‘Bad Times at the El Royale’

royaleNothing is what it seems at the El Royale, a fabulous 60s Lake Tahoe hotel with a seedy past and now firmly off the beaten track. Seven strangers all inevitably interlinked in some obscure way – the question is who’s going to survive the night.

It should have been magical – with a cast including (the ever enjoyable) Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth – but it’s Cynthia Erivo (Widows) who steals the show in a somewhat lacklustre thriller. An over-indulgent 140 minutes that could – and should – have been much more than a fleeting, unmemorable bit of fun.

Rating: 58%

Advertisements

‘First Man’

first manIn spite of knowing the outcome of Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon, director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash) and his taut telling of the historic moment teases out every thrill, tension and suspense.

Somber, claustrophobic and with a focus on the men and their families (a controlled, nuanced Ryan Gosling – La La Land, Drive – as Armstrong, a riveting, scene-stealing Claire Foy – Unsane, TV’s The Crown – as his wife, Janet), First Man is intimate and deeply humane. But it is also a technical tour de force, with particular reference to the editing by Tom Cross (La La Land, Whiplash), and a likely swag of behind-the-scenes Oscar nominations.

Rating: 68%

‘Venom’

Venom_(film)_poster_007It’s telling when, in director Ruben Fleischer’s Venom, the most engaging moments are the two (short) scenes between Tom Hardy (The Revenant, Inception) and his local Asian female shopkeeper.

Venom is a unimaginative bombast of an origin film as Hardy acquires the power of an alien symbiote as an alter ego in his (initially reluctant) battle with power-crazed Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed – The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Nightcrawler).

In spite of all the CGI, the latest in the Marvel Comic oeuvre feels somewhat dated and wastes a great deal of talent. It’s an uninspiring yarn lacking any sense of the fun expected from a director responsible for Zombieland and Gangster Squad.

Rating: 35%

‘American Animals’

American-Animals-movie-posterAward-winning documentary filmmaker Bart Layton (The Imposter) takes on the true story of a daytime heist that goes wrong with mixed results.

Four clean-cut Kentucky university students attempt a multimillion-dollar art theft from their own library led by the incompetent Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Dunkirk) and Evan Peters (X-Men Apocalypse, Kick-Ass).

It’s a preposterous idea of fantasy and fiction as the bored four make plans, the narrative interspersed with commentaries from the real-life, evidently traumatised, protagonists and parents. Sadly, the film fails to do the story full justice. A slow, ponderous first half is ultimately uninteresting, lacking any gripping immediacy or empathy. It’s the heist that grabs the attention, 20-30 minutes of action and wry, incompetent humour that highlights the dullness of the preceding first hour.

Rating: 56%

‘Searching’

SEARCHINGA tense thriller, as a narrative Searching is hardly original – father (John Cho – Star Trek, Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay) desperately searches for his missing teenage daughter with the help of concerned police detective, Debra Messing (TV’s Grace of Will & Grace).

Yet every single scene of this self-assured first feature from director Aneesh Chaganty is revealed within a screen – I-phone, I-pad, Face Time, computer, surveillance camera, news bulletins. The result is a cutting-edge thriller that, in making up for lack of character development, ramps up the tension as, in commenting upon our use of (and reliance upon) computer technology, it heads for a somewhat unexpected denouement.

Rating: 74%

‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’

miseducationA modest, low-key Christian gay conversion therapy drama as Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass, Let Me In) is caught in the clutches of Bible Study classmate Coley at the School Prom.

Writer/director Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behaviour) elicits sensitive, nuanced performances from a cast of predominantly young adults as Moretz develops a close relationship with the dope-growing, resigned-to-their-fate Jane (Sasha Lane – American Honey, Hearts Beat Loud) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck – The Revenant, Indian Horse).

Whilst avoiding overt grandstanding, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, through its lightness of touch and wry humouris a damning indictment of institutional Christianity. It collected the Grand Jury Prize at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

Rating: 68%

‘You Were Never Really Here’

you wereA taught, nervous, noir thriller as traumatised veteran Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line, Inherent Vice) tracks down missing persons – with liberal use of violence when necessary. With the disappearance of a senator’s daughter, Phoenix finds himself in a tight-knit paedophile ring.

Winner of both best screenplay and best actor at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, director Lynne Ramsey (We Need to Talk About Kevin, Ratcatcher) has adapted the novel by Johnathan Ames into a moodily stylish ellipsis of flashbacks, suggestion and suppression. It’s a pity that You Were Never Really Here occasionally lapses into incoherence.

Rating: 63%

‘BlackkKlansman’

blackkkAn extraordinary story of two local detectives, one Black (John David Washington – Monster, Monsters & Men), one Jewish (Adam Driver – Paterson, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) infiltrating the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s.

Director Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X) has not gone uncriticised for his loose adaptation of the true events (‘that story points are fabricated in order to make a Black cop and his counterparts look like allies in the fight against racism’ at the time of Black Lives Matter). But his hybrid period piece/comedy/cop drama with more than a hint of polemic is a hugely entertaining yet angry film that deftly highlights racism within the establishment.

It’s not necessarily an easy-watch – the racist and abusive language, the shocking violence of news footage – but it is an important watch.

Rating: 81%

‘The Rider’

The_Rider-1A tender, poetic story and what is essentially a scripted, heightened documentary as real-life rodeo cowboy Brady Jandreau comes to terms with a life-threatening head injury. In a culture that lives and breathes horses, Brady and his family struggle with his displacement and loss of status.

The vast, wide-open South Dakota Badlands adds to Brady’s sense of isolation as writer/director Chloe Zhao (Songs My Brother Taught Me) patiently explores the meaning of masculinity in the physical world of rodeo and its backwater setting.

Rating: 79%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

‘The Kindergarten Teacher’

the-kindergarten-teacherLacking the political pertinence of the original 2014 Israeli film from Nadav Lapid, the English-language remake is nevertheless an enthralling psychological thriller.

A superb central performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart, The Dark Knight), the kindergarten teacher recognises the precocious talents of cute five year-old Parker Sevak (a revelation) and sees it as a ticket out of mundane, privilged suburbia. But she goes more than a little too far.

Adapted and directed by Sara Colangelo (Little Accidents), The Kindergarten Teacher is an unhurried, slender drama that, whilst lacking that edginess of the original, remains a tense character-study of desperation and obsession.

Rating: 64%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival