‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ Invites You to Peel Back its Many Layers

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Bad Times at the El Royale” is one of those movies I have really come to deeply admire as it is like an onion you keep peeling at continually to see what’s underneath. Just when I thought I knew where things were heading, the story heads in another direction to where what we were initially introduced to is not all what it seems. As Bo Diddley once sang, you can’t judge a book by looking at the cover, and while this movie’s poster tells us what we need to know before going into the theater, there is more to discover than we could ever anticipate.

The El Royale of the movie’s title is a hotel which, at one time, was one a glorious place to visit, but it has since fallen into disrepute. The first sequence shows a man entering a room there, digging beneath its surface to play a bag of money beneath it. He is later greeted by another man who he kindly welcomes in, but who quickly shoots him dead with a shotgun. It’s a wonderfully elaborate sequence which brings us into a motion picture which promises not to be the usual mainstream fare.

We then move to 10 years later when a number of visitors arrive at the El Royale to stay for a night or two. They include the kindly priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), aspiring singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), vacuum cleaner salesman Dwight Broadbeck (Jon Hamm), and a young hippie named Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). All of them are greeted by the hotel’s concierge and apparently its only employee, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), who gleefully illustrates the location’s history and amenities for all of those willing to hear him out.

Revealing more from here would spoil one too many surprises as we discover not everyone is who they appear to be, but I can tell you the characters soon find themselves on a road to hell as their sins rise to the surface for everyone around them to see. In one way or another, everyone is either trying to escape their past or reclaim it in a way which offers no promises, and not everyone is going to make it out of their predicament in one piece.

“Bad Times at the El Royale” was written and directed by Drew Goddard who wrote the screenplays for the highly-entertaining “Cloverfield,” “World War Z” and “The Martian,” the one Ridley Scott movie in recent years which we can all agree on (in that it was great). Goddard also wrote and directed the horror comedy “The Cabin in the Woods,” a movie I should have seen already, but anyway. He composes this movie in vignettes just as Quentin Tarantino composes his with chapters out of a novel. Each one allows us to learn more about the characters and what brought them to this once glorious resort. The question is, do they all know about the valuables buried beneath one of the rooms?

I enjoyed how Goddard kept peeling away at each of these characters’ identities as we learn more about them in ways which are both illuminating and shocking, and it kept me guessing as to where things were going to go next. There’s even a scene of shocking violence involving a wine bottle which just comes out of nowhere, and it slammed me back into my seat in a way such a scene has not in recent years.

The movie, however, does suffer as it goes on. You should have heard the collective gasp from the audience at the press screening I attended when they were told the running time would be two hours and 21 minutes. Most Hollywood studios these days would never dare to let one of their releases last more than 90 or 100 minutes, so the amount of freedom Goddard got here seems astonishing in retrospect.

I have nothing against movies which last over two hours as long as they are able to justify their length. It is far too easy for a filmmaker to become self-indulgent. In retrospect, “Bad Times at the El Royale” could have used some tightening in the editing room as the story slowly drags towards its conclusion which involves a charismatic cult leader named Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth, taking a much-needed break from the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and his much-too devoted follower, Rose (the wonderfully possessed Cailee Spaeny). By the time we finally arrive at the ending, it feels like everything is concluding on the wrong note. This could have been an even more frustrating ending than the one in “The Matrix Revolutions,” but saying so is a little too punishing.

Still, there is much to admire here such as the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, the terrific set and art direction and, of course, the great cast that tears into their roles with great gusto. Jeff Bridges continues to remain one of our finest actors as he inhabits his role of Father Daniel Flynn in a way few others could. Cynthia Erivo proves to have quite the vocal chops here as her singing left the audience I saw this movie with in almost total silence. Dakota Johnson, finally freed from those god-awful “Fifty Shades of Grey” movies, gets to show an enigmatic side of her acting that makes it clear how we have no business dismissing her as just another pretty face. As for Jon Hamm, he is as charming as ever, and watching him hustle the other characters almost effortlessly makes me believe he will be the next Batman.

