MOVIE REVIEW: Bad Times at the El Royale

 


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

Minisode 046: Rush

It’s donor pick time, and it looks like we were too fast for our own good, seeing as how we sped right past June and are bringing you that pick a few days into July. Thanks for being forgiving and we hope you enjoy this conversation as much as we do. We’re talking Rush, Ron Howard’s 2013 biopic about the Formula One racing rival between James Hunt and Niki Lauda.


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Episode 107: Avengers Infinity War

After 10 years and 18 films, Marvel’s ambitious, unique interconnected world of superhero films comes to this, a team-up movie the likes of which we have never seen before. Historic in its scope and in its box office success, Avengers: Infinity War is a special blockbuster and one that provides plenty to discuss. We’ve been chomping at the bit to talk about this one, its place in the MCU, and where Marvel goes from here.

Avengers: Infinity War Review – 0:02:33

The Connecting Point – 01:27:30


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MOVIE REVIEW: Avengers: Infinity War

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018)

2 Hours and 29 Minutes (PG-13)

Marvel and The Russo Brothers had a very daunting task before them. Paying off the culmination of a decade of build-up and backstory, stretching over 18 films, is a challenge unlike any studio or director in Hollywood had ever faced. And to accomplish this feat, they worked with what has to be the largest cast of known stars ever assembled for a movie. The ambition of Marvel and its commitment to the cinematic universe it pioneered is worthy of praise and respect.

If there’s one thing I was looking for in Avengers: Infinity War, it was raised stakes. Much like the comic books these films are based on (in which characters rarely die and cities are destroyed without much afterthought), Marvel films have not fully dealt with loss in a way that seems realistic. Right from the start of Infinity War, though, Marvel makes it very clear that has changed. The potential consequences of a Thanos (Josh Brolin) victory are evident and the film progresses with an emotional weight and sense of urgency that it could not have attained if the studio followed its same old formula. This also creates much more investment in characters and the worlds they inhabit, and thus pays off quite a few very moving scenes in a much bigger way. If you haven’t cried in a Marvel movie before, you’re not alone, but this may be your first. I had genuine chills a few different times. But don’t worry, that trademark Marvel humor and witty one-liners are still there and won’t have you depressed for too long at a time.

Another area that Marvel outdoes previous films in their own franchise is with Thanos himself. Make no mistake, this is his film and his story. He is a fully developed villain with more screen time than any before him, and it helps to create a character with whom the audience can both despise and yet struggle with feelings of empathy for. Brolin’s talent is very obvious in this performance despite the incredible looking CGI that encompasses him. His Thanos is not just some loud, angry, destructive villain. He is intelligent and calculating. He is nuanced. He is cold, yes, but when he gives his reasons for what he wants to do with the Infinity Stones and why, in a very warped way it makes some sense. His presence as the foil to the Avengers and Guardians gives this film something unique and memorable.

With a cast this large it is inevitable that not everyone’s favorite will have the responsibility or amount of action they hope for. The Russo’s do an admirable job of balancing these heroes, however, and somehow left me feeling satisfied. Sure, a little more backstory or deeper character moments for them all would be nice, but it’s also unrealistic to expect in a single film of this length. By managing to give everyone at least one small moment in the sun, the Russo’s succeed where I believe many would have failed. Another result of keeping most character development small is that the film moves fast, pausing a few times for majorly impactful storyline beats, but mostly cutting between different groups of heroes working to accomplish different tasks. By keeping the heroes in smaller groups, we get to feel more focused when we’re with them, and enjoy the new forms of dialogue that emerge between characters who previously had not interacted.

The action in Avengers: Infinity War is, as expected, fantastic. Seeing heroes fight together with new gear and weapons, or teaming up in ways never experienced by movie goers before, was a huge treat. In one major battle that involves a host of heroes and countless alien attackers, the Silvestri score and rising stakes create a feeling similar to that in the Battle of the Pelennor Field from The Return of the King. While Avengers: Infinity War never quite reaches that level of epic, it comes much closer than many (myself included) ever thought possible.

