Bad Times at the El Royale

At Theaters | 2018 | Reviewer: Bill Braier

60s Crime Thriller Drama Sure to Get an Oscar Nod

Drew Goddard’s (screenwriter for Cloverfield, World War Z, The Martian and Director for Cabin in the Woods) wrote and directed a thrilling and violent masterpiece weaving the secret back stories of seven strangers that meet by accident for one fateful night at the El Royale, a once high-class casino with a dark past in Lake Tahoe circa 1969.  

The incredible ensemble of actors includes Jon Hamm (Mad Men), Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey), Chris Hemsworth (Thor Ragnarok, and Jeff Bridges, who plays a pivotal role as Father Flynn.  Two of the best performances were provided by up and coming stars twenty something Lewis Pullman who plays a neurotic concierge, Miles Miller, and Cynthia Ervina, who plays, Darlene Sweet, a struggling Motown singer on her way to a gig in Reno.

Another character in the movie is the glitzy 1960s El Royale itself.  Its interior has an awesome giant juke box that keeps the music rolling and secret corridors with two-way mirrors (much like Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods) that allows the audience to become voyeurs.  A wide red line went through the hotel and parking lot to show it was built literally on the border of Nevada and California. Unfortunately, you can’t stay at the El Royale, as it was built in Vancouver, the creation of set production designer Martin Whist (Cabin in the Woods, A Series of Unfortunate Events and RoboCop).

You will want to download the classic Motown and early sixties rock soundtrack which includes Bernadette by the Four Tops, Can’t Take My Eyes Off You by Frankie Valli, The Letter by the Box Tops, Bend Me Shake Me by The American Breed, Unchained Melodies by The Righteous Brothers, Hush by Deep Purple, and You Can’t Hurry Love by The Supremes, just to name a few that played throughout the movie in Dolby Atmos sound.

This often-bloody violent Tarantino-esque crime thriller perfectly builds to a final dramatic crescendo. The unique script explores themes of redemption, voyeurism, and corruption of power, and was never boring or predictable.  Don’t miss this one.  Loved it. 

 

A-

Peppermint

In Theaters | 2018 | Reviewer: Bill Braier

Jennifer Garner is an Avenging Angel of Death Serving Justice with a M-16

Jennifer Garner goes from a suburban “Girl Scout mom” to bad ass gun toting assassin, Riley North, on a mission to kill anyone involved the murder of her family.

You probably know Jennifer Garner from her Capital One commercials or her overly publicized three-year divorce proceedings from rehabbed Ben Affleck. Yet, not too long ago she was Sidney Bristow, a sexy undercover spy, in J.J. Abrams’ Alias. Or you might remember her as the beautiful sword swinging ninja assassin-for-hire in Marvel’s Elecktra? In Peppermint, Jennifer Garner returns with a vengeance.

Riley’s super cute 9-year-old daughter (Cailey Fleming – Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and handsome husband (Jeff Hephner – Interstellar) are in the movie just long enough to for you to fall in love with them and becomes outraged when they are machine gunned down by the L.A. Mexican drug cartel while innocently eating peppermint ice cream cones at the Carnival. Despite Riley identification of the face tattooed killers in a line up, the corrupt judge lets them go. Enraged, Riley goes off the grid for five years hiding in L.A.’s Skid Row, training and preparing to exact her revenge. Director Pierre Morel (Taken) knows action movies, and like Taken this one is no exception.

Sometimes when a movie is firing on all cylinders it is criticized for being too formulaic. Sure, it won’t win any Oscars, and this was no John Wick, but this was a fun ride of non-stop violent revenge. While not for everybody, if you liked Death Wish, Punisher or The Equalizer, you will love Peppermint.

B

The Beyond

Netflix streaming, Amazon rental | 2018 | Reviewer: Bill Braier

Unique Sci-Fi Concept and Amazing CG Visuals Dulled by Documentary Style

Clever sci-fi concept and amazing visuals of aliens, new worlds, a worm hole, and advanced robot-like humans were wasted by a documentary style that slows down the action and pace. As a Visual Effects supervisor and producer, Hasraf (HaZ) Dulull has demonstrated his abilities in several sci-fi shorts, Project Kronos, I.R.I.S and Sync. Winner of the 2017 Atlanta Sci-fi Film Festival Jury Award and the Berlin Sci-fi Film fest award for best special effects, this film had promise. As Director and writer HaZ used the documentary style to keep within a small budget, wasting the talents and experience of a great cast, including David Baille, Jane Perry, and Noeleen Comiskey.

The story of aliens coming to earth is told by interviewing a few scientists and astronauts who talk to the camera with a purposely poor sound quality to give a realistic feel to the story. It was hard to watch. Aliens and a worm hole appear but one scientist is casually interviewed as she has lunch in her backyard patio. In big budget Interstellar, the story is partially told through Matthew McConaughey an astronaut who attempts flight into a worm hole to find a new planet to replace a dying earth. The Beyond imaginative concepts could have used a better script. Also, the army men with howitzer size guns mounted on a jeep pointed to the aliens in the sky was fine for a 1950’s War of the Worlds but it just doesn’t work here.

A behind the scenes featurette shows how the cinematographer accomplished some big budget shots on a shoe string. The special effects wizard, HaZ, created the much of the effects and scenery on his home computer system. If you are a sci-fi fan, check out The Beyond for its beautiful and unusual special effects and sci-fi concepts. Maybe fast forward through some of the documentary interviews.

