Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

In just a few high-profile creative projects, Drew Goddard has built up such an impossible stockpile of anticipatory goodwill that it was inevitable his second feature as a director would suffer some kind of sophomore slump. After his work on Lost, The Good Place, and (his debut feature) The Cabin in the Woods in particular, Goddard has become synonymous with high-concept philosophical interpretations of Purgatory. Goddard sets his most distinct projects in artificial environments where the morally judgmental voyeurism of the audience becomes part of the text. He uses this metatextual remove to explore the psychological & philosophical implications of audiences’ desire to judge fictional characters as either Good or Bad, Moral or Evil. His second feature, Bad Times at the El Royale, has all the makings of a perfect Drew Goddard project in that way. It’s set in a complexly mapped-out artificial environment that encourages voyeurism & moral judgements. It’s populated by troubled, mysterious characters who unsubtly teeter between Good and Bad on a moral scale. It’s also intricately constructed on a narrative level, coming together onscreen like a temporal puzzle or a Rube Goldberg contraption. Yet, there’s something lacking about Bad Times at the El Royale that keeps its overall effect disappointingly pedestrian, recalling Goddard’s creatively muted credits on Netflix’s Daredevil series or Ridley Scott’s The Martian. It’s a handsomely staged, frequently entertaining picture – yet it’s inevitable to feel letdown by it because we know Goddard can deliver so much more than that.

Even if Bad Times at the El Royale is a little underwhelming, its titular locale is a wonder of sinister-kitsch production design. A Lake Tahoe novelty destination that lost its luster as 60s swank descended into hippie rot, the hotel represents American culture in decline at one of its most turbulent times. Nixon, Vietnam, Hoover, Manson, Civil Rights protests, hippies, and heroin swirl around in the cultural zeitgeist outside the hotel like an especially morbid verse in “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” A perfectly preserved novelty from before those political flashpoints sparked a Cultural Revolution, the El Royale pretends on the surface to be a World’s Fair attraction vision of an idealized American past – complete with automatic food dispensers and a sense of lawless Wild West hedonism. Undercover G-men, bugged rooms, and a secret hallway that exposes each hotel guest to being spied on via two-way mirrors compromise that outdated idealism to reveal that the swanky 60s America of the past was no less sinister than the hippie 70s of the near future (the film is set in ’68). This is of no surprise to four guests who all converge at the El Royale at the exact same time to kickstart the film’s multilayered conflicts: a soul singer (Cynthia Erivo), a hippie (Dakota Johnson), a priest (Jeff Bridges), and a vacuum salesman (John Hamm, back in Don Draper drag). Each conceal mysteriously guarded identities & motives until all is inevitably revealed in an ultraviolent climax (excluding what was prematurely revealed in the film’s trailer). It all comes together with the routine precision of clockwork, mirroring both the cultural ticking clock of the setting and the patience-tested audience’s urge to check our wristwatches.

It’s difficult to parse out exactly why Bad Times at the El Royale lands as good-not-great, despite the wonders of its production design, costuming, performances, and intricate plotting. It could be that, at 140 minutes, the film is too narratively unwieldy to support the weight of its runtime. The nonlinear structure of the story, broken up into chapters by hotel room, certainly doesn’t help there; it’s difficult to become too invested in any particular story before film switches tracks & resets. That structure’s similarities to the post-Tarantino 90s aesthetic, echoed by its 60s soul needle drops & humorously overwritten dialogue, feels a little too familiar to land with any genuine awe (especially since it isn’t observed with any of Goddard’s signature meta critique). My best guess for Bad Times at the El Royale’s shortcomings, however, is that the film doesn’t fully commit to the supernatural Purgatory elements of its script that feels so uniquely menacing in Goddard’s superior works. The film feels like such a blatantly coded, exaggerated depiction of the 1960s’s cultural catharsis, covering everything from religion to drugs to race to sex to war, that it’s almost a shame the artificial conflict of that philosophical stew wasn’t made literal in the text. The way all four of the El Royale’s guests arrive at the same time feels like a fresh batch of applicants being processed as a group at the Pearly Gates. Snippets of dialogue & signage like “See You Again Soon,” “How did you end up at the El Royale?,” “This is no place for a priest,” and (from the advertising) “All roads lead here,” suggest a supernatural tour of the Afterlife, or at least something more philosophically sinister than the sprawling dramatic thriller that’s delivered instead.

