It is no disservice when I say that Bad Times at the El Royale joins the ranks of the finest of Tarantino imitators. It’s packed with twists and turns that keep an audience glued to the screen and continually re-evaluating the characters that we thought we knew. Because of that dynamic the movie invites the audience into becoming more involved, dissecting the information available and waiting for the next clue or plot revelation. It turns watching the film into a game and makes the experience that much more active and thrilling.
In the summer of 1969, the El Royale hotel is in for one hell of a night. The old fashioned hotel sits on the border between Nevada and California, allowing its dwindling customer base the opportunity to choose which state they would like to stay in. A group of strangers cozy up for the night including a priest (Jeff Bridges), a chatty vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), a hopeful lounge singer (Cynthia Erivo), a skittish bellhop (Lewis Pullman), and a mysterious woman (Dakota Johnson) who happens to have a hostage in her trunk. As the night progresses and the characters uncover one another’s secrets, sometimes with deadly results, menacing cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) comes swaggering to the El Royale to reclaim by force what he feels is rightfully his.
There are Act One twists and reveals in El Royale that would have been the Act Threes of other movies. Writer/director Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, The Martian) has packed his movie full of sinister intrigue as he establishes the hotel, the main characters, and an immediate impression of each in the first 15 minutes. From there, the movie is divided into chapter titles (another Tarantino motif) where we follow different room inhabitants who get 20-minute-vignette spotlights. Once in private, the characters shed their false faces and begin to reveal who they really are, or who we think they might really be, and the movie starts to resemble Tarantino’s own hidden identity parlor game, 2015’s Hateful Eight. The vignettes begin to overlap, ending on cliffhangers and then circling back with a new character as our focal point, re-watching prior scenes but from a different perspective. Goddard’s script is wonderfully clever, layering in questions and answers and a constant desire to upend audience expectations. Even though some segments will repeat, Goddard doesn’t waste time on redundancy. A character will be seen prying loose floorboards searching for something desirable, and we never have to relive the before or after of this moment from that character’s perspective because we’ve been imparted the necessary info and can put the pieces together with the next jump. I appreciated Goddard’s faith in the intelligence of his audience. The pleasure of El Royale is watching it deftly unfold as a fun, funny, startling, appealing mystery.
The characters must also be worthy of our attention, and Goddard does fine work teasing out his colorful cast of criminals and lost souls and deepening most. Everyone has something to hide at the El Royale, and finding out his or her true intentions and motivations is part of the film’s fun. I won’t spoil any of the big surprises or which characters are really putting on a show. Despite all the many plot machinations intertwined, Goddard still finds time for his film to breathe and let the characters talk, opening themselves to one another, sometimes with the assistance of dramatic irony. Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo play the best characters and deliver the best performances. Both of them are haunted by pasts they don’t feel like sharing, both are under some element of disguise to embark on finding their happy ending, and both form a sort of bond throughout the film as kindred spirits, even if they can’t fully trust one another. Bridges has the most complicated back-story but it actually links with a very real and emotional condition: memory loss. His character is (legitimately) going through early dementia and he’s losing full control of his sense of self, occasionally blanking and forgetting who he even is and how he got where he did. For a character pretending to be someone else, there’s a cruel irony to this malady. The seven main characters aren’t all on the same level (some are more plot devices than people) but Goddard knows this, making sure his 142-minute movie spends the most time with the best of them.
The actors given the best characters are also the ones that deliver the best performances, if you can imagine that. Bridges (Hell or High Water) brings a strong sense of pathos to his memory-addled priest trying to assess his life and his choices. He seems genuine in every moment, which is a feat considering his character has his share of secrets like anyone else. Erivo is a Broadway star making her film debut here, and she steals the show with her bruised sense of optimism. She’s the heart of the movie and a proven survivor, especially from a rigged system that protects predatory men. She brings a quiet power to her character as well as a believable vulnerability that makes you care. Hemsworth (Avengers: Infinity War) is all shaggy, scraggly charm as a cult leader who gets off pitting his followers, and captives, against one another. Really he likes to listen to himself speak, and Hemsworth is having a grand ole time with the part. Another actor exhibiting clear joy is Hamm (Baby Driver) who is, if you’ll pardon the pun, hamming it up with great gusto. He does a far majority of the talking for the first twenty minutes. He’s practically bouncing all over the place as an unchecked extrovert, but when alone, Hamm demonstrates an additional layer to his outlandish character. Another strong impression is from Pullman (Strangers: Prey at Night) as the lone employee eager to find absolution for his part in the El Royale’s history of sin as well as his own personal demons. The weakest of the ensemble ends up being Johnson (Fifty Shades Freed) who gets lost in her femme fatale archetype and can’t seem to find her way out again.
