Movie Review – Bad Times at the El Royale

Devilishly unpredictable and fiendishly fun, Bad Times at the El Royale – pleasingly – doesn’t live up to its title.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan 

In 1969, four strangers – a priest (Jeff Bridges), a singer (Cynthia Erivo), a vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm) and a mysterious young woman (Dakota Johnson) – check into the El Royale, a hotel that sits directly on the border of California and Nevada. But no one is really what they appear and everybody holds a secret. On this fateful night, a bag of stolen money, a charismatic cult leader (Chris Hemsworth), and the sinister voyeurism behind the scenes at the El Royale brings these strangers’ hidden motives and connections to a violent revelation.

Writer and director Drew Goddard’s twisty mystery Bad Times at the El Royale feels kind of like a mish-mash of two fairly recent films. The first is Goddard’s own The Cabin in the Woods. His latest shares its tongue in cheek genre-deconstructing and near-perverse god’s eye peering into his characters.

The other is Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, which very similarly gathered unfamiliar people with skeletons in their closets in one tight-knit location, only to ramp up the tension and let things explode in an unpredictable, bloody mess. It’s possible that Goddard saw this and thought “maybe I can do better” – if he hasn’t succeeded, he’s at least equalled in raw entertainment, thrills and intensity.

Squeezing together a delicious cast, Goddard keeps up the intrigue by not allowing us to know who is about to check out when, giving us that true ‘anyone can die at any moment’ sense that Game of Thrones made its name with. Needless to say, not everyone makes it through this wild night, but every actor manages to make an impression. The real delight is Broadway singer Cynthia Erivo in what will undoubtedly be her breakout role.

Bad Times is truly an experience that demands to be seen knowing as little as possible. Though it purposely leaves at least two of its key questions unanswered, the ride up until then is rollicking. Filled with moments of unbearable tension, laughs, and some genuine emotion – not to mention beautifully shot on 35mm film with Panavision lenses – Bad Times is, ironically, a seriously good time.

Bad Times at the El Royale is available in Australian cinemas from October 11 

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox 

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Movie Review – 1%

While 1% boasts some strong performances, its unremarkable story fails to live up to its high-octane setting.

⭐ ⭐
Josip Knezevic 

Shot right here in Perth, 1% is a crime drama set in the underworld of Australian motorcycle club gangs. It follows Vice President of the ‘Copperheads’ Paddo (Ryan Corr) who has been leading the group while President Knuck (Matt Nable) has been behind bars. As Knuck nears release from prison, Paddo’s younger brother Skink (Josh McConville) puts him in a compromising position that threatens his loyalty to both Knuck and the Copperheads. Paddo must decide how to solve his dilemma before he loses everything he’s worked for.

Corr does well in expressing the conflicting emotions of a man constantly having to weigh up his loyalties and juggle his relationships. The film continuously puts Paddo between a rock and a hard place, and Corr did a good job of earning my sympathy towards his character’s situation.

Another standout is Aaron Pedersen (Goldstone) as Sugar, the President of a rival gang. His screen presence is like a breath of fresh air and it’s disappointing that his role was reduced to just a few scenes. Pedersen has a natural charisma and I love seeing his career expanding.  I’ve only known him to play good guys, but I was pleasantly surprised to see how well he could take on a more villainous role.

What brings it all down is the story. One of the major flaws of the film is that all the conflicts are caused by one character: Paddo’s brother. Literally everything he does is a mistake that ends up causing more grief for Paddo. His role is essentially the only driving force moving the story along. Every scene he’s in made me roll my eyes because I knew he was going to do something wrong and then the film would try to resolve it. It became repetitive and boring.

There’s also some really questionable events. Without giving too much away, there’s a subplot with Knuck’s character that makes absolutely no difference to the story. And the final act has one of the strangest standoffs I’ve seen in a long time.

1% tries its hand at being a gritty Australian crime drama, but it’s let down by its thin narrative. The film is entirely carried by its performances, which are the only real reason you should go and see the film.

