“Bad Times at the El Royale” (2018) 

Thriller/Action

Running Time: 141 minutes

Written & directed by: Drew Goddard

Featuring:  Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Nick Offerman and Chris Hemsworth

Miles Miller:[to Father Flynn] “This is not a place for a priest, Father. You shouldn’t be here.”

Laramie Seymour Sullivan:“We might need to work on your sales pitch, son. “The El Royale: no place for a priest.”

Critical Commentary:

Released this week on DVD, Blu-ray and 4K is the thriller “Bad Times at the El Royale” (2018) a period piece that has trouble knowing exactly what kind of movie it wants to be so ends up being a hybrid of many movies that does not have a strong enough centre for it to hold together as strong as it should. It ultimately ends up being enjoyable but about very little which is a hugely missed opportunity for all involved as there are some truly great performances that light up the screen and deserve much better than they ultimately are left with. The other element of the movie that is (unfortunately) noticeable is the running time, “Bad Times at the El Royale” clocks in at almost two and a half hours, which in a movie like this indicates that the narrative is not only sprawling but that it takes a long time to get anywhere meaningful, which it does, costing it much in its plot as well as keeping an audience engaged with the story, at times you might be forgiven for asking yourself, what is this movie actually about? When writing and directing a movie there must be a point to it first, what reason does it have to exist, there are lofty ambitions at play here but I think the skill to execute them may be lacking, for now anyway.

There are a number of seemingly unique aspects to “Bad Times at the El Royale” including but not limited to multiple narratives that are being told in the present as well as the past, not only that sometimes there is overlapping narratives so as to have them told from different points of view which can look smart, but here is made an afterthought as the actual plot is so dense but at the same time adds up to not a lot. There have been times when this technique adds to a film, none more so than the great “Pulp Fiction” (1994) which used something similar but to a greater effect as it was not covering up shortcomings in the movie itself. Another aspect of this movie is that it is a period piece being set in 1969 which means the writer/director is able to remove modern elements that would mean many of the story elements just wouldn’t work. Not only that but there would be a tendency to make direct comparisons to the world we live in today instead of just hinting at them. It also introduces a large number of characters that vary greatly in quality as well as believability, then proceeds to slowly give backstories as well as sometimes either kill them off or link them to other threads that don’t really go anywhere. There have been many films that take sprawling stories attempting to interweave them to create something that is more than the sum of its parts, such as the aforementioned “Pulp Fiction” as well as the timeless classic “Short Cuts” (1993), however what both of these had in common were great source material as well as great directors. These are two elements that are sadly lacking in “Bad Times at the El Royale” which is a real shame as there is something at work here that could have been fleshed out to produce a very special movie, as within the production there are at least three very good performances, which ultimately end up being wasted. That is not to say that this genre of movie with all its devices should not be attempted but it should not be a directors second feature behind the camera, it takes experience to balance all the elements that are at play in this movie.

Written, directed and produced by Drew Goddard who is more famous for being discovered by Joss Whedon and who has mainly contributed to Whedons’ projects mostly in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1996-2003), “Angel” (1999-2004) as well as the genre movies “Cloverfield” (2008), “World War Z” (2013) and “The Martian” (2015). Here he is flying solo, the results being somewhat mixed. The difference between all of Goddard’s earlier work and “Bad Times at the El Royale” is one of collaboration and control which is a vital part of the movie making process, it is at its essence a collaborative art form, normally when a movie fails it is mostly due to this reason. While this movie is not an out and out failure it is well below where it should have ended up especially with the people involved both in front of as well as behind the camera. What the movie lacks is a general feeling of cohesion not only between the styles employed but also between each narrative thread as well as how the uniqueness of the hotel actually adds to the plot other than being a novel idea or a jumping off point. While I do not need everything explained in any movie, in fact an air of mystery is welcome, here we have almost everything explained to a degree that becomes tiresome. An aspect of having people arrive to a place that acts as a nexus is to not know each individual backstory, for me this would not only have added something to the movie but would have streamlined the entire production to a manageable time, something I cannot believe was not addressed in any meetings. Something Goddard has been good in the past has been managing a large cast, but here it seems like many of the secondary characters are treated like main cast members so that we have a battle for screen time, this is an example of where someone like Ridley Scott or Joss Whedon as producers could have had some input as both have always dealt with complex stories and of course extremely large casts. 