We’ve seen Goddard strike gold with those philosophical breaks from reality before, so it’s tempting to want more of the same here. Either way, he’s demonstrated he can do something far more interesting than this handsomely staged, but logically well-behaved popcorn movie. I hope whatever he works on next is just a structurally complex, but infinitely more preposterous. I don’t need him to ground his meta-philosophical contraptions within the bounds of reality. Reality is limiting, if not outright boring.

-Brandon Ledet

Marjorie Prime (2017)

Originally written for the stage, Marjorie Prime tells the story of multiple generations of the family of Marjorie (Lois Smith), an elderly woman with dementia. Her companions over the years range from two separate dogs named Toni-with-an-i, a caretaker who lets her sneak cigarettes (Stephanie Andujar), her daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and son-in-law John (Tim Robbins), and a holographic avatar of her late husband Walter (John Hamm), appearing as he did in his younger years. At the start of the film, Marjorie’s “Prime,” the avatar of Walter, is still learning from her. He helps her with his dementia: providing companionship, reminding her to eat, and recounting (and editing when asked) stories of their past together when Marjorie can’t remember. Tess is disturbed by his presence and his appearance, but John convinces her of the program’s value. When Marjorie dies, Tess gets a prime of her own in the form of Marjorie to deal with her grief. And so a cycle is created, one that echoes and ripples into eternity.

This is a deeply somber and introspective film, a poignant meditation on the nature of what we call memory and how we define it as an objective history as well as how, at its core, “memory” is ultimately both fallible and malleable. As Tess points out in the film, when we remember an event, what we’re actually remembering is the last time we remembered the event, back and back and back, like a series of photographs slowly fading out of focus in a recursive loop. Or, as underlined in another of the film’s conversations that mirrors the plot, one of Tess recounts how one of her students had inherited their father’s parrot, which sometimes still spoke with the dead man’s voice, even twenty years after his death. Love and grief have a profound effect on the way that our memories evolve and devolve and undergo a metamorphosis as we age, and the ravages of time on the human body and mind also contribute to this imperfect personal narrative.

If you search for the film online, it’s defined as a drama/mystery, but that’s not entirely accurate. There is a dark family secret that slowly unscrolls and unspools over the course of the movie’s runtime, recounted in different ways by different people (some of whom aren’t people at all), but it’s not a mystery that you want to solve. The characters in the film don’t want to remember, and that affects the viewer as well; once you know the truth, you remember that the urge to expunge is often as powerful as the urge to record, that the desire to remember is counterposed by all the things we wish we could forget.

Marjorie Prime is at turns celebratory and solemn, weaving back and forth through different perspectives and memories that seem at times false and sometimes too real, and occasionally both. The direction is organic, and the audience is drawn into the film naturally, as if you are in the living room with Tess and Marjorie as they discuss Tess’s own daughter, Marjorie’s memory of the night that Walter proposed, or going to get Toni-with-an-i 2 from the pound in “the old Subaru,” and how the more time passed the more Toni 1 and Toni 2 became the same dog in Marjorie’s memories. The deft hand of subtlety is felt throughout, be it in evidence of recurring musical talent among the women in the family (Marjorie the violinist, Tess the pianist, and the unseen blue-haired Reyna and her band), or in the way that the passage of time is reflected by the appearance of new lamps and other furniture, or in the film’s final moments, which have a distinct “There Will Come Soft Rains” vibe. It’s a story that will follow you all the way home and get into bed with you, and you’ll appreciate the companion for as long as it will let you, before it too passes into the unending waves of time that erode away memory as surely as the ocean obliterates footprints in the sand.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Baby Driver (2017)

