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Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

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+

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The Founder (2016)

thefounder_officialposterThe Founder aims to be The Social Network of hamburgers and milkshakes, a warts-and-all biopic of a huckster who glommed onto other’s success and transformed it into an empire, a pragmatically ruthless entrepreneur run rampant with ambition and leaving behind a trail of lawsuits and disgruntled little people. Michael Keaton, on a roll since Birdman, teams up with screenwriter Robert Siegel (The Wrestler) and director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks) to bring to life the story of the man behind the ubiquitous golden arches. The details are routinely fascinating and the movie presents a larger thesis on shifting and conflicting concepts of the American Dream and whether a ruthless yet victorious huckster is to be celebrated, pitied, scorned, or all of the above.

In the mid 1950s, Ray Kroc (Keaton) was a struggling milkshake mixer salesman striking out with just about every drive-in and dinner in the Midwest. His wife Ethel (Laura Dern) is exasperated by Kroc’s flights of fancy, shilling whatever new product might be his ticket to riches. His life changes thanks to one very efficient hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California. The McDonald brothers, Mac (John Caroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman), have ordered eight of Kroc’s milkshake mixers because they can barely keep up with demand. Kroc travels out West to see for himself and discovers a tasty and speedy hamburger assembly line that nobody else is doing. He pushes the McDonald brothers to franchise their model with him in the lead. They’re wary but agree with a strict contract that still gives full executive decision-making to the brothers. Kroc languishes at first but finds growing success, barely able to keep ahead with the mounting overhead costs. Kroc wants to keep going but the McDonald brothers are unyielding over their terms of business. Kroc schemes to push them out of their own business, establish himself as the founder, and take their very name for himself.

2od9lwjFirstly, the story of the formation of McDonald’s is probably far less known than the formation of Facebook, and this provides plenty of opportunities for illumination. It is an inherently interesting story. There’s the invention of the modern-day fast food assembly line and the difficulty in perfecting this process and getting customers acquainted with the new reality. Initially, after years of drive-in service, customers are befuddled that they have to physically walk up to a window and order and throw away their own trash. The early history, hiccups, and adjustments are interesting, but it all gets more engrossing once Kroc comes aboard. It’s here where the film becomes very business-like in its examination of Kroc’s ruthless business tactics that lead to his ascent. Without Kroc’s intervention, perhaps the world would never have known the name McDonalds. He’s not an instant success either. He’s already middle-aged when he comes across the McDonald brothers. He’s not a brilliant salesman by nature. He’s cunning and doggedly persistent, the key he tells us since the world is rife with talented, educated, and good people who go nowhere. Kroc is a constant motor that can never be satisfied. Ethel asks him if anything will ever be enough, and after a short pause he replies without pretense, “Probably not.” He cannot enjoy success because he always feels he should be entitled to more. It’s the kind of unmoored ambition that leads him to throw his litigious weight around, knowingly breaking legal contracts and handshake deals to get exactly what he wants. Kroc’s business triumphs will remind certain viewers of Donald Trump, a man who uses similar advantages of wealth to exploit others and force them into advantageous deals. Even when explicitly in the wrong he just rolls along undeterred.

It is Keaton’s (Spotlight) movie and he more than delivers under pressure. Keaton adopts a speaking affect that makes the character weirdly magnetic without being wholly charming, an interesting combination that reflects the conflicted nature of Kroc. He’s a fast-talking salesman who enjoys the sound of his own voice but he doesn’t fool himself. He’s a man who knows what he wants and it just happens to be everything. He knows his limitations but he strides forward. He is bursting at the seams to get out from under the thumb of the McDonald brothers, who he sees as limiting the growth of a company that is more his than theirs. Kroc delights in being treated to the upper echelons of power. He loves having people proverbially kiss his ring and lavish his greatness. It’s the story of a man who scraped by his entire life until stumbling upon someone else’s genius idea. Keaton plays the man with a wily canniness that is always entertaining, channeling the actor’s natural oddball energy and style into a Midwestern McBeth. He says if he saw his competitor drowning he’d “shove a hose down his throat.” He’s generally cold but Keaton and Siegel don’t present him with a standard redemption arc. He’s kind of a hapless jerk at the start and becomes a powerful, egotistical jerk by the end. Keaton’s layered performance gives the film a solid anchor to keep viewers invested in the film.

