Last night I saw a screening at the Writers Guild of Bad Times at the El Royal. It's terrific. There are some slow spots, but they're few, and overall it starts wonderfully and holds up really well. A friend said he loved the TV ads, but was a little confused by them and asked if it was a sort of Gothic horror story. No, it's not, it's basically a modern-day film noire crime thriller, set mostly in the late-1960s. And it's loaded with twists and turns that several times had the audience loudly and viscerally reacting -- sometimes from surprise, but sometimes with unexpected explosions of laughter. The film tells a straight-forward story, but isn't linear, switching between characters, jumping around to the past, and occasionally overlapping as we see things laid out from the different perspectives of the characters. It is so stylishly directed and intelligently written by Drew Goddard, who also wrote The Martian, World War Z and Cloverfield, and wrote and directed The Cabin in the Woods. And has directed a couple episodes of my fave TV series, The Good Place, including the pilot -- so he knows comedy, including quirky comedy. (In fact, the Q&A with him after the screening was conducted by Mike Schur, who created The Good Place.) And as violent as the movie is at time, it's also laced with lots of sardonic humor. The ensemble cast is stand-out, all mostly underplayed -- and where it's not, it's intended -- but I think that Jeff Bridges goes to the head of the class here. He plays a Jeff Bridges kind of character he does so well, grizzled, a bit burned out and full of nooks, crannies and shadows.
At the Q&A, Goddard was asked how he came up with the story. He said he was on a trip with his wife, writer Caroline Williams (who wrote for The Office, Arrested Development, Modern Family and others), when he said he'd love to write a movie about a group of people who just get together in a room and talk. She asked what he'd call it, and at that moment they passed a rundown motel. He looked at the place and replied, "Bad Times at the El Royale." This most-definitely isn't people getting together to just talk, and the hotel isn't rundown -- though it's seen much better times. But that's sort of the sensibility of the film, a group of people who are stuck together at an abandoned hotel in the middle of nowhere -- and things go off the rails.
Here's the trailer. It actually gives a good sense of the movie, though not a full idea of how sardonically funny it is at times. (The use in the trailer of a Franki Vallie song is especially inspired, particularly with its opening line. I'm not even sure if the song is used in the movie -- it probably is, since there's a lot of period music -- though it fits creating a sense of the whimsy and ironies of the movie well.) And of course, it doesn't give away how often the story takes a left-turn to surprise you -- though given how intentionally disjointed the trailer is, you probably can get an idea of that.
I'll also toss in a scene, to give a sense of a lot of the thoughtful pacing. The quiet here isn't necessarily like all of the film, most especially the second half, though the performances are like this throughout, where you almost see people thinking before they talk, and sense that there's more going on with them than they're saying. Here, Jeff Bridges has arrive to find Jon Hamm ringing the bell at the front desk to get a clerk for a long time with no luck, nor does he have any luck, when Cynthia Erivo decides to bypass the bell and get Lewis Pullman's attention.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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