Tag Archives: Jared Leto

Bad Times At The El Royale (2018)

25 Oct

Take a few strangers, a bag of cash, some heroin, a heavy rainstorm, a rifle or two, CIA operatives, domestic violence, PTSD, and alcohol – throw it all together with some 70’s Americana (complete with an abundance of disco soul) and you have Bad Times At El Royale. 

Written and directed by Drew Goddard (Cabin In The Woods), the film details the events bestowing a group of unfortunate strangers who happen to be at the same hotel over the course of a stormy night along the California/Nevada border. In fact, the hotel itself straddles the boundary, with half the rooms being in the “sunny and relaxing” California section and the other half in “glamourous and indulgent” Nevada – or so the marketing pitch goes – with a bright red line dividing up the property. It’s in the El Royale’s lobby where we are introduced to a trio of travelers looking for a room. There is the priest, Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a single woman named Darlene (Cynthia Erivo) en route to Reno, and a vacuum salesman with a southern drawl named Mr. Sullivan (Jon Hamm). After some chit-chat, the hotel clerk finally shows up in the form of a boyish young man named Miles. Things get complicated as secrets are revealed, and a few surprise guests arrive at the hotel throughout the course of the night.

Bad Times is the kind of film that invests itself heavily in plot. It’s the sort of grounded, single-location storytelling that you see with movies that also work well as theatrical pieces like Wait Until Dark, 12 Angry Men, or August: Osage County. With a film like this, having a character-driven narrative is absolutely essential – especially so when the thing is over 2 hours. Unfortunately, Bad Times collapses under its own weight about halfway through and doesn’t have enough dramatic prowess to justify its lengthy runtime. Goddard is a much better director than he is writer; most of the characters in Bad Times feel stale and onenote. He gets away with it just fine in Cabin In The Woods, a horror venture co-written with Joss Whedon, where the leads are intentionally variations on common genre tropes. Here, Goddard tries to substitute unnecessary flashbacks as a proxy for fleshing out complex character motivations. What he fails to realize is that providing already-thin characters with their own backstory only reinforces their one-dimensional traits.

While I appreciated the overall narrative beats that makeup Bad Times, the characters’ behavior simply does not make enough sense to propel the script along like they need to. The best (worst?) example of this is with Billy (played by Chris Hemsworth), who is the biggest fruitcake-of-a-bad-guy to come along since Jared Leto’s Joker in Suicide Squad. Hemsworth chews up every line with a portraly that veers on the edge of camp but whose role is essential enough in the story so that Goddard demands we take him seriously (one can’t help but wonder if this character’s most effective contribution here is the image of a shirtless Hemsworth to use in the film’s marketing).

There is a lot to admire with Bad Times – a lot more than there is to dislike. I particularly dug the noir-infused tone and beautiful interior set design. The post-modern story structure (complete with title cards!) is an admirable but obvious attempt to try and emulate Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, a film which Bad Times owes a lot to. But unlike that film, (Tarantino is a master at understanding the brevity of writing nuanced, complex characters) Goddard’s work trails off around the third act right when the script should be picking up steam. In retrospect, I liked the film’s first act the best simply because I knew the least about all the players at the hotel and appreciated the intrigue. Most of the second half becomes a prime example of style-over-substance and some parts of Bad Royale end up feeling like a music video that goes on for way too long.

Still though, the film showcases Goddard’s skill as a director who can effectively use the slow-burn to ramp up tension. There are enough clever stylistic choices in the film to keep most viewers happy – including some surprising plot elements that caught me off guard in a give-you-goosebumps kind of way. Bad Times At The El Royale is good. So frustratingly good that its biggest sin might be in exposing the possibility of how much better it could have been.

Bottom Line: Bad Times At The El Royale is a nifty piece of dramaturgical theatre that unfortunately relies too often on underwritten characters as its crutch. 

Rating: 6.5/10 

Film Recipe: The Hateful Eight + Identity + Wait Until Dark + Suburbicon 

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Suicide Squad (2016)

3 Aug

Suicide Squad feels like a bit like an experiment. One that was hastily put together by a procrastinating 12-year-old at 2:00 a.m. the morning of the science fair. In other words: it’s an obvious but well-intentioned mess in the form of DCU trying to tap into the magic money-making superhero formula (one that Marvel has down to a T), and turn it in for a passing grade.