founder-the-fm002If only the other parts of The Founder had as much nuance and care as Keaton’s role. The supporting characters have flashes of interest but are too relegated to be much more than symbols or less developed foils to Kroc. The McDonald brothers have a poignant level of tenderness to them but they’re set up to be symbols of American values that will inevitably be trampled upon by Kroc’s corporatist version of the American Dream. Mac is the hopeful and trusting brother, Dick is the no-nonsense devote to quality and ethics, and together they could use additional ambiguity or depth. They’re meant to represent an older way of doing business, the familiar edict that hard work, dedication to customers, and quality will pay off. The brothers are successful and content at their level of success; they lack the naked ambition of Kroc and his disregard for the rules. They’re set up to be defeated and swindled and victims of Kroc’s tactics, which limits them as characters. There’s a sliver of detail with Dick’s concern for his brother’s diabetes threatening him, but the brothers are more martyrs than anything else. You anticipate their defeat with slight dread but more a sense of impending inevitability. Their good-natured values are no match for the winner-takes-all mentality of a man on a mendacious mission.

Similarly, Kroc’s wife is another figure set up from the start to be trampled upon. She’s supportive but not supportive enough Kroc feels. Like the McDonald brothers, she’s too content within her station and what she deems a good existence, a life of dinners at the club with a retinue of upper middle class friends. Ethel is a plain looking woman of simple pleasures. You already know that there’s a ticking clock before Kroc will trade up. With these expectations, more could have been done to establish her character. Too often Kroc’s selfish, indifferent, or casually hurtful broadsides are treated with silent suffering from Ethel. She’s set up as a walking pained reaction shot. It almost gets to comical levels as the pattern repeats itself and you anticipate a slightly elongated, wounded reaction shot. Kroc’s second wife, Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), is a sweetly smiling prize but proves herself more than a pretty face. She shares Kroc’s ambitions and proposes swapping real milk for instant milk mix to save refrigeration costs. There’s obviously more to this woman, who we meet already married to a business associate of Kroc’s, but the movie keeps her as a mostly symbolic, almost Fitzgerald-esque trophy. The other side characters that come into Kroc’s orbit, B.J. Novak’s scheming real estate fixer, Kate Neeland’s esteemed secretary, Justin Randell Brooke’s loyal lieutenant, are clipped so that they only appear in the film when they offer some service or advice useful to Kroc. Perhaps there’s a meta level here exploring how Kroc views those seemingly closest to him in strict transactional terms, or perhaps I’m just reaching for more.

mv5bytu4ntk5mzktnjuyny00yjbjlwjlytctmdfmnzg1mtdimta0xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymzq4mte1mjc-_v1_The other liability from an otherwise still entertaining script is the director. Hancock is better known for softer, feel-good films about American values. The Founder is a story that subverts all of those notions and Hancock doesn’t seem to master the skills in order for the satirical and darker implications to land. The onscreen visuals seem to clash with the movie’s overall disquieting tone. The colors are bright and the musical score by Carter Burwell seems curiously jolly at points, confusing the tone of darker scenes. It just doesn’t feel like Hancock had a good feel for the material and how best to execute it. It feels like he’s missing the layers of potential with Siegel’s screenplay. I’ll readily credit Hancock for part of Keaton’s terrific performance but Hancock’s touches are best realized in the art direction details recreating a bygone era. I feel that somebody like a Steven Soderbergh would have tapped more into this story’s satirical potential.

