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Josh Reviews Bad Times at the El Royale

Bad Times at the El Royale takes place over one long day and night at the titular El Royale hotel, located on the border of California and Nevada.  The El Royale used to be a happening spot, but its glory days are long in the past.  Everyone who has chosen to come stay at the El Royale on this particular unfortunate day has something to hide… and as this tense puzzle-box of a film unfolds, those secrets come out and collide in unfortunate ways…

I found Bad Times at the El Royale to be a delight, a deliriously enjoyable noir-ish tale with a complicated but perfectly calibrated fractured timeline in which every piece eventually clicks into place with the precision of a Swiss watch.

If the film has a weakness, it’s that at times it can feel like something of a Tarantino knock-off.  Many of its superficial aspects — the fractured timelines, the bursts of intense violence, the cast of memorably unique characters thrust together in a unique location, the pleasure the film takes in allowing those characters to speechify at one another — are for sure examples of the stylistic devices that Mr. Tarantino has used so memorably and made his own.  But the film is so good and so much fun that I find it hard to complain too much about that.

I’m a big fan of Drew Goddard’s writing (Cloverfield, The Martian, The Cabin in the Woods), and Bad Times at the El Royale shows off his strengths.  The script is incredibly sharp.  Again and again I was thrilled by the way the film shifts around in time, and the perfect pace at which the script allows the audience to learn the characters’ backstories and secrets.  Each and every character in the film is incredibly interesting and could be considered the star of the film.  Bad Times is only the second film Mr. Goddard has directed (after 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods), but you’d never know it.  The film is gorgeous and packed to the brim with extraordinarily clever and memorable shots.  I particularly enjoyed the fantastic leisurely opening sequence in the hotel lobby in which we’re introduced to most of the film’s main characters, as well as the gorgeous and tense long unbroken shot in which we first discover the corridor running behind all the rooms.  That sequence in particular is a master class in timing, as the camera moves between the corridor and the action taking place in multiple different hotel rooms.  Everything appears perfectly in sequence; I can’t imagine how long it took them to create that shot.  It’s glorious.  Mr. Goddard and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey have collaborated to … [continued]

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The Top 15 Movies of 2012 — Part Three!

In Part One of my list of the Top 15 Movies of 2012, I listed numbers 15 through 11, and in Part Two I listed numbers 10 through 6.  Let’s bring it home with the final installment of my Best Movies of 2012 list!

5. Django Unchained Quentin Tarantino’s fierce, fiery, take-no-prisoners assault on the institution of slavery in America is at once a very serious attempt to look this great evil of American history straight in the eye, while also being a phenomenally entertaining, funny, exciting, action-packed and blood-soaked Spaghetti Western adventure.  That Mr. Tarantino’s film succeeds so wildly on both counts is a testament to his enormous skills as a filmmaker.  Django Unchained is unquestionably the product of Mr. Tarantino’s wonderfully distinct cinematic vision.  The film is filled with astoundingly beautiful dialogue, incredible tension, various (very funny) anachronistic touches, spectacular (and very bloody) action, and a glorious musical score — all of which are Mr. Tarantino’s specialties.  Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz are both absolute perfection as the twin anchors of the film, totally commanding in their roles, with each creating iconic, memorable cinematic characters.  Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson are both equally spectacular as the film’s abhorrent villains.  Django Unchained feels transgressive, it feels dangerous.  It is without question fiercely alive and engaging from the very first frame to the very last, and I found it to be one of the most fun, visceral, intense experiences I had in a movie theatre this year.  (Click here for my original review.)

4. Zero Dark Thirty Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have together created an astonishing cinematic document that powerfully brings to life not only the complex, often seemingly hopeless decade-long search for Osama bin Laden, but also the vast human cost (on all sides) of that pursuit.  For almost three full hours, I sat riveted by the drama on-screen as CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain), assigned to the U.S. embassy in Pakistan, worked — together with other operatives, interrogators, and analysts — for year after long year, trying to piece together a chain of evidence that would lead U.S. forces to discover the hiding place of Osama bin Laden.  This film revels in the details, in the minutia of Maya’s world, without dumbing anything down or over-explaining anything to audiences.  This is a film that assumes a lot of its audience: that we are decently well-versed in the historical background, and that we are capable of paying close attention to the film as it unfolds.  Jessica Chastain does magnificent, star-making work as the driven but haunted Maya.  The action sequences are phenomenal, particularly the climactic assault on bin Landen’s compound in … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Cabin in the Woods

So, yeah, we all know that Joss Whedon (mastermind of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly/Serenity, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and many more pieces of beloved work) co-wrote and directed Marvel’s huge film The Avengers, opening in a few weeks (and which I am desperately anticipating).  But did you realize that he was also involved in a horror film, The Cabin in the Woods, that was made back in 2009?

