Tuesday 16 October 2018

Review: Bad Times At The El Royale

Bad Times At The El Royale
Cert: 15 / 141 mins / Dir. Drew Goddard / Trailer

Now and again, a trailer comes along for a movie which looks like it should be fun, but seems nonetheless achingly self-aware, a little too knowing. There appear to be too many central characters, all dialled up to 11 and trying to upstage one another. A script which seems to comprise lines designed for quoting and repetition out of context. A jukebox soundtrack of retro tunes compiled by someone who thinks they're hip but only listens to Radio 2 (and uses words like 'hip').

And you remember the glut of substandard, straight-to-video fare in the mid-1990s which followed Tarantino's breakout, where form was valued over function and the guy who made the tea on the set of Pulp Fiction would be hired to make the tea on the set of whatever-new-heist-movie so that the poster could claim some causal link to greatness. And you decide you'll probably watch it anyway, but with guarded reservations.

Anyway, I needn't have worried (and nor need you). Bad Times At The El Royale is glorious.


In the final throes of the 1960s*1 on the state line between Nevada and California, sits a hotel. A kitsch monument to the faded glamour of America's golden age, the El Royale is still a going concern, albeit a waning one. The building has its secrets, as does the lone member of staff appointed to oversee its smooth running. And when four separate guests arrive on the same evening, they're each bringing baggage in every sense. As their paths intertwine, it becomes clear that some guests will be checking out sooner than others...

My word. From its opening scene, the audience knows this is going to be a meticulously paced stay. We begin with a solitary locked-off shot of the interior of a motel room. A nameless man enters alone, hides the film's macguffin and awaits his contact, all without a single word of dialogue. It feels like we're watching a stage play, an aesthetic that continues after the lone title-card, and characters arrive at the eponymous venue, checking in by systematically signing their names in the register.


Rhythm and ritual reverberate heavily throughout Goddard's screenplay, from the the strained courtesy of receptionist Miles delivering the faded hotel's check-in welcome speech, to the methodical process of residents tearing through their rented rooms. The influence of that filmmaker mentioned above is felt particularly strongly, especially as it's the beats between the players' words which convey the meaning and betray their true intentions. But on a dark and stormy night with a guest-list full of secrets, there's as much Agatha Christie in here as there is Quentin Tarantino.

The narrative deepens in the second act where we begin to see key events replayed from the perspective of different characters and learn more of their backstories. There are no wry, second-guess-baiting reveals at The El Royale, but the story uncovers its developments slowly and purposefully, waiting for the right moment of theatrical effect.

And true to its stage ambience, this film is carried by standout performances from John Hamm, Lewis Pullman and above all Cynthia Erivo (and director Drew Goddard is certainly getting his money's worth from that actress's outstanding ability as a singer). Even Jeff Bridges forgoes his usual affable mumbling to bring a turn which is as touching as it is terrifying. Although it features a relatively small central cast, there's not a single dud (or even ordinary) performance in the whole film*2.


As Goddard works with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, the shots in El Royale are works of art in themselves, a counterbalance and symmetry running through the film like the state-line bisects the premises. Characters' hidden sides are revealed and then flipped back again, as we slowly learn that both of these facets make up who they really are. And we don't have to like who they may turn out to be, so long as we accept it. You are your inner-self and your outside-persona; no-one knows the face in your mirror like you do.

Is it style over substance? No. The style is the substance. Don't be fooled by the pronounced slickness and louche trappings. Bad Times At The El Royale is a surgically assembled, note-perfect masterpiece.

Also, I might be slightly in love with Dakota Johnson as she stalks around the secret corridors of a sleazy motel with bootcut jeans and a shotgun. My word...

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
Pulp Fiction, Identity, Murder On The Orient Express, Drive Angry.

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
It is.

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
It is.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
It's in the top half of the CV, that's for sure.

