REVIEW: Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

Directed by: Drew Goddard
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Lewis Pullman, Chris Hemsworth

Written by Rhys Bowen-Jones

Drew Goddard is fast-becoming a household name. Having been on the scene for the last 10 or so years, he now has two directorial efforts under his belt, 2012’s cult hit horror-comedy The Cabin in the Woods and now this, a neo-noir mystery thriller with an excellent cast to support it. As with Cabin, El Royale manages to put an enjoyable spin on a classic genre with an impressively surprising and twisty tale of violence and intrigue.

The El Royale Hotel exists on the state line between California and Nevada. A former hot spot for celebrities, it has seen better days and it finds itself as a late night refuge for a band of lovable misfits from across the land. As the hotel guests arrive, the hotel’s secrets reveal itself alongside the hidden pasts of its new inhabitants.

A film such as this – a dialogue-heavy mystery that relies as much on intrigue as it does on action – needs an onboard cast, and Goddard struck gold with those at his disposal. You have a powerhouse like Jeff Bridges, alongside a relative newcomer like Cynthia Erivo, backed up by a terrific actor who is due a leap into the Hollywood big leagues by now in Jon Hamm. That’s not even mentioning Chris Hemsworth in an against-type villain role and Dakota Johnson, one of Hollywood’s hottest rising stars. Everyone engages fully with their character, and it compliments the film beautifully.

In fact, its characters are the film’s strongest suit in my book. Every conversation is fascinating because it’s delivered with panache and passion, Jeff Bridges’ mysterious priest Daniel Flynn is an easy example of this. He takes a shine to Erivo’s equally mysterious (there’s a lot of mystery going on here, as is becoming clear) Darlene Sweet, a struggling singer from Indiana. The two have a conversation over pie about where they’ve come from and where they go is extremely engaging; Bridges, in particular, is terrific in this scene, managing to make me laugh and then pull at my heartstrings only a few lines of dialogue later. El Royale does an excellent job balancing these conversations with action, and this scene is the first example of this; you won’t see the climax of this scene coming and it made me react in a more visceral way than I would have done to a horror jump scare.

I could go on and on about the performances in this film. Jon Hamm impresses me every time I see him, and here it’s no exception. He starts off as Don Draper from Mad Men but with the irritating smarm cranked up to 100, but below the surface, he’s far more charming and genuinely funny than you first think. Dakota Johnson is effortlessly charming despite her villainous nature, pulling you in with her demeanour before stabbing you in the back. Chris Hemsworth, like I said earlier, goes against type as the film’s villain, and he absolutely convinced me that he would have young women fawning over him to do his every bidding. I quite liked Hemsworth here, I saw a different side of him that hasn’t been in his filmography thus far, hopefully, this signals the start of Hemsworth going for more alternative roles.

The film’s MVP is surely Cynthia Erivo though, given her relative lack of experience, but her ability to dominate a scene is unrivalled here. There are multiple scenes that showcase not only her acting skills but her singing ability too. Goddard puts her West End and Broadway background to terrific use. What could seem unnecessary is completely captivating because of how good a singer she is. I could listen to her sing for hours, and I’m honestly furious her versions of classic songs aren’t on the soundtrack.

There is so much good to say about the film that I haven’t even touched on yet. El Royale has extremely pretty visuals, gorgeous neon and bright colours surround the slightly garish hotel décor but it works thanks to its clever lighting, particular as fire comes into play at nightfall. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey is known for his visually compelling style given his experiences on 2014’s Godzilla and 2012’s Avengers Assemble, and it’s put to great use here, managing to make a film set completely within a hotel seem massive at times, sprawling through the dark corridors behind the scenes.

Goddard also excels on both a writing and directing level, for me. As already mentioned, his dialogue is completely engaging, but he has crafted a very delicate story that had to be told in a certain way. Using an easy framing structure of the characters’ rooms split up into chapters, he’s able to delve into the character and develop the story simultaneously. What I found particularly enjoyable was the way the stories overlapped; we’d finish with one character, take a step back in time to follow another character and witness how they affected each other, seeing scenes from different angles that reveal new information. It’s a really impressively design film on that level, and it fits exactly what I like to see in a noir mystery.

The film isn’t without its flaws, however, and that’s largely due to its runtime. I found the story enthralling for 80% of its 140 minutes, but in its final act, it really begins to drag itself out longer than it needs to. I got the impression that Goddard thought he had more loose ends to tie up than he needed to, even though he didn’t but still left a loose end unresolved. The atmosphere in the cinema changed in this final act; the excitable buzz from the people around me had vanished for people checking their watches next to me. It didn’t affect me too badly, but it’s a film that absolutely could’ve shaved 20 minutes off its runtime and it wouldn’t have hampered the film in any way.

Still, for its runtime to be my only real concern, I’d say El Royale is a sterling success. Drew Goddard continues to impress as a young director and I can’t wait to see what he does next. The cast is terrific across the board, hopefully making a star out of Cynthia Erivo and telling the world that Jeff Bridges has a lot of enthusiasm left in him yet. I had high hopes for the film going into it, and though it wasn’t quite the masterpiece I wanted, it’s still a terrific time at the cinema.

Rhys’ Verdict:

4

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Let The Games Begin In New ‘Bad Times At The El Royale’ Trailer

“Seven strangers, each with a secret to bury, meet at Lake Tahoe’s El Royale, a rundown hotel with a dark past. Over the course of one fateful night, everyone will have a last shot at redemption… before everything goes to hell.”

