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

The Strangers: Prey At Night

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Year: 2018:
Directed by: Johannes Roberts
Cast: Christina Hendricks, Martin Henderson, Bailee Madison, Lewis Pullman

Written by Tom Sheffield

10 years ago ‘The Strangers’ hit cinemas and made just about everyone double check their locks when they got home afterwards. The film saw three masked strangers terrorize Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman in an isolated vacation home they were staying in and made everyone scared to answer their door at night.

“Why are you doing this to us?

“Because you were home…”

Even just typing that line sends chills down my spine and gives me flashbacks of how truly tense and brilliant the first film was.. Sadly, this sequel was completely devoid of any of the brilliant qualities of its predecessor.

Arriving 10 years after the first film, this sequel had the potential to really be something special had some real effort been made to be so. Instead, the film feels like it’s taken a leap back 30 years and sticks to the traditional traits of a classic 80’s horror film, making it feel far too predictable and familiar. Thankfully, the film takes some of the better qualities from it’s 80’s inspirations and makes them work in its favor.

‘Prey at Night’ focuses on Cindy (Christina Hendricks), Mike (Martin Hendseron), and their two teenagers, Kinsey (Bailee Madison) and Luke (Lewis Pullman). Kinsey is the rebel child (the Ramones t-shirt is a dead give away) and like all rebellious teenagers, 90% of of her conversations with her parents are arguments. The family move into a seemingly empty trailer park owned by a relative, but they aren’t in their temporary home for more than 5 minutes before their night becomes one they’ll have to fight to survive.

The film spends it’s first act giving us an insight into this typical family, and obviously trying to get us to form some sort of connection with them before the shit hits the fan later on. Because most of time is spent focusing on a sulky teenager I felt like I didn’t really care who ended up dying. Not having the slightest bit of care for the characters diminishes any sense tension for me, and it’s a shame because that’s what made the first one so memorable.

The Strangers themselves are still as creepy as I remembered, but as the film progresses it feels like the film falls into ‘silly slasher’ territory and they lost that essence of creepiness. Ryan Samul did an incredible job with the cinematography on this film and both he and Roberts fully utilised the open space of the trailer park during some of the more intense scenes, but also made me feel very claustrophobic during the scenes in trailers. There’s one scene around a pool that I feel was incredibly well shot and it really felt like it had come straight out of an 80’s slasher flick. The Stranger’s actions may have left me scratching my head, but their scenes were incredibly well shot and because of this their presence on-screen was still somewhat fear inducing.

Obviously riding the 80’s vibe it was aiming for, ‘Prey at Night’s’ soundtrack is exclusively made up of 80’s tunes, and the aforementioned pool scene has an 80’s track playing as neon lights illuminate an axe wielding murderer in a mask – it’s an incredibly well shot homage to the slashers it takes inspirations from. Johannes Roberts killer direction (see what I did there) is thankfully one of the few admirable qualities of this film.

Whilst not bringing anything new to the table, ‘Prey at Night’ did just about manage to keep my attention during its short 85 minute runtime. Despite (an as expected) slow start, once the family come face to face with the titular characters the film’s pace picks up, but each character’s questionable actions and boring dialogue really hinder this sequel. Slasher fans will find more to like in this sequel than I have, especially within the plot itself. However, I find myself admiring the technical aspects of this film far more than anything else it had to offer.

If you’re a fan of the first I would definitely still recommend giving ‘Prey at Night’ a watch, and as previously mentioned, the slasher fans amongst you will likely find this an enjoyable 85 minutes.

Tom’s Rating

3

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