“This Is The Story Of How My Town, Salem, Lost It’s Mind. Let’s Start At The Beginning…”
Written and directed by Sam Levinson, son of Good Morning Vietnam and Rain Man director, Barry Levinson, Assassination Nation acts as the American’s third feature after trading in acting for directing but the first to venture onto the big screen with a significantly wider general release. Slapped with a beautifully rare 18 certificate and released within a period of the cinematic year in which Halloween, Overlord and Suspiria have all shown a resurgence in the BBFC classifying movies with the highest rating possible, Levinson’s latest is a particularly odd beast, a hybrid of varying subjects with an underlying topical social commentary which sees Odessa Young as the free spirited Lily Colson who along with her group of freely spoken youthful friends become embroiled in a town-wide internet hack which sees every single resident’s personal online history leak into the gaze of the public eye, resulting in extraordinarily extravagant and particularly violent consequences. Beginning with a familiar stylish and slightly bizarre aesthetic feel to Harmony Korine’s woefully unsatisfactory Spring Breakers in 2013, Levinson’s movie traverses through a minefield of themes and genres for two hours worth of storytelling which at times is undoubtedly problematic and troublesome, but crucially, never boring, resulting in audiences guaranteed to leave the auditorium thinking to themselves; “what on earth was that all about?”
With the film using the first half an hour to introduce the primary quartet of femme fatales at the heart of the action, each with their own distinguishable individuality and vices, the coming of age style narrative allows the evolving opening scandals to be seen from the point of view of the youth of the aptly named town of Salem as an unknown hacker forces out both the secrets of both a local politician and teacher. With Levinson’s screenplay clearly following on from the likes of Ingrid Goes West and Searching by conveying an on-the-nose comment on the nature and impact of social media, whatever point Levinson chooses to focus on becomes completely lost in an out of control second act in which the audience bears witness to a startling combination of Winding Refn and Dario Argento eye-gouging neon style with elements of The Purge, resulting in an abundance of violence and particularly tough scenes of torture, murder and near attempted rape which for some audiences may be too explicit to cope with. Personally however, the sense of silliness and emphatically ripe shock tactics which unveil themselves heading towards the film’s climax never became dull or uninteresting, due in part to some wonderful camera work and blissfully bright cinematography, and whilst there never was a single character in which I cared whether they lived or died due to pretty much every single one being fundamentally unlikeable, Assassination Nation moved along nicely as it offended audiences left, right and centre and concluded in a way which simply made me giggle. Bring on more gory grunge movies!
Overall Score: 6/10
“This Is Not A Place For A Priest, Father. You Shouldn’t Be Here…”
Written and directed by the excellent Drew Goddard, the mind behind the likes of Cabin in the Woods and Netflix’s first season of Daredevil, Bad Times at the El Royale bundles together an abundance of top-notch actors within the confines of a script which mixes together an Agatha Christie-esque air of neo-noir mystery with a very obvious nod to the quirky and wordy works of Quentin Tarantino. Set in the dying embers of the late 1960’s, the majority of the action takes place within the lifeless, unkempt eeriness of the titular hotel, one straddled with history and echoes of a previous life involving the rich and famous but now suffering from a lack of custom primarily due to a newly founded inactive liquor license. As soon as the film’s colourful band of characters slowly check themselves in however, the presence of the murky collection of cats including Jeff Bridge’s (Hell or High Water) Catholic Priest, Donald “Doc” O’Kelly, Dakota Johnson’s (Fifty Shades Freed) rebellious young Emily and Jon Hamm’s (Tag) travelling vacuum salesman, Seymour Sullivan, result in the mysteries of the hotel and the secrets of its’ guest’s unraveling with particularly violent and menacing ends.
