Film Review: Bad Times At The El Royale (2018)

I am not a sports fan. That marks me out as weird, in England. The European football championships are on TV. Most days, they are on both sides, no matter how obscure the match, or which teams are playing. So when I settle down in the evening, I have to search the channels that do not show sport for something to watch.

That is how I found this film, which I had never heard of before, for some reason. (British readers should be able to find this for free, on ‘All-4’.)

**Update** Fraggle has just reminded me that I read a review of this film on her blog. I had completely forgotten that, which is worrying! Apologies to her. https://fragglesotherplace.com/2020/03/02/march-2nd-movie-monday/

***No spoilers***

The action begins in 1969, at a hotel that once played host to high-rollers and famous people. The El Royale straddles the border between California and Nevada, with the state line quite literally running through the centre of the building. Its glory has long-faded, and the location off the beaten track no longer attracts holiday-makers and gamblers to the area around Reno and Lake Tahoe.

Ten years earlier, something happened at the hotel. An event that will bring a small group of strangers together on a rainy night.

Scene-setting begins with the separate arrivals of a Priest, and a black woman. Inside the hotel, they find a vacuum cleaner salesman waiting in the huge lobby. He is noisy and brash, and explains to them that there is no clerk around, despite having rung the bell on the counter numerous times.

When the young clerk finally shows up, we soon discover that he is the only person working there. He also cleans the rooms, serves at the bar, and does anything else that needs doing. He actively tries to discourage them from taking rooms, but they all insist on booking in.

Then an edgy young woman shows up, also looking for a room. She is rude and aggressive, for no good reason.

Once each person receives their key, we begin to find out why they are there, and get each backstory through flashbacks. Not only does each one of them have their own secrets and demons, the hotel itself is keeping a darker secret from all of them. And not one of the characters is who they appear to be on the surface, including the clerk. The tension builds as they interact, and it becomes clear that something bad is going to happen.

And it does.

Sorry, but without spoilers that’s it. I can tell you that this is very much ‘film noir’ for the 21st century, despite the often lurid use of colour. The script is spot on, the sets of the hotel are simply amazing, and the pop-music of the era soundtrack is a complete delight. Everyone in the small cast plays their role to perfection, and even after the ‘reveal’, there are still enough surprises in store to keep your attention in quite a long film.

The flashbacks are very well done, and not remotely confusing. Period feel is completely authentic throughout, as are costume and vehicles. That cast includes Jeff Bridges as The Priest, Dakota Johnson as the edgy woman, John Hamm as the vacuum cleaner salesman, and Chris Hemsworth as a nasty man who shows up later. And it’s a great cast!

This feels like the Quentin Tarantino film that Quentin didn’t get around to making. Quirky, occasionally violent, and all to a soundtrack of appropriate music, it has his hallmarks. It’s certainly as good as most of his offerings, and better than some. On release, it flopped, and lost money on its budget. Despite critical acclaim, the public stayed away. Maybe because the director was Drew Goddard, and not Tarantino.

Me? I loved it! It looks good, and it is as good as it looks.

Here’s a trailer.

Film Review: The Eight Hundred (2020)

I have just had my film review published in the online magazine, Mythaxis.

‘The Eight Hundred’ is a Chinese war film, set during the Japanese invasion of China in 1937.

Here is a link, if you are interested in reading it.

(I watched the film in the original Chinese and Japanese languages, with subtitles. The trailer on the link is dubbed)

https://mythaxis.com/2021/06/02/the-eight-hundred-movie-review/

‘Blood Simple’: The Best of The Coens and McDormand?

In 1984, I used to subscribe to film and cinema magazines. (No internet then, don’t forget) There was a lot of ‘buzz’ about a new film soon to be released in the UK. It was called ‘Blood Simple’, and being described as ‘Film Noir for the 1980s’.

Back then, I had never heard of the Coen brothers, or the female lead, actress Frances McDormand. But I had heard of John Getz, the menacing Dan Hedaya, and M. Emmet Walsh. I read in my magazines that this was a family affair. As well as the two brothers writing, producing, and directing, one of them (Joel) was married to McDormand.

The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival too, so it seemed like something I should be watching. One of the good things about living in London then is that there were a lot of cinemas. You could find one showing virtually anything you wanted to watch, seven days a week. And though I lived in Wimbledon at the time, I owned a motorcycle, which meant I could avoid the heavy traffic, and then park for free on a motorcyle bay.

Off I went, to a late afternoon showing before going into work for a night shift later.

I will give you some idea what it’s about of course, but I will start by saying that I loved it. Dark, edgy, violent, and also very humourous at times. Great performances from Getz and Hedaya, who rarely got lead roles, and the ever-reliable M. Emmet Walsh. And that new girl, a Frances McDormand before she started to take herself seriously as a ‘film star’ with a lot of opinions. She was good too. Really good.

Sets, location filming, lighting, good direction from the Coens, and a snappy script. All spot-on.

It is a familiar story. An unhappily-married woman is having an affair. Her husband suspects, and has hired a private detective to spy on them. After that, it stays in still more familiar territory. A dead body, (or is it?) confusion about who killed him, and subsequent disposal of said body. The detective becomes personally involved, (Walsh on top form) and then everything starts to go terribly wrong. That’s about it, with no spoliers.

What makes it so good is the darkness. The dark violence, that dark humour that is interjected, and the scenes filmed at night. It really was ‘Film Noir for the 1980s’ after all.

And for my money it remains the best film the Coens have made, along with the best performance from a younger, fresher McDormand.

Retro Review: Metropolis (1927)

A silent film from 1927, directed in Germany by the masterful Fritz Lang.

It is a science-fiction epic of outstanding prescience, with special effects way ahead of its time.

I first saw this as a teenager, at the National Film Theatre in London. Unconcerned about the fact it was silent, and the dialogue appears on old-fashioned cards between scenes, I was swept away by the visuals, and had to keep reminding myself that it was made before 1930.

A futuristic society where workers toil like automatons, living below ground, while the rich elite enjoy a champagne lifestyle of parties and indolence in the pleasure gardens and luxury skyscrapers above. Highways almost in the clouds, flying vehicles, robots, and androids, it has it all. Almost every science-fiction film made since has drawn on the influences of Lang’s vision of the future, including ‘The Fifth Element’, ‘Blade Runner’, and ‘Dark City’.

The story is almost secondary to the experience of watching this film, but it revolves around the attraction of the son of a rich industrialist to a poor working girl he encounters by chance. In his desire to find her, he ventures below ground, into the worker’s city. Here he encounters the terrible conditions first-hand, and is completely shocked by how they live, and their dangerous working environment.

Determined to change the cruel society, he changes places with one of the workers so he can help organise the resitance against the billionaire industrialists like his own father.

With no plot spoilers, I cannot reveal the outcome. However, I urge you to try to find this and watch it, avoiding at all costs the ‘colourized’ and edited version. I have not listed the cast members, as they will be unknown to most of us anyway. But I have found a full version of the film on You Tube, and I hope that will play for you wherever you happen to live.

Hard to believe now, but this film was a flop at the box office and lost a fortune for the backers.

Here’s a trailer.

Film Review: My Feral Heart (2016)

Every so often, a British film-maker delivers a low-budget independent film that far exceeds the output of the famous directors and massive Hollywood studios. ‘My Feral Heart’ is a fine example of that. Directed by Jane Gull, and starring Steven Brandon, this film won fourteen international awards, yet is little-known in this country. Thanks to BBC 4, I was able to watch it, and I will say from the start that it is exceptional.

This is the story of Luke, a young man with high-functioning Down’s Syndrome. He lives with his mother, and he is her carer. He feeds her, goes out to get the shopping, even bathes her and dresses her. He is completely devoted to her. Then one morning, he finds her dead in bed, and his routine life is shattered. Despite his obvious capabilities, the fact that he has Down’s Syndrome means the authorities will no longer allow him to live in the family home.

Against his will, he is taken to live in a care home, with other young adults who have learning difficulties.

At least the staff are kind to him, especially day manager, Eve, (Shana Swash) who takes a shine to him and allows him an element of freedom. Luke uses that freedom to go shopping for the care home, and to wander the rural district of Essex where he now lives.

Some men arrive to look after the gardens of the care home. They are offenders, sentenced to do Community Service instead of prison time. One of them, Pete, (Will Rastall) befriends Luke, and also becomes close to Eve.

On one of his countryside explorations, Luke finds a young girl caught in a snare trap. He takes her to safety in a old barn. She is filthy, uncommunicative, and scared. He brings her food and clothes, washes her, and visits regularly to look after her. She is the Feral girl who gives the film its title.

We discover that Pete is a hunt saboteur, part of a group who go out and disrupt fox-hunting in the area. As Luke loves animals, he asks Pete if he can go. Worried about Luke’s condition, and other medical problems, Pete refuses. But Luke follows him anyway, and becomes involved. Going to check on the feral girl later, Luke cannot rouse her, so carries her back to the care home to get help.

With no spoilers, that’s about it. A short running time of less than ninety minutes, no car chases, no police sirens, and no sex. A small film about people on the margins of society, doing their best to get by in a world where they are almost invisible to outsiders.

It is just fantastic, believe me. It will break your heart with its honesty.

Filmed on location in Essex, beautifully photographed and sparingly directed with skill, the film is anchored around a truly remarkable performance from Steven Brandon in the lead, (he really has Down’s Syndrome) with a completely believable portrayal of Eve from Shana Swash, and every other member of the cast on top form.

If you can find it, please watch it. I will never forget it.

Film Review: Peterloo (2018)

Based around a real historical event that happened in Manchester in 1819, British director Mike Leigh directed this superb drama looking at the plight of the working classes following the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, in 1815. Assembling a large cast of some of the best British acting talent, and searching the country for authentic locations, Leigh delivered a long film (Two hours and thirty minutes) that is rich in historical accuracy and period detail.

In 1816, conditions for the working classes in Britain were terrible. Rich landowners and factory owners paid tiny wages for long hours at work. In the cotton mills of Lancashire, that work was very dangerous, and done by all age groups, including very small children. Most families barely had enough to put food on the table, and the imposition of the Corn Laws banning imports of corn forced up the price of bread to unaffordable levels.

There was also no representation for normal people, as only landowners and nobles were allowed to vote in elections. With King George III incapacitated by mental illness, his foppish son The Prince Regent was in control of the country, and his lavish lifestyle caused outrage at the time. The Reform Party sought to achieve better conditions for the working classes, with the right of one man, one vote, and proper contracted and safe working conditions. But government agents and spies infiltrated the meetings, as they feared a revolution like the one that had happened in France, in 1789.

The story follows one family, and their friends and neighbours. Returning home with PTSD after his harrowing experience at the battle of Waterloo, son Joseph can find no work. His mother sells pies to make enough money to feed the family, and the rest of his relatives work long hours in the local cotton mill. All are interested in the Reform Party, and attend meetings urging protest against their living conditions and lack of voting rights. Very soon, they come under the watchful eye of government agents, as the film starts to build to the climax in 1819.

Despite this being a ‘worthy’ film, full of long speeches, and a lot of regional dialect used, I never found its pace too slow. I was completely invested in the life of the family, helped by a wonderful performance from the excellent Maxine Peake as the mother. When the Manchester reformers ask a famous orator to come and address a public meeting, they have to use the large site of St Peter’s Field in Manchester, as it is to be the largest public gathering ever seen in the north of England. There will be no violence, and no weapons carried. Families will dress in their best clothes, and march to the field together, accompanied by musicians, and carrying banners and flags.

They choose a Monday, a working day, as their absence from their jobs will also serve as a protest to the wealthy owners, and the Magistrates who dominate their lives with an iron hand. This worries the government, so the local Yeomanry and Cavalry detachments are mobilised, in case of civil unrest. Once the famous orator begins to speak, the Magistrates instruct the military to disperse the crowd. What followed was later described in the newspapers as ‘The Peterloo Massacre’, using the idea of Waterloo to impart the scale of the slaughter on the day.

Around thirty people were killed instantly, many of them women, children, and babies. Over seven hundred people were injured, by swords, bullets, bayonets, or being trampled by horses. Many of those would later die from their injuries, and some were so badly injured they could never work again.

This is not a film for everybody, but as historical dramas go I thought it was outstanding. A wonderful cast, great script, and authenticity throughout.

Here’s a short trailer.

Film Review: Searching (2018)

I was looking for something to watch the other night, and saw this was showing on a film channel, Film 4. I went online and read two reviews, deciding it seemed to be worth watching.

And it was.

**No spoliers**

For one thing, I didn’t really recognise any of the cast. And there was something else. With very few exceptions for some scenes, the whole film is played out on computer screens, smartphone screens, television screens, and over telephone calls. It feels right up to date, with characters communicating by text message, and on other messaging platforms. Switching between screens to check maps, with many different screens often displayed at the same time. Face-time conversations, video calling, and so many other things all too familiar in this modern world.

Please don’t let that put you off. It works, and works very well. All the images and texts are clear, easy to read, and not at all confusing. And it creates a feeling of helplessness and tension that would not have worked nearly so well in a conventional format.

The Kim family is an American/Korean family doing well in California. David and Pamela have good jobs, their daughter Margot is talented, and shows promise as a pianist. But tragedy strikes (early in the film) when Pamela is struck down with terminal cancer, leaving David to bring up his daughter on his own.

He makes the best of it, and is a loving and caring father to Margot. He allows her some freedoms, but also continues to nurture her piano talent, and provide a safe and comfortable home for his daughter. One day, she calls him to say she is staying over with a group of friends at study group, as they need to work on their school project. David tells her to call him the next day.

But she doesn’t. And she doesn’t answer his calls either. He is soon very worried, and contacts the police. Fortunately, the case is assigned to missing persons specialist, Sergeant Rosemary Vick. She is dogged and determined, and promises to find his daughter. Meanwhile, David takes to social media and technology to help. He gets into Margot’s Facebook, Laptop, Messages, bank records, and everything else she has been using.

And in the process, he discovers that he hardly knew anything about his daughter at all.

Leaving it there to avoid spoilers, I will add that this is a great little film, and the small budget is never apparent. Tension is highly wound throughout, and almost nothing is what it seems. In the central role of David Kim, John Cho is simply excellent. I completely believed that he was the father of a missing girl. Everyone else in the cast handles their part well, with special mention for Debra Messing, as Sergeant Vick.

BUT WAIT! There’s a delicious twist, one that I didn’t guess at all!

Highly recommended.

Here’s a trailer.

Film Review: Songbird (2020)

As far as I know, this film is curently only available on Amazon Prime.
At least that is the only place to find it in the UK.
**No spoilers**

A film about the Covid-19 pandemic, set in the year 2024. When it is now known as ‘Covid-23’.

This is a ‘worst-case scenario’ film, where the virus is not contained, so the people are contained instead. Filmed in a near-future version of Los Angeles, the theme is dark, and so is much of the action. There is an authoritarian government that keeps the population locked down by force, and anyone who shows symptoms of the virus is removed to a ‘Q-Zone’, and left to their fate.

Rich people still manage to beat the system. Buying fake ‘Immunity’ passes, and doing more or less what they like. And there are those that have natural immunity, allowed to work outside delivering parcels, or supervising the military-style teams that enforce the rules. Every person must do a temperature check on their phones by a given time every morning. Show a high temperature, and the removal squads arrive. Fail to register your check in time, and the removal squads arrive.

There is also a new version of ‘track and trace’. Did you talk to your neighbour? Have you been inside their home? If so, we smash your door down and off you go to the Q-zone, like it or not.

But of course, there is romance, albeit a relationship carried out over a very smart smartphone. And there is some hope, in the regions beyond the Q-zone that offer a form of sanctuary.

The film borrows many ideas from those like it. We have seen films set in pandemics before, and films where terrified ordinary people are inside, living in fear of zombies, or repressive governments. The film-makers wisely stayed away from making things too smart or too sci-fi. This is a world we can all recognise, with similar technology that is just slightly beefed up from what we have at the moment.

Casting is very good when it comes to the villains. You will recognise Peter Stormaire as Emmett, the man in charge of the removal squads. Suitably creepy and ruthless. Then the rich crook, Griffin. He is played by Bradley Whitford, who was so good in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. There is a surprisingly mature turn from Demi Moore as Griffin’s wife, conflicted by her desire to protect her sick daughter. But the younger cast members were all new to me.

So, not a great film. Entertaining enough, and certainly as ‘current’ as it gets. It might be the first film about the Coronavirus pandemic, but we can be sure it won’t be the last.

I should mention that I had to watch this film on a 10-inch tablet. I’m sure it looks better on a big screen.

Here’s a trailer.

Film Review: Journey’s End (2017)

Journey’s End is a stage play written by R.C. Sherrif, and first performed in 1928, ten years after the period in which it was set. An anti-war play, it focuses on a few days around the German offensive in the Spring of 1918, during WW1.

