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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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.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout

mission_impossible__fallout_ver3_xlgThe sixth installment in the Tom Cruise-led Mission: Impossible film series starting with its first movie in 1996 and, in turn, based on the TV series of the same name that ran from 1966 to 1973, Mission: Impossible – Fallout is a terrific spy action thriller that is one of the best, if not the best, Mission: Impossible film as a result of its spectacular stunt work and well-written script filled with satisfying twists. The story takes place two years after the previous film and follows Ethan Hunt, played by action star Tom Cruise, who is a secret agent in the fictional American spy agency IMF, Impossible Missions Force. The mission that he chooses to accept is to recover three stolen plutonium cores that could be used for portable nuclear weapons and are in the hands of a new shadowy criminal organization known as “the Apostles” that is an offshoot of the terrorist group known as “the Syndicate” led by the now imprisoned terrorist and anarchist Solomon Lane, played by the devious Sean Harris. Ethan works with his usual team of the IMF technical field agent and comic relief Benji Dunn, played by comedic actor Simon Pegg, and the IMF agent and Ethan’s closest friend Luther Stickell, played by the muscular Ving Rhames. However, the new CIA director Erica Sloane, played by Angela Bassett, who replaced Alec Baldwin’s character Alan Hunley, now the new IMF Secretary, does not entirely trust the IMF so she sends a CIA agent and assassin named August Walker, played by Henry Cavill best known for his role as Superman, to ensure that Ethan’s team stays on mission. In order to intercept the plutonium, Ethan poses as the buyer John Lark who is told by the intermediary known as White Widow, played by Vanessa Kirby best known for her role in the Netflix series The Crown, that Ethan must help his one-time nemesis Solomon Lane break out of police custody. Ethan learns that he must rescue Lane from a heavily-guarded police motorcade in the streets of London so the audience is taken on a thrilling and intense action sequence with a car chase and gunfight. Over time, Ethan and the team discovered that not everything is as it seems and that they cannot trust certain people as working for the same side. The end of the film turns into a brilliantly executed race against time to prevent the detonation of the nuclear weapons, and Ethan finds himself on a terrifying and exciting helicopter race in order to stop a global catastrophe from happening. Overall, I found it to be one of the better action movies I have seen in a while, which can be credited to the awesome action scenes and believable acting performances, especially from Tom Cruise who is in his action superstar best.

Hotel Artemis

Written and directed by Drew Pearce who was one of the writers for 2013’s Iron Man 3 and 2015’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Hotel Artemis is an entertaining and stylish action thriller with the hallmarks of a midnight B movie and a surprising all-star cast. Set in dystopian Los Angeles in the near future, the story revolves around a secret hospital for criminals that becomes the refuge for outlaws from the intense violent riots enveloping the entire city. The hospital, which is located on the top floor of a vintage old world hotel, is run by a rules-bound and efficient nurse, played by Oscar winner Jodie Foster in her first role since 2013. A large muscular orderly nicknamed Everest, played by Dave Bautista, is the only other person working at the futuristic hospital, and he is sometimes enlisted as the enforcer. On a particularly busy night, the Artemis is filled with a variety of dangerous criminals who only behave because of the rules enforced while in the hospital. It begins with a pair of bank robbers, one played by Emmy Award-winning actor Sterling K. Brown, who escaped a botched robbery while being pursued by the police. The other patients include a world-class assassin, played by Sofia Boutella, and a wisecracking criminal, played by Charlie Day. Things get increasingly complicated and violent with the arrival of the so-called Wolf King, played by Jeff Goldblum, who is the criminal overlord of Los Angeles and is accompanied by his obsequious son, played by Zachary Quinto. Foster’s character is trying to keep everyone happy and allow Hotel Artemis to continue running smoothly while she also has to deal with her anxiety deriving from the traumatic memory of losing her son. Overall, I found it to be an exciting and fun action flick that is notable for its unique vision of a dystopian future in which medical technology advances, but society as a whole collapses.

First Reformed

Written and directed by Golden Globe-nominated screenwriter Paul Schrader who is best known for 1976’s Taxi Driver, 1980’s Raging Bull, and 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ, First Reformed is a first-rate drama exploring the complexities of religion, environmental issues, and self-reflection and is truly remarkable for the Oscar-worthy performance of Ethan Hawke. The plot follows the troubled Reverend Ernst Toller, played by Oscar nominee Ethan Hawke in perhaps his best role, who leads a very small congregation at an upstate New York Dutch Reform church that is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. Struggling with alcoholism and past trauma, he finds little solace in his pastoral work and lives a lonely existence without practically any friends or family. His somber and quiet life changes course after meeting a pregnant parishioner named Mary, played by the terrific Amanda Seyfried, and her distraught husband who is an extremist environmental activist. While trying to navigate religious issues with Mary and her husband and coming to terms with the environment, the Reverend is under the guidance of his mother megachurch Abundant Life led by the influential Pastor Jeffers, played by Cedric the Entertainer in a very dramatic role, who has financial ties to the region’s largest polluter. The beautifully dark cinematography with a smaller aspect ratio and set during the depths of winter brilliantly underscores Reverend Toller’s quiet despair grappling with his own demons and conscience about the church’s involvement with what he sees as an immoral corporation. In the gripping climax towards the end of the movie, he contemplates committing a grievous act out of desperation and as his own form of environmental activism. Overall, I can say without any doubt that it is one of the best films of the year and Ethan Hawke’s mesmerizing acting should be universally applauded; therefore, I highly recommend the movie to true lovers of cinema.

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.

Beirut

Written by Tony Gilroy who is best known as the screenwriter for the Jason Bourne movie franchise first released in 2002, Beirut is a fairly typical espionage thriller set in the Middle East that is elevated by strong performances from the main cast and a uniquely complex script. Set in 1980s Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War, the story focuses on the former United States diplomatic officer Mason Skiles, played by the gruffly charismatic Jon Hamm in a Don Draper-esque performance, who must return to Lebanon a decade following the death of his family and departure from the Foreign Service. He learns that he is sent to Beirut following the kidnapping of his previously close friend Cal Riley, played by Mark Pellegrino, by a group of Islamic terrorists. While in-country investigating the crime and trying to rescue his estranged former coworker, he is handled by the undercover CIA operative Sandy Crowder, played by Rosamund Pike, in collaboration with State Department officials Donald Gaines, played by Dean Norris of Breaking Bad fame, and Gary Ruzak, played by Shea Whigham. Skiles eventually finds himself entangled in an intricate web of international diplomacy and espionage involving the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the religious factions fighting for control of Lebanon. He also discovers that not everyone is who they seem and that the whole mission is fraught with deceit and focused on the larger political picture of the Middle East. Strikingly reminiscent of the screenwriter’s earlier work with the Jason Bourne series, the movie has a gritty feel with its use of jumpy camerawork and moments of intense action underscored by a clever and somewhat complicated plot involving spies. Overall, I found it to be an entertaining movie that at times felt a little too complicated to be a stereotypical genre piece appealing to all audiences but was able to stay afloat primarily due to the strong acting.