Thieves,” writer-director Ben Affleck hemled “The Town,” a story about four bank robbers (Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Slaine, Owen Burke) in Charlestown pursued by a determined FBI agent (Jon Hamm). In the opening scene, the four criminals did what they normally didn’t do: take a woman (Rebecca Hall) as a hostage because someone tripped the alarm. Later, in an attempt to ascertain if she knew of their identities, Doug “accidentally” met the woman they took hostage and the two fell in love. I’ve read reviews comparing this film to Michael Mann’s “Heat” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” but I don’t think “The Town” is quite at the caliber of those two. While it did make an entertaining commercial heist film, I didn’t think it was as gritty as it wanted to portray. I wished the material had dug its nails into the characters a lot deeper. By putting more pressure on them, I think it would have been more successful at showing us who these characters really were. I really thought about the importance of character development in this picture because in one of the scenes, Doug and his crew used police uniform as a disguise to successfully steal money for their boss (the fascinatingly menacing Pete Postlethwaite). It meant that cops and criminals were essentially the same, their similarities are (or should be) more pronounced the more we looked into them. But, no matter how hard I tried, that’s not what I saw or felt while watching “The Town.” I thought it spent too much of its time focusing on the romance between Affleck and Hall which I understood as necessary because Doug was the conscience of his crew. In the end, I felt uneasy rooting for Doug because the film tried to sell that he was a good guy when he was really not. There’s a difference between sympathizing with a bad guy and masking the bad guy into a good guy. I believe “The Town” crossed that line. However, I recommend “The Town” because I was always interested in what was happening on screen. Aside from some stupid decisions done by smart characters, such as Doug choosing to be a bystander at a critical time instead of running away as fast as possible, I felt something for each of them. Furthermore, I noticed that the acting was strong and I was surprised with some performances, especially by Blake Lively’s. Despite not having many scenes, whenever she was on screen, I was magnetized toward her and I couldn’t believe she was a glamorous rich girl on “Gossip Girl.” Lastly, the three heist scenes became more exciting as they unfolded. What “The Town” needed was less romanticism because crime is anything but. It would have been nice if it tried to do something different with its subgenre. Instead of sticking out as an example, it simply blends in with the others.