“Bad Times at the El Royale” is set in 1969, Catholic priest Daniel Flynn, singer Darlene Sweet, salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan, and the sarcastic Emily Summerspring arrive at the El Royale, where they meet the hotel’s only employee, Miles Miller. 

There is no doubt that “Bad Times at the El Royale” is stacked with very good actors including MCU star Chris Hemsworth who seems to be searching for something to prove himself in, especially with his Marvel commitments possibly coming to an end shortly. However it is the character performances that really shine in this movie led by Jeff Bridges as a Priest (possibly) who has so many levels to his performance that you could forget how challenging this role was, he brings to life a real three dimensional human being who anchors this entire movie. In fact he is almost the only reason to sit through it. The second performance that I loved was that of Cynthia Erivo who threatens to steal the movie right out from under Bridges (no easy feat to do in any movie) as a singer who has decided to take charge of her life, attempting to do what she loves no matter the cost. Erivo who up to this year had been primarily known for her work as a stage actress (winning a Tony and a Grammy) shines in a role that requires her to perform a number of tricky elements including sing (which is something to see), be dramatic, funny as well as loving sometimes all in one scene all she does as well as anyone but with a steely unironic way that proves she is going to be a force onscreen for years to come. In terms of the rest of the cast Jon Hamm is great, he is a naturally gifted presence who is not onscreen long enough for my tatstes but that is where the great performances end and the more mediocre ones begin which is a shame, I believe it speaks more to the material than the talent on hand.

All in all “Bad Times at the El Royale” is not actually a bad movie, in fact for most of its runtime it is very enjoyable as it has a big enough thriller element to keep audiences guessing as to where it is actually going, however it is marred by far too many characters as well as a narrative that at times seems to be clever as well as engaging but with a runtime at almost two and a half hours it becomes tiresome as well as expected which does impact the movie negatively. It actually helped that my expectations were set low when I viewed this 4K Blu-ray as I was pleasantly surprised by the look of the movie as well as plot, however as I have stated it needed trimming as well as a more concise narrative that did not rely on constant (and I mean constant) flashbacks to flesh out every character, this is done by good writing as well as good acting. 

Technical Commentary:

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment brings Bad Times at the El Royale to Ultra HD Blu-ray as a one-disc edition. At startup, the UHD goes straight to the main menu screen with full-motion clips, the usual options along the bottom and music playing in the background.

Video

“Bad Times at the El Royale” arrives on Ultra HD packing a fully-loaded and ultimately exquisite HEVC H.265 encode, showcasing a few welcomed improvements over the Blu-ray. Shot on traditional 35mm film, which was later mastered to a 4K DI, the freshly-minted 2160p transfer checks into the motel with a welcomed uptick in overall definition. The difference may be small, but there’s a bit more clarity in the background information. The unique design and pattern of the wallpaper is more detailed, the stitching and threading in the clothing and in the fabric of the furniture is more distinct, the UHD picture has a lovely film-like quality with excellent detailing throughout. 

Contrast doesn’t appear to show a dramatic difference, which is likely the result of the filmmaker’s artistic intentions. Nevertheless, the modest improvement is enough for cleaner, slightly brighter whites that energize the explosive action.

The biggest and most dramatic improvement are the colors, and for a bleak neo-noir thriller, this HDR10 presentation is bathed in sumptuously vibrant primaries, giving the action and tensely grim conversations a fascinatingly animated feel.

Audio

“Bad Times at the El Royale” is provided with an outstanding Dolby Atmos soundtrack that enhances its already-fantastic DTS-HD counterpart. 

Imaging is splendid expansive and spacious, displaying superb acoustical detailing, sharply-defined highs and distinct, room-penetrating mids. The soundstage is continuously kept busy with plenty of off-screen activity that effectively travels between three front channels and into the top heights, generating a convincingly and highly engaging half-dome wall of sound. Benefitting from the extra breathing, the musical score and song selections reveal plenty of warmth and fidelity with distinct clarity between each note and instrumentation while also subtly bleeding into the heights and surrounds.

Despite being a relatively front-heavy presentation, the object-based design sets home theaters ablaze with a variety of noises that often encircle the listening area.

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