The Founder is an entertaining biopic of a scoundrel who ran roughshod over others dreams and turned their success into his own. It’s anchored by a complex performance from Keaton. It’s a rags-to-riches story that doesn’t tell the audience how to think about its centerpiece character. He’s underhanded, sure, but he’s also got everything he wanted and his tactics proved successful. Is this an ends justify the means story to rationalize the power of avarice, or is this an exploration of the darker undercurrents of the passing American Dream usurping others’ dreams and accomplishments (closing text informs us that McDonald’s feeds one percent of the world’s population every day)? The movie doesn’t seem to take a stand, neither fully condemning nor excusing Kroc’s actions. The tale behind the worldwide fast food giant is full of supersized drama and interesting procedural details about the rise of the most recognizable name in burgers. It’s unfortunate then that the movie struggles to reach the same heights as Keaton. The supporting characters are tragically underdeveloped and kept as figures for comparison to chart Kroc’s ascendance. Director John Lee Hancock also feels like an poor fit for the material, his instincts seemingly at odds with the film’s tone and intentions. The Founder is an interesting movie with a strong central performance but it can’t help but feel like its destiny was far greater, that it’s not meeting the full potential of the material.

Nate’s Grade: B

The LEGO Movie (2014)

MV5BMTg4MDk1ODExN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzIyNjg3MDE@._V1_SX214_Highly creative, cheeky, frenetic, and bursting with visual splendor, The LEGO Movie will likely surpass all expectations you had for what was assumed a 90-minute LEGO commercial. I cannot even tell if it’s actually a commercial or a subversive consumerist satire, or perhaps a blending of both. Writer/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller take their same anarchic, comic rambunctious absurdity exhibited in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street and produce another movie so fast-paced, so freewheeling in energy, and so comically alive that you feel rejuvenated by the end. These are gentlemen who fully know the storytelling power with animation and they create worlds that are astounding to watch. While completely computer generated, the world looks like it was stop-motion. In fact, the detail that everything in the physical world is made of LEGOs was a nice touch, including fire, water, and smoke. The story of an unremarkable guy (slyly stupidly voiced by Chris Pratt) mistaken for The One, and the complications that arise, is a fitting satire of superhero fantasy mythos filmmaking. The social commentary on conformity and the media is cutting without distracting from the plot’s ongoing mission. The characters are fun, the jokes land assuredly, and the action sequences are mesmerizing. But then it takes a meta turn in the third act that gives the movie a whole other prism that helps define its previous outrageousness while leading to a poignant message about the inclusiveness of play. It’s a movie that celebrates imagination and individuality, and while it will more than likely also sell a crapload of toys, it’s an animated film with more on its mind. To paraphrase the top radio hit in the world of LEGOS, everything is just enough awesome.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Kings of Summer (2013)

1979Working part-time at a movie theater in the summers, I come across, let’s say, an interesting selection of customers with… interesting opinions. One middle-aged woman openly opined, while looking at the poster for the coming-of-age comedy The Kings of Summer, that she’s had enough with movies told from a teenage male perspective. While this same woman had very specific and narrow demands for an acceptable movie, she got me thinking. Why do we get so many coming-of-age movies from a male perspective? Let’s forget the easy answer that Hollywood has a lot more male filmmakers than female. There’s always that sense of romance with coming-of-age films, a nostalgic look back at a supposedly simpler time that now seems better appreciated. Maybe men are just more prone to romanticizing the past while women look forward to the future. Or maybe there are really just more men calling the shots about films get made. Whatever the reason, the woman didn’t go see The Kings of Summer, and judging by her attitude, I don’t think she missed out.

102423_galJoe (Nick Robinson) has just finished his freshman year in high school. He has a long summer ahead butting heads with his no-nonsense father (Nick Offerman). Then Joe gets the brilliant idea. He and his pal Patrick (Gabriel Basso), who is also sick of his annoying parents, will build their own home in the woods, a sanctuary where they can set the rules. Joe and Patrick pack up their belongings, find a quiet spot in the woods, and build that dream home. Biaggio (Moises Arias), a weird and gangly kid, takes an interest in the youthful declaration of independence and joins in. The guys invite girls over, explore the wilderness, grow patchy wisps of facial hair, and live out their fantasies of roughing it like real men. Of course it helps when a Boston Market is just down the road.