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
Only if you're wrong.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: The voice of Captain Cormac out of The Old Republic is in this.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Mate don't, the script doesn't say, I don't think. It's either the very late 60s or early 70s. Nixon is on TV (who was elected President in '68, although I'm not enough of a historian to say if the footage we see is from before or after that point) and the script specifically references Hush by Deep Purple (from the 1968 album Shades Of Deep Purple). So y'know, it could be a bit later, or there could just be a 1968 or '69 calendar on the hotel wall and I didn't notice first time round. [ BACK ]

*2 Even though Chris Hemsworth has arrived with his charm and without his shirt as instructed, he perhaps doesn't quite have the knife-edge gravitas required by his role as a pseudo hippy cult-leader. He's an engaging screen presence rightly enough, but Brad Pitt had this sort of thing down far more tightly in Kalifornia. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Thursday 11 October 2018

Review: A Star Is Born (2018)

This post originally appeared at SetTheTape.com
(Well an edited version of it did, at least. This raw review is too long, focuses too much on the main starring duo and the last two-thirds of it make pretty much the same negative point repeatedly. So it's a fairly accurate representation of the movie, all in.)

A Star Is Born (2018)
Cert: 15 / 136 mins / Dir. Bradley Cooper / Trailer

"Maybe it's time to let the old ways die,
Maybe it's time to let the old ways die…"

This opening lyric and recurring motif is a bold supposition from the lips of Bradley Cooper, as he goes Full Dennis Waterman™ in starring, directing, co-writing, co-producing, writing the theme tune and singing the theme tune to 2018's A Star Is Born*1. It's the fourth cinematic rendering of this tale of rags to riches via clinical depression and substance abuse, with Warner Bros hoping to bring a new spin to a story as old as showbusiness.

We open in the company of Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a grizzled, sozzled Southern-rock star who's grown too chemically altered to admit he's on the verge of rapidly descending the fame ladder. After a stadium gig one night, Jackson can't face going home to an empty house and winds up encountering Ally (Lady Gaga, whose character doesn't appear to get a surname), a young woman with a phenomenal voice who waitresses by night and performs cabaret cover versions in drag clubs by later-at-night. When Jackson realises she's also a gifted songwriter, he persuades Ally to join his band*2, and the pair quickly fall in love. But where the industry has little left to gain from Maine other than residual earnings, Ally is seen as a potential goldmine - to be exploited accordingly. As his protégé reaches heights that have never been open to Jackson, he has to reassess his place, and realises that inbuilt obsolescence may not be a new-fangled thing after all…

A Star Is Born's first act is a beautifully chaotic affair, with cinematographer Matthew Libatique only breaking away from the intimate hand-held trailing of his subjects for the occasional locked-off shot, mathematically composed to linger in the memory. While it's obviously reliant upon the taste of the individual, the music scenes in the first act are absolutely outstanding, whether it's a full rendition of a song or just a snippet. Expertly crafted pieces, meticulously performed, every one an earworm-in-waiting.

The inherent strife of country music may be a cliché of course, but this is where the real emotion of the movie lies, with the angst of characters we've barely met communicated perfectly through a three-and-a-half minute burst of co-ordinated harmony. The 'goosebump' moments in the film's trailer are even more hair-raising in the final cut, so naturally when the sanitising effects of Ally's fame begin to be introduced, the bristling intensity of the piece dips accordingly. The central theme of existential numbness plays like a New Country b-side to Inside Llewyn Davis.


Bradley swaps out his casual stubble for a full, unkempt beard in this role, duly adopting Hardy's Law™ of muffled pronunciation (unless he's is singing into a microphone, in which case Cooper's voice carries studio-levels of clarity). Sam Elliott also arrives as Jackson's older brother and manager Bobby, bearing only a voluminous moustache but illustrating that we perhaps shouldn't mock this verbal affliction as it's clearly a gene carried through the family.

