Archive for October, 2018

After a career writing for twisty — and frequently Abrams-ian — projects like Alias, Lost and Cloverfield, Drew Goddard made his directorial debut with 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods. Equal parts homage and satire, “Cabin” was the perfect vehicle for Goddard’s particular blend of genre appreciation and experimental tomfoolery.

In his feature follow-up, Goddard doesn’t put away his bag of tricks, but he draws from it considerably less. Much like how “Cabin” explored the conventions of teen slasher flicks, “Bad Times at the El Royale” plays with the classic Dark and Stormy Night setup, with seven strangers colliding at a once-swanky hotel that straddles the Nevada-California border. In many ways it feels like the spiritual offspring of “Clue,” or perhaps its violent younger sibling.

We arrive at the El Royale with Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a singer en route to a gig in Reno, and are quickly introduced to Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), traveling salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) and bellhop Miles (Lews Pullman). A couple other characters are ultimately introduced (including a Charles Manson-esque Chris Hemsworth) and it goes without saying that no one is quite the person they appear to be.

In bits and pieces, Goddard reveals the true agendas behind each guest’s stay at the El Royale, and in no time at those agendas to collide with revelatory and occasionally fatal results. There are many surprises at the “Royale,” but several plot beats are a little too easy to track from minute one.

A big element in “Royale” is mood, which Goddard uses to maximum result, but the atmosphere can only get you so far before you have to deal with an actual story, and that’s where the seams begin to show. Once all the cards are on the table, the film starts to run out of steam.

The cast is clearly enjoying the opportunity to play against type, with Hamm and Hemsworth in particular chewing a bit of scenery in their respective roles. And Erivo, as the audience surrogate, is superb as the closest thing to a “normal” person in a cartoonishly chaotic film.

But the gimmickry is half the fun. The style and the amount of talent on screen makes up for the film’s weaknesses, resulting in something akin to a magician’s act. You’ll know you’re being tricked, but you won’t mind at all.

Grade: B+

Bad Times at the El Royale opens nationwide on Friday, October 12.

 

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To begin with a disclosure: I’ve never seen any of the prior iterations of “A Star is Born.” I was aware that the film, starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, was remade from earlier source material, but not the larger contours of the plot.

No matter. At every point the movie feels fresh, and comfortable in itself. It’s so effortlessly adapted to the modern era by first-time director Cooper, and so confidently led by Lady Gaga, that it has almost a fairy tale quality. If the new film is any indication of the previous works, then “A Star is Born” seems like just the kind of story destined to be retold by each new generation.

Cooper and Lady Gaga star as Jack and Ally, respectively. When we meet them, Jack is a world-famous and hard-drinking country musician at the height of his career, while Ally moonlights as a singer struggling to make inroads in the industry. They meet in the kind of starstruck coincidence that feels like it could maybe happen, but only seems to in the movies. Ally is then catapulted into the spotlight, first on tour with Jack and later through her own solo career.

That’s the setup, and it takes some time to get there, helped along by understated performances, light-touch narrative work and a killer soundtrack. But the real muscle of the movie is the implicit: watching how fame and fortune can consume individuals and the people in their orbit; and the way a couple can alternately support and injure each other as they collide throughout their shared lives.

Casting Lady Gaga in her acting debut adds an inspired meta element to Ally’s story of a woman trying to maintain authenticity in the whirlwind of explosive fame. And her pairing with Cooper produces an unexpected chemistry, with the actors easily selling the romance of two flawed individuals who try to, and occasionally succeed at, bringing out the best in each other.

For Cooper, who pulls double duty as star and director, the role is another successful test of his range, building on his dramatic turns in films like “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Sniper.” The central pairing does the heavy lifting, but the movie gets helpful assists from a supporting cast featuring Sam Elliot, Andrew Dice Clay and a refreshingly dramatic Dave Chappelle.

It’s a moving film, that starts quiet and builds to a powerful finish. Several of the attendees at my screening were left in tears, and the end credits were met with an ovation that practically begged for an encore.

Grade: A-

“A Star is Born” opens nationwide on Friday, October 5.

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