Whilst Goddard has proven to be successful in the past with work which has always remained entertaining and interesting, even if at times not exactly for everyone, Bad Times at the El Royale is unfortunately the American’s first cinematic turkey, an excruciatingly overlong and plodding mess of a movie which although begins in intriguing fashion, fails to warrant almost two and a half hours worth of your time as it drags its’ way towards a finish line without any real sense of purpose or point. Whilst the film does boast a healthy selection of well-executed dialogue heavy set pieces alongside excellent central performances from the likes of Bridges and Cynthia Erivo’s wandering soul singer, Darlene Sweet, as the film crosses over the hour mark, the over-reliance on wasteful backstory and wandering narrative stretches result in a painful longing for the action to come to some sort of meaningful end. Enter Chris Hemsworth (Avengers: Infinity War), whose appearance come the ninety minute mark as a curly haired, spiritually baffling and overzealous cross between Charles Manson and Jim Morrison, meant the film then decides to go on for another excruciating forty five minutes, concluding with a soppy and rather weak attempt at humanising a particularly annoying character and then finally ending with a final gasp of saintly praise as I left my seat and headed to the exit. Whilst not totally awful, Bad Times at the El Royale is a simple case of style over substance and made me check IMDB pretty quickly to see if an editor was actually hired at all to do a decent job. On inspection, Lisa Lassek, you are in my bad books.
Overall Score: 5/10
“She’s An Enigma My Wife. You Can Get Close To Her, But You Never Quite Reach Her…”
Directed by Paul Feig, the American filmmaker behind the all female led reboot of the woefully unsuccessful Ghostbusters and the mildly entertaining action comedy Spy from 2016 and 2015 respectively, A Simple Favor, based on the 2017 debut novel of the same name from American author, Darcey Belle, sees Feig turn to the “dark side”, a self proclaimed statement of intent plastered within the film’s thoroughly intriguing trailer which sees Anna Kendrick’s (Table 19) Stephanie attempt to unravel the mystery of Blake Lively’s (Age of Adaline) Emily’s recent disappearance. Based on a screenplay from Nerve screenwriter, Jessica Sharzer, A Simple Favor is a strange beast, a film which on the one hand attempts to emulate the domesticated mysterious oddity of David Fincher’s wonderfully dark Gone Girl, and on the other, an Ira Levin-esque centralisation in which everything on the surface appears cosy and calm yet underneath, is riddled with secrets and lies, and whilst the key mystery of the film’s narrative begins well with enough room to flourish if handled correctly, the end product is ultimately produced in a manner way too convoluted and preposterous to be regarded as anywhere near the excellence of the many films Feig’s latest evokes.
Whilst it is fair to say that the increasingly agitating figure of Anna Kendrick in recent times has always left me loathing her acting ability more and more with every new release in which she inevitably sucks, with Table 19 being the key text of a film in which death by torture undoubtedly seems more rewarding, what a relief that when under the direction of Feig, a director who does manage to get the best out of his performers no matter the final product, (see Kate McKinnon circa Ghostbusters for example) Kendrick does manage to flourish and arguably gives the best performance of her career so far. Add into the mix the ever radiant Blake Lively, her knowingly ripe and hilarious portrayal of a walking ambiguity manages to work perfectly in tandem with her co-star, resulting in a healthy amount of hearty belly laughs which always seem so spare in American comedies of a similar ilk, and whilst the second half of the movie in which the core mystery unravels to an annoyingly predictable end does ultimately dive-bomb the overall appeal of the feature, A Simple Favor is throwaway, good-natured fluff which puts Kendrick back into my own personal acting guild good-books.
Overall Score: 6/10
“What You’re Hunting Is Rabid Animals. You Should Go In Knowing You’ll Probably Die…”
With Nicolas Cage primarily confining himself to acting roles within releases of a more B-movie nature since the turn of the twenty first century, its’ understandable when both critics and audiences alike approach the latest Cage-led flick with a slight tingle of trepidation, particularly one which heads onto the big screen following a widening level of support and critical praise, and in the case of Mandy, the second feature from Italian director, Panos Cosmatos, Cage’s latest arrives with exactly that, with an array of extensive positive reports clinging to its’ back after the film’s debut showing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival back in January. Blending supernatural horror with gross-out, exploitation levels of gore, Cosmatos’ latest is as wacky and unpredictable as the temperament of its’ leading star, a movie which synchronises a Death Wish-esque revenge plot with a beautiful, stylish design, accumulating in a wickedly entertaining genre piece which fully understands the nature of its’ existence and completely runs with it, resulting in Mandy being not only the most impressive and original Cage-led movie in donkey’s, but one of the most riveting visual and sensual cinematic experiences this year.