Joking aside, it's clear from the outset that Cooper has committed to Jackson's side of the story above all else, both as a performer and director. We open with our male lead taking to the stage in his trademark shambolic style, the magic snapping in once his fingers touch wound-steel and his mouth comes within range of a microphone grille. And we see this ritual time and time again, in close range. Cooper doesn't want the cinema audience to feel like they're the concert audience, he wants them there on the stage. Although we see crowds (filmed during 2017's Coachella festival) during A Star Is Born, not a single shot of the stage is taken from ground-level. Yet at the same time, viewers never feel like they're part of the band either, just onlookers who are fortunate enough to be witnessing this first-hand from a unique limbo.

This disconnect reflects the age-old (and thoroughly self-indulgent) irk that an artist can never be in the audience for their own show. While the noise, confusion, harmony and adrenaline of playing on-stage are addictive in their own right, they're a world away from the unique buzz which is felt in a crowd of thousands, collectively hanging on every note blasting toward them.

Conversely, the first time we meet Ally the performance is shot from the audience's point of view (albeit in a bar). But this is only because that's where Jackson is sitting. Ally (more properly, Gaga) may be the star of this show in every sense, but it's a tale told firmly from Jackson's perspective. And viewers taking their seats had better be fans of both Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, because Cooper isn't particularly interested in directing anything else...


Speaking of stagecraft, musicians in the audience may well raise an eyebrow at the number of times Cooper pulls theatrically away from his microphone, while the vocal line they're hearing continues at the same volume and intensity. More tellingly, this doesn't occur when Gaga is in the spotlight, an artist who has a different ratio of stage-to-screentime experience in her CV. While we're splitting hairs, A Star Is Born is also a movie which hopes its audience won't know that a studio can't record a vocal track when someone's also holding their monitor headphones open a foot away from the mic.

As is so often the case, much of what audiences take away from A Star Is Born will hinge on expectation. Whereas the trailer suggests a parable set in the music industry, it quickly becomes closer to the film industry's idea of what the music industry must be like. To the point where Cooper is not only homaging previous versions of the title, but also lifting well-worn beats from movies like Rock Star and Wayne's World.

Even if the viewer doesn't know the direction of the story beforehand, everything in the runtime is telegraphed a little too neatly. Whether it's the central dramatic shifts, the metaphorical moustache-twirling of Rafi Gavron's pop-oriented music manager or just an alcoholic wearing a tan suit to an awards ceremony, there are few surprises once the lights go down...


Another fundamental issue is Cooper's focus on the central characters at the expense of a large supporting cast. Jackson Maine is, by his very nature, vague and alcoholically enigmatic. While we learn what we need to know about the superstar through Ally, we glean remarkably little about her motivations in turn (a 'stage-dad', that's about it). Peripheral players are barely introduced, and even secondary characters' names often aren't used until their second or third appearances (and if anyone knows why Ally's father and his friends constantly hang around in the house at all hours of the day and night watching horse-racing but are wearing shirts and ties, please let me know below).

We can see why Jackson falls in love with Ally, but we're never quite convinced of what she sees in him. Despite her career trajectory, it's clear Ally is not intentionally using his status as a stepping stone, yet we see little other than slurred compliments, professionally tousled hair and a great smile as to what she's really fallen for (not that this can't be enough, I suppose - maybe that's the lesson?).

When the tide turns in the second act and the reality of Ally's Faustian pact begins to sink in, this is as over explained as our heroine's new musical direction is depressingly bland. The depiction of this micro-managed, over produced arm of the entertainment business feels heavy-handed, even for a picture painted in the broadest of strokes...


As the stage routines become more choreographed, so Cooper's directional resolve falters. We spend less time with Jackson and more with Ally, but the foundations of her character aren't strong enough to hold the dramatic weight loaded upon them. Luckily, Gaga's capability as a performer mostly overcomes this, but the actress's personality has to over-compensate as her character is shredded away. A Star Is Born begins to run out of things to say just after the hour-mark, and Cooper struggles to develop characters the story has already destroyed.

The feeling certainly prevails that Warner Bros are thinking about prospective soundtrack sales in the same way that Disney have an eye on lunchboxes and action figures. And that's fine in itself (it's a business, after all), but stings a little in a tale which claims to study the justness of artistic integrity. One rather suspects that an earlier draft of the screenplay was a damning indictment against the entertainment business, until the edges were sanded off and it became part of the problem instead.


