Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

2019 #75
Drew Goddard | 142 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Bad Times at the El Royale

If you thought Tarantino copycats died out after the mid-’90s boom in Reservoir Dogs / Pulp Fiction wannabes, well, you’re sweetly naive — those still crop up from time to time, a quarter of a century too late. But the better emulators have evolved along with their inspiration, as writer-director Drew Goddard demonstrates in Bad Times at the El Royale, a film which feels like an imitation of latter-day Tarantino flicks. At least Goddard has the good sense to dodge the carbon-copy style of those Reservoir Dogs mimics by shifting genre, taking some of what QT brought to war movies in Inglourious Basterds and Westerns in The Hateful Eight and applying it to a neo-noir mystery-thriller. He even preempts Tarantino’s own oeuvre by including a Charles Manson-esque cult leader, thereby prefiguring Manson’s role in QT’s own Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Also like Once Upon a Time, El Royale sets its scene in 1969; and, like The Hateful Eight, its setting is an isolated establishment. That’s the eponymous hotel, a destination straddling the California/Nevada state line, which in its heyday attracted celebrities and what we’d now call “influencers”, but has faded since it lost its gambling licence and the wealthy patrons dried up. Now, over the course of one day and night, a variety of customers arrive, strangers, each with secrets, all of which will out in the twists of fate that ensue. All of that plays out in chaptered sections, divided with title cards, that mix in flashbacks and juggle the timeline of the present section as necessary — all of which are familiar Tarantino flourishes, of course.

One thing it shouldn’t’ve copied from Tarantino is the running time: just like many of his recent works, it’s longer than it needs to be. That’s not because the material is bad per se, but because the pacing isn’t tight enough. It seemed to drag its heels for no reason (again, I felt the Tarantino comparison), whereas a tighter pace might’ve contributed some tension, which I rarely felt despite the scenario screaming out for it.

Heavy rain at the El Royale

Well, as the saying goes: if you’re going to steal, steal from the best. Heck, Tarantino has certainly borrowed plenty from his own wide-ranging influences. If you are going to imitate another filmmaker, this is the way to do it: by bringing your own characters and settings and plots and twists to the table. That might sound obvious, but so many of those wannabes are slavish in their borderline-plagiarism. Goddard doesn’t sink to that level overall, though there were some parts I felt were only a couple of steps above it. For example, the whole “the hotel is on the state line” bit seemed quirky for the sake of being quirky, imitating a bit that a filmmaker like Tarantino would use but without quite knowing how to use it (it plays a big role in the opening sequence, after which there’s one slight gag with it before it’s never mentioned again).

But such lapses were outweighed by the good. For one, there’s some very nice photography by Seamus McGarvey. It looks like it was shot on 35mm (I checked and it was, which proves Nolan & co are right when they say it does make a difference), which didn’t always translate too well to the 1080p stream I watched, but I suspect might look all the more stunning in 4K. Visual aside, much of what’s good stems from the characters, especially the strong performances by actors like Cynthia Erivo, Jeff Bridges, and Lewis Pullman. It was those, and in particular how each role comes together in the final act to define the whole character, that definitely elevated the quality of the film for me. And while those three are the highlights, there are also good turns from the likes of Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Chris Hemsworth, and Cailee Spaeny. I’d say more, but so much of the meat of these characters comes from how they present themselves vs what the truth is revealed to be — the less you know, the more there is to uncover.

Rewatch you again soon

That said, I wonder if this is a film that will play better on a rewatch. There are several surprise plot developments I wouldn’t wish to spoil for a first-time viewer, for sure, and I do feel like that’s a worthy filmmaking tool (I don’t agree with that research that ‘proved’ audiences enjoy something more if they know the story beforehand — you don’t appreciate it more, you just appreciate different stuff, same as with a rewatch). But I feel like some of that plotting did distract focus from other bits of the film that were working well. Put another way, in my memory the niggles have damped down and I primarily recall the good stuff, so my enjoyment has gone up with hindsight. I’ll have to pick up the 4K disc at some point and give it another go.

For the time being, while I did like it overall, I judged it to be the kind of 4-star effort that could’ve easily become a 5-star top-ten-of-the-year film if it had just polished up everything that I felt didn’t work.

4 out of 5

Bad Times at the El Royale is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Hell or High Water (2016)

2017 #19
David Mackenzie | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Hell or High Water

Oscar statue2017 Academy Awards
4 nominations — 0 wins

Nominated: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing.





The line between right and wrong, legal and illegal, is blurred once again by the writer of Sicario in this tale of two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) committing a series of bank robberies for reasons beyond greed, and the two Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) hunting them down.