This is only Goddard’s second directing feature and his best directing aspect is that he knows when to linger on the written page. There are several segments that dwell in a certain emotion, elevated by Goddard’s tracking shots to continue the predicated unease. There’s one early moment where the bowels of the El Royale are revealed as hidden viewing areas to secretly record the guests doing their seemingly private illicit good times. The lead character of this vignette walks along the corridor, studying other characters and slowly realizing the implications of what he or she is finding. The scene is given a beautiful and eerie soundtrack thanks to Darlene practicing her singing, belting out “This Old Heart of Mine” like her life depended upon it, the tune taking on a sinister edge as it echoes through the dark hallway along with the tick-tock of the metronome. There’s another terrific singing suspense segment in this very same location, except with a different character spying on Darlene as she and another character work in conjunction to coordinate their movements, timing striking sounds in the room to her claps. Goddard has an adequate eye for visuals but he benefits from the gorgeously conceived and constructed El Royale setting, allowing the quirks of the rundown hotel to serve as another character to his ensemble. I enjoyed little touches, like only the Nevada side having a liquor license and the bright red line that runs down the middle of everything.
And yet there are some lingering doubts that halt me from a full-throated endorsement of El Royale, and I’ve been trying to articulate them better in the days since I watched the film. It frankly doesn’t fully come together by the end in a way that feels suitably climactic. Once Billy Lee enters the third act, the movie stabilizes and we spend time with the remaining characters assembled together to be terrorized by the cult leader. After seeing everyone else’s story in smaller vignettes with some slippery non-linear perspectives, we’ve finally come to our big confrontation and summit with everyone. Except it doesn’t feel as big as the movies needs it to be. Characters will be dispatched swiftly, and instead of it feeling shocking it feels abrupt and contrived, devaluing the character arcs that had been shuffling forward to that point. The deaths feel too ho-hum, and the final confrontation and melee too chaotic and random. The sacrifices feel wasted and sloppy rather than the payoff from some long established setup. It’s here where Goddard cannot hide his narrative trickery anymore and the machinations are exposed. I couldn’t help but feel that the final act was slowly losing the momentum and excitement that had been built carefully over the course of two hours. Billy Lee isn’t quite the force that his whispered presence has been made out to be, no fault to Hemsworth, who impresses me more and more with every new performance. It’s like by the end of his movie Goddard has realized that certain characters were inevitably just more interesting than others and he saves room for them to get a climax and brushes off the rest. Thematically I don’t quite know if it comes together with any sort of final statement about the 1960s, the dichotomy of good and evil, or anything else. It’s a final act that left me a little disappointed and realizing the end wasn’t nearly as fun as the journey.
Bad Times at the El Royale is a movie jam-packed with twists, plot turns, and colorful characters played by great actors who are clearly enjoying themselves, given the room to roam and stretch their muscles as exaggerated and dangerous criminal cohorts. Goddard’s film is impeccably structured up until its final act where it feels like the answers and confrontations cannot match the mysteries and setup that had been laid before. If you’re a fan of the top level of Tarantino imitators, like Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead or Lucky Number Slevin, or enjoy unpacking a good mystery, then check into the El Royale, a hotel where maybe the cockroaches have the best chance at survival.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Based upon Andy Weir’s nuts-and-bolts scientific “what if” tale, The Martian is the movie equivalent of Apollo 13 crossed with Cast Away. Just far less personable volleyballs. But there are potatoes. Space potatoes.
After a powerful storm on Mars forces NASA’s crew to flee, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead and left behind. He wakes up hours later, shrapnel in his gut, and retreats back to the Mars mission base. He has to survive close to two years before he has any hope of being rescued on the hostile world. Before that, he has to establish some kind of communication with NASA, and even before that he has to somehow grow food in the arid Martian soil. Back at home, NASA is debating their limited options to bring back Watney and whether or not they should tell his crewmates that he survived.