There are moments of real greatness here, but these are largely confined to the first act. A shift which the audience is almost cruelly reminded of when the film crescendos into a power-ballad interspersed with a flashback montage (in case anyone in the auditorium can't work out what that scene means).

An all-too-accurate depiction of how something raw and beautiful can be moulded into the insipid and formulaic, in this respect the film leads by example. As a cautionary tale, A Star Is Born is fine if somewhat unremarkable. And while the central duo are irresistibly solid, it would be surprising if this product ages as the classic everyone at the studio is hoping for.

While it would be unfair to conclude that the old ways should be allowed to die, it would certainly be an idea to take a closer look at how they're repackaged and what they're bringing to the party.

Come for the soundtrack, stay for Lady Gaga…

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
Structurally, the three previous versions of A Star Is Born.
Tonally, Silver Linings Playbook

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
The first 45 minutes are.

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Well, no. Maybe. No.

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
Oh fuck yeah.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: Snap Wexley's in this.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Legal Disclaimer: Although Cooper was involved in writing music for A Star Is Born, he didn't pen the actual lyrics in the opening quote, above. But the Dennis Waterman joke doesn't really work without the Little Britain reference, and the author thinks this bending of the attributions is permissible under the circumstances. Thank you. [ BACK ]

*2 Do the Musicians Union need to be informed that Ally appears to be playing her early gigs for free alongside band-members who are being paid? Do you want to tell them? It's okay, I will... [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Thursday 4 October 2018

Review: Venom

Venom (2D / Vaguely spoiler-ish)
Cert: 15 / 112 mins / Dir. Ruben Fleischer / Trailer

In short: I went to see Venom.
It is not a good film*1.

In long...

If there was ever a celluloid embodiment of the words 'oh mate', this would be the one.

So. It's Los Angeles. Some gooey aliens want to take over the Earth because scientists went into space and that was always going to end badly. We're at the point now where extra-terrestrial invasion narratives are no longer a metaphor for colonial attitudes or fear of progress, but just reflect the page where the library-copy of The Hollywood Screenwriter's Handbook falls open.


Tom Hardy plays Eddie Brock, an investigative reporter who makes non-branded videos of domestic issues which we first assume are just for YouTube, but are apparently for some corporation or other, the precise nature of which isn't explained. He's the kind of hard-hitting, new-media journalist who corners his quarry by politely arranging meetings in their place of work then arriving on time. Who ruthlessly fronts his videos by looking at neither the camera nor his interview subject, but at a scratty notepad clutched in his hand while he mumbles vague accusations. Who responds to firm corporate rebuttal by leaving the building when asked. Who is so celebrated and in-demand as a journalist that when he's sacked from his part-time job nobody even notices, let alone head-hunts him for their own company. If Brock is actually capable of any kind of sleuthing or intelligence-gathering, we don't see it in this film. Anyway, Eddie is poking his nose into things he shouldn't, and an alien goes in him. That's Act 1.

Brock's girlfriend, Anne Weying, is played by the Academy Award-nominated actress Michelle Williams, who brilliantly and incisively interprets her role as a woman looking indelibly bored for two hours. Anne is a lawyer whom we never see doing any lawyering, although given that a) it's not her film, and b) we barely see our investigative reporter actually investigating or reporting either, this is hardly surprising. Riz Ahmed plays Carlton Drake, who is The Baddie. We know this because he wears a sharp suit and whenever he opens his mouth, is forced to recite lines from The Movie Baddie's Phrasebook while squinting at underlings just off-camera. Woody Harrelson is in this but not until the end, and then you'll wish he hadn't bothered.


So. Venom feels like spending two hours watching first-takes of actors reading their lines for the first time, from a script which was written by a 12yr old who only watches superhero movies.