I don’t think it would be unkind to describe Hell or High Water as a genre picture: it’s a crime thriller about bank robbers and the police out to catch them, with its setting and tone also bringing something of the Western — or, rather, neo-Western. (It bugs me a little when people refer to films not set in the Old West as “Westerns”, because that seems an inherent part of the genre to me. Naturally, the term “neo-Western” has already been coined, and I feel it’s one we should start using more widely.) There is something more to it than that though, which might explain its slightly incongruous presence among 2017’s Best Picture nominees. In part it’s a social drama, the characters’ motivations based in very topical concerns, including their plan that represents a form of revenge against the banks who have it coming.

Pair of crooks

In another part it’s a character drama. Indeed, the acting is the best part. Jeff Bridges subsumes himself in the character, an old lawman on the verge of retirement, but still sharp and capable, who won’t know what to do with himself once he’s put out to pasture — this is his last great hurrah. He got all the plaudits because he’s Jeff Bridges, but it doesn’t feel massively outside his wheelhouse. Conversely, Chris Pine is practically a revelation. Best known for leading blockbusters, here he convinces as a father who’s finally trying to do the right thing for the future of his kids, whether that thing is legal or not. When these two finally come face to face, it’s nail-biting. That’s to do no disservice to Ben Foster, as Pine’s wildcard brother, who perhaps has less honourable intentions; or Gil Birmingham as a fellow Ranger, who Bridges spends most of the film mercilessly teasing, though it turns out conceals an underlying affection for his friend.

Credit is also definitely due to director David Mackenzie, who certainly has an eye for a shot and a way with constructing an action sequence, for which credit must also be due to editor Jake Roberts. Similarly to cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, who evokes a dusty West Texas with its own kind of sandblasted desolate beauty.

Pair of cops

Hell or High Water is a very good film, a neo-Western crime thriller genre movie that is exceptionally well directed, shot, and performed. Yet somehow it feels out of place among the Best Picture nominees — like, it’s not that good. Of course, Oscar has a long history of nominating films that aren’t good enough, and Hell or High Water is better than most of them. So while I don’t feel I can stretch to giving it five stars, I certainly recommend it highly.

4 out of 5

Hell or High Water is available on Amazon Prime Video UK from today.

Starman (1984)

2016 #14
John Carpenter | 115 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

In this sci-fi romance, an alien intercepts the invitation included on the Voyager 2 space probe and tries to visit Earth, but is shot down. Taking the form of Karen Allen’s recently deceased husband, Jeff Bridges, he forces her to drive him to Arizona, where his people will rescue him in three days — if they can escape the attention of the government agents chasing them, anyway.

Starman can most pithily be summarised as “John Carpenter does Steven Spielberg”. Almost literally, in that it’s like a cross between E.T. and Always: Bridges’ comical alien learns Earth customs while trying to get home, and Allen’s widow deals with her bereavement while her husband is still ‘there’ (sort of). Of course, Always was actually made five years later, but Columbia Pictures in fact turned down the project that would develop into E.T. in favour of this movie. That’d be E.T., the highest-grossing film of all time for 11 years. Oops.

Although it may not have been the same box office hit or developed into the same cultural touchstone, Starman is certainly not a bad movie. Bridges negotiates a fine line between alien and mannered as the titular visitor who speaks faltering English and struggles with our ways, and I’d argue he always comes down on the right side of said line. Oscar voters certainly agreed, rewarding his performance with a Best Actor nomination (he lost to F. Murray Abraham for Amadeus). Allen is an engaging presence also, and between work like this and Raiders of the Lost Ark it’s a wonder she wasn’t a bigger star.

The film is an oddity on director John Carpenter’s CV, which came about due to The Thing being a box office disaster — Carpenter needed to make a very different kind of movie so he could keep getting work in Hollywood. Nonetheless, Carpenter’s horror roots are on display: there are stalking POV shots as the alien arrives at Allen’s house, and then it grows a human body, a sequence in which the ugliest (prosthetic) baby you’ve ever seen stretches and creaks as it grows into an adult in mere minutes. It’s pretty freaky. Indeed, as per the BBFC, Starman “contains mild language, sex, violence and sci-fi horror”, but is rated PG. Ah, the good old days!

Though it may not quite be a genre classic, the recently-announced remake from Shawn Levy, director of Night at the Museum, Date Night, and Real Steel (not to mention the lambasted Pink Panther reboot) seems ill-advised. While I liked the two of his movies I’ve seen well enough, Levy is a long way from being a John Carpenter, and I don’t envy whoever gets the lead role — copy Bridges and you’ll likely be a pale imitation; do something different and you’ve got to measure up to a very effective take on alienness.

On the bright side, maybe it will shine more attention on this half-forgotten original. I only watched it because I was on a bit of a Carpenter kick and it was available on Netflix, but I’m glad I stumbled across it.

4 out of 5

Starman is on Film4 at 6:45pm today.