VERDICT

If you’re thinking that this review is a but vague, please know that is by design. Fans have waited 10 years for this and going in with as little information possible is going to result in the best viewing experience. Avengers: Infinity War isn’t entirely unpredictable, but it’s got some surprises too. The historic puzzle that the Russo Brothers have put together is nothing short of amazing and will lend itself to multiple viewings. Perhaps that’s the highest praise possible for a film of this kind, that after it finished I immediately would have sat through those 2.5+ hours again. To sum it all up, Avengers: Infinity War lived up to the hype by being both entertaining and emotional. Well done, Marvel. Well done.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: 12 Strong

12 STRONG (2018)

GOING IN

12 Strong is a film based on Doug Stanton’s non-fiction book Horse Soldiers, that dramatizes the true story of a U.S. Special Forces team who deployed to Afghanistan in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001. They were some of the first American military to engage in unconventional warfare against the Taliban and al-Qaida forces. As the title of the book and all of the film’s marketing shows, this group in particular used horses as part of their fight against enemy forces. Chris Hemsworth leads an interesting casts that includes Michael Shannon (who I don’t see as a special forces soldier), Taylor Sheridan (in his first acting gig since becoming a hot new writer/director), Trevante Rhodes (coming off an incredible performance in Moonlight), Michael Peña (most likely for some comedic levity), William Fichtner, and more. The film is directed by Nicolai Fuglsig, a former war photojournalist making his directorial debut, which means it should at least look good. I also expect the film to be rousing and patriotic, and as someone who was serving in the military and stationed in the Middle East at the time of the attacks, it will probably be quite affecting regardless of quality.

2 Hours and 10 Minutes Later.

COMING OUT

9/11 is one of those days that most everyone can remember in vivid detail. Each year on Patriot Day, it is common to hear the question “Where were you when…?” whispered around the office as co-workers somberly reflect on the tragedy of the World Trade Center attacks and share their stories, additionally observing a moment of silence at 8:46 am. It is nearly impossible to not feel those emotions of grief and sadness again, as we collectively remember those who lost their lives because of hate. And so, early in 12 Strong when footage of the crashes is shown, I’ll freely admit to immediately becoming emotionally invested. Then we are introduced to some of the soldiers that make up the team at the center of this story, and we watch as they struggle with feelings of anger and rage. They want payback, and they want it now. They know that it means leaving their loved ones, but these are men of ideals and they must fight. Again, emotion washed over me as I remembered my time in the Middle East, learning of the attacks and then sitting in my off-base apartment armed and watchful as demonstrations took place at a local mosque across the street. I, too, wanted payback. 12 Strong begins by presenting us with this background and bringing us back to that moment that we realized safety on our own soil was no longer a guarantee. It is a powerful and evocative opening act.

At the heart of 12 Strong, as with most good war films, is brotherhood. Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) leads a Special Forces team that includes many men older and with more combat experience than himself. He is fiery and determined, though, and his natural leadership has them gladly follow him into a dangerous mission as the United States seeks to work with a local Afghan warlord to take a key city back from Taliban. The one thing that will quickly sink any war film for me is an inaccurate portrayal of military life. Thankfully, the team is shown in way that is very reminiscent of my own experience, effectively capturing the camaraderie that exists between these men who must rely on each other for their very lives. Also accurately shown is the way in which Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), the grizzled vet, supports and provides advice for Nelson, understanding the role in leadership that he has and helping the young officer to make wise choices. The relationship between the entire team is a joy to see, but there is a special bond between Nelson and Spencer – a strong mutual respect. At one moment as the men are about to embark on their mission, Spencer muses “It’s a hell of a thing we do. How do you love your family and leave them to go to war?” Honor, of course is partially the answer, but brotherhood sure makes it easier.

Once in the mountains of Afghanistan, Nelson and the team meet up with General Dostum (Navid Negahban) who serves as a guide and provides his army to help the Americans regain control of the city for them. Negahban’s performance is wonderful and was the surprise of the film, outshining the solid work by Hemsworth, Shannon, Peña, and others. Dostum and Nelson must learn to work together in what starts out as a tenuous relationship but ultimately provides a great example of what it means to grow to trust one another. What 12 Strong does differently than so many films set in this era is use this relationship to remind us of the Aghani people who were victims of al-Quaida and the Taliban themselves. General Dotsum is a truly great man who led his people in opposition of the Taliban and went on to become Vice President of the country in 2014. Here we see why, as he mentors Captain Nelson, teaching him the difference between a soldier and a warrior, and forming a bond that has grown into a lifelong friendship between the two men. This relationship as depicted in the film was probably my favorite aspect, and amidst the chaos of war it provided some dramatic character depth and an arc of growth for Captain Nelson.