Shot entirely with a blushing, blood red colour palette and smokey, dream like cinematography from the excellent hand of Benjamin Loeb, the film’s stylistic approach to the revenge based narrative is a glossy mix of Dario Argento’s Suspiria and strangely enough, the odd-ball, thematic craziness of The Void. Add into the mix an array of truly baffling camera shots which range from morphing, superimposed character close-ups to shadowy, nightmarish long shots, Mandy is a hazy, drug induced stupor of outlandish visual and audio delight, with Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score, one of his last before his shocking premature death, managing to expertly supplement the crazed, florescent feel of the movie from start to finish. With an opening act which introduces the central relationship between Cage and Andrea Riseborough’s (Battle of the Sexes) Mandy, a pair of reclusive outsiders who seem to be reeling from uncertain traumas from their past, the film’s opening hour manages to assemble a true sense of empathy for what follows, as Mandy soon becomes embroiled in a seedy plan hatched by Linus Roache’s (Batman Begins) Jeremiah Sand, the crazed leader of the Children of the New Dawn, a murderous and drug obsessed religious cult.
Because of the first hour’s willingness to allow the main characters of the piece to breathe and expand behind the backdrop of the sheer wondrous and mythical retro spirit which flows throughout the film’s two hour runtime, the second act in which Cage’s Red Miller is let completely off the chain does ultimately feel thoroughly deserved and immediately welcomed with open arms. Because of Cage’s penchant for exaggerated performances throughout his entire career, Cosmatos seems to actively understand and embrace Cage’s odd-ball nature, allowing him to basically play himself for the second half of the movie after a first act where he is somewhat subdued and second to the ever radiant and brilliant Andrea Riseborough. When the film does begin to hit the conventions of revenge genre cinema however, boy does it become a slice of over-the-top brilliance, with intentionally comical insane set pieces, including a truly unhinged chainsaw duel, and S. Craig Zahler levels of exploitation splatter violence all resulting in one of the most enjoyable second acts I have witnessed in a very long time, and with a final, haunting shot of a bloodied, gleaming Nicolas Cage after his mission has well and truly been accomplished, Mandy is a slice of euphoric, wacky unhinged excellence which will, with time, undoubtedly become a infamous cult classic.
Overall Score: 8/10
“We Fight New Wars. The Old Options, Military, Diplomacy. They Don’t Always Succeed…”
Acting as the fourth collaboration between Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg after Lone Survivor and the excellent one-two of Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day, Mile 22, based upon a screenplay written by American writer, Lea Carpenter, sees Wahlberg as James Silva, the ferociously agitated, quip-laden sociopathic leader of Overwatch, an elite, CIA-led special ops division who are tasked with traversing the destructive roads of Indonesia as they attempt to extract a prize asset from the country into the United States in return for the location of missing weapons grade plutonium. With Berg’s previous releases successfully managing to balance the re-telling of horrific true events with strong storytelling and well orchestrated action set pieces, Mile 22 manages to bat in completely the opposite direction, with Berg’s latest a film which can only be described as a crazed frenzy of a movie, a ninety minute, action packed head rush which is as violent as it is overly ridiculous, and a movie which results in you leaving the cinema with a guaranteed headache and a high chance of tinnitus as you feel your body become overcome with exhaustion from the events that have occurred before your eyes on screen.