Directed by: Drew Goddard

Cast: Jeff Bridges, Chris Hemsworth, Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Cynthia Erivo, Nick Offerman, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman

Release Date: October 5th, 2018

It’s Time To Check-In In The First Trailer For “Bad Times At The El Royale”

“Seven strangers, each with a secret to bury, meet at Lake Tahoe’s El Royale, a rundown hotel with a dark past. Over the course of one fateful night, everyone will have a last shot at redemption… before everything goes to hell.”

Directed by: Drew Goddard

Cast: Jeff Bridges, Chris Hemsworth, Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Cynthia Erivo, Nick Offerman, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman

Release Date: October 5th, 2018

 

Baby Driver

Year: 2017
Directed by: Edgar Wright
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Lily James, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez

Written by Rhys Bowen Jones

Odeon’s ‘Screen Unseen’ is a regular event in which the cinema chain hand picks a film for an early screening. In the build up to the eventual screening, Odeon release very cryptic clues for the film they’re showing. This film’s clues were “Political hangover,” “Soon shorter star, surrogate shop,” “Tiny, dark, waiting in the wings, “ and “Fingers ‘n Finest formed.” I’ll let you figure out exactly how they link to the film in question, but as you can tell, Edgar Wright’s ‘Baby Driver’ was the ‘Screen Unseen’. For a film to join the ranks of previous ‘Screen Unseen’ films like ‘Moonlight’, ‘The Revenant’, and ‘Whiplash’, Odeon certainly had high hopes for ‘Baby Driver’. Those high hopes were not unfounded. ‘Baby Driver’ is one of the films of the year so far.

‘Baby Driver’ is the story of Baby (Elgort) and his adventures as a getaway driver for mysterious criminal and bank robber Doc (Spacey). As far as the plot goes, giving much else away would ruin some of the surprises and magic you have in store. In ‘Baby Driver’, you have a film where the motto seems to be “it’s not about the destination, it’s how you get there.” Both the film and its title character get from Point A to Point B in the only way they know how; driving really fast to the sound of a really loud, really eclectic iPod. It’s a blast.

From the first scene, Wright lets us into idea of the film. Baby is the getaway driver and he is our lead character; he is the focus of our story. While some of his criminal associates are off performing heists, that is purely background noise to Baby’s enjoyment of music. The first song we hear is ‘Bellbottoms’ by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, a blues-y, headbanger of a song, and the entire heist is ignored in favour of Baby air-guitaring and air-drumming and miming along to the song. Instantly, Baby comes across as charming and likeable and once the driving begins, almost impossibly talented. The first car chase, in the red Subaru that’s all over the trailers, is spectacular. It’s an intense, white-knuckle thrill ride through the streets of Atlanta. There are close shaves, clever tactics, handbrake turns galore, and accompanied by the song in question it becomes one of the best car chases I’ve seen in years. This becomes a common theme. Every car chase or major set-piece in ‘Baby Driver’ is on its own level of awesome.

As a huge fan of Edgar Wright, his Cornetto trilogy, ‘Spaced’, and ‘Scott Pilgrim’, I found his energetic style of filmmaking to be a perfect fit for ‘Baby Driver’. Even small, conversation filled scenes are punctuated with small sound cues at just the right moment or gesture. I got the impression as the film went on that the visuals on screen were so meticulously planned from the get go, almost as if the scenes themselves were filmed with a song in order to truly nail the timings. Everything you see in Baby Driver can be matched to a musical influence of some description, gunshots were in perfect sync with the music playing overtop, and even Doc explaining an upcoming heist had the rhythm of a drum solo. Wright manages to keep the pace and flow of the film at such a high level that I have no doubt that there are moments and jokes that I didn’t catch on first viewing and will require a second or third viewing. What a shame.

Given the talent on show, it should come as no surprise that the performances are terrific across the board, particularly from Elgort, Foxx, and James. Foxx’s Bats is a loose cannon, a difficult business partner when the business is crime and several characters find themselves on the wrong side of Bats. Lily James’ Debora leaves a long-lasting impression too as she comes across so endearingly from her very first appearance. It’s possible that there’s a manic-pixie-dream-girl element to her as she is Baby’s perfect match instantly, but when James pulls off the character so well you can’t help but be swept up along with Baby and his love for her.

Baby Driver’s driving force is no doubt its music. Judging by my Spotify playlist having increased in number by no less than 15 songs, there’s something for absolutely everyone as the song choices span several decades. ‘Baby Driver’ does for 80s blues what ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ did for 70’s rock. ‘Baby Driver’ covers every base it can in a soundtrack that no doubt took almost as long to get right as it did to actually film. A late chase sequence to the sound of a Queen song had my mouth agape for its duration as it was such a perfectly intense song for the visuals on screen. That scene, as well as several others, were utterly breathless and I can’t wait to see them again.

If I had a gripe about Baby Driver, I would say it’s in its third act as some characters make some choices that are questionable, possibly going against what we’ve been shown in the previous 90 or so minutes. One character has been far-removed from the key action until the third act and when they are, they appear to brush off fairly brutal violence very casually. That said, it’s a small gripe that has no bearing on my overall opinion of the film.

‘Baby Driver’ is a blast. It’s exciting, funny, heart-warming, and very original. The performances are terrific, it’s written and directed superbly, and all being well, ‘Baby Driver’ should be one of the big hits of the summer. Edgar Wright, you’ve done it again.

Rhys’ verdict: 9.2/10