Tuesday, October 16, 2018


There's nothing quite like seeing a movie that's tingling with the joy of being a movie. Take Drew Goddard's Bad Times at the El Royale for example. The Cabin in the Woods filmmaker is obviously interested in self-consciously cinematic experiences, movies that know they're movies and take supreme satisfaction in loving every second of their own artifice. His new film is a big, broad, swaggering crime movie in love with the possibilities of its great ensemble trapped in the cleverly knotted structure of an intricately plotted and self-reflexive clockwork screenplay. It's a capital-M Movie, swooning to the sweep of an unbroken take, a theatrical bit of blocking, a chewy pulp patter of dialogue, a perfectly curated needle drop -- literally punctuated by a whirling Wurlitzer -- of period aural mood. He makes a past-its-prime gimmick hotel his stage. Here, during the bleak Nixon yeas, in a once-popular tourist trap small-town casino on the California/Nevada border, a handful of unlikely characters arrive one dark and stormy night. A priest, a backup singer, a hippie, and a vacuum salesman walk into a sleazy hotel. Sounds like a joke. It mostly isn't. The story is about how almost none of these people are who they seem. The likes of Jeff Bridges and Jon Hamm and Dakota Johnson and Cynthia Erivo have fun playing the slipperiness of their secrets, eying the others warily and prepping for their ultimate goals. They're arch types who are are, in fact, other, different, arch types. Mostly. 

With crackling self-conscious dialogue, and a slick, fussy, slightly scrambled, partially-chronological structure punctuated by chapter titles named after the hotel's various rooms, the movie gleefully, patiently doles out exposition. Each scene is shot with clear loving care to the wide screen and perfectly anamorphic lensing, lapping up style and savoring its cast's every flourish and gesture. Goddard's taking his cues from Tarantino, sure, and the Whedons and Andersons who made the late 90's so chatty and genre and laconic and ironic. But it also generously grubs around in the Hard Case Crime catalogue of inspirations, with some early Flannery O'Connor and late Gay Talese for good measure. Clipped and quipped, in scenes shaped with pleasant pop dynamics to build and loop back and slink, and sink, and wink, the movie builds sly humor and mounting mystery with equally enjoyable ease. What's it all about, but the fun of the telling? Not much. But where else can Chris Hemsworth saunter in and chew apart the scenery as a cult leader? Or find a man get knocked out with a wine bottle to the head as a Motown classic gets to the exact part of the song that dramatically yelps "Bernadette!"? A hall of voyeuristic mirrors, a crime movie about crime stories inside cover stories, a capable ensemble wound up and smashed together, it's a cool, smooth, surprising faux-vintage thrill.

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