1% is available in Australian cinemas from October 12 

Image courtesy of Icon Film Distribution

Movie Review – 22 July

Not for the faint of heart… 22 July is a gutsy attempt at covering the 2011 terrorist attacks in Norway.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Elle Cahill 

Paul Greengrass’ latest offering tells the story of the 2011 terrorist attack in Norway that saw 8 people die in Oslo from a car bomb explosion set by extremist Anders Behring Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie). Breivik then travelled to Utøya island and stormed a youth camp armed with guns, killing an additional 69 people. 22 July focuses on survivor Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli) and the court case that followed the attack.

Known for the The Bourne Supremacy and Captain Phillips, Greengrass delivers a heavy and sometimes shocking retelling of the Norway terrorist attacks. He doesn’t hold back from showing the brutality of the actual attacks, as well as the aftermath of the event, in which Hanssen undergoes lifesaving surgery. Greengrass shows the graphic reality of having bullet fragments removed from the brain and the emotional toll of physical rehabilitation. Some may argue these visuals go too far and take advantage of the situation, but I think it is an honest portrayal of the devastation of the attack.

Jonas Strand Gravli is exceptional in capturing the wide range of emotions of Hanssen – from the sheer terror during the attacks, to his overwhelming grief toward the loss of his friends. His final confrontation with Breivik in the court proceedings is strong and powerful as he lays bare the impact the events have had on him personally.

But the standout here is Anders Danielson Lie as Breivik. He and Greengrass make Breivik out to be completely villainous, without going into too much depth about the reasons behind his actions. Lie plays Breivik as cold and calculating, with very little regard for the horrific consequences of his attacks. He seems to take a sick pleasure in the attention he receives, and at no point does he show even the slightest hint of remorse. Lie gives a performance that is compelling to watch, but also highly disturbing.

Overall, 22 July is a valiant attempt to tell the story of the Norway terrorist attack. It doesn’t try to hide away from the ugly truth and goes the extra mile to explore more than just the attack itself.

22 July is available on Netflix Australia from October 10 

Image Courtesy of Netflix Inc. 

Movie Review – First Man

With First Man, Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) proves he has the mettle to contend with high drama.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

I’m at a crossroads with First Man, the new film by Damien Chazelle about Neil Armstrong and his rendezvous with history. On the one hand, I fully appreciate it as a tremendous work of cinema. It is muscular, excellently performed and truly captivating. It establishes Chazelle is a formidable directing force. On the other, I found myself incapable of connecting with it on an emotional level. Now, I’m not sure if it’s because the screenplay is confused about its hero, or because I, like many Americans back in the ‘60s, feel space should only be explored once matters of the Earth have been settled.

Alas, the moon has been conquered. Armstrong has been immortalised. Millions of dollars have been spent and hunger is still rampant. But I suppose such questions of ethics should be shoved aside for the time being. First Man begins with Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) as a test pilot for NASA. He is accepted as an astronaut cadet and before long he’s been chosen to land on the moon.

At home he has two sons and a spouse, Janet (Claire Foy), who is restricted to the domesticated wife role because it’s the 1960s and the film needed a female lead. Foy is a remarkable actor and she does the best with what she’s given, but once you’ve seen one domesticated wife raising the children alone and fretting over her reckless husband, you’ve seen them all.

First Man, based on the book “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong” by James R. Hansen, is so well made that it’s easy to overlook such shortcomings. It is accompanied by a musical score that pulls off the difficult task of being inspiring and unsettling at the same time. It has wonderful sound design – the creaking and cracking of rickety vessels wrestling with the atmosphere is jarring in the extreme. It somehow manages to fit the standard biopic mould while carefully subverting it. It’s not necessarily the cleverest movie, but it does a mighty fine job at making us believe it is.

And yet I am confused by its portrayal of the great Armstrong. He comes across as a man displeased to have greatness thrust upon him. When he is awarded the Apollo 11 mission, he’s about as thrilled as a sick hamster. His answers at the press conference are painfully cryptic. Is he excited to be going, or disappointed? Why would this man, who seemingly has everything, risk it all to fly to the moon? Without knowing, it’s awfully hard to cheer for the guy.

