[Screen It]


(2018) (Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo) (R)

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Dramatic Thriller: A bunch of strangers end up at a remote hotel where their lives and reasons for being there end up interconnected.
It's the late 1960s and the El Royale is a hotel situated atop the California-Nevada border that once was a hot spot among celebrities and politicians but has since fallen on hard times. Nonetheless, it's located at a convenient stopover spot for travelers and as the story begins small-time singer Darlene Sweet (CYNTHIA ERIVO) has just arrived and finds Father Daniel Flynn (JEFF BRIDGES) appearing to be lost and confused.

She helps him inside where they end up meeting vacuum cleaner salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (JON HAMM) who seems to know a lot about the place and its history and grows impatient waiting for the hotel's apparent lone employee, Miles (LEWIS PULLMAN), to show up and check them in.

During that, a young woman, Emily (DAKOTA JOHNSON), drives up fast to the hotel, isn't keen on signing her name in the ledger, and secretly brings a younger bound woman, Ruth (CAILEE SPAENY), into her room. That's all while Miles shoots up and the priest separately seems to try to drug Darlene's drink before she knocks him out cold with a bottle to the head.

When cult leader Billy Lee (CHRIS HEMSWORTH) shows up with his goons looking for someone who's flown from his flock, things become increasingly tense as the reasons for everyone's stay at the hotel end up being revealed, just like secrets about the place itself.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
As is often the case with Hollywood, once a film hits it big at the box office or becomes part of a cinematic meets cultural zeitgeist, copycat movies come out of the woodwork and flood cinemas for a number of years afterward. Such was the case when Quentin Tarantino unleashed "Pulp Fiction" on both viewers and the industry, in general, featuring multiple storylines that jumped through time, smart (and sometimes hyper-realistic) dialogue, and compelling characters.

Some of the imitators were decent, but many were mediocre to bad, and after a run that finished out the decade, they -- for the most part -- disappeared (that is, of course, except for other subsequent Tarantino flicks).

Now that it's been nearly a quarter of a century since the unique offering arrived, it's high time we got something similar and that now shows up in the form of "Bad Times at the El Royale." When I first saw previews of the pic, it did indeed look like another imitator and seemed at first glance that it was going to be another forgettable one.

Well, I'm happy to report that while it might not be quite as brilliant as Tarantino's masterpiece, it's pretty good, certainly entertaining from start to finish, and keeps you hooked wondering how things are ultimately going to play out and who, if anyone, will be checking out of the titular hotel by the time the end credits roll.

The film marks the sophomore outing of Drew Goddard who made his debut with 2012's "The Cabin in the Woods" and has since written the screenplays for "World War Z" and "The Martian" (for which he earned an Oscar nomination). Here, and from his own script, he tells the tale of a number of 1960s era strangers who arrive at the El Royale, a once popular hotel -- that straddles the California/Nevada border -- that provided lodging for celebs and politicos at its heyday but has since fallen on hard times.

The latter to the point that it appears there's just one employee there, Miles (Lewis Pullman), who's late to answer the front desk bell repeatedly rung by a vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm). That man seems to know a little too much about the place as he relays its history to an old priest (Jeff Bridges) with memory problems and a woman (Cynthia Erivo) who we later learn is a Motown style backup singer.

They're soon joined by a young woman (Dakota Johnson) who isn't up for chit-chatting with them or signing her name in the ledger, what with having a hostage (Cailee Spaeny) in her room. Their presence eventually results in the arrival of a hunky and ripped cult leader (Chris Hemsworth) who wants what was taken from him.

Their stories, true identities and real motives are soon revealed and collide as the 142-some minute story plays out. To give away more (be careful of marked spoilers in our content review) would ruin a lot of the decidedly R-rated fun.

Let's just say the film goes in unexpected directions at times, all while employing a time jumping technique that Tarantino popularized (but didn't invent) back in his sophomore outing. There's also some surprising depth at times that I wasn't expecting (especially as related to Bridges and Erivo's characters). The performances are good, the characters interesting and engaging, the writing sharp, and the direction creative to the point that nearly all of this feels fresh rather than derivative.

While it might not suit all viewers' tastes, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the offering and how quickly it flew by as the nearly two and a half hours played out with ease. If you're game, you'll find some good cinematic times at "Bad Times at the El Royale," and for that, it rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed October 2, 2018 / Posted October 12, 2018

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