It was first filmed in 1930, starring Colin Clive, but I have never seen that version. However, it was also filmed for television by the BBC in 1988, starring Jeremy Northam in the lead as Captain Stanhope. That remained the definitive version for me, with a superb cast sticking to the spirit of the original play. In this version, some of the action sequences were shown on film, something the play avoided due to theatrical constraints.

Most of what makes the play effective is the claustrophobic atmosphere of life in dugouts and trenches, viewed from the perspective of the officers, and their cooks and servants. The 1988 version deviated from this slightly, but remained powerful and compelling to watch.

So now we have the new version, with Samuel Clafin as Stanhope, Asa Butterfield as the young and impressionable Raleigh, and Paul Bettany excellent as the older experienced lieutenant known to all as ‘Uncle’. Add Toby Jones as the cook, and Stephen Graham as Lieutenant Trotter, and the casting is about as good as it gets these days.

The stresses and strains of trench warfare are all there. Men reaching breaking point, officers living on whisky to get through each day, and senior commanders issuing seemingly pointless orders from comfortable accommodation behind the lines. Social class is maintained in the mud and deprivation, and we have the added complication that Stanhope is the boyfriend of Raleigh’s sister back home, so idolised by the new arrival.

Tension builds as the expected German attack comes ever closer, exacerbated by last-minute orders to attack a German trench to capture a prisoner. We have a cowardly officer unwilling to play his part, and other stiff-upper lip officers pretending all is well, in order to maintain the morale of the men.

As a film, it is beautifully photographed in widescreen; with muted colours suiting the mood, and dingy scenes in the candlelit dugouts nicely done too. It never feels less than completely authentic, not for one moment. If you had never heard of the play, or seen the earlier BBC film, you would no doubt have thought it was a wonderfully moving production. Paul Bettany is quietly outstanding as ‘Uncle’, and young Butterfield looks as if he is actually living in 1918, with his wide-eyed enthusiasm concealing inner fears.

But I have seen the BBC film, and Jeremey Northam is magnificent as Stanhope in that. Tim Spall wipes the floor with Stephen Graham in the role of Trotter, and Edward Petherbridge is even better than Bettany as ‘Uncle’. So my advice is to try to watch the 1988 version. If you can access it, here it is on You Tube. It is not a great print, unfortunately.

But if for some reason you can’t watch this, the new film is still very good indeed.
Here’s a trailer.

A Film For Halloween: Pyewacket (2017)

***No spoilers***

With TV channels full of Halloween horror films, I have been recording some of those I have never seen before.

This Canadian film didn’t reach my radar three years ago, so I sat down to watch it yesterday afternoon. One benefit was that I didn’t recognise anyone in the relatively small cast, and had few expectations of it. A Pyewacket is a familiar spirit, mentioned as long ago as the 17th century. It was also the name of Kim Novak’s cat in the enjoyable film ‘Bell, Book, and Candle’ (1958).

Leah is a grungy teenager who hangs around with three friends at her high school. She has a crush on one of the boys, and they all have a great interest in the occult. Her father has died, and her mother is unable to cope following his death. She is still managing to go to work, but drinking heavily, and finding it hard to deal with the usual teenage issues of her daughter. She makes the decision to move away into the countryside, to a lonely house hidden away in some woods.

Leah is furious, angry that she will not be seeing her friends any longer, and having to adjust to a new life in a strange place. As a compromise, her mother agrees to drive her to school and back for the rest of that term, but says she has to change schools after the holidays. Following a heated argument, Leah wishes her mother was dead, and uses one of her occult books to find a spell to conjure up the Pyewacket.

As you might expect, things go badly wrong once she has been in the woods performing the ritual.

This film feels more like a coming-of-age teenage drama, than a horror film. It takes a very long time to build any suspense or scares, but when they come, they are handled deftly, though not that scary at all. The meat of the film is about the fluctuating relationship between mother and daughter following the unexpected death of the husband and father. But the atmosphere following the casting of the spell is very well handled, with the threat of an unseen menace always apparent.

The ending is unexpected, and very well done, though it failed to scare me sufficiently for me to class this as a real horror film. I still think it is worth watching, for the sound performances, and the very good cinematography.