Whilst strictly based on some form of “true story” regarding the existence of the Overwatch programme within contemporary wars across the globe, Mile 22 clearly wavers towards fictionalised events in which Wahlberg’s Silva and his team of cold-hearted killers have free reign to blow up, violently execute and cause as much general havoc as they desire. With paper thin characterisation which mainly focuses on our “heroes'” penchant for killing as effortlessly as possible, this only results in there being no sympathy whatsoever for events which unfold throughout the movie, particularly towards Wahlberg’s Silva, a foul-mouthed, utterly despicable smart-ass, a leading performance which made me wonder whether Wahlberg had actually been incredibly mis-cast due to Wahlberg not at all managing to balance the OTT nature of his character and ends up coming across more annoying than heroic. However, with a heart-stopping editing pace, crunchy action scenes with gunfire aplenty and a rousing, physical performance from arguably the greatest action star of the past decade in the form of Iko Uwais (The Raid, The Raid 2, Headshot), Mile 22 was a film in which I was never bored, and for a film in which its’ mistakes are blindingly obvious, Berg’s latest is a confusing, often manic, all action speed rush which sort of won me over the more it ventured into the realms of complete and utter ridiculousness.
Overall Score: 6/10
“There Is A Hokkien Phrase ‘Kaki Lang’. It Means: Our Own Kind Of People, And You’re Not Our Own Kind…”
Based upon the 2013 novel of the same name by Singaporean–American writer, Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians takes the familiar tale and narrative path of romantic comedies from the past and places it slap bang in the middle of Southeast Asia as we follow Constance Wu’s (Torchwood) Rachel Chu, a successful professor of economics at New York University who travels with her secretive boyfriend, Henry Golding’s (A Simple Favour) Nick Young, to Singapore in order to finally meet his family and friends. Directed by Jon M. Chu, a filmmaker whose previous credits haven’t exactly been rewarded with critical admiration thanks to the likes of Now You See Me 2 and, shiver incoming, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, Crazy Rich Asians manages to be the director’s first outstanding success, with his latest release a frothy, uplifting and thoroughly enjoyable rom-com which manages to balance a catalogue of underlying themes and ideas whilst offering stellar development of its’ many leading and supporting characters who each come across identifiable and wholly individual, and whilst at times the narrative may feel overly familiar and cliched, the sheer sense of wonder the movie emits showers over its’ creases with expert levels of delight.
Whilst the big and most important headline regarding the film’s release is the fact that Chu’s latest is shockingly the first film since the 1993 drama, The Joy Luck Club, to simultaneously feature a predominantly Asian cast and be financed, backed and released by a major Hollywood studio, Crazy Rich Asians is much more than just a kick-starter for filmic equality, with committed performances, laugh-out loud levels of comedy and a warm beating heart at its’ core all congealing around a central duo of lovers whose chemistry is so convincing, the fact the film only ever has one outcome doesn’t matter whatsoever and only serves to improve the good-hearted nature of the tale. With comments on the global class system and the potential cost of being an outsider, the film’s screenplay takes the appeal up a level from just being yet another bog-standard romance re-hash, and with pain-staking levels of detail and admiration for the movie’s location setting, the eye-watering levels of excess, ranging from deluxe style houses to ridiculous bachelor parties, never feels annoying or sickening, with the depiction of the culture’s food in particular guaranteed to make the stomach rumble. Leaving all audiences undoubtedly with a spring in their step and a tear in their eye, Crazy Rich Asians is a traditional love story which manages to feel both fresh and fantastical without ever feeling to need to be manipulative in order to win over its’ audience. Superb entertainment.
Overall Score: 8/10
“For Those Who Hear The Three Bell, Accept His Invitation…”
Based upon the infamous fictional, supernatural figure which began life as an internet meme created by Eric Knudsen back in 2009, Slender Man, directed by French filmmaker, Sylvain White, brings the character to life upon the big screen after time well spent within both the video game format and inspired-by low-budget movies including Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story in 2015 in which Doug Jones of Pan’s Labyrinth fame portrayed a character with familiar lanky body features. With a focus on attempting to mould the titular character into a somewhat cranky and generic storytelling facade with a staggeringly obvious point of reference being strangely aimed at Ringu and the subsequent American remake, The Ring, Slender Man is a complete and utter failure of horror cinema, a movie which seems to not bother at all in adding believable characters and instead uses the film’s youthful cast as cardboard cut-outs in order for the action to instead focus more so on baffling imagery and ridiculously over-cooked jump scares which all take place upon a colour palette which was so unbelievably dark that I had to check whether there was enough room in the film’s budget for the lighting department. As you may be able to tell, Slender Man is utter pants.
