17 December 2018

First Impressions: Bad Times at the El Royale

I saw this movie like two months ago. It was the one with the chick singing to the bearded dude, right? I sort of remember it. Now that my life has finally slowed down some I can actually write about these things. Let's dive into a big spoiler-y thing about Bad Times at the El Royale.

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I knew remarkably nothing about this movie. Like, I did not know the cast at all. We walked in late and my first thought was "Jeff Bridges is in this movie?" Except I DID know this because I previewed it last year. Convenient that 10 months on I forgot every single thing about the premise, except that it was some kind of hotel shoot 'em up.

That's basically all we have to run on when the movie starts. It's clear that not all is quite right with any character we're introduced to, and that eventually goes for the Hotel itself. It cleverly sits half in Nevada and half in California which is a unique premise that never really goes anywhere. Knowing absolutely nothing was cool, though, because as we meet each of the slimeball characters in this film we learn that everyone is deceiving everyone else, until we get to Chris Hemsworth, who is just an awful human being but someone who is at least comfortable with his awfulness. More on him later.

Right off the bat we learn that this is a Tarantino film by way of Drew Goddard. Goddard is a very competent director and everything in this movie looks and feels right, but as soon as I realized that, it took me out of the moment a little bit. There's title cards, cool dialogue, an interactive structure, and little character moments and flashbacks for everyone. It's not nearly as unified or coherent in theme as a Pulp Fiction (1994) or Inglorious Basterds (2009), which brought me out of what they were trying to do. The texture seemed to overtake the text, as in an attempt to be cool seemed to overrule the actual story.

For instance, most of the film seems to keep going despite who we are supposed to be focused on. Sure we get little moments based on Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Ervio, or Dakota Johnson, but it's not Rashomon (1950) - style or anything. The film would have been fine without it. Texture over text.

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That distracting structure aside, the film is generally very good. There are a few plot threads that go no where, mostly due to characters dying SPOILER, but we warned you anyway - Jon Hamm's FBI character seems to perish without much consequence for anyone. We also don't seem to ever get much insight into the Hotel's nefarious owners, but that's also part of the point. There's some ever-present mystery with a few things - a highly valuable roll of film containing a famous person caught in a lewd act, a Manson-family esque group with shady origins, a bank robber trying to piece together his old heist. Unresolved threads might also be part of the point - any one of these tales might have made for a good film on their own. Like a hotel, though, we only get glimpses of all these shattered lives as they bash together for a few days they happen to be in the same location.

I said this was very good, right? Despite being a little indulgent in showcasing 70s soul songs, Cynthia Ervio is a revelation here, tough for being a relative newcomer among Hamm, Bridges, and Hemsworth. BlacKkKlansman (2018) did this, too - maybe I'm just not into 70s Soul enough, but the singing scenes went on forever. Indeed this flick is nearly 2.5 hours and while most of that moves, an editor would have helped.

It sure looks good. From the fluorescent lights of the hotel to each color-coded room to rain, fire, and snowy flashbacks this is an attractive film. It sells itself on being something rarer and rarer - a mid-range original Adult-focused action / drama / mystery. Part of its pedigree is the impeccable camera work, lighting, and framing which are all top notch. The camera moves inside secret rooms, passageways, and ideas revealing more and more as we blast our way deeper into the seedy chaos under the surface of the hotel. It's rad.

The film reaches its peak with a mostly shirtless Chris Hemsworth sneering and grandiose, easily earning Villain of the Year status in a year where he also fought fucking Thanos, so it's truly a sight to see. The film develops his svengali-hood and allure over poor Dakota Johnson's sister in an ever present menace and manipulation. There's some really great character work between abducted and abductee here, even as Dakota seems like the villain, then hero, but ultimately pretty gray. There are no heroes in this story. Except Cynthia Ervio.

Also walking that line is the Bell Boy, whose name nor actor I know not (for the record I quite enjoy blithely discussing films based on actors and what's-it-faces. I'll continue). He too has a well-developed character, from ordinary slacker to drug addict to murderer blackmailer to being manipulated himself to finally the hero we all deserve. It's a little deus ex machina, but at a steep enough price that Goddard gets away with it.

All in all El Royale works more than it fails, and certainly more than it deserves to. I was hoping it might sneak into an underdog "Best of 2018" slot, but not really. Maybe Top 25 though, and that's rad, too.

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