'Good Time' review: The Safdie Brothers' hypnotic New York crime-thriller is more like a great time
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‘Good Time’ review: The Safdie Brothers’ hypnotic New York crime-thriller is more like a great time

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“Don’t be confused. It’ll only make things worse for me.” There are an estimated 8 million people living in New York City. The Safdie Brothers’ vicious, rollicking, desperate Good Time is a dread-inducing, stomach-churning kind of modern classic, which chains itself to one person. Following a bank robbery gone wrong, Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson) attempts that night to get his brother out of jail, the film is as claustrophobic as it is sprawling, as crushing as it is awe-inspiring, as reactionary as it is necessarily deconstructionist, as grounded as it is otherworldly.

The score pulsates throughout the entire film, unlike Hans Zimmer’s score in Dunkirk, which feels awkwardly coated atop the film, all bombast and authoritarian, Oneohtrix Point Never’s elegant work for the film seems grown in tandem, like the staking for a tomato plant. The aesthetics of Good Time waiver on the precipice of science fiction, with the score reminiscent of Blade Runner’s indulgent diegesis, a wheelchair lift synthesized and distorted, and the clammy neon, a welcome revision after the oversaturated, objectifying hues of Gaspar Noe and Nicholas Winding Refn, forming the sense that Connie’s world is isolated akin to a bully’s, abusive and solitary, a con life.

The film is tense and brisk and brusque, the sort that’s nearly inevitable with such close, jarring cuts. But the fast editing doesn’t account for the perverted genius of its imagery, such as a bright red paint tag car crash, or the double-sided Adventureland opus.

Pattinson has long been one of our great underrated performers, but here he exhibits a life, an energy beyond his strange magnetism. The human calculation as a performance that has been such a gift, that empathetic, maniacal precision, is put into overdrive, an overheated iPhone glitching out. His work ranks only against Jean-Pierre Leaud’s work in The Death of Louis XIV among the year’s best male performances. The surrounding actors, an orbit of unfortunate side characters, are universally great. Buddy Duress damn near steals the show in a centerpiece flashback, a blurry 7/11 slushie of a heist folly. Jennifer Jason Leigh continues to have the most interesting, diverse body of work for any American actress working today.

Much of the criticism propped against the film has to do with Ben Safdie’s performance as Nick, Connie’s mentally disabled brother, but I wager that this is misguided. Though his severe debilitation may register as a bit trashy (a common tendency throughout the film that I find more piercing than lazy), his treatment is questionable. Among other things, Good Time is the anti-Of Mice and Men, suggesting Nick a victim of toxic love; on a walk through a mental ward, Connie. There are intimations of domestic violence from both Nick and Connie’s grandmother and Connie, but rather than featuring as explicit reference points, they inform the silence of Connie’s tight grip on Nick’s shoulders in an alleyway or Nick’s momentary pauses in the final scene. The treatment of Ben Sadie’s character feels nothing if not totally respectful; He gets aggressive but not ragingly so when he gets sad, or cannot comprehend something, and the film never asks for pity or to excuse his obliviousness. The Safdies offer a realistic depiction of mental disabilities, brimming with humanity and support, never once relegated to a plot device by anyone except his own brother.

The film’s cultural criticism extends further. The tabs of LSD on Pepe cartoons, the stunning use of the N-word towards the end of the film, the black masks, the money laundering service, the comforting atmosphere of Leigh’s mother’s apartment, all signify a dimension of honesty and basically daring bravura machismo in its underpinnings. Labeled somewhat correctly as trolling, akin to von Trier’s formal gibberish in Nymphomaniac, the Safdies refuse to ignore socio-political backdrops, pushing the queasy implications of Connie’s indiscriminate actions brilliant through the dimensions of Leigh’s fallen class, or Rose Gregario’s Lauren’s mere happenstance, shifting from a stranger’s kindness to a girl uselessly jailed because of her race. The Safdies nudge and encourage a sort of savage pleasure in Connie’s increasingly desperate antics, even as the film grows increasingly sickeningly, vague kindness exploited by context. Connie’s vicious beating of Barkhad Abdi’s security guard is tinged with subconscious bias and a horrific layer of nervous sweat, but more disturbing is the police’s. The film is peppered with narrow escapes and plot devices, but they are deliberate; Connie gets by because of his manipulation and his identity, easily slipping through. The Safdies view class as a major limitation, but one further complicated and far surpassed by those of racial conflict.

