Friday, 28 December 2018

Critical Week: Dynamic duo

There were no screenings this week due to Christmas, but I have had a few screeners to catch up with at home before voting deadlines. I also had to buy a ticket to see one film in the cinema, due to the lack of press screenings. Holmes & Watson is a rather broad, silly take on a tired, overused character. There are some funny moments scattered through the film, but they're too far apart to properly take advantage of Will Ferrell and John C Reilly's strong chemistry. And here are short reviews of other things I've seen, both catch-up titles that were released while I was away...

Bad Times at the El Royale
dir-scr Drew Goddard
with Jeff Bridges, Chris Hemsworth, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Lewis Pullman, Cailee Spaeny
18/US 2h21 ***
Stylish and ambitious, this epic-length thriller is a series of stunningly staged set-pieces that ooze insinuation and intrigue. The El Royale Hotel is a vintage glamorous hideaway on the California-Nevada line outside Tahoe that last had some swing in 1966. Like an Agatha Christie story, this isolated place draws together a priest (Hamm), singer (Erivo), salesman (Hamm) and hippie (Johnson), welcomed by receptionist-barman Miles (Pullman). Each person has a but secret. Some of them looking for something buried under the floorboards 10 years earlier. All are willing to resort to violence if needed. Scenes develop with unexpected twists and turns, flashbacks that offer back-stories and connections, and some remarkable emotional subtext in each person's sense of desperation. Writer-director Goddard could easily have trimmed and tightened this snaky, witty script, which continually shifts back and forth within the story. But it's superbly assembled, cleverly directed to play on the layers of secrets the characters are carrying with them. And the cast is excellent across the board, including Hemsworth, who arrives properly about 90 minutes in and takes things in a brutal new direction. Erivo is the standout, bringing a soulful yearning that adds gripping depth beneath the increasing swirl of violence and the nagging feeling that underneath the gorgeous surface, this is yet another movie about desperate people and a bag of cash.

The Other Side of the Wind
dir Orson Welles; scr Orson Welles, Oja Kodar
with John Huston, Oja Kodar, Bob Random, Peter Bogdanovich, Susan Strasberg, Norman Foster, Lilli Palmer
18/US 2h02 ****
Not many films have this kind of production history: returning to Hollywood after a 20-year exile, Orson Welles started filming this in 1970 and carried on for six years, followed by a decade of editing before his death. More than 30 years later, the film was finished by a team working from Welles' notes and 100 hours of footage. Ironically, it's the story of famed filmmaker Jake (Huston), hounded by the press as he makes his latest epic, shooting as usual without a script. Critics say Jake has lost touch with culture, and he's having problems with cool young star (Random). As the leading lady, Kodar spends rather a lot of time naked, but generates a strong sense of mystery. Narrating the story as Jake's protege, Bogdanovich offers a sparky performance as a fast-talker who seems to steal his personality from everyone he meets. Stylish and bold, this is a striking look at the industry, mixing colour with black and white to blur the lines between movies and reality. The jazzy tone, skilful camerawork and energetic performances are fascinating as well as raucously entertaining. This twist on Felliniesque comedy-drama is perhaps a bit too loose and unfocussed to properly grab hold or build up a sense of narrative momentum, but it's packed with fiercely inventive touches and dazzling imagery. And its knowing approach to the process of filmmaking is lacerating. This is Welles' love/hate letter to cinema. And it's bound to be revered by generations of film students to come.

There are no press screenings next week either, but I still have a few discs a and links to watch. The problem is that it feels too good to just relax and NOT watch movies for a change....

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