From start to finish, The Kings of Summer kept me laughing. I did not expect the comedy to be as consistent and thorough as it was, but writer Chris Galletta has a sure handed way of making the comedy derive from the situations and characters. Even with some outsized elements, notably Biaggio and the fact that the boys home-away-from-home is way too advanced for a kid who blundered through shop class, the humor never feels forced. That is an accomplishment, though the script also overly relies on Biaggio to say outlandish or weird lines. I especially enjoyed his one-scene pep talk with his father late in the movie. That confidant sense of humor goes a long way to relax an audience, allowing us to attune to the mellow waves of the film. It’s fun to watch the guys try to forage a life out in the woods, slowly learning how hard this whole survivalist lifestyle may actually be. The adults are viewed as blithe buffoons or hardasses, though they don’t come across as caricatures. Credit the attention paid to Offerman’s (TV’s Parks and Recreation) character as Joe’s father and credit Offerman’s uncanny ability to make gruff parenting endearing. This is an easy film to like, to go along with the flow, and to enjoy. It never really falters in entertainment and routinely has another joke at the ready to make you smile. It’s a sweet movie that does enough to keep you charmed.

While pleasant, I had to stop and reflect that there was absolutely very little to these characters. The boys all kind of blend together in their youthful romanticism of freedom and rebellion of lame parents, but you’d be hard-pressed to describe them beyond core physical descriptions. The moments that do supply character development are mostly broadly comedic or somewhat generic in their coming-of-age tropes, notably the broken heart administered by a guy’s crush. Example: Biaggio is essentially little more than a walking punchline machine. While quite funny and well acted, every line of his dialogue feels like a punchline. He comes from nowhere. At one point, Joe advises Biaggio that a girl may be interested in him, but Biaggio demurs and says that won’t work out. All right, here we go. Here’s where the movie sheds some light on him. Biaggio admits to being gay. The very next line involves him confusing gay with cystic fibrosis. It’s a funny joke but it turns a moment where a character was getting added dimension and just manufactures another punchline. Again, The Kings of Summer is a very pleasant film going experience, and one that made me laugh consistently, but objectively, the impact is too limited because of the lack of proper characterization.

102422_galAnd I suppose this leads into a bigger question of whether this lack of substantial characterization even matters. Coming-of-age movies, like any subgenre in film, have their own expectations and conventions. We all have our different tolerance levels for narrative familiarity, and depending upon the genre, familiarity may be a necessity. Fans of coming-of-age films want to see those familiar elements. They want to see the bonds of friendship, the neglectful parents, the first crushes that lead to first heartaches. It’s just like fans of romantic comedies finding comfort in the two leads hating one another until, inevitably, they love each other, or the public sing-alongs. I think many coming-of-age films at some level tend to be somewhat broad or generic to make them more relatable. Perhaps I’m just being too generous to formulaic pictures. If you’re a fan of coming-of-age movies then you’ll probably be quite forgiving of the shortcomings in The Kings of Summer. Me, I prefer Jeff Nichols’ Mud and its more textured, empathetic look at adolescence in a working poor Missouri riverbed community.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (TV’s Mash Up, Funny or Die Presents…) makes the film look beautiful. The romanticism of the youth running away to live in nature is improved with some spectacular looking natural settings and compositions. The film was primarily filmed in Cleveland and northern Ohio, and as a native Ohioan, I have to puff my chest. Vogt-Roberts is also skilled at handling his actors and balancing tone; while I criticize the over reliance on comedy at the expense of fleshing out characters, the tone is not divergent. It plays within the same cohesive wavelength throughout. If there is a breakout actor from this movie, it would have to be Arias (TV’s Hannah Montana, The Middle). The kid has a tremendous ability to tap into an oddball character, making him quirky rather than insufferable. He also has a unique look to him, and that’s got to be a plus for a working actor. Just ask Steve Buscemi.

Genial and undemanding, The Kings of Summer isn’t anything close to royalty in the coming-of-age genre but it’s consistently funny and enjoyable. The acting is good, the jokes work, and the movie’s out after 90 minutes. It’s a nice summer diversion but doesn’t contain the resonance to be considered more than that. The weak characterization and broad humor, while opening its wide appeal, also makes the film less substantial. It’s sweet and funny but little to distinguish it from other sweet and funny coming-of-age entries. If you’re a fan of the genre or looking for a mellow and pleasant evening at the movies, think of The Kings of Summer. Just don’t think it’s going to be anything more.

Nate’s Grade:  B

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