Posts Tagged ‘Drew Goddard’

It’s fairly unusual for a film to show up on my radar and its UK release to then slip by me almost entirely, but this is what happened this year with Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale. I definitely recall seeing a trailer at some point, but then (and this may be partly due to one or other of my trips to the Kyrgyz Republic this autumn) it was suddenly showing as a catch-up movie in one of the out-of-the-centre cinemas in Oxford, apparently barely having troubled the main multiplexes at all. A somewhat plaintive cry of ‘Are you going to see this one?’ from a reader in the US forced me to confront the hard truth that sometimes you just can’t see every film that gets released.

On the other hand, sometimes you find yourself with a spare evening in Berlin with a decent cinema showing movies in die ursprungliche Version only a brisk walk away, and it was a choice between Bad Times at the El Royale and BlacKkKlansman (another film I missed due to my sojourn in Bishkek), and my inner grammar obsessive clearly couldn’t face the prospect of typing that second title too many times [I buckled eventually – A]. So off we went to the Goddard movie.

Things get underway with a prologue set in the late 1950s, as a mystery man checks into a hotel room and proceeds to take up the floorboards and hide a bag in the cavity thus created. Before he can do much else, he is murdered, a development which is both shocking and disappointing (mainly because it means Nick Offerman, who plays him, is obviously going to be in the movie much less than one would hope).

Ten years later, a group of strangers encounter each other at the El Royale, a fading motel with a curious geographical quirk – it’s built squarely on the state line between California and Nevada, meaning (for instance) that you can only buy a drink on the west side of the bar room. Amongst the people checking in are a slightly confused elderly priest (Jeff Bridges), a garrulous vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm), an African-American woman with some unusual luggage (Cynthia Erivo), and a young woman (Dakota Johnson) who looks like a hippy but doesn’t seem that interested in peace and love. The boyish desk-clerk (Lewis Pullman) does his best to keep them all satisfied, of course.

Well, and wouldn’t you just know it, it turns out that most of these people are not at all what they initially seem to be, and several of them are dragging around a different sort of baggage entirely. As the night wears on, a peculiar chain of events develops, involving FBI wiretapping, blackmail, dementia and a psychopathic cult leader. Not everyone is going to be checking out alive…

I have to say that my first thought on properly looking at the poster for Bad Times at the El Royale was that this is a movie filled with people currently stuck in an odd twilight zone in terms of their movie career: by which I mean, there are some people who have the ability to open a movie (meaning their presence alone will guarantee the film does healthy business), and there are others who are by any standard appreciably famous, but aren’t able to translate this into consistent box office success under their own steam. Bad Times at the El Royale has Jeff Bridges in it, who is a veteran movie star and a fine actor, and Cynthia Erivo, who is a definite up-and-comer, but also a bunch of people who seem to be in the latter category – Jon Hamm (still best known for TV’s Mad Men), Dakota Johnson (whose high profile is mainly down to appearing in all those big-budget soft porn films), and – perhaps the best current example of the kind of thing I’m talking about – Chris Hemsworth (whose films make literally billions of dollars, but only when he’s playing one particular role).

I am aware that Bad Times is felt to have underperformed somewhat at the US box office, and this may be part of the reason why: it’s certainly a star-studded movie, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into ticket sales. It’s hard to think of another reason, apart from possibly the film’s length (it’s 140 minutes long, and by the end you’re starting to feel every one of them), for this is an engaging example of a type of film which was all the rage a few years ago but not much seen these days – by which I mean that Bad Times belongs to that very odd sub-genre, the Quentin Tarantino pastiche.

How can you possibly pastiche the style of someone who has basically built a career around pastiching other people? Mostly it is a stylistic thing: there are various self-conscious formal quirks here, and a chopped-up non-linear approach to some of the storytelling – one key moment in particular plays out multiple times, viewed from different perspectives. The film isn’t afraid to include some fairly grisly violence, too, and there’s where one sequence in particular where the threat of it hangs in the air and you almost get the sense the director is relishing the prospect. The retro setting also reinforces the idea that this is a film looking to the past rather than the future.

That said, while the movie includes a number of plot elements which are very specific to its setting – there’s a cult of murderous hippies, and a morally-compromised FBI surveillance operation, amongst others – it doesn’t feel like the film has anything particular to say about the sixties or America at that point in time. It’s just a convenient, colourful backdrop – a dressing-up outfit for a film which always seems just a bit more interested in style than in substance.

Nevertheless, this is a very capably assembled piece of entertainment. I must confess that the name Drew Goddard didn’t register with me at all, but it turns out I’ve been watching his work as a writer and director for about fifteen years, on and off, and this film is as polished and effective as his resume (which includes things like The Cabin in the Woods and The Defenders) might lead you to suspect. His script exploits the potential of this kind of set-up (the nature of the film is such that it’s impossible to tell which characters are going to survive to the closing credits) and he’s helped by consistently strong performances from the ensemble cast – I should probably make a special mention of Chris Hemsworth, cast most against type as a cross between Jim Morrison and Charles Manson.

As I say, there is perhaps a bit of a problem with a film that feels like it should be brisk, knockabout entertainment having a running time round about that of the theatrical cut of 2001, and the film’s performance may also have been affected by the lack of a bankable star and the nature of the narrative. However, I had a good time watching it and I’m glad I got the chance to do so on a big screen. I would say Bad Times at the El Royale has a decent chance of a respectable career as either a cult movie or an underappreciated gem.

