Bad Times at the El Royale: substance and style aplenty

Drew Goddard began his career writing for cult classic show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then became part of J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot team penning scripts for Alias and Lost. In 2013 he helped set up the first season (as showrunner) of Netflix’s Daredevil (one of Marvel’s stronger TV shows) and before that wrote monster film Cloverfield (2008) and debuted as writer- director with the excellent Cabin in the Woods (2012); then followed this up writing the screenplays for World War Z (2013) and The Martian (2015).

Basically he has a filmography to die for – from a writer and up-and-coming director’s point of view.

And now, as writer-director, he brings us another original tale in Bad Times at the El Royale (great title); starring the relative unknown Cynthia Erivo (one of the best actors in new film Widows at the moment) along with seasoned actors Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Jeff Bridges and Dakota Johnson.

The story takes place at the El Royale hotel, a building that has the border of two states running through it and feels like a throwback to a bygone age. We open with a man stashing something under the floor in one of the rooms. He’s then shot. Fast forward a decade and the hotel has fallen on hard times (basically: no guests). Yet a random, entirely unrelated group of guests turn up at the same time, and it’s clear from the off they’re each hiding something and have their own agendas.

So far so Tarantino.

Travelling salesman Dwight (Hamm) does most of the talking in the opening scene (tapping into his Don Draper days), deploying charisma, charm – and a bit of smarm – to the max. Singer Darlene (Erivo) arrives and acts guarded; alleged holy man Father Flynn (Bridges) seems genial enough, but is clearly hiding something.

Finally, moody chick Emily (Dakota Johnson) completes the group. She says almost nothing, other than to write ‘fuck you!’ in the ledger when asked her name.

The hotel’s concierge Miles (Lewis Pullman) tries his best to provide the group with the full hotel experience but it’s clear none of them are remotely interested. You can almost sense the tension in the air and predict that everything is going to go sideways pretty quickly.

All it will take is a spark.

Once they head off to their rooms we follow Dwight and learn some interesting things about him. After he discovers certain unsavoury things in his room he explores the hotel further and finds a hidden corridor which allows visual and audio access to all of the guests’ rooms. And so the plot thickens.

Without giving too much away it’s worth saying that the aforementioned stuff stashed in one of the rooms really just acts as a MacGuffin to drive the plot along and allow the characters to clash in interesting ways.

It all starts to go a bit mad by the time Chris Hemsworth’s character turns up and, overall, the whole thing could lose twenty minutes off the running time. But it’s still a fun watch.

For me, it didn’t quite hit the heights – in terms of sheer enjoyment – of the Cabin in the Woods, but it’s still an entertaining watch.

 

Thor: Ragnarok – he’s come a long way, baby

The first Thor came out back in 2011, if you can believe that. And at the time it was a bit of a punt by Marvel who, until this point, had only really – successfully – thrust a decent Iron Man upon the world. Because Captain America: The First Avenger was to come later in 2011; but first the studio had some Aussie beefcake most people hadn’t heard of as the lead, along with a luvvie director (Kenneth Branagh) at the helm, putting together a flick about the God of Thunder.

What could go wrong?
Well, more importantly, what could go right?

Because Hemsworth shocked a lot of us by utterly owning the role and Branagh, considering his lack of experience in the genre, got the tone spot on, delivering action and comedy with verve and dynamism. Plus, the film was a commercial hit, which allowed Marvel to start making bigger plans to introduce a host of other characters and expand the MCU at a more rapid rate. So Thor, along with Iron Man, kinda led the way.

Moreover, if we take the team-up films, aka Avengers and Civil War off the table for a second, standalone films are probably the true measure of the strength of a character, and Thor’s sequel, The Dark World (2013), was solid enough, but perhaps suffered from ‘difficult second album’ syndrome.

Yet even an average Marvel film such as this was still a helluva lot better than most blockbusters.

So our God of Thunder weathered the storm and Marvel, as a studio, continued to read from a blueprint that the rest of us, quite frankly (wait for it), marvelled at. Because their quality with every release just kept improving, even with the odd dip, they kept upping their game and pushing the formula, lest it get stale.

This, in turn, has given us wonderful oddities such as Ant-Man and Dr Strange, and the mad, unexpected crowd-pleaser that was Guardians of the Galaxy.

And other directors have seen this, and no doubt become attracted by the prospect of a big budget and the chance to put their own stamp on a Marvel superhero.