Far from a metaphysical meditation on how society guides morality, Good Time physically embodies New York on a geographic and individual so profoundly, and fluidly. The camera traces the city from the ground level, only shifting during several transport interludes, where zooms to monitor a car, revealing an empty street, then a block occupied by so many damn people. That a film can have so tight a narrative but encompass in such a distinctly contemporary fashion one of the most iconic cities in the world is one of the central magic paradoxes of this micro-tragedy epic.

Like the recent Nocturama, Bertrand Bonello’s sexy French terrorist masterpiece, which opened the same week beside Good Time in New York and Los Angeles, Good Time’s power is built on a mixture of impeccable craft, a deep sense of place and contradictory philosophical impulses.

Connie is a bad person, and yet we allow his point of view because the film allows our engagement and horror to reflect a certain helplessness. Connie has never been taken to task, never gone to prison, and the audience garners futile hopes to escape free as well. The film is gross and ugly, to be sure, but there is a beauty to its embrace of every moment of stillness, and its realization of how destabilizing capitalism can be when even one person abuses their position of power. That Nick finds help from social workers feels as uplifting as it is a cynical comfort, that the system has worked out for a single person, with so many other still reeling from its faults. Good Time moves too fast to fully register all these questions on initial impact, but they latch hooks into the brain for days afterward.

Good Time is a great crime film because of how gleefully its submerges itself in the problems of the genre and the generosity with which it treats its own trolling. Through Connie, the film offers an anthropological X-Ray of New York antithetical to the tenants of any film in its class. Early Michael Mann would never let his affection sour as it does here. Connie’s fatalistic course of action is inevitably greeted with punishment, but the arrest is neither moralizing nor comforting. His privilege is enabling, above all else, the collateral damage he inflicts on the lives of those with whom he comes in contact is infinitely more damning than Pattinson’s last scene. Surely, that same scene shifts its focus, finding a frame with the closest thing to a wiser perspective, to the tragic events outside the cop car. This is not the story of Connie, but a Romance Apocalypse tour of New York City. It’s just pretty darn easy for Connie to run his shit here. Healing comes from the system healing the people, and the people healing the system. Pulling one over on the audience is not a victimless crime, but that’s sort of what you sign up for. Walk across the room if you ever feel powerless. End credits. Pet the crocodiles.

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‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ review: Drew Goddard delivers a wildly entertaining noir thriller

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Bad Times at the El Royale
20TH CENTURY FOX

A lounge singer, vacuum salesman, shifty priest, two strange sisters, and a cult leader walk into a bar. Or rather, a hotel. What happens next makes for one of the best films of 2018. Bad Times at the El Royale is Drew Goddard’s second film that he has both written and directed following 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods. Reteaming with the latter’s Chris Hemsworth and bringing in a fresh cast of amazing talent, Goddard manages to deliver a wildly entertaining film that is certain to please any fan of the noir thriller genre.

The El Royale, an infamous hotel on the boundary of California and Nevada near Lake Tahoe, is home to countless strange occurrences. This film follows the lives of seven strangers whose paths diverge during a heavy storm at the bi-state establishment. Aspiring singer Darlene (Cynthia Erivo), Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), traveling vacuum salesman Laramie (Jon Hamm), and nervous bellboy Miles (Lewis Pullman) all cross paths one night as they check in to the hotel. While each of these characters brings their own peculiarities, things get weirder when two sisters Emily (Dakota Johnson) and Rose (Cailee Spaeny) show up, pursued by eccentric cult leader Billy Lee (Hemsworth). All of these guests aim to discover what really lies behind the walls of this eerie hotel, as long as they can survive until morning to find out.