“Bad Times at the El Royale” is a flawed movie, but for me, its strengths more than outweigh its weaknesses. I am curious to see how audiences end up reacting to this as it is coming out in a cinematic time dominated by superheroes. Goddard’s film definitely stands outside the norm, but my hope is audiences will take the time to discover something a little different from what they are used to.

Whatever you think of “Bad Times at the El Royale,” you have to admit it allows Jeff Bridges to utter one of the best lines of dialogue in recent years:

“Shit happens… Get the whiskey.”

* * * out of * * * *

Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Suspiria’ Unveils its First Trailer

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Like it or not folks, a remake of “Suspiria” is officially on its way. Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film remains one of the most unforgettable ever made as the Italian filmmaker turned the act of murder into a work of art, and he gave us visual set pieces which were things of incredible beauty. Surely no director, however talented, could top what Argento gave us 40 years ago, could they? Well, with the now-released teaser trailer for the remake of “Suspiria,” it turns out the filmmakers are not even attempting to try.

According to its director Luca Guadagnino, who last year scored a critical triumph with “Call Me by Your Name,” this “Suspiria” is meant to be an “homage” to Argento’s film and reflect the “powerful emotion” he felt upon first seeing it. But what is especially striking about this teaser trailer is how muted its color palette proves to be. Guadagnino has described his film’s look as being “winter-ish, evil, and really dark,” and this certainly comes across here. As before, the story is set a renowned dance academy in Europe where Suzie Bannion, now played by Dakota Johnson, enrolls at to study dancing. But considering how bleak the setting is here, it makes me wonder if the students, once they arrived there, said out loud, “This looks nothing like what I saw in the brochure!”

I don’t mean to make this sound like a criticism as the lack of primary colors shows, among other things, how Guadagnino is attempting to make this material all his own. What especially pleases me is how this trailer makes his take on “Suspiria” look like much more than the average horror film, something I always feared a remake like this would end up being. With its scattering of images featuring Johnson, the infinitely cool Tilda Swinton, Chloe Grace Moretz, Mia Goth, Lutz Ebersdorf and, if you closely enough, original “Suspiria” star Jessica Harper, this does look to be an unnerving motion picture which deals more with the horrors of real life than in the realm of fantasy.

In addition, I enjoyed the Kubrick-like stares Swinton and others exhibit throughout as, like the ones in “Full Metal Jacket,” they appear to go on for a thousand yards. It also looks like a scythe will be the weapon of choice instead of a shiny razor this time around, and we do get an image of a female student levitating in her room, something I don’t remember seeing in the 1977 original.

Whether or not this “Suspiria” equals the original or comes close to doing so, I admire how Guadagnino has given us something which looks strikingly different to where it appears more like a trailer for the next Lars Von Trier cinematic opus. Then again, the trailer for “The House That Jack Built” had far more color in it.

“Suspiria” is set to arrive in theaters on November 2, 2018. Please check out the trailer below.

Fifty Shades of Grey

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I have not read E.L. James’ book “Fifty Shades of Grey,” but I have yet to hear anyone I know say a good thing about it. But after watching Sam Taylor-Johnson’s cinematic adaptation, I think I understand why it became such a literary phenomenon. It allows its readers to visualize sexual fantasies they don’t get perform in their own lives as the two main characters engage in a sadomasochistic relationship which appears alarmingly pleasurable. The question, however, is this, can the individual erotic desires James’ book conjures up come even close to equaling what we see in this long-awaited film adaptation? The answer is no, not even close, and I’m certain you don’t have to have read the book to confirm this.

