Bad Times at the El Royale


Evil can be sexy.

(2018) Thriller (20th Century FoxJeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Nick Offerman, Xavier Dolan, Shea Whigham, Mark O’Brien, Charles Halford, Jim O’Heir, Gerry Nairn, Alvina August, London A. Morrison, Bethany Brown, Rebecca Toolan, Hannah Jane Zirke, Billy Wickman, William B. Davis, Tally Rodin. Directed by Drew Goddard

 

This was one of my favorite movies of 2018. Goddard hits it out of the park as a group of disparate characters gather at a rundown motel straddling the California-Nevada state line. It is 1969, and the El Royale lost its gaming license a year prior and has fallen on hard times ever since – once it was a playground for the rich and shameless.

Being checked in by whitebread clerk Miles Miller (Pullman) is Father Dan Flynn (Bridges), on the road to see his family; vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Hamm) who has the patter and the smile to sell an Eskimo an ice cube; singer Darlene Sweet (Erivo) who is on her way to a gig in Reno and needs a cheap place to stay for the night; and young Emily Summerspring (Johnson) who just wants everyone to stay the hell away from her.

As it turns out, all four of the guests have secrets. As it turns out, the hotel has secrets too – one of which is revealed in the prologue. The story is told non-sequentially but we eventually learn why each of them is there. Emily, for example, has kidnapped her kid sister Rose (Spaeny) from a charismatic cult leader named Billy Lee (Hemsworth), who doesn’t take kindly to others stealing his property. It all ends up in a confrontation in the lobby of the El Royale.

I loved the complexity of the story, which Goddard tells non-sequentially, going from room to room to concentrate on each individual guest. There are some twists and turns – some of which are jaw-dropping – and plenty of sex and violence. Comparisons have been made to early Tarantino and the comparison isn’t out of line; in fact, at times, I think that this homage to the pop culture maestro is a little too strong but if one is going to imitate someone, Tarantino is a good one to emulate.

Goddard is aided by a tremendous cast, all of whom deliver strong performances. The real revelation is Tony award winner Erivo who absolutely kills it as Darlene Sweet (clearly based on Darlene Love), and she sings mighty nicely some soul classics from the early 60s. She also has a scene with Bridges that absolutely gave me the chills; I thought for sure she would have gotten a Best Supporting Actress nomination, but sadly she didn’t. She deserved it, though. Her strong work since then has shown that her performance here is no fluke; she is a talent who is going to be one of the biggest stars in Hollywood in short order.

Bridges adds heart to the proceedings and Hamm gives a sly performance. I also loved Hemsworth, who plays Billy Lee as a combination of Charles Manson and Jim Morrison. Dakota Johnson has never been sexier than she is here, which includes her 50 Shades films.

realize that this isn’t going to be a film that appeals to everyone. Some might find it overly violent – and it is. Some might find it overly self-indulgent – which it is. Others might think it’s too Tarantino-esque – guilty as charged. However, I personally look at those as strong points in this film. It’s one that I have watched several times since and it hasn’t lost its appeal. That’s my definition of a great film.

REASONS TO SEE: Extremely well-written and tied nicely together at the end. Strong performances throughout, particularly from Erivo. Places itself nicely in the era. Some of the twists are a bit unexpected.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels a little bit too much like a Tarantino film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly graphic violence, brief nudity and sexuality, some drug content and a copious amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The El Royale is based loosely on the CalNeva resort in Lake Tahoe. The hotel was once owned by Frank Sinatra.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews: Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabin in the Woods
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
The Hate U Give

The Cabin in the Woods


The Cabin in the Woods

That's putting the "arm" in armoire.

(2012) Horror (Lionsgate) Chris Hemsworth, Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams, Bradley Whitford, Richard Jenkins, Sigourney Weaver, Brian White, Amy Acker, Tim De Zarn, Tom Lenk, Dan Payne, Jodelle Ferland, Dan Shea, Maya Massar, Matt Drake. Directed by Drew Goddard

 

Five friends take off for a weekend at a rustic cabin in a remote, wooded area. Sounds familiar, no? Well, I’ll admit this kind of scenario has been done before, but never quite like this.