After a group of young friends decide to summon the mythical man himself, a character designed in the film as a somewhat CGI hybrid of The Silence from Doctor Who and a wooden artist manikin, it comes at no surprise whatsoever that the quartet of buzz-induced younglings begin to experience strange, nightmarish visions of the suit-wearing being of whom they attempted to contact in the first place. Cue meaningless cattle-prod scares, awful dialogue and wacky dream sequences, White’s movie tries to blend the youthful sensibility of a film such as It with a much darker, ice-cold tone, but with a complete absence of empathy for the leading cast who conform unsurprisingly to the a-typical horror movie cannon fodder, the audience spends ninety minutes anticipating the arrival of the titular villain but quickly become bored to death due to a complete lack of threat and belief in anything which happens on screen. With a concluding act which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, the film ends leaving an awfully scented taste in the mouth regarding what might have been for the film in the hands of better filmmakers, and even with the use of Funkadelic’s brilliant “Maggot Brain” on the soundtrack, Slender Man is the worst type of horror movie possible, a generic, wasteful, and utterly bland sludge-fest with very little redeeming features worthy of anyone’s time.
Overall Score: 3/10
“Some Bad People Are After Me And Now They’re After You…”
Mixing together the comedic talents of Kate McKinnon (Ghostbusters) and Mila Kunis (Bad Moms), an actress whose sensual, dramatic performance in Black Swan feels strangely historic considering her own personal penchant for the genre of American comedy since, The Spy Who Dumped Me, directed by Susanna Fogel, a returning filmmaker with her first release since 2014’s Life Partners, sees the duo as best friend partnership, Audrey and Morgan, who become embroiled in a murderous terrorist plot after being “dumped” by Justin Theroux’s (Mulholland Drive) suave super spy, Drew Thayer. With McKinnon unfortunately being the type of actress who so far in her career seems to have been handed a selection of raw deals when it comes to getting the best out of her natural flair for comedy, with Ghostbusters and Office Christmas Party being no more than solid examples of the genre, the same annoyingly can be said for The Spy Who Dumped Me, a surprisingly violent and tonally manic action comedy which falls much too heavy on a reliance for gunshots and action over genuine laughs within a screenplay which makes Rampage look like the most intelligent film of the year by an elongated mile.
With ineffective time jumps utilised at various points of the movie as an attempt to establish some form of characterisation, albeit in its’ most restricted format, the movie takes no time in establishing the layout of the narrative, using awfully constructed moments of naff dialogue to exercise the inevitable exposition before resorting back to endless action set pieces which begin in enjoyable fashion but then end up becoming tedious after the cycle of the movie becomes increasingly obvious come the sixty minute mark. With the film’s two hour running time overstretched by at least forty five minutes, the saving grace of the movie is ultimately its’ leading female stars, with McKinnon and Kunis working expertly well as a kooky double act caught in the cross-hairs of government conspiracy and double crossing international secret agents, and with the added involvement of the always magnanimous Gillian Anderson (The X-Files), girl power at least stops the movie from falling into the black hole of awfulness it may have gone without them. With a few chuckles but no full laughs, The Spy Who Dumped Me is full-on flash without any residue of substance or memorability, but with committed performances and likeable leading stars, the end result is messy but not exactly intolerable.