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I’ve mentioned in the past the occasional phenomenon of the shelved film: a completed movie which hangs around in the studio vault for ages before finally getting any kind of theatrical release. More often than not this is simply because the studio belatedly realise they’ve funded a dog and are too embarrassed to tell anyone – at this point heavy re-editing and reshoots may occur, never, it seems to me, to much effect. Recently, films have started being held back so they can have the evils of 3Dification inflicted upon them. Sometimes there are other reasons.

Current case in point: Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods, which was made by MGM in 2009 with the intention of a 2010 release. This was initially put back until 2011 so the movie could (boo hiss) be 3Dified, and then MGM went bust. Now the movie has been sold on to Lionsgate and has finally made it into cinemas (in 2D, thankfully). I say all this in the unlikely event you’re aware of this movie’s vintage, but not of the reasons for the delay in release – or indeed, the rave reviews it has been receiving. Fairly unlikely, I know, but still…

It also bulks out the review a bit, because I’m really not sure how much I can say about this film, which is much more vulnerable to being spoiled than most. It is the story of a group of American college students (the average age of the performers playing them is, according to my dubious maths and the available information, 28 and a bit, but I am being churlish) heading off for a fun-filled weekend at a remote cabin in some nearby woods. Amongst their number are fun-loving Jules (Anna Hutchison), alpha male Curt (Chris Hemsworth), nice guy Holden (Jesse Williams), serious and sensible Dana (Kristen Connolly), and pharmaceutically addled Marty (Fran Kranz). Off they set in their RV, ignoring the warnings of a creepy guy they meet on the way.

Once at the cabin, everything is lovely until the cellar door unexpectedly opens. Down below they discover all kinds of peculiar bric-a-brac, but most significantly a diary containing a Latin inscription – or is it more of an incantation, or curse? Suffice to say that bad-tempered zombies equipped with home-improvement devices are soon bearing down on the quintet with murder in their pustulent hearts…

And that’s literally all I can say about The Cabin in the Woods without risking spoiling one of the smartest and most absurdly enjoyable films I’ve seen in a very long time. If you haven’t seen a trailer, avoid them; don’t check this film out on Wikipedia; be very careful what other reviews you read, especially on t’internet. Well, this isn’t absolutely necessary, but if you’re at all a fan of horror movies – or the genre as a whole –  or even just intelligent entertainment, then for you this movie will be a bowl of ice cream smothered in fudge sauce, and it would be stupid to risk spoiling a terrific experience.

In the space of a zippy 95 minutes, The Cabin in the Woods tackles the following topics with wit and insight:

  • the established conventions of mainstream horror movies in general
  • why horror film characters act in such stupid and predictable ways
  • why the characters are such stereotypes anyway
  • the strange appeal of seeing attractive young people butchered
  • audience expectations of exploitation movies
  • the desensitising effect of watching violence
  • the banality of true evil
  • how weird a lot of J-Horror movies are

…and doubtless many more I’ve either forgotten or didn’t have the intelligence to spot in the first place.

How, you may be wondering, does what sounds like a very by-the-numbers teen splatter movie manage this? Well, if I’m honest, my capsule synopsis is somewhat more selective than usual, but have faith, you’ll thank me later. The familiarity of the whole set-up is crucial to the plot, as well as occasioning many of the film’s kisses to established horror lore. Most obviously, The Evil Dead is a major influence, but there are also… no, I honestly can’t bring myself to reveal any more.

Suffice to say that the final reel of this film is utterly impossible to predict from the way the movie opens. It has one of those vanishingly rare moments when the film shows you something and you think ‘It’d be cool if [something happened], but they’d never do that’ – and then they go and do it. I was slack-jawed with amazed delight when I wasn’t roaring with laughter for most of this film’s last fifteen minutes.

If you are thinking that it sounds like The Cabin in the Woods abandons its horror trappings to become something else entirely at the end, you’d be right, but it’s a brilliant switch. To be perfectly honest, I never found it that scary, but the smartness of the dialogue and the deftness of the performances are winning throughout. Chris Hemsworth is visibly much more comfortable here than in the role he’ll be rather more prominent in this summer, and Fran Kranz must have been kicking the wainscotting for the last two years: this film should give him a major career bump. But all of the young actors are good, and there are winning turns from Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins as… heh, as if.

Given that Drew Goddard’s most prominent previous work was as scriptwriter for Cloverfield – yes, I am reliably informed that movie had a script – this is all a bit of a revelation and a lot of attention has, understandably, swung to the producer and co-writer of The Cabin in the Woods, Joss Whedon. Whedon’s trademark intelligence and facility with dialogue is all over this film, and connoisseurs of his past work will find certain… resonances… in this one. Whedon’s reputation, of course, doesn’t need any (ahem) buffing, and it’s fascinating to wonder what might happen if he were to be given $220 million to make a major studio blockbuster, but of course that’s never going to happen.

The Cabin in the Woods is not quite perfect. Coming out of it I felt a tiny bit disappointed that after forensically dissecting and deconstructing a whole set of horror cliches, the film had simply fallen back on another set to make the climax function. But on further reflection, I’m not sure there isn’t a further level of metaphor going on here, with the very act of making and viewing horror fiction portrayed as a deal with the… I think I’m on the verge of going too far again. In any case, some more explication might have been ideal here, though I’m not sure how that would have been possible without clobbering the pace of the climactic scenes.

Never mind. I’m not sure if The Cabin in the Woods honestly qualifies as a true horror movie, despite the lavish quantities of Kensington Gore featured in the production. But I’m very certain it’s the sharpest and most thought-provoking genre movie I’ve seen in a very long time. This may not turn out to be the biggest Whedon-scripted film of the summer, but I’ll be pleasantly surprised if it isn’t the best.

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