Chris Hemsworth

Bad Times at the El Royale

22/10/18

Drew Goddard has made his name mostly as a writer on various projects over the years with only 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods under his directorial hand. With Bad Times at the El Royale, he finally goes the full Orson Welles: writing, producing, directing – and no doubt making the tea whenever he has a spare moment.

It’s clear from the get go that this is a true labour of love and, what’s more, a considerable cinematic achievement. The film looks absolutely stunning and its multilayered characterisations and linking narratives recall Paul Thomas Anderson’s work on the equally labyrinthine Magnolia. Praise indeed.

The story opens in 1959 in a room of the titular hotel, where something mysterious and very film noir kicks off the proceedings with a loud gunshot. We then cut to the same location, ten years later. The El Royale is situated slap bang on the border between sunny California and dusty Nevada – indeed, a red line runs through the lobby and guests can choose to stay in their preferred state, so long as they agree to abide by its rules. A disparate group of travellers book themselves in for the night. They comprise shambolic priest, Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), angel-voiced pop singer, Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), loud-mouthed vacuum cleaner salesman, Laramie Seymour (John Hamm), and the mysterious and sullen Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). They are greeted by the hotel’s lone employee, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), who, after delivering a well-rehearsed introduction, assigns them to their various rooms.

It soon becomes clear that hardly any of the guests are quite what they seem – and that the hotel too has many dark secrets to be uncovered. Indeed, the story has so many fascinating twists and turns, it makes it difficult to relate much in the way of plot without risking major spoilers. Suffice to say that Goddard’s masterful script is packed full of genuine surprises. Just when I think I know where I am, he gleefully pulls the rug from under me, again and again. And each time I fall for it. Every occupied room number is assigned a title header – think of them, if you will, as chapters – and there is much about this film that makes me think of great books rather than films.

At two hours and twenty one minutes, Goddard is clearly happy to take his own sweet time to let his characters fully develop; indeed, it’s a good forty minutes before we even get so much as a glimpse of  the Charles Manson-esque, Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), and it’s only in the film’s final stretches that he comes swaggering into the action, dispensing violent retribution to whoever is unlucky enough to cross his path.

This is simply glorious filmmaking and if there’s a more intelligent thriller this year, I’d love to have it pointed out to me. Bridges is terrific (let’s face it, he always is) but it’s Erivo as the quietly determined Darlene who is the true revelation here, her presence absolutely illuminating every frame she’s in. There’s a superb soundtrack of Motown classics (with a little Deep Purple to emphasise Billy Lee’s satanic connections) and, despite the complexity of those interweaving stories, complete with various flashbacks to earlier days, I never have any questions left unanswered.

There aren’t many people in the viewing I attend and that’s a real shame. Sadly, films of this quality don’t come around too often.

My advice? See it now, before it’s gone. That gorgeous cinematography won’t look half as ravishing on the small screen.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Thor: Ragnarok

27/10/17

Regular readers of this blog will already know that I usually tend to steer clear of superhero movies – and of all of Marvel’s extensive franchise, the Thor movies have long been anathema to me. So why did I make an exception this time? Two words. Taika Waititi. The New Zealander helmed two of my favourite films of last year, The Hunt For The Wilderpeople and What We Do In the Shadows. Surely, if anyone can put a rocket up the Norse God’s backside, he’s the one?

The good news is, he’s been pretty successful on that score. Thor: Ragnarok is played mostly for laughs and, once you get used to the idea, it really works. Chris Hemsworth is clearly enjoying himself as Thor takes on a whole new persona – clumsy, vainglorious and full of witty one-liners. I actually find myself enjoying large sections of this film, which I really didn’t expect. Waititi even has Stan Lee give Thor a haircut, lopping those infamous blonde locks off once and for all and you know what? It’s an improvement. Waititi makes an appearance himself, supplying the voice for a character called Korg, and he’s one of the film’s ace cards, supplying the kind of much-needed comic relief that Baby Groot delivered in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2.