Directed by David Ayer (Training Day, End of Watch) the latest follow up in the DC Cinematic Universe takes place right after the events of Batman vs Superman and is a tragic misstep for the franchise in what should have been Warner Bros’ bonafide summer hit. Superman is now dead, and the US government is dealing with the repercussions of having superheroes, superantiheros, superpeople, meta-humans (which we quickly learn is the DC term for mutants) among the public. “What if Superman had decided to walk in the Oval Office and steal our president?” US official Dexter Tolliver (David Harbour) asks. This notion prompts Amanda Waller (Viola Davis playing arguably the movie’s most interesting character) to assemble a team of expendable baddies to be used as a safeguard in case things go south. Which they inevitably do when one meta-human decides to go rogue and unleash a 6000-year-old magical force named Incubus upon Midway City (it unfolds just as nonsensical as it sounds).

After a hasty segment that introduces our many beloved anti-heroes via expository flashbacks, (so he is called Deadshot because he is good with guns hunh? You don’t say!?) we get on with a rescue mission of sorts. This is where things get a bit bland; what should have been the beating heart of the film ends up feeling flat and uninspired with a shoehorned chase-the-magic-thingy plot device. To top off the magic, we get to see our squad battle it out with some hokey CGI fossilized zombies? (because these things don’t bleed, thereby saving the film from the R-rated blockbuster stamp of doom). It’s a wild, illogical ride but also perplexingly enjoyable – possibly because the actors go out of their way so often to convince us that, yes… they are having a really good time bashing stuff up together.

The scenes are so clumsily sewn together; sure, the Marvel movies were boring and predictable but at least they had a sense of fluidity to them. Characters seem to come and go as they please with little motivation (one member of the squad gets killed off in the first act without much of an afterthought) or efforts towards the overarching narrative. The dialogue is often clunky and awkward; lines like “Her sword steals the souls of its victims” are said so nonchalantly it’s as if the characters were discussing college sports. The film’s humor is also a little off, though thankfully it doesn’t go overboard on the snarky, self-aware banter via Deadpool. Most of the jokes are put on the backburner while the action and attitude take center stage.

For all its flaws, something about Suicide Squad works, at least on a popcorn turn-your-brain-off-and-enjoy-the-ride level. David Ayer clearly has a love for these characters and his passion is felt strongly through the screen. A couple shine brighter than others though, specifically Margot Robbie‘s version of Harley Quinn, Viola Davis’ hardass embodiment of Amanda Waller, and Will Smith‘s Deadshot. And then there is the infamous Joker, played by Jared Leto who gives a solid method-driven interpretation of the beloved character, but also one that feels a bit out of place and unnecessary. Still, he is a lot of fun, and watching the clown caress others’ faces while talking to them about his debauchery is one of the film’s best moments. Stylistically, it’s obvious Ayer and his cinematographer Roman Vasyanov were going for something dark. Crank up the Mad Max: Fury Road obsession with guns, knives, and makeup and you have a nice visual aesthetic which works well in a film devoted to the baddies.

The real villain here is in the editing. With rumors of reshoots and re-edits to the film 3 months ago, one can’t help but think that once upon a time there was a version of Suicide Squad that actually made sense, one that was properly timed with one plot point leading to the next. What I saw wasn’t so much of a bad film in and of itself as it is was a prime showcase for what could have been.

But who cares? This is Suicide Squad, the film that was Warner Bros’ saving grace at keeping up with the Marvel juggernauts that dominate the box office every year. And you know what? I bought into it. There is an undeniable charm to the film’s scatterbrained chaos. Sure, it’s ugly, but what David Ayer has done with these ragamuffin characters is definitively cool, if not outright admirable, and it goes beyond anything Disney has done with their Star Wars or Marvel franchises. Yeah, it might be a bit of a messy disaster project, but by the time the credits roll, you still can’t help but smile at that poor 12-year old’s desperation, give him a pat on the head, and say with a half-assed smile “good job kid”.

Bottom line: Suicide Squad feels so remixed, chopped up and dead set on pleasing audiences, there is little substance left to show whatever original artistic vision director David Ayer might have been capable of. 

Rating: 5/10 

Film recipe: The Avengers + Hot Topic + dysfunctional romantic relationships