Sunday , December 16 2018

Motel’s mysteries in ‘Bad Times’

Johnson to star in ‘John Henry and the Statesmen’

Drew Goddard, the screenwriter-turned-director whose feature debut was the meta-horror film “A Cabin in the Woods”, has laid another movie trap.

This time, in the pulpy but artificial thriller “Bad Times at the El Royale”, it’s a motel. And as anyone who has ever watched a movie knows, bad things do indeed tend to happen in motels. Just ask Marion Crane or Llewelyn Moss.

The El Royale is Goddard’s hermetically sealed site this time. It’s a once-swanky, now-kitschy Lake Tahoe lodge – a blare of neon amid the pines – that straddles the state line. Half the motel lies in Nevada, half in California, and a red line of demarcation runs right through the middle. Rooms in California are $1 cheaper, owing to the fact that that’s the side with the bar.

Goddard’s real-life inspiration was the similarly arranged Cal Neva, which in the ‘60s was a favored hangout of the Rat Pack, John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and an assortment of mobsters. When Frank Sinatra bought it, he built secret tunnels between bungalows. It was a notorious den of salaciousness and disrepute. Monroe spent her last weekend there.

Those heydays are long gone in “Bad Times at the El Royale”. Set in 1969 as Nixon is taking office, the El Royale has lost its gaming license and when guests beginning arriving, they find a desolate lobby. It takes an eternity to arouse the jumpy manager (Lewis Pullman).

That’s enough time for us to get lengthy introductions to our cast of travelers. There’s a former bank robber posing as a priest from Indiana, Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges); a Motown singer trying to go solo, Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo); an FBI man posing as a vacuum salesman from Mississippi (Jon Hamm); and a pair of sisters on the run: Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) and Ruth (Cailee Spaeny). Turning up later will be Chris Hemsworth as a Charles Manson-like guru.

The production design (by Martin Whist) is stellar, the atmosphere (a rainy night) is dense and the cast terrific. So why is “Bad Times at the El Royale” kind of a slog? Goddard’s film looks terrific and has all of the – as Hamm’s character would say with exaggerated Southern flare – “accoutrements” of an intoxicating slow-burn thriller, but none of the payoff.

But it’s continually tantalizing that something may be below the surface here beyond a belated Tarantino knockoff. Bridges naturally lends a gravitas to the movie’s mysteries. Johnson, armed with a shotgun, seems poised to take over the film. When Hamm’s agent finds dozens of surveillance devices and uncovers the motel’s hidden tunnels, you’d swear a larger conspiracy is about to be revealed. And whenever Erivo (also in this fall’s “Widows”) is on screen, the film suddenly quivers with potential; her character’s climactic soliloquy (not to mention her singing) is a high point in “Bad Times at the El Royale” that the film doesn’t quite earn.

Elaborate

Instead, as in “A Cabin in the Woods”, Goddard has assembled genre archetypes on a self-consciously movie set location for an elaborate morality test. This time, though, he doesn’t have any tricks up his sleeve beyond the late-arriving Hemsworth. (Hunky as he is, Hemsworth is no match for Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford’s cleverer third act in the more audaciously postmodern “Cabin in the Woods”.)

Goddard (who adapted “The Martian” and penned numerous “Lost” episodes) should be applauded for his patience in letting the story unfold so leisurely. (The film runs 140 minutes.) But just as in Tarantino’s similarly styled “The Hateful Eight”, slowness doesn’t automatically make suspense.

For such a specifically set movie, the motel’s dark past goes curiously unexamined. Heightened as Goddard’s movie is, “Bad Times at the El Royale” may be the unusual Hollywood thriller to not live up to the real-life drama of its pseudo setting. Like its motel, “El Royale” is just a front.

“Bad Times at the El Royale”, a 20th Century Fox release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for strong violence, language, some drug content and brief nudity. Running time: 140 minutes. Two stars out of four.

Also:

LOS ANGELES: Netflix has secured the rights to “John Henry and The Statesmen”, an original pitch from writer Tom Wheeler with Dwayne Johnson attached to star.

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” director Jake Kasdan is on board to helm. Netflix landed the rights after a heated bidding war that attracted many of the major studios. The film marks Johnson’s first feature at Netflix, another win for the streaming giant, which is already in production on projects with Mark Wahlberg and Ryan Reynolds.

“Netflix is the perfect partner and platform for us to continue entertaining our global audience in a disruptive way,” Johnson said. “These diverse characters speak to a legacy of storytelling that is more relevant than ever and span across a worldwide audience regardless of age, gender, race, or geography.”

Wheeler developed the pitch with Hiram Garcia, president of production at Dwayne Johnson and Dany Garcia’s Seven Bucks Productions. Johnson will also serve as a producer on the film. Kasdan will also produce alongside Garcia and longtime collaborator Beau Flynn of FlynnPictureCo, while Melvin Mar (“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”), FPC’s Wendy Jacobson (“San Andreas”), and Wheeler (“Puss in Boots”) will executive produce.

“We have been committed to an international storytelling model for more than a decade,” Dany Garcia said. “Our partnership with Netflix is giving us an incredible opportunity to reach a broad and diverse audience in the most accessible and intimate manner. We are absolutely thrilled with the opportunity.”

Netflix’s head of film Scott Stuber added, “Dwayne is a global superstar, inarguably one of the most popular actors in the world. He and Jake are a tremendous duo with a proven track record of entertaining audiences worldwide. We’re delighted to be able to partner with them and collaborate with Seven Bucks Productions and FPC. This is a story with universal appeal and we can’t wait to bring these characters to families around the globe.” (Agencies)

Johnson and Kasdan are coming off the hugely successful “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”, which grossed $962 million worldwide. The fantasy adventure earned $404 million in North America, marking a box-office best for Johnson. Up next, Seven Bucks Productions and FlynnPictureCo are teaming on Disney’s “Jungle Cruise”. Johnson is currently filming “Fast and Furious” spinoff “Hobbs and Shaw” for Universal in London. Meanwhile, Kasdan is in pre-production on the “Jumanji” sequel, which Sony is releasing in December of 2019. Wheeler is the showrunner of the Netflix original series “Cursed”, based on a book he wrote. (Agencies)

By Jake Coyle

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