Fifty Shades of Grey” is essentially a big tease of a movie which promises so much naughty stuff but instead ends up giving you very little if anything. It’s like the girl who kept teasing you in high school, and of course, you fell for her charms when you should have known better (don’t ask me how I know this). I came in with low expectations, and it proves to be a hilarious comedy for all the wrong reasons. But long before its climax or lack of one so to speak, I found myself becoming increasingly bored and started to wonder if this movie would ever end. When it finally did, I found myself breathing a huge sigh of relief.

We come to meet college student Anastasia Steel (Dakota Johnson), an English literature major on the verge of graduating when she is offered the opportunity to conduct an interview with the infinitely wealthy business entrepreneur Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). Sparks end up flying for them instead of the audience, and while it takes far longer for them to kiss for the first time, it eventually allows Christian to bring Anastasia into his inner sanctum which includes a room filled with all the BDSM equipment you could ever hope to find or see so beautifully maintained.

Does Anastasia end up becoming the submissive to the dominant Christian? The answer seems fairly certain, but the movie takes forever to get to that point as Christian keeps encouraging Anastasia to sign a contract which will allow him to do the craziest things to her. It got to where I wanted to yell at the screen, “SIGN THE DAMN CONTRACT ALREADY!!!” Granted, Anastasia’s hesitation to do so is understandable and smart, but it just makes her inaction all the more tedious to endure. To encourage her, Christian does several things like buying her a new computer and a new car, selling her old one off in the process, and showing off the cars in his building’s garage. I kept waiting for Christian to reveal himself as a serial killer, but to do so would have threatened to make this movie interesting.

Perhaps it’s a mistake to come into “Fifty Shades of Grey” expecting anything truly realistic as it seems to exist more in a fantasy world than the real one. Still, I can’t help but wonder how Christian Grey finds the time to engage in any kind of sadomasochistic activity when he runs the kind of business which should keep him fully occupied 24/7. Then again, he does have plenty of time to work out at the gym so he can show off those six-pack abs you know he has hidden underneath his shirt.

Regardless of how I feel about Anastasia as a character and of her foolish descent into Christian’s twisted lifestyle, Dakota Johnson, the daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith, proves to be quite a good actress. I liked how she was able to convey a variety of emotions without having to say a word, and she is able to show her character’s longing while her co-star is unable to do so, which is putting it nicely. With the right role in the right movie, she may end up with quite the career as an actress, and she looks to be capable of doing so much better than appearing in this piece of dreck.

As for her co-star, Jamie Dornan who plays Christian Grey, watching him reminded me of a scene in “The Shawshank Redemption” when Red described Andy Dufresne as a guy who “looked like a stiff breeze would blow him over.” Watching “Fifty Shades of Grey,” I can’t help but think Dornan was cast just for his good looks. From start to finish, he comes across as so emotionally vacant to where I wondered if he was capable of exhibiting any kind of emotion at all. His face looks like it is frozen in place, and not even sex can seem to thaw it. Dornan does, however, have the best line when he says he’s “fifty shades of f**ked up,” and that line effectively sums up this whole movie.

Among the other things which cripple “Fifty Shades of Grey” is the fact that Johnson and Dornan don’t have much chemistry. Romantic relationships in movies thrive on the stars having some form of it, and this isn’t the case here. Rumor has it that they didn’t get along behind the scenes, and this shows here regardless of the studio’s efforts to hide the truth. Then again, it must be somewhat difficult to have chemistry when one lover punishes the other lover physically in order to feel anything.