Granted, some filmmakers with too singular a vision just couldn’t manage to adhere to the studio’s rules (Edgar Wright), but for those that did (James Gunn, Scott Derrickson) the rewards were that they produced a film audiences and critics loved, which was also a huge hit.

Which leads us to Taika Waititi.

Now for those of that haven’t seen Hunt for the Wilderpeople, get thee to your nearest TV or streaming device and watch it. For it be very funny. And most strange.

Set in New Zealand, it stars Sam Neill and some kid that’s barely acted before, and it’s offbeat and hilarious. Think Flight of the Concords/Mighty Boosh territory with a bit of Thelma and Louise thrown in and you’re halfway there.

This is what Taika brings to Marvel.

Well, that, and a large slice of Flash Gordon with lashings of retro ’80s aesthetic. I mean, the film is pretty darn cool. But in case you were worried it wasn’t cool (or weird) enough, just add more Jeff Goldblum. Or any amount of Jeff Goldblum really.

Because the man has always been about five miles left of normal, and these days he’s ripening as the years go by, like an old fruit left out in the sun. Which is actually rather delightful, as he pretty much steals most scenes.

But I digress. As usual, off topic. Rambling and setting the scene.

Let’s focus on Ragnarok.
Story and timeline wise, this film picks up two years after events in Avengers: Age of Ultron (and around the same time as Civil War and Spider-Man:Homecoming) where Thor has gone off to hunt for infinity stones. He’s introduced in a bravura first sequence involving a fire demon, a scene which rivals that of Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2′s opener.

It’s kick ass, stirring stuff.

And through events involving Odin (Anthony Hopkins) Thor’s sister Hela (Cate Blanchett, having a whale of a time), the Goddess of Death, is freed after a long imprisonment.

She immediately sets out to rule Asgard and lay waste to anyone in her path – and it’s up to her baby brother to stop her.

Only problem is, he’s been waylaid on junk planet Sakaar which is ruled by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). There he’s forced into combat with the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) – whom we last saw hightailing it away from earth in a spaceship for reasons only Hulk can answer.

So this predicament means Thor needs help to get off the planet and save his people. Luckily, this comes in the form of a Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) whom he finds in self-imposed exile, and, of course, his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Plus Hulk. So they form a team (of sorts) to take Hella on.

Basically they’re following Top Gear’s mantra of ‘ambitious but rubbish.’

Now, Marvel films are known for their in-film banter during fight scenes but this is, by some margin, the funniest the studio have put out so far. Yes, more so than Ant-Man, Guardians and any others you care to name. Again, the Taika influence is strongly felt, as he reportedly added a lot of the humour to the script once he came on board.

Hemsworth, too, wanted the tone to be lighter, and he’s clearly demonstrated why being let loose has been a blessing. Yes, the God of Thunder with his hammer and cape is all a bit silly. So why not double down on how mad it is? Additionally, if you were looking for a companion piece in the MCU, Guardian of the Galaxy wouldn’t be a bad bet.

Basically, when things get too serious or preposterous, burst the bubble with a joke.

Works every time.
This is something that DC, for all their progress (by the looks of the Justice League trailers) just don’t get. Superheroes are ridiculous, so let them be.

By and large, this will be the best time you’ll have seeing a Marvel film. Even if you’re not the biggest superhero nerd and have no idea the difference between DC and Marvel or who the Avengers are or anything like that, you’ll still have fun.

It kind of sets the bar pretty high for the forthcoming Black Panther if I’m honest. And though it’s likely that film won’t compete on humour (how can it?) it will probably take the title as the coolest Marvel film so far. From Run the Jewels on the trailer to Black Panther as a character and his homeland of Wakanda, it remains something of an exciting prospect to see how it comes together on screen.

So even without seeing it, I feel confident saying this is going to be a pretty strong year for Marvel.

Avengers: Age of Ultron review

And so, Marvel’s quest for domination of box office dollars and moviegoer’s time continues. This may sound like I’m starting cynical but I’d like to point out I’m a fan and did enjoy Avengers: Age of Ultron immensely. But… I am starting to feel blockbuster burnout.

First though, the good stuff.

It’s great to have another Avengers movie and the gang back together, they’ve got an easy chemistry and work well as a unit. The story kicks off almost immediately with a slow-mo money shot of them attacking a Hydra base – one to get the fanboys screaming. There’s wisecracking all round and Hulk smashing stuff, yay.