Creative and original screenwriting is an art form that, nowadays, is quite rare to find in a filmmaker. The majority of large studio films tend to be style over substance, but luckily, this film has an incredible amount of both. Each film that Goddard has written tends to be completely varied in genre. From Cloverfield to The Cabin in the Woods to The Martian, he has made it clear how diverse his skill set is. Bad Times at the El Royale is a 70’s-set, Tarantino-esque, crime thriller that is not only self-aware, but cleverly references its inspiration. Goddard’s storytelling ability transcends many other modern writers and he does so by simultaneously paying respects to Tarantino while also poking fun at him. Many of the choices throughout this film seem like an homage to the infamous director, including the set design, flashback sequences, unnervingly upbeat soundtrack, and the transitional techniques. Yet the way this story plays out is more of a riff on the crime genre.

The characters’ motivations and their reasons for being at the hotel are not fully explored until the third act of the film and while this may seem boring to some, it only increased the tension that was built throughout. There were a number of twists and turns that had the audience in shock as they were hidden quite well. One of the most interesting aspects of this film is how its characters interact with each other. It is impressive that Goddard is able to write with such timely correctness, absolutely nailing the politics and mannerisms of different classes of people in the 1970s. The dark and dry humor that was utilized in the dialogue seems to be a defining aspect of Goddard’s scripts too, as he effortlessly combines well-written comedy in the drama of the story.

Goddard’s entire script was spectacular, but like most of the screenplays he has written, he has not been the director of the production. That should have been the case here as well. His ideas in his writing will always shine through, but his directing is not always impeccable, and the story did not flow as well as it could have had it been handled by a more experienced director. The pacing throughout the film was strange as the third act dragged on for too long of a time, introducing new concepts that were not given enough time to be fully fleshed out, despite how intense some of the revelations were. Granted, concluding the story of these seven strangers is no easy task, but the resolution could have been given a bit more attention. There were a few plot points that are never fully resolved but still manage to succeed in keeping the audience on their toes, even after the credits roll.

Carmen Cuba’s casting (say that five times fast) was absolutely fantastic. Each member delivered an exceptional performance and fit their respective characters flawlessly. The two best performances came from the young Pullman and the talented Erivo. Pullman played the fidgety bellboy Miles and brought an unbelievable amount of emotion to his role, while Erivo played the confident singer that carried a tense background with her at all times. The audience will undoubtedly find themselves rooting for these two the most and for a good reason.

Once again, composer Michael Giacchino strikes with a marvelously intense score, which paired wonderfully with the soundtrack’s lovely pop songs of the 60s and 70s. Seamus McGarvey’s single-room cinematography and Lisa Lassek’s extended editing were utilized excellently here as well. McGarvey nails the framing of the shots and Lassek incorporates exciting montages with long, dramatic, takes beautifully.

Bad Times at the El Royale knows no such thing as a sophomore slump. While this film has its issues with pacing, practically every other element was masterfully executed. Drew Goddard has truly proven himself as a modern master of the art of screenwriting, as he carefully intertwines his characters’ stories to keep the audience guessing. This satire of the crime genre is absolutely worth the watch and is guaranteed to make you laugh, cry, and everything in between.

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‘A Star Is Born’ review: Bradley Cooper’s Oscar-bound directorial debut is lavishly delightful

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A Star Is Born Shallow
WARNER BROS.

The skeptics scoffed when they heard Bradley Cooper had decided to make his directorial debut with yet another remake of A Star is Born. What could this relative newcomer to the Hollywood hierarchy possibly bring to one of show business’s Ur-myths of ambition, self-destruction and the cruel vagaries of fame? Admittedly, casting Lady Gaga as an unknown singer who becomes a pop sensation was a masterstroke. But would anyone seriously buy the boyishly handsome Cooper as a wasted, washed-up has-been?

It turns out Cooper is not only a judicious and instinctive storyteller behind the camera, but he also delivers one of the finest performances of his career in A Star Is Born, a well-seasoned, handsomely cured slab of showbiz schmaltz that hits all the right pleasure centers. With equal parts glitz and grit, Cooper has successfully navigated the most perilous shoals of making a classic narrative his own, managing to create one of its best iterations to date.

Appropriately enough, “A Star is Born” begins onstage, when Cooper’s character, Jackson Maine, takes a handful of pills and a swig of gin to make it through a packed arena concert. Brandishing a stylish green guitar with scowling swagger, Jackson furiously tears through one of his signature rootsy, hard-driving hits. Filming the sequence in urgent close-ups, Cooper plunges audiences into the deafening world of stardom at its most engulfing peak, made all the more numbing by the cushioned silence of the limo that picks Jackson up after the show.