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson only has one previous credit which is “Nowhere Boy,” a film which chronicles the childhood experiences of John Lennon. I haven’t seen it, but I’m certain my friend Trevor, a huge John Lennon fan, has many great things to say about it. But whatever great things she was able to accomplish with “Nowhere Boy” is not on display here as she succeeds in making the most sleep-inducing erotic movie ever. The sex scenes come way too late and are very unimaginative. Christian running an ice cube down Anastasia’s stomach? We’ve seen that before. As for Taylor-Johnson’s song selections which include “I Put a Spell on You” and “Beast of Burden,” they are far too obvious even if the former is sung by Annie Lennox.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” marks the first erotic studio movie Hollywood has released since “Unfaithful” which came out back in 2002. This movie represented a chance for Hollywood to deal with sexual relationships more frankly than others have in recent years, but it instead proves to be an astonishingly chaste motion picture which seems stunning considering the source material. Late night movies on Cinemax and Showtime have far more erotic power than this one (don’t ask me how I know this either), and the sex scenes are so sterile looking that it feels like they were shot in Irvine, California. The marketing department did a brilliant job in titillating moviegoers into thinking they were getting some sexy stuff they won’t find on the internet (unless they look in the right places, of course), but we went through the same thing with “Showgirls” and look what happened there. “Fifty Shades of Grey” ends up making Paul Verhoeven’s camp classic look like “Vertigo.”

Seriously, there are so many other movies that are far better than this piece of crap and which deal with sadomasochistic relationships in a healthier and far more sensual way like “Secretary” which starred James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and “The Duke of Burgundy” which is from the director of “Berberian Sound Studio,” Peter Strickland. What depresses me is audiences are going to flock out to this adaptation than they will to other movies far more worthy of their time and money. Some books translate well to the silver screen, but this one should have stayed on the written page. Then again, when a book like “Fifty Shades of Grey” sells an incredible amount of copies, why stop there?

* out of * * * *

Universal Pictures Unveils First Trailer for ‘Fifty Shades Darker’

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the movie theater on Valentine’s Day, another E.L. James novel is about to make its way to the silver screen. The cinematic adaptation of “Fifty Shades of Grey” was not well-received critically and was a big winner at the 36th Golden Raspberry Awards, but it still made over $500 million dollars worldwide, so a sequel was destined. Now Universal Pictures has unveiled the first trailer for “Fifty Shades Darker,” and it promises to be more of a thriller as well as something sexier and more obsessive than its predecessor.

Despite Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) leaving Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) at the end of the first movie, this trailer shows neither have yet to call it quits on their relationship. Anastasia, a picture of youthful innocence previously, looks much more mature this time around while Christian, as usual, remains engulfed by demons. We see them go to a masquerade party which makes one wonder if the filmmakers are looking to outdo a similar sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” as that movie almost earned an NC-17 rating.

The passion between Anastasia and Christian appears a little healthier this time around as she makes clear there are to be no more rules or secrets between them. As the trailer reaches its midpoint, they certainly look to be having more fun than ever before. But soon Anastasia starts seeing other women looking back at her menacingly even while she sleeps in bed, and it becomes clear there are still many things Christian has to talk to her about.

The “Fifty Shades Darker” trailer is dominated by Miguel’s version of the song “Crazy in Love,” but while Beyoncé sang it to where her uncontainable joy was more than infectious, Miguel makes his interpretation of the song dark and very obsessive as if this love affair is heading to a very dangerous place. Indeed, Miguel’s song may be the most memorable thing about this trailer as he succeeds in making this song his own, and the result is haunting. As we watch Anastasia and Christian come together and fall apart in rapid succession, the song illustrates just how crazy their love affair is and how much crazier it is going to get.

Stepping into the director’s chair for this “Grey” movie is James Foley, the same man who directed one of greatest acting ensembles ever in the cinematic adaptation of David Mamet’s play “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Writing the screenplay is Niall Leonard, husband of E.L. James. Is Leonard a better writer than his wife? Well, here’s hoping. Among Johnson’s and Dornan’s co-stars here is Kim Basinger who plays Elena Lincoln, Grey’s business partner and former lover, and while we don’t see much of Basinger in the trailer, she has its last line which hangs over everything we have seen like the ominous of shadows. Keep in mind, Basinger’s character is also referred to as Mrs. Robinson (hint, hint).

Well, for better or for worse, “Fifty Shades Darker” will be arriving in theaters on February 14, 2017. Check out the trailer above.

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