Saturday, April 17, 2021

Bad Times at the El Royale

This film is a vibe for a couple different reasons. First, I went to it in the theater as a morning matinee back when I was on the AMC Stubs monthly program (unlimited films for $25!) and really enjoyed it and I really like thinking back to that time in my life. I only had one grad class, was working part time nights, and my kids were all in school every day so I just spent my weekdays going to whatever films were showing in the morning. Jesus, what a life! Why did I stop doing this, exactly? And second, I grew up in a small town that had a very seventies-holdover supper club and motel called The Sheep Shedde that was like a low-rent, small town version of the El Royale. Upon this reviewing I found myself longing for the old place, which has since been updated from its 70s design and decor, and wishing I could actually spend time inside a real El Royale (although it wasn't a real structure, only a set built for the film). If I had millions of dollars I would buy that place and live there. Tri-colored panes of vertical decorative windows and CALIFORNIA/NEVADA-SHAPED KEYS FOR EACH ROOM! 

Bad Times at the El Royale, 2018 d. Drew Goddard

Written by: Drew Goddard

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Chris Hemsworth

Summary: Early 1970s. Four strangers check in at the El Royale Hotel. The hotel is deserted, staffed by a single desk clerk. Some of the new guests' reasons for being there are less than innocent and some are not who they appear to be," (IMDB)

Be patient with this! It takes its time and scatters its payoffs all the way through, but this film is a mighty good story. Five good stories wrapped up in one, actually, but that's why you need to be patient, each one of the characters is important enough to come with a history, and each history plays a huge part in the characters' actions once at the El Royale. Bring snacks, take breaks, or rewind certain parts if you need to, but stay with it! The story is clever and brilliantly told but you have to pay attention. Long films that take a while to get going can be difficult to stay the course through, but that's where the technical stuff comes in for periodic hits between the measured storytelling.

I mean, look at these: 

The music, whether it's pop selections from the 70s era or instrumental fill, is always interesting. Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), the vocalist, carries whatever scene she's in by simply being there, whether it's singing or speaking, her voice is captivating. The pop selections chosen do a lot in the way of establishing the timeframe but also in giving the film a hip sort of relevance that the scenery couldn't swing on its own. The grandness and preserved look of the El Royale seems to be straight out of a Kubrick film, which holds true throughout as the sinister nature of the hotel is eventually uncovered bit by bit, but at the same time, the characters reflect on their choices and experiences, bringing in pieces of the outside world (pop music, former relationships, medical diagnoses) the importance of which doesn't quite make itself known until the last third of the film. I watched True Romance a few days ago and this story felt like a stylized, longer version of that, with muted colors, smarter people, and less Tarantino/Scott but more Kubrick/Soderbergh. 

The actors all had great chemistry together; the theme of evil or decay is worth examining (El Royale as a place where all potential, past and present, goes to die/the white male capitalist system has ruined everyone, even those who sought to exploit it), and as I've said, the visuals are brilliant. For those with the attention span, a veritable feast for eyes, ears, and brain! 

P.S. I don't really agree with the Chris Hemsworth/heavy marketing they decided to go with for this, I mean I get that he sells tickets just by his aesthetic but he was a supporting character, not a lead, and his scenes were by far the least interesting and my least favorite (until the very end, I suppose).