Desperate for one more drink, the rock star stops in at a little nightclub, where a waitress named Ally delivers a sensationally torchy version of “La Vie en Rose” in the midst of sundry drag routines. He’s smitten, and who wouldn’t be after the most adorable meet-cute of the year, during which a spirited Greek chorus of drag queens comment lustily from the sidelines?

Viewers familiar with previous versions of “A Star is Born” — whose narrative structure goes almost as far back as the medium itself — will already be bracing themselves for what’s to come. But Cooper allows the audience to revel in Jackson and Ally’s flirtations and courtship, which comes into florid bloom along with the tingly excitement of proximate fame, naked desire and unstoppable creativity. Part of the fun of “A Star is Born” is watching Ally, who lives with her starstruck dad (Andrew Dice Clay), pretend to be immune to the seductions Jackson has to offer, which are sexual but also aspirational. When she finally succumbs, the audience does, too. And when he brings her onstage for her big breakout, and Gaga lets loose with those pipes, the moment is electrifying.

Of course, nothing gold can stay. As Jackson’s and Ally’s fates intersect, collide and, finally, fatally diverge, “A Star is Born” lives up to the operatic tragedy hinted at by the arias that often play in the background. Cooper handles those tonal shifts with confidence as well, as sweaty immediacy becomes something more intimate and soul-baring. As an actress, Gaga may not yet possess the range she has as a singer, but with the help of editor Jay Cassidy, the film is shaped to make the most of her gifts. There are sequences in “A Star is Born” when it feels like a showdown between the best eyes in the business. It’s when she sings that she comes radiantly into her own, claiming the screen as totally as Ally claims the spotlight when her turn comes.

In a sly turn, Cooper seems to be doing his best Sam Elliott impersonation until the real Sam Elliott shows up, and it’s clear he’s delivering a performance-
within-a-performance, for reasons that become clear in a cleverly choreographed reveal. There are a few awkward transitions and slightly choppy patches in “A Star is Born,” but Cooper keeps the story on the rails, even when his characters are going off them.

And it’s not just Jackson who slips: As Ally becomes more successful, she starts to resemble a parody of a pop tartlet: one part Britney, one part Katy and no part real. As a study in artifice and authenticity, “A Star is Born” offers a suitably jaundiced glimpse of starmaking machinery at its most cynical, but also its most thrilling and gratifying. In many ways, it’s a paean to the frisson of discovering talent in its rawest, wildest state. And it’s a reminder that self-preservation is crucial to stewarding that untamed force. It’s Ally — and Gaga — who owns the spotlight, stage and screen by the end of “A Star is Born,” which Cooper has succeeded in making earthly convincing and lavishly, deliciously larger-than-life at the same time.

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‘Life Itself’ review: A waste of the cinematic partnership of Annette Bening and Oscar Isaac

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Life Itself
AMAZON STUDIOS

The less said about Life Itself — a truly zany multi-timeline melodrama from the creator of that NBC show that makes everyone cry — the better. A woman is hit by a bus and seems to survive, but then actually dies. A college thesis suggests unreliable narrators have gone “unexamined” in literary history. There’s a Spanish olive oil vineyard, and a lot of talk about dead and missing parents. Antonio Banderas wears linen; a girl dramatically eats a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich without washing her hands first. (I could go on …) And yet: somehow, in this rubble of its bus crashes and love affairs and teary reunions, Dan Fogelman’s Life Itself inspired a photograph that I cannot stop thinking about. It’s the most important photograph I’ve ever seen that did not debut on Beyoncé.com. I’m speaking, of course, about this photo of Annette Bening and Oscar Isaac.

