Bad Times at the El Royale

Directed by Drew Goddard who is best known for writing 2008’s Cloverfield, 2013’s World War Z, and 2015’s The Martian in which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, Bad Times at the El Royale is a dark and stylish mystery thriller that contains many elements of a popcorn flick but is elevated by strong acting performances. The unique storytelling and violence very much reminded me of Quentin Tarantino’s 2015 movie The Hateful Eight: both take place in a isolated location involving a relatively small cast of mysterious figures together for largely unexplained reasons. The plot takes place over the course of one very eventful night in 1969 at the once celebrity hideout and very 1950s retro hotel called the El Royale straddling the border of California and Nevada near Lake Tahoe. At the beginning of the film, we meet the slick Southern gentleman vacuum salesman Laramie Sullivan, played by Golden Globe winner Jon Hamm, who is on a regular stopover and greets fellow travelers Father Daniel Flynn, played by Oscar winner Jeff Bridges, and African-American lounge singer Darlene Sweet, played by Tony Award winner Cynthia Erivo who uses her beautiful singing voice. Eventually, they are able to rouse the only employee at the empty hotel Miles Miller, played by fresh-faced young actor Lewis Pullman, after encountering yet another peculiar hotel guest named Emily Summerspring, played by the somber Dakota Johnson. All of the characters do not really know what is going on with each other and do not find out until the increasingly violent climax that takes place with the appearance of a handsome cult leader named Billy Lee, played by the shirtless Chris Hemsworth, and his ruthless crew. Without giving much of the plot away, suffice it to say that no one is who they seem to be and the hotel itself is full of mysterious and creepy surprises. The filmmaker makes the rather unusual narrative technique of using flashbacks that are clearly marked with title cards using each character’s room number and reveal the immediate events that led them to the El Royale. Most of the guests were involved in criminal or rather shady circumstances and figured that the remote hotel would be a good refuge from their troubles. Unlike most modern-day thrillers, the film does not heavily rely on action-packed sequences but rather focuses on character development that slowly evolves over the course of the almost two and a half hour duration. Overall, I found it to be an entertaining and not-too-serious thriller that is full of enough mystery, violence, and well-acted character backstories to keep audiences on the edge of their seats, even if the movie probably lasted too long.

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A Simple Favor

clickDirected by Paul Feig who is best known for comedies, including 2011’s Bridesmaids and 2016’s Ghostbusters, A Simple Favor is a terrifically entertaining film that perfectly blends elements of mystery and comedy and uses its many plot twists to effectively create a fun whodunit. The plot follows a chipper widowed housewife named Stephanie Smothers, played by Oscar nominee Anna Kendrick, who makes a video blog giving tips to mothers and develops a chance friendship with the stylish and beautiful Emily Nelson, played by Blake Lively, who works as a PR director for a well-known fashion designer. They meet each other through their elementary-aged sons, and Stephanie is immediately enchanted by the glamorous yet mysterious Emily who invites her over for drinks during the day at her expensive house in a Connecticut town outside New York City. After Emily asks Stephanie the seemingly simple favor of picking up her son from school, Emily disappears without a trace. The middle part of the film involves Stephanie along with Emily’s husband and English professor Sean, played by Henry Golding best known for his role in 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, trying to figure out what happened to Emily and if and by whom she was murdered. At the same time, Sean and Stephanie begin to have a romantic relationship as they work closely together. With Stephanie discussing Emily’s disappearance and appealing for help to the followers of her video blog, she begins to unravel the mysteries surrounding her friend and quickly learns that not everything is as it appears and that Emily has several dark secrets from her past that may reveal why she disappeared. All of Stephanie’s detective work leads to the final scenes of the movie that reveal plot twists on top of plot twists, quite effectively shocking and surprising the audience to a thrilling degree. Overall, I found it to be one of those rare movies that makes for a gripping and wonderfully twisty good time; the film very much reminds me of a less dark and more funny version of the brilliant 2014 thriller Gone Girl that was also full of mystery and a surprise ending.

Searching

searching_ver3_xlgDirected by first-time feature filmmaker Aneesh Chaganty, Searching is an excellent thriller with terrific acting performances and a suspenseful script, but its major asset is its innovative use of shooting the entire film from the point-of-view of such modern technological devices as smart phones and computers. The plot follows a devoted father living in San Jose, California named David Kim, played by John Cho best known for his role in the stoner comedy trilogy Harold and Kumar first released in 2004, who tries to always be there for his daughter Margot after his wife Pamela dies from cancer several years before the film takes place. One day, his life falls apart after his beloved sixteen-year-old daughter goes missing after a study group, and he comes to the realization hours later that he must report his daughter as missing to the local police. The case is assigned to Detective Rosemary Vick, played by Emmy winner Debra Messing best known for her role in the popular NBC sitcom Will and Grace, who first treats the disappearance as a runaway but encourages David to look further into Margot’s personal life, including contacting her friends that may know more about what happened. Through his extensive investigations of his daughter’s online presence on Facebook and a video blogging website, he is able to piece together important clues that he gives to the police and leads them to several vital pieces of evidence about where she was last seen and possible motivations behind her vanishing. Towards the movie’s conclusion, David unearths a much more complex set of circumstances surrounding the mystery that leads the audience on a thrilling journey of unexpected plot twists. The filmmaker makes the film extremely relevant to today’s society by telling all of the story through the digital tools that many of us rely on every day and without following the format of a traditional movie with its use of film cameras. Almost all of the visuals are comprised of David’s computer screen as he makes Facetime video calls and goes through social media as it would appear in real life on screen. At first, I thought this rather unusual filmmaking technique would be too much of a gimmick, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it only heightens the suspense and creates a very provocative and gripping experience understandable to the current digital generation. Overall, I found it to be one of the best thrillers that I have seen in the past few years and is cinematically important for developing a brand-new filmmaking style that is truly eye-opening for audiences.

Super Troopers 2

super_troopers_two_ver2_xlgThe sequel to the 2001 cult comedy classic Super Troopers featuring the Broken Lizard comedic group, Super Troopers 2 is a ridiculously silly comedy that, like the original, is full of vulgar and very juvenile humor that tries to be nothing more than a more traditional slapstick comedy. The movie follows a group of former Vermont State Troopers who were fired after the shenanigans of the first film and are looking for a way to get back into law enforcement. The main characters are made up of the Broken Lizard comedy troupe: Jay Chandrasekhar playing Senior Trooper Arcot “Thorny” Ramathorn, Paul Soter playing Trooper Jeff Foster, Steve Lemme playing Trooper MacIntyre “Mac” Womack, Erik Stolhanske playing Trooper Robert “Rabbit” Roto, and Kevin Heffernan playing Trooper Rodney “Rod” Farva. The rather ludicrous plot involves the group of highly incompetent troopers led by Captain John O’Hagen, played by Golden Globe-nominated British actor Brian Cox, being recruited to help set up a new highway patrol station outside a small Canadian town transitioning into joining the United States after a border dispute between the two nations. They must take control from a group of three extremely stereotyped Canadian Mounties, including one played by Will Sasso of MADtv fame, who become engaged in prank war with the obnoxious American troopers. Many of the practical jokes that the characters play on one another are sometimes hilarious and almost always rely on gross-out and lowbrow humor that could be upsetting to some viewers. Over time, the ribald story becomes increasingly absurd with the appearance of the slick French-Canadian mayor Guy Le Franc, played by Rob Lowe, and a criminal organization smuggling drugs and a female version of Viagra outlawed in the United States. All of the Canadian characters are over-the-top composites of a stereotypical French-Canadian, complete with the different pronunciation of the word sorry and the notion that all Canadians are nice in addition to poking fun of the fact that some of them speak French and love hockey. Overall, I found it to be a mind-numbing comedy that furthers the stupidity of the original Super Troopers, which will definitely appease fans, that has its moments of uproarious hilarity fueled by some rather immature material.