After some adventures on Earth, Thor (Hemsworth) returns to Asgard to find that things have changed drastically in the land of the Gods. His father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), has gone missing and his brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), has installed himself as ruler in the old man’s absence. Thor insists that Loki takes him to find his father, who has been unceremoniously dumped in a retirement home on Earth but, when they do eventually locate him, he announces that his time has come and that he is about to shuffle off the old immortal coil (apparently even gods can go past their sell-by date). Then Loki somehow manages to unleash Hela (Cate Blanchett) the evil sister that he and Thor didn’t even know they had. Turns out she’s the goddess of Death and she’s intent on ruling Asgard and… ah, you know what? It’s pointless recounting the plot, because it’s basically the usual old nonsense, but this time out it’s nicely written, beautifully presented nonsense, which really helps. It’s interesting to note that a lot of fans have objected to Waititi’s modifications. It’s as though they think that a story about a buff Norse god with a magic hammer needs to be approached with po-faced gravity. Really? Trust me, this works a whole lot better.

Okay, so as I said earlier, Waititi is only partially successful with his approach. The usual tropes that I have come to dread still apply: there are overlong cosmic punch ups, the insertion of as many Marvel characters as possible to trade in on the ‘Marvel Extended Universe’ – here it’s The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who make guest appearances – and, as ever, the feeling that the storyline is utter nonsense. It’s almost as though… well, as though the whole thing’s been based on a comic book.

Hardcore fans will want to know that there are a couple of post-credit sequences here but the second of them, after you’ve waited patiently through what seems like an eternity of scrolling text, barely seems worth the wait.

Good – but not Marvellous.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Ghostbusters

ghostbusters

15/07/16

The 2016 Ghostbusters reboot is an interesting phenomenon, having caused something of a storm with its supposedly controversial recasting of the phantom-fighters as women. The predictable misogyny that followed threatened to overshadow a film that surely never purported to be a political vehicle of any kind: it’s a goofy, spoofy comedy, all slime and silliness.

And those who protested must feel foolish now, because the all-female team works really well. The film is about four people; their gender is never an issue here. It’s refreshing, too, to see larger women on screen without a focus on their size. There are no fat jokes. And this is good. The performances are uniformly strong, the bold, cartoonish characters brought wonderfully to life. Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, and Kristen Wiig make a great ensemble, and Chris Hemsworth’s nice-but-dim receptionist is a neat little role-reversal that simply shows how poorly women have been served in film.

It’s a shame, then, that the story isn’t stronger, that there’s never any sense of peril or tension. In fairness, this could equally be said of the 1984 original, but it was something I hoped they’d improve upon. It all feels very safe indeed. Maybe I’m fussy, but I like my ghosts to be scary – even if they’re funny too. It’s much more of a kids’ movie than I expected, with little in the way of extra layers or subtlety to elevate it from its central premise.

It’s fun though, and worth seeing.

3.5 stars

Susan Singfield

In the Heart of the Sea

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30/12/15

Around a year ago, searching for a new story to write, I pitched an idea to my editor. Why not, I suggested, rewrite Moby Dick – or rather, base it around the true story of The Essex, the ship that inspired Herman Melville’s classic tale? And just to make it more relevant to younger readers, why not present it from the POV of the cabin boy?

For a variety of reasons, my editor said no and it  would now seem fortunate that she did, because this is exactly what In the Heart of the Sea is and I’d probably have found myself the author of an unreleasable book (or at the very least open to accusations of plagiarism). Ron Howard’s take on the story is a big, sprawling epic of a film, a gorgeous evocation of a lost era and I loved every minute of it.

The story starts some fifty years after the main event, when Melville (Ben Whishaw) visits the grown-up Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) in Nantucket to research the true story of the Essex. Nickerson grudgingly obliges and we flash back in time to meet Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) who despite being promised a captaincy for his next voyage is appointed first mate to the rather better connected George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). The Essex sets sail in search of sperm whale and the crew experience a series of disasters that would try the patience of Job, not least the malevolent intentions of a giant white whale, who seems intent on exacting a terrible revenge on the men who have dared to take him on. The whale itself is an incredibly convincing CGI creation and while the killing of such creatures will not sit easily with contemporary audiences, this is an issue that is addressed (albeit obliquely) in the film – and the truth is that men really did go after these marine giants in tiny rowing boats in search of the precious oil to light their lamps and you have to marvel at their courage and endurance in the face of such danger.

This is ultimately a story of survival against incredible odds and one, moreover that is based on real events. The word is that Howard’s film has failed at the box office and it’s certainly not for everyone, but I thought it a remarkable achievement that kept me enthralled from start to finish – a perfect choice for my birthday.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney