BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE review by Mark Walters – an old hotel holds some dark secrets

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE review by Mark Walters – an old hotel holds some dark secrets

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Drew Goddard has become a name to watch in Hollywood, thanks to fan-favorite fare like THE CABIN IN THE WOODS and award-worthy efforts like THE MARTIAN. His latest is BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE, a sleek Tarantino-esque thriller with an all-star cast. The trailers for the film are all over the place, starting off as a Vietnam-era story about a bi-state hotel and the eclectic folks that check into it all at the same time… then it turns somewhat ominous. This hotel isn’t what it appears to be, and neither are these people. Is this a horror film? A crime drama? A political thriller? Actually, it’s a little of all those things, but never settling on just one. The end result is highly entertaining and engaging, though not terribly memorable… but honestly, that’s okay because it’s a blast to watch.

As the various patrons arrive at the El Royale hotel, we meet an overconfident salesman named Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), an antsy priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a backup Motown-esque singer named Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), and bellboy Miles (Lewis Pullman) who has to be loudly lured from the back to welcome them. Miles notes that the El Royale is “no place for a priest”, though Laramie can’t stop talking about how back in the day this spot was hopping with all the biggest names. As they take turns getting their rooms, in walks Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), a hippie who doesn’t want to answer questions or say much, just in hurried need for a room. Once everyone is settled, we start to see that no one is who they initially appear to be, all of them up to something odd. As the secrets within the hotel walls begin to unravel, there may still be a very sinister threat on the way to make things even worse for everyone.

Everyone in BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE gives a strong and at times amusing performance, all seemingly quite engaged in the mysterious script by writer/director Goddard, and in some ways this almost feels like a fun movie from a few decades ago that’s just now being discovered. It’s easy to draw comparisons to ensemble cast pop culture films like PULP FICTION or FOUR ROOMS, especially the latter since the film is staggered out with chapter beginnings for each character’s back story and current predicament. Jon Hamm is (no pun intended) really hamming it up as the smooth-talking salesman who shows just a few hints of his darker side early on, and then turns into one of the more interesting characters of the piece as his motivations are revealed. Jeff Bridges is equal parts endearing and mysterious playing Father Flynn (I can’t help but wonder if “Flynn” is a nod to his TRON role), though while he gets considerable screen time he seems happy to allow Cynthia Erivo to shine in what is arguably the true leading role in this complex narrative. And Erivo is terrific, playing a backup singer with aspirations to do something more featured, a charming fresh face among a cast of more familiar visages. Dakota Johnson feels like the one weak link here, playing a woman with a hostage of sorts, though like many in the film her motivations aren’t what we initially expect. She’s not bad, she just seems weak in comparison to the other roles, save for one rather effective scene that is arguably one of the most memorable moments of the film. I did find myself enjoying Lewis Pullman as the nervous bell boy who again, like the others, is more than what he appears to be at first. This film does a great job at revealing aspects of each character you may not have expected at first, even if you think you know what’s coming. The trailers have been pushing Chris Hemsworth a lot, as he’s understandably a hot name in Hollywood, but he’s not in the film all that much… and I can’t say much about who he’s playing without giving away some major plot points, but let’s just say he’s not the most pure-hearted soul.

Some may have a hard time rooting for any of these characters, as none of them are particularly noble or heroic enough to cheer on, save for maybe Cynthia Erivo, though even her character doesn’t seem above a desperate act if it helps her get down the road. Sometimes that’s a problem with movies like this, as without a defined hero or likable protagonist, it’s hard to want to see anyone ever really win the day. But Goddard keeps things interesting enough to hold your attention, and there’s more than a few surprises lurking around each corner, making the end result a sometimes wild and interesting ride. And thanks the era and setting, we’re treated to a fantastic soundtrack with music that will make you smile. Goddard even talked the great Michael Giacchino into providing the musical score, which keeps the action moving at a fairly brisk pace.

The biggest crime of BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE is it really feels like it could have been something more than what it is. Maybe it’s partly because Drew Goddard gave us the complex surprise of THE CABIN IN THE WOODS and the fact that film was so consistently shocking, that by comparison this new effort seems a little more by the numbers. There are still some nice turns and twists to be had, but Goddard’s new film just isn’t quite the slam dunk you hope it would be. That’s not to say it’s not extremely fun to watch and entertaining, and the phenomenal cast helps make up for many of the shortcomings. Running two hours and 21 minutes, the movie does overstay its welcome a bit, and probably could have benefit from a few tighter edits here and there, but if you like quirky thrillers with a darker edge, this could just be the ideal hotel for your stay.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE opens October 12, 2018

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.