Dana (Connolly), her roommate Jules (Hutchison) and Jules’ hunky boyfriend Curt (Hemsworth) are getting ready for a weekend away from school. Dana is suffering from the break-up of a romantic relationship she had with her college professor and Curt’s cousin has just bought a new vacation getaway in the woods a ways out of town. Along for the ride is Holden (Williams), a bookish friend of Curt’s whom Jules is eager to set Dana up with, and Marty (Kranz) the stoner childhood friend of Dana.

Stopping at a gas station on the way there, they meet the obligatory creepy old man (De Zarn) who rather than warn them not to go to the cabin drops some dark hints about the place. Not enough to dissuade them from going but just enough to be intriguing. There must be a central casting agency for creepy old men somewhere in Hollywood.

The cabin, set on a bucolic lake in the mountains, at first seems to be a perfect vacation spot. However, upon further investigation there are some troubling features. Why is there a one-way mirror between bedrooms? And why is there such a collection of arcane things in the basement?

That’s probably because the cabin isn’t what it seems. The five friends are being observed and have been since before they left the city. Two technicians, Sitterson (Jenkins) and Hadley (Whitford) are manipulating events, forcing the five friends into decisions. What is their motivation? What plans do they have for the young people. And who is the mysterious Director (Weaver) and what is her agenda?

Forget everything you know about this sub-genre. Yes, there are elements of the supernatural but also of J-horror, science fiction and spoof as well. Goddard, who helmed the magnificent Cloverfield teams up with Joss Whedon (who co-wrote and produced this and did a little second unit directing as well) to produce what is easily one of the best horror movies ever and certainly the best so far of the 21st century. Not only that, it is one of the best movies of the year period.

It has the right mix of action, viscera, sex and comedy and timed at the right places. It’s hip and old school at the same time. For example, when the creepy old man (a.k.a. Mordecai a.k.a. the Harbinger) calls Hadley to voice his doom and gloom gospel about cleansing the sins of the young people, he breaks off to say “Hey, am I on speaker phone?” which he is. The touches are light when necessary and even goofy in places before they hit you with a big whammy.

I’m being deliberately vague about some of the plot points – I found knowing very little about the movie enhanced my enjoyment of it. Hemsworth filmed this before he became a big star in Thor and shows the kind of easy-going charm that is going to net him more earthly roles in the future. Connolly, a soap opera veteran is pleasing as the plucky virginal heroine and Hutchison is very hot as the bimbo – she has a make-out scene with a wolf’s head…well, let’s just leave it at that.

Most people are going to come off remembering Kranz as the stoner. He is comic relief initially but his role evolves unexpectedly and not only does he get most of the best lines in the movie, he doesn’t flub them either. Fans might recognize him from his previous work with Whedon in the short-lived but much-loved TV series “Doll House.”

Whitford and Jenkins are both seasoned pros who get to let loose a little bit from their normal serious personas. The two have good chemistry together and can switch from light comedy to serious in a heartbeat. For Whitford, this is his best work since “The West Wing.” Weaver gets pretty much a cameo appearance but she makes the most of it.

There are plenty of digital effects, some of which are simply amazing. I’m really glad that the film was released in 2D only because although the break-neck pace of the film lends itself to 3D, the dark nighttime settings really don’t and you would have lost a lot of the subtlety of the action sequences.

I can’t say enough about this film. It is rare to have this much fun at a movie and to not want it to end while it is playing. Those who are timid about horror movies be advised – while there are some nightmarish images, for the most part it is less scary than you might think and much more fun. While young children and those who are more susceptible to having nightmares should probably think twice about seeing it, anyone else will have a great time. This is pure and simple a masterpiece of genre filmmaking and most everyone who sees it, like me, will leave the theater grinning ear-to-ear.

REASONS TO GO: Hands down, the best horror movie of the 21st Century so far. An amazingly inventive roller-coaster ride you never want to end.

REASONS TO STAY: The gore can be excessive and some of the images are disturbing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of gore and violence, bad language and drug use. There’s also some sexuality and a little bit of nudity as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was originally filmed in 2009 and was due to be released by MGM. The studio had wanted to post-convert this into 3D despite the objections of Goddard and Whedon, but those plans were never realized, partially due to the bankruptcy of MGM that year. Lionsgate eventually picked up the property.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are mainly negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Evil Dead

HORROR FILM LOVERS: There are homages all over the place to a variety of horror movies, from The Hills Have Eyes to Hellraiser  to Creature from the Black Lagoon and on and on and on.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Our Florida Film Festival coverage kicks off with a review of the opening night film Renee