Tag Archives: suspense

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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Sicario (2015)

2 Oct

Mexican cartels are ruthless. Most of the American public seems aware of the horrifying lengths cartel members will go to in order to secure their trade route for shipment of illicit drugs, but what happens when cartel operations start occurring deep within U.S. territory? Sicario opens with this situation, as FBI agent Kate (Emily Blunt) leads a raid into a suburban Phoenix home.

We learn the house is actually controlled by a notorious cartel leader named Manuel (Bernardo P. Saracino), which prompts Kate to “volunteer” joining a combined special task force led by a mysterious Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) set on taking out Manuel and other cartel leaders. Hired on as a special cartel consultant is Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), another mysterious man who Kate grows increasingly skeptical of.

It becomes clear that Kate has gotten in way over her head, as her goodwill nature conflicts strongly with these rugged government types who don’t exactly play things “by the books”. But these things must be pushed aside if Kate wants any chance of survival past the border.

As the only major speaking female in the entire film, Emily Blunt has a demanding presence on screen, and her performance expertly captures a personality desperate for control in a new world fuelled by chaos. Though she has ventured into action fare before (Looper, Edge of Tomorrow) never before have we seen Blunt fierce and powerful –  even in a foreign land she clearly has no inner knowledge of.

The minor setback of Sicario lies at it’s pure narrative level. Written by Taylor Sheridan, the film never fully hashes out what it wants to say about its characters, and the plot is mostly revealed to us scene by scene via expository dialogue (think of the typical military leader standing before a projector saying “Alright guys, listen up: here is your mission….”). Still, it works, thanks to some brilliant directorial execution by Denis Villeneuve.

Like in his previous film Prisoners, the most powerful moments of Sicario hit the audience quietly as we reflect on what’s going on in between the moments of action we see. Through carefully selected collections of seemingly insignificant objects like the Mexican desert, a drainpipe, or a soccer ball, individual shots gain tremendous collective power and Villeneuve uses enough restraint to let his audience read between the lines. Shot by the great veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall, No Country For Old MenSicario looks absolutely breathtaking in every shot; dimly lit silhouettes of an American military team look terribly ominous against a softly fading Mexican sunset. The score by Oscar-winning Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson is worth mentioning as it brilliantly adds to the textual anxiety of the film.

Incredibly suspenseful, the nail-biting tension of Sicario goes on overdrive during the film’s last half; I don’t think I have sweated more in a theatre all year. Building on the unpredictability of violence and international conflict, Villeneuve is clearly a master auteur at work, and we can tell he is in complete control of every frame.

Bottom Line: Unbearingly suspenseful, Sicario is a complex and rewarding film, made possible by Villeneuve’s masterful directorial execution and a standout performance by Emily Blunt. 

You never mess with Emily Blunt when she has a gun in her hands.

Rating: 8/10 

Film Recipe: The best episode of Breaking Bad + Zero Dark Thirty + moral ambiguity 

Blue Ruin (2014)

28 Apr

Not all revenge thrillers are created equal.  Some, like the recently released Blue Ruin, are told with enough knowledge and understanding of the genre so well, they are able to redefine it.

The film focuses on Dwight, a Beach-bum drifter who spends his days rummaging through trash and sleeping in his car. He soon realizes that the person responsible for murdering his parents will soon be released from jail, ensuring that Dwight must now kill or be killed. The film takes several dark turns along it’s path, with most of them putting our protagonist in terribly violent situations. There is an overarching sense of dread in the film, which is occasionally interrupted by short bits of well-executed humor. It’s bold, suspenseful filmmaking with rich and engaging characters and enough twists to make multiple viewings a necessity.  Simply put, Blue Ruin is easily one of the best films of its kind and will stand out among the genre for years to come.

 

 

 

Rating: 9/10 

Similar to: No Country for Old Men, Drive, Animal Kingdom