It’s got a simple enough conceit: two movie stars, standing on an anonymous street corner in New York City. It’s winter, or at least fall — they have coats on. Annette Bening, the light of my life, peers ahead, her withering gaze deployed at its full magnitude. It’s an expression that looks a little bit like she believes winter is a curse and a narrative she would very much like to be excluded from, and a little bit like she is watching someone do something loudly and improperly (is this the face that ordered Warren Beatty homeafter the Oscars?). Where Annette looks inquisitive, Oscar Isaac looks searching, kind of like he hasn’t yet argued with Drake fans on the internet, and still has the ability to see the best in people. They are a match made in cinematic heaven, a partnership that should launch a million franchises. Give us this movie now, you cowards! you (okay, I) thought when I scrolled past the paparazzi shot as the movie filmed last year.

You would be (and I was) devastated to realize that the movie itself utterly wastes the pairing so beautifully suggested by this perfect photo. But at least Dan Fogelman gets to it quickly. Annette Bening is Dr. Morris, a sweet-but-firm therapist sitting through a session with a patient who has chosen to replace his obsessive eating with a fantasy-football obsession. She suggests this, and he gets quietly defensive. For reasons that are unclear, Samuel L. Jackson narrates the scene. “Look at that pretty therapist over there,” he says. “That’s a hero right there: amazing smile, silky smooth hair.” Well hello! Let’s celebrate this, you might agree. Annette Bening is serving us glasses with stylish (Warby Parker?) Lucite frames; she’s giving us chunky knits. Her office is full of weird not-quite–West Elm sculptures, the kind that make you not want to get too comfortable. But the office itself is wood-paneled and backlit in such a way that it looks like a womb (or at least what I imagine a womb to look like, although I haven’t been inside one in 24 years), which I personally appreciated!

But Fogelman has other plans for Dr. Morris: She leaves her office for a brisk walk, where she lights her cigarette. She takes a puff, and then Oscar Isaac steps into the frame. They wordlessly acknowledge one another; she makes eye contact and smiles. She steps into the street, holding the gaze. He smiles back, and — crash!

A bus has just killed Annette Bening. There she is, splayed out on the sidewalk, blood pooling around her head. “I can’t believe Dan Fogelman made me face my only natural fear in this world: Annette Bening’s death!!!!!” I scribble in my notebook. Oscar Isaac looks on in horror. I gasp. A perfect screen pairing, wasted by both Dan Fogelman and the M23 downtown bus!

But the movie has even more horrors in store for us. It cuts to Oscar Isaac sitting with a laptop at a big, glass-walled Starbucks. He’s tip-tapping away on the screenplay for his first feature, in which his therapist is hit by a bus. In other words, Annette is not actually dead. Somehow, this egregious and unnecessary rug-pulling is even worse.

Imagine what, in steadier, not-deranged hands, this photo and this gorgeous twosome could’ve been. Bening and Isaac, together onscreen, is just odd enough to be completely delightful. (I smell four-quadrant appeal!) It’s giving me highbrow, Peak TV, Emmys-bait vibes. Consider the possibilities: a detective series, where Annette Bening plays the crotchety veteran who butts heads with her slick young partner, Oscar Isaac. He fumbles around crime scenes, offering obvious observations (not unlike his Star Wars character). She says things like, “Well you would think that, wouldn’t you?” and mutters, “Fucking rookies!” under her breath, but just loud enough so he can hear her and the camera can catch him feeling insecure.

Consider: a Sunday night network drama about a pair of angels who run around New York City shepherding lost souls to Hillsong, or maybe just to a good, quiet brunch spot. As these angels meddle in the lives of others, they get to watch their family members cope with their loss. This would probably air on ABC.

Consider: a Phantom Thread–style romance, in which Annette Bening is the Reynolds and Oscar Isaac is the Alma, and I am the Cyril. Instead of designing dresses, Bening is an irascible sculptor who gets into a foul mood before a gallery opening, and Oscar Isaac makes her avocado toast in the morning, and she looks at it disapprovingly and goes across the street for bagels. The Last Jedi was a movie about Adam Driver’s torso sheen and Laura Dern talking down to Oscar Isaac — imagine the possibilities here!

Consider: Annette Bening as a complicated novelist who minds her own business being artistic and emotionally unavailable until she has to tussle with her daughter’s AP English Literature teacher (Oscar Isaac) over a grade. The teacher starts to hit on her, starting a toxic, whirlwind romance that will almost certainly end in my personal death. Maybe it’s better Fogelman didn’t go with this one, after all.

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