First Man is available in Australian cinemas from October 11 

Image (c) Universal Pictures 2018

Movie Review – Venom

Fan-favourite and Spidey rival Venom gets a solo venture, but despite its best efforts, this lethargic slog lacks the panache of its web-slinging cousin. 

 ⭐ ⭐
Rhys Pascoe 

Okay, let’s get the confusing stuff out of the way. Yes, Venom is a character closely tied to Spider-man comic-books. No, this movie doesn’t feature Spidey, Tom Holland or any other crossover with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s where the issues start (and certainly not where they end), because when all is said and done, even though Venom has its redeeming qualities, this superhero spin-off is in dire need of the heart, humour, and polish that audiences have come to expect from Marvel.

The film centres around investigative reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), who finds himself out of a job and separated from his lawyer fiancée Anne (Michelle Williams) after he leverages sensitive information from her work laptop for a story on shady billionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). Down on his luck, Eddie delves a little deeper in Drake’s secretive business and lands himself a gnarly symbiote from outer space (don’t you just hate it when that happens). The gooey entity – which calls itself Venom – speaks to Eddie and bestows him with a number of special abilities, which Eddie puts to good use in combating Drake’s nefarious operation.

So, here’s the bottom line. Venom isn’t up there with cinematic abominations such as Catwoman or Green Lantern. It’s not even bad enough to be oddly entertaining, like 1997’s Batman and Robin. It just washes over you, neither entertaining nor horrifying enough to hold your attention. I found myself strangely bored by the mish-mash of ugly VFX, dark cinematography and uninspired design oozing from every frame.

There’s a lot of talent striving to excel, but the writing puts a swift end to that. Williams’ character is as bland as white bread and shares about as much chemistry with Hardy as two soggy logs. Ahmed’s villain is your standard scheming corporate cardboard cut-out. At least Hardy is having fun with it – his performance is filled with weird idiosyncrasies that range from inspired to downright bizarre.

There are some moments of schlocky horror. There are some moments of side-splitting humour. But in hedging its bets, Venom excels at nothing in particular. One could argue Venom would’ve been better had all involved stuck to their guns and served up something gory and aimed at adults (like Logan or Deadpool), but more violence wouldn’t fix its myriad other issues. At the end of the day, this film is just the latest effort from a studio trying to ape Marvel’s formula – and it doesn’t do a very good job.

Venom is available in Australian cinemas from October 4 2018. 

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures 

 

Movie Review – Night School

Night School schools audiences in how to be funny and inclusive.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Elle Cahill 

Night School follows Teddy Walker (Kevin Hart), a high school drop out who never sat his GED. After accidentally blowing up the BBQ store he was set to take over, he finds himself unemployable. When he receives a job offer on the condition he goes to night school and gets his GED, Teddy signs up for lessons at his old school. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as Teddy thought it would be and he’s left to decide just how far he’s willing to go to pass his final exam.

Nigh School is the latest offering from Girls Trip director Malcolm D. Lee. His latest isn’t as crass as Girls Trip, choosing instead to cement its comedy in social commentary and the paths people take after school, with some slapstick thrown in for good measure.

Hart and Tiffany Haddish, who plays the night school teacher Carrie, make a great comedic duo, bouncing off each other in a blur of witty retorts, but it’s the obvious respect that the two comedic actors have for each other that makes them a pleasure to watch. Haddish’s usual comedic style has been stripped back and Hart has toned down his usual style as well, but it works given they’re surrounded by an ensemble of other comedians including the likes of Taran Killam (Saturday Night Live), Mary Lynn Rajskub (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), and Rob Riggle (The Hangover) each earning their own laughs throughout the course of the film.

There are a lot of current social elements thrown into this film, like making Haddish’s character a lesbian and portraying Teddy as being more intelligent for having dyslexia. While the representation of learning disorders is handled sensitively, the addition of Haddish’s character being a lesbian feels a bit weird. It seems like inclusion of sexual representation for the sake of it, and it’s an easy way out for Carrie not to be interested in Teddy, rather than just being a woman who isn’t sexually attracted to him.

Overall Night School is a surprisingly funny film with some strong messages, however, some of the jokes fall flat, and there are times when the story becomes impossibly far-fetched.

Night School is available in Australian cinemas from September 27 

Image (c) Universal Pictures 2018

Movie Review – American Animals

Kentucky, 2004. Four college students plot one of the most audacious art heists in US history. Fourteen years later, director Bart Layton regales us with their exploits in one of the best films of the year.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Rhys Pascoe

To call American Animals a mere heist movie is a little reductive. It’s a heist movie about heist movies, featuring the real-life subjects alongside a cast recreating the events that took place fourteen years ago. It’s Ocean’s 11 meets The Social Network, where a group of bored and entitled college students talk themselves into a situation intended to transform their lives at the expense of others.

Straddling documentary and drama, Layton’s film cuts between fact and fiction with glee. Talking heads from the real culprits expose fault lines and shared doubts between the characters, acting as a retrospective inner monologue. Each recount of the events contradicts the other, sowing the seeds of doubt in the audience, but also putting a humorous spin on the escapade.

The heist itself sees the film shift gears. Layton sheds the brisk romp vibe and smacks the audience with the realisation that shit just got real. All of a sudden the smiles are gone and panic starts to set in. As the plan unravels, the tension ratchets up to fever pitch. It’s heart-pounding stuff. While all four leads – Evan Peters (X-Men: Days of Future Past), Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk), Blake Jenner (Everybody Wants Some) and Jared Abrahamson (Travelers) – are great, it’s Peters who picks up the ball and runs with it, especially in the second half.

Layton’s direction is another standpoint feature. The tonal shifts are handled with aplomb, while the edits between past and present, real-life and fantasy are brilliant. Culminating in a wonderful conclusion reminiscent of The Usual Suspects, American Animals is smart and snappy, bringing us a potent message underneath some funky filmmaking.

American Animals is available in Australian cinemas from October 4 

Image courtesy of Madman Entertainment and © AI Film LLC / Channel Four Television / American Animal Pictures Ltd 2018

Movie Review – McKellen: Playing The Part

And he’s still playing a part…

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Elle Cahill

McKellen: Playing the Part takes a look at the life of stage and screen acting legend Sir Ian McKellen, tracking him from his time as a young boy, through to his career in the theatre world and his eventual move into the film industry. Filled with firsthand stories from McKellen, the documentary demonstrates the inspirational figure McKellen has been and continues to be in society.

While it largely relies on interviews with McKellen to narrate the story, the use of archival footage and photographs is actually the most interesting part. Director Joe Stephenson has been allowed unrestricted access into the life of a traditionally private man, and he takes full advantage of this privilege.

Stephenson doesn’t interview anyone other than McKellen for the entire duration of the documentary, which seems like a pretty big mistake. McKellen has worked with a host of brilliant actors including Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith and Sir Patrick Stewart. Each of them could have added a different dynamic to the documentary with anecdotes about McKellen.

Stephenson attempts to get McKellen to open up and bring some rawness to the documentary, but this proves to be a bit of struggle. To be honest, it’s not really a surprise. McKellen has spent his entire career ‘playing the part’ during his interviews and press tours. No wonder it’s difficult to pull down his walls.

The documentary still has its emotional moments, however, especially when it comes to how McKellen hid his homosexuality until his early forties. His coming out was very public and he shares how he lost friends and lovers to the AIDS epidemic. Here we gain a real insight into parts of McKellen’s life that aren’t as well known, especially his strong activism around sexuality.

While it doesn’t quite reach the depth it needs, McKellen: Playing The Part is still a nicely made documentary that’s worth watching on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

McKellen: Playing The Part is available in Australian cinemas from September 27

Image courtesy of Icon Film Distribution 

Italian Film Festival – Put Nonna in the Freezer

There’s desperation… and then there’s hiding a body in the freezer.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Elle Cahil

Claudia’s art restoring business is on the verge of bankruptcy until her Nonna generously lets her cash her pension checks to help her keep afloat. When Nonna passes away, Claudia makes the risky decision to hide her body in the freezer in order to keep the much-needed checks coming in. With a recent crack-down on people illegally collecting the pension, Claudia must keep the tax police in the dark before she’s left with nothing.

Put Nonna in the Freezer is as crazy as it sounds, but also a complete delight to watch. Miriam Leone gives Claudia an eccentric edge mixed with a strong sense of justice and a false sense of confidence. It’s these qualities that allow her to delve deeper and deeper into her rabbit hole of lies.

While trying to keep up the charade that Nonna is still alive, she falls for the hard-working, law-abiding Tax police officer Simone (Fabio De Luigi). De Luigi plays the part to perfection, maintaining a steely exterior as he’s continually surprised by Claudia’s spirit. A believable chemistry develops between them, and you’ll find yourself rooting for them, even when the whole frozen Nonna thing comes to a head…

In saying all this, it is a film that requires you to really suspend your disbelief as the events that unfold just become more and more preposterous. While it’s all coated in easy to swallow comedy, there are plenty of moments where you’re left thinking ‘oh come on!’ Luckily, the characters more than make up for the over-the-top story line, and the bright Mediterranean colour palette makes it feel like a film that’s arrived just in time to welcome in the summer. If you’re feeling like a lighter film filled with summer vibes, then you can’t go past Put Nonna in the Freezer… despite its chilly title.

Put Nonna In The Freezer screens in Perth in the Lavazza Italian Film Festival from 27 Sept – 17 Oct. 

Image courtesy of Lavazza Italian Film Festival & Palace Films

Movie Review – Jirga

Ben Gilmour’s Jirga explores the desperation of the human spirit through trust, friendship and the quest for redemption.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Jirga is a movie of such simplicity it seems to be almost entirely improvised, which is not a million miles from the truth. Director Benjamin Gilmour and lead actor Sam Smith reportedly trekked the dangerous foothills between Pakistan and Afghanistan for months, scheduling their shoot according to circumstance. The result is a war movie that plays like a documentary, paced liked a melting glacier. It’s slow and steady, but not for a moment is it uninteresting.

Smith plays former Aussie soldier Mike Wheeler, who is determined to revisit a rural Afghan village, so he can personally apologise to the family of a civilian he accidentally killed some three years earlier. So strong is his will to complete this mission that he wanders the barren desert for days with nothing but a bag of sympathy cash.

This is not a movie that’s made to be enjoyed in any measure of the word. It’s quite a harsh experience – the early scenes have Mike renting out a cheap hotel in Kabul, and it is worth noting that his room is empty except for rugs and a throw pillow. Every location seems to have been stripped to its bones, perhaps by design, or perhaps because it’s the best Gilmour and his team managed to find. Either way, you will not want to spend an hour in Mike’s shoes, which I suspect is the point.

And yet there’s a lot of room for softness and human connection. Mike hires a cab driver to take him deep into the desert, birthing some of the film’s most charming moments. Later, he is captured by Taliban troops and forms a kind of friendship with one of them (naturally, the one who speaks English). The driving force behind Jirga is that preconceptions can often be false, that even violent men with machine guns can show decency.

I can tell you that Mike finally reaches the village. What I can’t tell you is whether he succeeds and earns forgiveness. Much of Jirga’s final moments are very well executed, and Gilmour exploits his non-actors for every ounce of professionalism.

I’ve read that the film has been criticised for not exploring Mike’s soul enough, that he seems more like a block of wood than a human being. If Gilmour had set out to make a fictional biography, maybe these complaints would matter. But Jirga exists merely to get us from here to there, and if Mike resembles a robot, perhaps it’s because the reality of war eventually strips away the emotions of everyone affected. In that sense, I’d say it’s accurate.

Jirga is available in Australian cinemas from September 27

Image courtesy of Footprint Films