In conversations with my friend and critical colleague Ben Bailey, he said that The Martian was the opposite of Gravity, a film he subsequently loathed, because it was smart people making smart decisions. There is an inherent enjoyment watching intelligent people tackle and persevere over daunting challenges, and this sets up The Martian for lots of payoffs and satisfaction. We see both sides of the problem and it provides even more opportunities for challenges and payoffs. Naturally the stuff on Mars is more compelling because of its extreme dangers and isolation, but the Earth scenes are also enjoyable as the NASA determines the soonest they might reach their lost astronaut. Just like the similarly themed Apollo 13, there are challenges to be overcome and the solutions are not without risk themselves. I enjoyed how the screenplay kept throwing out new obstacles; just when you think you can breath for a while the status quo is upset again. The slew of new obstacles doesn’t feel contrived either but rather realistic setbacks. It’s a wonderful storytelling structure that constantly keeps things moving forward and ramps up the urgency. As a result, we don’t ever feel safe right until the climax, and even then you’re still sweating it out because of all the complications and adjustments.
It’s revitalizing to watch a movie that treats science with a sense of reverence. Mark Watney endures in the most hostile of environments through his ingenious use of the resources he has because of his understanding of science and math. Just as MacGyver proved there was something satisfying about watching a guy make a bomb out of a toilet paper tube, some chewing gum, and a bobby pin, it’s entirely enjoyable watching Watney think his way out of problems, and this starts early on. Watney’s first problem after he regains consciousness is to remove an embedded piece of shrapnel in his gut. The scene plays in a methodical fashion without any obtrusive edits, allowing the full task to settle in with the audience. The man has to perform surgery on himself and dig inside himself, and if he doesn’t get this done soon, sepsis might set in (no doctors without borders here). From there, the situation only gets more serious as Watney’s food supply, even when generously rationed, will only last a fraction of the time it would take NASA to send a rescue team. He has to grow food on an alien planet. That itself could be its own movie, a glossy crossover special from the SyFy Channel and the Home and Garden network. This is a survival story that doesn’t rely upon coincidence or some sort of divine intervention but on the understanding and admiration of science and its possibilities. Though America’s favorite astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says that in this movie universe, all the science decisions are being made by science professionals rather than, you know, politicians who adamantly open ignorant statements with, “I’m not a scientist.”
Another aspect I wasn’t quite expecting but took hold of me is how uplifting The Martian turns out to be. It’s a celebration of human endeavor and particularly cooperation, as the United States reaches out to other nations for assistance. Watching the determined souls risk their lives to retrieve one fallen man is the kind of thing that represents the best in us. Sure, there’s something to be said about the fact that it’s one prized American life that countries are spending billions of not trillions of dollars to rescue and perhaps that money would be better spent helping more lives on Earth. There’s also the curious fact that the world has spent a ton of money rescuing Matt Damon in movies. From Saving Private Ryan, to Interstellar, and now The Martian, we seem to value Damon above all else.
This isn’t exactly a one-man show with half of the running time flashing back to Earth but Damon’s star quality and acting chops makes it so you don’t mind being marooned with this man. Watney’s recorded messages are a slick way to deal with the internal thinking of its protagonist while giving the character more opportunities to charm thanks to a rich sense of gallows-level humor. At no point is Mark Watney flippant about his unique predicament but his sense of humor goes a long way to further engender the audience’s good will. He’s not moping and having existential crises; he’s getting to work, and it’s through the problem solving that we get to know this character, his ingenuity, his personality, his fears, and his distaste for disco music. Damon steers clear from playing the character too large and bearing his soul as the metaphorical representative for all of humanity and its place in the cosmos. He’s just one guy who happens to be lost millions of miles from his home planet, and he’s making the best of it.
Being a Ridley Scott film, naturally the film is downright impeccable from a technical standpoint. The photography is great, communicating the frightening and awe-inspiring scope of the alien topography, especially when compared to maps for scale. The visuals find ways to further help communicate Watney’s dilemma and diminished resources. Scott’s visual sensibilities are so naturally attuned to developing tension. I was holding my breath at times from the suspense of certain sequences even though I long assumed that Watney would make it back home safe and sound. A scene with a desperate need for duct tape was a real nail-biter. There isn’t a bad performance among the star-studded cast of actors who must have been grateful for even a tiny morsel of screen time. I have no idea what Kirsten Wiig really does in this movie as the NASA PR person besides fold her arms in rooms, but hey, she’s there, along with Donald Glover as a socially awkward physicist. Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) gets to pour over the regret of leaving a friend behind, Jeff Daniels gets to once more practice his skill of being an authoritarian blowhard he honed from The Newsroom, and I even was able to tolerate Kate Mara (Fantastic Four), so that’s something.
The Martian is a natural crowd-pleaser. It’s engineered from the start to engage an audience with its survival thrills, present a series of increasing payoffs with new challenges and solutions, and by the end of our journey we’re treated to a rousing finish that carries a poignancy and sense of inspiration about the best in all of us, what can be accomplished through grit and cooperation and sacrifice. It’s a movie that let’s the science of survival be the ultimate star, with Damon serving as a handsome host to guide us through the marvels of the universe and duct tape. When dealing with the vastness of space and the vulnerability of human life, it’s easy to feel insignificant in comparison, but that’s where the human will to endure and to work together comes in and reconfirms the possibilities of the collective inhabitants of this giant blue orb. The Martian is a sci-fi thriller, a potent human drama, and one of the best times you can have at the movies.
Nate’s Grade: A-
No movie this summer has had such a dark cloud of bad buzz like Brad Pitt’s World War Z. Based upon Max Brooks’ 2006 novel, it’s a global zombie action adventure that Pitt, as producer, has developed for years. He hired director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Monster’s Ball) and after a very protracted shoot, according to reports, neither was on speaking terms. A Vanity Fair article highlights the fascinating challenges World War Z endured, the biggest being a third act that, while filmed, did not work. The movie’s release date was pushed back twice, from summer 2012 to December 2012 to finally summer 2013. That sort of talk usually raises critic hackles, anticipating a bomb that all parties are trying their best to salvage some investment. It’s something of a small miracle then that the finished film actually kind of sort of mostly works. It still feels lacking and under developed but World War Z is not the fiasco many had feared.
Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is an ex U.N. inspector pulled back into the field to do nothing less than possibly save humanity from the undead. The world is under siege by a new sort of pandemic, one that reanimates the dead. Gerry and his family barely escape Philadelphia alive and find refuge on a U.S. aircraft carrier offshore. Gerry bids his family goodbye and zips around the globe looking for Patient Zero. If he can crack the mystery of how it all began perhaps mankind can develop a cure.
For fans of the book, it’s best to come to terms with the fact that the only thing World War Z has in common with its source material is the fact that there are zombies. There is one reference to Israel’s response to zombie rumors, but that’s it. Believe me, I know the book is excellent but allow me to play devil’s advocate here. Would a strict adaptation of Brooks’ book work as a movie? Perhaps, but it takes place years after the titular World War Z. I understand the producers’ wishes to set the movie in the middle of the crises, adding urgency and an immediate sense of suspense. Once you go that route, there are certain limitations to your storytelling. Unless you were going to go the Crash-style ensemble route, you’re going to need a central character/hero to tie it all together, and that too limits your storytelling options. Gerry can hop around the globe but we’re still only following one man’s personal experiences. While in the air, we see in the distance below a mushroom cloud rising. Who detonated an atomic bomb and why? We never know, and it’s that sort of in-the-moment fog of war madness that helps the movie operate. I enjoyed watching the small moments of society breaking down. Factoring in all that, I’d say that the big-screen edition of Brooks’ book is a passable starter, an appetizer that gets you hungry for more.
This movie is one of the first global-scale zombie outbreak films I can recall. Usually the zombie subgenre is told in confined spaces, remote locations, intimate settings. Danny Boyle had some larger London set pieces with 28 Days Later but that was still a film about dark corridors and small places. The scale of World War Z is what sets it apart. There is a degree of fascination watching the world come apart, and watching it fall apart in so many places adds to that. Gerry hops from one hotspot to the next in his quest and we watch as each new location goes to hell. It gives a greater sense to the dire threat out there. In the information age, and with Gerry’s U.N. connections, he can get global reports, and to learn that nowhere is safe helps maximize the pandemic threat and sense of urgency. I didn’t even mind Forster’s decision to present the teeming armies of the undead like there were a swarm of bees, rolling and tumbling over one another, forming formidable human pyramids. It’s a fairly spooky image and relates back to the nature-undone alchemy that makes zombies tick, plus it gives an extra sinister edge to the zombies. High-walled structures are not the sanctuaries we might have assumed. The true terror afforded by zombies, beyond the fact that the monster is us, is its inevitability; it doesn’t matter what you do, they will get you. There are more of them, and they don’t require food, water, sleep, and have only one goal. Adding to that sense of doom I think is a good move, and the raging sea of human bodies also helps Forster keep the PG-13 rating the studio dictated. I didn’t really miss the blood/gore, though one sequence where Gerry slices off a soldier’s infected arm seems a bit too clean and precise.
