I love the moment the lights dim, the curtain widens and the movie starts. Going to the cinema is one of life's great activities and should be enjoyed as much as possible.
Having expectations can be a bad thing when going into a movie. A lot of times, those expectations aren't met, especially when one is hoping for excellence. The majority of films I've seen this year have consistently been given scores of two or three out of five. After a series of great films early in the year, such as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Darkest Hour and Molly, the year has featured a lot of fairly bland blockbuster fodder.
Seeing the trailers for Bad Times at the El Royale, I felt that this might rise above the recent level of Hollywood output and possibly find its way into my top 5 films of 2018, perhaps even become my favourite film of the year (a title currently being held by The Death of Stalin). But sadly, whilst the times at the El Royale were indeed bad (in a good way), and the cast performed very well, the film as a whole, entertained, but ultimately didn't quite hit the home run I was hoping for. It certainly wasn't a bad time in Cinema 7 at Redding Cinema in Epping, but the film didn't quite reach the lofty expectations I had reserved for it.
The film is written and directed by Drew Goddard. As a writer, Goddard has written many episodes of the Daredevil TV show (I haven't seen the show, but I hear good things), as well as the screenplay to the brilliant film The Martian (2016). The rest of his writing resume is filled with a series of horror / supernatural based TV shows and movies.
As a director, this is only Goddard's second feature film, having previously directed the horror film 'The Cabin in the Woods'. You can see some of Goddard's horror stylings throughout this film, such as the effect of the rainy night, the darkness the El Royale falls into as bad things start to happen, the dark corridors that lie beneath and the sudden shifts in tone that occur in unsettling ways. The hotel presents as an unpleasant bleak environment, despite the glitz and glamour of its fixtures.
Goddard's inexperience may play a part in the film not reaching the heights I was hoping for. The film feels very much like a Quentin Tarantino film, fused with a Coen Brothers movie, but made by a less adept director. I was certainly hoping for a Tarantino/Coen Brothers type movie, and in some ways the film reminded me of Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, which whilst very good, didn't quite come together as well as some of his other works, despite having all the elements in place.
The film has a lot of great scenes and moments. There's a lot of the ingredients needed to bake this story into a savoury treat. However, the film doesn't quite hold your attention enough throughout the long running time of 141 minutes. You don't slip out of the movie completely, but the occasional little moments where the film loses you for a second, mean that you aren't really primed for the ending, which then feels in some ways as if it came out of a different movie.
The film uses a lot of gimmicks, such as delaying the true introduction to characters until later moments in the film through the use of flashbacks. The use of title cards to switch periods of time, as a technique, feels a little tired and overused. The film also sets up a similar device to the gold light emitting briefcase in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994). Goddard also ties to use cool 60s Motown music to give the film the cool 'pulp fiction' vibe he's going for, but he doesn't have the flare for musical choices that Tarantino has. As a result, the music isn't effective in the way it needs to be. Goddard does manage to have a few surprises up his sleeve, however, with a couple of deaths coming in surprising ways, causing me to jump in my seat a few times.
The cast all gave very good performances. Cynthia Erivo plays Darlene Sweet, a down on her luck woman on her way to a singing job in Reno. Erivo also sings a Capella in many scenes and demonstrates a fantastic voice. No surprise that Jeff Bridges was fantastic as Father Daniel Flynn, providing the film with a number of great acting moments as his character struggles with illness and old age. Dakota Johnson is very tough in what was a smaller role than I expected, powering her way through a number of violent exchanges. Lewis Pullman provides the more emotionally fragile character of the story, a man who has seen and done some terrible things and is stuck in the purgatory that is this decaying hotel. Jon Hamm dominates the early portion of the film, with a seemingly shady character, but there's more to his Laramie Seymore Sullivan, travelling vacuum cleaner salesman, than you might expect. However, the big surprise was the performance late in the film of Chris Hemsworth, (although Marvel need to up his pay him more for the Thor movies, because it seems he couldn't afford a shirt for this movie). Hemsworth brings all his usual charm and likeability and turns it on its head as a very quite a nasty character, even if his character's arrival feels as though it comes from another movie.
The ending of the film reminded me of a Bruce Willis movie from a few years ago called Hostage (2005), in which for two thirds of the movie, it was a 'cop negotiation / hostage situation' movie, and then it turned into a gothic horror movie at the end, in the style of The Crow (1994).
The film could possibly be edited a little tighter and it might play a little bit stronger. It's got enough going for it to certainly make the trip to the cinema, and it's the sort of film that a lot of people will probably really enjoy, so make sure, like you should for all films, you go and see it for yourself with an open mind and make your own decision.