Yep!  Mr. Whedon co-wrote the screenplay with Drew Goddard (a frequent collaborator with Mr. Whedon who was also an author on Lost and the co-writer of Cloverfield), who made his directorial debut with the film.  Unfortunately, the movie was never released by MGM, due to the studio’s financial turmoil.  Eventually the film was sold to Lionsgate and finally released a few weeks ago.

Go see it.  Go see it right now!

Don’t let anyone tell you anything about it.  Don’t read any reviews.  (Really — I’m going to be super-vague but I invite you to stop reading this piece.)  For goodness sake don’t watch any of the trailers.  Just trust Joss Whedon and trust me and go see this film.

It’s almost impossible to write about The Cabin in the Woods without spoiling any of the wonderful surprises.  There are some great actors in the film that I had no idea were in the film.  They’re extraordinary, but I don’t even want to name their names!

So what CAN I say?  I’ll say that the scene that interrupts the opening credits made me think that I was pretty sure I was going to like this film.  Then there’s the moment, much much later in the film, when all the elevators open at once.  Five seconds later, I was pretty much convinced that The Cabin in the Woods was the greatest friggin’ movie I’d ever seen!

Well, with some further reflection, it’s clear that The Cabin in the Woods is not, in fact, the greatest friggin’ movie I’ve ever seen.

But it is damn good.

The film is a deliriously clever twist on the horror genre.  I don’t really like horror films, but I dug the heck out of the Cabin in the Woods. It is a horror film, don’t get me wrong.  There are real scares and some grisly deaths.  This is NOT a sweet romantic comedy!!  So there are certainly aspects of the film that I know won’t appeal to everyone.  But the film is based on an absolutely genius idea, and the main delight of the film is watching the petals of that genius idea slowly unfurl, and as the realization slowly dawns on the viewer and on one or two of the main characters as to what … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Cloverfield

In one of my very first posts for this site, I mentioned that I’d really enjoyed Cloverfield when I saw it on the big screen, but I wondered how it would hold up to a second viewing (especially on a TV screen as opposed to on an enormous movie theatre screen).

I was eager to find out, so I scooped up Cloverfield on DVD when it came out, about a year ago.  But, for some reason, that DVD sat on my shelf, unwatched.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe other films just caught my attention.  Maybe I didn’t want to discover that the film didn’t work on a second viewing.

But a few weeks ago I finally decided to pop in that DVD.  And you know what?  I am pleased to report that I enjoyed the film just as much as I did the first time I saw it!

The first 10-15 minutes of the film could be the start of any type of urban dramedy.  A group of friends gather in an NYC loft to throw a good-bye party for one of their friends, Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who is leaving town for a new job in Japan.  Through some fun banter we begin to get a sense of the dynamic between the group of friends, and learn hints at a romance that went wrong between Rob and Beth (Odette Yustman).  Then the power cuts out, they see a huge explosion across the city skyline, and the party-goers rush out of the building in a panic only to see the severed head of the Statue of Liberty smash into the street.

Then, you know, things get worse from there.

The conceit of the film is that one of the friends, Hud (T.J. Miller), who was filming the good-bye party as a favor, winds up capturing on his digital video camera the entire nightmarish scenario that follows.  The entire movie is seen from the point of view of his camera.  This is an enormous conceit, to be sure, and certainly there are a few times in the film where you might find yourself wondering, “I can’t believe he still has the camera on!”  But I think the filmmakers do a pretty credible job at maintaining credibility to this idea throughout the film.  (And, interestingly enough, while on my first viewing I did find myself evaluating, from scene to scene, whether I could really believe that Hud would have been able to capture what I was seeing, on this second viewing I didn’t think about that at all.  I totally accepted the scenario.)

I have to praise the filmmakers, camera-men, editors, etc., for the skill with which the shots were created and … [continued]

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Top 10 Movies of 2008! — Part One!