C-

Mandy

In Theaters Limited Release Also On demand | 2018 | Reviewer: Bill Braier

Cage Unleashes his Hellbent Angry Man to Sling an Axe through Crazy Evil

Out of the primordial sky of Director Writer Panos Cosmatos’ mind comes Mandy, a reinvention of the low budget 1980’s cult horror classics.  Surreal cinematography and trippy powerful psychedelic music by Crimson King and Johann Johannsson help turn the dial up to eleven. Nicolas Cage was born to play the kill-them-all revenge bound, Red Miller, in this bloody arthouse thriller. 

 The beginning of movie starts slowly, floating over the beautiful serene forests of the Norwest, where Red Miller (Cage) a logger lives a quiet peaceful life until a weird demon like cult takes the love of his life, Mandy. With minimal dialog, the second half ramps up the energy as Cage goes from laid back logger to an enraged blood soak avenger, wielding a finely sharpened handmade axe and a powerful crossbow. Extreme gore, sex and drugs, cool 80’s animation, chainsaw battles, demon Hellraiser-like cenobites on motorcycles, trippy music makes this an unforgettable yet creepy film. 

With pupils dilated and a facial scar, Mandy, played by Andrea Riseborough, (Cruise’s wife in Oblivion) brings a haunting angelic quality to the film. Linus Roche (Bruce Wayne's father in Batman Begins) is perfectly cast as the sex hungry psycho cult leader who wants Mandy at any cost.

Lately, I thought the aging pudgy Nicolas Cage was mailing it in for the paycheck. But in Mandy, with minimum dialog, Cage carries the movie showcasing mad man facial emotions and screams of anger that make it all believable.

The unique cinematography and music are as much a part of the movie as the actors. The late Icelandic composer, Johann Gunnar Johannsson, blends traditional orchestration with trippy contemporary electronics to powerfully drive this sci-fi horror. Psychedelic neon mood lighting and blurring red filters create a creepy strange look. 

Reportedly, half the audience previewing Mandy at a recent film festival walked out but the other half that stayed were mesmerized and loved it.  If you fall into the second group, you will love this crazy evil movie.

B+

Camp Manna

Amazon Rental | 2018 | Reviewer: Bill Braier

Funny, religiously irreverent and wholesome at the same time

Ian Fletcher is a small frail fifteen-year-old who has to move in with his over the top religious aunt and uncle after his parents were eaten by crocodiles during a Christian baptism.  First line of movie is, “I am so glad you’ve come to live with us. It has been so quiet here since the Lord dried up my ovaries.” It is this tongue-in-cheek irreverent but harmless stereotypical religious humor that prevails throughout the movie.

Ian is soon sent off to a summer Bible Camp run by Gary Busey’s crazy Vietnam vet character, Jack Cujo Parrish. Perfect casting. Gary Busey is a riot a because he plays it so serious.  I am still laughing. In one of his “God Games” challenges, some kids have to jump off a giant tower in the middle of the lake called the Leap of Faith.

The target audience is teenagers, but parents will get a kick out of it too. The high production value, orchestra background music, and quality actors, made it seemed like it was produced by Disney. Silly characters throughout the camp, with a feel-good ending demonstrating Christian values, make this a worthwhile watch for teens and their parents.  

B-

The Innocents

Netflix Original | 2018 | Reviewer: Bill Braier

Excellent Acting, But Never Shape Shifts into Gear

This eight-episode Netflix Original sci-fi drama shows teenage love is complicated enough, without “shape shifting” into other people’s bodies and their memories. It can be downright dangerous to the point you may not remember who you are.  

Scottish blonde beauty Sorcha Groundsell stars as June McDaniels who along with her high school boyfriend Harry, run away from their repressive households. Her innocent yet alluring look carries the show, as she and Harry discover her shape shifting abilities during their fateful encounters along their escape route. They meet, Kam, (Abigail Hardingham) another shape shifter, who uses her shape shifting powers for bisexual encounters. A scientist (seasoned actor Guy Pearce) tries to capture June and discover the key to her power.

A crew of powerful dramatic U.K. actors are wasted by an overly confusing script. Long aerial panoramic views of Norway’s beautiful farms, forested hills and winding rivers are fine for a travel show, but slow the pace.  Some weird characters are never quite explained. Why does her agoraphobic brother live locked up in a separate barn, fed meal trays through a small door like a prisoner?

If you don’t mind the slow pace of the first show, the rest will follow in the same way.

 

C+

 

Somewhere Between

TV Series | 2017 | Reviewer: Bill Braier

Beware it may hook you.

If you can get over the terrible child actor (Aria Birch) this Sci-fi whodunnit will hook you for all ten episodes. Distraught because of her child’s murder, Laura Price (Paula Patton) jumps in a lake to commit suicide, only to come back in time early enough she might be able to save her child.  She knows where, when and how she's murdered, but doesn't know who killed her and why.

The critics panned Paula Patton for over acting. But if I had just come back in time and could save my daughter’s life, I would be over the top too.  I believe it is the script, not the acting is the weakness in this drama. The relationship between mother and daughter doesn’t seem right.  The daughter will say things that an eight-year-old would never say.  She also is an unlikeable brat, which doesn’t help when the story is about saving her from being murdered.  

I am a sucker for shows that give you a chance to do it over. But when they finally unravel the mystery it was a bit cliché and somewhat unbelievable.

C+