Demographically, Sony have spent so much effort angling their product to a non-kiddie audience that they didn't notice anyone old enough to get in will have seen all of this before (and better), whether it be any movie with aliens arriving on Earth, Todd McFarlane's other creation, Spawn, or even just the distrusted-authority in shiny skyscraper laboratories of Sony's last two Spider-Man outings. And although we get enough of the glistening fangs and body-horror to squeak through as a 15-certificate, there's little here to actually earn this edgier rating in terms of lasting threat or human injury.

By the time Brock and Venom become a variety double-act of grumpy bickering which barely stops short of looking right down the camera, this is like a Hallow'een-costume Deadpool.
But without the swearing. Or the self-awareness. Or the wit.


Beats are taken haphazardly from the horror genre, from the conspiracy thriller, sci-fi, action, comedy and of course the superhero-origins story. None of these gel together in the final edit, which incoherently changes tone at a rate suggesting that director Ruben Fleischer has suffered some sort of cranial trauma, and is permanently unable to recall the footage he shot each previous day. As a result, Hardy is left to bimble along from scene to scene in the title role, himself displaying symptoms of scriptual amnesia as he struggles to work out who his character is meant to be. The lack of direction in Tom's performance - both narratively and in terms of just being directed - is staggering.

The most disappointing aspect is that Venom should be better. It could be better. Why isn't this better? By this point, Sony have held onto the Spider-Man rights long and hard enough to know what works, what will be derided by critics and audiences alike, and what is ultimately damaging to their own reputation. To have assembled a cast this impressive and still have churned out a Tesco Value Sausage of a superhero movie is an embarrassment to all concerned.


There are some moments of fun, but there are far more which aren't. Perhaps the only saving grace is that the movie appears to exist (thus far) in its own standalone stream of continuity. In this respect, at least it will be easy to disregard.

Venom shows that not only are Sony not on the same page as Marvel Studios, they're not even in the same chapter. Okay, it's not Fantastic Four levels of bad, but the tonal inconsistencies and cack-handed moralising in the final moments put this on the same shelf as Ghost Rider.

There is a decent Venom movie to be made from this story, by this studio and with this cast.
But this isn't it...

The business-end:

• Is there a Wilhelm Scream? There is.
• Is there a Stan Lee cameo? There is.
• Is there a mid-credits scene? There is.
• Is there a post-credits scene? Well, kinda*2.

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
Life, and the first Amazing Spider-Man flick.

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
Not unless you like your migraines to originate from a 60ft wide screen.

Interestingly enough, this features the same cinematographer - Matthew Libatique - as A Star Is Born, also released in cinemas on the very same opening weekend. Although his hand-held, closeup style often threatens to derail that movie, too. In Venom, Matthew teams up with editors Alan Baumgarten and Maryann Brandon to go Full Seizure-Mode™

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
Sure. This will make an interesting companion-piece for other superhero movies in the years to come.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
In no way, shape or form.

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
Come at me.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There is, and it's as subtly woven into the mix as one would expect from a movie where a murdering alien says "turd" in the trailer.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: This has got Bodhi Rook, Tobias Beckett and let's not forget Last Jedi Deleted Scene Stormtrooper Tom himself in it.
Not a bad turnout for a flick which doesn't have a Disney stamp in sight.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 That's the micro-review version. But I'm writing this as well. Hey, I said I was going to stop doing full reviews for every single thing I watched, not that I was going to stop writing altogether. And if anything was going to bring me back for a stab, it's a disappointing Marvel flick. But I'm getting ahead of myself... [ BACK ]

*2 The mid-credits scene is a coda to Venom, so stay for this. After the names have rolled (and I don't usually moan about the time taken to credit everyone who contributed to making a movie, but Venom's roll-call is presented in the same 'easily readable' speed and size typeface throughout, mostly in a single-column list. Reader, this is a four-songs-and-a-bit-of-the-soundtrack-length reel), we get a sequence from the upcoming Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse animated film. It's not connected to Venom by anything other than the rights-holders, and if you arrived at the cinema early enough you'll have already seen the latest trailer for it. With this in mind, you'll already know whether this is worth you hanging around for an extra ten minutes.
[ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.