You Were Never Really Here

Directed by critically acclaimed Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay who is best known for 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, You Were Never Really Here is a very dark and sometimes disturbing film remarkable for its gritty atmosphere and superbly dedicated performance from Joaquin Phoenix. It follows the violent exploits of hired gun Joe, played by Golden Globe winner Phoenix in one of his best performances, as he takes on one of his toughest jobs rescuing girls from the criminal underworld. A powerful New York State Senator enlists Joe through the middleman McCleary, played by John Doman, to rescue his young daughter Nina, played by terrific newcomer Ekaterina Samsonov, from an underage sex ring in New York City. Effectively portraying Joe’s descent into madness, a majority of the movie shows Joe walking through the rough streets of New York City beset by intense hallucinations and traumatic flashbacks the result of his serious PTSD. The uncomfortable moments of insanity are heightened through the random use of jarring imagery and discordant music and sound effects. Surprisingly, it is a slow burn story that focuses on Joe struggling with his mental issues while investigating the whereabouts of the girl, only interrupted by scenes of extreme and sometimes graphic violence. Joe is a truly complicated figure who dispassionately kills people in brutal fashion primarily using a hammer; however, his actions are somewhat justified because the people that he is viciously attacking are truly repugnant bad guys trafficking young girls. Over the course of the plot, things go horribly awry as he stumbles into a vast conspiracy involving the Governor and corrupt police officers who murder those closest to him. Overall, I found it to be an unpleasant yet mesmerizing cinematic experience notable for the realistic performance from Joaquin Phoenix and the uniquely brilliant filmmaking style of Lynne Ramsay; as fair warning, it is definitely not for the faint of heart.

Red Sparrow

red_sparrow_xlgDirected by Francis Lawrence who is best known for several of The Hunger Games films starring Jennifer Lawrence, Red Sparrow is a highly eroticized spy thriller aiming to become a prestige espionage film like 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and whose greatest asset is the acting performance from Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence stars as a Russian ballerina named Dominika Egorova who suffers a career-ending injury and enlists, at the urging of her powerful uncle Ivan, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, as a Russian operative known as a red sparrow in order to support her sick mother. After her recruitment, the film uses a training montage to depict the brutal tactics, including using one’s sexuality to obtain valuable information from targets, she learns at a secret training facility run by the stone-faced character played by Oscar nominee Charlotte Rampling. Eventually, Dominika is sent to Budapest to uncover the identity of a Russian double agent working for the CIA and also to get close to the CIA agent Nate Nash, played by Joel Edgerton. Things begin to get complicated after she begins an intimate relationship with Nate and discovers that there may be other double agents at work for both the Russians and Americans. Overall, I found it to be a somewhat entertaining and stylized film, but it, unfortunately, fell short of my high expectations for a well-crafted intelligent espionage thriller suited for such a talented cast.

Murder on the Orient Express

Directed by Kenneth Branagh who is best known for his work in Shakespeare plays and film adaptations, Murder on the Orient Express is a stylish adaptation of the classic 1934 Agatha Christie novel of the same name and later adapted into a critically acclaimed movie in 1974. It feels very much like a modern update to the murder mystery genre and is jam-packed with an all-star cast, but the film largely does not live up to its predecessor and the novel itself. The always terrific Academy Award nominee Kenneth Branagh stars as Hercule Poirot, a brilliant and eccentric Belgian detective who is a recurring character in Christie’s books. While on a break between cases in the winter of 1934 in Istanbul, he is recruited to investigate a case in the UK and is offered a ticket on the world-famous luxury train the Orient Express headed to Calais, France in order to quickly reach his destination. He, along with thirteen strangers, mostly keep to themselves on an uneventful first leg of the journey. The first few scenes on the train introduce the audience to the passengers ranging from a governess, a professor, a duchess, a secretary to a mobster and are played by such famous faces as Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., and Derek Jacobi. Things rapidly become chaotic after the Orient Express is stranded after an avalanche and a body is discovered in one of the cabins. Detective Hercule Poirot is then enlisted to help solve the murder before the train reaches its next destination. With unique cinematography, including overhead shots and long panning shots, and sumptuous detailing of the original Orient Express and 1930s costumes and decor, the meticulous detective interrogates all the passengers and tries to piece together the evidence to discover the culprit. The best part of the movie is Branagh’s portrayal of the charismatic and mysterious Poirot and the fascinating ways he is able to solve the murder mystery, all the while interacting with a terrific ensemble cast. Overall, I found it to be an enjoyable and beautifully shot movie that does not reach perfection as a result of its bloated cast, sometimes too slow pacing, and attempt to revitalize an already beloved classic murder mystery novel and film.