Overall Score: 5/10
“That Thing’s Out There. We Need To Find It And Kill It…”
Rushing onto the big screen and breaking the rules of conventional cinematic rules by managing to swerve away from straight-to-video bargain bucket where it undeniably belongs, everyone’s favourite bald-headed Brit, Jason Statham (The Fate of the Furious) leads the cast of The Meg, a horrendously dire, B-Movie nightmare which sees Statham as Jonas Taylor, a seemingly invincible and overly irresistible rescue diver who is tasked alongside a team of awfully inane scientists to defeat the titular Megalodon, a seventy foot long murderous shark thought extinct which is released upon the world to chew upon the cannon fodder of citizens which lay in its’ wake. Based upon the 1997 book “Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror” by American science fiction author, Steve Alten, The Meg fails on a comprehensive level of failing to be the type of movie which can be typecast as “so bad its’ good”, with the film’s dire script, awful dialogue and shambolic acting performances all managing to co-exist together in a finished product which ranks up there with the worst cinema has offered up this year so far, a turgid release which makes you yearn for the sheer absurdity of Sharknado.
Whilst Jason Statham is the sort of actor whose presence is always welcome in any type of movie, his particular individual performance within The Meg is Oscar worthy in comparison to the carnival of awful side-notes which encompass the supporting cast, with the likes of Rainn Wilson (The Office), Ruby Rose (John Wick: Chapter Two) and the horrendously accented Li Bingbing (Transformers: Age of Extinction) all being handed woefully two-dimensional characters whose chemistry and comedic timing comes across utterly cringe-worthy at a range of different points during the action. With a screenplay which includes the type of dialogue where each character takes it in turn to shout obvious warnings and entirely lazy portions of tiresome exposition, The Meg seems to know the genre basis it attempts to sink its’ teeth into quite clearly, but thanks to the staggeringly inadequate direction of Jon Turteltaub, a filmmaker renowned for the likes of The Sorcerers Apprentice and erm, Cool Runnings, the finished product is downright stale and unworthy of viewership, and whilst it’s easy to poke fun at movies which try to be just good old fun instead of attempting to come across as the new Citizen Kane, The Meg just doesn’t work at any level at all, and for a movie which happens to include the brooding baldness of Jason Statham, that’s quite a startling feat in itself.
Overall Score: 3/10
“I Didn’t Know Her. I Didn’t Know My Own Daughter…”
With 2015’s Unfriended offering a subversive and original spin on the found footage genre of horror with great success, the same cinematic platform used within that movie returns once again in Searching, a Hitchcockian cyber-space psychological thriller which takes place completely upon the wide range of technological platforms belonging to leading star John Cho’s (Star Trek Beyond) David Kim, a single father still mourning the death of his wife who attempts to solve the mystery of his daughter’s recent disappearance via any means possible. Whilst many audiences may feel alienated by the claustrophobic nature of viewing events of a movie from a screen most people now continuously glare at on a daily basis, myself included, debut writer and director, Aneesh Chaganty, successfully manages to build the tension and unravel the central mystery at the heart of the drama with great aplomb, utilising well-known technological formats which not only conveys the hunt for Michelle La’s Margot Kim, but also finds the time to joyfully poke fun at and satirically comment on the emptiness and shallowness of social media, and whilst Chaganty’s debut does suffer slightly from a strangely artificial sensibility and a couple of hokey performances, Searching is an interesting and fun slice of cinematic guess-who.
Beginning with historical exposition which explores the heartbreak of the Kim family and their sudden matriarchal loss brilliantly set to the backdrop of the evolution of computer systems over the past few years, Searching takes no time whatsoever in getting to the crux of the drama, with John Cho’s large, selfie-style head looking continuously distraught as his daughter’s disappearance brings to light hidden secrets regarding her infidelity and uneven social life in the real world when on the virtual side, everything previously seemed fine. Whilst the central mystery of Searching does contain some effective and clever narrative twists, the best parts of the movie is undoubtedly the social commentary it makes in reference to social media culture, with one scene in which a previous uncaring acquaintance of Kim’s suddenly breaks down in tears in front of the media after her prolonged absence in an attempt to gain a few minutes airtime both comedic and downright depressing, a telling image of contemporary society in which physical interaction is slowly being replaced with emoji’s and gifs, and whilst the movie does ultimately end in the a-typical Hollywood cheese-fest audience’s have come to expect, the journey before the film’s conclusion was an impressive debut from a director we should be seeing much more of in the future.