The one thing that I dislike most about 12 Strong is the choice to include a villain. Around the beginning of the second act we are introduced to the Taliban leader who has taken control of the city and are shown examples of the horrific way in which his group operates. I did not feel this was necessary because we have enough real-life motivation to root for our heroes already. His addition was a distraction somewhat during the action and removing him might have trimmed off 10 minutes or so and made the film feel a little tighter. His inclusion doesn’t sink the film by any means, he just felt a little out of place.

Technically, the film has many strong qualities, chief among them the sound design. Gunfire and explosions sound crisp, real, and terrifyingly close. Cinematography is also very good, which is not surprising given the director’s photographic background. The film is full of beautifully framed shots, the likes of which you would see in a magazine from a wartime photojournalist like Fuglsig, but there is also an inconsistency to this that shows his lack of directing experience. Mostly the film looks and sounds great, with a near non-stop pounding score escalating our heartbeats in rhythm with the tension and action playing out on screen. It’s also a relief to see that the horses are not used as a gimmick at all, but their place in the story feels genuine and realistic (with the exception of one slightly unbelievable, but awesome, action scene).

VERDICT

12 Strong is a tight, tense thriller that retells an incredible story in American war history. It focuses as much on the diplomacy needed between the U.S. and Afghanistan as it does the incredible battles with Taliban fighters to show a well-rounded picture of how the two nations worked together to accomplish their mutual goal. This is not a propaganda film, but it does evoke powerful emotions related to memories of a terrible tragedy, and especially so for those who left their own loved ones to take up the fight themselves. Anchored by strong acting performances across the ensemble cast and without relying on manipulative fake motivational speeches, 12 Strong shows how loyalty works in a military brotherhood, and how powerful it can be. Many elements of the film may feel somewhat generic, but the emotional resonance can’t be ignored, and make this one definitely worth seeing.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

Episode 084: Thor: Ragnarok

For this week’s episode we find ourselves leaving travelling with the mighty Thor on his third solo adventure. Indie filmmaker Taika Waititi takes the reigns of the MCU and molds Thor: Ragnarok with his signature comedic style. The result is an aesthetically unique, visually striking, and hilarious new superhero film. But is that enough? We both enjoyed the film, but its absence of emotional weight provides us with an opportunity for a big conversation about how important stakes are in the comic book film genre.

What We’ve Been Up To – 0:01:04

Aaron (The Room)
Patrick (Burnt)

THOR: RAGNAROK Review – 0:20:21

The Connecting Point – 1:11:49

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Intro/Outro Music – “Air Hockey Saloon” by Chris Zabriskie

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Rate/Review us on iTunes and on your podcast app of choice! It helps bring us exposure so that we can get more people involved in the conversation. Thank you!

What We Learned This Week: October 29-November 4

LESSON #1: SCOUTING THE RIGHT TALENT IS KEY TO MARVEL’S SUCCESS— How does this low-risk MCU blueprint keep coming up with winners? One way is by scouting comedic talent in front of and behind the camera. Look first at the casting of Marvel’s core leads: Robert Downey, Jr.Chris EvansChris PrattPaul RuddBenedict Cumberbatch, and, in Thor: Ragnarok‘s case, Chris Hemsworth. Each of them (follow the links) bring an easily-activated range of humor to not take themselves so seriously. If you’re shooting for overall levity, you call on the nimble and agile.  The same search for farce can be said for many of Marvel’s directorial choices: Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, Anthony and Joe Russo, James Gunn, and Peyton Reed. All have witty and wisecracking credits on their resumes. Add director Taika Waititi’s name to that list. The peppy New Zealander behind Hunt for the Wilder People and What We Do in the Shadows merges his wholesome storytelling sensibilities with a frisky and playful side of sarcasm to sharpen the camp of the comic book content of Thor: Ragnarok.

LESSON #2: NETFLIX CAN STILL BE A BIT OF A BALLHOG— Jeff Huston of “I Can’t Unsee That Movie” has an excellent editorial piece recently talking about the day-and-date release strategy of Netflix.  Thanks to their deep pockets to win some distribution bids on prominent international film festival performers like The Meyerowitz Stories, First They Killed My Father, and Our Souls at Night, high caliber independent films are available on their streaming service at the same time as a soft and limited theatrical release.  The article calls into question how this practice actually does a disservice to the theater end of things and I happen to agree, though I celebrate Netflix plenty (see next lesson) for getting the “gets.” While it’s nice that the arthouse theater scene is being filled with something, the Netflix availability dramatically shortens any helpful effect of attendance the arthouse could really use.  There’s got to be a middle stagger of compromise in there.  Give the arthouse 4-8 weeks of exclusivity and then Netflix gets it forever, something to that effect where both benefit.

