Bad Times at the El Royale: substance and style aplenty

Drew Goddard began his career writing for cult classic show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then became part of J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot team penning scripts for Alias and Lost. In 2013 he helped set up the first season (as showrunner) of Netflix’s Daredevil (one of Marvel’s stronger TV shows) and before that wrote monster film Cloverfield (2008) and debuted as writer- director with the excellent Cabin in the Woods (2012); then followed this up writing the screenplays for World War Z (2013) and The Martian (2015).

Basically he has a filmography to die for – from a writer and up-and-coming director’s point of view.

And now, as writer-director, he brings us another original tale in Bad Times at the El Royale (great title); starring the relative unknown Cynthia Erivo (one of the best actors in new film Widows at the moment) along with seasoned actors Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Jeff Bridges and Dakota Johnson.

The story takes place at the El Royale hotel, a building that has the border of two states running through it and feels like a throwback to a bygone age. We open with a man stashing something under the floor in one of the rooms. He’s then shot. Fast forward a decade and the hotel has fallen on hard times (basically: no guests). Yet a random, entirely unrelated group of guests turn up at the same time, and it’s clear from the off they’re each hiding something and have their own agendas.

So far so Tarantino.

Travelling salesman Dwight (Hamm) does most of the talking in the opening scene (tapping into his Don Draper days), deploying charisma, charm – and a bit of smarm – to the max. Singer Darlene (Erivo) arrives and acts guarded; alleged holy man Father Flynn (Bridges) seems genial enough, but is clearly hiding something.

Finally, moody chick Emily (Dakota Johnson) completes the group. She says almost nothing, other than to write ‘fuck you!’ in the ledger when asked her name.

The hotel’s concierge Miles (Lewis Pullman) tries his best to provide the group with the full hotel experience but it’s clear none of them are remotely interested. You can almost sense the tension in the air and predict that everything is going to go sideways pretty quickly.

All it will take is a spark.

Once they head off to their rooms we follow Dwight and learn some interesting things about him. After he discovers certain unsavoury things in his room he explores the hotel further and finds a hidden corridor which allows visual and audio access to all of the guests’ rooms. And so the plot thickens.

Without giving too much away it’s worth saying that the aforementioned stuff stashed in one of the rooms really just acts as a MacGuffin to drive the plot along and allow the characters to clash in interesting ways.

It all starts to go a bit mad by the time Chris Hemsworth’s character turns up and, overall, the whole thing could lose twenty minutes off the running time. But it’s still a fun watch.

For me, it didn’t quite hit the heights – in terms of sheer enjoyment – of the Cabin in the Woods, but it’s still an entertaining watch.

 

Jeff Bridges – old-timer hits rich vein of form

I’d like to chat, if I may, about Jeff Bridges. Now some might say he’s in the twilight of his career, but I think he’s just getting into his stride. Let me explain.

IMDb shows his first credited role took place on a TV show called Sea Hunt from 1958-60. From there, in 1972, he became one of the youngest ever actors to get nominated for an Oscar, aged 22 for The Last Picture Show. During the period between 1970 to the end of the 1990s, obadiah iron manhe received further nominations and critical acclaim for performances including: Starman, Against All Odds, and Fearless.

Then, at the end of the 90s, he gave us arguably his most iconic character, The Dude in The Big Lebowski. A character many consider to be a career high – or at least the most memorable.

In 2008 came Iron Man. A bit of an unexpected hit for the studio and the cast. Bridges, here, giving us the scheming Obadiah Stane, facing off against Downey Jr’s Tony Stark. A brilliantly realised character, Obadiah is the ultimate CEO-gone-bad and Bridges plays him perfectly. Never a moment when he overdoes it, letting Obadiah’s quiet menace come through, effectively hidden behind Bridges’ genial nature until the third act. The Dude has gone bad.

jeff-bridges-as-bad-blakeThe tipping point
For me, this film was where Bridges’ career moved up a level. With Iron Man he had reached a point where he could play wonderfully complex, yet thoroughly engaging characters. Some villians, some good guys, all of them flawed in some way. Some may say they’re all variations of The Dude, but that’s lazy and inaccurate.

At this point Bridges’ rich vein of form began to gather pace. Beginning with a brilliant and underrated turn as Bill Django in The Men Who Stare at Goats in 2009. He then gave us – the same year – a fantastic performance as washed up, boozy singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart.

His journey from bitterness and self-loathing through to redemption and inner peace is thoroughly believable and compelling. Indeed, the performance won him an Oscar, making him – quite fittingly – also one of the oldest actors to ever win the award, aged 60.

jeff-bridges-true-gritOld-timer delivers
In 2010 this followed with another critically-acclaimed performance as Rooster Cogburn in the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit. Another award-laden film. Following John Wayne’s iconic footsteps was no easy thing, but Bridges gave a strong performance, thoroughly inhabiting Rooster’s gruff nature.

Beneath his hardened exterior, though, Rooster showed compassion and sense of responsibility towards Mattie Ross (played with plucky determination by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld). Many of the scenes in the final act where he comes through for Mattie time and again are incredibly moving.

So, to sum up, even though The Dude is now in his mid 60s, I think he’s doing some of the best and most consistent work of his career. Let’s hope the roles keep coming!