Saturday, October 20, 2018

It Came From The Cineplex: Bad Times At The El Royale

Bad Times At The El Royale was written and directed by Drew Goddard. He previously wrote CloverfieldWorld War Z and The Martian. He wrote and directed The Cabin In The Woods. He's also worked extensively in TV, writing for Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Alias and LOST.

Back in 2012, Drew Goddard deconstructed slasher & horror movies with The Cabin In The Woods, which offered a fresh and clever new look at the genre. He does the same thing here in Bad Times At The El Royale, which similarly reexamines film noir and suspense movies and offers a new spin on them.

The best thing about Bad Times At The El Royale is that it's not a sequel, prequel, remake, reboot or reimagining. It's a completely original and self-contained film that tells its own story, and doesn't spend half the run time setting up a cinematic universe. I had absolutely no idea where the story was going or what was going to happen next, and it was absolutely wonderful.

I wouldn't call the movie slow, but it's definitely a slow burn film. It's very deliberately paced and takes its sweet time telling its story, which is a rarity these days. It's actually very Hitchcockian it its execution. Like most of Hitchcock's films, Bad Times At The El Royale features extended takes of characters performing seemingly mundane tasks, and yet you're completely riveted by what's happening. It's quite an achievement.

It also plays around with its timeline, often showing the same event from the point of view of multiple characters. I was less impressed with that aspect of the film, as it was a bit too Tarantino-esque for my tastes.

My only real complaint about the film is its length, as it clocks in at 141 minutes. Normally I don't care how long a movie is if it's entertaining. But 
Bad Times At The El Royale feels like it's about twenty minutes too long. It started to overstay its welcome about halfway through the third act, as I was wishing it would hurry and wrap up all the various subplots.

Chris Hemsworth's sudden appearance late in the third act didn't help either. Once he makes his entrance, it almost feels like a brand new movie's starting up.

These were both minor structural problems though, as this was easily the best film I've seen all year (although I realize that's damning it with very faint praise).

Sadly, so far Bad Times At The El Royale is tanking at the box office. In its first week it grossed a measly $16 million worldwide against its modest $32 million budget. It's gonna have an uphill battle just to break even. That's too bad, as I really like this movie a lot and want to see it succeed.

I have several theories at to why it's flopping. First of all, the film came out at the worst possible time, as the sub-par Venom is inexplicably a hit and siphoning all the box office money away from it. 

Secondly, the fact that it's not a sequel or remake may actually be hurting it. These days the popcorn-munching general public only wants to see things they know, so they can clap and point when they see them. They don't want to have to think or be challenged by an original story.

And lastly, Drew Goddard went to great lengths to keep Bad Times At The El Royale under wraps, in order to keep the plot twists a surprise. I think he went a little too far with the secrecy though, and failed to create any buzz for the film. The general public has no idea what it's about or that it even exists.


The Plot:
In 1959, Felix O'Kelly (played very briefly by Nick Offerman) enters a room in the El Royale motel. He pries up the floorboards, drops a satchel into the crawlspace below and replaces them. As he rests, there's a knock on the door. He answers it, and is shot dead by another man.

Cut to 1969, as three strangers arrive at the El Royale Father Daniel Flynn (played by Jeff Bridges), soul singer Darlene Sweet (played by Cynthia Erivo) and vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (played by John Hamm). They're soon joined by a fourth guest, Emily Summerspring (played by Dakota Johnson), a rude and sarcastic hippie.

The guests are puzzled to see the lobby's deserted, and impatiently ring the desk bell. Eventually, Miles Miller (played by Lewis Pullman), the motel's sole employee, staggers out from a back room. Before checking them in, he goes through a well-rehearsed spiel, explaining that the El Royale was once a popular hangout for the rich and famous. Unfortunately the motel recently lost its liquor license, causing business to dry up (no pun intended).

Miles also points out the bright red line that bisects the lobby and explains that the El Royale lies in the exact center of the Nevada/California border. There are rooms on each side of the line, and guests can stay in the state of their choice.

Father Flynn requests a map of the motel and studies it intently (PLOT POINT!). He eventually flips a coin and chooses Room 4. Darlene takes Room 5 next door. Emily requests the Honeymoon Suite, but Sullivan makes a huge fuss, insisting he have it. She rolls her eyes and picks Room 7 (I think). Sullivan takes the Honeymoon Suite, aka Room 1.

Sullivan enters Room 1 and begins turning it upside down. He finds and removes a huge number of listening devices in the phone, light fixtures and switches. He then notices the large mirror on the wall. He stares at it suspiciously, wondering if it's a two way mirror.

Sullivan enters the deserted lobby, steals the master key and lets himself through an employee-only door. He walks down a hall and looks through a doorway, where he sees Miles slumped over in a heroin-induced stupor. He goes through a second door and discovers a narrow passageway that allows the staff to look through the two way mirrors in each of the rooms.

Sullivan starts peering through the various mirrors. He sees Father Flynn in Room 4, pulling up the floorboards in his room, desperately looking for something. He takes a few steps and sees Darlene in Room 5, hanging blankets on the wall she shares with Flynn. She then begins singing, and Sullivan activates a speaker so he can hear her. 

He then moves down to Room 7, where he sees Emily drag a young girl out of the trunk of her car and tie her to a chair. He also sees a movie camera set up at the end of the corridor, in front of Room 8's mirror.

Sullivan marches outside to a payphone in the parking lot and calls his boss J. Edgar Hoover, revealing he's really an FBI agent named Dwight Broadbeck. He tells Hoover they have a real problem at the hotel.

FLASHBACK: We see Darlene performing as a backup singer in a recording session. The producer, Buddy Sunday, corners Darlene and slimily propositions her, implying he'll make her a star if she says yes, and fire her if she says no.

PRESENT DAY: We see Darlene wisely told Buddy no. She practices singing in the mirror, desperate to improve her voice and become a star.

Just then Father Flynn knocks on Darlene's 
door, and asks if she'll accompany him to dinner. She reluctantly agrees. They go to the automat in the lobby, but the food is weeks old and they settle on drinks instead. They chat for a while, as Darlene lists religious hymns she likes to sing. Oddly enough Father Flynn doesn't recognize any of the titles, which seems suspicious. 

He confesses (heh) that he's suffering the early effects of Alzheimer's, and his memory isn't what it once was. He fixes a drink for Darlene, secretly drugging it while her back is turned. Suddenly she sneaks up behind him and shatters a bottle over his head, knocking him out (Holy Crap!).

Cut to Sullivan/Broadbeck, still on the phone with the FBI. He says he found THEIR listening devices in the room, but also found quite a few not belonging to the bureau. He also mentions the two way mirrors and the movie camera. Hoover tells him their operation has obviously been compromised, and no one is to leave the motel until all surveillance material is retrieved. 

Broadbeck also reports he saw what appears to be a kidnapping in progress, referring to Emily and her captive. Hoover tells him his priority is the surveillance material, and orders him NOT to interfere in the kidnapping. Broadbeck then sabotages all the cars in the lot, so no one can leave.

FLASHBACK: A charismatic, muscular fellow named Billy Lee (played by Chris Hemsworth) walks along a California beach. He encounters a young runaway named Rose Summerspring sitting on the shore, and begins turning on the charm.

PRESENT DAY: Rose wakes up, tied to a chair in Room 7. Emily tells her she's safe now, and that she had to get her away from Billy Lee. She tells Rose that he's "all kinds of bad," and they need to get as far away from him as possible.

Miles finds Father Flynn on the lobby floor and helps him up. Miles tries to confess to him, saying he's done terrible things. Flynn tells him to get lost, as he's not really a priest. Eventually he remembers being attacked by Darlene. Miles goes to get the master key to check her room, but finds it missing. He goes into the passageway, and Father Flynn follows.

Flynn sees the two way mirrors, becomes incensed and throws Miles against the wall. He demands to know why he was watching him, and Miles says he only spies on who management tells him to. He says says he records certain people, then develops the film and sends it to a PO Box in Pennsylvania.

Just then they walk past the mirror in Room 7, and see Rose tied to a chair. Miles says they need to help her, but Flynn says she's not important. He asks if Miles ever keeps any of the film he records. Miles says in the previous year a VERY prominent politician stayed in the motel, and management desperately wanted film of his indiscretions. Miles said the politician was kind to him, so he kept the film and hid it.

Flynn goes off to search Miles' room. He finds the film, holds it up to the light and gasps at who's in it.

In Room 7, Emily hears a knock on the door and sees it's Broadbeck. He tries to get her to let him in, but she tells him to get lost. He kicks in the door and knocks her out. He runs over to Rose and tells her she's safe now. Just then Emily wakes up and shoots Broadbeck in the chest with her shotgun, killing him instantly (WOW!). The shot goes through him and shatters the two way mirror, revealing the passageway on the other side.

Flynn returns with the film, and sees the shotgun blast shatter the mirror and hit Miles in the face. He stares at his crumpled body for a few seconds and flees. Emily hears moaning coming from the passage, looks through it and sees Miles. She climbs through the shattered mirror to check on him.

Rose stares at Broadbeck's dead body, then like an idiot she goes to the phone and calls Billy Lee, telling him where she is. She hangs up and jumps through the mirror as well.

Cut to Darlene, who witnessed the shooting from the parking lot as she was attempting to escape. Unfortunately her sabotaged car won't start. She somehow figures out that Broadbeck was the one who tampered with her engine, so she sneaks into Room 7 and fishes through his pockets, finding the wire he pulled from her car. She takes his gun as well.

Darlene reattaches the wire to her engine (!) and tries to start her car, but it won't turn over. Just then Flynn appears and asks if he they can talk. He sits in the passenger seat, while Darlene holds a gun on him. He says he's not really Father Flynn, but a crook named Dock O'Kelly. He says ten years ago he and his brother Felix robbed a bank. Unfortunately things went badly, and Dock was captured and sentenced to prison.

Felix then hid the money under the floor in one of the rooms, but due to his memory loss, Dock can't remember which one. Since it wasn't in his room, he believes it must be in Darlene's. He says that's why he tried to drug her, so he could search her room. He tells her if she helps him get the money, he'll split it with her and she could use it to start a new life. For some reason Darlene believes his story.

Emily and Rose drag Miles to the lobby and tie him up. Emily questions him about what goes on in the motel, and Miles tells her he's seen things she wouldn't believe. He says he knows how to keep his mouth shut, so she doesn't have to kill him.

Cut to Darlene, back in her room. She assumes she's under surveillance through the mirror, and she's right, as Emily watches her closely, shotgun at the ready. Darlene begins singing loudly and clapping, which drowns out the noise while Dock pries up the floor boards. 
Eventually Emily decides Darlene's legit and goes back to the lobby. Dock finds the satchel and signals Darlene.

Back in the lobby, Miles begs Rose not to kill him. She says it's not up to her. Emily returns and asks Miles where Father Flynn is, and he tells her he honestly doesn't know. Rose mentions they might not have to kill him, and Emily realizes she's contacted Billy Lee.

Darlene and Dock sneak out of Room 4 with the satchel, but are captured by Billy Lee and two of his disciples.

FLASHBACK: We see Rose and Emily as members of Billy Lee's cult. Rose is completely brainwashed by him, to the point where she's willing to kill another cultist for the chance to sleep with Billy Lee. Emily realizes she has to get her younger sister away from him before it's too late.

PRESENT DAY: Bill Lee holds Darlene, Dock, Miles and Emily hostage in the lobby, as Rose and the two disciples look on. He empties the money and the film from the satchel, and demands to know whose it is. Darlene says she earned it singing, and Dock backs her up. Billy Lee looks at the film, and when he sees who's in it, realizes it's worth far more than the money.

Billy Lee then plays a twisted game of roulette with Emily and Miles. He spins the wheel and forces her to pick a color. She chooses red. A terrified Miles tries confessing to Dock, but Billy Lee tells him he's obviously not a priest. The ball stops on black, and Billy Lee coldly and callously shoots Emily, killing her (YIKES!).

Billy Lee asks Darlene and Dock one more time who the money belongs to, but they won't change their story. He then forces them to play roulette as well. Suddenly the power goes out, and Dock takes advantage of the darkness to attack Billy Lee. There's a big shootout, and during the confusion Dock shoves Billy Lee into a fire pit. Flaming logs fly everywhere, setting the lobby ablaze.

Miles sees Billy Lee's gun lying on the floor, but is reluctant to pick it up. Darlene can't get to it, and tells Miles it's up to him.

FLASHBACK: We see Miles was a sharpshooter in Vietnam, who wracked up an impressive number of kills.

PRESENT DAY: Miles picks up the gun, and efficiently kills Billy Lee and the two disciples. Rose rushes to Billy Lee's body, and Miles tells her he's sorry he had to kill him. She stabs him in the gut with a knife, disemboweling him. Dock then shoots and kills Rose.

As Miles lies dying, he begs "Father Flynn" to absolve him of all his sins. Dock does so, and Miles dies at peace. Dock and Darlene gather up the money and stuff it back into the satchel. They throw the film, and all evidence they were ever at the motel, into the fire that's engulfing the lobby and leave.

Some time later, Dock, now in normal street clothes, enters a lounge in Reno. Darlene comes out on stage and welcomes the audience, giving a knowing glance to Dock as she begins singing.


 Believe it or not, the El Royale motel is based on an actual place, and its sordid history inspired many of the plot points in the film.

The Cal Neva Resort & Casino (previously known as the Calneva Resort and the Cal-Neva Lodge) is a real life hotel that straddles the California/Nevada border near Lake Tahoe. It was built in 1926, and quickly became a hangout for the rich and famous.

It burned down (hey, just like in the movie) in 1937, but was rebuilt in just thirty days. In 1960 it was bought by Frank Sinatra, along with Dean Martin and Chicago mobster Sam Giancana. 

As you might imagine, there were dozens of high profile scandals at the hotel during Sinatra's ownership. Marilyn Monroe stayed at the hotel shortly before her untimely death, and may have even died there. It was also rumored that JFK frequently met Monroe at the hotel as well.

Sinatra sold his interest in it when the hotel lost its gambling license, and it went through a series of owners. It was closed in 2013 for renovations, but has yet to reopen.

 You don't have to be a film scholar to recognize the symbology in this movie. It's pretty obvious to even a casual viewer that the El Royale is a metaphor for purgatory. The various characters staying there aren't totally evil, but they're definitely not angels either. Once they all arrive, they're literally trapped there until they repent and atone for their various sins.

As I said, it's not exactly subtle, but it works.

 In a similar vein, the El Royale motel itself mirrors each of its guests. The motel is separated into two halves by a bright red line running down its middle just like the characters! Each one of them has two sides, and in many cases dual identities.

Father Flynn appears to be a priest, but he's really a small-time crook. Sullivan's ostensibly a salesman, but is secretly an FBI agent. Emily seems like an angry, counterculture rebel, but is actually a concerned older sister. Miles is a mild-mannered hotel clerk, but is a heroin addict behind closed doors. Even Darlene has two sides at first glance she's just a singer looking for a break, but she's not above theft and even murder in order to make it big.

 Jeff Bridges plays Father Daniel Flynn in the film. Bridges also played main character Kevin Flynn in 1982's TRON. Coincidence, or homage?

 Although Jeff Bridges, John Hamm and Chris Hemsworth are the biggest names in the cast, the star of the film is undoubtedly Cynthia Erivo. Despite the fact that this is her first movie, she positively steals the show as Darlene Sweet.

Erivo is actually a prolific Broadway star, who won a Tony Award in 2015 for her role in The Color Purple. And yes, that's her doing all her own singing in Bad Times At The El Royale.

 All through the film the Miles character kept reminding me of someone especially when he'd squint or grimace. After about an hour I finally figured it out he looked like a young Bill Pullman.

Welp, it turns out there's a reason for the resemblance. Miles is played by Lewis Pullman, son of Bill! Good eye, Bob!

Man, they look just like one another! Some producer needs to get busy and cast the two of them as the same character at different ages.

Apparently Chris Hemsworth can do a pretty convincing American accent. Who knew?

 I really don't have anything negative to say about this film, as the script is darned near perfect. That said, there were a couple minor glitches I noticed though:

 When Broadbeck's snooping around the lobby, a TV on the counter is tuned to President Nixon's press conference. It's then interrupted by a Special Bulletin, reporting that Dr. Bernard Weber and his wife were stabbed to death in their Malibu beachfront home. 

Yeah, I don't think so. Presidential press conferences and speeches almost always preempt regular programming. So it's highly unlikely that a bulletin would preempt something that was already preempting something else. Especially a press conference held by the president.

 Broadbeck searches his room and finds dozens of electronic bugs, as well as the observation passageway AND a kidnapping in progress. He then marches to a payphone to call J. Edgar Hoover and report his shocking and highly confidential findings.

Wait, what? After finding all the listening devices in his room, why wouldn't the pay phone be bugged as well? Why would he assume it was clean? Heck, why use the pay phone at all? He just pulled the bugs out of his room phone, so he knows it's secure. Why not just use it to call Hoover?

 After Dock tells Darlene about the money hidden in her room, she contemplates killing him and taking it for herself. He says that's probably what he would do if he was her, but then the cops would get involved, and he "wouldn't want to be the black woman in the woods at night with a gun when they do."

Ehhh, that felt a little anachronistic to me. I don't think people were saying "black" yet back in 1969. Most likely he'd have said "negro" or "colored."
As I said, these are very, VERY minor little nitpicks, and they didn't detract from my enjoyment of the film one bit.

 Miles' roll of film, which features a prominent politician in a compromising position, plays a huge part in the movie. Oddly enough though, we never find out just who's in the film. 

Most likely it's supposed to be John F. Kennedy. Everyone who takes a look at the film mentions the man in it is now dead, and JFK allegedly had an affair with Marilyn Monroe.

One problem with the JFK theory is he died in 1963, and the movie takes place in 1969. Was Miles really working at the El Royale and secretly filming guests six years before the movie takes place? And did he really hold on to the incriminating film reel all that time?

It's possible it could have been Robert Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr. on the film. They were both assassinated in 1968, just a year before the movie takes place, and both were notorious for having secret affairs.

Apparently it's up to the audience to decide just which philandering politician appears on the reel!

 Many armchair graphic designers around the internet have pointed out that the Bad Times At The El Royale movie poster bears a striking resemblance to the one for Avengers: Infinity War.

Eh, personally I don't see it. The two posters have a similar color palette and they both feature Chris Hemsworth's beaming face, but that's about it.

 I just realized this movie's something of a Parks & Rec reunion. Both Nick Offerman and Jim O'Heir have small roles in the film.

Bad Times At The El Royale is a rarity at the box office these days an original film that's not a sequel or a remake. It's well-written and acted, and very Hitchcockian in its execution. I had absolutely no idea where the story was going or what was going to happen, which is always a plus in my book. My only complaint is its excessive length, but even that's a minor issue. I give it an enthusiastic A-.

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