In the few days since watching Edgar Wright’s latest at the theater, starting almost immediately after the screening, I’ve been suffering a very annoying case of swimmer’s ear. I can’t hear very well from the affected appendage, which is ringing slightly & swollen to the point of discomfort. I also can’t help but think that this sudden affliction is somehow cosmic retribution for not especially caring about Baby Driver, a film everyone seems to love without reservation, but only stirred apathy in me. In the film, a young twenty-something getaway driver with a heart of gold (named Baby, naturally) suffers from a near lifelong affliction of severe tinnitus. To ease the constant ringing in his ears, he choreographs his day around an endless stack of carefully-curated iPod classics, each loaded with just the right song selection to drown out the noise in his head & get him through his reluctant life in crime. Given how (mostly) great the soundtrack Baby selects for himself is (including tracks from artists as varied as T. Rex, Young MC, and The Damned) and the immediately apparent exuberance Wright shows behind the wheel, it’s downright sinful that I couldn’t manage to have fun watching this summertime exercise in action & style. Do not worry, though. My ear seems to have been struck down for the offense.

I don’t want to waste too much server space shitting on Baby Driver, since it’s bringing a lot of people a lot of joy. It’s easy to recognize what they see in it: stylized car chases, a killer soundtrack, playful action movie dialogue, etc. It’s just frustrating to me that a film with such an exciting premise (a babyfaced criminal timing his bank robbery getaways to pop music) ultimately feels so conventional & uninspired. It starts off sublimely committed to its central conceit too. Baby (played by real-life babyface Ansel Elgort) draws attention to himself by drumming on the steering wheel & lipsycing for his life to a blues rock diddy outside an in-progress robbery. His irreverence is immediately infectious. After establishing Baby’s skills behind the wheel in a show-off’s getaway, the movie establishes its main hook up front in the opening credits. While Baby strolls to a local coffee shop to cap off the heist, the music in his earbuds syncs up to the imagery onscreen, to the point where graffiti & street signs echo lyrics from the soundtrack. In this opening adrenaline rush, it’s easy to be seduced into thinking you’re watching a high octane, pop music-driven modernization of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a visually complex musical where every meticulously crafted detail in play is just an extension of the song developing in your ear. That’s why it’s such a letdown when the movie then reveals itself to be a much more conventional, instantly-familiar heist picture.

That’s not to say that a conventional heist picture can’t be a worthwhile mode of entertainment. Even while disappointing in ambition, Baby Driver features some exceptional performances from its actors. Lily James is absurdly sweet in her role as a diner waitress, feeling like a cartoolishly pure distillation of wholesome Americana. Jamie Foxx also steals attention whenever he’s allowed the opportunity in his role as the loose cannon criminal who can’t be trusted not to blow every heist apart into a bloodsoaked catastrophe, an unpredictable element of danger that helps the film’s “one last job” plot feel at least somewhat distinctive instead of mind-numbingly cliché. I’m a lot less hot on what Jon Hamm & Kevin Spacey are doing as Foxx’s criminal cohorts, which might get to the core of why I was underwhelmed by the movie as a whole. It’s not necessarily a fault with the performances, but more to do with Wright’s screenplay. Spacey & Hamm are tasked with delivering deliberately over-stylized, insincerely quippy dialogue that makes Baby Driver feel overall like a return to that deluge of mediocre mid-to-late 90s sardonic crime movies that followed in the wake of Pulp Fiction & Reservoir Dogs. Even back then those overly-jokey, scripted-to-death crime pictures were already exhaustingly redundant & flat. In a 2017 context the effect is even worse, feeling about as try-hard & unfunny as Deadpool.

It’s possible my mood was soured before Baby Driver even began, given Edgar Wright’s snooty pre-screening PSA about how going to the theater is an essential cinematic experience, as opposed to to the slackjawed dimwit slobs who watch Netflix on the couch (i.e. everyone alive). Mostly, though, I just felt let down that Wright abandoned his central Action Movie Cherbourg concept so quickly after following it to its furthest end in the opening credits. Whenever stray gunfire or gearshifts sync to the music in later scenes, it just feels like a distant echo of a better movie that could’ve been. Without its defining gimmick commanding every moment, Baby Driver feels alternately like post-Tarantino slick action runoff & a made-for-TV mockbuster version of the equally mythic, but infinitely more stylish Drive. I probably shouldn’t be saying these things aloud, though, just in case it’s risking hearing loss in my currently uninfected ear. I hope you, Wright, and the pop music gods in charge of my hearing will eventually forgive me for the transgression, lest I need to start shopping on eBay for some secondhand mp3 players.

-Brandon Ledet