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The team are after Loki’s sceptre which carries a great deal of power. Once retrieved, Stark and Banner think they can use it to create artificial intelligence to put in a robot that will protect the earth so the Avengers can effectively retire. With Captain America the strongest opposed to this plan (more on that later) it backfires producing a rather hateful and sociopathic Ultron (voiced with verve and menace by James Spader).

And so the team have a new foe to face, typically one they created themselves – but let’s not get into that. For those that haven’t been living under a rock the past decade you should all know these characters by now – and no time is wasted picking up where they left off in the first film (and indeed all the other individual films they’ve been in).

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Moving things along a bit director Joss Whedon does provide some nice character moments, in particular Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner developing as a couple and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye showing another side as a family man.

There’s also new characters.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver and Elisabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch make an intriguing pair – and it’s nice that their loyalties are torn during the film rather than them being clean cut heroes throughout. In terms of powers (his, speed; hers, telekinesis and mind control) they’re brought to life effectively, although hers does mean that we veer pretty closely to X-Men territory. (There’s lots of crossover in the comic book world but on the silver screen I’m not sure I’d like the Avengers and X-Men to meet/fight/team up really, but that’s another discussion.)

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Where this film falls over a little is down to the fact we’ve seen it all before. And before. And before. The film’s final third is yet another battle in the skies, which now seems to happen in every Marvel film. Also, even though we do want to see the team smash bad guys to bits it doesn’t feel like there’s ever much at stake. Maybe I’m starting to care less about the characters, or maybe I know that they’ll never kill off any of the major ones, but it just makes it all seem a little too… safe and pedestrian. Which is ridiculous given all the explosions and fights and whatnot.

Also, it never seems to take that much effort to outwit the bad guy. Well, mental effort. Physical effort the team have aplenty. Making a clumsy comparison to The Dark Knight for a second, the Joker laughs at Batman as he pounds him saying he has nothing to threaten him with. It feels like that here. Other than brute force to solve problems it never feels like the Avengers have any other way of doing things. Is avenging just different ways of punching someone? Maybe their enemies will get more complex in the future, who knows. The teaser (spoiler, ish) at the end of the film suggests Marvel are drawing all the strands of their portfolio together, perhaps for forthcoming Civil War where we see the differences of opinion of Captain America and Tony Stark (on how to protect the masses) come to a head in a monumental scrap.

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Back to Age of Ultron though. Despite what I’ve just said, all in all it’s a lot of fun. There’s lots of meat for the geeks and comic book fans to chow down on, we get a bit more character development and a lot more smashy smashy bad guys but – and it’s a big but – are we reaching saturation point? Are audiences getting tired of these characters? I am a little. Still love them, but I’m getting a little jaded.

Maybe less smashy more talky is the order of the day. There’s a section in Age of Ultron where Scarlet Witch pretty much floors the team with her mind control skills. That was intriguing. More of that please. Same goes for Paul Bettany’s The Vision – another nice addition, and a more thoughtful one to boot. Perhaps my ponderings are immaterial as, from the film’s final scenes, it looks like they’re trying to move the world onto other characters, which is good. I love the old gang as much as the next fanboy, but maybe it’s time to call time on them?

Anyway… I could go on and on but you get the idea. Go watch it and judge for yourself. Do you feel the same way?

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Rush: fear, rivalry, a playboy and a rat

‘With fear, you must prevent nor cure. Fear must not be allowed to take hold in the first place. If you are in a canoe, never listen to the roar of the rapid ahead before you let go of the river bank. Just do it!’ Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl in Ron Howard's RushSome great men and women are defined by their parents, or shaped by the world around them, or simply, are just born champions. In the case of James Hunt and Niki Lauda, their rivalry – both on and off the track – fuelled their desire to win, honed their skills and gave them the drive and determination to succeed.

You could argue that, without the other, perhaps neither would have pushed himself to become a champion, at least not at the same rate. To backtrack a second, if you hadn’t guessed by now I am of course referring to Rush. A film about two F1 racing legends in the ’70s, directed by Ron Howard and starring Chris Hemsworth as the charismatic playboy Brit James Hunt and Daniel Bruhl as the calculating workaholic Austrian Niki Lauda. The film roughly charts their rise at the start of the ’70s in Formula 3, through to their intense rivalry for the Formula 1 title in 1976, culminating in an epic race at the Japanese Grand Prix.