In case you haven’t figured this out already, I LOVE movies.

And in 2009, as usual, I saw a LOT of movies.  Today and tomorrow I’d like to celebrate what I feel were the best of the best of the new films released between January 1st and December 31st, 2008.

Before we dive in, though, I want to acknowledge that, even though I saw an enormous number of new films during 2008, there were also quite a few that, despite my interest, I never got around to see.  These include: Synechdoche, New York; Waltz With Bashir; Doubt; The Wrestler; Che; Rachel Getting Married; Choke; American Teen; Hamlet 2; Changeling; Rocknrolla; and Son of Rambow.  So if you loved one or more of those films and want to know why on earth they didn’t make my list, now you know.

As with my TV lists, let’s start with some Honorable Mentions:

Honorable Mention #1 — The Foot Fist Way.  If you, like most of America, discovered Danny McBride this past summer in Tropic Thunder (as pyromaniac Cody) and Pineapple Express (as the indestructible Red), then you owe it to yourself to check out this film.  The Foot Fist Way was filmed back in 2006, but only saw a release (and a very small one, at that) in 2008.  It is written and directed by McBride, who also has the starring role as a small town Tae Kwon Do instructor who is, shall we say, a little big for his britches.  This is a dark, dark comedy — not for everyone, but if you’re a fan of McBride’s it is a spectacular showcase for his abilities, and well worth your time.

Honorable Mention #2 — Cloverfield.  For months now I’ve been meaning to watch this film a second time, to find out if it holds up on a repeat viewing.  I don’t know if it does, but I will say that the experience of seeing Cloverfield theatrically was one of  the best times I had in a movie theatre all year.  You either buy the conceit (that one of the kids is able to film their whole adventure) or you don’t.  I did, and had no problem getting swallowed up in this intense thrill ride.  Incredible visuals, great storytelling — this was a ton of fun, and a clever twist on the giant-monster-attacks-New-York sub-genre of movies.

OK, and now here’s the top 10:

10.  Burn After Reading — A disc containing the memoirs of ex-CIA agent Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) are stolen, and they wind up in the hands of a pair of not-that-bright gym employees (Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand) who, mistaking them for government secrets, try to ransom … [continued]

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Seen any good movies lately?

I made a comment in my 1st blog entry for the site (on April 15th) about our being in the midst of a movie dead-zone currently. Has anyone else noticed this? There are a lot of exciting summer movies just over the horizon (things kick off with Iron Man in just two weeks)…but its pretty striking to me how few good new movies have been released by the major studios since January. I count only three that I’ve seen:

Cloverfield — It’s not great cinema, but boy did I love this movie. From the tantalizing Star Trek teaser that played in the opening moments right through to the end credits, I was completely hooked into this adrenaline-rush of a movie. Yes, it is even more implausible than a monster wrecking NYC that the kids were able to keep their digital camera rolling throughout the whole thing. But I guess that you either buy into that conceit (and it is a conceit that requires a leap of faith, I grant you), or you don’t. But I’ve got to say I loved every minute of this flick. I’m interested to see if it holds up to a repeat viewing (and to viewing on a small TV screen).

Be Kind Rewind — A sweet, silly little story that celebrates good old-fashioned love of movies and movie-making. There are a lot of us out there, I think, who’d love to be able to pick up a camera and make our own versions of our favorite movies, and this film really taps into that. (I wonder if the filmmakers were inspired by the real-life story of the three boys who created a shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark over the course of several summers? Google the article in Vanity Fair from a few years back if you don’t know what I’m talking about.)

Forgetting Sarah Marshall — Just saw this one two days ago. Its another home-run from the Apatow comedy troupe. I am something of an Apatow groupie — I was a fan of Freaks and Geeks (Judd Apatow’s failed TV show from 1999) from the first episode. (I don’t know what on earth prompted me to watch it, but I’m glad I did.) I loved Undeclared (Apatow’s follow-up to the cancelled Freaks and Geeks, which was itself cancelled after one fewer episode than Freaks & Geeks)…and, like most of the rest of the world, I thought The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up were both dynamite. Many of the familiar faces pop up in this latest film (Exec produced by Apatow, written by Jason Segel and directed by Nicholas Stoller), including Jason Segel (who gives a terrific performance in the starring … [continued]