Bad Times at El Royale

It’s been 30 years since I wrote film reviews in print, and a good few years since I last did random reviews on the original incarnation of Bewbob, so in this day of ‘see anything you want on Netflix/ Amazon Prime whatever dodgy stream you might happen to use, I thought I’d start reviewing movies I actually make the effort to go to the cinema to see.

Rather than drawn out reviews, these will all be 500 words or less with a very basic premise: what made me get off my lazy ass and go and see it, and was it worth it…

So here we go…

Bad Times at the El Royale

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Before:

Why see it? Written and directed by Drew Goddard, whose work on Buffy, Angel, Cabin in the Woods, Season 1 of Daredevil and the high profile, but slightly less interesting to me ‘The Martian’ meant it was going to be of interest. The cast looks strong: Jeff Bridges, Chris Hemsworth, Jon Hamm, Dakota Fanning* …The premise promised (try saying that five times fast after a beer) to be the sort of thing that appeals to me: a group of strangers find themselves at a motel where they gradually discover they’ve got things in common. The trailer suggested a twisty-turny, possibly Tarantinoesque flavoured drama.

The initial reviews had been good although some seemed to feel it runs out of steam a bit before the end.

At first glance the premise reminds me a little bit of ‘Identity’ – a James Mangold movie I seemed to enjoy more than most did. (See link for underrated thrillers.)

After:

How close to expectations was it? Well it was a hotel not a motel, and the strangers didn’t actually have things in common, and it was Dakota Johnson NOT Dakota Fanning…apart from that, not a million miles off…

The movie opens with a stranger entering a hotel room. The first couple of minutes are almost like a filmed play, and I wonder if it’s a nod from the director towards the likes of Agatha Christie’s stage performed pieces…get ready for a 10 Little Indians Opening scene: starts like a play- then quickly becomes very filmic.  And then it flips into movie mode to make it very clear this is going to play around with stuff…

There’s more than a whiff of Hitchcock from the off – not just the hotel setting (hotel/ motel…close enough), but in an opening scene score which more than hints at Bernard Herrmann, the voyeurism aspect, the eggy McGuffins throughout the film (note – the McGuffins aren’t actually eggy – I just wanted to crowbar that particularly bad pun in.) and in particular – and in particular when drawing on the Psycho comparisons that anything can happen to anyone at any time…

Starting with what sounds like a bad joke – A Priest (Jeff Bridges), a Vacuum Cleaner Salesman (Jon Hamm) and a ‘Negro’ (Cynthia Erivo – and the term is Hamm’s character’s definition, not mine…) walk into a hotel…as they try to check in, a fourth guest turns up – a young hippie woman (Dakota Johnson) also turns up to book herself into a room. A somewhat reluctant desk receptionist (Lewis Pullman) checks them in – and if he’s not a Norman Bates, he’s definitely a bit ‘strange’…

And then we’re off to the races: each check into their own rooms, and we find that each has brought with them a lot of baggage. Over the course of a night nothing happens, and they all leave happily – wouldn’t that be a twist?

Is the film reminiscent of Tarantino? Yeah, in its’ playing around with time frames, and title cards (for one brief moment horrible memories of 4 Rooms popped into my head) but it’s also pretty obviously Goddard in dialogue, filmic choices and atmosphere.  (And what is it with the man and one-way-mirrors??)

The cast are uniformly strong: Bridges is chameleon like in his character; even evoking real sympathy in such a pulp piece, Jon Hamm is Don Draper if he hadn’t made it big, and Chris Hemsworth comes across like a hybrid of Charles Manson and Randall Flagg from Stephen King’s The Stand – if his character is a little one-dimensional, I think it’s missing the point. We’re talking archetypes here, not fully-rounded characters.

I have to say, it was the two actors that I hadn’t heard of before that really stood out – Cynthia Erivo is fantastic, and her singing voice, an important element of the plot and used to dramatic effect, is quite incredible. Lewis Pullman too was very good in one of the more layered characters in the movie.

The film certainly has its’ twists – as surprising within the story to the characters as they are to us, the audience – the clever use of time play helps this, while not making the movie a one-trick-pony that we don’t understand until it finally all gels together at the end (a criticism, to be fair, that could be leveled at Identity – which is really one long build up to a punch line). No – here things, and characters motivations are explained (at least partly) are explained as we go along; often making the viewer wait a few minutes as to find out “WTF just happened!”, but not to the point where irritation might set in.

Does it flag in the third act? Well…I can see why that criticism could be leveled at it – it’s less subversive than what’s gone before, and it is probably what has to happen in a, to quote The Texas Chainsaw Massacre tagline, ‘who will survive and what will be left of them’ movie…but I had no problems with it. For the old cliched ‘got them all tied to chairs’ situation, I thought the tension was handled well, if not as creepy as what had come before.

All in all, a good afternoon out, and, if I were to start a ‘was it worth it’ summary rather than apply any marking – hell yes, it was a fun film and certainly lived up to my hopes.

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