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.

Baby Driver (2017)

2017 #89
Edgar Wright | 113 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English & American Sign Language | 15 / R

Baby Driver

It felt like half (at least) of the film-loving internet had somehow had a chance to see Baby Driver before its release on Wednesday, but I’m going to throw my two cents into the ring anyhow. Not that it makes a great deal of difference because, like most other folks, I bloody loved it.

Written and directed by Edgar Wright, director of the Cornetto trilogy and not of Ant-Man, the story focuses on getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort), a fundamentally good kid who has ended up suckered into a life of crime, working for robbery kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey) and a rotating array of criminal compadres. An accident as a kid left Baby with “a hum in the drum” — tinnitus, if you want to get medical about it — meaning he listens to music all the time to drown it out, and also choreographs his daring drives (not to mention his walks down the street, etc) to the music he hears. One day he bumps into Debbie (Lily James) and falls in love, which happily coincides with his “one last job” for Doc. But once you’re in it’s hard to get out, and Baby again finds himself doing one more “one last job”, with a particularly volatile crew…

Baby Driver is a movie about three things: driving, music, and love. As Guillermo del Toro put it, it’s a kind of fable, or fairytale, with Baby as the prince and Debbie as the princess. In this respect it’s a change of pace for Wright, ditching the almost-spoof comedy of his previous successful movies for something more emotionally earnest. Not in a bad way, but in a kind of pure way, like a fairytale. This fairytale world isn’t all castles and dragons, of course — instead it’s full of violent criminals and fast cars; but it’s also a world where you can synchronise your getaway driving to the music on your iPod, so it’s hardly mired in gritty realism.

No little green bags here

There’s a definite edge of Wright’s buddy Quentin Tarantino to this world: a cast of crooks delivering snappy, quotable dialogue to a near-constant soundtrack of deep cuts selected from the director’s music collection (plus a few familiar tunes for good measure) — the style of QT comes to mind more than once while watching. Fortunately Baby Driver’s style is more than homage or copycatting. Although it’s not a straight-up comedy, Wright does bring his own comedic touch (there are several big laughs), and the purity of emotion — that fairytaleness again — isn’t from Tarantino’s wheelhouse either. Plus, visually it presents a brighter and more colourful space than Tarantino normally inhabits. Most of the action takes place in the golden daylight of Atlanta and is filled with popping primary colours. There’s much great work by DP Bill Pope.

Though the soundtrack may have a Tarantino feel in its construction, that’s less prevalent in its usage. Characters communicate through song — not by singing them (most of the time — Baby first notices Debbie because she’s singing “B-A-B-Y”), but by connecting through them (that singing is followed by a discussion of songs featuring her name — both of them). The songs Baby chooses for boogieing around his small apartment, or for dancing down the street on a coffee run (in a title sequence that is marvellously choreographed, with dozens of small details timed perfectly to the track), help illuminate his true character — sweet and romantic — which is hidden by the sullen silence he adopts whenever around criminals.

B-A-B-Y Baby

Some have criticised the film for a lack of character, reckoning Baby’s silence distances him from the viewer so we never build a connection and don’t root for him. Frankly, I’m not sure what film they were watching. No spoilers, but Baby first opens up with something endearing and ingratiating in scene one. Right at the start. It could barely be any closer to the studio logos (and it kinda wouldn’t work if it were). I’m not arguing he’s the most charismatic lead ever to grace the silver screen, but Elgort makes fine fist of selling Baby as both a quiet, focused driver and a sweet, likeable, cheer-on-able hero.

And if you want character in general, the rest of the cast has it in spades, with an array of supporting roles that are as colourful as the cinematography. Recognisable faces like Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and John Bernthal get to cut loose as crooks who each have their own kooks, while lesser-known names like CJ Jones (as Baby’s foster father) and Eiza González (as the Bonnie to Hamm’s Clyde) make a mark too. Lily James may be placed in a dream-figure damsel role, but that doesn’t mean she can’t hold her own at times too. She’s not Wonder Woman, but she’s not a Manic Pixie Whatever That Phrase Was either.

Mozart in a go-kart

So, the one major thing I’ve only touched on fleetingly thus far is the main thing the film has attracted attention for: the driving. Done for real by stunt drivers with not a lick of CGI, that knowledge means it packs a viscerally real punch. But it’s not just snobbery: this is genuinely breathtaking action, slickly planned, masterfully performed, magnificently shot and edited. It’s this year’s Fury Road — a kinetic action spectacle made with skill rather than hand-waiving fast-cuts. Even more impressively, it’s been choreographed to music, but not in a draw-attention-to-itself dance-routine-y way. Perhaps saying it’s been synced to the music would be more accurate. Either way, it only heightens the effect. This extends beyond the car chases, too, including one marvellously musical shootout, the gunfire serving as percussion. The sound design throughout is exemplary. This is a movie that deserves to be remembered come awards season. Perhaps, again like Fury Road, some love will extend beyond the technical categories, too. Wright seems deserving of Best Director recognition, just like George Miller was.

But such back-patting is for much later in the year. For now, just revel in the gleeful moviemaking verve of a flick that already seems destined to be remembered as one of the greatest car chase movies ever produced.

5 out of 5

Baby Driver is in cinemas many places right now, but not everywhere. It’ll be worth the wait, guys.

It placed 2nd on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.