LESSON #3: NETFLIX IS ALL-IN ON ORIGINAL PROGRAMMING— We’ve been seeing Netflix’s not-so-quiet surge all year with their self-financed original feature film offerings and have been amazed.  They keep getting bigger, especially with Will Smith’s Bright around the corner.  Now the ambition and push have a target number and it’s bigger than we thought.  Recently, the streaming giant said their 2018 goal is 80 original films.  That is an astounding number that runs circles around Hollywood studios that maybe put out a quarter of that into the multiplexes.  Love them or hate them, Netflix is quadrupling down on being a big-time player.

LESSON #4: DEMAND-BASED PRICING IS GOING TO BE AN INTERESTING EXPERIMENT— We filmgoers don’t often see the business dealings happening behind the curtain and multiplex doors.  For a taste of it, read the strict details Disney is placing on theater chains for the upcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi and you’ll get an idea of the bitter competition for the almighty dollar.  All we see is ticket prices going up and wondering why while we shake our heads and still open up our wallets.  In an effort to earn a little extra, the Regal Cinemas chain recently announced a trial of demand-based/surge pricing where the hits will cost more than the flops on your receipt.  Seeing the business end of that Last Jedi example, I get theaters trying to squeeze, but one has to wonder if such practice will work.  I don’t like its chances.  All I see are movie studios then asking for a bigger cut on top.


DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson.  As an elementary educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical.  As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends.  Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Creators Media.

MOVIE REVIEW: Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)




Going In

More like Thor: Ragnarock ‘n Roll, amirite? From what we’ve seen in trailers, Taika Waititi’s film looks to be a wild ride bursting with color, sound, and laughs. I am admittedly burned out on the superhero genre, but Thor: Ragnarok could be something fresh instead of the standard Marvel fare, and that gives me hope. Embracing the Asgardian mythology and combining Thor’s world with one of my favorite comic book stories (Planet Hulk) provides opportunities galore for rich storytelling. I have faith in Waititi and expect that at the very least he and this impressively assembled cast will provide viewers with a fun time at the movies.


COMING OUT

If Thor: Ragnarok is one thing, it’s funny.  No, that’s not a strong enough word. It’s hilarious. Laugh out loud funny. Multiple times. For those who are familiar with Taika Waititi’s filmography this should come as no surprise. The man’s comedic timing is truly great, and his role (you didn’t even know he was acting in the film did you?) steals the show. As a director, Waititi sets the film firmly in its comedic tone right from the start, and it never lets up. Almost everyone gets in the action, from Jeff Goldblum’s eccentric and entertaining Grandmaster to Tessa Thompson’s alcoholic but strong Valkyrie, and of course Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) have plenty of fantastic banter between them. Thor: Ragnarok‘s humor really is its strongest feature and it’s some of the best the MCU has to offer.

But what about the story? If you’re looking for this to be the Marvel film that bucks the routine style of previous films, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The incredible electronic, neon, fantasy aesthetic is a very cool coat of paint on the same old formula. Heroic actions and sacrifice just don’t have much weight to them because everything is a joke in this world. There were numerous conversations where I thought that meaningful character development was coming, but there is never a dramatic payoff. The humor is a constant undercurrent and while it makes the film a lot of fun to watch, it has no depth or staying power because we never connect with the characters or events on anything more than a surface level.

That’s not to say that characters don’t have arcs – they do. This is a hero’s journey for Thor, but other characters must also find out who they truly are if Asgard is going to be saved from the Goddess of Death. That goddess, played by the incredible Cate Blanchett, had potential to be one of the best Marvel villains. Her backstory is intriguing and the film does a great job with the Norse mythology as a whole. Unfortunately, she has little to do other than sling knives around and recite history. She does definitely bring it in the action department, though, and is a worthy foe for Thor and his team. When she’s at her strongest and Thor goes full God of Thunder, it is a sight to see.

Verdict

Thor: Ragnarok plays in an exciting new genre for Marvel. Its overall aesthetic and tone commit fully to the comedic nature of the MCU and results in one of the funniest Marvel films to date. If a fun, entertaining, visually striking, and hilarious experience is what you’re after, this is a must see. It’s too bad that Waititi couldn’t give it a little more depth and heart, though, because that’s what would have truly been something new. As it stands, Thor: Ragnarok will wow you for a few hours, but you’re likely to forget all about it in a few days.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.