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Movie Review: Bad Times at the El Royale

bad times poster largeBad Times at the El Royale might tread some familiar territory, but it’s also not like anything we’ve quite seen before. Much like director and writer Drew Goddard’s previous film, Cabin in the Woods, this is both an homage and new classic in the canon of “strangers meet at a hotel” noir thrillers.

The basic story is quite simple, and don’t let anyone spoil any more than this for you. Four strangers check in to the El Royale Hotel which sits on the border between California and Nevada, with half of the motel in each state. The old place has seen better times, once the hay day of licentiousness in 1960s Rat Pack Nevada, it has now, for one reason or another, fallen into disarray and ill repute. However, these four strangers, a priest played by Jeff Bridges, a singer played by Cynthia Erivo, a vacuum salesman played by Jon Hamm, and a California hippie played by Dakota Johnson, all check in one fateful afternoon. Each has a secret, or multiple secrets, as does the hotel itself. And wackiness ensues.

The film also includes great turns by a supporting cast that includes Chris Hemsworth, who reunites with Goddard after Cabin in the Woods as a would-be Manson family/cult leader, and also a brief any-shorter-and-it-would-have-been-a-cameo appearance by Nick Offerman. A lot of the hotel’s secrets are also held by the El Royale’s only staff person, played by Lewis Pullman, who has a bunch of secrets of his own.

One of the best things about the film is its structure, revealing the backstories of each of our main characters one-at-a-time as it explores them in their individual hotel rooms, identifying them by their rooms (Room 4, Room 5, Room 1) rather than their names. It’s the setting-as-character basics that make an atmospheric film like this so much fun, especially as it relies on a late 60’s R&B heavy soundtrack to establish its feel. And, oh my gosh, that soundtrack. In this way — its structure and reliance on soundtrack — it’s easy to make comparisons to Quentin Tarantino. Indeed, this film bears a lot of resemblances to Tarantino’s own take on “strangers meet in a hotel” The Hateful Eight. But Bad Times at the El Royale is so much more, especially in shedding much of Tarantino’s problematic racial commentary/edginess for a better social conscience that is far more incisive. Royale also retains Goddard’s interest from Cabin in the Woods on themes like voyeurism and its counterpoint, paranoia about people watching you.

The film really rests on three main performances — Bridges, Erivo, and Hemsworth. Jeff Bridges for the last many years has been largely coasting, with most of his performances ranging mostly between mixes of his personas as The Dude and his Oscar-winning performance in Crazy Heart. Even his most compelling recent roles, such as in True Grit and Hell or High Water are really just mixes of those two. Finally in Bad Times at the El Royale we see him stretch his acting muscles and doing something wholly new and interesting.

And Hemsworth, known best for his blockbuster performances as a leading man does something wholly new and interesting. He’s beautiful and charismatic and menacing and quixotic and everything you expect a cult leader to be. What’s really interesting is he seems to be basing at least some of his vocal cadence and performance on the unlikeliest of people — Bill Murray. While that shouldn’t be in itself surprising since Murray also has straddled comedy, action, and serious drama extremely well, but it’s that he sounds just a little bit like Carl Spackler from Caddyshack. . . so he’s got that going for him.  You almost forget he’s in this movie, as he doesn’t really appear until the third act, and when he does he comes in like a heretofore unseen movie monster straight from the pits of hell. And yet, he also provides the explanation for a lot of what’s happening in the film thematically.

However, Erivo is the real star of the film as Darlene Sweet, whose singing performances provide both soundtrack and commentary to the film. Her singing literally has to carry several of the scenes and it is intense and soulful. This is a star-making performance and I can’t wait to see more of her in a few weeks in Widows. There is something to be said for the film’s commentary on race and expectations both in its late 1960s setting and today. [Minor spoilers for the first 10 minutes of the film, so skip if you must] Her reveal of her story and background are one of the most important. When she checks in, several comments are made by other characters that imply she is checking in to do sex work. She is dismissed. She is invisible. She is assumed to be less than she is.

Later, she provides some of the film’s best commentary as she skewers Hemsworth’s Billy Lee by deconstructing exactly who he is and what he is doing. Unbeknownst to her, she beats him at his own game, hoisting him on his own pseudo-intellectual/spiritual petard. She’s the center of the film, its Rosetta Stone to understanding it. And it’s a slamming indictment of racism both in the 60’s and today that we’re sort of tricked into a stealth lead role by a woman of color. Three white men top the bill for the film when she is, in fact, the key character. This says everything about the subtle ways white male supremacy clouds almost everything into a cultural landscape where black women are largely made to be invisible. There’s also a moment where she does this great character reveal that changes her appearance– and it says so much about (white) beauty standards and the expectations for women of color to change in order to pass in (white) society.

The film is violent and brutal. Even from its opening moments which provide some fairly shocking, and, in retrospect, amazingly aware, cinematography. There are moments in the film where the camera placement and shot composition is so on point. You could frame some of these images and put them on a wall, or composite them into a movie poster.

The script is also fairly smart, full of quippy dialogue that never seems to take itself quite so seriously. At times, the script seems to want to make a point about the nature of duality — Heaven and Hell, good and evil, California and Nevada — but it’s never quite as smart as maybe it thinks it is. However, I doubt Goddard ever meant for the script to be all that smart. While offering some imagery and symbolism, it doesn’t seem that there is any greater grand meaning or design behind any of it. While there is duality, Goddard isn’t really making any statements about the nature of Good and Evil, etc. It’s mostly just a fun thriller which is character-forward rather than symbolism-forward.

And while the visuals in the film and its methodological approach are beautiful and masterful, it’s also an incredibly slow burn. The only downside is that the film clocks in at 2 hours and 21 minutes, and it sometimes feels it. There were likely places that could have been cut from this, and it’s possible some of the material is just dealt with a little bit too preciously. Goddard seems to feel the need to let his cast really chew some scenery and have fun with the script, rather than push the film along. It’s very possible though that this is a feature, rather than a bug. It’s sort of like ordering the “cowboy” bone-in ribeye steak instead of the more basic cut. Yes, you have much more gristle and fat, but even though you won’t necessarily ingest those parts, they give you something flavorful to gnaw on that adds to the experience. So just make sure as you go in that you don’t order the largest soda or you have a steel bladder and are ready to sit through the entire run time.

This is one of the best films out there right now though. It’s a lot of fun if noir-thrillers strangers-in-a-hotel is your sort of movie. Well maybe not as good as Cabin in the Woods, it does offer some great thrills and is worth treating yourself to on a big screen so you can enjoy the visuals and colors as well as the performances by some great actors at the top of their game.

4.25 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Tag

tag posterIt’s rare for a movie with so simple a premise to be not only uproariously funny but also heartfelt. The based-on-a-true-story of childhood friends who have been playing the same game of tag for 30 years is one of the funniest comedies of the year and pushes the boundaries of good taste in numerous ways.

One key theme here is these middle aged dudes all play a child’s game to try to stay young. This captures that fun and sense of play. It also captures that perfect sense of what it was to be young and have absolutely no filter– an 11-13 year old boy has probably the foulest mouth and mind on the planet, and most of these guys never completely grew up from that. It also features a great throwback soundtrack featuring hip hop and hard rock tracks from the 80’s and 90’s, giving the film a specific sense of nostalgia. Also, stick around during the credits to see/hear the cast sing a rendition of the Crash Test Dummies “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm.” See? Specific. We’re ready to party like it’s 1994, around which time our team of dummies ostensibly would have graduated from high school.

On our team of tag players are successful veterinarian “Hoagie” (Ed Helms) and his overly competitive wife Anna (Isla Fisher). They first recruit health insurance CEO Bob Callahan (Jon Hamm) when they crash an interview he’s doing with a reporter from the Wall St. Journal (Annabelle Wallis) who joins their game as she smells a story. (This is based on the true story that was published here) They track down stoner burnout “Chili” (Jake Johnson) and crash Kevin’s (Hannibal Burress) therapy session. The goal of all of this to to finally tag their one friend Jerry (Jeremy Renner) who has never been tagged –and they have the perfect opportunity to do so at his upcoming wedding.

And hijinks ensue.

The film, while definitely a comedy which tries to pack as many jokes into every minute as possible, plays out almost more like an action movie. This is in itself incredibly funny, as we see these middle-aged men play tag with all the style and staging of The Expendables or the most recent Fast and Furious movie. Every time they think they have Renner’s character cornered, time slows down and we see inside his mind as he anticipates every move, a la Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey, Jr. It’s a fun device which never gets overused thanks to the comedy always focusing on the characters and these mens’ relationships with each other.

Case in point, in an attempt to sew discord among the group, Jerry invites Cheryl (Rashida Jones) a former flame of both Bob and Chili’s to the wedding. It, of course, works to distract them because “lol these idiot man children playing a game are so predictable.”

What isn’t predictable are exactly the lengths Jerry has gone to in order to plan quick escapes from various situations and the theatricality with which he pulls them off. This includes a showdown in the woods where he literally pulls out a boombox and starts playing Ozzy’s “Crazy Train” to play with their minds.

What also is not predictable was just how sweet this movie is at its heart. Amidst reports like this article from The Boston Globe saying “The Biggest Threat to Middle-Aged Men Isn’t Smoking or Obesity – It’s Loneliness” it is truly great to find an inspiring story of how friends have managed to stay together. And watching the actual friends who the story is based on and their antics in the credits makes this even more worthwhile. While the end of the film gets a little bit tropey and sappy and you realize what’s actually going on, you might feel a little manipulated and tricked, but it’s mostly forgivable due to how fun the rest of the film is.

The cast really makes this film work. Hannibal Buress once again proves he is one of the funniest people on the planet, and his understated delivery and perfect timing are elegantly used here. Whether in a comedy special taking center stage, as the co-host of The Eric Andre Show, or as Peter Parker’s gym teacher, he is comedy’s secret weapon. Oh, and speaking of Spider-Man, it’s worth noting that Jake Johnson, who you may have only recognized from New Girl or Jurassic World is playing Peter Parker in this fall’s animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-VerseIsla Fisher is also hilarious and pitch perfect– mirroring in a lot of ways her breakout performance in Wedding Crashers. She also plays up the angle that, as a girl, she’s not allowed to play– and that the rest of the group are completely terrified of her because of how competitive she is. It begs the question why Buress and Fisher aren’t in more films.

This sounds silly, but this movie will make you want to play tag with your friends. In this day and age, that is not such a bad thing. It’s simple, wacky, filthy, irreverent, and utterly fun — just like playing with your friends in elementary and middle school.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Baby Driver

After being coerced into working for a crime boss, a young getaway driver finds himself taking part in a heist doomed to fail.

Edgar Wright is one of my favorite writers and directors having yet to disappoint in a film and effortlessly blending action and humor. Baby Driver, his latest film, leans heavier on the action side of things, but also gives us his best work yet in a movie that blends action, humor, and music in a way that feels original and a nonstop ride.

Actor Ansel Elgort shines as Baby, the “Baby” in Baby Driver who is forced to be the wheelman for some bad folks. It’s a good thing Baby is a natural behind the wheel moving a car like some direct symphonies. The film opens with a sequence that sets the tone as to what we can expect and for just shy of two hours we’re treated to a music driven action film that feels like as much as a ride as it is a movie.

What surprised me at first is the use of music which feels not like a soundtrack but instead we’re part of the action surrounded by the thumping sound. It’s diagetic, as Baby experiences the music, so do we. It also emphasizes the role music plays driving our lives and helping us perform our actions. Even a scene in a laundry mat feels like it’s straight out of a music video.The music too provides clues as to Baby’s life. Wright brilliantly uses the music to teach us about Baby’s life allowing a backstory to be presented without wasting time with filmed scenes.

The music too provides clues as to Baby’s life. Wright brilliantly uses the music to teach us about Baby’s life allowing a backstory to be presented without wasting time with filmed scenes. It also provides clues as to where things are going. As Baby’s world unravels so does the music as it slows and becomes eratic. It’s impressive and one of the best usses of music in any film I’ve experienced.

Ansel is cool in a movie full of cool individuals. A relative newcomer, Elgort goes toe to toe with Jon Bernthal (underused), Jon Hamm, Kevin Spacey, and Jamie Foxx. That’s impressive, beyond impressive. Eiza Gonzalez and Lily James are newcomers to me and deliver fantastic performances as well, one bad ass and the other Bonnie to Elgort’s Clyde. Everyone, no matter how big the role, nails it. Truly impressive is CJ Jones who plays Joseph, Baby’s caretaker who is now being taken care of. Jones is the rarity in films a deaf individual playing a deaf character and his inclusion shows how focused on the details Wright was when creating this film. While a lot of the characters and performances borderline on tropes/stereotypes, each is beyond enjoyable and most importantly fun.

Baby Driver is a mix of films, Goodfellas, Heat, Fast and the Furious, but still stands out as an original. This is my favorite film of the year by a long shot and one I could watch over and over. Baby Driver is a music driven, action packed, adrenaline fueled, instant classic.

Overall Rating: 10

Movie Review – Sucker Punch


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Sucker PunchJudging by the post viewing reactions of the “elite” press at the sneak peek of Zack Snyder‘s Sucker Punch, I’m guessing it won’t be getting the best of reviews by Washington, D.C. publications.  One reviewer went on to say “Now I know why they gave out suckers.  It fit the movie, because boy did it suck,” while another turned to me and said “I’m sure there’s somebody out there that liked this.”  None realized I’m “press” and while I was torn about it, I liked the movie.

While I proclaimed Scott Pilgrim vs. The World as “the first real movie for the Nintendo generation,” Sucker Punch takes the kinetic and frenetic feel of that movie a step further with puzzles, themed boards and each “level” ending in a boss battle.  While Pilgrim had plot to hold it together, Sucker Punch throws that out the window instead loosely tying in settings and events into a pseudo narrative.

The press hated it, but f-them, as this was a movie for a generation who grew up on video games.  A generation that’s looking forward to Halo on the big screen and cheers when they’re able to initiate bullet time in their favorite game to get in that perfect “kill.”  If you don’t celebrate a bit after getting that head shot in Call of Duty, this movie isn’t for you.  This isn’t Oscar bait, hell it might be nominated for a few Razzies.  But, should you expect it to be?  Snyder’s the man who brought us Dawn of the Dead, 300 and Watchmen.  All enjoyable movies but not the deepest or most well acted movies out there.  Snyder is about the visual, and here he brings it.

The movie’s plot is simple, a bunch of beautiful women escape into a fantasy world in order to escape their incarceration.  How does the fantasy world tie into the real world?  What’s actually going on?  That’s sort of strung together by the loosest of plot in the beginning and end, but that’s not the point of the movie.  The movie is all about watching a pretty girl dressed like Sailor Moon use bullet time to effortlessly dance around bullets and blades and go in for the kill.  It’s those moments that draw me into my favorite video games and that’s what sucked me into this movie.

The movie is escapism, plain and simple.  Snyder has put together a nonsensical plot about escapism so that you can experience it yourself by seeing visuals we don’t get enough of and strong women whipping ass.  This is a mish-mosh of movies.  Steam punk nazis, mechas, robots, 10 foot tall samurai, dragons, orcs, it’s all there.  Snyder went into the movie wanting to throw in everything he loves and the things we geeks love too.  He succeeded in that.

The movie was  a quick hour and a half, but in a time when the world is falling apart, that escapism is something I need and want, and I’ll take what I can get.  This is brainless fun for the Nintendo generation.

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