With Rush, I feel director Ron Howard had a point to prove. Following the debacle of Angels & Demons (Ewan McGregor jumping out a helicopter to save the Vatican from a bomb anyone?) he wanted to remind us that this was the guy who directed Willow, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and Frost/Nixon, to name aRush-Chris-Hemsworth-On-Set-Photo-rush-2013-film-31196500-778-1024 few.

And prove a point he did, with a compelling, engaging and riveting tale. Formula 1 is not for everyone, some would go as far as to say it can come across as dull, being more a competition between mechanics and how they’ve set the car up, than driver skill. However back in the ’70s there was nothing even remotely approaching the levels of safety we have today. There was real risk, indeed there are numerous points in the film where Bruhl’s Lauda talks about percentages, how he’s happy with a twenty percent chance of dying, but no higher. Think about that for a second, that’s huge. No wonder these guys were scared.

Howard’s direction is telling in that sense, whilst he makes the races exhilarating and exciting, you get a real sense of the danger involved. Whether it’s Hemsworth’s Hunt vomiting before every race – with his team just saying that means he’s ‘raring to go’ – or Lauda demanding greater levels of safety and less risk, it’s nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat stuff.

And it’s not just the race sequences. Why would these guys even set foot in these metal death traps? Desire. The desire to win. The desire to be champions. RushAnd the desire to beat their fiercest rival and the only man equal to them on a race track. Whilst the other drivers during this decade had skill and nerve, Lauda and Hunt were a class apart. They needed each other.

A nuanced script by Peter Morgan (who also penned Frost/Nixon, The Last King of Scotland and The Damned United among others) gave us a glimpse, not only of their rivalry, but within it, their admiration for one another. Both men were complicated and flawed, such are the minds of champions. Funnily enough, the quieter moments between the two are the ones that really draw you in. As such, you end up caring for both of them, albeit for different reasons.

Hemsworth cuts a dashing figure as James Hunt. Not a million miles away from Thor, but he plays it well. A thousand brake horsepowered thumbs up should go to Daniel Bruhl though. His portrayal of Niki Lauda was like holding a mirror up to the man himself.

Hemsworth will obviously dominate the marketing material to draw the crowds in but, in some ways, this is Bruhl’s story more than Hemsworth’s. And I imagine, come awards season, he’ll get the recognition he deserves. So hats off to him, and hats off to Ron Howard for a splendid return to form.

If you go down to the woods today…

The Cabin in the WoodsHands up, who likes a bit of horror? Let’s be honest, who doesn’t? Even the meekest amongst us doesn’t mind a good scare from time to time, it gets the blood going.

Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but The Cabin in the Woods is probably more entertaining than scary, perhaps because what starts as a standard horror film – good looking teens heading to a secluded cabin for the weekend – soon transforms into something else entirely. The usual set up is in place, typecast teens (jock, sensitive guy, stoner, good girl and slut) head to some ‘off the grid’ cabin, however inter-cut with their journey are scenes of two guys (West Wing’s Bradley Whitford and the increasingly ubiquitous Richard Jenkins) going about their daily jobs in some vast laboratory complex, clearly discussing the fate of the teens in question.

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This gets your brain ticking. How do the teens relate to the lab guys? Are they part of an experiment or reality show? What’s the deal? For me, I started to picture The Running Man, Truman Show, that sort of thing. Whilst de-constructing horror is not a new concept – think back to Wes Craven’s Scream for example – there’s always room for another take.

What Cabin offers is lively entertainment and zinging dialogue, with a few scares and well-paced action. This is down to the writing team of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, the former behind Buffy and Avengers and the latter behind Lost and Cloverfield. From that you can get a pretty good idea of what to expect.

An army of nightmares
In terms of cast, stand-out performances include good girl Dana (Kristen Connelly) – looking a little like a younger Scarlett Johansson – and stoner Marty (Fran Kranz), assuming the role of comic relief and the most perceptive of the group. Between the two of them they begin to make sense of their predicament and influence their fate.

Cabin-In-The-Woods-endingCurt the jock (Chris Hemsworth aka Thor) holds the screen well, having filmed Cabin a couple of years before his career took off but, due to studio issues, the film only saw release this year. Perhaps no bad thing, as his star power now carries weight.

As the story plays out it becomes clear that the teens are being manipulated for a much greater purpose – something hinted at throughout. This leads to an epic monster-filled finale, something that will delight horror nuts and casual fans of the genre alike. Ultimately, this is a great Friday night movie, not that scary, but hugely entertaining nonetheless.