I criticized Forster’s skills directing action after 2008’s deeply disappointing Bond misfire, Quantum of Solace. The man showed no real feel for action sequences. Perhaps the man found a greater appeal to World War Z because there are some genuinely thrilling action and suspense sequences here and Forster deserves credit. The Israel sequence degenerates at a horrifying speed, and I loved the touch of caged passageways being erected through streets as a last-second defense from falling zombies. The initial stop in South Korea is at night and in the rain, thwarting Gerry and his team from seeing too far into the distance. It makes for a rather suspenseful sequence that makes good use of darkness and cover. The zombie actors in this movie deserve some recognition. They really get into all their clicks and clacks and add some creepy authenticity to the proceedings. Then there’s the airplane attack, zombies on a plane, that is all over the film’s advertising blitz. It’s a rather entertaining sequence, though one can’t help but provide some class subtext when the first class passengers barricade themselves while the coach passengers are torn apart. I still think Forster would be more at home with smaller dramas but he shows much more prowess for larger material.
The reshot third act, thanks to added writers Damon Lindelof (TV’s Lost, Prometheus) and his pal Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods), drastically scales down the scope of the pandemic. After two acts of all-out global chaos, we retreat back to the zombie film roots: a small, secluded place. The third act is almost like its own little separate movie. Partly because it’s something different, more horror/suspense than action, as well as being in the confined space, but also because Lindelof and Goddard do a fine job of structuring this concluding chapter. When Gerry gets to a World Health Organization outpost in Wales, he has a simple goal: get from one end of a lab to another. Oh, there are zombies all over the lab. Its narrative simplicity, as well as the clear focus, is a satisfying way to close out a movie that was sort of all over the place. Forster seems to really enjoy the suspense setups that he gets to have fun with in the third act, things like ducking around corners, avoiding zombie detection. The very end provides a ray of hope for humanity… until you fully think out what the consequences are for that hope (the first line of defense shall be hookers). Anyway, it sets up a sequel where mankind can begin fighting back. How do I know this? None other than Gerry’s closing lines are: “This is only the beginning. This war isn’t over.” A bit of hope on Pitt’s part as well there.
And yet with the world falling apart and Pitt our savior, I found myself from the outset very emotionally unengaged with the film. Pitt’s performance is perfectly suited for the material. It’s just the whole family man angle that doesn’t work. I understand it gives Gerry some personal stakes in doing his job but wouldn’t, I don’t know, saving the world be enough when it comes to motivation? It’s your standard reluctant hero’s tale, but the family stuff just kept dragging down Gerry’s character. To begin with, a man looking like Brad Pitt who voluntarily makes pancakes for his kids every morning… sounds like the stuff of fantasies for many. However, it almost keeps him away from his mission, the greater good, and there’s actually a sequence in South Korea where his family literally endangers Gerry’s life by making a phone call. Then the movie keeps cutting back to their existence on an aircraft carrier like I have equal interest in this storyline. One storyline involves Gerry flying the world over and escaping zombies. The other storyline involves whether Karin and the kids will be kicked off the ship. Which would you rather spend time with an as audience member? I didn’t really care about Gerry’s sad wife, played by Mireille Enos from the sad TV show The Killing. I had more invested in the Israeli soldier (Daniella Kerteesz) Gerry teams up with. My father even wanted them to run off together by the end and ditch Karin. I won’t even speak to the awkward storyline where Gerry’s family unofficially adopts a Hispanic kid after his parents die. If only those poor souls had listened to the knowledgeable white man who they took care of.
The big-screen version of World War Z bears little resemblance to the book of the same name, and that’s okay. Some adjustments are necessary in adapting, like bringing the actions of the story into the present, centering on a major character. As a book fan, I was somewhat disappointed in the unfulfilled potential presented, but as a movie fan I’m more disappointed by the film’s overall execution. There’s a lot of money in this production, the most expensive zombie film of all time, and a lot of talent on both sides of the camera. And yet after even pulling off a mostly effective ending, World War Z is more middling than it ever should be. Brad Pitt is saving the world from zombies; that should be enough, but it’s not. The movie shows flashes of intelligence, of socio-politico commentary, of something greater, but those moments are fleeting and ground down to make way for a mass-appeal action blockbuster. There’s nothing wrong with those sorts of movies (Roland Emmerich does them exceptionally well), but World War Z doesn’t have the brain-headed flair to pull it off. It’s thrilling, in spurts, interesting, in spurts, and entertaining, in spurts, but it fails to coalesce into something truly worthwhile. My allegiance to the book, as well as zombies in general, guarantees I’ll be there for more if World War Z spawns sequels. Hopefully there will be more because there are so many great stories from the book yet to be told (namely, everything).
Nate’s Grade: B-